Write About What You Know

WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW
Guest Post by Benjamin King

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Image by Frank Miller

I wrote about angels. I wrote about the Roman Empire. I wrote about hoboes riding trains. No one understood what I was trying to say. Then I remembered a Mark Twain essay I had read long ago and dug it out and studied it again. It’s a convincing argument that William Shakespeare never wrote the masterful dramas attributed to his name. He couldn’t have written them, and Mark Twain explained why.

A short paraphrase of what he said is, “A butcher can’t talk lawyer talk and make it sound convincing.” Whoever wrote the plays was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the royal courts of Europe, and that didn’t mean butchering calves by the Thames River or holding horses outside a London theatre that catered to rabble, which were William Shakespeare’s only qualifications.

Twain was right you know. And I realized he was right and started writing about what I knew – really knew – and it paid off. I was fortunate in that respect, because the things I knew best were exciting things and things that a lot of authors write about anyway. And yet, many of them get it wrong.

You see I was raised on a small mountain farm that might better be described as a mini-ranch. Horses, ponies, mules, cows, pigs, rabbits, chickens, squirrels – every animal, tame or wild – was either a playmate or a possible target. I had two other lucky circumstances that influenced me from the age of three. My parents were musicians and readers. My father read strictly westerns because he also loved guns.

Everyone has absorbing interests – things we are deeply involved in – and those are the things we learn the most about. For me it was horses, guns, and guitars, in that exact order. As an adult I’ve loaded, shot, and cleaned hundreds of firearms.

It’s hard for me to accept an author of Larry McMurtry’s caliber allowing one of his principle protagonists to carry a Colt’s Dragoon revolver for 800 pages without ever having him load it with the necessary black powder, lead balls, and percussion caps. I don’t think Larry knew the difference between that particular weapon and one that shoots pre-packaged metallic cartridges, or maybe he thought no one else did.

In the first book of my series about a young country singer and guitar player, When a Lady Lies, I use a symbol that enhances the mystery – a collection of old pistols. Those guns are in my mother-in-law’s gun cabinet. I’ve cleaned them and shot them and can describe one so accurately you feel it in your hand. In the sequel, I switch to percussion pistols and have both the victim and the falsely accused protagonist portrayed as Civil War era gun enthusiasts. I own one of those, too.

I was lucky. I absorbed volumes of exciting material without really trying. It was part of my environment. If you want to write murder mysteries or psychological thrillers about guns and the way they operate and feel and have no real experience to draw on, there is a ton of online material you could read. But I suggest you take the time to go to a gun store, explain your situation to the owner, and have him let you hold a real one in your hand. It’s a powerful feeling. Who knows? You may end up on the firing range, which would enhance your writing to the Nth power.

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BENJAMIN KING is a writer, world traveler, sculptor, and professional musician. He had his first country song published in 1971 and followed that with numerous magazine articles, a volume of short stories, and a future-fantasy novel. His colorful characters are drawn from the eventful life he has pursued.

Benjamin King Online: Website | SW | FacebookAmazon | Goodreads | Interview

Interview: Benjamin King

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I am pleased to present Author Interview #3 with Benjamin King: a writer, world traveler, sculptor, and professional musician!

Describe yourself in 5 words:

BK: A thousand lives in one.

Share a short excerpt and blurb of your latest book:

lady_lies

Excerpt: With the window sash scraping the skin off my back I finally wiggled my upper body through the small window and lay half­in and half­out of the house and sucked oxygen into my burning lungs.  And then, in the ghostly, musky quiet of the attic, I heard the heavy crunch of tires on gravel from the driveway in front of the house.  That’s when the stupidity that had brought me here to die like a criminal loomed like a billboard in my mind.  If they caught me, I had no doubt they would kill me.  How I wished I could go back to that night when I should have quit my job and left town.
When a Lady Lies, by Benjamin King

Share an excerpt of your favorite author’s work (10-100 words):

“Every man has a religion or totems of some kind.  Even the atheist displays an enormous act of faith in his belief that the universe created itself, and the subsequent creation of intelligent life was merely a biological accident.”
— James Lee Burke

What do you enjoy about the genre in which you write?:

BK: Mystery/murder thrillers give an author the best chance to utilize the only two real plots for the genre: chase and capture and delayed revelation.  A good one is about a hundred chases and captures capped off with a surprise, delayed revelation.  It’s also a very inventive genre – you can get away with unusual characters – in fact they make for a better story.  My hero in my series is a young country singer who overcomes defeat and depression in each volume by losing himself in the soulful process of writing a new hit song.  I record the song in my studio and put a link at the end of the book to the MP3 file on a website.  When the mystery is solved and the heroine is rescued, the reader gets to hear the hit song inspired by the adventure.  I think I’m onto something unique.

