Want a Master Class in Storytelling? Tune In…

Vintage radio

What’s old is new again.

Welcome the new age of the podcast.  Many people compare podcasts to online radio, but they are different in that podcasts are recorded in advance and then ready to be listened to at your convenience. Podcasts, which have been around since about 2004, have been quietly plugging along in the background with little growth and not much buzz.

All that changed with Serial. Serial, a podcast produced by This American Life that turned into an obsession for many, chronicled an investigation of a fifteen year-old murder case (you can read my review of Serial here). It quickly became the fastest downloaded podcast on iTunes ever to reach 5 million listeners.

While a compelling listen is always a a good way to spend your time, listening to poorly-executed podcasts can be just as valuable as listening to outstanding ones. You can pinpoint when your attention is captured and when it wanes.   By listening to both ends of the storytelling-prowess spectrum, you can learn how to analyze your own project based upon your response to listening to other programs.

I suppose I am a bit nostalgic for that previous radio era, a time that had come and gone before I was even born. That said, this isn’t your granddad’s radio hour. Today’s long form storytelling podcasts are skillfully structured combining current techniques and an understanding of today’s listeners. They cover topics ranging from true crime and current events to the more nebulous but compelling topics. What does it mean to be happy and is chasing happiness really the answer? What happens when people are put in positions that are far out of their expertise? Why do people say such hateful things on the Internet? Each of these topics is tackled with a depth and skill guaranteed to keep you listening until the very end.

The master of this domain, in my opinion, is This American Life, with its substantial catalog of interesting episodes all crafted under Ira Glass’s gifted guidance. And, although I had heard of TAL, I never listened consistently until getting hooked on Serial.

I had no idea what I was missing.

So, storytellers, consider tuning in and downloading an episode or two the next time you go for a walk, a run, or a drive. Apple’s Podcast app is simple to use and there are also several options for listening on Android devices as well. Here are a few podcasts I hope you will consider:

radio_microphoneLaura’s Podcast Recommendation List:

Serial:

This is the one that started it all for me. The investigation, handled deftly by Sarah Koenig, will keep you downloading one episode after another, causing you to ignore phone calls, dishes and possibly even your children.

serialpodcast.org

This American Life:

TAL is the wise and skilled parent of Serial, and many agree that they are masters of long form storytelling. Some of my favorite episodes include:

The House on Loon Lake, Episode #199: Described by TAL as a “real life Hardy Boys Mystery,” it’s the tale of what happens when a boy discovers an abandoned house and decides to find out what happened to the people who lived there.

Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde: Episode #492: When Dr. Benjamin Gilmer lands a job working in a small clinic, he discovers he is replacing another doctor…also named Dr. Gilmer. The previous physician was serving time in prison for killing his own father, an act that those who knew the family couldn’t believe. As it turns out, there was far more to the story.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS: Episode #545. Act I of this episode broke my heart. What happens when someone hides behind their anonymity on the Internet, bullying you and saying hateful things? One writer decides to confront her attacker–with surprising results. Note: This episode has some explicit language but there is a ‘bleeped’ version on TAL’s site.

Criminal:

This true crime podcast keeps things short and sweet, introducing a 20-30 minute episode monthly. My favorite episode chronicles Raymond Chandler fans–seventy-year-old newlyweds– working diligently to get something extremely important to Chandler back to where it belongs. A must for Chandler and mystery fans:

http://thisiscriminal.com/episode-thirteen-the-big-sleep-12-19-2014/ 

Startup:

This one caught my attention because it chronicled a man starting an Internet startup. As someone who has been involved with a company going through investment funding and working on pitches and PR during the tech bubble, I found this one hit close to home. In a surprising twist, it also shows the challenges of starting a new tech business while trying to raise young children, giving it a more layered narrative and one that is far more compelling than a simple launch story. Not mystery based but great storytelling in a contemporary and intimate format. Side note–Alex Blumberg was a former TAL producer and left to start this company.

http://gimletmedia.com/show/startup/

LRO-sanfran–Laura Oles

The Writing Process: The Wisdom of Darrell Royal and Lessons from a Jack Russell Terrier

Most people don’t believe it, but I was almost thirty years old, and had been teaching English for seven years, when I discovered I possessed a writing process. I learned about it in a special summer program for teachers of English at the University of Texas – Austin–the Hill Country Writing Project.

Author Anna Castle addressing SINC ~ Heart of Texas Chapter, March 2015

Author Anna Castle addressing SINC ~ Heart of Texas Chapter, March 2015

A certain writer of fiction for middle grade who spoke at the Texas Library Association’s Bluebonnet luncheon several years ago was even older than I when she found out about hers. I won’t mention her name, although I’ve just discovered she lives in Austin and am wondering whether she might accept an invitation to speak at one of my Sisters in Crime chapter’s meetings–But I digress.

This author said children she met at school visits started asking, “What is your writing process?”  When they explained to her what that was, she thought a while and then described it in roughly the following way:

 

Hit the alarm button, roll out of bed, throw on robe, drag out of bedroom, bang on son’s door in passing, go downstairs, make coffee, pile dirty towels in hall, bang on son’s door and yell “Get up,” dress, put towels in and start washer, go to office, turn on computer, inhale coffee fumes until eyes open, pull up file, stare at monitor, drink coffee, stare some more, check on son . . . 

