Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writing Noir Mysteries Part 3

A perfect example of setting the mood can be seen in the movie "Somewhere in Time" with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. While the movie is dated, the technique is wonderful and what any writer of historical fiction needs to apply to their story from beginning to end.  You cannot have your protagonist using anything, seeing or saying anything "out of time." For example many modern words and phrases were not used in earlier times.

Do your research. Immerse yourself, put objects from the time you're writing where you can see them, listen to the music, read magazines and books printed then. Try to understand their world, their concerns.

After that word from our sponsor, now back to our story.


Outside lightning flashes backlight the window's signs. It steals a second of your attention, and you turn away from the men by the jukebox when you hear the waitress approaching. Your hand drops from the .38, jacket covering it as you look up, smile and say, "Don't I know you?"

She places your glass of beer, with a two-inch foam head, on a cardboard Reingold coaster, a glass bowl filled with peanuts on the center of the table before answering. "You know that's a pretty weak line."

You smile and nod. "You must hear it a dozen times a night." The beer tastes just right, nice, and cold as it slides down your throat.

"Not from a guy like you." Her smile seems to warm as she examines your face. She nods slowly. "Yeah, I think so."

Now you're wondering what she is agreeing to, so wait to give her a chance to tell you.

"I think we went to school together, but then you disappeared right?"

You point at the empty chair. "Why don't you sit for a second or two if the boss will let you."

She looks over at the bar, and then shrugs, sits and reaches for a peanut, cracks the shell.

"What happened to you back then?" she asks without looking up.

"Dropped out to enlist, fighting seemed more important to me."

"You look like you made it through okay." She leaves the cracked peanut in the bowl, lifts a second one.

"I got lucky." You wish you had not started talking about the war.

The sound of a chair scraping the floor from across the room seems louder than the piano as the player begins "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." One of the women standing near the piano starts singing with a million dollar voice.

A quick glance at the two men you hoped to avoid shows you one walking in your direction. He doesn't act as if he sees you, passes by heading to the restrooms.

The waitress, you see when you turn back to her, looks confused as if your sudden lack of interest causes her concern.

What is her name?

"Sorry," you tell her. "I'm too easily distracted tonight, been a long day."

"What do you do these days?" She sounds like she thinks your answer might be important to her.

"I'm a private cop," you start to explain and stop abruptly when you feel the barrel of a gun pressed hard into the middle of your back.

The waitress's eyes widen. She looks over your head and nods as if she received a silent message. "Stop by again next time you're in our neighborhood." She leaves before you can respond.

"Let's go pal," the guy behind you speaks close to your ear. His beer and cigar breath combs you neck. "We need to speak with you outside."

To be continued

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Writing Noir Mysteries Part 2

Walking a darkened street in a noir mystery city, peeling back today step by step, hearing rainfall as the sky darkens once the sun drops below the uneven skyline. It's not heavy rain, but a light shower lifting odors off the sidewalk, the strip of grass with small maple trees every hundred feet. Their leaves are beginning to turn September into October.

The sounds of traffic lessen as evening progresses and your steps lead you away from the vibrant heart of entertainment. You seek solace where most would not look for it, turning a corner when the white and colored neon lights from a neighborhood tavern a block away grab your attention.

Rain on the sidewalk fills cracks and holes, softening the sound of your leather-soled footsteps. The road is out of the way enough that traffic becomes infrequent, and when a car rolls by the tires hiss the water accumulating on the pavement as twists of smoke rumble from the exhaust pipe beneath the chrome rear bumper.

Nearing the tavern, you hear the muffled sounds of voices, light laughter, in the background someone playing an upright piano, you discover as you press your hand to the door slowly opening and entering.

The air feels warm, even inviting, which is when you realize that outside the temperature drops with nightfall. You smell the smoke from cigarettes and cigars, beer and perfume and the people all around the room. Several of those sitting along the wood-topped bar glance back to see who entered.

You reach up and touch the brim of your fedora, a greeting, everyone understands. Several of them nod, or smile a welcome.

You cross the room, noticing the scuffed oak flooring to get closer to the musician. Several women stand to one side watching and listening as his fingers caress the ivories.

