There is so much fiction writing advice out there, I finally decided to strain it down for myself to what I think are the essentials. See if you agree with me!artie-bundle

  1. Write fiction every day.

This is number one. You make it a habit, you build your writing muscles, and you produce lots of stuff to work with later.

  1. Always be aware of what the villain is doing.

I only heard about this idea a while ago, but it makes so much sense. And it’s fun to imagine what the guy or gal is doing behind the scenes besides rubbing hands together in glee.

  1. Use a professional editor (not your mother, even if she is a professional editor).

Once you have done your very best with the material you wrote, you should have someone go over it, if just a proofreader. If you do that, at least there’s one thing readers and reviewers cannot complain about.

  1. Begin each scene with action (no one lying in bed mulling things over), and nailing the location and characters present right away.

This is hard, and I admit I don’t always accomplish it. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes, to say nothing of second nature. (What the heck is first nature, anyway? Or third?)

  1. End each scene with a cliffhanger—it doesn’t have to be heart-stopping, it can simply be a question.

Another hard thing to accomplish, but worth a shot. It might even help you write the next scene. You’ve already set something up that the characters have to deal with. Make a list of all the things that can go wrong in life. Use one to end each scene. Fire, flood, a dead body. You get the idea.

  1. Be absolutely sure the reader always knows who is speaking.

Nothing is more annoying than wondering who is talking and having to go back and read several paragraphs to figure it out because the writer left off an attribution. This is one of my pet peeves. And I see it happen in almost every novel I read, no matter if it’s self-published or one of the “big publishers” in New York who put it out. Maybe rule #1 should be: don’t annoy the reader.

  1. While editing, hunt down and delete every single unnecessary word and phrase.

This makes for a tight story, thus a better story. There’s no downside, and if you make it a goal during your last pass-through, you will have a better piece of writing.

  1. Read fiction every day.

Learning from other good writers is so enjoyable, isn’t it? And reading bad writing can show you what not to do better than any advice about it given to you.

  1. Read non-fiction every day.

Just for fifteen minutes is enough, but of course, the more the better. I suggest at least one book about writing a month. You can also use this time to do some research. Or just read about things you are fascinated by. You might be able to work them into future work.

  1. Write fiction every day.

Try not to repeat yourself. But when something is really, really important, just do it!

Anyone have a rule they swear by that they think everyone should follow? Let us know in the comments!

janBIO: Jan Christensen grew up in New Jersey and now resides in Texas. Her nine published novels include three series and one stand-alone. She’s also had over seventy short stories appear in various publications, among them a collection, The Artie Crimes, from Untreed Reads.  She’s past president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and a member of Mystery Writers of American, and Sisters in Crime. Learn more on her website:




Deciding What to Include in a Mystery Story By Karen McCullough


I believe writing novels is half craft and half art. The craft part includes mastering using agfm_v2_200the language – grammar, word usage, sentence structure etc.  Plus an author has to understand the basics of effective storytelling, which covers a lot of ground. Knowing what a hook is and how to craft one, an acquaintance with basic plot structure, control of point of view – those are all skills that anyone can learn and an author must master.

The artistry of writing is harder to define and probably impossible to master. Even authors I consider very good, if not excellent, say that they’re always striving to do better with each book. There is no way you can ever say you’ve got it completely figured out and there’s nothing more to learn.

As authors, we work to convince the reader that our story is real, that it’s happening right now in a place they’re getting to see in their mind’s eye. The art of writing novel lies in crafting a story that will bring the vision that lurks in the author’s mind to life in a reader’s brain as well.

Beginning writers often mistakenly believe that describing everything in painstaking detail will create that vivid impression of their world. They will painstakingly list all the furnishings in a room to set a scene or supply every measurement of a character and enumerate each feature.

