Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pitch Perfect or Perfect Pitch

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how TV shows are pitched, and, subsequently, thinking of the differences between TV content and the material I typically put in my novels.

Obviously, there are similarities between TV series and book series, but the differences, I’m learning, are striking. And most of them have to do with content.

As a reader, I’m all-in on character. Give me a compelling character, and I’ll watch him take out the garbage or sit with her in a cafe as she reads. The plot is secondary. When the great man himself was writing the books, I would buy each Robert B. Parker Spenser novel each year –– would eagerly await it, in fact –– to see what the characters have been up to since we last spoke. TV is different. Characters need to be compelling, yes, but there’s only so much time between commercials. So content carries the viewer. Plot. Tension. And the content needs to be current and relevant.

My Peyton Cote series stars a female US Border Patrol agent, who’s also a single mother. I can do a lot with that in 80,000 words. What’s her mother like? What’s her learning-disabled son dealing with at school? Why’s her ex such an asshole? And where’s this new relationship with the State Trooper going to go? Was that comment at work a gender-related micro-aggression?

But the demographics of readers (and, as a teacher, it pains me to say this) is different from the typical makeup of the TV viewer. When was the last time you saw a teenager on the train reading a book? Peyton Cote on TV needs to be newsworthy, her conflicts timely. That is, she needs to be someone we might see dealing with issues we hear about on the news. On TV, Peyton’s gay sister might also be one of Putin’s spies, something Peyton won’t find out until season three. And that new man in Peyton’s life, the State Trooper we all love? Well, the gay sister is seducing him to learn something about a Maine politician. A stretch? Maybe, but you get the point. Timeliness and relevance trump character. In fact, that quaint northern Maine town where Peyton is stationed? Well, that might be home to Chinese spies. ISIS is old news.

Anyway, all of this has me thinking. How much can I add to my books? Where do I draw the line between character-driven work and concept-based work? And, more importantly, where will you?

I’d love to hear others weigh in on this topic.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Investigation Discovery Channel

When I’m on vacation, time seems to stand still. Then I get back and reality sets in and I realize I have a blog post to write with no idea what to talk about. I figured I’d think about a topic when I was on vacation but did I? Noooo!

I could talk about my trip up the West coast of the U.S. Not much to say there other than it was hot everywhere and California, Oregon and Washington all seem to be on fire.

Or I could talk about the phantom that has suddenly taken up residence in my car. I lock the car and everything seems to be hunky dory, windows rolled up, etc. Then I go back to it later and find the doors still locked, but the windows rolled down. Kinda creepy.

Instead, I think I’ll talk about my recent obsession with the Investigation Discovery Channel. Have you all seen this channel? It’s a gold mine for mystery writers. Just full of reality crime shows. Some of them are a bit cheesy, but I’ve found several of them worth watching.

I had never heard of this channel, and didn’t realize I received it as part of my cable package, until a friend told me she was appearing in one of the episodes of Nightmare Next Door as a crime commentator. That’s when I discovered I received the channel and the obsession began.

I don’t watch all of the shows just some here and there, but I’m still rather obsessed with ID. Some of the show names are a little too much for me: Fatal Vows, Evil Lives Here, Evil Kin, Deadly Dentists... I mean, how many dentists are there involved in crimes that they can create an entire series about it? I did watch an episode of Evil Kin, though, since it talked about a Kansas case that Charlotte has discussed in some of her blog posts – the Bloody Benders. It was quite interesting.

The shows I particularly like on ID are People Magazine Investigates and Breaking Homicide. The former covers fairly recent high profile crimes and the latter pairs a former police sergeant with a forensic psychologist to re-examine cold cases.

The most recent show I’ve started watching is The Coroner: I Speak For The Dead. I probably wouldn’t have watched it except one of the actors who appears in the reenactments in the shows lives in the same apartment building as a friend of mine so I became curious. The crimes all come from the files of Dauphin County, PA coroner Graham Hetrick.

Sometimes watching these shows triggers an idea in my head that helps me solve a plot problem or come up with a new character. Plus I do find the cases interesting.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who is obsessed with this channel. There’s a contest currently going on for a chance to win a walk-on role called ID Addict of the Month. I think I’ll skip it though it would be fun to appear in one of their shows.

Have any of you watched this channel? Any favorite shows?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Walking the fine line between “flawed” and “annoying”

By Rick Blechta

If you haven’t read Tom’s excellent post from yesterday, you might want to drop down below this post to check it out. It brings up some important points in basic character development.

