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?  


  1. I don’t write noir, which I think of as “you are screwed before you start; bad things happen; and you are still screwed at the end.”

    I prefer a bit of redemption or a touch of hope in my stories—but then again, I have not had the same trials that you have.

    As some jazzman said, “You can’t play the blues if you ain’t paid your dues.”

    ~ Jim

  2. Maybe I'm not qualified to write noir. My first 24 years were not happy ones, but they were not my fault. I supposed I could explore those years in my writing, but if I did, I'd have to write noir YA, which I doubt would be appealing. No, I'd rather show the heavenly side, and like Jim--redemption and hope through traditional, cozy and inspirational mystery.

    Good luck with the collection, Warren.

  3. EB, There are some very dark books or YA fiction.

  4. Well, Warren, as you know, I also write noir, although my books are not that dark and bleak and I'm a big believer in redemption and hope. I see noir as "an ordinary person gets tempted into crossing a moral line that s/he knows s/he shouldn't cross and the punishment rains down for that transgression." Sometimes we make decisions we know we shouldn't make, and noir shows its protagonists always facing the terrible consequences of those decisions.

    I don't think I could write noir except in occasional short stories. I just don't want to deal with such bleak, dark situations at length. but you're right--it's a great palate cleanser.

  5. Good post, Warren. I have not really put thought into why I write so many dark characters. They just pop up, and I have to deal with them. Many of them are disguised with benign facades, but the core is rotten. I just started a story for my grandson. Hope the meanies stay away. Best wishes.

  6. Hi Warren,
    KILLER EULOGY is a great title! Best of luck with the release of the anthology.

  7. I don't write noir maybe because I have a more optimistic view of life, not quite Pollyanaish, but still wanting things to work out in the end.

    I've had some tough things to deal with in my life, not personally dealing with cancer like you've had to do, Warren, but suffering through it vicariously with loved ones fighting it and losing the battle in the end. I believe it's the hardships in life that make us better writers or maybe it's just an abundance of life experiences overall.

  8. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Warren!

    I’m not very familiar with noir. However, after reading your blog and blog comments, I think I'm in the process of writing a short story that could be considered noir. It takes place in a bleak setting (a government building), has an unhappy but satisfying (hopefully) ending, and the characters become cynical. I need to read your stories to better understand noir.

  9. Writing provides a great catharsis for dealing with personal problems. Congrats on the new short story collection. That in itself has to bring great satisfaction.

  10. Congrats, Warren, on the upcoming release of KILLER EULOGY & OTHER STORIES.

    Congrats also, and even more so, on surviving cancer. I'm a nine-year survivor of breast cancer. I've undergone multiple surgeries & reconstructions, chemo & radiation ~ so I hear 'ya, buddy.

    I'm saddened to hear that your dad couldn't talk about his experiences, but like so many other vets, it's just not what they did/do. IMHO, everyone who's ever served should write or record a memoir of their experiences, if they can be convinced to do so.

    I've always been a noir fan, and I enjoy writing noir, even though it's quite challenging.

    I absolutely believe that writing can be cathartic when it comes to difficult experiences; and, as an added bonus, one's characters, dialogue, and description are richly authentic.

    I'd like to pass along this link to Kara and anyone else who might like to read Otto Penzler's view on the definition of noir. It is by far the best explanation I've ever heard (and a witty one, at that), and I share his post often.

    Otto takes it a step further and details the difference between noir films vs. noir stories/novels. Once you read this, you will become well-versed in the nature of noir.

  11. Great post. I find noir intriguing, but can only take it in small doses before it becomes too much.

    I like "happy endings," or at least a touch of hope left there. The crime series I'm working on has gritty characters and situations (a parolee released from prison after 20 years on a murder conviction and trying to make a life for himself) but he's a stoic type and tries to make the best of the problems that beset him. So I don't think the series qualifies a noir.

  12. Kathleen, thank you for sharing the link to the Otto Penzler article. I found his explanation of noir very helpful. I am a fan of The Thin Man movies and hear them referred to as noir (probably because Dashiell Hammett wrote the book). But after reading the article, I think that’s incorrect.

  13. I write noir because it's what I love to read. After 35 years of writing television, I'm sick of the predictability of happy endings and redeemed characters. Surprise me and I'm happy.

  14. When I was 12, I read my 1st Continental Op story by Dashiell Hammett. I was overwhelmed. I told myself that one day, I would write like that. When I was in my late 30s, I took it up the challenge, but told myself that before I could write a novel, I needed to think up a plot that had not been done. After a few years, I had one.

    It took me a decade in the Maryland Writers Association's conferences, seminars, and excellent critique groups to learn how to write that story in a way that it would be good enough to be published. I'm now 55 with 5 books at 4 publishers.

    I write noir detective fiction because the human emotions are as raw as the nerves of the characters. The noir detective is not a hero, or even a good person; they are usually world-weary and just doing their job. They seek a solution that works (somewhat) for everyone they care about, and to hell with anyone else.

    Hammett has a Continental Op story where one of his fellow detectives is one of the bad guys. The Op works it to where the criminals shoot the bad detective, and then he kills the criminals, saving the reputation of his agency. It may not be perfectly legal, but it is an optimal solution for all concerned.

    I try to follow that dictum. In my 1st Nick Schaevers novel, Nick takes the case after his client is already in prison for murdering his business partner. Nick discovers who the real killer is, and how to fix it. An interesting thing is that Nick is a devout Catholic -- it is set in St Louis, MO -- and so he has an inner struggle with his conscience as he commits crimes and multiple sins to help his client.

    Modern life is hard, and full of ambiguities. That is why I write noir stories.