Monday, July 23, 2018

Working for Other People.

I went shopping today.  When I went to the checkout, only four manned tills were open, all with a long queue, so of course I went to the self-check-out instead.  You notice I call it 'self-checkout', not 'automated' checkout.  It's not automated.  If I didn't operate it, it would just sit there.  So the supermarket obtained my work free, and pocketed the profit.

Then I went to fill up the car.  It was raining; I stood outside filling up with the smelly nozzle and then went across to pay the cashier who was sitting there, warm and dry.  Remember the days when you sat in your car, warm and dry and with nice clean hands while the paid assistant filled it up, wiped the windscreen and collected the cash?  'Self-service' - huh!  We're not serving ourselves, we're serving the company. More free labor, done by muggins here.

Never mind the customer. Now it is all about the big companies' profits while down at the bottom of the food chain, we suckers give our services free   Or, moving into the area closest to our hearts, or at least our wallets, for derisory financial return.

A comprehensive report on authors' earnings in Britain disclosed that since 2005, authors have seen a 42% drop in earnings.  The average annual income is now £10,500, and only 50% of authors rise above that figure.

Well, we often have it explained to is that it's because there's is no money in publishing..  But let's take the example of Penguin Random House.( A random example, you could call it. Couldn't resist that -sorry.) Profits in 2005 were $1.828 m.  And in 2017?  $3.359m.

Book sales in Britain are booming - up 7% this year. That's on the back of our work - no authors, no book sales. I guess if you work in publishing, you can expect an increase in  wages which will already be well above the minimum wage level, and possibly a bonus as well, but I doubt whether many of us will find this reflected in our own income.  Happy, indeed, the author who, for hours worked, earns anything approaching the minimum wage.

Books are cheaper than ever before and Amazon takes care that it will stay that way.  It makes more profit when it sells more books and sees to it that publishers fall into line.  And of course the royalty on every £10 book sold is less than if it were £12. So, just like the supermarket, just like the gas station, the big company benefits from our loss.

We go on doing it for a number of different reasons.  Most of us feel driven to write.  Most of us get huge pleasure out of seeing our books in print and get real joy from hearing about the pleasure we give to others.  Most of us like earning such money as we are offered.

But sometimes, on a curmudgeonly day when figures like these come out,  I do feel really quite cross about it.  Quite cross.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Weekend Guest Blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman

Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman is the New York Times-bestselling author of thirty novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. He writes the Jesse Stone novels for the estate of the late Robert B. Parker and has been hired by film director Michael Mann to write the prequel novel to the movie Heat. Reed is a four-time Edgar Award nominee in three different categories and a four-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year. He lives with his wife on Long Island.

Bob’s Company

By Reed Farrel Coleman

Recalling those days in 2013, I realize what a risk we were all taking. Probably a good thing I didn’t overthink it back then. Also a good thing that neither the estate of the late Robert B. Parker nor GP Putnam Sons had a bout of buyer’s remorse. I had hired on to take over the authorship of the bestselling Jesse Stone series. When I was offered the chance, not only didn’t I overthink it. I guess I didn’t think about it at all. I jumped. And as with many of the best things in life, jumping was the way to go. But you can’t avoid the thinking forever.

Having taken the gig, I had a lot of things to figure out. Should I try to imitate Bob’s writing style? How could I be true to Jesse and yet make him my own? These two questions are actually bound together, because the language a writer uses, the style he chooses, affect how the reader sees the character. And believe me, when you take on a beloved character, one portrayed on TV by Tom Selleck, you better have some idea of what you’re doing. You see why it was a good thing I didn’t overthink it before saying yes?

I’ve told the story many times about how my conversation with my friend and colleague Tom Schreck helped me decide how to handle taking on this responsibility. Tom is a huge Parker fan—even has a cat named Spenser—and an even bigger Elvis Presley fan. When I told Tom that I wasn’t sure if I should try to imitate Bob Parker’s style, he said this: “Reed, I’ve seen the best Elvis impersonators in the world. Some of them are really amazing, but there are two things I can’t get past. No matter how good they are, I never forget it isn’t really Elvis up there and they can never do anything new. They’re trapped.” Those words decided how I would handle the series. I decided to be true to the characters and to the format—short chapters, lots of dialogue, lots of banter between Molly and Jesse—but that the style would develop as I wrote the novels.

