Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

The thing I find most challenging about writing stories is drawing believable, three-dimensional characters.  We are complex critters, you know—a lot deeper than simply words on a page.  And there’s nothing I like less than reading stock characters engaged in stock activities in a cliché plot.

It all begins with character.  If the character is fundamentally real, and if he accepts the world in which he lives as real, and if he reacts to the sometimes odd or bizarre world around him as a real person would, then we will believe the story as the story unfolds.  Remember, the protagonist takes the reader through his or her journey, and the reader needs to be able to empathize or at least identify with the protagonist if the reader is going to take the ride, believe the ride, enjoy the ride.

When I start to play with ideas for a new novel I open my eyes and ears and brain to the world around me and I let everything in.  Everything gets its say.  A plot idea might morph into a character idea, which might suggest a setting, which makes me think of what might happen in this setting, which makes me think about what kind of person would do such a terrible thing in this setting, which brings me back to character.  It always, always, always comes back to character.

Sometimes I’ll read a screenplay or novel where the plot is so BIG (think Independence Day) that the characters—the supposedly REAL people who participate in this story—have no other function than to appear at crucial plot moments to deliver critical bits of dialogue necessary to forward the plot.  Writers who are aware that a book or screenplay should have a “romantic subplot” also take those stiff, non-dimensional characters and force them to coo at one another, giving them plot-specific opportunities in which to take off their clothes.

Just because a movie is BIG doesn’t mean it can’t have unique, well-developed characters.  We can all think of five or ten big-budget types that titillate us with action and also bring us to tears with character pathos.  Bladerunner comes to mind for me.  It’s a big, action, sci-fi thriller, with wonderful, intriguing and believable characters.  Every one of them is real. 

It’s not hard to identify exceptional characters – just look at Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight for how he developed charming, daring, believable characters using mostly dialogue and a handful of reactions to specific events.  Leonard’s work is brilliant in this respect.  But recognizing a well-drawn character and actually building one are two different things.

When I spent my years doing development in the film business I rarely read convincingly believable characters.  Most screenplays were plot-driven and the screenwriters who had the plot “chops” usually got more work than the “character” writers.  But often, after the testosterone drafts made their rounds, a “character” writer would be brought in to do a “polish,” with the intention of making the characters more believable.  We did this on Outbreak, bringing Carrie Fischer in to do an 11th-hour “character” draft.  So, the character writer is supposed to improve dialogue, provide believable characters to inhabit what can be an unbelievably action-packed world, and take a little edge off with some comedy, when necessary.

Tackling character problems that late in the game doesn’t work, unless the writer goes back to the drawing board to tackle plot and action, too.  You can’t simply adjust knobs on a character in hopes of creating new hues and tones.  The characters need to move around in the plot, make decisions for themselves, change the plot if they have to.  Film producers, for various reasons, want to “lock down” the screenplay.  They’ll say “the script is 85% there, we just need you to do a dialogue polish and make the characters come alive.”  To me, that’s a page-one rewrite.  However, many screenwriters take that assignment and deliver a quick draft they know will never really work—they’re just trying to appease the producer and grab some quick cash.

What I mean to say with all this is…character work is hard.  And it’s the most important thing to get right.  Everything in a good story evolves from and revolves around good characters.

So, how do we write good characters?  Well, we have our own characters to lean on.  Parts of my character influence my protagonist as well as every other character I write.  So, like Freud, we look inward, to our own psychologies.  We can also look at mythic archetypes—certain types of characters who appear over and over again in our folktales, mythologies, biblical stories and nursery rhymes.  Alexandra has written some the definitive blogs here regarding archetypes.  We also learn about character from reading other authors to see how they handle character.  Find your mentors.

Another way to develop great, believable characters is to observe the people who enter your sphere.  Like a good Method actor, look for the little facial tics and the speech impediments and keep those ears open for the little wisdoms that might come your way.  I got my lesson this week when I was moving from house to apartment.  I hired this mover who ended up being a bit of a Buddha.  Black, maybe fifty years old, muscles galore.  Patient as the day is long.  I’ve never met a soul quite as patient as him.  We spent twelve hours straight on the move, and we encountered one problem after another.  Finally, the last big object to go in—the refrigerator—and it just ain’t fitting through the doorways.  We had to take off the front door of the house to get the damn thing out, and then, at 2:00 in the morning, we had to force it into the apartment.  We had to remove the apartment door now, but the spikes in the hinges were all rusted and we had to POUND at them with different objects.  And this guy was calm every moment of the day.  At this point he merely said, “Geez, why is it always the very last thing that gives you all the trouble?”  If it were me, I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs, “God!  What have I done to you, huh?  Because it sure does feel like you’re torturing me.”  I would have pounded my fist and stamped my foot like a very angry rabbit.

But this man, my mover Henry, was as stoic as if he were sunning on a lily pad.  And I realized that my twelve hours with this man was a blessing, that he’d been placed before me so that I may study character in action.  He existed as a real human being, not a stereotype or cliché.  To study him is to study life, and to infuse my characters with qualities like his—like patience—brings dimension to a character that might have only existed to service the plot. 

Look around you.  Study everyone.  If you’ve walked out the door you’ve entered the classroom.

Sorry I haven’t been around for the past couple weeks…I’ve been moving and I’ve had no room in my life to do anything but work, move and write.  At least I’ve been writing, thank God.



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

So I’ve been rummaging through the undersides of things in my effort to consolidate the clutter of my life before moving from house to apartment, occasionally jumping when the call of “Spider!” comes from one of the other rooms, from one of the other family members, and my life-saving skills are required to take the thick or thin or hairy or spindly eight-legged offender out to the outside of the domicile where we, ourselves, will soon be outside looking in.

It’s a bitch of a time to get any writing done, and a few weeks after I started my third novel I find myself just ten pages in, ten solid pages, re-written ten times, but ten pages nonetheless.  My focus has been on the move and the day job and on finishing my tour for BEAT, which took me back to my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, last weekend.  Writing will again commence Thanksgiving morn, when I’ll be looking at four ten-hour writing days in a row.

But I have during this time made time to read.  I tackled the works of Thomas Harris, picking up SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON.  I was getting tired of being the only writer on the planet who couldn’t say that RED DRAGON was the best thriller ever written.  I’ve seen the title pop up in just about everyone’s Top Ten List, and I was at this year’s Men of Mystery when Greg Hurwitz was asked to name the best thriller ever written, and he said it would have to be RED DRAGON.

I read the books back-to-back, but backwards, diving into LAMBS first only because I was able to acquire it before DRAGON.

I was just a few pages into LAMBS when I got the cozy feeling that I was in the hands of a master.  It was revving up to be the perfect reading experience and I felt myself trying to slow things down, afraid I’d run into a bump along the way, something that might derail this wonder-train and break the illusion I was getting that LAMBS might in fact be the golden elixir of thrillers.  I zipped through the novel and was not disappointed.  It was brilliant, and in my opinion, a perfect novel.

I eagerly leapt into RED DRAGON, expecting the same.  And it was great, it was wonderful, but it wasn’t SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. 

Both novels are compelling studies of characters in duress.  Perhaps what makes DRAGON stand out so much is its depiction of semi-retired FBI profiler/forensic analyst Will Graham, the physically and psychologically wounded man responsible for capturing the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.  Asked to return to the FBI to pursue another brutal killer, Graham first visits Lecter in jail, hoping to obtain a little insight.  Lecter asks him the question, “Do you know how you caught me, Will?”  He answers his own question thereafter, saying, “The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike.”  This statement haunts Graham through the rest of the book, and Harris does a bang-up job convincing us that Graham fears he has what it takes to be another Hannibal Lecter.

