Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Excitement And Fear

Starting a new book is usually a mixture of excitement and fear for me. Right now I’m in the dreaded “why did I ever think I could write another book phase.” This lasts until I finally feel like I’ve figured out the general direction I’m going in. It usually takes me several months to make my way through this period of unease as I slowly figure out my characters and the story they want me to tell.

It’s a phase that feels a lot like designing software. You do a lot of thinking, head scratching, walking up and down the hallway, and drawing diagrams. It always feels like I’m not accomplishing anything. I have to constantly remind myself that I really am getting something done. That all of this thinking and tossing ideas back and forth in my head is actually accomplishing something. That it’s all part of the process.

Talking to other writers about writing helps to remind me that I’m not alone. That other people find the beginning of a project difficult as well.

I got the opportunity to talk with a lot of writers (some who I’ve known for a while, some who I just met) at the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City, CA a couple weekends ago, two days of workshops and panels on topics related to crime writing. So many things going on at the same time that it was hard to choose what to go to.

I was on a panel called “Built to Last: Creating a Series” with Rachel Howzell Hall, Sheila Lowe, Keenan Powell and Faye Snowden. We had a great time talking about our experiences writing a series.

Ellen Byron interviewed Private Eye Nancy Swaim about her experiences. I also learned about Medieval Weaponry from Swordmaster Roberta Brown. And attended a panel with Joe Broido, Phoef Sutton, Gillian Horvath and Carlene O’Neil about Hallmark Mysteries. And, and, and...lots of lots of different things were available on the business side of writing, craft, forensics...

Plus we were treated to workshops and keynote addresses from Guests of Honor Tess Gerritsen and Catriona McPherson. And fed lots and lots of food. I admit that I ate way too much.

But probably the best part was the chance to hang out with fellow writers and talk about writing and the writing business.

The next CCWC will be in 2021. (It takes place every other year.) Consider going if you get the chance. It’s well worth it.

In other news, I now have the cover for Book 5 in my Aurora Anderson series, GHOSTS OF PAINTING PAST. It’ll be out November 19th, pre-orders start the week of August 28th. Thought you might be interested in seeing it. It takes place around Christmas as you can probably tell from the cover.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A story in search of a location

by Rick Blechta

Once again I’m spinning off one of Tom’s Monday posts. You should read this one. It’s really good!

Unlike Tom, I often use locations for my novels and novellas in places where I’ve never lived. I generally set them in real locations, but in one instance (Orchestrated Murder) I used a nameless city, although it was based on Toronto where I live. In the subsequent two novellas in this series (The Boom Room and Rundown), my editor asked that I identify the location as Toronto. Now I wish I could go back and fix the first novella to reflect this!

But in all my novels, they are firmly set in real-world locations. One unintended benefit of this is that in setting them in far-away places, I have to visit them to make sure everything I include is correct and accurate. So far, we’ve (of course I’m accompanied by my wife who acts as my editorial assistant and translator) been “forced” to visit various places in England, Scotland, Wales, Austria, France, and Italy, not to mention several American cities and towns. Incidentally, the cost of these research trips is tax-deductible which is a very nice thing. Hey, there have to be some breaks for us poor ink-stained wretches, right?

In order to make this foreign-setting thing work, I’ve found it really helps to do a ton of “Google research” and use that to at least have a somewhat workable first draft or a very detailed sketch of your work-in-progress. That way, you know what you need in the way of useful research and can focus on that. It is also pretty well mandatory to make friends with people who live in that location to be able to help with supplemental information after you return home.

The only other thing I do which helps keep me out of trouble is that the story is told by a person who is an outsider. I think it would be the height of idiocy to think that I could pull off writing through the eyes of someone who lives in one of those locations. Inevitably, I would write something that would go clank in the minds of people who actually inhabit or know these places well, and I’m sure you’ll agree this wouldn’t be an ideal thing.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Monday, June 17, 2019

How important is location?

A long time ago, I picked Fairfield County, Connecticut as the setting for my Geneva Chase mystery series.  The primary reason was that I know the area, working at a newspaper there for eighteen years. I’m familiar with the roads, the towns, the time it takes to drive from place to place, the restaurants, the stores, and companies doing business there.

Full disclosure, I don’t live there anymore.  As many of you know, I live on the coast of North Carolina.  Someday I’ll set a story here, but for the time being, I’ll just enjoy the beaches, the fabulous food, and the lack of traffic (except for tourist season).

I picked Fairfield County for other reasons as well.  It’s a bedroom community near New York City and much of the area is extremely affluent.  You have pockets of wealth such as Greenwich, Westport, New Canaan, Easton, and Ridgefield.

Fairfield County is home to CEOs, movie stars, Broadway actors, best-selling authors, rock-stars, and famous athletes.  The attraction is its proximity to Manhattan.  It is also far enough away that paparazzi aren’t usually an annoying factor.

But when you have affluence, you often have crushing poverty.  One of the most economically challenged cities in Connecticut is Bridgeport in the southeast corner of the county.  That kind of extreme diversity in an area makes it attractive to me as a writer.

And you have some pretty gruesome crimes that take place—in real life.

Just this past January, the body of a twenty-four year old woman was found stuffed in a suitcase in Greenwich.  The cause of death for the bookstore clerk from New Rochelle (neighboring Westchester County…also affluent) was deemed “homicidal asphyxia”.  The ex-boyfriend of the young lady was arrested after using her ATM card.  He claimed that the young woman fell and hit her head during sex at her apartment.  He admits that he bound her hands and feet, placed tape over her mouth, shoved her into a suitcase and left her in a “forest”.

This kind of thing ain’t supposed to happen in Greenwich.

In December of 2011, a friend of mine was murdered in his jewelry shop in Westport. Yekutiel Zeevi (known to his friends as Kootie) was the owner of Y.Z. Jewelers.  It was a fascinating place that wasn’t always open to the public.  You had to get past his security system and be buzzed in.

When I first met him, he had a small, glittering pile of diamonds on a table in front of him and a jeweler’s loupe in his eye.  The first thing he did was ask if I smoked.  I did at the time.  Then he bummed a cigarette.  We became friends after that, even inviting me to go to Africa with him on a diamond buying trip.

I never took him up on the trip.

In December, 2011, Kootie and an associate met with a buyer who we later found out was a half million dollars in debt.  He shot and killed my friend, wounded the associate, and left with $300,000 in diamonds.

That kind of thing ain’t supposed to happen in Westport.

  The killer was captured in Spain, where while awaiting extradition to the United States, he took his own life.

On May 24 of this year, Jennifer Dulos of New Canaan, 50, mother of five, went missing. 

Her estranged husband, Fortis Dulos and his girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, were arrested for tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution.  According to prosecutors, Jennifer’s blood mixed with her husband’s DNA was found on the faucet in the kitchen of her home.

Police continue to look for Jennifer Dulos…or her remains.

The point is that bad things can and do happen even in the best neighborhoods. That kind of juxtaposition makes for jarring news stories, but can make interesting fiction.

How did you pick the place where your books take place?

Friday, June 14, 2019

This and That

I'm later than my usual late this morning because I wasn't sure I could get to the blog. I changed my gmail password, then tried to log in yesterday and got locked out. Then I had to wait for my verification. Of course, my memory lapse has a lot to do with the reason I woke up early and then -- to my cat Harry's dismay -- gave him a snack and went back to bed for another nap. It's summer, my writing plate is running over and before I can settle in, I need to catch up on my sleep.

But I didn't mind the early mornings I had from last Friday to this Tuesday. I got a chance to spend five days in New Haven, Connecticut taking part in the Yale Summer Writers Workshop. Session II is devoted to genre writing, and I was invited to be this year's faculty instructor for Mystery and Crime Fiction. Eleven students were enrolled, several had been in Session I with more general instruction on the craft of writing, one was international. Some were writing psychological suspense or genre-blending. All were talented writers. I was only hoping I would have something useful to bring to each of them. But the best part of the experience was watching how they bonded as a group and provided each other with constructive, supportive feedback.

I'm now back in place, and having read Donis's post about what she has seen writers doing wrong in about-to-be published books, I'm thinking about what I said to the student writers in the workshop and what I'm doing in my 1939 manuscript in process. I think by now I have gotten beyond rookie mistakes. But that means I'm more prone to make the mistakes that come with being too comfortable. Or, I would if I were ever comfortable.

Right now, I'm working on a reference book for my academic publisher about gangsters in film. I need to get the first half of that done and signed off on. Then I need to return to the first draft of my dress and appearance to tinker some more while waiting for my agent to shop the proposal. And after that get back to my 1939 historical. Of course, there is also the research project that a couple of colleague and I are trying to launch this summer with a community organization.

So I'm catching up on my sleep. When its's my day to blog again, I'll have something more interesting to write about. Meanwhile, I hope everyone is having a great summer -- although I guess it is still spring on the calendar. That means I may still have time to get started on my container garden. Bought all the seeds. Haven't done anything at all with them.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

What Not to Do

Donis here. I may have mentioned previously that besides writing mysteries, I have a side gig as a free-lance mystery reviewer for Publishers' Weekly Magazine. I don't choose the books I'm going to review. The editor at PW sends me three or four advance reading copies (ARCs) a month to review. Usually these books will not be available for purchase for several months, and an ARC is not the final version, so I don't pay undue attention to typos or other minor flaws that will more than likely be corrected before the book hits the shelf.

I try never to be mean with my reviews, because as a writer myself I know how that feels. Besides, just because I don't enjoy a particular type of character/plot/setting/time period, that doesn't mean it's not well executed, and other readers may love just that kind of thing. But I know an epic fail when I see one, and when I do, I'm honor bound to tell the truth. I've been doing these reviews for about three years now, and I've seen the best of the best and the worst of the worst, and both have taught me a lot that I've tried to apply to my own writing. In fact, I'm currently in the midst of getting a lesson on what not to do. I'm reading the second or third installment of a series in which some loose ends are left from earlier books, and the author keeps interrupting the action to catch us up on what went before. Now, it has to be done, but said author does it with such lengthy digressions that when he returns to the action, I've forgotten the details of the story.

As I read, I'm furiously taking "what not to do" notes, because I'm in the midst of writing the second installment of a mystery that contains loose ends from the first. How do you catch the reader up on what has gone before without bogging down your momentum? Do it in short intervals, I think, and try to work it into the action naturally. That's what I'm going to shoot for, anyway.

Here are some other comments I've sent to the PW editor about fails in books I have reviewed that I believe all writers would do well to watch out for. None of these comments actually showed up in the review I wrote for publication, and the names, situations, and details have been changed to protect the guilty.

"The plot had so many holes that I have a headache from slapping my forehead so many times while I was reading."

"She had an idea for a plot and bent all her characters out of shape to fit it."

"This is a historical, but I couldn't tell what the year actually was and the author never actually said. From things the author wrote in the beginning I thought it must be in the 1850s or so, but I kept revising my estimate forward as more and more modern items kept showing up. I think maybe the 1870s."

"The sleuth's method of detection consisted of basically going from suspect to suspect and loudly accusing him or her of murder in hopes someone would crack. The motive was stupid and the killer was stupid for falling for (X's) lame trap."

"No proper English lady would go on 'vacation' with a single male acquaintance in 18--. No English person would even say 'vacation'."

"Great characters and deft handling of the mores of the time. But I wish (X) hadn't cleared (Y) of the murder by having the coroner pinpoint the murdered woman's time of death within half an hour! In the 19th century!"

