Black Friday


Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Boxing Day : the religion of consumerism where we worship in the cathedrals of malls and amazon, now has its own liturgical calendar just like any other religion on earth.

They say that if you have only 5 minutes to spend in a country and you want to find out what’s most important to its denizens, just look at what its biggest buildings are.

Once upon a time In the West, that would have been cathedrals and palaces, Now it’s shopping centres and financial institutions.

We say we are in a post religious society but are we really? Have we replaced the Gods of the long flowing white beards with the Gods of the box set, the plasma TV, the 50% off sales sign, the latest smartphone?

it’s ok to have a god shaped hole in our hearts that needs to be filled but we should be careful to choose what we fill it with because if know it or not, something will fill it. Better to fill it by design rather than have it filled surreptitiously or by societal pressure.

I’m not against consumerism per se, we all like nice things if we are lucky to afford them but not to excess. If you have ten pairs of shoe, do you really need an 11th? If buying the 10th pair didn’t bring you life satisfaction then I doubt that the 11th pair will.

And I’m not saying everyone should start becoming religious necessarily in the traditional sense.

We and I count myself in this too, should think about how to fill that ‘god shaped hole’ with something that brings real meaning not just to ourselves but others too.

After having finished another boxset last night and finding myself looking for a new one, it dawned on me that I should be looking for better ways of filling my time. Perhaps I’ve got lazy and complacent and I’ve been thinking why this may have happened. Unrelenting work pressures and corporate bullshit have seeped into every pore  and it’s killing my spirit

 

Time for big changes I think.

Off The Cuff : The Bad Guy


First one of the New Year; this time Dietrich Kalteis and I talk about the bad guy, the antagonist in crime fiction.

And we’ve got Peter Rozovsky to thank for another great noir shot from his vault.

MF: I actually use the word ‘guy’ for both Elton Johns and Olivia Newton Johns (men and women in other words), and the word ‘him’ for ‘him/her’ so I want to get that out of the way first. The topic of the Bad Guy is a strange one. At first, it seems simple. We all know what a bad guy is when we see him, read him, hear him, but what is a bad guy and what’s his purpose? It rather depends on the story and how long the writer wants him to continue. A short story, novella or movie can get away with a villain being someone who lacks dimension, but in my mind, a bad guy as a main character is someone who is the progenitor of negativity and nasty events and acts as a dark shadow over the other characters and the story itself. That’s probably obvious but a good bad guy is depicted as having another side, a more human side, Janus-like even. This makes for a complex bad guy, and the best bad guy of all, is one we root for when deep down, we know he’s a sack of rats.

DK: For me, the bad guy or antagonist light the fuse, and his/her actions sets things in motion, driving the story.

MF: For sure, without them, there is no crime novel is there? Bad guys come in many forms and some come across as being ordinary and polite, but others are obviously nasty. The most obvious vehicle that carries the damaged goods of a bad guy’s soul is dialogue. Do you have any thoughts about how dialogue can paint the bad guy on the canvas?

DK: I love dialogue and there’s nothing better than some foulmouthed bad guy to lend color to the page. Dialogue sure can reveal a lot about the character and can even help paint a picture for the reader of what they appear like.

MF: Yes, I know we have narrative and action, but dialogue, both spoken and internal is the line of sight into the soul of any character, not least the antagonist’s, but to make them come to life and convince the reader they are credible, it’s important for his traits, foibles, mundane behaviours to be brought to light. Someone once said something about the mundanity of evil and depicting a nasty character within ordinary settings can lend an added chill. ‘Oh look, he killed folk in cold blood but now he’s shopping for groceries and having a Frappuccino just like I do. What’s going on?’ is the kind the reaction I would like to provoke in a reader.

DK: I want my antagonists to be less than linear, not all one thing, maybe not really bad at all, just forced into some kind of situation. Sometimes clever, sometimes dumb or reluctant, always shady, but showing sparks of humanity. These kind of traits make their actions less than predictable, and that’s what I want, making for a more believable character and a more interesting story. As you said, Martin, without these traits they will lack dimension. And if the characters don’t come off as real, the reader is bound to lose interest.

MF: For sure.

DK: Anti-heros who are cool in the face of danger seduce the reader into rooting for them. And it’s interesting how we can forgive transgressions on the part of an anit-hero like Walter White of Breaking Bad, and who didn’t root for Tony Soprano? Bad guys we are meant to root for. When these villains show us their human side, we empathize. Maybe we just want to see someone step across that line of prevailing norms or go on that journey with them without risking anything ourselves.

MF: Walter White and indeed the character Carter Tomlin in Owen Laukkenan’s ‘Criminal Enterprise’ come to my mind too. Both started as law abiding, suburban ordinary working guys who through a dark alignment of circumstances, fell from grace and ended up descending into evil so far there was no clean or obvious way back. I found this aspect the most chilling. It makes me wonder if there’s a bad guy in each and every one us, just waiting to be woken by the right alarm clock. To convince the reader that the bad guy could have been you is something I like to convey in my own writing. Cornell Woolrich, the now largely forgotten, but no less wonderful pulp/noir/crime writer whose heyday was the middle of the 20th century, adhered to this principle too i.e. the good guy turns bad through a set of seemingly innocuous circumstances that set him on a road to hell.

DK: And sometimes we have a bad guy where it isn’t even his fault like in Stephen King’s The Shining.

MF: I think they’re the best ones.

DK: Some of my favorite bad guy characters over the years: In Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard the bad guy seduces the good girl and it ends up there’s grey area as to who’s the bad guy. In Pulp Fiction, it’s also hard to tell the good guys from the bad, it’s more like bad and badder. Which begs the question, what’s so wrong about rooting for the bad guys anyway?

MF: Nothing is black or white and one twist I adore as a reader is finding out that the good guy or at least one of them, has been a scoundrel all along later in the story. There’s nothing in rooting for a bad guy at all, but I wonder is it because deep down, we do so because we don’t really believe him to be a bad guy at all?

We’ll be back next week with another installment …

2015/01/img_4030.jpg

2015/01/img_4031.jpg

Off The Cuff Part 12 : Literary Conversation with Dietrich Kalteis, Sam Wiebe & Samantha J Wright

Tags

, , , , , ,


Dietrich Kalteis and I are joined by Samantha J Wright, (author of The Ison Delusion and The Sands of Carsaig) and Vancouver’s own Sam Wiebe, author of Last of the Independents. Thank you both very much for joining in.

And we also have another great shot from Peter Rozovsky’s noir vault.  

MF: I suppose the difference between being ready to write a short story and being ready to write a novel is a matter of one’s thirst and preparation for the journey ahead, a bit like a day trip compared to a road trip spanning a week or more. I feel I am ready to write a novel when I have prepared myself for it. I’ve written some short stories and then felt the need to go on a longer journey that’s more immersive. It can be daunting, but it does give a writer the space to expand his/her craft. I could go on, but I’d like to hear some initial thoughts from you all.

DK: When I started writing, I wrote a lot of short stories, and I can’t say it’s easier than writing a novel, just different. The nice thing with writing the shorter form, if you don’t like what you’ve written, it’s not such an investment in time and not the end of the world if you walk away from it. For me, it allowed me to play around with different genres, find out what I was comfortable writing. And it was nice to submit a short piece for publication while I just kept on writing the next one. And what a thrill when they get accepted. Nothing like gaining a little confidence along the way.
Eventually as I kept writing I gained confidence and also developed a voice. And that only evolved after many written pages. Once I felt I had that voice, I tried my had at writing a novel. 

Almost as important as writing as much as you can, I think it’s important to read as much as you can. Delve into the genre you want to write, study and learn from the greats and find out what works for you as a writer.

SJW: When do you know if you’re ready to write a novel? Hm … well, I think that question implies a certain amount of constraint, yet it is one that many people ask. Over the years I have learned that writers (myself included) are very good at putting restrictions, erecting lofty standards and making harsh demands of themselves when it comes to their work. Like many, I have at times become my own worst enemy by developing this mindset. Such thinking can stifle creativity and slow us down. There is no room for spontaneity or asking those what ifs. It’s all shoulds and oughts, can I and will I? Whereas the unfettered creative mind says, ‘I will. I want to. I can. I need to.’ I enjoy art also, but I do not and never have asked myself ‘am I ready to paint this picture?’ I just do it. My best work in both writing and art comes when I am relaxed and uninhibited by mental clutter and questions like, am I ready?

My first novel was not plotted or planned. I just went with an idea that came to me and wrote and wrote sequestered in my room to the point where the world just fell away. This was not with any intention of publishing you understand, but for my own pleasure. And that gave me the freedom to use broad brush strokes and let the stories and characters be who they were meant to be. You know the saying dance like no one is watching? That’s the way we should be when we write. Hard to do when you want to get noticed, but the benefits are huge. In a nutshell it’s all about passion and desire. You start over-thinking it, all you will be left with is an empty commitment that you don’t really have any strong urge to fulfill. Keep it simple, and just go with the flow. You can edit later to craft it into something publishable.

SW: For me, stories fall into two categories: ideas that emerge fully-formed, and more experimental works where I’m attempting something I’m not sure I can pull off. Elmore Leonard mentioned he wasn’t comfortable writing a female protagonist, so he wrote a short story, Karen Makes Out, as a sort of test drive before writing Out of Sight.

The cool part about short stories is that you get exposed to all aspects of the process, including submission and rejection, at a faster rate than novels. So when you encounter those same problems with a novel, they differ in degree rather than kind from what you’ve already faced.

MF: I remember when we talked earlier in the year when you (Dietrich) mentioned how you like to write without detailed step by step planning: it was the difference between wearing a tee shirt and wearing a tie. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Whilst writing my latest novel, I felt as though I was working in a tiny airless cubby hole, a feeling I’ve rarely felt when writing. I found myself continually glancing at my notes and it becoming tiresome. Now I’ve decided to change tack. 

Looking back, I think the effort I spent on creating detailed notes was a diversion, a delaying tactic. It felt like I was doing good preparation, but the time could have been better spent actually writing the novel itself. Then I felt a little constrained by the plot-details that I carefully constructed some months before. But now without all that, I feel liberated and the words are flowing. So what compels me to write the novel? it’s when I have an idea that grabs my imagination, and I can’t wait to write it, or should I say, excavate it, as a small part of me likes to believe that all stories are real somewhere out there. Crazy I know! My day job requires me to plan things in detail weeks and even months ahead, and I think this mind-set has crept into my creativity. While it works for some, and even worked for me in the past, it’s no longer working for me. It’s funny how our MO can change over the years, isn’t it?

SW: A novel is a bigger gamble. Jazz musicians learn a tune by heart and then improvise over the chord changes, and that’s pretty much my approach to novel writing. I figure out the eight or ten or twelve story ‘beats’ and a logical way to get between them. It ends up at about a page. Then I throw that in a drawer and write the first draft without looking at it. That way I don’t really flail looking for the story, but at the same time I’m not locked into an unforgiving outline. If I want to linger on a certain idea, or introduce a new character, that method allows for those digressions.

MF: Interesting analogies and points Mr. Wiebe, and they’ve got me thinking … When you refer to beats, would you be talking about the outline/structure of beats as described in this website for example? http://www.gailgaymermartin.com/2013/12/writing-novel-seven-story-beats
 If so, that’s very useful advice as it provides structure without rigidity, but when we think about all the great novels we’ve read, do they all adhere to this structure? With practice, I am sure a writer could reach the stage that he/she wouldn’t need to consciously think about the beats/structure as it would come naturally in much the same way a pianist doesn’t think ‘the next key is C, the one after that is E etc, but rather, comes naturally in the rhythm.

Off The Cuff Part 7 with Dietrich Kalteis, Robin Spano and Martin J Frankson

Tags

, , , , , , , ,


We’re back with week seven of our freestyle chat – no rules, no editing, and no net under us. Dietrich Kalteis (author of Ride The Lightning) and Martin J Frankson (author of Dark Introductions and Party Girls collection of short stories) I discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.

This week we have a very special guest: Robin Spano, the talented author of the page-turning Clare Vengel Undercover novels Death Plays Poker, Death’s Last Run and Dead Politician Society

RSpano2

Robin Spano

DSC01635sm

Dietrich Kalteis

And our thanks to Peter Rozovsky for use of yet another great noir shot from his vault.

So here we go.

MF: So far, the characters in my first two crime novels were not police officers, therefore I was free from having to research process and procedure, as they could just follow their noses and do what they wanted. However, when it comes to geography and technology, I do my homework. I like to refer to real streets, buildings, bars, coffee houses and stores so that readers may say ‘I was there’ and perhaps visualize the story taking place interwoven with their own memories. Right now, I’m doing something I haven’t done before, and that’s more detailed planning for my third novel that’s set in Vancouver. During my time there earlier this year, I took extensive notes on my travels, and these have proven valuable as I want to infuse as much realistic detail as possible. Not just geographic but societal as well. I have started creating character cards detailing things like the kind of car they drive, personal likes and dislikes etc. I’ve just spent fifteen minutes on a used car website in Vancouver to give me the lowdown on the real makes and models that are driven these days. Google Maps is wonderful too. Sometimes though, I make something up. If I need a motel where one doesn’t exist, then I invent it. What’s your take on research and what do you like to include and leave out?

 

DK: I like to keep towns, landmarks and major cross streets real for the most part, but I also like to throw in a location that doesn’t actually exist if it better serves the purpose of the scene (maybe a store, gas station, bar or restaurant). As far as characters like police officers, I haven’t written a story that is heavy on procedure either. Most of my lead characters have been from the shady side of the tracks, and they’re usually avoiding the law.

 

RS: I’m glad you’re researching Vancouver so intensely, Martin. It means we’ll get to see more of you. I’m with you guys on keeping street scenes true to life unless I need to change them. In Death’s Last Run, I invented a bar because nefarious stuff was going down (like drug money laundering) and I didn’t want to taint a real Whistler business with a negative brush. But in my head it is the same bar where I’ve had apres ski beers a few times, same layout and position in town. I use Starbucks way too much, which I’m pretty sure reveals my own addiction. And like Martin, I use Google Maps street view a lot, too. I find that especially useful in cities where I’ve spent time and remember the feel of the place, but want extra detail, like was that street paved with concrete or cobblestone?

 

MF: Thanks Robin. Mrs Frankson and I are planning a 3 week visit to Vancouver next May/June time. Vancouver will be an annual visit for me. I totally love the city. I too sometimes base fictional bars/cafes in place of ones I frequent, but its best to give them fictional names when derrings-do are set there otherwise it could be a legal minefield for sure, not to mention unfair to the owners. Shady characters are probably the most fun to write about. However, I do like stories about corrupt cops. They have to work within tight bounds and procedures, therefore have to be imaginative when trying to work outside the system without being caught. I once read there are two kinds of corruption, corrupt for greed and corrupt for the job. The former like to line their pockets, whereas the latter break the rules to put away criminals who would get away with it if the letter of the law took its course. One of my favourite writers, the late Derek Raymond wrote several crime novels featuring a lead but nameless detective who constantly broke the rules for the greater good as he saw it. For books like that, knowing procedure would be vital, otherwise how would one know how such rules are bent or broken? They also make for a good read. Nightmares of the Streets and The State of Denmark are two of his books that come to mind, but I digress.

 

I strongly believe that art, least of all novels, should not be set in a societal or political bubble. If there is a major national or world event, the world within the novel should at least acknowledge its existence. It may or may not affect the characters or the story itself, but it does demonstrate a grounded and historical relevance the reader may appreciate. It also adds another dimension to the characters. They don’t exist in a world by themselves. It may be fiction, but there is a world beyond the walls of the scenario the writer creates. Do you like to read work where the real world permeates through the fiction, and if so, how has this manifest itself in your own work, or do you think it’s important at all?

 

RS: That’s a great observation. Another Canadian crime writer, Robert Rotenberg, recently gave me the advice to always have a big, world story going on at the same time as your own narrative. Sometimes it can tie into your plot, and other times it can parallel it, and other times, like you say, it can set the novel in its place in history. I think Rotenberg uses his own advice really well in Stranglehold, which takes place in the midst of a Toronto mayoral campaign.

 

DK: I can see such events lending certain believability to the story. It can make it seem like real life is going on, even if it just floats in the background. Another great example of this is Black Rock by John McFetridge. The story’s set in Montreal in 1970. It’s about a cop hunting a serial killer amid the riots and bombings that actually went on at the time – a great read by the way.

 

MF: That sounds like an interesting book to explore. I don’t think I’ve read crime fiction set in Quebec, and it has seen dramatic political intrigue over the past 45 years. There are many crime novels set in Ireland where the ‘Troubles’ as they were so-called form the backdrop. Stuart Neville comes to mind here. This does add gravitas and credibility to the story. Fiction maybe, but a branch from the tree of truth. It also shows that the writer doesn’t live in an ivory tower. These days, social awareness by the artist is gaining greater currency in society.

 

Putting on my reader hat, I really don’t care if correct police process or procedure is followed, within reason of course. For example, we all know the police can arrest suspects, but I don’t know what paperwork they then need to prepare afterwards. I do find that stuff boring and unnecessary unless the paperwork or other forms of process are in themselves, a falling domino that triggers a chain of events. If so, such detail is fine. If the writer is just putting the detail in to show off his/her homework skills, then it’s not moving the story forward; but, if it it’s kept to a minimum, then that’s okay. We can’t be absolutist on anything in art can we? There is always room. However, in the crime/thriller genre, the story is what matters. I know some people are keen for 100% accuracy, but that’s a little pedantic in my book, if you pardon the unintended pun, but everyone’s entitled to what they appreciate. I can only speak for myself and my own tastes. Is factual detail a keynote of your own writing, and how much leeway do you think a writer can have ranging from total faithful adherence to fact to the other end of the scale in just making stuff up?

 

DK: As I said, I haven’t had the need to cite exact police procedure, but if it was needed, I would seek it out. But if it’s something general like a cop character filing paperwork, I agree, it’s probably enough to just give the broad strokes, and leave out the boring details. I always try not to throw so much detail in that I feel I’m slowing the pace of the story.

 

RS: I’ve asked a few cops and lawyers—who, surprisingly, like to read crime fiction—if procedural mistakes bug them. Every single time I’ve asked, the answer has been no. They’re bugged if the error is egregious, but only because the mistake takes them out of the story they were enjoying. They’re unfazed by technical mistakes. Like you guys, I could not care less about procedure—and neither could Clare, my protagonist. She works within the system, but she’s undercover, so off on her own most of the time. There’s a cop in LA who I play iPhone chess with. (If you’re reading this, Domino King, sorry I’ve been away from the game all summer long!) who helps me keep it real enough to be credible.

 

MF: I’m with you on that. On the point of historical writing, it would be interesting if Google Maps allowed one to look at a historical view in streetview as opposed to just a snapshot of today. Imagine the possibilities, the old cars, the old stores and buildings.

 

RS: That would be SO cool. Though I so far haven’t been tempted to write anything historical, I’d enjoy walking down my old street in the 70s from when I was a kid. It would also be a neat way to teach history to future generations.

 

MF: I think Google is actually working on this. Imagine the possibilities of putting on a headset and being immersed in a new city, virtually walked down its streets at any point in time. I work in IT, and I can see this happening within 20 years tops. It’s exciting, not to mention a boon for researchers and history buffs and writers too, but I can imagine it being quite a distraction. I guess in the meantime, we have to rely on old-school methods for that, but going down the rich avenues of research can be fun, too. For example, one of my characters in my next novel is a figure from the past. I chose him to live in a small village of Old Crow, Yukon. I then found a great website about Old Crow and its cultural and current heritage, and that got me going down some wonderful side-roads, finding out about things like the Gwitch’in language which would be criminal to ignore. Research does add armoury to the pen and the imagination and does enrich a writer’s own knowledge, even if what we read or find doesn’t filter into our work.

 

DK: Absolutely. I’m currently working on a period piece that takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that requires quite a bit of research to bring the story to life: the architecture, the type of vehicles they drove, cultural habits, the way they dressed, even the way they spoke back then. All of these details have to be handled carefully and not overused, but they do help to bring the story to life for the reader. It’s amazing what I found for my story: entire newspapers of the exact dates I needed, numerous articles, books and personal accounts, historical maps (one with overlays of then and now), a phone directory, a business directory, lots of photos, even a short film clip from the early 1900s.  And you’re right, Martin. You do unearth some interesting facts along the way.

 

more next week …

Off the Cuff : Part 6 with Dietrich Kalteis and Martin J Frankson

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,


20140811-103457-38097646.jpg

We’re back with week six of our freestyle chat – no rules, no editing, and no net under us. Vancouver-based crime writer and author of Ride the Lightning, Dietrich Kalteis and I discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.

A special thanks to Peter Rozovsky for use of his noir shot: At Maryland’s Eastern Shore. You can find out more about Peter’s work on Facebook, his Twitter account @DBeyondBorders and his sublime blog http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.co.uk
 
So here we go.

 

OTC IMAGE 6

 

MF: I’d like to touch on how important settings are this week since it seems so closely connected to character, which we talked about over the past two weeks. I’ll start off by saying LA, NYC and London have been very well served in the canon. Writers these days need to look at different locales/settings which have specific cultural aspects that perhaps are not widely known in broader culture. This is why, to me, crime novels set in British Columbia by writers such as yourself, Robin Spano, Linda E Richards and ER Brown fascinated and entertained me. Owen Laukkenan’s books that feature the character Carla Windermere (a black female FBI agent) are set in Minnesota. Now, there’s a double whammy of originality, a black female protagonist and Minnesota.
 
DK: I like reading stories set in my hometown. It’s interesting to hear other writers describe settings which are familiar, and Robin, Linda and ER all do it very well. And I recently finished Owen’s Kill Fee and double whammy is right, a great job with both character and setting. 
 
For me, Vancouver creates an interesting backdrop, partially because it hasn’t been overused. It’s also a busy seaport and tucked up against the US border, just begging for some crime fiction. Using where you live as a story’s setting makes it both easier for the writer and more convincing to the reader. When I wrote Ride the Lightning I also chose Vancouver because of the unusually high number of grow-ops here which served the story. 
 
And I see your point about settings that we’ve read over and over, but to me when a story is well written the setting could be anywhere. Take James Ellroy and his LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz) must-read crime fiction. Or Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct stories set in New York. Carl Hiaasen and Florida, James Lee Burke’s Louisiana, George Pelecanos’ Washington.  
 
Having said that, there is a certain intrigue to stories that take place in a foreign locale that I’ve never been to. Take a classic like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Or even an imaginary setting like the town of Wallace in ER Brown’s Almost Criminal. In the end, I think it all boils down to the strength of the writing – whether the setting’s exotic, familiar or imaginary.
 
Striving for the original is always important, but sometimes your characters want to show up at overused locales like bars or cafes if they’re the kind that frequent such places, regardless of whether the setting is a bit cliché or not; that’s where they hang out. But I do agree with you, as a writer, it’s important to strive for originality in settings.
 
MF: Very true. We’ve all read bar scenes, but like a game of chess, there are an infinite number of possibilities of character, plot, dialogue and story that can take place in that setting, and this is where originality comes in; but if a writer feels he/she can make the setting work in a completely new land or one that’s unfamiliar within the genre, then go for it. Alexander McCall Smith, the Scottish crime writer has won much deserved success for his books set in Botswana. Brian McGilloway, the wonderful Irish crime writer from Derry, sets his work in the northern Irish borderlands between Derry and Donegal, again, a setting that is such a rich vein to mine, and one that has seldom been used in the past. The English crime writer, David Mark sets his work in the northern English city of Hull. No one has set crime literature there before, and why not? He does it very well, and people love his work. Hull may not be the most fashionable of places, but it certainly has its secrets and textural intrigues, and David evokes the atmosphere and nature of Hull supremely well.
 
DK: Elmore Leonard based many of his crime novels in and around Detroit, and he had every aspect of it down: the people, the settings, the dialects. One of his last was Djibouti, a city in the horn of Africa, and he pulled it off beautifully. A great example of dropping characters in settings that are unfamiliar to them, making them vulnerable by being out of their element. Ken Kesey’s Sailor Song, set in a fishing village in Kuinak, Alaska, is another fine example. Also, Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary, taking place in Peurto Rico.
 
MF: You’ve just expanded my to-read list Dieter. Another example from my recent reading is Snow Candy by Terry Carroll, set in rural southern Ontario. People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a small town or rural setting is more tranquil and peaceful than a city. That may be at first glance, but an awful lot of unsavoury things go on and are hidden in the countryside. People live there too, and where there are people, there’s intrigue just like anywhere else on the planet. It’s just not as obvious as it would be in a city. Books set in such locales are the more interesting for it. Confuse the bucolic with the moral at your peril.
 
Anya Lipska from London is another great example. Yes, her work is set in the familiar city of London, but its set amongst the Polish immigrant community. No one’s done that before, and even though the landscape of the setting may be familiar to many, the cultural landscape of her characters is not, and therein lies the originality that is such a wonderful hook and makes for a great read. Her novel Death Can’t Take a Joke (great title) involves investigations that take the story to Poland itself. Again, not just original but probably unique in English-language crime literature.
 
Ken Bruen, one of my favourite crime writers, lives in the west of Ireland where he sets his work. Granted, his main character, Jack Taylor is a middle-aged alcoholic male, but his humour and kitchen-sink everydayness is entwined so realistically within the crimes he investigates, and it works so well. Bruen shows how he lives and interacts with the modern world around him as opposed to holing him up in a dingy office where the real world of single mothers, curmudgeon neighbours and convenience store eccentricities don’t exist. Again, there’s an example of the familiar genre character being depicted in a fresh way and updated for our times.
 
This is why Scandinavian, Italian and German crime literature has been so successful in recent years; readers are crying out for fresh perspective and an insight into places and characters whose outlook, mannerisms and ethos are unfamiliar and fresh. However, it’s important for the writer to ignore the current fads and fashions of here today, gone tomorrow popularity and set their work wherever they feel it’s best.
 
more next week …

Off The Cuff : Part 4


Another great noirish shot by Peter Rozovsky: writer, blogger and editor at Detectives without Borders, lending this page some class.

Dietrich Kalteis and I are back for week four of freestyle conversation with no rules, no editing, and no net under us. We discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.

MF: I’d like to talk about originality of character this week, and then touch on themes since they are so closely connected, which we can continue next week.

Some may say there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps the broad themes are no longer new, but what makes a book original include:

Characters with lifestyles and attitudes that have been rarely portrayed before. The alcoholic, divorced middle-aged male detective with a drinking problem was once the most popular character in the genre. It’s still popular, but readers wanted fresh detectives with fresh lifestyles to reflect the times we live in. Along came young female detectives which was a breath of fresh air, but writers now need to look at society and see its diversity in the round. There are very few gay or non-white detectives in modern day crime literature I’ve noticed. I say ‘few’ as opposed to none at all. They do exist, but you have to go looking for them.

DK: I agree, avoid writing stereotypical characters with the hang-ups and problems we’ve seen over and over. They can come off as wooden and even uninteresting. It’s critical that the character becomes real, whether likable or not, if the reader is going to follow on their journey.

When I write a character I have to understand them, not influence them with my own beliefs, allowing them stay true to their own nature. Otherwise I might have them doing something that seems out of character, not to say a character can’t change or grow as the story moves along.

And, I agree with what you suggested at the beginning about not getting caught in a trend. Create rather than copy. At the onset of a story when I create a scene, I come up with an appropriate character and drop them in. And as I write, the character grows and traits become clear. Maybe issues that they have or some bit of back story starts to show. And as they begin to feel real, they actually can start to steer the story in a way because they are behaving in a way that’s true to their own nature.

MF: I do share the idea that character preparation is key, i.e. their background, their tastes, their demons, their politics, basically what makes them tick. All these act like gravity, affecting their reaction to events and even the causation of events that are in keeping with the traits of the character. Sometimes it may not be necessary to explicitly detail certain aspects of a character in a story but nevertheless, some of those traits show themselves in character behaviour, thought patterns and even speech. For example, a character may visit a gallery to collect their thoughts and decompress after a particularly stressful event. The reader may wonder what it was in their background that led the character to behave like this.

DK: So long as it’s believable.

MF: Right.

DK: One thing I wanted to ask is, does writing a female character or maybe a much younger or older character present any difficulties for you?

MF: I base my characters on myself and other people I have known. I’ve met a wide range of characters in real life, as I’m sure most of us have. Didn’t someone once say by the time you’re 40, you’ve met just about every kind of person there is. Speaking for myself, I think this is strue as long as one doesn’t live inside a social bubble. This helps me develop characters who I hope are realistic regardless of their gender or age. One fault of mine in previous years as a writer has been to ascribe my own personal opinions and behaviours upon characters. Instead of asking how a certain character would act/speak, I turned them into mini-me’s. Thankfully, I’ve learned to stop doing that, and this was something that was picked up by a good friend of mine who gave me honest critique. However, one Achilles’ Heel I would admit to having is not really knowing how to write a child character in a realistic fashion. I don’t have kids, and I have never written a child in any of my stories or novels. It’s funny how kids rarely feature in crime writing unless they are depicted as victims. I am aware of good detective fiction written for children that feature child detectives and from all accounts, they are very good indeed.

DK: Do you base characters on people you’ve seen in films or TV?

MF: Sometimes I might base a character on a film or TV show but only rarely. My second novel features a rather eccentric off-the-wall senior female detective who I loosely based on the character of Agent Stahl from Sons of Anarchy. That was quite fun, but perhaps it was a bit of a short cut; but as I mentioned, I base most of my characters on people I have met in real life. Sometimes when it comes to more extreme characters such as psychopaths or gangsters, it may be a little more difficult, as I don’t hang around with such people. But I did meet one guy about 22 years ago who owned a house a couple of my friends were living in. He was ex-SAS and had a drinking problem, and he would make our blood run cold with his stories from his past, many of which were quite illegal, but he had realized how wrong his life was. I based a character in my first novel on him, a fallen angel so to speak who experienced a epiphany but wasn’t able to handle his demons. What about you?

DK: For me, coming up with characters is a bit like building Frankenstein, a little of this, a little of that. So far, I’ve only done it once in a screenplay I wrote, where I used someone completely based on someone from real life. But most of the time my characters are pure fiction, a bit of this and a bit of that. I also keep a character sheet as I write, one for each and every character in the story, usually along with a photo of what they look like, all the details of who they are, bits of backstory and specifics like what car they drive, or a particular weapon they carry, things like that. It’s just an easy way for me to keep track.