All of DRAGON’S characters are complex and believable and the science and procedural aspects of the book are spot on.  It’s a really great book, but it’s not SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

What is it about LAMBS that captures me so?

First of all, it’s tight.  I’m a big fan of tight.  I’m a student of Jim Thompson, and his writing is honed down to the bone, and it moves.  We talk here at Murderati about “cutting out the stuff no one reads,” and Thompson’s work stands out as a shining example of that.  I read Thompson continuously as I was writing my last few drafts of BOULEVARD, and his writing taught me to constantly tighten and trim my prose.  His work proves that less is often more.  I’ve noticed that BEAT is a tighter, faster ride than BOULEVARD, and my new book is tighter still.  Soon I’ll be writing mystery-thriller haikus.

LAMBS is rich with detail.  It’s obvious that Harris has done his homework.  But the volume of research is presented with amazing restraint.  There’s no need to take the reader on long tangents into the history of profiling or forensic science.  No need to give us more than the very basics about Clarice’s boss, Jack Crawford.  Just enough to bring out character, without drowning the reader in backstory.  One beautiful little character touch comes in a narrative line about Crawford that reads, “Back at his chair he cannot remember what he was reading.  He feels the books beside him to find the one that is warm.”  There are little brushstrokes like this everywhere in the novel.

And don’t even get me started on the rich character descriptions of Clarice, Hannibal Lecter, Chilton and Buffalo Bill.  Every character, even the walk-ons, is unique and bursting with dimension. 

Clarice herself is exceptional.  There is such complexity to her, in that she is a young, female, FBI trainee with a troubled past and a chip on her shoulder.  She’s refreshingly original and her sense of pride and justice are things to admire.  Match that with Lecter’s eerie, uncanny ability to peer into the recesses of everyone’s psychology, and you’ve got two of the best characters ever written. 

In LAMBS, Lecter is a slippery guide and mentor, and, while he’s always out for himself, he finds joy in helping Clarice along on her path.  He plays a slightly different role in DRAGON, by actively helping the antagonist in Lecter’s own quest to destroy Will Graham.  This doesn’t feel like the Lecter I know from LAMBS.  It’s cleverly done in DRAGON, but it reduces Lecter’s role to something less than his potential, which is further developed, with greater satisfaction, in LAMBS.

The pacing of LAMBS was also more satisfying than in DRAGON.  LAMBS grabbed me by the throat and shook me almost to unconsciousness, then slapped me in the face repeatedly to wake me up.  It was a non-stop ride on a jackhammer.  And yet I still felt firmly planted in the story—the speed of the narrative didn’t come at the cost of losing the story’s foundation.  I still got the opportunity to peek into the world of the FBI, to spend time in Quantico, to learn about Clarice’s early life on the farm, her run from the glue factory, her desperate wish to live in a world of silence, where the lambs never cry. 

And I had the opportunity to observe the smartest serial killer on the planet.  I don’t know if I’ll ever have Harris’ chops—Hannibal Lecter is the most interesting antagonist I’ve met.  There is more of Lecter in LAMBS, too.  He plays a more vital role in the narrative, and yet he doesn’t steal the story from its principal characters, Clarice, Crawford and Buffalo Bill.

Listen, I could go on forever, analyzing the structures of each novel, deconstructing every chapter and paragraph, explaining what works for me and why.  They are both great novels, but I clearly see SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in the top spot. 

Let’s hear some comments.  What do you think is the best thriller of all time?  Why?

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Also, my short story prequel to BOULEVARD is now available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from my website.  It will also be available on Kindle and other e-book devices beginning December 7.


In CROSSING THE LINE, young LAPD officer Hayden Glass is driven to move quickly up the ranks at the department. Only one year in, he decides to pad his experience with a stint in Vice. But, with a marriage on the rocks and carrying the weight of a dark and troubled past, Hayden cannot resist the temptations he encounters on the street. CROSSING THE LINE marks the moment Hayden’s sex-addiction first rears its ugly head.



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

What fascinates me is the never-ending sentence running wild in my mind, bursting through my thoughts like the long, paper dragon in the streets of San Francisco during Chinese New Year.  There’s always a sentence running, always an editor running at its side, clipping, grooming, evaluating. 

It’s been this way all my life.  Always the third-person observer, the narrator in my head describing everything I see, “…he stood high on his toes to throw the paper bag over the fence…the car passed and she turned to wave, forgetting the cup of coffee in her hand…the man impatiently pulled the little dog on the leash, dragging it through the muddy park…”

My God, will this inner voice ever shut the fuck up?  I mean, really, it’s maddening.  It gets worse when I’m tired, when my defenses are down.  And if I’m sick, running a fever, touched by a hallucination or two…forget about it – “The Nyquil settled into the acids of his stomach, reacting like dry ice in water, the green liquid turning into gas in his belly, settling into his bowels under a river of…”

Enough.  Stop it.

This has got to be a writer thing, right?

I used to feel very much alone living with my inner narrator and then I went to my first Bouchercon and met a hundred other authors.  I recognized the same look in their eyes when they talked, or when they sat in rooms watching others talk, and I sensed the narration behind their eyes.  I’d follow their glances around the room and imagined how their sentences described the things they saw, and wondered if they described them as I did.  And I wondered if their narrators drove them crazy as well.

I wonder what occupies the minds of surgeons?  Do they constantly run the scalpel through the tissue of their mind’s eye?  Is the path of the blade ever-changing as their internal surgeon writes and rewrites each operation?

Do engineers see schematics?  The blueprints of a bridge designing and re-designing itself in their dreams?

Do painters see colors and shapes and diminishing perspective when they shop for their vegetables at Ralphs? 

How do people get through their days?

In my life I’ve been a writer, filmmaker and musician.  As a filmmaker I’d watch a man walk across the street and I’d see the coverage in my head; long shot, medium shot from the front using a long lens, medium shot from the back, close up of his foot touching the sidewalk on the other side, close up of the bumper of the car that just missed him, long shot to see the car pass and the man turn to watch it go, medium frontal shot as he reacts to almost having been hit. 

Now, imagine how difficult it would be if I went to a Lakers game.

But, even as I lived in the language of film, I still had to hear that pesky narrator describing each scene as if it were written in a screenplay.  When I watch movies, I imagine how each scene looks in the script—CUT TO: Football player on the field, on his back, the paramedics surrounding him.  CUT TO:  Tom Cruise reacts.  CUT TO:  The family at home, watching the TV, the player’s wife standing, her body shaking.  INSERT:  TV screen, wide shot of the field, pandemonium. 

Again, it drives me nuts because I just want to sit back and enjoy “Jerry Maguire.”  Instead, I’m typing the damn screenplay in my head.

I met an author at Bouchercon who had damaged his fingers and had to resort to using some voice-activated software to help him finish his book on deadline.  Once the software recognized his voice he could speak his novel into the computer and the words would magically appear.  However, he would have to speak it like this, “Percy stepped into the street comma his long comma black hair trailing in the wind period space…”  He said that, after a while, it produced a clarity of thought he never knew existed.  Alan Jacobson was with us and he said he used the software, too, and one day when he was talking to his wife he said, “Do you mind stopping by the store comma when you’ve got some extra time question mark.”  He stared blankly ahead, then said, “Did I just say comma question mark?”

I don’t think I’ll ever use that software.  There’s no way I want my inner narrator inserting punctuation into my daily observations.

