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There's something magical about books and films, most often based on books, that take readers and viewers outside their vanilla world to delightful, undiscovered oases of tastes and aromas. Exotic and familiar fares able to transport us to a place we didn't know existed. Smells tantalize our taste buds and linger a lifetime. Like curry. One whole continent has perfumed the air with this spice. Travelers from India have confessed that once back home, the smell of curry lingers in their psyche even after years back in the UK or even Cleveland. In fact, incredible story, a client of mine admitted he had tried a curry hotdog at the Indians old stadium. There are extremists on both sides of this issue.

Adding spice to a dish is like. . . . well, how can I put this politely? Without a sprinkle of zest, a dish is like sex without an orgasm. Really. That's why since man started searing the hairs off his rodent main course, he's been looking under every bush, scaling every tree, burrowing into every snake hole to find something, anything, that wouldn't taste as bad as his charred entree.

There are so many books that have awakened me to the many nuances of international cuisine. Raised in a generation of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and boiled peas, it's a miracle my taste buds didn't dry up altogether. Julia Child saved me when I was reborn at the library reading about a strange, new world. Without liver loaf and Jello molds. Here's a list of some great books to whet your appetite and imagination: "Joy Luck Club", "Delicious", "Little Beach Street Bakery", "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Chef". My top choice is "Babette's Feast." The film is tantalizing. I felt as if I were hanging out in the kitchen and consuming the meal, inhaling the waft of Potage a la Tortue (turtle soup with sherry). The First Course.

Second Course: Buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream. Champagne

Third Course: Quail in a puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce. Pinot Noir

Fourth Course: Endive salad

Fifth Course: Rum sponge cake with figs and candied cherries. Champagne

Sixth Course: Assorted cheeses and fruits. Sauternes

Seventh Course: Coffee. Grande Champagne cognac

Before the roll credits were done, I was fantasizing about my own kitchen and wondering where I would find the quail, and if it might be better to get chickens already slaughtered to spare my sensitivities. But the delicious aroma of Babette's kitchen won me over. The film was set in the late 19th century in Jutland, a region known for survivor-mode cuisine. Namely dried fish soaked and pounded into a disgusting paste with nary a smidgen of taste. Imagine if Babette had arrived as a French refugee and ordered Door Dash pizzas. Probably a gastronomic revolution.

Anyhow, it's time for lunch. All this talk about fantastic food has got me wanting to get outta here and find the nearest Arby's. Just for today, of course. The point of all this foodie focus is to show my appreciation for the contributions of chefs, growers and food lovers who have added gusto and refinement to the literary world. It's not only sex and horror that become erotic best sellers but Cuisine Art books with exotic, erotic flights of fanciful tastes, textures and aromas that form our perception of the world and its many cultures. Maybe I won't ever get to Nepal or Burkina Faso. Look it up. It's in Africa. But I can cozy up with a cookbook and discover Dal Bhat, Lentil soup and rice with all sorts of yummy sides and Riz gras. That's African Rice stew that masquerades as plain fare when one bite forces you to take another and another and delight at how common ingredients can explode with such addictive flavor.

Such a fortunate alliance—food and fiction. All you scribblers just be certain you have a sandwich or a Tex Mex takeout handy. And by the way, the recipes and dishes that spring up in my fiction are really tasty.

I have been a fan of detective novels, cozies and TV shows portraying cops and the criminal justice system since I learned how to read. Because they're mysteries. That is, puzzles, forensic or dramatic brain twisters to solve with the authors' clues. Sometimes false leads. I hate that: "No one knew the killer's identical twin was hired as the chamber maid in the mansion." And sometimes hints that were no help at all like "DNA shows it was a male of Asian ancestry." Great. Now that limits the suspect list to a few billion.

I gave up the fictional novels with private dicks always smarter than the real cops, tough guys who knocked down doors and slapped the bad girl around a few times before he either took her to bed or jail. Characters like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, scribblers' with a more literary bent such as P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh and my favorite Robert Parker frustrated my appetite for real-life depictions of these knights behind a badge. I left them all behind when I discovered the true crime genre with forensic protocols for solving murders and realistic investigative techniques at the forefront of the plot. Finally, I'd found a mystery with true-life clues and emphasis on the meat of the matter and not the fact that the lead detective could commune with the dead victims, drink his or her way through a gallon of booze after the hardware was unstrapped, talk trash to his commander and slug it out with his wife or girlfriend every day but Tuesday.

There's a definite reason I gave up on the fictional Dicks and Homicide cops stuffed on the shelves of my local library. I couldn't watch a whole episode of the Cop shows either. Too silly. Too "carbon cutouts" of every other cop show on. Law and Order seemed the closest by far to what I knew from my life experience with real cops, DA's and criminal Defense Attorneys. But in the end, the producers always snuck in scenes and asides from the soap opera genre. All their cops seemed drawn from the Joseph Wambaugh clan—drunks, ex-drunks, problem boys stepping over the line on a regular basis, cold-hearted cynics isolated from real society. I suppose that is true to a degree given the demands and stress of the profession. But that's not an accurate picture of the genre of men and women who work their behinds off to solve these criminal mysteries every day of the week, in every part of America and the world at large.

My protagonist in the Detective Sergeant John Bowers procedural series was born out of this quandary of wanting to find a real cop, a good guy who loves his job catching bad guys and getting closure for victims. He's ordinary I guess you could say. He has faults. Just like us. But his basic instincts are always pointed in the right direction—after a few wrong turns maybe. He's not an alcoholic, he can't get past the letter A on a list of feminine wiles, but he's trying to catch up. He's fair; he's committed; he's untainted by racist ideology, sexist sabotage and general-variety bullshit. He's normal in other words. A working stiff who sometimes loves to hate his Bureau cubicle in the Justice Center. But there isn't another occupation he'd rather do. John Bowers is my kinda guy. A real guy. Someone I'd like to share a beer with, get messy with at a backyard barbeque and hash over cold cases.

I have known and worked with cops from small town America where homicides show up once every few decades to urban nests of high crime, gang violence, serial killers and plain jane nutjobs. John lands somewhere in the middle. His bailiwick at Central Precinct Portland Police Bureau is morphing from a town to a big city with all its problems. Homicide rates are catching up with bigger US cities like LA with stiffs stacked in the coroners' hallway waiting for cooler space.

So, my diet for crime fiction is firmly planted in the Procedural genre. I want all the forensic work mixed in plus a realistic tracking of the door-to-door dog work involved in actual homicide work. New technology breakthroughs have helped to solve cases that probably would revolve to the Cold Case Unit in John's day. Like CC TV surveillance, DNA, genealogy data bases and other national data sources to match suspects to case forensics. But the basics remain. It's the homicide team trying to fit all the puzzle pieces together that gets the bad actors off the streets. Since the Bowers' series setting is the mid 1990's, there is more of the gumshoe labor involved for John and his partner Sgt. Minnie Raye. Lets a reader follow the trail from the start and sniff out the spoor just as John does. Puts you at the scene and on the hunt. A good ride for true crime and mystery fans alike. My kinda trip.

Once upon a time years before I ever met a real editor at a pub house, I got a looksee at what goes on in an agent's office when a scribbler's MS ends up on a newbie's desk. Or on a very tired, overburdened pro's desk who's waiting to move up the ladder and open his or her own agency. Once they figure out how to paw through and ashcan piles of MS slush blocking their view of the Deli Menu taped to their desk, a rare, empathetic soul among their ilk will share their secret with you.

Here's what I learned from one of those-agents who struck out on her own and made it big in the industry, mostly from discovering, coaching and promoting newbie writers. It was all about the talk. The what? Dialog, the to and fro word catch that makes an author's voice something real. Turns out this was the key to everything. Plot weak? Done at least a hundred and ten times already by better writers than me? Too long? Too short? Too whatever the genre du jour is this year? Who cares?

Agent X on the phone: "Gehla, Hi. Just looked at your MS. Super dialog. I can see these characters and hear them talking. Weird sometimes. So there really is a NW accent, funny phrases, huh? Dialog is like music. Tempo, backbeat, lyrics. Like, who gets it, right? And truckers DO talk like that. I've heard those guys at the truck stop driving across Pennsylvania."

"Right. Any suggestions on the plot or the setting or—"

"Look, I don't have time to actually read the submissions. No way, Kiddo. I'd have to live here. Which I practically do for real. I mean, I have all my shit here in the closet, and I can sleep on an army cot I picked up at Navy Surplus. So, yeah. No time really."

"Oh, uh huh so...."

"So here it is, Gehla. I flip through the pages and take a quick peek at the dialog. I mean, you can't believe the trash I see. These clowns haven't a frigging clue. They're making some wino talk like he's Larry Olivier. You know who he is?"

"The wino?"

Big sigh, like it's such a chore putting up with deadheaded scribblers who only want to talk about their book. "No. Jesus. This is a long day. Look, it's like I just wanted to call and tell you I was really for real impressed with the way you write dialog. I mean, it's the strongest I've seen, and I've been here a while."

"Thanks." I'm beginning to feel like the next Hemingway. Buttons are popping on my blouse.

"I never waste time reading anything else. I mean, if the dialog isn't real, then what's the point, right? The characters are made up of dialog. That's it. That's the only way we hear these people and then they become real. Like credible. Totally believable. Can you believe that most dialog is written like it came from a Jane Austen novel? You know who she is, right?"

"I have heard the name." Jeez, when was she going to say something good about my MS? The plot? The setting in the beautiful NW? My cross-genre genius? My fantastic vocabulary of idiomatic English? Nope. Not a jot more than she could hear my characters talking.

"lt's nice talking to you, Gehla. I just wanted to reach out to let you know how great this dialog is, and you should definitely keep up with whatever it is you're doing. Oh, but you know I can't pass your MS on to the chief here. Cross-genre stuff is just too hard to sell, you know? It's formula, Honey. Formula. Editors all want formula with no surprises. Get it?"

"But they say they're looking for new—"

"Oh, sure. But that's all crap, pure bullshit. They want a safe pile of crap that any asshole will buy cuz they already know the plot and who gets screwed and who gets offed or survives or whatever BS they've already read a zillion times already."

"Then what should I do differently than what I'm—"

"Just think talking, conversation, all that dialog you do. Who cares about the rest?" Clunk. Buzz.

So, there I was. Advised to forget different plot angles, clever twists, interesting backgrounds and bits of historical gems thrown in for good measure. Seems I was on the wrong track all along. But maybe my lifetime of eavesdropping and kibbitzing on conversations all around me was more important than any of the other stuff. Of course, I was depressed over her quick dismissal and admission she didn't even read my opus cover to cover but only thumbed through parts with dialog to "hear my voice". Okay, I'd accept that. Her advice was No Advice but time was running out, and I decided to turn down the Publishers' Grandma Moses award for scribbling my first book sale at 99.

Now from a better viewpoint, I know this Agent X had hit the mark. I've rejected many an author who drops off their lifetime tome in case I could forward it on to my agent who is waiting breathless by the phone for this masterpiece to show up. So many of these desperate scribblers just couldn't hear the local idiomatic English from wherever their characters hailed. Phony dialog means phony characters, and there's no cure for it. Plots, Sex, Violence, Erotica, Humor—nothing fixes it.

No surprise then that the first agent who took me on started the conversation with "About your dialog, Gehla. Kudos. I can hear all your characters talking. Great. Let's do this. The contract is in the mail." (Before we could PDF all our biz). I had stumbled across success before she even read past the first chapter.

Just a little tip. Be sure you really know how your characters sound. Hang out at Truck Stop cafes, Walmart, Bus Stations, C&W taverns, Square dances, Blue Grass festivals, Denny's and IHop. Check out Courthouses, PBS stations, Libraries, Online College level lectures, BBC shows and nightly news anchors. Power up your ears and listen to everybody everywhere.

Oh, and you know all those "How To" articles and books on advice about reading your dialog aloud to see if it sounds real? How can you judge the authenticity of dialog you've never actually become familiar with?

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