"I like the unusual setting and the characters are fun, but I would have liked it better if the big showdown between the sleuth and the murderer hadn't ended with a slapstick food fight."

"She certainly studied the manual on how to write a cozy, so cozy lovers will find much to like. But that ending! The protagonist and her sidekick lay a trap, then hide in the bushes to eavesdrop on the conversation between the killer and the person who agreed to be bait. I always get annoyed when the killer confesses all in excruciating detail, and at the drop of a hat!"*

But really good characters cover a multitude of sins: "Her editor would have done well to have her condense the beginning quite a bit, but it eventually picked up nicely and the main character was well drawn and realistic. She was actually emotional about the deaths! It wasn't hard to figure out whodunnit, but there's enough atmosphere and crafting and eccentric characters (and a hunky detective and a kitty) that cozy lovers won't care."
*This is a pet peeve of mine. Can you tell?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

From zero to sixty and back again

AKA the ebb and flow of a writer's life. There is a schedule in the lives of writers. For me, it is this. I have about a year to fifteen months between book deadlines, and find it usually takes me a year to write a book. More if there is a substantial amount of research. I usually start almost as soon as the previous book is handed in to the publisher, and the early weeks consist largely of thinking. And chewing my nails. What should I write about? What should I explore next? What do I want to say? And what kind of trouble can I put my characters through this time?

During this time, ideas slowly begins to form and I push them around, looking at them from various angles, fleshing out the barest bones to see if there is enough meat. Kicking the tires, so to speak. After I settle on a promising, bare bones theme, I start to research. I visit the library, I search Amazon and order obscure books from ABE, I scour the Internet. I read and read, taking lots of notes while the bare bones take on more meat in my head. And because my head has only so much room, I start to jot ideas down in a file called "plot and research notes". I like Aardvark better, so may steal that for my next book.
Eventually the starting point for the book emerges out of the mists, and once I have that toehold, I start to write. Still researching, still groping forward, and with only the vaguest idea where I'm going. The plot and the ideas evolve as I write. I try to write every day, usually for the morning, and always try to finish a scene. The book and I lurch along in this haphazard, step-by-step fashion for several months, by which time I am about halfway through the books and six months from D Day. Deadline Day, or Dreaded Day, or whatever it feels like at the moment.

At that point I start thinking backwards from that D Day. I need to give my Beta readers at least a month, preferably six weeks, to critique my manuscript and I need at least two weeks to incorporate their critiques and do final polishing. Before I give it to the readers, I need at least a month to fix up the rough first draft and make it the best I can. There is no point in wasting readers' time with a book I know is still full of plot holes and crappy characters. Which means if I want to meet deadline, I need to finish my first draft three to four months before D Day.

Which gives me two to three months to write the second half of the book, when I have only the foggiest idea where it's going!


These past three months I have been in that boat, madly rushing to complete the first draft and fix it up to send to my beta readers. Which I finally did – yesterday. It's a very odd feeling. I've been desperately yearning for this day. Dust balls and dog fur balls have accumulated in my house, weeds have taken over my garden, the fridge is empty, and most of my friends think I've died or moved to Australia. I've had my pedal to the floor for several months, with the storyline and the characters in my head all day and feeling guilty whenever I couldn't give them the time they needed.

And now, suddenly, the foot is off the accelerator and I am coasting to a dead halt. The book is in "rest" mode for four to six weeks while I wait for the verdicts of my trusted readers. Now I have time to look around at the dog fur and the weeds, the full laundry basket and the empty fridge, and I don't even know where to begin. The morning stretches ahead, unstructured and without demands (except those listed above).

I know I will revel in the slower pace and the empty brain, and I will start to do all the things I have been neglecting. But for a week or so at least, the absence of "being a writer" is discombobulating. And I feel vaguely itchy.

As if I should be writing something. This blog, for example.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

When memory fails

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday was a very busy day with hours of driving around the Toronto area. First, we had to pick-up our grandson (PA day for school) in neighbouring Mississauga and bring him back to our place — in rush hour, not a pleasant thing since we can’t use the highways at that time (or most of the time given Toronto’s horrendous traffic congestion).

Then I had to pick up one of our sons way downtown at a job interview and drive him to his apartment to change for his current job. It was pouring rain (good that I did him this favour!) and the downtown traffic was its usual horrible mess.

Fortunately in an earlier part of my life, I drove a cab nights for about a year-and-a-half, so I know the city rather well. Yesterday, I called heavily on that knowledge through a host of dekes and shortcuts to get it all done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Finally it was back out to the west end of the city to pick up my granddaughter and take her from her morning program to her caregiver for the afternoon.

All-in-all I was in the car from 6:45 to 12:45 and never got farther than 20 miles from home! Actually, I felt like I was driving a cab again — which I guess was what I was doing.

Now here’s my tale of woe: While waiting for my son’s interview to finish, I had a terrific idea for my novel, a little something to plant in maybe the third chapter, just a word in passing really, that could take root and blossom towards the end of the story. As I sat there, I could see it branching all over, possibly becoming Very Important in the end.

Then my son came out, and since time was tight, we hot-footed it for his apartment. I had no time to write down my clever idea on a note in my smartphone. I have a good memory, I thought, I’ll be sure to remember something this good!

Wrongo. By the time I got to my son’s apartment, I’d forgotten it. All the way to pick up my granddaughter I cast back into my memory to pick up the dropped thread that would lead me to writerly nirvana. No luck. Not even an glimmer of the trail.

I spent an hour this morning right after waking up — when things tend to float up in my mind — and my terrific idea has completely and depressingly disappeared.

Time was, I used to carry around one of those little recorders. It was always stashed in a cup holder when I was driving or in my pocket or briefcase when I was teaching. Click it on, say a few words, and put it away again. Easy-peasy. My idea was safe until I could write it down that evening.

I am so depressed! Think it’s time I dug that recorder out again.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Thank You to My Computer

I have frequently written blogs about all the things I don't like about computers. It's not that I have any nostalgia for the typewriter, the carbon paper between the sheets, the typex, and the retyping of the whole sheet – and sometimes more than one – when you wanted to change anything, but I admit that I do get distinctly tetchy when the thing inexplicably freezes, or the great Gods of Technology decide to update the system in a way that is infinitely less user-friendly than the previous one.

Today, though, I decided I would be cheerful and positive and write for once about the features that I am grateful for, sometimes even very grateful for.

Spellcheck, of course, comes in at the top of the list since I'm an extremely careless typist. I even forgive it for changing my perfectly correct English spelling into American (we did it first, after all) because it definitely means well. ( Even in my present charitable frame of mind, though, I can't feel warmly towards the interfering grammar check which I have firmly switched off. My grammar is better than its is.)

Cut and Paste is another benevolent feature, particularly for what I call Cut and Stash. How often I deleted a passage in an editing frenzy and regretted it afterwards when I realised I could have used it somewhere else, and now I never will recapture that first, fine careless rapture! Now I have a document where all the cut passages are pasted in case they are needed later. I like it to come up handily at the top of the file list so it's called Aardvark. Endlessly useful.

I love Find. This is what stops me endlessly repeating my favourite phrases; I realised that I used 'obviously' far too much when the message came up that there were, frankly, too many to enumerate. It's also handy linked with Replace when I want to change a character's name, though I do always click it one at a time. A doctor who was replacing the letter 'B' that had represented a family's name in a redacted report used Replace All to restore the family's real name for circulation to the services directly involved and received several confused calls about the new disease, Hepatitis Blenkinsop.

And I am very particularly grateful for the Schedule panel. That is what allows me to write this now and tuck it away for a date when I shall be sitting on a terrasse in the Dordogne, without a thought in the world beyond wondering vaguely what time it would be reasonable to pour the next glass of a cheeky little Sauvignon Blanc Semillion. Cheers!

Saturday, June 08, 2019

The Writers’ Life and a Fond Farewell

By Vicki Delany

I am often reminded of what my friend the author Jeffrey Siger once said, “writing is a tough way to make a living but a great way to make a life.”

Perhaps I’m paraphrasing, but you get the drift.

I was lucky enough to take early retirement many years ago and pursue my dream of the writing life. I’d published two books and written a third while working full time, but that’s (as many of you know) a tough gig.

I was also lucky enough to be able to sell my home close to Toronto for $x.xx and buy another in a beautiful country location for half of $x.xx and invest the other half to give me some small income.

I’ve since published about thirty-two books. (I lose track sometimes).  I live what I think of the simple writers’ life out here in the countryside, but I do get away on occasion.

Case in point: I’m just back from four weeks in Mozambique.  I was able to go there for that amount of time because I have my writing work to do.  The person I was visiting worked Monday to Friday leaving me on my own, and sitting around her house (as pleasant as that is) would have become boring quickly if I didn’t have my work.  I wrote every morning and in the afternoons went for a walk or out for a nice late lunch. I even treated myself to a spa visit. Then on the weekends my friend and I did things.  I got an enormous amount of writing done because I had that time, but also because I didn’t have all the things one does at home: appointments, shopping, friends, yoga classes.

On one of the legs of the looooooong flight home, I got out my iPad and wrote. I managed 5,000 in a few hours.  And that, even for me, is pretty good. Something about a new environment, enforced isolation, etc etc proved to be very productive.

Here are some pictures, of my writing environment and the places we went in Mozambique.  I hope you enjoy them

View from my desk

I get help


Beach time

It's a tough life

In other news, this is my last post for Type M for Murder. I’m leaving the Typists to pursue another project that I’ll be announcing in a few weeks. If you’d like to keep up with my books and my doings please follow me at Twittter: @vickidelany Drop me a line at vicki at if you’d like to get my quarterly newsletter or just keep in touch.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Whata Family

We had a great Hinger family reunion Memorial Day Weekend. Here's why this is such a joyful event.

Ed and Jo Wolken's fabulous yard. In fact Jo is the best hostess ever, bar none. 

Yard games for kids of any age. 

Music, music, music. It's required!

Hinger pitch. Not for the faint-hearted.

And a family photo to be admired fifty years from now. Does anyone remember who this guy is?

Jo's incomparable cooking

Last but not least, a trip to the Kincaid High School Museum where they poke fun at my ancient senior picture

And stories galore. They are all such lovable liars!

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Goals and Chunks

It’s been a crazy spring. We just finished classes and put the bow on another school year at Northfield Mount Hermon, where I teach and live. This spring, my middle daughter, Audrey, took my Crime Literature course, which was a wonderful experience (at least Dad says that; not sure what Daughter would tell you) and graduated. So we had friends and family in and out of the house for a week or so.
Audrey and Dad

Now summer is here, and I have several commitments. For the past 20 years, as an educator, I’ve been involved with the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program. In a couple of different roles this summer, I will spend about twenty nights away from home, holed up in hotel rooms.

All of this leads to many starts and stops in my writing schedule.

I try to use these chunks of time away from home wisely by setting writing goals. If I’m spending time away from my family, I want to have something to show for it. This week, I’m traveling to Tampa Bay, Florida, toting revision suggestions for a screenplay I’ve written. (We’ve gone full circle because –– irony of ironies –– the notes come from a former student who now works for a Hollywood agent who handles my work.) The script is 62-ish pages long (an hourlong TV pilot), and I’ve got eight nights. My hope is to finish the revisions and send the script back to him before I get on my return flight.

Once the script is put to bed, it’s on to my next chunk and another short-term goal: I’m 30 pages into a novel, and I want to reach page 150 by Sept. 1. I have three weeks at home before I travel again. I would like to write 75 pages in that span.

And so on.