It’s strange, too, because I started in music early on, beginning with clarinet in the fourth grade.  And yet I never saw the world as musical notes.  I don’t remember my mind blaring symphonies the way my inner narrator drones on with the prose.  And yet, even as a kid playing that clarinet, I found myself describing and re-describing my environment with silent words. 

I think I’ve been wired as a writer from the start.  And it’s taken forty years for me to realize that this is how I function best.  Not as a public speaker or an actor or musician or surgeon.  I see the world in words, in three acts.  I see mundane daily events and the words that run through my head create drama.  I want everything to have meaning, though few things in life have meaning on their own.  The narrator infuses meaning, demands a good story.  I see spectacular, open-ended climaxes, because even in the end there are questions that remain. 

I daydream of dreamless sleep, sometimes, just for the silence that exists when the narrator takes his leave.



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

It happens too easily, doesn’t it?  This loss of time. 

Where did it go?  I look back, month to month, and identify the actions that kept me from writing.

It must have been a year ago that I turned in my final draft of BEAT.  The first thing I did next was work on the proposal for my next book.  I spent about two months on an idea set in the Los Angeles Harbor.  Did a ton of research, digging into the lives and cultures of the people living in San Pedro.  I took a four-hour tour of a container ship, led by the ship’s captain.  I did tours of the harbor on a fireboat.  I studied and prepared and learned what I could about my characters’ lives.

I wrote the proposal and I sent it to my agent and he nixed it.  Didn’t feel it would sell.  I began again.

I put my head into a cool idea about grifters.  Ensemble crime piece with twisted characters and a fresh story.  I wrote the proposal and sent it to my agent and…he nixed it.  He suggested that I write an international thriller—possibly for Hayden Glass.  I came up with another idea and wrote two proposals using the same storyline:  one was a standalone and one was a Glass book.  I wrote two twenty-page proposals and sent the Hayden one to my editor.

While I was waiting on his answer, my editor suggested I write a “Hayden” short story – something we could give away for free on Kindle and other e-book venues.  Something to introduce new readers to the world of Hayden Glass.

It took two months to write “Crossing the Line,” a short story prequel to Boulevard.  It documents the moment a younger Hayden Glass, just one year into the LAPD (two weeks into the Vice unit), picks up a prostitute, fully intending to arrest her, and instead “crosses the line.”  It’s the first time his addiction appears on the scene.  The story should show up any day now, and I intend to post a pdf file of it for download from my website.

After finishing the short story I waited for word on my book proposal, busying myself by marketing Boulevard, prepping and attending conferences like Thrillerfest, doing library gigs, working the day job, spending time with my family, dealing with the impending short sale of my house.  There were plenty of things to keep me from writing a novel. 

Ultimately, my editor suggested that I write a standalone, and my agent agreed.  But a book deal didn’t emerge and I was instructed to write the standalone without a contract.

Once I determined what I was going to write, once I had my agent on board (after all, he’s the one charged with selling the thing, it’s a whole lot easier if he’s passionate about the story from the start) I settled in to do the research.

I spent a couple months interviewing professionals and reading books about the FBI.  I somehow managed to finagle a trip to Europe for a little “boots on the ground” action.  I set a hard-and-fast deadline to begin writing the novel, a date that should have given me plenty of time to prepare. 

That date is November 1.

I haven’t finished my research.  I haven’t even finished typing my handwritten notes from Europe into my computer.

Meanwhile, the launch of BEAT has required that I spend weeks doing interviews and writing blogs.  I’ve thrown myself into the marketing, doing everything possible to give BEAT a chance.  And then came Bouchercon and my SF launch and all the signings and touring leading up to the conference.  And there are signings and touring still to come.

That elusive “start” date feels like it’s slipping away.  My wife and I have to move the crap that has accumulated in our house over the past five years and move it to a small apartment in less than three weeks.  We have yet to define what is garbage, Goodwill, recycle, storage or apartment-stuff.  This could take all of my time, further derailing my plans to have a book out quickly.  As it is it’ll take eight months to write the book, using weeknights after work and full weekend days, and then I’ve got to sell it, execute an editor’s notes, then wait ten months to see it released.

Tonight my wife told me not to let anything get in the way of my writing.  She said that she would somehow deal with everything else.  I’m responsible for keeping my day job and writing the next book and that is all.

I think I’ve done enough marketing.  I’m not sure how much it helps anyway.  And I think I’ve done enough waiting for others to tell me what to do next.

You know, Brett Battles told me this would happen.  He said it would sneak up on me, that I should write the next book without waiting for permission. 

And Bob Crais told me not to get lost in the machine, but to “write the next book, always write the next book.”

I know how I get when I write.  Everything else falls to the wayside.  Writing is all-consuming.  That means I’ll have no time for anything else.  I’ve been afraid to jump in, afraid that the house will fall apart, that I won’t spend time with my family, that the world around me will crash and burn.  I’m going to have to trust that my wife can do what needs to be done.  Homeschool the kids, manage the bills, pack up the house and move a family of four and a dog and a fish.

November 1st.  Chapter One.  First sentence.  Time to write.


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

“We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department briefing, Fe. 12, 2002

As absurd as this statement sounds, I wish I had written it.  It’s brilliant, in it’s own, Gertrude Stein sort of way.

It gets me thinking about my responsibility as an author.  When I read a book, I trust the author to guide me through an unfamiliar world.  I expect the author to be the authority on his subject.  And doesn’t that seem appropriate:  author = authority? 

So when I catch a mistake in a book or when I see inconsistencies in a film, I begin to feel uneasy.  I lose that comfortable feeling one gets when one is thoroughly immersed in a story.  At that point I usually move on to something else. 

I remember when I wrote a documentary about the International Space Station for the Discovery Channel.  I had written a line about a meteor crater on Earth and the video editor found a crater image and dropped it in.  We didn’t know the image was wrong until the Discovery Channel contacted us, having received e:mails from a dozen angry viewers.  The network made our producer re-cut the piece, drop in the correct crater image, and re-deliver it at his own expense.  It kinda came back to me—as the writer/researcher I was expected to have caught the discrepancy before it went in. 

Beat has a few inaccuracies that got past my research readers, making it through to publication.  The errors amount to a few freeway directions and a geographical mix-up or two, things you wouldn’t notice unless you were a San Francisco local.  But, damn it, I’m writing my books for the locals.  I’m writing them for the specialists.  I’m writing them for the cops that walk the beat.  I want people to read the work and say, “Yes, this is authentic.  I trust this author, I trust this guide.”

The inaccuracies aren’t so terrible, and I can correct them in the second printing.  But it drives me nuts, and it fuels the manic attitude I have about research.

Most everyone here knows the pleasure I get from doing what I like to call “boots on the ground research.”   Sometimes I call it “method research,” or “wallowing-in-research” or “embedded research.”  Others have simply referred to my process as “going native.”

And yes, it is true that I was five months late delivering BEAT because I was lost in the Land of Research, and Brett Battles had to pull me back from the brink and point me in the direction of my manuscript.  So I understand that I can go a little overboard.  At the same time, I can’t write what I don’t know, so if I’m gonna write it, I better know it.

I recently spoke at a Road Scholar event called “The Scene of the Crime” and I chose to discuss how research authenticates an author’s work. 

