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.

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/

 

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.

Mystery Scene

Mystery Scene 1

Found the new Mystery Scene magazine issue 159 in my mailbox after work, and am only disappointed that I already devoured the darn thing and now have to wait for another issue. Mystery fans and writers will find the usual healthy mix of topics and mystery/crime fiction sub-categories well-represented. I got a particular kick out of one entry in the monthly The Hook: Intriguing First Lines feature, which showcases a selection of particularly interesting, gripping or even amusing first sentences or paragraphs from various mystery novels. I pasted in author Lee Goldberg’s opening from his 2019 Killer Thriller above, and who among us hasn’t met or known someone just like the person being described? Just in case the image is missing on your screen, here it is as text:

“Ian Ludlow’s UCLA creative writing professor insisted that the key to being a successful novelist was writing from personal experience. That’s why the professor was the author of five unpublished novels about sexually frustrated novelists who toiled in obscurity while teaching talentless and ungrateful students how to write.” From Killer Thriller, by Lee Goldberg 2019

mystery scene

The Dealer

 

Dealer - Collins

I’m a Max Allan Collins fan, enjoying the very prolific Iowa writer’s partnership on several unfinished Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer novel manuscripts, his three-book 1950’s comics-scene mysteries (A Killing In Comics, etc.), the before-its-time Ms. Tree comics and one Ms. Tree novel, Deadly Beloved, The Road To Perdition graphic novel and subsequent sequel novels, and most of all, the entire Nathan Heller series – novels and short fiction alike. In fact, those Nate Heller books are among my favorites, and a few have been read more than once…just cuz.

There are some Collins’ works I haven’t read, including a few standalone novels and TV/film novelizations. But one group in particular that I’ve neglected is his Quarry series, dealing with a Viet Nam war era U.S. Marine sniper who becomes a professional assassin, and including 14 novels. The series was made into a short-lived Cinemax series only loosely based on the actual books, which ended in 2017. Most of the 1970’s Quarry novels have been reissued as handsome pocketbook style paperbacks by Hard Case Crime, when the imprint was on its own and still now under Titan Books’ ownership. But not this one, apparently.

Just spotted it this morning at the incredible and long running Not Pulp Covers blog (companion to the Pulp Covers blog), and I guess it’s time to hunt up a copy and see if Collins can hook me on his hit man the way he’s done so well with Nate Heller, Ms. Tree and other memorable characters.

First You Must Believe It.

how to say i'm a writer

An odd topic for “A Writer’s Blog That’s Not”? I’ll confess: Sometimes it’s a writer’s blog that is, though writerly posts might make some visitors flee. But Bethany Marcel’s short essay at Literary Hub (lithub.com) “How To Say ‘I’m A Writer’ And Mean It” was a quick and motivational read, and not just for writers. What she has to say may resonate with anyone who pursues creative endeavors, a vocation or most anything at all outside the day jobs that tend to define us.

Marcel’s piece is subtitled “First You Must Believe You’re A Writer”. That is, first you must believe you’re a writer in order to feel comfortable telling someone that, in fact, you are. Right upfront she declares, “I’m a writer. For years, I couldn’t say it. I wondered when I could. How many publications would it take? What finish line would I have to cross?” She goes on to explain that she agonized over not having a book published by the time she was thirty and still later, not having a book published at all. She avoided acknowledging that she wrote, frustrated by people’s reactions when she tried to explain that she primarily wrote essays.

I could say that I’m a Cardiologist, a cop or a C.P.A. Of course, just saying so doesn’t make it so. Understandably, there are quite specific education, training, qualifications and certifications involved in these and many other undertakings. But ‘creatives’ are self-defined by the simple act of doing. No license or accreditation officially certifies that someone is a writer, any more than they might be an actor, dancer, artist or musician. Mind you, it takes certain accomplishments to be a published writer, just as a SAG/AFTRA card identifies a working actor and so on.

im a writer montage

But if you’re squeezing paint onto a palette up in the spare bedroom studio once the dinner dishes are done, then you’re an artist, even if your work will have no wider exposure than neighborhood outdoor art fairs. Out in the garage after work with your guitar in hand, penciling lyrics into a notebook? I’d say you’re a musician, even if an open mike night was your biggest audience. Performing in a local theater group’s production? Changing after work for ballet class at your community college? Wandering the forest preserves on weekends with your camera (not your phone) in hand? An actor, a dancer, a photographer, in each case.

Because if you paint, then you’re an artist. Maybe not a particularly good one. Maybe not an artist who’ll ever earn a nickel from your work. Maybe not a ‘professional’ artist. But you’re an artist. Whether you’re a paralegal, a plumber or a proctologist in your day job, if you dance, you’re a dancer. If you act, you’re an actor. If you play an instrument you’re a musician. Money may draw a line between a hobby and a career. But I’ve no idea where the demarcation between a passion and a vocation lies.

What doesn’t make someone a writer (or an artist, actor, dancer, musician)? Well, ‘armchair writing’, that is, just reading about writing. Grousing about agents, editors, publishers and booksellers. Holding court in the college cafeteria or local coffeehouse and pontificating about the writing you’ll do someday (when the marketplace catches up with you). Criticizing the work of other writers, with little or no work of your own to compare it with. No, what makes someone a writer – a good one or a bad one – is writing. And so too with the other artistic endeavors.

Bethany Marcel’s proud declaration that she’s a writer (and she clearly is) is a call to fellow scribes — amateur, dilettante and wannabe alike — anyone whose fingers are poised over their keyboard right now. And, even more so to those whose fingers are busy doing something else instead of dancing across the keys. Perhaps this is the creatives’ coming out of the closet. Like Marcel used to do, I suppose I’ll still take the easy route when quizzed about what I do. I’ll use my day job to define me. Pressed further, I dial back to my college major. But inside, I’ll know. Near the end of her piece, Marcel says, “You can’t control how the world responds to you or your work. Here’s what I know now, after over ten years of writing, no book, no MFA and a smattering of publications few people have read: I’m a writer.” Hopefully soon I’ll have the guts to say it with the same conviction she does.

Link to Bethany Marcel’s essay at Literary Hub below:

https://lithub.com/how-to-say-im-a-writer-and-mean-it/

 

 

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