About Dana King:
His blog is One Bite At A Time
He's a regular contributor to
New Mystery Reader magazine
Dana King has worked as a musician, public school teacher, adult trainer, and information systems analyst. His short story, "Green Gables," was published in the anthology Blood, Guts, and Whiskey, edited by Todd Robinson. Other short fiction has appeared in New Mystery Reader, A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, and Powder Burn Flash. He lives in
with his Beloved Spouse, where he pays the bills by working as a consultant at an undisclosed location. It's not one of those, "he'd tell you, but then he'd have to kill you" deals. He's just not going to tell you. Maryland
WILD BILL, a story of
’s crime underworld, is his first novel. Chicago
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, published traditionally, and the Junior Bender mysteries, which are ebook originals. Also on Kindle are his Simeon Grist private eye novels. Earlier this year, he conceived and edited a volume of original short stories by twenty first-rate mystery writers, SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, which is available for the Kindle at $3.99, with every penny of the price going to the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. (Please buy it.) And he also contributed to BANGKOK NOIR, a collection of stories with all royalties going to children's charities in
. He lives in Bangkok Santa Monica and Southeast Asia, and he is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy.
An award-winning newspaper reporter, Pat Browning set her first mystery, ABSINTHE OF MALICE (original title:
FULL CIRCLE) in California's Central San Joaquin Valley, where she lived for many years before returning to her native . An extensive excerpt can be read at Google Books -- http://tinyurl.com/23pojdm. Pat's articles on the writing life have appeared in The SouthWest Sage, the monthly journal of SouthWest Writers, based in Oklahoma . Albuquerque, New Mexico
After her e-mail was hacked and she was locked out of her original blog (Morning’s At Noon), she started all over with a blog at Word Press:
by Dana King, Tim Hallinan and Pat Browning
Kicking the old year out the door, looking forward to a new year – 2012 already? It’s a good time for taking stock.
PAT: Tim Hallinan is still winding down from an intensive promotional gig in
Northern California. So, Tim, was it worth the time and expense? In terms of sales? In terms of personal satisfaction” In terms of reader feedback?
TIM: Viewed as a commercial enterprise, I probably spent 106 dollars for every dollar I made. In terms of personal satisfaction, it was a home run. I spoke to a standing-room only bookstore and then to about 14 people in a Thai restaurant, every one of whom had read QUEEN. These were mostly women in their sixties and seventies, and it's hard to imagine a world more removed from theirs than the one in that book, but they were right there with it, and felt the story quite deeply. And the next day I did a presentation about
to the Rotary, which is scheduled to meet there next year, and they said very nice things about it on their website. Just great. Bangkok
You know, you can only sit alone and put sentences together for so long. Sometimes it's essential to get out and actually meet readers, if only to make sure they're not part of some shared writers' mythology.
PAT: Let's inject a little levity in here. On Tim's blog he says, "I would appear in bunny costume at Walmart if asked." Now there's an image for the ages! So, Tim, aside from the bunny costume -- what would you consider the ideal promo setup?
TIM: I had it in Fort Bragg/Mendocino. Ruth Sparks, who is a member of a reading group that was reading QUEEN, set me up the entire schedule I just listed, plus a library event for aspiring writers, and a short television interview.
I worked my ass off, and had an enormous amount of fun. The difference is having someone (preferably not me) pre-plan, so all the writer's time is used productively, rather than the usual, which is 60 minutes in a bookstore folowed by a 300-mile drive, then 60 minutes in a different bookstore. A LOT of effort for the results delivered.
I'll be doing something like
Fort Bragg in May, when the people in , are inviting me up for a whole calendar-full of things, including several book clubs who will have read something by me, stores, library appearances, etc. It's a great model. Ashland, Oregon
PAT: How about you, Dana? You write other things but WILD BILL is your first novel. Do you anticipate going "on the road" to promote it, or do you plan to do your promoting on the Internet? Are you guest speaker for any gatherings so far? Or have you given any thought at all to promotion?
DANA : Unless something unexpected comes up, the Internet will be the sole means of WILD BILL’S promotion. It seems appropriate, since there is no physical book. I also have a regular job that keeps me plenty busy. Events like this work best for me because I can make time for them in small increments.
The last, but possibly most important reason, is because I don’t expect writing to become my primary source of income. Ever. I had that hope once, and made a conscious decision to abandon it. True, this decision was made substantially easier by the fact that no one has wanted to publish anything I’d written, so I can’t say there are no sour grapes involved. Still, I’ve been around the community of writers long enough now to see what is asked of them, and I don’t think I’d want to do it unless I did nothing else, and we all know there is no shortcut between where I am and there. So that’s not a realistic ambition.
That makes me less than a role model for people who hope to self-publish their way to fame and fortune. I’ve received some highly flattering praise from people I consider to be my betters as writers, and that alone has made it worth it for me to continue on in this manner, though I’m ready to adjust at any time.
Everyone has his price.
PAT: I haven’t had much luck with book signings. The best promotion for my book has been the Internet, and Krill’s genius in throwing it onto Kindle for $2.99 in the beginning and as a 99-cent special during the holidays. Sales were over the moon for the first six months, and less spectacular for the next six, but they seem to be holding steady. I will be doing a book review for the local Ladies Library Club in February, but I suspect all the “ladies” have already checked the book out of the library. No problem. I’m happy to know somebody is reading it.
Let’s talk about writing.
How do you rank plot, characters and setting? For me characters come first but setting is a close second, and plot drags in third.
One of my favorite comments on my book is from Beth Anderson’s: “I have rarely read a mystery with such a profound sense of place.”
Sense of place. I like that. When I wrote ABSINTHE OF MALICE I didn’t give the setting a second thought. I simply set my characters down into a place I knew. The town of “
Pearl” is a fictional version of Hanford, in California’s Central Valley, where I lived for years, but with bits and pieces of other small towns in the area added where needed. Fresno
So that’s my place.
Tim, I was interested in your interview comment about walking the streets of
until you felt you could write about it. Bangkok
TIM: First of all, I agree with Beth's review. That town absolutely permeates ABSINTHE OF MALICE, and also the new one, part of which I've been lucky enough to have read.
What I said in that interview was, “And then I spent New Year’s Eve 1998 walking the city, from about 10 PM to 9 AM. I walked everywhere, but mostly off the main drags. And Poke came into my mind: a travel writer who writes about the places that are beyond the margins of the well-worn tourist paths. … “
So walking the streets of
gave me a series and a character, but learning to understand a little of the language convinced me I could write about it. The thing about Bangkok is that it's especially rich in gray areas, and for thriller and mystery purposes, gray areas are sort of like home plate. Bangkok
One of the central questions in a thriller, for me, is which way will he/she jump? Will he or she be willing or able to do what's required? I think the black-and-white view of morality, as I've said several times, is a luxury of the well-fed or the secure, and one of the interesting things to me about this genre is watching people who once saw things in black and white realize that the world is a lot grayer than they realized.
PAT: Tim, you also know
Southern California in and out. I’m thinking of SKIN DEEP, which knocked my socks off, and your depiction of the entertainment industry. You said a couple of characters were based on real people. How do you get away with that?
TIM: You (or I, anyway) do one of two things: You cross your fingers and hope they'll never read it, and that if they do they'll be too smart to call attention to the resemblance – that's what I did with Toby Vane in SKIN DEEP. Or two, you wait until the real-life model is dead, which is what I did with the 82-year-old mobster Irwin Dressler in LITTLE ELVISES and, now, in the third Junior book, THE FAME THIEF.
PAT: Tim, I can see where the character of Junior Bender comes from. He’s a high-wire dancer and so are you!
Dana, here’s a quote from your interview with Charlie Stella on his blog, Temporary Knucksline: “I traveled to
several times when I was a musician and loved the town. When my mid-life crisis came early, I tried what The Beloved Spouse calls “a geographic cure.” The good news was that Chicago was perfect for me. Lots of ethnic neighborhoods made me feel at home, and genuinely nice people. Greatest city in the world, outside of Chicago .” Pittsburgh
Dana, is the
setting a one-time deal for you? You say later in the interview that you are resurrecting an older PI novel. What is the setting for that one, and why different from Chicago , if it is? Chicago
DANA: Before we get into my attitudes toward
, I want to glom onto the comment Beth Anderson made about your book, Pat. I was going to ask If Pearl was based on a real place, because it read more like a place described than invented. To me, this is critical in a book. We ask the reader to suspend disbelief, and sometimes we ask them to suspend a lot of it. We all do it. It’s called fiction. Chicago
Readers need something that grounds the story. Character helps, but we write crime stories, so at least one of our characters is not reliable, and they’re not supposed to know too soon who that is. Your descriptions of
kept me in the moment. I could see the newspaper office, and even imagined how it would look if the wall was taken down as was discussed. It helped the story a great deal. Pearl
PAT: Thanks for your comments, Dana. As to
Pearl and my newspaper office -- the newsroom in the book is darn near a word picture of the small newspaper I worked for in Selma, California, just south of . Working there in the 1990s was a ton of fun! Fresno
The small newspapers where I worked have changed and not for the better. Taken over by small newspaper chain, reporters ensconced in their own little cubicles, too far removed from the general public and from each other. Just try to get someone's attention! I'm glad I was there before everything changed.
Back to WILD BILL and Chicago.
DANA: WILD BILL was not my first
book, and it’s not the last. I have a series of four PI stories set there; the fifth is my work-in-progress. It’s a perfect city for the kind of books I like to write. It reminds me a lot of Chicago , which is where I say I’m from, though I grew up twenty miles northeast. Many neighborhoods—often ethnically oriented—and an intermingling of blue- and white-collar ethos ( Pittsburgh is now more of a financial/medical city than a mill town). Sports are important to the people, and bodies of water are critical in each city’s evolution and economy. Pittsburgh
And, of course, crime.
in the middle part of the 20th Century may have been the most corrupt city since Deadwood. Chicago Pittsburgh, too had its “Golden Age” of organized crime, extending as far as Youngstown, Ohio and into . Both cities are also full of the nicest, most welcoming people you’ll find in a major city. All of those characteristics lend themselves to making the cities characters in any story, and I work to include as much of that as I can without turning the book into a travelogue. West Virginia
PAT: How about openings? "Rule" makers say never open a novel with the weather.
I say: Weather affects our moods, our health, our actions, our history. If George Washington had tried to cross the
Delaware on a warm spring afternoon we might still be part of the British Empire.
I like it when writers set a scene by telling me if the characters are caught in the rain, the snow, a
or a sirocco. What about openers? A favorite opening from your own or someone else's novel? Santa Ana
TIM: Speaking of not opening with weather, it's funny that the most famous opening line in history, possibly other than "Call me Ishmael," is "It was a dark and stormy night." That opening violates one of my own preferences, which is not to open a book in the passive case.
Weather, to me, is a variation on setting. Setting, to me, is the interaction between character and place. Without interaction, place is just scenery, and I'd say avoid scenery (weather or otherwise) at the very beginning of a book. However the book opens, it should reflect and/or communicate the characters' internal processes. Anything that doesn't do that, it seems to me, just slows your reader's entry into the story.
The novelist Elizabeth Bowen famously said, "Bring all your intelligence to bear on your beginning." I'll go with that. The beginning of a novel is the door through which the reader enters the world of the book, and we really don't want him or her to look at it and decide not, in effect, to open the door.
But about weather -- I've just written a whole book of weather. The new Poke Rafferty, THE FEAR ARTIST, is about what can happen when someone is innocently caught up on the margins of the War on Terror, and the story is set against this year's unending rainfall that perilously raised the level in the Chao Phraya river and threatened moment by moment to flood Bangkok. The flooding seemed to me to be as blunt-force, destructive, and undiscerning as some aspects of the War on Terror are -- the dreadful reality that's so often dismissed as "collateral damage" as though the torn bodies and broken families were somehow abstractions of some sort.
Anyway, there's weather and rising water all over the place. My editor has it now, and we'll see how much weather is left when she's done with it.
DANA: Elmore Leonard is usually credited with saying never begin a story with weather. I’m just guessing, but I suspect his warning has something in common with Tim’s “dark and stormy night” comment. Describing the weather is one thing if it’s the literary equivalent of small talk. It’s not the same thing if the weather being described matters to the story. Tim’s new book sounds like it has the weather as a character, so it’s not just small talk; it’s important.
PAT: Do you have a favorite opening, Dana?
DANA: It's from Declan Hughes’s THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD:
“The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.”
How could I not read that book? Those were the first of Hughes’s word I ever read, and I’ve read everything he’s written since.
Circling back to our weather comments, my favorite beginning to any story is Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind.” Even Leonard allowed that a good enough writer could break the “opening with weather” rule.
certainly qualifies there: Chandler
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
More than that, the wind runs all through the story. It’s practically a character. “Red Wind” isn’t
’s greatest story, but it’s my favorite. It’s the best description of how Marlowe views his place in the world. Chandler
I used to have definite ideas about beginnings, but those have weakened as I read and write more. Different stories need different kinds of openings. My agent at the time WILD BILL was written told me it started too slow. She may be right, though a couple of reviews liked how the story built momentum.
Leonard also says to avoid prologues. I had one in WILD BILL, took it out, put it back in. Again, several people have spoken favorably about how it sets up the story. So, about beginnings, the answer is: it depends.
Damn it. Nothing is easy.
PAT: Elmore Leonard writes what he writes. Not one of my favorites but more power to him. I love your prologue, and much as it pains me, I have a prologue in my WIP. There was just no way around it. You’re right: it depends.
About those Santa Ana winds: I love ‘em. They set a scene like nothing else for me. Well, except maybe a storm at sea. But
’s RED WIND is classic. Chandler
Another author who uses weather to good effect is Robert Crais. He starts CHASING DARKNESS with one of
Southern California’s infamous wind-whipped fires:
“Beakman and Trenchard could smell the fire--it was still a mile away, but a sick desert wind carried the promise of Hell. Fire crews from around the city were converging on
like red angels, as were black and white Adam cars, Emergency Services vehicles, and water-dropping helicopters out of Van Nuys and Burbank. The helicopters pounded by so low overhead that Beakman and Trenchard could not hear their supervisor.” Laurel Canyon
DANA: Great point, Pat. I’m terrible with titles, especially when they’re part of a series. That one paragraph from CHASING DARKNESS is enough for me to remember the whole story. It’s one of Crais’s best.
PAT: More about writing: During the recent Mystery We Write group blog tour, Tim posted his 10 Commandments For Writing on Madeline Gornell’s blog. They are recommended for writers at any stage of the game – beginner or veteran.
TIM: I get a lot of mail from aspiring writers. Most of them have specific questions, although some are asking for more general guidance. A lot of the problems I hear about are based in the perception that there’s “no time to write.” This is an argument for which I have no sympathy at all, as this piece will prove.
Anyway, if an aspiring writer were to ask me for ten commandments, these are the ones I would carve into the page on my computer.
1. Write. Wanting to write is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Talking about a piece of “writing” that you’re not actually doing is creatively damaging and is guaranteed to screw up your idea.
2. Read. There’s no challenge that can be faced on a page that someone hasn’t already solved. Expose yourself to good writing; see how the people who did it solved their own problems.
3. Read some more. Read until you’ve found the kind of book you like best. That’s the kind of book you should write.
4. Write every day, or at minimum, six days a week. Only frequent immersion in the world you’re creating will keep it vital, in motion, and open to you. Quit for too long, and it becomes a dusty little diorama where you have to open the lid and reach in and move your characters around by hand.
5. Continue to write on the bad days. There are two reasons for this. First, if you write only on good days—when the material comes easily—you’ll never finish your book. Second (and you’ll find this out if you don’t know it already) you have no idea at the time whether you’re writing well or badly. Sometimes the best work is the work you enjoyed least.
6. Put your writing at the top of your “To Do” list. You have to build a little temple to your writing in the structure of your day and honor it. It is not acceptable to skip writing because you need to go to Trader Joe’s. If you had a new girl- or boyfriend, you’d find time for her or him. I hate to tell you this, but your writing may be with you longer than your new squeeze.
7. Keep your mind open when you’re not writing. The universe throws us material all the time: a face, a snatch of conversation, the name of a store, the way someone walks, a news story, a stupid joke. You want a sort of mental spider’s web to snare these things. Twice I had a book saved by something I heard someone say.
8. Finish your first story or novel or whatever it is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s perfect—in fact, it won’t be. No one has written a perfect book yet. But here’s the bottom line: Until you finish your first, you can’t start your second. The world swarms with aspiring writers with a dozen unfinished works. Finishing a work requires taking the idea through to the end, which is completely different from the beginning or the middle. A writer is someone who finishes.
9. Work on tiptoe. Don’t get comfortable. As you get better, write things you don’t know how to write, even if it’s just how to describe the weather interestingly, or manage a scene with four people in it in a way that the reader can keep it straight, or write a scene in which two people talk around their issue while the reader understands what they’re not saying. We don’t grow if we don’t stretch, so once you’ve hit your stride, lengthen it.
10. Be patient. You are going to get better. You get better every time you finish a paragraph. Writing is a lifetime activity, not a flavor of the day. It’s worth working for years to produce a good book. If that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, maybe you shouldn’t be a writer.
If any of these thoughts ring true to you, you might want to go to the FINISH YOUR NOVEL area of my website, where I’ve put up thousands and thousands of more-or-less organized words to help people get through that first book. If you like it, drop me a line. My website is www.timothyhallinan.com.
PAT: The one I like best is No. 10: “… Writing is a lifetime activity, not a flavor of the day. …”
DANA: I love Tim’s list. Leonard’s Top Ten list gets more ink—and it’s good—but this is more practical. What runs through every one of these is the key to writing well: it’s work. It’s not something you do when you have a few minutes lying around and there’s nothing on television. You make time for it. Too many potential writers are far more enamored of the idea of being a writer than they are in actually writing.
Which brings us to Number 8. Writing is finishing. Period. Ask yourself, what do Shakespeare, Faulkner, Sartre, Dostoevsky, and John Grisham all have in common as writers? They finish. You can put all the words you want on a screen and it’s just farting around. Writers finish.
My second favorite thought from this list focuses on Numbers 2 and 3, but also runs all through it. Writing is a commitment. When I was in graduate school for music, one of our professors told us we had made a commitment, and we could now never listen to music purely for entertainment again. Not that we shouldn’t enjoy it, but part of our mind always had to listen to how it had been interpreted, and to seek out the craft amid the artistry. Same thing with reading and writing. If you want to write, you must read, and you must read as a writer. Every book you read should teach you something, even if it’s what not to do.
TIM: I suppose I like them all, because I've endangered books by breaking every single one of them. But the one I live by is, write every day, and what gives me the most comfort is the realization that I really don't know whether I'm writing well or badly. I just have to keep writing.
And so, with Disney’s Seven Dwarfs shaking their heads in the background … Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go … with a shovel and a pick and a dynamite stick … heigh-ho, heigh-ho! And a Happy New Year to one and all!
Pat Browning, Timothy Hallinan and Dana King