Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Corner Mailbox

Guest Blog by Nancy Boyarsky

I’m insatiably curious about people and the things that go on around me. Sometimes I see things on my morning walks, for example, that strike me as odd and pique my interest. Below is an example, but let me preface my tale with a caveat. To the police, our lower Westwood neighborhood is one of the safest in L.A.—although it might sound not so safe to someone living, for example, in a small-town in the Midwest.

Lately, we’ve had been a scattering of home burglaries and a few street robberies. But most criminals working the area have taken to stealing from cars. The latest wrinkle in car-related crime involves night-time theft of auto parts, like tires and airbags, sometimes catalytic converters. For those of us with homes so old that our garages can’t accommodate modern vehicles, cars have to be left in the driveway or on the street. So we lock them up and hope for the best.

But I’m talking about another type of crime. I witnessed it on a day when I set out to mail a letter. Although the mailbox is only a block away, I drove because it was my first stop in a round of errands.

A young man, late teens to early 20s, was at the mailbox. He was wearing a T-shirt and khakis, and he looked clean-cut. Besides, it was mid-day. Broad daylight. No alarm bells went off in my head.

As I drew closer to the mailbox, I noticed something odd. Instead of depositing mail, he was pulling out envelopes, a few at a time. He had a wire that looked as if it had been fashioned from a coat hanger. He was using it to poke in the box and snag mail.

When I realized what was going on, I decided not to stop. Instead, I circled the block and came back, parking a few houses away from the mailbox. I pulled out my cell phone and called 911. After the usual “what-is-your-emergency?” greeting, I explained that I was, at that moment, witnessing a crime. Even as I said this, the young man had stopped rifling in the mailbox. He’d stepped back and was now scanning the street, as if he expected someone to pick him up.

The 911 operator told me that a crime involving mail wasn’t an emergency, but she would transfer me to someone who would know what to do. I went through several connections, each one seemed puzzled by my complaint. Finally, the last person I spoke to said that a mailbox wasn’t within the preview of the LAPD; it was the property of the U.S. Postal Service, and thereby a federal matter. He gave me a phone number so I could report the problem to postal service.

Meanwhile, the young man, apparently giving up on his ride, was looking around, consulting his watch. He didn’t see me, or if he did, he didn’t give any indication.

I dialed the number for the USPS. Ten minutes or more had passed since I’d first spotted the ongoing crime. But the young man was still on the corner, and I’m not one to give up easily.

When I reached the number I’d been given, I realized it was the general information line for the postal service. The automated voice asked me which language I spoke. In some frustration, I pressed “one” for English. Then it asked if I wanted to track a package, get post office information, ask for re delivery. I was encouraged to sign up for more information at myuspc.com. Finally, I was asked to say in a few words what I wanted.

The young man had started to walk away, taking his time, not in any great hurry.

I kept at it, trying to make the automated call system understand that I wanted to report a mailbox break-in. I’d just about exhausted synonyms for “break-in” when a live person came on the line. By now the perpetrator had disappeared. The man at the postal service listened to my story, then asked for the postal box’s location. He said he’d report it to the local supervisor for my area. I realized that he was somewhere else, maybe in Des Moines, or even Washington, D.C.

Later, I contacted my neighborhood association and learned that people had been complaining that they were unable to use their local mailboxes because someone had put a sticky substance in the mailing mechanism, so envelopes got stuck and did not actually drop into the mailbox. Obviously, this was a more sophisticated approach than using a bent coat hanger.

The next issue of the neighborhood association’s newsletter gave a list of sticky mailboxes. Ours was on the list, even though glue had never been the problem.

With that, I decided that my career as a crime fighter was over. At least for me, writing fiction about crime is more rewarding.

Nancy Boyarsky’s latest mystery, Liar Liar, featuring private eye Nicole Graves, can be purchased at BookPeople.

Manning Wolfe on Lawyers, Sex & Golf

Local author Manning Wolfe joins us Sunday, June 24th, at 2pm to talk with Jay Brandon and our Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery about legal thrillers. She wrote a post for us about how her book, Green Fees, came to be.

A few years ago, I read an article about naked women on a golf course serving up sex at each hole to golfers depending on their score (no puns intended). A news crew got wind of the event, flew over the course, and videotaped the action. Ironically, the charity event was for the Make a Wish Foundation. The play-by-play has gone viral on social media and been the basis of many golf jokes over the years.

