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.





From Stage to Page: How a Playwright Became a Writer by Elena Hartwell

Hartwell_Headshot I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t just that fiction might pay better (it does) or that playwrights aren’t “real writers” (they are), it was that fiction — especially mysteries — was still my first love.

By Elena Hartwell

I cut my teeth on murder mysteries. Starting with Nancy Drew. Then moving on to Tony Hillerman — the entire series sat on my granny’s bookshelf — then, later, falling in love with Kinsey Millhone. As a reader, I have run the mystery genre gauntlet from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Rich Zahradnik.

I was sure I’d be a writer.

Then I discovered theater. And fell into a dark place. Well, dark much of the time, because we’re always working with the house lights off and nothing but a glow coming from the stage. I loved working in the theater. Directing, building, lighting, propping, acting, and sometimes … writing.

But something nagged at me. I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t just that fiction might pay better (it does) or that playwrights aren’t “real writers” (they are), it was that fiction — especially mysteries — was still my first love. I wanted to be a part of that amazing group of writers who filled so many of my reading hours with thrills, suspense, danger, and sometimes humor.

gMLNYk3A8H2lS0M_lurcfJ2VEYFNIictLCWzzi0pJD0,zaeu-BFY1iFvhn5wTqZsj7a3xtjtxVtSy7psEFCgJNMPlaywriting taught me a lot about story structure, dramatic tension, and especially dialogue.

Playwriting taught me a lot about story structure, dramatic tension, and especially dialogue. When I started sending my fiction out to agents and publishers — even when I was told “no” — I often got personal notes about the success of my dialogue. Much of what I’d honed for years onstage, turned out to work very well on the page.

The same held true for character development. To create a blueprint for an actor to fill out as a full-blown character, a playwright has to understand backstory and psychology and intention. All of this experience went into my first book, which didn’t sell, and my second book, which didn’t sell, and my third book, which didn’t sell… and into my fourth, which did. I’d finally learned how to write like a novelist.

one_dead_300 coverStory editors are gifts from the gods. . .While those early manuscripts were extremely valuable, helping me become a successful writer, working with a talented editor was the final, missing piece in my puzzle.

Finding a home for One Dead, Two to Go taught me another valuable lesson. Story editors are gifts from the gods. I learned as much about how to shape a mystery and how to set up a series in the months I worked with my editor as I had writing my first couple of manuscripts. While those early manuscripts were extremely valuable, helping me become a successful writer, working with a talented editor was the final, missing piece in my puzzle.

I started writing for the theater twenty years ago. I’ve had productions around the US and abroad. And now, my first book launched on April 15, 2016. They are all my children: my plays, my novels, my short stories and blog posts. Every word I write matters to me. Will I continue to write plays? I think so. I hope so. I love the theater and even now feel its siren call. But writing my “first” novel was also special. It felt like coming home. I cut my teeth on murder mysteries, and now, here I am, all grown up, with one of my very own.

For more of Elena Hartwell and her writing:



Solve My Murder, Please: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Posits a Ludicrous Hypothetical Scenario Regarding Fictional Detectives

Hypothetical scenario: you are about to be murdered, no way around it, but before the deed is done, you can select (1) fictional detective to investigate and, hopefully, solve your murder.  It can be a police detective or a private detective (professional or amateur sleuths allowed). So there are the rules of my silly hypothetical. Who you pickin’? Below are my choices. Feel free to agree or disagree, but bear in mind I’m always right.


Sherlock Holmes. An obvious choice, yes, but here are my reasons. A) His track record for solving cases, even seemingly impossible ones, is impeccable. In fact, I don’t think he’s ever failed to solve a case, so if I’m laying dead on the library floor in some British countryside home, give me the cocaine-using dude from 221 Baker Street. B) He is a sociopath, which in certain professions, namely, medicine, law, and yes, detective work, is a big asset. Again, if I task someone with solving my murder, I do not want them to form an emotional attachment to me or the case. I want them to remain impassive and impartial. I want them to focus all their energy on the evidence. After all, let’s face it: one of the principal drawbacks of being a human is our tendency to allow emotions to cloud judgment. Holmes, he don’t do that. Ever. Probably why his record is spotless.


Miss Marple. Agatha Christie’s detective is an elderly spinster and an amateur gumshoe, all of which, for my money, work to her advantage. Here’s why. First, because she is very old and innocent-looking, she can extract information–from police, from suspects, from witnesses–without encountering too much resistance. And it is a good thing she doesn’t have a husband or partner, who would, in all likelihood, only attempt to talk her out of taking on a dangerous case, such as the murder of Yours Truly. Too, she’s super smart, relentless, and unlike Holmes, she is keenly aware of the psychological motivations for crimes, which is an area that Holmes tends to ignore. Fortunately for Holmes (and his clients), Sherlock is ALWAYS the smartest guy in the room, so psych profiles aren’t needed.

Philip Marlowe.  Yeah, he drinks. And smokes.  And he gets his head turned quite easily by the fairer sex. Those are his negatives. Here are the pluses, which far outweigh the minuses. One, despite his flaws, he has a strong moral compass and a personal code he lives by, no matter what. Bottom line, Marlowe takes your case, he will break his neck to solve it. Period. Two, he is a private detective. Meaning, he isn’t affiliated with the police force, and therefore, not bound by its rigid and, in some case, ludicrous laws, rules, and regulations. Read Chandler’s books featuring Marlowe, and you’ll see the theme of legal versus moral come up often. Three, Marlowe is both intelligent AND streetwise, which separates him from both Holmes and Marple because Marlowe can operate on the meanstreets. . .you know, where murders tend to happen.


Mike Hammer. The reasons he is on my list are thus: he is violent, vengeful, driven, and tougher than a three-dollar steak at Waffle House. Ask yourself this: if you get killed, wouldn’t you want someone to get vengeance on the murderer? Enough said.

C.W. Sughrue. Well, Sughrue (as in “Sugar, you’ll rue the day you met me!”) is just my absolute favorite detective. He’s just f-ing cool. A Vietnam vet. A functional alcoholic. A road warrior. He’s a smartass, but secretly is a romantic. He’s a Man’s Man and a Lady’s Man. Read the first chapter in The Last Good Kiss. If you don’t agree with me that Sughrue is the coolest character ever, then you’re an idiot.

E. Michael Helms: It’s Show and Tell Time

helmsOn showing versus telling in writing: Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. 

It’s Show and Tell Time!

Remember back in grammar school how we looked forward to our class’s Show and Tell time? No? Well, maybe schools cut S&T from the curriculum a while back, like everyday P.E., and the latest victim from those “dear old Golden Rule days,” cursive writing. But I digress.

It was a Friday morning, about a decade past the midway point of last century. The school year was drawing to a close, and the weekend beckoned. Mrs. Fussel was a doozy for show and tell. A “learning experience,” she called it, a time for us fourth-graders to “expand our imagination and creativity.” As I recall, there were no hard and fast rules about what we brought to show off and tell about, no forbidden items to send school officials into a frenzied panic. Pocket knives, slingshots, lizards, frogs—all had passed muster and drawn oohs, ahs, and occasional shrieks from girls in our classroom. Heck, one time Billy Ross even brought a big rat snake he’d caught, and Mrs. Fussel let anybody brave enough have a turn touching or holding it.

green lizard - 1rat snake

So I figured I was on safe ground when I opened the grocery sack and withdrew my prized collection of black widow spiders. As I set it on the edge of teacher’s desk, Mrs. Fussel screamed, shoved back the chair and vacated her position at the head of the room. In her hasty retreat a stack of work booklets tipped over, knocking the goldfish bowl to the floor. The bowl shattered, the spiders scattered, and my classmates clattered—some racing after Mrs. Fussel as she waved them into the hallway and safety, others attacking my treasured arachnid collection with books and shoes and other handy weaponry.

By lunchtime the show and tell incident was the talk of the school. My classmates wowed friends from other rooms with tales of bravery and narrow escapes from the jaws of death. One phrase, expressed in a dozen different ways, has remained with me throughout all the passing years: “Boy, you should’ve seen it!” The eyewitnesses to the event—my classmates—saw it happen. For them, it was a much more powerful experience than those who were told about it. “Wow, I wish I could’ve been there and saw that!” was a common response from the listeners.

Yes, the creepy-crawly caper happened as recorded. The classroom was evacuated and the custodians called in to make certain none of my show and tell stars survived. New rules were put in place to insure students and faculty wouldn’t be subjected to danger in the future. I escaped with a stern talking-to and a note for my parents to sign. I didn’t fare so well at home, but that’s another story.


I use this life experience to illustrate a well-worn but important phrase for all writers: Show, don’t Tell! Which group of school kids experienced the spider incident on a deeper level? Those who saw it, those who witnessed it as it occurred in real time. They were shown the teacher’s reaction, the goldfish bowl crashing to the floor, the venomous spiders scurrying to escape, the pandemonium that followed. In contrast, their friends in other classrooms only experienced the chaotic scene by being told about it. To them it was secondhand information, in the past instead of real time.

Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. Don’t relegate your readers to after-action listeners. SHOW, DON’T TELL!


E. Michael Helms: “Dissecting the Mystery”

helmsOn mystery: Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water.

By E. Michael Helms

Dissecting the Mystery

What makes a good mystery? Could there be a simpler question? On the flipside, could there be a more general, broad-based question? Each reader has his or her tastes and opinions, as does every writer. I can’t—and won’t— presume to have the answers. What I will do is share some aspects of what I believe—as a reader, makes a good mystery—and as a writer, what works for me.


In a good mystery no “cardboard” allowed.

(Okay, book covers are the exception.) Characters are foremost! Characters, especially the protagonist/hero and important secondary characters, must be well-rounded and three-dimensional. “Real” characters have good traits. “Real” characters have flaws. Superman may be “faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive,” but he’s also vulnerable to kryptonite (and Lois Lane). Mac McClellan is a Southern gentleman, a combat veteran, and has a wry sense of humor. He’s also suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is bitter toward his ex-wife, drinks too much, and can be bossy. Kate Bell, Mac’s girlfriend and Girl Friday in solving cases, is independent and strong-willed. She also has a slightly shady past that she keeps hidden from Mac until it comes out in the second Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Ruse.The villain must also be a complex person. Satan need not apply. Every good (meaning bad) villain should have a redeeming quality or two. In an upcoming Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Spirits, the villain suffered abuse as a child. Said villain (no spoilers here) is also intelligent and a great achiever. But the past often overpowers and warps the future despite the best intentions. Even minor characters must be minimally fleshed-out. If they are worth mentioning by name or have a speaking role, they deserve to be more than cardboard cutouts.

In a good mystery no plodding plots allowed.

Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water. You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s worth repeating: you must pull the reader into the story, and the sooner the better. In my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, the opening sentence sets the stage: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. Short and sweet, but doesn’t it make you want to read more and find out why?Had I opened with back-story, how Mac had recently retired from the Marine Corps and traveled to the Florida panhandle for a fishing vacation, you might have kept on reading for a while hoping the pace picked up. Personally, I would’ve thought, “Ho-hum.” By the fourteenth page, Mac discovers a body, is suspected of murder, and warned not to leave the area by the local sheriff. Information important to back-story can be fed in piecemeal as the story progress, but keep that plot moving! And speaking of moving, it is the characters who drive the plot! Every scene, every action, every sentence or phrase of dialogue, must be used to reveal character, information, or propel the storyline forward. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong.


In a good mystery the crime must be worthy of the story.

Meaning—almost without exception—murder! Even most cozies have a murder as the catalyst of the plot. Violence and bloodshed should fit the mystery’s sub-genre. Most cozies involve a murder happening “offstage.” And, in most cases, there is little or no blood and gore. The darker the mystery, the more ramped-up the murder and violence can be.Also, the murder should happen fairly early in the story. It’s what draws the hero/heroine into the plot, the driving force behind his/her compulsion to dig deep and solve the mystery. In Deadly Catch a body is discovered in Chapter One. There are/have been exceptions, but today’s reader generally wants things upfront and happening quickly. In this “I want it now!” world, there is way too much competition for an author to chance dragging things out too long.

In a good mystery the killer shouldn’t come from “out of left field.”

Nothing infuriates mystery readers more than having a character introduced late and with little involvement in the story, only to learn that he/she is the real perpetrator of the crime. The bad guy/gal should be inserted into the plot early and often. The perp can be a “friendly” or a suspect, one of few or several. In Deadly Catch Mac is acquainted with the real villain (via back-story, fed-in later) before the opening scene. Of course, Mac is unaware that he/she is the murderer. That info comes later—much later—as it should. Generally, in a good mystery, the later the killer is revealed, the better.A couple of years ago I read a mystery by a well-known author (who shall remain nameless) where the killer turned out to be the brother of a secondary character who wasn’t an important “player” in the story. The problem is, this brother was introduced late in the storyline, with very little information revealed about him. Only near the end (after the case was wrapped) did I learn the brother had a very sordid past. That was a “left field villain” if I ever saw one.

just the facts

In a good mystery authors better get their facts right!

Today’s readers are a savvy bunch. Almost nothing slips by them. If the murder victim has a big hole blown through him, the murder weapon had better not be a .22 caliber rifle or pistol. If the victim dies of poisoning, the poison used better match the dying throes a witness observes, or the autopsy results. Radio transmissions should be accurate. For example, if a cop is taking a break for coffee and doughnuts, he’d better not call in an “11-99!” If the private eye is tailing a suspect in a real location, the streets and landmarks had better be correct. There is no excuse for not getting the facts straight in this day and age of the Internet and computer access.

In a good mystery there are red herrings, dead ends, and clues—oh my!

Tidbits of information and misinformation scattered here and there throughout the story are inherent to a good mystery. Red herrings, dead ends, and clues are key elements to get the reader involved in solving the mystery alongside the protagonist.With apologies for preaching to the choir, a red herring is simply a clue that sends the reader and protagonist in the wrong direction. Think smoke and mirrors, or in football, a misdirection play: offensive linemen pull and block to the right side as the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back and then slips the ball to the fullback who hits the left side of the line of scrimmage. By faking to the right and running to the left, the offense has just handed the defense a red herring.A dead end is simply a clue that leads nowhere, wasting the sleuth’s time. Or does it? Maybe following the false lead, only to be stymied, allows our hero to cross off a suspect, or points the finger at another possible perp, or leads the protag in an entirely new direction that might prove invaluable as the case unfolds.In a good mystery, when a clue actually points to the real killer, it shouldn’t be obvious. No bells and whistles allowed. Subtlety is the keyword here. Perhaps pursuing a red herring or dead end results in our hero eliminating a suspect from his list, only to realize later, as things play out, that “this” minor clue and “that” subtle clue were telltale signs he’d overlooked earlier.







In a good mystery the hero will face conflict, resistance, danger . . . and prevail!

There is no room in a good mystery for the hero to have a pleasant walk in the park, conveniently find and pocket clues, and waltz to the other end unopposed. There must be conflict and resistance, even from those close to the protagonist. “Yes” people are boring beyond words. The pathway through the park (the plot/storyline) must be strewn with tripwires, stumbling blocks, antagonistic characters, and other dangers. Without these elements, why bother? Will the reader give a hoot? I don’t think so. Above all, our hero must find himself in hot water, the hotter the better. And just when it looks like all is lost, he must use intestinal fortitude, wit, and a bit of (believable) luck to turn the tables.

After all, as Sherlock Holmes would say, it’s “Elementary.”




It’s Sooo Easy: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Explains How to Write a Private Eye Novel

max picHey, would-be writers of mystery!: To celebrate the launch of my latest book Ed, Not Eddie, I thought I’d show everyone just how easy it is to write a P.I. novel. Follow these simple steps and join the pantheon of great detective writers: Raymond Chandler, P.D. James,  Ross MacDonald. . .Fill-In-Your-Name-Here.  

by Max Everhart

Part One (average length: one to two chapters at most): P.I. meets client. Client describes the case, usually withholding some important information.  In classic noir tales, the P.I. will be sarcastic, jaded, and more than likely attempt to talk the client out of engaging his/her investigative services. But, reluctantly, the detective is hired, and then he/she asks pertinent questions about the case and the people involved. This initial meeting sets up Part Two.

Tips for Part One:

  • Establish a clear setting, which includes not only the physical environment, but the time period as well.
  • Establish the narrative perspective and tone of the book.  Most private eye tales are in either first person or a tight third person narration, but there are exceptions. Regarding tone, ask yourself if you want the book to be funny, serious, whimsical, satirical. . .whatever, just write accordingly. And keep it consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Sprinkle in interesting details about the P.I., but do not, under any circumstances, do an information dump.

usual suspects

Part Two (average length: four to seven chapters, depending on the complexity of the case): P.I. meets/interrogates all relevant suspects/witnesses. He/she asks basic questions that establish each character’s motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime, all the while taking notes (mental or otherwise).  During this phase, the detective also performs research, collects “clues,” and forms general impressions about the suspects/witnesses and the case at large.

Tips for Part Two:

  • All suspects should have a credible motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime. Translation: anyone could have been responsible for the crime in question.
  • Create an atmosphere of distrust, especially between the P.I. and all the suspects, but it helps for the P.I. to start to doubt the intentions of the client as well.
  • Establish a clear timeline for the crime. This helps the reader better understand the crime and allows him/her to investigate right alongside the P.I.
  • Write scenes, not chapters. Scenes are based on action; characters in a particular place, hopefully an interesting one, working out the basic dramatic conflict.
  • Periodically have the P.I. briefly summarize what he/she “knows” or “thinks” about the case thus far. Keeps the reader orientated. Helps you, the writer, as well.
  • Keep the pace brisk. Translation: move the story forward, always. Remove any long-winded backstory, exposition, or stalled scenes.

red herring

Part Three: (average length: three to four chapters): P.I. narrows the pool of suspects. Accomplish this by eliminating suspects that could not have committed the crime in question. Have the P.I. hone in on his/her favorite suspects and really squeeze them.  At this point, the dramatic tension gets ratcheted up a notch, which helps lead toward the climax and resolution.  Typically, the detective will bark up the wrong tree a bit before discovering the true villain(s). Keeps the reader guessing. Keeps the detective on his/her toes.

Tips for Part Three:

  • Throw in a red herring or two.
  • Have the P.I. involved in a dangerous scuffle/gunfight or two. Helps increase the tension and build toward a satisfying conclusion.
  • End each chapter provocatively—with a startling image, interesting dialogue. . .anything that demands the reader keep reading til the end.


Part Four (average length: two to three chapters): P.I. figures out the culprit.  A showdown ensues (aka: the climax).  Depending on the type of mystery (hardboiled, cozy, murder, etc), the climax may or may not involve violence, but remember, there need not be bloodshed in order to create drama and excitement for the reader. Just remember that the ending should be surprising, yet inevitable.

Tips for Part Four:

  • Don’t cheat! No acts of God. No surprise villains. You have to play fair with the reader, which means you should have given the reader just barely enough information to deduce the ending.
  • Make it dramatic! Novels can have flaws and problems (and all of them do), but if you play fair and still wow them in the end, it’s a successful book. And those same readers will want to read another one by you.

pd james

Recommended Books and Articles

Well, that’s about it. Tune in again when I discuss the two basic types of private detectives: Intuitives and Scientifics. Until then, go buy Ed, Not Eddie!




“Pink Elephant,” an Eli Sharpe mystery is FREE!

detective story.jpg

Hello, all. Great news. On the eve of the launch of Ed, Not Eddie (Eli Sharpe #3), my publisher Camel Press has made “Pink Elephant,”a fast-paced mystery, FREE on Kindle. You heard me. Free! Pretty excited as it has already landed at #4 on one of Amazon’s Top 100 Lists.


Former pitcher Darren “Duck” Williams hires ex-ball player/present private detective Eli Sharpe to make a delivery—a stuffed pink elephant to Duck’s daughter. Stuffed with what? Drugs, that’s what, unbeknownst to Eli, and the girl isn’t related to Duck at all. Eli owes Duck bigtime for bailing him out once, or he’d never try to save his ass after being played—taken for a drug mule. The bad guy he’s up against, Mr. Spoon, is one stone cold killer. But Eli always has a card or two up his sleeve. Introducing Eli Sharpe, PI extraordinaire of the Eli Sharpe Mysteries, set in Asheville, NC. Full-length novel adventures include Go Go Gato, Split to Splinters, and the upcoming Ed, Not Eddie.