Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

How to bring an authentic voice to crime fiction

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Guest writer John Stamp discusses the part voice plays in fiction.

Voice is one of those shadowy, complicated areas in writing. The term voice in writing is in itself a metaphor right? Right, but a metaphor for what?

That can be a difficult question to answer. Is voice the sound you bring to text? Is voice the environment or character in whatever flavor you create when you fill a page? Not easy questions.

In researching publishers, agents, etc., in effort to get my books to market I would see the words strong voice, on at least Shattered-Circleeighty percent of the submission pages I read, and I read a lot of them. So voice is important, but if you ask twenty people what voice is in writing you might get fifteen different answers. So, since this is my post, I get to lay down the definition.

For me, having an authentic voice in my crime thrillers is paramount. Among the writers I’ve always looked up to are Wambaugh, Leonard, and Crichton.

In Elmore Leonard I was drawn to the grit in his words, the bare humanity he illustrates so well in his writing. From his early westerns to his more famous string of crime novels, Leonard’s voice, the flavor of his writing, resonated so authentically that the man seemed a master of the grey area of human nature.

In Michael Crichton’s work, I found he had a magical ability to explain the science behind his fiction in a way that could keep a lay reader engaged. Whether the science was sound or he made it up as he went, his background as a medical doctor allowed him to blend his heavy science background with his creative voice.  He could give a lecture on DNA processing, quantum physics, or mechanical engineering while at the same time keeping us turning the pages.

With Joseph Wambaugh’s work, I found the way he captured the subtle intricacies of police culture utterly fascinating, and it became the standard I set for myself as a writer. He can illustrate the fine details of what takes place in a police cruiser so expressively that the tight confines of a Ford Crown Victoria become a world unto its own.

Each of these writers carried their voice across the page in a way that evoked an expertise as we listened to their narrative in our heads. Wambaugh was an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. Crichton, as I’ve said, was a medical doctor. Having that expertise and experience as a foundation for their voice gave an air of authority to their work that is rare and genuine.

John-Stamp-gun-quoteLike Wambaugh, I was a police officer. I was also a special agent with both the FBI and the NCIS. When I started writing, I wanted to be sure that if I was writing a crime thriller I would be able to speak to that law enforcement culture and bring it to the page. My voice as an author is directly tied to my background and experience.  I want to bring my readers with me to experience what it is like when a simple call for police service degenerates to a life-or-death situation, or the sensation of running code three (lights and sirens) down a crowded city street. Continue Reading →

A look back at Leonard and ‘Killshot’

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Killshot: A novel
Elmore Leonard
William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition   304 pages
Originally published 1989
$11.71 paperback   $9.78 Kindle

Armand Degas, aka Blackbird, an Ojibway Indian, is a cold-blooded professional hitman taking his jobs and payments from Detroit mobsters.   He meets Richie Nix, a cheap, addle-brained crook when Nix tries to rob him. Although Degas–Bird–realizes Nix is a loose cannon, and then some, the two form a loose partnership in crime. Nix also kills people–but only when they piss him off.

Iron worker Wayne Colson and his wife Carmen become the two killers’ targets in Elmore Leonard’s acclaimed Killshot. The essence of the story is simply a chase: two killers versus two seemingly ill-fated citizens. Simple in concept, elegant in execution, Killshot is a character-driven story about four diverse people who you will come to know well. In Leonard’s hands, the four become real as the author fleshes out the complex relationships between Wayne and Carmen and Bird and Nix.

When Leonard died late last year, he had written nearly 50 novels. He first wrote westerns, such as The 3:10 to Yuma, but when the genre started to fade, he turned to crime. In Leonard’s obituary, Los Angeles Times writer Dennis McLellan said the author, “populated his novels with con men, hustlers and killers, with names like Chili, Stick and Ordell. He plunged readers into a sea of urban sleaze, spiking his tales with mordant humor and moral ambivalence.”

Killshot fits this description. Most of the story takes place in dreary marshland in southern Michigan near the Canadian border.  While the killers are adept at dispatching folks, the various law enforcement representatives provide the Coulsons little solace or effective protection. In fact, one member of the U.S. Marshals Service becomes a menace.Killshot

I prefer mysteries to straight crime novels, but I’d never read Leonard and the news of his passing brought a variety of stories about his work. I chose Killshot as it was recommended by several sources as one of Leonard’s best. It’s a gripping, nuanced tale of love, fear, vengeance, death, and the responsibilities we owe to those we love and to others.   The killers are developed characters and Coulsons are not your usual terrified quarries.

The ending of the novel is reminiscent of the final scene in a popular 1996 crime film (unrelated to Killshot). It’s a suitable, agreeable ending as it solidifies our image of Wayne and Carmen and original because the novel predates the film by seven years.

Writing advice from mystery authors

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Some years ago (but not as many as you might think) when I was in grad school, I enrolled in a summer seminar, part of the National Writing Project.  One of the other students, who was a high school English teacher, gave me a marvelous little book of quotations.  I’ve treasured it ever since.  It’s one of those few books that’s always on the top of my desk along with a dictionary, AP Stylebook and a few others.

Today I thought I would share some of my favorite bits of writing advice from mystery writers.  You can do a Google or Yahoo search forWriters quote book sml  5061 “writer quotations” and possibly find some of these quotes but not all of them and not in the same place.  My quote book is wonderful.   I turn to it for inspiration, a laugh or both.  See availability notes below.

“My purpose is to entertain myself first and other people secondly.”  John D. MacDonald

“Those big shot writers…could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”   Mickey Spillane

“At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.”   Raymond Chandler

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”   Elmore Leonard

“The best time for planning a book is when you’re doing the dishes.”                 Agatha Christie

References

The book I have is “The Writer’s Quotation Book; A Literary Companion, Third Edition,” James Charlton, editor.  It’s certainly out of print, but used copies are available in several places online, including Powell’s.   Used copies of the fourth (and presumably last) edition are available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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