Friday, August 23, 2019

Summer's Over

Well, not for most people. It's still hot, muggy, stormy. There are still a few weeks before night falls early. There is still Labor Day weekend and last picnics and barbecues. But for those of us who have never left school or are coming back, summer is over. The first day of classes is on Monday.

This year is no different than any other. Every May for three decades now, I have looked with joy and hope at all of the long days of summer. I have started with a to-do-list, had a calendar, been in control. Every summer I have planned to get so much done. Every summer I have found myself rushing to finish something before school begins.

Monday we start. Today I need to do my syllabus and plan my first lecture. I never made it away for a real vacation this summer. Didn't get to Maine. Didn't set by a lake or river. Didn't spend a summer afternoon at a matinee. Didn't have an ice cream cone (did do a decadent cup or two of my favorite blend). But I am planning to take advantage of a two-day "fall break" to get away for an October trip. A friend talked me into a "Road Scholar" tour of Kansas City. I'm going to do some background research for a jazz musician character in my 1939 book.

But meanwhile, I have a manuscript for a book about gangster films due next month. Have to clean up my dress and appearance book. Need to work on the 1939 book and a new Lizzie.

Lots of projects. . . .and summer's over. Got to go and do all I can to enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Bianca Dangereuse to the Rescue

I was struck by Tom Kies excellent entry of Aug 12 on an author's multiple personalities, because I have been thinking that very same thought lately. You can base every character you write about on a real person, or you can make somebody up out of whole cloth, but the truth is that every character you create has to be somewhere inside of you.

Yes, every little girl or knight in shining armor or housewife or serial killer is in you, and somehow you have to find that living place inside that you share.

For the past dozen years, I've been writing a historical series set in Oklahoma that features Alafair Tucker, a 40ish farm wife with ten children. She fits her life perfectly and finds deep meaning in it. She's content with her place in the universe. I admire her immensely, but I could never live like she does. Yet she is me. How could she not be?

Alafair and I have been raising her children for a long time, through the decade of the 1910s. but now the world is changing. World War I has played havoc with everything. The 1920s have dawned. Alafair's children are mostly grown. And it occurred to me that I'd like to see a little farther into the future. I've gotten several of the older children settled, but what is going to happen to the younger ones, who are coming of age in a very different era?

Besides, children don't necessarily grow into the people you wish they would. What would happen to someone who was raised in a secure, loving environment, but grew to lust after adventure and excitement?

Bianca LaBelle is cock-sure, headstrong and headlong, adventurous. She's also disappointed, wounded, and angry. But no matter how much you reject the values you were raised with, you are shaped by them. Bianca goes from being a sheltered farm girl to one of the most famous and admired women in the world, but she doesn't do it without applying a whole lot of the good old-fashioned creativity and bootstrap self-sufficiency she learned by growing up in early 20th century Oklahoma.

Bianca gets in an awful fix and has a lot of help to overcome it. But she was raised to know that you can't count on having your fat pulled out of the fire every time. You have to rely on yourself. So in the end, Bianca always takes care of it.

The Wrong Girl, the first Episode of the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, is finally available for pre-order on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Remember that early reviews and preorders are important for authors, so we always appreciate it if you can do your bit to keep us in print! Want to learn how to get e-copies of books before they're published in exchange for an honest review? Check out Netgalley.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

On switching hats, or boats in mid-stream

Today I'm tempted to take Rick's approach from yesterday. See ya later, all! I'm off to the beach.

But before I go to the beach – AKA my cottage – I'll just make a few comments about another reality in a writer's life. Multi-tasking. Or multi-writing. If you write more than one book, or even worse, more than one series as I do, sooner or later you'll run up against it. You'll be doing final edits on one book, doing readings and talks about an earlier book, and beginning the creative process of imagining a third book.

In my case, I have just finished Book # 4 in the Amanda Doucette series, entitled THE ANCIENT DEAD. No sooner had I pressed "send" and emailed the manuscript to the publisher last week (exactly on its due date) when the mail carrier deposited the author copies of my fourth Cedric O'Toole on my doorstep. Time to promote BLOOD TIES and give Cedric his time at centre stage.

At the same time, however, having sent off THE ANCIENT DEAD, I am already turning my thoughts to the next book in my contract. The book that will be occupying my mind for the next year until its fall deadline. The book that has the provisional title (to appease the publisher) of DARKEST BEFORE DAWN, although that will probably change once I know what it's actually about. The book that has yet no shape or plot points and only the vaguest idea of a theme. The book that brings me from the badlands of Alberta, where I have been with Amanda for the last fifteen months, back to the the familiar streets of Ottawa.

The eleventh Inspector Green novel. After five years, he's back! It will feel very strange to step back into his life and surround myself with old friends I've known for years. Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green is back but older, maybe wiser, and no longer in the thick of things in the police service.

This week, however, feels like a transition. I've never been able to write two books simultaneously. I can edit one book while writing the first draft of another; in fact, this is almost always required because the editor's critiques from the publishing house always arrive smack in the middle of the first draft efforts of the next book. But even so, I have to set the draft aside and re-immerse myself in the first book for however long the edits take. The setting, characters, mood, and even the styles feel different from one to another. Skipping between them would feel shallow and unauthentic. I don't think either would profit from the lack of full focus. I need time to get into the feel of each book and to get the creative muse humming.

So for the next couple of weeks, I am fiddling around doing nothing very profound but celebrating the arrival of BLOOD TIES. The book is due out on August 27, and received this very nice review from Booklist:

And then I'm off to enjoy the beach! Maybe give Inspector Green a quick call.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Off for an adventure!

by Rick Blechta

It’s time for a little rest and relaxation — and writing!

Here’s where I’m going to be and this is the view that will inspire me for the next several days:

And after looking at that, there’s really not much else to say, is there — except for “See you later!’

Monday, August 19, 2019

Edinburgh is Full

It's Edinburgh Festival time.  You can tell this by the fact that the natives forced to traverse the streets of the city going about their work have black scowls in their faces as their commute takes three times as long because the buses have been diverted to make way for the shacks, selling overpriced drinks and Disney-style souvenirs, that disfigure some of the most elegant streets in Europe and they have to dodge clowns prancing in their path trying to force flyers on them inviting them to shows where the performers will almost certainly outnumber the audience.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have a choice, forswear all visits to the center and stay at home and at night pull the duvets over our heads, hoping to sleep through the midnight fireworks at the Royal Military Tattoo and the bongo drums that play on till three in the morning.  Like many other Lonely Planet top tips for tourism,  Edinburgh has Had Enough.

I guess we've all been tourists.  I'm as guilty as anyone of wanting to see the Bucket List places and I've been very lucky - try Tutunkamen's tomb,  the Summer Palace in China, the Acropolis, Niagara Falls, the Doge's Palace in Venice, among others.  But these are the memories I cherish because at the time I visited none of them were so crowded that I was hemmed in on every side and couldn't look at what I wanted to see - look at, not take a photo or an i-Pad film - without being jostled.  Go very early in the morning - tourists tend to rise late - or choose an unpopular time of year, and you can be lucky.  (Tip here - if you want to see Venice at its best, book the weekend immediately after Easter.  At one point we were the only people on the Golden Staircase in the Doge's Palace, which was magical).

But there are other visits I've made where the crowds were so thick that that magic vanished - like the Winter Palace in St Petersburg when we had to move in unison with the people round about. Astonishing interiors, but only the sort of memory that ticks a box, like having seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, when all I can remember is the plastic screening and the queues.

Over-tourism has become a serious problem.  Of course it's a major boost to the local economy but the quality of life for the local inhabitants is increasingly threatened.    Venice is talking about imposing a charge for entering the city and limiting the number of tickets it sells as well as banning cruise ships above a certain size.  Popular Scottish islands like Skye and Orkney are also becoming overwhelmed.

Once the Edinburgh Festival was truly a feast of culture in a stunning setting.  The sad thing for me now is that while the festivalisation of Edinburgh goes on with more and more new 'festivals' being introduced every year, the visitors who genuinely want to see the glories of our beautiful city - the vistas of the Georgian buildings, the wonderful medieval Royal Mile, the views of the gardens and the Castle - are being cheated by the Ferris wheel that dominates Princes Street, the sordid market stalls by the National Gallery, the hoardings with tacky posters right along the famous Gardens.  Taxi drivers now say they are taking visitors back to the airport who say they're not coming back.  It didn't used to happen.

If you do want to see the real Edinburgh - the Edinburgh of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, of David Hume and Adam Smith, of Arthur Conan Doyle and yes, of Alexander McColl Smith and Ian Rankin - brave its weather (so much milder than New York's!) and come in January, when the old grey town truly reveals its soul.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Two Weeks in One

Ever feel like you've packed too much living into a very short time?

It was that kind of week for me. My daughter had a bad car accident the first of the month. She's doing just fine and will come home Monday. Despite extensive breakage in her upper body (sternum, clavicle, three ribs, and a punctured lung) there were no internal injuries and she was fully alert from the very beginning.

She has a terrific attitude and set to work cooperating with the physical therapists.

Logistics in our family are always complicated. Her youngest daughter will soon start classes at CSU. Her oldest is starting a new job. The deadline for my new mystery is September 1. We've worked everything out. I'll even have the mystery finished by the end of next week.

I drove to Kansas Tuesday to give a talk to the librarians in the Northwest Kansas Libraries System. What a terrific group of people! I was grateful for this opportunity. However, I drove through cascades of rain. It was bizarre. Kansas is usually dry.

Accidents always take a toll and I'm tired. Persons who wait for inspiration before they write are making a mistake. Once a line is crossed--when one assumes the responsibilities of a professional writer--the rules change. Or rather rules come into play for the first time.

I've read there are 75 persons involved in the production of a traditional book. There are many little deadlines that involve creating cover copy, a synopsis, courting the sales reps.

Life becomes capsulized. We learn to juggle. And before you know it, there's a new happy normal and all the balls are back in the air again.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Summer musings from a nostalgic writer

Delaney, Dad, Audrey
Each year, autumn rolls around, and my emotions are similar: summer has ended, and a new school year is upon me. It’s a time for renewal and fresh beginnings. Often, I’m starting a new book.

This year, though, my emotions are a little different. My wife and I will drop our two eldest daughters off at colleges in Ohio, two days after you read this. They will be only twenty-six miles apart (at Kenyon College and Denison University, respectively) but a twelve-hour drive from home. One, entering her senior year, works on a document she hopes will represent her well, working on it and then working it over repeatedly (welcome to Dad’s world!). This is her resume. The other packs excitedly for her own new beginning: life as a first-year college student.

And I’m left in an emotional grey area, falling somewhere between nostalgic and even sad. Where did those twenty-one years go? What has changed as the girls grew? What has stayed the same?

As I think back –– recalling four jobs, six houses, four towns –– one constant has remained: writing. The characters have passed through, sprinting it seems from my imagination, to the computer screen, to the pages, and onto my bookshelf (or the netherworld). Series have seemingly evolved into the next. And through good times and trying times, as the girls grew into smart, strong women, and I have aged (at least a little), writing has always been there, through hundreds, no, thousands, of predawn hours and late nights. Through it all, I have learned this: if you dedicate yourself to a writing life, to putting the craft above the industry, writing will never let you down.

Delaney, 21; Dad (age unknown); and Audrey, 18
I have friends we have raised children with, wonderful people with whom our kids brought us in contact. These lifelong friendships have remained. They are in the same stage of life as I am. Yet they speak of retirement, of “next phases,” of making significant life changes. But a writer doesn’t retire. My house might eventually get smaller (on many days, a condo sounds pretty good). Yet I can’t imagine a time when I won’t write. The girls will graduate and move away. Family meals will shrink to two. But the next phase will be only a new page.

And thank God for that.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sybil's Summer Reading 2019

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this summer. Almost all fiction, which is unusual for me. In the past, I’ve split my reading pretty evenly between fiction and non-fiction. Part of the reason, I think, is that I have a stack of books I’ve gotten at various mystery conferences over the past few years and, well, I’m rather tired of having that large a stack that I haven’t read.

Here are my highlights from my reading so far:

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Camille Minichino. She writes under her own name as well as Ada Madison, Jean Flowers and Margaret Grace. I’ve been on panels with Camille and she is a delight. I also admire her. She got her PhD in Physics at a time when there weren’t many women in the field. Okay, there probably still aren’t very many women in the field. I’ve sampled all of her series and they are all great reads. My particular favorites, though, are her Sophie Knowles mystery series written as Ada Madison, featuring a mathematics professor, and her Postmistress mystery series written as Jean Flowers.

I’ve also been enjoying a lot of middle grade mysteries. Yeah, I know, I'm not the target demographic. Still, adults can enjoy them too! My favorites in the middle grade world are the Moon Base Alpha series. They are fun reads with a lot of interesting characters and situations that occur on the first moon base. I know I’m enjoying a book when I gasp as I’m reading and say no, no, no!

In the historical mystery area, I’ve enjoyed Heat Wave by Maureen Jennings, Art in the Blood by Bonnie MacBird and Dangerous to Know by Renee Patrick. Heat Wave is a new series for Jennings set in the 1930s. (She’s the author of the Murdoch Mystery series.) Art in the Blood is the first of a new Sherlock Holmes series. I bought it at the California Crime Writers Conference in June, largely based on the cover. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Dangerous to Know is set in the 1930s and features the famed costume designer Edith Head.

Probably my favorite of all though is The Skeleton Makes a Friend by Leigh Perry. I just love the Family Skeleton series, one of the few that I’d read over and over and over again.

There’s still more of summer left and I have a lot to read still. What have you been reading lately?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Seems like fact once again trumps fiction

by Rick Blechta

I’ve been avidly reading news reports the past few days. Current events have given us the rather horrible saga of Jeffrey Epstein. I’m sure you all have a good grasp on at least the general details at this point, so I won’t bore you with repeating them. If you need to bone up, though, go HERE.

Epstein’s case presents a star-studded cast with many very powerful people involved. They partied and spent time with this guy and if it comes out they had anything to do with underage girls, they are in serious trouble. Every single one who has been mentioned so far has stated their case strongly that they knew nothing about it, had no involvement in it, and in some cases “I hardly knew this man.” They have a lot to lose if that’s not the case. My guess is there are — or were — a lot of sweaty palms once again when Epstein was recently arrested.

