Tuesday, September 30, 2008
(Paris) Well, it's been an interesting few days. In case you don't already know, I'm in Paris this week to do a spot of research on the book, the first draft of which is nearly complete. If you want to know why I research in such a backwards-seeming way, you'll have to read some of my recent blog entries.
One of the things I love doing is to visit places I've already written about without having seen. Take the Pont du Sully which crosses the Seine east of Notre Dame cathedral. Having at least already seen it on the Internet, I knew what to expect, but having stood on it yesterday, walking its length on both sides, I know a lot more about the structure and what you can see and feel and imagine when you're on it. At the northern end, something very critical to my story happens, and Vicki (my faithful translator and porter) and I spent about 45 minutes discussing, taking reference photos and trying to figure out how to make it all work. With the details I gleaned from having seen it, smelled it, trod it, this part of the story will be a lot richer.
No, I'm not going to throw in every little detail, but I can now revise this section of the book with complete confidence. If anyone who reads the book actually knows this little corner of Paris, they will then believe anything I tell them. Since I plan on still lying to them a lot -- this is fiction after all -- I will have their complete trust.
We ran our little feet off yesterday (many miles and seven hours) but I've now "bagged" a lot of the locations I needed. So far, my guesses about Paris from back home in Toronto have all worked out. We still have some major work to do, but I have a good feeling that this trip will pay off in added detail and richness. Somehow I've got to fit a good taste of it in without slowing down the storyline, but I've managed to do it in the past -- at least I hope I did.
Only readers can tell me.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
So last week I told you I would be attending a seminar on blogging and would share the secrets I learned. I think the most important thing I learned was this: when a seminar is announced, always read the names of people selected to attend that seminar and don’t simply assume that you’d be one of them.
My colleagues who did attend, however, said it was quite informative.
In their blogs from this week, Rick and Debby wonder what it would be like to write a book that takes place in a specific location without ever actually going to the place yourself. Now if you’ve had the pleasure to hear me ramble on about my books, you know that I go through great pains to visit every place I write about, insisting that there are details you have to actually see to be able to describe accurately. That writing philosophy has taken me around the world a few times and into places that are not even mentioned in the Unbelievably Lonely Planet Guide.* However, I’m currently knee-deep in writing a book that takes place during WWII in Nazi Germany, a place that I can’t go visit even if I wanted to (and I wouldn’t). But you know what? If I do say so myself, it sure reads like I was there.
Fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors Mary Reed and Eric Mayer write a historical series often set in 6th century Constantinople. Now I’ve been to modern Istanbul (see clarification) both before and after reading John the Eunuch’s adventures and let me tell you, the novels make excellent guidebooks. Yet neither Reed nor Mayer have been to Istanbul (or Constantinople). So it can be done and done well.
And it’s also done by most (all?) historical novelists, futurists, inside-the-head-of-the-mad-killerists, Sherlockians, and fantasy writers (both sword & sorcery and Penthouse Forum stories since neither take place in the real world). So why not in a mystery?
But this writing what we don’t physically know is also done by most mystery writers, too. Very few of us have ever been to a murder scene, fired a gun in anger, been held by the cops for questioning, found a clue, been chased across rooftops or held at knifepoint by a naked hooker while her equally naked and quite stoned girlfriend cleaned out your wallet, tossing the keys to your motorcycle into a dumpster outside the hourly-rate motel. Okay, maybe the last one, but there’s so much we write about that we haven’t experienced and yet it still sounds believable. That, dear reader/writer, is our job.
So go ahead, Rick, go ahead Debby, write about places you’ve never seen. I’ve read enough of your works to know that not only will you convince us you’ve seen it, you’ll convince us you live there now. Even if it’s 15th century China.
*You may be thinking that, since I so accurately described an Egyptian jail cell in Relative Danger, I must have spent time in an Egyptian jail. No, I’ve never been in an Egyptian jail so I had to use my experience in other jails to accurately capture the mood.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Rick got my wheels turning on an intriguing idea. I live in Honolulu, and Hawaii is a fairly popular site for novels. Like anyplace else (Paris, London, Chicago, Akron, Ottawa, fill in the blank), Hawaii has its idiosyncrasies, and most of them are little tidbits that one wouldn’t know unless one lived here—or used to live here, and long enough to get a good feel for the lay of the land, the rhythms of the language, and the cultural variations.
So I’m wondering—can an author pen a book where the protagonist lives in a place that the author doesn’t know extremely well? The writer could have the protagonist visit, no problem, because the writer can attribute lack of knowledge to the character. I’ve heard other writers discuss this—Sue Henry, who places most of her stories in her home state, Alaska, comes to mind. Sue did a delightful book set on the Big Island, but her character was visiting from Alaska. I found the story highly entertaining and didn’t see any blunders. I also heard Sue say that she didn’t believe someone could write about a contemporary place (historical novels are another situation all together) without living there.
I remember a library friend telling me about a mystery set in Hawaii where the death occurred when a palm tree fell on a person. We both scoffed--a coconut maybe, but not a palm tree. And how to get those coconuts, at least thirty feet up a stalk, to fall at the right time? The librarian didn’t finish the book. A good friend and excellent writer once had a scene at a Hawaii high school graduation where the students threw their caps into the air. But the students at that high school wear holoku (a muu muu-like dress) and navy jackets at graduation instead of caps and gowns. Not a big mistake, but one that a local author wouldn't make.
How does one know this stuff—the things that make a story ring with authenticity—unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the location? I’m not sure you do. Even the Internet can’t tell you the things you don’t know to ask. Heck, I’ve written streets wrong and had someone make a left instead of a right at the wrong place—and that’s on the streets I drive almost every day. So what do the rest of you think? Aside from the fact that I have a faulty sense of direction, that is.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
I've spent pretty well most of my time the past week or so in Paris. Ah, Paris, the city of light, the city of love. It is so beautiful and interesting. Everywhere you turn, there's something worth noting.
I imagine I'm really going to like it there.
Confused? You needn't be. I'm not actually getting on a plane to go there until Friday evening. I've been in Paris via my imagination, and it's gotten to the point where my brain is so stuffed with Parisian factoids that I had a dream about it last night. I was crossing the Seine on the Pont de Sully, a structure I've only seen in photos and read about. It's going to be the first place I go out and explore, not because it might make it into my book, but because I want to see how close my dream got to the reality of it.
I'm not saying I have the most vivid imagination in the world. I don't, but what I have are twenty-two books, anecdotes from the many people I've spoken with about France's capitol, and the Internet, mostly the Internet.
This is such a powerful tool for writers, I don't know why they don't devote a unit to it in creative writing classes. You can look up nearly anything you want to know. You can use Google maps to zero in on something to the point where you can see individual people (makes me think of personal missile strikes being ordered by "them"). In the case of popular locations, you can see them in real time.
I'm NOT going to ever try this, but it would be an intriguing exercise to write a whole book and use a location that has a great deal written about it -- like Paris -- but never visit it. Then passing the resulting work to people who live there and find out how close I managed to get. Hmmm... Having read a few suspect novels, I believe this may already have been tried. Badly.
So, starting Saturday morning, I'm going to grab my video camera, still camera, half-filled notebook and heavily annotated map, and head out onto the streets of Paris with my darling wife and translator. (Thank the Lord she's totally bilingual, because I sure ain't!)
Will we be visiting the Louvre? Notre Dame? The Eiffel Tower?
We'll be visiting the places I've already been to -- virtually. We're going to find out if my imagination is any good. If it has failed me, then we're on site to discover a place that does fit what I've written. Or a place that could work if I rewrite the offending section of the book.
You see, I can do those sorts of things because, as fiction writers, we do lie for a living, don't we?
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Once Charles has attended his blogging seminar, I hope he will take all the fabulous ideas he has garnered, adapt them for writers, and pass them on to the rest of us.
When my turn to blog rolls around every Saturday, I do the same thing Charles relates and re-read my blog mates’ entries in hopes that I can think of something to add to their obviously carefully thought-out topics.
Carefully thought out. All right, probably not so much, most of the time. We’re all writers, and I’m guessing that most of us have the ability to carry on about nothing. To tell you the truth, I usually have nothing in mind whatsoever when I sit down to write. I simply try to steal an idea from the others, and if I can’t, I just carry on about the first thing that comes to my mind. Normally, it has to do with the writing life, since that is what occupies me the most, but as you may have noticed, Dear Reader, that is certainly not always the case.
In fact, today I am thinking about yard work. Since Don took a header over the garden hose last week, I’ve been doing the yard work, and I discover that I am ill-adapted for the heavier stuff any more. I’ve been using the weed-whacker a lot on the flood-encouraged jungle of grass - and not your normal everyday weed-whacker, either, but the king-sized, industrial strength weed-whacker that will cut down saplings and decorative fence posts. The weight and the vibration seems to temporarily numb the nerves in my hands and make it difficult for me to hold on to anything or make my fingers behave at all for a while. After I came indoors and took a shower, I attempted to put on makeup and discovered that I couldn’t grip the eyeliner pencil correctly, so I ended up having to hold in my fist like a club. Even so, my hand shook and I had to steady it with my other hand. If you have ever tried to put on eye liner while holding the pencil like a baseball bat, let me assure you that the result is less than satisfactory.
I learned this stream-of-consciousness style of writing from my mother, from letters she wrote to us, back when people wrote letters to each other. She wrote page after page about absolutely nothing - about her life, about what she was doing and thinking, how the garden was doing. They were fascinating masterpieces that would make James Joyce eat his heart out. In my family, to this day my sibs and I call them “I’ve got a tomato” letters. Never never never think you have nothing interesting to say. The human thought process itself if endlessly amazing, and it is not necessarily what you write about that makes it fun or interesting to read, but how you write about it.
Rob Levandoski’s death was shocking to me, as is the passing of anyone so unexpectedly. I didn’t know Rob well, but I read his blog and his books, and regret I didn’t get to know him better. Charles’ comment about authors whose books he read after they had died reminded me of an incident that happened to me many years ago, when I lived in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France. We would take the train in to Nice once a week to visit the Anglo-American library and check out an armload of English language books. Most of the books in that library were classics, and I ended up reading nearly every work of Mark Twain’s. Anyone who has read my novels can see what an influence he had on my writing. I got to know Twain so well, and grew so fond of him as a person, that In the middle of reading his autobiography, I was suddenly overcome with real grief that he was dead, and I would never get to meet him on this side the veil. I think of this when I write. A writer is not only connecting with her contemporaries, but with people not born yet.
I meant to comment about the NY Mag article Rick mentioned (see below), but I’m going on too long, so I’ll just say “read it.”
Finally, if anyone out there has or knows someone who has a genetic disorder called MEN1 (Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia type 1), please go to my website and contact me. I’m looking for information.
Now I’m off to read some P.G. Wodehouse.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Next Thursday the copywriters at the ad agency are all off to a one-day seminar about blogging and I’m honestly looking forward to it. I’m sure that it will have an advertising spin to it (How to start a blog for your client and make it look like the postings are from real consumers, How to make a blog sticky and buzz worthy, How to actually come up with things to say about products that aren’t all that exciting…), but I’m still excited to attend. Hopefully they’ll cover stuff like “It’s Ten Minutes to Deadline: Coming Up with Killer Blog Topics on the Fly” or “Is There Anyone Out There?: How to Tell if You’re the Only One Reading Your Blog.” I could use these topics, not for work but for, well, this.
Until I attend that seminar, I’ll have to go about writing blogs the same way I have these past two years or so and I thought that I’d write about how I pick a topic and write on it ever week and, after all that time and all those blogs, still bring untold joy to my fans. And you both know who you are.
The first thing I do is re-read what my fellow Type M bloggers have written and see if I can add something worthy to the conversation. Sunday started with Donis’ interview with guest blogger Carolyn D. Wall who recounted her amazing path to publication and the ups and downs she has experienced since then. Her story (see below) is a lot more interesting than mine (wrote book, sent it in, got it published) so, if I was hunting for a topic to write on, I would not attempt to follow her lead.
Normally I’d next read Vicki’s blog but she’s off in South Africa and anything she would say from South Africa would be more interesting than anything I could say from Rochester, so I’ll just pretend she didn’t blog this week—which she didn’t, but I like pretending.
So, that takes me to Rick’s entry in which he skillfully analyzes current trends in the publishing industry—complete with a hyper link to a New York magazine article—drawing deft analogies to the music biz and his never-say-die life philosophy. Again, as the Friday morning deadline approaches, I’d reread Rick’s entry and, as I have so many times before, choose not to comment on his points since the less I say, the smarter I can continue looking. At least to myself. Someday Rick will write on a simple topic, say, which character on Futurama would I want to meet (Bender) or what was the lamest pop song of all time (Phil Collins, In the Air Tonight) or which is cuter, laughing babies or silly dogs (babies, hands down). But no, Rick always elevates the conversation and for a guy looking for a coattail to ride, his is a tad out of my reach.
Debby writes on Thursdays and this past Thursday she wrote a touching entry on the recent passing of Rob Levandoski. I realize now, of course, that I didn’t know Rob as well as I could have or should have and reading Debby’s entry I thought of all the people I only know casually that I wish I knew better and it made me think of the many authors whose books I first read years after they had died. And—you’d have to know me and my only-one-life philosophy to understand this part—it made me smile to think that there will be one or two readers who will first pick up one of my books when I’m gone too. But mostly I thought about Rob and how he will be missed by everyone who knew him.
So now it’s Friday and I still don’t have any unique angle or anything poignant to add to the discussions posted by my fellow bloggers, so I guess I’ll just bow out quietly, assuring you that next week I’ll have something interesting to say. Just as long as somebody doesn’t say it before me.
PS - be sure to check out the guest blog I wrote for Patti Abbot's website
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Rob's passing shocked me in the way that all of us react when someone we know dies suddenly, and too young. But at my age (about that of Rob), these shocks are coming too often. Which got me thinking about a number of things. First thing I did after reading the tributes to Rob on his blog, http://www.thelittleblogofmurder.com/ was to order one of his books. I got on the Poisoned Pen Press website (they make it easy to do this) and ordered Dig, which sounded like flat-out fun. Those of you who are way ahead of me can tell me what to read next. I also ordered Carolyn Wall’s book, Sweeping up Glass. Thanks for blogging with us, Carolyn! And thanks, Donis, for asking her.
Which brings me back from my little side-track. Time is going by too fast. Life gets busy. I put things off—like ordering books, taking a trip with my sisters, taking that piano class at the local community college, doing a bike tour of the Canadian Rockies. Yikes, some of this I’ve got to do while I can still ignore the creaking in my knees.
Professionally, I’m trying to write better. On a personal level, I’m trying to be more patient, tolerant, and a better friend/mom/wife. Most of all, I’m taking a long moment to think about the people I love and appreciate them. And I’m going to do it more often.
Rob, I hope you’re having a fine single malt with some of the excellent writers that have preceded you this year: Mickey Spillane, Gregory McDonald, Arthur C. Clark, Carolyn Heilbrun, and Magdalen Nabb come to mind. God bless.
We haven't discussed the state of the publishing industry in a while, and being authors, it's something that we should keep close watch on at all times. Those who can stay ahead of the wave -- or at least try to ride on it -- will do well. Don't notice that fast approaching wall of water at your own peril!
So, to start off this discussion, you will need to read the following article. It comes from New York, the epicenter of the publishing world and it bears careful scrutiny!
Where does all this doom and gloom reporting leave us poor authors? In many ways, not in a good place. Most of us are going to be told what to do by our publishers, in fact, that's the way many of us prefer to work -- until the publisher tells you to get lost, or worse yet, goes belly up.
But the reality is this (as I've said in this blog before): the publishing industry is going to be shaken up like never before. In fact, the process has already begun. Know what's happened in the music business? Our industry is going to go through the same thing. And the ride could well be even rougher.
What can we do? Well, if I really knew, I would stop where I am in my current novel, forget the trip to Paris, and get out on the lecture/TV circuit, starting a new career as Rick Blechta, Publishing Guru. Or how about this? The Publishing Futurist?
Alas, I don't have that knowledge, so I'll keep writing and keep travelling (poor baby).
But I'm not going to stop thinking and reading. I don't know where the wave is, but I can hear the sound of rushing water -- and I'm damn well going to keep my eyes open.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Carolyn D. Wall’s debut novel, Sweeping Up Glass, has enjoyed one of the most amazing paths to publication I have ever heard of. The novel was accepted by Poisoned Pen Press, and when the ARC was sent to reviewers, it received such a reception that PPP sold the rights to Bantam for hardcover publication in the summer of ’09. PPP retained rights to publish just one thousand copies in August of ’08, one of which I am lucky enough to own (signed by the author, yet!)
This may be Carolyn’s first published novel, but she hardly sprang from nowhere. She is a full-time freelance writer and lecturer who has written thousands of stories and articles and produced and recorded a six-weeks course in journaling entitled The Journaling Tapes: Writing from the Heart. Obviously, the woman knows whereof she speaks. Martha Beck, columnist of O, The Oprah Magazine, writes that “Sweeping Up Glass deserves a place on the shelf next to classics like True Grit and To Kill A Mockingbird.”
What would you ask Carolyn if you had a chance? I actually did have the chance.
Donis: How was this book born?
Carolyn: Big question! It was a conglomerate of bits from my life, symbolic of my family, social issues and things I’m passionate about, snippets from my neighborhood, wonderful things I’ve heard and stored up. For example, when I was born we lived over a grocery store. I absolutely adored my father, as Olivia does hers. Mine worked hard at many jobs – RCA Victor, Canada Box, selling meat pies from his bicycle basket and so on. While he was adept at angering my mother (so was I), he never operated a still!
D: Silver-faced wolves are an almost mystical presence in the book. Did these animals ever actually exist in Kentucky?
C: Research showed me that there were never any wolves in Kentucky. So I invented that whole thing – had “Pap” haul them down from Alaska, allowed that it took him a long time to trap them. I told how deeply he cared for them, that they adapted and did multiply, but remained endangered.
D: Where did the title come from?
C: The book was originally called The Judas Hunter. In my heart, I never felt it fit the book well. Also, it was misleading: was Judas doing the hunting, or was someone hunting Judas? The book’s theme is: things often aren’t what you think they are. So Judas was metaphoric for those who lied, betrayed, and so on. So at the last moment I was desperate for a strong title. I scanned the book’s pages on my computer screen and hit upon the moment when the bad guys break into the grocery store. The next morning, Olivia and the boy are kneeling on the floor, scooping up coffee grounds and … sweeping up glass. Eureka!
D: What is your next project?
C: I have just finished The Coffin Maker. Both books were resold to Bantam Dell and in several other countries. The Coffin Maker stars Flannery Christian and her band of not-so-merry men. Then, of course, there’s Lupe who killed the janitor, and Raven who reads chicken bones. This book addresses an issue that’s attached to the Mexican-American immigration thing, but is something I’ve never heard anyone speak of. It’s designed to poke some sticks, but New York assures me that’s fine and dandy.
D: How are you handling book promotion? Do you have a publicist?
C: About the publicity thing: at this point, I don’t have a publicist, and have no plans to hire one. So far, I choose the appearances that sound like fun and that will sell the most books. I love to talk – put a microphone in my hand and turn me on. And I love to travel, but yes, it gets expensive. So I do pick carefully, and I wait to see who offers what.
D: This has all happened so unexpectedly. Is there a not-so-rosy side to all the sudden attention?
C: I’m so grateful for the press coverage, and the honors that are being accorded Glass. The leverage of the universe never fails to astound me. On the flip side, or maybe in the same vein, it’s amazing the number of people who attach themselves when your name begins to mean something artistically. Several people I barely know have opted to address editors, agents and reviewers, using my name, calling me “dear friend”, saying I referred them. It sheds a whole new light on those wiggly little critters doctors used to attach to the skin, to draw blood. Tho only word that comes to me is “ick.” But this story takes the cake: a nice writer-guy named Fred recounts that he was approached by a man claiming to have AIDS/HIV, wanting Fred’s financial support while he “put up a cornfield” next to the store that sold Fred’s books.
In the end, the best advice came from you, Donis “ it’s the test of the rich and famous”, you said. What I really heard was, “Oh, poor you. We should all have that problem. Suck it up.”
You were right.
So I did.
D: Where can people read more about you and your work?
C: My website is www.carolyndwall.com.
Here is the moral that all aspiring writers should learn from Carolyn’s experience. Write well, children, write well, and you shall be rewarded in the end. Oh, and P.S., Carolyn is a fellow Oklahoman. I’m not too proud to latch on to that kinship. - Donis -
Saturday, September 13, 2008
My blog mates lead such exciting lives. If they don’t live in Hawaii, they’re flitting around Paris or Bangkok or Cape Town. They buy new houses in the Canadian countryside and host cool jazz radio programs and play cool jazz themselves. As for me, well...
Summer has finally abated here in the Sonoran Desert. It’s been under 100 degrees for three days in a row. We’ve had a lot of rain, for here. Don mowed down the backyard jungle last week, and now it’s knee high again. I’ve been doing a lot of work on stuff other than my book, which I need to do, I guess, but I sure miss that book. My niece is in the hospital with some mysterious ailment the doctors can’t diagnose. Don tripped over the garden hose and bruised the hell out of himself. My cat died last week.
For many years now, I have been a student of Zen, which I love, because it’s very helpful at times like these. It’s also pretty funny, and anything that’s pretty funny is okay with me. Years ago, I went to my first meditation retreat with some trepidation, since I had heard that during sitting meditation, the sensei prowls around the room with a long stick and occasionally whacks the hell out of you when you least expect it. The point of this is to make you be totally in the present, and believe me, when you think you’re about to get smacked at any minute, you actually quiver with awareness. As it turned out, our sensei told us that he quit doing that because his students seemed to enjoy it too much. So I’ve never actually been assaulted while meditating.
I’m sure most of you Dear Readers have heard of koans, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping,” those apparently senseless little sayings and stories that you can ponder on all day, but really don’t mean anything. Here is one of my favorites:
A Zen master was teaching his students when a cat wandered into the room. The master picked up a cleaver and said, “If any of you can tell me the true meaning of existence, I won’t kill this cat.” Not one student said anything, so the master whacked the cat, and his students ran out of the room, horrified. The next day, the master was relating the incident to another sensei. “I said, if any of you can tell me the true meaning of existence, I won’t kill this cat.” The second master sat there for a moment, then hung his shoes on his ears and danced out of the room. As he disappeared, the first master yelled after him, “If you’d been here yesterday, that cat would have lived!”
(Please don’t get all het up, cat lovers. It didn’t really happen.)
Or how about this one : Two masters were debating which of their teaching methods was best when a disheveled drunk burst into the room, kicked the crap out of the first master, and ran out. “Who was that!” he cried. “That was one of my students,” said the second master. “You win,” said the first master.
Ah, I’m feeling better already.
Now for a little business. There is a very nice review of Rick’s A Case of You in the latest Mystery Scene. Reviewer Betty Webb calls it “intriguing and haunting. You can almost hear Blechta, himself a jazz musician, singing ‘Mamas, don’t let our babies grow up to be jazz musicians.’”
And last but not least, tomorrow’s guest blogger is Carolyn Wall, author of the astounding Sweeping Up Glass. If you have ever wondered if it’s possible for something wonderful to happen to a debut novelist, Carolyn’s story will prove beyond doubt that it can.
Friday, September 12, 2008
One or two of you (which would be all of you who read my entries) may know that in addition to writing award-winning and breathtakingly brilliant novels, single-handedly fueling the economy with my advertising skills and redefining tonality on the tenor sax, I also am head writer, producer, artistic coordinator, director and host of The Smart Set, a weekly hour-long program dedicated to the plain fact that swing music is alive and kicking ass. If you’re a listener, then you know it’s a fun-filled 60 minutes, with great (if sometimes obscure) music and witty banter, all broadcast seemingly live from raucous and totally fictitious nightclubs throughout Rochester. What you may not know is how long it takes to write each show. I’m not complaining, but I am saying that if you add up the number of words I write each week for the show and consider that I’ve been doing it now for almost 5 years, you realize that, in terms of sheer words, I’ve written a whole novel’s worth of shows.
Here’s a typical opening:
Coming to you live from the Blue Buddha Lounge here at the Tiki Village Motor Inn, this is the Smart Set, Jazz 90 point 1’s weekly dive into the deep end with the Rochester Swing Scene. I’m your host, Charles Benoit. Well, there’s a hot and sweaty crowd here tonight at the Tiki Village Motor Inn, and not just in the hourly-rented rooms. Area hep cats and kittens are wall to wall in the Tiki Village’s famed Blue Buddha Lounge, and are packed into the lagoon pool like rats in a sack. Yes, they’re all here to dance the night away as some of the biggest bands in the biz hit the stage swinging. Lee Presson and the Nails, Ray Gelato and the Giants, The Royal Crown Review, Lavey Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Gene Krupa, and Rochester’s own Cab Calloway – they’re all here and eager to help transform this happy crowd into a drunken mob. Stepping up to the plate, it’s Canada’s own Dino Martinis with a little cautionary tale about premature proposals called Ring
And here’s a mid-show, twixt song mike break:
Whether your listening to the radio, listening to the internet or listening in on a police wiretap, you’re listening to the Smart Set here on member supported Jazz 90 point 1. Tonight we’re broadcasting live from the exotic Club Flamingo where there’s never a cover charge when you spend more than fifty dollars at the bar. And what a bar it is! Yes, no one can ever accuse the Club Flamingo of age discrimination. And remember folks, if you should spot any underage drinkers here at the Club Flamingo be sure to point them out to the management…they’re eligible for a special student discount on all well drinks! Here’s a band that’s a favorite with kids of all ages. It’s the folks of City Rhythm Orchestra with a little tale about a girl named Jack.
Sure, it’s all light and frothy fun, but it takes time to write this stuff. Now I do confess to recycling some lines and there are a few that have become standard lead ins (You’re in tune with Jazz 90 point 1, home of 167 hours of great programming, as well as one hour of the Smart Set… You’re in tune with The Smart Set here on member supported Jazz 90 point 1 and broadcasting around the globe and to all the ships at sea at Jazz 9 zero 1 dot org…) but on the whole it’s new every week. I also introduce the DJ that follows me and his introduction alone takes time. Instead of just saying “Next up it’s Andy Heinze”, I have to say “Back at the Jazz 90 point 1 studios, former phone book entry and the tall man in scene two, Andy Heinze, is ready to put you in a Latin Mood.” Each week Andy gets new descriptors (former ant farmer and horse whisperer… former mattress tag inspector and model citizen… recovering haikuist and confidant to the stars… former world sippy cup star and witness protection participant…endangered grease monkey trainer and champion quick draw artist…). Okay, not Pulitzer Prize stuff, but I’ve had to come up with 2 original and different descriptors just about every week for 5 years. According to my calculations*, that works out to well over 127,000 different introductions!
So why do I do it? Why do I spend about 3 hours each week prepping for a show that maybe 100 people ever hear? First, I love the music and, because the other DJs at Jazz 90.1 know great jazz, there’s little chance any of my favorites will ever make the air otherwise. Second, I like the sound of my own voice, especially when I get to do my smarmy, over-the-top announcer voice. Yes, I’m using right now as I type these very words! What fun!
But the main reason I love doing the show is that I love the writing challenge—coming up with new clubs, staying true to the brands I’ve developed for older clubs (The Imperial Hotel—where subservience is more than a tradition…The Golden Fleece Casino—separating fools from their money since 1958… Blue Buddha Lounge at the Tiki Village Motor Inn—Long a popular destination for adulterous couples and the post-prom crowd, the Tiki Motor Inn is truly a family tradition. Ask your grandparents about their favorite Tiki Village memories, then head to the Blue Buddha lounge and drink till you forget.) And best of all, it’s radio. Ten minutes after the show is over, no one remembers what you said anyway. And no one can point out all the typos that slipped into the final script.
If you live in Rochester, check it out some time (90.1 FM from 5-6pm EST) and if you don’t live in Rochester you can listen live on line at Jazz901.org. And it’s only fitting I close this long blog with a typical Smart Set ending:
As the drunken mob weaves it’s way onto exciting Ridge Road West, we say so long from the Blue Buddha Lounge. Back at the Jazz 90 point 1 studios, former pagan idol and person of interest, Andy Hinez is ready to put you in the mood. I’m your host, Charles Benoit, and I hope you’ll join us again next week because you are The Smart Set.
*2 terms X 52 weeks X 5 = 127,897
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Since I'm in the middle of trying to complete a novel before leaving for Paris to do location scouting for it (more on this ass-backwards way of working later), I'm sort of pressed for time and more than just a little brain dead.
However, since I'm madly at work, I thought I'd share three of the terrific online tools I've found that help move my writing along. They are really good resources, some of which you may know about already, and they certainly will save you a ton of time. I would need to spend countless hours in libraries without them.
First off, there's this site: http://www.onelook.com/
This site provides you instant access to many different dictionaries at once. Want to quickly look up a word and check its usage and entomology in one place? This is it!
For foreign languages: http://www.word2word.com/dictionary.html
Admittedly the dictionaries listed here aren't all THAT great, but if you want to look up a word in Ayapathu, Galician or Javanese, you'll find them here -- and more! Fun to just poke around in if you're wasting time.
Last up is Google Maps: http://maps.google.com/maps
You probably already know about this, but did you know you can look up a lot more than addresses? Use the satellite and terrain features when you just want to check out whether something will work for a scene. Just what is the topography (as opposed to the typography) of Paris? I already know without having to go there!* You can also use the map to find luxury hotels for your character to stay in, where they can catch the Metro. The uses for really quick research forays are really limitless.**
There are more tools I can recommend (and I'm sure you can, too), but like I said, I'm a bit pressed for time. I'd like to say, "See you in the research room of the library," but I know I want find you there after this.
* Okay, so you're probably wondering why I'm going to Paris to do research AFTER I've finished a novel. Here's the drift: yes, I could go first and then write the book, but I've tried that before and there's always a fly in the ointment eventually: what if you didn't really look at that cute little restaurant in ye olde district of town, and then you decide it's the PERFECT place for that second murder you didn't realize would be taking place just before the end of your novel? You have to pack up and head off to that location again, that's what. Now if it's in the next county, big deal, but what if it's on another continent? (Charles' travels come to mind here.) Research can suddenly become hideously expensive when second and third trips get involved.
My way out? Write the novel, go to the city, check out the locations you've already scouted on Google Maps or by talking to people who've been there, then on your foray, you'll know exactly what you need if your best beforehand guesses don't pan out. Trust me, it works.
** Don't always trust the Google Maps has things in the right places. You have to go there or you won't know the post office, contrary to what Google told you, is at the other end of town.
Monday, September 08, 2008
In Valley of the Lost, the second Smith and Winters book coming to a bookstore near you in February, RCMP Constable Adam Tocek has a slightly larger part than he did in In the Shadow of the Glacier. As well as carrying a bit of a torch for Molly, he is the Mountie’s dog handler. All I know about dog handling is how to grip the end of the leash as my mutt Shenzi lunges for a passing Rottweiler. Thus, as Mary Jane Maffini described in yesterday’s entry, research is required.
You can go to the library to take out a book on fashion in the 1820’s; Google to see who was the mayor of New York in 1902 or if Bonn is east or west of Berlin, or the dates of the Hundred Years’s War. If you’re writing history you rely on books and newspapers (Tell me, Uncle Fred, did you have guns in the Hundred Years’ War?)
But real-life stuff is sometimes a bit trickier. You can find plenty of books on dog psychology, or dog training, but for the real nitty-gritty of working with dogs every day, and using dogs in a role like policing you really need to go to the source.
One of the great advantages of living in a small town: I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a police procedural. She told me that there is a retired police dog handler living nearby. Just so happens that he runs boarding kennels where I take the aforementioned mutt!
We had coffee last week, and I sure learned a lot. Here are a couple of interesting things you may not know:
If you need to start a search for a missing person, say a child lost in the woods or an elderly person who has wandered off, DON’T immediately call up all the neighbours to help. For the dog to be any use, he has to be able to find the scent of the person in question which will be lost if two hundred well-meaning neighbours have charged off in all directions. Unlike popular belief, the dogs don’t sniff at a piece of someone’s clothing and then chase the scent. (I had to rewrite a scene once I learned that). If you give the dog, say, a child’s pyjamas, the dog doesn’t know what scent on those pyjamas to follow. Say the dad’s a heavy smoker – the pyjamas are full of the smell of cigarettes and the dog traces the scent straight to the source – Dad. If there is a clearly defined starting point to take the dog – such as a footprint in the ground, the dog can pick up the scent at that point and then follow it. But without a starting scent to pick up, all he does is follow the scent most recently laid down. Thus if the route the lost person has taken is criss-crossed by others, the dog is pretty much useless.
When searching for a suspect, say someone who stole a car and abandoned it on a country road, the police set up cars at all the access points with lights flashing and the odd siren going off while the dog tracks the bad guys. Why all the light and noise? Because panic changes body odour, making the bad guy easier for the dog to locate.
Police dogs know two kinds of ‘find’. They can hunt down the bad guys and corner them, attack if the person does anything other than freeze, and they can track a lost child – a friendly find – and lick the child’s face when found (sometimes they pee on them!)
My source (I won’t use his name because I haven’t asked permission yet) doesn’t believe in using treats in training. The dog’s only reward, he says, should be to make you, his master, happy. If they’re working for anything other than to make you happy, then you’ve lost a vital motivation.
Excuse me while I take Shenzi out back and train her to be a top-class search and rescue dog.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Ah September. For me it's always meant the start of the real new year and the traditional making of lists for school and family activities. That habit lingered long after my children fled the nest, screaming. I was working on this year's list when Rick Blechta kindly asked me to guest blog. I thought I'd share my top ten reasons to become a mystery writer. I'm glad I made that switch, and so I'll make the case.
The number one benefit? Revenge. If a stranger cuts you off on the highway, say, for the sake of argument some guy in a black Cadillac Escalade, you can get that road rage out of your system by sending him to a fiery finale and squashing his flashy vehicle. Okay, fictional, but very very satisfying. Plus, your acquaintances may start to think you're dangerous, which is lovely.
Then there are the people, some of them very strange, who move into your brain. I share headspace with Camilla MacPhee, a grouchy lawyer and victims' advocate, Fiona Silk, reluctant investigator and good drinking buddy, and Charlotte Adams, professional organizer and amateur sleuth. Once your own characters take up residence, you'll always have someone to talk to and you'll never have to drink alone. Not only that, but they'll lead you on many adventures that definitely get your heart rate up. If you're not staring down the muzzle of a gun, clinging by a fingernail to an escarpment or dodging falling beams to escape a blazing cabin, you're tied up in a dumpster listening to the sounds of the approaching garbage truck. You face the prospect of death so often you can probably give up cardio.
Don't overlook that your favourite reading can now become tax deductible. Fiction, because that's your trade. Non-fiction, if it's related information. I'm just saying. I offer my towering stack of organizing magazines and books as Exhibit A (thank you Charlotte Adams) In a related benefit the stock of booze I had to pick up to test the high octane recipes for Too Hot to Handle, the latest Fiona Silk was all for research.
You can keep it all in the family. Go ahead: write your dogs (or cats if applicable) into your books and make them work (non-speaking or detecting parts only). On the down side, my accountant said thumbs down to claiming the miniature dachshunds' raincoats as expenses on my taxes.
The comfort quota is high. You can go to work in your flannel jammies and bunny slippers if that's what you love. Or in your underwear, I suppose. Even … never mind, that doesn’t bear thinking about.
Speaking of perks, you also get the best coffee because you make it yourself and it's only twelve feet away from your desk and plays an important part of the daily procrastination process.
Now you'll be able to hold your doctor's attention by asking more interesting questions than the other run-of-the-mill patients. The inquiry about much morphine would it take to kill and old lady, for example, is a cut above 'What should I do about this stubborn wart, doc?'
Your friends might tour historic homes or spectacular gardens, but you'll get to see the holding cells in the police station, the inside the paddy wagon, and the stainless steel tables in the morgue. What's not to love?
In fact, you'll look at your town in a whole new way. Ottawa, for instance, has many wonderful opportunities for crimes: high rocky outcroppings (mmmm), two fast flowing rivers and a slippery ice-covered canal, and many high stone steps, to name just a few prime locations for bumping people off. Dibs!
You meet the nicest people. They're called readers. You never know when they'll turn up: at a bookstore, a workshop, a library event. Sometimes they pop into your email to give you a lift. For all of you readers, if you are at Bouchercon (the world mystery convention) in Baltimore, October 9 – 12, 2008, please come up and say hello. I expect to be in the bar with the rest of the gang.
Mary Jane Maffini is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk mysteries and the Charlotte Adams books. She's also a reader. Drop in on her and her characters at www.maryjanemaffini.com
Saturday, September 06, 2008
I just got a glimpse of the first cover draft for my January book, The Sky Took Him. I’m all revved up, now. It’s almost a real book with a real cover and everything.
Reading about Debby and Vicki’s March tour makes me feel all bad about myself, because I’ve only done the most desultory tour planning for Sky. I’ve been concentrating on desperately trying to learn all the nifty features of my new iMac so that I can do all kinds of impressive virtual touring. There is a camera on my iMac, and believe it or not, I think I’m capable of doing a short video such as Charles has done recently. I’d show you, Dear Reader, but the content would very much suffer in comparison. Even if I had a witty and insightful script prepared, I’d have to spend an hour or so in makeup before filming. I’ve seen the results if I don’t, and believe me, my dignity would not permit me to do otherwise. In my head, I still look like Photo A (Left - Rose-lipped Maiden), where in actuality, I now look like Photo B (Right - Rose-lipped Maiden after she’s been around the block about a thousand times.)
Speaking of publicity tours, earlier this week, I made the trip into Scottsdale to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore to see Fred Ramsay and Priscilla Royal talk about their latest novels. Fred is a good friend and one of the most disgustingly prolific authors I’ve ever met. Unlike me, his novels aren’t pried out of him with a crowbar - he truly loves to write. If his publisher would let him, he could easily do two or three novels a year, I think. His newest, Stranger Room, is the fourth in his Sheriff Ike Schwartz series. Priscilla Royal’s latest is Forsaken Soul, the fifth installment in her series about Prioress Eleanor at Tyndal Priory in Thirteenth Century England. The discussion was fascinating.
And while I was listening, something happened to me that any author who has ever put pen to page will recognize. We were talking about research. Priscilla does tons of it, as you might guess, and adores it. Fred hates it and does only what he has to do. However, both of them agreed that the story is more important than the facts. Suddenly, I had an epiphany. I’ve been working on Book Five for months, trying to stretch the story to cover the historical events of the spring and summer of 1917. Well, guess what? I don’t have to! I can have all my events occur at once, if I want to, because this is fiction, not a history book. All I would need is an author’s note and a disclaimer.
A few weeks ago, I was in the audience at another author event, sitting next to Tim Hallinan (The Fourth Watcher), listening to Carolyn Wall talk about her upcoming Sweeping Up Glass, when suddenly Tim stiffened at something she said, leaned over toward me, and whispered, “I’ve just thought of how to end my next book.” Then he jumped up and left to find a piece of paper to write it down on.
So go on tours. Make public appearances when you can. You never know when something you say will inspire a great novel.
Friday, September 05, 2008
In her most recent post, Debby wrote about the joys of belonging to a critique group. “I love my group,” she writes, “because each person is kind, fair, candid, and humble,” and says that since they all come prepared, “we’re ready to jump right in with constructive comments.” She also notes that drink coffee, eat pastries and chocolate and do a lot of laughing.” It’s strange, but these are all the reasons why I don’t join a critique group. I’m glad that it works for Debby—if the end result is evidenced by her books, then by all means she should keep it up ‘cuz it’s worth it—but for me I think I’d rather join a certain political party that happens to be holding its convention in St. Paul this week than join a critique group. Okay, maybe not that extreme, but close.
First, a clarification. I’m not talking about folks that get together to talk books over drinks. I do a lot of that and in those settings I’m a poster boy for kind, fair, candid and humble conversation. I’m referring to groups specially gathering to read, review and critique each other’s work. With that type of group there is a clear goal and an expectation that each member will work to that goal, namely critiquing works in progress. And I’m also not talking about the way I am on a daily basis—I’ll leave that for others to comment on. I’m only talking about providing requested feedback to works in progress. Clear? Great, onto why I’d never join—or be asked to join—such a group.
Kind, fair, candid and humble. Great attributes in a friend or a boss or a president, but in a critique? Most people who know me would say that I am exceptionally kind, but when it comes to writing (or reading what others have written), I have no time for kindness. I am a brutal critic of my own work, consistently zeroing in on missteps and wrong turns. I know what I do well and can’t spare the time to gloat because, trust me, there’s far too much that needs fixing. And when it comes to spending time reading someone else’s work—something I really don’t have the time for—I am perhaps even more brutal. Kindness, in this context only, slows me down and serves no purpose. This would not make me a popular critique group member.
Fair. Well, it depends on how you are using this term. If you mean fair as in I don’t make stuff up just for the chance to rip apart someone’s writing, then yes, I am fair. If you mean fair as in I point out just as much good stuff as I do “problem areas”, then no. Again, time is an issue and what’s the point—the way I see it, if I didn’t tell you there was a problem, I loved it.
Candid. Oh yeah, definitely. But since I know that my candid comments would be neither kind nor fair (as defined above), I don’t share them often. People say, “I want you to be 100% candid”, but what they mean is that they want you to be candid about the things you liked, or if not, at least mix in some good stuff with the problems. To do anything else wouldn’t be, well, kind. And as I said, I have no time for being kind.
Humble. Is it oxymoronic for me to say that I’m humble? I think I am, perhaps to a fault, but if I’m overly humble while I’m offering advice then wouldn’t the advice seem halfhearted and unsure? (“In my opinion—and it may be just me, so feel free to ignore it—I sort of think that sometimes, maybe you’re writing can be just a tad tiny bit, well fill in the blank.”) I think I’d rather have a strong, assertive, even arrogant writer I respect rip me a new one for the fifty things wrong with my manuscript than listen to a self-effacing milquetoast shower me with praise. There may be something useful in the former, but there’s nothing useful—as far as the writing process goes—in the later.
Constructive comments. When someone asks me for constructive feedback, I first explain to them that I don’t sugarcoat my comments. If they want it sugarcoated, I’ll do it, but I don’t know how constructive it’ll be. In my experience, people only consider sugarcoated comments constructive. My comments are a lot like the drinks I make at the bar—straight and strong. Definitely an acquired taste and not for the weak willed.
But the #1 reason why I’d never join a critique group? “We also drink coffee and eat pastries. And chocolate. We laugh a lot, too—mostly at ourselves.” You think I procrastinate now? I could do this kind of socializing every night of the week—I’d never get any work done. Plus, I have no will power when it comes to pastries—I’d have to hit the gym twice a day instead of my leisurely twice a week. Debby is made of tougher stuff than me if she does this every week and still writes such good books.
Critique groups obviously work, but I don’t think they’d work for me.
[Note: Rose read this over before I posted it and said, “None of this is true.” She says I’m not at all like the way I described myself and that I’m all of those things I said I’m not. She says I’d be a great person to have in a critique group and that she thinks I really should join one because I would get as much out of it as I would give—and that people would be glad I joined. And she wanted to know if I thought she’d be stupid enough to fall in love with a guy that was as big a jerk as I claimed I was, and did I really think that little of her judgement. But she does agree on the pastry stuff.]
Thursday, September 04, 2008
This may be a message from the universe, if you believe that sort of thing. Could it be that I just need to slow down, take a deep breath, and listen rather than blab? Could be. So here are a couple of things I’ve noticed that others may enjoy. Roberta Isleib, who was our guest blogger a little over a week ago, has a new book out. It’s called Asking for Murder, and she has an enticing video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdYZMWzdxy4
Betty Webb’s blog has excellent insight and advice as to critique groups. Check it out at http://bloggingwebb.blogspot.com/ My experience with crit groups sounds similar to Betty’s. I love my group because each person is kind, fair, candid, and humble. There are only four members to the group and we email our pages to each other a few days before the meeting, so that when we get together we’ve read each others’ work and we’re ready to jump right in with constructive comments. We also drink coffee and eat pastries. And chocolate. We laugh a lot, too—mostly at ourselves.
Despite my email problems, I’m really excited about the tour Vicki and I are planning. We’re starting it right after Left Coast Crime, which will be on the Big Island of Hawai‘i from March 7 to 12, 2009. Who’s going to be there? It should be great. From Waikoloa (Big Isle), Vicki and I are doing a handful of events on Oahu, then we’ll go on to Arizona. Donis has helped a ton with suggestions for this leg, and we’re hoping to meet up with her while in the area. Vicki and I will post a schedule once we get this ironed out. Meanwhile, Vicki, my phone still works—and I’ve got your mojito recipe!
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
Labour Day, September 1st, end of the summer. I’ve accomplished a lot – moved into a new house, finished one book, edited the final version of another, signed with a second publisher, went on a weeklong canoe trip, got to know my new home of Prince Edward County, Ontario. But perhaps my most significant achievement of the summer was that I learned how to make an incredible Mojito.
The first time I had a mojito was last November; I was in San Francisco after a tough day on the book tour trail – a bookstore that shall remain nameless cancelled my event, and no one, including my publicist, also nameless, bothered to tell me. The tour had not been going well, and I was considering just turning around and going home. I found a cheap hotel by the Bay and went for a walk. I found myself in a restaurant, ordering the day’s drink special – a Mojito. Perhaps it was that magic drink, but the day got better and the book tour got much, much better from that point on. Herewith is my ode to the end of summer:
2 cups sugar
1 cup whole mint leaves
1 lime cut into quarters
Combine 4 cups of water with the sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Put the sugar-water into a plastic or glass bowl and refrigerate until chilled.
Put ¼ of the mint into each of 4 glasses. Squeeze ¼ of the lime in each glass, and add 2-3 dashes of bitters. Mash with the back of a spoon. Add ice. Add 1 ½ oz rum to each glass and fill the remainder of the glass with sugar syrup.
Enjoy in the sun on your back deck while reading In the Shadow of the Glacier, or other favourite crime novel.