Ideas are everywhere in real life. Here are some of the ones that made it into my books:

SPECTRE BLACKSpectre Black book cover

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 LAKEj-carson-black-new-york-times-best-selling-thriller-author

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. Cry Wolf by Thriller writer J. Carson Black

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

Charles Schmid

Charles Schmid

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.

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town Spectre Black

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.

culvert

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.
culvert and road
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

1. I lived in Bisbee. Why is that important? Because one day a lawyer friend who lived in the apartment next to us introduced us to another lawyer friend—her name was Laura Cardinal. The moment I met her, the first words out of my mouth were, “If I ever write a female detective, I’m calling her Laura Cardinal.” I had no idea at the time that the fictional Laura Cardinal would come to life in three novels, The Laura Cardinal Novels, and two novellas, Cry Wolf and Flight 12.

Laura Cardinal is now the presiding judge of Cochise County.

2. I had the help from some wonderful TPD and DPS guys. A dear friend, John Cheek, suggested I write about a very difficult subject: child depredation. It was important to let parents know how bad it was—how kids could be lured on the internet. And let me tell you, the idea of writing such a story scared the hell out of me. As the Wicked Witch of the West would say, it had to be done “delicately.”

3. I think I managed to reach that bar. The story is harrowing, but over the years, I’ve learned how to write with mercy. By that I mean, the dead at the beginning of a book are fair game. You just have to be very careful moving forward. Especially when it comes to children and animals. There are plenty of bad guys to kill.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town by Thriller Author J. Carson Black

Darkness on the Edge of Town is the first book in The Laura Cardinal Series.


4. Darkness on the Edge of Town was the book that made me the writer I am today. It was a personal best.

5. I spent a lot of time preparing for this Laura Cardinal book, the first in The Laura Cardinal Novels. I even dredged up some scary stuff from my childhood in Tucson. I learned a lot from the good people at the Department of Public Safety. I learned that a detective with the Department of Public Safety could assist on homicide investigations anywhere in the state—which would always cause problems. Laura Cardinal would be an outsider and treated as such. Without him, I don’t know if there would be The Laura Cardinal Novels.cover of The Laura Cardinal Novels

6. I tried to be fair and make the story real, but I did not GO THERE. I went close, but I DID NOT GO THERE. I came close to the edge, but there has to be some trust between the writer and the reader, and I did not break that trust. I got them as close as I could to the danger, but I did not cross that line.

7. But the story is harrowing. It even scares ME.

8. I drew on a few terrifying stories from my own past in my town. Tucson was predated upon by an evil home-grown killer, Charles Schmid. He killed three young girls.

creepy car, 1955 Chevy Bel Air

A creepy car, 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air


9. Another time, I was chased by a guy in an old orange 1950s car. I was fourteen. I wrote it down, of course. That’s the way I roll. I found it when I was coming up with this book, that obviously has deep meaning to me. The guy was scary as hell and chased me for blocks, right out of a horror movie, coming up one street and down the other in his crappy old car. I was so scared, because even running up to one of the houses and knocking would have taken too much time. I was lucky that I knew the neighborhood, and one of my best friends happened to be outside watering when I reached their house. The bad guy drove away.

10. So yes, I have the imagination, but I keep a lid on it. I try to be truthful but not delve too deep. However, everyone has their own depth, everyone has their own fears, everyone has that line that they will not cross.

You can read all three novels of the Laura Cardinal series in The Laura Cardinal Novels, a 3-in-1 edition, now on sale for $0.99 through June 6, 2016 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

Categories: Books Laura Cardinal The Laura Cardinal Novels

The FREEDOM ON-THE-MOVE tactical surveillance system

The FREEDOM ON-THE-MOVE tactical surveillance system

You never know when you’ll find something that will not just fit into a story, but might GIVE you one. One night, a number of people from Start Up Tucson were gathered at an open-air bar in downtown. Start up Tucson is a non-profit organization that fosters entrepreneurial ventures. I was sitting with one of the staff, Greg Teesdale, under a summer moon, and he told me a story that intrigued me.

He described a ride-along with the sheriff’s office and a Tucson company called Strongwatch. On that particular night, police used a Strongwatch vehicle to patrol a desert area down near the U.S./Mexico border, looking for border crossers or drug runners. The vehicle had a unique selling point: an infrared camera that goes up on a telescoping pole that could catch movement in the darkness of the desert. People, animals, any living creature that could be seen in the dark.