A pay telephone hangs to the right of the piano where a small hallway leads back to the restrooms.

On the top of the piano sits a tumbler with a few old dollar bills stuffed inside.

You glance around, spot an empty table, then sit, and wave over the waitress after you hang your overcoat and hat on the brass hook mounted on the wall beside the table.

The waitress looks like a girl you once knew, but now a dozen years older. Strands of her straw colored hair, held back in a ponytail, slipped free, and she blows it away when it dangles before her light blue eyes. Her red lipstick needs refreshing, red nail polish looks chipped. She wears a light green, bibbed dress that hangs below her knees with a lightly soiled yellow apron tied around her narrow waist.

She pulls her hips to the left when a guy at the bar reaches out to pat her. But her face lights with a grin as she shakes her head and says, "Watch where you try to put that hand of yours, buster."

"Can't blame a guy for trying, Pam," he answers, grinning too, and you find yourself feeling more comfortable than you suspected you might when you first entered.

"What can I get you?" the waitress asks, still smiling, when she stops alongside your table.

"I'll have a Reingold on tap and some peanuts if you've got them," you tell her and hand her a dollar.

"Be right back," she says and you again wonder if she's that girl you knew back in the old neighborhood.

Across the room, you see a new jukebox; lights marching up over and down the neon panel-like mantel. A stack of small 78s wait for a nickel to be inserted, lifting and lowering the chosen disk beneath the metal arm with a needle to draw out the wailing voices and back up instrumentals.

Alongside the jukebox, you spot two older men. Neither seem interested in anything but each other. Because of the way they lean forward, their creased foreheads and the silent but obviously angry words they pass back and forth, you unbutton your suit jacket, and let your fingers caress the gnarled grip of the .38 sitting in a worn leather holster under your left arm. You know both men, hoped you might avoid them by coming to that particular neighborhood, and now wait with uncomfortable anticipation for them to see you.

To be continued

Monday, August 29, 2011

Writing Noir Mysteries

For me the dark nature of noir fiction fills a need. Perhaps it is the simple idea that the information age, filled with digital platforms that take you wherever you desire nearly instantaneously, allows too much "light" into life. It erases much of the mystery, the challenge, until we are left with thrill seeking as a means of escaping the one-way street aspect of it.

Six decades ago, life was closer to true black and white in more ways than just photography. Nothing stood out more than the contrast between the rampant crimes that plagued large cities, and the simple lives of the new middle class struggling to forget, move beyond a brutal four-year war that claimed millions of lives.

I have said it before, some returning GIs never really came home. They lived with the memories of battles raging in the background of their thoughts. They managed to put on a good face, almost faking a normal co-existence within society.

Inside they still wanted, or needed, to prove a point that good always overcomes evil. Yet there was little they could do to make their case over the clatter of ordinary people living around them with that "live and let live attitude" we often seem to seek when we tire of wading through media sewerage.

Even law enforcement sixty years ago, on some levels, was rancid and corrupt. How could the average Joe make sense of it all?

Mickey Spillane slammed a book down on the counter titled "I, The Jury" and the answer became crystal-clear. Noir fiction, although not created during post-war times, was then reborn and gave that lonely misplaced GI in so many veterans a place to retreat and feel that, yes, there was one guy out there who got the job done. Not to mention the dames who rolled off their seamed stockings to whet Mike Hammer's appetite for more than a smoking gun barrel.

Cops loved and hated Hammer. When he walked into a bar, or a room filled with people, everyone reacted and few did so mildly.

Yet, here we are sixty years later and still the need for dark fiction lives and breathes the mystery of dead-end alleys, blood splattered rooms, and a body locked in the trunk of a car dumped in the harbor by local mobsters out to make a point.

There is no end to what writers create; vampires once feared are now walking dead lovers.

For me, however, peeling back the decades exposing smoke-filled rooms, narrow corner taverns, and a killer who walked the street without fearing local cops, needed revisiting. For us today, it was a simpler time six decades ago, but for those living then, it was anything but simple.

