by Taffy Cannon
Recently a fast-moving wildfire driven by Santa Ana winds and fueled by brittle mountain chaparral bore down on the area where my daughter lives north of Los Angeles. When she called me, her fiancé was headed home from the nearby Cal State campus, which was rimmed with flames and under a mandatory evacuation order. Once he arrived, they intended to leave and stay with his family in Los Angeles until the danger passed.
What, she asked, should she pack to evacuate?
It’s a question many of us have asked when under siege by the unholy trinity of natural disasters: fire, flood, and hurricane. Sometimes these situations come up too quickly to respond to, or we wait them out too long, and they are certainly never convenient. And sometimes there just isn’t anywhere to go. A friend in South Florida pointed out a few years ago that attempting to avoid a hurricane larger than the state of Texas was the ultimate exercise in futility.
For the most part the unholy trinity provides sufficient warning to allow some kind of response. Tornadoes and earthquakes don’t offer that luxury, though with a bit of luck folks in the path of a tornado can reach safety or a storm cellar and people in an earthquake can get to a door frame or duck under a table.
Voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders have become increasingly common in the face of impending natural disasters, which makes a lot of sense. First responders need to be able to get in and do their jobs without interference and drunks at hurricane parties and stubborn holdouts facing down flames will only need to be rescued later anyway, at greater peril to everyone. In my community evacuations are now announced by robocall and text message, though thankfully not often.
Fire season in Southern California is a strange and evil dragon.
As the hills parch, natives watch uneasily for Santa Anas blowing in from the desert, aware that all it will take as those winds move through the canyons is a single spark. Almost anywhere.
The days when firestorms begin often start out with deep blue skies and pleasant, unseasonal warmth. You’ll be thinking what a gorgeous day it is when you suddenly catch a whiff of smoke on the breeze and immediately begin scanning the horizon in every direction, looking for the telltale swirl of smoke. And when you find it, everything shifts focus instantly.
I remember standing at my Venice kitchen window as a thick and oddly beautiful white plume crossed a periwinkle sky to announce the Malibu fire of 1978, one of eight fires that began on a single dreadful October day. That was the first fire season I was in on from the beginning and it was a bad one. I wasn’t caught entirely by surprise, however. On an previous November visit, I had awakened one morning to discover a layer of fluffy white ash on my car, wafting in from a fire in the Angeles National Forest.
These fires tend to be driven by hot and brutal winds, racing through areas with very little development and lots of dry brush. They often are started by banal causes: poorly tended campfires, errant kites, downed power lines. All too frequently several blaze simultaneously on those days featuring the poorly named “perfect” fire conditions. And yes, on those days pyros sometimes set copycat fires and sometimes get away with it.
So long as the fires are off in some forest or another, it’s distressing and the air gets nasty, but that’s what happens when you live in this part of the world. It’s when wildfires dip into residential areas that things become truly terrifying.
Neighborhoods burn, sometimes in random hopscotch patterns. Automobiles explode. People awaken to bullhorns in the middle of the night and escape in their pajamas, inches ahead of the flames. Evacuation centers materialize in high schools, community centers, and stadiums. Horses are evacuated to the Fairgrounds. Pets are lost in all the noise and fire and fear and confusion, sometimes never to be seen again.
But I never thought about the possibility of fire evacuation when I lived in Venice, even though I knew there’d been a fire in Bel Air that burned out Richard Nixon back in 1962. There was so much urban sprawl between me and any obvious wildfire location that it didn’t seem worth thinking about.
But once we moved to northern San Diego County things were very different. Large expanses of undeveloped land featured rolling hills and canyons where fire traveled fast and free. The urban sprawl was elsewhere. And sometimes you had to be ready to leave in a hurry.
The first time I prepared to evacuate was during the 1996 Harmony Grove fire, when I stood in my backyard one night and watched a thin line of flame stretch across the entire horizon to the southeast. At the time, the area between those flames and our neighborhood was largely undeveloped, and I knew that a wind shift and forty-five minutes could find the backyard where I stood ablaze.
So we prepared to evacuate.
I had no idea where to start.
