So you can read my books

Monday, March 22, 2010


Each city cries in its own voice. Your city. My city. You know streets that whisper to stay away at night. You know what scandal has stained some avenue beyond repair. You know what person's name is spoken in hushed tones long after he or she has died and been buried in your city.

Each city has its own personality. Like a human's, it changes with trauma, years of abuse, and moments of historic impact. Lifting the veil from the distinctive features of the setting of your novel makes your whole narrative come alive for your reader.

And yes, several of my readers have asked again for me to give hints on how to give a locale its own unmistakable voice. All of them have settings outside the U.S. in their novels, and they ask how to make a foreign setting focus into a breathing, living image.

Details. Some obvious to tourists. Some that you have to ferret out by research in the library, on the internet, or by listening to a local visitor to your setting.

Feelings. How does your hero/heroine feel about those details? How have they affected the protagonist and those important to him or her? Weave those details and emotions into a rich tapestry of irony and longing. What shadowed corner of your setting is especially dangerous or emotion-laden to your central characters? Why? Paint a passage where that tapestry flutters in the shadows, not quite completely seen but more evocative because of that.

Time. What era is it in your setting? Has your protagonist lived through more than one era of time in it? How has the passing seasons shaped his/her mind, opinions, and outlook for the present? For the future? How does your protagonist view his and the setting's past?

I enjoyed the TV show ALIAS, and how the storyline hopscotched from one exotic locale to another seamlessly and totally captivatingly. I wondered if I could do it. And so I tried it in a short story centering on my undead Texas Ranger, Captain Samuel McCord. In THE WEAK HAVE ONE WEAPON, a young prostitute has been murdered by Sam's jazz club. He hunts down and kills the soulless young man who did it. But he finds there is something larger in scope than he realized. He uses the young man's plane ticket and hotel reservation to follow his only clue to Amsterdam :

Amsterdam. I’d never much cared for it. There was rot underneath its old world orderliness. Maybe I might have liked it at its beginning when it was just a huddle of fishing huts on the Amsel River with folks just content to hide away from the madness of kings and Popes.

It was a strange city, where coffeshop meant a place where you could buy pot. But that they were found in the Red Light District was a real clue that coffee wasn’t the only thing sold there. And what wasn’t sold in Amsterdam? Honor, dignity, pride, sex -- all was sold on the open market.

For the thing that I had become, Amsterdam was a wild mix of scents and sounds : the tolling church bells that played snatches of hymns or Beethovan to mark the dying of the hour; the smell of vanilla drifting off the stack of waffles as I walked by the cafes; barrel organs pumping happily off in the distance; hearing a gaggle of laughing girls singing around a piano as I strolled by a bordello; watching a lone professor on a park bench, closing his eyes, as he listened to the music of Sweelinck on a 17th century organ in the Oude Kerk.

But the lawman in me found other more disturbing sensations : the wave of cloyingly sweet cannabis that hit me as soon as I stepped off the train into the station; the mewing of the drug addicts who had stumbled my way, begging for the price of just one more fix; the fine smell of aged vomit rising from off the cobblestones as I had made my way along desperate prostitutes, past their prime, but with no other way to make a living on the street of Stormsteeg; the silent hollow-eyed girls staring at me from the windows on Molensteeg, awkwardly bumping and grinding in an attempt to lure me in and keep their pimps from beating the hell out of them for poor sales. After all, waterfront property cost to keep.

The young man’s reservation was for the InterContinental Amstel Hotel, the best hotel in the city. Hell, why not? Only the very best for the very worst. It was where you could find movie stars, popstars, and other famous and infamous celebreties -- and me. His suite was paid up for the month. His wallet’s money made fine dining affordable, not that I could still taste with the withered thing that passed for a tongue. But as long as I didn’t stick it out at folks, I still looked human.

The night following my arrival found me sitting in the hotel’s best restaurant, La Rive. It had a beautiful panorama of the Amstel River. The dead boy’s money bought me a prime table with the best view. I would have felt guilty if I had been enjoying it. But all I could see were the addicts and prostitutes that clawed for a living somewhere beyond the dark beauty.

“They are cattle, nothing more,” said a velvet voice above me.

I looked up and cursed myself. I had let my musings leave me deaf and blind. I was a pitiful excuse for a Texas Ranger. Hell, I was a pitiful excuse for a human while you were at it. But I still tried to pass for both.

She was tall -- and pretty -- if you were into human sharks. Her smile had all the warmth of one. Too much killing will do that to you. I tried to settle an image of the shivering little girl I had carried out of that death camp, whose name I never could pronounce, much less spell. Her outfit was tight and leather. I tried to ignore the length of legs that the short black skirt revealed. I wanted to keep the image of that long dead little girl alive in my heart. Without asking, she sat down. But then, like I said, she and I went way back.

“Still work for the Mossad, Eve?”

Her eyes softened. “Still fighting losing battles, Samuel?”

“They might be losing battles, Eve. But I’m still not convinced they’re the wrong ones.”

Her winter blue eyes seemed to get deeper. “You are the only one who still calls me Eve.”

“Talk to Shabtai lately?”

Her face hardened. “Not since you helped him leak the information that Israel was dumping nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea.”

“Had to be done.”

“As does --”

She pulled the automatic from her waistbelt but stiffened. While we had been talking, I had slipped my hands under the table, removing the glove off my right hand. She stopped speaking when I placed my right palm on the exposed flesh of her knee. Not that she was still a schoolgirl about things like that. It was just that my right hand was no longer human. You see, I fed with my hands. As I was feeding right then, leeching the lifeforce from her.

“Sorry, Eve. I don’t know how they forced you into trying to kill me. But if it means anything to you, I’ll make them pay.”

I looked into her glazed eyes that no longer saw, as her ears no longer heard. I went cold inside. I was a monster. In all the ways that counted, I was a monster. I stood up. Time to share.

I was out of the restarant before the waitress started to scream. I was out of the hotel before the first human ran into the lobby. I was on board a plane to Israel before the police started to look for an old man registered under the name of a dead boy.

This had become personal. I'd still find out the why of the prostitute's murder. But first I would find Eve's adopted daughter. Probably the Mossad had used her to blackmail Eve into trying to kill me. Then, I would visit Reuven Yatom, head of the Metsada, Special Operations Division. He damn well better have his affairs in order. Because Mossad or no Mossad, Hell was coming his way. And he'd not be alive to see it leave.
And no film brings alive a locale as well as THE THIRD MAN does, so here is a video of a short moment of it : {Ignore the Spanish subtitles on this mystery of a dead friend found to be unsettlingly alive set in post-WWII Vienna.}

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