Monday, June 25, 2018

The External Subconscious

I have just come back, very reluctantly, from our French holiday.  Yes I know, kicking and screaming and lying on the quay sobbing isn't dignified, but - well, you know how it is.  It doesn't seem right to stop doing something that is so obviously exactly what you were born to do - sitting in sunny shade, reading, a cool glass of something just to hand...

I read a lot of good books. I like ones that are a bit off the beaten track, one of which was Why Are We Conscious? by Dr David Jones. He was a maverick scientist, a professor at Newcastle University.
He wrote a column for the New Scientist and later for Nature under the name of Daedalus and the columns were later published as a book, A Compendium of Implausible Science - wacky ideas about inventions that were plausible scientifically but that were just plain crazy. (He got a surprising number of people writing in to ask if they were copyrighted or if they could produce them commercially.)  But he was also the person who explained the presence of arsenic in the body of Napoleon, which had always raised suspicion that the British had poisoned him, by establishing that the green wallpaper in his St Helena bedroom took its colour from arsenic dye and exuded toxic fumes.  He designed a chemical garden for a NASA space trip and he designed a 'perpetual motion' wheel whose mechanism completely flummoxed MIT scientists and which is still, a year after his death, steadily turning round.

The book I read, published just before he died, is about the nature of consciousness, or perhaps even more the nature of the subconscious.  He postulates a sort of unknown world outside our conscious mind to which our subconscious has access, explaining effects like telepathy.  What he describes as the 'chattering monkey' of our conscious mind blocks our awareness of it.

It's a lot more complicated and scientific than that and there's a lot of the book I don't understand.  There's a lot I don't believe too - David was the brother of a close friend  and I knew his mischievous fondness for flying a kite just to provoke a reaction.  But as a writer, some of it spoke to me.

Do you sometimes reread one of your books and think, 'Now where on earth did that come from?'  Do you sometimes find yourself writing faster and faster to get down thoughts that you're not really controlling, they're just coming through?  That for me is the addictive part of writing.

When we choose a gite for our holidays it's very important that there is a view - not something spectacular, necessarily, just one where we can look out to hills and trees, particularly in the evening when after a hot day the earth seems to breathe a sigh of relief and the only sound is birds sleepily muttering as they go to roost.  As I look out to the horizon I can feel a sort of disengagement from my 'chattering monkey' mind and yes, it's when ideas start to come.

An external subconscious?  Who knows.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Tale of Two Books...with a bonus

July 10 is the laydown date, to use a vintage publishing term, for the release of Blood and Gasoline, the latest anthology from Hex Publishers and which I edited. John Hartness wrote the foreword and I lifted this to use as the cover blurb: Mad Max meets Sons of Anarchy. It's a collection of desperate characters cornered in desperate situations--my kind of stories. I won't say which were my favorite because I can't; they all kick ass! Some contributors hit the theme of the anthology square--High-Octane, High-Velocity Action!--while others approached the premise in a more round-about way. I guess the difference is between getting blasted with a shotgun versus getting shivved in the neck. In any event, the stories won't disappoint. If you're in the Denver area, the book launch is July 10, 7PM, Tattered Cover Colfax.

The second book is one that a friend turned me onto, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. This is a study of human sociological evolution in which he starts with the prehistoric origins of humans, moving to how we "homo sapiens" became the dominant of the human species, and then how we progressed through what he defines as the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions. His discourse into the Cognitive period was the most illuminating as he explained why we need to cook food, for example, and more to the point of this blog, that we needed to invent stories and myths to bind together as societies. However, the second half of the book drags and he keeps repeating himself. The narrative, sadly, betrays his leftist slant, and he frequently uses the US and Christianity as the bad examples, shying away from similar criticism of his home state of Israel, the European Union, Judaism, Islam, or any other of the SJW sacred cows. In his Q&A, he again chastises the US, this time for our reaction to 9/11, calling terrorism the equivalent to a fly in a china shop. As if the cold-blooded murder of almost 3000 people in a single day was simply the action of a fly. Harari is enamored with technology and gushes on how science can cure our ills while never mentioning how it can overcome poverty and crime. Show me the nanobots and other futuristic gizmos that will eliminate murder, avarice, lust, envy, sloth, mendacity, and greed. I'll bet good money that in Harari's fanciful tomorrow, people will still be as rotten as they've always been. Which is good for us crime writers.

For your summer listening recreation, here's my audio short story about opioid addiction, robbery, a vampire, and murder on Short Tale Broadcasts, Takers Find Givers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Yanny v. Laurel

I’ve finished reviewing the ARC proofs of Designed For Haunting and I’ve started on Ghosts of Painting Past. My life right now consists of that plus figuring out promotional events for when Designed launches October 9th. And, honestly, I’m a bit tired of it all. So I’ve decided to think about something else.

Do you all remember the gold vs. blue dress controversy awhile back? Here’s the photo that went viral and caused all sorts of discussion over what color the dress really is.

I, myself, see gold and white in this particular picture. I know some people who swear it’s blue and black. You wouldn’t think a picture would be so controversial, would you? How can that happen? you ask. Here’s an article on the science behind it all and why some people see one thing and some another.

According to it, my brain was confused and working overtime. Since my brain usually feels like it’s working overtime, I’m not all that surprised

The latest in these things appears to be the Yanny vs. Laurel audio clip that’s been going around. Listen and see what you hear:

So, which is it for you? I clearly hear Laurel and, when I was watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show, that seems to have been what the majority of audience members heard also.

Here’s an explanation of that one from CNN:

Another explanation I read said that what you hear depends on your age. Someone processed the audio recording so you could hear both Yanny and Laurel.

None of this really matters, of course, unless you think about how witnesses to crimes can say they saw or heard very different things. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Profound disappointment at the finish line

by Rick Blechta

Everyone likes being told a good story. They provide so much enjoyment and make the outside world melt away. If the tale really resonates with you, you might find it still in your thoughts for years. It could even have the power to change your life.

For me, it’s money well spent to buy such a book, but you don’t even have to do that if you’re a library user or if someone loans it to you. Or maybe it’s a TV show or movie. In this day and age it’s easy to just turn on one’s computer and stream it. Let’s face it, the only investment you actually need to make is your own time.

Put like everything else in existence, there’s a flip side to this coin. You run the risk of getting to the end of what you think has been a great story and the book, play, TV show has a less than satisfactory ending? For me, my immediate thought is I’ve invested all these hours for what? This ending is crap!

I spent about ten hours over the past week watching a series called The Alienist on Netflix . I was initially attracted to it because it takes place in 1896 in New York City, and I’ve always been interested in that location during that time period.

And for ten episodes, I wasn’t let down. The production had a uniformly good cast and the location shots were fabulous. (Who knew Budapest looks so much like NYC in 1896?) and the plot was pretty good. Of course a serial killer is on the loose and it’s up to the alienist (a precursor of the modern psychiatrist) to sort it all out. Everything was moving along tickety-boo until the climax. The thud as the series stumbled and fell at the finish line was nearly audible. I don’t remember ever being so let down by a story. Seriously.

I was all set this week to talk about this show and suggest that anyone interested in period crime fiction should watch it. But that has to change to, “Don’t bother wasting your time.”

Okay, folks, question time: What book/movie/TV show has provided the biggest let-down ending for you?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Searching for Inspiration

By Vicki Delany

THE SPOOK IN THE STACKS, published on June 12 by Crooked Lane Books, is my 30th published book.  Wow! Seems like a lot.  It is a lot.

What thirty novels means, is that I’m running out of ‘ideas’.  Ah, yes, the proverbial ‘idea’.  At the beginning of my writing career I had SOMETHING TO SAY. My standalones (Burden of Memory, Scare the Light Away) discussed, in broad terms, the changing role of women and effect of events of the past on the present. The first Constable Molly Smith book (In the Shadow of the Glacier) was about forgetting the past, and asks if that is ever desirable or even possible.  The eighth Molly Smith book, Unreasonable Doubt, was about a man who’d spent twenty-five years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and asked how could that happen.

It’s not so much that I don’t have anything to say any more, but maybe that I don’t want to write about it.  So now I write cozy mysteries, which really don’t have anything much to do with the larger pictures of redemption, justice, revenge, etc etc, although they do have a lot to say about character and friendship.

Which means I am sometimes in search of inspiration. One of the ways I’ve found it is in the world of classic novels.

Case in point: My lighthouse library series, of which The Spook in the Stacks is the latest. One of the premises of that series is that the book the classic novel reading club is reading is reflected in the plot of my book.  In Reading Up A Storm, they’re reading Kidnaped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  

Reading up A Storm opens with a shipwreck during a storm, and ends with an idea to capture the bad guy taken directly from Kidnapped.  The Spook in the Stacks is set over Halloween, but because this is a light, funny mystery I didn’t want to use a true horror novel. So I hit on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving. (Warning for those wanting to read along: Bracebridge is long, and very dull.) Two men vie for the affections of the rich man’s (grand)daughter. An idea straight out of Sleepy Hollow.

In the fifth book, Something Read Something Dead (coming in March 2019), cousin Josie is planning her wedding and the club is reading The Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers.

Once I had the idea, or the inspiration, I made it my own. My books are not an attempt to recreate these classic works, but maybe just to pay homage to them.

As well as giving me ideas, they’ve made me re-read some of the world’s great books.  And that’s always an inspiration.

What's your favourite classic novel? Maybe I can use it in the Lighthouse Library series one day.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Setting and Social Issues

Yesterday in her post, Donis wrote, "Setting is important to characterization." I've been thinking about that because of a brief conversation that I had with a colleague a couple of days ago. She was talking with a group of other people and as she saw me walking by, she paused to tell me she had finished reading all five of my Lizzie Stuart novels and the two Hannah McCabe novels set in Albany. I was pleased when she said she'd enjoyed all the books -- and surprised when she said the fifth book in the Lizzie Stuart's series, Forty Acres in a Soggy Grave, had been her favorite.

If I had been asked, I would have suspected that the fourth book, You Should Have Died on Monday, would be the one most readers liked best. That book had an interesting cover, introduced Lizzie's mother, the femme fatale, moved from Chicago to New Orleans. That book got great reviews. The fifth book came out with little fanfare. I was worried that I might have offended folks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In the book, I'd use the real name of the location because it would have been obvious and because it was crucial to the book -- a barrier island, wildlife, farms, migrant labor, agribusiness, pollution, land-use issues.

I knew after my first visit that I wanted to set a book there. I loved Eastern Shore. I went back again as I was writing and spent another week at a bed and breakfast to make sure I was highlighting what made the peninsula unique. But the plot of my mystery was inspired by a  newspaper headline that I'd discovered from 2004, the year (in the recent past of my series) that the book was set. Starting there was probably not the best way to highlight the beauty of the setting.

In retrospect, after the book was published, I feared that I had gone too dark. Yesterday, I flipped through the book again, reading the last few chapters. I'll need to read it all in a couple of months when my editor at Speaking Volumes prepares the manuscript for the reissue. But I was curious about whether I had short-changed this literary child of mine. I think I did. It received fewer Amazon reviews than the other books in the series, but the reviewers generally liked the book. What they liked was the characterizations and the relationships.

This time around, I'm going to send Forty Acres out into the world with a hug and pave its way. I couldn't have written any other story. Setting and characters came together, and the clash was disconcerting, but important to the series. The ending was satisfying for me, and for the readers who understood it was the completion of a series arc that had begun four books earlier. Now, as I move on to the next book, the characters are in a different place in their lives.

Next stop, Santa Fe -- and that setting, too, is crucial.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Places We'll Write About


Or here?

I've been thinking about surroundings lately.  My own private space says a lot about me, and it's made me consider how important it is, therefore, to describe a character's environment a novel. You can learn a lot about him from the setting in which he is placed.

You know how it is when you buy a red Toyota, thinking you're all unique, and then every other car you see on the drive home is a red Toyota?  It's the same with what you think are original observations. Rhys Bowen said that when she begins a novel, she often doesn’t know the complete cast of characters, who’s going to get killed or how, or who did the deed, but she knows where the story will unfold.

The very night before I heard Rhys say this, I was reading  P.D. James’ book on writing entitled Talking About Detective Fiction, and came across this :  “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character."    She then describes a moment when she was standing on a deserted beach in East Anglia.  She could imagine standing in the same place hundreds of years ago, until she turned around and saw a nuclear power plant, and “immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”

Ms. James also observes that : "When an author describes a room in the victim's house, perhaps the one in which the body is found,, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victims character and interests.

Setting is important to characterization.  Even if the murder unfolds the same way in two novels you'll have two very different mysteries if the victim is killed in a beach house in Thailand or in a prep school auditorium; if the suspects live on deep in the moors, or in Manhattan across from Central Park; if the detective lives in a fifth-floor walk-up on the south side of Chicago or in a mansion in Beverly Hills.

If Miss Wonderly had walked into Spade and Archer Detective Agency on the first floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, The Maltese Falcon just wouldn't have been the same.