Friday, September 26, 2014

Weekend Side Story: Baby Back Ribs (Oven Easy)

Robert Ellis

1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1/3 Cup Smoked Paprika
1/4 Cup Chili Powder
1/2 Tsp Coarse Black Pepper (or to taste)
1/2 Tsp Coarse Sea Salt (or to taste)

Set oven at 275 degrees F.

Rib Prep: Removing the Membrane
Remove the membrane on the bone side by lifting it up with a knife and pulling it away with a paper towel.

Rub the spice mixture into the ribs, then place ribs bone side down in the bottom half of your broiler pan.

Slow roast ribs in the oven for 1 hour.

Remove ribs and cover the broiler pan with aluminum foil.

Oven Roasted Baby Back Ribs
Lower temperature to 225 degrees F and return ribs to oven for 1 1/4 hours.

Remove and let rest for 15 minutes.

Serve with or without BBQ sauce.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Happy or Sad ... Choosing the Right Ending

Robert Ellis
I'm often asked why I ended THE DEAD ROOM the way I did. It's not exactly a clean ending. It's not happy or sad, really. If I were to describe it without spoiling the novel, I'd call it a surprise ending with the feel of extreme danger and an even greater darkness.

The reason I mention it is because a writer has a lot of choices in the way he or she chooses to end a story. In my mind, the most complete and definitive ending is the so-called "happy ending." Most stories, no matter what the medium, end this way. Every story question has been answered, every loose end, tied up. The hero has won, and the opponent dealt with to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Order has been restored to the world.

Noah Cross and Jake Gittes in CHINATOWN
But maybe as an artist you don't want your story to really end. Maybe you'd like your work to linger for a while longer in the hearts and minds of your audience. If you have a theme, and most movies and novels written these days don't, if you have a theme and your story is about more than circumstance, maybe you'd like to underline your message and make everything stand out.

A Masterpiece, CHINATOWN
Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON ends with his private detective, Sam Spade, still wrestling with the big question. The woman he's fallen in love with murdered his partner out of greed. Was it worth it? Why does it seem so pointless? The story might be resolved, but it ends in shadows and darkness, even despair. It's a novel, and a movie, with an unusually strong theme. Hammett is writing the book, not just to entertain his readers for a few hours, but because he has something he wants to say.

If you haven't seen or read THE MALTESE FALCON in a while, then think CHINATOWN, which ends in an even greater darkness. The two stories share exactly the same theme as they peel away the layers of a human being's desire for power and greed. Like Hammett, CHINATOWN's Robert Towne and Roman Polanski, the writer and director, had something they wanted to say. There's no way that a happy ending would do.

Monday, September 22, 2014

CSI ... Is Getting It Wrong, Right?

Robert Ellis
One of my favorite things about putting together a new story, no matter what the medium, is doing the research. I love to get out of the office and actually walk through a story. Whether it means touring the morgue at Yale University Medical School (which scared the life out of me), or climbing to the top of the Capitol dome (which was thrilling) -- it just seems to add something to the experience of telling a story and creating characters solid enough to jump off the page.

Years ago I went to a lecture by a forensic criminalist from Orange, California. The event was sponsored by Sisters In Crime and held at the library in South Pasadena. After a brief introduction, the criminalist began playing a sequence from the popular television series CSI. As the TV detectives processed a crime scene, the criminalist would stop the program and point out the mistakes they were making. After a few minutes he switched off the video projector and turned up the lights. Unfortunately, the detectives from CSI had managed to ruin the crime scene and destroy every piece of evidence they touched. Everyone in the audience laughed. Then the criminalist went on to say that the easiest way to get off jury duty these days was to admit that you're a fan of CSI. No one on the either side of the aisle would be able to trust your judgment because so little of the TV show is real. "You may love the program," the criminalist said with a smile. "It may be the hottest franchise in town, but you've been tainted! Brainwashed!"

This weekend I was watching an episode of THE BLACKLIST (the one and only time I ever will) and the same thing was happening. The so-called facts were completely made up. The episode, entitled "Milton Bobbit," was from season one and originally aired on March 31, 2014. In this case the error was about touch DNA. I had researched touch DNA for my novel MURDER SEASON, so I was awed by the inaccuracies as I watched. According to the main character, Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader), touch DNA could be picked up from a fingerprint. As Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) was nodding like she was listening to the word of God, I laughed out loud. Touch DNA requires living skin cells, period. Only if someone grabbed something with enough force to break through the layer of dead skin cells could their DNA be left behind.

Does doing the research and getting it right make a difference? Well, if you're basing your answer on a work's popularity, if you're thinking about the success both of these series share, it would seem not. At the same time, in what other world is being inauthentic the new standard? How difficult would it be to do the research? The technology behind touch DNA may be immense, but the concept is pretty easy to understand. If you were going to talk about it, wouldn't it pay to actually know something about it? Wouldn't the reality make the story even better? Don't get me wrong, if it's a toss-up between story and reality, the story always wins in everything I write. But knowing the reality, and just how far you can bend it, being authentic, is a big part of the job, and in my mind, makes all the difference in the world. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sleeping On It

Robert Ellis
Have you ever noticed that when you read a book straight through, when you start and finish the novel in a single day, the story becomes vague after a week or two? And what happens a week or two after that? The novel all but disappears. Maybe it's just me, but I particularly notice if I move on and begin reading something new the next day. Everything gets lost in the haze.

I have friends who do this every day. They revel in their addiction! They start at 8:00 p.m. and read a book straight through, even though it often means staying up most of the night.

A few months ago I decided to change my habit. No matter how long or short a novel might be, I promised myself that I would do a page count and stop reading; that I would sleep with half the story for one night, and let it percolate in my head.

A lot of things happened when I made the change. First and foremost, novels no longer fade or get lost in my mind. And second, if it's a really good book, it makes my day because I have something to look forward to. I'm not discovering who these characters are anymore. Instead, I'm back for another visit. I can't wait to see them again. I've been thinking about the story all day and can't wait to see how things will turn out. Then again, if it's not such a good book, if it's a real dog, I don't have to waste my time or lose any sleep over it. I just toss it aside and pick another one up from the pile!