Well, my fifth Jesse Stone novel, Robert B. Parker’s Colorblind, is due out on September 11, 2018. The first four I’ve done have all made the New York Times list. I give the credit for that to how well the reading public loves the Jesse Stone character and, I guess, to the fact that I’ve made some good choices. Still, through the first three books, Jesse never quite felt like my character. I was always very conscious as I wrote of Bob Parker’s presence. It wasn’t quite like asking myself what would Jesus do, but it was something like that. Not until I wrote Robert B. Parker’s The Hangman’s Sonnet, my fourth Jesse novel, did Jesse begin to feel even a little bit like my character. Oddly, I hope he never feels totally like mine. I enjoy Bob’s company and would hate it if he ever stopped looking over my shoulder.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

This week in the life of an American and an American Writer

I’m away from home this week, on a consulting job in central Massachusetts, where I’m leading a workshop for a group of excellent high school teachers. After a long day on Monday, I returned to my hotel room, sat down with a sandwich (a consultant’s dinner, for sure), and turned on the TV, to see the media reaction to President Donald Trump’s presser following his “summit” with Vladimir Putin.

I clicked from CNN to MSNBC to Fox. Many were calling Trump’s decision to side with Putin rather than his top justice department officials a low point in the history of the presidency. I do not disagree, and I will position myself here in the name of transparency: I am a registered Independent who did not and will not vote for Trump.

However, a funny thing happened on the way down my liberal road.

In 2014, writing as D.A. Keeley, my novel Bitter Crossing was published. It was followed by two more mysteries featuring protagonist Peyton Cote, a single mom and a US Border Patrol agent. There was a little chatter four years ago about making a TV show based on the books. Of course, and as anticipated, nothing came of it. Fast forward to 2016 and the un-presidential Presidential election: Trump’s rhetoric had US borders on everyone’s mind, and a little more TV-series chatter was heard. Then, in early 2017, a producer got involved. Months later, there was a director and a writer. This spring a pitch was created. And late last week, I was told multiple networks wanted to see/hear the pitch.

What does any of it mean? Not a hell of a lot, not at this point, anyway. But it’s interesting to me for a couple reasons: border issues mean plot ideas for me. For instance, Peyton, a single mom, would have strong opinions about separating parents from children. She would, as an agent, also be required to toe the company line. There’s something else that's interesting here as well, and you’ve probably picked up on it: I’m no fan of Trump; however, border issues, even if raised by someone I don't much like can mean relevance for my series. And I don’t know what to think of that.

As an aside, I’m re-reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in hopes of teaching it in my class this fall. It’s fast, accessible, and offers a rich sense of place, if you’re looking for a summer read.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Characters On Vacation

Apparently, my characters have all taken the summer off.

Not sure where they’ve gone. Maybe they’re at the beach or they’ve gone to cooler climates. All I know is, I’m trying to work on the next book in my series, Ghosts of Painting Past, and I’m having a doozy of a time.

Perhaps they’re refusing to cooperate because it’s summer and this is a Christmas-themed book. Not usually a problem. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music or read Christmas-themed mysteries in July. Maybe it’s because we had a heat wave a while back. Kind of hard to write about Christmas when it’s 87 inside the house.

I go through something similar to this at the beginning of every book. Barbara did a great job talking about what it’s like to write a novel in her post last week. Right now I’m in the hair-pulling frustration phase.

Even though I really like my ideas for Ghosts, I still feel a bit uneasy. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to create a 75,000 word mystery out of it. It does help, though, knowing other writers have similar problems.

I’m more of a plotter than a pantser though my outlines are fairly minimalistic. Before I can begin writing, I need to know how the story starts, how it ends, and some major plot points along the way. I also know who my major characters are (my suspects, victim(s) and my recurring cast) and what their secrets are, what they’re trying to make sure no one knows about in the story.

This time around because of the deadline noise swishing around in my head (you should be further along, you won’t make your deadline, etc.), I tried to take a shortcut, to start writing before I really knew all of my characters. Didn’t work out very well. So I’ve gone back to thinking about all of them and writing bits and pieces of scenes as they pop into my head.

