Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Yanny v. Laurel

I’ve finished reviewing the ARC proofs of Designed For Haunting and I’ve started on Ghosts of Painting Past. My life right now consists of that plus figuring out promotional events for when Designed launches October 9th. And, honestly, I’m a bit tired of it all. So I’ve decided to think about something else.

Do you all remember the gold vs. blue dress controversy awhile back? Here’s the photo that went viral and caused all sorts of discussion over what color the dress really is.

I, myself, see gold and white in this particular picture. I know some people who swear it’s blue and black. You wouldn’t think a picture would be so controversial, would you? How can that happen? you ask. Here’s an article on the science behind it all and why some people see one thing and some another.

According to it, my brain was confused and working overtime. Since my brain usually feels like it’s working overtime, I’m not all that surprised

The latest in these things appears to be the Yanny vs. Laurel audio clip that’s been going around. Listen and see what you hear:

So, which is it for you? I clearly hear Laurel and, when I was watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show, that seems to have been what the majority of audience members heard also.

Here’s an explanation of that one from CNN:

Another explanation I read said that what you hear depends on your age. Someone processed the audio recording so you could hear both Yanny and Laurel.

None of this really matters, of course, unless you think about how witnesses to crimes can say they saw or heard very different things. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Profound disappointment at the finish line

by Rick Blechta

Everyone likes being told a good story. They provide so much enjoyment and make the outside world melt away. If the tale really resonates with you, you might find it still in your thoughts for years. It could even have the power to change your life.

For me, it’s money well spent to buy such a book, but you don’t even have to do that if you’re a library user or if someone loans it to you. Or maybe it’s a TV show or movie. In this day and age it’s easy to just turn on one’s computer and stream it. Let’s face it, the only investment you actually need to make is your own time.

Put like everything else in existence, there’s a flip side to this coin. You run the risk of getting to the end of what you think has been a great story and the book, play, TV show has a less than satisfactory ending? For me, my immediate thought is I’ve invested all these hours for what? This ending is crap!

I spent about ten hours over the past week watching a series called The Alienist on Netflix . I was initially attracted to it because it takes place in 1896 in New York City, and I’ve always been interested in that location during that time period.

And for ten episodes, I wasn’t let down. The production had a uniformly good cast and the location shots were fabulous. (Who knew Budapest looks so much like NYC in 1896?) and the plot was pretty good. Of course a serial killer is on the loose and it’s up to the alienist (a precursor of the modern psychiatrist) to sort it all out. Everything was moving along tickety-boo until the climax. The thud as the series stumbled and fell at the finish line was nearly audible. I don’t remember ever being so let down by a story. Seriously.

I was all set this week to talk about this show and suggest that anyone interested in period crime fiction should watch it. But that has to change to, “Don’t bother wasting your time.”

Okay, folks, question time: What book/movie/TV show has provided the biggest let-down ending for you?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Searching for Inspiration

By Vicki Delany

THE SPOOK IN THE STACKS, published on June 12 by Crooked Lane Books, is my 30th published book.  Wow! Seems like a lot.  It is a lot.

What thirty novels means, is that I’m running out of ‘ideas’.  Ah, yes, the proverbial ‘idea’.  At the beginning of my writing career I had SOMETHING TO SAY. My standalones (Burden of Memory, Scare the Light Away) discussed, in broad terms, the changing role of women and effect of events of the past on the present. The first Constable Molly Smith book (In the Shadow of the Glacier) was about forgetting the past, and asks if that is ever desirable or even possible.  The eighth Molly Smith book, Unreasonable Doubt, was about a man who’d spent twenty-five years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and asked how could that happen.

It’s not so much that I don’t have anything to say any more, but maybe that I don’t want to write about it.  So now I write cozy mysteries, which really don’t have anything much to do with the larger pictures of redemption, justice, revenge, etc etc, although they do have a lot to say about character and friendship.

Which means I am sometimes in search of inspiration. One of the ways I’ve found it is in the world of classic novels.

Case in point: My lighthouse library series, of which The Spook in the Stacks is the latest. One of the premises of that series is that the book the classic novel reading club is reading is reflected in the plot of my book.  In Reading Up A Storm, they’re reading Kidnaped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  

Reading up A Storm opens with a shipwreck during a storm, and ends with an idea to capture the bad guy taken directly from Kidnapped.  The Spook in the Stacks is set over Halloween, but because this is a light, funny mystery I didn’t want to use a true horror novel. So I hit on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving. (Warning for those wanting to read along: Bracebridge is long, and very dull.) Two men vie for the affections of the rich man’s (grand)daughter. An idea straight out of Sleepy Hollow.

In the fifth book, Something Read Something Dead (coming in March 2019), cousin Josie is planning her wedding and the club is reading The Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers.

Once I had the idea, or the inspiration, I made it my own. My books are not an attempt to recreate these classic works, but maybe just to pay homage to them.

As well as giving me ideas, they’ve made me re-read some of the world’s great books.  And that’s always an inspiration.

What's your favourite classic novel? Maybe I can use it in the Lighthouse Library series one day.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Setting and Social Issues

Yesterday in her post, Donis wrote, "Setting is important to characterization." I've been thinking about that because of a brief conversation that I had with a colleague a couple of days ago. She was talking with a group of other people and as she saw me walking by, she paused to tell me she had finished reading all five of my Lizzie Stuart novels and the two Hannah McCabe novels set in Albany. I was pleased when she said she'd enjoyed all the books -- and surprised when she said the fifth book in the Lizzie Stuart's series, Forty Acres in a Soggy Grave, had been her favorite.

If I had been asked, I would have suspected that the fourth book, You Should Have Died on Monday, would be the one most readers liked best. That book had an interesting cover, introduced Lizzie's mother, the femme fatale, moved from Chicago to New Orleans. That book got great reviews. The fifth book came out with little fanfare. I was worried that I might have offended folks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In the book, I'd use the real name of the location because it would have been obvious and because it was crucial to the book -- a barrier island, wildlife, farms, migrant labor, agribusiness, pollution, land-use issues.

I knew after my first visit that I wanted to set a book there. I loved Eastern Shore. I went back again as I was writing and spent another week at a bed and breakfast to make sure I was highlighting what made the peninsula unique. But the plot of my mystery was inspired by a  newspaper headline that I'd discovered from 2004, the year (in the recent past of my series) that the book was set. Starting there was probably not the best way to highlight the beauty of the setting.

In retrospect, after the book was published, I feared that I had gone too dark. Yesterday, I flipped through the book again, reading the last few chapters. I'll need to read it all in a couple of months when my editor at Speaking Volumes prepares the manuscript for the reissue. But I was curious about whether I had short-changed this literary child of mine. I think I did. It received fewer Amazon reviews than the other books in the series, but the reviewers generally liked the book. What they liked was the characterizations and the relationships.

This time around, I'm going to send Forty Acres out into the world with a hug and pave its way. I couldn't have written any other story. Setting and characters came together, and the clash was disconcerting, but important to the series. The ending was satisfying for me, and for the readers who understood it was the completion of a series arc that had begun four books earlier. Now, as I move on to the next book, the characters are in a different place in their lives.

Next stop, Santa Fe -- and that setting, too, is crucial.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Places We'll Write About


Or here?