In preparing for the event I identified seven steps in my researching process:

Internet Research

Book Research

Interviewing Specialists

Boots on the Ground

Novels and Memoirs

Personal Knowledge

Specialist Readers


1.  Internet Research

The Internet is a great place to start.  Basic research used to be much more difficult in college, when I’d spend eight-hours digging through dusty periodicals in the university library.  In some ways it was fun, like a treasure hunt.  But it was a godawful waste of time.  Now one fucking keyword delivers a million links and a million points of view.  In BEAT, many critical story ideas began as a basic Internet search.  I was introduced to the organizations Children of the Night and S.A.G.E. (Standing Against Global Exploitation, which I fictionalized as R.A.G.E., or Rallying Against Global Exploitation).  This discovery emerged as a crucial subplot in the novel.  I also learned about the network of underground rivers running through San Francisco, and I learned that some of them actually rise up into the basements of existing buildings.  This gave me the entry point to my climactic action sequence.  I love the Internet.  The Internet is my friend.

2.  Book Research

Books provide a vital bridge from ignorance to elocution.  I don’t really feel comfortable in a subject until I’ve read a book or two.  I’ll give a couple examples:  When I was researching this little known subject called…SPACE…you know, for that Discovery Channel project…I needed to interview astronauts and cosmonauts and program managers and a host of other really bright folks.  NASA had sent me this giant binder of PR material which served only to confuse me.  Too many bits of information.  I remember struggling through an interview with some brilliant scientist when he paused and said, “You really need to get up to speed on this.”  “Yes,” I said, pleading, “Tell me how!”  He suggested I read a book called “Dragonfly,” about the Mir Space Station, which detailed the development of Mir and the relationship between NASA and the Russians.  I read the book and, sure enough, the next time I talked to the man I was up to speed.  The book TOLD ME A STORY, and I remember stories.  It put all those little bits of information into context.  And I love context.

Similarly, when I wrote Boulevard I did not get “boots on the ground” access to the LAPD.  Fortunately, an L.A. Times journalist named Miles Corwin had spent a year with the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division and he documented the experience in his book, “Homicide Special.”  The book became my bible and it let me observe the nuances of life in this elite homicide unit.  It gave an authenticity to my novel that cops recognized as true.

3.  Interviews

I believe we’re about three degrees of separation from everyone we need to interview for our projects.  Case in point—recently I needed a good contact in a European police department.  It seems like an obscure request.  How would I meet someone, and how would I find someone willing to give me the straight scoop and not some sanitized, Media Relations version of the truth?  While doing research for Beat I met an FBI agent who provided great information for the book.  I asked if he knew any policemen in Europe and he referred me to a friend of his who works as a diplomat in the Dutch Consulate in Washington, D.C.  That gentleman, in turn, referred me to a friend of his who not only works in a European police department, but is also a homicide detective and—get this—a published crime novelist and TV writer.  The perfect catch.  Three degrees of separation.  I met with him recently and he agreed to act as my consultant and to read drafts of my next book when I’m ready.

4.     Boots on the Ground

This is my favorite.  I just jump right in.  Steps one, two and three usually lead me to an opportunity.  If I’m researching the coroner’s office, I’ll get an opportunity to witness an autopsy.  If I’m researching the San Francisco Police Department I’ll get the opportunity to walk the North Beach beat, to ride shotgun in a radio car, to visit a crime scene.  Once I was researching the background for a protagonist in a short story and suddenly I found myself in the back woods of Alabama, dressed in camo, on a turkey hunt.  And I’m a vegetarian.  Thank God we didn’t find any turkey.  Another research opportunity placed me in the Navajo Indian Reservation eating peyote with the local medicine man.  Boots on the Ground is where I live, it’s where it all comes together.  It’s where all the really good anecdotes are born.

5.     Novels and Memoirs

I separate this category from “book research” because it serves a slightly different purpose.  In book research I’m looking for specific details.  In novels and memoirs I’m looking for the essence of a thing.  I’m looking for the mindset.  If I were writing a piece set in Germany in World War II I’d probably read Rebecca Cantrell’s “A Trace of Smoke,” “The Diary of Ann Frank,” and memoirs of people who lived through that time.  For Boulevard I read “What Cops Know” to get inside the heads of police officers.  I read memoirs of cops who had careers in the Chicago Police Department, the LAPD and the NYPD.  I let the rhythm of their voices influence me.  I let the parameters of their world define the parameters of mine.  For Beat I read a book called “Sex Work,” a series of memoirs by working prostitutes.  I also watched TV documentaries about addiction and addictive behavior.  The documentaries were like visual memoirs.  All these tools served to fix my thoughts in the realism of the world I would write.

6.     Personal Knowledge

This is what the writer brings to the table without having to do extensive research.  By now many of us already have a working knowledge of police procedure, so we only have to delve into our memories to write the scenes.  If you’ve studied karate all your life then your action-hero protagonist reaps the benefits.  If I had a green thumb I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time researching Abbey Reed’s gardening techniques.  In Boulevard and Beat I captured the world of sexual addiction and the Twelve Step process with such accuracy because I’ve been there.  I wrote what I knew and the accuracy showed.  A person who had a career as a medical examiner feels very comfortable writing a series around a medical examiner.  But writing from personal knowledge alone restricts our ability to grow or to represent characters or points of view very different from our own. 

7.     Specialist Readers

And, finally, when all the research is done and the story has been written and rewritten, I turn back to a few of the specialists I’ve interviewed and I ask them to read the book for accuracy.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  I remember when I gave an early draft of Boulevard to a police officer and asked him to correct anything and everything that seemed inaccurate or seemed stupidly out-of-place.  When he was done he said, “The knife on page nine should be 9 inches instead of 6.”  And that was it.  So, all the book-reading and interviewing and embedding seemed to have paid off.  However, another officer who read the book as an ARC caught a number of jurisdictional inconsistencies that, fortunately, I had time to correct before the book went to print.  That’s why it’s important to go to more than one specialist for that final read-through.

I can do all these steps simultaneously, and I can keep it up, at a slower pace, even as I delve into writing the book.  And, as Barbossa said in the Pirates of the Caribbean, “Argh, they’re really more guidelines than rules.” 

But they lead to great places.  They take the unknowns we don’t know we don’t know and turn them into knowns we know we should know.

I’m sorry if I’ve been absent from the comments this past couple weeks – I’m in full launch mode.  And today I’m traveling, so I’ll check in on the comments as the opportunities allow.  Thanks!


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

The day, she has arrived.  BEAT hits the stores this Tuesday, September 28.  In hardcover and trade paperback simultaneously.  So there will be two affordable paperbacks in the stacks at the same time.

And then there’s this little puppy, being released at the same time:

The audio book cover is just sexy enough to make your hair stand on end.

And this old friend…

Will be offered on Kindle at a very reduced price, in an effort to entice some readers who’ve been waiting for a deal.

And my publisher had me write a Hayden short story that we’ll be giving away FREE as an ebook.  Called “Crossing the Line,” the story takes us back to Hayden’s early days as a rookie on the force, when he’s just starting his time in Vice.  It depicts the moment his addiction first rears its ugly head.  A little ditty designed to introduce new readers to the world of Hayden Glass.

The big, fun event I’m doing is happening the night before Bouchercon, on Wednesday, October 13 at 7:00 pm.  It’s a launch from the Beat Museum in San Francisco, smack dab in the middle of North Beach, just around the corner from City Lights Bookstore. 

Everyone who’s in the vicinity is invited to come.  We’re expecting lots of people, mostly authors and attendees of Bouchercon, but also local poets and writers, policemen and FBI agents.  BEAT is set in San Francisco, so many of the folks who helped or consulted on the novel will be attending the event. 

I hope to see all my Murderati friends in San Francisco.  Until then I’m just going to dive into the euphoric chaos of T-minus four days and counting…

I want to thank you all for being so wonderful and loving and supportive and delightful during my one and only debut year.  Murderati has been my anchor through the whole experience.

The following are some of the nice things folks are saying about Beat….

“Just as I thought there wasn’t an original take left on the detective novel, along comes Stephen Jay Schwartz and Beat. Fast and slick, this book is a great ride!”

Michael Connelly, New York Times bestselling author of the Harry Bosch novels

“Stephen Jay Schwartz writes with a paintbrush and expertly guides us through the gates of hell into a world where sex and violence merge into a toxic yet highly addictive alternative reality. Hayden Glass is a character we’ve not seen before, with fiendish impulses and a desperate desire to overcome his past. This is one of the most darkly sexual books I’ve ever read and I devoured it in one suspenseful sitting. Schwartz pulled me in and held me captive from beginning to end.”

Katie Arnoldi, LA Times bestselling author of “Point Dume”

“Beat is an old-fashioned nail-biter that the not-too-squeamish aficionado of the hard-boiled genre will enjoy.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The soiled hero’s relentless interrogation of his motives for pursuing Cora will make it hard for like-minded readers to put down his odyssey unfinished.”


“Glass is tough to like, impossible to admire, but relentless against insuperable odds.”

Publishers Weekly

And the things folks are saying about BOULEVARD…

“Schwartz is skillful at rendering charcoal-sketch views of the darker corners of Sunset Boulevard, and he dazzles the reader with intermittent flashes of a poetic sensibility…A book full of merit, by an author loaded with talent.”

Los Angeles Times

“Boulevard is raw, twisted, and so hard-boiled it simmers from beginning to end.”

Robert Crais, New York Times bestselling author of The First Rule

“Boulevard is terrific. Fast-paced and convincingly told. The streets of L.A. have never been meaner or seamier. Stephen Jay Schwartz’s clear vision and knowing heart make him a gifted writer to watch.”

T. Jefferson Parker, New York Times bestselling author of Iron River

“Relentless and unflinching, a shocking thriller that dares you to keep reading. Schwartz has created one of the most complex and tortured protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. A powerful debut.”

Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of the Rizzoli and Isles series

“Like James Ellroy, Schwartz can make the reader squirm…Schwartz does a fine job of blurring the lines between sexuality and violence, the criminal world and the police world.”

Publishers Weekly

“Schwartz hasn’t missed a trick in this gripping first novel…He skillfully develops Hayden’s flawed character, showing him to be decent, haunted, and sometimes loathsome. Most important, he artfully builds tension and suspense into horror and finishes with a stunning Grand Guignol climax. Expect much more from this talented writer.”

– Booklist

“Plot twists and turns plus an unusual denouement make Schwartz an author to watch. Mystery fans who enjoy reading about the mean streets of L.A. (a la Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, T. Jefferson Parker) will devour this.”

Library Journal

“Boulevard is a mesmerizing read; Schwartz has drawn a swift, brutal and compelling portrait of a nightmare underworld of Los Angeles and a protagonist tormented by his own sexual addiction as well as by a real human evil. Boulevard is one of the most compelling books on addiction I’ve ever read, wrapped up in a gripping thriller.”

Alexandra Sokoloff, ITW Award-winning author of The Unseen.

“Dark and gritty, Schwartz’s dicey debut is seriously twisted.”

Robert Ellis, national bestselling author of The Lost Witness

“A lurid nightmare tour through dark streets and dark minds. Stephen Jay Schwartz writes with the fevered intensity of early James Ellroy.”

Marcus Sakey, author of The Amateurs

“Tightly written and wildly original, you’ll be thinking about this story long after you close the covers. Sex-addict Detective Hayden Glass is an unforgettable antihero you’ll love and hate at the same time. Stephen Jay Schwartz is going to give Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch a run for his money. Boulevard is just plain excellent.”

J.T. Ellison, bestselling author of The Immortals

“Boulevard is one of the most riveting debuts I have ever read. Stephen Schwartz has written a story that will enthrall you, haunt you, disturb you, and keep you thinking long after you’ve finished reading it. Once you begin this book you won’t be able to look away.”

Brett Battles, Barry Award winning author of Shadow of Betrayal

“Stephen Jay Schwartz is a brave and gifted author, and Boulevard is an electrifying journey into sinful delights and escalating evil. Morally sound, addictive as a speedball, and rich with insight into human frailty—this novel kept me awake and disturbed my dreams in all the right ways. Lock your doors and read it.”

Christopher Ransom, bestselling author of The Birthing House

“This may be Stephen Jay Schwartz’s first book, but you’d never know it from the writing. Or the plotting. Or the characters. Boulevard is all adrenaline, a spiraling dance of doomed souls in the best tradition of L.A. noir. The streets here are so well drawn you can almost see the heat shimmering off the asphalt and smell the exhaust as hookers, cops and addicts of various kinds do their perpetual dance. Hayden Glass is a cop with a secret, a secret that not only endangers his search for a vicious serial predator, but also brings Glass to the jolting realization that he is somehow part of the predator’s scenario. From the first scene to the dead-stop conclusion, Schwartz never lets up, and his story lifts a corner of the social fabric and peers beneath it to shine light on a part of the urban world that most of us, if we are lucky, will never be part of.”

Timothy Hallinan, bestselling author of Breathing Water


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

You’re looking at my office/work-space.  I’ve been writing at the Novel Café for over twenty years.  I’ve written most of ten screenplays and two novels there.  Recently the Novel Café went through an ownership change, and it is now called 212 Pier. 

I’m an extrovert.  But I’m also an introvert.  And that probably wouldn’t make sense if I weren’t a Gemini. 

Writing is a solitary profession.  We’re inside our heads when we write.  It’s lonely.  And I simply cannot face it alone.

So I surround myself with people and noises and music and chaos, and I manage to filter it all out into the blur of background noise as I write.  And when I get stuck or frustrated or stalled I look up and see the faces of my friends hard at work, since this is a writers’ café, and it gives me inspiration.  Makes me feel part of a community.  Sometimes I’ll catch the eye of another writer staring up, searching for an “out,” and I know that I can step away from my table and approach him and we can chat a while, take a break, discuss story or the weather or the local news.  And then, re-energized, fitfully empowered, we each of us return to the grind.

I can only write in cafes.  I cannot write in the quiet solitude of my home or, God forbid, a library.  Too much silence. 

Writing in cafes has appealed to me since the day I discovered that some of my favorite authors spent their days in Parisian cafes.  Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin.  The Lost Generation of expatriates.  It all seemed so romantic.  I latched onto the idea of the café writer and never let go. 

I’ve written in the majority of LA’s cafes.  There’s the Bourgeois Pig in Hollywood, which is just a little too “Hollywood hip” for my taste; there was the old Pick Me Up Cafe, one of the first in LA and long since closed (I read all of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” at the Pick Me Up, coughing my brains out on second-hand smoke); the Highland Grounds in Hollywood, where I also shot part of a movie I made after graduating college; The Rose Café in Venice, and so many more.

Since I travel a lot, I’ve hit most every hip café in every major city in the U.S.  I’ve found wonderful surprises in places like Columbus, Ohio, Boise, Idaho and Salt Lake City, Utah.  When I’m in San Francisco I write at the Trieste, a fifty-year old café, which features prominently in my upcoming novel, BEAT.

I’ve pretty much settled on 212 Pier (45 minutes from my home, but well worth it), and the below cafes, which are closer to my home:


This is the Catalina Café and Brewing Company in Redondo Beach.  I’ve put a lot of time on Boulevard and Beat here, and there’s a great community of screenwriters who come in every night.

