Saturday, August 30, 2014

What a Character!


by Jinx Schwartz

How many times have we heard that phrase, what exactly does it mean, and how does it apply to my writing?

For starters, I have a lot of characters in my life. Not the ones in my books, but living, breathing characters, the kind defined by Webster as a person with many eccentricities. 

I admit that my lifestyle fairly screams for character encounters. We live half the year in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where cruisers abound from all over the world and and all walks of life. One thing they have in common is that they’re adventurous types who have chosen a life way outside the box. I can pick up enough material from one potluck on the beach (which happens at the drop of a hat) to fuel many a book. When in port, a walk down the dock or a beer at a local watering hole and I have new best friends from, well, everywhere. Tuning into the daily ham radio nets, with boaters checking in from all over Mexico and the Pacific Coast, with the tale of the day, has me jotting notes for future plots, or idiosyncratic scenarios.

And then there is the other half of my life, living smack dab on the Arizona/Mexico border. Not only do we make the headlines frequently, the city of Bisbee has been named by a national organization as one of the quirkiest places to live in the United States. And they are right. My gardener packs a .380 in his boot, my Zumba instructor is a retired, gay, exotic dancer; and my nearest neighbor is a Rottweiler who lives alone. Her owner shows up with food and water once a day and I give her lots of treats, but otherwise, she has the house and yard to herself most of the time. Rosa is an equal opportunity barker; she targets illegal crossers and border patrol agents with equal hostility. She’s the best dog I never owned.

Even my more normal friends, (you notice I used the word more) are great book fodder. When one of them was banned from the Kremlin because she set off the radiation detectors (she recently had a nuclear stress test), I filed that away, et voila, and it became part of a plot point in Just Deserts, fourth in my Hetta Coffey mystery series.

And then there is Hetta Coffey. She’s a woman with a yacht and she’s not afraid to use it. Okay, so she isn’t real, but boy, sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Many of my readers actually think I am Hetta, or that Hetta is me. Since almost everyone says I am a real character, maybe we are one.

The plot thickens . . .

* * * * * * *
Jinx Schwartz was reared in the jungles of Haiti and Thailand, with return trips to Texas. She followed in her father’s steel-toed footsteps into construction and engineering in the hope of building dams. Finding all the good rivers taken, she traveled the world, and like the protagonist in her mystery series, Hetta Coffey, Jinx was a woman with a yacht and not afraid to use it when she met her husband, “Mad Dog” Schwartz. After their marriage they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed for Mexico. 

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read her amusing interview and learn more about her.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loren Estleman


Loren Estleman is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever known. As a young writer of both mysteries and western novels, his work often created bidding wars among competing publishers. Although his novels have been evenly divided between both genres since he began publishing in 1976, Loren’s cops have paid off much better than his cowboys.

“For me,” he said, “a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

Loren wrote six Amos Walker mysteries for Houghton Mifflin and nearly a dozen Double D Westerns before he was discovered by other New York publishing houses. His novels had been selling moderately well while critics raved about them. It wasn’t long before sales caught up with the reviews.

His biggest project was an in-depth look at the shootout at the O.K. Coral, a novel titled Bloody Season, which he wrote “without the blinders of folk-heroism.” He said, “If some cherished myths fell along the wayside, that’s secondary to my intention to examine the late Victorian morals at odds with a wilderness on the defensive.” Three major publishers expressed interest in the book before it was begun, with Bantam the winner in the bidding war. The novel was released in hardcover in 1988.

Loren had never been west of his home state of Michigan until he traveled to Santa Fe to accept a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. He had always been fascinated in the westward expansion, particularly the era he called “the death of the West, the period between the closing of the frontier and the beginning of World War I, when progress for good or ill was making its way westward.” He said there was then no place where a man could go to prove himself, or redeem himself, because the East had taken over the West.“There’s sadness and pathos to that period and locale that moves me to this day.”

Shy as a child and an avid reader, he remembered devouring the works of London, Poe, Chandler, and western authors O’Rouke, Short, and Shirreffs. He wrote his first short story after he was expelled from his high school band. A gangster yarn called “Mad Man Wade,” it returned with a printed rejection slip from Argosy magazine. Loren said he was “crushed, disappointed, and mad,” but he sat down and wrote another story. For years Argosy was the first magazine he submitted stories to “before it folded. I just wanted to crack it,” he said, “because that was the place to start.”

He worked as a news reporter for twelve years while writing his first novels. Eventually working as a police reporter in Detroit, he said, “I covered a lot of murder trials and manslaughters, and [the defendants] never quite looked like murderers. I’m not sure what one is supposed to look like, which is why the killers that I use in my mysteries, and sometimes in my westerns, tend to look like the guys you see mowing the grass down the street. They’re ordinary people, and we’re all potential murderers. That’s the theme in my writing that I work with.”

(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A writer's unique voice


by Bruce DeSilva

Every writer speaks to you in a voice. When you read, you hear the writer talking to you. You may think you're reading with your eyes, but in a sense, you read with your ears. The writer's voice has everything to do with whether you enjoy the story, stick with it to the end, or ever want to read something else by that writer.

A few years ago, I asked Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of all time, why his books were so popular. He said, 'for the same reason people like certain songs. They love the way the language sounds.'

A lot of writers, even professionals, have trouble with voice, however. Why? We are bombarded with bad examples. We read a lot of poorly written stuff every day, and that can make us think that's the way writing is supposed to be.

We sometimes misunderstand our audience. No matter how many thousands of readers you may have, you must always speak to them one at a time. Never write as though you are speaking to a crowd. Reading, after all, is a solitary act.

The voices of the best writers are unique. You should be able to identify a passage written by Elmore Leonard or Laura Lippman, even if the name of the author is concealed.

How can you find your unique voice as a writer? For some of you, it's just a matter of sounding like yourself in print. You already have a voice. You just need to use it.

For others, finding your voice requires experimentation. It may sound counterintuitive, but I suggest that you begin by imitating writers you admire.

When I was starting out, I went through my Hemingway period. And my Raymond Chandler period. And my Hunter Thompson period.

Through this experimentation I was learning craft--the techniques these writers used to fashion their sentences and paragraphs. As my technical abilities grew, my own voice was able to emerge.

You've probably heard that you should write like you speak. Don't. Very few of us speak well enough to do that. Writing should feel like a good conversation but there are differences between written and spoken language. The most important ones are feedback.

If I say something to you, your reaction tells me whether I'm boring you or if you don't understand. In written language, I don't get that kind of feedback. so I have to provide it myself by reading my work out loud. Anything that doesn't sound good isn't good. No exceptions.
___________

A journalist for over 40 years, Edgar winning author Bruce DeSilva retired to write crime novels. He also served as a writing coach for the Associated Press and was responsible for training the wire service reporters and editors worldwide. The multi-award-winning writer also directed the elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects.

You can read his interview in the book, The Mystery Writers, now in print, ebook and audiobook editions.