Saturday, January 30, 2016

Guest Post: David Roberts

Aline here. Today I'm delighted to introduce David Roberts, seen here in Iran recently in typically adventurous pose. David is the author of a very stylish series set in the 1920s, that most stylish of all eras, with his detective Lord Edward Corinth – and if ever there was a name that cried out to feature in a TV series, this surely is it.


What’s in a name?


Apple, Brooklyn, Cruz, Harper, Romeo – wherefore art thou Romeo? What’s in a name? A lot! First who would call their detective, let alone their child, Apple, Romeo or even Cruz? Harper? Yes, possibly – see Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.

But Tommy and Tuppence? Never! And yet, there we are! How wrong can we be? Agatha Christie’s silly stories featuring the two gay young things have been televised not once but twice. The second time – just a few weeks ago on BBC 1 no less – featuring David Walliams as Tommy and Jessica Raine as Tuppence. Walliams has no charisma but that didn’t matter as the script was rotten, the production and direction feeble and the up-dating to the 1950s risible.

At least Jessica Raine was seen to be reading Dorothy L Sayers’s Strong Poison. Now, Harriet Vane. Lord Peter Wimsey – those are names to die for!

So why did the Tommy and Tuppence series get made? Because of the brand name, dummkopf.

I mean to say – what chance would you have if your detective was stuck in the Shetland Islands or called Vera? None at all, you would think, yet Ann Cleeves has two series on British TV at the moment.

Now, you can see I am objective, unprejudiced and without even the tang of bitterness you’d expect in a disappointed crime writer. The fact that I have penned a superb ten-novel series set in the 1930s featuring Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne has nothing to do with it.

Yes, the fact that Columbia Pictures bought an option for an obscene amount of money but did nothing with it is amusing but so many friends of mine have been in comparable situations, it is hardly worth mentioning. I don’t complain. I whinge instead – not an attractive habit.

The solution is simple. To correct a foolish mistake on the part of our parents, a mass christening will be held next Tuesday and we’ll all be given the names we ought to have been given at the font so many years ago – Agatha Christie. Problem solved, murder avoided.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Deadlines: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I'm writing this post while giving my mind a break from the squirrel-chasing that occurs when a deadline is at hand for something I'm working on. In this case, it's a 900-word article. I wrote a first draft in long hand last night while sitting in bed. After a hectic day, I was able to get my thoughts down on paper. Harry, my cat, had eaten his snack and gone off to his own bed (no more meows to sit in my lap as I worked at my computer or mad dashes through the house as he burned off energy). The house was quiet, and the words flowed -- or, at least, find their way in stops and starts -- onto the sheets of loose-leaf paper. I write on loose-leaf notebook paper when I need to focus. I think it has something to do with being a teacher or maybe having been a student trying to get a paper done.

I got my article written last night, but I knew even as I wrote that it was only a rough draft. And nothing would have been gained by trying to move beyond that last night. And this morning, I had to send a note to the editor who is waiting for the piece to say that I will submit this afternoon. I have missed my mid-morning deadline. But it would have been wasted energy to immediately plunge into getting the draft into my computer. First, I need to re-read with a big mug of tea at hand.

This deadline reminds me of the good, bad, and ugly of deadlines. The good:  a deadline requires a writer to focus his or her attention if it is to be met. The bad: the stress of focusing his or her attention may result in panicked gazing at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen. The ugly: in panic mode, he or she may rush to get something -- anything -- down on the page and off to a waiting editor.

For a moment last night -- as almost every time I sit down to write a draft -- I was in panic mode. Although I know what I'm writing about and knew what I wanted to say, it was all jumbled up. I had spent time re-reading research material. For much of last evening I made less valuable use of my time by imagining how an invisible reader would react to each word, every turn of phrase. I needed to shut off that voice and get down to business. Finally, well after midnight, with ballpoint pen in hand, I got a draft down on paper.

But this morning, I needed to take an hour or two to let my mind clear. And now I have a new deadline. I emailed to say I will deliver the article in three or four hours. The editor I'm working with kindly understood.

I hate missing deadlines, and I'm not cavalier about it. But I know by now when I need to give myself a little more time. What I should have done when discussing the deadline was admit to myself that I would have to follow my usual process -- panic, scribble, re-read, type and revise.I should have accepted the offer of the later deadline rather than assuming I could do this piece more efficiently because I knew what I was writing about. Process always wins.

How do you handle deadlines? What's your process?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The End Is Not Near


I'm having an existential crisis.  I'm coming down to the end of my ninth Alafair Tucker novel. I can see the finish line. Every day I come closer to the day that I write "The End". It's been a slog, but that doesn't surprise me. It's usually a slog for me. Sometimes it almost takes more sheer will to sit down and write than I can muster. Almost. I do it anyway.  Norman Mailer says, "there is always fear in trying to write a good book ... I’m always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort. It seems better to have to forge the will to write on a given day. I find that on such occasions, if I do succeed in making progress against resistance in myself, the result is often good. As I only discover days or weeks later."

So I keep writing and try not to think about it too much. I observe that sometimes too much thinking gets in the way. If I try too hard to figure it out, I become Hamlet in drag, unable to take action. When I do enjoy myself, when I read what I’ve written and find it good, I have a strange feeling of dislocation, as though the words came from someone else.

So the new book is going right along as expected and I see that the end is near. Until last night. I went to bed late, and as I was drifting off it came to me like a lightning flash in the dark--I should go about it in a totally different way than I have been.

If I had a particular major event happen much earlier in the book, the whole story would be much better. It would make better sense, it would move much faster, it create more suspense. All in all it was an absolutely brilliant and instantaneous insight. I have to do it.

The only problem is that this brilliant alteration calls for a major rewrite. Suddenly the finish line is no longer in sight. Yes, I am excited to pursue the interesting twist that came to me out of the blue, I am also in a Dostoyevskian mood, all dark and Russian. The end is not near.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The things we do for art

Barbara here, and in case you don't know, that's something of a miracle. A week ago, my continued existence was in some doubt. Not because I had some dreadful disease or was planning to enter the Indie 500, but because I was going winter camping. In Northern Ontario, during the last two weeks of January, statistically the coldest period in the northern hemisphere. This latter fact only occurred to me once I had registered for the trip and paid my money.

As a writer, I am always trying for realism, accuracy, and vivid description. I don't want readers to be yanked out of my stories by the outraged thought 'that's ridiculous!' or 'that's not what it's like!' My next book is set in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, on a camping/ skiing expedition in the middle of winter, and at some point in balmy September, immersed the early pages of the first draft, I thought "well, I can't possibly write about winter camping without experiencing it". Without hearing the wolf howls at night and the squeak of boots on frozen snow, without feeling the bone-chilling cold of the ground beneath my sleeping bag and the frost on my nose, without seeing how the die-hard lovers of the great winter outdoors cope with stoves and tents and cooking (not to mention latrines, which I plan to give only passing mention in the book).

So I decided to try it myself. How hard could it be? I'm a fit, adventurous, essentially upbeat soul who is prepared to try most things once in the interests of sampling life. There are few things I won't consider. Eating cockroaches. swimming with sharks, and playing with snakes are among those few. But I love the great outdoors, I love camping, I love crisp, fluffy snow. It will be fun!


So I researched winter camping adventure companies, found one that sounded perfect for my needs, and paid my money. I spent half of December and January combing the sales in an attempt to get at least some of the gear the outfitter recommended. How many times will I use  -20 degree sleeping bag? Or camp booties? Or anoraks? So I opted to rent some of the gear from the outfitter to save costs and ensure the right gear. And last week, with the dogs in the kennel and our duffel bags packed, my friend and I set off. The temperature, which had been ridiculously warm since November, suddenly plunged, and we found ourselves hiking eight kilometres in to the base camp in -20 sunshine.


