Blog Tour Two

I’ve done this once before, with pretty much the same luck: no one to pass it along to. But Alice White asked me to take part in it, so I thought I’d give it another go. At least it gives me something to write about this week, if nothing else lol.

Seriously, it’s kinda interesting to do this again. I took part in my first blog tour back in March, and it’s gonna be interesting to see how the answers have changed. If they have. In some ways, I think you’ll find they haven’t. On the other hand, there have been some changes, though I wouldn’t say they’re monumental in any way.

Read on and see what I mean.

What am I working on?

In my original answer for this question, I talked about how I was working on A Temporary Thing, the first novel in my Rural Empires series. Well, in an interesting turn, this story will now be going back to what it was originally intended to be: a novella, or perhaps a really short novel of 50,000 words or so that will be given away as a free eBook for promotional purposes, leading up to the release of the actual first novel of the Rural Empires series.

So, I’m gonna sit down and restructure both A Temporary Thing and Startup. In fact, I’m giving serious thought to dropping a couple of characters, or at least one, that I’m having trouble fitting in in a convincing way (at least to me). But who knows what I’ll do at this point?

I just finished a short story called “Cleanup Detail” that was inspired by the Michael Mann movie Collateral (if you haven’t seen it, do so, even if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Tom Cruise; it’s an excellent movie, and he plays the part perfectly). My story has a twist ending, though.

I’ve also gotten a slow start on a novel with the working title Witnesses that is a coming of age story, this time inspired by the Stephen King novella The Body, basis for the movie Stand By Me. Ever since I read that story I’ve wanted to do my own version of it to see if I could recapture the seventies I grew up in, and I think I finally hit on a plot that’ll let me do that. Stay tuned.

Beyond that, I’m working on at least two websites at any given time, and mulling over WIPs (and future WIPs) when I have time to do so.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t think my answer to this one has changed much.

First, there’s the humor. While I don’t intentionally inject humor in my stories (and not all of them have humor in them), it seems to work its way in nonetheless. The reason for this is simple: how many times have you been confronted with a stressful situation of some kind—whether it be the passing of a family member, financial catastrophe, or what have you—and at some point you, or somebody involved in the situation, has made a joke?

It’s a normal thing. We use it for stress relief, if nothing else. Sometimes those jokes come at what seem to be inappropriate times. You’re supposed to be grieving for a beloved family member, but you make a joke about something, maybe the flowers, or the dress someone wore to the funeral (“She looked more like she should be standing on a street corner than sitting in a funeral home.”). And I’m sure we’ve all heard of gallows humor or trench humor. Combat vets can tell you about the black jokes that get told in the heat of conflict.

I put my characters in stressful situations, and since every character a writer creates is an extension of the writer in some way, my characters often react with humor, even if it is very dark humor. And some, like Lyle, are smartasses anyway. Lyle tends to be sarcastic when confronted with bad luck, and he uses humor to break the tension—or at least try to—in bad situations. Many of my other characters are the same way.

And, again, I don’t write about Mafia dons or cartel leaders, at least not as main characters. My people tend to be a lot lower on the totem pole, the guys who could usually make better money if they got a job at McDonald’s, but something in their mental makeup precludes that. They have to live the lifestyle they lead or they get restless. They’re basically compelled to live life on the wrong side of the law, either because there’s something different there, or just missing altogether.

Why do I write what I do?

I’m gonna leave this answer just the same as it was last time. Not because I’m lazy, but because it hasn’t changed.

Because the criminal world has always fascinated me. Why do these folks do what they do? What motivates them? They know their lives will likely be short and violent, so why not do like the rest of us and get a normal job?

I tried for years to write science fiction and fantasy and, as much as I still love those genres from a reading standpoint, I can’t write them. I lose patience with all the world building that’s required because I can’t seem to come up with something new and original, at least not in my opinion. I did manage to finish a couple of fantasies back in the nineties, but they’d take considerable reworking for me to let them see the light of day. And it’s something I’m considering, since the main character was a bounty hunter. Crime fantasy, anyone? We’ll have to see.

How does your writing process work?

Ditto for this one. I still work the same way, though perhaps I’ve come to do a slight—heavy, heavy emphasis on that word—bit of outlining since my original answer. And I have in mind a novel that will involve either a cop or a private eye, and it’ll be a mystery, so I might have to at least outline the placement of clues in that one. My previous answer begins in the next paragraph.

Very mysteriously.

I’m a pantser. By that, I mean I write seat of the pants. I get an idea and mull it over. If it sticks with me, I’ll eventually write it. If it burns in my brain, I’ll write it soon as possible.

But I don’t outline. I tried that one time with a space opera. Used the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing idea and adapted it to my own method. Me and a friend brainstormed over the course of several weekends, putting everything in order and writing down two- and three-sentence synopses of the individual scenes. You know, sorta like an elevator pitch, except we did it scene by scene.

I suspect two problems caused that project to die out. The first is that it wasn’t all mine. Several of the ideas came from my friend, enough so that I would have felt better calling it a co-authored work. But the other was that I knew how it ended. In detail.

When I work, I have a general idea of where I’m going, but I don’t dictate ahead of time how I’m going to get there. And I might not arrive at the end-point in quite the way I originally envisioned. I keep a file of notes for each novel, jotting them down in a notebook and then transferring them to computer, but a lot of those ideas end up falling by the wayside. The main point of them is to get the creative process working.

I have to write a novel as if I’m reading it, and I like that because I often end up getting surprised along the way. If I get surprised, it’s hoped that means the reader will too. It keeps me interested in the book and lets me finish it, rather than losing interest because it’s all mapped out and done already.

As for that eternal question all writers get asked—where do you get your ideas?—the one that’s part of the writing process, I’m a crime fiction writer. I get my ideas by paying attention to the news, for the most part. Or learning about real-life criminals. Spree is, in essence, a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. I write a novel to answer a question. In this case it was: could a couple of people get away with a thirties-style crime spree today? I wrote the novel to see if they could pull it off.

And that’s basically it. Hope you enjoyed it.


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What’s Happening to Science Fiction?

When it came to science fiction, I grew up reading the old masters—many of whom were considered the Grand Masters—of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov,Robert-A.-Heinlein Frederick Pohl, Jack Williamson, Joe Haldeman, to name a few. I’ve read the modern masters as well: Orson Scott Card, Jack McDevitt, EE Knight, Peter F. Hamilton, David Weber, John Ringo, and others.

They all had something in common: they told a good story, and they did it well. They challenged my thinking in some way, and quite often presented me with new and novel concepts in the way of technology or setting or both. Even some of their lesser works were a pleasure to read.

For me, science fiction is sorta like your old alma mater or a favorite aunt: there’ll always be a soft spot in your heart for it. Just looking at some of those names brings back pleasant memories of hours almost literally discovering new life and new civilizations, letting the author take me where no one had gone before.

And the books! Stranger in a Strange Land. The Foundation Trilogy. The Starchild Trilogy. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Pebble in the Sky. The Forever War. Starship Troopers. The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. The Honor Harrington Series. The Vampire Earth. Ender’s Game. The list goes on and on, hours and hours immersing myself in other worlds, other peoples’ imaginations. Journeying to new planets, or seeing a new version of this one.

strangerEverything must change, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t dip into science fiction as much as I used to. Too busy reading crime fiction, keeping up a steady diet of the kind of thing I’m reading. But every now and then I come across a new one in the field that sounds interesting, and I’ll pick it up.

Unfortunately, these days, I’m often disappointed, and it makes me worry for the future of the genre.

Two books in particular—I know, not exactly what you’d call a large scientific sample, but when you pick up two in a row, it makes you wonder—have me worried. The first I’ve mentioned in a previous post: Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. I picked this one up (and the other one I’ll mention as well) because it seemed to promise a mixture of crime and science fiction, something I’m interested in pursuing.

And, from what I read of it, the book seemed to be good, though I had some quibbles about it. For instance, I’m getting really tired of the psychologically scarred hero who can’t quite seem to get over his past trauma. I know we need our protagonists to have flaws, but do they all need to be in therapy, for crying out loud? But on top of that, the author had a literary degree and had to have his own little signature trick of ending pretty much every line of dialogue with an em dash. Irritating as hell. Kept throwing me out of the story because it made it feel like everyone was interrupting everyone else.

Didn’t finish it.

