Sunday, October 15, 2017

My Manifesto

I’ve been struggling with a new tagline for my books that will encompass all of them—something Jeff Goins calls a manifesto. I used to use “gay men in love and danger,” but that doesn’t cover my golden retriever books or some of the other miscellaneous things I’ve written.

It’s an interesting exercise, to look at all the thirty-plus books I’ve published and see if there is a common thread that runs through them. Though most of my work has involved gay characters, not all has—so maybe being gay or living a gay life isn’t at the core of what I write, or why I write.

Coming out, and what I call “the pain of the closet,” which often drives people to do dangerous or unexpected things, dominated my early work. The early arc of the Mahu Investigations dealt with Kimo’s coming out process—getting dragged out of the closet in Mahu, making gay friends in Mahu Surfer, finding love in Mahu Fire.

Once he was settled down with Mike, I wanted to explore further dimensions of the authentic life he was able to lead—moving in together, getting a dog, fostering a child, eventually fathering twins. But all of this in the end, is about love—he couldn’t have that life he deserved until he opened himself to the possibility of finding love with the right person.

Of course this is rooted in my own life, and the love that I found once I came out. So I began to see that there’s a connection in all my books between living one’s true life, and the ability to find love.

My MFA thesis at FIU, Invasion of the Blatnicks, became my first published book. Steve Berman has to learn to let go of the expectations that surround him before he can fully come into himself. Steve Levitan, in the Golden Retriever mysteries, has to recover from a divorce and incarceration before he can begin to live fully once more. Rochester helps him with that process, giving him unconditional love and teaching Steve how to love again. (And in case you haven’t figured it out, my middle name is Steven, and these two guys represent big parts of who I am, even though both are straight.)

The same is true for my gay characters. Though Aidan Greene of the Have Body Will Guard series has been out of the closet for more than a decade, loving the wrong guy has screwed him up. And even though Liam McCullough chose to come out rather than remain closeted in the US Navy, he doesn’t get to live a full life until he falls in love with Aidan.

And finally, the Love on Series is all about young guys finding their way after college, and opening themselves up to love once they know who they are and what they want.

I’m still struggling with the exact wording for this manifesto, or tagline. One possibility is “Follow your heart to find your authentic life,” while another is “Living your authentic life leads to love.”


Neither is quite punchy enough—but then, since my writing life is a work in progress, why wouldn’t my manifesto be one, too?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hydra Barrier

Charlie The Yorkshire Terror
One year, soon after we moved into our townhouse, we had a colossal rainstorm. I drowned my Mitsubishi convertible on a street just outside our gated community and had to trudge home in the pouring rain. By the time I reached the house, the water in our street was so high I had to carry the Yorkie we had then to a safe place to do his business, or he’d have drowned.

A couple of storms ago, we had water come in under our garage door, so my partner and I invested in a couple of Hydra Barriers – the big yellow tubes you can see in the picture of our townhouse, just before we evacuated.
The yellow tubes are the Hydra Barriers
They take the place of sandbags, preventing rising water from getting into your home or garage. Since we’re only a mile or so inland, we’re always worried when the forecast calls for storm surges, so these make it easy to prepare. You just fill them up from the hose and drag them into place, and you’re done.
After the threat has passed, all you have to do is unplug the stopper and the water pours out—often all over you, however. Then you roll them up – they don’t take up much space—and store them until the next storm.

I don’t know if we were in danger of rising water because we evacuated, but we felt pretty confident because we had left these in place. Fortunately, one of our neighbors remained at home, and was able to clear the clogged storm drains. 
With all those storms still brewing out in the Atlantic, I thought I'd share these in case anyone else needs something similar.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Description in Love on the Boil

Description Blog
To celebrate the release of Love on the Boil, my newest M/M romance from Loose Id, I went over the manuscript to look for some good examples of description.
I’m lucky that I was able to head down to South Beach to do some observation, and a couple of the people I saw ended up in the book. In this case I’m trying to showcase the character’s attitude while describing:
“A skinny man in his forties walked by, wearing a T-shirt with one of those motivational slogans and a ball cap turned backwards, as if he didn’t know that it made him look like a douche rather than a young guy.”
I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt a while ago and noticed that she always used three things when describing, layering on those details. It's a technique I use now and then-- that business of the power of three, you know, from fairy tales and elsewhere.
“Eddie and I stepped out onto Lincoln Road, past a beauty store specializing in mascara, concealer, and beehive wigs for drag queens.”
Description can be more than just what something looks like. I hope that this sentence conveys some sense of the melting pot on South Beach:
“Next door was a restaurant run by Argentine immigrants featuring kosher vegan cuisine for Orthodox Jewish women pushing strollers and trailed by little boys with curls hanging in front of their ears.”
And this description of food shows the history between my two protagonists, former lovers who now have to work together to make a business succeed. Once again, I’ve named three things on the platter, and used the verb “jumped” to convey action at the same time.
“The antipasto platter arrived, laden with roasted tomatoes, tiny bites of salami, and wedges of focaccia. As I expected, Eddie jumped on the marinated artichoke hearts. I was happy to let him have them as long as I could eat the prosciutto and melon.”
And I often use comparison as a way to get the looks of the first person narrator in-- at six foot, he was almost as tall as I was, and though our hair was originally the same dull brown, his was threaded with more silver than mine.
Or a more general view. “I was the stud, after all. The butch one nobody suspected was gay. I worked out, I tended bar in the evenings. Darren was the queen who made a big deal out of everything.”
Tio Eduardo
Sometimes I look for images on line, like the dapper gentleman to the left, who epitomizes Eddie's Tio Eduardo, and then I just have to describe what the picture looks like.
And finally, an example of how their different living spaces reflect their personalities.
“The more I thought about it, the more his business seemed to suit Darren. He was fussy that way, an elderly man in a young guy’s body. Everything had to be just so. As I looked around his apartment I saw his Japanese fixation clearly. A single futon in the living room, with a Hokusai reproduction positioned exactly above it. His glass-fronted kitchen cabinets were neatly organized and everything was sparkling clean.
“Not the way I lived at all. My studio was jammed with souvenirs, and the posters on my walls hung haphazardly. My kitchen was clean, sure, but not immaculate like Darren’s. And while I did have a couple of different teapots and infusers, they were all jumbled together in one cabinet.”
If you like these examples I hope you’ll check out Love on the Boil.



Friday, May 26, 2017

Writing Cats and Dogs

When I was a kid, we’d occasionally go to visit my mother’s childhood friend, who had an adorable dachshund, I loved playing with. I began pestering my parents to get me a dog, and my seventh birthday present was Pierre, a black miniature poodle puppy. (My mother, who had grown up with a Chow, was determined not to get stuck vacuuming dog hair every day.)

Me and my puppy
Although like every kid, I tried to duck out of some chores, I did walk Pierre almost every day, he sat on my lap on car trips, and he was small enough that I could carry him around. Pierre set me on my path as a dog lover, though I didn’t realize that I could write about dogs until my partner and I adopted a golden retriever puppy we named Samwise, who became my constant companion, just as his namesake did in The Lord of Rings for Frodo.

But dogs weren’t the only animals to show up in my fiction. I am allergic to cats – but that has never stopped me from writing about them. The first significant cat in my life belonged to my friend Vicki’s mother. Rajah was a regal black Persian who owned that house, and I was intrigued by his personality, so different from Pierre’s eagerness to be petted and loved. Vicki and I would sit on her living room floor, calling for Rajah to come to us—and we were usually ignored.

A six-toed Hemingway cat
That wasn’t the case with my friend Pam’s cats, though. When we both moved to Miami, she got interested in Hemingway cats – the six-toed ones that lived around Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, or were descended from those.  She adopted a six-toed Abyssinian she named Hemmie, and Hemmie and I became good friends. I used her, and her characteristics, for a couple of short stories I wrote for collections of romantic stories sold at grocery store checkouts.

The cat in those stories is named Pilar and she’s as quirky and inquisitive as Pam’s Hemmie. I admit I used both those cats as the basis for Sheba, the tiger-striped cat in my story “Riding the Tiger,” included in the Happy Homicides 5 anthology. I needed a smart cat, one savvy enough to go out seeking the crime-solving duo of Rochester and Steve. Of course it’s Rochester who first notices Sheba, and takes off after her down the street.

So far, cats and dogs are the only animals who’ve populated my fiction. But a neighbor of mine has a couple of brightly-colored parrots who often stand out on the wall at the edge of his house, and my own goldens, Brody and Griffin, are very interested in those birds. So who knows how my criminal menagerie will expand?

Today (May 26) is the last day that the Happy Homicides 5 collection will be discounted to 99 cents. 


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!