Goldberg vs Goldberg: The Interview

Author/editor Steph Cha​ had the brilliant idea of assigning my brother Tod Goldberg the task of interviewing me for Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB)​….the result is probably the most personal, and indepth interview I’ve ever done. I hope you like it. Here’s an excerpt:

Lee and his brother Tod express their delight at having books released simultaneously in June 2016

TOD: I often get asked what it’s like to have a family of writers and artists, and it’s hard to explain, exactly, because it’s the only way we’ve lived. Our sisters are both writers and artists, our mother, after her socialite period, became a newspaper columnist covering socialites, our father not that I ever lived with him as a sentient human as you noted, was a TV news journalist, and then there’re all the uncles and cousins and whatnot, too. But you were the first one, really, to make it on a national stage, which I know gave me the confidence to aim big, and which I suspect made it easier for our sisters, too. Did seeing mom’s and dad’s success and, in many ways, eventual failure both of them had these sort of big-league dreams but ended up never quite getting there, which ended up driving them both a bit mad provide some motivation for you?

LEE: There’s no question that dad being on television and mom being a writer shaped me in profound ways. There is a lot of both of them in me … though more of mom than dad. They were both comfortable in front of an audience, whether it was on camera or standing on front of people. Mom had a big, outgoing personality and great sense of humor. She was a deft schmoozer and a big ego. She was a profound exaggerator in her storytelling, for both comic and dramatic effect. She went after what she wanted, personally and professionally. She was a fighter. I have a lot of those same attributes, though I hope with less of the destructive flip side. For example, I know when I am exaggerating a story and, I like to believe, so does my audience. We’re in on the joke together. It’s like when an audience buys into the franchise of a TV series … no matter how ludicrous it might be (she’s a nun — and she can fly! A detective with OCD! A drug-addicted doctor who hates his patients!) … because they want to enjoy the ride. Unlike mom, I don’t believe my exaggerations are the truth and then exaggerate them the next time I tell the story, and then exaggerate that, until I am heading into something approaching clinical delusion. I know where the truth ends and the embellishment, for comedic or dramatic effect, begins. I’m deeply afraid the day will come, though, when I lose that self-awareness.

I haven’t talked much about dad because he wasn’t really in my life after I was 10 years old (though he was in my life more than you or our sisters). Dad grew up wanting to be a TV anchorman … despite coming from a small logging town and having zero contacts … and yet he achieved that dream. He eventually became an anchorman on KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco … a major station in a major market … and it should have been a stepping-stone to the national stage. Getting there had to take talent, drive, and confidence … but somewhere along the line he lost his mojo … or, more likely, his backbone. I was too young at the time to know why or how it happened, or if mom was somehow to blame. But he became a weak, wishy-washy, superficial man. He let people, he let life, walk all over him. He stood up for nothing and nobody and lost everything. He showed me it was possible to achieve your dream, but through his failure, he also showed me you had to be strong to keep it. That’s not all I learned from him. Seeing him on TV every night also made television — the industry and the medium — something approachable to me. He made the TV part of my family. He made it small and human. My father was a TV screen, and I knew that I was stronger than he was. So yeah, I could break into TV. No problem. And I did.

You can read the full  interview here. 

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)

Book Reviews: Thirtysomething and Petrocelli

After delivering my new novel to my editor, I treated myself to two non-fiction books about TV shows — THIRTYSOMETHING and PETROCELLI.

THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY: AN ORAL HISTORY by Scott Ryan. This a fantastic book, full of insights into every aspect of the show, and told in a unique and truly compelling fashion: almost entirely in stand-alone, capsule quotes from actors, writers, directors and producers who made the series. The author acts more like a film editor, arranging the quotes in the best order to tell the story but also to maintain narrative tension. It’s brilliantly done…and is not only informative, but very entertaining, like listening in to a fascinating, Hollywood dinner party. The book tracks the show season by season, episode by episode, and goes into remarkable, behind-the-scenes detail. There’s a feast here for writers, directors, actors, producers and fans of the show to devour. Particularly fascinating and revealing for me was the story, told almost in a Rashomon fashion, behind the fifth season that the network and studio wanted…but that the showrunners didn’t…and all the emotions, creative conflicts, and politics that led to the series’ premature demise. The book even includes the script pages for the unshot, final scene of the final episode. The author clearly put enormous work into the book, engaging in hundreds of hours worth of interviews.  You don’t need to be a fan of Thirtysomething to learn something from this book…especially if you’re a student of TV history, or contemplating a career in TV, or are even an established writer/producer about to embark on running your own show. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about a TV show and should be required reading in classes about writing and producing series television. The only drawback is that there’s no index…which isn’t a problem is you’ve got the ebook edition, but if you have a print copy, it’s definitely missed.

PETROCELLI: AN EPISODE GUIDE AND MUCH MORE by Sandra Grabman. The book is thin, a mere 129 pages, because it’s really not much more than a general episode guide, despite the subtitle “and so much more.” I really wish there was “so much more,” because I’m a huge fan of the series and was thrilled when it finally came out on DVD. There’s not much information here besides random quotes from articles about the show and broad synopses of the episodes. There’s very little about the development of the original theatrical movie, The Lawyer, or what prompted the studio, network or producers to adapt the only modestly successful film into a series four years after its release. Why did it take so long to happen? Did the idea to do a series originate with the studio? What network did they take it to first? Why did they shoot a pilot rather than use the movie as the pilot (given that they had the same star)? It’s also never explained why the writer & director of the movie seemingly weren’t involved in the pilot or series, nor why key cast members from film weren’t retained for the pilot (besides Barry Newman). There’s no discussion of how the pilot, entitled Night Games, was developed creatively, or how the showrunner was selected, or what elements they decided to keep and/or discard from the movie and why. Only perfunctory is attention is given to the writing and production of the TV series, which was shot on location in Tucson. Perhaps the lack of details is because many of the key production personnel have passed away…but that obstacle hasn’t stopped other authors from doing far more thorough and satisfying books about much older shows that this one. It would have been nice if the author sought out more of the writers, directors and actors for in-depth interviews and did a much more thorough job of exploring the nut-and-bolts of the series. There’s no mention, for instance, of Lalo Schifrin’s theme or his scoring of the series. Also, very little attention is given to the reasoning behind the show’s near cancellation after the first season, or the creative changes made in the second season, or what elements, besides ratings, factored into the show’s ultimate cancellation. Again, it would have been helpful if the author had talked to studio or network executives, assuming any of them are still with us, rather than just speculating. Overall, the book comes off as a very half-baked work…worthwhile only for the most ardent Petrocelli fan who merely wants a printed episode guide to refer to. This book was truly a missed opportunity.

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.
 

TV Book Reviews: Jan-Michael Vincent and Steven Bochco

dd398b643956db4f79a194fcd69d0772139c8055I recently read the stories of two TV celebrities.. one a star in front of the camera (Jan-Michael Vincent), one a star behind it (Steven Bochco). One is a biography, the other a memoir…and both were fascinating.

Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness by David Grove

Grove missed his calling. He should have been a novelist. Thanks to Grove’s vivid prose and keen eye for emotional detail, Edge of Greatness reads much more like a tragic novel than the standard biography of a mildly talented actor’s rapid rise and horrific downfall. This is the all-too-familiar story of a self-destructive actor undone by all the temptations of Hollywood — sex, drugs, alcohol — and his own hubris.

The book tracks Vincent from his humble beginnings in the central California farming community of Hanford, through his years of stardom, and up to his current squalor, which is physical, mental and financial. As Grove puts it:

“A black Mustang convertible and a patch of roses out front offer the only clues to his past life, when his aquamarine eyes, chiseled features, and sun-streaked hair sang of creamy sand and sweet sex. He has long ceased being beautiful or strong.”

