Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Year in Books, 2018

It’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2018 I read 70 books, 11 fewer than last year. About half of those were nonfiction, heavily weighted in the true crime category. Most of the crimes, though, took place before the 20th century. The only one that didn’t was a book about the Green River Killer, “Green River, Running Red” by Ann Rule. I have a particular interest in it because the first bodies were found fairly close to the house where I grew up, though I didn’t live in the area at the time.

I also got into the history of food last year with books on ice cream, cakes and cookies. My favorite of those was “American Cake” by Ann Byrn.

As you might guess, I read a lot of cozy mysteries. Last year I read all of Eva Gates’ (aka our own Vicki Delany) Lighthouse Library series and enjoyed them immensely. I also had a fun time with Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country mystery series.

I also got into middle grade books. I discovered the Eddie Red Undercover mystery series by Marcia Wells and Marcus Calo and the Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. This quote from Stroud’s website describes the latter books best: “There is an epidemic of ghosts in Britain. Their touch brings death, and only children have the power to fight them.”

My absolute favorite book of the year was “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton. It’s a very unusual mystery that kept me captivated throughout. I enjoyed every minute I spent with it and was very sorry when it came to an end. From Amazon’s description: “Evelyn Hardcastle will die. She will die every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. Some of his hosts are helpful, and others only operate on a need to know basis.”

2018 was also the year I sampled Kindle in Motion titles. I talked about my experience in a previous Type M post. You can read about it here.

That’s my book wrap-up for the year. As usual, I have stacks and stacks of books around the house and a slew of them on my Kindle, waiting to be read. I probably won’t get to most of them for a while since I have a book due to my publisher in a month. Happy Reading!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

When you're feeling poorly…

by Rick Blechta

For the past two days I have been in the grip of grip (as flu used to be known) and feeling pretty poor.

I'm going to have to cop out of writing a blog this week because, frankly, I don't have the energy or will.

So here's a little something special I've been saving up for an occasion just like this one!

Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Writing from a Woman's POV...What Was I Thinking?

I loved the discussions by authors who visualize which actors and actresses would portray their characters if their books are turned into movies.  I have some thoughts on that which I will share a little later in this blog.

The reason why writers have strong opinions on this is our characters are very real to us.  What sometimes slides by us is that our characters are also very real (or should be) to our readers as well.
Both Random Road and Darkness Lane are written from the first-person viewpoint of Geneva Chase…a woman.  I’m male, I have both an X and a Y chromosome.

“Really, you write as a woman?” I’m often asked. “What the hell were you thinking?”

First, a little about Ms. Chase.  She’s blonde, tall (five-ten), athletic, blue eyes, attractive, forty years old, and a snarky smart ass.  Geneva is a reporter for her hometown newspaper in Sheffield, Connecticut, a bedroom community outside of New York City. As the first book opens, she’s seeing a married man, has been recently arrested for hitting a cop, has been married three times, and she drinks too much.

Geneva Chase is a hot mess.  Likable and smart as hell, but still a hot mess.

That doesn’t answer the question, “What the hell were you thinking?”

I started writing Random Road as an experiment.  One chapter I’d write from the male protagonist’s POV and the next chapter I’d write as Geneva Chase.  About ten chapters into the book, I discovered I was having much more fun writing as Genie.  Through her eyes, I could view the world as a cynical journalist.  Through her voice, I could make snarky, sarcastic observations.  I could say things I would never say out loud in real life. Simply put…she was fun!

A writer needs to be a keen observer of the world around him or her.  Writing as a woman, I needed to study how someone like Genie would dress, what kind of jewelry she’d wear, how she would speak and move.  I know more about women’s shoes, cosmetics, and fragrances than I ever wanted to.

A word to the wise, it’s a fine line between being extremely observant and being really creepy.

Now, back to your characters being real.  My editor, publisher, and agent are all female (as is my wife, of course) and none of them are afraid to call me out when Geneva isn’t ringing true.

But I’ve gotten some interesting comments from readers about Geneva.  I’ve had some women tell me how much they identify with her.  I take that as a genuine compliment.

