Define Your Characters with Snappy Dialogue and A Keen Sense of Place: A Guest Blog by Jim Nesbitt

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Author, Jim Nesbitt

I’m a Chandler junkie. As in Raymond Chandler. Always have been, always will be.

One of the founding fathers of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, Chandler’s at the head of a semi-long list of writers who taught me a lot about the trade before I ever tried my hand at it.

Most of them are dead. Which means they won’t be calling me out for hanging their names on what I’m about to say about character and dialogue. Not even Chandler, although his cantankerous spirit might just give it a go.

What I learned from Chandler was the importance of character and dialogue over plot. Chandler was, more or less, a ‘pantster,’ the term the modern wags use for writers who tend to make it up as they go along rather than outline elaborate plots and character sketches before they start telling a story.

One of his famous quotes, usually taken out of context: “When in doubt, have a man

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Raymond Chandler

come through the door with a gun in his hand.” This line appears in one of the two published versions of his classic essay on the need for realism in crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, which is also a diatribe against the set-piece cozy and amateur sleuth who is an ace at deductive logic.

Chandler dropped this line while explaining the need for constant action in the short crime fiction stories of the pulp magazines where he learned his new trade. But when you line up that quote with the body of Chandler’s work, it takes on a broader meaning that represents the second primary lesson I learned from him — use action and concrete descriptions of place to drive a story largely told through character and dialogue.

Character and dialogue are intertwined. You show a character’s traits — you define them — through dialogue, either snappy exchanges with other characters or the internal dialogue they have with themselves.

Dialogue between characters is a dance where they reveal themselves by what they do and don’t say and the way they say it or stay silent. Internal dialogue is a character dancing in the dark with themselves, but the same revelations occur. Or should occur. If they don’t, a writer has blown a golden opportunity to define a character and give the story life, depth and context.

I’ll give two examples from my latest work, The Best Lousy Choice: An Ed Earl Burch Novel. My main character, Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch, is a cashiered vice and homicide detective. He’s also a terminal smartass who doesn’t know when to shut up. I don’t tell you that — I show it through dialogue with a crooked West Texas sheriff looking to frame him for the murder of a prominent local rancher who died in a suspicious barn fire.

“You run the ID on those shooters I blew away? Bet they’re either freelance talent or connected to some other drug lord slimeball. Looks like you got a little turf war going on. Or maybe Dirt Cheap crossed his cousin. Just guesses on my part. But either way, it ain’t a good look for an anti-drug crusader like you, Sheriff.”

Burch looked at Willingham. The anger that colored his face and flashed in his eyes was gone. He wore the stone mask of a poker player and his voice was a husky whisper as he asked a quiet question.

“You a barnburner, son?”

Burch was flummoxed. No smartass quips, no barbed conjecture. All he had as a comeback was the brass to meet the sheriff’s stare head-on and not flinch.

“Let me put it to you this way — are you a man who could set another man’s barn on fire, burn up his horses, burn up the man himself? Are you that kind of murderin’ sumbitch, a fire worshiper, a man-burner?”

“Jesus, Sheriff — you need to make up your mind what you want to frame me for. First you have me as a gun for hire workin’ for this Malo Garza fella, now you got me as the second coming of Ben Quick’s daddy in The Long Hot Summer. I’m way too ugly for any frame job that needs me to look like Paul Newman.”

“Ugly will do, my friend, if I find out you did the crime.”

Burch also has frequent conversations with his dead partner, Wynn Moore. Burch blames himself for getting his partner killed while they were tracking a narco and murder suspect in Dallas years ago when he still carried a gold shield.

These conversations are real as a dime to Burch and show both the guilt that still gnaws at him and the left-handed relief he’s found when Moore appears. They also reveal the simple and brutal approach to police work Burch learned from Moore.

He felt shaky from his session with Bustamante and fished out the bottle of Percodan and a dented nickel flask from his bag. He shook out a pill, broke it in half and popped it on his tongue, washing it down with a long pull of Maker’s. It wasn’t quite noon but he needed a Percodan cocktail to get rid of the jangles and keep the demons in their holes.

He stood under the fan in his boxers, smoking another Lucky until he felt the half-hit and e-less whisky take hold, then carried the Colt into the bathroom and placed it on the porcelain top of the toilet tank. He reached into the shower stall to turn on the water and wait until it was as hot as he could stand it, then stepped into the scalding spray.

You ain’t right, sport model. Poppin’ them pills, sluggin’ whiskey and it ain’t hardly noon yet.

Keeps me sane, Wynn. On track and movin’ down the trail instead of curled up in a corner screamin’ about demons and snakes with wings.

Turnin’ into a goddam junkie and day drinker, you ask me.

I ain’t askin’.

Never could talk sense to you, sport model. One more thing, then I’ll shut my yap. You fly the black flag on this one. Take that rulebook we usta have to work around and chuck it right out the fuckin’ window. You sabe?

Rulebook already chucked, Wynn. No quarter. No prisoners. No judge and jury.

Good deal, sport model.

Chandler’s novels and short stories are packed with detailed physical descriptions of the rooms, places and streetscapes where his stories take place.

These “concrete descriptions” help create a Los Angeles that is so real that it becomes a character unto itself. Far more than mere backdrop, these descriptions of place define the characters that live and move through this landscape. So much so that it’s hard to imagine Marlowe anywhere else but L.A. Or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux without New Iberia and New Orleans.

This struck a chord with me, largely because of my upbringing and lineage. I come from a long line of North Carolina hillbilly storytellers. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins told stories of our kin and the mountains my ancestors called home, creating a keen sense of family and place in my sister and me, even though we grew up in suburban Philadelphia.

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The Best Lousy Choice (2019)

As a journalist, I was always fascinated with how the land shaped the people who lived there, even as they struggled to make a living from it. I also fell in love with the harsh beauty of West Texas, with stark mountain ranges that look like the bones of the earth on display for any and all to see.

It seemed like the perfect place for the bloody tales of revenge and redemption I was trying to tell in my Ed Earl Burch novels, a land so forbiddingly beautiful and demanding that it shapes the characters in my books and gives resonance to their dialogue.

It’s another way of revealing who your characters are. And showing instead of telling is the essence of the writer’s trade.


Jim Nesbitt is the author of three hard-boiled crime thrillers set in Texas and northern Mexico that feature Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered vice and homicide detective. His latest, The Best Lousy Choice, is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.

Alana Meike Interviews Joyce Carol Oates on Editing ‘Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery & Crime By Women Writers’

9781617757624_e3553In Cutting Edge: New Stories Of Mystery And Crime by Women Writers, celebrated author Joyce Carol Oates got several of the top women in fiction to write a noir story. Authors include, Margret Atwood, Steph Cha, and S.J. Rozan. Our Meike Alana caught up with Oates to talk about the project.

Meike Alana: What was the origin story of this collection? Where did the idea originate and what was the original concept?

Joyce Carol Oates: I have done two previous anthologies for Johnny Temple at Akashic Books, New Jersey Noir and Prison, Noir.  I had suggested to Johnny that I would like to assemble a collection titled Female Noir, but Johnny thought that the Noir series had to remain geographically specific rather than thematically.  I am not sure that there was an “origin” story— the original concept was my own.

 MA: As these contributions came back to you, did your concept morph into something different? In other words, did the finished collection turn out the way you anticipated or did it end up being quite different?
JCO: We had no particular concept when I began to read submissions other than an intention to select unusual and well-written stories.  I am not interested in polemics or any sort of propaganda, though the #MeToo movement is certainly a sympathetic one, and may have overlapped with the writing of some of these stories.
MA: The collection is organized into 3 categories: Their Bodies, Our Selves; A Doom of One’s Own; and Manslaying. Was this the original intent, or did the contributions naturally fall into these categorizations?

JCO: Dividing into sections is a feature of the Noir anthologies at Akashic Books.  The divisions are suggestive rather than precise, though in this case the final section is accurately titled.

MA: What was the process for collecting the individual contributions?

JCO: We contacted likely writers, who in turn introduced us to others, and these to others.  This is the usual way anthologies are organized.  I have many writer friends whom I invited to contribute but, unfortunately, not all could accept.

MA: What challenges did you face in putting these stories together?

JCO: The major challenge is always to acquire the very best work that one can; the reality is that a number of writers will have to decline because they are simply over-committed to other projects.  Among these were Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, and Laura Lippman.   I would have liked to include one more graphic artist, but this did not work out.

MA: Was there an author whose work particularly surprised or excited you?

JCO: I can’t single out any individual work.  Each is unique in its own way.  But I was particularly happy to be able to include work by a young woman artist, Laurel Hausler, who should be better known.  Her elegantly lurid cover and unsettling illustrations are  just right for the book.

MA: Your introduction makes the case that ‘the great works of American noir have been by men,” but this collection of female noir demonstrates that the genre is undergoing a shift and indeed there is great variety in the female noir perspective. Can you share your thoughts about the future of the genre?

JCO: The future of the genre?— this is a massive question.  really, I cannot predict.

MA: You’ve been writing crime fiction for a number of years. What changes in the genre have been most exciting to you?

JCO: The mystery/crime genre is immense, and grows more complicated and all-inclusive each year.  Regional, ethnic, idiosyncratic— there are no boundaries.

MA: What/who have you read recently that excited you?

JCO: I’ve been admiring the richly researched historical “thrillers” of David Morrell; I am currently reading Inspector of the Dead.  Quite a tour de force, to create a mystery in which Thomas de Quincy is a primary figure!

MA: Any work you would like to recommend to our readers?
JCO: I am an avid reader of Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses, as well as the Best American Mystery Stories yearly anthologies, for which my friend Otto Penzler is the series editor.
MA: Can you tell us what your current project is?
JCO: I have just completed a long family novel titled Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.  (title from a beautiful short poem of Whitman.)  it is, in part, a crime novel, since the entire action of the novel is set into motion by an act of police brutality that occurs within the first two or three pages.
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Cutting Edge is available for purchase at BookPeople in-store and online now.

Meike Alana is a part-time bookseller and full-time Mystery/Thriller enthusiast. You can find her recommendations in-store.

December’s Murder In the Afternoon Book Club Meeting

9781616149949_50198The Murder In The Afternoon book club continues the holiday tradition with a Mark Pryor book. His series character Hugo Marston, head of security for the U.S. embassy in Paris has been one of the most engaging creations in the last decade. The Button Man puts him in another time and place.
We go back to Hugo’s early days when he was stationed in London, killing time by looking into The Ripper Murders. His search in the past leads to him discovering a body of a young actress in the present. She and her movie star boyfriend are suspects in a hit and run that killed a farmer. The death leads to the actor being put in the embassy’s protective custody. When he gives them the slip, Hugo, with the help of an FBI agent and Merlyn, who he meets for the first time, follow his trail to a small village containing a conspiracy and a few more murders.
Mark is an engaging writer, so the discussion is well worth making time for. We will be meeting Monday, December 16th.

3 Picks for December

December’s picks range from the welcome return of a great character, the debut of two new ones, and an anthology that looks at the relationship between fiction and film.

Sweazy brings back Sonny Burton and former Texas Ranger dealing with an arm he lost in a gunfight with Bonnie and Clyde. Here he helps his ranger son track down an escaped convict he knows all too well. Sweazy creates a uniques place and time for two human yet very lethal men to square off.
9781944520861Alibi For A Dead Man by Wilson Toney
Bug and Roche, two operatives for The National Detective Agency, investigate a car accident where the driver was dead before the crash. The mystery leads to the hunt for loot from a bank heist, some shootouts, and a lot of quips in the fun throwback to the light P.I. novel.
9780525563884The Big Book Of Reel Murders edited by Otto Penzler
A mammoth collection of short crime stories, covering every subgenre, that inspired films. Penzler provides interesting commentary on both film and fiction to go along with each tale. A must for the many crime fiction lovers who are also film buffs.

These titles are available for purchase and pre-order from BookPeople in-store and online now.

“It’s a Time Full of Family, Friends, and Emotional Turmoil” : Scott Butki Interviews Trish Harnetiaux

9781501199905_d85caTrish Harnetiaux, for her first novel, has written a good thriller full of good plot twists that involves the classic Christmas event: The White Elephant gift exchange.

The novel, which reminds the reader of Clue and Big Little Lies, is partly based on a real life scandal in 1976 in which Claudine Longet was accused of the murder of Olympic skier, Spider Sabich. 

The novel is set in Aspen, Colorado, with the office holiday party for the real estate firm owned by Henry Calhoun and his wife Claudine. While the white elephant exchange is always a competitive event it’s even more wild and intense this year since Zara, the hottest young pop star out of Hollywood, is in town and Claudine is determined to sell her the getaway home of her dreams.

The first big twist comes when a strange gift shows up in the mix: an antique cowboy statue. The gift makes sense only to Henry and Claudine as the statue is the weapon Henry used to commit a murder years ago, a murder that helped start his company and a murder that Claudine helped cover up. 

The Brooklyn-based author’s plays How to Get into BuildingsWelcome to the White Room, and If You Can Get to Buffalo have been published by Samuel French. Her latest play Tin Cat Shoes premiered at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks and she is currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction. 


Scott Butki: How did this story come about?

Trish Harnetiaux: There just aren’t enough thrillers set at Christmas. I mean how many times can you watch Die Hard in December to get a holiday drama fix? It’s a time full of family, friends, and emotional turmoil – the perfect setting for secrets to slip. In a way, hasn’t it always just been a matter of time before an old murder is unearthed at a White Elephant Christmas party?

SB: Why did you decide to play with the idea of a white elephant gift exchange?

TH: The element of surprise plus the pure ruthlessness that the game encourages is a perfect hot pot of tension. I’m a big believer that the truth of who someone really is at the core is only revealed in times of stress and crisis. And, yes, Christmas.

SB: Did you research the real life murder mystery in Aspen, the case of Claudine Longet and Spider Sabich, as part of preparing for the book?

TH: Coming across the Claudine Longet case opened up a whole new part of the book for me. A true crime obsession. Sinking into the history of Aspen as this blend of both luxury destination and also a place that was built on a certain wild-west-frontier-type-of-vibe made it strangely unique. The lawlessness, or sense of that, the idea of Hunter S. Thompson and other gonzo-recluse-types being drawn to the same place as the Hollywood elite, again, another perfect storm of conflict. My dad was the person who mentioned the Longet/Sabich murder to me when I told him the book was set in Aspen. So, I guess I have to get him a really good Christmas present.

SB: What other research did you do?

TH: I’d been, but my husband and I went back when I was working on the book. So lots of walking around in the snow, observing, talking to people, a sleigh ride, and of course a ton of reading. The timeline of Aspen is fascinating – from silver rush to crash to the ski craze, celeb gentrification, and of course fashion coming to town.

SB: This is a very plot driven book with lots of great twists. Did you outline it out or see where the story took you?

TH: Yes, outline, outline, outline. Which is different than how I typically write plays. The plotting here was done at the start – but there were a few moments where something changed based on the momentum of the moment. It’s those realizations that are so fun when you’re working on a longer project like this, and it’s important to listen to them since they are not over thought.

SB: Did you base the fictional celebrity Zara on someone or a combination of people?

TH: I couldn’t point to one person as inspiration, but she was definitely based on the trope of a child star turned young celebrity that no one gives enough credit to for actually having the stuff. Being a hands-on musical visionary who is deeply involved in her own work who takes it seriously — while at the same time enjoying the luxury that fame and money brings her. I think she’s complicated because she comes in such a dismissible package. I like to think that is changing. It’s so dumb – and is built on what is a fading regime of men thinking young women have nothing to contribute. Which isn’t true at all. Young women will save us all.

SB: Which of the characters is most like you?

TH: This is like when I asked my teenage nieces if they liked Instagram or Snapchat better. They were like: that is an impossible question to answer. Aren’t we all so many people? What is most me is the structure. I’m interested in structure and reveal and how that works and figuring out what it takes to create momentum.

SB: Was it difficult transitioning from writing plays to this novel?

TH: I wouldn’t call it a transition as much as an addition. They are totally different. Writing a book like this takes a fierce editor and I would say mine, Sean Manning, must have gotten tired of writing the word digressive all over the first few drafts. Everything is, and should be different when writing a play or a novel. The tricks are all different.

SB: The press release for the book mentions that you are “currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction.” Can you say more about this? We are talking about The Breakfast Club movie?

TH: Yes, this is exactly correct. I’ve been working on this play for a of couple years now and it’s premiering in the spring at JACK in Brooklyn. It’s actually a deep meditation on failure. The play follows the story of the first, uncredited, two actors who were cast in the movie The Breakfast Club, but were then fired on the first day of filming when they were filming the scene where they – Bender and Brian – go to remove their jackets at the same time. It then follows their lives, forever intertwined, as they try their best to move on and be someone.

SB: What are you working on next?

TH: I just directed a short film that we’re in post for called I Don’t Think You’d Understand, am writing a 20 minute Christmas Carol play-let for families to read on Christmas Eve, working on a new, new play called California that basically only takes place in Washington and Oregon and follows a family on a disintegrating road trip, and getting Bender and Brian into fighting shape for this spring. Oh, and in early, early stages of a new fiction project.

But really, now? Fighting the good fight to get White Elephant to the right readers. Like you. It’s an escape book, I want people to escape.


You can purchase White Elephant from BookPeople in-store and online now.

MysteryPeople’s December Pick of the Month

9781608092451_79262No genre can tap into melancholy like the private eye novel. From Marlowe and Archer, to Matt Scudder and Moe Prager, there is a poetic sadness the detective can wear as easily as a trenchcoat and fedora. One of the best sad sack eyes of late is Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill, and in Lost Tomorrows, he is delivered to an emotionally messy past.
When hearing the death of his former partner, Krista Laudingham, Cahill returns to his old police beat in San Diego after leaving the force when accused of killing his wife. Her sister, Leah, doesn’t believe her death was accidental and hires Rick to look into it. Now Rick finds himself in the place of his darkest past, up against cops who think he is a killer and some who could be the killer.
Coyle does a reverse on Rick’s usual dilemma. In many of the books, Cahill is dealing with the past to clear his name or his father’s of something they were innocent of. Here, the past comes at him with something he can not deny. He has to find forgiveness as well as justice, something that is difficult to get when the women he wronged are dead.
Cahill’s search for the killer and absolution are entwined in his relationship with Leah. They are two wounded people who could either heal or further hurt the other. The dance they have with each other throughout the book subtle, poignant, and even harrowing at times.
Cahill may solve the case at the end of Lost Tomorrows and may have found a path to mending his heart, though we know the journey is far from over. Someday, maybe he’ll walk alone down those mean streets, but be a little less lonely.

Lost Tomorrows is available to pre-order from BookPeople now.