Why I’m Writing 40s Style Pulp

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Bill Armbrewster, Hollywood Troubleshooter (Illustration by Josh Kenfield)

In the comments to last Tuesday’s post, Kris asked me about the series of pulp-style stories I’m doing for my Patreon community. It doesn’t take much prompting to get a writer to talk about his work, now does it? So here I go.

My parents were friends with one of the most prolific pulp writers of his day, W. T. Ballard (who also had several pseudonyms). I was too young to realize how cool that was. I wish I’d been aware enough to ask him some intelligent questions about writing! (I’ve blogged about Ballard before.) Fortunately, I was the recipient of many of his paperback books and a collection of his stories for Black Mask about a Hollywood troubleshooter named Bill Lennox. Lennox was like a PI, but did his work for a studio. I thought that was a nice departure from pure detective.

So I decided to create a troubleshooter of my own. The first thing I did was write up a backstory for him:

WILLIAM “WILD BILL” ARMBREWSTER was born in 1899 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up on a farm and had a troubled relationship with his father, which led to Armbrewster dropping out of high school and riding the rails as a hobo. He was nabbed by yard bulls in Chicago in 1917 and given a choice: go to jail or join the Marines. He chose the Marines and saw action in France during World War I, most notably at the Battle of Belleau Wood, for which he won the Silver Star. After the war he took up residence in Los Angeles and drove a delivery van for the Broadway Department Store. At night he worked on stories for the pulp magazines, gathering a trunk full of rejection letters.

In 1923 a chance meeting with Dashiell Hammett in a Hollywood haberdashery led to a lifelong friendship between the two. Hammett asked to see one of Armbrewster’s stories, liked it, and personally recommended it to George W. Sutton, editor of Black Mask. The story, for which Armbrewster received $15, was “Murder in the Yard.” After that Armbrewster became a staple of the pulps and was never out print again. Between 1923 and 1940 he averaged a million words a year.

In 1941, after the outbreak of World War II, Armbrewster tried to re-enlist but was turned down due to his age. Instead he went to work for National-Consolidated Pictures, writing short films to inspire the troops. When one of the studio’s young stars was the victim of blackmail, Armbrewster tracked down the perpetrator and dragged him to the Hollywood Police Station. Morton Milder, head of the studio, immediately put Armbrewster on retainer as a troubleshooter.

Known as the man with the red-hot typewriter, Armbrewster wrote many of his stories at a corner table at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. He was granted this favor by the owners, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day (some Armbrewster scholars believe he rescued the daughter of one of the owners from a sexual assault under the 3d Street bridge).

He Lives at the Alto-Nido apartment building, 1851 N. Ivar Avenue, Hollywood.

What is it that I love about pulp writing? Part of it is what Kris called “the streamlined locomotive style.” These stories move. There’s no time for fluff or meandering. Pulp stories were entertainments for people who needed some good old-fashioned escapism from time to time. (That hasn’t change, has it?)

There was also a nobility to the best pulp characters. They had a professional code. Even the most cynical of the lot, Sam Spade, throws over the woman he loves because, “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

I have set my Armbrewster stories in post-war Los Angeles. What a noir town it was then, full of sunlight and shadow, dreamers and drifters, cops and conmen. And, of course, Hollywood.

I’ve now done four Armbrewster stories (which run between 7k-10k words). The fifth is due to be published soon. They aren’t published anywhere but on Patreon, so if you’d like read them you can jump aboard my fiction train for just a couple of berries ($2 in pulp lingo). Go here to find out more.

And thank you, Kris, for asking.

Is there a particular style of writing you warm to? What books or authors do you turn to for pure escapism?

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Why I Love Going Back in Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m about to begin a series of short stories featuring a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s, as part of my Patreon project (see “Escapism Rocks!” from a couple of weeks ago). Technically, this qualifies as historical fiction, and I find something very comforting about the genre, namely: things don’t change!

With contemporary thrillers, you have to keep up with technology, forensics, communications, law, weapons and so on—knowing there’s always the possibility that some radical innovation that would solve one of your plot problems may occur between the time you finish your manuscript and when it hits a bookstore shelf!

Further, a reference you make to contemporary culture might be turned on its head shortly after your book appears. I recall a thriller from the mid-90s that made favorable references to one O. J. Simpson. The book had been out only a few months when Simpson was arrested for those brutal murders.

With historical fiction, everything like that is frozen. You can concentrate on the story. And best of all, you’re free to choose a period you love. Which is what I did twenty years ago.

Contemporary legal thrillers were hot then, and it seemed like every lawyer and retired judge was writing one. I’d done a couple myself, but wanted to find a market distinction. So I came up with the idea of mixing legal thriller with historical. And I had the perfect setting, too, one virtually unexplored in fiction—turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. (For you youngsters out there, “turn-of-the-century” refers to 1900, not 2000!) L.A. was in transition then, growing up into a major city. It was an exciting time for the practice of law. The man whom many consider the greatest trial lawyer of all time—Earl Rogers—had recently hung his shingle. And women were just beginning to be allowed in the courtroom.

So, I thought, what if we went back to 1903 and a young woman arrives in Los Angeles determined to become a trial lawyer? That became the genesis of a six-book series called The Trials of Kit Shannon.

I loved doing the research for that series, most of it in the bowels of the downtown Los Angeles library going over microfiche of the Times and the Hearst-owned Examiner. I got so into the research that I began to have dreams I was walking along on the sidewalks of 1903 L.A., passing women in their dresses and hats, hearing the ding of a trolley bell, catching a whiff of the corner cigar stand.

Another L.A. period I love is 1945 to 1955, the classic decade of film noir. America had won the war and was strutting her stuff, building the most powerful nation on Earth. Babies were booming. But the criminal element, always crawling along the underbelly of society, was also hard at work in areas like vice, bunco, murder, and police and political corruption. What’s not to like?

My folks had a family friend who was one of the steady pulp writers for Black Mask, W. T. Ballard (I profiled him for TKZ here). He had a series character named Bill Lennox, a “Hollywood troubleshooter” who worked for a studio getting stars and other associated folk out of sticky situations—like murder raps.

So I decided to create my own series featuring a Hollywood troubleshooter, written in the classic hardboiled style I love (Chandler, Hammett, etc.) The first story in this series, “Blonde Bombshell,” is set to appear on June 1. These stories are exclusively for my patrons on Patreon. (The details can be found here.)

Here’s a preview:

So…for you historical fiction authors out there, why did you select the particular period of which you write?  

For the rest of you, if you were ever to write a historical, what period would you choose, and why?

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This is What a Professional Writer Looks Like

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My parents were friends with Todhunter Ballard, a pulp writer from the classic age of Black Mask, Dime Detective and so many others. Later he went on to write paperback Westerns and a number of scripts for TV.

This is called having a career as a professional writer.

Willis Todhunter Ballard was born in Ohio in 1903. By the mid-1920s he’d landed a job with the Brush-Moore chain of Midwestern newspapers. It was not a happy experience. “In eight months I was fired at least eight times,” he told an interviewer. “Besides arguments with the printers, I had them with the old battle-axe who ran the front office. She had been secretary to the Brush boys’ father and considered that she owned the company more than the boys did. It became a routine. She would call me in and fire me, but before I could clear out my desk one or other brother would show up from Europe and rehire me. This went on until one time no one appeared and I stayed fired.”

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Ballard tried to find work in the East, to no avail. So he headed for Hollywood where “at least it was warm for sleeping on park benches.” A chance meeting led to some studio writing work, but the gig didn’t last.

One day Ballard went to the movies and saw The Maltese Falcon. Not the later Bogart version, but the original filmed in 1931. He was blown away by the Hammett dialogue and felt it “sounded the way I thought criminals and detectives should talk. It rang true, the way I wanted mine to do.”

On his way home from the movie, Ballard came up with a series character idea to propose to the famous pulp magazine Black Mask (which had made Hammett famous and would later do the same for Raymond Chandler). Using a friend who worked at Universal as a model, Ballard conceived Bill Lennox, a studio “troubleshooter.” He sat down at a typewriter at midnight and by five in the morning had pounded out ten thousand words. At seven-thirty he put the manuscript in the mail and promptly went to bed.

A week later he got a check from Black Mask, and his career as a pulp writer took off.

In those days, to make any kind of a living (at a penny a word) you had to be good and you had to be fast. Ballard was both. He treated writing, first and foremost, as a job. It was putting eggs and milk on the table. There was no time to lie back on a sofa and sip sherry, waxing poetic about theories of art.

I have a box of Ballard’s books and stories handed down to me by his sister-in-law. In addition to his noir mysteries and paperback originals (as W. T. Ballard), he wrote Westerns (as Todhunter Ballard and under numerous pseudonyms like Jack Slade and Clint Reno).

In this maturing age of digital self-publishing,I often think of Ballard. Back when things were really taking off, 2009 – 2010 or so, I likened it to a new pulp era, meaning that if you are good, fast, and treat it like a job, you have the chance to make some real dough.

Here’s a bit more of the interview referenced above. Take particular note of the last answer:

Would you tell us something about the lifestyle of a pulp writer living in L.A. during the thirties and forties?

We all worked hard, played hard, lived modestly, drank, but only a few to excess, gambled some when we had extra cash. Most of our friends were other writers. In the Depression when any of us got a check he climbed in his jalopy and made the rounds to see who was in worse straits than he and loaned up to half what he had just received.

What was your yearly average word output for the pulps?

My files are at the University of Oregon library, but a shotgun guess would be about or over a million words per year.

Would you tell us something about your work habits both then and now?

I tried to do about ten pages a day after that first Black Mask flush, sometimes more, sometimes less. I tried to work regularly, something every day even if I later threw it away. These days my wife, Phoebe, does the typing since I’m a lousy typist and in so doing edits the copy. I seldom objected to requests for rewrite but sometimes stood my ground. A late example is a western called Sheriff of Tombstone. Both my agent and my Doubleday editor, Harold Kuebler, held their noses at the first submission and Harold only accepted the altered copy grudgingly. Both let me know in no uncertain terms that they considered it a bad work. It has outsold all my more recent books and is rated second from the top of the list in Western Writers of America’s scoring for the last year.

How about the marketing of pulp fiction? I’ve heard that many of the magazines (such as Frank Armer’s) were closed to most freelancers. Was this a widespread practice?

How did we market pulp fiction? Like selling any other commodity. No magazine I remember was tightly closed to submissions, although a couple of them were written entirely by one or two men for long stretches. It was largely governed by how lazy the editors were, how much they were willing to read.

Frank Armer was no worse than others, but his editor’s were crooked. They were pulling old copy out of the files, slapping a current writer’s name on as author, and drawing checks to the new names, cashing them themselves at the bar on the corner. Bob Bellem and I combined to send them to Sing Sing for five years each. We discovered the ploy after I received a notice from the IRS that I had failed to report $35,000 paid me by Armer Publications. Since I had sold them no copy for that year I checked with Bob. He had sold to them but he was being charged with not reporting twice what he had been paid. We contacted Frank, then blew the whistle.

For nearly fifty years you’ve remained popular to a most precarious profession while other careers have come and gone. To what do you attribute this staying power? Would you share some of your views on the writing business with us?

My views on writing as a business? That it is not much different from any other. You have to keep swinging, rolling with the punches, keep alert and attuned to the changes that take place suddenly or gradually, but always constantly.

JSB: And that, friends, is what a professional writer looks like. Keeping productive, taking a business-like approach. I wrote a whole book on this subject, so I know the fundamentals have not changed since Tod Ballard’s days.

The question for today is, do you look like a professional writer yourself? No matter where you are on the charts, being a pro is always the best course for the future.

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