Monday, December 31, 2012

Thoughts On A New Year's Eve

The first "thought" being: Why is there no "New Year's Adam"?

Just asking....

In fact, Adam and Eve - yes, the world's first couple, lifted from the dust of Eden - have been on my mind a lot recently. It started a few months back when I parked my not-so-shiny-any-longer Mustang in the lot of a big shopping centre in Ottawa's West End. Ottawa residents, and even occasional visitors, will know of which I write when I mention that it's the site of a gigantic new IKEA store, an edifice only slightly smaller than your average medium-sized city. I think one day the owners might declare it to be an independent municipality, a city-state, even. But it is well-organised - way better than my apartment - and you could probably live there. Well, I probably could. The bathrooms are neat and tidy, there is every kind of furniture imaginable, a nice display of artwork decorations on the walls, and a huge cafeteria with very nice food; even wine in little bottles.

But to get back to the parking lot, and the "inspiration" (at least in part) for this post. I pulled my nssal Mustang into a spot alongside a family vehicle that had on its rear bumper a clever sticker which read:
             
                            Evolution Is Only A Theory. Creation Is A Fact.

Well, yes, that's true. As far as it goes.

But being a sort of scientist by training - I possess a somewhat dog-eared (1966, University of Toronto) Doctorate in Plant Pathology, or Phytopathology if I feel like being snooty about it - my hackles started to rise. What did the author(s) of the bumper sticker think they were postulating here, exactly? But the hackles went back down pretty quickly, because, apart from my long-time acceptance of Darwin's genius and the validity of evolution as a truism, I had to acknowledge (to myself) that I really didn't know all that much about the subject; by "subject" I mean Darwin the man, and the theory of evolution as his crowning achievement.

So I started to think and read, and - given my long-established visual bent - borrow a collection of educational DVDs from the local library. And started to educate myself a little. Well, more than a little, in fact. The process will go on for some time yet. And if, as I now plan to do, I actually get hold of a copy of Darwin's 1859 book, On The Evolution of Species - there were at least six editions in Darwin's lifetime, but the first is said to be the best - I will learn a lot more.

I will move on from this part of my post in a moment, but I will pass along three references that I have found especially informative, and also entertaining.

The first comes from the sterling PBS series, Nova: What Darwin Never Knew (2009):

What Darwin Never Knew

Essentially, the program updates Darwin's theory and buttresses it with recent discoveries in molecular biology, notably molecular genetics.

The second reference is a first-class biography of Darwin by the noted, and award-winning, American Science writer, David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution:

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution


And the third, the 2009 feature film, Creation, with Paul Bettany as Darwin, and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma:




So, what does any of this have to do with writing crime fiction? Not very much, really, but there was a time - mid- to late-1800s - when there was a lot of serious pseudo-scientific speculation that criminality was related to, and possibly derived from, man's animal beginnings. The term "social Darwinism" entered the vernacular. Criminals were seen by some, at least, to be "throwbacks" to an earlier phase in human evolution, violent and vicious creatures who were victims of their own unfortunate biological inheritance. The notion of the "born criminal", embraced by the study of "anthropological criminiology", developed by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso in the late 19th century, came into popular parlance. It possibly exists even today in some quarters. The phrase, and the notion, of the bad seed is an almost indelible part of the English language.

The famous French artist, Edgar Degas - among others - was very attracted to this area of thought and study. Degas was an avid reader of a popular science journal, La Nature, and it was there that he encountered the photographs that Darwin used in his study of human expressions:




From this, Degas developed an interest in what was termed "degenerate and criminal physiognomy", which was a part of the debate on crime and degeneracy in late 19th century France. This interest resulted in his two well-known portraits of three working-class men on trial in Paris for a gang-related murder:


   


Sketched in the courtroom, Degas's pastel portraits were exhibited in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition with the titles "Physionomie de criminel". This conformed to the idea, current at the time, of biological determinism, and applauded by critics who "read in them a Darwinian subtext, and a Lombrosian demonstration of innate criminality," consistent with the idea that certain members of the "working class" were throwbacks to earlier, more "animalistic" evolutionary stages.

Think of it, perhaps, as an early version of "criminal profiling", more highly refined in the present day certainly, but still at least somewhat controversial.

That Darwin never suggested any such cause-and-effect relationship between evolution and crime - or if he did I am not aware of it - is almost beside the point. Nor is there any reason to link violent crime with animal behaviour, as is so often done even today. How often do we read or hear that a particularly violent criminal "behaved like an animal". It just isn't so. We humans are a special case. Animals don't behave the way some of our fellows do. One is reminded of Mark Twain's famous aphorism: "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or has need to".

And Twain, again: "What is Man? Man is a noisome bacillus whom Our Heavenly Father created because he was disappointed in the monkey."

And now, briefly, back to that famous bumper sticker that gave inspiration to the above golden words and phrases. What, I have to wonder, did the author of those two short sentences have in mind when he, or she, penned the words? I am guessing that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden were what s/he was thinking about. I had to think about that also.

Some years ago, I audited a short course at Ottawa's Carleton University on "Creation Myths"; and, yes, the Adam and Eve story was part of the subject matter. I will make no bold statements on this because I know it is a delicate subject. But I do have two questions.

First, if Eve was created from Adam's rib, as I believe Genesis tells us, how was the genetic change from Adam's XY sex-chromosome configuration to Eve's XX configuration effected?

And, second, just who did the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve "go forth" and mate with to populate the world? There was only one human family on the planet. I balk at the notion that the planet's human population was created by serial and multiple acts of incest. A practice forbidden by all major religions, Christianity included.

Those questions have always intrigued me. And even more so now than in the past.

And with that, I will close, adding with a special greeting to iPhone owners and users - which growing population includes my partner Suzanne.

A Very Appy New Year to you all!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Guest Blogger Michael J. McCann




Michael J. ('Mike') McCann lives and writes in Oxford Station, Ontario, south of Ottawa, on seven acres in the Limerick Forest. Born and raised in Peterborough, also in Ontario, Mike earned a B.A. (Hons.) in English from Trent University, and an M.A. in English from Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the former editor of Criminal Reports (Third Series) with Carswell Legal Publications. He also spent fifteen years with Canada Customs as a Training Specialist, Project Officer, and Program Manager at the department's National Headquarters in Ottawa. He is married with one son.

Having Fun at Book Signings

This September at the Word on the Street book festival in Toronto, Rick Blechta and I had an interesting conversation about book signings and how some of them don't unfold the way you might expect. Book signings are an important way for us authors to maintain an active public profile and market our latest publication. They're often a fun way to meet the reading public and make a personal connection with them. Occasionally, though, they end up leaving an odd taste in your mouth afterwards. Sometimes, they just make you laugh.

This summer, shortly after the publication of Marcie's Murder,



I had a book signing in a Chapters store in Ottawa. To be frank, that signing was a disaster. The staff were very kind and patient, but they had set up my table directly in front of a very large display of the Fifty Shades trilogy. At the time, those books were at their peak of popularity, and while you might think that being situated in front of a raging bestseller would help my own sales, the opposite was the case. People flooded around my table the entire afternoon without making eye contact with me, fully intent on grabbing one of the trilogy's boxed sets before they sold out, yet again. I didn't sell a single book that day. I drove home wondering if I should make the switch from crime fiction to writing mommy porn.

At another Chapters signing I was seated at a very lovely antique-looking writing desk with a drawer in it. For some reason, the desk was positioned ao that the drawer was facing out towards the customers. Being a naturally nosy sort - I do write crime fiction after all - I opened the drawer and found a collection of paper napkins and plastic stir sticks. Not very interesting. The afternoon was very quiet. One of the few people who approached the signing desk was very interested - in the desk! She looked it all over very carefully, admired the hand-turned spindle legs and the brass fittings. And, yes, she opened the drawer to check the contents. I spoke to her, but she didn't look up at me, didn't look at my collection of books. She managed only a non-committal grunt before running her finger along the finely polished edge of the desk, and then walked away. Perhaps, I thought afterwards, while driving home, I should switch from crime fiction to making antique furniture.

