Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More on minions — and other minor characters

I loved Mario’s post this weekend. The word “minion” conjures up so many wonderful images, but it was also a very thoughtful piece that caused me to begin thinking about minor characters and even those little walk-ons that happen when one is writing fiction.

We often talk about “colour” and “place” in novels and they are crucial important background items that help a great deal in bringing a story to vivid life – especially if the reader lives there or has visited. That visceral “I’ve seen that building!” or “I know that place”, can certainly add to a novel’s success. For those who haven’t been to that location, the writer must provide clear images to fire the imagination and inner eye of the reader. It really can be the kiss of death when a novelist can’t manage to portray these things believably (or at all).

But maybe there’s a third very important background piece that is too often taken for granted in novel writing: the perfect background character.

I know I’ve been guilty of not giving these important people their due. You know what I mean. If you had to visually represent them, most would be cardboard cutouts. It’s quick and easy to populate a story with the “extras” you need, but I, for one, need to do it with more care.

There is something else that must be considered here, though, before you start to flesh out those walk-ons: how much is too much?

Everyone in a novel can’t be a “character”, those people who are quirky, often memorable, and when used judiciously, can lift the writing directly into the readers’ imagination. I can’t remember now whose novel it was (but it was a well-known, dare I say, famous author who was well thought of), but I do remember not finishing the book. The problem was that every character seemed to have an interesting background, or something quirky about their personality to the point that the main characters seemed overwhelmed by the background and the story rather bogged down. I remember thinking, Too hard to wade through, and set the book aside.

So that’s the back side of this coin. The front side reveals books that are so plot- and/or character- driven that unimportant characters are herded on and off the stage to the point where they seem more like cattle.

Where is the happy medium and how do you know when you’ve found it? And what are the secrets to being in that “sweet spot”?

I’ll have more thoughts on this next week, but first, I want to hear from Type M readers, and not just those of you who are authors. For the readers: how much do you want/need to know about those with whom the main characters in a book interact? What authors do you think handle this particularly well – and why? For the authors: how do you handle this aspect when crafting your novels?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Home again, home again

By Vicki Delany

Here I am relaxing at home. (Not actually relaxing, mind because I have three books still to be released in 2015 and more to write for 2016, but you get the point). Over the months of February and March I visited Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Oregon, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.  Oh, and my home province of Ontario also.

All in the service of promoting my newest book, By Book or By Crook, the first in the Lighthouse Library series, written under the pen name of Eva Gates.

Its been an exhausting schedule, but as has been said many times before, the best part of being a writer is the friends you make.  I travelled and did appearances with Kate Carlisle, Jenn McKinley, Donis Casey, Erika Chase, and Barbara Fradkin. I talked books with Molly Weston and Barbara Peters. At Left Coast Crime in Portland, I hung around with the great Canadian contingent of Robin Harlick, Cathy Ace, Sam Wiebe, Linda Wiken, Barbara Fradkin, Eric Brown and Madeleine Harris-Callway (some of whom are pictured below).
















And there I met readers galore. Below is the table that Linda Wiken and I hosted at the LCC banquet. 


I am often asked if I find this sort of tour worthwhile, and I say yes.  With some reservations. It`s always difficult to tell what lasting effect (if any) your appearance will have.  I didn’t sell anywhere near enough books to pay for the flights and hotels, nor did I expect to, but I hope it will pay back over time.  I signed at Mystery on the Beach in Del Ray Beach Florida and By Book or By Crook was the number five bestselling paperback (trade and mass market) in the store for February. 

Booksellers who might not have read my new book otherwise, read it because I was coming, and loved it and so they promoted it to their customers. Certainly being on a panel with bestselling cozy authors like Jenn McKinlay and Kate Carlisle is invaluable for introducing Eva Gates as a new cozy author.

Cave Creek AZ with Kate Carlisle and Jenn McKinlay

Wherever I was I managed to find the time to drop into Barnes and Nobel to sign copies of the store stock of By Book or By Crook and slip my bookmarks into them.  Hopefully, browsing readers will come across them.

Next up: Malice Domestic in Bethesda, May 1 – 3, and the Mechanicsburg Mystery bookstore in Mechanicsburg PA on May 3rd. And, best of all, ROAD TRIP! with Mary Jane Maffini and Linda Wiken.

Until then, I had better get some writing done. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Respect Your Minions

I'm close to priming the BSP pump and start spraying news about my forthcoming Felix Gomez detective-vampire book, Rescue From Planet Pleasure. Early in that story I had a battle between the good vampires and the enemy bloodsuckers. My heroes were cutting down the bad guys by the dozens. Then during the writing of that manuscript I saw the James Bond thriller, Skyfall, and that made me reconsider the body count. Near the climax of the movie, a horde of bad guys close upon Bond and company trapped in the mansion. Our intrepid champions cut through the ranks of the evil doers who kept attacking and attacking like mindless zombies. Then it hit me.

Why are minions so willingly expendable? Why are the bad guy pawns so relentless in their attack despite being slaughtered? These guys are criminals, which means they have only two possible motives. Either they are cultish slaves or they're in the business of murder and mayhem for profit. Even if they are devoted slaves to the master criminal, wouldn't they--as they're being mowed down--ask the boss to reconsider their strategy? What's the point of them dying like vermin? And if they're in it for the money, I think that after one or two bite the dust, the rest would pull back and regroup. Money is only good if you can spend it, something that's hard to do from the grave.

In Skyfall the bad guys arrive in a gigantic helicopter, worth tens of millions of dollars. Flying that machine ain't easy, so it would have to be piloted by an experienced and rather level-headed crew, and despite their competency, the copter is easily destroyed. At what point would the crew hit "minion-override" and decide to quit acting stupid? A band of murderous criminals is like a pack of wolves, and like wolves, once the alpha threatens the pack, then they turn on him.

That realization made me reconsider the slaughter of the minions in my story, and I cut back on the body count. I even had some of the minions rebel against the villain because of their useless loss. As we writers like to say, everyone is the hero of their own story, so it would make sense for the minions to act in their own self-interest. Which actually makes for a more layered and deeper story. Lesson learned.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Until Death Do Us Part

This is going to be a short post because today is a busy one.

Whenever Chicago The Musical, is touring in the Albany area, I always have too much going on to attend a performance. But I was thinking of the musical and the story behind it a few days ago. I showed the students in my crime and mass media class a clip from the movie. As many of you know, the 1926 play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, inspired by two high-profile murder cases in which women accused
of murder of a lover of husband had been acquitted. She wrote the play as a satire on crime and celebrity while attending Yale Drama School.

I always think of Watkins' play in conjunction with Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles" (1916) about the murder of John Hossack. Glaspell adapted the play as a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917).

Glaspell was a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News when she covered the trial of Margaret Hossack. Hossack was accused of killing her husband, a wealthy farmer, with an axe while he slept. Hossack was first convicted and sentenced to prison. But she was freed after a second trial resulted in a hung jury. No one was ever convicted of the crime, but the case affected Glaspell deeply. If Watkins's play is about a garish, brightly-lit world, Glaspell's is about the isolation of Midwestern farm life. I'd be interested in hearing what you think of her story.




Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Seasons of an Artist’s Life, or Been There, Done That

As he was ringing us up, the very good looking, very young and studly clerk asked us, "So, are you celebrating tonight? Going to a party? Having some green beer?" It was St. Patrick's Day and my husband Don and I were standing at the check-out counter at Trader Joe's.

"No," I said. "Been there, done that."

"Don't worry," he told us, "I'll take up where you left off."

I thought of this when I read Rick's entry on this blog yesterday. He noted that he no longer has the same energy he had in his youth, and though still creative and infinitely more experienced, one's "fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did."

I know what you mean, Rick. When I was a kid, I started writing stories as a distraction from family trauma. I created worlds and escaped into them. I remember with fond nostalgia the days I would write for hours on end, lost in my stories, feeling an actual love for my characters as though they were my real friends or family or lovers. (Sometimes I loved my characters more than certain friends or family or lovers.) I have a much more business-like relationship with my fiction these days. I don't have the passion I once had. Just more skill.

Well, to everything there is a season, so the Bible says. The body and the brain sputter and fade out eventually. Of course, I never really thought that talent or genius originates in the brain, anyway. Years ago it occurred to me like a flash of lightning that your brain is just like a radio transmitter that picks up inspiration from the Big Mysterious Place and allows you to transform that inspiration into action in the physical world. It's just that as your receptors fray you have a little more trouble picking up the signal.
In other news, I am so close to finishing this new book. Every day for the past two weeks, I've gotten out of bed and thought, "Today's the day!" Thus far it hasn't been.

I had a rather painful writing day today. I sat in front of my computer and did my duty with gritted teeth. I typed a lot of words, most of which I’ll either have to take out later or move to a different scene. But I did it, by damn, and I’m hoping I dug out a lot of slag that has a piece or two of gold in it that I can use later.

I never know why one day is better than another when it comes to writing. Each book seems to be a whole new order of creation for me, and demands its own unique method of coming into being. I’ve been known to outline before I begin when I think that would help me clarify the direction of the plot in my own mind. I have also simply started writing, usually at the beginning, but I’ve started in the middle and the end, as well. More than once I’ve begun a novel on the fly, and then gone back and created an outline because I’ve gotten myself into a muddle and can’t quite figure the way out.he middle of a novel, there may come a moment when you wonder if you're ever going to be able to get it done. You know where you want to end up, but you're not entirely sure how you're going to get there. Sometimes I feel frightened, and wonder if I still have it in me. Will I find my way out of this maze, and do it in such a way that I bring the reader along with me?

It’s not like this has never happened to me before, and I must remember that miraculously it always works out. As I write the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the story, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line. I try not to waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness. I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just have to keep going until the book is done. I love writing, but I hate the pressure of trying to get the manuscript done by a deadline. Sometimes I ask myself, do I have to do this? Really, would the world fall apart if I turned it in a couple of weeks late?

Would it?*
_________________
*I'll never know. I'm too neurotic not to do whatever it takes to get the thing done in time.



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is really special creativity only the provenance of youth?

I was away last week and totally oblivious to what day it happened to be, hence one of my rare non-appearances on Type M. My apologies for that. Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing when that happens, but, well, it happens. The world continued to turn. Life as we know it didn’t suffer. And I’m back again this week.

While away, I began reading an account of something that’s always interested me intensely: the soul music of the 1960s that came out of Memphis, Tennessee on the Stax Record label. Yeah, it’s an arcane subject, and most of you reading this have no idea what I am referring to, but that’s okay. It’s not what this weeks post is truly about. It just provides the jumping off point. If you are interested, the book is called Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman.

Stax Records was an anomaly in its time. First and foremost, it was integrated. Its studio musicians, the ones who cranked out all those classic soul tunes by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, etc. got their jobs because of their musicianship. Skin colour didn’t enter into it and that was very rare, especially in the South. This was during a time when the racial turmoil that griped the US was at its height. Once through the doors of Stax, racial differences didn’t matter. Musicianship did.

What amazes me, though, is the incredible musical creativity that existed when those band members got together. Day after day, they crafted astonishing arrangements and recorded literally hundreds of songs. With no written out musical arrangements, just feeling their way through until they were satisfied, this group of young men (mostly) cranked out more era-defining music than nearly anyone else. They’d just cut one song and move on to the next one. Their output is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, it all had a definite “Stax sound”, but the songs never sounded as if they’d come out of a cookie cutter. Each one was its own entity and in the amount that was produced, it’s truly astonishing. (I can provide a listening guide if anyone is interested.)

At roughly the same time, The Beatles were assembling their awesome catalog of era-defining songs. Their output is even more astonishing in the too brief time they flourished as a group.

Now to the crux of the matter. In what way are these two musical ensembles most similar? They all did their best work while rather young and finding their way as musicians. All were playing well “over their heads”.

In much the same way as athletes, pop musicians generally do their best work in their early years. It’s not the same in jazz or classical music, but these artists did do their best “learning” when in their teens and twenties. After that, it’s polish and experience that provides the finishing touches to what they do best and it comes mostly with years and experience.

This is not to say that pop musicians don’t continue to improve in mastering their instrumental ability. But in terms of creativity in making original music, nothing seems to beat those early years for output. None of the members of the Stax house band, as they grew older, created anything near the volume of superb and astonishing music. To be fair, they didn’t have the same chance once things began falling apart at Stax, where they worked five days a week. They weren’t recording at anywhere near the same frenetic pace. So too with The Beatles. Once they split up, their individual shortcomings were exposed simply by the fact they were working alone. Both ensembles were highly collaborative/synergistic. Everyone threw ideas into the creative pot. Solutions were tried and either worked or were found wanting. When the latter was the case, someone else would generally step forward with a different idea. The total was indeed proven to be greater than sum of its parts.

Writers, by definition, work alone. Though there are exceptions, it’s rare to find more than one person crafting the words. Yes, we can join critiquing groups or show our work to trusted allies while we’re still in the “development stages” of our writing, but that’s not really the same thing. In my own small way, I have experienced the (almost) rapture of creating something within a group. It is indeed a heady feeling. Often, it can be a harsh crucible as ideas are thrown out, reshaped, discussed and discarded by the group as a whole, but when the dust clears and you can clearly see the fruits of your labours, it is quite wonderful.

Even though I now write with words rather than sounds most of the time, something is lost. My youth is long since behind me, and with that went youthful energy levels. If I stayed up and worked all night simply because I couldn’t bear turning off the creative tap (as I often did in my youth), I would suffer physically for days, regardless of artistic elation. So that’s no longer on the cards. But I’m also working alone, there’s no one else’s creative energy to feed off of.

I believe I’m still creative in my dotage, but the fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did when I was in my teens and twenties. Shall I say that it appears to be more “rationed” than in the past? And it is nowhere near as fecund. Seldom now do ideas pour out faster than I can hope to catch and write everything down.

The saying is, “Youth is wasted on the young.” We older farts often add, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Both are sad statements at their hearts, but no less true for being somewhat flippant.

I completely believe in both thing – but can’t do a thing about it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tell Me All About Your Book - No, Don't

The other day I came across this quote from British writer Hilary Bailey: 'There are only three statements you can make when writing without being a bore: "I'm writing a book,""I've finished my book," "I've sold my book – break out the champagne!" '

She's right, I thought. The book that so fascinates us that we are willing to spend a year of our lives totally absorbed in it may be of remarkably little interest to anyone else.

