Tim Smith

Fact or Fake?

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.” – Mark Twain

I’m not sure how closely Mark Twain followed his own advice, but that quote can apply just as well to news writing as it does to fiction in this age of distorted truth. It’s getting to the point where you can’t tell the real news from the stuff people seem to make up based on things they overheard while waiting in line at Starbucks. The new mantra has become “I can neither confirm nor deny that I had any knowledge of this event which may or may not have happened.” Huh? When I watch a press briefing, I can tell they’re lying because their lips are moving, and it’s likely I don’t believe most of what they say anyway.

The problem isn’t the reliability of the mainstream news media. There are so many social media outlets that anyone can record something on their cell phone, post it online and call it “breaking news.” They’re not required to do basic fact checking, and people are so enthralled by made-up stories that they don’t seem to care. It used to be that the only place you found “fake news” was standing in the checkout lane of the grocery store, thumbing through the National Enquirer. There was also Mad Magazine, but they were honest enough to call it satire.

By the way, did you know that the toilet paper shortage during the first few months of Covid was caused by a group of cross-dressing Haitian immigrants who snuck into the U.S. and planned to exchange the toilet paper for visas? A Georgia politician said so on YouTube, so it must be true.

It’s been a longstanding practice in the entertainment industry for publicists to tweak someone’s bio to make them more appealing to the public. A lot of dark celebrity secrets have been hidden thanks to fictionalized life stories. Unfortunately, the practice was picked up by political campaign managers, and people stopped checking to see what was true or false. I absorb most of what I hear on the news outlets with a skeptical ear, until the anchor person says “According to our fact checkers…” When they say that, I pay attention to find out what they got wrong.

That reminds me of another public service message that made the rounds. I heard that you can avoid the flu by drinking an ounce of Mr. Clean before going to bed at night. Of course, the odds aren’t good that you’ll wake up the next morning, but at least you won’t catch the flu. Someone in Washington, D.C. posted that on Twitter, so it must be true, right? At least they didn’t recommend sitting on a cactus as a cure for hemorrhoids.

I’m a fan of shows like “Law & Order,” where they flash the disclaimer “Although inspired by actual events, this story is fictional…” I occasionally watch crime re-enactment shows like “Dateline” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” too. The ripped-from-the-headlines concept has inspired many crime fiction writers, myself included. Looking at it realistically, though, you have to ask “Who do they think they’re kidding with that work-of-fiction bull? If it’s fictional, why do the names sound like the actual participants, and why are the locations the same as where it really happened?”

Like many writers of contemporary mystery/thrillers, I get ideas from current events or my own life experiences. Publishers make it easy for us by putting that nifty little disclaimer at the front of the book, the one about it being a work of fiction. I rely on that disclaimer, and I even consulted an attorney about it once. He informed me that when describing a location, I could use the actual name of the establishment, as long as I didn’t say anything derogatory about it. For example, I can name the Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort as long as I don’t say that it’s a front for drugs, gambling or prostitution. It may very well be, but I can’t make the claim.

I’ve found that I have to exercise caution when it comes to characters, too. How many times has one of your friends or family members sworn that you based a character on them or someone you both know? It’s happened to me a few times. Likewise for the things I have my characters doing. Has anyone ever asked you how much of your story is fictional and how much of it is based on personal experiences? Been there and done that. I won’t deny that many of the plot twists I use were inspired by an actual life event, but I never give away the store when answering that question. And I flat out refuse to answer if it pertains to the sex scenes.

Did you hear that a group of radical Canadians launched a satellite armed with a laser beam? It’s pointed at the American side of Niagara Falls in case they get more tourists than the Canadian side. It must be true because I read about it on Instagram. They even had a video.

As a wise old scholar once told me, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Of course, that same scholar was convinced that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA operatives employed by Castro, and that NASA staged Neil Armstrong’s moon landing on a Hollywood soundstage. Remember those rumors in the pre-internet age?

Sometimes, fake stories can have destructive consequences. How about when actor Burt Reynolds injured his jaw while filming a fight scene that got out of hand? It resulted in TMJ, he was restricted to a liquid diet and lost thirty pounds. The painkillers he took led to addiction, and he was physically unable to work for a long time. In spite of those well-documented facts, the tabloids claimed he had AIDS. He didn’t, but his career comeback was delayed a few years because of it.

Speaking of celebrities, I read on Facebook that Elvis Presley was spotted leaving a Krispy Kreme in Cleveland, Ohio with a box of jelly donuts tucked under his arm. It was online, so it must be true.

I once gave an interview to a newspaper in the Florida Keys, which is the setting for my Nick Seven spy thrillers. The reporter gave me a wonderful write-up, and e-mailed me the PDF so I could get a sneak preview before the print version hit the stands. The original headline was “Former spy finds paradise in Ohio man’s novels.” I was thrilled. When the print copy arrived, they had trimmed the headline to make it fit the page. The new one was “Former spy finds paradise in Ohio,” right above my head shot. I laminated a copy to use at personal appearances, and the reaction I get from people is priceless. They read the headline, see my face, then look up and see me. Their eyes shift back and forth a few times, then someone will invariably ask me if I’m the former spy. I just smile and shrug. Sometimes I really have fun by saying “If I answer that question, I’ll have to kill you.”

There’s a line in the classic Western film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” A newspaper reporter is writing the life story of the title character, who parlayed the shooting of a vicious outlaw into a political career. When the reporter exaggerates the man’s accomplishments, he objects to them embellishing the truth. The reporter’s response is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

A Pretty Good Year

1972 was a noteworthy year for many things that are still part of our lives 50 years later. Numerous puzzle pieces came together to form an interesting kaleidoscope of cultural events. Unlike today, most of them didn’t revolve around politics, half-truths, and bizarre conspiracy theories. If you were around during that time, some of these things may bring a wistful smile of remembrance. If you weren’t there to witness it, read on to see what you missed.

Hollywood was on a roll, and contributed some landmark movies. We were treated to “The Godfather,” which is still regarded as one of the finest American films ever made. “The Poseidon Adventure” defined the all-star disaster movie, complete with soap opera elements and a top-ten pop song, in this case “The Morning After.” Martial arts master Bruce Lee may have been passed over for the lead in TV’s “Kung Fu,” but he made up for it on the big screen with “Fist of Fury” and “The Way of the Dragon.” “Last Tango in Paris” was a critical and commercial hit, but its controversial content nearly tanked Marlon Brando’s career, right before he refused the best actor Oscar for “The Godfather.” “Deliverance” was a career-maker for Burt Reynolds, and came on the heels of his infamous nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine. And no, he didn’t play the character who was told to “Squeal like a pig!” That dubious distinction went to actor Ned Beatty, who got teased about it for the rest of his life.

It’s interesting to look at the top ten films and realize how we were spending our entertainment bucks. Besides “Godfather,” “Poseidon” and “Deliverance,” the other seven top grossers were “What’s Up, Doc?”, “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Cabaret,” “Deep Throat” (seriously!), “The Getaway,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).” In case you couldn’t tell, that last one was courtesy of Woody Allen, inspired by Dr. David Rubin’s bestseller. “Deep Throat” also had the distinction of ushering in what was labeled “porno chic,” basically moving adult films from seedy bookstores to theaters on Main Street.

The pop music world provided songs that are still fodder for oldies stations, class reunions, and the occasional beer commercial. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (Roberta Flack) was initially released in 1969 but didn’t find an audience until Clint Eastwood used it in his movie “Play Misty for Me.” It took home Grammy awards for both Song and Record of the Year. “American Pie” (Don McLean) is as much a pop quiz as a pop song, a musical riddle with veiled mentions of Elvis, Bob Dylan and other music icons. The song’s refrain—“The day the music died”—is a reference to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.

This year also gave us Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, “Love Train” by the O’Jays, and Bette Midler’s breakout hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” The inspirational “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers topped the charts, along with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” “Without You” (Harry Nilsson), and “Nights in White Satin” (The Moody Blues). For better or worse, ’72 introduced the pop group ABBA. Their name is an acronym for members Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid. Did you know it was also the name of a Swedish canned fish company?

Television continued to search for new ways to attract viewers. “Sanford and Son” debuted, where veteran nightclub comic Redd Foxx played a Black version of Archie Bunker. Speaking of which, the “All in the Family” spinoff “Maude” starred Broadway actress Beatrice Arthur as an outspoken feminist. The show used dark humor to take on taboo sit-com topics like alcoholism, domestic violence, infidelity and unplanned pregnancy. “The Bob Newhart Show” gave the popular stand-up comedian a new audience, while “The Waltons” provided a down-home family contrast to the turmoil in the world. Cable network Home Box Office began broadcasting that year. For the first nine years it was available, HBO provided only about nine hours of programming a day, until Showtime came along and offered a 24-hour schedule.

In September of that year, audience members were invited to “Come on down!” for the first time with the reboot of “The Price is Right,” still the longest-running TV game show in history. “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” permanently relocated from NYC to LA (actually Burbank), where it would remain until 2014. In keeping with the adage “crime doesn’t pay,” more than half of the weekly network primetime schedule consisted of private eye and police dramas. The venerable children’s program “Captain Kangaroo” aired its 5000th episode, and the Korean war comedy “M*A*S*H” debuted. As all good things must come to an end, the beloved sit-com “Bewitched” lost its magic after eight seasons, when it was scheduled against “All in the Family,” then the most-watched show on TV.

Do you have a drip coffee maker or Keurig in your kitchen? You can trace its origins back to 1972, when a new home appliance called Mr. Coffee hit the market. They hired baseball legend Joe DiMaggio to be the on-air pitchman, despite his preference for instant Sanka. Have you ever served Egg Beaters for breakfast? The 99-percent egg white product that was intended to reduce cholesterol first became available that year. Also introduced was the Honda Civic, a sub-compact auto which turned a company best known for motorcycles into a car brand. Sales of the fuel-efficient import soared as the price of gasoline hit then-record highs. To put that in perspective, it was $.36 a gallon in 1972. Those were the days…

Pong, the first arcade video game from Atari, let players imagine what it was like to play table tennis without actually holding a paddle. On the real tennis court, yellow tennis balls were introduced. Research showed that the bright yellow color was more visible on TV than the traditional white variety. This was also the year we first heard George Carlin’s comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” I can’t say them here, either!

How many of these do you remember: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” (from an Alka-Seltzer commercial); “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” the United Negro College Fund slogan famously mangled later by Vice President Dan Quayle as “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind”; Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem’s New York magazine spinoff, which she originally considered naming Sisters or Bimbo; Carnival Cruise Line, which started off with one ship and enough fuel to make it from Miami to San Juan, but not back; the unanimous passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; and the popular children’s book “Watership Down,” conceived by Richard Adams for his two daughters while on a long family car trip.

Speaking of literature, you can tell a lot about society by what people read. The top selling book that year, according to Publisher’s Weekly, was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. Other bestsellers included “The Odessa File” and “The Day of the Jackal” (both by Frederick Forsyth), “The Winds of War” (Herman Wouk), “The Word” (Irving Wallace), “My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok), “Wheels” (Arthur Hailey), and “Semi-Tough” (Dan Jenkins).

Of note is that a second-rate self-help book with crude illustrations and the titillating title “The Joy of Sex” spent 11 weeks atop the NYT bestsellers list. Other popular books that year included “The Terminal Man,” “Elephants Can Remember,” “The Scarlet Ruse,” “All Creatures Great and Small,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Stepford Wives,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

I wonder what people will remember about us in 50 years?

I’ll Wait for the Book

Scriptwriters have long used novels and short stories as the basis for their work, for both movies and TV shows. I suppose good ideas are hard to come by in Hollywood, so why not poach someone else’s blood, sweat and tears, right? And who among us hasn’t daydreamed about our book being turned into a blockbuster film or Netflix series? In their defense, there are only a dozen or so original plots in the world anyway, and they’ve all been used.

I became a film buff when I was a kid and if the movie was based on a book, I’d usually read it afterward. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that in most cases, the two had little resemblance to each other! These changes were often minor, usually because the book was long or contained mature content, but it made me curious as to how often that happened, and what the results were.

“Double Indemnity” was a bestselling novel by James M. Cain, a cynical tale of greed fueled by lust. Naturally, that called for a movie version to cash in on its popularity. The screenwriters apparently thought Cain hadn’t done his job correctly, because they re-arranged pieces of the plot. The result was a classic film noir that still holds up today. Even Cain grudgingly admitted that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did an okay job with their adaptation.

Speaking of Chandler, his breakthrough murder mystery “The Big Sleep” had Hollywood blockbuster stamped all over it. It was the second on-screen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Bogart forged the template for every cynical private eye that followed. It’s an entertaining film because of the chemistry between the two stars but unfortunately, you’re left scratching your head at the end and asking “So who did it? And why?” At one point, the writers even consulted Chandler for an answer, but he said he didn’t know. His lack of interest could be because he wasn’t asked to adapt his own novel, and probably didn’t care.

A lot of Ernest Hemingway’s stories made it to the screen, with mixed results. He claimed not to have liked most of them, with two exceptions. The first ten minutes of “The Killers” pretty much copied his short story word for word. When the plot veered into uncovering the motive for the murder, Hemingway stopped watching. He also enjoyed “For Whom the Bell Tolls” because it starred Gary Cooper, whom Hemingway had envisioned when he wrote the book.

He had reservations about another adaptation, “To Have and Have Not.” Hemingway felt that it was the worst book he ever wrote and bet filmmaker Howard Hawks that he couldn’t make a decent movie out of it. He was proved wrong. Of course, the writers only kept the title, changed the names of the characters and basically made it into a carbon copy of “Casablanca,” but who cared? It also helped that it was the first on-screen teaming of Bogart and Bacall (in her film debut), and the heat between the two radiated from the screen. They were married shortly after the film was completed.

There have been some noteworthy exceptions. The first few James Bond films stayed true to Ian Fleming’s novels, especially “From Russia with Love.” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes is very close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure. “The Godfather” is another example, because Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplay. “The Maltese Falcon” is faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s book due to screenwriter John Huston lifting scenes and dialogue directly from it.

Bringing James Jones’ World War II epic “From Here to Eternity” to the screen was no easy task. It’s a massive book and Jones didn’t pull any punches in his unflattering portrayal of the United States Army. The book was controversial because of raw language, sex, violence, racial slurs, the primary love interest is a prostitute, and one of the soldiers is gay-for-pay. Somehow, they managed to clean it up and get it past the censors in 1953, and it won a ton of awards.

Several of Donald E. Westlake’s crime capers were turned into entertaining movies, particularly “The Hot Rock,” “The Organization” and “The Split.” When he sold the rights to any of his stories featuring a career criminal named Parker, however, he refused to let the producers use the name Parker unless they bought the entire series, which no one was willing to do. His Parker story “The Hunter” has been filmed twice, as “Point Blank” (with Lee Marvin playing Walker), and “Payback” (with Mel Gibson as Porter). Most of Westlake’s film adaptations retained the personality and nuances of his characters.

Elmore Leonard didn’t fare too well in the true-to-the-source department. While I enjoyed “Get Shorty,” I looked for comparisons to the book but couldn’t find very many. I noticed the same thing with some of Mickey Spillane’s filmed adventures. “Kiss Me Deadly” is a terrific movie, but many of the book’s characters appeared in name only. Nelson DeMille’s “The General’s Daughter” was hard to put down once I began reading it, but I didn’t have that problem with the film version. Robert B. Parker did better with his Spenser series because he took an active role in the development.

Perhaps the low point in book-to-screen adaptations was “The Green Berets” (1967), with John Wayne. Robin Moore’s novel was a factual, non-political story about the elite military unit fighting in Viet Nam. What emerged onscreen was a piece of propaganda designed to sell the public on Wayne’s firm belief that the war was actually good for America. Maybe he thought he was still making those WWII movies where he single-handedly defeated the Axis of Evil.

Pass the popcorn!

The First 20 Years are the Hardest

April marks 20 years since I became a published author. I’d been writing before then, but “Memories Die Last,” the first novel in my popular Nick Seven spy series, was released by a traditional publisher in 2002. To date, I’ve published 28 books (mostly novels, and some shorter ones), and have contributed to a couple of anthologies. I’m also a blogger, freelance writer, editor, and book reviewer. I’ve done more interviews (print and podcast) and guest blogs than I can remember. To say it’s been an interesting 20 years is putting it mildly. Let’s see what’s happened since then.

I learned the importance of personal appearances, reviews and interviews early on, and aggressively marketed myself to bookstores, libraries, festivals and bloggers. Keep in mind, this was right before e-books began to dominate the market, and print was still “it”. Eventually my network grew and I appeared at events in several states throughout the Midwest. I began doing guest speaker gigs with civic groups, then someone helped me get on local TV and radio talk shows. As heady as that sounds, some of those appearances didn’t work out as planned.

I was doing an interview on an internet radio program called Authors First, to promote my second book, another romantic spy thriller. It was a primetime call-in/e-mail show, and I had guested a few months earlier to discuss my first book. The host I drew for that evening, a self-proclaimed conspiracy nut, picked up on a story thread I used about government cover-ups, and kept questioning me about it. I was dodging his grenades pretty well, until he asked for my honest opinion on how the government was handling the war on terror. I momentarily froze, live on the air, while thinking of a response that wouldn’t land me on a federal watchlist.

I’ve had some unique experiences since I got into this crazy business. One was being the keynote speaker for the Indianapolis Book Festival, courtesy of an online radio host who had me as a guest and liked what I had to say. Another time, I did a week-long book signing tour in the Florida Keys. My publicist and I had scheduled appearances at bookstores, gift shops, a resort, and a trendy restaurant, along with sit-downs with the local media. It was a busy week, but I still managed to get a nice tan in between all the smiling-and-signing. I sold a ton of books, too.

It was during that trip that I had a revelation. When I showed up at one of the bookstores for my scheduled appearance, several people were waiting for me so they could get personalized signed copies of my newest book. That made me feel good. I also noticed that my books were on the shelf next to other Florida writers I admired, like Carl Hiaasen, James W. Hall and Tim Dorsey. I thought “Smith, you have arrived!”

Shortly after this, I signed with a traditional romance publisher, and attended my first convention. Being a man who writes straight contemporary romance, I was reluctant to go at first. A friend of mine was one of the sponsors, and she encouraged me to attend. It turned out to be a good experience, and I returned over the next few years. One encounter, though, still lingers.

One of the side gigs I had taken on prior to this was reviewing books for an online romance site. I noticed that the author of a book I recently liked would be attending this convention. My friend knew the woman and introduced me as a fellow romance author. She looked at me like I was a homeless guy she found camping in her living room, and sputtered “B-but…you’re a man!” I smiled and said “Thank you for noticing. I’ll try to do better next time.”

I’ve always written under my real name, and have been upfront that my books have adult content. I don’t recommend them to anyone under 18, or to those who may be uncomfortable reading that kind of material. Better to lose a sale than offend someone. My family members are aware of the steamy scenes in my books, and I always got the biggest kick out of my late mother’s reaction. When I hit my stride as an author, she was in her early 80s. She was an avid reader, and had read everything written by Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susanne. Whenever I asked what she thought of my newest book, she gave an honest appraisal, and usually commented that the erotic scenes were “well-written and realistic.” Praise indeed.

I’m often asked if my stories are based on personal experiences. I love that one because it gives me an excuse to tease people with “Maybe yes, maybe no,” which is true. I just don’t tell them where fact ends and fiction begins. When I wrote “Anywhere the Heart Goes,” I was recalling my adjustments after a bad break-up, so the lead character experienced the same things. “Mistletoe and Palm Trees” was the result of a vacation I took by myself when my traveling companion had to cancel at the last moment. “Catch and Release” was inspired by something I observed while having lunch at a waterfront bistro. Most of “The Neon Jungle” was influenced by my experiences with a Dayton-area music organization that wasn’t entirely legitimate.

One of the best marketing tools I use came about by accident. When I was doing the book signing tour in The Keys, I was interviewed by a local newspaper writer. The following week, he e-mailed me the story and promised to send me a print copy. The headline in the PDF read “Former Spy Finds Paradise in Ohio Man’s Novels,” complete with my photo. I was ecstatic. When the print version arrived, it had been shortened to “Former Spy Finds Paradise in Ohio,” situated right above my head shot. I still display that story at personal appearances. People stop to read it, see the headline and my face, then look up and see me. Their gaze goes back to the page then up to me, followed by them asking if I’m the former spy. I just smile and shrug.

I’ve discovered that you can have some fun when people find out you write erotic romance. It’s a great way to insert a laugh into a conversation when you talk about impossible sex positions, or how many names there are for certain body parts. Once, I broke up a family engagement party by introducing myself as “The guy who writes dirty books.” Most people thought that was funny, but for some reason, my nephew’s prospective in-laws weren’t amused.

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author of romantic mystery/thrillers and contemporary romance. He is also a freelance writer, editor, blogger and photographer. When he isn’t pursuing those interests, he can be found in the Florida Keys, doing research in between parasailing and seeking out the perfect Mojito.

Life or Something Like It

“Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” – George Sand, French author (1804 – 1876).

There’s a lot of truth in that quote, and it’s probably why so many of us write contemporary fiction. Life is sometimes too bizarre to be believed, and we feel a need to tell people about it. Unfortunately, we usually embellish it with caricatures of the people who populate our world, and that can lead to trouble. I don’t worry about that, because most of the people I know wouldn’t make believable characters in the first place. I like to populate my stories with unique personalities, but some of my friends would push the boundaries of believability.

I ran across a blog that posed the question “Why don’t romance novels get the respect they deserve?” There are a lot of talented writers out there who specialize in one romance genre or another, and many of them have loyal followers. I have a theory about why respect can be elusive, especially when it comes to erotic romance.