This is Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach.  I write under the protective guard of the shiny, metal knight, who blesses each manuscript written in his presence.



Another awesome thing is that Coffee Cartel has a special place for me in their display case.  212 Pier also has a copy of Boulevard prominently displayed in an area where they advertise the work of local authors.

I’ve pretty much given up trying to write at home.  I made a feeble attempt to create an office space using an itty-bitty alcove, a nook, a crannie, in my garage.  It quickly became “Steve’s Office Crap Storage Dump.”


When I have to do big, creative things, like this whiteboard for my 3 X 5 cards on WIP story points, I end up leaving it on the bedroom floor where it serves as a bed for our labradoodle.

What I’m saying is that my work-space is a mess.  It’s whatever I have in my travel bag at the time, usually a stack of manila file folders filled with crap I’ve downloaded from the Internet, in no particular order, thrown onto the surface of some café table somewhere in this great big city.  It’s a wonder I’m productive at all. 

Everything important is on my computer.  Which is basically a file folder on my desktop marked, “Beat,” for example, filled with files on character, plot, research elements, outlines, treatments and first draft chapters.  I’m a very linear thinker, so I pretty much depend on writing brief paragraphs of every scene in its proper order.  I’d love to get more sophisticated, but I think I’ll need a computer younger than 15 years if I hope to use the cool “author” software they’ve got in the marketplace.

Really, the last piece of sophisticated equipment I bought was an Underwood typewriter.  I’m hoping to get an IBM Selectric for Hannukah.

Oh, and after reading Rob’s post on Wednesday I decided to upload a photo of my library.  It’s where I worship…

I’m  currently on a no-budget, youth hostel research trip in Europe, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to participate in the comments.  I’ll check in if I have Internet access.  I’m sure I’ll find a café with wifi!  It’s high time for adventure, my friends! 



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I did a signing event at a Borders last week and my good friend Tim Hallinan (The Queen of Patpong) asked a really great question:  What kind of scenes are difficult for you to write?

An interesting inquiry coming from Tim, whose brilliant Poke Rafferty series depicts some shockingly difficult scenes, some involving sex abuse and torture.  And he’s read Boulevard, which presents its own cadre of distorted sexual encounters and includes a variety of horrific murder scenes.  So I think the crowd was expecting me to pick out a gruesome massacre and go to town.

But what came to mind, the most natural response I had to Tim’s question, was something quite different.

“The most difficult scenes for me to write are the normal, healthy, romantic love scenes.”

First of all, the person who can even find a normal, healthy, romantic love scene in Boulevard deserves a prize.  My love scenes come right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 

The one that was really hard to write appears in Beat.  You’ll know it when you see it.  It’s as close to romance writing as you’ll ever get from me.  And, still, even as sexy and romantic and, can I say—fucking hot—it gets, there is still an awkwardness, a sense of unexpected discovery, a fear of the unknown.  For a protagonist who is a sex addict, anything that looks like healthy sex is going to be awkward and unsettling, even as he recognizes that this is how the rest of the world experiences it.

Christa Faust (Money Shot) made an interesting comment about the sex in Boulevard, saying that it was “ugly sex,” and that she loved it.  Not because the sex was ugly, but because the sex was revealing.  It revealed character.  She said she can’t stand the “obligatory sex scene,” which often feels like authors throw them in to satisfy readers who expect to see characters having sex at specific, predictable intervals throughout the story. 

The awkwardness of a sexual encounter, even between long-time lovers, even between a husband and wife, reveals volumes about the characters’ state of mind, their back-stories, religious beliefs, morality, societal influences.  The sex scene is an opportunity to take the character arcs up a notch, or to reveal things that were previously unknown.

I don’t have much trouble writing the dysfunctional sex scene.  But the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” of romantic sex embarrass me.  I don’t want to go there.  I force myself, though, pretending it’s the easiest stuff in the world to write, all the time cringing and blushing.

You’d think I’d find it tougher to write the gory details of a murder scene, right?  Wrong.  I really enjoy writing the gore, because I know that it’s fiction.  I see it in my mind as fiction, as a movie, as a special effect.  I look at the challenge of writing the crime scene in a way that amps up its potential for poetic imagery.

Here’s a scene of gore in Boulevard that I had a great deal of fun composing:

The walls were dripping mostly with the bits and pieces of what #4 shot took when blasted through flesh and bone.  Brain matter, bone splinters, chunks of muscle tissue, bits of fingernail, a mosaic of nerve patterns like macabre snowflakes, strands of hair.  Blood dripped and trailed over lamp shades and wooden chairs.

Doesn’t freak me out at all.  It’s so over-the-top that it feels like opera—in fact, I can imagine classical music playing over the images. 

Like the scene in the Peter Weir film Fearless (from the novel by Rafael Yglesias), where the airplane crashes in slow motion, and we’re inside the plane where all the terror is seen and felt, and the only sound we hear is classical music.

It’s probably the most intense cinematic scene I’ve ever encountered.  It could have easily been over-done with sound effects—the screams of passengers, the tearing of metal, the wind, the flames.  Instead, it’s poetry.

Imagine being able to capture that experience in words alone.

I don’t think I could ever write a truly graphic scene about a child in pain.  I just don’t want to even think of that.  Kids are magical and innocent and adorable in every way and, even though I know kids are suffering in this world, and I want to bring this to the attention of people who can relieve their suffering, I just don’t want to write the details.  Same thing with animals.  I’ve been a vegetarian almost all my life, but I can’t watch those PETA films. 

So a love scene should be easy, right?  But when I try, I get all queasy inside.  Maybe it just doesn’t ring true to me.  I mean, most of our characters have just met during the course of our stories, right?  Boy meets girl.  At some point, boy and girl consummate the relationship.  Now, in real life, ninety-nine times out of a hundred that situation is going to be real awkward.  It ain’t gonna be the way it’s portrayed in the movies.  Or the romance novels.  Or the porn films of Jenna Jameson.  New lovers don’t always know where to put their hands, or how hard is too hard, or when it’s appropriate to scream out, or when to assume their partner is done. 

One of the best sex scenes I’ve seen on film comes from Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, from the Elmore Leonard novel.

Again, the right music fills in the spaces.  And the editing is extraordinary.  It sure makes sex look easy.  Can I accomplish the same in words alone?

On the other hand, I think I do a pretty decent job with awkward, ugly sex.

Like this excerpt from Boulevard:

He was having trouble getting hard.  She noticed.  She tried to force it.

“Not so hard,” he said.

He didn’t want to think of her this way.

He pulled away, closed his eyes, pressed the palm of his hand to his forehead.  There was that hard, dull pressure that circled his head like a lead cowboy hat.  She reached out and drew him back.  He tried not to think of her as a colleague.  He tried to think of her as a whore.

He grabbed her thighs hard.  He saw her skin turn white where his fingers dug in.  He felt his cock stiffening.  His eyes remained closed as he bent over her, biting her nipples with his teeth.  Her breathing grew deep and husky.  She pulled him into her, enveloped him, sank her fingernails into his shoulders and back.  He pushed hard and she pushed back, thrusting quickly, tightening around him.

His cell phone rang.  He didn’t hear it, he was already coming.  He collapsed on top of her.  She lay there on the desk, her legs spread in the air, half wrapped around his waist.  She was still in the moment.  Waiting for something.

He lifted himself off, pulled up his pants.  The office was quiet.  His cum drained from between her legs.  Her hand found a box of Kleenex tissues.  She wiped, pulled her shirt over her breasts, found her panties and skirt discarded on the floor.

“God, it’s all about you,” she said at last.

