One Bite at a Time




Monday, November 6, 2017

On Hiatus

There are times when life doesn’t just imitate art, it takes over. This is one of those. I’m shutting down the blog for a bit while some things sort themselves out. I’ll drop in from time to time and I have some interviews queued up I’m as happy with as any I’ve ever done, but regular posts are going on hiatus for a while.


Behave yourselves. I’m coming back.

Bouchercon 2017: Extra-Curricular Activities



Bouchercon 2017 was just a conference for The Beloved Spouse™ and me the way Charlize Theron is attractive: way more than that. We like car trips and Toronto was easily drivable for us, with other attractions along the way. So here’s what else happened.

Monday October 9

Left at a reasonable hour as we had no place to be at any given time. Drove through central Pennsylvania and western New York looking at beautiful terrain with foliage not quite as spectacular as we expected (thanks, climate change) but still plenty eye-catching. Got ourselves to the Microtel in Niagara Falls late in the afternoon and needed a place to eat. The diner recommended by the hotel clerk closed early so we figured we’re only twenty miles from Buffalo, what better excuse for wings? So, from us to you, when in Buffalo and hungry, check out the Buffalo Wing Joint and Pub on Niagara Falls Boulevard. First rate and the fries with gravy were outstanding. (They offered poutine but we decided to wait for the authentic Canadian version.)

Tuesday October 10

Niagara Falls on a beautiful day. Went to Goat Island then took the stairs to Cave of the Winds where I went all the way to the edge of the Hurricane Deck. (I don’t think it was a real hurricane deck. Jim Cantore was nowhere around.) Got soaked but they let us keep the sandals, which are comfortable and will serve as nice reminders of the trip.

Lunch was at Augie’s, the diner we missed the previous night. A BLT club was very good and the perfect size. We crossed the Lewiston Bridge into Canada (more on the bridge crossings next time) and were on our way around the lake to Toronto. I adhered strictly to the speed limit and all traffic laws, having no desire to end up in a Canadian prison even though it’s been years since I saw Midnight Express. Canadians drive just as fast as Americans, but I must admit, (relatively) slow as I was going, no one tailgated me all the way to Toronto. I can’t get milk here without some Helio Castroneves or Danica Patrick wannabe trying to give me a vehicular colonoscopy.

We invested Tuesday afternoon and evening reconnoitering the immediate area and eating dinner at the Duke of Richmond pub. Excellent bacon cheeseburger.

Wednesday October 11

The Hockey Hall of Fame, baby! By far the nicest of the three I’ve been to so far. (Basketball and football the others, though I confess I was at the old basketball HOF on 1983.) Reasonably priced, even in the gift shop, and more cool stuff than a hockey fan can take in. History and a good take on the current game.

For those who are wondering, damn right I touched the Cup. It’s not like I’m going to have any official capacity with an NHL team anytime soon, so fuck the jinx. Kudos to Ryan (no last name on his badge) who knows where everyone is on the plaques of honor. Literally. Just give him your team and he’ll tell you where all your boys are, even if they just passed through. Coming here would have made the whole trip worthwhile all by itself.

Dinner in the room, leftover chicken wings from the Buffalo joint. A brief break, then Noir at the Bar at the Rivoli on Queen Street. The perfectly seedy venue was packed and Rob Brunet and Tanis Mallow put on a hell of a show. I stayed through the first two sets of readers and had a fine old time breaking balls with John Shepphird and Scott Adlerberg. Had to leave a little early, though, with a 10:00 panel on Thursday.

Thursday October 12: The Bar

We’ll cut directly to the bar. Hooked up with Kevin Burton Smith and a reader named Keith Lastnameescapes me, attending his first Bouchercon. (Sorry, Keith. It was a pleasure to meet you, though.) Peter Rozovsky was there, too, but we didn’t get together at Noir at the Bar, so fuck him. Got to talking Westerns with Gary Phillips and by the time we were done and I had time to let things settle, I had pretty much the whole plot worked out. Now it’s only a matter of finding time to write it.

Friday October 13: The Bar

Should have known trouble was brewing when I ran into The Two Erics—Campbell and Beetner—before I even got to the bar. Within five minutes Steve Lauden was there, then Mike McCrary, Gary Phillips, Lenny Kravitz Danny Gardner, and then we started drinking. The bar at Quinn’s already contained Eryk Pruitt, David Swinson, Dale Berry, Keith from Thursday, and the inimitable, irrepressible, lovely and talented Tim O’Mara. Tim got me drunk in New Orleans last year, but not as much as this time. I can’t guarantee a great time was had by all, but I had enough fun to cover several other people. (Special shout out to Alex, our waitress. I asked her what they sold that was in the Bass/Newcastle Brown range and she nailed it.)

Saturday October 14: The Bar

A quiet evening, though the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter would have been a quiet evening compared to Friday. Stopped back into Quinn’s with John McFetridge and his wife Laurie Reid, Seana Graham, Dave McKee, and fuck Peter Rozovsky. One beer and one Arnold Palmer and I was out of there, Tim O’Mara’s best efforts notwithstanding. (More kudos to Alex, who not only remembered me, but asked if I wanted “the usual” when she came to take our orders. I felt like Norm there for a second.)

Sunday October 15


One panel and the long drive home. Spectacular scenery coming down I-99 through central Pennsylvania, no traffic, beautiful and my best girl beside me. The perfect end to the perfect week. Many thinks to all who contributed. Except for that prick Chappee. More about him in the next post.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

Ladybug Ladybug (1963) This could have been good. Started out as a twist on a 60s nuclear apocalypse story by taking the perspective of schoolteachers and the kids in a rural school where communications aren’t very good and showed the kinds of confusion that could result. That only lasted half an hour or so and things deteriorated into the standard dreary end of the world 60s flick. The highlights were seeing young versions of William Daniels, Estelle Parsons, and Nancy Marchand.

