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)

Heartbroken for Bill Crider

I was heartbroken to read this weekend that my friend Bill Crider has entered hospice care. He’s been fighting cancer for a few years now and I want to believe he’ll keep fighting it… and beat it. I treasure our friendship, which has meant so much to me in so many ways. He’s perhaps the nicest guys in publishing…and certainly one of the most well-read…a gentle, caring soul who can’t teaching others through his love of the genre. He’s certainly taught me a lot.
 
Bill introduced me to so many great books and authors who have not only entertained me, but made me a better writer. Authors like Harry Whittington, Ralph Dennis, and Dan J. Marlowe, to name a very few.
 
He edited two of my books, THE WALK and WATCH ME DIE, for Five Star Mysteries…and his advice made them better. I was thrilled when, thirteen years later, he agreed to write THE DEAD MAN: CARNIVAL OF DEATH for the series that William Rabkin and I created & edited for Amazon/47North. It was so great to be able to work creatively with him again and to share a byline.
 
And I am honored that Bill has entrusted me with his terrific western novels OUTRAGE AT BLANCO and TEXAS VIGILANTE…first to adapt to the screen (we’re still trying to get them made!) and later to republish them through Brash Books (where he was instrumental in advising me & Joel Goldman on titles we should acquire).
 
I’ve enjoyed the many hours we’ve spent over the years talking about mysteries and books…and am so glad I got to visit him at his home in Alvin, Texas a year ago and see his incredible book collection for myself 
 
I spent some time with him and his daughter Angela Crider Neary just a few weeks ago in Toronto…and he seemed so happy and energetic, that I believed he’d beaten the cancer for good. I still hope it’s a battle he can win.
 

Bruce De Silva on Writing “The Dread Line”

dread lineMy friend Bruce DeSilva’s The Dread Line, the fifth book in his Edgar award-winning Liam Mulligan series, is coming out in hardcover and digital editions next month and is available for pre-order now. I asked Bruce to share with you the creative struggle he went through writing his new novel. 

An unanticipated disaster struck as I was writing the fourth novel in my series featuring investigative reporter Liam Mulligan: The failing Providence, R.I. newspaper he had been working for abruptly fired him, creating a crisis for both of us.

It was a crisis for Mulligan because he considered journalism his calling, like the priesthood but without the sex. He’d always said that he could never be good at anything else—that if he couldn’t be a reporter, he’d end up selling pencils out of a tin cup.

It was a crisis for me because I owed my publisher another Mulligan yarn.

What was Mulligan going to do now? How would he make a living? And more importantly, how could he continue his life’s work of exposing greed and corruption? It was as if Joe Friday had been stripped of his badge, as if Superman had lost his cape, as if Robert B. Parker’s Spenser couldn’t be a private investigator anymore.

As I sat down to write, the first thing Mulligan and I had to do was invent a new life for him.

I’d never planned on Mulligan getting fired. Fact is, I don’t plan anything when I write. I don’t outline. I never think very far ahead. I just set my characters in motion to see what they will do. But looking back on it now, I can see that Mulligan’s firing was inevitable.

When I first made him a newspaper journalist in my debut novel, Rogue Island, I didn’t know that the book would be the first in a series, so I gave no thought to the possibility that I was writing myself into a corner. I made him an investigative reporter in Providence for three reasons.

  1. I’d been one myself, and they say you should write what you know.
  2. Reporters can’t get search warrants or drag people in for questioning, which sometimes makes their jobs more challenging than police work. But they also have an advantage because a lot of people who talk to reporters would never spill anything to the cops.
  3. But the main reason is that I wanted my novel not only to be suspenseful and entertaining but also to address a serious social issue.

American newspapers are circling the drain. Many already have gone belly up, and economic changes triggered by the internet have forced virtually all of them to slash their news staffs. This is a slow-motion disaster for the American democracy, because there is nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest and comprehensive brokers of news and information.

As someone who spent forty years in the news business, I’ve always been annoyed that journalists are usually portrayed as vultures in the popular culture. The truth is that most of them are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to digging out the truth in a world full of powerful people who lie as often as the rest of us breathe.

It was my hope that as readers followed the skill and relentlessness with which Mulligan worked, they would gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost as newspapers fade away. I made that first novel both a compelling yarn and a lyrical epitaph for the business that Mulligan and I both love.

But as the first novel led to a second, and then several more, the financial health of Mulligan’s employer, the fictional Providence Dispatch, became increasingly desperate. Circulation shrunk, advertising dried up, and hordes of Mulligan’s newsroom colleagues got bought out or laid off.

Fiction followed fact as the once-great Providence Journal, on which The Dispatch was loosely based, also spiraled downward. The newspaper had 340 newsroom employees when I worked there in the early 1980s. It has only 37 reporters and columnists now, and another buyout has just been announced by the chain that bought it a few years back.

As I was completing my fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, it became evident that Mulligan’s newspaper career, too, was coming to an end. The Dispatch had been sold off to a predatory conglomerate that had no interest in investigative stories and saw news as something to fill the spaces between the ads. Forced to spend most of his working hours on the routine tasks of putting out a daily newspaper, Mulligan ended up doing most of his investigative reporting on his own time. And his increasingly heated squabbles with his editors were making life untenable for both of them.

By the time that novel ended, Mulligan had been fired in spectacular fashion, accused of a journalism ethics violation that he had not committed. So as I began The Dread Line, the new novel in the series, Mulligan and I sat down together and looked back over his life, considering whether it offered him any hope for the future. There, we discovered a handful of possibilities.

Edward Mason, his young colleague at the paper, was leaving to start a local news website and invited Mulligan to join him. But the new business wasn’t making any money yet, so Mason could only offer starvation wages. Mulligan’s pal Bruce McCracken ran a private detective agency, so perhaps Mulligan could do some work for him. And Mulligan’s mobbed-up friend Dominic Zerilli was retiring to Florida and needed somebody to run his bookmaking business.

What should Mulligan do? Why not all three?

The opening of The Dread Line finds him no longer living in his squalid apartment in a run-down Providence triple-decker. Instead, he’s keeping house in a five-room, water-front cottage on Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. He’s getting some part-time work from McCracken, although it rarely pays enough to cover his bills. He’s picking up beer and cigar money freelancing for the news website. And he’s running the bookmaking business with help from his thuggish pal, a former strip-club bouncer named Joseph DeLucca.

For the first time in his life, Mulligan has a little money in his pocket at the end of the month. After twenty years as a newspaper reporter, he says it feels strange to be living above the poverty line—and even stranger to be a lawbreaker. But as Mulligan and I see it, he’s not breaking any important ones.

And of course, he still manages to find trouble when it isn’t finding him.

He’s feuding with a feral tomcat that keeps leaving its kills on his porch. He’s obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he’s enraged that someone on the island is torturing animals. All of this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his attention.

The New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story) have hired Mulligan and McCracken (not a true story) to investigate the background of a college star they are thinking of drafting. The player appears to be a choirboy, so at first, the job seems routine. But as soon as they start asking questions, they get push-back.

The player has something to hide, and someone is willing to kill to make sure it remains secret.

Mulligan may not be an investigative reporter anymore, but he and I are still in the crime-busting business.

Playing Cops and Robbers

I just got back from The Writers Police Academy where I, and two hundred other writers, got to play “cops and robbers.” It was my first time participating in the annual event which, I am told, is as close as you can get to actual police training without becoming a cop. You can see me talking about it on the local news here and here.

The event was held this month at a law enforcement training facility in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was an amazing opportunity for authors to get hands-on experience and education in crime scene investigation, pursuit driving, arson investigation, improvised explosives, firearms training… the list goes on and on. I learned cool stuff from EMTs, arson investigators, bomb squad members, homicide detectives, uniformed cops, and other professionals that will definitely show up in my books and TV shows. Nothing beats hands-on experience when it comes to discovering those key details that make fiction come alive on the page and on screen.

Rescue simulationThe event organizers had a flair for the dramatic—the conference opened with a rescue simulation involving a gruesome car crash. Cops, fire, EMTs, and even a helicopter showed up to handle the call. Later, organizers staged a “live shooter” simulation with injuries in a crowded lecture hall. Once again, they went for full dramatic effect. Not only was it entertaining, but it was an excellent teaching/learning experience for everyone… participants and audience alike.

In one session, I got the chance to learn tourniquet techniques… and the lesson ended with me entering a dark, smoke-filled room with loud music and strobe lights to find a victim who’d list both legs and was bleeding out (water, not blood) and I had to apply what I’d learned under pressure.

I also cleared a building with an active shooter (on a simulator and in “reality” in a specialized training house), learned to fire a Glock and a rifle, pulled over speeders in simulated night-time traffic stops, and drove a police cruiser “in pursuit” in a training track.

Lee in hot pursuitWe also got to examine up close squad cars, SWAT vehicles, urban assault vehicles, mobile command vehicles and all of the equipment in the vehicles and that the officers carry.

There were so many great seminars that I wasn’t able to attend that I wanted to… which I guess means I’ll have to go to the conference again next year. Authors Boyd Morrison, Melinda Leigh, Robin Burcell, and Kendra Elliot, who have attended many previous WPA conferences, warned me this would happen. Once you go to WPA, you’re in for life.

Like all writing conferences, I also enjoyed catching up with old friends and making lots of new ones. If you write crime novels, I strongly recommend that you sign up for next year’s conference the instant tickets become available.


Pictured: Tod Goldberg (who writes with Brad Meltzer), Robin Burcell (who writes with Clive Cussler), Lee Goldberg (who writes with Janet Evanovich), Maxine Paetro (who writes with James Patterson) and Boyd Morrison (who writes with Cussler) got together at The Writers Police Academy to talk shop and shoot big guns. 

Tod Goldberg and Lee Goldberg: The Jew Team

The Jew Team — Tod Goldberg & Me

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.

 

Crime Writing Takes Center Stage at Book Festival

Marcia Clark, T. Jefferson Parker and me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

I had a fantastic time last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is heaven for book lovers and especially crime fiction fans. There were tons of big-name crime writers (like Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Stuart Woods, among others) and literary novelists on hand (like T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, etc) in scores of free panels and talks…along with media celebs like Marvel’s Stan Lee and HGTV’s The Property Brothers.

I was a panelist, with my friends T. Jefferson Parker and Marcia Clark, for a lively discussion about crime writing that made the news, mostly because I admitted that we were as interested as the audience about Marcia’s reaction to the just-broadcast OJ miniseries. The Washington Times also reported on the panel and our little exchange:

The Times inquired of Ms. Clark what she thought of the Simpson series and, in particular, Sarah Paulson’s onscreen depiction of her. The wily lawyer — who practices as a defense attorney for court-appointed cases at the appellate level — replied that she “didn’t want the panel to get hijacked” by O.J.-related questions, but the jocular Mr. Goldberg saved the day, insisting upon a response.

Ms. Clark then delivered her verdict, calling the miniseries “tremendous” and Miss Paulson a “genius” who “absolutely gives you the truth,” adding it’s difficult compress a more-than-yearlong legal process into a 10-part television program.

Marcia Clark, T. Jefferson Parker and me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Marcia Clark, T. Jefferson Parker and me on a crime writing panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Later that same day, I moderated a panel on crime writing with my friends Barry Eisler, Gregg Hurwitz and James Rollins that was great fun. We talked a lot about how we create, research and write our thrillers..a discussion that ended up being unexpectedly, and frequently, humorous.

Barry Eisler, me, Gregg Hurwitz and James Rollins
Barry Eisler, me, Gregg Hurwitz and James Rollins discuss crime and thriller writing at the LA Times Festival of Books

In between those panels, I ran into lots of old friends, and hosted signings for our Brash Books authors Michael Genelin and Phil Reed (as well as Phoef Sutton and Craig Faustus Buck) at the Mystery Ink booth.

B&N Events coordinator Lita Weissman, Marcia Clark, me and Michael Connelly
B&N Events coordinator Lita Weissman, Marcia Clark, me and Michael Connelly

If you’re in L.A. next April, you have to attend the Festival. I never leave without spending a few hundred dollars on some terrific books…and learning something useful about writing.

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.

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.