Normally in a crime that’s given the “novelization” treatment, a particular case gives you one good book. Peter Robinson did an excellent job using some facets of the sensational Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka case, turning it into the excellent Aftermath (highly recommended).

In the Epstein case, though, I’m seeing two novels. The first would involve the time up to his first trial, where he pretty well skates free spending very little time in jail for a pretty horrendous crime. Imagine how the detectives who investigated and built their case must have felt when Epstein made his deal.

Then our dedicated defenders of the law work to build a second case against Epstein (nice series character set-up here, no?) and he’s thrown back into jail to await trial since bail was denied. Then suddenly, the man is dead, apparently by his own hand.

We’ve all read the books, seen the movies. I wonder how many people feel that it was just guilt weighing down on him that drove Epstein to hang himself in his jail cell? Probably not many. There are just too many anomalies in how the jail screwed up, how all the systems failed at once.

Powerful people can do powerful things. Our intrepid sleuths would certainly have to put their lives on the line in their search for what really happened in that jail cell.

I can think of several scenarios that would make a totally gripping thriller and I’m sure you can too.

My guess, though, is that we’re far from the end of this tale. Whether the actual truth comes out or not remains to be seen.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Writers and Multiple Personalities

My wife is not shy about giving me her opinion or ideas.  So when I asked her what she thought I might write about for this week’s blog, naturally, she had some thoughts.

“I took a photograph of your coffee cup that you leave in the sink every morning before you go to work.”

That’s your idea?

She smiled.  “In that moment that you put it there, you’re changing from one persona to another.  Here at home, you’re the writer.  When you walk out that door, you’re the president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce.”

There’s a little of that, I think.  Inwardly, I’m the writer all the time.  I’m constantly thinking of plot twists and dialogue and descriptions of characters.  But, certainly, in my office, my attention is prioritized to helping new businesses, improve the quality of life, working with the public school foundation, economic growth,  job creation, as well as much more.

To some degree, my wife is correct, however (although don’t tell her I admitted that).  I think writers have to have many personalities.  After all, in our books, we’re many people.

An old high school friend wrote to me last week telling me about a relative who has five distinctive personalities.  It’s created a life time of problems for their family.  Real life multiple personality disorder is serious stuff.

Of course I don't have the actual disorder, I think.  But writers have to be able to put on and take off multiple personalities.  We have to be able to think like our characters, talk like them, and act like them.

We are the good guys and the bad guys.

I’d like to think I can be as heroic, although less flawed, as my kick-ass heroine, Geneva Chase.

But obviously, I’m also the bad guy, because I’ve created him…or in my case, often many.  Where does that come from?  Is there a perverse, dark, evil person hiding in dark recesses of my psyche?

My editor sent me an email last week and this is how she described me after rereading Graveyard Bay, “such a warm cheerful persona covering up a dire, dreadful, bloodthirsty writer.”

Multiple personalities.

And as a writer, I hear voices, all the time.  Characters chatting away in my head while I drive to the grocery store, or as I walk down to the beach.  Thank heavens they go away while I’m in my work office.

They always come back, though, when I’m in my home office over our garage.

Multiple personalities that are the writer’s creations live and breathe in our books.  That’s why when we get a nasty review, and we do get them, it stings so much.  Our books are our world that we created out of nothing more than our imagination and experiences.

While I’m writing, characters that I’ve created often take on a life of their own.  They design their own plot twists or dialogue.  Often in directions that I didn’t originally see coming.


I’ve actually grieved after I’ve killed some characters in my books.  In my first book, Random Road, one of the main characters dies unexpectedly.  A neighbor of ours came up to me one day when I was walking the dog and said, “I’m really pissed off at your for killing that character off.”

I took it as a compliment.  That character was as real to her as he was to me.

Miraculously, while writing and imagining multiple personalities, we can snap back in a single moment and be ourselves again.

Or can we?

Friday, August 09, 2019

Walking into History

Last week I went down to the City -- the way we folks who live up here in Albany describe taking the train or driving south to NYC. I explain this because it always sounds a bit like coming down from the mountains to visit civilization. We are civilized (if not as sophisticated) here in Albany. But in  Albany, I am aware of history. In the City, I walk into and am sometimes startled by history.

The trip to the City last week was to do research. The summer is winding down fast. I have several writing projects underway and I'm trying to get as much done as I can before school begins at the end of the month. So I got on a train -- we have multiple trains between the City and points north on any given day. The ride down to the City passes alongside the Hudson River.

I went down planning to accomplish three research tasks. I accomplished only one. For my 1939 historical thriller, I needed to go to Harlem to tour the famed Apollo Theater. Unfortunately, there were no tours that day. I wanted to go out to Queens to visit the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of the 1939 and 1964 World Fairs. But I didn't have enough time to do that and take the first tour on my list -- Greenwich Village. I had been to Greenwich Village before, but only passing through. This time I wanted to have someone who was an expert of the geography of the neighborhood walk me through it.

After some research, I found a tour company that looked promising. That day, being overly ambitious, I set out to walk from my hotel located across from Bryant Park. The day was hot and humid and I made the mistake of stopping to do a little shopping along the way. I finally flagged down a taxi to take me the rest of the way. That turned out well because I arrived early, had time to get a cold drink at the Starbucks across the street, and to chat a little with our tour guide. He was an actor, who led tours as his day job. We were a small group of eight or nine, from the United States, Australia, and, I think, Norway.

As we walked, our tour guide told us the history of the Village. I had asked about Cafe Society, the club that was known as "the wrong place for the Right people." The club where Billie Holiday performed "Strange Fruit" (a song about lynching in the South written by a Jewish high school teacher) that summer in 1939. The club that brought together an interracial group of "radicals" and "progressives" -- and, significant for my historical thriller, attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In my thriller, the focus is not on Cafe Society, but it is the place where several of my characters encounter each other as they begin the journey that will lead them to Atlanta in December 1939.

Greenwich Village is famous for the many artists and writers who lived there at one point or another, Edgar Allan Poe among them. The Stonewall Riots (rebellion) was an important event in the history of gay (LGBTQ) activism and civil rights. I made notes to myself to talk about all of that when I teach my grad course on cities this semester.

But it was the stop at Washington Park that brought me up short. Stanford White, the architect who designed Madison Square Garden and was shot there by millionaire Harry Thaw, also designed the Washington Park Arch. It features two statues of George Washington, one in war, one in peace. I had been thinking about Stanford White and George Washington and their overlap. I was about to take my camera out, when our tour guide pointed to a building across the street -- and sent a chill down my spine. On this lovely summer afternoon, we were looking at an unassuming brick building. A ten-story building that blended in with the others on that street but that is a National Historic Landmark. Like much of the other property in the neighborhood, the building is owned by New York University.  As our tour guide told us, that building was the home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In March 1911, a fire broke out there. The young immigrant women working at their sewing machines on the tenth floor of the building had no escape. A door was locked; the fire department ladders could not reach them. Many jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. I had seen the photos and watched documentaries. I had never thought about what that building would look like today. . .that there would be no outward sign of what had happened there.

