My husband Glenn and I went out yesterday on a beautiful and sunny Tucson morning to go get a Christmas tree. I love that. Just to smell that spicy pine scent takes me back to when I was a kid, dressed in my fringed Annie Oakley outfit, draping those shimmering strands called “Icicles” on the tree. When I really believed that Santa was coming—and I’d stay up and then fall asleep and just miss him. He was a wily one. Today I’m hanging ornaments on the tree. Many of them are very old—the ones that survived my childhood. Another thing survived my childhood. My parents had an aluminum tree (way back) and a color wheel. I still have the color-wheel and it’s rotating right now, casting pine shadows on the ceiling, going from red, to yellow, to blue, to green.
We all have traditions. Big families, small families. Pets. People coming from all over. On a sunny Arizona day, we put the old lights (again, these are the old ones, from long ago) up on the roof. Generations of cats have been outside with us, enjoying the fact that we were working assiduously. In their way, they all enjoyed the ceremonial Light Stringing.
I know you guys all have your own traditions, and if you like, please share them on my Facebook Author Page—I’d love that!
Happy Holidays to you all, and a joyous, peaceful, and love-filled season.
Maggy and Glenn
I studied to be an opera singer. I did pretty well, had talent, but eventually it came to me that I was trying something that did not work for me. I got two degrees and played a few leading roles, despite stage fright, which stuck with me ALWAYS. Then one day sanity knocked on my door, and I realized that when I was younger, all I did was write and illustrate “books.”
One night, Glenn and I were watching “The New Twilight Zone”… series, and there were natives in the Amazon jungle who appeared whenever the guy aimed his camera at the landscape. And they were coming at him with spears. He’d have to take their picture right quick to stop them. We brainstormed it and thought it would be great to have an old camera that took pictures of the past. And we knew the EXACT place to set the story: Bisbee, Arizona.
Bisbee is spooky as hell, and the buildings are the same as they were at the turn of the century. PERFECT. And so I came up with an old box camera that took pictures in the present – but these pictures developed as pictures from the past.
And just like that, I started writing (when I was a kid, I wrote tons of stories, before getting sidelined into opera singing). I had a lot to learn, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun as I had on that quest. I finished the book, found an agent, and tried to sell it. It didn’t sell for a couple of years, but finally ended up at Kensington (DARKSCOPE, a Pinnacle paperback). I’ll never forget the day I went into Frys and there was my book on the racks. There was a lot to learn, and I’ve come a long way since then, but that first book – like a first painting or a first dog show ribbon or (especially) a new baby – A first is always something exhilarating, and will stay with you forever.
What was a First for you, and did you think you were half-crazy to try it?
I have been lucky enough to find a good man to live my life with.
A large part of this, of course, is due to his parents and mine. Both of his parents were good and kind and smart, but more than that, they had integrity.
I think “integrity” is at the heart of the Zero the Hero story.
Let me back up a bit. My mother-in-law, Jean McCreedy, had a rich spiritual life. She explored her inner space, finding many ways to turn the Rubik’s Cube of her life. She was a questioner. She was the kind who would follow the path and then, if that path petered out, she would go beyond it.
Creative people always try to go farther. They want to learn more, and often they want to learn about themselves.
As a writer, I can relate. There are many ways I have approached writing (especially when I’m stuck)—there are other neural pathways that I try to access. Here’s just one of them. If I’m having a hard time moving forward on a story, I’ll go for a walk—and plan NOT to think of the book I’m writing.
In theatre, there’s a saying: “Try NOT to think of the White Bear.” It was a way of accessing the stuff underneath, because God only knows, if you tell yourself not to do something, part of you will want to do it in the worst way. And that gives you access to something more that you can use on stage.
Like the White Bear, Zero the Hero is a way to reach farther with the mind and soul. His home (which is whimsical) has an open floor plan. I think Jean deliberately made her creatures, including Zero, to be open-ended and full of possibility. There are spaces to dance around in. It’s not the neat, small spaces that many of the wonderful coloring books out there provide. Her story is bigger than that, and more things are possible.
I couldn’t leave the book alone. I used soft-core colored pencils, a whole host of them, and shaded from one color to another. I went a little crazy, too, filling some spaces with … I dunno, I guess you’d call them dapples. Like you’d see on a horse.
There are lots of fantastic coloring books out there-beautiful ones. But this one, I believe, is kind of a grownup’s coloring book, where YOU make the decisions, and you have more space to fill, and more ways to go.
Getting into that space and time, I left a bunch of unnecessary stuff behind. I think that that is the essence of what Jean wanted to achieve with her coloring book.
She wanted people to explore the spaces, not just the outlines.
And she wanted them to discover the creativity in themselves.
You can find ZERO THE HERO: ADULT COLORING BOOK FOR MEDITATION AND RELAXATION on Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/Zero-Hero-Coloring-Meditation-Relaxation/dp/1939145201/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1476638912&sr=8-9&keywords=zero+the+hero
Books do one thing that television and movies can’t do:
They give you your own personal experience. Reading calls upon you to see what YOU see, and while it might be similar to the author’s intention, what you see comes from where you live, who your family is, how you see the world, the experiences you’ve had. If you lived in Greenland, you would experience a different world than a person who lives, say, in Tucson, Arizona.
I’ve never been to Greenland, so if someone describes it, I still see it my way: a vast platform of ice, populated by polar bears. Or maybe it’s taken from a TV show I saw as a child—Eskimos fishing. It comes from everything I’ve learned up to this point.
Childhood, school, the area where I live, what the people are like in my neighborhood, if I live way out on a ranch somewhere or cheek-to-jowl in a crowded city. People have mutual experiences, like school, learning to drive a car, your job. Your car might be an expensive beauty, and mine might be falling apart.
So we see everything through the prism of our own minds and experiences—and books give us the freedom to do just that.
MY view of a cabin in the woods, depending on the area you or I live in, would look different from YOUR cabin in the woods. My picture of a strong female cop might be different from your idea of a strong female cop. She could be massive and strong. She could look like the cop on Criminal Minds. She could be red-haired, freckled, model-thin, with a whip-smart mind and a smart mouth to go with it. Whoever she is, she’s YOUR person. You made up your half of her.
If my character is driving on a lonesome winding highway in the middle of the night, YOU’RE driving on a road that might be like it, but it’s all your own—it’s your road. You fill in the pieces of the puzzle. That, in a nutshell, is the wonder of reading.
And because you hold the other piece of the jigsaw puzzle, I respect you and I respect what you add to the story. It takes two to tango. And I can’t help but wonder: what do YOU see?
Here are five subjects that have appeared in my books. I’m going to furnish you with a short description of each scene, and it’s up to you to fill in the blank. What does it LOOK LIKE?
Please post those pictures here on my Pinterest Page. Choose as many as you’d like. I’m really curious how you see these places and people.
1. A cabin in the woods near Aspen, Colorado—the opening scene of my thriller, The Shop.
2. A guy out in the boonies with a camper and a dog on a chain—from The Survivors Club.
3. A bombed-out house in Iraq with a secret stash of incredible riches—from Hard Return.
4. A bandshell in a western town—from Darkness on the Edge of Town.
5. A horsewoman teaching a riding class—from The Survivors Club.
I wonder how different your photos will be from other peoples’ photos, or what I saw as I wrote these scenes. I really want to know what YOU see. Go to https://www.pinterest.com/carson9648/
When a murder happens, the ramifications of that act affect everyone in its immediate circle. It spreads out like concentric circles in a pond, touching people who never even knew the victim. You see it every day on television. The little boy kidnapped on a walk home from school. The wife and mother who inexplicably disappears. The beautiful model killed, left in a dumpster and burned beyond recognition.
Murder changes everything. It is an assault to the system.
And sometimes, there is murder that seems to have no motive. But we know there’s always some kind of motive, if we look hard enough.
There are some in this world who cast a cold, hard eye on the innocent, and use them for their own aims.
Think about JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, which flourished under Vice President Dick Cheney, where CIA operatives, in conjunction with Blackwater LLC, trained assassins to kill al-Qaida operatives–the ultimate outsourcing. Who cares about al-Qaida? I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see them all dead. So why should that give us pause?
Maybe because once you start down that road, it’s hard to get back off. Maybe, if you can take care of certain problems, cleanly and efficiently, you begin to extrapolate the desired results to other situations, and before you know it—
There’s a domestic version of JSOC.
My political crime thriller, The Shop–about a group of young people killed in a house in Aspen–is, I hope, a rollicking good story. But it serves another purpose. I see it as the canary in the coal mine.
There are people who will do you harm at the drop of a hat. They don’t even need the hat. And there are unseen forces behind governments that seek only greater riches, greater power, and to consolidate what power they have so it will never be threatened. So much of what is happening in the world today is the result of the Unseen. The oil pipeline nobody hears about on the news. A secret pact between two countries–and suddenly hundreds are dead. The undermining of a legitimate government. Backroom deals with Wall Street firms. And money–billions of it—lubricating it all like a fine machine.
There’s the increasing feeling in this country, that no matter what he does, the Average Joe is getting nowhere. Because, he feels, the game is fixed.
Brienne Cross and the young people with her in the house in Aspen had no idea what was coming for them, and they would never have guessed why they were slated to die. They were as lambs to the slaughter.
While their story as told in The Shop is fictional, it reflects larger truths.
For my part, I felt compelled to return to the story after I wrote it, and explore their lives–the lives of the victims. So now I give you the Story behind the Story.
— J. Carson Black
This caught my eye. A piece in the newspaper regarding what people are allowed to bring in to the Republican Convention and what they can’t bring.
For one thing, it’s fine to carry guns. Ohio is an open-carry state, so have at it. They can bring concealed firearms but they have to have licenses to do so.
But this is what they may NOT bring:
Umbrellas with metal tips
And tennis balls.
Okay, laugh if you will about tennis balls. But my character, former Navy SEAL Cyril Landry can use one to great effect.
Here’s the opening scene from Chapter 2 of my third Cyril Landry thriller Spectre Black:
San Clemente, California
Cyril Landry hefted the lime-green tennis ball, aware that he was not hefting it with confidence.
Which was unlike him.
“Don’t worry,” the cricket-like man in the gaudy Hawaiian shirt said. “It won’t go off on its own. Has to be activated by the racket.”
“Not any kind of racket,” Landry said. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
The man in the Hawaiian shirt nodded and his gray ponytail nodded right along with him. “That’s correct. You’re right as rain. Otherwise…”
He left it open to conjecture.
Landry had gone out for a day of paddle-boarding, but as the sun dropped low over the water, he’d stowed the board and paddle into his Subaru and wandered in to downtown San Clemente for a bite to eat.
Even at this early hour the restaurants were crowded, so Landry ducked in to this cubbyhole of an antique shop, with an eye on the Beachcomber Bar and Grille across the street, hoping a table would open up.
A friend had told him about the old hippie. Landry wasn’t in the market for anything right now, but curiosity had finally gotten the better of him. His friend had said, “You won’t believe this guy. He was in Viet Nam. Some elite squad, what I heard. He sells knickknacks and the occasional hellfire missile.”
Landry’s friend had been joking about the hellfire missile. At least Landry thought he was.
But once Cricket Man, aka Terrence Lark, knew he was for real, he’d shown him some nice stuff.
“If you’re interested, let me know,” Lark said, before tucking the tennis ball reverently back into the box with its mates.
So maybe tennis balls are dangerous after all.
Ideas are everywhere in real life. Here are some of the ones that made it into my books:
What was going on at that time? Militias. In Texas, there was “Jade Helm” which sounded like a true conspiracy, but wasn’t, and got the usual suspects all alarmed. Even before that, the Bundys in New Mexico had a stand-off with the United States government. They won the battle, but it only encouraged them to act out again at a wildlife refuge in Oregon. This time, after they started running out of Cheese Doodles and Pepsi, they eventually surrendered, but not before one of them was killed after pulling a gun on the Feds.
I liked the idea of militias so much that it came naturally to me. Cyril Landry encounters a militia in SPECTRE BLACK.
THE CARS BURIED IN AN OKLAHOMA LAKE
I was enthralled by the story. Two vehicles, years apart, went off the dock into a silty Oklahoma lake. They were discovered, side by side. A man and his wife (missing) found in their circa 1950s car. And right next to them, a Camaro containing three high school kids who had also disappeared. This gave me the idea for the death of a woman in my Laura Cardinal novella, CRY WOLF.
DEAR ABBY COLUMN: A woman who complained of her son-in-law, who was a pathological liar. He never told a straight story. He was the smartest person in the room, and spun magical stories about his prowess in all things. He tried to fix his in-laws’ car, and made a mess of it. I liked the idea so much I wrote the character (victim) in CRY WOLF. Someone just got sick of his lying ways.
CHARLES SCHMID, THE PIED PIPER OF TUCSON
This s.o.b. brought national shame to my home town. He killed three girls. Girls he knew—which was pretty damn stupid. Three lives snuffed out by a creep who crumpled up beer cans and stuffed them in his boots to make him look taller. The serial killer nature of the story attracted Life magazine, which took an unflattering shot of East Speedway Boulevard and called it the Ugliest Street in America. My first Laura Cardinal novel, DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, was loosely based on the hysteria that resulted from those long-ago murders.
One of the most fun things to do when you’re writing crime fiction is . . wait for it . . The Research Trip. Sometimes it’s an excuse to go on a trip some place really cool, like the Painted Desert in Arizona or the high mountains of New Mexico, or New Orleans, or even another country because you’ve just got to keep it real (and tax deductible).
Since the next book of mine is set in and around Tucson, Arizona, Glenn and I stuck closer to home.
What I pictured was a dead guy in a culvert. We’re coming on to summer in the southwest, so my character, Samantha Stark, will be shading her eyes against the intense sunlight, and will be grateful for the shade the culvert offers and cars go whizzing overhead. I knew what I wanted, and pictured it, but what the hey….
RESEARCH TRIP!!!!!!! So Glenn and I went looking. We found our culvert and proceeded to take photos of it. We had to dodge whizzing traffic on the road before clambering down into the dry arroyo, and got great photos of our crime scene. I’d already written the scene, but now I had the frame for it. And I could place it properly, too, within the context of the story. Samantha Stark is a sheriff’s detective, I wanted the crime scene to be outside the city limits, even if only a little bit.
The victim is a young guy, a “sign-spinner” who advertises businesses outside shopping centers.
I’m thinking that since River Road is the demarcation line between city and county, the kid in the culvert could be half on one side and half on the other. At this point, just at the beginning, I have options. One way or the other, here’s my crime scene.
Categories: The Writing Life