Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writers never ask…

by Michael Dymmoch

...each other, “Where do you get your ideas?” (Although we may occasionally ask, “What the hell were you smoking?”) We know. Ideas are everywhere. All the time. It’s hard not to catch the news or read a feature article or ride the El without getting smacked in the head by an idea—an overheard line, or an observation that suggests a story. Total strangers come up to you at signings and offer to share story ideas that you and they can write together. (Maybe you can’t copyright ideas because it would be like patenting pebbles.)

Just last week, while I was taking newspapers to the Anti-Cruelty Society, I found a story on the street. Litter-ally. Someone entering or leaving the Rehab center on Grand Avenue had dropped a folder of personal papers right next to the curb. There’s a story. How did the person (patient, caregiver, identity thief) come to drop the folder ? And not miss it? What would happen if the finder took it into the rehab center—would it find its way to where it belonged? Would the police get involved? Might there be a missing person investigation? A heartwarming clip on the evening news? An allegation of theft or other malfeasance? Would the finder end up making a new friend? Or finding his life complicated and his privacy lost?

Maybe that’s not much of a story. But it could be. The person whose papers went missing could be the victim of a horrible accident. Or a disabled vet. Or a cop shot in the line of duty or under suspicious circumstances. (Or, more likely, someone talking on a cell phone while getting out of a car.) The finder could be an ordinary citizen or a protected witness, a hit man, a bag lady. You get the idea. By itself, an idea is just that. It won’t write itself into a story. A nosy passer-by or concerned citizen, or a curious person with way too much time on her hands might investigate and discover the story. A writer might just make it up. But that would involve thought and research. It would involve discipline and ingenuity.

Better questions for successful writers are surely, “Have you ever found an idea that made you drop everything and write a novel?” Or “Where do you get your discipline?” And “Is any part of that yarn true?”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ITW Nominations

The International Thriller Writers organization wisely nominated two members of the OUTFIT for their 2010 awards. They are:

Jamie Freveletti: RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL for Best First Novel


Marcus Sakey: “The Desert Here and the Desert far Away” for Best Short Story

Join me in congratulating them! If we could, we'd vote early and often.

Crime Writers and Homegrown Terrorism

by Jamie Freveletti

I just read about the failed “Midwestern Militia” attempt to take out government officials and I was fascinated by the story. ) Reading about such groups gives a writer insight about the twisted minds of humans that can only improve our stories.

Here’s a group calling themselves the “Hutaree” that hates organized institutions so much that they wanted to kill those who represent it. According to the FBI, they trained in the rain in combat gear, discussed luring a police officer with a fake 911 call, killing the officer, and then attacking the funeral with weapons of mass destruction. All of this to be sure that the “testimony of Jesus Christ stays alive.”

Huh? Jesus Christ? The guy who ate dinner with the tax collectors and was reviled by the common man for his tolerance of those that did the government’s bidding? The one who protected the prostitute by saying “he who is without sin, cast the first stone?” I can’t imagine a sicker perversion of the actual teachings. Did these guys not get the “we’re going to tolerate others” memo inherent in Jesus’ acts and words?

Guess not.

But for a writer that perversion leads to some excellent stories. Several writers have dealt with the “homegrown militia as terrorist” theme in their crime novels. I loved the majority of them, because the concept of someone in a country as peacefully democratic as this one who decides to attempt a terrorist act leads to all sorts of interesting conflict for a writer. And when that story includes the evil done by our neighbors on our own soil, it gets an additional boost of the fear factor we all love to add to our books. Reading about these individuals also gives us insight into the mind of fanatics for whom life is not sacred and for whom a story of tolerance, caring, and love is twisted in a sick attempt to justify their need to destroy.

I have a list of books I've read with the homegrown militia as a theme, but if you have any favorites, I’d love to hear them –including those written by Outfit members!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Large denominations

By David Heinzmann

Where do you break a thousand-dollar bill?

That might have been my favorite detail the other day from the news about an FBI raid of Frank Calabrese’s house in Oak Brook. Calabrese has been behind bars for several years, and now he’s serving life for his convictions in the 2007 Family Secrets case. But members of his immediate family still live in the hulking brown brick house in an Oak Brook gated community, and the feds went there with a search warrant last week.

Frank’s brother Nick, the Outfit hit man who was the star witnesses at the Family Secrets trial, had told authorities that his brother had treasure and evidence stashed in secret compartments all over the place. Nick’s testimony put Frank, Joey the Clown Lombardo, James Marcello, and a few other Outfit bigshots behind bars for life. Frank was a bookie and hit man. Nick said his brother’s favorite method of killing people was to beat them, strangle them with a piece of rope and the cut their throats to make sure the job was done.

He’s also about 70 and the chances he’ll ever get out of prison and be able to return to his Oak Brook basement, take down the large frame of family photos, unscrew the secret panel and use his stash of money and guns is pretty slim.

But it was there just in case. Agents also found a roll of $26,000 upstairs in a desk drawer used by the current woman of the house. So maybe the family was dipping into the stash here and there, as needed. Given that a federal judge had ordered Calabrese to pay $27 million in restitution for his crimes, it's unlikely any of the stash will be returned to Oak Brook.

Among the valuables the FBI found stashed behind a false wall in the basement was nearly $730,000 in cash… mostly in thousand- and five-hundred-dollar bills. Crisp stacks in Ziploc bags and manila envelopes.

Many thought the most intriguing detail of the FBI raid on Calabrese’s house was the discovery of a trove of small cassette tapes and recording equipment. Calabrese liked to record conversations, apparently. Whether the contents of those tapes will lead to new cases remains to be seen.

But I like the thousand-dollar bills adding up to three-quarters of a million bucks. The photos the FBI released were of such neat, crisp stacks. Did the money come from a bank? Which bank around Chicago is supplying bosses of the Outfit with crisp bundles of …Grover Clevelands. Yes, Grover Cleveland is the president on the $1,000 bill.

Here’s another weird thing, those bills are pretty rare. According to the U.S. Treasury web site, the $1,000 bill and the $500 bill (William McKinley) were discontinued in the late 1960s. They’re still legal tender, of course, but bills that big haven’t actually been printed since the 1950s, apparently.

The FBI also found ledgers of mob financial dealings, a few guns wrapped and taped in towels, and a 1,000 pieces of jewelry that appeared to be the fruits of jewelry store heists—most of it was still in boxes with price tags. I’m guessing that pile would take the whole stash well over a million dollars.

Maybe down the road a bit we’ll hear what was on the tapes, and what was in the ledgers. Perhaps even which jewelry stores were ripped off. But I want to know where Calabrese got those Clevelands and McKinleys.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is This The Way It Really Is?