Union Pacific Train, Pantano Arizona

Union Pacific Train, Pantano Arizona

He told me how bad guys robbed freight trains. This kind of train robbery is sneaky, smart, and oftentimes the engineer has no idea that part of his train has been decoupled–hijacked–left behind in the desert where the bad guys could crack it open like a tin can and get away with the contents. A slick train robbery.

My author wheel started turning. I knew this would be a great beginning to a crime fiction thriller. And so I took some notes and set up the scene. I found a great character in detective and sharpshooter Samantha Stark, put her on the board, and started the story with a train robbery.

Categories: Books Samantha Stark The Writing Life

In The Devil’s Hour, Laura Cardinal finds herself enmeshed in a cold case—a very cold case. A young girl went missing many years before, then surfaced as a young adult. She returned to her family, but she was a very different person from the child who disappeared.

Department of Public Safety detective, Laura Cardinal, meanwhile, was looking into a string of cold cases regarding missing and dead girls. Back at the time of Micaela Brashear’s disappearance, two other girls had gone missing and were found dead. Did the same killer take all of the girls? And if so, how did Micaela survive?
The Devil's Hour
Detective Laura Cardinal wondered how Micaela had survived such horrific circumstances.

Now, a similar story has turned up in real life. Richard Wayne Landers Jr. was only five years old when he disappeared. He turned up nineteen years later, living in Minnesota under another name. Cases like this inspired me to write The Devil’s Hour.

Did his grandparents spirit him away from his family? They were prosecuted on a felony charge of kidnapping, but the charge was dropped due to lack of evidence. Nineteen years later, Richard Wayne Landers was found in Long Prairie, Minnesota. How was he found? Through his Social Security number and matching birthdate.

The question that intrigues me most: how was the path taken different from the path that young man walked as a child? How did that bear on the personality of the man he had become?

Regarding the return of Michaela Brashear—and the other girls who were killed around the time she disappeared–you’ll just have to read The Devil’s Hour to find out how it ends. A story ripped from the headlines.

Categories: Laura Cardinal The Devil's Hour

Last time, I talked about dialogue.

To be successful (if you’re writing a genre book), the dialogue should sound real. And by “real,” I mean real for your genre. Dialogue approximates speech, and different genres cater to their own audience, and that audience is attuned to words and phrases and style that belong specifically to that genre. Unconsciously, a reader checks off a few boxes that are important to them. Does the book sound like other books in the genre? Readers like familiarity, which is why they favor one genre over another.

In fact, the best way for your book to find an audience is to place that book solidly in a genre.

There are different requirements for narrative and dialogue. Fantasy has a lot of description–it describes a world. Fantasy can be flowery and polite. Crime fiction is more to the point. Thrillers are most often driven by a strong narrative.
street scene narrative
Good narrative is a like a swift-moving river that carries you along.

Every time you choose to slow down for dialogue, everything slows down.

Dialogue pinpoints something important. This is where the rubber meets the road. People facing off, talking to each other. Revelations come from dialogue.

But a book that is mostly dialogue may leave the reader feeling logy, as if they’re been eating a big meal and are being force-fed another. Dialogue spotlights important scenes, but narrative is the swift river that carries you along. You need narrative and dialogue, and you can see the demands of each genre in the better authors in those genres.

I used to write books heavy with dialogue. My books were a lot longer then. Dialogue takes up a lot of space. As I started to write thrillers, I learned to use narrative more and more, because narrative can cover so much ground. GOOD narrative can carry you a long distance. And then comes the roadblock, when you bring it down to something that signals real importance: dialogue.

You need both. By reading the best authors in your genre, you will get the rhythm of their writing–the choices they make regarding narrative and dialogue.

Categories: Writing

Different kinds of books have different kinds of dialogue. There’s a shorthand to dialogue that sends a message to the reader that this is the kind of book they want to read. They vary according to the kind of book you’re writing. Romance is different from fantasy and fantasy is different from crime fiction, and crime fiction is different from thriller. In the writing, they all signal what kind of story it will be.

But there is one basic rule that spans all genres. Dialogue has to make you think you’re looking in on a conversation in real time. It has to be real.