At yet another Chapters signing, I was located in front of a large display of Chef Michael Smith's latest cook book. I happen to be a fan of Chef Smith, and since it was once again a too-quiet afternoon at the signing desk, I spent some time thumbing through his book. At one point a lady wandered up, browsing the other cook books. I asked her if she seen the one I was holding. We chatted about Chef Smith and she decided to buy the book. Well, I thought, at least I can sell somebody's books. Then the lady politely asked what I was doing there. I directed her attention to the table with my own collection of books, which up to then she had not noticed. Did I mention that she was polite? Yes, I did. She bought one of my books, also. Mission accomplished!

Some book signings are, as I have suggested, just plain fun. This past fall, I had a book signing event at Britton's on Bank Street in Ottawa - in an area known as The Glebe. Britton's is a magazine and tobacco shop where Ted Britton and Linda Wiken have begun what they call the Prime Crime Bookshelf. (Linda, for many years, owned and operated the Prime Crime Mystery Bookstore in Ottawa, the place for mystery readers and writers in Ottawa.) They set me up at a little table on the sidewalk for the signing. It was a cloudy day, and rain was imminent, but I had the time of my life, chatting with people on the sidewalk, and watching traffic on the street. Charles de Lint, the World Fantasy Award winning author, who lives in Ottawa, stopped by for a newspaper, looked at my books on the way out, and offered words of encouragement, one writer to another. City buses pulled up to the curb every twenty miniutes or so - there was a bus stop close by. At one point, a bus stayed directly in front of my litttle table for several minutes. I think by then I was feeling a little giddy from fatigue and exhaust fumes, because when I noticed several young fellows were staring at me from their seats on the bus, I made eye contact, and picking up one of my books I engaged in an elaborate pantomime between the book, myself, and the table, urging them to get off the bus and buy a copy. One lad shook his head. I pretended to cry. Everyone at the back of the bus began to laugh just as the bus pulled away. A passerby on the street gave me an odd look and kept on walking. Then I was alone again. Okay, I thought, that was fun. And someone on the bus might even remember my name the next time they enter a bookstore. You never know. As in, "Hey, that's the weird guy who was selling mystery books on Bank Street!"

We live in hope. Don't we?

You can visit Mike's website at: http://www.mjmccann.com/

Follow his blog at: http://michaeljmccannsblog.blogspot.ca/

Find Mike on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Michael-J-McCann/130617140389341

Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJMcCann1

Find The Fregoli Delusion, Mike's latest book, at: http://www.amazon.com/Fregoli-Delusion-Donaghue-Stainer-ebook/dp/B00A4HDF7E/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356799016&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Fregoli+Delusion



Friday, December 28, 2012

My Nasty Christmas Letter


My annual Christmas letter turned nasty this year. I wrote it at night and erased an especially cranky paragraph the following morning. It went like this:

I had my cable disconnected in March and went to streaming to avoid all the dreadful election commercials. I understand some politicians are revving up for 2016 and I hope every one of them who inflicts this bombardment on us again dies a writhing death.

In a saner moment, I deleted this in favor of my usual judicious collection of information about our family and my activities. Other than a light dusting about my writing, I don’t market in Christmas letters. It has always seemed tacky to me.

I love receiving my friends’ annual Christmas letter. If their husband is now a vice-president, or their daughter is on the Olympics team, the son accepted at Harvard, I’m thrilled. Send this good news to me. I’ll rejoice with you. And cry for you if the year has been an unmitigated tragedy. I resent the mean-spirited correspondents who write advice columnists haughtily jeering at “bragging” impersonal letters. Because I worry that people who send them might feel ashamed and then stop.

I love good news. In this world when families are trying to cope with so many natural disasters, why would anyone, anywhere, at anytime begrudge someone having something to crow about? If my friends minimize the bad news and the hard times to cover up a broken heart, I understand. If they’ve had to searched their souls for something good to write about, blessings on them.

I meant every word I said in the deleted paragraph although my cheery little Christmas letter wasn’t the place for this. In addition to errant politicians pressing their messages, I’m wondering if the all the marketing mania to become noticed in the publishing world hasn’t gone too far? Isn’t there a point of diminishing returns? I’m bombarded with email about book release dates, new blog entries, newsletters, signings, awards, and contests.

Even though I cherish all of the annual Christmas letters, I wonder if my response would be the same if I heard from all of my friends and relations every day, or every week, or even every month.

 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dear Santa,

I hope your big night went smoothly. It was a little tricky on my end. You see, my 11-year-old, Audrey, had some major doubts this season.

She took to leaving more than one letter to you this year, and, as you probably realized, they contained some difficult questions. "I asked him how old he was last year," Audrey told me. "I want to see if he remembers."

Maybe she thinks you're slipping. Anyhow, I was interested to hear that you told her you were 304 last year. The cold weather must agree with you. (Take a multi-vitamin?) Now, I'm no mathematician, just a guy who writes pretty good dialogue and plots he usually can't figure out until the final page, so I was damned glad for my daughter's clue. But when she read your reply, she looked up at me, glanced down at the letter, and then back at me, head tilted. From where I sat, I could see that you write in cursive, something I haven't had much practice with in many years, but I've got to say your penmanship is a little lacking.

I was up pretty late on Christmas Eve, so I tried one of the cookies (hope you didn't mind), and I glanced at the letter. She asked what people get you for Christmas, seeing how you do so much for everyone else. I have to be honest here: I actually stayed up really late and may have glanced at your reply, too. (It was really nice of your favorite elf Stanley to get you some new snowshoes since you told him you'd gained a little weight. In truth, I don't think anyone noticed.)

I'm thinking my daughter has what it takes to be a columnist. (All right, full-blown confession time: I spent several minutes glancing at her letter to you.) Apparently, she really told those "stupid boys" (her word, not mine, Santa) in her class what she thought, when they teased the girls by telling them you weren't real. "But I can see it in their eyes, Santa. They're scared when they say it because they know you are real, and they know what you'll do."

I told her I'm not sure you seek vengeance, like she's hoping, that maybe she could write a crime novel someday and name some characters after those "stupid boys" and watch them get gunned down or worse. (That was when my wife looked up and asked what I was telling our daughter.) "Just talking about art, Honey. Just art."

Then things got really dicey when my daughter asked me to have a "slumber party" on Christmas night. I said sure. Then she informed me that she left a second note. My guess is she's doing some serious fact-checking now.

Well, it's the day after Christmas. I'm nearly as tired as you, and my hand is sore this morning. So I guess I'll sign off until next year. Thanks again for the new tie. I can always use one. (Damned salad dressing gets me every time.)

And thanks, too, Santa, for keeping my Audrey on her toes. I know it's not easy. And, who knows, it might not last forever.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays

With it being Christmas Day and me being on KP duty as I normally am as Official Chef de Cuisine, I find myself unable to do more on my regular posting day on Type M than to extend to everyone my very warmest holiday greetings and wishes for a prosperous new year. May you all find many more books to enjoy (and the time to read them!).

And to all my author friends, may all your books get picked up for Hollywood productions, your sales exceed all expectations and your royalty payments to arrive promptly and with the full amount due. To those who are hoping for publication, may you get a three-book deal before the end of January.

—Rick

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dark Christmas

This Christmas Eve post had been planned to be about time with family and good times and children's nativity plays finding new ways to tell the old, old story that is new and fresh to these innocents, but following the massacre of the innocents last week the haunting faces of the children who were to have been sheep and cows and shepherds and angels make it impossible. WB Yeats's ‘The Second Coming’: 'And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?' – seems more appropriate.

When the similar massacre in the peaceful little Scottish town of Dunblane took place – Andy Murray was one child who escaped – I was living in another school twenty miles away so I know the shook and grief Americans are experiencing. These tragedies can happen, gun laws or no gun laws. It's just when there are no guns around, it's once in a blue moon, not regularly.

I've never actually seen a gun, apart from a shotgun, and I don't think I've even touched one of those.  The death figures in America are staggering, and while I can understand the gunman as hero tradition and the pioneer spirit of having to look after yourself,  I can't understand how anyone sane can support the idea of a civilian needing a semi-automatic weapon.

I suppose we all draw our lines in different places. Once when I was in America I went to a drugstore to try to buy a butane refill for my hair tongs – these are available over here, and I've never heard of anyone with a problem.  I got a lecture from the man behind the counter about how of course he wouldn't be allowed to sell any such thing and a lecture on Britain's laxity when it came to safety regulations, going on to highlight the fact that we can buy paracetamol with codeine over the counter.  Only my British reserve and politeness stopped me mentioning the word 'guns' but I was sorely tempted.

The Newton tragedy has had exhaustive coverage in our newspapers and TV, but like Rick I haven't heard it discussed very much.  I would attribute different reasons, though: it is so awful that we can't bear to talk about it.  There are no words.

I pray is that America will heed the example of Australia, which also had several massacres until they outlawed semi-automatic weapons about ten years ago and since then – none.  May 2013 be a year of peace for us all.




Saturday, December 22, 2012

Stuff my stocking

Merry Christmas!

I'm a dad, which means I was also Santa Claus for a few years while my sons grew from babies and into young men. Now that they're grown up, I no longer feel the need to give them the "big" gift. They can buy that on their own.

This year, I want the Universe or Fate or whoever is calling the cosmic shots to play Santa Claus for the writer in me. I've paid my dues. Trust me. I've got all kinds of scars on my ego. But don't call me a wounded soul; I can still buoy my spirits with enough delusions to raise the Titanic.

What do I want from Santa? Let's get past the obvious: World peace, a cure for all diseases, an end to hunger, yada, yada. Now to my wish list: To start, one of those mega-millions lottery tickets. If I want to write, I'll need a decent pad to park my butt as I scribble my words. A fabulous Manhattan penthouse will do. And one in San Francisco. Maui. Paris. Tuscany. A luxury jet to get around. Fleets of limos. Piles of baubles, houses full of designer duds, hordes of sycophants.

Some of you may try to scold: Mario, money doesn't buy happiness. Don't be so materialistic.
Ha! You haven't met me. I'm so shallow I could drown in a rain puddle. My motives aren't even skin deep. So what if money can't buy happiness. Fine, I'll rent it. The only Christmas spirit I want should be at least 90 proof and come in a crystal bottle.

Once Ole Kris Kringle has ensconced me in the appropriate lifestyle, this is what I want need:

1. The story ideas that spring from my lips to be so juicy that agents scramble after them like terriers after meat balls.
2. My synopses alone to be so good they win Pulitzer Prizes.
3. The words to flow from my fingers and onto the keyboard like money-making honey. Eight thousand per day. Effortless and perfect. Every sentence a literary gem.
4. Book signings so packed that bookstores collapse.
5. My appearances on writer panels to be infamous for my epic bon mots.
6.  Fame that would make J.K. Rowling seem like a wall flower.
7. Sales to make E.L. James burn her books in envy.
8. Movies deals to keep bringing the cash and the lackeys.

Nothing much...really. I'm a simple man with simple needs.
So put in a good word with The Man upstairs. Please. I'll be very grateful.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thoughts about Last Friday

It's a sad morning -- wind blowing, rain pouring. And I just finished watching the television coverage of the moment of silence for the Newtown victims. I wish I had something profound to contribute to the discussion that has been going on here all week, but I don't. I can only share my chaotic thoughts about what happened in an elementary school in a small town in Connecticut.

When it began, I remembered Virginia Tech. I am an alum of Virginia Tech. On the day when the shootings happened in Blacksburg, I was exchanging e-mails with other alums as we watched the body count climb and realized the magnitude of what had happened in a place where we thought "something like that" could never happen. I felt like that again when I heard the first report of Sandy Hook. I was under a dryer in a hair salon when the owner walked through and told us what was being reported on the small television on the wall by the front desk. A school in Connecticut, children shot, two shooters? The first scramble for information, with the misinformation and confusion as the media rushed to report. But, yes, a school, and children dead. One shooter, not two, but bad, really bad.

I have no children. I rarely even spend time with small children. But every time I walk by a television and see a photograph of one of those little faces, I tear up. Not only for those children, but for those parents who I can imagine hearing that first news and now trying to hold on as they get through this.

I'm the criminologist in this bunch, the criminal justice professor, but I have little to add to the facts and figures that have been shared here. And the truth is I don't want to think of what happened as a social scientist. There will be time enough for that next semester when I'm back in class. Then we will examine Sandy Hook in my Gender and Crime seminar, and we will talk about the tradition in American culture of "the man with a gun" as hero and good bad guy and saver of the day. We'll talk about Atticus Finch proving his masculinity with a dead-eye shot of a rabid dog and a "shootist" named J.B. Books (John Wayne's last movie) who nods his approval when a teenage boy (played by Ron Howard, little Opie grown up) flings away a gun after shooting the man who has shot Books. In that seminar, we'll talk about the "gun culture" in various regions of the country, including (but not limited to) the South where I grew up and where all of the men had a shotgun or a rifle for hunting and in case of human intruders.We'll talk about women with guns in their hands -- in films (inspiring a feminist debate about whether women need to be as violent as men to be pop culture heroes), in real-life as cops, soldiers, and battered women on trial for killing their abusers. We'll talk about gun violence on TV and in country music, rap, cartoons, and books (including crime fiction). We'll look at how guns were used to "conquer a continent" and "settle the west" -- never mind the people who had to be moved aside to do that. We'll talk about how the gun moved from east to west and back again. We're talk about men, women, and guns, and we'll talk about violence in America, and we'll examine the research and discuss policy proposals.

But right now, I'm just going to allow myself to be sad and tired. And think -- with some hope for the rest of us -- about the people of Newtown who are heroic in the face of tragedy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Forgetting Type M

When last Thursday rolled around, I was behind and never posted. In fact, I was behind all week, and by the time I caught up it was Friday, and I was seated in front of the TV watching CNN in the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., roughly an hour from where I live. Less than a week before that there was a "lock-down" at my daughters' elementary school. Allegedly, a student brought a BB gun to school. The automated text and phone messages from our small-town Connecticut elementary school were disturbing, but as I sat before my TV watching endless CNN coverage of the Newtown shooting, those automated messages took a whole new meaning.

Last Friday, I was no longer concerned with my missed post. By 10 a.m., I had forgotten all about Type M. I wasn't a writer; I was a father with two of my three daughters in a school very much like Sandy Hook Elementary, where, this week, an entire first-grade class is missing. My only post last week was a short line on Facebook praising the teachers who bravely protected their students amid the chaos that day. And that was it; no post about writing. And Friday night, like probably other dads that day, I slept on the floor of my daughter's room, a “slumber party,” we called it.

Or maybe I was still a writer.

Maybe that's why I've been watching and reading CNN nonstop for the past 48 hours. Maybe that's why events like this one, events Albert Camus would deem inexplicable in our “absurd” universe, drive me to read and write crime fiction.

I teach a mystery literature course two terms each year, and I always begin with an opening lecture, explaining the history of the genre and some basic constructs behind crime fiction. During this discussion, I inform students about one such rule by saying something along the lines of, “I can tell you the ending of all of my books right now without ruining a single one: Jack Austin and Max Tyger win. Always.”

It's the unspoken contract between writer and reader in this genre: chaos will not rule the day.

Good, in the form of our beloved heroes, always triumphs.

It's why after 9/11, when other genres and different types of books stopped selling, mysteries, more or less, remained steady. And days like last Friday – when parents stood outside a firehouse about an hour from where I was teaching and where my daughters were reading, and writing, and playing, those men and women stood waiting to be told their six-year-old son or daughter would be there soon only to learn, 10 days before Christmas, that if their little boy or girl had not yet arrived they would not do so – those days force me to write.

Writing and reading mystery fiction is a stay, a means of controlling the outcome of events in the world around me.

Days like last Friday are why, after all, we need crime fiction.
 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My rant for the week

Barbara here. Like my fellow blogmate Tom Curran, I feel compelled to write about the tragic events of last Friday. The experience, and the ensuing news and commentary, are still too fresh and raw to be ignored. And unlike my other blogmate Rick Blechta, I find everyone is talking about it and trying to get a handle on the lunacy. The lunacy of the slaughter of 20 little children and their teachers (as an aside I note that the school psychologist was also killed rushing to the rescue. Had I been there, that would have been me), as well as the ensuing lunacy that passed for explanations or solutions. Arm the school principals, repeal the concealed carry ban in schools, bring God back into the schools...

In the wake of this relentless media coverage, a thousand thoughts are swirling through my mind and it's difficult to decide what I should focus on in this blog. First there is my very Canadian incomprehension of America's obsession with guns. Indeed, recent commentary on both sides of the debate in the US has me wondering why I would ever risk life and limb to venture south of the border at all. Canadians don't have a 2nd amendment. The bearing of arms is not only not a historical right here but it was actively prohibited or discouraged during the settlement and development of the country. We did not have heroes like Billy the Kid and Jesse James glorifying the power of the six-gun. We had the Northwest Mounted Police confiscating all firearms before permitting entry into a territory or a town. Ordinary Canadians don't expect others to have guns and generally speaking don't think of guns as protection against anything but bears and wolves.

Secondly, there is my incredulity, also Canadian, at the religious imagery being evoked. This massacre happened because "they" took God out of the schools, or in more extremist language because America has descended into sin. As if God has decided to teach the country a lesson, and has targeted these innocent 20 for that purpose. It astonishes me that in the 21st century, in one of the most privileged, enlightened and educationally advanced countries of the world, such dark ages thinking still exists. Not on the lunatic fringes but at the very centre of the corridors of power.

In concert with these explanations come the solutions which are not only ineffective but downright dangerous. Put prayer back in the schools, repeal the gun controls, keep mothers home where they belong, put a gun in the hands of every principal.

This brings me to a third reason I am unable to tune out the debate. The psychologist in me is screaming. "Instead of spouting nonsense, read the research!" Ask those in the know (teachers, social scientists, parents, and kids) why, and listen to the answers. This is not some external "evil come to town". This is a native son who has, like so many before him, hit a wall. Try to understand him – not for his sake, for it's too late for him – but for all the other Adam Lanzas struggling with isolation and nurturing a deadly rage. Try to get into his head and figure out what is needed to help him before the crisis point is reached.

Because in the 31 American school shootings since Columbine, some answers have emerged. I don't pretend to know them all, but here are some. Deadly rage doesn't erupt without warning. The signs are usually there, but someone has to read them. Odd comments, peculiar Facebook posts, behaviour that hints at the "end of the world". Family members, neighbours, friends, and schoolmates are the people best positioned to notice unusual behaviour. Better to feel stupid and alarmist for a moment than to regret for a lifetime. And once a concern is noticed, proper professional help rather than stigma has to be available.

Another research finding. These killings are not a "decadent" urban phenomenon but occur most commonly in the heartland of safe, traditional, often devout suburban and semi-rural communities. Precisely because they are homogeneous and close-knit, these communities offer fewer options to those who are different, especially in adolescence. They isolate and marginalize those who don't, or can't, fit in. By comparison, urban communities have the diversity and school choices that give unique children a place to find support, purpose, and belonging.

If the community is strongly faith-based, the marginalized youth feels even more judged and isolated, lessening the chances he can talk about natural feelings and fantasies that may be condemned as evil or sinful.

Most developed countries, including Canada, have devout, close-knit communities with strong pressures to conform and succeed, but none have the same ready access to weapons of mass destruction. Almost simultaneously with the Newtown killings was an assault of school children in China, but that assault occurred with a 6-inch knife rather than automatic pistols, and not a single child died.

I don't think these research findings are any great surprise. There is no one-answer-fits-all when these tragedies occur, but I think solutions which include at least some of these factors – community vigilance, mental health support, diversity and belonging, non-judgmental religion messages, and intelligent gun control – might make a dent in their numbers.

And if one life is saved...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When the news is too much to bear

Like everyone else, I’m sure, I was stuck watching the emotional train wreck that was/is coming out of Connecticut this week. I taught for 23 years, and in several schools that had primary grades. I loved “the squeakers” as many of us called the kindergardeners, and Grade 1 students. One of my favourite things to do was show up at their door with a large group of my band students and march through their room playing something we’d just memorized.

The amazement on their faces was just so wonderful. As I taught on, many of these squeakers grew big, their voices (sadly) changed and they became my students. One of the biggest wrenches for me emotionally when I stopped teaching in 2001 and moved on to other income sources was not to be able to spend time with these delightful little human beings.

I’ve held off discussing the tragedy with everyone except my family, mostly because it’s just something I want to move past. I know the news, and I just don’t want to hear anymore about it. I am not one of those people who stares at car accidents as I drive by. I can’t help the people left to pick up the pieces of their lives. If I could, I would, but I know it’s out of my hands.

The very odd thing is that having been to several parties over the weekend and just being out and about, nobody seems to be talking about it. We had people over to dinner on Saturday, I was at rehearsal last night, and also at a party and the subject never once came up. It’s not as if there wasn’t an elephant in the room all three times, but it’s as if everyone I’ve met just doesn’t want to think about it.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that response before – and it may signal that maybe, just maybe, people are ready to do something to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.

We can only hope.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Some Thoughts On A Massacre

In the wake of the atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut, it's difficult to think about much else just now. Actually, I did consider writing about something else - anything else! - but the more I thought about doing that, the more I was compelled to write something about this. Not that I have anything very original to say, but I have spent some hours reading what the pundits - the people who can lay claim to a national audience, even an international audience - have had to say.

David Frum, of the Daily Beast, in a Friday Tweet, dripping with angry satire, that has caused some controversy: "Shooting at CT elementary school. Obviously, we need to lower the age limit for concealed carry so toddlers can defend themselves."

That's not so off the wall as it might seem at first read. Similar notions have been put forward, and with deadly seriousness.

Consider the statement by Larry Pratt, Executive Director of Gun Owners of America: "Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to ensure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones."

And the statement by one Louie Gohmert, a Republican Congressman from Texas. He is reported in the New York Times to have said that the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, who is believed to have died trying to subdue shooter Adam Lanza, would have fared better if she had been armed. "I wish to God [the principal] had had an M-4 in her office, locked up, so when she heard the gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn't have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands."

There is admittedly a kind of grim logic here; even if the notion of elementary schools - any schools - being routinely equipped with an arsenal of weapons to repel gun-weilding invaders boggles the mind.

 The statistics are just as mind-boggling. There are some 33,000 gun deaths in the USA each year; and some 12,000 of those are gun-related homicides. In 2009, there were an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the United States. Some 47% of Americans, in a 2011 Gallup poll, said they had at least one gun at home. As far back as 1993, Seanator Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that gun control in the USA was near pointless. A comprehensive ban on new sales of weapons would not diminish the existing supply. In a too-real sense, "a gun is forever".

Consider also a report in August of this year from Bloomberg News; "background checks for gun purchases spiked 41% in Colorado after 12 people were killed inside a Suburban Denver movie theater, according to state data."

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

President Obama said that "We have been through this too many times", and that the nation has to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies of this kind.

But what kind of action is possible, and will any action have a significant impact on the situation? Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has promised to table legislation on the first day of the new Congress. A report in the Globe And Mail said the legislation would prohibit the sale of most semi-automatic rifles that enable users to rapidly fire multiple rounds of ammunition. (Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer, was armed with, among other firearms, a .223 Bushmaster rifle, a rapid-fire civilian version of a military weapon.) Senator Feinstein added, though, that her bill would exempt more than 900 types of weapons - did you even know there were more than 900 types of guns out there? -  and would not apply retroactively; meaning that present owners of assault weapons could keep their guns.

And one can just imagine the retail bonanza for gun dealers if this bill is tabled, and even moreso if the legislation looks like being passed, as people line up at stores and gun shows to stock up on available weaponry.

So what could be the outcome, if Feinstein's legislation actually made it into the lawbooks? Not very much would change, I don't think. Try and wrap your mind around those 300 million-plus non-military weapons that already exist in private hands in the United States. And the millions more that might well be sold in the months of debate on any federal bill to limit future sales.

An effective gun-control regimen in the United States? Sadly, tragically, that boat may already have sailed - and may now be far out of sight of land.

Will there even be a serious debate at the federal or various state levels about gun control? I am very much in sympathy with the words of Charles M. Blow, penned two days ago in the New York Times: "A tragedy of silence is killing us....I only hope that in coming days we flesh out what "meaningful action"  [President Obama's term] means in policy terms. If not now, when? After the next shooting?"

It should happen.

But I will believe it only when I see it, and read about it.

For a Canadian take on the situation, go to:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/12/16/f-rfa-macdonald-guns.html

The piece is titled:  Death and delusion in a nation of assault rifles, and it is by veteran CBC News Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

This weekend’s guest: Sharon A. Crawford

Our guest this weekend is Sharon A. Crawford, a Crime Writers of Canada member, who is also Writer in Residence for the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto branch and runs the East End Writers’ Group. Her debut mystery short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point was published by Blue Denim Press, October 2012. She is currently working on a prequel novel to four linked short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point. Thanks for joining us, Sharon!

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What’s in a Name?


We authors sometimes face crises in choosing character names and titles for our short stories and novels. Sure, some of my characters in my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point went through a few first-name changes, but it wasn’t a big deal. Story titles seemed to arrive out of the blue and fit. The book’s title Beyond the Tripping Point “arrived” with some brainstorming and it worked – my publisher loved it. My big name crisis was my actual name.

What the heck was I going to write under?

It seems I’ve been having a writer identity crisis for years. For my newspaper and magazine non-fiction articles I’ve always used “Sharon Crawford.” No problem there. But do you know how many “Sharon Crawfords” exist who are writers? Just check out the name per se, on Amazon. I did and until I lassoed my book to my “correct” name, this Sharon Crawford was just one of too many.

For previous fiction published, my name has been all over the identity map. For some short stories I was “S.A. Langevin” (my maiden name) and others, “Sharon Langevin Crawford.” I also co-authored a novella and my co-author and I combined our last names (in my case the “Langevin” one). I won’t even mention the horrible concoction we came up with but will just say if you co-author a book, use both your author names as two names.

The editor at my publishing company and I had a long phone discussion about my name. At first I wanted to honour the name I was born with and also include the name I use as a journalist, plus avoid the “Sharon Crawford” stew. That meant the “Sharon Langevin Crawford” one. He would have nothing to do with it and presented a good case for Sharon A. Crawford. I had to brand myself, he said and adding the “A.” gave my name more class. Think James A. Michener as opposed to just “James Michener,” he reasoned. After much to-ing and fro-ing on the subject I agreed with him. Sharon A. Crawford it was and is – for two reasons.

One of those other Sharon Crawfords is also an editor and author but her published books are about computers. I have occasionally received email from people wanting help with Windows. Me? You don’t want me messing around with your computer.

The other reason is my second name is “Anne” and even Canada Revenue Agency has me down as “Sharon A. Crawford.” So Sharon A. Crawford it is. I’m legit.

Check out my blog about Beyond the Tripping Point and the craft of fiction writing www.sharonacrawfordauthor.com

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Visit Sharon at www.samcraw.com, her blog at www.sharonacrawfordauthor.com, or her Facebook page www.facebook.com/pages/Sharon-A-Crawford/412730865439394.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Writing Is War


There is cause for great rejoicing in Type M. Our own Donis Casey will be rejoining the group in February. We're thrilled. Here's why:

Donis Casey is the author of six Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, Crying Blood, and the recently released The Wrong Hill to Die On (Nov. 2012).  Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award and has been a finalist for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. Readers can enjoy the first chapter of each book on her web site at www.doniscasey.com.

Here's Donis:



When I put pen to paper, I want to see in a new way. Not think. Thinking is a trap. I want to get off my well-beaten neural pathways and tread the previously unexplored wilds of the brain, places where no one has been before.

When the work of a great writer, or any great artist, moves me, my first reaction is to be so consumed with jealousy that I want to eat my own liver. How did she do that? I must know. I’d like to say that I then go about scientifically deconstructing her technique, but I am not so disciplined or organized. Besides, I don’t want to “figure it out”. I want to absorb it. I want to incorporate that genius into my very cells. I read the work over and over again. I read it aloud and silently. I have been known to type out the sections that particularly impress me. I’ll reproduce it word for word at first, then I’ll mess with the passage. Change this word to that, rearrange sentences, change outcomes and actions, switch characters. I learn something. I don’t know how, but I do, because afterwards, my own writing is still nothing like the great author’s, but it is changed for the better.

I don’t know why I write. I have an author friend who says that if she didn’t write, she would explode. Not me, baby. Most of the time, I don’t enjoy it. Writing is hard work, and I am basically a lazy person. I love to sleep, to eat a nice meal, read a good book. I adore the craic, as my Irish ancestors said – good company, good conversation. I like to walk in the park on a nice day and listen to the birdies. As far as writing, I have to force myself to sit down and get to it. I do enjoy the end product. I don’t like writing, I like having written. (At one time I thought I made up that sentiment myself, but I have since discovered that Dorothy Parker beat me to it.)

When I am going through the process, wrenching words out of myself before they are ready to be born just so I can meet a deadline; when I am filling out the dreaded “author questionnaire” for the publisher; when I am spending hours of my precious life promoting, trying to convince groups and libraries and bookstores and blogs that it would be worth their while to host me (and feeling quite disgruntled when they don’t already know what a genius I am); when I’m spending money on travel and conferences which I have no idea are giving me any sort of return, I often think of a quote from the movie Victor/Victoria: “I am unhappy in the extreme and I don’t have to be.” And the more I try to please people – critics, my editor, my audience – the unhappier I become.

So why do it?

Not for the money, that’s for sure, though I wish could make a lot of it off my creative efforts, and I do enjoy what little monetary reward I get. Not long ago, I was at dinner with a couple of A-list authors whose names you would certainly recognize, listening them complain that their advances had been cut to around twenty thousand dollars per book. I nearly swallowed my tongue. If I ever made 20K off a book I’d be ecstatic. (Don’t get me wrong, the Mesdames A-List both are worth every cent they get and more. However, I secretly believe that I am too.)

Do I do it out of sheer ego? Apparently not. I like the accolades, when I can get them. I love it when someone praises my writing. My books have been honored with some nice awards. No Edgars, Pens, Pulitzers, or Bookers, though, which is what I really want. I wouldn’t sneeze at a Nobel, either.

I have a website and a blog, which I keep up begrudgingly. I don’t tweet yet. I should, I suppose, but the idea makes me want to jump off a bridge. I hate wasting time in front of the computer. It’s not that I can’t keep up with technology. I’m perfectly capable of doing anything that any person of reasonable intelligence can do.

In fact, I know what what needs to be done. I just don’t want to do it. Everything but the act of writing itself sucks my soul, and even the writing can be painful in a way that’s hard to describe. Writing is war.

And yet...

Why do some young men love war?

I love it when I’m called to glory. To be lifted out of yourself, to be totally alive in the moment, to suddenly be without ego and in the grip of something unexplainable to anyone who has not experienced it. It is then that creation becomes a transcendent experience. It doesn't happen to me often, but it does happen. And in those moments, there is nothing on earth I’d rather do.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Behind book promotion

Aline’s post yesterday brought my mind around to something I’ve been wanting to mention for a long time and never seem to remember in time for my weekly posting. (Perhaps I should keep notes!)

There is a real reality that publishers face and that all writers should face: with promotional dollars always being in limited supply, the money is going to be plopped down on the books the publishers know (to the best of their ability) will sell well. There is simply no other way promotion makes sense.

Let’s say a publisher decides to be really altruistic and put an equal amount of money down for every one of their books during a particular season. Unless they happen to have the next Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, the average publisher is going to go out of business in fairly short order. To remain viable, they have to plunk down their dollars on the known winners in order to squeeze out the maximum sales and keep their bottom lines in the black. With this model in place, they will tell you (assuming they’re forthcoming) that this is the only way they can afford to carry the works of mid-list authors.

I had this said to me in one situation, and I know others to whom it was also said. It does make it a bit hard to swallow, but looked at objectively from the boss’ office, wouldn’t you do the same thing if it were your decision to make? I know I would.

As for all the multiple formats, current creative marketing thinking in the publishing world is that (as Charlotte correctly points out in her comment to Aline’s post) each version of a book sells to a different market. You also have to know that a casebound book and a trade paperback have only the difference of wrapper between them; the guts are the identical. Mass market paperbacks require different formatting, and electronic versions, too, are different. The wildcard that has arisen in the past few years is that now print-on-demand capabilities means that books can be cranked out economically in smaller amounts, so publishers are less likely to be caught with warehouses full of a version that didn’t really sell. Also with templates, software and a good design team, books can be typeset quickly and easily into all these different formats, a major expense in years past.

But the basis of Aline’s post still remains: how can publishers promote books effectively given the constant lack of funds for this purpose? Here we get into voodoo marketing. I work a lot (as far as graphic design goes) in the magazine circulation end of things. These marketers have to be smart. They do constant studies in how effectively their marketing dollars are being spent. Guess what a successful direct mail marketing campaign response rate is? Two per cent (0.02) return. You read that correctly. If only 2 in 200 recipients of their marketing effort respond, they’re high-fiving each other in the circulation office. Even after many years in the biz, that still boogles my mind.

I suspect that book promotion dollars go out with a similar rate of return. The thing the book publishing industry doesn’t do is to build in some sort of tracking mechanism to find out which marketing approaches provide the most sales return per dollar spent. I believe this is a critical failure in their marketing.

And that is something I’ll never understand, and provides the ultimate reason book marketing is so fraught with danger: they don’t really know what works and why. It may be that it’s impossible to know, but until they effectively track their sales efforts the way the magazine industry does constantly, book marketing will remain hit or miss.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Marketing

You've written your book. You've sent it out there, your agents has told you it's wonderful, darling, and the 'but' that usually comes a few minutes later hasn't appeared.  The editor she sends it to loves it and pitches it so successfully to the editorial meeting that they agree to buy it. You're ecstatic and invite everyone round for champagne when it's published.

So far, its success has depended on the quality of your writing. Now, as your little, helpless creation huddles in the cold winds of the literary world, its survival is in the hands of the department known as marketing.

If you're JK Rowling, the allocated budget means that marketing can go to town.  If you're not – well, not so much.

Despite authors' dark suspicions, marketing staff do really want to sell books. Most times, it's like the Israelites in Egypt – they're being forced to make bricks without straw.

The market out there is tougher than ever now, when bookshops give books prominence in their displays on the basis of what the publisher is prepared to pay rather than the bookseller's belief in a good book. (And whatever anyone says about Amazon, at least it's a level playing-field.) So there are very few low-budget ways to promote the mid-list author's book.

I think this is what lies behind the proliferation of editions and the the confusion about when they should be released. It used to be perfectly straight-forward: a hardback came out and then a paperback a few months later. Then between them came the trade paperback – the mid-price edition. The slightly-larger mass-market paperback appeared, and if the book was still selling another paperback in the old size was brought out possibly even a year later. Now, of course, the e-book is on the scene too.

It must make it so much more complicated to work out how to get the most out of sales. By and large, it's with the paperback that most of the sales will come. So should that come out at the same time as the hardback – which will get the reviews – if the hardback sales are mainly to libraries? Indeed, should there be a hardback at all, or should the book go straight to mass-market paperback? And should the e-book be held back to sell the other, more expensive editions, risking the fury of Kindle owners who don't want to get it later than everyone else?

It can't be easy for them. But I wonder sometimes, with all the expense of the designing and setting of different editions, if anyone has worked out if these elaborate ways of trying to get an extra bite at the cherry really do sell more books?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Guest Blogger Ann Cleeves


 I'm delighted to welcome Anne Cleeves to Type M as our guest this weekend. She is a best-selling author with not one but two TV series running in Britain, including my own addiction Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn who is co-incidentally one of my favourite actresses. She has won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger – the Crime Writers Association Gold dagger for crime fiction – as well as many other awards and her books have been translated into twenty languages.

I first visited Shetland more than thirty years ago. I'd dropped out of university and in the random way that these things happen I was offered a job as assistant cook in the Bird Observatory in Fair Isle. The warden must have been desperate, because I couldn't cook and I knew nothing about birds, but I spent a fantastic season on the island and went back the following year.

That began an affection for the islands that continues to this day. In 2006 my first Shetland novel, RAVEN BLACK, was published as a result of a visit north in the middle of winter. Shetland is a very long way north – 13 hours on the ferry from Aberdeen –  and the long dark nights seemed ready-made as a backdrop to a crime story. I launched RAVEN BLACK  in the library in Lerwick, Shetland's main town, and I was back there just a few weeks ago for a preview screening of the BBC TV adaptation of RED BONES, my third Shetland book. This was a much grander affair than my modest book launch. The head of BBC Scotland drama was there and the script executive from ITV studios, the production company that made the show. Steven Robertson, the actor who plays Sandy Wilson, my hero's side-kick, is a Shetlander and he'd come home to take part too.

It was a nerve-wracking experience. The drama's series title is SHETLAND and much of it was filmed on the islands. The preview was shown on a big screen in the fabulous new arts centre Mareel. Many of the people in the audience had helped the production by allowing their homes to be used as locations, or providing technical support, or recreating the famous fire festival, Up Helly Aa, which forms the climax of the two-part drama. What would they make of this outsider's perspective of their home?

The response was interesting. The show had previously been screened to an audience of BAFTA members in Glasgow. They'd reacted immediately and positively to the landscape and to a portrayal of a community very different from those usually seen in television drama. But the Shetlanders were wary. These images were their homes, after all. After the first film the questions were about authenticity – the accents and the places. Then the viewers asked for a broadcast date (January in the UK) and to know if there would be a series (looking positive but depending on the ratings). Then at the end of the session a man in the front row, his accent so broad that I could barely understand him, demanded: 'Now will you tell us who killed those two folk?' The rest of the audience cheered in agreement and on the stage we had a collective sense of relief. The story had hooked them. We told them they'd have to wait for episode two...

I'll be back in Shetland at the end of January to launch the new Shetland Book DEAD WATER. It's the first of a new quartet and looks at the islands' role in providing energy. Shetland has a North Sea terminal for oil and gas and is a potential provider of wind and tidal power. It was fun to research and to write but I'll be nervous all over again as I wait for the islanders' response to the novel.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Let's Hear It for Laziness

The topic of discipline often comes up here in one form or another. I wish I could claim to have discipline. I have none. I do generally write every day, but that's because my day job requires me to communicate with students and colleagues and to write about my research. There are days when I do nothing at all in the way of mystery writing. Sometimes even weeks go by.

And even when I plan to work, I am sometimes immobile during the time I have set aside. Yesterday morning for example, I had planned to get up and get some work done on the new book. Character bios, perhaps, or work some more on the outline. Useful effort toward getting to the stage of putting words on paper. Yesterday morning, instead of rising and going briskly to my computer, I got up, turned off the alarm and got back into bed. The room was chilly, my bed was cozy, and I was still groggy from having been up late the night before doing research for an academic project. So -- instead of getting up and using the time I had set aside for mystery writing -- I got back in bed, reached for the remote and discovered Turner Classic Movies was broadcasting Barbara Stanwyck in that wonderful pre-Hollywood Production Code movie, Baby Face. I had seen the movie several times before, but I watched again. And wasted the two hours I had planned to use to work on my new mystery.

As Barbara was vamping her way to the top, I was admiring her fashion sense and found myself considering the role of "material culture" --e.g.,  furs and jewels -- in the film. I mentally outlined a chapter that I could submit with my non-fiction book proposal about clothes and crime. Nothing to do with the mystery novel I had planned to work on. But proof of the usefulness of sloth.

Laziness also worked well for me last weekend. On Saturday, my computer was idling on the desk while I sat curled up in an armchair watching HGTV. I happened to surf by as one of the renovators-to-the-rescue was viewing the basement that the husband had been trying to get around to finishing for some time. As I was listening with no particular interest to the discussion about the clutter in the basement, I had a revelation about one of the characters in my new book. Nothing to do with the man on the show or his lair, other than the fact that I suddenly realized my character -- the victim in my new book -- liked to play games and collected them. That concept of playing games is turning out to be central to the plot.

Laziness also works when you get other people to help you do your work. This evening, book outline in hand I met a friend for dinner. This friend is my go-to person for plot testing. She can read my outline and spot the holes in my plot. She can tell me when she stops believing because it doesn't make sense.Tonight she did it as she was reading my outline and eating her salad. Not only found the weak motivation of a character but suggested how I could fix the problem of his relationship with the victim by introducing a third character. Odd thing was I had actually mentioned this character to her the first time we were discussing the new book and then I forgot him when I came up with a character that I thought was more interesting. But, as my friend pointed out, if I added that character I had discarded to the mix, the plot would right itself. The relationship between my victim and the other character would made sense. She talked. I nodded, thought aloud and made notes. And then I went home and revised my outline.

Lazy writer getting help from friend? Maybe. I could have struggled with my outline, gone back to the notes that I probably had somewhere on my computer about my first idea. But why put myself through that when I have a friend who I can ask to read my four and half page outline and who will remind me of what I have forgotten and point out what I don't see. And the good part is that this kind of laziness really isn't cheating because my friend captures my scattered thoughts from earlier conversations. Without her input, I would spend much more time making false starts. Not that I don't do that anyway. But the false starts have more to do with the writing itself than with the plot.

And what sometimes happens, as it did tonight, is that I outline and then find that an idea discussed with my friend can be made to work even better because something else about one of the character occurs to me.

So I speak in praise of occasionally lounging in bed or curling up in an armchair to watch television when you should be "working". And if you don't already have one, I recommend finding a trusted friend who you can meet for dinner and a session of plot therapy. I say three cheers for making maximum use of strategic laziness.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Real Fiction?

I had a conversation with a colleague this past week about the values of reading fiction, as opposed to reading non-fiction. My school is reassessing our curriculum as we assess student needs in the 21st Century, and my colleague was reacting to a New York Times in which the College Board (all hail) has decided that high school students aren't reading enough nonfiction, suggesting they read more--that upwards of 70% of a school's curriculum be nonfiction.

My dear friend, a brilliant Ph.D, said he has found that adults are more interested in non-fiction than teens, and that young people require the story to pull them along. Moreover, he said, "The language of [great] literature has everything [students] need."

I responded by neither agreeing or refuting his remarks but by offering a qualification: I said none of the essays I have published have been entirely true, and none of my novels have been entirely fictional. In fact, I've come to believe no fiction is entirely imaginative.

My elective class Writing Short Fiction began this week. I started with a tried and true homework assignment: Write a paragraph-length description of your first memory. Then fictionalize it by writing a brief scene based on the paragraph. Are these scenes fiction? Sure. Are they creative non-fiction? How can I deny that?

I think it comes down to what moves us to write. (First memories usually ooze with glorious drama.) We write about our obsessions, our preoccupations, our fears, or people we can't forget. In short, we write about our life experiences. Therefore, how can anything called "fiction" really be only that?     

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Inspector Green's Killer Latkes

There is a thin line between writers and food, even down on the meanest streets. Last Saturday I was at a mystery extravaganza hosted by Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto, possibly the last mystery bookstore left standing in all of Canada and a wonderful venue for those seeking out that elusive Canadian crime novel. Six authors featured our newest releases at the event; myself, Erika Chase, Joan Boswell, Vicki Delany, Melodie Campbell and fellow Type M-er Rick Blechta. For Melodie and me, it was the launch of our brand new Rapid Reads books, my Evil Behind that Door, and her The Goddaughter

 The party was called Merry Mystery, so nestled amidst the Christmas tree napkins, mince tarts and miniature Santas was my platter of Chanukah cookies and a small menorah. It got me thinking that every year, amid the ubiquitous glitz and shimmer of Christmas decorations and the absolutely fabulous shortbread and fruitcake, I deck my house out in silver and blue and bake traditional Chanukah treats. Some of them, that is. If nothing else, Chanukah cookies and latkes make an appearance.

I am quite a traditionalist when it comes to holiday food, perhaps because I am relying on my in-laws' recipes and they died well before my children could ever share their holiday traditions and cooking. My husband too is dead, so I feel as if I am my children's link to their past and to keeping their memory alive. Nonetheless, Jewish food from the 40s and 50s was essentially Eastern European peasant food, heavy on potatoes, chicken fat, onions and cheap meats cooked for a thousand years to make them edible. So I do venture out into more modern alternatives, adding zucchini and sweet potato to the latkes, adding whole grains, brown sugar and ground nuts to the cookies. Especially after eight days! Eight days makes an inventor out of the most traditional cook.

But to start off the holiday (which begins this weekend) and to grace the major family get-together, I always fry up a batch of my father-in-law's classic potato latkes. Nothing smells as divine or tastes as tender as a potato latke deep-fried to crisp, golden perfection. Mixed with just the right dash of pepper and onion, and topped with sour cream.

Some years ago Crime Writers of Canada published a collection of recipes submitted by members in a book entitled Dishes to Die For, Again (there was an original before my time). Each recipe was to be linked to our books and/or major character, perhaps a recipe our character ate frequently or cooked in the books. Our bios explained the connection. Those of you who know Inspector Green, know he doesn't cook, and indeed barely finds time to eat. The only foods mentioned in the books are Montreal smoked meat on rye, and cheese blintzes. Smoked meat is best left to the experts, and only the most intrepid cook would dare to try their hand at cheese blintzes either. I tried once. Enough said.

So I turned my thoughts to holiday fare, and decided Inspector Green might very well try to cook latkes, under the eagle eye of his wife and with the fire extinguisher close at hand. Green too is a traditionalist, and would have used the recipe brought over from Poland by his immigrant parents after the war. Undoubtedly it would have been very much like my father-in-law's.

This was the recipe I submitted to the cookbook, reborn under the name Inspector Green's Killer Latkes, because in the wrong hands they could very well burn the house down.

5-6 medium potatoes, coarsely grated by hand (although I cheat)
1 medium onion, grated
3 eggs
1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder (both the flour and powder would have been approximate)
1 tsp. salt or to taste
1/2 tsp. pepper or to taste

Strain grated potatoes to drain off excess water, mix with remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Heat about 1/2 in. vegetable or sunflower oil in a frying pan (cast iron works best) until a small drop of water spits. Drop potato mixture from a spoon and flatten slightly. Cook on both sides over medium heat until golden. Drain on paper towels, serve hot with sour cream. Or apple sauce if you must.

Enjoy. Happy Chanukah to all.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Writing is writing

I’ve been writing a fair bit lately and it’s been really lovely. (It also means that not much graphic design work is coming through the door, but that’s another story.) Lately, there have been a few good postings from my blogmates about the “art of writing” and I’d like to supply an interesting take on exactly what that means.

It brings to mind a conversation I had recently with another writer, who does mostly non-fiction, some copywriting, and occasionally, bits of poetry. It is his feeling that no matter what kind of writing one is doing (emails, letters, the next great novel, whatever), it is exercising the “writing muscle” in your brain. From my side, I was positing that day-to-day type writing isn’t exercising much of anything.

This prompted a long monologue from my worthy debating adversary, and he obviously had thought a lot on the topic. It really made me stop and think. Just what is “writing”?

The basic premise of his thesis was this: it depends on how you do it. More specifically, it depends on how much care/craft you bring to bear on it. With daily life going at the crazy speed it does these days – and increasing in speed every year, it seems – we often dash off emails and notes that are just incredibly poor examples of the craft of writing. With texting, nearly anything goes. Few seem to use caps anymore. There are all sorts of shortcut things (I’m talking emoticons and abbreviations like “LOL”) that really don’t express much of anything other than the fact that you’re not really bringing much care to expressing your thoughts. To my friend, they’re the equivalent of, “Your call is really important to use, please hold…”.

I think he has a very good point. In our rushed lives, we use lack of time as an excuse to not exercising our brains while in the act of communicating.

And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? What’s wrong with taking an extra bit of time to re-read what we’ve written, fix the errors, and improve the quality of the writing as well as clarifying your thoughts. It’s what we writers do all the time with our “work prose”, isn’t it? For me, that’s the really enjoyable part of sticking words together. I love to go through my sentences, grooming them, digging for better ways to clearly and distinctively share my thoughts, state my purpose. To be honest, that’s one of the joys I get from the three blogs in which I take part. Each requires a completely different style of writing.

So for the past half-hour, I have been working on my craft, because each time I put words to thoughts, I’m practising. If I’m paying real attention to the craft behind my words, then I’m improving as a writer, aren’t I?

Monday, December 03, 2012

Out On A Limb

In a manner of speaking.

The idea for today's post came from an article this past Saturday in the local Ottawa daily, the Ottawa Citizen. (In fact there is another "Ottawa daily", The Sun, but the less said about that the better. For non-Canadians, let me just say that if anyone at Fox News actually reads a Canadian newspaper, the choice would likely be one of the Sun progeny.)

The Citizen article reminded me that the last hanging in Canada took place fifty years ago. The city was Toronto, the date was December 11, 1962. The place of execution was the venerable (for want of a better adjective) Don Jail, on Gerrard Street East in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood. The jail - actually called the Toronto Jail - gets its nickname from the Don River which runs nearby. It's an old institution, first opened in 1858, when it looked something like this:

                     building
 
The two unfortunates that day fifty years ago were Ronald Turpin, who was convicted in the killing of a Toronto policeman John Nash; and Arthur Lucas, convicted in the killing of a criminal-turned-police-informant, Therland Crater. I won't speculate on the appropriateness of the death sentence for either man; except to say that Turpin killed the policeman in a shootout, and the evidence against Lucas (who was extradited from the United States to stand trial in Toronto) was said to be entirely circumstantial. Both men had led deadful lives. Lucas was said to have had an IQ of 63.

In the event, the execution fifty years ago was horribly botched for one of the two men. The hangman miscalculated either the weight or height of the man, and he dropped too far, and as a result he was almost decapitated. The prison chaplain, one Cyril Everitt, told his son after he arrived home that "There was blood everywhere." One can imagine that it was a gruesome scene. Indeed one can hardly imagine that any hanging could be anything other than gruesome, even with no miscalculation leading to decapitation.

One of the most memorable descriptions of a hanging that I have read was penned by George Orwell, based on his time as a policeman in Burma. You can read it here: http://www.george-orwell.org/A_Hanging/0.html

Happily - or not, depending on one's point of view - those were the last hangings, in fact the last executions, in Canada. Capital punishment was not, however, legally abolished in this country until July 14, 1976. The issue did not go away, though. On June 30, 1987, a bill to restore the death penalty was defeated by the House of Commons in Ottawa in a close 148-127 vote. The Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Minister of External Affairs (and former Prime Minister) Joe Clark, both opposed the bill. The Deputy Prime Minister of the day, along with a majority of Progressive Conservative Members of Parliament, supported the bill. And even now, poll results show that from one-half to two-thirds of Canadians would support the restoration of the death penalty in certain cases. One supposes that capital punishment - and hanging was the only form of capital punishment ever doled out in Canada for non-military crimes - might some day be considered again, although there has been no mention of that in recent years by any government, not even by the current right-wing Conservative regime which prides itsellf as being "tough on crime".

It is a fact, though, that for almost a decade after capital punishment was abolished in Canada, the Federal Government kept a hangman on the public payroll at a cost of $200 a month. The rationale was that hanging might come back at any time, and it only made sense to have a capable fellow available to do the deed.

And as an odd footnote to this whole business of a Canadian hangman, the series of literary awards given out each year by the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) are called the Arthur Ellis Awards. Arthur Ellis was - if you will forgive the pun - the "nom-de-noose" for the official Canadian hangman. The name, in fact, is the pseudonym of one Arthur B. English, a British man who became Canada's official hangman in 1913 upon the death of his predecessor, one John Radclive. Wikipedia notes that "Ellis" worked as a hangman in Canada until the botched execution of Thomasina Sarao in Montreal in 1935, in which she was decapitated. (What goes around comes around, obviously.) Ellis died in poverty in Montreal in July, 1938, and he lies buried in the city's Mount Royal Cemetery.

Given Ellis's unfortunate personal history, the horrors of capital punishment in general, and hanging in particular, it could be suggested that the CWC might want to reconsider the name of its literary awards. As currently constituted, the nomenclature of the Ellis Awards draws on a grim vein of humour that is really not very funny at all. I really think we can do better.

Capital punishment by whatever means appears to come and go in various countries around the world. The United States, of course, has a long and volatile history regarding capital punishment, by whatever means. Capital punishment was suspended in the U.S. from 1972 through 1976, primarily as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia. The death penalty was seen as "cruel and unusual punishment". It has since been re-established in some states but not in all, or even in most. Today, the United States is one of only four industrialized democracies that still practice capital punishment. As regards the others, Japan and Singapore have executed prisoners, like the United States, while South Korea currently has a moratorium in effect. In 2011, the USA was the only source of executions (43) in the G8 countries or Western Hemisphere. Maintaining capital punishment places the United States in some decidedly dodgy company: the list includes China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

For many, the issue turns on whether capital punishment is a deterrent to criminals. The evidence, as I have read it, suggests there is no real general deterrent effect; the one major exception being that a murderer, once executed, is permanently "deterred" from murdering again. A major argument against capital punishment, by hanging or whatever means, is that the taking of a human life is morally wrong under any circumstances. Obviously, there is a lively (no pun intended) debate on that subject. A second major argument is that mistakes happen; people are executed who are later found to have been innocent of the crime. A third argument takes note of the fact that the wealthy rarely face the death penalty, while the poor and the disadvantaged, unable to afford the services of competent legal professionals, are much more likely to be executed.