Friday, February 27, 2015

On Not Plunging In

The antithesis of Albany’s current weather. Winter? Doesn’t exist!
Generally, when we write about attending mystery conferences, we mention opportunities to catch up with writer friends, meet and mingle with readers, see editors and agents, and appear on panels. We write about what we learn by attending workshops and interviews with bestselling authors. We write about how we soak up all that energy, and come home ready to sit down and write.

These are all excellent reasons for attending conferences. In fact, when I signed up for Sleuthfest this year, I thought of what fun it would be to hang out with friends, be on a panel, and do a pre-publication debut of my new book, What the Fly Saw. I have to admit – no offense to Floridians – that the chance to get out of snowbound, frigid Albany, New York and spend a few days in a balmy clime was not one of the reasons I wanted to attend. I'm not a warm weather person. But, I arrived this afternoon, and so far it hasn't been bad. I've gone from air-conditioned airport to shuttle to hotel room. There is no humidity. Much better than my last visit to Florida.

But I haven't gone to the conference yet. I'm in an overflow hotel across the street (busy boulevard) and – more important – I got up at five a.m. to make my 8:15 a.m flight. That wouldn't have been bad, but I got to bed at around 2 and had about three hours sleep. So I decided to pass on the last of the afternoon workshops and the Thursday evening kickoff events. Tomorrow, I'll go over fresh and wide awake.

Being in an overflow hotel does offer one advantage – the opportunity to hide out. This is also possible in the conference hotel if you dodge people you know and/or are willing to nod briskly and keep moving when you do encounter friends. It is much easier to hide out when you are in the overflow hotel because most people in your hotel will be heading to the conference hotel. In the overflow hotel, you have an excuse for not attending an evening event – you don't want to walk back to your hotel alone in the dark. This excuse only works if you purposely don't look for people you know who might be in your hotel and with whom you could walk. Of course, you also don't bother to consider the possibility that you would be safe walking across the street from one hotel to the other.

Obviously when you have gone to the effort and expense of attending the conference, hiding out in your room should not be something you do every night. Especially when you are attending a great conference like Sleuthfest. But I would argue that taking one evening for decompression before plunging in is acceptable.

The other opportunity that should not be missed when attending a conference is the chance to take an airport shuttle to your hotel. I say this without sarcasm. Yes, if you are rushing to plunge into conference activities, then waiting for your shuttle to leave and then going on a rambling journey while other passengers are delivered to their destinations can be tedious. On the other hand, if you decide to think of the shuttle ride as a tour of the area, it becomes much more interesting. Much can be learned about an area while a passenger on an airport shuttle.

The other first-evening pleasure you should consider – in-room dining. Room service or delivery. Tonight, I ordered a wonderful meal – including coconut flan – that was delivered to my hotel. And I ate it wearing old tee shirt, shorts, and flip flops.

I also got a little work done. Some reading I needed to do. Some notes I needed to make about a project. Bright and early Friday, I will plunge into Sleuthfest, and I'm sure I'll have fun. But Thursday was my transition day…and that is why I have no photos for this post.

(Special Note: After reading Frankie’s post, I felt compelled to go out and find an image that reflected her current location as compared to her usual location – just so you’d all know what she’s currently suffering through! —Rick)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Exciting Climax

I’m in the midst of writing the climax to All Men Fear Me, my latest Alafair Tucker novel. It’s the big reveal, when the reader finds out whodunnit, and more importantly, when Alafair finds out whodunnit. Maybe she confronts the killer. Then what does she do? When I begin writing a new mystery novel, I usually know who the murderer is, and sometimes I know how and why s/he did it. I may also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime. I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story. But here’s the hard part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.

And that is not easy, my friend, because I have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

Alafair is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. In fact, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway? The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved at all.

Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want. In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do. I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.
This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has a bunch of kids and a husband, all of whom want dinner?”

I could just have her up and leave and let everyone fend for himself, or I could contrive to have all the children and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1917 equivalent of McDonald’s was. But if I did that, I have a feeling I’d hear about it from disgruntled readers. Not to mention a horrified editor. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.

This is one of the things I like about writing an amateur sleuth. She has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. And sometimes, she’s smarter than I am. In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page. Toward the end of my fourth book in the series, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information. It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The invisible foe

Barbara here. What do the West Edmonton Mall, feminist writers, and Justine Sacco have in common? They have all been in the news recently as targets of internet threats. The internet is surely the great invention of our era, connecting us across the world and providing access to knowledge, entertainment, and services at the click of a mouse. It is such an integral part of most of our lives that it's difficult to remember how we did things before. Book a flight, find a B&B, find the best Italian restaurant in town, bake oatmeal scones, compare features of lawnmowers... It's all there. And email and social media have made it possible to stay connected (and indeed to reconnect) with friends and family around the world. To share photos and anecdotes and birthdays.

But with this vast, unfettered playground have come the playground bullies, who have their own dark desires to fulfill  and who revel in the chance to unleash their cruel side without ever having to reveal their identity or look their victim in the eye. We've all encountered them. At their most harmless, they are the trolls who hijack the 'comments' sections of newspaper articles with absurd rants or who make crude personal attacks in place of reasoned argument. Most of us have learned to ignore them rather than respond and thus give them the forum they crave.

As writers, whose work is out in the public sphere, we have to learn to ignore a special kind of troll– the negative reviewer. By this I don't mean the carefully considered critique that finds our work lacking. As painful as these are for us to read, we generally recognize they are written in the spirit of appraisal rather than attack. But there are reviewers out there whose goal is not to appraise or critique but rather to trash. Because they can. Because they enjoy it. Although these are more difficult to ignore, because their negative reviews can affect the ratings of our books, we generally grit our teeth and try to ignore them too.

But many forms of internet abuse are far more destructive, because of formless and unknowable nature of the threat. Sometimes it becomes a multi-headed monster, as when a single, ill-advised tweet gets retweeted and retweeted until perfect strangers all around the world are savaging you (as happened to Justine Sacco), causing you to lose privacy, friends, and sometimes even your job. How to contain it, how to grapple with it and try to reverse it?

Sometimes the threats are graphic and criminal in nature, as in the case of the feminist writers who were threatened with rape and other violent retribution, but the persons responsible, being anonymous, cannot be called to account and dealt with. Not knowing where the danger lies, or how serious it is, can lead to serious anxiety, which is of course one of the abusers' goals. Such is also the tactic of terrorists making videos containing vague threats of destruction, the exact time and place unknown but specific enough (like the West Edmonton mall mention) to sow fear and get the reaction they want– a world held hostage to nameless and faceless bandits.

But to bring this back to writers, on a much smaller scale, I have begun to notice a small but increasing number of nasty personal attacks, some of which have made me feel vaguely unsafe. Writers are vulnerable because our work– and our soul– is out there for all to see, and we encourage interaction with the public. I have a Facebook page which anyone can view, and a website with contact information. Generally I love the messages and emails I receive, the vast majority from readers who have enjoyed my books or want to know when the next is due out, etc. Sometimes I receive pleasant, mildly chiding messages correcting a fact or a typo in one of my books, and these too I appreciate.

But I have received a few notes which seem just plain nasty, which attack the book or myself in a way that feels vindictive. As a crime writer I tackle social and moral issues, and I understand the messages in my books are not going to appeal to everyone. Sometimes I choose to respond, and the exchange of emails opens up a dialogue that ultimately enriches both of us. But in most instances I sense there is no basis for reasonable dialogue; that as with 'comment' trolls, the vitriol is the thing, not the message itself.

But it does leave me feeling vaguely unsettled. Vaguely threatened. I would be easy to find, if someone chose to go beyond the emailing of nasty notes. And as I embark on my new series, which will tackle even more global moral and human rights issues than I did previously– issues such as human trafficking, self-radicalization, and human rights– I suspect the subtle threats may increase. It gives a writer pause, not just about what they might choose to write about, but also about how publicly available they want to be. Which would be too bad.

