Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Trip to the Homeland

I'm not really here today, Dear Reader. I am in Woodward, Oklahoma, as you read this. Last August I had to cancel a trip to speak at some Oklahoma libraries, after My Beloved fell and broke his arm. Fortunately, I was approached by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries with an offer to appear at the first Oklahoma Book Festival, to be held at the Boatyard in Oklahoma City on Oct. 20, and since Beloved (Don) is now in good enough shape to be left on his own for days at a time, I’m taking this opportunity to reschedule the library event n Woodward, Oklahoma, for noon on Thursday, October 18. We’re calling it the If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Try Again Tour.

Martha (r) and me

My youngest sister, brother, and sister-in-law are coming from Tulsa to OKC on Saturday to go to the Book Festival (and see me) and after the Festival, they are schlepping me back to Tulsa, my birthplace, where I will be staying for a couple days with youngest sister, Martha. We have yet another sister in Joplin, Missouri, who I hope will be able to drive down to the old homestead while I'm there, in which case it'll be a real family reunion. I'm going to get to see mystery author extraordinaire Carolyn Hart while I'm in Tulsa, as well, which will be a real treat.

In anticipation of this long-awaited trip, I worked busily to finish the first draft of the first book in my new series, and I did it, by gum. Don is reading it right now. When I get home at the end of the month, I hope to be able to clean it up quickly and get it sent in to my editor. This book is so different in tone from the Alafairs (it's set mostly in California in the 1920s and is much more Noir) that I'm curious to see what kind of reaction I'll get from my first readers. Once I have an idea of how this book will be received, I'll tell you all about it. But here is a teaser - I'm calling it The Adventures of Bianca Dangereaux, Episode One: Lust for Vengeance.

p.s. Full Disclosure–both above pictures of me are about ten years old. I have gotten a lot grayer and somewhat saggier since then. Martha, on the other hand, looks exactly the same.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Launches and signings and readings, oh dear

Last night I had the official launch of my latest book, PRISONERS OF HOPE, and so begins the frenetic season of promoting a new book. It's short but busy, often with back to back events that consume much of my fall weekends. This is my seventeenth book, and that's a lot of weekends. Missed opportunities to cut the garden back, rake the leaves, take leisurely walks in the glorious fall trees, and even vacuum the extra dogs that have accumulated under the tables in my house.

The launch is always the highlight of this time. I am not very organized and have not developed a newsletter, mailchimp list, or even email groups to help me send out invitations, so it takes time but I try to send out invitations to all of my contacts who live in the Ottawa area. I book a venue, arrange a bookseller, order some food, and cross my fingers that people will come. To my delight, they always do, some new readers, some faithful ones of old, and of course, my long-suffering family. This starts the season off with a boost, because everyone is excited about the new arrival and effusive in their praise. Thanks so much to all you loyal friends and fans who come out to support us authors!

I hold on to this boost during the long weeks of readings and signings that follow. Some are well attended, often to my surprise and gratitude, but other times I am reading to a rapt audience of five, including bookstore or library staff. I recall being scheduled earlier in my career to do a conversational hour at a conference, and one person showed up. One hour is a long time sitting face to face with a stranger!

All writers have horror stories about the dreaded mall signing. Bookstores forget you're coming or only order five books, snowstorms turn the mall into a graveyard, a raucous children's event is running in the store next door, or, despite seventeen books, no one has heard of you but they love James Patterson. As if authors need more lessons in humility after dozens of rejection letters, brutal editing, nasty reviews...

Through it all, you smile gaily, trying to look inviting but not desperate as you watch people walk by the store. Do they make eye contact? Do they scan your table as they pass? Or do they detour around to enter the store from the other side? Do they look on the verge of murder themselves as they drag a couple of screaming children in tow? Do they go for the fiction table or the scented candles?

If you decide the signs look favourable, you embark on phase one. "Hello. Are you a mystery fan?" or some such. Some pretend not to hear you as they scurry past. Some give a curt no, some say yes, rather dubiously as if uneasy about what they're committing to. If they stop, you begin phase two. You explain who you are and give a one-floor elevator pitch about the books. If they are still standing there, you continue with more detail. My favourite point is when the person's eyes suddenly widen in surprise and they say "Oh wow, you're the author?"

Most people are too polite to turn you down outright. Once entrapped into conversation, they mumble appreciatively and look for a gracious exit strategy. Is the book available on Kindle? Is it in the library? I'll be back once I go to the bank. Sometimes, after engaging for five or ten minutes and reading the blurbs of each book, they smile, say good luck, and move on. I feel for all these people. They don't want a book, it wasn't in their plan for that day, and they made the mistake of saying yes. I always thank them for stopping by, hand them a bookmark, and wish them a great day.

There are also the people who approach your table with great purpose and enthusiasm, raising your hopes, only to ask where the washrooms are or whether you have the latest Harry Potter. You learn to smile at these. An honest mistake.

There is two groups of people that seasoned authors encounter all the time, however. One is the person who's bored, killing time, possibly waiting for a friend who's in the store. So they figure they'll chat with the author. They usually position themselves directly in front, blocking everyone else's access to the table. After a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear they have no intention of buying a book but merely want to talk. About their experience in the book business, about their grandchildren, whatever. Meanwhile potential readers are passing by, sometimes peeking around the talker to try to see the books.

At every signing, it seems, there is also the customer who isn't interested in your book but wants to tell you about the book they have written, or plan to write, or want to write. There are variations on this, but they usually want book advice such as where to get their book published. Curiously, I have found these are almost always middle-aged men who don't read fiction (often proclaimed with pride). They can explain their non-fiction book for hours, as others drift by, pause to peek, and go on their way.

Both these types of customers are difficult to deter, often standing by patiently if you interrupt them to address another reader and then resuming when that reader has left. Neither of them end up buying a book.
My last book signing at the wonderful Aunt Agatha's.
Why do we keep doing mall signings, you ask? Well, first of all, the connection to the booksellers, particularly the indies, is key. They are book lovers and readers themselves, and their belief in you means a lot. They are the ones who stock the book and recommend it if they like it (and you). They all have horror stories themselves about difficult or entitled authors, and believe me, they get their revenge.

But the signings are always redeemed by the customers who listen to the five-floor elevator pitch, ask some questions, say it sounds interesting and take the risk. Building readership one by one seems to be how the business works in the absence of a publisher with a big promotional budget. The signings are redeemed even more by the customer who comes up to the table with a big smile and exclaims "I love your books, I've read them all! I could hardly wait for the next one! And I want one for my friend's birthday too."

That is music to an author's ears. It's why we write, after all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Too close to home

by Rick Blechta

Imagine if you will the following plot for a novel.

An older man, legally blind and living alone, goes out for his usual evening walk. A large storm is coming but he doesn’t know this. He never returns from that walk. Since he lives alone and often turned down the ringer on his phone, those calling him aren’t aware anything is wrong.

Some weeks later, a woman arrives at his apartment for an appointment and the man doesn’t answer his door. She can hear the phone ringing inside when she tries to call. She gets the super to open the door. The man’s wallet is still there, and checking further, she discovers his debit card, something he preferred instead of cash because of his blindness, hasn’t been used in nearly a month.

She reports her friend missing. Due to the large storm the night the man went out for his walk, the police had already searched a nearby river and discovered no bodies. A month later, no sign of the missing has been found.

Sounds like a good beginning for a crime fiction novel, doesn’t it? The story is not fiction, however. It happened…to a musican I have worked with. Scott Cushnie has been a well-regarded Toronto musician for many years. He played with a lot of musical greats during his storied career: Robbie Robertson, Aerosmith and many more.

(Here’s an initial news report on his disappearance)

I met Scott in the late ‘70s when I was hired to play additional keyboards for him on a TV show. I’d seen Scott perform in a club a few times and was always impressed with his musicianship. He played the best boogie-woogie piano I ever heard. It was a joy to make music with him and the show, played live, was a great experience and very enjoyable. Over the intervening years, I saw him once or twice, but we sort of lost contact since I wasn’t performing at all at that time.

And then I read this horrible story in the newspaper. I contacted another good friend who had also played on the TV show — and who had kept better in contact with Scott — and he hadn’t heard anything.

We waited, but nothing was heard of our friend.

Then, last week, another article appeared and the story became even more bizarre and upsetting.

If I were writing a novel, I’d probably work in this information around chapter five.

But I’m not writing a novel. This is the story of someone I knew and respected. I can’t help feeling exceptionally guilty that I’m thinking of what was likely the death of someone I knew as good fodder for how I make my living. But as the second article above says, given Scott’s sense of humour, he’d find being the inspiration for a mystery novel quite funny.

That doesn’t give me a lot of comfort, however.

So now Scott’s many friends and fans wait for the results of an exhumation.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Living the Landscape

A couple of weeks ago there was a post from Donis talking about the need for boots-on-the -ground research. I know there are writers who seem able to conjure up the background for a book on the basis of reading, and now I suppose Google Earth, but I couldn't do it myself. The landscape is as important to me as any other character. I need to have direct experience of where the action is going to take place.

The new book, I think, is going to be set in the Borders, the area of Scotland that adjoins England. It is a place with a troubled history when the Border Reivers (raiders) swept from Scotland to England, and from England to Scotland, in violent sorties seizing cattle and sheep and taking the odd prisoner for ransom. With two countries constantly at war there was little royal authority on either side and the practice went on for several hundred years. The powerful warring families - like the Armstrongs, Ellits, Fenwicks and Musgraves – were romanticised in the poems of Sir Walter Scott.

It's beautiful countryside that gives no hint of the blood-soaked past, with its gentle hills and small towns with old-fashioned High Streets and its people who speak with soft accents. There are savage winters, though, and many, many miles of deserted moorland with not a house or a farm to be seen.

It's near enough to Edinburgh where I live for parts of it to be very familiar, but if my characters are going to live there I need more than a partial impression. My long-suffering husband who acts as driver on these occasions will say, 'Where do you want to go?' and I'm never really very helpful. What I need is to drive around, walk a bit, talk to people and get, somehow, what I hope is the feel of the place, somewhere I could put down roots.

After a long series set in one area it's been a novelty to go off looking at other parts of Scotland. So far, the other two places I have chosen as settings have spoken to me immediately; I look forward to seeing if the Borders does for the new book.

And if it doesn't? Well, my husband is always plaintively suggesting that perhaps the South of France would be worth exploring.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Branching Out into the World of Sherlock Holmes

By Vicki Delany

If there is one thing, I am not, it’s a non-fiction writer.  I like being able to make up things. But it never hurts, does it, to step out of your conform zone now and again.

A couple of years ago I wrote a creative non-fiction story based closely on my grandfather’s letters about his time in the trenches of World War I. That story appeared in an anthology called Engraved: Canadian Stories of World War I from Seraphim Editions.

And now a true non-fiction article by me has just been published in the collection Sherlock Holmes is Like: Sixty Comparisons for an Incomparable Character edited by Christopher Redmond, published by Wildside Press.

The idea behind the collection is to explore the stories and the legend of Sherlock Holmes by comparing him to other well-known characters of fiction and non-fiction.  People as diverse as Dracula, Huckleberry Finn, and Hermione Granger.

My “is like” is Inspector Edmund Reid from the British TV show Ripper Street (the character in which is based on the Insp. Edmund Reid who was involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper).

A very pleasant side effect of writing the Sherlock Holmes bookshop series is that I have been drawn, albeit peripherally, into the world of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockians.  And what fun it is. I’ve always liked the Holmes books and movies and TV shows (some far more than others). But in the last couple of years, I’ve discovered an entire whole world out there of Sherlock stuff . In my books, I make a point that everything sold in the fictional bookshop exists in the real world.  It’s not at all unfeasible to have an entire bookstore dedicated to nothing but Sherlock Holmes.
The people I’ve met in the Sherlockian world have been fun and interesting people. And not at all eccentric, as one might expect. Just great people with a fascinating, and highly intellectual, hobby.

Speaking of The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop,  the fourth book, A Scandal in Scarlet, will be released on November 13.  The third in the series, The Cat of the Baskervilles, came out in trade paperback last week.

Friday, October 12, 2018

I Needed Help

In my last post, I wrote about my unbelievably positive publishing experience for my first novel. Well, not my first novel. It was actually my second. The first one was The Octagon House, a valiant attempt at writing a gothic. 

The most important thing I learned from the gothic experience was that it's critical to finish that first book. With the first one under your belt, you'll know you can actually write a book. My agent once said that a lot of people who assume they can write a book find they simply can't when they sit down and try it. Or that they hate the process. 

Also, something psychologically mysterious comes with completing such a large project. It's liberating. It's self-affirming, as in "I told myself I could do this, then I did it. Good for me." As I mentioned in my previous post, not having someone mess with me during the creative process was a blessing.


I stopped writing this post right in the middle. I went to Parker to give a talk to a book club and stayed with my daughter the night before. I foolishly assumed I would finish the blog at Mary Beth's house. And I didn't.

Anyway, after my dream first publishing experience, I needed a mentor--another writer who had published books--to tell me things. I needed advice! I was astonished by the number of persons who had never written a book, let alone published, who were all too happy to tell me what to do.

At lunch, after my talk, a couple of the ladies asked me about the publishing process. What happens after writing the book. What are the next steps? In another blog I'll go through some of the steps involved with traditional publishing.

The publishing business is like a fast-moving train. By the time one figures out big moves, details, and sorts through the process of adapting as an individual the train has already whizzed right on by. Happily, and this is the first big lesson--there's always another one coming down the track. It doesn't feel like there is going to be.

Big lesson #No. 1 (and the most important of all) Write your next book. Write your next book. Write your next book.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Character Sketches

It's been a whirlwind of a week.

On the writing front, most of my time has been dedicated to character sketches as I work up a synopsis for my agent and as I think through the arc of a would-be series. It's productive organizational work, albeit a task that leaves me unfulfilled. (I'd rather be telling a story than planning how I will tell it.)

However, I find writing detailed character sketches helpful, more so in fact than outlining. Diving headlong into who each character is and what makes him or her tick tells me a lot about motivation, which I need to know as I write, and which I need to be able to see where plotlines intersect.

Here's an example of one:

Bo Whitney, 45, is our vantage point –– an outsider in the ultimate insider’s world. A dedicated family man who deeply loves wife Ellie. Now that she’s the recently-appointed head of school, he’s moved from a small-ish dorm apartment he liked to the headmaster’s mansion, which, given his lower-middle-class background, frankly, embarrasses him. And the symbolism of this new home isn’t lost on any of us: He’s cursing under his breath that he can’t find the beer in the commercial kitchen and hosted the Board of Trustees Saturday night instead of the faculty poker game. Reminds us that "in the academic world, most meetings are about as enjoyable as pulling your thumbnail off with pliers. Few are as interesting."

From a Maine mill town, a former star high school hockey player and fourth-round draft choice of the Calgary Flames. Did not attend an Ivy League college. Played at the University of Maine. Now his occasional limp reminds us of the knee injury that took him from the ice to the newsroom. Found his adrenaline rush on the crime beat at the Hartford Courant. Teaching (and if he was honest, he’d tell you that even coaching) doesn’t give him what the newspaper did. But his life is at Blaise Academy, and we believe he’s content. Knows wife Ellie is the power player in their academic world, and he’s fine taking a backseat. After all, as he says they don’t ask the guy who’s usually late to a faculty meeting to hold administrative roles.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts on character sketches.


At work, we are on the cusp of midterms, and I hiked a mountain with the senior class yesterday. So, as Polonius said, "I will be brief." Here are some pictures from a crazy week.

Dad and daughter (Audrey, 17, a senior) on Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire