Friday, May 31, 2013

Why I Write Noir

Why I Write Noir

Untreed Reads has tentatively scheduled electronic release of my noir short story collection, Killer Eulogy and Other Stories for next month.  In an earlier short story collection of mine, Murder Manhattan Style, every story (except one) was set in Manhattan, Kansas or Manhattan in New York.  That collection included noir, humor, adventure and historical mysteries.  My new collection has all noir stories, i.e. dark crime stories with hard-boiled characters and no happy endings.

Why do I write noir?
I became interested in noir at an early age.  Many noir writers in the 1940s and 1950s were veterans of World War II.  My father was an infantry combat veteran. Like a lot of veterans he very rarely talked about the war. When he did, he would often tell a funny story and downplay the horrors he witnessed.   I wanted to have some sense of what he went through and how he felt. Noir writing and movies gave me some insights about things he was unwilling share. 

One thing I like about noir is that after I write too many humorous or happy stories, composing something down, dirty and nasty is like cleaning one’s palate at a wine tasting. 
Writing gives me a chance to use all of my experiences and emotions.  While I have a wonderfully supportive wife, and great family and friends, I have experienced difficult times in my life.

Like just about everybody else, I have failed, I have been beaten upon, I have been fired and I have felt helpless in the grip of circumstances beyond my control.  I am currently three years past my second bone marrow transplant for multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer.)  I don’t recommend the experience. The only physical problem the cancer ever caused was a sore shoulder.  It should have been sore since the cancer was eating away at my shoulder bone.

Chemotherapy resulted a wide range of side effects. When medication kicked in it felt like falling off a cliff; one moment I felt fine and the next I was doubled over in pain. I can now write first hand about psychotic symptoms.  At first I didn’t mind the visual hallucinations, it was like watching a colorful cartoon that wasn’t really there. Later the hallucinations became gruesome and gave me vivid nightmares.  Delusional thinking was painful even while I realized that I was not thinking rationally. 

I have limited memories of the times right after the transplants, which is probably a good thing.  I have memories of feeling happy when my sisters visited me in the hospital.  I have memories of feeling sad when they left. And I have no memories of the time in between.

Writing about personal challenges, is a great way to deal with them.  If you follow my writing, you’ll notice that since I started treatment for cancer, more of my characters have cancer and have to deal with chemotherapy than before I was diagnosed.  I often wonder how I would have coped if I did not have the ability to write about what happened.

Do you read or write noir? Why or why not?  

Thursday, May 30, 2013


The area behind my vegetable garden.
                 Gardening is . . .an outlet for fanaticism, violence, love and
                 rationality without their worst side effects.  – Geoffrey Charlesworth

On Valentine’s Day or anniversaries, lovers and spouses send roses to their loved ones to show their love. Young girls pluck petals from daisies saying “He loves me, he loves me not” to see if the object of their affection feels the same way. Who among us doesn’t feel some pleasure in seeing flowers in bloom? I love gardens, plants and flowers. A highlight for me on every vacation is taking a tour of at least one garden if not more. So feeling this way about gardens it’s understandable that my mystery series has a gardening theme. But why did the first murder in my first book, THE BLUE ROSE, happen in a peaceful tranquil garden? It’s almost blasphemous.

A rose and delphiniums in one of my many gardens.
We think of the garden as a place of peace, tranquility and rejuvenation, but all is not as it seems. Roses have their thorns, as I well know when last week I was pushing an overloaded wheelbarrow causing it to swerve a little and my hand got pierced by a wicked thorn. It hit a vein and bled quite profusely. Poison Ivy has been known to creep into areas hiding among the weeds where it never was before. Poisonous plants abound – not a problem for those of us who recognize them and aren’t in the habit of munching on what is not known to be edible.  But if one is a mystery writer, such plants are fodder for the mind if not the palate. There’s monkshood, foxgloves, daffodils, morning glories and lily-of-the-valley to name just a few.

Still although these plants put ideas in my head for plots, it’s other things that anger and frustrate me and put murderous thoughts in my head. I get these murderous thoughts when a groundhog or rabbit sneaks under the vegetable garden fence and munches down a whole row of beans, lettuce or sunflowers just starting to grow. I’ve given up growing sweet corn because just as it starts to ripen,  raccoons come over the fence and get to it first. And often when I plant anything new, I may find the new plants uprooted and drying out at a later time from skunks that dig them out looking to find grubs or earthworms under them, and squirrels and chipmunks are known to eat tulip bulbs.

