Guest Post: Michael Nethercott

Roughly a month before her killing, I met Lorraine Cobble, the professional songcatcher, in the smoky, candlelit depths of the Café Mercutio. Actually, met is going too far. Observed. Yes, I observed her when she stormed over to our table to verbally explode all over the troubadour known as Byron Spires, a handsome young rat if ever there was one.

Those are the kickoff lines of my new novel, The Haunting Ballad. In seeking a setting for the latest entry in my mid-1950s series, I asked myself what was going on at that time that might make for a compelling backdrop to murder. I wound up latching onto the dynamic folk music revival that Haunting Ballad New Coverwas just starting to take off in ’57, the year my tale take place. In cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco, this movement overlapped with the defiant Beat scene led by such notables as Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac. Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, in particular, became an epicenter for all manner of colorful, vigorous, quirky goings-on.

And so I found my story. In the midst of that vibrant Bohemian atmosphere, a controversial songcatcher—a folk song collector—has died. Either she climbed to the roof of her apartment building and leapt or, as some believe, she was pushed. Enter my detectives, Plunkett and O’Nelligan. When I first created these fellows for my previous novel, The Séance Society, I went for an unusual spin on the conventional buddy team. Lee Plunkett is a young, reluctant private eye. He inherited the family business from his tough-guy father, and his deductive skills are somewhat on the meager side. Accordingly, he relies on his friend, gentleman sleuth Mr. O’Nelligan. Older and wiser than Lee, the Irish immigrant provides wit, logic and a sense of knightly honor to the partnership Also on hand is Lee’s “perpetual fiancée” Audrey. In the course of this case, Audrey is drawn to.one of the folk singers—the aforementioned handsome young rat—much to Lee’s dismay.

I always try to provide readers with a wide assortment of possible culprits. In this case, the songcatcher’s death leads Plunkett and O’Nelligan to a very mixed band of suspects. There’s the ex-con blues singer, the eccentric coffee house owner, the Beat princess with a penchant for nude paintings, the rowdy trio of Irish balladeers, and a former Civil War drummer boy who, at a hundred and five, prides himself on his relative robustness. And just to add a bit of supernatural spice, there’s the ill-tempered medium who labels herself a “ghost chanter”—meaning the dead teach her songs from beyond the veil.

In doing my research for this novel, I was able to stay several days with an old friend who lives in the Village. This gave me the opportunity to wander those sidewalks and cobblestoned streets and imagine a world half a century gone. At one point, I remembered an old Simon and Garfunkel song, named for the roadway I was walking down—Bleecker Street. One specific line came to me: “I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand.” For me, searching at that moment for my tale of mystery and secrets, that image seemed particularly fitting.

***

Michael Nethercott is the author of the O’Nelligan/Plunkett mystery series. His debut novel The Séance Society (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne) is followed by the newly released The Haunting Ballad. Nethercott has won The Black Orchid Novella Award (for traditional mysteries), the Vermont Playwrights Award, the Nor’easter Play Writing Contest, the Vermont Writers’ Award, and the Clauder Competition (Best Vermont Play.) He has also been a Shamus Award finalist. His tales of mystery and the supernatural have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers, Crimestalkers Casebook, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Website: www.michaelnethercott.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/MichaelNethercottAuthor

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Interview: John Carenen

Please welcome John Carenen, author of the Thomas O’Shea mysteries.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Sleeping in late (8 or so), pancakes and sausage and cappuccino for breakfast, catching up on emails and sites on the internet (Red Sox, Hawkeyes), writing for a couple-three hours, working out, pasta salad dinner with lemon meringue pie, watching a movie.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
AFGN CoverSignature phrase would be “Don’t ask the question if you can’t stand the answer.”

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I like to have it quiet.

If your latest book were chocolate what kind would it be and why?
Hershey’s Big Block with almonds. Because it has substance and staying power.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
For my debut novel, Signs of Struggle, I was prompted by wondering what I would do if I lost my family, and then it just took off. For the sequel, A Far Gone Night, I simply carried forward the protagonist in another situation he did not seek out.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I like the idea of a character who can deal directly with evil, who can write wrongs, who has a code to which he is committed. All this, and without having to wear a mask.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led him to be the person he is today?
I would have to say that Thomas O’Shea is a man of strong convictions, enjoying a strong Midwestern upbringing, fighting through great personal pain, relying on his skills and history to just make it day to day.

Describe your character as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Thomas O’Shea is a mashup of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, and Jethro Gibbs on NCIS.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
That would be Parker, Burke, David Morrell, Warren Moore III, Hemingway, and Janet Evanovich (she could punch out Hemingway).

What’s next for you?
I want to keep writing about Thomas O’Shea (working on book #3 now) and also publish a romantic comedy.

***

John Carenen, a native of Clinton, Iowa, graduated with an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop and has been writing ever since. His work has appeared in numerous popular and literary magazines, and he has been a featured columnist in newspapers in North and South Carolina. A novel, Son-up, Son-down, was published by the National Institute of Mental Health. His debut Thomas O’Shea mystery novel, Signs of Struggle, was published in October of 2012. A Far Gone Night, the long- anticipated sequel, continues the exploits of the enigmatic protagonist and the quirky characters of Rockbluff, Iowa.  John is currently an English professor at Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. He and his wife live in their cozy cottage down a quiet lane in northern Greenville, South Carolina. He is a big fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Boston Red Sox.

Interview: Ben Solomon

Please welcome Ben Solomon, author of The Hard-Boiled Detective I.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Waking up after enough sleep. A lot of coffee, a little writing. Warm sun in a blue sky, sitting out with my girlfriend, espresso in hand, watching hardboiled1the people go by.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Coffee and ankara e-juice. (I think Poe would be vaping if he was alive today.)

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
James Cagney. An amazing actor. Amazingly overlooked.
Raymond Chandler. Refined the PI genre. His writes with such simplicity and strength.
Picasso. He said it took him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child. I never tire of cubism.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Silence is the best music, but good tunes are a great speed alternative. I dig Pandora regularly for Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt and Sing Sing Sing.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Dark as noir.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I grew up watching the Warner Brothers tough guys. I fell in love with the characters and their stories, the simple, forceful narratives, the style, the patter. All of it. Could I translate that spirit onto the page? That’s the shot I wanted to take.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing? 
Right and wrong, good versus evil. Sounds pat when you set it down. But we’re a gray species struggling to find black and white in constantly shifting, blended hues. The PI hero in my stories fits the tradition of the western hero and goes all the way back to knights rough-housing with dragons. My gumshoe’s got his code of ethics and professional standards, and his clients continually squeeze his ability to live by them.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Can I sidestep this one, kind of turn it inside-out? The Hard-Boiled Detective I is the first collection from my throwback PI series of short stories. I purposely crafted the adventures as stand-alones. No back story. No ongoing subplots. No “to be continued.” The PI never ages and his wrecked car is always repaired in the next yarn. The form’s a valentine to old comics and serials and early Hollywood. Even the PI hasn’t got a name.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Call him Bogie-Marlowe-Goodwin. Hard-nosed. Cynical. Smart ass. His own man and a lone man whose head can’t be turned by a good set of gams or a stack of lettuce. He tries to keep his nose clean, fights for truth and justice, and tries to make a living…but it ain’t easy.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
That’s a trip to consider. How about Poe, Twain, Thomas Mann, Chandler, Hammett and Spillane? That could be a lively crowd once they got going, but I don’t know if I could afford the bar bill.

What’s next for you?
The next three stories in the monthly series are always due, so there’s that. And I’ve already got enough material for another three books right now. I’m thinking of pulling together the next collection for a late winter or spring release.

***

Ben Solomon grew up with Picasso, Cagney and Beethoven. Classical arts training, comic books and Hollywood’s golden age rounded out his education and provided inspiration for a lifetime. He’s worked across many disciplines, attempting to capture the heart and soul of music onto canvas, translate oils and celluloid into words. Solomon’s passion for the tough guy world of early gangster and PI flicks led to the creation of “The Hard-Boiled Detective,” a short story series starring a nameless gumshoe in a throwback era seeking truth, justice, and sometimes a living. He launched the ongoing series online in February 2013, offering three yarns a month to subscribers. His sleuth has appeared in e-zines across the web as well as the 2014 anthology The Shamus Sampler II. Another adventure is scheduled to appear in an upcoming anthology published by Fox Spirit Books. He published the first collection from the series, The Hard-Boiled Detective I, in August 2014.

Website: http://thehardboileddetective.com/
Author page on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00BH48G68
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ben.solomon.507
Twitter: https://twitter.com/BenTHBD

Losing Control – Then Regaining It

People used to teach writing by starting out with an outline, but then the sixties happened and the value of the right brain, of discovery, of losing control was understood. The argument went that an outline created too much restriction on creativity and imagination. Pre-writing, as it was called, is a wild, creative and chaotic time. The beginning of a piece is full of possibilities, of limitless potential, where we figure out what we want to say, where we imagine all the ways we could say it. Fiction writers find their voices; their characters might start talking to them. The plot structure or outlines comes after this joyous or terrifying or disheartening chaos.

Writers are encouraged to explore tangents because they might discover better ideas, something sparkling and wonderful. Earlier writers were scolded if they strayed from the outline. The process movement decried this as comparable to a strait-jacket.(Straight-jacket? You’re not supposed to worry about spelling in the pre-writing stage.)

I reveled in the new found freedom of the process movement. I banished my critic for a while. I played with language. My writing grew, my voice sharpened, my images grew richer. This worked great for poems and short stories, even essays, but when it came to finishing a novel, I was wandering in the wilderness—which is supposed to be a good thing in the process movement.

People seemed to forget the rest of the process, though: drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Those require a commitment to form at some point. Being lost became a virtue. I know a writer who has been discovering his book for forty years. That’s a bit much.

For me the answer came from Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. Also Robert McKee’s book and seminar Story. I found vessels to pour my chaos into. I outlined my novels. I even tried outlining each scene using the form from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. This is the extreme opposite of the process movement. I tried it out. I found Wordsworth was right:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;

Now I’m writing something that demands I jump off into the unknown, that I lose control, and I’m remembering the value of the process approach. I hope when the time comes I’ll find the form and then finish this novel and it will sparkle with both sides of my brain, both sides of chaos and control.

Losing 101 for Characters

My hubby is a baseball freak.  As baseball season winds down once again, to disappear for a dreaded, empty, borrrring 5 months or so of No Baseball, I started thinking about the fans.  Why do they continue to love their favorite teams, even when their teams lose? Year after year of losing, the fans keep cheering.  They keep coming back for more because they love them.  Everyone loves the losers.

I think it’s the same as in mystery writing.

Readers love to read about characters who lose.  Why is this?  “Losing” is subjective and comes in many different forms, but I’ve come up with a list of 5 reasons:

1.  Losing makes characters more sympathetic.  Take, for example, the character of Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff who loses his self-respect when he battles with his demons, including alcoholism.  He’s become one of our beloved fictional characters. Another favorite character is Dave Robicheaux, who struggles with his own damaged past while staying best friends with the even more damaged Cletus Purcel, which makes Robicheaux highly sympathetic.

2.  Losing builds suspense.  Writer-talk calls this “the black moment,” when all seems lost for our protagonist, facing the antagonist in the climax scene.  When done well, readers love it.  They are on the edge of their chairs and won’t put the book down here!

3.  Losing builds motivation.  Did I mention that many literary sleuths have damaged pasts?  When the odds are stacked against the protagonist, he or she will struggle even harder, more determined than ever to win.  They have something to prove.  They not only want to win, they MUST win.  This helps readers to believe in their reasons to solve the mystery.

4.  Losing builds character.  Jim Rockford, a pardoned convict, is always in trouble, often with the law.  But he always sticks to his principles, and this makes him a strong character.  And there’s Inspector Cramer who always loses out to Nero Wolfe in catching murderers.  Cramer helps elevate Nero Wolfe into a super character.

5.  Losing brings justice in the end.  Amateur sleuth and dry cleaner Mandy Dyer befriends Betty the Bag Lady, who helps Mandy solve the mystery, save the day, and bring justice.  Every good mystery brings justice.

Who are some characters you love to see lose?

Refusing to Lose

What do Charlotte’s Web, The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Color Purple have in common?

They’ve all been banned by someone.

You’ve probably already noticed, but September 21-27, 2014 is Banned Books Week.  It seems appropriate to mention here in light of this month’s theme of “losing”: if censorious people had their way, readers would lose the opportunity to experience a number of great and important texts.  Every time we pick up a banned book, we are reaffirming and celebrating our freedom to read as informed citizens of the world. Win!

Here are some interesting links to explore.

Books Banned For The Most Absurd Reasons Ever

The Most Ridiculous Claims Used To Challenge Classic Novels

Banned Books That Shaped America

33 Must-Read Books to Celebrate Banned Books Week

Ten Gorgeous Quotes From Banned Books

19 Banned Books If They Were G-Rated

In the comments, if you are so inclined, please tell us about your favorite banned book!

Losing Bad Habits

Bad habits can plague us in any aspect of life. They can affect our health, our relationships, and our finances. They can also affect our writing, sometimes significantly.

I have more than one bad habit that interferes with my writing. For example, I have a tendency to allow social media to distract me when I’m having trouble getting new words down on the page. Unsurprisingly, allowing myself to get distracted doesn’t make getting the words down any easier so sometimes I ban myself from the internet until I’ve met my word count goal for the day. While I haven’t lost that bad habit completely, I do at least deal with it better than I used to.

The bad habit that interferes with my writing the most, however, is my habit of comparing myself to other writers. I often find myself wondering why my words aren’t as beautiful as X’s words or why my stories aren’t as witty as Y’s stories. When I do that, I always end up feeling bad about my writing and myself. That tends to slow down my productivity and distracts me from my goals.

While I probably won’t ever completely lose that habit (although I’d like to), I am at least managing to reduce its negative impact, bit by bit. I know that I will never write like X or Y because I’m not X or Y. We all bring something different to the writing table, and that’s a good thing. After all, if we all wrote in exactly the same way, libraries and bookstores would be boring places to visit. I write the way I write because I’m me and you write the way you write because you’re you. That’s not only okay, it’s wonderful.

So these days whenever I find myself comparing my writing to that of others, I remind myself that it’s perfectly fine that I don’t write the same way as X, Y, or Z. That doesn’t always work 100 percent, but it does help me move forward and that’s what’s important.

Do you have any writing-related bad habits that you’d like to lose?