I'd be interested in hearing people's experiences with this, both as readers and writers. Is the phenomenon growing, and if so, how do we respond?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Frozen in time

I am extremely pressed with work obligations this week, so I’m going to have to punk out on my weekly post. I did find another interesting article with photos from abandoned places from around the globe. They are stunning and ever so evocative.

I’d certainly like to experience some of these places in the flesh, but as you read the article, you’ll realize that they also come with a fairly high quotient of danger. Still...

And they certainly want to make you tell a story about them.

Click HERE to look at the photos.

And enjoy. See you next week!

Monday, February 23, 2015

What's It Worth?

After my pitiful moan in my last post about having to get a new PC, I felt I must give you an update.  After a few fraught days when we gazed at each other in mutual horror ('Who is this idiot, mucking bout with my inner workings?') we have settled down to a remarkably harmonious relationship.

There are different ways of doing things, certainly, but on the whole they haven't been too hard to figure out and some of the differences are definite improvements.  And I have to say it is very refreshing not to have a sulky 'Not responding' popping up every ten minutes.

The corner was turned once wonderful Brian came round and installed Solitaire and Free Cell - so essential for bad days at the office as the civilised alternative to banging one's head against the keyboard and screaming.  So I'm well set up now (even without switching to a Mac, Rick!) with hopefully a few years ahead before I descend again into depression about having to buy a new one.

That's not really what I wanted to write about today, in fact.   I've blogged before, as have others, more than once about book prices being cut to the bone.  I remember the point being made that if you spilled your coffee over the book you were reading, it would be cheaper to replace the book than the coffee.

I've also read a good number of blogs by readers saying they should be cheaper still, indeed free, even one defending using a pirate site on the grounds that he wanted to read the book and couldn't afford it, ' so I had to.' No one would be sympathetic to me if I stole a Rolls Royce for similar reasons.

But actually, this isn't a moan about our work not being properly paid for.  I read an article recently that pointed out, in very reasonable tones, that we're not exactly in a seller's market.  There were 140,000 books published in Britain last year, and that's without counting the self-published ones that no one's counted.

The recent glut of oil worldwide has meant that the gas prices have come down.  Bad weather in the significant regions has meant that the price of chocolate has risen.  Of course books aren't cans of baked beans but we're still engaged in a commercial transaction.

We can all talk about the concept of 'worth' when it comes to books, but I suppose an article is only 'worth' what anyone else will pay for it. Even if I don't like it, I accept that it's a rational argument.

On the other hand, the French have been totally adamant about the fixed book price.  Yet go into any large French supermarket and you will find a book section easily comparable in size and range to a good bookshop.  You can pop in for a trolley of groceries and chuck in a copy of  Sartre's L'Etranger at the same time - and they do.

Recently Tom Stoppard was complaining that he can't rely on a hinterland of literary knowledge in the audiences for his plays the way he could twenty years ago.  I would doubt if the same would be true in France.

You get what you pay for - which I suppose is where I came in.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Guest Post: Diane Vallere

I'm delighted to welcome Diane Vallere as this weekend's guest. Diane is the current President of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and my partner-in-crime for our recent "Paint and Polyester" bookstore tour.

After two decades working for a top luxury retailer, Diane Vallere traded fashion accessories for accessories to murder. SUEDE TO REST, the first book in the Material Witness Cozy Mystery Series, has been nominated for the 2015 Lefty Best Humorous Mystery Award. Diane also writes the Mad for Mod Mystery Series, featuring a midcentury modern interior decorator who has modeled her life after Doris Day movies, and the Style & Error Mystery Series, featuring a former fashion buyer. Diane started her own detective agency at age ten and has maintained a passion for shoes, clues, and clothes ever since.

Jury Duty

Last week I asked my Facebook friends if I was the only person who got excited about Jury Duty. The replies came fast and furious. Turns out there are two kinds of people in the world: those who dislike Jury Duty, and mystery writers.

Admittedly, I have two reasons for liking Jury Duty:

1) it feels like research, and
2) it gets me out of the house.

Much research can be done on the internet, but I think there’s something to be said for research that is done in person. You can read about what happens in the jury selection process from start to finish, but you won’t fully appreciate the experience unless you catch a subway at 6:30 in the morning, stand in line for half an hour before they scan your belongings, sit in an uncomfortable chair staring at a photograph of a flamingo (occasionally wondering about the significance of said flamingo photo in a Los Angeles courthouse), watch the people who ignore the sign that says “take a packet and sit down” and form an unnecessary line at the front window.

Plus, you’ll miss the blue carpeting that is stained with a previously-spilled cup of coffee and the scent of the popcorn being sold at the concession stand outside of the Juror Room. You will rarely get this kind of chance to see a snapshot of the people who are a cross-section of the town where you live, pretty much a crash course in human nature.

The thing about research is that it fuels two parts of our manuscripts: the facts and the world-building. Facts can be looked up. World building can be made up. But for both facts and world-building to come alive, you need to deliver the complete experience to your reader. It’s not just the words of dialogue that matter. Creating the setting where a dialogue takes place is important. Whether it’s a historic courthouse for a civil trial or a dingy community center for a town hall meeting or a fancy restaurant that has altered their hours to accommodate a club meeting, when a writer pays attention to what it feels like, smells like, and sounds like—in addition to what it looks like—the reader falls that much farther down the rabbit hole. Their surroundings fade away because we gave them a new place to hang. Even if it isn’t paradise, it’s sometimes the place where our characters hang, too.

And don’t underestimate that getting-out-of-the-house thing, either. Works wonders for a stuck manuscript!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Let Me Go

Let me go ye gods of manuscripts. Take this book off my mind. Shoo! Get out of my writing room.

I sent off my non-fiction book this week. It's for University of Oklahoma Press. Right now the working title is Nicodemus: Race and Culture on the Kansas Frontier. The moment I put it in the mail I wanted it back. I instantly thought of things I wish I had said, or shouldn't have said. When I worried that the paper was too cheap or not the right weight or the right degree of brightness, I knew I had passed over the line into a new kind of craziness.

Did I remember everyone I wanted to thank in the acknowledgements? Were all the names spelled correctly. Was I wrong on just about everything? Was there some crucial resource that I left out? Was the epilogue too short? It took a long time to finish this project. Academic books require extensive documentation. I've read so many microfilmed newspaper that I'm lucky I still can see.

Non-fiction books have their own protocol. For one thing, I had so send this manuscript in both print and digital formats, with each chapter in a separate digital file. Poisoned Pen Press wants everything in a single digital file. In fact that's true of most fiction publishers nowadays. Each method has it's own merits.

Single large files are a dream to edit. For that matter I can change a name instantly throughout the whole book. We had to do that in Hidden Heritage when I read two days before I sent in the final manuscript that a family in New Mexico was suing the government over the same issue that was the linchpin of my mystery.

When I got home from FedEx, I realized I had left out the checklist. See? I told myself I would leave out something that was critical. I'll scan it and email it to my editor.

I have a couple of things left to do. This kind of book has a lot of pictures and acquiring permission to print them is quite tedious. The first step is to determine who owns the copyright. The next step is  writing to the owner and getting signed permission to publish. The stipulations are very restrictive. I only have one more picture to collect. I don't want to take a chance on it getting lost in the mail and will go to LaJunta, CO to scan it. It's a priceless picture of Lulu Craig, whom I quote throughout the book.

I have to do my own indexing. The process is quite precise. However, one of the things I appreciate about OU Press is detailed instructions. There are professional indexers, but the price would come out of my own pocket and it would be really hard for someone else to pick out the sub-headings I have in mind.

This is a learning process. Right now, I'm maxed out on integrating new information. And I want the book off my mind while I finish my fourth mystery.

You can bet I'll let everyone know when the academic book is published.