Monthly Archives: February 2015

Harsh VS. Cozy in Writing by Mike Baron

HARSH VS. COZY

 

I like crime fiction that’s hard as nails with grim and often violent depictions of life along the seams. I admire Robert Crais, Andrew Klavan, Stephen Hunter, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain and William Lindsay Gresham. I love Chandler and Hammett. But there is another type of crime fiction: the “Cozies,” perpetrated primarily by the British, in which all the violence occurs off page and the denouement takes place in an oak-paneled drawing room when a pompous epicure, be it Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot, reveals the villain over tea and crumpets.

Nothing wrong with Cozies. I have read every Rex Stout and some Agatha Christie. It’s just that my taste runs toward the hard and gritty. Sherlock Holmes is responsible for the bull market in Cozies, although he himself was never cozy. Conan Doyle wrote for the Victorian age when showing severed limbs or thrusting organs simply wasn’t done. Contemporary accounts of Jack the Ripper employ hilarious euphemisms to describe what was once considered indescribable. (Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper achieved apotheosis in James Hill’s 1965 movie, A Study In Terror.)

An odd little subset to Cozies are mysteries solved by dogs and cats. One need only look at the oeuvre of Rita Mae Brown whose best-selling titles include Tail Gate, Nine Lives To Die, The Litter of the Law, and The Big Cat Nap, all yclept a “Mrs. Murphy Mystery.” There are Cozies featuring dogs such as Jane Arnold’s Let Sleeping Dogs Lie Mary Hiker’s Play Fetch: An Avery Barks Dog Mystery, C.A. Newsome’s A Shot in the Bark: A Dog Park Mystery, and Neil S. Plakcy’s Dog Have Mercy: A Golden Retriever Mystery. Can mysteries starring ocelots, coati mundis and peacocks be far behind? I love my dogs and sometimes write about them, but they don’t solve mysteries. There’s nothing wrong with cats solving murders if that’s your thing.

Every crime writer is fascinated by human darkness. The challenge is to present it in a way that isn’t torture porn. Ann Rule, Aphrodite Jones, and Jack Olsen never stint on their description of the crimes. To do so would rob the reader of their morbid fascination, which is one of the reasons we read true crime. All crime writers try to shine a light on the darkest corners of the human soul, the better to understand ourselves.

Narrative Voice in Writing by Mike Baron

THE NARRATIVE VOICE

The narrative voice is among the most important aspects of fiction. It is the narrative voice that seduces, excites, grabs you by the throat and drags you through the story. If the narrative voice is boring or stupid, like most business and academic writing, it kills whatever interest you may have in the story. The narrative voice can be in the first, third, or second. The latter is very rare. “You went to the store. You pulled a gun. You shot the clerk.” It’s just odd.

The first and the third have ruled fiction since Walter Scott defined the novel as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents.” As a devotee of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories, I have long been a fan of the first person narrative. But it wasn’t just the “I” talking. It was McGee’s world view, his love of tradition and decency, that informed the narrative. It was also MacDonald’s uncanny ability to evoke evil in its purest form. But mostly it was McGee’s laconic voice.

Tom Wolfe and James Ellroy own two of the most distinctive narrative voices in literature. Wolfe’s is god-like, omniscient, a wise-cracker who exposes human frailty without mercy.

At the moment Mac was in command, behind the wheel of her beloved and ludicrously cramped brand-new Mitsubishi Green Elf Hybrid, a chic and morally enlightened vehicle just now, trolling the solid rows of cars parked side by side, wing-mirror to wing-mirror, out back of this month’s Miami nightspot of the century, Balzac’s, just off Marky Brickell Village, vainly hunting for a space, he writes in Back To Blood, which does for Miami what Empire of the Vanities did for New York. Strips the veneer off a steaming pile of vanity.

Ellroy, whose L.A. Confidential is among the most influential of literary and film noirs, writes in an abrupt, rat-tat-tat prose distilled from decades of lurid pulps such as True Detective and Los Angeles gossip columns.

From Perfidia, his latest novel about Los Angeles on the eve of World War II:

Bobby De Witt was a jazz drummer. He personified the appellation “lounge lizard.” He wore high-waisted flannels and two-tone loafer jackets; he kept up with his pachuco bunk mates from the Preston Reformatory. He caught me sketching him. I convinced myself that he recognized my talent and Norma Shearer–like aplomb. I was mistaken there. All he recognized was my penchant for the outré.

            He had a small house out at Venice Beach. I had my own room. I slept away months of taxing outdoor days and too hot and too cold outdoor nights. I ate myself back from the brink of malnutrition and pondered what to do next.

            Bobby seduced me then. I thought I was seducing him. I was mistaken. He saw that I was growing wings and set out to clip them.

            Bobby was quite sweet to me at first. It started changing shortly after New Year’s. His business picked up. He got me hooked on laudanum and made me stay home to answer the phone and book dates with his girls and their “clients.” It got worse. He held a dope kick over me and coerced me into his stable. It got much worse.

Jazz drummer is always a synonym for dope peddler and pimp. I have the knife scars on the back of my thighs to prove it.

Around the time Ellroy wrote L.A. Confidential and The Big Nowhere, I couldn’t get enough. He lost me when he moved onto his JFK trilogy, American Tabloid, White Jazz, and Blood’s A Rover. The prose had become so terse and mannered it lost all humanity. I have read his latest, Perfidia, and it is a partial return to form. But he’ll never own my heart the way MacDonald or Wolfe does.

When you think of it, all your favorite writers have strong narrative voices.

 

Finding Your Theme

FINDING YOUR THEME

 

When I was twenty-one I thought I’d write a paperback and make a couple thousand dollars. Easy money! I wanged away on my manual and accumulated several thousand words that amounted to nothing. I moved to Boston and wrote for alternative newsweeklies the Boston Phoenix, Boston After Dark and The Real Paper. Every day, after I’d interviewed musicians and written my column, I would wang away at my manual accumulating thousands of words that amounted to nothing. John Braine, in his book Writing A Novel, advised writers not to attempt it before they were forty because they hadn’t accumulated enough life experience to know what they were talking about.

There are always exceptions like William Styron who wrote Lie Down in Darkness at age 26, Richard Price who wrote The Wanderers at age 25, and Carson McCullers who wrote The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter at age 23. It’s all right to hate these people. There is such a thing as natural talent.

I kept plugging. In the meantime I found comic books as a creative outlet. I have always loved comics and I will always be involved with them. But those novels kept cooing to me in the wee dark hours of the morning. I disdained outlines or lengthy preparation. If Elmore Leonard could wing it so could I.

Only I couldn’t. My novels lacked theme and plotting. Most of all they lacked a convincing narrative voice. It is the narrative voice that draws you through the story and if the narrative voice is clumsy or off-putting, people will put off your book. There are terrific writes who can’t write a novel to save their souls. The brilliant historian and essayist Victor Davis Hanson wrote a novel called The End of Sparta, dealing with the same themes and story as Frank Miller’s 300. I couldn’t wait. Then I got it. Run-on sentences and endless, endless unpronounceable names, characters delivering lectures, it was unreadable and impenetrable. That’s just my opinion. Others liked it. But to see how historical fiction can grab the reader by the throat and drag him through the story so that he becomes oblivious to night, day, and the needs of the flesh, pick up any Conn Iggulden or Robert Harris, whose three novels about ancient Rome are delightful.

In the late nineties and early 2000’s I suffered a series of personal calamities that kept me from writing. I took a number of jobs including handyman at an anesthesia machine company, unloading automobile bumpers, and assembly line at a company that makes mouse pads. I moved to Fort Collins in 2003 and met my writing guru, Pete Brandvold. I kept developing comic book concepts and one of these concepts, a satanic rock band that comes back from the dead, wouldn’t let me go. The outline kept getting bigger. You have to write an outline for prospective comic book editors.

Several years after my late wife died, I started writing Banshees. Unlike my previous attempts, I was in control of the characters, theme and narrative voice. It was exhilirating. I could feel it in my bones.

Since then I’ve written a number of novels, most of which are horror. Banshees is horror. It will be published but right now my agent is concentrating on my new material. So what’s the message? Never give up, never give in. I have met people who want to write or do comics so badly they have destroyed themselves in that pursuit. Some of these people will never succeed for a variety of reasons. It serves no purpose to tell them that. There is always tomorrow.

Remember what Winston Churchill said. “Take away this pudding. It has no theme.”