Sunday, September 29, 2019

Loving Dogs - Why . .. When . . . How?

Submitted by Karna Small Bodman 

It occurs to me that the word "loving" in the title here could be an adjective or a adjective decribing dogs that love us, a noun (a gerund really) describing how we love dogs.  It's been going on for centuries - how many? A commonly held belief is that canines descended from wolves and were domesticated around 10,000 BC, but it's more recently that we began to breed them with specific objectives in mind. The Scots first bred the collie to herd sheep, and years later we all learned to love the best known collie, Lassie -- hero of book, movies and TV shows.

Retrievers, spaniels as well as poodles were all selectively bred to be great guard dogs, although word has it that the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, named for King Charles II, which was so loved by royalty and desired as companions of the titled class so many years ago, was bred to attract fleas that otherwise could have landed on humans. 

King Charles II family and their spaniel

Then we have the "working dogs" who aid our military and police. German Shepherds are often trained  in search and rescue operations.  Who can forget the terrific book by W. Bruce Cameron, A Dog's Purpose which became the #1 New York Times bestseller and was turned into a major motion picture being shown today. It features a number of dogs, serving different purposes and living different lives through reincarnation. . . one of those lives was as a German Shepherd who performs an incredible rescue operation.

Even "bad dogs" have been turned into loveable characters in books and movies. Case in point: Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, by John Grogan,  first published in 2005 and also made into a feature film.  Many of us remember the story of the young couple who  bring home a wiggly yellow Labrador Retriever puppy who ends up as a 97 pound terror --  crashing through screen doors, stealing clothes and failing obedience school (he was expelled). And yet, we came to love that little devil, just as he showed boundless love for his "masters."

A movie showing in theaters in the last few weeks features another uplifting story of family love, hope and loyalty and, as the publisher describes it: a story that only a dog could tell. Indeed in The Art of Racing in the Rain actor Kevin Costner serves as the dog's voice describing danger, tragedy, redemption and the relationship between two souls.  

The growing popularity of dogs as wonderful pets and companions, has, unfortunately, led to the development of  "puppy mills" run by many unscrupulous characters who breed so many dogs that those who are not purchased or adopted end up "euthenized," living in cages or, if they're lucky, finding a temporary home with the Humane Society or a local Rescue Center. A book that tells the story about what rescued dogs can teach us was written by Peter Zheutlin as a follow-up to his New York Tines bestseller, Rescue Road. If you have a notion that you might consider rescuing a dog, check this out:

 Of course, there are tons of uplifting tales about dogs. In fact, Amazon has over 10,000 "dog stories" offered on its website.  On a personal note,  we have two labradoodles - a breed developed in Australia in the 1980's by a man who wanted to create a service dog for a blind woman whose husband was allergic to Labrador Retrievers, the standard service dog.  So he bred a lab with a poodle -- which is hypo-allergenic,  and voila, the Labradoodle.  When we were trying to decide on names for our pups, a friend suggested I use one of my book titles, so we named one "Gambit" and the other after the heroine in that story, "Cammy."

My father used to say that learning to care for a dog is "civilizing" - especially for a child.  Question: did you have a dog when you were growing up? What did it teach you? And are there any special stories about dogs you would recommend to our readers here? Do leave a comment, and thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.

. . . Karna Small Bodman 

Friday, September 27, 2019


Submitted by Karna Small Bodman 

I am delighted to welcome BBC reporter and thriller writer, Humphrey Hawksley, as a guest blogger to our Rogue page. I got to know him at our International Thriller Writers conference in NY - "Thrillerfest" -- where he told me tales of traveling to remote and often dangerous locations in search of stories for the BBC and also for locations and characters in his great novels.  Check out this  adventure -- and keep in mind the question: Would you go there too? 

Author Humphrey Hawksley
Back in 2014, when Russia was enmeshing Ukraine in a new civil war, I opened an old Times Atlas that I keep in my study to find an interesting place to go, one that could tell the story of rising U.S.-Russian tension, but not where everyone else was traveling.

My eyes drifted over dog-eared pages of the Atlas until they settled far away on the Bering Strait where Russia and America actually shared a border, where former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was mocked when she said Americans could see Russia from Alaska.

In the middle of the Bering Strait are two islands, barely two miles apart. One, Big Diomede, hosts a Russian military base. The other, Little Diomede, is a settlement of less than hundred Eskimo villagers, living in one of the most remote and hostile environments of the world. 

Without doubt, this had to be my destination.  

From the air, as the helicopter descended through fog, these rival islands appeared like sentinels keeping vigil over a vast, empty expanse. On the ground, stilted buildings clung to a steep hillside washed with a blue-gray hue contrasted by the helipad’s orange windsock, stretched horizontal in a fierce wind. 

I worked with a talented Indian video photographer and because of bad weather we stayed more than a week, every morning getting up and, just like Sarah Palin had described, seeing Russia from Alaska.

Astonishingly, this frontier between two superpowers was unmarked, no border posts, no buoys in the water, no national flags on either island; on Little Diomede, no state troopers, no police, no government presence and, when the helicopter flew off, no way of leaving.

Across the water on the ridges of Big Diomede we could see Russian military watch towers. 

This was far too special to leave to a single BBC report. It begged for a thriller because the only one I knew that touched on this border  was Lionel Davidson’s brilliant Kolymsky Heights published in 1994.  

What would happen, I asked myself, if the Russians crossed over and put up their flag. From that I created Rake Ozenna of the Alaska National Guard, a tough native of Little Diomede and his kick-ass fiancé, trauma surgeon Dr Carrie Walker, raising another question as to whether things would ever quiet down enough, both around and between them, to make the relationship work.

The book is Man on Ice -- first out in hardback, released next week in paperback here

The sequel, Man on Edge will be published on March 1, 2020:

I put the Russian ‘what if’ question to defense and intelligence contacts getting a variety of answers. The best came from an elderly member of the Little Diomede tribal council.  “The Russians? I don’t think so,” he said. “They sold us 1867 in the Alaska purchase, That’s why these two Diomedes islands are in different countries. We could be sold again, I guess, and someone will come here telling us we’re Chinese or Japanese.”

“What are you now, then?” I asked.

“I’m an Eskimo from the islands of the Diomedes,” he answered proudly. “We all know who we are.”

…..And we now know who Humphrey Hawksley is -- an intrepid foreign correspondent and author who transports his readers to remote locations and tells fascinating stories.  Leave a comment below about how your own travels compare to his....and visit our Facebook and Twitter pages (icons at the top left of this page).  

Thank you for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers....Karna Small Bodman

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Mother Nature—the Ultimate Adversary

Countless adversaries ratchet up the tension in thrillers, TV shows, and films these days. Spies, serial killers, mafioso, drug cartels, terrorists, neighbors, spouses, super-secret organizations, governments; the list goes on and on. We use real-life villains to create authenticity in our fiction. But when it comes to being unstoppable, none of them can compete with Mother Nature. Unpredictable, with an endless bag of tricks, she delivers death and destruction with unrivaled force and ferocity. When you’re writing your next book, perhaps a Man vs. Mother Nature theme might create compelling drama in your story…as it is heart-wrenching to see what the devastating impact they have in real life. It’s also heartwarming to witness people coming together, just like the outpouring of love and support we’ve seen with Hurricane Dorian.


When it comes to raw destructive power, it’s challenging to compete with the profound energy unleashed by an earthquake. While they usually occur in areas with specific geological plate tensions, earthquakes can also be triggered by volcanoes or meteor strikes. Quakes have killed at least 13 million people in recorded history. How? By releasing extraordinary amounts of energy.

And how do we measure earthquakes? The Richter scale is a logarithmic scale where an increase of .2 means a doubling of energy released and a full point increase marks an increase of 31.6 times the previous number. A 4.0 quake is the equivalent of 600 tons of TNT exploding and can be detected by instruments around the world.  A 5.0 earthquake involves energies comparable to 200 tons of TNT, a 6.0 results in 6,270 tons, 7.0 creates 199,000 tons, 8.0 is 6,270,000 tons, and 9.0 is 99,000,000 tons of TNT. For perspective, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima produced the equivalent energy of 15,000 tons of TNT. 

And it's not the shaking ground that causes most casualties. Rather, it’s failure of buildings and natural structures that cause the harm. Most buildings can sustain up to 6.0 quakes without substantial structural failure, but after that, gas pipes break and ignite, structures collapse, power lines are severed, dams fail, creating landslides and mudslides. If the quake happens under or near the ocean, tsunamis are often triggered.   

I was in a 6.4 earthquake in Huatulco, Mexico, and that experience will forever be in my memories of  traumatic moments. It felt like a loud train was barreling towards me, shaking everything in sight. And the aftershocks were unsettling as well, especially on the tarmac of the airport while leaving.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms

A hurricane is a tropical cyclone that sustains winds of 74 miles per hour or more. 

Hurricanes and tropical storms are rated via categories, ranging from 1 to 5, with some experts saying a category 6 should also be included. 

The categories are described as follows:

Sustained Winds
Types of Damage Due to Hurricane Winds
74-95 mph
64-82 kt
119-153 km/h
Very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.
96-110 mph
83-95 kt
154-177 km/h
Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.

111-129 mph
96-112 kt
178-208 km/h
Devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.

130-156 mph
113-136 kt
209-251 km/h
Catastrophic damage will occur: Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

157 mph or higher
137 kt or higher
252 km/h or higher
Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Hurricanes cause significant property damage, break down communications, halt air, land, and sea travel, hamper law and enforcement and rescue operations, contaminate water and food supplies, and hamstring medical services. Several severe hurricanes have each wreaked well over 100 billion dollars in damage. Imagine the tension of being trapped in a hurricane—we often watch news reports during storms, in shock and awe of the power of these antagonists. Inserting an event into a fictional setting would create enormous duress for your protagonist.

Just the Tip of the (Proverbial) Iceberg

There are many other natural events that can turn up the proverbial heat for your characters. For example, sandstorms, blizzards (a Canadian specialty), floods, windstorms, tsunamis, and even torrential rain can turn a standard search into a race against time. While we spend much time and effort crafting rich adversaries for our protagonists, we need to remember that natural forces are also lurking, waiting to forever alter the world we all live in. 

Have you ever experienced any of these natural disasters?

Friday, September 20, 2019


I've written extensively over the years about both Mitch Rapp and his creator, the legendary Vince Flynn, and the impact that they’ve had on me. 

It’s honestly no stretch to say that without Vince and Mitch, there would be no Real Book Spy. Flynn sparked my love for the genre, and though he passed away in the summer of 2013, his presence is still felt. Ask any political thriller novelist working today, and I guarantee you that they’ll point to Flynn as one of the greatest literary titans the genre has ever known—and many of them are longtime fans of his work.

Nobody loves Mitch Rapp more than me. In fact, my youngest son is named Mitchell Ryan, because let’s face it, I wanted to create a world where Mitch and Ryan were together and could grow up to be BFFs. (I also have a son named Ryan Junior. This might be a good time to mention what a loving and supportive wife I have. Thanks, babe!)

Again, nobody loves Rapp more than me. When he returns each year, even though I know it’s only for roughly 100,000 words and, give or take, 400 pages, I can’t help but feel like my best friend is back in town for a weekend—and I can’t wait to hang out with him.

When news broke in 2014 that Kyle Mills had been hired to continue Flynn’s series, I’ll admit it, I was totally skeptical. I wasn’t in love with the idea of another writer coloring inside Vince’s world. However, at the same time, I really wanted another go-around with Rapp. So, I dove into The Survivor, Mills’ first contribution to the franchise, eager to see what he could do with Mitch, Scott Coleman, Irene Kennedy, and everyone else. In the end, I was stunned.

Mills, more than any other writer hired to keep an iconic author’s franchise afloat after their passing, cares deeply about getting things right. Every detail. Every fact. Every nuance and mannerism of even the smallest setting or side characters. I was floored with just much his first book felt like, well, a true Mitch Rapp thriller. Because it was. It is.

Now, here we are in 2020. Lethal Agent is Mills’ fifth book set in the Rappverse, and there’s no question—this is his series now.

Kyle, who I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know over the years, puts everything he’s got into every book that he writes, and it shows. He’s been bold. He’s been daring. He’s taken some chances. But he’s always stayed true to the characters Vince Flynn created, and for that, I am so thankful. If you’d have told me back in 2013 that someone else could step in for Flynn—and that not only would there be no drop-off whatsoever, but that they’d actually elevate the series higher—I would have laughed you out of the bookstore. But that’s what’s happened. Kyle Mills has done an amazing job, and he deserves a ton of credit for his work with Rapp and the gang.

Here, in Lethal Agent, not only does Mitch Rapp go a bit rogue—making it an obvious choice for my Rogue pick—but he does so to go after a rogue terrorist who is planning a devastating biological attack on American soil. Honestly, what more do you need to know than that? Just sit back and relax as Rapp does his thing, because you already know that when he shows up, bad guys tend to stop breathing in bunches. Especially in this one.
Happy reading!

Lethal Agent: The Classic Flynn Structure Meets Rapp’s New Threat
by Kyle Mills

Even after twenty odd years in this business I still get anxious every time I sit down to begin a book outline. The blank page glares up at me while I flip through a folder stuffed with undeveloped concepts scribbled on scraps of paper. Having lots of ideas is definitely a good thing but it also presents an obstacle that weighs on my mind until I figure it out: How can a handful of unrelated fragments be transformed into a coherent and appealing story?

Lethal Agent followed this familiar pattern but with a twist. I’d already decided I was going to return to a very recognizable Vince Flynn framework after using a freer hand with Red War. The book would include a threat from Islamic terrorists, sleazy politicians, and Mitch Rapp largely on his own doing whatever’s necessary to get the job done. But how would that old-school structure work when Mitch is confronted with a biological weapon—a challenge he’s never faced? The more I dug into viruses and pandemics, I realized that nature offered a terrifying way to test both Mitch’s skillset and Vince’s style of storytelling. Suddenly, Rapp’s next do-or-die mission began unfolding in my mind.

I’ve been thinking about biological attacks since the 2003 SARS outbreak. My wife and I were getting ready to embark on an around-the-world trip when we were bombarded by news stories about this terrifying and highly contagious disease. Our families wanted us to cancel the trip but we refused because, frankly, we were cheap and had already paid for it. I momentarily regretted our decision when we arrived at the Singapore airport and were forced to walk through sensors that tested passengers for fever. Fortunately, neither of us ended up in quarantine, but the experience stuck with me. Over time, I became increasingly intrigued by isolated illnesses that escalate into pandemics.

The truth is that nothing in history—advancing technology, war, politics—has matched the sheer impact of disease. Plague wiped out nearly a third of 14th century Europeans, with casualties reaching as high as eighty percent in parts of southern France and Spain. It’s hard to fully grasp how much this changed the known world. To this day, we can see the effects of plague on politics, religion, art, and literature. Humanity’s relationship with death and its outlook on life were fundamentally transformed.

The Spanish flu, which broke out around the end of World War I, killed about thirty million people worldwide. Extrapolated to the present day population, that disease would have taken the lives of 150 million.

Again, it’s hard for a citizen of the 21st century to imagine the scale of this pandemic. Surgical masks were worn in public. Stores were prohibited from having sales to prevent people from gathering in confined spaces. Some cities demanded that passengers’ health be certified before they boarded trains.

If a similar pandemic broke out in modern society the toll would be unimaginable. We live in an interconnected, heavily populated world. A disease that starts in Asia could be in the US, Europe, and Africa in a matter of hours. Medical services would be overwhelmed. Commerce would stall as authorities tried to slow the spread of the disease. The machines that make our society possible—from food production and delivery to power generation and sanitation—would break down as critical workers were incapacitated or died off. Bodies would go unburied and people would flee the cities. World economies would collapse.

But how likely is another pandemic similar to the ones of the past? Unfortunately, it’s almost inevitable. Humans continue to move into unfamiliar habitat, bringing us into contact with animals and germs we haven’t encountered before. The massive demand for meat puts us in close proximity to livestock including pigs and birds suffering from infections that can jump species.

Pondering this inevitability is where I finally found my story. People tend to think of bioweapons as being engineered in some complex way, but it doesn’t have to be so. Lethal Agent is based on the terrifyingly plausible scenario that a SARS-like virus breaks out in Yemen. With no medical infrastructure to speak of and a war that prevents organized intervention like we saw in 2003, the disease is left to incubate in remote villages.

Much has been written about crop dusters and other elaborate delivery strategies. But in reality none are necessary. Just smuggle a handful of sick people into a developed country and you have bioweapons that are intelligent, adaptable, and mobile. They could loiter in airports, go to nightclubs, or get jobs in food service. The structure of modern society would do the rest. Once again, we’re lucky Mitch Rapp is on the job.

Kyle Mills is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of nineteen books, including the latest in Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp series, Lethal Agent.

Growing up in Oregon, Washington, DC, and London as a the son of an FBI agent, Kyle absorbed an enormous amount about the intelligence community, giving his novels their unique authenticity. He and his wife live in Wyoming where they spend their off hours mountain biking and backcountry skiing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Why does it take so long to publish a book? Answers!

by Gayle Lynds:  What an exciting day!  In the Rogue Limelight is the amazing Karen Dionne – yes, THAT Karen Dionne, author of THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER, the hypnotic psychological suspense novel that set the publishing and reading worlds ablaze with celebratory reviews and awards while topping bestseller lists around the globe.

I love Karen.  Not only is she a magnificent storyteller, she’s also one of the most generous authors around.  In fact, with Christopher Graham she created the immensely popular online writers' community Backspace to help other writers achieve their dreams even before she published her first novel, FREEZING POINT, in 2007. 

We’re fortunate to have her here today to share insider intelligence about the steps a publisher takes to turn a manuscript into a bound book and send it successfully on its way to store shelves across the nation.  Karen wrote the following article a couple of weeks ago for her newsletter, and I was so taken by it that she gave me permission to republish it here.

Plus, just for fun, Karen has inserted three deliberate spelling and punctuation mistakes.  Be sure to watch for them as you read.  The answers are at the end of her blog.

And here’s the great Karen Dionne, giving us the inside scoop about how publishers do it....

As most of you know, my second psychological suspense novel, THE WICKED SISTER, is wending its way through the publishing process as we speak! Because THE WICKED SISTER won't hit bookstore shelves until June 2020, I thought I'd share a bit of what's going on behind the scenes to explain why it takes such a long time to turn a manuscript into a book.

After the author and her editor have agreed on the final manuscript, the editor sends the manuscript to the copy editor. The copy editor's job is to check grammar, spelling, and internal consistency, and having recently been through the process, let me just say that copy editors are worth ten times whatever they're paid. Punctuation, capitalization, word usage, dates, places, the novel's internal timeline—every aspect of the text is examined in minute detail, and thank goodness, because none of us who care about language and punctuation enjoy coming across mistakes when we're reading a book—least of all the author who wrote it!

And while we're on the subject of copy editing, I'm currently reading Benjamin Dreyer's Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style and learning a lot! Dyer is Random House’s longtime copy chief and his book is a sharp, funny grammar guide, offering lessons on punctuation, from the underloved semicolon to the enigmatic en dash, to the rules and nonrules of grammar, including why it’s OK to begin a sentence with “And” or “But” and to confidently split an infinitive. Dreyer will even help you brush up on your spelling—though, as he notes, “The problem with mnemonic devices is that I can never remember them.” (As a side note: how would you like to be the copy editor who was given the task of copy editing that book?)

Back to the publication process . . . after the copyedits are finalized, the book goes to layout and production, who have the job of turning what has previously existed only as an electronic file into an actual physical book. At the same time, the art department works closely with the editor and author to come up with an amazing cover. This is also when the marketing department begins working with the editorial department to develop marketing strategies to help get the book in front of the account book buyers. This includes sending ARCs, or "Advance Reader Copies," to reviewers and influencers to create buzz for the book in advance of it's publication.

While all of this is going on, the sales department is also working to "sell in" the book to the many and varied places who carry books—from small independent bookstores to chain bookstores, to big box stores such as Costco and Sam's Club.

Then about six weeks before the book publishes, the publicity department kicks into high gear, working to get the book mentioned in broadcast, print, and online media. THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER was reviewed in The New York Times and featured in People and Cosmopolitan magazines thanks to the efforts of my wonderful publicity team.

Again, all of this takes place BEFORE the novel is actually published. And many of these departments continue working hard long after publication to get the book into the hands of the consumer.

I hope this overview helps folks better understand why it takes roughly a year to ready a book for publication.  And here are hints to those three deliberate spelling and punctuation mistakes:

Gayle:  Thank you, Karen!  We're all waiting for THE WICKED SISTER – June can't come fast enough!  And dear Readers ... please tell us – did you find the highlighted mistakes?

Sunday, September 15, 2019



Artist: Tom Richmond
imitating Jack Davis   

Consider this TV Guide cover. There’s no date, but it would have been around 1963. It features a cartoon of Jake Cahill, the main character of a half-hour TV Western called Bounty Law. Actor Rick Dalton portrayed Jack Cahill in that series. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Rick Dalton in Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s new film, which is about Hollywood in 1969. That year, four members of the Charles Manson cult murdered actress Sharon Tate (who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant), hairstylist Jay Sebring, and three other victims at a Cielo Drive  The house was once rented by record-producer Terry Melcher, to whom Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys had introduced Manson.

Now consider this fan magazine from 1969. The cover features Rick Dalton. Inside, there’s a photo-essay about him. There’s also an article about Rick’s friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (portrayed by Brad Pitt in the film). There are ads for horseback tours of the Spahn movie ranch (where the Manson cult hung out) and for Wolf’s Tooth dog food (rat and possum flavors). A full page is devoted to Red Apple Cigarettes.

Artist: Tom Richmond imitating Jack Davis
Now look at this cover for Mad magazine, October 2019, the last original issue. From now on, Mad will consist of reprinted articles (except for a few special issues) and will be available only in comic-book stores and by subscription. There’s Jake Cahill in Bounty Law again. Just to be clear: Bounty Law never existed. Jake Cahill is an imaginary character portrayed by an imaginary actor portrayed by a real actor. Despite that, Mad magazine—for the first time ever—pretended that a non-existent actor and TV series were real.

Maybe Rick Dalton did exist. I showed these three covers to an acquaintance. I explained that Quentin Tarantino invented all this, including Hound’s Tooth dog food and Red Apple Cigarettes (which have been in almost every Tarantino film, even though they don’t exist). I explained all of this (clearly, I thought). The acquaintance pointed at the cover of the (fake) fan magazine and said he could understand why Tarantino cast DiCaprio in the role, because DiCaprio looks amazingly like Rick Dalton.

Artist: Renato Casaro
In Once upon a Time … in Hollywood (the ellipsis is a deliberate part of the title), Rick Dalton’s cratering career is saved when he becomes a star of Italian Westerns. One of them, Nebraska Jim, is helmed by (we are told) “the second-greatest director of spaghetti Westerns,” Sergio Corbucci, a real person who directed Django (1966), which influenced Tarantino to direct Django Unchained (2012), which features non-existent Red Apple Cigarettes, which Rick Dalton advertises in an episode of Bounty Law in Once upon a Time … in Hollywood.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard advertised the film merely by showing a huge photo of Brad Pitt and two words CLIFF BOOTH, as if Cliff Booth were real, which I’m beginning to think he is) are supposedly based on the friendship between Burt Reynolds (who was scheduled to appear in this film but died before the production started) and famed stuntman, Hal Needham. But Rick could also be a version of Clint Eastwood who co-starred in a TV Western, Rawhide, before establishing a film career in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Rick Dalton could also be a version of Steve McQueen, whose half-hour TV Western, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61), is the inspiration for Bounty Law (complete with imitations of the cigarette commercials McQueen delivered while dressed as his character). McQueen (portrayed by Damian Lewis) has a role in the film. Rick Dalton fantasizes about having been cast in McQueen’s role in The Great Escape. Thanks to the technical wizardry of John Dykstra, we watch a scene from The Great Escape in which Rick replaces McQueen. At the same time, Margot Robbie (portraying an idealized version of Sharon Tate) goes to a theater to see the spy movie, The Wrecking Crew ((1968), in which she watches the real Sharon Tate do pratfalls with Dean Martin and then win a karate fight against Nancy Kwan. Yes, the real Sharon Tate is in Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, which turns out not to be a Manson movie but instead gives us a fairy-tale alternate view of 1969 in which events might have been drastically different and our culture might have veered from the trajectory that gave us the mess of today.

Artist: Renato Casaro
This world-within-an-imaginary-world, self-referential approach is called post-modernism, aka metafiction or meta for short. Tarantino specializes in it. As someone who wrote a book about the metafiction of John Barth, I admire Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood to the point of obsession. My wife and I saw it three times (we know people who’ve seen it eight times.) We collected the posters for Rick Dalton Westerns, such as Comanche Uprising (with Robert Taylor), Hell-Fire Texas (with Glenn Ford), Tanner (a TV movie), and (translated from the Italian) Kill Me Quick Ringo, Said the Gringo (a spaghetti Western).

These films don’t exist. But I can always hope. Indeed Tarantino wrote five episodes for the imaginary series, Bounty Law, so that he could shoot scenes from them. In an interview he indicated he’d be willing to write another three episodes and direct them as an actual series.

In a year when most films have been squeezed through an algorithm sausage grinder, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a non-sequel, non-superhero movie that passed the $100 million domestic box-office threshold and is now past $300 million worldwide. I’m thrilled that Tarantino’s meta approach proves there’s still an audience for distinctive storytelling.

David Morrell created Rambo in his debut novel, First Blood. His espionage novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose, became the only TV miniseries to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. His Victorian thrillers, Murder as a Fine Art, Inspector of the Dead, and Ruler of the Night, are meta versions of sensation novels that could have been published during the 1850s.