I know I’ll eventually get to the point where the story is getting down on the page faster, but it’s still an uneasy place to be. All I can do, though, is take one day at a time.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Summer Reading and What's Hot Right Now


By Vicki Delany

I read far more in the summer than the winter. I like to sit outside in the sun by the pool with my book whereas inside over the winter I seem to be doing things.  This year I have a brand new deck and the weather has been fabulous (hot and sunny) and so I’ve been plowing through books.

Image result for cartoon reading by the pool
Vicki Reading (not exactly as shown)
This week I've read The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (loved it) and Forty Dead Men by our own Donis Casey (totally different than Westaway but also great).  As an aside, let me say that I think Donis is one of the best writers working today who can really (and I mean really!) capture the times and the people she’s writing about, which is a farm family in 1910s Oklahoma.

As a reader my favourite type of book is the ‘modern gothic’ or standalone psychological suspense, and right now there’s an overwhelming number of them out there.  If we can get away from the “Girl Who” or “The Woman in” titles these are basically domestic thrillers in which women, mostly, are faced with a sudden, unexpected threat that turns their world upside down.  The threat often comes from the past, as long buried secrets are revealed.  Writers like Ruth Ware, Paula Hawkins, Kate Morton, Tana French, Cate Holahan.  Prince Edward County’s own Linwood Barclay has been writing this sort of book for a long time. It was with Linwood’s work that I first came across the phrase “domestic thriller” although being about men dealing with family life, his books don’t quite hit the group I am talking about.   But they’re always good and no one does twists quite like Linwood.

As always when a particular type of book suddenly becomes popular the market is flooded and some are a lot better than others. I didn’t get very far with The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn because I found it so very derivative.

As a writer, I seem to have been ahead of the curve. I’m very happy these days writing cozy mysteries and I love the characters and worlds I’ve created, but I can’t help but think I might have been too early for the boat.

My first two novels were exactly what’s so popular right now: standalone domestic thrillers with dual storylines (i.e. something that happened in the past affecting events of today). Scare the Light Away and Burden of Memory were published by Poisoned Pen Press in 2005 and 2006. After that I switched to the Constable Molly Smith series, because everyone said you have to have a series. I tried my hand once again with a modern gothic in More than Sorrow, which sorta sunk without a trace.

I might not be writing that type of book anymore but I’m glad so many people are. I’m looking forward to some great reading this summer. Tell me, readers, any books or authors you can recommend along the lines of what I’m looking for?





Friday, July 13, 2018

Writing as Play

Reading Donis's post this morning reinforced what I was thinking about last night. Yesterday I was in New York City attending CraftFest -- one of the options offered at the International Thriller Writers (ITW) annual conference. Attendees can also register for Master CraftFest, PitchFest, and ThrillerFest. ThrillerFest (the part of the conference with panels) is underway, but I couldn't stay.

My one day at CraftFest was exactly what I needed. I attended several excellent workshops led by bestselling thriller writers. But by lunchtime I was beginning to wonder how I would ever resolve my problem with structure -- a thriller that spans eight months. Luckily, I had left the ticket I needed to get into the ballroom for lunch upstairs in my hotel room in the envelope I hadn't opened. By the time I got back downstairs I was in the awkward position of a latecomer who finds the meal has already started and most of the tables seem to be full. I spotted an empty seat and crossed the room, praying it wasn't being saved for someone. That was when I got lucky. The seat was open. The writer on my left introduced himself and we started to chat. He told me what he was working on. I told him I was working on my first thriller and engaged in serious structure wrangling. My table mate listened and made a suggestion. When I saw him later in between sessions, we continued the conversation.

He thought I might want to try something done by writers in other genres such as sci fi and fantasy. He suggested I think of my point of view narratives as individual -- but intertwining -- novellas. That idea intrigued me so much I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about it.

Then I attended my last workshop of the day. I was intrigued by the title of the workshop -- "The Structure of Revelation: An advanced workshop on the craft of reimagining your novel." The workshop instructor was Walter Mosley. He presented his thoughts on the topic as a section of a monograph he had written for the occasion. He made references to literary classics as he was discussing the thriller as a novel and the process of writing and then reimagining. But the image that I latched on to -- other people said the same during the Q and A -- was his description of how a child would approach a blank page. Instead of freezing up or being overwhelmed, a child would play. A child would let his or her imagination run riot.

