Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of ALONE by Loren D. Estleman

ALONE is a Hollywood novel, but it's not a Hollywood novel at the same time. There are no actors, no movies sets or filming. Valentino is a film detective, an archivist who searches out and tries to restore old films. Attending a Hollywood costume party as Ramon Novarro to his girlfriend's Greta Garbo, Valentino is met with an offer he doesn't want to refuse. The reclusive host of the party Matthew Rankin's wife was a good friend of Garbo and he claims he has a unique film of Garbo before she became a star. He will trade it for a favor. The favor is stop Rankin's personal assistant from continuing his blackmail. Aker, the assistant, claims he has a letter from Rankin's dead wife claiming she and Garbo were lovers. Rankin will give Valentino the lost film if he will find something on Akers to stop him. But before this can happen, Akers is killed -- by Rankin, who claims self-defense.

A scruffy Beverly Hills detective, reminiscent of Columbo, investigates. He's suspicious of the so called self-defense claim and Rankin is arrested for the crime of murder. Valentino is drawn in to prove Rankin innocent.

The story isn't fast paced but it held my interest all the way through. There is a slew of interesting secondary characters, including Valentino's girlfriend, a forensic examiner for the LAPD, his on again, off again roommate and a slimy building inspector, trying to thwart Valentino's desire to rebuild the Oracle Theater to its former glory, and show the old films he's been restoring.

Review of TERMINATED, a novel by Simon Wood

TERMINATED is another brilliant Wood thriller. Who goes to work expecting to be terrorized and nearly driven mad? Work is supposed ot be mundane, even boring. Not in Simon Wood world.

In Gwen's world, a loving mother, with a wonderful husband and a 'miracle' daughter, born after they had given up hope of having children falls afoul of a sociopath. Years earlier Gwen was stabbed by a would be rapist. The rapist was jailed and Gwen believed her injuries would prevent pregnancy. It also left her with the determination never to be victimized again.

When Gwen, as newly promoted supervisor, gives a much deserved bad performance review to Stephen Tarbell, who thinks her job should have been his, Tarbell goes ballistic. After a confrontation doesn't make her change her mind, he attacks her in the parking lot after work, pulling a knife on her.

She escapes and reports the attack. Her company brings in a private security firm to investigate and convince Gwen not to go to the police, that the matter will be taken care of quickly. But Tarbell is no ordinary disappointed employee. He fumes and convinces himself Gwen not only took his job, but is out to ruin his life. He decides to teach her a lesson.

Thus begins the unraveling of Gwen's life as Tarbell's schemes grow more and more complex. Tarbell's sanity unwinds. His attacks escalate. Gwen grows desperate as Tarbell begins to threaten her family. She has to stop him. But Tarbell is wily and Gwen is desperate when Tarbell systematically destroys Gwen's life and drives away all her friends and allies.

This is nerve wracking reading. I sometimes found the tension almost unbearable. Wood is definitely a master storyteller. If you want a read that will keep you up at night then pick up a copy of TERMINATED.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Metamorphosis of a Novel

At the start of 2010 I started research for a new novel. But unlike all the novels I've written before, this one was going to be a historical. After watching a History Channel show about underground speakeasies in Los Angeles during prohibition that were protected by LAPD officers at the door I just knew there was a story there.  I began to research  the period and was amazed at what I found. Prohibition, instead of what the proponents of it planned or thought would happen, created a nation of criminals. Ordinary citizens, who before the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment would never have considered breaking the law, found themselves doing so regularly and without remorse. The law quickly proved unenforceable and rather than quelling crime and violence, which was one of the goals of the naive  temperance movement that voted it in, it proved a breeding ground for the greatest growth of organized criminal activity America had ever seen.

This was a story background ripe for the telling. I knew I wanted the main character to be a cop. A crooked cop, one of the star officers of a very corrupt police force. I also had plans to mix Hollywood into the tale. After all, Hollywood came into its own during Prohibition and the power of the movie studios soon matched the power of the police force and city hall that ran the city of Angels.

But along the way there were changes. I researched numerous stars and found one who fascinated me. Ramon Novarro, a Latino actor who was groomed to replace Rudolf Valentino as the screen lover in the silent movies. Novarro was gay. It was an open secret in Hollywood and a zealously guarded one, since if word got out, his career would be ruined. But though he was never able to publicly admit his orientation, he also never succumbed to a studio arranged lavender marriage like so many other gay actors did so middle America would go on thinking they were 'real' men. 

