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.
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