Classic or cliche — the power of details

This piece was originally published in First Draft, the SinC Guppy chapter newsletter. I thought of it last week after watching THE ROAD TO PERDITION, with Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law. All their performances were excellent, but Newman’s reminded me of the power of the right gesture, no matter how small. He could convey with a creased brow his approval of his foster, a message not lost on his biological son, and so embodied a character that we nearly forgot it was one of the most famous screen actors ever. As writers, we need those reminders, and lessons. 

CLASSIC OR CLICHE — a brief meditation on the death of Paul Newman–and what his roles say to writers

Remembering an actor who got the details right.

When Paul Newman died, I was reading Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about life in small-town Maine. I’d very much enjoyed the HBO series featuring Ed Harris as the protagonist, Miles Roby, and Newman as his father, Max. Newman so embodied the role that as I read, I pictured him every time Max appeared on the page. It’s a classic role – the charming reprobate, a sometime-house painter who abandoned his wife and young sons for months at a time but always seemed to expect them to be waiting – and they were. Now that his wife is long dead and his sons are grown, he treats them no better. Without a car and always short on money, he bums rides then rummages in Miles’ glove box for cash. He pitches in at the café his sons run, cheering up his teenage granddaughter and enjoying wreaking unnecessary havoc. He knows exactly what buttons to push on his hyper-responsible oldest son. You want to smack him. But when he and the town’s senile, retired priest run off to Florida in the parish car, the moment is so unexpectedly perfect that you almost cheer the old guys on.

Then I remembered Newman’s performance as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict,” the washed-up alcoholic lawyer who takes on a loser of a case and then discovers that buried in the boxes of medical records is evidence of appalling hospital malpractice and a cover-up by the Catholic church. Galvin cleans up, dries up, falls down, falls off the wagon, and eventually redeems himself – and wins the case. Along the way, he’s seduced by a beautiful woman, sent to set him up and trick him up – and it almost works. A classic story that goes all the way back to David and Goliath.

Classic – or cliche? What makes the difference? Newman’s performances – and Russo’s writing – demonstrate that it’s the details that make the characters come alive. Russo’s Max Roby is a retired house painter, and he never had much use for the Catholic church that gave his wife comfort. His son Miles is combining penance and community service by painting the church for free – but he hates ladders and that peeling siding of that spire terrifies him. Max pokes and prods Miles about his fear of heights, not very nicely. But he knows that Miles has constrained his own life in part out of fear, and needs to push through it. The author doesn’t spell that out – it’s in the characterization. Eventually Miles does stand up to Max, he does go high up on the ladder, and he gains the courage he needs to pull off a pair of rebellious acts that enable him to save his daughter and change his own life. Small actions, tiny steps that lead inexorably to redemption – not of Max, who isn’t looking for it, but of Miles, who needs it to fully live his own life. The devil may be in the details, but so is the glory.

Newman described himself as a character actor who looked like a leading man. I think he meant that he liked to lose himself in the details and become someone else – he wasn’t always playing himself. As writers, we need to give our characters those same opportunities. What I particularly like about Empire Falls – and Russo’s latest novel, The Bridge of Sighs – is that most of the characters are ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, but the writer is willing to go beneath the surface and explore each individual character’s particular thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions. To go beyond cliche. And that’s what makes a classic.

The Saturday Writing Quote — on reading (#2)

IMGP2894“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), in Learning to Write 44, 44 (1920).

(photo: a few of my faves from a year ago!)

Law and fiction — blogs with a real-life view of lawyering

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Writing a character who is a lawyer, but you’re not one — or closely related to one? A recent post on favorite blogs for lawyers on the Washington State Bar Association blog mentioned these, so I took a quick look. Good inside info.

Corporette: subtitled Fashion, Lifestyle, and Career Advice for Over-Achieving Chicks. If your image of women lawyers is pumps and charcoal gray suits, take a look. Things have changed, thank goodness!

Attorney at Work: No pictures of shoes or ruched-sleeve jackets (love ’em!) here. Lots of practical advice for the working lawyer, including ideas for business development, better meeting strategy, and being a good employer. I like this for writers because it reminds us that lawyers are business people, too — and like all business people, some handle it better than others. The pieces here will give you a better idea of a lawyer’s daily life, and may suggest some conflicts, small and large, that you haven’t thought of.

More than 50% of lawyers work on their own, or with only one or two other lawyers. Solo Practice University gives advice for the solo and small-firm lawyer. Like Attorney at Work, quite a few posts apply concepts from other fields to lawyering, which I like very much.

Remember that the more you understand about your character’s real life and daily struggles, the more conflict you can add to your stories and the more fully you can develop your characters — and understanding what they want and will do to get it is what leads to plot. Blogs are a great way to catch a glimpse of daily concerns and struggles, the very stuff that help us build intiguing characters on the page.

Receiving “The Raven” and Celebrating the Traditional Mystery

Malice 2016 Raven

I’m just back from an amazing trip — two trips in one, to New York and Bethesda, MD, just outside Washington, D.C. Sisters in Crime received the Mystery Writers of America’s Raven Award for “outstanding achievement in the mystery field, outside the realm of creative writing,” and as the current president, I was honored to accept the award at MWA’s Edgars Awards dinner last Thursday in New York. 

MWA 2016 with Catriona and SaraWhen I arrived at Malice at noon Friday, a board member greeted me by saying, “I heard you kicked ass.” Well, maybe, in a sparkling navy gown, black kitten heels, and a purloined necklace. So, since I’ve been asked for the acceptance speech, here it is — and here I am with immediate past president Catriona McPherson and past president/founding mother Sara Paretsky.

UPDATE: There’s video! Watch it at your own risk!

Thank you.

This award is a tribute to the vision that a roomful of women crime writers had nearly 30 years ago, and it’s a most fabulous prelude to our birthday celebration, which we’re beginning this fall. That it comes from our partners in crime makes it especially fitting, and especially wonderful.

This award also acknowledges all the officers, chapter leaders, and members who have made Sisters in Crime a true sisterhood, and who have done the hard work of bringing about change – bettering the lives and careers of all crime writers, because when women prosper we all prosper.

And in that spirit, I would like to ask everyone in the room who is a member of Sisters in Crime, including our brothers in crime, to please stand, and let me thank you.

And to the rest of you, we can take care of that.

I’d like to thank the past presidents and current board members here tonight:
Sara Paretsky, past president and a founding mother,
Margaret Maron, past president,
Catriona McPherson, immediate past president,
and Lori Roy, our treasurer.

I also want to acknowledge our Executive Director, Beth Wasson, who is not here tonight. She will be at Malice Domestic this weekend, so if you’re headed down there, please congratulate her when you see her. Sisters would not be what it is without her.

Of course, there is still work to be done.

When a man says he won’t read a book by a woman, there is work to be done.

When a bestselling male author says from the stage at a major writers convention that women cannot write thrillers, there is work to be done.

And when there are white readers, some of them writers, who can’t tell you when they last read a book by an author of color, there is work to be done.

And so, we will continue doing the work for the next 30 years, and more.

Thank you for giving us the wings.

 (I’ll tell you more about the rest of the trip, including the weekend at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention later this week.)

 

The Saturday Writing Quote – Conroy on reading

IMGP1761“From the beginning I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.”

– Pat Conroy, in My Reading Life (2010)

A Day in the Life of an Expert Witness — guest Lisa Black

Welcome back to Law & Fiction: the Blog author and forensic scientist Lisa Black, whose experiences as an expert witness remind lawyers to be verrry considerate of our experts, and give both writers and readers an insider’s view of the criminal justice system. Her newest novel, THAT DARKNESS: a Gardiner and Renner novel , releases tomorrow, April 26.

that darkness coverI have testified in court as an expert witness approximately sixty times in my 20 years as a forensic scientist, and I can positively state that I would rather respond to the scene of a decomposed hoarder death in a house skittering with roaches and bedbugs then present myself in court for any reason whatsoever. At least I’d only be surrounded by trash and bad smells for an hour or two, whereas a court appearance can stretch into days.

There’s absolutely nothing fun or glamorous about it. You are jerked away from whatever it was you were doing (work, your day off, a vacation) and plopped into a cold, boring room in the cold, boring courthouse. If you’re lucky the room has a window and a minimum of chatty co-witnesses. You have to stay there for as long as the attorneys think they ‘might’ need you and will be freed only after at least one of them has done their best to make you look incompetent at best and conspiratorial at worst. The whole experience, quite frankly, sucks.

And it’s the most important thing we can do. All the crime scene work, swabbing up blood, wearing surgical masks to be able to breathe amid the stench, straining our eyes staring at fingerprint ridges for hours upon hours—all these things count for nothing if they don’t stand up in court.

But that’s the big picture, and usually I’m stuck in the pixels.

The waiting isn’t so bad when it isn’t your vacation you’ve been pulled away from, and you’ve prepared by bringing snacks, change for the pop machine and a book to read. I’ve taken my laptop along and gotten my writing done while waiting (though you may have to dodge those chatty fellow witnesses). If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloadable e-audiobooks from your library system (heaven!!). Our courthouse even has free wifi for surfing the web or answering email.

Also sometimes I have to go on Mondays, when our local courthouse does all the ‘housekeeping’ kind of stuff—pleas, motions, continuances—to collect a defendant’s palm prints or footprints, which the regular court bailiffs don’t do. This is the only kind of non-stressful court appearance I have since no one is going to ask me questions and I get to sit inside the courtroom for a change. There I can watch a sometimes interesting parade of people and hear the mini-synopsis of their predicament, such as the guy who got into an argument with someone, called 911, and as the officer arrived to explain that 911 was only for emergencies, called 911 three more times to complain about being told not to call 911.

What drives me to distraction, however, is my increasing appearances in court for sentencing hearings. When a person is convicted after a trial or plea, their fingerprints (not palms) are rolled in open court as an official record that this, indeed, is the person who was convicted in this particular court case. When they are convicted again, before they are sentenced, the prosecutor wants to establish that they have prior convictions so that the sentence can reflect that. So I have to compare the in-court prints from that conviction not yet sentenced to the in-court prints from one or two or five prior convictions. This is a minor thing, an easy comparison since the prints are usually decent and if, say, the right thumbs are smeared, you have nine other fingers to choose from. However I still have to do the comparison, hand it off to another examiner to re-do and therefore verify the comparison,  write the report, give it to my verifier to check and initial, then give to my supervisor to check and initial, make a copy for me, contact the court liaison to tell him he can pick up the report, then go to court and wait a half-hour or hour or two, then put up with the defense attorney complaining about my report (not long enough, too long, I made a typo in the birth date) as if he or his client is really suggesting that they are not the person incarcerated on these previous charges—because if they weren’t, surely they would just say so.

gavel stock image MslnArrgh!

Yes, I whine. But this does represent an outlay of taxpayer-paid time, and not just my time—my co-workers, the attorneys, the judge, the jury—and all to prove something that is already documented and that no one is questioning.

Attorneys have told me that this practice, which only began about four years ago, is due to some court decision, but I don’t believe it. I think it’s something they do ‘just in case’ it may prove to be a point of appeal. They’re trying to protect their body of work, but meanwhile more and more cases are dropped or plead down to nothing because the court’s schedule can’t handle them all. Sometimes crossing every t and dotting every i means that other t’s and i’s suffer.

Another new practice of the extreme stating of the obvious is asking ballistic experts to take bullets apart and then testify to the fact that they are bullets, with a slug and gunpowder, etc., to be used in a firearm. This is apparently requested when the use of a firearm is part of the charge or sentencing considerations, and in addition to verifying that the firearm itself is functional. After all there are several reasons why a firearm might not be able to fire as well as very realistic looking air guns—but nothing else quite looks like a bullet. And if the defendant wants to make the case that his bullets were not functional, he can, again, say so. Then order the testing. But to do it reflexively in every case adds up to a colossal waste of time and resources.

So, yeah, I don’t really enjoy going to court!

(A reminder to writers: local practices vary, and the new procedures Lisa has encountered in Florida are not required everywhere, so talk to a local expert before using them in your scenes!)

Lisa and powderThat Darkness is now available wherever books are sold!

It seemed like a typical week for crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner–a gang boss shot in an alley, a lost girl draped over an ancient grave, a human trafficker dumped in the river–nothing all that out of the ordinary for the Cleveland police department as spring turns toward summer along the Erie banks. The methods are usual, the victims unsurprising–but when she notices a pattern, a tenuous similarity among the cases, she begins to realize that her days will never be typical again. How much of her life, her career, her friends, will she be willing to risk to do what’s right?

Jack Renner is a killer who does not kill for any of the conventional reasons…no mania, no personal demons. He simply wants to make the world a safer place. He doesn’t think of himself as a dangerous person–but he can’t let anyone stop him. Not even someone as well-meaning as Maggie Gardiner.

Maggie has the self-sufficiency of a born bit-of-a-loner. She works with a bevy of clever experts surrounded by armed police officers.        She is both street smart and book smart, having seen the worst the city has to offer.

But Maggie Gardiner is not safe. And, until she can draw Jack Renner into the light, neither is anyone else.

Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series, says: “Lisa Black always delivers authentic characters in riveting stories. That Darkness takes things to a spellbinding new level with a taut and haunting story that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.”

Publisher’s Weekly says: “The intriguing forensic details help drive the plot to its satisfying conclusion.”

“Black is one of the best writers of the world of forensics, and her latest introduces Maggie Gardiner, who works for the Cleveland Police Department. Her relentless pursuit of answers in a dark world of violence is both inspiring and riveting. Readers who enjoy insight into a world from an expert in the field should look no further than Black. Although Cornwell is better known, Black deserves more attention for her skillful writing – and hopefully this will be her breakout book.”– RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars (Top Pick)

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List, and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

And yep, that’s her looking like a happy chimney sweep!