Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Writer's Retreat

I inherited my love of reading and writing from my father. Although he never chose to take a stab at publication, Dad did produce some impressive poetry and essays that he shared with me when I was old enough to appreciate them. We also had more bookcases in the house than any other item of furniture. When I was small, I used to leaf through Dad's volumes on Roman warfare, Canadian naval history, and other subjects about the world's fighting past, and marvel over the vivid illustrations and photos.

One book that held special attraction for me, although its title and author escapes me now, was about writer's workplaces. I wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I'd study the photos accompanying each writer's essay. Did I want to produce my masterpieces on a rough-hewn wooden worktable overlooking acres of daisy-spotted fields? Or in a garret studio in a stately Victorian home on a leafy city sidestreet?

So far, I haven't acquired either, but I'm not so sure I want to now. I've come to appreciate that writers transcend their surroundings if they're dedicated to their craft: I've hammered out first drafts in tomblike libraries and madcap airport lounges, accomplished rewrites in my local Starbucks, and sent the completed manuscript to my second book, The Man Who Got Away, during a break in a trade show I was attending. My 'permanent' workspace is an imitation cherrywood desk whose sleek surface is taken up by a flatscreen monitor, candlestick telephone, scanner, keyboard (which is in desperate need of a cleaning!) photos of Big Jack Zelig and Darla, a pet ferret who passed away last year, and a mountain of books (The Practical Writer by Eiben and Gannon, Sacrificed by Henry Klein, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers by Amy Gilman Srebink, We Are Not Afraid by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, and Ship Ablaze by Edward T. O'Donnell).

The key to being a prolific writer is adaptability: be ready and able to work wherever life and fortune happen to situate you. Your dream workspace will come to you eventually, but only if you've been able to produce excellent work in less ideal surroundings.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Practical Writer- All You Need

I don't buy books about the writer's craft any more. Not since I picked up The Practical Writer.

Edited by Therese Eibe and Mary Gannon in conjunction with the staff of Poets and Writers Magazine, this volume covers everything from conceiving original ideas to successfully placing the finished manuscript with a publisher. It's not a 'how-to' manual with carefully planned 'Point A to Point B' steps, but rather a series of essays that help both emerging and veteran writers make intelligent and informed choices at every stage of their project. Among the topics covered are choosing the perfect title, submission strategy and protocol, getting low-cost publicity for a small press title, digital marketing, and cultivating your local booksellers.

Some essays provided more insight than instruction, and these were the ones that I found myself mulling over long after I finished reading the book. Helen Benedict's "Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Wherein Lies the Truth?" was one of them. Like many nonfiction writers, I shied away from fiction and literature in favor of immersing myself in works of history, current events, true crime, etc. I saw no value in imaginary worlds and people unless I was looking for an escape, and even then, I preferred a good history volume as a type of retreat. Benedict argues that even nonfiction has its limits in exposing and depicting the truth: interview subjects color their stories, authors are wary of injuring innocent parties, and everyone fears a lawsuit if they're completely honest in print about a contentious issue. With fiction, writers are free to expose unpalatable truths via imaginary characters, as Vladimir Nabokov did with his obsessed child-lover Humbert Humbert in Lolita. History abounds with examples of literature leading to social change: Uncle Tom's Cabin shone a harsh glare on the morality of slavery, Charles Dickens helped the cause of the poor, and Theodore Dreiser humanized the prostitute, the unwed mother, and other figures of universal derision during his day.

Another essay that stayed with me was Robert McDowell's "Publicity for Your Small Press Title". Like me, McDowell believes that the author is a crucial part of a book's success. After his poetry volume On Foot, In Flames was released, he spent nine days driving through eastern Oregon and Washington to promote his book. He read before twenty-two classes of high and middle school pupils, gave readings at local libraries, and even presented his work at a senior's home in Fossil, Oregon. Only three people showed up at a reading scheduled at a small-town hotel, but guests entering the lobby would stop and listen. McDowell only sold one book that night, but as he put it, "Even though the author in me could have easily retreated to a humiliating place, the marketer and proselytizer in me was proud of that sale. My poetry had just taken one more small step out into the world."

The Practical Writer belongs with each year's Writer's Market on any serious author's bookshelf. The latter points to doors, the former helps push them open and make the most of the opportunities presented.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dean O'Banion recognized in Ireland

Ten months ago, I went to Chicago to be interviewed by AbuMedia, a TV production company that had flown over from Ireland to film a series about Irish gangsters in America. They wanted me to talk about Dean O'Banion and his role in the Prohibition drama. The crew was fantastic to work with, and I had a great time.

Months afterward, I received a DVD of the episode that I appeared in. It was dedicated entirely to O'Banion's life, and included interviews with T.J. English, author of Paddy Whacked, and Craig Alton from Chicago's popular Untouchables Tour. It has since been broadcast in Ireland, but has yet to be seen in North America.

In most instances, I find the reenactment segments of these projects to be disappointing or downright embarrassing. The actors that are chosen to play O'Banion, Capone, etc look nothing like their real-life counterparts, and Irish-American gangsters speak with a ridiculous brogue that belies their actual birthplace. The AbuMedia production, however, was an exception. They treated O'Banion's story with respect, especially at the beginning, when his Maroa childhood was revisited. The actor who portrayed Dean was close to the mark in appearance- same height, weight, face shape, etc. The cinematography was spectacular, and the musical score that accompanied the reenactments was so compelling that O'Banion's death scene actually brought a lump to my throat. I really hope that they televise it here soon, as it was the best film treatment yet of O'Banion's life.

I've posted some screenshots below. The first two show him writing a letter to his invalid mother, the remaining two depict his death.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Yeah, well, you're not from Chicago

One of my favorite scenes from Brian DePalma's The Untouchables takes place mid-way through the movie. With help from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Untouchables intercept a Capone booze shipment at the border and capture one of Big Al's top boys. When the gangster refuses to talk, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) punches him in the face, and then completes the scare campaign by grabbing the corpse of a lesser hood and blowing its head off... without bothering to reassure their prisoner that life was extinct first. The manacled hoodlum begins talking the moment he stops pissing himself, but for the commanding officer of the RCMP, the ends don't justify the means. "I do not approve of your methods!" he snaps, to which Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) coolly replies, "Yeah, well, you're not from Chicago."

It's not so entertaining when you hear the same phrase employed in reference to you. One anonymous reviewer didn't exactly slam Guns and Roses, but he did complain about "authors from Iowa and Canada writing about Chicago." (The Iowa author he was referring to is Rick Mattix, who covered Chicago crimes and criminals extensively in The Complete Public Enemy Almanac.) At my request, Amazon pulled the review, and I later learned that the defensive Chicagoan was a frustrated author whose own manuscript about the Windy City mob had been rejected so often that he resorted to self-publication.

Most people are enlightened enough to appreciate a well-written, solidly researched work regardless of the author's origins. Harold Schechter and Ann Rule have written eye-opening and perceptive books about the world's worst serial killers, but no one accuses them of being unfit to deal with the subject matter because bodies aren't buried in their basements. Unfortunately, there exists a minority who think that if your birth certificate doesn't say 'Chicago' on it or you only live there during research trips, your attempts to write about events in the city's history are akin to what one well-meaning Chicagoan called, "a Norwegian trying to write an Italian cookbook."

I don't dispute that for some books, appropriate credentials are crucial. I wouldn't buy a medical textbook unless the author's name ended in 'M.D.' I'll even allow that living in Chicago is a definite asset when you're writing about the city's current events, as these issues impact your own life and give you a perspective that someone in Hayden, Idaho could never have on the same topic. But when the subject matter involves history, all you really need is strong research skills and the ability to ask questions when you don't know something.

During my last visit to Chicago, I went to Holy Name Cathedral to take some pictures. For me, this beautiful church has special significance because the parking lot across the street is the former site of Dean O'Banion's flower shop, where he was murdered in 1924. Two years later his successor, Hymie Weiss, died in the cathedral's shadow when bullets from a machine gun nest ripped his body apart.

While I was angling the camera, a middle-aged gentleman paused to watch. After I snapped the photo, he approached and commented, "Holy Name is a lovely church. Are you taking pictures for a magazine?"

"No, for myself. I did mention Holy Name in two books that I wrote, though."

When he pressed for details, I told him about the O'Banion and Weiss murders. He kept punctuating my speech with "You're kidding!" and "I never knew that!"

"Are you from Chicago?" I asked.

"Yes- born here and lived here all my life. I also go to Holy Name every Sunday. Never knew about this gangster connection before though."

As I watched him continue up State Street, I remembered another line from The Untouchables. When Sean Connery questions a police recruit about why he wants to be a cop, the young man looks confused and then mumbles something about "wanting to help the force." After the interview is concluded, Connery mutters, "There goes the next chief of police." Gazing at the amiable stranger's back, I thought, "God help me if he decides to write a book. He doesn't know much about the city's history, but at least he's from Chicago."

For some, that's all that seems to matter.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Creative Nonfiction- the slippery slope

I recently finished reading John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I loved it and hated it at the same time.

Like me, Berendt is a creative nonfiction writer: he embraces certain fiction techniques, such as plot, dialogue, characterization, and point of view, to make the story more compelling. But there's a line, and in my opinion Berendt crossed it. To make the real-life scenes flow more smoothly, he invented transitions, a process he called "rounding the corners." It was meant to make the book more enjoyable to read, and I'll admit that he achieved the desired effect. But what he also did was make me distrust the entire work.

It's not necessarily an ethical violation to veer away from the literal truth for the sake of a more lively narrative. I've done it myself. If an interview subject says to me, "I saw Bugs Moran in the lobby of the Parkway Hotel and said hello to him", I might translate this statement as "Seeing Moran in the Parkway Hotel's lobby, John Doe said, "Hello, George."" This is more engaging prose than "John Doe said hello to Bugs Moran in the lobby of the Parkway Hotel." But what's not permissible, in my opinion, is to write something like "Seeing Moran in the Parkway Hotel's lobby, John Doe said, "Hello, George." Moran returned the greeting, then stepped out into the sunny August afternoon. The recent killing of his old friend Bill was on his mind, and he was in no mood to talk." It's an even better literary treatment of the encounter than my own version, but unless Moran explicitly told John Doe that he was still upset about his friend's murder and not inclined to talk, an elaboration like that is unacceptable.

It's my opinion that if you have adequate research skills and know how to ask the right questions during interviews, you can come up with enough compelling material without abusing creative license. Do not cheapen your work by inventing dialogue, characters, and incidents for the sake of appealing to the beach novel crowd. Truth can be much more engaging than fiction, and if you have any real talent as a writer, you can apply that principle successfully.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

You Wrote It- Now Make Sure They Come

Congratulations on getting your book published! Months, maybe even years have passed since you began putting your idea into manuscript form, and now all those rewrites, revisions, re-everythings are over and you can relax….. but you shouldn’t.

You’ve accomplished one of two primary goals in the writing business: finding a publisher for your work. Now, if you care about your book’s success, you should apply your creative energies with equal vigour to the second step of the process: helping it sell well.

I’ve spoken to writers whose attitude is, “I’ve written the book- it’s the publisher’s job to sell it.” Theoretically, that’s true. But certain realities have to be faced: approximately 500 titles are published every day in the U.S., and publishers have a daunting job persuading bookstore buyers, reviewers, and readers to consider your book out of hundreds. There’s a lot that you as the author can do to create a demand that will give your creation a competitive edge.

Give the book, and yourself, an online presence. I can’t stress enough the importance of using Internet resources as marketing tools. A website reaches a much broader audience than a printed ad ever could, and its content can be updated instantly. Below are some suggestions that will help you get the most out of your Internet-based campaign.

Register a domain name (i.e. and build a site. If you’re technically challenged but want to take a shot at designing your own author web page, Yahoo! Geocities has a free site hosting service that includes easy-to-use tools for building your page. For as little as $8.95 a month, they offer an advanced hosting package that includes registration of your chosen domain name. If you’d rather be writing your next book instead of mastering a site builder program, Authors on the Web ( offers slick site design and useful add-ons like blogs, message boards, and multimedia. Although Authors on the Web has an excellent reputation and writers like Nelson DeMille and Rita Mae Brown are among their clients, they are pricier: a basic package starts at $2,500. Determine what your budget is and take it from there. You can always hire a local design company at a reasonable rate.

Update your site regularly. Your author page shouldn’t be treated as merely a cyber-resume. Add fresh content that will keep visitors coming back. You want to maintain their interest in not only your current book but all those that you intend to write in the future. If you’ve written a work of nonfiction, write short articles about your chosen topic and post them on your site. You’ll come across as an authority on the subject. If your publisher gives you the green light to do so, post a sample chapter from your book. Fiction authors can provide additional background information on their characters and post some short stories- I know of one author who received such an enthusiastic response to one of her ‘shorts’ that she developed it into a full-length novel that continues to sell well. Authors of all genres can sign up for a free blog at and post personal messages to readers.

Join a forum or e-mail list dedicated to your subject. Author M.J. Rose advises, “For every niche you can think of, you can find at least one newsgroup, e-zine, newsletter, or listserv on the Web targeted to that group.” She’s right. Unless your book deals with a really obscure topic, you’ll probably find several net-based forums containing potential readers. Make a list of the most popular and relevant ones, and then e-mail the owners / administrators directly to solicit a book review or see if they will let you host a Q&A or chat. Unless they’re territorial or competitive, chances are that they’ll love this kind of direct attention from a published author. Another, albeit lower key approach, is to choose three or four of the best groups and join them. Participate in their discussions without actively promoting your work, which could be interpreted as tacky and self-serving. You should, however, insert the name of your book in your e-mail or forum post signature. It won’t be long before other members begin commenting on the signature and asking you about the book. Personal responses to their questions creates a loyalty that will translate into sales, because readers love to interact with authors directly. Building a good relationship with your readers will turn them into a sales force for not only your current books but any future ones you may write on a related topic.

Set up a MySpace or Facebook page. Profiles on social networking sites are ridiculously easy to set up and use. Because they are so popular (not mention searchable, allowing you to locate fans of your book topic), several of my author associates forgo setting up their own websites in favour of having a presence on either of these networks. They have groups dedicated to all kinds of topics, and you’re sure to find one that caters to your target audience. When I was promoting my third release, The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster, I created a MySpace profile that appeared to be maintained by Big Jack Zelig himself. True Crime fans got a kick out of it, and even learned to speak 1912 gangster jargon.

Sign up for an Amazon Author Blog. Once your title is listed for sale on, you can sign up for AmazonConnect, a program that allows authors to post messages to their readers and create a profile page with personalized information. All posted messages will appear on your book’s product page as well. This is a great tool for informing readers about future book signings, TV and radio interviews, and (fingers crossed!) movie deals.

Join I personally love this website. Founder Otis Chandler describes it as “a place where you can see what your friends are reading and vice versa.” It’s like a MySpace for books and book lovers. Authors are given profile pages where they can post messages, articles, stories, YouTube videos, and more. They can also host Q&A discussion groups. GoodReads is unique in that it sponsors contests to win free copies of pre-release books. Publishers can list their upcoming books, and readers can apply to receive one. Winners are picked randomly at the end of the giveaway period.

Contact local book clubs. If you don’t mind public speaking, spend some time researching book clubs and reading groups in your area. Your local library is a good place to start, and larger groups often have websites that will show up on an Internet search page. Once you’ve found a club whose members read the type of book you’ve written, e-mail or call the president, introduce yourself, and offer to read to them. They’ll probably be thrilled to have you make an appearance at a future meeting, and you’ll have a terrific opportunity to impress potential buyers.

Internet marketing tools and book groups achieve a dual objective: increasing awareness of your work and fostering communication between yourself and your readers. They allow you to, in the words of author Linda Richards, “fill the gaping hole that used to exist between the publisher and the reader.” Since a book’s author can be its best salesperson, you should be as crucial a part of the marketing process as you were in all prior stages of your book’s development.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Why I hate "The Sopranos"

I don't really. I have to admit that I watch it every chance I get, and cried a bit when Silvio whacked Adrianna. But what mob dramas like The Sopranos has done is spoil the appetite of some readers for books that approach all those backroom intrigues, backseat shootings, and double-dealing from a historical perspective.

There was a time when those of us who specialize in the Prohibition or Depression era desperadoes could write something like, "In the fall of 1928, the Capone gunmen met in secluded Cranberry Lake, Wisconsin, to discuss the problem of George Moran." There's still nothing to stop you, but you're guaranteed to get a couple of whiney reviews complaining that the book wasn't "exciting enough." These people don't want to be informed, they want pure entertainment like they get every time a Sopranos episode comes on. If your coverage of the Cranberry Lake meeting doesn't include prose like "We gotta whack that crummy bastard Bugs" or "Those motherfucking Gusenbergs are gonna eat lead for what they done to Jack McGurn", then you're going to get accusations of "dull!" One day people like this will move out of their mother's basement and learn that invented dialogue is a fiction technique, but until then, they're free to wail their disappointment all over the Internet. Solomon Short once said, "I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters." Change that to keyboards and you'd have my vote.

Don't get me wrong- there's nothing amiss about liking a good piece of noir or mafia-based fiction. One of my favorite books is Schooley and Sellers' Hard Boiled Love (Insomniac Press). But unless the ballsy dialogue and shocking inside stories are part of the official record, you're not going to find anything comparable in a work of historic True Crime. If you value entertainment more than information, rent a Sopranos DVD instead, and spare the serious authors your misguided, flawed reviews.