How do you make it real? Listening to people talk will help.
Two people having a dialogue

Less is more, unless you’re in a genre where the dialogue is more flowery. (This could be due to the time period.)

I have a few rules of my own for the kind of dialogue I write, which can vary slightly between genres.

Here’s one I keep at the front of my mind when I’m writing dialogue: Less is More. When people talk to one another, they usually don’t make big speeches.

Kind of like this:

“You going to the store?”
“Why?”
“Would it kill you just to say yes or no? Just this once?”

Three lines, no attributions, and you can tell that one person is miffed at the other.

One thing that helps dialogue is getting rid of almost all of the attributions to each person talking. Those attributions slow down the reader:

“I love you,” he said softly.
“And I love you,” she replied coquettishly.
“Are you just toying with me?” he asked dubiously.
“No,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “I mean it,” she added.
“Sometimes, I feel left out of your life,” he ground out.

All those attributions do is bore the reader. There’s no flow there.

(This also depends on the kind of book you’re writing. The best romances know how to move the dialogue, so that you flow through the story, not get slowed down by attributions.)

The fewer attributions, the better. And if you need an attribution, use “he said” or “she said.” Or sometimes, “Asked.” These are virtually invisible. Sometimes you have a long dialogue and it’s good to stick in a “he said” or a “she said” because it improves the rhythm. What you want is seamless dialogue that sounds real.

Like this:

“So what were you doing there? You were at the lake. We can put you there, so don’t bullshit me.”
“I told you, this is all a big mistake!”
“That’s not what the guy at Ron’s Boat Rentals said. You know, the guy with the gray ponytail who rents the boats out there?”
Darrell shook his head.
“Okay, then. What’s this?” Jerry flashed the boat rental agreement in front of Darrell Tevis’s eyes. “Now what do you have to say?”
The man’s face shut down. One minute he was arguing, and the next, he was gone.
“I want my lawyer,” he said.

Categories: Writing

If you look at my floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, you will see a lot of journals, spine out. They’re easy to find. I pick mine up at Ross Dress for Less—they usually have some hardbound journals, many of them very beautiful. (My current one is embossed with a peacock).Peacock journal for writing in longhand

Most important, though, they have ruled pages where I can write my thoughts. When I start a new book, I always go there, past the inexpensive clothes, past the purses, past the boots, past the toilet articles, and find that special shelf where they (sometimes) sell journals.

Why I’m bringing this up? I just read an article about something I already knew: writing in longhand makes you learn better. Check out this article from Business Insider.

Bottom line: it slows you down. The act of writing by hand slows you down and helps you to assimilate what you are writing.

I have always tried for a personal best. There have been breakthrough books. My first breakthrough book, Darkness on the Edge of Town, came after I did a serious self-assessment after a failed supposedly “easy to sell” mystery novel. Journal page writing in longhand

And so I talked to myself – writing in longhand. (Thanks, Dad, for bequeathing me your beautiful Palmer method writing style.) (Thanks, Mom, for bequeathing me many great things, like a love of writing, but sadly, not among them, your writing style).

I wrote in the journal, at the same time I was reading the best of the best: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, James W. Hall, T. Jefferson Parker, John Lescroart, J.A. Jance, etc. And I knew that my home was in crime fiction and crime fiction thrillers.

And so I wrote. I talked to myself. I figured out things I needed to learn from the books of the great ones. I gave myself a good talking-to, as well. It was pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps time. But mostly it was just writing in longhand and going from one place to a NEW place, just by the flow of the pen and the wandering of the mind.

Here are some examples:

“5 people who defined her. The bullies. Her friend in high school who was kidnapped. Her parents. An influential superior in the cop shop? A mentor?”

And:

“Already, I’m seeing a difference. Seeing more clearly. I’m starting at the beginning, with character, I’m thinking bigger.”

And:

“Mystic? No. Is Bob a mystic? No, he’s a Sherpa.”

And over the years, I’ve had to do that again and again to get better or explore unknown territory. That is my safe place that I can control—but also expand on. My journal for Darkness on the Edge of Town was the turning point for me as a writer.

Categories: Books Darkness on the Edge of Town The Writing Life

I have to admit a soft spot in my heart for militias and checkpoints. They are fertile ground for thrillers—not to mention, comedy.

