Sunday, October 30, 2011


Note: I am posting this blog early, because when it shows up on the blogsite, Susan and I will be away on vacation. We’ll be leaving our computers and all thoughts of publishing behind for ten days. Please do feel free to comment, and I’ll try to respond when we return. By the way, this blog is a rerun of one that I posted a could of months ago on the Oak Tree Press blogsite. I think it still holds up, and it’s even more current as the pub date for BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR approaches.

I moved to a small town in Humboldt County, California almost ten years ago, and I’ve wanted ever since to write about Humboldt’s amazing geography, its scenery, its history, its economy, and mainly its people. The trouble is, I write fiction—mystery fiction—in which people get killed and things sometimes get ugly. I didn’t want to paint my home town and my home county in a bad light, and I didn’t want to get in trouble with friends who don’t understand the difference between “normal” life, where conflict is to be avoided or quickly resolved, and fiction, where conflict is required and even relished.

So how could I celebrate this remarkable place, this land of rocky coastline, rugged mountains, and forests of towering redwood trees; this gentle balance between meadows full of peaceful dairy cows, fishing harbors, town squares, friendly taverns, and Victorian houses; a land rich with the history of lumbering, salmon fishing, and Native American culture? Not to mention the illegal cash crop for which Humboldt County is best known. Can’t leave that out.

Problem: I don’t want to tick off the authorities. Do I want the county sheriff, the city police, or the town council to get their feelings hurt by this newcomer, this mystery writer, who thinks law enforcement can sometimes be inept or corrupt? No way.

Problem: I don’t want to do a lot of research on the history of Humboldt County and try to get it right but inevitably get it wrong in the eyes of some local historians, because the history of this county is to a large extent a matter of contention.

So I’ve done what we all do in this business. Made it up from scratch. Forget research. Forget the facts. I kept the salmon fishing and the logging and the Native presence and the scenery. I kept the mountains, the redwood forests, and the rocky beaches, the town square and the friendly bar. But I have peopled the place with fictional characters who have somehow become realer to me than the people I meet on the streets, roads, and trails when I’m not writing.

Novelists get to do that, and it feels powerful and fun. We are historians of feuds, fights, and fanfares that never happened. We tell the truth about a bunch of lies. We dial up the drama of “reality,” in the interest of entertainment. And sometimes people get hurt. Some even get killed. Too bad. Some people fall in love. That’s nice, unless it’s also too bad. Love and death. It happens to us all.

And in fictional Jefferson County, California, up in Redwood Country between the rocky Pacific shore and the Jefferson Alps, you’ll find love and death in high gear. I invite you to come and visit me in Jefferson County, by reading my new mystery novel, Behind the Redwood Door, in late November, when it will be published by Oak Tree Press. Be assured that I will contact you when that happens!

Meanwhile, here’s a teaser from the book. It’s from the only chapter that takes place outside Jefferson County, in the nearby county of Humboldt.

            “Tell me something, Guy.” We sat beside the Mattole River in southern Humboldt County. High hills rose all around us, some of them covered with forests, others open fields of golden grass. The river was low and lazy this late in the summer, and dragonflies danced across the surface. A hawk wandered in the sky high over our heads, crying, crying. The riverbank was a small field of cobblestones, and that’s where we sat eating the sandwiches we’d bought in the one-store town of Honeydew, just a few miles back. Turkey sandwiches, Fritos, and cold local beer on a hot, still afternoon, with no pressing agenda except to get back to Shelter Cove in time for dinner. I hadn’t felt this relaxed in weeks. “Tell me something,” Carol repeated.
            “Why is life with you such a dangerous road?”

Sunday, October 23, 2011


For this, my fiftieth post on this blog, I am rerunning my first post on the site, which appeared November 24, 2010, almost a year ago. The reason I am recycling rather than coming up with something new this week is that Susan and I are rushing to be ready to take our vacation. We will be away, far away, from the office from October 27 to November 7. Kauai, to be exact, where I have only one goal: to relax and enjoy myself. So, I expect I'll be writing at least part of that time. Or not.

