Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What's the deal with goblins and ghosts?

Today is Halloween, a time when ghosts, skulls, and tombstones decorate front lawns, a time when not only is it all right to scare the daylights out of people, but it's encouraged. The creepiest, spookiest houses on the street are the coolest, and children dressed as goblins and skeletons race with gleeful shrieks towards that fear.


Why this celebration of the macabre? Why the fascination with death and blood and creatures that return from the dead? Why the compulsion to scare and horrify ourselves?

Preoccupation with the dead and their spirits dates back to the beginning of time, and although the celebration has evolved and absorbed others over the centuries, the origins of modern Halloween can be traced to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain around 2000 years ago. The Celts celebrated the new year on November 1, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the long, cold winter (an idea that makes a lot more sense than January 1). They believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the living and the dead became porous and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. On October 31 they had a celebration with sacred bonfires and sacrifices, dressed in costumes, and told fortunes in an attempt to curry favour with the Celtic deities for the coming year.

When the Romans conquered the Celtic lands, two Roman festivals were merged into Samhain, one of them being the annual Roman festival to commemorate the passing of the dead, which took place in October. And by the 9th century, the influence of Christianity reached the Celtic lands and put a Christian interpretation on existing festivals like Samhain. The Roman Catholic church had designated November 1 as All Saints Day and November 2 as All Souls Day, both intended to remember and honour the dead through parades, masses, and ceremonies. All Hallows Eve was the night before All Saints Day and marked the beginning of this three-day commemoration of the dead. Thus Halloween got its contemporary name.

The evolution of Halloween in Europe and North America into its current form is too complicated for this admittedly brief historical journey, but suffice to say that fear of ghosts, spirits, death, and the unknown were a vivid part of human experience since our early days, as was the belief that powers beyond ourselves controlled our destiny. Elaborate festivals and rituals evolved as attempts to provide reassurance and strength, as well as to trick, influence, appease, bribe, or defy those powers.

What does this have to do with crime fiction? I don't think we writers are attempting to influence fate. But perhaps we are trying to stare death and fear in the eye, shake our fists at it, perhaps demystify it a little, and at least in fiction defeat it so that justice and goodness prevail.

That's as far as I will go today. I have a couple of pumpkins waiting to be carved, a ghostly spectre to hang, and a scary costume to devise before the gleefully terrified children arrive at the door.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Everything old is new again

by Rick Blechta

In case you didn’t know, I’m an admitted typography junky. I’m referring to those glyphs you’re looking at right now, meaning each letter of this sentence. And that’s where one part of the problem is. Type junkies tend to speak their own, specialized language. I also own over 6000 different typefaces.

This post came about from Sybil’s very interesting post of last Wednesday. In it she talks about a font, Sans Forgetica, specifically designed to help with memory retention. I don’t know whether it works, but it is an interesting idea, the kernel of which is that if something is slightly more difficult to read, you’ll remember it better. Forgetica is another wordplay on the names given to type families (Helvetica anyone?) coupled with the word “forget”. So the complete name means basically “without forgetting”.

Just before we leave this new idea in typography, I actually laughed out loud when I saw the name of the font. It’s a typographical play on words. First of all, “sans” refers to one class of fonts but it’s usually accompanied by “serif”. Put together, sans serif means “without serifs”.

Here we go again, another phrase only typographic junkies are interested in. Most of you probably have no idea what a serif is and why not having serifs is An Important Thing. Here’s a quick read to help you understand (assuming you’re still with me). You only need to read the first part of the article — otherwise you risk becoming a typographic junkie too. You have been warned!

Serif fonts are primarily used for what is called “running type”. Why? Because it’s the least exhausting to read for long periods. And Sybil, I guess this is the reason you’re not retaining as much as you’d like. Where do you see the greatest use of serif fonts? In books, of course.

Sans serif font families were designed primarily for display typesetting. You’ll see it most often used in headlines, section headers and the like. In our computer age, it’s come into its own because it displays better on computer screens. You’re reading a sans serif font (Arial) right now.

Now here’s the kicker, some of the most famous and still-used font families are hundreds of years old and the genesis of serif fonts goes all the way back to the Romans. Ever use Garamond? It was designed back in the 16th Century by Claude Garamond. And there are lots of others of this vintage still in use.

Good, readable typefaces tend to have long lives. They were designed very carefully with specific goals in mind. Even the ubiquitous Times font is nearing 100 years old.

I’m going to stop myself now because I could go on for pages and pages. See? Typography junky…

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Ghosts, shoes, and suicide.

My post this month coincides with the Halloween weekend, the time of the year for ghosts and other scary things. I'll start by talking about shoes, specifically these shoes, which are the pair my father wore when he committed suicide thirty-three years ago.



The shoes have been on my closet shelf, unworn since that fateful day. It may seem macabre to wear his shoes, but they fit and every time I put them on it's an homage to him. I'm familiar with the saying, walk a mile in my shoes--there's even a song with that title--however I don't need to wear his shoes to understand what caused him to break and disintegrate into self-destruction.

These shoes are plain, army-issue low quarters and were the only style of shoes my dad wore. Obviously he wasn't much for fashion. My mom detested these shoes, but he ignored her requests to wear something with more pizazz. What most bothered her was that the only time he'd get them polished was by a shoe-shine boy during twice-monthly trips to Juarez. In between those visits, if the shoes got muddy or dirty, so be it.

Several years after my dad's passing I was at the bedside of my paternal grandfather. Even until late age he remained robust and active. However because of brittle hip and knee joints he couldn't walk. He lay on the bed, emaciated, wearing diapers, his only companions in that dark, lonely house a live-in attendant and a terrier named Chachi. In his prime my grandfather had been a colonel in the Texas State Guard, a judo instructor, and one of the earliest activists for Mexican-American rights. He gazed at me and began mumbling and it took me a moment to realize that he thought I was his son, my dad, long since dead. Carefully, I corrected him, and he regarded me with a pat on my hand and then fell asleep. Seeing my grandfather reduced this way weighed on me. During the drive home, his spirit and the ghosts of my dad and all my other dead relatives swirled around me so very real and terrifying that I had to pull off the highway and compose myself.

This week I decided that I needed a pair of black casual shoes and these were available, so I dusted them off and took them to a shoe shop to be refurbished. When the cobbler inspected them he noted the heels had nylon inserts and so exclaimed, "I haven't seen these in forty years!" I let him keep the heels for his collection of vintage footwear.

Though I wear my old man's shoes, he and I are on different paths. In fact, I've lived past his expiration date by twelve years. Most years, the anniversary of his death goes by unnoticed. Sure, I don't have to wear his shoes to remember him or to remind myself that we have to take care of ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I wear these shoes because they are comfortable and that I need a pair of black casual shoes.

Friday, October 26, 2018

When I'm an Old Woman. . .