Then there was The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. Again, interesting premise: a serial killer on a generation ship that contains the last remnant of humanity on a thousand-year voyage to a new planet. Generation ships are nothing new to science fiction, nor is the idea of the ship containing the last remnant of humanity. I’m not foreverwatchaware of a story in which a serial killer was on the ship.

It had lots of possibilities, and after I gave up on the book, I turned to the last page. It looked like they might discover the ship was actually constructed by aliens, or at least had an alien presence on board, and that would account for the serial killings, which were of a particularly nasty, brutal nature: the victims were literally torn to pieces and scattered all over the scene. Add in that the government seemed to be covering these deaths up, season with conspiracy theories about the murders, and you had what could have been a tense, appealing story.

Except David Ramirez is a computer programmer (or at least that was one of his jobs), who apparently really loves programming. Especially the concept of hacking.

Now, I got nothing against hacking (as a plot point, that is) or programming. I’m a web programmer. I know or at least have a familiarity with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JQuery, Visual Basic, PHP, Visual C#, SQL, MySQL, DOM Scripting, Java, Ajax…are your eyes glazing over yet? That’s how I felt reading this book. The protagonist has some talent as a hacker and she devises a program fairly early on to search all the databases on the ship’s network (called the Nth Web for some strange reason) for anything to do with these mysterious murders. Nothing wrong with that. Your character should rely on his strengths to solve his problems.

But when I’d reached something like page 70 or 80, and the protagonist was going on picnics with her ugly love interest (a cop, of course, tall, dark, strong, but not good looking, which was a nice twist) and still refining her searchbots and nothing else is really happening…I don’t have time for that. I’m a programmer. I do this stuff for a living (or I’m trying to), but I don’t want to read about it in my fiction. The reality is—for me, at least—that programming isn’t all that exciting. Sure, I love making a change in my CSS or HTML and seeing the immediate result on the website I’m building. I like writing a program in PHP—a language I’m convinced is the lingua franca of Hell—and getting it to work, even if it’s a simple slide show.

Don’t mean I wanna read about it in my fiction. Not in that much slow, boring detail, anyway.

So I put the book down.

neuromancerWilliam Gibson’s writings about cyberpunks trolling through cyberspace I can read. He makes them exciting (just read his book Neuromancer, the novel pretty much responsible for starting the cyberpunk subgenre, and you’ll see what I mean) by giving us graphic representations of cyber cowboys jacking into a deck and losing themselves inside a not-quite-real-but-still-very-dangerous world. Perhaps Mr. Ramirez could profit from going back and reading some of Mr. Gibson’s work.

I’m hoping these two books are just blips on the radar, that this isn’t the way science fiction is going. There are still books coming out from the likes of Orson Scott Card, David Weber, John Ringo, and EE Knight, so I have hope for it. There are always going to be books in the genre you don’t like, with concepts you just can’t get behind, and science fiction, along with its sister genre fantasy, seems to have that kind pop up more than other genres.

I just hope it’s not going to be the prevailing trend.



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Genre Bending

I started wondering while ago: do we really need genres?

Let’s work this out together.ridgeline

I know of at least three authors who work in more than one genre. Pamela Foster, who has written—or is writing—a literary Western series, contemporary fiction, and even what might be called somewhat speculative fiction, a book called Bigfoot Blues that—you guessed it—has real Bigfoots in it.

Then there’s Velda Brotherton. She writes Western historical romance, contemporary stories about PTSD (her latest, Beyond the Moon, was originally written in the eighties, long before anyone else had PTSD on their radar), a series of mysteries, and she has a forthcoming horror novel.

Then there’s Greg Camp, who writes in two genres predominantly: science fiction and Westerns (they’re not so far apart, if you think about it). And he’s working on a horror short story for an ezine we (Oghma Creative Media) have in the works.

ChangelingFrontCover-200And there’s my friend JE Newman, whose forthcoming novel Changeling is set a couple hundred years in the future after a virus caused a small percentage of the population to become what we call superheroes/villains. But all the superheroes are gone, now, except for one bad guy who’s still around killing people who don’t need killed. Science fiction? Yeah, there’s some of that there. Fantasy? Sure, in the urban sense, what with the supers. But can you pigeonhole it? Not really.

I dare you to tell any of these people they can’t write in multiple genres.

That’s exactly what the major publishing houses will do, though. They argue that your name will come to be known for a certain type of story, and if you write something different, it’ll dilute your audience because they won’t know what to expect from you.

Bull—er, balderdash!

Let me use just one example, and I use him because I’m so familiar with his work: Stephen King.

When you hear his name, what do you think? Oh, he’s that horror writer. And even Mr. King calls himself that.

But I beg to differ.

Yes, almost all of his stories have an element of horror in them, and that’s okay. I could argue with you that even science fiction can have horror in it. What’s more horrible than being trapped in a spacesuit with no way back to a ship or planet? But okay, let’s go with the stipulation that, to be horror, there must be something otherworldly about the story.

FiFirestarter_novelne. Firestarter is about a little girl whose parents partook in some of those (in)famous drug trials college students went through in the sixties. The result is that she has pyrokinesis—the ability to start fires with her mind. That’s straight speculative fiction, with his usual dash of horror thrown in. After all, Charlie—the little girl in the story—has the potential to cause a nuclear reaction, she’s so strong.

Then there’s The Tommyknockers, which involves a crashed UFO full of aliens who have a very bad effect on the humans who discover them. Dreamcatcher has much the same type of monsters. Ditto for Under the Dome, though the aliens in this one are the most appealing to me: they played with the people in the story simply because we were like ants to them. Very realistic, in my opinion (even though I don’t think this is one of his better books, awesome cover notwithstanding).

Then there’s his entire The Dark Tower series, which is so much different from anything else he writes that many of his mainstream fans refuse to read it. Predominantly, it’s dark fantasy, but there’s also the distinct flavor of a Western there, with Roland being a gunslinger. There’s also a dash of Arthurian legend, as well as some rift hopping through dimensional doorways.

Pin that one down, New York Editor!

Want a couple more? Okay, there’s the Low Town series by Daniel Polansky, wherein we have a protagonist who is basically an ex-cop turned drug dealer in a fantasy world who—in the first book, at least—solves a murder. WTF is that? The publisher calls it fantasy, and it mostly is, since the setting is an entire fictional world.

Then there’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. It’s set in a future where Philadelphia has been obliterated, and our protagonist works for a company that investigates all the deaths for insurance firms to see which ones they actually have to pay out on. He’s hung up on this one girl he discovered while accessing the Archive, a repository of every camera feed in the city. He uses the Archive to determine the true cause of death, the hope being that it will save insurance companies billions of dollars. The girl he discovered looks to have been murdered.

I’m not finishing this book, even though it has some nice touches of hard-boiled noir to it. It’s a little too literary for my tastes (the author has a literary degree, don’tcha know), and he also has an irritating habit of ending probably 98% of his dialogue with em dashes—as if everybody constant interrupts one another. Probably one of those literary devices that shows he’s A Serious Writer. All it does is throw me out of the story.

Still, there’s a bit of a mishmash going on there, isn’t there?

So…do we really need genres? I think Western author Dusty Richards said it best: “We’re all writing the same thing, we’re just using different costumes.” Heck, most of ushaunted mesa read in more than one genre, so why can’t authors write in more than one? Even Louis L’Amour stepped outside of Westerns by writing some detective stories for the pulps back in the day, and experimenting with other kinds of stories just before he died. The Haunted Mesa is probably best described as magical realism with a touch of horror, while The Last of the Breed is a modern adventure story.

I have found my calling in writing crime fiction, but I’ve been toying for a while now with the idea of a science fiction story set on a tropical planet involving drug smuggling. Sort of a Miami Vice in Space, if you will. I don’t know if it’ll ever get off the ground or not, but it might. I also have my ambitious space opera I’d love to try and finish someday, too.

So, yeah, some of us are comfortable staying inside a niche, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we have a particular talent for that genre, as I seem to have for crime fiction. And maybe we have no desire to stray outside our genre. That’s fine, too.

But what if we want to? They’re all, at heart, stories, and that’s what we tell as writers: stories. We have to help the reader suspend his disbelief, transport him into the world of the novel, and get him to stay there for the length of our tale. We have to have characters the reader cares about, and we have to put them in a situation the reader can identify with. Everything else is just stage props.

Independent-PublisherI think this is another area where the independent publishers are going to overtake the Big New York Conglomerates: they’re able to think outside the box, and allow their authors to do the same.

Yes, in a sense, we need genres to give us a handle on what we’re getting into. But can’t good authors do just the same, no matter how many genres they choose to write in?


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Turn It Off

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the basic, common-sense things. I know I do.

nerdfitnesslogoI subscribe to a site called Nerd Fitness. Essentially, they’re a site that helps ordinary, everyday people get fit and stay fit by equating life to a video game. No, that doesn’t mean they’re not facing reality. What it means is they’ve happened onto a good gimmick to promote fitness. It’s even in their tagline: Level up your life, every single day. They do this with a holistic approach that includes diet and lifestyle as well as exercise.

Not only do they have an extensive website with lots of helpful videos and articles, they also send out motivational emails (by subscription, which I highly recommend) at fairly regular intervals (I’ve never gauged what that interval is), and it was the most recent one I received that is the subject of this post.

The email was based on the idea presented in a movie called Limitless (which I’ve never seen): A down-on-his-luck writer takes a pill that gives him unlimited brain power.limitlessposter03 He writes a book in four days, learns new languages, stops smoking, loses weight…basically, he’s able to tap into the 80% of his brain we don’t use.

The idea behind the Nerd Fitness post is to find a way to do this in practical, real-life terms: not necessarily tap into the unused portion, but make more efficient use of the part we do utilize.

The first recommendation they made that stood out to me was to stop multitasking. To me, this is a no-brainer for one simple reason: we can’t do it. Oh, we like to claim we’re multitasking, but we’re not. In reality, we’re wasting time jumping back and forth between two or more tasks, when we could be getting each task done quicker if we’d concentrate on one at a time. And I can tell you as an IT guy, computers don’t multitask either. They simply switch back and forth so fast it just seems like they’re multitasking. And then we complain when we’ve got forty programs open, we’re watching videos and looking at pictures, and we’re surfing the Net and suddenly the computer slows down. Well, duh. Get a clue. As we IT guys like to say, the problem is with the ID-10-T (think about it; I’ll get back to you).

So: concentrate on one thing at a time.

The next thing that stood out to me was when he starts talking about our obsession with viewing emails, and Facebook statuses (statusi?), what’s been posted on Pinterest, who’s tweeted what.

social-media-multi-taskingLeave it alone. Close your browser unless you’ve got research for your current (or forthcoming) project up there. Log out of Facebook, shut down your email—and that includes getting rid of that annoying alert tone that lets you know you’ve just gotten more spam—do whatever it takes to shut the world out so you can concentrate on one thing: writing your friggin book.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: (I know, I’m using a lot of colons in this post) writing your friggin book might mean you’re researching, not actually keying in word count. Let’s all pause for a moment and acknowledge that writing a book doesn’t always mean you’re adding to the manuscript.

But we also have to acknowledge that research is a tricky thing. In my early days of learning the internet, I soon found out I had to discipline myself severely when researching. The thing with the internet is that there’s too much information out there, and you can find yourself running down rabbit trails far from your starting point—and many times those trails end somewhere with someone wanting you to send them some money for that important bit of info you so desperately need.

On the other hand, too much discipline in your research can mean missing something that comes entirely out of left field and keeps you from adding something really interesting as a twist, because you didn’t know it.

You have to walk a fine line.

But that’s a rabbit trail in itself, as far as this post is concerned. What I’m writing about—as the title should suggest—is our plethora of electronic distractions. It’s called adhd image 1ADOS: Attention Deficit—Ooo Shiny (or if you’re not a Firefly fan—and why on Earth aren’t you?—Ooo Squirrel!)!

I’m guilty of it too. I’ve been letting all kinds of things get between me and my work: movies, shows, books (though I argue wholeheartedly that the last item is also necessary in the life of a writer, but that’s another post), and just life in general. I don’t have cable, but I do have game consoles and, worse, a smartphone. As I write this, I’m also wondering how to make a compromise on that one. I need it to do my research, and it often gets used that way. I also need it to keep in touch with my company, as well as keeping in touch with my family. I can’t see it being practical to just shut it off.

On the other hand, I need to discipline myself, just as someone who has regular internet needs to. I should ignore the Facebook tile (I have a Windows phone) that’s telling me I have notifications. I need to stop staying up to date on status, um, updates. I need to stop checking my emails every time the alert sounds.

In other words, I need to practice what I was preaching earlier in this post.

tvoffSo for those of you sitting around going, “I’ve always wanted to write a book. I just never can find the time,” there’s a solution: turn of your TV (most of that stuff is worthless anyway. I mean, c’mon, how many more stupid “reality” shows do we need?), ignore Facebook/Pinterest/Twitter/ad nauseum, stop texting all the time (especially when you’re driving, you idiots!), and sit down at a computer or with pen and paper and WRITE!!!! Of course you can’t write that book you claim you’re dreaming of writing if you’re doing your best to wear a groove in your couch/easy chair. Television—as mindless as it is—ain’t gonna write that book for you. I think you’ll find that, if you’ll just stop obsessing about Shark Week or the latest episode of insert favorite show(s) here, you’ll find you have lots of time to write. And maybe have time left over to, I don’t know, spend with family?

Just a thought.


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The Chicago Way

maloneYou wanna get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way….

That’s one of the epitaphs from The Chicago Way by Michael Harvey. Sounds tough, right? It should. It’s a line delivered by Sean Connery as Officer Jim Malone in the movie The Untouchables. Pretty appropriate for a novel about a Chicago PI. But here’s the other epitaph:

It is hard to contend against anger. For whatever it craves, it buys with its life.

This quote is from Heraclitus. Not to get too deep, but Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He believed in ever-present change, and one of his most famous sayings is “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”

These two epitaphs sum up the main character of The Chicago Way quite nicely. Michael Kelly is a private eye and former cop who keeps a copy of the Iliad by his bed andchicagowaycover can read and speak ancient Greek.

He’s tough, though.

I was on the second floor of a three-story walk-up on Chicago’s North Side. Outside the Hawk blew hard off the lake and flattened itself against the bay windows. I didn’t care. I had my feet up, a cup of Earl Grey, and my own list of the ten greatest moments in Cubs history.

That’s the book’s opening passage. Two paragraphs later, he’s visited by his old partner, John Gibbons.

Gibbons had been retired from the force five years now. I hadn’t seen him in four, but it didn’t matter. We had some history. He shook off the rain and threw a chair toward my desk. He sat down as if he belonged there and always had. I putt the Cubs away, pulled open the bottom drawer, and found a bottle of Powers Irish. John took it straight. Just to be sociable, I gave Sir Earl a jolt.

Put simply, The Chicago Way is a great book. Michael Harvey—journalist, documentary producer, writer, and co-creator and executive producer of Cold Case Files—writes with a sort of rough poetry that I really like. The two passages above are prime examples.

Gibbons is visiting his old partner because of a rape and battery case that remains unsolved. Christmas Eve eight years earlier, Gibbons is patrolling South Chicago in his squad with his windows down. He always drove with his windows down, no matter what the weather. He hears a shot, rolls around a corner, and sees a girl running down the middle of the street, covered in blood. There’s a guy chasing her with a .38 in one hand and a knife in the other. He’s still sticking the knife into the girl as they run.

They run toward him as if he’s not there, so he steps out of his squad, and catches both of them, the guy still stabbing the girl. He doesn’t register Gibbons until Gibbons sticks his gun to the perp’s head. He makes the arrest, gets the girl in an ambulance—multiple stab wounds to the chest—and finds the guy’s car. Pops the trunk, finds sheets of plastic, and lots of rope. In the driver’s compartment, blood under both seats and custom-made carriers for a bulldog shotgun and a machete. More leather fittings on the visors, one for the gun the perp had, the other for the knife.

He takes the guy downtown, figures he can sort things out in the morning. But when he comes in the next day, the perp is gone. Released. The chief takes Gibbons into his office, says to forget about it. The guy never existed, the crime never happened. Then he hands Gibbons a Police Medal, the highest honor a Chicago cop can get. The deal is this: Gibbons gets the medal, a promotion, and a raise. In return, he forgets about the crime.

navypierNow Gibbons wants to hire Michael to solve the case. The girl didn’t die, but she’s scarred—physically and mentally—and an alcoholic. Michael agrees to take the case, then gets a call at three-thirty the next morning and learns that John Gibbons was found dead of gunshot wounds—two in the stomach—down by Navy Pier.

And so begins a twisted, convoluted case that tests everything Michael thinks he knows. He gets double-crossed by friends, and befriended by virtual strangers.

If it sounds like I’m recommending this book, it’s because I am. Michael Harvey has obviously studied his masters, because the language is that of the old school private eyes. Think Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald.

The good thing about The Chicago Way is that it’s the first in a series. I already have the second one—The Fifth Floor—checked out, waiting to be read (I’m currently getting into The Highway by CJ Box), and there are two more after that, plus a stand-alone called The Innocence Game.

So if you like your PIs tough yet cerebral (there’s even a short discussion late in the book about Agamemnon by Aeschylus), then the Michael Kelly series looks to be a good one. The Chicago Way definitely is. Let’s just hope the series lives up to its debut novel.


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Endings and Other Stuff

different seasonsThe last couple of days I’ve been revisiting some vintage Stephen King, namely the novella “The Body” from his Different Seasons collection. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the basis for the wonderful movie Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s breakthrough directorial effort starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Keifer Sutherland.

In both the movie and the novella, the story is told to us in first person by Gordon “Gordie” Lachance as a memoir of an event that happened when he was twelve years old. In its essence, a local kid named Ray Brower disappeared about a week before, and one of Gordon’s friends, Vern Tessio, says he overheard his older brother and a friend talking about discovering Brower’s body while necking with some girls. They can’t tell the authorities, though, because they’d stolen a car to do it.

So the four boys—Gordon, Vern, Teddy Duchamp, and Gordon’s best friend Chris Chambers, decided they’ll go “discover” the body andStand_by_me_poster become heroes. Most of the novella is a coming of age story that relates the things that happen to them on the way to find the body.

I’m re-reading this story for a couple of reasons. First of all, I love vintage Stephen King. If you’ve followed this blog, you know he’s one of my major influences, one of the first writers to show me you don’t have to sound like a writer to tell a good story. Yes, it took me a long time to realize that, but I can see it quite easily in hindsight (can’t we always?).

The other reason for this, though, is that because of this story and his novel It, I’ve wanted to try something similar. Not in plotline, but in capturing a segment of my childhood in such a way that, even if you were born in, say, 1986, you’ll still get a feel for what it was like to grow up in the late seventies. For me, reading “The Body” and It take me into the fifties in a way no documentary could ever do. Mr. King manages to convey what it was like to grow up back then to such an extent that I feel like I know what it was like, even if only vicariously. So I’m reading “The Body” to try and get a feel for how he did this. I may well re-read It as well (such a horrible fate to have to re-read my second-favorite Stephen King novel).

But back to my main point.

Partway into the narration, Gordon tells a story to his friends. It’s a story of revenge, about a fat kid named Davie “Lard Ass” Hogan. Of course, it should be obvious that any kid with the nickname Lard Ass gets picked on regularly.

stand-by-me-pieLard Ass has entered the local pie eating contest, but he hasn’t done it to win. He’s done it to get revenge. And the way he gets it is by drinking most of a bottle of castor oil
prior to the contest. Then, when his stomach can’t take anymore, he pukes chewed up blueberry pie in front of everyone, which cause the chain reaction he was hoping for. The story ends with Lard Ass grabbing the mic and saying the contest is a draw.

When Gordie finishes telling the story, the first words out of Teddy’s mouth are, “And then what happened?”

Gordie isn’t sure what to say. That’s the end of the story. Teddy and Vern—who aren’t exactly the sharpest tacks in the box—don’t get it. Chris does, but there’s no way to explain it to Teddy and Vern. They love the story, but think the ending sucks.

Have you ever had that happen to you? I mean, you craft this wonderful ending that very subtly but—to you, anyway—still obviously makes a certain point. You show the story to someone. They get to the end, and, unlike Teddy and Vern, they like the ending…but get a totally different message. One that you might not even have thought about.

“But,” you say, “this is what I was saying with that ending,” and your friend says, “Oh, yeah, I got that, but it wasn’t that important to me,” and you’re left flabbergasted. Not important? Not important?! It was the whole flippin point!

I can remember sitting in group one time and listening as a couple of writers talked about an sf story my friend had written. One of these guys is an English/literature instructor, and he remarked how one of the characters in my friend’s novel was a Christ figure.

“What?!” My friend couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. A Christ figure? Where the hell had he written that into the story?

But it’s a fact of life that people will see things in your writing that you never intended. JRR Tolkien contended with that all his life. He said he hated allegorical stories, and yet The Lord of the Rings has continually been held up as an allegory for World War II. My personal take on this is that he wrote LOTR during the war, and I don’t see how he could’ve kept such a major even out of his fiction. So, unintentional as it may have been, I think there’s allegory there. Much as Professor Tolkien would probably roll over in his grave at that thought.Robin Hood

My own novel Spree, which I’ve always thought of as a Bonnie and Clyde type of story, has been billed as a modern day Robin Hood story because they’re robbing banks
and stores to get money for an operation. One person even compared it to Breaking Bad for much the same reason, a thought that never even crossed my mind while writing it. The bottom line is, they’re right. Steve and Eddie are doing a bad thing—stealing money—to get a good result—an operation to remove Eddie’s brother’s brain tumor.

For me, that was just an excuse to get them to rob their way across the country.

I don’t know that there’s a true point to this post, other than it being some random musing about this craft we practice and pretend we have a handle on. But it’s something to think about. And make you wonder, sometimes, if you ever really get what the author wanted you to out of any given story.


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Land of Shadows

I’d likland of shadowse you to meet Elouise Norton. She’s an LAPD homicide detective stationed in the Southwest Division, an area that includes the fabled Jungle. You can call her Lou.
Most everybody does except for her mama, who calls her Lulu.

Lou is a success story. She came from poverty. Her father left when she was young. Her sister Victoria, called Tori, disappeared without a trace in 1988. But she’s married to Greg Norton, a highly successful commercial artist, and she’s a good cop.

Things aren’t all good though. Greg is in Tokyo, and he’s cheated on her once before, buying a Porsche Cayenne as an apology. Last time he strayed, the first sign was a bouquet of flowers. Now, after catching a murder case that has more than a little resemblance to her sister’s disappearance, Greg has sent her flowers again. On top of that, she’s saddled with a new partner, a white guy from Colorado Springs who’s never worked the bad side of any town, much less that bad side of LA.

So Lou decides to concentrate on the case. One Monique Darson has been found at the construction site of the new Crase Parc and Condominiums, hanging in the closet of the master bedroom in unit 1B. And whoever did the deed used a Gucci belt. She’s wearing a cheerleader uniform, and it’s made to look like a suicide, complete with a note on her iPhone. Problem is, her hands are tied, and that makes no sense for a suicide.

On top of that, the man who owns the Crase Parc and Condominium project is one Napoleon Crase, who owned Crase Liquor Emporium all those years ago—and what’s left of it is just a block down the street. Crase is known for his preference for young women and his habit of getting rough with them. Lou has suspected him as being the one responsible for Tori’s disappearance in 1988, as the store was the last place she saw her sister.

This is what you quickly learn at the beginning of Land of Shadows, the first novel about Detective Elouise Norton by Rachel Howzell Hall. You’ll learn more, too, as this is rachel howzell halla hard book to put down.

One of the things I truly appreciated about this novel is the author didn’t play the race card. Yes, Lou has had to contend with both racism and chauvinism during her rise in the department, but she’s overcome these things by being a good cop, not by crying “Affirmative Action” every time something goes wrong, In fact, at one point during this investigation, she tells another cop she doesn’t want an Al Sharpton showing up and playing the race card in this case.

The past makes itself known in this case as the similarities between Tori’s disappearance and Monique’s murder keep popping up. And witnesses who could help break the case keep ending up dead.

The voice Ms. Hall gives her protagonist is great. I’m a Southern white boy, and yet I could find myself identifying with this black woman from the bad side of one of the biggest cities in the world. Lou sometimes doesn’t know when to turn off her mouth or her anger, and this comes close to getting her in hot water more than once. But she’s a good person in a difficult situation, and not everything ends up happily ever after—but I won’t spoil the story for you any more than that.

Do yourself a favor: go out and pick up Land of Shadows. And if you’re like me and you love a well-written mystery that’s not cozy in any way, you’ll finish the book wishing there was already another Elouise Norton novel out there waiting to be read.

It’s that good.



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