Monday, December 12, 2016

How I Came to Write Historical Suspense: Guest post by Michael Mayo

Michael Mayo has written about film for the Washington Post and the Roanoke Times. He was the host of the nationally syndicated radio programs Movie Show on Radio and Max and Mike on the Movies. He is the author of American Murder: Criminals, Crime, and the Media. His first novel, Jimmy the Stick, was published in 2012. The Jimmy Quinn suspense novels are Jimmy the Stick, Everybody Goes to Jimmy’s and Jimmy and Fay. Mayo lives in North Carolina.


I was an English major in college, UNC, with Honors in Writing and a few journalism courses. Got a Master’s in English from Hollins University (then Hollins College). After that, I wrote book and film reviews for The Roanoke Times. At the same time, I was reviewing for the local public radio station.

The newspaper work eventually led to my first critical work, Video Premieres, in 1996 for the Visible Ink Press VideoHound series. I also wrote Horror Show and War Movies for them, and edited three editions of the DVD Guide. While I was writing those, I was also working, unsuccessfully, at suspense novels.

In 2003, I was asked to contribute a chapter on movies for the Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America (Gary S. Cross, ed. Scribners). As soon as I started work on that, I realized how much I didn’t know about the early days of filmmaking and gave myself a crash course. Wow!

(Take a look at Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights to get an idea of how wild and rambunctious those times were.)

New York was the center of the film industry and it was the focus of my reading. As I learned about the silent film era, I saw how important the first decades of the 20th century were to the country we have become now—how everyone was affected by World War I, how the city changed when the veterans came back, how women began to gain independence, the beginnings of mass communications with radio and motion pictures, the sharpening conflict between urban and rural America that created Prohibition, the rise of fascism.

I got a deeper understanding of those days when I set out to write American Murder: Criminals, Crime and the Media. There I met the wonderful guys and dolls who made New York roar in the Twenties—Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Polly Adler, et al. They inspired me and as I learned more about them, I found the real people behind the carefully crafted public personas.

I also formed a much more realistic picture of what New York speakeasies were like on a practical day-to-day level. They were not furtive, secretive operations that stayed open despite the diligent efforts of authorities to close them down. There were 32,000 of them in the city. Selling booze may have been illegal but it was still business.

Early on I realized that the line between fact and fiction is faint. As I read different accounts, I’d find the same story told with key variations, or the same story told about two different individuals. Almost everyone who has written about those people has added to the legends or created their own.

I have tried not to sugarcoat them too much, but my books are fact-based escapism, not history lessons or morality tales. I mean to entertain and give my readers a colorful and reasonably accurate recreation of the city at its liveliest and most stylish.           

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