I had a spectacular demonstration of this just the other day, when I was away on a research trip. Ian, my husband went up to the hotel bar to order drinks and fell into conversation with a man who told him he was writing a book so Ian mentioned that I was an author.

The man immediately came over to join me and without preamble launched into the story of the book he was writing, the one he'd already self-published, and the one he would be planning to write next, as well outlining his life story which had been their source, in minute detail. When the waitress arrived to say his meal was waiting we greeted her like the US cavalry.

He left without knowing my name or what I wrote - not that I minded. I very seldom talk about a book even once it's published and certainly never, ever, about one that's in progress. Even Ian doesn't read the book until I give him the advance copy.

I often hear friends mention talking through a book with their agent, or reading parts out to friends or doing brain-storming when they're stuck and I feel rather envious – it sounds such a cosy thing to do. But once, very early on, I had what I thought was a brilliant plot and started telling Ian all about it. Next morning when I sat down to write, it had died. My lovely idea was a stone-cold corpse and nothing I could do would revive it.

I don't know why that should have been. The only rationale I can come up with is that for me writing is like telling myself a story and what drives me on is wanting to find out what happens. Once there are no more surprises, the life is gone.

So I am pathologically private about what I'm writing. I almost can't write if someone else is in the room. I loathe having to write synopses in case the worst happens, so I have to hope that my editor will take a lot on trust.

So you're in no danger if you sit down next to me; I promise I won't start boring you about my current book. My grandchildren, now...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Guest blogger M. H. Callway

Type M’s guest blogger this weekend is M. H. Callway, a Toronto crime writer whose first novel, Windigo Fire, was released last fall and has garnered some pretty serious critical attention. She’s hardly a novice writer, though, already having won awards and been a finalist for many others, including the Bony Pete (winner), an Arthur for Best Short Story (winner), the Debut Dagger and the Unhanged Arthur. She’s also someone I would consider a good friend. She even comes out to hear me play trumpet! You can find out more about Madeleine at www.mhcallway.com.

BOOKED TO RUN: How Running and Writing Go Together
by M. H. Callway

Writing and running are vital parts of my life. I’ve been writing since I was a child, crafting plays for my long-suffering playmates to perform, banging out the scripts on my parents’ amazing electric typewriter. Running came along much later thanks to Marian Misters, our beloved owner/operator of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore.

I’ve been a huge mystery fan since discovering Agatha Christie in university. One day, on one of my weekly forays into Sleuth’s, Marian persuaded me to join her new class: Marathon Dynamics promised they could teach anyone to run. I was fit enough but my cardio was wanting. True be told, I could barely run for the bus. So I signed up and changed my life forever.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I’ve run one marathon, dozens half-marathons and numerous shorter races. Every year I bike in the 200+ kilometer Ride to Conquer Cancer. It was a tough journey which required stretching my limits, weathering disappointments and surfing the joy of victory. Exactly like the journey from mystery fan to published crime fiction author. Though I suspect that the road to publication is even tougher!

Today writing and running are integral parts of my life and both support each other. In an academic sense, there are many parallels between running and writing. You aren’t going to run your first marathon any more than you are going to write your first novel without years of skills under your belt, careful planning and enormous discipline. Most of us work up to a marathon/novel by completing shorter works/races.

Both are solitary activities which thrive with a buddy system: your writing critique group, or running buddies, get you out the door and make your run/write, help you stay on track and celebrate with you.

There’s a ten-minute rule in running. On those days when I’d much rather stay nice and warm inside with that extra cup of coffee, the rule says to go out and run for ten minutes. After that, if I want to stop I can go home. Believe me, it works!

The ten-minute rule applies in writing, too. My friend and teacher, Maureen Jennings, has a great exercise to combat writers block. Take paper and pen and write in longhand whatever comes into your mind for ten minutes. You can even write, “I am blocked”, for ten minutes if you like. And believe me this method works. During one of these exercises, I developed an idea that evolved into my short story, “The Lizard”, which won the 2012 Bony Pete Award at Bloody Words.

My solitary runs and bike rides prove wonderful for peace of mind. I work out plot problems and get inspiration from oddities I encounter: an unusual-looking house or a brilliant piece of graffiti. I’ve witnessed car accidents and human altercations (fortunately none of them fatal) and even rescued a lost dog.

Even the less happy aspects of running, like exhaustion and dehydration, have helped my writing. Early on in running, I did the classic Hamilton (Ontario) road race, 30 K Around the Bay. All our training had happened during the winter with freezing temperatures. The day of the race the weather turned warm and sunny with temperatures over 20 degrees. I had over-dressed: I felt so hot during the race, the shade thrown by the ramps of the Burlington Skyway felt like an oasis. Being relatively inexperienced, I didn’t understand how much water I needed to drink: I was so focused on finishing that I skipped drinking and eating enough at the rest stations. I finished in good time despite walk-running the last three kilometers, but then I paid the price: nausea, dizziness, nearly fainting.

I drew on this experience – and a few others along the way – to give authenticity to my debut novel, Windigo Fire. My protagonist, Danny, is a young native Canadian drifting through life after completing a degree in English literature at college. He is drawn into an illegal bear hunt to play the native scout where he hopes to earn enough money to escape his remote Northern Ontario hometown of Red Dog Lake. The morning after the hunt he wakes up to find all the hunters dead, all but Ricky, an enigmatic American. They are forced to team up and fight through the northern bush to escape the killers.

Dehydration is a real issue if you cannot find running water anywhere. Here’s an excerpt that illustrates Danny’s fatigue:
____________

The bush had turned into a maze of vegetation. He wrestled with low-hanging branches, saplings and weeds. Often he had to stop and cut his way through with Ricky’s knife.

This is taking way too long.

His throat burned, a harsh metallic taste invaded his mouth. Dehydration already, every muscle in his body screamed for rest.

If I sit down now, I won’t get up.

“OK, I rest at tree number eleven,” he said into the air. He fought past the tree trunks counting, one, two three…
 ____________

The trick Danny uses is a running favorite. Runners count trees and telephone poles to pull themselves up hills or to the finish line.

Running and writing both continue to enrich my life immeasurably. Last October, life came full circle at the launch party for Windigo Fire at Sleuth of Baker Street when I was able to thank Marian for making it one of her Picks for Sleuth’s newsletter. And thus once again, changing my life forever.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Evildoers

I'm not a total wimp. Not spectacularly brave either. My tastes in mysteries are decidedly on the side of physiological literary mysteries. I hate books with no plot. Even if the writing is exquisite, if there is no story I feel cheated. I also lean toward "mean streets" in mysteries rather than cozies.

So I was surprised at my reaction to the beginning of a book a couple of days ago. A rape was so obviously going to take place and I simply could not stomach it. I laid the book aside. I was reading it in bed. Bedtime reading is a well-established habit and I've learned that certain kinds of books keep me awake. If a book is too upsetting it interferes with a good night's sleep. Which means I will be sluggish and unhappy the next day.

The next afternoon I resumed reading the book. It's terrific! I'm not going to identify it right now because I haven't finished it and will review it when I'm done. Here's what impressed me about the dreaded rape scene; it was not described after all. Yes, it took place, but the focus of the book was on the downfall of a young man who was a non-participating bystander who is bribed by the wealthy family the men involved to keep information to himself. The details of the crime emerge slowly as does the consequences of his disastrous choices.