Some things were easy. We moved the cats and a litter box into a bathroom, closed the door, and had their carriers waiting nearby. I called friends in a safer area and cadged an invitation to move in if necessary. I gathered homeowner’s insurance information, vital documents, and a selection of the family portraits from yesteryear that hang on my office walls. I packed the china my grandmother painted by hand through her life, some signed with her maiden name and stamped “Bavaria” on the bottom. I boxed the more important photo albums. I figured out how to quickly disengage my computer CPU and packed medications and a change of clothing for each of us. I gathered cat food and my daughter’s lifelong companion, Pooh Bear.
Okay, full disclosure. I also threw in a complete set of my books. The rule of thumb when packing to evacuate (I’d learn later) was not to bother with anything that could be replaced, but I knew on some primal level that if I did have to start over in a post-conflagration lifetime, that small collection would offer great comfort.
Most importantly, I realized as I gathered these few essential and irreplaceable items that everything else was just Stuff. That realization was strangely liberating.
Then we waited.
Back in that Internet-free era, television was the only information source offering immediacy, but mostly what TV provided was endless loops of the same footage, the same closed roads, the same frightened horses whinnying as volunteers led them into stables at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
We never did evacuate that time, nor on any subsequent occasion when I have repeated the drill. And after the first time, packing to evacuate became really easy. These days there are more electronics involved, of course, and more medications, but the basics remain the same: living creatures and that which can’t be replaced.
I take it seriously. I’ve known folks who were burned out, or who only narrowly escaped. In the Harmony Grove Fire, flames zigzagged around a cul-de-sac where friends lived, sparing their house while leveling the ones next door and across the street. And in 2007 when the Witch Creek Fire and a half-dozen lesser blazes raged throughout North County, the local high school became an evacuation center for folks further inland. Our church across the street served as the staging area for donations, which poured in as SUVs offloaded crates of water, bags of clothing, toys, magazines and a dizzying array of snack food.
I had already packed up when I went down to help at the church, a speedy and streamlined procedure by this point.
Because, as I reminded my daughter a few weeks ago, once you set aside the few irreplaceable items that truly matter, it’s all just Stuff.
April is not just the month for taxes, it’s for second chances my friends. As a writer of the hardboiled school, I’m all for a second shot, a chance for a character to redeem themselves. What is Batman but a man who feels that he watched impotently as a child when his parents were cut down before his eyes…a horror he relives night after night, seeking to redeem himself yet knowing he can’t as he faces down the likes of Killer Croc and Poison Ivy.
Facing down the electorate, former South Carolina governor Mark Sandford this month won the Republican primary for congress to face off against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of satirist Stephen Colbert. As you may recall, Sanford joined the ranks of the so-called disgraced for disappearing in 2009 to “hike the Appalachian Trail.” That was his euphemism to slip away for six days, including Father’s Day Sunday, from his wife and kids to be with Argentine honey, Maria Belén Chapur, a journalist. His ruse wasn’t all that elaborate given his camping equipment in plain view inside his vehicle left at airport parking.
In those days I used to watch Keith Olbermann’s (who is possibly now poised to do the redemption comeback his damn self as he’s settled with the last employer who fired him, Current TV) show Countdown then on MSNBC. I laughed uproariously as Olbermann read Sanford’s e-mails as the governor’s staff hemmed and hawed as to where the heck their boss was. The truth soon emerged and once he was back in the States, Sanford did the politicians version of the perp walk, the tearful press conference. Notably his wife Jenny Sanford nor his children were there at his side.
“I’ll lay it out,” Sanford said. “It’s going to hurt, and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. I’ve let down a lot of people. That’s the bottom line.”
But hey, that was then. He’s in the running now and engaged to Ms. Chapur. Love means never having to say you’re sorry, babe.
But as Tax Day is tomorrow as I post this, let’s note this month also saw action star Wesley Snipes released from jail after serving nearly 90% of his three year tax evasion conviction. Flashback to 2006 and Snipes, star of the Blade the vampire slayer trilogy, was accused by the IRS of tax fraud. He was originally indicted on charges of fraudulently claiming he was owed some $12 million in tax refunds. For reasons that are not at all clear to me, brother Snipes hooked up with two anti-tax, anti-government groups, the afrocentric United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and the rightwing American Rights Litigators (ARL). Among other pursuits, the United Nuwaubians claimed once that 144,000 of the chosen ones would be taken up to the home galaxy of Ilyuwn as apocalypse ensued.