What is your definition of “good writing”?

BK: The highest quality of any art form is its believability.  The best writers make the reader forget he is looking at a page filled with words and convince him he is part of the action.

Please share your #1 tip for writers in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre:

BK: Don’t give away your secrets too easily.  Don’t make your characters blabbermouths.  Make the reader follow your hero through hell to find the real answer to the puzzle.

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BENJAMIN KING is a writer, world traveler, sculptor, and professional musician. He had his first country song published in 1971 and followed that with numerous magazine articles, a volume of short stories, and a future-fantasy novel. His colorful characters are drawn from the eventful life he has pursued.

Benjamin King Online: Website | SW | FacebookAmazon | Goodreads | Guest Post

Writing about Guns in Fiction

START WITH HAND SIZE (for Matching Handguns to Characters)
Guest Post by Ben Sobieck

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Image by Andy Warhol (1981-2982)

My father in-law bought a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol the other day. It’s a nice handgun for sure. It fits comfortably into his holster. The lightweight design makes it a breeze to wear. The caliber is exactly the one he wanted. Even better, he bought it at a terrific price. So why does he hate it?

As it turns out, my father in-law didn’t shoot the pistol before putting down the dough. He pulled the trigger for the first time at our recent trip to the gun range. Thing is, his hands are too large for the grip. This made it difficult to shoot, and his accuracy suffered as a result. (Although, hey, I’m no dead-eye myself.)

What does this have to do with writing fiction? It highlights an important point about matching handguns to characters. Some writers get caught up in gender, caliber, availability, gun type or looks when selecting a handgun for a character. While those are important factors, I wouldn’t recommend starting with those things.

Instead, start with hand size. How small or large are the character’s hands? Smaller hands should go with smaller handguns. Larger hands would go with larger handguns.

By “small” and “large,” I mean the physical dimensions, not the caliber. There are small handguns that fire large calibers, and vice versa.

Most handgun manufacturers seem to agree with this approach. They break product lines down by size first, then address the other features. Smith & Wesson, for example, offers small, medium, large and extra large lines of revolvers (called J, K, N and X). Each of those sizes (called “frames,” as in “J-frame” or “K-frame”) comes in small and large calibers.

With the hand size identified, start picking out similarly-sized handguns suited for those other important factors, such as caliber.

There’s plenty to consider. That’s why I developed a step-by-step process to making the right match in my book, “The Weapons for Writers: A Practical Reference for Writing Firearms and Knives in Fiction.” It’ll hit shelves in late 2014 from Writer’s Digest. Pre-orders are available at Amazon now if you feel like saving a buck ahead of time. (http://www.amazon.com/The-Weapons-Writers-Practical-Reference/dp/1599638150)

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BENJAMIN SOBIECK is the author of “The Weapons for Writers” (Writer’s Digest, late 2014), the Maynard Soloman detective series and numerous short stories graffitied throughout the Internet and crime anthologies. His website is CrimeFictionBook.com.

Benjamin Sobieck Online: WebsiteAmazon | TwitterGoodreads | Interview

My Take on Horror

* Note from Jess: The Horror Writers Association has a great page that seeks to define horror fiction. In this post, author Michael Robertson Jr. — who writes horror and suspense novels — shares his thoughts on what the genre means to him.

MY TAKE ON HORROR
Guest Post by Michael Robertson Jr.

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Image from eBooks @ Adelaide

Let’s examine some things I’ve written about. Ready? Here goes: Grief-driven Serial Killer alter egos, snow monsters, lost identity, dueling spirits deep in the mountains, alien-possessed children, phones that ring to the past and expose gruesome murders, playing poker for your life, carnival games that’ll make you lose your lunch—these are just a few.

Now, think hard. What do all these things have in common? Anybody?

Hint: Nothing at all.

That’s just it: I don’t have regular central themes, I don’t have a formulaic approach to my new projects.

My catalog is a mosaic of ideas, a splattering of genre-crossing plots that all have been derived from one simple thought: What if?

That’s where nearly every story I’ve started (and not always finished) begins. I see something, hear something, read something, and then think to myself “What if X happened instead?” or “What’s the most unexpected thing that could happen now?”—and if the resulting idea would be a worst-case scenario for most anybody, something that might make somebody’s skin crawl or make them pray it never happens to them, I start to build on it, see If I can get a full story out of it.

This can be as simple as an argument between spouses resulting in death, or as random as bringing your kid home from day care and an hour later he eats the cat.

What if you went to the dentist and when the hygienist accidentally nicks you with the sharp thing she bends over and sucks the blood out of your mouth with her own two lips?

I just thought of that. Hmm, might have something there…

Face it. What-If’s are the root of all of YOUR fears. Think about it. What if you lose your job? What if your burglar alarm goes off in the middle of the night? What if there’s a strange person hanging out by your car in the parking lot when you get off work late? What if you fail that big test? What if the plane crashes? What if the doctor calls to discuss your test results? What if your credit card gets declined?

See? All what-if’s.

Now, I write fiction, so yes, my what-if’s are a little far-fetched, a little (okay, often times a lot) exaggerated and ridiculous. I thrive off the uncertain and unpredictable, but the opening question is still there, the basis for the horrific events I write down.

What If?

What if I never get another story idea? That scares the hell out of me.

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MICHAEL ROBERTSON JR.’s books have been downloaded over 80,000 times on Amazon.com. Rough Draft, a horror novel and newest release, has been in the Top 100 horror rankings. He lives in Virginia where he’s currently working on a new novel and trying to keep himself from thinking his next idea is a better one.

Michael Robertson Jr. Online: Website | Blog | Amazon | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Science Fiction Noir

* Note from Jess: ‘Noir’ can be defined as a “genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.” In this post, writer Richard Levesque shares his thoughts on the connection between science fiction and noir — which I certainly appreciate as a fan of cross-genre work!

INTO THE DARK: The Science Fiction/Noir Connection
Guest Post by Richard Levesque

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Image by Pspynett

The running man darts past a streetlight, casting a long shadow across the wet pavement. He glances back and then ducks into an alley, pressing himself into the darkness as he catches his breath and listens. He thinks he’s safe, but from the other end of the alley a new shadow moves. There’s a moment’s recognition when he sees her, but his relief fades instantly when he realizes there’s only one reason she’d be here in this alley at the same time as him. He hears someone running up the street toward the alley, and he knows he’s cornered. There’s no choice but to shoot his way out, but who to shoot first? The woman is only a few steps away. He can smell her, can practically taste her. But he knows why she’s here, so he pulls out his laser cannon and blasts her into eternity.

Wait.

What?

Laser cannon? Wasn’t that supposed to be a snub-nosed .38?

Well, yes. If this were a 1940s detective novel or a 1950s film noir, that is. But it’s not. This is science fiction, and yet the story and characters have a lot in common with the kinds of hard-boiled crime fiction found in literature and film over the last 70 years or so. We still have the tough protagonist who lives on the edge of society and sometimes does bad things but always in the name of getting to the truth and shining a light on the darkness that’s just below the surface of seemingly respectable society. Along the way, he encounters a femme fatale, crooked cops, deadly mobsters, lots of dark interiors and shadowy exteriors, and even more disillusionment.

Face it: there are murders and crimes in science fiction; there are mysteries that need to be solved and shady characters who will stop at nothing to keep their secrets hidden. When these characters and situations emerge, science fiction blends with hard boiled noir.

The blending of SF and noir goes back a long way, maybe even to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Most SF fans probably think more readily of Blade Runner, though, or at least the original theatrical release of that film with the Sam Spade-style voiceover. There are a lot of other examples, among them William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” and Jonathan Letham’s Gun, with Occasional Music. More recently, the development of deco-punk and diesel-punk have added to the SF/noir canon.

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“Neon City” artwork by Vladimir Manyuhin

But why blend SF and hard-boiled mystery? For me, the connection just seems natural as they’re my two favorite genres to read, and because I’ve spent a lot of time reading and writing about LA and Hollywood history and culture. When I started writing, I put my two loves together to end up with Take Back Tomorrow (a time travel novel set in 1940 Los Angeles) and Strictly Analog (about a down-and-out private detective in a near future, dystopian LA).

If you think about it, though, there’s also a logical connection. Look at science fiction from the early twentieth century—the pulpy, genre stuff in Amazing Stories, Astounding, and so on rather than more highbrow SF from Orwell and Huxley and Olaf Stapledon. In those pulp stories, the science fiction hero was a slightly disguised version of the cowboy or frontiersman, the hero of much of the popular fiction from the century before. That Western hero—the trailblazing loner who came into town, kissed a few shady ladies, blasted holes into the bullies trying to boss around the hard-working homesteaders, and then rode out again to explore the edges of the known world—managed to get bifurcated in the twentieth century. In one form, he became the private eye—still righting wrongs, messing with the wrong women, and always ending up alone after risking life and limb to make better the society that had somehow rejected him, or which he’d turned his back on voluntarily. And in his other form, he became the science fiction hero—exploring the galaxy and making future worlds safe for space colonists, taking on aliens and androids alike.

Great examples of these transplanted cowboys would include Northwest Smith in C.L. Moore’s stories, or John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series. There was a lot less disillusionment in those heroes; they were a lot more like their cowboy granddaddies than their jaded detective cousins. And yet the two are not much different; it’s the settings that change, and the weapons—snub-nosed .38s for one, laser canons for the other.

By the 1950s, the science fiction hero became a little darker, a little less pulpy. You can find the noir-themed beginnings of cyberpunk back there in the writings of Alfred Bester, in particular his novels The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, both crime novels set in the future with anti-hero characters and a tough, gritty tone. By the time we get to the 1980s and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, the blending of science fiction and noir had reached a peak with characters occupying as risky a landscape as anything Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade had to navigate.

It only makes sense that the bifurcated cowboy would rejoin himself in the form of the futuristic detective or private eye. Like all good literature, science fiction tends to reflect the culture that creates it. Maybe we’ve reached a point where we’re less optimistic about our future than SF writers in the 1930s were, less hopeful that technology will get us out of our binds or that the monsters (real or imagined) will be defeated with a good right cross and some superior intellect. But if our heroes are growing darker, their situations bleaker, their outlooks more pessimistic, we’re still entertained, caught up in the fantasy that there’s still someone out there with enough guts to do what’s right even at great personal cost.

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Image by DualProdigy

…The femme fatale drops to the concrete, smoke rising from the big hole in her chest. The hero pauses over her corpse just long enough to say goodbye to the girl he thought she’d been. Then he runs off into the night, knowing his safety is only temporary…like ours.

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RICHARD LEVESQUE has spent most of his life in Southern California. For the last several years he has taught composition and literature, including science fiction, as part of the English Department at Fullerton College. His first book, Take Back Tomorrow, was published in 2012, and he has followed it with other science fiction and urban fantasy novels, novellas, and short stories.

* Check out his short story, Walk A Mile — available for free on Amazon!

Richard Levesque Online: Website | Blog | Amazon | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Interview: Tatiana Boncompagni

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I am pleased to present Author Interview #2 with Tatiana Boncompagni: a New York-based journalist and author of the Clyde Shaw mystery series!

Describe yourself in 5 words:

TB: Curious, Athletic, Impatient, Outgoing, Resilient.

Share a short excerpt and blurb of your latest book:

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Excerpt: People cheat and people lie. It’s a fact of life I never found particularly newsworthy, except when someone ended up dead. That’s usually where I came in, turning betrayal and blood splatter into TV ratings gold. No Emmys yet, but that just kept me hungry—hungry enough to pick up my phone on a Sunday morning in early November when I ought to have been in deep REM.
Social Death, by Tatiana Boncompagni

Social Death is a breathless thriller that takes the reader deep inside the worlds of television news and glitterati New York.”
— Stuart Woods, New York Times bestselling author of Unintended Consequences

Share an excerpt of your favorite author’s work (10-100 words):

“The old saying that some people are ‘born in the wrong cradle’ applies to me. Early on I knew I wasn’t destined to spend the rest of my life in Oklahoma City, where I was born and raised. Still, my steady progression from student to restaurant hostess to salesgirl to collector and philanthropist and, finally, to one of the grande dames of New York is a pretty remarkable story, even if I do say so myself.”
Social Crimes by Jane Stanton Hitchcock

What do you enjoy about the genre in which you write?:

TB: My latest book, Social Death, is a mystery but my past novels, Hedge Fund Wives and Gilding Lily, were women’s fiction. What I like about writing mysteries is that there isn’t so much pressure to make the female protagonist likeable. You hear that word all the time from agents and editors, “Is she likeable?” And while it is true that there are good reasons for a main character to be appealing, I’m more inspired to create characters who aren’t straight-up nice. I like writing characters who are troubled and make flawed decisions, but whose reasons and behavior are still believable and, more importantly, relatable. I think there is more freedom to do that in the mystery genre than in traditional women’s fiction.

It can be very nice to be free from genre tropes and conventions. What is your definition of “good writing”?

TB: Good writing has two components. First are your sentences and second is how you arrange them. Some writers create sentences that convey emotions or atmosphere in a way that is beguilingly beautiful, poetic really. And other writers craft very good stories, often with an interesting or inventive plot structure. Really good writing has both of those components—sentence and structure—down. I think mysteries tend to be better plotted than they are written, but that’s just a generalization. I can name several authors that bowl me over just with their words. Megan Abbott and Lisa Unger are but two examples.

Please share your #1 tip for writers in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre:

TB: Everyone has a different process, so I think it is often hard to give advice. For me what seems to work is allowing myself to write freely just to get into the story and then take a step back to rework the beginning and hammer or plot out the middle and ending. But first, before chaining myself to any given ending or plot twists, I like to give myself the freedom to see where the story and characters take me.

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TATIANA BONCOMPAGNI is an award-winning journalist and the author of Social Death, Hedge Fund Wives and Gilding Lily. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Town & Country, InStyle and Vogue.

* Social Death is free on Amazon till May 2nd!

Tatiana Boncompagni Online: Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon | Goodreads | The Book Designer