Sisters In Crime: Guest Post from VP Noreen Cedeno

We continue celebrating the 30th Anniversary Of Sisters In Crime by posting a guest blog from The Heart Of Texas Members (a.k.a. HotSinc) with it’s current vice president Noreen Cedeno, who gives a candid look at the group events open to the public that occur on our BookPeople third floor every second Sunday of the month.

Sisters in Crime, NOT a Group of Female Ex-convicts

Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Who are Sisters in Crime and what do we do?

Once a visitor inquired at our meeting: Is this a meeting for female ex-convicts?

Uhhmm, no. We are writers and readers of crime fiction. All writers and readers of crime fiction are welcome to join. Our meetings are open to the public. And yes, male members are welcome to join and be our siblings in crime.

Another visitor wrote to me after a meeting: “I was a bit surprised to find not a women’s political meeting but a mixed gathering for a talk on hypnotism!!”

Well, yes, our meetings are not women-only political rallies. We are here to support female crime writers in a variety of practical ways, but we don’t discriminate, so everyone is welcome at our meetings.

One way we help our writers improve their craft is by widening their knowledge base. Writers can’t research a topic that they don’t know exists, have never heard of, or can’t imagine. Conversely, some topics are so involved, attempting research leads to outdated or overwhelming amounts of information. Therefore, at some of our meetings, we strive to help crime writers improve their craft by succinctly presenting topics that may be useful in a story.

So yes, you might walk into a meeting on hypnosis presented by a psychologist. We’ve had presentations on poisons, drones, and what different caliber bullets do to the human body. We’ve had a JAG lawyer introduce us to the military justice system. We’ve had guest speakers from just about every law enforcement group we can find.

Accuracy and authenticity are vital in writing! Nothing annoys a reader faster than an author getting details wrong. The Austin Police Department Bomb Squad was particularly nice, bringing not only their dog, Dax, but also “det cord” and C-4 for us to pass around during their presentation. It’s easier to write accurately about something you’ve touched with your own hands or seen with your own eyes. Hearing about law enforcement directly from the officers and agents who work in the field exposes us to the language and look, and the concerns and personalities of the men and women who serve as first responders. Those details are invaluable to any crime writer trying to create authentic characters and accurate depictions of how law enforcement agents handle crime.

As I mentioned before, we welcome crime fiction readers too! Sisters in Crime is open to both male and female readers of crime fiction. Therefore, we try to present subjects our non-writing members will enjoy hearing about. Luckily, most crime fiction readers also enjoy hearing presentations by law enforcement officers.

We occasionally have authors as guest speakers too. These authors may be locally known, nationally known, or internationally known. Last year, through an arrangement with the national Sisters in Crime organization, we had Rhys Bowen come and speak about her writing. We will have local authors who are members read selections of their work at our October 8th celebration of Sisters in Crime’s Anniversary.
 

Other things we offer writers:

Sometimes we have presentations specifically geared toward our writers. Those topics have included everything from marketing strategies to producing audiobooks.

We provide a place for authors to meet each other and discuss problems or share news. Authors have found critique partners and fellowship at our meetings. Our local newsletter includes industry news, writing tips, and information about opportunities to submit work for publication.

Sisters in Crime helps writers succeed by providing them opportunities to present their work. We showcase our local members work at festivals and conferences. Here in Austin, that means we will have a table at the Texas Book Festival in November. I’m only discussing the local chapter benefits. Opportunities abound at the national level as well. I’ve sent books to large conferences that I otherwise would not have had any access to or ability to attend because Sisters in Crime solicited members’ work for the conferences. Sisters in Crime works to ensure their members have opportunities that they might not otherwise have. In fact, the benefits available at the national level would be a whole other blog post.

So, if you like to write or read crime fiction, mysteries, police procedurals, cozies, thrillers, suspense, hardboilednoir, amateur sleuths, or private detectives, you are welcome to come to a Sisters in Crime meeting, usually held on the second Sunday of the month at Book People at 2:15 in the afternoon on the third floor.  You don’t even need to be a female ex-convict to come!

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Q&A with C.M. Wendelboe

C.M. Wendelboe’s three novels featuring Lakota FBI agent Manny Tanno has made him a fresh voice in crime fiction. With Hunting The Five Point Killer, he introduces us to Arn Anderson, a former Denver police detective, whose job as consultant for a local television station takes him to his childhood home in Cheyenne, dealing with his past as well as the murders of several lawmen. I caught up with Mr. Wendelboe to talk about character, place, and his books.

MysteryPeople Scott Montgomery: Like Manny in Death Along The Spirit Road, you have Arn return to his boyhood home. What draws you as a writer for this situation?

C.M. Wendelboe: As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go back home to your family, your childhood…back home to the escapes of time and memory.” Manny couldn’t force himself to go back home, and neither could Arn, though they both did, both returning to their boyhood homes by circumstances they fought to control. But in the end, circumstances neither resisted as much as they could have. As if each man secretly wished to return to their past. We all would like to go back home again, even if we publicly deny it. We’d all like that second chance, that opportunity to right wrongs, to take that fork in the road we should have taken back in the day. But which is too late for us now.

So Arn, like Manny, does the best he can in the present to do those things that he ought to have done back in the day. I like the idea of my characters confronting their own shortcomings, reflecting on how things might have turned out differently if only they had taken the other fork in the road. But they go on with their lives, knowing they can do little about those decisions that have ultimately forged them into who they are as people. Maybe I’m just suspicious of seemingly-perfect people.

