Mike Nichols on Writing

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Like many of you, I was saddened today to learn that Mike Nichols had died. He directed so many wonderful films, including The Graduate...Silkwood...Working Girl...Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf...Heartburn. And he directed plays, from the recent Betrayal (which sold out for all performances before the play even opened!), to years ago directing a young unknown named Whoopi Goldberg in her one-act play that took her from obscurity to being a star.

He Grew Up a Loner...

Later in life he said that growing up a loner gifted him with the ability to know what people were thinking. I think he likely meant that he could easily, and often corectly, interpret people's emotions and motivations, which makes me think of "truth wizards." This is a term coined by research psychologists about people who have an uncanny way of detecting liars, as well as other emotions/motivations within a person. Truth wizards have typically grown up in difficult environments where, as children, they learned to carefully observe people as a means of survival, really.  I know about truth wizards from researching them years ago for an article, and I'm currently writing a story with a character who's a truth wizard.

From Loner to Famous Comic

After Mike Nichols started college, he said he was a loner no more. His first success as an artist was as part of the two-person comedy team with Elaine May. After that came directing plays, then film. He won every award as a director: the Emmy, Oscar, Tony...I think I've missed one in that line-up.

What I like about reading his quotes on directing film and plays is that his words apply to writing, too.

A Few Favorite Nichols' Quotes

Here's a few of my favorite Mike Nichols' quotes. As I mentioned above, he was talking about film-making, but his thoughts on technique and process apply to crafting stories and characters as well.

"There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation." 

"A movie is like a person. You either trust it or you don't."

"I've always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing a third. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That's what interests me the most." 

"I think the audience asks the question, 'Why are you telling me this?'...there must be a specific answer."

Shooting the Messenger: When Process Services Go Bad

Recently in Colorado, a man pulled a gun on a process server. Fortunately, the process server kept his cool and quietly left (btw, he had already left the papers with the man's wife). The process server called the sheriff's office afterward and described the incident, but did not press charges.

Process Server Attacked By Doctor

Another process server, a personal friend of ours, started a process service business after he retired from the police force. This man had been awarded medals for bravery during his long career as a law enforcement officer, but after needing to use pepper spray to fend off a physician who violently attacked him after being served legal papers, the man sold his process service business. "No job is worth dying for," he said.

Which happened to a Colorado process server a few years back. He served divorce papers to a husband, who then attacked his wife (the one seeking the divorce). The process server, a man in his forties, jumped in to protect the woman and the husband killed him. The wife survived, fortunately. 

Chased by a Woman Wielding a Frying Pan

Sometimes people take out their anger on a server, who's simply a messenger serving papers

Sometimes people take out their anger on a server, who's simply a messenger serving papers

In the 10 years my husband and I ran a private investigations business, I never liked serving legal or business papers. I didn't like not knowing if things might so south quickly, which happened more than a few times. Never had a gun pulled on me, but I did have a woman, high on cocaine and booze, chase me with a frying pan while screaming colorful things she planned to do with it on me. I kept walking, fast, toward my car, where my husband sat in the driver's seat, staring at me wide-eyed through the window.  I yelled, "Start the car," praying he'd hadn't locked the doors as I needed to get inside that car fast.

I had done that process service as a favor to my husband, who had returned to being a criminal defense lawyer. He couldn't serve the divorce papers to the woman because he was representing the husband in the divorce, so his live-in PI (yours truly) served the papers.

As we drove off, the woman screaming and running after the car, my husband said to me, "You're amazing." I thanked him for the compliment, but said that was the last time I was ever serving legal papers. I still conduct investigations for his law practice, which I enjoy, but he uses someone different for process services these days.