Anyway, here's this week's reading matter. I call it "Rules and Tools for Writing Short Stories, or Why Good Fiction Is Better than Bad Fiction." You may not wish to follow these rules as you write your own stories, but you should at least be aware of them, and know that if you're not following them, you are not following them by choice. If you do find yourself following them, it won't be by choice. It will be because you are writing well.

If you don't believe that art should have rules, then think of what follows as a set of standards, or a collection of common sense. If what follows doesn't make sense to you, then you may be a very good writer, but you are not a short-story writer in any sense I understand.

About style

Show 'em, don't tell 'em.

Stay in control: outline your story, and follow your outline.

Stay in control: don't be controlled by your outline. Allow yourself to be surprised by your characters and what they do. Write to find out what happens next.

If those last two items seem to contradict one another, you're right, so find the rule that works best for you, but remember that the desired result is the same: a story that presents an ironic combination of inevitability and surprise. However you get there, you must end with a satisfying, strongly constructed, seamless story.

Be selective. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the principle architects of modern short fiction, insisted that every element, every word even, of a short story must contribute to the harmonious whole. Poe was right. Put into the story only those elements of character, plot, and setting that are relevant to what the story does. Anything else is fat. Be selective, and select no fat. And be sure to edit out anything you put into the story just to show off. As Faulkner said, delete "your darlings."

Being selective is especially important when you're writing autobiographical fiction or even just writing from personal experience (which is inevitable). Remember that what was significant to you may not be relevant to the story. If that's the case, save it for another story where it will fit better.

Watch your step with point of view. A good rule for point of view in short stories is one is enough. Multiple points of view are okay, but the more you have the harder it is to do it right. The hard-and-fast rule is that whenever you're in one point of view, that's the only point of view you're in.

Write strong. Verb constructions are stronger than noun constructions. The active voice is stronger than the passive voice. Every noun does not need an adjective. Reexamine every adverb and throw away at least half of them, especially those that end in "ly," and almost all of the ones that end in "ly" to modify how a character has just said a line of dialogue.

Keep writing strong. Choose strong words: short, Anglo-Saxon words are much stronger than long, Latinate words. Choose the right word, and not, as Mark Twain cautioned us, "its second cousin." Write lean, because extra, unnecessary words get in the way and weaken your story.

Avoid the habitual past, and get right to the direct, moving action. A story has to hit the ground running. The first sentence in the story should be the best sentence in the story.

End the story gloriously. The last sentence in the story should be the best sentence in the story.

Have I just contradicted myself? Can there be more than one best sentence in a story? Maybe not mathematically, but you should try for it, and you should throw in another at the climax, and a few more during the buildup of tension. Let your story be peppered with best sentences.

Irony is a major ingredient of writing at the sentence level. It means surprise. Use surprising, unexpected words and put them together in original ways that mean even more than they say.

Caution: don't overwrite. Don't write fancy. Watch out for five-dollar words. It's a thin line, but don't show off, even when your fingers are dancing on the keys, celebrating the pleasure of words. How do you write with the grace of Fred Astaire without being a showoff? Perhaps the best advice comes from Hemingway: be honest. And be honest more consistently than Hemingway.

Reexamine the last sentence of every paragraph, the last paragraph of every scene, and the last scene of every story. Does it just summarize what's already been shown in the action? If so, dump the summary. End your paragraphs, scenes, and stories with action, not reflection.

 About Structure

Tell a story. Something has to happen to someone. That may seem to go without saying, but remember that a story without plot is like a meal without food.

The story starts at the beginning. It must hit the ground running. (Have I said that before?) The first sentence in the story must be the best sentence in the story. Don't begin with a weather report unless the weather is essential to the plot. Watch out for one character alone for too many pages at the beginning of the story; you (or your character) may get lost in thought and forget to have something happen.

Remember Chekhov's loaded rifle. Applying that rule to short stories, if there's a loaded rifle in an early scene, it must go off in or before the last scene of the story. Conversely, if a bomb goes off at the end of the story, chances are that bomb is in large measure what the story's about, and it must be planted, ticking, early in the story.

