Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What We're Writing--Hank's adventures in the past

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Everything old is new again? Well, kind of.

When my publisher asked me to take a fresh-eyed look at my Charlotte McNally books in preparation for their re-issue—my first series in all new editions with gorgeous new covers!—I knew that could be a…shall we say, fascinating experience. I could change things if I wanted. Yay. 

But I would also see—in unassailable black and white--what needed to be changed. Would that be the good news or the bad news?

So with much delight and little trepidation, I opened the pages of the four books in my first series, and read all the way through.  PRIME TIME came out in February, and I am so happy Charlotte McNally is making friends with lots of new readers.

 FACE TIME is coming next week.  So today my “what we’re writing”
today is about “what we’ve written.”  

And then written again.

First, the fabulous news. Were you hooked on Serial, or Making A Murderer, as I was? It turns out that the Serial and Making A Murder theme is what FACE TIME is all about! So that was a treat to discover.

However. It was quite the education to see what needed to be changed in the books. It’s like watching a movie from 9 years ago. Things that seemed so timely and hip become…well, not so relevant. 

Or just—wrong.

First, in AIR TIME (coming in June) I had to change the announcement flight attendants make before takeoff. You don’t have to completely turn off your phones any more, right? You can keep them in airplane mode.  That almost ruined a plot point—it was very nice to be able to have the flight attendant yell at Charlotte to power down.

I also almost hit plot-disaster with beepers. You remember beepers, right? Those little gizmos everyone had? Especially reporters, who were not allowed to leave the station without them. Now, almost no one has a beeper. But um, rut-roh. I really needed them in the plot of one of the books.  I finessed.  Instead of Charlotte reassuring herself: “Everyone gets beeped!”  She now thinks: “It’s okay, people still get beeped.”

n PRIME TIME, someone’s computer proclaims “You’ve got mail!” Uh, hmm.  When was the last time you heard that once-constant refrain? So now I made their email ping. But a person still says “You’ve got mail.” The “you’ve got mail” reference is critical later in the book, so I couldn’t ignore it altogether.

There’s a reference, sigh, to Puff Daddy.  Charlie’s producer Franklin, corrects the speaker, reminding him it’s now P. Diddy. (Are you with me here? Of course not. And if you are, I love you madly.)

But because a suspect wears an item from his Sean John clothing line and that leads to his identification, it was a real key to the story. (You’ll understand when you read AIR TIME. It works.)   So I had to keep it—but how?

“How do you even know about P. Diddy?” someone now asks.

 “Oh, Franklin’s big on fashion history,” Charlie now says. “He knows all that vintage stuff.”

Another oops?  Someone bought a home “a few years ago in 2005.”  Now it’s simply “a few years ago.”

The crazy-crowded Cape Cod rotary is now gone. Luckily Charlie doesn’t have to use another route to be caught in the traffic jam. The toll booth on the Mass Pike are now mostly unstaffed E-Z pass automatic machines—happily for me, not ALL of them.

My editor back then yanked out all the current cultural references, much to my chagrin at the time. I remember telling her: “Jane Pauley will ALWAYS be on the Today Show!”  Okay, the editor was right. Big lesson learned.

Some things I just left the way they were—I mean, Charlie is 46, and her mental rolodex would be that of a person that age.  So she refers to the Beatles, and Ed Sullivan, and having had a collection of VHS tapes twenty years ago.

And from the “need I say more” department, here are two more snippets from the “change” list I sent for AIR TIME :

p 217  2nd line from bottom
“Josh is getting cable,” I say.
“Josh is upgrading his cable,” I say.

P 226  Line 12-13
Time to hit the pay phone.
Happily, Logan still has one pay phone.

And now, here’s a bit from the about to be re-issued FACE TIME, a BookSense Notable Book (see? They’re called Indie Next Picks now!), about which Sara Paretsky (hurray!) said: “A gripping fast-paced thriller with an important story line and an engaging and unusual heroine.”

In this scene: our heroine, reporter Charlotte McNally, is not only facing a last-minute TV live shot about a new political candidate, but a disaster only possible to people of a certain age.


 “Just read the news release,” Franklin instructs. “It’s got the whole drill, law and order, convictions out the wazoo, death to infidels, all that. Y’all know the lowdown on this guy, right?”

I do, in fact. Oscar “Oz” Ortega: recruitment poster for the
prosecution—cool, hot, and politically connected. Known for his
outrageous neckties and outrageous legal talent. Scholarship to
Boston College. Scholarship to Yale Law. Could cross-examine
blood out of a turnip. And, some predict, he’ll step out of the attorney
general’s office, percolate for a term or two on Beacon Hill,
then head for the Oval Office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Thanks, Franko,” I say, taking the release. Less than a minute
to go. I’ll read it through quickly, then use it to sum up when Oz is
finished. Done it a million times. Like riding a bike. “No problem.”


