Writer’s Digest: Villains & Violence

 

Happy to see the July/August 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox this past weekend. I’ve heard no further news about WD parent company F+W Media’s financial woes or the bankruptcy announced back in March, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that management will find a way to reorganize and pay all creditors while keeping this vital writers’ resource going. I think 2020 is Writer’s Digest’s 100th anniversary, so it’d be tragic for the publication to vanish now.

July/August is billed as “The Villains Issue” and like many theme issues, it’s stretching things a bit to make some articles’ fit the theme. But that’s okay, since I found nearly everything in this issue interesting or useful. But my favorite was “Packing The Punch” by Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How To Write Believable Fight Scenes from WD Books.

Writers Digest July-August 2019

Many writers insist that sex scenes are the most difficult to write, and they may be right. Finding a comfort zone between steamy and merely icky can be challenging, particularly since every writer knows that readers will identify the roles and activities with the writer and the writer’s own ‘proclivities’. Maybe you don’t care, but you might if you’re a grammar school teacher or town council member writing lurid kink-filled scenes in your downtime.

But I’ll suggest that fight scenes – like any action scenes – can be every bit as difficult to craft as the squirmiest sex scene, if not more so. Both types of scenes have multiple participants (well, usually), there’s a lot of movement and action that must be choreographed, and then accurately attributed so the reader won’t be hopelessly lost. Who’s punching who? Who pulled the trigger, and who got hit? A sense of place has to be defined, pain has to be described and so much more, but unlike a sex scene, this has to be accomplished with an economy of words. Perhaps it’s fine to indulge in flowery prose and a languid pace for lovemaking. Fight scenes demand a finger-snapping staccato rhythm, moving fast but with pinpoint accuracy to keep the reader speeding through the words while still comprehending precisely what’s what. That’s a mighty tall order for pro’s and budding talents alike. As Carla Hoch says, “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good long sentence, pulsating with verbs and sutured with commas to grab your reader by the collar and drag them to the scene, because you will give them no other choice and there’s no leaving until you throw in the towel.”

By Bert Hardy

Some suggest that a writer should try to hear an imaginary musical soundtrack behind their words in order to guide their pace. (You know, that might even work well with reading?) Sex scenes? If all soft-focused slow-mo stuff, the soundtrack might be a romantic Debussy piece or a soft pop ballad. More rambunctious romps might demand club tunes with a relentless pulsing beat you can feel right in your belly (or lower). Depends on what kind of frolicking the fun-lovers are up to. What kind of soundtrack sets the pace for a fight scene? Well, it’s unlikely to be a waltz. A thrash metal song, maybe. Some bust-loose jazz jam or an AOR guitar-god head banger. Hell, it could be a pompous Wagnerian thing if the fight involved axes and chain mail. In my work, it’s most likely bare knuckles on skin, slugs flying from a .45 automatic, or when the Stiletto Gumshoe’s caught unarmed, there’s still a spike heel rammed down doubly hard on a thug’s wingtips.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest magazine once again for helpful how-to’s like Carla Hoch’s terrific piece. I’ll be watching my mailbox with my fingers crossed that the issues keep coming.

(No credits available for the found art illustrations above, but the photos are by Bert Hardy above and Richard Avedon below.) 

By Richard Avedon

 

Renee Rosen’s Guilty Pleasures

Park Avenue Summer

I stumbled onto my first Renee Rosen novel a few years ago and have been hooked since. Just finished her latest, Park Avenue Summer, a few weeks ago.

Rosen’s Dollface from 2013 is where I started, her first novel, I think. No surprise that it caught my eye, being set in Prohibition era Chicago, and telling Vera Abramowitz’ story in which romance with a suave bootlegger goes bad once he’s in the clink and she has to take over. Writer Rosen’s from Ohio but relocated to Chicago, seems to have acquired a very genuine feel for the city, and obviously does her homework on each period she writes about. That first book set a tone for the subsequent novels: A young woman navigating her way through an overwhelmingly male dominated world in eras when things were evolving, but only a bit. A very little bit.

Dollface

I missed her second novel from 2014 but kept up with the next three: White Collar Girl  from 2015, about young Jordan Walsh struggling to make it as a reporter in the boys club newsroom of the Chicago Tribune back in 1955. Next came Windy City Blues in 2017, once again set in Chicago and merging 1950’s-60’s fact and fiction with a young Jewish girl in the vibrant R&B music scene and tumultuous race relations while at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records.

White Collar Girl

Rosen’s latest, Park Avenue Summer, left her adopted home town for mid-1960’s New York City, where aspiring photographer Alice Weiss takes a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary just as the iconic editor and author of the then-scandalous Sex And The Single Girl was about to turn the publishing world on its ear with the relaunch of Cosmopolitan magazine. I saw one review calling this novel “Mad Men Meets The Devil Wears Prada”, and that’s not an entirely bad description, at least as far as describing the milieu goes.

I’m calling Rosen’s novels ‘guilty pleasures’, but not to suggest that they’re lighthearted fluff. Far from it. Her novels have been a treat, helped locales and era come vibrantly alive for me, and each has been a pleasant diversion from the mysteries and crime fiction I normally devour. Three in a row all situated in 1950’s-60’s settings? That’s just a bonus for me. I don’t know where Renee Rosen is headed next: Back to Chicago, and if so, in what decade? Wherever and whenever it is, I can guarantee I’ll be going along for the trip.

Windy City Blues

 

Listening To: Love For Sale (1959)

Love For Sale LP

Technically, not listening to, but still waiting for: Pioneer jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018) and his fifth album, Love For Sale from 1959, the year I’m fixated on with my own writing work. Vinyl’s been ordered, and back-ordered since forever. Suitable background music’s a must when I’m pounding the keyboard. The Mac keyboard that is. I’m not tinkling any ivories here. Love that album cover, though. The photo could be a scene right out of ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’.

 

Writers Dream

A Writers Dream by Csalar Balint

Writers dream just like anyone else, though I’m not sure if their dreams are filled with visions of whirlwind booksigning tours, depositing fat royalty checks or simply getting a balky laser printer to work. In the case of Csalar Balint’s moody black and white photo titled “A Writer’s Dream”, we have to wonder: Does a writer dream about the woman reclining in the blurred depth-of-field background? Or does the writer dream about having one more drink before knocking out another 100 words? Or, is the woman the writer, dreaming about a refill in that whiskey glass before returning to her keyboard?

Or…perhaps I just overthink these things.

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

Independent Bookstore Day

Indie Bookstores Montage copy

We all have our favorite indie bookstores. I have (and have had) too many to count, much less depict here. Quimby’s, Barbara’s, 57th Street Books, Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, Centuries & Sleuths, Unabridged Books, Women & Children First, Chicago Comics…well, it’d just keep going.

Time was (and not so long ago) that everyone assumed the chains and superstores would bury all the indies. In fact, Barnes & Noble is the only remaining national chain, along with a small number of Books-A-Million stores. Crown, Hastings, Waldenbooks, Border’s, R. B. Dalton – all gone. But so too are Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Book World, Stuart Brent, The Stars Our Destination and so many single storefront or small regional chain booksellers. And that online behemoth does throw its weight around, perhaps more so than ever. Further, we should never ignore the muscle of Walmart, Target, Walgreens and some other general retail chains that carry a modest selection of books. Not many titles, but multiply them by thousands and thousands of stores, and that’s a lot of books being sold in those venues.

three fashion books montage

Mother Nature’s not cooperating in the Midwest today. On the way home Friday, it seemed that everyone was out mowing their lawns. The sun was still out and it was comfy in the sixties. Right now, lunchtime on Saturday the 27th, snow is falling, with a ‘Winter Storm Watch’ (though it’s Spring, and nearly May) and a forecast of 8” of thick wet stuff by 1:00 AM, depending on how the storm moves through the area. Based on how it’s been coming down, the forecast seems accurate. Not exactly a good day for bumming around, perhaps.  But I’ll be out in it shortly, and then inside at least one independent bookstore, where I’ll be sure to do my part…specifically, to buy a book!

ibd logo

Bookstores Above: Quimby’s – Wicker Park, Chicago, Chicago Comics – Boy’s Town, Chicago, Seminary Co-Op Bookstore – Hyde Park, Chicago, Main Street Newstand – Evanston, Centuries & Sleuths – Forest Park, 57th Street Books – Hyde Park, Chicago

Photos: Robert Lethery, Marie Claire France 2015; Deither Krehbiel; Carter Smith, 2006.

 

Lady Killer: Joelle Jones

Lady Killer 1

I never say this person’s the best artist, the best writer, the best actor, etc. But I’m not timid about saying who are my favorites, and the brilliant Joelle Jones is on that list. Incredibly skilled with design and composition as well as an artful stylist, Jones isn’t content being a terrific artist, but has to be an inventive and creative writer as well…the show-off. Some handiwork of her best project so far (IMHO) shown here: Lady Killer, about 1960’s suburban housewife Josie Schuller, who’s also happens to be a lethal hit woman.

Lady Killer 2Lady Killer 3

Listening To: Diana Krall

diana krall

All last week the grass was greening, the trees were budding. Later this week we should be in the 70’s. Spring’s here. But Mother Nature wanted to thumb her nose at us one last time on Sunday, lobbing a snowstorm into the upper Midwest with gusty winds and half a foot of the wet heavy stuff that blew from mid-morning till I turned in around 1:00 AM. So other than picking up some groceries really early (with an in-car coffee break with the New York Times) when it was still only cold, rainy and windy, it was definitely a stay-in kind of day. A good day to stay huddled behind the computer and marvel at the icy ugliness churning around out the window.

diana krall 2

The soundtrack for all that blizzardy bluster: Diana Krall, though not in order, just however they all ended up on the turntable and in the CD player. Suitable sounds for pounding the keyboard on a scene set in a 1959 cocktail lounge for the re-activated follow-up to The Stiletto Gumshoe.

diana krall 1

No Hoods Left In The Hood?

Noir Gentrification

Background research on settings? Search engines can only yield so much, and eventually you just have hop on a bus or get in the car, ready to pound the pavement if you really want to get the look and feel of a place for whatever it is you’re writing about. Obviously that’s a problem if you live in Newark and your project’s set in Novgorod. But if it’s just another neighborhood in your home town, you’re good to go. For some (me, for example), the trick is accessing a time machine in order to capture not just a place, but a place-in-time.

Adam Abramowitz, the Boston writer of A Town Called Malice and Bosstown, had a terrific piece in the March 19th CrimeReads (link below), “Noir In The Era Of Gentrification: What Happens To Spenser & Scudder When Their Cities Are Gone?” He opens by recalling childhood trips to neighborhoods that were ripe with danger and which later became settings for his writing. But in the ensuing years, those blocks once lined with strip joints, gin joints and sundry other joints populated by lethal predators were gentrified building-by-building into rehabbed lofts and pricey rebuilds, the strip joint now a Starbucks, the gin joint a trendy bistro, and the only predators still lurking about are snooty sales clerks in fancy boutiques.

“Big city noir is under siege,” he writes. “As a noir reader, I become as attached to a city as to the main character working those pitiless streets…(Gentrification) threatens to render our stories sentimental and nostalgic until we all sound like a lamenting grandparent: Back in the bad old days.” Abramowitz refers mostly to New York and Boston, but acknowledges the same for James Lee Burke’s New Orleans and even Chandler’s and MacDonald’s Los Angeles.

Here beside the coast of the ‘inland sea” (the Great Lakes), it’s no different. Endless blocks south and west of Chicago’s Loop seemed destined for permanent skid row status after WWII. Now the South Loop has exploded with residential hi-rises, and west of downtown where independent food service distributors stretched for a mile beneath the Lake Street El and the Fulton Market strip, McDonald’s erected its new headquarters, just over from Google’s Chicago HQ, and suburban corporations are elbowing each other aside, determined to find suitably sized industrial lofts to gut or tear down so they can erect faux-rehabs. The SRO’s and their hoboes, homeless, hookers, pimps, muggers and wino’s have been pushed a couple miles south and west once again, and if the migration continues, eventually they’re going to cross the border into Indiana or be halted at the Mississippi.

Brighton-Archer

My own work is set in a very particular time and place, and while that place has changed considerably, it definitely hasn’t been gentrified. 1959 landmarks like the sprawling Miami Bowl 24/7 100-lane bowling complex or the once-luxurious Brighton Theater are long gone, along with countless Mom & Pop storefront bakeries, bars, hardware stores, dress shops, jewelers and deli’s (and all of the loan sharks, card games and B-girls that worked their back rooms). Some are no-brand phone stores and vaping shops now, others just vacant. The discreet Mowimy Popolsku signs in their doors have been replaced by a different language, perhaps, but I’m sure there’s no shortage of punks, thugs and crooks around. They’re just busy spray-painting their colors on garage walls before they get down to business these days. Now the word is that retiring Yuppies and monied Millenials from landlocked Chinatown are buying up two flats as investment properties. Not exactly gentrification, but enough change to make it hard to recognize anything from the old B&W photos sourced online.

Still, there’s no substitution for actually walking the main streets, side streets and even the alleys (which were only paved with cinders from the nearby ComEd plant back in the era I’m writing in). The sights, sounds and smells are all a little different from what my characters experienced in 1959, I suppose. But as Adam Abramowitz writes in his CrimeReads essay, “Don’t cry, noir lovers. Change is cyclical and as long as the slums of the heart keep burning, there’s always going to be material to mine.”

https://crimereads.com/noir-in-the-era-of-gentrification/

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