That gave me pause. I'm still thinking about it. And about how the residents of Greenwich Village in 1939 might have felt about an event that would have been within the historical memory of many of them. It has nothing to do with my plot, but it is relevant to the world in which my characters live.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Brain Scan

I've been very much enjoying the current threads on this blog about fun with computers, especially Barbara's entry yesterday about the most complex computer of all, our brains. This is especially timely for me, since I had an MRI on my head this past Monday. I mentioned in my last entry that I'm losing my hearing. I have been asking people to repeat themselves for years, and I've asked many a doctor about the fact that I really can't hear anything out of my left ear. The response has typically been a big shrug since there is not an obvious mechanical problem, like wax. It has reached a point where I either have to have a hearing aid or learn sign language, so I finally went to see a specialist. Thus the MRI to make sure there's no tumor.

I've have MRIs before and found them highly unpleasant (claustrophobic), so the doctor gave me a prescription for a nice horse tranquilizer. It worked very well. I barely remember parts of the procedure, which is good because they clamped a cage-like thing over my face and slid me into the tube and if I hadn't been tranquilized I would have broken their machine clawing my way out.

I went back to the clinic to get a copy of the report yesterday. (My husband and I always get copies of our medical reports and spend a few days brushing up on our medical terminology before we follow up with the doctor. We've learned the hard way not to rely solely on the doctor's interpretation of things.) Long story short there's nothing too alarming going on in my brain. However, the very first sentence did disturb me.

“Mild cerebral and cerebellar cortical volume loss, compatible with the patient's age.”

So, Barbara, dear, you have struck a nerve. My computer is getting old. The signals are not as quick and snappy as they used to be. But I keep finding ways to work around its glitches and will keep trying until the signals flicker and die out all together. Will my writing suffer from my cortical volume loss? I suppose someone will have to tell me, for how else will I know?

Oh, and I'm going to be fitted for a hearing aid next week.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The most amazing personal computer of all

Food for thought. I had been wondering what to post on my blog today, when a couple of coincidences fell into my lap. First of all, this week's posts have been about old computers, freezing screens, and corrupted files – all terrifying experiences for a writer. Not being millionaires, most of us try to coax more life out of our moribund computers than they are really capable of.

Secondly, my daughter posted a photo of my wedding day to the family What's App group. It would have been our fiftieth wedding anniversary today, and I realized looking at the photo that everyone in the photo was dead except me. How did that happen? I still feel the same as that young, mini-skirted bride in that photo.

Well, almost.

It got me to thinking about old writers, brain freezes, and information overload. Can an old brain truly keep writing at the same level as its younger self? Philip Roth stopped writing novels in his late seventies because he felt he no longer had the stamina or verbal fluency needed, and he did not want to write a mediocre work. Other writers have kept going but, reading their later work, you can see a decline. A subtle lack of sparkle, creativity, and complexity. That's a scary thought. We all strive to be better with each book. No writer wants people to shake their heads and say, "She should have quit a year or two ago".

And yet other writers carry on well into their eighties, and in the case of PD James, into their nineties. My own mother wrote a book (a non-fiction social history, not a novel) at the age of 86. How will we know when our best work is behind us? Mysteries are among the complex of the genres. We have to keep track of many threads and not only worry about plot, characters, and setting, but also build suspense, create clues and red herrings, and weave it all together into an exciting, coherent whole at the end. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air and a BIG picture to keep track of. No simple slice of life or rambling free association story here!

The curse of being a psychologist is that I know more about the brain than I'd like. Some of its functions, like memory, processing speeds and reaction times, begin their decline in the twenties. Working memory and fluid reasoning – the ability to juggle and recombine elements to create novel solutions – are not far behind. In women particularly, menopause hits verbal memory hard. We all laugh about our trouble remembering names and finding the right word, but the effect is unsettling. Often I stare at the page, trying to capture that elusive word or phrase that I know is lurking somewhere in my brain, out of reach. I use the thesaurus as a memory trigger, or I write a poor alternative in the hope that the perfect one will pop up at some later time (like the middle of the night). And often I find myself asking my children "Have I told you this before?"

Still, there is much to value about older brains. There is greater experience and wisdom. There is an empathy, breadth, and patience that comes across in our stories. I think as long as the latter outweigh the problems in memory and verbal fluency, it is worth carrying on. I hope I know when the scales tip. It doesn't mean a writer has to stop writing. I plan to write short stories when I can no longer keep track of whole novels, and I also hope to do a memoir of my father's life and maybe some journaling of my own. Writing itself helps to keep the brain sharp.

Meanwhile, exercise, diet, stress reduction, new experiences, and other lifestyle activities can all help keep us young at heart. Check out some thoughts on this page about the care and maintenance of the best personal computer of them all.

Here's to continuing the adventure of our lives!

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Sympathy for Aline, plus my own Sad Story

by Rick Blechta

What Aline probably feels like…

First of all, I’d like to apologize for once again failing to post. “But I have a really good excuse for why it happened,” he said, feeling like a schoolboy again. You see, I was in New York for a family memorial and wound up spending most of the trip trapped in my mother-in-law’s basement because it had a pretty bad mold problem. We were smart enough to call in the experts — black mold being nothing to fool around with if you’re an amateur — but what was to be kept and what was to be chucked needed to be dealt with.

By the time we hit the road to return to Toronto, my wife and I were both pretty wasted. I didn’t even associate the fact that Tuesday is “Type M Day” until Wednesday morning. Not that I could have done anything much about it. Driving a car on an Interstate and writing a clever bit of blog posting (Hey, I can hope, can’t I?) tend to be mutually exclusive endeavours.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

You see, I am in the same boat that Aline is. My computer — an old one — appears to be completely moribund. It’s been in the shop since last Friday and they still don’t know what the problem is.

I’ve at least learned to be prepared for these inevitable events, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Maybe, I should say “live through” since it feels as if my life is on hold.

The preparation part comes from the fact that all my work files, projects, and “important stuff” are loaded on separate hard drives. I can remove them, which I did, and carry on with the assistance of an insertable hard drive base — but it is a huge pain.

Computers are very wonderful devices. For a writer or a musician they are a godsend, but as Aline so clearly pointed out, they come with a huge caveat. Eventually they will do something, well, horrible, and you’ll hear those dreaded words: “I’m sorry. This can’t be fixed.” Be prepared to hear this sometime if you use a computer because, sooner or later, it will happen.

In Aline’s case, she’s got a corrupt file, one chapter of a book. It also sounds like she’s got a robust back-up system. In her case, though, she just threw “craps” and when a good file goes bad, there’s little that can be done. But it still is only one chapter. I’ve known writers who have lost entire manuscripts, and that’s REALLY sad.

In my case, my old computer might have just ridden off into the sunset. The only really important thing that could be lost is all my current emails and my email archives. There is a way to retrieve this information, but it will probably be expensive. I may have to just swallow that loss. Time will tell.

Barbara enjoys writing the first drafts of her books and stories in long hand. I sometimes do this, but maybe it’s time I did it more often. First drafts are the hardest things in writing too recreate. Edits are a snap in comparison.

I’ve said it here before: Be prepared for your computer to bite you someday. The moment you begin using one, you’ve opened yourself up to that inevitability. If your work-life is on that computer, you must remain vigilant at all times or risk losing what you’ve spent so much time on. Aline got bitten, and so have I. It is always a bitter pill to swallow.

I’ll leave you with my favourite saying vis-a-vis these wonderful/infernal machines: Computers are great — as long as they’re working.