Last week I helped with a funeral dinner and all the ladies there wore red hats and flamboyant purple dresses. One of the other helpers was puzzled by the purpose of the group. The Red Hat Society is a social group and it was inspired by a poem that was a favorite of my sister. I love this poem. I was written by Jenny Joseph.




When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

I'm haunted by this poem occasionally because the years are just rushing by. Another autumn will soon pass without my going to the high country to see the aspens. Another year without learning to fly fish. Another year without learning to waltz. And what about my good intentions to get back to Hoxie from time to time just to visit? Without feeling I should be promoting a book. 

I do a pretty good job with family events, but I neglect doing things just for fun. 

Writing is a demanding occupation. Sometimes I'm really daunted by the demands of marketing. I will always love to write, but the industry has changed so much over the years. When I first started my agent didn't want me "schlepping around." Going to events, giving talks, etc. Now it's expected by one's publisher. If an author is shy and hates appearing in public, social media is a terrific alternative. 

Last week I started sorting old files and I amazed at the time I spent answering letters. It reminded me that every job has it's demands. I have been very very fortunate. In fact, looking back I wouldn't change much.

 But the red hats and purple dresses keep slipping away. 
Image result for Red hats



Maybe the Bronte sisters toiling away in a little garret had it better.  

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thoughts on a Reading Life

Like all writers, I’m a reader first. But my day job has me thinking about books, maybe, differently than some other writers might. Given that I'm a writer and a teacher, when I choose a book to read, I always have an eye toward my syllabus and a possible spot in my curriculum. I'm fortunate to get to teach a crime literature course twice a year, because many books I read for fun end up on that list.

But I read more than crime books. As a writer — and a human being, for that matter — I strive to have an eclectic stack beside my bed. And I read multiple books at once. Right now, I'm loving Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, a collection of intertwined stories, by Walter Mosley. This will make it onto my syllabus for the spring. I'm listening to the audio version of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote for maybe the tenth time. And I'm reading White Like Me,by Tim Wise, a memoir about white privilege.

I prefer the term "well-loved" over messy

It's often said that you can tell a lot about a person by what's on his or her reading list. I've always found it interesting to read interviews with writers to see what’s on his or her nightstand at the moment. Stephen King, for instance, says he reads about 80 books a year. He says he's a slow reader. By my math, that's about a book and a half a week, much faster than my pace, for sure.

Many writers read for inspiration. I certainly do. Not ideas so much as inspiration. Those are two different things, and the difference probably lies mostly in honoring intellectual property boundaries. When I get in a rut, I read. I remember working on the opening of Out of Bounds, a Jack Austen novel, and thinking the opening chapter was flat. I picked up Ian Rankin's wonderful book Let It Bleed, read the first chapter, and thought, I simply need to do better. I went back to the drawing board then rewrote the opening scene several more times, finally punching it up.

One never knows where he or she will find inspiration. I have always loved reading poetry, Philip Levine being at the top of my list. Poetry often offers a view of life through a sequence of images that teach us all a great deal about tone. Conflict is often present in poetry, but it isn't always obvious, and that's a good thing for fiction writers to remember.

These are some thoughts on my reading life. I'd love to hear others’ views.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Sans Forgetica

Sans Forgetica. That’s the name of the font in the picture. Yep, that’s a real font name. I’m not making it up.


It’s not the prettiest of fonts with its slight backward slant and breaks in the letters. The backward slant reminds me of how I used to sign my name in junior high. Don’t know why I decided to do that. The trend only lasted a few years until I went back to my more normal forward slant.

I’m not sure I want to read something that’s printed in Sans Forgetica. But maybe I should because supposedly that odd backward slant and letter breaks make the brain work just a little harder, hard enough you remember more about what you read.

Or so the researchers say.

I found out about this font from an article my local newspaper picked up from the Washington Post.

It’s an interesting idea. I sure would like to remember more of what I read. Sometimes I zone out while I’m reading a page, not really remembering much about it later. That’s usually when I’m tired or distracted. If I had to pay a tiny bit more attention to the words, I could see myself remembering more.

The font was developed by researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. It was created by a multidisciplinary team of designers and behavioral scientists. This 45 second YouTube video tells you a little bit more:

If you want to find out even more, including the science behind the font, go here: http://sansforgetica.rmit/

I downloaded it and changed the font in an old Word document to Sans Forgetica so I could try it out. It was a little difficult to read, but not all that hard. Looked very strange on the page, though.

Maybe one of these days Sans Forgetica will end up a font you can select on your Kindle. That could be interesting.

You can download it from http://sansforgetica.rmit and try it out yourself. There’s also a Chrome browser extension.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Tom's Halloween Blog

The month of October marks the beginning of autumn.  The leaves are turning color, the days are getting shorter, the air is crisp, and Starbucks is serving their pumpkin-spice lattes.  It’s also the month for Halloween…and when I particularly enjoy scary movies and novels.

I’m currently binging on the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. It’s comprised of ten episodes and, while it veers considerably from the 1959 gothic novel by Shirley Jackson, it pays homage to its essence.  It’s a slow-motion horror burn and it’s scarin’ the bejesus out of me.

Concurrently, I’m reading an excellent (if not spooky) account of a real-life paranormal investigation written by two dear friends of mine, Joey and Tonya Madia.  They were residents here on the coast of North Carolina and recently moved to Ohio.  They’ve written a book entitled Watch Out for the Hallway: Our Two-Year Investigation of the Most Haunted Library in North Carolina.

Now, to give you a little context here, this area of the coast has a rich and colorful history.  The pirate Blackbeard sailed in these waters three hundred years ago.  Indeed, his ship Queen Anne’s Revenge was scuttled by Blackbeard himself only a mile off our beach.  To my knowledge, it was one of the first examples of downsizing as a cost cutting measure.  Fewer pirates employed, fewer pockets to fill.

This region is also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of the large number of shipwrecks these waters have claimed.  Sudden savage storms and shifting sandbars all contributed to heavy losses of life and property creating some remarkable stories and legends.

Just around the corner from my office here in Morehead City, North Carolina, sits the Webb Library.  In 1929, Mr. Earle W. Webb, Sr., CEO of Ethyl Corporation in NYC and native Morehead City resident, began construction of a commercial building on the corner of 9th and Evans Streets in downtown Morehead City.

For the first few years the building had doctors’ offices downstairs and a training facility for the local garment factory upstairs. When the upstairs noise became too much for the downstairs occupants, the garment factory left. Mrs. Webb, a member of the Morehead Woman’s Club, asked her husband if the club could move its 300-book library to one of the upstairs rooms. When he agreed, the library was moved.

A few years later in 1936, the Webbs’ son, Earle W. Webb, Jr., became ill and died. In honor of their son, Mr. and Mrs. Webb dedicated the building as the Earle W. Webb Jr. Memorial Library and Civic Center and opened it to all the citizens of Morehead City for community use.

