Saturday, December 31, 2011

Monkey Number 101

I just had another birthday. I’m not going to say which one, but I am wondering if you’ll still be sending me a valentine. Birthday greeting. Bottle of wine.*

Lately I feel that my life is like a car whose brakes have failed and I'm hurtling downhill toward a brick wall with no way to stop. One may say that this sensation is simply the theory of relativity at work -- time just seems to move faster when one has more behind than ahead. But I beg to differ. I think time actually is speeding up. It must be. It can't be that my brain just can't keep up. Sometimes I become homesick for the 1970s, as though that decade were a physical place.**

Things, they do change, don't they? The ancient Celts disapproved of writing. They believed that it spoiled the memory. An educated person spent a lifetime memorizing lore and stories to word-for-word perfection. A modern person would consider a bard's memory nothing short of miraculous. For most of human history, the skills a person learned in youth served him most of his life, but over the last century, events have been moving at such an accelerating pace that it has finally become almost impossible to keep up. A person's knowledge becomes obsolete practically as soon as it is learned.

A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend about the “One-hundredth Monkey” philosophy, which, briefly, goes like this: If you teach a certain number of monkeys (maybe a hundred, it’s a nice round number) how to do something, then suddenly and mysteriously every monkey in the world will know how to do it. This idea is based on a Japanese research project that occurred during the 1950′s, which is too convoluted to go into here, but in the end, the scientists proposed that this phenomenon suggests some sort of monkey collective consciousness in the universe. There was a book that was published a couple of years ago called The Tipping Point, which proposes something along the same lines for human beings. One person can come up with an original idea, and tell it to another person, who tells someone else, etc., until a point comes where the idea has spread throughout human consciousness, whether each individual has been told or not. I like the idea that we’re all connected somewhere on a subconscious (or should I say superconscious) level.

All throughout my life, I’ve felt rather like monkey number 101, at least where my generation is concerned. I’m a leading-edge baby-boomer, and since I was quite young I’ve noticed that as soon as I get a brilliant and completely original idea, it suddenly becomes a standard Boomer fare — from getting tired of curling my hair and letting it grow long and straight (1960s), to horrible fear of housewifeliness (1970s), to suddenly wanting all-white walls in my house (1980s) And those are just a few of my innumerable 101st monkey moments.

Then as I passed the half-century mark, I started to look back and take stock. I became open to something I had never even considered before — appreciating my elders. I think that writing about the past is an attempt to understand a mind-set and way of life that was completely foreign to my young self. I was clueless about the world of my foremothers. Just as the Millennials are clueless about the world that made me.
_______________________
* Now, there's a Boomer reference for you.
**I’m kidding. No one who ever wore platform shoes or drove a Pinto is homesick for the ‘70s.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sock Fairy

A Sock Fairy has always haunted our family. He comes in the middle of the night and takes one sock from each matched pair. And he won’t give it back until we give up and finally throw the other one away. Then he comes back the next night, sure as sunrise, triumphantly waving the vanished sock.
Much to my dismay, he then progressed to stealing my bright ideas. The ones that will ensure my rise to fame and fortune. He collects my little slips of paper and secrets them away to heaven knows where. Worse, he’s after my brain now. When he gives back the slips of paper, I stare at them in wonder. What was that all about? If it ever was about anything.

But over the years, I’ve outwitted the Sock Fairy. I’ve found there are some ideas that simply bubble back to consciousness. Sometimes it’s the image of a face, an emotion, a song, a bit of poetry. When the idea or image persists I have little choice but to write about it.

One of the questions that comes up repeatedly in classes or courses I teach is “will an editor or an agent steal my idea?” This is highly unlikely although it has been known to happen. The merit of a written work lies in its unique execution.

There is an creepy aspect to creation, however. If you have a great idea, or even a pretty good idea, the chances are sky high that it’s occurring to someone else at the same time.

This was brought home to me very vividly at a recent writer’s conference. I had helped a student develop a cross-genre vampire mystery (Names and genre changed to protect the innocent). An agent with whom I’m well acquainted read his manuscript, had him revise it, and then didn’t accept it. At the conference I overheard her mention receiving a book from one of her authors. It sounded like my student’s and she was marketing it. Dismayed, I asked her about it. Of course it looked like she might have swiped this idea and turned it over to a more skillful author.

I took great care to phrase my question just right. (No way this would not sound stupid, but never mind. I did it anyway.) I overheard you talking to _____, “ I began bravely. “Is there any chance you accepted ________manuscript after all?” “No” she explained easily, “One of my author’s submitted a book that was based on the same idea and I sent it to ______.  But the house didn’t take it.” She shrugged. I suspect the manuscript from her established author was better written than my student’s anyway.

Later at this same conference, at the editor’s panel, we learned there was a WHOLE NEW GENRE being developed around this theme. Everyone in the whole known universe was thinking of this idea at about the same time. Naturally, I contacted my student at once and told him to submit the manuscript to this particular editor. Without an agent, it’s safe to assume the manuscript hit the slush pile and I don’t believe he’s had any luck so far. But who knows? He might get lucky.

Write it now. It’s demoralizing to put off writing and then have someone beat you to the punch. Write it before the Sock Fairy comes in the night and whispers in your ear that there’s no need to rush.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A look back at 2011

As the only remaining continuous member of Type M, I guess I’m the best person to do this, although not the only one. Since Vicki Delany (still around, though generally lurking), Charles Benoit (one of the world’s great lurkers) and I started this little gathering of crime writers back in 2006 (was it really that long ago??), members have come and gone. I think we now have a great crew (and Barbara Fradkin, one of our original members, back) and I always look forward to reading what people have to say. There have been a lot of interesting, thoughtful, incisive posts over this time. We’ve even had some controversial ones – and that’s good too. I always look forward to what my confreres have to say.

As for 2011, the best I can say is: we’re still here. The publishing industry hasn’t imploded, e-books are selling better than ever, paper books haven’t disappeared (I got three for Christmas!) and reading seems to be just as popular as it’s always been. We just still don’t know where this is all going.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on our posts here. Without you all, we’d be shouting into the wind. I hope we continue to interest and amuse you over the course of 2012. Happy New Year to all of you!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Story

I'm writing this ahead of the date since I'm going to spend Christmas with my daughter and her young family, and the chances of having even five minutes to myself over the weekend seems remote.

But one of the highlights for me will be, I know, listening to the beautiful words of the Anglican Service of Light with my wide-eyed grandchildren, and hearing again 'the tale of the loving purposes of God.'

And what a tale it is! It's so familiar to me that I've only now, blogging about writing, looked at the ways it fulfils the demands of narrative.

It has us hooked from the start with the dramatic visit of a messenger with news which turns the life of an ordinary girl upside down; we simply have to know what happens next. Will her fiancé, dismayed at the news that the woman he loves is to bear a child that isn't his, denounce her to public shame, let her creep away quietly - or accept her story as truth? At the end of the anxious journey they are forced to take to an overcrowded city, with her heavily pregnant, will they find somewhere – anywhere – for the birth? The account of stars and angelic choirs and worshipping shepherds and oriental kings sweeps us along, and all the while, there is the villainous king in the background, plotting destruction. There is the apparent happy ending as the little family escape, but the story ends with the massacre of the other infants - a foreshadowing of the darkness that will gather as the story unfolds. It's classic, and it's brilliant.

Stories have been the way we have conveyed the profound truths about human life since the very beginning, the way we share our insights and our beliefs. Whatever story has been yours over these last few days, I hope it has been a joyous and fulfilling time, and that the year ahead is full of good things.

See you in 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Claire's Mother, by Donald Koozer



Since this is Christmas, Dear Readers, allow me to give you the gift of a story. My guest author today is part of the family, my husband Donald Koozer. His short story Claire's Mother first appeared in a literary magazine called Bellowing Ark back in 2009.

