Friday, November 30, 2012

The Goodbye Club

John's recent post started me thinking about a theme that keeps coming up on this website. It's how miserable writers feel when they are not writing. He mentioned that even a paragraph a day made him feel like he was being true to himself.

So why don't writers write?

I've covered the time trap and the lies we tell ourselves--how we'll start after this is done and after that takes place. I want to talk about the travel trap. The big goodbye club writers join immediately.  

One of the biggest thrills of being published is going places, meeting people, making friends, learning that someone out there likes what we read. It's exhilerating. And we're able to tell ourselves that we are actually working! Our editors, publishers, fans--just about everyone approves of promotion.

Then we learn that time away from the writing place can be deadly. Establishing writing as a habit is one of the most important disciplines for maintaining a professional career.

I have a very busy, buzzy exterior life. I have three daughters and six grandchildren. I love all the things they cook up. I'm very grateful that they include me in all the activities. I love my knitting group. It meets every Thursday. I participate in the All-Saints Episcopal Church's services and volunteer in helping with homeless families. Then there's the Met's HD opera broadcasts a couple times of month. Loveland loves parades and events and festivals and so do I. Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of American meets in Denver once a month. Women Writing the West meets quarterly. And writing conferences inspire me.

Get the drift? Since I switched back to hand drafts, I do a pretty good job of writing the first draft of fiction anywhere, anyplace. But the second thinking draft requires time in front of a computer. So does incorporating edits. I can't write my non-fiction book about African Americans when I'm away from my files.

I used to be a first draft junkie. Now due to the joys of being able to fiddle with a huge composite file, I love the challenge of making the second draft as good as my limited talents can make it. There's the thrill of finding that perfect word. The joy of finally forcing a paragraph to reflect my intentions.

A perfect morning. Magical, in fact. It's coming together.  I'm at the place where I was born to be.

And then my Outlook program reminds me of an appointment, an event. Something.

And then I say goodbe.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Keeping On

I loved Aline's recent blog "Bookzilla" and wanted to continue the thread here. She hit on many relevant aspects of writing—from the impact writers' internal struggles have on loved ones, to the desire for the freedom to write when and wherever one wants—that many writers ponder.

No author I know would turn down financial success. As Stephen King writes in On Writing, "You can never be too rich or too thin. If you think you can be, you were never really fat or really poor." Money, after all, really is freedom. But I do understand where Aline is coming from. Free time, in my experience, never fosters industriousness; it only leads me to more free time—in the form of procrastination. Busy people actually do get more done. I write more when I'm teaching. On school vacations, there is always "time to do it later." And, of course, we all know how that scenario ends up. With many blank pages.

Procrastination at its best
Aline's statements about Ian Rankin (a writer who I love) were interesting. However, unlike the troubles Rankin experiences at page 65, my personality challenges arise differently. Simply put, you don't want to be around me if I'm not writing. All writers "hit the wall" and get antsy when the plot isn't working. (PLOT is a four-letter word for a reason.) But I don't mind the spiraling plot that seemingly goes nowhere. I've walked into that propellor before. ("Why let it eat away at you so badly?" my wife asked me about five years ago when I was struggling with (I think) Bad Lie. "The books always work themselves out." She was right. And the book did.

What keeps me awake is not writing. (Given what I wrote above, does that make vacation an oxymoron? Or am I just a masochist?) So, although I don't outline, facing the black hole plot alone, I do schedule. With my wife and three daughters, I live on the top floor of a boys' dorm at a New England prep school, where I'm dorm parent to 16 15-year-old boys. This comes with many evening duties. (They don't call it in loco parentis for nothing.) So I try to write in the morning. I have three daily alarms: 4 a.m. (if I get to bed by 10 p.m.); 5 a.m. (if I'm to bed by 11 p.m.); and 6 a.m. (if I've been up until midnight or later working in the dorm). Some days I get four pages written, some days I get a single paragraph, but even that lets me breathe. And I can smile and face the day.

No matter who you are in this business—Ian Rankin or a midlist midlister like me—everyone faces challenges and figures out what works for him or her. And, in the end, we keep writing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Literary Life

Yes, I'm being a tad lazy by stealing this piece and putting it up on Type M. In my defense, time is a bit tight this week since I just learned that it's official—my husband's job is taking us to Portland, Oregon. No more sunny California, hideous traffic (Los Angeles is the second most congested city in the USA) and no more celebrity sightings ("He looks just like Tom Cruise ... oh wait, it is Tom Cruise!")

Oregon is home to vampires, gray skies and spectacular scenery. From October until May there are the occasional things called "sun breaks" when the sun peeps through the heavy cloud for about thirty seconds but I don't care. I'm leaving Los Angeles at last! Tra la la!

So what does that have to do with Posy Simmonds cartoon Literary Life? Call it a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

I have been clearing out my office and found it in my "Articles to Keep" folder. It made me smile.

Before I was published I took numerous classes and for some months I ran a creative writing group on a Sunday afternoon. We spent twenty minutes discussing what everyone had written and then opened the wine. From then on, it was all downhill. Posy Simmonds cartoon reminded me of those times.

Enjoy!

Apologies for the page being slightly skew-wiff.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The next big thing?

I’m sure you’ve all seen this latest promotional device. Barbara did it last week for her post, and I was supposed to do it, too. I thought I would try for this week, but now I can’t find five other authors who aren’t already taking part.

The idea sounded really good when Vicki Delany told me about it. I mean who wouldn’t like a little free promotion? I also liked the pyramidal set-up. It would be really good to get the word out. Problem is, every writer and aspiring writer in the known and unknown universe has gotten involved and now any benefits have been so watered down with a huge volume of information out there that (if I’m any example) people just don’t want to wade through. When some bright person comes up with a great promo idea (like this one) and runs with it, the payback can be huge.

For instance, a few years ago a promo was run on New York Subway trains. A group of people (there must have been a lot of them to do this) who were to ride at high-volume traffic periods of the day who were all reading a specific book. Obviously, the press was alerted and it received a lot of coverage. I’m sure within a matter of days, it was tried several times and is probably still being tried – with declining effectiveness.

Promotion and advertising is all about creating the next big wave if you want the most effect. Catching the wave as it goes by is not going to be as effective, and if you’re trying to paddle after the wave in an effort to catch up, you’re no doubt wasting your time, effort and money.

Sadly, I feel that’s what’s happening with this “next big thing” idea. It’s gotten too big and the result is that it’s watered down. At least that’s my theory. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because I couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t already taking part.

Like all good ideas, it seems to have gone astray because of overuse. So tell me, Barbara and all those others who have taken part, do you think this promotion did any good or had any appreciable effect? Have you noticed any effect like increased sales for your existing books, increased website traffic, increased blog visits?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bookzilla

Miranda Rankin, wife of international best-selling crime-writer Ian, provoked a lot of discussion when in a recent documentary she described her husband's behaviour when he's writing a book.

The first danger point, she says, comes around page 65.  That's when he hits the wall, when all the thoughts and ideas he'd sorted out before he started the book have got used up much more quickly than he expected and writer's block looms.  At this point it is reasonable to infer that, as PG Wodehouse said of Scotsmen, it wouldn't be difficult to distinguish between Ian and a ray of sunshine.  (I think we've all been there.)

The other point of strain is when the book takes over and Ian is in full spate and, Miranda says, 'He's like a teenage student' and there's no point in talking to him.  The family just stays out of the way and lets him get on with it.

The way other authors manage their writing lives always interests me.  I'm very private about it: even my husband doesn't read my books until they come out in hardback and I never discuss progress or,  heaven forefend, the plot - I once made that mistake and it evaporated as I talked. 

When I'm under pressure I'm sure my husband would tell you that the atmosphere gets tenser and certainly the 2am wakings are more frequent but I don't bring the book out of the study to the supper table.  It stems from the fear that if I let myself go I could easily become a demanding Bookzilla, insisting that everything had to be subordinated to the book and its progress - or lack of it.

It must be very relaxing to be one of those wealthy writers who can take themselves off to a country retreat or a luxury hotel with nothing to do but write, where they are in no danger of alienating family and friends by their lack of interest in anything except the story.  You wouldn't have to try to pretend that what was happening in real life was just as interesting as what was going on inside your head.

It's never likely to happen for me.  And when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure I'd want it to anyway.  It would be really scary to be there all on your own with nothing to do but think, if you suddenly found that what you thought was that you couldn't think what to write next.  Even if  I sometimes feel I'm living with a split screen in my head showing tow different programmes, at least if things get difficult in one area or the other, I can change channels.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

This is no Thanksgiving turkey

I trust everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Like all other holidays, we each celebrate the occasion in different ways. There is of course, the requisite family (and friends) gathering with the big turkey dinner. Some drinking (or no drinking). Some football.


My personal Thanksgiving tradition is to watch Scent of a Woman, starring Al Pacino. It's my go-to turkey day movie because the story takes place over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. I never saw the film in theatrical release since at the time I had soured on Pacino. But I heard so many positive reviews about the movie (Pacino won the Oscar for Best Actor) that I had to rent the VHS tape and then buy the DVD.

In essence, the movie is a buddy-flick. Two guys go on a road trip. There's drinking, a fight, some wenching (off-screen), and weapons-grade bromance bonding. 

To recap the plot (Spoiler Alert): Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell) is a student on merit scholarship at an exclusive prep school. While his rich classmates are going to Vermont ski resorts for the Thanksgiving break, Simms takes a weekend job to earn Christmas plane fare. His assignment is to watch Frank Slade, a blind retired Army lieutenant colonel. When we first meet Slade, he's a foul-mouthed, mercurial curmudgeon. But we get enough slivers of tragic backstory to cut him slack. Such as, why is he blind and so bitter?

Simms accompanies Slade to New York City on what is supposed to be a one-way junket for the colonel to indulge his bucket-list: "...stay in a first-class hotel, drink a nice glass of wine, eat an agreeable meal, see my big brother, make love to a terrific woman..." but when Slade admits, "I'm going to lay in my big, beautiful bed at the Waldorf and blow my brains out..." the story takes a sinister turn.

As writers, we harp on the need to create compelling characters, and few are as engaging and layered as Slade. What intrigued me was how much the script got right about him as a career officer with his pitch-perfect US Army argot. For example he pronounced "dead' as "de-add," exactly the way I remembered it from my time in uniform. He used a lot of big words like "palaver" to show himself as a scholar-soldier. At times the movie's authenticity strained believability as when he said, "...deputy debriefer, Paris peace talks, '68, snagged a Silver Star and silver bar." What doesn't jibe is how could he earn a medal for combat valor while serving in Paris? Plus, it's doubtful that a second lieutenant would have a job anywhere close to the Paris peace talks. And it's confirmed that Slade is a bullshit artist supreme when he introduces Simms at the family Thanksgiving dinner as the prep-school's star quarterback even though Simms never said such things. But Slade's medals and decorations show him as a distinguished veteran of the Vietnam war so there is an undercurrent of veracity to his tall tales.

One flaw in the story was Slade's inherent misogyny. He refers to women simply as "pussy" which he appreciates above all things. A very distant second is a Ferrari (a car, more objectifying!).  His making love to a terrific woman is to buy the services of a hooker. Despite his lechery, what Slade regrets is that he's yet to wake up with the women he went to bed with.

Al Pacino chews the scenery when he defends Simms at a disciplinary hearing at school. Another flaw is that the parents of the other accused students let Slade run roughshod over them. And to reward Slade's redemption, near the end of the movie a woman on the faculty approaches Slade to learn about his exploits on Lyndon Johnson's staff and we get the hint of a budding romance.

Despite the contrived plot resolutions, the story remains truly engrossing and a fine example of great storytelling. Hoo-rah!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Home for the Holidays . . . Or Not

When I'm thinking about characters, I try to imagine them as real people. One of the things I find fascinating about myself and other people is the varied ways that we respond to holidays. Of course, it depends on the holiday -- secular or religious, big or small, optional or supposed to be observed -- but we do seem to fall into categories when it comes to holidays. Some of it has to do with our personal situation, but much of it is determined by our personalities. For example, one person could find herself in a house full of relatives and be suicidal half-way through the day and searching desperately for an unoccupied room or corner in which to hide. Another could be in the midst of the uproar making sure everyone has enough to eat and drink, organizing games for the children, and making sure at least two people are taking photos and/or getting it all on video. Some of it has to do with what we experienced as children and what we believe about the meaning of Easter, July 4th, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas. But there is also that instinct that leads some people to decorate the outside of their houses for Valentine's Day and Halloween and make seasonal homemade gifts to give co-workers for their desks.

So when I'm thinking about my characters, I imagine what they might be feeling/doing on a holiday like Thanksgiving. I'm sure other writers must do this as we're doing what we do on those holidays, so I don't claim this as a unique discovery for getting into the heads of my characters. But here's what I would ask about a character who is experiencing the Thanksgiving holiday:

1. How does she feel as she looks at the calendar and sees the holiday looming (e.g., anxious about all the things she needs to get done; annoyed because she knows her co-workers are going to be distracted until it's over; happy -- thankful? -- that she has family with whom to spend the day; depressed that another year has passed and she still is dependent on the kindness of friends who might invite her to join them for the holiday; awkward as she tries to dodge the invitations that she knows are coming from friends because she really does want to spend the day quietly doing things she enjoys; or, looking forward to shopping for the Thanksgiving dinner that she plans to cook for the friends she is bringing together at her house; or, maybe she remembers that she needs to call and volunteer to work at the homeless shelter that day. What is the character thinking and feeling as other people buzz about their holiday plans? Does she smile or groan when the bank clerk asks her if she is "ready for Thanksgiving"?

2. If this character has a family and lives away from them, does she go "home" for Thanksgiving. If yes, does she go out of guilt, obligation, or because she really does want to spend time with her family? Who is she really looking forward to seeing? Who is she hoping won't be there this year? When she arrives, does she think of herself as a guest and try to be polite and helpful? Or, does she throw herself back into the mix, arguing and teasing, and doing what she has always done with her family? What changes does she notice in her relatives since she last saw them (e.g., a mother who is becoming absentminded, a baby brother who is suddenly all grown up and dating)? How do these changes make her feel? Does she share her feelings with these people?

3. If this character does not go "home" for Thanksgiving, what excuse does she make? No excuse needed, the family is not close, and they weren't expecting her? She tells them she has to work, and will try to come for Christmas? Can't deal with the travel and the chaos, but will really miss them? Does she call home? Does anyone call her?

4. If the character spends Thanksgiving alone, does she have her own rituals for the day? Are they inherited from her childhood or her own new adult rituals? Does she cook a special meal? Does she sleep late or get up and go for a walk? Does she go to a movie or spend the day working on the files she brought home? Does she stuff herself on snacks or spend the day eating healthy?

5. Wherever she is and however she spent the day, how does she feel when it's over? Relieved? Warm with love and happy memories? Depressed, but not allowing herself to think about it?

6. Is this character going to be out on Friday, shopping for bargains? Or, is she planning to do all her shopping online and never see a mall during the rest of the holiday season?

We have five weeks of holiday season ahead of us. Put your characters out there and see what they do.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks

John here.
Happy Thanksgiving from New England. I have much to be thankful for this year.

First, my family is healthy and suffered little, aside from 10 days without power, after hurricanes each of the past two autumns. I have many good friends living in New Jersey and Long Island (including Reed Coleman, a past Type M guest blogger), so I know how fortunate we in northern Connecticut have been.

Second, my wife and three daughters are doing well. Lisa, my wife of 18 years, works externally and continues to keep the Corrigan ship afloat. (It is not easy being married to a boarding school teacher who works 18 hours some days.) Delaney, 14, now attends my school, and I get to watch her thrive in the classroom and outside it (even playing on my hockey team). Audrey, 11, continues to do well in school (and ran a two-mile race in 13:07 recently). And, if Lisa captains the ship, Keeley, 3, steers it, powers it, and gives lots of directives.

Third, in July, a wonderful agent, Julia Lord, agreed to handle my would-be series. She pitches better than anyone I've met and is the most supportive team member--aside from my wife--I could ask for. (A major New York house recently requested a two-week exclusive to review the first book--Thank You, Julia!)

Fourth, in June, writing as K.A. Delaney, I sold a novel, This One Day, to Five Star/Gale. The book features Max Tyger, a down-on-his-luck PI who has stage-two esophageal cancer and teaches community college classes at night. The book comes out in late 2013.

I'm off to eat turkey. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ten Interview Questions about The Next Big Thing


Inspiration is the key, as Rick says. And this interview about my upcoming book had me scrambling for some!

 I was invited to take part in a blog chain about my "next big thing" by friend and fellow crime writer Vicki Delany. Rather like the old fashioned 'tell five friends, who tell five friends...' idea. Here's the link to Vicki's entry, posted Monday Nov. 12 so scroll down a little: http://www.klondikeandtrafalgar.blogspot.com.
And at the bottom of my interview are the names and blogs of the five authors to whom I passed the torch.

Now to the interview...

What is the working title of your book?
The Whisper of Legends, an Inspector Green Mystery

Where did the idea come from for the book?
After writing eight books with the same guy, I felt like breaking the mold a little and shaking up his life, in order to challenge not only him but me. I decided to move Green out of his comfort zone, both geographically and experientially. Green is a city boy skilled in conquering the urban dangers of unlit back alleys and manicured suburban avenues alike, but completely inept and unsure of himself in the country. So I thrust him into not just tame local countryside, but Nahanni National Park, a wild, rugged wilderness park in Canada's North. And I gave him the most terrifying challenge of all - a missing daughter.

What genre does your book fall under?
Mystery, police procedural

What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?
After nine books, I have a very clear idea of my main character Michael Green, who is a forty-something man struggling to balance his passion for his job with the demands of his young family. I have always thought that Canadian actor Michael Riley could capture his obsessive, somewhat frenetic nature as well as staying true to his slight, deceptively youthful looks. If Hollywood were ever to come knocking, I can also see John Cusack in the role.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When his daughter goes missing on a canoe trip in Nahanni National Park, Inspector Michael Green finds himself battling not only the lethal dangers of the wilderness but also a very human killer. 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Whisper of Legends will be published by Dundurn Press in Toronto (www.dundurn.com).

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About a year. This book required a lot of research, much of which had to be done as I was writing it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In general the Inspector Green mysteries are like contemporary British police procedurals with a Canadian twist. Gritty, character-driven books by authors such as Peter Robinson and Giles Blunt. However, The Whisper of Legends adds a wilderness adventure thriller element as well.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In our increasingly urban world, I wanted to showcase the stunning beauty and ferocity of Canada's North, particularly the Nahanni River, which is a world heritage river. I also wanted to give Green his greatest challenge ever, a life-changing challenge.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Besides coming along on the wild ride to find Green's missing daughter, the reader will also learn about  greed, revenge and conflicting values in the battle between precious gem mining, conservationists and Natives.

Below are the five terrific authors whom I have charged with carrying on the chain. Check out their websites, and then check their blogs during the week of Nov. 26, when they will be answering these questions and tagging five new authors!



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Casting about for inspiration

Sorry I’m a little later than usual this week. You see, I’ve been totally bereft of ideas for a blog topic, and rather than just ramble on about this or that in order to fill today’s space, I wanted a topic with some substance, maybe even substance with a capital “S”. (When one is in the publishing industry, for instance, there’s always something about which to complain, and that usually makes excellent fodder for a blog post – but not today.)

I searched the internet to see if anything was up in the book world. Not really. A quick trip through the news of the day. Nope.

Then I thought of a conversation I had yesterday evening after a rehearsal of the big band in which I play. We usually go to a local pub for a beer, but last night the new dean and the director of alumni relations of my “old school”, McGill, dropped by to meet the four of us in the band who graduated from there. My wife, Vicki, also being an alumna joined us, as well.

During the conversation, the dean asked about my new novel (McGill figures prominently in the plot at one point) and said something about me being “authoritative” about music because I am an “insider”.

That’s not the first time I’ve been accused of that.

I tend to downplay my musical expertise because, well, the art has dominated my life since I was seven (and I won’t tell you how long ago that was, either). Knocking around in various musical genres, as I also have, gives me a pretty wide range of knowledge. But I’ve been doing it so long, it all seems to me like everyone should know this stuff. It’s not until recently (after an interview that got on to this same topic) that I realized I’m not like most musicians. Most only know a lot about the type of music they play. On other types, they may know not much more than the man on the street.

And there was the topic I was searching for.

I am inspired by music, and being curious by nature, when something inspires me, I want to find out as much as I can about it. A recent review of The Fallen One talked about my “clear enthusiasm for the operatic world” (a compliment to be sure!). I am humbled that someone discerned and recognized me for that, but it only tells part of the story. I’m enthusiastic about a lot of different musical pursuits than just grand opera. Each of my novels has focused on other things: playing keyboards in a rock band, making your living as a jobbing jazz drummer, standing in front of an orchestra playing violin, and now, singing in the world’s great opera houses.

On each of these subject areas I’ve tried to shine a little light based on my knowledge and “clear enthusiasm”, use music as an exotic backdrop to amplify and explain my characters’ motivations and actions, and maybe even to teach readers a little bit more about what exactly it is that musicians in various fields do during the course of their work.

Why? Because even after more than half a century (Oops! Just dated myself.) I find music utterly absorbing. It still inspires me to pick up an instrument nearly every day and play the same scales, arpeggios and studies that I’ve been playing for years. Simply put, I enjoy the ability to make music.

If I can bring even a quarter of that joy to the printed page and present it to readers, I will have done a fine day’s work.

Considered in this way, inspiration is never very far away.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Children's Hour

Which has nothing at all, really, to do with the 1934 stage play by Lillian Hellman, or the 1961 film drama - based on the play - directed by William Wyler (who had made Ben Hur two years earlier), starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Possibly one of the first Hollywood films to try and deal with lesbianism.

It's just that the title appealed to me as I sat down to write today. The idea to write about some aspect of children and crime came to me last week after I had watched a very good British film from 2007 - And When Did You Last See Your Father? - a film with an espcecially stellar cast: Jim Broadbent (an Oscar winner for his role in Iris); Colin Firth, an Oscar winner a few years back for The King's Speech; plus Juliet Stevenson and Gina McKee. (If you should watch the film, look for Carey Mulligan in a small but effective supporting role.)

In fact, the film has nothing at all to do with crime - unless you consider adultery to be a crime, which I do not - but instead is an intelligent and frequently moving portrayal of the difficult relationship between a father and son, over a multi-year period.


             


How I got from there to writing about children and crime is, I think, typical of how a writer's mind works, whether composing a blog post, or weaving one's way through the plot of a mystery novel. One thing, one thought leads to something else, and something else, and pretty soon a tapestry starts to form. The film in question was based - fairly closely, I believe - on a memoir by the British writer, Blake Morrison, the memoir having almost the same title as the film. I was impressed enough by the writing in the film to look up Morrison and to read about him.

His memoir, by the way, won the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. That award put Morrison in some pretty decent company: Anthony Burgess, Germaine Greer and John Osborne were previous winners.

But it was another book by Morrison that inspired me - if that's the word - to pen a few lines on children and crime.

In 1997, Morrison wrote As If: A Crime, A Trial, A Question Of Childhood. That book was based on the brutal murder, in 1993, of James Bulger, not quite three years old at the time of his death, by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.


              James Bulger


James was abducted from a shopping centre in Bootle, near Liverpool - that's Merseyside, if you are a Beatles fan - made to walk with his killers for 4 km, along a railway track, where he was beaten to death with bricks and stones, and an iron bar. At autopsy, he was found to have ten skull fractures, and it was impossible to determine which of those many blows might have killed him. Then his body was placed on the track, where it was later cut in half by a train. His remains were found two days later.

What set this particular crime apart from so many others of equal or even greater brutality and monstrousness, is the fact that the two killers were each, at the time, just ten years old. Two little boys playing hookey from school - "sagging" in the local argot - and roaming around a shopping centre, indulging in various small crimes, including shoplifting. They had also earlier tried to abduct another small boy, but in that case the boy's mother intervened and her son was saved.


           


James Bulger's murder created a sensation in England, but was not so very widely reported in North America. I do remember reading about it, though. The trial itself was controversial because the two boys were tried as adults, and in public. There was much discussion about the rightness, and the wrongness, of that. Could they have had a fair trial when there was so much publicity leading up to the court proceedings? How seriously were they harmed - and it seems a certainty that they were both damaged persons when they committed the crime for which they were tried - by the proceedings, and by the outpouring of anger and even hatred from the general public and especially from the family of James Bulger? That is an issue that is still not settled. It does make one think, though.

I don't have an answer, of course. But I can start to close this part of my post by noting that both boys were sentenced to incarceration (with therapy) for a "recommended minimum" of eight years each. They were the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century.

Both boys - now actually young men, 19 years old - were released after eight years in confinement, given new identities, and moved to secret locations; a sort of "witness-protection" type of action. They had been judged to be no longer a threat to public safety. The terms of their release included the provision that they would have no contact with each other, or with the Bulger family, nor were they to visit the area, Merseyside, where the murder had taken place.

It must be noted, also, that the parents of James Bulger were sufficiently affected by the murder and subsequent events that their marriage came to an end two years later.

Now, almost twenty years after the murder of James Bulger, Robert Thompson seems to have been successfully rehabilitated. He has, I suppose it can be said, been absorbed into his new identity, and is living a more or less normal life somewhere in England.

The same cannot be said for Jon Venables. In June 2010, Venables was charged with possession and distribution of indecent images of children - child pornography - and given a two-year prison sentence. In November 2011, it was reported that officials had decided that Venables would remain in prison for the "foreseeable future". That is the latest report on the case that I have read.

Reading, or re-reading, about the Bulger case, brought back the memory that during my recent two-week visit to England, the papers and television newscasts were replete with stories about the abduction of a young girl from a town in Wales. Five-year old April Jones was last seen in Machynlleth, mid-Wales, on October 1, 2012, and in spite of a massive police investigation, assisted by many members of the public, she has not been seen since.


              


A day after her disappearance, a local man, Mark Bridger, aged 46, was arrested and his Land Rover seized for forensic examination. Bridger was later charged with the abduction and murder of the child, and for perverting the course of justice by disposing of her body. Her body has still not been found.

And so, as the late Kurt Vonnegut might have said, it goes.

And it goes on and on. Also during my time in England, another major crime story competed  for newspaper space and airtime with the April Jones abduction. This is the now infamous case of Jimmy Savile, former BBC Television star, and now reckoned to be one of the most prolific abusers of children in British history. Scotland Yard has stated that the incidents of sex abuse and rape occurred over six decades, and that Savile was a "predatory sex offender".


         


That Savile was formally known as Sir James Wilson Vincent "Jimmy" Savile, OBE, KCSG, does not help his case - posthumously, as he died in October 2011 - one little bit. In fact, the BBC is still in considerable turmoil over who knew what, and when, and to what levels of the network's senior bureaucracy the perfidy reached.

All of this - the Bulger Murder, the fates of the two murdering boys, now men, one living free and apparently rehabilitated, the other back in prison; the April Jones tragedy and the ultimate fate of the man charged with her assumed death; the despicable Jimmy Savile - raises the question of forgiveness. That's a really sticky one, a nettle perhaps too painful to grasp, certainly for some. Where it might be easier to forgive small children who commit horrible deeds, given the presumption of childish ignorance of the gravity of their actions, it's a lot harder to generate forgiveness for adults, who are supposed to "know better". Whatever awful incidents might have blighted their own lives and personalities when they themselves were very young.

I think it's an issue that we mystery writers grapple with when we compose our stories, invent crimes, victims and criminals, and toss around the questions of punishment leavened with justice. Or vice versa. Well, I know that I do. It's inescapable, really. One of the prerequisites for our chosen craft.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Michael W. Sherer guesting on Type M

Our guest this weekend is author Michael W. Sherer. After stints as a manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, Mike decided life should imitate art and became an author and freelance writer like his Chicago-based hero Emerson Ward. Mike has published six novels in that series and the stand-alone Island Life in addition to Night Blind. He’s working on the fourth book in the Blake Sanders series and Blind Instinct, the second in a YA thriller series.

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Top Five Reasons Not To Become A Newspaper Carrier

5. No job security. In case you hadn’t heard, newspapers—the printed versions, at least—are going out of business. Between 2008 and 2010, eight major newspaper companies went bankrupt, and hundreds of small daily and weekly papers closed or moved online with Web-only publications. Industry experts have predicted that half of the remaining 1,400 daily newspapers in the U.S. could close their doors in the next decade.

4. The pay sucks. In a competitive market like Seattle where there’s still one major daily newspaper and a relatively large readership base, carriers can expect to make, on average, about $1,000 per month. Experienced carriers with large routes can make as much as $1,500 in a good month. But factor in vehicle maintenance, insurance, depreciation, health care, etc., all of which carriers must pay for from their own pockets, and it barely pays to get out of bed some days.

3. The hours are terrible. Carriers go to work around 1 a.m. It takes from one to two hours to assemble papers, and another two hours or so to deliver them, depending on the route. The Seattle Times guarantees delivery by 5:30 a.m., and printed papers aren’t delivered to its distribution centers until about 12:30 a.m., so carriers have only about five hours in which to do the job.

However, the hours fall right in the beginning to middle of third shift—the graveyard shift. For most carriers, predominantly immigrants—The Seattle Times estimates that at any given time about half speak English as a second language—delivering papers is a second or even third job.

That aside, people who work the night shift have more sleep disorders, a higher incidence of serious diseases, including cancer, are more prone to accidents, and have higher rates of obesity and substance abuse than people who work days. In fact, the 15 million Americans who work nights are at higher risk for just about everything except skin cancer since they don’t see much sunlight.

2. The schedule’s a killer. Route drivers deliver papers seven days a week. No days off, no holidays. No such thing as time-and-a-half for working those weekends or holidays, either.

1. You’re more likely to be a crime victim. Carriers have been robbed, carjacked, assaulted and hit by drunk drivers. If you’re as unlucky as Blake Sanders in Night Blind, you might even be framed for murder.

I’m giving away a Kindle Fire HD and signed copies of books by Hank Phillippi Ryan, Allison Brennan, Amy Shojai, Traci Hohenstein, Eyre Price and J.T. Brannan to one lucky winner and 10 signed copies of Night Blind to runners-up. Come on over and get the details at www.michaelwsherer.com/events.htm.

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Former public affairs consultant Blake Sanders figures he’s fallen about as low as he can go after losing his job, his marriage and his only son to suicide. But when an elderly customer on his newspaper route is brutally murdered and Sanders becomes the prime suspect, he gets caught up in a maelstrom of murder and deceit involving a pre-Civil War secret intelligence mission, hundreds of millions in buried gold and a bio-weapon that could cause a worldwide pandemic.

When the only man who can help him is assassinated, Sanders finds himself on the run from the cops, a murderer and a shadowy rogue French agent. His only hope of staying out of jail is his ex-wife’s law firm. His only hopes of staying alive are his wits and a mysterious naval intelligence officer. But Sanders isn’t sure he can trust even them.

Night Blind is a breathless thrill ride on and under the streets of Seattle as one man’s quest for the truth turns to a fight for survival.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Show It: A Writing Exercise For You


John here. As a continuation of my last week's post regarding adding detail to one's story, I would like to stress that motif again this week in the way of a writing exercise. 

“Show it”: An exercise in Character Development

Emotions—love, hate, fear, loss, guilt, or grief.

Select one emotion from the list above and write a paragraph or brief scene in which a character demonstrates the emotion. You may not use the word at all in the scene, either in narration or dialogue. Remember: Readers like to play a part in the scene. Let them SEE characters come to life through what characters say and do—whether it’s body language, dialogue, or overt action.

Note the difference between…
Tommy would never forgive himself for what he’d done that night, years earlier. His mother’s boyfriend, Jeff, had been hitting her, and when she screamed, he woke up and committed the crime. He hadn’t done it to kill Jeff as much as he’d done it to protect his mother.
Now, he paced in his cell, following the conviction, and felt guilty. He’d killed a man, and, as a Christian, that weighed on him endlessly. 

And…

Tommy stared at the Bible. It lay on the narrow bunk of the place he now called home like an endless reminder. He read it dutifully, the pages thin and crisp in his fingers, the way the blade had felt cool against his palm before his life had changed years ago; before his mother’s scream had woken him from the soft dreamscape typical of any six-year-old to the harsh reality of being her protector.
He moved away from the bunk, to the window lined with iron bars and wire-meshed glass. The word protector had so many different meanings, he thought.

The second paragraph offers the reader the opportunity to play a part in the story. The character's emotions are on display but only when the reader links them to the images in the passage (i.e. "his mother's scream," "the blade had felt cool," "the pages thin and crisp"). It all goes back to showing, not telling. Try this exercise. If you do, I'd love to see a copy: jcorrigan1970@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Facing the blank page. Again.

Yes ... it's time to face the blank page again. I have a new book to write. A new deadline and the inevitable feelings of panic, fear and misery until that first draft is done.

It's at the very beginning of a book when I feel most alone. It's when I measure myself up against all those other writers out there feverishly zipping out thousands of words a day. It's when I stare at the blank page (or screen) and wish I hadn't chosen this profession. With each book I write, I promise I'll start early but I never do. I always seem to cut things close to the wire.

There was a friend of my mother's–now long dead—who wrote for a slew of popular British television shows during the 1970s. His wife divorced him. She couldn't stand the weekly stress of whether he would make his deadline. He'd be happy as a clam all day Sunday (the day after the Saturday shoot wrapped). He'd lounge around drinking and catching up with friends on Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday he'd start getting a little agitated. By Thursday his mood had darkened and he still hadn't written a word. When Friday came around—he was suicidal because the show was shot every Saturday and that was when he got cracking. He never missed a deadline. That was his process. Pure torture.

I know that when I finally get going, the words will come—they'll come out kicking and screaming, but they will still come because they have to.

What I find really helpful is the "Pyramid on Point" method created by MWA University instructor, Jess Lourey. Here is a quick recap.

1. Summarize your novel in one sentence (the point on the pyramid). This is what your book is about.
2. Expand the one-sentence summary into a full paragraph including obstacles and definitely how the book ends.
3. Invite your characters—flesh each one out focusing on what they stand to lose, what they want more than anything in the world. I like to give each of mine a secret. I also like to know what I'd find in their trash bin.
4. Play around with your setting—this could be gathering images for a vision board.
5. Develop each sentence in your paragraph (step 2) into a full page description. Add in sounds, smells and details.
6. Roughly outline the novel. There are always two schools of thought on this subject. Are you an outliner or a pantser (as in seat-of-the-pants). I do both. I roughly block out my chapters until about midway through. I know my ending but that large gap in between is revealed by my characters. I want to leave room for surprises.
7. Write it.

Other tools I use are mind-mapping and Scrivener's cork board feature. Basically that's using old-fashioned index cards but on a computer screen. What I love about the cork board is that you can also print out the "index cards" as a continuous document, too. I like to work with paper so I can scribble notes everywhere and plaster it with Post-its. But the secret to writing a book is to show up at the page every single day.

I'd better get cracking.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Switching hats too frequently

As anyone who visits Type M regularly is more than abundantly aware, I’ve been out flogging my new novel, The Fallen One, since early September. Since I’m hardly a household name, this has meant attending any number of book signings where absolutely no one knows who I am. The way I figure it, if I sell a book to someone and they really like it, I may well sell more books to them. One sale at a bookstore may lead to 2, 3, or 4.

My signing schedule is pretty much in lockstep with traffic in the stores, meaning that weekends are the only really good opportunities, so every weekend I’m generally out at two stores, one on each day.

The real issue I’m having recently is when I’m back in my studio for the five remaining days of the week. That’s when I have to switch from being an author (selling my latest) into being a writer (working on my next latest).

Is it just me, or does anyone else find that switch very difficult to do? Anyone who’s joined me on a book signing foray knows that I’m pretty good at it. I know how to engage people, I have a good sales pitch worked out and very polished, and if I’m given a chance by the punters, I have a better than average chance to move a copy.

Book signing requires an author to be very “public”, and sitting alone in a quiet room to scribble requires a skill set that’s almost completely the opposite. You must be quiet and composed to write successfully, not glib and a bit on the loud side.

Lately it’s been getting worse. I have tried segueing into my writer’s headspace by doing a bit of practising first since I find that tends to calm my scattered brain and get it to focus completely on something. I’ve had only limited success. I don’t dare read a bit, because my tendency is to then start parroting the style of the book I’m reading – which is why I generally don’t read anything when I’m able to find time to write. I remember well the time that after handing my wife some chapters of a work in progress, she turned to me after about fifteen minutes and said, “You’ve been reading Nero Wolfe this week, haven’t you?” Guilty as charged. My first-person character had suddenly begun to sound just like Archie Goodwin.

So, I repeat my question: does anyone else have trouble switching between being an “author” and a “writer”? If so, have you come up with a solution you’d like to share, or am I just a pathetic wretch who is going to have to figure it all out by myself?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The typo problem

I've just been chortling over a choice selection of typos detailed in a newspaper recently.  There's the three-foot instruction painted at a road junction which sternly orders,'SOTP; the sign which engagingly states, 'Illegally parked cars will be fine'; the topical political one from the Republicans accusing Obama of suffering a 'crisis of comptence.'  Best of all are the thousands of Chilean coins minted two years ago with the legend CHIIE.  The manager of the mint lost his job but they're still circulating and have become collectors' items.

Actually, it ill-behoves me to laugh at anyone else's typographic mistakes.  I am a self-taught (i.e. incompetent) typist anyway and careless with it {spell-check just picked up that I had spelled this 'carelss'!}. Friends have become accustomed to getting emails alarmingly signed 'Alien'.  It's even worse if I click on spell-check too slavishly and find my full name rendered as Alien Template.

I taught myself to read too - though rather more successfully - by instinctive use of the now-discredited 'look-and-say' method where what you recognise is the shape of the word, rather in the way the Chinese learn their pictograms, instead of using painstaking phonetics, where children must sound out each letter to read the word.

The eye is very easily fooled.  In what is known as the Stroop effect, when RED, BLUE, GREEN, YELLOW are printed on cards of a different colour, it becomes bizarrely difficult to read them accurately.  We see what we expect to see.

The problem becomes acute when it comes to proof-reading.  Like most obsessive readers. I read fast,  which of course means using eye movements that only skim the page to catch the sense.Once I think I've understood a sentence, there will probably be several words I don't actually read at all. 

If you see a passage written only with the consonants, it's almost as quick to read, making an intelligent guess at the vowels, as it is to read in its ordinary form.  It's even possible sometimes with only the first and last letters, given a context.  A highly developed ability to do this is key to solving crossword puzzles..

So there are all sorts of things that militate against accuracy and I'm in awe of my brilliant proof-reader who picks them up when I haven't, even going through the manuscript line by line with a ruler.

It's a bit humiliating.  On the other hand, I'm very good at crossword puzzles!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend Guest Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets writes two mystery series. Murder Is a Piece of Cake is the eighth novel featuring St. Louis mystery shopper Josie Marcus. Elaine’s bestselling Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum-wage world. Her character, Helen Hawthorne, works a different low-paying job each book. Final Sail, Elaine Viets’ latest hardcover mystery, explores the world of the haves and the have-yachts. The New York Times Review of Books praises her “quick-witted mysteries.”  Elaine won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards. Find out more at www.elaineviets.com.
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Research Is a Piece of Cake
By Elaine Viets

Wedding bells for Elaine and Don.
When Don and I married in 1971, we had a traditional St. Louis wedding: white dress, black tux, best friends in peach chiffon. I wanted a bouquet of red roses, but Mother thought that was too daring. I was allowed one red rose. The rest of the bouquet had to be white.

So was the wedding cake: vanilla with swags of white butter-cream icing. The cake topper was the standard plastic bride and groom.

Mom would have been shocked scarlet at cake toppers now. I researched them for my character, Josie Marcus, in Murder Is a Piece of Cake, the eighth novel in my mystery shopper series.

In Murder Is a Piece of Cake, Josie Marcus marries her veterinarian boyfriend, Ted Scottsmeyer. But it isn’t an easy walk down the aisle. Lenore, her future mother-in-law, flies in from Boca to help with (control) the wedding. Josie wishes someone would lock up her meddling mother-in-law. Boy, do they. Lenore is arrested for murder and Josie has to find the real killer before she can marry Ted.

Weddings have definitely changed in forty-one years. Even simple cake toppers. We had a plastic bride and groom on our wedding cake. Now, cake toppers range from sexy to scary.  In this section from Murder Is a Piece of Cake, Ellen, a bakery shop manager, shows cake toppers to Josie and her mother, Jane.

“We have some amusing cake toppers,” Ellen said. “We have a bride and groom with fairy wings and a princess and her knight in armor for fairytale weddings.”

“Pretty,” Josie said. “But ours is more modern.”

“Here’s a bridal couple both talking on their cell phones,” Ellen said.

“A little too modern,” Josie said.

“How about this one where the bride wears the groom’s pants and he wears boxer shorts with his tux?”

“Interesting, but no,” Josie said.

“We have this sexy cake topper.” Ellen showed her a bridal couple from the back, grabbing each other’s bottoms.

Jane looked shocked.

“For those who take ‘till death do us part’ seriously,” Ellen said, “we have a selection of skeleton brides and grooms. Like this one.” The grinning bride had a tattered veil on her skull.

“A little grim,” Josie said.

“My daughter is not getting married on Halloween,” Jane said.

“You’ll love our stylish monogrammed initials,” Ellen said. “We have silver, gold, Swarovksi crystal, pearls.”

“Elegant,” Jane said. “What about real flowers instead of sugar roses?”

“Those are lovely,” Ellen said. “But cut flowers are often sprayed with pesticides. Are you sure you want that on your food?”

Never use calla lilies, holly, mistletoe, amaryllis and poinsettias. Put those on your cake, and they’ll be drop-dead gorgeous. You’ll serve pretty poison.

***
Ever wear an outrageous bridesmaid dress – or a gorgeous one? Both could win you $100 in books in the Elaine Viets Bridesmaid Dress Contest. Upload your photos at www.elaineviets.com.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Things We Carry

I have been reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990), an interrelated collection of stories about Vietnam-era combat soldiers. The "things they carried" in the title refers to the weapons and other gear the platoon was required to carry and to the personal items each soldier brought with him, was sent from home, or collected along the way.

Although the book is a "big read" in Albany right now, I came to it in a more roundabout way. A reviewer of an essay I had submitted about crime, clothing, and style suggested I read it as I was doing revisions. Reading O'Brien's book brought me eventually to a place I had been before without thinking about it – back to the subject of "material culture" (the human-made objects in our lives). I've been thinking about the things in our lives and our relationships with them so much that next semester I'm going to offer an undergraduate special topics class on "Crime and Material Culture".

So what does this have to do with mystery writing? You're probably there ahead of me. But sometimes I overlook the obvious. Last Sunday afternoon, my "Introduction to Mystery Writing Class" at a public library met for the fourth and last time. I managed – with the help of PowerPoint presentations to keep me on track and handouts – to cram a lot into four 90 minute meetings.

But it occurred to me a couple of days ago that when we were discussing "creating characters," there was something rather obvious I might have done. I might have reached for my black shoulder bag and dumped its contents out there on the table beside the projector.

My shoulder bag – aka purse, handbag – reveals much more about who I am then I might like. On the outside, it is a restrained female accessory – black leather, not too large, a zippered pocket on the back, three smaller zippered pockets on flap and each side of the front. Inside there is a large open "pouch" section and open cloth "pockets" intended to hold cell phone, make-up and other small objects that are often needed and should be readily at hand. Pockets to avoid those awkward moments that men found so amusing when a woman is digging through her purse for her keys or lipstick.

However, the only time my neat-on-the-outside, numerous-pockets shoulder bag is organized is when I am about to head to the airport. On those occasions, I dig out all of the small objects – bottles and coins – that have found their way from pockets to open pouch. I either put those objects into an TSA-approved plastic bag that will allow me to make it through the security check point or – in the case of the coins – another plastic bag to leave at home on my desk. During this process, I also remove the accumulated receipts and other pieces of paper from my purse and either throw them away or put them into the drawer for receipts I save for tax purposes.

Those accumulated pieces of paper would certainly allow anyone who was interested to reconstruct my comings and going for days or even weeks. A bank stop here, passing through a toll booth there, returning books to the library on another occasions. Shopping for light bulbs – and a chocolate bar – at the CVS down the street.

I should mention that my neat black purse is black because after paying too much for a red shoulder bag that I loved, I somehow managed to smear it with ink from one of the numerous pens that find their way in my purse. Removing ink from good leather s a painful process. Other shoulder bags in colors other than black have suffered the same ink-smeared fate. So now I carry a black bag that has the virtue of working well with any color clothing, but is rather boring.

You will notice that I carry a shoulder bag. If I toppled over on my way to the faculty parking lot, a clever detective might deduce that I carry a shoulder bag because I also carry one or more tote bags loaded with the books, papers, and files that I manage to convince myself I will actually be able to get through that evening if I bring them home.

But back to my shoulder bag -- which will eventually suffer the fate of all my shoulder bags when the strap snaps from the weight of the objects inside. My shoulder bag that if I were a character in a novel or short story would reveal much more than I might wish about the state of my life. The address book – yes, embarrassingly "old school" – that has now found its way into the back zippered pocket on the outside of my purse because it has lost its cover. The address book that still contains the former addresses and phone numbers of friends who have moved and who I now communicate with mainly by e-mail but should update because holiday card season is coming . The several different shades of lipstick that have fallen into the inside pouch because I buy but forget to wear. The five squashed tissues – always five, a matter of superstition – snatched from the tissue box in the bathroom each morning and there in case of a sneeze or a stranger in tears who might welcome even a squashed, but clean, tissue. Old tissues out, new tissues in each morning.

My shoulder bag dumped onto a table could tell a writer volumes about who I am. The fact, for example, that my business cards and my flash drive, are always in that small, zippered outside pocket on the flap of my purse. No need to reveal to a new colleague or acquaintance the untidy interior of my purse as I search for a card. But inside my purse, my three sets of keys are always in the largest interior pocket – removed each night and dropped into a basket on my desk – to avoid frantic searches for keys to my car, house, and/or office door.

Purses, offices, refrigerators, closets – there we are, our inner lives revealed in more detail than we might sometimes know. I remember this with an uneasy twinge when someone visiting my office begins to wander around looking not only at the books on my shelves but at the small objects that have found their way there among the books. The objects are there for me to look at … but they are also speaking about who I am in my office that sometimes is as disorganized as my purse. Those stacks of papers piled neatly or haphazardly.…

I hope – even without dumping out my purse – I managed to convey something about the stories that our "things" can tell about who we are and how that can be used in creating a character. But maybe I should send all my students an e-mail about purses and pockets.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Atmosphere

John here. Northern Connecticut survived Hurricane Sandy, I voted Tuesday, and, unlike so many living only a couple hours south, I am very fortunate that life remains unchanged by the recent tragedy.

Status quo means I'm trying to write a lot and trying to improve. One element of fiction I'm particularly aware of right now is atmosphere. I'm reading my Type M colleague Aline Templeton's book Cradle to Grave and loving it. The extent of my travel has consisted of hockey trips as a youth and young adult and my adult life spent on the Texas-Mexico and Maine-New Brunswick borders before moving to southern New England. Never been to Europe. And I love atmospheric fiction – reads like James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin, and Richard Russo. Now Aline has me experiencing her part of the world.

Atmosphere is something I'm trying to be more cognizant of in my own work. My forthcoming novel This One Day is set in and around a fictionalized version of the seedy areas of Hartford, Connecticut. The tone of the book is often established by setting details and descriptions:

Margaret Harrington wasn’t expecting me, so it didn’t matter that I hit the first light I came to and waited. Three high school kids leaned against the brick wall between a liquor store and a tobacco shop. One, a black kid wearing a do-rag, opened his nylon Boston Celtics windbreaker and retrieved a bottle of Wild Turkey. Fifteen or sixteen years old, on a street corner, drinking at 3:30 in the afternoon. The sky was spitting snow, the light already fading. Hutch Hillsdale had just turned eighteen when I first met him. Just another silent kid among the twenty-eight I taught in my evening section of American Literature. Then, one night I was at a library table (an adjunct’s version of “office hours”) when he brought me a story he’d written and asked me to read it.

The kids leaning against the brick wall handed the bottle down the line. Hutch Hillsdale had gone missing. When they found him, it was too late.

Not in James Lee Burke's league, but I do think my choice of details in this short passage help establish the protagonist, a guy with stage-two esophageal cancer who knows his odds are long and struggles with an outlook that is far from that of Randy Pausch, who authored “The Last Lecture.” Consider the nouns used, the details the speaker notices, the voice used to narrate thoughts and actions. I hope you see lower-working-class New England in the brief narrative.

Observation skills go a long way in adding atmosphere to your work. Hemingway said he had to go to Paris to write about Michigan. It might be difficult to recognize what is right under your nose. Most of us stumble through day-to-day life, often failing to recognize what is right in front of us. But the good news is staying alert to the details is something you can always strive for. Carry a notebook, and stay alert.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Shock, awe, and the creative impulse

Barbara here. (Thanks to Rick for posting this for me.) I am not going to write my usual blog today, because for some reason I haven't been able to drum up much excitement for my latest plot twist, or the newest and scariest merger of book publishers, or the hijacking of the book business by Amazon. Last week millions of Cubans, Haitians and Americans on the eastern seaboard were without power or transportation; their possessions, homes, even their towns were washed away by a storm so huge it covered a swath of Canada from the Manitoba border to Newfoundland.

Eastern Canada got off comparatively lightly, but even here, people lost cars and roofs, and majestic old trees were ripped up by their roots. Two people lost their lives. It is difficult to get riled up over megamergers and dirty tricks when others are facing such horrific struggles. The natural human impulse is to reach out to friends, to hold loved ones close and to try to help. Although far less traumatic and devastating in scope, it reminded me of the aftermath of Sept. 11, when I attended my very first Bouchercon mystery conference down in Washington DC. I was a rookie writer then with my first book under my belt, and I had no idea what to expect. What I found was not a gathering of crime writers hustling their latest books but a shocked and emotional community united in their need to connect and share. Some found they couldn't write at all, others wrote poetry for the very first time, some wondered if they could ever again invent fiction about murder and mayhem.

It was a tender, touching experience.

Horrific acts of destruction, both natural or manmade, are not new, of course. Since Sept. 11, most of us have been touched by the human cost of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and wars in New Orleans, Asia, Haiti, Pakistan, Japan... In the face of this endless list, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, to become numbed by the sheer size of the suffering. As in the case of Hurricane Sandy, the news coverage is always unrelenting, the flood of images graphic. It's a testament to human compassion that we can still feel others' pain and still care about others beyond the threat to ourselves.

New York, Atlantic City, and the other cities will pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild their neighbourhoods, just as they did after Sept 11. Just as other countries around the world have had to do. People will find courage and fortitude they never knew they had. Life will return to some sort of normal, we writers will return to our fictional traumas, and we will once again start complaining about publishers, royalties, closing bookstores and the other looming disasters in our business.

But if each of us carries with us a little more sensitivity and compassion, a little more humility and awe, and if that compassion colours the stories we write and the characters we create, then one could argue some small good has come of all this.

At least that's a hope worth hanging onto amid the struggles.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

In case anyone is paying attention…

I don’t expect many to bother looking at Type M today with that other “distraction” going on in the US. But it’s Tuesday and my turn to post something, so here goes.

With my new novel, The Fallen One (do you have your copy yet?), having just completed its first month of full release, I finally got a fairly major interview this past weekend. It was on the early weekend radio show on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Fresh Air and the interviewer was the host, Mary Ito.

You can listen to it by clicking HERE.

I prepped for the interview by going over the sort of questions I might be asked. My main assumption was that Mary had actually read the book (a big yes), but I also have had a number of interviews where the person couldn’t even remember how to pronounce my name, let alone knowing what book I had written.

Mary only threw me one curve and that was the question about golf. She was trying to draw me out on my Ed Sullivan story “party story”, and it took me a moment to figure out just what to say.

The description of the book’s plot is the one I give to people at book signings when they ask what the book is about. I’ll let you judge how effective it is. At this point, I don’t really have the perspective to know other than that a lot of punters have found it intriguing. I’ve said it enough times to have it down pat.

Other questions would have given me pause to think if I hadn’t anticipated them beforehand. When that’s the case, you leave yourself wide open for a lot of “ums” and “ahs” as you try to fill the dead air – really bad things to do for a whole bunch of obvious reasons. My son Karel, who has a public relations diploma, really rides me about this, and it’s been exceptionally helpful when he’s attended something where I’ve spoken and brings me up a list of how many times I transgressed. I’ve only listened to the interview once, but I didn’t notice any. Karel’s also been after me to slow down my speaking which I’m beginning to get the hang of. The issue is, the more excited I am about something, the faster I speak. It’s something we all tend to do. I’ve found taking a breath before answering has helped a lot.

Any chance an author gets to be interviewed for a wide audience is an opportunity you simply cannot waste, and a little time spent preparing can make even a bad interview work for you. Have some good stories available. Practise telling them. Record it to see what you sound like. Be critical and then try again.

Mary Ito, a real professional, made this interview easy and I found I enjoyed myself a lot. The best payoff is that I did a signing at a bookstore in a suburb west of Toronto a few hours later, and there were actually people who came in to meet me and buy copies of The Fallen One. That happens so seldom that it made my entire week.

The key to giving a good interview is just like everything else: preparation. Somehow we too often forget that truism.

Monday, November 05, 2012

You Can Get There From Here ... Sometimes

It's a biweekly ritual in my life, ever since I was invited - and happily agreed - to write for Type M. I leave Suzanne's on Sunday evening, and she asks: "What are you going to blog about tomorrow? You do remember that tomorrow is your day to post something?"

To which the answer is - usually! - "Yes, I do remember. And, no, I have no idea what I am going to write about. I'll think of something."

The thinking of "something" usually follows, or meanders along, a complicated route. Today's blog route is not much different from most of the others. I arrived back at my apartment at about 9 pm. Suzanne and I had just finished our weekend together by watching three episodes of Season Eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the first I have ever seen. The show is wildly off-the-wall, and hilarious. The show's writers and performers clearly regard nothing as sacred. Would that the Enthusiasm crew were running the Presidential election campaign down south. (Remembering that I live in Canada, "up north".) If they did have creative and editorial control of events "down there", so very many of us - and of "you" - might feel less inclined to rush out to the nearest railway line and lay our heads on a steel track, anxiously awaiting the whistle of an oncoming freight train.

Of course, I jest. Somewhat. Like many Canadians, I am truly anxiously awaiting - not the approaching freight train - but the results of the Presidential election. This morning I read in the Globe and Mail, reputedly Canada's "national newspaper" - which Foxy Bill O'Reilly, in his charming way, has likened to the Havana Times - that if Canadians could vote in the election, more than 60 percent of us would vote for Obama, and about 15 percent for the other guy. Just who the other roughly 20 percent would vote for is not clear.

But I digress. (Which is part of the fun of writing a blog. You can go anywhere, and there is no security check. You can even write with your shoes on, and your belt still on your trousers.)

Yesterday afternoon, we went to the "cinema" (sounds so much tonier than the "movies") to see Flight, the new Denzel Washington film. Highly recommended, btw. But not, perhaps, if you are about to go somewhere in a jet aircraft. The plane-crash sequences are truly gut-wrenching. The story is probably well-known by now, so I won't dwell on it. The plane's pilot (Washington) manages to land his stricken jetliner more-or-less safely, losing "only" six lives. But for his brilliant and heroic actions, all 100+ on board would have died. He is a hero, but a hero with a problem: a mandatory NTSA tox-screen finds dangerous levels of alcohol and cocaine in his blood. I will say no more, other than to laud Washington for a brilliant portrayal of a seriously troubled man struggling to find himself; and the writers for a really good screenplay.

But there is another film - and story - that I want to finish up on. Before the main feature yesterday, there were the several mandatory previews of upcoming movies. One preview started off very ominously, with dramatic music, and a massive shadowy figure emerging from what looked like an underground cave. So often, in a theatre, you see the same previews over and over. But I hadn't seen this one. And then, suddenly, I knew what the film had to be about. The massive shadowy figure had a number on his back, in large print: 42. For many - most? - people, especially males, of my generation (I was born in 1939), the number 42 would be recognised as the one worn on the Brooklyn Dodgers uniform of Jackie Robinson. Until yesterday afternoon, I was unaware that a new film of the Robinson story was being made. It has been in the works for some time. A possible release date (from IMDB) is April of 2013.

There were several earlier films of the dramatic Robinson story. In 1950, Jackie starred in his own film, The Jackie Robinson Story. (Hollywood so often lacks imagination in choosing film titles. There is probably a religious-themed film out there somewhere, titled The Jesus Christ Story.) And there were other productions. In 1978, there was an ABC television special, A Home Run For Love; in 1990 a TV movie, The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson; and in 1996, the HBO film, Soul Of The Game, with Blair Underwood (of L.A. Law and In Treatment fame) playing Robinson. This time around, Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie.

I really hope they have made a good film. If they make a great film, I will be even happier. I was a huge fan of the Dodgers in their Brooklyn days, and a big fan of Robinson. Although I also have to admit that the great Dodger centerfielder, Duke Snider, was my number-one man.

For the record, I rarely watch baseball any longer. Yes, I did take in a few innings of the latest world series - was it the Giants vs. the Tigers? Yes, it was, and the Giants won - but the old interest, that saw the very young me agonising over yet another Dodgers (then in Brooklyn) loss to the hated Yankees, has been gone for decades.

Baseball was perhaps an odd obsession for a boy who grew up in Newfoundland, when there wasn't even local television on which to watch regular season games or the World Series. We didn't get TV in St. John's until 1955 or 1956, years after most of the rest of Canada; and never mind the USA. But the connections were there for me, and they were solid.

My Uncle Charlie Curren left Newfoundland shortly after World War I, moved to New York City, and married a German immigrant named Anna Meyer. They were both great baseball fans, and their team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. My Aunt Anna, with her rich German accent, spoke the way I imagined everyone in Brooklyn was required to speak. At least, to judge from the movies I'd seen up to that stage in my life.

My uncle and aunt implanted their devotion to the Dodgers into my entire family. Each year, starting in the late 1940s, the Dodger Yearbook would arrive from New York in the mail, and would be devoured by everyone in the household. Robinson - who joined the team and first took the field on 15 April 1947 - was just one of many names that flew across the dinner table when baseball was talked about. There were also, in no particular order, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella (from 1948), George 'Shotgun' Shuba, Billy Cox, Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe (from 1949), Jim Gilliam (from 1953), Preacher Roe, and others. Baseball non-fans will have to consult Wikipedia to find out who these people are, or were. Or, better still, pick up a copy of The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn's immensely readable history of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And here, a family footnote. Roy Campanella was catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 to 1957. In January of 1958, the year the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Campanella was gravely injured in a single-car accident when driving from Harlem to his home in Glen Cove, Long Island. His car hit a patch of ice, skidded into a telephone pole and overturned. Campanella's neck was broken, the 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae fractured. His spinal cord was compressed and he emerged from surgery paralysed from the shoulders down. And the footnote? My sister was on the nursing staff at Glen Cove County Hospital when Campanella was brought in. She was an experienced operating room nurse, and when she heard that Campanella was about to be operated on, she volunteered for scrub duty in the OR. As a sometime Dodger fan, and with two brothers who were fanatically loyal to 'Dem Bums', there was nothing else she could possibly have done.

But back to Jackie Robinson, now. Given the intense drama that surrounded much of Robinson's life, it's no surprise that he has been the subject of a certain amount of crime fiction. (If Abraham Lincoln can be recreated as a "vampire hunter", it's very easy to imagine Jackie Robinson at the centre of a mystery/crime novel.) I have already alluded to the infamous court martial during WW2, later made into a TV movie. The court martial was based entirely on racism on the part of white army officers. The charges were eventually dismissed, but not before Robinson's military career was fatally compromised.

A fast internet search brought forward a couple of titles.

Donald Honig's The Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson, from 1992, involves a recurring Honig character, Joe Tinker, a New York Daily News sportswriter. Tinker is a WW2 veteran. In 1946, he witnesses a muder with racial overtones and then is drawn into a plot featuring a racist psychopath who is determined to prevent Jackie Robinson from playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. One review lauds Honig's evocation of the rhythms of the period and of the sportswriters' milieu. Honig's depiction of Tinker's education in the etiology of racism and his grimly accurate portrait of the casual bigotry of the time are seen as vivid reminders of a not-so-distant past.

Then there's Robert B. Parker's Double Play, from 2005. Parker, who died in 2010, is of course best known for his Spenser series. The Robinson book was well-reviewed by Publishers Weekly: "The fiction, told in the third person, focuses on Joseph Burke, a WWII vet grievously wounded physically and emotionally by combat and its aftermath. Burke is a hired gun who allows himself no feelings, but when he signs on with Dodger owner Branch Rickey to protect Robinson from racist violence during the ballplayer's rookie season, he comes to respect, then love, the proud, controversial player. ... Burke is a tough guy, and the narrative not set around baseball fields takes place in the white and black underworlds as Burke plays various gangsters against one another to protect (his girlfriend) and Robinson. Parker, always a clean writer, has never written so spare and tight a book.

I believe we sometimes like to think that "race" and its grim overtones belong in the past. Back in the days when Jackie Robinson had to 'turn the other cheek', even when enduring the racist taunts of opposing players (and even some on his own team), having baseballs thrown at his head, and trying - not always successfully - to avoid being deliberately spiked by baserunners. But with an African-American President of the United States running for re-election, the signs are there yet again. Consider this opening paragraph of a column in Saturday's Globe and Mail, from Imani Perry, Professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University:

"I am no longer shocked when there are reports of Barack Obama dummies with nooses around their necks, hanging in public effigy. Such old-fashioned racist fodder is cliché in the United States. Our past is always present."

Would that it were not so.

You can read the entire article here:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/how-race-and-the-us-election-intersect-hint-badly/article4890727/

And that's -30- for this week.