Don't be overly predictable. Surprise. Irony is an essential ingredient of plot construction. Irony at the plot level is the unexpected event that makes perfect sense. Make the reader react with "AHA!"-not with "Duh." or "Huh?"

The beginning of a story has to make the reader want to read the middle of the story. The well-worn phrase that wears well is, "Hook 'em with curiosity, and hold 'em with conflict."

Conflict is an absolute necessity of fiction short or long. Otherwise, what's the difference? The short story assumes there are obstacles to overcome, differences to reconcile, winners vs. losers, good guys vs. bad guys, inner struggles, arguments, fistfights, car chases, or merely difficult decisions. Mild or major, the conflict is at the heart of both character and plot. And somewhere in the plot, this conflict often results in a significant shift in the balance of power.

Which means: stories are about change. When we say "something happens to someone," we're talking about a change.

Often--perhaps more often than just often--that change is the result of a choice. A character must make a choice, and because of that choice, the character changes.

Built into that last statement is the concept of consequence. Consequence makes all the difference when it comes to plot. Vladimir Nabokov's wonderful, simple example shows the difference between a plot and a mere sequence of events. The latter: "The King died and the Queen died." The former: "The King died, and the Queen died of grief." A plot is not just a sequence of events: A, then B, then C, then D. A plot says B happened as a result of A, and that because of B, C had to happen, which led (surprisingly or inevitably or both) to D, and so on. Until:

Climax! Need I say more?

More: Resolution, or reverberation, or relaxation. Stories usually let the reader relax a bit after the climax. That's kind of them, but the story shouldn't just roll over and go to sleep. Keep the story alive to the end, and make the last sentence the best one in the story.

I've now said all I care to say about the theory of short fiction. These rules that I've just listed, and many more that I haven't, have served the art form for millennia, since stories were first swapped around the primal campfire. They have withstood history, human fads and fashions, and even television (don't get me started), and they will survive far into the future, regardless of how technology may complicate the way stories are distributed from mind to mind.

About truth

Be significant. The reason stories are important is because they're about what's important. That doesn't mean that all stories must be about love and death (although the finest stories are about one or the other and the finest of all are about both). But they must be about things that matter. The things that happen to your characters have to be important to the reader, because they're important to you, because they're things that matter in terms of the human condition.

Significance is important for its entertainment value: desire, danger, quest, and change.

Significance is also important for its moral value: we create art in order to make this a better planet for ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our fellow species. If you don't believe that, or if you think it's too grand a challenge, let me go further and say that all we do in life is for that purpose, and art (in this case writing short fiction) is but a concentrated effort in the grand cause.

Lighten up. Have fun with your writing. Art is for play, after all, and for God's sake, don't put your readers to sleep. You should indeed write about matters that are socially significant, but avoid sermons, and remember that fiction is primarily about people, not about ideas.

Speaking of significance, things that are not significant are laundry lists (a generic term not always referring to clothing), weather reports, and stories about writers. Also gratuitous sex. Sex is fine (you better believe it), but it must be important to the story and its plot and its theme and its characters, and not there just for the fun of it. The act itself, in the story, has to have a reason to be there in terms of fiction: it illustrates a character, or better yet, advances the plot by changing a relationship.

Respect your reader's intelligence. Imagine that your reader is at least as intelligent as you. Don't explain your story; if you're afraid your reader won't get it, you need to do some rewriting. Don't tell your reader what to think; persuade your reader to think a certain way by how you write.
ï Avoid gimmicks. Don't overpunctuate!!!!! Don't use phony phonetics (sez I). These aren't just matters of style; they're matters of honesty.

Write with authority; that's why you're called an author. That means, as we've been told forever, write about what you know about. This does not mean you must travel the globe like Richard Halliburton or participate in every sport like George Plimpton before you can write. If you think the things you already know about are not important enough, you're mistaken. Writing about what you know about does not mean you can't set your stories in foreign lands you've never visited, or far-off planets, for that matter. It means that what the story is really about is its emotional content, the part that comes from within you, and that's something you can't lie about. Write what you know, and tell the truth.