That was the message that I needed at the end of the day. I went upstairs, emailed my agent to confirm our breakfast meeting on Thursday morning before I caught my train, and then sit down to play for a few minutes. Point of view had come up several times in the workshops I'd attended. I wanted to experiment with writing in the present tense. First-person, present tense for all four characters. I copied and rewrote my first few chapters. I was astonished at the results -- and having so much fun that I kept at it right through the cocktail party I'd planned to attend. It was after nine when I finally went downstairs to pick up some dinner from the hotel's market cafe. Then I went back upstairs and thought some more about structure and playing.

Over breakfast, I told my agent about my conversation with my fellow writer and where that had taken me. A book with four POV characters divided into four parts (by the seasons of the year -- from April to December). Within each section, a chapter from a POV character, each beginning on the same day. Part I, Spring 1939, begins on Easter Sunday. (Third person, past tense, but my experiment was eye-opening).

For those of you who are pantsers, starting out with this much structure probably seems serious overkill. But my agent "got it" -- and agreed that as long as the plot is rolling along, the structure will keep readers oriented and allow me to do what I want to do: (1) focus on 1939 and the events I want to explore, and (2) develop the characters and follow them over the course of those eight months.

Thank you to my lunch companion for helping me to think through my problem. Thank you to Walter Mosley for encouraging everyone at the workshop to play. Thank you, Donis, for reminding us about living life as a work of art. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Life As A Work of Art

Cher

July has been very weird, thus far. Maybe Jupiter is in Scorpio or Mercury is retrograde or Morning Becomes Electra. As usual, a lot of the recent discombobulation is due to my beloved husband Don, who is the light of my life but a lot of trouble. He went for a routine eye exam Monday morning, and ended up having emergency eye surgery Monday afternoon. He's been getting shots in his right eye every 6 weeks for the past several months because of a busted blood vessel, and yesterday the doc said that his eye pressure had risen so much since the last appointment that he had to get it fixed RIGHT NOW before it damaged his optic nerve. Seems new blood vessels have grown to take the place of the broken one, but they inconsiderately grew over the place that drains the fluid in the eye and blocked it. Of course the only surgical center that could do it on such short notice is an hour away from where we live. So we raced up there and he had the outpatient operation at about 4:30 Monday afternoon during a raging thunderstorm. Then I had to schlepp him all the way back up to North Scottsdale Tuesday morning for a post surgical check and removal of the bandages.

Apparently it went very well. His eye pressure was down lower than it had ever been. Don has five more doctor appointments (for various organs and body parts) before the end of the month. Fortunately he can drive himself to get the lab tests before the appointments, but I really want and need to go with him for the actual doctor visits. Mainly because he often can't remember what the doctor told him. So anyway, I'm feeling whiney. I want to be writing. In truth, I think I’d like to go back to painting and drawing, as well. I used to be a pretty fair artist. In fact, Don and I have quite a bit of our own art on our walls. (Literally. I’ve done a couple of mural pieces.)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’d like to live my life like a work of art. Many years ago, I wrote a scene for one of my earlier books in which I had a character say that she thought her mother, Alafair, didn’t have to create works of art, since her life was a work of art. That phrase, "her life is a work of art," has been rattling around in my head for about thirty-five years. The minute I wrote it, I instantly thought of Cheryl Dillsaver, who was a friend I made when I was a freshman at Oklahoma State University. We called her "Cher". It was the ’60s, after all.

Cher was a fine arts major, a painter, and just as arty and flamboyant as you would expect a ’60s artiste to be. Her canvases were large and splashy and colorful, and she was a liberal and a protester, like we all were, and a good friend to me during that first year away from home.

My father died before the next academic year started, and I went home to finish my undergrad degree at another university, whereas Cher finished up at OSU. We did see one another off and on over the next couple of years, though. Much to my amazement, given her politics, she married an Agriculture major and moved to a tiny little Oklahoma town and became a housewife and mother. Shortly after she married Bill (who was a great guy, by the way), she invited me to spend the weekend with her at her tiny little house in her tiny little town while her husband was away at a conference.

I accepted with alacrity, mostly because I enjoyed Cher’s company, but partially because I was curious about how she reconciled the life she had chosen with her previous artistic ambitions.

It didn’t take me long to see that she hadn’t reconciled anything at all. She was exactly what she had always been — a real artist. While I was there she showed me not only the painting she was doing, but the interior decorating, the beautiful dress she had made for herself, her plans for a garden. I still remember to this day the awe I felt over an apple pie she made. I thought that it was the most beautiful pie I’d ever seen. And that’s when it occurred to me that she was an artist to the very core of her being. Her entire life was a work of art.

I’m talking about conventional arts, here, but I certainly haven’t forgotten that gorgeous apple pie. There should be joy and creativity in cooking, and sewing, and gardening, and cleaning. I used to feel that. I’d love to feel all of that again. Perhaps I’ll ease myself back into the art of living, Dear Readers, a little at a time.

By the way, I heard from my former roommate at OSU that Cher died a few years back. I don’t know what she died of, but I hope she lived her work of art right to the very end.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Maybe how to write a novel?

Aline's posts usher in the week at Type M and they always get me thinking. This week's post about Muriel Spark's writing process was no different. Writing a novel is damn hard work, and lonely as well. Novels are not written by committee, or in brain-storming sessions, or in support groups. They are written by one lonely soul sitting down in front of a blank page, taking a deep breath, beating back the doubts, shoving aside the distractions, and getting down to work. This will be repeated day after day, at times with ease and at other times with hair-pulling frustration, until the story is finished.

For most of us, it's an imperfect process. Some of us outline, some prefer to wing it. Some plunge ahead to the end, leaving a trail of loose ends, plot holes, and non-sequiturs in our wake to be fixed once the story figures itself out. Others tidy up as we go along, re-reading and editing the work from yesterday before moving on to today. Many of us do a little of this and a little of that, depending on our mood and on the flow of ideas at the time. Writing a novel sometimes feels like travelling down a river. Ever-changing, full of surprises, and scary and exhilarating at different times. Waterfalls, rapids, eddies, whirlpools, lazy meanders, logjams... And and always the inexorable tugging of the current that is the story in our head.

Along this journey, most of us run aground or get swept off course many times, and end up spinning around until some idea catches us and pulls us forward again. It's a rare writer who sits down and writes a story from beginning to end with barely a hesitation or false step. So I was astonished to learn Muriel Spark's technique. She spent a year thinking about the story, and presumably when she's got it all thought out, she opened her notebooks and wrote the whole story in about six weeks. With barely any need for revision.

The only think she and I have in common is that in the end, we both take just a little over a year to write a book. I could not imagine delaying the start of writing for a whole year while I thought up the whole story. Once I get the initial idea for a story and can picture the opening few scenes, I'm itching to dive in. Furthermore, I don't think I could visualize the whole story while standing on the riverbank far upstream. Ideas come to me as I am writing, and as I get closer to each scene, the ideas sharpen and often change shape. The unexpected happens. Characters change and grow richer. A element of setting which I had thought was minor suddenly changes the outcome of a scene.

For this reason, I can't imagine finishing the story with no loose ends to tidy up and no characters to reshape. Rewrites all enrich the book. They deepen the story, cut out the extraneous, and bring the story into clearer focus. A book without rewrites would be incomplete. It's certainly easier for us to do revisions in the age of computers than in the days of notebooks, and perhaps now we writers are guilty of too much editorial fiddling and fussing. But rarely do the words flow so cleanly and smoothly as to require no improvement. I write my first draft longhand on yellow pads of paper, and each page is a nearly indecipherable mess of crossed out words, arrows, "insert next page", scribbled additions in the margins, and so on. I rewrite on the fly.

Muriel's method sounds much calmer and easier on the nerves. But we all find the method that works best for us. It's likely much messier and more torturous than hers, but in the end, it's the only way we know. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Some things to tickle your funny bone

Okay Type M readers, I've got a HUGELY busy day (I’ll let you all guess why) and quite frankly no topic for this week’s post is leaping out at me anyway, so I’m going to resort to my usual cop-out in these situations: some beautifully curated cartoons.

(Sidebar: Don’t you hate the overuse of “curated” these days? We actually have a convenience store in downtown Toronto that advertises its “beautifully curated items”. I supposed this includes potato chips, chewing gum and bottles of soda pop – the usual wares people buy in stores of this ilk.)

Okay so here are my three beautifully curated images I poached from only the best sites on the internet. Hope you enjoy ’em!

Tip of the day: ALWAYS have someone proofread your work.


Monday, July 09, 2018

How to Write a Novel

This year, Scotland has been celebrating the centenary of one of its best known novelists, Dame Muriel Spark. She is probably best known for her book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which became a very successful film starring Maggie Smith – lately of Downton Abbey fame. Based on her own schooldays in Edinburgh the leading figure is a charismatic and dangerous schoolmistress, determined to make her girls 'the creme de la creme.'

Spark was a mercilessly observant writer with a fine satiric wit.  She had no time at all for poseurs and fashionable theorists and, as a pedant, I relished her demolition of the claim that children should not be taught but discover learning, since education comes from the Latin educere, to lead out. If it did, of course, the word would be 'educetion'; as Miss Brodie's unfashionable headmistress points out it actually derives from the Latin educare, to stuff in.

Much though I enjoy it, I don't think it's her best book. My favourite, because of the sheer elegance of its structure and technique, is The Girls of Slender Means. In a dazzling display of brilliance she seems to toss ideas and strands of plot around like the random shapes in a kaleidoscope and then, with a final deft flick of the wrist has them fall together to complete the pattern.

In a filmed interview in her Italian home, she explained how she wrote her novels. She would think about a book for a year. When she was ready to write it, she would send to an Edinburgh bookshop and order a packet of their exercise books, like the ones she would have used as a schoolgirl at James Gillespie's School for Girls. Then, she said, she would write the title, underline it, add 'by Muriel Spark' and underline that too.

On a new page she would write 'Chapter One, and then she would write for six weeks and the book would be finished. No first drafts, no extensive revisions. I could hardly watch the rest of the programme for the sheer envy that was choking me.

I am just starting a new book. I can walk uptown to the shop where Dame Muriel bought her exercise books. I could think for a long time, too, and I could certainly do the underlining the title bit. But I am beset by the feeling that thinking isn't really working, and it's only by putting stuff on paper that I can stifle the terror of actually writing another book.

I daren't even try the Spark method, though it obviously works. As long as you're a genius.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Thomas Kies, Guest Author



Type M is very pleased to welcome guest author Thomas Kies, author of the Geneva Chase Mystery Series. The first novel in his new series, RANDOM ROAD, introduced Geneva Chase, “a reporter with a compelling voice, a damaged woman who recounts her own bittersweet story as she hunts down clues” to murders straight out of a nightmare—six bodies found naked and cut to ribbons in a posh Connecticut home. Thomas lives and writes on a barrier island on the coast of North Carolina with his wife, Cindy, and Lilly, their Shih-Tzu. He has a long career working for newspapers and magazines, primarily in New England and New York, and is currently working on his next novel, GRAVEYARD BAY.
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How Crazy is Your Research?


From nine until five, Monday through Friday, I’m the President of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce. We’re right on coast of North Carolina and we’re blessed with beautiful beaches, world class cuisine, and some of the best fishing you’ll ever see. I’m the head cheerleader for one of the nicest places on earth.

Being the head of the Chamber of Commerce comes with a reputation that’s wholesome, upright, and good for the community. Heck, when the sun’s shining, it’s called Chamber of Commerce weather. Who else has their own damned weather?

But on weekends and after work, I think about and write things that are dark and, according to my wife, deeply disturbed. I write mysteries.

That requires certain tidbits of knowledge that others may not have, and certainly nothing that a president of a chamber of commerce should be harboring. For example, in my first mystery, RANDOM ROAD, a swingers’ club figures prominently in the plotline. I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve read the book and asked me how I know what the inside of one of those clubs looks like. Because I worked in newspapers and magazines for over thirty years, I have the inside dope on a lot of stuff. It doesn’t mean I was a member.



In my second book, DARKNESS LANE, there’s a creepy scene that takes place in an exclusive diamond merchant’s shop. It’s expensive, well-secured, hard to find, and by-appointment only. Yes, that’s based on a real jeweler’s establishment. Full disclosure, in real life, the owner was murdered there.

The theater and haunted mansion scenes in DARKNESS LANE? Based on real locations in Fairfield County, Connecticut where the book takes place. I have pictures on my phone. I can share if you like.

 In the book I’m writing now, GRAVEYARD BAY, there’s a scene from a professional dominatrix’s BDSM dungeon. Have I actually seen one? Oh, yes. Was I a client? Hell, no.

But then there’s the stuff I don’t know or haven’t seen.

Let me digress for a moment. When I attended my first Mystery Writers Conference, there were multiple workshops given by authors, publishers, agents, cops, ex-FBI agents, forensic specialists, and physicians. We discussed everything from how to kill someone, to hiding the body, to what the body would look like after being in the water for a week. Questions were asked and answered. Will someone die after eating ground glass? What is a fatal dosage of Fentanyl? When someone is killed and thrown into the water, how do you keep them from floating to the surface?

If you were someone off the street just wandering into one of those workshops, you’d think you’d stumbled onto a coven of psychopaths. Weird? Certainly. Scary? Maybe. Fun? It is if you’re a mystery aficionado.


So, doing research at home is very similar. If someone were to look at my browsing history on my computer (my home laptop, not my work computer…oh, no—that would be wrong), they’d be tempted to call Homeland Security or the FBI. Let’s take a look at some of the topics I’ve Googled or YouTubed: The Russian Mafia, Los Zetas, M-13, explosives, pill mills, AK rifles, handcuffs, sex trafficking, ice pick murders, samurai sword, killer clowns, theater make-up techniques, Aryan Brotherhood, and hypothermia.

Some of the headlines of articles I’ve downloaded: Garage owner charged with selling drugs. Prominent developer killed by train. Real estate agent charged with home burglary. Florida nanny found dead in woods reportedly tortured before her murder. Body found in floating barrel identified, but name is withheld. Students mine data to find where unfaithful husbands live.


Those are actual headlines!

So, speaking of data mining, you can only imagine what Facebook has on me. And the ads that pop up unbidden on my computer screen? There’s an algorithm working overtime that’s dropping the weirdest advertising possible in my emails and on my newsfeed.

But then there’s the old fashion way of doing your research. This is where you get a feel for a scene or the flavor of the action. Talk to the experts. I have friends in law enforcement that help keep me on track (what happens when someone goes missing?). Some of them are avid readers so I want to get it right. There are doctors (so what does that broken arm look like?) and attorneys (walk me through a plea deal) in my Rotary Club who are fans as well. They don’t mind that I ask them questions, even if their answers never make it into a novel.

I’ve also spent time in police headquarters, hospitals, prison (not much time), and courtrooms. It gives you a chance to see, listen, feel, and smell the scene. I love researching my books.

And while knowing your subject matter is a good thing, Stephen King writes, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. of potential collie puts, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”

I try to tell the best story I can, but I also try to make it as realistic as possible. I research some pretty strange stuff…just don’t tell my Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

COMING JUNE 2018! The second book in the Geneva Chase series, DARKNESS LANE, is coming in June 2018! Pre-order now to be the first to read Geneva Chase's latest account.

Visit Tom's website at www.thomaskiesauthor.com

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Inside the Cutting Room

I’m in the process of tightening my work-in-progress, essentially streamlining a draft of a novel in a way that, in Edgar Allan Poe’s words, “plays fair with the reader.” I’m cutting to the chase, taking a 90,000-word mystery and possibly chopping 20,000 words in the name of clarity and precision or, as Elmore Leonard would say, ridding the book of “the parts the reader skips.”

I’ve always been an edit-as-you-go type, so this is a new experience. Other writers speak of the rough draft as throwing a lump of clay on the wheel and then molding it. I’m a little too type-A for that. However, this time around, I have no choice: the clay is spinning, and I’m using the wire to take inches off.

It’s been interesting and educational. One character, who played only a minor role in the first draft, is now a leading figure, working with our sleuth. Another, who teamed with the antagonist, is gone completely, a move to clarify the plot. If I were an outliner, perhaps this is all taken care of in the cutting room. But I’m not. And it wasn’t. So I’m learning as I go.

One concern was length. Can the book be too short? Some of my favorites (I’m thinking John D MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, and early Robert B. Parker) fall in the 200-page range, somewhere near 60,000 words. A typical thriller is 100,000 words; while mysteries are often shorter, and this book is a mystery.

Part of this means fighting is myself. The book is set at a boarding school, which is good and bad. It’s good because, I’ve taught at boarding schools for nearly two decades, and, well, I can describe “the parts the reader skips” in endless ways that fascinate probably only me. If you want to know what 350 teenagers eating a family-style meal sounds like, I’m your guy. But you don’t care, and you shouldn’t. You just want a good story, one that’s compelling, one you can’t put down. And I don’t blame you.

A lot of this comes back to something I think all writers face: sacrificing our self-gratification for the good of the story. Every writer has his or her own family-style meal for 350 teenagers that the reader doesn’t need to know about. If we write what we know –– and we should –– this means finding the balance and avoiding that tempting trap.

In the coming weeks, I’ll face difficult decisions and hopefully have the willpower to leave more lines and scenes on the cutting-room floor.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Happy 4th of July!

Today is Independence Day in the U.S. A time for eating, barbecues and fireworks.

I’m not a huge fireworks fan. I’ve seen my share of displays and found them nice, but I’m not one to buy any or make an extra effort to go to see a display. The city I live in does its fireworks display in early December, but some neighboring cities have theirs on the 4th or near the 4th. This year some of them took place on July 1st.

While I’m not a huge fan, I can see tons of possibilities for mysteries surrounding the holiday. The noise could cover up a dastardly deed. Or someone could have an “accident” while setting them off. A television show I watched recently (can’t remember which one, but it may have been Elementary) had someone setting off fireworks as a distraction for a crime. They caught her because she’d injured herself and went to a local hospital for treatment.

I did an author panel last weekend at the Memorial Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library where one of the things we discussed was where writers get their ideas. I mentioned that the idea for Paint the Town Dead came from attending a painting convention and wondering what would happen if someone collapsed during class and died. The subject of fireworks didn’t come up, but it’s a similar thing. The average person sees the event, but a writer wonders what would happen if...

Here are a few photos of the event:

Anne Louise-Bannon, me, Diane Vallere, Jill Amadio, Connie Archer

For your enjoyment, here’s a list of cozy mysteries with a Fourth of July theme. https://www.cozy-mystery.com/fourth-of-july-mystery-books-list.html

For those of you who celebrate the 4th, enjoy your holiday!

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A suggestion on what to do when the words aren’t flowing

by Rick Blechta

I’m sitting in my studio on a beautiful summer morning. It’s cool right now and will be really hot later on today — as it’s been for nearly a week now — so I should be doing some needed work outside, but I also (as usual) hadn’t gotten around to my weekly Type M post, so here I sit.

I’m doing a lot of sitting, too, at the moment with my current work-in-progress. I’ve got an unforeseen plot problem (don’t you hate ‘em?) that has me snookered. As is the case in these situations, I’ve been trying to work on other scenes to come in the story in order to keep moving something forward, but even that isn’t working as well as I’d like.

After all, how many scenes can you store up when you prefer writing your novels by the seat of your pants? I could spend a couple of days on something that will be totally useless because my plot has taken a different direction by the time I get to where the scene would occur.

Then it hit me like a cold fist at the end of a wet kiss: I’m going to need scenes that take place in the summer — in Washington. My story begins in the spring but will wind up during some really hot days.

I find it hard to write really visceral description of weather unless I’m experiencing it. Distance from it causes my memory to “idealize” it. If I’m writing in the middle of a heat wave about a frigid January day in Canada, I tend to pull my punches. You can tell — at least I can — when I’ve done this in a novel.

So my great idea for today is to throw some description together for those disgustingly hot, humid scenes I’ll need for the novel’s end. I figure late afternoon should do it. I won’t turn the ceiling fan on, I’ll shut all the windows and then sit down and melt a bit as I describe that crippling southern heat and humidity that leaves you feeling as if you’re wearing soggy, wet sponges.

See? It’s already working!