Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tim Hallinan Explains "The Mechanicals"

Guest post by Tim Hallinan

Tim declaiming to an eager audience
The only time William Shakespeare almost loses control of his most sublime comedy, “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” is when a group of “mechanicals” assembles in the forest outside Athens.  They are there to rehearse a play they plan to present at the nuptials of the local aristos, and they nearly walk off with Shakespeare's whole show.

They're called “mechanicals” because they work in trades that involve skilled labor—including a tinker, a bellows-mender, a carpenter, and, last but certainly foremost, a weaver named Bottom, who has quite a night in front of him.

Some 420 years later, “mechanicals” are, to me, the characters I need for essentially mechanical reasons – to move the plot along, to fill in some exposition, to shoot someone, whatever.  They present a real challenge.  If they're not interesting, their mechanical function is obvious to the reader. If they're too interesting, they distort the story's focus.  The challenge, as I see it, is to make these “mechanicals” individuals without wasting a lot of the reader's time to build them up and explain them, since we'll probably never see them again.

The key to maintaining this balance (for me, anyway) is to remember that every character in a book thinks the story is about him or her.  Your hotel clerk may have twelve words with the protagonist and then disappear, but in her world the protagonist was a twelve-word intrusion on her continuing story.  Like everyone else, she's come from somewhere, she's going somewhere, she's where she is for a reason, and she wants something.

A couple of examples.

In the last Junior Bender book THE FAME THIEF, Junior questions an old-time director named Douglas Trent about the book's primary victim, a former actress named Dolores La Marr.  The purpose of the scene is just to give the reader some info from La Marr's career in the 1940s and to introduce a couple of suspects from back then.  From the moment Trent appeared on the page, he was alive to me:

Doug Trent had been a very good-looking young man, and he was doing everything money, medical science, and a high pain threshold could contribute to the cause of making him a very good-looking old man.  His skin had the fraudulent flawlessness of a wall that's just had graffiti sandblasted off it.  And if that wasn't enough to put me off him, his naturally silver hair was as blue as a delphinium . . . . To make it a trifecta, he was also wearing an ascot, tucked into the open neck of a loose white shirt.

“Yeah, yeah, Dolly,” he said.  He touched the tips of his fingers to the corner of his right eye, as though checking to make sure the masonry was holding. “Terrible, terrible thing, what happened to her.  Beautiful girl, just beautiful.  Couldn't act for shit, of course, but it didn't matter, as long as she hit her key light.  Light went right into those pale eyes, and the audience just filled them in with whatever emotion the background music had to offer.  Do you know how Mauritz Stiller got those long, heart-wrenching close-ups of Garbo?”


“He got the light exactly right, put the camera a foot from her nose, and told her to count to ten.”

I said, “In Swedish?”

Trent, who had moved on to patting the skin beneath his eye, stopped and gave me a first-rate cold look.  “How would I know?  The point is that a lot of what an actress gets credit for is actually due to the director.”

“I'm sure,” I said.  “I mean, makes perfect sense.”

“Trust me,” Trent said.  “I know actresses.  I married six of them.”

“What was it like, being married to six actresses?”

“Like being married to one of them.  They're all pretty much alike.”

“Why'd you keep doing it, then?”

“'Hope is the thing with feathers,'” Trent said, “that tickles your scrotum at the moment when you most need a clear head.”

Junior starts out not liking Trent, and for good reason, but becomes more sympathetic toward him over the course of the conversation, and so did I.  I wound up giving him what I think of as one of the book's pivotal lines:

“For a few months there, and then again after the scandal broke,” Trent said, “you'd have thought Dolly was a real star, not just one more girl who'd accidentally made a good movie.”

“Was that what she was?” I said. “Just one more girl?”

“Honey,” Doug Trent said, rubbing his eyes, “there are thousands of them.”  He looked around the room again and cleared his throat.  “They're the fuel that Hollywood burns.”

To me, Trent had been waiting in that crummy apartment for weeks, a man who used to matter in Hollywood, hoping for someone to talk to. He opened himself to me (and the reader, I hope) with a minimum of resistance.

One more, and I'm done.

In the most recent Poke Rafferty book, THE FEAR ARTIST, there is a trio of former European spies, all in their seventies, who hang around in an actual Bangkok bar where ex-spooks who would have killed each other on sight in the 1970s buy each other drinks and re-fight the old battles.  One of them, a Russian named Vladimir, is essential to the story. 

But Vladimir needed a couple of foils to challenge him, tease out information.  One of them might be named Janos, and he's one of my favorite things in the book.  He has the spy's ultimate attribute: he's completely forgettable.  Here's how we meet him:

Two men wait in the final booth, the one to which the Russian leads him.  Rafferty's eyes are adjusting to the darkness, and as he sits he sees that one of them affects the ever-stylish Dr. Evil look, with a shaved head, a mustache, a goatee, and a single earring above a pale garment that might be the grandchild of a Mao jacket, while the other is simply part of the scenery, a man with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.  A written description would read, medium everything. 

Rafferty slides in beside Dr. Evil as the man with the Russian accent says, “You buy, yes?” and shouts something to the bartender without waiting for an answer.

“Vladimir,” the Russian man says, pointing at himself as he sits.  “Pierre,” he says, indicating Dr. Evil.  “And, um . . .” 

“Janos,” says the man without any characteristics.

“Always I forget,” Vladimir says.  “This is why you genius.”

Janos nods modestly, and everyone waits, looking at Poke.

I liked Janos so much that I used him in a couple of scenes, and in the last moments of his life, the man who will shoot him says, “I'm sorry.  I've forgotten your name.”

Sorry to go on at such length, but I wanted not just to talk about what I believe but to show you a couple of ways (maybe not very good, but there you are) that I tried to solve the problem.

 Visit Tim's website to learn more about all his terrific books.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kay Kendall visits the Sixties

Guest Post by Kay Kendall

T. Jefferson Parker, the bestselling author of 20 crime novels, confided to me last week that his two mysteries that touched on the Vietnam War had “my readers staying away in droves.” Needless to say, he never tried a third.
His words made me feel a little better—one of the maxims I live by is “misery loves company.” You see, my debut novel, just published by Stairway Press this spring, has that war as a backdrop. I had guessed it wouldn’t be a big draw as subject matter, but I had no idea how many people would tell me they never read anything to do with that conflict.
Mr. Parker was a headline speaker at ThrillerFest 2013, and I was an International Thriller Debut Author of the class of 2013. Our paths intersected, and we spoke for a long time. In all his conversation, what stayed with me, word for word, was his line about readers avoiding the subject of a war that Americans know we didn’t win. Were the sacrifices worth it? Let’s just not think about it.
Within the mystery genre, historical fiction is my personal favorite. Many authors locate their sleuths and spymasters during the wars of the twentieth century. The two world wars and the Cold War all have hundreds of novels set during those times. The only significant war era of last century not “taken,” not overrun with mysteries, occurred in Vietnam.  Using the home front during that war was a comparatively empty niche, and I concluded I needed to fill it with my mysteries.
I wanted to show what life was like for young women of that era—not the type who made headlines, the Hanoi Janes or Angela Davises, but the moderates who nonetheless got swept along by the tides of history during the turbulent sixties. All that turmoil lends itself to drama, intrigue, and murder. I figured that if readers could enjoy mysteries set during war eras, then Vietnam would be no different. But America was victorious in World Wars I and II and the Cold War.

The heartwarming part about my debut novel—and there is one, thank goodness—is that people who do read Desolation Row—An Austin Starr Mystery enjoy it a lot. My reviews are excellent, and no one online has trashed my writing or my subject matter. (I’m knocking on wood. No need to take chances.)
Only yesterday I learned that a veteran of the Vietnam War was so engrossed in reading it that he stayed up all night to finish, then called his sister-in-law the next morning and showered my book with praise for ten minutes. She is my friend and a writer of exquisite short stories. When she read and loved my mystery, she thought he might enjoy it too. And he did.
So, the bottom line for me is that even if T. Jefferson Parker had warned me ahead of time to stay clear of the war that many have compared to a quagmire, I would not have paid his advice any heed. The story of Desolation Row had to come to light. I had to write that book so that the others that were waiting in line behind it, more or less patiently, could have their turn too.
The British statesman and philosopher Edmond Burke wrote, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” As well, how can you hope to understand how we got where we are now when you don’t understand where we came from?
Events that happened in the sixties and early seventies still echo down the decades today. Just as some describe America’s battles in Iraq as “the Vietnam War in the sand,” the upheavals of women’s liberation have not ended.
That is why I am setting my next Austin Starr mystery in 1970. This time murder occurs in a women’s liberation consciousness raising group. Trouble ensues. Clearly I believe in serving up a little history in a setting of a long-gone world with my murder and mayhem.
There were not even answering machines, let alone cell phones and DVRs. Imagine that! How cool. How quaint.
In 1968 a young bride from Texas uses her CIA-honed skills to catch the real killer when her husband lands in a Canadian jail for murdering the draft-resisting son of a United States senator. 

