One Bite at a Time




Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gaelic Karma

My life has a tendency to balance out, for which I am more often grateful than frustrated. During my tenure at Castle Voldemort, I once received a nice bonus at work. Several years later, during a stint playing in a community band, I decided it was time to buy a new trumpet. Within a few weeks another windfall came to me, almost exactly what the horn would cost. That’s how I roll.

I should have expected as much when The Beloved Spouse and I failed to score any autographs for our copy of Books To Die For at Bouchercon. With thirty-plus authors ready to sign, we waited for the line to thin before queuing up. Little did we know demand for signatures would be so great most of the authors had to leave for other commitments by the time we got within hailing distance of the signing area, and we bailed ourselves. So it goes.

The Sole Heir has somewhat better karma. Things tend to drop right for her. Today’s tale shows how her good fortune balanced things out for me, without her even knowing about it.

Last week was my birthday. (I’m now in what I call my Ketchup Year: 57.) She bought me a book from my Amazon wish list (Down These Green Streets, so there’s a Declan Burke angle here, too), but, as she told me during the unwrapping, there was a story behind it.

She had the choice of buying the book new, or used. Daughter of a fledgling author, she opted for new, thinking new is better for a gift, and the authors get paid. When it arrived, she noticed it lacked the sheen a new trade paperback has, and the edges were less than crisp. The pages had obviously been turned. This was not a new book, and she was not amused. Short on time before my birthday, she was about to send it back, but thumbed through it first.

Turns out someone at Amazon made a mistake: she’d scored an autographed copy. Ten contributors had signed, including Declan Hughes, Colin Bateman, and Ian Ross. (We’re still decoding the others.) She gave it to me as is, with the offer to swap it for a new one if I preferred.

Like hell. They’ll pry this copy from my cold, dead fingers.

This was better than balancing out. Books To Die For is just as good, signed or not. Having the unexpected signed copy of Green Streets, and a story to go with it, puts me well ahead.

And the kid’s only half as Irish as I am. Go figure.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Getting Mad

Let’s begin by extending sincere thanks to Seana Graham for her kind words about Wild Bill on her fine review blog, Not New For Long. (No, it’s not a “fine review blog” because she liked Wild Bill. It’s a fine blog, period. That she liked Wild Bill threatens her reputation almost as much as it enhances mine.) The review ends with Seana saying she would like to have seen “more of Madeline ‘Mad’ Klimak, a strong female protagonist who shows that King has a range beyond the macho trope. Maybe [she’ll] appear in a sequel?”

I worked harder on Mad than on any other character in anything I’ve written. She’s integral to the story in several ways; the book could not have been written without her. That being said, I’d never written a female character with the mix of qualities Mad had to have, and I sweated bullets every time I read a Mad chapter to The Beloved Spouse or my writers group. Seana’s compliment is not the first Mad has received in a review, but it’s the first from a woman, which makes it doubly gratifying.

I’ve looked for opportunities to write Mad again, notably by including her in a PI series set in Chicago I’ve worked on for several years. She’d be a perfect foil for Nick Forte, but they live in different fictional Chicago universes, and the accommodations that would have to be made are too great. (For the dozens of people who’ve read Wild Bill, at least.) Thoughts of giving her a book of her own always break down when I remember the angst of writing her as a supporting character.

Seana’s remark, coupled with Patti Abbott’s comment to my “Best Reads” post, got me to thinking seriously about how much time I spend with female writers and characters. Frankly, it’s not much. Looking back on my list of books read, I thought to have read more female writers than I have. I may have subconsciously shied away from female characters in the two Penns River books I’ve completed because Mad caused me so much agita.

That has to stop.

Not for political correctness. (No one who knows me would think that, but in case some stranger wanders by…) There are woman writers whose work I like a lot. Megan Abbott, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Zoe Sharp, Laura Lippmann (when she’s not writing Tess Monahan) come to mind immediately. My Books Read list goes back to 2006, and has names and books I liked a lot, but somehow never got around to reading the next. I’m cheating myself out of a good time by skipping over them.

As for characters, well, half the people in the world are women. True, most of my characters are either cops or crooks, and those are male-dominated fields. I’m careful not to fall into the crime fiction trap of making women either strippers or hookers or victims—though I have done all three, in conscious moderation—and can only broaden my stories, and my writing, by becoming more inclusive.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, and don’t need one here. I’ve already added woman writers to my TBR list, and will find at least one new one from those recommended in John Connolly’s and Declan Burke’s Edgar-nominated compendium Books To Die For. (Congratulations, gents.)

The writing will require only a small course change. I’m nearing the end of the first draft of the next Penns River novel. A change I’d planned for the second draft will suit adding a woman nicely. I hope to spend the summer tidying the first two Nick Forte PI novels for Kindle releases. The series has a couple of strong continuing female characters, and the second book is virtually controlled by women. Maybe revisiting them will remind me of the benefits in writing characters of complementary plumbing to my usual casts, while remembering it’s not the plumbing that makes them relevant. I’m hoping folks like Seana and Patti and others can not only keep me honest, but make sure I do it well.

As for Mad, I’m looking for a good story for her. Maybe I’ll ignore the parallel universe issues and add her to my PI stories. (Or vice versa, depending on the story.) Aren’t reboots all the rage now?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What’s In a Name?

Character names take me right out of a lot of popular crime fiction. I don’t know any women named Taylor or Alexandra or men named Maxim or Baldwin; I don’t think I’d want to. I grew up and tend to hang with people named Andy and Larry and Mary and Linda.

Same with surnames. Popular fiction has so many WASPy names a paper cut could send you into anaphylactic shock. I grew up with people named Rychlinksi and Kurpakis and Policcichio and Dzanaj. Robert Langdon means dick to me.

Character names are important. Elmore Leonard tells a story of a character in a story set in New Orleans. He gave the guy a French name and couldn’t find anything for him to say. Leonard changed the character’s name (something Irish, I think) and said he couldn’t shut him up.

The story of Tim Hallinan’s upcoming Junior bender novel, The Fame Thief, revolves around Wanda Altschuler, from Scranton, Pennsylvania. That’s a good, Scranton-sounding name. She ended up in LA trying to be an actress and changed her name to the far more exotic and celebrity-like Dolores La Marr, which probably conjures up an entirely different image from the woman who was Wanda Altschuler. (Which is, of course, among the reasons actors change their names. That’s why a lot of them become actors, so they won’t have to be who they are.)

I spend a lot of time on names. For some reason, I decided Will Hickox in Wild Bill was from the Scranton area. (Probably why learning about Ms. Altschuler got me to thinking along this line.) When I wanted a genuine sounding Scranton name for Will’s maternal grandfather, I hit Wikipedia for famous people from the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area. “Biden” didn’t have the ring I wanted, but Volodymyr Palahniuk was perfect. I already had the first name—Willard, “Big Will”—but the original surname of actor Jack Palance fit perfectly.

When I needed a shit-ton of Italian names for the mobsters in Wild Bill—preferably Sicilian—I pulled up Google maps and went to Sicily, where towns named Enna and Agrigento and Ragusa and Caccamo served better than anything I could make up.

My current series is set in a small town very similar to where I grew up, so my high school year book and RSS feeds from the local paper provide Western Pennsylvania placesetters like Napierkowski and Neuschwander and Wierzbicki. (I meant to add a pronunciation key to Worst Enemies when I formatted it for Kindle, and will ask Stark House to correct my oversight when Grind Joint comes out next year.) Names like those not only help to personalize and even describe the character, taken as a group they can become part of the setting. I don’t need to spend any time reminding readers where we are when a conversation takes place between Stush Napierkowski and Rick Neuschwander.

What about you? Do names matter in the books you read? In the books you write? Why, or why not? Writers, how do you come up with them?