Had a wonderful afternoon April 30, 2017, interviewing three Mystery authors at Debbie Beamer's book store.
This is a short story I wrote about a fictional father who served in the military during WWII. My own father didn't. He had been reprieved with a medical exemption. This is a conversation between two people who seemingly lived on different planets.
I put this out here in remembrance to all those who gave their lives so people like me can make up stories like this one. To the Veterans to whom we all owe a great deal.
It's Called "430"
My father was a very simple man. He served in the navy during WWII. I popped into the world around the same time. The day he left for duty he planted me in my mothers little garden. I was two years old when he finally made it home for good.
Dad had to clean up after battles by gathering the dead from the beaches and the water. Wherever there were dead soldiers, he’d be there afterwards. The war kept him busy. By the time his outfit reached Iwo Jima, he felt like retiring.
Dad smoked like a nervous hooker, “we all did,” he would tell me. Whenever I asked why he smoked so much, “We all did.” He smoked for forty-seven years and finally the people who make Camel cigarettes made good on their promise.
Two days before he died my father had me sit down with him and he told me something he said he’d carried inside him for all those forty some years. He didn’t breathe very well at this point but he managed to get out this confession.
He called the vessel he served on a mortuary ship. It would follow the fleet around, he told me, and clean up the marines and sailors who wouldn’t be making the trip home.
“We had just taken the beaches of Iwo Jima, "he said, "The marines were all over the place, on the beaches, inland, and on ships. And bodies were just mangled to pieces. The soldiers kept busy organizing their operations and trying to stay alive. The Japs had mines planted everywhere, including the water, and every so often you’d hear an explosion and you’d know there’d be another guy not goin` home.
"You expect people to get shot or blown up in war, and these guys had been through Hell. But I seen somethin` that day in the lagoon that made me sick to my stomach, and it’s still here,” he said pointing to his stomach, “in my head.”
“This new troop carrier had just anchored in the bay waiting to unload its cargo of fresh marines. These guys hadn’t even seen action yet.” He paused. His face turned red, he looked like he was holding his breath. I asked him if he was all right. He nodded and put his fist to his chest like he had heartburn or something. I figured it had to be his heart, but said nothing. I just waited and looked at him. We both knew he wouldn’t last long. Besides, what could I do for him? He looked at me hoping I wouldn’t notice, like I had no idea he was sick.
“Finally,” he said, “the carrier was floating near the entrance to the lagoon, when suddenly a mine hit it. When I got there, bodies were all over the place, just floating face down. There were no signs of these guys being shot, burned, or blown to smithereens. We got busy pulling them up outta the water. Some guys were down there in troop carriers scooping them up. We were droppin` nets,” he stopped to catch his breath. For a couple of minutes he lay there panting. Then he continued, “…and grappling hooks, anything to get them the hell outta the water as fast as we could.
“The medics checked them. They moved from body to body quickly. One doc finally stood up and took off his helmet and scratched his head. He walked over to the Ensign in charge and said, ‘But they all have broken necks.’ ”
Slowly my father continued, “When they were told to abandon ship, many of them were still wearing their helmets, and jumped overboard.
“Shit, son. That’s at least a 40-foot drop. Do you know what their heads did when their helmets hit the water from that height?”
I didn’t know if this question was hypothetical or not, but I said, “Uh, no.”
“Their heads snapped back the second they hit the water, and broke their necks.” He stopped talking and coughed, his eyes were moist from the coughing, I thought, maybe it’s the memory of those Marines “Those dumb-ass mother-fuckers never even got shot at and they died before any of ‘em could shit their pants.” My dad chuckled a bit, “I took off my helmet right then and there and never wore it again.”
Then he coughed. He coughed good and hard. He coughed until he spat blood, and turned a couple shades of purple. Finally he settled down. My mother came in then and gave him a shot of morphine the doctor had given her. We waited until he fell asleep, and left the room. That was the last thing he said. He died a couple of days later in the early morning before anybody got up. My mother later told me that she thought she had heard a noise. Thinking she heard somebody downstairs she got up and went to look. She found my father at the window slouched over in the chair, his cane had knocked over the lamp.
He had been upstairs for weeks unable to even go to the bathroom. How he got downstairs beats the hell out of me. My mother still laments over that. When she saw him, she screamed bloody murder. It was 4:30 AM. I have to say he looked a lot better lying there than he had the last few weeks. It’s as if all the worries left him the minute he stopped living. I don’t think this could be said of the bodies he recovered in the war.
For weeks afterwards, my mother would get up at 4:30 every day like an alarm went off, go downstairs and clean the living room, except she never touched that chair again.
Whose work do you enjoy reading the most?
I’d have to say Tolkien. I have read him at least a dozen times. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I could live in that world. It is perfection.
How important is research to you when writing a book?
The first thing that will turn off a reader is inaccuracy. If the plot smells of untruths, or obvious misrepresentation, or makes no sense, the reader will lose interest quickly. It’s like watching a film about the Vikings and seeing a car drive by in the distant background, you know the director didn’t do his job. Especially today with Google maps and the vast world at our fingertips, it takes a little effort to bring up enough information to give a sense of truth to the story.
Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
I can’t get enough reading. If a writer is suffering from writer’s block, he isn’t reading enough. You aren’t reading to find your voice, but to fill your brain with perspective. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I love Cormac McCarthy, Bernard Cornwell, Martin Cruz Smith, AA Milne, John LeCarre’, Michael Crichton, Mary Renault, and not least of all, JRR Tolkien.
What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?