The base camp reminded me of girl guide camp from nearly sixty years ago– a canvas tent set on a wooden platform with a stove and wooden bunkbeds inside. We met the rest of the intrepid tour members and we had a delicious meal of chill cooked on the wood stove. First note to writing self– one-pot dinners are best, and make sure everyone has one bowl and one utensil (a spoon). Saves on clean-up. That night the temperature plunged below -30 and we froze, giving me a vivid sense of frozen noses.  I won't even mention the mid-night latrine excursions, on this night or any of the subsequent ones. Some things are too much detail for readers.

The next day, hauling our toboggans, we trekked on snowshoe out to a new campsite at the base of the mountain we were to climb. I learned a lot about ragged breathing, aching thighs, soaring eagles, wolf and deer tracks, long, blinding expanses of frozen lake, and the sheer relief of arriving. I learned about putting up tents, spreading fir boughs as bedding, collecting water and firewood, and pulling together. I learned the closeness that forms among strangers gathered around a wood stove to share food, drink, and laughter at the end of an exhausting day.


That night I learned that you can dry wet mittens and moccasins from strings in the tent, and when you're tired enough, you can fall asleep on the frozen ground with nothing but fir boughs as padding. The next day we climbed a mountain on snowshoes and stood at the top, triumphant, looking south over Lake Huron. By then I had forgotten that this was a research trip, not a journey of self-discovery, and I had to remind myself to ask questions and take pictures. I hadn't even opened my notebook. Flickering candlelight is a poor source of light for these aging eyes anyway.

When I returned to civilization four days later, I had learned a great deal that will find its way into my new book, but I had learned much more about myself. About my limits, my strengths, and my capacity for joy and adventure. That's the cool thing about this writing life. It leads us into places and on adventures that we would never have imagined, and we are the richer for it. I am thinking I will pick some place totally different for my next book.

Costa Rica, perhaps. Or Hawaii. After all, it's such a big, fascinating world out there.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In the grayness of winter, a little sunshine

We’re having a pretty easy time this winter here in this part of Canada (south central). As a matter of fact, it’s been downright wimpy: little snow, close to or above freezing, rain instead of snow. I’m not complaining, mind you. Things can get really bad in a big hurry, and I’m sure the weather gods have something unpleasant in mind for us before spring rolls into town. If you enjoy winter (like Vicki D., for instance), this year’s been a bit of a bust.

So why am I bringing this up? It’s the long stream of gray, lifeless days we’ve had to endure. This is not out of the ordinary, either, for winter weather, but somehow this year it seems more onerous.

It also seems to sap the creative juices before they have a chance to flow, and that’s never a good thing when there’s a blog post to write!

So I’m falling back on a topic that’s an old favourite: bad book covers. In this era of rampant self-publishing we also arrived to a Golden Age if bad design and typography float your boat. Too many authors (of any stripe) seem to think they know what should be on the cover of their latest tome. Fortunately, publishers — while allowing them to feel part of the process — don’t let them get too far from shore in the cover design sea.

In doing a bit of research, lo and behold, I found a tumblr.com website dedicated to bad book covers. Here’s the link: http://lousybookcovers.tumblr.com/

Visit this site with the knowledge that what you’ll see may not assist you in keeping a balanced equilibrium. Laughing too hard has that effect on many. Shaking my head so much in wonderment brought on an attack of vertigo.

In looking these over, I was left with a slightly melancholy feeling. I sort of wish that I could help these poor, misguided souls. Having worked with some, though, I’m also aware that they’re hard to talk out of their folly. If they’re friends, then it’s also difficult to be truthful, too. I mean how do you tell someone their child is an ugly wretch?

Exactly.

So even though it’s exceptionally gray and depressing outside today. There’s a little bit of sunshine in my studio.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A lesson from the one-handed man

I've decided to focus these posts on writing. I'm doing so for mercenary reasons, mainly that I want to draw more views to this blog and in particular to my postings. I've resisted discussing writing before for several reasons. One, a lot of writing advice is what's been lapped up somewhere else and simply regurgitated. Two, giving advice is easy. I felt that no matter what I offered, readers would ask, "Okay, Mr. Smarty-pants, why aren't you sitting on top of a big pile of writer money?" Yes, indeed. Well, I'm still at it and I ain't done yet. Plus, I didn't want to sound like a pompous gasbag. God knows we have plenty of them already. And I didn't want to be regarded as a Yoda-like hermit living in a swamp, dispensing crapisms like, "Do or do not. There is no try." "Write not mind but heart."

But writing can be a trek through a bitter desert, and it's good to return to the well and refresh ourselves. We can feel lost, and sound advice and positive examples help us stay on track. As firm as the journey might be in our mind, the path is never smooth. Life happens. We adjust to shifting priorities. Things don't work out like we planned. As writers, we face rejection, in fact we seek it. We pretend to show a stoic face, but the "NO" always burns. Disappointment lies in wait. We garner great reviews but sales remain lackluster. When we do manage decent sales, we learn they're not good enough and it's sayonara from the publisher. Or the publisher folds. Our agent quits, or we quit them. Tires go flat. Our dog dies. On and on.

I pay my bills as a freelance writer and one of my projects is ghostwriting a line of inspirational books, sort of like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series but--considering I am at heart a mystery writer--with an emphasis on hard-boiled drama. One of the stories was about Jim Abbott, the  baseball pitcher who--despite being born without a right hand--made it to the major leagues. At one point his career was floundering and he received a harsh rebuke from a sports critic. Abbott obsessed with what the critic wrote, and he sought him out. When confronting the critic Abbott said that his performance was pretty good considering he only had one hand. The critic replied, "That's no excuse. You have to rise above your circumstances. You're more than a one-handed ball player, you're a professional. We expect more." Abbott reflected upon those hard words and realized the critic was right. To prevail you must rise above your circumstances. Abbott decided there was much about his circumstances he had to accept, but the two most important factors that determined his success were absolutely in his control: Attitude, and level of effort.

What about us writers? What's your attitude? What's your level of effort?

No time to write? Take a look at your schedule and carve out the time. Rise early if you have to or forgo some social life to spend time on the keyboard. Or find writer friends and writer time then becomes social time.

Lacking motivation? Then ask yourself tough questions about why you're writing and why it's important to you. From there, set goals and hold yourself to them.

The green-eyed monster got you? Jealousy is not worth your energy. I've met successful writers with so many flaws that I pitied instead of envied them.

There you have it, this month's advice: Rise above your circumstances. You alone control your attitude and level of effort.


Friday, January 22, 2016

The Weary Blogger

I’m tired tonight. This blog will be very short. It’s not that I can’t think of anything at all to write. It’s that I’ve learned to be frightened of what I will write.

For me, writing is a morning function. That’s when words come easily and writing is a joyful experience. I’ve learned to do non-fiction writing in the afternoon because it’s a different process. It’s much more analytical, but even then it’s easy for me to become careless. When I blog, things can go wrong in a hurry.

Some time back,  I completed a post for BlackPast, the premier go-to site for those interested in African American or African history. The editor, Dr. Quintard Taylor, who invented this site caught a really embarrassing error I had made regarding a date. Normally I would have caught it at once. This site is approaching 3 million readers!! During last year's Black History Month we had over 50,000 readers in a single day.

Because I am a morning person, whenever I have written a really sensitive email where the wording is important, I always always let it rest overnight. Often the wording could be altered or more explanatory. Occasionally, this kind of communication survives the cold scrutiny of daylight.

I’m convinced that social media can be one of the most dangerous trap of all. Twice now, in a state of fatigue, I’ve let some little zinger go. I can’t remember one, but the first had to do with stupid comment during the last presidential election. I do not hesitate to let people know I’m a Democrat, but it wasn’t necessary to incur the wrath of the whole Republican Party. Especially a particular niece. If I had had all my wits gathered around me it wouldn’t have happened. It's easy to be careful during this election because I don't have the faintest idea what is actually going on.

A lot of writers just hate to blog. I don’t. I enjoy reading them and I love making friends with the reading public. However, I have not made one whit of progress on one of my stern New Year’s Resolutions. That was/is to blog ahead of time and to have some other blogs saved back for emergencies. I need to discipline myself to have some blogs in reserve.

Working tired takes another toll. I’ve noticed that I’ve developed a inner scoldiness (yes Spellcheck I know that’s not a word) when I’m not working. A nagging inner voice that insists I shouldn’t be enjoying myself when I could be working.

Sourness expands!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Lessons from my 7-year-old

My daughter Keeley (the youngest of my three daughters – Delaney and Audrey are the other two, hence the pseudonym) gets off the bus each day, and the same conversation ensues. 

Dad: How was school?
Keeley: GREAT!

What was great about it? Well, she's a first-grader: everything. New books make her smile. Getting an addition problem correct draws a fist-pump. Playing sharks and minnows in P.E. is something she talks about. And art class leads to lots of after-school stories.

Shouldn't we all go through life this way? I'm teaching an independent study this semester, working with a young woman who will surely be a novelist one day, and we're reading Rick DeMarinis's The Art and Craft of the Short Story. In it, Rick stresses the writer needs to be alive, to be awake, to drink in all of life's details. Keeley sure does that.

There's more, though, I think. When asked what it takes to be a writer, I never hesitate: empathy is my answer.

Empathy – the ability to walk in another's proverbial shoes – is the No. 1 requirement for anyone looking to take up the writing life. Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. The boarding school where I live and work celebrates MLK Week, offering students different speakers and other opportunities to learn about diversity and social justice each day this week. I took Keeley to the opening event, an hour-long presentation about who MLK was and what he accomplished. Three times during the session Keeley broke down in tears. Her best friend is an African-American girl. "It should be equal," Keeley whispered to me, when I asked why she was crying. "I want it to be equal."

How does it feel to be African-American in the U.S.? I can't know. I can ask. I can read. But at the end of the day, I'm a middle-class white male with a master's degree. Privileged for sure. Characters in my books often discuss racism, sexism, or oppression. I think about those issues, and my characters talk about them. Now, I'm writing from the perspective of a female protagonist. This means I play the role of a female US Customs and Border Protection Agent for a couple hours a day. What is it like to be a female in a male-dominated, militaristic profession? I try to imagine it. What's it like to have men treat you a certain way? In essence, what's it like to not be a middle-class white male in my society? I'm privileged, I know, but writing pushes me to look beyond my boundaries.

And, as my 7-year-old daughter (the real Keeley) can tell you, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

When Amateurs Investigate

Over the holidays I read several Nancy Drew mysteries form the cache in my mother’s house. In one of them, the police chief of Nancy’s hometown of River Heights was particularly supportive of Nancy’s sleuthing efforts and even asked her to help him out on a case. Even though this is something that you can bet would never happen in real life, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Nancy’s adventures.

It did get me to thinking about mysteries featuring amateur detectives and how a writer justifies a non-professional becoming involved in a murder investigation. I mean, how many chefs, soccer moms, computer programmers, etc., would dare to sleuth in real life?

Don’t get my wrong, I’m a big fan of amateur detective mysteries, myself. In fact, they’re my favorite to read and to write.

So, what constitutes sufficient justification for an average person to investigate? Idle curiosity isn’t enough. All of the books I’ve read on writing mysteries note that the crime must matter to the sleuth. The following reasons are given as sufficient:
  • the victim is a friend, colleague, romantic interest or relative of the sleuth
  • the sleuth is accused of the crime (you can’t use this more than once in a series)
  • a relative, friend, romantic interest of the sleuth is accused of the crime
  • the sleuth identifies with the innocent person accused of the crime
  • the sleuth identifies with the victim
  • the next likely victim is a friend, colleague, romantic interest or relative of the sleuth.
But is this really good enough?

I, personally, don’t need much of a reason for a character in a novel to investigate a crime as long as I enjoy the characters and the story is somewhat rooted in reality. I'm quite happy to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride.

This issue isn’t new, of course, and has been talked about on panels and on email lists for a long time. A quick search of the internet revealed the following posts on the subject.

A post from March 2013, “Why Do Amateur Sleuths Solve Crimes”, is a description of a panel at Killer Nashville where they discussed the subject. Barbara Ross wrote “The Very Good Reason” on Wicked Cozy in October 2015. And, for a slightly tongue-in-cheek list, see Laura DiSilverio’s post on the Stiletto Gang from October 2010, “Top 10 List of Why Amateur Sleuths...

So, Type M readers, where do you stand on the great amateur sleuth debate? Does it matter to you if a character in a book has a good reason? Is having a character just be nosy enough for you or do you throw the book across the room? Do you despair of the whole sub-genre?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The power of imagination

by Rick Blechta

Jackson modeling his new
formal wear line.
We babysit our grandson, the inimitable Jackson, twice a week. He’s all of 26 months but progressing nicely, thank you. Besides being a genuinely nice person (and in his “terrible twos”, I should point out), he is playful and like all young people, has an active imagination. Since our relationship is quite different than that I had with my own two children, and probably also because I’m older, I notice more about him than I remember noticing when our guys were little and time for reflection was short indeed.

We also don’t have a television, never have, as a matter of fact, and I think that has a positive effect on Jax’s imagination. Even when we need some space to get things done when he’s here, we can’t plop him in front of the “idiot box” to provide some none-participatory entertainment that will allow us to work unimpeded. Consequently, when he’s over here, he has to make our own fun, and since I’m more playmate for him than anything else, I let him take the lead and enjoy watching what he comes up with as well as being his partner in crime.

My theory is that we’re all born with good imaginations, but like our muscles, they need to be exercised regularly or they atrophy and don’t function well. Also, we’re born with an innate sense of fun and the absurd. Just growing up can beat all of that out of anyone in a short time. The trick is helping it survive while life is happening to you.

My grandson has a very blessed existence right now: two loving parents, doting grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Everyone who comes in contact with him is charmed by his personality. I’m not saying he gets his own way in everything, but Jax is indulged.

One result is a very vivid imagination. He’s constantly coming up with games to play and obviously making up his own stories — although the plot often isn’t immediately clear to outsiders or even those close to him. Over the past few weeks, he’s come up with two terrific games to play with me. I let my “inner child” loose and play along with him, adding to what he’s creating. I’m the proud discoverer, for instance, that our cars can fly — and do quite elaborate tricks — if we only remember to open their doors. They also crash in the most spectacular ways if some little scamp closes them while they’re up in the air!

Perhaps writers of fiction are able to tap into our inner child more readily than most and that’s where our ideas come from in the way Vicki spoke about in her post yesterday. We’ve gotten older, hopefully matured a bit, but still use our non-atrophied imaginations to see ideas that can be spun into stories, regardless of their length, then populate them with real (grownup) imaginary friends, just as we did when we were little.

God bless the child…

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Idea Factory

By Vicki Delany

Authors are always being asked: Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because we do quite often get them out of thin air. What’ an idea? A scrap of a thought.  An impression flickering at the ends of consciousness.  An offhand comment.

Ideas are everywhere, you have to be ready to accept them and then, most importantly to follow them where they might lead.  

Because an idea is just that. An idea. But a book is a book.  And there’s approximately 80 – 100,000 words between then.

But sometimes, an idea isn’t a fleeting impression or a thought pulled out of the air, but taken from something real and concrete.

Case in point: I was listening to a piece on the CBC radio a couple of years ago about an organization that worked on behalf of those wrongly convicted of murder. In Canada, we all know many of their names: Guy Paul Morin, Donald Marshall, Steven Truscott. 

They had a long interview with a man who spent years in prison for the murder of his wife before it was determined that her death had been an accident.  He now works with AIDWYC, helping others in his position. (https://www.aidwyc.org)

It was a fascinating interview and I was struck with how this poor man’s life had been ruined, by what basically turned out to be incompetence on the part of the authorities.  And, how hard the people who believed in his innocence worked to see him exonerated.

And presto! An idea plus a lot of hard work became a book.

Unreasonable Doubt will be released on February 2rd. This is the eighth in the Constable Molly Smith Series.

Here’s a taste: 

Twenty-five years ago, Walter Desmond was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal murder of young Sophia D’Angelo in Trafalgar, British Columbia. For twenty-five years, Walt steadfastly maintained his innocence.

Now he’s out of prison, exonerated by new evidence that shows corruption at worst or sheer incompetence at best, on the part of the Trafalgar City Police. And he’s back in Trafalgar.

Tensions are running high in the small mountain town. Tension between those who believe an innocent man was convicted and those who maintain the police got the right man. Surrounded by supporters, Sophia’s bitter family is determined to see Walter back in prison. Or dead.

It’s mid-summer in Trafalgar and women’s dragon boat teams are in town. At his B&B Walt Desmond meets lonely widow Carolanne Fraser, and Walt decides he might have reason to stay.

The police are instructed to do nothing to interfere with Desmond, but when Constable Molly Smith comes across two of her colleagues ordering the man out of town “or else” she’s forced to decide where her loyalties lie.

Meanwhile, a file that closed twenty-five years ago is on Sergeant John Winters’ desk. The records are dust-covered and moldy, the investigating detective long dead, the arresting officer retired and not talking, but Smith and Winters dig into the case. 

Because, if Walt Desmond didn’t kill Sophia Angelo, then someone else did.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Guest Post - Christina Freeburn

Today's guest is Christina Freeburn, author of the Faith Hunter Scrap This Mystery Series. Visit her at www.christinafreeburn.com Take it away, Christina! 

That First Glimpse 

by Christina Freeburn 

 

Anticipation. Nervousness. Excitement. A little bit of fear. All of these emotions tumble through me when it’s the first time to see my book cover. It’s like a child sneaking toward the Christmas tree, peeking with one eye open as they hope and fear at the same time about what Santa left. Will it be the Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, or a pink bunny suit made by Aunt Clara.

I’ve been seeing the book for about a year or longer on my computer and paper, but it’s been just words. No pictures. The only images of the book are the words that I’ve written: dialogue, description, how I’ve structured the plot. It’s all been me (and the suggestion of my wonderful editor) to show the story to the reader. But soon, the cover will arrive in my inbox and it will no longer only be about how I see it, but how the cover artist envisioned the book through my description of it.

Was I able to convey all the emotions and theme of the book adequately? Will my book look the way I’ve started to imagine it? Or will it be completely different? I had filled out a cover art sheet listing all the important elements in the book and what I think should be portrayed to the reader. The location: small town West Virginia. The mood of the book: for Framed to Death an optimistic, lighthearted tone coupled with a serious community issue. Which one (or ones) will the cover artist choose as being the stronger focal point to really show the story and will work best on a cover?

Being a scrapbooker, I’ve learned that less is often times more when it comes to design layout. When I started scrapbooking, I’d include every possible picture of an event (even if it meant cutting them into weird shapes), and layer on stickers and die cuts to fill all spot available. I would make sure to leave some room for some journaling so I could tell (more times than not retelling) what the pictures portrayed. After a few years, I realized I was overpowering the photographs with too many extras so I streamlined the amount of embellishments I put on the page, and chose the best pictures that showed the heart of the memory, and what I wanted myself and my family to remember about the event.

When the email pops with the subject line cover draft, I prepare for my first glimpse. All open programs are closed. I set my cell phone to vibrate and move it to the work station behind me. I don’t want anything distracting me from taking in the moment of that first look at my book. For me, it’s like meeting someone for the first time and I want to give my undivided attention. With one eye closed and the other opened a tiny bit, I click on the email and enlarge the attachment. Once I know the cover is full size on the monitor, I open my eyes. There it is. My book! A picture of my book!

The moment I saw Framed to Death, the first words that pop into my mind are: “I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it.” (It was during December so I was in the middle of my holiday movie binging season and I had just got done watching Elf.) The colors fit the fall season that book takes place and I love the frame chosen for the focal picture. It shows an element of the story without revealing it. I’d gush more about the new cover but I’m afraid I might give part of the plot away.

Framed to Death, the fourth book in the Faith Hunter Scrap This Mystery series, will be released on April 26, 2016. The other books in the series are Cropped to Death, Designed to Death, and Embellished to Death.

Christina Freeburn served in the US Army JAG Corps and also worked as a paralegal, librarian, and church secretary. The Scrap This Mystery Series (Cropped to Death, Designed to Death, Embellished to Death and forthcoming Framed to Death) brings together her love of mysteries, scrapbooking, and West Virginia. She's working on future books in the Faith Hunter Scrap This mystery series published by Henery Press. Christina blogs at www.theselfrescueprincess.wordpress.com where she chats about books, especially heroines and holiday themed stories, crafting, writing, and new hobbies she’s exploring

Friday, January 15, 2016

Predictabilty

Last night I was thinking about the great posts from my colleagues this week about David Bowie, trends, and creativity. I was wondering what I could add to the conversation. And then I turned from the sink and encountered the fixed green-eyed gaze of my cat, Harry. As you know by now, Harry fascinates me. In part because we have become involved in a game of predicting each other's next move. He's more difficult -- one moment he is sitting under the coffee table dozing, the next he is dashing through the house. One moment he is meowing his apparent distress, the next he is cuddling up with his sock filled with catnip as if he hadn't a care. The one thing I can predict about him is that several times during the day or evening -- when the mood strikes him and I am sitting down -- he will come and leap into my lap. If my hands are in his way, he will meow to get my attention. Then he will settle down for a nap, and I will not be able to move without being heartless and disturbing his sleep.

But what is more fascinating, and what I was thinking about last night, is that Harry has adjusted to my unpredictable predictability. I am awful at keeping an eye on the clock. I forget to feed him on schedule. But last night -- as he does every night -- he started to watch me as soon as I got up to wash the dinner dishes that I had left in the sink. I do that every night without fail -- with a scene from the Mary Tyler Moore show playing in my head. Rhoda is staying with Mary because of a problem in her apartment. She has told Mary that she will wash the dishes. But she leaves them in the sink to soak over night. Mary creeps out of bed when she thinks Rhoda is asleep to wash the dishes. I'm not a neat freak, but I wash the dishes every night (a lingering fear of cockroaches in an old house even though I've never seen one). Harry has learned that in spite of my erratic concept of bedtime, I will go to the sink and wash the dishes as a part of my before bed ritual. And then I will pick up his dish, wash it, and serve him the snack he has before lights out. Every night -- whether it is 11 o'clock, 12:15, or after 1 a.m., Harry fixes his stare on me when I begin to wash dishes and as I reach for the sprayer to rinse, he strolls into the kitchen and sits down in front of the refrigerator.