This author’s process isn’t exactly what the UT scholars meant but it’s worked for her through nearly sixty books (the last time I counted).

About a month ago I reviewed my own writing process–I’d been trying and failing to complete (which means I couldn’t even begin) a 100-word story for Friday Fictioneers, and I believed analyzing my process might offer insight into the source of the problem. I did my best to remember how I had written the first three short-short stories, which had practically composed themselves.

The next three paragraphs provide a rough description of what went through my mind as I wrote those stories, which were based on picture prompts. I’ve included links so you can see the pictures and also, if you wish, read the final versions of the stories.

The second story: “Lovestruck.” Prompt–picture of old boat. Know nothing about boats. Grandfather’s old wooden boat on river. Friend’s husband surprised her with boat; she wasn’t pleased. Husband and wife. He wants boat. She sees flaws, thinks he’s crazy. He sees possibilities. Probably unrealistic. She’s patient. He doesn’t listen? What’s the end? Oh–he loves the boat–a love affair, name boat. No, lust. Ending? ???Too long. Quote Coleridge–develops wife’s character, she reads. Oh–have him intro boat-girlfriend to wife–first line–hook reader. Ending? Cut more. Oh–she wants something, boat is leverage–imply–end? suggest they look at–what?–sewing machine. She wants him happy–but–what’s good for gander. Both smiling. Cut.

The third story: “‘Shrooms.” Prompt–picture of mushrooms. What the heck I do with that? Poisonous. Lord Peter Wimsey–victim killed w/ deadly Amanita. Wife cooks mushroom gravy–End, poisons husband. How trite. Keep them talking about mushrooms. Tease–he won’t eat mushrooms, never does. Afraid of mistake–toadstools. She picked them. Husband–horrified! Create character, aunt–knows mushrooms–helped pick. Okay. Tastes, yum. Aunt pops in–new glasses–poor vision picking mushrooms–imply. End ambiguous. Accident? What did husband eat? Whimsy, understatement–Might want to spit out. Not trite.

First story: “Nothing But Gray.” Prompt: Man looking out window at courtyard? stone walls on all sides, no visible exit–b&w except for pot plants, red flowers. Boxed in, trapped, stone, gray. Start–boy, not man, place him staring out, gray stone, his POV. Easy–put him at window. Consider table, 4 plates, one boy. Guests for dinner? A brother. Mom comes in. Gray. Death. Mom in denial. 4 plates. (Note: Really, I’m not sure how I wrote this. Serendipity. Started writing and tripped over a miracle.)

That isn’t exactly what the scholars meant either–they talked about pre-writing, writing, revising, editing, polishing, nitpicking,** things that can be taught in a formal classroom setting.

English: A whole and split Cadbury Creme Egg.

English: A whole and split Cadbury Creme Egg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m talking about the process unique to the individual, the brain state during which neurons explode at the mere thought of outlining before you do anything else or outlining at all, the state during which you either eat five pounds of Cadbury eggs or handcuff yourself to the birdbath so you can’t reach the box. Or, the state in which you’re relaxed, productive, focused, enjoying the act of creation despite the confusion and uncertainty creation entails.

To be continued…

Join me for Part 2 to discover
the Five Truths of the Writing Process,
how to make your writing practice more effective, and
What Darrell Royal and a Jack Russell Terrier Have to Do With Anything

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  • Nitpicking isn’t an official part of the writing process, but some people throw it in anyway.
  • To become a Friday Fictioneer, read instructions here: https://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/friday-fictioneers-2/. Then check Rochelle’s main page for the photo prompt, here: https://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/ You’ll probably have to scroll down to locate the correct picture. The projected date of publication will be the title. The official publication date is the Friday after the Wednesday prompt announcement. However, as I understand it, that’s a Friday-ish deadline. If Friday is impossible, just put it online before the next prompt comes out. Any Fictioneers out there, please correct me if I’m wrong.

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Kathy

Kathy

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write, and once or twice a month at Writing Wranglers and Warriors. Two of her stories will appear in AMW’s MURDER ON WHEELS, available soon from Wildside Press. Years ago, Kathy’s tongue got lodged in her cheek and she’s never managed to get it unstuck, so you can’t believe everything she says. Except about the writing process.

Neo-Noir?

I recently wrote to a friend and said, “Hey, next time you’re putting an anthology together, let me know. I’d like to contribute.”

He contacted me the next day. “Thanks for the idea! It’s all set. I’ve lined up all the writers and it’ll be Texas noir crime/mystery stories!”

What? That was fast. Noir? Images of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in trench coats came to mind. Now there’s nothing wrong with Cagney or Bogart. They were excellent actors who were in some great films. I’ve read some Raymond Chandler and he was very talented. He had a gift for unique metaphors that were brief and got right to the heart of the matter. I’ve never read Mickey Spillane but heard he was really good too. Lots of good writers of the genre out there.darkedinburgh_darklight

But, I’m not a fan of that type of setting. (Yes, I know. I heard your collective gasp. Please don’t throw tomatoes. Put down those pitchforks.) While there are some great stories out there, I’m not keen on men calling women “dames” and saying they have great “gams”. Not thrilled about guys punching other guys just to make a point that they’re tough. If I wanted to watch that, I’d have continued teaching high school.

