Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Re-energization

Okay, so I didn’t shave that day.
Sitting in a cold, dark garret day after day scribbling for ones living can leave a writer feeling desolate and alone. Sure, you could wander down to Ye Olde Taverne on an evening and cavort and gambol with one’s wastrel acquaintances, but that takes money and leaves the writer feeling enervated and alone once a return has been made, climbing the five flights up winding and narrow stairs to light a candle and work once again on ones magnum opus.

In other words, writing can sometimes be a big pain in the patootie.

On a beautiful day, sitting inside wrestling with prose that just won’t flow can seem like you’ve been condemned to perpetually doing homework. The hurry up and wait aspect of writing is also No Fun. Sure, we can complain to friends about the things we have to go through (as I am now with you), but in the end living the writer’s life is a self-inflicted decision. Publish or perish? Sometimes I wonder weather the latter isn’t preferable to the former, especially when the once-a-year royalty cheque arrives.

Then something unexpected and wonderful occurs to lift one’s depression.

That happened to me last week when my wife stepped into my home office to stop me practising trumpet (a very LOUD experience for onlookers and one that always forces our cat to cry piteously at the back door).

“What the #$%$^@ did you order?” she asked.

I paused from my efforts to play a steady F above high C (an awesome thing to witness).

“Nothing.”

“Didn’t you hear the delivery man knock?” Looking at the musical instrument in my hand, she added, “No. I guess not.”

“So what arrived?”

“It feels like a box of books. You sure you didn’t order some?”

“No.”

Then it dawned on me and stepping into the living room to look at the carton confirmed it. Author copies of my new novel, Roses for a Diva, had appeared, completely unexpectedly — as they often do.

Grabbing a razor knife which I had been tempted to use on my wrists earlier in the day, I quickly opened the carton, removed those air packets used these days for shipping, and there it was: the latest addition to my literary family.

“We should take a photo for Facebook,” my long-suffering wife observed as she thumbed through one of my babies.

So we trooped out into our backyard and I held up three of them, beaming like a fool and feeling on top of the world.

Holding one’s new book is an indescribable feeling, even if it’s the tenth time (in my case) that you’ve done experienced it. For the moment, you can bask in a feeling of real accomplishment. Yeah, there will be bad days coming when you get a particularly harsh review, or you stand behind a table at a bookstore, ignored by the entire world. Then there’s my particular favourite: someone picks up your book at a signing, glances for a moment at the back cover’s description of what lies within, and quickly puts it down with a muttered, “Oh, I don’t think I’d want to read something like that!” As Inigo Montoya would say about launching a new book, “Humiliations galore!” That’s going to be visited on me soon enough.

But for the moment, life is good.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Scotland says No

This, I'm afraid, is going to be quite a short post. I can't do it at the weekend and today I am absolutely exhausted, having been up all night after spending six hours the day before campaigning for No Thanks.

The referendum the Scottish National Party instigated, proposing that Scotland should separate from the United Kingdom, has made this a horrible and bitterly divided place. Yesterday a carload of Nationalists drove past and yelled, 'F------g b-----d' at me because I wore a No sticker. Two young friends experienced frightening and obscene abuse on a train. There has been a huge amount of this sort of intimidation. This isn't the country I have loved and been proud of all my life.

I was born both Scottish and British, loyal to both. If the Yes campaign had won, I would have been robbed of half of my identity, my currency, my passport and my bank. I would have become a foreigner to my English grandchildren.

Mercifully, No won the day but it doesn't feel like victory. I am too saddened by what the referendum unleashed and I can only pray that the scars will heal with time.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Guest blog: Lin Anderson

Aline here.  I'm delighted this week to be able to introduce Lin Anderson to you. She is one of Scotland's best-known 'Tartan Noir' authors, with a string of successful books to her name. She's energetic, dynamic and her writing style is pared-down and elegant – and her eye for forensic detail is bloodcurdling! She's currently Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland

Here she tells us the story behind Paths of the Dead.

Books begin for me with a very vivid scene. If this scene stays with me, then I know there is a book in there. That opening scene often centres around something that frightens me. As a writer I explore those fears, confront them and try and deal with them.

As a student at Glasgow University, I studied Maths and Astronomy. My Professor of Astronomy was Archie Roy. As well as being one of the most entertaining and charismatic of lecturers, he was also ambidextrous. While discussing spherical trigomometry he would draw two large perfect circles on the board at the same time, and fill them in with diagrams. Most impressive.

Professor Roy as, well as being a renowned physicist and having a comet named after him, also became an authority on the paranormal, being past President of the Society for Psychical Research and Founding President of The Scottish Society for Psychical Research. He told a story once of how his interest in the paranormal had come about. As a young lecturer, he had stumbled on a library of books on the occult, housed in the main university building. He was surprised to note that many of the authors of the tomes were scientists like himself and decided if they were interested in studying the paranormal, then so should he be.

One video he showed on the subject in an evening class, involved a medium at work in a spiritualist church. Many years later, that idea was to inspire the opening scene in Paths of the Dead. Set in a Spiritualist church in Glasgow, not far from the university, Amy is persuaded to attend a Sunday morning service by her friend, Doreen. During this service, the medium reveals that Amy’s teenage son Alan has a message for her. Stunned and disbelieving, Amy argues that she left Alan at home alive an hour before. (You can see from this what my fear might be)

When Alan is found in a neolithic stone circle in the hills south of Glasgow, he has a stone in his mouth with the number five scratched on it. Shortly afterwards a female victim is found in the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney in similar circumstances, this time the stone in her mouth is marked with the number four. And thus the countdown begins, setting Dr Rhona MacLeod, forensic expert, Dr Magnus Pirie, a criminal profiler and himself from Orkney, and Detective Inspector Michael McNab on the trail of the killer.

In a previous life I lived in Orkney, not far from the Ring of Brodgar, which I visited often. The title Paths of the Dead was inspired by the excavation of the narrow strip of land between two lochs that links the Stones of Stenness to the Ring. The size of three football fields, this excavation has revealed a series of neolithic buildings thought to have been used for ritualistic purification purposes on the way between life at Stenness to death at Brodgar – a bit like crossing the River Styx.

I taught Computing Science for seventeen years before becoming a writer and this tale weaves the world of Artificial Reality Games (ARGs) with Druidry, marrying neolithic Scotland with the psychology of the modern mind. A puzzle that turns out to be a game, which turns out to be a puzzle, with lots of twists on the way. I never plan a book, but rely on the story to unfold as the participants of the little gang of characters that inhabit the world discover things – much like a proper investigation. This makes it exciting for me and I hope for the readers.

I therefore have no idea how things will end, which can be a little scary at times. A fellow writer calls that ‘the red fog of the denouement’. As a storyteller you must just trust your judgement to find a way out of that fog to the story’s ‘natural’ end.

I am fascinated by the structure of story and our understanding of it. How a story like Paths of the Dead fits together is what generates the pace and excitement – and keeps the reader reading, sometimes continuously until the end. Early in my writing career, I was lucky enough to take part in a new writers’ course with 7:84 theatre company. Ian Heggie who took the course gave lots of good advice which I still follow.

One such piece of advice was to keep the secret as long as possible. Life and people are full of secrets, some small, some not so small. Whenever you as a writer are about to reveal a secret in your story, whatever its size, always question whether you could keep it a little longer. I find the answer is invariably yes and that’s what keeps readers turning the pages. And remember a story is circular – the end should always reflect the beginning.

The most exciting thing about writing is what you discover on the way. Through researching Paths of the Dead I have learned a great deal, particularly about Scotland’s neolithic past, but also about the science we don’t yet understand, but can still use to our advantage. By the end of the writing process, I found myself in complete agreement with Emeritus Professor Archie Roy, namely the only thing we know, is that we don’t know (or not yet anyway).

The application of forensic science and psychology, plus the natural instincts of a seasoned detective, all combine to solve the neolithic puzzle that is Paths of the Dead. None of those skills could have solved it alone. Paths of the Dead is book nine in the series which features forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Each book stands alone, but there is a continuing thread in the lives of the group gang of characters who inhabit her world.