Tips for Writers: Pineapple Express

When we were the cover story about being PIs, we took the reporter along to see a real process service

When we were the cover story about being PIs, we took the reporter along to see a real process service

Remember the movie Pineapple Express and the stoned process servers? I loved that movie, but only if a writer is crafting a funny, farcical story could he/she depict a stoner dude running a successful process service business because it is imperative that a server be focused and clear-headed for several reasons:

  • People sometimes are actively avoiding service, so a process server needs to be able to quickly interpret signals. For example, a person avoiding a process service might answer the door and lie that they are not that person, or even that the person no longer lives there. A sharp process server has done his/her homework and will know, among other details, the physical description of the person they are serving. I once served papers to a man who denied he was the person I was asking for. I knew I had the right guy because I had seen a photo of him, but at that moment his little girl said, "Daddy, that lady got your name right! That's you!" 
  • Sometimes a business, even a government agency, tries to pull a fast one on a process server. At a state government agency, I served legal papers to one of the office managers who claimed it was illegal for me to serve her, and that I needed to "make an appointment" to serve one of their attorneys. Sorry, no. It was legal for me to serve the office manager, which I did. One of the stoner servers from Pineapple Express would likely have found this scenario to be very un-groovy and confusing. But then, if a writer is crafting a humorous story, that could be a funny scene.

Thanksgiving Recipes: 7 Potato Dishes, from Mashed to Hasselback

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Before we launch into the world of potatoes, I had a lovely surprise today on Facebook when I read the below post by Book Reviews, Blogs and Amazon Links:

This is one lady who is multi talented and does some pretty interesting blog posts and newsletter. I seriously am excited when my email beeps and it is Colleen's newsletter. Not to mention she's such a great person. She's one of a few who are actual Facebook Friends that I enjoy being in contact with.

Colleen Collins https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=482863458501779

Thank you, Book Reviews, Blogs and Amazon Links! If I had known you were going to surprise me with such a laudatory post, I would have written about something other than potatoes :)

But since I did, below is the post...enjoy!

Years ago, I used to love spending several hours preparing special meals. These days I like my time in the kitchen to be fun, short and easy. Which is probably why I started cooking potatoes more often. Dinner with hubby is sometimes baked potatoes with butter or sour cream with a side of chopped tomatoes.

For Thanksgiving, though, I'll break out of my mold and test-drive a few recipes ahead of time. Below is a sampling of 7 potato recipes, all of them easy to make, starting with mashed potatoes with goat cheese to 6 Hasselback potato recipes (also called accordion potatoes). Hasselback potatoes are especially nice for special meals because they look so darn impressive!

Now, onto the recipes...

Mashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese

If you want to try an alternative to loading up mashed potatoes with butter, try loading them up with goat cheese instead. 

Ingredients

2 pounds potatoes  (I like to keep the skins on, but peel if you prefer) and cut into chunks

1 clove chopped garlic

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup goat cheese

salt & pepper to taste

Cooking Instructions

  1. Boil potato chunks: Place in a pot with enough water to cover potatoes, add salt, bring to a boil.
  2. Cook for approximately 15 minutes (I stick a sharp knife or fork into potatoes -- if the knife/fork easily slides in, they're done cooking)
  3. Drain water, return potatoes to pot and mash lightly with a potato masher. (Don't overdo mashing -- leave some "chunk" in the potatoes.)
  4. Mix in milk, goat cheese, salt and pepper and serve (again, don't overdo it or the mashed potatoes will go "flat").

    (You can also mix in some washed & chopped kale or steamed broccoli -- approximately 1/2 cup -- along with the milk and goat cheese)

Hasselback Potato Recipes

Hasselback potatoes are the Swedish version of our baked potatoes, named after the Hasselbacken Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. Basically, a Hasselback potato is a white potato (such as Yukon Gold, Russet, or red potato) with the skin left on, with a series of cuts made into the potato (like an accordion). You can simply drizzle with olive oil and salt, then roast in the oven for an hour (same amount of time that you bake a potato). Or you can fill each "slash" with something tasty, such as bay leaves or crumbled parmesan cheese before roasting in the oven.

