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Kevin Egan: Writing What I know—Not Always So Easy

Kevin Egan’s newest novel, Midnight (Forge)—named a Best Book of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews—takes place in and around the New York County Courthouse. His story in our June issue, “Term Life,” draws its characters from the same milieu. Here, the author explains his fascination with the what goes on behind the bench.

“Write what you know.” It is a standard writing instructor mantra.

As a college senior I took two creative writing classes. The first professor insisted we write what we know. I didn’t know anything about anything. The second professor encouraged us to write about anything in the world. I chose a slave in ancient Rome. But years later, and after much hard work, I was able to steer a course between writing what I knew and writing about anything in the world. I published one science fiction novel and three cozy mysteries. Then I decided to write about something I knew well – my job.

I am a lawyer and have worked my entire career in the New York state court system, mostly as a judge’s law clerk. I also work at the New York County Courthouse, famous from the opening credits of Law & Order as well as other television and movie productions. It seemed like a natural combination: Add my insider’s view on interesting cases to a landmark setting and, voila, dramatic fiction would follow.

But dramatic fiction did not follow.

Courthouse details swamped story lines. Supposedly interesting digressions flowed for pages. Characters bobbed in oceans of description. One courthouse novel oozed to a stop after 140 pages of sludge. A second swelled to 450 pages but could not find a publisher.

What was up? Other writers who inhabited this world managed to write successful fiction. Why, after several novels, was my writing so out of control?

A revelation came one night as I watched a television police drama. It wasn’t a plot or even a plan. It was a realization that I’d been trying too hard to depict the courthouse while overlooking the fantastic mix of people who convened there everyday. There were many types of characters in the courthouse, from the judges dwelling in the rarified air of chambers to the engineers stoking the furnaces in the sub-basement. Each one had a potential story.

I began to focus on characters, investing them with dreams and desires, virtues and vices, problems without tidy solutions. Focusing on characters allowed me to tell stories without courthouse details overwhelming the narrative. Instead, the sights, the sounds, the feel of the courthouse seeped into the stories naturally. And so, within that much muted but still evocative setting, a wife commits murder to protect the reputation of her demented husband, a custodian must choose between his dying wife and his successful but estranged son, and an elderly man keeps up his end of a bad bargain. Character stories, but characters who coexist in a courthouse.

Write what you know . . . but don’t get lost in the details.

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“The Full Value of the Idea of Comparison”

There’s an interesting profile of the short story writer Lydia Davis in the March 17th New Yorker. Davis is known for her very short, spare, evocative stories, and in the article by Dana Goodyear, she has some interesting things to say about the intersection of real life and the creative imagination.

But I wanted to share here another passage, one that demonstrates an ideal to which all writers can aspire:

 One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

How many of us are so alert to such writing mistakes? In my own writing, which is always a struggle, not so much. But in the works of others, sure, that’s the editor in me—though unlike Davis, I don’t always stop to analyze in such detail why the “little bell” is ringing.

I admire the depth of her engagement with language, her dedication to the discipline of scrutinizing each word in its relationship in the sentence. I think it behooves all writers to look at their writing with such a critical eye.

Mystery writers, I think I can safely say, love their metaphors and similes. Consider Raymond Chandler, whose prose still blinds us with its startling vividness:

 His chin came down and I hit it. I hit it as if I was driving the last spike on the first continental railroad. (“Red Wind”)

It was blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely)

The voice of the hot dog merchant split the dusk like an axe. (Farewell, My Lovely)

Figurative language is one way a writer can (excuse the old cliché!) show without telling. It’s artful and it brings together levels of meaning. The power of the comparisons rests in the associations Chandler is making. They give the reader more entries into understanding the action. But this sort of device can also be clumsy and can draw attention to itself. That’s one reason we object to dead and mixed metaphors.

Davis’s comment is interesting to me because she brings her focus down not just to the comparison of images but even to the etymology and connotations of the words themselves. She rejects the easy purchase of images carelessly mashed together in favor of, as she puts it, “the full value of comparison.” And whether you agree with her about the specific examples she quotes, I think writing—communicating effectively, whether through flat prose or lyrical poetry, or something in between—requires that we bring an intention to our choices in words and syntax. A metaphor may be wonderful because its startling dissonance surprises the reader, but the writer needs to be aware of just how the words are working together.

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PULP FICTION: Embracing the Inner Smart-Aleck by Evan Lewis

Evan Lewis’s stories featuring the ghost of Davy Crockett and his descendant David Crockett are distinguished by the lively verbal jousting of the principals, though when the two can simmer down, they make a great pair of sleuths, as demonstrated in “Mr. Crockett and the Longrifle” in our May issue. Here, however, we’re delighted to offer Mr. Lewis’s reflections on a very different kind of mystery writing.

Pulp fiction came into my life when I was eleven years old, and I was never the same again. It happened at the neighborhood Rexall Drug store, and came in a series of paperbacks starring Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze.

The writing spoke to me. It was direct, conversational, and loaded with personality and humor. The author was not only having fun, he was being paid to be a smart-aleck. I wanted to be a professional smart-aleck too.

Doc SavageYears later I learned that Doc Savage was a pulp hero, that most of his adventures were written by Lester Dent, and that the style I so admired was considered hardboiled. My search for more such stuff led to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and their less-famous contemporaries. At the time, very little of that stuff was in print, so I went to the source, hunting down the pulps themselves.

The more I read, the more I realized that my favorites were the guys having the most fun. They were the smartest of the smart-alecks, experimenting with the language and injecting plenty of personality and humor into their writing. I found their style infectious, and if my own stories are a little wacked-out, it’s mostly their fault.

The guiltiest parties follow.

DASHIELL HAMMETT is revered by fans and critics for Dashiell HammettThe Maltese Falcon, and I think it’s a fine novel, but the stories that really grab me feature The Continental Op. The Op began as a nearly invisible narrator and evolved into a supreme smart-aleck, reaching his peak in the novel Red Harvest (originally published as four novelettes in Black Mask).

Black MaskFREDERICK NEBEL graced Black Mask with a long-running series featuring police Captain Steve MacBride and his reporter pal, Kennedy of the Free Press. Nebel’s prose is hard as nails, and his two lead characters share a friendship that brings out their wise-cracking best. Thanks to Altus Press, Nebel’s best work is back in print, including a four-volume set reprinting the complete MacBride & Kennedy series. (I was honored to write the Introduction, which also appears on the Black Mask Magazine website.)

Daffy DillRICHARD SALE was another guy whose best work was in the pulps. Sale’s most popular character was Daffy Dill, a smart-mouthed but literary-minded reporter who appeared in more than sixty novelettes. You’ll find one apiece in the anthologies The Hardboiled Dicks, Hardboiled Dames and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. As a public service, I’ve posted five more Daffy adventures on my blog.

NORBERT DAVIS had a tremendous talent for humor, but rarely turned it loose in the pulps. You’ll find it, though, in the three novels and two novelettes featuring Doan and Carstairs. Doan is a harmless-looking but deadly dangerous detective, and Carstairs is his high-minded Great Dane. The absolute best of the series is the novel Sally’s in the Alley, which is exceedingly easy to come by.

CLEVE F. ADAMS is the forgotten man of hardboiled fiction. He wrote well over a hundred pulp stories (some sources say more than three hundred) and authored more than a dozen novels. The typical Adams hero thinks he’s a heel and strives to act like one, but down deep he’s a good and honorable guy. This inner struggle produces a humor that’s unique in detective fiction. And for even more comic relief, he usually has a dimwitted sidekick. All of Adams’ books are worth seeking out, but I particularly recommend Sabotage and The Private Eye.

 JONATHAN LATIMER did not write for the pulps, but his five novels starring hard-drinking detective Bill Crane followed the Black Mask tradition. All five are wonderfully wacky, but my favorite is The Lady in the Morgue. That book gives Crane not one but two smart-mouthed sidekicks, and their book-long bender results in some hilarious three-way repartee.

I like to think there’s a little Continental Op and a little Daffy Dill in my narration. A little MacBride & Kennedy and a little Doan & Carstairs in my relationships. A little Adams and little Latimer nibbling at my sanity. And always, a lot of Lester Dent in my attitude.

With all that pulp fiction bouncing around in my skull, it’s not surprising my two lead characters, Tennessee State Representative David Crockett in AHMM and Skyler Hobbs in EQMM, are both borderline crazy. One believes his inner voice belongs to a dead ancestor, and the other thinks he’s the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Both allow me to embrace my pulp dreams, to laugh at life, and to unleash my inner smart-aleck.

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AHMM Congratulates Its Derringer Award finalists

I’m pleased to see that four of our stories from 2013 are on the shortlist for a Derringer Award presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Kudos to Joseph D’Agnese for his story “Bloody Signorina” (AHMM, September 2013) in the category of Best Long Story, and in the category of Best Novelette, to William Burton McCormick for “The Antiquary’s Wife” (AHMM, March 2013), O’Neil De Noux for his story “For Love’s Sake” (AHMM, July/August 2013), and James L. Ross for “Last Night in Cannes” (AHMM, November 2013).

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Anyone Can Write a Mystery

“Anyone can write a mystery,” says a book editor in Helen McCloy’s Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), and later a literary agent asserts, “there is no market anywhere now for a story with a plot.” As an author and publisher of mysteries, those most highly plotted of fictions, McCloy is clearly having a little fun.

The opportunity to rediscover McCloy’s work was one of the benefits of a class I taught recently on some women mystery writers of the 1950s. I titled the course “Forgotten Masters” because my four authors—Helen McCloy, Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, and Dorothy B. Hughes—are largely forgotten and out of print today, while many of their male contemporaries are not (including Ross Macdonald, who was Millar’s husband).

Helen McCloy was born in 1904 to a New York City publishing family. She married Davis Dresser (aka Brett Halliday), and at one time they owned and operated a literary agency and a small publishing house. Her own writing career spanned over 40 years. She published her first novel in 1938 and her 30th in 1980. A little under half of her output was devoted to her series featuring the psychologist/sleuth Dr. Basil Willing. In 1990 the Mystery Writers of America named her a Grand Master Award, and today the organization administers a scholarship for aspiring writers named in her honor.

I particularly like Two-Thirds of a Ghost, one of the Basil Willing books, because in addition to being a well-wrought mystery, it casts a satiric eye on the publishing industry. Satire is hard to pull off, I believe: It has to be both funny and painful at the same time. McCloy manages that balance in this novel. As someone who works in the industry, I was grinning and nodding my head even while saying, “ouch.” It seems to me that McCloy’s satire in this novel is successful because she gets her details right.

In fact, I find this attention to detail to be characteristic of her novels, at least those that I have read. It’s her eye for the telling detail that brings the world in which she sets her mystery to vivid life. In Cue for Murder, for example, she pulls the reader into the gritty/glamorous milieu of Broadway.

Though the paper editions of McCloy’s books are mostly out of print, they can be readily obtained from online second-hand book dealers. In addition, many of the wonderful out-of-print novels of McCloy, Armstrong, and Hughes are now being reissued as e-books. (I hope the works of Margaret Millar become as available this way shortly.) If you haven’t discovered these authors yet, I encourage you to do so.

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