Green Fees: A Merit Bridges Legal Thriller Cover ImageShortly after that incident, a young golf professional was referred to my law office asking for legal representation. He wanted to extricate himself from a usurious contract with a promoter, who was a de-facto loan shark. Under the agreement he was obligated to pay half of his earnings to the money lender. In addition, the pro’s hands were scarred from a childhood accident, and discomforting to look at. Surprisingly, they functioned well and purportedly enhanced his golf game.

About that same time, I met Barbara Puett, who became my golf instructor. Barbara was a protégé of Harvey Penick, both of Austin. He wrote Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and she matched it with alittle green book, Golf Etiquette. I don’t know a single golfer who doesn’t own the Penick book, if not both. 

The three concepts, lawyers, sex, and golf merged together somehow in my misguided mind, and a legal thriller, Green Fees, was conceived.

In Green Fees, young golf pro Mark Green borrows money from the wrong guy to keep his PGA tour dreams alive. He finds himself in so deep with Russian loan shark, Browno Zars, that he begs his lover and attorney Merit Bridges for her help.

Meanwhile, uncertainty and fear grip Austin as a murderer, who the press labels The Enforcer, avoids identification and capture.

After Merit uses every legal trick in her book to extricate Mark from Browno’s grip, she becomes a target of Browno. Merit awakens to find herself hanging from a meat hook in an Austin warehouse and staring into the face of evil.

What unfolds is a story of deceit and betrayal as the identity of The Enforcer is revealed. Merit must then outwit the sinister and dangerous adversary to save herself from torture and certain death.

In the tradition of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, a Poirot mystery, Harlan Coben’s Back Spin, and Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, Green Fees takes place around the world of golf, but is not a golf mystery. It’s a legal thriller, an Austin mystery, and a cautionary tale about trust.

This week, I saw a news article about Whataburger serving hamburgers on tortillas because of the delivery of bad buns by suppliers.

I remembered a legal case in my office involving swans that had invaded an apartment swimming pool causing a lawsuit with the next-door neighbors.

I saw a graffiti artist being arrested near the South Lamar railroad tracks, carrying a bag of paint cans.

After a little contemplation, I wonder what my misguided mind might do with all that. Buns, Birds, and Body Bags?

Manning Wolfe, an award-winning author and attorney residing in Austin, Texas, writes cinematic-style, smart, fast-paced thrillers with a salting of Texas bullshit. Her series features Austin Lawyer Merit Bridges. As a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, Manning’s experience has given her a voyeur’s peak into some shady characters’ lives and a front row seat to watch the good people who stand against them.

“WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT…” By Tim Bryant

Thanks to Tim Bryant for writing a guest blog post for us about his books and where Wilkie is headed. Tim will be here Saturday, June 16th at 2pm with Mike Nemeth to discuss their work. 

Wilkie John Liquorish has turned out to be every bit the handful I wrote him to be and then some.

Kensington Books put out the first book in the Wilkie John Western series, A World Of Hurt, in November of last year. The second, Dead And Buried, just followed at the end of May. I had just written the fourth book (Old Mother Curridge) of my Dutch Curridge Mystery series in which a flawed anti-hero private detective fought both society’s and his own worst ills in an attempt to level the uneven playing field of 1950s Fort Worth. With Wilkie John, I decided, I would push my protagonist as far as I could. Unfortunately, this also pushes the reader along with him.

Wilkie John is a seventeen-year-old boy, thrown into a violent and unforgiving world of 1880s Texas with no father, and worse, no moral compass at all. He’s trigger happy, and that’s just about the only kind of happiness he really knows. He shoots two people in the first chapter. The body count grows. At one point, he gets a job as a gravedigger, a job that seems to suit his abilities, as he can always kill someone if he needs the work.

There is a black humor to Wilkie John and to the book in general. He doesn’t wear a white hat. If that’s a problem for him, it seems to also be a problem for his readers. Reviews for the first book have proven divisive. One reviewer thought the tale completely unredeemable, even though he threw the book against a wall and failed to finish it. And, may I add, he did get all of his facts completely correct. I couldn’t disagree with much of what he said, although he did leave a great deal unsaid.

Is Wilkie John redeemable? Well, the reader will have to keep reading, but the protagonist does back his way into a job with the Texas Rangers. I finally came to the conclusion that readers who have trouble with the Wilkie John books dislike them mostly for their authenticity. Wilkie John is wild and a little wooly, but in a way very much like Billy the Kid. I started him off at the age of seventeen, both as a nod to Billy and as a way of giving myself lots of room to develop him. With that much room, I decided, I could also give him a lot of need for developing as well.

If the second book does as well as the first, we’re certainly hoping for a third in the series. I’ve learned to like Wilkie John just fine, so I do believe you can too. He’s got some growing up to do, but didn’t we all at seventeen?   

The other thing of note about the Wilkie John westerns is that they’re based around the section of Fort Worth known as Hell’s Half Acre. The 1880s were the era when that outlaw section of town was gaining its fierce reputation. Other wild men like Butch Cassidy and Wyatt Earp (some people now misbelieve that he was a white hat wearing true blue good guy, but he was nothing of the sort) were gambling and carousing in the saloons and brothels there. It’s a fascinating time and place to throw a young morally-compromised boy like Wilkie John into.

In an example of getting the cart before the horse and pulling backward into the past, my Dutch Curridge detective books were also set in Hell’s Half Acre, years before I even thought of writing the westerns. They, however, were set during the sundown of that fabled place, as it was making way for the spiffed-up Fort Worth that we know today. In fact, Gary Goldstein at Kensington read those Dutch Curridge books and then gave me the opportunity to write for Kensington. He never stipulated that they be set in Fort Worth or in any specific location though. Of course, I had done a great deal of research on Fort Worth by that time, and I knew it was prime placement for a 1880s western series.

The Dutch Curridge books were successful enough to get me to where I am today. If you’re interested in the colorful history of Fort Worth or Texas in general, you might enjoy them. You might also enjoy the Wilkie John westerns, A World Of Hurt and Dead And Buried. All they really require is the love of a good story about real people. It might help if you lean more toward Elmer Kelton than Louis L’amour. (Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys are still two of my favorite westerns.) As Elmer himself used to say, “I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five-foot-eight and nervous.” Wilkie John is five-foot-one with a king-size inferiority complex.

Texas in the 1880s was a wild and lawless place. It could still be that way in the 1950s. There are lots of tales about those days. Some aren’t tall at all. Sometimes they pack a pretty mean punch. Sometimes they shoot first and aim second. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. Other times, fiction rings truer than any newspaper article or history book. Whether you like it or not.

 

Guest Post By William D. Darling

There are many mysteries in my first book, Morgan’s Point, but none that involved murder. Two sudden, unfathomable and sickening deaths were a part of the story, but I didn’t focus on willful murder. While I don’t exactly think of myself as a pacifist, I had to overcome some trepidation in my second book, Anahuac, and commit a murder—or, at least, commit to chronicling a murder in print.

Anahuac Cover ImageBut even though there is a murder to solve, in the historic and isolated Texas town of Anahuac (Anna Whack is the way a resident would pronounce it) that gives the book its title, the story revolves around mysteries that may be darker than murder.

Most of us abhor violence. Yet mystery, especially when it involves murder, is one of our favorite literary genres. The “why” of its popularity is not so hard to understand when one accepts that the violence and death in a murder mystery are usually purely fictional. We shiver in anticipation as the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill, because the exhilaration of the bottom dropping out is “safe.” Mystery lets us enter into the violent world of murder without actually being in danger. The journey is aided by the fact that our imaginations don’t—in the moment, at least—distinguish between real danger and the imagined.

Make no mistake, my latest novel Anahuac is a murder mystery, pure and simple. If you liked the Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple, you will probably like Anahuac. The mysteries surrounding the living are as dark and complex as the question of what happened to the dearly-departed woman my readers meet (briefly) in the first few pages.

So, how to write about the murder of a human being by another?

Anahuac is a story told in first person. Jim Ward, the series narrator, is not present at the time of the murder—he’s a lawyer called in to defend the out-of-town stranger who is at the murder scene. We learn the details, through Jim’s eyes, in retrospective interviews and testimony.

Solving the crime in Anahuac does not turn on how the deceased was killed. There is more than one person with the means and the motive to have committed the crime. Anahuac is a murder mystery with a heavy emphasis on multiple mysteries. The perpetrator’s identity—a preacher in a sharkskin suit with a following of evangelicals—is the key to there being a story in the first place; but the murder serves as a vehicle to explore dark questions related to greed, religion, and justice. Without the murder, the other dark mysteries explored in the story would never surface.