He heard the shame in her voice.  The shame of acting out.  It must’ve been a new feeling for her.

“What did you expect?” he said.

“I don’t know, I thought I’d be different.”

In the meetings he was told that an addict could spot an addict.  That an addict sent out a certain kind of signal and other addicts responded.  It was true like that in crime, too.  A pickpocket saw every other pickpocket in a crowd.  The junkie knew another junkie with a look.  Sex addicts sought each other out.  Kennedy was drawn to him because she recognized herself in him.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“It’s shameful.”

“Yes, it is,” she agreed.

“Fuck you, it didn’t have to be that way.”

“So why was it?”

                                                          *    *    *

It’s probably more uncomfortable for people to read than it is for me to write.  Hmmm…I wonder if I should be worried about that…

What about the rest of you?  Is it difficult writing sex?  What scenes are most difficult to write?  What scenes are uncomfortable to read?





By Stephen Jay Schwartz

When I think of miracles I think of “Miracle on the Hudson,” which was not a movie or a television mini-series, but an actual real-life event, just a year and a half ago, when 155 people were saved after the captain of U.S. Airways flight 1549 crash-landed their plane into the Hudson River.

Not a life was lost. 

It was an amazing story.  Uplifting, hopeful.  I wondered why I hadn’t seen it emerge as a TV movie or a major motion picture.

And then I remembered my own history in the entertainment industry, and I imagined the pitch meeting that might have occurred after the incident…



LEW, a gray-haired senior executive, sits in a well-appointed office next to RICHARD, his Vice President of Development.  Posters of classic Hollywood movies adorn the walls.  Lew’s name dominates the credit lines on such films as “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Earthquake,” “The Towering Inferno,” and “Airport.”

JERRY and SANDY, two television producers in their fifties, sit in chairs opposite the execs.  They are well dressed and in full-pitch mode.


            It came as an epiphany, Lew.  I mean, I called Sandy the second I

            saw the footage and I said, “Sandy…Miracle on the Hudson–”



            And I said to Jerry, “Everyone survives!”



            That’s what she said, Lew, that’s exactly what she said.  And I

            knew we had a hit on our hands. 


Lew shifts uncomfortably in his seat.


            Jer, how long we known each other?



            Christ, Lew, thirty-five years?



            Remember the fun we had on “Earthquake?”



            The best, Lew. 



            How many people did we kill in that script?






            Three hundred twenty-two.



            That many, huh?  I think that’s how many bad reviews we got, too.



            Remember the box office?



            We made a lot of money, Lew, we did.



            How many did we kill on the Poseidon?



            Well, that was a finite number, since you can only have so many

            people on a boat to begin with.  It’s not like an earthquake—



            Six hundred forty, Jer. 



            That many?



            This “Miracle on the Hudson,” …how many people die?



            If you’ll allow me to interject here, Lew, I think I know where you’re

            going with this.  See, “Miracle” is the flipside of Poseidon.  Think of

            Jim Cameron’s “Titanic,” think about that kind of box office, right?

            “Miracle” is “Titanic,” except it’s exactly the opposite, see? 

            And “Titanic” made a billion dollars, Lew.  Think about that.



            So what you’re saying, Sandy, is I can expect to lose a billion

            dollars on “Miracle on the Hudson.”


Jerry moves forward in his seat, effectively “cock-blocking” Sandy’s dying pitch.



            We’re talking apples and oranges, Lew.  This isn’t a feature film

            here, it’s a movie of the week.  Television has always been the

            place for stories of inspiration and hope.  Like “The Burning

            Bed” or “Raid on Entebbe.”


Richard finally speaks up.



            People died in both MOWs.  Entebbe was tragic, innocent civilians

            were shot and killed.



            That’s it, Jer.  Where’s the tragedy? 



            The tragedy?



            The husband burns to death in “The Burning Bed.”  The woman

            kills her husband.  Those kids have to live without a father—



            What’s the one about that handsome serial killer, ends up eating

            his victims? 



            On the tip of my tongue, Lew.  I can IMDB it if you want.



            Point is, Jer, you can’t have hope without tragedy.  Where’s the

            tragedy in your “Miracle?”



            What have we come to, Lew?  Does every story have to revolve

            around some tragic event?  Don’t we have the responsibility



Sandy leans forward, subtly pushing Jerry aside.



            There’s huge tragedy in “Miracle on the Hudson.”  The pilot and

            the crewmembers suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for

            months after the crash.  The media swooped in and dissected

            the pilot’s life—they turned him into a hero against his will.



            There was a woman on the plane with a baby in her arms, Lew.

            She had to crawl over the seats when the water came rushing in.

            Can you imagine that?  They just crashed into the river, it’s

            freezing in the water–”



            Like “Titanic.”



            Like “Titanic,” and this woman is screaming and trying to crawl

            over the seats as the water pours in, threatening to drown her little

            baby girl.



            What happened to that woman, Jer?  What happened to the baby?


Uncomfortable BEAT.



            Again, I see where you’re going with this, Lew, but—


Richard has his iPad in his hands.



            Okay, I’ve got AOL news on line right now, and I’ll read you the

            top three headlines.  “Ten Year Old Kills Father and Stepmother

            with Shotgun he Received on Birthday.”  “Woman Fakes Cancer,

            Bilks Community Out of Two Hundred Thousand Dollars.” 

            “Family of Thirty Drowns on Wedding Cruise to Catalina Island.”



            I’d watch every one of them.  Although the second pitch is a bit

            weak, since the girl doesn’t really have cancer.



            Sure, but you spin it, have her get something else, Lupus or

            something.  Now she really needs the community she bilked—



            The Boy Who Cried Wolf.






            Can you die from Lupus?



            I’ll call Research, have an answer by morning.



            Listen, Jer, it was great seeing you.  I got a four o’clock

            with Arnold and I think it’s going to go long.  He’s looking to

            do a sequel of “Twins.”



            God, he’s desperate.



            What else is he gonna do?  He needs work.



            Lew, I think we really got something here.  A new vision for

            the future.  A world where entertainment isn’t synonymous

            with violence and pain.


Lew stands, puts a hand on Jerry’s shoulder.



            I got three words for you, Jer.  P-B-S.


Richard smiles, repeats Lew’s comment over and over again, laughing to himself.






            Say hello to the little lady for me.  We’ll get together for Pesach

            next month.  I’ll have Ethel give her a call.


                                                        *    *    *


I think I can find PBS on my cable box.  Somewhere in the five hundred channels of chaos and destruction…



By Stephen Jay Schwartz


Have I made it perfectly clear yet that I’m obsessed with Jack Kerouac?

I think I mention Kerouac and the Beats every time someone asks about my literary influences.  But I don’t really think of myself as a guy with obsessive tendencies.  I don’t have a thousand lunch pails sporting images of Superman or characters from The Andy Griffith Show.  I don’t paint tiny army figurines and play them one against the other on a giant, Styrofoam battlefield in my garage. 

But the way I feel about the Beat Generation…kinda sounds like obsession.

I’m not alone.  There’s a something somethingness about these folks that translates into every language, crosses every border, travels the world and appeals to millions.  I remember feeling crushed when I discovered there were others like me.  The relationship I had with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs felt personal, like I rode shotgun at their side through all the adventures.  I didn’t like the fact that my feelings were not special or unique.  And, when I finally accepted that I was not the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac (every Beatnik goes through the phase where he insists he’s Jack reincarnated), I learned to enjoy sharing the Beat universe with others. 

How do I explain the appeal of the Beats?  

