About the Book
Exciting action, danger and crackling dialogue – a reader’s comment.
Early morning. The concrete forecourt of a Los Angeles motel you wouldn’t check your family into. The owner, a man with a past who was planning a particular future, has been shot in the back.
Career detective Helen Freitag’s investigation of the murder takes her into the underworld of LA’s gangs, as racial tensions and arson attacks rise across the sweltering city.
Looming in the background is an official inquiry into her questionable shooting of a bank robber, as well as increasing trauma from her army service.
The handsome, disgraced journalist Prentice Taylor is drawn into the inquiry by Freitag when the dead man’s daughter runs away from home.
About the Author
David Bradbury is a former newspaper crime reporter, who has long been fascinated by the gang culture of Los Angeles.
Authors Thoughts on Writing:
Hello fellow writers,
I’ve been asked me to jot down my thoughts about the process of starting off with the idea for a book and ending up with a published edition, in my case Harbor City Homicide, a Michael Connelly-style LA crime novel. I recently self-published on Kindle Direct Publishing.
First off, one common piece of advice to writers is simply to start writing, start plugging away at anything, be it a diary, notes, short story or a first draft. I don’t think this is the best advice if you are interested in writing in a specific genre, in my case, crime fiction. It’s best to develop a style and certain level of competence through work and critiques. Just pounding away at a laptop can lead to a weighty manuscript that’s not particularly good. A person I knew spent a lot of time writing up a diary of a pilgrimage route she had walked in Europe. It ended up not one thing or another. Neither a practical travel guide; nor an entertaining literary piece. It was just a personal diary of everyday jottings of not much interest.
What I found worked was to read, and by read, I mean read as in study, not read for pleasure. I like Michael Connelly so I set out to study one of his books. First off, I typed a whole chapter out on my laptop. This might seem a little crazy but it forced me to study some of the basics of writing – how he portrays dialogue, characters and settings.
For example, there’s this example of dialogue from The Last Coyote.
“Any thoughts? Could you share them with me, Detective Bosch.”
“My thoughts are that this is bullshit.”
First off, the dialogue is realistic, and by that, I mean not the meandering, humming and haa-ing people engage in everyday, but realistic for a crime book, it bounces back and forth like a table tennis ball. Also, think about the word choice, ‘share them with me’, ‘this is bullshit”. They’re the sort of words a psychiatrist and a detective would use. They’re not only appropriate for the character but help define them.
This is my take on dialogue for my book, between a former reporter and my detective.
“And this concerns me how?”
“Listen up, I’m throwing you a bone,” she said. “That guy who was clipped outside his motel two days ago you videoed, now his daughter’s run off, I don’t think they connected but …”, she spread her hands.
Hopefully the word choice, ‘listen up,’ ‘throwing a bone’ ‘clipped’, is the sort of language a police officer would use. Also, I’ve chosen a staccato way of speaking, similar to the cadence of a detective giving a briefing. And the ‘this concerns me how?” implies some manner of disdain in the ex-reporter.
For character, here’s Connelly’s description of the psychiatrist.
Carmen Hinojos had tiny brown hands she kept on the desk in front of her. No rings on either hand. She held an expensive-looking pen in her right hand. Bosch always thought expensive pens were used by people overly concerned with image. But maybe he was wrong about her. She wore her dark brown hair tied back. She wore glasses with thin tortoiseshell frames. She should have had braces when she was a kid but didn’t.
Connelly has given a straightforward physical description that is almost like reading out an itemized shopping list. Tiny hands, no rings on fingers, brown hair tied back, thin tortoiseshell frame glasses, buck teeth. He’s painted a vivid picture. But what saves it from being a dull list are the particular choices of what is being described, and the inferences the detective and the reader can draw. His character Bosch thinks Hinojos may be concerned with her image and came from a poor family. And as a reader I draw inferences that she is unmarried, conservative and bookish.
Here’s my take on a physical description of a character.
“Sure thing,” the woman said, closing the door for a moment, unlinking the chain and opening it for detective Freitag.
Ample woman in her late 30s, Freitag noted. Butter colored bell-bottomed slacks. Armless purple turtle neck jumper. Platinum white B52 wig. Glossy pink lipstick and cobalt eyeshadow. Likely no friends because she worked nights and got her kicks playing dress-up with other geeks.
Hopefully the physical list describes some sort of cosplay character as vividly as Connelly would have done. It’s not just a shopping list, I’ve chosen particular things to illustrate a character. And the detective is drawing an inference about the character from the observations.
I’ve also used short statements, like the detective’s staccato way of speaking, rather than full sentences because I think this will help illustrate a brusque detective, making observations as if she were taking notes.
For setting, here’s Connelly’s description of a house.
It was a small Craftsman bungalow set on the crest of a hill. It had a full porch with red bougainvillea running along the railing. As he got out, he could smell the sea and guessed that there might be a limited ocean view from the house’s Western windows. It was about ten degrees cooler that it had been at this home and so he reached back into his car for the sport coat. He walked to the front porch while putting it on.
There’s a few things I take from this piece of writing. First up, it’s a physical description list, but not the old itemized shopping list. It’s been chosen with care to illustrate a pleasant home. Note the, ‘Craftsman bungalow set on hill’, ‘porch with red bougainvillea’. Connelly’s also using the senses with his description, what the character Bosch is seeing, smelling and feeling. And, it’s not static. The character is moving through it, making it come alive.
Here’s my version of a setting.
Detective Freitag pulled her Dodge into a space between a battered delivery van and an overflowing dumpster on Heroin Alley. She put a hand up to her nose as she got out of the car. A nearby trash can smelt of excrement. She knew sometimes bottom feeder gangsters would charge people a couple of dollars to use the few public toilets. This forced the homeless to relieve themselves in buckets and empty them in the trashcans when full. Across the road, two black-and-whites were parked, headlights on, illuminating a low-slung, concrete-block, auto-parts workshop. She crossed the road, keeping an eye on the asphalt for discarded syringes. A preacher delivering water had trod on one, contracted a staph infection and ended up having his lower leg amputated. Officer Mendez was standing at the door of the auto workshop. Over the flat rooftop, through the coils of razor wire, the neon logos of the banks and financial houses of Downtown lit up the night.
What I’ve learnt from Connelly is to use well-chosen items to illustrate a setting, ‘the overflowing dumpster; concrete block, auto-parts workshop, coils of razor wire’. I’m also using the senses – the smells of excrement, the physicality of stepping on a syringe, the neon lights through the razor wire. I also have my detective moving through the setting, interacting with it, making it come alive, not reciting a list of what she is seeing.
Of course, dividing writing into dialogue, character and setting is simply a way of analysing writing. When you write, they all come together seamlessly.
This is an (abbreviated) passage from The Last Coyote.
The woman who answered the white door after one knock was in her mid-sixties and looked it. She was thin, with dark hair, but the gray roots were beginning to show and she was ready for another dye job. She wore thick red lipstick, a white silk blouse with sea horses on it over navy blue slacks.
She lost the smile as quickly as she had found it before.
“That’s not my name,” she said in a clipped tone. “You have the wrong place.”
“It’s Harry Bosch,” he said, quickly.
Recognition and memories flooded her eyes like tears.
“Harry, little Harry. Oh darling, c’mere.”
Bosch entered a nicely furnished living room. The floor was red oak and the stucco walls were clean and white. The furniture was matching white rattan. The place was light and bright but Bosch knew he was there to bring darkness.
And dialogue, character and setting are only there to serve the main purpose of a book, the plot, and what the reader wants, a great story.
Books, particularly crime fiction, need a strong plot to move things along. Most ‘How to Write’ books refer to the hero’s journey from ancient Greek tales. The retired or disgraced hero is on the farm in the bosom of his family. He is called on to deal with some crisis. He refuses. He is persuaded to change his mind. He embarks on an adventure, surmounting increasing obstacles. Finally, he triumphs, defeats the enemy, and returns to his loving family.
Think about plots in crime fiction. There’s a crisis, usually a murder. A cop, often on suspension, is brought in when others have failed. There’s the twists and turns of the investigation. And finally, an arrest and exoneration.
To fully understand how Connelly plotted a book, I got an exercise book and wrote a summary of each chapter on each page. That highlighted how the story of the crime investigation unfolded. Also, how the sub-plots – any sidebar investigation, the detective’s relations with his commander and family as well as personal problems and interests – unfolded. Next, I got a sheet of A3 paper and wrote out a flow chart for how the main plot progressed, with the sub-plots below. That gave me an insight into how they progressed, hit bumps, ratcheted up in tension, ratcheted down, and came to a crescendo. (It’s hardly necessary to say, but the sub-plots as well as being stories in their own rights, are interspersed with the main plot as pauses and tension breaks in the investigation.)
A common question writers are asked is ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ That is, do you carefully plot out your story or do you just start writing and let the characters lead you on a journey. I guess writing is a combination of both. A crime writer will start with an idea for a story, perhaps based on a real crime, have an idea how it will progress, and adapt and develop it as they go along. I suggest you flow chart out how plots are developed by Connelly, Michael Crais, Jonathon Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley to better understand plotting. That’s a lot of work, and so is developing a plot of your own.
Next, if you’re starting off as a writer it’s vital to belong to a well-informed writers’ group that will give you correct feedback and encouragement.
Some of the feedback I received from my writing group was that a person reading crime fiction is doing it for relaxation and doesn’t want to do have to make any inferences as Connelly often asks the reader to do.
I had written a sentence introducing my main character where she brushes her hand back on her hip, drawing her jacket back to reveal a Glock automatic. To my mind, the inference the reader would draw is that she is a police detective as the Glock is a standard police issue weapon so I wouldn’t have to state that. However, the feedback from the group was that either they didn’t want to have to try and figure this out, or that it was unclear anyway. Hence, my main character got a gold LAPD detective’s badge on her hip in addition to the Glock. And that’s why, in the cos play lady description above, I just left the detective to do the figuring out.
Another feedback from the group that was words aren’t just vehicles for the characters, dialogue, setting and plot. The language can be enjoyable in its own right, as in great literature or poetry. Kellerman often uses particular words and phrases that wouldn’t be in a traditional hard-boiled crime novel. Such as, ‘Rouge creating clown-like cerise circles.’ Cerise? Really? But that’s more fun than writing ‘she had pink makeup on her cheeks.” Also, he has some fun juxtaposing language. Here is his description of a driveway. “… a double-width entry fronted by curvaceous, gold-painted iron over glass.” Curvaceous? Rubens’ models are curvaceous. But once again, it’s more fun than writing it was a bow-shaped gate.
I tried to have some fun with the language after group feedback. Hence in the description of the cos play lady her slacks are ‘butter colored’ not yellow, and she wears ‘cobalt eyeshadow’ not black.
I can’t emphasis enough how important a professional writers’ group is. If you show your writing to friends and family, they’re going to say it’s great because they don’t want to be mean to you, they want to encourage you, and they might even fear losing your friendship. Likewise, attending a well-meaning but amateur group of scribblers isn’t going to cut it. It’s like taking your car to a backyard mechanic rather than a professional. You’re going to end stuck on the side of the road with a broke down heap of trash. You need considered, high quality feedback, like you get at good group, or from a writing course, to progress.
You also need to devote time to your writing. Sitting around waiting for inspiration to come when you have a few hours spare won’t work. You need to spend four or five hours a day pounding it out, which is rough if you’re exhausted from work or have family commitments. Getting away from all the distractions at Writers Retreats where you can focus on your writing and start churning it out is one solution.
Finally, to make your writing successful, you need to write about what you are passionate about. Writing is more than rote words on the page like a newspaper report. You’ve got to find some topic or story you’re committed to so that energy comes out in your writing. Connelly is a former crime reporter who is fully focused on Los Angeles, its bank robberies and murders, the combative relationships among the detectives and senior officers, his detective Bosch’s commitment to the job and love of his daughter. That’s why he is so successful.
Harbor City Homicide is available on Amazon Books, free to download with Kindle app.