Cuing the music signaling a flashback within our flashback, we go back to 2000 when Snipes, having paid then CPA Eddie Ray Kahn, founder of the ARL for his dubious advice, filed an avadavat of incompetence stating he did not understand the tax laws and how they applied to him. This move apparently part of an interpretation by anti-taxers having to do with what’s called the 861 Argument. They maintain that in section 861 of the tax code supposed stating that only income earned outside of the U.S. can be taxed. Well that and the myriad other arguments Snipes’ lawyers offered over the years didn’t wash. He and Kahn were convicted – with the now former CPA getting more years than his client for all sorts of charges.
But Snipes has done his jolt, and it’s not like this is the first time he’s played a prisoner. There’s the pretty sweet little Walter Hill flick he did, Undisputed from a decade ago. In it, Snipes was a former light heavyweight champ doing life for murdering his cheating wife who has thundering boxing match with a Mike Tyson-like boxer in the joint for rape played by Ving Rhames.
I can see it now, Wesley Snipes as Street Fighter Kahn, No Bars or Taxes Can Hold Him!
On the matter of holding, how about former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, huh? You remember him. He of the “Clintonian rise” as was stated in the New York Times magazine got busted for sexting and sending pics of his, er, sheathed erectness to the ladies in 2011. At first he denied that the object in question was his John Thomas, deflecting that his name since childhood had always given…rise to penis jokes. But he began to, as they say, walk those comments back when he said he couldn’t say “with certitude” that the pic was not his schlong. So, Tone-Dawg, you do be sending them shots around. But he too is on the redemption trail and considering a run for mayor
Weiner said, “…I want to ask people to give me a second chance,” Weiner said. “I do want to have that conversation with people whom I let down and with people who put their faith in me and who wanted to support me. I think to some degree I do want to say to them, ‘Give me another chance.’”
April is the month for second chances.
One of the great things about this self-publishing game is the control it gives you over your covers. This is also, of course, one of the scarier things about it.
Back when I was publishing traditionally with St. Martin’s Minotaur, they were very nice about asking for my input on the cover. It quickly became clear, however, that they really were just being polite. For instance, when I first saw the cover for the hardcover version of THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, I let them know, I thought it was pretty cool, but (1) that’s not the car Jack Keller drives, and (2) Why is Michael Stipe of R.E.M.on the cover of my book?
My editor told me “Okay, I’ll let them know how you feel, we’ll get back to you.” About a week later, I got an e-mail with an attached JPG, asking how I felt about my changes.
It was almost exactly the same cover, just with slightly different colors.
I got the hint.
I also got some really great covers from some really talented designers on that book and the next three, so it was all good.
When I went indie, I’d heard that a good cover was vitally important if you wanted to get people’s attention. What I didn’t have was any money to pay a professional cover designer. So I tried to do it myself.
Big mistake. My first attempt for my first Kindle book, STORM SURGE, looked like just what it was: some public domain footage with some MS WORD font slapped over it by a total amateur.
It looked like utter crap, and the early sales reflected it. Then I heard about this guy named Jeroen ten Berge, who lives in New Zealand, and who was quite reasonable as to price. He’d done some covers for J.A. Konrath and Blake Crouch that I really liked, so I got in touch. Jeroen does something unusual for cover designers: he actually insists on reading the entire book before doing the cover. That makes things a little slower, but his updated cover for STORM SURGE made it worth the wait.When I got the rights back to my back catalog, I had him do the covers for the Jack Keller books as well. He also did the covers for LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY and GALLOWS POLE.
When I delved into Science Fiction under the name of J.D. Nixx, I decided i wanted a new look to go with the new name. So I got ahold of my good friend David Terrenoire, who’s worked in advertising for years. He worked very closely with me in selecting the stock images (about which more anon) and was very patient as we did tweak after tweak for the covers of my military sci-fi/vampire/revenge tale, MONSTER: NIGHTRIDER’S VENGEANCE, and my short collection of medieval fantasy/mystery stories, THE KING’S JUSTICE.
By the time I returned to redneck noir, I’d come to really like the covers that my friend Robert Gregory Browne does for his books like the bestselling TRIAL JUNKIES. Yes, he does his own covers, but, unlike me, he knows his way around Photoshop and has more of an eye for design than I ever will. So when I asked, he gracefully agreed to do the cover for my follow-up to BREAKING COVER, which at the time was called BUCKTHORN. With his permission, I’m going to walk you through the steps in designing an indie-published cover.
First, he asked for my ideas. I really had only a few vague thoughts of what I wanted, since I was busy battling my way through the second draft: “Guy walking down lonely road, possibly with shotgun in hand, and sheriff’s star in background.” He came back with this image, which he’d found at one of the many sites like fotolia.com, shutterstock.com and the like that sell “stock” photographic images for ads, covers, and the like.
It’s low res, as you can see, and has “watermarks” which the version you purchase doesn’t have. Rob told me “I could isolate this guy’s torso with the shotgun, fade his face and put him against a lonely road background. Have him foreground to one side, the road behind him and maybe the badge superimposed somehow.” I said give it a try. This was the first go:
Nice, huh? The gritty feel was exactly what I was looking for. The storm clouds were a plus, too, since a big storm that brings a clue to the protagonist is the inciting plot point. But we weren’t done yet. I wanted to get across that this was the sequel to BREAKING COVER, which has so far been my biggest selling Kindle title. Also, since it’s Tim Buckthorn’s book, and he’s a Deputy Sheriff, I wanted his star in there somewhere. I kicked other titles around with Rob and others and that’s how the book came to be called BROKEN SHIELD, which ties it to the other book. Here’s the new title, with sheriff’s star on the cover:
Hmmmm…very good, but the star just didn’t work there. I considered dropping it entirely, but before doing that, I inquired if there was any way to put a black bar, like a ribbon, across the middle of it. It’s the lawman’s version of a black armband to honor a fallen comrade, and it references another plot point. Rob, Photoshop wizard that he is, managed not only to put the band on, but to pin the badge to the man’s shirt. I still don’t know how he did that.
You’ll see that the colors have changed, and the storm clouds seem to be showing through the figure. That was going to need tweaking. But now that we had the concept and design down, it was time to buy the images. Yes, you actually have to pay for them, and some sties demand that you set up an account and buy lots of “credits” towards images at a time, which required searchng for sites that had images at the right price. Nothing is ever easy.
Meanwhile, we messed a bit with text placement:
And coloring (I liked the original yellower coloring because it fit better with the cover of the last book.):
Until we finally came up with this:
I don’t know about you, but I dig it. So much that I think I’m going to ask Rob to re-do the BREAKING COVER cover to be more like it. But don’t tell him yet. He’s sick of me enough as it is right now.
And that, my friends, is how you get covers for an indie book.
I’m working through my first readers’ note and doing some revisions on BROKEN SHIELD, but I hope to have it out by the end of the month. Hope you like it!
by Taffy Cannon
Sometimes tradition overtakes you when you’re not really paying attention, and so it has been with the St. Patrick’s Day dinner.
I can’t remember exactly when the event morphed from being corned beef for my husband and me on March 17th into an annual party for a few close friends and relatives. Somewhere between Dallas and LA, I guess, when we migrated toward the sun in the late 70s. But I can definitely date its traditionhood to about fifteen years ago when the holiday began to require its own box in the attic to store various Celtic CDs, shamrock-bedecked accoutrements, green bowls, and Irishwear that includes a Kelly green sweater emblazoned with shamrocks. I wear it with a button that reads: God created whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world.
The guest list has varied over the years, and some of my more peripatetic friends have drifted in and out a couple of times. On occasion, somebody planning to pass through town anyway has even timed a trip to show up right after the Ides of March. Like so much of life in Southern California, it’s a multicultural gathering, albeit one leaning heavily toward folks with roots in Ireland or Chicago or both.
We’ve probably never had even twenty guests, including children. The menu never changes and is anything but fancy: spiced corned beef brisket, boiled with potatoes, onions, carrots, and red and green cabbage. Sour cream and horseradish. Chips and dip with veggies beforehand, maybe with some other appetizer that a guest brings. A minimalist dessert on the order of ice cream.
Some years when I have the time and feel like putting on the dog, I make Irish soda bread. Most of my friends prefer the tarted-up versions with currants and caraway seeds, more cake than bread, and indeed authentic soda bread is something of an acquired taste, kissing kin to hardtack. I am pretty sure that gluten-free soda bread would break teeth and am therefore not dumb enough to waste expensive GF ingredients on it, though come to think of it, I do need more garden pavers.
And of course people drink. It’s St. Patrick’s Day.
Somebody generally shows up with Guinness or Harp, maybe a minikeg of microbrew. Others bring wine. Being polite people, we all partake in these shared offerings. But despite the well-deserved reputation of St. Patrick’s celebrations, for the most part all my rowdy friends have settled down.
One reason I know this for a fact is that there is always leftover beer, two words that I would never have thought to pair in my twenties.
This is probably a good time to point out that I’m not even all that Irish.
My paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, was a flaming redhead born to parents fresh off the boat from County Mayo. My father’s cousin, the family nun, once told me that it was such a poor part of a notoriously impoverished country that folks would invariably say, “We’re from County Mayo, God help us.”
My Irish grandfather and Czech grandmother hauled themselves up the American dream ladder rung by rung as he built a flourishing medical practice on Chicago’s South Side, doing sufficiently well to keep four boys in private school during the Depression. I once found a menu they printed for their own St. Patrick’s Day party, and it was a good deal fancier (and a whole lot more pretentious) than mine.
In any event, I’m technically only a quarter Irish, but it’s a very pushy quarter.
Nor do I live in any kind of Irish community, though the local Catholic church is called St. Patrick’s. People in SoCal celebrate all sorts of holidays, however, and it always amuses me to see what passes for St. Patrick’s attire in these parts: teal sweaters, chartreuse sneakers, lime scarves.
Certainly nobody has ever come up with anything to rival the Kelly green suit my husband wore for a number of years.
When I was a kid in Chicago, I remember my family eating corned beef a few times a year and that it was a relatively big deal. My father’s office nurse was married to a technician at a meat company, and occasionally she’d bring us a beautiful slab of corned brisket. We’d eat that whenever it showed up, in shameless displays of gluttony. But I don’t recall any hoopla about St. Patrick’s Day, or about eating corned beef then.
Ours was not a household governed (or even occasionally visited) by haute cuisine, and quite frankly what I extrapolated from those corned beef dinners was a sense that there couldn’t possibly be anything difficult about them.
Then I got out into the world and discovered that a whole lot of people manage to mess it up. They try to bake it, or use some chi-chi rub or topping. Mostly, I think, they just don’t cook it long enough. I simmer mine in a canning kettle of spiced water for hours and hours, until the meat peels off in threads. Then I cook the vegetables in the same water. And for the occasional vegetarian, I boil vegetables in spiced fresh water unadulterated by animal flesh.
People fill plates at a buffet, then sit on couches, or at tables, or wherever. In the beginning, a lot of folks sat on the floor, but my contemporaries don’t do that much anymore, perhaps because it’s so damned hard to get back up.
I had to postpone the party this year, because my household was beset by various non-electronic viruses. And while I hated to put it off there was ample precedent for unorthodox calendaring. When my daughter was in college, St. Patrick’s Day always came at an awkward point in the spring quarter, and so a couple of times we just waited till she came home in early summer and did it then.
In fact, last year we put it off until mid-August, after my brother died a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. March 17, 2012, found me eating corned beef and cabbage with my daughter in a restaurant called Covered in Chocolate in a small town in Southern Illinois. She wore her South Side Irish t-shirt and the corned beef was a lot better than I expected.
By the time we got around to the actual St. Patrick’s Day party, we were in the midst of what passes for a heat wave in these parts and it was too hot to even eat in the house, where vats of boiling water had churned all day. But the longer days of summer meant we could manage quite nicely on the patio and in the yard, and so we did.
The informality is innate at this point, and this has never been a seated meal anyway, except for the year when a special friend was dying. We pared the guest list to make her more comfortable and all sat around a proper dinner table.
A very maudlin, appropriately Irish reminiscence.
The memories blur and fuse and intermingle, which probably has something to do with all that Guinness. The St. Patrick’s Day party has become, in my mind, a series of sometimes interconnected moments in different eras and with different players, all heavily accented in Kelly green.
One year my friend Mary Ellen, a full-blooded Irish Chicagoan and consequently a twofer at the party, suddenly broke into Irish dance. The background music is always Irish-themed, Celtic interpreted as my husband likes it, which means equal parts great authenticity and Van Morrison. But it’s generally just that: background music.
I’d known Mary Ellen about a year and we’d compared our Chicago childhoods in dysfunctional medical families. But I had no idea that as a child she had attended classes to learn the fancy footwork that she now tried—with minimal success—to teach the rest of us. I’ve never been much of a Riverdance enthusiast, but while this was happening spontaneously in my own living room, it was pretty darned cool.
Still, nothing can top the legendary occasion when our teacher friend Tim, a very Irish SoCal native, brought a woman he was serious about. Erna, who has now been his wife for some three decades, hadn’t yet met most of this particular group of Tim’s friends. She was a little nervous about it all.
A dozen or so folks were jockeying for space in our tiny Venice living room, loading plates and then seeking spots with room to set down a plate and a beer bottle. Erna started across the room with her plate, and at this point the sequence of events becomes a bit fuzzy, varying according to who’s doing the remembering.
The outcome, however, remains crystal clear to everyone.
Erna’s entire corned beef dinner slid neatly into Martha’s purse.
May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.
–Irish toast and blessing (these also tend to intermingle)
Hi, Kate Flora here, writing about writing. Because it comes up so often in conversation with other writers, and in class with my students, this post is about the writing books that writers turn to. While some writers are “go it alone” types, most writers have some special books about writing that have guided them along the way. Some are books we read when we were just starting out, some books we read when we are stuck or need advice about rewrite or revision or we need help in understanding our characters or making them deeper. Some are books we return to time after time because of their inspiration or their wisdom.
Kate Flora: I have a whole shelf of books that I use, because I teach writing as well as “do” writing, and often I’m looking for the clearest way to explain some particular technique of the craft to my students. Among my favorites is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. When I first read it years ago, as a very new mystery writer, I decided that according to Gardner’s lights, I wasn’t a writer at all. Over the years, though, I’ve found so much in his book about the craft of writing, and it’s a different book each time I reread it. For nitty-gritty basics, I often turn to a book with a bit of a Hollywood sensibility, Saul Stein’s Stein on Writing because his advice is so clear and practical.
For solid, basic writing advice, writers Sandra Gardner and J.M. Cornwell both suggest Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Gardner adds Rita Mae Brown’s Starting from Scratch.
he doesn’t believe in outlining, which I think is essential especially for beginners who hope to write any kind of genre fiction. I also have them read Christopher Keane’s How to Write a Selling Screenplay. Why a screenplay book for novelists? Because the structural principles are the same, and he does a very good job of laying them out for you. The book has never been out of print in twelve years.
Daniel Moses Luft: I really like Writing the Popular Novel by Loren D. Estleman. There is absolutely no romance of writing in this book. It’s all very nuts and bolts kind of advice about how to tell stories
King’s book comes up repeatedly on writer’s lists as a guide. Adam Olenn also suggests Stephen King’s book, saying On Writing is probably the best all-around book on the craft of writing. Olenn is also an advocate for another book about screenwriting, Story by Robert McKee and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
Kate Flora: I recently bought the Vogler book for my shelf because so many writers have suggested it. The idea of returning to myths as the basis for storytelling comes up again and again when writers talk about their craft. It’s interesting, too, how many of us also turn to books about screenwriting. Maybe because it is such a highly structured version of storytelling. Among my favorites is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, a book that really pushes us to know what our story is ‘about.’ Can you do an elevator pitch for your story? I still need a very tall building, but Snyder has helped.
Steve Liskow, whose crime story in the Blood Moon anthology is nominated for an Edgar this year, also suggests a screenwriting book, John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, that helps blend character, plot, and setting. Liskow says Nancy Kress’s book, Characters Emotion & Viewpoint is terrific for character work, and Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure is a must.
Tess Collins suggests The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. And James N. Frey’s series of books on writing– my favorite being The Key–How to write a damn good novel using the power of myth.
Kaitlyn Dunnett: I think I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of how to books. Frankly, they intimidate me, lead to self-doubt, and generally have a negative effect on my productivity. I don’t really know what I’m doing but somehow it comes out right if I trust my instincts. If I start worrying about whether I’ve done all the things I’m supposed to do to write a good novel, I don’t get any writing done. And no, I don’t keep a notebook, either. At best, I occasionally scribble an idea down on a scrap of paper and stick it in a file folder, but then I hardly ever look at what’s in the file folder.