Cool Hand Luke (1967) One of those movies that gets better every time I see it. It operates on multiple levels and works on all of them. George Kennedy richly deserved his Oscar for supporting actor, and Paul Newman would have won Best Actor in most other years; he lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. Full of iconic scenes that hold together just as well in another century, there are elements here that might be even more worthy of attention today than fifty years ago.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Another movie that gets better every time I see it. I can damn near recite the whole thing now, which leaves me free to notice little things. I’ve written about it before and I’m sure I will again. Without doubt one of the five greatest crime films ever made.

The Imitation Game (2014) Yet another one of those what gets better every time. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the man who led the team that broke the German Enigma machine codes and shortened the war by as much as two years according to British MI6. The film moves between Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, his days in boarding school, and his arrest for homosexuality in 1951. It’s inspiring to watch Turing struggle to complete his machine, heartbreaking to watch him lose his only friend at school, and depressing to see how all his contributions to the war effort meant nothing in the face of his homosexuality. It’s not just a blight on British history, but a condemnation everyone needs to find a way to get past.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Saturday / Sunday


The Beloved Spouse™ has commented more than once over the years about how little I drink, so it seemed only right when I got back to the room a little after 1:30 Saturday morning to shake her awake and say, “You’re always saying you’ve never seen me drunk. Here’s your chance.” As might be expected, Friday’s night at the bar placed the 8:30 Saturday panels in irretrievable jeopardy.

Saturday October 14

10:00 Anthony Best Novel Nominees

Given this year’s nominees, a good time was guaranteed, especially with Hank Phillippi Ryan as moderator. No one disappointed. The highlights:

Reed Farrel Coleman plays the movie of his book in his head then describes enough for the reader to create his own.

Louise Penny didn’t think her first book would be published, so all her decisions were made to please herself. (Maybe this is why I don’t care for most best sellers: The decisions are too obviously made to please the greatest number of people, of which I am not one.)

Laura Lippman understands she’s not going to write anything “new,” but sees her job as engaging the reader who’s “read it all.” Plot is not enough. She’s always a little embarrassed when people flatter her, doesn’t feel she’s deserving. She’s always struck by the fact they gave her their time to read the book.

Laura Lippman: She can’t write a better Mystic River than Mystic River, but there are other things she can do very well.

When Hank asked all the panelists what they’re working on now, Louise Penny noted she’s busy promoting next year’s Anthony Award winner, which came out last month. (Actually I said that, not Louise. I do have to wonder if it’s time to rename the best novel award in Louise’s honor and retire her from the pool. Give someone else a chance.)

12:40 20 on the 20s: Joe Clifford (That’s right. A panel at 10 and the next at 12:40. So I ate lunch and did a little shopping. Sue me.)

There are few more fascinating people than Joe Clifford. Promoting his newest Jay Porter novel, he also let slip plans for a book of the things his seven-year-old son Holden says. Having followed Holden on Facebook since he was born (all right, technically I’m friends with Joe, but Holden’s way more fun), this book promises to be far more entertaining than Shit my Dad Says.

In discussing Jay and the inspiration for the novels, Joe uttered what might have been the best bon mot of the conference: Teen angst is what happens when you realize the things your parents taught you when they were your only source of information are untrue.

1:00 Confined Crimes: Small town settings – the advantages and limitations of using a smaller stage for crimes.

With my Penns River series set in a small town, this is always a destination panel for me. (Also a soft spot in my heart, as a small town discussion in Cleveland broke my Bouchercon panel cherry.) Lynn Cahoon made sure I wasn’t disappointed, leading a sterling cast through a wide-ranging discussion.

Small town settings appeal to Lori Roy because you can’t escape your past in a small town.

Eryk Pruitt: You’ll never get better samples of small town dialog than at the local BBQ shop.

Lori Roy: Outsiders’ eyes can change everything. Bringing an outsider as the editor of the Boston Globe was what made the Spotlight story possible.

(Note to future panelists: when you say something like, “I write character-driven fiction,” it can’t help but sound like you’re saying your peers on the panel are hacks who write cartoon characters.)

Eryk Pruitt talked about the feeling of isolation in small towns. Spoke of taking a break from work and seeing the grain elevator and water tower are the town’s perpetual skyline, and how the banal and gossipy conversations never change, except for the names. While everyone in town is close, they can feel isolated from the rest of the world and end up thinking, “Is this all there is for me?”

Karin Salvalaggio learned while researching a book that residents of Bozeman MT often left their doors unlocked. This sometimes became an issue when college students, walking home drunk, got tired and let themselves in to crash on strangers’ couches. (She’d done so well on the liars’ panel the other day I had to ask her if this story was bullshit.)

4:00 The Blue Detectives: Police procedurals

Another typical destination panel for me. The Penns River books are primarily procedurals, and I scored a procedural panel in Raleigh. Caro Ramsey kept things moving and fun with great rapport with her panel, especially Jeffrey Siger. Caro’s smart and funny, but with her Scots accent she almost needs subtitles at times.

Andrew Case: “A falling knife has no handle. Never try to catch it.” Used in real estate and stocks when people try to time the bottom of a market.

Caro Ramsey: Scottish police are unarmed except for batons and sarcasm. They’re taught to engage in a non-threatening manner. She admits it works because they’re pretty sure they’re dealing with a suspect who does not himself have a gun.