The Webb Library is subject of Joey and Tonya Madia’s book.  It’s fun to read about their investigation and how the spirits they encountered had personalities, moods, and sometimes indulged in playful activities as well as bad and rude behavior.

The difference between Hill House and the Webb Library?  I have no worries about going in and borrowing a book or two at the Webb.  I’ve been there for fundraisers, meetings, and have never been uncomfortable.  Of course, now after reading the Madias’ book, I find myself looking over my shoulder more often.

Hill House?  You wouldn’t catch me there….ever.

Full disclosure.  I’ve never actually seen or felt a ghost.  Honestly, the only spirits I’ve ever seen have been in the bottom of my glass, right where they’re supposed to be.

That being said, I still like a good scare from time to time.

Happy Halloween.

For more information on Joey and Tonya’s book: http://visionarylivingpublishing.com/book/watch-out-for-the-hallway-our-two-year-investigation-of-the-most-haunted-library-in-north-carolina/

For more information on my mysteries, go to www.thomaskiesauthor.com

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Guest Author Dennis Palumbo Talks Erotomania



What would be the ideal professional background for a mystery and thriller writer? Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), today's guest blogger Dennis Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His series of mystery thrillers (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors, Phantom Limb, and the latest, Head Wounds, all from Poisoned Pen Press), feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. For more information on Dennis' fascinating series, visit www.dennispalumbo.com



Erotomania

Dennis Palumbo


Nietzsche once wrote, “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”

Perhaps. Then again, Nietzsche never met Sebastian Maddox, the villain in my latest suspense thriller, Head Wounds. It’s the fifth in my series about Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh police.

What makes the brilliant, tech-savvy Maddox so relentlessly dangerous is that he’s in the grip of a rare delusion called erotomania, also known as De Clerambault’s Syndrome.

Simply put, erotomania is a disorder in which a person—in this case, Maddox—falsely believes that another person is in love with him, deeply, unconditionally, and usually secretly. The latter because this imaginary relationship must be hidden due to some social, personal, or professional circumstances. Perhaps the object of this romantic obsession is married, or a superior at work. Often it’s a famous athlete or media celebrity.

Not that these seeming roadblocks diminish the delusion. They can even provide a titillating excitement. Often, a person with erotomania believes his or her secret admirer is sending covert signals of their mutual love: wearing certain colors whenever a situation puts them together in public, or doing certain gestures whose meaning is only known to the two of them. Some even believe they’re receiving telepathic messages from their imagined beloved.

What makes the delusion even more insidious is that the object of this romantic obsession, once he or she learns of it, is helpless to do anything about it. They can strenuously and repeatedly rebuff the delusional lover, denying that there’s anything going on between them, but nothing dissuades the other’s ardent devotion.

I know of one case wherein the recipient of these unwanted declarations of love was finally forced to call the police and obtain a restraining order. Even then, her obsessed lover said he understood that this action was a test of his love. A challenge from her to prove the constancy and sincerity of his feelings.

As psychoanalyst George Atwood once said of any delusion, “it’s a belief whose validity is not open to discussion.”

This is especially true of erotomania. People exhibiting its implacable symptoms can rarely be shaken from their beliefs.

Like Parsifal in his quest for the Holy Grail, nothing dissuades them from their mission.

In Head Wounds, Sebastian Maddox’s crusade—when thwarted in his desires— turns quite deadly, and requires all of Rinaldi’s resourcefulness to save someone he cares about. In real life, the treatment options for the condition are limited to a combination of therapy and medication, usually antipsychotics like pimozide. If the symptoms appear to stem from an underlying cause, such as bipolar disorder, the therapeutic approach would also involve medication, typically lithium.

What makes erotomania so intriguing as a psychological condition, and so compelling in an antagonist in a thriller, is the delusional person’s ironclad conviction—the unshakeable certainty of his or her belief.

Nonetheless, as philosopher Charles Renouvier reminds us, “Plainly speaking, there is no such thing as certainty. There are only people who are certain.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

NaNoWriMo Time Again

This year -- once again -- I intend to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I say "intend" meaning I will sign up again and try to complete the challenge. In case you've never heard of this annual event, the challenge is to write 50,000 words in November.



 Many writers -- published and unpublished -- take part in the event. Many swear by it as an opportunity to focus on a work-in-progress or start a new project. Many see it as a way to power through a first draft, to get something down on paper.

However, even though I've tried this in the past -- a few years ago and again last year -- I have never gotten beyond the first few days. My life always intervenes. I have a day job, and there are things I must get done. But my larger problem -- or challenge -- is that my writing habits don't follow the guidelines. I don't sit down to write every day. I make notes. I scribble on sheets of papers. I sit down at the computer when I have chunks of time and scenes that I have been working on in my head that I am ready to write.

My process works, but it is messy and slow. Eventually, I'm always forced to withdraw from the world and sprint to the finish line. This works when I have a concrete deadline. But with this big book, my 1939 historical, all I have is my commitment to my agent and myself that I will get it done. I'd like to do that before we both are another year older. So, in November, I'm going to try to make NaNo my time to sprint.

I hope that committing to a month of being disciplined -- of designating a time to write and sitting down to do it -- will help me get to the finish line. I am not a pantser, but I have done my character bios and my plot outline. My research is at the point when I need to be deep into the story to know what else I need to know. I can keep writing and fill in whatever is missing in my knowledge of 1939 later.

I am hoping that this year, I will be able to use my advance preparation and my strong desire to get this book done to override my own plodding process. I need to finish a book that is closer to 100,000 words than 50,000, but I will not be starting from scratch. I don't care about registering my word count. I only want to make a public commitment. I want to set myself up for 30 days of nagging. That's the kind of "support" I need. I know I can write a book. I want people to hound me about getting this one done.

I am going to sign up with the local NaNo group. I am going to get support (nagging) from my Sisters in Crime and my local RWA chapter. I am going to pay myself ten dollars a day and reward myself  with an expensive treat if I make my word count.

During November, I will be using my post to report in. Please nag. Don't tell me I'm doing well. Ask me if I am going to get my 50,000 words done.

Is anyone else planning to do NaNoWriMo? Anyone done it and had great success getting a draft done?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Trip to the Homeland



I'm not really here today, Dear Reader. I am in Woodward, Oklahoma, as you read this. Last August I had to cancel a trip to speak at some Oklahoma libraries, after My Beloved fell and broke his arm. Fortunately, I was approached by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries with an offer to appear at the first Oklahoma Book Festival, to be held at the Boatyard in Oklahoma City on Oct. 20, and since Beloved (Don) is now in good enough shape to be left on his own for days at a time, I’m taking this opportunity to reschedule the library event n Woodward, Oklahoma, for noon on Thursday, October 18. We’re calling it the If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Try Again Tour.

Martha (r) and me

My youngest sister, brother, and sister-in-law are coming from Tulsa to OKC on Saturday to go to the Book Festival (and see me) and after the Festival, they are schlepping me back to Tulsa, my birthplace, where I will be staying for a couple days with youngest sister, Martha. We have yet another sister in Joplin, Missouri, who I hope will be able to drive down to the old homestead while I'm there, in which case it'll be a real family reunion. I'm going to get to see mystery author extraordinaire Carolyn Hart while I'm in Tulsa, as well, which will be a real treat.

In anticipation of this long-awaited trip, I worked busily to finish the first draft of the first book in my new series, and I did it, by gum. Don is reading it right now. When I get home at the end of the month, I hope to be able to clean it up quickly and get it sent in to my editor. This book is so different in tone from the Alafairs (it's set mostly in California in the 1920s and is much more Noir) that I'm curious to see what kind of reaction I'll get from my first readers. Once I have an idea of how this book will be received, I'll tell you all about it. But here is a teaser - I'm calling it The Adventures of Bianca Dangereaux, Episode One: Lust for Vengeance.

p.s. Full Disclosure–both above pictures of me are about ten years old. I have gotten a lot grayer and somewhat saggier since then. Martha, on the other hand, looks exactly the same.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Launches and signings and readings, oh dear

Last night I had the official launch of my latest book, PRISONERS OF HOPE, and so begins the frenetic season of promoting a new book. It's short but busy, often with back to back events that consume much of my fall weekends. This is my seventeenth book, and that's a lot of weekends. Missed opportunities to cut the garden back, rake the leaves, take leisurely walks in the glorious fall trees, and even vacuum the extra dogs that have accumulated under the tables in my house.

The launch is always the highlight of this time. I am not very organized and have not developed a newsletter, mailchimp list, or even email groups to help me send out invitations, so it takes time but I try to send out invitations to all of my contacts who live in the Ottawa area. I book a venue, arrange a bookseller, order some food, and cross my fingers that people will come. To my delight, they always do, some new readers, some faithful ones of old, and of course, my long-suffering family. This starts the season off with a boost, because everyone is excited about the new arrival and effusive in their praise. Thanks so much to all you loyal friends and fans who come out to support us authors!


I hold on to this boost during the long weeks of readings and signings that follow. Some are well attended, often to my surprise and gratitude, but other times I am reading to a rapt audience of five, including bookstore or library staff. I recall being scheduled earlier in my career to do a conversational hour at a conference, and one person showed up. One hour is a long time sitting face to face with a stranger!

All writers have horror stories about the dreaded mall signing. Bookstores forget you're coming or only order five books, snowstorms turn the mall into a graveyard, a raucous children's event is running in the store next door, or, despite seventeen books, no one has heard of you but they love James Patterson. As if authors need more lessons in humility after dozens of rejection letters, brutal editing, nasty reviews...

Through it all, you smile gaily, trying to look inviting but not desperate as you watch people walk by the store. Do they make eye contact? Do they scan your table as they pass? Or do they detour around to enter the store from the other side? Do they look on the verge of murder themselves as they drag a couple of screaming children in tow? Do they go for the fiction table or the scented candles?

If you decide the signs look favourable, you embark on phase one. "Hello. Are you a mystery fan?" or some such. Some pretend not to hear you as they scurry past. Some give a curt no, some say yes, rather dubiously as if uneasy about what they're committing to. If they stop, you begin phase two. You explain who you are and give a one-floor elevator pitch about the books. If they are still standing there, you continue with more detail. My favourite point is when the person's eyes suddenly widen in surprise and they say "Oh wow, you're the author?"


Most people are too polite to turn you down outright. Once entrapped into conversation, they mumble appreciatively and look for a gracious exit strategy. Is the book available on Kindle? Is it in the library? I'll be back once I go to the bank. Sometimes, after engaging for five or ten minutes and reading the blurbs of each book, they smile, say good luck, and move on. I feel for all these people. They don't want a book, it wasn't in their plan for that day, and they made the mistake of saying yes. I always thank them for stopping by, hand them a bookmark, and wish them a great day.

There are also the people who approach your table with great purpose and enthusiasm, raising your hopes, only to ask where the washrooms are or whether you have the latest Harry Potter. You learn to smile at these. An honest mistake.

There is two groups of people that seasoned authors encounter all the time, however. One is the person who's bored, killing time, possibly waiting for a friend who's in the store. So they figure they'll chat with the author. They usually position themselves directly in front, blocking everyone else's access to the table. After a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear they have no intention of buying a book but merely want to talk. About their experience in the book business, about their grandchildren, whatever. Meanwhile potential readers are passing by, sometimes peeking around the talker to try to see the books.

At every signing, it seems, there is also the customer who isn't interested in your book but wants to tell you about the book they have written, or plan to write, or want to write. There are variations on this, but they usually want book advice such as where to get their book published. Curiously, I have found these are almost always middle-aged men who don't read fiction (often proclaimed with pride). They can explain their non-fiction book for hours, as others drift by, pause to peek, and go on their way.


Both these types of customers are difficult to deter, often standing by patiently if you interrupt them to address another reader and then resuming when that reader has left. Neither of them end up buying a book.
My last book signing at the wonderful Aunt Agatha's.
Why do we keep doing mall signings, you ask? Well, first of all, the connection to the booksellers, particularly the indies, is key. They are book lovers and readers themselves, and their belief in you means a lot. They are the ones who stock the book and recommend it if they like it (and you). They all have horror stories themselves about difficult or entitled authors, and believe me, they get their revenge.

But the signings are always redeemed by the customers who listen to the five-floor elevator pitch, ask some questions, say it sounds interesting and take the risk. Building readership one by one seems to be how the business works in the absence of a publisher with a big promotional budget. The signings are redeemed even more by the customer who comes up to the table with a big smile and exclaims "I love your books, I've read them all! I could hardly wait for the next one! And I want one for my friend's birthday too."

That is music to an author's ears. It's why we write, after all.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Too close to home

by Rick Blechta

Imagine if you will the following plot for a novel.

An older man, legally blind and living alone, goes out for his usual evening walk. A large storm is coming but he doesn’t know this. He never returns from that walk. Since he lives alone and often turned down the ringer on his phone, those calling him aren’t aware anything is wrong.

Some weeks later, a woman arrives at his apartment for an appointment and the man doesn’t answer his door. She can hear the phone ringing inside when she tries to call. She gets the super to open the door. The man’s wallet is still there, and checking further, she discovers his debit card, something he preferred instead of cash because of his blindness, hasn’t been used in nearly a month.

She reports her friend missing. Due to the large storm the night the man went out for his walk, the police had already searched a nearby river and discovered no bodies. A month later, no sign of the missing has been found.

Sounds like a good beginning for a crime fiction novel, doesn’t it? The story is not fiction, however. It happened…to a musican I have worked with. Scott Cushnie has been a well-regarded Toronto musician for many years. He played with a lot of musical greats during his storied career: Robbie Robertson, Aerosmith and many more.

(Here’s an initial news report on his disappearance)



I met Scott in the late ‘70s when I was hired to play additional keyboards for him on a TV show. I’d seen Scott perform in a club a few times and was always impressed with his musicianship. He played the best boogie-woogie piano I ever heard. It was a joy to make music with him and the show, played live, was a great experience and very enjoyable. Over the intervening years, I saw him once or twice, but we sort of lost contact since I wasn’t performing at all at that time.

And then I read this horrible story in the newspaper. I contacted another good friend who had also played on the TV show — and who had kept better in contact with Scott — and he hadn’t heard anything.

We waited, but nothing was heard of our friend.

Then, last week, another article appeared and the story became even more bizarre and upsetting.

If I were writing a novel, I’d probably work in this information around chapter five.

But I’m not writing a novel. This is the story of someone I knew and respected. I can’t help feeling exceptionally guilty that I’m thinking of what was likely the death of someone I knew as good fodder for how I make my living. But as the second article above says, given Scott’s sense of humour, he’d find being the inspiration for a mystery novel quite funny.

That doesn’t give me a lot of comfort, however.

So now Scott’s many friends and fans wait for the results of an exhumation.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Living the Landscape

A couple of weeks ago there was a post from Donis talking about the need for boots-on-the -ground research. I know there are writers who seem able to conjure up the background for a book on the basis of reading, and now I suppose Google Earth, but I couldn't do it myself. The landscape is as important to me as any other character. I need to have direct experience of where the action is going to take place.

The new book, I think, is going to be set in the Borders, the area of Scotland that adjoins England. It is a place with a troubled history when the Border Reivers (raiders) swept from Scotland to England, and from England to Scotland, in violent sorties seizing cattle and sheep and taking the odd prisoner for ransom. With two countries constantly at war there was little royal authority on either side and the practice went on for several hundred years. The powerful warring families - like the Armstrongs, Ellits, Fenwicks and Musgraves – were romanticised in the poems of Sir Walter Scott.


It's beautiful countryside that gives no hint of the blood-soaked past, with its gentle hills and small towns with old-fashioned High Streets and its people who speak with soft accents. There are savage winters, though, and many, many miles of deserted moorland with not a house or a farm to be seen.

It's near enough to Edinburgh where I live for parts of it to be very familiar, but if my characters are going to live there I need more than a partial impression. My long-suffering husband who acts as driver on these occasions will say, 'Where do you want to go?' and I'm never really very helpful. What I need is to drive around, walk a bit, talk to people and get, somehow, what I hope is the feel of the place, somewhere I could put down roots.

After a long series set in one area it's been a novelty to go off looking at other parts of Scotland. So far, the other two places I have chosen as settings have spoken to me immediately; I look forward to seeing if the Borders does for the new book.

And if it doesn't? Well, my husband is always plaintively suggesting that perhaps the South of France would be worth exploring.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Branching Out into the World of Sherlock Holmes


By Vicki Delany

If there is one thing, I am not, it’s a non-fiction writer.  I like being able to make up things. But it never hurts, does it, to step out of your conform zone now and again.

A couple of years ago I wrote a creative non-fiction story based closely on my grandfather’s letters about his time in the trenches of World War I. That story appeared in an anthology called Engraved: Canadian Stories of World War I from Seraphim Editions.


And now a true non-fiction article by me has just been published in the collection Sherlock Holmes is Like: Sixty Comparisons for an Incomparable Character edited by Christopher Redmond, published by Wildside Press.

The idea behind the collection is to explore the stories and the legend of Sherlock Holmes by comparing him to other well-known characters of fiction and non-fiction.  People as diverse as Dracula, Huckleberry Finn, and Hermione Granger.

My “is like” is Inspector Edmund Reid from the British TV show Ripper Street (the character in which is based on the Insp. Edmund Reid who was involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper).

A very pleasant side effect of writing the Sherlock Holmes bookshop series is that I have been drawn, albeit peripherally, into the world of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockians.  And what fun it is. I’ve always liked the Holmes books and movies and TV shows (some far more than others). But in the last couple of years, I’ve discovered an entire whole world out there of Sherlock stuff . In my books, I make a point that everything sold in the fictional bookshop exists in the real world.  It’s not at all unfeasible to have an entire bookstore dedicated to nothing but Sherlock Holmes.
The people I’ve met in the Sherlockian world have been fun and interesting people. And not at all eccentric, as one might expect. Just great people with a fascinating, and highly intellectual, hobby.

Speaking of The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop,  the fourth book, A Scandal in Scarlet, will be released on November 13.  The third in the series, The Cat of the Baskervilles, came out in trade paperback last week.





Friday, October 12, 2018

I Needed Help


In my last post, I wrote about my unbelievably positive publishing experience for my first novel. Well, not my first novel. It was actually my second. The first one was The Octagon House, a valiant attempt at writing a gothic. 

The most important thing I learned from the gothic experience was that it's critical to finish that first book. With the first one under your belt, you'll know you can actually write a book. My agent once said that a lot of people who assume they can write a book find they simply can't when they sit down and try it. Or that they hate the process. 

Also, something psychologically mysterious comes with completing such a large project. It's liberating. It's self-affirming, as in "I told myself I could do this, then I did it. Good for me." As I mentioned in my previous post, not having someone mess with me during the creative process was a blessing.

*******

I stopped writing this post right in the middle. I went to Parker to give a talk to a book club and stayed with my daughter the night before. I foolishly assumed I would finish the blog at Mary Beth's house. And I didn't.

Anyway, after my dream first publishing experience, I needed a mentor--another writer who had published books--to tell me things. I needed advice! I was astonished by the number of persons who had never written a book, let alone published, who were all too happy to tell me what to do.

At lunch, after my talk, a couple of the ladies asked me about the publishing process. What happens after writing the book. What are the next steps? In another blog I'll go through some of the steps involved with traditional publishing.

The publishing business is like a fast-moving train. By the time one figures out big moves, details, and sorts through the process of adapting as an individual the train has already whizzed right on by. Happily, and this is the first big lesson--there's always another one coming down the track. It doesn't feel like there is going to be.

Big lesson #No. 1 (and the most important of all) Write your next book. Write your next book. Write your next book.

.  

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Character Sketches

It's been a whirlwind of a week.

On the writing front, most of my time has been dedicated to character sketches as I work up a synopsis for my agent and as I think through the arc of a would-be series. It's productive organizational work, albeit a task that leaves me unfulfilled. (I'd rather be telling a story than planning how I will tell it.)

However, I find writing detailed character sketches helpful, more so in fact than outlining. Diving headlong into who each character is and what makes him or her tick tells me a lot about motivation, which I need to know as I write, and which I need to be able to see where plotlines intersect.

Here's an example of one:

Bo Whitney, 45, is our vantage point –– an outsider in the ultimate insider’s world. A dedicated family man who deeply loves wife Ellie. Now that she’s the recently-appointed head of school, he’s moved from a small-ish dorm apartment he liked to the headmaster’s mansion, which, given his lower-middle-class background, frankly, embarrasses him. And the symbolism of this new home isn’t lost on any of us: He’s cursing under his breath that he can’t find the beer in the commercial kitchen and hosted the Board of Trustees Saturday night instead of the faculty poker game. Reminds us that "in the academic world, most meetings are about as enjoyable as pulling your thumbnail off with pliers. Few are as interesting."

From a Maine mill town, a former star high school hockey player and fourth-round draft choice of the Calgary Flames. Did not attend an Ivy League college. Played at the University of Maine. Now his occasional limp reminds us of the knee injury that took him from the ice to the newsroom. Found his adrenaline rush on the crime beat at the Hartford Courant. Teaching (and if he was honest, he’d tell you that even coaching) doesn’t give him what the newspaper did. But his life is at Blaise Academy, and we believe he’s content. Knows wife Ellie is the power player in their academic world, and he’s fine taking a backseat. After all, as he says they don’t ask the guy who’s usually late to a faculty meeting to hold administrative roles.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts on character sketches.

*

At work, we are on the cusp of midterms, and I hiked a mountain with the senior class yesterday. So, as Polonius said, "I will be brief." Here are some pictures from a crazy week.

Dad and daughter (Audrey, 17, a senior) on Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire



Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Pumpkin Racing, Anyone?

My fourth book, Designed For Haunting, came out yesterday so Yay! me. I’m in the middle of my Great Escapes Virtual Book Tour as well as appearing on various other blogs. This book takes place around Halloween and is set in the fictional town of Vista Beach, California.

I enjoy incorporating my version of real events that happen around Southern California beach cities in my books. This time around I included Vista Beach’s version of a pumpkin race.

Every year Manhattan Beach holds a pumpkin race where people take their pumpkins, add axles and wheels and race them down the hill that leads down to the pier. Yep, that’s how we roll here at the beach. It’s a fun event for families. I lived here for many years before I realized it even existed. But when I did hear about it, I knew I had to have a pumpkin race in one of my books.

Here’s a video which will give you an idea what the event is like:


And here are pictures of some of the pumpkins I took at a race a few years ago:




For more and better pictures, here’s a pumpkin race album:

This year the race is on Oct 28th, 11:00 am at the Manhattan Beach pier.


Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Murdertown…

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday was Thanksgiving up here in the Great White North, so consequently I woke up this morning at six a.m. with a jolt, realizing that it wasn’t Monday (the holiday always feeling like Sunday to me) but Tuesday. I had no idea what to use as a subject for my weekly offering on Type M!

I also have zero time to come up with something — because of that extra day off — so I’m going to have to resort to my usual fallback of a cartoon offering for this week’s post.

I’ll be back next week with something really juicy — and I have seven days to come up with it!

And if you’re up here in Canada, I hope you enjoyed an especially fine Thanksgiving weekend.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Finished Manuscript

On Sunday, October 7, at a little after noon, I hit the button and sent the manuscript for Graveyard Bay to my editor, Annette Rogers, at Poisoned Pen Press.  I did it with trepidation and relief.

Trepidation because when you’ve just spent nearly a year on a project, you don’t really know if it’s any good until someone reads it. Especially your editor and publisher.

Relief, because it’s done.

Plus this had some curves thrown into it.  One was a curve ball I created for myself.  At the end of the second Geneva Chase mystery, Darkness Lane, I left the book with a bit of a cliffhanger.  Everyone who’s read the book has asked me what happens next.  That’s a good thing because there’s a desire to read the next novel.  There’s also an expectation that it better be damned good.

The other curve ball was Hurricane Florence.  I knew I wanted to get the manuscript done by the end of September or sooner. And I was on track, right up until 105 mile per hour winds and nearly thirty inches of rain over the course of several days halted me in my tracks. Power was out for four days.  Internet, phones, and cable were out for 8 days.  And we were the lucky ones.   The storm hit on September 12 and there are still people without power.

And there are people without homes.  Lots of them.  Houses were destroyed by a combination of the high winds, falling trees, torrential rains, flooding rivers, and storm surge.  Whole apartment and condominium buildings are being condemned because of rain damage and the treacherous mold growth. Because of the damage sustained during the storm, most hotels in the area are closed.

Getting the area back on its feet is a full time effort.

So, Graveyard Bay had to take a backseat for about three weeks.  But now the manuscript is done.  But not the process.  Now both my editor and publisher will be reading the book and sending me their thoughts and suggestions.  As the writer, I can act on those suggestions or not.

However, both my editor and publisher have been in this business for a long time and I respect them and I listen hard when they offer their ideas.  Their advice has always made my books stronger and more exciting.

Once the revisions have been made and everyone is happy with the product, it goes to a copy editor who checks the book for typos and continuity errors.

Will there be a typo or two in the finished product when it’s printed?  Of course.  You can’t have a book of 80,000 words without one or two typos.

The point of this rambling blog?  Perception.

Finishing the manuscript, a year in the making, is a big deal.  Hell, the book is already available on Amazon for pre-order and it hasn’t been edited yet.

But getting Eastern North Carolina back on its feet is an even bigger deal.  I count my blessings that we survived on our island with minimal damage when so many others inland took such a big hit.


Saturday, October 06, 2018

Guest Post: Margaret Dumas

Sybil here. Please welcome Margaret Dumas to Type M. I met Margaret at Left Coast Crime in Reno where we had a nice chat about our books and writing. Margaret is a new addition to the Henery Press family (HP is my publisher) and I'm very much looking forward to reading her book, Murder At The Palace, when it comes out in February. You can visit her at www.margaretdumas.com


Eavesdropping for Fun and Profit (or What I Learned from the Kardashians)

 

 By Margaret Dumas 

 

I am all about dialogue. There’s nothing I like more than quick exchanges, revealing conversations, and banter, banter, banter. Because I’m all about dialogue, I have zero tolerance for a tin ear. It drives me crazy when a writer misuses slang, gets anachronistic, or puts wooden words in her otherwise lovely character’s mouth. And since I’m zero tolerance, I agonize about my character’s words.

This is why I eavesdrop.

I am a woman of (mumble) years, living in California. Which means I can write dialog for west-coast women of (mumble) years all day long. They’re easy. There are usually several of them in my books. But for my new book, Murder At The Palace, I had a couple challenges. Two characters, both women in their early twenties. One is modern-day while the other one died in 1937. So, how to get them both right?

For the ghost, the one who died in 1937, I had only one reliable source: movies. This research was not a hardship for me. I’m a huge fan of classic movies. That’s why my new series is set in a classic movie palace, where the ghost in question hangs out. So I started revisiting 1930s and 40s movies and paying particular attention to the speech patterns of young women.

My character is an average middle-class girl, who had lived in San Francisco. This meant eliminating Jean Harlow (too brash New York), Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis (too posh, too New England). Rosalind Russell was too sophisticated. Greta Garbo was, well, Greta Garbo.

But Ginger Rogers—yes, please. And Jean Arthur – delightful. I can listen to Joan Blondell’s wisecracks any time, any place. And then there’s Judy Garland. Always and forever, Judy Garland. She was perfect. Or to be more precise…Gee, she was grand.

So I felt like I had a rough handle on my 1937 ghost’s vocabulary and speech patterns. Then it came to the modern-day young woman. How could it be harder to write a contemporary—a live—person than it was to write a ghost? But it was. So I had work to do.

In addition to my writing, I work in tech in Silicon Valley. There are a fair number of young women around. (Not as many as there should be, but that’s a rant for a different blog.) I started listening in on conversations in the cafeteria line, and in meetings, and while waiting for the coffee robot (I work in tech—we have a coffee robot). But I found myself wondering if these highly educated and—let’s face it—proudly nerdy women were truly representative. My character is a film nerd, not a tech nerd. So I widened my sample.

I take an evening class at Stanford University. (What kind of class, you ask? Film History, of course.) I started hanging around at the campus coffee kiosks (coffee was turning into a theme) and the bookstore. I’d follow young women who were deep in conversation on the walking paths. (Note to male writers—don’t try this at home.) I listened, and the language was fascinating. I learned that (and I’m generalizing) they literally don’t say totally very often, but they literally say literally all the time. “Very” is never used when “super” is just sitting there as a perfectly good modifier. And literally everything needs a super modifier.

I listened to young women podcasting (about movies and books, usually). I scrutinized my niece when she visited me from Southern California. (Sorry, Katie.) I felt like I was getting there, but something was missing.

That’s when I discovered the Kardashians.

Yep. I admit it. I started watching the Kardashians. And I found that you can pretty much find at least one of them on at least one TV channel at any time of the day or night. They’re ubiquitous. But you knew that already.

And (cue sounds of angelic choirs) they sounded like my modern-day character sounded in my head. They were exaggerated, with their lazy drawls and their vocal fry and their seeming inability to begin a sentence without saying “I mean…” Their speech was as overblown as their hair and bank accounts. But I could pare it back to non-reality-star levels while still keeping the flavor. Or at least I thought I could, and I think I did. The Kardashians, bless them, gave me the last big push to put words in my character’s mouth that sounded right for who she would be.

So thanks, Kim. Thanks, Chloe. (I know there are more of them, but you get the idea.) And thanks to Ginger and Jean and Joan and especially Judy. There is nothing more fun in this new series than having my protagonist (a woman of (mumble) years) converse with both of these young women at the same time. At least there’s nothing more fun for me to write. I hope it’s as fun to read.

When the book comes out in February, you can tell me if I got it right.

Margaret Dumas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she reads and writes books when she isn’t watching old movies.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Another Voice

I should have known, but I didn't. A couple of days ago, I was editing some chapters. When I clicked "Review," I saw something I hadn't noticed before -- a big letter "A" and the words "Read Aloud Speech." I must have downloaded this at some point, but I had never seen it before. It isn't on my computer at work.

Curious, I clicked on the "A" and suddenly this male voice was reading my manuscript aloud.

Now, I haven't been completely oblivious to technology. I knew this was possible. But I didn't realize I had it, and that instead of spending hours reading my book aloud -- something I do with everything I write -- I can sit back and listen to my narrator read. This is going to save me precious time as I check my published Lizzie Stuart books against the last manuscript versions I can find of each. As I've mentioned the series is being reissued by a new publisher. I only have the ARC and edits for the last book in the series.

Discovering my narrator also means I can continue work on my nonfiction manuscript today even though I have a miserable cold. I need to save my voice because tomorrow I'm scheduled to offer a writing workshop at the public library.

Speaking of voices, I've been thinking about what Barbara and Donis said about characters in their posts this week. The workshop I'm teaching is about characters in mystery/detective fiction. It's a follow-up to the four-part course I offered this summer. Barbara, I will certainly quote your observation about characters: "I believe the greatest authenticity has to be in the realm of characters." And Donis, I love what you said about how the relationship between characters may change as they "reveal themselves." I'm going to send the workshop participants to Type M to read both posts.

Meanwhile, I'm going to go make myself another cup of tea with honey and lemon and try to get myself together.

If anyone else have thoughts about characters, please share. I can't write until I know some things about my characters -- at least some of their backstory. But I know pantsers who plunge in, discovering almost everything about their characters as they write. Thoughts?

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Off Into the Woods



Donis here. I've just completed the first draft of the first book in what I hope will be a new series, set in the 1920's in California. It's pretty rough and needs some cleaning up, as my books usually do because the ending I end up with usually doesn't match the beginning I began with...if you get my drift. In other words, things about the story reveal themselves to me as I write. For example, I may start out with Character 1 and Character 2 as uncle and niece and discover half-way through my writing that they aren't related at all.* I think this could be one reason why I am a relatively slow writer. I have tried many times to streamline my process. I would love to be both efficient and good, and be able to crank out two or three entertaining and well-written books a year, like our very own Vicki Delany, for instance.

But outline as I may, I never fail to end up going off into the woods, following some elusive story thread that suggests itself to me in the middle of the story. Sometimes the new idea changes the whole book for the better. Sometimes I waste days writing material that goes nowhere and I have to discard it and go back to Plan A. I'd be much faster, and probably much tighter and to the point, if I'd just stick to the program, but I can't help myself. I'm too full of "what if?"

As an aside, I've noticed that in past couple of years the 1920s have become the hot era in historical mysteries. I can't decide whether I'm feeling happy or feeling unoriginal about jumping on the bandwagon. I didn't plan it that way. Almost a decade and a half ago I started writing the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, a series that began in 1912, and followed it through to 1919. The new series spins off from from there, so I ended up in the 1920s in the most natural way. If it turns out that being on the bandwagon is a good thing, then who am I to complain?

As yet another aside, I'm happy to announce that in two weeks I will be flying back to my native country to participate in the first annual Oklahoma Book Festival on October 20 at the Boatyard in Oklahoma City. I'll be talking about the Alafair Tucker Mystery series, and the new direction I'm taking in my writing. Check it out here: https://okbookfest2018.sched.com/info.

AND since I had to cancel a trip to speak at some Oklahoma libraries last August when My Beloved fell and broke his arm, I'm taking this opportunity to reschedule an event at the library in Woodward, Oklahoma, at noon on Thursday, October 18. We're calling it the If at First You Don't Succeed, Try Try Again Tour. Here's the information on that: http://woodwardlibrary.okpls.org/category/author-visit/

Husband is out of his cast, the arm is functional, he can dress, write, and drive himself, and be left alone for long periods of time. So if you believe, Dear Reader, that the Universe hears your prayers, join me in asking that the Powers That Be keep Donald Koozer healthy and injury free for the foreseeable future.

Thank you.
______________

*This is just an example. No one in my new book is named either Character 1 or Character 2.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

In praise of authenticity

I am sitting in a hotel room near the Calgary airport, waiting for my flight home to Ottawa in the morning. It's the last day of my two-week Alberta research trip, and as they say, "the best laid plans..." I had intended to spend most of the day at the Calgary Public Library, doing some last minute digging into topics that came up on my road trip, but Calgary has been hit by an unseasonal record snowfall and the roads are nearly impassible. Plus I have no winter boots to manage the snow on the ground, which is currently about ten inches but still falling.

So the library research is not to be. The joys of being a writer.

A couple of recent posts have alluded to the need for greater authenticity in modern crime writing. I have always been a fan of realism. At the core, of course, our stories are made up. Murders that didn't happen, characters that don't exist... But the trick, at least in my type of writing, is to take the reader on a trip that feels real, that has enough touchstones in their real experience that they can believe they are immersed in something that could happen to them. So although I create fictional characters, they are often amalgams of people I know, with traits and background experiences that can ring true. I borrow from friends, colleagues, and family shamelessly, although I always hope the resulting fiction is unrecognizable.


I believe the greatest authenticity has to be in the realm of character. Writers can develop entire fictional towns or indeed universes, with geography and climate that is utterly unfamiliar. But if the character doesn't seem real or relatable, if the writer hasn't fashioned him to be at once complex and yet consistent with what he's been through, if he doesn't do things that follow from who he is, then readers will just bail on the story. That's why I work so hard to ground my characters in the place that has fashioned them. That's one of the reasons I always try to visit and absorb the settings I write about. The flat, empty prairie fields are indeed different from the teeming streets of Toronto. The wide-open, sparsely travelled rural highways of Alberta are an entirely different experience than the white-knuckle kamikaze trips along Canada's busiest highway, the 401. The pace of life is slower and more peaceful, the chance to reflect and enjoy is far greater.

As a writer, I need to feel those differences to help create the characters. And then of course, there is the landscape itself. It becomes a character that I hope will seduce readers and take them on a journey far from home. Canada is a country of extraordinary diversity in geography as well as culture and history, and I want readers to experience that as vividly as I did. Neither photos nor my imagination could never do justice to the vivid textures of the reality, from the weathered grey of the abandoned homesteads to the rich gold of the wheat fields and the Mars-like hills and hoodoos of the badlands. I only hope the words I ultimately find will do them justice.

So authenticity is not just about avoiding the errors that yank readers out of the story or cause them to roll their eyes in protest. It's about drawing the reader deeper into a rich and believable story that will keep them nodding their heads as if they were right there at the character's' side.

That said, I don't plan to put this record snow storm into my next Amanda Doucette book about the Alberta badlands. In THE ANCIENT DEAD, it will be hot and sunny, with the brilliant, open blue sky for which the province is famous. But who knows? It's nice to know that Alberta's weather is unpredictable enough that if I need a snowfall– to hide a body or impede a rescue, say– I can put it in.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

And now a word from the administrator…

by Rick Blechta

I think it’s a wise idea to use my space this week to explain something to everyone here.

Lately, Type M has been experiencing an large upswing in spam comments. There are controls for limiting this kind of garbage but obviously the Evil Ones have found a way to get by the software keeping them at bay. As an example, Aline’s post yesterday had three spam comments (which were quite entertaining, by the way). I completely deleted two of them but left a partially deleted one as a warning — similar to putting a head on a pikestaff outside one’s castle gates — to those trying to sell their wares through our blog.

It’s somewhat of an onerous job to keep an eye on this, but I’m firmly committed to keeping Type M a spam-free place, mostly because spammers have ruined my personal website to the point that those in charge of the worldwide web have placed it on a black list of spamming sites. And I can’t tell you the hassles that has caused me over the years.

So for the foreseeable future, you may see in our comment section that posts have been removed by an administrator. That’s me, and I’ve removed a spam comment. I would never remove any legitimate comment from our blog unless it was exceptionally abusive — which is something that’s never happened. Nor do I foresee it happening. (Everyone here is so nice!)

I just want everyone to know what’s going on and why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I now return you to our regular blogging program…

And please keep commenting! We appreciate any and all comments — as long as you’re not spamming us.

—Rick

Monday, October 01, 2018

You Can't Tell a Book by its Cover - or Can You?

How do you feel about the covers of your books? What do you hope for, when you first get the image? Do you have a clear idea of what you want it to look like? Do you have any say in that, or are you content to leave it to the professionals?

I've just been sent the proof copy of the cover for my new book, Carrion Comfort, due out in November. It's always a bit of a crunch moment when the email with the jpeg arrives. What if I hate it?

There was no such problem with this one. I love it, with that clever, sharp lime green and the rather menacing landscape. I'm very lucky in that Allison and Busby, my publishers, have a particularly talented in-house designer (take a bow, Christina!) and they've always done me proud. The last one, Human Face (in the margin on your left and down a bit) was another big success and looks terrific when you see it lying on a table in a bookshop.

It's obviously important to establish a brand so that the books chime as a recognizable set, without being repetitive and boring. Not having an artistic bone in my body I wouldn't have the first idea how to go about that, so though I'm very graciously asked my opinion I'd never feel qualified to suggest anything other than very small changes.

What makes me particularly happy about this one is the scene there shows a cottage just like the one in the book. I know that doesn't matter. I do understand – it's been explained to me, lots of times, very slowly and patiently and without using any long difficult words, that book covers aren't meant to be an illustration of the story inside. They're meant to suggest the atmosphere of the book and to look inviting enough so that people will want to pick it up and find out more.

Still, it's a real bonus to get an image that's both stylish and referential. I will never forget the cover of my second ever book, written about the time when dinosaurs still ruled the earth. Oh, it was stylish, I have to admit.Slightly abstract, it featured a piano keyboard (yes, the detective did play the piano) with a long and lethal-looking steel poker laid across it. Yes, the murder weapon was a poker. But, as it said in the very first paragraph on the very first page, it was a brass poker with a big brass knob on the end. It did make it rather painfully obvious that the artist had only been given a vague outline of the plot and hadn't so much as bothered to open the book and read the first page.But maybe that's just wounded pride talking.

When the book comes out it's a bit like showing off your new baby. Of course you're proud of it anyway, but if the baby's particularly good-looking (as mine were, of course. Oh, yours were too? What a coincidence!) it does give a certain lift to your spirit.