Monday, October 31, 2016

My Kind of (Fictional) Town

Like Vicki who was writing last week about her series, Year Round Christmas, I too create towns, villages, hamlets, even, for the DI Fleming Galloway series.

There are lots of good reasons for choosing the fictional line. First, you have to remember that libel laws in the UK are very strict and I have a terror that if I had a corrupt police officer called Eric Watson who has a bald head, a paunch and a large wart on his nose and placed him in an actual police station, with a certain deadly inevitability,there would turn out to be an Eric Watson who corresponded to the physical description and didn't take kindly to being described as corrupt. I still remember when Joanna Trollope wrote The Choir set in a cathedral; it wasn't actually named but its identity was obvious even so and she had a serious problem with an unfortunately-named cleric.

Then too there is a problem about specific locations. Once you're dealing with an actual town, readers are delighted to pounce on inaccuracies: 'But you can't see the post office if you're standing outside the pub.' Unless the setting for the book is right on the doorstep you can't pop out every ten minutes to check details like that and with a fictional town, the post office can be wherever the plot demands it should be. And you can add fun things to the town centre, like an interesting statue, say, that has serious significance for your character.

But as I've often said here, the sense of place is very important in my books so I have worked out a compromise. The places where I set the action will be fictional, but they will have a very precise real location, in an empty space on the map; I'll mention the real places round about and describe scenery exactly as you'd see it from that position, and my fictional village will have a lot of the characteristics (though not the specifics) of the real village next door.

Readers seem happy to accept this, though one did point out that when I'd said my character was driving east along a road, surely it ought to have been west. I had to admit that once in response to someone telling me that a building was on the north side of a street, I had asked, 'Is that when you're going up or coming down?' so it was more a brain problem than a continuity one.

My piece de resistance, though, was creating a whole island for Evil for Evil. Just a modest little island, not like, say, Australia. It just had a bothy, a ruined chapel and some ancient Norse graves and it had a causeway across to the mainland at low tide.

This too had a very specific location - the Isles of Fleet, just off the coast of Galloway. I found it when I was one of my trips looking for the sort of inspiration I wrote about in my last post. It was an enchantingly pretty setting - just a chain of tiny uninhabited islands, some no more than grass-covered rocks, and it seemed so natural to add another on to the end that when I think of them now, I see my own Lovatt Island along with them, looking just as real.

This isn't my island – unfortunately they haven't yet developed the technology for producing photographs of imaginary objects – but use your own imagination and add another island, slightly smaller, a little bit to the left. Pretty, isn't it?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Another Voice Heard

How does this happen? John just discussed a subject that I've been thinking about for two weeks; The importance of point of view in a novel. So I'll build on his comments.

What started me thinking was an article in the book review section of the New York Times. Written by Elliott Holt in his Critic's Take column, the article was entitled "The Return of Omniscience." Holt was referring to the surprising number of recent novels featuring a narrator "who is conscious of everything and isn't afraid to say so."

As an example he used the opening sentences from Celeste Ng's novel Everything I Never Told You; "Lydia is dead. But they don't know that yet."

I can recall a time when this usage would have sent a creative writer teacher screeching down the hall way. "No, no, no. The writer is not God." But why not? 18th and 19th century novelists did this all the time. Frankly when this technique is well done I love this authoritative voice. I think it's especially effective for historical novels.

In John Corrigan's excellent post, he refers to The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. This is an outstanding book. Another books that is a classic and one of the best is Frances Fugate's, Viewpoint. It's very hard to find and someone "borrowed" mine (I honestly forget who) and never returned it.

Holt provides an excellent analysis for "The Return of Omniscience."

John discussed the problems and advantages of first and third person viewpoint. As for me, I'm frankly curious about the reemergence of mix and match. We're happily and solidly in the head of the first person narrator and them wham! A villain described in third person but at such a close distance we are in his head too. But the "I" is gone. At that point, the voice, the viewpoint is technically a rather sneaky omniscient narrator. I think.

I'll tell you what I know for sure: Only the shadow knows the evil that lurks in the heart of men. Surely this old radio introduction was one of the most scary statements ever devised for the omnipotent voice.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

It never gets easier

Writing never gets easier. Not for me, anyway. Not if I’m continuing to challenge myself.

I’ve written the first 30 pages of a novel-in-progress three times now, using two different points of view and even trying present tense.

Point of view is my largest concern anytime I start a novel. I think it’s the most important decision a fiction writer makes.

I’m several months –– but only three chapters –– into a new novel, one which I hope launches a new series. I want the book to feature a husband and wife team. The wife is a career-oriented power player in her profession; the husband is a cynical type who wants no part of his wife’s relative celebrity. I wrote the first three chapters from the husband’s third-person perspective –– he’s the outsider, viewing his wife, the most powerful person in their workplace. I didn’t love those pages. And, after writing three novels recently using the third-person perspective of a female, I was hankering to write from a male’s first-person point of view. (I grew up on Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald, after all.) So I scrapped the third-person opening, committed to the first-person voice of the husband, which moved him much closer to the action, while making sure the wife remains a large part of the plot from the start. I’m off to the races now.

No discussion of point of view is complete without also mentioning John Gardner’s “psychic distance” chart. In his book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Gardner offers this wide-to-narrow camera lens view of the distance from which a reader views an author’s scene:
  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul
When you reach No. 5, you are inside the character’s head –– and not far from first-person. The benefits of using third person, especially in a crime novel, are clear: You can zoom in (as Gardner’s No. 5 illustrates) with nearly the precision of first-person; however, in third-person, the writer can also withhold information that might be hard to conceal in a first-person story. Michael Connelly, in a2003 BookPage interview, speaks of the challenge of withholding information from the reader when writing in first person: "When you go into first person, all bets are off. You find yourself feeling like you're cheating the reader if you hold anything back. I think that's one of the things that was good about the old [third-person] Harry; I was able to hold things back and kind of spring them on the reader when I wanted to."

While third person has many benefits, I’m a sucker for the intimacy of the first-person speaker. I like to be closer to to the character. Writing in first-person, to me, is like acting: I step into character and voice and record (and convey) the information in a manner true to the speaker’s worldview.

What it always comes down to is making the appropriate choices for the work at hand. After writing 100 pages to get 30, I’m hoping I’ve done that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

California Assembly Bill 1570

I’m back from vacation. Not the best time to schedule a trip to Florida as it turns out. We did a 2 week driving trip so we just avoided the parts of Florida Hurricane Matthew was expected to reach and spent more time in Alabama than we originally planned. That meant we missed the Keys and the Everglades, our primary intended destinations.

We did find lots of interesting things to see in Alabama. Every time I notice my name on something when I’m traveling (a rare occurrence) I have to check it out, even if it’s not spelled the same way. In Birmingham, Alabama we found the Temple of Sibyl. It originally was on the grounds of someone’s house. The owner intended to be buried under it. But he was buried elsewhere and, when the property went up for sale, the “temple” was bought by the local garden society and moved to where we found it. It’s now used for weddings.

Sybil at the Temple of Sibyl
When I’m on vacation, I only occasionally check email. This time around I noticed a flurry of messages on one of the lists I’m on talking about a bill recently passed by the California state legislature, Assembly Bill 1570. This bill was meant to tighten restrictions on memorabilia dealers, but has unintended consequences for bookstores and author signings. It goes into effect January 1st of next year.

If you want to read the actual bill, it’s here.

Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a very interesting article that talks about the possible consequences of this bill for book sellers in the state.

Basically, the bill requires certificates of authenticity for autographed memorabilia sold in California or to Californians. It wasn’t meant to apply to bookstores and author signings, but from what I’ve read, unintentionally does so. According to Hiltzik’s column, “Sacramento experts say the law doesn’t apply to bookstores selling author-autographed books, but the text itself is vague on the issue.”

No matter what those experts say, if I were a bookseller I’d probably be a little nervous. As Hiltzik points out, it’s the booksellers that bear the legal risk if a judge decides the experts are wrong. I personally haven’t heard of any bookstore doing anything differently based on this upcoming law, but it’s early days and it’s causing quite a kerfuffle among authors in the state.

The issue has been pointed out to the appropriate parties and a fix may be in the works “if it’s needed.” Only time will tell what the consequences are.