Vincent today is confined to a wheelchair. He has lost a leg, the result of peripheral artery disease, and he struggles with diabetes, epilepsy, and the ravages of “countless episodes of alcoholic poisoning and toxic shock.” Grove goes on to say that Vincent “barely weights 100 pounds, his teeth dangle in his jaw, brittle and emaciated”  and that the condition of his liver “has moved far beyond the simple characterization of cirrhosis. It’s a celebration of rot.”

And all of those quotes are just from page one, effectively setting the stage for the tragic story to come. Sure, he gives away the ending, but it puts the actor’s entire rise and fall into horrific perspective that haunts the book. What makes this tragedy compelling reading, as opposed to the literary equivalent of watching a train wreck, is Grove’s writing and reporting skills. Perhaps that’s due to this startling admission from the author, at the very end of the book, when he asks himself if he likes Vincent:

I don’t like myself, which is what we have in common and why I was drawn to him.

And he goes on to conclude:

It’s obvious now that he was not born; he was invented. I thought there would be more, but this is it. He got what he deserved.

Wow. It’s hard to turn your eyes away.

51lakxruydlTruth is a Total Defense by Steven Bochco

Bochco is one of the most talented, influential, and deservedly celebrated writer-producers in the history of television. It’s not hyperbole to say he has reshaped the medium, not just through the ground-breaking dramas that he wrote and co-created (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), but also by virtue of the many amazing writers that he discovered and nurtured (like David E. Kelley and David Milch).  I’m among his biggest fans, speaking both as an appreciative viewer and a TV writer/producer who was inspired by him (and yet never rose to anywhere near his level of success, creatively or otherwise). That said, while there is much to learn from his revealing memoir, this self-published book is difficult to read, not because of the subject matter, but because of crippling editorial issues.

But let’s talk about the pluses first. The memoir works not just as the story of one writer’s rise through the television industry — from Universal Television staff writer to a celebrity show runner — but also as insider’s look at the massive changes that have happened in the industry and how it has affected programing. It’s also an in depth, inside look at how television shows are conceived, developed, written, and produced from the creative, business and political sides. Bochco not only examines how his shows succeeded… but also how and why they failed. And he can be brutally honest about it.

He goes into detail about his working and personal relationships with actors, directors, network and studio executives…and doesn’t always come out looking very good himself (more about that later).  There are many memorable stories in the book — one of my favorites is the one about why he fired actor Daniel Benzali from Murder One. All I’ll say is that it comes down to when and where Benzali wanted to take a crap. Another favorite is the story of his encounter with William Paley, who ran CBS.  Those are just a few of the great anecdotes in book that, as far as I know, haven’t been shared before. But Bochco also goes into more well-known controversies, like replacing David Caruso on NYPD Blue, and talks candidly about his intimate working and personal relationship with writer David Milch, who he discovered on Hill Street Blues and who battled with many demons, including a gambling addiction

Now let’s go into the negatives, which are substantial and detract from what otherwise could have been a great book, perhaps one of the best ever written about the TV business.

The book is amateurishly produced on every level.  The title of the book, at least on the cover and on the spine, is Truth Is a Total Defense. The title of the book on the two title pages, however, is Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television. That’s a minor quibble, but it’s your first clue that this is not a professionally published book (it’s also missing a copyright page, which is pretty astonishing in itself).

caption: Daniel Benzali Photo: Tony Esparza/CBS ©2002 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved
caption: Daniel Benzali Photo: Tony Esparza/CBS
©2002 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

Bochco is a very wealthy man, as he often mentions in the book. So I don’t understand why didn’t spend the money to have the book professionally edited. For a guy who prides himself on his attention to detail in his shows, he doesn’t exhibit the same care when it comes to his book. He appears to have done little or no copyediting.  For example, titles of shows are not italicized or in quotation marks… though sometimes, for no reason at all, they are in all-caps. It’s a very strange choice and makes it difficult to read the book.

