Friday, April 29, 2016

Country mouse/City mouse

I grew up in the very tiny town of Lone Elm Kansas. In a real sense, Anderson County will always be "home" to me. All of my family and my husband's family lived there and are now buried there.

In the Lottie Albright series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, the protagonists are twin sisters. Lottie is an historian who moved to Western Kansas when she married. Her sister Josie stayed in Eastern Kansas where they both were born. Writing about the two halves of the state has been a great way to play up the tension between the twins. Josie thinks Lottie is crazy for ever moving there. Lottie despairs of Josie's insensitivity to the grandeur of the prairie.

In fact the two halves of Kansas are like two different planets. The historic animosity of these two entities affects plotting in the series. I have lived in both places long enough to be acutely aware of the differences. Someone asked me once how this came about.

Militarily, Eastern Kansas is associated with the Civil War and Western Kansas with the Indian Wars. Eastern Kansas was settled much earlier. Western Kansas was labeled part of the Great American Desert and said to be virtually uninhabitable. It seemed to Eastern Kansans (the city cousins) that Western Kansans (the country bumpkins) were always looking for a hand-out.

In Western Kansas crops failed. Grasshoppers ate everything in sight. There were prairie fires and tornadoes and blizzards and Indian raids. Then by some miracle fortunes shifted. Western Kansas became the breadbasket of the world. Settlers struck oil. They discovered vast fields of natural gas.

Mining developed in Southeast Kansas and there was lively trade and shipping along the Missouri River. Population centers grew and suddenly the city cousins wanted part of their country cousins' tax revenue to finance their schools.

It's fun to watch the Albright twins argue about "their" place in the state as well as their roles in murder investigations. When a book stalls, try researching the history of your state or region. The information might jump-start your plot.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fresh Ideas

I have an idea.

Really, you say. A writer with an idea. Is that newsworthy?

Probably not. But it feels like a big deal to me. You see, I've spent ten years with the same protagonist, written perhaps 3,000 pages to get three published novels. And for the past three years, I've had . . . not exactly a conceptualized idea, but a voice kicking around in my head. And a voice is a character knocking on the front door, waiting to be let in. Last week, I opened the door, and he walked in, bringing a whole cast of characters and problems with him.

So I sat down and wrote a description of the setting, the cast, and a synopsis (something you might find on the dust jacket). The synopsis concludes with these three sentences: Money, power, and political swag go a long way in explaining a hidden truth. And some secrets are never meant to be told. Unbeknownst to Bo and Ellie, this one threatens not only them but their daughters as well.

And that's where I began. I sat down and started writing. What's the secret Ellie and Bo will learn? I have no idea. Not yet. Looking forward to finding out. I'm not working from an outline, just a 730-word, wide-open description. And something fun has happened: I having a blast writing this book. The voice keeps talking, the story is unfolding, and the book is taking off.

It's a rush. And that rush is why I do it. It's why I get up at 4 and write until 6 a.m. most days. Not for a contract. Not for a royalty check. And never for reviews.

Where will the novel go? No idea. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Musings on American English

Sybil here. As you read this, I’m on my way to the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, MD. I’m also finishing up Book 3 in my Aurora Anderson Mystery series. To say I’m stressed would be an understatement.

When I’m stressed out, I get annoyed at little things and get a bit nit picky about how people speak or write English. Don’t worry, I don’t actually correct people. Okay, I might talk to the TV screen, but they can’t hear me so...

I’ve taken enough linguistic classes to know a language is a living thing, in a constant take of flux. Words get added, deleted, change meanings all the time. I get that. I also get that grammar changes over time. What was once considered unacceptable and bad grammar becomes the norm.

I’m not a grammar snob. My own isn’t ‘correct’ all the time, but some things annoy me or, at least, bring me up short. Here’s my current list:

How do you pronounce ‘primer’?
Pronunciation of this word is one of my hot buttons. In American English it's pronounced two different ways, depending on its meaning. Go ahead, consult your American English dictionary if you don’t believe me. You back? If we’re talking about a book, it’s pronounced with a short ‘i’ like “primmer”. If we’re talking paint, it’s pronounced with a long ‘i’. I don’t know how many times I’ve been literally laughed at for pronouncing this word correctly. My gut response is: “Read the dictionary, people!”, but I usually just say that’s what the dictionary says. One of my AE dictionaries did note that in British English, the book is pronounced the same as the paint. I'd be interested to know if this is true. So, you speakers of British English, let me know.

Waiting/standing on line v. in line
This preposition difference between coasts only came to my attention in the last few years. I’ve lived on the West coast my entire life. We stand or wait ‘in line’ here. On the East coast, though, ‘on line’ seems to be preferred. You East Coasters can stand or wait on line all you want. I’ll stick with ‘in line.’ But when a character in a book that we’re told has lived on the West coast their entire life stands “on line”, I sit up and take notice. It bothers me, okay. Brings me right out of the story. I read a book once where that happened and it bothered me for pages. Okay, it’s still bothering me years later. Stupid, I know, but that’s the way it is.

pled v. pleaded 
Okay, this one I know is not incorrect. I was just taught that the proper past tense of ‘to plead’ is pled. Both are listed in my American English dictionaries, though pled seems to have pretty much gone out of every day use. All of the news articles on crime that I read use the form ‘pleaded’. Still jars me, though. Yep, I’m old.

‘she’ used as a generic pronoun
English needs a generic 3rd person pronoun. It really does. Neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ seems to work well. I was taught ‘he’ is the proper generic to use in English so that’s what I use. Now, I grew up in the 60s and 70s. I remember when single women couldn’t get mortgages without a man to cosign a loan. I understand the issue. I didn’t change my name when I got married, my own little womens’ rights protest, something quite unusual at the time. Years and years ago, I started seeing ‘she’ used in this context all over the place. Makes me pause every time. I know this is my problem. I’m okay with that. Just don’t tell me I’m wrong when I use ‘he’ as my generic.

than + preposition
This one I think I’m going to have to let go. It’s become too ingrained in current American English. Still, it grates on my nerves to hear someone say “he’s taller than me.” I was taught the correct preposition in this case is ‘I’ and here’s how you know: extend the sentence to use the proper form of the verb ‘to be’, e.g. He’s taller than I am. You can cut off the verb or leave it in. I tend to leave it in, because I admit it sounds a little odd otherwise. I did catch myself saying ‘taller than me’ the other day, though. Guess it really is time to ignore this one.

I’ve shown you my list of nitpicks. What things annoy you or at least cause you to pause?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

More rumours & a shout out to the Bony Blithe!

by Rick Blechta

Vicki Delany’s post yesterday made some very good points that need to be heard by those just starting out in the writing game or those contemplating a writing career.

Like any of the creative arts, publishing has more than it’s fair share of sharks and fast operators. It’s always best to look first, then ask a ton of questions, and if something doesn’t seem right or it appears to be too good to be true, rest assured that you are at risk of being taken.

Vicki’s post dealt with rumours about self-publishing, and I believe she correctly surmises that the rumours were started by those who have money to make out of this: vanity presses.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a vanity press. If you desire to publish (and print) your own works, more power to you. It’s just that the vanity press business model is all about selling dreams, and they know darn well that the likelihood of all those dreams of wild author success coming true happen in the neighbourhood of once every ten or fifteen years.

Then there are agents. Take it from me, if an agent asks you for a reading fee, he or she is not a real agent. If after reading your magnum opus, they recommend a great editor they work with, then be very suspicious.

And if anyone asks you to do something for free (especially if they’ll be making money on your efforts) because doing so “will be terrific exposure”, just tell them this: “People can die from exposure, you know.”

Sorry. Gotta run. Bills have to be paid, and well, I’m doing this blog because it’s, um, good exposure...


As for the shout out:

The Bloody Words Light Mystery Award (aka the Bony Blithe Award) Shortlist was announced on April 14th  – and our very own Eva Gates (aka Vicki Delany) is on the list! So are four other people, but I’ll give you the press release for the rest of the information!

