Friday, February 28, 2014

Remember Me?

In Sleepers (1996), the film based on Lorenzo Carcaterra's controversial book, two young gangsters have a chance encounter in a pub with a man from their past. Played by a blurry-eyed Kevin Bacon, the man is one of the guards who abused them when they were children sentenced to an upstate New York juvenile facility. They confront Bacon, then kill him, thereby avenging their victimization at his hands. Although the book was marketed as non-fiction, when it was published the account was challenged. Carcaterra -- who claimed that he and three childhood friends from Hell's Kitchen had accidentally killed a man during a prank and been sent to a hellish home for boys -- admitted that he had changed the names and dates. But the Catholic Church challenged the existence of the helpful priest in the book/film. The New York State juvenile justice system challenged the existence of the juvenile facility. Whatever the truth of the story, the film encounter between the two boys grown up and the former guard gone to seed provides an excellent example of "remember me?"

This is a concept that came up in my last book. I thought I had exhausted my interest in the topic, but I'm thinking of a short story. The concept -- the question -- is what might happen if two (or more) people who had some unpleasant connection in the past encountered each other years later. Of course, there are humorous possibilities. For example, in an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond," Ray Barone, the hapless sports writer, has a dilemma. When he was a teenager, he took a girl from his neighborhood to a dance. When he brought her home, it was snowing. Instead of escorting her to the door, he stayed in his car with the motor running. Now, years later, he wonders to his wife what he should say to this girl (now woman) when he sees her at an event. When they meet, the woman is smiling, pleasant. She reminds him of who she is, and introduces her husband to Ray and his wife. She doesn't seem to remember what happened. But, being Ray and neurotic, he wonders if she was only pretending not to remember. When the two couples meet again on the dance floor, he -- with an attempt at casualness -- reminds her of what happened and apologizes. She says she doesn't remember that and asks if he has been worrying about it all this time. But he is still not convinced she doesn't remember. How could she not remember an incident that is so vivid and cringe-worthy in his own memory?

Of course, there is another variation of "remember me" -- the "remember when" moment. We all have those. One of mine happened years ago when I was with a group of friends in a bookstore cafe. A friend of a member of our group saw her and stopped to say hello. She introduced him, and I made a wisecrack about being glad to discover she had other friends. I have no idea why that popped out of my mouth other then -- as I explained as I was apologizing for my joke that had flopped -- it was the kind of teasing that the sole male in our group of friends always engaged in. He could do it and make people laugh. I couldn't. And I apologized. I wonder if my friend would remember that moment years ago. Probably not. But I still cringe when I think about my awful lapse into "not niceness". Someday I'm going to have to see if I can get a story idea out of that.  

But returning to the "Sleepers" scenario (and that title can be read as equating memories to enemy agents who rise up at a signal), what about avenging an old wrong? We all have someone from our past who did us wrong -- perhaps in a moment, perhaps over a longer period of time. If we encountered that person, if he or she didn't remember or perhaps didn't even recognize us, what would we do? Of course, that might depend on how deep the wound inflicted by this person, how much it had affected our lives. Would it be worthy of a curse, a punch in the nose, or even murder. Or, maybe some more elaborate game of destruction.

This concept is not original to me. Every writer who sits down to play with it will come up with something different. It can work in any genre -- mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, paranormal.

But in real-life, be a little wary if someone should tap you on the shoulder and ask, "Remember me?" No way of knowing what might happen next.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Inspiration. Or How Brother Cadfael Begat Alafair Tucker

I have always loved historical novels. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and would read anything I could get my hands on, but I would always choose a historical novel above any other genre. For me, a historical novel is like a cheap vacation. I love to go to a place and a time and live there for a while.


I discovered English author and scholar Edith Pargeter when I was in my twenties, and she quickly became one of my favorite historical novelists. The day came, of course, when I had read every historical novel of hers that I could find here in this country. Though I’m always happy to reread a good book, I did find myself hungry for any new historical dish by Pargeter.

It didn’t take much research on my part to find out that under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter had created a fabulous series of historical mysteries featuring a Benedictine monk by the name of Brother Cadfael. The Brother Cadfael mysteries are set in Twelfth Century Shrewsbury, close by the Welsh border, during the long war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the English throne. Cadfael may be an elderly monk, but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the ways of the world. He gained all the skills necessary to untangle the knottiest mystery during his young manhood and middle age, when he served as a soldier and a sailor in the Crusades. There is little of human nature he hasn’t seen. And since he is also an accomplished herbalist, growing and mixing medicines for the Abbey, he is an expert on the properties of plants and poisons.

I had never had anything against mysteries, but neither was I a mystery addict in any sense of the word.But Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries rocked my reading world and inspired me to write historical mysteries of my own. Peters’ voice - the very way the books are written - evoke the times and the place with the language she uses.The character of Cadfael himself captured me. He is wise, tolerant, and world-weary, a man of his times. He has a true warmth, and by that, I don’t mean sentimentality or emotion, necessarily. I mean a deep humanity and heart that transcends even his formidable intellect. I want to spend time with him, and that is the secret of a successful fictional character. The setting, 12th Century Shrewsbury, is evoked so strongly that the reader comes away with the sense that she knows what it must have been like to live in that time and place. The Brother Cadfael mysteries contain everything I love about historical novels, as well as a clever, thought-provoking, always surprising mystery in every installment.

My protagoninst has absolutely nothing in common with Brother Cadfael. She's a woman of the early 20th Century, twenty-five years younger than the old monk. She probably doesn't even know any Catholics. She's never seen anything of the world outside of the hills of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. She's married with ten kids, for heaven's sake. But I shamelessly reached across the centuries and evoked Cadfael's humanity, competence, and compassion. Then I reincarnated it in the person of Alafair Tucker.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recharging the idea batteries

I’m late today, but there’s a good reason for it: I didn’t have any sort of idea for a topic today. Not only that, I’m trying to finish up a book proposal and I can’t quite figure out the sequence of events that need to happen at the end of the not-yet-written plot. In other words, my idea batteries were dead. My darling wife had a good idea, though. “Let’s go to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario)!”

This is one of my favourite places in the City of Toronto. It is a lovely space and thanks to a huge bequest from the Thompson family a decade or so ago, the collection became something very special. They also had to construct new galleries to house these art treasures. It is now something well worth making a visit to Toronto to see.

I don’t know why I couldn’t have thought of that myself. My brain often responds to a simple change of scene, especially when it involves immersing myself in someone else’s big creative ideas. I almost never respond to someone else’s writing with any sort of creative resonance, unless it be through the occasional stage play.

No, painting or sculpture for some reason seems to drag my muse out of hiding, and the AGO has a large and varied collection, most of which I’ve seen numerous times, but which still affect me. There’s something about sitting in a comfortable spot in a large room filled with art that teases out plot or character ideas in quite an amazing way.

We started our trip with a quick walk through a couple of larger rooms on our way to the members’ lounge where we had a nice small lunch and a glass of wine. Then we visited The Great Upheaval exhibition of art from The Guggenheim in New York. [How art got from Impressionism to Cubism has always been a bit of a mystery to me, and this very wonderful exhibit filled in quite a few of the blanks.]

The exhibit wasn’t quite what I expected, but I found that understanding how WW1 changed the whole nascent modern art movement in Europe, and the stories involved in what was changing coupled with how this conflict stunted or stopped much of the revolution in art and thought, got my creative juices flowing again. Oddly, while looking at the paintings and sculptures, the characters affecting my plot began telling me things. I had basically only conceived of them as cardboard cutouts, placeholders as it were, and that’s what had been gumming up the works. Suddenly the X’s and Y’s in my plot synopsis began to tell me their names. Then faces and other details floated to the surface, trailed by a bit of their backstories. It was almost magical.

We went down to a large room that has a “salon hanging” hanging of many paintings of the Academic Movement on one of its walls. I love this spot most of all. On the opposite wall are Impressionist paintings hung in the more usual fashion seen in art galleries. You can sit on benches and look at either of them. I did that, but my thoughts were inward, as my characters continued to reveal all.

I encouraged my wife to browse the gift shop on our way out so that I could find a quiet seat and scroll through the tangles of plot running through my head, sorting out which threads looked most hopeful and putting them to one side for later work.

On the way home, I also realized I’d let Type M slide, but here too, I suddenly had a topic.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Facts and statistics

For every author who isn't tied by contract to a traditional publisher at the moment, whether or not to self-publish features largely on the Dilemma list when it comes to getting your book out there. There are so many conflicting stories: for every writer you hear about who's sold a million, there are umpteen others who sell fewer copies than they have close family members.

 If you hang on, in the hope that like many another successful author who has had their share of rejection slips,one day you'll get the enthusiastic email – the one that says how wonderful the book is and doesn't say 'But' at the beginning of the second paragraph – there's  a real risk it might never come. If it does, though, you do have someone behind you who is at least theoretically working at getting your books into the shops. Oh, and there's a book on the shelf that your grandchildren can show their children and say, 'Your great-granny wrote that.' (They will probably reply with whatever is the late 21st century equivalent of 'Whatever.' is)

If you get impatient, scan your masterpiece and put it on to Kindle, along with all the others there, you have to be very clever about blogging, tweeting and persuading everyone you know, and quite a lot of people you don't know, to promote it otherwise it will sink without a trace.

It's a high-risk strategy and if it's high risk you want to be sure that there are rewards out there to be gained, even if you're not EL James.and that's something it's quite hard to figure out.

Yesterday I found a wonderful site that tells you all about this: authorearnings.com/the-report. Hugh Howey has done meticulous research into the relative financial merits of traditional publishing and self-publishing. It turns out that when you look at the real stats rather than the ones than lean heavily on the official figures put out from traditional houses, there's really no contest. Self-published authors fare very much better.

If you're anything like me, you'll have looked at the Amazon rankings and wondered what on earth that means in terms of books sold. Howey has worked that out too, from ranking 1-5 at 4000+ books a day to ranking 1 m  or more, when it may mean selling about 1 book a year. If that. Perhaps sometimes it's better not to know.

But anything that puts out information about what is a very secretive world  puts power in the hands of the author with a decision to make. Do check out the site.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Murder by the numbers

We mystery writers are a macabre bunch. Take for example those of us from the Rocky Mountain Chapter of MWA. At a typical monthly meeting we might have a medical examiner, a homicide detective, or an arson investigator. We love the gruesome crime-scene details. We could be eating a spaghetti dinner while watching a PowerPoint on autopsies. A favorite presentation was a series of death-scene photos and we had to decide: was it murder or suicide? We learned a new police term--DRT: Dead Right There. We were told that if you entered a burned-out room and smelled roasted pork that meant there was an incinerated human corpse near by. So none of us is kosher!

This interest in mayhem drew me to google "murder by weapon," which linked me to the FBI Expanded Homicide Data Table. It lists the types of murder weapons and the number of attributed victims (all dead) 2007-2011. Interestingly, the number of all homicides and the number by weapon has declined from year to year. The exception is the uptick in people killed by explosives and drowning. Guns of all types, knives, poison, strangulation--all down.

Total murders for 2011: 12,664.

Number One murder weapon? No surprise. The handgun. 6220 deaths in 2011, almost half of the total number. No duh! The pistol was designed as a handy, concealable instrument of deadly force so good job, gun and bullet designers.

Number Two? Cutting instruments. 1,964 deaths. Knives, razors, machetes, scalpels. How about a harpoon? Would an ax be classified as a cutting or blunt-force weapon? I guess it depends on the fatal wounds. Chop someone's head off--cutting instrument. Bury the ax in the skull--blunt force. These distinctions are important. See, we do like the gruesome.

Number Three? Firearms, type not stated. 1,587 deaths. (Could be pistol, shotgun, cannon, basically anything that barks over here and bites over there.)

Number Four? Personal weapons, meaning parts of your body such as hands, fists, feet, pushing someone. 728 deaths in 2011. What's really interesting is that with all the wailing about "assault rifles," more than twice as many people were killed by hands (and feet, perhaps a knee or elbow, biting even) than from rifles. Strangulation is considered separately. I guess the difference is if you use your bare hands or a ligature of some kind.

Number Ten? Asphyxiation. Death by pillow. 89 deaths.

What was dead last? Poison. 5 deaths.

To spice up the statistics, check out Homicide Table 11, Murder Circumstances. 3 people were murdered as a result of prostitution and commercialized vice. While 85 were in a romantic triangle. So I guess you're safer with hookers than you are with a partner who has a jealous ex.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Pistol Packin' Mommas


I don't like to think the sweet little old lady beside me in church is a pistol packing momma, but it's the truth on a number of Sundays. Colorado has a liberal conceal and carry policy. It's easy to get a hand gun permit. Colorado tried to tighten the state's gun laws last year. The restrictions seemed reasonable enough, but a real mess resulted.

One of the laws initiated by the 2013 Colorado Legislature bans the transfer or possession of ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. The other requires background checks of all private firearms transfers in Colorado.

The laws caused a huge uproar and the recall of two state legislators. True, the laws were nearly unenforceable when it came to background checks of private firearms transfers, but as to the size of ammunition rounds? Easy as pie to circumvent. Gun buyers simply drive to Wyoming and buy as many rounds as they like.

I'm very ambivalent about guns. I have a small collection of shotguns and rifles owned by my late husband. I don't have any handguns, but I believe I have the right, indeed the obligation, to defend myself if someone breaks into my home or intends to do me bodily harm. Still...I simply can't bring myself to buy a hand gun or get a license or whatever is required for a conceal and carry permit. 

Bottom line, guns make me nervous. Kind of like snakes. I simply edge away from the darned things. A couple of years ago, a man came to a 4th of July fireworks celebration in one of our local parks. He wore highly visible six-shooters. A number of families objected. So a cop investigated. Then the man sued the city for violating his constitutional rights. I do not care to stand next to such people and I sure don't want my grandchildren around him.  You never can tell what will set that kind of person off.

Nevertheless, despite my jitters, I plan to learn to handle guns for the sake of my mystery series. Research takes us down funny paths.

But here's the thing. Recently a man shot a car load of teenagers because he didn't like their loud music. In another incident a father was killed in a theatre for texting his kid. The idea that a person has license to shoot someone because he finds the other individual annoying is ludicrous. Can you imagine how this might affect the typical family reunion?

Guns and alcohol have never mixed. Not ever. In the Old West there was a gun rack in the sheriff's office in Dodge City. Wyatt Earp made every stranger that rode into town park his gun.

For Lottie Albright's sake (protagonist in my series) I'll learn to shoot. But as Charlotte Hinger, I doubt that I'll ever learn to like it.


 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hook

John here.

I’m about 50,000 words into my 2015 Peyton Cote (single mom/border patrol agent) novel, and as is often the case, I have picked up a fellow crime writer’s novel (Massacre Pond, by Paul Doiron) got swept away by chapter one, and am now doubting my own opening scene.

Am I a neurotic writer? Of course.

A perfectionist? I strive to be one.

I’m also the guy you seen in the mystery section of the (whenever possible independent) bookstore, reading the first paragraph, frowning, sliding the book back onto the shelf, and picking up the next to see if this one grabs me. I’ll give you a lot of leeway with your conclusion. (I read a lot of endings I don’t like, but I finish the novel.) But you need to write an intro that grabs me.
What do I look for in an opening paragraph, my own or yours? Questions. Lots of them. And questions that I assume will be relevant and (eventually) answered.

These are the opening paragraphs of Massacre Pond:

The first time I laid eyes on Billy Cronk, I thought he was the biggest badass in the Maine woods: six-five, braided blond hair, a tangled mess of a beard. He had arms that could have snapped a two-by-four over his knee for kindling. The night I arrested him for hunting on posted property, I kept my hand close to my pistol wondering if this blue-eyed bruiser would be the death of me.

As a game warden, I’d met my share of roadhouse brawlers and diehard deer poachers, and I understood that most violent men are cowards. Billy Cronk was different. He never doubted his physical prowess and had no need to prove himself against lesser men. He accepted the summons I wrote without forcing me to wrestle him into handcuffs. In fact, he thanked me for it, lowering his eyes out of embarrassment. The more I learned about the man, the more he surprised me.

The questions posed are obvious. But what answers can we anticipate? Billy Cronk will be a big part of the book. And there’s something about him I want to know more about. Why is Cronk “lowering his eyes out of embarrassment”? And we know a lot about our protagonist already: He appears to be Cronk’s antithesis. Also, a backstory is taking shape.

How about these opening lines from the Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway?
  • “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
  • The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight.
  • At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
  • In the old days Hortons Bay was a lumbering town.
  • The rain stopped as Nick turned into the road that went up through the orchard.
  • Nick stood up. He was tall. He looked up the tracks at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around the curve.
  • One hot evening in Padua they carried him onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.
Opening lines are vital to setting up a book or story and keeping your reader engaged. I’d love to hear what others think on this topic.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Editing, proofing... and snowboard cross

A big thank you and good luck to Tom Curran, and a warm welcome to Vicki Delany on her return!

My tenth Inspector Green novel is due out in October 2014, and that means that this week I am in the midst of proofreading the galleys. Now. Right in the middle of the winter Olympics. I admit I'm an Olympic junkie. I love the thrill of aerials, the bedlam of short track speed skating, and the jaw-dropping speed of downhill racing. The explosive grace of figure skating. I love watching the best in the world put their hearts, and indeed often their lives, on the line. Training, training, training, all in the hopes of a few moments of perfection.

As a writer, my life is pretty dull and cautious by comparison, but even for us, there are commonalities. Practice, practice and polishing is essential in that quest to produce the best piece of writing we can. The road to publishing is a bit like snowboard cross. Rollercoaster ups and downs, moments of soaring, crashes, take-outs, missteps that take us out of bounds. Exhilaration at a contract or a good review, crushing defeat at a rejection letter. Writers, like athletes, compete first against themselves, aiming for their own personal best.

So here I am, with one eye on the men's snowboard cross and the other on my laptop, trying to concentrate on the words I have read many times, words I know so well that it's easy to gloss over them, to see the word I expect rather than the typo that is there. Proofing is mind-numbing work. No writer can read their own work without wanting to improve it. Change a word here, delete an adjective there. Rephrase or rework. But with the book already set for printing, this is past the time for editing or polishing. This is the time to catch those pesky typos. Not exhilarating, not creative, but all part of making the book the best it can be.

In the interests of watching snowboard cross while getting my quota of pages proofed tonight, I will keep this blog short. Otherwise, who knows what strange mistakes will trip up readers when they open up the printed None So Blind in October.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sympathy for the devil

Frankie’s post this past Friday has provided me with a great deal of food for thought.

I’m currently working out details for a projected series (yes, Blechta is considering going over to the dark side), and since I always try to pay attention when more experienced authors speak, I hope I’m going about setting things up the right way. I’m not looking at the first book and what I’ll say about the main characters in it, but I’ve got my eye focused much further down the road. Too often I’ve heard the lament “If I’d only realized when I started that my character wasn’t interesting enough,” or “I didn’t realize I’d be writing 25 books about this person.” I am bound and determined not to get sucked into any of the traps I’ve heard about.

My fourth novel, Cemetery of the Nameless, started out with a far different protagonist than what hit the printed page. First of all, it was a he rather than a she. Second of all, by around page 70, I realized my first-person saga would never reach completion because I would be forced to kill my protagonist long before I reached the end of the story. Reason: I hated his guts. He was a whiner. He was crass. He was conceited. I just didn’t like the guy. (And to this day I have no idea why this happened. Isn’t that weird?) I’d work on excising one personality wart and another would pop up to replace it. Bottom line: he was a complete jerk, irredeemably so. I stopped writing, thought for a few weeks, and then started the book afresh with a different protagonist (although still somewhat of a pain in the behind for me), an altered story, and a different location.

Needless to say, my lesson was learned. So for the past two months and a bit, I’ve been working on my nascent characters who have now progressed to the point where I can almost feel them standing around, waiting for me to come up with their first story.

Then our Frankie stuck her much-needed (for me) oar in the water last Friday. Before I step into this new pool, I very much need to consider my villain.

It’s far too easy to craft a bad guy these days. Psychiatry and psychology have come up with so many seductive afflictions to choose from, we crime writers can get pretty lazy – yours truly included. In many ways, dumping some psychopathology into an antagonist allows a writer the luxury of not having to explain very much. “Why did he do that? Because he’s a psychopath! No one knows why they do some of the things they do.”

But Frankie is correct. We need to make our antagonists more nuanced, give them some redeeming factors to go along with the bad ones. I’m not talking here about a character who does something horrible for what seems a very understandable reason. In this type of situation, the protagonist can bring them down, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Those situations can make good stories.

Frankie’s post made me realize that one of the reasons my new characters are being forced to stand around and wait is that I’ve been looking for something, and that is: a worthy opponent. I’m going to have to draw this character almost as carefully as I’m drawing my two series protagonists. That’s going to require writing them some backstory, a trick I use when I’m creating main characters. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve never done this in any kind of detail for my bad guys. How short-sighted can I be?

This time is going to be different. Nothing less will do than a fully realized antagonist will do.

I’ll let you know how it all works out – but thanks, Frankie, for yanking my chain unintentionally.

_________________

A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT TO TYPE M READERS!

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am able to announce that Vicki Delany, one of the founding members – actually the founder – of Type M for Murder, is returning to the fold. She will be writing on alternate weeks with Aline, that is on Mondays (taking Tom Curran’s spot). Look for her first post on March 3rd.

Welcome back Vicki!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Last Post

Yup, this is it, my last post for Type M For Murder. Sorry to have to say that, but it's true.

I actually passed the word around to a group of regular readers to whom I email the Type M link after each of my posts, that my post of two weeks ago would be the last. But Rick Blechta asked me to do one more, and I agreed. So, this is it. A kind of formal farewell, if you will.

It's been a lot of fun, even if sometimes there was some serious head-scratching over what to write about on the day. I always managed to come up with something, as we all do, even if a couple of posts focused on day-to-day stuff in my life. Like my new 2013 Mustang, still working well and swallowing huge quantities of gasoline. One glitch though; the sway bars in the suspension - whatever they might be – went wonky a month ago and needed a repair. Happily done under the warranty; and the inconvenience of leaving the car with the dealer overnight was nicely balanced by their having washed and vacuumed the beast, a real plus in Ottawa's winter climate when by late January automobiles tend to look like something from a polar archeological dig, grey and grubby and caked in salt.

Type M gave me the opportunity to write about a large number of things that interested me, and still do. Psychopaths, serial killers, movies that have entertained me, books I have read, authors I admire, trips I have taken, interesting things and places I have seen and thought about. Along the way I gave recommendations for a couple of good restaurants in New York City that Suzanne and I found, and which we will look forward to visiting again this spring when once more we venture south to the Big Apple.

And why is NYC called the Big Apple, you ask? Apparently it derives from the race courses in and around the city:

In the early 1920s, "apple" was used in reference to the many racing courses in and around New York City. Apple referred to the prizes being awarded for the races – as these were important races, the rewards were substantial.

If you like, you can read more about that here: http://gonyc.about.com/cs/atozinde1/a/bigapple.htm

Today, you may be interested to read, is packing day once again. We are leaving this vale of snow and cold and heading south, far south, to a place where the sun shines, the sand is copious and dazzling, and the sea is warm. Our destination this time is the island of St. Lucia. A month ago, we had scarcely heard of the place, and we still don't know a lot about it. It was the escape from winter that was the attraction. We will be at an all-inclusive resort, where we might possibly eat and drink to modest excess. But there is also a fitness centre, swimming pools, and of course the beach and the ocean. I bought new, lightweight shoes for late-night dancing. (Okay, so I cannot really dance, but I can move around with modest grace and efficiency.)

For those who enjoy travel info, St. Lucia is one of the "Windward Islands" in the eastern Caribbean, part of the Lesser Antilles, northwest of Barbados. It's a small island, just over 238 square miles, and has a population of about 174,000. It's currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar; when I inquired at my bank if they had any to sell me, the chappie behind the counter blinked and said "What?" So I will be visiting the island armed with U.S. dollars – still the international staple – and my VISA card. The island, btw, is named – by the French – after Saint Lucy of Syracuse. The Brits and the French fought over possession of the island so many times that the place was nicknamed the "Helen of the West Indies". The Brits did eventually, in 1814, take definitive control of the place.

No travel commentary would be complete without some photos, so here you are:

         


Those two pointy hills you see in the first photo are called "pitons"; the pitons are actually "volcanic plugs", and part of a World Heritage Site. And in the way that people will do such things, the local St. Lucian beer is called "Piton". Well, of course it is.

So, Bon Voyage, everyone. In about 36 hours we will be sitting on the balcony of our room, looking at the blue Caribbean, possibly even sipping a Piton beer. Or something. For sure.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Loving Villains

I've been thinking about villains. As I work on the next book in my series, I'm also making progress on my 1939 historical thriller. I have bad guys (i.e., criminals) in both, but the 1939 stand-alone presents me with a unique opportunity because it is a standalone. I have the opportunity to create a villain who is dastardly and evil.

I should confess that I have a fondness for villains. I cut my villain teeth on Shakespeare's plays -- first in high school than in three semesters of college English courses. I love a villain who can "smile, and smile, and be a villain". But -- as we are told in writers manuals -- a good villain must be complex (i.e., three-dimensional). Serial killers who pick the usual victims and kill them in the usual grisly ways for the usual reasons do nothing at all for me. If my villain is going to kill that many people, I want him to have a reason that merits that much mayhem. I want to sit with him as he contemplates the blood on his hands and justifies in his own mind what he has done and why it was necessary.

I want my villain to be as smart and as courageous as my hero. "Creating Villains 101" -- the villain should be worthy of the hero he is pitted against. He also should be the hero of his own story. As we all know, a character who is "the villain" in a book or movie, sometimes returns as "the hero" in the sequel.

As media commentators have observed, in modern popular culture, the "hero" often engages in behavior that is as violent and psychopathic as the "villain" and the only way we can tell them apart is the goals they are attempting to achieve. These are the heroes on TV and in movies who use "whatever means necessary" to find the hostage who is buried alive or prevent the bomb from exploding.

But even flawed and violent heroes are being upstaged by badder than bad villains. As Anthony Breznican observed in Entertainment Weekly (1/8/2013), "it's a very good time to be a very bad person." A well-crafted and well-acted villain -- for example, Heath Ledger as "The Joker" -- is often critical to the success of big-budget films.

Good villains always have been crucial to a good story. But my dilemma -- or, rather, my challenge -- as I sit down to create my villain for my 1939 thriller is that my villain is someone who I would hate and fear in real life. I can see him and hear him, and I don't like what he is saying. I need to get into his head and learn to love his villainy. I need to understand why he is as he is so that when he is on stage and speaking for himself, my disapproval of what he intends to do is not hampering him.

I want my readers to feel the same conflict that I hope to eventually feel -- to root for his downfall while wishing he might be redeemed and saved. I need empathy. I haven't gotten there yet. I'll working on his bio, giving him a family tree, thinking about his relationship with his father. But I'm still at the "I don't care that your father did . . . that doesn't justify" stage. Besides his father was a nice guy, and my villain is using that as an excuse. . .

I need to find that point of entry in his bio. That wound in his psyche that isn't hackneyed and that will make me want to sit down with him and listen. But right now, he is all glib, shiny surface, and he isn't letting me in. He is a stereotype and someone I don't like. I need to love him.

On the other hand, I don't love either of my male protagonists yet either. They are heroic, save-the-world types. The only character who is speaking to me at this point is a female character who was supposed to be a minor character, but now has her own voice. She's starting shy and sweet, but I can see her kicking villain butt by the time we get to the end of this.

I need to go darker with my male protagonists. Think of my federal agent and my heroic sleeping car porter from the standpoint of my villain. Think of who my heroes would be if they allowed themselves to be as bad as my villain. And who my villain would be if he were acting in the name of a noble cause.

Flawed heroes and tragic villain, that's what I need. And a woman who can keep them all in line.

Happy Valentine Day!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Big Thaw

No, I'm not talking about the weather. I know that most of you have been shivering, sliding around, and trudging through snow up to your necks this winter, but I live in sunny southern Arizona so I definitely cannot complain about that.*

                                                                     Your winter
                                                                      My winter

What I'm talking about is my slow reawakening to reality after a month of surgery recuperation. For the first weeks after the operation, I had anesthesia head and was incapable of coherent thought. I couldn't get around very well and was pretty uncomfortable, so I didn't accomplish anything except one crossword puzzle after another. I still couldn't move well for the next couple of weeks, but I felt better. I sat around in something of a pleasant fog, floating happily, allowing my patient husband to wait upon me hand and foot. By week four I began to wake up and realize that I'd better ease back into work, because time marches on and many a task is pending.

I've been working on a new non-series book for over a year. Maybe closer to two years. While still writing my series books. I desperately want to get the new novel done before the end of March or the editor to whom I promised to show the manuscript is going to kill me. I keep changing my mind about the direction of the story. A few days ago I decided that my victim's body should be discovered somewhere other than in his own back yard. So I'm in the midst of going through the entire MS and making that tweak. I generally write historicals, which means I'm not entirely confident in my 21st Century crime solving methods. I recently corresponded a bit with a Scottsdale policewoman, who agreed to answer my procedural questions, so I sent them to her a week or ten days ago and never heard back. I have another police prospect I'll try to contact, but I may end up skirting around the issue and not worrying about it. This is the problem with having no deadline. I can't let the durn thing go.

On top of everything, yesterday the press sent me the ARC of Hell With The Lid Blown Off, the next Alafair book (in electronic form for the first time. My poor eyes). They want the corrections back by Feb 21, which would be okay except that I also agreed to moderate two panels for the Tucson Festival of Books and I'm trying to read as many books by the six participating authors as I can before March 14 and work up discussion topics. They're great authors, so this is not torture by any means, but they're all quite prolific and it does take time. Fortunately, the slate includes Rhys Bowen, Jacqueline Winspear, and Tim Hallinan, all of whom I have read several books by already. That was an awkward sentence but you get the picture. On top of it all, I agreed to blurb a book before May 1, which I haven't even begun reading. Considering that I don't go anywhere except to doctor's appointments lately, I have been keeping busy. I need to learn not to say yes to everything anyone asks me to do.

Today marks the end of post-op week five. I'm almost back to normal--still cripping around a little, but the brains are finally in working order. I'm kind of sorry about that, in an odd way. That fog was very pleasant.
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*All right, I can complain a little bit. It's supposed to be near 90 degrees by this weekend. Considering that this is mid-February, that does not bode well for a mild summer here in the Valley of the Sun.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Crossing I’s and dotting T’s

We authors live in fear of horrible typos creeping into our books. For that matter editors and publishers do, too. In these days of reliance on spell checkers and lack of proofreading at the final stages of production, terribly scary things can happen.

I have an author friend who shall remain nameless (to spare him any more embarrassment) who had an egregious error make it into print. His main character was kicked between the legs and fell to the ground, curling up into the coital position. I can understand how this happened, and why it got missed by so many people during production. He has my undying sympathy. Believe me, he’s taken a lot of ribbing over the years.


I had my own near-death experience with a dreadful typo. I found an horrendous typo at the “blueline stage” (Remember those? If you do, then you’ve been in the game a long time.). One of my characters was wearing a fir coat! Now doesn’t that paint a lovely picture in the reader’s mind? The only reason I caught it – and we’re talking last eyes here – was because the phone rang and when I put down the stack of bluelines, a couple fell to the floor. When I picked the last one up, the mistake caught my attention. I’d already checked off that page, too. Oh, the ignominy that would have followed me to the end of my days had that error slipped through!

Thing is, once you get to the end of the production process, you need a fresh person to look things over. Neither the author nor the editor is seeing things sharply anymore. Even if a fresh person looks at the ms, I guarantee there will be a couple of mistakes. As the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.”

I did a recording session once that had a repeated figure in the piano part. It was played a few dozen times during the course of the song. In the best take, on only one of the figures, I accidentally hit two notes with my little finger. Since it was up front in the mix, it was pretty noticeable, but not horrible. The mistake was easily correctable by punching in that one instance since I was on a separate track, and the session went on to the overdub stage, problem solved. My brother was an audio engineer at that time, but wasn’t on the session. He did have access to the original master tape, though. A few months later, his mix of the song wound up on my doorstep. He’d replaced every instance of that little lick with the messed up one. I had to listen to my tiny error over and over and over again. It was like a jack hammer going at it on top of my head by the time the song faded to a close, with the repeat the most noticeable thing in the fade. It was funny and all that in retrospect, but I recall that my response was very different at the time.

That’s what it’s like when one of those dreadful mistakes happens in your book. It pays to make as sure as possible that your prose is clean and as error-free as you can possible make it. You’ll never be perfect, but hopefully nothing really horrendous will happen.

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On the book front, my next full-length novel, Roses for a Diva, is undergoing editing, and the design studio at my publisher has completed the cover. They’re happy, I’m happy, and I think it will look great on bookstore shelves.

If you remember back a few months, you’ll know the cover image is one I was involved in with my ace photographer friend, Andre Leduc. While the image isn’t quite the way we set it up (I’d done careful close crops of the rose and mask so that they could be moved and the photographed background discarded if that is what the designer decided to do.), I think it’s working pretty nicely. My thanks to designer Courtney Horner who allowed me to make a few suggestions to help things along a bit. (Graphic designers have real issues with leaving things alone, and I’m no exception.)

Let me know what you think. And by the way, yes, the cover image has a lot to do with the plot of the book – in more ways than you can imagine, and because of that, I’m an extra-happy camper.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Algorithm for a Bestseller

The biggest problem any publisher faces is how to tell if a book is going to be a success or not. Every so often, after a book has proved to be a huge best-seller, they have an  'Ah-ha!  So that's what the public wants!' moment and think that at last they've found the winning formula and commission lots of books on that basis. But sooner or later – sooner in most cases – the unobliging public make it clear that the previous success was a fluke and its formula-derived successors crash and burn.

Of course, there are the formula series like Mills and Boon that do incredibly well by supplying books to an audience that sees them as simply a brand that must be the same every time and would be as unhappy with something different as I would be if my favorite Fruit 'n' Fibre breakfast cereal turned out to have chocolate and nuts in it one morning.

But in less prescriptive fiction, the 'How do you tell?' dilemma for a publisher remains. Mostly, the decision to accept or not to accept a book comes down to a feeling about it, a hunch – or what editors like to call a 'judgement.' This could be the sort of 'judgement' that turned Frederick Forsyth and JK Rowling away from their doors.

However, a recent paper in Comparative Linguistics from the Computer Science department at Stony Brook University, New York, has come up with an algorithm that claims to be able to predict a successful book with 84% accuracy.

It was based on books available from the Gutenberg Press whose degree of success was already established, and it came to some surprising conclusions, some of which very much run contrary to accepted  beliefs.

For instance, advice given to crime writers suggests that we should be using verbs, keeping the action going, avoiding detailed description. We should be writing clear, punchy sentences, not stringing them out with conjunctions. Right?

The trends the study found in successful books were to have lots of 'and's and 'but's. along with large numbers of nouns and adjectives.

 Less successful writing relied more on adverbs and verbs, particularly verbs describing specific actions or emotions – they instanced 'wanted', 'took' or 'promised.' On the other hand, verbs describing thought processes like 'recognsied' or 'remembered' did feature in the books that had sold well.

Mercifully, I don't think there's any evidence that editors have started using them since I can't think the way I write would fit into the 'successful' formula, or that I could train myself to write that way. It would be a blow to think I could compete in only 16% of the market.

The books I like to read wouldn't come into that category either. And whatever the scientists say, I can't convince myself it would actually work in practice. One of the elements they do admit has an effect in practice is luck - and I certainly do believe in that! 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Seven Deadly (Writing) Sins!

This weekend’s guest here at Type M is once again my good friend, the redoubtable Cheryl Freedman, ace editor and friend to crime writers everywhere. She has edited and consulted on numerous books with many authors here in Canada, and together with her sister editor Elaine runs FreedmanandSister.com, a well-respected and busy editorial service. Cheryl has assisted me for my most recent five novels as “last eyes” before I’ve sent my mss off to the publisher, something that has proven invaluable – and she’s tough to please, an excellent thing in an editor.

She can be contacted at Cheryl@FreedmanandSister.com. You can find her very extensive bio by clicking HERE. If you’re lucky, she’ll be able to help you. Just ask if she’s got time. Oh, and did I mention she was the heart and soul of Crime Writers of Canada for many years? Then there’s her work as chair of Bloody Words. It you’re interested in attending this great and intimate convention, taking place here in Toronto June 6-8, please visit www.2014.bloodywords.com. You can meet Cheryl in person (with or without ferret).

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‘Fess up now: How often do you use words in your writing when you’re not quite sure what they mean? How often do you use the wrong homonym or word that sounds very close to the word you want?

I’m not talking here about words like “imply” and “infer”; any grammar/style/usage book will explain the difference between the two (you imply, I infer). I’m talking about mixing up words like “inter” and “intern,” something I once came across in three books from three different publishers. Just look up the word if you’re not absolutely sure about it. And FYI, the only time you can legitimately use “inter” and “intern” interchangeably is when you throw someone into an oubliette.

I’ve been editing crime fiction for some 13 to 14 years and constantly encounter writing mistakes that annoy me. What’s unfortunate is that these mistakes frequently crop up in what would otherwise be an excellent and imaginative story, but in today’s publishing market, they’re enough to turn off an agent or publisher.

Here’s a very brief list of some other things that vex me no end in a manuscript:

Adjectives, piling up of. Don’t. Just don’t. Better to rely on strong nouns and verbs. And if you are going to use an adjective or adverb, make sure it’s not a stupid one. Crime writers aren’t the worst sinners here; read almost any food blog. You’ll find adverbs like “impossibly,” “ridiculously,” and “insanely” littered about like so many discarded potato peels.

Contractions, not using. Go turn on the TV and watch a show. Listen carefully to the dialogue. Or call a friend (IM won’t work here) and pay attention to how the two of you speak. You’re using contractions, aren’t you? Then why aren’t your characters using contractions in their speech? This isn’t to say that you should always use contractions, but you should have a well thought-out reason not to. You may, for instance, have a character who is prissy and precise, and thus would be more than likely to use full words, although in this case, it’s a speech idiosyncrasy that should be unique to that character.

Eyes. Eyes look, glance, stare, glare; they do not wander, ratchet up towards the ceiling, drop to the ground, etc.

Lecturing. You’re not being paid to be a prof, so don’t lecture. Yes, we know you did a lot of research in writing your book, but if you have to convey this information, do it in a natural manner via your characters rather than making an author guest appearance in the story.

Had I (he/she/it/they) but known... Foreshadowing can be a useful literary device, but it should consist of something (a scene, even a sentence) that just hints at what may be coming. You don’t need to hit someone over the head with an anvil like this phrase.

Info dumping. Closely related to lecturing. You may need to know the velocity of a bullet from a Glock; the reader probably doesn’t. And for God’s sake, don’t have A telling B (usually at great length) something that B would obviously already know from personal experience.

Plot devices. C’mon, you know better. Just say no to coincidences, stupid moves on the part of an otherwise intelligent character (no traipsing up to the attic with a candle stub in 2013), an item being conveniently out of place (oh look, a cast iron frying pan in the bedroom; just the thing to bop the killer over the head with). Ask yourself if you’d believe that what you just wrote would happen in the real world.

OK, this is eight sins and I could go on, but as we all know, when it’s time to end a story, let it end. At least for now...

Friday, February 07, 2014

Our Freaky Winter

I'm leaving for Phoenix this morning. A couple of days ago it was minus 16 degrees here. The weather in AZ is in the 60s and I can't tell you how happy I am to be going to someplace warm.

This freaky weather has everyone on edge. I cringe whenever I see Southern drivers try to cope with icy roads. Retail stores are suffering from lack of customers. Who is thinking spring in these circumstances? Even the arrival of the Olympics can't lift the mood of the county.

Yet, my apartment is warm. I have heat and light. All my trinkets and toys work. I can watch TV when I want to. Email my friends. Read, eat, work.

Can you imagine living in a sod house in this weather? Or a dugout? Actually, those in dugouts were better off. My mind has been on Nicodemus lately. The African Americans who settled this all-black town after the failure of Reconstruction came from Kentucky where game was abundant.

But a great historian who lived there, said the thing that set them reeling was the lack of light. They assumed there would be a place to buy candles. There wasn't. It was 40 miles to a real town. They sat in the dark night after night.

And waited, waited. Waited for spring.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Telepathy

John here.

By day, I work as the English chair at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts. Part of my duties include picking up the slack where needed. This week, that’s meant the enjoyable task of covering a creative writing class for a colleague.

I have been helping fiction students workshop stories, and some of the discussion has turned to overwriting – something I know a thing or two about because I have sinned as often as the next guy.

Part of avoiding the additional modifier or (God, save us) the unneeded adverb is to think of the reader as a friendly soul who enjoys playing a role in your scene. That is, I try to think of the reader as someone who wants to fill in blanks themselves. I know I like to play an active role when I read.

Attempting to explain this to my students this week, I told them my close friend is a Maine State Police Detective. Then I asked the students to tell me what he looks like. What does my friend wear? A long dark coat. Correct. How does he wear his hair? Short. Crew cut. Close enough. If it was vastly different – and relevant – I’d let the reader know by offering a description. Same with setting: If I’m told the kitchen has a granite countertop, I can imagine what type of appliances line the counter.

I always think of Hemingway as my model: He describes the girl in “Hills Like White Elephants” by telling readers only that she is wearing a sunhat and has an umbrella. So what else is she wearing? Has to be a long dress.

Sounds easy, right?

It’s not. In fact, it is far from easy. We all make that extra brush stroke that takes energy from the scene by telling the reader too much. We all overwrite because we’re not sure we have written what we are trying to convey as clearly as we can.

Telepathy is challenging as hell, but it is part of the fun of writing – and reading.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Another kind of haunting

Rick's post of yesterday got me thinking. As a regular blogger on Type M, I am always hunting for new ideas for blogs. After awhile I feel as if I've said it all before, and wonder if there is an original idea under the sun that someone on Type M or elsewhere hasn't already beaten to death. So about two days before my blog post date, I start scrounging for ideas, and often I read the blogs that came before to see whether there is a germ of an idea I can expand on.

Rick's post on the lure of abandoned buildings was pure gold, in more ways than one. First, I realized that my twice-monthly struggle to find a scintillating and original blog idea mirrored almost exactly the process I encounter when embarking on a brand new book. I have written twelve books. I have explored many of the ideas that I hold dear. So I ask myself, what can I write about this time? What can I say that hasn't been said before, by me or by someone else? No writer wants to revisit old ideas or recycle stale plots. We want to be as excited and inspired by each new story as we hope the reader will be. Finding that fresh story is the challenge.

Snippets of story race through a writer's mind constantly. It's part of our psyche - oooh, there's a story in that! Intriguing events, unique characters, or as Rick notes, fascinating locales. We steal from the headlines, we eavesdrop on coffee shop or bus conversations, we salivate at a steep staircase or tantalizing cliff. But most of these snippets are not worth 300 pages. At best, they find minor roles in the stories we create, or get folded into other richer, deeper ideas. Stories that are truly captivating – that have layers and contradictions and meanings beyond the obvious, stories that are at the same time unique and universal, stories that capture our hearts and make us cheer and cry along with the characters – these are the tales we strive to tell.

And that's the other point I took from Rick's post. If you are looking for the unique expression of the universal, look to history. Tie the human experience from yesterday to the human yearnings of today. I realized that many of my best stories have had a historical connection. Something in the past comes back to haunt the present. I love that duality, which lets me interweave two stories together and allow each mystery to propel the other. I have explored old sexual abuse, Nazi war crimes, buried family secrets and crushing military trauma, all in the context of a contemporary crime story. As a writer, I get to travel to distant eras, research history, and probe exciting new themes, all the while taking the reader along for what I hope is a fascinating and illuminating ride.

Abandoned buildings take many shapes, both literal and figurative. I have not yet set a story in a genuine haunted house (although who knows where my next idea will come from), but some of my best ideas are haunted by the past. What about yours?

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Abandonment

In my first two years of university, I had to take some sort of non-music academic course, my choice. I don’t know if it was my faculty advisor or me who picked a survey course called The History of Architecture, Part 1. Even though the course was a bit dry, the professor who taught it was pretty good and he had terrific slides of all the ancient structures we studied. I was hooked and made sure I was signed up for Part 2 as soon as course selection started for the next term.

I soon realized that the most attractive thing to me in regards to old buildings were the ruined ones (pretty well all of ancient Greek and Roman ones) or those that were abandoned and hadn’t quite fallen into ruins yet. As the years have piled up, my fascination has continued. When we go out hiking on the Bruce Trail here in southern Ontario (a favourite place on which to stretch our legs), if there is the foundation of an old farmhouse, or a wall or two of an abandoned mill, that’s where you’ll find me.

Our trips to England, of course, have been wonderful. Everywhere you look there are ruined castles, feudal manor homes, rundown factories and even some Roman relics here and there. Of course my research trip to Italy in 2011 which saw a stop in Rome provided me with hours of seeing the huge constructions of this long-dead civilization. I didn’t get to see half of what I wanted.

When the weather doesn’t poking around outside, the Internet becomes my favourite way to indulge my hidden interest. At least once a week, I’ll research one old building or another. Right now my wife and I are both delving into the construction of Brunelleschi’s amazing dome for Florence’s cathedral – and believe me, what he managed to design and build is nothing short of amazing.

So here are two collections of abandoned building I recently found on the Internet. As a writer, it’s not hard to look at these and find the germ of ideas for a story or a scene in a larger book. They’re absolutely fascinating to a “ruin junkie” like me.

Hope you enjoy them, too!

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2316987/Photographer-Niki-Feijens-eerie-images-abandoned-farm-houses.html

http://distractify.com/culture/arts/the-most-spectacular-abandoned-places-in-the-world/

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Question For Alfie

As in, "What's it all about?"

That's possibly one of the most complicated questions to ask anyone, anywhere, anytime. There are as many answers, obviously, as there are individuals, and no single answer that will bring forth anything close to general acceptance.

In the course of a day, any day, one comes across bits of information that impact the mind so some extent, and then go away. Not vanish, exactly, but recede into near-invisibility. Like one of those insightful, even "brilliant", thoughts one has upon awakening in the middle of the night. I remember reading, many years ago, a note by an author (whose name is long-forgotten) that he had just such a brilliant thought in the wee hours of the new day, found a pencil and pad and wrote down the essence of it. The next morning, he looked at the pad and found that he'd written gibberish. The "brilliant thought" made no sense at all in the relatively bright light of the new day.

It's kind of like the "great ideas" I sometimes have for a story or a new book. I sit down in front of the computer screen and keyboard and start to type (in my hunt-and-peck manner) and an hour later what sits on the screen is something close to gibberish. Which is then consigned to the "miscellaneous" bin.

On the other hand, things sometimes turn out differently. A month ago, after looking at an old family photograph for the umpteenth time, I had an idea for a story, and set to work on same. I wrote intensely for two weeks. Ten drafts and some 15,000 words later I had a long short story based on my mother's family - heavily fictionalised - that I am very pleased with. Three people have read it and declared it good. It still needs some work, of course. (Who was it who wisely said, a story is never quite finished.)

Eventually, after some additional revisions, I will bite the metaphorical bullet and submit it for publication. Somewhere.

But to get back to the fictional Alfie. (I am assuming that our readers all know who "Alfie" is. Alfie is a somewhat odious character created on-screen by Michael Caine in the 1966 film of the same name; and immortalised - perhaps maybe that's a bit strong? - in the title song penned by Bert Bacharach and Hal David, and sung by Dionne Warwick.)

The question, in all its complexity, popped into my head this morning when I reviewed some of my activities from the past week.

Thursday night I spent two hours watching the first two episodes of Luther, Season 3. Luther is the London-based DCI John Luther who is an admirable policeman, but one who will "cut corners" to bring the bad people to justice. He is therefore a target for an internal-affairs investigation. Luther, as I chronicled in an earlier post, is played by the really impressive British actor, Idris Elba.





(Elba, btw, recently portrayed Nelson Mandela in the 2013 biopic.)

I bring the series up in this context because Luther is an extremely violent series of stories, and the villains are an exceptionally frightful lot of twisted criminals. Much of the series context (all three seasons) is truly scary.

In Season 3, the opening scenes have one of the scariest sequences I have ever seen. A late-thirtyish woman comes back to her flat in London, alone. Everything about the sequence is portentous. She locks the door behind her, goes to her bedroom, undresses and climbs into bed. She turns out the light. She falls asleep. The camera lingers on the scene. You just know that something awful is going to happen. And it does. After long moments there is a movement in the room and a man's head suddenly appears from under the bed, then his shoulders, and finally he is standing beside the woman's bed. He is dressed all in black, and ....

Well, watch the episode yourself, and see if you are as shocked and frightened as I was by the sequence.

The question is, why do I/we watch such things? Or put another way, "What's it all about?" The question intrigues me. We read crime fiction and we write crime fiction, and on the face of it, this is really perverse. I am not a violent person; I am actually a very pacific fellow. But I have killed - in fictional context - a lot of people. I have read fiction where vast numbers of people have been killed, and in very violent ways.

(I do have limits, though. The last Patricia Cornwell novel I attempted to read was so gruesome and perverted that I not only could not read it, I threw it away.)

Last month, Suzanne and I watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad. The series is brutal. Terrible things happen in almost every episode. The lowest ebbs of human behaviour are exploited. And it's absolutely fascinating. And entertaining. We will get back to the following seasons. But first we have to, want to, get through Season 2 of - wait for it! - The Sopranos. The antics of Tony Soprano and his dreadful companions.

Which series, incidentally, last night gave me the answer to the question. Why do we do this? Why bludgeon our senses with fictional violence and bloodshed that scares the bejabbers out of us? Because, as Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Tony's analyst) tells her analyst (played by Peter Bogdanovich), we can have all the thrill of heart-stopping terror, without having to experience any of the consequences.

It's true. We are complex creatures, we humans - who write, read and watch awful things for pleasure. It's always been that way, and always will be.

But I have to say, that nothing I have done or experienced lately in the entertainment field has given me as much pleasure as writing a fictional story based on my mother's family history. A story in which no one at all is murdered. Not one single person.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Jenn McKinlay, Honored Guest

Type M is so pleased to welcome our weekend guest blogger, the inimitable Jenn McKinlay. Jenn is the author of several New York Times best selling mystery series, including the Cupcake Mysteries, the London Hat Shop Mysteries and the Library Lover's Mysteries.  Her witty humor makes her mysteries a delight to read. She lives in sunny Arizona, in a house overrun with kids, pets and her husband's guitars, and yet produces four or five books a year! How does she do it, you ask? Let her tell you all about it... Take it away, Jenn.
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The Hows and Whys of It

How do you manage to write so many books? I get this question A LOT, probably, because I write four to five books per year. Yeah, it sounds impressive until people get to know me and realize that I exist in an overtired highly caffeinated haze that feeds my pet dragons – Self doubt and Paranoia. Not the greatest critters to have, I assure you. Oh, and my house, yeah, it’s a mess.

So, why do I do it? Well, it took me a really long time to get published. Reeeeally long! So, when I finally sold my first mystery I was convinced it would all go up in smoke (not the good kind) and I was right. My first series was shelved, no, not in libraries or bookstores more like in the netherworld, before the third book even came out. Luckily, in a rare moment of clarity, I’d had the wisdom to pitch two more series. I got incredibly lucky and both series did, and thankfully are still doing, okay. Still nervous, however, I took on two more series. See a pattern here?

It’s been four years since my first book, in the series that tanked, came out and I am making an effort to calm down and take the occasional nap. It’s not easy. So many things are changing in the publishing industry and at the speed of sound, I’d say the speed of light but rumors operate on volume. It used to be I obsessed about my query letter and font size, now I obsess about whether I should be self-pubbing or am I doing enough social media. You’ll note none of my obsessions are about whether my writing is quality or not. Note to self, adjust your priorities. Ha! I’m kidding about that. The bogeyman that keeps me up at night is the one that whispers in my ear while I’m sleeping, making me worry whether I have told my story in the best possible way. He’s a hook-nosed, warted-up, halitosis inflicted bogeyman, indeed.

But it seems I’ve answered why I write so much but not how. Well, deadlines help. I am a motivated soul when it comes to reaching the two greatest words in the English language – THE END. I have all sorts of motivational tricks to get me there. I strive to write between five to ten pages every day, so if I am interested in a knitting project, I don’t let myself knit a stitch until I’ve written my pages for the day. Same goes for watching television or reading a favorite author’s book, it’s not allowed until the writing goal is met even if it takes until midnight. When it’s really bad and I am distracted by everything, gee, that oven needs to be cleaned, then I bust open the bag of coconut M&Ms and I ration out a handful for each page done. I tried to be healthier and use raisins and cranberries instead but, no, just no.

Will I continue to write this many books? Yes. Despite all the dangling carrots I use to get myself to focus, nothing truly motivates me as much as the story. I genuinely love my characters, the ridiculous things they say and do, and I like nothing better than spending time with them. When I’m writing and I feel as if I have fallen down the rabbit hole and am just a vessel for the words to get to the page, then I know I’m in the zone and closure will come faster than I want it to so I savor each scene and bit of word play until I type THE END.
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Look for Jenn's newest Cupcake Bakery book, Sugar and Iced, this April. Coming in May 2014, Death of a Mad Hatter, the third installment in her Hat Shop Mystery series. Jenn's web site address is www.jennmckinlay.com.