I’m heading off next week to the Writers Police Academy, where I will be giving a talk on how to integrate research into your mystery writing…for TV and for books. In preparing my notes, I came across this old blog post about how I wrote the Diagnosis Murder books and episodes. It was great to read… because, after so long, it was as if I was reading something written by someone else. I think I gave some pretty good advice … so I’m sharing the piece again in case you missed it the first time or in the many magazines and books in which it has been excerpted or reprinted over the years.
I’ve just signed a contract for four more Diagnosis Murder books… and the next one is due in March. I have the broad strokes of the story…. but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of book jacket copy. I’ve still got to come up with the actual story. I’ve been able to procrastinate by doing research on the period… which has given me some plot ideas… but I’ve still got to figure out the murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.
This is the hardest part of writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is writing, even if you aren’t physically writing. A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just sitting in a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.
It can be hell… especially when you are on as short a deadline as I am. Everyone has their own method… this is mine:
Once all the thinking is done, I sit down and work out a rough outline… one or two lines on each “scene,” with the vital clues or story points in bold. It’s what I call “a living outline,” because it changes as I write the book, staying a few chapters ahead of me (and, sometimes, requiring me to go back and revise earlier chapters to jibe with the new changes I’ve made… like characters who were supposed to die in the story but don’t). I keep revising the outline right up to the end of the novel. I finish both the book and the living outline almost simultaneously.
While I’m still thinking, and while I’m outlining, and while I’m writing, I compile and maintain what I call “My Murder Book,” a thick binder that contains my outline, my working manuscript, and notes, emails, articles, clips, photographs, post-its…anything and everything relating to my story. By the time the book is done, the binder is bulging with stuff… including my notes on what my next book might be.
Now I’m in the thinking stage, which is why I have time to write this essay. What a great way to procrastinate!
In every Diagnosis Murder book, Dr. Mark Sloan is able to unravel a puzzling murder by using clever deductions and good medicine to unmask the killer.
I wish I could say that he’s able to do that because of my astonishing knowledge of medicine, but it’s not.
I’m just a writer.
I know as much about being a doctor as I do about being a private eye, a lifeguard, a submarine Captain, or a werewolf… and I’ve written and produced TV shows about all of them, too.
What I do is tell stories. And what I don’t know, I usually make up…or call an expert to tell me.
Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I’ve had to do in television. Writing a medical mystery is even harder. On most TV shows, you can just tell a good story. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough; you also need a challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.
I always begin developing a book the same way – I come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters?
And then I ask myself the big questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How Dr. Mark Sloan solves that murder depends on whether I’m are writing an open or closed mystery.
Whether the murder is “open,” meaning the reader knows whodunit from the start, or whether it is “closed,” meaning I find out who the killer is the same time that the hero does, is dictated by the series concept. Columbo mysteries are always open, Murder She Wrote was always closed, and Diagnosis Murder mixes both. An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime, and find the flaws you didn’t see. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it.
In plotting the book, the actual murder is the last thing I explore, once I’ve settled on the arena and devised some interesting characters. Once I figure out who to kill and how, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong. I need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and clues which point to our murderer. The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as we call it, the “ah-ha!,” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime – but still (hopefully) leaves the reader in the dark.
The finish clue is the hardest part of writing a Diagnosis Murder book – because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when Mark Sloan nails the murderer with it.
A Diagnosis Murder book is a manipulation of information, a game that’s played on the reader. Once I have the rigid frame of the puzzle, I have to hide the puzzle so the reader isn’t aware they are being manipulated. It’s less about concealment than it is about distraction. If I do it right, the reader is so caught up in the conflict and drama of the story, they aren’t aware that they are being constantly misdirected.
The difficulty, the sheer, agonizing torture, of writing Diagnosis Murder is telling a good story while, at the same time, constructing a challenging puzzle. To me, the story is more important than the puzzle — the book should be driven by character conflict, not my need to reveal clues. The revelations should come naturally out of character, because people read books to see interesting people in interesting situations…not to solve puzzles. A mystery, without the character and story, isn’t very entertaining.
In my experience, the best “ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics – for instance, I discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.
But this is a book series about a doctor who solves crimes. Medicine has to be as important as character-based clues. So I try to mix them together. The medical clue comes out of character.
