Some thoughts about THE BONE HARVEST, just posted on Amazon.
“You don’t necessarily have any specific object in mind when you start a book, but I knew going in that THE BONE HARVEST would be about the nuts and bolts – the gear, the manpower, the physical resources – what it takes to mount an actual spy operation. My model was a now-abandoned listening post on the outskirts of Berlin, in Marienfelde, near the sentry wire where the East German guard posts once stood. There was a time when the world seemed divided into two armed camps, static and unyielding, written in stone, but these days that’s become the fossil record. The world is less predictable now, the targets better hidden. The mission, though, is no different than it was. Reading someone’s handwriting, spinning gold from flax, turning water into wine. Giving shape to the narrative, in other words, an extended metaphor.”
Okay, the extended metaphor business is me being mischievous, but the obvious case can be made that both intelligence work and writing are each a process of extrapolation. Sometimes there ain’t much to go by. Or the materials themselves are too brittle, and won’t carry the weight of the evidence. There’s a structure, a working hypothesis, something you can hang your hat on. As my pal John Crowley once remarked, ideas are easy, execution is hard.
The new Placido Geist story, “The Sleep of Death,” in the December issue of HITCHCOCK, refers back to a couple of earlier bounty hunter stories. The title, first of all, is from the same soliloquy as “The Undiscovered Country” – and secondly, the story is somewhat the obverse of “Sidewinder,” where a rotten kid gets worse, and meets with a bad end, while in this story, we find redemption, or at least wounds healed by time. I’ve also been waiting for the opportunity to give a cameo to the famous New Mexico lawman (and later lawyer) Elfego Baca, a guy so colorful he can’t be exaggerated, and I don’t pretend to do him justice in his brief appearance here.
This story in the July/August 2015 issue of HITCHCOCK, like some of the other New Mexico stories – “Lion of the Chama,” “Jackknife,” “Faraway Nearby,” “Stir Crazy” – is based on actual incident. The lap dance thing, sabotaging a mayoral candidate, made the local papers, and I ran with it. It seemed to lend itself to burlesque (no pun intended) and I figured, Why not do low comedy? But in the end, the darker aspects of the story surfaced. Human trafficking, for instance, doesn’t lend itself to snickering. This is also the story where I introduced Doc Hundsacker, the leathery old Texas Ranger. I didn’t realize it at the time, he was just a walk-on, but he stuck in the folds of my reptile brain. I went on to write him into a couple of more stories, “A Multitude of Sins,” about the serial murders in Juarez, and “The Valley of the Shadow,” a sequel. (“Valley of the Shadow,” the third story, actually came out first, in a UK anthology called SHADOWS AND LIGHT – this happened because the editor, Andrew Scorah, solicited me for a contribution, and he made the book available in digital, so there was no lead time, the way there is with print.) Doc is a major character in the new Jack Thibault novel I’m working on, ABSOLUTE ZERO, and I like the cross-pollination, the mix-and-match with the casting. Sandy Bevilacquia, the FBI gal from “Faraway Nearby,” shows up, too, along with some of the Boston crew. A word about Pete Montoya, the state cop in this story, and others. Unlike the bounty hunter, or Doc, or Benny Salvador, guys with a lot of mileage, and not a lot of flexibility, Pete’s more open to suggestion. He’s younger, maybe even a little naive, and his arteries haven’t hardened. If he has a counterpart in my stories, it would be Hector Moody, the deputy up in Montana.
I originally titled this story “Heavy Breathing,” which turned out to be a little too graphic, and a little too flippant, as well. More on this in my next post here, and on SleuthSayers – upcoming, day after tomorrow – splitting the distance between discreet and full frontal.
My pal Michael Parnell, who’s both a reader and a resource I go to – he’s a big fan of BLACK TRAFFIC, for example, but he also gave me the hook (perhaps unwittingly) for EXIT WOUNDS – dropped me a note about his experience reading VIPER. He began by saying, “I knew you were one of my favorite writers for a reason….” Okay. I’m very flattered. I wrote him back, “This is a grave responsibility, Grasshopper,” and although I meant it as a gag, it got me thinking. Bob Dylan once famously remarked, “Just because you like my music doesn’t mean I owe you anything,” and I think it’s exactly the reverse. I think, as a writer, that you give your readers good weight. George R.R. Martin jokes about killing people off, but the GAME OF THRONES world is Darwinian in the extreme. To take a different example, Harry Potter and his posse grow up in the course of the novels, but Rowling isn’t going to show you Harry going down on Hermione. It breaks the reader’s trust. In other words, we’ve made a deal. You surrender to the world of my invention, and in return, I don’t resolve a story by having everybody kidnapped by aliens, or arbitrarily hijack the narrative. I might hope to shock or surprise you with an abrupt twist, but I’ll have planted this engine ahead of time. One of the most satisfying things for a reader is getting to say to themselves, I knew that, I got there before you. This is a trick that Agatha Christie is enormously successful with. Dick Francis, too. As my friend John Crowley says, you want ’em to get it about a third of the way down the page, when you tell them at the bottom, so they think they beat you to the punch. This is not a cheat. This is about concealment, and the reveal. The worst possible thing, from my point of view, is that you go, Shit, that would never happen. In other words, I broke the spell. I held you underwater, and you came up for air. We had a deal, and I didn’t live up to it. Michael, talking about reading VIPER, was speaking particularly to the issue of character – is it the plot the characters are attached to, or is it in fact character that drives plot? I don’t know that I want to wade into this, my stories are heavily plot-driven, but characters can’t behave in a way that’s uncharacteristic for them. They aren’t always predictable, but they have to be consistent. Otherwise, a story is built on coincidence. I’d like to think I give better weight.
Michael R. Davidson, a thriller writer and 30-year career CIA guy, gives me one hell of a boost. This ain’t chopped liver.
The hotlink to the VIPER e-book download on Amazon will be up on the Bookshelf page. Meantime, here it is:
VIPER is a Cold War novella. Chronologically, it falls between BLACK TRAFFIC, Berlin in the late 1960’s, and THE BONE HARVEST, Afghanistan in early 1980. It’s a prequel of sorts to THE BONE HARVEST, the main guy in both being Dix Apodaca, but VIPER was written after the Afghanistan book. I just knew there was more to Dix’s story, and this was filling in a gap. This sequence of books isn’t exactly a series, but more of a story arc, where many of the same characters put in an appearance – Ilya Vlasov or Andy Wye, Ralph Schaefer and Harriet Venables – sometimes as cameos, sometimes front and center. Dix is going to be more than a one-shot, as well.
Some minor updates/edits to this page. (The HITCHCOCK cover image for “In for a Penny,” for one.) This is part of what’s going to be an ongoing effort on my part to be more proactive on the website, with weekly blog posts and so on, and also to increase my presence on Facebook, and other platforms. And a reminder that my newest post for SleuthSayers is coming up 05-27-2015, this next Wednesday. Thanks for watching this space. There’s more to come.
I know other people have had this problem, but it was still odd that a story defeated me. I just couldn’t make “The Dooms” work. David Morrell remarks that if you’re having real trouble with a scene, maybe it doesn’t belong in the story. In this case, it was like the whole thing didn’t cohere. I’ll go back to it, I think—the hook is good—but when I’m damn good and ready, not before. Some things, Kipling said, need to drain. They sit and steep. In the meantime, I did a novella called VIPER (previously titled FOXTROT), a Cold War story, in the manner of BLACK TRAFFIC, which I’m sending in as a Kindle Single. I think this is an interesting platform. Too long for magazine publication? (HITCHCOCK and QUEEN basically top out at 10K words.) Or is it too hard to define, not generic, or not easy to pin down? Emily Rapp, for example, or Greg Martin. They’ve got print deals, but in the current climate, it’s tricky. Kindle Singles are curated. It’s not self-pub. They do the heavy lifting. You still have to promote yourself, as always, but this is an avenue that’s worth a serious look. I think you use everything available, print, digital, social media, blog posts. You want to brand yourself, and remind people you’re still alive.
I’ve been absent for a while, and haven’t posted to the website. I just finished a 60,000-word stand-alone called EXIT WOUNDS, which is now in the pitch stage. The story’s about private security contractors working for the American military and intelligence communities, and also manages to drag in the Russian mob and the Iranians. It’s a Jack Thibault book, really, and like the most recent story, “Jack Be Nimble,” appearing in the March 2014 issue of HITCHCOCK (actually on sale now) it alternates chapters between Jack’s voice and the cops. I’m trying to wrap another down-along-the-Rio-Grande story, titled “The Dooms,” which has been giving me a lot of trouble, I think in large part because of post-partum triste: finishing a project like EXIT WOUNDS has me feeling somewhat bereft and rudderless. The next thing I have to do is go back over THE BONE HARVEST, which I in fact finished six months ago, but now that both Michael Parnell and Deborah Coonts have read it and made constructive suggestions, it’s time to correct the seasoning and get the book out. I’m uncertain whether to start querying on it, or go straight to video and put it up as an e-book, which is the route I took with BLACK TRAFFIC, and THE BONE HARVEST is the next in that sequence. After that, I’ve got two ideas for novellas that might wind up as Kindle Singles, the first going back to Cold War Berlin, but with Dix Apodaca, the hero of THE BONE HARVEST. The working title is FOXTROT.