Tuesday, December 31, 2013

As 2013 draws to a close…

At this time of the year, far more people seem to be looking back rather than forward. Normally, I’m just the opposite. But this year, so much has happened that it’s sort of hard for me to let go.

On the personal side, and far overwhelming everything else, we welcomed our first grandchild into the world. Born November 18th, little Jackson Blechta has wormed his way into the heart of everyone who has met him. Yeah, yeah, I know. Your baby (in this case your son’s) is better looking and smarter than anyone else’s, but in this case, it really is true. He already has a lot of charm and fantastic temperament. I do look forward into watching him blossom as he travels the route set for him.

Artistically, I finished a novella and a novel and both will be out in the new year (April and November, respectively). That’s a terrific thing, for sure, but at this stage I’m always concerned about how good my writing will actually turn out to be. I always have doubts, regardless of what people tell me.

But I am also worried about my professional future.

As authors, our world continues to evolve quickly and often bewilderingly. We’re now solidly in the middle of the upheaval the recording industry has been undergoing for over fifteen years now. At the risk of beating a dead horse, our slice of the pie continues to shrink. In business, everyone’s bottom line should always be the focus of attention, from the top to the bottom. Of course those at the top have the most control, and in our brave new business world this generally means that those at the bottom take the brunt of cost-cutting and collapsing markets. But in the book world (as in music), authors are the people who are creating what is being sold. Without us, the whole circus would have to fold its tent and disappear into the night.

The problem is that authors are generally so desperate to be published (hence my joke from last Tuesday – and a bittersweet one it is), that we will take nearly anything in order to see our name on the cover of a book. I can’t help feeling that this willing acceptance of anything is hurting all of us. Were we to band together, to demand something fairer, publishers would be forced to acquiesce. It can’t happen, though. The only ray of sunshine is the blossoming of self-publishing. Perhaps it’s time for something along the lines of what the founders of United Artists envisioned when they formed their company. Is it fair for an author to get a $1000 advance against royalties in order to complete a book? If one were to scrimp, you might be able to survive for a month on this amount. Can you complete a 300-page novel in this time? Of course not, so advances have become simply a means to throw the poor author a bone, not a way to support oneself (and one’s family) while you actually create your work. If you wish to play the game, though, you have to put up with these paltry amounts. Perhaps, someday we can make this change. Please sign me up if you come up with a method to accomplish this!

Perhaps in 2014, it will happen. Regardless, I wish all you loyal readers (and posters) here at Type M the very best for the new year. If you’re looking to get your work published, I hope it happens. If you simply enjoy reading crime fiction, I hope you discover your favourite book of all times. For your loyalty in visiting our blog, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

May you live long and prosper!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Shelfies

The antics of the respective leaders of Denmark, the United States and Britain in taking a 'selfie' at Nelson Mandela's memorial service provoked an avalanche of disapproval from all round the world, but it has also prompted a new vogue – the 'shelfie'. Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, led the way on Twitter and it's caught on, with The Guardian, a leading British broadsheet, asking its readers to send in pictures of their own bookcases.

They always say the contents of your bookcase say a lot about you, so with some trepidation, here is mine.

You will see that it goes back a long way, with the old Penguins right across the top, relics of my student days. The green ones even belonged to my father, their titles all from the Golden Age of crime writing. I read my way from one end to the other as a teenager and I blame this for my addiction to writing crime.

Then there are the precious books I have been given or have saved up to get – one or two treasured first editions, pretty bindings, special printings... Some are reminders of university study, others collections I like to browse. There are the books I couldn't bear to be without, even though I'm unlikely to read them again. On the right hand side there are shelves of books by people I know and yes, I have to confess, the different editions of my own books.

Just looking at the shelves gives me a comfortable feeling, I'm surrounded by the books I treasure. They're a statement of my reading history.

But it's not the only bookcase in the house. There's the one in my study, crammed with reference books – and a couple of shelves too of books for my grandchildren, some of my childhood reading and some of my own children's favourites, left at home.

My husband's passion for political biography is taking over his study completely and of course books surreptitiously colonise any shelf that isn't already full with them. If it wasn't for a couple of charity book sales, one in May and one at Christmas, we would have books the way other people have mice.

The bookcase in the sitting-room is the 'posh' bookcase – he one where the books really do, as they say, furnish the room. So I thought I would leave you with the picture of the working bookcase - the one in our bedroom.

It's not posh. There' the TBR pile, and some are library books, some the easy reading we do last thing at night, assessing whether a book just goes to the next sale or whether – rare honour! – it is promoted to the sitting-room.

And as well as those, there are the most important books of all - the books you reach for when its the middle of the night and you can't sleep and are too tired to struggle with anything new – the beloved comfort books that are chicken soup for the soul. I don't think I could go to sleep if i didn't know they were there, waiting on the untidy shelf.
 

Friday, December 27, 2013

The grit has always been there

Like many mystery writers, movies of the thirties have influenced how I perceive noir. The interplay of gray, the shadows, and harsh glare are great visual metaphors for ambiguous moral drama and the compromises that the characters make. On the other hand, movies produced during the heyday of the black&white period were under the scrutiny of the Hays Code and other censorship authorities (such as the Catholic League of Decency) and so presented a sanitized view of the world. The new rules mandated that the good guys always win and that asocial behavior must be punished. Prior to the Hays Code, Hollywood delved into the grittier aspects of American life with depictions of violence, drug use, prostitution, and promiscuity.

Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is an amazing film treasure that shows a side of society swept under the carpet for much too long. Even though I had read that Baby Face was one of the last pre-Code movies Hollywood made, I expected a silly, comedic farce. Thankfully, I was wrong. The story begins in a grimy, nameless factory town. Rough, blue-collar types pile into a dumpy speakeasy, run by the father of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck). The two don't get along and we learn he's been pimping her since she was fourteen! Later he's burned to death when his still explodes and Lily responds to his demise with a tight grin. A Nietzsche-quoting cobbler advises that she leave for the big city and exploit men with her womanly charms. While we never see any nudity or sex, the movie uses clever camera work to show her numerous trysts--as a stowaway with a railroad guard, with one boss in a women's restroom, and then with the bank president in her swanky NY apartment. Lily climbs over men like they were rungs on a stepladder. After she's caught in a scandal (one that she instigated) and threatened with termination, she coyly allows that a newspaper is interested in her story and so bargains for a cushy assignment. But she's more than a floozie, in fact she's an exceptionally competent worker. When she's exiled to the bank's office in France, we briefly see an exchange in French between her and a co-worker. Unlike Hays Code movies where the characters (especially women) were
punished for amoral behavior, Lily never is. In the end, she chooses love over money, but her man happens to be the top dog.

The acting in the movie isn't great. A lot of the characters give set-piece rants while the other actors pause and listen. The men give in to lingering, lecherous stares. But a choice detail is that Lily's best friend and sidekick is an African-American woman, a rarity to be shown in those days. Plus, a young John Wayne plays one of Lily's many suitors. We are treated to wonderful shots of office work with vintage typewriters, candlestick and handset telephones, and switchboard operators. And the costumes are marvelous Gatsby-era clothing. I like to think that if the Hays Code and other censorship hadn't been mandated, movies like Pulp Fiction would've been made fifty years earlier.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Holiday Season & Methodology

John here.

Presents have been opened, the meal eaten, a month’s worth of anticipation gone in a two-hour whirlwind of wrapping paper. And I’m heading to my second chiropractor visit in 48 hours. It must be the holiday season.
Keeley, 5, with her new bike.

My stand-alone “This One Day” (by K.A. Delaney, Five Star Publishing) hits stands Jan. 6. The book was bought 18 months ago. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to promote it, but I’m still confused by the release date, trying to figure out the rationale behind it. Not Nov. 6. Not Dec. 6. It’s certainly not a holiday book, but wouldn’t it be better to have it on store shelves for holiday browsers before Christmas?

I guess it’s neither here nor there. My focus of late has been on the Peyton Cote series. “Bitter Crossing” (by D.A. Keeley, Midnight Ink) comes out in August, and I’m pushing hard to meet my May 1 deadline for the sequel. I’ve got a bunch of things on my plate right now, including overseeing an English department and resuscitating a hockey program, so I’m looking for ways to make sure I don’t miss my deadline.

Two years ago, at Sleuthfest, I found Jeffery Deaver’s keynote address fascinating. He said he outlines for eight months and writes the ensuing novel in three. Sounds efficient. I’ve never outlined before. I’ve always described my composition method as something akin to entering a forest at midnight, and walking into branches until I see daylight. I’m a tinkerer by nature, and I can’t argue with Deaver’s record, so I’m trying my own version of his procedure: I spent a couple weeks turning a concept into a 3,200-word document that is part plot overview with part detailed character sketches that offer me a psychological profile of each major player. So far, so good. But it’s not the air-tight, fool-proof roadmap Deaver describes.

At the end of the day, though, I’m just thankful to not be writing on spec. It took seven years for Peyton Cote to find a home for three books (with an option for a fourth). The people at Mindnight Ink are terrific, and the RWSG agency has asked to shop TV rights.

Enjoy the holidays, and happy New Year!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A little writerly humour for the holidays

I’m out of town for a holiday break with our family. I know I’ll be overwhelmed with things to do, and I’m also playing with my brother’s band, so a posting on Type M might well go by the boards — much as I love you all.

So, trying to be as organized as possible, I’m writing this post days early, probably a first for me.

I have a small gift offering: one, my favourite writer joke. Anyone will get it, but if you’re an ink-stained wretch like me, you will really get it.

____________________________

A writer dies and goes to heaven. At the Pearly Gates, there’s a huge line-up. After waiting for some time, St. Peter comes up to the man, telling him that there’s such a backlog, he’s going to let the man look at both Heaven and Hell for Writers, and just allow him to make up his own mind where he’d like to spend eternity.

The writer asks how to get to Hell for Writers and is directed to a bank of elevators.

The trip down is a long one and when the doors open at the bottom, the writer’s greeted by a huge demon. “I know why you’re here. Follow me.”

They go down a long hallway and the demon throws open the last door on the left. “This is it.”

The writer looks into an endless room filled with long benches. People are seated at the benches, typing furiously as the heat of a thousand suns burns down on them and laughing demons whip them mercilessly.

Oh, I don’t think I’d like to spend eternity here, he says to himself. “I think I’ll go back upstairs now,” he tells the demon accompanying him

Once up there, he asks where Heaven for Writers is to be found. He’s directed down a long corridor where an angel opens the last door on the left and stands aside.

Inside, the endless room is filled with long benches People are seated at the benches, typing furiously as the heat of a thousand suns burns down on them and laughing demons whip them mercilessly.

The writer turns to the angel. “I don’t understand. I saw exactly the same thing down in Hell for Writers. There was absolutely no difference!”

The angel smiles beatifically. “Ah, but there is. Up here you get published.”

____________________________

To everyone out there, may you enjoy the best of holiday seasons and the most fortuitous of luck in the coming new year!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas, etc.

We are two days away from the actual day - that's December 25, for anyone who hasn't been paying attention, or who has been in a coma, or in hiding - so I am at even more of a loss about what to write than usual. Christmas has a way of doing that to one.

I will begin by saying that I am really pleased not to be living in Toronto just now (where I did live from 1961 to 1966), what with the weather-related disaster that has struck the city over the weekend. As though having the buffoonish, crack-smoking Rob Ford for Mayor of the city wasn't bad enough. Trees down, power outages, and manifold injuries to citizens. Can nuclear annihilation be far behind?


                    A police officer cordons off downed power line and tree branches in the Leaside area as freezing rain has left many parts of Toronto without power.

I am counting my blessings, which are many.

Starting with a good bottle of New Zealand Chardonnay one evening last week, when I watched my favourite Christmas movie, from 1951: A Christmas Carol - originally titled simply Scrooge - and starring the inimitable Alastair Sim as the miserly and miserable old skinflint in Victorian England.


  Scrooge – 1951 UK film poster.jpg

Some decades ago, I made an attempt to watch the George C. Scott version, but gave up halfway through. I was a big fan of Scott's acting talent, notably in his earlier films, but Scrooge he was not, and never - IMHO - could be.

Did any other author invent so many brilliant names to match his characters, I wonder? "Ebenezer Scrooge", "Bob Cratchit", and "Old Fezziwig", from a Christmas Carol, and a host of others.

Wikipedia devotes an entire website to Dickens's character names:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Dickensian_characters

Just a few examples to show how creative the man was:

The Barnacle Family, in Little Dorrit, who control the "Circumlocution Office", where everything goes round in circles, and nothing ever gets done.

Cornelia Blimber, a prim school-matron in Dombey & Son.

Sampson Brass, from The Old Curiosity Shop, "an attorney of no good repute" and "one of the greatest scoundrels unhung".

Mr. Bumble, the hopelessly nasty and idiotic Beadle from Oliver Twist.

Uriah Heep, the hypocritical clerk from David Copperfield, who is continually citing his humbleness.

Mr. Murdstone, the unpleasant husband of David Copperfield's mother, Clara.

Mr. M'Choakumchild, the grinding schoolteacher in Hard Times.

Seth Pecksniff, from Martin Chuzzlewit, the sanctimonious surveyor and architect "who has never designed or built anything", and "one of the biggest hypocrites in fiction".

And so it goes.

Thinking about the wonderful names that Dickens created, started me thinking about great lines and bits of dialogue from novels.

There's some great dialogue near the start of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is finishing his evening meal at a tavern, just prior to his fateful encounter with his late partner, Jacob Marley, and it neatly defines his character:

"More bread," Scrooge says to the waiter.
"Ha'penny extra, sir," the waiter replies.
"No more bread," says Scrooge, scowling.

From Sherlock Holmes, via Arthur Conan Doyle, in Silver Blaze:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," Holmes replies.
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.  

And from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”  

And again, from ACD:

“As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”  

From Eoin Colfer, in Half-Moon Investigations:

"In my experience, boys are predictable. As soon as they think of something, they do it. Girls are smarter—they plan ahead. They think about not getting caught.”  

From G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown:

“The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.”  

From John. D. MacDonald, creator of Travis McGee, in Darker Than Amber:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”

From James Crumley, in The Last Good Kiss:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”  

From P.D. James, in Original Sin:

“Daniel supposed he had a secret life. Most people did; it was hardly possible to live without one.”  

From Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

“She was dull, unattractive, couldn't tell the time, count money, or tie her own shoe laces... But I loved her.”  

From Robertson Davies, author of The Deptford Trilogy:

“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.”  

Which seems to me a good quote with which to conclude this - mostly derivative - post.

To all, from snowy Ottawa, a very Merry Christmas.

And Happy Writing, and Reading.



Saturday, December 21, 2013

What I'm Not Reading Now


Type M is delighted to welcome award-winning mystery writer, Donna Andrews, as our weekend guest. Donna lives and works in Reston, Virginia. Duck the Halls (Minotaur, 2013) is her twentieth published mystery novel.

Donna tells us about her reading habits.




What I’m not reading now 

I had two books out this year—The Hen of the Baskervilles in July, and Duck the Halls at the end of October. I’m scheduled to have two out next year—The Good, the Bad, and the Emus in July, and The Nightingale Before Christmas in October.

That’s the good news for readers, at least the ones who like my books. The bad news is that by this time next year, I’ll be even farther behind on reading all those wonderful books my fellow mystery writers are writing so diligently. Because I have a hard time reading when I’m writing, and lately, with two books out a year, I’ve been spending twice as much time writing.

When I tell people I have a hard time reading while I’m writing, they usually nod sagely and say that they understand—of course I am afraid of being influenced.

Well, actually no. If I were that easy to influence, the minute I started a new book I’d put myself on a steady diet of the best mystery and humor writers I could think of and let the influencing go wild.

The real reason is that for me, reading fiction can be an immersive experience. If I’m reading a book that I really enjoy, for the duration of that book I’m walking around in the author’s world, getting to know her characters, thrilling to the unfolding of her plot. And a lot of the time, I need to be walking around in my own fictional word, getting to know my own characters and figuring out the twists and turns of my own plot.

So if I try to read something while I’m writing, either I can’t really lose myself in it and don’t enjoy it as much as I should—or, worse, I do lose myself, and it distracts me from meeting my daily writing goals.

And yet, the urge to read it strong. I have a hard time getting through the day without running my eyes over at least a few pages of words. What’s a busy writer to do?

Nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction.  Right now, I’m in the middle of Anne Patchett’s essay collection, This is the Story of A Happy Marriage.  I particularly recommend the essay “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” to anyone who is or aspires to be a writer.  And for that matter, her memoir, Truth & Beauty, which I read during a previous writing stint. Sometimes I read books about writing craft—but not too many, or I start getting self-conscious about the work itself.  Mostly I read narrative nonfiction. I get excited if I find out that Malcolm Gladwell or Oliver Sachs has a new book coming out while I’m in writing mode. I study my library’s new nonfiction ebook acquisitions. History. Biography. Memoirs. Books about science for the lay reader. 

I do manage to squeeze in a little bit of fiction. I figured since Sujata Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary wasn’t mystery fiction it would be a safe read, and I’m enjoying it very much—although I’ve had to ration it. It’s immersive. I plan to gulp the rest now that I’ve turned in my revisions.

It’s also safe to read fiction when I’m in a situation where I know for some good reason I won’t be able to get any writing work done. I had a couple of days like that lately, and devoured Ellen Crosby’s Multiple Exposures, the first book in her new series about a photojournalist. John Gilstrap’s Damage Control got me through this spring’s root canal so well that as soon as I found out I needed a second root canal this fall, I saved High Treason to get me through it. You need something pretty immersive to distract you from dental adventures, although I’m hoping to find some other excuse to read John’s next book. And since I’m in a writing group with John and Ellen, I’m working on keeping up with them.

It’s always my plan, once I turn in a book, to pig out on stacks of the books I haven’t been able to read during the final push. And all too often, when I finally turn the book in, I realize how many other things have also been put on the back burner. And knowing I won’t be able to squeeze in as many books as I’d like, I find myself, instead of reading, dithering over my to-be-read pile.

I could read Laura Lippman’s latest. Charlaine Harris’s latest. Toni Kelner’s first book writing as Leigh Perry.  Dana Cameron’s first Fangborn book. I could, of course, read each and every book in the pile. Although actually, it’s more than a pile. It’s a seriously large chunk of the contents of the bedroom I’ve repurposed into my main library. I could read any of them. But not, all of them. Not before I need to start my own next book. Sigh.

And now you know why I’m always so conspicuously silent when folks in the mystery community start posting their best reads of the year. If I made such a list, half the books on it wouldn’t even be mysteries, and since I’m also one of those readers who really like to do a series in order, the other half would be my friends’ books from several years ago. 

And why sometimes I’m a little envious of people who seem to find so much more time to read than I can.

Donna can be found at:
http://donnaandrews.com
http://femmesfatales.typepad.com

Friday, December 20, 2013

Gratitude and a Game Plan

In her post this week, Donis wrote about counting blessings. This struck a chord with me because I was thinking about my post for today. My post is a two-parter (to be continued on my next Friday).

At the end of the year -- in between feeling the joy of the season and depression when the cold weather I usually enjoy turns downright frigid and nasty -- I take time to look back. Then I make those New Year's resolutions -- you know, the list -- written or mental -- the things we are going to do or do better. This year, I'm trying a new approach. I'm trying first sending out my thanks to the universe for the things for which I'm grateful. That should help me to view my life with more clarity and formulate a plan for the new year. As I discovered yesterday when I started the day late, without a to-do list, and ended the day feeling I had accomplished almost nothing, I do better with a plan. But I'll talk about that next time.

This week, I'm sending my "thank you" to the universe. As a writer, I am grateful:

1. That I can carry out the physical task of writing. Although I get stiff when I sit too long without moving, I can sit in a chair, in front of my computer, and type. My brain provides me with words and thoughts.

2. My laptop has not given up the ghost, and I have not been forced to shop for a new one. I have the familiarity of a keyboard that I have come to know.

3. I have several places that I can work -- a dining room table, a chair in my living room, a home office. I also can get up and go into my office at school. Or to a bookstore or library or -- when I really need to hide out and concentrate -- a local hotel that happens to be near my house and that serves cinnamon rolls for breakfast.

4. I have -- very important and extremely grateful -- a "day job" that is a perfect fit for a crime writer. My academic research (on crime history and on mass media/popular culture) and my academic day/semester (packed to the gills but with much more flexibility than a 9-5 job) allow me to mesh my two careers.

5. I've worked hard and earned my opportunities, but I also have learned the power of synchronicity. I am grateful that I have learned to look for connections and see possibilities.

6. Related to number five, I am grateful that I have learned how to work smarter. I still procrastinate and waste time, but I have learned how to get what I need in place -- the research, the bones of the book -- before I wander off to eat popcorn and watch a really awful movie. That makes getting back to work a lot easier than it used to be.

7. I am grateful to have readers who occasionally send me notes about how much they enjoyed one of my books. Those messages sometimes come when I staring at a blank screen, wondering why I thought I could ever write -- stupid plot, bland characters, can't even string together the words to make a proper sentence.

8. I am grateful that even when a reader doesn't send me a "loved your book" message when I need it, I can get up and walk over to the bookcase and open one of my books and remember that I have actually managed to produce books that were published and that people read and that if I can get through the first draft, I can fix what's wrong.

9. I am grateful that I've had a pretty good year. I started a new series, I sold a short story. If I didn't have my "breakout book," I at least had my "hey, I'm here" book. I love working with my editor, have an agent who is terrific.

10. I am grateful for family and friends, who support my efforts and help me to stay grounded. And for the friend who serves as a sounding board when I am thinking through a new plot idea. And for my small group of "first readers" when the book is done.

11. I am grateful to have discovered the world of mystery writers years ago. I am grateful for the mystery writer friends I have made -- including my colleagues here on Type M. Knowing that there are people (writers) who understand that walking into a building, seeing a marble staircase, and imagining someone tumbling down those stairs to his or her death isn't necessarily a sign of psychopathy or an anti-social personality is "priceless". As a group, crime writers tend to be intelligent and creative. They also tend to be well-adjusted, kind, and compassionate. That's pretty cool, and I'm grateful to be a member of the "tribe". Hanging out with other writers makes me a better person.

12. Finally, I am grateful for whatever else I  should be grateful for but forgot to mention.


Stay tuned for Part II -- my plan  for 2014 (subject to intervention from the universe).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Counting Blessings

As Sandra Boynton said in one of her greeting cards, “Things are getting out of hand. Please send chocolate.”

Christmas will be here in one week. Don finally set up the tree a couple of days ago. He also bought a poinsettia, and has managed to send out his Christmas cards. If it weren’t for him, there’d be no discernable holiday at our house. I am doing nothing but writing these days. I’m so close to finishing the first draft of a new book. Every day, I think, “this is the day,” but it hasn’t been the day yet. My plan was to have it done by the end of the year, and in truth, I don’t think I’m going to make it.

I love the writing, but I hate the pressure of trying to get the MS done in a certain time. I often wonder, do I have to do this? I said I would have it done in January, But really, would the world fall apart if I were a couple of weeks late?

Would it?

I have several things to attend to – some doctor things, some family matters. Not to mention that I really ought to do some shopping if poor Don is to have any presents at all.

Well, I shouldn’t whine, I suppose. I’m sure many of you Dear Readers have infinitely worse troubles than mine. At least I no longer live in Oklahoma, where my brother has been iced in a couple of times already this year. Here in sunny Arizona, it's 77 degrees F today and even if that isn't very Christmasy, I admit I do like not having to contend with ice and snow and busted electric lines. It would be hard to finish a book on my laptop without electricity to recharge the battery. I suppose one could spend many wintery dark hours with a pen and paper, scribbling out the manuscript by the dim yellow light of a kerosine lantern. If it’s good enough for Emile Zola, I suppose it would be good enough for me.

So at least I don’t have to contend with bad weather and no heat, and can sit in front of my computer in relative comfort. In a day or two I’ll write Christmas cards, and then over the next few days Don and I will go out together and buy our own Christmas presents and have a nice lunch. And maybe I’ll finish the book before the end of the year and maybe I won’t.

Wishing you all a holiday full of comfort and joy.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My trouble with names

Been there, got the T-shirt. Wore it out…
I have a confession to make: I dither when it comes to deciding on names. I’m talking titles of books, names of major characters, names of locations, well, you name it, I have a problem with it. Occasionally, I’ll have a flash of inspiration, but that happens about as often as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford thinking before he opens his mouth.

Case in point: I recently started a new band. I’ve got all the musicians (and they are excellent), I’ve gotten rehearsals organized, made a demo tape so I can hustle a few club gigs to get us started and make a demo DVD to hustle more gigs. I’ve arranged an entire evening’s worth of classic soul tunes, and then some. Do you think I can come up with a good name for the damn ensemble? I have two pages of possibilities, and none of them are good enough.

In my soon-to-be-published novel, Roses for a Diva, I did manage to come up with the title very early on in the writing process, but to be honest, it was a bit of a slam dunk (you’ll have to read the novel to find out why), but I dithered for months over character’s names. I changed names more frequently than I change the oil in my car, then changed them back, then decided on a third name. I can’t tell you how many global searches I’ve done to fix the inevitable train wrecks. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat (great James Brown tune, by the way) after dreaming that the book has come out and it’s got character name errors that weren’t caught.

My Cemetery of the Nameless had 15 titles of various awfulness before it got it’s fantastic final title. Trouble is, I didn’t come up with it. A cop in Vienna did.

You’d think after writing 9 novels and novellas that I’d be getting the hang of this, but to tell the truth, it’s only gotten worse. I’m working on a novella at the moment with the scintillating title of XX. This is obviously a placeholder for a global search (my usual practice to that I don’t hold up the actual writing part of writing a book. But when multiple characters are running around without a moniker, my method turns completely on its head with XX1 talking to XX4a about XX17 who’s just been murdered by XX6. And if you think that’s completely confusing – you’d be oh-so-right.

The really odd thing is that, apart from names, I’m a pretty decisive guy, or at least I like to think that I am.

Does anyone else suffer from “naming-itis”? Please say yes. I’d hate to think the I’m the only one!

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Joy of Lists

Christmas is the time for Lists.  I have so many lists that I'm now making a List List.  When there's a lot on my mind it's the only way I actually get things done instead of spending all my time worrying about all the things I have to do.

It's the reward factor, of course - being able to put a 'done' tick beside the task and feel virtuous, just the way  I did when I was six and my teacher marked my sums right.  Sometimes, if the job listed was one I had found difficult, I put a triumphant score through it instead.

The secret to getting started is writing down something you've already done, so you can cross it off.  A friend of mine suggested the first item should be 'Make a List' since that would be something to cross off almost immediately.  More controversially, he suggested that the last item should be 'Destroy List': we got in a philosophical argument about how this could work since surely you could only strike off' 'Destroy List' once you had actually done it, but by then the list would have been destroyed, so you couldn't.  This one could run and run.

I'm a complete sucker for lists.  When I see 'Ian Rankin's 10 writing rules', '12 things every  publisher is looking for, ' 30 things every writer should know' I'm hooked.  Many of them are very helpful and talk good sound sense, but I think I feel compelled to read them because I still hope that somewhere among the thousands of lists that I come across, surely, there is one list that will make the whole business of writing an novel easy, like a recipe for making a cake.

I haven't found it yet, and I'm sadly beginning to come to the conclusion that William Somerset Maugham was right; 'There are three rules for writing a novel,  The trouble is no one knows what they are.'

Friday, December 13, 2013

My Best Read all Year

The best thriller I've read this year appeared in Loveland's monthly city newsletter. You know. The kind they sent with the water bill. No, I'm not kidding.

 I'm sure most of you are aware that Colorado experienced catastrophic floods this summer. It's hard to convey the degree of devastation. What most of the town didn't realize at the time was how close we came to losing our entire water supply and sewer system. We were saved by an epic engineering feat. The material I'm quoting comes from the newsletter. Here's what happened when the rains started:

First to go was the road that went to the power plant and the power lines. Then the Big Thompson River jumped its channel and headed for three water lines buried in a bed of soil and gravel.

The river scoured the land away, exposing and destroying the first line, a 20 inch pipe during the flood's first hours. Then the river buckled the joints of the second 36 inch pipeline. That left one--a 48 inch steel pipe that supplied  every home and business in Loveland. A team was assembled and an armada of equipment: five giant excavating machines, four huge bulldozers, seven front-end loaders and a fleet of trucks.

The task: Redirect the river, in full flood stage, carrying nearly 20 times its seasonal flow, from the big pipeline back to its original channel. It's unheard of to move a flooding river.

In ordinary times, anyone who so moves so much as a boulder must get formal permission from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the agency that has regulatory authority over every stream, river, and lake in the nation. Urgency prevented that step. They had a nod from the agency and proceeded.

There was a 200 foot wide bar of newly deposited gravel and rock between the new Big Thompson and the old riverbed. An operator of a mammoth excavator risked his life by driving the machine into the river toward the bar. The team did not have enough material to execute plan A which would have been to build a spike dam to steer the river's flow back south. They switched to plan B. A streaming convoy of trucks carried rock and fill from a nearby quarry. They brought 80-100 foot cottonwoods upstream. They worked around the clock three days and turned the flooding river back from that remaining precious pipeline.

They did it. On the fly! It was almost incomprehensible.

Now top that,  all you writers and readers of thrillers.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Gift for All Tastes

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I have a simple message for all those floundering to find that perfect gift.

Buy a book!

Not only are there books for every skill level, age, taste and interest, but a book gives three-fold. It enriches the heart and mind of its recipient, it strengthens our collective cultural voice, and it supports the (usually) struggling author who provides that voice. With this in mind, I would urge gift-buyers to venture beyond the blockbuster bestsellers at the front of the store and down the aisles towards the lesser known writers. There are unique and fresh voices to be heard, who rely not on big publicity budgets but on word of mouth, and who deserve much more attention than they receive in today's crowded marketplace.

Crime Writers of Canada is the national association that supports the efforts of Canadian writers to be heard in that crowded marketplace. Swamped by the much bigger and more powerful UK and US publishing juggernauts, and side-swiped by the Scandanavian craze, Canadian crime writers and their publishers struggle to gain much notice, so CWC has launched a social media campaign to encourage people to explore canadian crime writing. Its catchy phrase is "Hot Crime in a Cool Clime".

On the Crime Writers of Canada website, under the link Cool Canadian Crime, you will find a list of all the 2013 books by CWC members. I can't mention all the great books that have come out this year – all worthy gifts for the right recipient – but with some trepidation I have decided to venture into the dangerous waters of "Holiday Lists" by providing a sampling of possibilities. I say with trepidation because these writers are my friends and I hate to leave any of them off the list (bearing in mind they know how to kill too). So I want to provide tantalizing hints of the range and variety available to you, rather than an exhaustive list. To that end I have tried to shine the spotlight beyond the familiar bestsellers onto books written in 2013 and set in Canada (with a few exceptions), that I can personally vouch for. There are many, many more I have not yet had the pleasure of reading, so let this list be a beginning for you, not an end.

For lovers of gritty, urban thrillers, there is ER Brown's Almost Criminal, set in British Columbia's infamous grow-opt trade where a unique, engaging teenager who finds himself way over his head. Or Howard Shrier's Miss Montreal, PI Jonah Geller's third outing in which he battles for truth amid the politics and corruption of Canada's most colourful city.

For those who like some international intrigue mixed in, there is Anthony Bidulka's When the Saints Go Marching In, which finds Disaster Recovery Agent Adam Saint investigating a Russian plane crash that kills a Canadian Governor-General. Or Peggy Blair's The Poisoned Pawn, which brings back Cuban Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, now battling a conspiracy that stretches from Ottawa to Havana to the Vatican.

Readers who like a historical twist to their crime will enjoy Janet Kellough's 47 Sorrows, which highlights the struggles of immigrants fleeing to the Ontario shores from the potato famines in Ireland. And for the best in classic, gritty police procedurals, Vicki Delany's latest Constable Molly Smith novel A Cold, White Sun brings us deadly rage in the idyllic setting of the Rockies.

If your recipient prefers more light-hearted romps to take their mind off the dark days of winter, Gloria Ferris's Corpse Flower is a raucous story about a trailer park divorcee, a pollinating plant, and simple dreams that get out of hand. Even more light-hearted are the latest instalments by two of Canada's divas of cozy crime, Erika Chase, with her latest Ashton Book Club mystery Cover Story, and Victoria Abbott's latest book collector mystery, The Sayers Swindle. Victoria Abbott is the secret identity of Mary Jane Maffini and her daughter Victoria.

All well and good, you say, but my uncle, cousin, sister...whatever... doesn't read. No problem! I have two books to get the most reluctant reader back on track. These books are specifically written for people who can't or don't read for whatever reason. They are easy to read, entertaining, fast-paced, and mercifully short. Brenda Chapman's My Sister's Keeper is an edgy thriller about a bar-hoppng ex-cop forced to confront her past, and if your reader likes a more humorous, madcap romp, try Melodie Campbell's The Goddaughter's Revenge, set in rough-edged Hamilton.

And there is much more where these came from, folks! For more Hot Crime in a Cool Clime, check out www.crimewriterscanada.com

For more reluctant reader books, check out http://orcabook.com/rapid-reads.com/. I have two books in this series as well.

For a terrific list of current books by Ottawa writers, check out http://apt613.ca/apartment613-holiday-book-gift-list-for-2013/

And happy shopping!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How is this good business?

Several months ago, one of my publishers informed me that my novel, The Fallen One, had been sold to audible.com and that they would be producing a version of it. Great! This was unexpected and very good news. My first audio book. Just imagine!

I was also told someone from the publisher would be contacting me to discuss the project, and probably ask the pronunciation of various words in the novel, since they weren’t in everyday usage.

It dawned on me a few days ago that a fair bit of time had passed and I’d heard nary a peep. On a whim I went to the audible.com website and keyed in the name of my magnum opus. Sure enough it came up. Hoping to find out when it would be released, I was gobsmacked to see that it had already been released – in October!

Before I continue with my little rant, I would like to say that, based on the sample, the narrator, Christa Lewis, did a bang up job. (I still have no idea how she managed to pronounce the French Canadian patois, the Italian and the other assorted foreign words and musical terms.)

I have to say that I was very let down. My reason was this: if someone had bothered to tell me, I would have been out there promoting this new development in my authorial life. I mean, it’s Christmas, the gift-giving season, and surely I could help move a few copies. This is what all publishers expect these days from their authors, right?

But there was nary a peep from them. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?

Another thing that sort of got up my nose is that if you key in The Fallen One into the search window on the website, guess what? My book is number fifteen on the page. And it’s the only book on the list whose title actually is The Fallen One.

I suppose I should just be grateful that the company (Amazon-owned, by the way) expressed an interest in my work and was willing to pay for it. That’s great, but it’s only part of the equation. People need to know they’ve got it out. The author needs to know so he can help the publicity push (if only to put an announcement on his Facebook page). If someone has trouble finding the book on the audible.com website, that is definitely not a good thing. It’s hard enough to sell books these days, whether they be paper, electronic or audio.

So I’m telling everyone here: please go out and buy a copy of my fantastic audio book for everyone on your Christmas list. I can 100% guarantee that it’s the best audio book by me that’s ever been put out!

And now I’ll go back to banging my head against the wall…

________________

From the same front but a different angle, the cover for my April release by Orca Book Publishers as part of their Rapid Reads line has appeared. It’s a lovely image with lovely colours which pleases me a lot. Only problem is… Well, I can’t tell you since it could give away the plot. So, here is The Boom Room.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

So What Makes a Good Crime Novel Anyway? Can an Editor Help?

This weekend, Type M welcomes guest blogger Allister Thompson, editor extraordinaire who edited and polished up the novels of several present and former Type M bloggers, including myself. Now a freelancer, he shares his experiences with the mysterious craft.

I was recently asked to deliver a talk to a venerable and successful crime writing group about what the heck an editor does and the nature of the advice I give to authors when I work with them. My response was a wide-ranging and perhaps rambling lecture on everything from the do and do nots of writing to navigating the minefield of heartache that is the publishing industry.

All this got me thinking about the nature of fiction — the eternal story as expressed across various genres. We all know that because of commerce’s obsession with categorization, crime fiction is “genre fiction”, though the lines are very easily blurred. For instance, what the heck makes something a “literary mystery”? Are we suggesting the writing in that novel is somehow better? That others, such as a garden variety cozy, are somehow “unliterary”? (As an aside, that sort of snobbishness in the literary world is one of my major pet peeves about working in this business.)

I decided upon examination that the fundamentals of storytelling have really not changed since the first tentative grunts by the campfire, no matter how experimental modern writers can be. We have to give the reader a reason to invest several hours, at least, of her short time on this globe in the fruit of our imagination. She must take something of value from it, whether it’s a profound, valuable message, or just the enjoyment of entering another reality via a good yarn. Enlightenment or escapism, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are focused on what you want to achieve, because a lack of focus can be deadly.

Having seen thousands upon thousands of fiction manuscripts in my day, I think I might have gained some insight into what works, and the key word is found above: focus. Some writers are gifted with the ability to just sit down with an idea and spew out a coherent storyline, fully fleshed-out and rational. I suspect that such people are rare. The rest of us have to plan, and that’s the first step on the road to writing success. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to plot out on a flowchart every nuance of your novel before filling things in, but it does provide the opportunity to avoid the mistakes writers often make when they don’t put in the extra time to re-evaluate and hone their work.

Examples of these are:
  • having a story that constantly switches points of view to the extent that we don’t know who the novel is really about;
  • cluttering up an 80,000-word ms. with dozens of superfluous characters simply for the joy of exercising your imagination;
  • not identifying the key themes or events to occur in your novel, thereby creating a work that could be about ten different things, with none seeming more important than the next;
  • inserting plotlines or themes or characters that seem important at first but then just fade out, to be replaced by another.

These seem like pretty basic tenets, but it’s amazing how often they are ignored — mostly by newbies learning the craft, to be sure, but it still happens. And if you’re going to try to market yourself, be it to publishers or agents, or to your readers as a self-published author, you need to put the best possible product out there, or you’re dead in the water.

Another piece of dead simple advice for prospective fiction writers is: figure out what you are saying, then say it as clearly as possible, and as rationally. Take the appropriate steps to make your work authentic. If these events could happen in real life, as they could in, say, a police procedural, it’s crucial the reader does not question that realism. If that means you have to contact a cop to learn about how certain investigations are conducted, then you’ve got do it, because there’s nothing worse than reading a police novel in which the reader just knows that things wouldn’t unfold the way they are in the narrative.

Similarly, if you are writing a historical novel, get that period research right. Historical fiction aficionados will set upon you like a pack of hyenas if, in your novel set in 1955, someone’s typing away on a computer! And yet I have seen this sort of thing many times, not because the writer was stupid, but because she or he was not thinking straight while writing or revising.

The cozy subgenre is a tricky one in terms of believability, because the cozy is based on a logical fallacy: that a normal person who, for example, owns a tropical fish emporium would constantly come across bodies and murderers during the course of a twelve-book series. In this case, I think the trick is your premise must be compelling and original enough to stand out. And your protagonists must be really appealing. Not to mention that you’ve got to keep finding new ways for your character to become embroiled in murder investigations! But it can work, and I’ve seen it done by some pretty masterful cozy writers.

All of this is excruciatingly obvious, I guess, but it does suggest that the rules of fiction travel across all genres, whether you’re trying for a Giller by writing the saga of a tragically doomed farming family in Northern Saskatchewan torn apart by war or you’re writing a noir-ish romp about a Mongolian-Canadian cop working a murder at a Tibetan temple in the mean streets of Winnipeg. Leave no stone unturned, constantly examine your writing, make sure you plan everything, and, above all, make sure your novel is interesting! There’s nothing new under the sun, but each person and each writer has his or her own personality, his or her own special view of the world. That’s what we readers need: we need you to put it all on the line and take us on a journey that no one else can. We don’t need more trees chopped down to print novels that duplicate the contribution of present successes.

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Okay, so you’ve taken it as far as you can on your own or with the help of a writing group, but you aren’t sure if your work is ready for public display. What to do?

Well, that’s where we editors come in. Now, I hate to be mean, but a lot of authors seem stuck in a certain mindset. That is, they don’t want to spend money. They want to finish their work, have it published, get an advance, and the publisher pays for the work to be edited. Then the royalties flow!

This is a best-case scenario, but it only happens to a chosen few. And furthermore, without the help of a dispassionate and experienced eye, you may never get to that point. The help an editor can provide can be the difference between getting that book deal or languishing and dreaming about what might have been.

If you have a draft of a novel, it’s a great idea to reach out to an editor with experience in your area of focus. Editors provide a range of services throughout the development of a manuscript:
  • Substantive editing to help you shape that plot stuff I was talking about and keep an eye out for those nasty issues that can creep in. We can help you develop your characters, express your theme, all that stuff. This is a very valuable step to take, because it gets you off on the right foot in early drafts. Waiting till after your tenth draft to ask for outside help … not so good.
  • You may have a great story but are weak in the technical areas of writing. In that case, your editor can polish and copy edit your work for you. This is a great step to take because your submission will be as professional as possible when you send it. There’s no room for error.
  • Editors with suitable experience can help you with your submissions and all that entails: the query letters, the synopses — whatever agents and publishers can ask for. Or;
  • If you are self-publishing, an editor can help you choose the best way to get that done, the most affordable way that gets you the best bang for your buck. An experienced editor can give you best advice to make sure you print the right amount of copies, market your ebook, get a great cover done, all that good stuff.
It’s natural not to want to spend a lot on a passion that is often considered a hobby (especially by family and friends), and we understand this. You try to do as much as you can on your own. But at a certain point it’s a good idea to seek out the services of someone with the experience and knowledge to push you over the crest of the hill.

Allister Thompson has been a professional book editor since 1997, in-house for two crime fiction publishers and now on his own as a freelance editor. He’s had the pleasure of editing many award-winning and award-nominated crime writers, and none of them seem to have it in for him thus far. He edits from his home in Toronto with the assistance of giant cat. He can be found online at www.allisterthompson.com

Friday, December 06, 2013

To Age or Not to Age

In mid-November I joined two other mystery writers for a four-day book tour in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. At one of our stops, someone in the audience asked a question that I am still pondering. She (as I recall the questioner was a woman) wanted to know if the characters in our series are aging naturally (as opposed to being more or less frozen in time). Of the three of us, I was the only one whose protagonist has been aging in real time. Now, this is a bit confusing because series real time often moves much slower than real time as we experience it. Since 2000, I've written and had published five book in my Lizzie Stuart series. Three books came out between 2000 and 2003, the fourth in 2007, and the fifth in 2011. During that eleven year, only two years passed in the world of the series. The calendar for those years is identical to that of the calendar in the real world. But because only two years of series time has passed, the books that began in the present are now set in the recent past. The fifth in the series is set in 2004.

In two years of series time, my protagonist, crime historian Lizzie Stuart, has aged from 38 to almost 40. It never occurred to me that she wouldn't grow older. Lizzie set out on a personal journey as she left her small town in Kentucky after her grandmother's death, vacationed in Cornwall, England with her best friend, became involved in a murder, met a Philadelphia homicide cop, went home to Kentucky, moved to Gallagher, Virginia as a visiting faculty member, found, John Quinn, the cop, had taken a position there, and began a relationship with him as homicides (past and present) occupied more of her time than she would have liked. In the fourth book, she went in search of her long-lost mother, in the fifth, she met her cop's best friends and begin to think about the life they might have together. In this fifth book, she found herself brought up short by a conversation in the kitchen between the women at the gathering about motherhood. Coming up fast on her 40th birthday, Lizzie wondered about the children she might -- or might not -- be able to have.

I like having my protagonist face the sometimes painful questions that go along with getting older and realizing that choices have to be made, that both the opportunities and the options available change. But I can understand why aging is not always a desirable choice. I have put Lizzie in a position that requires she either start having those children she and John Quinn talked about or decide maybe not. If she gets pregnant and has a baby, I'm going to be faced with some issues that I didn't foresee. If she doesn't have children, then she and Quinn will have to work out that aspect of their relationship. Of course, this question would come up sooner or later, but if Lizzie were not aging, I might be able to leave it in limbo much longer.

Thinking about this subject of aging characters has made me aware of the fact that my new series protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is thirty-four in The Red Queen Dies, the first book in the series. She's a police detective and she is age-appropriate for where she is in her career. But she is beginning to worry a bit -- not too much, but just a bit -- that she is not as agile as she used to be. She is pleased when she outruns her 29 year old, male rookie partner when they are pursuing a suspect. But she is annoyed that she is out of breath after tackling and apprehending the suspect. Of course, this is 2019 and the air quality is bad on that particular day, but McCabe is unwilling to allow herself that excuse.  

McCabe has yet to experience the aches and pains of aging that she'll encounter in her forties and fifties. In series time -- the next book begins three months later -- it could be many years before she enters her next decade. But along the way she will be having birthdays that will make her think about the impact of her career choice on her personal life.

I can understand why many authors don't keep a calendar with their protagonist's age circled in red. In a long-running series, a character who is aging naturally could reach an age when he or she should find it more difficult to engage in physically-demanding crime solving (e.g., being beaten up and bouncing back gets a lot harder). Aging also can be a problem with minor characters. In my Lizzie Stuart series, I have a character named Miss Alice, the owner of a restaurant in Gallagher. Miss Alice knew Lizzie's now deceased grandmother when they were both children. Miss Alice is aging at a snail's pace because I want her to keep holding court at her table in the Orleans Cafe. I want her available as a resource about Gallagher's past for Lizzie, my crime historian. In fact, Miss Alice plays a crucial role in a recent short story.

To age or not to age, that is the question. I think it depends on the subgenre and the demands of the series. An author might have a character that readers love returning to book after book and finding him or her unchanged. The magic of fiction -- writers can turn back the clock (prequels), slow it down, or stop it as needed.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

We Are Where We're From



I, Donis, was completely fascinated by Hannah's post yesterday about setting, because I have known for a long time that we are infinitely more affected by the environment in which we were bred than sometimes we are willing to admit.

I certainly am, at any rate. Many years ago, when I was a dewy young thing, I flew to Ireland from New York. I was seated next to an older woman who liked to talk, and we chatted for quite a long time about this and that--our families, why we were going to Ireland, things of that nature--when right in the middle of a sentence she interrupted herself and said, "Wherever are you from?" She was so abrupt that I was taken aback, but I figured that she had listened to my accent long enough that her curiosity finally got the better of her.

"Tulsa, Oklahoma," I replied.  And she laughed.

"What a place to be from!" she exclaimed.

I didn't know whether to be insulted or amused. "Where are you from?" I asked.

When she said, "Teaneck, New Jersey," it was my turn to laugh.  What a place to be from. That's when I learned that no matter how ordinary and dull your home country is to you, to most of the rest of the world, it's incredibly exotic.*

Hannah's childhood in Devon seems incredibly exotic to me. I've been to Britain several times, and every time I'm reminded that we Americans may speak a common language (kind of), but we are not the same. I get the same impression  when I travel to different part of the United States. I moved  to Arizona some thirty years ago and was quite surprised to find out that it's very different from Oklahoma.  Who would have thought it? Both states are located in the American Southwest. You'd think the cultures would be identical. But in my experience, keeping in mind that I am not an Arizona native and live in a giant metro area, Arizona is culturally like back door Los Angeles, but more conservative.** Oklahoma, at least when I lived there and knew it best, is easily as conservative as Arizona, but the culture is like nowhere else I've ever been. Put Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Kansas in a blender and mix it well, and you may get an idea.

Tulsa is a rich oil town located in the hilly bend of the Arkansas River. I came up among people in three piece suits, cowboy boots and stetsons.  My father owned a construction business and raised quarter horses on the side. My mother ran his office. I rode horses every weekend. The picture at the top is my great grandfather's farm in eastern Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid. I played in blackjack woods draped with wild grapevines, hot and sweaty and covered in cockleburrs and chiggers. I picked up wild pecans off the ground by the bucketsful in the fall. At the time, I'd have rather stayed at home and read a book. I was not a lover of the outdoors. Now I look back on it through a golden haze of nostalgia. In fact, I write about it.

Now, personally I am quite liberal in my attitudes, but I can't deny that I am permanently marked by the values of the place I grew up. And it shows in the characters and themes I write about.

_________________________
*For those of you who have heard me relate this tale before, bear with me.  It's no use having a good story to tell unless you tell it at least a hundred times.
**Don't get all huffy, you Arizonans.  I'm trying to make a point here.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Write What You Know

How many times have we been urged to “write what we know” And how many times do most of us think, who could possibly be interested in our humble origins or even where we live now? I certainly feel that way about where I was born in Old Basing, Hampshire.

It was only as an adult that I realized what a significant role the village played in holding out against Cromwell during the English Civil War 1642-1651. Defended by Sir Marmaduke Rawdon (don’t you just love that name?) Basing House was the largest private house in the whole of England until it was razed to the ground in October 1645.

As kids, my sister and I used to play in the secret underground tunnels among the ruins. Didn’t everyone have a ruined castle in their back garden? We also kept our horses at the nearby mill and went to barn dances at Basing Barn where the canon ball holes can still be seen today.  Oh - and take a look at the painting above. You can see the barn - top center. We took it all for granted.

Then, we moved to the West Country that even now, seems fifty years behind the times. Devon has many quirks and customs from worm charming to tar barrel racing—all, completely normal to me.

My husband was born and bred in Sherman Oaks, California. On his first trip to England he couldn’t get over the fact that sheep hung out all day in fields. He’d watch them grazing for hours. He was equally fascinated by sheep poop. Yes, he was a real city boy. My world was alien to him. And of course, I can’t even begin to start talking about how weird Los Angeles is to me … that would fill a book all by itself.

So it was with great interest that I went to hear author Johnny Shaw speak at the Friends of Mystery meeting in Portland. Johnny’s topic was setting. He believes that environment is character. For example, setting a murder in a desert town where the main source of employment comes from a maximum security prison says it all. Imagine growing up there!

Johnny’s debut novel, Dove Season, (one of many of his books), is set where he grew up in the Imperial Valley. I thought Mexicali and Calexico were pure fiction. Honestly, I had never heard of those places before. As a Brit, life on the Southern California-Mexican border couldn’t be more foreign. In fact, Johnny mentioned that many Hollywood blockbusters have been filmed in the sand dunes close by because of their unearthly appearance – Star Wars, Independence Day and … The Men Who Stare at Goats to name just a few.

I was utterly captivated by Johnny’s tales of growing up on a beet farm opposite a bar. He said that “going to the bar for a scrap” was just part of an evening’s entertainment and wasn’t considered violent at all. He said that as a boy, he watched a kid on TV “take out the trash” and was consumed with envy. For him, taking out the trash was a four-hour ordeal. There was no handy trash bin that was picked up by the City. Everything had to be burned. Then there was the bilingual parrot … Just these little details made me buy his book. I wanted to learn about life in the Imperial Valley and the people who lived there and I was not disappointed. I loved Dove Season!

So, setting is so much more than describing the scenery and the weather. It’s about the tiny details in our lives and backgrounds that make us, and the worlds that we inhabit, unique.

It really is a case of “write what you know.”

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

How much reality is there in reality television?

Casting about on the Internet for a topic upon which to write today, I stumbled across a report that there might possibly be a reality show featuring the Ford family, Ford as in Rob Ford, Toronto’s outcast mayor.

As is the case with serendipitous happenstance, two things happened immediately following my enlightenment on developments in “Ford Nation”: I got interrupted and had to step away from the computer, during which someone mentioned soap operas to me. By the time I sat down here again, my subconscious brain had a few moments to work on its own. (Ain’t the creative side wonderful?)

It has dawned on me that reality television shows have not only become the soap operas of our time, they have also taken much of the place fiction writing used to occupy.

I bet if you stopped 100 people on the street and asked them how many minutes they’d spent during the past year reading fiction, compared to how many minutes they’d spent watching reality television, “reality” – a term best used loosely in this case – would win over fiction, hands down.

The curious thing, however, is that reality television isn’t really reality. It’s scripted, maybe not as much as your average sitcom or drama, but there are people in the background tweaking truth, manipulating outcomes and storylines, and creating what they want you to think is actually real. I would opine that compared to undoctored reality, what they do is pretty much comparable to WWE wrestling and its original Olympic roots. In other words, it’s fake. If I wanted to give it more dignity than it deserves, they’re focus is just as much on telling a compelling story as what I do every day.

Reality television’s creators deal in tropes and archetypal characters, much as we do when we create fiction – especially when we want it to sell well. Ever notice how the latest survivor series has pretty much the same “characters” as the previous one? Sure, the names and faces change, but the characters are consistent. So, too, with talent shows of the Britain’s Got Talent ilk. You don’t think they fool around with people’s backstories? (I happen to know someone who appeared on one, and the backstory the show’s producers gave him was miles away from the person I knew.)

As a writer of fiction, I take exception to what’s going on. From the outset, people know I’m making up what they’re reading. Reality television, like WWE Wrestling, is pretending to show you “the real thing”. What they’re peddling is in reality bullshit. Could you get them actually admit that? No. And there are many fans of these shows who willingly swallow what they’re peddling without questions.

The sad thing is, of course, we’re being lied to once again, being taken for a ride, having the wool pulled over our eyes – and let’s face it, we’re willingly allowing it to be done to us. Hey, I can suspend disbelief as well as the next person, but I like to know when it needs to happen.

Which brings us full circle to Rob Ford and the rest of his family. They all seem to be good at lying, repeating falsehoods over and over, I guess eventually hoping their lies may become the truth through repetition – at least to their political constituency. The Fords are just the thing for a reality television series, and if it ever does come to pass that they get a show, my guess is the public will eat it up. I know I’d be tempted to watch – at least once.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Where were you when...?

Thomas has already answered the question about JFK's assassination  and the past week saw the same question asked in a lot of the British  press as well. 

I was a very new student at Cambridge University at the time , living in Girton College which was a couple of miles outside the city centre.  In common with many of my friends in those more innocent days, hitch-hiking was a standard way to get into town and I had found a friendly lorry-driver who told me President Kennedy had been shot.  'Oh,' I said, 'I hope he wasn't badly hurt?'  It didn't seem possible that such a towering figure could possibly be dead, just like that.

I remember, too, where I was when I heard that Princess Diana had died, and when the planes hit the Towers, and when the gunman went on a killing spree in a nursery school in Dunblane  as a young Andy Murray cowered in another classroom.

The reaction was the same in each case -'This can't have happened!' - and it had a sort of freeze-frame effect that keeps the tiny, trivial details fixed in my mind even fifty years later.

Victims of terrible events talk afterwards about how slowly everything seems to move, how small things become weirdly significant.  We all write about sudden and violent death..  As a reader, the crime scenes that stay with me are not the most graphically shocking.  It's the ones where I step with the observer through description of small details that build up to the confrontation or the discovery.  That's what makes it real, makes me feel I'm there with them, has me on the edge of my seat. 

Some one will tell me, I'm sure, .who the writer was who first said 'write the slow scenes fast and the fast scenes slow' rule, but it's a formulation of a psychological truth.