Posts Tagged: writing

People ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

To write a novel, you need a whole grab bag full of potential ideas, because you are about to embark on a long journey. Or, put another way, you’re dealing with a machine that has many separate and working parts. I am sure there are novels about one thing, but even that one thing has several facets. Otherwise, there would be nothing for the reader to follow. No Superhighway, no meandering scenic route, nor even bread crumbs.

So where do I get my ideas? I try to come up with some sort of theme for the story. Often, it’s fuzzy and I have to fill in the blanks. For The Survivors Club, I lighted on the idea of a family of adult children who were bad to the bone. Pure, unadulterated evil.

Ruby building

A ruined building in the ghost town of Ruby, Arizona

I had to kill a man to start the story off, and I wanted the right place for it. I decided a ghost town would be pretty darn cool. I’d been to a few, but one stood out. A few years before, I’d taken a tour of the ghost town of Ruby, perched on the border between Arizona and Mexico. I took a few photos, heard a few stories, roamed through a few ruined buildings.
Ruby building

Old, weathered building in Ruby Arizona

Fast-forward to killing the guy in my book. I had the perfect place. I changed the name of the town to Credo, and moved the furniture around a bit.

And Tess McCrae had her homicide case.

Mining facilities in Ruby

Mining facilities in Ruby

From The Survivors Club:

Chapter 5

They split up. Danny would be testifying at a homicide trial just before lunch, and would probably be gone for most of the day.

Tess followed Ruby Road to the end of the blacktop and her plain-wrap Tahoe clunked over the washboard road. It was a long, bone-jarring drive.

This was Border Patrol Country. It was rare for Santa Cruz County to send anyone out here—certainly not on patrol. She was alone.

She passed the gate to the ghost town of Credo on the left. The gate was a continuation of wire fence. A wire loop held the gate post and fence post together. The ranch gate could be unlooped and dragged across the road to make way for cars.

Tess noticed a van from the Medical Examiner inside the fence. She decided to come back when they were gone. When she went back to the crime scene she wanted quiet and a chance to think. She drove around the bend and up another hill.

Around another bend there would be a couple of trailers and an even more primitive camp.

Tess slowed at the sight of an old travel trailer backed into a rocky hill. It sat on a spur off an old ranch lane.

Thirty yards beyond the trailer, where the road bottomed out in the streambed, a couple of tree-limb posts were strung with two strands of wire across the wash. Tess noticed that tin cans had been stuck on top of the limbs, and they’d been shot to pieces.

The travel trailer was shaded by a camo tarp. The sixties seemed to be a theme here: a faded Game & Fish truck, pale green, stood out front, the emblem painted over. A campfire ring and a makeshift table made out of scrapwood kept a cheap kitchen chair company under the tarp.

There was a stake and a chain, too–for a dog.

She had a bad feeling about this, partly because of the way the place looked, but also because of Danny’s Bladerunner comment.

Categories: The Survivors Club Writing

When I came up with Arizona Department of Public Safety homicide detective Laura Cardinal, it was like setting up a train set built to my specifications. I put her in a beautiful place—a ranch outside Tucson. After some research, I decided to make her a DPS detective, because she could go anywhere in the state of Arizona to assist on difficult homicides.

This made her an outsider, which meant plenty of tension with the locals every time she went to a crime scene out of town. I already had a story in mind. So I was ready to rock ‘n roll but then I had to do one thing: I had to start writing the darn thing.

So I did. But as I started typing—

THIS happened:

“Francis X. Entwistle showed up in Laura Cardinal’s bedroom at three in the morning, looking war-weary.”

WHAT? Who was THIS guy?

Turns out that Francis X. Entwistle was a ghost. Furthermore, he was the ghost of her former partner on the homicide desk. And he was there to warn her that “A bad one’s coming.”

Peg Entwistle photo

Actress Peg Entwistle

I’d already decided that Laura would have a crusty old detective for a partner. I just didn’t know he’d show up in her bedroom in the first sentence on the first page—as her DEAD partner. I’d just met Laura Cardinal’s sidekick.
Hollywoodland sign

Hollywoodland, before it was Hollywood.