It's a tale of intricate vengeance wrought by the father of the damaged young woman who committed suicide because of the rape.

Part of my reluctance to continue the book that first night was because this book is so well-written, which means literary, I suppose, which I'm beginning to equate with sad unsatisfying tales. I'm fed up with powerful, wealthy people getting away with anything and everything in literature as well as in real life. I'm disheartened by the number of books where such people are never brought to justice. It's a class issue and it's becoming more obvious all the time in our society.

The book has great characterization and I have hopes that the protagonist who is slowly growing in courage and a thirst for justice will decide to do the right thing. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Evildoers used to be identified as such. I want those days back.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

First-World Problems

I pride myself on posting blogs that come from the heart. I figured that was the expectation -- to tell the truth and the whole truth about the writing life: the good, the bad, and the ugly -- when I signed on to do Thursday posts several years ago.

So here goes.

It hasn't been a great week. I'm oh-for-one on reviews for the second Peyton Cote novel, Fallen Sparrow (June 8). Kirkus ends a summary-packed review with "although Keeley clearly hoped to outdo himself in Peyton's second adventure, he gets in his own way with a monotonous style and a cluster of extraneous characters. Still, his tough but compassionate heroine triumphs against the odds."

Despite the plot summary, the book's most important character, not named Peyton Cote, isn't mentioned, leaving me astonished. My editor had the same response. My agent, as you would expect, is ever-supportive and says the review ends on a high note and there are more important reviews coming.

So what's the point of sharing this?

Writers are supposed to say they don't read the reviews; the reviews don't bother them; or that they never even see the reviews. Let's face it: that's B.S., and we all know it. I read my reviews. I want the feedback. I'm trying constantly to get better. But this one -- ending on a high note or not -- left me perplexed. How does one miss the novel's second most important character? Sour grapes? Maybe. Hell, probably. I put a lot of time into that book, tried to experiment syntactically more than in previous novels, and I admit that I certainly hope other reviews are better.

The only important question after a poor review is Where do we go from here? I was a college athlete before I was a writer, a hockey goalie. I played in hostile rinks where three thousand people chanted my name followed by SUCKS! I know how to get up and dust myself off.

No one was better at doing that than my late father. "It could always be worse" was his mantra. Through esophageal cancer, through chemo, through a loss of sixty pounds, through the final X-ray telling him (and us) the miracle we hoped for was not to be. One of the last things he ever said to me came following that X-ray. He lay on his gurney in the hallway of the Maine Medical Center. I knew what the final X-ray showed, what the results meant, and could think of nothing more poignant than "How are you doing?"

He turned his head to look at me. "It could be worse."

"Worse?" I said. "How could it be worse?"

"There was a little girl leaving the X-ray room when I went in," he said. "She looked like my granddaughter. That would be worse."

So, at the end of the day, I write because I love it. And I write for me. A bad review is only that and quite clearly a first-world problem. Life could always be worse -- and is -- for many others.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

To Read Or Not To Read

All of the talk on Type M recently of launch parties, blurbs and author appearances has made me think about how I select my reading material and why I choose one book over another. So here’s my thought process as it relates to fiction. I have a whole other set of criteria for non-fiction, which I’ll mention later on.

The first two things I notice about a book, pretty much equally, are the cover and the title. If either one (or both) catches my eye, I’ll read the text on the back of the book to see if it’s the kind of book I’d enjoy reading. (Okay, I’ll admit to buying a book based on cover art alone, but it has to be a really, really good cover.) A bad cover turns me off more than a bad title.

When I read the text on the back of the book, all I’m really looking for is what kind of book it is (historical, romance, western, crime/mystery...) and a little about the story line. For crime novels, I’m also interested in the sub-genre such as thriller, cozy, paranormal, etc. One of my pet peeves: giving away too much of the plot on the back of the book. I would rather experience it myself. If I’m still not sure, I’ll read the first page to get a sense of the author’s writing style and the main character. (I don’t know if it’s because I’m a writer, but the writing style can make a difference.)

Setting is also key. Stories set in Scotland, Ireland, the English countryside are winners as far as I’m concerned. For a series set in the U.S., I don’t have any real preferences though stories set in places I’ve enjoyed visiting have a leg up.

If the protagonist has an interesting profession or hobby, the book is more apt to get my attention. If there’s a house with secret passages or there’s a historical mystery mixed in with a contemporary one, I’m so there.

If it’s another book in a series I love, I don’t care what the cover’s like or what the back of the book says. I’ll just buy it. But, just because I like an author, it doesn’t mean I’ll automatically buy books in a new series by that author. I have to at least read the back of the book to see if it’s a story line that I’ll like.

One thing I’ve noticed: I’ve gotten pickier as I get older. The thought that I don’t have all the time in the world to read everything I’d like to has begun to invade my head so something I might have read even ten years ago may not get a look from me today.

Where do reviews and blurbs from other authors come in, you ask? I don’t really notice them. I know they may be a factor for other people, but for me they barely register. Recommendations from friends, though, are a different matter. I read “Gone Girl” and “The Hunger Games” trilogy because of glowing reviews from friends. But I still won’t read just anything. It has to have an interesting premise.

I’ve bought books written by people I know just because I like the person. I’ve bought books after hearing an author speak at a convention just because I liked how they came across.

So that’s my take on selecting fiction books to read. For non-fiction, it’s a whole different matter. Book covers and titles don’t matter much. (Though a really good title gives it a slight edge.)

In non-fiction, subject matter is key. Books on languages/linguistics – you’ve got me. History books about time periods or places I find interesting – I’m so there. Books on natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, major earthquakes – oh, yeah. Historical true crime of the 1800s or the early 1900s – yep.

If I like a non-fiction book by an author, I’ll generally see what else they’ve written. I’ve read a number of books by Erik Larson because I loved his “Devil in the White City”.

As you can see, I’ve discovered a lot of factors go into selecting my reading material. I suspect my reasoning isn’t much different from others. So, I’m curious...what criteria do you use?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Guest Blog : Dennis Palumbo


Donis here. I am inordinately pleased to welcome today's guest blogger and one of my favorite mystery authors, Dennis Palumbo. Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His acclaimed series of crime novels (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors and the latest, Phantom Limb) feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. All are from Poisoned Pen Press.


The Unknown
By
Dennis Palumbo

After 27 years as a licensed psychotherapist, and almost 40 as a working writer, the one thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything for sure.

Maybe it’s the result of seeing hundreds of patients over the course of my practice, encountering such a wide variety of people, issues and experiences. Maybe it’s the hard-won acceptance of the idea that few things can be reduced to black or white, true or not true, but rather some mixture of the two. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older.

I was thinking of this a few months back, while serving as a panelist at a local writing conference. I was seated between a talented, successful mystery novelist and an equally talented, successful screenwriter. The audience was made up of sincere, passionately attentive people who seemed to be yearning for something from the panelists: Some answer. Some blueprint for success. Something we three veteran writers Knew For Sure.

What struggling writer doesn’t yearn for this? I’ve taught countless writing workshops over the years, and was always moved by questions like “What are editors looking for nowadays?” “Is it better to write in the morning or evening?” “Should a writer always outline first?”

In other words, What Did I Know and When Did I Know It? The funny thing is, I used to try to answer those questions, as ultimately unanswerable as they are. I could understand from personal experience the yearning behind them, the struggle to find a path through the dense forest of a writing career, or at least to identify some markers.

Not that there aren’t things to teach, and for writers to learn. Things having to do with craft, consistency, perseverance. Things that we all need to learn and re-learn, one unceasing lesson that lasts as many days as we do.

But the most important lesson, the one truth that experienced writers know, is that there’s a limit to knowing. Which means there’s a limit to safety, sureness, technique. Regardless of the pragmatic tools you forge, the creative gifts you were given at birth, the teachers you meet along the way, sooner or later you bump up against the Mystery: the Thing That Can’t Be Known.

Because the truth is, good writing is a combination of the above-mentioned factors, yet it transcends them all. It’s bigger than the sum of its parts. You can do everything “right,” approach the work with talent, diligence and craft---and yet while on Monday the writing sings, on Tuesday it sucks.

Why? I don’t know. More importantly, you don’t have to know. You just have to keep writing.

St. John of the Cross, describing a mystical union with the Almighty, said, “I came into the Unknown, beyond all science.” That may be well and good when it comes to mystical unions, but what does it have to do with making your characters richer or solving some tricky plot problem? More than you might think. Regardless of experience, level of talent or career success, every writer “comes into the Unknown” the moment he or she begins to write.

It’s part of the compact made between the writer and that which is being written. It’s an agreement that reads something like this: “I (the writer) bring to this work my talent, craft and professionalism. I also bring a fair amount of life experience, emotional baggage, grandiose fantasies and inchoate dreads. I’m also throwing in some pragmatic understanding of the marketplace, a few story turns my agent suggested, character nuances from my writing group, and a couple jokes I’m recycling from that last novel (or screenplay, short story, whatever) nobody bought. Finally, I offer my blood, sweat and tears, enough good will to float a hospital ship, and a vague sense of wanting my authentic voice, whatever it may be, to shine through the material.”

And what can the writer expect from the other party to this compact? The Muse, the Unknown, whatever you want to call it?

Not much.

In fact, expect nothing at all. Except the occasional miracle. The great, pitch-perfect line of dialogue. The surprising story turn. Those infrequent moments when you look at something you’ve just written, something wonderful, and say to yourself, “Where the hell did that come from?” And your heart soars.

Talk about a risky business! You pour all your talent, energy and commitment into writing, and there’s still no guarantee that anything good will come of it. And when it does, most of the time you won’t know why it does.

Good writing is damned mysterious, as much to the writer as anyone else, which is probably the source of its power to move, enthrall and inspire.

I say “probably,” of course, because when it comes to writing, you never know.
______________________
Visit Dennis’s website at www.dennispalumbo.com

Friday, March 13, 2015

And Then You Celebrate

I have a to-do list that I need to knock off between now and tomorrow morning. Allowing time to go into school and get some work done in between. Luckily, next week is spring break at my university, so I have some catch-up time. But tomorrow I have the book launch party for What the Fly Saw, the second book in my Hannah McCabe near-future police procedural series. Look to the left to see the gorgeous cover that the art department at St. Martin's Minotaur created. That cover has been getting rave reviews. I hope a lot of potential readers are judging my book by its cover.

The official publication date for Fly (note the cute abbreviation -- could also be an acronym, WTFS, but that sounds like a radio station) was March 3. But I was able to do a pre-publication "sneak preview" at Sleuthfest, an annual conference sponsored by the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America. That was the last weekend in February. This weekend, I'm launching my book in Albany with a book signing/reading:

The Book House

My McCabe series is set in Albany – or an alternate universe, near-future version of Albany. The Book House, a local independent, conveniently located, with a great staff, is the perfect place for the launch party.

I'm excited about the party tomorrow. However, I'm not the most relaxed of hosts. I always make a to-do list and then live in fear that I forgotten something. But with a few launch parties under my belt, I've finally figured out that you just go with the flow. That doesn't keep me from searching the Internet (and back through old posts for my fellow Type-Mers) looking for tips about how to do a terrific book reading/signing and/or launch party. The two are not necessarily linked. One could do a book reading/signing without providing refreshments. But I like feeding people. I think the mood of the event is much more upbeat when people have a chance to nibble and chat.

Here's my to-do list for tomorrow:

1. Order book-themed specialty cake
2. Order platters of cheese and fruit
3. Stock up on beverages
4. Stock up on plates, cups, napkins, etc.
5. Remember to bring serving utensils
6. Bring sandwich bags, garbage bags, aluminum foil
7. Call bookstore about cake being delivered by bakery
8. Make guest book to get sign-ins for newsletter
9. Pick up book-themed items for door prize
10. Take box for entries
11. Select and practice excerpts for reading
12. Remember to tweet, Facebook, send e-mails
13. Charge camera and remember to bring
14. Pick up Harry's give away
15. "Celebration of life" theme

The list above is not in the order of importance. But once I have the food out of the way, I can focus on the more serious issues. I've been so busy that I had to make time to get to the bakery and order the cake. With The Red Queen Dies, the cake had an Alice's Adventure in Wonderland theme. This time, I asked for a cake that duplicated my cover. The inspiration for the book was "Who Killed Cock Robin?" The bakery's going to add birds around the sides (is that called "the base") of the cake. Can't wait to see what it looks like. Last time, the cake was so gorgeous, no one wanted to cut it.


My reading will be brief excerpts from the first three chapters. That's because reading for 15 or 20 minutes straight makes me nervous. I know that sounds odd when I teach three-hour classes and have no problem doing presentations or appearing on panels. But in those situations, I know the material and I just talk with occasional glances at my notes or slides to stay on track when it's a presentation. When I'm reading, I'm no longer in contact with my audience and I can feel that spotlight glaring. That's why I like to read a little and talk a little and have some interaction.

The reference to Harry is to my Maine Coon mix, the cat I adopted back in late October. Harry has his own page on my website. That's because I find him fascinating (never having had a cat as an adult). I have a Maine Coon cat who appears in my first Hannah McCabe book and that was what led me to Harry. The reference above is that Harry is going to have his own giveaway at the party. No, he will not be attending. He prefers to stay at home looking out the window.

If you're wondering about the reference to "celebration of life" theme, in Fly, an 85 year old woman throws herself a party to celebrate her life. As some of you may know, this is becoming more common -- to do a celebration of your own life that you can attend rather than waiting for people to say nice things about you at your wake. I'm going to invite my guest to share the theme they would select for their own celebration.

Got to run. If you're in Albany tomorrow, please join me for my book launch.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Conference Season

I, Donis, won’t be going to the Left Coast Crime conference this year. I’m sorry, too, because so many friends will be there, and Tim Hallinan, whom I greatly admire, is the guest of honor. Besides, it’s in Portland, which is worth the trip on it’s own.

Tucson Festival of Books, a huge book festival that is held on the University of Arizona campus on the same weekend, March 14 and 15. I’ve done TFoB every year that it has been held. Since I live in Arizona, I know many of the organizers and I am always set up to appear on several panels and do a number of signings. I also present a mystery-writing workshop every year which has been incredibly popular. In fact, Dear Reader, if you are going to TFoB and have always wanted to write a mystery novel, come by the Integrated Learning Center, Room 141, on Saturday, March 14, from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm, and in one hour I’ll tell you everything there is to know about the craft.*

Many years ago I owned a small Celtic import gift shop in Tempe, Arizona. I sold jewelry and goods from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (and Man, Brittany, and Galicia, when I could get them.) I had my little store, but I also set up shop at festivals and games all over the Western United States. In fact, if I had had the energy, I would have made more money if I had gotten rid of the storefront and spent every weekend traveling to Highland games and Irish Feis. I could have done it, too. There is some sort of Celtic celebration somewhere in this country every blinking week of the year. I could have sold my house, bought myself a travel trailer, and lived on the road. Many retailers do just that.

Working at Highland Games, Orange County, CA

As it was, I hit games half-a-dozen times a year, in Arizona and California, mainly, with the occasional foray into Utah and New Mexico. I not only made a lot of money, but setting up at festivals was a great way to advertise my shop. After a game weekend, I’d gain a fair number of mail-order customers from wherever I had been. The only problem was that however profitable it was to travel, it was exhausting to pack up the shop, drive five hundred miles, set up the shop on a field at four o’clock in the morning, run off your feet selling all day while praying it doesn’t rain or the wind doesn’t blow your tent over, then pack up the shop after the games were over and drive home.

I’ve been thinking of those days lately. I don’t own a shop any more. I write mystery novels, which is a lot less profitable but a lot more fun. I still travel, and if I could afford it, I still could do writers’ conferences and workshops every weekend of the year. Last month I spent a week doing programs in Wake County, North Carolina, with Erika Chase and our own Vicki Delany. I had a spectacular time and gained five pounds (Vicki wrote an entry about that on this very blog here. You should check it out if you haven’t yet, Dear Reader. Nothing is more delightful than gorgeous photographs of Southern cooking.) I wrote about the trip on my own blog, here, if you are interested in the details of the trip and how a woman from Arizona deals with ice and snow.

I think that it is a helpful thing for an author to go to conferences and to make as many public appearances as she can afford, mainly because it’s good to be with other authors, to learn that you’re not alone. Even the Very Big Names suffer the same fears and insecurities as you do when they write. One famous author told me that every time she finishes a book, she’s absolutely sure that she’ll never be able to do it again, and every time she starts a new book, she’s terrified that she won’t be able to pull it off.

It’s also good to get your name out there. Let yourself be seen. Learn how to promote yourself. And I must say that it’s a lot less tiring than selling jewelry in the middle of a field to a thousand
people in kilts.

The only thing is that you don’t come home from a speaking engagement or a writer’s or fan conference with bags full of money. In fact, it’s hard to measure whether the money you spend to do these personal appearances is worth it in terms of book sales. You have to pick and choose what you can afford and which conference or appearance will get you the most bang for your buck. All you can do is the best you can do.
______________________
*Sarcasm. However, I do present a technique for teaching yourself everything you need to know. My complete TFoB schedule can be seen on the TFoB site or here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Twists and turns in an author's life

There are few highlights in an author's life more exciting than the arrival of the author copies of a brand new book. Unless it's going to a mystery conference where everyone talks, breathes, and loves mysteries, and where those who love to read them can connect with those who love to write them.

Luckily for me, this is a week to celebrate both those things. Today a box arrived in the post that contained not only my author copies of THE NIGHT THIEF, but also a whole stack of bookmarks which I immediately packed into my suitcase for the conference. THE NIGHT THIEF is the third book in my easy-read novels for those who want a fast, entertaining read, featuring shy but inventive country handyman, Cedric O'Toole. It has been receiving excellent advance reviews and I am very proud of how the story came together. Beyond the dead bodies and the mystery, it is a touching and human tale about Cedric's connection to a boy who's had a very rough start in life.

Left Coast Crime is one of the premiere mystery conferences in the world, so called because although it is held in a different city every year, it always occurs on the western side of a country. Generally this is the western united States, but it has also been held in Bristol, UK, and rumour has it Vancouver may host it soon. Like all reader-centred conferences, it is organized and run by dedicated volunteers who work for years to pull together a fascinating weekend of panel discussions, author interviews, readings, and special events. It's a challenging, exhausting, and rewarding job, for which we authors are extremely grateful.

This year the conference is being held in Portland, Oregon, and in addition to informal chats and get-togethers at the bar, where traditionally all the best fun can be had, I will be participating in a panel entitled "Do the twist– Keep the audience guessing" with an eclectic mix of authors from legal thriller  to romantic suspense writers. This panel takes a look behind the scenes of creating a killer plot, which should intrigue readers and fellow writers alike. We will talk about creating the perfect twist, avoiding the overdone cliche, what is a twist, and do we really even need them. Apparently there are five different kinds of twists, and since I've been writing twists all my writing career, I look forward to learning what they are!

Besides my panel, I am also co-hosting a table at the Saturday night banquet with my very good friend Robin Harlick, fellow Canuck and author of the Meg Harris series. We promise goodies, book draws, and hopefully lots of intrigue and laughter.

Stay tuned, and on my next blog slot, I will report back on the conference and on everything I learned about twists.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

One way to have some fun with character names

I’m one of those fiction writers who struggles with coming up with good character names, or should I say, I used to be one of those people.

The answer to my dilemma came to me “like a cold fist at the end of a wet kiss.” (Wish I could take credit for that bit of descriptive text but it comes from an old Firesign Theatre sketch.) I have perfectly useable names right at my fingertips: my friends!

It started back a number of novels ago in Cemetery of the Nameless. At first I didn’t want to throw actual people I knew into the mix as characters. I mean, what if they didn’t like who I made them? So in Cemetery, I used them for my sort of “Greek chorus” idea at the beginning of each chapter where various people make comments on the action going on in the story. It was a fun project, and the names of reporters, reviewers, and other musicians were all various people I knew. It worked out well for me, and the friends whose names I used loved it.

As further books were written and I got more comfortable with the idea, I began to name minor characters after people I knew. With my current novel release, Roses for a Diva, I jumped all the way into the pool. Nearly every one of the supporting characters are friends and people with whom I grew up.

If you’ve read that book, you’ll remember Leonardo Tallevi, the general manager of the Canadian Opera Company (a real entity). Lenny is a friend from way back and a great tenor sax player. I left off that last bit, but I did use something of the real person in my character. A Roman cop is another old friend, Steve Pucci. Drummer Tommy Giorgi turned up as the conductor for the Rome Opera, and Eddie Furci saved the day in Tosca.

Back in Toronto, the two detectives from the Toronto Police Services are former colleagues from my band teaching days and very good friends. I don’t even know if they’re aware I “borrowed” them. Somehow I don’t want to be the first to break the news.

Minor characters are fine, but I don’t think it would be fair to use a real person’s name – at least, real to me – for a main character in that it would be too restricting. Walk-ons are one thing, but protagonists and antagonists need depth (warts and all) to be believable, and I know what I’d wind up doing to a real person would probably lead to hurt feelings — if not law suits.

As for main characters, I rely on my wife to tell me what their names are.

So…problem solved for moi. And it’s a hoot to do. Does anyone else use a dodge like this?