I understand about noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, why it came about in America when it did. I have no problem with gritty books and movies, nor with the era. I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock, for example.

So now I’m thinking, great, what am I going to write? How am I, a kid from the ‘70s and ‘80’s, going to write about detectives swilling whiskey?

Put down my latte or I’ll give it to you right in the kisser!

I don’t think so.

I first started thinking about recent stories that were gritty. Surely there are modern (neo-noir?) stories. How gritty does it need to be? Aren’t crime/mysteries by definition dark? The only exception I can think of are cozies, but even sometimes they can be dark.

So I decided to do what I usually do several times a day. I Googled it. Apparently, according to Wikepedia, people can’t decide on the definition either. Then I fell back on my other source of information, my friends on Facebook. Since I have so many friends who are writers, this is a font of information. I received many good answers. A few of the recommendations were shows like the Longmire series and True Detective. Some of the books mentioned were The Bitch (yes, that’s the name), The Package by Cleve Sylcox, anything by Walter Moseley or Kelli Stanley, the Harry Dresden series, and an anthology called Lone Star Noir.lone star noir_

Okay, I think I’m getting there, closer to something that I could write. Dark stories, maybe like the Coen Brothers? I thought of Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, movies I really liked. Those had elements of crime and mystery. An idea popped into my head, something that I could really write. I’m sure some of the other writers for the anthology are wondering if a little housewife could possibly create something dark enough to fit in with their stories.

I think I’m up to the challenge.

So  how about you? Do you have a favorite story or movie that you consider to be noir?

Murder in Africa

Elizabeth Buhmann

MURDER IN EXOTIC PLACES, continued.

by Elizabeth Buhmann

Last month, I wrote about books set on the Indian subcontinent. How about books set in Africa? I have never been to Africa, but I’ve read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. The subtitle is “Overland from Cairo to Capetown.” Think about that for a minute. Not a journey for the faint of heart! But not one you have to make, because you can read a blow-by-blow that offers all the wit and keen observation of the most astute, acerbic and entertaining travel writer ever.

kenya

I loved that book, but I must have murder, and fortunately Africa is the setting for several outstanding detective series. Among the very best are Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper
presentdarknessnovels, set in South Africa during the 1950s, at the height of the Apartheid era. Malla Nunn is from Swaziland in South Africa and now resides in Australia.

All four books in her series are excellent. I started with the third, Blessed are the Dead, in which a young Zulu woman is murdered in the Drakensberg Mountains. This is a dark, gritty and well-plotted murder mystery with a fascinating geographic, social and political setting. I highly recommend it. Her latest is Present Darkness.

Botswanahouse

If you prefer light and delightful to dark and gritty, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is a wonderful read. It’s the twelfth book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series sattentby Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. The books are set in Gabarone, Botswana, and the main character is the wise and charming Precious Ramotswe.

You may already know about these books, since they have been wildly popular for more than ten years now, but did you know that there are fifteen books in the series? Here’s a checklist, so you can be sure you’ve read them all. The BBC/HBO television series captures the books perfectly, by the way; Season 1 is available on Amazon Video.

acarriondeathLess well known, and also set in Botswana, are the Kubu mysteries, by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who publish as Michael Stanley. Both men were born in Africa and have traveled extensively there all their lives. Their lovable detective is the portly David Benga, affectionately known as Kubu (the Setsama word for hippopotamus). The series achieves a perfect balance between light humor and serious crime. A Carrion Death, their debut, is a good place to start.  There are four Kubu books altogether, plus a cook book.

But actually, if it’s African food you crave (and if you have ever tried African food, you surely crave it), try Jessica Harris’s Africa Cookbook, Tastes of a Continent. Babotie! Curried cabbage! Pigeon Pie! It takes all day to cook, and a village to eat, such a dinner!

zanzibar2

MM Kaye, you may recall from the first post in this series (Murder in Exotic Places) was born in India and lived there much of her life. After India’s independence, she followed her husband, a Major-General in the British Army, to Africa. There she wrote two more romantic suspense novels: Death in Kenya and Death in Zanzibar.

africacookbook

deathinkenyazanzibarlaydeath

I stumbled on MM Kaye’s mysteries when researching my own book, Lay Death at Her Door. My main character, Kate Cranbrook, is from Kenya, daughter of American ex-voyagerpatriates, and events from her teenage years in Nairobi reach across decades of her life to haunt her.

Finally, I have just discovered a series of mysteries by Kwei Quartey. I’m currently enjoying Death at the Voyager Hotel,  set in Ghana. I’m close to the end, and I don’t know whodunnit yet!

Next: Mysteries set in the Far East.

Planning Writing Events or I’ll get to the mystery part

 

portraits 004 (7)

By Gale Albright

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

It puts you right to sleep, doesn’t it?

Not necessarily. I’m one of those strange people who likes to plan and organize events, mostly involving writers and writing.

120px-Orson_Welles-Citizen_Kane1As a child I showed signs of being a producer-director. Move over, Orson Welles and David O. Selznick. I’d create my own radio plays, improvise the script, sound effects (old-fashioned wooden couch arms were good for making horse galloping noises), all the acting parts (animal and human), and commercial breaks.

David O. SelznickMy Uncle Ras brought me a lovely little theater set, complete with cardboard characters, all cunningly controlled with magnets manipulated underneath the stage. I spent many happy, drama-drenched hours producing shows. One of my best toys ever.

Many years ago, when people asked what I would do if money was no object, I said I wanted to own a regional community theater and be producer-director-actor-playwright-ticket seller-publicity person. Usher, not so much. I would delegate that. Who could ask for anything more?

These days I’m indulging my Welles-Selznick mania by planning/organizing conferences and workshops, sometimes alone, mostly with others.

Yes, Dear Reader, I will get to the mystery part soon, don’t worry. You have not opened the wrong blog. I’m setting the scene, so to speak.

For months I’ve been participating in the care and feeding of a rather large regional literary conference.

What’s involved with a big conference featuring out of town guest speakers and lots of attendees at a hotel? Well, there’s getting the right place nailed down for a price one can afford. There are different prices for early-bird registration, Saturday only, Sunday only, or both days. Are you staying at the hotel? If so, king or queen beds? Early-bird rates, how many nights? How many conference rooms do you need? How many speakers need AV equipment?

Are there discounted hotel rooms for participants? Who needs a ride to and from the airport? How can we arrange a visiting editor’s presentation of the hero’s journey in Ballroom X so she has time to dash to Conference Room Y to do manuscript critiques? What about agenda preparation, guaranteed hotel rooms, announcements, awards, contests, prizes, cookie breaks, simultaneous breakout sessions? It’s a balancing act.

Then there’s the food.

How many people will eat the two lunches at the hotel banquet room included in the registration fee? And what—WHAT–do they eat?

Before I retired from the University of Texas, I used to organize student dinner parties for my boss. Not only did I pick the caterer, check the cost, select the menu and decide if we needed disposable everything, I had to make sure all the students who needed halal, kosher, vegetarian, and vegan selections were guaranteed a nice dinner. Plus the people like me who didn’t care what the hell they ate.

So, when organizing menus, make sure there are gluten-free options and plenty of lettuce. That’s my advice. Another piece of advice is once you get a guaranteed physical location and a firm date for an event, the rest can be worked out. First things first.

A big conference is a big deal. It’s too big for a one-woman show. I’m a volunteer and I get my marching orders from the conference coordinator, which is a good thing. I’ve learned a lot. I will put it to good use down the line, I’m sure.

More prizes!

More prizes!

In November of 2013, Austin Mystery Writers (I told you we’d get to the mystery part) put on a one-day free crime fiction workshop with BookPeople. We had three great speakers—Karen MacInerney, Janice Hamrick, and Reavis Wortham. We had a full house. It was exhausting on the front end and lovely after it was over. We did good.

Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter is going to present a one-day crime fiction workshop on May 23 in partnership with BookPeople. I’m looking forward to it. Now I know what to expect.

One-day local mystery workshops and monthly speaker meetings are the perfect size for my current ambitions. Although I do think Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter probably could put on a teeny little conference some day. So could Austin Mystery Writers. One airplane round trip and one hotel room for a big shot speaker? Need funds? We could hold a bake sale.

Did Orson Welles or David O. Selznick ever hold bake sales to finance their productions?

I’ll delegate that.

1471124_740209775992543_1343334063_n

 

Writing Advice: Too Much of a Good Thing?

LRO-sanfranby Laura Oles

Writers are a curious group, with many searching for tips to help us write faster, write better,  to create stronger stories with more compelling characters.   Sometimes the writing flows and it feels so effortless. When the writing gets difficult, it must mean we’re doing something wrong. We need to fix the struggle, to find a trick or technique to navigate the tough moments.

When I find myself in this position, I sometimes search for answers from my favorite novelists. The searching is also a form of procrastination. There must remain some skills I have not yet learned that would help me better manage these difficult patches in the creative process. Certainly some other successful writers and artists have insights that will guide me back toward the easier path, right?

Maybe mimicking successful writers’ habits would be the key, so I turned to Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work to find the common thread that made so many of these artists successful. With 161 artists profiled, their common techniques would reveal themselves, right?

wrong or right ethical questionWhat this careful study in creative habits revealed was that there are as many paths to success as there are barbeque options in Texas. Some, like novelist Haruki Murakami, wake up early and embrace strict routines. Yet, Jane Austen wrote amidst the bustle of visitors, housework and entertaining with no schedule at all. Some creatives drank, others abstained, some wrote a little bit each day while others wrote in a frenzied spring to the finish line.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” Hemingway said. His quote is a reminder that there isn’t a magic path to writing, a secret that will cure all that ails you (or your manuscript). There also isn’t one right way to approach the craft of storytelling. It’s simply a matter of sitting in front of the computer each day and fighting through the difficult moments, putting words to paper even if they aren’t quite the right words in quite the right order.

BirdbyBird

My well-worn copy, purchased at a bookstore in Maryland while traveling for work back in 1996. I still keep it close for inspiration and as a reminder to take my projects one step at a time.

I once had an impressive collection of writing reference books and, back then, I tried on advice like many try on clothes, searching for that perfect fit. I have since whittled the collection down to a handful of books that continue to provide guidance and help me get back on track. However, what helped more than anything was the realization that I had to find my own way. It was time to apply what I had learned, to shape it and make it my own. I had to quit trying to twist the routines and methods of others to fit my life, responsibilities and personality. Yes, I’ve learned quite a bit reading these books but there comes a time when practicing the craft trumps reading about it.

Sometimes the writing is hard. There is no easy answer when we hit a wall, stumble through the messy middle of a manuscript or realize a scene we love doesn’t serve the story. It’s a matter of digging in and staying with the work. Struggling is part of the process. And that realization actually makes the process easier. Now, instead of searching for the next strategy, I can get back to work instead.

My Valentine to Writing

Five members of Austin Mystery Writers post here regularly, and I sometimes wonder whether you readers know which of us is which. So I’m going to clear up any questions  concerning my identity.

I’m Kathy. I write about angst. Any time you arrive here to find weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the writing life, it’s my teeth you hear gnashing.

Kathy

Kathy

I’m writing this at home, but home isn’t the only place I gnash. I do it at my office, AKA bookstore coffee shop, in full view of the public. I try to emote quietly, but muttering carries. People around me, many of them equipped with laptops and writing assignments of their own, receive full benefit of my outbursts: “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” “Noooo.” “What’s the word? What’s the word?” “^!*%&@% network.”

(I don’t really say ^!*%&@% , but that’s what I mean.)

I suspect other writers gnash, too.

Consider American poet William Cullen Bryant, author of “Thanatopsis.” I can’t imagine his interrupting himself with undignified emotional outbursts, but no one who holds his forehead like that is easy in his mind.

Today, though, there will be no gnashing. Today I depart from the usual tales of woe to say, I love writing.

I love the exhilaration I experience when words flow onto the page.

I love finding just the right word to express my meaning.

I love revising, moving sentences and paragraphs around, cutting excess–words, paragraphs, whole pages.

I love writing an entire blog post and then scrapping it and writing something different. (As I did for this post.)

I love filling holes to add clarity.

I love watching a story develop: beginning, middle, and end.

I love–oh, how I love–line editing, slashing words and phrases, discovering the one word whose omission makes the piece smoother, tighter.

I love the joy I feel on reading the finished product–and finding one more word to cut.

I love the satisfaction and the surprise of completing a task I didn’t think I could do.

I love making something out of nothing.

I love making art.

I love creating.

I love saying, “I write.”

I love loving writing.

*****

Lagniappe, Freebie, Pilon

William Cullen Bryant wrote “Thanatopsis” when he was seventeen years old. The title comes from the Greek thanatos (“death”) and opsis (“sight”), and has been translated “Meditation upon Death.” He initially hid the poem from his father because it expressed ideas not found in traditional Christine doctrine. In the concluding lines, which my mother memorized in high school and sixty years later could recite from memory, the poet instructs how to “join the innumerable caravan” of those who have gone before.

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So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Imagine Bryant reading those lines. He must have loved writing.

See the entire poem here.

*****

029

To Write Is to Write Is to Write

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write,which she plans to rename, and, every thirty days or so, with friends at Writing Wranglers and Warriors. She blogged at Whiskertips until cats took it over.

 

Interview With George Wier

George Wier was nice enough to agree to an interview. Thank you, George! George Wier

(He’s a personal friend of mine so he knew I’d give him grief if he didn’t. 😉  )

I know that you’re not originally from Austin. How did you get here?

I moved to Austin in 2002 from College Station. One day I took a look at the world around me and realized that most of my friends and all of my family had moved away. Also, after thirty years of living in Bryan-College Station, I knew everyone and everything that I wanted to know.  In a word, I was bored. I called an old friend who lived in Austin and told him about my dilemma, and without even the hint of hesitation, he offered a spare room in his apartment and told me to load up my meager possessions and come on. I left the next day. This was about September or October, not far from my 37th birthday. I was essentially–and with malice aforethought–wiping out an old existence and beginning a new one. I was time to do that. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Apart from rooting for the old home team (the Aggies) I took to Austin like a duck to water. I’m home now.

Have you always been a writer? Was there a book that inspired you to write?

Yes, I have always been a writer, ever since I could read. My first inspiration was comic books and film. My first actual attempt at a complete narrative was essentially a skit that was somehow a cross between a story and a script, and was actually inspired by Monty Python. I couldn’t do humor well, though, and sight gags were not my thing. The earliest, clearest influences on my writing came from science fiction, particularly Frank Herbert’s Dune books. I loved those. There is one story idea from those early days that I will attempt sometime in the near future. It’s about an outpost at the fringe of human expansion into the universe, and will be sort of a cross between Castaway and the Star Trek universe. We’ll see, though, if I ever get that done. My hopper is pretty much loaded up at the moment.

Along about 1976 or ’77, I was given a collection of Doc Savage paperbacks by my best friend’s sister. Her name was Peggy Dale Taylor. The Doc Savage books she gave me were the 1960s and ’70s Bantam paperback reprints of the old Street and Smith Doc Savage series written under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson, but mostly actually penned by Lester Dent, who though originally from Missouri, was a member of the Explorer’s Club in New York. Dent wrote about a quasi-private investigator, quasi-superhero named Clark Savage, Jr., and his five aides, who traveled the world righting wrongs and punishing evildoers. They sparked the imagination of this young teenager and would later very largely influence my Bill Travis Mystery series. The difference, however, between Doc Savage and Bill Travis is that Bill is based in Texas and rarely crosses the state line, he doesn’t have a lot of gadgets to help him out, and his small collection of friends are more from the “friends in low places” crowd, and less from the “cream of the crop”. I’ve written ten Bill Travis books, and there are at least eleven more to go before I round out the series, including three prequels. And by the time I’m at the end of that long runway, I should–hope springs eternal–know how to write.

Tell us about the different genres you write. Does the genre influence how you approach or plot your book?

Mostly, I write MY genre. I’m not sure what that is. For instance, the Bill Travis books, though billed as mystery, occasionally cross over the line into the fantastic, or you might call it Science Fiction. The first book, The Last Call, is straight action-adventure. The second book, Capitol Offense, while it has elements of action-adventure, is at least half mystery with some elements of political intrigue. The third book, Longnecks and Twisted Hearts, quite definitely crosses the line into science fiction, yet remains mostly a murder mystery. Books four and five, The Devil to Pay and Death On the Pedernales, are both pretty much straight mysteries. Book Six, Slow Falling, has so much science fiction that it should probably be classified as such, yet it’s my favorite of all of them. And so on through the series. By the time we get to book ten, Ghost of the Karankawa, Bill Travis meets Bigfoot. So, there you go. 

Genre doesn’t so much influence me. The story does, however. It’s going to ultimately be whatever it is. I don’t write from outline, or at least in those few instances when I have and “knew” what was coming in later chapters, the outline might be a simple sentence of what was to happen in that chapter. About the only time I do that however, is either when I’m skipping around in the book and writing it in a non-linear fashion or when I’m collaborating and my co-author needs to fill in what I skipped over. In the latter instance, it’s at least courteous for me to provide some clues as to what, in general, I think should happen here and there in the story. I guess that’s about it on that.

As a side-note, I don’t like to read a lot of books in the genre in which I’m going to be doing any extensive writing (i.e., mysteries) because I don’t like to be unduly influenced by other writers. People tell me that my writing style is similar to John D. McDonald. I must confess, I’ve never read a John D. McDonald book. I hear that they’re wonderful, and at the top of the mystery genre, so I always take that as a high compliment and accept it as gracefully as I can. But, I’ll only read a mystery if it’s written by a friend and this friend needs an endorsement or a general leg up. That’s about it. 

What is the secret to your success?

Writing is like anything else. Most of the battle is won by showing up. You have to sit down and write. You have to write a lot. You have to produce, bang out copy, write like there’s no tomorrow (there really isn’t, after all, there is only today!), plan and scheme and push the envelope. However, I think what you’re asking me is for some formula. Okay, I’ll give it to you. Here are my “secrets” to success (it’s interesting to me that there are no real secrets. The nature of the universe is that we all think that there’s some great secret hidden back of the curtain of reality, and that if we could only somehow penetrate that curtain, why, we’d HAVE IT and we’d simply do that magical little formula and the world would lie at our feet. The secret of the universe is nothing. This is also the definition of a mystery. A mystery is: the answer was not given. That’s all a mystery is. The mystery of the universe is a big fat zero. We don’t do well, as a species, with zero. Nothing is difficult to confront. If you don’t believe me, try walking through an unfamiliar house full of furniture in the pitch blackness. You move slowly, at best, because you’re pretty sure you’re going to hit something hard and kill your shins, or fall down and break your neck. So, in our minds, that darkness, that big zero, is really “something”. (Let me tell you, it’s not!):   

I have, this lifetime, sifted through quite a bit of data on success. I’ve narrowed my findings to ten basic points:

     1. Work toward your goal every single day.

     2. Do not let the sun set without accomplishing something towards it.

     3. Hold on to any wins you achieve along the way and disregard the losses.

     4.Don’t allow anyone to evaluate or invalidate your goals, your dreams, and particularly your abilities.

     5. Thinking about a thing is not the same as doing a thing. Success is only ever accomplished through action. The dream, however, must give your actions purpose and life.

     6. Treat your goals as if they are living beings, and grant them life.

     7. All other rules apply with regard to your goals, particularly the Golden Rule.

     8. Study, learn and become the top person on the planet in your field. Knowing WHY is of immense value. Knowing HOW will guarantee prosperity. Knowing both HOW and WHY is everything.

     9. If you get mad at someone or something that stands in your way, you have granted them or it immense power. Become unflappable. In any situation you are the expert. You are the source. Unquestionably. Success is hidden in the minutiae. It’s the small things that, brought together, create the whole.

     10. Fortune and fame are illusions, and at best are fleeting. Don’t seek these. Instead, seek happiness. You will ultimately find that it resides within you.

I’ve found that most writers have other talents. What are your other talents?

Well, that’s a loaded question. I like to think I’m adept at everything I do, and typically overinflate my abilities, at the very least to myself. However, I like to draw (with a mechanical pencil), I paint, I play violin and I play country fiddle, and I do other things I’m not supposed to do. 

Some of George’s pictures
West Texas  Fall    Secret Meadow

Do you have any advice particularly for mystery writers?

The main piece of advice, I suppose, is what I said above about not reading too much in that genre. But really, you might like to read mysteries and want to write them as well. Really, it’s a personal preference on my part not to do so. I also write a little science fiction, for instance, and I am so well-read in that genre, and will continue to be so, that it’s impractical for me to even think about not reading science fiction. So, whatever your write, whether it’s mystery or romance or whatever, you should write what my friend Joe Lansdale calls “your own genre”. Your writing is YOUR genre. Write what you want to write, and how you want to write it. And, write what you, yourself, would most want to read. That’s the simple one. Do that, and you’ve got it made.

Tell us something cool about Austin that we probably don’t know.

The one thing I like about Austin is that it’s full of secrets. There are so many little-known, out-of-the-way and off-the-beaten-path little hidey-hole restaurants, coffee bars, music venues, acting and dancing troupes, and etc. I love finding those. It’s my goal to find all of them! Sallie and I venture forth at least once weekly looking for that offbeat place that we’ve never heard of before. And I have the knack for smelling them out.

How can we find more information about you and your books?

The best place is my website, www.georgewier.com (which takes you directly to the www.billtravismysteries.comsite). Both of these sites have now been combined into one. Also, I have a wordpress blog at http://georgewier.wordpress.com. Other than that, you can follow me on Twitter at @BillTravisWrite and on Facebook at George Wier-Author. Also, I encourage everyone to communicate directly with me. I usually answer my own emails, and I typically do this quickly. So, please communicate with me. I know that people get punished in this world for the two great crimes: being there and communicating. But, that’s the only way to ever get anywhere. So, yes, get in touch with me and ask if you can’t find the answer. Or just email me to say “Hey!” I’ll say “hey” back at you.

What are you working on now?

Hmm. The question should be “what are you NOT working on now?” I’m working on Bill Travis #11, Desperate Crimes. Also, I’m right at the end of yet another mystery standalone entitled Errant Knight. It’ll be forthcoming in a few weeks as an ebook and a trade paperback. I will have another book coming out from Cinco Puntos Press in January of 2016 entitled Murder In Elysium. Also, I’m collaborating at the moment with Billy Kring (another fantastic mystery author) on the steampunk series The Far Journey Chronicles. Billy and I have completed and published 1889: Journey to the Moon, and have finished and are in the process of editing 1899: Journey to Mars. We have also begun 1904: Journey Into Time. There will be a minimum of four books in that series, with the last one planned: 1909: Journey to Atlantis. Aside from that, I’ve got a few other projects going that I pay attention to, catch as catch can. But I have far more than that planned, including a collaborative series with science fiction great (and friend), T.R. Harris, of San Diego, California. I guess that’s it.

Thanks for the interview. You’ve given me a lot to think about and now I’m pumped up! I can’t wait to get back to my writing!

Murder in Exotic Places

Elizabeth BuhmannBy Elizabeth Buhmann

I love to read murder mysteries that are set somewhere in the world that I have never been. Let me hasten to say that I do not care for such mysteries when they’ve been written by someone who has also never been there, or who has not been there for more than a visit.

No, I want a book that oozes local color and a narrator who has clearly lived there, walked the streets every day and been part of the community. Sometimes it’s an ex-pat, sometimes a person sent there by a job (or a spouse’s job). Or it may be an English-speaking native, or the books may have been written in another language and translated into English.

The River Ganges, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

The River Ganges, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

The author also needs to be a skillful and inventive mystery and suspense writer, so the kind of books I’m talking about are few and far between. When I find them, I love them. When the book is part of a series, well then. Hog heaven!

Right now for me the exotic murder mysteries are set in India. I’ve found several! MM Kaye, of Far Pavillions fame, was born in India and spent much of her adult life there. Did you know she wrote six murder mysteries? Her “Death in” series is a veritable clinic in the romantic suspense genre, and the one that’s set in India, Death in Kashmir, evokes the waning years of the British Raj.

servant

cadaver

Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series is more fun than a basket of Macaques (thank you, Russ Hall, for recommending them). Start with The Case of the Missing Servant. I cannot get through one of these books without making Punjabi curry and browsing Google images of Dehli.

Shamini Flint’s delightful Inspector Singh travels to Mumbai in A Curious Indian Cadaver. Flint is an attorney who lives (like her Sikh detective) in Singapore and has travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. Her books are set in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and China.

deadhand

elephanta

And why go to the expense and bother of world travel when you can read Paul Theroux? He has written about India in a number of his travel books, but did you know he set a murder mystery in Calcutta? A Dead Hand is an interesting read, but  what I highly recommend is  the Elephanta Suite—it’s terrific! It’s not a murder mystery, though. It’s a collection of short stories set in Bangalore, Mumbai and a spa in northern India.

amazing

indiaSince I am digressing from murder, I have to mention Chitra Divakaruni’s books. In One Amazing Thing, an earthquake traps a diverse group of people in the basement of an Indian Consulate in America, and to while away the hours waiting to be rescued, they tell stories from their lives. When the first character began her story, I literally got a chill down my spine.

One last recommendation: If you try any of these books, you may be seized by the need for a spicy korma or rogan josh. My trusty House of India Cookbook has served me well for forty years, and it’s still available on Amazon!

Next time I’ll share a list of murder mysteries set in Africa.

laydeathElizabeth Buhmann is the author of Lay Death at Her Door (Red Adept Publishing, May 2013), a stand-alone mystery/suspense novel about an old murder that comes unsolved when the man who was convicted of it is exonerated. The story is told from the point of view of the woman on whose eyewitness testimony the prosecution was based. When the book opens, her life is about to come apart at the seams.

No Cleavage in Broadchurch

hutto oct. 1 2014 023 (2)By Gale Albright

In crime fiction, women traditionally have taken on roles of helpmeet/spouse or devil temptress. It’s the old good girl/bad girl, Madonna/whore dichotomy so prevalent in literature, movies, and television. A great example of this dichotomy appears in the classic noir film, The Maltese Falcon.

Mary Astor is the seductive, murdering femme fatale, Bridget O’Shaughnessy. Lee Patrick plays Sam Spade’s girl Friday, Effie Perrine. She is obviously devoted to him, is on call to do his bidding 24/7 and lives with her mother. He never notices her except to say things like “You’re a good man, sister.” He plays around with Iva Archer, his partner’s wife. She is not on screen long, but she makes it count. When Miles is murdered, she forces her way into Sam’s office, draped head to toe in stylish black, somehow looking sexy, and asks Sam if he killed Miles because he was in love with her. The audience gets the idea that she wouldn’t mind. His obedient, love-starved “good man sister” gets rid of her.

https://www.google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=The%20Maltese%20Falcon&gws_rd=ssl

What has this got to do with Broadchurch and cleavage?

The idea for this post came about when I saw a comment on Facebook about the BBC crime drama, Broadchurch.

I have seen the first season of this excellent series in its entirety. The setting is a small ocean-side tourist town where everyone knows everyone else. An eleven-year-old boy is found murdered on the beach and the hunt is on for the killer. There’s nothing graphic, bloody or nasty, no drawn-out post-mortem grisly incisions, etc. Some people like this, but as a personal preference, I do not. I prefer the old Hitchcock, edge-of-your-seat suspense to buckets of blood and viscera.

Broadchurch is carried by the tremendous acting of Olivia Colman (Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller) and David Tennant (Detective Inpector Alec Hardy). Ellie, a long-time DS in the police department, is enraged when she is bypassed for promotion. Outsider DI Alec Hardy is brought in to conduct the investigation. Alec has so much emotional baggage he needs a freight train to carry it. And he’s also wonderfully strange, rude, brilliant, and completely undiplomatic. The pair clash at first meeting and things go downhill from there.

The characters are fascinating. I could go on and on about the fine craftsmanship involved in Broadchurch, but the main thing that impressed me is DS Ellie Miller. She is not a kid. Her hair blows all over the place when she’s out on the beach. Her wardrobe is the pits. There’s no cleavage and not a high heel to be seen. This woman is a working stiff. She’s got kids and her husband is unemployed and stays home with the baby. She’s mad as hell about being jumped over for promotion. She’s a part of the town and is defensive when Alec rides roughshod over everyone.

In short, she is a brave, courageous, smart woman copper who hates her new boss. She is all too human–hot-tempered, maternal, blunt, compassionate, and tough. The two protagonists are the heart and soul of the story, but the town itself is also an important character in this atmospheric, brooding drama.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadchurch

I prefer British crime shows to American ones. One of the main reasons is the treatment of women characters. My husband and I have gotten to the point that every time we see an actress in tight jeans and low-cut top, we say, “She must be a cop.”

There are more women characters in crime dramas than there used to be. Instead of playing only hookers, coffee-fetching secretaries, or nagging wives, they are now homicide detectives, forensic experts, profilers, spies, and medical examiners. So, people might say, isn’t that a step in the right direction for women? They are now playing strong characters in roles traditionally reserved for men.

My point is, how are they playing them? When the new crime show Stalker premiered, why was the lead actress Maggie Q, who plays LAPD detective Beth Davis, dressed up in a blouse cut halfway to her navel? Why did the female CIA operatives in Covert Affairs expose so much cleavage? Why do the two protagonists in Rizzoli & Isles look like runway models instead of homicide detective and medical examiner? I’ve read the Rizzoli and Iles novels by Tess Gerritsen, and the way the original characters are portrayed in the TV series is not true to Gerritsen’s initial creation. In the books, Rizzoli is short, has frizzy hair, no fashion sense, and can be a real jerk at times. She bears no resemblance to the gorgeous Angie Harmon seen on the tube.

Based on many years of watching shows about crime fiction, I think as a general rule, the British have better programs than we do on this side of the pond. They are more concerned with characterization. The lead characters are often not that good looking, not that young, and not that well dressed. They sometimes have crooked teeth. They look like real people.

In America, we still go for the glossy Hollywood look, with gorgeous hunk male actors and sexy actresses in scanty clothing playing lead roles in law enforcement dramas. I don’t think it’s an improvement in the status of women. I think it’s another form of gender discrimination. Sorry, I don’t feel liberated.

http://www.cbs.com/shows/stalker/about/

http://www.tntdrama.com/shows/rizzoli-isles.html