Rolling Stone recently published an article, “The Dumb and the Restless”, poking fun at The Bundy Corral, but even they recognized there is a decidedly serious aspect to the recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Tarp Man at Bundy Corral

Tarp Man


I remember the last time the Bundys fought off the Feds, when they aimed high-powered weapons at BLM agents. They won the battle, but not the war. There were other windmills to tilt at, so they packed up the covered wagon and headed west. To Oregon.

But they did not understand one of the basic precepts of war: an army marches on its stomach.

The Bundy Corral was somewhat prepared; they even had a blue tarp to camouflage their sentry, even though he pulled it off to be interviewed on national television. Sadly, though, they forgot the key ingredient for their success as God’s Righteous Army: snacks. They were undone by a distressing lack of ham sandwiches and Doritos.

Spectre Black book cover
Long before the Bundy Corral showed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I’d decided that a modern-day militia could be kind of funny, what with their checkpoints an’ all. Here’s the beginning of a scene from Spectre Black, the third book in my Cyril Landry thriller series:

The mirage in the center of the road resolved itself into three vehicles. Three Chevy Suburbans, approximately two miles ahead. All of them dark in color, grouped near the road’s junction with a ranch road that wandered off to the right.

The checkpoint looked official, but you never knew. Landry glanced at the Heckler & Koch P2000 9 mm he’d bought online and brought with him on the plane. It lay on the seat beside him in plain sight. This was ranch country. The laws were lax, and the police wouldn’t look twice.

Something wrong here.

The Suburbans didn’t look right. One of them dated back to the nineties.

Landry noticed one of the figures—all in black—leaning against one of the Suburbans. He was the picture of inattention.

Landry knew he could handle them. He knew he could handle their friends. He would have no problem kicking their asses into next week for impersonating a police officer or worse, a member of the armed services. The question was, did he want to?

He was dressed to fit this car: the tourist T-shirt, the flip flops, the shorts, the sunglasses. The average-guy haircut. The Timex. The fast food wrapper balled up on the dash and the Big Gulp in the console cup holder.

He removed the balled-up fast food wrapper—it was from a Dairy Queen brazier in Las Cruces—uncrumpled it and laid it over the Glock—

And slowed down like a good boy.

A big guy in combat boots, a ball cap with an official-looking insignia too hard to read, a black bulletproof vest, and Army fatigues you could buy online, stepped toward him and raised his hand. He bristled with weapons—a sidearm on his hip, a rifle slung across his back. Big kid playing dress-up. Another stood nearby, a Bushmaster cradled in his arms.

Landry obliged by stopping. He buzzed down his window and looked up at the guy. His gape was excellent—sterling. He knew he looked like a cowed tourist.

The dress-up guy tipped the bill of his cap and said, “Can I see some I.D., sir?”

“May,” Landry said.

“What?”

“May I see some I.D. You can, physically, but you’re asking.”

The man stared at him.

Landry gave him a vague smile—his professor look–and tried to look clueless. He knew the guy was no cop. Not even an undercover cop. Cops were not allowed to stop people and demand their I.D. Not in any other state in the union, with the exception of Arizona.

For a moment Landry considered taking one of the guns from the fake cop and pistol-whipping him across his beefy dumb face, but decided against it. Maybe the guy was from Arizona, and didn’t know any better.

So, innocent as a lamb, he dug out his wallet and handed the man his license.

“Is there trouble, officer?”

The guy held his license and looked at it hard. “Where are you going, Mr., uh, Keeley?”

“Is there something wrong? I’m going to Branch to see my sister.”

The fake policeman looked at the license one more time. Reluctant to let it go. But when you pretend to be a cop, you have to act like one. “May I look inside your trunk, sir?”

Landry pulled the latch and the trunk popped open.

The guy stood there for a few minutes behind the car. Landry watched him in the rearview. The guy raised the trunk lid for a quick look and pushed it shut again–

Which was a good thing for him.

The duffle in the trunk was Landry’s “run bag”—a bag packed for him to grab up at a moment’s notice. He kept it in his closet, packed with the basics. The run bag contained shampoo, bath soap, pain meds, first aid, an extra phone battery, a suit and a dress shirt laid out and folded neatly, dress shoes and socks, work boots, jeans, a baseball cap, and an emergency medical kit. It also carried twist-tie plastic cuffs and loaded magazines.

One reason he rarely flew commercial.

Landry heard the crackle of the walkie-talkie. The man was talking into it, wandering this way and that behind the car. For entertainment, Landry studied the two people leaning against the bumper of one of the Suburbans, a short squat woman and a stringbean man, both dressed in paramilitary outfits and black Kevlar bullet-proof vests. The bullet-proof vests were decorated with velcroed epaulets—a nice touch—and the camo pants contained plenty of pockets for their lip balm and breath mints. Someone had a mom who liked to sew. Landry thought it must be hot as hell in those vests, but if you want to play cops and robbers, it’s the price you pay. Landry also got a closer look at the two black Suburbans and the one navy Suburban. All of them had a lot of miles on them, especially the one that was mid-nineties vintage. The others were in the right decade but dusty and dented.

The first man came back around to the driver’s side window. “You may go, sir,” he said, just as a walkie-talkie crackled on the hip of the fake policewoman.

Landry sat there, his hands on the steering wheel, ten and two.

You have no fucking idea how lucky you are.

The guy had expected Landry to drive off. Now he was discombobulated. He wiped at the sweat on his cheek and said, “That a tennis racquet in your trunk? Guess you’re a tennis player, huh?”

“Just an amateur,” Landry said. “But it’s fun.”

The guy fumbled for words. Finally he said, “Good job.”

He stepped back.

Landry drove on his way.

Categories: Cyril Landry Spectre Black

The first book I ever wrote was a horror novel. Darkscope was inspired by Stephen King’s books, which I’d been reading for years. I can still remember going to the library, picking up The Shining, and driving home with the book on the seat beside me—the anticipation I felt. I’d waited for months to get my hands on that book.

And I wanted to write a novel—set in Bisbee. Because I loved Stephen King and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz, I aimed for a horror novel. It took me a year to write and three years to sell, but at the end of that time, I had Dark Country — which, after it sold to Zebra Books, became Darkscope.

Buick Hearse

After seeing this car, I’m tempted to write another horror novel.

Here’s why:

For our wedding anniversary, Glenn and I reserved an old travel trailer, a 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion, at The Shady Dell campground in Bisbee, Arizona. It was October, two days before Halloween, and the weather was cold and gray.

Buick Hearse

Both of us couldn’t fit on the same pull-out bed, so we had to sleep separately (some “Happy Anniversary”).

Not only that, but I was scared.

In the evening, before going out to dinner, we’d walked up on the hill above the Shady Dell, under the cold lowering clouds. The owners had some old stuff up there that they would use for the campground, like those old iron chairs from the forties.

But up on the hill, we saw—

Buick Hearse

Okay, best way to describe it? Jackson Pollock could have painted the thing on his worst day. The old hearse looked as if it had been stretched longer than it should have been. When we peered through the window at the long bed, we saw three petrified pigeon corpses.

I have never been the type who gets scared by this kind of stuff, but I was scared then. The thing just grabbed hold of my imagination, and I could see it driving down the hill and cruising through the little Shady Dell campground, looking for us — a la Christine.

So I didn’t sleep well. One ear was tuned to the sound of an engine. It would have that big old car growl, punctuated by misfiring cylinders.

We made it to the next day. The sun was out. We took a walk alongside a line of trees delineating the campground from its neighbor. It didn’t help that the neighboring property was Evergreen Cemetery, known as the Bisbee city cemetery. Darkscope is a ghost story with scenes I set in that very cemetery.

Buick Hearse

Of course.

The trees were like saplings, all of them very close together like a fence, and they were matted with vines. And an odd thing happened. Something—a small animal, screened by leaves, ran up one of the trees. Maybe it was rat. Maybe it was a squirrel. Maybe it was a mutation of a rat or a squirrel. There was something odd about its movement and how fast it zipped up through the leaves—so fast it promptly disappeared.

I didn’t need a witch doctor to tell me it was just more bad mojo.

Ever since, the story has stuck to the back of my mind. I’ve written a book and a novella since then, but it keeps coming back.

Like reflux.

Like a reflux-colored car hellbent on finding an unwary victim to lay bare, engine growling, tires squealing, bumper crumpling.

Categories: Darkscope Writing