Do research so you won't be embarrassed by mistakes, but don't let research turn your lively fiction into a dull catalog of facts.

Use your imagination, and lie. But even then, tell the truth about it. Remember that a story about a struggle between blobs and robots, set on Pluto in 2356, is really about human life on Earth today.

Don't be afraid of the dark. I encourage you to write about troublesome things. That doesn't mean you can't write about love and laughter, but you should also realize that all good stories about relationships are about the problems in relationships, and that all humor comes from pain and suffering.

Respect your characters. Stories are about people, not about symbols. You and your reader must spend time with these characters, so make them individual and interesting. Love these people, even the rotters; they have a lot to tell you. Show (don't tell) what they're like, and let them speak and think for themselves. Let your readers draw their own conclusions about these people; if you've shown the characters in action, you don't have to worry about how the reader will judge them.

Dialogue has to sound like real people talking. They may be outrageous people, and they may say outrageous things, but only the dullest people speak in cliches, and the dullest people are seldom worth writing or reading about. Another thing that real people don't do is pack their conversations full of plot information.

Read your words aloud. Be prepared to be embarrassed, and if you're embarrassed because something sounds phony, you have some rewriting to do.

All writers rewrite. If you're satisfied with your first draft, you're not an artist. That's not writing. As Capote quipped to Kerouac, that's just typing.

You may break the rules. In fact, you should break the rules. And when you break the rules, do so on purpose and out loud, because breaking the rules is part of what your story is about.

The one rule you may not break is this:

Your motto shall be: LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

WHAT DOES FICTION DO? Or: Writing Stories With Both Hands

 President Truman, when asked one year what he wanted for Christmas, answered, “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ‘On the one hand.’…On the other…”
This is a fairly famous quote, so you may have heard it before, but I first heard of it from Mary Wilbur, a skillful writer, a glorious gardener, and a delicious cook. That Mary is such an accomplished woman is all the more remarkable because she has done all this, and everything else she’s done, all her life (all 93 years of it, and counting )literally single-handedly. Mary Wilbur has only one hand, so she may be a fine writer, gardener, and cook, but she’ll never make it as an economist, even though she’s a graduate of the London School of Economics.
This introduction has very little to do with the essay I’m about to write. I just wanted to use the word “literally” correctly. Hint: never misuse that word, or your critics and detractors will be literally jumping for joy and rolling in the aisles.

Now then, what does fiction do?
Well, let’s begin with the basics. Fiction tells lies. That’s what the word means: the opposite of facts. Every fictional story is a pack of lies from the get-go. Oh yes, it may be based on things that really happened to the writer, and it may take place in a real city during a well researched period of history. It may be accurate in many ways, and it may be quite, quite believable.
But fiction is untrue. Fiction can’t help it. Fiction lies.
On the other hand…
Most fiction writers, and I’m willing to say any fiction writer worth reading, is doing his or her level best to tell the truth about something. Melville may have written the biggest, most outrageous whopper of a fish story about the one that got away, but Moby-Dick makes a sincere and honest statement about the nature of monomania in general, and in particular the absurd madness of man’s battle with a ruthless universe. Great fiction tells great truth, whether it be about war and peace, or about crime and punishment, or about love and death.
In fact, I argue that by lying, the fiction writer turns up the truth another notch. The truth is better shown when some of those devilish details are heightened, edited, rearranged, and underscored by a crafty spinner of yarn.
Now we face the question: “Why would a writer work so hard, even to the point of concocting lies, to tell the truth?” The answer is found in another thing that fiction does. Writers of fiction are born to teach. More than that (or as we say in charades, “sounds like…”), we write in order to preach. Somehow it seems all great fiction writers are on a quest to make this earth on which we live a better place for our fellow human beings and for our fellow species. We write to prove a point, in the wild and hopeless hope that our words will convince our readers to straighten up and fly right.
And sometimes it works. Sometimes fiction makes us progress. To take only a few examples of only one social disease that has needed, and still needs, fixing, consider and be grateful for the influence of these novels (and many others like them) that preached on the subject of racial inequality in American society: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Help. Of course the job isn’t over yet, and it will take a lot more than literature to defeat institutionalized bigotry. The thing about writers, though, is that they will never stop preaching, despite the odds.
On the other hand…
What reader’s going to sit still and get preached at for hours at a time? I scratch my head in disbelief when I read about Victorian men and women who supposedly read sermons for pleasure.
Speaking of sermons, aren’t we most likely to listen to preachers who crack jokes every now and then? They know, and good writers know, that the way to sell message is to disguise it as entertainment. Even Jesus knew that the way to sell his message was to make up stories, which he called parables. Aesop wrote fables. Steinbeck wrote epic novels for the same reason.
Would Steinbeck have won any sympathy for migrant laborers by making speeches or writing tracts? Would we still be reading Grapes of Wrath or In Dubious Battle today if he were just reporting working conditions of an era that ended seventy years ago?
So fiction preaches, but it preaches successfully only because it entertains.
What else?
Well, fiction explores the world. A good novel delivers to the reader great knowledge of places on all the continents and the seas between; of people of all ages and races and beliefs; of eras gone by and times yet to come. My living room is rich with knowledge because here I’ve learned about the Ojibwa from Louise Erdrich, the Neanderthal from John Darnton, the Middle West from Charles Baxter, New England from Alice Hoffman, and Oz from L. Frank Baum. Yes, and when we stretch the limits of fiction to include the planets and the stars and the even grander reach of the imagination, it’s fair to say that fiction explores the universe, as if with a telescope, and delivers it to the reader, page by fascinating page.
But on the other hand…
Fiction may use a telescope to look outward, but it also looks inward, as if with a microscope, to explore the human heart and mind. The best fiction—perhaps the best writing—is about the plight of the human soul. Oh stop trying to sound so fancy, you tell me, and you’re right. But didn’t Holden Caulfield give voice to my teenage complaints? Didn’t Jack Kerouac make me want to travel light? Didn’t I learn most of what I know about the twists and turns of our overworked brains by reading the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, or Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov, William Golding, and Ken Kesey?
So, to summarize, Fiction tells lies, but it also tells the truth. It preaches while it entertains, and it explores the universe outside and probes the soul within.
But on the other hand…

By the way, don’t forget about the talented Mary Wilbur, whom I mentioned at the outset. Her memoir, Bits and Pieces of a Life, will be published by the end of this year and will be sold to benefit the Trinidad (California) Library Building Fund.

And now, a word from our sponsor. Here's a teaser from my new novel, BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR, which will be published next month. And at the end of the teaser, check out the cover design!

            Leon Epstein looked like Santa’s evil twin on a bad hair day. His head was bald on top, with a thicket of white that covered his ears and descended into massive curly white beard. The belly barely contained by his tie-dyed T-shirt was round and jiggly, but Leon did not support the myth that round people are jolly. He stared at the white screen and then looked up at me over his half-spectacles and told me my iMac had no business acting like a spoiled brat. “These are good little machines,” he said. “They’ve been out a year now, and this is the first one I’ve had in the shop.”
            “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
            “Let’s have a look inside.” He tipped the machine onto its screen and then searched his cluttered workbench for the right screw driver. “Just so you know,” he said, “soon as I open this baby up, you already owe me fifty-five dollars.”
            “Don’t stop now.”
            When he had the back off the computer he said, “Hard drive. That’s your problem.”
            “Something’s wrong with my hard drive?”
            “Probably not,” he said. “But it’s not in your computer.”
            “Come to think of it, I thought it felt lighter than usual.”
            “I hope you backed this baby up,” Leon said. “Because if you don’t find your hard drive laying around somewheres, we’re talking square one.”
            “Everything’s on Zip disks,” I said. “I assure you my hard drive is not just lying around. I didn’t remove it.”
            “I know that,” Leon replied. “Whoever removed the hard drive knew exactly what he was doing. Knew computers. You obviously don’t know diddly.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Note: This is a long piece, because it's an important subject. I wouldn't hold it against you if you decide you've had enough. But if that happens, I hope you'll skip to the end and read the preview of my forthcoming book! And see the cover!

The word "relationship" can mean many things; in fact it's vague enough to mean just about anything where two or more anythings enjoy some sort of relativity. But for the purpose of this essay, "relationship" refers to what goes on between two human beings. Specifically I'm referring to the dyad of love, the coupling that often (but not always) results in sex and/or marriage. The cast of characters is often (but not always) a woman and a man. Adam and Eve.

The relationship of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most common theme of short fiction. It also accounts for a good share of movies, plays, novels, and operas, and almost all popular songs. As for short fiction, I can think of no other theme or category more popular. Love, for short story writers and readers, and for almost everybody else, for that matter, makes the world go 'round.
(Love, as I've just illustrated, is also a minefield of clichés. I'll get to that later.)
It makes sense. We all come from coupling, and we all seek coupling or enjoy being coupled. We may enter this world alone, and we will departed it alone, but most of the time in between we're interested in, concerned with, often even obsessed by, the process of relationship. No wonder we need a break now and then-go to a movie, read a story. And no wonder so many movies and so many stories are about love.
The world "love," by the way, can name a wide range of emotions, including its own opposite, hate.
A relationship is made up of components physical, mental, and emotional. Body, mind and spirit, the triumvirate of elements that make us all human and define us individually as well.
I'll steer clear of defining the ideal relationship. Bookstore shelves are full of books that will tell you about successful relationship. If I knew how to make love work perfectly every time, I'd write one of those books and retire. But I don't know how to make love work right every time, or what makes a perfect, successful relationship. (I expect the authors of pop psychology don't either.) To tell you the truth, I don't think a perfectly happy relationship really exists, since any couple is made up of two less-than-perfect parts.
Furthermore, if a perfectly happy relationship did exist, it wouldn't make good fiction.
Plot requires conflict, and fiction about relationship focuses on the flaws in the relationship. Why is it we know nothing about the married life of Eve and Adam before they decided to break the rules? Because they were probably the one couple (unencumbered as they were by parents or former lovers) who had a perfect relationship, a relationship so happy it wasn't worth writing about. Perfectly dull. Their story only gets interesting with the introduction of relationship static: a tree of forbidden delights, a serpent seducer, a guilt-tripping God. At that point the story gets good-so good that we've been re-enacting it ever since, in our fiction and in our lives.
Conflict in relationship fiction, as in real-life relationships, can come in an inexhaustible variety of forms.
All of us have had relationships, or at least have dreamed of having relationships. Furthermore, we've all read countless stories about relationship; our culture is soaking with relationship plots. So there's no excuse for not being inspired to write about relationship. We all have plenty of experience and ideas to work with.
The challenge is to do something original. And being original is especially important in this arena.
Avoid clichés. Love is such a common experience, and fiction about love is so omnipresent in our culture, that we're tempted to rely on stereotypes and plot formulae. The lazy writer will use stale language ("heaving bosom," "pulsing manhood") or hackneyed situations ("My wife doesn't understand me." "You mean you're married?") or stock characters (boy next door, whore with a heart of gold), and count on the reader to fill in the blanks. If ever there were a place to remember to show rather than tell, it's in the well-explored realm of relationship fiction, where the challenge is to find something original to say or an original way to say it.
Here's an essential rule for being original: Respect your characters as individuals. They're not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures; they're people. Your reader must meet and spend time with them, so make your characters different and memorable, so that your reader will always remember them. This goes for the good guys and bad guys as well. If the woman is mean, make her mean in her own unique way; if she's kind, make it a special kindness we haven't seen before. And the more original they are, the realer they will be.
The same rule goes for your secondary characters: respect them as individuals. They're not just filling pages, they're real people too.
Having said that relationship fiction must focus on the problem areas in the relationship, let me now say that to make the story truly satisfying it should have some other elements as well. There should be more to the relationship than just the conflict, and there should be more to the story than just the relationship. These other elements, which may show up in the setting or the plot or the character development, will help make your story original.
Among the ingredients of any good short story are the elements of choice and change. These requirements are especially important in the area of relationship fiction. The characters, Adam and Eve, must make important choices, together and separately-to eat or not to eat, that is the question-and as a consequence of those choices, they will change as individuals and the relationship will change as well.
Since good fiction about relationship focuses on the problems in the relationship, the burning question (flaming brightly or smoldering quietly) is: can this marriage be saved? Will this couple make it? Will they fall apart and go separate ways? Will they be better off or worse off as a couple at the end of the story?
So the conflict in relationship fiction is not just between two lovers as adversaries, but between the couple and the circumstances.

And now, a word from our sponsor. Here's a teaser from my new novel, BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR, which will be published next month. And at the end of the teaser, check out the cover design!

            The place was crowded that night, I remember. Old Nails—he was Old Nails even when he was younger—was down there in his usual place. Louie wasn’t around back then. A different crowd, but you know, crowds in bars are pretty much all the same. Everybody was ready to look at Audrey Connolly, because she was something to look at. But nobody wanted to talk to her, much, because she had the brains of a washcloth and the mouth of a Dumpster, and besides, she was married to Seamus Connolly, and who wants some big bulldozer tearing their arms off?
            So Audrey’s whooping it up and following guys around the place, hopping from stool to stool, and guys keep moving away, and she keeps asking me what time it is, and I’m like, Seamus’ll be here any minute, sure hoping he’ll show up and take this foul-mouth polka-dot bombshell out before she blows the windows out or cracks my mirror with her voice.
            Jesus. So that’s when old Audrey climbs up on the table right in the center of the room. The jukebox is playing Patsy Cline. “Crazy.” Talk about timing. And as soon as the song ends, and there’s silence, and it’s real, real quiet, because everyone in the bar is staring at this, I got to admit it, beautiful nutcase standing on the table, who’s grinning ear to ear, she pulls up her polka-dot skirt as high as it will go, and let’s put it this way: I pour more Vermouth into a very dry martini than she was wearing in the underpants department that night. She yells, top of her lungs, “IS THERE A CONNOLLY IN THE HOUSE?”

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Meet Stephen L. Brayton, author of BETA

This is a special weekend for author Stephen L. Brayton. Yesterday, October 1, 2011, was the official publication date of his new novel, Beta, featuring a remarkable female PI sleuth, Mallory Peterson, who is a Fourth Degree Black Belt and has her own martial arts studio. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds like a winner.

Stephen owns and operates Brayton’s Black Belt Academy in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He is a Fifth Degree Black Belt and certified instructor in The American Taekwondo Association.

He began writing as a child; his first short story concerned a true incident about his reactions to discipline. During high school, he wrote for the school newspaper and was a photographer for the yearbook. For a Mass Media class, he wrote and edited a video project.

In college, he began a personal journal for a writing class; said journal is ongoing. He was also a reporter for the college newspaper. During his early twenties, while working for a Kewanee, Illinois radio station, he wrote a fantasy based story and a trilogy for a comic book. He has written numerous short stories both horror and mystery. He has also written a paranormal mystery, entitled Night Shadows, and sequels to Nights Shadows and Beta are in rewrite/revision stages.

I sent Stephen a list of suggested questions for him to ponder and respond to. He did his homework in spades and answered them all! Here’s what Stephen L. Brayton has to say about the craft of fiction:

John: What is the relationship between fiction and truth?

Stephen: The answer depends on whether or not you’re asking a news reporter. Lol. Actually, there is a lot of truth in fiction. Many writers bring in actual events, real locations, or people into their stories. In my action mystery, Beta, I use actual locations (changing business names to protect my butt from lawsuits). I also use personalities and attitudes from the people I’ve met during my research. So, when you read my story, know that I met the rude receptionist and the flustered secretary. I loved talking with the trucking company office manager.

The point is, be aware how you speak to authors who are doing research, because you might end up in a story.

John: We’re often advised to write about what we know about. How does this work for the mild-mannered mystery writer who never saw a corpse or has never been hassled by the cops?

Stephen: As writers, we read. So we’ve read books containing corpses or problems with cops. We have friends and neighbors who have been problems with the law. (If you don’t, come visit me and let me tell you about the current and past tenants in my apartment house. You’ll have ideas coming out your ears.)

Also, contact authors who do know about these matters. Current or ex-cops who write novels love to tell of their adventures.

John: Are you proud of your style? If so (and let’s hope so!), why? What’s special about the way you use language?

Stephen: One of the areas I on which I contemplated was the use of profanity in my stories. The novels I enjoy most (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and others in the same era), didn’t use profanity. Times have changed, I know, movies and books and television have all included copious amounts of foul language. I try to limit the amount I use. For instance, my heroine, Mallory Petersen, doesn’t use the F word but once in this story and only because the scene warranted it. Otherwise, she does use profanity often, but not excessively.

John: Can you name six essential ingredients of mystery plot that begin with C? (Extra credit for more C’s.)

Stephen: Please don’t make me think today. My Creativity doesn’t get started until after noon. I have a real Conflict with waking up, especially when the quirky Characters outside my window are acting up. Plus, later, I may not remember what I did in the morning, which fouls up my Continuity. Also, I before I give you the answer, I have to Check my facts. And when I do finally get around to it, I have to make sure I Clearly Communicate what I want you to know. Plus, at the end of the day, I may not have the Concatenation of everything I’ve told you throughout the day.

John: Which is more important to you as you write: memory, research, or imagination?

Stephen. Research spurs imagination. In the case of Beta I used real people, changed around some scenes to make them more interesting and or funny based on what I saw during the research.

For instance, I changed a scene in Beta’s sequel after I came upon a birthday party for a Mexican teenage girl. I was checking out the location to get a description of the place so I could accurately portray it in the book. My idea had been to have my protagonist chase her quarry inside the building. However, when I witnessed the party I didn’t mean to crash, I had to put this gala affair into the scene.

John: What makes your protagonist unique? What are his or her passions? Does she or he have flaws?

Stephen: Mallory Petersen is a Fourth Degree Black Belt who owns her own martial arts studio. She’s a six foot blonde who wears Bogart’s Sam Spade trench coat and hat. Her cases and clients come from the nutty side of life through no fault of her own.

She gets very emotional about the case in Beta. It concerns the kidnapping of an eight-year-old girl and her discovery of a child pornography ring. She fights with her emotions, her morals, and with breaking the law trying to find the girl.

John: What are your feelings about love and sex in fiction? Are they essential to plot and character development?

Stephen: I think writers have to determine where the story is going, if the characters are going to be in future stories, and what any relationship will mean to the story’s future, their future, and future adventures. One of my author friends said, once you cross the line, you can’t go back.

Mallory Petersen, at the end of Beta, begins a relationship with a police officer from East Moline. I have them kiss but in the sequel will explain her hesitancy to commit herself to deepening the relationship.

John: Are there accepted rules of good writing that you enjoy breaking?

Stephen: No, instead I struggle to stay on course with putting in aspects of good writing. If I don’t, people will let me know about it. If I deviated, it wouldn’t be good anymore. I want good writing. I want my writing to be appreciated for its depth, its humor, its flow, and for people to refer to parts of the narrative when showing others what good writing can be.

John: Who is your favorite writer? What book made you want to be a reader? What writer made you want to be a writer?

Stephen: I’ve enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft for decades and really jumped into Ellery Queen.

Every book has made me want to be a writer. The good ones I want to emulate. With the bad ones, I know I can do better.

Thanks for spending time with us, Stephen. And huge congratulations on the publication of Beta! Here’s wishing the book much success, and much success to your career, too.

To learn more about Stephen L. Brayton and his books, check out the following links:



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