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How a Book Becomes a Movie: Revisiting HIGH CRIMES

On March 1, just over a month from now, HIGH CRIMES will once again be available in paperback, after a few years out of print.

I’m looking forward to that the way I’d look forward to a reunion with an old friend. Like most authors, I don’t spend much time rereading my own work, but it’s reassuring to be able to go into a bookstore and see the old books on the shelves.

The book’s reissue has sent me back to my DVD shelf to look at the movie version again. HIGH CRIMES the movie differs from HIGH CRIMES the novel in some significant ways — and I’m totally okay with that, because they’re both strong entertainments in their own right. If you watch the movie of HIGH CRIMES, you’ll see me onscreen, briefly, and that experience taught me a lot about why I’m glad I’m writing books instead of making movies.

Although I’ve written six books since HIGH CRIMES, my fourth novel is still the only one to make it from page to screen. (Sorry, I have no new information about the film versions of PARANOIA or KILLER INSTINCT; they’re still “in development,” as they say.) Some huge percentage of books optioned or sold to the movies — maybe as many as 90% — never get made. I had sold ZERO HOUR to the movies, and that film never got made. While I was delighted to sell HIGH CRIMES, I had no real confidence that I’d ever see it in a theater.

So imagine my excitement when my agent called to say that not only was HIGH CRIMES going to be a movie, it was going to star Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Ashley Judd! Morgan Freeman! I hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but it had been Morgan Freeman I’d imagined when writing the character of Charlie Grimes.

I hadn’t been involved in the writing of the screenplay, but very much wanted to be part of the movie, and said so. Put me in, I said: I’ll be an extra, a walk-on, anything. Soon after production started, I got a call. They could use me as background in the courtroom scenes, but I’d need to shave my head.

I didn’t hesitate. I offered to get my head shaved that very afternoon. Not necessary, they told me; they’d do it on set, to make sure it looked right.

The first thing you notice on a movie set is the sheer number of people around. It takes about 500 people to make a major motion picture, the size of an army unit. Everyone has a job to do, from the director to the people working craft services (the food table; very important, when you’re feeding 500).

I was originally meant to be a member of the jury at Tom Kubik’s trial, but the director, Carl Franklin, liked my look (see, that’s a Hollywood term, my “look”). I got a battlefield promotion to assistant prosecutor. Watch the film and you can see me at the desk, sitting right next to the prosecutor.

Morgan Freeman has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nicest and most professional guys in the business, but he has a wicked sense of humor, as well. Ashley Judd is even more beautiful in person than on the screen, and brilliant to boot. It was heady to feel that they were colleagues. I’m in five scenes, shot over five long days, and was tired by the end of it.

People often ask whether I objected to the changes the film makes from the book. No, I didn’t object then, and I don’t now. I had no input into the screenplay, and am just as glad I didn’t — but seeing HIGH CRIMES turned into a film gave me a new understanding and appreciation for the difference between movie storytelling and novel storytelling.

I had 400 pages to tell Claire and Tom’s story. Carl Franklin and his team of filmmakers and actors had 115 minutes. What HIGH CRIMES showed me was that movies need to be faithful to themselves, not to the books they’re based on. Turning a 400-page novel into a 115-minute film required not only abridgment but structural changes, and I understood why those were necessary. In the novel, for example, Claire and Tom have a little girl, Annie, based on my own daughter at the time. Annie is missing from the film, and Claire and Tom are trying to start a family. I was sorry to lose her, but I saw the difference it made to Claire and Tom’s relationship in the film.

That said, some pieces of my book made it to the screen with no changes at all. The courtroom, for example, looks exactly as I’d described it, down to the flooring. It was a powerful thrill to see something I’d imagined turned into reality; it’s almost like deja vu, like walking into a fantasy.

Making a movie is a collaborative process that involves constant compromises among artists. The director is in charge, but the screenwriter, cinematographer, actors and designers bring their own visions to the project. Even for directors who are true auteurs, the final product is much more than a single person’s vision.

What a relief, then, to get back to my desk after my Hollywood adventure. There weren’t any movie stars and no one was adjusting the line of my jacket, but I was in charge. Master of my own fictional universe, with absolute authority over my characters, my settings and my plot. That’s the novelist’s privilege, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I’ll be giving away paperbacks and DVDs of HIGH CRIMES between now and March 1. Subscribe to the newsletter, “like” the Facebook fan page, and follow me on Twitter for chances to win!

How to Make Friends and Influence People, or the Art of Research

Ah, research. My favorite subject. I’ve had a lot to say on the subject already, and I’ll have more to say in the months ahead about the research I did for BURIED SECRETS, which went to extremes even for me.


But this week, as Wikipedia celebrates its 10th anniversary, I want to spend a little time talking about methods, and why the old ways are sometimes best.

There’s no question that the Internet has revolutionized research. It’s the writer’s best friend, especially if you’re writing historical fiction, or setting scenes in places you know you’ll never go. The treasures of the world are now digitally archived, and Google Earth gives you an uncanny level of detail about almost any street corner your characters might visit.

But I still do a lot of my research the old-fashioned way, and I encourage other writers — particularly beginning writers — to do the same. Your first-grade teacher was right: if you want to know something, the best way to find out is to ask. 

The acknowledgment pages in my books tell the story. The acknowledgments for VANISHED ran more than three pages, and the thanks for BURIED SECRETS may run even longer. I get all my best information from experts in the field, whether it’s air freight or furniture construction or the art of the comic book (sorry, graphic novel). Over the years, cold-calling or cold-emailing sources has gotten me not only crucial information, but story ideas and lasting friendships. It’s probably easier now that I can show sources books I’ve written, but this was something I started to do at the very beginning of my career, and any aspiring author can do it, too. You just need to follow a few basic guidelines.

First, know what you need to know. Before you call or email anyone, have a clear idea of the information you’re looking for. Maybe you need to know the standard equipment in an ambulance; maybe it’s the width of a semi-truck tire, or the rules for transporting explosives across state lines, or courtroom procedure for juvenile offenders. Do as much background research as you can ahead of time, and identify the gaps in your knowledge before you approach a source. Write down your questions beforehand, with follow-up questions in mind if necessary.

Second, be willing to admit what you don’t know, and pay attention to all the information you get, even if it’s more than you’ve asked for. As much background research as I do, sometimes I discover I’ve only got one side of the story, or the book learning doesn’t match up with my source’s firsthand experience. Some of the best information I’ve ever gotten — and more than one story idea — has come from my source saying, “Yeah, but the question you want to ask is . . .” Let your sources tell you what they know, even if it’s not exactly what you need. You never know what might come in handy.

If you can, meet your background sources in person. If what you want is background information, phone is better than email and face-to-face meetings are better than the phone. Real conversations lend themselves to open-ended questions and storytelling, which is where I get some of my best background material. People love to talk about what they do, and are flattered when someone really makes the effort to understand their jobs.

The TV show “Castle” is every writer’s fantasy: he’s cool, he’s debonair (aren’t we all?), and he rides around with a NYPD homicide detective. That’s going to extremes – it’s a TV show, after all — but you might be surprised by how willing law enforcement organizations are to work with writers. Most big-city police departments have public information officers who are willing to field queries, and many even have citizen training programs that offer the opportunity to learn police procedures. Involved citizens are the police force’s most valuable resource, and chances are good that your local police will be happy to answer your questions and help you get involved.

Law enforcement officials aren’t your only potential sources, though. For the thriller writer, sources are everywhere. Your bank teller, your insurance agent, the bartender, the postal clerk: once you start talking to people, you realize that everyone is the hero of his or her own story, and has interesting things to tell you. You just have to figure out what to ask.

Figuring out what to ask is your job as a writer. The guidelines above all boil down into one last rule for interviewing sources, which is to respect their time, and remember that they have jobs of their own. Talking to a writer may be a nice change of pace in their day, but it’s not usually what they’re paid to do. If they’re talking to you on their own time, respect that and appreciate it. Buy them a cup of coffee or a meal, if they’re allowed to accept it, and remember to thank them in your acknowledgments.

I should double-check the thanks for BURIED SECRETS, while I’m thinking about it.

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In Praise of Audiobooks

It’s been a while since my first four books were available in print, so I was especially pleased last fall to discover that audiobook versions of THE MOSCOW CLUB, EXTRAORDINARY POWERS, THE ZERO HOUR and HIGH CRIMES are now available through

I’m a fan of audiobooks, especially on long drives. A good audiobook is something between a book and a movie, bringing the action to life and giving you a completely different perspective on a story. Even though I know my own stories — after all, I wrote them — listening to them on audiobook feels like discovering them all over again. As Holter Graham and I discussed in this short interview. I have my own ideas about what my characters sound like. The narrator brings his or her own interpretation to the story; the result is a new work of art based on the printed novel.

Audiobook readers are artists in their own right. I’ve been lucky to have some great readers matched up with my book — including the legendary Scott Brick, whom I discovered is a rock star in the world of audiobooks. He moderated a panel I was on at BookExpo America a few years ago, with George Pelecanos and the great nonfiction author Mark Bowden. It was a standing-room only crowd, but they hadn’t come to see us; they had come to hear Scott Brick’s voice in person.

Scott’s the reader for the audiobook version of Gregg Hurwitz’s THE CRIME WRITER, a terrific thriller that is even more exciting read aloud. THE CRIME WRITER is one of the audiobooks I recommended for Audible last year, as part of its “Breakout Thrillers” promotion. While I’m recommending, here are a few more of my favorites, which I put together for Audible a couple of years ago:

– ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt, read by the author. Hilarious, heartbreaking, and what better narrator than McCourt himself?

– THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas, read by David Case. One of the all-time great stories, and a wonderful rendition.

– THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain, read by Stanley Tucci. Short, sharp, classic.

– THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS by John Buchan. Orson Welles does a radio version of this that’s available on Audible. It’s a classic thriller, brooding and paranoid, suitable for all ages.

– THE INVISIBLE MAN by H.G. Wells, read by Scott Brick. This story enthralled me as a kid, and Scott Brick’s reading of it still does.

– A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens, read by Jim Dale. A story meant to be read aloud, and Dale’s one of the greatest British narrators.

– FREAKONOMICS by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Kept my family totally entranced on a long car ride, and talking about it for miles afterward.

– CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl, read by Eric Idle. I love Roald Dahl’s stories and have always loved this one, which is allegedly for kids but really for adults, and the reading is wonderful.

– ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY by David Sedaris. Hard to go wrong with David Sedaris reading David Sedaris, although some of this is suitable for adults only. Even comes as part of a boxed set along with NAKED and DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDUROY AND DENIM.

A Resolution for the New Year: Set Meaningful Goals

I can always tell it’s January because the gym gets crowded again, full of people working off their New Year’s resolutions. In fact, my Twitter newsfeed is about evenly divided between people complaining about the unusual waiting times for machines and people complaining about the pain of returning to the gym after too long an absence. Both sides seem to agree, however, that by February everything will be back to normal, as the New Year’s resolutions lose their strength.

The magic of that new calendar page inspires resolutions, but the ebb and flow of gym attendance confirms something I already knew: resolutions don’t last. What lasts are goals, and the first of the year is a good time to set some. Going to the gym might be boring, but if the goal is to be able to take an extended bicycle trip or hike the Appalachian Trail, you’ve got something to work toward.

it’s the same way with writing. The goals can be big or the goals can be small, but you need to set them so that you know what you’re working toward.

A deadline, of course, is a rigid external goal. It’s the ultimate goal, but far from the only one. Lots of authors I know set daily word targets; some even go as far as to force themselves to stop themselves once they’ve hit 1,000 words, or 2,000, or whatever. Because I outline, I tend to think in terms of scenes or beats. As I work through a manuscript, those beats serve as smaller goals within the big goal of finishing the whole book.

Goals can and should be about more than the words on the page, though. In his wonderful book ON WRITING, Stephen King talks about the fact that he writes first and foremost for an audience of one: his wife, Tabitha. That’s more specific than most authors get, I think, but it is important to know what reaction you want from your readers. The atmosphere and tone of your story are just as important as the plot, and you can’t create them unless you know ahead of time what you want them to be.

The metaphor I go back to is the drive from Boston to upstate New York. I know where I’m starting and I know where I need to go; I start with a clearly defined goal. But the subtler goal, equally important, is the answer to the question, “What kind of trip do I want to take?” Is this a midnight speed run, or a country drive? Do I want to dodge the radar guns, or find a nice bed-and-breakfast along the way? Do I want my passengers to arrive refreshed, or do I want them stumbling out of the car, reeling as if they’ve gotten off a roller coaster? The luxury of a 400-page-novel is that I can do both, if I want to, as long as I’ve set the goals in advance.

Looking for help? You learn to write by writing, and most how-to books aren’t much help. Stephen King’s ON WRITING is an exception — a great read that is fascinating, inspiring, and offers some excellent practical advice on the writing life. Here are a few others I’ve found useful:

– Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD. A frank, funny, practical look at the writing life, particularly good on the subject of ways writers sabotage themselves.

– Robert McKee, STORY. Directed at screenwriters, but useful for novelists because of its emphasis on structure, which is especially important for thrillers. The three-act structure is another handy way to set goals for your work-in-progress.

– David Morrell, THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST. Previously published (in a slightly different form) as LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, this book will — sadly — not make you write like David Morrell. That would be too much to ask. It will, however, give you terrific insights into the process of creating a compelling, commercially viable novel. Best of all, it feels like sitting down for a long conversation with David, who is one of the nicest, smartest guys in the business.

– Al Zuckerman, WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL Some of Zuckerman’s examples are out of date, but the basics remain, and it’s very smart.

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