So I’m browsing a bookstore looking for something to read with no clear idea who, what author, I want to read. Sometimes I can’t remember his or her name, or I really don’t have anyone in mind. The color of the book certainly stands out. But it’s the image on the cover, or quite possibly the design, that make me pick it up. Then I want to know about the book, and the title should do that. James Patterson is possibly the most well-known thriller writer today. I might pick him up but the title tells me what it’s about; Take Honeymoon. Well Patterson is not going to write about romance, is he?
Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?
Stop screwing around with dead end jobs and booze and keep writing. When I had my heart broken, I started writing, poetry mostly but a few short stories. I liked what I wrote and decided to submit one of the stories to an agent. I can’t even remember how I picked this one agent out, (well before computers) but he actually replied with a personal note telling me that though not bad it need a bit of work to make it worth publishing. I put it aside and never wrote another word for 30 years. That is the biggest mistake of my entire life.
Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
Well as a matter of fact, I am writing the third Harry Thursday novel about stolen Nazi art. These stories take place in the late 70’s and Harry, an archaeologist, returns home to the States after his only living relative, his rich uncle, dies. When he finds out what he has been up to Harry’s world takes on a dangerous turn of events.
Must all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time, does that remain true for you as well?
Not necessarily. But in my case it sparked an attempt at poetry, and short stories. Melancholy tends to force one to look inward. That is where you can find stories waiting to come out like magma out of the Earth.
Poets and writers in general, have a reputation of committing suicide; in your opinion, why is that the case?
Yeah, I don’t know first-hand. We tend to look at ourselves too closely, and it can be ugly.
Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts?
Oh hell no. I never worry about perfection until around the third draft. And then I defer to my editor.
Which of your books took you the most time to write?
I am willing to guess that it is the same with most authors. My first book took 3 years to write, and only because I had to find the time to sit down and do it.
How did it feel when your first book got published?
I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it but I was so busy writing the 2nd and 3rd novel at the same time I pretty much forgot about it for a while until I actually had copy in my hands.
Which book would you want adapted for the silver screen?
Definitely Fatal Snow. I could see Quentin Tarantino making a bloody mess of Wyoming. My unfinished novel, The Gods Among Us, a science fiction would be a real doozy of a movie.
Did you ever have a rough patch in writing, where nothing in the story seemed to fit or make sense?
Not often. If that happens I usually realize something is wrong a few chapters later and go back to fix it, or throw it out; I’ve done that before.
Do you often meet with younger writers and discuss their ideas to help polish them?
Once a month a group of writers meet to critique one another’s work. Very often new aspiring writers come along. Those that stick it out usually produce something.
Do you prefer being intoxicated to write? Or would you rather write sober?
Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Works for me.
A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?
I have always had a hard time mixing with people I don’t know. Over the years I’ve taught myself to walk up and talk to a complete stranger. Easy enough, but once in a while some butt-head looks at me like, “Who the hell are you?” Which sends me into a fetal position in a corner somewhere to rock and suck my thumb.
Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?
Yes, I have a science fiction, The Gods Among Us, the first I have ever written, sitting in 300 pages of a nightmare. My first published novel took a back hand to that one for a while until I realized that The Gods needed to ferment.
Do you have a daily habit of writing?
At my best, I set aside time to write. I used to pump out 20 pages every morning at 6 AM, but things have changed and right now it’s approaching mid-night.
Have you ever taken any help from other writers?
Critiquing is vital to a well-rounded book. I may not like what they say, and it helps sometimes to realize they don’t know what they are talking about. But very often there are good bits of advice. Sometimes we can’t see our biggest mistakes, and another set of eyes will point out those mistakes.
Are you “there” where you wanted to be?
Not yet. Not by a long shot.
If you were given the opportunity to form a book club with your favorite authors of all time, which legends or contemporary writers would you want to become a part of the club?
Hemingway, Twain, Vonnegut, Steinbeck. Oh yes Edward E Cummings, Alan Morehead, and Will Shakespeare. Oh let’s go back a few years, how about Herodotus, and Plato. And for a living author, Martin Cruz Smith, Bernard Cornwell, and Cormac McCarthy. I could go on but I think they might be a bit too busy.
What are the non-fiction genres you enjoy reading?
I love history. I read the entire 11 volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s History of the World. Biographies are fascinating as well. Barbara Tuchman wrote about the middle ages in a great book titled A Distant Mirror.
“Those who do not learn from history, are destined to repeat it.”
June 13 – 19: “What are your favorite countries for settings?”
[thriller-roundtable-logo5] This week we’re joined by ITW Members Tim Baker, Sidney Williams, Karen Harper, Robert Walton, Tom Breen, Connie Di Marco, J. T. Ellison, A. J. Kerns and John Farrow, to answer the question: What are your favorite countries for settings and why?
[SEVEN DAYS DEAD] John Farrow is the Canadian author of five thrillers; and another seven novels and four plays under his real name, Trevor Ferguson. Seven Days Dead, the second in The Storm Murders Trilogy, has received a starred review in Booklist, while a great review in the New York Times (Marilyn Stasio) is forthcoming on June 12th. The Detective Émile Cinq-Mars series has been called the best of our time by Booklist, the best of all time by Die Zeit in Germany.
[royalnannyPB] Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical novels. A former Ohio State University English instructor and high school English teacher, she has been published since 1982. Her latest books are THE COLD CREEK TRILOGY from Mira Books and THE ROYAL NANNY (Edwardian England intrigue) from HarperCollins out this June.
[Fever City Europa World Noir] Tim Baker’s debut noir thriller, FEVER CITY (Europa Editions & Faber), has just been longlisted for a CWA Dagger award. Other longlisted writers this year include Stephen King, Don Winslow and Lee Child. Prior to publishing FEVER CITY, Tim liaised with international authorities on cases involving murder, kidnap, terrorism and disappearances in North Africa and Europe. He currently lives in the South of France with his wife and son. Twitter: @TimBakerWrites
[FIELD OF GRAVES front cover low res] New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the premier literary television show, A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. Follow J.T. on Facebook or Twitter @thrillerchick for more insight into her wicked imagination.
[mask minos] Robert Walton grew up in a multi-cultural village of Narberth in the main line of Philadelphia. Armed with a degree in Anthropology from Penn State, Bob has worked tirelessly over the years to live up to his father’s expectations. Having failed at that, he has traveled the world in search of the true meaning of life. Still, this has not stopped him from pursuing a career in writing that began over 35 years ago with unpublished poetry and short stories, and then in earnest when he began writing his first novel Fatal Snow. Since then he has joined Pennwriters and The International Thriller Writers and has published his second Harry Thursday thriller, The Mask of Minos: Bruno’s Inferno. There is more to come of Harry Thursday and more.
[yemen] Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, is set for release in June 2016.
[Device Trial cover.indd] Tom Breen has practiced law over twenty five years and is currently a partner in a law firm in downtown New York. Tom’s litigation experience has enabled him to realistically create courtroom and deposition scenes with tense dialogue and interesting characters that simulates actual courtroom dynamics. He lives with his wife on Long Island and their two daughters are practicing attorneys living in New York City.
[Dark Hours2-2] Sidney Williams is the author of numerous traditionally published books, and he is currently published by Crossroad Press, which has brought out many of his original novels, plus a couple of new books, in Kindle and other e-book editions. Sidney has worked as a newspaper reporter, marketing professional and more recently as a professor of creative writing. While working as a reporter, he covered the crime beat at night and also wrote feature articles, religion news and conducted hundreds of celebrity interviews. He’s interviewed television stars such as Matt Leblanc, Jennifer Anniston, Gates McFadden, Raven Symone, Alex Haley, Shirley Chisholm and many others. He also covered speakers as diverse as Mother Teresa, Alex Haley, Robert Ballard and Wendy Wasserstein.
[Madness of Mercury] Connie di Marco is the author of The Madness of Mercury, first in the Zodiac Mysteries from Midnight Ink. Writing as Connie Archer, she is also the national bestselling author of the Soup Lover’s Mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. Some of her favorite recipes can be found in The Cozy Cookbookand The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. Connie is a member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
Posted in: Thriller Roundtable
About the Author: ITW
International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website. Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
25 Comments on "June 13 – 19: “What are your favorite countries for settings?”"
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Arthur Kerns says:
June 12, 2016 at 1:50 pm
Sometimes an old 1948 tune titled, “Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names,” plays in my ear when I plan a setting for a story. The South of France brings to mind fragrant sea breezes, delicious food, and forbidden romance. The writer Somerset Maugham said of the French Riviera that it was “a sunny place for shady people.” What better setting for my first book, The Riviera Contract, an espionage novel where one can die in colorful surroundings? My second novel is set in beautiful, exciting Africa. The times I visited that fascinating continent I always had an overhanging apprehension not of falling victim to a terrorist or thug, but to the local fauna. Leopards are known to sit on roofs at night waiting for someone to walk out the door. They then pounce on the person and drag their bodies up onto a tree limb to age before dining. The black mamba will size you up while deciding when to strike and then if you run will chase you across the bush until you’re out of breathe. Now there’s a backdrop for your protagonist while he or she is trying to deal with the bad guys. My latest novel, The Yemen Contract, takes place in the mysterious, largely unknown country of Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. There amongst the rugged beauty of an ancient land everyone carries an AK-47. The surroundings definitely keep my protagonist, Hayden Stone, on his toes while he tries to save Western Civilization.
For me the setting is very important, a character itself, that not only serves as background tapestry but something for my characters to take into consideration as they travel through the story.
John Farrow says:
June 12, 2016 at 2:51 pm
While it’s true that my literary fiction has spilled over into Europe — with French and Dutch connections — my crime writing has been set close to home, and for me that means Quebec. Utilizing a French-Canadian detective (and, ahem, the first to do so in our era, thank you), I am able to demonstrate the mix of cultures and tensions between French and English. French history and politics provides a backdrop that is both rich and unique on the continent, so in a way I’m able to leave home without going anywhere. Lately though, my Sergeant-Detective Cinq-Mars has been on the move, to New Orleans in The Storm Murders; in the next two books after the current one he’s off to New Hampshire. He will then be returning home. For as long as he is a French-speaking Canadian on American soil, I can again take advantage of different attitudes and cultures, and bring out the differences between those who share the continent and hold to a different perspective. He’s an outsider in the United States, and that shows; and in the current novel (Seven Days Dead) he’s on an insular island with its own history and culture. While the island of Grand Manan is in Canada (although off the coast of Maine), it is a unique place by virtue of its isolation, and he is an obvious outsider there.
Being on the outside, then, bereft of local knowledge which is crucial to any case, necessitates that my detective explore and scratch around for secrets. He must be on the ball to acquire knowledge that many may know but few are willing to share, and only grudgingly, with him. This works as an intriguing set-up for any investigation, as the stranger in a strange land is always a compelling circumstance.
Karen Harper says:
June 12, 2016 at 4:24 pm
Unlike the majority of suspense/mystery/thriller writers, I always begin with place. P.D. James (yes, honesty, THE P.D. James) once told me at a writer’s conference that she always began with place: “If the place seems real, the story and characters will also,” she said. Her characters and plots were so strong that I was amazed she started with setting. This week, I hope we can discuss “Setting as Character.” I think it’s that important. Also, especially for my contemporary suspense, more than my historicals, which have ‘real’ main characters and the settings are more dictated, I try to find settings which are not only unusual but which have some sort of internal conflict as background for the character conflict. See you right here for discussion in the next few days. I always learn something too.
Tim Baker says:
June 13, 2016 at 4:16 am
Thanks for those comments, Karen, I really agree with you that a sense of place is absolutely vital, and is the starting point for all my own fiction – so I’m happy to be in the company of the great PD James!
As you say, at its best setting is not just an essential element, it is an actual character. We can seen this in the work of Ross Macdonald, a master of crime fiction. His locales always bring nuance, texture and danger to the narrative, and impact upon the story in meaningful and surprising ways.
Karen Harper says:
June 13, 2016 at 6:37 am
MacDonald is a great example. Somehow the “It was a dark and stormy night” so many joke about is an example of what not to do. It’s really good to turn what the reader expects on its head. Terror can happen in a “lovely setting.” A carnival; a country picnic… It’s hard to believe some people are actually afraid of clowns…endless possibilities.
Robert Walton says:
June 12, 2016 at 8:00 pm
I am very excited to be a part of the roundtable discussions. I think it is a great way to network with other writers and hopefully get in front of readers and potential readers. The best way to learn about things is to teach it, and I hope to learn something from the other writers this week.
Of all the places in the world I have visited I find my country of choice is the United States, and perhaps mainly because I know more about this country than others. That said, my first novel, Fatal Snow, takes place in both Wyoming, and the Chilean Andes during the 1970’s, in two parallel plots which tie the whole story together. Wyoming happens to be the perfect backdrop for wild mountain country and a lot of snow, both of which I experienced first-hand.
I didn’t have to use Chile for a location, but as the characters developed themselves, the need for a more exotic local took shape, and the Andes was the best choice. It’s funny though, but I know authors that write stories close to home and it seems to work for them. But for some reason I try and stay away from my home town. Probably because from an archaeological point of view, very little happens in central Pennsylvania that would likely lead to what amounts to the type of plot I gravitate toward.
I’ve used Costa Rica, Switzerland and Greece for my second Harry Thursday novel, The Mask of Minos, and that was very exciting to write about. I think it adds depth to a story to use places most people don’t necessarily get to visit, and Greece is one of my favorite. In fact, my third novel, 47 Crates, starts in the Greek isles, and comes home to Philadelphia. It’s been a while since I lived in Philly so I get to travel back to the city of brotherly love for some hands-on research. Lucky me.
JT Ellison says:
June 12, 2016 at 11:40 pm
You knew this would be a lively discussion. There’s nothing a thriller author likes better than picking the perfect setting. I am so blessed to have three series to place. I realized early on I didn’t want to be constrained to one place, one city, one country, and so my books have traveled from Nashville and Washington D.C. and Colorado to Italy, England, Scotland, France. These are my favorite countries to write about because they are my heritage. It’s so fun to cook up ways to get my characters on a plane and into a new country.
What’s also fun is deciding which countries I want to feature next. I absolutely choose places I find interesting and compelling. I am a fan of hands on research, so I have a tendency to travel to the place I’m writing about either before or during the writing process. There’s something special about traveling overseas, seeing how other people live, explore other cultures, test my acumen with a map. It’s one of the most exciting parts of being a writer, actually.
Tim Baker says:
June 13, 2016 at 4:00 am
So much of what influences us as writers can be traced back to our childhood experiences, and this is certainly true not just of my choices of locales in my fiction, but also my own life choices.
As a child, I devoured every book I could find on Greek Mythology. It was a dramatic universe charged with bravery and betrayal and in many respects those tales of the cruelty of gods, and the futile nobility of mortals as they tried to challenge the cosmic order, were the first crime fiction I ever read.
Although the subject was definitely Noir, particularly for a child, the landscape was anything but, replete with a glorious poetic beauty.
So it was only logical that once I started traveling, I headed straight for the Mediterranean region. The countries where I have set most of my fiction – France, Italy and Spain – all have rich cultures, dark complex histories and spectacular scenery: a perfect terrain for fiction.
But the country I keep returning to the most in my writing is the one that I know best and yet can never return to: the Past. It’s a country saturated with an amber light, full of promise and possibility. For me one of the most exciting elements of visiting the past is re-interpreting and re-imagining recent history by placing fictional characters within momentous historical events, such as the assassination of JFK.
And the best thing about traveling to the Past? No passport or visa required. All you need to slip through the border is a vivid imagination…
Sidney Williams says:
June 13, 2016 at 6:25 am
I think when you get into discussions of favorites, the most recent project is almost always the default. It’s the focus of your thoughts and imagination, and the possibilities seems infinite.
I’m writing a book at the moment that’s to be part of the Crossroad Press ongoing O.C.L.T. series. That stands for Orphic Crisis Logistical Taskforce. In the series, O.C.L.T. operatives respond to strange events around the world.
When I sat down to outline my O.C.L.T. entry, I knew I wanted to use Ireland as a backdrop. I visited the Emerald Isle several years ago, and my favorites stops on our tour were ruins and historic sites.
A few years before that, I’d spoken with a man who visited Britain, and he mentioned to me how profound he felt when he stepped into structures hundreds of years old.
I experienced that as well, walking the grounds at spots like the 6th Century monastic site at Glendalough. The grey stone towers and old gravestones evoked a deep sense of the past and of the people who’d walked there long before my visit.
My story opened up as I recalled the land and the stones. Ancient bits of walls still stick up beside roadsides and history is everywhere. While I was in Ireland, Dublin became the base while excursions took us all over. It’s a great city as well, filled with statues of writers and mythic figures. It’s become the jumping off point for my characters as well.
It’s streets, pubs and museums became perfect spots to send characters in search of clues and lost bits of ancient alphabets, and my memory and imagination united to help craft the world of my project.
Beyond that locale, I often prefer to stick closer to home, or a fictionalized version of home. Much of my work has been set in Louisiana. That’s where I’m from, though I now live in Florida.
When writing of Louisiana, I’ve always tried to show a bit of the state that’s not often showcased in books and movies, the world between Shreveport and New Orleans. I’ll probably wind up talking about that more as the week goes on.
Karen Harper says:
June 13, 2016 at 6:45 am
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it works well to have a setting/background for a suspense story that has conflict built in. This ‘ups the ante’ of the main plot and character conflicts and tension. For example, I’ve done books set in Amish country where the Plain People are in conflict with the so-called English. (As we know the Amish are peaceful people, so the conflict is that some “English” try to harass the Amish.) When I used Appalachia for the setting for several suspense novels, I included the incursion of outsiders–rich weekenders from the city who are building condos in the mountains. The haves vs. the have nots works well as does the big money fracking people vs. the environmentalists. I’m fascinated by cultural conflicts in suspense novels to support character and plot.
Tim Baker says:
June 13, 2016 at 10:02 am
The immediate post-WWII years saw a surge in popularity for the “travel log” novel and film. The James Bond books incorporated this element, as did some of the best Hollywood films of the era, “Roman Holiday” and “To Catch a Thief” for example. And “The Day of the Jackal” is a good example of a thriller novel from the end of this era, when travel was still relatively rare and infused with the notion of glamor.
But as mass tourism began to surge from the late ’70s onward, and the cost of flights and accommodation became more affordable, there was less automatic mileage to be gained simply from including exotic locations for their own sake.
The challenge for writers today is not just to find a location that is unusual or visually striking, but to incorporate motifs from the location into the story in a convincing and dramatic way. In other words, the place has to resonate within the story, or be an organic part of the narrative. It gets back to the notion of place as character . . .
Tim Baker says:
June 13, 2016 at 10:45 am
One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the rise of regional crime books.
Nordic Noir is probably the best example, but there is also Mediterranean Noir and the Mexican border books of Don Winslow and Sam Hawken among others. Scotland has been very popular recently, and of course places like LA continue to maintain their allure.
What it could indicate is that there are favored locales – places that resonate in a massive way with readers, who then want to continue exploring them in greater depth.
Is it just a coincidence that a number of great crime writers from Scandinavia all emerged at the same time? How important is the Nordic/Arctic landscape to Nordic Noir’s success?
And where can we expect to find the next popular region? With books like “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee and the Baby Ganesh Agency series by Vaseem Khan, perhaps it could be India…
Connie di Marco says:
June 13, 2016 at 12:30 pm
I can’t speak first hand of settings in foreign lands because I haven’t (as yet) set a story outside the U.S. My two series are both domestic – one in Vermont, the other in San Francisco. However, my village in Vermont (the Soup Lover’s Mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime) is so damn idyllic, it might as well be another country, one I wish I could live in. And one many of my readers have told me they wish really existed. The Madness of Mercury, the first in the new Zodiac Mystery series is set in San Francisco, a city in which I once lived and one I know quite well. San Francisco, more than any other city in the U.S., in my opinion, offers an ever-changing palette of moods.
Both of these series depend greatly on setting, so I heartily agree with Karen when she speaks of setting as character and I love Arthur’s reminiscence of “Far away places with strange sounding names.” I think the deeper question to ask is how we as writers mold and transform and massage our settings. How we bring to the fore aspects of setting that align with our vision of a certain place.
My imaginary Vermont village is much like any small New England town with certain exceptions. The electronic age barely rears is ugly head. Yes, my characters have cell phones which, because of the surrounding mountains, conveniently don’t work at critical times. There are no serial killers or homegrown villains in the village. Danger and evil come from the outer world. Is this today’s reality? Of course not.
Does the Paris of fiction truly resemble today’s city? Or do writers pick and choose? Do they incorporate the graffiti-covered walls and horrific slums seen outside Charles de Gaulle airport? Or is that conveniently not mentioned? Instead, would a writer describe a clandestine meeting on the Pont Neuf with fog rising from the Seine? How do we create our real or fictional settings in a way that connects with our readers’ cultural expectations of that setting? What do we incorporate versus what do we eliminate for the progress of our story?
Personally, I’ve always wanted to travel through the Middle East and North Africa, something I haven’t been able to do. Not yet anyway. And now it would be a far more difficult and dangerous journey. I have a sensory idea of Morocco and I hope the book I read will enhance and deepen that Moroccan fantasy.
And let’s not forget time in relation to setting. Can I ever visit Alan Furst’s Eastern Europe in World War II, a world he’s expertly created and resurrected for his readers? Can I actually meet someone like Jason Goodwin’s fictional detective in the late Ottoman Empire? Not possible. At least not until that time travel gizmo is invented.
What is it that calls to each of us, that inspires us at a very personal level, about a certain place or time?
Laurie Stevens says:
June 13, 2016 at 1:25 pm
All I know is that I’d like to take a couple weeks and hole up in Connie’s Vermont village!
Connie di Marco/Connie Archer says:
June 13, 2016 at 4:02 pm
Ah . . . so would I! Let’s plan on it, Laurie. If only the murder rate weren’t quite so high . . .
Tom Breen says:
June 13, 2016 at 2:55 pm
Being a practicing attorney in downtown New York, I naturally developed a story line that centered around legal proceedings in the downtown Courtrooms.
In THE COMPLAINT, the lawsuit against ZeiiMed, the diabolical health care company, resulted in a Fairness Hearing in federal court on Pearl street. In THE DEVICE TRIAL, to be released on July 1st, the trial against ZeiiMed takes place in state court located at 60 Centre Street. Since I am familiar with the judges and juries in these venues, I was hopefully able to simulate in my novels the real life experience of actually being there as judicial events unfolded.
Outside the Courtrooms, my characters interacted in various well known locations around NYC, such as the 9/11 Memorial, the Kimberly Hotel, PJ Clark’s and the Ritz Carlton. In both novels, there are several
scenes that take place at the fictional street-side restaurant Tres Bien, with the CEO Of ZeiiMed having his apartment above
Tres Bien. The idea for that was taken from an apartment building one of my daughters lived in on the upper east side.
In THE COMPLAINT, I created a scene in the very beautiful Turks&Caicos Islands because my family loves visiting this piece of paradise. In THE DEVICE TRIAL, two of my primary characters meet at the Long Bay Resort on Tortola, another breathe taking Caribbean getaway.
The point is, I guess, that you write about what you know and what is familiar.
However, for my third novel, I intend to break from this formula and include several
chapters that take place in Rome and the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Hopefully, I won’t get writer’s block attempting to write about things outside my zone of comfort!
Thanks for reading.
Connie di Marco/Connie Archer says:
June 13, 2016 at 4:04 pm
I’ll look forward to that, Tom. Rome is an amazing and seductive city. And I wouldn’t mind visiting Afghanistan either.
Robert Walton says:
June 13, 2016 at 11:20 pm
I think Connie is on to something when she talks about Alan Furst’s Europe of WWII. Time has a definite affect on the location, and that is why my novels are set in the 70’s. I feel a romantic tie with Greece of that decade, and indeed of my youthful travels in the wild west of the Teton mountains. One of my favorite authors is Martin Cruz Smith and his Arkady Renko series depicting the Soviet Union of the 70’s and after even the fall of the Berlin wall. Of course Smith was writing those in the current time but I have fallen in love with the whole Russian theme because of his work.
Each author has his own niche’ when it comet which country he writes about. Ian Pears in Paris and England, Cormac McCarthy in the south west, Cornwell in the England during the Norse conquests.
It’s funny to listen to James Patterson talk about the great tool the Google maps is to a writer where he can pull up exact locations, streets and even what buildings look like to add authenticity to a story.
Robert Walton says:
June 13, 2016 at 11:28 pm
I’m getting a kick out of the times of day we are all writing. Especially you Tim, I’m in my second REM by that time. It reminds me of when I had my bagel restaurant, I’d get up at midnight and do my best thinking at that time of day. Of course it isn’t easy writing things down then without getting dough all over the notes.
Now that I’ve retired, so to speak, the daylight hours are filled with my retired wife and daughter’s constant demand for my attention.
I have to take mini vacations to my locals to rejuvenate my creativity.
Tim Baker says:
June 14, 2016 at 2:24 am
I guess I’m cheating Rob, because I’m in the south of France right now!
But I like what you say about time and how we think and write at different times of day depending on what’s happening – or not! – in our lives.
Your comments also made me think of something I hadn’t before – the idea of jet-lag; how travel resets not just our minds but our body clocks. How many times has an inspiration come from disrupting routine – I think travel is the best (or at least happiest) disrupter…
Karen Harper says:
June 14, 2016 at 6:53 am
When the setting is chosen for me (through my research for my real-life heroine British historicals,)I still try to find something about lovely, merry-old England that is scary or threatening. And in some of those old castles, that’s not hard to do. In my current novel, THE ROYAL NANNY, (which sounds so sweet and charming–but isn’t since it’s loaded with suspense)a Scottish castle that belonged the the royals works well. But one of the most terrifying scenes in the novel works because the reader expects it to be lovely (having tea on the terrace of Sandringham House)but it turns into a WW I Zeppelin bomb attack. Much more terrifying because it is totally unexpected and a contrast to that setting.
John Farrow says:
June 14, 2016 at 8:04 am
The vitality of setting is something that this discussion has demonstrated. And yet for many young writers, the benefit and richness of setting is not instinctive. Having been a university Creative Writing teacher in my past, I was struck by how many students simply wanted to dispense with place. They’d rather be in a generic city, or on a generic farm. Post-apocalyptic stories, for instance, would usually be located in the middle of … nowhere. I blame TV, which often provides a pan shot and no more to situate a tale. I preached the opposite, of course. A setting always helps to create the tale. There’s history, there’s internecine tensions, there’s a geographic grid which might inform which way your characters take their next turn. In an upcoming New Hampshire novel, for instance (a foreign place to me), the heroin epidemic in the State naturally slid into the tale, as did the rape culture on campus in another upcoming novel. In my current novel, Seven Days Dead, how could I possibly have ignored the habit of arson on the island of Grand Manan to express one’s displeasure with a neighbour? You can make that stuff up, but when it’s drawn from reality a greater richness is unearthed.
Tim Baker says:
June 14, 2016 at 10:45 am
John, first of all big congrats on the great review by Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times yesterday!
Interesting that she zeroed in on precisely the subject of this discussion: “Farrow is an authoritative writer who creates characters with depth and plots that say something about them… But the author’s true forte is setting, especially rock-cliff islands lashed by storms, buffeted by winds and clinging to generational secrets that poison the lives of people.”
What you said about arson on the island of Grand Manan is a great example – it written well enough, places are characters and characters reveal themselves in surprising and powerful ways…
John Farrow says:
June 14, 2016 at 11:02 am
Thanks for the quote! And the congrats. And yes, places are characters and do much to not merely colour (excuse my Canuck spelling) a story, but to shape and invigorate a story, and in many cases to determine how it proceeds on the page. Authors who are respectful to place and sensitive to its nuances may find that the geography is a most helpful assistant.
And back at you, Tim. Congrats on the CWA Dagger long-list distinction. That’s grand!
Connie di Marco/Connie Archer says:
June 14, 2016 at 4:40 pm
What a wonderful and poetic review, John: “Rock-cliff islands lashed by storms, buffeted by winds and clinging to generational secrets that poison the lives of people.” Move over, Ann Cleeves!
Islands alone offer such rich possibilities — a select and isolated population, intertwined by bloodlines and marriage, incestuous relationships — lots of possibilities for a deadly cocktail. I recently managed to catch an Icelandic production called ‘Trapped,’ where the same island-like setting is achieved with ice, snow and avalanche. The claustrophobic Sartre-like effect can really ramp up the tension.
I’m the nervous sort. Put it down to ADHD; Attention Deficit, Hyperactive -- something or other. The more scientific acronym is NEAWINI; Not Enough Alcohol When I Need It. To that issue, my doctor suggested I cut down on sugar, so I am excluding all sweets and only drinking whiskey for dessert.
Where was I, oh yes, I am the nervous sort, always moving my hands, fidgeting, can’t sit still, it’s impossible to pay attention. If you tell me your name, I forget it almost before it fully comes out of your mouth. I am easily distracted, and have severe abandonment issues. Yet despite those mild handicaps, I manage to produce novels.
I even gave a speech on it recently at the State Library to some very attentive and patient folks. It went something like this.
Hemingway, when asked what it takes to be a writer answered -- "A lousy childhood." Well, I’m not so sure I had a lousy childhood, but if that is all it takes to be a novelist, I reserve a collective review of my work to determine how lousy it was.
It takes imagination at least, and a lot of hard work. Writers are like gods, we have to make rock out of loam, diamonds out of decomposed organisms. With our hands sticking out of the clouds on our worlds, we get to determine who wins and who doesn't.
Before I was published, I reached out to over 30 agents and publishers before landing one and that was by chance. And persistence. When I was single, I would always go after the very beautiful women. My friends would always tell me that I was out of my league. To which I said, “It’s a numbers game," and sooner or later I scored and the payoff was monumental.
The same persistence applies to any sort of sales, and yes, writers are in the sales business.
Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Ø Henry Ford went bankrupt 5 times before making it.
Ø Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he lacked imagination and good ideas, and he went bankrupt before hitting on the Mouse.
Ø Churchill failed the 6th grade, and was 61 when he became Prime Minister.
Ø Colonel Sanders went belly up multiple times before KFC came to him in his 50’s.
Ø Van Gogh sold only 1 painting in his lifetime—to a friend.
Ø Charles Schultz was rejected by Walt Disney.
Ø Stephen King had 30 rejections and threw his manuscript in the can when his wife fished it out and urged him to go on.
Ø This last one makes me feel anything is possible if you put your mind to it; Jack London had 600 rejections.
Persistence pays off. What all these people had in common was what Joe Campbell called “Following your bliss.” Joseph Campbell was an American philosopher, Mythologist, writer and lecturer best known for his work in Comparative mythology and religion. His work covers many aspect of human behavior besides mythology.
“Myth,” he writes, “is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation…”
Studying this man has opened my eyes to a brave new world.
His best quote stands to this day as a bastion of truth over adversity. “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
There is a pattern, he writes, hidden in every story ever told,” and he called it, “The hero’s journey.”
So that we should be able to find this journey he challenges us to “Follow our Bliss.”
Every story had this theme. The hero, for whatever reason, is faced with a challenge he must complete, or die trying. In Fiction, the hero never dies.
The difference between life and fiction is fiction has to make sense. In fiction, the hero takes the challenge so that we have a story. Think of Star Wars, the classic battle between good and evil.
Better yet, think of Tolkien’s Trilogy, “The Lord of The Rings.”
What Campbell found was that we all have within us this challenge. He uses the Dragon. In Frodo’s case -- Mount Doom. He climbs mountains, must choose the correct path, and avoid temptation, in order to fulfill his challenge.
Frodo taught us that if we persevere, if we fight our way to the end, to stand in front of the dragon, the fiery pit of DOOM, Joseph Campbell assures us that we will find not the dragon, or Sauron, but ourselves.
All Frodo had to do was throw the ring into the fire of Mordor, and he’d be free of his burden, free to go home to the Shire and live his life as before. But it was HIS evil that kept him from doing this, his personal dragon – Sméagol. Sméagol had to die so that Frodo could triumph. So he could have the life that was waiting for him. And be sure it was not the life he left behind.
We face no dragon, no external force, but only ourselves. Sméagol was Frodo’s inner dragon.
Albert Camus in “The Stranger,” speaks to the absurdity of life. His character suffers from ennui, and mindlessly murders a man on a hot Algerian beach, and faces his consequences. Camus called it, “The nakedness of a man faced with the absurd.”
I would rather have my characters face what I call, “An ordinary man thrust into extraordinary situations.”
In the end, Frodo found what all heroes find, that it is not the dragon, the Mordor that fights us and keeps us from our life that is meant for us, but our own feelings of insecurity, doubt, failing. And once we overcome those feelings, once we allow our Sméagol to fall into his own fearful self, then and only then can we find the Bliss.
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Hot and sexy characters win out
How does life differ from fiction, you may find yourself asking yourself. The most common answer I’ve heard at least is that fiction has to make sense, life does not. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of novel writing are the characters and what do you do with them.
We can gain insight into our characters by looking within ourselves.
As the Greek gods are doing in the photograph, we must find within ourselves something we can believe in.
Not only must we find the character, we have to build him, create his life much like God created Adam out of clay, for indeed we are playing at god when we write. And as we play at god, we should make sense out of the lives we create. I mean they can’t just start begetting people. They are not to be taken on faith, because faith has no place in fiction. They must be drawn from within our own souls.
Hemingway said, “…Whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.” And then when we do that, we can make them real.
Truth, is the most important part of writing. For, as Mark Twain once said, “If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything.” How true. For example, in literature at least you shouldn’t have your killer do some good deed like save a tiny bird from a cat, and have him in the next chapter, mutilate a young woman and enjoy it. You could have him love and cherish his pet birdie, only to cook alive it in the next chapter. That would be cool.
Building an outline often helps. Starting from the bones, and adding flesh. James Patterson works religiously with this method. There is a man I admire greatly. I actually know him on a personal level. I once took his online course in the Master Class series, “James Patterson Teaches Writing,” and I felt a personal connection. He actually talked to me, though like on TV he couldn’t see me, but I could see him.
That's the truth.
When asked what it takes to be a good writer, Ernest Hemingway said, “A lousy childhood.”
He is also quoted in a great book, The Green Hills of Africa, p. 22, as saying this:
“All Modern American Literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.
But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
He’s being modest of course. Hemingway fits right in there between “before,” and “since.” I personally can think of two authors who fit into the “since” category. One is Cormac McCarthy, and the other is Kurt Vonnegut. American, mind you -- and since I am telling this story, no others count.
So before anyone can write a book, a short story, or a sentence, they have to read. Read. Read. A good place to start is with any book I have written. Since they pale in comparison to any of the authors I’ve just mentioned, I won’t look too bad. But seriously. Start with Huck Finn. Twain is Shakespeare simplified. Reading should not feel like you are reading, and that is what Twain does.
After Twain, Ernest is right. There is a void in American lit. And then came, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s third novel about a soldier and his love of a nurse he meets while being treated in a hospital during WWI. Hemingway's art is in his dialogue. He has a style of writing so different from anybody before or since. If you were to write like him today, it would be difficult to get published. It’s tough enough, and today’s editor, trained in today’s educational system, would not know what to do with it.
Kurt Vonnegut with The Sirens of Titan. writes in his own genre. He talks of his early years when publishers wanted to place him in the science fiction genre. But they were wrong. While a lot of his story lines were of a fantastic theme, he wrote about the human tragedy. But he did it in a philosophically humorous way. And with a sardonic twist which always leaves us smiling. And if we read it again and maybe once more, we may get it.
Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. is written with a reality and truthfulness that makes us think. I guess you can call it "literature.” The Road" pulls us into the mind of a man tortured in a post-apocalyptic world with the task of keeping his son alive in hopes of finding a place where good might still trump the evil that has taken over the few humans left alive, where life as it was might still be. A place where mankind hasn't been stripped of civilization - that outer shell that binds us to what Spinoza referred to when he suggested that God has determined the universe down to the last detail. McCarthy's protagonist holds the belief that God still exists regardless of the lack of civilization. He is put to the test - down to his last breath. It is one of the few books that literally left me crying. Not because of its philosophy, but because of McCarthy's ability to put it into words.
What tells of a good author is what McCarthy did in this book. He did all this, told a story and never once does he explain what caused the apocalyptic event that ended life as we know it. And you know, I don't remember asking that question either. He told his story through his frank and simple prose.
That answers the question; "What does it take to be a writer?"
2,000 year-old relic kills all who possess it … The Mask of Minos
March 23, 2016 by sunburypress
MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — Sunbury Press has released Robert Walton’s The Mask of Minos: Bruno’s Inferno, a satirical action-adventure akin to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"It created quite a stir in the community when news came out," spoke an ebullient author. "I wanted to show my fellow authors that I can write something effectual, something that tells me that I can make a difference in not only my own life, but in other's lives as well."
Its no accident that he came up with this best selling novel.
"I believe that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are, that are essential to their being."
'So,' I asked him, 'The essence of this novel precedes the actual novel?'
It wasn't easy holding this author down for an interview, He seemed to be floating on a cloud. I asked him about that;
"Not a cloud, so much as the top of a mountain. I have conquered the dragon, and the towns people are ecstatic."
When I asked him what difference it would make to his career as a writer if he never hit the Best Seller list, this essentialist responded;
"What is soft, flies through the air, and whistles?"
"I give up," I said.
"My novel," he said.
To which I responded, 'But you novel isn't soft.'
"So you can soak it in water."
'But," I said, ' your novel doesn't fly.'
"So," he said, "You throw it in the air."
'But a novel doesn't whistle,' I said,
"So? It doesn't whistle."
"The truth of the matter is, best seller or not," he went on, "it is what it is, and I don't care how much I make on it, it is a labor of love. Does that sound cliche'?"
To be honest, it did.
The Heliades are Greek Nymphs, the seven daughters of Helios, God of the sun, and the Okeanid (Nymphs who presided over the natural water sources of the Earth) Klymene. They also had a son, Phaethon, who pleaded with his father to let him drive his chariot across the sky. Helios reluctantly agreed and Phaethon lost control of the horses and drove too close to the earth, scorching it. Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt to stop the destruction, and Phaethon fell to his death in the River Eridanos. His sisters, the Heliades, gathered there to mourn him, and when they cried, Zeus turned them into trees. The trees cry still, shedding golden drops of sap that turn to amber when they fall.
The year is 1980, and Harry Thursday is about to be drawn into another thrilling adventure. He has come out of retirement, and has been working on a tiny Greek island resurrecting the decrepit Temple of Zeus there.
Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, his uncle falls to his death at the Harrisburg train station, an accident they call it, and Harry is called back to the states by the uncle's attorney, a sexy intelligent lawyer with a few secrets of her own, who is counsel to some very wealthy clientele.
When the police mention to Harry that a small piece of amber was found lodged in the dead man's throat, Harry suspects foul play. Soon, Harry's time on Earth is becoming tenuous.
This is the subject of the 3rd Harry Thursday novel, which if I can stop delaying, will be finished before the end of the year.