No activist herself, Austin is homesick, drowning in culture shock, and now, her husband has been accused of murdering a fellow draft resister, the black-sheep son of a U.S. Senator. Alone and ill-equipped to negotiate in a foreign country, she is befriended by Larissa Klimenko, the daughter of Austin's Russian history professor. 

The Mounties aren't supposed to harass draft-age boys but the truth is very different, especially when political pressure is applied by both the victim's father and the Canadian prime minister's office. They may have a reputation for always getting their man, but Austin is convinced this time they have the wrong one. Once courted by the CIA, and a lover of mystery and espionage novels, Austin launches her own investigation into the murder. When ominous letters warning her to stop her sleuthing turn into death threats, Austin must find the real killer or risk losing everything. Her love-and her life-are on the line.

Kay Kendall is an international award-winning public relations executive who lives in Texas with her husband, five house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. A fan of historical mysteries, she set her debut mystery during the Vietnam War, a key conflict of the last century not already overrun with novels.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Contrast in Supporting Characters

Guest post by James Lear

 Nearly all the characters in my novels are based on real people – either people that I know, or men that I see at the gym or in the cafe or walking down the street. When I’m putting together a plot and need a certain type in a certain situation, I have a mental card index of men to draw on. The hero of The Hardest Thing, Dan Stagg, is modeled on a regular at the gym – physically, at least. He’s very attractive, I’ve hardly exchanged five words with him, and he has no idea that I’ve made him do all these appalling things in fiction.

Of the supporting cast, the one I like most is Kenny, the dark-haired, furry young guy that Dan encounters in the woods, who helps him to evade the police. In the first draft of the novel, Kenny played a much bigger role – in fact, he was going to be the main romantic interest. But it turned out too complicated, and I decided to focus on the much more dramatic relationship between Dan and the vain, troubled Jody. 

The inspiration behind Kenny is pretty typical of the James Lear method of characterization: I was on holiday in New England a couple of years ago with my husband, and we were stocking up in Wal-Mart in a small town in New Hampshire, just near the Vermont border, when we spied a very sexy young guy wearing mechanic’s coveralls waiting at the check-out. He was short, slim and dark-haired, and from what we could see he had a very hairy chest. I didn’t exactly stalk him, but I did engage him in conversation – he was buying a gas lighter, and made some joke about using it to light a bong. That was all. Later on we saw him in the car park, sitting in a beat-up old Chevrolet that he was obviously fixing up. There was something very sexy about that encounter, even though nothing happened, and it got elaborated into the character of Kenny, the closeted, cock-hungry mechanic.
    The important thing about characters like Kenny is that they provide the essential ingredient in gay erotica – contrast. You can’t have two handsome young men banging away: it’s really dull, there’s no drama or tension. Fine in visual porn, very tedious in fiction. You need an imbalance in age or status to get the fireworks going. In The Hardest Thing, the hero is a masculine man in his late thirties – so most of his significant partners are younger, of junior ranks (for the military flashbacks) or, in one case, a good deal older. Kenny is young and very naive, which again contrasts to the extremely experienced Jody. Straight porn has the enduring dynamic of male and female; gay porn needs to capture something of that friction without resorting to stupid cliches of ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. It’s also good for the plot, because there’s drama built into every encounter. A lot of gay erotica is desperately dull because authors want all their characters to be perfect model types. It’s like and Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, with fucking. That might excite some people, but to me it’s the literary equivalent of MacDonalds.

I'm delighted to have James Lear here -- I'm a big fan of his books. I hope you'll check out The Hardest Thing, which is very sexy and very noir, and very much a gay version of Jack Reacher.

His historical mysteries, including The Back Passage, The Secret Tunnel, and A Sticky End among them, are a great combination of erotica and mystery, and lots of fun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Karen McCullough: The Cast at the Trade Show

Guest Post by Karen McCullough
When I decided to write a mystery series set at a convention center/exhibition hall, I realized that one of the things I could really have fun with would be the secondary characters.  The first book in my planned series is called A Gift for Murder. It was released in hardcover by Five Star in January, 2011, in mass market paperback by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries in June, 2012, and is now available in most ebook formats.

As a former editor at several trade publications, I’ve attended a number of trade shows and talked to probably hundreds of people involved, from the staff of the centers where they're held to exhibitors, attendees, service people and other members of the press covering the event.  Although most appear to be the standard, well-dressed business types, the personalities behind the designer suits are often much more colorful.

As anyone who has ever been to a trade show knows, they are a combination of circus show, street fair market, and high-stakes salesmanship. Exhibits are set up to attract and keep the attention of attending retail buyers and the people who work in them can be just as brazen, pushy, kind, irritating, sweet, smarmy, loud and overbearing as the gimmicks they use to gain notice.

With that, I'd like to introduce you to a few of the more interesting people who show up at the Washington, D.C. Gifts and Decorations Show, held at the Market and Convention Center.  My protagonist, Heather McNeill, is the assistant to the Center's director, and part of her job is acting as the general troubleshooter for the event, which means she gets to deal with many of the personalities. These aren't the main players in the story.  They're some of the more interesting secondary characters.

Sue Savotsky, owner of Trimstates, is one of the banes of Heather's existence. The woman is a persistent complainer, one who is never satisfied with anything and drives her neighboring exhibitors crazy with her accusations and generally unpleasant disposition. Heather bends over backwards to accommodate her and is stretched almost to the limit of her considerable patience. Sue gets a really painful lesson about treating others badly, but whether that will result in any changes to her is a separate question.

The vice president of sales for Sandorn & Ackles had what he thought was a great idea to promote a brand-new and extensive line of angel-themed merchandise. And it would have been, except that they failed to take a few things into account in setting up the display, including, the "fact that the wings were hanging over the aisle, a main traffic route, for one. And the pergola was only seven feet high, while the angel wings were almost three feet long and most people were somewhere above five feet tall. Put those three things together and you ended up with a de facto maze blocking the aisle. People struggled to maneuver among the hanging obstacles, slowing foot traffic through the area. The designers hadn’t planned for the ventilation system, either. Each time air blew from the ceiling vents, the wings fluttered. Wispy bits of cloth and clouds of glitter flew loose, blessing those nearby with showers of string-and-confetti glory." Heather manages to rescue him from the chaos that lovely display causes.

Then there's Heather's friend Lisa Willamont, an independent sales rep helping out at some of exhibiting companies. Here's how Heather describes her: "Nature or fate or God had blessed Lisa abundantly. Not only was she tall, blond, slender and gorgeous, she was one of the sharpest tacks on the wall. I could have hated her if she weren’t so damned nice. Still, I sometimes had to work to fend off the tweaks of jealousy, even though we were good friends."  Lisa passes on some useful information and helps Heather sort out a few things through the course of the story.

And finally, there's Magda Crane, owner of a company called "Blue Hills."  Before the show is over Heather is calling her "the Blue Hills dragon lady."  You'll have to read the book to find out why, but here's a quick hint.  It has to do with a drastically malfunctioning popcorn machine.

Author Bio:

Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.

Author’s links:

About A Gift for Murder:

Greed, jealousy, and anger often lurk below the surface of trade shows and business exhibitions, but murder isn't usually on the program.
For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington DC Market Show Center. But the Gift and Home trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare. This year’s version is worse than usual. Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work. Finding the body of a murdered executive dumped in a trash bin during the show isn’t.  The discovery tips Heather’s life into havoc.

The police have reason to suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gotten glimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive, but questioning exhibitors about the crime doesn’t make her popular with them or with her employers. Still, other lives might be at risk, and if she doesn’t identify the murderer before the show ends, the culprit could well remain free to kill again.
Her only help comes from a company executive with ulterior motives and the Market Center’s attractive new security officer, Scott Brandon. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose the killer before the show ends.  To solve the mystery she will have to risk what’s most important to her and be prepared to fight for answers, her job, and possibly her life.

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Smashwords (Note: You can buy A Gift for Murder for 1/2 off at Smashwords during the month of July.)