In the meantime, Dru’s book musings ( is doing a cover reveal for the next book in my mystery series, A Palette for Murder, on Sunday, 10/30. Drop by and check it out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I have a confession to make

by Rick Blechta

Since Vicki featured the second book in her Year Round Christmas series yesterday  (and an interesting discussion it was), I thought I’d give a bit of coverage to my latest novella, Rundown — which, coincidentally has its official release today! In my case, though, I have something to reveal which my readers might find shocking.

There is absolutely no musical component to the plot. No musicians appear in it, are harmed in it, in fact there’s not so much as a drum stick anywhere in the book’s 160 pages, zilch, zippola.

Every single other publication with Rick Blechta on the cover has a main character or two who is a musician or in the music business. Music is always front and centre in my books.

What happened?

It’s nothing as sensational as I’ve sworn off music or that the contract for the book stipulates in paragraph 1: “No music shall appear anywhere in this story.” The lack of music in Rundown has two specific causes — and I should say that it surprised me as much as anybody when it all went down.

First, the book’s contract does say that the ms as delivered by me shall contain between 14,000 and 20,000 words*. While I didn’t obsess about this while writing, I did begin keeping my eye on the word count as I approached the halfway point in the story. Three quarters of the way through, I realized I had a large problem: I wasn’t going to finish the story without going maybe 2000 words over the limit. Not a good thing.

When this came to light, I immediately went back to what I’d already written to look for economies. Were there scenes or plot threads that could be removed. For the plot to be understandable and satisfying, there weren’t, but for some of the character development things there were. Front and centre in that was the “musical thread”. It revolved around the protagonists (Pratt & Ellis) getting into a (sometimes heated) debate on current musical tastes. Pratt loves jazz and Ellis hard rock and grunge (as befits their ages).

After a few hours of cogitation, I realized it all had to go. Yes, it made the characters more defined and real, but it was also a chance for me to grind a few axes on both points (ie: be a bit self-indulgent). The bottom line was that it wasn’t really needed. And while it’s difficult to present well-rounded characters in a constrained setting like this, it is something a writer has to face and make the best of it.

The end result was, I managed to cut out 1500 words of witty repartee. And guess what? With a bit of massaging in other spots, I managed to add a bit of meat to these two characters’ bones in other ways.

The book came in about 100 words over the limit and all of these (and more) were lost in the editing process.

So, today you can order Rundown at all the usual places (or visit your favourite independent bookstore) and you’ll have Blechta’s first music-less publication — which should also make it extremely collectable.

If you’re in Toronto on November 5th from 2-4, you can also drop by Sleuth of Baker Street and purchase a signed copy (which might make the book less collectable), and enjoy a glass of wine and some nice sweet or savoury nummies.

And for those of you who are disappointed over the lack of music in this book, the full-length novel I’m working on will be back to the musical beat — although the protagonist isn’t a full-time musician.


*I’ve often wondered why word counts are always used. I don’t get it. Obviously words are of varying lengths and this makes word counts extremely un-predictive as to the length of a work and how much paper it will take to print it. Computer software such as MS Word — which is nearly ubiquitous in the publishing biz — can count characters just as easily as it counts words (or paragraphs). Wouldn’t it be far more sensible (and accurate) for publishers to stipulate character counts in their contracts?

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Fun of Creating a Whole New Town

By Vicki Delany

Barbara talked last week about setting in her books, how she’s been exploring remote Canadian locations in person and by map searching for good settings.

I on, the other hand, sometimes just make it all up.

Case in point: my Year Round Christmas Series from Berkley Prime Crime. When I was tossing around the idea of a cozy Christmas-theme-shop book, the first thing I had to consider was if it would be a shop in a nice, typical town. Or in a town totally dedicated to Christmas.

It didn’t take long to decide on the latter, and Rudolph, New York was born. In Rudolph, they love Christmas so much they celebrate it all year round.

Now, I had my town, so I had to fill it with something.  Mrs. Claus’s Treasures sells everything you need for decorating your home, as well as toys and jewellery, and many of the goods are locally made.  Victoria’s Bake Shoppe is famous for its gingerbread.  There’s Candy Cane Sweets, the North Pole Ice Cream Parlour, The Elves Lunchbox, Cranberries Coffee Bar, Touch of Holly Restaurant, The Yuletide Inn, the Carolers Motel. The possibilities are endless.  (Looking at this list it seems as though the residents and visitors to Rudolph like to eat a lot.)

Then we need people.  Merry Wilkinson is the owner of Mrs. Claus’s Treasures.  Merry’s father, Noel, is the town’s Santa Claus. Merry knows her dad isn’t really Santa, but sometimes she does wonder how he knows what people want before they so much as say so.  Merry’s best friend, Vicky, owns the bakery.

The fondest wish of the residents of Rudolph is to be known officially as America’s Christmas Town. But they have tough competition from the likes of Snowflake, Arizona or North Pole, Alaska.  In the first book of the series, Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen, they’re delighted when a reporter from an international travel magazine arrives to do a feature he is going to title “America’s Christmas Town”.

Delight changes to something else when the reporter dies from eating a poisoned gingerbread cookie baked at Victoria’s Bake Shoppe. And rivals from a nearby town begin to whisper the worst: Christmas Town or Horrorville?

The second book in the series will be released on November 1st, and it’s titled We Wish You A Murderous Christmas.

This time there’s a Grinch in town when the owner of the popular Yuletide Inn takes ill and his son, Gord, arrives to take over. Gord, unfortunately, isn’t exactly imbued with the Christmas spirit.

The joy of writing cozies, I have found, is the pure fun in it.  I’ve had great fun creating Rudolph and its inhabitants, and I hope you enjoy reading about their adventures. 

We Wish you A Murderous Christmas is now available for pre-order in mass market paperback and ebook at your favourite independent bookstore as well as Amazon, B&N, and Indiebound 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The other side of the desk and making enemies

As a writer, I know full well the sting of rejection. In fact, the fear of rejection is what keeps writers from putting their work out. We comfort ourselves by saying getting rejections is part of the game, that every great writer had their share of rejections, that a rejection is just one step closer to a "Yes!" and on and on. But rejections suck. Always. Even the most reassuring and empathetic rejection isn't as good as a lukewarm "You're in." Editors can be so stupid.

Recently I found myself on the other side of the submissions process and it was my job to be telling other writers, "Sorry, but no thanks." I was the co-editor for a forthcoming anthology, Blood Business, from Hex Publishers. This submissions process was straightforward as we accepted work by invitation only, mostly from established writers. As an editor this gave me the opportunity to see stories in a rawer state, and I was curious to see just how good even these good writers were before their work had been edited. What I kept in mind was to stand back, put aside my own my prejudices for technique, and try to take in what the writer intended. At the same time, I had to be cognizant of my role as an editor. If something didn't work it was my responsibility to say so. The results were all over the place, and we (the senior editor and I--the royal we) tended to draw the same conclusions on every work. One writer--a former editor, not surprisingly--submitted a story that was perfect both in terms of content and copy-editing. The others stories needed developmental work, sometimes a few tweaks and sometimes a lot of revisions. We felt that a couple of submissions missed the mark completely from the point of basic story telling, disappointing since we had solicited pieces from proven writers in the genre.

We shared our editorial comments and interestingly, we learned who the real professionals are in this writing business. One of the bigger name authors took our input without hesitation and trimmed and honed his narrative into an exceptionally sharp story. Another writer took what we thought was a loose and flabby plot and tightened it into a really trim and muscular piece of work. In fact, his reworked story really nailed his premise.

I also had my turn as The Editor, the mo-fo in charge for another anthology, Found, the fifth such collection from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. The theme was pretty catchy:

Sometimes things are better off lost,
and sometimes they were never meant to disappear. 
Either way, when they're found, everything changes.

Since the anthology was to promote RMFW, we accepted works only from members and through an open submissions process. The first lesson I learned was that the guidelines for word count had been much too broad, with the upper limit as 15,000 words. Besides making it more of a chore to read those longer works, it also meant that from a logistical perspective, I might have to choose less stories. We received 89 submissions. The formatting rules were detailed and conformed to industry standards. Unlike the situation at Hex Publishers, where I had leeway in how to interpret the rules, I felt that I didn't have that option with Found. If a writer thought I had been arbitrary and unfair, then they could appeal to the RMFW board and I'd have that mess heaped on top of my other duties. So I stuck to the rules. Unfortunately, being so draconian forced me to reject some stories out of hand and there were several I was looking forward to reading. But rules are rules. The plus side was that this allowed me to whittle the list down to 54 stories. Luckily, I had 11 readers--all volunteers like me--who helped cull through that pile, and without them, my job as editor would've been a summer-long ordeal. Sorting through the works was a double-blind process as the readers didn't know who the author of the work I had passed along. Each story was read by two readers. The scoring was simple. Two meant Yes. One meant Maybe. Zero, the dreaded No. My big takeaway was learning how subjective the selection process is. Out of the fifteen stories that were chosen, I could have easily picked another fifteen that were just as good. Them's the breaks. Then came the time to send out the notices about who was in and who was out. I gave each rejection a reason about why the story fell short. Some writers replied back with thanks. But others didn't and that led to yet another lesson: As an editor you make enemies. At the RMFW Gold Conference, several of those writers whose work I had rejected and people who usually made time to catch up now gave me the cold shoulder. Seriously, I got freezer burn.

Besides selecting works, my other tasks were copy-editing, selecting a cover, formatting, and getting published through the various venues: CreateSpace; Ingram; Kindle; Smashwords; and Kobo. Fortunately, the editor from the previous RMFW anthology stepped up to copy edit, and a writer friend with considerable design experience handled the cover and interior layouts. Both did great jobs.

The launch signing took place during the Gold Conference. Another lesson, since this was the one location were most of the contributors would attend, Take lots of pictures! Which I spaced out. Our public reading was sponsored by the Tattered Cover bookstore at the Great Hall of Denver's Union Station, a swanky and popular after-work hang out. Not everyone there was for our reading, but I like to think that we provided a bit of literary culture to go along with their cocktails. I know I was drinking.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Characters, Ideas, and Settings

The posts by my colleagues this week has been so thought-provoking, I had a hard time deciding what to blog about today. Characters who take over? Where ideas come from? Setting as character?

I have experienced that phenomenon of a character who refuses to do what he or she was intended to do. In my third Lizzie Stuart book, Old Murders, the character who was to have been the killer refused that assignment and insisted on having a subplot. In the fourth book, You Should Have Died on Monday, Lizzie's mother, Becca, made an appearance that threatened to upstage Lizzie, my first-person protagonist. Becca is still out there and now that I've returned to the series for a new book, I'm sure she will be making another appearance. I hate to have her ruin Lizzie's wedding, but I'm pretty sure she will show up during the honeymoon. And when she reappears, I will be torn. She is the most take-no-prisoners character I have ever created. A femme fatale who disrupts Lizzie's life, but shouldn't overshadow her.

The idea for my historical mystery came to me when I was thinking about 1939 and the events that symbolized the struggle in America between past and present, inequality and justice. In 1939, Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, the New York World's Fair opened that summer, Billie Holiday performed "Strange Fruit," a song about lynching, at Cafe Society in NYC, and that December, Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta. This idea -- even more than most of my ideas -- has required a lot of thought to get to workable plot.

On the other hand, the idea for my sixth Lizzie Stuart book, now in progress, came to me as an image of a woman running out of her house toward her car. I wanted to try my hand at a flash story for the New England Crime Bake contest. It wasn't a great story -- I needed more words -- but I did discover where that woman was going. She drives up into the mountains to rescue her child, who is being held hostage by an old enemy. The story was pure noir. In my head it played out like a graphic novel. And my protagonist Lizzie Stuart was nowhere in sight.

But that dark, rainy night wouldn't go away. When I was ready to start my new book, the plot changed and the characters changed. But the book begins with Lizzie, driving home on a rainy night in Gallagher and coming upon a car by the side of the road. A woman is trying to change a tire. . .

The book begins there. But the next day, Lizzie and her fiance, John Quinn, fly off to Santa Fe to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
Lizzie has never met his family and wants to make a good impression. But now she is distracted by what is going on back in Gallagher. A woman is missing. Her car was found by the side of the road. . .

Since the murder mystery is back in Gallagher, I might have done some reading about Santa Fe and watched some YouTube videos. But my Thanksgiving gathering -- when Lizzie meets Quinn's family, all of whom have been mentioned in earlier books -- is important to readers who have been following the series. I'm curious about Quinn's family, too, and I want to do those scenes justice. Lizzie and Quinn will soon be on a plane back to Gallagher, Virginia, but I want the family gathering to ring true. So I'm going to Santa Fe for three days in November to find the neighborhood that Quinn's half-sister lives in and the street where her art gallery is located. I'm going to do the tour of the area that Lizzie will have when she goes there. I want the setting to have as much significance in the story as Gallagher.

I have one other idea that I'm playing with, but need to work out. I need to resolve a series arc from my two Hannah McCabe police procedural novels set in Albany. The two books, The Red Queen Dies and What the Fly Saw, are set in 2019 and 2020, respectively. My Lizzie Stuart series is set in the recent past. The year in the sixth book is 2004. But Lizzie is an alum of the University at Albany, School of Criminal Justice. I've been thinking of a cameo appearance by a professor in Gallagher, Virginia, who Detective McCabe contacts to ask a key question about the threat that she is facing in Albany, NY in 2020. Lizzie would be in her 50s, and I wonder what would be going on in her life and how she would be different in McCabe's alternate universe. Just playing with the idea. . .

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Idea Worth Pursuing

I have a good idea for a story. One of the cliche questions authors are often asked is where the story ideas come from. After Bob Dylan received his Nobel Prize last week, 60 Minutes (click on to see the interview) showed a brief clip from an earlier interview with Dylan in which Ed Bradley asked him that very question. The answer is: who knows? Dylan said it was rather like magic, and I can’t argue with that. I think sometimes you just achieve the right state of consciousness, and the ideas are bestowed upon you out of the aether. In my series, I’ve used ideas that have come to me in every conceivable fashion.

A recurring character in the series came to me in all his fully realized glory several years ago when I was at a concert of the Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders Massed Bagpipe Bands and watching a very young, very serious, athletic, rose-lipped, red-cheeked Scottish sword dancer with dewy black eyes and a shag of black hair.

The murder in The Drop Edge of Yonder is based on an actual incident that happened to one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side during the Civil War. (A lot of the incidents in my books are inspired by my own and my husband’s wild and wooly family backgrounds.)

The Sky Took Him began with an idea that came to me while I was on the Oklahoma leg of a book tour for Hornswoggled in 2006. I had set up an event in Enid, OK, which is my husband’s home town. I was sitting with my husband and his sister in a restaurant called Pasttimes, the walls of which are covered with historic pictures of Enid. I was facing a 1915 print of a street scene showing two women going into Klein’s Department Store on the town square. You know how they sometimes do the opening of a movie by starting with a still photograph that dissolves into a moving scene? As I sat there and looked at that picture, those two women became Alafair and her daughter Martha on a shopping spree. What, I asked myself, are Alafair and Martha doing in Enid, of all places?

One great thing about writing historical fiction is that when you do your research, you discover that what really happened is often better than anything you could make up. I decided to set the sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, here in Arizona, where I live, rather than in Oklahoma, where Alafair lives. I figured this would be a nice little diversion for Alafair, and for me as well. But Alafair has ten kids and a large farm, so there are a couple of problems I had to solve before I even begin: 1. Why on earth would Alafair go to Arizona in the first place? 2. Once she gets there, what is going on that she could get herself involved in, how, and why?

So I hied myself off to the Arizona State University library here in Tempe and begin perusing the files of the Arizona Republican newspaper for March of 1916, the date I intended to set the novel. I knew I’d find something really good, for after five previous novels set in the 1910’s I’ve learned that life in the early Twentieth Century Southwest was nothing if not action-packed. Was I ever right. Plot points and atmosphere galore, and all I had to do was spend an afternoon unspooling microfilm.

Hell With the Lid Blown Off  is about a tornado. Because, I thought, I can’t write a series set in Oklahoma and not write about what life is like in tornado alley. I didn’t need to make anything up. I used some incidents from my sister’s experience in the Joplin tornado and some very strange tornado experiences from other relatives and even some pretty odd ones of my own. But it’s impossible to exaggerate reality when it comes to what a big tornado can do.

My upcoming book, The Return of the Raven Mocker (January 2017), revolves around the flu epidemic of 1918. No one knows for sure how many died in the flu pandemic, but modern estimates put the number at somewhere between thirty and fifty million people worldwide. More than six hundred thousand of those were Americans. Twelve times as many Americans died from flu in 1918 than died in battle during World War I. In early 20th Century America, every housewife had her arsenal of remedies for common ailments, and many of were quite effective. Even so, it is likely that more than a few people died from unfortunate home remedies such as turpentine, coal oil, and mercury. Some scientists think that many who died during the epidemic were killed by aspirin poisoning rather than the disease. In the book, I used a story about the curative power of onion, told to me many years ago by the person to whom it happened. My friend was a young boy, he developed such a severe case of pneumonia that the doctor told his mother to prepare herself for his imminent demise. In an act of desperation, his mother sliced up a raw onion and bound it to the bottoms of his feet with strips of sheet, then put cotton socks on him. In the morning, his fever had broken, his lungs had cleared, and the onion poultice had turned black. Is that what saved him? I don’t know. But that didn’t keep me from using the idea.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The inspiration of setting

Barbara here. Aline's post about how spectacular settings inspire an author's imagination is very timely. I am in the very initial stages of imagining my next book and I know almost nothing about it besides its setting. A lot is made of character and plot in the creation of a successful story, but setting is the third pillar upon which great story telling rests. Setting is the cradle of a story, background to the sparkle of characters and action but the supports that hold the story up to the light and allow its facets to show through.

A setting is more than just a place; it is the season, the time period, the weather, the people, and the history. Story grows out of such fertile soil. In fact, a great story could not truly have been told in another place and time.

In my Amanda Doucette series, I deliberately chose to change the setting for each novel in the series. The first, Fire in the Stars, is set in the rugged, beautiful wilderness of Newfoundland, land of brooding forests, crashing surf, soaring cliffs, and stubborn, feisty island people who take on the world their own way. The second novel, The Trickster's Lullaby, is set in Quebec's Mont Tremblant during the winter, and the cold, the blizzards, the stunning monochromatic beauty of winter wilderness are like characters in the story, challenging the players and directing the course of the action.

The nitty-gritty of winter camping

This latest book was just submitted to the publisher this past weekend, and so now I turn my thoughts, and my imagination, to the third book in the series – Prisoners of Hope. It is set during a summer kayaking expedition in the gorgeous granite islands of Georgian Bay. I have some vague plot ideas – wealthy island mansion owners, domestic foreign workers, local villagers, frightened fugitives washing up on remote island shores – but beyond that I will have to explore the setting to find the essence and shape of the story I want to tell. I have topographical maps, maps of Killarney Provincial Park, and several pamphlets about the area spread out on the dining room table. During the long winter, I will immerse myself in them, and in the memories of a previous kayaking trip made to the Georgian Bay Islands some summers ago.

The granite shores of Georgian Bay

But although the internet, maps, and books can tell me a lot about a setting, I believe there is no substitute for visiting the location, ideally in the season I am writing about, because without wandering the place, seeing the sights, listening to the sounds and feeling the breezes, I don't feel I know its secrets well enough to write about it. Visiting the locale is about more than feeding the five senses; it's about finding inspiration. From standing on the top deck of a fishing boat, I get inspiration for a scene in my book, and nothing creates a feeling of authenticity like sharing the same footsteps and struggles as your character.

For Fire in the Stars, I spent weeks in Newfoundland and walked many of the same paths as Amanda. If I hadn't done that I would never have discovered the tuckamore forests which played an important role in the story.

Tuckamore forest with its secret opening into its underworld

For The Trickster's Lullaby, I even took a winter camping expedition. In preparation for Prisoners of Hope, I visited Georgian Bay this summer and walked its pink granite shores, its marinas, and its little villages. In the spring I will make another visit and probably a kayaking trip for further inspiration.

For me, I love exploring setting, bringing it to life, and travelling to distant locales while I write. I hope readers will enjoy the trips too!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When characters won’t behave

by Rick Blechta

My current novel-in-progress has a character who just will not do what she’s supposed to!

To be completely fair, I set her up to be a bit of a handful. She’s super smart, curious, seemingly fearless and her function in the plot at the beginning was primarily to get another character moving since he has great inertia and problems of his own. Think Archie Goodwin to Nero Wolfe here.

All well and good. Once she fulfilled her primary function at the beginning, she was supposed to then become a slight second to the main character – but thus far, she’s not going gentle into that good night. She can take as good as she gets, and consequently, I’m having great trouble reining her in.

To compound the issue, the main character would probably not be willing to put up with her behaviour. Thus far, I’ve pulled his punches, but regardless of how able and talented she is, eventually he’ll get fed up and since he’s the boss, she’ll get shown the door – something that will throw the whole ms into a cocked hat. There will be some locking of horns as the story progresses, but they must be able to work together closely.

For the past several days, I’ve gone back to spots where I might have gone wrong with her. I feel what she needs are brakes for some of her more outspoken character traits and I seem unable to come up with anything.

So today, I went back and cut out every scene she’s in thus far – and there are a number since she’s the catalyst making plot things happen early on in the story. My idea is that by starting over, somehow I’ll frame her character differently based on what I now know about her. I want her strong personality to remain, but she needs to “play better with others”. By simply chucking everything and starting over with her, rather than spend a bunch of time trying to fix her scenes, things just might work out quicker and easier.

Anyone else ever have this kind of problem?

Monday, October 17, 2016


It was great to see Peter May back on the guest slot yesterday. It was Peter who suggested that I join the happy band of Type M-ers; we go back a long way and I wonder if he remembers the night in Wigtown, the Scottish Book Town, where we found ourselves trapped in a very weird book shop by a lady who simply wouldn't let us escape to get to bed, when Peter had to get up at four the next morning for his removal from Scotland to France. It's certainly seared on my soul! And his subsequent triumphs are an inspiration to us all.

I'd actually been planning to do a post on inspiration, prompted by my recent holiday, a cruise which included a voyage down the Rhine Gorge passing the famous Lorelei rock. The name is supposed to derive from the German for 'murmuring rock' because of the sounds made by the heavy currents and a small waterfall.

It is on the most dangerous part of the river. It is both narrow and shallow here – and indeed, the day after we passed a heavy barge grounded itself on a rocky shoal just beyond it and all the other river traffic was unable to get through – a serious headache for the tour companies.

This gave rise to a tale that the ships that were wrecked here were lured to their doom by a beautiful siren, singing so enchantingly sadly about her lover's betrayal that they forgot everything except the music and perished – perhaps being unfamiliar with Odysseus's survival tip.

It's impossible to go anywhere near the Rhine without hearing Heinrich Heine's poem The Lorelei, set to the haunting tune by Frederich Silcher that we probably all remember from school music lessons – 'I know not what thought cometh o'er me, that I am so pensive today, From out of the past and old legend is haunting me with its lay.'

And he wasn't the only one to be haunted by the story. Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Shostakovitch, Sylvia Plath, Stephen Foster – that's just a handful of the diverse poets and musicians who have treated it. And it has even featured in a Pokemon game! The dramatic setting of the gorge where stern fortresses defy each other from either side of the river, an ancient boundary between rival states, is calculated to appeal to any romantic soul.

The great Romantic Poets, like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley found their inspiration in the landscapes of the Lake District in England and the Highlands of Scotland. Their poetry made such an impact that viewing Nature became the sort of tourist attraction that Rhine cruises are today – though it was common when passing in a carriage through the more dramatic glens of 'Caledonia stern and wild' to pull down the blinds because it was all just too scary to contemplate! Rather misses the point, somehow.

The sea is always a great influence on me – the result of a childhood spent in a fishing village, perhaps – and landscape too has an important influence. My Marjory Fleming series is shaped by the character of the Galloway scenery; it's as much a character as some of the people.

And I'm grateful for that. When you spend so much time as a writer just tapping away at the keyboard, whatever promotes the strange tingle of a sudden inspiration is like a ray of sunshine on a dull day.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Type M welcomes back Peter May!

