Tuesday, July 31, 2007

We're talkin' food here, too.

Rick here.

Okay, I wasn't going to make this my entry for the week, but the entry I'm working on needs a bunch more research. Since we've been discussing food and drink, I thought I'd jump in with my absolute favourite summer recipe: grilled mussels.

First of all, this must be done as I outline. Don't waste your time trying to make these indoors under a broiler, or in your fancy gas barbecue. It just will not taste the same. I know. I've tried.

Here's what you'll need:

Mussels (8-12 per person as an appetizer, 18-24 as a main course)
Olive Oil (really primo stuff. Don't go cheap)
Freshly Ground Pepper


Get some of those cookie cooling racks, the square ones made out of wire (you probably already have a couple of these). The spaces between the wires are just perfect for setting the mussels on, keeping them upright (that's important). You should be able to fit about 24 mussels on a standard rack.

Shuck the mussels and put them on the half shell. It's a bit tedious until you get the knack. The easiest way is to slide a pocket knife under the widest part of the shell, after you've pushed the two halves apart slightly with the fingers of your non-knife wielding hand. Slide the blade completely across the shell until it comes out the other side, and then move it down the shell, cutting the tendons that hold the shell shut. After that, release the meat on one half of the shell by cutting around underneath and dumping everything into the other shell half. Lay onto the cookie rack and move on to the next one. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn't hard to do. My wife and I can prepare 6 dozen mussels in about 20 minutes.

When the mussels are all shucked, put 3-4 drops of olive oil on each one and follow with a small grinding of pepper.

To cook the mussels, get a whole lot of small, dry twigs. Grape trimmings work wonderfully, or use prunings left from your fruit trees (what we use), or just find a whole bunch of twigs. If you've got kids, this is a great assignment for them.

In a flat spot, lay out some of the twigs at least as big as the dimension of your cookie racks. You're going to lay the mussels on their racks right onto the fire, so you might want to bend some old coat hangers to help with the lifting. We use 14-gage wire I bought in a roll at Canadian Tire. I bent them into a "C" 12 inches to the side with hooks bent into the ends.

Light the twigs and when they're burning merrily, lay on a mussel rack. They will cook in a VERY short time. We're talking maybe a minute or two. Watch for them to pull back from the shell and bubble a bit. Don't cook them until they completely dry out! If your fire still has enough heat, put on the next rack, and so on. Since you're using small twigs, they don't last long, but they burn very hot.

Serve those mussels immediately! They get cold fast. We just tip them into our mouths. Serve with a warm baguette to sop up the juices, and a chilled bottle of a nice, dry, French rosé. Add a tossed salad of your choice, if the mussels are the main course.

By putting the mussels right on the fire, they get a wonderful smokey flavour. We have never made these for someone and they haven't been completely knocked out. Bon appetit!

And now back to research for next week's entry...

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Publisher's Take on Self-publishing

Not my day to post, but I thought I'd sneak this in. We have discussed the pros and cons of self-publishing on this blog several times. The publisher of Poisoned Pen Press, which publishes several of the Typists, has recently publicly commented on self-publishing from the point of view of a small publisher. If you are interested, it can be found at http://www.robertrosenwald.com/wordpress/
Vicki

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My First Post

I've never done this before, blogged that is, so this might get a little tangled. The ongoing discussion seems to be about food and drink. Two of my favorite things. I used to live in Paso Robles, CA. – where, you say? – on the central coast, just north of San Luis Obispo. Beautiful place, rolling hills, huge old oak trees, and thousands of acres of grape vines. There are little wineries scattered everywhere. It has a tendancy to make – wine – the drinking of, not the making – a part of everyday life. I cook with it, sip it as I cook, and then of course, a glass with dinner. Now I live in South Carolina, but I still have a little wine with my dinner. It is beautiful here as well. Green green green. They keep telling me there is a drought. It doesn't look like the ones I'm used to. My house is 100 years old this year, but has held up pretty well. Old hardwood floors, tall windows and ceilings, wrap around porch, it’s great. Living here is great, but there are things I need to get used to. Like thunder storms. My Shepard hates them, but she's worked out a system for dealing with them. She gets into the bathtub until they pass.

Back to wine. I told you I'd wander. And Murder For Dessert sprang out of some of my experiences with the wine industry - not the murders, the funny parts. As a real estate broker for many years, I represented both buyers and sellers of wineries and vineyards, and got to know some of the winemakers. Then, a little over ten years ago, one of my daughters and her husband moved to the area. Kris had some experience with promotion and special events, and took a job with Eberle Winery. It was much smaller then, and they often didn't have enough staff for the Dinners with the Winemaker they hosted regularly. So – I ended up in the kitchen. Usually washing dishes. This is called conscripted labor. But I got a lot of ideas. I'll never forget the guest chef from New Orleans. His crew had so much grease on the floor, they sprinkled salt around to keep from slipping. But the food – fabulous.

It looks as if we are about to get some rain, and with it will come thunder and lightning. I'd better go make sure the dog isn't already in the tub.

Until next Sunday, Kathleen Delaney

Friday, July 27, 2007

More Eats

I love that picture of Vicki!

All these drink recipes give me the munchies. I'm very health-foodie, but I certainly wasn't raised that way. I'm a Southerner, and, like a friend of mine liked to kid, I was raised on deep fried fat balls rolled in sugar.

I always put quite a bit about food in my books, not necessarily to preserve some of the old ways of cooking, though that is certainly on my mind. I'm really more interested in writing about the old ways of eating.

There is a scene early in Buzzard in which the family gathers in the afternoon for a meal of beans and cornbread, and as soon as I started writing that, I realized that I’d better make clear to the reader that there’s more to eating beans and cornbread than meets the eye. Some diners crumble their cornbread into the beans, some open a square of cornbread on the bottom of the bowl and spoon beans over it. Some folks slather their bread with butter to eat alongside the beans. Oh, there are more ways to eat that particular combination of foods than I have time to go into here. And it’s not just beans and cornbread. Meals are a very personal thing, and we all have our pecadillos.

When we were children, my sister and I made a ritual of saving the very best thing on our plates for the last bite. I can’t speak for my sister, but I have a tendancy to do this still. Unfortunately, our grandmother took great delight in reaching over before the meal was over and eating our carefully saved last bite right out from under us, much to our whining disgruntlement.

My other grandmother put sugar in everything. When she made fruit pies, she added so much sugar that the fruit dissolved, so her apple pies were actually applesauce pies. She did this because my grandfather liked things sweet. When he drank iced tea, you could see two finger-widths of undissolved sugar at the bottom of the glass.

He also liked fat. With my own eyes I’ve seen him put butter on his chocolate cake. The sad thing was that my grandfather was nearly 6 feet tall and never weighed over 150 pounds in his life. You could be like that, too, Dear Reader, if you plowed behind a mule for a living. Grandpa came by his love of fat honestly, though. His father buttered radishes and onions before he ate them. My own father had a thing for fat, too - loved an inch of fat on his pork chops. My mother and her mother, on the other hand, wanted their meat lean, dry and burnt. I understand my mother-in-law liked her meat well done, too. My mother speculated that anyone who’s ever had to kill and clean a chicken or a hog wants to make sure it resembles flesh, blood and bone as little as possible. Of course, if you killed and preserved your own meat, eating it well done is a very good idea, bacteria-and-parasite-killingwise.

Late again, and pictures


Vicki, late again. I am supposed to be your Thursday blogger. For some reason, I have an urge to have a martini while I'm composing this narrative. I'll make due with grapefruit juice for now, and then so and sit on the porch with a glass of chilled white wine. As an aside, do you know that although I have been chez Benoit a couple of times, I have never been offered a martini. Hum. I wonder what is the significance of that?

Anyway, moving right along. I am wanting to have a new 'official' picture taken. The one that I'm using now for my publicity and book jackets is about 3 years old, taken when my hair was shorter and a different colour. I thought that my picture should reflect my new life as a traveller and adventurer. So I have been tramping through the woods and up the sides of mountains while my 82-year-old mother follows with the camera. First we had nice pictures of the vast panorama of mountains and sky and a little pink dot standing in the middle waving. That would be me, as I was wearing a pink shirt. Okay, not so good as a publicity picture. Move the camera in a little closer and we have individual trees and rocks against a mountain background, and a generic woman wearing a pink shirt. Closer again, and we have my smiling face against a background of trees.

In my first attempt to add pictures to this blog here we go:

Happy Hour

Reading Debbie’s post with her avocado salsa recipe got me thinking about my favorite recipes, all of which involve gin. I don’t claim to make The Best Martini but I am quite willing to keep on practicing until I get it right. Sadly, I don’t get to practice often enough.

Rose sticks with Cosmos, my best friend Rick is a dedicated Corona man, his lovely wife Paula likes exotic drinks that are light on both fruit and alcohol, Dan is a Seven & 7, Ted & Diane enjoy their wine, Jana love Malibu and her husband Jeff, while not a martini fan, will try just about anything. Ron doesn't drink, neither does my sister Teresa, but Ron's wife Darleen likes wine while Teresa's husband Corey prefers beer. And the few martini drinkers who stop by prefer vodka. While vodka is a fine spirit indeed, to a stuffed shirt purist like myself, a martini has to be made with gin. Sorry James – shaken or stirred, a vodka martini is an oxymoron.

Perhaps the most famous martini recipe is the one allegedly created/developed/stumbled upon/pirated by Winston Churchill:

  • 6 parts gin
  • Bottle of dry vermouth
  • Cocktail olive

Shake gin in a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass while you look at the bottle of vermouth. Garnish with olive.

I don’t want to argue with a legend, but I feel that a martini should contain some vermouth. You’ll find my martini recipe hidden somewhere on the homepage of my website. Let me know what you think.

And now I must direct you to the website of Australian mystery author Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher. Funny stuff.

Cheers,
Charles

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hawaiian Recipe: Avocado Salsa

Hi all,
I'm six hours behind in time zones and further behind than that in my Monday. Because avocados and papaya are ripening in my yard, I'm reminded of a favorite salsa recipe and I'm passing it on to all of you. You can substitute ingredients easily, too. This goes great with grilled fish or chicken. Enjoy!
1 to 2 1/4 inch thick slices peeled and grilled pineapple
1 firm but ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
1/4 cup diced tomato
2 Tbsp. finely diced red onion
1/2 cup minced scallions
1/2 seeded and minced jalapeno pepper, or as desired:-)
1/2 cup seeded, peeled, and diced papaya
Juice of one or two limes
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, or chinese parsley
Salt and ground pepper to taste.
Toss all ingredients together and chill before serving.
Aloha,
Debby

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Love That Title

I love a good title. I just saw a reference to a book called Vanity Fire, by John Daniel. I would read that book. Where does one come up with a good title? I always agonize quite a bit over what to title my books. Since I write a historical mystery series set in Oklahoma, I try to find something that is both eye-catching and ethnic. If it has something to do with the story, all the better.

For the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the book takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

Now, I admit that The Old Buzzard Had It Coming is not the most melliflous title, nor does it flow trippingly off the tongue. Truth is, I really expected my publisher to tell me to change it, since I went with it in the first place just to get his attention. To my surprise, they stuck with it, and it's done me well. It is eye-catching, and that’s the point. In fact, someone described it to me as “like a kick in the gut.” I’ve grown quite fond of it.

Early on, my sister-in-law Dolores couldn’t quite remember how the title went and called it The Old Coot Deserved What He Got, which is pretty good, too. In fact, we considered an entire series with similar titles: The Miserable Son-of-a-Gun Got What Was Coming to Him, The Skunk Couldn’t Have Died Soon Enough, and the like.

That would have been fun. Instead, I called the second one Hornswoggled. I actually didn't come up with that one. My husband dreamed it. I had been worrying to him for weeks about a title. It had to be something Western, and I wanted to come up with one-word term for fooled and misled. He simply woke up one morning and said, "I have your title."

It's getting harder and harder to think of intreguing titles. I went with The Drop Edge of Yonder for the third book. I like it because it's colorful, but hardly anyone not from Texas knows what it means. It doesn't matter, as long as it entices people to read the book and find out.

And now I'm off to read Away With the Fairies , by Kerry Greenwood.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Rick Blechta - Evil Genius

I learned a lot from Rick’s last post (see below) – about the publishing industry, sure, but also about Rick.

Even to contemplate ‘going indy’ is way too much for me – and I work in advertising full time. I know what you’d have to do, when you’d have to do it, and frankly I’ve been quite successful doing it for our clients. But for me? I still lack the intestinal fortitude to give it a go. Rick is obviously made of tougher stuff to even mentally work it out.

Now everything Rick says is true – the percentages, the potential – and I’m positive somebody can do it. And I’d like to see what he suggests happen…or do I?

What if he’s right? What if some big name author does exactly what he suggests? Success breeds success. Before you know it, it’d be the norm. We may all be forced into that new business model, so like it or not I’d have to do all that work myself.

Oh crap.

I hope no big name author read it.

I mean, other than us.

Cheers,

Charles

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Self-Publishing

Rick here.

The title of this piece is mostly a dirty word among "legitimate authors", and of course, "real publishers". By its very nature, the sobriquet has been earned for the most part. There's a saying you hear when literary people get together that novels are self-published for a very good reason: no professional publishing house would touch one of these books with a ten-foot cattle prod. Many people who self-publish don't know what they're doing.

Okay, before we go any further with this discussion, I have a wee confession: I self-published my first two novels. Were either of them worthy of publishing? The second, yes, the first, probably.

With the rise of computers, the writing game, like many other things, was fundamentally changed. Writers could suddenly produce manuscripts with far less labour (Typewriters, and the inherent typing errors, are no fun when it comes time to produce a final draft). You can cut and paste, organize, check spelling, format and produce multiple copies with ease.

At the publishing end, layout, from cover design to page design to printing, became easy to the point where many half-trained typographers and designers can now produce reasonably good-looking books. Lots of experienced people lost their jobs.

The only thing that really hasn't changed much is the marketing and selling of books, except of course for being able to order instantly at online sources.

Was all this a bad thing? I don't think so. It HAS, though, really changed the number of books that are now out there. Publishers are awash in either manuscripts or enquiries about manuscripts, lots of stores (especially small, local ones) stock self-published books, even book distributors will handle them.

The real question is: are they worth reading? For the most part, too seldom. However, there is the opportunity for these books to be VERY good. It all depends if the writer is good, hired an experienced editor, designed a professional-looking product.

Okay, back to my two novels. They looked good (I had some expert help and I have some ability of my own.) and they did okay. Even the reviews weren't all that bad. But at the centre of this discussion is this: did I make any money?

Yes. The first book, _Knock on Wood_, has sold about 800 copies (Wanna buy one?) and the second, _The Lark Ascending_ is completely sold out, meaning I sold 1500 copies. I also learned a hell of a lot about the way the publishing industry works. I did all my own promotion and learned a lot there, too, especially valuable since I still use that knowledge and those skills every time a new book is published. If I'd actually sold, say 15,000 copies of that second book, I would have made A LOT of money. The average author gets a royalty of between 10% and 15%, with the majority closer to the lower figure. You sell books, generally, at "retail less 40%", meaning that the publisher gets 60% and the store 40%. With a print run of 1000, plus order fulfillment, costs of producing the finished book (designers and such), and promo costs, you can realistically expect to wind up with 20%, maybe 25% of the gross as profit. That's not bad, but you do have to work really hard to get there.

Would I do it again? Yes, if I could devote all of my time to the project. I've always said that the easy part of being an author is the writing of the book. After that, the REAL work begins. When you self-publish, your workload increases dramatically. Unless you hire people to do the promo for you, you have to get out there and sell your book all by your lonesome. You have to convince reviewers to read it. You have to hustle interviews and book selling wherever you can. See what I mean?

Now here's something I'd like to see: one of the big name authors deciding to self-publish. I'm here to tell you that it's the publishing industry's worst nightmare. Obviously, with computerization, it takes far fewer people to produce a book. An author can hire just the right people: a production manager (and maybe one or two temporary office staff) who will hire designers, an editor, deal with the printer, and arrange for promo, anything book production needs. These people can all be hired on a job by job basis. The better known the author, the easier and more effective the promo will be, too. When you get to these lofty heights, the volume of the printing also brings those costs WAY down. The only thing our intrepid author would have to worry about is that he/she would have to front the initial costs. That would be a substantial amount of money, for sure, but I think it would be a good investment to make. Conservatively, the return could be 30% to 35%, maybe even more if the book is a huge hit. Now, that's way better than what ANY author gets from their publisher. This author also wouldn't have to work very hard to walk right by that bad reputation self-publishing efforts normally get. Perhaps the best thing is that the author would control ALL rights to his work. That is a very substantial plus -- especially if Hollywood comes calling.

It works in the indy music business and it could work in publishing. What we're seeing now is the thin edge of the wedge. Want proof? Check out Deadlock Press: www.deadlockpress.com. Their two books so far are very good, very professionally done and are selling well.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Heat is On

Vicki’s last blog on hot weather got my wheels turning. We’ve been having brush fires here in Hawai‘i due to ongoing drought conditions. The scent of burning wood is in the air. And it’s not that nice autumn smell. This is an odor that makes people sniff the air while anxiety furrows their brows. A few days ago, the front page of our newspaper had a picture of a fireman being carried off by his colleagues because he was overcome with heat prostration during a fight against one of these fires. And these are young people who train hard. They’re in shape.

I got to thinking about the many roles, often dangerous, which are played by the Honolulu Fire Department. The one most people think of is the department’s quick action against fire. They fight building fires, vehicle fires, brush fires, dumpster and rubbish fires, and marine vessel fires. To do this, the fire department, which consists of forty-two stations on the island of O‘ahu (our most populated island, at about 900,000 residents), uses forty-two engine companies, thirteen ladder companies, two rescue companies, two hazardous materials companies, two tower companies, a fireboat company, five tankers, two helicopters, one helicopter tender, and several personal water craft.

In addition to preventing and fighting fires, HFD responds to medcal emergencies, hazardous materials spills and leaks, and search and rescue missions on both land and water. Along with the other members of my family, I’m a surfer (very small waves for me), and we often look up at the sound of helicopter rotors that rattle an otherwise tranquil outing. When we hear those blades, we say a little prayer for whomever those copters are going to help.

Sometimes the helicopters head for the rugged cliffs and mountains to rescue injured hikers, where they drop specially trained HFD rescue squads. One helicopter carries a detachable forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera to help locate lost or missing hikers once night has fallen. Once the hiker has been found, the rescue crew may use a Billy Pugh Rescue Net or a Stokes Litter to extract the person from hard-to-reach or perilous areas.

Often for ocean rescues, the HFD rescue crews use PWC’s, or personal water craft. They work with Honolulu City and County Lifeguards, who have begun a nation-wide training program for ocean rescue situations using these fast machines and the accompanying rescue sleds. Speaking of ocean rescues, HFD’s fireboat, the Mokuahi, responds to marine vessel fires and rescues in the busy, international Honolulu Harbor and up to 3 miles offshore.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of HPD’s activities in a state widely seen as a tourist destination. We need to keep our image warm and friendly, which isn’t usually difficult in such a beautiful place. But danger lurks below the azure waters and velvety mountains intrinsic to this chain of volcanic islands: crashing surf, hidden ocean currents, precipitous cliffs, wild animals (no snakes, though), and the unpredictable human being. It’s a great place for mysteries.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hot Enuf for Ya?

Vicki here, sweltering in B.C.
There really is nothing that can take the place of on-the-spot research. In the Shadow of the Glaicer, the first in my new police procedural series, takes place in the fictional town of Trafalgar, which is set in the fictional area called Mid-Kootenay, which is set in the real place called the Kootenays. I've been to the Kootenays several times to visit my daughter, for about a week at a time each time. So I know that it gets hot here. In Glacier, a reporter from L.A. comes to Trafalgar and is shocked at how hot it is. I think at that point in the book it's about 30 degrees Celcius. I mention that my main character, Constable Molly Smith, is hot in her police uniform. But it's only since I've been living here for the past two months that I now understand the meaning of HOT! Boy, it is HOT. It was 48 degrees Celcius on the front porch on Friday. That's about 120 Farenheit. We had about two drops of rain on Friday night, and that's been all for the last two weeks. I accompanied a real life Nelson City Police Constable on the beat for a couple of hours one day last week. When I drove into town in the afternoon, the big sign at the mall said it was 42 degrees C (about 107 F). And boy, do those poor cops suffer in the heat. That Kevlar vest weights a ton and doesn't breathe at all. Then there is the dark uniform, the heavy boots, and all the equipment they carry on their belts. He told me that one of the officers had been seeing stars during the day, because of the heat. We went back to the station after an arrest, and my guide took the vest off. He was soaked right through from the sweat under it. So in the next book poor Constable Smith is also going to have to suffer.
On the brighter side, the house I am staying at is quite a bit highter than Nelson, so it gets cool in the evening. Even though my bedroom is on the second floor, I have no problems sleeping. The dogs spend most of their day wandering from one shady spot to another, and trying to decide if they'd rather come outside with me into the heat or stay in the cooler house. I can't imagine what it must be like inside those fur coats. They do enjoy the evenings, when it starts to cool off. Then they're ready for a long walk, and a play with each other on the lawn.
Did you notice how I slipped that bit in about 'after an arrest'? I had fun on the beat and learned a lot. I think that my guide thought I was disappointed as nothing very interesting happened (the arrest was a kid who was drinking on the street and tried to smart-mouth his way out of the situation - not a good idea). But as I said to them, if I want to learn what exciting things police do, I'll watch TV. But for the real mundane stuff, the flavour and the colour, just walking the beat gives me exactly what I need.
As I said, there is nothing that can substitute for on-the-spot research.
Oh, and by the way, I don't have any running water as the pump broke and they can't get a new one until Monday or Tuesday.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Damn the Torpedoes

Good afternon, Dear Readers, this is Donis again.

The third book in my Alafair Tucker series, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is due to be on the shelves in October. I'm currently in the midst of planning the publicity campaign for it. The ironic thing is that I'm also feverishly working on the next book at the same time, and my head is so full of Book Four (as it is formally called right now) that Drop Edge already seems like something I did far in the past.

My little brain is working overtime on Book Four, and all my ideas just delight me no end, but it’s the daily drudge at the word processor that gets the job done.

It takes a lot of discipline to write, or at least to get anything finished. Like a lot of writers, I often wonder if I’ve really got enough of it, and if I’m ever going to finish anything again. When I do actually sit down and write, it’s usually quite a pleasant experience, especially if I don’t worry about what other people will think about the work. I believe that’s where a certain amount of courage is required. Do I really want to say this? Do I want to bare my soul like this -what will you think of me, Dear Reader? Will you find me sappy and unsophisticated if I write this scene like this? Will you find me cruel? Will you think I’m writing about a real person and thus dislike him or her? Will you think I’m writing about you, and thus dislike me for saying such revealing things about you?

In the Alafair Tucker series, I’m writing about a family that lived in Oklahoma in the early 20th Century. I’ve concentrated on some of the lovely family aspects of their lives, but I want to be as real as possible. All cannot be sweetness and light, after all. But I don’t want to write a social treatise, either. It’s a fiction, after all.

In my talks, I often say that the first thing a writer is taught is to ‘write what you know’. Howsoever cliche it seems, I think this is not as straightforward a phrase as it first appears. After all, if you’re a sci-fi writer, you’d be severely handicapped when describing the planet Koozbain if you interpret the tenet literally. I feel like ‘write what you know’ has to do with telling the truth about being human as you know it. If the writer tries her best to be authentic, she’s going to come up with something that is absolutely unique, because every human being is unique. I can tell you from experience, Dear Reader, that this is a very hard thing to do. It’s nigh on to impossible not to want to imitate the style of a writer you admire, or to tone down what you want to say because it might offend.

The business of writing is schitzophrenic, to say the least. You want to be published, you want to be read. You want to be liked. And yet, you want to - dare I say it? - create art. And the only way to do that, I sometimes fear, is to dig as deep as you can for your own truth. These days, if your truth is a certain kind of ugly, that’s often admired by the literati and disliked by the reading public. If your truth is sweet and hopeful, you stand in danger of being disdained by the literati, yet loved by readers. My truth has a little of both sweet and ugly. My fear is that if I tell it, I’ll be disdained by the literati AND disliked by readers. How's that for writerly neuroses?

Well, what can you do? Go for it and damn the torpedoes.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Question

Charles here.


Like most authors, I seek every opportunity I can to talk about my books and the writing process in general. And, like most every author, I know that at these events I’ll inevitably be asked The Question.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

We get asked this question so many times that some authors have come up with witty responses they always use: “I buy them in bulk from K-Mart”, “Online, same place I get my porn”, “I just go out and kill people and take really good notes.” Others say something like, “No idea” or “If you find out let me know,” and I’ll admit, I’ve used a few of these over the years myself. We get asked it so many times that we forget that it’s a real question, that the person who asked it is truly curious how our little minds work. While this might prove to be impossible, here’s how I believe I develop my ideas.

I start with a basic broad idea, say a mystery set in India, and from there I make a mental list of all the things that could go in that frame. I know, that’s huge, but since I focus on adventure mysteries (as opposed to whodunits) and my protagonists are average Joes, I’m already narrowing down the list. And since I don’t do politics, mention nuclear weapons, involve CIA/MI5/Black Ops plot lines or write historical mysteries, I cut that list even further. And since I like to keep my stories on the move, I know that I’ll be taking in many locations at a rapid pace. When you consider that all that is done subconsciously as I create my mental list, that list can get focused rather quickly.

Take Nobel Lies, the book that will be published in September. Since my first visit to Thailand, I knew that it would be a great setting for a fast-paced adventure and I had been forming plot lines in my head for years. Then the 2004 tsunami hit. Phi Phi Island, our favorite Thai vacation spot, was leveled and scores of people we had come to know were killed. I knew I couldn’t write any story about the Thailand I knew without the tsunami. Give the size of the disaster (and the relative insignificance of any adventure I would tie to it) I saw three possible directions – the adventure ending with the tsunami, the adventure starting with the tsunami or the adventure taking place after the tsunami.

Ending with the tsunami was out for me – no matter what I tried to write I wouldn’t be able to capture the terror of the real event. That’s not a knock on me; no writer can. And I know I didn’t want to start with the tsunami since my fictitious story would pale compared to the reality that would have to be all around. So that left me with a post-tsunami adventure.

I traveled to Thailand for the one-year anniversary of the event and I saw that it had recovered enough to seem ‘normal’ but there were scars all around to remind what had happened. So, the story would take place one year or more after the tsunami.

As for the plot, I knew it wouldn’t be murder. With 230,000 killed as a result of the tsunami, I felt I couldn’t work up enough interest in one more death. Yeah, that’s the job of an author and it can be done, but not by me. I guess I knew too many who died on Phi Phi to add to the carnage. (That said, I did rack up an impressive body count in the final product, but I didn’t know that when I started.) So how about someone missing? Approximately 40,000 people still remain unaccounted for. And what if you were looking for just one of those people?

My next list ran down reasons why that person hadn’t come forward on his/her own – amnesia, they were being held against their will, they didn’t want to be found…hmmm…not wanting to be found. Why not? And what if you found them, then what?

It goes on like this for months, making mental lists, creating possible roads – most all with dead-ends – until a story develops. Okay, so it’s nothing shocking here, no exciting revelations, but that’s how I believe I develop my ideas.

And I say believe since I may have simply convinced myself that this is how I do it.

So the lesson here? The Question is more interesting than the answer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Relaxing

Rick here.

My life has changed significantly lately. After stepping down as Crime Writers of Canada president after two glorious years in office (derisive snort injected here), I actually have a bit of time on my hands, something that's been in short supply since 2001 when I "retired" from teaching music at age 50.

My wife and I just got back from 9 days in the wilderness of Eastern Ontario near Lanark where we stayed in our friends' 1830 log home on an old 100-acre farm. We weren't really doing the pioneer thing since they now have water, a bathroom, an electric stove (replacing the old wood range), but it's still pretty basic. And that's the reason we like it. (We identified 44 species of birds!)

It took about 3 days to just sort my brain out, take a deep breath and slow everything down to the right speed, instead of the hyperdrive at which I generally live life. Since the place has a nice screen porch (also added on by our friends, giving a view of a 4-acre pond they had dug (ditto), I spent a good chunk of down time sitting there, looking at nature and reading.

Years ago, I used to read a book or two a week. Then came kids, 2 jobs (sometimes 3 if I was playing), my own writing, and just life in general. I keep a reader's journal, and in looking back at 2006, I found to my horror that I'd only read 5 books!

Well, I remedied that on my time off. I read 5 there and finished 1 more since returning home. So now I'm 1 ahead of last year's sorry total and it's only July. I plan to double that over the next 2 months. Now that's a goal I can get into!

But just to keep my workaholic ways honed to razor sharpness, I also began my next novel, contacted a bunch of people from whom I'm going to need information, practised trumpet, and began drafting changes I'd like to see with CWC's Arthur Ellis Awards of which I'm chair for next year.

I won't repeat what my darling wife said about that last part, since I was for me to totally relax.

Enjoy your own holidays whenever they occur!

Monday, July 09, 2007

So Happy to Meet You

Hello, all. Donis Casey, here, author of the Alafair Tucker Mystery series. I've been invited to join this lovely group by fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors Vicki Delany and Charles Benoit, and I'm more than thrilled to accept. Vicki asked if I would be the regular Saturday contributor, so this entry is just to say hello and make sure my spotty computer skills are up to the task. By way of quick introduction, I have two novels currently in print; The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, which came out in 2005, and last year's Hornswoggled. The third book in the series, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is coming out this fall. The series features a mother of ten children, and is set in the 1910's. My web site address is http://www.doniscasey.com/.That's all for now, except to say that I'm glad to be here. I'll see you on Saturday, and give you all the skinny on myself and the books.
draft

Getting the Blues Out

I’m new here, and appreciate the opportunity to be part of this illustrious group of mystery writers. Probably I should spend a few lines introducing myself, but there’s something else on my mind this morning. I’ve got a case of Mother’s Blues, and I know I’m not alone.

Last August, when my older son left for his first year of college, I had the blues bad. The fact that we live in Honolulu and he chose a university in Boston didn’t help. I was morose for weeks. I choked up at family pictures scattered about the house, the ones of our boys at six and eight, cute bright-eyed sprites who hugged each other for the camera. Then came the photos of their early teens, when they sprouted into string beans and settled into high school sports, driving, and girl friends.

As parents, we know these days are precious, but time accelerates. It goes even faster when we collapse into bed after days of scrambling to find lost homework under beds and in the pockets of laundered jeans, tracking down the escaped pet rat, and responding to teachers’ phone calls about lapses—and accomplishments. Then there are the New Drivers License Days, when with quaking knees, we allow the kid to take the family car (in our case a 1995 Ford Explorer tank) onto public roads and—gulp—the freeway.

One would think I’d remember the fights and other fracases. When the younger one pinched the older just as the camera’s shutter button clicked, or when the older one demanded use of the Explorer, more to declare his seniority/superiority than out of need. Then there’s the car itself: its duct-taped headlights, the jammed radio antenna that howls with futile desperation, the hanging fenders and misaligned hood. It looks like an escapee from the Bumper Car Ride at the state fair.

Nature made us mothers so that we forget the agonies and remember the joys, even when those come with the blues. Predictably, when the older one left two days ago to begin a summer job in San Francisco, I plunged into the dumps again. I know, we raised him to go out and explore the world, seek new challenges, and learn as much as he can. And he’s doing it. But I’m sad, because I miss him. I miss having the family together.

One of the best ways for me to get out of this slump is to write. My third book in the Hawai‘i mystery series comes out in a few weeks. And I’m well into writing the fourth, as I know how busy it gets when the new book comes into the stores and is available online. But ack! I just passed his room. Mismatched socks and empty clothes hangers litter the spotted carpet. A pile of clothes that wouldn’t fit in his two giant suitcases spill from the unmade bed, layered with piles of papers, old receipts, gum wrappers...you get the picture. I should read this kid the riot act, but I won’t. I’ll phone him tonight to make sure he’s enjoying his new job and tell him I miss him. And I’m going to put my energy into this book. The room can wait.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Simple Life

Like a throwback to days of yore, I'm settled comfortably into my new housesit, and I have to do without cell phone coverage (gasp) and use a... are you ready?... dial-up Internet connection. Hard to believe, isn't it? I actually have to phone my cell phone number to pick up any voice mail messages and wait for a second or two for my online warfish game screen to refresh.
Not only that, but to do my day's work, I put on my coveralls with torn bib and straw hat and whistle for the dogs. And at night I have to walk around the house opening all the windows and raising the blinds to let the cool air in because they don't have air conditioning.
How, you are probably asking, can I endure it?
Easy. The peace here is incredible. I'm looking after a lovely, lovely property outside of Nelson. They have several acres of vegetable gardens, flower beds, and woods. It being July the planting has all been done, so all I have to do is water, weed and eat the produce. Hold on a minute while I have a munch of lettuce leaves picked about 5 minutes ago with homemade dressing (bet you didn't know there was such a thing as homemade dressing). It has been incredibly hot - 42 degrees Celsius said the sign in town earlier - 39 said the thermometer in the shade of the front porch. Yup, I even have a wrap around porch. With the heat, and no rain, comes the threat of fire of course, so one of my tasks is to keep the perimeter of the property moist. And one very nice thing about the Kootenays is that although the days can get incredibly hot, the nights are very pleasant. Unlike Toronto where the furnace rages day and night.
They have two dogs, about the size of small horses. Fortunately my own little mutt is getting on with them fine. Something about the dignity of old age perhaps. Did I mention that this is Grizzly territory? Shenzi has had a bell added to her collar - so I can find her in the woods, and also so that the bears will hear her coming. And run in terror before they see the size of her and fall down laughing.
All of which has little to do with writing mysteries, but I'm getting to that. Tonight I'm going for my second walk-along with the beat constable in town. I'll be with him from 11 to 1. Way past my bedtime (we country folk to go bed early, you know), but that's apparently when the action takes place. There is usually not much trouble on the streets of a small town between six and eight, they tell me.
Vicki

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Victorian Secret

Calling all Victorian Lovers. No, not lovers from the Victorian era (although based on the mores of the time they’d be a freakishly fun lot to chat with) – I’m talking about those of you who are enamored with the architecture, decorating styles and furniture from c.1860-1900. Are we clear now?

There are a lot of you out there, too. I don’t know why so many mystery readers fit that category, perhaps it’s a Holmes-ian thing, but you can’t swing a rare dark blue Hobnail art-glass library lamp with a solid brass frame and burner assembly without hitting a Mystery aficionado/Victoriophile. Give it a try – you’ll see what I mean.

Now I must hasten to clarify that I am not a fan of the Victorian style. Oh I appreciate it, I think it’s interesting in a historical/architectural way, but I’m much more of a ultra-modern, cool-line, Depression Modern, Lounge Retro sort of guy. And that’s why I’m so surprised I had such a great time at the Adelphi Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York.

This past weekend Rose and I spent a wonderful night at this amazing historic hotel. From the façade to the lobby to the lift to the hallways to the rooms is crammed pack with Victorian furniture, bric-a-brac and artwork. The bathrooms are mercifully up to date but other than that, you are in the 1880s. It’s High Victorian living – even if it’s just for the weekend. Which is just about my limit for High Victorian living.

And if you’re a Mystery Lover, you can’t help but look around everywhere for a body of some Earl with a gold-plated letter holder (with a brass cameo on an elegant and ornate floral setting) in his back. I didn’t find any but I’ll be honest, I didn’t look too hard.

Saratoga itself is a fine town with much to see and do – and you can’t miss The Lyrical Balled bookstore. A fine selection of used hardcover and paperback mysteries as well as a choice selection of rare collectables. You’ve got to stop in just to see the vault.

Now the Adelphi is only open in the summer months and during the late August race season the prices are truly frightening, but if you are looking for a fun summer getaway back in time, you can’t top the Adelphi. And be sure to spend the extra $30 for a suite.

The only drawback of the hotel? Narrow, short twin beds. So if you are Victorian lovers – or mystery lovers you’re in for a tricky tryst.