As the potato cooks, the slices fan open, creating a striking presentation. Hasselback potatoes should be served immediately to keep their crispiness.

Hasselback Potato Recipes

Bacon Hasselback Potatoes (Food Network)

Bacon Cheddar Hasselback Potatoes (The Slow Roasted Italian)

Rosemary Hasselback Potatoes (The Novice Chef)

Hasselback Potatoes with Spinach Cashew Pesto (Joy the Baker)

Scalloped Hasselback Potatoes (Look Who's Cookin' Now)

Garlicky Hasselback Potatoes (Around the Table. Loving Food in RI and Beyond)

 

 

 

 

Real-Life Private Detective Story: Finding 4 Bullet Slugs in the Middle of Nowhere

This rancher lived out in the country on 800 acres of land

Every year as we approach the holidays, I remember one of the more difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding cases my husband and I once worked. We helped a man who was facing a possible 48-year prison sentence if he were to be found guilty of attempted murder. A man who had never even had a speeding ticket in his entire life. On Thanksgiving, when my husband visited him in jail where he'd been sitting since October, the man wept as he'd never been away from his family on a holiday. 

Below is the story, which I also wrote about in How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths. We worked hard to solve this case, which for days I doubted we could ever solve. 

We Got the Call one Freezing Winter Morning...

From an attorney-client who specializes in high-profile criminal cases. A rancher was in jail on first-degree attempted murder charges. Two people claimed he'd shot at them, tried to kill them. He claimed the reverse -- they were threatening him, he thought his life was in danger, he fired warning shots -- four of 'em -- to scare them off his 800+-acre ranch.

No witnesses, except the two people who claimed they were victims. Oh, and a dog named Gus.

Could we, asked the attorney, find those four bullet slugs? The sheriff's office had done a cursory check for the slugs, didn't find them, had closed the case. The rancher, who'd never had so much as a speeding ticket, was now facing two counts of attempted first-degree murder (a mandatory/minimum sentence of 24 years each) and a $300,000 bail.

Could We Find 4 Bullet Slugs on 800 Acres of Ranch Land?

With metal detectors, possibly. Especially after we learned the sheriff's office hadn't attempted to use metal detectors -- in fact, they didn't even own one. We rented several metal detectors, did a quick study with a former crime scene analyst who educated us on how to use and calibrate the instruments (we wanted to check for slugs that were probably slightly below the surface, not buried deep into the earth).

Next, we visited a gun expert and discussed the type of gun the rancher had used, the bullets, and their calculated trajectory. With his help, we figured the bullets had traveled approximately a half-mile, and that the slugs were probably a half-inch to an inch below the sandy, dense soil of that region.

Then we headed to the ranch...that had buffalo...did I mention that I'm a city girl?

Setting Up the Crime Scene

The last thing we wanted to do was to inadvertently search the same area the other had already searched -- the work was going to be tedious and meticulous, and we need to handle the task as efficiently as possible. Therefore, after selecting a likely area (based on where the rancher had said he'd pointed his gun), a half-mile away from where the incident took place, we set up grids wherein each of us would be carefully working the ground with his/her metal detector. Then, hunched over, carefully moving our detectors over the surface of the earth, we inched our way through our respective areas.

Our metal detectors kept pinging! At first we were thrilled, excitedly yelling to each other, pointing at the spot the detector indicated! Then we'd search for the slug -- and find a rusted nail...next time, a rusted bed spring...next time, an antiquated hammer. Heading back home that first day, the rancher's mother (who was taking care of the household while he was in jail) informed us that part of the ranch had been, decades back, a junkyard dump.

Wonderful. We were going to get a lot of false positives before this search was over.

Did I Mention One of Us Is Afraid of Dogs?

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

That first day had another built-in challenge for one of us (me): a monster of a dog named Gus. The rancher's mother said she thought he was 135 pounds, give or take. I'd say give. Lots of give. He was the biggest, baddest-looking muscled hunk of Rottweiler I'd ever seen in my life. And of course, since I'm the one in this PI team who's afraid of dogs, Gus decided he liked me.