For this weekend’s guest spot, I asked Peter May, who was a regular contributor here a few years back, to return with news of what’s been going on with him ever since. That’s not what he sent. His post is a story I believe should be read by everyone who’s writing or thinking of writing. Welcome back, Peter, and thanks!

It’s been some time since I blogged to followers of Type M for Murder — since when my life and my career as a writer have been turned on their heads.

After many years in journalism, and then television — as a script writer/editor and producer — I set out, in 1996, to dedicate myself to my first true love, writing books… or, at least, trying to make a living from writing books. But as anyone who has tried to do that will know, it is not an easy thing.

I began by writing a thriller set in China, The Firemaker, and was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal from a publisher in London. Over the next several years one book turned into six, and became my China Thrillers series. It was an exciting time of my life, travelling back and forth to China to research the books, and witnessing at first hand the enormous changes that were taking place in that vast country.

The books were well-received by the critics, and moderately successful in terms of sales. And with onward sales to several countries they just about kept me alive. However, I was spending much of the income they were generating on research, and during that time moved permanently to rural France where the cost of living was about two-thirds of that in Scotland.

After each book, I went back to my publisher with an idea for something different. But each time my editor said, “More China!” Until the seventh time. I had been given permission by the Chinese government to go to Tibet to research the next story in the China Thrillers — a unique opportunity to do something completely different. To my utter dismay my editor said, “No more China.” Sales, they felt, had not been good enough to justify a continuation of the series, and it was unceremoniously dumped.

I offered up an idea for a cold case series set in France featuring an ex-pat Scot called Enzo Macleod. The editor sneered that Enzo, a man in his early fifties, was “too old” to be the lead character in a series. I offered her an idea for a crime novel set in the Outer Hebrides — a remote and wild archipelago off the north-west coast of Scotland which I had got to know well during five years of filming there. She dismissed it out of hand.

Life was getting difficult. There was a dwindling return on the China books, and my savings were almost depleted. My wife and I ran writing courses to bring in extra revenue, and I sat down to write my Outer Hebrides book on spec. I went on an expensive return trip to the islands to research it, and the book became a labour of love. I found myself pouring large parts of my own life into the story and characters, and by the time I finished it was convinced that it was the best thing I had ever written.

Which was when disaster struck. Nobody wanted to publish it. It was turned down by all the London publishing houses. My US publisher dismissed it as “unremittingly sad”, and “without a single likeable character”. In desperation I turned to Enzo, and wrote the first book in that series. Again, nobody wanted it — except for a small American publishing house which had just bought the rights to my China books.

However, the income generated was barely enough to cover my costs, before I was rescued from complete ruin by a publisher in France who bought and published my China books. To my delight they were a big critical success there, gaining nominations for two major literary awards and winning one of them. Sales were just about keeping me afloat.

Then came the financial crash of 2007/8, and the last of my savings (foolishly kept in pounds sterling) were virtually wiped out. I was finally facing ruin, and looking at the remains of my pension to see if retirement was an option. It wasn’t. I was at the end of my rope.

It was at this point, at my very lowest ebb, that one of those transformative moments occurred that you could never foresee. I had a chance conversation with my French publisher at a book fair. I told her that tucked away on a floppy disc in a drawer somewhere was the manuscript of a book which I thought was the best thing I had ever written, but that no one wanted to publish. It was called The Blackhouse. She said she would like to read it and I sent it to her. Six weeks later she phoned to tell me she loved the book and wanted to buy world rights. I nearly fell off my chair. After all, it is unheard of for a French publisher to buy world rights in a book written in English. But I jumped at the chance to get the book into print — even if it was in French.

The book came out in 2009 to a whirlwind of sales and acclaim beyond my wildest dreams. It won several French literary awards and became an immediate bestseller, before being picked up by other publishers around the world — including, finally and ironically, a British publisher (though one which had not been around when the manuscript was originally doing the rounds).

When it came out in the UK The Blackhouse was a sales sensation. Along with the subsequent two books I wrote to turn it into a trilogy — The Lewis Man and The Chessmen — it sold over two million copies. Every book I have written since has been a Top 3 bestseller — Entry Island, Runaway, and my latest, Coffin Road — generating extraordinary sales in very nearly thirty countries. My China Thrillers series has been reissued, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and the Enzo series — remember Enzo, the one who was “too old”? — has now sold more than half a million copies in the UK alone.

So from the brink of failure and financial disaster, my life has turned around, almost faster than I could blink, to make me a bestselling author with no need any longer to worry about how I might finance my retirement! Just a few short years ago I could never have pictured such an outcome — no matter how fertile an imagination I might have had.

And so I guess the lesson for all struggling writers out there is that no matter how bleak things might get, you should never stop writing, and you must never give up hope.

Peter May
France, October 2016


Peter May was born and raised in Scotland. He was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one and a published novelist at twenty-six. When his first book was adapted as a major drama series for the BBC, he quit journalism and during the high-octane fifteen years that followed, became one of Scotland's most successful television dramatists. He created three prime-time drama series, presided over two of the highest-rated serials in his homeland as script editor and producer, and worked on more than 1,000 episodes of ratings-topping drama before deciding to leave television and return to his first love, writing novels.

He has won several literary awards in France, received the USA Barry Award for The Blackhouse — the first in his internationally bestselling Lewis Trilogy; and in 2014 Entry Island was awarded the ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read of the Year, as well as the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year. May now lives in South-West France with his wife, writer Janice Hally.

Please visit:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tough times and tough questions lead (hopefully) to good books

Things in the US aren’t going swimmingly. I’ve sat through two Presidential “debates” and shaken my head in disbelief. (Are we still calling them debates? I’ve witnessed a lot of insulting, not a lot of debating.) A close friend in Nova Scotia asks via Facebook if these are the best two candidates we can put up, given that the US has 320 million citizens.

It’s a good question. And right now in the US, there are many other questions that need discussion.

More unarmed black men have been shot recently. I teach a course titled Crime Literature in which we discuss everything from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Camus’ The Stranger, to police procedure, to the death penalty, to my school’s long-standing unsolved murder. The recent and well-publicized Tulsa, OK., shooting led to this writing prompt: 


Crime Literature offers readers (and students and teachers) the opportunity to roll up our proverbial sleeves and examine, as your anthology editors Deane Kelley and Lois Marchino write, “the best and worst of society.” Your term paper calls on you to simply (or not so) discuss the symbiotic relationship between society and crime. And there are times, like now, when themes discussed in class (police training, race in the criminal justice system, socio-economics in the CJS, justice in the CJS, systemic racism and its impact on the CJS, the challenges facing members of the CJS) meet American society. Many of your authors, Sara Paretsky among them, tackle large issues like these head on. 

Now it’s your turn.


Please read the following CNN article titled “Tulsa police shooting investigated by Justice Department.” Then write a 750-word response in which you examine how the incident occurred, what went wrong, and where the US criminal justice system goes from here.

This paper, an obvious departure from our daily analysis of Paretsky’s Blacklist, admittedly mixes politics with crime fiction. But, as I say repeatedly in and out of class, that’s what crime fiction offers -- an exploration of themes transcending the genre that Poe established when an orangutan climbed in a window back in 1841. So while there is much ado about much in the US right now, current events provide fodder for water cooler discussion and for writing (not to mention some hysterical Saturday Night Live skits, thanks to Alec Baldwin).

Questions abound in the US right now, questions worthy of contemplation, questions I’m hoping will find their way into our genre and our books: How and why are unarmed black men being shot? (Police officers I know certainly don’t wish to draw their firearms, let alone shoot anyone. In fact, the lone officer I know who has shot someone, returning gunfire, never worked again, of his own accord, due to the emotional anguish upon taking a life). So how is it happening? Why are officers receiving so little de-escalation training in comparison to other types of training? What role does systemic racism play in some of these situations?

Serious times lead to serious questions, so while this isn’t a great time to read newspapers in the US (unless you’re Alec Baldwin imitating Trump on SNL), perhaps we can look forward to some excellent crime novels in the coming years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Book Clubs

Barbara here.  Time is flying, and as fall arrives, with one book just being released and the next one due in to the publisher this weekend, it seems to be hitting supersonic speeds. Which is why I thought I had just posted a blog last week, but when I double-checked, I discovered that my last post was three weeks ago! I had entirely missed my last date, but luckily for me, my Wednesday partner Sybil had posted two Wednesdays in a row. Possibly by accident, caught up in then same maelstrom as me, but thank you, Sybil!

