Where Research Leads Me

I write fiction – to date eleven novels in the Jeri Howard series, two in the California Zephyr series, and one standalone. I have two works-in-progress.

I make this stuff up. But when it comes to details, I like to sound as though I know what I’m talking about. So I research a variety of subjects, depending on the plot, setting and characters that feature in my books. Sometimes this involves a lot of reading but other times it involves getting out of my office. The research takes me down twisty paths and I find out things I didn’t know, information that makes its way into my writing.

As a longtime fan of Dick Francis, I always wanted to write a horseracing novel, but when I started A Killing at the Track, the ninth Jeri Howard novel, it quickly became clear how much I didn’t know about the Sport of Kings. Watching the Kentucky Derby on TV is one thing. So is watching live racing from the grandstand. Writing about the day-to-day life on the backside of a racetrack is another.

How to solve my research dilemma? A friend of a friend knew someone who trained racehorses. Which is how I found myself at Bay Meadows racetrack in the early hours one morning, for a day of following a trainer around the backside. I met jockeys, a vet, a jockey’s agent, and the Clerk of the Scales, who gave me a tour of the jockeys’ locker room. The last was unexpected, and it made its way into the book.

When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr, the first book in the California Zephyr series, I took a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route of the old California Zephyr, not the Amtrak version. That gave me the experience of traveling on a Pullman car. I also rode Amtrak’s Zephyr several times back and forth to Colorado, during the winter, seeing the frozen and isolated landscape of the Colorado Rockies, and getting a sense for what my characters would see out the window of the train, because that’s where much of the action takes place.

I visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, where I drove a locomotive under the watchful and patient tutelage of one of the museum volunteers. My main character in the Zephyr books is a train employee called a Zephyrette. I was fortunate to interview two women who had worked as Zephyrettes and the information they gave me was invaluable in writing the books.

Right now I’m working on the twelfth installment of Jeri Howard’s adventures, a book titled Water Signs. Jeri’s back on her familiar Oakland, California turf and the research involves looking at the city’s waterfront and the development that’s going on now. Who knows where it will lead me? Maybe out on the estuary, in a boat!

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Mysteries In Name Only?

Back when I launched my Nick Hoffman series, Woody Allen did Manhattan Murder Mystery.  That film was missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Despite some funny lines, the movie was hollow.  It’s natural for cops and PIs  to investigate a murder, but amateurs need a believable motive and leaving it out showed a lack of respect for the genre.  The film seemed tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

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I recently tried watching Columbus Circle about a wealthy agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building.  New neighbors suddenly started brawling in the hallway and I thought 1) they’re faking 2) they want to lure her outside 3) they’re after her money.  It all proved true within minutes.  Unbelievably, the woman neighbor badgered the agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was no reason why the shut-in should have succumbed. So the psychology was bogus and the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make anything remotely believable. I see this in films and on TV way too often.

Then there’s Sherlock.  The show started out as an innovate reboot of Watson and Holmes.  It even played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance:  Sherlock discussed it with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

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The special effects that were originally fun have overtaken the show and became distracting.  More than one fan told me he enjoyed them because they demonstrated the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  And his mind is anything but chaotic, it’s extremely organized.  Explosively fast editing works in a Jason Bourne movie, but Sherlock’s thinking should be awe-inspiring, not stupefying.

There was progressively less story in the show and I wondered why. Then I saw the writers on PBS practically boasting that Sherlock wasn’t going to be “about solving a crime ever week.”  Really?  Why breathe new life into a fabled character and then totally subvert what he does?  Their attitude and preference for FX showed contempt for the genre they were in.

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu fields an even bolder take on Holmes, making him a recovering addict and turning Watson into a woman and his “sober companion” when the show debuted.  There’s no flashy camera work or FX now, but just as much substance.  Crimes have typically been solved, not ignored.  By making Watson a woman, it opened up the Sherlock story up in a unique way.  This Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.

Part of the joy of Elementary has been watching her develop into an amateur detective, and in seeing her navigate a complex, layered relationship with Sherlock.  But it’s sadly come to feel like a primer on Alcoholics Anonymous: progressively less action-oriented and less about sleuthing.  Mysteries aren’t really actively solved so much as talked about and there’s more standing around and jawing that there is detecting.  Again, you get the feel that the writers are bored.

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For the real deal, I’ve turned to watching The Bridge, a Danish/Swedish co-production I rent from Netflix.  It’s smart, deep, dark, and funny when it needs to be.  The writers clearly love the genre they’re in, and it shows.  It starts with a body found exactly midpoint on the stunningly beautiful bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, which means police forces from both countries have to cooperate, and that’s more complicated than we might expect.  There are language issues, jurisdictional issues, procedural issues–and the lead detectives are wildly different characters.  One is sloppy and cuts corners, the other is humorless and rule-bound.  Yet they gradually make an effective, compelling team.  The show is dramatic, tense, moody, exciting.  And there’s real, powerful mystery at its core–something this mystery author and lover craves.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the novel of suspense Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries here.

Writing Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.

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That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.

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I wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Has this happened to you?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Giving My Books New Life

Every day you’ll find a handful of blogs, maybe more, telling you about the joys of going indie. You have more control over timing, editing, copy-editing, design, distribution, everything. You have the chance to make more money and you also don’t have to worry about giving up rights.

But that’s when you’re starting out fresh. What you don’t read as much about is authors like me whose careers were based in traditional publishing, who then got the rights back to books that were in limbo and launched them on Amazon and B&N. These were mainly five Nick Hoffman mystery novels, set in the mythical State University of Michigan, a snake pit that would put the Borgias to shame, according to The New York Times Book Review.

I started the series at St. Martin’s Press, then moved when Walker offered more money. Two books later, Walker’s publisher fired the mysteries editor, which left his authors orphans. But in a few weeks I found a home for the series with Perseverance, a wonderful indie press in California which did the next two Nick Hoffman books as paperback originals.

I was writing the series as a break from more serious work in other genres, and if I’d had to write one a year, had to be funny and mysterious on command, it would have killed me. But even without that kind of pressure, I ran out of ideas.

Then I started noticing strange news stories across the country about out-of-control SWAT teams running and tiny police forces in towns with minimal crime rates buying military grade hardware, even armored personal carriers, from the Pentagon. The War on Terror had morphed into the War on Us.

Because the University of Wisconsin Press had done such a bang-up job on my memoir My Germany–which got me three different tours, two in Germany–I gave them Assault With a Deadly Lie and the cover they came up with knocked me out.

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The mysteries from St. Martin’s, Walker, and Perseverance I’d gotten ebook rights to had all been launched at different times with different covers.  I was tired of them. They were dissimilar in type font, cover art style, and feel–because I had worked with two different artists.  It couldn’t be avoided.  So with all the kudos I was getting from readers for the new book’s cover, I decided the older ones needed a makeover by one artist who could give them a “series” look that somehow echoed the new book. Well, DDD came through with designs I’m very happy with, and now the books feel brand new to me.  Wonderfully reborn.

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That’s all because I took the plunge years ago and took control of my own books, something I never would have dared think about as a young author.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery to Jane Austen mash-up

Worst Thriller Clichés

We’ve all sat there watching a thriller and suddenly thought, “Are you kidding me?  That always happens. Give me a break!”  Or you shout at the screen (hopefully only at home) when a pair of sleuths splits up, “No!  Stick together!  You’re tracking a psycho–there’s safety in numbers.”  And if you’re a writer: “Seriously?  I would never have written the scene that way!”

There are a lot of clichés in thrillers, but the one that’s been working my last nerve lately is connected to lighting. I don’t mean cinematography. I meant people’s lights.

In movie after movie, TV show after TV show, miniseries after miniseries, I see a heroine or hero walk into an apartment, townhouse, home, condo, loft or whatever without turning on any lights.  None.

The protagonist may put down a purse, briefcase, or keys, but often will just walk from one room to another without flicking a wall switch or even turning on a single lamp anywhere.  Sometimes there’s a stop for a drink–in the dark, of course, with only light from outside or possibly from a nightlight or the inside of a fridge.

Sometimes, if it’s a woman, she’ll even head right straight for the bathroom.  But it’s only at that point she finally turns on a light and the shower or gets the water running for the tub. In that case, you can be sure that she’ll have kicked off her heels en route and started to strip so that we can see her body, and see it outlined against the darkness (that’s the “femjep” cliché at work).

In the darkness, of course, villains can grab our protagonists, terrorize them, strangle them, knock them out, or sneak out of the home they’ve been burglarizing or planting listening devices in while nobody spots them.

It’s a super tiresome cliché. I don’t believe all these thriller protagonists are meant to be models for us of saving electricity. Or that their vision is so good they’re not afraid of tripping or stubbing a toe in the dark.

It’s especially egregious when someone has already been threatened, stalked, mugged, assaulted, shot, kidnapped or otherwise harmed in the story–and still the protagonists don’t seem to care that their homes are dark and anything can happen to them in the shadows.

My parents would approve, though, because they were always complaining that I wasted electricity and left lights on when I wasn’t home. And that was before I was a mystery writer. Now that I’ve published seven mysteries and one suspense novel and been watching and studying screen thrillers for years, I’m extra cautious about turning lights on.

And I’m mighty glad we don’t have a basement because I would never want to go down there even if it were as well-lit as Times Square. Because you know what kinds of mayhem happens in basements….

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I’ve had my say.  So which thriller clichés bug you the most?

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking, and gun violence. You can read about his 24 other books at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.

Success is Easier When You Start Off Ahead of the Pack

Whether you like Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls or not, she’s inescapable, especially now that she has a sort of memoir out.  She got an advance of several million dollars for it, which is newsworthy in itself, of course, and that’s what publishers count on.  Money talks, or it gets people talking.

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One thing that’s struck me about how she’s been covered in the press is the impression news stories create that she came out of nowhere: she did her second little indie film on a tiny budget, it went to a film festival, and before you know it, boom! she’s writing and starring in a controversial cult hit TV show and being seen and quoted everywhere.

It’s a satisfying American tale that stirs our hearts: we love stories of simple folks with humble origins making it big.  But Dunham’s real story doesn’t fit that classic narrative at all.  Both her parents were well known artists in New York.  Their fabulous Tribeca home where she shot her second movie (funded by her parents) was put on the market recently for 6.25 million dollars.  The family also had a Connecticut summer house when she was growing up.  She went to Oberlin College, where tuition is currently $50,000 a year, and her sister went to Brown.

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We like to believe that talent alone is what gets us recognition in America, but it’s really not true here or anywhere else.  I recently taught in a six week summer program for Michigan State University students studying in London.  One of the courses was a creative writing class where students could work in fiction or creative nonfiction.  We had terrific guests including the international best-selling author Val McDermid who was very honest about her success.  She listed three crucial things: talent, hard work, and luck.  “I know writers just as good as I am who haven’t been as lucky,” she said, surprising the class.

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I’d add something to her triad: connections.  Growing up in New York, plugged into any kind of artistic or media circle the way Lena Dunham was through her parents, is starting off in the best possible way if you’re going to be a writer.  To her credit, Dunham hasn’t blurred the fact that she grew up very privileged, but the media seems to.  It’s a better story the way they tell it, more egalitarian, more “American.”  It plays to the myth that we all start out equal and have the same chance in life to make it.  But that’s nonsense.

Any midlist mystery author struggling to stay afloat in the current publishing climate would be thrilled to have started out in life with the kind of background and connections Dunham has.  An aspiring writer in any genre would love to reach the heights she already has in her mid-twenties, thanks to the boost her Mom and Dad gave her just because of who they were and who they knew.

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It would be as good as starting a mystery series if you were, say, Benedict Cumberpatch’s younger brother, or married to one of the writers of The Walking Dead, or your parents were editors at Knopf.  You’d have an instant platform that agents and publishers would salivate over, and priceless connections.  You’d get profiles in the New York Times–like the son of editor and author Gordon Lish recently did. The way ahead would be more than clear for you: it would be paved with gold.  Your success wouldn’t be guaranteed, but something crucial would be: access and exposure.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mash-up. 

You can read about his other books at http://amazon.com/author/levraphael

Moving from Mystery to Suspense

Though I was a fan of mysteries from junior high school on, it wasn’t until I’d published several books in other genres that I launched my Nick Hoffman series in 1996.

I can’t claim the idea was entirely mine.  I’d been writing a lot about children of Holocaust survivors, and my editor at St. Martin’s suggested a change of pace.  “You’re got a great sense of humor.  Why don’t you write something funny?”

Well, the funniest stories I knew were about academics, so I chose academia as my setting and the series was born.  I picked a fish out of water for my narrator/protagonist.  Nick Hoffman was a New York Jew somewhat stranded in the Midwest, gay, and improbably for his colleagues, in love with teaching composition even though he was an Edith Wharton scholar.

The series took off, but my other work leapfrogged it and was taught at many schools around the U.S. and Canada, so I found myself invited to speak at one college and university after another.  Wherever I went, some faculty member would take me aside and tell me about what Borges calls “bald men arguing over a comb.”  Every department–whether it was in a community college or at an Ivy League school–had some scandal, imbroglio, vendetta, or other juicy story.  I was bombarded with material.

I tried different forms with the series: dead body in the first line, dead body halfway through, no corpse at all.  And of course I attended a slew of mystery conferences and appeared as a panelist or moderator on dozens of panels.  But after Hot Rocks, the seventh in the series, I had run out of steam.  Nick was never one of those sleuths who was untouched by the crimes he encountered; if anything, he was battered and beaten down by them as much as he was by academic stupidity and cupidity.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t under contract and forced to squeeze out another book.  I let the series lie dormant while I kept publishing in other genres.

Assault with a Deadly Lie by Lev Raphael

And then over the course of a few years, I noticed a disturbing trend reported in one newspaper after another: even small town police departments forces were becoming militarized.  They were getting surplus assault weapons and armored vehicles from the Pentagon, setting up SWAT teams, and recruiting from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Even more disturbing was a shift in consciousness due to being trained by the military: cops were starting to think of citizens as The Enemy.

This shift is an enormous change in our republic, and it disturbed and fascinated me enough to make it the centerpiece of my 8th Nick Hoffman novel, Assault With a Deadly Lie.

The academic satire hasn’t disappeared, but now Nick’s world of academia has been infiltrated by a more dangerous worldview, and even tin pot administrators think of themselves as arbiters of national security.  The stakes are much higher for everyone involved, especially Nick, in a story that I seem to have ripped from the headlines, though it’s been under way for several years.

Assault With a Deadly Lie is Lev Raphael’s 25th book.