Typos and other errors abound. He refers to John Wells, executive producer of ER as “John Welles.” He even misspells the names of characters he created, alternating between “Goldblume” and “Goldbloom” when talking about the character from Hill Street Blues.

There are also a lot of factual mistakes. For instance, Bochco was a story editor on McMillan and Wife, which he describes as Rock Hudson playing “the D.A. of San Francisco” when, in fact, he played the Chief of Police.  He mentions releasing David Caruso from a clause in his post-NYPD Blue agreement, one that prevented him from doing another series for five years, to let him do a CBS pilot. He says the CBS pilot didn’t sell, but that the next show Caruso did was CSI Miami, and it was a big success. Actually, the CBS pilot did sell. It was called Michael Hayes, and the series ran for 21 episodes before being cancelled.  There are errors like this throughout the book that could have been easily avoided if he’d hired a professional copy editor.

There’s also an interesting omission. He talks about nearly every show he worked on at Universal Television… and says the first show he ever created was Griff in 1973. And yet he never mentions that in 1969 he co-created The New Doctors segment of The Bold Ones, the most successful series spoke in that drama wheel.  I wonder why he completely skipped over that.

He does something in the book he would never do on his TV shows — he uses lots of cliches, like “moved so fast our heads were spinning,” “it was no day at the beach,” “I didn’t want to rock the boat,” “necessity is the mother of invention,” etc.  It’s laziness he would never tolerate in a script but lets slide in the book. I mention it not to be petty, but because its a sharp contrast to what he says throughout the book about his standards of good writing.

Structurally, the book is mess. He starts with the moment, a few years ago, that he learned that he had leukemia, and then goes into his disappoint and anger that his sister wouldn’t donate bone marrow.  From there, he shifts into the story of his TV career, jumping forward, backwards, and sideways so it’s often hard to keep track of where you are in his career and personal timeline. And then he returns to his leukemia, and his difficult battle over the disease. As part of that story, he shared the emails he wrote to his family and friends while he was being treated…some of them cringe-inducing, particularly those where he rips his sister yet again for not giving her bone marrow to him.  Is this his autobiography? A book about his career in television? Or a book about his battle with leukemia? He can’t seem to decide.  This is where a strong editor would have really helped the book.

He likes to depict himself as a nice guy, someone who is supportive of other writers and who strives to bring out the best in everyone around him. Often, he probably is the person he describes…and there are plenty of examples of that kindness and supportiveness in the book.  But he also clearly delights in trashing people, particularly network and studio executives, some of them by name, who had the temerity to disagree with him or pass along notes from their bosses. Many of the people he trashes are small fish, individuals far less powerful and wealthy than he is….and, as a result, he comes across as a bully taking advantage of his stature to beat on those who aren’t able to defend themselves.

He repeatedly claims he doesn’t carry a grudges, but he clearly does. He rips into his first wife’s boyfriend, actors Kiel Martin, Daniel J. Travanti, and Daniel Benzali, writers Mike Kozoll (co-creator of Hill Street Blues), Terry Louise Fisher (co-creator of L.A. Law), Eric Lodel (co-creator of Murder in the First) and David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue) to name just a few of the people who get singled out for his righteous and often brutal wrath. Some of them undoubtedly deserve his harsh words, and this is his memoir after all, but he doesn’t come out looking particularly good himself in many of these stories. He also repeatedly savages, perhaps rightfully so, his sister for not donating bone marrow to him when he needed it (also trashing her husband, actor Alan Rachins, in what can best be described as collateral damage).

So when all is said and done, yes, Truth is a Total Defense, is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Steven Bochco and the business of television. There’s is much to learn from the book about writing, show running, and the television business. But it’s also a deeply flawed work that’s in desperate need of professional editing.

 

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.