The Rules.

The Rules

If you stop by here at The Stiletto Gumshoe, there’s no way you’d be unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard. There’s a good chance you’ve liked his work. I know I do. A lot. Enough, in fact, to have multiple editions of some of his novels. I may be notoriously acquisitive, but I’m no collector. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t pass some up, figuring I could use redundant copies for re-reads, which certain Leonard novels are bound to get. Case in point: I read (and still have) my hardcover of Up In Honey’s Room, but how could I pass up the saucy little paperback edition that’s tucked right beside it on my bookshelves?

Up In Honey's Room

Up In Honey's Room 2

Born in New Orleans in 1925, raised mostly in Detroit, Elmore Leonard did three years in the Navy Seabees during WWII, went to college after the war and worked as an ad agency copywriter for several years, even once he’d begun writing. Originally penning westerns – Hombre, 3:10 To Yuma, Joe Kidd being some of the better known titles, he later moved to crime fiction and thrillers. Get Shorty, Be Cool, 52 Pickup, Mr. Majestyk and Out Of Sight are just a few better known novels and among Leonard’s stories and books that have been adapted to films. He passed away in 2013, following complications from a stroke that he looked to be recovering from. No surprise, his books have sold tens of millions of copies.

Elmore Leonard’s style was distinctive from the start but became even more so after he began writing crime and thrillers. The prose is spare, straightforward and unadorned, textbook examples of a highly skilled writer employing less words but only the absolute right words. Elmore Leonard’s “The Rules” are seen often, memorized by some writers, no doubt, and were the basis for what became his Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing.

Stop over at Crime Reads (link below) for an intriguing and deeper look at Elmore Leonard’s “Rules” from a 1998 conversation with Martin Amis. For the writers among you (this being “A Writer’s Blog That’s Not”), Leonard’s “The Rules” are shown yet again above. They’re kind of like the Ten Commandments, and I for one, strive to adhere to them. This past Friday would’ve been Elmore Leonard’s 94thbirthday. We can’t be overly saddened when a person gets 80++ good years, but we certainly can still mourn the loss, and think about the words left unwritten.

https://crimereads.com/celebrating-elmore-leonards-rules-for-writing/

Writer’s Digest’s Good News

wd - nov-dec

While it’s always a treat to discover a new issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox, I was doubly pleased to find the November/December 2019 issue after a particularly unpleasant day-job grind this Thursday. I’ll still revisit the magazine over the weekend to read a couple articles more carefully, but the issue got a cover-to-cover browse-through over a very late dinner (Two hot dogs, in case in matters…it was gourmet night. And I put ketchup on one, but don’t tell anyone. They hang you ‘round these parts for putting ketchup on a dog.)

Right upfront editor-in-chief Ericka McIntyre’s column announced WD’s June 2019 acquisition by California-based Active Interest Media, a multi-division lifestyle, outdoors and special interest magazine group. So readers can rest easy after some worrisome silence following the bankruptcy of WD’s former parent company, F+W Media. AIM is promoting Writer’s Digest magazine and writersdigest.com on its site, so let’s assume the venerable publication will be around to celebrate its upcoming 100th anniversary. Unclear if AIM also acquired Writer’s Digest Books, publishers of numerous writers’ how-to titles and annual directories. Ads for WD books were noticeably absent from this November/December 2019 issue.

“The Truth Issue” is solid throughout, and while it may just be my imagination, I detected a more serious editorial tone, right down to the Amy Jones interview with author Amor Towles (Rules of Civility and A Gentleman In Moscow). Well, real or only perceived, evolving tone or not, I was just pleased to hear all will be well for Writer’s Digest, it being hard to imagine a writer’s world without it.

Tools Of The Trade

Freja Beha Erichsen by Paolo Roversi

Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Jack London, Ray Bradbury, John Lennon and even Helen Keller’s braille machine – those are just a few of the authors’ typewriters on exhibit in “Tools Of Trade” at the American Writers Museum, running through June 2020. Who knew there was a collector’s market for antique typewriters? Actor Tom Hanks has over 250 of them, and claims to type every day. There are a surprising number of writers who prefer to work on typewriters, indestructible manuals in particular. I completely understand, there being a magical musical rhythm to the sound of those keys clacking away, and for someone working in retro era crime fiction like myself, it’d be a perfect fit. But, being one of those for whom ‘writing-is-rewriting’, I’ll have to stick with switching back and forth between my desktop and my laptop, Apple gear, MSWord software, hyper-speed two-fingered tap dancing across the keys.

1958 rudy garcia cover

We have a typewriter at the day job. No weighty metal Royal, it’s just one of those grey plastic blobs from a big box office supply store. Still, it amuses me to see new hires with the ink still wet on their design diplomas ogle the thing like it’s an alien artifact. The intricacies of Adobe Illustrator and InDesign don’t intimidate them. Typing a 3×5 mailing label or No. 10 envelope on a typewriter does. Go figure.

American Writers Musuem

The American Writers Museum (link below) is just up the street from Millennium Park and The Chicago Cultural Center, which used to be the main Chicago Public Library. Crime film fans have seen that building in Brian DePalma’s 1987 The Untouchables, standing in for a courthouse and a convenient rooftop for Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness to toss Billy Drago’s Frank Nitti off the roof. Well, no one said that film cared much about historical accuracy.

https://americanwritersmuseum.org/

Photos: Freja Beha Erichsen by Paolo Roversi, Perry Mason 1958 paperback with a Rudy Garcia cover, America Writers Museum photos from the AWM site.

Mosley’s New One.

elements of fiction

When a writer’s first published novel is a literate hard-boiled masterpiece like Devil In A Blue Dress (1990), that’s a person with something to tell us and we all ought to listen, writers and readers alike.

I reserved a copy of Walter Mosley’s new Elements of Fiction last week, due in on the 17th or 18th along with some other books I ordered at the same time. But there it was calling out to me from the new releases shelf during a library stop last weekend. Oh, what the hell.

Elements of Fiction is a short book, though not necessarily a quick read. Mosley calls it a monograph. The dustjacket labels it a treatise. To me it felt as if I’d signed up for an intimate lecture series with the crime fiction master. This isn’t at all like his previous This Year You Write Your Novel, or most other writer’s how-to books, for that matter. No bullet points, infographics, charts and tables, so some might think it’s targeted to experienced writers and the aloof MFA program crowd more than a newcomer. I’d disagree. Newbie or pro, there’s rich and endless inspiration and guidance here, focusing on process, showing how to channel your thinking when it comes to plot, dialog, character and all the other fundamentals. And after all, isn’t helping others to learn how to think what most good teaching is really all about?

Well, I plowed through the short 115-page hardcover on Sunday, and back to the library it’ll go this weekend. Yes, I still got my own copy mid-week when my multi-book order arrived at a local bookseller, and yes, I’ll read it once again and soon. A man who can come up with Easy Rawlins is a man to heed. Walter Mosley’s Elements of Fiction will be sitting out by my work area for a while, I suspect, ready to turn to when the mood strikes or the writing goes bad. Perhaps it’ll be like reading The Bible for the religiously inclined…flip it open anywhere and darn near any page will offer something inspirational.

 

It’s C.J. (Not that it really matters).

C.J. THomas

I was pleased as could be a couple weeks back to see The Stiletto Gumshoe site mentioned with a link at J. Kingston Pierce’s essential The Rap Sheet blog (8.9.19). It was only later that I realized that my still new-ish blog was referred to as “the anonymously composed blog”.

Certain that I’d introduced myself early on, I scrolled all the way back through December 2018 posts to double check. Uhm…ooops. No such post. But remembering that The Stiletto Gumshoe was originally launched at Tumblr and only lingering there for a few weeks before migrating over to WordPress (though now cross-posting back to Tumblr, with WordPress and Tumblr soon to be some sort of siblings anyway), I did introduce myself in one of the original Tumblr blog’s first posts. But not every Tumblr post made it intact to WordPress when I relaunched things here.

So, not that it ought to matter much to anyone, but the name’s C.J. Thomas (as the visual above suggests). It’s only a pen name, but if it’s good enough at the top of a manuscript or signed to the bottom of a query, it’s good enough here. You’ll understand if I daydream about seeing it emblazoned in 72 pt. type across a book’s front cover.

Pen Name Infographic Screen Cap

Some writers wouldn’t dream of publishing under their own name, while others can’t understand what all the fuss is about. I got a kick out of Scott McCormick’s recent piece at the Book Baby blog, seen via Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, a pretty reliable daily read for all things writerly. (Links below.) McCormick’s “Pen Names: How And Why To Use Them” covered familiar ground for many writers, listing famous scribes who’ve employed pen names and providing some guidance on how to come up with one of your own. I’m intrigued by writers who’ve adopted pen names simply because they considered their own names too long or too foreign for the English language market, as illustrated by the cute pen name infographic included in McCormicks piece, which highlighted some well-known writers’ names going back to the 1700’s. Not that I considered Isak Dinesen’s name that easy to pronounce (I’d just as soon not say it out loud and have some smarmy literary type correct me with a snicker), but seeing as how her real name was Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke, I kinda get it.

Naturally the church’s choirmaster will want a pen name for her sizzling Kindle erotica shorts, and a school board member might feel a little queasy putting her real name on a blood-soaked cops-n-robbers shoot ‘em up series making the rounds. Sometimes it’s just a handy way to keep the day job and ‘real life’ separate from writing endeavors – in-progress or published — and sometimes it’s as simple as a do-over on a long, clunky or perpetually mispronounced name. For the record, my own is only one syllable, yet people have been butchering it since grade school. Go figure.

Nonetheless, hello from C.J. Thomas, host of The Stiletto Gumshoe, and hopefully the name that’ll appear in jumbo type on the front cover of a book by the same name. Well, someday.

https://thestoryreadingapeblog.com/2019/08/29/pen-names-how-and-why-to-use-them-by-scott-mccormick/

https://blog.bookbaby.com/2019/08/pen-names-how-and-why-to-use-them/

 

Not Sucking Up, I Swear.

4 writers

No, this isn’t a literary agent suck-up…

An old Huffington Post article referred to writer Anais Nin (seen above, top right) as ‘the original blogger’. Not really of course, there being no internet for her, but her release of portions of her diaries and journals was akin to blogging, or so the article explained. Makes you wonder what writers from the recent past would think of social media and writer’s blogs.  I follow my share, though often unfollowing quick enough if I conclude that the blogs are only self-promotion sites cluttering my inbox with redundant “Buy My Book!” posts. Publishing professionals’ blogs are much more rare, many literary agents and acquisition editors understandably too busy with their jobs to feel like posting about the biz in their down time.

But when I come across a good one, I really pay attention.

I’d already queried Janet Reid at New Leaf Literary & Media (though New Leaf queries are directed to a generic inbox) and promptly received my polite form rejection about a week later, signed by Ms. Reid (but could’ve been from her assistant, an intern, or who knows). As any actively querying writer realizes, a rejection isn’t necessarily an agent or editor saying that “You suck” or “Your work sucks, too”, (though, of course, it could be) and can just as easily be no more than “Not right for me”, “I already have something just like it”, or the agent’s overloaded and is more or less shooting out form rejections to damn near everything that comes in. Whatever Ms. Reid’s rejection meant, a tip of the hat to her for adhering to traditional biz communication protocol and bothering to send the form rejection. Not unlike employers with resumes/job applications, the number of agencies that forego any reply at all is disappointing.

Still – Query sent. Reply received. Case closed. So…no suck up here. Clear?

Janet Reid Blog

Because this is actually a shout-out to writers and writer wannabes: Make a point of following Janet Reid’s excellent blog (link below). Reid used to run the Query Shark blog, where brave, thick-skinned writers submitted real queries for her critique. Which could be pretty merciless. With a shared sense of humor, but still…pretty merciless. Which is good. However, Query Shark appears to have been dormant since March, so perhaps it’s on hiatus, or Reid’s devoting her time to her regular blog instead, or Query Shark simply was folded into that blog, or moved, or…

No matter, Reid’s blog is a treasure trove of pull-no-punches advice and practical guidance on countless topics of interest to writers, whether beginners, pro’s or anything in between. And, it’s often quite funny. Reid has a wicked, whimsical sense of humor and a real way with words, enough to turn many un-fun topics into chuckle-worthy chats. The blog’s been going since 2004, and the archives have hundreds (thousands?) of posts, so be warned: Stop by for a peek and you could get lost for days. I follow her daily posts via BlogLovin’ and am diligently working backwards through the archives a few-per-day. It’s so informative (and entertaining), I almost feel like I should be paying Reid tuition.  You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

So, an agent’s rejection? Oh well, that’s to be expected. But I’m glad to have discovered Janet Reid’s blog, and encourage you to take a look too.

Jetreidliterary.blogspot.com

(Author photos: Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, Carson McCullers, Phillip Roth)

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

Night Watch

Night Watch

It’s not that I want muddle through dreary books with bored disinterest. But I do want to get some sleep, and two ‘page turners’ back-to-back does not get a person a reliable eight hours a night in the sack during a work week.

When I closed the cover Edward Conlon’s excellent The Policewomen’s Bureau(see recent post) I picked up David C. Taylor’s Night Watch, his third Michael Cassidy thriller. I knew what I was in for, having enjoyed his previous two books.

Night Work

Intriguing, but the three books are not actually in chronological order. This new novel, Night Watch, is technically the second story in the series, the first book, Night Lifetaking place in 1954, this novel in 1956, and the second book, Night Work, actually the third tale and occurring in 1959. No matter, since each stand alone quite well, and a reader could easily pick up any one of them and do just fine. Taylor calls them thrillers, but they’re as much classic hard-boiled New York detective stories, spending more time in the squad rooms, squalid tenements, crowded nightclubs and night shrouded streets of New York as anywhere else, even when the stories may briefly whisk the reader away to Washington or Cuba. Always beginning with ‘small’ local crimes, the investigations lead unexpectedly to bigger prey and much bigger threats, including Soviet spies, Cuban revolutionaries, Batista regime hit men, former Nazi scientists and the FBI, CIA and even the State Department. Taylor handles this skillfully through his well-conceived NYPD detective, Michael Cassidy – connected, honorable, cynical, loyal, willing to bend the law in pursuit of justice, and over the course of three novels, incredibly unlucky in love.

In Night Watch, the nearly overlooked murder of hansom cab driver leads to the discovery that he was his family’s sole survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. This eventually reveals the surprising number of former Nazi and SS personnel living in the U.S. while working on Cold War hush-hush experimental projects. The investigation puts Detective Michael Cassidy, his family and friends and his New York Post reporter girlfriend, Rhonda Raskin, in jeopardy. I’ll say no more. But if you think you’d like a novel that skillfully juggles traditional police procedural and hard-boiled detective tropes in a classic 1950’s New York setting with some high-stakes international intrigue, go look for any one of David C. Taylor’s Michael Cassidy novels. I’m certain you’ll be pleased.

Night Life

 

Another Writer’s Digest In The Mailbox

Writer's Digest Sept 2019

“Primarily I’m writing to entertain, right?” Karin Slaughter, bestselling author of a book a year since 2001, says just that in her interview with Ericka McIntyre in the September 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. “If I could change the world, with what I’m writing, then I would write very different books.” Still, she explains that there are things in her books that go beyond storytelling, issues she hopes readers will confront, things she’d like men to know about women, experiences she’d like to validate for female readers. But this is only a brief part of the three-page interview (with more online at writersdigest.com). Slaughter’s remarks on writing discipline and productivity are particularly worth noting, considering that her book-a-year output has added up to over 120 million copies sold in 37 languages.

I was pleased to see the new issue of Writers Digest magazine in my mailbox, keeping my fingers crossed that the financial woes which recently took down its parent company, F+W Media, are being resolved in a way that enables the magazine to continue publication. I’d really miss WD if it vanished. This September 2019 issue is “The Big Idea Issue”, with interesting articles on “Mastering High Concept”, how to effectively deploy subplots and more. My favorite this issue was Simon Van Body’s “Becoming A Multigenre Master”, with some guidance on how to work concurrently on multiple projects in completely different genres. I have no burning desire to pen a western or a steampunk romance, but there are times when I’d consider starting something outside my usual areas of interest, perhaps even something measurably ‘steamier’ than I’m what currently doing, even if only for fun or self-publication. “The many voices that make you up but which cannot be reconciled into one single voice all the time can most definitely be channeled into different ways of telling stories,” Van Body assures writers, sounding so certain in his article that I might just be tempted to give it a try.

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