HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: One of MY favorite writerly things? I could list them, and will. But topping my list? Rachel Howzell Hall. (Although she’s less a “thing” and more a “force of nature.”) (And see below--you could win her book!)
A Few of My Favorite (Writerly) Things
It’s so easy to be negative. And really, I like negative—I’m a crime writer living in Los Angeles Can’t get more ‘abandon hope all ye enter’ than that. And also, 2016 will go down as a year that has sucked in so many ways. From politics (talk about abandoning hope) to untimely deaths (Prince and Bowie? Take your drunk behind home, 2016, cuz we’re done with you running over our heroes), from cataclysmic storms to the helium shortage, there’s so many opportunities to be an Eeyore.
Books, though? Books remain bright spots for me. And so, I shall switch things up and look for the positive. Herewith are a few of my favorite writing things:
Someone to Root For
The world loves a square-jawed hero and a beautiful heroine who knows the Pythagorean Theorem, rescues poodles and orphans while saving the world from fascist sea-otter killers. But if you’re like me and have more than 27 pages of book titles on your Kindle alone, do you want to read about their perfection every day? I don’t. Nor do I want to always read about the lone detective who always goes off the grid, always gets the girl, always drinks whiskey and always listens to jazz.
When I developed LAPD Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton, I wanted her to win and to lose, to be adept and clumsy, to follow the rules and still get in trouble. I wanted to see me in the story, and I wanted to wonder what I would do in that situation?
Right now, I’m reading Road Out of Hell by Anthony Flacco about serial killer Gordon Stewart Northcott murdering people at his chicken ranch outside of Los Angeles while also holding his nephew Sanford Clark captive. It is one of the most horrific… Every page, I hold my breath and will Sanford to run away, I want him, need him to survive. I want the happy ending—and I normally hate happy endings. That’s because the Flacco makes me care so much about Sanford.
In TRAIL OF ECHOES, I want you to root for Lou, to root for the girls, in such hopeless conditions. During Chanita Lords’ investigation, Lou visits her old middle school:
Tori had been missing during my time at this school, and now, standing here, my hands cramped from remembering the journaling, the crying and the not crying, the numbness . . . I didn’t want to be at Madison. And as Colin and I walked those corridors, grief crushed my heart like it had so many years ago.
New Places within the Old
New York is a great city. But Manhattan can’t be the only place in the world for mystery, can it? Los Angeles is a great city—more than Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Almost four million people populate the city alone. That means almost four million different stories spread out over 503 square miles. Attica Locke gave me Houston in Pleasantville and Black Water Rising. M.P. Cooley took me to upstate New York in her June Lyons series.
In the Lou Norton series, I offer you Los Angeles south of the 10 freeway, south of Hollywood. A world of never-ending fish-fry and barbecue joints, churches and barber shops, beauty supply and liquor stores. Black wealth and black poverty within a mile of each other. In TRAIL OF ECHOES, a Second Line jazz funeral takes place in the middle of this part of this city.
After five minutes of weaving in and out for nearly three blocks, and with Angeles Funeral Home now in sight, I worked my way to the sidewalk. Almost every face was partially hidden by hats, umbrellas, and handkerchiefs. People crowding the street. Brass band playing. Mourners singing and shouting. Brass bells tinkling from push- cart ice- cream vendors.
This random thing really happened in Los Angeles. Seriously: You can’t pin this city down.
Style: not everyone has it. Some writers consider style to be lists—descriptions of clothes that go on and on and your eyes blur and you start skipping around the page because you just don’t care and then, you die.
And then some writers use words that make you want to read over and over again, and you wish that you had written that. You say, “She had fun performing that trick. Sat back and nodded, said, yeah, that’s it.’” In TRAIL OF ECHOES, one of my favorite passages to write was:
Optimism. For cutters like Brooks and murder police like me, optimism was a condition as rare as hens’ teeth. Happy endings? What were those? If I was standing anywhere near you that meant shit had just gone left, your life had changed forever, and there’d be no happy ending.
I loved writing (then re-writing) that passage. See, there’s a contract between me (the reader) and the author. You, Author, will tell me a story. It will be a good story. It will make me laugh. It will make me cry. I will shout, ‘Amen’ and ‘Gurl, don’t open that door cuz HE’S IN THE HOUSE!’ At the end, I will sigh and say, “That was good for me, was that good for you?” And then, I will buy your next book. I want to buy your next book. Help me buy your next book. Talk pretty to me.
I’m not saying that good books must preach. In my opinion, good books present a problem and enlist me [the reader] to journey beside the heroine to solve the problem. In Gone Girl, we considered domestic abuse and false reporting. In All the Light We Cannot See, we had to reconcile the goodness of a young boy on the wrong side of World War II. Tell me what you believe, what’s bothering you, what you want me to reconsider. Everyone’s a hero in her own story. Everyone’s a villain in someone else’s story. Make me pick the side I thought I hated.
In TRAIL OF ECHOES, Lou deals with the sexualization of girls, missing fathers, bullies, gentrification and much more. At the start of the investigation, her partner Colin Taggert mentions that a girl had been found murdered in the park. Lou’s response:
Just last week, over in Inglewood, a teen girl had been abducted from her driveway; and in Gardena, another teen had been kidnapped by her stepfather. And then there was Trina Porter, the fourteen- year- old stolen earlier this month from a bookstore near my old neighborhood. We had no clue where Trina was or if she was even alive. So again: which girl?
Her mission: winnow down the list of possible dead teenaged Jane Does. And wonder why so many dead teenaged Jane Does. Throw in race and class, and she now has a problem bigger than this one case.
I like caring about the people in books. I enjoy language that makes me forget that I’m reading. I appreciate new settings and reasons to care. These are a few of my favorite things.
What are yours? (Rachel will award TRAIL OF ECHOES to one lucky commenter!)
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I have to go back and read this again. It's SUCH a treat. Okay, yeah. All this. And when something isn't what it seems. When you find exactly the right word. When the metaphor creates itself. (Oh--that's META!) When you have the bad guy there all the time--and even you, the author, doesn't see him. (or her.) When you read something and think--oh, I NEVER would have thought of that. Or--when you think of it first.
How about you, Reds?
Trail of Echoes is the third novel in the acclaimed Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton series by Rachel Howzell Hall
RACHEL HOWZELL HALL is the author of the Detective Elouise Norton series. The third novel in the series, Trail of Echoes, will be published this May. Land of Shadows and Skies of Ash (Forge) were included on the Los Angeles Times’ “Books to Read This Summer” for 2014 and 2015, and the New York Times called Lou Norton “a formidable fighter—someone you want on your side.” A featured writer on NPR’s acclaimed ‘Crime in the City’ series, Rachel also served as a mentor in AWP’s Writer to Writer Program and is currently a member of the Mystery Writers of America. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.