Thursday, February 13, 2014

What can I borrow? What's plagiarism?

Among the many swell things about Dashiell Hammett’s writing are the striking, powerful original scenes he brings to life.  One such scene that has long fascinated me is the section in Red Harvest, in which the Continental Op and Dinah Brand get drunk on gin and laudanum.  When the Op wakes up, his hand is on the handle of Dinah’s ice pick.  Dinah’s dead, the needle sharp blade of the ice pick buried in her left breast.  He’s had a blackout and doesn’t remember what happened.  Did he kill her?  If so why?  If he did, does that make the Op just as immoral as the murderers in the town he’s trying to clean up? 

Good questions, and the Op, who narrates in the first person doesn’t know the answers, and doesn’t tell the reader what he thinks happened.  I’m working on a new story that puts P.I. Frank Swiver in a similar situation. 

Then I got to thinking—is that plagiarism?  Can I do that?  What if my readers don’t know that I took the idea from Red Harvest?  What if they do?

Then the other day, I saw a book review in the Washington Post of a new novel, Alena.  Reviewer Carolyn Parkhurst writes, “…Rachel Pastan has taken on a daunting task: borrowing the basic story of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca…It’s a tricky business, reimagining a much-loved work of literature.”  Well, good, “re-imagining” is a much kinder word than plagiarizing. 

So I guess authors do that all the time—maybe you can use ideas, plots, characters.  Just don’t steal the language.  (OK, so the opening line of Alena is “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.”)

At any rate, I am going to proceed with my story.  Yes, it’s inspired by my reading of Red Harvest.  But it’s really not the same plot, nor the same characters.  And it won’t be Hammett’s words.    

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The High Window – by Raymond Chandler

I just finished reading (re-reading) The High Window, Raymond Chandler’s third novel.  The first time I read through the Chandler canon, I put this down as one of the weaker efforts, along with Payback.   When you’re competing with books such as The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, The Lady in the Lake, and The Little Sister, well, it’d be tough to be in the top three. 

But this time through I was impressed with what a professional, polished effort this was.  I was struck by the descriptive efforts—settings for scenes, both indoor and out, and the appearances and clothing of the characters.  Chandler’s mystery and plotting is different—more traditional, in the British mode.  In the climactic scene Leslie Murdock says to Marlowe, “Get on with it.  I have a feeling you are going to be very brilliant.  Remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot.  Just like a detective in a book.”  Marlowe proceeds to take Murdock apart, explain the case, the deductions, and the three murders step-by-step, for 14 pages, while Murdock “turns pale as a paper, froths at the mouth,” and confesses to the murder of Vannier.  It’s not that I didn’t know Marlowe (and Chandler) had it in him, but …usually a guy comes through the door with a gun, right? 

Murdock is a jittery as a mink on Benzedrine as Marlowe questions him, and Chandler in his writing turns up the “beats.”

·         “He shrugged and bared his teeth.” 

·         “He stared at it tightly.  His mouth set.”

·         “His shoulders gave a quick little jerk, as if he was cold.”

·         “He nodded and moved a hand wearily across his head.”

·         “He stared at the floor and didn’t speak.”

·         “He looked up quickly then, his face very white, a kind of horror in his eyes.”

And that’s only the first five pages of the 14-page scene. 

I think the book suffers, to whatever extent one might think it does, as the villain is not very horrible.  Sure Murdock killed Vannier.  But Vannier killed George Anson Phillips, and old man Morningstar, so who cares about Vannier?  And he wasn’t much of a villain either, just a blackmailer, one who’s dominated by his mistress, long-legged blonde, Lois Magic.  The stakes don’t seem very high for Marlowe—just the return of a rare coin, the Brasher Doubloon, and being a white knight for Merle, a virgin in distress (but no imminent physical danger).

The “white knight” is the essence of Phillip Marlowe’s character.  And the plot is one of Chandler’s stronger efforts.  It’s complicated but makes sense.  So The High Window is a good introduction to the Marlowe series.    

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Drowned Phenician

Sunday I finished a long story I’ve been working on since summer.  I should say, I finished the fifth draft. I thought Sunday that it was the final draft and was quite enthused about it.  Monday I started to feel parts of it weren’t right and began to become disillusioned. 

The story is called, “The Drowned Phenician Vintner,” and it’s about 17,600 words.  If you’re not in the writing game, let me tell you, any short story more than 7,500 – 8,000 words has a limited market.  Novels should be 70,000 – 100,000.  So The Drowned Phenician is in that grey area—some web sites, magazines, and journals call it a novelette; some call it a novella. 

I like to call it a “long story.”  I have counted the words in several Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett stories, and they frequently came in around 15,000 – 16,000, particularly Chandler’s finest, like “Red Wind” and “Goldfish”.  Several of Hammett’s long stories were serialized in Black Mask, and when he had four 15,000-word-connected serials, he and his publisher put out a 60,000 or so word novel such as Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, or The Glass Key. 

That’s not where I am headed with this, though The Drowned Phenician is loosely connected to my stories “Ice,” (Ellery Queen, Sept.-Oct. 2011), and “Joe’s Last Scratch,” by chronology and recurring characters—P.I. Frank Swiver, his love Vera Peregrino, maquis forger Joe Damas, and lesbian waitress Alex.  It is still conceivable that I could develop some sort of overall story arc or villain and write one or two more in this set and have a good book.   

More about the drafting and revision process in my next post. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Autumn work plan

Having completed a polished, coherent draft of my second novel and e-mailed it off to my agent in N.Y., I’ve spent the last week or so catching up on reading colleagues’ drafts, tidying up my novella, and thinking about my next project. 

While I wrote my first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, I came to like my P.I., Frank Swiver well enough that I wanted to stick with him beyond the one book.  The second novel, Last Puffs, is not really a sequel, but a bit of a prequel about Frank, and a different case.  And I have glimmerings of light in a long tunnel that will be my third novel.  Trying to describe it here might be as goofy as Wm. Shakespeare telling about his idea for “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”  But I’m going to try to flesh out my ideas over the next few months. 

With that in mind, I downloaded Scrivener this week.  In writing the first two books, I collected folders of research, printouts of web pages, maps, character sketches, glossaries of hard-boiled slang, and eventually, after the work was 2/3 done and I was losing control of things, outlines done after the fact.  Scrivener, if I understand it correctly is going to enable me to gather all the materials I need in e-folders within the software. 

The careful reader might infer from the above that since I don’t outline until after the fact, I don’t really know where I’m going when I sit down to write.  I often have a general theme in mind, some characters I want to develop, and scenes I want to write.  I try to get to know the characters, be true to them, and let them take it from there.  Ah, but there are other theories.  Some wags even suggest that in order to know where to go, you must first know where you want to end up.  And so I’m planning to sign up for a Stanford U. class “Writing the Novel Back to Front.”  Do I want to write back to front?  Not particularly, but maybe it would benefit me to learn what this class has to offer. 

So, in a nutshell, I’m going to be starting a new novel, a new software program, and a new class simultaneously.  (What could possibly go wrong?)  The only complication is I’m already signed up for three classes at Johns Hopkins School for Johns Hopkins School for OldFarts, starting the same week.  Well, I think I can finesse it because I already have the Johns Hopkins syllabus, and I started the readings this week.  And I’m going to begin figuring out the plot of my Romeo & Ethel story before Stanford starts.  

It’ll be challenging, but I’ll be doing what I want so, I’m sure it will be fun. 

Monday, July 29, 2013


Good news here at the Black Lizard Lounge.  I finished the final draft of my second novel, Last Puffs.  I'm really happy with the way the revisions turned out, and I think it's going to be a fine and successful book. 
I suppose I should wait for the print edition but I'm eager to acknowledge those who helped me on my way, so here goes: 
Thanks to those who helped me express my thoughts in fiction:  to Janet Burroway who showed me how to reveal the emotional tide beneath the waves on the surface, to Charles Baxter, who taught me about subtext, and to Stephen Koch who gave me a revision plan.  To Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain three men who sure knew how to write, for their lessons about pulp and noir.  To Jim Mathews who taught me to write a page turner, and to Con Lehane for guiding me through the final revision.   

I’d also like to thank the readers whose feedback keeps me on track.  Writing is a solitary profession, and unless someone tells you what they think about your work, you could be like Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, out in the jungle, writing without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.  Or English lit.  So for reading,  a thank you to editor Tim Holland, who gave me ideas and showed me opportunities to do more; thanks to California verisimilitude and anachronism specialists John Covell and Kathryn Carter, and to fellow writers SiriChateaubriand, Christina Kovac-Loebach, Jenn Stroud Rossman, Mary Edelson, Arlene MacLeod, and Devika Mehra, whose interest and kindness have kept me from being terminated.     

Most of all, thanks to my wife, Anastasia, who happily allows me long hours in my writer’s garret, the Black Lizard Lounge, and suffers my desires and the time it takes me to write, knowing it makes me happy.  I love you, Tasia.


Monday, June 24, 2013

The Road Les Traveled

My latest Frank Swiver private eye story, “The Road Les Traveled” is on sale now in the August 2013 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  EQMM editorialized on their website:  ‘In “The Road Les Traveled” by Harley Mazuk, a shared military background encourages P.I. Frank Swiver to take on a high-stakes case that requires a special kind of understanding: that of fidelity, forgiveness, and mental illness.’  I couldn’t have put it better myself, and I wrote the thing! 

I think it’s a fine story and a fun story.  Hope you’ll look for a newsstand copy, or download from Amazon for the Kindle, Apple for the iPad, Barnes & Noble for the Nook, or try Magzter, Zinio, Reader Store or Google Play.

As always, bring your receipt to the Black Lizard Lounge for a free drink.  ;-) 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Malice Domestic—What a Hoot!

Malice is a conference for traditional mystery writers and their fans.  Think Agatha Christie and cozies, but it’s a big tent.  We had Laura Lippman and Harlan Coban, so many styles are represented. 

The big fun the first day was “Malice Go Round”—speed dating with authors.  We sat at about 20 round tables and every five minutes two authors moved to the next table and had two minutes each to “pitch” their books.  What an experience; what a strange world.  There were the “Orchard mysteries” (One Bad Apple, Rotten to the Core), Museum mysteries, Irish mysteries, “Book Club” mysteries—every month some member of the book club finds a body, Cheese shop mysteries (To Brie or not to Brie, Lost and Fondue), Cookbook mysteries—several authors include recipe cards, Yarn shop mysteries (Last Wool and Testament) , and so on.  Many amateur sleuths had pets.  Some of the cats solved the crimes—“he’s like Sam Spade with hairballs.”  Some of the dogs dug up the corpses.  The authors were quick to point out that there was murder, but no pets were harmed. 

Some of these ideas sounded pretty goofy to me.  But all the pitches were in earnest.