A murder defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury’s task of judging the credibility of witnesses is most complex when multiple witnesses in the trial have an incentive to have killed the deceased. The paucity of information about the act of murder is often the case in real life crime. As in life, the jury and the reader are called to judge the credibility of the witnesses in Anahuac.

And to complicate matters, the town of Anahuac is about to be illuminated by the glare of big city television news and newspapers, enticed by the strange circumstances around the case. In 1972 Anahuac was a remote town even by Texas standards. Outside scrutiny of the small town’s justice system puts more than the defendant on trial.

Anahuac puts you in the jury box with a jury made up of rice farmers and the local undertaker. The defendant’s version of the events leading to the death of the victim is sketchy, but he has evidence that points to someone else. If there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, the jury must acquit. What if that means that there might not ever be anyone punished for the crime?

I spent time as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. Justice is all too often in the eye of the beholder. The rules of evidence don’t care who is guilty. Convicted criminals seldom think that justice was done. Convicted innocent defendants are sure it wasn’t.

I am writing the sequel to Anahuac. The story is set in Austin, Texas in the mid-1970s and recounts a murder involving the cosmic cowboy music scene, politics, romance, and demands for women’s rights. Ah, yet again I am confronted with the violence of the act of murder. I wonder how I’ll handle it this time.   

A Little Bit of Blues and Trouble

Thanks to author Richard Bush for writing this blog post.

Way back in the day (talking late 60’s, so, yeah, I’m an old soul), I fell off into the blues. Back then blues was imported from across the pond by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Sure, they were rock bands, but the always included ample examples of blues music, and it was those songs that grabbed me and held on. They spoke in reverence of the bluesmen whose songs they covered and I wanted badly to drink from the source, but albums by those cats just were not available in small town Texas.

BUT, while majoring in journalism at Southwest Texas State University (yes, I still call it that) and shooting pool at Cheatham Street Warehouse a hippie walked in offering to sell a trunk full of albums for a dollar each to raise his rent money. That trunk was loaded with boxes of blues albums, so I sacrificed twenty dollars of my own rent money for records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, etc…and never looked back.

After college, I took up sucking and blowing blues on a harmonica and began seeking out bluesmen who did the same. Over the years I interviewed them, wrote articles about them and reviewed their recordings for various publications. Some of those can be found at www.bushdogblues.blogspot.com, my way too neglected blog.

So…naturally, when I decided to write a novel, blues and trouble just had to be in the mix. An idea that had swirled around my brain for a number of years sprung from the murders of three extremely talented and influential blues harp players from the 40s/50s and 60’s. Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Henry ‘Pot’ Strong all met their demise on the streets of Chicago. Their murders have gone unsolved, except Strong’s. His wife was arrested for stabbing him, but she claimed innocence. So, I used those incidents as a jumping off point for my first foray into fiction. I just had to write it. Getting it published and read was secondary in my mind. Just planned to share it with blues fans.

My debut novel, River Bottom Blues, is that book, featuring two blues harmonica musicians determined to track down the evil responsible for killing a good buddy. The same protagonists find murder and mayhem in the two books that followed, The Devil’s Blues and Howling Mountain Blues. All of my crime fighting bluesmen stories are set in Texas. The third one does venture down to a Belize blues festival and the boys do find evil to stomp out before they leave.

The Oaxacan Kid is a standalone and offers up a different protagonist in the form of a blues record collector intent on finding an obscure harmonica musician he discovered on one of his finds. Blues and trouble rise their familiar heads when he finds that a few very bad people have the same goal and he’s stirred a pot that puts him directly in their cross hairs.

Richard Bush will be at BookPeople, along with John Shepphird on Saturday, May 5th at 2pm.

Guest Blog: Mark Pryor Remembers Philip Kerr

I met Philip Kerr thanks to that great matchmaker, the fellow who (as much as anyone I know) brings writers together, and also introduces them to readers: BookPeople’s own Scott Montgomery. It was at the store, Phil was doing a reading and a signing, and afterward Scott introduced us and invited me to join the two of them at dinner.

Immediately, Phil and I hit it off, and I was thrilled because he was, and still is, one of my favorite writers. (When Philip died this week, the personal loss was compounded by the knowledge that I will have just one more Bernie Gunther book, the one just published, left to read.) That friendship is why, I’m sure, Scott asked me to write a little about Phil to mark his passing, to honor our mutual friend.

Image result for philip kerrBut I want to start not by talking about the man, but about his Bernie Gunther books, to linger on those for a moment. Why? Because they are Phil’s legacy, wonderful gifts of brilliant story-telling and if you’ve not read them, I want to explain why you should (and if you have, you’ll be nodding along in agreement).

They are all about the man, Bernie Gunther. He’s a policeman in Berlin, and the books are set in and around the Second World War. Sounds pretty grim, right? But that was part of Phil’s genius, taking one of the darkest times in human history and infusing them with the wit, charm, and sometimes-disguised morality of his detective. Bernie himself is no angel, that’s always made clear—he drinks and smokes and chases women. He’s not afraid to pull the trigger, either, but he only does so when necessary and in the search for justice for some poor murder victim, or to save his own skin from someone infinitely more callous, someone genuinely wicked. In my opinion, and I’ve only been reading crime fiction for forty years, so what the hell do I know, Bernie Gunther is one of the most compelling characters ever in the genre.

Phil’s books are more than just adventures for Bernie, though, they are also phenomenal explorations of history. Every book will teach you something new about the period in which it is set, and each time it’s a delightful learning experience, a revelation of fascinating sub-stories, not a dry info dump or a preachy pedagogical exercise. Always filled with characters from the era that we recognize, so many bad Germans, who are complemented by colorful characters created by the devious, mischievous mind of Philip B. Kerr. And reading them you will travel to places like Germany, France, Russia, and Argentina.

Now, about Phil. He’s actually a hard man to write about, partly because I know that he’d shrink away from the accolades and public praise that have come from every corner of the literary world since his death. I can see him now, a little smirk on his face that says, “Go on, write something that I can’t pick apart as phony.”

I’ll try. The first time I saw him was that reading at BookPeople, and I call it a reading not because he read from his new book but because he literally read his talk to the audience. I thought that odd, he was so charming and funny it was hard for me to understand why he needed to read his presentation.

Afterward, we talked about the touring he has to do for each book, and he admitted that he was an introvert and didn’t always enjoy public appearances. He found them challenging sometimes, I think, for the added reason that he was almost always the smartest man in the room (his law degree was topped off with post-graduate studies in German law and philosophy) and he had an inability to suffer fools (at all, let alone gladly).

Example: at a subsequent event at BookPeople where I hosted Phil and lobbed dumb questions at him, I’d turned it over to the audience and some eagle-eyed reader asked him about mistakes in the book that we were discussing, some minor factual or temporal error. Phil was curt, and made no apology for either his tone or the mistake. His response, in effect, was, “I’m human and humans make mistakes. If you want error free books read one written by a robot. Next question.”

As a relatively new author myself, and certainly not anywhere near Phil’s level of success, I was momentarily taken aback at his raw honesty. But that’s what it was, honesty. And, for the record, he was right. I, too, have endured pointers to alleged mistakes and, even though the person challenging me was wrong (you can buy strawberries in the Pyrénées mountains in winter!), I was still polite and even mildly apologetic. But not Philip Kerr. He didn’t need to pander to an audience member asking what he thought was a silly question. He was honest enough to say what many of us might have thought, but probably wouldn’t say.

But don’t think he wasn’t kind. He was. I’ve told this story many times, and I’ll tell it again because it shows what kind of person he was. He was talking about the publisher-arranged drivers who ferry him from the airport to the hotel and to the book events. This quiet, brilliant, introvert told me that should I ever be the writer being picked up by a volunteer, I should always sit in the front passenger seat and never the back seat. If someone is giving you their time because they love your books, don’t you dare treat them like a hired taxi driver. This from the man who, I am convinced, would every time liked to have sunk into the back seat with his thoughts to enjoy some peace and quiet.

I am so sad that I won’t get more advice from him, and that there will be an end to the Bernie Gunther books. I am angry, even, that I didn’t get to say good bye and that we won’t have one more drink at the Four Seasons bar and comment inappropriately about half of the people in the room. As a prosecutor, my humor is blacker than most people’s but Phil was one person I could share it with, without shame or reticence.

Yes, I am both sad and angry, but I am also grateful. Grateful for his books that have given me so much pleasure, that have inspired me to be a better writer myself. But also for those moments of quiet amusement we shared. The sushi and beer we consumed on South Congress, the car rally we enjoyed that same night. The twinkle in his eye when I handed him an AR-15 with laser scopes at a range south of Austin. His gentle laughter when I choked down some oysters at his favorite restaurant in London. His stories of meeting Tom Hanks and drinking with Gerard Depardieu. That was the thing about Philip Kerr, he knew how to tell a story, be it over 300 pages of a book, or over a gin and tonic in the pub. It was his gift.

There was one story we wanted to share together—it was an idea for a TV show, one that excited us both for a while, based right here in Austin. Charlie Sector, it was to be called. A cop show that we both threw ideas at, and he wrote a treatment for. It didn’t get off the ground but that didn’t stop us talking about it every time we saw each other. There’s always so much left undone, isn’t there? So much left to do.  

I’ll miss you, Phil, but thanks. Thanks for everything.

 

Mark Pryor’s latest novel is Dominic.

Guest Post: Laura Oles on Trouble in an Island Town

Thanks to Laura Oles for writing the following guest post about her new book, Daughters of Bad Men. She’ll join us February 5th at 7pm to talk about the book along with Terry Shames and James Ziskin.

Jamie Rush has been following me for years.  She lurked in the background as I worked, as I ferried my kids to school, and as I handled the ordinary demands of daily life.  I couldn’t shake her, couldn’t get her off my trail.  I worried I didn’t have the time I needed to tell her story, but it didn’t matter.  She wouldn’t go away.   I would need to give her the proper attention she deserved so she would get out of my head.

It turns out she now occupies more space than ever.

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Jamie Rush is a skip tracer in the island town of Port Alene, Texas, and is the protagonist in Daughters of Bad Men. In this first book in a new series, Jamie and her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, take on the emotional task of finding Jamie’s missing niece. Accepting Kristen’s case isn’t an easy ask.  Jamie’s relationship with her con artist family is a complicated one.  She doesn’t trust them, and for very good reason. Still, when Kristen goes silent, she agrees to take the case because…well, she’s family.  You don’t turn your back on family.

Jamie’s domestic dynamics are an important part of the story because they have shaped her into the person she is today. Trust comes slowly to her. A handful of people comprise her true family, including Cookie, a pub owner named Marty, and Erin, an underground bookie for the Winter Texans living in Port Alene until their own northern hometowns are free from the cruel confines of the season. These people are her world, and Jamie would do anything to protect them.

Although Jamie knows the dangers of searching for Kristen-emotional entanglements can cloud judgment–she has no choice.  She digs deeper into Kristen’s life and uncovers her niece’s most guarded secrets. Exposing the truth will put a target on Jamie’s back and endanger the lives of those she loves.

Port Alene, Texas, is a fictional version of Port Aransas, a place my family considers a second home.  It made perfect sense to create Jamie’s world in this town’s image, but Port Alene is a far grittier and darker place than its inspiration.  Jamie is running from her past and Port Alene has offered her a chance to start over, to finally plant roots and stay awhile.  Her business searching for small time skips who owe debts to those dependent on them being repaid is a steady one.  She has finally found where she belongs, although she still keeps a ditch bag under her bed. Even now, she has one eye on the door.

Writers often say that their characters become members of their family, and that’s the case with mine.  They are part of my tribe. I get lost in their world. I sometimes hear dialogue in my head. I can’t turn it off and wonder if I should consult a doctor. Although it’s sometimes inconvenient, it’s also welcome.  I want to know what they’re up to next, what dangers lie in wait, what will come of each of them as they grow older, grow wiser, more jaded, more hopeful.

Since I started working on Daughters of Bad Men, Hurricane Harvey roared across the coast and took a terrible toll on Port Aransas.  Writing the Jamie Rush series allows me to spend time in my favorite island town until its namesake can once again host company. I visited this past weekend and found there are only a handful of restaurants open and still fewer places to stay. The town is rebuilding but it will take time. So, I will continue to write her fictional sister Port Alene–and she will remain untouched by natural disaster. There are enough storms brewing for Jamie already.  

If you’d like to help the rebuilding efforts in Port Aransas, please find out how here. In particular, The Ellis Memorial Library lost its entire collection of books. Everything is lost and they need donations of books and money so that they may once again serve their community.   You can find out more about how to help here.

Guest Post: James Ziskin on historical novels and names

Thanks to James Ziskin for putting together this post about his crime novels, set in the early 1960s, and how that time period impacts what he does. He’ll be here Monday, February 5th, at 7pm with Terry Shames and Laura Oles to discuss his book, Cast the First Stone

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series of traditional-cum-noir crime novels set in the early 1960s. Ellie is a mid-twenties reporter for an upstate New York daily. A self-described “modern girl,” she works twice as hard as any man at the paper, gets half the credit, and all the wolfish leers.

My books are sometimes categorized as historical. The time period is near past, which presents both advantages and challenges when it comes to creating a believable fictional world. The sixties were not so long ago, and the world isn’t all that different, at least not when compared to a hundred or two hundred years earlier. But the things that have changed have done so in sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle ways. Before considering names, let’s look at a few of the obvious differences.

Cars. On the left is Ellie’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer and, on the right, its descendant, the 2018 Dodge Lancer.

Ziskin cars

Well, they both have four tires, and they’re both red. Of course, two-toned paint jobs and chrome were all the rage in the fifties. But under the hood and inside the brains of the cars, they might as well be a biplane and a jumbo jet for all they have in common. By the way, Ellie’s car—same colors even—was featured in a Dodge commercial just a couple of years ago. Have a look. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1JeNv0FoPXo

Telephones. The old black rotary phones have gone the way of the dinosaur. Today’s phones are powerful computers, great for doing research or enjoying entertainment.

Ziskin telephone

Fashion. Ellie might have dressed something like this. Today, these ladies look like a mashup of air hostesses, Don Draper’s secretaries, and the Stepford PTA.

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And what would Ellie have been listening to on the AM radio in her car? Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the charts for three weeks in the summer of 1960. Tastes change. If you don’t think so, listen to this song.

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Sports. Heisman trophy winners Joe Bellino, 1960, and Baker Mayfield, 2017.

Ziskin sports

And then there’s this…

Ziskin hair

But wait a minute. Wasn’t this supposed to be about names?

I was just getting to that.

Take girls’ and boys’ names. There weren’t many Justins, Aidans, or Graysons running around in Ellie Stone’s 1960. You were more likely to find Davids, Michaels, and Jameses. Hmm. What do you know? James. And I was born in 1960… For girls, names were pretty tame back then. Mary, Susan, and Linda were the top three in America. And when Ellie was born in 1937, the most popular were Mary, Barbara, and Patricia. Not one of those three names cracks the top hundred in 2017. And that’s on a list that includes “Luna” at number forty-eight! Last year, neoclassical and old-time names Sophia, Olivia, and Emma topped the list. And, surprise of surprises, neither Sophia nor Olivia made the top hundred in 1937. Emma barely squeezed in under the wire at number eighty-nine.

For Cast the First Stone, I dropped Ellie into 1962 Hollywood. She’s sent to California by her editor to interview a local boy who’s landed the second male lead in a beach picture. First, to avoid lawsuits and hate mail, I decided to avoid using real Hollywood stars in my book—at least none who appear as characters. Of course people mention the odd actor or actress in the course of the story, but no actual celebrities appear in the book. Well, one does, but just for one line, and I’m not telling who it is. (Here’s a useful, hint, though. Dead people cant sue for defamation.) Second, to achieve maximum believability, I wanted to avoid inventing fictional megastars. It’s difficult—but not impossible—to win the reader’s buy-in. Cal Granite, Bart Steele, or Dirk Bogarde just aren’t believable as names. Well, okay, Dirk Bogarde was a real actor, but I almost had you, didn’t I?

So how to create believable names for the period? I lowered my sights. Instead of A-listers, I populated Cast the First Stone with end-of the-dugout directors, no-name producers, and C-list actors. The same is true for the title of the fictional film at stake in the book, Twistin’ on the Beach. It’s 1962, people were doing the twist again (like we did last summer), and teenage beach pictures were just entering their golden age. If there weren’t at least two or three films with that name that year, there should have been.

Now I needed actors for my film. No big names, remember. So I came up with boy-next-door types appropriate for the era. And white-bread white last names. Tony Eberle, Bobby Renfro, Bo Hanson. The female lead in the movie is Carol Haven, though she never makes an appearance in the book.

There’s also the question of using real places whenever possible, and fictional ones where convenient. From the outset of this series, I chose to fictionalize the town where Ellie lives and works. New Holland, New York, cannot be found on any map except the one in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Making up a small city is no big deal, and it frees me from researching every last detail about a real place. But once Ellie lands in Los Angeles in Cast the First Stone, real locations are necessary to create the impression of that great city. I chose to use the actual Paramount Studios as the site where Twistin’ on the Beach was being filmed. The instant name recognition helps create realism. Everyone’s heard of Paramount, so I didn’t have to labor unnecessarily to convince readers. The Godfather took a different route, probably to avoid potential lawsuits, using a fictionalized studio—Woltz International Pictures—for the famous horse-head-in-the-bed sequence. (Oh, come on. It’s not a spoiler after forty-five years.) As great as that film is, the name of the studio strikes me as less than compelling. We know it’s not real, and no magic is conjured by seeing its name or its unimpressive gate.

I used the same tactic in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Where possible, I used real names—e.g. Saratoga Race Course—but brought the characters down to a manageable level of fame. Thoroughbreds, jockeys, owners, and gamblers are all fictional, except for a few real horses, mentioned here and there, and Willie Shoemaker making a cameo appearance. Those recognizable names make the time period feel more authentic to the reader. The fictional characters do their job, too, entertaining us with their exploits, while never breaking the spell with their unfamiliar “household names.”

Guest Post: Terry Shames on Sisters in Crime

We’re wrapping up our 30th Anniversary tribute to Sisters In Crime with essays from its members. We go to the president of the northern California chapter and MysteryPeople favorite, Terry Shames. Terry is known for her books featuring Samuel Craddock, an widowed police chief in a central Texas town. In her essay, Terry talks about being at one of the founding meetings of Sisters In Crime.

sisters in crime logo

Thirty years ago two writer friends convinced me to attend Bouchercon in Baltimore. They told me I’d have a blast. As an aspiring mystery writer, I’d not only learn a lot, but I’d meet lots of mystery writers and fans. They were right. I met writers I was in awe of, and found them to be warm and friendly. I was in heaven. As a beginner, I soaked up not just the atmosphere, but the information I heard on panels I attended.

What I remember most about the conference, though, is that my friends invited me to tag along to hear writer Sarah Paretsky talk about an idea for a new organization that would be geared to supporting female crime writers. It was common knowledge that although half of crime writers were women, the lion’s share of awards, reviews, interviews, and buzz went to male writers. Sarah wanted to change that.

Sarah’s talk was inspiring. It wasn’t mean-spirited. There was no talk of men not deserving recognition. It was about women deserving a share of the goodies. There were men in the audience as well; men who came to cheer on women, who they thought deserved better as well.

I, along with most of the women there, signed up enthusiastically for the new organization, Sisters in Crime. How could I have known that thirty years later I would be president of our northern California chapter of what has become a vibrant national organization.

The value I have received from Sisters in Crime is immeasurable. I’ve met both women and men dedicated to the idea that when one succeeds, we all succeed. When I started writing in earnest several years after that initial conference, I heard about a sub-group of the organization called The Guppies (the great unpublished). This was a group of women writers who were determined to be published. They wanted to help each other by exchanging information, tips on agents and publishers who were eager to hear from new writers; conferences and workshops that were especially helpful. The membership also exchanged virtual hugs when someone was disappointed; advice; warnings of predatory people in the publishing field; and finally, high fives when someone had success. The membership also included seasoned writers who wanted to participate in giving unpublished writers all the help they could.

This has been my experience through the years with Sisters in Crime. The dedication to supporting sister writers succeed was not just an empty slogan. I see it play out daily, in the email list serve where people ask for advice and opinions, and receive thoughtful responses. When you ask a “sister” for help, there’s always someone listening and willing to step up. Members are eager to exchange manuscripts for mutual critiques. They alert other members to valuable workshops. They ask compelling questions about writing and publishing, and many members join in the conversation.

From that meeting thirty years ago to the present Sisters in Crime has grown to a national force for women in the crime writing field. I am proud to be a part of it. In fact, I have just completed a week long retreat with six other “sisters” whom I would never have met had it not been for Sisters in Crime.

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!