Jeffrey Siger’s pet peeve with police stories is some writers’ need to wrap up every little detail.
Andrew Case’s is when a non-cop breaks a bunch of rules to solve a case and never faces any consequences because he was successful.

Jeffrey Siger: You act differently when you carry a gun. (Not said as a good or bad thing or as a political statement. Just an explanation why he doesn’t wear one even though he’s qualified and has a permit.)

5:30 Noir is the Beat-Up Black: You are compelled like a victim to a dark alley to attend this panel, even knowing it can only end…

Noir has achieved the status of pornography in the writing world: No one can define it, but everyone knows what it is when they see it. (I’ll have more to say on that in a few weeks.) Rob Brunet’s panel did yeoman’s work describing their own definitions, begun by Rob quoting Gary Phillips: Noir is a doomed character on a doomed path.

Christopher Brookmyer: The level of violence that must appear onscreen should be tied to what you need to show about the character.

Christopher Brookmyer: Film can show what violence looks like but only books can describe what it feels like.

Saturday evening was spent on a fun dinner and drink (just one, thank you very much) with John McFetridge and his lovely wife Laurie Reid; Seana Graham, Peter Rozovsky, Dave McKee, and a gentleman whose name I apologize for not remembering. (John, if you have it, please comment.) An early panel I wanted to see the next day would be followed by lots of driving, so one drink was it for me.

Sunday, October 15

8:30 The Bodies Politic: Political mysteries and how politics can lead to murder

Political thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but moderator Robin Spano and panelist Nik Korpon are friends and I hate to blow off a day of any conference (I paid for the whole thing, damn it), so I went. Good move. Robin nailed her first panel as moderator and Nik was as good as expected. Other highlights:

Tom Rosenstiel: It’s acceptable in Washington to lie to a microphone but not face-to-face to a colleague.

Tom Rosenstiel: Definition of an English spy thriller: Suddenly, nothing happened.

Tom Rosenstiel: The political center in Washington meets privately and informally because to appear publicly as anything other than pure invites a primary challenge.

Mark Greaney: Reading David McCullouch’s book on John Adams shows what we’re going through now is nothing new.

Cheryl L. Reed: Other countries—such as Ukraine—have already dealt with their fake news crises. We just have to figure ours out.


And so we were done. Next time I’ll talk a little about the peripheral entertainment that made the week such a rousing success, followed by a comparison of border agents of various countries, namely Canada and the United States.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Friday


With my panel behind me and a fairly relaxing evening at the bar under my belt, Friday showed great potential. It did not disappoint.

Friday October 13

10:00 Urban Noir: City Settings where, despite the light pollution, there is darkness

Susan Calder did a nice job navigating through a challenge for any moderator: a panelist who rambles and forgets there are four other people up there. The rest of the panel picked their spots well and made it an educational and entertaining hour. To wit:

Tim O’Mara: If you own you call his neighborhood Clinton; it you rent it’s Hell’s Kitchen.

Michael Harvey wondered why most psychological thrillers are set in the suburbs. Gary Dvorkin: The suburbs may have taken over noir as the cities Disney-fied themselves.

Tim O’Mara: The street people who left Times Square had to go somewhere. Many of them wound up in his neighborhood.

Tim O’Mara grew up in Long Island and knew his first black person in college. His daughter grows up amidst far more diversity and has far fewer fears.

Tim O’Mara: In New York, “Writer’s block” means 2 or 3 writers live there.

Michael Harvey: “Urban noir” is the accumulation of individuals’ small evils.

Michael Harvey: When asked what something in his book means, he says that’s up to the readers, who must filter everything through their own experience.

Michael Harvey: There’s great ambiguity in life and people are too interested in putting labels on things, especially in America. You don’t know anything until you understand you know nothing.

This provoked a general back and forth on how impulses we’ve all had are based on potentially misinterpreting situations can inform what our characters do. In a book things can happen you’d wait the extra beat for in real life.

Michael Harvey: Genre labels have gone too far. There’s only good writing and bad. That’s how books should be shelved: “Good Writing” and Shitty Writing.”

11:30 Sweet Revenge: Writers who have used revenge as a motivation for their work.

Well, damn, people. We write crime. Who hasn’t used revenge, both as a character’s motivation and as a way to get back at the jackass who took the last Cinnabon at the airport? Mike McCrary hit a good balance of darkness and wit in leading an excellent panel through more than its share of thought-provoking comments.

Stuart Neville: Revenge is a flawed concept. It never works and just feeds on itself.

Stuart Neville: Plot is the consequence of characters’ desires. Revenge is always a strong motivator and its results always have consequences.

Stuart Neville: Revenge as character motivation is almost always about self-worth. Could just be a matter of someone feeling shamed.

Michael Wiley: The best revenge may be for the person to always have to look over their shoulder. Used The Last Good Kiss as an example.

Stuart Neville: Revenge takes many forms. In Ratlines, it’s the hero telling Otto Skorczeny he knows Skorczeny is a phony.

Stuart Neville: Trading Places is a great revenge story.

Stuart Neville: The IRA now lets the highest-level informants alone because the press would be too bad.

Victoria Helen Stone: It’s easier for a betrayed spouse to project his or her anger and desire for revenge onto the other man/woman instead of onto the spouse, who is the person who actually betrayed them.

Stuart Neville: The Irish exchanged justice for peace and a lot of people were put off because acknowledged killers got away with it and ended up in good positions.

Elizabeth Heiter: A funny revenge story can work. (Especially is the person seeking revenge isn’t very good at it.)