In fact, though, one or two well-chosen details usually work much better than long lists of them. If I tell you that the room has velvet drapes at the windows and flocked wallpaper, do I need to describe the carpet as well? We know it’s going to be plush because the other things already speak of wealth. And unless there’s something particular about the furniture, I don’t really need to describe it in detail either. A reader’s imagination will fill in the blanks.

Then there are the characters. I don’t tell everything I know about a character to the reader the first time we meet him. I may give a few physical details to help the reader form a picture. Height, hair color, eye color and build are the visual things most readers want to know about the people in the story. The truth is I treat meeting characters in a story the same way it works in real life. We see them first from the outside, and usually form and impressions based on gender, physical build, and other obvious characteristics.  But it’s in their conversation and actions that we get to know them more deeply.

Much of the artistic process lies in choosing which details you need to include in a story. The heart of a story is all about what you tell readers and when.

In a mystery, the story is all about introducing the players – the detective, the victim, the witnesses, suspects and other necessary individuals—setting up the crime, and then revealing information about what happened in small doses, spaced out appropriately through the story, until the solution is revealed. Because it’s plot-driven genre, there’s usually not much room for deep character development. And yet, readers love some mysteries and series more than others based almost solely on the main characters.

Because of tight word counts and plot focus most character development is woven into how the detective solves the mystery. Think of Nero Wolfe and the way he sends Archie Goodwin out to gather information because he refuses to leave home. Or Jack Reacher’s lone wolf tough-guy style. Or any of Agatha Christie’s odd assortment of detectives.

But all the lovely little bits that show the character have to be worked pretty deeply into the overall plot. The only time we get to see Nero Wolfe working with his orchids is when Archie goes to fill him in on some important information from the case. Hercule Poirot twirls his ‘moustaches’ while discussing the latest suspect.

In my own mystery novel, A Gift for Murder, the first in my Market Center Mysteries series, I worked in a lot of the detail of trade shows and how they operate when my heroine, Heather McNeil has to explain the job to a newcomer. And then I tried to work in a bit of atmosphere with each little bit of evidence I revealed. That’s been one of my guiding principles in writing – make sure that everything I include serves more than one purpose. Each clue to the mystery is part of the background of the show and helps make the setting more real. I try to be sure each interaction the character has also helps demonstrate character as well as advance either the main or a subplot.

A couple of scenes I included in the first draft did what I thought was an amazing job of showing some of the depths of the main character. One I especially liked was a small section where Heather stopped at a booth showing an assortment of paintings. A couple of them inspired some interesting musings on her approach to life and her work.

Unfortunately, as my editor pointed out, that was all they did. Those scenes didn’t advance the plot in any way, provided no clues to the mystery, and didn’t help establish the setting. She suggested cutting them and I did. When I self-published the book after rights reverted to me, I didn’t put them back, even though I’d like them.

Everything has to carry its share of the weight in a story by serving double duty. Those scenes didn’t and therefore they didn’t help to make the story more real for a reader. Out they went.

Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.


Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog



A Gift for Murder Blurb:

The Home and Decorative Accessories Show makes for a long week for the Market Center staff, and particularly for Heather McNeil. As assistant to the director of Washington, D.C.’s, Market and Commerce center, she’s point person for complaining exhibitors, missing shipments and miscellaneous disasters. It’s a job she takes in stride—until murder crashes the event.

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The Romance Dilemma By Frankie Y. Bailey


 This is the story of two sleuths – Professor Lizzie Stuart and Police Detective Hannah McCabe — and the men in their lives. Or, not.

With the good news that my Lizzie Stuart books may soon be available again, I have started wfs-coverwriting the sixth book in the series. Lizzie is a crime historian. She is the director of the Institute for the Study of Southern Crime and Culture. She was last seen in a short story (EQMM, July 2014).

Lizzie loves her work. She also loves John Quinn. In the sixth book, they will go to Santa Fe to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with his family. This first meeting with her future in-laws occurs in the early chapters of the book. Then Lizzie and Quinn head home to Gallagher, Virginia, where she plunges into trying to solve a disappearance that happened the night before they left.

