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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Odd Jobs

I was thinking today about all the various ways writers develop. not just through classes on composition and structure, but through real life experiences. I have been asked several times about my characters, whether or not they are based on real people, and I am always happy answer that yes, I know each and every one of my characters very well. Most of the time, they are amalgams of several people I've met through the years. Some are hyper versions of real people I know or have read about, enhancing certain characteristics necessary for the story.

But just exactly how did I meet these people? Well, the truth is I haven't always been a writer, or a therapist for that matter. I actually spent a lot of time working for a living, doing an odd assortment of jobs that exposed me to "the human condition", (a fancy term for saying I have kept my eyes open during my working life). And as a direct result, I have the framework for most all of the characters I use in my stories. The following are the jobs I consider my source material:
- Hanging aluminum siding with my Dad and uncle
- Teaching guitar lessons
- Page at the local library
- Babysitter (and that was while I was in college)
- Warehouseman and line stocker at an aerosol plant that made breath spray and perfume
- Warehouseman in a liquor warehouse (still have my Teamsters card)
- Limo driver (during a period of intense character development)
- Bouncer at a campus bar
- Ergonomics and Safety Consultant

I left a few things out, like collecting garbage and mowing lawns as part of the maintenance crew in college, setting up and breaking down for YMCA bingo every Sunday night for 6 months, and other glamorous positions. My point is we all have a treaure chest of characters in our past, and all of them have a story to be told, and are dying to be part of yours. So now that I've shared my odd jobs, I'd love to hear about some of yours...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Interview With Henry Gravelle: Changing Channels

Henry Gravelle is one of the most prolific and talented writers I have had the good fortune to meet in my career, and I recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions regarding his recent foray into Westerns with Doc Jacobi and his Apaloosa, Belle.

1. Henry, most readers know you for your crime and mystery writing, so it comes as a little bit of a surprise that you have a new western series featuring Doc Jacobi. Tell us a little about the good doctor?
I’m not sure about being a “good” Doctor, well, not completely. He does offer his Confederate trained doctoring to local towns lacking in medical needs, but will be the local law as well, and in however he has to.  His Appaloosa, named Bell, shares thoughts with the Doc concerning their latest predicament and is his trusty sidekick. Their relationship is what I think solidifies the characters and brings a twist to the usual western yarn.

2. What prompted the shift from the mean streets to the “wide open spaces?”
I guess it was out of boredom with crime, so I put it aside for while. I feel remaining in a Genre for long makes a writer stale. One should try every outlet available, you never know unless you dive in. I always liked westerns, having grown up with the Cartwrights, Marshal Dillon, Rowdy Yates, and the Virginian. Mix that with a fascination of History and the “real” West, and presto - Doc Jacobi.

3. You've got two books in the series so far, "Black Knife" and "Garrison Creek." What can you tell me about them?
In “Black Knife” the first in the series, the Doc saves an Indian who names the Doc “Black Knife” for his black handled scalpels. He and Bell are also involved in the tracking of two men who brutally murdered a storeowner and an Indian woman. The Doc has to find them before the local Indians begin retaliation raids against the towns.  Garrison Creek is one of the towns the Doc covers. Here he deals with swindlers selling worthless mine claims. They have also stolen a prize stallion from a wealthy rancher who is hunting them. I liked this story for the wonderful ending that is really a beginning. 

4. Will you be keeping up with the adventures of Doc Jacobi?
Yes, I have four more I work on between a short foreign language film I am planning called, “der Vordere Platz” (The Forward Place), a TV pilot for “Bogieville”, a feature film script for HOBO, and I am involved with the pre-production of a feature film, “The Igloo Boys” derived from another of my novellas  – Giddy up!

5. Lastly, "Gunner's Rift' is the latest of your stories to make it to film. Congrats, and please tell the readers all about it.
Gunner’s Rift is adapted from my novella of the same name. I co-wrote the script in pre-production now in NYC. This crime story is one of my best, hopefully to be filmed this summer. Fingers crossed.

6. Where can we check out the trailer?

The trailer for Gunner’s Rift is available on Face Book, the “Gunner’s Rift” page, my Face Book page, or on my web site at  There are also a few other videos of upcoming films and books.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Questions All Readers Ask

When a reader picks up your story, or opens the cover of your masterpiece breakout novel, they truly want to like it. They want to root for the characters, feel the setting, and be transported and entertained. There is a sort of honeymoon period that you enter into with your readers. It generally lasts for the first few paragraphs in a short story, and the first few pages in a novel. Within that short honeymoon phase, you need to answer the three questions all readers ask unconsciously as they advance through the story.

1.      Yeah? So what?

Why should the reader care what’s happening in the story? Why should I invest my time in your story and not go turn on the television? I’ve seen this thing happen in books thousands of times, so what makes this any different?

2.      Really?

That isn’t the way things happen in the real world. I don’t know anyone who would do something like that. How dumb does this guy think we all are? This writer doesn’t have a clue…I’m done with this story.

3.      What?

What’s happening here? I have no idea who’s talking to who, no idea what just happened. When did that happen? Either this guy can’t write, or I can’t read. It doesn’t matter, this isn’t worth my time.

Your job, as the teller of the tale, is to answer the questions your readers have. When they say so what, you have to give them a reason to care about the characters. When they ask really, what they need to know is that the plot is feasible and makes sense, and persuades the readers to suspend their belief system enough to allow your story to unfold. And when they ask what, it’s your job to provide a clarity that allows them to follow the dialogue and action to the next event in a way that propels the reader through the story. The ability to answer these questions will allow you to make a great first impression on your audience, and hold their attention as they trust you to deliver the story you promised them.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Excerpt - Crossing Midnight

The following is an excerpt from my current WIP, Crossing Midnight, the third in the Joe Banks Detective series. Let me know what you think.

     Joyce Daniels entered my office on a warm spring day, carrying a leather folio bag and looking every bit the part of the upwardly mobile female attorney.  She wore a very flattering navy blue skirt suit with a faint pink pinstripe, the hem of the skirt falling professionally at the knee.  The pale pink silk blouse was strategically buttoned to show the appropriate amount of cleavage, enough to distract but not wanton.  Her chestnut brown hair was done behind her in a French twist, her makeup and jewelry very professionally understated.  The combination of knee length skirt and high heels made her legs look longer.  And as legs go, they were worth looking longer.  She had an effortless sway to her walk, and I’m sure she was very effective in the courtroom, or the boardroom, or the catwalk for that matter.  She extended a well-manicured hand, and handed me her card.

     “Mr. Banks,” she said, sitting and crossing legs at the knees. “You come very highly recommended.”

“By some, I suppose,” I replied. “Not so much by others.”

     “The same could be said about me, I imagine,” she said, smiling. “But we all do the best we can, don’t we?”

     “We do. Coffee?”

     “No, thank you. Any more today and I’ll never sleep tonight.”

     “So, Ms. Daniels, who recommended me to do what, exactly?” I looked down at her card, which told me she was an immigration attorney with the firm of Hirschberg, Burns, and Daniels. I put the card down in front of me on my desk, and scooped up my coffee mug with a single swoop. I was showing off a little, sure that my smooth manner would impress.

     Clearly unimpressed, she began, “My client has heard of your reputation, and is interested in your assistance in finding her sister.” She shifted in her chair, leaning to her right and pulled a legal sized manila folder from her bag. She crossed her legs and adjusted again to a more comfortable position. The envelope stayed perched on her lap.

    "Why doesn’t your client call the police, file a missing persons report. That’s what I would do.” I had a feeling I knew why she wouldn’t, but I wanted to get confirmation.

    “As you can see, Mr. Banks, I’m an immigration attorney. I help my clients work out arrangements with the INS to obtain legal citizenship,” she said. 

    "And I’m guessing that not all of them start out with green cards, do they?”

    “Perceptive, Mr. Banks. No, not all of them are legal at first. But that’s where we come in, to assist with registration, applications, assorted red tape,” she said. 

    “And the client who asked you to see me?”

     She sighed. “Not very far along in the process, I’m afraid.”

     That meant the client was an illegal as well. “So how did your client hear of me?”

    “What if I said that was privileged information?”

     I smiled. “Then I would ask again, more politely.”

     She smiled back. “It would violate attorney client privilege.”

    “Then let me ask another way. Who does your client work for that she can hire a high-powered firm to represent her to the INS?”

    “Currently she’s employed by a local entrepreneur in a fulltime capacity in the service industry,” she said, maintaining her coy smile. It was a look that told me ‘I know something you don’t know’. Susie O’Neil used to give me that look in fourth grade. I hated that look in grammar school, and I hate it now.

    “I will need to speak to your client at sometime or another.”

    “I’m sure we can arrange that with no problem. At a later time, of course”

    “I’ll need a picture of her sister, the more recent the better.”

     She handed me the envelope on her lap. “Anything else you need, Mr. Banks?”

    “Two more things,” I told her. 

     “Your fee, I assume?”

     I nodded, and told her my rates.

    “That’s a bit more than I expected, Mr. Banks,” she said. “I suspect there’s some room to negotiate?”