There is a phrase that isn't used any more -- "You can set your clock by him." I've heard a character say it an old movie as the prosperous banker in his three-piece suit walked by, heading to his place of business, or a suburban father waved to his neighbor as he backed out of his driveway for his commute to his office in the city. It was a phrase used to describe characters who were predictable in their habits. But there is also predictability in the chaotic sprint of  Dagwood, the comic strip character, who is always late. The mailman never seems to learn that Dagwood will explode out of his front door, knocking him over as he races to his waiting carpool. But, then again, the detectives on Law and Order never learned that getting creative (e.g., sticking a toothpick in a keyhole to keep a suspect out of his apartment until the search warrant arrived) was likely to produce evidence that would be suppressed by a judge. Just as predictable was the annoyance of the prosecutor, Jack McCoy -- less so that of Lt. Van Buren (who was predictable in that she would stand up for her cops when their strategies seemed to be the only reasonable thing to do).

As writers, one of the aspects of a character's personality that we might consider and exploit in our plotting is his or her predictability. In fact, as we are developing our characters, we might build in those aspects of predictability that other characters depend on. It could be that this character is always punctual -- maybe even arrives early and waits for other people -- is always smug when other people arrive a few minutes late. Maybe at some point in the story, another character (our protagonist), annoyed by this smugness decides to arrive early for their Thursday lunch date. And discovers that her friend is not waiting and becomes increasing alarmed as their meeting time arrives and passes. Or, maybe this friend has been plotting a murder and assumed that our protagonist would be late as usual. But this time she isn't, and she, thereby, becomes a less reliable alibi and maybe even a danger.

In real life, my friends predict that I will be late if I have some place to be before mid-morning. Even with the best of intentions, I have a difficult time getting to where I need to be. When I have a really early flight, I'm afraid to sleep the night before. A few months ago, I almost missed a flight to Seattle (en route to an Alaska cruise) because I -- something I had always feared I would do -- set the clock alarm for p.m. rather than a.m. And then, so tired from being awake during the night, slept through the ringing of the phone as my friend who was leaving for the airport tried to check on me. It was only hearing the end of her voice mail message as she called from the airport that woke me up and sent me scrambling.

I should say that later in the day, I have no problem being on time (or much less of a problem). I try to design my life so that appointments that I have to travel to are after 10 a.m. I teach in the afternoon and early evening. If I were a character, I, the writer, could use that contrast between morning me and afternoon/evening me. Saying I'm not a morning person would be "telling". "Showing" the difference could well be an important plot twist. What if I, the character, had decided after that near-miss of my flight, to change my morning habits. Suppose I decided to start getting up at seven and going for a walk -- which might well put me some place I would not ordinarily have been.

In criminology, there is a theory about "routine activities". Some crimes depend on the routine activities of the would-be victims (e.g., leaving home, walking to the bus, depositing money at the ATM). This is a kind of predictability that we as writers also often rely on in plotting our books. But we might also give occasional thought to how our characters feel about their routine, about their predictability. What would happen if a character decided one day to shake up his or her routine? What might motivate that decision? And what might happen if he or she did?

I think I'll take a different route to the office today. Maybe tomorrow, I'll get up and go to a little diner I noticed for an early breakfast.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Creativity

Inspiration strikes

The passing of David Bowie has made me ponder over the past few days on the nature of creativity. I liked David Bowie, even though I was not a fanatic and actually am unfamiliar with some of his later work. However, the thing that I particularly admired about the man was the way he endlessly recreated himself and his craft, and every iteration of David Bowie was eye-catching and beautifully done. He was brave, and no matter what your art is, you have to be brave, to put yourself out there.

I don't know where creativity comes from. Is there a mystical source? I’m sure it’s something infinitely more prosaic than Muses or an Oversoul, but I like that idea better than the thought that it’s all just a mental exercise. Why are some people born to their art and others struggle or are even incapable? No matter how much you love music, it's hard to become a singer or composer if you have a tin ear, or to create a moving painting or sculpture if you have no eye for form and color. You have to have an "ear" and and "eye" to be able to write effectively, as well.

I usually start the day by reading the paper front to back, and then working all the puzzles. This is not quite the time consuming activity it used to be a few years ago, when the daily paper actually had news in it. But at least the puzzles get my brain revved up for the day. One of my favorite puzzles is the Jumble, which consists of an anagram of a quotation from a well-known person. A while back, I deciphered a quotation from Truman Capote which, as a writer, I found quite insightful. It is as follows:

Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music.

Perspective is a sense of depth. It is a way to show things in their true relationship to one another, a way to make them seem real.

I never know what the entire story will be before I begin.* I learned early on that when you start to write a novel or story, or even a poem, you may think you have it all figured out before you set pen to paper. But you don't. Before I start a mystery, I always think I know why the killer did it, but to date, by the time I reach the end I discover I was wrong. The motive seems get modified every time. Not long ago, I told someone she should "trust the process" with her writing. Even if you don't know where the story is going to go, just start writing and trust that all will become clear as you go along. Have faith that the answer will provide itself when the moment comes.

Once the novel is done, it’s interesting to me to see how it all turned out, to remember what I originally had in mind and see how the tale changed as I moved through it. The only thing I can always count on when I write a book is that whether I deserve it or not, the Muses always come to my rescue and I end up with a finished novel that hangs together in an interesting and logical way. I don't know how.
_________________
*in writing or in life

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The dreaded middle

Barbara here. So we are two weeks into the new year, or more specifically, two weeks past the overindulgence of December. Overwhelmed by a feeling of sloth, we are frantically making promises – to exercise more, to eat less, to drink less, to cleanse and purify and meditate our way back to balance. And if you're a writer like me, to dig out that long-neglected work in progress and get back into the groove. For me, the deadline for my next novel, once blissfully away, is creeping inexorably closer. During December I laughed off the small niggles of pressure and the sheer blankness of my mind and the paper before me. I assured myself I had all the time in the world to figure out where the novel was going and to pull a brilliant plot out of a hat.

I don't plot ahead of time, nor do I outline. I provide the publisher with a vague synopsis of "this is what I think the novel is about, these are the characters that will probably be in it, these are a few things that might happen, and somehow it will all work out in the end, even though I don't yet know how." And then I pick up my pen and pad of paper, and I jump into the first scene. This 'by the seat of my pants' approach has served me adequately over the past eleven books, and is as entertaining as it is terrifying. I like not knowing what is coming next. I like the suspense, and the delicious surprises that my subconscious springs on me mid-book.

I guess I like the terror too. Like an actor about to go on stage, a doctoral student facing her thesis defence, a courtroom lawyer about to address the jury, there is a thrill in that adrenaline rush that makes all my senses come alive and my neurons go into overdrive. Some of us do our best creating when we are perched on the edge of the abyss. I was a crammer all through school, and I guess the habit dies hard.

As always, however, there can be too much pressure and too little preparation. A courtroom lawyer who hasn't even read the brief will face disaster, an actor who hasn't memorized her lines will fall on her face. An author who has only a hundred pages written one month before deadline is in big trouble. No amount of brilliantly firing neurons and flooding adrenaline can pull a perfect novel out of a hat in that time. Now I am not one month from my deadline, but I am staring at a very saggy, dismally out of shape novel. The myth of the dreaded middle is very real. Usually at the halfway mark of a first draft, the writer hits a wall. She's no longer sure how the novel will end, or how she's going to get there. She needs a new direction and a new sense of drama. Characters have to make unexpected changes or move in surprising ways. They need to stand on their heads.

Cliches abound about midway twists. Throw in another body, have someone confess, threaten the main character's nearest and dearest... The only thing worse than a flabby middle is a predictable twist. So when you're staring at that blank page and trying to brainstorm that EXCITING NEW TURN, you have to reject the numerous cliches that crowd helpfully into your mind and wait until that little gem pops up. You will know it when it comes to you– that ureka moment that cries out 'brilliant!'.