His post, as often happens here on Type M, inspired mine for this week. As all writers do, I’m always concerned that people can relate to my characters. They can be good or bad and readers can respond to that, but the last response I want from them is indifference, or maybe incredulity. So far I’ve never been called for the latter, but have swung and missed on the former.

I totally agree with Tom that characters need some sort of flaws to remain interesting over the course of a novel, much less through a whole series. Adding flaws to characters is something that’s not all that difficult. The big questions are: How far does one take it? And how far is too far?

I can’t remember the title of the novel, and besides it was written by a friend so I wouldn’t tell you, but I sadly could barely finish the book because the character had flaws that I found completely irritating to the point where I wouldn’t have minded if he’d come to a quick and gruesome end. Not a good thing in the first novel in a projected series.

Way back in the dawn of time here on Type M 2006, I wrote a post about a situation that arose in writing my fourth novel, Cemetery of the Nameless. I was well into the novel (probably around page 70) when I realized I did not like my protagonist one little bit. He was irritating, to be honest. I didn’t set out to make him that way, he sort of took on that mantle all on his own. And no matter how I tried to change him, he kept whining. Not good.
I did consider killing him off early on and then letting someone else take over as the protagonist. That might have even been an interesting writing exercise. Problem was, I only felt comfortable writing in first person at that point, and the difficulties to get my novel out of this mess using this plot device seemed, well, strained and a heck of a lot of work.

I eventually decided to “recycle” a character from my second novel, The Lark Ascending, and even though she tended to be “difficult” too, at least I didn’t find her annoying and her addition to the cast really allowed me to take the story to another level.

The problem is, what if a writer doesn’t recognize that they’ve made the most important character in their story annoying? And worse yet, what if the book’s editor has the same issue?

I suspect this is what happened with my friend’s novel. I do know he would describe his protagonist as “crusty, opinionated and irritable but endearing” and my response was he’s also dead annoying. Needless to say, I didn’t read any more of the series.

I’m sure a lot of us ink-stained wretches spend the dark hours of the night worrying about stuff like this. I know I do.

Monday, August 13, 2018

What's Wrong with You?

The lead character in both Random Road and Darkness Lane, Geneva Chase, has been described as:
  • Dysfunctional, yet remarkably endearing.
  • A likable if flawed heroine readers will want to see more of.
  • Flawed but dedicated heroine
Geneva Chase is tall, blonde, attractive, on the edge of forty, and athletic. However, she’s an alcoholic, she’d been married three times (one less than Hemingway), and when we meet her in Random Road, she’s hooking up with a smarmy married attorney. Genie is a reporter working for her hometown newspaper in Fairfield County, Connecticut. It’s not where she wants to be, but she’s drank herself out of every other good journalism job she’s had. For Genie Chase, there’s nowhere else to go.

She’s kind of a train wreck. But she’s smart and a snarky smart-ass and readers seem to relate to her. Especially the smart-ass part.

Do protagonists need character flaws? I think they do, unless your character is either Superman or Jack Reacher. Both incredibly popular and both perfect.

But I think flaws make characters more believable and relatable. Believable because everyone in real life has character flaws and we can relate to people who make mistakes and sometimes make bad decisions. Not that we’ve ever done anything silly or stupid.

Who are some of my favorite characters and just how flawed are they? One of my favorites is Ian Rankin’s retired Detective Inspector John Rebus. He smokes too much, drinks a bit too much, and his personal life is a mess. Oh, and he’s grumpy and Scottish, let’s not forget about that.

Sherlock Holmes, of course. Annoying, arrogant, insufferable, smokes a pipe, and is a coke addict.Yet the character is an evergreen icon.

How about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch? He’s in a constant state of conflict with authority. But don’t we like that in a person? Harry is always stickin’ it to the man. A good quality unless he works for you!

Let’s give a shout out to the flaws infesting Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, and heavy drinking Rachel Watson in Girl on the Train, and the kick-ass heroine Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  

My personal flaw is I haven’t figured out how to work in the word “Girl” into any of my titles.

Those are literary characters with flaws, but television has long jumped on the bandwagon. Nurse Jackie was a drug addict. Tony Soprano was a homicidal mobster. Walter White cooked meth. Flawed, flawed, flawed, but we rooted for them, wanted them to win somehow, maybe grow and overcome their problems.

A friend of mine called me when she’d finished reading Random Road and told me how much she enjoyed Geneva Chase.  Then she said something that surprised me. She said, “I like her because I know she’ll never really be happy.”

Is that a relatable flaw?

With Geneva, she’s very self-aware. She knows she has a problem. Using the character’s point of view to show they have insight makes flaws more palatable.

