Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Read this. Because Rachel Howzell Hall!

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.

Great Language
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.

A Mission
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.


  1. Oh, Rachel, books are most definitely bright spots. I like lyrical language, characters I really care about, stories that pull me in . . . .
    I’m definitely looking forward to reading “Trail of Echoes.”

  2. I'm putting the first in the series on my library list now!

  3. Welcome, Rachel. Love, love, love Lou Norton! Yes, books are a bright spot in dark times. I love getting to that point in the day when it's time to turn off all the electronics, all the news, and just open up a book...

  4. I love this post, Rachel! I grew up in the very provincial Temple City in the San Gabriel Valley, and the LA you describe is like a different country to me. We never went into the city except to the hospital or once to a ballet at the Greek Theater. My life would have been lot richer if we had! I'm looking forward to reading your book.

  5. Welcome, Rachel! The people, the language, new settings, and reasons to care - that absolutely nails it for me, too. I'd add a sense of humor which clearly you have.

  6. One thing I love is seeing Rachel Howzell Hall here at Jungle Red. The Lou Norton series is one that I love with all my heart, so the more readers who discover it, the better!

    My list of favorite Writerly things is not very long:

    1. A good story told well.
    2. Characters I can relate to - but unlike others, I don't necessary have to like them; I just have to be able to understand them.
    3. An ending that feels neither rushed nor draggy - a delicate balance, for sure.
    4. And if you can occasionally throw in a twist that I didn't see coming, then you will surely have a fan for life. (NB. No twists just for the sake of a twist, it has to be organic, believable, and hopefully surprising)

    1. Well something to cheer about from the wes coast too boot.Definitely will stock at our bookshop.

  7. Love the concept of a contract between readers and writers.

  8. I do,too, S. E. Warwick My husband takes his end of the contract every seriously. He says if he starts a book, his deal with the author is to finish it.

    What do you all think about that?


  9. Aline --hurray! What's selling big right now?

  10. I adore authentic and remarkable but believable surprise endings.

    One thing I don't like: when a book is promoted by saying: You won't believe the TWIST! Because then I'm just guessing for the twist the whole time.

    ANd Kristopher, that juggle of the ending is so difficult! You can't drag it out, but it can't feel like "Oh my gosh, let's just have this be OVER!" You can feel in a manuscript where the beginning of the ending is--and that's such fun! Then the delicate work begins.

  11. Rachel! I was so looking forward to seeing you when you come to Mystery Lovers Bookshop later this month...and now life has intervened and I can't make it. Sad face. But I do hope you'll sign a book for me (the store will set it aside for pick up). I am reading the first Lou Norton now. Slower than I usually do, but there's that life thing again. Grr.

    I'm big on characters to root for. Like Kristopher, I don't have to like them. I have to understand them. We watch "Gotham" (don't judge) and were trying to figure out why we are so engaged with Penguin's character. And Nygma's. They are NOT good people. But this explains it: I understand them.

    And I definitely understand and can root for Lou.

  12. What can I add to the accolades except that I am eager to read this series too. Congratulations Rachel, on the upcoming publication.

    I worked in Inglewood in the 90s, director of a home health agency. We were small, and it wasn't unusual for me to make home visits myself. There I learned first hand the strength of African American women. Parts of South Central are very scary, and I had to be careful to wear neither blue nor red. But those women watched out for me, knew when I was coming, instructed their sons to look after my car, kept me from concern. I have never before or since been welcomed into homes with so much charm and good cooking!

    So I really can't wait to read your books and go back to a place I loved completely.

  13. What an excellent post, Rachel! I can't wait to read the new Lou. My favorite line in this: "Help me buy your next book. Talk pretty to me." So many writers are in so much of a rush anymore, they forget to talk pretty, and I miss that. Craft, humanity and a great setting are some of the things I love most.

  14. It is such a PLEASURE to be here on Jungle Red! Thank you all for dropping by and discussing our favorite things - books, books, books!

  15. Joan Emerson, nice to meet ya! And thanks for picking up TRAIL OF ECHOES!

  16. Gram, thanks for adding Lou to your library. If you're like me, your poor sagging shelves... Literally, one book case of mine leans to the left. I must replace it before the Big One comes and destroys my books.

  17. Susan Elia MacNeal, yes, yes, yes! Sometimes, I find myself close to double-fisting books, slammin' them down like too much Wild Turkey - and if the book is good, the hangover of meeting wonderful characters lasts a lifetime.

  18. Edith Maxwell, yes - San Gabriel Valley is a lot different but that means another great story for someone to tell. So many cultures crammed between the 10 and the Mountains. And then, the brush fires come...

  19. Rachel, books, books, books, is right! A new series to check out is always high on my list of writerly things to find!

    For myself, I'd write my 'contract' slightly differently from Jonathan's: If something about a book piques my interest, I will give it a chance. If the writer can create that 'willing suspension of disbelief,' I'm hooked--and I'll read all I can get my hands on. If not, then I move on because I've only got so much time for reading.

  20. Hallie Ephron, thank you! I like laughing - it makes the hurt... hurt less. As do books. You're never alone when you have a book. It's also the cheapest way to travel!

  21. Kristopher, exactly! I don't have to wanna have your baby, but I want to listen to you, nod, shake my head, wince and sigh before I push you off the cliff. Right?

  22. Hank, hi! Thanks, as always, for hosting me here! And I like your husband's contract - because readers should be able to finish a book. Life is too short for hate-reads. And I, too, hate the telling of a TWIST a'comin'. Let the reader appreciate the trick - without knowing they're about to be tricked.

  23. Mary, hi! Yes I will certainly sign a copy -and I hope to meet you in person, either in Houston or at a book festival somewhere. Thanks for your support - it means so much to me!

  24. Yes, Rachel sometimes I say to Jonathan--how do you like that book? ANd he says: Not so much. In that case, sometimes, I'll "move" Jonathan's book off the nightstand. Next night, he'll say--where's my book? And I say--I don't know, but here's a new one. Just being helpful.

  25. Ann, nice to meet you! My husband grew up in Inglewood. And yes, we did (do) have the red-blue problem. But every city has an issue - some, for example, have a white-sheet-burning-crucifix problem. I'd take the red-blue every day. LOL I love LA and I'm glad I have the chance to take you back again!

  26. Kim, there's nothing worse than being turned away from buying books for whatever reason. We are addicts - help us, authors, remain addicted to your language. In the words of the musical legend Rick James, "Give it to me, baby." In this instance, books, books, books.

  27. FChurch, yaasss! I've done that with Erik Larson - anything that man writes, I gobble. And I hate that I read them so quickly because now, what's after DEAD WAKE???!! How long will I have to wait?! Erik, please gimme somethin', man. [hopping on one foot, then the other foot]. Just a little hit... please?!

  28. I enjoy Erik Larson as well, and am currently reading Dead Wake. I love books where the writing will have you closing your eyes and thinking, that was so beautifully and perfectly put, and make me wish I were a writer... I look forward to reading Trail of Echoes~

  29. Celia have you read Winters Tale by Mark Helprin? Love.

  30. Hank - I have read A Winters Tale -- it was beautiful ~

  31. I will be jumping on this bandwagon immediately!! Thank you, Hank, for the introduction!

  32. Do jump, Denise Ann! You will be very happy! xoxo

  33. Thank heavens for books. Life has been a bit crappy this past year so escape is essential. I need a good story that plays along and doesn't telegraph what is going to happen next. I need rich characters to care about so I can cheer them on or cuss them out for being stupid. Or sympathize with them, or want to kick their sweet derrieres. I want some emotion and feelings. Nice to meet you, Rachel. I shall be looking out for your books.

  34. HI Pat D! Oh, dear..sorry about your year…we love you! xoxoo

  35. I had a lengthy response typed out and was about to hit send when my computer decided to knock me off the page, and I lost it all. Yes, I know I must have hit that mystery key that screws with me just for the heck of it, but nevertheless it is gone. So, here's the short version.

    Rachel, I loved your favorite writerly things list and especially the great language item. Just finished James Ziskin's Heart of Stone, and the language had me on a Rocky Mountain high.

    Dialogue is another favorite writer thing for me, besides the other great writerly things mentioned. I'm particularly fond of witty dialogue that shows how clever and strong a character is. I like dialogue to be a well-thought-out part of the story.

    Rachel, I do solemnly swear that I am going to read your Lou Norton series within the next year, sooner rather than later. I know I will love it, and it is on my very short-list for "series that I need to catch up on."

  36. It was wonderful to hear you speak (again) at The Book Carnival. It was interesting to hear about your experience as an author and as a person. I was especially surprised to hear about your experiences in England and to learn that in England, "poor" (???) people do not have opportunities to go to college. Oh, and you husband holds up more than his end of conversations while you are signing books, so take him with you whenever you can. I loved reading "Land of Shadows" and can't wait to start "Trail o Echoes." Thanks for your posts and for your commitment to taking stories to readers. (In case you don't recognize my alternate universe on-line identities (3 no 7 or Katie) I'm Barbara.)

  37. Barbara--alternate universe? Tell us more! xxoo Hi Kathy--sigh, the computer thing. SO frustrating! But we rely on you!

    Hurray for Book Carnival! Anne is such a joy--and I love that store!

  38. Rachel, choose a winner--And we will post. LOVE you! And see you all tomorrow--for: MERMAIDS.