I met a writer (a poet and essayist) this week who says they work eight hours Saturdays and Sundays, focusing on their day job during the week. I don’t possess that ability to compartmentalize. I couldn’t set writing aside for five-day stretches. And my weekends are joyfully spent chasing field hockey, swimming, cross country meets, and lacrosse games.

So my writing life exists in chunks and ebbs and flows, moving from one goal to the next.

On my nightstand: I’m in the middle of two books I am loving, both nonfiction. And speaking of goal-setting and ebbing and flowing, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami, is a fascinating look at the great author’s life as a runner and writer. I’m late to the game on this one; it’s been out since 2008. And Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, is compelling narrative nonfiction. It won the Pulitzer (and just about every other nonfiction award it was eligible for) and I’m seeing why. It is both fast and weighty.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Readerly Terms

On Twitter the other day I stumbled across Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms. That’s Powell’s bookstore in Portland, OR. Readers contribute words they’ve invented to the compendium, all to do with reading and/or books. You can read all about it here, but I thought I’d share a few of the words I’ve fallen in love with.

ambuliterate – proficient in the art of reading while walking

Starting in junior high, I walked home from school. I think it was about a mile. All on sidewalks with streets to cross and lights to worry about. I became quite proficient at reading while walking, always stopping at each intersection and looking up to make sure it was safe to cross. Then I’d resume reading once I was on the sidewalk once again.

booquet – (1) a medley of books in a pleasing arrangement, (2) a selection of handpicked books presented as a gift

gready – having an intense desire to read every book ever written

I think I was “greadier” when I was younger than I am now. I’ve become pickier about what I read these days. I’m still hoping to get through most of the books I have in my library, though.

The Late Gatsby – a person late to the party when it comes to reading a popular or classic book

I’m afraid this is often me. I’m rather ashamed to admit that I still haven’t read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. One day...

plothead – a person who gets high on books daily

That’s my kind of high. I try to read something every day, easier to do when I’m not nearing a deadline.

read rage – aggressive behavior by a reader angered by a book’s contents, often directed at the book itself

I’m not terribly proud of this one. I once threw a book across the room because I was so annoyed with the wimpiness of the main character. I don’t mind wimpy characters in books, I just don’t want them to be the protagonist. This was the second book in a series. Needless to say, I didn’t finish it and didn’t bother reading any others in the series.

bookclipse – a phenomenon in which a book is so engrossing that it completely obscures one’s perception of time

This one happens to me a lot. That’s why I set alarms when I really, really have to be someplace and I’m just reading a bit before I have to leave.

readultery – the act of being unfaithful to one book while reading another concurrently

This is me. I often have 3 books going at once, one cozy, one non-cozy mystery, one nonfiction book.

So, what about you? What are your favorite readerly terms? Either ones listed in Powell’s Compendium or ones you’ve invented yourself?

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

How the light bulb went off for me

by Rick Blechta

If you haven’t yet read Tom’s delightful post from yesterday, do so now!

I’m certain if you asked nearly any writer about when the writing light bulb went off in their head, they could probably tell you. Me? Not really.

You see my bulb must have come with a dimmer switch set at 0, and it only gradually began creeping up to full “you gotta notice me” brightness when I was nearing 40 years old. Let me explain.

Even as a youngster, I loved making up stories. (Lots of us can say that, Blechta!) More often than not, I would only do it in my head to amuse myself, but occasionally I would share my imagination’s output with family and sometimes friends. Some of those thought I was kind of weird. Perhaps I am…

My 4th Grade teacher, Miss Wenzel noticed that a) I always had my nose in a book, and b) I was very enthusiastic when it came to writing book reports. For a boy in 4th Grade, I guess she was amazed by that since I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about any other parts of the curriculum. It was her who gave me an extra credit assignment to write a small story.

Because I’ve always had trouble with the concept of “short”, I handed in a story about a chipmunk. It was 14 typewritten pages. You can imagine how long it took me to do that since I’d never used a typewriter before. So the light bulb was getting brighter.

In high school I got asked to write a review of the school musical by the local newspaper. (My first byline!) I guess it went well, because I was asked to do it again the following year. Sadly that run ended right there because I was in the musical the third year and I didn’t think it would be seemly to write a review of a production I was in. I mean a headline of “Blechta steals the show!” probably wouldn’t have garnered me any friends. But the brightness of the light bulb was definitely up.

In my first two years at university I wrote some reviews of concerts, a few of which got published, I even got paid for two! (What a concept. You could actually make some money putting words together.)

What turned the light bulb to full brilliance after so many years was artistic boredom.

In the late ’80s after a number of years doing music 24/7 as a performer and teacher, I burned out. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved my musical life, but I found I was just doing too much of it. I needed a fresh artistic outlet.
After casting about a bit, I sat down to write a baseball short story. While it had some artistic merit, I wasn’t all that great. But I had thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Since I’d been voraciously consuming mysteries for many years, I began another short story. As I said above, I have trouble with short, so when I finished my narrative a few hundred pages later, I had a full-blown mystery/thriller on my hands that I titled Knock on Wood. Its weaknesses are very evident now, but the narrative does contain a few strong points.

However, the end result was…I found myself wanting to continue writing crime fiction. And with that, I was off!

What’s your story?

Monday, June 03, 2019

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When we were children, my sister and I lived off and on with our grandparents. They resided in a cottage in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York on one of the smaller lakes. During the summer time, the cottages and restaurants were full of renters and second home owners. In the off-season, however, we were one of the few year-round residents. In winter, it was downright desolate.

When it was so quiet and lonely, that’s when my sister, Bonnie, and I would make up adventures and live them out among the empty cottages and dirt roads. Living on a lake made the adventures more real. The blowing snow, the fog lifting from the lake’s dark surface, old Native American tales—the mysteries were dark and spooky. Perfect for adventurous children.

On top of that, there was a Boy Scout camp on that lake, about a mile from us. During the winter, nobody was there and it was a great place to explore and look for pirate booty or where the bodies were buried

My sister, God bless her, was two years younger than me and she was really a good sport at living in my imagination. Granted, there were times when she’d balk and refuse to go on my adventures—until I promised to give her wheelbarrow rides when we got back to my grandparent’s house.

Then, as I got older, to make money, after school and on weekends, I worked on dairy farms and vineyards in the area. A lot of that labor is solo and repetitive so to keep from going stark raving mad, I made up stories in my head. They were always thrilling adventures, where I was always the hero.

Gee Tom, that’s great, but when did you want to become a writer?

I’m getting to that part.

In addition to making stuff up, I was a voracious reader. My grandfather had a huge collection of Louis L’Amour westerns and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series. He also had a volume of Sherlock Holmes stories.

When the new James Bond novel would come out, I’d pay my sixty cents to buy the paperback version down at the local pharmacy. Then I got addicted to John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee mystery/thriller series.

         Get to the point, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

It was when my grandparents let me use their typewriter. I was only eleven or twelve at the time, but I thrilled to sound of the keys as they tapped out the stories in my head and put them on a sheet of paper. The tales I wrote were of murders and kidnappings and general skullduggery.

Whenever I wrote a passage that contained the word “blood”, I switched the typewriter ribbon from black to red.

Oh, scary.

My grandparents were my biggest fans. My Uncle Hub (Emory Herbert Young) was also a story teller and would read my adventures and encouraged me to keep writing.

But real life got in the way. Dating girls, college, marriage and children of my own. I never stopped writing, but I was working for newspapers and magazines at the time. It wasn’t until my children were grown and I changed careers, that I became serious about living in my imagination again.

I didn’t have to dig very deep to tap into that childhood imagination that I enjoyed for so much of my youth.

According to Joanne Friedman, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, “The ability to continue to create fantasy out of reality continues into adulthood. Whether we indulge it or not is a personality differences matter. Adult don’t “squash” creativity in children. They may limit its expression, however, by not listening and by telling a child he needs to stop expressing it. It still exists internally and comes out when adults aren’t around. I know my parents, not really the most attentive listeners to my shy little voice, had no clue I thought I could fly (until probably the fourth or fifth grade) and was spending time jumping off the picnic table not to hone my jumping skills but because I was flying, in my own mind, across the yard. So how loudly a child expresses the fantasies also plays a part. Creativity would not exist at all in the adult world were it not for the fact that we all still have that little voice in our heads that remembers our early explorations and thrives on the memories.”

So fellow writers, let’s keep makin’ stuff up and writin’ it down.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Guest Post: Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley is the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. The two are both South Africans and retired academics, Michael a mathematician and Stanley an educational psychologist. Michael lives in Knysna on the South African south coast, and Stanley splits his time between Minneapolis, Denmark, and Cape Town. Their award-winning mysteries, featuring Detective Kubu, are set in Botswana. Death of the Mantis was an Edgar finalist and Deadly Harvest an International Thriller Writers award finalist. The seventh Detective Kubu mystery, Facets of Death, will be released early in 2020 by Poisoned Pen Press.

A stand-alone thriller, Shoot the Bastard, will be published in June 2019 by Poisoned Pen Press. Outside North America, Orenda Books published it as Dead of Night.

They’ve written many short stories and have edited an anthology of short stories set in hot places called Sunshine Noir.
Stanley Trollop
Michael Sears

It is all so sad

There are many worlds out there. There’s the one most of the people we know live in. They are born, grow up, go to school and perhaps university. They work, fall in love, have kids, make friends, retire, and die.

Then there is the world of selfishness, where people think only of themselves and their prosperity and well-being without regard for others.

And there are also worlds we know about but don’t want to be part of – the worlds of slavery, child trafficking, murder and torture, robbery, rape and incest, and so on.

Our latest book, a thriller, is about a normal person from the first of these worlds, investigative reporter, Crystal Nguyen from Duluth, Minnesota, who lands up in the intersection of the second and third type of worlds.

The story is called Shoot the Bastards (Poisoned Pen Press), due out in a couple of weeks.

Readers of this blog are likely to be puzzled and appalled by the poaching of rhinos and the smuggling of rhino horns. With only about 25,000 rhinos left and over 1,000 killed each year for their horns, the future of the species is grim.

Why is this happening?

For the simple reason that millions of people in Vietnam and China believe ingesting rhino horn is good for them. Some take it as a medicine, some as an aphrodisiac, while the affluent young snort it like cocaine. In each case it has absolutely no physiological effect. After all, rhino horn is just keratin, the same as your fingernails. These people are selfish and don’t care about being responsible for the extinction of a species.

The demand is so great that the street value of a mature horn is around $400,000, about three times the value of gold.

As you can imagine, this has caught the attention of people from the third of our worlds – the dark world. With that amount of money at stake, those involved in the rhino trade are brutal, letting nothing get between them and their fortunes.

It is into this world that Crystal lands, naïve, with the certainty of the ignorant. A journalist friend has gone missing while on assignment to write an article about rhino poaching for National Geographic. So she goes to South Africa both to try to find him and, if necessary, to finish his story.

She has no idea what she’s getting into. Within a few days of her arrival, she finds herself inadvertently in the middle of the rhino wars, fearful for her own life. She’s been hunting poachers, hunted by their bosses, and arrested in connection with a murder she didn’t commit. Plus, everyone is after a briefcase full of money that she doesn't want, but can't safely get rid of. Worst of all, she doesn’t know who she can trust. It is a truly harrowing experience.

She barely gets out of South Africa alive, then heads to Geneva to interview NGOs involved in saving the rhino population and to Vietnam to interview the gangs involved in the trade. Unfortunately, the issue of the suitcase full of money has preceded her, and once again she finds herself in extreme danger. It takes all her ingenuity to escape.

