Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Moveable Inspiration

Who do you count as your early-on writing inspirations when you were getting started. Has that changed over time? How? Why? 

by Paul D. Marks

HemingwayLoebMy writing inspirations are all over the place. Initially, I aspired to be a latter-day Hemingway, sitting on the Left Bank, sipping absinthe, chatting with my literary buddies. I wanted to live the romantic, adventurous life that Hemingway describes in A Moveable Feast. Yes, I liked his clipped and concise writing style, and his philosophy of the clean, well-lighted place, as well as the eponymous story, but I also loved the idea of that writer's life and lifestyle – so his influence is, or was, as much about the writer's lifestyle as his writing style. But when I tried it, drinking and writing, I just wanted to play – got no work done. Along with Hemingway comes Fitzgerald. Stylistically different, the two just naturally fit together, at least in my mind. One of my favorites stories is still Hemingway's short story, Soldier's Home, which I read every year or two.

But my writing influences don't only come from books and authors. I've always loved movies, uh, films, since before I could walk. And a lot of my writing has been influenced by them. I saw anything and everything I could, especially on the big screen. And though there's been a lot of influence from the movies in my work, from Frank Capra and screwball comedies to Alfred Hitchcock's suspense tales, and more modern directors like Martin Scorsese and even John Dahl, the thing that's stuck with me the most is film noir. I think I'm addicted, intervention needed.

I'm also one of those people who, while everyone else is leaving the theatre, is standing there, craning my neck around them, to see the credits. I've always been interested in who wrote a movie and, if it was based on a book, who wrote that.

So from this jumping off point, I began reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and other writers whose works were turned into noir or mystery movies. One of my favorites is  David Goodis (right), whose novel Dark Passage, was made into a movie with Bogie and Bacall. Having watched and liked that movie, I began reading Goodis, starting with the book that that movie was based on. But my favorite Goodis is Down There, made into the movie Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. I have to say, though, that I'm not a fan of the movie, but the original book is terrific if you like down and dirty noir stories. Goodis has been called the "poet of the losers" by Geoffrey O'Brien, and his stories deal with failed lives and people who are definitely on the skids. They're often people who weren't always in this position though and the interesting part is seeing how they deal with their downfall – not always so well.

Along with film noir, the early hardboiled writers (though there is some crossover) have influenced my mystery-noir sensibility: Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, etc. Along with these writers comes John Fante, although I'm not sure Fante would fit either the noir or hardboiled categories. Nonetheless his thinly disguised autobiographical tales of a struggling writer's life in early 20th century L.A. made enough of an impression on me that I wrote to him shortly before he died.

Later on I was drawn to Ross MacDonald with his psychological insights and James Ellroy with his corrupt and sultry grittiness. But for me Chandler, with his elegant descriptions, metaphors, characters, depiction of the mean streets and his ville fatale relationship with Los Angeles, will always be on top, as high above everyone else in his field as the Beatles are in theirs. They are sui generis, in classes by themselves.

What draws me to these writers and the noir and mystery genre in books and films is that they're about the other side of the American Dream. There's an inner core of darkness and corruption in society, a feeling of fear and paranoia. There's a moral ambiguity in the writings of most of these writers and in these films. They are the equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting (another major influence on my writing) with its cold light and shadows, filled with a sense of alienation and angst.

In much of noir and some hardboiled writing (and there is often, though not always a difference between the two) there's no sense of redemption, but much betrayal. No good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. The hero is flawed. People's own flaws and weaknesses create their fallibility and ultimately lead to their downfall. I think this appeals to me in the sense that it's a realistic, though often pessimistic and cynical, view of society. And in my own writing, both in my novel White Heat and many of my short stories, the characters are flawed, the situations ambiguous.

And now to throw a monkey wrench into the works, my two favorite books of all time are not hardboiled or noir, but both have influenced me in many ways. They are The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham and The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. The former because I relate to the character of Larry Darrell on a lot of levels, his disillusionment after the war (WWI), and his search for peace and meaning in life. And the latter because it's the ultimate revenge story and revenge is so satisfying, served cold or otherwise.

As to whether or not my inspirations have changed over time, the answer is not really. The old ones are still there, but new ones get added to the list all the time, everyone and everything from Walter Mosely, Carol O'Connell and Michael Connelly, to movies like Ghost World and Pulp Fiction.

And finally, the other early – and continuing – inspiration for my writing, as much as any writers or movies, is the City of Angels itself. I remember it well enough from when I was a kid that it still resembled Chandler's L.A. And later, my friend Linda and I would drive around the city, heading out in all directions, searching out the old buildings and the ghosts of old L.A.

L.A. is my own ville fatale. She is my mistress and a harsh mistress, indeed. But she is also my muse. But that's a whole 'nother story for the sequel.

Angels-flight-LA (1)

(Originally posted on 7 Criminals Minds Blog)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Midnight at the Internet Cafe

What is the research tool you turn to most often? How important is visiting the site of your story to your research?

by Paul D. Marks
(reprinted from

These days my go-to research tool is the internet, what else? It’s close at hand. It’s easy. It has “everything” on it. And it’s right all the time. Well, most of the time. I mean much of the time. Yeah.

In the olden days, BI—Before Internet—one had to go to the library or the bookstore. But if you’re a night owl like me you’d be hard pressed to find a library or bookstore open at 3am, my prime time. Not impossible, but also maybe not close by. And much as I love browsing both of those places, I’d rather do it in the middle of the night, but I guess they want to sleep and I curse them for it.

Hollywood Sign Collage D1aThen, of course, there’s first hand research, going to the location/s in your story or to primary source people. For example, if you’re writing about the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles and you live in Los Angeles you can drive up there, annoy the people who live in the neighborhood, duck potshots from them, get close to the sign and, after running the gauntlet of angry residents, find out it’s fenced off so you can’t get there anyway, at least not right there. But you used to be able to go there. I hiked up there with a friend one time when we were doing research on a screenplay. It was fun and exciting and before the neighbors were perpetually upset—and before it was fenced off. But today it’s hard to get to, at least to get right up close to it, because it is fenced off. So what do you do? You turn to the internet or books. Or people who’ve been there or you watch through binocs or you beg everyone you know to find someone who knows someone who can get you inside the fence. And when that fails you hit the books again or the internet.

Kiss Me Deadly Angels Flight w caption d1I recently sold a story to Ellery Queen that takes place on and around Bunker Hill, no not that Bunker Hill in Massachusetts. The one in downtown L.A. L.A.’s Bunker Hill of today and the Bunker Hill of 30-40 years ago are two vastly different places. When it began in the late 1800s, Bunker Hill was a neighborhood of fancy Victorian homes for the wealthy near downtown. Over time the swells moved west and Bunker Hill became run down and the elaborate houses were turned into rooming houses. In the late 60s, redevelopment began. The people were kicked out. Some of the houses were torn down and others were packed up and moved to other locations. So, though my story takes place today it deals with elements of the long-lost and lamented Bunker Hill of yesterday. How did I research that? Well, the usual, the internet, books, etc. Watching old movies shot there—many film noirs were shot on and around Bunker Hill. But I had also spent time there as a young man, exploring the houses, getting into some, riding the original Angels Flight funicular railway. Going through the Grand Central Market that John Fante talks about in Ask the Dust, before it was remodeled. And I still have the top of a newell stairway post I liberated from one of those old Victorian houses—a memento both to L.A.’s and my own past. I’m also old enough to remember L.A. as Raymond Chandler describes it and before it started to change and “grow up”. And I remember it pretty well—first-hand research you might say.

My novel White Heat takes place mostly in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots of 1992. I lived through that and used both personal experience and recollections of others, both civilians and cops that I know who were there to add flavor to the story. But parts of the story also take place in Calexico, California and Sparks and Reno, Nevada. I have recollections of both places, but it’s been a long time since I was there, so again I turned to the internet to be my researcher’s best friend.

But what if you’re writing something that’s set where you’ve never been. I’ve never been to the Amazon, though it’s one of my dreams. Pre-internet, I was working on a screenplay set there, so I researched it in books, etc. But I also drew on personal experiences of being in other riverine environs, transposing some of those experiences and adventures to the Amazon.

Gas_Station_1942 d1What if it’s a time you’ve never lived in or experienced firsthand? I have a character named Bobby Saxon who’s been in three published stories. I wrote a novel with Bobby that should be done soon. Those stories all take place during World War II on the L.A. homefront. Well, that’s before my time. But I know L.A. pretty well and I know a lot of its history. So I had a good foundation to start with. But I also turned to primary resources: my mom and her friends. My family goes back here a long way and my mom was an L.A. native, so she and her friends could tell me first-hand things about L.A. during the war. I supplemented that with—what else? —the internet and books. But also with maps. I wanted to know how people got from point A to point B in a time before freeways. So I bought several period street maps on eBay, as well as looking things up on the net. And, aside from the good research the maps gave me for the story, I just love looking at them and seeing how things change over time. I also got some of the flavor of the era from old movies and music of the time, both of which I love.

When I was working on a script set in New Orleans...I had to go research it in person. Had to. Wouldn’t you? I wanted it to be real and how could I make it real without actually tasting the food at Commander’s Palace? Winking smile

But what about writing about professions or places that I have no first-hand contact with, well, it’s research and again you go to primary sources when you can. Example: I’m not a doctor so I ask doctors how certain symptoms might be treated, what meds would be used, etc. As for places I haven’t been, well, sometimes I try to go, but if I can’t it’s back to the internet drawing board.

So if I had to pick one winner, it would be the internet. The world is at your fingertips.

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Bouchercon2015_logoLargewAnthony -- Smaller-Sharpened JPGIt’s still not too late to read all the 2015 Anthony Award nominated short stories:

The five Anthony nominees in the Short Story category are Craig Faustus BuckBarb GoffmanJohn Shepphird, our own Art Taylor...and me, Paul D. Marks. I’m honored to be among these people and their terrific stories.

I want to thank everyone who voted for us in the first round. And if you’re eligible to vote, people attending Bouchercon can vote at the convention until 1pm Saturday.

I hope you’ll take the time to read all five of the stories and vote. All are available free here – just click the link and scroll down to the short story links:

But even if you’re not eligible to vote, I hope you’ll take the time to read the stories. I think you’ll enjoy them and maybe get turned onto some new writers.

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And now for the usual shameless BSP:

Coast to Coastx_1500 (1)NEW from Down & Out Books – Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea – an anthology of short mystery stories, chocked full of major award-winning authors, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks (Me!)

Released on 10/1 (that’s yesterday for those without a calendar, so hot off the presses)

“Envelope-pushers! A truly WOW collection by the best mystery writers out there – full of surprises only they can pull off.”
—Thomas B. Sawyer, Bestselling author of Cross Purposes, Head-Writer of Murder, She Wrote

With a Killer Cast Including:

4 Time Edgar Winner William Link • Grand Master Bill Pronzini • Scribner Crime Novel Winner William G. Tapply • Shamus Winner Paul D. Marks • EQMM Readers Award Winner Robert S. Levinson • Al Blanchard Award Winner James T. Shannon • Derringer Award Winner Stephen D. Rogers • Sherlock Holmes Bowl Winner Andrew McAleer and other poisoned-pen professionals like Judy Copek • Sheila Lowe • G. B. Pool • Thomas Donahue

Available in paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon.  Click here to go to Amazon.

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