Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Some Very English Murders

I've always had a weakness for mystery and crime stories set in England. I'm ever ready to read about some stalwart Scotland Yard inspector, a clever London detective, or even a blue-haired dear old thing who views the world through the prism of her archetypal English village. I am also a fan of English whodunits in film and on the telly, from Morse to A Touch of Frost to Midsomer Murders. And I've always wanted to join the ranks of those who have penned some very English murders.

This is not a unique desire. The great classic era mystery writer John Dickson Carr was born in Pennsylvania, but he wanted to be a British writer so badly he moved house and family to England. I did not think that was an option for me (I can imagine the Wife rolling her eyes had I voiced the suggestion) so I decided to write a very English mystery without changing my lattitude.

Actually, it's something that I've wanted to do for a very long time. I was held back, mostly, by a lack of confidence. Yes, I've written in British settings before, but those instances were different. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, we're talking about an England more than a hundred years old...a little hard to fact-check me. And in the steampunk novels I could easily dismiss any mistakes..."Yeah, well, that's an alternate timeline where things went differently, isn't it?" A lame excuse, perhaps, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. With a mystery set in the modern age, there is not much wiggle room.

My detective, the location in which the mystery takes place, and the case itself all began separately and went through several changes before coming together. DCI Arthur Ravyn went through many names, as did his assistant, DS Leo Stark. Something I do when I've got nothing to do is to write down dialogue for my detective, usually discussing aspects of a case or interviewing some yob. They all helped me flesh out the character of the detective. As I mentioned, he went through several names before he became Arthur Ravyn. I'm nor sure where the name came from, but it just hit me as the right name. Of course, when a name comes to me, the first thing I do is Google it, just in case there is a reason it came to me. Google has saved me from some embarrassing moments.

The location, Hammershire (pronounced Hammer-sure) County, made its first appearance in print in the story, "The Woods, The Watcher & the Warding," in Sherlock Holmes: Cthulhu Mythos Adventures, the only Watson-narrated story in the book. It was a properly creepy place with many isolated villages and ancient secrets. A tagline that established itself very early was, "Hammershire County is a place where change comes slowly, if at all, the past intrudes upon the present, and old things often refuse to die." Long before I had any stories to tell, I found myself drawing maps and naming villages. There is a strong Lovecraftian thread running through Hammershire, but for the mysteries this is toned down somewhat.

The event which precipitates the story has lingered in my mind for a long time--a man runs into the snug bar of the local pub after visiting an ancient megalith and dies. Various men died in varied ways and for different reasons before the incident took its present form. What finally set it in my mind was the decision to locate in in Hammershire County, as if the spirit of the place gave me a direction I lacked.. When all three came together--detective, location and specific event--I finally had the basis for the book I wanted to write. Writing it was, if not easy, then certainly a pleasure.

If you'd like a preview of Murder in the Goblins' Playground, Amazon has a new feature which allows you to take a look without leaving this blog:

The fun of writing it and comparative popularity of the book has inspired me to consider other DCI Ravyn stories. I'm not sure whether it's because of character or location, but I've already started outlining other books in the series, and as a note at the end of Murder in the Goblins' Playground states, the next adventure involving DCI Ravyn and DS Stark will be Village of Ghosts.

I hope you enjoyed this look behind the writing of Murder in the Goblins' Playground. It was a fun book to write and I look forward to my next visit to mysterious Hammershire County. The book is available in both print and e-book editions. For those of you enrolled in Amazon's Kindle Unlimited Program, you can borrow the book at no extra cost and read it at your leisure. If you'd to look at the book's page on Amazon, click the button below. And do consider joining my mailing list to keep up to date with all my writing projects.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

Something's Brewing and Brevity Of Pen

My co-administrator Arimintha recently published a collection of her one-act plays. I asked if she would share something about her experience with writing for the theatre...

I have been writing one-act plays for over ten years. I was fortunate to get involved with a theatre that would produce them and then lucky enough to have some of my plays produced for The North Park Playwright Festival at the North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe.

Recently, I took some of these plays and some others that I had written and and collected them in book form. It is not a collection of every play I’ve ever written. Such a book would be too long, and there are some that I still probably wouldn’t put in.

A few factors go into how I write. Some involve story, I often start with a kernel of something – perhaps a visual I want to see, an issue I’m facing, or a subject I want to write about. Something’s Brewing was based on a creation myth I had started when I couldn’t sleep one night and then further expanded upon a few years after I had originally wrote it. Have a Nice Death was based on the visual of a Goth cheerleader. It’s In the Cards was based on the idea that Fate was a card dealer.

What I really want to talk about is why I write one-act plays and things to keep in mind when you are writing them.

I write them because they happen to be easier to get produced. The theatre I worked at produced one act plays every month and a lot of playwright festivals are looking for those as well. To have a full-length play produced can be very hard. You often have to either fund it yourself, or be already established. It’s not impossible, but it is much more difficult.

The other reason I do it is because I find that it is all the space I need to get a story across. I have been told I have brevity of pen and when writing one-act plays, this is a good trait to have. Boltin’ and Joltin’ was written for a short screenplay contest. I was given some parameters and a maximum page count. When I looked on the forums, many people were finding it hard not to go over the page count and also had trouble trimming what they wrote. My advice is to keep the parts necessary to your story. You may have a line you love or a subplot that you think is awesome, but check if it supports your story or if it can go without it.  Decide if it is necessary to the story or it's just your ego talking. When there is a call for submissions, you want to give them a complete play, not something that is part of a larger work. Even if it is from a larger work, it must be able to stand on its own and be a complete story.

Keep your staging simple, your cast small, and have a minimal amount of set changes. You only have so many pages to tell your story and a lot of times people will choose your play based not only on the material, but also how easy it will be to stage. A cast of ten or more is unwieldy. Intricate sets and lots of set changes are not always feasible. When I was directing for some playwright festivals, I would go through the first page and look at how many actors I would need to work with. Because these were plays that were less than 10 minutes, anything with more than four characters or more than one set would get put into the pile that wasn’t going to get read. There may have been some really great plays in there, but because of limitations, they had to go to the side.

The last part is about formatting and following instructions.  If you are submitting for a specific venue, follow the instructions given. The quickest way to be put into the rejected pile is to not follow instructions. In terms of formatting, if you are going to direct them yourself or they are being produced at a theatre that does not have hard and fast formatting guidelines, you can mostly make your own. The main thing to remember is to make it easy for the actors to read and make notes on. If submitting to a more mainstream venue, I would recommend using software like Celtix. It is a free program and has tools for various formats such as stage plays, screenplays, radio shows, etc.

I enjoyed very much writing these and rewriting them for this collection. As I read through them, some of them took me back to my early 20’s, which sometimes seems like a lifetime ago.  I wrote these to be easy to stage in smaller theatres which don’t have a lot of resources. Some of these I directed and had a specific theatre in mind while I was writing. Some I wrote and were produced later and then it was up to the director to decide how to stage them.  All of them were written with the limited resources of small theatres in mind and I hope you enjoy them.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Making Adjustments

Whenever I start reading a crime or mystery novel, the first thing I do is take a look at the copyright date. My reason for doing this is twofold. First, I need to know whether the film that will play out in the theater of my mind will be in color or black and white. My rule of thumb is that anything before 1960 will be B&W, while anything from the Sixties forward will be in color. Needless to say, that will also affect the garb of the characters and the vehicles they drive. Second, I need to understand the context of the currency, and that's the hardest part of reading a period crime novel. 

For example, Philip Marlowe is always paying off some informant, slipping him a dollar for some valuable information. Nowadays, try to buy info for a buck and your stoolie might say, "Hey, buddy, where's the other nineteen to go along with that?" On the other hand, he might decide to loosen someone's tongue with some liquor, some slugs of Old Forester. Even then, it's a cheap investment, since he can get an informant drunk, have a few shots himself, and still get change back from his $5...and that includes sliding a dime to the bartender as a tip. Even Marlowe's rates ($25 a day, plus expenses) sound picayune by today's standards, where a lunch can cost that much easily. It helps, though, when I remember that my grandfather was at the time making $3,500 per year, and that was a excellent salary, him being a stationary engineer. In comparison, a journalist on the same census report was listed as making $2,800 a year, with a teacher earning slightly less. Understanding Marlowe's rates also helps me to understand his clients. Somebody who could pay him $25 a day, plus expenses (let's call it $35) is pretty well heeled. Could you hire a detective for $450 a day? It explains why Marlowe's clients often wore diamonds.

In crime books, there are often robberies, kidnappings and murders. More often than not, the motive is money. When I read about a robbery that nets a cool $5,000 or even $10,000, my first thought is, You could have got that with a job at Burger guns involved. Even a ransom demand of $50,000 seems petty, less than a year's salary in a mediocre job. I remember an episode of the old TV series The Saint where an actress and an actor were kidnapped from the stage of an Italian sword & sandal film. The kidnappers wanted $25,000 for the actress, but only $5,000 for the musclebound actor. When the aggrieved actor complained to the kidnappers, he was told, "Well, we had to ask for something we thought they would pay." An insult in comparison, perhaps, but still a princely sum, equal to about $60,000 today...well, I guess it was rather insulting after all since that's still a mediocre job these days. When you move into the rather rarefied air of millions you begin to get away from actual sums and start dealing with ideas and concepts. A title like Million Dollar Murder evoked a response from a reader that had nothing to do with the actual sum. A million dollars was an unreachable amount, a synonym for "more money than you can imagine"...which was also a common line in crime novels back in the day. Today, a million bucks is a lot of money only in an abstract sense, a tenuous tie with tradition. In reality, it's not much to get excited about. Anyone in a mediocre job ($50,00/year) will earn that much in just twenty years. The whole point of citing a million dollars was to evoke the feeling that that was more than the average reader could ever make...doing something legal,

Even the lofty billion ($1,000,000,000) is on the verge of becoming an endangered species. If a million bucks was unimaginable, then a billion was inconceivable, the sort of thing that might cause an embolism if a crook considered it too long. Nowadays, billion has become the new million, which has become the new thousand. If this keeps up, the next time you pay your bill at McDonald's, you might have to say, "Sorry, I don't have anything smaller than the new Booker T. Washington $20,000,000 bill." It can get quite depressing reading a period crime novel, not for any action in the book itself, but because the devolution of our money really hits home. Sure, wages were low, but so were prices, and the money you earned actually had value. People might look down on what my grandfather earned in the Thirties, but his six kids never went hungry and always had shoes. 

So, when I read crime novels and money invariably enters the picture, I have to make adjustments to keep the amounts in perspective. However, it's too depressing to think of what that would be equal to now. I find it is better to immerse myself in the story and the times, adjusting myself to the book rather than the book to me. Yeah, I'm happier that way.

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