By the time she returns to Minnesota, Crystal is unsure of what should be done to save the rhino population. She’s gone from certainty to confusion – a confusion that exists in real life.

In South Africa, huge amounts of effort and money are going into protecting rhinos. Guards armed with automatic weapons shoot it out with poachers armed the same way. Every high-tech tool is being tried. Customs officers seize poached horns every day. But the poaching continues and the war to save the species is being lost. The result is that conservationists are being forced into new and potentially undesirable interventions to try to stem the tide.

The title of the book comes from what you hear in South Africa when poachers are caught. “Shoot the bastards!” is the simplistic reaction of many people – simplistic because the motivations of the people who actually kill the rhinos are often born from need rather than greed. Given the poverty and lack of jobs in the region, some people are willing to risk being killed in order to earn some money for their families.

It is all so sad.
@detectivekubu (daily blog by 10 authors going for nearly 10 years)

Friday, May 31, 2019

Characters and Their Lives

I'm finally coming up for air after spending the week racing ahead of a deadline. I've been thinking about the questions about characters my blog mates have asked this week. I have to admit that I am always more interested in the characters in a book or short story than in the details of plot. Not that I don't notice when the plot is weak or lackluster or ridiculous. But if the characters are intriguing and thought-provoking, I will read on and even pick up another book by the same author to find out what is happening with them. On the other hand, no matter how clever the plotting, if the characters are irritating, two-dimensional, or clueless (in both senses of the word), I am not likely to look for another book about them.

I, too, have had that question about how I avoid getting my two protagonists, Lizzie Stuart and Hannah McCabe, mixed up when I'm writing. I don't have that problem because I've written much more about Lizzie than about Hannah. I know Lizzie so well that I would recognize her if she came to life and walked into a room. I am in her head because she is a first-person narrator. She does
occasionally surprise me because she is changing as her life changes. But I can hear her voice. We also share a way of thinking about how to go about being a sleuth because we both do research in the archives and in old newspapers. In contrast, Hannah is "McCabe" in the books. She is the protagonist in the two books I've written so far, but the books are police procedurals. I write in third person, and sometimes from the point of view of other characters.

That brings me to the question about having characters from different series share the stage. I've been thinking about that because I did a radio interview recently and the host asked me a fun question -- one that only a mystery writer (or reader) would love and that I had never been asked. It was, if you were murdered (God forbid!) what fictional character would you like to investigate. My immediate response was Adrian Monk. Then I added Lt. Columbo. I'm sure there are other sleuths who could be as effective and would draw on all the latest in forensics, but as I lingered, waiting to be freed to travel on by having my crime solved, I would be able to enjoy watching those two investigate. Still, as soon as I said I'd like to have both of them work on my case, I started to think of what would happen with their very different styles.

I have thought about bringing my two female protagonists together in a story. I could have McCabe call Lizzie in Virginia to ask her about something. Or Lizzie, who attended graduate school in Albany, could come back for a conference or an award or stop in as she's in the area. I would love to hear a conversation between them. But, I'm sure McCabe would find it much easier to work with John Quinn, Lizzie's former homicide detective fiance. Quinn and McCabe would be on the same page and talk the same language. Not to say that they would be in complete agreement, but they would share the "cop thing." But the problem about trying to bring these characters together is that they don't exist in the same space. Lizzie is in the year 2004 right now, in the recent past of "our" world. McCabe is in 2020, in a world that is much like our own, but has an alternate history/timeline. The series that began as near-future will soon be in the present because the first book is set in October 2019.

The idea of bringing Lizzie and Hannah together is intriguing because they have an overlapping plot. This plot -- stretching over decades -- includes Jo Radcliffe, a character who has appeared only in a short story I have in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Jo lives in a village in upstate New York. She is in 1946, a former Army nurse, and she has a secret. Her life, overlaps with Lizzie's and her legacy affects McCabe. I once did a chart with all of the characters on a timeline. I've even played with having one of them provide the frame for my 1939 historical thriller that references these connections. But I'm still pondering. I don't know if I can pull it off. It might be safer to keep the secret that links them all to myself. But I'm thinking. . .

Thursday, May 30, 2019

My Take on Character

All right, I (Donis) am so far behind in both work and daily life that it isn't funny, but I have to weigh in on the character question, the subject my blogmates have written so skillfully about over the past few days. I’ve read many books with clever plots that delighted me at the time, but no matter how skillfully a plot is constructed, months later I don’t remember the story nearly as well as I remember the characters. And if I liked the characters, I want to keep company with them again.

Reviewers and the literati elite seem to go all breathless over dark and tortured characters in hopeless situations. This isn’t a new phenomenon. This kind of book can be a brilliant art form, as it is with noir novels, when it’s full of dark humor and a thoughtful, perhaps cynical, exploration of human nature. I find that even though I still love a good dark novel, I can’t take a steady diet of self-destruction and hopelessness any more. As the English say, I think I’ve had enough of both in my real life to be going on with. If I’m going to spend many hours of my life with these characters, I damn well want to like them.

So I’ll happily while away the time reading about Bertie Wooster’s pointless night out, because it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a hospital waiting room pondering unhappy possibilities.

Speaking of which, until a couple of years ago I had never read anything by New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, but during one of my husband's many hospitalizations, I picked her up because one of his nurses was also a Kiwi, and she and I spent quite a while discussing mystery novels. The one book I have read is called A Man Lay Dead. It’s a typical 1930s style English country-house mystery, full of upper class ladies and dandies and stalwart servants. The plot is convoluted beyond belief, involving an antique dagger, a gong, a game of Murder, a single calf-skin glove, a bannister, and a mysterious Russian secret society. And Marsh’s writing style is adverb-y to the max.