That Thanksgiving trip to Santa Fe raises a question that both readers and writers of crime fiction debate. Should mystery writers avoid romantic subplots? With female protagonists, does romance tie a good sleuth down (no erotic pun intended)? Does having a long-term partner – especially if it leads to marriage – make it more difficult for a female sleuth to concentrate on the crime-solving at hand? Does the relationship raise real-life questions she needs to deal with –children, a house, life insurance, a will?

I grew up reading both literary classics and genre fiction. I read both romances and mystery novels. I loved romantic suspense. It was perhaps inevitable that when I wrote my first mystery, my female protagonist would encounter an attractive male character. In the book I was working on when I joined an old friend for a vacation in Cornwall, England, the male character was the police chief of Gallagher, Virginia. Lizzie was in Gallagher as a visiting professor, doing research on a long-ago crime. As a writing exercise, I transported my two characters to Cornwall and plunged them into an Agatha Christie-inspired murder case. John Quinn became a Philadelphia police detective, who was visiting his retired partner.

My vacation pal read the first draft of the book that she had seen me scribbling and expressed her doubts about how Lizzie and Quinn parted. After they had worked together to solve the crime, she had been expecting a “pay-off” at the end. She thought other readers would, too. I revised the final scene. Instead of “nice to have met you,” they kissed. When the Cornwall book was bought and published as the first in the series, the question I heard from readers was, “What’s going to happen with Lizzie and Quinn?”

What happened was that Quinn ended up in Gallagher, Virginia. Over the course of five books in a series that has moved slowly and is still in 2004, they have fallen in love and gotten engaged.  Falling in love with Quinn and adjusting her life to accommodate his presence has made Lizzie a more interesting character. He has certainly been useful as a source of information and access. But Quinn’s presence has presented plotting challenges. I’ve had to avoid having Lizzie end each book as a “woman in jeopardy” who is saved by her male lover. Quinn has his own career. He was out of town during a portion of one book. In another book, he was delayed in arriving in New Orleans when Lizzie went looking for her long-lost mother – and then the poor guy came down with stomach flu. I would never kill him off, and it is fun to watch the two of them negotiate their relationship.

However, when I sat down to create another female protagonist – Detective Hannah McCabe – I gave a lot of thought to whether or not she would have a serious involvement. In fact, in the first book, The Red Queen Dies, there is only one brief scene that reveals she is seeing someone. In What the Fly Saw, her attractive, slightly younger partner tries to find out about her love life when she teases him about his. She is a private person and is evasive. But, later, over a glass of wine, she shares with one of her other colleagues how her last relationship ended. She is trying to cheer him up about his relationship with his ex-wife.

Hannah McCabe is a woman in a profession that is still male-dominated (even in my near-future, parallel universe). Most of her challenges have to do with solving crime. But she is the bi-racial daughter of a liberal white father (a retired newspaper editor) and a (long dead) radical poet black mother. She works in and is a part of a traditional police culture that is paramilitary and conservative. And then there’s her relationship with her brother, Adam, a brilliant scientist. who has recently returned to Albany. When McCabe was nine years old, she shot an intruder – but her brother ended up in a wheelchair.

Hannah McCabe is a complex woman – compassionate, good at her job. There are several men in her orbit. But for now McCabe is content to share a house with her father and focus on her case-load.

Whether McCabe will have a man in her life raises some intriguing questions. Is a strong, competent woman who has romantic relationships without long-term commitments a character that readers of mystery/detective fiction can embrace? Or, do readers, particularly women readers, like to see a protagonist evolve and grow and deal with the challenges posed by being in love. Readers do often complain when characters who are attracted to each other are kept apart by the author. But are the same readers prone to boredom when couples commit and settle down?

What do you think? Should a female sleuth keep her options open or settle down with one romantic partner?  Is it a matter of allowing relationships to develop naturally as they would in real life?

f-baileyCriminologist Frankie Bailey has five books and two published short stories in a mystery series featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart. The Red Queen Dies, the first book in a near-future police procedural series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe, came out in September, 2013.  The second book in the series, What the Fly Saw came out in March 2015. Frankie is a former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.

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Twitter:  @FrankieYBailey

Amazon: What the Fly Saw






FICTION IS FLUFF.  OH, REALLY? By Radine Trees Nehring

wedding cover.inddI doubt that anyone reading here has ever said, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” and–perhaps–accompanied the comment with a superior lift of nose?

But, if you’re an author of fiction who appears regularly in public as an author (book talks, signings, interviews, conferences, book clubs . . . ) then I bet it’s been said to you.  Unfortunately, those who say it have usually moved on toward their imagined superior reading sources before the lowly fiction author can offer other than a sputtered “pffft.”  For a number of years, one of the most telling replies I could think of has been, “Have you  read To Kill A Mockingbird, yet? And then, if the speaker hesitates, I smile in (I hope) a friendly manner.

Thing is, a many fiction novels subtly enlighten and change readers who would turn away a_portrait_to_die_for_rev_smfrom blatant instruction or information in non-fiction, especially if it’s on a subject they have already formed an opinion about. Readers, after all, come to fiction only for entertainment. Right?  But, as we all know (because Mary Poppins said so), “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”  Of course there are novels that do offer only entertainment. Whoa, wait a minute. How about getting inside the head of any person in trouble? Sympathy? Understanding? How about turning pages more quickly to see if that person finds answers and help?  How about seeing a way to repel the advances or threats of an unwelcome male, (or female) or to untangle aggressive cattle barons who want your land and its water rights? How about . . . well, you get the picture, and know you can feel sympathy and understanding while being entertained. (Shh, don’t let the secret out.)

river-coverIn my own case I realized recently that–though I do not outline plots–I always begin a novel or short story thinking about a typical human problem that needs solving. I also know that, through danger and darkness, a solution will come, and the solution will lead to the redemption of at least one character in that story. Family trauma and alienation, greed, selfish ambition, the nightmare of seeing and causing death in wartime or during civilian criminal action, or just a yearning to find a lost family member to share love with–I have written about these and much more, and also found in my own thoughts the way we humans (via the book people I create) will find answers and at least a measure of comfort and peace.

fordice-bathhouse-2On another level, my love for the Arkansas Ozarks and a strong desire to share this area with others got me into writing as a mature adult. Want to visit a special tourist attraction or event in Arkansas?  You can do so without leaving home or buying a tour guide by crescent-room-1reading my novels, since I describe each story location accurately “down to the last doorknob or wildflower.”  Stories and crimes are based on what is plausible in any of my real locations, and  history feeding into the present-day story is accurate as well.  No, it’s not an on-site vacation, but a chance to visit vicariously and exercise imagination while doing so. Our most important solutions to any problems we face are usually born within inspired thought, and what does fiction reading give us but acquaintance with what’s possible as we search for answers? An earlier guest on Motive, Means, Opportunity wrote “Fiction needs to change you.” I say amen to author Channing Whitaker and add:  “If we get involved in the story, it always does.”indian_rockhouse_cave

As an example of places to visit in Arkansas, I share here snapshots of three locations where a crime is seen and solved in one of my fiction stories. See if you can figure out a real-sounding crime for each place.  (Maybe reading a chapter from the named novel on my web site: will help.)

Brief bio and links for Radine Nehring

radinetreesnehringFor more than twenty years, Radine Trees Nehring’s magazine features, essays, newspaper articles, and radio broadcasts have shared colorful stories about the people, places, events, and natural world near her Arkansas home.

In 2002, Radine’s first mystery novel, A VALLEY TO DIE FOR, was published and, in 2003 became a Macavity Award Nominee.  Since that time, she has continued to earn writing awards as she enthralls her original fans and attracts new ones with her signature blend of down-home Arkansas sightseeing and cozy amateur sleuthing by active retirees Henry King and Carrie McCrite King.

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Twitter:   @RTNehring


Buy link for Portrait to Die For




Readers love suspense. However, too many authors these days are going for shock instead. And the reviews they receive give proof to that. takeherbreathawaycover

A bad review can kill a sale. I see this with suspense books all the time. Reviewers might give a bad review because the author used an excessive amount of description with the murder. Basically, the author went for shock over suspense. In turn, a potential reader will thank the reviewer for the warning and not purchase the book.

In order for your book to be considered suspense, someone has to be in peril. By the end of the book, that person should be your protagonist or someone close to him or her. Unfortunately, a lot of authors don’t seem to know how to keep the suspense going throughout their book, so they resort to shock instead. I see this quite a bit, especially with new authors.

Many authors will go into great detail to describe the killer’s harm to the individual. There’s the clichéd rape scene in these types of books, filleted skin, and sliced off body parts, all in intricate, grotesque detail. These authors seem to think the description ramps up the suspense. It doesn’t. Some of these descriptions only make the reader’s skin crawl. However, it does little to get a reader’s heart pumping with anxiety. In some cases, the more the description, the less likely a reader might continue with the book, if they purchase it at all.

By choosing shock, you lose the suspense. The torture and killing overpower your story.

One way to tell if you’re using shock over suspense is to see how long the “kill/torture” scene is. The murder should always be shorter than the lead up to the capture.

One way to heighten your suspense is to have your killer’s point of view. Just make sure when he’s watching his next victim, he’s not thinking about how great the knife will be against her skin. Instead, have him wonder about the softness of her hair. Maybe she smells of jasmine, his mother’s favorite perfume. These things are creepier than some guy focused on a kill.

Making your killer creepy is another way to ramp up your suspense. He’ll give your reader a shudder, not an upset stomach. And remember, if your scene makes your heart race, it will get your reader’s heart pounding also.

And don’t rush. Too often the suspense portion is flown through to get to the kill. But the lead-in to the capture is what creates your suspense. By the time the killer gets his victim, the suspense is pretty much over. But if you’ve done it right, the reader’s palms are sweating.

The only time you should use a long “torture” scene is if the killer has captured your protagonist. At that point, the reader should care so much about your character; they don’t want them hurt. However, make sure most of what you describe is from your protagonists point of view. This way we not only feel the pain but the fear as well.

Writers like Steve Barry and David Baldacci are excellent at the buildup. So was Alfred Hitchcock. Watch some of his movies to see how it’s done well. The act of killing was always minimal compared to the lead-in to the suspense. I still recall how my heart raced watching Cary Grant carry that glass of milk upstairs in Hitchcock’s movie Suspicion. Was the milk poisonous? Would his wife drink it? While it only took a minute, it felt like five. Remember the scene with the investigator looking for Norman Bates in Psycho? The entire scene where he starts to walk up to the house takes a good three to four minutes. You’re on the edge of your seat as he climbs each step of the staircase. Once Mother ran out of the room with the knife and stabbed him, your heart was racing.

The more you keep focused on heightening your suspense instead of the details of your murder, the more fans you will acquire. Just keep in mind that the murder is the end to your suspense, so stretch out your capture of the victim.

If you get too involved with writing your murder, and you lack the build up, you can get low reviews no author wants to receive for their book.

kathrynbainKathryn J. Bain is an award-winning author of Christian, mystery, and suspense, including the Lincolnville Mystery series and KT Morgan short suspense series.

Ms. Bain has garnered several awards, including two Heart of Excellence Readers’ Choice Awards and a First Place Royal Palm Literary Award for Inspirational Fiction.

A past President of Florida Sisters in Crime and Public Relations Director for Ancient City Romance Authors, Kathryn enjoys doing talks and teaching about writing.

She lives in Jacksonville, Florida near her daughters and granddaughter. Kathryn has also been a paralegal for over twenty years and works for an attorney who specializes in elder law.

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Buy links for Take Her Breath Away


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Writing That Protects the Innocent… and the Guilty By Alina Adams

“The characters depicted in this book bear no relation to anyone living or dead.”

Yup, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Except, OK…. maybe not exactly.

announcersHere’s the deal: From 1995 to 2000, I worked as a writer/researcher/producer for a variety of televised figure skating events, from professional shows to National, European and World Championships to the 1998 Nagano Olympics. I got to know a lot of people. Skaters, parents, coaches and TV personalities. We worked together, we had meals together, I visited people at their homes, met their families, and stood next to them during some of the most stressful moments in their lives.

fsmysteryomnibuscoverThen, from 2003 to 2007, I wrote a series of Figure Skating Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime, including “Murder on Ice,” “On Thin Ice,” “Axel of Evil,” “Death Drop” and “Skate Crime.”

Naturally, I used what I’d learned about the competitive figure skating world as fodder.

Naturally, I based some characters on people I knew.

Naturally, I hid that fact.

I stopped working in televised figure skating after a two week business trip to film four different shows in four different cities resulted in my then-18 month old acting like he didn’t know who I was when I came back (said then-18 month old is now applying to college, and he certainly remembers who I am every time he needs someone to write a check…. But I digress).

The point is, I gave up travel for a job I could do from home. But I brought my job along in spirit. Of course, I based characters on people I’d met. Of course, I dramatized events I’d witnessed – and some I’d only heard about. It didn’t matter if they were true or not. This was fiction!

But then it got even more confusing. In 2014, all five Figure Skating Mysteries were released as enhanced ebooks. What are enhanced ebooks? Enhanced ebooks are books where videos are included alongside with the text as part of the story.

I formed a partnership with The Ice Theatre of NY, and they gave me access to their entire video library. Why merely read about figure-skating, when you can actually watch it!

So now, I had real people, acting the roles of fictional people, who were, in turn, based on real people. Got that? (See an example here to make it a little clearer.)

Many of my readers are figure skating fans. And they’re not idiots.

“Is So-and-So based on So-and-So?” They want to know.

I smile demurely.

alinadickBecause I might want to return to figure-skating one day. (In fact, in 2014, I produced 2-time Men’s Champion Dick Button’s Olympic Twitter commentary, and used it to promote my books. Find out how, here.)

And because I might want to return to figure-skating one day, I’m not about to spill long-held secrets about some of the biggest names in the sport. By using their real names.

I suspect this is an issue that comes up whenever anyone writes about a field in which they’re an insider. They say you should write what you know. But how much knowledge is too much? When is it just fun, and when is it hurtful – to both the people you’re writing about, and to your own career?

Where should writers draw the line?

What do you think?


Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries and romance novels for Pocket, Dell, Avon and Berkley. Visit her website at

An Interview with Paul D. Marks

motivemeansopportunityIt’s our great pleasure to have Paul D. Marks, Shamus Award-winning author on MMO today. Read about his writing process, how to write cinematically, the difference between noir and mystery. . .and much more! Check it out!


MMO: White Heat won the Shamus Award back in 2013. I really dig the setting (Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots) as well as Duke Rogers (the P.I. protagonist).  Did you have the setting/context in mind first, or the character? How did that whole book “come together”?

Paul: It’s kind of like the chicken and egg question, isn’t it? And after all this time and so many words under the bridge also a little hard to remember. But setting and context are always important to me. People have said that Los Angeles (in particular) is like another character in my books and stories. I think the character of a city influences the characters and the actions they take. The L.A. atmosphere/culture drives what my characters do and say, at least to some extent. While people have a lot in common, they’re different in L.A. than Manhattan or Wichita or Macon. So, add to that the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating trial. That and the subsequent riots were events that deeply scarred and shaped Los Angeles in the 1990s, and even to today. Having lived in Los Angeles during that era, I wanted to capture that time and place and tell people about it in a way that wasn’t preachy. And what better way to do that than to put my P.I. in the middle of it?

The other spark (no pun intended) for the story was the Rebecca Schaeffer murder. She was an up and coming actress, who was murdered by a fan who had hired a P.I. to find her physical address in pre-internet days. She was expecting a script delivery that day and opened the door not knowing that a stalker would be there, gun in hand. I wondered about the P.I. who found that address for her killer and what he/she must have felt. So those are the two sides of the story, Duke, the P.I., and the King riots, coming together to make White Heat.


MMO: Not to spoil anything, but there are some very clipped, intensely dramatic italicized sections in White Heat that serve to heighten the tension. How’d you come up with that?

Paul: I’m glad you think they were intense and dramatic. My purpose in doing those sections was to give a heightened sense of being there. They’re written, as you say, in clipped, staccato prose and also in the present tense to really (hopefully) bring the reader into the moment and feel the intensity and drama that the character is feeling at that moment. Sort of to become the character for those sections and totally be inside his head. There was an old TV show called You Are There that put the viewer into historic situations. This is my version of that – you are there with Duke, seeing the situation live.

white heat

MMO: In all your books—White Heat, Vortex, and L.A. @ Late at Night—I’ve noticed how cinematic your writing is. Talk about where (and how) that came about.

Paul: Well, my background is in screenplays, script doctoring, so naturally my writing gravitates towards that style. It can be a good thing because I think screenwriting taught me story structure and to be visual. But it can also be a handicap in that I had to work hard to fill out my descriptions more and not use an omnipotent POV like movies do. And I’m a big movie buff, especially film noir (particularly the golden age of film noir in the ’40s and early ’50s) and thrillers, so I tend to play out my storyline like a movie in my head as I’m writing. And sometimes I’ll even write out my first draft in screenplay format just to get the story down.


MMO: I’m not terribly interested in genre-labeling, but I would say that White Heat is a P.I. mystery, while Vortex is a straight-up noir thriller. Explain some of the similarities and differences between these two genres. And, as a writer, do you have a preference? How about as a reader?

Paul: I’ll give you that Vortex is a straight-up noir thriller. But I’d also say that White Heat is noir as well, though it does have more “straight” mystery elements than Vortex. To me, the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own faults: somebody who has some kind of defect, some kind of shortcoming, greed, want or desire…temper or insecurity, that leads them down a dark path, and then his or her life spins out of control because of their own weaknesses or failings. To this end, White Heat falls into this category because Duke’s weakness for quick money sets the plot in motion. But since we don’t know who the bad guy is and Duke has to figure that out it also has that whodunit element. Whereas Vortex has a darker, more ambivalent tone, and Zach, the main character, his problems are totally brought on by his own weaknesses.  As a writer I like both and maybe that’s why WH is a little of both. And ditto as a reader: I like to read a variety of things depending on my mood. My favorite writers are Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, who are both straight mystery writers. And James Ellroy, who is more noir. And David Goodis, who is totally noir.


MMO: In addition to publishing a collection of hard-and-soft-boiled stories, you’ve had a short story nominated/short-listed for the Macavity Award. Explain to other writers out there why writing short stories is a) fun and b) worthwhile.

Paul: I’ve had over thirty short stories published now in a variety of magazines, anthologies and the like. But one of my many goals had been to break into Ellery Queen and I did with my story “Howling at the Moon.” It was nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity Awards in 2015, as well as coming in #7 in Ellery Queen’s Readers Poll Award, so all of that was very cool.

Why short stories are Fun: Immediate gratification. There’s a certain immediate gratification in writing short stories. You can finish them faster (usually than novels) and get the instant “joy” of having a completed work – and often sell them and see them in print faster than a novel. They’re like little puzzles that you fit in all the pieces and feel a sense of satisfaction when you make them fit.

Why short stories are Worthwhile: Stories help you hone your craft. In some ways they’re harder than writing novels. You really need discipline to make everything work right in a confined space. They’re also a way to get your name out there. Lots of little markets (some non-paying, some token payment) are willing to take an unpublished writer. They get exposure for your writing. They’re also a good outlet for some ideas that might not have enough meat on them to make a novel. And you can explore different styles, genres and characters and sometimes realize that you want to pursue a novel length work after discovering a story and character you like in a short story. And I like the challenge and discipline of squeezing a thousand things into a tiny box. There’s really no downside to writing stories. I like doing both novels and short stories.


MMO: Name three writers that made you want to write, and why.

Paul: How about three writers who made me want to write mysteries and/or noir, ’cause I can’t remember far enough back to who might have inspired me to want to write in the first place. But my initial interest was in writing for film, so my early influences are probably screenwriters. From there I gravitated to prose. It’s not very original but Raymond Chandler would be number one with a bullet on my list. I always liked film noir and mystery-suspense-thriller movies. And, of course, I’d seen The Big Sleep with Bogart many times. So eventually I got around to reading the book it was based on. From there I dove into more Chandler. The same thing happened with another Bogart movie: I’d seen Dark Passage several times and finally decided to check out the book it was based on. That turned me onto David Goodis. My favorite of his is Down There, a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player. I really dig that book, but for me the movie disappoints.



MMO: Give aspiring writers some brief advice.

Paul: Don’t give up. Keep writing, you will become a better writer through experience and practice. Don’t give in to writers block, just sit down and write, regardless of what comes out. Fix it later. And don’t make excuses about why you don’t have time to write. I know a lot of people who say they’re writers or want to be…but they don’t write anything or they write very little. It’s not easy, but a writer is someone who has to write and can’t live without it.

MMO: Tell me when I can expect the next Duke Rogers book.

Paul: Oh, the long and winding road and tale of woe that is Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat. Broken Windows was tied up with an agent for a long, long time. Unfortunately, she never did anything with it, never sent it out. I think she’d gotten sick and it sort of languished. I’ve got it back now and it’s done, so hopefully it’ll be out before the next millennium.


MMO: Plug/pimp your next writing project.

Paul: Lots of stuff coming up. My story “Deserted Cites of the Heart” comes out in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir anthology on August 2nd. Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, which I co-edited, is the second book in the Coast to Coast anthology series and should hopefully be out by the end of the year. And one of the stories in the first volume is up for a Shamus Award this year. I’ll have a short story in volume 2, as well as it being filled with great stories by a bunch of great writers. I’ll have stories out in both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, though they’re not scheduled yet so I can’t give you dates. And, of course, I’m working on a couple of novels. Not Duke Rogers stories, but standalones. Some good stuff, I think, but I’m not ready to say exactly what they are just yet. My plate’s always full, but sometimes I’m just too busy to get to some of the things on it. I guess I need to go back to my answer about writers needing to write – I need to take my own advice on that.

Thanks for having me, Max. It’s been a blast.

Paul D. Marks photo

Author Bio

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” And Midwest Book Review says “White Heat is a riveting read of mystery, much recommended.” His story Howling at the Moon is short listed for both this year’s (2015) Anthony Award and Macavity Award for Best Short Story. It was published in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and came in #7 in their Reader’s Poll Award. And he just sold another story, Ghosts of Bunker Hill, to Ellery Queen (publication date to be announced later). His story Fade Out will be in an upcoming Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder in August. And his latest noir-thriller, Vortex, will be out in early summer, 2015. He is the co-editor of the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, coming in 2015 from Down and Out Books. Paul is also the author of over thirty published short stories in a variety of genres, including several award winners. Five of his stories can be found in the collection LA Late @ Night. According to Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, he [Paul] has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of being the last person to have shot a film on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos.