What Is The Bad Guy Doing?

Lee, Steve Cannell & William Link at Santa Barbara Book Fest
Lee Goldberg, Stephen J. Cannell, and COLUMBO co-creator William Link at the Santa Barbara Book Festival

Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.

I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.

I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.

You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”

I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.

On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.

It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.

Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.

The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.

(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

Writing is Rewriting

My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.

I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…

Get. Something. On. The. Page.

That is my writing mantra.

But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.

I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.

I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.

PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.

(This post was originally written for  April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

Three New TV Books Reviewed

front-lis-cover-final-16-6-30_7_origI’m a sucker for TV books, even those about shows I didn’t watch or don’t particularly like…because, often, I can learn something new about the development, writing and production of TV series that I didn’t know before despite my own experience in the biz.  Here are some short reviews of three recent releases.

Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series Vol. One by Marc Cushman. Jacobs-Brown Publishers. This is a monumental work of TV history…one of the best TV reference books ever written. That’s no surprise, since it’s from the same people who did These Are the Voyages, the three volume, definitive work about the TV series Star Trek and that is also a stunning achievement.  I didn’t think that series of books could be topped or even matched. I was wrong. This nearly 700 page paperback covers the first season of Lost in Space, and as a bonus, the development of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Irwin Allen series that preceded this one.

I am not a fan of Lost in Space, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment or appreciation of this book one bit (though I have to admit I haven’t finished it). The book is a remarkable achievement that exhaustively covers every detail of the creation, writing and production of the show, relying on interviews, memos, scripts, letter, photos… the amount of material they uncovered and examined is incredible and, at times, overwhelming. And yet, it doesn’t feel like overkill and it’s never dull. The author has an engaging style that rises above similar books.

Each episode is examined in-depth, from idea, through all stages of production, right down to the ratings and critical reaction to the final airing. What makes this book even more special is that, unlike Star Trek, the authors aren’t following a well-trodden path…so much of this is new and fascinating information. Yes, this show has been examined before, in documentaries and articles, but never in such detail and, surprisingly, with such objectivity. The authors aren’t slavishly devoted fans… they don’t hesistate to point out how awful some of the episodes were.

This book is a must-stock for any library and a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind the TV business. You don’t have to be a fan of Lost in Space, or have ever watched a single episode, to benefit from this great book. I can’t wait for the volumes 2 & 3.

bc8420Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin & others. McFarland & Co.  I had high hopes for this book because I’m a huge fan of cop shows. I was expecting to glean some new insights into familiar and obscure shows, and new details about how these shows were made, the impact they had on culture, etc. What I got instead was a very scholarly, very broad series of superficial essays about individual shows that revealed nothing new…besides the authors’ opinions, which I don’t really care about.  I was also dismayed by the sloppy errors, which made me wonder if they actually watched the shows they were writing about…or were simply lazy in their research. For instance, in their chapter on Hawaii Five-O, they make a passing reference to Stephen J Cannell’s unsold reboot pilot, which was shot but never aired. They say that Gary Busey starred as McGarrett. In fact, nobody played McGarrett in the pilot…and Busey was co-lead with Russell Wong. This information is easily found on the Internet and in other reference books. Later, in their short summary on TJ Hooker, they say “CBS picked up the show’s final season, which was a marked by grittier plotlines and a location shift to Chicago. .. the changes proved deeply unpopular with fans.” That is absolutely wrong. The final episode of the ABC season was set in Chicago, and was a pilot for a potential reboot, but when the show moved to CBS, they kept the original concept, setting, and storylines (going so far as to only use car chases from previous episodes instead of shooting new ones!). The only thing that changed was that Adrian Zmed was dropped from the cast. So not only are they factually wrong, but the conclusions they came to about “grittier storylines” and the audience dissatisfaction with them is total fiction. If that is an example of their academic rigor, I grade this thesis a C-.

Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong. Simon and Schuster. I totally get why this book has become an unlikely bestseller. For one thing, it’s about one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history. But most of all, it’s because the book is so readable…so entertaining…that it almost feels more like a novel about a show than a book about TV history. Even so, there’s lots of meat here for people interested in how the TV business works, how a TV series develops and evolves, and, most of all, how a series is written. What this book is really about is the writing of a TV series and, as a writer myself, I found it irresistible and fascinating. There have been other books written about Seinfeld…but none of them are as good, or as useful, or as educational as this one. You should also grab Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, her terrific book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Writing Diagnosis Murder & How to Plot a Mystery

dm7aI’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. Diagnosis Murder cast

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.

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.

diagnosismurder-1In 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.

lastwordbetterFor 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.

 

A Great Interview with David Levinson

virginian-titleThe good folks at the Classic TV History blog are doing God’s work. They’ve just done their second, in-depth interview with TV writer-producer David Levinson, whose many credits include THE BOLD ONES: THE SENATOR, SARGE, CHARLIES ANGELS, HART TO HART, NIKITA and scores of other shows. It’s a long, detailed, terrific interview filled with fascinating anecdotes about the writing and production of the various series that he’s been associated with over his long, varied career. It doesn’t matter whether you know the shows that he’s worked on or if you liked them — this is gold for anybody interested in TV history or in a career in television.  I loved every word of the interview. Levinson has been around a long time and he’s got some great stories, like this one about an episode of THE VIRGINIAN…

Oh, this is good.  By the way, I was a total asshole about this.  This is my second season on the show as a producer.  I’m like 27 years old.  I’d done like four episodes the season before, and I wanted desperately to do a show about black cowboys.  I talked to a writer by the name of Norman Jolley, and we’d come up with a really good story about a cowboy who had worked his whole life to save up the money for his son to go to college, and then he got ripped off.  In order to get his money back, he falls in with a bunch of rustlers to steal the cows from John McIntire’s ranch, and bad things happen.

Nowhere in the script did it mention that the father and son were black.  Just the character names.

Everybody liked the script, and I go in to see the executive producer, and he says, “Who are you thinking of casting?”

I said, “I want to cast James Edwards.”

There’s this long pause, and the executive producer – who, by the way, was the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet: Norman Macdonnell, who had produced Gunsmoke all those years – looked at me and said, “Isn’t he black?”

I said, “He was the last time I saw him.”

Very gently, he explained to me that we had a primarily redneck audience and you just couldn’t cast a black man as the guest star in one of the shows.  I said to him, “Well, listen, you’re the boss, and if that’s the way you feel, that’s what we’ll do.  But I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m going back to my office and calling The New York Times and The L.A. Times to tell them about this conversation.”

He came up from behind the desk, and he was a big guy.  His face was totally flushed and he looked at me and said, “You little cocksucker.”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

And we cast Jimmy Edwards.  The show went on the air.  There were no letters.  Nobody fucking noticed that there were two black actors playing the leads in this show.  But shortly thereafter I left The Virginian.

No surprise. But the real pleasure of the interview with Levinson aren’t dramatic moments like that but the meat-and-potatoes stuff about the making of TV. I strongly recommend the interview… and everything else on the Classic TV History blog, especially their incredible Oral History of THE SENATOR, which is better than a lot of TV books that I’ve read.

A Field Trip to Australia and New Zealand

Nothing beats “boots on the ground” for researching locations for a book. I always pick up details that no guidebook, or Google Earth trawl, will turn up. Not only that, but I love to travel to new places…here or abroad. I just returned from a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand to research the as-yet-untitled sixth Fox & O’Hare book.

2016-03-26 13.45.37My travels this time took me first to Sydney (and Manly Beach and Bondi Beach), where everyone was too damn good looking. Even the old people looked like models. All the women seemed to be wearing black… my theory is that they were morning all the fat, imperfect friends and relatives that had been exiled from the city. After three days roaming Sydney, we headed off to Brisbane, where I was relieved to see not everybody was perfect. My wife desperately wanted to see some Koalas, so we went to a local reserve where we could hold the cuddly animals and get up-close-and-personal with kangaroos. We roamed the city on foot and by ferry, then rented a car and headed off to explore the Gold Coast one day and the Sunshine Coast the next. The two coasts couldn’t be more different. The Gold Coast highly developed, with skyscrapers, high-end stores, and endless beaches…while the Sunshine Coast is more laid-back, less developed, but also with long, flat seemingly endless beaches.

From Brisbane, we flew on Emirates to New Zealand. I’ve never been on an Emirates plane before and was amused by the wood-grain trim around the portholes and the faux-wood toilet seats in the unusually spacious lavatories. We were welcomed in both Auckland (and later in Wellington) by cousins of actress Alexia Barlier, who was one of the stars of my movie FAST TRACK: NO LIMITS.  We spent a day roaming around Auckland on foot, then the following day we took a boat out to Waiheke Island, rented a car, and explored the entire island. We managed to visit all of Waiheke’s beautiful beaches and even visit two wineries for meals and some wine-tasting.

My wife Valerie and me with a furry fan
My wife Valerie and me with a furry fan

We arrived in Wellington in time to enjoy the final day of Cuba Duba, a  vibrant street fair, and were met by more of Alexia’s cousins, who introduced us to the city and entertained us in their incredible, hillside home, where they have breathtaking views of the city. We also met up with Jeroen Ten Berge, the artist who designed the covers for my DEAD MAN books, WATCH ME DIE, KING CITY, McGRAVE, and many other titles. He showed us around and it was a real treat to see the city through his eyes. After that, we rented a car and explored the countryside and the coast on our own, catching some dramatic vistas along the way.

Then it was back  to Australia for a few days in Tasmania, where we explored the city of Hobart and followed the so-called Convict Trail, soaking up the dramatic history of the island…and its roots as a penal colony. We also visited the bizarre, controversial, stunning, and unforgettable MONA Museum…which was like visiting an art galley designed by SPECTRE.

The entire trip was a fascinating and inspiring experience. I’m looking forward now to delving into the history of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, searching for those nuggest that will make the places, and the characters who live there, come alive in Nick and Kate’s next adventure. I took hundreds of photos that I can use to refresh my memory as I write. Here are just a few…

My wife Valerie and me on a beautiful beach on Waiheke Island
My wife Valerie and me on a beautiful beach on Waiheke Island
The Gold Coast in Australia.
The Gold Coast in Australia.
The ruins at Port Arthur in Tasmania
The ruins at Port Arthur in Tasmania
A machine/sculpture that eats, digests, and poops food at MONA in Hobart
A machine/sculpture that eats, digests, and poops food at MONA in Hobart, Tasmania.

 

 

Working up a Storme: WL Ripley on Creating Series Characters

Storme Warning_FrontCoverMy friend W.L. Ripley is the author of two critically-acclaimed series of crime novels — four books featuring ex-professional football player Wyatt Storme and four books about ex-Secret Service agent Cole Springer. His latest novel is Storme Warning, a stunning new mystery/thriller that’s earned him well-deserved comparisons to Robert B. Parker…and from the likes of Ace Atkins, who is now writing Spenser. Here Rip talks about creating Storme…and series characters in general.  

Wyatt Storme evolved from a love of mystery characters like Travis McGee, Spenser, and the protagonists of Elmore Leonard’s many novels. But in shaping Storme as a series lead, I wanted a neo-classic mystery/thriller hero who would seem familiar and yet would be uniquely his own person and uniquely my own creation.

Storme is neither a detective nor a police officer, which places him in Travis McGee territory, but he will use deduction and reasoning to isolate and learn about the villain.  This is a nod to the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, without whom the modern mystery would not be what it has become.

Storme & Chick vs Spenser & Hawk

Wyatt Storme and his friend Chick Easton, a deadly and deeply troubled ex-CIA agent, are often compared to the Robert B. Parker’s team of Spenser and Hawk. But I believe Storme is more closely related to John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee because he is a man apart; a man taking his retirement in pieces. Yet unlike McGee, Storme is often reluctant to insinuate himself into other people’s troubles and does not seek a financial reward.  The character of Chick Easton is closer Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin, only more deadly.  Easton’s character often prods Storme into action and, like Goodwin, he keeps the dialogue lively and caustic.  The Wyatt Storme novels blend three sub-categories of the mystery/thriller genre:  tough-guy, western, and reluctant detective.

If you look at Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (brilliantly continued by author, Ace Atkins), the most recognized tough guy in the modern literary world, you’ll find that he possesses some traits associated with Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe but is distinctively his own man.  Spenser quotes poetry and literature like a University professor yet he is as comfortable throwing a left hook to dispatch anyone foolish enough to bull up on him.  He still carries the classic .38 police special but is at ease handling the modern semi-automatic weapons.  Spenser is the first Renaissance man in the tough-guy mystery genre and has opened up possibilities for all of us who write.

Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens Reflects his Pantheon of Characters

Elmore Leonard never saddled himself with just one hero yet many of his protagonists shared attributes that were singular to his pantheon of characters.  They usually were unflappable regardless of the situation.  They rarely spoke excitedly or in anger.  The best example of this, and Leonard’s most memorable and likewise most singular character, is Raylan Givens.

W.L. Ripley
W.L. Ripley

Givens was the son of Kentucky coal-miners and a U.S. Marshal who was an expert with a hand gun.  He taught marksmanship to other U.S. Marshal’s and was deadly cool when dispatching a bad guy quite often giving the outlaw a chance to re-consider.  “I’m a dead shot.  I hit exactly what I aim at.  If I pull I shoot to kill.”

Note the nod to the old Western heroes of cinema and the western genre.  Givens is a Marshal like Matt Dillon or Wyatt Earp.  Givens participates in shoot-outs like many Clint Eastwood characters (There are marked similarities between Givens and Clint Eastwood in the novels.  Height, body-build, cold statement that his enemy is about to die).  At once, we are familiar with Raylan Givens and at the same time he is a unique character in his own right.

Storme is, like the above, a neo-classic hero. Both of my main series characters, Wyatt Storme and Cole Springer, are denizens of the new American West.  They are throwbacks, as comfortable in the great outdoors as they are with their backs against the wall, guns blazing.  Like old Western Cowboys, they ride into town and save the day.   Storme is Wyatt Earp to Easton’s Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy to Easton’s Sundance Kid.

Dave Robicheaux and Stephanie Plum Are Among The Best

One of the best contemporary series characters is James Lee Burke’s, Dave Robicheaux, a disgraced N’Awlin’s cop whose desperate struggles with alcoholism and personal tragedy place Dave (now a Sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia Parish) in his own niche.  Burke is unsurpassed at making the setting a part of his stories and the tortured soul of Dave Robicheaux is on display at all times.  Robicheaux, like Spenser, is an intelligent man.  Yet, unlike Spenser, Robicheaux is often confused and even lacks confidence in his assessment of his moral stance.  Still, when his blood is up, Robicheaux is among the most violent of mystery heroes.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is smart, tough, and given to romantic adventurism that heretofore was a part of the male hero make-up.  Evanovich plows new literary ground by making Plum a bond enforcement agent (Chick Easton performs this duty at times in the Storme lexicon). Plum is of Italian/Hungarian descent and vacillates between the romantic overtures of two different men.  She is honest about her foibles, which create problems in her job, but it is this very self-deprecation that endears her to her readers and makes Stephanie Plum one of the most successful characters in the mystery genre.

There are many, many more examples.  Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (a classic detective in the Phillip Marlowe/Jim Rockford tradition), James Patterson’s Alex Cross (criminal profiler), Ace Atkins other best-selling character, Quinn Colson (Ex-special forces Ranger), and Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta (Medical Examiner) are among the best.

All of these authors write sharply drawn, well-researched characters that give us a peek behind the curtains of very unique aspects of these justice-dealing heroes and their occupations. They have also been successful mining the classic nature of the mystery/thriller genre and giving their character remarkable traits, not quirks.  Too often beginning writers think they need to make their characters quirky. Quirky characters are the province of situation comedies, not mystery/thrillers.

Characters We Love, Books We Want to Read

One of the hardest aspects of a series character is keeping them fresh through many books.  All of the writers that I’ve talked about do so brilliantly and aspiring writers should study their work to learn how they pull it off.

Developing a lasting series character is the hardest thing you’ll ever love doing.  I enjoy looking into Wyatt Storme’s past, how he evolved into the person he has become and witnessing the sights, sounds, and his interaction with the universe he inhabits.

I write novels that I would like to read.  My hope is that they are also novels that you will want to read, too. I want the reader to keep turning pages and be continually entertained with laughter, hope, suspense, sudden danger and the consequences of life….and that you will find all of that in Storme Warning.

The Recipe Behind Gerald Duff’s MEMPHIS RIBS

Memphis RibsMy friend author Gerald Duff shares the story behind the writing of his tasty new novel Memphis Ribs, which Entertainment Weekly calls ‘A tangy tale of murder, gang warfare, crack cocaine, and barbecue.’ I’m sucker for a great thriller and for barbecue, so this was a home run for me! 

When I wrote my novel Memphis Ribs, I did it for the same reason that all writers take up a task that lasts so long and uses up so much electricity. I was mesmerized by the topic, in this case my trying to understand the essence of the Bluff City where I had come to live for a spell. And it was a spell, because that’s what Memphis casts upon those who come to live with her.

Memphis is an embodiment of the central paradox of the South. It is both tight and loose, and so are Southerners. Memphis has more churches of every denomination, conducting more worship services, attended by more of the faithful, than any comparably sized city in the nation.

Memphis also has more low dives and honky tonks, more high and low bars, more prostitutes and drug houses, more robberies and gang shootings, more muggings and murders, just generally more of the fast life, than any other metropolitan area in the country. If Nashville, Tennessee’s richest city, is about the greed for money and the drive to make it, Memphis is about giving in, abandoning all hope, and having a good time.

Memphis has suffered from calamities over time, including a yellow fever contagion which decimated the city in the nineteenth century and the assassination of Dr.King in the twentieth century which dealt the finishing blow to Memphis’s status as a contender in the big world of growth and commerce. For the commercial hopers and city planners, these disasters were apocalyptic, but for the writer they created a climate and culture conducive to dream, disillusionment, regret, and loss.

The advantages for a novelist are clear and compelling. All is vanity, endeavor is doomed, and success is fleeting, evanescent, and gone. That’s the country where a novelist feels most at home.

How all this influenced me as a chronicler of a fictional pair of police detectives – one black, one white – trying to solve some crimes in the Bluff City is clear enough. Memphis and its contradictions and energies and despair and humor emboldened me to try to capture in fiction some of its toughness, violence, obsession with barbecue and beautiful women, its racism and restiveness, and its hard-edged hilarity. I tried to do so by casting as a Memphis homicide cop a man in North Mississippi I had come to know. He was an independent cotton farmer, a Vietnam veteran who wasn’t outwardly bothered by his year in that war as a combat infantryman, and a man completely at ease with himself. He drank copious amounts of bourbon without seeming to become drunk, he loved his wife, and he had many friends, black and white, who admired and gave him great room and latitude. His fictional partner in the novel knows him to the core.

All I’m trying to do in Memphis Ribs is to show how Danny M. would act if called upon to sort out some crimes in the Bluff City. In my attempt, I hope I’ve captured some of the gut and soul of that city on the big river that flows through the heart of America.

Mark Smith on Writing “The Death of The Detective”

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. 

Death of the Detective Front CoverI 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.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith

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.