Saturday, July 12, 2014

Lawrence Block, and using digressions in dialogue

This week I’m in New York for Thrillerfest, the annual convention for writers and fans of the thriller genre.  It’s a busy time, with classes on writing technique, interviews with leading authors, and approximately six dozen cocktail receptions hosted by publishing houses.  Per day.  But I wanted to post at least one video while in NYC (even if it means staying up very late to have the Grand Hyatt ballroom lobby as a fun background.) 

I had no trouble choosing the author for this episode.  I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block, whose various series range from hardboiled to humorous, since I started reading fiction for grown-ups.  To keep this post from going all night, let's focus on just one of Block's strengths:  Conversational tangents that keep the dialogue light and snappy, while also revealing bits of character and situation.  The excerpt I read in the video is included at the bottom of the post.

From Lawrence Block’s A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, read in LiG Episode 5:

            “It’s not surprising if you never heard of him, because he was very small-time, and it’s no surprise you didn’t hear about the homicide.  If there was anything in the papers, I didn’t see it myself.”
            He was frowning in concentration.  “Jack, Jack, Jack. Did he have a sobriquet?”
            “Come again?”
            “A nickname, for Christ’s sake.  And don’t tell me you didn’t know the word.”
            “I knew it,” I said.  “I’ve come across it in print, but I’m not sure I ever heard anyone say it before.  I certainly never heard anyone say it in Poogan’s.”
            “It’s a perfectly fine word.  And it’s not exactly the same as a nickname.  Take Charles Lindbergh.  His nickname was Lindy –“
            “As in hop,” I suggested.
            “—and his sobriquet was the Lone Eagle.  George Herman Ruth, nickname was Babe, sobriquet was the Sultan of Swat.  Al Capone—“
            “I get the idea.”
            “I just wanted to keep on saying it, Matthew.  Sobriquet.  I know from reading, and I don’t think I ever heard it before, and I know for certain I never said it before.  I wonder if I’m pronouncing it correctly.”
            “I’m the wrong person to ask.”
            “I’ll look it up,” he said, and picked up his glass and put it down without drinking.  “High-Low Jack,” he said.  “Wasn’t that his fucking sobriquet?  Isn’t that what they called him?”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Niamh O'Connor, and tormenting your protagonist

We’re the tail end of our family trip to Ireland, and squeezing in one last visit to a favorite place – the Roisin Dubh pub and music venue in Galway.  The pub is a lot bigger than the last time I saw it, but just as great a spot to find a pint and a song.  And to unravel a mystery or two.

Continuing with Irish thriller writers, I’ve been reading If I Never See You Again by Niamh O’Connor, Dublin crime writer and journalist.  O’Connor creates immediate empathy for her protagonist, detective superintendent Jo Birmingham.  Jo is juggling departmental pressure and disrespect from colleagues, children (teenage and infant), money troubles, and a marriage running what looks like its final lap.  If it weren’t for the serial killer running amok in her district, she’d have nothing to look forward to at all.  For writers aiming to raise the stakes for their own heroes and heroines – especially in realistic circumstances – O’Connor offers great examples.

I picked up my copy of O’Connor’s novel at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop on Middle Street, which offers some of the best browsing in Ireland.  Drop by and pick up something to enjoy over your pint.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Benjamin Black, and the subtext of imagery

While on vacation in western Ireland -- after too many years since my last visit – I’m taking the opportunity to read some mystery novels by Irish authors I haven’t read before.  It’s been a joy.  And recording the blog “on location” makes me think I should focus my reading list on thriller writers from prime holiday spots, just to have an excuse to visit.  Here we’re on the beautiful and rugged Burren in County Clare, and I’ll steal some time from the blog to have a look around with you.

But first we’ll talk about A Death in Summer, by Benjamin Black, the pen name of famed author John Banville.  Banville won the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, and he is a master of lyrical prose and sharply defined imagery.  Here we’ll look at how his descriptions help to underline the emotions and situation of his protagonist. 

This is the first post in which I’ve read directly from the page, and unfortunately the wind gusting off the sea likes to interrupt me.  It’s Murphy’s Law (Murphy being an Irish name, of course…) So I’ve included the text of Black’s scene below, so that you may read along with me and enjoy his words for yourself. 

From Benjamin Black’s A DEATH IN SUMMER, read in LiG Episode 3:

She came forward until she was standing before him.  She was not small for her age, yet the top of her head barely reached the level of his diaphragm.  He caught her child’s smell; it was like the smell of day-old bread.  Her hair was a deep gleaming black, like her mother’s.  “Would you like to see my room?” she asked.
            “Your room?”
            “Yes.  You said you came in to see the house, so you should see the upstairs, too.”  He tried to think of a way of declining this invitation but could not.  She was a strangely compelling personage.  She put her right hand in his left.  “Come along,” she said briskly, “this way.”
            She led him across the room and opened the door.  She had to use both hands to turn the great brass doorknob.  In the hall she took him by the hand again and together they climbed the stairs.  Yes, that was what he felt like: the misunderstood ogre, monstrous and lumbering but harmless at heart.
            “How did you know who I was?” she asked. “Have you seen me before?”
            “No, no.  But your mother told me your name and I thought you could not be anyone else.”
            “So you know maman quite well, then?”
            He thought about this for a moment before answering; somehow she compelled serious consideration.  “No, not very well,” he said. “We had lunch together.”
            “Oh, did you,” she said, without emphasis.  “I suppose you met her when Daddy died, since you’re a doctor.  Did you try to save his life?”
            Her hand was dry and cool and bony, and he thought of a fledgling fallen from the nest, but this was a fallen fledgling that would no doubt survive.  “No,” he said, “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
            “What other kinds of doctor are there?”
            She was leading him now across a broad landing spread with a Turkish rug in various shades of red from rust to blood-bright.
            “Oh, all sorts,” he said.
            This answer she seemed to find sufficient.
            Her room was absurdly large, a great square space painted white all over, with a white ceiling and a spotless white carpet and even a white cover on the small narrow bed.  It was alarmingly tidy not a toy or an article of clothing in sight, and not a single picture on the walls.  It might have been the cell of a deeply devotional but incongruously well-to-do anchorite.  It made Quirke shiver.  The only splash of color was in the single tall sash window opposite the door that gave onto Iveagh Gardens, a rectangle of blue and gold and lavish greens suspended in the midst of all that blank whiteness like a painting by Douanier Rousseau.  “I spend a lot of time here,” the child said. “Do you like it?”
            “Yes,” said Quirke, lying. “Very much.”

Sunday, July 6, 2014

J.A. Jance, and using the Setting to show Character POV

In this first post talking about writing techniques, we’ll look at Seattle author J.A. Jance, and examples from one of her J.P. Beaumont novels, Betrayal of Trust.   

As a native Seattlite, I love to read -- and write -- novels based in the Emerald City and its surroundings.  But creating a setting for a book is not just about giving shout-outs to local places and describing the weather (rain, mist, drizzle, rinse and repeat…)  It’s about creating character opinion.  While it’s true that the setting can be a character, it’s more accurate to say that the setting helps to show character.  We can only see the place through the person.