You can quote me.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Awful Warning

You have all been party to my struggles with my PC, commonly known as Beelzebub.  I've tried to give credit where credit's due, even giving him a whole post where I highlighted all the things I liked about him and was grateful for.  This, I understand, is an approach that is recommended for conflict resolution by relationship counselors.

Well, that's it!  I've tried.  And what happened this week?  He suddenly froze.  Well, he does that sometimes and I am even prepared to be moderately understanding.  Even Homer nods, or in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy terms, even if you have a brain the size of a planet you need a bit of downtime.

So I switched off, went through and made a cup of coffee then switched on again, safe in the knowledge that the autosave was on and when I came back I would have a choice of two versions, possibly lacking the last couple of lines I'd written - annoying, but no more than that.  And even if there was some problem, everything I write is automatically saved to One Drive.

Not this time.  The chapter I'd been working on all week came up with an error message, Unable to Open.  Alarmed, I followed the suggested instructions to find Open and Repair.  The slight snag here was that to repair it, I would have had to open it and it wouldn't open.

So I went on to One Drive.  Yes, there was all my stuff, neatly backed up, including the affected chapter.  It had backed up the corruption as well.

In full panic mode I contacted Jim, my go-to guy, begging him to come round instantly.  He listened as I explained and then he said, 'No point.  There's nothing I could do and I'm not going to waste your money.'

Then he said, which chilled me to the bottom of my soul, 'Lucky it was only a chapter.'

I've always worked on separate chapters, only combining them at the end.  But I had actually been thinking maybe it would be easier to have them all combined rather than dotting to and fro to make changes.   Perhaps it was my guardian angel that forced Beelzebub to show his dastardly hand  before he got the chance to destroy 65,00 words and eight months' work.

I spent the end of last week trying to reconstruct what I had lost and it's been like pulling teeth.  In the middle of it, as I rooted round trying everything, I got a notice from Microsoft asking me to lodge a report with feedback.  Oh boy, they got it!

Friday, August 02, 2019

RMMWA and Live Broadcasts

A couple of days ago, I received this email:

"Beginning August 8th, the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of American will begin broadcasting our meetings LIVE, making them available to members who are unable to attend  in person. It will allow members online to ask questions through CHAT and to participate in real time." 

I'm just thrilled. I signed up right away. There have been a number of meetings I've signed up for and then couldn't make the trip from Fort Collins to Denver. I simply won't do snow and ice.

I hate paying for meals in advance only to find that I can't make the trip.

The Rocky Mountain Chapter has outstanding programs. We have great speakers on a variety of subjects. Their expertise helps keep my writing as accurate as possible.

For our August RMMWA program, Stephen Pease will present the real duties of the licensed private investigator, myth- and cliché-busting. He’ll cover things like how you become a licensed PI in Colorado, what sorts of things PIs do, along with things they would never do, and how a case works. Future meetings will include information on human trafficking, surveillance, and Sierra Detection.

Chapter meetings are valuable for a number of reasons in addition to the informative programs. It's great to hear what other members are publishing. We pick up valuable tips for selling and promoting books and form lasting friendships with other members.

Coming up in December is our delightful six-word mystery contest. This was inspired by the famous Earnest Hemingway short story challenge.

It is claimed Ernest Hemingway once wrote a six-word short story that could make people cry for a bet. The wager was ten dollars, which Hemingway won with the following:
“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Our challenge is to write a mystery using only six words. The categories are: Hard-boiled, Cozy, Thriller, Police Procedural, or a mystery with Romance & Lust. There is also an all-over winner.

My favorite grand champion one year was: "Eyes so lovely, I kept them."

I will attend as many meetings in person as I can, but it's great to know that I will now have the on-line options.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Opening Lines, Opening Questions

Thomas Kies’s terrific post about opening lines this week got me thinking. As I commented on his post, first lines mean a lot to me –– as a writer and reader.

What makes a good opening line? Students, journalists, fiction writers, poets –– everyone –– wants to engage the reader immediately. People speak often about the “hook.” But I’ve never thought of opening lines that way. To me, the goal of a first line is to have the reader face a question that requires an answer –– at some point. And as a reader, I certainly want an opening that poses one or more questions.

Consider these gems:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts." (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” by Ernest Hemingway)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. (The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley)

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. (“Nine Lives to Live” by Sharon McCrumb)

The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late. (City of Bones by Michael Connelly)

Two short stories and two novels. All four opening lines ask questions of me (the reader). Hemingway’s opening is legendary. All make me continue reading. And no matter your method of writing –– whether you plan everything in advance or fly by the seat of your pants –– the opening can (and, in my humble opinion, should) pose a question.

It has become a classroom writing activity for my students: Write down five opening lines that require readers to ask one (or more) question. Then take the most compelling opening line (presumably the one that forces you –– the writer –– to answer an interesting question). And write for twenty minutes, seeing where that line leads you.

All of this got me thinking about the novel I’m writing now. I went back to check the first line, making sure I’m praying what I preach. Here it is: Ellie Whitney saw the hesitation and waited for Pam Rush to make her choice.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Psst, Your Roots Are Showing

No, I’m not talking about those bits of gray that have suddenly appeared on your head. (Though, come to think of it, I could use a session with my hair stylist about now.) I’m talking about the words and phrases you use that reveal where you grew up. The things you say that you picked up in your formative years and still continue to say without thinking about it.

Expressions are the most obvious of these. The southern part of the U.S. seems to have a particularly colorful set of them. Much more interesting than the ones I grew up with. My favorite southern expression is “so good it will make you want to slap your momma”. Jeff Foxworthy, on an episode of The American Baking Competition, told a somewhat befuddled Paul Hollywood that it meant that the food was so good that you’d slap your momma to get at it. Something that no good Southerner would do, of course. So the food must be terrific to make you want to act that way.

Then there are things like what you use as the generic name for Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, 7-Up, etc. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where, at least at the time, “pop” was the generic term. Seems to be the same in the Midwest where my parents grew up. I quickly learned, however, that not everyone uses that phrase. When I moved down to the L.A. area to go to school, people made fun of me when I said “pop” so I changed to using “soda”, which no one laughs at. I haven’t said “pop” to mean soda in a very long time. By the way, I’ve also heard that in some areas of the U.S., “pop” is a term for beer.

I recently discovered something else that shows that I grew up in Washington state. I asked some people to look through the ARC for GHOSTS OF PAINTING PAST recently to find any mistakes so we could correct them for the final printing. I found a few myself, but someone else pointed out to me that I used “aid car” to mean ambulance, something that they’d never heard before. Honestly, I didn’t think anything about it. I use the word ambulance all of the time in speech. But “aid car” popped into the book. Seemed fine to me.

After a little googling, I discovered that “aid car” is very much a Washington state thing. In the Seattle area at least, the term is used to describe a vehicle dispatched to provide first aid, i.e. a public ambulance. The term ambulance is reserved for private ambulances.

I changed the term to ambulance because I didn’t want anyone to get hung up on an unusual term, especially since the book is set in Southern California not Seattle. But that made me realize that in the course of a day, I probably say other things that indicate where I grew up.

What about you? What terms/expressions/words do you say that are peculiar to your part of the world?

Monday, July 29, 2019

First Lines

How important is your first sentence?

It’s important enough that Thrillerfest held a contest for best first sentence of a published novel.  I was lucky enough to be one of the winners.  My first sentence is from Random Road.

Last night Hieronymus Bosch met the rich and famous.

My agent once told me that she gets one hundred submissions from writers seeking representation every day.  A hundred submissions!

She also told me that the one thing that made her want to look at the rest of the first chapter of Random Road was the first sentence.  At the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, she was a speaker and asked me to stand up and recite the first sentence of my book to the crowd.

When I was finished, someone seated near me loudly asked if I could recite the last sentence of Random Road.  Slightly embarrassed, I couldn’t.  Frankly, I’d rewritten it so many times.  But I remembered the opening line, and so did my agent.

In a 2013 interview in the Atlantic, Stephen King said, “There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft—I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.”

Here are a few examples of some of my favorite first sentences:

I feel compelled to report that at the moment of my death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash- Sue Grafton, I is for Innocent.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen—George Orwell, 1984.

All of this happened, more or less.—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man—Harlan Coben, Six Years.

They shoot the white girl first—Toni Morrison, Paradise.

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were place in a tub of cement—Dennis Lehane, Live by Night.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

Three other winners from Thrillerfest’s First Sentence Contest:

Gracie Falcon was halfway over Vail Pass white-knuckling her Jeep through a late spring snowstorm when she heard through intermittent static on her car radio that she’d been killed in a plane crash.– C. Harrison

Prouty had a drinker’s face, a graveyard cough, and a heart a hangman would kill for.–Jeffrey B. Burton

San Ruben, California is a long way from Boston, whether you measure it in miles, years, or bodies.–Jack Soren

But not every first sentence is a keeper. Every year, the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, inspired by novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s famous “it was a dark and stormy night” opener, is given to an opening sentence for the “worst of all possible novels.”

Here are some of the best entries of the last decade:

As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had—Ali Kawashima.

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil—Molly Ringle

As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course—Ron D. Smith

For more information about the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, go to  Take a look at the 2018 Grand Prize winner.  It's a doozy!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

As It Was, But Not Much Better

Lately I've been feeding my nostalgia for the 70s by watching contemporary crime movies. Mind you, I graduated from high school in 1973 and I hated the time (just as most teenagers hate their high-school years).  What jumps out from those movies set in New York City is how much has changed there since then. I have first-hand knowledge because I was actually in NYC in 1973-75 and was overwhelmed by the grit, filth, and crime. In Times Square, you could stand on a street corner and watch violent crimes happen. Everything seemed smothered in graffiti. The ambiance was of inevitable collapse. The movie Heavy Metal has a scene of a science-fiction New York rife with corruption and decay and there was no reason that it wouldn't turn out that way. Of course, the Big Apple has since morphed into a theme park for the rich and is America's largest gated community. My sister lives in Midtown Manhattan and when I tell her how it was back in the day, I might as well be talking about mastodons and saber-tooth tigers. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) holes up in a tiny studio apartment that can best be described as squalid. Today, the same space would be a million dollar condo. Easy. Al Pacino's character in Serpico rents a garden-level apartment in Greenwich Village, then the bohemian nexus of the East Coast. By modern standards the place is run down but was acceptably chic for its day. Nail boards together, paint everything white, and decorate it with eclectic flourishes.

What else jumps out from these movies is the undercurrent of racism. Pretty much all the riff-raff criminals in The French Connection, Serpico, and Death Wish are black. In those days that was actually seen as progressive because in prior years, blacks weren't even portrayed as that. Sadly, if you go back further, the situation was worse. I was watching one of Humphrey Bogart's lesser known titles, High Sierra, and was dismayed by the character Algernon, played by Willie Best. Given his role as the mountain camp caretaker, Best could've been allowed to play his part with more dignity and realism. But he was costumed in threadbare clothes, shuffled about, was inclined to laziness, and spoke the required "sho nuff" dialog. At least, I suppose, he got a substantial speaking part. Unfortunately, like most black actors from that era, in later years he was denounced as a witless stooge, though, as he pointed out, he didn't have much choice. Either take the part as is, or get out.

Which makes me think that despite our "wokeness" in this hyper-PC environment, future generations will look back at us and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Plugging On

Awaiting Cover Art

I just got home from seeing an audiologist and an ENT, since my hearing, which has been iffy for years, has been getting worse and I have been imagining myself trying to hear questions at my upcoming book launch this fall by lip reading. As it turns out, I am, in the words of the doctor, profoundly, irreversibly deaf in my left ear, and my right ear is nothing to write home about. What a jolly thing to learn. Worse, he wants an MRI of my head. I've had MRIs before and I've got to tell you that I hated them. I hate being thrust into those little tubes and the feeling of being trapped. So the doc gave me a prescription for one horse tranquilizer pill so that I can get through the procedure without destroying the MRI machine in a panic to get the hell out of there.

I've been putting this off, mainly because I spend so much time with my husband at his doctor appointments and hospitalizations that the idea of getting myself on the old medical merry-go-round depresses me beyond human understanding. Don's latest problem is his eyes, so basically he's half blind and I'm half deaf. There's an ironic symmetry there. I did tell him that I'd rather have my problem than his, and he agreed.

So, if the MRI goes off without a hitch and no horrible problem with my head is uncovered, my next stop is hearing aids, which anyone who knows me will be so glad to learn. I'll finally understand what you're talking about!

In other news, I finally got the advance reading copies for The Wrong Girl (The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode 1), the final version of which will hit the shelves on November 1. I also learned that the launch will be at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, on October 27. Much more about that exciting news later. There is no cover to reveal yet. I understand that my editor has sent at least 2 cover versions back for revision. Once the cover artist comes up with something that pleases her, I'll be the first to let you know, Dear Reader.

Meanwhile, said editor wants me to send her the first 100 pages of The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode 2, on or about August 1. They're done, and Don is currently giving them the last go-over with his wonky eyes. I will do my best to hear his opinion with my wonky ears.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Our annual writers' retreat

For over fifteen years, I have been with the same critiquing group, the Ladies Killing Circle, through most of the Inspector Green series and all the Amanda Doucette books. We are now very close friends but every now and then we put on our professional critiquing hats and dig into a manuscript in search of improvements, big and small. Each woman captures different concerns, and together their advice is invaluable. I never submit a book to the publisher without running it by these excellent, eagle-eyed women.

In those fifteen years, we have had regular, three-to four day writers' retreats to inspire us and help us focus on our latest work. These used to be twice a year but are now once a year during the summer cottage season. This year the retreat is at my cottage. We talk about the books we are reading and note those we want to add to our TBR pile, we talk about the trials of the book business, we talk about the joys and horrors of promotion, and we work on our own work.

We also take turns preparing the meals and cleaning up, which makes for easy work for all of us. Lots of laughs are shared, and wine is consumed, albeit in less quantity as we are all growing older, alas. Sharing those few days a year forges a deep, rich friendship that goes far beyond the value of the critiquing itself.

This blog is very late and will be very short, because all these things are taking priority. But here are a couple of pics of the day.

I credit this group, and the other close writer friends, with keeping me inspired, hard-working, and sane over the years. Writers' groups and retreats are the best!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

21st Century author promotion -or- What could possibly go wrong?

By Rick Blechta

Unlike Aline, I’m a more self-promotion type of person. I built an author website very early on* (1999) when this promotional tool was The Next Great Thing. In those days one had to pay a lot money to have a pro do a website, or take the bull by the horns and do it yourself. I’m pretty good with computers for some unknown reason, but learning HTML coding was like learning a language where the rules of grammar and spelling keep changing.

I eventually got it up and running and was very proud of myself. I had a website!

Then the trouble began. About the time websites came along, spammers did too, and these modern devils figured out early on that they could harvest website-oriented email address to spread their odious evil. My email (catchy, no?) was swiped probably the week I inaugurated my site. It has been used widely ever since to tell the world about the latest scam and get private information to use for the spammer’s criminal enterprises. It’s easy now to keep email addresses out of spammer’s greasy clutches, but that horse left the barn years ago. In fact, I just checked and they snatched the barn too!

My website is currently black-holed for the fifth or sixth time, so I’ve taken it down while I figure out what to do. The way it looks at the moment, I’m going to be forced to come up with a new website name — which is never a good thing — and hope that people can find it. I can put a “pointer” to direct people using the old website to connect to the new one, but with on the “Do Not Use” list, it’s probably not going to work very well. There’s also the matter of designing a whole new website. At least now there are templates and web-hosting sites galore to make that somewhat easier. Still, it’s a daunting task.

Last year, I was told I should get on Instagram. Good idea, I thought.*

Trouble is I pissed those fine people off in a big hurry! By the time I was almost finished setting up my account, they informed me that I was banned for something I’d done. Try finding out why. You can’t talk to a human being, and the reason I received from their online help section basically boiled down to “because”. There’s no recourse, no way to get real help.

So does anyone think I’m in a hurry to start tweeting my fool head off?

I’m sure glad I don’t have the same publisher Aline has!
*And promptly got myself into a world of trouble.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Taking the Plunge

I've just made a momentous decision. At least, I'm not sure I actually did, it just sort of happened after an afternoon with my publisher when somehow with tact, charm and drinks in Edinburgh's most elegant hotel, the Balmoral, she convinced me that twenty-first century technology wasn't all bad and that what I really wanted to do - indeed, was enthusiastic about doing — was to go on Twitter.

Yes, we agreed, we were both wistful about the days when what an author did was write books. I can still remember the joys of those early days when my editor would take me out in his blue Mercedes coupe for a very fancy lunch (however did he drive us back???) and I would just go away and send him my book when it was finished.

My problem with really working the internet to promote my books was that I was brought up to believe you just didn't do that sort of thing. I think I was probably a rather bumptious child and, 'No one likes a smartie' was one of my mother's favourite phrases (along with 'For a supposedly intelligent girl...' when she felt I'd done something particularity dumb). The Kardashians and their like have changed the game, though I was rather charmed today to hear of a school that was awarding a Humility prize, presumably to the least boastful child. It does, though, give me a vision of a whole classroom of little Uriah Heeps intent on winning it — and as someone pointed out, if you did, you couldn't really tell anyone you had without boasting.

Still, my publisher convinced me that it wasn't like that — just a regular sentence or two about what was going on in my life and I took the plunge. I'd been well chuffed (translation: really pleased) when a letter from a reader in Hoppers Creek, Australia arrived on my doormat, addressed to 'Aline Templeton, Edinburgh.' My first tweet.

It's a steep learning curve. I'm taking baby steps, and trying to work out how I get it up and running properly — and how to delete the profile of the MP for East Renfrewshire ( East Renfrewshire??) that fills up most of the screen whenever I click on twitter. Suggestions welcome.

I've been posting doggedly every day this week and if you'd like to join me and find out what happened to my Amaretto pannacotta at a lunch party this week I'd be thrilled. Onwards and upwards!

Twitter: @alinetempleton

Friday, July 19, 2019

Conference Envy

My fellow Type M'er, Thomas Kies, posted a report on Thrillerfest, a writer's conference held in New York this month and I confess I was seized by more than a touch of envy. I always learn something and meet new people at any conference and this one was full of terrific panels and workshops.

Thrillerfest sounds especially exciting. The line-up of speakers was spectacular. It was like a gathering of all the rich and famous in the mystery field. Conferences are also a chance to meet the not so rich and famous. I can honestly say some of my best friends are writers that I met at conferences.

Above is a photo from this year's Western Writers of America convention. It was taken at the Five Star party. In the middle is our brilliant editor, Tiffany Schofield, who is one of the most friendly persons in publishing. Her frontier series featuring historical novels about the American West has been a great hit both with librarians and readers.

I'm on the left. Having just discovered a western hat that fits I longer have to worry about my hair. What a relief. On the right is Irene Bennett Brown. I look forward to seeing her and her husband, Bob, every year. Irene and I have known each other forever. She and Bob started attending in 1978. Her book, Miss Royal's Mules, is a finalist for a Will Rogers Medallion Award. Her new book, Tangled Times will be published Summer, 2020.

Old friendships can be dangerous at conventions because of the temptation to spend all my time with people I already know and like.

I would love to go to Thrillerfest next year. I have a number of friends who attend. Plus this year a number of person's from Sourcebook were there. Sourcebook acquired Poisoned Pen last year and the conference would have been a great opportunity to meet representatives from our new publisher.

I don't like posting on the day mine is due. I like to schedule it at 12:01 am so our early morning readers will have fresh content. This has been a very harried summer full of disruptions. Most of them were good. But still, my writing has been interrupted a lot. Then everything else lags too.

Better performance next time!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The 21st Century Artist

This summer has been a whirlwind. Lots of travel. Some business. Some pleasure. I haven't been home as much as I would have liked.

My business travel has been prolonged and intense. I have been leading workshops for the College Board. This is stand-and-deliver, eight-hour days. It is always great to spend time with serious educators, speaking about student writing.

Still, it's not sitting at my desk writing fiction. It's also so intense that it's hard to get writing done while I'm leading these workshops. I know the value of a teacher’s dollar. And these educators are paying too much money to attend these workshops for me to not double and triple check (and even constantly tweak) my material.

So I find myself writing in frenetic fits, in stops and starts. I have written 75 pages in 3 weeks and then only 10 pages in a week. It is frustrating. I'm a goal-oriented person. I do well when I'm checking things off to-do lists. My goal for the summer was to write 150 pages and with only a month left that is very much in doubt. As an educator, I know I shouldn't complain about having the opportunity to earn extra money in the summer. But I'm not sitting at my desk writing fiction.

This is the life of the midlist writer. Of the actor who waits tables between auditions. Of the musician who practices law between Saturday gigs. In short, this is the life of most 21st Century artists. We right when we can, and we make sure we always can. Because not writing is not an option. So it may be in frenetic fits. But it gets done nonetheless.

So this week, I’m in Fitchburg, Mass., Sunday through Friday. Saturday, I fly to Orlando for a night, deliver a workshop Sunday and fly home that same night. Monday, I’ll be at my desk working.

And living the life of a 21st Century artist.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Whole Lot of Shaking Going On

I’ve lived on the West Coast of the U.S. my entire life. Most of my adult life I’ve lived in Southern California. As you might guess, I’ve experienced a fair number of earthquakes over the years, though I’ve never been very close to the epicenter of any of them.

The first one I remember experiencing was when I was pretty young, probably around five. That’s my best guess, anyway. I really only have a vague memory of the ground shaking. I lived in the Seattle area at the time. I’m pretty sure the quake I felt was the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 aka The Good Friday Earthquake. A 9.2 shaker, it’s considered the second largest earthquake on record and lasted, depending on the source you look at, from 3 minutes to 4.5 minutes. It caused the Space Needle to sway 1200 miles away. I can’t even imagine being near the epicenter of that one.

The two I remember most here in Southern California are the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994 and the recent 7.1 quake near Ridgecrest. We were in escrow on two houses at the time of the Northridge quake (selling one and buying another). Even though we were far enough from the epicenter that no damage was done, both houses had to be reinspected before escrow closed.

The recent Ridgecrest 7.1 quake on July 5th was the longest quake I’ve ever experienced. We felt a great rolling motion for what seemed like a very long time (around 40 seconds I learned later). When you feel that kind of rolling motion you know a very large earthquake has occurred far away. (Ridgecrest is about 170 miles away from us.) That’s when you hope it hit a sparsely populated area and pray for those affected.

Most of the time, though, you’re not even sure you’re experiencing one. When an earthquake happens, a typical conversation goes something like this:

“Was that an earthquake?”
“Think so.”
“What do you think? 4.0?”
“Has to be at least a 5.”

The quake is usually over by then so we go back to what we were doing before the quake hit. After waiting a half hour or so, we head to the internet to find out its magnitude (got to see who was closest, after all) and where the epicenter was.

I know, I know. Seems a bit flippant, but that’s how some of us deal with the possibility of quakes in earthquake country.

The shaking tends to be a lot lighter where we live, though I do realize that some day a large quake might hit on a fault closer to us. Fingers crossed that never happens. But even with all that shaking going on, I’d still rather live in earthquake country than somewhere hurricanes and tornados are common. Those scare me far more than an earthquake.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


by Rick Blechta

Are you the sort of person who tends to put things off? I am, or should I say I try not to be.

It can be something as simple as the garbage needs to be taken out to the curb. In the past, I would likely have also added mentally I’ll get to that as soon as I do such and such.

The result would be the garbage never gets taken out.

Too often things that should have gotten done never did. The result would be I always felt as if I was playing catch-up, and when it was really bad, the pile of undone things seemed to go up a mile high, which I find highly depressing.

So now, rather than saying, “I have to take out the garbage this morning,” I get off my lazy butt and take it out right then, even if it means momentarily stopping what I’m doing to accomplish the task.

Now that I’m getting better at this change in philosophy, I find things running much more smoothly. Instead of I’ve got to remember to return this tool to my son, I immediately take said tool out to the car even if I’m not seeing him for two days. It’s done. I don’t have to remember any more — other than handing it over when I see him.

Here’s why this sort of thing is important to a writer. When we’re working on something, we not only have our work in progress committed to paper — whether real paper or electronic paper — but we carry a lot of information around in our heads — and that information is very important.

Sure, we can make copious notes, jot down ideas — and I do try to do this where needed — but we carry around in our addled brains something much more ephemeral and delicate: the tone of our story and our relationship with its characters.

If you’re also trying to carry around a lot of other unnecessary things (like remembering to take out the garbage), there comes a point where your brain just becomes too full and things start getting pushed out of your brain’s RAM (Random Access Memory, which is a computer term, but very apt for human brains too).

When I originally began trying to train myself to do small things NOW, I didn’t even stop to think of its effect on my writing. In fact I never did think of it. It was my wife who pointed it out when we were discussing our anti-procrastination battle (she’s in on it too). I mentioned that I’m having less trouble with my writing because I’m managing to “stay in my book” much more easily of late. Her answer was “Might that not be because you’re not having to remember so many little things?”

A bell went clang in my head at that point. She was absolutely correct.

I also play my band SOULidified’s entire repertoire from memory (some 70+ songs) and I’m having less trouble doing that too. Now at my age, one would expect one’s memory to be less good, and that’s not happening.

So here’s Dr. Blechta’s prescription: Take care of little things as they come up and you’ll probably lead a happier and more productive life. However, if you happen to be a writer, I know you’ll find my prescription A Good Thing.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Thrillerfest XIV

I’d never been to Thrillerfest in New York.  I’d heard it was pricy…and it is.  Of course it is, it's New York.  But it's also the most exciting city in the world. 

I’ve been to writers’ conferences that I felt were worth my while and I’ve attended some that I went home wondering if I could have done something differently to get more out of it.

I bit the bullet and registered for Thrillerfest XIV months ago.  Since then, Sourcebooks acquired my wonderful publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. As fortune would have it the first night I arrived, they hosted a cocktail party in New York for their authors (both new and old) as well as inviting members of the media.
Hours before the party, I flew into LaGuardia on Thursday, July 11, took a suicide taxi ride to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, unpacked and ironed some clothes.  I can never pack without getting my shirts and slacks as wrinkled as the skin of a mature rhinoceros.

Then I went to the Ballroom in the hotel for the Opening Reception and was pleasantly greeted by some outstanding food and drink.  The company was damned good as well.  I ran into Dennis Palumbo, Reavis Wortham, Jenny Milchman, and Joe Clifford as well as meeting many other writers I didn’t know.

At seven, Dennis Palumbo (a remarkable writer) and I walked through the rain to the MetLife Building where Sourcebooks/Poisoned Pen Press was hosting the cocktail event (also awesome food and drink).  It was there that Barbara Peters, Editor in Chief and Founder of Poisoned Pen Press, introduced all the authors in attendance.  As always, she was effusive in her praise. This gave the PPP authors a chance to interact with individuals from Sourcebooks, who are really knowledgeable and nice.

What really set this event off was that it was attended by several members of the media including Bookreporter, Mystery Scene, Publishers Weekly, Strand Magazine, a freelancer working for People Magazine and two representatives from the New York Public Library.

Speaking of the library, on Friday during a break I walked  to the New York Public Library building on 42nd Street and went in.  I was thrilled to see my book Darkness Lane on the shelf.   Cool beans.

Friday morning, I listened to a panel of mystery/thriller literary critics talk about the way they work.  I found it interesting that some of them refused to write bad reviews.  If they read a book they didn’t like, they’d either not write something at all, or would be noncommittal in their overview.  Two of the critics on the panel were definitive that they do, indeed, write bad reviews if they feel the work warrants it.


They also discussed how competitive it is to get noticed in the publishing world and advised that a good publicist was vital in getting reviewed at all.

On the last day of Thrillerfest, I was on a panel discussing five year plans for writing.  None of us had one.  We all agreed that we write in the moment and if you try to follow trends, by the time you’ve finished your book, the trend is over. 

Better to write what you’re passionate about.  I told the audience that if you write a good story with compelling characters, you’ll do just fine. 

Oh, and a high point after the panel discussion?  R.G Belsky bought Random Road and asked me to sign it.  He writes from the viewpoint of a female reporter as well.

All in all, a terrific event.  If you think you’re going sell a ton of books at the event, you’re thinking about it all wrong.  It’s all about renewing and creating brand new relationships.  Relationships that will help you further your career and friendships you will keep for the rest of your life.  Writers helping writers.

Was it worth it?  Absolutely, no question.  I'm going next year!