Why I Write Queer Crime Fiction

I never set out to write mysteries, queer or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has secured an ex-lover a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged and then depressed and a bit crazed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.  It was comic but also focused on the struggles of being a couple years before marriage equality changed the landscape.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, my editor, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school and are happily married, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books; and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving queer couple over time and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never could have imagined.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.  And of course, the unexpected keeps happening to Nick and Stefan living in a bucolic college town that has a dark side.  Through all of it, however, their bond is never shaken.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable.” He mentors writers, edits manuscripts, and teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

(fingerprint image by Kurious at Pixabay)

 

Five Great Books About Conquering Adversity

I grew up with adversity.  My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Europe with very little money and weren’t helped nearly enough by relatives.  Their early years in the U.S. were very hard.  But this cloud hanging over us was nothing compared to the nightmarish storms they had survived in the Holocaust.  I knew bits and pieces of what happened to them while I was growing up, and learned more when I became a writer and paid homage to them in a memoir, My Germany.

My mother and her family attempted to escape their Polish city into Russia in the summer of 1941 when the Nazis sent millions of murderous troops into Poland and the Baltic countries.  It was the very last train, but inside the Russian border they were thrown off because they were Jews.  Her father was eventually murdered by the Nazis, her mother murdered in a concentration camp, and she survived a ghetto and several concentration camps.

My Czechoslovak father was forced into the Hungarian army as a slave laborer on the Eastern Front with other healthy young Jews and was subject ed to sadistic treatment by the officers.  One beating left him close to death.  He still bears shrapnel in his body from when he dodged a hand grenade thrown right at him.  The grenade killed his best friend. His stories of survival are something out of a thriller.

Nothing in my own life could have possibly matched the adversity they faced for years during the war, yet their survival buoyed me up through many dark times in my career as an author.  Being a writer is the kind of career where success is fleeting and failure is always around the corner–and sometimes it’s so huge it’s stupefying.

When a new website for book lovers invited me to choose a topic and list five books that exemplified it, “conquering adversity” sprung immediately to mind as the organizing theme.  The books I chose with my writing partner are from different genres and feature wildly different people, from Winston Churchill to a Black maid in the South, but they all have that theme and are meant to inspire readers to never give uphttps://shepherd.com/best-books/conquering-adversity.

Whatever adverse situations you’re facing, I hope these five books we picked speak to you and give you courage and hope.

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Huffington Post, Bibliobuffet and other publications as well as three Michigan radio stations. 

(free image from Pixabay)

An Academic Nest of Vipers

When I do readings from my mystery series, people ask, “Are universities as loony and vicious as all that?”

Yes.  Absolutely.  And how do I know? Because I didn’t just escape that world with lots of notes, I have friends who are still there, reporting fiction-worthy incidents on a regular basis.

One chair I heard of had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: He suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they’d win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. Then there’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

There’s another who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement, trying to intimidate her.

A religious studies chairman I was told about argued with a rabbi teaching as an adjunct in his department–a rabbi!–that Judaism was absolutely not a culture, but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. The rabbi was fired for disagreeing.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was an ex- burst into her apartment, roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the department chair did absolutely nothing.

And reports from another department I know of describe the current atmosphere as “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. The faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, extrapolating from real situations and making them more ridiculous and threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true.  The psychological toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from mystery to memoir.  His latest book Department of Death just earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  It will be available only until the end of 2021.

When Did Writing Become a Damned War?

 

Lately I’ve been feeling like writing is a bloody battlefield — not for me, but for tens of thousands of writers across the Internet.

I’m talking about writers who seem frantic or depressed because they’re not writing fast enough every single day, as if they should be queen bees in a hive squeezing out their quota of eggs and the hive might collapse if they didn’t keep producing.

I read cries for help on social media from writers begging someone, anyone, to offer ways they can write more than 500 words a day, as if 500 words a day isn’t enough. And then I read jaunty, triumphant posts on those same platform from writers bragging about writing several thousand words a day.   

The writing world in America is infected with its own special virus. The sensible suggestion that beginning writers should try to write something daily to get themselves in the habit has seemingly become interpreted as a diktat for all writers all the time. What we write doesn’t matter, it’s how much we write every single day, as if our careers — no, our lives — depended on it. As if we’re the American war machine in 1943 determined to churn out more tanks, planes, and guns than Nazi Germany because the fate of the world is at stake.

I was mentored as a writer in a time when quality not quantity was the standard and I’m happy that’s the case, because yesterday I probably wrote fewer than a hundred words. But they were crucial words because they completely re-shaped the first chapter of the sequel I’m writing to my dark novella The Vampyre of Gotham set in 1910 Gilded Age New York.

I hadn’t written anything at all for a few days before that: I was just puzzling over what needed to be done before I was ready to return to my PC. If I don’t write anything more this week, that’s fine because what I did was exactly what was necessary for the new book to move forward. And I know, anyway, that I’m writing subconsciously now that I worked out the kink in my story line.  Writing happens to writers all the time, everywhere: we don’t need tablets, laptops, pens or pencils. 

And we don’t need to be driven by false quotas or to feel shame because somebody, somewhere is writing a short story every week (or maybe two!) and some weeks we can barely manage to piece together a decent metaphor.

There’s nothing wrong with having a daily goal if that works for you as a writer, but why should you feel crazed because you don’t reach that daily goal — what’s the sense in that? Why have we let the word count bully us and make us feel like miserable?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his fiction and creative nonfiction has been taught on college campuses across the country.  With twenty years of teaching experience, he now offers mentoring, tailored workshops, and editing at writewithoutborders.com.

Photo credit:madamepsychosis

Write Fabulous Gay Mysteries? Why The Hell Not!?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to quote Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be fabulous amateur detectives.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily partnered, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because the academic setting is so ripe for satire.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started. I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and once my book publishing career took off, I was invited to review for the Detroit Free Press. I read lots of crime fiction and that made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too many mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at a diner as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those social changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops and mentors writers online at writewithoutborders.com.

Should Writers Join A Critique Group Or Not?

Guest author: Betty Webb

Writers are an argumentative bunch, especially when it comes to the subject of critique groups.

Some writers advise newbies – but only newbies – to join a critique group, while other writers say never, never, not ever. Since my own critique group – the Sheridan Street Irregulars — just celebrated its 30-year anniversary, I’m definitely on the pro-group side. But with caution.

I had my first experience with critique groups around 35 years ago when living in New York and had just begun writing seriously. That group, which I’d learned about from a library flier, met monthly in a converted barn in Westchester County. We were all writing poetry, and we drank a lot. I’m not sure how much the group helped to hone my work (or my liver), but we sure had fun.

The second experience came about shortly after I’d moved to the Phoenix, AZ area. In that group, all genres were welcome, and the only rule was that alcohol wasn’t allowed. Ironically, I left that group after a fistfight broke out between a sober Western writer and a sober sci-fi writer after one of them had received a particularly nasty critique from the other.

At that point, I’d already had some of my poetry published in a literary magazine, seen one satirical novel published, had one play produced, and was writing three humor columns a week for newspaper syndication. Technically, I was no longer a newbie, but I still felt the need for other eyes on my work, so I spent a few months checking out more groups. Some I found too rigid, some too lax, and some were merely excuses for sitting around, drinking and discussing lofty views on “lit-er-a-ture.”

Disappointed with the local offerings, I decided to start my own critique group. The first thing I did was to take a hard look at the problems others groups had run into. To avoid them, I typed up a long list of rules, one of the rules being, “Never respond to the criticism of your work. Just say ‘Thank you,’ and move on.” Now, we all know that writers hate rules, but what was the alternative? Hurt feelings, fist fights and long, defensive monologues from inebriated writers who felt their manuscripts were being unfairly judged? (If you want to see the whole list, email me at webbscottsdale@aol.com and I’ll send you a copy.)

Then, in a daring move, I put an ad in the local newspaper, headlined WRITERS CRITIQUE GROUP FORMING.  As could be expected, the first meeting was a large one, and it was a mess. Just about everyone broke the rules I had passed out. And some people, miffed by others’ critiques of their work, simply got up and stalked out, leaving a few obscenities in their wake. But a core group remained.

And we persevered. Thirty years after that messy first meeting, I’ve retired from my full-time job as a journalist, retired from my part-time job as a creative writing adjunct at the local college, retired from writing my column for Mystery Scene Magazine, and seen 18 of my novels published. But I still value the Sheridan Street Irregular’s opinions of my works-in-progress. Because of the group – we’re all traditionally-published novelists now – my number of drafts on any given project has dwindled from 17 to four. The “Streeters” catch all my plot holes and are ever-alert for unwieldy phrasing. But the most help that I get from the group is the  reminder that Ernest Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Betty Webb is the author of the best-selling Lena Jones mysteries and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries. Before writing mysteries, she spent 20 years as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents to moon-walking astronauts, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. 

Writer’s Memoir: Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Life as a Writer

My Holocaust survivor parents arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and followed the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s with hope and horror. When they saw TV footage of demonstrators being dragged, beaten, attacked by dogs, it triggered terrible memories of Nazis and other oppressors for them. But they sincerely believed that this country would fulfill its promises of freedom and equal rights.

As a kid I read a lot about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, especially biographies, but none of those figures moved me the way Martin Luther King, Jr. did. His eloquence and passion weren’t something from the past: they were immediate–like his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

LIFE Magazine was always in our house along with a handful of newspapers, and somewhere, somehow in fourth or fifth grade I read at least part of King’s powerful and eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I was an early reader and read beyond my grade level, but this manifesto was completely different from the books of various country’s folk tales, books about dolphins, and science fiction that I brought home from the local public library every week.

King offered poetry, passion, and inspiration–things I hadn’t truly encountered in any book before.  My favorite books at the time were Alice in Wonderland, Cheaper by the Dozen, and The Three Musketeers, each of them entertaining in different ways.  But King’s words soared:

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

I can see myself curled up in a big, wide-armed living room chair, some green material shot through with bold threads, transfixed.  And in my own head, I made connections between how Jews had been considered less than human in Nazi Germany with how America’s blacks were being treated as they fought for equality.

I did a school report on King and it must have been noteworthy because it was sent to a display at the local school district’s offices.  I have no memory of what was in it, but can picture the illustration pasted to the construction paper cover: a black hand reaching up, something I’d probably cut out from LIFE.

It was the first time my writing had been recognized, but more importantly, it was the first time I’d felt propelled to write, to pay tribute.  And the first time my writing had affected anyone but me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the real start of my career as a writer because I discovered the power of words to change the world.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including Writer’s Block is Bunk.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Advice For Writers: Is Writing a “Muscle”? Should You Write Every Day?

Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on Facebook or Twitter as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read on line about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books that urge writers to write every day and make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

And if you can’t eke out your daily quota, the advice sometimes goes that you should at least re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me, either, or made much sense. I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.

I don’t urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I suggest they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently working on a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some major fact-checking, too, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had an outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I wrote ten pages in a single day on this same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy.  I was done for the day!

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not. I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can now take a wide variety of online workshops him online at writewithoutborders.com.

Writer’s Memoir: My Journey from Crime Fiction Lover to Crime Fiction Author

Growing up in New York, I read and revered The New York Times, which was one of a handful of papers in our house, but held the place of highest esteem.  And I remember classroom instruction in elementary school about how to fold it on the train or bus since it wasn’t a tabloid and the pages were so large.

I dreamed of being reviewed there at whatever point I became a published author.  But I never expected that it would be my mystery series that would open that door, and literally jumped for joy when it happened.

Let’s Get Criminal, the first Nick Hoffman mystery, is now back in print after a long hiatus and available on Amazon.

I had never set out to write mysteries, even though I loved crime fiction and started reading in it junior high school. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. Nick and Stefan teach at the same school, are happy together, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I relished the academic setting where you find bald men argue over a comb, as Borges put it so well.

At the time of my conversation with Denneny, I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

When I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has had more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  But that’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to crime fiction.  The latest review of his new mystery State University of Murder is at the Lansing State Journal. You can study creative writing with Lev one-on-one at writewithoutborders.com

 

Why I’m Teaching Creative Writing Online

I come from a family of teachers. My mother’s father taught economics in Poland. My mother taught language and literature in Belgium. And in New York, my brother taught special education.

I picked my undergraduate college, the Lincoln Center branch of Fordham University, specifically because of one creative writing teacher I’d heard about as inspirational. It was a great choice. I ended up taking all her classes and didn’t just learn the subject matter, but also how to teach, how to orchestrate a class, and how to have fun doing it.

In senior year, she took me on as an unofficial apprentice because I told her my twin goals in life were to write and to teach. I watched what she did in classrooms as an observer, and she even showed me how she graded papers. When I started teaching, her model was always in my head. She was in my head.

Recently I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University. Like many colleges and universities, the powers-that-be have no idea what a good learning environment is for teaching literature or creative writing. They especially overcrowd the creative writing workshops, which means students can’t get the attention they need in class or out of it. That’s grossly unfair to the students, many of whom work more than one job to help pay their tuition.

Typically I’ve had twenty-five students in writing workshops, though once it was thirty. Yes, thirty. These class sizes not only made it harder for me to give students all the attention and feedback they need, the overcrowding made it harder for students to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing their work. But administrators don’t seem to care.

Luckily I’ve also been able to teach independent study students and supervise their senior theses, where individual attention is the critical foundation.  When you sign up for one of my workshops, you’re really doing an independent study.

I’m applying what I’ve learned in many years of classroom teaching in a very focused way. I get to coach and mentor writers at all stages and offer the kind of individualized attention that learning to write requires. No matter where you are in your development as a writer, sharing your work with someone requires trust and an atmosphere of safety. That’s what I saw my college mentor create over and over. Teaching online, I can truly share what I learned from her, and carry on a family tradition in an exciting new way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in a dozen different genres, including a guide to the Writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can find his creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.