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.

04 February 2014

Not so Super Commercials

Commercials for the 2014 Super Bowl were generally tepid and uninspiring. I was disappointed that there were no clever animal spots from Bridgestone (“Screaming Squirrel” anyone?), that the only CarMax commercial (“Slow Clapping”) wasn’t funny, and we never found out what happened to the GM robot who lost its job back in 2007. Did it get it’s job back? Is it flipping burgers somewhere?

There were three spots that rose above the rest. The top three were, in order, clever, subtle and innovative.

My early favorite, weeks ago, was the Doritos time machine spot made (for $200!) by a fellow Arizonan. This additionally won the Doritos contest because it’s clever, funny and just basically brilliant. It catches the entire point of humor: something unexpected happening in an unexpected way.

Second, also an early favorite, was the spot for AXE body spray. I love how it took a very old slogan “Make love, not war” and put it into so many (otherwise) cliché images of hostility and aggression. In addition, I totally agree with the sentiment.

I’m surprised that my third favorite is for a soda. Soda and beer spots are usually so dull, but the Pepsi “Half Time” commercial makes excellent use of computer graphics to tell the story (rather than just show off the technology, which is such a problem with films today) in a clever way. (The Guggenheim as a drum? LOVE IT!) I love how the buildings were used to show sound levels. Excellent.

Runner up: Radio Shack addressing it’s fuddy-duddy image with a very smart retro-themed spot wherein the 1980s come to visit and take back their store.

You can see the spots here:



Read more about the winning Doritos commercial here.

28 January 2014

Hell at 5:53

I needed to get up at 6:00 this morning to do some work. I woke up, turned my head and saw the clock: 5:53. I was happy to have seven more minutes. Five minutes went by. I looked at the clock. It was 5:53. I closed my eyes. Ten minutes went by. I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. It was still 5:53. I remained in bed, staring at the clock for another fifteen minutes. The clock remained at 5:53. “This is it,” I thought to myself, suddenly realizing. “I died overnight and am now in hell. This is how I will spend my eternity: forever anticipating getting up at 6:00 to do something important, and a clock that never changes from 5:53.” Then the clock changed to 5:54.

02 January 2014

Sabotage at RKO Studio

Yes, it's true: the second James Murray Mystery is now available! (See link in the "My Writing" 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. While working as a clerk at a swank downtown department store, James pens a novel that turns out to be a surprise success. Now, he’s the junior screenwriter at a major Hollywood studio.

During his time there, productions at the studio have been plagued by a series of mysterious accidents including fires, damage to costumes, theft of miniatures used for trick shots -- and the worst: theft of an important scene from the studio’s big picture, King Kong. Not wanting to attract too much attention by calling the police, head of production Merian C. Cooper enlists James’s help in trying to find out what’s behind the sabotage.

Sabotage at RKO Studio, and its predecessor Murder at Eastern Columbia, are unlike any other books you've read: Not a single novel, it's two parallel novels, featuring two heroes, working two mysteries in two different versions of 1930s Hollywood. Join James and his alter ego as they each try to find the saboteurs behind the “accidents.” His hard-boiled alter ego -- neither a private detective nor a police officer: just someone "who wants to help" -- needs to find out who's trying to pin the “accidents” on him. Two men in two stories work their way through 1930s Hollywood following clews, interviewing people who might know something, going from location to location, with one goal in mind: find out who might want to damage the studio.

Along the way, they meet a rich cast of characters including a glamorous movie star; a poor Mexican girl working as a secretary in a bank; a mysterious blonde secretary who harbors a deadly secret; the intriguing Mexican girl from a very wealthy family who still mourns the death of her brother; the silent-screen star who left movies to marry into oil; a handsome young police officer just trying to do his job; and the pretty, young girl who gives tours at the Richfield Oil Building.

Sabotage at RKO Studio is filled with twists, turns and a final scene at a glamorous Hollywood movie premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

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

24 December 2013

The Happiest of Holidays to You!

Matt and I want to wish all of you the happiest of holidays! Here is the image on our card this year. As you all know, Matt is the artist in the family, but this year I tried my hand at paper cutting, inspired by (but in no way as good as) the work of artist and friend Kevin Kidney. We hope you enjoy this little effort made of 65-pound paper, copper wiring, and tufts of fur from our wonderful dog Aalto and our fabulous cat Eero. You could say it's a real family affair!