But after seeing that Gus's best pal out there on that vast, seemingly endless ranch, was a little barn cat...I realized his big and bad was dog-skin deep. Gus had the heart of Thumper the Rabbit. He also was the only witness to the incident...and he seemed intent on helping us -- staying nearby, sniffing the ground -- as we searched and searched, hour after hour, day after day.

Did I Ever Want to Give Up? Yes.

I'd be lying if I said no. There were times out there on the high plains with the brittle-cold winter winds pummeling us, burs working their way up through the soles of our shoes, our bodies aching from hours of being bent over...that I'd look out at hundreds of acres of barren land and think, "No way we're going to find those slugs. It'd be easier to find a needle in the barn haystack."

Then I'd think about that rancher sitting alone in the jail on Thanksgiving, the first time he'd been without his family on a holiday, for a crime I didn't believe he'd committed. Had to keep searching...

We Found the First Slug

The moment we found that first slug -- I'll never forget it. There it was, a half-inch below the soil, in the region we'd expected to find it. We whooped and hollered like a couple of down-on-their-luck miners who'd just struck gold! Which, when you think of it, we kinda were.

                                                                                                 First slug

                                                                                                 First slug

Then we found the second slug...

                                                                                               Second slug

                                                                                               Second slug

And then we found the third...and the fourth. Their placement proved the rancher had fired in self-defense.

On Christmas Eve, the D.A. reduced the charges, and the rancher was released on a reduced bail. He might have missed Thanksgiving with his family, but he was home for Christmas.

Gus was very happy about that.

 

Five Tips for Writing Rural Surveillances

When many people think of a private investigator, they think surveillance. Typical images that come to mind are the PI in his vehicle following a subject’s car through traffic or a PI parked somewhere, watching the subject’s residence or work. If a writer is crafting a city surveillance, she’ll take into consideration such things as the flow of traffic, how closely the PI follows the subject’s vehicle, and possible side streets the PI might take.

But what if your story is set in the country? Or your big-city investigator must travel to a rural area to conduct a surveillance? Here are five tips for crafting a rural surveillance scene:

Tip #1: Know the area: In our part of the country, we have some impressive, wide-open stretches of country outside of “the big cities.” Whenever we were going into a rural area, we would first check online maps (for example, MapQuest and Google Earth). Have your fictional PI do the same. We’ve scheduled rural surveillances in areas that are so remote, they don’t even show up in online maps. In such cases, we have contacted the sheriff’s office for that region and requested help with directions and maps.

Also, it's smart for the PI to give local law enforcement a heads up about the surveillance so the sheriff/LEO (law enforcement officer) can watch out for the investigator's safety. What if a PI had vehicle trouble and was stuck in the middle of nowhere...and not a soul knows his/her whereabout. Not saying the PI needs to spill everything about the surveillance to the sheriff/LEO, or even who the PI is surveilling, just the area the PI plans to be in/near.

I once conducted a surveillance in the middle of a national forest. I know, how crazy is that? But my client paid me well to check if his wife was camping out with her paramour. Before I commenced the surveillance, I dropped by the sheriff's office and discussed the area I was surveilling and my planned route. The sheriff clued me in on some areas to avoid, and informed me that my cell phone transmission would be iffy to non-existent at times. We agreed I'd check in periodically when I had cell-phone connectivity, as well as check in with his office at the end of the day on my way out of the national forest. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking to crank up the tension in your story, have your PI get stuck in desolate region with no Internet accessibility!

Tip #2: Use an appropriate vehicle. Maybe your fictional PI scoots around the city in a lime-green VW, but that dog won’t hunt in the country. In a small town, everybody knows everybody else, including what vehicle they drive. A PI will drive a vehicle that blends in, is nondescript and can handle the terrain. Also, avoid using vehicles with identifiers such as decals, vanity plates and bumper stickers.

