Saturday, December 30, 2017

Brooklyn Wars

Weekend guest Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in Brooklyn. She writes mysteries about different Brooklyn neighborhoods and their unique histories, in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. In the new book, Brooklyn Wars, murder gets in the way as heroine Erica Donato researches the proud history and slow death of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

My current book, Brooklyn Wars, was released in August so now I am deep into writing the next book in the series. There are writers who plan out an entire book before writing begins. I am not one of them. Every new book has a few surprises for me.

My amateur sleuth is a historian, a specialist in Brooklyn history, and her writing about Brooklyn’s varied neighborhoods gives her a reason to ask questions. She regularly stumbles across people who don’t want some questions answered. Or even asked.

So every book starts with a real place, a neighborhood that has interesting potential. I begin in the Brooklyn history room of the public library. I sit down with a stack of clipping files and a stack of books. Brooklyn Wars is set against the background of the renowned Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was already more than a century old when World Ward ii began, but that became its finest hour. I fully intended to build a book around it. It was the largest shipyard in the world in those years, employing more than 70, 000 people, many of them women doing what had been “men’s” jobs.

New York in wartime? Spies on the waterfront? The mob on the waterfront? Women’s changing expectations? The never-solved burning of the French ship, Normandie? There was a story possibility in every article.

But wait. I soon realized that the generation that lived those stories is mostly gone now. A contemporary mystery with roots in that past would be hard to pull off.

But wait. Those files told a few more stories, including the devastating closing of the yard in 1966, the long downhill slide of the property and its surprising current rebirth. And there was an entire dissertation in the library files, with a new plot idea on every page. In the end, I did manage to layer a bit of the wartime story in there too.
The work in progress is about Brooklyn Heights, one of the oldest parts of Brooklyn, the first suburb, the home of Brooklyn high society, and the scene of an important Revolutionary War battle. (Washingon lost). It was also the first Historic District in New York. I expected to learn a lot about that civic battle, with city planners/developers on one side and preservationists on the other.

What I did not expect to find was a third player, a somewhat mysterious religious organization which owns a large stake in the neighborhood. Hmmm. What can I do with that?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

My 2018 Wish for You

Wishing you the best for 2018, from my house to yours 

Donis here. Boy, 2017 was something, wasn’t it? I’m not saying what. I don’t use that kind of language (much). But it is almost over now, and we can at least look forward to a new start. Perhaps some comfort, maybe some healing. I hope.

Since my birthday falls between Christmas and New Year, the end of the year is the literal end of another year of life for me. At the beginning of this year I find myself toggling between anticipation and a certain amount of dread. My husband will be having another operation on January 9. This will be his ninth operation in nine years. It should be a relatively minor operation, as these things go, but Don has had so many health problems over the last decade that minor procedures tend to be a little more complicated for him. Still, the surgeon says things should go well, so I keep a good attitude and try not to borrow trouble beforehand. My tenth mystery novel, Forty Dead Men, will launch in February and thus far, the early reviews have been very good. That is something to feel good about. If all goes as planned there are some upcoming trips to which I look forward, so all in all I hold out hope for a pleasant 2018.

I used to make New Year’s resolutions. I vowed to strive for improvement, to become a better person in the upcoming year, to write more. But I gave it up some years ago. Not because I suddenly am without flaw, but because after living through a substantial chunk of my life, it dawned on me that I can resolve to do all kinds of things, but none of my resolutions are going to make any difference in the end. Now, I'm not suggesting that we never make plans or set goals, I'm only saying that we shouldn't be disappointed if things don't go the way we want them to. Because as one Allen Saunders said back in the 1950s, "Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans."

You just don't know. Have you ever been walking along on a winter's day and slipped on the ice? You find yourself on you back gazing up at the sky thinking, "What just happened?" Thirteen years ago, I called my mother in Tulsa to wish her a happy New Year and had a nice long conversation that ended with "I love you and will talk to you tomorrow." The next morning my sister-in-law called to tell me between sobs that she had gone to my mother's house and found that she'd passed away in her sleep. The longer you live the more of those moments you get to have.

The future is out of my hands. I'll go ahead and make my plans, but the only thing I can actually control is this very moment. Yet that is something quite powerful. Hemingway knew it, too. "Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be," he said. "But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today."

So here is my Ultimate New Year's Resolution, the only resolution I have made for the last several years and the only one I expect I'll ever make again:

I will try to live this moment well.

And to all you Dear Readers, I wish the same.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Looking back, peering ahead

by Rick Blechta

First, I hope everyone is enjoying a terrific holiday season, regardless of what you might be celebrating. Heck! With the way the world is right now, we should certainly all celebrate still being here!

A funny thing has been happening here at Type M. Last month we had a huge spike in the number of people who visited our page, 74,964 of them to be precise. That's a heck of a lot of people, more than we see in four or five normal months.

From the little bit I can discover, the vast majority of these new viewers came from either Brazil or France. That's a bit of a head-scratcher too since we only occasionally use the odd French phrase and I don’t think there’s been a single word in Portuguese on our site. I know! All those new people who visited have heard how fine our writing in English is and so they’re coming here to hone their language skills!

Or not.

After some slow days earlier this month, the daily number of visitors is spiking again, this time pretty well confined to France. I wish I could figure out what’s going on.

All of this leads me to the fact that sometime in the first half of 2018, Type M for Murder will celebrate its one millionth visitor, and that’s pretty darn special. First of all, most blogs don’t last as long as we have (nearly 12 years and counting), and second, having been here since the beginning (as has Vicki D), we’ve had some tremendous bloggers appearing on this Little Mystery Blog That Could.

So looking back, we’ve got a huge (or should I say yuge?) archive of crime writing wit and wisdom, over 3000 posts’ worth. You should look it over sometime. And looking ahead at 2018, we’re going to have something really worth celebrating. I’ve checked to see if we could identify guest 1,000,000 and single them out for some sort of prize pack or something. Alas, there’s no way to do that, but it will be a wonderful day when that counter ticks over, won’t it?

Lastly, I’d like to wish each and every one of you the very best for the coming year. I hope it will be your best ever.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Christmas

Today I hope that all of you are far too busy enjoying the blessing of being with people you love to be sitting in front of a screen reading this.

Happy Christmas and may 2018 bring peace, health, happiness and success to you all.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My Christmas Prezzie-Writing Advice Repackaged and Regifted

For this, my last post this year on Type M, I wanted to give you all a present. In going through my archives, I discovered this forgotten little essay that I first posted on Jim Born's blog way back a few years. So I decided to offer it to yuz guys. Enjoy. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. See you in 2018!

Jim has been after me for some time to contribute an article with writing advice to his blog. It’s taken me this long to submit something for a couple of reasons.

First, I have been busy. I mean like work busy, not like watching Narcos on Netflix busy. Second, I couldn’t think of anything to add about writing that hasn’t been written a bazillion times already. If you’re a newbie writer, then you tend to soak up all the writer advice you can and hope it’ll stick. Maybe, you’ll get an A-Ha! moment.

But mostly I get the impression that writers are always on the prowl--like raccoons scrounging through a Dumpster--in search of that one morsel of advice that will carry you over that elusive threshold from unpublished to published, from unwashed to still dirty, but at least with credentials! As for any advice that might help, other than keep writing and stay positive and all that, here are my two centavos:

POV doesn’t matter. 

I can hear a collective sucking of breath on that one. Again, Point-of-View doesn’t matter. I say that because I can’t think of a novel where violating the Commandment Thou Shall Not Head-Hop made one difference (measured in WTF’s) in terms of sales or acclaim. And I can’t think of one reader who ever said, “The story was great. The characters were amazing. The plot, compelling. But I put the book down because of the shifts in Point-of-View.”

What confuses the new writer is to get back a sample chapter and have it redlined up by a teacher or a critique partner with notes admonishing you of POV shifts within a scene. But wait, you protest, here’s my beloved international bestseller, rock-star-rich author and he, she, hops POV like a frog on a hot George Foreman and that hasn’t hurt their career. “But,” the teacher/critique partner replies, “the different are rules because those writers are published.”

Advice like that is enough to make you go from head-hopping to head-lopping.

However, before you go all nutzo with head-hopping, I’ll admit that at first, you have to understand POV. A tight POV helps you develop what’s going on in the character’s head, whether you write First Person or Third Person. Newbie writers who skim from head-to-head miss opportunities for dramatic immersion. But at one point, you’ll figure it out. So why not vary POV?

Old hands will tell you, okay, but if you shift POV, then you must either rely on a chapter break or a paragraph drop-down. You see, they argue, readers are morons with the attention span of bottle flies. You can’t depend on them to keep track of anything. Even though you might have introduced a huge roster of characters and a plot so intricate that readers need index cards and a highlighter to follow the story, if you hop one head, BOOM! you’ve lost them.

So why the writer witch-hunts on POV? Because a POV shift is easy to spot. It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to say, POV shift! bad writer. 

In my critique group (all old hands at this writer game), anytime one of us introduces an abrupt POV shift, the others act as if the offender has written kiddie porn and killed puppies. Shame on you! Then when we discuss the latest book we’ve read, we’re all: “It was awesome. The prose, so colorful. The characters were magic.” What about POV shifts? “Like a crazy mo-fo, but it didn’t make a difference. I loved the story.”

So here’s my advice to you. Go ahead, remove the shackles. Indulge in head-hopping. Have fun. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Today I've been thinking about Christmases from my childhood and some of my most bittersweet experiences.

One Christmas eve my family (my parents and my younger sister, Phyllis) had gone to Garnett to visit my Aunt Aura Lee and Uncle Nappy. They had one child--our beloved Cousin Rosemary. She was the youngest of us three.

Roads were miserable in those days and as luck would have it we got snowed in. What normally would have been a treat--spending all night with the Galloways--was a miserable experience for me. I didn't sleep well.

For of course Santa Claus would by-pass us. When he found we were not at home sleeping in our beds, a whole year of being good would go to waste. Phiz and I had redoubled our efforts when it came close to Christmas.

Finally Christmas morning came and when we awoke Santa had showered gifts on Cousin Rosemary. She was an only child and Phiz and I thought such largess was really uncalled for. She was not that good! Honestly, the things we could tell Santa. If we were inclined to snitch, which we were not.

The snow was over and we were able to drive home. My heart pounded the closer we came to our farm. We dashed into the house and crest-fallen realized that the worst had happened. Santa had indeed by-passed us.

Then my father found a note. We gathered around while he read it. Santa explained that he was worried about the safety of our presents since the house was cold and dark. He wished us a merry Christmas and urged us to check the woodshed because he certainly hadn't forgotten us. Daddy immediately led us out to the woodshed and much to our joy there were two identical precious dolls, each in their own high chairs.

Our joy was unbounded. Especially since our good behavior had not gone unnoticed. My faith in Santa and the goodness of the Universe was restored.

Until it wasn't.

Lone Elm was a very small community. Grades 1-3 were in the same room. As Christmas approached the next year there was a vicious rumor afloat that there was no Santa Claus. It was really just our parents. I think it was started by the truly offensive big kids in the third grade.

It finally made sense to me. I simply could not understand why Santa treated one miserably poor family so cruelly when they were good as gold. They got gifts like tooth paste and a pair of socks. The despicable daughters in another family who were not good were lavished with all kinds of treats. It was nearly intolerable when school resumed after Christmas to hear them tell of all they had found under their tree.

But seared on my memory was the shocked sobbing of one of the daughters in the poor family when she realized if Santa was truly her own parents there was no hope. They were already doing the best they good.

For me, understanding the tragedy of loss of hope, and my initiation into complexity was one of the most important lessons of childhood.

I think of that, the weeks when our church helps host homeless families. I was shocked when one of the fathers had three jobs, but housing was still beyond his reach.

Churches redouble their efforts during the Christmas season to let families know that someone cares. May Christmas always be a time of generosity when communities give food and special presents to struggling families.

And give the gift of hope to those who need it most!

Merry Christmas from Charlotte Hinger.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Lights and Second Drafts

Christmas is upon us –– the season of good cheer, good food and drink, and time spent with close friends and family. For me, it’s also a time to regroup: I’m between semesters and chipping away on the second draft of a novel.

No two writers work the same way, and finding one’s process is like discovering how to tie a tie: You can hear about how to do it, even see it done, but until you actually finish a novel, you might as well stand before the mirror and try to do it backwards. Some writers outline. (Jeffery Deaver gave a keynote address I heard saying he spends eight months writing the outline, three writing the book.) Others say writing is like driving at night –– you can see only as far as your headlights, writing and plotting as you go. Other writers fall somewhere in between.

Part of developing a writing process is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I do well to focus on character and dialogue, aspects that have always come easily. I’m never going to plot like Dan Brown. It’s simply not in my DNA. Moreover, I believe all writers, to some degree, write what we read. I grew up on series novels –– Parker, MacDonald, Chandler, Grafton, Paretsky, Burke (both Jan and James Lee) –– and I have no real interest in writing one-and-dones, stand-alones. Character interests me. I want to learn more about their lives in the vein Michael Connelly describes in his essay “The Mystery of Mystery Writing”: “The mystery has evolved in recent decades to be as much an investigation of the investigator as an inquiry of the crime at hand. Investigators now look inward for the solutions and means of restoring order. In the content of their own character, they find the clues” (Walden Book Report, September, 1998). I like to have a large canvas when I’m creating the arc of a character, a canvas that might span several books. I enjoy following a character, see her grow and develop and take on new challenges, and I enjoy books whose ill deeds expose moral ambiguity. All of this means the human condition is front and center in my plots: people do things, then, for relatively simple reasons.

So as I near the halfway point in draft No. 2, I’m taking inventory. The characters have come to life and are, fingers crossed, consistent and believable. Ditto the setting. The plot, though, has to be reeled in, simplified. I’m always looking for a way to find a twist at the end while honoring Poe’s and Chandler’s mandates that a mystery not only play fair with readers but also conclude with all necessary clues being front and center, unlike real-world crimes where aspects of the case always go unexplained. But much like the box marked “Christmas Lights” in my garage, this storyline needs someone to untangle it, and like that box in the garage, no amount of money will get my kids to do it for me. That means cutting and adding –– eliminating some red herrings, punching up other characters’ roles.

In the end, all I really want for Christmas is to not face draft No. 3.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Feminism, Youthquake and Complicit

As Rick noted in his post yesterday, this is the time of year when we look back at what’s happened over the past year. It also means dictionaries select a word of the year.

Merriam-Webster selected “feminism” as its 2017 Word of the Year. They give this designation to the word that’s been “looked up on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary disproportionately more than in previous years.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.”

Spikes in look-ups occurred during the Women’s March on Washington the day after the U.S. presidential inauguration, then when the movie Wonder Woman and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale were released.

Across the pond, Oxford Dictionaries chose “youthquake” as their word of the year. It’s defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” They chose it because there’s been a fivefold increase in usage in 2017 compared to 2016. The UK’s general election in June apparently caused a big spike in its usage.

I haven’t heard this in the U.S. I gather it’s quite popular in the UK. Probably only a matter of time before it makes its way here. Even though I’m not familiar with it, youthquake has been around since 1965 when the editor-in-chief of Vogue declared it “the year of the youthquake.”

You can read more here. In the article, there’s also a link to a behind-the-scene post on how the word was selected. "Milkshake duck” was also considered. Really, “milkshake duck”. I definitely haven’t heard that one. got in on the act and chose “complicit” as its word of the year. The definition: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing."

A spike in searches for the word occurred on March 12 after Saturday Night Live featured an “ad” with Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump selling a perfume called Complicit: “the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this but won’t.” Another spike on occurred on April 5 after an interview with the real Ivanka aired where she talked about the word.

So there you have it, the words of the year for 2017. What do you think of these words? What word would you use to describe 2017?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Maybe now, more than ever, the world needs crime fiction

by Rick Blechta

At this festive time of the year, we tend to look back at what’s happened since the previous end-of-year celebrations. It’s unavoidable, really, since everyone is feeling the wear and tear of getting through another 365 days. We need to make sense of where we’ve been and where we hope to go in the next year.

2017 was not a good year for the world. I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate all the bad things that happened (although certainly bad things happen every year), but I do want to single out one “trending” thing (to use a trendy term): criminal actions are becoming more and more “normalized” or even dismissed as being inconsequential.

Now it’s pretty obvious that the folks trying to accomplish this sea change in our perceptions are the guilty parties, so this movement is certainly self-serving to them, but it really is a frightening thing. Corporations do it. Government organizations do it (I’m thinking law enforcement here). And even politicians do it.

I don’t know about you, but watching happen this leaves me despairing. How can people be hoodwinked so easily? Why aren’t we standing up and waving our fists, marching in the streets, demanding that it stop? Wrong is slowly becoming right. Our world is being turned on its head.

And this is where crime fiction comes in. In the imaginary worlds of crime novels wrongs are righted, the guilty are discovered and brought to justice, and evil is vanquished — most of the time. I’ve often finished novels that I really wasn’t enjoying simply because I wanted to see the bad guy get it in the end. One of the hardest things to pull off in writing crime fiction is those plots where the bad guy gets away with his/her dastardly deed. I’ve read some darn good novels that have this sort of ending, and no matter how much I’ve enjoyed it, I somehow feel cheated in the end.

So as truth crumbles around us, I think people need more than ever the comfort of a world where this sort of thing faces a challenge and is ultimately overcome. We need a place where truth prevails!

We’re certainly not getting it currently in the real world.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Is the digital age killing the novel?

The other day I woke up to the very un-festive headlines of “Books in Crisis!” and “Collapsing Fiction Sales!” Apparently, more and more readers prefer to pick up their smart phone than a book, choosing to stream films or hang out on social media – or both – than read a story. If this sounds a little familiar, it may be because I touched on this subject in the first piece I wrote for Type M for Murder (Are we losing the plot?). While it would be foolish to deny there isn't a problem, the arrival of the digital age doesn't have to be the death knell of the novel. In China, for example, millions of authors write their novels by installments, Charles Dickens like, publishing a new chapter every day, almost before the ink is dry on the previous one. And just as we might wait to download the next episode of True Detective or House of Cards, over 300 million young readers anxiously wait to download the hot-off-the press chapters onto their smart phones. 

And that's not all. Not unlike the fan sites of Goodreads and Smashwords, readers of China's “online literature” have their own web forums based around their favourite novels. Here they discuss at length all aspects of the stories they love and often chat with invited authors. In fact, readers can even tell authors what they would like to see happen in the stories and in many instances an author will shape the plot of his or her novel to include the changes. If a story doesn't get enough followers, even after making changes, the writer simply ditches the story and starts a new one. 

Why is “online literature” so big in China? It's believed that would-be writers, frustrated at China's strict censorship, turned to the internet to tell their stories. Writing online avoided State scrutiny and readers, bored with a diet of books full of state propaganda and self improvement, quickly discovered the online story gems. Regardless of how “online literature” came to be, however, it is very much a thing in China. The less good side of the phenomenon is that writers are not able to charge very much for their hastily scribbled chapters, some even write for free. But for those who succeed, it can be very profitable. Ambitious editors from China's new private publishing industry are always searching through the online installments to find the next big thing with the hope of selling lucrative spinoffs, such as movies and TV shows and video games. (Maybe not so different from here, after all?) 

Interestingly, online readers are not confined to China. There are four million overseas readers from more than 100 countries logging on daily to read the next chapter of novels such as the "Empress in the Palace," or "Scarlet Heart” – and North Americans make up about one third of that number. That's some readership.

What do you think about online literature, if anything? It's certainly a more sociable way to read – if sociable is what you want, although I prefer a more solitary reading experience. I also prefer a solitary writing experience. I can't imagine writing the present draft of my latest novel to demand, adapting it to suit the feedback of strangers. As for the idea of publishing daily installments online, that makes me feel weak at the knees. I am a slow, leisurely writer. Could this make me a dinosaur? Hm?

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Weekend Guest J.A. Hennrikus

I'm delighted to welcome my friend J.A. Hennrikus to Type M. 

Julie writes the Theater Cop series for Midnight Ink. A Christmas Peril came out in September. As Julianne Holmes she writes the Clock Shop series. Julie can be found as on Twitter as @JHAuthors, and on Instagram as @jahenn. Julie also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors <> and Killer Characters<>.

In her post, Julie shares with us the inspiration for her holiday novel. 

The Spark

“How do you get your ideas?” is a favorite question at reader events. For my new Theater Cop series, with A Christmas Peril as the debut, the answer is complicatedly simple. 

The premise of the series, which is a soft-boiled traditional, is that Edwina “Sully” Sullivan was a cop for a long time, happily married to a lawyer, living in Boston. Five years ago, Sully was forced to retire from her job, found out her husband was having an affair, and had to move home to take care of her dying father. Home is Trevorton, MA, a (fictional) town on the north shore of Massachusetts. Sully decided if she couldn’t do her job in law enforcement, she was going to walk away. And so, she became the general manager of a small theater company. At the beginning of A Christmas Peril, Sully is trying to keep their production of A Christmas Carol on track, while at the same time dusting off her investigative skills to help exonerate her friend Eric, who is accused of killing his father. 

So how did I come up with all of that? 
I had a friend who had to retire as a state cop. I asked her if she was going to become a PI, and she told me if she couldn’t wear the badge, she wasn’t going to do the job. I’ve never forgotten that. 

I work in theater, so talking about that world is easy for me. I also love it, and love the folks I am blessed to work with every day.  And choosing to focus on a production of A Christmas Carol? Well, I’d suggest you do a search on theater companies in your area around the holidays. Here in Boston there are at least a half dozen excellent productions going on right now. But more than that? I love the story of A Christmas Carol. I read it every year, have watched dozens of movie and TV versions, and gone to many theatrical productions. The story resonates with me, more and more as I grow older. 

This entire series was born from a conversation with a friend who was heartbroken at having to retire. One idea that provided the gravitational pull for an entire series. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Roles and Soundtracks

I've find this week's discussion fascinating. As someone who is an introvert and inclined to be a worrier, I am more negative than positive. But because I need to interact with people and connect -- and because I've become convinced I do no one any good by acting negative -- I've learned to engage in mood-shifting. This goes to sociologist Erving Goffman's theory about the roles we play in everyday life. As I experiment with showering the world with positive vibes, I've been dressing for my performance. This week, on a day when the weather was cold and raw, instead of dressing in all black and gray (my winter comfort colors), I put on a blue top and added a big blue and white silk scarf under my jacket. Sure enough, several people I met during the day glanced at the abstract scarf with its moon face and smiled and commented.

What I find as fascinating as people who create beauty or act in pro-social ways while being vile human-beings, is how much time we as humans spend engaged in impression management. We may feel gloomy or negative, but when we become socially savvy, we learn how to stop when the horrible tale we are telling the strangers we're chatting with at the holiday party is leaving their faces blank or an uncomfortable silence has fallen. We may not be a natural at chatting with people in check-out lines, but -- if we're lucky enough to grow up in a small town or in the South -- we learn what a social lubricant a comment can be. I saw this in action on Tuesday afternoon when the students in my class were standing at their stations waiting for people to come in and see their exhibit. The student nearest where I was sitting turned to me and asked about my cat -- Harry, the rescue Maine Coon who I had mentioned in class one day. It was a quiet exchange, but we started talking cats. And the other students began to join in with their own stories of cats and dogs. Our laughter floated down the hall. Hearing the laughter, the people coming to see the exhibit walked in smiling.

This brings me to what I've been thinking about my protagonists. Both Lizzie Stuart, crime historian, and Hannah McCabe, police detective, are introverts. They are self-protective. But Lizzie has learned to laugh, and Hannah appreciates humor. She can make a joke. But I'm finding that in my 1939 book, both my protagonist (who starts out believing in democracy and all of the virtues) is sliding toward the negative and my villain (antagonist) is wearing a mask of civility. But somewhere in that dark soul of his there is pain and sadness.

Last weekend, I made the mistake of beginning the day with the news. Luckily, as I was flipping through TV channels, I happened to re-discover all of the music channels (TV radio) at the top of the dial. I spent 5 minutes and then 10 and then half an hour dancing to reggae.
Now, I not naturally coordinated. I can only waltz well (because I imagine myself in a beautiful gown at a ball). But bopping around the room to reggae brought me right up.

As I was dancing, I also started to think about soundtracks. What kind of music would shake my characters in my 1939 book out of their gloom? What would make them smile? What would inspire them? And what is the soundtrack of the book itself? I don't know the answers to these questions yet, but it has shaken me out of my own down mood to think about it.

Does anyone else have a soundtrack for your book in progress? For your protagonist?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Art, Actions, and Morality

Richard Wagner

Like Rick (below), I have been pondering conundrums lately. I don’t usually express my opinions online. I have found that when it comes to the internet one is well advised to keep her private thoughts private. But lately I have been thinking about the implications of recent events,

Many years ago, a local radio program held a contest to determine which classical composer was the most disgusting excuse for a human being. The station played a well-known piece by each composer, counting down to the number one sleazeball. I don’t remember the vices of all the composers they rated, but it was quite a list. I do remember that Mozart was a compulsive gambler who died in debt and left his family destitute, and that Beethoven was a xenophobe who never took a bath. The “winner” was flaming racist Richard Wagner.

All very amusing. And food for thought, as well. Because Wagner was such a poor example of humanity, does this mean that no one should listen to his music? That is exactly what it did mean in Israel for many years until one brave conductor decided that the man’s art stands apart from his morals. If someone is a homophobe does that mean he should condemn Michelangelo’s art? What does it mean if you hate Wagner’s attitude toward Jews, but the beauty of The Ride of the Valkyries inspires you to write a book that changes someone’s life for the better?

Is art different from direct action? Maybe not. A movie can do more than make you cry. A book, a painting, a movie, a piece of music, all can inspire people to action. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense roused many American colonists to demand independence. Internet videos can rouse young people to shoot up a school, or malcontents to commit acts of terrorism.

You know where I am going with this, Dear Reader. How do we reconcile a person’s creations with her character, good or bad? If a person does good works that help everyone in the world but is a racist/sexist/homophobe at heart, should s/he be banned from public service? Does it depend just on what the person says, paints, or writes, or whether he acted on his unlovely beliefs?

Bill Clinton was a raging horndog, but the economy boomed and the United States was the admired leader of the world during his tenure. We all know what a dichotomy Thomas Jefferson was. He owned slaves, but wrote the Declaration of Independence. He admired the character of Native Americans, but after the Louisiana Purchase he wrote that they should all be driven out of U.S. territory. One can argue that Clinton and Jefferson were men of their own era, and today neither would get away with behavior that was tolerated or overlooked at the time. Or would they? Are we now less willing to overlook unsavory behavior? I wish it were so, but I have my doubts.

I admire my own Arizona senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain, for their honesty, integrity, and strength, but I don’t usually agree with their politics. I didn’t like George W. Bush’s politics at all, but I never thought he was a bad or immoral man. It worries me that there are people who would support someone with dodgy behavior and iffy morals just because of his political beliefs. I liked John Edwards’ politics when he ran for president in 2008, but once I found out about his loathsome behavior I wouldn’t have been able to get past it, even if it hadn’t scuttled his campaign. I could never vote for someone who behaved so abominably.

Where should we draw the line?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The horror of it all

Barbara here. Reading the last few posts has left me with a cascade of mostly disjointed thoughts, which I will try to pull together to make some sort of useful point. Rick wonders about the predominance of "negative" characters in crime fiction and Aline was pleased to discover that despite their very negative public image, most politicians are actually committed, hard-working people whose efforts deserve respect (in the UK, at least).

Negativity is everywhere. Social media feeds on it. Facebook is full of posts about personal tragedies and links to horror stories reported elsewhere. In their quest for market share in our distracted and inattentive world, the news media have become increasingly sensationalist in their "if it bleeds it leads" mantra. We can rail against this trend all we like, but we can't fight human nature. People will walk past a world-renowned violinist playing exquisite music in a subway station, but will stop to gawk in fascination at a traffic accident. Negativity sells. There is nothing new or profound in this observation. Philosophers have been probing this question of morbid curiosity since the dawn of time, and more recently, psychologists have been putting the seemingly universal, very human impulse under a microscope in the lab.

Theories abound. Some argue witnessing someone else's moment of terror or tragedy is a kind of dry run for facing future terrors of our own. It helps us prepare and feel more confident; like little children playing superhero, we vanquish the scary monsters lurking in the shadows of our minds. Others believe seeing someone else suffer brings a feeling of relief that at least it's not us; "there but for the grace of god do I." Still a third school of thought has it that suffering is the yang to joy's ying; both heighten the feeling of being alive. And yet another theory is that we are driven by a biological imperative to feel connected to each other, to share in the emotions of others, in what is the cornerstone of empathy and ultimately morality. And to these theories, add the insights of recent lab studies that show that we pay greater attention and remember better when an emotion like fear or disgust is stirred up, which has benefits from an evolutionary perspective as well. We really need to pay attention and remember things that pose a threat to survival.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, it's merely my biweekly blog. Here are some links if anyone wants to explore further. There are plenty more but these summarize some philosophical and psychological insights, as well as one scientific study

All these theories help to explain the enduring popularity of crime fiction. There are few things scarier than murder, and like gawkers drawn to an accident scene, many people are fascinated by it. What are murderers really like? Are they just like us, and "there but for the grace of god go I?" What drives people to murder? What is the nature of evil? And most importantly, perhaps, can we defeat it? And as for the ying and the yang, a crime story goes to the darkest depths in order to soar towards the light again once the world is set to right at the end of the book.

People vary in their tolerance for fear, anxiety, and distress. Some cover their eyes in the scary scenes and prefer their murders off-stage and bloodless, while at the other extreme are those who want every detail of the spilled guts and spraying blood. Some want to plumb the depths of the psychology of evil while others only want to see the bad guy get it, preferably in an adrenaline-pumping car chase or shoot-out. So another allure of crime fiction is that there is something for every taste and inclination in the exploration of evil. From the safety of our armchairs, we can stare down our particular choice of evil, walk in the footsteps of the superhero sleuth, feel the full range of horror, fear, and triumph, and ultimately cheer that the forces of good prevailed.

All to say, crime fiction not only offers valuable insights on the nature of good, evil and justice, but it also plays an important role in our mental health. I guess that's as useful a point as any.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Are you a “plus” or a “minus”?

by Rick Blechta

My wife and I have a theory about people. A person who overall has a positive outlook on life is a “plus”, and one who tends towards the negative is a “minus”. You can’t be in the middle on this. Years of observing people confirms our suspicions. You don’t need to be around someone for very long to be able to categorize them.

That being said, there are certainly gradations in the two categories. It is possible to be slightly positive or sort of negative. The people to watch out for are those who seem to have the ability to suck all joy out of a gathering with seemingly little effort. Fortunately, I’ve only run into a few of those. Being an empath — which I am (clinically proven when I was in university) — I can tell pretty quickly where people fall. I only have to interact with someone for a few moments to know if their glass is half full or half empty.

What the heck does all this have to do with crime writing, you ask? Well, there’s this: Why do so many protagonists in crime writing have more negative tendencies and outlooks than you would find in real life? Sure, most are crusading do-gooders, brave and generally forthright, but they have an overall negative view on life.

Take Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Whoa! Major negative energy there. Rebus? Ditto. Even in cozies which have a lighter touch, you don’t find too many protagonists who are high on the positive scale.

The next question to ask is why. Are negative people more interesting to read about? Does someone have to be populated with inner demons to get the job done? There’s a saying that goes “for every positive, there is a negative”. I find in life, that’s true, why doesn’t it happen in crime fiction — or any fiction for that matter? Are only negative people interesting enough to carry the weight of a whole novel?

Looking back on my own writing, literally every protagonist I’ve used has been a negative. True, some of them have been low down on the minus side, but they are definitely the sorts of people who light up every room they enter. Why do I, as a positive person create characters who are different from me?

I’m still in the process of thinking through this conundrum, so I can’t give you any answers at the moment.

Anyone out there want to put forth a theory?

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Mother of Parliaments

I had a fascinating experience last week. As one of the current directors of the Crime Writers' Association, I was invited to not one, but two award parties in the Palace of Westminster, the home of the British Parliament.

Under the shadow of Big Ben, the famous clock – currently shrouded in scaffolding because of repairs – we walked along to the visitors' entrance, where the security would put any airport to shame, and found ourselves at last admitted to the huge,amazing space of Westminster Hall. It is the oldest part of the building, erected by the son of William the Conqueror in 1097 and still in almost its original form.

I think the thing that surprised us most was the freedom we then had to move about. I had thought we would be shepherded to the rooms where the parties were being held and then escorted out again, but far from it. We had an hour between the two events and were able to go first to the House of Lords and then to the House of Commons (not quite the same as your Senate and House of Representatives but with some similarities) and watch ongoing debates from the Strangers' Galleries – quite compelling.

When we arrived at the first of the parties to present awards for contributions to literacy – promoted with some passion by winner Cressida 'How to Train Your Dragon' Cowell – and found we had our own little drama. One of our members has a husband who, though he doesn't write crime himself, is fascinated by guns, knives, and all sorts of weapons of destruction and is liable at any time to have examples about his person. He discovered to his dismay that he had in his pockets several folding knives of different sorts and though he did of course immediately disclose them, the bobbies on the Westminster beat weren't remotely amused.

He was hauled off immediately and we all, not least his wife, waited in some suspense to find out whether his address for Christmas was to be the Tower of London. However, they were merciful and even agreed he could get some if not all of them returned later, after signing something that he claimed said that he acknowledged he'd been a very naughty boy and wouldn't do it again.

Our second event was to award the prize for the Parliamentary Books of the Year. This was fertile ground for spotting politicians who were surprisingly chatty and friendly in the social setting and were amusing speakers too. The most emotional presentation was to Brendan Cox for his book about his wife Jo, an MP murdered by a right-wing extremist.

Westminster is a romantic place, so full of history, so beautiful in its site on the River Thames. But our most lasting impression of the place was the work that was going on long after office hours in both Houses, and the painstaking and exhaustive research that the speeches we heard displayed, as well as the genuine passion for policies that will improve the lives of the poorest in our society.

It's very easy for us to be cynical, sneering and dismissive about our politicians. I think we shouldn't be.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

A Bookish Tradition with Cookies!

By Vicki Delany

Last week, Barbara encouraged you to check out the Crime Writers of Canada annual catalogue for tips on your holiday giving. After all, books make great presents, and Canadian mystery writers really, really need your support if we’re going to be able to keep on writing.

Before that Rick reminded us of the Icelandic tradition of giving (and then reading) books on Christmas Eve.

As it happens, I am just back from a trip to Iceland. Here’s a photo of the tree in our hotel lobby. Isn’t it fabulous? And, yes, those are all real books. The bottom picture shows stockings hung on the wall. 

Tomorrow (Sunday) I’ll be on my local radio station talking with writers Janet Kellough, J.D. Carpenter, and Ken Murray about books we’re giving for Christmas. Tune in online to following the news at noon to hear our picks.  Because I want to keep it for the show, I won’t reveal my selections here. We came up with quite the variety.

And what goes better with a book than a freshly baked cookies?  Here's a reprint of the recipe for my very popular molasses spice cookies.


·         2 cups all-purpose flour
·         1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
·         1/2 teaspoon salt
·         1 1/2 cups sugar
·         3/4 cup (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
·         1 large egg
·         1/4 cup molasses
1.       Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. In a shallow bowl, place 1/2 cup sugar; set aside.
2.      With an electric mixer, beat butter and remaining cup of sugar until combined. Beat in egg and then molasses until combined. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in dry ingredients, just until a dough forms.
3.      Pinch off and roll dough into balls, each equal to 1 tablespoon. Roll balls in reserved sugar to coat.
4.      Arrange balls on baking sheets, about 3 inches apart. Bake, one sheet at a time, until edges of cookies are just firm, 10 to 15 minutes (cookies can be baked two sheets at a time, but they will not crackle uniformly). Cool 1 minute on baking sheets; transfer to racks to cool completely.

Speaking of holiday giving, right now Penguin Random House is having a sweeps contest for all three of my Year Round Christmas mysteries, including the brand new Hark the Herald Angels Slay, the third in the series. 

If you want to enter, here’s the link. (Let's not point out that they spelled my name wrong)


And a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sorting Books

There's no longer any rhyme or reason to my books. Not any more. When I lived in Western Kansas I had solid walls of bookcases in my finished basement. I knew exactly where everything was.

But after two moves my books are in total disarray. When I lived in the apartment in Loveland I didn't have any storage. My books were in five different locations: the shelves I managed to squeeze into my office, basements or workshops at the three daughters, and, of course, crates and crates in a storage shed.

Since I've moved to Fort Collins, I have a lot more storage space. It's a mixed blessing. Books breed. In another life they were rabbits. They multiply.

My difficulty is compounded by the fact that I can't donate used books without carrying more books home than I took to the facility.

Yesterday I began the difficult sorting process. I took a number of books to a really safe disposal place. Loveland Friends of the Library has a terrific used book sale every year. The have a unique method for collecting books and have a large device like a weatherproof outside postal mailer that can be used 24/7. It's perfect for me! I open the little slot and shove in a book. It clanks shut and I can't see any other books inside the dark building where they prepare books for the next sale.

Moving right ahead to my daughter's home, I took a couple of empty crates down to her basement. Because of the strength involved with moving books I'll tackle her place a little at a time. Unfortunately the process was complicated by a rediscovery process.

Such wonderful books! Surely worth rereading. A huge stack went into that pile. Such treasures as James Michener's The Covenant. I collect Pulitzer Prize winners and Gone With the Wind caught my eye immediately. When one of the winners is also a best seller, there is something to gain by looking at it again with a writer's eye.

Then there is special place in my heart for autographed books. Especially if the authors are friends. It's more troublesome if I love the person but really don't care for their books. I can't bear to let them go but there's not a chance I will ever look at these books again.

There's another stack of books that were given to me at conferences or when I have been a judge in contests. Some of these find a new home as soon as the responsibility is over. Especially the ones I didn't care for at all. But a few stay.

There's a plaguy little pile of either academic books and books I feel like I really, really should read for my own good. Will I live long enough to tackle this assortment? For my own good. For my own good.

Then there's gift books from relations or friends. Some are beloved and some are not.

Happily the biggest pile contains books that I have loved all of my life. I'm going to reserve a special shelf, a place of honor for books that I treasure.

Someone else can figure out where to put them when I die.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Who's Awed by Virginia Woolf?

I read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse twice this fall, once alone and once with a class of high-achieving Advanced Placement students. I was wowed the first time I read the book, but taking a second look –– reading it to teach it –– forces one to take a closer glance under the hood, so to speak. This is particularly good for a writer –– the chance to study a master at her craft.

Now I’m a huge Virginia Woolf fan. Among the things she does fascinatingly well in the book is her manipulation of the point of view. And, yes, I use the word manipulation intentionally. The full-omniscient point of view allows her to accomplish things (in only 209 pages) that us mortals simply cannot achieve. One is the book’s ending: Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. The writer in me (and the teacher) asks how the sentence changes if you switch the verb tense. Have had is past perfect. Something happened before something else –– a brilliant way to conclude a novel about feminist themes. What is to follow? What will come next? And this speaks to the book’s precision.

Point of view is where many writers begin when they settle into a project. I’m working on the second draft of a book that took far too long to write. The point of view was a struggle. I wrote the first 30 to 50 pages three times, using three different points of view. Finally settling on one that felt right –– present tense, first-person.

My friend (and former professor) Rick Demarinis, author of The Art and Craft of the Short Story and numerous novels, used to say when a scene is going nowhere change point of view. He used this as a way to jump start a piece of writing that seemed to have no energy. One thing he did was to take a random (or seemingly random) photograph of people in interesting states and write a scene about it. If the scene was a dud, he’d change the energy of the scene by writing the same story from the point of view of another character in the photo.

Here are two pictures.

Think about how the scene changes depending on whose perspective you choose and whether you use first-, second- or third-person point of view. Give it a try.

And read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Nancy Drew and World War II

I spent some time with Nancy Drew over the Thanksgiving holiday. I read all of the ND books when I was a kid, but I don’t remember much about them so I’ve been gradually rereading them and discovering all kinds of stuff all over again. You might remember some of my previous posts on my ND adventures, Books That Last and the Stratemeyer Syndicate
This time I learned the following about Nancy:
  • She can play guitar 
  • She knows Spanish and can even speak several dialects 
  • She is shy about singing in public, but will do it if encouraged. This time she sang in Swahili!
 When I was growing up, I didn’t care when the books were published. I probably read more of the ’60s and ’70s versions, but I did occasionally find one from the ’30s and ’40s. As an adult, I admit to a preference for the earlier versions.

In the 1939 version of The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk I found this interesting note on the title page: “This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials, is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.”

That got me curious so I put on my Nancy Drew hat and did a little investigatin’.

From Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak, I learned that the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced ND had to give up all its old book plates as scrap metal during WWII. There was also an interesting note on BBT: originally Nancy took a trip to England in the story, but because of the situation in Europe, it was changed to Buenos Aires.

I was also curious about the restrictions placed on publishers in general during WWII. Starting in fall 1942, American publishers could only use so much paper. To start, they were allowed to use 90% of the paper they used in 1941. That fell to 75% in 1944. Britain suffered much greater restrictions: beginning in 1940 it was 60% of the paper they used in 1939. It went down to 37.5% in 1942.

But it wasn’t only paper that was being saved. The use of copper, cloth, lead and chlorine were also restricted. All of these things were used in book production. Plus there was also a shortage of printers and binders since many had been drafted.

So the paper for books became cheaper and thinner and typefaces and margins smaller. Britain had strict typographical standards.

Grosset & Dunlap, who published ND, started using pulp paper in 1942 and the “wartime conditions” notice I found in BBT was placed in books from 1943 to 1945. Because of the differences in paper and covers, the Nancy Drew books shrunk. In 1941 and 1942, a typical ND book was 2 inches thick. By 1945, they’d shrunk to about 1 inch.

What is especially interesting to me is that the demand for books actually went up during the war. Due to rationing of gasoline and other wartime restrictions, more people spent time at home so more people started reading. Plus soldiers read during their down time.

Those are just some of the tidbits I learned in my investigation. I hope you found this an interesting foray into the past. If you have a craving to learn more here are some interesting links I found that go into more detail:

LibraryThing – A discussion about publishing in wartime

Article from the Journal of Publishing Culture – This one focuses on Britain in WWII.

Publishing in Wartime: The Modern Library Series during the Second World War