When I wrote the first in the series, Driftnet, I had no idea that it would turn out to be a series. I also knew next to nothing about forensics. Rhona was inspired by a former pupil of mine who left to study forensics at Strathclyde university.

In Driftnet, Rhona turns up at a scene of crime only to find the seventeen year old victim looks so like her, he might be the son she gave up for adoption. This was the dramatic premise. She soon finds out he isn’t her son, but because of the circumstances of the victim’s death, she is driven to find her son, as well as the killer.

Making Rhona a forensic scientist was the best thing I ever did. I even went back to my old university to do a diploma course in forensic medical science to aid with research. But at the end of the day, stories are characters in action, whether a crime story or otherwise. Readers come back to a series because they love the characters and want to be with them again and again. As do I.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Contact Your Author

The New Yorker ran a hilarious column in its September 8th issue. Written by Heather Havrilesky it was entitled "How to Contact the Author." In it the cartoonish author declares "I love to hear from my readers. My readers are everything to me, and hearing from them makes me feel so blessed." She continues with her email address, begs her readers to friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, add her name to the LinkedIn Network, and follow her on Instagram. She begs the reader to tweet her questions no matter how personal or prying saying that she can't wait to reply and having the answers available to hundreds of strangers. She goes on to give her text number and urges the fan to call her at home or drop by the house. "Dinnertime works fine. Middle of the night, also perfect. I am so incredibly humble to have you in my life, whoever the hell you are."

 There much more to this satire. It ends, of course, with an appeal for the reader to buys her books on Amazon. All writers nowadays are acutely aware of the value of BSP. Blatant Self Promotion. How far does one go and does bombarding the public actually sell books? Frankly, I am totally turned off by daily emails from writers regarding their latest activities. They are quickly routed to junk email.

Do authors welcome contact with fans? Actually, I do. When someone cares enough to write me about a book I feel honored and deeply grateful to know they like my series. I also appreciate knowing why they like my books.

Recently a lady wrote to correct a historical detail in Hidden Heritage. I was humiliated because I spend a lot of time on research and really thought I knew in this case. I quickly learned I was wrong and will apply that lesson to future books. We corresponded and became friends. I sent her a free book and she sent me some priceless information about a real madstone that had been handed down through seven generations.

There have been a couple of exceptions to enjoying contacts with fan. When my historical novel, Come Spring came out, I was contacted by a man who wrote a nice letter (in pencil) saying how much he liked my book. I sent my usual personal reply saying how much I appreciated his interest in my writing. He wrote back saying he was in a maximum security prison for criminal sexual assault against little boys. He bet my grandchildren were cute. My blood chilled. That finished polite responses on my part.

It wasn't the end as far as he was concerned. I started receiving collect phone calls from his prison. Naturally I refused. My husband worried that he would show up on my doorstep some day. I contacted my lawyer who was a good friend and was subjected to a general bawling out in the form of "what in the hell were you thinking?" Following that, he instructed me to take the letters to the sheriff so there would be a paper trail.

Don commented that was to make sure when the sheriff found my dismembered body in the vacant field next to our house the detectives would know where to start with suspects. No more came of this.

Now that I've established that I love hearing from fans, those of us on Type M would love to hear from our readers. How much contact do you want with authors? Lots? None? or somewhere in between? For that matter, what would you like to know?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Look who I ran into

Type M's Frankie Bailey spent a couple days with my family and me this week and visited a host of classes here at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Mass. It was a great experience for my students to get the chance to discuss not only Frankie's wonderful story "In Her Fashion" (Ellery Queen, July 2014) with her, but also to discuss other literary and social topics with a college professor of Frankie's stature.

As I have written many times, the mystery community is a small and close-knit one. And, for me, it is always wonderful to take a break from my academic life and spend time with another crime writer. Writing is a lonely second job, and having someone to talk shop with over a glass of wine is always refreshing and invigorating.

I have shared several pictures here. Enjoy.




Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Writing to Music

After reading Frankie’s post the other day on the number of books on her nightstand, I checked out the list of questions posed as part of the Sisters in Crime September Blog Hop. The questions about music and writing caught me eye so today I’ll be addressing those: Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I really like music, all kinds. According to Cornell University, there’s evidence that music is good for your health. I’d love to be able to listen to music while I’m writing, but I just can’t write fiction to most of it. I can’t write to anything with words. Interestingly enough, when I wrote technical documents I had no problem listening to, and singing along with, all kinds of music. But fiction is another story.

The only exceptions to the no-words rule are Gregorian chants and the music of Hawaiian singer Keali‛i Reichel (as long as he’s singing in Hawaiian.) I’m even picky about the instrumental music I listen to while I’m writing. Mozart, Bach, smooth jazz artists like Chris Botti and Dave Koz are all okay. Harp music is a particular favorite. (Right now I’m listening to Christine Grace Magnussen’s On Wings of a Dove: Harp Music to Soothe the Soul.) I heard once that harp music can calm down an agitated cat. I tried it on one of our cats and it seemed to help. I know it calms me down. Perhaps I’m part cat.

But I cannot listen to instrumental versions of well-known Christmas carols while working on a book. I find myself singing along, drifting off into a winter wonderland instead of paying attention to my writing.

So, I’m curious. Does anyone else have this problem? Or are you all happily writing to the latest hits?

And now I’ll introduce you to the author I’m linking to as part of the blog hop: Diann Adamson. We’re both members of the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Diann is currently serving as the chapter’s Membership Director. This weekend on djadamson.com she’ll be talking about the writers that have influenced her.
 ___________________

In the fun word category I have a couple more for you this week. I was watching an episode of Sleepy Hollow and they used two words I found particularly interesting: gongoozler and gumplefik.

Gongoozler is an idle spectator. (British English) According to oxfordictionaries.com its origins are from the early 20th century, originally denoting someone who idly watches activity on a canal. Rare before the 1970s.

>Gumplefik means fidgety and restless. I couldn’t find it in the OED or any other dictionary I have access to, but there are a number of references online to it long before the Sleepy Hollow episode aired. Let me know if you find it in a dictionary. I’d love to know the history of this word!

(See, television can be educational!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing and “writing”

Working as I do in graphic design, I have to deal with a lot of advertising copy. Since that’s often in flux as much as the design I’m working on, I get a bird’s eye view of the editing process. Sometimes I’m even a part of it.

If you think we novelists sweat over ever word, you should see the copywriter’s lot in life. They sweat every detail down to periods versus exclamation points, underlines versus no underlines and everyone second guesses what they do. Usually, there are multiple people looking over his/her shoulder, making their own judgements and comments. They all think they know what they’re doing, too — and some actually do — but many times I’ve seen promising copy get sideswiped by too much meddling and over-thinking. And it’s very hard to stop this process. Copywriters, like the graphic designers, want to give their client something the client likes and about which they feel confident that the job has been done properly. Sometimes this involves saving the client from themselves. Oftentimes, though, they don’t want to be saved — or so it appears.

About writing, everyone has their own opinion past a certain point. I’m talking about after all the “nuts and bolts” things have been fixed. Does this work? Should that be tried? Why is this even here? Because advertising copy is, by necessity, extremely distilled, the process is intense. So too with poetry, I would imagine (believe me, you don’t want to read any poetry written by moi!).

Given the length of novels, even short ones, this laser beam scrutiny is harder to achieve. From what I’ve seen in the advertising world, the same editing treatment would result in a writer completing a novel around once every decade. But can we not take something away from the advertising world? The most important thing I’ve learned about great advertising copy is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. The real trick is to get the reader to recognize that the word and punctuation changes are a subtle marker to ideas that are completely sub rosa, but still critically important.

I wish I could show you examples, both good and bad, in packages with which I’ve been involved, but it wouldn’t be fair to my clients. However, next time you read an ad, whether it’s found on a bus, in a magazine or newspaper, a billboard, anywhere, take a look at the construction of the copy and look at the emotions it stirs in you (or not) and whether it makes a connection with you.

Regardless of what you think about the value of ads, that’s the whole purpose of any writing, isn’t it?