I’ve had some men tell me how much they like the character and I actually had one guy tell me that he’s fallen in love with her.  That made me a little uncomfortable.

Then there was the time in Phoenix, at a mystery conference, I was on a panel called “Unconventional Women”.  Yes, I was the only dude on the stage.

When I write the character Geneva Chase, I'm not thinking about any actresses.  I have a good friend of mine in my head.  She's tall, athletic, beautiful and she's a genuine smart ass.  I worked with her for years at the last newspaper I was at.  She knows who she is.

So back to whom I’d like to see portray Geneva Chase.  I’m partial to Reese Witherspoon.  Maybe  Naomi Watts.   Two completely different actresses, but I think they’d do Genie proud.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.  I'd love to hear who you think could be Geneva Chase.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Plotting, Plotting

By Vicki Delany

I hate plotting. But I do it.

I used to be a ‘pantser’: a writer who doesn’t know where the story is going. Writes by the seat of her pants.

This is different from a plotter: a writer who prepares a detailed outline ahead of time and thus knows where the book is going.

I’m not a total plotter. I usually write a good section of the book before I start plotting. I like to get the characters in my head, and an idea of what the story is going to be about. The only way I do that is by writing it. But then, when I’m maybe 10,000 words in, it’s time to start figuring the rest of it out.

Image result for plotting a novel cartoon
Today was plotting day for Sherlock #6. I’ve started the story. I wrote the inciting incident. I’ve introduced (to myself as much as to anyone else) the guest characters. The murder in this book comes quite close to the beginning, so I know who died and how and what led up to it. I also know who dunit and why they dunit. Now, it’s time to get an outline for the remaining 70,000 or so words down on paper.

And I hate it.

So, why then do I do it you ask? I changed from a pantser to a plotter when I was signed by publishing houses that required an outline before giving a contract. I wrote the outline reluctantly and then found that it helped me write the book an enormous amount. Get the hard part out of the way, I found, and the rest is easy(er).

For a case in point, see Barbara’s recent post on shitty first drafts and the mushy middle (

One of my publishers doesn’t strictly require an outline, but I send it to them anyway. If there is anything they don’t like, I’d rather know about it now than when I’ve fished the book and incorporated that sticky point into the final product. As an example the outline for Body on Baker Street had Gemma and Jayne breaking into the police station in search of clues. UH, no, said my editor, that’s going too far.

So instead Gemma is thinking about breaking into the police station, when Detective Ryan guesses what she’s up to and puts a stop to it.  She manages to find out what she needs to know another (less illegal) way.

Today I plotted.  That involved a lot of pacing around the house. It helps that it’s -13 degrees today, without wind-chill, so I wasn’t temped to venture outside except to get more firewood from the garage. I paced, I thought, I cursed. I made notes. I tried to turn those notes into sentences.

By 2:00 I had a fairly good idea of what I want to do.  I still have a lot of ???? in the outline, but I’ll ponder those for the rest of the day and then try to finish the outline tomorrow.

It won’t be perfect, and things can change. But I’ll have a good solid road map that I can follow, and hopefully, not get bogged down in the soggy middle.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Starting the Year

Well, in spite of my best intentions, the last week of December and the first week of January zipped by, and I didn't get a lot of the items on my to-do-list crossed off. I did go to Virginia last week to visit my family. While I was there I spent some time in the public library. I had been using the New York Times for research on 1939. A terrific newspaper that I turn to often for all kinds of research -- but not a researcher's friend if she is trying to read (or, at least, scan the headlines) of an entire year. I can search by topic, but I wanted to see entire issues of a newspaper. So I spent five hours going through as much as I could of my hometown newspaper and getting a better sense of how the news of the year was being reported. That worked well because one of my characters departs from "Gallagher, Virginia" en route to New York City. It also worked because the Danville Register used the same wire services as the big city newspapers. I'm hoping to get the microfilm through interlibrary loan and continue reading.

Now, I'm juggling -- going back and forth between the 1939 book, my dress and appearance in crime justice book proposal (the first draft is done), and editing the manuscript of the third book in my Lizzie Stuart series (that is being reissued). I also have several backburner projects that I need to get started, and school is about to begin. So I'm taking a time-out next week to simply focus on finishing everything I can get done. I'm going to check my email only once a day -- in the evening. I am going to work at home and in the library. And I'm planning to get the updated proposal for the dress and appearance book and the first 50 pages of the 1939 book out to my agent before our upcoming lunch in NYC.

The good news is that an anthology to which I contributed a short story is now available. It was such a fun story to write. This anthology features "The Bronze Buckaroo" (and is available in both print and ebook. The Bronze Buckaroo was a "singing cowboy" who appeared in a series of movies in the 1930s. These movies was intended for an African American audience. The "race" movies in various genres featured mainly African American casts and played in segregated theaters.  In his other life, the actor, Herb Jeffries, was a smooth-voiced singer who signed with Duke Ellington in the late 1930s. My story is a genre-blender -- western/mystery/romance -- inspired by the films and by the cowboy serials that I used to watch as a kid. The movies can be found on YouTube.

My other good news -- something I'm excited about -- is that I've been invited to join the 2019 faculty for the Yale Writers' Workshop this summer. I'll be one of the instructors for Session II in June, devoted to genre fiction and nonfiction. I've already started to prepare. I can't wait to see the Yale campus and hang out with writers from different genres and students from all over the country and international. If you are interested the website is up and registration is open.

But right now, I've got to get to the office before the day is over and do some work there.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How Do You Do It? Writing When Life Throws You Curves.

Happy New Year everyone. My new year started out on a sour note. My husband underwent another health crisis and ended up spending the night in the hospital...again. On January 2, he went in for a minor outpatient procedure that turned into something else. The something else has been addressed, and now he has to go back tomorrow (Jan. 9) for the minor procedure. If you are interested in a summary of events, I wrote about it on my own web site, here, but for this entry, suffice it to say that he’s okay and feels fine. Let’s hope it stays that way and the rest of the year is dandy.

As you probably know, we’ve been dealing with my husband’s health problems for ten years. This is why I am hesitant to sign up for conferences or long book tours that take me away from home for any length of time. In fact, I don’t know why I bother making plans at all. Things tend to happen fast with him, and I’ve had to cancel out of more than one thing at the very last minute. Not only is this expensive, since most of the time a conference won’t refund your money at the last minute for any reason, but it’s also not good public relations. I don’t care how compelling your reason is, if you arranged to speak at someone’s event and then leave them holding the bag when it’s too late for them to find another speaker, they are NOT going to be happy about it.

Of course, any Zen master would tell you that making plans is what leads to misery in the first place and you should simply be surprised by every moment as it occurs.  By that criterion I am the luckiest creature on earth.

After this latest medical event, another author friend of mine asked me how I manage to get any writing done when stuff like this happens. He has his own techniques for dealing with unforeseen events. As for me, I have no particular plan. I just keep slogging. It depends on how serious the crisis is. When horrible things are in progress, I mostly cope by doing crossword puzzles. Writing does not occur. When the crisis is past and we’re in the long, quiet, getting-over-it period, I do the best I can, depending on how much nursing duty I have at the time. Writing can be a nice distraction.

A major part of one of my novels, Crying Blood, was written while I was keeping vigil during one of Don’s longer hospital stays after major surgery. The book turned out very well, in fact ... if you like dark novels full of dread, that is.

One bit of good news: I'm excited to share that Forty Dead Men, my 10th Alafair Tucker Mystery, has been named one of Barnes and Noble's 20 Favorite Indie books of 2018! So that’s nice!

Check out the complete list here.

Thursday update: Don had his delayed kidney stone removal yesterday and the doc said all went well. We're home now. Tired, but unbowed. After a week of serious meds and cardiac consultations, Don's blood pressure was as low a 25 year old man's--until the minute we went back to the hospital yesterday morning, when it shot right back up. Fortunately, the anesthesiologist was a cardiac specialist and brought it down for the operation. Don has serious White Coat syndrome. He used to be pretty sanguine about these things. I guess that a dozen surgeries and countless "procedures" in ten years will do that to you.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Ahah! moments

After the last echoes of New Years parties, family visits, and southern get-aways have faded away, the beginning of January feels like turning the page. A time to say "All right, then, what's next? Where was I?" In my case, this is often accompanied by considerable panic as I realize the hard work that lies ahead. The work I've been neglecting. The commitments and deadlines that seemed far away in December but are suddenly looming. I'm behind schedule on my novel, and I've forgotten where I was going in it. Time is wasted while I find all my notes and read over the draft to figure out what to do. And in the not-so-distant future, I can hear the ominous whisper of taxes, which entails long days of hunting down receipts, tabulating, and organizing so that my accountant can make sense of the mess.

My usual writing routine went out the window during the holidays. For one thing, there was a one-year old in the house, along with out-of-town adult children, and for another, there was this constant thing with food. Buying it, preparing and cooking it, washing up after it, and thinking about what's next. But when January 2 arrived, it was back to just me, my dogs, and my to-do list. I've knocked off most of the easier tasks on the list, so now it's just me, the dogs, and my shitty first draft. It feels like standing at the foot of a mountain, looking up, and thinking, "Oh God, I want to go to the beach."

I am nearly halfway through the shitty first draft of THE ANCIENT DEAD, my fourth Amanda Doucette novel. First drafts are always shitty, so I'm not worried about that part. But after refreshing my memory about the story, I suddenly realized "I'm bored." Translated, this means that the story lacks energy and that the reader will almost certainly be bored as well. Bored readers are not good for business.

The halfway mark is usually the point at which most – dare I say all? – authors experience this malaise. It's been called the floppy middle or mushy middle, the point when you've breezed through all the high points and major twists that you had planned and realize you still have at least 100 pages to fill before you can start to wind the sucker down. Some writers have it all planned out, so perhaps this crisis doesn't occur, but for a modified pantser like myself, I don't even know how the story will end, let alone how I'm going to get there. I need something more to happen here!

The conventional wisdom is that you add an unexpected twist to add more complications or conflict. "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand" (Chandler's Law)  or "Drop a body down the chimney" (which I believe comes from Christie although I can't find the reference). But sometimes all that does is give the reader whiplash. Too many twists and turns, too many explosions, shootings, car chases, and dead bodies merely dilute the effect. I will need more moments of peril, and probably at least one more body, in the next 150 pages, but I know that's not the issue here. The issue is passion. The story needs to be energized by greater passion, and what this almost always means is that the protagonist needs to be more personally committed to the hunt. I thought I had her motivation figured out, but at some point in the re-reading, I thought "Why should she care?" She was going to a lot of trouble to solve something, including putting off her real work, for a motivation that didn't seem to warrant it.

As I tried to answer that question - why should she care? - a thought drifted across my mind. What if...? Is it possible that...? I rejected the thought. It was not actually a major change but it would have a ripple effect. It would mean changing the parts already written and alter the course of the backstory quite a bit. It would seriously mess up timelines too. But as I toyed with alternatives, the thought kept circling back through my mind, until I finally decided to at least give it a shot. To see what happened if I altered the backstory and rewrote the parts in question. I have not yet tackled that, but instead have been thinking ahead with that alteration in mind. So I'm not sure whether the whole thing will work, if indeed it is enough of an answer to why she should care. But it's always an exciting moment when an idea drifts in from left field to potentially shift the course of a story. It usually means the story will be deeper, richer, and hopefully better.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Books as art

by Rick Blechta

Okay, my first serious post of the new year is about books as art.

How many of you have at least one beautiful book in your collection, the kind you’d never part with? My wife and I have many. Some are very old, inherited from my mother and father, others are newer but still beautiful and precious to us.

Recently, I looked into getting a few of the more beaten up ones restored. That led me to the following video showing the art of making beautiful new hardcovers for old books. Believe me, these are works of art on their own.

I’ve looked at this video several times since and find it just fascinating to watch how this old art form is still being practised by master bookbinders. The results are spectacular. I wish we could afford this treatment for two of our books that really are in quite desperate shape. Someday…

If you’re fascinated by books themselves, regardless of what lies between the covers, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this video. And I guarantee several “Ah-ha!” moments: “So that’s how they do that!”

P.S: And I have more to share if there’s any interest out there!

Monday, January 07, 2019

Christmas Past

They've all gone, every last one of them, now Christmas is over. The books that until last week were piled up in library displays, filled every bookshop window and featured prominently in Amazon promotions, selling no doubt in their thousands – they've disappeared. Yes, they're the books with 'Christmas' in the title.

You have endless choice. A random sample from Amazon: Hope's Cornish Christmas; Christmas at Mistletoe Cottage (or at Snowdrop Cottage – both are available); Christmas at the Chocolate Pot Cafe; Snowflakes and Mistletoe at the Inglenook Inn...

There are plenty of crime novels too: A Murder for Christmas; Mistletoe and Murder, and – my favorite title – Death by Eggnog. Or if you prefer something with a sharper edge, Christmas is Murder, a collection of stories edited by Val McDermid.

What I wonder is, where do they all go now? Do people only read books about Christmas at Christmas time? Do the bookshops pack them away in cupboards ready to be brought out again when December rolls round? I've sometimes noticed one on a library shelf but it feels odd to read it at a different time of year.

I've never written one. I've written a couple of books, though, which involve extreme weather conditions – deep snow, fog, a storm – and I've found it needs a lot of concentration to get into the zone when dark and dreadful things are supposed to be happening but outside the sun is shining and birds are chirping away in that irritatingly cheerful way they have.

I can't exactly wait to write until the weather is appropriately obliging and obviously a Christmas book can't be written in those weeks when Christmas spirit is everywhere and you can't do your grocery shop without hearing “White Christmas” and “Santa Baby”.

Magazines, of course, famously produce their December editions in July so I suppose you could have yourself a merry little Christmas with tinsel and a fake tree any time you wanted, but of course the book would really have to capture the weird, febrile excitement of that time of year. If you've written a Christmas book I'd love to know your technique.

It was Dr Johnson's' dictum that no one but a blockhead would ever write for anything except money, and it would interest me too to know how the economics stack up, whether the flood of purchases at Christmas time makes up for the lack of sales during the rest of the year. So far, at least, I haven't felt tempted to risk it.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Unofficial Start

I had to explain my Christmas gifts to my three daughters. No one, and I mean no one, understands what a bed jacket is anymore. But they were pleased to see Mommy dust off the sewing machine. Thankfully, they understand reading in bed. In fact, they understand reading anywhere and everywhere.
Our family gives a lot of books for Christmas. I will admit I've started haunting book sales early in the year because it's gotten really expensive. They've added spouses or significant others. All of my grandchildren are readers, too.
It's the New Year and I'm off to a sluggish start. I've always loved this time of year and some of the changes I make have been lasting. This year I'm going to move away from involvement with community and church activities and focus on what I need to be doing with my writing. I faced up to the fact that the committees, volunteer work, etc. was due to a rather undesirable component of my personality: vanity! I believed that it was really important that I stick with a group. They needed me, really really needed me. It's so not true.
It's a brand new year all around. I have a new agent: Claudia Cross. Harold Ober Associates was purchased by Folio Literary Management and my previous agent, Phyllis Westberg, retired. Poisoned Pen Press has been sold to Sourcebooks. I'm finishing a new mystery and a new historical novel.
My biggest challenge in 2020 will be sorting through years of paperwork. I have letters from writers that belong in university archives. There's a treasured letter from Cormac McCarthy thanking WWA for the Spur award. I was chairman that year, so it came to me. My husband and Don Worcester were great friends and I'm sure the University of Texas would love to have Worcester's hand written letters.
There's no reason to save old insurance policies and detritus. At the beginning of 2020 I hope to be able to report that my files are clean and I have a clear conscience.
Happy New Year and good fortune to writers everywhere. 

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Resolutions and Goals

New Year's Eve with family
Happy New Year, Type M Community!

I wrote this post (the newspaperman in me still wants to call it a “column”) on Jan. 1, 2019. It feels like that time again –– a time of new beginnings, of fresh starts, of clean slates. And it definitely feels like it’s time to set some writing goals for the year.

So this becomes an I’ll-show-you-mine, if-you show-me-yours post. Here’s my list:
  1. Write 90 minutes every day. (This is always No. 1 on my list. I strive to control what I can control.)
  2. Run five days a week. (This, too, falls under the control-what-I-can-control category. If I’m not exercising, which allows me to clear my head, I’m not writing anything you want to read.) 
  3. Finish a 40-ish-page TV pilot script I’m working on for a novel my agents are currently shopping.
  4. Finish the sequel to the novel being shopping within eight months.
A simplistic list? I guess.

Only two that equate to tangible accomplishments? Only two that anyone but me will ever see?

Sure. But, in truth, as a writer, you must define success for yourself because so much in this business is beyond your control. I work –– really hard actually –– to focus on small steps. Asking Did I do anything today to accomplish my goals? Or simply Did I take a step today to get better at my craft?

Writing is never about sales or reviews. It’s about self-exploration, experimentation, and telling the best story you can tell. Period. And I set my goals accordingly. I’d love to hear other takes on this topic.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Those Hallmark Christmas Movies

Happy New Year! I hope everyone’s holiday was filled with joy and laughter.

I spent Christmas in Seattle where I ate way too much and watched an excessive number of Hallmark Christmas movies. I probably wouldn’t have watched any of them if my sister weren’t a big fan. She tells me which ones are good and which are so-so. I’ve agreed with all of her assessments so far. And, yep, I’ve now acquired a fondness for those Hallmark Christmas movies.

They seem to have acquired a life of their own. You can buy T-shirts, mugs, blankets and all sorts of things where you can declare your love for these movies. Ion, Lifetime and Netflix all produce their own Christmas movies with mixed results. I’ve enjoyed the Netflix ones I’ve seen. The Ion and Lifetime ones are hit and miss.

Hallmark Christmas movies remind me a lot of cozy mysteries. Except for the purpose/goal (find romance and solve problem v. solve a crime), they really are very much alike. Both
  1.  have positive endings (romance is found/problem solved/killer brought to justice)
  2. often take place in small communities
  3. have no sex scenes, but there’s romance. While it’s not a requirement in cozies, a fair number of them often have a romantic element.
I’ve watched enough of the movies now to see certain trends.
  1. The main female character is usually heavily involved with her career or saving the family business that she’s inherited or both. She’s not looking for romance. Sometimes she even resists it.
  2. There’s often a lot of misunderstandings. Really, people, talk to each other! Of course if they actually talked to each other, a lot of the dramatic tension would go away. 
  3. They usually take place in a snowy climate. I can’t think of a single Hallmark Christmas movie that doesn’t have snow or the threat of snow. Some of the Ion and Lifetime movies are set in warmer places, though. 
  4. There’s often a boyfriend that, shall we say, doesn’t have the main character’s best interests at heart. I call him the “evil boyfriend”. Of course, she discovers the subterfuge and connects with a different person who does have her best interests at heart. 
  5. Often includes widowers and the never married. Rarely includes someone who’s divorced.
Anyway, those are my musings on the Hallmark Christmas movies. Now I must go back into my writing cave and finish my next book.

I hope you all have a wonderful 2019.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Wishing everyone only the best in 2019

Last week, being Christmas, I totally zoned out that it was also Tuesday. Since I was chained to the stove at the time — since I’m the “designated chef” for large family meals — it wasn’t until nearly 11 p.m. before I realized I’d blown it.

Well, not today!

However, we have both our grandchildren with us for a New Years sleepover — giving their parents the opportunity to not be on duty — I have my hands full today.

So, I’m just going to wish the Type M family the happiest and healthiest of New Years. Good riddance to 2018!

And my one and only resolution is to finish this damn work-in-progress. It’s about time to release it on an unsuspecting world.