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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The North Hollywood Shootout

Phillips (left) and Matasareanu

Phillips (left) and Matasareanu

This is the kind of thing you expect to see in a big-budget Hollywood action movie: two bank robbers holding off police for almost an hour, with numerous bystanders getting wounded in the process, and the bad guys dying at the end.

Except, in this case, it really happened.

On February 28, 1997, Larry Phillips, Jr., and Emil Mătăsăreanu entered the North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America at the corner of Laurel Canyon Road and Archwood Street. They’d spent months doing recon on the bank while planning how to hit the target. They loaded five rifles and around 3,300 rounds of ammo—contained in box and drum magazines—in the trunk of their car, donned 18-kilogram full-suit body armor that included trauma plates covering their vital organs, and took barbiturate phenobarbital to calm their nerves.

Obviously, this wasn’t their first rodeo. They met at a Gold’s Gym in Venice, California in 1989. Both were bodybuilders and weightlifters.

In 1993, they robbed an armored car outside a FirstBank branch in Littleton, Colorado, just the first of their robberies that culminated in North Hollywood. In October of that same year, they were arrested for speeding in Glendale, a town northeast of Los Angeles. When officers searched the car, they found two semi-automatic rifles, two handguns, more than 1,600 rounds of 7.62 x 39 rifle ammunition, 1,200 rounds of 9 x 19 mm Parabellum and .45 ACP handgun ammunition, radio scanners, smoke bombs, improvised explosive devices, body armor vests, and three different California license plates. Charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, the pair served one hundred days in jail apiece and were placed on three years’ probation. Most of their confiscated property was returned to them after their release.

On June 14, 1995, they ambushed a Brinks armored car, killing a guard named Herman Cook in the process. Then, in May of 1996, they robbed two Bank of America branches, netting $1.5 million. Due to their use of heavy weaponry, law enforcement dubbed the pair the High Incident Bandits.

Then came February 28, 1997. Driving a Chevrolet Celebrity that held two modified Romanian AIM assault rifles—an AK-47 style rifle—one modified Norinco Type 56 S-1, a semi-automatic HK91, and a modified Bushmaster XM15 E2S, they arrived at the bank at 9:30 a.m. They set their watch alarms for eight minutes, the time they estimated it would take for police to respond, a figure they arrived at by listening to police scanners.

Unfortunately for them, a passing cruiser saw them enter the building and radioed in a possible 211.

Meanwhile, in the bank, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fired off at least fifty rounds to discourage resistance, and intimidate bank employees and customers. They forced the manager to open the vault. In another snafu, Phillips argued with the manager when they discovered there wasn’t as much money as they’d anticipated, due to the bank changing its delivery schedule. Enraged, Phillips fired into the vault, destroying much of the money. Instead of the expected $750,000, they netted less than half that amount: $303, 305.

bankofamericaAt 9:38 the two exited the building, Phillips through the north door, Mătăsăreanu through the south. Outside, they faced not only dozens of LAPD officers responding to a shots fired call, but news helicopters that, despite being fired on during the shootout, maintained their reporting of live updates. SWAT commanders used these updates to communicate time-sensitive information to officers on the scene.

The pair wasted no time engaging the officers, who were armed with Beretta 92-type sidearms chambered for 9mm, or .38 revolvers. One officer on the scene had a 12-gauge shotgun. The pair fired armor piercing rounds into the patrol cars blocking the front of the bank on Laurel Canyon.

Eight minutes after the firing began, Mătăsăreanu entered the Celebrity in an attempt to flee. Phillips stayed outside the vehicle, firing up to one hundred rounds from his HK91. It was at this point that one round almost struck Phillips, but he ducked behind the car and evaded it. He slung the HK91 and began using the AKM.

An alert was issued and, eighteen minutes into the firefight, SWAT teams arrived. They were clad in shorts and running shoes under their body armor as they’d been in the middle of their exercise routine and didn’t have time to change. They were armed with MP-5s and AR-15s. Officers commandeered an armored crash-delivery truck to ferry wounded police and civilians from the fire zone.

At 9:51, Phillips broke from the cover of the getaway vehicle, headed east on Archwood Street, and took cover behind a pickup, where he continued firing on police with his AKM. After expending the first magazine, he reloaded with a 75-round drum mag, but discarded the weapon after it stovepiped on him. At this point he was wounded in the wrist by a bullet that deflected off the AKM’s casing and went through his thumb. He drew his Beretta 92FS and resumed firing on officers. He was shot through the right hand, dropped the handgun, then retrieved it, and shot himself under the chin while simultaneously having his spine severed by an AR-15 round. Officers surrounded Phillips, stripped off his armor, cuffed him, and tried wrapping a body sheet around him to staunch the flow of blood from the AR-15 wound, unaware he had shot himself and died from the head wound.

Meantime, the Celebrity Mătăsăreanu was driving had all four tires flattened by gunfire. He exited the vehicle and, at 9:56, carjacked a pickup truck on Archwood three carandpickupblocks from where Phillips died, but was unable to use it as the owner took the keys with him as he fled the scene. This after Mătăsăreanu went to the trouble of transferring all his weapons and ammo to the pickup. Helicopters from KCBS and KCAL recorded the action as Mătăsăreanu took cover behind the getaway car and engaged officers in a six-minute gun battle. He was unable to continue after at least one SWAT officer shot under the cars and wounded him in the legs. Raising his hands at least twice to show he was surrendering, he stopped firing. Officers radioed for an ambulance, but it took seventy minutes to respond, later citing standard procedure where an ambulance wouldn’t enter a hot zone when a suspect was still considered dangerous. Mătăsăreanu died from blood-loss trauma after being shot twenty-nine times in the feet and legs.

Most of the shootout was broadcast live by news helicopters, including Mătăsăreanu’s capture and Phillips’s death. The bank robbers fired approximately 1,300 rounds—one roughly every two seconds. Over 300 officers responded to the firefight, nearly 2,000 rounds were expended by both sides, seven civilians and eleven police officers were wounded, and numerous vehicles were shot full of holes.

Mătăsăreanu’s children sued LAPD officers, citing his civil rights were violated when he was allowed to bleed to death. The trial ended up deadlocked and was declared a mistrial. Mătăsăreanu’s family later dropped the suit with a waiver of malicious prosecution.

Thanks to the ineffectiveness of the police weapons, the Department of Defense gave the LAPD 600 surplus M16s, which were issued to patrol sergeants. LAPD units now carry an AR-15 in the vehicle as standard issue, as well as having Kevlar reinforced doors.

mannequinsIn 2004, two life-size mannequins of Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were put on display in the Los Angeles Police Department Museum, dressed in their armor and holding the weapons they used. And the getaway car, along with several patrol cars involved in the incident are on display at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum in Highland Park.

Only in Hollywood.


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What’s In A Name?

Names. In a way, doesn’t seem all that important a subject. But it is.

Writer’s Digest has a whole book dedicated to the subject, The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon with Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet,naming book 303 pages without the index. I put tabs on my copy to separate some of the ethnic categories to make them easier to find (you can tell it was when I was writing fantasy, too; the categories marked are: Celtic, English, Gaelic, Irish, Native American, Norse, and Welsh). I also have at least one baby naming book, and it’s a good one: 60,000+ Baby Names by Bruce Lansky. I should pick up a newer edition of it. What I like about it is it has lists of most popular names by decade.

So, between the character-naming sourcebook and the baby naming book, I’ve got over 80,000 names to choose from. Some of them are repeats, I’m sure, and many of them are variations, such as the different names for someone called Robert (Robbie, Bob, Bobby, etc).

And yet I still have trouble naming my characters.

I’m not sure why. I think part of it has to do with the fact that how someone is named gives us a preconceived notion of them. Think about it. Picture someone named Scott. Now someone named Tom. Different guys, huh? Even someone named Tommy looks different than a Tom. On the other side of the gender aisle, how about a Tiffany as opposed to a Gretchen? Or a Teresa as opposed to a Veronica? I’m sure you got a picture in your head—even if it was something of a generic one—at the mention of each name.

Childhood associations have somewhat to do with this. Think about that girl or guy everybody picked on in school. Chances are, they had an old fashioned name, or their last name was unfortunate. When I was in middle school, we had a girl whose last name was Pollock, and boy was she picked on. This was in the late seventies when Polish jokes were so popular, so you can imagine what this poor girl went through.

I’m horrible at remembering names. Even the names of my characters. I’ve had to make a character bible for my Rural Empires series, and even with some of the characters I use more frequently, I have to stop and think of their names. It’s kinda embarrassing to be this way, even though I’ve run into several folks who have the same problem. How do people feel when you can’t remember their name?

I think, too, this is related to the hard time I have coming up with titles. That should be evident by the titles I do use: Spree, Startup, Franchise, and like that. Simple titles. I try to find a title that sums up the book, and the fewer words I use, the better. Makes it easier to—wait for it—remember. And the reason I think it’s related is this: “Hey, you heard about the new Stephen King book?” “No. What’s the name of it?”

See? We even “name” our books.

calvinandhobbestenthMy favorite comic strip of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. In The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, creator/author Bill Watterson does profiles on all the characters in the strip and tells where he got the names for them. Calvin and Hobbes are named for historical people. Calvin is named after a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination, while Hobbes’s name comes from a seventeenth-century philosopher who had a dim view of human nature (appropriate for a tiger, don’t you think?). On the other hand, you’ll notice Calvin’s parents don’t have names. And Calvin’s teacher is named Miss Wormwood, after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters
For me, knowing all these things just made the strip that much better. Though he’s only six years old, Calvin often starts asking really deep questions and using words that no six-year-old would have in his vocabulary (and no, I don’t mean profanity). He goes on at length about such things as the existence of Santa Claus as well as pretty much any moral issue you can think of. What makes these conversations so interesting to me is that Calvin will spend three panels (or more in Sunday strips) asking questions and rationalizing things. Then, at the end, Hobbes asks one simple question that pretty much cuts through the Gordian knot Calvin has constructed, which often sends Calvin off on another tangent.

All this from the names of the characters. Just goes to show how important those names can be.

I try to pick names that will give you an idea of what the character is like. But I also like to give them the names their generation would have, as well as the kind of names they’d have because of where they are in the social strata. In other words, I rarely have a country girl from the farm named Tiffany.

Sometimes I do like to make characters break those molds, though. I have two dealers named Justin Ingles and Travis Baker. They sound like they should be good ol boys, driving jacked-up trucks and wearing ball caps with rolled brims. Conversely, they dress hip hop, drive an Escalade tricked out with bling, and talk like gangstas. It’s fun breaking the stereotype sometimes.

The problem I run into is this: I try not to repeat names. The reason for this is because my main thrust is a series, and I often connect other stories to that series. So giving two different characters the same name could be confusing to readers. Yes, it happens in real life. But in real life we have very definite visual references to help us keep the two Bobbys we know separate. And since I tend to give vague descriptions in order to let the reader flesh them out, this isn’t a luxury I have.

So how do you name your characters? Do you just pick them out of thin air? Or do you try to pick one that means something? I remember when I wrote fantasy, I would pore over my name books looking for a name with a specific meaning that also sounded right. Thank God I went into crime fiction, where it’s a little simpler.

But even still, as the saying goes, a rose by any other name…rose


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