MF: I do something similar but not as detailed. For my next novel, I am preparing more character detail that I ever did before. In fact, in doing so, they become more fully formed individuals in my mind, more rounded, more realistic even. I even mentally try to work out how they would interact with one another and how they would react to a range of events, from the everyday/mundane to more extreme stressors.

DK: My characters have been described as quirky and marginal, and they’re often flawed. None are ever all good or all bad, and they all seem to have an agenda. Some are greedy, some are desperate.

MF: Yeah, no one is all bad or all good unlike fairy tales, but we do occupy a position on a spectrum. Personally I do think it’s easy to be good when you’re dealt the right cards. I like to explore how characters act when their backs are against the wall, perhaps for the first time, and that ain’t always a pretty sight. Putting a character into a hectic, dark situation that they’re not used to is also an interesting concept to explore, and its one I like to write about. Character flaws and quirks add a spice, an edge to the character and definitely enriches the story. Its gives the story more texture and makes for a better read.

DK: I haven’t written a character with the intention to have them come back in sequels, and I’m not sure what special circumstances that might bring up.

MF: My next novel is the first of a series, and it’s for this reason, I need to keep a lot of my character-powders dry and not give away the totality of his back story or his persona within one book. I do intend to gently hint at them and to make the reader wonder why he does what he does, but those boxes will be opened in later novels. Different circumstances and situations bring out different behaviours at different times. A serial novel in my opinion would need a wider cast of characters to allow the writer to explore their different facets at different junctures in the novel to keep the story interesting for the reader. A minor character in one novel could become a bigger player in a later one and vice versa.
One of my favourite characters is Harry Bosch, an LA detective depicted by Michael Connolly. What a backstory. Bosch’s mother was a prostitute who was murdered during his childhood (a parallel with the real life of James Ellroy whose own mother was brutally murdered when he was a boy). Later he served in Vietnam and then the LAPD. He’s led such a brutal yet a vivid life, and all these facets shimmer in differing degrees throughout the novels, always at the most relevant time, and this is important. Exposition for its own sake is not economical and unnecessary when it bears little or no relation to the story at hand. As I said before, keep your powders dry.
More next week …

Off the Cuff : Part 3


Off the cuff 3

This week, Dietrich Kalteis and I have added a touch of class to our weekly Off The Cuff free-style discussion. Writer, blogger and editor at Detectives without Borders, Peter Rozovsky, has been kind enough to allow us the use of his noirish photos, just to dress the page up a bit. Thank you, Peter. You’ve not only got a way with words, you’ve also got an eye.

So here we go, Martin J Frankson and I are back for week three.

Who Killed the Dead Guy? What makes a good title for a crime novel.

OTC2

MF: Personally, I think Who Killed the Dead Guy would be a great title for a crime satire, but seriously, I would like to discuss what makes a good or bad title, and how writers arrive at their titles.

DK: Okay. My titles haven’t come the same way, but I know when one has the right ring for me. Ride the Lightning came from an expression used when someone gets shot with a Taser, as in they rode the lightning, something I found out while I was doing research for the story. I liked the phrase, it stayed with me, and it just fit the story. And as the story progressed I never had any second thoughts about it. It just always worked. And down the road, my publisher and editor agreed. So, for me, I have to live with the title for a while to make sure it really works. If I’m not 100% about it, then I need to come up with something better.

MF: I didn’t know that Ride the Lightning was a euphimism for tasering. That’s interesting and its a title in keeping with the story itself in terms of the pace and vicissitudes of Karl the main character. Right now, I’m looking at my shelf of crime novels that span the 1930’s to the present day, and while there have been changes in the style of titles, there doesn’t seem to be a general rule for what makes a good title, and that’s a good thing. I think the writer just has to avoid a bad title to come up with a good one. It’s much easier to think of a bad or corny title than it is to consciously invent a good one.

DK: For sure, it’s crucial that the title works, boiled down to a couple of words, the right couple of words that will make it stand out. And it’s got to suit the story as well as help market the book. A lot of weight on a couple of words. But, of course, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another.

Like everyone, I have favourites that just rock, many of which have stood the test of time: One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Midnight Cowboy, Get Shorty, Burning in water, drowning in flames, Cat on a hot tin roof (okay, this one started out as a play, then later became a film), To kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I could go on for days, but these just grab me. There are many more that I think are great, and everbody will have their own favourites. But, when one grabs me, I have to pick up the book and start reading.

MF: A meaningful original title that grabs attention is the best kind especially in such a crowded market. I have noticed the proliferation of title patterns, not just in literature, but in film, too. One example is the present-continuous verb plus a person’s name e.g. Kissing Amy etc.

Sure, the initial examples of such titles were fresh and imaginative such as Divorcing Jack by Colin Bateman, but the style was copied too often by many books/movies, thereafter making them indistinguishable from one another. If I think a title is corny or follows such a heavily trodden path, it makes me wonder just how original the book behind the cover actually is.

DK: Right, and will likely keep you from picking a particular book off the store shelf, or wanting to see a film, like a sequel that’s got the same title, with a number tacked on.

MF: Right. Another one that comes to mind is The [an occupation’s] Daughter. There are so many titles that follow this pattern. Strangely, there are far fewer with the word ‘Son’. Perhaps we see daughters as more enigmatic that sons in our culture, I don’t know, but it’s interesting to point out. You only have to look on Amazon to see such patterns. Many of them may be good books, but the titles do seem a tad similar which is a shame.

Titles with the word ‘Fear’ and ‘Diary’ have become too common a coin too, unfortunately devaluing the currency of those fine words, and this is something the writer has to bear in mind. Think of a title and find out if it’s been used already, or if the words in the title form part of the titles for dozens or even hundreds of other books. If it does, you should think of changing the title.

DK: I agree with what you’re saying about overused phrases, and sometimes you have a title that works, and somewhere somebody did a song using the same title. It might even help if the song suits the story as well. Metallica’s album entitled Ride the Lightning (named after a seat in the electric chair) likely won’t get confused with my novel. And sometimes another novel with a similar or same title pops up long after the same title’s already been in print, as in the case of Stephen King’s Joyland (2013) which bears the same title as Emily Schultz’s first book Joyland (ECW Press, 2006). Emily wrote a great bit about this called Spending the Stephen King Money. It’s funny and really worth checking out: http://www.emilyschultz.com

MF : There is a long and valid tradition of sharing titles amongst movies, books and album titles and even bands. All About Eve is known as a movie but also was the name of a quite successful English rock band in the 80s whose name was inspired by the imagery of the movie. Heavy Metal and its various sub-genres may be a rich seam of titles to mine for crime novels and perhaps even horror, eg The Dead Shall Inherit, Graves of the Archangels, Effigy of the Forgotten. I could go on, and I note that the best titles are amongst bands from Scandanavia.

In crime literature, perhaps titles with words that are not associated with the genre could be what’s coming next as long as they aren’t contrived. I guess its just knowing what works and what doesn’t and having a good ear for it. We can’t put a finger on what works except for the feeling. Its funny about Emily’s book though, sharing the title Joyland with Mr King. I’m glad he saw the funny side of it.

Off the Cuff Part 2


20140811-103457-38097646.jpg
Off the cuff 2

Dietrich Kalteis, the Vancouver-based crime writer and author of Ride the Lightning and I have embarked upon a weekly conversation. This is the second week of freestyle conversation with no rules, no editing, and no net under us.

Our conversations are posted within 24 hours in our respective blogs (do check Dietrich’s blog right here http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.ca/2014/08/off-cuff-2.html?m=1)

We discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff. And, as last week, please feel free to offer your comments and questions, and we’ll do our best to answer.

DK: First off, Martin, you pointed out that you live in Belfast, not Dublin, Dublin being 90 miles down the road. Sorry about being geographically challenged. Just so I’m clear, Belfast is C.S Lewis, and Dublin is James Joyce. How am I doing so far?

MF – Very well indeed Dietrich. A tale of two cities indeed. I often visit Dublin and the wonderful Irish Film Institute whose cinemas play host to hundreds of independent and foreign-language movies every year. I used to work as a cinema usher at the Queen Film Theatre in Belfast when I was a student back in the 1830’s J; it seems such a long time ago. Cinema is my first love of the visual arts, and this is why I try to infuse atmosphere and sense of place as much as I can in my writing, but only where appropriate.

DK: Okay, you mentioned something about how much detail is too much when you’re writing a story.

MF: Yes, I saw an interesting debate on one of my FB feeds about when to add detailed description or not. When should that table be oak, darkened with polish, standing ominously, menacing in the middle of the room like a spiteful relative, as opposed to just being a table? I can see both points of view. I dislike flowery language for the sake of it, but then again, if we take a reductionist view of narrative then stories become little more than an elongated report stating bare fact after bare fact. At the end of the day, writing is an art, and surely the artist should be allowed to demonstrate linguistic flourish, but I suppose its using good judgement when to describe something in detail and when not to do it.

DK: Yeah, every writer has his or her own linguistic flourish, but that can also be in minimalist terms. I personally avoid adverbs and adjectives and limit descriptions for the sake of a faster pace. That being said, I choose carefully what to describe in a scene, always aiming for a strong image. Often I try to describe through characters’ dialogue rather than narrative. And when I go back over my work, I’m always looking for things that I can cut or economical ways to phrase things. But, as you pointed out, it also boils down to an individual writer’s style and the type of story they’re writing. Maybe a fantasy story begs for more detail because the writer is building entire worlds, where someone writing crime fiction has a simpler task just setting the scene in an existing one. For me, describing something like a table might not warrant a lot of words, but in the end, I think you’re right, you’ve got to use your own good judgement, and stay true to your own voice and establish a way that works for you.

Do you feel the same about adding backstory. Does it tend to slow the pace, and does too much of it take you away from the story line?
MF: Good points, Dietrich. A modern setting in a familiar country/city may not need much description, but a setting that is less familiar may necessitate greater detail; in fact, I think the reader would demand it and rightly so e.g. a novel set in Nunavut or Kurdistan would allow the writer to describe less well-known landscapes, cultures, sights, sounds and smells that would take the reader on a journey in space as well as narrative.

There are two sides to the backstory argument, and I’m firmly in favour of the backstory, but it needs to be carefully choreographed into the main trajectory of the narrative. Pacing is important within fiction, of course, but backstory should both inform, yet tease. It should reveal a self-contained informative sliver of the past without revealing the totality in one go. Backstory should also be cleverly and seamlessly placed within the narrative, therefore should read naturally and not read or feel disjointed. For example, a memory could be triggered by a sight, sound or smell that could form the cue for the subject/hero/narrator to describe something from the past that came to the fore. Backstory should hint at something that has shaped the character in the present day that may explain why they act or think the way they do. In this regard, backstory should be economic and not contain too many red herrings.

Another form of backstory is when the trajectory of two timelines traveling at different speeds collide. In such novels, we could have one narrative linear timeline alternating with a different scenario set in the past only for that past timeline and characters to converge in a credible way. I could see the use of alternating chapters between the two timelines/scenarios, each of which could use characters that appear in both. The reader, if the story is well written, should be intrigued and be minded to guess how the two worlds collide.

What is your approach, Dietrich, to employing backstory, and do you have any rules you like to employ, any do’s or don’ts?

DK: You’ve already said it, and I agree with your approach. The main thing for me is to look at backstory as something that absolutely needs to be said. It’s really easy for me to stuff something into a story (like jamming a size twelve foot into a size nine shoe), an element that I really want to include. I often ask myself on a second pass whether that element really serves to move the story forward. And that’s always the tell for me, if it doesn’t move the story, I take it out no matter how much I like it.

Stigma and Memory – A Short Story in the key of Absurdist Horror


My short stories span horror and the absurd. What is horror? In my mind, ‘horror’ is a blunt word. It evokes images of blood-splattered floors and deranged and imaginative means of dispatching poor souls from this world to the next. That is certainly horror but its only one strand of the rich genre.

But there are many types of horror. To me, the most chilling form of horror is the depiction of losing control of one’s life without the hope of ever getting it back. There are no screams or gore or in the following story Stigma and Memory but some fates are worse than death as the hero in my story can testify to.

The story is set in Sligo, Ireland and there are many words and references that are peculiar to my country which an international audience perhaps may not understand. Therefore, I provide a brief glossary of terms:

Culchie – Redneck. It’s a contraction of the word ‘agricultural’.

Bookie – In Ireland & UK, it is a store/shop where one can place place a bet on a horse-race and other events. It’s perfectly legal unlike many other countries. Such offices are nicknames ‘bookies’ which is short for ‘bookmaker’ 

Enoch – a reference to a now deceased English politician, Enoch Powell, who was infamous for being anti immigrant in the 1970’s

Buckfast – a fortified wine brewed by Buckfast Monastery of all places, in England. It’s strong, sweet and cheap and beloved by those who like to get drunk economically. It’s not the kind of wine to bring to a dinner party.

Bin-liner – a plastic bag one puts into a garbage pale.

Evian – a brand of bottled water.

Old Spicea brand of cheap and nasty aftershave. Still very popular in parts of Essex, England and towns with irregular bus services.

Croaks it – dies

Hallions – rough people

Ignoramus – an ignorant and stupid person

Gardener’s Question Time – a popular radio show in the UK about gardening.

Burglar – house breaker
Kerbsies – a street game where you score a point by throwing a ball at the opposite kerb and hitting it in such a way that it bounces back to you without being caught by your opponent. No longer played as much since the advent of computer games.
The Dog’s Bollocks – Very good . He’s the dog’s bollocks means he’s a very good fellow indeed

***

Stigma and Memory –

Please bear with me but I’m a plant. Yes, you heard that just fine. A plant, an actual plant that grows in the ground, sucks up water from the earth, plays footsie with the earthworms and tilts his head towards the sun whether I like it or not. I was a man once, a human but not anymore. I don’t know what kind of plant I am though as all I can see is my green stalk and some weeds sprouting around my feet which are damp from a patch of dog piss and some overnight drizzle.

 

 

So you’re wondering how I became a plant. It’s a long story but it might be worth your while sticking around, sure what else are you’re doing?. Anyways, it all started, or ended depending on your point of view one November night several years ago. I left my friend Larry’s house around one in the morning after having spent the evening alone in his library reading the Tropic of Cancer for our book club. I was supposed to be at home by eleven but I lost track of time. My wife Kate was sick and in bed asleep all day long and I had promised to drive her to St Vincent’s Hospital the following morning to meet some neurologist called Dr Jerry McSwiggan. The weird thing was, Jerry was a chap I went to school with. He was a pompous sort, even then. An old bookish man in the form of a boy with a liking for using big words he learned from reading dictionaries just to show his superiority. It’s no surprise he became a doctor, anesthetizing the world with his monotone Latin no doubt.

 

 

Years later, I was to take my wife to see him about her chronic migraines. I often wondered if he made the connection when he saw our names on the appointment sheet. Probably not. My name is not uncommon and besides, we all then lived hundreds of miles from our hometown. The name of the hometown is of no consequence as all hometowns are variations of the same prison.

 

 

The Tropic of Cancer, a fine book, a very fine book indeed. It was risqué for it time but they probably have it on the reading list for seven year olds these days. I couldn’t put it down. Every page was a well to be drunk from. My friend, Larry, a bookie with a yen for good literature and Laphroaig whisky (he told me  couldn’t stand Bushmills, ‘Orangeman’s Piss’ he called it but I once came across a bottle of Bushmills tucked away behind his encyclopedias. It was half full, or as he would put it, ‘half empty’), had a long day that day at the Leopardstown Races and told me to lock up the house on my way out. I sat in his library. You should have seen it, it was a cracker library, all wood paneling, leather bound portfolios, oak drinks cabinet fashioned like a globe and the mahogany desk with those green Tiffany lamps and the armchairs, oh those comfy plump armchairs and cushions.

 

 

It was the dog’s bollocks of a room and I loved it. Larry also liked a good cigar, a vice I occasionally shared when he had a big win to celebrate or a big loss to commiserate. The Cuban variety was his favourite. He even had one of those little cigar-cutters on his desk in the shape of a French Guillotine. Beside it, an ivory dish that held a good number of these cut cigar-ends like so many Frenchmen’s heads in a bloody wicker basket.

 

 

Larry was the dog’s bollocks himself. I hated him but in a good way. Envy you call it. He lived life in his own terms, did what he wanted whenever he wanted and was never lonely. He had tons of friends in all the shapes and sizes that could be. He loved books especially. That’s how we struck up our friendship, in his bookies shop in George St, Sligo. I had just nipped into the library to pick up the Collected Verses of Yeats before putting a fiver on a nag called Philby’s Progress at the four o’clock at Sandown. I plopped the book on the counter whilst fishing out loose change from the depths of my pockets when Larry peered over.

 

 

“Fuck me, is that a book? Well we are honoured, listen up everyone, a man of learning has come in to grace us with his presence and he’s brought a book in with him” he said in a loud voice for the whole shop to hear. I was mortified and quite pissed off as I thought he was taking the mick. I looked around the shop, half expecting sniggers and derision but not the bit of it, no one passed any notice. All I saw were the wizened faces of thin poor men, cloaked in cigarette smoke and frayed donkey-jackets and ill-fitting jackets from Dunnes, staring vacantly at the silent TV screens that covered the walls.

 

 

Larry walked over and picked up the book and recited a couple of verses off by heart.

 

“Those are pages 154 and 155” he said.

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“Because I’ve the exact same edition at home. I read it from cover to cover more times that I care to remember”

 

“Is that a fact?” I said with a raised eyebrow and the most subtle of smirks.

 

“Yes it is and I don’t care if you don’t believe me. Go on, open up the pages, you can check it out”

 

I opened the book at the appointed pages and there they were, the verses Larry so eloquently recited. I raised my eyes and was about to indulge in some mea culpa but Larry had walked over to the counters rifling through a pile of betting slips. He wasn’t the kind of fella who hangs around to be told when he’s right.

 

 

I had a fiver on a four year old filly Philby’s Progress . The starting price was ten to one but I heard whispers about her being fancied to win. I never usually gambled except when I think it’s a sure fire certainty but there’s no such thing. I straightened up in my high stool and watched the race. Half the screen was taken up with racing statistics and a live news ticker that took up a big fat stripe of space along the bottom of the screen.

 

 

For a good part of the race, Philby’s Progress was way in the lead but in the second last furlong, Moscow Mary had come from nowhere and cut my filly up on the bend and took the lead. There’s an irony in there somewhere. Philby’s Progress started to stagger and just stopped dead.   The jockey’s entire frame shook as he tried to whip her into motion but she didn’t care. Some horses only want to be the only one who ever led.

 

 

Larry looked over and waved a fiver in the air.

 

“Now I can get a haircut”

 

 

“What barber in this town charges just a fiver for a haircut?”

 

 

“Oh I don’t know, I thought yours did”

 

 

He always was a cheeky shite.

*

I hoped to finish The Tropic of Cancer but my eyes were getting a little heavy. Larry was out for the night but he often let me use his library. He knew I didn’t much peace at home and we often conspired with excuses that let me off the domestic hook. I could have crashed at his as I sometimes did but that night I had a real stubborn notion off wanting my own bed, next to my own wife, beside my own bedside locker with all my things the lay on a heap on it.

 

 

The picture of my daughter Imelda, my pile of paperbacks, the broken Rolex my father gave me before he vanished that I never got around to fixing. I’m not sure I ever wanted to fix it; the time was perpetually frozen at nearly a quarter past eleven. I used to crash out on Larry’s sofa in my younger days but as I grew older, I took a dislike to waking up in rumpled clothes that I wore the day before and not having a chance to shave, brush my teeth or have a change of socks. I sometimes turned my socks inside out before slipping my shoes on but I still felt like something the cat would turn her nose up at.

 

 

I got up, turned off the lights and locked the front door behind me with the spare set of keys that Larry had lent me and jumped into my car. I don’t remember much about the journey home as it was the same old road I took a thousand times before but I do remember the brief moment when I hit a slurry tanker head-on at over eighty miles an hour when I lost control taking a bend. I remember being startled and then just the biggest blankness, no, it was worse than that, a void. In fact, it’s wrong to say I remember what happened after that anymore than I can remember how things were before I was born. I didn’t feel a thing.

 

 

“He died peacefully in his panic”.

 

 

There was no white light, no line of shimmering ancestors standing side by side with Jesus smiling beatifically at me, beckoning me to join them with outstretched arms covered in the sleeves off impossibly white robes. None of those things. It was like going to sleep but without dreaming.

 

 

I don’t even know how much time had passed between then and my new life as a flower. A flower of all things. I don’t even know what kind of flower I am. ‘What am I?’ must be the Descartian question of the plant kingdom. I saw different species of flower all around me so I couldn’t deduce if I was a petunia by being surrounded by other petunias. It was like the United Nations in my flowerbed.

Multi-horticulturism. Ha! Psst, don’t tell Enoch.

 

Roses, chrysanthemums and some flowers that look like the love children of sunflowers and daisies, they were all around.

*

So, I bet you’re wondering how I can see and hear stuff. Well, God knows how but I can see through my stigma. They didn’t teach me that in the General Science Leaving Cert.

 

Perhaps I was distracted by Miss Morris’s legs during that particular lesson.

 

I can also hear and smell but I can’t speak. I do fail pain when a wasp sticks its nib into me and when it gets cold at night. I wish I could tell the vegetarians. That would make them wet their organic-origin knitted pants for sure. It must be worse for the carrots, those big sturdy red things being thrust from their soily slumber by the efficient and dispassionate hum and whirr of blade and engine by the thousand. I guess everyone and everything is some kind of Hitler to someone or something.

 

 

And we don’t even know we’re doing it.

 

 

I’m in the middle of a flowerbed and my line of sight is pretty low so my horizon is pretty limited but I can look up and see around me, after a fashion. I’m in a public park and not a private garden. I know this because in the Springtime, lots of different people walk by and stop and stare at us at all, especially old ladies and young couples.

 

 

I guess they think I’m lovely.

 

 

I don’t get hungry even when I smell food. That kind of food does nothing for me anymore. I live an enforced natural diet of sunshine, god’s good air, rain and dog and pigeon piss these days, whatever days these are. I don’t even know what year it is but people dress more or less the same as they did back in the day and talk the same old crap into mobile phones. I have noticed conversations are a little more dramatic than they used to be. Everyone’s a one man show.

 

 

I am alive of course but I do consider myself quite dead. I was a man after all, living a life a little more vivaciously than I do now. My former life is the benchmark. I’m alive but not living therefore I’m not dead but dying. Eat your heart out Descartes.

 

 

I forgot to say that I cannot speak. I don’t even know if all the other flowers were also people in a past life or just plain old dumb-fuck flowers. There’s no way of knowing. Sometimes a dog comes over and pisses on my head but it doesn’t piss me off as I thought it would. My biggest fears are children and single men. They like to sneak over and stare at us before pulling us from the ground. I’ve seen it happen but I’m in the middle of the flowerbed. It’s the poor bastards on the edges who are the most vulnerable. I’m pretty sanguine about it. I’m sure I’ve a pretty short lifespan and who knows what I’ll end up in the next life, assuming there is one. Sometimes I hope I’m the next neck to be broken by some barbarous little brat. I’m not suicidal, definitely not but I figured if I died, I would move onto being some other life-form and eventually become a man again.

 

When I first realized what I was, a flower, I thought that I was in heaven but I soon realized I wasn’t when I saw and heard the kind of people who walked past me. They spoke in Sligo accents and swore a lot. Some of them drank straight from plastic bottles of White Lightning. Perhaps it was the other place that lies to the south of Heaven but there was no fiery furnace or anything like that. Sometimes you’d hear the sweet tones of an Italian or a French woman pass by, their words falling on my ears like dew upon a desert tongue.

 

Such delicious exoticism.

 

 

I was never one for sitting around and doing nothing. I liked to busy myself with fixing up the house, the car or reading. I was easily bored but now, I don’t get bored at all. I do miss the things I used to do but much in the same way you think about the makeshift games of tin can football and kerbsies you used to play when you were a kid. You wouldn’t imagine playing those games now you’re grown up but when deprived of those things as kid, you’d have been bereft. I remember my old life and that’s what it is really, an older life, a life that once was but no more. A memory of old feelings but feelings that are just memories of feelings and not the feelings themselves, like the memory of good meal. You remember how great it tasted but not the taste itself. I’ve no anger or love or bitterness. I know I used to feel those things but it’s impossible to feel them now. Perhaps I don’t feel them because they would be little point; it’s not as if I’m able to do anything about anything in my current condition.

 

 

In some ways, I’m content just being here, being lolled by the breezes and washed and watered by the rain and dog piss.

 

 

It’s funny what you get used to.

 

 

It’s funny what you end up as but you have to make the most of it otherwise you’d go mad. Mind you, how exactly does a flower go mad? Do we flail around and bite off our petals, if I could see even them? I don’t have teeth or even mouth so that idea’s dead in the water. If I do let myself go down the pan, it would be purely psychological. Could I refuse to drink the water that quenches my thirsty roots? I tried that but ingesting moisture seems to be a reflex action that I can do nothing about it.

 

 

No, I’d just go quietly insane.

 

 

My thoughts would become jumbled and incoherent and I’d indulge myself in silent screaming. Flowers don’t have much choice but to live until something, someone or something calls time and eats us, tramples us or plucks us from the ground.

*

These past few days have been quite sunny. The park has been more busy than usual. It must be a bank holiday weekend as I’ve sensed this for three afternoons in a row. Mornings are always quiet though. In my previous life, I liked to walk through the park as early in the morning as I could make it before the worries and torments of the day ahead caught up with me. My morning walks were my own time where I had a precious hour all to myself to collect my thoughts and clear my head of the dross that leapt inside it like rabbits with myxomatosis. The sweet morning air, always crisp, fresh, clean. I remember tasting the dew in the air, seeing my breath turn to fog for only a moment even on a summer’s day. Any later was no good. Magic exits when people enter. I took an especial delight in thinking I was the only man alive in a world of the sleeping.

 

 

Right now, it’s the afternoon and I hear kids screaming, balls bouncing, dogs barking, people chattering, random cheers from the green that lies ahead and the distant jingle of an ice-cream van. This is what a summer’s day sounds like.

*

I sense a rustling.

 

 

It is a rustling

 

 

It’s not a dog, it’s something a little more deliberate in its movements. A strange and unusual warmth strangles my stalk. A squeeze and a pull and Jesus, I’m now flying in the air. I see the sky above me and then the tree tops but for the briefest of moments. Now the time has come . All those hours and days secretly both wishing and dreading being yanked from my bed.

 

 

Yet it was painless.

 

 

I didn’t feel a thing other than weightlessness. Someone has picked me and who knows where I’ll end up.

 

 

I hope it’s someone who will put me in a vase. Women have vases. Men have empty beer bottles and not very well rinsed jam jars. There was no voice to go with it so it couldn’t have been a kid. Kids prattle a loud running commentary to go with every second of their nasty little derrings do. Women like flowers but they never pick them from public parks.

 

 

No, it must have been a man.

 

 

I used to do the same when I was a young man when I had someone to steal a flower for.

 

 

I hope he’s a nice man who plans to give me to his wife or girlfriend. I hope he’s not doing it as a way of apology. This in itself has its risks, not least the indignant women throwing me on the ground and squashing my face under her heels to make a point that forgiveness is worth a few more ounces of flesh before being handed over the counter.

 

 

I speak from experience.

 

 

I think the man is holding me in his right hand by the end of my stem, face downwards. I catch glimpses of his trousers as he strides up the path. I’m upside down and swaying. He’s holding me as any self respecting Irishman would, upside fucking down. In this beacon of modernity that is Ireland, a man who holds a flower properly, that is to say upright in front of his chest is considered to be effeminate, the kind of man they say is close to his mother and never marries. No, a man must carry a flower, especially a single one as though it’s the hand of a naughty child.

 

 

A beautiful embarrassment in other words.

*

I’m worried I might get a little dizzy. He’s not wearing jeans I notice but a pair of proper brown trousers. He must be quite a sharp dresser to wear a pair of proper pantaloons on a bank holiday weekend. His bird must be classy but then again, a man with class doesn’t pluck flowers from a public garden, does he? Why isn’t he at a florist or phoning Interflora? But this is Sligo after all. Some men know how to dress the part of a man of means but don’t know how to act it. Class comes from within and there’s not a lot of that about in this town I can tell you.

 

 

Fuck, just thought of something. What if his woman is some crusty or a minger, some bit of rough he’s taken a fancy to. Some woman who’s easily impressed and doesn’t have the wit to know that flowers should be presented in a carefully wrapped bouquet. She might put me in a sandwich along with some salt and vinegar crisps that would sting the fuck out of me before being swallowed like Jonah.

 

 

Get a grip of yourself you halfwit, stop letting your imagination get the better of you. Chin up.

 

 

We leave the park and he puts me on a park bench. I hear the jingling of coins and keys. Some coins fall on the tarmac.

 

 

“For fuck sake” he says. He makes a lot of awkward noises when bending down to pick them up. Hold up, I’m rolling over. A breeze.

 

 

“Don’t you blow away on me now you wee cunt” he shouts. I stop rolling and I feel myself being pinned down against the bench. I’m face to face with an ice-cream wrapper that’s stuck fast an inch or so away. He doesn’t seem that fit, this man. He picks me up and I hear him groan and catch his breath. I’m flying up again, being twirled around like candy floss in the hands of an epileptic.

 

 

‘Beep beep’ goes his central locking.

 

 

I’m looking forward to this, could this be my first ride in car since I kissed the fender of a slurry tanker?

*

I’m obsessed with time and working out what year it is.

 

 

Who knows, your man could be in one of those fancy flying cars we always were told were just around the corner by mad scientists on the TV. I hope not. Flying cars in Ireland? The fuckers can hardly drive safely on the ground never mind the air. This could be how the Irish self destruct en masse – millions of red-necked culchies take to the air and cancel each other out in innumerable Guinness and Buckfast fuelled mid-air collisions. How would they staff the call centres and meat packing plants after something like that?

 

I’m getting a bit worked up now. Too much time to think can do that, even to a flower. A thought has just crossed my mind, if I catch a glimpse of myself in his car window or mirror, I could find out what kind of flower I am. It’s true what I said before, I really haven’t a clue what kind of flower I am. I could be a pansy, a daisy, a rose or just a weed even. A weed, I never thought of that but it’s ok, no one picks a weed deliberately without throwing it into a bin-liner first. No-one walks all that way with a single sad little weed in their hand. No, I must be a proper flower, a beautiful flower.

 

A rose even.

 

 

Now there’s a thought. A rose, me, a rose and to think I once yearned to be Regional Sales Director for the gas board. Never in a million years…

 

 

The man opened the driver-side door and got in. I never got a chance to see my reflection, well not this time. He plopped me in a bottle of Evian that stood in the coffee cup holder beside the gearstick. The water was very warm but barely lapped at my feet. He started the engine and drove off.

 

 

All I saw during the journey were his brown trousers beneath the knee, his great big hand and a giant gearstick. Sometimes my head was lightly sprinkled with cigarette ash that blew back in when he tried to flick it out the window. The radio was set on a low volume for background noise and the sound of the engine was too loud to make out the words.

 

 

I didn’t really care. I just wondered where I was going on but I knew my days were numbered. Even if I did make it to a vase full of fresh water, how much longer would I have? A couple of days before I turned brown, shrivel up and end up in a bin? Life’s funny, you wake up in one bed and end up in another.

 

 

Or worse.

 

 

Will I come back as a baby? A baby ‘what’ though. There’s millions of life forms. Do I have go through them all before coming back as a man and God knows when that would be assuming we haven’t blown ourselves to kingdom come. I’d rather take the bull by the horns and become an insect. Insects don’t hang around like people do. They live fast and die young. After that, I will graduate to being an animal.

 

 

A proper animal with four legs, a snout and a coat of waterproof fur or a thick hide of skin but hopefully not an elephant. Nothing against elephants, they’re fine fellas but they live as long as people do and they never end up on the booze or the fags, not unlike Presbyterians but without the joy of having a TV set to sit in front off. If I came back as a beast in some African savannah, I’d hurl myself at the nearest lion to quicken my path back to graduation to become a man.

 

 

I say that now.

 

 

Easy to be big and brave from the comfort of a barely full bottle of warm Evian water in car that smells of divorcee, Old Spice and cigarette smoke.

 

 

I bet he’s divorced.

 

 

Married men don’t pick flowers. He’s probably a bookie or one of those farmers who only gets married when mammy croaks it only to realize his pot belly and whiskey nose don’t attract many mates unless of course he’s rich in which case all bets are off. The cut of some of the men I’ve seen who’d pass as diseased bloated buffalo who are arm in arm with a stunner. Some of them marry Filipino women in these parts. Those girls are cute in more ways than one. They love you long-time but never at all. I don’t blame those girls. More power to them. Those boys are thick are shite if they think those young maidens don’t throw up every time they conjugate their nuptials. My uncle Phil married Maria from Manila when he was 66. She was 28. When he died, she sold his farm and moved back home. She never kept in touch with us.

 

 

She never spoke, I remember. They just smiled at each other a lot.

 

 

She wasn’t really from Manila but we just called her Maria from Manila. It’s the only Filipino town we ever heard off. I’m sure she told us the name of the village she came from as I know she was a country girl because of her trusting face but since the name of her hometown didn’t start with Bally or Kil, it didn’t register with us, being the culchie numb-nuts we were.

 

 

But this isn’t a rich man’s car. I caught a glimpse of the backseat when he turned a corner rather sharpish. The bottle fell to one side and me with it and at that moment, I was able to see past the gearstick. It wasn’t that great a vision, just a bundle of clothes, books and old newspapers. I remember seeing a picture of a horse’s face flapping in front of me.

*

The journey didn’t take all that long, just a few miles I’d say. He pulled up outside a decent enough house. I didn’t see the house exactly it but I recognized the sound the tyres made when running over gravel, the crunching and grinding of hot heavy rubber on a bed of broken stones. It’s one of those sounds that tell you you’ve arrived somewhere special, the kind of place where you straighten your tie and spit on your fingers to comb your hair before getting out of your car.

 

 

And no word of lie and true to expectation, I heard two little spits and the rubbing of palms and the sound of fingers running through hair. He grabbed me and lifted me out of my Evian bottle and we left the car.

.

This time, he held me properly. I was held in front of his chest with my head just under his chin. Ah I was right, I must be for a woman. He made sure no man would see him like this, holding a flower up in front of him with a grace he last feigned during his first Holy Communion. He could be a Protestant for all I know and there indeed a few of them in these parts. They’re quite refined types. The lost tribe of England. They’re nice looking too. Strong chins and willowy blonde womenfolk. They’re not the double-chinned, puffy-faced hallions like us Catholics. No, for the life of me I can’t see a Protestant stealing a flower from a public park. Perhaps they do in the north but they’re all a bit mad up there anyway.

 

 

The house was grand. Terribly grand make no mistake about it.

 

 

A detached house surrounded by a lot of land and a well cut lawn, you know the type with nice tidy two-tone stripes of green. The window frames were those fancy Casement ones and the window-panes themselves were latticed no less than. The front door looked solid enough to crack open a bullock’s skull if it took a sudden anger to it. I was right about the gravel driveway.

 

 

Damn, I forgot to look at my reflection. I hope the women of the house will exclaim my breed aloud.

 

 

“Oh a rose, a rose, you shouldn’t have” or something like that.

 

 

Flowers aren’t said to have breeds. Dogs and horses do but not flowers. We are just catalogued and labeled as ‘kinds’ of flower.

 

 

What ‘kind’ of flower am I?

 

 

There’s a reasonable chance I may die without ever knowing. Isn’t that peculiar? Not knowing what I am yet I know I’m myself. I guess water doesn’t ask if it’s in a bottle, bladder or vase. It’s still the same stuff but then again, after my recent spell of existence, who knows what water may think.

 

 

The man coughed and rapped the door in a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm with vigor. This was a man who liked to make his presence felt. I remember Kate was very timid when it came to knocking on doors.

 

 

“Knock the bloody thing harder” I’d tell her.

 

 

“I don’t want to disturb them” she’d say

 

 

“Then if you don’t want to disturb them, why the feck are we here visiting them?”

 

Then she’d look all sheepish. I’d then knock, much harder than she did and I’d see her face wince like a prune.

 

 

The door opened. There stood a blonde woman. A bit of a cracker actually. In her forties and she looked very handsome. Slim, well dressed in a blue suit and crisp white blouse with those over-sized collars. A silver locket nestled above her cleavage that glinted in the sunshine.

 

 

“Oh it’s you” she said.

 

“Is Katie in” he asked?

 

She opened the door and let us in.

 

“KAT-IE” the woman yelled.

 

“Who is it?” said a voice from upstairs.

 

“It’s himself”

 

We stood in the hallway. Whoever this dude is, he doesn’t seem to be universally popular but either he thinks that someone here in this house holds him in some regard. That or he has a neck of sufficient brass to kit out a squad of statues.

 

 

A door slammed from upstairs followed by creaks of on the wooden staircase. Seconds later, she stopped but she was close. The man turned to face her.

 

You couldn’t make it up. It was Kate, my Kate, my wife. That’s who Katie was. Who the fuck was this monkey giving my wife flowers, not even flowers but a flower – singular. I screamed her name a thousand times in my silent voiceless mind but it was no good. She was deaf to me.

 

 

“Larry, what are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you? Is Adele with you?”

 

“I don’t you mind me barging in like this but Adele told me about Imelda’s science project, something about flowers and she said all she needed to finish it was a begonia. Now I know they don’t grow around here but today I was downtown, in the park and I found this wee thing all by itself in the flowerbed. A begonia so I thought, ‘what the feck’, looked around to make sure no one was looking and then I picked it up, you know, to help Imelda. Is she in at all?”

 

 

Kate smiled and the smile gave way to a giggle. She covered her mouth with her hands and looked shyly away. I remember that coquettish look she often gave. It was the look she had on her when she stole my heart all those years ago at the Hothouse Flower’s concert in Roscommon when we first met.

 

 

“Oh Larry I hate to tell you this but that’s no begonia. It’s a tulip and Imelda has tulips coming out off her ears. Sure what does a lump like you know about flowers anyway?”

 

 

“Oh I’m sorry Katie but I thought it was a begonia. Sure what’s the difference?”

 

 

 

Kate cocked her head to one side and shook her head at Larry. Hold on, Larry? Larry! I thought I recognized the fecker’s voice. Jesus the feckin’ chancer, so he’s on Gardener’s Question Time now is he?

 

 

“It’s really sweet of you Larry. Don’t worry, it’s the thought that counts and that’s the main thing”

 

 

Larry reached me out to Kate. I was just this close from her bosom. I caught her scent. Christ it send my brain into frenzy. There’s no time machine like a long forgotten aroma that makes a Sinatra-style comeback. I wanted to grow hands and a mouth and a tongue and touch her and taste her all at once. Every cell in my body was bursting for her.

 

 

“Shame to let a good tulip or a bad begonia go to waste”

 

 

Kate took me from Larry and held me in her fingers and twirled me around a couple of times like a swizzle stick.

 

 

“I never was one for tulips you know. They look nice but they always die very quickly. I got one once some years ago but it barely lasted the time it took to fill the vase with tap water. I prefer flowers that last the distance”

 

 

“Well, you can have it all the same Katie”

 

 

An embarrassed silence fell between them.

 

 

“Katie, I didn’t really come here to help Imelda with her homework you know”

 

 

“I kinda guessed that Larry”

 

 

“I was wondering, if you’d like, to come out for dinner with me this evening. There’s a new bistro in town that’s owned by a friend of mine, a Belgian chap who married a local girl last year, only, well, if you haven’t anything else on..”

 

 

So Larry’s playing at being shy but Kate has the wit to see through it. I know her. He doesn’t.

 

 

“Larry, Larry…I..don’t know…it’s just a year since Jeremy and..”

 

“I know that but we were about to tell him, you know, before he….”

 

“I wasn’t even sure that I could”

 

 

Larry stepped towards Kate and grasped her arms with his bony wrinkled, warted hands.

 

 

“We were in love Kate. I thought I’d leave a decent length of time before you know, before we pick things up from where we..”

 

“Left off?” said Kate. She spun me around again in more ways than one.

 

 “Yes”

 

“Let me sleep on it Larry, I can’t tonight but I will let you know next week when I have my head’s a little more clear. I’ve an awful lot on, you know, with the business”

 

“Do you promise?”

 

Kate nodded.

 

“Well I hope you find some use for that begonia. The trouble I went to”

 

“It’s a tulip you daft bat”

 

“It’s whatever we want it to be”

 

Kate smiled and leant forward to kiss Larry on the cheek.

 

“Can I ask you a question Katie, if Jeremy was still with us, would you have left him?”

 

Kate dropped her hands and I was now at her knee level. I couldn’t see her head from the angle I was at. She didn’t say anything and I couldn’t see if she shook or nodded her head.

 

“Well, Katie, that’s all I needed to know” Larry said.

 

Larry let go off Kate and saw his way out and left the house, gently closing the door behind him.

 

Kate walked into the kitchen and filled an empty jar with water and put me into it. My new home was on the window sill that overlooked the garden out the back. She must have bought herself a new house from my life assurance. It was her dream home. She used to fawn over such houses in glossy home and garden magazines.

*

Larry never returned to the house but that’s not to say Kate didn’t meet him again. I simply couldn’t tell. I often saw her dolled up to the nines of an evening and not come home again until the morning. Imelda was seventeen and brought boys home. I wish I could close my ears as I could my eyes.

 

I kept on living and confounded Kate with my longevity. She sometimes expressed surprise to her friends about how long I survived in a jam jar of tap water.

 

At least I know what I am now but I was never was a rose.

*

That was months ago now. These days you will find me inside an unread hardback romance novel, dried out and stapled into place on page 143. I’m very thirsty but it’s not that bad but I’m still living. Perhaps someday a burglar will ransack the place when Kate’s out, overturning the book cases and kicking the books to kingdom come with his Addidas adorned gnarled feet and I’ll be tossed to the ground and crushed into crumbs by the avalanche of paper and cardboard and lie spent amongst the dust mites of the big fancy rug that lies in the middle of the floor of the library room no one visits.

 

 

Then my journey home will begin.

 

Canada Crime : Interview with Crime Writer Linda L. Richards


Linda1sittingI first met Linda at the Noir in the Bar evening in downtown Vancouver in early June and had the opportunity to meet her in person and have a chinwag (Ed: do Canadian’s use this word? If not, use the word ‘chat’) over well filled glasses of our respective fire-waters. In the weeks that followed, Linda kindly agreed for me to visit her on the island of Galiano where contrary to the rumour that she reigns from a throne of bones stuck together with crime scene police tape (I just made that bit up), she lives a very wholesome life of creativity and healthy hiking along the many trails that the island offers its residents and visitors alike.

I had just spent a peaceful yet glorious weekend in Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia and I’d taken the ferry that morning from Swartz Bay to Galiano, a journey of just under an hour. Linda was at the other end to warmly greet me as I stepped ashore. The sun was firmly seated in its celestial cockpit, commanding an army of blue that conquered the heavens above and the scene was set for an a very healthy kind of interview experience that took in a 6km hike to the top of Galiano Mountain and a pub lunch later where the interview was largely conducted before catching the final ferry of the day back to the mainland port of Tsawassen.

Linda L Richards is a crime writer with several titles under her belt, most recently Death is in the Blood, the third of the Kitty Pangborn series set in 1931 L.A.

Tell me a little about your life before and during the start of your literary career?

I was born in Vancouver but spent some of my growing years in Los Angeles and Munich, Germany. For the last decade I’ve mostly lived in the Gulf Islands and in Vancouver. My first books were all computer-related. Works of non-fiction: Web Graphics for Dummies and several others. Some of them were a lot of fun and I’m quite proud of them. Bu I really always wanted to write novels: I just took the long way there!

So what turned you to crime fiction?

I didn’t consciously set out to write crime fiction. What I set out to do was to write the stories that were in my heart. And I’d turn around and there’d be a body on the floor. If that happens a few times, you have to just own it: this is the type of story I was meant to tell.

You are one of the co-founders of January Magazine which is lauded for the quality of its book reviews and interviews with writers no less that Salman Rushdie , Dennis Lehane, Mark Billingham, to name but a few. The literary scope of January Magazine is wider than just crime fiction. Do you think it important for crime writers, or even writers of any genre to read widely and outside their comfort zone?

I do think it’s important for anyone who wants to write to read as widely as possible. What is it Stephen King said? “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” But there are lessons to be learned and journeys to be taken in all sorts of books. I don’t think writers of crime fiction necessarily also read only in that genre.

Your series featuring the strong and independent minded Kitty Pangborn (Death Was the Other Woman, Death Was In The Picture, Death Was In The Blood) are all set in Los Angeles in 1931. Why?

In 1931, the end of Prohibition is in sight and the Depression is just getting going. Meanwhile, as far as law enforcement goes, Los Angeles at that time was barely out of the Wild West. It’s just this fantastic moment in history where so much is possible. This extraordinary time that writers like Hammett have exploited beautifully. Even so, I felt a strong female protagonist could add something.

Also, my father immigrated to North America in that period. He honed his English watching those old movies, with their gangster talk and clipped language and it colored the way he spoke for the rest of his life. When I sat down to write the first Kitty Pangborn novel, that language was just there and it flowed out and colored the pages in ways I’d never imagined.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the word ‘galoot’ used in Death is in the Blood. I thought that was only a word used in Ireland, a word which loosely translates as ‘idiot’.

Ha, really? No, it was used in those times too. But there is no inflection of “idiot” in that usage. More like oafish. Someone large and maybe not too handy with their body is more like it.

Will we see Kitty Pangborn in later years, perhaps in the 1940s or beyond, heading up her own Private Detective Agency?

No, definitely not. The Kitty Pangborn novels will only ever be set in 1931. It’s that moment, right? The end of Prohibition is near. It’s the beginning of the Depression. And both of those things greatly impact Kitty’s world as we see it. I don’t want her to mellow and change. I don’t want her to evolve. In a sense, Kitty is a vehicle through which we view an era: this sort of golden moment near the birth of what we now think of as classic noir.

Is it difficult not to impose modern day attitudes and turns of phrases and even behavioral norms onto characters in stories set over 80 years ago or is there nothing new under the sun with regards to these aspects?

I didn’t find it difficult. Challenging sometimes, certainly. But, like writing any historical period, you do the research and gain as deep an understanding of the era as you can and what is essential to it, in terms of what makes it all fit together.

Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do write and plot as you proceed?

I don’t plot in advance at all. I start with an idea and go from there. Sometimes it’s a pretty well-formed idea, but sometimes it’s just a concept.

For the first draft, I write it as though I’m watching a movie that unfolds with each sentence, paragraph and page. I just get the story down, that’s what’s important for me at that stage. And then you edit, right? Lots of editing and sanding, but the heart of the thing has been created with that first draft.

I walk six to eight k every day, no matter where I am. Lately I’ve taken to dictating while I walk, then I transcribe what I’ve spoken. I’m essentially taping the first draft. It’s an extraordinary process that I never thought would work for me. When I transcribe, it’s like I’m hearing a complete story for the first time. It feels sort of magical! I’m really enjoying it.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I randomly pull names out of the air most of the time. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes they do not. The point is: I don’t want to slow down enough to choose them on the first rush through. I’m so excited by the story and the telling of it, I know I can get to it afterward.

That said, some of those randomly grabbed names stick wonderfully. Kitty Pangborn. Truly? It’s a good name, right? But where did it come from? I actually have no idea.

How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximize its effectiveness?

The thing with social media is it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? And in 2014, it’s one of the things writers need to do. It’s not a matter of “yes” or “no” but, rather, what. I advise people to choose the mediums that resonate with them: do a couple of things really well and with passion rather than trying a scattershot approach with everything. For instance, I really love Facebook and the community that can be grown there, so I spend a large percentage of my available social media time there. For the last half year or so, I’ve also really been digging on Instagram and I have a sense of it working for me, so that’s one I use regularly. And, of course, a web site is not social media, but I am absolutely positive that no writer should be without one at this stage. It just makes no sense.

I understand that the book you have coming out this autumn is a departure for you.

Yes. One that I’m excited about. It’s called If It Bleeds and it’s the first in my new Nicole Charles series. (And, yes: Hammett fans. The name is homage.)

Nicole is a young reporter who is lucky to have landed a job on a metro daily, but chagrined that, as a gossip columnist, she doesn’t get to do any real reporting.

If It Bleeds is part of Orca Books’ Rapid Reads program. Rapid Reads are mostly aimed at adult readers who are new to English or newly literate. So we’re talking about a sophisticated reader – an adult – who you want to enchant and engage and hopefully even capture for life as a reader. And the best thought is to create a book for that reader. Nothing dumbed down. Not a book for children. But an exciting journey with twists and subplots, but using simple language, fewer syllables and less words.

It was a lot more difficult than that maybe sounds. In the end If It Bleeds actually topped out slightly more than 20,000 words but, in some ways, getting that 20K took more editing than a longer book. I think, in some ways, the experience will have changed the way I write – and certainly how I edit – forever.

How So?

I guess it’s like anything. It’s not until you limit yourself in some way that you appreciate how you’ve taken a thing for granted. Again: I wanted to create a sophisticated story. Nothing dumbed down or simplified, but a work that even readers of my other full length novels would enjoy. I think I’ve succeeded. I’m very proud of the tight little package that If It Bleeds grew into.

Your novels are sometimes known for bad guys meeting their just desserts but often not in a conventional way. Can you explain why this facet of karmic justice, if I put it like that, appeals to you?

Oh, that’s funny, Martin. What a splendid observation. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right. I’d have to think: have I ever had the bad guy go off in handcuffs? If I have, he turns up free after a while… then gets hit in the head by a boat oar, or has his head smashed up in some creative way. I mean, it’s deserved, but unexpected, I guess. Like a lot of mystery writers, I like the idea of justice: that a bad person will get their comeuppance, regardless. And I guess a part of me really hopes it’s true. That those of us servicing our karmas throughout our lifetime will be rewarded in some way while all those dreadful people who are constantly getting away with things will end badly.

Finally, have you any general advice to writers reading this interview?

I’m always advising new writers to write the book that’s in their heart. Write the book that’s calling you. Don’t worry about, is this what’s selling? When you’re starting out, there’s a fairly good chance no one will ever see the work besides you. If that’s the case, as long as you’re happy with the work, it’s a success. If you go through all the labor and pain of writing a whole book and you don’t like it, it was all a waste of time. I’ve never heard anyone express regrets for writing a book that was too good.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,734 other followers