Thursday, January 30, 2014

Starting A New Book

Well here we are again, at the beginning of a new manuscript. So many options, so little time. These two constraints are both, of course, self-imposed. Idea and story options – I'm never short on those. And time frame is important; a quick, but well told, story shows in the writing. If I lose interest so will my reader. Two little secrets: write fast and furiously on something you are interested in. If you become bored so will the reader. Your reader will forgive much – except boredom.

I have to my immediate right (as I pound away) more than thirty books on writing (not including six dictionaries – some abridged - some not, three thesauruses, an aged atlas, two books on quotations, one with "last words of the great" on its spine, and a few on grammar and punctuation. They expound on style, the art, the pain, the loneliness, and the failures of writing. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Follow the leaden prose and thick orders of John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and you will soon turn to drink. Structure your stories like they were ancient prophesies and you will have to swallow every word of James Frey and his The Key. Hell, there are no "keys," only good stories. I get testy over all this. And to muddle the waters I'm reading Elizabeth George's Write Away, a well-crafted book on one novelist's approach to fiction. I keep them near. As in: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

They are all troubling, vexing, and confusing.

I start with an idea, and put it all in one sentence. Then rework it until it sounds interesting; maybe twice the length of a tweet. This new book will be the second in a series (first is in post production) so I have at least the setting, the protagonist, his "Dr. Watson," and an idea. I've found that a thriller/detective story needs to be economical – especially in time frame, too long and the threads become strained, so be quick from start to finish. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a month, longer gets tougher: too many days to fill.

Then a quick outline begins, today on a large sheet of butcher paper – I actually have a role of white paper 24" wide and 300 feet long, I mercifully don’t use the whole thing, just three or four feet; one roll will last a lifetime. Thirty days (thirty columns in black marker) control the pacing. This story will have its denouement around a specific date in time – everything must be done by October 26, 1933, I post it on the right then push left across the paper to the start. I drop in ideas along the timeline (some will be used, others discarded), make notes, change colors of pens, never scratch out an idea – maybe put a one line through it but leave it legible. I note wants and needs – characters, information, places, threats, and especially highs and lows of the story. It is chaos but a good kind of chaos.

After this exercise (which I may do again and again) I, like a supreme being, create my characters that will populate this story. I look for cool things that can be used, such as the name of the antagonist in this pre-WWII thriller set in Chicago; it's Jager which is German for hunter – cool?

Other characters are formed, given histories, back-story, they become real so when they die I will feel a loss – really and truly.

I don't do a lot of detail outlining, the day-to-day, hour-to-hour stuff as Dan Brown must surly do. But I do write from beginning to end (with occasional notes about the future). My research continues as I write the manuscript from histories, photo books, and the Internet (which is getting better and better for this sort of data mining). I keep notes in OneNote and in Word. I print out what I need or copy out the text from a book; they all go into a binder.

By this time my mind is whirling Dervish – actually more like a blender on meth. I begin.

Here are the first 400 words of Chicago Jazz:
The limestone steps and porch supported the front door’s frame and by way of the door the whole faded street façade of the narrow wooden edifice of the near Westside Chicago speakeasy. Every window had its shades pulled. Grotesque shadows of men and women danced across the thin covering fabric, yet from the street their sex indistinguishable. Their ghostlike forms flickered and jerked, alit within from old cranberry glass oil lamps, on the thin translucent paper. A measured reedy tenor saxophone moaned through a second floor window cracked an inch to let in damp spring air, all that escaped was a jazz laden thick, sweet, cigarette and opiate fog.
The yellow taxi slid to a stop in the rain filled gutter at the foot of the steps to the grey tenement washed with the pale light from a cracked streetlight. The first to leave the cab was a tall angular man, formally dressed in a long black cashmere coat and black patent leather shoes; his black fedora, with a wide black satin band, was pulled low and hid his eyes in a shadow. His complexion had faded to a winter white and his dark hair was cut tight behind his ears. His crisp and pencil thin mustache was, like his nose, clipped sharp. His look favored a poor relation of the actor William Powell. He reached, with a black kid gloved hand, through the open car door and helped a lanky young woman exit who could have, under other circumstances such as a cotillion, been mistaken for his daughter. Her long silk stocking covered legs, the color of translucent alabaster, probed tentatively toward the wet sidewalk. Extracted, she pulled the borrowed mink fur close to her chin; her faux diamond earrings and fitted jeweled cap sparkled in the broken streetlight as the man helped her to the sidewalk. Only the briefest black wisps of her stylishly cut black hair escaped. He paid the driver through the window, took the girl firmly by the arm and escorted her up the limestone steps to the paneled oak front door framed by two gas fired red glass sconces. She nervously looked back at the street and the escaping taxi and then turned and watched as he pushed a black button. A series of buzzes could be heard through the open transom high over the door. More billows of the sweet smog spilled from the tilted window like fog escaping over a mountain.
“You will love it my dear,” the gentleman offered as he whispered in the girl's ear. “This is where the good times are, all the jazz folks and finer people come here. You’ll see.”

More later . . . . . . .

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Postman Always Rings Twice

It is important for a writer to look back at the great novels of the past century. Shrug off the usual mix of troubled souls fighting for truth and justice (Reacher, Bosch, Ryan, etc.), and revel in the evil that dwells in the hearts of men, especially when they sit on death row, waiting for the minister. Such is James M. Cain's noir piece The Postman Always Rings Twice. No more amoral characters could ever have been created as Cain's Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis.

First of all there is no postman. Not anywhere in the story does the Postal Service come into play, but the title may have its literary roots in a true crime story of one Ruth Snyder who, like the Cora in the book, conspired to kill her husband in the late 1920s. All in an attempt at an insurance setup that Snyder hoped to perpetrate. But there are other explanations that deal with Cain's later recollection that it was a result of a conversation with the screenwriter Vincent Lawrence at the time of the writing. If a book title can cause deep philosophical discussions wouldn’t every writer try and discover such an existential title for their story?

The book was published in 1934 to critical acclaim, derision, hatred, moral outrage, a banning in Boston (wasn't everything?), and great success for the author. Cain would go on to write Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, two other strong and tough books on deceit and cunning (and as in the case of Mildred Pierce the creation of a feminist hero). A prolific writer and screenwriter, he had little commercial success after the late 1940s. He died in 1977 at the age of 85.

The prose is crisp, dry, and bare, much like the setting for much of the story: the out-lands of the Los Angeles basin of the 1930s. Frank Chambers, by even his own account in this semi-first person narrative and recollection, is a bum. He stumbles on a diner run by an older immigrant Greek who has a young wife with "other" things on her mind, like taking over the diner and making it something. After colluding with Chambers, the two lovers decide to remove the biggest impediment to their scheme, the Greek. After a failed murder attempt, hospitals, police, and eventual success of their scheme (the murder of the Greek after a car accident), they are exonerated through the shenanigans of a shady lawyer. But justice does come and Cora pays with her life in another car accident (contrived – but just), and Frank is convicted of intentionally murdering her (though this time it was an accident), the book is his explanation of how he was innocent of her death. He hopes, as we waits on death row, that his story will someday be published; his hope is like most authors today.

The story is haunting and stays with you. You can taste the diner and the grease, and heat, and the dust. You can also viscerally feel the total guile of the two as they plot the murder. They are two lost souls that really don’t care. It is all about the money and the good times. Nothing and no one will stand in their way.

It's available everywhere as an ebook and pbook; in some versions it's less than a hundred pages.

More later  . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some Great Crime Sites

I occasionally stop in and read some really great bloggers who put a lot of time and effort into their sites and content. Some are ramblers like myself and others post reviews and others offer help and insight. To be honest there are thousands of sites out there but I will offer them up as I find them for your consideration. And if you do, drop them a line and let them them know where you found them.

Lesa's Book Critiques always helps me look beyond my normal stack of books. Prose is crisp and her past posts total in the thousands.

Jen's Book Thoughts is a result of a passion for crime thrillers, it's fun and the photos of the blogger and her "Friends" is just great.

Crime Fiction Lover does it all. Reviews, interviews, more than a dozen contributors, and a well designed site help mystery and thriller readers get right to the heart of the genre – very cool.

Crime Always Pays is Declan Burke's blog, and a great one at that. Thousands of posts and interviews, his is a good platform for his books and if the page views counter is correct – killer.

Sisters in Crime is an international organization that is, as they describe it:
We are 3600 members in 48 chapters world-wide, offering networking, advice and support to mystery authors. We are authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the mystery genre and our support of women who write mysteries. Sisters in Crime was founded by Sara Paretsky and a group of women at the 1986 Bouchercon in Baltimore.

More Later . . . . . . . .

Sunday, January 5, 2014

George Clooney and Me

Synchronicity, for a writer this isn't just a big word you use to show how smart you are, sometimes it is a real and exciting coincidence of events. In February The Monuments Men, will be released. This movie, starring George Clooney, is based on Robert M. Edsel's excellent book on those men tasked with finding and protecting Europe's art and history. They also hunted for lost troves of antiquities that the Nazis picked up as they plundered Europe over seventy years ago. The book also tells the story of the greatest robbery in the history of the world.

In early April, 1945, in western Germany, a jeep with a couple of American MP's stopped two women who they discovered were displaced French. This casual encounter lead to the discovery of gold and silver bars, coins, artwork, and paper money, almost the entire Reich's treasury, hidden in caves under the German countryside one half mile beneath their feet. Within days the Americans stole liberated all of it. Later it was used to pay off Germany's war debt. And it also the inspiration and beginning of my Sharon O'Mara thriller Toulouse For Death.

The Nazis are still good for at least two or three Hollywood movies every year. Valkyrie, Inglourious Basterds, The Pacific, Saving Private Ryan, Red Tails, The King's Speech, Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers, and numerous other movies on the war's affect on the children and even grandchildren of the soldiers. There have been hundreds if not thousands of movies made in almost every country around the world and hundreds more will be made. The era between 1930 and 1950 changed the world far more than any age before.

I've published at least four books, fiction and non-fiction, that have that war as its background or basis for the story. All are available left and right. And I will have out a sweeping thriller of Americans in Italy, trapped by the war, later this year. World War II is an era of tragedy, terror, unspeakable horror, heroes, villains, comedy, human folly and duplicity. It will be the grist for the writer's mill for centuries.

Clooney and Damon
But back to my story. Toulouse For Death is about three soldiers who were in the detail that was tasked to bring up from the caves the gold and art. During that chaos of thousands of soldiers also assigned to the work these three managed to steal about a half ton of gold and a bundle of paintings that they would later retrieve and hopefully return to America. Flash forward to today in San Francisco; Sharon O'Mara is hired by the lone surviving soldier to return four fabulous paintings to their rightful owners in Los Angeles. But there is a twist, a few Nazis are still holding out in Argentina and know there is a "key" hidden with the recovered art, and most especially a Toulouse Lautrec masterpiece. A key that will unlock the greatest horde of gold never found, the WWII plunder of the Nazi SS.

It's a story of people, soldiers, honor, duty, cheating, murder, and Paris. What more could you ask for.

So on the long coattails of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Djardin, and Bill Murray I recommend both the movie and my well-reviewed thriller, Toulouse For Death.

More Later . . . . . . . . .