Monday, November 30, 2015

The wee small hours

I'm just reaching the stage of my latest book when I always feel poised on the edge of panic.  Having worked all this time to create a complex plot with twists, turns and an elusive perpetrator, it has now reached the stage when I have to bring all the threads together to provide a neat conclusion.

It's not so bad when I'm actually at my desk and I can work to my guiding principle, 'Follow the Story'.  It's when I wake in those dark hours of the night when it's hard to keep a sense of proportion and toss and turn with my head full of my characters and their problems and become convinced that this time I really have painted myself into corner and the whole thing has now become so complicated that I can't unravel it.

Of course I could get up there and then and go back to my desk but on the whole I don't find this a very good solution; there's still the next day to get through and an exhausted author isn't a very good one.

The solution is clearly to work longer hours during the day and let the story sort itself out in the obliging way it always has before.  The only problem is the other things that get in the way.

Like Book Week, Scotland.  Scotland has a very enlightened approach to the Arts and there is a system whereby libraries can apply for funding to host a speaker.    The speaker is paid £150 to do an event; the Scottish Book Trust will pay half of that and also for travel and accommodation if necessary and Book Week attracts a lot of funding.

I love doing library events - and not only because I'm paid.  I think in the many I've done over the years, I have only once had a leaden audience and never a difficult one.  They are usually hugely responsive and you are often talking to people who don't really have the money to buy all the books they would like to read and are truly enthusiastic and appreciative.  The library will often also arrange to have books on sale for signing and we're now into the 'Happy Christmas' inscriptions with people buying for friends and family.

So what's not to like?  There is just the small problem that while you're having a lovely time with people who will actually laugh and clap and then tell you how much they love your books you're not sitting at your desk getting on with it - and  that night again there's the wee small hours torment.

And then there's the run up to Christmas, with family descending from three different directions and expecting food over an extended period, and they tend to expect presents as well ...

But unless they're going to have a hostess who falls asleep over the turkey, I'm going to have to hope that the brilliant ending I'm hoping for is vouchsafed to me within the next few days.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

T-day dinners and other memories

Here in the US of A we joyfully cram our stomachs full on Thanksgiving Day. We could easily match the excesses of Roman aristocracy if only we had the rumored vomitoriums. Hosts put a lot of care into the meal, and I've never been to a T-day dinner where the food wasn't good. But not every Thanksgiving meal is memorable, in fact few are.

I got to thinking about specific meals that stuck in my mind. One Thanksgiving dinner that stands out is the only one I spent by myself. It was at a diner in Bisbee, Arizona, back in 1975. Another occurred last year when I delivered T-day leftovers to my friends Angie Hodapp and Warren Hammond who had just returned to Denver after a long, long flight from China.

Another remembered meal was when I caught up to my high-school best friend during our time in the army. We spent the afternoon in a Mexican restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. We ate and drank and ate and drank. Hours passed and dinner over, we expected to stumble into cool night air. But it was still light out and the sun's merciless glare stung our bloodshot eyes.

Another food-related snap shot. During a prolonged and painful period of unemployment, I finished grad school and to celebrate both my master's degree and my expected return to work, I arranged for a dinner with my critique group at a small bistro. The future never seemed so hopeful.

Another military meal. I had just completed the Fasotragulant Navy S.E.R.E. school near Brunswick, Maine. We students--Army Special Forces and Navy aviators--spent days hiking over the wilderness like hunted animals, eating nothing but tree bark and tiny raw trout caught with safety pins. That trial was followed by more uncomfortable days in a simulated POW camp run by a sadistic cadre who never broke character. Late in the afternoon of the last day, a bus rolled up to take us back to the navy base. Dinner included an urn of hot black coffee, another urn of steaming chicken-noodle soup, and a yellow sheet cake, which we stuffed into our faces during the ride to civilization. A humble repast but one of the most satisfying meals of my life.

Years later, I was in Baltimore, Maryland, for Bouchercon 2008. At the time, since I was still in HarperCollins' stable I was invited to their authors-only fancy, schmancy dinner. The other authors included HC's big hardback mystery NYT-bestsellers and international writers who sat with the editors at the big table. Because I was merely a writer of paperback vampire novels, I was shuffled to the equivalent of the little kids' card table where I sat next to Sarah Weinman. Later that night, Jane Friedman, the President and CEO, stopped by to say hello. She not only knew who I was, she even signed my name tag. I decided to keep that tag as a memento of my days with HarperCollins, not realizing that within weeks, Friedman and many of the editors at that dinner would be gone from the company. Ironically, I had outlasted them.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Ghosts of Books Past

For some time now I've been thinking of my all-time favorite books and feel compelled to reread a number of them.

Thanks to Amazon it's easy to track down these old books that I've remembered for a lifetime. I still own a lot of them. My interest is more than a nostalgia kick, although I am a nostalgic person. This obsession was stirred up by my whimsical treacherous muse who pointed out that I needed to improve characterization.

The books I especially admire were mostly commercial successes, but that not why they stuck with me. I loved the central character in each one. But beyond that, these characters had a huge heart-wrenching problem worth wresting with.

For that matter, it seems to me the old writing books had a lot more information than the manuals I pick up today. I'm re-reading Maren Elwood's Characters Make Your Story. It's outstanding. It's tough reading and I don't think I understood some of her points until I had written several books.

Elwood insists that characters come from within. Spinning them from thin air doesn't work. You can give a man a quirky car, some semi-handsome physical attributes, a few snarly snappy lines and he will still seem like everyone else's cardboard cut-outs. Ditto for Too Stupid To Live Heroines. You know. The ones who never call for back-up. Or run around saying, "Oh I'll show him!"

Here is a just of a few of these old, old books I'll re-read and why:

Green Dolphin Street--Elizabeth Goudge.  It's my all-time favorite whose theme touches a spiritual chord within me. Goudge, has the  ability to make unlovable multi-dimensional characters profoundly lovable.

Love Let Me Not Hunger--Paul Gallico. This is a hauntingly beautiful insight into the cloistered world of the circus. Who knew that this society fostered it's own royalty? What I remembered forever and forever was Mr. Albert, the animal trainer. How did Gallico so vividly create such a noble humble old man whose personal story broke my heart?

A Distant Trumpet--by Paul Horgan. A historical novel telling about the Indian wars and the relentless campaign to hunt down the Apaches. And for years, whenever we moved to another town, another library, or even when I was visiting relations, I went to the their library to look up General Alexander Upton Quade. I couldn't believe he wasn't real. After forty years went by, I found out this character was based on the autobiography and writings of General George Crook. Horgan told the‎ story from the Indians' point of view as well as the soldiers'.

Not As a Stranger--Morton Thompson. One of the great all-time medical novels. Not only was it informative, I had such hopes for the protagonist. He was destined to be one of the all-time great doctors.

Five Smooth Stones--Ann Fairbairn. One of the great social novels and one of the few that delved into subtle Northern racism. This was published in 1966 when the Civil Rights Movement was roiling America.

Rebecca--Daphne du Maurier. Need I say more? One of the great classic mysteries, which was the forerunner of the gothic novels. At one time I couldn't get enough of them.

There are some common denominators to all the books I've mentioned. They all have great plots. Every single author is a masterful story-teller. And for some reason they are all l-o-n-g.

Will these books still resonate with me forty years later? Will I still have the same insight? Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Collage

John here.

Once again, my post falls on Thanksgiving in the US. I have much to be thankful for -- and my writing career is a very small part of that. I am grateful to be part of the Midnight Ink family and to have Julia Lord and Ginger Curwen representing me.

Most importantly, I am grateful for the home team and time this week to be together. Here's a collage from Thanksgiving week.

My daughters Delaney (right) and Audrey

My mother Connie and Edie

Happy Holidays!

Delaney and Audrey in the kitchen
My sister Kelli

The family
Nana and Keeley, 7

My stepfather Mike
My wife, Lisa

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey Day Mysteries

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. Poor Thanksgiving. I feel sorry for it sometimes. Wedged in-between Halloween and Christmas, it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. With some stores open on Thanksgiving Day, the focus seems to have gone off giving thanks and spending time with family to Christmas shopping.

This got me thinking about mysteries that take place around Turkey Day. I can think of plenty of Christmas and Halloween mysteries, but few based around Thanksgiving come to mind. That seems rather strange to me. The holiday is almost made for murder. Put some families together around the dinner table and voila! arguments start, old grudges come to the surface, family secrets are revealed. All good bases for murder mysteries.

I did a little investigating to see how many mysteries I could find taking place around Thanksgiving. I came across more than I expected. Here are a few of them:

The two I immediately thought of were The Killer Wore Cranberry and Secondhand Stiff. The first is an anthology of short stories centered around the Thanksgiving holiday. There have been three more volumes since. I’ve only read the first one, which I enjoyed. I expect the others are good as well.

Secondhand Stiff by Sue Ann Jaffarian is one of my favorite books in the Odelia Grey mystery series. Let’s just say Odelia’s family doesn’t always get along. When her mother’s stay is extended after the Thanksgiving holiday, some of the family attend a storage facility auction where cousin Ina’s husband is found dead in one of the units for sale.

Turkey Day Murder by Leslie Meyer. This is the 7th book in the Lucy Stone mystery series. It’s set in Tinker’s Cove, Maine. The Thanksgiving festivities include a high school football game where Metinnicut Indian activist Curt Nolan is found dead with an ancient war club next to his head.

The Alpine Vengeance by Mary Daheim. This is the 22nd installment in the Emma Lord series. It’s set in a small town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. I love this series, partially because I grew up in Washington state, but also because it’s just a good series. In this one, the town of Alpine, Washington is preparing for Thanksgiving when anonymous letters are sent to the sheriff asserting that a murder conviction of a town resident from ten years earlier was the result of a wrongful arrest. The man has died behind bars. Then a fourth letter arrives “threatening retribution in the form of another death.”

The Pumpkin Muffin Murder by Livia J. Washburn. This one caught my eye because I’m partial to all things pumpkin including pumpkin muffins. This is number 5 in the Fresh-baked mystery series featuring retired small town Texas teacher Phyllis Newsom. I haven’t read it, but it looks pretty interesting. It’s Thanksgiving and Phyllis takes her grandson to the Harvest Festival, hoping she’ll win the baking contest. Then a decorative scarecrow turns out to be a body in disguise...

So, Type M Reader? Do you have any favorite mysteries centered around the Thanksgiving holiday? What are you reading this week?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

All in

by Rick Blechta

I know my share of very successful authors, you know, the A-list types who actually have the stature that their publishers will pay the freight and do the grunt work for publicity. Make no mistake about it, though, these authors still work very hard when they’re on the I’ve-got-a-new-book-out road, but I will also add that having someone paying the bills, arranging for local publicists, handling the bookings, etc. does make it a hell of a lot easier to bear.

The question everyone else has is this: How do I get to that stage in author-dom?

Well, generally one of three things has to be at work:
  • You’re very well-known for something else. Dick Francis was a champion steeplechase jockey before he began writing thrillers.
  • You’re incredibly lucky. Before The Firm, John Grisham was not all that successful. The novel was the beneficiary of an extraordinary promotional push by its publisher.
  • You’ve written an extraordinary book that everyone connected with it will move heaven and earth to get the word out and make it a success.
But there is a fourth way, and that’s a really tough road. It involves the author believing so much in themselves, justifiably I might add (the ditch by the side of the road to publishing success is littered with authors who believed in themselves but couldn’t deliver the prose goods) and devote all their waking hours, all their finances to achieving one goal: becoming a publishing success.

One of my ultra-successful author-friends literally hand sold books one at a time. I shudder to think of the number of signings, literary events, conventions this man attended (and still continues to attend). After a lot of miles and burning through a big chunk of change I’m sure, things started happening for him. He began to win awards. Novels got optioned — and produced! Now, this author did indeed have the ability to deliver the goods. Anything he writes goes to the top of my to-be-read stack. He’s seldom let me down.

But here’s the thing. If he hadn’t taken that leap of faith and gone all in, he might well not have risen to the top of the heap. It was his personal spade work in the book promotion trenches, that critical networking, those miles of being on the road which made his route to the top a success in the end.

Can we all do it? Well, no. Personally, I have too many responsibilities to family to be able to take the risk. It’s something I’m not prepared to do to them, because ultimately it is a rather selfish, or should I say self-centred thing to do.

I did, however, do it in my youth with a band I started. We had that belief in ourselves and the ability to be really extraordinary. It was a very heady ride while it lasted, but ultimately, we were too young and emotionally immature, had really inadequate management, but also couldn’t manage to get that one little sliver of luck to make stardom happen. Eventually I had to give up and get a “real” job.

So success is possible, but it is a very hard slog. One has to deal with so many things that are beyond your control. You can be the hardest worker of all time, but if someone wants to, they can easily stick a knife in your laboriously inflated balloon. You know what happens to them, and that’s exactly what it’s like watching your hard-won career running out of luck.

Still, it’s one of the biggest reasons we all keep on. We might actually manage to snag that brass ring on the very next trip ’round the publishing merry-go-round.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Mini Vacation

by Vicki Delany

Oops, is it my day again! 

I am working this morning on the final proofs for Reading Up A Storm, (by Eva Gates) coming in April, and I had some CWC business to do earlier. So about all I have time for now is to tell you about my vacation.

I took myself off on a short trip to Quebec City after my launch for Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen in Ottawa. I'd never been there before, despite living about 6 hours drive away.  A friend told me that the Chateau Frontenac, the huge luxury historic hotel there, was having a "Christmas in November" promotion.  

It was a great chance to stay at the famous hotel for a reasonable price, so I booked myself in for three nights.

I had a marvelous time.  Just enjoying the hotel, walking and walking and walking through the old city, and eating and drinking. 

The hotel was wonderful, as befits its reputation and location (and regular price) and the city is a marvel. You really do feel as though you are in France. Quebec City is the only remaining walled city in North America, and most of the walls are still in place, as are buildings and streets that date from the 17th century.

To make it all even nicer, the city is getting ready for Christmas. Here are some pictures. I hope you enjoy them.