By Kevin Guilfoile

Every writer makes a contract with the reader. Fiction writers promise that while the story they tell won't be true, they will do their best to make it seem as real as possible within the context of the pretend world they've created. Non-fiction writers guarantee that they have vetted the story, that they know it is the truth. In return the reader enjoys the added thrill of higher stakes, and they agree to believe the improbable. Truth isn't really stranger than fiction, but readers will believe stranger things if they have a guarantee from the author that these strange things actually happened.

The many controversies over the truth of disputed memoirs (and even works of history) are really about this agreement between writer and reader. They are contract disputes.

I was listening (actually re-listening) to an old This American Life in the car the other day. The segment was about a group called Improv Everywhere. Improv Everywhere is an outfit in New York City that cretaes "missions" in which they stage an alternate reality for unsuspecting people who are going about their ordinary lives. Some people would call them pranks, except pranks are generally targeted at someone in particular, and they usually have a "victim." Improv Everywhere missions are designed to surprise randomly selected, unsuspecting people, to make them happy even, to interrupt the everydayness of their lives. They have staged surprise wedding receptions for couples outside city hall (complete with guests and gifts), and surprise birthday parties in bars (with guests and gifts) for people who were not having an actual birthday that day. They once brought a huge crowd and announcers and even a Jumbotron to a Little League game. The interesting thing about Improv Everywhere is that they create fiction without a contract. You could easily lose a couple hours on their site. I think they're a lot of fun.

The mission described in the episode of TAL involved staging the "Best Gig Ever." IE found a band from Vermont called Ghosts of Pasha. They were on their first tour, playing New York City for the first time, and they had a horrible Sunday night time slot with an expensive cover. IE arranged for 35 people (a fairly packed house in a small club) to line up as paying customers for a show that otherwise would have had three. These "agents" had downloaded all of Ghosts of Pasha's songs from its website and memorized all the words. They made up GoP t-shirts, and some had temporary GoP tattoos. When the band came out, the crowd went wild. They sang along with every song. They shouted requests. They danced. They charged the stage. They demanded an encore. The band ate it up. And when the music ended, their fans disappeared out the door.

The band was confused, but they had had great fun on a night they expected to bomb. They weren't sure what had happened, but they liked the feeling. Three days later, back in Vermont, someone emailed them the mission report from Improv Everywhere's web site. They felt betrayed. Humiliated. The band members fought with each other. They were furious with Improv Everywhere. "We got punk'd," one of them said ruefully.

Contracts work and protect both ways, of course. An artist agrees to perform with passion. With heart. With energy. And an audience agrees to respond with honesty. Well maybe not honesty, necessarily, but their displeasure is expected to be polite and their enthusiasm certainly authentic.

Eventually, Ghosts of Pasha got over it, mostly. They received a lot of attention as a result of the mission. They were a band with no recording contract, not even a full-length record, but they suddenly found themselves in Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone. They embraced their infamy.

But people are still talking about the time it was the audience, not the artist, that violated the contract.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kuala Lumpur Book Fair

During my visit at the Kuala Lumpur Book Fair, my Malaysian publisher asked me to give a talk on crime fiction. I was quite surprised as my books in Malaysia, the ones that have been translated into Bahasa, are my earlier works prior to joining the mystery/thriller book world. For example, my first novel, Burning the Map, became Cuti Cuti Cinta (literal Malay translation: “Love Holidays"), The Night I Got Lucky became Malam Yang Indah (“Beautiful Night,” a title I like more than my own) and The Year of Living Famously is Bukan Cinta Glamor (I confess I never got the translated title of this except to learn that “glamour” means the same thing in Bahasa that it does in English and “cinta” is “love”).

Because I was impressed with KarnaDya, a family-run Malaysian publishing business, and the fantastic job they’d done with my books, I said no problem to the speaking engagement on crime fiction. After all, I’d spoken on this topic numerous times at writer’s conferences, and recently, Marcus Sakey and I had discussed crime fiction at the Midland Authors Society, which was then broadcasted by NPR.

Yet I was surprised when I learned why my publisher wanted me to discuss such a topic—because there are essentially no authors writing crime fiction in the country of Malaysia. (Apparently there’s one, but he had to go to a Chinese publisher in order to sell it). Although Malaysia has a large Muslim population, the reason for the lack of mysteries didn’t seem to be a religious or moral opposition to it. Rather novels in which someone usually dies simply weren’t of interest.

A glance at the country’s newspapers, like the Star and the Straits Times, showed Malaysians certainly aren’t lacking for interesting material. Some of the headlines the day I left were Most Wanted Fugitive Dies in Jail, Ex-doc stabs eight, and Killing of snake seen as bad omen: Workers found reptile just days before their death.

But apparently, times have changed in Malaysia and their authors are ready to start killing off their characters. The talk I gave was attended by newspaper journalists, magazine writers, and three groups of writing students from local universities. I realized I would have to discuss crime fiction in a way I really hadn’t before. I would have to go back to the basics. So I told them about importance of research and knowing your subject matter. Even if most of what you learn doesn’t go into the manuscript, I said, your knowledge gives the book a certain authority, and readers learn they can trust you to nail the details. I talked about how many mystery novels contain beautiful writing, but gorgeous prose doesn’t make a mystery novel; the plot does. And that plot has to hit almost on page one or at least be foreshadowed there.

There were many questions about whether a crime writer could get into trouble for writing a book that closely shadowed real life events. I explained that in the U.S. copyright laws protect you if you’re writing fiction, and criminally, you can’t get arrested for writing about someone who sounds an awful lot like a local politician. Yet I soon learned about a set of laws in Malaysia that allow someone to be arrested without cause. Kind of like our ‘enemy combatant’ version, but used much more frequently. So maybe they had cause for concern. Maybe that was the real reason there was no crime fiction in Malaysia.

I left Malaysia loving the country and the people as much as I love my publishers. But as I settled in for a long flight home and delved into writing, playing around with a character that resembles a certain police chief from Chicago, I was glad to be heading home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Realities of Independent Publishing

We have a special guest today--I asked my friend the multi-award-winning Alison Janssen, editor of Tyrus Books (formerly of Bleak House) if she would be willing to share her insight into the independent publishing world. Alison not only came back with a dynamite article, but also threw in an offer for Outfit readers. Hope you enjoy!

-Marcus Sakey


Let’s get transparent!

As some of you may already know, I’m the senior editor and part owner (along with Ben LeRoy) of a new(ish) independent publishing company, Tyrus Books. Before we started Tyrus, Ben and I worked together at Bleak House Books, a company he founded in, oh, ninteen-aught-six, I think.

In any case, last July we launched Tyrus, and we’ve so far seen a fair amount of critical success, with our first title, Silver Lake, by Peter Gadol, named a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction, and our second release, Double Exposure, by Michael Lister, a winner of a Florida Book Award. We recently received a starred review in Publishers Weekly for our fourth title, Hello Kitty Must Die, by debut author Angela S. Choi, and we’re garnering lots of press attention for our big short story collection, Delta Blues (edited by Carolyn Haines), and our literacy efforts in partnership with the Mississippi Writers Guild and the charitable donations we’ll be making to the Rock River Foundation.

But I’m not here today to talk to you about critical attention, awards, press, book trailers, or why I hate it when an author uses the word “never” when first describing a character. I’m here to talk to you about the number one challenge faced by independent publishers. Here it is:

Cash. Flow.

What a boring challenge! You were hoping I’d say that our single biggest challenge is keeping our authors plied with just enough whiskey to get them writing that great dark fiction, but not so much that they puke into their keyboards, huh? Or maybe you were hoping that our most oppressive obstacle is figuring out the right angle at which to sling our slingshot, so that we accurately take down our Goliath-like competition and become Kings (and Queens) of Crime Fiction?

But no, in the day-to-day trenches of independent crime fiction publishing, it’s cash flow that reigns. I guess it’s probably the same situation with many small start-up businesses. While Ben and I don’t suffer under the weight of an expensive lease for offices (yay, work from home!), we do have printing bills, freelance proofreaders, and designers to pay. Our authors receive advances (most of them do—we do have some exciting experiments in contracts happening at Tyrus), and we also do some limited advertising, trade show appearances, and promotional material creation. We have a website to keep up, and advance review copies to print, and every so often one of us takes a paycheck.

So that’s all money going out our door, and as for the money coming in, well, that’s on a fairly significant time delay. Like how my best friend lives in Seattle and I live in Madison and I have to be careful not to call her at ten on a Saturday morning because that would be mean. Only instead of a two hour difference, the difference between when we pay for a book and when we receive money from the sales of that that book is more like six months. Which means we need to have a fairly large reserve under the mattress to keep up with our cash flow needs, especially as we’re new and don’t have a deep back-list to generate slow and steady sales.

I’m sure this is not news for most—you visit The Outfit often and hear these wonderful authors talking about the industry. You probably know about sell-in and sell-through and returns and distribution and all of the system’s intricacies. Or, you have a vague idea and frankly don’t care to know more, because it’s not the publishing industry that interests you, but the books. The writing. The authors. And you shouldn’t have to understand the industry to enjoy the product. Goodness knows I have no idea how a Cadbury Creme Egg is made, but oh my gosh do I love them, and this time of year, when they are available on every counter display.

But here’s what I’m driving at in this already long-winded blog post. (Thank you, Marcus, for indulging me.) I would like to encourage all readers to buy crime fiction direct from the people who love it most, and who will most benefit from your dollars.

That means heading to your local indie bookstore to pick up the latest John Grisham. That means going to signings at your local library, and buying a book from the author while you’re there. That means buying direct online from indie publishers, rather than ordering through Amazon.

Yes, that also probably means paying a bit more for a book.

But listen. By buying direct from authors, indie bookstores, and indie publishers, you are helping us maintain our businesses. You are directly contributing to our bottom line. You, good reader, are making a difference.

Just like you like to buy your produce direct from local farmers at your local farmer’s market, I’d like you to consider buying your books direct from your favorite sources.

Many indie publishers offer direct sales through their websites, including Akashic, Busted Flush, and other, non-crime-fiction-focused publishers like McSweeney’s. We do, too, and we’d like to extend a big thank you to anyone who pre-orders one of our Spring 2010 titles direct. Use the code “theoutfit,” and we’ll give you $3 off. It’s a token of our appreciation for your support. And if you like the look of our upcoming titles, consider a subscription.

You can also buy direct from your local indie bookstore. Try IndieBound to find one close to you, and be sure to check out their events page. Every author loves a robust audience at their signing events.

It’s an interesting time in publishing, and in the world. Lots of people are focused on neighborhood-based, locally sourced food and goods for their homes. Etsy has become a wonderful way to support indie artists and craftspeople in all geographic regions. I’m asking you here, today, to take the extra step, the next time you see a book you want. Look to see if it’s available at your local bookstore. Check the author and publisher websites, try to order direct instead of through third party online vendors.

Even just one book sale can make a difference to an indie publisher.


You can follow Alison on Twitter, and read her blog every Thursday at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room. Subscribe to the Tyrus Books newsletter here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Shoe, Meet Other Foot

by Diane Peron-Gelman

A Chicago native and history buff, Diane Piron-Gelman is both a freelance writer and editor with nearly twenty years’ experience in the field. Her first novel, NO LESS IN BLOOD is forthcoming from Five Star in February, 2011. She has graciously volunteered to guest post on the conflict between writing and editing.

The note from Roz hit my email box on August 11th. The first part sent me into a delighted tizzy: “I will ask Five Star for approval to acquire your book!” The next sentence started out pretty well, too—until I got to the final word. “You received an enthusiastic recommendation from the reviewer—Deni—who will be your Editor.”

Editor. Oh. That.

I’ve been an editor for Five Star since 2003 or so. (I’m past forty, with two kids; Swiss-cheese brain can make me hazy on details.) For a decade-plus prior to that, I worked as an editor for publishers of role-playing games and comic books. I’ve also written my share of RPG source fiction, comic-book scripts and catalog copy, plus one short story—and in all that time, I’d never been edited by anybody. Except me.

So now I have an editor who isn’t me. Wonder what this’ll be like?

Never mind that I know Deni, had edited a marvelous novel of hers, and had every reason to a) respect her expertise, and b) trust her with my literary firstborn. Never mind that Five Star editors bend over backward to respect each author’s voice—a skill I had to learn when I started working for them, coming as I did out of the game industry where everything’s work-for-hire and not a lot of people know how to write well (which meant wholesale rewrites were normal to turn a rough manuscript into a saleable book). I was nervous. What if Deni thought I’d messed something up—some character’s pivotal action or insight, some vital turning point—and what if she was right? Impostor Syndrome stirred and muttered. What if my manuscript came back all marked up with red lines and changes and notes? How would I handle it? Would I ever have confidence in my writing again?

You’d think I’d know better. Whatever Deni found would be something that needed fixing. That’s what editors do. I may be one, and pretty whiz-bang at catching my own typos and errors, but that doesn’t mean another set of trained eyes doesn’t work. So after I stopped hyperventilating at the thought of Terrible Hidden Flaws in My Manuscript, I decided I would grow up and take what came.

Which, in the end, wasn’t as much as I’d feared. I did manage to completely mess up the in-house formatting, and was duly smacked for it (“btw, I know you must have a good reason for not formatting?????? Seriously, even your margins were wrong.”), but everything else turned out to be fairly small. I found myself enormously reassured—because I knew Deni would’ve found any bigger problems that were there. And worked with me to fix them. Bottom line, I had nothing to be afraid of, and a better book to gain.

So has this experience changed how I edit? Yes and no. I still pretty much do what I do, but I hope I'm more sensitive. After all, I do feel your pain.

What about you? Do you have a fear-factor response at the thought of being edited? How about making the transition between editor and writer? How do you do it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

You have to be crazy to do this job.

by Barbara D'Amato

The connection between madness and creativity – “genius is akin to madness” – has been described at least anecdotally for centuries. The ancient Greeks were well aware of it. Think centuries. Think Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace.

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine “Depression’s Upside” [Feb. 25, 2010] David F. Cooper pulls together some fascinating research on the connection between depression and creativity.

Neuroscientist Nancy Andreason surveyed thirty writers from the Iowa Writers Workshop and found that eighty percent of them reported a mental history that met the criteria for depression. She believes that this is symptomatic of a cognitive style that favors creativity because in creation of art “one of the most important qualities is persistence.”

Professor of psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison performed biographical studies of British writers and artists and concluded that successful individuals were eight times as likely to have suffered major depressive illness.

In an inventive experiment, Australian social psychologist Joe Forgas placed a variety of random trinkets near cash register. He kept records. On a grey day, he played Verdi’s Requiem; on a sunny day he played Gilbert and Sullivan. After the shoppers had exited, he asked them to recall the items. On gloomy days, they got more right. They were more attentive to reality.

The idea behind this as it relates to writing is that more negative people are more aware of their surroundings and more critical of what they write. They keep at it and are not easily satisfied. It is the relentless focus typical of negative depressive rumination.

You can easily imagine a happy person saying, “Well that’s good enough!” and submitting his rather sloppy short story.

Most of the people who say to me or my friends, “You must be crazy to do this!” are responding to finding out that we work months or years and make little money. Maybe we are just peculiarly persistent. I object to calling this “crazy” because it isn’t. I don’t even like depression termed a mental illness. We have some people in my family, both older and younger than I, who have depression problems. I prefer to call it a condition. But it is painful and nothing to belittle.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Losing Yourself

by David Ellis

The other day, some friends and I were talking about movies—probably owing to the recent Oscars—and then to great performances. Heath Ledger came up and someone told me he fell into the school of “immersion” acting. The idea, as I understand it, is “becoming” your character all the time, staying in role 24/7, wearing the Joker make-up even when off the set.

(Note: Wearing Joker makeup 24/7 only counts as immersion acting if, in fact, you are playing the Joker in a movie; otherwise it’s considered creepy.)

Then someone asked me if I immerse myself in my characters. In the traditional sense, the answer is no. I don’t become my protagonist all the time. I don’t see how any writer could do that. It’s the difference, I suppose, between an actor playing a character and a writer scribbling out that character plus everything else around that character. The writer is covering more ground than just that one person. (See witty banter between Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. at the Oscars.)

But it raises an interesting and related question. Obviously, we all try to get inside the heads of our characters every time we plot an action they would take, a thought they would have, dialogue they would speak. But do we practice a mini-version of immersion?

I do so but only sparingly. I once wrote about a serial killer and found that I was writing more powerful prose if I was listening to violent rap music. Sometimes when I have to write a “mood” scene I think about what I want the mood to be and then put on music that gets me in that frame of mind. And sometimes it works the other way—I happen to have on some music that ends up altering my mood and the prose seems to adjust accordingly.

It’s not only music; at times I have used television or movies, but less as a deliberative choice. I don’t necessarily decide to watch something on a particular topic to get me in the mood to write a certain scene or point of view, but if something I watch gets me in that mood, I will try to take advantage of it. Especially because these days, when I’m writing, it’s sometime past midnight and my general mood is tired and cranky.

I would be interested in what others do. Time to write being at a minimum for me, I’ll take any crutch or inspiration I can get. And I am continually surprised at how much I learn from other writers and readers on this blog. Do any of you try to get (and stay) in role, playing your protagonist in real life, even for a short time?

That’s it for me, for now. It’s time to get some sleep and this damn clown make-up takes a long time to scrub off.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St Pat’s and a non sequitur

by Michael Dymmoch

Monday morning I had to go downtown and I wasn’t surprised to see the Chicago River was already green. I was taken aback by the green fluid spouting from the fountain in the Daley Center Plaza. I know. I know. Green everything is a March tradition in Chicago, which seems to have adopted the Irish saint as its official patron. Somehow the green fountain just seemed wrong. Even more wrong than green beer, or the green hair that seems more prevalent around March 17th.

Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day anyway.

If you ask any two participants about a mystery convention, you might conclude from their answers that they'd attended different conferences. From my point of view (a Chicagoan's), Left Coast Crime 2010 was nearly perfect. The weather was in the upper fifties, and overcast the first day but not raw, not snowing or pouring. The “stars” of the show—Jan Burke, Robert Crais, Steven Cannell, Michael Connelly, and Lee Child—formed a constellation far brighter than most conventions offer. And the event was well organized and well run. Panels were—for the most part—interesting and spaced far enough apart for attendees to hit the loo, the book room and the signing line before the next event began.

Some of the highlights:

Robert Crais, Steven Cannell and Michael Connelly interviewed by Jan Burke.

A serious panel on humor in mysteries.

The first rides on the historic Angel’s Flight trolley in three years.

Michael Connelly.

Lee Child.

The only glitch—lunch was delayed on Saturday due to the sort of misunderstanding writers frequently insert in their stories. (Someone at the caterer’s wrote down the wrong time on the order form, so the sandwiches were being constructed as they should have been delivered.) But that gave us a topic to discuss with total strangers while we waited, and made the food seem even better when it arrived.

All in all, if you missed LCC 2010, you missed a great good time.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And another thing...

So, we got dinner from the Times Square Bistro & Pizzeria last night. If you find yourself in Milwaukee, you must check it out.

  • I recommend the Italian sausage sandwich.
  • The Mouse recommends the deep-fried macaroni & cheese.
  • Jon Jordan recommends the pizza.
  • Ruth Jordan recommends the mango-habanero chocolates.
  • Agent 99 recommends the banana-chipotle chocolates.

Did your eyes just deceive you? NO! Banana-chipotle-chocolate? Mango-habanero-chocolate? What a party in the mouth! There's a lot going on with these creations - different layers of flavor that roll over the tongue, tickle the mouth with spice...

Sean Henninger is a f**king genius. An artist with chocolate and things that you might not immediately expect to go with chocolate. Your life will never be complete unless you experience what this dude does with chocolate.

Seriously. We ALL recommend the chocolates.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Story Week . . .

by Sean Chercover

Writing to you from Chez Jordan, having stopped along the highway to introduce Agent 99 and The Mouse to Mars Cheese Castle, where the Mouse became the proud owner of a cheesehead hat...

Tomorrow, after a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum, we return to Chicago, and I get back to the Columbia College Story Week Festival.

Marcus and I were at Martyrs' on Sunday for the opening night reception, and had a great time. Today featured faculty readings at the college, Joyce Carol Oates at the Harold Washington Library, and more.

If you've missed the first two days of the festival, do not despair. Note, it is not called Story Two Days, but Story Week. There are readings and interviews and panels and much more, all week long (Marcus interviews thriller master David Morrell on Thursday afternoon, and reads at Metro later that night; I'll be reading on Friday night at SmartBar).

There's a ton to see and hear, and it don't cost nuthin', so check the Story Week schedule, and come on down for some fiction and fun. Oh, and many of the events take place in bars, so there's really no downside.

Hope to see you at some story week event, sometime this week.

Thanks to my alma mater, Columbia College Chicago, for putting on Story Week each year, and for just being generally awesome.

Where do you get your ideas?

By David Heinzmann

There’s a line in my novel, A Word To The Wise, about the state of the Outfit (the real wise guys, not our friendly little group), warning people that though the mob may seem like an anachronism in this day and age, getting in their way can still be deadly.

It’s an issue that comes up often these days, especially since the Family Secrets trial a few years ago put the top management of the Outfit behind bars. Is there still a potent mob in Chicago? Or is it at this point just a handful of old farts eating out on Taylor Street and talking about the old days.

Not long after I moved to Chicago in the mid-1990s, some friends who knew Taylor Street well told me about eating in one of the joints over there and being seated next to a “going away party.” One of the diners was headed to federal prison. They had a cake and everything, and my friends overheard one of the guys cackle, “Ah, this is just like fucking Goodfellas.”

Every once in a while we’re treated to a little news that brings the real Outfit back into focus, to suggest how organized crime works in the 21st Century. Allegedly.

At the end of last week the U.S. Attorney in Chicago filed charges against Rudy Fratto, a reputed honcho in the Outfit for rigging contracts at the McCormick Place convention center here.

The feds said that Fratto, a lieutenant in the Elmwood Park street crew, also known to some as “The Chin,” squeezed the owner of a trade show company to steer contracts to rent forklifts to a firm favored by the mob. Part of the leverage Fratto allegedly used was a debt the company owner owed to the Cleveland mob.

Fratto and his co-defendant, William “Billy D” Degironemo, have pleaded not guilty.
McCormick Place, along with Navy Pier, are a publicly owned enterprise that are managed jointly by city and state officials. The mammoth complex has long been vulnerable to the influence of organized crime in Chicago. A who’s who of Outfoot foot soldiers were on the McCormick Place payroll in the 1970s. News of mob influence at the convention center comes at a lousy time for McCormick Place, which has been losing big trade shows left and right to other cities, like Orlando and Las Vegas, which have big convention centers that charge much lower prices.

This isn’t the first time Fratto’s name has come up tangled with the alleged influence of the Outfit in government business. Back in the late 1990s, the Illinois Gaming Board planned to grant a license for a new casino in Rosemont, right next to O’Hare airport. But before the Emerald casino could be built, investigators found evidence that the Outfit was pulling the strings of the development. At the heart of that story: Rudy Fratto.

Investigators said the mayor Rosemont had meetings with Fratto and other reputed mobsters about the casino, and that organized crime had a stake in the development that had been masked by a façade of legitimate owners of record. The casino plan was scuttled.

I never covered the Emerald scandal as a reporter, but I’ll admit it gave me a couple ideas.

In A Word To The Wise Chicago officials decide to build a casino downtown on the banks of the Chicago River. But just as the developers are about the break ground, the feds get a tip that mobsters are controlling the project behind a façade of legitimate front men. As the authorities start peeling back the layers of the deal, all the mobsters scramble for cover, killing several people along the way. Like, I said, the casino case gave me an idea, but I took it from there and fully fictionalized the story.

I hope Mr. Fratto doesn’t think I owe him anything.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Look Out Strange Cat People

By Kevin Guilfoile

It's that time of year when I point the readers of this site to one of my other Internet side projects. The Sixth Annual Powell's/Field Notes Tournament of Books has started over at The Morning News, where I am a contributing writer. If you're unfamiliar, this is the annual event in which 16 of the most-hyped, best-reviewed books of the past year are seeded into an NCAA basketball-type bracket and pitted against one another in a "Battle Royale of Literary Excellence." The idea occurred many years ago after I and several of my TMN cohorts had consumed way too much wine and it is now an corporate sponsored event and the only Book Award I'm aware of in which the winning author is threatened with the presentation of a live rooster.

Every day, a celebrity judge (usually an author, blogger, or entertainer) will advance one of two books he or he has been assigned to read. He will also explain his reasons for the decision. After the competition is whittled down to two, a pair of eliminated books will come back from the dead, boosted by the votes of readers and fans, to reenter the competition in the Zombie Round. Then all of the judges tackle the final two books and render their judgment, with the winning author threatened with the presentation of a live rooster. Past year's champions have included David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Cormac McCarthy, Junot Diaz, and Toni Morrison.

John Warner and I add commentary following each judgment. This year John read almost all the books on the Kindle. I read more than half of them, all the old-fashioned way, and our discussion so far has frequently been about the contrast between those experiences. The other day I mentioned that McSweeney's had put such care into the design of Bill Cotter's Fever Chart that I couldn't imagine absorbing it on an e-reader and coming away with the same experience.

I have only a very little to do with the mysterious and arbitrary process in which the final 16 books are chosen, and nobody makes the claim that these were the "16 best books of 2009." But now that everybody's had a few more months to catch up on last year's releases, what were your favorite books of last year?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Should You E-Publish on Kindle?

by Joe Konrath

Joe Konrath, a Chicago author and a friend of many Outfit members, has been getting a lot of attention lately (including Entertainment Weekly a few days ago) for the number of books he’s been selling on Kindle, books that he hasn’t otherwise sold to his publishers. I asked Joe if other writers should follow in his footsteps and whether it mattered if such writers were already established or were new writers.
--Laura Caldwell

My name is J.A. Konrath, and I'm a self-publisher.

That's not all I am. I've got seven books in print through major New York houses, and eight more on the way. But lately I've been getting a lot of attention for the ebooks I put up on Amazon Kindle. In eleven months, I've sold over 32,000 of them.

It began as an accident. When my first novel came out in 2004, I put some of my earlier, unsold novels on my website,, as free downloads. Then the Kindle came along a few years ago, and Kindlers asked if I could upload these ebooks on Amazon so they could read it on their device. Amazon doesn't allow authors to post books for free, so I listed four novels and a handful of short stories for $1.99 each.

Now I'm well on my way to earning about $40k this year just in ebook revenue. I've also had many authors, including a few NYT bestsellers, get in touch with me to ask if they should try this as well.

My answer is: absolutely.

If you're a professional writer, and have some out-of-print novels, some shelf novels, or some previously published short stories, get them up on Kindle.

If you've got an agent who shopped around a manuscript but couldn't sell it, get it up on Kindle.

If you're a newbie author who just finished a first novel, DON'T get it up on Kindle.

Yes, I'm making enough money to pay all of my household bills, but everyone's mileage varies. I'm currently outselling a lot of big name authors, and I have no solid idea why. I suspect it's a combination of name-recognition, my past self-promotional efforts, a popular blog, and decent book covers, product descriptions, prices, and stories. But I'm really not sure, and a lot of authors with good covers and low prices are selling in much smaller numbers than I am.

Self-publishing on Kindle works best if you're already an established author, and you want to make your unavailable work available again. Every dollar you make is extra. It's like found money.

If you're a new author, your best bet is still to go the traditional print route, and find an agent and a publisher. That's where the real money is, and where the majority of the readers are.

Over the past year, I've been writing a lot about Amazon Kindle, and ebooks. I'm at

And if you want to find my Kindle books, just go to Amazon and search for "Konrath." Or look on the Kindle bestseller lists...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Game of the Name

By Bryan Gruley

My first novel came out last March. But I knew what the protagonist’s name would be more than twenty-five years ago.


At signings and book clubs, readers frequently ask, “Where do you get the names of your characters?” Maybe the better question is, “Where do you get the characters for your names?”

I have read about authors (Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist, a murder mystery disguised as a literary novel, comes to mind) who painstakingly construct their characters, writing down detailed notes about each before committing them to the narrative at hand.

Maybe I’m too lazy or just too day-job-strapped, but I don’t do much if any of that. To some extent, I rely on the names I decide to use to lead me to those detailed descriptions, which I then keep, mostly, in my head.

Indeed, the names of most of my main characters came to me before I knew how the characters would look, sound, or behave. Some of them—the personas, that is--derived from names I’ve encountered in my life or my job (note, incidentally, that I feel compelled to separate those two).

The surname for Pine County Sheriff Dingus Aho, for instance, was inspired by an old man I wrote about on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Toivo Aho organized an annual outhouse-on-skis race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“Aho,” I was told then, is a rather common Finnish name. I stole it. “Dingus,” which I’ve heard is German and Scottish, just came to me, and I attached the two. I was aware that they probably didn’t go together well, and perhaps that’s why Dingus, despite being the sheriff, is a man who stands a bit outside the inner circle of his town, looking in.

Some of my readers might think Jack Blackburn is so named because of the blackness of his deeds. Not so. “Jack” came from a coach I knew from afar—a fine coach and man, so far as I knew—and “Blackburn” just came to me, maybe because of the interior rhyme. In fact, late in the novel I considered whether to change the name for fear that some might think it too heavy-handed. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

For less-crucial names attached to incidental places and establishments in and around the town of Starvation Lake, I frequently borrowed the names of pals. Thinnes Park is named for an old Kalamazoo friend who loves softball. The Detroit law firm Eagan, MacDonald & Browne is named for Eegs, Mac and Brownee, some of my oldest and best friends in Detroit. Enright’s is named for Fr. Jim “Punch” Enright, one of my high school coaches. (Come to think of it, I can’t believe I’ve never personally encountered a bar named Enright’s. A Google search reveals Enright’s Thirst Parlor in Rochester, N.Y., where, “You won't be alone if you stop in for a drink at 10 a.m. on a Saturday.” Good to know.)

I have lots of fun thinking up or borrowing or outright stealing names (as I did with the name of the town, which comes from the name of a lake near my family’s cottage in northern lower Michigan). Two names in my next novel—Philo Beech and Parmelee Gilbert—were pilfered directly from a non-fiction anthology of Michigan murders.

But I don’t mean to suggest that naming names is haphazard or gratuitous. As Marcus intimated in his latest blog, characters can help define the plot. I’ll take that a step further--or would that be backward?--and say I think names can define characters.

Soupy Campbell? He must be a dissolute former hockey star. Elvis Bontrager, of course, equals local soapbox blowhard. Darlene Esper shapes a shapely and elusive beauty who keeps her true thoughts as but a whisper to herself. Clayton Perlmutter is a scalawag you could almost love. Francis Dufresne sounds harmless, which in a mystery often connotes danger.

My next book was inspired by a line that came to me in the middle of the night: They found her hanging in the shoe tree at the edge of Starvation Lake. Within seconds, I knew her name: Gracie. Not Grace, but Gracie. She is, as a friend put it, a wrecked woman. “Gracie” puts a more sympathetic face on her, but “Grace” alone would be altogether too dignified for her troubled past.

As for my first-person narrator, Gus Carpenter might suggest someone who builds things, someone who’s good with their hands. I had no such notions in mind.
When I was working at the Kalamazoo Gazette in the early 1980s, I heard a tale about a story that had graced the Gazette front page years before. The article profiled a local man who’d won medals for his war heroism as a Green Beret. Readers loved the story.

A few days later, the Green Beret told the Gazette that he’d made the whole thing up. He’d never been a hero or won any medals. But I presumed that he wished he’d been a hero. And I decided then and there that I would name the main character in my first novel after him: Augustus Carpenter.

How do you name your fictional people, places and things?

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Writers, The Oscars, and “Sickly little mole people”

I laughed at Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. when they faced off while presenting the original screenplay award. Their byplay was light, comic, and had just the right amount of truth about how writers feel about their words.

But the question remains: are we writers “sickly little mole people?”


I’m debut, so I have a fresh view of this new world that I’m frequenting, and I can tell you that as a group I find writers to be friendly, interesting, curious, intense, and laugh out loud funny. They’re often quite a bit more relaxed than lawyers, (the world I inhabited for most of my career) and definitely less stressed.

There is an aspect to crime, mystery, and thriller writers that goes a step further. They’re excellent observers of people, and are able to inhabit the mind of their antagonists with often haunting reality, and, yes, this tends to lead to some peculiarities among them. There are some who retreat to their condos for days at a time, emerging only to get a restock of the whiskey and some bagels, some who spend their time writing from midnight to five am and then sleep all day, and some who are so impressed with themselves that they forget to be gracious.

I imagine that you can think of a few people in your own profession that act exactly the same way. The deal with writers, though, is that we can do all this to an extreme, because others will shrug, call us “creative,” and give us a pass. If you’re the nurse working the day shift and showing up late for work, you probably won’t get the same consideration.

I couldn’t help but agree with Tina Fey, though, that for all their quirks, writers create the stories that the actors bring to life, and dialogue in the story is often the key to the telling when you're dealing with a screenplay. A writer sweats blood to have a character say just the right line at the perfect time. If the writer does her job, the dialogue should fit the character, advance the story, and seem completely natural. For an actor to improvise and change the line can often defeat the purpose. It’s a little like working with an editor. They give you nudges, debate the merits of a line, paragraph, or word choice, and in the end it becomes a bit of a compromise between you as to how the sentence will finally read.

While I laughed through the interchange between Downey and Fey, I still knew that Fey was on the better side of things. I’ll bet she wrote the “sickly little mole people" line that Downey used as the perfect retort. After all, she’s a writer.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Whole Thing Stinks...

by Libby Hellmann

There are signs of spring on the North Shore of Chicago: the cold is loosening its grip, the sun has returned, the crocuses are poking up, and the air is scented with…

The stink of skunks.

Those of you who live up here know there has been a population explosion of skunks over the past few years. There is nowhere you can go up here without breathing in skunk spray. Or seeing one in the road. Or hearing about the travails of home owners whose decks and stoops have been infested and their pets skunked. (You’re about to get an earful from me).

But here’s the thing. No one in authority is talking about this. There is a conspiracy of silence where skunks are concerned. It’s a massive cover-up. I suppose I understand… What would happen to the tony North Shore if it were known to be overrun with skunks? What would happen to home sales? Property values? Taxes? It gets even stranger. Several years ago there was a concerted community response when an overpopulation of deer threatened the day lilies and gardens of North Shore property owners. Despite protests from animal lovers, the deer were quickly culled. Shot. End of problem. So, why no response to the skunks, who are a lot more destructive than little Bambi?

This should be a no-brainer. But it isn’t.

Which means we who are afflicted must act on our own. And I have. I am waging war. No namby-pamby avoidance tricks like red pepper flakes or coyote urine for me. I am so sick (and nauseated) by the situation that nothing less than a full frontal assault will do. I am taking back my deck. And the air. I called the trapper.

He came armed with a trap and set it up just outside the entrance to the den. He promised it wouldn’t be hard to trap them; February and March are mating season so the only bait you need is a female.

Btw, I now know more about skunks habits and habitats than I ever wanted to. For example, did you know they rotate between dens? Like terrorists who sleep in a different place every night, so do skunks. And did you know that, contrary to popular belief, skunks do not ONLY spray when threatened? When a female wants to reject a male, she sprays. When two males are fighting over a female, they spray. And they have. Many times. Under my deck. Turns out my deck has been a frigging brothel.

So, we set the trap. Nothing happened for a couple of days. Then one night, I was awakened around 2 AM by – what else – the stink of skunk. When it penetrates into the house, btw, it’s impossible to sleep. Sure enough, next morning we had trapped a female skunk. (You can just see her in the trap)

Two days later, we caught another one. This one at least had the courtesy not to spray until dawn. The stink is still working its way out.

There have been no more for the past few days and I’m about to permanently board up the last entrance to the den. But it’s too soon to claim victory – my neighbors are still harboring the creatures, and skunks like to reclaim familiar territory.

I will keep you posted.

And yes, the trapper euthanizes them. For all you animal lovers who think skunks should be relocated to live out their demented lives in peace, I invite you over to my place for a couple of days. You take a whiff, then decide what course of action to take. Actually, I think I ought to invite Pat Quinn, Mark Kirk, Dan Seales, and all the village executives over for drinks, too. Then maybe we'll get somewhere.

What do you think?

P.S. On a totally different subject, if you're a writer, you really need to read this essay by Lev Raphael. It spoke to me. I hope it does to you, too.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Golden Ten Percent

by Barbara D'Amato

You're writing a crime novel. You've worked out a surprise ending. You want it to make sense when the reader arrives at the end, but not to be so obvious that readers go "Aw--I saw that coming." Since readers differ in their ability to deduce, as well as their desire to deduce--like the reader who says, "I try not to guess the ending; that ruins the surprise," -- how far do you go in planting clues?

You might feel good about producing a book that in your opinion was obvious enough so that ten per cent of the readers can deduce, not guess, whodunnit and ninety percent can't. You would delight in the rest being surprised, but telling themselves they had every reason to know the guilty party.

Agatha Christie said that she didn't understand why people didn't guess her endings early on, they seemed so obvious to her. And indeed most of her Marples and Poirots really play fair with the reader. I suspect that she knew perfectly well she was hitting a golden mean of obfuscation.

Where this is really critical, of course, is the traditional puzzle mystery.

Ellery Queen issued a challenge to the reader. Somewhere near the end of the novel was a boxed announcement, saying that the reader now had all the clues that Ellery Queen had seen and that only one solution was possible. I believe his first mystery carrying this challenge was THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, but it became a feature in several novels after that. The challenge boxes were inserted at the proper place in the manuscript after typesetting. I would imagine that the writers, Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, would have been happy if ten or fifteen percent of their readers got it. Then the rest could exclaim "Of course! I should have seen that."

However, the same balance is important in a private eye novel where there is no assumption that the reader will deduce the ending. The reader may find out the explanation at the same time that the shamus does. Or the thriller. Take something like the double-twist, triple-twist endings of Harlan Coben. They may be astonishing, but they can't be out of left field. They have to be satisfying.

Satisfying, of course, is not the same thing as predictable.

Challenge to the reader. Challenge to the writer.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Scary Funny

by David Ellis

For the last couple of my books, I’ve tried to focus on my strengths in writing. There was a time when I was really into experimenting but then I started to think, why should I experiment on the reader? I wouldn’t want someone to experiment on me.

So instead of trying to write from a female point of view or writing a novel in reverse chronological order, I thought I should go back to the things I was doing when I first got into the business. I figured my strength was writing a thriller with a wise-ass, first-person protagonist.

But while it’s been great fun in most ways, it’s also been challenging. I find a natural tension between humor and suspense. A real edge-of-your-seat, ticking-clock thriller with a laugh on every page? Hard to do. The occasional wise crack from the cool hero? Sure. But sustained humor? It’s a real challenge.

I want a protagonist who sees everything with a jaded view, who internally (to the reader) makes fun of situations and people, who manages to put a humorous spin on everything. But does that really work when said protagonist has only 'til midnight to solve the case, or they execute the innocent man?

So, I ask two things of our good readers. One, if you would please explain to me how to combine these two elements in one novel. In a hundred words or less, with monosyllabic words.

And second, what is your favorite example of the pulsating thriller with lots of laughs?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Crime poetry…

by Michael Dymmoch

...sounds like an oxymoron. Poetry is refined. And literary. It’s not something usually associated with crime. But “the ultimate economy” is an art form that lends itself surprisingly well to the subject, to the damage crime inflicts, to the emotions crime arouses. We like crime fiction because it deals with the most serious subjects. And it’s dramatic. It plays with our fears, threatens our hopes. It lets us deal with horrifying subjects at a little distance. Poetry does all that too—but more economically. In good poetry, the point is never lost in a forest of verbiage, the plot never wanders. Far more than in prose, each word has to be precisely right, a sniper’s killshot.

I recently had the opportunity to preview the latest issue of The Lineup, an annual chapbook of poems launched in July 2008 by Poetic Justice Press. According to the website, “We do not intend to sensationalize or glorify crime. We ask for poets' honest, powerful reactions to what they see as crime. Gratuitous anything is discouraged.”

I’m not an expert on poetry, but I found issue 3 to be amazinging! Consider this from “Another Hallway Altar in the Projects,” by Jackie Sheeler:
One haggard afternoon lifted its funeral skirts,
tucked a gradeschool girl underneath —

or from “Anthony Baez”:
So I squeezed his neck.
I learned it in Academy.
I didn’t squeeze too hard, only
hard enough. We had a riot
situation in the street…

and “Panic,” by Francine Witte:
is two men runnin’, scissor legs
cuttin’ up the streets, and the guy
they killed, back there in the house,
his body empty as a coat…

The Lineup represents crime from a number of points of view—criminals', cops' and victims'. What’s common to all the poems is the way a story is presented and emotion evoked with an amazing economy of language.

Many of the contributors are professional poets, but at least one is a cop, and many are the authors of short stories or novels. And one—who would have guessed?—is tough guy Reed Farrel Coleman.

BTW The Lineup, vol 3 is available in April at,, or select independent bookstores.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

You People Are All In My Head...

by Sean Chercover

There comes a point for me, while writing a book, when the made-up world inside my head becomes almost as real as the world outside my head.

Maybe this isn't something I should admit. Maybe I should see a head-doctor.

Or not.

Anyway, this used to happen a lot: I'd be sitting there having dinner with Agent 99, and I'd just kind of drift away... And then Agent 99 would say, "You're writing your book right now," or, "You're in your head," or something like that. I'm not sure of her exact words, because I wasn't really listening. I was busy, in my head, writing my book.

Which didn't make me the ideal husband.

I've curtailed such drifts lately, because I want to be with Agent 99 and The Mouse when we're together, not just in body, but in mind.

Still, something had to go away for me to get the necessary time inside my head.

And I've found that it is the rest of the world that goes away.

I'm now in the home stretch of my current novel (or, close to the home stretch) - well past the midpoint crisis where I become convinced that the book sucks and I suck and everything sucks, and now cruising along happily in my made-up world, which has become almost as real as the real world.

I love that headspace. I also love that I can now leave it behind and spend time with Agent 99 and The Mouse, building snowmen and snowdogs and snow forts, having snowball wars, tobogganing, playing Joe Mannix, watching the Backyardigans and Wonder Pets and Penguins of Madagascar, reading bedtime stories, and so on.

Life is full. So, as I mentioned above, the rest of the world has gone away.

Things I have missed:
  • There was an Olympics (I did see the final hockey game, which was awesome, and the closing ceremonies, which was about as far from awesome as Chicago is from Istanbul).
  • The Democrats seem to have made a complete mess of their mandate.
  • Somebody changed the rules of the Oscars, and now there are 163 movies nominated for Best Picture.
  • I haven't seen any of them.
  • Sarah Palin still exists.
  • Facebook and Twitter still exist (and I am cautiously dipping my toe back in those waters).
  • Toyotas have rebelled against their owners and are now driving themselves.
  • There's a new reality show where people like Madonna and Alec Baldwin give marriage advice. Really.
  • Jay Leno is back on the Tonight Show, and I'll still be watching Letterman.
All in all, I prefer the world inside my head.

Oh, and those crazy penguins...

Monday, March 01, 2010

Can you go home again?

By David Heinzmann

There’s a two-lane road that runs north out of Peoria, cutting through miles of black dirt that was wide-open cropland when I was a teenager growing up in the area.

I think I drove it just once back then, plodding along warily in the darkness behind the wheel of my little Plymouth, looking for the turnoff to a pasture where some kid I barely knew had spread the word of a party—a keg of beer, a sleeve of plastic cups and a bunch of kids stumbling around in the weeds getting drunk, separated by miles of emptiness from the nearest parent or patrol car.

Today, that road is a main thoroughfare through the heart of Peoria’s subdivision sprawl. It’s not far from my in-laws’ home and I drove it over the weekend while I was in town for a book signing. Thousands of new homes have blanketed the rolling landscape over the last decade, and new schools have sprouted while the old downtown schools decay or close. This new growth is the winning end of that fine old riverfront town’s hollowing out into a bifurcated mess of haves and have-nots.

My idea of Peoria has changed a lot over the years, and some of it not for the better. My shabby old Catholic high school—which brought together kids from all walks of life in a broken down campus of historic buildings—is gone. The motorboat that I used to steer up and down the wide, muddy channel of the Illinois River has long since been donated to charity. But mostly, I have changed and am not the kid I was back then. If the old me doesn’t exist, neither does the place in which I was young.

The first book I wrote, which I began in college, was a lousily autobiographical story about a young man losing his hold on the idea of home. Midwestern boy goes east to college. Boy comes home after college. Boy realizes he’s changed and home isn’t really home anymore.

I thought I was Fitzgerald. But I was really just lost. I didn’t know how to write that story then (its dusty pages reside right here in a drawer), and I don’t think I would know how to write it now.

Years ago I asked a writer friend in Chicago, who happens to also be from Peoria, whether he ever wrote about our hometown. He said, goodness, no. He set all of his stories in the cities of his adulthood.

I haven’t done it, either. I write about Chicago and crime—the experiences of my adulthood. I notice that most of us in the Outfit are writing about an adopted place, as well. And most of the crime novelists whose work I admire also write about places far from where they were raised. There’s something about being an observer looking in. And exploring a new place and discovering what makes it tick.

This has been a fairly long way around to a question--and I apologize for my self-indulgence--but I’d be interested in other writers’ thoughts about the differences in writing about the places that we come from versus writing about the places we’ve come to.