I can’t see the words. I mean, I can see that there are words, but
they’re a complete blur. I glance over at Franklin, ready to ask if
there’s a problem with the copy he’s offered. I can easily see the
crease in his predictably impeccable jeans, the tiny polo pony on
his pink knit shirt, even how the ten- o’clock stubble on his face
darkens his coffee skin to espresso.
Clearly, what’s wrong is me. Without my reading glasses, this is
going to be impossible. And even if I could get to my glasses,
tucked in my red leather tote bag and back in the van, I couldn’t
go on the air wearing them.

“Thirty seconds,” I hear in my ear.

I can’t read this news release, but I have to. Tucking the paper
under one arm, I use a finger to pull back my left eyelid and pop
out my contact lens. With a brief wince of regret and one flip of a
finger, I discard the contact onto the parking lot pavement, and try
again to read Oz’s formal announcement.

 “Four. Three.” I hear the countdown in my ear. “Two. Go.”

HANK: SO excited about this! And soon I will have fabulous other news. And—soon--there’ll be the brand new SAY NO MORE, about which you will hear, um, relentlessly. I'm working on the updates to DRIVE TIME nowand I will keep you posted.

But let’s talk about change. If  you had a do-over—about anything—would you?  Or how about this: Would you mind if I’d mentioned the Cape Cod rotary or Jane Pauley?

 And—a copy of the all new PRIME TIME to one lucky commenter!


  1. Hank, I was so excited about the re-issue of your Charlotte McNally books that I never really thought about any referenced items [like beepers and flight attendant announcements and Jane Pauley on "Today"] needing to be changed. Still, I am really looking forward to re-reading Charlotte’s adventures.

    Mentioning Jane Pauley or the Cape Cod rotary wouldn't faze me in the least . . . we have tons of traffic circles in New Jersey [known these days as “roundabouts” in GPS-speak]....
    Oh, and by the way, my computer continues to tell me "You've got mail" every time I log into my AOL email account. I guess there really are one or two things that will withstand the march of time . . . .

  2. I love these changes, Hank. A reminder to all of us authors to maybe be a little vague about current events! As I write my contemporary under-thirty five protagonists, I have to keep remembering to have them text, and use SnapChat and Instagram, and all the other modern stuff. And I'm so pleased you get to rerelease the TIME books.

  3. that's fascinating Hank! I would be so tempted to leave everything as is and call it historical mystery fiction. Did you ever consider NOT changing the old references?

  4. This must be why Sue Grafton kept Kinsey Milhone anchored in Santa Barbara in the '60s (or is it 70s?) Were there any changes that required a recombobulation of the plot?

  5. Well, I did consider that, Lucy! (SO sad--historical mystery, set in 2009...:-)) But I think it's just current enough to be annoying if it's not up to date. Yes, Edith, exactly, people text, and oh, ALL the flip phones had to go.

    ANother nicely-dramatic moment "she snapped her phone closed" goes the way of the stabbed-out cigarette.
    And Joan, whew. That's great. That's very reassuring!

    Have you all noticed things in books that aren;t exactly anachronisms, but seem too outdated?

  6. Oh, Hallie, I cannot tell you how often I thought of the brilliant Sue! And, like Roberta, I considered leaving Charlie where she was. But it was just too recent--and actually it was fun to update a bit.

    Yes, it ALMOST caused some plot "situations"--the beeper was the most problematic. So I just set it up as their news director got sick of them turning off their cells and made them carry beepers. And Charlie has a discussion with a toll taker that wasn't critical to plot, but was to character. But I--I hope!-made it work. Happily there are still SOME toll takers!

    But it was really fun to read the books with new eyes. I was so pleased with myself for the Serial/Making a Murderer tone of FACE TIME. I was fascinated with my research into eyewitness identification and false convictions--or POSSIBLE false convictions--and love this story. But it's interesting how themes come around again. Especially with something this critical.

  7. I love when I am reading a contemporary book and there are pop culture references and such, but this certainly shows that these have to be carefully considered by the author with the longevity of the books in mind.

    Like Lucy, I might have just called it historical fiction, but I agree 2009 is a little too recent to be given that moniker.

  8. Oh, right, so funny! The editor who excised Jane Pauley said the only "current" character in my book who could remain named because she would not go out of date was Oprah. What can we learn from this?

  9. Hank, I think they changes are great, but I wouldn't have minded references to beepers, etc. As you know, I watched The Wire (thanks to you!) and now I'm rewatching it with Noel. If the characters didn't use pay phones, et al. you couldn't have that particular story.

    But, either way, I'm so excited to read!

  10. I can't remember the last time I saw a payphone. In fact, once or twice it's crossed my mind that not having them any more is a huge detriment to public safety. At least they generally had a signal.

    Hank, I know it takes an entirely different energy to rewrite/edit/tune up a long-written book. Did the process change your current project at all? Did you find areas where you've learned different things, several books on, that you didn't know then?

  11. I don't think I'd be bothered - then again, I know the books were written starting in 2009. I'm pretty forgiving of things like that. I do tend to avoid extreme pop culture references in my writing. For example, I'll have a character refer to a generic "social media" because that concept is probably not going away, even if the specific sites/services do.

    And about flip phones. They are not completely gone. For a very specific reason, my protagonist in my Laurel Highlands stories uses a flip phone (an ancient one and he gets a fair amount of ribbing because of it, but he does). Celebrities are starting to use flip phones because the pictures are not uploaded to the Internet and the phones can't be hacked as easily (so no leaded nude photos). And I know a few 30-somethings who are tired of the "constant connection" of a smart phone and have "down-graded" to feature phones. My son still has a feature phone because we won't even consider getting him a smart phone until he makes it to high school (which is this fall, but still).

    So yeah - they aren't necessarily on display at your local store, but flip phones do exist and people do still use them!

  12. Oh and I completely got the references to Puff Daddy/P Diddy!

  13. I enjoyed seeing Charlie appear in Jane's world and wondered if that meant we'd be seeing more of her. Glad to be right, but now I'm confused. In removing all these things that were current a few years ago, are you moving the Charlie books to the current day? Or assuming that today's readers can't handle the fact that a few things were different just a few years ago?

    (Thought about quoting a Puff Daddy song, but couldn't come up with one for a family-friendly site.)

  14. Oh Susan, you are so right. That storyline in the wire would certainly be different without payphones! Such a great story…

    And Karen, yes, it was quite an education. I fully realized what things can date a story. Just enough to stop the reader, or have them wonder: when was this again?
    And, just between us, it was fun to fall in love with the stories again. It was reassuring to see that the plot still work, and are still surprising. So that was nice.

    It was also fun to read the books knowing how they have been received… Young women, sometimes, wonder why Charlie is so concerned about how she looks at age 46 in television. The books are precisely realistic about that :-)… And it is kind of interesting to have "younger women" find that odd.

  15. So yes, Mary, exactly. I am seeing that it is best to almost genericize, if that's a word, very very specific pop-culture references. But thank you for the reassurance :-) about flip phone! I took them out, but now I have to put them in future books as hip, right?

  16. Him, that's an interesting question. It's not really removing things that are current, it's removing things that might cause a realtor to pause or wonder. I am hoping that most readers won't even notice. That's my goal, at least. So someone who is familiar with the books already and then reads the beautiful new additions will not see the changes. My goal is to make it seamless…

  17. One more thought… Because in the Charlie books you don't exactly know when it is. It's just sort of… Now, you know?

  18. Exactly Kristopher! So do you agree with my former editor that Oprah is OK?

  19. Hank, yes. I think I even inserted a comment about that - how they are becoming trendy so when this one dies, my character probably won't be able to afford a new one.

    And I'm not Kristopher, but Oprah is so iconic I think she's one of the pop culture references you can make with confidence. Even my teenager knows who Oprah is.

  20. So many people still want to cling to their flip phones that the phone companies usually have at least one among the phone choices. My husband just got rid of his at the end of last year, and he is still griping about the smartphone. Flip phones are much more compact, for one thing, and they rarely "butt dial" accidentally.

  21. I'm really not bothered by the references to outdated technology but I think I'd like the fresh updates.

  22. Technology changes in the blink of an eye but your basic motives for murder probably haven't changed in thousands of years - love, hate, greed - they're eternal. As long as those ring true and as long as you play fair with the reader I think we can handle the rest. (Those of us who also read science fiction accept whatever technology the writer invents for his/her setting in the future.)

  23. Hank... your new book covers! Just beautiful!

    I study the books I love. I read them and look for things like that. I think them over in my mind, just because I can't let go of a good story. After enjoying them I want to learn and not criticize. These things you changed never bothered me. One or two, like the airplane announcement, I didn't catch.

    I believe it was smart to change them. Eliminate all distractions. Your books are promoted as contemporary, so it's good to keep them that way. The new covers are not just beautiful. They scream—come here right now.

    When the day comes when your readers look back to the 24-hour Fort Point Chanel post office as a window to the past, it will be fascinating. Which book is that from? :-) Our great-grandchildren will wonder if that's near the Rose Kennedy greenway, and who is she, and why did they name the park after Columbus. But right now you are here writing about these days. At some point you'll be content to leave a documentation of a history within a history, but not yet, because we want to experience your books as stories of today. You know I love them!

  24. I was lucky enough to win Prime Time when you last offered it. Absolutely loved it!
    I don't find myself distracted by slightly out of date details, just erroneous ones.
    Can't wait for the next book!

  25. Thank, Kim!

    Yes, Jayna, the science fiction world is entirely different--there the key is explaining it, right?

    And yes, do you watch Madame Secretary, Reine? Their teenage daughter asked--"Who's Grace Kelly?"
    And the parents winced.
    Then the daughter said--"I'm just messing with you."
    The parents relaxed.
    Then the daughter said: "She invented the Kelly bag."

  26. Oh, and yesterday morning, I was at Channel 7 where we have a new intern. She asked about the Charlie books--and I said--you know who Murphy Brown is? Charlie's kind of like her, but without the rehab.

    The intern had NO IDEA.

  27. And yes, Reine, eliminating the distractions. Perfect way to put it.

  28. Outdated references don't bother me at all. Can you imagine if libraries discarded all novels, mystery or not, because of outdated references? My feeling is that if I want to read books written at a particular time I will understand that some things may have changed.

    By the way, I LOVED seeing Charlie in What You See. I've missed her!

    Deb Romano

  29. Love this, Hank. And love the "sort of...now" for the time period. That's what I've always aimed for, and now the technology is so outdated in my early books. But you can't write a contemporary story without contemporary things, and you can't guess what's going to be "the thing" in ten or twenty years--unless you're psychic.... So I try to be pretty generic about phones and social media, etc. I did date one particular book around an event (the Millennium! Remember that??) and I do really regret it. That would be my do-over...

  30. Oh, Hank, I'm struggling with some of these issues as I write right now! Because most of the Clare/Russ books take place chronologically one shortly after another, and because I've fallen ahem a little behind in my production schedule, I've gotten to the point where it's 2016 in the real world and 2006 in Millers Kill.

    So I have to be very careful about how I mention the war in Iraq (although I heard on NPR that the president is sending more troops back in, sigh), social media, gay marriage - even the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has changed from a white woman to a black man! There's one part in IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER where a character has the "latest Toshiba micro-cell phone" and "special ordered a Gateway from the Internet" along with a "cable to connect to her modem." Talk about dated. That learned me, and I've tried to be a lot more generic since then.

    I agree with Hank when she says her Charlotte books aren't set in a particular time, just the now of today. I think that's a goal many of us writing contemporary fiction strive for: to create that seamless reading experience that allows the reader to hum along without any "Wait - what year is this?" moments.

  31. I kind of like references to other times. What would classic literature be without it? If you're writing a book for longevity, which one presumes one is at the time, it becomes a sort of snapshot into the times, culturally. Don't we learn more about daily life from novels and diaries than from history books?

    So I'd like to make the case for keeping the anachronisms intact. It adds a richness to the reading experience, in my opinion.

  32. You know, I was so excited to learn Charlie is back that it truly never dawned on me that there might be changes. The Charlie books seem so "now" it seems odd. Wow. Things change and change quickly, don't they?! Anyway. I love Charlie and have from Day One. I'm excited that she'll be reaching out to new readers and collecting a whole new group of fans. Yay, Charlie! (AND Hank!)

  33. Exactly! And so delighted to hear Julia and Debs in the struggle--well, not delighted to hear them struggle :-) but maybe..strive for the balance. Because sure, historical details are treats..but not in a contemporary book. And I really value the test of "what, what year is this?" If I had Charlie get up to change the channel on the TV, --you'd think--huh? When is this?-- And you'd have to stop reading and think. Which I don't want you to do. In a solidly historical novel, set in a specific time, then sure, got to have ration books and Model Ts. But "contemporary" is a minefield of fleeting cultural references.

    Looking through a reader's eyes, though, Julia, I'd embrace the "gateway" etc--it is, as Karen says, an indication of the time. SO Karen, I do see your point! But when I read through the Charlie books, hoping for new readers, the references felt old. It took a lot of thought, and a lot of decision-making! Fascinating, and educational.

    And yes, as someone asked, it's taught me to be even more careful than I already thought I was being!

  34. Thank you, dear Kaye! Yup.

    And I've got to tell you it made me wonder: what I would do if I were stuck in an airport with no cell phone and had to call someone? It's pretty interesting..and I agree, Karen, it is a public safety problem.

  35. Hank, you inspired me. I just rewrote a scene and had to have a character doing research on what would be LinkedIn. Except...will LinkedIn even exist if/when this book gets published?

    I changed it to a more generic "professional social media site." So you continue to educate!

  36. Aw, thank you! xoxoo And it's WHEN, not it.

    And remember it's fiction--did you read the fabulous TRUST YOUR EYES by Linwood Barclay? He made up a google-earthish site. And that worked….

  37. I did just put a pay phone hanging on the wall of a rest stop in New Jersey. I wonder if that's long gone too? I mean, what is a person who doesn't have a phone or lost their phone supposed to do?

    When they really, really, really need to talk to someone...

    And apropos of annoying attributes of fancy phones, I just accepted an update for my iphone and now every time I touch a link, the screen freezes. Wouldn't happen with a flip!

  38. OH, phone updates. AHHHHHHH. I am so sorry, L/R. COmputer updates, too..

    Once when I had to call Geek Squad, I decided to give up on trying to act cool, and just ASK. SO I said to the guy--when the computer wants me to take an update, should I take it?

    And He said--and I am NOT KIDDING--"It depends whether you want to."


    And yes, my question exactly. Maybe we just had a good idea for making a million dollars. Install pay phones!

  39. Hank! I guess I missed that scene on Madame Secretary. Really? "Who's Grace Kelly?" I remember when Grace Kelly left acting to marry and become Princess Grace, a Sister of Notre Dame spent an entire class talking about how wonderful and devout—of course—Grace Kelly was.

  40. Hank, I don't think the dated references would affect my enjoyment of the books, but I think many more people will like the updates. I do have Prime Time and will be reading it soon. I've been tying to catch up a bit on 2015 titles that are eligible for an Anthony. So looking forward to reading all of this series. Coming off of a bad gallbladder attack yesterday and last night. Will have surgery Thursday, so I'm hoping to get in some reading time.

  41. Kathy! I am so worried about you--that Is AWFUL!! So let us all know instantly about the surgery…we are sending you much love and healing thoughts!

    love you...

  42. Kathy, sending you good wishes and praying for a swift recovery . . . .

  43. Kathy, I'll be thinking of you, too. Please let us know how you are doing. Love you!

  44. Kathy,

    I'm glad you can have the surgery right away, and just get it over with. Praying for your speedy recovery. You'll have a good excuse to do nothing but read!

    Deb Romano

  45. You have a whole cheering section here Kathy!

  46. I just upgraded TO a flip phone because Consumer Cellular asked me to . . . but I don't use my cell that often. It does seem too bad that there are no pay phones for emergencies, but I suppose the upkeep and misuse and vandalism made them unprofitable. The Post Office has cut back on mailboxes, too.

    Those editing changes are interesting and will freshen the books for new times, new readers. You do work hard.
    I've never actually heard a computer say "You have mail," except on Sesame Street.

    Your editor, like my allergist, is almost annoyingly correct, but that's how they earn their keep. Now back to working on taxes.

  47. I'm psyched you got to update your Charlie books. I'd especially wondered about a certain piece of mass market photography equipment Charlie kept in her car (hoping I avoided the spoiler yet you still know what I mean.)

    Believe it or not, NCIS-LA used a hotel pay phone for a plot point in this week's episode. I haven't seen a hotel pay phone in ages. The hotel in the story was swanky enough to hold an international conference.

    This season Diddy was an adviser for Pharrell on "The Voice," so he's practically "Middle America" now. :)

    Happy to see the return of Charlie. Loved her cameo in WHAT YOU SEE.

  48. All good vibes and wishes sent your way, Kathy!

    Yep, I can commiserate with having to update stories. In my first (yet-to-be pubbed) mystery set in the Virgin Islands, they changed the name of the airport on St. Thomas, among other things! So, after trying to make changes, it's now gathering dust in a closet, because I just went on to other things, and couldn't deal with it all. But I think maybe I should one day just leave it as originally written, and it'll just be set in the 1980's!

    And...I still have a flip phone, way overdue for a new one, but I'm used to this one. If it ain't broke....lol.

  49. Ooo,ooo, Hank! Learned last night that the Pennsylvania State Police still carry beepers. Yep, right now in 2016. So the answer do "does anybody even use those any more" is yes! LOL

    And good news/bad news. Good news, Mystery Lovers had copies of Prime Time. Bad news, they're out. Good news, it's because they sold them all and will be getting more.

    I was too slow off the mark it seems. =)