I've been thinking about surroundings lately.  My own private space says a lot about me, and it's made me consider how important it is, therefore, to describe a character's environment a novel. You can learn a lot about him from the setting in which he is placed.

You know how it is when you buy a red Toyota, thinking you're all unique, and then every other car you see on the drive home is a red Toyota?  It's the same with what you think are original observations. Rhys Bowen said that when she begins a novel, she often doesn’t know the complete cast of characters, who’s going to get killed or how, or who did the deed, but she knows where the story will unfold.

The very night before I heard Rhys say this, I was reading  P.D. James’ book on writing entitled Talking About Detective Fiction, and came across this :  “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character."    She then describes a moment when she was standing on a deserted beach in East Anglia.  She could imagine standing in the same place hundreds of years ago, until she turned around and saw a nuclear power plant, and “immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”

Ms. James also observes that : "When an author describes a room in the victim's house, perhaps the one in which the body is found,, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victims character and interests.

Setting is important to characterization.  Even if the murder unfolds the same way in two novels you'll have two very different mysteries if the victim is killed in a beach house in Thailand or in a prep school auditorium; if the suspects live on deep in the moors, or in Manhattan across from Central Park; if the detective lives in a fifth-floor walk-up on the south side of Chicago or in a mansion in Beverly Hills.

If Miss Wonderly had walked into Spade and Archer Detective Agency on the first floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, The Maltese Falcon just wouldn't have been the same.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The embrace of summer days

The release date of my next Amanda Doucette mystery, PRISONERS OF HOPE, is October 2, 2018. As the date nears, the promotional machine is ramping up: the ARCS are being mailed out, the e-versions are up on Net Galley for those wishing to review it, and the publisher's marketing, sales, and publicity wings are busy making pitches to media, booksellers, and special events. But perhaps the biggest and most sustained promotional efforts are done by me. It seems every year we authors are being urged to network, blog, create newsletters, and add yet another social media outlet in order to increase our reach and visibility.

First it was Facebook, where much of my reader demographic is active, then Twitter, which I have yet to see the sense of for book promotion. It's great for breaking news, but tweets seems to have a shelf life of fifteen minutes, and even at that I sometimes wonder whether anyone actually reads them. Writers hurl book covers, brags, and review links into the great Twitter maw much as space junk is shot through space into the endless void.

Last year my publisher urged me to get active on Goodreads, so I dutifully spiffed up my profile, made a link to my blog, and opened my page to questions. Not a single question arrived. This year, Instagram is the new buzz. You'll reach a younger demographic on Instagram, I'm told. Instagram is pictures. Millions of pictures. Pictures of what, I thought. My book cover? Me doing a reading at a festival, me at my writing desk tearing my hair out? Me slouched over a bottle of whiskey? And once I've run through all those, my dogs? My breakfast? I will stick my dutiful toe into the the Instagram Universe to test the waters, but it all strikes me as a bit narcissistic.

It's also been suggested that I make a book trailer. It's easy, it's fun, check out these links... Sigh. I can see myself wasting days of my summer scrolling through photos and fighting with software as I try to put a decent book trailer together. Days when the sun is shining, the canoe is beckoning, and my favourite chaise long has an open book lying facedown on it and a wine spritzer beside it.

And then... In the midst of what should be languid, lazy summer, I have to start planning book launches and fall signings. Bookstores and venues have to be contacted, dates set, and itineraries figured out.

All this when I am actually trying to research and write the next book. Which is something I can do from my chaise long with a wine spritzer by my side. I don't mean to sound churlish, but it does sometimes feel as if I am constantly chasing the caboose. Most of these activities are enjoyable in themselves, but en masse, they could become overwhelming if I let them. So I suspect Goodreads and Instagram will get short shrift, and the book trailer might not even happen. But I will get out in my canoe, and I will read that book lying on my chaise long.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

You can’t rely on your memory

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s post yesterday (as her posts often do) struck a chord with me.

For nearly 25 years, I taught school music (band aka “crowd control with a beat”) and I learned pretty early on how memory can often play tricks on you — or your students (or both).

Just as Aline experienced, I had memories of situations in my memory that I was certain were 1000% accurate. This usually involved confrontations with students (thank heavens, I was usually an observer). In the most memorable confrontation, one student pasted another right in the nose (unbelievably, they were arguing over a trumpet fingering!).

I was at the front of the class dealing with a clarinet problem. As usual in a music class, the kids were coming in, getting out their instruments and music with the usual attendant “talking and squawking”. A normal class in middle school, right?

Then I heard a loud crash and a whole lot of cursing (“You broke my $#%^@ nose!”). At first, I thought a couple of boys were getting a bit rowdy, nothing more. Then I saw the kid on the floor, holding his face and there was a whole lot of blood. The classroom suddenly went quiet. “Everybody sit down and no one talks!” I said, and remarkably, they all did as I asked.

The unfortunate boy did indeed have a broken nose. I got some paper towels, and had him lie down on my desk (fortunately cleaned off for once) with his head off the end to try and slow down the bleeding. Then I got on the intercom to the office to get some help.

The upshot was, the parents of the punched out boy wanted to press charges. I had to give a statement. I laid down exactly what happened, positive that I had it right. I was helping so and so with her clarinet, heard the fracas and looked up to see the chair with the boy in it tip backwards and so on…

Some of the other children in class were also interviewed. What I found out later was the person I was helping was an alto sax player (but she was sitting in a chair in the clarinet section at the time). The tipped over chair fell sideways (which is why the struck boy didn’t have a huge welt on the rear of his head along with the injury to the front).

Before the principal informed me about my faulty memory, I was certain I had things correct. In fact I would have put a few hundred dollars down on that.

To say the least, I was stunned. Like Aline, I could see in my memory exactly what happened so clearly. But four or five of my students remembered something completely different — and all agreed on what they saw, so I had to accept that I was wrong.

Fortunately the whole debacle ended there, charges were never pressed, and both boys became good friends in a few months, as children will do.

But I learned so strongly that day that memory is a very faulty thing indeed. In a court of law, it can be a deadly thing, too.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Guilty/Not Guilty

With two criminal defence lawyers in the family and my own background as a Justice as well as a crime writer, I suppose it's natural enough that I'm fascinated by the way the justice system works. I'm totally addicted to The Good Fight but would love someone to tell me if that really is the sort of thing that goes on in a US court? It certainly wasn't in the Perth and District Court when I was in charge!

My books are, basically, about who did it and who didn't – who's innocent and who's guilty. It's somewhere close, I suppose, to Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism's prototype: 'The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.'

In a court, it's different. At the end of a trial the defendant is pronounced 'Guilty' or 'Not Guilty' but of course that isn't really true. All the court can say is that the case has been proved or not proved, according to the legal rules about evidence.

And I had an experience recently that got me thinking about what constitutes proof.

The strongest kind is of course hard evidence which can stand on its own – direct evidence like fingerprints and DNA where there isn't usually much point in arguing.

Then there's circumstantial evidence – evidence that links to hard evidence but is indirect, relying on inference which can be disputed. You hear people saying dismissively, 'Oh, it was purely circumstantial evidence', as if that meant it didn't count. But a high proportion of cases rely on a complex web of circumstantial evidence that ultimately builds to the proof standard of 'reasonable doubt' and it's often a great deal more reliable than the next category – the eye-witness account.

This is the kind of evidence juries instinctively love – 'he was there, he saw it.' The trouble is, even with the best will in the world (which doesn't always exist) people's memories are unreliable. Two peoples' accounts of same event may differ widely and the most complicated thing is that they often quite sincerely believe their own version.

A few years ago I had a horrid accident when I fell down ten concrete steps into a basement and landed on my face. I was amazingly lucky to escape permanent damage but I can still see it happening – when you think you're going to die it tends to make quite an impression. I could describe the staircase to you in minute detail – the handrail down one side which I grabbed at and missed, the bare wall on the other side, the wide steps where people sat as they tried to help me.

The trouble is, I'm wrong. I recently went back there for the first time since it happened and it's a narrow staircase with identical rails on either side with absolutely no room for anyone to sit beside a sprawling me. But I utterly believed my mental picture.

The unreliable narrator is a standard in detective fiction. But I don't think I've ever read one where the plot hinged on an unreliable but genuinely mistaken eye-witness – perhaps an idea to play with.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

A Gold Mine for Mysteries

Please welcome our weekend guest, Dave Butler, an exciting new writer from British Columbia. Dave is the author of the Jenny Willson mystery series, published by Dundurn Press. Full Curl, the first in the series, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel in Canada in 2018, and is also a finalist in the mystery category for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writers awards. 

Dave is a forester and biologist living in Cranbrook, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous Canadian publications. He’s a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal winner, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. When he’s not writing, Dave is professionally involved in sustainable tourism at local, national and international levels and he travels extensively. He’s a Professional Author Member of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a member of The Writers Union of Canada. Take it away, Dave!

Rick Blechta’s June 5thpost offered some intriguing thoughts on the creative process. Rick wisely linked writing and music, but he also referenced the Greek goddesses who (may) act as his muse. I can’t help but wonder what Rick’s office is like, what with all those scantily-robed women lying around, sipping wine, tossing grapes into their mouths, strumming harps, offering him plot points.

While I’m not so lucky, and while my office may be much less crowded than is Rick’s, I have discovered that the front pages of major newspapers (or, if you’re so inclined, the home pages of major on-line news outlets) are veritable gold mines of ideas for mysteries.

Aside from the obvious surplus of political intrigue these days, I’ve been using major land use and development issues as a source of inspiration for my Jenny Willson mystery novels. As the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling used to say, “I offer for your consideration:” a good mystery needs a protagonist, an antagonist or two, lots of human emotion, inciting incidents, obstacles, a climax, and at some point, a denouement.  

Now think about pipelines, mining applications, new hydro dams, nuclear power plants, new ski hills, industrial agriculture proposals, gentrification of historic urban neighborhoods. See any parallels?

In every one of those situations, there’s no shortage of people willing to step up and take a side. And they don’t tend to do it quietly. Some are unstable and unpredictable, some sophisticated and professional. But the main things they have in common are that they care, and they’re willing to express their opinion. Campaigns are then built, clever posters created, noisy demonstrations organized. Emotions build, passions rise, and soon, neighbours turn against neighbours, friends turn against friends, and family dinners become awkward … if not violent. Often, these controversies quickly become good-vs-evil, black-vs-white, win-vs-lose, right-vs-wrong. 

There’s your gold mine, with the (mystery) ore ready for the digging, close to the surface. You can use any excavation tool you’d like, from shovels to backhoes. Even a teaspoon will do. 

Digging up those ideas is relatively easy because there are so many rich sources all around us. But like most mines, it’s the processing that’s the challenging and time-consuming part of the process. Once you’ve got healthy samples of that mystery ore, you need to take it to the next step. That’s when it’s fun to ask the famous ‘what if?’ question that we mystery writers hear so much about. 

What if the opponent of that hydro dam was willing to murder one of its main proponents to stop it from happening? (if Edward Abbey and The Monkey Wrench Gang comes to mind, you’re already on the right track…). What if the main spokesperson for that new downtown condo development disappeared without a trace? What if the proponent of a new power plant decided to murder her opponents, one-by-one, to silence them?

In Full Curl, the first Jenny Willson mystery, I asked the question: what if someone with no morals or ethics decided to use Canada’s national parks as a source of trophy animals? In the second, No Place for Wolverines, the question became: what if someone proposed a new ski area partly inside a national park, but the project wasn’t what it seemed on the surface? I’m working on In Rhino We Trustnow (the third in the series); that involves processing piles of Namibian mystery ore, along with the occasional pile of steaming rhinoceros dung…

If you’re stuck for ideas, or suffering from a short bout of writer’s block, grab a newspaper or your tablet and start asking “what if…?” I’m offer no guarantees that it will work for you. It does for me. But trying this idea just might lead you down a new creative path. Good luck!

You can learn more about Dave, Full Curl, and future projects at 

Friday, June 08, 2018

Colorado Book Awards

My fourth mystery, Fractured Families was one of the three finalists for the Colorado Book Award in the mystery category. 

The winner was Dead Stop by Barbara Nickless (Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Publishing. It was a very heady experience to be included in this distinguished group. The event was held at the SIE Film Center in Denver. It was beautifully organized. My daughters, Cheryl Flink and Mary Beth Bieker attended as well as my granddaughter, Leah Flink. I have been blessed with one of the most supportive families ever. 

I had hoped to fill this post with wonderful pictures from the event, then decided it would be impossible to top a YouTube video created by Colorado Humanities honoring the winners. 

So--in their own words:

Thursday, June 07, 2018

The art of the summary

Can you summarize your novel in two or three sentences? This is a litmus test many of us use. It’s helpful, and when I can’t do it, I know I’m in serious trouble.

This happened to me recently. I was talking to my agents, driving, when they asked me to summarize the draft of a novel I’d finished. Having sent it off to them, I turned my attention to the next book I’d write and drafted a short synopsis for book #2. It’s brief. A 1+1+1+1=4 summary of what will happen and why. (The why is the fun part and much of that I flesh out as I write.)

What occurred on the phone was that I realized I couldn’t offer them a short, succinct account of what happened in the book and why. My failure to do this was, I realized, directly related to questions they had surrounding plot points. I exhaled and told them I wanted the book back. Now I’m eliminating a character and revising.

A couple things happened in this case. The first is that I spent more time writing this book (18 months, maybe two years) than I have ever before. That’s too long. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends three months. With a day job, I can’t do that. But I usually spend nine months or so on a draft. This time, I got sick, spent a month in the hospital, and when I returned to the book, I’d lost the thread of the story, had to go back, read it all again and made changes along the way, complicating the plot.

I’m not Tom Clancy and don’t want to be. I like books that work because of the characters, not because of the plots. I’m interested in human motivations and moral ambiguity. I guess, though, if you give me several weeks alone in a hospital room to think and rethink a story, my ego gets the better of me.

So I’m back at it, revising and streamlining my book so that in the end no one will say I didn’t play fair. It starts (and hopefully ends) with a three-sentence summary.


In other news, my 17-year-old daughter Audrey and I are traversing the midwest this week, visiting colleges. We’ve driven 1,200 miles (and counting), starting in Maine, turning around at the tail end of Ohio, and driving back, visiting seven colleges in five days, and meeting track and cross country coaches.

Children grow up too damned fast!

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Writing Acknowledgments

For most of my reading life, I’ve skipped over the Acknowledgments (or Acknowledgments, if you prefer) section in every book I read. (Dare I say, I barely acknowledged the acknowledgments? No! She didn’t!)

Now I read them all the time. What changed? I had to write my own and I wanted to see what other authors had done. Pretty soon I realized they can sometimes be more interesting than a list of names might suggest.

When I wrote the section for my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, I admit to being rather nervous. I was afraid I’d forget someone important or say something stupid name it, I probably thought it. The acknowledgments for my books are fairly short, but I try to make them somewhat interesting. I dedicated Fatal to my husband and wrote this in the acknowledgments: “Finally, a special thank you to my husband, Steve, who barely flinches at dinnertime discussions of poisons and other methods of murder and who always encourages me to follow my dreams.”

I’ve begun to think of acknowledgments as a conversation with the reader. So in my latest book, Designed For Haunting, I added an explanation for why I dedicated my book to libraries and librarians: “I’ve dedicated this book to libraries and librarians because of everything they’ve given to me over the years, for all the worlds they’ve introduced me to, real and imagined. Without them, I would not have discovered many wonderful books and authors or learned so many interesting things.”

That’s the fabulous cover you see here. It’ll be out Oct 9th, available for pre-order July 18th-ish.

Okay, back to acknowledgments. They seem to come in all sizes, long, short and sometimes they don’t even exist. Anything’s fair game, I think. Now that I know a fair number of people in the mystery world, it’s fun for me to see their names in the acknowledgments of other’s books. I even, once or twice, found my name there! That pleased me to no end.

I’ve even gotten a chuckle out of some of the things author’s say. Ellen Byron, in Body on the Bayou thanked her local Target stores. “I do some of my best thinking aimlessly wandering those jam-packed aisles.”

Acknowledgments can also be educational. If you’re looking for an agent, one of the things you can do is check the acknowledgments for books that are similar to your own and see the name of the author’s agent. Agents, editors, etc. are usually acknowledged. No guarantee they’ll become your agent, but at least it’s a place to start. Before you look, you’ll find my editors acknowledged but no agent because, well, I don’t have one of those. But if I did, I’d certainly thank them!

Those are my musings on writing acknowledgments. Now I have to hunker down and come up with ideas for my next book. I have an inkling of an idea, but I still have a long way to go. Perhaps one of those muses Rick was talking about in his post yesterday will help me out...

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Inspiration: how does it work?

by Rick Blechta

Athena, Apollo and The Muses
The creative process is a mystery to me. I have experience with it in two art forms — music and writing — so you’d think it would have become clear to me long ago how this inspiration works and where it comes from.

I was working on a musical arrangement the other day. Basically, it’s what’s known in the music biz as a “lift”. What that means is you listen to a recording, figure out what’s being played by the musicians and “lift” them into your arrangement. It can be a very tedious process, believe me. As I was working, a musical twist floated into my head completely unbidden. I examined it, tried it out in the software I use to do these arrangements and listened to the results (it has a playback function). It wasn’t much, but it certainly added something to the arrangement.

Where did this idea come from? I have absolutely no idea. I wasn’t even thinking to myself, How can I make this arrangement better? I was simply copying down what the musicians were playing on the studio recording.

Inspiration is even more evident — in any art form — when you’re actually creating something from nothing. Inspiration is actually everything at that point. Otherwise you couldn’t get started on a particular project in the first place.

The Greeks came up with the idea of muses, goddesses who helped in the creation of arts and even science by providing divine inspiration. Based on my experience with the hidden mechanics of the creative process, I sort of not willing to disbelieve these goddesses exist.

It’s a thrilling experience when inspiration strikes. In writing it may be as simple and innocuous as a character walking into your story with something interesting or even critical to your plot, the addition of which makes your deathless prose even more deathless.

But inspiration can strike anywhere and with any person. I’m certain everyone reading this has been struck by an inspired thought. Some of us may even have had their life changed by it.

But as an artist, I sure wish I could understand how it works and how to access it when I need it.

Perhaps I should invoke the aid of those Greek muses.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

This weekend's guest blogger: Cathy Ace

My use of plots (garden ones)
for plotting (writing ones) 

One of the questions I receive from readers which I particularly enjoy answering is “What do you do when you’re not writing?” Of course, the same as everyone, I live a life filled with “MUST DO” lists, but I am also an avid gardener, and – I admit it – that’s my passion-filled, all-consuming hobby. This time of year, from June through to September, is when most of us who garden would love to be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors; but we all know it’s the time when we really have to apply ourselves because it’s peak growing season…and that, unfortunately, includes weeds!

Cathy’s garden in the spring.
I have come to terms with the fact that dandelions are just yellow flowers in the grass which the bees enjoy, and that I should therefore allow to flourish until they reach the seed-head stage, when I can happily mow the living daylights out of them. I have also accepted that buttercups in flower beds must be viewed the same way – as a natural phenomenon feeding the insects and they can look exceptionally good when the wind makes them sway, their yellow heads fluttering attractively. Then I rip them up. Roots and all.

When I’m mowing I find myself in a sort of Zen state; my mind is focused on doing a good job with the creation of stripes on our acre or so of grass, whilst it’s also able to play with plotlines, come up with devilish methods of murder, and offer me the chance to consider the intricate patterns of behavior my characters might display to allow readers to spot a real clue, or be taken in by a red herring or two. Ripping up weeds is a similar occupation – needing just a certain ruthless part of my brain to work in concert with my hands to ensure weeds come up and plants I want to protect remain undisturbed…all while figuring out how the suspects will be challenged by my protagonist, and finally brought to face justice at the denouement.

Cathy's garden in the fall – with Cathy on the mower!
So I would suggest that – for anyone struggling with plotting – a day or two working in the garden might help; I certainly find it allows me the mental freedom I need to be able to plot more fluidly. And then there’s the garden you get to enjoy as a result…not to be sneezed at (unless you, like me, suffer from allergies, so that a daily dose of antihistamine is required).

Happy gardening, and happy plotting!

Cathy Ace is the author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. You can find out more about Cathy, her characters, and her work at her website:

Friday, June 01, 2018

Honoring Your Process

Frankie here. Regular readers of Type M know by now that I'm not a pantser. As much as I often envy writers who can write a novel by plunging into the deep end, I can't do it. Not only do I write at a snail's pace until I'm well into the book, sometimes I fear I am channeling Adrian Monk. I can't begin writing until I have a title, and I keep coming back to the title, frequently and obsessively, until I have the right title. I do the same with character names and their backstories. I keep researching even as I'm writing. And, every blessed time I sit down to write, I read and tinker with the first chapter before going on. I do that at least until I'm halfway through the book.

I have the title of my 1939 historical thriller -- A Penny Struck by Lightning. As you may recall the title was inspired by a conversation Opie Taylor was having with his pa, Andy Griffith. The television was playing in the background, unnoticed, until the words "penny" and "lightning" caught my attention. The perfect metaphor for that year of 1939, and the New York World's Fair.

But having a title has not helped me move along. Yesterday, I switched the first-person POV of the protagonist -- who is attending Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- back to third person. And still it wasn't right. I had photos of the the crowd. I could imagine where my character was standing. I knew there was a brisk wind. But had the sun really come out as Anderson was about to perform. There were no mention of that in the second source I had looked at.

Being obsessive -- unable to pull myself away from Chapter One and get back to writing -- I stopped to find the answer to the weather question.

And that was when the Writing Gods showered me with gifts. During the next hour, I said "Wow!" three times. With the last "Wow" I was jumping up and down and dancing around the room. Harry, my cat, was looking at me like he was about to hide under the bed.

Here's what happened -- as Adrian would say -- while looking for a third description of the weather, I found the NBC radio broadcast of the concert. I had listened to portions of it before, but this website included the concert program and mention of the intermission during the concert when the announcer reviewed Anderson's career. The broadcast was almost 30 minutes long, and while I was listening, I started to go through some photos of the platform guests. It had occurred to me that maybe I really should take a page from Dennis Lehane. I love his novel, The Given Day, set in 1918, in the months leading up to the real-life Boston Police Strike. But the book opens with Babe Ruth, traveling on a team bus, coming upon a baseball game being played in a field . . .

So my idea was that I would have someone on the platform, looking out over the crowd. I thought of Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, who introduced Marian Anderson. When I searched for Ickes and the concert, a photograph I had never seen before popped up. Ickes and Anderson shaking hands and off to the right, a group of news cameramen and among them one black photographer. That was my first "Wow." The photographer reminded me of what the NBC announcer had mentioned about the concert being under "the auspices" of Howard University, the famed historically black university in D.C. I already knew that. My protagonist even mentioned seeing a group of Howard students in the crowd and wanting to go over and speak to them, wanting to tell them that he planned  to attend the law school.

I hadn't made too much of that, but now I was wondering how he would have known they were from Howard. So I Googled Howard University and the concert. I already had the telegram that Eleanor Roosevelt had sent to a professor there when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to use their hall. Now I was looking for information about the students at the concert. That was when I went "Wow!" again. Ossie Davis. I had stumbled across what Ossie Davis -- yes, the actor, writer, civil rights activist -- had said about that day. That day when he was in the crowd as a student from Howard University.

So now my chapter opens from the POV of Ickes looking out over the crowd  -- or maybe Anderson herself -- and down in the crowd, my character standing near a group of students . . . and one of them is named "Ossie" . . . and they are both moved and inspired and there is a brief exchange between the two of them. . .

And that was when I went "Wow! Wow!" and jumped to my feet. I knew Anderson was wearing a mink coat and a mink hat. My protagonist mentions that. But I had only seen black and white photos and barely noticed her outfit. Yesterday, as I was thinking about Ossie Davis, the Writing Gods dropped more gold coins into my lap. A photo of the donation that Anderson's family had made to the Smithsonian. The ensemble she was wearing under that mink coat. The kind of "telling detail" that I love as a researcher. The kind of detail that I might have missed if I weren't an obsessive plodder, but that no one who attended that concert and was close enough to see Ms. Anderson would have missed.

Writing lesson:  Honor your process even when you hate your process. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Dreaded Anachronism

Aline's blog about youthful slang hit a nerve with me. Nothing dates a book faster than slang. If you're paying attention, you can tell when the English-speaking characters lived just by their vocabulary. I am an historical novelist, so I don't have to worry about my dialog being dated before the book comes out. On the contrary, I'm always trying to figure out if my dialog, dialect, slang, is appropriate to the period. If there is anything that a historical novelist dreads, it’s anachronism--a thing out of time, an act whereby a thing, a custom, a word, is attributed to a period to which it does not belong. This is particularly bad in a historical novel because it will take your reader right out of the story if Queen Elizabeth (either one) says "Groovy man," or "that is phat!" Or if Caesar checks his Rolex before he conquers Gaul. Yet a historical novelist is not writing a history book. She is taking us back in time and letting us live in a different world for awhile.

How do you deal with historical terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader? How do you convey a sense of dialect or vocabulary of the time without being confusing or taking the reader out of the story? I deal with this constantly.

I've used this example before, but it is perfectly illustrative of the dialectic difficulties of the historical novelist:

I am proofreading my latest Alafair work in progress when I come across a sentence in which Alafair says:
"... it’s a big flap every night at bedtime until Mama or Daddy goes in there and knocks some heads together.”

"Hmm," I say to myself. "Would a person use the phrase 'big flap' in June of 1916? Perhaps I should look it up." So out comes the etymological dictionary, in which I discover that the first known use of the term 'big flap' was noted in 1916, being used on the battlefields of World War I among British soldiers.

All right, I think. Alafair, living in rural Oklahoma in mid-1916 would probably have not heard 'big flap' used like this, but she may very well have said 'big flapdoodle'. For according to the previously mentioned etymological dictionary, the word 'flapdoodle' was common in the U.S. and Europe dating from 1839. So I change 'flap' to 'flapdoodle', feeling very proud of myself.

One week later I'm doing historical research by reading a book which I had bought many years earlier at the Enid, Oklahoma, Historical Society entitled Reflections From the Roadside, a Quindecennial Chronology. This is a reprint of the diary kept by Oklahoma homesteader Henry Harrison Reynolds from January 1912 through December 1926. I am reading his entries for June 1916 just to see what's going on in the world that an ordinary person would remark upon and what do I see in the entry for December 1915? I quote:

"There has been a big flap for months over drilling a test well for the city north of town."

So when some reader tries to take me to task for using an anachronistic dialect terms, I can say with confidence and through direct experience that even the experts can be wrong.

It’s one thing to be accurate about historical events, dress, and vocabulary, but how do you go about making sure that your characters behave and think in a way that is appropriate to the time and place they live in? How do you handle it when your character doesn’t subscribe to the same cultural attitudes as you do? Try writing about Oklahoma in 1919 when perfectly nice people with all the good will in the world would use what today would be very offensive terminology without thinking twice about it. How do your characters deal with what we would now consider unsavory beliefs and mores like sexism/classism/racism?

In my novel Hell With the Lid Blown Off, I have a character who is homosexual, and lives in terror of discovery. No two ways about it. If he were discovered, it could be the end of him. And that is the way it was in middle America in the 1910s. After that book came out I got an email from a very troubled reader wondering what I was trying to say. Did the societal attitude in my book reflect my own attitude. To which I answered, God, no! But that’s the way it was, my dear, which is why it’s so important we don’t gloss it over. Remember how bad it was and make sure we never go back.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

It's so hard to keep your privacy these days

by Rick Blechta

Aline's post of yesterday was very timely for me (Thanks, Aline!) as I'm currently struggling with the same sort of thing, although with me, it's not current language usage/vocab but technical terms and new technology.

My current work-in-progress has posed some significant issues, the largest of which is that a major part of the plot revolves around hacking and illegal computer technology.

I have very little experience in this arena and have not been able to obtain the help of a competent hacker or illegal surveillance expert. That's been a real problem. Sure, I could always take the chance and make things up (as long as their logic is sound) and hope that my novel won't scream out, “The idiot who wrote this has no idea what he's doing!” That’s a risk I’m unwilling to take.

So for research I’ve been trolling some rather grey areas on the Internet. That’s sort of a dangerous thing to do in this day and age. I'm sure I’m now on a few watchlists with organizations like CSIS and the Department of Homeland Security.

What have I learned?

Here's one that’s pretty frightening: it’s basically child’s play to hack into someone’s smart phone. You don’t even have to be anywhere near it to accomplish this task. All you need is an app that costs under $100 and the person's phone number. Once done, you can see everything that goes on and I mean everything — unless they’re encrypting all their messages — and how many people do that. We all play computer Russian roulette far too much.

Another: Never, ever login to a free WiFi site. Again a relatively cheap device is available that will fool your computer or smartphone or tablet into thinking that it’s connected to the WiFi router when it’s actually connected to a hacker's computer. It could be the guy sitting next to you in the coffee shop. Thing is, you’d never know this is going on. I was in a fast food restaurant with free WiFi and the person sitting next to me was doing some online banking. Whoops! If there’s an unscrupulous so-and-so lurking nearby with the right equipment, the hapless soul would likely be giving up all the access codes to their bank accounts.

Sobering, right?

I've learned a whole lot more that makes me aware that a determined hacker can get almost anything out of you — and you'd never know until your life goes sideways.

Six months ago, I had someone armed with only my name and a tiny bit of easily accessible info try to get a credit card in my name. Only because we were involved with helping our son get a mortgage did we find out. It was easily remedied but we were only saved by happenstance. I've taken steps to protect myself from this sort of thing in the future but it's costing me ten bucks a month — and that's well worth it as far as I'm concerned.

It’s a dangerous world out there, boys and girls. Take some time to educate yourself.

And if you learn anything interesting about computer surveillance techniques, please let me know! I’ll give you a credit in my novel once it’s published.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Woke-up Call

Are you woke? No, I'm not really asking you to sit up straight at the back there and pay attention. As those of you who are down-there-with-the-kids will know – people like me, at least since last weekend – 'woke' means what we used to call 'with it' or even 'hip'.

Some of you guys may have noticed we had a big do over here then for our Harry and your Meghan and apparently they are 'woke'. It was a 'woke' wedding, apparently. (If you didn't catch it, everything went pretty well, thanks, we all had a great time, not a dry eye in the house and after only four or five days one or two of the more serious papers devoted a page or two to other news.)

Vocabulary changes fast these days. The Oxford Dictionary publishes updates every year and names their word of the year; since 2009 these have included 'selfie', 'youthquake', 'omnishambles' and 'post-truth'. I guess 'fake news' and 'snowflake' will make the list this year.

Particularly if you have youthful characters in your books, you have to keep up with modern vocabulary and it's really dangerous, since nothing jars so badly as a proudly used 'youth' word that is just so 2017. 'Fit' and 'buff' seem well-embedded now and in my currently limited experience of teenagers (children too old, grandchildren too young) they still seem to say 'like' a lot. As in 'He said to me, and I was, like, "What??!!" '

How do we keep up? John, you're in a good place with your young students. I read the newspapers, I watch TV and films, but unless you are around them every day it's a struggle not to sound as if you're not very competently speaking a foreign language.

And then there are the words that have been dropped as no longer in use. The trouble is, if you've used them all your life you don't necessarily know that this one's gone. There was a recent list published that includes words like 'esurient' for 'hungry' and 'caducity' for 'infirm old age' and certainly I've never used either of those. But I might have to plead guilty to 'slugabed' – superseded, I suppose' by 'couch potato', though since I haven't checked that may be a yesterday's word as well by now.

I don't do it deliberately. I had a charming email from a reader who said she had a notebook headed 'Aline's Words' and liked to write them down if she didn't know what they meant. Oh dear.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

When the Writer becomes the Teacher

How many of you teach writing? For a while, to pad my income, I actively sought writing gigs but backed off that because it was A) a lot of work finding gigs, and B) I didn't get a lot of interest. It was embarrassing touting myself as a "National Bestselling Author" and have zilch in terms of students signing up. I did have some success, don't get me wrong. I taught Writing the Graphic Novel at Front Range Community College and for the last TEN years, I've taught craft seminars at Lighthouse Writers summer LitFest. Just last week I taught a craft workshop at the Westminster Public Library. And like many of you, I've presented my fair share of panels, gratis, at various cons.

In my classes, one of my guiding principles is that I have specific take-aways for my students. I want them to feel that their money and time was well spent. I also like to include quotes to illustrate that this writing game can be a challenging biz, even for big-name writers like Hemingway, for example. Although I personally don't like writing exercises, or "prompts" to use MFA jargon, I rely on them because that way I don't have to talk for the entire session. I listen to myself enough as it is. For the most part, I seem to cycle though the same topics though the classes have different titles each time: story structure, characters, premise, and the big one--motivation. Something else I've noticed is that students, especially older ones, seem to be seeking the one secret trick that will get them published. One time I mentioned that I listen to ambient soundscapes as I write--cafes are my favorite (I'm at Starbucks without paying $$$ for a latte)--and when I shared a specific Youtube address, my students feverishly wrote it down. Older students also don't seem too interested in speculative fiction or mystery and instead prefer memoir. Understandable, I guess, though I don't teach it.

Every once in a while I'll have a student challenge me, which I find annoying. I certainly welcome different opinions because that's how I learn, but when some pompous nitwit wants to make a point at my expense I don't like being in the position of defending myself. When it happens, my ego kicks in, but I tend to downplay their response and move on.

Lately I've been a mentor in the Regis University Mile High MFA program. My personal take-away from that is how motivated and well-read these students are. They definitely keep me on my toes. One objective of the program has the graduating students identify how they'll use their MFA degree after leaving school. Not surprising, teaching is one avenue.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Double Binds

A couple of weeks ago my oldest daughter participated in a dressage event. She and her horse, Roslyn, are a really elegant combination. A number of family members attended, the weather was perfect. It was delightful day, and doubly enjoyable because attending this show rather than something else was an easy choice.

We have a close and supportive extended family. It's one of my biggest blessings. However, I've noticed over the years the time I spend choosing between conflicting events keeps growing. There's hardly ever just one thing going on.

On June 2, Colorado Humanities Council will announce the winners of the various categories for the categories for the Colorado Book Award. I'm a finalist (Fractured Families) and am in awe of the abilities of the other two finalists in the mystery category. I know them both--Barbara Nickless (Dead Stop) and Margaret Mizushima (Hunting Hour)--through my local Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America chapter.

But I have a conflict. There's a wonderful birthday party planned for one of my best friends. I can't possibly go to both. The choice is clear--I'm going to the awards ceremony--but still, I really regret not having the ability to be in two places at once.

Writing double-binds keep multiplying. All the conferences are so attractive. I want to go to Western Writers of America this summer, but my granddaughter's graduation party is on the last day. I'll leave the conference early (Billings, MT) and drive non-stop to get back to Aurora.

If I go to Western Writers can I afford to go to Colorado Gold? I hear it's a wonderful conference and it's sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It's close, too. Driving is preferable to flying because of all the stuff I end up taking. Books are the pits to manage and some events require several different kinds of clothes.

And talk about multiplication, how did I end up joining so many organizations?

Everything sounds so appealing. I want to do everything and go everywhere.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Scratching an itch

It’s how you determine which books become series. I call it “the itch.” It’s when the characters you were finished with –– or thought you were –– tap you on the shoulder and look at you with a head-cock and a smirk that tells you they know something you don’t: even if you thought you were done with them, they weren’t finished with you.

It’s how I wrote five novels set on the PGA tour and three more set among the day-to-day life of US Border Patrol agents.

I sent my latest book off to my agent a month ago, went on with my life (more on that later), but got the itch. The characters have returned, and now they’re pacing. One is even looking at his watch, wondering when we’re getting back to work.

The new book was fun to write, a way to channel my alter ego. I’m a boarding school teacher and administrator. The book features a husband and wife team and is set at a New England boarding school. The husband, an English teacher who eyes typical administrative structures with distrust and maybe even disdain, is the protagonist; the wife, the newly-appointed head of school, has her hands full breaking the glass ceiling and keeping her spouse in check.

Now she’s eyeing me like an unhappy boss, and he’s pacing. They’ve even brought me a new (and interesting) plot. Let’s go, buddy. Time’s a wastin’.

So I’ve begun. Tepidly. I wrote a brief synopsis (no more than what would appear as a jacket description). While running, I’ve thought about who the new players will be, where the characters in the last book are now, and where all of them might journey.

It’s the itch. And it’s when I know it’s time to begin again.

As an aside, I’ve always enjoyed solitary activities: writing, golfing (alone, in the evenings or at the crack of dawn), fishing, and running. As someone who coaches and spends time with athletes, as a teacher and a father –– Delaney, 20, plays lacrosse at Kenyon College in Ohio, and Audrey, 17, is a distance runner (much faster than her old man; notice you’ll find no mention of my time in the FB post) –– the correlation between endorphins and writing interests me. For instance, I know I write better when I’m running regularly. (Sir Conan Doyle found a way to combine my passions taking long walks on golf courses where he held solitary rounds to plot.)

In the spirit of all this, on Saturday, I posted this.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Going Down the GDPR Rabbit Hole

 I turned in my final edits to Designed For Haunting last week. The dedication and acknowledgments are done. So this week I decided to catch up on things like updating my website, creating discussion questions for book clubs for all of my books, and other such things I haven’t yet gotten around to.

I kept on hearing about the EU's new GDPR law so I thought I'd look into that as well and see what I need to do, if anything, to comply. It didn’t take long before I fell down the GDPR rabbit hole.

What is GDPR? you ask and why is an author in the United States even bothering to learn about it?

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is a law passed by the EU that goes into effect May 25th. It covers data protection and privacy for EU citizens as well as addressing the export of such data outside of the EU. While this law isn’t really aimed at authors, it does apply somewhat to us. Since I have a newsletter and an EU citizen could sign up for it from my Facebook author page or on my website, it seems that it does apply to me. So I decided to look into what other authors were doing.

In the U.S., we have the CAN-SPAM act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) (betcha didn’t know what that stood for! I didn’t.). The act establishes requirements for commercial email, establishes the right of people to ask that you stop emailing them and imposes penalties for those who don’t comply. We’ve been dealing with that since 2004, one reason why I use MailChimp to send out my newsletter. It has items built in to help me comply.

The GDPR seems to go further regarding the keeping of someone’s personal data including email addresses. You have to have proof of how they signed up, for one thing.

To figure out what I have to do, I started looking around online, quickly discovering that the reaction to the law varies from “OMG, what a lot of work I have to do to comply” to “you really don’t have to do much.” I went to MailChimp’s website to see what they said I have to do. What they suggested seemed like an awful lot to me.

Here are some of the other posts I read:
What GDPR Means for Authors and Bloggers
Author Marketing Help Desk: GDPR and Your Email List
6 Myths GDPR Email Marketing Debunked

I also listened to this podcast, specific to what authors should do to be compliant with the GDPR. It was interesting (it’s an hour and fifteen minutes long, BTW).

The more I looked into it, the more I realized no one really seems to know what the appropriate thing to do is. Opinions vary between lawyers even on what’s necessary.

MailChimp advises asking everyone on your current list to opt in again. However, articles such as this one from The Guardian note that doing that is generally unnecessary and possibly illegal. This is where I mentally threw up my hands.

Right now I figure I have 3 options: (1) completely ignore it, figuring I have few EU residents on my newsletter list and the powers that be in the EU aren’t going to be interested in little old me, anyway, (2) do everything MailChimp says or (3) take a middle of the road approach and do a few minor tweaks.

I think I’m going for the third option. I’m going to make sure the newsletter signup forms I have make it clear that people are signing up for my newsletter and that I understand how the people on my list currently got onto the list. I never put anyone on my list unless they specifically request it so I don’t have to get rid of people that didn’t opt-in. And I’ll be ready to get rid of someone’s data if they so request. Just seems like common sense stuff to me.

This is my take on the GDPR. It’s not legal advice, etc., etc. Everyone should decide for themselves what they need to do.

For the authors out there, what are you doing to comply with GDPR? Anything?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Some fun for a Tuesday

by Rick Blechta

Well, I’m doing pretty poorly the past couple of weeks. Last week, I didn’t even remember it was Tuesday until 9:00 pm. This week, I’ve got too much on my plate and an overly-full brain to even consider writing a post.

But fear not, loyal readers!

What I do have on offer are three really good literarily-inspired cartoons. (I collect them for an occasion such as this.) I do hope you’ll enjoy them.

And I’ll be back next week with a fully thought-out post of tremendous erudition. Well, maybe I should say I hope to write something worth reading, erudition being what it is. That’s a tall mountain to climb — especially for a blog post from moi.

And for all the authors in the audience:

One last thing: good luck to all the nominees for this year’s Arthur Ellis Awards that are being handed out at a gala dinner here in Toronto on Thursday evening!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

And a Good Time was Had by All

By Vicki Delany

As Donis posted a picture of me with her and Ann Parker in Scottsdale on Thursday, let me follow up with my .02.
The Vicki Delany shelf at the Poisoned Pen

I was in Arizona last week for CozyCon at the Poisoned Pen bookstore. It was an afternoon of nine authors, not all of whom are cozy writers, but most were. As usual in a PP appearance we talked books, books and more books, with each other, with our moderator Barbara Peters and with those kind enough people to come out and hear us.

In short, it was great.

Kate Carlisle, Paige Shelton, C.S. Harris, Jenn McKinlay, Vicki Delany

The following day, Donis, Ann Parker and I went to the Tempe Public Library, where we did much the same.

Again, a fun appearance.

I do these sort of things now so I can hang out with my friends.  The day before CozyCon I had lunch with Donis, I shared a hotel room for one night with Kate Carlisle. Kate, Jenn McKinlay, Paige Sheldon, C.S. Harris, Ann, and I hung out at the hotel bar (some hanging for longer than others).  On Sunday Ann, Donis and I had brunch before our library visit.

The only reason I know all these people and I consider them to be my friends is because I did the slog of conferences and book signings earlier in my career.  Now, don’t get me wrong. Generally, I like bookstores and conferences, but they are work.  A lot of work. And you’re paying your own way most of the time.

It’s the networking that counts, in my opinion.

And the networking counts in the long run. Maybe not in book sales, but certainly in fun.

Speaking of book sales: THE SPOOK IN THE STACKS, the 4th Lighthouse Library book by me as Eva Gates comes out on June 12. I am particularly pleased about this, because that series was cancelled by Penguin Random House after the third book. It was then picked up by Crooked Lane Books. YEAH! If you know anything about the book biz, you'll know that it's very unusual for a new publisher to continue an existing series, unless the books are in the mega-bestseller range. Mine are not, but I am thrilled to have it back.  A lot of credit goes to the Facebook group SAVE OUR COZIES. 

Speaking of Facebook, with the new book about to come out, I'll be running more contests for ARCs or earlier books in the series, so pop over and like my page.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Sunset Boulevard

This post will be short because it's end of semester and I'm in the midst of grading. I still have a pile of papers to read between now and Monday evening 11:59 when grades are due to the Registrar's Office. In between, this Saturday and Sunday, I will be joining fellow faculty members as we send our graduates out into the world -- to their joy.

But I want to speak in praise of the TCM project that brings classic films to movie theaters. The movies are in theaters for only two days. This month the movie was Sunset Boulevard.
On Wednesday, knowing the 2 o'clock matinee would be my only chance to see it, I jumped up from my desk and headed for the multiplex in the mall.

I arrived too late to hear the narrator -- face-down in the swimming pool -- identify himself as the person who was about to tell us how he ended up there. What can I say? I was counting on ten minutes of coming attractions, and I stopped for popcorn. But I was there when the flashback began.

The longer I watched, the more I regretted missing the swimming pool scene. Seeing this classic black and white film on the big screen was a revelation. As many times as I had seen the movie, there were some things that simply didn't register until I was completely focused, sitting there in the dark, both watching and listening.

Joe Gillis (William Holden), the narrator and the dead man in the pool, is an unsuccessful writer. I knew that, but somehow I had never really listened closely to what he says about that in the opening scenes of the movie. The conversation he has with his agent before he dumps him. The look on his face as he listens to a studio reader (Nancy Olson) rip the movie script he is pitching apart -- unaware that he is the person who wrote it. The decision that he should give up, admit defeat, and go back to the newspaper in his hometown where he will be greeted by smirks. Maybe the first time I saw the movie, I was not yet writing. Maybe after I became a writer, I simply nodded and stopped listening. But on the big screen, Joe Gillis trying to evade the repo men who are trying to take his car was  a reminder about the benefits of having a "day job".

If he hadn't been broke, Joe Gillis would never have taken a job as a script doctor for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the silent movie queen. He wouldn't have become her reluctant live-in lover while escaping in the evening to collaborate with the studio reader (who knows he is capable of much better work than the script he pitched). There is so much in this movie about being a writer that I'm sure I will use a clip the next time I'm asked to speak about the writing life.

There is also a marvelous scene when Gloria Swanson takes her live-in script doctor shopping for new clothes. And the scene when they visit the studio where she once reigned. And the scene that anyone who has seen the movie remembers when Swanson comes down the stairs with newsreel  cameras rolling. What I hadn't noticed on the small screen was the expressions on the faces of the reporters who clear a path for her.

Watching this movie in a theater as it was intended makes me wonder if: (a) I should mortgage my house and build a home theater, and (b) what it would be like to see my own characters come to life on the big screen. Not that I wouldn't be happy with a made-for-television movie. I think. Maybe not. Sunset Boulevard also offers some thought-provoking commentary about movies and movie-making.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Putting Yourself Out There

Staying connected

Very interesting posts this week on the joys of being a writer. John wondered about the effectiveness of social media, Sybil pondered the usefulness of going to conferences. When it comes to promotion, what one writer is willing and able to do may be quite different from another. I enjoy conferences and think they're very useful for making connections. But I don't go to many, one or two a year if family health and finances permit. I'm not a particularly shy person, and I'm not at all bothered about speaking before a group. But I'm slow to warm up in a social situation, at least until I feel I have a handle on whomever I'm talking to. I told a friend once that I think I was born to be an observer in this life. This is a great quality to have if you're a writer, but not as useful if you need to work the room. I actually do make the rounds at every conference I attend and talk to as many people as I can, but I'll never be as effective at it as someone as outgoing and naturally talented as, say, Louise Penny. However, I'm guessing I'm a much better schmoozer than J.D. Salinger, who could buy and sell me. So as effective as that technique is, it must not be the end-all and be-all.

I've been doing this author thing for years, and I keep trying a little of this and a little of that, and attempting to judge what promotional activity works best for me. Other writers have been extraordinarily helpful to me, but I can't afford to go to as many conferences as I'd like in order to make those connections. I'm much less promiscuous with bookstore signings than I was when I started out. After sitting in lonely solitude behind a table a few times, I now choose my bookstores and signing times with great care, and do everything I can to publicize the event beforehand. For every other bookstore I come across, I find it much more effective to talk to the booksellers.

I'm very lucky to live within driving distance of Poisoned Pen Bookstore, which is owned by my editor (whose husband happens to be my publisher). Whether I can travel or not, most mystery authors eventually find their way to Poisoned Pen for an event. This a a wonderful way for me to keep in touch with the many author friends I've made over the years. Witness the above photo of Yours Truly, Ann Parker, and our own Vicki Delany, having lunch after their event in Scottsdale this month. Then we did a library panel together, below, looking much more proper, and as we know, looks can be deceiving.

Ann Parker, Vicki Delany, Donis Casey

I find that the more I speak to groups, the more I'm asked to speak. I get a lot of library business. I was a librarian for 20 years, so I know a lot of library types all over the country. Book clubs are good. If you can find a non-book group to talk to that has some sort of connection to what you write about, that can be fabulous for your sales. History groups are good for me. I know another writer who used to sell her books at an annual zoo event and cleans up. (Makes money. Though I think she does actually volunteer to muck out cages.)

My husband, however, would rather stand on his head in a mud puddle while poking himself in the eye than speak in front of a group. I understand that most people are terrified of public speaking, so my publicity plan, such as it is would be torture for them.

The internet is a godsend, if you know how to work it, though less so for us Luddites. I try to do something on Facebook, author page or personal page, every day. I don't tweet. This may be a big mistake, but the very idea makes me tired. It would be hard for me to host an internet radio program, because I simply don't have the technical skills--or the interest. My webmaster, who is also my brother, told me that my website should be "all Donis, all the time", and not concentrate solely on my books. This gives you leeway to change your focus, if you decide to do something other than what you have been doing. Change genres, for instance, or become a playwright, or an actor. Do working actively on blogs and Facebook and Goodreads and BookBub increase my readership? I don't know, to tell the truth. But I'm a writer, damn it, and more writing is always better than less. On my own site, I've more or less kept a public diary of my experiences as a novelist, and whether it's instructive to others or not, after a dozen years I have written enough material for a book.

This writing game is tough. And when it comes to selling yourself, you just have to put your head down and go. What works for one may not work for you, so you try everything you can manage and do the best you can. The really important thing, though, is to do the best you can without making yourself miserable. Life is too short.

p.s. and aside: This has nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I tend to write short. Or, more accurately, I write long manuscripts and end up whittling them down to the nub. I want to get to the point.