Or maybe you want to write a humorous scene where the town folk all know the shiny van with the “Don't make me go medieval on you” bumper sticker is that city-slicker PI who’s working undercover.

Tip #3: Why is the PI parked there? A PI can be parked on a country public road and document whatever he sees “in plain view” -- but he’d better have a good reason for being there if someone asks. Most PIs keeps props ready, such as binoculars and a bird guide (so she/he can't pretend they're a bird watcher), car-repair tools (pretending he/she's fixing their car) and so on. An acquaintance of mine, whose husband is an FBI special agent, said the bird-watching story is cliche and most country folks would find the story laughable.

Maybe your private eye uses the bird watcher cover story and blows his cover, which could be an entertaining scene. Or perhaps your sleuth is an accomplished bird watcher and can pull off that pretext without a problem.

Tip #4: Look the part: Just as a PI wears clothes appropriate to a city location, he/she will wear clothes that blend in to that part of the country and season. Whenever we did a winter rural surveillance in Colorado, we wore jeans, t-shirts, boots and jackets.

Tip #5: Choose useful equipment: As I mentioned in Tip #1, your PI might encounter a situation where he/she has no WiFi service or satellite signals. That could create a dicey situation for your character. However, maybe he/she has an add-on communication device to a smartphone that uses long-range radio waves to connect by text with others. One such device is goTenna.

Other equipment for rural surveillances includes cameras with increased optical zoom, and video equipment that is functional, portable and low profile. These might be apps on your sleuth's smartphone, fyi.


Who Would I Most Dislike to Be On a Spaceship With?

Ali Kahn, the editor of the Australian online magazine Festivale, interviewed me for its "Usual Questions" series, a column that started in 1999 when Kahn kicked off these Q&As at a conference with authors such as Lawrence Block, Janet Evanovich and others.

One fun question is who would the writer most dislike to be on a spaceship with? Oh, I definitely had an answer for that.

Below is an excerpt from the interview...

Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins

Colleen Collins Answers the Usual Questions

Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman co-write the blog Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, which has been recognized by Ellery Queen magazine as being one of the top three true-crime blogs. Guns, Gams and Gumshoes has also twice been tapped by the American Library Association's Booklist site as being a "Web Crush of the Week" during its annual Mystery Month (2012 and 2014).

Has your interaction with fans, for example, at conventions, affected your work?

More that our interaction with clients for Shaun's law practice, or clients for our former private investigations agency, have affected this book. In A Lawyer's Primer For Writers, we include some case studies with these clients, although we have changed their names.

Is there any particular incident (a letter, a meeting, a comment) that stands out?

Many, actually! In the book, we have a chapter on private investigators, and there's a section where I discuss why I no longer serve legal papers after 1 - a person sic'd a pit bull on my husband and 2 - a woman tried to hit me with a frying pan. Those are a few of the true stories in the book.

Do you have a favourite author or book (or writer or film or series) that has influenced you or that you return to?

A Lawyer's Primer For Writers is, of course, a nonfiction book, so I'll switch hats and mention several fiction writers who have influenced my fiction writing (I've published over two dozen novels since 1997). Some favorite crime fiction authors: Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Ken Bruen, Ann Holt, George Pelecanos, Michael Wiley. And a shout-out to Australian romance writer Sarah Mayberry.

Who is the person you would most like to be trapped in a lift with? or a spaceship?

My husband. He's funny, smart and not bad on the eyes :)

Who is the person you would most DISlike to be trapped in a lift with? Or a spaceship?

My former agent.

What would you pack for space? (Is there a food, beverage, book, teddy bear, etc that you couldn't do without?)

My iPad that's filled with dozens of ebooks.

What is the most important thing you would like to get/achieve from your work?

A sense of accomplishment. Oh, and money.

To read the full interview, click here.