So how do I come up with that clever bit of medicine?
First, I decide what function or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer, then I make a call to Dr. D.P. Lyle, author of Forensics for Dummies, to help me find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If he doesn’t know the answer, I go to the source. If it’s a question about infectious diseases, for instance, I might call the Centers for Disease Control. If it’s a forensic question, I might call the medical examiner. If it’s a drug question, I’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the story. And more often than not, whoever I find is glad to answer my questions.
The reader enjoys the game as long as you play fair…as long as they feel they had the chance to solve the mystery, too. Even if they do solve it ahead of your detective, if it was a difficult and challenging mystery, they feel smart and don’t feel cheated. They are satisfied, even if they aren’t surprised.
If Dr. Sloan catches the killer because of some arcane medical fact you’d have to be an expert to catch, then I’ve failed and you won’t watch the show again.
The medical clue has to be clever, but it can’t be so obscure that you don’t have a chance to notice it for yourself, even if you aren’t an M.D. And it has to come out of character, so even if you do miss the clue, it’s consistent with, and arises from, a character’s behavior you can identify.
To play fair, all the clues and discoveries have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than withholding clues from the reader – and the sad thing is, most mysteries do it all the time. The writers do it because playing fair is much, much harder than cheating. If you have the hero get the vital information “off screen,” between chapters, the story is a lot easier to plot. But when Diagnosis Murder book works, when the mystery is tight, and the reader is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.
That, and the royalty check.
When you sit down to write a mystery novel, there are no limitations on where your characters can go and what they can do. Your detective hero can appear on every single page. He can spend all the time he wants outdoors, even at night, and can talk with as many people as he likes. Those may not seem like amazing creative liberties to you, but to someone who makes most of his living writing for television, they are amazing freedoms.
Before a TV writer even begins to think about his story, he has to consider a number of factors that have nothing to do with telling a good mystery or creating memorable characters.
For one thing, there’s the budget and the shooting schedule. Whatever story you come up with has be shot in X many days for X amount of dollars. In the case of Diagnosis Murder, a show I wrote and produced for several years, it was seven days and $1.2 million dollars. In TV terms, it was a cheap show shot very fast.
To make that schedule, you are limited to the number of days your characters can be “on location” as opposed to being on the “standing sets,” the regular interiors used in each book. On Diagnosis Murder, it was four days “in” and three days “out.” Within that equation, there are still more limitations – how many new sets can be built, how many locations you can visit and how many scenes can be shot at night.
Depending on the show’s budget, you are also limited to X number of guest stars and X number of smaller “speaking parts” per book. So before you even begin plotting, you know that you can only have, for example, four major characters and three smaller roles (like waiters, secretaries, etc.). Ever wonder why a traditional whodunit on TV is usually a murder and three-to-four suspects? Now you know.
Then there’s the work schedule of your regular cast to consider. On Diagnosis Murder, Dick Van Dyke only worked three consecutive days a week and he wouldn’t visit any location more than thirty miles from his home. Co-star Victoria Rowell split her time with the soap opera Young and the Restless, and often wasn’t available to shoot until after lunch.
On top of all that, your story has to be told in four acts, with a major twist or revelation before each commercial break, and unfold over 44 minutes of airtime.
It’s astonishing, given all those restrictions, that there are so many complex, entertaining, and fun mysteries on television.
Those limitations become so ingrained to a TV writer/producer, that it becomes second-nature. You instinctively know the moment you’re pitched a particular story if it can be told within the budgetary and scheduling framework of your show. It becomes so ingrained, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to let go, even when you have the chance.
I am no longer bound by the creative restrictions of the show. I don’t have to worry about sticking to our “standing sets,” Dick Van Dyke’s work schedule, or the number of places the characters visit. Yet I’m finding it almost impossible to let go. After writing and/or producing 100 episodes of the show, it’s the way I think of a Diagnosis Murder story.
And if you watched the show, it’s the way you think of a Diagnosis Murder story, too –whether you realize it or not. You may not know the reasons why a story is told the way it’s told, but the complex formula behind the storytelling becomes the natural rhythm and feel of the show. When that rhythm changes, it’s jarring.
If you watch your favorite TV series carefully now, and pay close attention to the number of guest stars, scenes that take place on the “regular sets,” and how often scenes take place outdoors at night, and you might be able to get a pretty good idea of the production limitations confronting that show’s writers every week.
And if you read my Diagnosis Murder novels, feel free to put the book down every fifteen minutes or so for a commercial break.
Speaking of which, if there’s actually going to be another Diagnosis Murder novel, I better get back to work… sitting in my chair, doing nothing.
My friend Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective is widely considered to be one of the best detective novels ever written…and was a National Book Award finalist. It was a honor for me to be able to republish it this last month through my company, Brash Books. I’ve asked Mark to share the story of how his remarkable book was written.
I think it was Heywood Hale Broun who said, “When a professional man is doing the best work of his life, he will be reading only detective novels,” or words similar. I hope, even at my age, I have my best work ahead of me, but when I was writing The Death of the Detective, in my leisure hours I was exhausting the classic English who-dun-its written between the Wars, favoring Dorothy Sayers and Freeman Wills Croft, while also re-reading Raymond Chandler and re-discovering Nero Wolfe. In this regard I shared the addiction with the likes of William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner and FDR, among others.
My first two novels, the companion novels, Toyland and House Across the White (original title, The Middleman), were psychological thrillers and a modern retelling of a fairy tale. Before taking on the ghost story, my fourth novel, The Moon Lamp, I settled on my favorite genre, the detective story. Originally sketched out as something of a short story in which the detective in his quest of a killer discovers only his victims, with each murder leading both men to the next, the book became seriously ambitious when I added the moral and ironic complication of the detective himself being somehow responsible for the deaths by reason of his continued pursuit of the killer. This seemed to me a wonderful metaphor for the America of my time and place. And the detective as my representative American—or hero, if you wish. So much better for an urban environment than a cowboy.
The novel became enlarged when I added an interwoven subplot of young people and a minor plot of gangsters and made the killer’s victims believable round characters who were either sympathetic or interesting, so that, in a departure from the genre and the movies, the reader would be emotionally effected when their deaths occurred. After all, the tradition in Chicago writing, from Dreiser to Bellow, is compassion. Adding to the novel’s length was my recreation of each particular setting where the corpses were found strewn across the landscape of what is now called ‘Chicagoland”, thereby involving as many varied localities as I could in the crimes.
Many readers would say Chicago was the main character in the book, a response that surprised and disappointed me. Only years later did I come to find there was some justification for this observation. In my day, Chicago, for guys like me, was pretty much an open city, and I felt free to venture where I pleased. After high school, I worked as a mucker (sandhog) digging the subway extension beneath the post office, was a tariff clerk for the CBQ Railroad, the timekeeper on the foundation work for the Inland Steel Building and a merchant seaman on the Great Lakes before graduating from Northwestern University and living on the Gold Coast– across from the Ambassador East, no less.
Some readers, including allegedly mafioso and their children, have claimed the gangster plot is the best piece of the book, and that the gangsters are entirely believable, recognizable characters, perhaps something of a first in American fiction. The question asked then, is how did I come by my insights and knowledge? Henry James said writers should “receive straight impressions from life”, a piece of advice I find irrefutable for a naturalistic writer. Lo and behold, at the age of sixteen I worked as a busboy one summer at a nightclub-restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago owned by a former Capone mobster that was frequented by his fellows in the trade, alone (sometimes to play cards in a closed-off dining room), or with their families. These people not only became human to me, they became ordinary, and for a writer, now accessible to the play of his imagination. For example, I witnessed the tipsy top mobster in Chicago at closing time fail miserably in his attempt to pick up a not-so-exciting waitress, while my boss, a rather comic character who reminded me of Lou Costello ( a new restaurant in the area that threatened to be competition for his restaurant was bombed that summer every time it tried to open) would show up at the restaurant furious after losing a bundle at the track and order the help to drain all the nearly empty catsup bottles into new bottles. Without these contacts I suppose I would have had to take my gangsters from the cliches of movies and television (pre-Sopranos) and yes, probably from crime novels, also.
I have a couple of regrets about the novel. I notice a reviewer claimed I had predicted the practice of criminal profiling. If so, I’m not sure where that occurs in the novel. However I did make two predictions that came true that I cut from the book when I reduced its original text by some twenty percent which included not only blubber but the author’s commentary, prophecies and missteps into outright fantasy. One was the prediction that we would suffer from some new and deadly sexually transmitted disease which I changed to suggest old-fashioned syphilis. It seemed to me that given our new libertine sexual proclivities with limitless partners that such was likely to occur. Hence, soon thereafter, Aids. The other was my direct assertion that the mindless violence on film and television not only deadened us to the pain of violence, but encouraged violence, making it a centerpiece of our culture, a notion that was dismissed as hogwash at the time, but seemed an obvious cause and effect to me. Today this observation is pretty much accepted. So much for my career as Nostradamus.
A final admission. Although the Viet Nam war is never mentioned in this novel, and occurred after the time this novel takes place, it occurred during the time I was writing it with the nightly death count on the news. I like to tell myself my rage against that misadventure, along with my nostalgic love-hate relationship with the lost Chicago of my childhood and youth, were the energy sources behind the novel’s composition. It could even be said, with some hyperbole, that I wrote this book alone in my study in place of publically marching with the thousands demonstrating in the street.
One of my great pleasures of publishing this book, along with receiving a nomination for the National Book Award and seeing the novel on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, were the invitations to join the Mystery Writers of America and the British Crime Writers Association.
The Death of the Detective is available from Brash Books, Toyland and The House Across the White, from Foreverland Press.
Brash Books is launching tomorrow with thirty books by twelve amazing authors…and I am SO excited. I’m pleased to say that the buzz has already been very positive. For example, last week Kirkus Reviews did a great interview with me and my Brash cofounder Joel Goldman . Here’s an excerpt:
The Brash editions I’ve seen so far are handsome, trade-size paperbacks, with bold cover imagery and elegant interior design. “Joel and I decided right off that we were either going to do this ‘first-class’ or not at all,” says Goldberg, “with high-quality covers that vividly and definitively establish a franchise for each author or series that we are publishing. We also decided that our covers would be contemporary, regardless of when the stories take place, and that they would pop in thumbnail but be rich in details and textures when seen full-size. We believed that strategy, that look, would instantly set us apart from our competitors, many of whom are either marketing their books with ‘vintage paperback’ or ‘pulpy’ covers that immediately date the product, or are churning out hundreds of generic covers based on a few rigid templates to control their costs. It was a pricey decision for us to make, but we believe it’s the right one.”
Will the gumption and gusto shown by Brash Books help it triumph in an increasingly decentralized publishing environment, one that’s already spawned other paperback reprint houses (such as Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press)? It’s hard to tell. The two partners behind it, though, are certainly optimistic. “We wouldn’t be investing this much of our money into Brash if we didn’t love each and every book we are publishing,” Goldberg states. “We are also having a lot of fun together doing this. Yes, it’s a business. But it’s also been really exciting and fulfilling…especially when an author, or an heir, tells us how much they love the books and how much it means to them, emotionally, to see them brought back in such beautiful new editions. You can’t beat that feeling.”
We had so much to say that J. Kingston Pierce, the writer of the interview, took the quotes that he couldn’t fit into his Kirkus piece and ran it as a long, detailed post on his excellent blog The Rap Sheet. Here’s an excerpt:
JKP: Do you worry that with such a huge single-month rollout, some of the individual works you’re publishing might get lost?
JG: We’d be crazy if we didn’t worry about that, because we don’t want to publish more books than we can support.
LG: But we also wanted to make a big splash, to launch with a list of books that truly announces who we are, that represents the range of work that we’re publishing, and that demonstrates the high quality that sets us apart from our competitors.
JG: Our marketing plan is a solid mix of old-school and new-school promotion, including magazine and convention ads, online ads, social media, and our killer Web site. We’ve hired an ad agency and a PR firm to help us, and we’re going to as many conventions as we can to get the word out.
LG: The best advertisements we have are our books and our authors. People are blown away by how gorgeous our books are and are very enthusiastic about the authors we’re publishing. Those readers are spreading the word for us better than any tweet or Google ad can.
And if that wasn’t enough, Publishers Weekly gave our premiere novel, Tom Kakonis’ Treasure Coast, a great review:
After more than a decade’s absence, Kakonis (Michigan Roll) returns with a darkly humorous caper novel that throws together an odd mix of characters whose conflicting aims and shifting alliances result in mayhem on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Failed gambler Jim Merriman makes an ill-considered promise to his dying sister to “watch out” for her hapless 21-year-old son, Leon. Con man B. Noble Bott and his assistant, Waneta Pease, are concocting a new scheme with Waneta serving as a medium to put the living in contact with the departed. Mismatched debt collectors, racist thug Morris Biggs and Latino Hector Pasadena, are about their nasty business, which includes Leon. Billie Swett, naïve trophy wife of Big Lonnie Swett, is the piece that will inadvertently connect them all. A hastily concocted kidnapping scheme, an ape-like PI named Don McReedy, and an incipient hurricane stir the plot. Kakonis overwrites at times, but he still offers strong entertainment.
We’re expecting more articles and reviews about Brash in the coming days. But what I really can’t wait to hear is what you think of our books… and whether you believe that we are living up to our motto: we publish the best crime novels in existence.
Today the Mystery Writers of America announced their 2014 Edgar Award nominees, honoring terrific mysteries published 2013. It’s great to see so many of my friends on the list!
Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook (Grove Atlantic – The Mysterious Press)
The Humans by Matt Haig (Simon & Schuster)
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (Hachette Book Group – Reagan Arthur Books)
Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy (Penguin Group USA – Dutton Books)
BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR
The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton)
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Alfred A. Knopf)
Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (Minotaur Books)
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (HarperCollins Publishers)
BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL
The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow Paperbacks)
Almost Criminal by E. R. Brown (Dundurn)
Joe Victim by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)
Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (Penguin Group USA – Penguin Books)
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey (Amazon Publishing – Thomas and Mercer)
BEST FACT CRIME
Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins (Crown Trade Group)
Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal by Michael D’Antonio (Thomas Dunne Books)
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber (Grand Central Publishing – Twelve)
The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and the Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown and Company)
The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower (Minotaur Books)
Maigret, Simenon and France: Social Dimensions of the Novels and Stories by Bill Alder (McFarland & Company)
America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture by Erik Dussere (Oxford University Press)
Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing by Justin Gifford (Temple University Press)
Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett (St. Martin’s Press)
Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction by Melissa Schaub (Palgrave Macmillan)
BEST SHORT STORY
“The Terminal” – Kwik Krimes by Reed Farrel Coleman (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)
“So Long, Chief” – Strand Magazine by Max Allan Collins & Mickey Spillane (The Strand)
“The Caston Private Lending Library & Book Depository” – Bibliomysteries by John Connolly (Mysterious)
“There are Roads in the Water” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Tina Corey (Dell Magazines)
“There That Morning Sun Does Down” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Tim L. Williams (Dell Magazines)
Strike Three, You’re Dead by Josh Berk (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne (Penguin Young Readers Group – Dial)
P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man by Caroline Lawrence (Penguin Young Readers Group – Putnam Juvenile)
Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Disney Publishing Worldwide – Disney-Hyperion)
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
BEST YOUNG ADULT
All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Juvenile)
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy (Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (Penguin Young Readers Group – Razorbill)
Ketchup Clouds by Amanda Pitcher (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY
“Episode 3” – Luther, Teleplay by Neil Cross (BBC Worldwide)
“Episode 1” – The Fall, Teleplay by Allan Cubitt (Netflix)
“Legitimate Rape” – Law & Order: SVU, Teleplay by Kevin Fox & Peter Blauner (NBC Universal)
“Variations Under Domestication” – Orphan Black, Teleplay by Will Pascoe (BBC Worldwide)
“Pilot” – The Following Teleplay by Kevin Williamson (Fox/Warner Bros. Television)
ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD
“That Wentworth Letter” – Criminal Element’s Malfeasance Occasional By Jeff Soloway (St. Martin’s Press)
Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Michigan
* * * * * *
THE SIMON & SCHUSTER – MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARD
(Presented at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party on Wednesday, April 30, 2014)
There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
Fear of Beauty by Susan Froetschel (Prometheus – Seventh Street Books)
The Money Kill by Katia Lief (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)
Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman (Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books)
The Sixth Station by Linda Stasi (Forge Books)
The wonderful thing about Leonard’s writing is how unobtrusive it is…it gets out of the way and puts you right there with the characters. And oh, what great characters they are, each one every bit as rich and complex as those in “literary fiction,” emerging through action and dialogue rather than belabored, self-conscious prose. He knew the power of simplicity and humor to convey character, ethical issues, and the often contradictory impulses that shape what we do. His characters are never simply good or bad. Even the most vicious sociopath in one of his stories can be surprisingly likable, gentle and polite in certain situations. His cops and marshals were often more bloodthirsty and lawless than the criminals they pursued. I return to his books not just for the pleasure of a great story well told, but to learn how to say more with less (something I’ve failed to do here) and to use humor to reveal character.