2:00 Mysteries of Toronto: Get to know the blood-soaked streets on Toronto

Okay, so not as blood-soaked as we might have been led to believe. An all-Toronto panel spoke to a mostly Toronto audience about crime in—you guessed it—Toronto. While the panel was fun and informative, most of the comments were of a “you had to be there” nature. One that stuck out came during a discussion of media coverage, from John McFetridge: People involved in newsworthy events always remark on how incomplete the coverage was, yet people form firm opinions based on those accounts.

3:30 Government Agencies: Authors writing about military or other government agencies

Who says people associated with government agencies have no sense of humor? Lots of good insights delivered with tongues often planted firmly in cheeks. Joseph Finder set the tone by admitting he made a gun mistake in a book once.
Gwen Florio: That’s the worst mistake you can make.
Joseph Finder: Second worst. The worst is killing a dog.

J. J. Hensley: Bolt-Action Remedy is the best-selling biathlon mystery in the world. Unless one of you publishes one tonight.

Mike Maden (seconded by JJH): You don’t study counterfeit money to identify it; you study real money. That way you can testify about what’s wrong with the counterfeit, as there a million ways to do it wrong. (Original comment by Maden was intended to show why to read the best fiction in your genre.)

This was a good panel but I had to leave early to make it to
4:20 20 on the 20s: Scott Adlerberg

Scott spoke about his new book, Jack Waters. Scott is one of those guys you’re never quite sure what the next project will be like, and this one is another departure, a historical novel about a man who, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to give a fuck. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Scott speak or read in person, rectify it. You’ll thank me.

4:40 20 on the 20s: Montreal Noir

Akashic continues its series of [Your City Here] Noir anthologies with Montreal, edited by John McFetridge and Jacques Filippi. A mix of stories, half of which written by Anglo authors and half by Francophones intended to capture the multicultural vibe of the city. McFetridge and Filippi know what they’re doing, the authors on hand knew what they were about, so it looks like another success for Akashic.

By then I was exhausted, and the serious drinking was yet to come. More on that later.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Thursday

This year’s Bouchercon in Toronto wasn’t just a conference for The Beloved Spouse™ and I; it was an adventure. The road trip we took merits at least one blog post of its own. First we’ll cut to the chase.

Thursday, October 13

10:00 Heroes and Antiheroes: Are heroes possible even in fiction? Do we need them?
I don’t have a lot to say about this panel, largely because I was in it. That’s not due to any false modesty on my part; it kicked ass. The problem is that I couldn’t very well take notes while on the dais, and there are no recordings this year. My mind fully occupied, I can barely remember what I said, let alone everyone else. Suffice to say J. Kent Messum led a star-studded cast of Eric Campbell, Allison Gaylin, Stuart Neville, and David Swinson through a thought-provoking and fast-paced hour while I tried to keep up.

2:30 Adapted For…About books made into movies or TV shows
Watching the audience file in for this one it occurred to me how many people with infirmities attend Bouchercon. It makes sense. Those with physical infirmities often find reading a recreational activity they can continue to enjoy without an ability to move around as freely as they’d like. Those with mental infirmities become writers.

Our friend Sam Wiebe was unable to attend Bouchercon this year due to jury duty. We learned right before the panel his book, Invisible Dead, was nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award. Guess now we know which jury he was on.

The panel was worth getting good seats for, as Shawn Reilly Simmons led an all-star crew through a discussion of both sides of the process of moving a book to the screen. Here are some highlights:

Yrsa Sigurdardottir: The book is like your child; the movie is a grandchild. It’s not appropriate for the grandparents to be too involved in its creation.

Lou Berney: It’s tricky to collaborate with too protective an author.
Maureen Jennings: “Collaboration” means “interference.”

David Morell: When selling rights, insist on print control of the characters. (He got to write the novelizations for the Rambo sequels and change not only the themes, but the plots.)

David Morell: Tracing the historical antecedents of books showed the evolution of British thrillers and, by extension, how all books stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

Ann Cleeves: Once you send a book out to the public, it’s not really yours anymore. It belongs to the reader’s imagination. A TV/movie adaptation is another step down that road, as they’re entirely different storytelling media.

Lou Berney: Adapting a novel into a screenplay is like distilling a haiku out of an epic poem.


There were more panels I could have gone to, but the adventure in getting to Canada and the rush from the anti-hero panel wore me out. Come back next week for a look at what transpired on Friday. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

On the Road Again

No blog posts this week while The Beloved Spouse and I are away at Bouchercon. 

I’ll be back with Part I of this year’s wrap-up on Wednesday, October 18.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Conversation With Dietrich Kalteis

Dietrich Kalteis is unique. I can’t remember the last time he and I didn’t get together at Bouchercon, except this year it’s in Toronto and he won’t be there even though for once he won’t need a passport. (I will, but not to get into Canada. I’m an American citizen and need one to come back. Go figure.) Well, okay, the reason he can’t go is because his latest book, Zero Avenue, launched yesterday, so he has promotional stuff to do. To me, what better way to promote a new work of crime fiction than to go to the largest gathering of crime fiction devotees in the world—where, among other promotional opportunities, he could buy me a drink—but I guess not everyone has the marketing chops I have. (Amazon didn’t just give me that $7.52 I made last month, you know.)

Dieter has like no biographical information online, so suffice to say he’s a disarmingly charming guy whose serene demeanor in no way reflects the content of his books. I could go on, but it’s better if we let him do it. He’s good with words. Very good.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Zero Avenue.
Dietrich Kalteis: Zero Avenue is set during the early days of Vancouver’s punk rock scene.
It follows Frankie del Rey, who aspires to launch her music career and raise enough money to cut a demo record and take her band Waves of Nausea on the road. To make ends meet she mules drugs for a powerful dealer named Marty Sayles. Things are going well when she gets in a relationship with a Johnny Falco, owner of a struggling club on the Downtown Eastside. That is, until Johnny decides to raid one of Marty Sayles’ pot fields. When he gets away with it, Frankie’s bass player finds out about it and figures that was easy enough and rips off another one of Sayles’ fields. When he goes missing, Johnnie and Frankie try to find out what happened. Meanwhile Marty Sayles comes looking for who ripped him off the first time — a trail that leads straight to Johnny and Frankie.

This is the first novel where I tried writing a female lead character, and at first I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but once I got going I had fun with it, and it worked out well.

OBAAT: You hooked me with the name of the band. Waves of Nausea sounds like something Carl Hiaasen would come up with. You must have been but a child when punk cut its teeth in Vancouver. What made you pick that period and how did you research it?
DK: I wasn’t in Vancouver during early those punk days, but I was around. Jesus, I remember when Brian Jones was in the Stones. And the setting seemed perfect for a crime story because the punk scene was so raw and angry, and Vancouver was such a polite, sleepy backwater town back then, so there’s this natural tension. It was also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps, and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.

As far as research, there are some great books that helped with the details: Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, Perfect Youth by Sam Sutherland, I, Shithead and Talk-Action=Zero, both by Joe Keithley. And there was Bloodied but Unbowed, a documentary by Susanne Tabata that’s jam-packed with clips and tales from Vancouver’s early punk scene.

OBAAT: You’re a Vancouver guy, so you sit perilously close to the border with Baja Canada, or what many here refer to as the United States. With a country that close ten times the size of Canada, who do you feel is your audience? Or do you have a single reader in mind? Or just don’t give a fuck and write what you like and hope for the best?
DK: I do give a fuck, and I write the kind of stories that I would personally like to read. And they tend to be crime stories that end up on the gritty side with a little dark humor tossed in. I’ve used settings on either side of the border, so I hope the stories appeal to readers who like that type of story too. 

OBAAT: You’re one of the few people I know who diched his day job and jumped feet first into writing. Did things go about as you expected, or did you find a lot of surprises once you made the leap?
DK: When I ditched the day job about ten years ago, I wasn’t sure how far the jump was. I just knew if I was ever going to do it, I had to take that leap. And there were some surprises along the way, although most of them have been good ones — like getting that first novel accepted. Signing that deal was a rush, one which never gets old from one novel to the next. And like you, Dana, I’m blessed with a beloved spouse who is totally supportive; and without that, I might still just be talking about taking the jump.

OBAAT: You’ve said before that tone is what keeps you reading a book, by which you meant voice and pace. What is it about the tone of a book—or an author—that makes it the key element for you? We agree on this by the way. I’m just wondering how you came to that point.
DK: The voice is the personality of the writing, it’s what makes each author sound unique. It’s the way a writer combines syntax, pace, character, dialog, and all the story elements to pull the whole thing off and come up with an individual style.

When I read a book where the author’s voice resonates with me, I often find it’s hard to put it down, and that’s like magic. And when I find an author that I really connect with like that, I just want to read everything they’ve ever written, and then reread it all.

OBAAT: I know a lot of writers who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book because they’re afraid it will influence their work in progress. As someone so closely attuned to voice and style, do you cut yourself off from such potential influences, or do you not worry about that?
DK: I always read while I’m working on a novel, which for me is most of the time. If I didn’t read when I was writing I’d never get to read. I think reading something well written not only entertains but inspires me to write. 

OBAAT: The “inspires [you] to write” comment hits home with me on multiple levels. Sometimes other fiction doesn’t just inspire me, it suggests things. For example, reminders of what someone else does well can trigger a thought that I’ve become a little lazy in some way. Even more, I’ve picked up plot suggestions from other books in the nick of time. Not that I plagiarize anyone, but some trick or twist I’ve read somewhere can be adapted to my situation and become useful to me. The climax of my first Nick Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice, was inspired by the ending of the film Three Days of the Condor, though the situations are so different one could hardly call it a copy. Have you ever had that happen?
DK: I get what you mean. What inspires me can spark my own ideas. Sometimes it comes from something I read, but also from something I see or hear, anything around me really. It might send me thinking, well, what if this happens … And it’s partly why I don’t plot a story in advance. These sparks might come along when I’m working on a story, as the whole thing’s taking shape, and it might give birth to a new idea or a twist. And that’s probably better than anything I would have come up with if I just sat down and outlined the whole story before I started writing. I mean, it’s just so organic, and that’s just something that works for me.

OBAAT: When we chatted in 2014 the question arose “Does writing ever seem like work to you?” Your reply:  The only time writing ever seemed like work was when I gave myself a crash course in grammar back when I started out five years ago. I studied a half dozen grammar texts and kept a notebook which I still refer to from time to time. I thought since I was working with words and called myself a writer, I ought to at least know where to put the commas and stuff.

This put me in mind of what I consider the greatest bit of dialog ever written to describe the public’s perception of writers, Bo Catlett explaining to Chili Palmer how easy it is to write a screenplay:

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you write down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
“That’s all.”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”

(Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Page 143.)

That’s a long way to go to get to this question: Do you ever find bits of your stories showing up in your life? When I was working on Wild Bill, The Beloved Spouse™ said she could tell who that day’s POV character was by the way I talked when I came downstairs.
DK: That’s funny about your wife being able to tell the day’s POV character by the way you talk when you come downstairs. I think I get that. When I finish writing for the day, I sometimes feel like I’m in a fog, like I’m waking up from the story and coming back down to earth. 

And sometimes I stick bits of my real life in my stories — like something I experienced or just heard or read, with some fiction thrown in. I often jot little notes, like when somebody says something that I can use in a story I’m working on. Little bits drift in all the time, and I don’t want to miss them, so I write them down.

And you’re right about that scene from Get Shorty and the great dialog. What works is how simple and real it sounds. It’s a great example of how Elmore Leonard was just a master of the game.

OBAAT: You and I are both strongly influenced by Elmore Leonard, who once said he strove to get out of the way so the reader is unaware Leonard is writing at all, yet few writers are as easily identifiable as he. Why do you think that is?
DK: He just had this amazing voice, and he said if his writing sounded like writing, he rewrote it. He wanted to let the point of view of his characters come through, so he got out of their way so they could plot their own course and make their own decisions, good or bad. Doing that really let their cleverness or dumbness show through. And I think that’s one of the great lessons one can take away from Elmore Leonard.

OBAAT: Thanks for a great time, Dieter. I’m looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon in Toronto. (You will be there, right?) Till then, what’s on the agenda for you writing-wise?
DK: After Zero Avenue comes Poughkeepsie Shuffle which takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. He lands himself a job at a used-car lot and finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto, “why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.”


I won’t make it to Bouchercon this year, I’ll be on the West Coast promoting the new book, but hopefully we’ll be able to catch up at next year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. And thanks very much, Dana, for having me on One Bite at a Time. It was a lot of fun.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Upping My Game?

Maybe it was The Summer of Western Research. Or maybe it was what spurred the idea to write a Western. More likely it was some of the things TSoWR made me think of. How to build the world. What to include. What to leave out. Building a cast of characters, but now how to build the story. I’d taken some of that for granted in the past. Once my universes were set up for Nick Forte and Penns River it became easy to think of stories that fit them. This would have to be different.

Summer’s over. I’m back to work on what I hope will be the penultimate draft of the fifth Penns River novel. The vague image of the form of the sixth started to take shape during the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference a few weeks ago, but there’s no story. That’s unusual. I usually have the germ of the story first then mold it into a shape that will suit my setting and characters.

It bothered me. An itch I could scratch, but scratching didn’t provide relief. After a week or so it occurred to me I was looking for ways to become a better writer. The reason I like Nick Forte and Penns River so much is the abundance stories available in that universe. (For those who don’t know, Forte is a Chicago PI and first cousin of the main character in the Penns River novels, which take place in Western Pennsylvania. The two series cross over from time to time, most notably in Grind Joint.) The books are good, but I don’t know that they’re getting any better. I had a philosophy in my musical days that kept me practicing: You can never stay the same. You either get better, or you get worse. I didn’t feel I was getting better.

This week I interviewed John McNally for a December blog post. John is the only actual writing teacher I ever had—no, I’m not blaming him—and I’m always interested in what he has to say. It’s a great interview, as good as any that ever graced this blog. (Editor’s Note: He’s not kidding. You’re going to want to read it.) Here’s part of one response: I had a teacher who once posed this question to the class: "What's at stake for you in this?" That's probably become the single most important piece of writing advice I've received. Not what's at stake for the character but what's at stake for you?

That’s what’s missing. I know I can tell a good story and I can tell it well. What I need now is to maintain those qualities and go a little deeper. Invest more of myself in the book. The catch is I don’t know how to do it. I mean, if it were easy I’d have done it already. So I’m shifting my reading for a while, not looking for anything new, but for things from favorite authors that might mean more to me now than they did before. Some books will be re-read. Some will be books I haven’t read yet by favorite authors.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I’m not even sure I’ll know it when I see it. Maybe the best I can hope for is that cruising through my betters will rub off on me. All I know for sure is I want this next book to be something different, something better, without losing any of the things that I do well already. We’ll see how it goes. 




Monday, September 25, 2017

The Summer of Western Research


The Summer of Western Research™ is over. There are still wispy remnants floating around like steam dissipating in a breeze, but the heavy lifting is over. I found what I needed.

The primary purpose of dedicating three months of reading and viewing to Westerns was to tie together my understanding of the canon enough to see if I could write a book in the genre without embarrassing myself. I’d read very little, and, while I’ve always been a fan of Western movies, I watched them for entertainment value. My understanding of what made them work was superficial.

Among the chores I set myself was to get a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and to see how well the fiction served the reality on which it was based. The point was to see how much additional research I’d need to do justice to the project, and would it require more time than I was willing to take away from my other projects. I needed enough of a basis in fact to make the story more than a second-rate horse opera, but I didn’t want to make it my mission in life, either.

For a while I played with the idea of a fictionalized account of true events. Nothing as obvious as The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Probably not even a Wyatt Earp anecdote. A fictional story about Bat Masterson and his brothers came to mind. I dismissed it because a “brothers as lawmen” story was already strong in the popular culture from the movie Tombstone and no way did I want to compete against that, nor be too strongly influenced.

A story near the end of Six Years with the Texas Rangers by James B. Gillett showed promise as something I could run with—and I may some day—but ultimately seemed too narrow a scope. If I’m only going to write Western—also a distinct possibility—I wanted to cover some ground.

And there, my friends, was the rub. As most author friends are already aware, the trick when writing a book is rarely what to include; it’s what to leave out. Every good plot point or character development touches on something that deserves exploration itself in order to do it justice. To touch even half the bases well would take a book of Michener-esque length, and I wouldn’t read another Michener novel if you tied me to an anthill and cut off my eyelids.

Decisions got made. The book will take place in Wyoming Territory circa 1885. Two experienced lawmen will butt heads while pursuing common goals, not the least of which is setting a teenage boy on the right path. The town marshal is a father figure. The U.S. marshal is a minor celebrity, happy to tell stories of the times he spent with the Earps and Masterson and their kind. The core of the story is who wants the best for the boy, and which he follows. I’ll tell that through the evolution of a new city ostensibly created so the local ranches wouldn’t have to be so self-sufficient. Unlike Deadwood, Necessity is a planned town as much as one could be in those days, but once the blacksmith and grocer and service providers arrive the saloons and prostitutes and gamblers can’t be far behind, not so long as there are cowboys with money to be taken.

No plot yet, and only the most amorphous ideas of action scenes. I have the characters, though, and that’s the key thing I learned from this summer’s research. The core of a successful Western is the same as the core of a successful crime story. Doesn’t matter if it’s John Russell or Bat Masterson or Virgil Cole or Jimmy McNulty or Popeye Doyle. The story will come now that I know what it’s about.


Many thanks to all those who have encouraged me, and to those who provided the source materials—both fictional and non-fiction—that I drew upon. There’s no way to know how the book will turn out, but I had more fun this summer, and learned more about my subject, than I’ve ever had researching a book. It’s worth it just for that.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

2017 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, Part II

Today we resume my wrap-up of this year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference, beginning with Saturday’s after-lunch session.

The Insider’s View of the Submission and Acquisition process at Kensington press
Michaela Hamilton

I almost didn’t go, as I have a publisher, but I’m glad I did. Michaela had a metric tonne of insights about how business is conducted that were worth hearing for anyone involved. Well worth anyone’s time.


Passive Voice, Exposition, or Dark and Stormy Nights: The Nitty-Gritty of Prose
John Gilstrap, Peter Blauner, John Wren, Penny Clover Petersen (Moderator)

A truly outstanding discussion of craft, in which Penny Clover Petersen did a fine job of putting the topic out there and letting a formidable panel have at it. The highlights are too many t mention here, so I’ll limit it to several of the best.

Blauner and Gilstrap agreed that it’s best to ground exposition in the voice of a character. Filter description through the sensitivities of the character. Tell the reader as much as he needs to know, when he needs to know it.

Blauner said the initial scene should give an idea of what the book is about, which Gilstrap followed up with his idea of the greatest opening line in modern literary history: Well, I’m pretty much fucked. (From The Martian.)

Blauner likes to set a mood or increase tension through the use of ordinary things, such as a pause in an argument with the tension brought out by the sound of the ice maker dropping cubes.

Gilstrap said a subtle way to ratchet up tension is for something not to work. Example: If someone needs to sign a document he doesn’t want to sign, the pen can run out of ink.

If I could have a recording of any one panel, this might be the one.

The Difference Between Writing for the Screen and Writing for the Page
Peter Blauner

Or maybe this one. Peter started with lessons learned in undergraduate school and on, spicing things up with anecdotes from other sources from time to time. A few highlights:

  • It’s not about the best writing or telling the best story. It’s about meeting the requirements of the show.
  • The most interesting stories aren’t ripped from the headlines. They’re on Page 7.
  • Not even the best TV can replicate the intimacy of reading.
  • He takes time off from TV when he wants to write a novel. Can’t switch back and forth.

Tools in the Investigator’s Kit
Karl Braungart, David Swinson, Lanny Larcinese, Bernard Shaffer (Moderator), and me, once again lowering the level of discourse.

Hard to take notes when you’re on the panel. What I remember most, selfishly, is how good it felt when two serious business and experienced cops validated much of what I’ve based my books on. This would have been worth the price of the conference all by itself.

Keynote address by Jonathan Maberry
There’s no way I can do Maberry’s story justice in the space I have here. I’m not even gpoing to try. Suffice to say that if there was anyone in the world who could describe himself as overcoming difficult circumstances to succeed in his chosen field, it’s him. Yet, as do so many who actually have done this—especially, I’ve noticed, writers—he spent much of his talk noting how lucky he’s been that people along the way took an interest in him and helped without any expectation of return other than to do the right thing. His grandmother, a librarian, and famous writers such as Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. A humbling experience to listen to someone at the top of his profession, and a talk all those born on third who think they hit triples would do well to take to heart.

I think Friday’s bar session took a little out of some folks, as things were quitter on Saturday. I personally limited myself to Arnold Palmers for the evening. (I think the bartender assumed I was a designated driver, as he never charged me.) A wide-ranging and pleasant conversation until the final conference attendees left the bar.

Sunday, September 10
Keeping Readers up all Night
John Gilstrap, Ilene Schneider, Bill Rapp, Belinda Gordon (Moderator)

Lots of good back-and-forth on the benefits of cliffhangers, leading the reader into the next scene, or knowing the exit line is good enough by itself. John may have had the money quote of the conference here when he said, “Resolutions are boring. Questions are interesting.”

911: What’s the Emergency?
Peter Blauner, Bernard Shaffer, Michael Black, Lanny Larchinese, Denise Camacho (Moderator)

This panel also got into some fascinating tangential discussions. Everyone on it had unique perspectives on emergency calls to make this a panel that could have gone twice as long and no one would have minded.

Bernard Shaffer set the tone when he said that not only do the 911 operators have to get all the necessary information, they have techniques to work with panicky callers, and may have to give emergency instructions in the case of choking or bleeding until help arrives. They also never get closure, as they never see the outcome like the cops do. It leads to PTSD issues on their own.

Peter Blauner extolled the virtues of subtlety in creating tension, that not every such scene has to be a gun to the head. Bernard followed up with a reminder that The Sopranos was the master of this, how any little thing could set Tony off and you never knew which ones would.

Bernard also had the perfect exit line for the conference as a whole when he said that the real heroes—more than the cops and other first responders—are the victims (kinds, rape victims, elderly) who have to sit in open court a few yards away from the attacker and tell their story.


C3 is a rising event on the annual conference tour, and one that’s footprint increases a little every year. I have no financial interest in the con, so I have a clear conscience when I say writers, aspiring writers, and readers who want to get up close and personal with each other in an intimate setting should take a look into attending in 2018. I know I’ll be there. I already signed up.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 Creature, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, Part I

The 2017 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference in Columbia MD is history. The fifth C3 continued the progress of its predecessors and raised the bar even higher for next year’s. As with any event where multiple sessions are always underway, all I can do is to judge highlights from my perspective, but that’s okay. My perspective is the one I care about.

One caveat in advance: I took notes the best I could, but I am not a stenographer. Nor does my handwriting become more legible as I hurry. Apologies in advance for missed quotes, misquotes, and misattributions.

Friday September 8
Jason Bourse, Lara Croft, or Bruce Lee: Getting Fight Scenes Right
Moderated by yours truly with panelists David Swinson, Michael Black, Jonathan Maberry.

I hit the ground running with this high-profile panel. We covered plenty of tips, advice, pet peeves, dos, and don’ts, including:
  • Cops are always aware of what is behind the target when they’re thinking of shooting.
  • Many martial arts are sports, not self-defense techniques.
  • Street fights are different and tougher than a competition or practice.
  • How to look for possible weapons in any situation.
Oh, and Jonathan showed us how beat hell out of someone with a shot glass.

High Tech, Hunches, or Shoe Leather?
John Gilstrap, Bernard Shaffer, Rick Ollerman, Walter Curran (Moderator)

This panel looked not only at some techniques, but examined truths we should all think about when discussing law enforcement, whether fictional or real. John Gilstrap pointed out the author doesn’t have to know what the character knows; he just has to convince the reader that the character does. He also noted that if you took sirens off firetrucks you’d have 25% as many firefighters.

Bernard Shaffer followed up with a point that cops’ personalities are pretty much the same around the world.

Both agreed that cops, firefighters, and other first responders have to walk into the worst moments of people’s lives and bring order. Bernard added that we don’t do a very good job of keeping the wrong people out of the jobs.

Seducing Your Readers in Chapter One.
John Gilstrap, Sandra Campbell, Bill Rapp, Denise Camacho (Moderator)

A lively panel that discussed how to hook readers early, though not necessarily in the first paragraph or sentence as some would argue. The two money quotes were both Gilstrap’s, who said the key to any story is interesting people doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places, and reminded us all that the beginning of the book is not the beginning of the story, using Harry Potter as an example. The story begins with Harry’s parents and Snape at Hogwarts. The book begins substantially later.

Booze, Unemployment, or Drugs: Developing Flawed Characters
Peter Blauner, Chris Bauer, Jeff Markowitz, Eric Gardner (Moderator)

Jeff Markowitz believes there’s one thing he needs to know when creating a character. It can be just about anything, but it’s the hook on which he’ll hang the characterization.

Peter Blauner spent six months with probation officers researching his first book. They’re as much social worker as cop and get into the job to help people. Quote from a PO: First you want to help them, then you find they can’t change and you end up hating them.

Keynote address by Peter Blauner
The after-dinner address was entertaining and educational. It’s always fun to learn how top professionals’ careers end up not at all where they have begun, and to hear the twists and turns that brought them to where they are. Blauner is a rare combination, a writer who’s successful both as a novelist and in television. I believe his experiences in each taught everyone there something, regardless of their own experience level.

Well, yeah, then I went to the bar. A C3 bar hits the sweet spot. True, there aren’t as many people there as at Bouchercon, but that means you can actually talk to those you want to talk to, be heard, and you can get a frigging drink. Thanks to Bill Rapp, David and Catherine Swinson, Bernard Shaffer, Peter Blauner, Jeffery Deaver, and at least one other person whose names I’d remember had not I had that one last beer for what I think is the best discussion of craft I’ve ever had at a conference.

Saturday September 9
How to do a Great Book Signing
Austin Camacho, Jeff Markowitz, Patricia Hale (Moderator), and me.

Once again they put me to work first thing. I knew in advance this would be a lot of fun. Patricia set us up well, and Austin, Jeff, and I have been friends for a while now and had a ball playing off each other.

Bringing it all Together: An Example of Writing a Thriller
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver took his time to walk us through his 13 Rules of Writing. I’m not going through them all—you want to know, get off your ass and go to a conference—but highlights included:
1. Define your goal as a writer.
2. Understand that your mission is to tell the most emotionally engaging story you can.
3. Writing fiction is a business, not an art.
8. Re-write, re-write, re-write. (See? I said I wouldn’t tell them all.)
10. Writer’s block does not exist.
And my personal favorite:
13. Be happy.

Jeffery was informative and entertaining and made the 45 minutes fly by. It was also gratifying to see Peter Blauner, David Swinson, and other established writers in the audience, still looking to learn.

Saturday’s lunch included me interviewing David Swinson, which was a treat in every way. Many thanks to organizer Austin Camacho and to David for allowing me to share the dais with a good friend and rapidly rising writer who truly does not appreciate how good he is.


We’ll have more on this year’s conference next week.