Dashiell Hammett and Me by Heather Haven

“The cheaper the crook the gaudier the patter.” This line was uttered by Humphrey Bogart, when he played Sam Spade in the movie Maltese Falcon. This classic was written by my hero, Dashiell Hammett. Even at seventeen years old, when I read that particular line in the book of the same title, I knew Hammett was a brilliant writer. It’s hard to miss something like that.

Mr. Hammett was a big influence on me becoming a crime writer, albeit not quite as hard-boiled. I’m more like a two-minute egg. But I recently learned that if there isn’t a dead body, I’m not interested in reading someone else’s book or writing one of my own.

My latest novel, Christmas Trifle, which came out a few days ago, started out as pure romance. Good golly, Miss Molly. What was I thinking? Ultimately, I found what the story needed was a good, old-fashioned murder, not more kisses. More foreboding, not more hugs. So it was only natural I turned Christmas Trifle into a romantic suspense novel.

And why not? Dashiell Hammett created the iconic Nick and Nora Charles. He put these two lovebirds in a novel called The Thin Man. Also made into a film, it was followed by a succession of sequels, all written by him. Not only were these murder mysteries wildly popular, they were wildly romantic. He may have even invented the modern day romantic suspense. So I felt him egging me on, no pun intended, to do what I do best.

Consequently, Christmas Trifle now contains a corpse or two. Actually, three. The story still has the same charming, but recently divorced chefs, but these two find their way back to each other over a dead body rather than a dead soufflé.

My kinda story.

Dashiell Hammett once wrote, “If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen.”

My kinda guy.

Changing Horses In Midstream by Heather Haven

Picture it: There are two horses standing in a stream. We’re not sure why; reasoning cloudy. Sitting astride one horse is a woman who doesn’t want to be there. Possibly, she has been whispering into the horse’s ear something like ‘let’s get a move on, sport,’ but to no avail. Said horse seems to like having his tootsies in the cool water.

She looks over at the other horse just lollygagging around, and decides that’s the saddle to be in. Several minutes later she is either swept downstream or trampled to death by two horses having had enough of her silliness. Which brings to mind another wise old saw: They died with their boots on.

So there I was, soggy boots and all, writing a romance and wanting to jump into the saddle of suspense. My reasoning wasn’t cloudy. I suck at writing pure romance. I didn’t know it then, but I sure know it now. Frankly, If I hadn’t been so stubborn, I’d have changed genres within the first three months instead of waiting so long. I was turning out the most boring drivel I’d ever written in my life and I have been known to drivel with the best. There was no longer any joy in writing. My bliss had done a bunk.

Of course, this particular book had a deadline that could not be overlooked. Christmas Trifle was holiday-bound. But at the rate I was going, not in my lifetime. Desperate, I threw in a murder even though I was already half-way through the book. And glory be! Suddenly scenes had a little zing, characters a bounce to their step. They used snappier dialog. A readable plot was developing.

So I went with it. Not that it was easy going. It was a nightmare, actually. Stuff like, where should the suspense go? And how much? Who should be the villain? Should I use a new character? An existing one? What should come out? Stay in? I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with but one burning thought: Was I trying to meld a bicycle pump with a hat?

Wait, wait. Didn’t Andy Warhol do that back in the 70’s?

I’m good.

Wait, wait. It was a tomato soup can, not a bicycle pump.

I’m dead.

But short of writing me in as the corpus delicti, I persevered. If nothing else, for six long months I’d been creating a backstory for these people. I knew how every character would react to anything without even thinking about it. I hadn’t been wasting my time, I told myself. Take note: it’s amazing what you can talk yourself into if you have to.

When I finished  – or ran out of anything else to put down on paper – I sent it to the three courageous buddies in my writing group in the hopes they could help. They did not fail me. Their comments were honest and inciteful. They are the best.

1 – C. offered great questions, reminding me about specificity. That’s something you can only do at a certain point in a novel, she reiterated, but it’s absolutely the most fun.

2 – M. said it started out as a love story and morphed into a mystery. It didn’t bother her she wrote, but she was surprised. Uh-oh. That’s the kiss of death for any work. You make a contract with your reader in the first chapter regarding what type of work you’re going to deliver. I hadn’t lived up to that contract.

3 – J. said it didn’t have the Haven sparkle he was used to. Don’t release it until it does. Better to miss this Christmas deadline, but turn out your best work. There’s always next Christmas. Words to live by. But could I pull it together no matter what Christmas loomed ahead? Dread to live by.

I worked for two more months, eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week. I was obsessed. C. was right about specificity. I had a ball with that one. Now readers will know who, what, where, when, how, and why. So will I. M’s comment about the genre switch was easily correctable. I started the story with two unsolved murders from the previous year. The killings hover over the characters from page one and foreshadow every scene.

J’s comment was the most haunting. Did it have the Haven sparkle? Yes, the novel grew a lot, changed a lot, solidified. I actually wound up liking it. But was it any good?

I handed it over to my editor and asked her for a verdict. I was too close to know anything anymore. This was a first, but I had tried something new and if it didn’t work, into the trashcan it would go. It would be a lesson well-learned.

Fortunately for me, she said it was one of my best, and only needed tweaking. Relieved, I went back to the keyboard resolving to get it right no matter how many Christmases it took.

Because that’s what I do. I write novels.  But I write murder/mystery/suspense novels with a touch of romance. You’d think I’d have known that by now. After all, I’m on book number fourteen, bicycle pumps notwithstanding.