Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: craft of writing

‘Desert Kill Switch’ by the numbers

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2,000,000
The estimated number of kill switches (and GPS trackers) presently active in cars financed in the US

85,686
Number of words in the book

774
Number of cups of Lapsang Souchong tea I drank while writing

450
Number of miles from Las Vegas to Reno

367
Number of days it took me to write it  (That’s elapsed days. Some few days I didn’t work. I was riding my bike, driving to Canada, etc. )

330
Number of pages

79
Number of times my dog interrupted me asking for attention or a walk

74.5
Height, in inches, of my protagonist Kate Sorensen

71
Number of Chapters

45
Age of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am on the cover

24
Number of characters  This number is approximate.  Some characters are so minor they are not counted and some are dead.

17
Percent of the book I wrote while sitting in an Adirondack chair in my back garden

8
Number of times I use the f-word.  This is not excessive for a crime novel this long with lots of nasty characters.  But I cut it down in my next book. (See an upcoming post on the use of profanity in mystery novels.)

7
Number of years my publisher, Black Opal Books, has been in business

5
Per cent of the book I wrote in my pajamas

3
Number of times I use the f-word in my next book

2
Number of times someone slugs protagonist Lyle

1
Number of pictures   It’s just a mug shot of me at the end.  This is not a picture book.

1
Number of times I use the word “awesome”  (It was in dialog.)

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How do you catch a reader’s attention? With the first sentence.

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Editor’s note:  Writers Who Kill is unlike many book blogs or book websites.  Articles submitted to it are read and carefully edited before they are published.   The site features reviews of new mysteries, articles on the craft of writing and writers’ experiences researching and writing, interviews with authors and more.  A talented team of writers are regulars on the site and they host occasional guests.  The following column of  mine appeared on the site last month.

Where to begin? I agonized over this question when I wrote my first mystery novel. For my first sentence should I go for something literary, something clever, a play on words? Trained as a journalist and a nonfiction writer for years, I was tempted to write a first sentence that summarized the story or the theme. And I did. Then came my second novel—the just-released Desert Kill Switch—and I decided I needed a new way to start.

One of the most significant ways that writing fiction has influenced my recreational reading is that I pay closer attention to first sentences. Sometimes they can put me off a novel immediately. Or draw me in. I’ve become a student of first sentences.

When writers and editors put together lists of best first sentences, the work of classic novelists tends to cluster at the top, Austen, Melville, Dickens, Orwell. They provide excellent examples, but are they suitable for a murder mystery? “Call me Lyle,” (one of my main characters) is not memorable, except perhaps as a riff on Melville. “It was the best of times for Lyle.” Nope.

A first sentence is like a first impression when you meet someone. Does a person’s verbal greeting or looks attract your attention and encourage conversation? Like someone going out with a highly touted blind date, a writer is eager to make a good impression.

One of the best first-sentence writers around, Stephen King, offered this advice in The Atlantic Magazine in July, 2013. “There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing….But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Anne R. Allen, mystery writer and co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide, agrees. “On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook…but not overwhelm [readers] with too much information.”

One item of information that may be extraneous in first sentences is weather. It’s become clichéd thanks to the familiar “dark and stormy night” penned by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton 187 years ago. “Never open a book with the weather,” is the oft quoted line from Elmore Leonard. Yet years before Leonard offered his advice, Raymond Chandler used weather in the first sentence of The Big Sleep. And I think he got away with it:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun used weather to begin The Cat Who Tailed a Thief in 1997. “It was a strange winter in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.”

Adding to my confusion, I discovered this advice Ernest Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos in a letter* in March 1932: “Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.”

Can’t ignore Hemingway. What to do? I turned for help with my first sentence to noir master James M. Cain. He used a short but telling sentence to begin his famous depression era, The Postman Always Rings Twice. With nine words the narrator tells us he’s a less-than-first-class traveler and perhaps disreputable, too. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

Sometimes unusual or intriguing sentences are best to grab your interest. Ross Macdonald, one of the best stylists of the detective genre, started his 1954 Find a Victim this way: “He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me.”

Since most mystery, crime and detective stories involve murder, you could begin with that. “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.

Ultimately, I abandoned the weather, decided a reference to murder could wait for the second paragraph of my novel, and went with an intriguing first sentence that conveyed action.

“Lyle Deming braked his Mustang hard and aimed for the sandy shoulder of the desert road.”

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Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961, Carlos Baker, editor, Scribner Classics, 2003; original copyright 1981 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, Inc. and Carlos Baker.

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Mark S. Bacon began his career as a southern California newspaper police reporter, one of his crime stories becoming key evidence in a murder case that spanned decades.

After working for two newspapers, he moved to advertising and marketing when he became a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large theme park down the road from Disneyland. Experience working at Knott’s formed part of the inspiration for his creation of Nostalgia City theme park.

He taught journalism as a member of the adjunct faculty at Cal Poly University – Pomona, University of Redlands, and the University of Nevada – Reno. Bacon is the author of business books and his articles on travel and other topics have appeared in newspapers from the Washington Post to the San Antonio Express News. Most recently he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.

To read comments posted after this article appeared,  go to:  http://bit.ly/2AclALH

 

 

My friend Jim died yesterday

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Jim McCormick had too darn much talent. 

As an artist, he worked in a variety of media: print making, collage, drawing and ingenious constructions for which I can’t find a name.  He taught art at the University of Nevada – Reno from 1960 until he retired in 1992.  His students are among the renown artists in my part of the country.

McCormick continued to create art for many years after retirement, and he curated numerous exhibits large and small.  Throughout his life he encouraged and promoted northern Nevada artists, all of whom will be grieving along with me. 

As an artist and art professor he earned innumerable awards and his work was displayed at galleries and exhibits from Nevada to North Carolina to Maine.  He served on the Nevada State Council on the Arts from 1963 to 1970 and from 1980 to 1989. He directed the Nevada Art Research Project at the Nevada Historical Society, and in 1990 he received the Nevada Governor’s Art Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Jim McCormick

I knew Jim as the artist but also as a fellow writer.  He had neuropathy, a condition of the nervous system that caused him to gradually lose feeling in his hands, arms and legs.  When he could no longer create the art works that had been his life, he turned to writing.  Not that he wasn’t already a writer.  Over the years he authored many art essays and exhibition books for individual shows.  But now he dabbled in something new: flash fiction.

I had discovered flash fiction at the time too, so Jim and I started exchanging stories.  Sometimes we’d send them in email, other times at lunch we’d reach into our pockets, pull out whatever we’d written recently and critique each other’s work.

For the uninitiated, flash fiction is a story of exactly 100 words.  Technically, flash fiction stories can be longer, or shorter, but Jim and I both liked the discipline of writing a complete story in precisely 100 words.

We weren’t competing, just poking each other’s minds with new ideas, new approaches.  Once, we even taught a seminar in flash fiction writing at our church.

I have a journalism background and thus tend to put related elements together and in chronological order. I think my stories “work” in some sense, but I often remind myself to mix things up, try something different.  Jim’s stories, like  his art, are not all  representational.  And he had a great sense of humor that came through in his writing.  Often I would look forward to his puns and other word plays to see if he would make me laugh.

Occasionally, he’d mix the macabre with his whimsy.   The following two stories are great examples. (The one title covers both stories.)  I published these on this site several years ago and offer them again as a tribute to my multi-talented friend.

Stone Motor

By Jim McCormick

Stone Motor played a gig in the music room of a moss shrouded, antebellum mansion near the Mississippi. Its audience included the usual bland tourists and a blue-haired guide named Maude, who disclaimed the South’s loss in the War between the States. Lately, she’d been trying to poison visitors from up north with complementary mint juleps. Melvin Carnahan of Boston accepted one and he expired as he drove off the plantation. The band’s lead singer was arrested; seems he had a likeness of Jeff Davis tattooed over his heart. Soon after, Maude seized the mike and the rest was history.

Shortly after joining the band, lead singer and murderess Maude Dossage changed her name; she wanted a stand-alone nom de guerre. Slightly bent in her 80th year, red hair exchanged for blue, she told the Stone Motor boys her name was now Mudd. Sympathy with the Confederate cause persisted; she hatched a plot to do in Brooklyn born drummer, Grant Getty. Mint julep concoction again? No! Too good for Getty. He got it one cool evening when Mudd laced his doobie with strychnine; he never even made it to the bandstand. Thereafter, the smug Miss Mudd doubled on percussion.

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