There are two great new books out that deal with forgotten entertainment: Richard Irvin’s Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 TV Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw and Brian Ritt’s Paperback Confidential: Crimes Writers of the Paperback Era.
Forgotten Laughs is a fantastic book from Bear Manor Publishing that focuses on comedies that lasted six episodes…or less. Many of the sitcoms were initially picked up for thirteen episodes but didn’t survive past their first or second week on the air. Some of the shows were cancelled before even one episode got on the air. The book includes detailed episode guides for the aired, unaired or, in some cases, unproduced episodes of each series and gives the backstories on their development and cancellation. It’s a treasure trove of information and a fascinating glimpse into the world of network television scheduling and development. It’s an exhaustively-researched, smoothly written, must-have reference book for TV industry followers. I absolutely loved it. I hope Irvin will follow up with a sequel covering forgotten one-hour dramas.
Paperback Confidential is an essential reference book for lovers of hard-boiled/noir paperbacks of the 1930s through the mid-1960s, most of them forgotten by most readers today. Ritt profiles 132 of the best loved, and also some of the most obscure, authors of the era. Authors include David Goodis, Norbert Davis, Marvin Albert, Dolores Hitchens, Fletcher Flora, Cornell Woolrich, Ann Bannon, Harry Whittington, and so many others. Ritt not only tells you all about them and their books, he also provides their pseudonyms and a selected bibliography of their work (some of these authors wrote dozens, if not hundreds, of books). Now whenever I pick up a vintage paperback from some author I’ve never heard of, this book will save me the hours I would have spent on the Internet searching for more information. It’s no surprise that this terrific book comes from Stark House Press, the people who’ve so lovingly republished “lost” and/or long out-of-print books by Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Dan J. Marlowe, and James Hadley Chase among others. The people at Stark House are doing God’s work, as far as I’m concerned.
(For the record, I independently bought both of these books…there were not provided to me for review)
In my “The Mail I Get” posts, I’ve shared dozens of examples of the lame pitches I’ve received from inept publicists and clueless authors about their books. Well, now I thought it was time to show you an example of how it’s done right. Here’s an excerpt of a very effective pitch that I got from a publicist today:
My name is Anna Ryan, and I’m representing a uniquely clever, and altogether fun, forensic medical mystery entitled, Lousiana Fever, written by forensic medical expert, DJ Donaldson. Louisiana Fever is the latest in the Andrew Broussard mysteries. […]Donaldson is known for his medical expertise, and his meticulous attention to scientific detail within his stories. But he’s also known for his colorful characters too. What I particularly love is how the protagonist–medical examiner Andrew Broussard–is not only an amazing forensic detective, but is decidedly obese and unabashedly loves food (almost as much as I do!) The interplay between him and his gorgeous counterpart, Kit Franklyn, make for a really fast-paced and uniquely clever mystery plot. Add in the sumptuous New Orleans, LA backdrop and you have a really enjoyable read…
The pitch not only conveys what is unique and interesting about the book and its author, but its shrewdly written in a chatty, personal way that makes it seem less like a press release and more like a recommendation from a friend. The accompanying press release included a blurb from Tess Gerritsen and an punchy lead:
Andy Broussard, the “Plump and Proud” New Orleans medical examiner, obviously loves food. Less apparent to the casual observer is his hatred of murderers. Together with his gorgeous sidekick, psychologist Kit Franklyn, Broussard forms a powerful, although improbable, mystery solving duo.
All in all, very well done.
Janet Evanovich and I visited the morning show on WISH-TV in Indianapolis to talk about THE HEIST. Here’s the clip:
Here’s a clip of Janet Evanovich and myself being interviewed on the morning show in Tulsa about THE HEIST.