It starts with Kerouac.  He’s the center of the storm.  I posted a blog a little while ago with a link to Kerouac reading from On the Road.  My blog was about the musicality of his writing, the fevered saxophone solo of his words, his syncopation and meter and rhythm.  That’s the first thing that got my attention.  Just hearing Jack read his own work took me to another place.  It was the marriage of music and literature, poetry and jazz.

Last week I was in San Francisco for a too-brief moment and I visited one of my favorite places in the world, the Beat Museum.  

There’s a TV monitor near the entrance playing a continuous loop of Kerouac, with the sound turned off.  It was playing the same segment I mentioned above, the one I have linked to my previous blog.  I watched it again, silent, observing Jack’s body language as he read, hearing the words memorized in my head, knowing every camera angle, expecting the crescendo of music and words as the sequence came to an end and the lights came up and the camera pulled out to a wide shot, in total silence.  And I noticed something I had always seen but hadn’t really acknowledged.  It was a look in Kerouac’s face, a reluctance to let it go, to leave the place in his head where he’d gone while reading his work.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Nirvana, where he’d gone.  It showed in the way he seemed to grapple for something lost, something held for a moment in the palm of his hand, before the music ended and the lights went up and the camera pulled back and out.

In that moment I saw Kerouac’s vulnerability.  His complete and total honesty, open for the world to see.  And I think that’s the real appeal, that’s what draws so many millions into his orbit. 

The Beats were nothing if not honest.  They lived lives of chaotic adventure, documenting everything they did, felt and saw.  They weren’t ashamed by their actions.  Their lives were their art, America the canvas. 

Now, remember, this was the 1950s.  Before reality television brought media-starved souls into our bedrooms to entertain us with the wreckage of their lives.  This was before Andy Warhol gave every American permission to seek fifteen minutes of fame.  People didn’t expect to receive instant adulation on a worldwide stage.

It was the era of “Leave it to Beaver,” the Marlboro Man, the Red Scare.  A Post-War America with a black-and-white setting.  Shades of gray didn’t exist until the 1960s.  In the 50s you were either perfectly good or…perfectly bad.  And, if you were just a little bit bad, you were perfectly bad.  If you smoked a little weed, if you liked to listen to jazz…you might as well shoot heroin, pop speed, have sex with your neighbor’s wife and rob your friends.  All of which the Beats excelled at.

So, is there anything to admire about that?  Is that heroic? 

The fact is, they lived, man.  These cats were full of life.  They did not compromise in their search for meaning.  They blew through this land, rolling across our virgin highways, searching out America, testing the caliber of their souls along the way.  Their message was peace and friendship and love.  They lived their lives fully, whatever the cost.  And the cost was high, in the 1950s.

Kerouac was talented and sensitive and vulnerable and he ultimately killed himself with booze.  Frustrated, he drank because he was misunderstood.  His publishers and the media and the critics sold him as America’s “bad boy.”  They didn’t look at his writing, didn’t acknowledge the value of his fresh, new style, didn’t hear the questions he posed about the meaning of life.  He was cast as the harbinger of restless meanderings and delivered to a hungry, eager youth ready for action, encouraged to use On the Road as their map into naughty new places where sex, drugs and jazz defined the essence of cool.

While Kerouac was the match that lit the flame, he was not the whole movement.  One man does not a Generation make.  A number of colorful cohorts traveled at his side, folks like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to name a few.  Their writings challenged the conventions of the day, setting the stage for an even greater revolution yet to come.  These were the original road-trippers.  The first hitchhikers.  Doing it all before the hippies hit puberty.

I have a pretty significant collection of Beat literature in my library.  Sometimes I stand in front of the shelves and stare at my copies of On the Road, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Naked Lunch, Queer, Junky, Howl, Kaddish, Memory Babe, The Town and the City...just being near the stuff connects me to my core.

Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I visit the Beat Museum.  It’s a place where I can talk with other obsessive beatniks about the minutia of Beat life.  I also chat with folks who come in off the street, come in from all over the world, really.  Some know their shit while others are taking their first Beat-baby steps.  I love introducing Kerouac to a new generation of readers and fellow road-trippers.

Last week I had nowhere to stay and no money for a hotel and I didn’t want to bug Louise or Allison Davis or anyone I knew and what I really wanted to do anyway was beg Jerry Cimino, owner of the Beat Museum, to let me spend the night in the museum.  Yes, IN the museum.  I’ve known Jerry for a couple years now, ever since he introduced me to the San Francisco beat cop who would become my main source for research on BEAT, my sequel to BOULEVARD

Jerry, being the cool cat that he is, let me stay.  I slept in a period chaise-lounge beside a jacket once owned by Kerouac, in front of a collection of one hundred copies of On the Road translated into 25 different languages.  I was like a Beat Generation centerpiece.  I was like a Kerouac collectible. 


(Yes, I slept here)


(Right next to Jack Kerouac’s jacket)


(Next to 100 copies of On The Road from around the world)


It was a Friday night and the world outside the museum walls was a-rockin’.  I was in the center of North Beach and from inside the museum I could hear the wild raucous live music of nearby clubs, the screaming and yelling and laughter of twenty-somethings let loose for the weekend, the crash of beer bottles, the sirens from police cars and ambulances, the hushed sounds of hoodlums smoking pot just outside the door, the call of barkers from Big Al’s strip club across the alley.  And me, stepping softly barefoot on the wood floor, looking at photos of Kerouac and the gang, reading titles from their books, letting their history engulf me.  I felt like a bridge between the San Francisco of their era and the San Francisco that screamed and danced on the other side of the wall.

It doesn’t get much better than that for a Beat junkie.  Except maybe to lie down on Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Which I’ve done.  Twice. 

Jerry Cimino also honored me last year when he let me have my San Francisco launch of BOULEVARD at the museum.  This year will be even better, since I’m launching BEAT, which is set in San Francisco, from the Beat Museum, the night before Bouchercon.

Can you beat that?


When I saw Jerry last week I read a section of my book to him, which includes the following lines:  “They passed the Beat Museum with its mural of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady standing arm-in-arm.  Hayden saw a man inside waving a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl before a group of Japanese tourists.”

When I asked Jerry to send me a few photos for this blog, he sent me this one, which was taken at an event two years ago…

Come on now.  I knew nothing of this event.  The book I referenced in my excerpt could have been anything, I could’ve written that he was waving a copy of On the Road or Naked Lunch.  I could’ve said the tourists were from Sweden.

Is this a sign of some sort?  Am I supposed to drop everything and move to San Francisco, work the register at the Beat Museum for the rest of my life?

When you’re channeled into the Beat thing, well, shit like this just happens.  I invite you all to join the ride.  Get on the bus.  Drink the Kool-Aid.

Beat On.

Everyone who’s going to Bouchercon is invited to join me at the Beat Museum for the SF launch of BEAT on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, at 7:00 pm.  We’re going to have a nice crowd of Bouchercon attendees, and we’ll hit the North Beach restaurants and bars directly thereafter.  Special Guest Kim Dower (Kim-from-LA) will be reading from her newly published book of poetry as well.  Kim is a wonderful poet and the Beat Museum is a perfect venue for her. 

And next week BOULEVARD comes out in trade paperback, with a fancy-schmanztie new cover.  Tell the friends, and thanks!


PHOTO CREDITS:  beat-museum-front.jpg  –  “Helder Ribeiro”  Site:
chaise-lounge.jpg  –  “Sara Stell”  Site:
jacks-jacket.jpg –  The Beat Museum
jerry-talking-to-students.jpg  –  Sean Stewart  Site: