Wednesday, January 18, 2017

1969: The Astronauts' Reading Club

It’s the summer of 1969. While man is walking on the moon, I’m enjoying playing outside with my sister and reading lots and lots of books. I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could get my hands on. The library was my best friend.

This particular summer I participated in the local library’s reading club, called The Astronauts’ Reading Club. If kids read 5 books, they got a badge, 10 books they got a certificate AND their name in the paper! Who knew you could get your name in the paper for reading books!

Ten books was pretty easy peasy for me. I’m sure I read many more than that this summer between 4th and 5th grades. I looked at the list of books I read: three Freddy the Pig books (I honestly don’t remember these at all, but I know I liked pigs); two Great Mouse Detective books (those I do remember, I had a thing for books with mice), The Horse and His Boy (part of the Chronicles of Narnia series), and several others.

I don’t really know what sparked my interest in books. Perhaps it was being read to as other Type Mers noted in their posts. I’m sure I was read to, but I honestly don’t remember anything specific. All I know is that I was always fascinated by books. There’s a wonderful picture of me and my sister sitting side by side on the couch, reading. I use the term “reading” very loosely when it comes to me. Being almost 4 years older than I am, my sister actually knew how to read but, at 3, I was just looking at the pictures, imitating my big sis.

The most vivid memory of early reading for me was in kindergarten. Back in the stone ages, you learned your alphabet in kindergarten and learned to read in first grade. I remember looking through a book and being very angry that I couldn’t read the words on the page. I mean, really, really angry! I wanted to know what those three little pigs were doing! I knew the words told the tale and were very, very important, but I couldn’t yet read them. That fueled my eagerness to learn to read more than anything else. By the time first grade rolled around, I was off and running, reading well above my grade level in no time.

Reading has given a lot to me. I’ve visited foreign places, relived historical events, had great adventures and solved mysteries alongside Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. I can’t imagine not being able to read or not having access to books.

Even though reading has been a large part of my life, I never really thought I’d be a writer. But I’m glad I took the leap of faith and started writing stories. Even though it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it’s also given me a lot.

P.S. My third book, A Palette for Murder, officially releases January 31st. To celebrate I’m having a launch event, Sunday, February 5, 2017, 3:30-5pm at the Manhattan Beach Library in Manhattan Beach, CA. Stop by if you’re in the area and help me celebrate!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…

by Rick Blechta

Now that I’m back seriously crafting my new novel and able to put in the required hours without risk of falling behind in more monetarily meaningful work, I’m faced with the problem of getting to know the characters populating the story.

Since this is also the first in what I’m hoping might become a long-running series, I’m also well aware of the dangers and pitfalls of the long term consequences of getting their personalities incorrect. As I’ve mentioned here before, I once began one of my one-off thrillers with a poorly-drawn character and by the time I got to around the 70th page of my ms, I realized that I was faced with a horrible problem: I really disliked the person who was driving my story, and if I’d continued on, I would probably have wound up killing him off before the end of the story. Even worse, the narration was in first-person! So I was down the end of a dark alley facing a blank wall. I stopped writing the novel, then began again with a completely different protagonist, one with whom I felt I could “work”.

So with the start of a novel that is also the start of a series (if I should be so lucky), I have to make sure I’ve gotten things right. I don’t want to be working on a story several books down the line and realize that I’d gotten one of my protagonists seriously skewed way back in the first book. Not much you can do then, is there?

I spent a lot of hours working up pretty extensive character background outlines for both of my protagonists. Even so, nearly every time I sit down to work, I realize I left out something pretty critical. Back to my outlines to add this additional information. Yesterday, for instance, I realized I hadn’t given my characters birthdays. Now it might become important in some future novel to know that so-and-so was born in late June. No big deal if I hadn’t known this information beforehand, but how about the year they were born. That has huge ramifications when shaping their likes/dislikes and experiences. We are a product of our generation, as the saying goes. And I hadn’t thought of that.

The question that has me really worried now is this: what other critical information have I overlooked. Or worse yet, have I already used something that could have serious consequences somewhere down the road?

This writing gig is tough!

And sorry for the Rogers and Hammerstein quote that makes up the title...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and Me

By Vicki Delany

There is, as we are always being told in creative writing classes, no such thing as a new idea.

It’s all been done before. Take the story of an orphaned boy: a lowly (and lonely) childhood; a secret, ever-watchful guardian; dangerous times; an eternal enemy; the big reveal of the boy’s true identity; armed with knowledge of his destiny, boy saves world.

It’s been written a hundred times, from the tales of King Arthur to Star Wars.

The trick is not to come up with an original idea, because you probably can’t, but to make it your own.

Enter Sherlock Holmes. I don’t have to tell you how popular Sherlock is right now, from movies to TV (two series!) to more books than you can count. Colouring books, puzzles, mugs.  Old books reissued and re-illustrated, new ones being written.

Favourite characters reimagined.

Make it your own.

And I have. 

Meet Gemma Doyle, transplanted Englishwoman, owner of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium in the Cape Cod town of West London. Gemma is also the co-owner of the business next door, Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, with her best friend Jayne Wilson.

Gemma is highly observant and has an incredible memory (for things she wants to remember).  She is, shall we say, occasionally lacking in the finer points of social niceties.

Jayne is ever-confused, but loyal.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, reimagined as modern young women just trying to get on with life.

Like the Benedict Cumberbatch character, Gemma deciphers cell phone signals and finds clues on the Internet. Like that Sherlock, Gemma’s relationship with the local police is complicated, but unlike that character, in her case it’s because she’s in love with the lead detective, but he can’t trust her because she seems to always know more about his cases than she should.

Elementary She Read, the first in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series from Crooked Lane Books, will be released on March 14th.  I’ve taken a very light hand with this series, just having fun with it, and it falls firmly in the category of cozy. It’s now available for pre-order in ebook and hardcover formats at all the usual sources.

If you’d like a sneak peek at the first chapter, I’ve posted it on my web page.
I’ll be running contests up to the release date; to catch all the news (if you don’t already) please like my Facebook page ( or sign up for my newsletter (send an email to vicki at vickidelany dot com)

Saturday, January 14, 2017


I am delighted to invite my good friend Janet Kellough to blog for us this week. Now that I am also living in Prince Edward County, I am finding myself drawn into the character and the history of the area through Janet's enthusiasm. And her darn good books. (Who knows when you need to trap a muskrat.)

The old adage in the world of writing is “write what you know”. I have heard this amended (probably on this blog) to “write what you’d like to know”. [Editor: That might have been me. VD]

It’s good advice and I have done both. I started out as a performance storyteller, spinning tales drawn from the lore of Prince Edward County, Ontario, where I grew up, and where my family has lived for generations. It was, and remains, a rich source of material. (Did you know that the Glenora Ferry was once hijacked and a 19th century hangman bungled a double execution in Picton? The first was a prank; the second was grisly.) I have also written what I was anxious to find out about. The first novel in my historical series The Thaddeus Lewis Mysteries concerned a saddlebag preacher who stumbled across a serial killer. The bare bones of the story was right there in the preacher’s autobiography, waiting for me to pluck it out, but I was eager to fill in authentic details and bring the story to life. I now know more about Methodist Church history in early Canada than I ever thought possible. (It was complicated, cantankerous and contentious.)

In continuing the series, I discovered a further amendment to the aforementioned writer’s advice: “Write what you never dreamed you’d want to know, but have stumbled across and found fascinating anyway.”

The first two novels in Thaddeus Lewis were set firmly in familiar territory – eastern Ontario in general and Prince Edward County in particular. I fudged the third one a bit - 47 Sorrows began with an old newspaper clipping I ran across that described a peculiar incident in Toronto in 1847 when a wagon overturned and spilled a coffin into the street. It burst open to reveal two corpses inside. Scandalous! And intriguing! This led me to articles about the tragedies experienced by the influx of sick and starving Irish flooding into Canada that year, and to the “fever sheds” that housed them. After all, where better to set a murder than smack dab in the middle of a group of people who are dying anyway? I placed the bulk of the story in Kingston, Ontario, a place I know, but there was an exciting chase that led to Toronto.

The next book, The Burying Ground, led me into completely unfamiliar geographic  territory. The story revolves around The Toronto Strangers’ Burying Ground, a potter’s field which in 1851 was at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets. It was in the middle of nowhere back then. Honest. I spent hours poring over old maps. The harbour was different then, and the Don River hadn’t been straightened out yet. And the latest Thaddeus book Wishful Seeing takes place between Cobourg, Ontario and Rice Lake to the north. Oh wondrous intrigues of the early railway boom in Canada!  I knew nothing about it when I began, but now I understand why Cobourg has such an improbably spectacular town hall.

In the meantime, I took a dive into speculative fiction and found myself reading about genetics and the founder effect, as well as the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos. Right now I’m researching stories about sex in early Ontario. And I’m trying to find out what the Royal Shipyards in Deptford, England were like in the 1650s. I know how to trap a muskrat. I can make soap from scratch. I’m familiar with the diagnostic signs of typhoid fever.

I will admit that this kind of obsessive and far-ranging research might be most attractive to the sort of junkhead who watches Jeopardy and wins trivia contests (aka me) but it’s the thing that keeps me plunking words down on the page. Because I still don’t know what it is I want to know. And I may never find out, because I’ve discovered that I want to know everything. About everything. And being a writer gives me the perfect excuse to keep reading about it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Thrilling in Slow Motion

I have to catch an early train down to New York City. So I'm going to make this post brief and interactive.

As you may recall, one of my writing projects is a crime novel set in 1939. I've been calling it a "historical thriller" because the plot does involve a race to uncover the details of a conspiracy and prevent a crime from being committed. But this is a race that happens over eight months in 1939. Although I hope for thrills and chills along the way, with an edge-of-your seat confrontation in the last few pages, I want to make my characters three-dimensional. They will drive the plot.

I'm trying to think of crime novels with thriller elements that extend over a substantial period of time — months rather than days. I'd love to see how the authors deal with pacing.

Any titles spring to mind?  Please share.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How We Learn to Love Books

Rick and Aline both wrote wonderful entries this week about being read to as a child. I'm sure every book-lover has a similar story. When your parents read to you when you're little, you learn to associate the experience with being loved and safe. I, of course, have stories of my own. Rick's story in particular brought to mind the Golden Book of poems and riddles my parents bought for me when I was little more than a toddler.

I had a lot of books when I was a kid. My parents bought them for me long before I could read, for which bless you, parents. This little Golden Book was one of my favorites, and I can still recite parts of it to this day. For instance: “What did the old woman say when she looked down the rain barrel?” Answer: OICURMT (It took me years to figure out what Oicurmt meant). But the poem I loved the most was You Are Old, Father William, by Lewis Carroll. I enjoyed it enough to memorize when I was a little girl. I still remember it, and as the years pass, it means more to me now than it ever did.

My parents took turns reading to me every night, and I never, ever let them weasel out of it for any silly reason like floods or fires or deathly illnesses. They read the same books to me so many times that I knew them by heart. I still remember very clearly an incident that occurred when I was about four and spending the night with my grandmother. I had brought my pre-sleep book with me, but my grandmother--a notoriously impatient woman--kept trying to skip lines. Needless to say this was not going to pass unchallenged. My grandmother also had a somewhat perverse sense of humor, so once she realized that she wasn't going to get away with it, she made a game of leaving out words and changing sentences to see if I'd catch her. I always did. This may have amused my grandmother, but it didn't contribute to a peaceful night's sleep for her little fusspot of a grandchild.

The joy of a good story well told turns a child into a book-loving adult. I spent much of my teenaged years and young adulthood with my nose in a book. So much so that my mother was a bit concerned about the fact that I'd rather read than play or hang around with friends. It was something of a joke in my family that if I was reading, I couldn't hear the phone ring or knocking at the door or gunshots and screaming.

A good book has gotten me through many a tough situation. A well written story teaches a child about compassion, perseverance, bravery, and lets him walk in another's shoes in a way a thousand lectures can't do. I can't imagine a better gift a parent can give her child.

p.s. On another note, don't forget that my first Alafair Tucker Mystery, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, is being offered as a free download at Amazon and iTunes through the month of January. Don't miss your chance!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On being read to

by Rick Blechta

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday, especially so since just the day before I was chatting with my wife and son about how enjoyable it was having someone read to you.

I’ve previously written here on Type M how one of my fondest recollections from childhood was being read to by my mother when I was ill. Early on, I couldn’t read, but even after I could, if I was especially under the weather, my mother would appear in my doorway with a book and read a chapter or two (if she could spare the time). This would happen a few times during the day..

I remember being so comforted by this. Perhaps I even made small illnesses a tad larger so that I could stay home from school and be read to. My mom was also an above average reader so that really helped. She could bring Uncle Wiggly adventures or Treasure Island vividly to life for a young listener. Later on, she’d bring me a book that she thought I’d enjoy reading while I was ill. Thus, I read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for the first time – and this time I definitely malingered for a few extra days so I could finish those books.

When my own boys were a similar age, I would have loved to perform the same service for them, but alas, I had to be off at work doing my job of “crowd control with a beat” (teaching band to middle school students). My wife would read to them when she could but she was also busy. It’s always bothered me a bit that we might not have shared this pleasurable experience with them enough.

Reading to our boys, though, was a big part of the going-to-bed ritual. I must have read The Cat in the Hat several hundred nights running to my eldest (I’m not exaggerating), to the point where I could recite the entire story from memory (shades of Homer!). Since I was usually on “night duty” with the lads — my wife off at the Conservatory teaching flute as soon as I could get home — I read to them a lot, certainly most nights, until they were around six or seven.

The interesting thing to me is that later on one became an avid reader and the other probably reads one or two books per decade. However, the latter son is a now the father of two young ones, and lo and behold, a big part of his family’s going-to-bed ritual (at least for his 3-year-old) is reading a story or two every night before lights out. When my wife and I babysit, we’re more than happy to indulge the lad — probably, truth be known, with more stories than he gets from his parents on a nightly basis.

Of course over the years, I’ve shared my early reading experiences with my wife. Maybe ten years ago I caught the “flu from hell” and man, for a week was I sick! Miserable and alone upstairs one afternoon, my darling wife must have sensed I could use something special. Lo and behold, she appeared at the door, some book or other I’d been reading in hand, and asked, “Would it help you feel better if I read to you for a bit?”

My heart melted and I was a child again.