My flabby middle problem in this novel has some peculiar qualities. First of all, I'm only one third of the way through the book, not halfway. This is disconcerting. Will there be another flabby middle moment at the two-thirds mark? Or God forbid, more than one? Secondly, not all the plots in the novel are flabby. My work in progress is a braided story with three POVs; although Amanda Doucette is my main character, she has two sidekicks who have their own stories to unfurl. I have a lot of ideas about what those two sidekicks will be doing for the next hundred or so pages. They will be digging into the story, uncovering evidence, and pushing the intrigue forward.

Amanda, however, is stuck. Not only is she the main agent of the story, she's also physically right at the centre of the intrigue. She's a passionate, resourceful, independent woman who would jump in at the first sign of trouble or injustice, but right now in the story, I can't think what she should be doing. She, like me, is stalled. I have spent hours daydreaming about it while driving on the 401 and walking the dogs, so far without that ureka moment. I know she and I will eventually figure out what she should do. Maybe during that four-day winter camping excursion I am taking next week. Amanda is winter camping, too; perhaps she will speak to me.

So stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Those who are the real trendsetters

by Rick Blechta

I was never a huge fan of the music of David Bowie, but I will readily admit I've always respected that he was a huge influence on the pop world, fashion world and initiated trends and has influence that will continue into the future. He was also completely fearless in how embraced change, something most of us have trouble with. Certainly the world has seen few with such chameleon-like ability. It wasn’t only in Bowie’s image, but also in his music. Even his new, nearly posthumous, album displays many fresh ideas as does the video to his final single release, “Lazarus”.

Wading through the news and commentary about his life and death, I got thinking in other channels. Trendsetters like Bowie are actually quite rare in the world. I’m not going to lump Bowie in with people like Galileo, or more recently, visionaries such as Nikola Tesla to name but two. These giants took their world and set it on its ear with their breakthrough thinking. Their influence has been profoundly felt.

Naturally, I also considered who have been the real trendsetters in crime writing, our small corner of the artistic world.

Now, what I’m really interested in is soliciting loyal Type M readers (Okay, even disloyal ones can join in) to respond with their picks as the trendsetters in crime writing.

I’ll kick it off with two: Arthur Conan Doyle for his contribution of Sherlock Holmes and that character’s far-reaching influence, and Agatha Christie for her panoply of characters, but most especially her Miss Marple series, arguably the first of what are now known as “cozies”.

I could go on, but I will leave that up to all of you. Who gets your nomination as a trendsetter in crime writing — and why?

As for David Bowie, I think the artistic world will really miss him. You owe it to yourself to watch the video for “Lazarus”. It is brilliant, it is unsettling, and like everything else Bowie did, fiercely creative.

I think the world could use a lot more people like David Bowie.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Year Rant.

I have started the new year raging against technology. Think of King Lear on the blasted heath and transfer that to a small study in Edinburgh with Storm Frank doing its worst, and you get the picture.

My attitude to the machines that work for me is in general cordial, anthropomorphic, even. We have had cars called Tabitha (a skittish Ford Anglia) and Arthur (a rather sober family saloon); our Android tablet is predictably called Marvin and my old computer was dear Jemima. She got tired after about ten years but she ploughed on, solid and predictable, if increasingly slow, long after my family told me she should be scrapped. Eventually the slowness became standstill and I was forced, reluctantly to say goodbye.

Her replacment insists on doing all sorts of things that I can perfectly well do for myself, many of which I don't want done at all – and why anyone should design a system where it takes three stages for switching off instead of one is beyond me. However, I have got used to that and will even admit that there are some features that are better.

However, over the last bit I have had a spectacular proof of  the malevolence of inanimate objects. I am trapped in an abusive relationship here; if I had to give a name to my computer it would be Beelzebub.

It lulled me into a sense of false security, with everything nice as pie. Then suddenly it decided to obliterate half the chapter I had just written. I tried everything, but it was gone – not in the back-up file, not anywhere. I called in my tech guru who checked the whole thing, couldn't find the missing work, couldn't find anything wrong. I ran off hard copy, saved in two places, saved to a stick and sent copies to my husband and deleted the file, deciding it was corrupt.

It was fine for a bit, though it left me with a neurotic twitch about saving everything. I close, open up again and check, and if  everything is all right I close it again.  Then I started working on revisions. I worked for a whole morning, saved to my various places, checked and closed – fine.  Next day, all revisions had gone. All of them.

I'm scared to copy the file on to another machine in case it infects that as well. I'm working exclusively from a stick, removing it from the machine after I've saved, and so far so good. Once I've finished the present book, I'll strip everything back and hope that eliminates the problem. If it doesn't, it's a new machine and I will take pleasure in finding a sledge hammer and smashing Beelzebub into tiny fragments. Then I'll jump on them.

And you think that's the end of my rant against technology? Huh! Try booking a ticket on Virgin trains. It asks me to log in with a password. Why, for heaven's sake? I'm not wanting to withdraw money from a Swiss bank account, I want to buy a return ticket to London.

I can't remember my password. To be honest, I can't remember whether I have an 'account' or not. So I click 'register' instead. I type in my email, and a password; first I'm told that my password won't do. It has to be at least eight characters long and include at least one number, one upper case letter and one lower case letter. The one I'd typed in had just that, but apparently it still didn't like it. Then another message came up; this email is in use for another account, so I can't register a new one.

So I go back to log-in, confess in shame that I've forgotten my password and wait until they send me a code that MI5 would have been proud of. I enter it, then they tell me my credit card details are wrong. They aren't.

Eventually, on my knees and whimpering, I persuade them to accept a debit card and the precious ticket is mine, hedged about with security, just in case a total stranger should enter my email address – common knowledge – and try to buy a ticket under my name with their own money.

Of course, I'm glad I don't have to go out into Storm Frank to buy my ticket at the station. Of course I'm glad I don't have to write everything in longhand and type it up with duplicating paper and Snopak to hand. But every so often, I've just had enough. Me and King Lear.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Truth About Native American Literature Will Blow Your Mind

 

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Today's guest is Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel the Medicine Woman of the Mohegan Indian Tribe in Uncasville, Connecticut and a young-adult novelist. Her latest book, Wabanaki Blues, is a mystical murder mystery, released this year. It is the first book in the Wabanaki Trilogy. Her non-fiction writings include Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon (University of Arizona: 2000).
 
 

Best-selling Native American literature goes WAY back. I come from Mohegan Indian territory in Connecticut, birthplace of The Reverend Samson Occom. He penned the weirdly-popular A sermon at the execution of Moses Paul, an Indian, published in New London in 1772. Occom was not the first Native American to circulate a religious treatise. Popul Vuh, commonly referred to as "The Mayan Bible," is over two thousand years old. To learn more about ancient American writing, I recommend you check out Queequeg’s Coffin by Birgit Brander Rasmussen. It’s full of mind-bending accounts of Peru’s quipu knot texts, Mexican agave bark scripts and more. Those scripts are akin to old Wabanaki and Ojibwe bark writings in what is now the United States. Award-winning Ojibwe author Louise Erdrich describes the bark and rock writings of her people in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, saying "The rock paintings are alive."
 
Am I saying American word forms are animate? Yes, indeed. Because I come from the east coast, I offer painted ash splint basket and woven/carved quahog clam shell writing as examples. In A Key into the Language of Woodsplint Basket Designs, edited by Ann McMullen and Russell G. Handsman, Mohegans Jayne Fawcett and Gladys Tantaquidgeon describe the animacy of tribal painted basket symbols as "… a spiritual force that flows through all things, and if these symbols are true representations of that force, this spirit should be expressed in the designs." Tuscarora wampum expert Rick Hill suggests something similar when he refers to the "inherent intelligence of wampum" as noted in scholar Marge Bruchac’s insightful blog https://wampumtrail.wordpress.com
 
So what happened in the Northeast when colonial English pen and paper literature muscled in on this colorful, lively, three dimensional, Native American literary tradition?" In The Common Pot, author Lisa Brooks claims that "Birchbark messages became letters and petitions, wampum records became treaties, and journey pictographs became written journals." Native space focused on a network of social relations that included a wide range of living beings (including land/sky forms, as well as flora, fauna and fungi). She argues that such broadly engaged space demanded a broadly engaged narrative. In Red Ink, Drew Lopenzina describes this clash between colonial and Native concepts of story-keeping. "If colonial paradigms were generally geared toward the containment of space and knowledge, Native epistemologies seemed to favor a kind of engagement with the experiential world." Thus, I invite you to look deeper into The Story of America by experiencing Native American Literature, old and new.

http://www.melissazobel.com
 

Friday, January 08, 2016

Fried chicken

Remember the chicken? The cartoon I couldn't scan a while back? This had such a sad sad ending. I finally got Windows 10 to upload my contribution to this blog. I was jubilant! I felt like I was one of the truly sophisticated persons who paste images into Type M. I mean, like ALL THE TIME.

None of them even sweat it. They just go plink with their index finger and voila--witty entries appear that are actually illustrated.

I can do this now (well, minus the wit) but now my chicken is dead.

I had my newest entry ready to post on my Poisoned Pen Blog and Michele, the daughter who is editor-in-chief for Vegetarian Times informed me that it was a violation of copyright laws to post a New Yorker cartoon on the internet without getting all kinds of complicated permission.

That doesn't seem fair. But a number of PPP writers who are lawyers jumped in and said she was right. Anyway, I think I assumed that Rick would dash in and save us from doing anything that's inappropiate on Type M. I've posted a number of cartoons here too and now I must stop.

The cartoon was so applicable to what's on my mind: marketing. But I can tell you what the cartoon was about. A guy is walking down a hotel corridor carrying a chicken, knocking on each door, telling each occupant that he would like like for them to join his professional network on LinkedIn.

I thought it was hilarious because it summed up the sheer looniness of much of today's marketing efforts. The number of books being published every year is astonompical. Far too many for the market to absorb. The industry counts as a book a work that has an International Standard Book Number. No doubt there are many more that do not have this number. In fact, a good friend of mine just printed one on her home computer that will appeal to button collectors. It's doing quite well. She's an expert on this subject.

So the challenge is to get our books into the hands of readers. And therein lies the rub. Often, these mysterious readers are already taken.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

In the Details

Crime writing is supposed to be exciting, right? A pulse-pounding pace. Fast, fresh prose. Shootouts. Wisecracks. Devastating death scenes. Even Lauren Bacall starring opposite your Humphrey Bogart. That's what crime writing is all about, right?

Not so much.

This week, I rose at 4 a.m. to write the following:

Halifax is one hour ahead of Maine/Toronto. Flight from Istanbul - Toronto is 14 hrs; Toronto - Halifax is 2 hrs. Layover is 3.5 hrs. If you leave at 10 a.m., you arrive at 10 p.m. Turkey is 7 hours ahead of Maine.

I hope it really is all in the details because it took me 45 minutes to write these notes. I also hope you never notice any of this information while reading the 2017 Peyton Cote novel, Everlasting Darkness. The goal for a fiction writer to go unnoticed. These are notes from a "comment" I made in in my Google document: reminders for myself so I don't screw up the book's chronology. (Keeping notes like these is very important to a dyslexic who struggles with numbers: it took me two semesters and a summer to get through Algebra II, after all, but that's for another time.)

Atmosphere may be the most challenging element of fiction to convey, and atmosphere is all about the details. I'm reading Bangkok 8 right now. The novel is one of the richest, most atmospheric books I've read. It stars a devout Buddhist cop and opens with a wonderfully unique and intriguing murder scene. Those are things about the novel I do notice.

What I don't notice is the research author John Burdett must have done to capture Bangkok, Thailand, the things he noticed while living there. There are books writers read that make a fellow author say, I wish I'd have thought of that. The insinuation here is that the writer believes he or she could have created something akin to what she is reading. Then there are books we read that make us say, I wish I could do that. The insinuation here is obvious. Bangkok 8 makes me say the latter – for what I don't notice; not while I'm reading, anyway: I slide into Burdett's world, and am totally lost in it. I'm not turning pages, just following along, adrift in the details that create the rich atmosphere.

And atmosphere is all about the details, even the ones we rise at 4 a.m. to track down.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

My Year in Books

As is the case with most writers (though I’ve recently learned not all), I like to read. Unfortunately, I don’t get to read as much as I’d like. Last year, I was curious about just how many books I read in a year so I kept track.

First, the statistics. Grand total of 76 books read. Not bad. My “worst” month was April when I only read 2 books. I had a book deadline at the end of that month so I didn’t have much time. My best month was November when I read 9. Of the books I read, 18 were non-fiction and 58 fiction. Of the fiction books, 46 were mysteries, 2 general fiction, 4 YA, 3 children’s, and 3 science fiction. 24 of the mysteries were historical.

Here are some of the books I particularly enjoyed this past year.

First, The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman. Sussman wrote 3 books in the Yusuf Khalifa series that mix archaeology with mystery until he passed away suddenly in 2012. I’m interested in archaeology and have been studying Ancient Egyptian and Coptic for over a decade so this was of particular interest for me.

On the non-fiction end, there’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. It’s a portrait of Hitler’s Berlin in the early years of his reign told through the story of the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany and his family. I found this particularly interesting because I read it right after visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A lot of the exhibits dealt with those early years.

On the cozy end, I discovered Kylie Logan this past year. Her League of Literary Ladies Mysteries were some of my favorite reads this past year, particularly The Legend of Sleepy Harlow. And Button Holed, the first in her Button Box Mysteries, was also a favorite read of the year.

On the historical mysteries end, my favorites were the Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom and the Thomas Treviot series by D. K. Wilson. Both are set in Tudor England, a time period that has interested me since I was in junior high.

I’m looking forward to reading more great books in the coming year. The following are some of those on my TBR pile.

A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry. I couldn’t resist this one. A mystery with a “living” skeleton in the story. Yep, a skeleton's an actual character.

This non-fiction book was recently brought to my attention: Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages.

What about you all? What books did you particularly enjoy in 2015? What books are you looking forward to reading this coming year?

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The value of a long car ride

by Rick Blechta

Two or three times a year, we drive 516 miles from Toronto to just north of New York City to visit relatives and renew family ties. My wife and I have been doing this since 1974. At this point, we’re above 100 round trips. I now recognize nearly every rock and tree (two were down, I noticed on our trip back last week), let alone curves in the road. Sitting in the car for 8+ hours seeing the same things got tedious a long time ago. My wife loathes the trip and I’ve contemplating drugging her so she would conk out at the beginning and wake at the end. Me? I don’t mind it all that much and you’re about to find out why.

When our kids were little and took the trip with us, we would have story tapes to while away the hours (and also use as a weapon to keep them from fighting in the back seat!). Our listening was eclectic to say the least. We had favourites (like A Christmas Carol for our holiday trip) to NY. The boys quickly learned to enjoy crime fiction, especially Dick Francis. As they got older, we gravitated to thrillers to please them.

Though they generally don’t travel with us anymore, we do enjoy having a good audio book, but quite often the car is silent (if we’re not conversing) and if I’m not the one who’s driving, a great deal of time is spent looking out the window, but what I’m actually doing is writing.

On this recent trip back home, I spent time thinking about some more research on the novel series I’m currently wrestling with. My main protagonist lives in a very large house, a castle almost, overlooking the glorious, majestic Hudson River. (Oddly enough, there is a house almost like the one I’m imagining and if it’s in the wrong town, what the heck. I’ll just write it above Cold Spring even if that means moving it a few miles north.)

On the drive back to Toronto last Friday, I was mentally reviewing what I’d learned and cogitating on how it could fit in to my novel’s “set design”.

If you’re not familiar with the Eastern shore of the Hudson River above New York City, it has a very particular feel to it. First off, it has been settled for over 300 years and consequently has a very lived in “aura” to it and that’s proving very hard to work into the first story’s fabric. If you’re attempting to write a readable thriller, this kind of detail has to be placed in quick, small bursts or you risk losing the reader. However, if you don’t get it just right, you also risk losing the reader. Leave it out all together and you’ve lost the story’s sense of place.

Solving this proved to be a 300-mile conundrum, but passing Watertown, NY, it suddenly hit me how I might work it effectively given the parameters. It involves leaning on another character to describe the lay of the land because she’s never visited the area before and gets lost.

Arriving back in Toronto, I was faced with a bit of a “detour” since I have to respond to the edit of the novella I have coming out this fall, but I am very eager to put my plan into action and see how it all works.

My plan came from being forced to think for a longer period of time than I normally would, simply because I was trapped in a car taking a journey made over 100 times. I could think of it as an ordeal, but I chose to make it an opportunity.

So you see, having to make the same trip yet again can be worthwhile if you decide to make lemonade out of lemons. Come to think of it, I’ve done some of my best creating driving between New York and Toronto.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Looking Forward with Trepidation

By Vicki Delany

January 1st is just a date on the calendar, isn’t it? Perhaps the New Year should start on December 21 (or 22) when the sun seems to turn in the sky and head back and we’re saved from endless darkness. Or on December 25th, as that is celebrated as the birth date of the person for whom our years are numbered.  Or maybe, for some relieved parents, the day the kids go back to school.

But it’s January 1st in the Western World, and whether or not we see the new year in at a big party or simply by cracking open a new calendar, it’s the start of the year.
And a time for looking back and looking forward.  Perhaps we do need a date at which we can stop and recollect on all that went well, and what didn’t, and hope to see more of the former, and less of the latter.

In 2015, I had four books published. Not bad, if I do say so myself.  Two of those four were first in series, which is promising, and two were written under a brand new pen name.  I’m going to have a slow (comparatively speaking) 2016 with only three books.  The eighth constable Molly Smith book, Unreasonable Doubt, will be out on Feb 2rd, the third Lighthouse Library book, Reading Up A Storm, in April, and the second Year Round Christmas mystery, We Wish You a Murderous Christmas, in November.

So, things are going well for me in my writing career. You’d think I’d be leaning back and practicing being self-satisfied. But the publishing world is a very strange place, and I’m approaching the future with trepidation.  Strange things are happening at Penguin Random House and all the Berkley Prime Crime authors are getting twitchy.  Contracts are not being renewed and new books not being picked up. It’s not that books are being turned down. It’s that NOTHING seems to be happening.

The race to the bottom continues as the plethora of free books becomes almost overwhelming, not to mention books being sold for .99c. Used to be backlist books were reduced in price to attract new readers, which is a fair business motel. Increasingly I see almost new (like a couple of weeks old) titles from small or independent publishers being offered at .99c.

In the US, the UK, and Canada writers’ incomes have dropped by something like 50% in the last twenty years. It’s not hard to see why, is it?

So, as the race to the bottom continues an awful lot of good writers are going to decide it’s not worthwhile to keep writing and give it up.


If you love a book or a series and want to see it continue, you can help the struggling author. Buy a copy of the book (heck a mass market paperback isn’t much more than a large latte these days, and less than the cost of a movie ticket), or take it out of your library if you have a limited budget (libraries pay for books)  and then leave a nice review at Amazon, Goodreads, and other places. It does help. 


Friday, January 01, 2016

And So It Begins

Happy New Year, one and all!


I hope your New Year's Eve was as pleasant as mine (spent quietly with friends, eating and playing board games). I stayed up to see the New Year in and then went off to bed, grateful to have gotten through another year that brought me a bit closer to my goals and hoping that the world will be a better, safer, kinder place for all us in 2016. But my Type M colleagues have already written eloquently about that.

I do want to pick up a thread that Rick began – New Year's resolutions. I used to have a long list, categorized in order of importance (A,B,C) and even broken down into “do-able tasks”.  I still like the idea of thinking about what it is that I really want to achieve. And breaking each goal down into small tasks that I can act on does get me up and moving when I'm overwhelmed by the enormity or complexity of what I want to achieve. As I have been working on my non-fiction book, thinking about the tasks (what I need to know and where to find that information) has kept me on track. Remembering my goal – to finish the book – has kept me from wandering off and spending another year or two reading about topics that intrigue me but that are only marginally relevant to this particular book. Remembering that this book is a top priority (an A rather than a C goal) has kept me from pushing it aside and working on something else that would be easier and less demanding of my time and effort.

My old strategy for making New Year's resolutions has something to be said for it. But what I have realized after many efforts to make and keep a long list of resolutions is that I should give attention to the few that will bring me to the end of the year feeling good about who I am both as a writer and a person. One resolution that I make each year is to treat my body better – more healthy food and less sugar, more exercise and fewer long sessions in front of the computer when the only part of my body moving is my fingers. This resolution – never fully achieved and subject to numerous lapses during each year – is the one that makes me feel hopeful each new year when I get a “start over” and distressed and annoyed with myself when I realize at the end of the year that I'm still human and imperfect. In 2015, I learn to love Brussels sprouts, but I ended the year by munching my way through numerous candy canes.

This year, my top resolution is to be more tolerant of my imperfections. I will continue to work on eating more fruits and veggies and getting up from desk and out the door to walk – or at least getting in my 30 minutes of aerobics before I sit down at my desk. I will walk down the hall at work to fill my environmentally friendly water bottle and I will drink that water even though I don't love it because being semi-dehydrated affects ones ability to think. I will be gentle with myself on those days and nights when I go to bed late, eat poorly, and get no exercise at all.

Under this heading of being more tolerant of my imperfections, I will also remember to treat my envy with respect. Here, I'm referring to the envy that most of us (unless we are saints) feel toward those who seem to have what we want. I will remember that even though I feel twinges of envy when I look on the success of other writers who make the bestsellers lists, receive nominations and awards, have their books made into films and television series, and gets recognized when they stop to admire the display of their books in airport bookstores – I will remember that the best use of my very human envy is to think about how I define success and what I am willing to do or give up to achieve it. After careful consideration, I'm pretty sure I don't want people to recognize me when I'm walking through an airport, but I wouldn't mind spotting my book in an airport bookstore or seeing someone reading my book on a plane. I'd like an Edgar (maybe two, one for fiction and another for nonfiction) and I'd like to make the New York Times bestseller list. And although I intend to market smarter in 2016, I will continue to focus on writing better because I believe quality is important.

My second resolution: I will learn to clip my cat Harry's nails. Or, rather, I will become better at persuading Harry to allow me to clip his nails. I'm up to two or three nails at a time now. I will get to one paw at a time before the year is over. This may seem a low-value resolution, but it is important. Harry likes to sit on my lap, especially when I'm sitting in front of my computer. When his nails grow too long, I am pricked when he jumps from the floor or steps from the desk onto my lap. I am pricked again when he stretches his paw up to touch my neck. This is a sign of feline affection – and Harry's love of stretching (a habit I am trying to emulate) – but it has sent me to my collection of casual, at-home-tops with high collars when I don't have the time to try to clip nails and no visit from his pet sitter or to the vet is upcoming. Besides, clipping his nails myself will save me a bit of money. And, as much as I love him, avoiding being scratched by my cat may keep me healthier. So I will work on my nail clipping technique.

Resolved:  This year, I will be more tolerant of my failures and celebrate even small successes. I will give myself more credit for what I'm trying to achieve and less scorn when I sometimes stumble.

Cheers!