Friday, October 31, 2008
This must be the week for wandering minds (See Rick and Debby’s posts below). I’m not a big fan of chocolate and don’t know a lot of jokes…okay, I don’t know a lot of appropriate jokes, but my mind is a tad fuzzy this week as well what with a three-inning World Series game, and a 30-minute political commercial, a day volunteering at the Ontario ARC and a noontime speaking gig yesterday. And I still have the weekend ahead of me. Not bad.
So what’s a boy to talk about? How about an absolutely fantastic true spy thriller that is better—much better—than many fiction spy thrillers. It’s Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre and folks, they don’t get much better than this. Really, it reads like fiction except that no author would create such an impossible, improbable plot line. Track it down, it’s worth the read.
In the spirit of the season, I’m also reading some Edgar Allen Poe, but not his horror stuff. Instead I’m reading his C. Auguste Dupin stories, arguably (and arguably not) the first detective in fiction. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was good if a tab too fantastical for my tastes, and “The Purloined Letter” was brilliant. “The Mystery of Marie Roget” is quite confusing—not the plot, just the purpose of the whole thing. If you’ve read it you know what I mean, if you haven’t, well, there’s still plenty of time to get to it so don’t feel compelled to rush. But do rush out and find two Poe related books I picked up in Baltimore, to wit, The Beautiful Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allen Poe & the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower and The Pale Blue Eye by Loius Bayard.
Okay, enough plugs. Time to go sprinkle tacks in the lawn for the trick or treaters.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Every so often, I substitute teach, which I find loads of fun. Today, I'm doing 8th Grade Science and I'm trying to teach the students gear ratios. The first thing we had to do was derive a formula.
Whoa. I think I'm more right-brained than I used to be. Or is it left-brained? I'm starting to worry about my brain in general. Is it still there? I could just about walk over a body on the floor and not see it right now, let alone look for clues or confront a killer. Oh, did I mention that I'm wearing a cape and witch hat, too? Not that I have any witch skills, which might come in handy at this point.
Let's just skip all this Halloween prep and bring on the chocolate. It might stimulate my brain. In terms of my writing efforts, it's not happening today. I'm doing gears, remember? So just to add more literature-oriented material in this blog, I'll upload the cover to my new book. I didn't do it myself, as Nan Beams can attest (our guest blogger 2 weeks ago), and I love this artist's work. What do you all think?
For a MUCH more coherent blog, tune into our guest this Sunday, Elizabeth Zelvin. Liz Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, was published by St. Martin's in 2008. First in a series, it's a traditional whodunit about recovery from alcoholism, friendship, and getting a second chance. Protagonist Bruce Kohler also appears in two short stories. "Death Will Clean Your Closet" first appeared in the anthology Murder New York Style and was nominated for an Agatha award.
Now where was that Butterfingers bar...yikes, there's the bell. Twenty thirteen-year-olds in costumes are swarming into my gear lab.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
This writer dies and winds up at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter is very busy that day and in glancing over the writer's sheet on his "Incoming" clipboard, notices that the man wasn't particularly bad nor particularly good in his time on earth,
He turns and says, "I've decided to let you pick whether you want to go to heaven for writers, or hell for writers."
The writer figures this is a good deal, so agrees at once. "What do I do?"
St. Peter says, "Well to get down to hell, take that elevator over there. They'll show you where to go when you get there."
The writer does what St. Peter says, asks how to get to where the writers go and is told that it's the 400th door on the left.
The writer goes to the 400th door on the left and opens it.
Inside he sees endless lines of benches to which are chained countless writers. They're all pounding away furiously on keyboards as the heat of a thousand suns burns down on them and demons whip their flesh.
The writer immediately slams the door, thinking to himself, I certainly don't want to do that for all eternity!
So he returns to the elevator, takes it back up to the Pearly Gates where he asks directions to heaven for writers.
"It's the 400th door down on the right," says one of the angels.
The writer trudges down there and opens the door.
Inside he sees endless lines of benches to which are chained thousands of writers. They're all pounding away furiously on keyboards as the heat of a thousand suns burns down on them and demons whip their flesh.
The writer is exceptionally puzzled, shuts the door again and goes back to the Pearly Gates.
St. Peter asks, "So did you decide where you want to spend eternity?"
"To be perfectly honest," the writer tells him, "I don't get it. Heaven and hell for writers is exactly the same."
The good saint smiles down on the man. "Oh no, it's not the same at all. Up here you get published."
Monday, October 27, 2008
If it’s Monday, this must be Vicki
Villains, did someone mention villains? Did you know, incidentally, that the word villain is derived from the mediaeval word for the peasantry (base, or low-born). Which, surely, is a perfect example of the premise that history is written by the winners, because I’d guess that the aristocracy (what today we’d call the kleptrocracy) were more likely to be villainous in the modern sense.
I started a new book today. I already have a title “A History of War”. It’s a standalone, along the lines of my first novels, Burden of Memory, and Scare the Light Away. I like Charles's description of how the villain creates the hero, and I spent a lot of time over the weekend thinking about my villain, or bad guy. Unfortunately, he/she remains but a vague shape in my mind. I sort of think I know why he/she is villainous and what nefarious deeds she/he is up to. But I guess I’m more oriented towards the main character, the protagonist. She springs forth like Zeus from my bow, a fully formed character. Perhaps because my standalone protagonists are always damaged in some way, and the cause of their despair, and the way in which they can reclaim their lives, is the focus of the book. The villain is just tossed in to give them a noble cause to fight against, and thus reclaim themselves.
First person to correctly name the man in the black hat in the above picture of ‘villains’ will win an advance reading copy of Valley of the Lost. Leave your guess in the comments for all to see, plus go to my web page and send me an e-mail. That way I can get the winner's address and still retain everyone’s anonymousness (is that a word?)
Members of this blog can not enter. That means you, Rick, because I know you know who it is.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Loyal readers will remember that one of my top five recommendations for must read Canadian books, (http://typem4murder.blogspot.com/2008/02/five-for-charles.html) was the Russell Quant series by Anthony Bidulka. Today I’ve been fortunate enough to get Tony to be our guest blogger. Russell’s adventures take him all over the world, and then back to his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He fits right in with our discussion, initiated by Rick, about using travel as a research tool. I love Russell because he’s funny, a bit hapless, but kind and well meaning. The series is a wonderful blend of funny and frothy adventure and then a rough jerk back to earth when you’re not expecting it. Read more about Tony and Russell at www.anthonybidulka.com
Hello everyone at Type M for Murder. It’s a thrill to be here as a guest blogger for the day.
First of all, my name is Anthony Bidulka, author of the Russell Quant mystery series, which I like to say features the first and perhaps only half-Irish, half-Ukrainian, gay, ex-cop, ex-farmboy, prairie-living, Saskatchewan, Canadian, world-travelling, wine-swilling, private detective being written about today!
I was invited here by one of my favourite (wine-swilling) authors, Vicki Delany. Her recent travels to Africa led me to consider how some of us tie our writing to our travels. (Yes, Rick, your arms must be very tired after flying in from Paris – see Oct 8 blog entry – an oldie but a goodie – still, I hate to admit it, the line made me chuckle).
One of the hallmarks of my series, is that in every book, although Russell begins and ends in his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, during the course of his investigations he always manages to end up in some foreign location chasing bad guys or whatever, and of course, drinking wine and trying local cuisine. Thus, the titles of the books range from such seeming inanity like Amuse Bouche to Tapas on the Ramblas. Each of these adventures is based, in part, on a trip I have taken. And it raises the chicken-and-egg question: does travel influence writing, or writing influence travel? My answer is the former.
For instance, I’ve never thought, “I think Russell should go to Yemen, so that will be my next holiday”. Generally, when I’m travelling, there will be some thing – it can be the place itself, or a smell, some morsel of food, a cultural experience, or just a feeling – that will make me think I would like to share this with my readers, and that Russell would fit in here. I guess that’s what you call inspiration. For me, inspiration is something you must be open to; I do not actively seek it, but am actively prepared to accept it when it finds me.
All this being said, in the five books of the series to date, there is one instance where Russell boldly goes where I have never been. In that case, it was a nice meeting of storyline requirement and a rather unique location I’d heard about. A well-heeled friend of ours is invited once a year to a private luxury getaway home in the arctic. The place is so remote that it is only reachable and livable for several short weeks each year. They fly in their guests and all the necessities, including a full wine cellar and a chef. (Now that’s crazy rich, right?) The idea of it interested me and fit in nicely with a pseudo-abduction I’d planned for my main character. After writing about trips I’d been on, the challenge of penning a place I’d never been to appealed to me. It gave my writing and research muscles a little bit of exercise—we all know changing up your exercise routine now and again is a good thing—and I think it worked out okay.
Still, my preference remains to write of places I’ve seen, smelled, breathed the air and tasted the food of. Not only does it help me get the small details right and hopefully infuse the writing with realism, personally it is a lovely way of marrying two of my favourite activities: writing and travel.
Not long ago I spent a couple of weeks in the Middle East. At the time I was conceptualizing the next book in my series, and it only seemed natural that it include this vivid and awesome experience. Yet, when it came down to telling the story, the story ruled. It didn’t need Oman or Saudi Arabia, it needed someplace lighter, airier, sweeter, to match the plot. The previous book dealt with the serious African humanist philosophy of ubuntu (something I’m sure Vicki experienced in her recent travels), but the new book is about love and lost love and uncertain love (as well as some good old fashioned M for Murder!). It needed a location to match. The Middle East wasn’t it. So, I guess what I’m saying, is that as much as I tie together my travels and my writing, they both very much, stand on their own.
Enough blabbering from me. It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Here I sit, at the computer in my house, rather than at the Women Writing the West conference in San Antonio, in a state of suspended animation, waiting for all the shoes to drop.
An appropriate state to be in as Hallowe’en approaches. And speaking of Hallowe’en... Since I’m either a blogging kind of gal or a glutton for punishment, I’m one of the regular contributors to http://www.fatalfoodies.blogspot.com, which site is composed of mystery authors whose work features food. There is a blog for everything, isn’t there? For Hallowe’en, the Foodies are doing a Trick or Treat promotion. Anyone who visits the blog and clicks on the links to the participants’ web sites will get a treat. Interesting promotional idea, even if I didn’t come up with it. I’ll be posting a recipe and entering all commenters in a drawing for one of my books. Drop by on the 31st and check it out. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
And now to business. I’ve been following the discussion thread here with great interest. Charles says a true word when he notes that a good villain is often more interesting than the hero. In fact, the construction of a mystery begins with a villain. Or perhaps it isn’t that simple. A mystery isn’t necessarily about heroes and villains, but more properly an exploration of the nature of evil, if I may wax pompous for a moment.
I am especially intrigued by books that cause the reader to re-examine his ideas about right and wrong. We’ve talked before on this blog about the need for justice to be done in a mystery novel, but does that mean that the killer is always caught and punished? Case in point: Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Was justice done when the killers were discovered? But no. Justice was done when the victim was murdered, and right was done when Hercule Poirot contrived to see that the murderers were not punished. Same deal in my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. The killer was not the villain at all.
My sleuth, Alafair, very much has her own ideas of right and wrong, which may or may not have anything to do with legal and illegal. This makes for interesting resolutions to the mysteries, I think. If the author can pull it off, mysteries can really be wonderful explorations of the human psyche. Why do people do what they do? What seems right to one person can do another tremendous harm. Even an insane killer has reasons for murder that make perfect sense to him.
Friday, October 24, 2008
In her post (below), Debby noted that some famous author (not one of us, but maybe Thomas Harris) said that ‘fictional villains have to be as well-drawn as the good guys.’ I agree.
When I start a new project, I always start with the villain for one simple reason: Hero’s don’t create villains, villains create heroes.
Joe Shmoe is a mild mannered shoe salesman and avid Cubs fan who has a fear of fire. Nothing heroic there. (Okay, maybe tragic considering the Cubs bit…) Jane Doe is a psychotic arson who sets a daycare facility on fire, trapping a dozen kids. Joe Shome is driving home from a baseball card collectors’ show when he sees flames coming out of the roof of the daycare. He puts his fear aside, kicks in the door and rescues the kids, finding in himself a heroism that would never have been realized if it wasn’t for wacked-out Jane Doe.
My point is that, given the right set of circumstances, ANYBODY can be a hero. And the most common heroes are the most interesting. I love James Bond but he’s less a hero in my mind than Joe Shmoe. It’s the villain (or antagonist if you want to get all literary on us) that sets a story in motion, otherwise it’s as dull as watching Joe Schome sell shoes, cheer on the Cubs and avoid fire.
The problem today? There seems to be an excessive amount of villains and a shortage of heroes.
But maybe just getting through it makes us all some kind of hero.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I’ve read some excellent novels that reflected post 9/11 attitudes, and that’s a great discussion on its own. But where do we take our fictional heroes when corruption, greed, political and fiscal short-sightedness are rampant—and apparently paying off? Many mendacious politicians and self-serving CEOs seem to be escaping justice.
Jump in and tell me what you think, but perhaps the road to believable fiction (and we all know that it has to be believable, as opposed to merely true) leads us writers back to human nature. The characters, both good and bad, that grab our hearts. I read an essay by a famous author (yikes, I think it was Thomas Harris, but correct me if I’m wrong) who stressed that fictional villains have to be as well-drawn as the good guys.
So we’ve got plenty of fascinating characters to feed our inspiration. The problem is finding a plot that isn’t staring from the pages of the morning paper. Hmm, or maybe that’s a good place to start. Art imitating life, or life imitating art?
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Now to those of you in the States and elsewhere, we just got finished with a national election here in Canada. Three hundred million spent, 5 weeks, countless miles travelled, commercials shown, debates listened to -- and we basically wound up with the same thing: a Conservative minority government.
Anyway, one of the galvanizing factors in this election was when the Conservative Prime Minister, the Honourable Steven Harper, stated that the average Canadian does not identify with artists dressed in tuxedos and gowns attending gala events that have been supported with public funds. I'm paraphrasing since I cannot find the exact quote, but his off-the-cuff comment cost him his desperately sought majority. Quebec took great offense to this and his party was crushed in that province.
So what am I getting at? Well, I attended a big rally in Toronto a week before the election and listened to all the speeches, talked to a lot of people and realized that what I do, what we all do in our novels is create culture -- and it's no less valid than that big art exhibition, that hit play, that opera commissioned for a great deal of money. In fact, I believe that what we do in our own small way is more valid as culture.
You see, we're holding up a mirror to current society. We're providing a snapshot that freezes a moment in time. Culture defines who we are -- and that's what we're doing.
I'll tell you, I left that rally walking a little taller. And Harper didn't get his sought-after majority, partly due to what he so rashly said. Culture is important and we forget that at our peril.
And that's why I'm giving up those evenings this week to attend these events.
Monday, October 20, 2008
1) My name and the title pop, as Rick says they should.
2) The peaceful mountain valley makes a good contrast to the needle in the foreground. Hopefully leading the reader to wonder what the needle is doing there.
3) The mountain picture says a lot about the setting.
4) It is similar enough to the cover of In the Shadow of the Glacier to attract readers who are looking for the next in the series, but not similar enough to make people think they've read it already.
Wondering where the cover is? The colour came out all wrong on Blogger, so I deleted it. If you want to see a pic of the cover of Valley of the Lost, hurry on over to www.vickidelany.com
As any of you who are published authors know, the time publishers require between getting the finished manuscript and publication is growing all the time. My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, now needs 12 months, and I believe that’s short compared to some other publishers. I am finding that leads to a bit of a mental disconnect. For example, I have arranged some Christmas signing events at bookstores in Ontario for November and December. I’ll be promoting In the Shadow of the Glacier, my most recently published novel. Glacier is number one in the Constable Molly Smith series set in Trafalgar, B.C. I finished the second book, Valley of the Lost, in May. In the last couple of months I have read the ARC of Valley, and have been attempting to come up with advertising copy, thoughts for a video trailer, and a press release. At the same time, I have just finished the third in the series, tentatively titled Cold Winter Moon, a few minor revisions and it will be ready for the editor’s approval (or not!) in time for a Feb. 2010 release. At this point I can barely remember what happened in Glacier.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Todays guest is Nan Beams, who is responsible for book production for Poisoned Pen Press. Ever wonder what makes a successful cover? Nan tells what a cover is designed to do. And now for Nan. Learn and enjoy.
You CAN tell a book by its cover.
When Donis invited me to write about book covers, I thought it would be fun. After all, I really love the part of my job at Poisoned Pen Press that involves working with several very talented artists, each of whom brings a unique approach to the covers they’re assigned. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’m far from expert and that I learn more about what makes a good cover (and what does not) from those designers with every cover we create together. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
The first function of the cover of a book is to attract—and hold—the attention of the book shopper. It’s classic point-of-purchase advertising in an extremely noisy visual environment. Think of the cereal aisle in the grocery store. Everything on those shelves is roughly the same shape and size (like books), the contents vary somewhat but have the same purpose (also like books), and the images, colors and type are all demanding your attention so that they can convince you to buy. Most bookstores present a similar dizzying experience for their customers, and they make it even tougher by displaying most of their merchandise spine-out. So our first challenge is to make cover art that is so beautiful or striking or disturbing that it draws the shopper’s attention, makes him or her stop, maybe pick it up to examine more closely, and then, if we haven’t given away too much, buy the book to find the answers to the questions the cover has set up.
As publishers of mystery fiction, we have more artistic freedom (and more fun) than, perhaps, publishers of nonfiction. If you are looking for a cookbook, for example, the spectacular cake on the cover is intended to convince you that you, too, can make one like it. A picture of a car wouldn’t make sense there. And the cover of a self-help book needs to be immediately clear about what problem it purports to solve. If you don’t have that problem, you don’t need that book. And you won’t buy it.
But mysteries are about puzzles and challenges. And I try to see that our covers begin to intrigue shoppers/readers right off the bat. One of our designers, Patrick Hoi Yan Cheung, once told me that he designs covers to work like movie posters. And it makes great sense. The posters we dash by on our way to our chosen movie get our attention for only a few seconds at the most, and they have to convey some important information in those seconds. There’s the title and the names of the stars of course, but that’s not all that sells tickets. The illustrations must also say something about the setting and time period (Is it historical? Action? Romance? Noir?), the tone (Will it be funny? Sad? Sexy? Bloody? Scary?). And they have to do all this in seconds, while you’re juggling popcorn.
I also think the best cover asks a visual question that you can only answer if you buy and read the book. On first glance, I hope you’ll quickly read the title and the author’s name and see something appropriate to the plot. But on second glance, on most of our covers you’ll find something that doesn’t seem to belong. The cover of Fire Prayer by Deborah Atkinson is a good example. At first, it appears to be a stunning hibiscus blossom: tropics, Hawaii maybe.... But look closer and you see that the center is blood. Why? Buy the book! Or the cover of The Unraveling of Violeta Bell looks like your great-aunt’s antique-filled parlor. Cozy, a little over-ornamented maybe. But why is the glass broken out of the frame? Buy the book!
Of course, none of this works unless the designer also understands typography and color theory and knows how to use them appropriately. Again, because we can hope for only a second or two of the book-browser’s attention at best, the title needs to be clear, readable and easy to find, and appropriate to the art, the setting, and the tone of the book. Historical mysteries call for different type treatments than contemporary chick-lit. Or a hard-edged noir PI novel needs a different type face than a book that takes a lighter, maybe even slightly funny approach.
Using the right colors with the right amount of contrast can make a huge difference, too. Blood red letters on a dramatic black background might sound like a good idea, but the values of red and black are so close that our eyes have trouble separating them. And their intensity makes it hard for us to focus on them for any length of time. If the font is too fancy or too fine or too condensed or the color combinations hurt our eyes, we have to work too hard to read it. It’s likely a browser won’t bother.
Even if you’re lucky enough to have developed a devoted fan base that will buy anything with your name displayed prominently on it, (I know, from my keyboard to God’s ear!) a hard-working cover by a skilled book cover designer can have a powerful impact on the sales of your book. Booksellers will be more willing to display it, your fans and readers will be drawn into the story by it, and you and your publisher should see a difference in the bottom line.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Is it my turn again? I've lost all sense of time and am living in one long endless moment. Actually, I think that is the goal all seekers of enlightenment strive for. Somehow I don't think the state I'm in is what they had in mind.
Friday, October 17, 2008
So the reason I didn’t write was that I was at Bouchercon, the annual mystery and crime fiction convention, held this year in Baltimore. I wanted to give you a quick recap of my experience and, in keeping with My New Blogging Philosophy*, I have created a sort list, arranged in no particular order:
The Best/Not-So-Best Things That Happened to Yours Truly at Bocuhercon 2008
·Best: Meeting Gerald So, poet and editor of The Lineup, a collection of 14 poems on crime that is a must-have if you are the kind of person reading this blog. [Correction: That's 24 poems by 14 poets and you can snag yourself a copy at Lulu. See the comments section where Gerald has provided a link.]Not-So-Best: Not finding the opportunity to buy that man a drink. I plan on ensuring that our paths cross again so I can rectify that error.
·Best: Meeting a surprisingly large number of fans who had read my books and were looking for more. Not-So-Best: having to explain why it’ll be at least a full year before they get to buy a new one.
·Best: deciding I needed to join Sisters in Crime. Not-So-Best: realizing I should have joined years ago.
·Best: attending an outstanding panel discussion on Edgar Allen Poe, then touring the surprisingly tiny Poe house in Baltimore. Not-So-Best: Missing the chance to discuss their books with the panelist because the signing lines were so long.
·Best: Dinner with Jared and Dan. Not-S-Best: The uphill-both-ways walk to the restaurant.
·Best: Dinner with Maria and Debbie. Not-So-Best: Not being able to doggy bag the great food at Moe’s.
·Best: Reed Coleman winning the Shamus for Soul Patch. Not-So-Best: That the other nominees had to lose.
·Best: Discussing Bouchercon 2009 in Indy with Jim Huang. Not-So-Best: Probably not having a book to promote at Bouchercon 2009 in Indy.
·Best: Feeling my creativity recharged. Not-So-Best: There are only 24 hours in a day and I can’t give as many as I like to writing.
·Best: Finding the little note Rose always hides in my luggage when I take a trip. Flat-out-worst: Not having Rose with me to experience Baltimore, Boucercon and all the social event.
·Best: Rose, picking me up at the airport when I came home.
*See the Type M For Murder guest blog by Dana Denberg, Sunday, October 5th, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
What a lovely, intelligent, inquisitive group of women (apparently all the elecrochemist spouses were male and in another conference room). As we talked about Hawaiian legends, the process of writing crime fiction, professional sports (The Green Room takes place in a pro surfing contest), and a bunch of things I may or may not have been qualified to speak on—say, none of our local spiders are dangerous, are they? The land critters I consider dangerous are usually two-legged, but I digress...
Anyway, it was another reminder of how lucky I am to be involved in an occupation I love. I love writing crime fiction, and I love talking to those that love to read it. How can I complain?
But here’s where I was going with this thought process, and it was inspired by both Vicki’s and Donis’s blogs below. My meeting was arranged by a woman named Linda, who is a member of the Poisoned Pen book club and contacted me via my editor, Barbara Peters. As time got closer, Linda and I emailed about the things we needed: what to bring, what to talk about, what the expectations of the attendees might be. Then, about four days before the meeting, Linda told me her husband had a health problem severe enough that he could develop a blood clot if he were to fly. She couldn’t come.
Her email was to confirm that I would still attend, but I read between the lines. Like Donis, she was coping with a serious health issue involving a beloved spouse. And like Donis’s situation, it had to be scary as all get-out.
And here’s where Vicki’s story was an inspiration. Linda had asked me to bring extra books, because she wanted my latest (how nice is that?) and she figured others would, too. So I’m going to send it to her as a gift. I know, it’s not giving someone in another country something that he/she couldn’t obtain. It’s not an act of international diplomacy, or anything big. But I hope it brightens Linda’s day and soothes the anxieties of caring for a sick husband. And I hope she can read it and look forward to another trip to Hawaii, when her husband can safely travel.
Monday, October 13, 2008
When I was in South Africa recently I said to several people that my new house is very small, but I have three bedrooms and a den. My daughter, who lives and works in one of the poorest countries in the world, finally snapped at me, “Mom, if you have three bedrooms and a den you DO NOT have a SMALL house.” So true.
I am also thankful that we have a federal election tomorrow, which is the culmination of a campaign that has been running for all of six weeks.
At Charles’s suggestion I took several copies of my books with me for the purpose of handing out to people I thought might be interested. One place we stayed was in the area known as the Transkei, one of the poorest and most populated rural areas of South Africa. We were in a lovely lodge at the mouth of a river where it empties into the ocean. There was nothing, but nothing, around for a hundred kilometres but the lodge and the local village, which was so poor it doesn’t have electricity or running water. (As an aside, imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing the stars in an area without electricity. Imagine how disappointed I was by night after night of clouds). We went on our a tour of the village and surrounding area with a local guide. I put my sunglasses in his backpack and noticed he had two paperbacks in there, so I thought he’d perhaps enjoy a book. I realized that he’s likely to have absolutely no understanding of some of the cultural references in Constable Smith’s life, such as why she hates her name so much (Africans use very descriptive names), or why people in her town are up in arms over a Vietnam draft dodger memorial. But I gave him a copy of In the Shadow of the Glacier anyway. And was he ever thrilled. My daughter said it will probably become one of his most cherished possessions, displayed in pride of place, and brought out to show visitors. So somewhere in Africa, in a mud hut painted a cheerful turquoise, while goats nibble at the grass, someone is reading a book that I have written.
For the opportunity to write, to write the sort of books I want to write, to be published, and to be able to travel and meet wonderful people, I am grateful.
I was interviewed about my writing rituals at Suite101. If you’re interested, have a look:
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Today we're welcoming Sean Chercover, a sort of Canadian (he was born here), sort of American (he's lived a lot of his life south of the 49th) crime novelist whose second novel, Trigger City is just out. I've read his first, Big City Bad Blood and it's a terrific hard-boiled PI novel. Read this man's novels! That's an order!! You will not be sorry.
And now, we'll turn it over to Sean...
Bouchercon and beyond…
By Sean Chercover
(Thanks to Rick and the Type M for Murder gang, for inviting me here today)
Greetings from Baltimore! This is the last day of Bouchercon, the numero uno crime fiction convention, and it has been a blast. Tomorrow, Agent 99 and The Mouse and I will load up the car and head for New York City, where I’m signing with Zoe Sharp at Partners and Crime on Tuesday.
See, Tuesday is the on-sale date for Zoe’s new Charlie Fox thriller, Third Strike, and mine, Trigger City.
Following New York, I’ll be on the road for about 6 weeks. Six weeks of driving town-to-town, up and down the dial, giving talks in bookstores and libraries. Beats the hell out of working for a living but tiring, nonetheless. Some people have suggested that the timing is terrible, because Bouchercon is such an intense party and I’ll be hitting the road exhausted.
Not so. Because Bouchercon, for me, is energizing. Gathering together with fellow crime fiction devotees, (readers, writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians…) reminds us that we are not alone in our particular madness, and helps offset the solitary nature of our work.
And this Bouchercon has been stellar, thanks in large part to the work of Judy Bobalik and Ruth Jordan, this year’s event co-chairs. A round of applesauce for Judy and Ruth!
My only regret was not getting to spend more than a few minutes at the Authors Without Borders party. As a dual citizen, I always enjoy showing up American and welcoming myself to the party on behalf of Canada. This year, Meet The Canucks and Bloody Brits were merged into Authors Without Borders, and from the looks of things, the party was huge, and a huge success.
But daddy-duties cannot always be timed around such things, and The Mouse needed his dad, so I had to flee just after I arrived.
Anyway, I’m now off to the Anthony Brunch, and then it will all be over for another year. In the meantime, I’ll have the Love is Murder (Chicago) and Bloody Words (Ottawa) conventions – two terrific events with a smaller, more intimate atmosphere than the tsunami that is Bouchercon.
If you love crime fiction (and I assume you do, since you’re reading this) and you haven’t been to a mystery/thriller convention … you need to rectify that. Once you come to one of these things, once you convene with your fellow crime fiction tribesmen (and tribeswomen), you will make it a habit.
Look for me in the bar…
Saturday, October 11, 2008
In keeping with Dana Denburg’s advice, I’ll keep this short.
Some of my compadres are attending Bouchercon in Baltimore. Some have just returned from Europe or Africa. I’ve just brought my husband home from the hospital.
Everything is under control, let me assure you of that up front, Dear Readers, but we had a touchy moment or two, there, including a trip to the emergency room followed by two days in the hospital watching my him suck up blood transfusions. They topped him off with five pints, and we got home this afternoon. Sounds like he had an accident, doesn’t it? But he didn’t, so where did all his blood go? Is our house infested with vampires, or giant invisible mosquitos? No one is sure, therefore many tests to follow.
I was very unhappy that I couldn’t manage to go to Bouchercon this year, because I really planned to, but if I had, this might not have had a happy ending. I’ve made all the arrangements to attend Women Writing the West in San Antonio in two weeks, but it looks like I’ll be defaulting on that one, too, and I’ve already paid for it.
This morning at 10:00, I’ll be conducting a mystery writing workshop at Tempe Public Library for 15 or 20 people. I’ve done this so many times that I joke that I could do it in my sleep, and now I’m going to get to find out if that’s really true.
Funny how none of the above bothers me very much. Remember how 2008 was supposed to be the happiest year of my life? I think it just might turn out to be.
Chapter Two- Later that same day...
Don is fine. He got to watch the Oklahoma-Texas game on tv, which made him very happy.
Apparently you can teach a workshop in your sleep because it went very well.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
A couple of things come to mind as I look at my scramble to describe a place I can’t visit. First and foremost, this endeavor, on paper and off, has to be fun. I love doing research, and this is the best kind. Chatting with Charles about his wild experiences reminded me of twenty-some years ago when my brother and I would sit on the lanai and drink beer and cook up thriller plots. For years, we just had fun—we never wrote them down. Finally, we both began to put them on paper.
Then the fun began in earnest, and I’ve had to branch out in terms of how I do research, which not only makes my writing better, but enriches me as a person. I’ve taken the eleven-week Citizen’s Police Academy class, I have the Medical Examiner’s direct phone number—and he talks to me in vivid detail (how lucky and fun is that?!). We (a group of writers and fellow crime fiction enthusiasts) started a Sisters in Crime chapter and we have authors, firearms experts, forensic entomologists, K-9 corps, and other experts speak to us on a regular basis.
So when I get a bit down about the publishing industry, book sales, how to publicize my next novel, travel expenses, and whatever other obstacles pop up, I think about how fortunate I am. How my world has expanded because of the active, intelligent people I’ve met in my work. How my TBR pile on the bedside table teeters even higher with gripping books. The rest of my family has begun to “borrow” from the stack—I have to make sure I get them back!
And I thank my lucky stars for being able to sit in my little office and visit Kuwait, where I’ve left my protagonist and six members of his platoon on night maneuvers near the Iraqi border, where something bad is about to happen. So please excuse me. I’d better go, they need my help.
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
I just flew in from Paris and boy are my arms tired. (cue "ba-doom-boom" on drums) If you've read any of my previous few blogs, you'll know all about why I was there. Don't worry, it was ALL book-related.
As always, I had ebbs and flows while there. The list of things in my job jar was pretty extensive and quite often by mid-afternoon I was thinking, That's it for today. I just want to go back to the apartment and sleep. (And rest my barking dogs, for we walked nearly everywhere.)
The worst was having to get up early one morning, race to the Gare du Nord for a train out to the Picardie countryside to visit a town that's used in the book. It was cold, it was wet, we couldn't figure out how to use the ticket machines, and by the time we did, we stood there watching the train depart. I almost gave up and said those sad words, "I'm going to fake this part."
But sense prevailed and I trudged on with my faithful translator along (aka The Wife) to Beauvais, where it was even wetter and colder. But, I learned a ton about that place in the few hours spent there, and that scene is going to be much stronger than it would have been if we'd gone to a museum for the day and I'd faked that scene in the book.
We took lots of reference photos, like nearly 800. (God bless the inventors of digital photography.) I have every location shot from multiple angles, including some that are pretty ridiculous, but as the next few weeks go by, I will be able to completely refresh my memory when needed. Ditto recordings of my on-site thoughts. We even shot about an hour of video for use on the website and for viral advertising when the time comes.
Non-book stuff: I learned that it isn't as expensive to eat in Paris if you're smart and talk to people who know the place and you're willing to do a bit of work. We ate well, very well and had fun doing it. Made some useful friends, too -- and scored free eats!
In short, it was driven home again very strongly: there is no substitute for "being there". I know the sights, sounds, smells, the feel of the places I've written about.
Last benefit? I have a ton of interesting and funny stories that can be used in interviews, readings, library appearances, whenever I'm asked to speak about my book.
And unlike my story, they're all true!
Monday, October 06, 2008
Has everyone missed me over the three weeks I’ve been away? Did anyone notice I was missing?
I’m back from a wonderful trip to South Africa. As many of you know, I lived there for several years but was last there 24 years ago. It’s changed, and is that an understatement. My daughter and I left South Africa feeling good about the country’s future. Despite a lot of problems, the people almost all seem engaged and optimistic and really excited about the possibilities of ‘the new’ South Africa. The roads are in excellent condition, the national parks top-notch, and expanding, even the poorest areas have schools and clinics. All of which, my daughter pointed out, are signs of a well-functioning government.
I enjoyed catching up on everyone’s blog entries, particularly the discussion on writing about places and times you’ve been, or not. Speaking about places one can’t go for research, we loved this sign we found at a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean.
So, am I going to send Molly Smith and John Winters to South Africa on a case? Not a chance.
I can’t imagine what policing must be like there. As I said, the mood is cautiously optimistic – but crime is a real problem. There are some areas identified by the guide book as ‘no go’ areas – day or night. In the suburbs, homes have walls nine or ten feet high surrounding them, and on top of that there’s a length of electric fencing (in a good area) or barbed wire (in less-good areas). Everyone has a big gate with an electric opener and you buzz when you arrive at the gate to be allowed access, and dogs are not necessary household pets.
Innocent Canadian abroad – when we arrived at the first place we were staying, I pulled into the driveway, stopped at the gate and said to my daughter. “I guess if I push that button there, the gate will open.” “Uh, no, Mom. I don’t think it works that way,” she replied.
Some whole streets are gated, with a guard allowing cars in or not. (Definitely some racial profiling going on there – when I pulled up at the gate to my sister-in-law’s area, I just rolled down the window, said “I’m here to visit Number XX”, the gate was lifted for me, and I sailed on in.) We saw whole streets with little buildings set up at the top of the driveways where the guard sits at night. Imagine your house in Toronto, or Rochester, or Reading, England, and imagine where you’d put the guard’s box. The listings for houses for sale have an entry for ‘security’ costs, right along electricity and condo fees.
In all South Africa I might have seen four houses that I would want to live in. Not because there aren’t lovely houses (and wow, are there) but because there is nothing we’d call ‘country living’ or even cottages. Every house (that is, every house you’d consider buying) is in a city or community. No one, other than farmers, and the poor, lives in the countryside, and even holiday homes are packed together in communities of holiday homes. At one point we were on a ferry to an eco-resort and we did pass some houses standing all on their own in the woods on the hillside. And that was it.
Traffic policing seems to be good on the highways, and we saw a couple of speed traps, and were stopped once for a licence check. (Because so many drivers don’t bother to get licences). But in the cities, not so much so. People are packed into cars in a way that would have them pulled over in seconds in Canada or the U.S. e.g. children sitting on adult laps, everyone unbuckled, in the front passenger seat, or packed shoulder to shoulder, backwards, and smiling at you out the rear of a hatch-back.
It is legal to run a red light - which you are told to do if you feel you'll be in danger if you stop. Although they do suggest you check the oncoming traffic first.
I took a guided tour into downtown Johannesburg and the area called Hillbrow where I lived when we were first married (no go, for sure) and the police presence was very strong. Which, I thought, is definitely a good thing.
Some police carry guns, and some do not, and I didn’t have a chance to find out what the difference is.
Will Smith and Winters visit South Africa? It would be an absolutely fascinating exercise to be sure, but I fear that the politics of policing would so overwhelm the story it wouldn’t be a Smith and Winters book.
But never say never. There are such things as standalones.
Since I’ve been back home I found a mention of a book I’m going to try to find, called Thin Blue: The unwritten rules of policing South Africa by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball Publishers). The blurb reads “A country is policed only to the extent that it consents to be. When that consent is withheld, cops either negotiate or withdraw. Once they do this, however, they are no longer police; their role becomes something far murkier. Several months before they exploded into xenophobic violence, Jonny Steinberg travelled the streets of Alexandra, Reiger Park and other Johannesburg townships with police patrols. His mission was to discover the unwritten rules of engagement emerging between South Africa’s citizens and its new police force.”
Sunday, October 05, 2008
Funny that Charles—not only an accomplished novelist, but relatively seasoned blogger—should ask me—a completely inexperienced blogger, but good note taker—to write a few words on good blogging. I suppose the fact that I recently attended a “Blogging for Business” seminar put on by our local eBusiness Association has something to do with it…
And so, I share with you Eight Basic Blogging Guidelines, as explained by Internet marketing specialist Doug Williams:
1.Create a plan—Know your targeted audience and write on a specific theme.
2.Keep content brief—Aim for roughly 250 words. Use bullet points and numbered lists when you can. (What a coincidence.)
3.Post weekly—Go for quality, not quantity. Too many posts overwhelm readers; too few kill your blog. One per week is considered the absolute minimum.
4.Write for your readers—Be conversational and creative, while conveying your expertise.
5.Use links to support content—Reference previous posts, quoted sources, definitions, articles, etc.
6.Promote with link text—Market your website by using keywords in link text for a better search engine ranking.
7.Ask questions/encourage comments—Engage your readers to get conversations going. Note what topics get the most attention.
8.Measure results—Check your blog dashboard for number of comments received, inbound links to your postings and trackbacks (links back from blogs).
Of course, there are plenty more details to perfecting your blog masterpiece. Find more on Business blog marketing from the expert at dougwilliams.com.
[Note from Charles: And you can see just one of Dana’s many outstanding copywriting examples by visiting the official Dixon Schwabl website.]
Saturday, October 04, 2008
The last few entries have made me consider the psychology of my own writing. So much of my technique is unconscious. How do I convey a sense of place, the personalities and motivations of my characters? How does one describe a smell, a color, an emotion? It helps to have a spectacular vocabulary, I’m sure, but it doesn’t seem to be the number of words a writer uses, but which words. Genius is the ability to choose the right words and arrange them in just the right order to convey the perfect nuance of feeling and senses.
What, you may ask, is she babbling about now? I’m actually talking about Ernest Hemingway. I was never a big fan of Hemingway’s manly themes, but I have a great appreciation for the genius of his style. He is terse in the extreme, but somehow he is able to create real honest-to-God people coping with situations that most of us will never face. His characters are so human that in the end, the reader feels she might really know what it’s like to be an anti-Fascist freedom fighter or an elderly Cuban fisherman. How does he do it when he is so sparing with words?
Mystery is a fabulous form for exploring character. In fact, mystery is all about motivation. Why do people do what they do? What is going on in a character’s head when he is driven to kill someone? Why is the sleuth trying to figure out who did the deed? What is driving him? Do I think about these things when I write a mystery? Yes, I do, especially when I’m creating the character of the murderer. But then after I have written about her for a while, she separates from me, in a way, and begins to react unconsciously to the situations I put her in, like a real person would do.
I know this phenomenon occurs with all authors, but it does make you feel a bit like you’re possessed. I wonder what Dr. Freud would have to say about it?
On another note, Rick’s entries on Paris have filled me with nostalgia, not to mention envy. I lived in France once upon a time. Not in Paris, though we went there many times, but in a beautiful little medieval town which I have mentioned before called Cagnes-sur-Mer, located right between Nice and Cannes on the Cote d’Azur. (Forgive me for not putting the diacritic mark over the o in Cote. I don’t know how to work my keyboard correctly.) We had a little apartment one block from the sea. The beach in Cagnes was composed of pretty, little, perfectly round, black rocks, and the locals spent a lot of time there, wading in the surf and gathering mussels in buckets for their dinner. Anyone who has spent any time on a French beach knows that the French are much more relaxed about nudity than we Anglo-types, and even Grandmere et Grandpere have no compunction about stripping down to their undies and basking on the beach on a nice day. Toplessness is common, and it isn’t unusual to see young mothers clad only in a skimpy bikini bottom making sand castles with their toddlers.
We enjoyed going down to the beach once a week or so, if for no other reason than because we were both raised in an oceanless land and loved to look at the water. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that neither of us saw much public nudity when we were growing up in Oklahoma, either. When winter ended and the spring days grew warm, the French began to shed layers of clothing right down to the skin so they could sunbathe and wade in the Mediterranean, For hours we would sit and stare out to sea or wander up and down gathering shells and stones. Every once in a while, some gorgeous, long-legged Frenchwoman sans brassiere would wander across our line of sight. I loved our time in Cagnes, not just because it was so beautiful, but also because I reaped a lot of romantic benefit from that lovely spring.
Friday, October 03, 2008
Those of you playing along at home know that my lovely wife Rose is a high school English teacher here in Rochester. She’s always wanted to have me come in and speak in her classes but we could never get the schedules right—State mandated testing and a rather lock-step curriculum have reduced her windows of opportunity, and when she saw an opening it often filled on my end with a major video shoot or client presentation. But yesterday, after 4 years of back and forths, I had the privilege of speaking in three of Rose’s 9th grade English classes.
The topic was character development and I explained how I (and most other writers) create the people that inhabit our worlds. I shared lots of tips and techniques and offered writing advice, but I think the most important thing I shared with them, however, was the idea that even if you never write a book, if you understand how characters are conceived and developed by writers, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the books you read, the movies you watch, the TV shows you catch, the plays you attend, the video games you play and the comics you devour. By way of example, we did a character study of Stewie, the “baby” on the animated TV show The Family Guy. From the choice of his name to the type of music he enjoys to his word choices and droll delivery, they saw that Seth MacFarlane put a lot more thought into this character than they realized, and that it’s that extra thought that make the character so entertaining.
Oh, and the most important piece of writing advice was this—you need to know what your character wants. Not what they say they want (ex: win the game for the team) but what they really want (win the game so she can embarrass star on the other team who just happens to be her stepsister, the same stepsister who has stolen away her father’s affection, the same father who used to be so much fun and who only cared about you but who now puts all of his real attention on his new, much younger wife, who treats his two real children as if they were part of the family, a family neither wants anything to do…you get the idea). Students seemed to enjoy putting the characters they were creating on the hot seat.
Maybe someone I spoke to will be inspired and go on and write a great novel that speaks to the world in a fresh, new voice. Or maybe one of them will be inspired to turn to drama, bringing to life all the things we discussed on the stage in such a way that the very field of ‘acting’ is taken to a whole new level. Or maybe one student will devote his or her time to the deep study of literature, going on to unlock the secrets of the written word to the next generation, single handedly starting a renaissance of reading. Or maybe, at the very least, be inspired to buy one of my books.
By the way, this Sunday’s guest blogger is my pal, Dana Denberg. She a copywriting genius here at the agency and she attended a blogging seminar last week. She’ll share her notes with us and, with any luck, I’ll learn to become a decent blogger myself.
Thursday, October 02, 2008
Which reminds me only by contrast and wishful thinking, I am putting together a scene from Iraq, circa 1998, in the time of the UN’s Oil for Food program. Not romantic at all, from what I’ve heard so far. I’m looking for people to talk to who were there, so that I can write with some authenticity. Anyone care to volunteer their first-hand experience? What color was the sand? What smells drifted on the wind? What kind of people filled the streets? What were your favorite foods, restaurants, mess halls? What color is the sky at night?
There are some good books on similar topics. Right now, I’m reading Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, which was also made into a movie. I haven’t seen the movie, but Swofford’s book is gritty, gutsy, and full of eloquent and unabashed detail. I still believe in first hand experience, though, like Rick is soaking up.
However, I’m going to have to pass up the visit to Iraq, at least for the next year or two, during which I’d like to finish the book. So I’ll talk to people (email me if you’re willing to share) and try to get it right from my little office. Creative writing, you know.