Monday, March 09, 2015

The battle of the blurb

I've just been signing off on the blurb for my new book, The Third Sin, coming out at the end of April. My publisher is brilliant at coming up with a framework that sums up the book better than I could myself so what I do is really just a bit of tweaking here and there.

It's an anxious business, though, and I give it a lot of thought to be sure it's just right. I'm acutely conscious of the blurb's importance as the calling card you place in the hands of the casual browser.

I know the ways in which I choose books myself. There are various factors, of varying levels of importance. First and foremost, of course, is the author.  If it's a new book from an author I love I'll order it before it's even published.

Next comes word of mouth. I have several friends who like the sort of books that I like and a recommendation from one of them will definitely send me looking for it.

After that, I suppose, it's reviews. I can't say I'm much influenced by Richard and Judy style recommendations (would that be Oprah in the States?) because I've never found a professional critic whose views totally chime with mine, but I rely on reviews to tell me about content and subject matter. Something set in small town America, for instance, is a good bet where I'm concerned.

If I haven't anything else to go on and I'm wandering hopefully round a bookshop, a striking cover will probably make me pick it up but remembering my grandmother's warning that you can't tell a book by it's cover, that wouldn't make me buy it.

But then comes the blurb. I read it, and it has to grab me there and then. If it doesn't, the book goes back on the shelf and the author has just lost a new reader.

So it's important. It's like an advertisement for the product. But should it be short and intriguing? Long enough to be informative? Just a snippet from the book itself, maybe, from one of the most dramatic episodes?

I don't know what I think. Are there rules for what makes an effective blurb, and if there are, has anyone ever found out if they actually work? 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Guest Blog: Gillian Galbraith

Aline here. I'm delighted to have Gillian Galbraith as my guest this week. As a former advocate specialising in cases of medical negligence and a writer of law reports for the Times, she's got an impressive pedigree for a crime writer and the details of her detective Alice Rice's cases are always authentic and handled with the assurance of familiarity. She writes cracking good plots too, usually with Edinburgh as their vivid setting.

She is a countrywoman at heart, though, and she now writes full time in rural Kinross in the company of dogs, cats, hens and, I believe, even the occasional bee buzzing past.
_________________

I spent last year learning a great deal about the Scottish Blood Transfusion Service in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and the threat posed to those dependent upon its products from the Hepatitis C and the Aids viruses. My involvement in the Judicial Inquiry into the contamination of the Scottish Blood supply and its effects on haemophiliacs and other patients came about because of my past life.

Prior to taking up writing on a full-time basis I was an Advocate (Attorney) specialising in Medical Negligence. The offer to participate in the Inquiry was too good to turn down from a financial point of view and also because I thought the experience would be too interesting to miss.

And I was right. During it, I encountered a charming civil servant with a tattoo of Audrey Hepburn on her back (in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” garb) and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dr Who, and an aged member of the Judiciary who regaled me with his fish recipes in between arguing forcefully if I attempted to alter his prose by adding or subtracting a word. I witnessed the tearful aftermath of vitriolic phone calls by assorted, aggrieved lobby groups, felt claws unsheathed in office spats and earwigged for scintillating snippets of legal gossip.

More importantly, I also discovered how innocent lives had been destroyed in a multiplicity of different ways through the contraction of one or other, or both, of the viruses. My work place was a dark and dingy Victorian terrace in the new town district of Edinburgh, my office, wood panelled and dusty and my companions, astonishingly tolerant of the new recruit. Outside, the capital hummed and buzzed as it always does but with extra volume due to the excitement generated by the , then impending, Scottish Referendum.

What a contrast. For more than ten years I have spent day after day alone in my kitchen on a remote Scottish hillside in the county of Kinross-shire. Once my husband and daughter disappear to work and school, respectively, the principal companions of my working hours have been two cats and three dogs.

So, last year’s experiences should provide much needed grist for the mill. Somewhere within all of that there must be a plot. I certainly hope so as I am due to meet my publishers later this month.

So far, plots have in some mysterious way presented themselves in the nick of time. The first in the Alice Rice mystery series, “Blood In The Water” arose out my experiences within the medico-legal world. The second, (“Where The Shadow Falls”) whilst using that background, centred around the passion wind farms generate, as I had become involved in a battle raging around the potential construction of one on my own hillside. To the delight of this author’s ears, I even heard threats being made to those in hard hats who might despoil a much loved landscape. Prostitution figured in the third book (“Dying Of The Light”) , assisted dying in the fourth (“No Sorrow To Die”) and homelessness in “The Road To Hell”. All of the Alice Rice books are set in Edinburgh.

Sometimes, but not often enough, plots appear with the ease of dreams. Sometimes they have to be extracted like rotten teeth, arriving garlanded with blood, sweat and tears. All that is needed is a spark of interest. For the latest in the Alice Rice series, “Troubled Waters” it was effortless. I opened an art exhibition and got talking to the Art Club president. A chance remark by her about her upbringing amongst a strange sect, once commonplace amongst small mining and fishing communities in Scotland, lit the fire.

From that point onwards, in my experience, the sub conscious mind takes over and as one drives along, feeds the hens, runs a bath or performs other mindless, or semi-mindless tasks, ideas bubble up, submerge and re- emerge. Of course, what one is creating is, in essence, one long and sustained lie. But part of the beauty of being an author is that within that lie one can explore truths, psychological, moral or whatever in a non- didactic fashion. More I suspect is revealed of an author in their works than they might know, or wish. Preoccupations are likely to emerge.

Whilst I was beavering away within my office in Edinburgh, daffodils blooming in the gardens opposite, my first Father Vincent Ross mystery (“The Good Priest”) was published. In my experience, the many and sophisticated tools available to a modern day police force inevitably affect the plot of a police procedurals. I wanted a return to an amateur sleuth, reliant only on his intelligence, in order to avoid such plot constraints.

Sin is also, of course and delightfully, a much wider canvas than crime. When I was thinking of the plot for that book, the newspapers were awash, as tragically they still are in Scotland , with dark secrets concealed by the Catholic church. Plentiful motives for murder were apparent in the copy. Also I wanted, in my fiction, to leave Edinburgh and return to the countryside.

So, the setting I chose was my own, the sleepy village of Kinross, lying on the banks of Loch Leven. As I gaze out of my kitchen window today onto a landscape simplified by snow, racking my brains for a plot, in the foreground a dog lies asleep with a Siamese cat slumbering between her paws. Alice Rice has a dog, Vincent Ross, a Siamese cat. As I said, we all reveal ourselves in our fiction.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

That Time of Year

The Have-Read, To-Be-Read, and Am-Reading piles
Each spring I write (ever briefly) about the annual two-week stretch where the world stops and I make final edits to the novel coming out in June.

It's that time again. The proof pages to my June novel Fallen Sparrow arrived this week.

Some people love this stage of publication – you haven't looked at the manuscript in months, you can read it as a reader might, (hopefully) genuinely enjoying the book upon arriving at it with fresh eyes. Not me. I sit under a desk lamp, as if beneath an interrogation light, and sweat out every punctuation mark, slowly combing through the pages, hoping and praying that the plot holds up, that I don’t find a typo (which, of course, is unrealistic), and that I genuinely like the book while reading it as a reader might, but knowing all the while that, as my extraordinary editor reminds me in her letter, This is the last opportunity



Happy reading. See you in two weeks.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

What Tole Painting Taught Me

I’m back from a week in Vegas where I attended the Creative Painting convention. Had a great time. Came back to discover that fellow Type Mer, Vicki Delany, and I are going to be on the same panel at Malice Domestic. Pretty cool! 

While I was painting away at the convention, I was reminded of what painting taught me about writing. The post below originally appeared on Michele Lynn Seigfried's Blog as part of the Fatal Brushstroke blog tour last November.
One of the projects I painted at the convention
Like Rory Anderson, the main character in my book, Fatal Brushstroke, I’m a tole/decorative painter. (Decorative painting seems to be the preferred term these days, though I still often use tole.) I started painting in the early 90s, several years before I started writing. I’ve gone to conventions, taken classes, and worked on projects on my own.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot from painting that I can apply to my writing life. Whenever I get discouraged, the following bits of wisdom keep me moving forward.

  • You can only paint/write based on your ability at the time. Be patient. Don’t expect to be perfect right off the bat. It takes time and practice to learn a new skill. The more projects you work on, the better you’ll become.
  • Don’t constantly compare yourself to others. There will always be someone who paints better or writes better. That doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t valid. Just do the best you can. We’re often not the best judges of our own work, anyway.
  • You won’t know what a project looks like until it’s finished. Don’t fret over it while it’s in progress. About halfway through every painting project I’ve ever worked on, I look at it and think it’s not turning out as I’d hoped, so why bother? The same is true of every writing project, be it short story or novel. But I keep on plugging away and, at the end, I like the final result and feel it was worth spending time on.
  • You can always start over. Wood can be sanded, paint can be removed from most surfaces. In writing, chapters can be rewritten, characters can be changed. Just because you put it down on paper or typed it into a Word document doesn’t mean it’s permanent. We tend to think if something is written down or already painted it can’t be modified. Why? You started the project in the first place. You have control over it, you can change it.
  • Periodically look at a project as a whole. One of my painting teachers told me this when I complained about how a project was turning out. She held the project a few feet away from me and told me to look at it again. It looked better than I’d thought. Don’t dwell on every brushstroke, don’t dwell on every word and sentence. Look at the project as a whole. Sure, details are important but, in my eyes at least, the overall effect is more important.
  • You don’t have to do everything the way the instructions say. You can change paint colors if you want. You can omit part of a design if it doesn’t suit you. You can ignore writing rules as long as you understand them and know why you’re ignoring them.
  • Don’t give up. You never know what’s going to happen or how something is going to turn out until the end. A painting project looks better after it’s varnished. A writing project looks better after it’s polished.
And most important of all
  • Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Take a moment to celebrate your achievement. You finished a painting project! You finished a book or short story! If you’ve never painted or written a book or short story before, wow! you did it! If this is your second, third or nth short story/painting project/book, wow! you did it again! Remember to take time to celebrate your accomplishments. Lots of people say they want to write or paint. How many actually sit down and do it?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Vampires

No, I’m not thinking of switching to the horror genre, nor trying my hand at penning a YA novel (although I have always been a fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). I am also not talking about those LED thingies on all our appliances and electronic devices that you just can’t turn off unless you unplug the whole damn thing, in which case you’d spend half your life bending down to plug/unplug nearly everything you own.

What I am referring to are those people who just tend to suck the life and joy out of everyone surrounding them.

You know the type: high maintenance people with big needs, never very much help with anything and usually with constant complaints about nearly everything.

It’s easy to collect them, especially if you’re any kind of an empathetic person. I am and I do. These sorts of vampires can suck you dry of any energy or enthusiasm in one brief phone call. Maybe the legends of blood-sucking night creatures actually revolve around the sort of person who seems to have perfected self-misery and shooting themselves in the foot.

I had an email from someone the other day, and I am well aware that emails from this person are usually very negative. It’s as if they sense where my weaknesses are and the home in on them like a guided missile. I was just about to sit down and work on my very “sluggish” novella project. Now is the time for it to get into hyperdrive and really start humming along. I know what I want to write and it’s dammed up inside my head, threatening to gush out whether I want it to or not.

But I opened the email anyway. I know, I know. It’s like that horror movie where you know something awful is hiding in that closet, but you watch helplessly as the character insists on opening the door.

Instant despair. I just sat there blinking like an idiot when I finished the lengthy missive. If I really was going to be the terrific friend I’d like to think I am, I would have hopped on a plane and gone out to help sort out a life filled with turbulence due to a lot of misery. I can’t help it. I’m an empath and really feel that I could help. It’s a close friend, and well, it’s hard to turn away.

Knowing I couldn’t do that, I picked up the phone. By the end of that lengthy conversation, I was completely depressed and stared at my computer screen for a good five minutes, mind completely blank and feeling like I just wanted to go back to bed. Perhaps that would have been a good idea: start my day over.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking that I should just not turn on my computer’s mail program when I sit down to write. Problem is, I have to know what my design clients are up to. A new job may be in the offing, or there might be a problem with something I’d sent off to the printer the day before. I have good reasons to watch my incoming mail.

In thinking about it since, I realized that I have to steel myself against taking ownership of other people’s problems. If this means losing friendships, so be it. This empathy thing can easily become a very full-time job.

Its side effect of sapping one’s creative energy, however, has gotten me thinking.

Why is creative energy so much more fragile than physical or lower-level mental energy? On the day in question, I went on to be very productive doing the (admittedly rote) assembly of a large graphic design job I was working on (adding images to an already conceived layout). And I did a large amount of work out in the kitchen on some meat-curing I’m involved in. I shoveled snow. I vacuumed the upstairs.

But as for my grand writing plans? Zilch. Nada. The circus had left town — at least for that day. I tried again later in the evening with nothing useful happening. It was as if my writing idea vault suddenly had a big fat lock on it. Even though I knew what I wanted to say, it just wouldn’t come out.

Next morning, I stayed away from the computer for a couple of hours and had a very profitable time writing. It meant, though, that I had to get up at 6:00 when clients are never in their offices. The house was quiet, and the phone wouldn’t ring unless it really was an emergency.

It was lovely.

So here’s my question folks: why is creative energy such a fragile and whimsical thing? Any ideas? Please share them! I, for one, will thank you.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

An Eating Tour

By Vicki Delany

Last week I went to Raleigh, North Carolina on an extensive book tour. I travelled with my friend Linda Wiken (aka Erika Chase) and Type M’s own Donis Casey. Our escort and superb organizer was the indomitable Molly Weston.

Did I say, book tour? I fear it turned into more of an eating tour with a few book signings thrown in. North Carolina cooking, I have discovered, is FABULOUS!

And that's just great for me (if not for the waistline) because my new cozy series, the Lighthouse Library Series, is set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. So all this eating was, of course, necessary research if I'm going to have veracity in the series.


I think I like hush puppies the best, followed closely by fried green tomatoes. I am not terribly fond of collards nor of okra (in the pic above to the left cooked with tomatoes).


But nothing, but nothing, beats shrimp and grits done well, as they were in the dish below. The cabbage was kinda an odd side though.


Oh, right, book tour...

Here are some pics of that: