Frank Butterfield joins PQR today to discuss the newest in the Nick Williams Mystery Series – The PitifulPlayer – and talk about what it’s like to write modern historical, his research techniques and the writing process.
Thank you, Frank, for joining PQR this fine Tuesday!
The Pitiful Player
A Nick Williams Mystery – Book 14
Friday, July 8, 1955
Ben White, a movie producer working on Nick’s dime, is ready to show off what he’s been up to, so Nick and Carter head to Hollywood to see what there is to see and, to be polite, it stinks.
Ben’s director has an idea and he says it’s gonna make Nick even richer than he already is.
But, before they can start the cameras rolling, leading man William Fraser is found murdered at the lavish Beverly Hills mansion of seductive silent screen star Juan Zane. Carlo Martinelli, Ben’s lover, is arrested and charged with murder even though everyone in town knows he’s innocent, including the District Attorney.
Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills Police Chief makes sure that Nick knows that his kind of help isn’t wanted in the posh village, home to some of Hollywood’s most famous stars. The chief is running a good, clean, wholesome town, after all.
From Muscle Beach to Mulholland Drive, Nick and Carter begin to piece together the clues that point to who did it and why. Somehow they manage to do so in the sweltering heat and noxious smog of the Southland.
In the end, however, will anyone be brought to justice? It’s Hollywood, so you’ll have to wait for the final reel to find out.
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The series begins in May of 1953 wherein we meet Nick Williams, a private investigator, and his hunky fireman husband, Carter Jones. They live in a modest bungalow on Hartford Street in the middle of the Eureka Valley neighborhood in San Francisco.
Nick works out of his small office on Bush Street with Marnie, the best secretary a guy could ever have.
Carter, a fireman since he first arrived in San Francisco in 1939, is on leave due to a little run-in he had with a firetruck.
Mike, their friend and Nick’s first lover, is a police lieutenant working out of the North District station.
Nick’s life has changed dramatically three times in his life.
First, in 1939, at the age of 17 when he was kicked out of his childhood home and into the loving arms of a young beat cop by the name of Mike Robertson.
Second, in 1943, at the age of 21 when he received a series of telegrams from a lawyer in Boston while serving aboard a hospital ship in the South Pacific informing him that he was the beneficiary of a huge trust inherited from his great-uncle.
Third, in 1947, at the age of 24 when, across a crowded room, he met Carter Jones, the love of his life.
The first novel in this series, The Unexpected Heiress, is all about the events that lead to the biggest change of all.
This one moment, at the Top of the Mark, high above the city he loves so much, will transform everything in Nick’s life and in the lives of his family and friends.
May of 1953 is when Nick’s real life begins. Read along as the stories unfold and expand out in all sorts of marvelous ways. Follow the adventures of Nick, Carter, Marnie, Mike, and the rest of the gang, as they live extraordinary lives in the most normal of times.
Most of all, let Nick and Carter help you fall in love with the City where cable cars climb halfway to the stars.
What is the first book that made you cry?
Dancer From The Dance. I first read it when I moved to New York City in 1987. It’s not so much that it made me cry as that it left me with a deep sadness. It was written by Andrew Holleran and published in 1978. The story is very specific to its time and place (the mid 70s in New York in a very specific part of the gay male world). It’s written in a curiously lyrical style. It’s one of those books that people either love or hate. You can’t be indifferent to it.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
With each book, I primarily write for my pleasure and that seems to please the readers, which is a happy thing. I let the characters tell the story and do most of the heavy lifting. Because I write historical fiction, I try to make sure that the characters, their language, and their motivations are consistent with who they are in their time period. As much as I can, I let them tell me how it was and follow that.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I am writing a long series, so each book is a continuation of the lives of the two main characters. I do like to make each book stand on its own by providing enough background for a new reader to be interested enough to get all the way through without getting too lost. But I have story lines that arc across several books and I hope that any reader who is interested in one book will want to go back to the beginning and read them all.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I research as I go. Much of what I want is online. I have good access to old maps, old phone books (I cannot emphasize how helpful they are!), and, for most places, there are tons of old photos and some videos. About half of my books (so far) are set in San Francisco. There is an amazing amount of nostalgia for old San Francisco and lots of resources. When I wrote about Hong Kong, I found a tremendous amount of information about specific places that helped me visualize the layout of the city in 1955. However, when I wrote about Sydney, there was very little. The one exception was the daily paper. The San Francisco papers are almost impossible to find online. But the Sydney Morning-Herald is available through December of 1954 and that was endlessly helpful.
When I want to send Nick and Carter to the movies, that is a big undertaking. First, I have to figure out what was playing on that particular day. Since I can’t look at the San Francisco papers, I tend to look at the San Bernardino Sun, which is available online. Then I have to figure out what theater would likely have been playing the movie, which I can usually guess at. Then I try to look up the news from the previous week to find out what would have been in the newsreel. The final piece is to find the cartoon that would have been in between the newsreel and the feature. Fortunately, there is a database where that can be found. And, I’ve always been able to find the cartoon somewhere online so I can watch it. I have a lot of fun with that. Sadly, Nick and Carter don’t go to the movies that often (at least not in the stories I write about them) because the research only results in about two paragraphs of writing.
Another general thing I do is to read the Life Magazines that would have been out around the dates of each book. And I also page through the Billboard magazines, since they talk about what is happening on the radio and on TV. I find lots of little tidbits in both of them. And they’re hosted by Google Books, so they’re easy to find. Oh, and I have access to the Time Magazine archive as well as National Geographic. Lots of good stuff there, particularly in National Geographic.
What do you find yourself repeatedly editing in your books?
I always have to go back and terse things up. In my own voice, I tend to write in long, dissembling sentences (with parenthetical asides, like this). The trick to getting Nick’s perspective across is to be as direct as possible. He sometimes meanders about in his head, but it’s rare. Usually, he’s just giving the facts, so I try to make sure that’s what’s in the writing. In his language, I find myself removing the words “really” and “very” over and over again. I tend to talk like that myself. I’m also trying to cut back on using “that” as a conjunction. That drives one of my Beta readers crazy!
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
My books start in 1953, so I try to make sure that, if an actual historical figure shows up, they’re dead now. There’s one person mentioned in a couple of my books who is still alive, so he’s always referred to obliquely. But that’s for legal reasons. As for the ethics, I try to find out what I can about people, based on what they said about themselves, what was said about them contemporaneously, and what good historians and biographers have written about them.
In my third book, The Sartorial Senator, I introduced Robert Kennedy into the story. He worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy for a couple of years and quit in July of 1953. He shows up in June of 1953 in the book. I based his actions and words on a biography that was released in 2016.
The historical figure I’ve written about the most is Rosalind Russell, the actress. I’ve read her autobiography and tried to find as much as I can about what others have said about her. No one has written a good biography of her, yet. Hopefully, I’ve gotten much of it right.
I do write Historical Notes at the end of each book and discuss the real people who show up and take pains to point out who is a fictional character when they might be assumed to be real.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Sometimes they come to me out of the blue. Other times, I use old phone books that I’ve collected or online name generators, particularly for foreign names. I have a whole slate of Czech characters and I definitely had to use the name generator for that.
The names for the two main characters, Nick Williams and Carter Jones, dropped into my head and I’ve been endlessly fascinated by that fact. Both are very common Welsh last names, which has led to a number of interesting interactions for them with characters from different parts of the U.K. or Ireland who would immediately recognize that. Carter is named after his mother’s maiden name, which was a common thing for the second male child in the South, where Carter is from. I’ve yet to find out where Nick’s first name came from, but I’m sure that will happen at some point.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I read all of them. I have come to like them all, too, or most of them. The good ones are wonderful to read. And the bad ones are almost always instructional in some way. I know that most reviewers have that intention. The 1-star and 2-star reviews that simply say, “I didn’t like this book,” don’t have anything to offer and are not worth getting upset over since I have no idea what to do with that information.
In one particular review, the reader remarked that I obviously hadn’t been to the locale where much of the action takes place. I had plainly stated that in the book’s Historical Notes and had explained how I’d drawn on the history of the place with the usual caveat of how “any mistakes are my own.” That was a frustrating review because I would really have loved it if the person had contacted me and told me what they thought I got wrong. I’m grateful to have had plenty of those contacts, all of which have been very helpful. And some of those folks have become Beta readers, as well, which is even better!
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Oh yes! I’ve added little tidbits that Nick notices or side comments by characters that, if you know what they’re talking about, would give you a chuckle. They’re not quite Easter Eggs but I love dropping them in when I can. I will admit that there’s a major mistake in my first book that only one person has figured out. It was unintentional. I keep meaning to go back and fix it, but I haven’t done so yet. I consider it one of those secrets.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Most books take about 15-20 days, depending on their length. I try to publish a book on or around the first of the month.
Frank W. Butterfield, not an assumed name, loves old movies, wise-cracking smart guys with hearts of gold, and writing for fun.
Although he worships San Francisco, he lives at the beach on another coast.
Born on a windy day in November of 1966, he was elected President of his high school Spanish Club in the spring of 1983.
After moving across these United States like a rapid-fire pinball, he currently makes his home in a hurricane-proof motel with superior water pressure that was built in 1947.
While he hasn’t met any dolphins personally, that invitation is always open.
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