This is a mystery story indeed, though there is no murder. But if you are a believer in such things, at Christmas time a mystery story can easily become a mystical story. Following is an excerpt to get you in the spirit. Professor Kozloff offers ride to a young lady standing beside the road on Christmas Eve and ends up somewhere and with someone he hardly could imagine existing. To read the rest, click on the link after the excerpt and let it carry you away to a snowy wood.

From our house to yours, and from all of us here at Type M 4 Murder, peace and blessings for a wonderful holiday season.

It was the Eve of Christmas and the beginning of the long holiday between semesters. As I drove out from the campus and pulled onto the highway, small, dry flakes of snow had started to blow lightly in the breeze. They were beginning to cling to the trees and dried grasses as I rode the first few miles of pavement that would take me into the panhandle and to a warm ranch house and old friends.

Christmas for me had become just another holiday. The numinous and the magical had no place in my life. I knew what lay before me on the road, and what the years ahead would bring. I had taken care to insure order and security in my life. Having achieved tenure at the university, my life fell into a pattern of classes and lectures that left no room for the miraculous or the mystical. All of that was far behind me now in a distant,
nearly forgotten childhood. I saw myself, besides being a man of letters, as a realist. So I never could have expected the surprises that waited for me as I drove that Eve of Christmas down the snowy rural highway.

When I saw the young woman standing beside the road I determined to pass her by. I didn’t want to take on a rider, especially an immature one. I had barely left the campus environs, and I didn’t want to talk anymore. Another year of college teaching was wrapped up and I was fleeing the busy schedule of classes and counseling. I was burnt out; dead tired of lecturing and listening to the chatter and callow thoughts of the current year’s class of young people who possessed all the same misconceptions about life as previous classes going back through my seventeen years at the university. There was nothing new in my world. I was weary of it all, and did not wish to face more tiresome talk from the company of the young woman who stood by the highway stamping her feet and patting her crossed arms against the cold.

But the situation was hopeless. I could not leave her to stand in the freezing weather...
Click here to read on.

_________
Snowy photograph by Donna A. Casey. Photograph of Don Koozer by Donis Casey.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Books (Reading and Writing)

Today, in honor of the holiday season, we have a morning and an evening post.

So the holidays are here, and I have a confession. One of the things I love best about the holiday season is that I have the time to curl up in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea or hot chocolate and read a book. This year – after catching The Thin Man (Christmas in NYC) on Turner Classic Movies – I’ve decided to go seasonal in my choice of what to read.

Below is one of the sites that I found with a list of holiday mysteries.


http://www.wppl.org/resources/RecReading/Mysteries/Holiday.html#Christmas


Looking at the holidays on this list reminded me that my second mystery, A Dead Man’s Honor, began on Halloween. A holiday is an especially useful time to have a murder mystery take place because what happens on holidays: people gather for events/celebrations and they eat, drink, and sometimes makes fools of themselves. At these events, people are sometimes in costumes. People come and go. They also duck into rooms or alcoves or step out onto terraces for private conversations that may be seen or overhear.

There are also wonderful seasonal ways of doing in one’s victim. For example:

Christmas – electrocuted why testing the lights on the tree.

New Year’s – cyanide in that glass of champagne at midnight

Valentine’s Day – an exploding box of chocolates

April Fool’s Day – an elaborate practical joke that turns lethal

Easter -- a killer in a bunny costume with more than eggs in his basket

Memorial Day – a picnic at the lake and a nasty cramp while swimming

Well, you get the idea. I didn’t even mention Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Administrative Professionals Day.

I love holidays. A great time to catch up on one’s reading. And an even better time for someone to breathe his or her last as the celebration is underway.


Happy Holidays, Everyone! Go easy on the eggnog.

A Brief Report from Christmas Week with Harry Potter




John here, with more photos than words this week. We’re at Harry Potter World, Universal Studios, for the week. Left Connecticut when it was 13 degrees, and Orlando has been right around 80 since we arrived.

I am embarrassed to admit before all of Type and God himself that I am the only living human who has not read the Potter books. Of course, this makes me a total disgrace to Audrey, my 10-year-old, and Delaney, my 13-year-old. (“And you call yourself an English teacher?”) But I am making up for this sad fact by paying for the butterbeer and the magic wands this week.

A couple things I have learned so far: I enjoy my 3-year-old Keeley’s Dr. Seuss rides more than Delaney's Dragon Challenge roller coaster; it is possible to pay $17 for three ice-cream cones (Thank you, J.K. Rowling); and the Kindle app is much easier to use than the iBooks app.

Up at 4 a.m. to write, then logging more miles at the parks.

Merry Christmas to all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Searching for the Forest


Barbara here. Reading the last few posts on this blog, I’m struck by how varied and thoughtful they are. Eight authors share this blog, each with our own voice and interests, covering the spectrum from young to old, cozy to dark and from the US, Canada and the UK. Vicki Delany made the inaugural post on July 26, 2006, and in the past five and a half years, 1406 blogs have been posted. Some have been funny, some poignant, others profound. We all share a passion for crime fiction, but beyond that our individual blog posts are full of variety and surprises. Our unifying hope is that our blog will reach out and touch people.

Coming up with a good blog every week or two is a challenge; it steals time that would otherwise go to creative writing, research or other promotional pursuits. Some of us, like myself, belong to two blogs, making the challenge even more difficult. Sometimes it feels daunting. There are literally thousands of blogs out in the cyber marketplace. Is anyone reading this one beyond a handful of die-hard friends? Should we be devoting those precious hours to our website, our Goodreads profile, or our Facebook page instead.

This past week saw the demise of one of the longest-running crime-writers’ blogs, The Lipstick Chronicles. The authors felt that the blog was a dying medium, that other social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter had superceded it as the point of contact between authors and readers and as a means of spreading ideas. People no longer have the time nor the patience to read blogs, and prefer the shorter, more interactive format of FB and Twitter.

If this is so, then there will be a cost, intellectually. In a world increasingly informed by shallow slogans and catchy sound bites, deeper understanding and analysis fall by the wayside. No idea can be adequately explored in 140 characters, nor in the short exchanges of a Facebook update. Not all blogs are profound, but at their best, blogs allow the writer to develop an idea, share an observation, or provide information at a level that is more than skin deep. They allow the reader to reflect, to focus and to delve into an experience beyond a fleeting moment. If we value the continuation of an informed and thoughtful society, surely that’s important.

But do we?

A blog is usually 400 – 800 words. A mere five minutes. But is that too long in today’s world? Too long for today’s distracted, impatient, restless reader? Is the blog, like the essay, a dying medium in this cyber world that no longer looks for the forest in the trees?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My last word on covers...until the next time

I’ve had several people write me to ask questions about book covers based on what I’ve written here and on the blog (mysterymavencdn.blogspot.com/) where I was interviewed last week. I’d like to sort out some of those for you all.

One thing that came up several times was my tip for looking at a colour cover in black and white (or more correctly “grayscale”). The reason for doing this is that you can readily identify design problems about the cover when the colour information has been removed.

First, to remove colour, you can do one of two things. If you have a photo manipulating program, all you do is convert the cover image into grayscale. If you’re on a Mac, you can use the editing function in iPhoto and just reduce the “saturation” of your photo to 0. I’m sure there are similar programs that come with Windows computers. This isn’t the place to talk about all the details of how to do this stuff. Most programs have good directions or you can just look up on the Internet how to do this. The final thing is to just print out your cover on a B&W printer.

Now, take a look at your grayscale cover. Does all the type stand out and is it easily readable? If it isn’t, the colour values are too close. This will show up immediately when a colour cover is changed to grayscale. By colour value I am referring to the lightness or darkness of a colour and the colours surrounding it. For instance, if the colour value of red type is close to the colour value of the brown background it's printed on, the red type will “disappear” and be very tough to read. That’s not a good thing if we’re talking about the title of your book, is it? I’ll be the first to say that a relatively competent designer won’t make this mistake, but it does happen. (I've done it a few times!) You can spot this potentially disastrous problem by doing the simple grayscale test. Colour value problems will leap out at you.

If you want to read up more on colour value and better understand colour spaces on various platforms, I can suggest reading this article: usask.ca/education/coursework/skaalid/theory/cgdt/color.htm.

Another question I got was that the cover looked great when it was sent over from the publisher as a JPEG or TIFF, but when the author finally got the finished book in their hands, the cover was much darker and harder to read. There are a few reasons that this has happened.

The first thing to understand is that computer monitors are transmissive light sources. You’re looking at something that is lit from behind. It will always appear brighter. Also, unless you’re a designer, your monitor has probably never been calibrated, so it won’t show things colours really accurately or at the correct brightness.

Second, printed matter is reflective. The ink is put onto paper, and when you look at it, the light has gone through the ink, hit the paper and is bounced back through the ink again to your eyes. It will always look darker than seeing the image on a computer monitor. The whiteness of the paper used in printing will have an effect. Also the finish on the paper, the overall quality of the paper and how heavily the press put the ink on the paper, all of these will affect how you perceive the colour and brightness.

Confused yet? More information than you ever thought you’d need? Well, if you want to be able to evaluate your cover’s design, you need to know a bit about how printing and design works. What can you do about problems? Tell your contact at the publisher. Speak to the designer, if possible. Sometimes a junior designer has been put on your job, and while they may have some terrific design ideas, they may not know enough about printing. That’s something that can be woefully lacking in some graphic design programs at colleges, even good ones. After time passes, we designers learn from our mistakes and get a feel for how that terrific design on our computer monitor will look when the ink hits the paper. The information outlined above will help you understand the process.

Or should. I hope what I’ve written here does. Keep those questions coming. I’m happy to answer them on here or on a private email.

To the Type M family and our readers, I’d like to wish you all a terrific holiday season and the very best in 2012!

PS I’ve included the cover to my forthcoming novel with Dundurn Press as an illustration of one that does everything right. It’s a terrific design in every way, and I think it really sells the “sizzle” of the story. And no, this is one cover I didn’t design – but I couldn’t be happier with it. I wish I could tell you the designer’s name, but alas I don’t remember it at the moment.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Unhitched

It’s unlikely that anyone who reads – or, even better, thinks – will not have taken note of, and been affected by, the death on Thursday, December 15th, of Christopher Hitchens. I would guess that I have read only a fraction of the words that have flowed and eddied around Hitchens’s death, and life, since he went on his way. And it’s also true that someone more erudite and better-read than I will make appropriately cogent observations on the man, and all that he was about. Which was, even to my modest intellect, a very great deal.

Ian McEwan – one of my favourite writers, I am quick to add – in a piece in the New York Times on Friday, called him a “consummate writer” and “brilliant friend”. I know nothing about the latter, of course, but can only agree with the former. Hitchens had, to use the old phrase, a way with words. It was his way with thoughts, though, that made him different, and – depending on one’s point of view – better than the average run of thoughtful scribblers. Other one-word appraisals of him were less positive and adoring, but no less apt: “polemicist” and “contrarian” are two.

I first came across Hitchens somewhat late in his day. That was in 2002 when the CBC – or maybe it was PBS – aired the documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on Hitchens’s book of the same title. Both the book and the documentary were, and probably still are, controversial. It takes a brave and singular man to designate a former U.S. Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner as a war criminal. Which is what Hitchens did. Kissinger, to no one’s surprise, didn’t like the designation. He tried to sue Hitchens, but the suit went nowhere. The documentary makes for fascinating viewing; the book for equally fascinating reading.

It was Hitchens’s book on religion that made him a household word, though. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a title that will catch almost anyone’s attention. Especially in the United States, Hitchens’s adopted and much-loved country, where religion and politics (and by extension government) make for a potent brew, and at a level that we here in Canada view with – dare I say it – a mixture of incredulity, amusement and alarm. We don’t have anything like it, not really, even if there are concerns still that the Conservative (and conservative) Harper Government has evangelical roots that might someday start sending up vigorous shoots in parts of our country not really familiar, or comfortable, with the species.

But to bring this piece about Hitchens more into line with the ramblings of a writer of fiction, I will add a line from Sandra Martin’s obituary in the Globe and Mail. “Even as a child, Mr. Hitchens knew that he didn’t have the true “stuff” to write fiction or poetry”, even though he numbered among his closest friends any number of celebrated writers of celebrated fiction. Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and the aforementioned Ian McEwan among them. But if he could not bring himself to actually write fiction, he never hesitated to offer incisive comments on the output of those who could, and did.

One of those he commented on and wrote about at length was George Orwell – Eric Arthur Blair in real life. (By coincidence, Hitchens’s middle name is Eric.) I suppose one could say that Orwell was an earlier version of Hitchens himself; an intellectual who produced sharp commentary on the society he lived in. (Arthur Koestler commented that Orwell's "uncompromising intellectual honesty … made him appear almost inhuman at times…”, and that description seems to fit Hitchens also.) Unlike Hitchens, Orwell also wrote great and memorable fiction. He was also an ardent social-democrat who excoriated the Soviet Union in Animal Farm. His other great work, of course, was Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Why 1984, someone once asked? Well, the book was finished in 1948, and Orwell reversed the last two digits to place it far enough into the future to allow one’s imagination of society’s evolution to run rampant. Or so I read somewhere.) So Orwell went at least one better than Hitchens in the writing field.

When Hitchens did his abrupt political, and I thought at the time, moral, about-face in 2003 and supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he almost lost me, and for good. But I got over that, even if I have never gotten over the actual war. But, then, neither, I would argue, has the United States. Much of my reading of Hitchens, and most of my viewing of him courtesy of YouTube, has taken place since 2003.      

And happily – an odd word to use, perhaps, in the context of a man’s death – Hitchens was so prolific that I will never want for something “new” of his to read. His most recent tome is the collection of essays and pieces, Arguably. I will pick up a copy soon, and dip into it at random whenever I need to be reminded that there is great writing, and interesting thought processes, out there to savour.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Repo Man & The Outlaw

Today, our guest blogger is (Mike) J.M. Hayes. Mike is an original, a writer with a conception all his own. He is also an astute observer of behavioral and social change. There are echoes of election fixing in English Lessons, but the real riff is on Second Amendment rights and gun laws. As a resident of Tucson, Hayes could hardly be on better ground for satire . Mike was raised on the flat earth of central Kansas. After graduating from Wichita State University Anthropology/archaeology), Mike did post-graduate work at the University of Arizona. He still lives in central Tucson with his wife, thousands of books, and a small herd of German Shepherds. English Lessons (2011) is his seventh novel and the sixth in his Mad Dog & Englishman series. The Library Journal selected his previous novel, Server Down, as one of the five best mysteries of the year.


REPO MAN & THE OUTLAW

Since writing doesn't earn me a living wage, I do bookkeeping a couple of days a week at Grumpy Old Men's Auto Repair here in Tucson. Times are tough. I'm not the only one working multiple jobs to get by. One of our customers, a teacher, moonlights as a Repo Man. That means he surreptitiously repossesses vehicles from owners who haven't kept up with their payments. It's a risky job, not something you'd normally expect a high school teacher to do on the side. But, risk brings rewards. It pays well.

 Repo Man is small time. He's got a little salvage yard where he stores what he picks up. He's licensed and bonded. And he got himself a very cool tow truck. It's a big Ford 250, equipped with a stealth boom that hides in the truck's bed until he needs it. When he finds one of the vehicles he's after, he can pull up in front or behind and activate the towing mechanism. It unfolds out of the bed like one of those convertible hardtops popping out of a trunk. The boom drops to just above ground level. It's then maneuvered under the target, lifts a pair of wheels, and get's out of the neighborhood fast. Some folks object, assuming they should be allowed an infinite number of months without payments. Bringing a gun to the argument is not unheard of. This is Arizona, remember. Our legislature made it legal for everyone here to carry concealed—no permit required. And there are lots of ways to buy the weapon of your choice without any record of the purchase.

 Some people might call it perfect justice—or evidence of a divine sense of humor. Whatever, Repo Man had his tow truck stolen a few weeks ago. Ironic, isn't it, that someone with a complete understanding of slim jims and lock busting slide hammers should get hit by an outlaw with similar skills. Law enforcement, however, recovered the truck within a couple of weeks. Without the stealth towing system, though, which the thief sold on the theory that anything you don't pay for is all profit. Not enough, though, since the outlaw and the truck got caught at a local casino. The thief probably thought wagering the proceeds of that towing system wasn't a real gamble and could turn small profits into bigger ones.

 Unfortunately, the truck came back a little the worse for wear. One of the door handles was broken for access, of course. And the ignition switch no longer required a key. A couple of fenders were also a bit crumpled. Nothing major, but the insurance company added up the costs of replacing the towing rig and fixing the truck and decided to declare it a total loss. Repo Man bought it back for salvage value. He thinks he can sell it at a profit. Big trucks are mighty popular along the border. Never know what or who you might need to haul around. Besides, he's found a newer truck and a used stealth tow rig he thinks he can pay for with the insurance money and by selling his former truck.

 His story caught my attention because it's a lot like my Mad Dog & Englishman novels—a Murphy's Law kind of situation with a sweet sense of irony, some justice in the end, and unexpected twists. Repo Man's twists arrived a little after he got his truck back. They came in two letters from the City of Tucson—parking tickets. Red zone violations, and those aren't cheap here. He called Tucson's police department. After all, he has documentation that the truck was stolen at the time it got ticketed. Only it turns out the auto theft division can't fix parking tickets, not even for the obviously innocent. So he's going to have to waste time in court because our outlaw was willing to gamble on parking spaces as well as gaming tables. Repo Man is a little upset by that, to say nothing of the fact that the cops issuing the parking tickets couldn't be bothered to run his tags and identify his truck as a stolen vehicle. The truck might not have been damaged or the repo rig removed yet when the parking tickets were issued. And two opportunities to retrieve his property were wasted.

 That's exactly the kind of plot twist I throw at my characters. Spend a day with the heroes of my Mad Dog & Englishman mysteries (less, actually, since all the books take place in under twenty-four hours) and you'll find that cosmic jokes are the rule, and things are never so bad that they can't get just a little worse.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Life in the Gaps

I read Charlotte’s post, below, with nostalgia. We have lived far from our relatives for many years, so it has been many years since I have enjoyed a full-on family Christmas. Usually it’s just me and my husband Don, but our little two person Christmases turned into a rather sweet tradition. This year it looks like we won’t be having any Christmas to speak of. We have other things on our minds.

Ever since my dear husband underwent a health crisis in 2009 it's been one thing after another. Another batch of problems arose a couple of months ago, and now we live between doctor’s appointments. This current crisis has taken over both our lives at the moment, and I expect at least another couple of months of upset and discombobulation ahead. Our actual lives occur in the gaps.

In the gaps, I've managed at last to finish the first draft of the new book and send it to my editor for her critique. The book took me nearly two years to write, what with all this stuff going on. But the actual writing of it was quite therapeutic and peaceful. I read what other authors are doing with their careers and am overcome with bitter envy because I seem to be sidetracked. But life has it's tides, I suppose.
I have always hesitated to go into much public detail about my personal life. Who would be interested, other than blood relatives, I wonder? Everyone in the world has problems of their own. But then I'm always interested in and sympathetic to other people's woes, and learn something from them, as well. Would it be useful to others if I were to to add my own narrative?

In The Book of Awakening, author Mark Nepo described his experience as part of a psychodrama group, in which the participants acted out “dreams or current conflicts of unresolved pieces” of their pasts. At first he was hesitant, if not skeptical about the process, but several weeks into the group he “began to see that each person’s story, no matter how different from my own, would suddenly be about a part of me that I’d never given voice to.” Listening to others’ stories was for him about “finding comfort and healing in the surprise that our stories are really all the same.”

I find strength in the stories of others. I am grateful to those who endure difficult times, and yet have the grace and courage to share their journey with me. It helps to know that I am not alone, that our stories are really all the same.

So while I expect that I shall have to miss a few upcoming entries here at Type M 4 Murder, I have decided to pluck up my courage and lay myself bare, Dear Readers, and share this journey with you on my own blog site, www.doniscasey.com.

Another author I admire, Steven Pressfield, said that if you want to be an artist, you have to “give us what you’ve got.” Right now this is what I’ve got.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ghost of Christmas Past

Christmas is a bittersweet time. I cling to traditions I should probably abandon. The number of people sending Christmas cards declines every year. Yet I can’t bear to break connections with old friends even long after they have moved out my life except in memory. I still hear from the child of my mother’s best friend in Lone Elm. Ironically, we didn’t know each other that well. I think she was several grades behind me, yet obviously neither of us is willing to stop the cards, in honor of our mother’s friendship.
 
I have some old tree ornaments that are tarnished beyond redemption, and some old walnuts I painted gold and hung the first year Don and I were married. They were followed by other homemade concoctions. And the crown jewel of our lifetime of Christmas memories is Old Sparkly.

One joyful year when all the kids and grandkids were doing especially well, the truckline was thriving, and we were all in relatively good health the whole family came back to Hoxie. It was the kind of Christmas that inspire movies. Don splurged on an elaborate fiber optic Christmas tree and told me the local hardware store would soon be delivering it because it was very large. This sounded ominous. I asked him how much it cost. He said “I don’t know, but it’s one big sparkly son-of-a-bitch.”

We watched Old Sparkly in awe as the colors slowly shifted from gold to green and red. We knew it was classless and more than a little tacky. But we didn’t care. Don loved it and his enthusiasm was contagious.

 It’s too much work to assemble now, and doesn’t look right in my apartment, but I can’t give it up. And Old Sparkly doesn’t give the ghost either. It fires up every year

There’s an illusionary aspect to Christmas. In November, I imagine that everything will be perfect. Cards sent on time, and presents wrapped and under the tree. Reality usually intrudes in not-so-perfect ways. My youngest daughter broke her wrist a week ago, I’m coping with a root canal gone bad. Yet there is something still magical about the season. There’s an assumption that happiness will happen, despite the set-backs.

My husband, my parents, my brother, and my sister have passed on now. But I’m struck by how many lovely memories I have of years gone by. I’m grateful for so many things. Although my mystery series often deals with the dark side of families, I’m extremely lucky to have three daughters and sons-in-laws who love them, and six wonderful grandchildren. The three sisters are very close and the kids have enjoyed the special relationships cousins have.

Bouyed by the loving foundation provided by my childhood, my marriage, and my family. I’ve moved on to a new life and a new town.

My heart goes out to those who have not been so fortunate. My prayers are with everyone this season that they will somehow, somewhere, find the peace of Christmas regardless of religion.

Bless you all—and may your pens be golden in the year to come.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

More Ideas

Aline Templeton’s great “Ideas” post Monday got me thinking. She wrote of having to “step out into unknown territory…get to know new characters, see if they're going to speak to me, find out what's going to happen to them.” We’ve all been there—and it is indeed “scary business.”

You never know where inspiration will come from. And to keep me from wasting the little time I have each week for writing, I keep a file of quirky or interesting news briefs. Here’s one I found on truecrimereport.com Monday night. I won’t give you the whole article; the lead was enough to get me thinking. It’s something out of an Elmore Leonard story:

Cops discovered the off-duty Miami-Dade police officer passed out in his own patrol car as it idled in an intersection. According to his arrest report, Villa blamed his sluggish responses on a concussion he suffered at least 13 years ago while playing high school baseball.

I’ll leave it up to you to fill in the blanks regarding Officer Villa, but, as you can guess, the Miami-Dade Police Department wasn’t buying his story.

And how about this one on weirdnews.about.com:

Tinker Bell he ain't.

Police in Arkansas say 50-year-old Michael Wyatt has a secret identity: He's the "Toe Suck Fairy," and the cops say he has been harassing women and telling them how much he'd like to... well... suck their toes.

Two of three women who've had to deal with his alleged advances picked him out of a lineup -- and police say he's got a track record to back it up: A decade ago, Wyatt served time for a series of bizarre foot-related crimes, according to a report in the Huffington Post.


Enough said. If you’re looking for characters, this guy is memorable, if nothing else.

Reality is literally stranger than fiction. Looking for story ideas? You simply can’t make this stuff up.

Or can you?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The inside scoop on book covers

I’m visiting on another blog today and tomorrow so I’m inviting everyone over there. I have my graphic designer’s hat firmly on and am being interviewed about book cover design. This is an offshoot of some postings I’ve done here on Type M the past couple of weeks, and I hope that you all will find it enlightening and interesting. A great deal of it is squarely aimed at authors who often find themselves at the mercy of their publishers when it comes to cover design.

So drop over to Lynda Wiken’s mysterymavencdn.blogspot.com and join our little discussion, or leave comments here. It’s all good.

On last week’s announcement of our informal contest for bad book covers of 2011: I’ve received only two nominations, which is disappointing. Come on, people! There have got to be more than two bad covers foisted on an unsuspected reading public during the year. Let’s get some more nominations in!

-=-=-==-=-=-=-=-
Please note: Type M for Murder has adopted a zero tolerance policy for people using our blog to sell their wares, be it clothing, jewelry or pre-written term papers. If you are thinking of using our comment section for this purpose, be aware that your comments will be removed immediately. Please be courteous to our legitimate readers and go elsewhere to peddle your products.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ideas

'Where do you get your ideas from?'

It's the question authors are asked most regularly, often in a tone that suggests if only we would tell the audience, they could all go there and get some too.

I've tried various responses: the jokey, 'Well, there's this site on the internet. Standard ideas don't cost much, and even second-hand ones are quite affordable, but an original one? Prepare to mortgage the house.'

Then there's the earnest list of methods: wide reading, newspapers, TV news programmes, photographs, observation - eavesdropping, even. I can spend quite a long time on that reply.

If I'm being truthful, I just say, 'I don't know.' I wish I did, particularly at the moment when I'm starting to think about a new book.

The one I'm finishing feels like a pair of old slippers. I've worked it into the shape I want it to be and we're familiar friends now. I'm past the subdued panic stage when you're not at all sure it's going to work out, and now it's just a case of smoothing out rough patches and cutting adverbs I'm sure the book still has a couple of commas that would benefit from being full stops and a few 'which'es that ought to be 'that's. It's quite a soothing occupation, and I'm no more ready to let it go than I am to throw out my battered pink furry slippers, bought in an American Wall-Mart more years ago than I would care to mention.

But soon, I'm going to have to step out into unknown territory. I'm going to have to get to know new characters, see if they're going to speak to me, find out what's going to happen to them. And I need an idea that's going to drive me day after day for the next year or so. It's a scary business.

If anyone has that internet address, perhaps you could let me have it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Confessions of a Serial Novelist

Today, we are pleased to welcome Marcia Talley as our guest blogger. Marcia is the Agatha and Anthony-award winning author of A QUIET DEATH and nine previous Hannah Ives mysteries. Her short stories appear in more than a dozen collections. She’s a past president of Sisters in Crime and a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the Crime Writers’ Association, and the Authors’ Guild. When Marcia isn’t in Annapolis, Maryland researching 18th century manners and customs, she’s living aboard an antique sailboat in the Bahamas with her husband, Barry.


CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL NOVELIST: Or, How I Wrote Mystery Novels with Twelve Other Women and Lived to Tell the Tale
By
Marcia Talley

Fans of my Hannah Ives mysteries will be surprised to learn that I am also a serial novelist. I write novels with other women. And not just one woman either. TWELVE other women.

How could this happen to a good little girl from Cleveland, Ohio?

It’s like this. My agent called one day and mentioned that a publisher had paid Big Bucks for a serial novel about golf. Surely I could come up with something as interesting! How about a novel set in an exclusive health spa, I said? You could have a greedy owner, a star-struck daughter, a drunken senator, an aged rock star...I was on a roll. Naked Came the Phoenix was born.

I’d Kill for That was my second expedition into collaborative serial novel territory, and what an adventure it was! For the uninitiated, let me explain that the novel, like its predecessor, Naked Came the Phoenix, was written in round-robin style: one author writes the first chapter then passes it to the second who picks up the story where the first author left off, then passes it on to the third, and so on.

For me, coming up with the scenario – murder in an exclusive gated community – and creating a smorgasbord of fascinating characters for the others to play with was just the beginning. The fun really started when I turned it all over to my fellow authors, sat back and waited to see where my dream team would run with it, and they didn’t disappoint.

Under the talented pen of Gayle Lynds, the “greedy real estate developer” suggested in my proposal leapt to life “with a clash of cymbals and a drum roll” as Vanessa Smart Drysdale, a petite, chestnut-haired beauty in black leather slacks who possesses all the compassion of Cruella de Vil. Little did I know what Lisa Gardner had in store for poor, tormented Roman Gervase, and Julie Smith’s take on Sunday services at St. Francis of Assisi Interfaith Chapel had me chuckling for weeks. Other equally delightful chapters were penned by Rita Mae Brown, Linda Fairstein, Kay Hooper, Kathy Reichs (lending her customary forensic expertise, of course), Heather Graham, Jennifer Crusie, Tina Wainscott, Anne Perry, Katherine Neville and, ahem, me.

The authors seemed to enjoy the game, too. The rules were simple. Each chapter was to be written in the third person, with a definite solution in view, even thought we were well aware that subsequent authors might take – indeed were expected to take – the plot in divergent directions. Speaking of her chapter in Naked Came the Phoenix, which was set in a luxury health spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Nancy Pickard said, “It was dangerously liberating to know I didn’t personally have to deal with the consequences of whatever I put in my chapter.” Good thing, too, as she left our heroine struggling to extract the body of the spa owner from a mud bath.

Although writers were cautioned to avoid cliff-hanger endings that would require Houdini-like efforts on the part of the next author, the “real fun” comes, according to Laurie R. King who wrote the final chapter of Naked Came the Phoenix, “in seeing thirteen sweet-tempered lady crime writers stab each other thoughtfully in the back.” Judy Jance gleefully ended her chapter in that novel with Phyllis, the spa’s resident psychic, floating face down in a lake. Fortunately, however, someone in Faye Kellerman’s chapter knew CPR and revived Phyllis long enough for her to deliver a critical clue before lapsing into a coma.

As you might guess, my job as editor/contributor resembled a cross between tour guide and traffic cop as I assembled the team and worked out the intricacies of scheduling – each author had just a month to complete her chapter – and made sure, for example, that each author received packets of background information and copies of the chapters that preceded hers. Timing was critical. We met at conferences, spoke on the telephone and exchanged emails at a furious rate. As we raced to the finish line, Anne, Katherine and I kept the trans-Atlantic telephone lines hot as we brainstormed and worked out plot details – Anne Perry pointed out that the novel needed a love story, and she was right – so we put one in. And Val McDermid vowed she would not participate unless she could use the word “incarnadine,” a request I happily granted. Often we found ourselves revisiting an earlier chapter to plant a clue or clear up a discrepancy, and it fell to the amazing Katherine Neville – who volunteered for the job, I should point out – to tie up all the loose ends as our novel sprinted to its stunning conclusion.

It’s common for serial collaborations to benefit a worthy cause and I’d Kill for That is no exception. Like Naked Came the Phoenix before it, a percentage of the royalties is earmarked to support breast cancer research.

After I’d Kill for That, I had planned to hang up my serial novel pen, until Andrew Gulli, the editor of Strand Magazine, telephoned to twist my arm about a serial novel he was working on to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—No Rest for the Dead – 26 bestselling authors! One terrific novel! according to Simon & Schuster who published it. Although I thought Andrew was out of his mind (and I told him so!) he decided to have all 26 authors write their chapters simultaneously. So, how did that work out? Listen to the authors as they comment at the novel’s New York City launch party in July.



There may be another serial novel in my future — never say never! — but in the meantime, A Quiet Death is recently out from Severn House in hardback and eBook, and I’m finishing Hannah’s eleventh adventure, The Last Refuge set entirely at historic William Paca House in Annapolis, Maryland!

Has Hannah Ives made the right decision joining the cast of Patriot House, 1774, a reality show recreating eighteen-century colonial life? There’s no electricity, no running water, and the cast are at the mercy of the show’s ‘Founding Father’. Even more worrying, Amy Cornell, Hannah’s lady’s maid on set, receives a text message from Drew, her Navy SEAL husband presumed dead after a botched mission ten months ago. Naturally, because I write mysteries (all by myself this time!) mayhem ensues. Look for The Last Refuge in the spring of 2012.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I Wish I'd Said That

I cannot tell you how often I think, “I wish I’d said that.” I am a sucker for a clever turn of phrase, and will remember a good one forever, whether or not I get it exactly right in the retelling.

Therefore, since I simply can’t say it better myself, following are some quotes by the masters, in no particular order, which have informed and guided me in the craft of writing, creating mysteries, histories, characters, and worlds.

Mickey Spillane, when asked how much research he does in the interest of authenticity: “None. My job is not to tell the truth. My job is to make you believe.”(Note: I’ve used that quote for years, but when I looked it up , I saw that it’s actually “I don’t research anything. When I need something, I make it up.” However, I like my version, so there it is. D.)

Walter Mosely: “Fiction is a collusion between the reader and the novel ... Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do.”

Walter Mosely : “Too many writers can’s see the forest of the story through the trees of all their detail.”

William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

Mark Twain: “Don’t say ‘the old lady screamed.’ Bring her on stage and let her scream.”

Graham Green: “The moment comes when a character says or does something that you hadn’t thought of. At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.”

Toni Morrison: “My father told me that once you know a man’s race, you know nothing about him at all.”

Satchel the Dog of the “Get Fuzzy” comic strip : “Truth is more important than fact.” (Note: He may have stolen this from Frank Lloyd Wright. D.)

Taoist saying: “The fish is not aware of the water it swims in.”

J.A. Jance, on being told by a fan that she didn’t like Jance’s latest book as well as the earlier ones: “Babe Ruth had 714 career home runs. He also had 1330 career strike-outs. If you want to be a success you’ve got to get up to the plate and keep swinging.” (Note : I was standing right next to her when she said this. D.)

Carolyn Hart: “The point of a mystery is never the murder.”

Eric Mayer: “The trick to writing imaginative historical mysteries is keeping just under the radar of the historians.”

Somerset Maugham, when asked if he had a writing schedule or waited until inspiration struck. “Oh, I wait until inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Erica Jong: “Feminism didn’t change deep-seated priorities about what - or who - matters. I see deeply diminished expectations in young women writers... I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers ... protest their ghettoization ... let’s celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it. And let’s mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters. It does.”

(Note: the above quote, taken from Jong’s article entitled “Ghetto (Not) Fabulous”, which appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, on April 9, 2007, can be changed as follows and make an equally cogent point:

“The popularity of crime fiction didn’t change deep-seated priorities about what type of literature matters. I see deeply diminished expectations in mystery writers. I would like to see the talented new breed of American crime fiction writers protest their ghettoization. Let’s celebrate our genre rather than fear it. And let’s mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking genre fiction has real meaning. It does.” D.)
And my favorite --

Steven Pressfield: “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Friday, December 09, 2011

When Reality Intrudes

Sorry I’m late today. I had intended to write about another topic, but I’ve been preoccupied since yesterday with the ambivalence that I – and I suspect other crime writers – sometimes feel about what we write about. VA Tech is my undergrad alma mater. I still go there twice a year to serve on a board. Yesterday – as back in 2007 – I felt shocked and sad and angry that something awful had happened in a place that I and so many other Hokies love.

And then I felt – as before – a twinge of guilt because I write crime fiction in which murder and other bad things happen and people read my books for entertainment. I enjoy attending conferences where I and other writers talk with amusement about how we kill people in our books.

But I know that humans have been telling each other stories since we learned to communicate with language. Many of those stories have been about violence and death.

In fact, blaming crime writers for violence would be rather like blaming romance writers for women whose lives are on hold while they wait for the man of their dreams to appear.

We are drawn to certain types of stories and perhaps those stories reinforce myths and fantasies. But, at its best, fiction challenges us. Well-written romances are stories about relationships, about the personal growth that the characters must achieve in order to find happiness together. Good crime fiction not only examines conflicts within relationships that lead to violence but calls on the reader to think about the roots of greed and selfishness, and, yes, the nature of evil.

Still, when reality intrudes, I find myself stopping to ponder – to think about my choice to be a mystery writer. The truth is that even if I wrote romance novels, my books would always have a touch of mystery and probably a dead body or two. Perhaps – in the same way romances have happy endings – I want to present endings where justice triumphs even if the characters are left bruised by the events.

But I do wish for a world in which bad things happened only in the stories we tell.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

E.B. White and Giving Away E-books

In his 1938 essay “Removal,” E.B. White wrote, “I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television of that I am quite sure.”

What would E.B. White have said last night, were he in my living room as my wife hunkered down with her Kindle Fire (Merry Christmas!), my 10-year-old read the latest Rick Riordan book on her Nook, and my 13-year-old curled up with my iPad (probably not actually reading but rather shopping for a new family smartphone contract that will, she tells me repeatedly, only benefit yours truly)? The visual is a far cry from Thoreau’s Walden (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…”).

The truth is, though, the essential facts of life have changed in the publishing industry and for book lovers. In May, Amazon reported that just four years after launching the Kindle (originally sold for $259; now starting at $79) the conglomerate online store’s e-book sales had surpassed print purchases. Moreover, according to a recent UK-based report, e-book sales worldwide are expected to triple by the year 2016 (generating nearly $10 billion a mere five years from now). Subsequently, the Kindle Fire seems to be the holiday-season rage. Amazon, as usual, isn't releasing specific Kindle sales figures, but Apple announced it's quarterly iPad sales are down as Kindle market-share figures rise.

My interest in e-books remains the same as any other writer: I’m trying to see where all of this leads. Yet I am also in a unique position, controlling all facets of my e-books. In college, I took too many English classes to even declare a minor, so I’m far from a marketing expert. But I’ve learned a couple things since making my five Jack Austin novels available in e-book formats. One is, the e-book reader is a sophisticated shopper. You can’t give these things away. I have gently and methodically raised the prices on my e-books (from free and $2.99 in June 2010, to $5.99 and $6.99 currently) and sales have improved with each price increase. Apparently, e-book readers figure if it’s free it can’t be good.

It’s an interesting online game. I don’t know where it’s headed or what E.B. White would think of it, but I know it’s far from virtual.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I have a Little Canadian List.

Two weeks ago on this blog I talked about the unique voices and unexpected delights that the midlist author brings to the world. Today, as promised, I want to talk about that most obscure of midlist authors, the Canadian. And since I write crime fiction, I will confine my remarks to Canadian crime writers. Canada has a rich tradition in many genres including literary fiction, which regularly finds itself on the short lists of international awards, and fantasy, of which my friend Violette Malan is a master.

I defy you to find a group of crime writers more talented, funny, scary, moving and powerful than Canadians. They can and do hold their own against the very best in the world. However, because the pool of readers and hence the promotional dollars available to publishers and authors of Canadian works is smaller, they can rarely compete for advertising space, promotional tours and bookstore placement with the bigger names from Britain and the US.

I have done hundreds of mall signings across Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Often people say they love mysteries and they name Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, PD James, and the other superstars. When asked, however, they often can’t name a single Canadian. Yet about a hundred Canadian mystery novels are published every year. Some writers, like Peter Robinson and Phyllis Smallman, set their stories in Britain or the US, while others, like Dorothy McIntosh who wrote the antiquities thriller The Witch of Babylon, set their work overseas, which means they are marketed and promoted without overt reference to their Canadian connection. There are many reasons a writer might chooses to set his books somewhere other than Canada, including the lure of interesting stories and places, but a desire to make a living is also one of them.

But increasingly, Canadian crime writers are choosing to defy the financial odds and write for and about Canada. They want to tell our stories, deal with our issues and bring our settings to life. They want to write about Canadians. I’m one of them. I want to write about the world I know and the people who surround me. I don’t feel I could create unique, real people if I didn’t know them well. And no place is as vivid and textured to me as Ottawa. It turns out that despite the doomsayers – who wants to read about Canada? Good grief, who wants to read about Ottawa! – Canadians are delighted to read stories about their own city or country, about people they can almost see in the mirror. And non-Canadians thoroughly enjoy visiting a place and a culture different from their own.

So whether you’re Canadian, British, American or something else, consider buying Canadian for that mystery lover on your gift list. It’s impossible to name all the good books that came out this year, so I will take a quick trip across Canada to give you a sample of books and styles along the way. We’ll start on The Rock, with Thomas Rendell Curran’s latest Inspector Stride novel, Death of a Lesser Man, a classic whodunit set in post World War II Newfoundland. If you love hard-hitting legal thrillers with heart, hop across to Halifax with Indefensible by Pamela Callow. In Quebec, Louise Penny continues to bring the village of Three Pines to vivid life in her latest Inspector Gamache novel, A Trick of the Light.

Ontario, like British Columbia, has so many excellent writers in so many genres that it’s hard to pick one. The Guilty Plea by Toronto lawyer Robert Rotenberg? Tampered by Hamilton doctor Ross Pennie? How about Orchestrated Murder, by Rick Blechta, a compelling tale for the reluctant reader. Cross the prairies, where Saskatchewan legend Gail Bowen has just produced her third haunting tale for reluctant readers, The Shadow Killer. Heading farther west, Calgarian Garry Ryan brings heart and grit to his latest Detective Lane novel, Malabarista.

We finish up in British Columbia, another hotbed of crime. Vicki Delany has combined the cozy feel of the village mystery with the gritty realism of the police procedural to create the Constable Molly Smith series, set in the stunning Rocky mountains of BC. Among the Departed is the latest in this series.

This is but a small sample, and many other fine books deserve to be mentioned. Much more information about Canadian crime writers can be found at www.crimewriterscanada.com. Some areas of the country are missing from my quick tour, because I did not know a recent release that had been set there. If you know one, please comment! Meanwhile there are only twelve more days till Christmas, and eight till Hanukah. Time is passing.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

More on book covers

My comment last Tuesday about the terrible cover on Ian Rankin’s most recent paperback offering seemed to have touched a nerve with a lot of Type M readers. That response caused me to think a lot more on this subject.

If a publisher contacts me to design a cover, the first thing we talk about (after time frame) is, naturally, remuneration. I charge over $800, often more, because of the time involved, but I put in a lot more time than most designers. If they want a “quick and dirty” cover, I pass.

It’s funny (and sad) how publishers just present a cover to their authors and say, “Here it is. We hope you like it.” Unspoken, but certainly understood is also, “Like it or lump it.” The only thing the average author might be allowed to comment on and possibly have changed is something like typeface or type size. Where you’re completely stuck is on the image used. If the author gets saddled with what he/she considers a poor or inappropriate image, that’s when the publisher will pull out the time-honored sidestep comment: “It’s a marketing decision.” The poor author is stuck.

I have an idea this is what happened to poor Ian. Even authors as important as he is (and with sales to back up that stature) get told off in this manner. Having sat on the publishers’ side of this table, I’m here to tell you that it’s all bullshit. The real situation is either someone important at the publisher has fallen in love with the cover that’s been designed, or they shelled out a fair bit of money to an illustrator (less likely these days) or they commissioned a custom-photographed cover image (ditto). Where this argument really chaps my butt is when they’ve meremly purchased a stock image from a cut-rate supplier like iStock or Fotolia. Want to know what those images cost? About $30.

The reality of the issue is that publishers are cutting corners where they shouldn’t. An in-house designer (mostly who they use) is tasked with creating a cover for a book. They might meet with the editor who also may or may not take the time to sit down and research potential images with the designer. Usually, the designer is given just the sales blurb for the book and that’s the sum total of the knowledge they have to come up with their “appropriate” design. Is it any wonder that more and more seriously bad covers are appearing on bookstore shelves and online book sellers?

The real shame is that you can judge a book by its cover. If this important sales tool (and quite often potential readers’ first contact with a work) is far less than it should be, sales are going to suffer. Why is that so hard for most publishers to understand? Even e-books need good covers, too, by the way.

Okay, I would like to come up with a year-end list of what our readers consider The Worst Book Covers of 2011. Send me your nominees or post the choices in the comments section below this email. Let’s come up with a Wall of Shame for publishers who really dropped the ball. My nominee is the Rankin book, but I have my eye on some others.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Freeing The Cells

In her post of December 3, Donis Casey makes it clear that finding a suitable title for a novel can be a challenge. The same holds true for finding a title for a blog post. So, how does one go about it? Or, for that matter, how does one go about writing anything. In long-ago days before I made a really serious attempt at a novel, I liked to swap clever opinions with a colleague at the Library of Parliament here in Ottawa. Someone, I forget who, once opined that writing is easy: “You sit at the keyboard and concentrate until blood starts to seep from your forehead.” And sometimes it does seem like that. Writing can be very difficult; for me at least. For others not so hard. My friend and fellow Ottawa writer, Mary Jane Maffini, once said something along the lines that her output was only limited by the number of hours in the day that she could spend at the keyboard. Or sentiments to that effect. Much to be admired, even envied.

But to hearken back to the title of this post, I discovered an easier – if less productive – way to assuage the demands of the creative beast. FreeCell! How many games of FreeCell does it require to get from the opening sentence of one’s hoped-for novel to that much-desired Finis moment? In the case of my first book, Undertow, it was somewhere north of 10,000 games. It took me almost four years to write that book. Perhaps if I had halved the number of FreeCell games to a mere 5,000, I could have done it much more quickly. But I doubt that. The moderately challenging – if inherently silly – game did calm the fevered mind. And the book did get written.

The message being, I suppose, that writers will do odd things to get the job done.

Later on, I adopted a more complicated stratagem. Spider Solitaire. But that one really was, in the end, counter-productive. Spider Solitaire is much more complicated than FreeCell, and really does challenge; to the point that it’s often hard to think of anything other than getting the game done, and then going on to yet another game, and another, and another. And there being three levels of difficulty, that game is even more deadly in terms of time demands.

And where am I now in my effort to finish my fourth Inspector Stride novel? Back to FreeCell as it happens; 4,631 games played to date. Which could mean that I have only about 5,400 games to go before the novel’s done. Clearly I should play more, and play more often. Seriously, though, games like FreeCell are sometimes a hindrance, but at other times they are relaxing and they reduce stress.

Computers, as we all know, are a mixed blessing. We have instant access to a world of information via the internet – which in itself is another mixed blessing – but too often there is too much temptation to wander off into non-productive pursuits. Writing is like life generally. I have a self-imposed end-of-January deadline for the new Stride, and it’s a tossup whether I will actually make it. An old story; but hopefully not with a surprise ending.

To finish up this post, I will essay a piece that I will presumptuously call A Tale of Two Novels.

A month ago I dipped into my first Jack Reacher novel. It was only about five years ago, at the Left Coast Crime gathering in Bristol, UK, that I discovered there was such a creation as Jack Reacher. Lee Child was one of the keynote authors at the gathering, and he made a short speech, in which he talked about his protagonist. Like Reacher, himself, Lee Child is very tall, if not nearly as bulky. (I think Reacher tops out at about 250 pounds.) Child explained to the audience that he came up with the character’s name because, being very tall, he was often asked during visits to supermarkets, usually by older, tiny persons of the female persuasion, if he could please reach them down an item from one of the upper shelves. He then began to think of himself as a “reacher”, and thus the character’s name came to him.

I liked his story a lot, and I still do. And I wish I could say that I liked the Reacher novel that I am reading – The Affair – as much. Sadly, I do not. I am fairly certain that the book is another bestseller for Mr. Child, and good for him. But for me, despite some interesting writing and a lot of information about the United States Army, particularly the Military Police part, I am finding that my attention wanders often. It’s not a long book, and a month after starting it, it’s still not finished. Worse, I don’t really have much interest in finding out “whodunit”, who did slash the throats of all those radiantly beautiful women near an American Army base in the deep south. My main quibble with the book is the “soldier-as-superman” gambit. At one point in the narrative, Reacher goes one on four – or is it one on six? – with a collection of large and ugly local redneck inbreds, and quickly demolishes the lot of them, sending them limping back to their caves, or holes in the ground, or wherever. In another scene he casually shoots another brute in the forehead and sends his two equally odious companions scampering back to their hovels in mortal fear and dread. None of it – for me – rings true. It’s seems to me a superficial construct.

So, when I drove from Ottawa to Kingston this past weekend to visit with my daughter, I left Reacher at home on the floor beside my bed, and took with me instead a wonderful short novel by the late British author J.L. Carr – A Month In The Country. The book was released in 1980 and was shortlisted for the Booker. It was a considerable success, reprinted many times, although not likely a money-maker along the lines of Lee Child’s Reacher series. In 1987, though, it was made into a film of the same title, and starred Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and a young Natasha Richardson – who would, in March 2009, tragically die from injuries sustained in a ski accident in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. The film is as brilliant as the book.

Then, in one of those bizarre incidents that drive serious film lovers mad with frustration, all prints of the 35 mm master were somehow lost, and this brilliant film appeared to have vanished from the world forever. Happily, another print was eventually found in a warehouse. But then there was another long delay while ownership of the print was sorted out. Happily it was sorted out.

The film is now available on DVD in the original 96-minute version. I commend it to anyone who enjoys films of intelligence and substance. The same recommendation, of course, is made for the book.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Folksy Titles

Yesterday I more or less finished the original draft of my sixth Alafair book. Whew! I have worked on this particular book longer than any of my previous books. I can only hope that the end product will justify all the time spent on it. Not that it's actually finished, of course. It needs a going-over before I send it to my editor, who will have many suggestions. Then comes the rewrite, which we hope will not take more than a couple weeks, and if I am able to rise to the occasion, the book will be accepted, put on the publishing schedule, and hit the shelves in about eight months.

I'm calling this book The Wrong Hill To Die On. The idea was given me by an Illinois mystery author, Denisa Hanania. People are always giving me ideas for book titles. Seems every person living has heard her grandmother reel off a folksy saying that would fit right into the world of my early 20th Century Oklahoma family. I use them, too. I may not use it for a title, but I often have a character say it.
For the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the book takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

Now, I admit that The Old Buzzard Had It Coming is not the most melliflous title, nor does it flow trippingly off the tongue. But it is eye-catching, and that’s the point. In fact, someone described it to me as “like a kick in the gut.” I’ve grown quite fond of it.

Early on, my sister-in-law Dolores couldn’t quite remember how the title went and called it The Old Coot Deserved What He Got, which is pretty good, too. In fact, we considered an entire series with similar titles: The Miserable Son-of-a-Gun Got What Was Coming to Him, The Skunk Couldn’t Have Died Soon Enough, and the like.
Does a fabulous title actually makes one want to buy a book? I’m trying to think of books that I actually wanted to read because of the title. The only one that comes immediately to mind was Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child. In truth, Tom Wolfe titles catch my eye, but which of his books have I actually read? Did I read Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers? No, I did not. I read The Right Stuff, Hooking Up, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Okay, I also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I was young and it was the ‘60s.)

Friday, December 02, 2011

Judging Covers

He was covered with tats and the whites of his eyes were turquoise. We were unlikely travel companions in a long flight from Denver to North Carolina. But there we were, seated side by side, and our conversation began when he watched my attempts to find a free wi-fi connection for my new Kindle Fire.

I tried hard not to stare at those turquoise whites, and was struck with the thought that if it weren’t for that and the tats, he was quite presentable. He was neatly groomed, quite mannerly, and said please and thank you to the airline personnel. In short, he quite suitable for my granddaughter to date.

We pleasantly discussed our destinations. He was going to North Carolina to see to his tattoo business. And so it began. I politely asked if he had done the work on his arms, etc.

And ahem. About those eyes. Let’s face it, anyone who does this is inviting questions. He said it’s a permanent process, turning the whites to turquoise, requiring multiple injections into certain sacs near the eyes. However, one can turn the turquoise to purple by adding red.

Tattooing is a family thing now. A bonding ritual. And everyone is doing it. He estimated over 70% of the passengers on the plane had a tattoo. Parents now come in with children, husbands with wives. And of course, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was great for business. Dragons are  now one of his most popular motifs.

The demographics are interesting. There are definitely sexual undertones. He insisted men are attracted to babes with tattoos. Minors must have their parents consent. He cards anyone who looks like they are younger than 31. It appeals to teens who want to rebel within boundaries. Older women who would like to be thought of as hip.

It’s painful. For some people it’s extremely painful and they wimp out. Basically, one is injecting poison with thousands of needles and human bodies react differently to this onslaught of foreign chemicals. He has never had to make a 911 call, but some people in the business have found themselves in that situation. Sanitation is paramount. He’s careful!

I was struck with the oddity of this unconventional young man giving all this information to a little old lady. There is my gray hair. No getting around that. I was obviously not a spring chicken. He asked if his tattoos were offensive to me. I gulped and felt compelled to answer him truthfully. He had been honest with me. I felt like I owed him the courtesy of the same quality of frankness. Yes, I said. However, I did not find them nearly as offensive as extensive piercing.

I was enriched by this forced encounter. We didn’t choose to sit side by side. I learned. I doubt if I’ll ever have a better glimpse into an occupation I knew nothing about.

Since I’m a writer, I pass everything through a writerly lens. I began thinking of books I pass by because of a strange or off-putting cover. Knowing how little I stray from my established reading tastes, after meeting Max, I decided to broaden my horizons. I really don’t know much about Vampire fiction. In fact, there’s an array of genres out there I haven’t explored: classic westerns, Christian suspense, teen literature, romances, fantasy, and graphic novels.

Thank you, Max!