When I began writing Marlowe Black mysteries, he ripped apart the Velcro hiding emotional ashes of the day's events. His attitude, actions conveyed my angst. Sounds dramatic, yet so does spending yet another day in rush hour traffic, sitting in a cubicle waiting for lunch, knowing digital reality would never release its stranglehold. Soon face recognition ads will flash in every storefront as we walk down the street to board the subway, grab a bus.

Good god, rip back the freaking Velcro, please and step into a time when privacy meant respect.

More to follow.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Great Raccoon War of 2011

All of us know what pains these distant cousins of cats are. Likewise, we all know how intelligent they are too.

Since we live on the border of a state park, and our property is considered a wildlife sanctuary, raccoon invasions are an ongoing dilemma. We do our best to tolerate them despite their method of marking territory, which is using defecation, a stinking and in every other way unappealing leftover of their nocturnal visitations.

Obviously -- for your neophytes -- this tells us what they had for their pervious meals should we want to know. But I’m not a raccoon MD so would rather not know. Okay, I do not know of any raccoon MDs, so it is possible they might not want to know either.

We also live in one of the many areas suffering a severe drought. We also fill a birdbath daily, and have three bird feeders available.

Raccoons do not pay much attention to bird feeders. Too much trouble I suppose, to climb the pole for very little reward. They love the birdbath, and wash God only knows what in it every night. The water is always black the next morning.

Several days ago, one of these creatures woke me at 2:30am crying. They sound like a small child calling for help in the distance. They also cry out every few minutes for up to an hour or more.

After a wrecked night, I decided to use our humane trap and get rid of him or her.

The following night, the trap functioned perfectly. We carried the raccoon in the trunk of our Honda to a large wildlife refugee miles away, and off he went, acting surprised at the new chance for continued life.

Unfortunately, he must’ve been a she. The next night, a louder crier kept me up half the night. First he was calling from a good distance, then got closer and closer.

The next morning, sure enough, he left a steaming, or it would’ve been if this was winter, pile to let us know what he ate, that he was here, and, I imagine, what he thought of our removing his lady friend.

“Okay, pal,” I announced with the usual feeling of human superiority. “You want to be with her, I’ll make it happen!”

Cleverly, I loaded the trap with half a can of stinky cat food, some kind of fish concoction if you need to know, placed far into the trap in a plastic cat dish -- nothing but the finest for our annoying friends -- and smugly went in for the night.

About 10:30pm, I heard a series of noises, which I deduced came from the large metal and wire trap. The final sound seemed to be the door slamming shut.

I slept well.

Awaking early, I went out to rub in my success, let the little creep know what I thought of him and his lady friend’s 2am serenades.

The trap was empty.

The bowl was missing.

Somehow, he managed to crawl into the trap, reach over the pressure plate that, were he to touch it, would drop the door, and removed the entire bowl . . . backing out.

We found the bowl later in the day tossed aside like a drunk might an empty beer can.

I felt speechless. stunned, and began to wonder just how smart are raccoons? Do they really want humans to be aware of their amazing abilities to think through a problem and find a workable solution? Are they next in line in evolution’s plan when we vasty superior humans kill ourselves off as we seem to be in a hurry to do?

“I’ll teach you,” I announced feeling that I needed to prove that humanity ruled, that we are the top of the food chain.

With due diligence, I drill two holes in the bottom of the food dish, ran a wire through them and wired the darn thing to the bottom of the trap.

That night, I filled it with the remainder of the cat food, brushed off my hands over the set trap, and called, “Bring it on!” Kind of feeling like GWB on the aircraft carrier, or was that-- never mind.

Almost exactly twenty-four hours later, the same sounds as the previous night filled the quiet evening.

“Yes!” I thought and slept well again.

This morning, ready to haul his furry butt away to join his lady friend, I strode confidently out to the humane trap, and discovered the door open, the bowl empty and a neat pile of, yup, feces.

“Sonofa,” I started, stopped and had to smile.

“All right! Let the Raccoon Wars begin pal! One of us will be here in the end; the other, well your lady friend is waiting.”

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Spider, Kurt Vonnegut, and Life

I do not wax as eloquently as many other writers. The words do not slide from brain to fingertips, but require a forced effort that feels a bit painful at times. I’m slightly dyslexic, hate then and than, and find commas troubling.

A Kurt Vonnegut fan asked him to write down where he got his ideas. Very successful writers hear questions like this with what must be a tiring amount of regularity. I suppose wannabe writers hope to glean a thread of the mystery behind success, hoping it will appear in the response so they can then weave that thread through the tapestry of their lives and, therefore, succeed themselves.

Kurt Vonnegut normally replied with a humorous retort about how, as a young man, he quickly learned he was not good at anything else. I always enjoyed that answer, but once, if not more, he responded with what may’ve been closer to the heart of his need to write, because all true writers sit before a keyboard for one reason alone. They must write, or wither. It's an emotional drive with roots in places that surprises some people, and often ourselves too.

The response he wrote regarding his source of ideas, that I found terrific enough to have it hanging on the wall of my office is this:

“Where do I get my ideas from? You might have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music.

“I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

I agree, and I agree and write because I would rather not wither and die, because civilization depends on the words and ideas of those driven to express them in whatever way possible.

My wife and I have traveled through the last two plus years ducking and dodging life’s deadly assault. She attended six funerals since 2009, family and very close friends. I was with her for four of them. There would’ve been a seventh, but my dear uncle Louis Wilson died in Vermont during the middle of winter.

His death was brutal for me, made more so by the passing of my wonderful mother-in-law. Losing two souls like them was the same as having stars one depends on for life’s navigation suddenly, unexpectedly, extinguished. The loss left me stumbling around in a type of darkness hitherto unthinkable.

The day after my mother-in-law’s funeral, I sat on our ground floor open porch watching a creature my wife and I had nurtured and encouraged since she wove an eight foot web across the porch’s left side where it opens into the backyard.

I sat that day with a blank lined yellow pad and a pen hoping for some revelation to spring forth and save me from the pain choking my heart and mind. The golden spider, a silk weaver whose scientific name escapes me right now, stoically awaited the next insect to cross her path.

Beyond her, the sky darkened, meeting my emotions head on yet the pen remained capped and the yellow pad blank.

Long moments passed as I watched our spider wondering how she dealt with the short life bestowed on her at birth.

Then, the black sky opened and streaks of silver rain pummeled the earth. The cap came off the pen and words formed on the yellow pad.

However, it’s not the words I wrote then that I write about now. It’s the spider that needs a bit of tribute. After that terrible day, we watched and encouraged her. When she failed to get enough water because she wove her web far under the eave so rain did not reach it, we used a misting spray bottle to help her. Each time, her initial reaction was to pull back in a defensive position until she understood what we did. We talked to her before spraying and in time, it seemed, she understood that when she heard those sounds, it meant watering time. She drank greedily, using the water to carefully wash her legs and carapace. So like people in distress, fearful of outcome, longing for a comforting hug, but pulling back as if afraid the hug-giver might also clutch a knife. These are troubling times.

If the spider failed to get an insect for a day or two, we’d trap one and toss it into her web, and received the same defensive reaction from her. But she ate the insects and drank the water. Finally, she deposited eggs into an egg sack she wove. After, she looked shrunken and close to dying. We weren’t ready to lose her too, so resumed supplementing her diet and a few days later, she looked restored.

She left a total of four egg sacks, which we declared we would protect and defend after she was gone. I know that sounds ridiculous, but honestly who cares? At least, we felt, here is some life we can preserve, protect, and see develop. So unlike the people around us struggling against a machine that dissolves their freedom and independence.

The scientific community declares that animals and insects cannot understand or communicate with humans or even other animal and insect species. Yet, on what level do they understand intelligence? Human only. A catastrophic event ended the age of dinosaurs, they say, which made it possible for humans to evolve. This, to the scientific mind was a series of coincidences, not events planned by a force greater then the human mind as if no such force could exist only because the human mind declares it so. Such arrogance. Where did human thought originate?

But life, to me and what I’m writing about is not due to a series of coincidences, or the terminology of correctness such as the scientific name for the yellow garden spider. If you chose to rattle around in the cage of semantics you will miss the values of ordinary life expressed, most often, inarticulately by ordinary voices.