The sleuth, however, is a humorous, upper-class, Oxford man. None of the other characters can figure out why someone with his background and breeding has deigned to become a common detective. Turns out he’s so brilliant that he simply has to have puzzles to occupy his feverish mind. Sort of a Sherlock Holmes with a sense of humor.

He entertained me. However, though I finished reading the book before I went to sleep one night, by morning I had already forgotten why the murderer did it. One of my favorite examples of the importance of character versus plot is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The plot is so complicated that Chandler himself couldn’t quite figure it out. But the characters, setting, and dialog are so compelling that nobody cares.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Character mashups

In the past week on Type M, characters seem to have marched onto centre stage. There have been posts about creating them, describing them, trying to control them, and bringing them back from the dead.

I write three series and so have three separate casts of characters. Readers have their favourites; some only want to read about Inspector Green while others are happy to follow Amanda's adventures. At author events, people are always more interested in discussing characters than plot or setting, the two other pillars of the story. They want to know not only why they acted as they did in the book and what will they do in the next book, but they want to know about my relationship with my characters. Where do they come from, how do I keep track of them, and are they based on real people?

We writers relate to our characters as if they are real people in our lives. They are often on our minds when we should be doing other things like emptying the dishwasher. We argue with them, worry about them, revel in their triumphs and laugh at their follies. It's delightful to discover that readers care about them in the same way.

Because I write more than one series, people also ask me how I keep the characters separate. Do I have to finish with one series and one set of characters before I can start the other? I don't like writing more than one book at a time, mainly because I have to get immersed in the flow of the story and I lose that momentum each time I switch from one to the other. The characters, however, seem to inhabit different rooms or houses in my head, and when I switch books, it feels as if I've walked through a curtain into a different place. The two worlds do not meet.

This brings to another question readers sometimes ask me at author events. Would I ever write a story in which Inspector Green and Amanda Doucette work together. I admit it's fun for about two minutes to contemplate how that would work (badly) and I can see the appeal for readers of watching two smart, strong characters they enjoy duking it out over who would resolve the case first. But purely from a story-telling standpoint, the combination wouldn't work. Both these characters are used to being the centre of attention. They are the heroes of the piece, and making them work as an ensemble would fundamentally alter not only their characters but also the style of the story. I'm pretty sure one of them would be forced into a subordinate role, and although the ensuing sparks might be entertaining, I don't think it suits either of their characters. I don't think I'd enjoy the experience, and ultimately, I don't think readers would either.

Another reason it wouldn't work is that in an ensemble story, the members of the team typically complement each other. One funny and the other serious. One impulsive and the other cautious. This is the reason why sidekicks are almost always a contrast to the hero. The story just feels balanced and right this way. Green and Doucette are not a complementary team. They are both alphas, too similar to provide balance in the story.

But the main reason I think it wouldn't work is that I'm not sure I could tear down the curtain that separates the two worlds, and walk freely from Inspector Green's world to Amanda's.

I'm interested to know whether any of the writers have thought of doing this with their series leads and whether readers think the idea would work. Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

How's this for an interesting idea?

by Rick Blechta

How’s this for an interesting idea?

I just had an intriguing thought based on recent posts by Aline and Thomas.

But first a bit of preamble about what I’m thinking about.

There have been many example of the pastiche in crime fiction. Publishers don’t want a financially successful series die when the author does (or quits). Many contracts of beginning authors now include a clause that the series characters belong to the publisher once the contract is signed.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some excellent pastiches. The stories of Nero Wolfe have been added to by other authors, not to mention Sherlock Holmes, and those examples are just two examples off the top of my head.

What I’m saying is that it’s nothing new for a different writer to use established characters of another writer to create new works, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.

Now to my little idea: what if a group of characters were created by two writers working together, sort of assembling a cast for a drama that’s not yet written?

This, too, has been done before. The two writers take on creating alternating chapters and the story is told that way. Or the two writers just work together to create the story, “writing by committee”, as it were.

My idea is to assemble this cast and then the two authors go off and craft whatever story they desire. At the end of the process, the results are then compared. I’m sure they would be intriguingly different.

What do you think?

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Life of Their Own

Thomas's post on Monday about babies and characters developing took me right back to when my first child was born - and that wasn't yesterday!  I can remember being oppressed by the awful sense of responsibility: here was a little unformed being handed over into my inexpert care and what he would become was up to me.  I would feel very proud when he was good and ashamed when he wasn't, and if he turned out to be a disaster then it was All My Fault.

It was only when his sister was born three years later that I understood  retrospect how utterly wrong I was.  She came fully-equipped with her own entirely different personality and there was nothing I could do about that, or about my son's either, I realized.  I think I had seen myself as being like a sculptor, chiselling a creation out of a rock; the relief when I understood that all I had was a nail file was enormous.

They were going to do what they wanted, not what I wanted for them, however many little plans I had.  They're fine adults now, but that's thanks to them not me.

I get much more irritated with characters.  OK, my kids are their own people and entitled to ignore my wishes but  I should be able to force my characters, at least, to do what I want them to. I created them; I know their back story, because I created that too. I know what they ought to be like.  I know what part I have designed them to play in the story.

So why is it that some of them balk at that and take on a life of their own?  I've had characters destined for a very minor part in the proceedings who insist on forcing their way to the front of the action.  I've had connections between characters appear that I would swear I hadn't thought of before - 'Good gracious, I hadn't realized she was his cousin!'

The worst thing is, that if I decide to take them on and insist that they are going to do it my way they become limp and if I persist they drop down dead.  So I have to admit I've got rather feeble about it especially since they are often right about what they wanted to do and they turn out to be some of the most lifelike characters in the end.

After all, when that distinguished poet Pooh Bear described Tigger's weight in 'pounds, shillings and ounces' and Piglet objected that it seemed odd to have 'shillings' in between the 'pounds' and the 'ounces', he explained that 'they wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them.  It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come.'

And possibly crime novels too?