Early on a writer can make a character more likable in spite of his/her flaws. Geneva’s life is a mess, but she has a dog that she adores, a terrier named Tucker. Who doesn’t like puppies?

Or if you have a villain? Bad guys are way cool to write. They’re the ones who are going to kick that puppy. Bad guys will be a whole other blog subject.

As your characters are working through the mystery you’ve created for them, their flaws often get in their way, impeding them, creating tension, adding to the crisis. Isn’t that what a novel is all about?

Enough about character flaws.

Time for shameless self-promotion. On September 2nd and 3rd, I’ll be at the Poisoned Pen Mystery Conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona. The guest of honor is Ian Rankin (notice how I mentioned Detective Inspector John Rebus earlier in this blog?). I’ll be on two panels on Monday, September 3rd, along with many other wonderful authors—Sleuths and the Media, and Unconventional Women.  FYI…I’m the only guy on that last panel. That’s going to be interesting.

Then, at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida, I’ll be on a panel on Thursday, September 6th, discussing Journalists in Fiction.

If you’re attending either of these conferences, please look me up. I’d love to meet you!!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Women Killing It! A Crime Writing Festival

By Vicki Delany

A couple of years ago, Janet Kellough (author of the Thaddeus Lewis historical mysteries and the speculative fiction novel The Bathwater Conspiracy) and I were moaning about the sad state of affairs in the Canadian literary festival world: Canadian female crime writers are almost never invited to these things.

Non-Canadian female crime writers seem to be invited. Male Canadian crime writers get invited now and again. But rarely Canadian women.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the general disregard the ‘literary’ world has for crime writing. Most festivals invite a mix of bestsellers as well as local authors, certainly short story writers or poets and the up-and-coming in the ‘library world’. But when and if they invite crime writers for some reason all they seem to want are the international bestsellers. 
And, for whatever reason (yes, I do know of exceptions so please don’t write to me saying, “But what about…” ) those are not often Canadian women.

Being the sort not to just moan about problems, Janet said, “Let’s have our own festival.”
And so we did. Our first attempt was such a success, we’re doing it again.
August 31 – Sept 2 is the 2nd Annual Women Killing It Crime Writers Festival in Prince Edward County Ontario.

We’ve invited eight Canadian female crime writers, of various decrees of fame and notoriety, and one other to be the featured local author.  

We’ve tried for a full variety of both women and writing, and I think we’ve archived a great balance. A dark and gritty police procedural, the lightest of cozies. A writer most prominently known these days for her award-winning short stories, and another who’s made a splash in the world of Young Adult Fiction. A big name author and others less well known. TV producers in Hollywood and a retired teacher in Regina. A historical novel and one set in a future, where things are the same as they are today… but not quite.

Last year’s workshop was so well attended (overly-well attended, as we didn’t like turning people away) we’re having TWO this year. I’ll be leading Page One Chapter One: how to start your novel with impact, on Saturday morning.  The Sunday morning, Gail Bowen will give a workshop on Ready, Set, Write! outlining the pre-writing process you need so that you end up writing the book you want. 

Friday evening meet all nine authors at a table-hopping event, where you can get up close and personal with each of the authors and engage in some fun quizzes and enjoy refreshments.  

Saturday afternoon we’re having a proper afternoon tea and four of the mixed-sub-genre authors will talk about their work or perhaps read a bit.

Then Saturday evening, it’s time for more refreshments and a panel discussion on “The Word In Which We Live” in which the four grittier authors will talk about the setting of their books and how they see their novels fitting into the real world in which we all live.  We’ll be having two auctions during the evening, in which attendees can bid for a chance to see YOUR name immortalized in fiction.

All events are within walking distance of downtown Picton, Ontario.

I hope some of you can join us.  For more details go to:

Each event is $30 and tickets are available at Books and Company in Picton or at

A Darkness of the Heart (A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery)Creep: A B.C. Blues Crime NovelMarinating in Murder (A Dinner Club Mystery)The Bathwater ConspiracyThe Agency: Rivals in the CityThe ShowrunnerA Friend of Mr. NijinskyOperation BabyliftIn Like A Lion

Friday, August 10, 2018

Free Associating

I'm in Philadelphia tonight -- a quick trip and home tomorrow. I realized earlier today that it's my Friday to post. I have nothing in mind. I've had a long day of train travel and driving around the city, and I'm tired. The other part of this is that when the writing is going well switching gears makes me nervous. I'm afraid I'll lose my flow.

So having nothing in mind to write about, I decided to try free associating. The television is on in my hotel room, and I decided to change channels and write about the next word I heard. The next word was "beer."

Now, I don't drink beer -- except my mother always claimed that she and my father taught me to walk by sending me toddling back and forth between them hoping for a sip of beer from the cans they were holding. I've never been sure whether she was joking. Neither of my parents were party animals. But it is true that like most couples of their generation, they did have beer in the house. I just can't imagine that I was so anxious for a sip that I would allow myself to be manipulated like that. If they had ever given me a sip, I would probably have had something to say about the bitter taste of the stuff.

I do like the Budweiser Clydesdales. I watch the Super Bowl every year for the continuing saga of the trainer and the horses and the dog next door owned by the woman who meets the man. . .

The only beer I've ever tasted and liked was a beer I had in Toronto years ago when I was visiting a friend I had met in Spain. Or maybe it was a lager. Or ale. I don't quite know the difference. But it was rich and full and not bitter. I've never been able to have whatever it was again since I lost track of the friend who might have told me what I had.

That reminds me of losing track of people. I was telling another friend about another family story -- a relative that my mother lost track of and always wondered about. I need to write a short story for an anthology and I'm wondering if I can use that. Maybe I'll have someone walk into a bar or tavern and order a beer. . .

I'm not sure what will happen after that. Maybe the missing relative worked in the bar . . .

Enough free associating. I'm going to write this down and think about it for a bit. So this exercise did serve some purpose after all. I have occasionally tried this when I was stuck for an idea while in the midst of a book. But it never worked this well before.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

My Ideal Day, Redux

Chopper view of last week's haboob about to devour my house

Back in 2013, I wrote an entry for this blog called "My Ideal Day", in which I described said ideal day. It went like this:

"I wake at 5:30, refreshed and energetic after a restful night's sleep, full of good dreams. I go out on the back porch, where I sit among the trees and flowers and watch the sun rise, my mind empty. As soon as the sun is well up, I take a brisk nature walk among the junipers. I have a nice breakfast of coffee, croissants, and jam while reading the paper (fortunately the news is all good today) and dashing off the crossword.

After my leisurely breakfast, I sit down at the computer and write. The words cascade onto the page, each one a gem. In three hours I have ten pages of pure gold that will require very little editing. My husband and I head out for our favorite bistro where we have a light lunch, after which we stroll over to the independent bookstore and spend an hour or so browsing. We make a quick stop at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and pick up a few fresh items for supper.

When we get home, I'm bursting with ideas again, so I head back into den and write for another couple of hours. It's hard for me to stop when suppertime rolls around, but my husband has whipped up quite a gourmet feast for us I quit writing in the middle of a sentence so I can take up right where I left off tomorrow. Don and I laugh and chat through supper, then after cleaning up, we sit together on the couch and watch a '40s noir movie. I take a shower, then read in bed for a while until I fall into a restful sleep, looking forward to tomorrow."

TODAY, in 2018, I woke up thinking about that entry. My days have not been ideal lately. They've just been actual, life-living days with a lot of strange occurrences and goings on. But, my, have the fates been giving me material to write about. To refresh your memory, Dear Reader, last time we met I told you about my husband's accident. He took a header into the kitchen wall and broke his upper arm in two places. This happened after he had to have emergency eye surgery, which messed with his depth perception. This happened a mere few days before I was supposed to fly to Oklahoma to do a couple of library events that had been in the works for months. Cancelled. So the past two weeks have consisted of doctors' appointments and nursing duties, and unexpected time to work on my manuscript. Don's hanging in there, thanks for asking. Kind of. His right arm is in a sling so he can't write or drive or dress himself.The splint is heavy and he can't sleep well, he's still a bit unsteady on his pins from the eye surgery, so he's very careful about how he moves. I told somebody he walks sort of like Tim Conway's little old man. He's seeing the orthopedist again this Friday and we hope he can get a smaller cast. We're managing all right, but we've had a lot of practice.

It's summer in southern Arizona, too, so it's hot, hot, hot. It was 114º F (45.5 C) yesterday, but not so bad today at 105º F. (40.5 C). At least we're used to it. July and August are our stormy months, and we've been enjoying spectacular dust storms. We had one last week that was the worst I've every experienced, and I've seen some doozies. Fortunately we had just gotten home from a trip to the store when it blew in. One minute it was clear and the next minute you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. We're cautioned to pull off the road when one of those blows in, because you could plow into somebody in a minute. And good luck if you have asthma.

Still, things could always be worse. I'm not getting as much writing done as I hoped, but I am getting it done.

I understand that Mercury is retrograde until August 18, which means stuff goes sideways for a while. I can't say I'm a big believer in astrology, but I'll happily blame it all on Mercury.