One morning the garden spider was gone. It was late autumn. Her life ended. We then began our daily vigilance, driving off nature’s carnivores when they approached the egg sacks. We succeeded and winter arrived, leaving the unborn to the mercy of cold weather.

Now, with the rebirth of spring, three of the four egg sacks produced dozens of tiny, and I do mean tiny, spiders. They wander around in clusters of ten to twenty, piling up at night when it is cold, and then the next day move further from their “womb”. Their goals are unknown, as is the way they seem to know what to do to reach them.

I suppose all of this has reaffirmed, for me, that life is about the living, not the dying. My father-in-law told a joke last night. It went like this:

A doctor checked on the baby he delivered earlier in the day. He leaned over the bassinet and said softly, “You’ll never escape this alive.”

We will not, not one of us. In time everything that occurs in our lifetimes will become forgotten footnotes to human history. Even the digital age will not, cannot prevent that from happening. But what each of us can do, if we chose, is live life each day with honor and dignity, care for those around us, the less fortunate, the disabled, the elderly.

The greed of the few who think they can determine our destinations should be ignored, and in time they’re squawking and maliciousness will turn to whispers and groveling under the downfall of hope’s life-affirming silver rain.

They speak and act without honor or dignity. And honestly, isn’t that just ridiculous? Like the garden spider, or Kurt Vonnegut’s dry wit, each of us should and must serve the purpose of common good -- life on Earth

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Brief History of Noir Mysteries

Noir writers wrote with a detachment most of the world felt during the years after World War 2 when a sullen hush washed across battered nations numbed by the task of recovery. Many of those writers were themselves combat veterans, and, I suspect, used writing as a means of recuperation from what we now understand as PTSD. It was as if they pictured their story plots, like men standing in the shadows of alleys while out on Main Street life progressed through the struggles writers used to convey their protagonist’s adventures but did not necessarily partake in.

Although, I believe noir fiction began under the ink stained fingers of John Carroll Daley while he wrote for the Dime Detective Magazine in the 1930s. His protagonist Race Williams was as brutal as life in the Great Depression, used violence to uphold the law as he, Race Williams, interpreted it. Readers enthralled by Daley’s writing, let the story’s darkness shed the light of hope into lives lived hand to mouth, which helped create the genre.

Mickey Spillane, who I was fortunate to spend time with during the last years of his life, as a young boy read Daley’s stories and later used what he’d learned when he walked Mike Hammer off the pages of comic books and into one of the most successful mysteries ever written, I, The Jury.

While I was a young boy, I read Mickey’s books. The pacing, tension and almost machine gun style of writing turned the pages for me. I believe that noir fiction is similar to modern Jazz as introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a free form style of writing, which at times drags the reader along, coddles the senses with imagery, and at other times jerks him up in his chair as if daring him to relax and read. The characters are in your face people, with each other, and a film of tension dangles between them like spider web filament.

When I created Marlowe Black and his illegitimate son Michael Hacker McKaybees, I wanted the tension between them to navigate plots. Marlowe Black whose pregnant fiancee was murdered in the early 1950s (the plot for Sunset Orange Water) refused to ever again consider marriage. He avoided intimate relationships, staying around until emotions grew thick, and he began glancing over his shoulder should his new love face the retribution his first one had due to the nature of his profession.

When the woman who would become Hacker’s mother, announced her pregnancy in 1971, Marlowe immediately decided that he would not be seen with his new son therefore giving the boy the opportunity to live. Marlowe knew he had dragged some of his enemies through the previous decades and felt their hypothetical breaths on the back of his neck.

Now, in the twenty-first century, Marlowe, although a man nearing eighty, continues to work as a PI. He had kept an eye on his son, and provided for him and his mother. He felt pride as the boy grew into a man, but stayed away.

Until the day when an old army buddy’s son, a New York City cop, was brutally murdered and he and Hacker were considered prime suspects. Then all the rules changed, and Marlowe Black knew it was time to educate his son about dealing with criminals the old way, using fists and guns. Shoot first and ask questions should one of the enemy, be lucky, or unlucky enough to remain standing.
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