Sunday, August 18, 2013

Keeping It Real

Today homicide/narcotics detective and author of a new mystery is my guest.  Please welcome C. L. Swinney.
Author C. L. Swinney
Author C. L. Swinney Is Keeping It Real:
I was a reader far before I became a writer.  I read quickly and often finish a book in a day or two.  My favorites are mystery, suspense, and thrillers.  But, I’ve got a bone to pick with crime scenes portrayed in many of these books today.  I see many people get poor reviews for their work because they make a crucial mistake when writing about a crime scene.
First, I’ll add my “expertise” in this topic.  I’m currently a homicide/ narcotics detective, been so for five years, and I’ve been in law enforcement for almost fifteen years.  I’ve investigated everything from street level drug dealers to cartel leaders.  I’ve wiretapped people’s phones and listened to things that would make your blood boil.  My point, I know what a cop, investigator, detective, fireman, coroner, evidence tech, and all other folks would or should do at a crime scene because I’ve been to hundreds of them and investigated most of them.
Here are my tips: 
A)              A clever girlfriend/reporter/significant other that happens to be dating your protagonist wouldn’t walk through a crime scene, manipulate evidence, then walk out without being handcuffed and stuffed in a patrol car.  Crime scenes are sacred grounds, you do things like this in a novel and people who know what should really happen will find it hard to believe.  This attacks your credibility.  I get fiction “isn’t real,” but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be believable.
B)               Every single element and angle of a crime scene is labeled, photographed, cataloged, processed, photographed again, and collected.  In major scenes, evidence technicians will do this, not a beat cop.  If you want to use the beat cop, you need to explain (or better yet, show) why s/he is doing it instead of the expert.  Readers of suspense, thriller, and mystery novels are educated and find it misleading when an author cuts out some or most of these steps.  If the evidence scene isn’t important, take it out all together.
C)               Within the yellow lines of a crime scene, the atmosphere is somber and the people working are focused.  Too many books have people smoking and joking next to a dead body.  A real law enforcement official wouldn’t do that.  Investigating tragedy and death is not a funny matter.  We take it very seriously and owe it to the victim to remain professional.
D)              When writing a crime scene, stick to common sense actions or feelings by your characters.  For instance, don’t have a hardened detective whose “seen it all” pass out or freak out when s/he sees something bizarre at a crime scene.  Most cops with any time on have “seen it all.”  Experienced cops have been through hairy situations causing them to digest bizarre, gross, heinous, whatever you want to throw at them with ease.  I don’t even blink when I see that kind of stuff.  It’s sad really, but it’s also the truth.  If you want to say your character is shocked or caught off guard, show why that is.  Detective X’s faced turned white as the coroner lifted the sheet revealing his brother.
I am a fiction writer but I spend a lot of time trying to make the overwhelming majority of what I write realistic.  I feel it adds to the story and I owe it to the reader to take pride in my craft.  So please, when you want to include a crime scene in your novels, make an effort to avoid the pitfalls I’ve listed above.  I think you will find your story will be better and people will talk about how you nailed it!

While on a fly fishing vacation to Andros Island in the Bahamas, narcotics detectives Dix and Peterson discover their fishing guides were killed when a sudden blast of gunfire fractured their speedboat, Gray Ghost. Local gossip has it that Gray Ghost went to the ocean floor with a hundred million dollars worth of cocaine in the hull. Dix and Peterson are drawn into helping their island friends, and chase down leads in Miami as well as the Bahamas until they identify the diabolical plot of the man known only as The Caller…and then the trouble really starts.
"When two Miami narcotic officers take a fishing trip to the Bahamas, they can't leave the drug world behind...Deftly told by the author, detective and avid fly fisher Chris Swinney, this book will hook any reader of mystery fiction." —Sunny Frazier, author of the Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries
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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Author James Callan talks about Contrast in Writing

Please welcome author James Callan today. He has some advice for writers which will help your writing sing.
Author James Callan


Contrast Is What Allows Us to See


Frequently, we receive the advice to have things coordinated, matching. The pillows should match the bedspread.  The shirt should match the pants.  The earrings should match the necklace. The furnishing in the house should match.


But it is the contrast that makes the different pieces stand out.


I had two friends in college.  One was six feet four inches tall, the center of the basketball team.  (Yes, it was a long time ago when that was actually tall.)  His best friend was five feet six inches tall.  Mutt and Jeff, we sometimes called them. But everybody noticed them when they were walking across campus. Contrast.


Jewelers will show crystal clear diamonds on black velvet. Contrast.


A perfectly clear blue sky is pretty. Put a single, shinning white cloud in the middle. Both the cloud and the sky become more beautiful, the contrast enhancing both.  Bring in an angry, dark thunderhead and you not only have contrast and beauty, but now you have added drama to the picture.


Robert Parker knew the value of contrast.  He developed a macho protagonist in Spenser, a wise-cracking, ex-cop with his own code of honor.  But, there is a contrast in Spenser, as he likes to cook and has a committed relationship with Susan Silverman, a sophisticated lady and Harvard professor.  And then, to add to the contrast, Parker introduces Hawk. While Spenser speaks well, sometimes eloquently, Hawk’s speech is abrupt, street talk. Hawk has his own code, and is a gun for hire. Parker used these contrasts to propel forty Spenser novels to best-seller status.  (Ace Atkins has continued the Spenser books with two since Parker’s death. Spenser lives on.)


In my book on character development (Character: The Heartbeat of the Novel – Oak Tree Press 2013) I suggest that you develop a sidekick for the protagonist and that there be a distinct contrast between the two. Make the sidekick a carbon copy of the protagonist and all you’ve really done is add another pair of hands. You’ve wasted an opportunity.  Here is an opportunity to highlight features of the protagonist that you’d like to emphasize. In addition, the contrast can also add small conflicts, and we know that conflict is a core element of the novel.


In A Ton of Gold, I pair a street-wise high school graduate with a near-Ph.D. research computer scientist. Both are intelligent, but in contrasting ways. Crystal Moore, the protagonist, is highly educated. Brandi Brewer is street smart. Periodically, Brandi will say to Crystal, “Didn’t you learn anything as a kid?” Brandi learned a lot growing up on the street. Crystal learned a lot in classrooms. It is Crystal who learns from Brandi.


I highlight their differences throughout the book. This contrast helps emphasize features of the protagonist that I want to underscore without my beating the reader over the head. By juxtaposing the two, I can show features without having to tell the reader. And it is this “opposite type” character, Brandi, who helps Crystal find her way to the solution – well, at least for the subplot.

So, remember to use this important writer’s tool, contrast, to emphasize certain things, to add minor (or major) conflicts, to bring additional drama into the story, to improve your novel.


James R. Callan

A Ton of Gold, Oak Tree Press, 2013

Character: The Heartbeat of the Novel, Oak Tree Press, 2013
A Ton of Gold
A contemporary mystery / suspense novel
Can long forgotten, old folk tales affect the lives of people today? In A Ton of Gold, one certainly affected young, brilliant Crystal Moore.  Two people are killed, others threatened, a house burned and an office fire-bombed – all because of an old folk tale, greed and ignorance.  
On top of that, the man who nearly destroyed Crystal emotionally is coming back.  This time he can put an end to her career.  She’ll need all the help she can get from a former bull rider, her streetwise housemate and her feisty 76 year-old grandmother.
A Ton of Gold
By James R. Callan
From Oak Tree Press, Feb. 2013
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