Sunday, November 20, 2016

Return to the Citizen's Academy

George Piro
I was fortunate to be able to return to the FBI Citizen's Academy as part of my participation in the Academy's Alumni Association. The night I visited, George Piro, Special Agent in Charge of the Miami office, spoke to the  class about the eight months he spent interrogating Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He was the only person Hussein spoke with, and they met for five to seven hours a day. Piro spent additional hours every day researching Hussein and looking for ways to establish rapport with him and identify his vulnerabilities.

“You figure out what really matters to the subject during the rapport-building phase,” Piro explained. Hussein was most concerned with his place in history, as the third great leader of his people – after the prophet Mohammed and Saladin, who retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Piro reminded us that Iraq was the cradle of civilization, and that it was the place where the first laws were developed – the Code of Hammurabi – as well as many other institutions we take for granted, such as the first police force.
And as the child of a single mother, Hussein had a particularly strong bond with his mother, who was the only person he really loved and trusted. Piro used his own relationship with his mother to establish a bond and connection with Hussein.

One of Hussein's favorite photos of himself.
The good guys always ride the white horse, right?
“It’s important to establish the subject’s truth-telling style,” Piro said. He explained that Hussein was also a published novelist, and he read Hussein’s first book, and used questions about that to identify how Hussein looked and acted when he was telling the truth. During this phase of the interrogation, Piro had to already know the answers to all the questions he asked. It wasn’t about the answers themselves, he explained, but about identifying eye contact, mannerisms, etc. that Hussein displayed when telling the truth.

When asked whether his conversations with Hussein were recorded, Piro was cleverly evasive, stating that it was not common policy at that point to record conversations, though today it is.

In a very Miami twist, Piro discovered that Hussein had a great fondness for Cuban cigars, and at their final meeting, he brought Hussein’s favorite Montecristos and they smoked them together. He reminded us that it’s okay for an FBI agent to buy Cuban cigars outside the US – he just couldn’t bring them home.


He ended his presentation with a quote that exemplified his attitude toward the assignment. “Successes belong to the organization; failure belongs to the individual.” He was determined to succeed because he didn’t want to let the Bureau down.

The second part of our evening was a presentation by an agent in charge of the Evidence Recovery Teams – ERT. I'll cover that in another post. As always, any errors here are my own and this blog is not intended to represent official views of the FBI.

If you like this, I hope you'll check out THE NEXT ONE WILL KILL YOU, the first in my new series of FBI thrillers. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

What Season are You?


Image result for color for men

When I was younger, there were a couple of books which classified your looks as seasons – if you had certainly hair color, skin color and so on you were a winter, a spring, a summer or a fall, and you should choose certain clothing colors to make you look your best. Lately I’ve been thinking about those constraints in terms of books, too.

One of the hardest choices I have to make is when a book is set, because I think the weather, temperature and surroundings add so much to a book. Think of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, or Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Climate plays a huge part in those books.

For my series books, the choice of season is usually pretty clear. I recall speaking with Craig Johnson once about his first four Longmire books. He said that he’d patterned on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” – the books cover a year in the life of Sheriff Walt Longmire, cycling through the four seasons.

That conversation inspired me to focus on the seasons as I write the golden retriever mysteries. To keep a certain sense of reality in the books, I needed Rochester, the canine hero, to age pretty slowly. But at the same time I didn’t want my small town location, Stewart’s Crossing, to become a Cabot Cover, where Jessica Fletcher lived, and where murders seemed to happen every week.

So each time I began a new book I think about when it’s happening in the lives of Rochester and his human dad, Steve Levitan. As the series begins, Steve is at the start of a two year parole after serving a year in the California penal system for computer hacking. So his progress plays a part in the timing of the books as well. 

For example, DOG HAVE MERCY takes place around Christmas time, and I had to work around the constraints of that season. Eastern College, where Steve works, closes down for two weeks in December, leaving him at home and at loose ends – lots of time to investigate!

One of my series regulars, Gail Dukowksi, who owns the Chocolate Ear café in downtown Stewart’s Crossing and always has a home baked biscuit on hand for Rochester, doesn’t make much of an appearance in this book, because Rochester can’t go inside the café, and it’s too cold for Steve to sit outside with Rochester at his feet.

Seasons don’t matter quite as much in my Mahu Investigations—since my hero, openly gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, ages about a year between books, I can pick when I want to set one. 


The same is true of my Have Body, Will Guard M/M romance adventure series. In both cases, the books take place in pretty warm climates – Hawaii, Tunisia, the south of France – so I can begin immediately layering in temperature and visual details, without worrying too much if it’s winter or summer.

My “Love on” M/M romance series began with the idea of a group of recent college graduates looking for love and careers on South Beach, so it was natural that they begin in May, graduation time. It’s pretty easy for me to add hot steamy days and humid nights, because that’s where I live.

The biggest challenge is when I start something completely new. It often takes me fifty or a hundred pages until something comes up that has to be rooted in time—a school vacation, a blizzard or a big holiday. Then I’ll go back to my schedule and figure out exactly when the story is taking place, so I can then figure out what the weather is like, if the trees are bare or in bloom, and so on.


A long book I've been working on for a while is like that. It takes place in numerous locations around the world, and I’m trying not to lock myself in to a time until I have to. But then, at one point two of the characters just went out for a drink and sat outdoors by the river in a Chinese border city… so I may be figuring out that timetable soon!


I think those details add so much to the realism and atmosphere of a book and I like to think that my experience growing up in Pennsylvania and living through winters there, and then the last thirty years in a hot climate, give me the flexibility to describe what I need.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Time in the Mahu Series



As I began to write books in the Mahu Investigations series, I had to figure out how to handle the passage of time. It quickly became clear to me that I wanted to track Kimo’s coming out process—meeting gay friends, getting a boyfriend, settling down and so on. So I needed to keep track of how much time had passed between books, and try to age Kimo appropriately.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with him! Mahu Surfer, the second book in the series, takes place only a few weeks after the end of Mahu, yet was published in 2007, two years after Mahu debuted. Then book three, Mahu Vice, came out two years later in its first edition from Alyson Books.

So poor Kimo was stuck in a time warp. When MLR Press picked up the series after the demise of Alyson, I sat down to review the books again. When I first wrote Mahu, nobody had cell phones, so Kimo’s search for a pay phone in the early chapters was reasonable. He had a cassette tape deck in his truck, too. Now those details seemed jarring.

Until 1967, there was a law on the books in Hawaii that required all children to have a Christian first name, not a Hawaiian one. Kimo’s older brothers have Christian first names – Louis and Howard. But when Kimo was born, his parents deliberately gave him a Hawaiian name, because they could.

But as I revised I realized that would make him too old. So his birth date changed to 1974, and I had to dump that little tidbit.

Even so, time was going to have to be elastic if I was only going to publish every two years.  I did my best to move Kimo ahead a year or two for each book but I still fell behind. Finally in Ghost Ship I moved forward a couple of extra years to catch up. 

But that caused more problems. One of the key plot elements in the book is the theft of plutonium after the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan in 2011. When I began writing the book the disaster had just happened—but with my sped-up timetable, the meltdown became history, and I had to tweak the details to fit.

What’s going to happen to Kimo and Mike now? Well, for a long time I thought that Ghost Ship would be the end of their adventures. I’d tracked them through years of change, from coming out into middle age and fatherhood. What was left? Then Kimo started talking to me again… so we’ll see how I have to massage time for the next book!

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Storytelling in Cupcakes

Last night I watched a light-hearted movie from Israel called Cupcakes. Since it was mostly in Hebrew I’m sure I missed some parts of the movie that didn’t make it into the subtitles but overall I thought it was a good model for storytelling.
The main plot is about six friends who live in the same apartment building who, in tryng to cheer up a neighbor whose husband has left, create a song and a video. One of the characters enters it in a competition for what I guess is supposed to be the Eurovision song contest, and they’re chosen to represent Israel.
Of course that causes conflicts for each of them, which are eventually resolved by the time of the performance in Paris. The woman whose husband has left learns to let go and have fun, which brings him back. The action of the movie allows the guy who's dating a closeted boyfriend to be honest with everyone. One girl meets a boyfriend, another realizes that a friend can be more, and a third accepts that her boss has been using her and changes jobs.
What I thought was interesting was how each of the six main characters had an arc throughout the movie, which was eventually resolved. Most of the arcs were romantic, but they covered everything from communication between parents and children and husbands and wives to coming out of the closet and artistic integrity.

An awful lot to jam into 70+ minutes! But the filmmaker did a good job in establishing each character and his or her conflict, then wrapping each strand up, though sometimes with a bit of coincidence. Overall, a good model for any writer, I think. Make sure that your characters stand out, that each has an arc, and you find a satisfying way of resolving that arc.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Miami River

I’ve been intrigued by the Miami River since I moved to South Florida, some twenty-seven years ago. Its five and a half miles snake past empty lots and high-rise hotels, fading shipyards and condo towers, connecting Biscayne Bay to the Everglades, and has been a commercial transportation route since the first white men came to these shores and began trading with the Seminoles and Miccosukees.
In the 1970s, the Miami River was a major port for cocaine smugglers. That trade climaxed with a case called the Miami River Cops Scandal in 1985. The Mary C, a fishing boat loaded with $12 million in cocaine, docked at the Jones Boat Yard, and soon after a dozen policemen were alleged to have ransacked it and stolen the drugs. By the time the dust settled, about a hundred officers had been arrested, suspended or reprimanded and at least twenty were sentenced to prison for robbing dope dealers of cash and cocaine.

I worked in downtown Miami in the mid-80s, and my co-workers and I used to go to a little waterfront café right in the middle of the industrial zone, where we could watch freighters glide by, bound for Haiti stacked with stolen bicycles. Wrecked and abandoned boats littered its shores, and its waters were polluted. It served as a point of entry for illegal drugs and illegal aliens.
I was fascinated by the river, and even wrote a screenplay that took place there, called River Heat, about a naïve young Anglo with a powerboat who rescues a beautiful Nicaraguan revolutionary running along the riverbank. I spent a lot of time cruising around the river, looking for settings that evoked the images I wanted.
Even though I’ve moved a half-hour north of the city, I’m still interested in the Miami River. The climactic scenes of my newest book, Genie for Hire: A BiffAndromeda Mystery, concern arms smuggling from the backwaters of the former Soviet Union. The arms arrive at the Miami airport, smoothed along by a corrupt Customs officer, and then are offloaded to a freighter for shipment to Nicaragua.

The papers say the river has been cleaned up, but I’m sure there’s still a clandestine business going on there, which is terrific for a mystery writer.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

We wore what?

I’ve been going through old photos lately and digitizing them, and it’s very funny to see the kind of clothes I wore back in the day. I was a bit young to be a hippie-- I was only twelve during the summer of love, after all. But what I wore as a teen was definitely influenced by hippie garb.

When I was fourteen, my parents sent me on a summer study program in Grenoble, France, and I bought the gauzy shirt I’m wearing in this photo at an outdoor market, and it has the kind of hippie Indian-influenced look that was popular for a brief time, along with the Nehru jacket fad. (And yes, I had one of those, too.) Tie-dyed T-shirts were popular too, but I never got into those.


I wore white tennis shorts for as long into the season as I could, even though my time on the tennis court was sporadic at best. When I got to college, I was exposed to a whole different way of dressing. 

A Huckapoo shirt
Rich kids from Long Island wore Huckapoo shirts and Guess jeans. Friday and Saturday night frat parties were a riot of wild colors and patterns. 
A Fair Isle sweater


Preppy girls wore Fair Isle sweaters and kilts with big safety pins.




Prep school boys wore Lacoste shirts with popped collars and the little alligators on the breast. They retailed for $16 at the time, but my parents had taken me to an outlet store in Quakertown, PA, where you could buy seconds for only four bucks. You had to pick carefully through to make sure you didn’t get ones with noticeable defects, but there were plenty to choose from.

This was long before the prevalence of outlet stores and malls, and the Quakertown store, adjacent to the factory, was only open for sales a few times a year. When my parents would get notice of a sale, I’d go around my dorm and collect orders for sizes and colors. 

Then I’d take the train out to Quakertown, walk a mile or so from the station to the factory, and fill my orders, sorting through endless piles of shirts to find what I needed. I’d load up my backpack and a couple of shopping bags, then return to campus to retail them for $8.00 each. A hundred percent markup for me, and a fifty-percent discount for my customers. It was quite a nice little side business, and gave me something to write about on business school applications.

Everyone wore clogs. One of my favorite shoe memories was sitting in the Rosengarten reserve room in the basement of the library at Penn, where you went to get materials that might not be widely available. Professors put photocopied articles there, as well as books you couldn’t check out. 

Donnie Deutsch, a lot older!

Donnie Deutsch, who went on to success as an advertising executive, friend of Donald Trump and reality TV star, came clumping in one night in his clogs, making so much noise you couldn’t help noticing him.



I got my first pair of Earth shoes when I was in college, from a store on Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square in center city Philadelphia. I was fascinated by the research behind them, the way anthropologists had noticed that heel prints were deeper. It took a while to get used to them, and fortunately the fad passed quickly.



When I was in business school at Columbia, I spoofed the preppy look for this skit for the Follies, in my popped collar and Kelly green pants. 

Those pants were such a symbol to me of a kind of lifestyle and income level that I wrote a whole mystery story that began with them. It's in the collection Mahu Men, by the way. 

Who knows where the rest of these clothes will show up in my fiction?

Saturday, April 09, 2016

My inspiration for Liam

Fans of my Have Body, Will Guard M/M romance/adventure series from Loose Id will know about Liam McCullough, the hunky former SEAL who is one of the two heroes of the books.


When I began thinking about Three Wrong Turns in the Desert, the first in what has become an eight-book series, I wanted Liam to be a really hunky guy, and I went back to the photos of men I had collected when I was single.

This is the photo that inspired me, though I don't know who the model is or where the shot came from. I love his sexy body as well as the smile on his face.

When the series kicks off, Liam is in his mid-thirties. He's served in the SEALs during the time of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and leaves the military under that directive.





Here's the photo from the cover of Three Wrong Turns in the Desert, which I used when creating romance trading cards. I'd say he's pretty close to the guy that I imagined, and the one in that photo above.

Loose Id used the same cover artist for the next couple of books so we were able to use the same photo, just cropped in different ways.



 

Dieux du Stade Calendar

 
Recently I was browsing the Dieux du Stade calendar and found the image below, which perfectly captures for me the way Liam looks today. Tough and well-muscled, though he's been around the block a few more times since the first book.