Murder Is Nothing to Have Fun With...Or Is It?
Bloody Words Light Mystery Award Announces Finalists

(Toronto, ON) April 14, 2016 – The Bloody Words Light Mystery Award (aka the Bony Blithe Award), an annual Canadian award that celebrates traditional, feel-good mysteries is pleased to announce this year’s finalists. Now in its fifth year, the award is for a “mystery book that makes us smile” and includes everything from laugh-out-loud to gentle humour to good old-fashioned stories with little violence or gore.

Congratulations to the five finalists for the 2016 award:

Victoria Abbott, The Marsh Madness (Berkley Prime Crime)
Elizabeth J. Duncan, Untimely Death (Crooked Lane Books)
Eva Gates, Booked for Trouble (NAL)
Victoria Hamilton, White Colander Crime (Berkley Prime Crime)
Alexis Koetting, Encore (Five Star)

Help us celebrate Bony Blithe’s fifth birthday at the 2016 Bony Blithe Gala, an afternoon and evening of mirthful mayhem!

The award will be presented at the Bony Blithe Gala on Friday, May 27, at the High Park Club, 100 Indian Road, Toronto. The festivities start at 2:00 p.m. with panels and afternoon nibblies, culminating with the award banquet where the monarch of merry murder will be crowned. For more information or to buy a ticket for the gala, contact us at or visit

The winner will receive a cheque for $1,000 plus a colourful plaque.

Thank you to all the publishers and authors who submitted their books for this year’s contest. May there be many smiles in your future.

Facebook: Bony Blithe Light Mystery Award
Twitter: @bonyblithe

Monday, April 25, 2016

Rumour Has It

by Vicki Delany

I’ve started hearing this a lot. I heard it again just yesterday.

Beginning writers are being told that major, traditional publishers are now only interested in publishing authors who have self-published their first book. Something like, “to prove they can write a book” or “to show that they’re serious about writing.”

I suspect this rumor is being circulated by the sort of vanity presses or self-publishing companies that are, shall we say, less than honest about their business dealings.

Because it simply isn’t true.

I was at a book signing about a year ago, and a woman came up to me and started telling me all about this article she’d read in the paper about some self-published author who’d gotten a major book contract. What did I think about that? I said that the reason it was in the newspaper was because it was so unusual.

They’ve all heard about Fifty Shades of Gray, or similar books that were self-published and only then did the author get a big contract. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with having something to attempt to emulate.

But these cases are extremely rare.

Unless the book really does break through big-time, a traditional publisher isn’t the least bit interested. For one thing, the author has destroyed their marketability as a first time author. First books get reviewed more often, and they are eligible for major awards in the first novel category. The competition is a heck of a lot more intense for second and later books.

Most of all, publishing is a numbers game. Publishers look at an author’s sales numbers when wondering whether or not to take on an author with at least one book published. Good sales = chance of a contract.  Anything less = pretty much out of luck. The publisher you were with, the distribution they had means nothing. They are only looking at the number.

Without excellent bookstore distribution (for print books) or a big promotional effort for e-books, an astronomical amount of luck, or tens of thousands of dollars to promote the book, most self-published books, particularly a first novel, can’t make the grade.

Agents and publishers have enormous slush-piles: stacks of manuscripts that are sent to them in the hopes of being picked up. The last thing they are going to do is wade through all the self-published books out there looking for next big thing.

There's nothing wrong with self-publishing, and I knew some people who are happy with their decision to take that path. But please, do your homework first. You wouldn’t embark on a career in medicine without knowing the pitfalls and the down side. So don’t do it with your writing career either.

Oh, and one more thing. Perhaps the LAST THING you want to do with your first book is “just get it out there”. I’ve heard that too. You have exactly one chance in your life to publish a first book. Are you prepared to do the work it takes to make the book the best it can be and to give it the best chance it has of being read? 

Or do you want to just “get it out there”?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Writing in the Present and the Past

Rick's post on Tuesday about the digital age and new technology struck a chord with me. I agree that as writers of crime fiction, we end up looking fairly stupid -- or making our characters look that way -- if we don't know about and make use of current technology in our books. I have tried a twist in my two Hannah McCabe books. They are set in the near-future, but in an Albany, New York that exists in an alternate universe. The characters communicate with an all-purpose device called an ORB. I've incorporated some other real-life technology already available but not yet widely used.

On the other hand, my Lizzie Stuart series is set in the recent past. The challenge there is to remind readers that Lizzie is in 2004 right now. Only problem, my memory of early 2000 is becoming a bit blurry. I haven't written a book in the series in several years. When I return to it with the next book, I'm going to have to do some research -- read some newspapers, look at some ads, get back into the technology of 12 years ago.

I thought it would be easier to write a historical thriller set in 1939. Even with the future looming and on display at the World's Fair, no one was able to pick up a smartphone and find information.  But I do need to know what  technology was available. That's a fairly easy question to answer regarding the FBI and large city police departments. But I must dig deeper to know how readily a small town police chief in Georgia would have been able to obtain information about a suspect or verify someone's identity.

And there are other questions I need to answer about 1939. Recently, I came across a collection of letters online. Letters to a young woman who was in her first year of college. Most are from her mother, with an occasional letter from her father, a minister. The letters are fascinating because the parents are keeping their daughter informed about what is happening at home. What has struck me is how often someone is ill that winter. The mother has a toe that has become infected and she is at home with her foot up in the early letters, waiting for the toe to drain and the hole to close over. She later comes down with a horrible cold, as do several other people she mentions. One of those people is a radio personality. A family in the town suffers a double tragedy when a young man attending the funeral of his sister, fails to dress properly for the wet, chilly weather, catches pneumonia, and dies soon after. All of this illness has reminded me that I need to know more about the state of medicine in the 1930s. I had this on my radar as a concern for the people struggling to survive the Great Depression, but even in this middle-class, well-educated family and among their neighbors, the danger of an early demise seems to loom over their heads. So research on the state of medicine in the 1930s is in order.

But right now, I am waiting to receive my new computer. I have turned over my old equipment to my computer guy and he is transferring everything over. I'm going to keep my outdated desk top to use for writing when I don't want to be distracted. The new laptop will have all of the most recent bells and whistles, including touch screen. It should be interesting to see how long it takes me to adapt

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cover Stories

Since All Men Fear Me came out, people are always asking me about the man on the cover, but since the publisher chose the cover and I had no more to do with it than to say, "I like it", I could never tell them who he is, only that he is a perfect depiction of the villain in the book. However, thanks to a curious reader who actually queried my publisher about the cover photo*, I now know who the man is!

Here's what the cover artist revealed: "I acquired the actual photo (not a scan or reproduction) from a collector. It is an original 1900s mug shot one of about a dozen that I purchased. The collection is quite intriguing; each mug shot has a frontal face photo, a profile photo and on the back is the name of the arrested and a hand-written description of their crime! Although there were some murderers in the collection of mug shots, this man was arrested for being a 'disorderly person'. His alias was 'Jack the Hugger' and he was arrested in Jersey City, NJ in 1903."

Now there's a story. I imagine old Jack was just a bubble off plumb, and was arrested for walking around Jersey City giving random hugs to people whether they liked it or not. The saga of the man in the photo has caused me to ponder the history of the covers on my novels. When my first book came out in 2005, Amazon and the ebook were not the juggernauts they are today. Just in the past few years, cover artists have to take into consideration that most people will first see the book cover as a thumbnail online.

I was told that a book cover is like a movie poster. The whole point is to intrigue the potential reader. For my early novels in the Alafair Tucker series, the production supervisor asked me to send family photos for the cover artist to work with. So I provided the photo on novels one through four, which have rather busy covers and look a bit cut-and-paste to me.

By 2011, when the fifth novel, Crying Blood, came out, the internet was the thing, and nobody asked me to provide anything. The only input I had was when they sent me the mock-up and said, "here it is. Hope you like it." The cover artist had created a simple, colorful cover that looks good online or on a physical book. When All Men came out late last year, the cover was down to its bare essentials. The book is looking right at you. "Buy me," it says, "or you'll be sorry."

One of my favorites, the tornado book, 2014


*Here is what the curious reader said to the publisher: "he must have been a murderer! His face was so creepy that I had to turn the book face down on the coffee table when I wasn't reading it!" She then called back a little while later to clarify that she did not mean to insult the cover--in fact, quite the opposite; she thought it caught the spirit of the villain and the book perfectly!