MPS: What did using Cheyenne Wyoming as a location provide for you?

CMW: I wanted to set my contemporary series in a town brimming with western heritage, and Cheyenne definitely fills that requirement. Folks here represent what people think of the West:  still opening doors for others, men still tipping their hat to ladies, drivers pulling over to help a motorist stranded along the road. Cheyenne’s western history dates back to regional Army forts housing soldiers garrisoned to fight Indians, and the Union Pacific making Cheyenne “Hell on Wheels”, and road agents preying on hapless victims. And, as often as not, doing the dangle of death from a stout piece of hemp courtesy of a vigilance committee. But it’s also a place where many men and women go armed, and are prepared to use their weapon when they perceive a threat. Arn has to go about his investigations knowing at any time he may encounter someone armed who takes offence to sticking his nose into their business. So Cheyenne won out over many other town in the Rocky Mountain region.

MPS: While a decent guy, Arn is pretty damaged. What does a wounded
character allow you to do?

CMW: Hollywood is populated with beautiful people: they live in lovely mansions and drive exotic cars and verily shine with charm when out in public. People are drawn to that. But not as drawn to them as when we learn their perfect lives aren’t as wonderful as we thought. When we discover their flaws and their weaknesses, suddenly they are more like us. Human. Arn is a wounded character, which naturally makes him more interesting. We learn that his perfect life as a Denver Homicide Detective is marred by the premature death of his wife. And when Arn moves back to Cheyenne to take a consulting job with the local television station, we discover that the ghosts of his abusive father’s past and an apathetic mother long dead still haunts him. He’s just more interesting with these memories. More interesting with flaws and a painful past.

MPS: Several moments you write from the killer’s perspective. How did you approach those scenes?

CMW: I was a lawman for nearly forty years, and worked the street my entire career. This allowed me to come into direct contact with all manner of criminal. Occasionally, I would interview post-crime suspects that were genuinely sorry for what they had done. Most, though—including most murderers—felt no remorse, and deflected blame for what they had done upon their victim/s. Those interviews helped shape what direction I intended taking my story.

Rarely have I read tales spoken from a killer’s viewpoint, and had no guidance on how to go about it. So, used my knowledge of murderers to get into that role. When I needed to write those passages from the murderers’ point of view, it would take me some preparation to become the suspect’s voice. I would think back to this interview I had conducted, or that suspect telling me things about his crimes, and that’s when the words would begin to flow. These passages from the killer’s POV are short—two pages at the most and many shorter—because it was difficult for me to continue thinking like a sociopath or a psychotic. Perhaps I’ll get the courage one day to write an entire novel from such a point of view.

MPS: I’ve noticed all the Wyoming crime writers populate their books with characters that have some form of a sense of humor. Why do you think that’s an inherent trait in the people who live there?

CMW: When I was a just a young policeman working an off-reservation town in South Dakota, I was assigned with other local officers to respond to Custer, South Dakota, where the town had been taken over by Indian militants. As I sat huddled with other officers from around the state nervously waiting to advance on the rioters, an older deputy sheriff beside me began cracking jokes. I thought he was nuts to be joking at such a serious time. But soon I and those within earshot of the man began to relax, began feeling as if we would be able to perform our job there. The taut tension we’d experienced subsided.

As I write about lawmen—both active duty and retired—I know that an integral part of their world is humor. Much has been written about a policeman’s graveside humor and how disrespectful it is. Not so. Law officers frequently find things amusing at the worst possible times because that’s how they cope with the day-to-day nastiness they have to work around. Call it a defense mechanism for the mind. No one wants to be high on the roller coaster all day. Everyone wants to come down for a breather before the next hill is climbed.

MPS: You have two period books coming out soon, Backed To The Wall and Marshall and the Moonshiner. What can you tell us about those?

CMW: Backed to the Wall was fun to write. I’ve been an avid reader of period westerns since I was a kid, and wrote and published my first short stories in that genre. Writing book-length tales allows me to develop my character in ways that the shorts didn’t. One of those was man tracking. We’re led to believe that all western men were competent trackers. But that wasn’t the case. Like today, those folks who were track-savvy back in the “Old West” were much sought after. There are countless times where tracks were lost, false trails followed, bad men and renegade Indians alike allowed to make their getaway because those following had no track awareness. Not so my man Tucker Ashley. His claim to fame is that he’s an astute tracker, working for the Army when he’s not battling lice in a local lockup.

The story opens with Tucker fighting a hangover in such a jail when he learns a Lakota raiding party has abducted his love interest from her mercantile while Tucker was locked up. He makes his escape, and is hot after the Indians when an old enemy—Deputy Marshal Aurand Forrester—gets on his trail. Between Aurand’s fast gun and his gnarly posse and the Indians trying to kill him to get Tucker off their track, it is doubtful if he’ll survive either one in his pursuit of his woman.

Marshal and the Moonshiner is set during the Great Depression. It begins when U. S. Marshal Nelson Lane is called to the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming to assist local tribal police with a homicide. When Nelson arrives, he learns two neighboring ranchers had got into an altercation. One shot the other to death before fleeing to relatives in Oklahoma.

