22 July 2014

Art Imitates Life or How I Created one of the Main Characters in “Murder at Eastern Columbia”

I had already written six books when I began organizing the mystery novel Murder at Eastern Columbia. I had not yet come up with the “novel within a novel” feature, but I did know my main character would be a writer who would have a fictional alter ego. Through much thinking and planning, this alter ego turned into the unnamed detective who has now co-starred in three of the James Murray Mystery novels.

The main character of the novels, writer James Murray, is a huge fan of the mystery novels of Dashiell Hammett. That mirrors my fascination with the detectives that appeared in film, books and especially radio in the mid-twentieth century: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Barrie Craig, Johnny Dollar, The Falcon, the Thin Man and countless others. That fascination was channeled into James’s alter ego -- but with one big difference: he’s not a detective and he’s not a police officer. He’s just a guy who wants to help.

And help he does.

He follows James’s lead (literally) in three adventures (so far) starting with the murder of James’s co-worker that sends James and the unnamed detective on a whirlwind tour of 1930s downtown Los Angeles as they each try to solve the murder of the girl with sorrel-colored hair. In the second book, Sabotage at RKO Studio, he goes to work at a movie studio when James gets hired as a junior script writer. They both try to find out who’s sabotaging films being made on the lot -- including the big blockbuster King Kong. In the third book, Abduction at Griffith Observatory, James’s life continues on an upswing, but he’s soon drawn into trying to find the person who was kidnapped from the grounds of the new observatory.

I love writing this unnamed detective because he’s all the things that James and I are not. He’s tough, he’s a chick magnet, he’s good with his fists when he needs to be. But, like James and I, he’s also intuitive, smart, and has a good heart.

My detective also bleeds when he’s wounded -- literally and figuratively. He’s had a tough life, but he’s trying to make it better, to rise above the hand dealt him. He survived an abusive mother and an uncaring father to mature in college. He then struck out on his own and accidentally got into the detecting business trying to help a wealthy society dame find her kidnapped pooch. One investigative job led to another, then another -- and now he’s known around Los Angeles as a man who can get the job done.

What adventures await the unnamed detective? That all depends on what happens to James in his life because, as we all know, writers take the adventures of their lives and turn them into their fiction.

There are some pretty exciting adventures in store for James, and he’ll have his ups and downs -- but so will the unnamed detective. So, is it a case of life imitating art? For the unnamed detective, it’s a case of art imitating life.

Books I’m Reading

Am reading this.

Just finished reading this.

01 July 2014

The James Murray Mysteries: Now a Trilogy!

What do you do once you’ve written three novels in a series? Why, publish them as a trilogy, of course. That’s just what I’ve done with the first three James Murray Mystery novels: Murder at Eastern Columbia, Sabotage at RKO Studio and Abduction at Griffith Observatory.

Follow young James Murray as he makes his way as a writer in 1930s Los Angeles. First, as a clerk at a swank department store investigating the murder of a friend, then as a junior writer at a Hollywood movie studio investigating some sinister happenings on movie sets, and later as a moderately successful writer investigating a kidnapping at the newly opened Griffith Observatory.

You get all three novels for one great price! (See link in the "My Books" section to your right.)

03 June 2014

Abduction at Griffith Observatory

Yes, it's true: the third James Murray Mystery is now available! (See link in the "My Books" section to your right.)

James Murray is a young man with a dream -- he wants to be a writer just like his idol, Dashiell Hammett. He pens his first novel while working as a clerk at a swank downtown department store. He writes his second while working at a famous movie studio turning his first novel into a screenplay. Now, moderately successful, James is hard at work creating his newest adventure.

And his life is perfect -- or nearly so: he’s living with the girl he loves, planning to get married, and enjoying a life he once could only dream about. But an innocent outing to Los Angeles’s new Griffith Observatory changes all that when a commotion during a presentation leads to a kidnapping. James, witness to the abduction, feels compelled to find out the truth behind it. Why was this person kidnapped? Who was behind it? Why were the abductors speaking in German? And what does Gina Corvi have to do with it?

Abduction at Griffith Observatory -- like its predecessors Sabotage at RKO Studio and  Murder at Eastern Columbia -- is unlike any other book you've read: Not a single novel, it's two parallel novels, featuring two heroes, working two mysteries in two different versions of 1930s Los Angeles. Join James and his alter ego as they each try to find the missing person. His hard-boiled alter ego -- neither a private detective nor a police officer: just someone "who wants to help" -- needs to find out why his life is being threatened because of a piece of paper with some numbers on it. Two men in two stories work their way through 1930s Los Angeles following clews, interviewing people who might know something, going from location to location, with one goal in mind: find the person who was kidnapped.

Along the way, they encounter a rich cast of characters including a hate-filled landlady who doesn’t like anyone different than she, the nervous director of the observatory, the mysterious black woman who was exiled from the country of her birth, the young page working at the observatory, a gentle cleaning woman who has suffered since the death of her husband, the scientist with a deadly secret, and the girl in the blue pumps who tries to hide the scar on her face like she tries to hide so many other things about herself.

Abduction at Griffith Observatory is filled with twists, turns and a final showdown aboard a rusty old freighter moored to a dock at San Pedro harbor.

Come along for the ride in this, the third James Murray mystery: the story of a young man who dreams of something better.

27 May 2014

Rachel Carson

Happy birthday to Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964), arguably the most important person in the ongoing fight to protect the environment.

Remember, we only have one planet.

15 May 2014

Writing vs Wages

I’ve been writing regularly since high school: newspapers, magazines, radio news and documentaries, and a little bit of television. For a vast majority of those years, I earned enough money to do it full-time; for a smaller percentage of those years, I had to write while working an official job. (And, during all those years, no matter how successful I was at writing and earning a good living and winning awards, my mother would ask me: “When are you going to get a real job?”)

In the mid 1990s, I lost my regular newspaper gig. I ended up with a good job at a large corporation. Although not part of my official duties, they let me write for and occasionally edit the in-house publication and other communication materials. I continued doing freelance newspaper writing part-time. Before I knew it, I had been at the company fifteen years, earning a great salary and magnificent benefits.

Then, friends of mine, nearly my age, started to die -- suddenly. I was never one to question my own mortality; but I did start to think: if I died today, would I be happy with my legacy?

Despite decades of writing, the answer was a sound “no.” Even with all my professional writing, the works for which I had the most passion -- my novels -- were languishing. Who can work full time and still write novels? I tried and couldn’t make it work. So, I talked it over with my spouse and quit my secure, well-paying corporate job so that I could create the novels I needed to be happy.

My intent was to get a part-time job (twenty hours a week) and write the other twenty hours. That sounded fair and was financially doable. Of course, it took me more than a year to find a job I was interested in doing that would only require twenty hours a week. But before I found that job, I wrote like a fiend. I polished off two manuscripts and published them; I polished and published a handful of short stories; I turned a screenplay of mine into my third novel; and then embarked on my first “new” novel. That was followed by the first novel in a planned five-book series about a boy detective in 1930s Los Angeles. [You can see them all listed on the right hand side of this page.]

Now, I work three days a week and write two; that makes it pretty easy to shift gears between my (non-writing) part-time gig and my personal writing. I have a boss who not only supports my writing, but has also bought, read and enjoyed (she says) nearly all my novels. Sure, my salary is significantly lower than it was, and I get no benefits; but, I’m doing what I’ve always loved (writing), focusing on what’s really important to me now and actually creating a legacy that I would not be embarrassed to have represent me after I’m long gone.

11 March 2014

Hollywood in the 1930s: Change is in the Air

I’ve long had a fascination with vintage Los Angeles -- especially the 1920s and 1930s. I can’t explain it; it’s just one of those things. I travel to Los Angeles extensively and seek out every piece of history I can find, whether it’s a restaurant (my favorite, Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard), a building (the Eastern Columbia at Broadway and Ninth Streets) or a “place where it happened” (the long-gone Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard).

Historic Los Angeles has played a major role in three of my novels: the 1920s in Sarah & Gerald, a novel of Paris in the 1920s; the 1930s in Murder at Eastern Columbia, the first James Murray Mystery; and my newest Sabotage at RKO Studio, the second James Murray Mystery.

Those decades between the wars were so important to history in general, but to America and Southern California specifically. The 1920s saw a major push to have people move to Southern California to take advantage of the virtual year-round sunshine, the open land and the endless opportunities. The movie industry had essentially relocated there only a few years before. Soon, all roads led to Hollywood, as far as filmmaking was concerned.

All the fun and excitement came to a temporary halt, however, with the crash of the stock market in 1929. Apple sellers made their presence known on the streets of Los Angeles as well as New York. It was a tough time for everyone; but, like the war years that would follow in the next decade, it was a time of a major shift in how Americans saw themselves and how movies would portray them.

In the early 1930s, people would attend a film and see the rich and privileged dealing with their “problems” of finding enough alcohol (Prohibition was in effect) and enough beautiful “dames” to squire to the fancy parties in penthouses and exclusive restaurants.

As the Depression deepened and things went from bad to very bad, the movie studios had to retrench and rethink. Soon, every motion picture studio requested and got concessions from its employees to reduce hours and take a fifty-percent cut in salary. It was meant to be only a temporary effort to help the studios survive the hard times; but, in many cases, the salaries were never restored.

Films themselves started portraying grittier and more realistic times, perhaps no more famously than The Public Enemy (Warner Bros.,1931) featuring James Cagney as a gangster. The bad times of the Great War were featured (perhaps by way of contrast to the current bad times) in several movies including All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 1930), Hell’s Angels (United Artists, 1930), and the classic, A Farewell to Arms (Paramount, 1932).

The 1930s also saw the rise of the monster films, with Frankenstein and Dracula (both Universal, 1931), and the remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1931). Of course, the biggest monster film of them all would turn out to be the great King Kong (RKO, 1933) which is featured in my new novel Sabotage at RKO Studio.

But the 1930s were not all a time of desperation and strife. There were still films that ably demonstrated how the rich are different from the rest of us including Grand Hotel (MGM, 1932) and The Thin Man (MGM, 1934). Perhaps the brightest star to appear in otherwise grim times was Shirley Temple, who wasn’t quite yet four years old when she first stepped in front of a camera. Her fame was quick to come with such classics as Bright Eyes, in which she sang On the Good Ship, Lollipop (Fox Film Corporation, 1934), The Little Colonel and Curly Top (both Fox Film Corporation, 1935).

But, change was in the air. The rise of the Nazis in Germany was well underway at this point, and the sounds of war could be heard in the distance. Soon, filmmakers in America would begin to rally against the oppression in Europe, and the Great Depression would quickly become nothing more than a bitter memory.

09 February 2014

Anatomy of an Award-Winning Book Cover

Recently, I was a guest panelist at the Changing Hands third annual Indie Author Conference. The panel in which I participated was about lessons learned from being a published author. I spoke to a lot of attendees before and after my panel and many were interested in what goes into making a great book cover.

Luckily for me, I have an in-house designer (my spouse, Matt) who’s been a professional illustrator and graphic designer for many years. He’s done the covers for all eight of my books so far and another dozen or so covers for other writers. 

Matt's first award-winning cover was the one he did for my book “Sarah & Gerald,” a novel of Paris in the 1920s. I think this is the best design he’s done for me; so, I thought I would give you a little overview of how he created that cover.
As usual, Matt and I talked a lot about the story of the novel and what I envisioned for a cover. Luckily, Matt usually ignores my suggestions -- and did in this case.

In the first image, you’ll see some of the illustrations Matt did. I loved them and saw the possibility inherent in the images.

He added a stock watercolor background (second image) and colored the illustration to come up with the final cover image (third image). With the addition of a perfect font (Fontleroy Brown), the cover was done.

This very brief summary does not fully capture the many hours of work that went into this cover: Matt’s illustrations and the (many) suggestions I offered to alter the cover design. For example, Matt’s original design had the title at the top and my name below. I suggested it would have a neater look swapping them.

It’s very important to work with a talented cover designer. It’s equally important to listen to your designer. I know how to write. I’m no designer -- and you’re probably not, either.