Friday, March 27, 2015

Until Death Do Us Part

This is going to be a short post because today is a busy one.

Whenever Chicago The Musical, is touring in the Albany area, I always have too much going on to attend a performance. But I was thinking of the musical and the story behind it a few days ago. I showed the students in my crime and mass media class a clip from the movie. As many of you know, the 1926 play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, inspired by two high-profile murder cases in which women accused
of murder of a lover of husband had been acquitted. She wrote the play as a satire on crime and celebrity while attending Yale Drama School.

I always think of Watkins' play in conjunction with Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles" (1916) about the murder of John Hossack. Glaspell adapted the play as a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917).

Glaspell was a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News when she covered the trial of Margaret Hossack. Hossack was accused of killing her husband, a wealthy farmer, with an axe while he slept. Hossack was first convicted and sentenced to prison. But she was freed after a second trial resulted in a hung jury. No one was ever convicted of the crime, but the case affected Glaspell deeply. If Watkins's play is about a garish, brightly-lit world, Glaspell's is about the isolation of Midwestern farm life. I'd be interested in hearing what you think of her story.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Seasons of an Artists Life, or Been There, Done That

As he was ringing us up, the very good looking, very young and studly clerk asked us, "So, are you celebrating tonight? Going to a party? Having some green beer?" It was St. Patrick's Day and my husband Don and I were standing at the check-out counter at Trader Joe's.

"No," I said. "Been there, done that."

"Don't worry," he told us, "I'll take up where you left off."

I thought of this when I read Rick's entry on this blog yesterday. He noted that he no longer has the same energy he had in his youth, and though still creative and infinitely more experienced, one's "fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did."

I know what you mean, Rick. When I was a kid, I started writing stories as a distraction from family trauma. I created worlds and escaped into them. I remember with fond nostalgia the days I would write for hours on end, lost in my stories, feeling an actual love for my characters as though they were my real friends or family or lovers. (Sometimes I loved my characters more than certain friends or family or lovers.) I have a much more business-like relationship with my fiction these days. I don't have the passion I once had. Just more skill.

Well, to everything there is a season, so the Bible says. The body and the brain sputter and fade out eventually. Of course, I never really thought that talent or genius originates in the brain, anyway. Years ago it occurred to me like a flash of lightning that your brain is just like a radio transmitter that picks up inspiration from the Big Mysterious Place and allows you to transform that inspiration into action in the physical world. It's just that as your receptors fray you have a little more trouble picking up the signal.
In other news, I am so close to finishing this new book. Every day for the past two weeks, I've gotten out of bed and thought, "Today's the day!" Thus far it hasn't been.

I had a rather painful writing day today. I sat in front of my computer and did my duty with gritted teeth. I typed a lot of words, most of which I’ll either have to take out later or move to a different scene. But I did it, by damn, and I’m hoping I dug out a lot of slag that has a piece or two of gold in it that I can use later.

I never know why one day is better than another when it comes to writing. Each book seems to be a whole new order of creation for me, and demands its own unique method of coming into being. I’ve been known to outline before I begin when I think that would help me clarify the direction of the plot in my own mind. I have also simply started writing, usually at the beginning, but I’ve started in the middle and the end, as well. More than once I’ve begun a novel on the fly, and then gone back and created an outline because I’ve gotten myself into a muddle and can’t quite figure the way out.he middle of a novel, there may come a moment when you wonder if you're ever going to be able to get it done. You know where you want to end up, but you're not entirely sure how you're going to get there. Sometimes I feel frightened, and wonder if I still have it in me. Will I find my way out of this maze, and do it in such a way that I bring the reader along with me?

It’s not like this has never happened to me before, and I must remember that miraculously it always works out. As I write the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the story, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line. I try not to waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness. I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just have to keep going until the book is done. I love writing, but I hate the pressure of trying to get the manuscript done by a deadline. Sometimes I ask myself, do I have to do this? Really, would the world fall apart if I turned it in a couple of weeks late?

Would it?*
*I'll never know. I'm too neurotic not to do whatever it takes to get the thing done in time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is really special creativity only the provenance of youth?

I was away last week and totally oblivious to what day it happened to be, hence one of my rare non-appearances on Type M. My apologies for that. Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing when that happens, but, well, it happens. The world continued to turn. Life as we know it didn’t suffer. And I’m back again this week.

While away, I began reading an account of something that’s always interested me intensely: the soul music of the 1960s that came out of Memphis, Tennessee on the Stax Record label. Yeah, it’s an arcane subject, and most of you reading this have no idea what I am referring to, but that’s okay. It’s not what this weeks post is truly about. It just provides the jumping off point. If you are interested, the book is called Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman.

Stax Records was an anomaly in its time. First and foremost, it was integrated. Its studio musicians, the ones who cranked out all those classic soul tunes by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, etc. got their jobs because of their musicianship. Skin colour didn’t enter into it and that was very rare, especially in the South. This was during a time when the racial turmoil that griped the US was at its height. Once through the doors of Stax, racial differences didn’t matter. Musicianship did.

What amazes me, though, is the incredible musical creativity that existed when those band members got together. Day after day, they crafted astonishing arrangements and recorded literally hundreds of songs. With no written out musical arrangements, just feeling their way through until they were satisfied, this group of young men (mostly) cranked out more era-defining music than nearly anyone else. They’d just cut one song and move on to the next one. Their output is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, it all had a definite “Stax sound”, but the songs never sounded as if they’d come out of a cookie cutter. Each one was its own entity and in the amount that was produced, it’s truly astonishing. (I can provide a listening guide if anyone is interested.)

At roughly the same time, The Beatles were assembling their awesome catalog of era-defining songs. Their output is even more astonishing in the too brief time they flourished as a group.

Now to the crux of the matter. In what way are these two musical ensembles most similar? They all did their best work while rather young and finding their way as musicians. All were playing well “over their heads”.

In much the same way as athletes, pop musicians generally do their best work in their early years. It’s not the same in jazz or classical music, but these artists did do their best “learning” when in their teens and twenties. After that, it’s polish and experience that provides the finishing touches to what they do best and it comes mostly with years and experience.

This is not to say that pop musicians don’t continue to improve in mastering their instrumental ability. But in terms of creativity in making original music, nothing seems to beat those early years for output. None of the members of the Stax house band, as they grew older, created anything near the volume of superb and astonishing music. To be fair, they didn’t have the same chance once things began falling apart at Stax, where they worked five days a week. They weren’t recording at anywhere near the same frenetic pace. So too with The Beatles. Once they split up, their individual shortcomings were exposed simply by the fact they were working alone. Both ensembles were highly collaborative/synergistic. Everyone threw ideas into the creative pot. Solutions were tried and either worked or were found wanting. When the latter was the case, someone else would generally step forward with a different idea. The total was indeed proven to be greater than sum of its parts.

Writers, by definition, work alone. Though there are exceptions, it’s rare to find more than one person crafting the words. Yes, we can join critiquing groups or show our work to trusted allies while we’re still in the “development stages” of our writing, but that’s not really the same thing. In my own small way, I have experienced the (almost) rapture of creating something within a group. It is indeed a heady feeling. Often, it can be a harsh crucible as ideas are thrown out, reshaped, discussed and discarded by the group as a whole, but when the dust clears and you can clearly see the fruits of your labours, it is quite wonderful.

Even though I now write with words rather than sounds most of the time, something is lost. My youth is long since behind me, and with that went youthful energy levels. If I stayed up and worked all night simply because I couldn’t bear turning off the creative tap (as I often did in my youth), I would suffer physically for days, regardless of artistic elation. So that’s no longer on the cards. But I’m also working alone, there’s no one else’s creative energy to feed off of.

I believe I’m still creative in my dotage, but the fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did when I was in my teens and twenties. Shall I say that it appears to be more “rationed” than in the past? And it is nowhere near as fecund. Seldom now do ideas pour out faster than I can hope to catch and write everything down.

The saying is, “Youth is wasted on the young.” We older farts often add, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Both are sad statements at their hearts, but no less true for being somewhat flippant.

I completely believe in both – and can’t do a thing about it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tell Me All About Your Book - No, Don't

The other day I came across this quote from British writer Hilary Bailey: 'There are only three statements you can make when writing without being a bore: "I'm writing a book,""I've finished my book," "I've sold my book – break out the champagne!" '

She's right, I thought. The book that so fascinates us that we are willing to spend a year of our lives totally absorbed in it may be of remarkably little interest to anyone else.

I had a spectacular demonstration of this just the other day, when I was away on a research trip. Ian, my husband went up to the hotel bar to order drinks and fell into conversation with a man who told him he was writing a book so Ian mentioned that I was an author.

The man immediately came over to join me and without preamble launched into the story of the book he was writing, the one he'd already self-published, and the one he would be planning to write next, as well outlining his life story which had been their source, in minute detail. When the waitress arrived to say his meal was waiting we greeted her like the US cavalry.

He left without knowing my name or what I wrote - not that I minded. I very seldom talk about a book even once it's published and certainly never, ever, about one that's in progress. Even Ian doesn't read the book until I give him the advance copy.

I often hear friends mention talking through a book with their agent, or reading parts out to friends or doing brain-storming when they're stuck and I feel rather envious – it sounds such a cosy thing to do. But once, very early on, I had what I thought was a brilliant plot and started telling Ian all about it. Next morning when I sat down to write, it had died. My lovely idea was a stone-cold corpse and nothing I could do would revive it.

I don't know why that should have been. The only rationale I can come up with is that for me writing is like telling myself a story and what drives me on is wanting to find out what happens. Once there are no more surprises, the life is gone.

So I am pathologically private about what I'm writing. I almost can't write if someone else is in the room. I loathe having to write synopses in case the worst happens, so I have to hope that my editor will take a lot on trust.

So you're in no danger if you sit down next to me; I promise I won't start boring you about my current book. My grandchildren, now...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Guest blogger M. H. Callway

Type M’s guest blogger this weekend is M. H. Callway, a Toronto crime writer whose first novel, Windigo Fire, was released last fall and has garnered some pretty serious critical attention. She’s hardly a novice writer, though, already having won awards and been a finalist for many others, including the Bony Pete (winner), an Arthur for Best Short Story (winner), the Debut Dagger and the Unhanged Arthur. She’s also someone I would consider a good friend. She even comes out to hear me play trumpet! You can find out more about Madeleine at

BOOKED TO RUN: How Running and Writing Go Together
by M. H. Callway

Writing and running are vital parts of my life. I’ve been writing since I was a child, crafting plays for my long-suffering playmates to perform, banging out the scripts on my parents’ amazing electric typewriter. Running came along much later thanks to Marian Misters, our beloved owner/operator of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore.

I’ve been a huge mystery fan since discovering Agatha Christie in university. One day, on one of my weekly forays into Sleuth’s, Marian persuaded me to join her new class: Marathon Dynamics promised they could teach anyone to run. I was fit enough but my cardio was wanting. True be told, I could barely run for the bus. So I signed up and changed my life forever.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I’ve run one marathon, dozens half-marathons and numerous shorter races. Every year I bike in the 200+ kilometer Ride to Conquer Cancer. It was a tough journey which required stretching my limits, weathering disappointments and surfing the joy of victory. Exactly like the journey from mystery fan to published crime fiction author. Though I suspect that the road to publication is even tougher!

Today writing and running are integral parts of my life and both support each other. In an academic sense, there are many parallels between running and writing. You aren’t going to run your first marathon any more than you are going to write your first novel without years of skills under your belt, careful planning and enormous discipline. Most of us work up to a marathon/novel by completing shorter works/races.

Both are solitary activities which thrive with a buddy system: your writing critique group, or running buddies, get you out the door and make your run/write, help you stay on track and celebrate with you.

There’s a ten-minute rule in running. On those days when I’d much rather stay nice and warm inside with that extra cup of coffee, the rule says to go out and run for ten minutes. After that, if I want to stop I can go home. Believe me, it works!

The ten-minute rule applies in writing, too. My friend and teacher, Maureen Jennings, has a great exercise to combat writers block. Take paper and pen and write in longhand whatever comes into your mind for ten minutes. You can even write, “I am blocked”, for ten minutes if you like. And believe me this method works. During one of these exercises, I developed an idea that evolved into my short story, “The Lizard”, which won the 2012 Bony Pete Award at Bloody Words.

My solitary runs and bike rides prove wonderful for peace of mind. I work out plot problems and get inspiration from oddities I encounter: an unusual-looking house or a brilliant piece of graffiti. I’ve witnessed car accidents and human altercations (fortunately none of them fatal) and even rescued a lost dog.

Even the less happy aspects of running, like exhaustion and dehydration, have helped my writing. Early on in running, I did the classic Hamilton (Ontario) road race, 30 K Around the Bay. All our training had happened during the winter with freezing temperatures. The day of the race the weather turned warm and sunny with temperatures over 20 degrees. I had over-dressed: I felt so hot during the race, the shade thrown by the ramps of the Burlington Skyway felt like an oasis. Being relatively inexperienced, I didn’t understand how much water I needed to drink: I was so focused on finishing that I skipped drinking and eating enough at the rest stations. I finished in good time despite walk-running the last three kilometers, but then I paid the price: nausea, dizziness, nearly fainting.

I drew on this experience – and a few others along the way – to give authenticity to my debut novel, Windigo Fire. My protagonist, Danny, is a young native Canadian drifting through life after completing a degree in English literature at college. He is drawn into an illegal bear hunt to play the native scout where he hopes to earn enough money to escape his remote Northern Ontario hometown of Red Dog Lake. The morning after the hunt he wakes up to find all the hunters dead, all but Ricky, an enigmatic American. They are forced to team up and fight through the northern bush to escape the killers.

Dehydration is a real issue if you cannot find running water anywhere. Here’s an excerpt that illustrates Danny’s fatigue:

The bush had turned into a maze of vegetation. He wrestled with low-hanging branches, saplings and weeds. Often he had to stop and cut his way through with Ricky’s knife.

This is taking way too long.

His throat burned, a harsh metallic taste invaded his mouth. Dehydration already, every muscle in his body screamed for rest.

If I sit down now, I won’t get up.

“OK, I rest at tree number eleven,” he said into the air. He fought past the tree trunks counting, one, two three…

The trick Danny uses is a running favorite. Runners count trees and telephone poles to pull themselves up hills or to the finish line.

Running and writing both continue to enrich my life immeasurably. Last October, life came full circle at the launch party for Windigo Fire at Sleuth of Baker Street when I was able to thank Marian for making it one of her Picks for Sleuth’s newsletter. And thus once again, changing my life forever.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I'm not a total wimp. Not spectacularly brave either. My tastes in mysteries are decidedly on the side of physiological literary mysteries. I hate books with no plot. Even if the writing is exquisite, if there is no story I feel cheated. I also lean toward "mean streets" in mysteries rather than cozies.

So I was surprised at my reaction to the beginning of a book a couple of days ago. A rape was so obviously going to take place and I simply could not stomach it. I laid the book aside. I was reading it in bed. Bedtime reading is a well-established habit and I've learned that certain kinds of books keep me awake. If a book is too upsetting it interferes with a good night's sleep. Which means I will be sluggish and unhappy the next day.

The next afternoon I resumed reading the book. It's terrific! I'm not going to identify it right now because I haven't finished it and will review it when I'm done. Here's what impressed me about the dreaded rape scene; it was not described after all. Yes, it took place, but the focus of the book was on the downfall of a young man who was a non-participating bystander who is bribed by the wealthy family the men involved to keep information to himself. The details of the crime emerge slowly as does the consequences of his disastrous choices.

It's a tale of intricate vengeance wrought by the father of the damaged young woman who committed suicide because of the rape.

Part of my reluctance to continue the book that first night was because this book is so well-written, which means literary, I suppose, which I'm beginning to equate with sad unsatisfying tales. I'm fed up with powerful, wealthy people getting away with anything and everything in literature as well as in real life. I'm disheartened by the number of books where such people are never brought to justice. It's a class issue and it's becoming more obvious all the time in our society.

The book has great characterization and I have hopes that the protagonist who is slowly growing in courage and a thirst for justice will decide to do the right thing. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Evildoers used to be identified as such. I want those days back.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

First-World Problems

I pride myself on posting blogs that come from the heart. I figured that was the expectation -- to tell the truth and the whole truth about the writing life: the good, the bad, and the ugly -- when I signed on to do Thursday posts several years ago.

So here goes.

It hasn't been a great week. I'm oh-for-one on reviews for the second Peyton Cote novel, Fallen Sparrow (June 8). Kirkus ends a summary-packed review with "although Keeley clearly hoped to outdo himself in Peyton's second adventure, he gets in his own way with a monotonous style and a cluster of extraneous characters. Still, his tough but compassionate heroine triumphs against the odds."

Despite the plot summary, the book's most important character, not named Peyton Cote, isn't mentioned, leaving me astonished. My editor had the same response. My agent, as you would expect, is ever-supportive and says the review ends on a high note and there are more important reviews coming.

So what's the point of sharing this?

Writers are supposed to say they don't read the reviews; the reviews don't bother them; or that they never even see the reviews. Let's face it: that's B.S., and we all know it. I read my reviews. I want the feedback. I'm trying constantly to get better. But this one -- ending on a high note or not -- left me perplexed. How does one miss the novel's second most important character? Sour grapes? Maybe. Hell, probably. I put a lot of time into that book, tried to experiment syntactically more than in previous novels, and I admit that I certainly hope other reviews are better.

The only important question after a poor review is Where do we go from here? I was a college athlete before I was a writer, a hockey goalie. I played in hostile rinks where three thousand people chanted my name followed by SUCKS! I know how to get up and dust myself off.

No one was better at doing that than my late father. "It could always be worse" was his mantra. Through esophageal cancer, through chemo, through a loss of sixty pounds, through the final X-ray telling him (and us) the miracle we hoped for was not to be. One of the last things he ever said to me came following that X-ray. He lay on his gurney in the hallway of the Maine Medical Center. I knew what the final X-ray showed, what the results meant, and could think of nothing more poignant than "How are you doing?"

He turned his head to look at me. "It could be worse."

"Worse?" I said. "How could it be worse?"

"There was a little girl leaving the X-ray room when I went in," he said. "She looked like my granddaughter. That would be worse."

So, at the end of the day, I write because I love it. And I write for me. A bad review is only that and quite clearly a first-world problem. Life could always be worse -- and is -- for many others.