This was a time when the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI) was in its infancy, and could spare no one to investigate crimes out west. Nelson must travel to Oklahoma, far out of his element in a large town. The local sheriff assigns Nelson his junior deputy, a Cheyenne Indian woman names Maris Red Hat, as Nelson’s liaison and partner in search of the fugitive. Soon, they’re caught up in local corruption in their pursuit of the murderer from Wyoming. If Nelson can keep himself and Maris from being killed, he might just find the murderer and bring him back to Wyoming for justice.

My Head is a Choir and All the Singers are Singing Different Songs: MysteryPeople Q&A with Joe Ide

 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Joe Ide burst onto the mystery scene last year with his debut Isaiah Quintabe mystery, IQ, a Holmesian puzzler set in South Central LA. A bunch of us quickly blazed our way through IQ – with its well-rounded characters, stylish action sequences, clever heists, weaponized pit bulls, and foggy-minded celebrities, what’s not to love?

Now Ide is back with the second in the series, Righteousin which IQ and his reluctant side-kick Dodson go on a wild road trip to Vegas to try and rescue a deep-in-debt DJ and her doofus boyfriend after they mess with forces beyond their clearance level. IQ wants a chance to rescue his brother’s ex-fiancee’s wayward little sister, while Dodson just wants a break from home before his new baby is born, but both get more than they bargained for as gangs, gamblers and grim-faced traffickers all converge on the lucky-in-love, unlucky-in-gambling Vegas couple and their LA protectors. Interwoven are new developments in Isaiah’s understanding of his brother’s untimely death. 

Joe Ide mixes his choreographed action sequences with meditations on love, isolation, and friendship, for a surprisingly moving story that we’ve chosen as our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October. Thanks to Joe Ide and the folks at Mulholland, we got a chance to ask a few questions about the book and the series.

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: I loved the madcap adventure that Isaiah and Dodson take to Vegas. What was your inspiration for the Vegas setting and their road trip through the sleaziest of cities? What kind of research did you do for the Vegas parts?

Joe Ide: I wanted to take Isaiah out of the hood and put him someplace where he have to deal with new situations and different kinds of characters. The more he’s a fish out of water, the more obstacles he has to overcome. There’s that old adage, no conflict, no story. Putting it in another location is a challenge for me. How to use the enviroment to advance the story. Embarrassingly, I did very little research on Vegas. For me ( like Isaiah) the town is “Too bright, too loud, too colossal.” Also like Isaiah, I bought a dog for 99cents and it was as big as a cat. The visuals I took from photographs and videos. As an aside, my Mom loved Vegas. She enjoyed being up at two in the morning, going anywhere she wanted. She had secret pockets in her pants to keep to her money away safe and foil the pickpockets.

MO: Dodson’s romance is unlikely, but the story of his courtship makes his successful wooing of his practical girlfriend believable. Which came first in the writing process, Dodson’s part in Isaiah’s adventure, or his new romance?

JI: I knew Dodson would be involved. He’s Isaiah’s Dr. Watson after all. But I like characters with full emotional lives. I want them to deal with the same problems we all deal with – like relationships. Giving him a romance seemed natural and the book is structured in a way that I that I could write about it.

MO: Both IQ and Righteous initially destabilize the reader’s expectations with two seemingly disparate plots, but then bring them together at the end in just the right way. Do you have extensive outlines before you even start writing? How do you tie it all together?

JI: I start with vaguest idea for a story and then I ask myself questions: Where does this take place? Who are the clients? Who are the bad guys? What do the bad guys want? What are the major problems Isaiah has to confront? And so on, and while I’m figuring these things out I’m making vague, random notes. About a character’s looks or a possible scene or piece of dialogue or whatever occurs to me. Think of it as a pointillist painting. I’m putting dots on the canvas and after I have lots and lots of them, the canvas starts to take shape, and at a certain point, I have to decide, is this a book or isn’t it? I’ve thrown a few away and started over, but when I have the makings of a book, I start writing as fast as I can. If I don’t know something I skip it and keep going until I have the creakiest skeleton of a story with missing limbs. But when I’m done, I have a structure on which I can build. Subplots occur to me as I’m writing and become more dots until they’re little canvases themselves and I see ways to knit them together, things I didn’t know when I started. I’m always thinking ahead, asking myself, where will this go? How will it be resolved? I’m making the process seem much more linear than it is. My head is a choir and all the singers are singing different songs. It takes them a long time before they’re on the singing the same tune. I recommend my methods to no one.

MO: I’ve heard there’s plans for a TV series in the making (which I will absolutely watch and hopefully binge watch!). What stage is the planning at? Who are your ideal casting choices?

The TV world moves at its own pace. I don’t know what they’re actually doing and where they are in the process. Every time a production makes an advance, another compromise is made with the original material. It’s too aggrevating and time consuming to worry about that stuff. I’ll stick to writing books.

MO: So I love Sherlock Holmes, and I love that you’re inspired by the stories, but not beholden to them. In particular, at the end of Righteous (and I promise there are no spoilers in this question) Isaiah is helped not just by his grasp of logic, but by (it seems to me) perfectly timed random fate. How much do you draw on the Sherlock canon, and how much do you like to change things up?

I’m not conscious of drawing on Sherlock. His influence is mixed in with a dozens, hundreds of others, including my own life experience. I don’t really decide how much of this and how much that. It just comes out that way. That sounds simplistic but it’s not. It’s the result of everything that’s ever happened to me put in a blender until it’s all unrecognizable and poured on to the pages.

MO: You have a love of South Central LA drawn from your experiences growing up in the area – tell us about your setting. Which came first to you when you were developing the series, the character or the area?

Chicken and the egg. As you say, I grew up in the hood and I loved Sherlock Holmes. I read all fifty six stories and four novels multiple times. When I decided to write a book there was never any question it would be Sherlock in the Hood.

MO: You have such perfectly choreographed shootouts and fight scenes – how do you plan out the action in your books?

It helps that I was a screenwriter. A set piece in a movie is structured the same as a set piece in a book. It has three acts. Act one lays out the premise, the situation. Act two is the action playing itself out, escalating in intensity until the end of the act where all seems lost for the good guys. In Act three, the good guys rise again and justice wins the day. Maybe. Having that as a base, I start my planning by thinking about outcomes. What do I want happen during the sequence? How do I want it to end? Then I identify the players and what each of them wants. I pick a location that serves these purposes and then I play chess with the pieces. If so and so does this, what’s so and so’s response? How does so and so get from A to B? What’s the most surprising, creative way for these things to happen? Sometimes I draw annotated diagrams. It’s about being specific and patient. Again, the process isn’t close to being that logical or organized.

MO: Obviously Arthur Conan Doyle is one of your writing inspirations, but you seem to draw from a diverse array of genres, and your voice is all your own – tell us about your influences.

All the writers you’d expect. Walter Moseley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, Chester Himes, John LeCarre (spy novels are just crime novels in another country) James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Octavia Butler and on and on and on. Other kinds of books as well. Chris Cleaves, Donna Tart, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Janet Fitch, Amor Towles, William Styron, Cormac McCarthy – also on and on and on and on. I like storytellers and interesting writing.

MO: Poor Sherlock. His love life is in shambles. Will he ever find love?

Yes, he will! But he will tormented, frightened and flummoxed, (like anybody else that’s in love).

MO: What’s next for the series? It seems like Isaiah’s resolved some of the lingering questions about his brother’s death and is ready for the bigtime in terms of investigations.

My original plan was for the characters to grow from book to book. In IQ, Isaiah is very isolated because of a tremendous burden of guilt. At the end of the book, he sets the guilt aside. In Righteous, he realizes he’s lonely and makes his first awkward attempts at reaching out. In IQ, Dodson learns that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. In Righteous, he has to deal with fatherhood. IQ3 will continue that growth. Of course, there will always be new bad guys and adventures but I don’t know as Isaiah ever take on really big investigations, ones of say, national importance. There are many other writers, like LeCarre, who do that way better than I could ever hope to. Isaiah’s cases will remain in the middle in terms of size. That’s where he (and I) feel most comfortable.

You can find copies of Righteous on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Q&A with Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown found critical acclaim when it came out last year, winning fans in crime fiction and “the literary set” alike. His second novel of the first black officers serving in a Jim Crow, Atlanta, proves their is much to mine in the subject. Our Matthew Turbeville caught up with Mr. Mullen to talk about, research, race, and writing.

Matthew Turbeville: I’ve been reading your novels for a while, but was especially intrigued by your Darktown series.  Can you tell me a little about what inspired these novels?

Thomas Mullen: A few years ago I was reading a book on Atlanta history called Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz. It’s a big book that traces 150 years of ATL via two prominent families, one black and one white. In the middle is a four-page passage that covers the circumstances around the 1948 hiring of Atlanta’s first eight African-American police officers, and, most interesting to me, the insulting Jim Crow restrictions they operated under: they could only patrol “colored neighborhoods,” they only worked the night shift, they could not drive squad cars, and they could not set foot in the police headquarters and instead had to operate their own makeshift precinct in the basement of a YMCA in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood (where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up). Last but not least, they could not arrest white people. If, God forbid, they ever saw a white person committing a crime, they were supposed to call in white officers to help. But the idea was that since this was a time of such strict segregation, and they were patrolling black neighborhoods, they shouldn’t even see any white folks, let alone white lawbreakers.

Image result for thomas mullenThe fiction writer in me immediately asked, well, what if? Life tends not to confine itself to such strictly drawn lines, and I found myself imagining the plot of Darktown¸ in which two of the black rookies do in fact come upon a white criminal, and begin to suspect a white cop helped him murder a young black woman.

Because this was 1948, I felt pretty early on that this had series potential. Darktown is set in this historically overlooked period after the end of World War II but before the Cold War and before the first key victories of the Civil Rights movement. So I found myself thinking of the different stories I could tell if I followed some of these characters over the next 15-20 years and traced how they, the city, the South, and the country changed as a result of the Civil Rights movement—and the white backlash to the movement.

Other inspiration came from the many great books in which writers take the ingredients of the classic hard-boiled murder mystery and do something unexpected and odd with it. Three of my favorite recent novels are Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless BrooklynColson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; I love how they’re able to do something fun and novel with a classic form this way. And when I learned about the offensive, insane Jim Crow restrictions that Atlanta’s first black officers had to work under, I felt I had the ingredients for my own twist on classic noir.

Finally, I’m a big fan of what I’ve dubbed “totalitarian noir,” or murder mysteries that up the moral ante by placing their hero inside a corrupt, totalitarian regime. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels in Russia, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series in Nazi Germany, Olen Steinhauer’s series in an unnamed Warsaw Pact country. It occurred to me that I could write my own totalitarian noir right in my own town, because the South was every bit a totalitarian nation if you were black.

MT: I imagine it’s really difficult to write about an issue you can’t directly place yourself in.  How did you prepare to write about Black police officers—from the mid-twentieth century? What research did you have to do to fit yourself into their shoes?

TM: It’s definitely challenging, and it helps that I’d written other historical novels and so had a sense of where and how to start. I’m not the kind of writer who writes autobiographical fiction, where the protagonists are lightly fictionalized versions of myself. Because my books have been set in different times and different places, I’ve always had to work hard to create characters who had very different daily experiences than me, different hopes and dreams and obstacles, different worldviews, different concepts of what was and wasn’t possible in their world.

Research is always a big part of that, to determine what people were dealing with back then, what were the issues of the day, the debate and divisions, the jobs and roles people had, the dreams they could reasonably aspire to.

To learn more about Atlanta’s first black cops and their white counterparts, I found newspaper articles from ’48 and ’50 that offered some great context, but not too much in terms of what life was really like for the black officers, probably because they were hesitant to speak too candidly to the press back then. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s journalists ran some retrospective stories and talked to some of the initial eight African-American officers, most of whom were still living and some of whom were still cops. In those pieces, they didn’t hold back about their mistreatment from white cops and judges. Much of my books’ details about how they did their jobs came from those pieces, and from some recorded interviews two of them gave in the late ‘70s for an oral history project.

Finally, I read lots and lots of books. I’m more of a secondary-source guy, so rather than spending too much time in the archives (which I do some of), I would rather let the real historians do that, then I go and read the big books they write. I have bookshelves full of histories of Atlanta, midcentury America, African-American history, the Civil Rights Era, policing, biographies and memoirs, fiction from that time period, etc. I also read a lot of books about more contemporary issues with race and policing, because I want to make sure I don’t write anything that’s informed by misconceptions about the more recent past, like the war on drugs and our current over-incarceration of African-Americans.

MT: You tend to write largely from historical points-of-view.  What about history—and not the present day—is alluring to you? Do you think mysteries set in different times and places speak more to an audience, or at least differently?

TM: I never set out to be a “historical novelist” — my third book was contemporary, and I do have other contemporary ideas — but yeah, here I am with 5 books now, and 4 were set in the past. It’s a good question I don’t fully know the answer to. Maybe it’s because there’s so much amazing material, so many incredible stories, in our country’s past. Maybe it’s because it gives me an unusual lens through which I, and the reader, can view issues that remain important today, that we’ve also dealt with in the past under different circumstances, and therefore we can make unexpected, nuanced observations about then and now. Maybe it’s to avoid being another writer who just writes autobiographical fiction about myself and life in 2017. I honestly don’t know the answer.

MT: What is your process like when preparing to write a book? How were you able to release two books in the Darktown series so close together?

TM: As noted, I do a ton of research. But what I most love is writing, and I really can’t take doing a huge chunk of research at once, so I parcel it out. With a new idea, I’m likely to do some research first, just enough so I have an understanding of the time period, then I start writing. I do this because I need to know whether I can really write in that time, with these characters, or not; the last thing I’d want to do is spend 6 months on research only to sit down later and find I just can’t find the voice to write it. So once I’ve done some research, and then some writing, and I’m feeling good about the project, I might stop writing and do some more research, to really dive into the era. Then I’ll write again in earnest, occasionally stopping to do some supplemental research if I find there’s a specific topic I realize I need to know more about.

As for the new book coming out only a year later, that was a happy accident. I started writing Lightning Men about a month after finishing the first polished draft of Darktown, before my agent had even read Darktown. She’s normally a speedy reader but she had a full plate at that time, so by the time she read Darktown and had some edits for me, I’d already written a good 100 pages of the new one. Which meant that, by the time we finalized Darktown and had offers from publishers, I already had a great head start on the second book.

I continue to do lots of research, as there’s really no end to the important works I could be reading about this time period and these topics. Even if I ever felt that I’d caught up, each year brings the publication of several new, important works on the Civil Rights era, race and policing, etc. (For example, two of the nonfiction books that were just nominated for the National Book Award were about Emmet Till and about race and housing, so I’ve read them.) I’m pretty much always in the middle of a book I’m reading for research, and I’m finding that the writing goes a bit faster now that I have a solid knowledge of the era, as well as a pre-established setting and characters.

MT: Darktown seems especially necessary in today’s world—a world filled with hatred, racism, and bigotry.  What would you say Darktown and Lightning Men’s essential messages are? What do you hope readers gather from these books?

TM: It is extremely unfortunate, and enraging, and disappointing, and heart-breaking, and maddening, that we are still having some of the same debates. As I type this, on Monday 9/25/17, the main story is about whether African-American athletes have the right to protest, something that was a hot topic in the 1968 Olympics when some athletes held raised fists during the anthem (one of those athletes was Tommie Smith, a name I sort of borrowed in my books). It shows that these issues run deep, and in my opinion issues of race and power cut to the core of America, what it is today and what it’s always been, which is why I wanted to write the books in the first place, when I started the project in 2012. As for the messages, I’ll let the readers make those judgments themselves. If nothing else, I hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of our recent past as well as our present, and a more empathetic mindset about people different from themselves.

MT: In relation to the time period, what was the most difficult aspect of writing Darktown and Lightning Men?

TM: Hey, it’s all hard. And it’s all fun. Writing a novel is never easy, and I take what I do extremely seriously. I know that I’m handling material that can be sensitive, and that I have a responsibility to get it right. I feel extremely fortunate that I get to imagine stories for a living, and I want to make the most of that opportunity. I hope that the books not only entertain people but also illuminate areas of the world that they might not have thought about, illuminate elements of human nature that bind us together.

MT: One of the quotes that opens Lightning Men is concerning The Birth of a Nation, a film which grossly fictionalizes history and inspires the KKK to this day.  What do you think a book like Lightning Men will do for society? Do you think you are playing a role in correcting history?

TM: It feels a tad grandiose to wonder about my books’ impact. I’m just glad that they exist and that people are reading them, and I hope more readers come to the series as I continue it.

And I don’t know that fiction can “correct history,” but I can work hard to present things accurately and honestly. That means avoiding nostalgia, that means refusing to whitewash the past. I recently observed that writing historical fiction is equal parts keepin’ it real and makin’ shit up. The making up is the fiction part, the fact that I’m taking invented characters through an invented plot. But it only works if the surrounding world is real: if it’s historically accurate, if it’s realistic as opposed to nostalgic and sentimental, and if the characters act and think in ways that feel human and alive. I’m not trying to correct history, only to respect it in its fullness, all its glory and ugliness, tragedies and triumphs. With the series, I want to pay homage to overlooked heroes (the Southern African Americans who were willing to serve as policemen despite all that they had to overcome in their Jim Crow cities) and their undeniable triumphs, while never losing sight of all the defeats and tragedies along the way.

MysteryPeople Q&A with J. M. Gulvin

J. M. Gulvin’s new novel, The Long Countis one of our picks for October. Gulvin was kind enough to answer a few questions about this new series featuring Texas Ranger John Q.

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery 

 

MysteryPeople Scott: Family is an element in both of your protagonists’ lives. What did you want to explore in with the idea?

J.M. Gulvin: You’re right, family is very important for this first novel and the rest of the series. My intention is to create as real a feel to the stories as possible so it’s important to me that all the characters are rounded enough that they could actually have existed. Family, dependents, loved ones and responsibility are all part of that. It’s been my experience during thirty years of travelling the west, that family is extremely important. I believe it is still an integral part of the make-up of the people that we’ve lost just little of in Europe and the UK. I wanted to be true to my understanding of the American spirit, particularly given the fact that I am not a native and am coming at these books from a different perspective altogether.

I don’t know anyone in the US (friends or business acquaintances) who don’t appreciate the fact that their nearest and dearest both present and past are an intrinsic part of their identity. Familial ties bind so much more tightly than any shared ideology and I find this whole sense of belonging fascinating. As a mechanism within the plot, it helps to establish context and character history. I learned very early that family isn’t just blood ties, however, it’s a bond that extends to friends, neighbors, and members of a given community. When I first went to Idaho in 1997, I saw how the 1534 inhabitants of a town called Bellevue, made sure that the rent and medical bills were paid for a man named Jeff Farrow, who had been involved in a snow mobile accident and took six months to recover. That sense of responsibility and purpose, of shared community and familial care, is exemplified in the personal response of ordinary Texans to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey. I’ve tried to identify with this (in some small way) in the relationships forged between John Q and his friends and neighbors on the ranch in Wilbarger County.

MPS: You are a Brit who now lives in and writes about the American West. What draws you to it?

JMG: I used to own a cabin on a lake in southern Idaho but had to sell it for various reasons. As soon as I’m able I plan to buy something in Texas or New Mexico. As you so rightly point out I am drawn to the west and always have been. I grew up watching westerns and something about the pioneering spirit, the can-do – have-to, approach to life really struck a chord with me. The first book l I ever read was “Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims” and from that moment I was transfixed. I started to read western novels and then later Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and various true-life accounts of mountain men who lived with Native Americans. A lot later I worked on a ranch close to the cabin where Vardis Fisher wrote “Mountain Man”, which was partial inspiration for the Robert Redford/Sidney Pollack movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. Prior to that I discovered Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

That pioneering spirit I mention is still very much in evidence today and I see it in my American friends. I love it, the lack of cynicism, the zest for life; when it’s coupled with the landscape of Texas or New Mexico it just seems to draw me. What’s interesting is that I find writing about the west at my house in Wales UK, to be more inspirational than if I was on the ground. As you’ll know better than me the Texas I’ve tried to create is a landscape from fifty years ago so it’s very different now and I find the physical distance allows my imagination to overcome some of the hurdles of reality.

MPS: What I like about John Q is that he has a sensitive side and a less self assured swagger that you see in most portrayals of Texas Rangers. How did you go about constructing him?

JMG: Man, I could wax lyrical about this one. How long have we got? Seriously, I’ve been working on John Q as a character since 2009. Initially he was loosely based on Ed Cantrell a Wyoming cop in the 1970’s who was actually tried and acquitted of murder after outdrawing another cop Michael Rosa, in a Rock Springs prowl car. Cantrell was the inspiration but gradually John Q morphed into a much younger man and a Texas Ranger. I made the real life Ranger Frank Hamer (Bonnie & Clyde) his god-father deliberately to engender a sense of veracity. Ironically. I had no idea that there was an expression in the US “John Q public”, in the UK we say “Joe Public” and even my New York agent didn’t pick up on the connection. I really like the connotation, inadvertent as it is, because I’ve tried to make Quarrie “a man of the people”.

Having spent so much time developing both him and his relationships, I feel that I know him very well and hopefully that comes across. I gave him the background I did, his son James, Pious and all the folks on the ranch etc to make him as true to life as I could. Yes, he’s tough, and he’s good with firearms because I wanted that old west lawman feel; honesty, a moral compass and overriding sense of integrity. I wanted an unequivocal hero. No navel gazing, a “what you see is what you get” kind of Texan, but also someone who displays the level of humanity you picked up on. I know a lot of cops, both in the US and in the UK, from FBI agents, to county sheriffs, city detectives etc and – I think – that the nature of the job is such that one has to be able to see all sides of the story.

I chose Frank Hamer to be John Q’s godfather for a very specific reason. When WWII broke out Hamer wrote King George VI of England offering a personal bodyguard of retired Rangers in case the Nazis rolled into London. As a Brit, I was hugely flattered by that, and perhaps writing about Texas Rangers is some sort of homage. I don’t know why but there’s something about them as a law enforcement agency that just hits a note with me. That old west toughness, the ability to work alone in inhospitable terrain and extreme circumstances. It’s an important element of the book given how they evolved as a police service. It’s said they’ve been shaped by the enemies they’ve faced and that had to be part of the narrative, but it was vital John Q did not become a caricature hence the sensitivity you pointed out and his ability to empathise with not only victims but those he’s hunting. Hopefully it creates the kind of real-life feel that I mentioned above and it will be an enduring feature of this series.

MPS: How did you decide the period to be the early seventies?

JMG: I chose the 1960’s because at that time there was still much of the old west feel about the Rangers though they were evolving into the modern outfit they are today, and I was able to set that juxtaposition against a backdrop of massive social change in the United States. On a simpler note, though, I’m no lover of technology and computer deduction. I long for the silences that John Q can experience when he’s alone in his car with no cell phone and out of radio contact. One of the things that’s struck me since embarking on this journey however, is how so much of what’s happening today mirrors the time I’m writing about. Someone at the Edinburgh Book Festival pointed out the prescience of my narrative, and I think they have a point given the current political situation.

MPS: One thing that struck me about the book was it’s mood. Are you aware of creating that when you’re writing or is it simply the result of your writing?

JMG: That’s a really interesting observation. The mood is as important as the voice I use and the way I try to create a sense of rhythm within the narrative. To that end I do work on it, yes. It’s not subconscious, it’s a skill I’ve been trying to hone for a very long time in an attempt to bring as much originality to the page as I can. A lot of people pick up on it and again, the fact that I’m not American, and am coming at this from a slightly different perspective, might be part of why it is so apparent. Hopefully, that’s a good thing and the more I write the character the more that sense of mood will develop.

MPS: From what I can tell, this is your first crime novel. Did you draw from any other writers in the genre?

JMG: Actually, It’s not my first crime novel. I’ve written a few under Jeff Gulvin, all of which are available in the US through Open Road Media. This is the first in this series however, and the first under JM Gulvin. The truth is I don’t read a lot of crime and never have. In my youth, I read the masters Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, etc because I wanted to be the best craftsman I could. They are my influences along with the genius of McCarthy. Rather than reading crime, I watch a lot on TV as some of the current US series are astounding. Steven Zaillian’s “THE NIGHT OF” for example, blew my mind for feel, atmosphere and subtlety of suggestion, and I devour anything Dennis Lehane is involved with. After a long day at my desk I find it easier to soak up something visual rather than sit down and read.

You can find copies of Gulvin’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Sisters in Crime Turns 30: Guest Post from David Ciambrone

sisters in crime logo

Even though the main goal of Sisters In Crime is to advance female crime fiction authors, it has a large number of male authors who benefit from the group. One member, David Ciambrone, is this week’s guest blogger to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary. Below, David gives advise to male writers writing female leads; something his Sisters experience has helped him in.

Male Authors Writing Female Heroines – How Can They Do It?  

Guest Post by David Ciambrone

I have gotten asked, if I as a male who writes female characters, have any advice for writers on how to create believable female characters while avoiding clichés.

My first reply is:

Write all your characters as human beings in all their complexity, especially the female characters.

That’s a good answer, although rarely easy to pull off.

A man writing male heroes is not too hard. But for guys to write believable female characters it can get tricky. First, men, for the most part, do not understand women very well. Second, females can be unpredictable and moody, and, at the same time strong, outgoing, affectionate, intelligent and sometimes sexy. Your female character can run a business, be a doctor or lawyer or a librarian and/or be a housewife and mother and a detective all at the same time. She has dreams and ambition. In most of my novels the lead characters are women. They are the main character or the semi-main characters.

So, after writing multiple mystery novels, here is my advice, such as it is:

Have a good critique partner who is a woman and willing to give you her womanly opinion. Listen and take her advice.

Know your audience. If the story will tend to be read by women, then you must try and make your female character believable to them. Give her qualities the women will like and maybe aspire to or wish they had. If your intended audience is female, make sure to include plenty of personal pronouns—“I,” “you” and “we”—and descriptive terms.

If you want to appeal to a mixed audience, watch out for instances in which the language skews toward your own gender. Make revisions to include a balance of wording that caters to the other sex as well.

Put enough women in the story so that they can talk to each other.

Have female characters in the plot as strong, intelligent, energetic participants, whether as primary or secondary or tertiary characters in both public and private roles within the story.

Have your female characters exist for themselves, not merely as passive adjuncts whose sole function is to serve the males.

Get to know your female characters in depth. Have a clear understanding of who they are and the role they play in the story.  They will write themselves.

In real life, women, act and react in a multiplicity of ways to the circumstances in which they find themselves. The female character in your story should, too. Make her believable. Give her and appropriate background, dreams, and ambition in her personal life.

Write stories that move beyond the idea of gender being the most crucial thing we know about someone or the root of their behavior. Being female in a “man’s world” can have its advantages. She has natural “weapons” she can use against male characters. Use them. Your heroine can act as brave, tough, intelligent, dynamic, or as daring as a man, then slip into a very feminine role. She can do this to gain whatever she wants or needs in the story. But above all, remember…she is a WOMAN. Do NOT sell your female characters short.

Remember, men like to accomplish things and women tend to focus on relationships. BUT, keeping that in mind, blur this stereotype and have your female character go after something with the drive and vigor of a man. In real life women do this all the time.

Because the author is male, it is highly recommended that he get to know multiple women, listen to them, engage with them and learn, as best he can, how they tick. I have melded a couple different women I know into each of my female characters. Each of the “real women” brought something to the fictional character that blended into a believable, standout, strong, loving, daring, spunky, engaging, female character.

David Ciambrone is an award winning, best selling author who has published 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He has also written columns for newspapers and business journals. Dave is a member of Sisters in Crime, (he is a sister with a Y chromosome). Latest of his Virginia Davies Quilt Mystery series released is Suspicious Threads.  www.davidciambrone.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Adam Sternbergh

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

I’ve often described Adam Sternberg’s The Blinds as if Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction was Twin Peaks. The Blinds is a small Texas town that contains former criminals whose memories have been erased and and who’ve been given new names. The law is Sheriff Calvin Cooper who has to solve the town’s first murder that occurs after another resident commits suicide. I talked with Mr. Sternberg about building this world.

MysteryPeople Scott: The Blinds is such a unique novel. How did the idea for it come about?

Adam Sternbergh: The Blinds was the culmination of three different ongoing obsessions of mine: 1) The idea of the Witness Protection Program, and how you go about starting a new life after a life of crime; 2) the notion of insular communities that live by their own moral code, whether it’s the Western town of Deadwood or the Branch Davidian compound at Waco; and 3) the ongoing research into changing, or even deleting, certain memories for victims of trauma — and what kind of memories each of us would choose to change, or erase, if we could.

MPS: How did you tackle the challenge of building the town of the Blinds?

AS: In thinking about a community of this size — less than 100 people — that’s cut off from the world, I had to decide: What’s important to its survival? Would the town have a sheriff? A mayor? A library? A dance hall? What kind of things can people live without, and what is absolutely essential? A big part of the allure of the Blinds to me is this fantasy of being completely unplugged — in a sense, they’re free of all the online obligations and distractions that many of us (me, anyway) struggle with everyday.

MPS: Was there something you always had to be aware of as a writer when dealing with this community?

AS: I spent a lot of time thinking about what a community in which every member essentially arrives with little or no past would be built on. For example, what do people talk about? How are relationships formed? But I realized it’s not so different from many situations we find ourselves in, when we have to find common ground with people of various, or even mysterious, backgrounds. There’s mystery to not knowing someone’s backstory, but a kind of freedom to — you can be whoever you want to be, or whoever you can convince people you are.

MPS: Each member of the Blinds has to pick the name of a movie star and one of a vice president to come up with. Do you have favorite one you came up with for a character?

AS: There’s a minor character named Errol Colfax — a combination of Errol Flynn and Schuyler Colfax, our 17th Vice-President — and I really loved that name when I came up with it. To me, “Errol Colfax” was the proof of concept for the whole naming idea. Movie star names have a natural charismatic aura to them — whether its Humphrey or Errol or Marilyn — and the Vice President names tend to have a whiff of historical formality, like Colfax or Burr or Calhoun. So I really loved that combination —Bette Burr or Orson Calhoun.

MPS: While the book is literary in nature, it also has a style and tone that I associate with film and music as well. Are you inspired by media outside of novels?

AS: Absolutely. The book was definitely inspired by the look and feel of films from Unforgiven to No Country for Old Men. And when I was writing, for a stretch I listened exclusively to the Jonny Greenwood soundtrack for There Will Be Blood, which evoked a feeling I found really inspiring. I’m very interested in cultural mythologies — the rules and tropes and familiar elements that appear in different genres, and why they are resonant — and possibly no genre is more rich in that kind of mythology than the Western, whether it’s the old John Wayne films or the more modern, more bloody iterations.

MPS: I hope this doesn’t become a question you’re going to get sick of, but I am curious. What name would you pick for yourself in The Blinds and do you have any idea of what your crime would be?

AS: My publisher, Ecco, rather ingeniously put together a website, welcometotheblinds.com, that will automatically generate a Blinds name for visitors. On my first visit, playing around with it, I got the name Harry Harlow after a minute or so — a combination of Harry Truman and Jean Harlow — and I immediately wished I’d used that name somewhere in the book. Who knows? Maybe Harry Harlow will turn up in the Blinds in some future continuation of the story. As to my crime: We all have things we regret, or choices we wish we’d made differently. To me, the most appealing thing about a place like the Blinds is leaving those regrets behind — which is not an option we have in regular life.

You can find copies of The Blinds on our shelves and via bookpeople.com