I should have known he’d have spooky underpinnings, though. When I chose his name, I wanted something a little bit spooky, so I thought of the sad story of a young aspiring actress in the 1930s named Peg Entwistle. Peg Entwistle wanted a career in movies, but Hollywood was unkind to starlets, even then.

On September 18, 1932, a female hiker discovered a woman’s shoe, jacket, and purse at the base of the Hollywood Sign (at the time, the letters spelled HOLLYWOODLAND). The woman found a suicide note inside the purse. She looked down and saw twenty-four-year-old Peg Entwistle, sprawled on the rocks and brush below.

(Reverse POV: woman above clapping both hands to her cheeks and screaming)

It was a memorable and spooky story, and I was in a spooky mood, so I named Jolie’s sidekick, homicide desk partner Frank Entwistle, after Peg.

No wonder he turned up as a ghost.

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town Laura Cardinal Writing

Years ago when I was in between books (in fact, I think I’d given up on fiction for a time and spent my days writing magazine articles for actual money), I was sent by Tucson Guide Quarterly to Colossal Cave and La Posta Quemada in the desert east of Tucson.

La Posta Quemada used to be a stage stop and postal station back in late 1800s. Sadly, it acquired the name after the daughter of the station master died in a fire. La Posta Quemada in Spanish means “Burnt Post.”

The area’s past ostensibly includes a gold robbery. Legend has it the robbers cached their stash of gold in a cave. The cave itself was discovered (sans gold?) by Solomon Lick in 1879.

I can vouch for the fact that the cave is really cool beans—and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the thirties fixed it up and helped make it a wonderful tourist attraction. Now Colossal Cave Mountain Park is under the aegis of Pima County. It is also a home to bats, a very good thing for the area.

Laura's Cardinal's home at La Posta Quemada

Laura’s Cardinal’s home at La Posta Quemada

I fell in love with the ranch, and realized that Laura Cardinal would just have to live there. This required research—-of sorts. I spent time just soaking up the ambience that spring, down in the shallow mesquite-canopied valley, which was green with six-weeks grass, swapping stories on the porch with the women who ran the shop. I knew I’d found Laura Cardinal’s house, the first and most important piece of the puzzle. And so I put her in the house and gave her a home. I even blew up some stuff there (fictionally).

So my time off from book writing led me to Colossal Cave, which in turn led me to the ranch, just at the time I was ready to write another book.

So, thank you, Colossal Cave and La Posta Quemada. You will always have a special place in my heart.

Categories: Laura Cardinal Writing

When I wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town, I incorporated some of my own childhood and young adulthood years in the story. I tapped into the memory of the somnolent farms along the Rillito River. (Now gone, replaced by a complex of medical buildings, banks, and shops.)

Speedway Boulevard, Tucson Arizona. The Ugliest Street in America.

Speedway Boulevard in Tucson–“The Ugliest Street in America”–as featured in Life magazine, 1970.

I tapped into another time and brought it into the present.

I also resurrected a homegrown loser named Charles Schmid—the boogeyman of Tucson.

Schmid might as well have been born with the word LOSER stamped on his forehead. He thought he was hell with the ladies, but he was insecure, too. He slipped smashed-flat beer cans into his caballero boots to make him seem taller.

Schmid decided he wanted to kill girls to see what it was like. And stupid is as stupid does: he targeted girls he knew.

He killed three teenaged girls.

A few years later, I met the surviving family of two of the victims and their youngest girl. This was at Cottonwood Farm where we both had riding lessons. And there they were, this family that had lost two daughters, carrying on, moving forward, loving and appreciating the daughter they had.

Charles Schmid

Charles Schmid

My mother wrote. She kept clippings on Schmid’s tragic crime spree and prepared to write about it, but ultimately, she couldn’t. I remember the chill it gave all parents, who kept their kids indoors or watched us with an eagle eye in the aftermath of the murders.

As I was preparing to write Darkness on the Edge of Town, I took a look at my mom’s clippings—and another puzzle piece clicked in to the story I was writing.

Old stories, unearthed and dusted off. And changed.