Think back a number of years to the paperbacks you typically found in the drugstore that sold for 25 or 50 cents. They were sordid potboilers, with salacious titles and peek-a-boo covers to match. “The Lady is a Lush,” “Housewife Hookers” and “Country Club Wives” are a few actual examples. These were released under imprints from mainstream publishers, but the authors hid behind pseudonyms. They were probably afraid of blowing their credibility once they finished that great American novel they were writing. These books were heavy on sex and soap opera antics, but light on everything else. They were also the precursor to the modern-day erotic romance. People who wrote them were considered inferior by some snobbish types, the ones who secretly read these books when no one was looking.

Apparently, many people still think of “bodice rippers” and Harlequin paperbacks when you mention romance novels. It’s been pointed out that those who trash romances don’t usually read them in the first place. A quote I read claimed that many of these folks brush off the genre as “F*** fiction” and assume that only women read it. I hate to think where that puts me, since I read a lot of romances when I was reviewing books. Many of them wouldn’t qualify as erotica, but there was plenty of steam. The works of Harold Robbins come to mind. His novels may have been classified as adult fiction, but he threw caution to the wind when it came to writing bedroom scenes.

The blog I referenced confirmed that e-book sales for romances outsell every other genre, and I can understand why. When you’re using your Kindle or phone, it’s easy to hide what you’re reading. This comes in handy if the cover features half-naked people doing nasty things. It also explains why a piece of dreck like “50 Shades of Really Bad Writing” became an international bestseller. That fact backed up my opinion that some die-hards will read anything.

The condescending attitude toward romance novels is frustrating for those of us who write mystery thrillers and private eye stories that include romance and sex. I embrace the opportunity to mix some romance into my plots because it makes them more believable. I especially enjoy writing the flirting and teasing parts of the relationships I develop, and using witty, realistic dialogue to make the point.

To me, there’s something fun about creating the magic moment where two people realize that they’re falling for each other. The giddy thrill from imagining that special someone being the first person you see every morning and the last person every night. The companion who is straight out of a beautifully crafted romance story, the one you want to spend the rest of your life with. To show you what I mean, here’s a passage from “Anywhere the Heart Goes” (2010, Extasy Books), a contemporary romance about two people named Rachel and Sam.

“Do you remember what you said once, about how we’d both been hit by a few bad relationships?” Sam asked.

Rachel nodded.

“You were right,” he continued. “At first, I was afraid I was going to get hurt again, then I realized something I hadn’t felt for a long time. I was really more afraid of hurting you.”

“Hurting me how?”

“I was afraid I was starting to like you too much, and if things didn’t work out, you’d get hurt. I didn’t want that to happen to you.”

Rachel had a confused look. “How can you like someone too much?”

Sam took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, deciding it was time to go for broke. “When you get up in the morning thinking of someone and you can’t get them out of your head for the rest of the day. When you’re doing something you enjoy and you wish they were there to share it with you. When you’re with someone else and you keep thinking of the other person. That’s how you can like someone too much.”

Perhaps George Sand was onto something, after all.

Read These at Your Own Risk

Any book worth banning is a book worth reading — Isaac Asimov

Writers of erotic romance must deal with the possibility of their work being banned at some point. Some of what we write isn’t appropriate for certain age groups, or our material may rub religious readers the wrong way. I make the content clear to customers when working book festivals and author signings. Better to lose one sale than ten potential readers because someone got offended by my books and trashed me to their friends.

I recently ran across a magazine from 1984, and it contained an article titled “The Dirty Thirty.” It listed 30 books that were the most frequently censored titles in high school libraries at the time. Most of the objections focused on alleged obscenity, but some of the philosophical and political ideas being presented were also considered unpopular. When I attended high school and college in the ‘70s, most of these so-called inappropriate books were required reading.

John Steinbeck is regarded as one of America’s pre-eminent authors, but two of his novels—“The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”—consistently get banned for racial slurs, stereotypes, and obscene language. Mark Twain made the ’84 list with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” along with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” I once had to write a book report on “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” was recommended by my civics teacher for its anti-war theme. Yet there they both were, on the naughty list.

What books currently have the Puritan’s panties in a twist? Here’s the Hot 21, as compiled by the American Library Association, along with the reasons why they were banned. I was surprised to discover that some of the same books were still making the cut (no pun intended). As you scan the list, you’ll see some themes emerging.

“George” by Alex Gino (LGBTQ content and a transgender character).

“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds (for the author’s public statements concerning racism, and claims that the book contains ‘selective storytelling incidents,’ whatever that means)

“All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (profanity, drug use, alcoholism, and promoting anti-police views.)

“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson (contains a political viewpoint that is biased against male students, and includes rape and profanity)

“Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard (divisive language and promoting anti-police views)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (perennially cited for “racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white savior’ character, and its perception of the Black experience.”)

“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (racial slurs and stereotypes, and their negative effect on students)

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison (considered to be sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse)

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (profanity, and promoting an anti-police message)

“Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin (LGBTQ content, the effect on any young people who would read it, and being sexually explicit)

“A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” by Jill Twiss. This one and the next title, “Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and You” by Cory Silverberg, shared the banning distinctions of “LGBTQ content, political viewpoints, themes that are ‘designed to pollute the morals of its readers,’ not including a content warning, and discussing gender identity and sex education.” Makes you wonder if the authors did anything right.

“Prince & Knight” by Daniel Haack (for “Featuring a gay marriage, LGBTQ content, and being a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria.” Wow!)

“I Am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (LGBTQ content, a transgender character, and confronting a topic that is ‘sensitive, controversial, and politically charged.’)

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (profanity, vulgarity and sexual overtones)

“Drama” by Raina Telgemeier (for “LGBTQ content and concerns that it goes against family values/morals.”)

The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling (“For referring to magic and witchcraft, containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use nefarious means to attain goals.”)

“And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson (LGBTQ content)

The “Captain Underpants” series, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey (“The series was challenged because it was perceived as encouraging disruptive behavior, while ‘Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot’ includes a same-sex couple.”)

“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asheri (for addressing teen suicide)

“This One Summer” by Mariko Tamaki (“Profanity, sexual references, and certain illustrations.”)

Full disclosure: I’m not in favor of censorship, but I realize there are situations where limiting a young person’s access to certain books is best. However, the reason given for compiling this list in the first place really confused me: “Because schools and libraries should not put books in a child’s hands that require discussion.”

Isn’t that the point of getting an education in the first place?

Your Best and Worst Writing Advice

This month signals the start of a new year, and that brings along new beginnings and reboots. Also renewed work projects that weren’t finished by the end of last year. To get into that spirit, I thought it would be fun for us to share some of the best—and worst—advice on writing we’ve gotten. I’ll start with the best.

Early in my career, when I was collecting enough rejection letters to paper a conference room, one acquisitions editor actually took the time to make some constructive suggestions. The best was that whenever I introduce a new character, no matter how minor, I should include at least a brief physical description to help the reader form a mental picture. I’ve used that ever since.

She also noted that my book (a spy thriller with a romantic subplot) seemed to lack focus. She suggested that I decide which aspect I wanted to feature and concentrate on that. Fortunately, I found a way to achieve the kind of balance I wanted, but it was still good advice that I keep in mind. Know your audience.

An editor I worked with early on really got after me about point of view. She complained that after reading parts of my story, she was dizzy from all the head-hopping I had done. She told me to put myself inside the character and write the scene as though I was looking through their eyes. More excellent advice.

Another editor suggested that I choose some of my words more carefully, because she felt I was trying to prove that I had memorized Roget’s Thesaurus. Ouch! Ever since then I’ve settled for plain everyday language whenever possible. It reminded me how much it bugs me when a writer uses a word or phrase that sends me on a Google search.

Since we’re on language, this same editor (the one I request for each new book) commented on the fact that when I use characters of different ethnic origins (Latino, Italian, etc.), I have them speak a few words or phrases in their native tongue to make the characters more realistic. I always research these carefully so I’m using the right ones. She told me I need to reference the words in a subsequent sentence to explain what they mean, since not everyone is fluent in that language.

Now that I’ve shared some of the best, it’s time to visit the flip side.

I once attended a book signing event near Chicago, where I had been invited to participate in a panel discussion for aspiring writers. One of the local authors (who shall remain anonymous because I think he’s a pretentious boor) was apparently successful with a series of private eye adventures. He had just signed with a New York publisher. I remember this because in every sentence he uttered, even when he was responding to a question, he felt compelled to insert the proclamation “And I just got a five-figure advance from a major publisher!”

Want to know what his only bit of advice was? “Whatever you do, before you submit your manuscript, be sure it’s completed.” Gee, Joe, I think we could’ve figured that out on our own! And no, I’ve never read any of his books, nor am I likely to.

Marketing is another area where what works for one person isn’t necessarily universal. I’ve had several authors rave about the benefits they got from advertising in trade magazines or on certain retail sites. I tried copying what they did, and only ended up spending a lot of money with no return. Again, I think it comes down to knowing your target audience and where to find them.

Some of the advice I’ve received had to be taken lightly. After my first spy adventure came out, a friend actually suggested (with a straight face) that I might sell more books if I changed my name to Tim Clancey. In hindsight, a change of name might have been beneficial, but I’m sure someone would have noticed the difference.

What has been the best or worst writing advice you’ve received?

Mistletoe and Movies

Every year at this time, we are bombarded by holiday-themed romance flicks on TV. Christmas and romance go together like cookies and hot chocolate, but some cable networks take it to the extreme. Last year, the Hallmark Channel broadcast a record 39 new movies in December alone. They began running this year’s lineup before Halloween, and Lifetime followed shortly thereafter with their seasonal soapers. I try to catch a few, but some of them threaten to push my blood sugar level into the diabetic danger zone.

To that end, I submit my own list of favorite holiday movies, the ones that are part of my yuletide tradition. Some of them focus on romance, but most are just good holiday cheer, designed to help you enjoy the season and take your mind off of shopping. How many of these have you seen?

“Holiday Inn” (1942) – The first onscreen pairing of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire introduced “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday” and “Easter Parade,” among other holiday-themed songs by Irving Berlin. The concept was cliched even then (two show biz partners break up the act, they fight over the same girl, etc.) but it’s still fun to watch for the music, laughs, and some of the best dancing Astaire ever did in a film. A highlight is the Valentine’s Day ballad “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.”

“White Christmas” (1954) – This was originally intended as a reworking of “Holiday Inn,” again featuring Crosby and Astaire, along with some new Irving Berlin music. The plan changed after Astaire read the script and turned it down. Donald O’Connor was then chosen to be the dancing partner but he became ill, and was replaced by Danny Kaye. Kaye let it be known that he wasn’t happy about being third choice, and wouldn’t be taking a back seat to Crosby. Despite all the backstage drama, it was the most successful movie that year and has remained a beloved holiday favorite. The songs are good, the dance numbers are top-notch, and the chemistry between Crosby and Rosemary Clooney reflects their off-screen friendship.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1942) – This film version of the Broadway comedy hit came along when America was in the thick of WWII, and the country needed something to lift its spirits. Monty Woolley is a snobbish radio personality who becomes injured while visiting an Ohio family during a lecture tour. He remains in their home through Christmas, imposing his eccentric lifestyle and pompous demands on his unwilling hosts. The whole thing is performed at a fast pace with dialogue and situations that are still funny. This was updated for TV in the ‘70s with Orson Welles in the title role.

“Grumpy Old Men” (1993) – The reunion of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau turned out to be a surprise hit. Two childhood friends who have been feuding for years live next door to each other, but barely get along. When carefree spirit Ann-Margret moves in across the street, the competition for her attention gets intense. This movie is a delight, with hearty laughs and on-target observations about relationships, aging, and holidays with estranged families. Burgess Meredith is a hoot as Lemmon’s father. After the ending, stick around for the outtakes over the closing credits.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1988) – Here we have Chevy Chase doing his hapless family guy persona, Beverly D’Angelo as his long-suffering wife, and a situation where anything that can go wrong probably will. While you’re watching this, think “How many of these things have happened to me?” I can always come up with a few.

“A Christmas Story” (1982) – “I triple-dog-dare ya!” This one brings back many of my own childhood Christmas memories, especially Darren McGavin’s hilarious portrayal of The Old Man. And how many of us lusted after that one special gift we just had to have, like Ralphie with his Red Ryder BB gun? I was guilty of the “F-dash-dash-dash word” thing when I was his age, too. If you can’t catch this one at least once over the holidays, you’re probably living on Mars.

“When Harry Met Sally” (1989) – Rob Reiner’s ode to contemporary romance makes the list because the big finish takes place on New Year’s Eve. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are besties who avoid a romantic relationship because they think two friends who become emotionally involved can’t possibly make it work—or can they? Nora Ephron’s script contains her usual insightful prose, and the music by Harry Connick, Jr. sets the right mood. And let us not forget “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) – This overlooked Christmas gem stars Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven. A church Bishop (Niven) neglects his wife, family and congregation because of his single-minded pursuit of building a new cathedral. Along comes Grant as a suave angel named Dudley to remind him of what’s really important in life. There are laughs, charm, and some genuinely touching moments. Remade as “The Preacher’s Wife” with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987) – This John Hughes road movie for grownups is a lot of fun. Steve Martin is an uptight businessman trying to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, but one delay after another pops up to aggravate him. The main distraction is John Candy as a well-meaning but overbearing salesman whom Martin ends up traveling with. Lots of laughs abound as Martin makes getting home to his family his personal crusade, in spite of the albatross around his neck. Watch for the “Those aren’t pillows!” scene about a half-hour in.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965) – Not technically a movie, but a sentimental favorite nonetheless. I’ve been watching this since it premiered in 1965 (when I first saw it in glorious black-and-white—talk about dating myself!). The simplistic animation adds to the charm, as does Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy soundtrack. This was the first attempt at animating Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters. The message about the real meaning of Christmas still resonates, and hopefully influences a new batch of kids each year.

Zen and the Art of Teasing

I love writing flirting scenes in my romances. There’s something sensual and erotic about two people engaging in teasing and verbal jousting when they feel that initial spark and decide they’d like to know each other better. Sometimes you can radiate more heat with a few lines of suggestive dialogue than with a paragraph of in-your-face eroticism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Flirting is all part of creating sexual tension with your characters. I think it’s safe to assume that most of us write something more substantial than “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” in our romances, whether the encounters are erotic or sweet. It should be everything leading up to a fulfilling, mutually satisfying encounter. Full-on intercourse implies emotional intimacy, and commitment. Erotic foreplay is building up to the ultimate “deed,” and it can range from sensual to scorching.

It all has to do with conflict, both internal and external, and creating barriers to the characters having sex. Internal conflict arises from beliefs or an emotional wound that prevents a character from consummating the relationship, such as fear of rejection or a deep-seated moral quandary. External conflict comes from parameters outside the character and could be any number of things, like environment, bad timing, or family/peer pressure.

When does this sexual tension begin? Immediately when the characters first meet, begin talking, and start getting acquainted. The dance of sexual tension should be a metaphor for the act of sex itself. Start slow, gradually build, then eventually end in orgasmic climax, while teasing your readers along the way. Here’s an example from one of my sexy private eye thrillers, “Lido Key.” If this doesn’t put you in mind of “Body Heat” or “Double Indemnity,” you probably aren’t a fan of film noir:

When Vic locked eyes with Ariel Weston across the bar, there was no escape. He moved to the stool next to hers, drawn in like a marlin hooked by a determined fisherman. “Excuse me, Miss, but I’m new in town. Could you please direct me to your house?”

She began with a chuckle that escalated into full-blown laughter, then she playfully smacked Vic’s forearm. “That’s so lame, it’s cute!”

“Thank you.”

Her eyes scanned him up and down. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before, have I?” she asked in a low, smoky voice.

“No. Do I need a reservation to sit here?”

She laughed again. “A smart-ass. I like that quality in a man. Where are you from, smart-ass?”

“A whole other world. Would you like me to provide references before we go any further?”

She placed her hand on his on top of the bar. Her gaze radiated more sensual intensity. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, but since we’re going to be friends, I think I should call you something more formal than smart-ass.”

“Are we going to be friends?”

“Unless you think you already have enough of them.”

“You can never have too many friends. Why don’t you call me Blake?”

“Is that your real name?”

“No, my real name is Vic. I just use Blake to fool people. What should I call you besides totally hot?”

“I like that, but let’s go with Ariel.”

“Pretty name.”

“Thank you. I’m rather attached to it.” She massaged his hand. “I should tell you something, Vic. I’m married to a rich older man, we don’t have any kids and we’ve always had separate bedrooms. He doesn’t really notice if I’m not home, since he’s only there long enough to change clothes before he meets his latest girlfriend. He doesn’t ask me any questions and I don’t grill him about where he drops his pants. Does that bother you?”

“One man’s ignorance is another man’s bliss.”

“Ooh, a clever smart-ass. That’s another quality I like.”

“And we’re just getting started.”

As you can see from that example, the key is using language to build erotic tension. It’s metaphorical sex play to introduce sexual talk into mundane conversations. Make it more fluid, lyrical, and sensual than regular dialogue. Grammar rules typically go out the window in the throes of passion when you’re trying to convey feelings. Establish a cadence and a rhythmic pacing, be more lyrical, and note the sound of the words.

It’s important to pay attention to connotations, and be aware of what a word means to a given group. As an example, there’s a slang word used in erotic literature that refers to a part of the female anatomy (begins with “c,” rhymes with “hunt”). A lot of American readers find it offensive, but in some European cultures, it’s considered commonplace and used in everyday language. The lesson here is research your market. You want to use words that will arouse pleasure while conveying something about the characters, but you don’t want to alienate people, either.

By way of a parting example, here’s a brief passage from the romantic comedy, “The Sweet Distraction”:

“I should probably go,” George said. “I’m cutting into your tanning time.”

“Why do you have to run off?” Cookie teased.

“Because I’m working.”

“You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“I always make time to play.”

“Like what?”

“Poker, blackjack, the ponies once in a while…”

“Are you good at picking winners?”

“I find it depends on who’s holding the riding crop.”

“Ooh, is that a kinky side coming out of hiding?”

He winked. “I’ll never tell.”

“I like to play, too.”

“What games do you like to play, little girl?”

“Pass-out, strip dominoes, escaped convict and the Warden’s wife…”

“Those are a little out of my league.”

“Maybe you should move up from Little League to the majors. That’s where they play night games.”

“Is this where you ask me if I know how to whistle, then tell me to just put my lips together and blow?”

She raised her sunglasses and looked at him. “I can think of a much better use for your lips.”

Happiness is…

We’ve always been told that our basic rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That part about the pursuit of happiness is a great idea, but there’s one thing missing—how do you recognize it when you think you’ve found it?

Happiness seems to mean different things for everyone. Those who are materialistically motivated are only happy when they have all the toys in their playpen. The more expensive the toy, the happier they are. Some people get that glow if they’re the center of social or political attention. An offshoot of this same personality type only seems to find joy when they can demean or bully others. Then there are those who think happiness and true love are joined at the hip.

A friend once asked what makes me happy. I had to think about that one, because I didn’t have a ready-made response. While I find comfort in financial security, or career success, or the joys of a great relationship, I can’t really tag one as the standard. There are times when I’m happy after enjoying a night out with friends. A vacation at my favorite getaway spot makes me happy, until I get home and realize it’s over. A terrific book review makes me feel like doing cartwheels in front of my house. Fortunately, I’ve never done that, which probably makes my neighbors happy.

I’ve come to believe that happiness is relative to where you are in your life. When I was a child, doing fun family things made me happy, especially around holidays. As I got older and discovered the joy of girls, dating one who caught my eye was my idea of happiness. Getting a raise or good performance evaluation when I was on the job always brought out the happy hormones, too.

I came across a list of 7 common myths about happiness. I won’t include all of them, but a few struck a chord with me, and they might with you. I think these hit me between the eyes because I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking.

“If I have lots of money, I will be happy.” An infusion of greenbacks can get you a lot of things, but beyond your basic needs and financial security, the upgrades really don’t make that much difference. There have been times in my life when I didn’t have two quarters to rub together, but I still found something to be happy about.

“I have to be better than just OK to be happy.” This sounds like the credo of Overachievers Anonymous. Is the follow-up line “And as long as I’m better than you, I’m even happier”? I’ve known people with this Type A personality trait and I always avoided them, lest I get run over in their race to the happiness finish line. The problem is that the finish line is a moving target, and people with this mindset never seem to get there.

“When I find true love, then I will be happy.” This is probably the most erroneous myth ever. While it may help some of us tell compelling romance stories, it’s also a painful thing if it doesn’t work out. Love can be the greatest feeling in the world, but keep your eyes open, and be careful what you wish for. I have a woman friend who has been searching for what she considers true love for twenty-plus years. She hasn’t found it yet because she set some very high standards for a potential mate. Suffice to say, she never seems to be very happy, either.

“When life is normal again, then I can be happy again.” For this one to come to fruition, you first need to define “normal.” With what we’ve been through the past couple of years, it has changed on a weekly basis. What was once considered normal has taken on a different meaning. Why not adapt to what is now the norm in your own life and make the best of it?

There’s no hard-and-fast qualifier for happiness. It’s really what you choose to make it. Many people are happy when they’ve finished their day’s labors and can relax at home with their favorite TV show. Others find joy in hitting the winning home run for their softball team. Outdoorsy-type folks derive great pleasure from fishing or camping. Other adventurous souls become overjoyed when they stumble across a sale at their favorite store, and their credit card isn’t maxed out.

What lights up your happy button?

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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