My motley crew of mostly old hens who still lay eggs.
That’s the furry critters that cause aggravation. Birds can put holes in the ripe strawberries and eat my blueberries, too, but not enough to do much damage. But the tiny critters are another story. I hate, hate, hate slugs and Japanese beetles. They damage the leaves and flowers of plants. I used to murder slugs with salt. Now when I find them I drop them into the weed bucket for the hens or scoop them onto a trowel and take them to the chicken run and feed it to my hens. With Japanese beetles, I prowl the garden twice a day with a jar of water visiting the plants they like best; roses, beans and the Harry Lauder Walking Stick shrubs. I hold the jar with water – I used to add vinegar to it, but don’t bother with that anymore – under the spot with the beetle or beetles mating, and knock them into the water where they swim about clinging to other beetles unable to fly. At the end of each foray, I feed them to my chickens, too.  There’s only one other insect I really hate and that’s the deer flies. At least they don’t harm my plants, but they sure make life miserable for me in the garden. They’re much worse than mosquitoes. The fish and frogs in my little goldfish pool seem to take care of most of the mosquitoes.

A bird house that currently has a chickadee nesting in it. 

And that’s why I don’t find it totally incongruous to plant a murder in a lovely garden. After all, evil can lurk anywhere. Maybe the incongruity of a scene where murder doesn’t seem likely is like a person who doesn’t seem like someone who would murder. The incongruity is often what creates a good mystery.

What brings murderous thoughts to you?

Where would you best like to see a murder take place?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Review of Two Series--Defense Attorneys

While researching for the betterment of my current WIP, I sought out books to read in which the main characters were female, defense attorneys since my main character is a retired defense attorney. I wanted to find out how the authors structured their books, what language they used, and how much legal procedure they detailed. I found two series worthy of recommending.

Under the name Perri O’Shaughnessy two sisters write as a team, Mary O’Shaughnessy, a writer, and Pamela O’Shaughnessy, a former defense attorney. The series, stared in 1995, is still ongoing. Lake Tahoe, a riveting character, and its surrounding mountains attracts summer and winter tourists to the area. Since I’ve never been to Lake Tahoe, I found the setting interesting.

The main character, defense lawyer and single mother of a twelve-year-old boy, Nina Reilly, lives with her brother and his wife and carries a heavy caseload. Nina constantly juggles her work, personal life and motherhood, and sometimes she drops one of them, making her life a mess. Her clients at times lie to her, putting her in a tenuous legal position, but her own behavior, such as concealing evidence, does as well.

In Obstruction of Justice, Nina witnesses the death of an abusive father while hiking on a mountaintop, which she shares with the dysfunctional family and her hiking partner (and potential lover) a D.A. The apparent natural death by lightning strike of the abusive father should relieve stress, but the family remains on edge. Nina empathizes with the mother of the family, who is trying to keep her family together while suffering from the effects of abuse. When the deceased father’s father also dies, the prosecution, her D.A. hiking partner, makes a case against the grandson.

The case provides enough twists to be entertaining, and yet I found few characters evoked my sympathy. Nina’s empathetic responses to the family borders on unprofessional behavior. This emotionalism may or may not be realistic, but I found myself unable to identify with her. While investigating the case, her PI (and old flame) interviews a woman, who becomes the object of his sexual obsession. Imagine my surprise to find that I considered him the most sympathetic character. In the end, I found the plot satisfying, and I wondered if the intensity of trial lessened my enjoyment of the book and the main character even if it provided realism.   

Kate Wilhelm, author of the second series, writes in various genres and has won three Nebula and
two Hugo awards. First published in 1963, she is still writing. Recently, she bought the rights back for some of her books, formed her own company, and publishes her backlist in eBook format. For an established writer, I can’t applaud her enough. Aside from her science fiction, psychological suspense and other genres, she writes two mystery series. Many of her works have been adapted to the cinema and TV screens.

The Barbara Holloway series is set in Eugene Oregon, and her defense practice takes her to smaller towns set nearby. From reading about the series, the book I read, Desperate Measures, appears to be representative of the books in this series. Ms. Wilhelm started the series in 1991 and although she took a hiatus from 2008 to 2011, she continues to write it.

Barbara’s father is also a defense attorney, from whom she learned her trade. But she establishes her own practice and at times they compete. In Desperate Measures, after the murder, there is a lag period while the police investigate. Meanwhile, separate clients appear on her and her father’s doorsteps. Both clients think that the police will arrest them of murder. Before either is charged, the lawyers proceed to investigate. Father and daughter end up investigating to identify each other’s clients and conceal evidence from the other. When a second death takes her father’s client to the grave, they form a team using her father’s trusted PI to make a defense for her client and to investigate if the second death is also a case of murder, pitting them against the coroner and converging their cases.

The investigation is interesting, and Barbara’s client is a unique and sympathetic fellow. Born with a birth defect that multiple surgeries have not alleviated, her client’s face still gives him the appearance of a monster even though he is intelligent and possesses a wry humor. Barbara must defend him against prejudice originating in his horrific appearance that sullies the prosecution’s case.  

Although one of the Perri O’Shaughnessy series authors practiced as a defense attorney, if I were to choose between the two series, I’d pick Ms. Wilhelm’s series to read. Both are admirable and good reads. To me, it is either a case of Ms. Wilhelm doing her homework well and/or that she excels as a writer, again proving that it is the author not the story upon which storytelling success rests. And that determination gives me faith that I can write a story with a defense attorney main character, when I, like Ms. Wilhelm, never attended law school.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


I have come to look forward to May as a month of literary and artistic opportunities. At the beginning of May, or the very end of April, Malice Domestic meets near Washington, D.C. (Sometimes the same weekend as the Kentucky Derby.) As Memorial Day approaches, near the end of May, the Spoleto Festival and its related Piccolo Spoleto showcase theatre, music, dance, and art in Charleston, S.C. And, right in the middle of the month, the South Carolina Book Festival is held in Columbia, S.C., this year on Friday, May 17th through Sunday, May 19th. It’s almost like the Triple Crown, but without horses.
Jim Johnson, Phillip DePoy, Terra Elan McVoy, and James Sheehan

The South Carolina Book Festival, organized and executed as part of the work of the Humanities Council of South Carolina, has been a feature in Columbia for the last seventeen years. This year, as part of the celebration, the city declared Saturday as Pat Conroy and Paula Watkins Day. Of course, Pat Conroy is the well know lowcountry author of such notable novels as The Water is Wide (1972), The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), The Prince of Tides (1986), Beach Music (1995), and South of Broad (2008). Paula Watkins has been the director of the S.C. Book Festival, and is leaving this year to become the Executive Director of the Humanities Council of North Carolina. She also received a key to the city.

Previously, the Book Festival took place the last weekend of February; however, after a few times of having key note speakers stranded in airports due to wintery conditions, the Festival moved to May. Despite being a week after the University of South Carolina graduation ceremonies, it brings between 5,000 and 6,000 children and adults together to enjoy a weekend of celebrating the written word. Friday features children’s activities, writers’ workshops, and the opening reception.
WWK Blogger Sam Morton with fellow Citadel grad and author Pat Conroy

This year, on Friday, I was pleased to be able to introduce Allen Johnson, who grew up and went to high school in Irmo (not far from Columbia) and who now writes screenplays, one featuring Erik Estrada (Templar Nation) and another with Sean Astin (The Freemason). Allen spoke not only about the craft of screenwriting, but also about how authors could adapt their work for film.

Part of the charm of the Book Festival is in its diversity. Participants could easily spend a day in the exhibit hall among book sellers, antiquarian book appraisers, publishing houses (self, hybrid, and traditional), and institutions like state and county libraries or organizations like state or local writers’ groups. Hopefully, those coming to the Festival would also take time to listen to a few panels or single author discussions which are free of charge on Saturday and Sunday.

To give you an idea of the variety available, on Saturday, I enjoyed a conversation with New York Times bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews (also known to mystery fans as Kathy Hogan Trocheck) and Patti Callahan Henry, whose latest novel is based on her sister’s experience in placing a child for adoption, then having the child seek her birth parents. Another panel featured local historical authors Alexia Jones Helsley and Tom Mack, who told fascinating stories about their research concerning Columbia and the Savannah River area. My friend Jim Johnson, former S.C. State Librarian, moderated a panel featuring a Young Adult author, Terra Elan McVoy; a mystery writer, Phillip DePoy; and attorney and writer of legal thrillers, James Sheehan. Another friend, Cathy Pickens, herself a wonderful mystery author, brought together Robert Garnett, whose biography Charles Dickens In Love told of the women in Dickens’ life, and Regina Jeffers, who writes Young Adult mystery novels based on Jane Austen’s works. Finally, I listened as Richard Paul Evans spoke about his road to writing success beginning as a self-published author of The Christmas Box and leading to that novel and each subsequent one he wrote becoming a New York Times bestseller.

Sitting are James M. Jackson, Sasscer Hill, Susan M. Boyer, and standing is Paula Gail Benson
I’m particularly proud to have been moderator of a mystery panel on Sunday featuring three authors that readers of this blog will recognize, either as blogging partners (James M. Jackson) or guests (Susan M. Boyer and Sasscer Hill). Already, I had respect for each of these authors’ work, but when you have to ask them questions before an audience, you study them and learn about their writing methods. What I learned was that they had won and been nominated for prestigious writing awards; they had satisfactory experience with small presses that had enhanced their work; and they each know how to begin a novel that keeps readers on the edge of their seats wanting to read more. I asked each of these authors to tell the audience how his or her book begins. I watched as they explained their opening scenes.

There is nothing more delightful than to be in the company of extraordinary storytellers. Jim, Susan, and Sasscer are wonderful. The audience thoroughly enjoyed their presentation.

Please consider coming to Columbia in May 16-18, 2014 for the South Carolina Book Festival. I promise you won’t regret it! Do you have a book festival or event you would recommend?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Jackals, Hyenas, and Sharks, Oh My!

I had another blog post planned for today, but it will wait. I’ve just spent hours advising and consoling a dear friend who’d become entangled in the scams of a vanity publisher. My friend is a remarkable woman who’s battling cancer with great courage while still working hard on her writing, aiming at publishing. Little did she know that the professional arena into which she wanted to move is littered with snake pits full of vipers and the dens of hyena and jackal packs, otherwise known as bad publishers and bad agents, or just plain scammers.

I know a lot of our blog followers are hard-working aspiring writers also. So I thought a blog on how to avoid being cheated out of your life savings and having your heart broken by dishonest, thieving scum might be a good one. If your ambition is to be a published novelist, be aware that the waters you’re swimming in are infested with sharks. That’s step number one—knowing there’s a danger. And it’s not the danger that beginning writers think, that somehow editors might steal their ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s what you do with them on the page that matters. What you need to watch out for are the slick, professional-seeming folks who promise you the moon so they can take your hard-earned cash.

Now, let me define terms to begin with. I am not discussing self-publishing here or companies or freelancers who contract with writers to provide certain well-defined services to support self-publishing, such as ebook formatting, editing, or cover design. These are all legitimate business people offering their expertise for a fee. They’re not slick companies pretending to be traditional publishers and promising appearances on national television programs and New York Times bestsellers, while not telling the people whom they fool into giving them big chunks of money that their books will never be reviewed or in bookstores, that they’ll probably only print 50-100 copies of the books, won’t do anything to market those, and after charging many thousands of dollars will still make the author pay bookstore prices for copies of the books they already paid to publish. They’re the companies with a reputation in the experienced writing community for violating contracts, dishonest advertising and sales pitches, rights grabs, and more.

Then there are the “agents” who charge big reading fees (making their money from writers’ fees rather than from selling writers’ work, which is what legitimate agents do) or have an editing service that they push writers to use to make them “representable” (making their money from writers’ editing fees rather than selling writers’ work).  Sometimes the bad agents work with bad publishers with both of them taking a hefty bite out of the hopeful writer. It can be a cruel world out there, and writers need to wise up pretty fast.

One of the best ways to do that wising up, of course, is to join a strong, active professional writers’ organization, such as Sisters in Crime or Mystery Writers of America. For example, if you’re a member of either group, you’ll find that the published members are very good about answering reasonable questions. Another way to wise up is to learn all you can about the business of publishing. Because that’s the business you’re in from the time you start submitting your first manuscript. You need to learn how to behave professionally in that industry and what to expect in return. I wrote a blog post last year about all that HERE.

One of the resources mentioned in that post is Writer Beware, a service provided by SFWA and recommended by all the other national writers’ organizations. The folks at Writer Beware take email queries about agents and publishers and investigate problems with them. They warn writers about verifiable bad actors and con artists and provide lists of the worst publishers and agents. So, in closing, I’ll give you that link HERE and recommend, no, beg, you to check with Writer Beware before you sign any contracts with agents or publishers. Save yourself some heartache and humiliation, not to mention thousands and thousands of dollars. There are plenty of good agents and traditional publishers out there, and if you can’t or don’t want to go that way, you can always self-publish with good professional help for much less than these snakes will cost you. I’d love it if my friend were the last writer to be abused in this way. Let’s make it so.