But enough about flying time. I have more important things on my mind. Various posts on Type M recently have talked about the challenges of getting the word out about a new book, with close to a million books being released every year and most of them, apparently, selling a dismal 250. Not a great career choice, for sure. There have been posts about social media and niche marketing, about book launches, and about the ups and downs of bookstore signings. All these strategies sell books, especially as part of a "cast your bread upon the waters" approach that authors hope will trigger a ripple effect. Retweets, Facebook shares, hand selling by bookstore owners, word of mouth among like-minded readers.

But social media is at its core a solitary pursuit, pursued from your office or living room couch while wearing your pyjamas. And we writers already spend far too much time in the living room in our pyjamas. Twitter and Facebook connections are virtual, and no matter how real and intimate they are, they can't take the place of talking to someone. And as for bookstore signings, they are mostly shame and humiliation interspersed with occasional delight.

If you really enjoy connecting with readers and want to talk to real people, there is another approach rarely mentioned among book promotion strategies - book clubs. A largely untapped treasure trove of avid readers who not only read books but love to talk about them. Too labour intensive, you think? Consider this. At bookstore signings, after two hours of sales pitches and questions about the latest vampire book (or the location of the washrooms), I may sell anywhere from four books (a really bad day) to 40 books (just before Christmas). Book clubs typically have ten to fifteen members, who not only read that one book but often go on to read several others. And they buy more from me on the day of the meeting, either for themselves or as gifts. Easily matching my best bookstore records.

But there's much more to a book club evening than simply sales numbers. Indeed, those are far down the list. For that evening, I am invited to share in the camaraderie, laughter, and enthusiasm, not to mention excellent food, of a friendship circle who love books and are all eager to talk about my book. They gain insight into my processes and inspiration, and I gain invaluable insight into how my books are viewed. What worked for them and what didn't. What characters they cared about. All incredibly valuable for a writer. By my sharing with them, they share with me, and I suspect I come out the winner. A connection is made, many come out to subsequent launches, and buy the later books. They also tell their book loving friends.

Book clubs are warm, fuzzy places. I have never been eviscerated (perhaps they wait until I have left!) and they seem to enjoy an informal dialogue and Q&A that requires no formal presentation or preparation at all, beyond arriving in a cheerful, talkative frame of mine. I have lost count of the number of book clubs I have attended over the sixteen years since my first Inspector Green came out. Most of them have been in the Ottawa or Eastern Ontario area, so an easy drive, but some have been via Skype to places farther away. I have a note on my website that I welcome book club invitations, but I think many of the invitations come from word of mouth as well. "You spoke to my sister's book club..." or "Another author suggested you..."

That is a ripple effect well worth pursuing. I am betting that few kinds of promotion are more effective, especially when you consider the pleasure experienced and the friendships that are formed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Making ends meet in the modern writing world

by Rick Blechta

With a new novella release at the end of this month, I’ve been thinking about book contracts, advances against royalties and how much I actually make at this game.

First, I’d like to recommend that you read this blog post by Ros Barber, a writer in the UK: Authors and the Truth About Money. She has some straightforward and honest things to say. It is damn hard for writers to make money, be in no doubt of that.

But this isn’t news. You can call me a defeatist, but I can accept all of this, even if I don’t like it. Unless your works sell in the tens of thousands, don’t expect to make much money.

I often hear authors complaining about the paltry level to which advances have sunk over the years. As I (and many others on Type M) have stated before, the original idea of advances was to allow the author to be able to support her/himself while crafting their work. Most of us get excited these days when given a $5000 advance. In this day and age, that might give the average person two months to write and not have to worry (too much) about income.

I understand why this is. Publishers don’t want to be hemorrhaging money over their publications. Several books a season that drop like stones after release can put a company’s financial health in real jeopardy.

But near the end of her piece, Ros brings up the subject of patronage. This used to be far more common in the past. Beethoven (among many other musicians) survived only because of support he received from the wealthy. In those days, there was great support for the art among the well-to-do.

Nowadays, the wealthy tend to support established charities or endow universities or hospitals. With artists (of all stripes) just as ill-equipped to create while they’re barely able to survive, we’re actually in a worse financial situation than our brethren of the past. At least some of them were able to find patrons.

However, Ros points out in her two last paragraphs that patronage seems to be making a modest comeback via crowdsourcing on the internet of all things. is a novel way of helping to get the money needed to create art of all kinds. Donors don’t have to be wealthy and best of all, you can help fund a favourite artist (and that includes us authors) to give you more of what you enjoy.

I don’t release books very often because I have had to earn a living and that proved to be a time-consuming (and creative juices-sucking) business. I have to admit that I’m often jealous of writer friends who are independently wealthy, retired with a decent pension or have a partner/spouse with an excellent-paying job to support them. I’ve got none of these and never will. Even though I’m now drawing a meagre amount from my meagre pension, it’s become pretty clear that I’m going have to keep working a bit to keep body and soul together.

Damn it! I just want to be able to write!

Maybe is the answer.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Marcia Fine, Guest Post

You've written the book. Now what? Type M is very pleased to welcome guest author Marcia Fine. Marcia is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2015 Adult Selection for ONE BOOK AZ for THE BLIND EYE, and a consummate promoter.

MARKETING MAGIC: How to Be Everywhere at Once
by Marcia Fine

You’ve written your book — those pesky typos are at a minimum, your friends think it’s great and the cover is catchy. So how do you get others besides your family to purchase your narrative? The truth is there isn’t any magic. It’s all about consistent and persistent hard work. Writing is a lonely sport; marketing involves the world!

I write in two genres: historical fiction and satire. Sometimes I put both of them together. I am not a mystery writer; however, I appreciate how authors build suspense, throw around a few red herrings and keep me guessing. Whatever your genre, it requires you to speak up so your audience knows you have another book.

There are about 600,000 to a million books published every year. About half are published independently. Most sell about 250 copies.

So what’s an author to do?

Target your audience by choosing who your likely customers are and focus. I wrote a novel, THE BLIND EYE—A Sephardic Journey, about Spanish and Portuguese Jews being cast out of the Iberian coast. A narrow market, for sure, yet, many readers were curious about the topic. How did I find them? I spoke to groups. If your speaking skills aren’t up to par, join Toastmasters. Many organizations are looking for speakers who don’t charge and are knowledgeable on a subject. Whatever you’ve written, there was research involved. Promote that. Be sure to write out your own introduction to avoid someone describing what you do in a sentence. Promote from the beginning! Request to sell books at the end. Standing behind a table at a large event has never brought me many sales. Stand in front of the table, get people to sign up for your newsletter (Yes, you need one!)and publicize that you’re there.

Enter contests with a vengeance. Send out your book until it wins! Even an Honorable Mention counts. Once THE BLIND EYE was a recipient of a few prizes, it garnered some attention. You can write a press release to post on PR Web, use it for Facebook fodder and add it to your biography. Following the instructions for submission is part of the contest!

Attend conferences to network with other authors and meet the people who book the speakers for next year. Your name in a program adds credibility. Ask those you meet if they will write a book review for you. The more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the better.

Social Media is a beast that needs to be fed often. Recently I started a new Facebook page, A Sephardic Journey, because my seventh novel will be released in 2017. HIDDEN ONES is about the Inquisition in Mexico during the 17th century. I’m building an audience by posting articles that relate to my subject matter by joining other groups in that arena. There are experts in this field and successful authors often hire someone to do that for them. My Twitter account is sparse, yet I know local authors who have thousands of followers. How did they get them? By following others.

Staging events is one of my specialties. Book stores are not always the best place to find customers. I’ve approached businesses who are interested in driving more traffic. They usually have a great mailing list and are willing to provide refreshments if you bring your contacts. I’ve appeared in art galleries, coffee houses, furniture stores, French restaurants (PARIS LAMB), community centers, clubhouses, coffee shops, places of worship, clothing boutiques and even a hair salon!

Writing articles is a great way to get noticed. Are there journals, newsletters or magazines that would like to hear from you? Ask! Local papers are always looking for content.

Book trailers seemed odd to me at first, until I saw a few. It’s a small investment (around $400)that will keep you going for years. Not only can you post them online, you can also attach them to all your correspondence. It’s a catchy way to garner attention.

Consider other mediums for your work like an ebook or an audio book, the fastest growing part of the publishing industry. Many of us enjoy a good story while we’re driving or working out.

The word branding makes us sound like we’re all cows. You are talented, creative and smart or you wouldn’t be an author. Hand out your business card wherever you go. Does it have the cover of your book on it? Promote yourself. As my mother would tell me when I just wanted to stay holed up in my room with a good book, go out and be seen. Participate. You never know. . .

Finally, brainstorm with friends for more ideas. Be motivated by sharing what you learned writing the book. The reality is: you are your own public relations firm! Let people know you are in the book business!

To watch Marcia's book trailers, visit her website:

Friday, October 07, 2016

What I Write About

Last night I did an exercise suggested by Donna Alward and Nancy Cassidy, the authors of an article in Romance Writers Report (RWR)* about "Finding Your Core Story." Alward and Cassidy encouraged writers in search of their brand to look for the elements that appear in their novels over and over again.

I'm fascinated by marketing -- maybe because I'm not that great at doing it. I don't have the time to do it well or consistently. I'm also not sure how to market in a way that feels comfortable and true to who I am. But I do enjoy reading marketing books. I do research on mass media/popular culture in my other job as a criminal justice professor, so I'm always interested in how a good marketing campaign is developed and implemented.

The exercise recommended by Alward and Cassidy is a writer's version of what branding experts recommend for entrepreneurs and business owners. I found a pen and sat down to list the recurring elements in my fiction writing. I had no problem narrowing down to five: brainy and compassionate female protagonist; multicultural cast of characters; impact of past on present; social issues; ethical dilemmas.

When I thought of these elements as my "core story," I discovered something. In both my Lizzie Stuart series (featuring a crime historian and set in the recent past) and my Hannah McCabe books (police procedural novels set in the near future), the core story is about time/place/people. That sounds obvious, but what is important to me is that I show how my characters have been shaped by the time and place in which they live. Lizzie was shaped by her childhood and teen years in a small town in Kentucky in the late 1960s and 70s. Hannah was shaped by growing up in Albany, New York, an old city coping with rapid change.

As I really thought about this -- about how important the impact of  time and place on my characters is to my stories -- I realized this was what I was missing in my 1939 historical thriller. As I've written in other posts, I've been struggling with the structure of that novel. I have to move the characters from Easter morning 1939 in Washington, D.C. to the New York World's Fair that summer and finally to the premier of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta in December. I've been focusing on that and making minimal progress. This "core story" exercise reminded me that I have been putting the plot before the elements that matter most to me when I'm writing a book.

To make my thriller work, I need to stop what I've been trying to do. I need to go back to those character bios that I did and then put aside. Plot matters in a thriller, but -- for me -- the only thriller I'll ever be able to write needs to be rooted in how my characters are shaped by time and place.I need to allow my characters to think about and comment on their world in 1939. I have to let them respond to what is happening rather than try to move them through the plot.

That is my core story -- people in a time and place responding to extraordinary events in their lives. They are dealing with social issues, responding to ethical dilemmas, and fumbling their way through the relationships in their lives.

Now I understand why I am drawn to stories set in the past or future rather than the present. I need to be able to look back or look forward. It makes perfect sense that my new protagonist is living through the disruptions of post-World War II America.

*RWR is published by Romance Writers of America. This article appears in the September 2016 issue.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Traveling and Talking Books

Carolyn Hart and Hannah Dennison

I've just returned from Huntington Beach, California, where I participated in the third annual Ladies of Intrigue event, which is sponsored by MysteryInk bookstore. It was a day-long conference featuring more than 15 women mystery writers. including Carolyn Hart and Robin Burcell. This was, according to her, Carolyn's career event finale, and since she has no plans to travel out to this part of the country again, she particularly asked me and former Type M-er Hannah Dennison if we would participate in the conference this year. Of course we said yes. Carolyn has been a mentor and a friend from the beginning of both of our mystery writing careers, and we would both do anything she asked. So off we flew for one day in California, where we mingled and served on panels along with eleven other fun and fabulous authors*. Then Carolyn, Hannah and I schlepped back to Phoenix for an appearance at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore last night.

Carolyn, Hannah, Donis at Poisoned Pen
photo by Judith Starkston
I wonder sometimes how cost-effective it is for an author to spend her time and money traveling around the country appearing at bookstores and events and conferences. I know that every appearance gains at least a couple of new readers, who will spread the word, we hope. But as Rick said in his post about book launches (below) doing events with other authors is always a celebration. The mystery community is nothing but kind and supportive, and it's always nice to know that even authors who are infinitely more well-known than I have the same problems with their writing.

The view of the Pacific from my hotel balcony was worth the trip
I was interested in Aline's post (below) about audiobooks. I've met many a "reader" who prefers the audio version of a book to the print version, and I've been lucky that my publisher has sold the audio rights to all my books--but one! The audio version of my latest, All Men Fear Me, has not come out yet. According to Blackstone, the publisher who does the audio books for Poisoned Pen Press, the audio version of my previous Alafair book, Hell With the Lid Blown Off, did not sell well enough. This surprises me, since the paper version of Hell did very well. Also, I loved the audio version of that book. Hell is the only book in the Alafair Tucker series that has some first person narration, and when I first heard the character of Trent Calder (who had been a secondary presence in all the previous books) speak for the first time, I was bowled over. It was as though Trent, who had only lived in my head, was suddenly a real person.

Perhaps it was more expensive to make because Blackstone had to pay two narrators for Hell instead of one. I have been told that Blackstone is waiting until the audio of Hell makes a profit (Hmm. Hell Makes a Profit. Sounds like a book title to me.) Therefore, Dear Readers, next time you’re at your local library, please do me a favor and check to see if they own a copy or two of Hell With the Lid Blown Off in audio. If they do not, I would be grateful if you would request that the system buy one. Most public libraries have a mechanism for users to request titles. If you'd like your own download, check it out here. Once Blackstone makes money off of Hell, they’ll do an audio of All Men. I hope they do one eventually, since the ninth Alafair book, The Return of the Raven Mocker, will be out in January, and I don’t want to get several titles behind when it comes to audio books.

*Attending authors at Ladies of Intrigue this year were Carolyn Hart, Robin Burcell, Rhys Bowen, Kathy Aarons, Lisa Brackmann, Ellen Byron, Donis Casey, Hannah Dennison, Kate Dyer-Seeley, Earlene Fowler, Daryl Wood Gerber, Naomi Hirahara, Linda O. Johnston, Carlene O’Neil, Laurie Stevens and Pamela Samuels Young.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Top 100 Mystery Novels

As you read this, I’ll be finishing up a vacation in Florida. Sand, the Florida Keys, Disney World, the possibility of thunderstorms...Disney World.

I wanted to make sure you had something to read while I’m gone so I thought I’d talk about a list of the Top 100 Mystery Novels of all time compiled by Mystery Writers of America.

Here’s the list in case you haven’t seen it:

I love lists, especially reading lists. There’s something very satisfying about being able to check off an item. Yes, I’m the kind of person who will put something on a to-do list that I’ve already done just so I have the satisfaction of checking it off!

Anyway, I’ve heard about this MWA list, but I’ve never really looked at it before. I’m happy to report that I’ve at least heard of all of the books on it and that I’ve read all of the top 5 (Sherlock Holmes, Maltese Falcon, Poe, The Daughter of Time, Presumed Innocent). Of these, The Daughter of Time is my favorite. I was happy to see that my two favorite mysteries (both by Agatha Christie) are on the list: And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

After that, well, I’ve only read 37 of the rest for 42 total. 42 out of 100. Not bad, but not great. I think I need to rectify this so I think that will be my goal for 2017, to read all of the books on the list. I downloaded both of the Wilkie Collins books mentioned onto my Kindle for the trip so, hopefully, I found the time to read one while on vacation.

What about you all? Have you read all of the books on the MWA list?

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

My take on book launches

by Rick Blechta

Since a few Type M bloggers have mentioned their book launches/signings and made some interesting comments, and finding myself faced with the same situation, I thought I’d throw my thoughts out there and see what folks think.

To me, book launches have always revolved around two things: promotion of the new publication, but even mores as a celebration of a huge milestone in my writing life.

Think about it — I’ve just worked very hard and spent a lot of effort, not to mention hours of my life, all towards the end of producing a new work. In the background of this — and not having all that much to do with the actual creation of what is now enclosed between the covers — is the work of writing a proposal, coming up with a sample chapter or two, perhaps a detailed plot synopsis, etc. These are about as much fun to do as the math homework your high school teachers assigned every bloody day. We’re not even talking about the struggle of finding an author in the first place!

And now you’re actually able to hold a tome in your hands — which in my current situation is a very “generous” word to use. Still, I’ve produced something tangible. That’s a pretty incredible thing on its own.

Doesn’t something like this deserve a big celebration? And that’s how I personally view the launch of a book. This is exciting stuff (especially for me) and I want to have a big party!

In the past, some of my books have enjoyed really huge parties. For The Fallen One, I booked Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club, arranged for food and drink, invited to opera singing friends to perform (and I am still very grateful to Anna Bateman and Emilio Fina for their extreme generosity) and 100 people showed up! Anna and Emilio sang beautifully to orchestral recording of some iconic opera arias, and to wrap it up, they sang the Brindisi from the first act of La Traviata and opera which had a large place in the novel’s plot) with the audience “helping out” on the choral parts. Now that was a book launch.

This time out, I can’t afford something quite that extravagant, but my latest, Rundown, will get its due and be unleashed on an unsuspecting public on November 5th, from 2:00 until 4:00 at Toronto’s iconic mystery bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street.

Type M’s founder (and my dear friend), Vicki Delany, is partnering with me to launch the second in her Year Round Christmas series, We Wish You a Murderous Christmas — and that’s a pretty cool thing in itself. Vicki and I have shared the stage at many a book signing, but never for a launch (and it was all her idea).

There will be food (including some seasonal goodies — considering Vicki’s book’s subject matter) and drink (bubbly, perhaps, since any good launch deserves a broadside from a Champagne bottle.

Sure, our party will help generate awareness and hopefully translate into increased sales, but for me, it will be an afternoon to celebrate a great accomplishment with friends: my eleventh book. For Vicki, it is her 23rd book. Think about that one for a minute, folks.

If you’re around, please drop by and help share in our joy at accomplishing something that’s pretty great!

Monday, October 03, 2016

Do You Like What You Hear?

Are you happy with your audio book? Does the reader give the right voices to the characters you have so lovingly created and lived with for months and months until you know them as well as your own family? Are you consulted about the actor/actress who will be reading? Do you listen to it with pleasure, even surprise as the reader sees an angle on your story that you hadn't realised was there? Or do you wince as the characters who emerge from the speaker are monsters you simply don't recognise as yours?

I've had both experiences. There was one who so perfectly had my Marjory Fleming's voice that I asked the producer if she could always be used in future, but as is the way of these things the actress was tied up with another production at the time when the company wanted to make the tape – I hadn't thought of that. The actress who read another book was so bad that I couldn't listen to it right through. I did manage to put a veto on ever using her again, but of course I realise that I'm not familiar enough with the talent available to make suggestions.

It must be an even bigger problem when a book is to be filmed, though I'd be prepared to live with it – chance would be a fine thing! But if you have a clear idea of your own character in appearance it could be very hard to have to accept a portrayal that just didn't conform to that. On the other hand, Ruth Rendell admitted that she was so pleased with George Baker as Wexford that as the series went on, she wrote the books with him in mind. Colin Dexter was another satisfied customer, with John Thaw as Morse.

But PD James, though she was as always diplomatic, never found 'her' Dalgleish – though personally I thought Roy Marsden came close. And when I asked her what she thought of the film of Death at Pemberly, she just said, 'Well, dear, my agent said to me "When it's sold, it's sold." 'The only way to take it!

I had a young friend who was blind and I thought she would have found the discs a great boon, but she said she greatly preferred reading the books in Braille: 'I don't want someone else to tell me what the people in the book are like.I want to decide for myself.' I liked that: it's sad to think that people who listen to, rather than read the books, will only have someone else's impression of what I've written.

It is, I suppose, rather like writing a play and being dependent on the actors and producer to deliver it, inevitably with their own interpretation.I've never felt tempted to try – I suspect that reveals control-freak tendencies. I'd love to know how other people feel about this.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Blowing My Own Trumpet

Aline here. I'm delighted to introduce you today to Marianne Wheelaghan. She's another Scottish writer, but having spent some time in the South Seas (the background for some of her books) she seems to have picked up some of the sunshine to bring back with her to grey Edinburgh. She's always warm, funny and very engaging and I know you'll enjoy meeting her here.


When I was growing up there was no greater crime than blowing your own trumpet. It was considered attention seeking and self obsessed, deceitful and shallow. Imagine then my dilemma when I discovered that for us writers to succeed it is not enough to write a good story, we must also be good self promoters.

 Regardless of whether we are speaking at an author event or being interviewed on social media, or writing an article for a magazine or blog, the book marketeers tell us we must “big” ourselves up. If we don't put the best possible spin on what we say, we run the risk of appearing uninteresting, dull even, and by default suggest our books are also dull.

But while I fully understand that in a world where everyone is clamouring to be centre stage we writers cannot afford to be shrinking violets, “bigging” myself up smacks of deceit and blatant self promotion. It seems to directly contradict my integrity as a writer.

Then, not so long ago, I discovered that some of the very best writers were shameless self promoters. I changed my mind – if it was okay for the great and the good to blow their own trumpet, it was okay for me.

Who were these charlatans? Let me tell you about just a few. In 1927 Georges Simenon, author of the Maigret novels, agreed to write a novel while suspended in a cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub for 72 hours – all for the handsome amount of 100,000 francs. While George wrote, the public could shout out themes and names for characters. They could even offer suggestions for a title for the novel. It was promoted as a “record novel: record speed, record endurance and record talent”. It didn’t happen in the end but that didn’t stop people from talking about it as if it had.

Who else? Nobel Prize winning Ernest Hemingway appeared in adverts for Ballantine Ale, as did John Steinbeck and CS Forester (of African Queen fame). Mark Twain advertised Campbell’s tinned tomato soup (I kid you not!) and Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner promoted headache powders.

Virginia Woolf, despite stating she wasn’t interested in her appearance, went on a “Beautiful Woman” style shopping expedition with London Vogue’s fashion editor in order to help improve her image. As she became more famous she took more care over her appearance and developed the term “frock-consciousness”. Furthermore, when one Logan C Pearsall Smith criticised Woolf for writing for a low brow magazine like Vogue for money, she defended her actions in a letter to a friend saying, “Ladies’ clothes and aristocrats playing golf don’t affect my style; What Logan wants is prestige: what I want is money …Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”

One of the oldest records of self-promotion dates as far back as 440 BC when the writer Herodotus paid for one of his own book tours around the Aegean. In the 12th century a certain Gerald of Wales invited people to his house for a meal and forced them to listen to him read from his latest work for three days!  Even the wonderful, great American poet Walt Whitman felt the need to write anonymous reviews about himself: “An American bard at last! Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded."

Walt, however, was an amateur compared to our very own John Creasey, who, when starting out, wrote hundreds of his own reviews under different names. The best self-promoter, however, has to be 18th century writer Grimod de la Reyniere, who invited his friends to a ‘funeral supper’ that he held to promote his new book Reflections On Pleasure. When the friends got to his house, he locked them in a room and hurled abuse at them while others watched from a balcony above. When the visitors were finally released they ran around telling everyone that La Reyniere was mad and everyone promptly bought his book.

So, regardless of what you call it, self-promotion, building an author platform, branding, bigging ourselves up, making waves or ripples, when push comes to shove all is fair in love and war and writing. As author Stendhal said in his biography Memoirs of an Egotist: “Great success is not possible without a certain amount of shamelessness, and even of out-and-out charlatanism.”

And while I’m not looking for great success let me shamelessly tell you that the ebook of my latest crime novel, The Shoeshine Killer, is available on A snip at $2.99, it is the only book you'll read this year which features line-dancing policemen in Fiji!