I wanted a Novarro character in my story. Instead of making him a closeted actor, I was going to have him be one of the numerous cross-dressers that also flourish in those days. Some became quite famous. But I planned a twist. My female impersonator was going to be fooling everyone. Including the crooked LAPD officer who would fall in love with her. Originally the story was going to be a tragedy, where the cop killed the impostor when he found out, and was forced to flee the country.

But along the way my characters began to speak their minds. The LAPD officer was still going to be crooked, but the woman he was going to fall for wasn't going to be a fake. She would be a real woman, with her own set of secrets.

I could have forced the characters to fulfill the roles they were born to play in my head, but I think when characters reach a point that they become so real they tell you their story, a good writer listens. Which is what I did. And ended up with Color of Shadows and Smoke, what I think is a powerful story of a bad man struggling to leave his past behind, to change so he's worthy of a woman way out of his league and how their two tragedies intertwine and create a love story.

Right now I'm in the very early stages of a new story idea. That will be the subject of a future blog.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Blog Jog Day

Thank you for stopping by my Blog! Please explore all this Blog has to offer, then jog on over to Frankie the walk n roll dog. If you would like to visit a different Blog in the jog, go to Blog Jog Day

Rules for New Writers

New writers studiously study how-to articles online, in writer's magazines and in the hundreds of books published on how to write in the belief that there is some secret that all published writers know and if only they could find it, they'd be published too. I'm afraid it's not true. There is no magic wand that can transform you from unpublished to published. The process is the same for everybody, for some it's just longer than others. Even when the dream is realized, it's not the end. You publish one book, one short story or perhaps an article. The next one is not a shoe-in. You might get more consideration for having been published, but you can just as easily be rejected again for you latest work.

It took me 33 years between the first book I wrote at 17 to having my first book published when I was 50. In that time I wrote at least 8 novels that were not published, in some cases probably weren't publishable. But each one was a learning experience I built on until I produced a book that someone wanted. But after that there was more rejection. The second book in the series was rejected and I ended up taking it elsewhere, to a small, independent publisher, which was a step down from the New York publisher I had started with. I'm still glad to be published by them and have continued with them since then. But I still want to break back into the New York publishing world and I've been pursuing an agent for the last 6 months. So far I have 95 rejections on one book I'm querying. That's 95 times I've had to read 'Sorry, not for us' since most of the rejections have been form letters. But I haven't stopped querying and I haven't stopped writing. I still send out queries on that book, and wait for a response. I have also started an even larger, more ambitious project, a noir historical which I will also be querying on when it's finished.

My point to all this is, though I have 8 fiction novels published and several short stories, I am no more guaranteed the next book I write will be published by anyone. Publishing is a business going through a lot of changes right now, and no one knows where it will be in 5 years, let alone 20. Publishers want sure things, and since there is no such thing, they compensate by being cautious. Which means more rejections to all but the upper tier of proven best sellers.

So why do it? I do it because I can't NOT write. Whether or not I get published I will always write because the stories are in me and have to be told. With that compulsion I will keep writing no matter if the next book or the one after that is never published or I decide to self publish an ebook, I will write.

As a new writer, only you can decide if this path is for you. No one else can make that decision or stop you from trying. If you want to write, despite the odds, then I say go, write.

My motto is taken right out of Galaxy Quest -- 'Never give up, never surrender'

Write what you know or write what you want?

Writing outside of your own experiences   

What do Annie Proulx, Neil Plakcy, John Varley and Arthur Golden have in common?

They all write about places and people diametrically opposed to what they are.

Annie Proulx, a thrice divorced woman with three sons and a daughter, wrote the multi award winning short story Brokeback Mountain, a story about two Wyoming ranch hands who work together one summer and become reluctant lovers, a love affair that goes on in secret for years, neither man able to speak of the love they have. Annie Proulx is a) not a man b) not gay c) not a ranch hand. Yet her writing won awards and went on to become an iconic film that won awards all over the world, including Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Director's Guild awards.

Neil Plakcy is another award winning author who has written a series of books about Kimo Kanapa'aka, a mixed Hawaiian-Japanese-Chinese-Haole homicide detective in the Honolulu Police Department. Now I've met Neil, he's a wonderful, talented man, but he's not a) a cop b) Hawaiian, Japanese or Chinese c) does nor nor has he ever lived in Hawaii. But his books are wonderful and I've never heard of anyone taking exception to his skill in writing about the place or the man.

John Varley is a Hugo Award winning white Texan who wrote some remarkable books set on a goddess made world called Gaea. His characters in that series ranged from a bi-sexual female ship's captain turned wizard called Cirocco Jones, and impossibly, bizarre creatures out of legend like centaurs and flying angels.

Arthur Golden is a middle-aged, Jewish American man who authored the critically acclaimed Memoirs of a Geisha, a story about a young, Japanese girl who was raised/trained to be a geisha girl.

How can these people, so different from the characters they portray do it? Is it wrong for them to try? Is it wrong for a white person to write about a black, a male to write from a woman's POV? Someone who lives on the east coast to write about the west coast, or an American to write about a Chinese character living in 4th Century China? Are there lines that writers shouldn't cross in their stories? And if there are, who draws those lines?

My books all deal with gay men living in modern America, in most cases in Los Angeles, a city I did live in once, but hadn't visited until this year. One of my recent books, not yet published is about a young Latino man from a gang ridden barrio in South Central Los Angeles. As I wrote it, I wondered if I was going to get flack for writing about a world I have never lived in, so in the last while I've been thinking about this a lot, and I've come to some conclusions. I know I've been criticised for writing about L.A. since I don't live there now. And all of us who are female and write gay male fiction face the criticism that we have no business doing so. Is there any merit to what those critics say?

My newest book is a noir historical set in 1929 Los Angeles. I did a great deal of research into that period, including a trip to Los Angeles where I spent some time in their historical archives looking up L.A.'s past.

Personally I'm of the mind that as writers we are supposed to delve into worlds and people we don't know, in some cases can never know. This is the nature of good fiction. Tame books, told about everyday lives, can be good literature, but for me that's not what I want in my books. I want to explore new places, from new POVs in a way that allows me to live them vicariously. My final argument about this way of thinking is that there would be no science fiction, no fantasy and no historical books, since all those require the writer to step outside of their comfort zone and put themselves in another's shoes.

I also think, that as long as we invest in the research and don't succumb to stereotypes, that we should have the freedom to write the stories that come to us.

What do you think? Do you write about places or people unlike your own? Do you think there are things we shouldn't write about?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Truth in writing historical novels

Writing of any kind takes effort. Police procedurals require research into how the police function in the real world. Legal thrillers need a firm understanding of law and courtrooms and what takes place in them. Same with medical thrillers. Writing an historical crime novel takes another level of research and decisions, above and beyond knowing how the police operate at the time.

One question that has to be faced and answered before any words are put to paper is how real are you going to make your novel? Will you try to be true to the day's mores or will you be more politically correct and give your characters some of our modern day beliefs? What about language? Language is powerful. Using strong racial words can be both jarring and hurtful, but if you want to write a story true to its time, do you avoid those words? Or play it safe and avoid the whole mess?

In my newest novel, Color of Shadows and Smoke, the main protagonist, Billy Brewster is an LAPD sergeant in a time when the only difference between the cops and the gangsters in town were the badges. Billy and his fellow cops and just about everyone else in the city of Angels were racists and wanted Los Angeles to be the 'best last white spot in the west'. They did this through overt racism and more subtle methods like housing covenants that didn't allow undesirables to move into white only areas. The LAPD's Chief of Police had gun squads and 'Red' squads set up to rid the city of gangsters and communists. But not to protect the citizens, no, these efforts were to get rid of the competition.

But in writing Color of Shadows and Smoke I had to decide whether to let Billy speak in his own language or clean him up and make him more palatable to modern readers. Would that be honest? Billy's not a nice person. He's not well educated, he's a bigot, a grifter, a misogynist and a killer. But not totally irredeemable. I want to be true to that. So I decided to put it all out there. Show Billy and all his myriad warts. Does it work? Yes, I believe it does. Of all the books I've written over the years, I think Color of Shadows and Smoke is my best one yet. To read a sample, go here, but be warned, it does contain all that language I talked about.