That said, there is one writing book I will recommend, even though I’ve only used it once in writing my own books. It is The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. When I was working on Face Down Before Rebel Hooves, the Lady Appleton mystery that uses the greatest number of real people in the plot, I was faced with the dilemma of distinguishing between two historical figures who, on the surface, were very similar. I won’t change anything that’s in the historical record, so it Edelstein’s chapter on Adult Styles was a life saver. Her lists of character traits helped me create two distinct individuals, characterizing one as what she calls a “bossy” and the other as an “adventurer.”
When we posted a query about favorite writing books on Facebook, some of our friends also weighed in on the question of books that help to understand/develop character traits:
Lise McClendon: My new favorite is Wired for Story, about the brain and human storytelling. Good stuff.
Maggie Toussaint: My go-to book is Are you My Type, am I yours? Relationships made easy through the Enneagram, by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele. This helps me set up conflicted characters in a heartbeat and has lots of cool examples to cement the character type in my feeble brain.
For writers struggling to get started, or those whose creativity may need a writing prompt, John Clark says: I still like What if?: writing exercises for fiction writers, Anne Bernays, Pamela Painter. I came across the first edition when I was asked to teach a creative writing class for the local adult education program when I lived in Chelsea. It’s a great book to encourage beginning and struggling writers because it’s chock full of easy to jump into exercises. I also like Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach for anyone wanting to write about families or their own life. Every time I open it, I can see Bill in the small room at Chewonki 12 years ago with his easy going style, pulling a diverse group of would be authors into the realm of possible.
Kieran Shields: I wouldn’t say that I ”rely” on any writing book. I think that does more harm than good. One book I did I use was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It puts a focus on editing what you’ve written, which is where much of the focus should be. The authors do a good job of providing concrete examples of bad, good, and better pieces of writing so that you can more easily grasp the ideas or techniques they discuss. But in my opinion, sooner rather than later, you have to put manuals and guides aside and just keep learning by doing. Read a lot and see what works, keep writing and see what works.
Kate: Another great go-to book for editing is Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery. And the book that came up over and over again as one that every aspiring writer should read is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. As Rick Helms says: Not so much about writing, but about the writing life. I read it pretty much once every couple of years to recharge.
One last thought: Don’t, as one of Kate’s students once did, rush out to buy all of these books, but this can be a very helpful list when you’re stuck, looking for a fresh take, need a break from your book, or are snowed in. Some of the books may be out of print. That doesn’t mean the advice is no longer worthwhile.
And you can join the conversation: What writing books will always have a place on your shelves?
This past Valentine’s Day, lawyer and editor Les Klinger (I know Les, he and I are past presidents and current members of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America — the latter having nothing to do with this matter) had his representatives file a civil action in the district court of Illinois against the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. Dr. Doyle, Sir Arthur, was the creator of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his able friend and associate Dr. John H.
Watson. The Holmes name survives and thrives even today, and I’d wager even a video game playing 11-year-old has heard of this enduring character. Essentially Les is seeking to put to rest once and for all is Holmes in the public domain or not.
This came up because Les, author of the annotations of the 56 Doyle Holmes short stories and four novels, was preparing with Laurie R. King, author of a series of novels featuring a retired, aged Holmes advising and aiding Mary Russell in her investigations, an anthology of new short stories entitled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes. The publisher of the collection, Pegasus Books, received a message from the Doyle Estate stating, according to Les’ press release, “…implied that if the Estate wasn’t paid a license fee, they’d convince the major distributors not to sell the book.” Les was informed by the publisher the anthology wouldn’t be released unless this contention was resolved.
I was surprised by the Estate sending this message for the common “wisdom” has been that Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, Irene Adler, et al. long ago entered public domain. This is evidenced by small and big presses doing new stories from Holmes vs. Dracula, Holmes teamed up with paranormal reporter Carl Kolchak of Night Stalker fame, Holmes teamed-up with Batman, and on and on. There’s also been recently the retconned, steampunkish Victorian era movies with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to the modern day junkie Holmes in recovery in a Manhattan brownstone in television’s Elementary. And let’s not forget the UK Sherlock taking place in today’s London that cleverly re-imagines material from those original Doyle stories. I’m pretty certain none of the entities doing their various versions of Holmes have acknowledged the Doyle estate, let alone paid a licensing fee.
As a writer, I’m somewhat torn about this business of one’s creation entering public domain for anybody to use. I’d like my kids and their kids to reap the benefits (not that there’s been a windfall of dinero) of the characters I’ve done my best to bring to life on the page. But it is a pretty cool thing to be able to take a public domain character like Frankenstein, okay Frankenstein’s monster, but you know who I mean, and do a mash-up with him and Abe Lincoln, our 16th president being a public figure, as two gunfighters in the Old West.
I suppose then it’s better to have writers who hopefully have some affection for your characters put them through their paces in new outings than to have them disappear into history’s dustbin. Too your take on your characters will also hopefully still be around for readers to enjoy and compare to how others interpret your creations.
The valentine that endures. How sweet it is.
I’m not sure if this is how one of those blog hop things is actually supposed to work, and I hate the bit where once you’re done you’re supposed to drag five other people into it. But I got tagged, and I’m always up for questions, so…
What is the working title of your book?
BUCKTHORN. It’s a sequel to my Kindle bestseller BREAKING COVER. Truth be told, I’m not totally thrilled with that title. I was going to call it LAWLESS, but then that damn movie came out. The readership is invited to suggest alternatives.
Where did the idea come from for the WIP?
My friend David Terrenoire, the author of BENEATH A PANAMANIAN MOON, read BREAKING COVER and observed that it was as much Deputy Tim Buckthorn’s story as it was Tony Wolf’s. Buckthorn starts off as Wolf’s antagonist, and ends up being allied with him against the enemies who’ve invaded his town. See the story of how Buckthorn developed here.
What genre does your book come under?
Same as before: Redneck Noir. (Actually, it’s more hardboiled than noir, but “Redneck Hardboiled” just doesn’t trip off the tongue the same way).
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Oh, lord. This is always a tough question, but even more so with these books because of the nature of the characters. Tony Wolf is a guy who spent years undercover, and part of the reason he was so good at it is because he looks so unremarkable. Tim Buckthorn is a quiet, serious guy who the main female character doesn’t realize is attractive until she really gets to know him. Good luck finding actors in Hollywood that fit THAT.
All that said, High Jackman was looking at BREAKING COVER at one point, but passed on it due to some of the darker aspects of the subject matter. I think he would have been a good Wolf. Timothy Olyphant might work as Buckthorn, but I may just be thinking that because he’s so great in Justified.
The female characters are a little easier. I’d love to see Michelle Rodriguez play Gabriella Torrijos. Ellen Page would be great as FBI agent Leila Dushane, a character in the new one.
As for the other books…We need to get Viggo Mortenson to play Jack Keller before he gets too old.
I wouldn’t mind seeing Josh Brolin play Andy Cole. Christian Bale’s got the scary intensity to play Kyle Mercer. I haven’t really decided on an actor for GALLOWS POLE’s Colonel Mark Bishop, but Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad would be great as Mr. Campbell.
Straight-arrow, by-the-book lawman Tim Buckthorn’s quest to save a kidnapped girl leads to a reunion with Tony Wolf and puts him on a collision course with a vicious Southern crime family out for vengeance.
Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
It’s going to be self-published.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Probably the closest would be Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens stories.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s got a kick ass female lead who I really love. Plus, stuff blows up.
Thanks for tagging me, Taffy. Read about Taffy’s work in progress here.
I’ve also taken a few liberties with the questions, by cutting a couple I can’t answer and adding a couple from Lise.
(Is it just me or does “Next Big Thing Blog Hop” sound like a horror movie title badly translated from Chinese to Hinglish?)
What is the working title of your book?
Last Girl Standing, very much a working title. The story evolved into something quite different than I originally envisioned and this title doesn’t work as well now.
What genre does your book come under?
Bollywood crime comedy. (I hear it’s the next big trend in crime fiction, so watch for us on the NYT bestseller list.)
Who or what inspired you to write this book? Where did the idea come from for the WIP?
I was robbed in a very strange, nonviolent crime near Mumbai airport, which led to a feud with a criminal gang, with whom I kinda fell in love….
Read more here. Any questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments.