About James Scott Bell

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7 Tips For Producing More Words

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know this to be true: to make serious dough as a writer means a) writing a lot; and b) writing well. This latter consideration is why TKZ has been around as long as it has (and we’re proud to say we are once again a Writer’s Digest Best 101 Websites for writers). We care about our craft and love helping writers get better.

As for writing a lot, most of you know that my best advice is writing to a quota. I’ve done this for 25 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet my daily, weekly, and yearly output. I used to go for a daily quota, but would feel guilty when I had to miss a day for some reason. Now I use a weekly number, and divide that by six days (I take one day off to recharge). If I miss a day I can readjust and add more words to the other days. 

I’ve also made a study over the years of writing efficiency. I don’t like wasting time when I write. I want to get the words out and stories completed. Here are some of the things I do. Maybe a few of them will help you, too. 

  1. Writing Sprints

Sometimes you can sit down at the keyboard and pound out 1,000 words or more in a state of delightful flow. Other times writing seems like walking in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits. On days like that it feels daunting to contemplate 1,000 words. So I break it down into writing sprints.

A sprint is 250 words. That’s all. A nifty 250. Your Ficus tree can write 250 words. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree. Just do it.

Then rest. Catch your breath. Walk around a bit. Then come back and do another 250. 

Repeat until your quota is done.

Remember this rule, too: when you write, don’t stop to edit. Keep going. Which leads us to #2: 

  1. Place Holding

Often in your writing you’ll come to a spot where you’ll need to spend time on things like research, coming up with a name for a new character, specific details of the setting, and so on. When I come to such a point I put in a placeholder (three asterisks ***). That way I can keep on writing and later come back during editing time and fill in the info. 

I might be writing along and put in: ***POLICE PROCEDURE. This tells me there’s a specific detail I need to research on that point.

Or a new character comes in. I might use a descriptive word and do the name thing later: ***SNARKY. My placeholder brings me to this spot, I created the name, then do find (SNARKY) and replace with the name.

This keeps me writing “in the zone.” 

  1. Scene Storming

If you take just 2 -3 minutes to “scene storm”—brainstorming with a scene goal in mind—you’ll write a scene with an organic connection to the overall story and, as a bonus, save time in the revision stage. Yes, you’ll need to edit your immortal prose, but it won’t necessarily be a macro edit. In other words, you usually won’t have to throw out entire scenes and write new ones.

To storm a scene, ask three basic questions. 

First, what is the viewpoint character’s OBJECTIVE in the scene? What does she want? If she doesn’t want anything, don’t even think about writing that scene. 

The objective can be external or internal. 

Examples of an external objective:

  • Question a witness
  • Confront a boss
  • Hide from a stalker
  • Get a weapon
  • Avoid being followed
  • Steal the money
  • Gain access to a location

Examples of an internal objective:

  • Figure out the next move
  • Get a handle on emotions
  • Analyze the situation
  • Relive a memory (e.g., flashback)

Next, come up with a list of potential OBSTACLES to gaining the objective. This is where conflict, external and/or internal, develops. Obstacles can come from another character who has an agenda directly opposed to your Lead. Or it can be something physical, like the bridge is out or the car won’t start.

Finally, what will be the OUTCOME of your scene? Success or setback? Usually the latter makes for greater suspense, but occasionally you’ll want a success…so long as it leads to more trouble! 

My favorite example of this is from the movie The Fugitive. Remember when Richard Kimble is posing as a hospital custodian? He’s on the trauma floor when a doctor asks him to help by taking a kid on a gurney down to an observation room. But he knows from what the kid is saying and a sneak look at the x-rays that the kid needs to be operated on, stat. In the elevator he changes the orders and delivers the kid to an operating chamber, saving his life. Success! But he was observed looking at the x-rays by the doctor, and she confronts him and starts calling for security. Now he has to make an escape. More trouble!

So just a few minutes considering Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome will have you writing faster because you know where you’re going. 

  1. Riff like jazz

Now and then I like to riff on an emotional moment within a scene. When I come to a place where a strong emotion is felt by the Lead, I write 100 or 200 words without stopping, finding various ways to describe the emotion. I might use metaphors, memories, smells, colors, whatever comes to mind. I write these really fast, letting the intensity of the moment drive the words. 

I analyze later, and may end up using only one or two lines. This may, at first blush, seem like inefficient writing, since I toss out a lot of it. But in this case it’s worth it, because the lines I use will be some of the best writing I’m capable of.

  1. Write something on your next project

Wait, what? You don’t have your next project ready to go? You need to be more like a movie studio! You have one novel in production (your WIP). But you also have your next “green-lighted” project, the one that will be given your full attention when the current work is finished.

If I hit a snag in my WIP, I let it rest and go over to my next project. I have it set up in Scrivener and look at my scene cards on the corkboard. I’ll choose one that calls out to me and write 250 words or so for that scene. Then back to my WIP.

In addition to your WIP and your next, you should also have several projects “in development.” Everything from one-line ideas to elevator pitches. Give these some thought every week in a dedicated “creativity time.” See my post on “Chasing a New Idea.

  1. Write dialogue only

By writing just the dialogue—and by that I mean no descriptions or action beats—you can generate a lot of words that will help develop the scene. You go back later and insert the other stuff. I know what my scene is going to be about (via scene storming). By just writing dialogue I allow my characters to improvise. It’s fun to hear what they come up with.

  1. Drink stronger coffee

Hey, it worked for Balzac. Of course, his 50-cup-a-day habit led to his untimely death from caffeine poisoning. But he did produce the work!

My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, of course. Well, a little. I really mean this tip to be: take care of your brain. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat salmon and blueberries, nuts and dark chocolate. 

And yes, “the science” says that moderate coffee intake is good for the gray cells, and for other things like reducing the risk of Type-2 diabetes and liver disease. So enjoy a cup or two of joe as you write. Your brain will thank you as your fingers fly across the keyboard. 

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some writing to do on my WIP. If you have any tips that have helped you with writing production, please share them with us!

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Tips For Formatting Your Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Allow me to get some shameless self promotion out of the way: Today is the release of FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION. The ebook is available for a limited time for the deal price of $2.99. (Outside the U.S. go to your Amazon store and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ.)

Okay, now let’s talk about formatting your book. If you’re an indie writer, this is fundamental. But traditionally published writers may also wish to self publish some work (e.g., a short story or novella) as added marketing.

Formatting is critically important, because readers have been conditioned to expect a certain look. Like no spaces between paragraphs and standard indenting. If your formatting is clumsy a reader may set the book aside even if you have a solid story going.

For your book’s interior, you have two choices: You can learn to do your own formatting, or you can hire it out. For the latter, you may expect to pay somewhere in the range of $300–$800 for an EPUB and pdf file. (Note, the mobi format for Kindle is not being used anymore. EPUB is now the standard. However, you may wish to create a mobi file in order to send out an ARC that can be sideloaded onto a Kindle device.)

I’ve not used formatting services myself, but a few I’ve heard good things about are Booknook, EbookPbook, and BookDesignTemplates.

Reedsy also offers design services (and in addition has a free formatting app for DIY).

So let’s say you decide to format your own books. There are many options (and please share in the comments any you have found helpful).

I use Scrivener for my writing, and have used it in the past for my formatting. It’s tricky to get it right, however, and the formatting choices are limited. This blog post offers some useful Scrivener tips in that regard.

At one time I also used the free formatting app Calibre. I’ve not seen the latest iteration, but I think it’s still safe to say it does an adequate job.

The biggest problem I see with these options is that when you want certain design elements, like drop caps or ornamental breaks, it’s hard to get them to come out right.

Amazon now offers a free program called Kindle Create. I haven’t used it, but it looks pretty good. It seems to be a decent, though limited, alternative to my app of choice, Vellum.

Vellum is a Mac-only program that is so simple to use, with such beautiful results, that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s well worth the price, because you’ll probably be using it the rest of your indie life. (NOTE: I am not affiliated with Vellum, so get no compensation from recommending it.)

Broadly speaking, you choose a design template from the Vellum library. Within a template you select various options, such as how you want opening paragraphs to look, if you want drop caps, and what style of ornamental break you like (you can import your own, too). Front matter and back matter are easy with Vellum’s pre-designed pages.

(NOTE: Although Vellum is a Mac-only program, I understand you can use a “Mac emulator” to run it on a PC. One such option is discussed here.)

The design choices in Vellum fit different genres. You can test the various styles, which show up instantly onscreen, and soon enough you’ll find the look you prefer.

For the pdf/print version, you can change the trim size, margins, and font size.

Vellum also automatically puts in a scene break line at the bottom or top of the page. This is incredibly helpful, as those breaks are hard to see on your own. (What I’m describing is when a scene ends at the bottom of a page and a new scene begins at the top of the next page. Good typography demands an ornamental line, such as ***, to indicate this for the reader.)

Another plus is the ability to put in different front and back matter for the ebook and print. For example, in your ebook back matter you’ll want to include direct links to your newsletter sign up, other titles, and the online store review page. But links don’t work in print, so you design those pages differently and choose “Include in Print only” from a drop down menu.

I have to say, the print edition of FORCE OF HABIT is gorgeous. For my fiction, I choose cream paper over plain white. It just looks and feels better to me. For my ornamental break I used the flying fists of fury nun design. The pages look like this:

Print Formatting Errors to Avoid

At a conference years ago, a writing friend joined a bunch of us who were sitting around, and showed us a copy of her new, DIY print version, several copies of which she’d consigned to the conference bookstore. I gave it a quick glance…and almost didn’t have the heart to tell her of a glaring formatting error. At the end of one her chapters was a blank page. But she had the title-header at the top of the page and the page number at the bottom.

Ack! A reader seeing that will think there was a printing error, and the book is missing text!

A blank page, if you have one, should be as clean as driven snow (as an L.A. resident I don’t know why I choose this metaphor). Vellum knows this, and takes off header/page number when you have a blank page.

Another error is having even-numbered pages on the right hand side. Never! Always start your book (after front matter) with page 1 on the right.

Isn’t it quite amazing that today an author can create both an e- and print book that looks every bit as good as a something from a big publishing house? (The answer you’re looking for is YES.)

So what is your formatting process? What programs do you use? And please share any additional tips you have!

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Reader Friday: Your First Novel

“Most people think they have a book inside them. That’s usually the best place to keep it.” – James Scott Bell

What was the first full-length novel you ever wrote, whether it was published or not? How did it turn out? What did you learn? What did it tell you about yourself as a writer?

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Using Pop Culture References in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Monty’s Steakhouse, photo courtesy of JSB Studios

The other night Mrs. B and I did something we hadn’t in over a year—went out to eat inside a real restaurant with real friends! This may not sound like much to you in your neck of the woods, but we live in the lockiest of lockdown states, frustratingly trying to claw our way toward a sense of normalcy. Well, as the man who was digging to the center of the earth was heard to say, “I’m closer than I was yesterday.”

So we went to one of L.A.’s classic steakhouses, Monty’s. Technically, their “inside” also includes a large tent with acrylic windows, which was where we were seated. We had an early reservation and by the time we were finished the place was packed. Grand it was to hear chatter, laughter, and clinking silverware in a full venue once again.

Making it all the nicer was a young server, about twenty-five-years old, who had a sense of humor and, I would guess, a lovely smile whenever she got out from behind the face mask.

The friends were from our theater days, and it was so much fun to share memories face-to-face—of shows we were in, and favorite performances we’d seen. I talked about being front-row-center for the original Chicago in New York (featuring the legendary Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach). That got us onto the subject of musicals, and Guys and Dolls came up. I told them about my recent discovery that the character Sky Masterson was named for Damon Runyon’s friend Bat Masterson, the gunslinger-turned-New York sports reporter.

We then debated whether Marlon Brando was right for that role in the movie (Frank Sinatra wanted it, but Brando was the bigger star, leaving Sinatra with the part of Nathan Detroit). I was offering the pro side of the argument when our server checked on us.

Feeling cheery, I looked at her and said, “What do you think of Marlon Brando?”

She blinked. “Who?”

Thinking she hadn’t heard me right, I said, “Marlon Brando, the actor.”

She shook her head.

Friend Cris said, “He was the old godfather in The Godfather.

“I haven’t seen that,” the server said.

I bent over and recovered my chin from the floor.

When the server left us I asked the table, “How in the heck does a twenty-five-year old not know who Marlon Brando was?” Even though he died in 2004 and his best acting days were over around 1980, still…I mean, come on…it’s Brando! He changed the face of acting in America. He was the biggest onscreen star of the 1950s. And even twenty-five-year olds have access to TCM!

But then again, when Brando was big, we only had three TV networks. There was no Google, YouTube, social media. Today you have to digitally sprint every day just to keep up with what’s current. And what’s current will probably be dated in a month. Anything older than five years is ancient history.

Which brings up the question of using pop culture references in your fiction. Should you use them if a future reader won’t know what—or who—in blue blazes you’re talking about?

Here are my thoughts:

1. A pop culture reference is usually more realistic than something generic.

She plopped in a chair and watched TV.

Is not as effective as:

She plopped in a chair and watched Wheel of Fortune.

2. Using a pop culture reference is no different than using some current technology.

Remember when flip phones with cameras hit the market? Several thriller writers hopped on that. Now it seems so quaint. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been used at the time.

3. Most readers will subliminally appreciate the specificity even if they don’t know the reference.

4. If a reader wants to know a reference, they can look it up just by going to CompuServe….I mean AskJeeves…I mean AltaVista…I mean Dogpile…I mean…

5. Consider using one or two pop references in a character’s backstory.

I like letting someone know that as a little girl the character was a devoted fan of Animaniacs and could rock The Macarena.

6. As with anything, you can overdo it.

How much is too much? It’s entirely up to you. If you feel a reference is valid, put it in. Reassess during the editing phase. Ask your beta readers about it.

I have but one last comment: Marlon Brando! I mean, come on!

So how do you feel about pop culture references in fiction? Like or dislike? Use or don’t use? How do you make the decision?

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Reader Friday: Inspiration

“If you wait for inspiration to write you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” — Dan Poynter

What role does inspiration play in your writing? Do you need it? What happens if you don’t have it? How do you get “up” for writing when it isn’t there?

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Writing for a Brighter Day

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Paul Revere statue in Boston, MA, by sculptor Cyrus Edwin Dallin (1861–1944)

My dad loved poetry. Not the flowery kind; he preferred the kind that tells a story. Among his favorites were “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” and “The Betrothed.”

Another, which he would often recite, is “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I remember sitting in front of our fireplace as Dad began…

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Did you catch the date? It’s today, April 18.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light, —
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

And on we go. Now here’s some trivia for you. On April 18, exactly eight years after Paul Revere’s ride, George Washington issued his Proclamation for the Cessation of Hostilities, which effectively ended the war!

Although the proclamation before alluded to, extends only to the prohibition of Hostilities, and not of the annunciation, of a general peace; yet it must afford the most rational, and sincere satisfaction, to every benevolent mind. As it puts a period, to a long and doubtful test, stops the effusion of human blood, opens the prospect to a more splendid scene; and like another morning Star; promises the approach of a brighter day, than hath hitherto illuminated the Western Hemisphere—On such a happy day, a day which is the harbinger of peace, a day which completes the eighth year of the War, it would be ingratitude not to rejoice! it would be insensibility not to participate in the general felicity.

Well, it is April 18 once again, and we all know we’re living in a whirlwind right now. How should that affect how we write? I think the vast majority of the reading public desires fiction that “opens the prospect to a more splendid scene.” No matter the genre, is there hope at the end of your book? Hope that maybe we can stop an “effusion of human blood” and at least discern the “approach of a brighter day”?

Even apocalyptic fiction operates as a warning of what can come about if we don’t right the ship. And that’s a form of hopefulness.

I recall reading somewhere that Flannery O’Connor’s brutal fiction was really about “grace being offered.” When such grace is rejected, it is tragic. But the true tragic in literature is always the flip side of hope, and that’s the point. Or should be. Tragedy without the offer of grace is the pits.

So I ask this question today: do you have hope in your fiction? Does the concept occur to you as your write? Do you think it is a valid concern in our increasingly nihilistic age? Is it worth pursuing? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

And now here is JSB’s alternative version of the Longfellow poem, called “The Midnight Write of Paul Revere.”

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight write of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Twenty-one;
To follow his dream and get it done
He determined to write, and write without fear.

He said to his friend, “If the publishers fail
To take my book and give me some dough,
I’ll go and do indie and thus prevail
With ebooks, and print, and audio.
A stand-alone here, and a series there
And I at my keyboard pounding with flair
Ready to write and money collect
Through wide distribution or Kindle Select
And take all that jack by deposit direct!”

Comments are open!

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Writing in a Point of View Not Your Own

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week I wrote about hardboiled fiction and the pedigree that began with a writer named Carroll John Daly. I focused on the First-Person PI narrator.

But a hardboiled series can be told in Third Person, too. Frederick Nebel wrote a hugely popular series for Black Mask featuring police captain Steve MacBride and a reporter named Kennedy. These were done in Third-Person POV. More currently there’s a fellow named Gilstrap who writes about a guy named Grave in Third Person. Likewise Coletta’s Sheriff Niko Quintano, Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow, Odell’s Chief of Police Gordon Hepler, Viets’s Helen Hawthorne, and Burke’s Tawny Lindholm

We’ll get to P. J. Parrish in a bit.

So what POV did I choose for my series about a crime-fighting nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

I’ve written here before about the genesis of this character. How my son, who loves plays on words, said I should write about a nun who fights crime with martial arts skills. “You could call it Force of Habit.”

He smiled. I smiled. And then I said, “I think I’ll do it.”

“I was only kidding,” my son said.

“It’s a great concept,” I said. “Original, great title, and I think I can do something with it.”

That was back in 2012. Since that first novelette (about 16k words), four more followed, and quite to my delight has built a loyal following.

Now I’ve put the whole series in one collection, and added a sixth, never-before-published novelette. FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE SERIES is up for pre-pub. If you reserve your copy now you’ll lock in the $2.99 deal price (and this puppy is 90k words worth of action) before it goes to the regular price of $4.99. The titles are:

FORCE OF HABIT

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS

FORCE OF HABIT 3: NUN THE WISER

FORCE OF HABIT 4: THE NUN ALSO RISES

FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS

And for the first time anywhere: FORCE OF HABIT 6: NUN TOO SOON

Allow me just a few horn toots from verified reviews:

“This first book was so good that within minutes of reading it, I downloaded book two.”

“Action packed with both internal and external conflict, I was riveted the whole way through.”

“Sister Justicia is kicking butt and taking names! She knows how to clean up L.A. but good!”

“James Scott Bell seems to be able to put more events in a 50 page novella than you’re likely to find in some 300 page novels.”

“Highest possible recommendation! Five Stars!”

“Honestly, they need to make a TV series about Sister J.”

Now, back to the choice of POV. Having never been a nun…or a woman…I gravitated toward Third Person from the jump. That does not mean I couldn’t take a stab at First Person. Unlike some of the “wisdom” of the age, I say let a writer do what he or she will and let the market decide. I just felt more comfortable in Third.

So what about the nun-woman part? Well, friends, there’s a little thing I like to call RESEARCH. It really works! I have a friend who is a former nun, who helped me tremendously with this series. I also made contact with some Benedictine nuns online for further insight.

As for the woman part, I have the greatest research assistant of all—Mrs. B. She reads all my stuff before anyone else, and offers me invaluable editorial advice.

[And if I may be allowed a side note: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the best decision I ever made. It involved the lovely Cindy, a minister, a packed church, and me.]

Once again, here’s the link for the deal pre-order.

For those of you outside Amazon U.S., you can open to your Amazon site and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ

I will note that Michael Connelly is currently writing a series from a female Pacific Islander POV. And our own Mr. Gilstrap’s new series stars a U.S. Congresswoman who is also a single mom, both of which (if my research is accurate) John has never been.

And leave us not forget the sisters P. J. Parrish writing from the POV of one Louis Kincaid.

It can be done!

Do you agree? 

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Writing Hardboiled Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Would there be a Mike Romeo without Race Williams?

Scholars are pretty much in agreement that the first—and for a couple of decades the most popular—hardboiled series character came from the typewriter of the prolific pulp writer Carroll John Daly. His PI, Race Williams, appeared in over 70 stories and 8 novels, up until Daly’s death in 1958.

Today Race and Daly are all but forgotten, having been overshadowed by writers like Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald. I think this is a mistake. The Race Williams stories, though not on par with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Hammett’s Continental Op, are still a fun, juicy read—exactly what America was hankering for during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.

Race Williams made his debut in the December 1922 issue of Black Mask. He became the prototype of the hardboiled private eye, with these features:

  • First-person narration, with attitude
  • Lots of action
  • Cynicism
  • Dangerous dames (the femme fatale)
  • A dearth of sentimentality
  • Violence to end things, usually from a gat

It’s clear that Daly’s style and popularity influenced Chandler, who took the PI story to its heights. And because of Chandler we’ve had a long line of popular PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

Mickey Spillane, creator of arguably the hardest of the hardboileds (Mike Hammer), and at one time the bestselling author in the world, said Race Williams was his inspiration. In fact, in the mid 1950s he wrote a fan letter to Daly, who was living in obscurity in California. The letter said, in part:

Right now I’m sitting on the top of the heap with my Mike Hammer series, but though the character is original, his personality certainly isn’t. Sometimes I wonder if you’ve ever read some of the statements I’ve released when they ask me who I model my writing after. Maybe you know already. Mike and the Race Williams of the middle thirties could be twins.

Yours was the first and only style of writing that ever influenced me in any way. Race was the model for Mike; and I can’t say more in this case than imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. The public in accepting my books were in reality accepting the kind of work you have done.

Side note: this effusive praise got into the hands of Daly’s agent, who began a lawsuit against Spillane for plagiarism! When Daly found out he was incensed, and fired her. He was actually delighted with Spillane’s letter because it was the first fan letter he’d had in 25 years.

Speaking of Spillane, and his lifetime sales of around 225 million books, what explains the popularity of Mike Hammer? According to Prof. David Schmid in The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, the factors are:

  • Hammer’s absolute conviction about matters of good and evil
  • the way he keeps his promises
  • his brutally effective approach to problems and challenges
  • his impatience with the system
  • his fondness for vigilante justice

Most of these factors are baked into my own Mike Romeo series. To them I’ve added some unique elements, which is a key to writing any current hardboiled hero. You want to pay homage to the past, but you also have to make it feel new and fresh.

I look back and see a clear line of influence:

Carroll John Daly >> Raymond Chandler >> Mickey Spillane >> John D. MacDonald >> Mike Romeo

So the question of the day is: can you discern a line of influence in your own writing? How far back does it go?

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