    “No? Really?” She broke out her ‘I’m used to getting my way’ pout. That look might work on me once in a while from my daughter, but never from an adult.
    “Ms. Daniels,” I explained. “People hire me to do things others can’t do, won’t do, or shouldn’t do themselves. This is how I make my living, and I’m pretty good at it. If you are looking for a discounted rate, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.” I slid the envelope across the table towards her. Then I folded my hands on the desktop, smiled politely, and waited. I knew something she didn’t know.

    “Even a lawyer will cut another one a break, if the cause is right,” she replied, the pout fixed on her lips.

    “And people willing to settle are just as happy in burger joint as in a steak house. Besides, in my line of work, there’s not a lot of quid pro quo going on. My fee is my fee, Ms. Daniels.”

     She dropped her pout in the face of my obviously superior logic. Her expression changed to one of resignation. Good thing too, or another appeal to my better nature might have worked.

     “And the second thing?” she asked.

     “Who recommended me?”

     She got that smile on her face again. “I believe you know a Mr. Solomon?”


     She nodded. “He tells me you two have worked together in the past. He felt confident enough in your experience to have recommended you in the highest of terms.”

     “Huh,” I said. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, but that was nothing unusual. Often he would drop in between odd jobs, and I know he had been dating Sam. I tried to avoid being the over-protective big brother type, so as long as she was happy I never questioned their relationship.  

    “You do know him then?” she asked.

     I nodded, more in disbelief than in response. I had no idea how Solomon might be connected to this lawyer, not to mention to the case she offered me. But like the albatross to the ancient sailors, this was not a good sign. “I’m going to need a retainer for this case.”

     She smiled and reached into her purse for a checkbook. “He told me you might.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review - Silenced Cry

I last wrote about my 50 page rule, how I give every book 50 pages to capture my interest. However, every once in a while in a while, in the very back of my mind, there comes this wee soft whisper that says, “Go ahead, try that one again. You’re ready.”

I was in the middle of editing one novel, still working through another in progress, and wound up picking up a crime/mystery novel of such depth and complexity, I was too distracted to appreciate it. So, following my own advice, I put it down after the obligatory 50 pages. And then came the voice, and I have to tell you, I’m so glad I listened to it.

In the interest of full disclosure, “Silenced Cry” is the first in the Sam Harper mystery series by my friend and colleague, Marta Stephens. You who have read her many contributions here know what an extraordinary talent she is. Trust me, her novels are even better.

When Detective Sam Harper's partner, Frank Gillies, gets a tip a suspect in a high profile drug case they’ve been following is hanging out in a seedy dive bar, they hurry to apprehend him. In an instant, the bust goes sour and faster than anyone can think, Gillies and the suspect are lying on a rain-puddled street, awash in their own blood.

To prevent Harper from going off on a vendetta against the drug kingpin responsible for his partner’s death, the precinct captain transfers him from Narcotics to Homicide, trying to bury him away under a pile of cold case files. But even the new assignment doesn’t deter Harper from sticking his nose in the investigation that killed his friend and mentor. Each discovery leads to another unanswered question about Gillies' past and his connection to the criminals they were chasing.  Sam tries to move forward, but becomes irate when he's teamed with a new partner, David Mann, who hails from a notorious precinct, ripe with corruption. While not convinced of his new partner’s honesty, Harper and Mann learn to tolerate each other. Their first case calls them to a construction site to investigate remains found in a sealed up wall, a baby placed in the concrete casket shortly after birth.

The case begins to consume Harper and Mann, who dig into the past with a new found determination. Not content to let his old case die, he finds strange connections with his and Gillies' past, and soon learns there is a connection even to the dead baby in the wall. The search for answers brings the readers along for a breakneck rollercoaster ride, where nothing is as it seems, and Harper is forced to stand alone as everything he thought he knew is called into question.

The climax is among the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had at the end of a book. In the end, I broke my own rules to come back to a book and character I truly have come to admire, and an artist and wordsmith I respect and learn from every chance I get.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Excerpt - Key Lime Squeeze

The following is an excerpt from my second Joe Banks Novel, Key Lime Squeeze, available from Charles River Press. Enjoy!

I walked to the shipper’s desk and grabbed an order to fill and a hand truck. I took an order sheet, read the list of items by warehouse location, and headed for the first item to be picked. Luckily it was a full case of Scotch whiskey. I picked it off the pallet of cases, hoisted it on my shoulder, and walked over to the shipping floor.

The floor was laid out in a grid, which turned the whole process into a game of industrial bingo with liquor cases. I liked orders of whole cases; they were easy. The day warmed as it wore on. Sweat soaked my once-clean T‑shirt, and caked the dirt and dust. I finally hit a bottle order. That required individual bottles from cases and took longer since I had to go to the bottle room.

I grabbed a cardboard box and got the top off with my cutter, building dividers with the cut-off pieces. I held the order up for reference as I walked the long racks, checking the shelves for the right bottles. The racks ran three high and a good fifty yards long of open cases of everything Buffalo Wholesale kept in stock. Dusty and close back there, awash in halogen light, everybody hated the bottle orders. I was no exception. Luckily my next orders were whole-case orders, so things moved along pretty quickly for the first part of the day. I grabbed a sheet from the order pile and a two-wheeled dolly and went out to the case racks.

It was grunt work of the first order, and the heat and humidity mixed with the dust and diesel fumes in a kind of lung-crushing heaviness that left me sweaty from just breathing. The big push came from liquor stores and bars stocking up for the holiday weekend, and that had us working overtime most nights. I was well into my orders, and had a six-case load of cheap sangria wine on my dolly. I was really pushing hard, looking forward to the spot on the floor to dump my order..

Some joker threw a perfect strike with a piece of scrap wood right under the tire. The two-wheeler jolted to a stop and I tripped forward. My momentum carried me past the dolly, and I managed to roll to the side as the glass inside the cardboard cases shattered, releasing its fruity alcoholic contents. I heard the laughing, but I wasn’t quick enough to find out who it was. I got up, checked for my own breakage, and went to get the trash can full of quick-dry to clean up the mess. The stink of cheap wine hung in my nose while I worked the broom, the puddle becoming a solid wet mass of grit. I shoveled it into the dump bin and shoved the whole mess off to the side to be ready for the next victim.

I took a break at 11:30. The sweat and grime stuck to me as I downed a bottle of water. I was still aggravated at the idiot who tripped me up. All this character building was getting old fast. Break over, I pulled a bottle order for about two dozen individual bottles for a bar on the Elmwood Strip. I grabbed an empty box, a bunch of scrap cardboard, and checked my box cutter as I proceeded along the bays of open cases. One of the other guys jerked his head to the side, motioning me to follow him around the back of the racks. I nodded back, very cloak and dagger, and followed him. It was the closest thing I had had to a lead since I started. Three guys stood back there, talking amid the din.

“Hey, yo, Andy!” Jake called.

I paused before I looked up, forgetting for a moment I used my middle name for this job. Jerry Fornes, Bill Francis, and Jake Crawford waved me over. They held the most seniority in the distribution center and were next in line for driving jobs when they came open. I had talked to Jake before, just guy stuff. He was friendly enough. He reminded me of my kid brother, strong and stocky with a thick head of curly, blond hair and a dirty blond shadow of a beard. He was quick with a hand if I needed it and showed me the best ways to do the job. I liked him and hoped he wasn’t involved in the scam.

Jerry and Bill, on the other hand, were harder to read. Jerry wore a permanent scowl and held his arms crossed and his legs apart. Bill kept his hands in his back pockets with a more vacant expression, almost as if he were constantly amazed that he was hanging out with Jerry. They were all business, all union, and always passed over for the better driving jobs. They would get out sometimes, taking loaded vans to the bars or liquor stores, but nothing that paid as well as the bigger loads. I made a note that where one was, the other was pretty close by, not that there was anything wrong with that.

“Yeah, Jake. What’s up?” I asked, nodding to Jerry and Bill. They nodded back in acknowledgment.

“Nice trip, Banks?” Jerry asked, jabbing Bill in the side.

“Very smooth,” Bill added, sniggering. “No hard feelings?”

“Naw,” I said with a smile. “But you know what they say about payback.”

“You guys know each other?” Jake asked.

“We’ve seen each other around,” Bill piped up. He stood shorter, maybe 5'7", with a muscular build and close-cropped medium brown hair. He looked like the kind of guy who might have always wanted to be a cop but wasn’t tall enough to make the cut. He stuck his hand out. I shook it firmly. He introduced himself then Jerry.

“Nice to meet you guys,” I said.

Jerry Fornes stood taller than I, wiry with skinny forearms entwined by tattoos. Some of them were the work of a pro, trying to cover up the characteristic blue ink work of a jailhouse amateur. Flecks of silver salted his black hair and goatee and framed his acne-scarred cheeks and forehead.

“Jake says you’re OK,” Jerry said, his voice grating like sandpaper on asphalt.

“Opinions vary but my mother loves me,” I shot back.

“He also said you were a smart ass,” Bill said.

“Jake talks a lot, don’t he?” I said, looking at Jake, who smiled and shrugged.

“Mostly to us, which is a good thing,” Jerry said, slapping Jake on the back. “He says you told him about doing time in Alden, something to do with assault and pissing in a cop car?”

“It was late, I had too much beer, and I needed to take a leak. Seemed like the thing to do.”

“In a cop car?” Bill asked.

“The window was open. It looked like a nice, clean place.”

“What about the assault?” Jerry chimed in.

“The cop was still in the car,” I responded.

That brought a round of head shaking, and I think the phrase crazy SOB was whispered among the bunch of them.

“So what is this, meeting of the local MENSA chapter?” I asked.

“The what?” Jake asked. I was going to explain it but decided it would take too long.

“We just wanted to see what kinda guy you are,” said Bill. “Jake says you seem pretty stand-up.”

I nodded. Who was I to argue?

“We have a little business on the side,” Jerry started. “We were thinking maybe we need to bring another guy into it, if you’re interested.”

“Wait a minute. This isn’t one of those Amway or Mary Kay kinda things, is it?” I asked sarcastically. “Because I had this neighbor, see, and he was always trying to get me into . . .”

“Be serious for a second, will ya?” Jake pleaded.

“All right, guys, what’s the deal?”

Bill and Jerry looked at each other, shrugged, and turned to me.

Bill spoke first. “You think you’re pretty funny, tough guy?” Apparently he didn’t.

“OK, so I have a good sense of humor screwed up with a bad sense of timing. Your point is what? ’Cause I have to get back to work,” I said.

“Trust me, guys,” Jake piped up. “He’s the best guy to bring in.” He shot me a dirty look, like I was blowing this big opportunity.

Jerry considered the last statement and said, “We have a partnership here, a little side business like we said. We operate off the losses here at BWB, sorta like a salvage company.”

“Salvage company,” I repeated. Now we were getting somewhere.

“Yeah, like that,” said Bill, pleased to see I was catching on. “You know, with all the breakage that happens around here, it’s a shame to let the rest of the unbroken bottles in the case go in the dumpster. So we have a market for all the stuff that would just be tossed otherwise.”

“I’m surprised management here hadn’t thought of that,” I said, playing along.

“They ain’t too bright,” Jerry said, looking around. “So you want in or what?”

“Yeah, sure. I mean, all we’re really doin’ is cleanup, right?”

“You know, I think he gets it,” Jerry exclaimed. He laughed and stuck out his hand to shake mine. “Maybe he is smarter than he looks.“

Jake slapped me on the back, letting me know that I was in with the gang.

Bill looked around then turned to me. “After the shift we’ll be at the back of the warehouse, out by the old Parker trailer in the back. Know where I’m talkin’ about?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” I told him, turning to go back to work. Finally a break I could use. I stopped for a second to get a drink of lukewarm water from the fountain near the shipping floor doorway and wiped the excess off my chin.

“C’mon, you chimps, back to work!” the shipper called from the front of the pick line. “These friggin’ cases ain’t gonna move themselves.”

This was going to be a long night.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The 50 Page Rule

Oh, great, more rules. I gave a talk to a writer's group a little while ago, and presented them with this idea of the 50 page rule. I could see the eyes roll, as they were still learning to work with rulles regarding tense, and period, and genre, and character development. The last thing they wanted were more rules. Not to worry. As Captain Barbosa explains in the first Pirates of the Carribean movie, the 50 page rule is "...more what you might consider guidelines, anyway." Here are my thoughts in a nutshell. I will admit to being an average reader, and an fairly avid reader of mysteries and the like. I will give any book I start, regardless of the author, 50 pages to capture my attention and make me care about what happens to the characters. I know, it sounds a bit harsh. but please bear in mind that I hiold myself to the same standard. I have started, and pitched in the trash, any number of ideas and stories that I couldn't get up to speed in the first fifty pages.

So here are some things that I look for in the first 50 pages.

1. Introduce the hero, and if appropriate, the antagonist. I like to know who we are dealing with from the start, and in my opinion 50 pages is a good time frame to at least set up the potential conflict between them.

2. Spread out the back story, and please keep it relevant. It is a good idea to develop character by giving a little history, glimpses of personal background and the like. but unless it has something to do with the developing story, I don't much care about the recess playground experiences of the characters. And to be honest, I don't need to read all about it in the first 50 pages unless the story covers a period of years and is an integral part of the narrative.

3. I personally look for the plot to develop quickly. I want to know what the story is all about, where the tension and conflict comes from, and what events are important in the lives of the characters that brought them to this point.

My point is pacing your story to get your readers swept away in it. The best writers in the genre are able to get you to care about the characters and what they are going through within the first fifty pages. From there, if you are at all like me, you get to hang on and truly enjoy the ride.