I was, and still am, haunted by the yellowed clippings about Charles Schmid, the preening loser who managed to destroy the lives of good people. I have always felt that homicide cops—the good ones—try to make some sense of the death if they can for the families. People are meaning-making machines and they need something to hang their hat on, no matter how tenuous. Some comfort, no matter how inadequate, for the stunned and bleeding families.

Like DPS detective Laura Cardinal in Darkness on the Edge of Town, they can’t fix the insult to injury, the deep injury. All they can do is catch the guy—

And make him pay.

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town Laura Cardinal Writing

One day when I was fourteen, two of my friends and I walked to a riding stable. On the way back, we got into a fight. I huffed off and shall we say, “went in another direction.” Literally. A friend of mine lived in a housing division near the desert along lonely Pima Street. Walking by myself, I didn’t notice the creepy old car until I heard it pull up on the side of the road behind me.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I was walking down Pima after turning off Wilmot. An orange (dull reddish orange) and white 1955 Ford pulled off the road directly behind me. Being in a venomous state of mind and rather nervous, I started running, because I didn’t care for the look of the occupant of the vehicle. I took to the desert, which I thought would give me more of a chance than the roadside, dodging brush, scrambling through gullies. I was very sure-footed when I needed to be.”

Note the English syntax. My mother came from England, and I must have adopted that somewhere along the line. I went on, “My heart collapsed.” “I’d thought I’d seen the last of the car…” “I starting running again, a wild animal in the desert.”

What happened: the car followed me as I ran into the subdivision. Every street I hit, the guy would turn the corner and I could see the front of the ugly old car creeping toward me. No one was outside. I didn’t have time to run up to the houses to ring doorbells. The car kept dogging me. The creepy guy looking… really creepy. I headed for a friend’s house in the neighborhood, and luckily, my friend and her mom were out front watering.

The car sped off.

creepy car, 1955 Chevy Bel Air

A creepy car, 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

Fast-forward to the more recent past. When I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town (having lost the English accent by then), the car came back, now a 1955 orange-over-white Chevy Bel Air. This was because I hadn’t yet found the creepy little story I’d written all those years ago, and that’s what I thought it was. And this time, the victim in the story wasn’t so lucky.

Here’s a short little bit of a small newspaper article I put in the story:


“A hiker named Jerry Lee noticed an old car that had rolled down an embankment into the brush and cactus. He bushwhacked down to the car, a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, and was shocked by what he found. The backseat of the old car was covered with blood.”

What’s good about personal experience if you can’t use it?


(Photo:  Flickr – DVS1mn – “55 Chevrolet Bel Air (19)” by Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA – 55 Chevrolet Bel Air. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town Writing

In 2002, I’d sold a bunch of books, ranging from a ghost story (Darkscope, my first book) to suspense books to historical romance.

But I was starting to read the authors who did so much more with their books, and these books were in crime fiction and police procedural.

Their excellent work encouraged me to raise my game. I knew that I wanted to write books like that, and decided to write a police procedural. I called a friend of mine, former Tucson Police Department officer John Cheek—one of the smartest people I know. John introduced me to a friend of his who was on a TPD task force focused on Internet predators.

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.

They sat me down and told me how important they thought it was that I could spread the word about the danger to kids on the Internet. I felt a bit queasy—it was not a subject I wanted to think about. Now this was 2002, and the Internet was very different thing from the way it is now. Now, it’s probably ten to fifteen times as dangerous for kids.

I thought about it. A story started to form. Maybe this would raise my game. They would give me all the help I’d need. It was important to them. And then it became important to me.

I started the book in one of my favorite places: Bisbee, Arizona. I looked and looked for a title and then one day I heard a passing reference to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was the perfect title for this book.

And so I worked my way through it. I needed a detective, which was how I found my character Laura Cardinal. My friends suggested I put her not with the TPD, but make her a detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety—the state police. One reason for this: she would have to deal with more adversity. The DPS can send their detectives anywhere in the state to “assist” local authorities who don’t have the resources themselves. And so Laura Cardinal hotfooted it down to Bisbee, Arizona.

A dead girl had been found propped up in the city park bandshell, dressed like a little girl instead of the teenager she was. And Laura had to find the killer before he killed again.

Darkness on the Edge of Town bandshell in Bisbee

City Park bandshell in Bisbee, Arizona

It was a hard book to write. I knew I had to walk a line. I had to stick to the truth and to the danger of these terrible things, but at the same time, I did not want to write such a horrible story people would be turned off—and rightfully so.

I think I was able to thread that needle. In 2004, Darkness on the Edge of Town was nominated for the Daphne Du Maurier Award.

That book changed a lot for me. I became a much better writer as I wrote it. Books are like children. You write them at a certain time in your life, and whatever is going on goes into the Salad Shooter that is a writer’s brain. You love all your children, but you relate to some more than others. I definitely played favorites. Darkness on the Edge of Town was my first big favorite. I believe it is because it moved me up as a writer. And because, despite the difficulties, it was a joy to write.

Categories: Darkness on the Edge of Town

So I was wandering around The Huffington Post, which often turns up some very interesting stuff, and I discovered an illuminating article regarding creativity in human beings: 18 Habits Of Highly Creative People.

Having written twenty-odd books, I consider myself “creative” (also, a pretty good liar, at least on paper).

I could relate to every single trait “creatives” share, but one of them stuck out. At first glance, the one that stuck out would be kind of embarrassing to admit:


Failure. I’ve done plenty of that. Writing a book. Cutting it in half. Rewriting the book. Cutting THAT in half. Sending it out to friends. Having THEM cut it in half.

Trying to get a literary agent. Getting a literary agent. Despite the efforts of the literary agent, not selling a damn thing. Getting dumped by a literary agent. Trying to get another literary agent. Finally getting one, selling a book–and the book goes nowhere. Dumped by the publisher. Trying to get another literary agent. Rinse and repeat.

All of those were opportunities for me to get better. To go back to my little workshop and craft a better book.

So the line in this article that resonated with me was this: Creative people “fail up.” Here is what the article says:

“Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says Kaufman. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that “sticks.”” And this: “Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often,” Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece on Einstein’s creative genius.”

Failure is how you learn. Failure gets you closer to your goal, because you have to try other ways to get the result you want. You have to go back to the drawing board and really throw yourself into getting better at what you’re doing. I know in my own life that failure has always preceded success (okay, it could be two-and-a-half years of preceding, but…still).

Failure and Success are two sides of the same coin. The failure part isn’t fun, but that’s the engine that makes you strive to get better at your craft. Failure is the little engine that could.

At least that’s what I tell myself on those occasions when I cry myself to sleep.

Categories: The Writing Life

In my writing career I have been published in mass market paperback by a few publishers, then kicked out after a book or two. I’d come back, and get a better deal…and then get kicked out again. There were reasons for this. For one thing, the book biz as it was before Amazon, relied on book sales throughout the country. If you have a small print run, then maybe one book of yours goes out to the Barnes & Noble in, say, Tucson, Arizona. And that book is spine out on a shelf among many other books.
publishing distribution chain
The publishers send these books out all over the country, but all is contingent on “sell-through,” which means selling a good number of these books. (And face it, it’s hard to notice a book spine-out in the mystery section of a bookstore when you’re really looking for Lee Child’s latest). Books cost money, so who’s going to take a chance on a paperback by an unknown? Or a hardcover, for that matter? For the reader, how do they find more good books to read?

The writing process

Now authors have more power and control over the writing and publishing process

Every time I was dropped by a publisher it spurred me to take my time and write the best book I could. I learned from the best in the business, by reading the best and marking up their books–writing notes, drawing arrows, and circling passages. And that was how I got better and better as a writer. I always thought of my readers who are always looking for more good books to read. I went through the revolving door at the publishers four times. I did not come out smelling like a rose. I have to mention here that there are many many savvy authors who did manage to make this Rube Goldberg machine work. Many who built viable and even stellar careers.

And then:

Ebooks came along. The digital tsunami that transformed the music industry swept over book publishing.
Ebooks leveled the playing field for many authors who were busy building their craft and getting bought by the New York publishers before getting kicked out again. And good writers can come from anywhere. They just have to develop their craft, and many writers did just that.

Now the marketplace is more open–at least distribution is more accessible. A smart author (many of whom have been going through the revolving door of New York publishing for years) can go out on their own and be their own shopkeeper. Thanks to the ebook etailer platforms, authors can easily look at dozens of books in their genre and that will help them determine cover art and cover copy.

All in all, it’s a great time to be an author. You just have to have some publishing and marketing skills, work with good people on cover art, copy editing and other aspects, and above all–write, write, write. And with digital, you now have the chance to reach many more readers and offer them more good books to read.

Categories: The Writing Life

Back in Michelangelo’s day, artists were apprenticed to the masters. They spent years copying the paintings of the great artists.

By doing so, they learned. They learned where to put which kind of detail, they learned color, brushstrokes, composition, perspective. They absorbed it all by doing—until it came naturally. They developed a sure hand.

The best teachers are the finest writers in your genre—the ones who resonate with you. In my case, they are bestselling thriller authors. You can learn from them for the price of a hardcover or even a paperback book. The only other thing you need is a pen.
LA requiem book notes
I would buy the hardcover books of the great authors in my genre—the four or five I could relate to, and then I would dissect their books, looking for the signposts of their craft, and marking up the pages of their print editions. I didn’t want to sound like any one of them, I just wanted to learn what they did and how they did it. What I learned was the rhythm of the type of book I most wanted to write.

A book covers a lot of ground. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, with many other points in between. You read and study enough great writers in your genre, and you start to catch on to that rhythm: what goes where, when. You absorb it so that it comes naturally. And you learn to give little gifts to your reader along the way.

My teachers have been numerous. Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, Robert Crais, James W. Hall, T. Jefferson Parker, Stephen King, John Lescroart, and C.J. Box. All different from one another, but great teachers, and all bestselling thriller authors.
The Shop by J. Carson Black
My advice to you: buy the books written by the masters in your genre. Get out your pen, write in the margins (sorry, Mom!), and figure out what they’re doing and why. When I was preparing to write The Shop, I knew I really had to step up my game, and I leaned on these masters to glean what I could to hone my craft.

Teach yourself. Learn from the very best, and who knows? You could join the ranks of bestselling thriller authors.

It only costs the price of a book and a pen.

Categories: Writing

I’ve been asked why I write a male character, many times.

And I’m not alone in writing a character of the opposite sex. My good friend, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Michael Prescott writes primarily female characters. Tough, strong, witty, smart female characters, like the star of his Bonnie Parker series. He’s got millions of copies in print, so clearly, whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

Is there a barrier to thinking like someone of the opposite sex? I guess it depends on the person. People are all different from one another, but in many ways men and women aren’t all that different at all.

Of course that depends a lot on upbringing, religious beliefs, their station in life, whether or not people have been cossetted and loved, raised strong, or been abused. Those things can happen to males and females, depending on where you live and what religion you belong to. But people are people, and the tiny shoot of green in their souls will handle even terrible experiences, all according to who and what they have become as individuals.

Bluelight Special Free Short Story from J. Carson Black

In this short story, Cyril Landry stands up for the little guy on the racetrack backside.

As an author, I just see people as people. I take into account their experiences. For instance, my character Cyril Landry was a Navy SEAL. He grew up on the horseracing circuit in a trailer with his brothers and sisters. There were aspects of Cyril Landry I understood to begin with, and parts of him that became real as I wrote him. And since individuals are individuals—he is what he is.

What’s nice for me (and I suspect this is the case with both male and female characters who write opposite-sex protagonists) is there’s just the tiniest bit of separation there, which, conversely, makes a writer feel unfettered. I can go all the way with a male character. There aren’t the bonds on me that came from kindergarten and grade school and high school and yes, Catechism; all the little signals that tell a child they need to conform to a certain norm.

In many ways, it’s a relief to write a male character. There are not as many “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”

Which is a big reason why I enjoy writing the opposite sex. Cyril Landry lives.

Categories: Cyril Landry Writing