Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

This post is the second in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

Just the name of his fabled character, Travis McGee, starts your imagination working overtime to picture this man. McGee was the opposite of Sherlock Holmes as described in my earlier post on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was more of a playboy who lived on a houseboat, bedded beautiful women, and took half of the profit from stolen goods that he recovered.

MacDonald himself was a well-educated man a degree from Syracuse University, my hometown, and an Ivy League MBA. He then entered World War II as a first lieutenant in the army.

MacDonald’s literary career started by happenstance. While away in the war, he mailed a short story to his wife who submitted it to Esquire Magazine and it was rejected. She then submitted it to Story Magazine and they accepted it for $25. When MacDonald found out about it upon his return, he spent the next four months cranking out 800,000 words of short stories and losing 20 pounds.

His eventual sale of a story to Dime Magazine was the first of nearly 500 stories to various magazines, some of which would fill an entire issue with only his stories under various names.

MacDonald’s career flourished during the period from 1953 to 1964 during which he almost single-handedly crafted the hard-boiled detective genre.  His signature character, Travis McGee, made his debut in 1964 in the novel The Deep Blue Goodbye. This swaggering Florida figure who lived on a houseboat named the Busted Flush was the prototype for many private eyes that came after him like Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum, and others.

MacDonald wrote 21 McGee stories over the next 21 years with every title containing a color within it.  Like Sherlock Holmes, McGee had an educated sidekick on some of his books named Meyer who was an economist and Ph.D. Most of the McGee stories took place in Florida.

MacDonald’s most famous film adaptation was from the Novel, The Executioners, which became the movie, Cape Fear which premiered in 1962 and was remade in 1991.

As I look at my own work, I see some unintended similarities. I have written private eye novels that take place in Florida. My detective lives in a trailer instead of a houseboat. He also has an educated attorney as a sidekick. I say that these similarities are unintended as I read my first John D. MacDonald book after I wrote my first novel. I must have had this blueprint internalized before I began my writing from adaptations of MacDonald’s model.

I have read many of Mr. MacDonald’s books since the first. You can see his prowess as a writer grow continuously throughout his works. I can now claim him as a role model due to the quality and prolific nature of his work.

Studying the Masters in Crime/Detective Fiction

This post is the first in a series that I will be writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters

Part 1 – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When I look at crime/detective fiction, I view Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the pioneering architects in the genre. His novels and collections centered around his Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters are timeless.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Scotland in 1859. Like his Dr. Watson character, Doyle was a physician. After serving as a ship’s surgeon in West Africa, Doyle became an opthalmologist with a practice in London.

Like many writers, he had a hard time finding a publisher for his work, but finally was able to publish A Study in Scarlet, his first Sherlock Holmes Novel, in 1886 earning 25 pounds for the rights to the story. The publisher further abused their new client when the sequel was published, so he left them.

Sherlock Holmes was a character that was modeled after a professor that Doyle had studied with. As for Dr. Watson, as I read more about Doyle, I realized that this character is somewhat autobiographical. Watson is the first person narrator in most of the Sherlock Holmes tales. I believe this equates to Doyle telling the story himself through Watson.

What struck me as I made my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories is how masterful Doyle was at making the complex deductive process that Holmes employs seem simple to the reader and, by extension, Dr. Watson. He will make an observation about a character that is astonishing and comes across as a wild guess, but then deconstructs the process he went through to make the deduction making it sound so simple that anyone should have been able to deduce the conclusion.

I also like that Doyle’s characters have flaws. Both Holmes and Watson were prone to depression. Holmes was also a drug addict. It resonates with me that Doyle made Holmes a musician. This is something that I’ve done with my own private detective character.

Doyle was not always enamored with his Sherlock Holmes character and threatened to, and actually did, kill him off in one of his works. Outraged fans, however, convinced him to resurrect Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of his most famous works, in 1901.

Doyle also penned other notable non-Sherlock Holmes works including The Lost World, and his Professor Challenger stories.

Doyle’s life away from writing was fascinating as he was a political activist, good friend to Harry Houdini, follower of spiritualism and an intermittent Freemason who resigned, rejoined, and resigned again from the society.

As I look at the life of this fascinating man and pioneer in the genre of crime/detective fiction, I am amazed at how his work holds up today and how the standard that he set for writers in this genre is still valid nearly 150 years after his era. This is not necessarily true of other authors of that time period.

Please look for upcoming posts on other authors that I consider masters in the crime/detective fiction genre.

 

Visualizing Your Writing – A Different Way to Analyze What You’ve Written

This week’s blog is a little bit different. I have been posting blogs that focus on mechanical aspects of writing and on other aspects of the independent publishing industry. This week, I wanted to let you in on one of the more abstract aspects of the tools that I use for my writing.

I have always been more of a visual person than someone who learns from the written word. Strange for a writer, but it makes sense to me. When I write, I see the worlds of my characters in my mind. I also see and hear my characters as I write dialog for them. Now, before you think I’m crazy, it’s a technique that works for me and there are times when paragraphs and even chapters appear that I have written on some kind of autopilot. Of course, there are other times when the words are more forced because I want to get a certain amount done. Those sections are never as good and are frequently reworked.

In past blogs, I have introduced you to the mind map and the character map. These are tools that I rely upon heavily.

Here is a quick review just in case you missed those blogs.

Mind Map

A mind map is a technique where you have a central idea (such as a book) and have several ideas connected to it (chapters). Once you have these connected ideas in place, you can start to refine them and move them around to establish their order. Here is a mind map that I did for my book, Let Me Be Frank – Frank Rozzani Detective Series Book 2:

Mind Map - Frank 2

As you can see, when I established the book, I didn’t have a title yet, but the chapters ended up staying fairly true to the final book. Of course, like with any of these techniques, you can deviate at any time if it makes sense to do so based on where your characters are headed or how they develop.

Character Map

I also introduced the concept of the character map. This graphical representation of the relationship among the main characters helps to establish who is related to whom and how they interact. It is very similar to a family tree.  An example, also from Let Me Be Frank, is shown below:

character map

This image shows the relationships within the Indigeaux family. The character with a red “X” is a murder victim. It also shows the Doucet and Monreaux families and how some of the key characters are related. This is useful when I sometimes forget names or relationships when the dialog or narrative is flying into the story.

Now that I’ve recapped these two techniques, I want to introduce a new one that I’ve just started using. It is the “Word Cloud” technique. Word clouds are becoming very popular as a way to show survey and poll results. You’ve probably seen them on TV or on the Internet.

The example shown below is a word cloud generated by the website http://www.tagul.com. This site has a very easy to use word cloud generator that is highly configurable. The example shown comes from a poll where people in California were asked to supply the first word they thought of when describing their state:

California-State

In a word cloud, the largest word in terms of font size is the one that was mentioned most frequently. Tagul actually gives you a count of how many times each word was mentioned. Not surprisingly, the number one word in this word cloud was California. You can see by quick review what the most popular words were in the survey. This particular word cloud has a couple of nice features. First, it is shaped like the state of California. Tagul and other services let you pick the shape of your cloud. Also, the color of the words helps some of the words stand out and can be tied to a legend.

So, you might be wondering, what does this tool, mostly used for surveys, have to do with writing. I asked myself the same question and then I thought I would try some experimentation. I started with a short story.

One of my short stories, Play it again Des, is about a man named Desmond Brown who runs away to New Orleans as a young piano player looking to make the big time. He has some talent, but is not content to pay his dues and put in the time to build up his talent. He meets a strange man, and talented trumpet player, named Lou who offers him what he wants instantly, but with a price.

I took the entire story and used the cut and paste option in Tagul to see what the results would be. I customized the colors a bit and removed words like “the”, “a”, “and”, etc. The results are shown below:

Des CloudAs you can see, the word cloud almost tells the story in the synopsis. The words in red are the ones that were repeated over 50 times. Desmond and Hobo are two of the main characters in the story. They both “play” the piano. Words in dark blue were mentioned between 30 and 49 times. Piano jumps out. Lou, the man who gives Desmond his instant dream, emerges. It’s interesting that the word “Want” pops out as well. This story is all about “Wants”, but the word “Need” is there also. What was interesting to me is that I saw my story emerge from this graphic.

Another useful purpose of this took is to identify words that you over-use during your writing. If words like “literally” or “exactly” pop up more than a few times in each chapter, you might have a problem with repetitiveness.

I decided to see if this technique works on chapters of longer works. You remember my Mind Map that I mentioned earlier? I wanted to see how the mind map boxes matched up with the chapters. Here is an example from Let Me Be Frank.

Frank 2 - Chapter 2This word cloud is from Chapter 2 where Frank Rozzani, the main character, finds out about the case from a police detective, Anita, and enlists the help of his friend Jonesy. You can see that the words “Frank”, “Case”, “Anita” and “Jonesy” are pretty prominent. Also, a popular character from the book, Frank’s dog Lucy, is strongly represented. Again, for a visual person like myself, this word cloud tells me a story and also tells me that my chapter is emphasizing the words that I want to convey in this section of the book.

I encourage you to try this with your work. The help will be twofold. It will help you eliminate words that might be redundant in your writing. It will also help you to see of your story is conveying the right message in a visual sense.

As always, I welcome your opinions and comments.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series, Frank Incensed, will be coming out on April 24, 2015 and is available for pre-order.

He has also published a well-received short story collection that is available on Amazon.com.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

Grab a Great Detective Mystery – Free to Kindle Unlimited Subscribers.

Are you looking to curl up with a cozy mystery during this long cold Winter? My newest book, Let Me Be Frank, the 2nd in the Frank Rozzani Detective Series will warm you up. Frank is an ex-cop from Syracuse in Upstate New York who migrated south after a terrible personal tragedy. He settled near the ocean in Jacksonville, Florida and solves cases that come to him from the local community.

In this adventure, a young girl is murdered. The police believe she was homeless, but Frank discovers that she has ties to a long-buried family conflict.

Follow Frank and Jonesy as they travel to New Orleans and other locations on the Gulf coast to solve this crime. The secrets they uncover will change their lives and the lives of those around them.
Now available in Kindle and Paperback formats from Amazon

#donmassenzio

#dsmpublishing