Monday, September 16, 2019

Poisonous Politics

Charlotte's post, not surprisingly, struck a chord with me.  Is the poison in politics a contagion?  Is simply the zeitgeist?

 In Britain, the public watches with slack-jawed astonishment as the 'honourable members' (so-called) of our esteemed parliament behave like children at a party that has reached the cake-throwing stage,  as we wait to see whether our next leader will be a Marxist who hates the United States, a Trump mini-me with a truth problem or a so-called Liberal  Democrat who is so democratic that she has proposed calling another referendum which she will only agree to respect provided the vote goes the way she wants it to.

Negotiations with the European Union have been horrifying, with unpleasantness, spite and bad faith on both sides.

In France, the streets of Paris - and elsewhere - burn in out-of-control protests against their President.  In East Germany, Angela Merkel's party is losing to the fascist Right.  In Glasgow, Irish Republican marches clash violently with Orange Order Protestant marches, despite the Good Friday agreement.
(And please, what on earth does it have to do with us in Scotland?)

As Charlotte says, it is the savagery that appalls.  What is it about our brave new world that makes 'compromise' a dirty word?  That makes 'hate' a legitimate feeling to have about someone whose opinion you don't share?  That calls being prepared to understand the other person's point of view  weakness?

I mourn too the American politics of my youth when Republican and Democrat politics more or less touched in the middle and it was still possible just to weigh up the policies and vote accordingly - respect!  In Britain, it was always more tribal and loathing for the other side is more or less compulsory now. In defiance, I have never joined a political party and have voted for several different ones in my time. I don't hate anyone, though when members of one party in Scotland swear at you in the street, never mind on Twitter, it's sometimes hard not to seriously dislike them.

Twitter - ah yes!  How much does the internet, and the ability to send abuse anonymously, have to do with our problems?  Discuss, as my university essay topics used to say.

But at least in the US, you have the chance to vote to change it all next year.  Here, irrevocable decisions are going to be made and it's hard not to think of  WB Yeats's lines in The Second Coming: 'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.'

Please, somebody, write something to cheer me up!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Politics, Anyone?

I don't discuss politics when I'm at a signing or asked to speak at an organization. I stay away from giving my opinion about controversial subjects. This is a matter of courtesy to me. People doing me the courtesy of attending an event don't come to be subjected to political tirades.

Politics in these United States have taken a savage turn. Discussions turn mean fast. I suspect that is true for my British Type M'ers over Brexit.

I'm liberal by choice and because I was instilled with fervor for the Democratic party by my father whose family came from the Deep South: Haversham County in Georgia. Politics were discussed passionately and often in the Southerland household.

Nevertheless, I'm not a "Yellow Dog Democrat." This term refers to people who would vote Democrat even if the party's only candidate was an old yellow dog. The phrase was coined after the Civil War during a heated Presidential campaign. I always vote. I'm most likely to be swayed by statements on a candidates website.

It's hard to gather accurate information about issues and personalities in today's world of sound bites. I would love to hear unopinionated news.

I can think for myself, thank you. I want to know what our candidates say and think, without immediate exposure to some political wonk's professional opinion about what a speaker "really" meant.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Paper or Plastic (really LCD)?

This week I'm editing –– lying on my couch, a No. 2 pencil in hand, manuscript pages cycling through my clipboard in stacks of 25, and I’m “chopping the wood,” as one writer-friend describes it.

And I’m thinking a lot about the process.

By day, I am a teacher, an English teacher. This means that over the course of my 20-year career, I have graded exactly a classroom full –– floor-to-ceiling –– of essays. Grading is by no means editing, and I pride myself on being paperless in that pursuit. When it comes to working on my own manuscript, though, I prefer paper over the screen. I have come to believe that I read faster on the screen than I do when holding a paper book. I know I can go through my manuscript much faster when reading pages on the screen than the printout on my clipboard. But I also know the finished product isn't as good. I learned that the hard way.

All of which makes me wonder why this is –– at least for me –– a disparity in editing a manuscript on the paper vs. reading it on the LCD monitor. What is it about editing and revising on a computer that is different from holding paper pages? Is the tactile experience part of revision? I know writers who insist on writing on legal pads and typing afterward. They describe the experience of handwriting a manuscript as slower, maybe more deliberate and thoughtful. I compose on computer. Couldn't imagine writing it out longhand. (Embarrassing confession time: working with my fifth-grade daughter, I realized I have forgotten how to write cursive. My late grandmother, a first-grade teacher, is turning over in her grave.)

The process is slower. Maybe that alone explains it. It takes me two hours to go through 25 manuscript pages when I'm working on hard copy. That's maybe twice as long I might spend going through the same pages on a screen. Is that why the finished copy is better? Maybe that’s part of it. But I sense there’s more to it. And I’m not sure what or why.

So I turn the discussion to you, dear Type M Community, to add your two cents here: Why is paper better than plastic?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Little Rebellion, A Little Fun

I’ve been feeling a little rebellious lately. And annoyed. And frustrated. So I went to visit those rebels in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland yesterday.

Yesterday was the first time I’ve seen Disneyland since the Star Wars “land” opened. My annual pass blocked me out most of the summer, which is fine because it’s too crowded and hot for me then anyway.

They did a good job on the look and feel as Disney always does. Disneyland was not terribly busy so you could just walk in and out without having to wait in line. When it gets busy, they give you a time when you can enter the new land.

Not a lot in the land, though. There’s one ride right now (Millennium Falcon) and one other coming in January. Then there’s a place to build your own droid and one with light sabers. As far as I can tell, those are both expensive. Then there’s Oga’s Cantina, the only place in Disneyland that you can buy an alcoholic drink. There was a line to get into that so I didn’t bother. There's a place to eat. And then there's something called "Milk Stand" where you can get non-dairy fruit drinks. No milk involved. Seems an odd name for the stand.

I thought you might be interested in a few photos.

What does this have to do with writing, you say? Well, I took the ARC of my latest book, GHOSTS OF PAINTING PAST, with me and did a little photo shoot. It’s been a tradition since my second book. Alas, my first has never been to Disneyland. I will have to rectify that one day.

The book will be out November 19th and is available for pre-order now. Or mostly available. That’s one of my frustrations. Pre-orders for the Trade Paperback at Amazon are lagging behind all of the others. One of these days the stars will align and everything will fall into place at Amazon.

Here are some pre-order links if you’re interested:


Before I get to those pictures I promised, I feel I should acknowledge that it's September 11th and remember all of those who lost their lives on that horrible day. I can't believe it's been 18 years. We were in Hawaii at the time, on the Big Island, so ended up having to spend a few extra days there. Not a bad place to have to wait to get home, but I still remember the shock and sadness and fright I felt.

Anyway, here are those pictures:

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The value of daydreaming

by Rick Blechta

Years ago, my mom gave me an envelope filled with a bunch of my old report cards from grade school. I must have glanced at them at the time, but I don’t remember it. Looking for something in my filing cabinet the other day, I ran across them again.

Something really struck me as I thumbed through the stack. The first mention was in Grade 2: “Student has a very vivid imagination.” In Grade 3, two standout mentions: “I often catch Richard daydreaming,” and “Richard seems to enjoy creative writing assignments the most.”

In every year up to Grade 6 (as far as the report cards went), there are multiple mentions about creative writing assignments and repeatedly I’m gently chastised about daydreaming too much.

Of course now, this all makes sense, but I remember my mother talking to me about paying attention more in class. Since these reports are from roughly 60 years ago now, I can’t tell you what I was daydreaming about, but I do know that from an early age I was constantly making up little stories/scenarios about various things, most of them pretty mundane, even into university. It just seems to be part of my make-up.

I’m a strong believer in the power of a good imagination, as well as the value of daydreaming or even simply getting lost in thought. I think all go hand-in-hand and need to be nurtured. Neither of my sons had many comments on report cards about daydreaming, but both of them have pretty vivid imaginations and have written a few very intriguing stories over the years. Neither became a writer like their dad — probably a good thing considering what we get paid — but I’m always thrilled to read something they’ve written.

My question to all of you — readers and writers alike — is this: did you have these experiences in childhood? And how were they handled by the adults caring for you? I’ve heard some wonderful stories about nurturing these things, but also some pretty horrendous stories about “applying oneself to valuable things, not wasting time daydreaming and living in a ‘storybook’ world.”

So, what do you have to share with us?

Monday, September 09, 2019

On Hurricanes, Book Launches, and Anticipation

I’ve mentioned in the past, that my wife and I live on a barrier island on the coast of North Carolina. Not officially one of the Outer Banks. We’re just south of there, jutting out from the mainland facing south. You can consider us a speed bump for hurricanes racing up the coastline.

Except Hurricane Dorian didn’t race. It crawled. From the time we first heard about it, to the time it battered the Bahamas with Category 5 winds, to where it appeared it was going to slam into Florida, then it crept up the east coast—it took days. Someone described it as being stalked by a turtle.

For us on our island, the storm track was alarming. The weather experts forecast that it would go north, hugging the coast, right up until it got to us. Either it would miss us by a whisper, or it would hit us dead on.

We didn’t get the direct hit. But we were slapped with ninety mph winds and driving rain, enough to knock out power, down trees, and damage roofs. The Outer Banks, just north of us, weren’t so lucky. Especially Ocracoke Island which was seriously flooded.

We weathered the storm with a group of die hard neighbors. We always assess what the danger is and decide to stay or to evacuate. We stayed and we are fine. We have power and internet and little structural damage. However, many others in our county can’t say the same.

The damage left behind by these storms is heartbreaking. We are still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Florence. There are still many families that are displaced from their homes and hotels and businesses still under repair, and psyches are fragile.

As you may know, my newest book, Graveyard Bay, is being released on September 10. I was supposed to fly to Scottsdale for a book launch event on Monday, September 9, in Scottsdale at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore.

I asked my publisher to reschedule because a storm like Dorian doesn’t just come and go. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. It’ll be days or weeks before many businesses reopen. It’ll take even longer to clean up the storm debris. Both Poisoned Pen Press and Sourcebooks graciously have rescheduled my appearance in Arizona to take place September 29.

I say all of this to talk about anticipation. I’ve been anticipating the launch of my new book for months. The wait is agonizing. You wonder if you’ll get favorable reviews, if readers will like your book or even buy it.

Even worse was the anticipation for Hurricane Dorian. We saw what it did in the Bahamas. It was coming at us as a Category 2, but then somewhere off the coast of Georgia, strengthened to a Cat 3. Would it continue to strengthen? Would we take a direct hit as many predicted?

Since we talk about writing here in Type M for Murder, keep in mind how anticipation builds tension in a book, amplifies concern, and ramps up fear. Don’t give away too much too soon.

Because I’ve only had power back on for less than twelve hours and watched our internet flicker back to life only just this morning, this blog will be very brief.

My first book signing for Graveyard Bay will be here in Carteret County, on the patio of Floyd’s 1921 Restaurant in Morehead City on Friday the 13, from 5pm to 7pm. Floyd’s is a perfect choice because almost exactly a year ago to that day, it was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Florence. But now it’s back and survived the battering that Dorian gave us. The perfect place to launch!

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Guest Post: Janet Laurence

 Hello, Aline here. It's my pleasure to introduce you this week to Janet Laurence, a woman of many talents and very much a live wire.  She has not only written cookery books but a book about how to write them, she was 'Bon Viveur' to the Daily Telegraph newspaper and is the writer of contemporary novels as well as several crime series.  So she's well-placed to write about That Question.


Any writer will have been asked the same question whenever they give a talk: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

It’s as if there is a shop you can go into, look along the shelves, browse the items stacked on the display tables, and find a few ideas that will fire your new book – or whatever it is that you need ideas for. Whereas in real life ideas are all around, if your mind is open to them.

Ideas for the first crime novel I wrote, A Deepe Coffyn, came from a talk given by P D James. Up until that point, though a great admirer of her crime novels, I had never met her, nor had I written a book, any book! It was at a conference of Southern Writers held in a lovely centre (now, alas, gone) just south of Chichester. There were peacocks in the garden uttering their unbeautiful cries every now and then.

Phyllis told us all we had the perfect setting for a crime novel. It provided a ‘closed circle of suspects’, which she said was important, and the peacocks added an unusual touch of atmosphere. Unlike many speakers at such conferences, Phyllis did not disappear immediately after her talk but stayed the rest of the weekend, allowing any of us who wanted to speak with her. Awe struck, having told her how much I admired her books, I said I didn’t think I could ever write a crime novel because I could never guess ‘who dunnit’ in all the ones I read.

‘Ah,’ she said gently, ‘you see, when you know whodunnit, it’s all much easier.’

 Her talk and my conversation with her came back to me some months later when I had to produce various pieces of writing for a course I went to at the same conference centre. I’d gone there hoping to be helped into writing a romantic novel, I was keen to pursue a career rather on the lines of Mills& Boon. Instead, I ended with all the makings for the first in my culinary crime series featuring Darina Lisle, roving cordon bleu cook. ‘Have knives, will travel,’ kept running through my brain as the course attendees were instructed to write various pieces.

I bashed out a first page, then samples of conversation, and various scenes to order on my portable typewriter (no lap top in those days), following the same characters, and gradually realised I had the makings of a crime novel. So I created a weekend symposium of the Historical Epicurean Society (and I still can’t understand why there isn’t one), held at a centre providing a closed circle of suspects, a cook,my main character, to provide the historical food, and a murder.

Both the conference and the creative writing course taught me, first: that if something somebody said, be it a speaker or in general conversation, reverberated in my mind, it was offering me something. Some idea. I might not know exactly what or if I could use it, but there it was, mine for the taking.

 Writing the ten books in that series, I found that as I was approaching the end of one, an idea for the next would gradually take shape in my mind. Where had I found the idea?

I set that series in the food world, one I knew quite well as I wrote the weekly cookery column for the Daily Telegraph at that time and was one of the very early members of the Guild of Food Writers. So I had a licence to talk to anyone I thought might be able to give me background information and, maybe, ideas I could use.

There was an importer of specialist foods who told me some of the problems they had as well as showing off their range of foods. Then and in the train going home, my mind was turning what he’d said into possible ideas for characters and dastardly motives. I think he was the only person I sent a copy of the book that resulted from their help (acknowledged in the book), who didn’t write and thank me! There are definitely informants who have been dismayed at what I have read into their seemingly innocent factual account of their dealings.

 When I sent Peter Bazalgette the book I wrote after he had so kindly allowed me to attend a day’s recording of the Food and Drink programme he produced and directed for the BBC, he wrote back saying he’d had no idea the programme contained so many possible areas for conflict and resentment.

That’s what I mean about opening one’s mind to possible ideas. After I sent a book to someone I worked for as a public relations consultant he asked me to promise never to set one of my novels in his world! So far I haven’t.

 I find that the really interesting part of writing crime is the way that murder – and which of us does not write about murder? – and its subsequent investigation throws a spotlight on relationships. Being suspected of murder, or being close to someone who could just possibly have killed someone, could be likened to being in the cauldron stirred by the witches in Macbeth, with its ‘eye of newt and tongue of frog’, etc, etc.’ The resulting crime novel brew raises previously unsuspected passions and reveals reasons that could well be motives for murder.

Which brings me to the heart of any crime novel: what can set one human being to kill another? It is the most dastardly, most final action one person can take against another. Here I find a valuable source of information in newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail. For instance, there has recently been a story regarding the havoc current public interest in having their DNA analysed can produce. A remarkable number of men have been dismayed to discover that the sons they had regarded as their progeny were, in fact, sired by another. That could well engender murderous thoughts against the wife but I find I can’t stop thinking about one particular case where the husband is suing the wife for the money he had spent in bringing up the son, I think he was about seven years old when the husband discovered the child wasn’t his, and he’d rejected the child from his life (I think I saw from a later story that he hadn’t).

 Now, for my purposes, the reaction of the supposed father isn’t my main interest. What occupies my mind are the possible feelings of the child as he grows up with a father that isn’t a father, who rejects him for no fault of his, and the terrible question mark over who is his biological father. Add a mother whose personality so far as the child is concerned is irrevocably changed and there is a story that could well lead to murder.

 Of course, wherever the idea comes from, by the time whatever work it inspired has been written, the actual source has been changed out of any recognition. This is the nature of creative writing.

One book I wrote arose from a news clipping about a child who found a beauty box that had been accidentally left behind on a beach. When the owner was finally tracked down, it turned out that she had felt unable to face anybody without her makeup and therefore hadn’t come out of her room until the box that contained what she considered ‘her face’ was found. When the book was finished, the only factor that remained from that cutting was the reliance one of the main characters had on her looks and their effect on others.

These ‘ideas’ are spurs that set my mind working. They can show themselves anywhere and at any time.

Talking to people, particularly people one doesn’t know, often produces amazing details of others’ lives. I find myself thinking, and sometimes saying, ‘there’s a story there’. Usually I don’t note the interesting details or history down and such is my chronic lack of memory (nothing new, I lost it when I was about ten. One week I had total recall, the next - a blur) I usually forget whatever it was. I would be totally lost without my diary. However, I was once told that if an idea is good enough, it will return. Which infers that if it doesn’t return, it wasn’t worth much. That is calming but I don’t really believe it’s true.

 Waiting in a station or airport, travelling in a train or on a bus, can produce ideas and characters. Body language can be almost as informative as words and faces can suggest characters. It doesn’t matter if your translation of that language or facial looks is way off beam. The ideas that have arisen can form the basis of a short story, or of a sub-plot.

 I was watching an episode of ‘Who do You Think You Are’ when the subject that week discovered a couple of ancestors along the line had been part of the fairground world around the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. All of a sudden, there on the TV screen was a large wooden screen illustrating various jungle animals and I was carried into another world. In the same programme was a marriage certificate that stated the bride was a spinster. But there was an earlier marriage, one that seemed to have been forgotten. Which, I thought, surely meant that the second marriage had not been legal. The ideas churned in my mind. I recorded the repeat of that programme so I could watch it again and again. Two essential cogs for the second book in my Edwardian Ursula Grandison series had been put into place.

 If I think a television programme could possibly provide ideas or background information, I record it. Easy enough to delete if it doesn’t.

True crime books are fertile grounds for ideas. I read in one that suicides are never committed lying down. Well! Mulling over this interesting fact, it occurred to me that what looked on the face of it a genuine suicide, could be questioned by someone aware of the ‘never lying down’ information. So I had a turning point for the first in my Edwardian series.

 Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Some can kick-start a book, others can help along a plot in difficulties. An audience member at a talk I gave complained he couldn’t see how to sort his plot out and could I please tell him what he should do. Keep working at it, I said, especially before you go to sleep at night, and keep an open mind. Eventually, I assured him, he would find the answers.

 So maybe there is an Ideas Shop out there. We just take it along with us as we try and sort out our plots and characters. May mine never be shut!

Friday, September 06, 2019

Guilt as a Plot Device

I'm still trying to finish up summer projects, settle into fall semester, and set up a schedule. But I did have a thought this morning that I want to share.

I woke up when it was still early --or seemed to be. My bedroom doesn't get morning sunlight, so I always have to check the clock. I mention this because I looked down toward my feet and remembered that my cat, Harry, had knocked on my door (literally -- with large Maine Coon paws. He does that every morning when I haven't gotten up by the time he is ready to start the day. It's his follow-up to meows).

Last night, he knocked as I was reading, and I was surprised. I opened the door, he strolled in and instead of looking around and leaving, he hopped up on the bed. He stretched out and settled in. It was almost as if he had been reading my mind and thought this would be a good time to remind me that he is a cat who enjoys company. I had been gone most of the day, and first he curled up in my lap for a nap after he'd eaten, now he was getting in more quality time with me by sleeping on my bed instead of his favorite living room chair.

He seemed to have sensed that I was feeling guilt and decided to rub it in. Before he knocked on the door I was reading a book (research for 1939 thriller that I have on my nightstand) and debating a trip in 2020. I've been wanting to visit Ireland and Scotland. A friend is going on a guided bus tour of Scotland, and emailed to invite me to join her. I have enough travel points to cover my airfare, and it would be the perfect time to do some research for the seventh Lizzie Stuart book I plan to write (assuming I'll finish the sixth). Only problem: If I go to Scotland, I will have to board Harry with his sitter while I'm away. His sitter is one of his favorite humans, and he stayed with her when I was in Alaska. But he was really upset with me when I crated him up and dropped him off. He tried to hide under a chair when I returned to pick him up. Of course, we have been together almost three years longer now. He should know by now that I'll come back to bring him home. But I'm still worried that two weeks away from home would be traumatic for him.

Okay, I know, he's a cat. But I have to live with him. And I feel guilt about not being a good "parent" to my "fur baby" (guilt is built into this language). Even though my cat lives much better than some people and he's certainly lucky that even though I didn't intend to adopt a cat, I was persuaded. He has a good life, and it's not like he would suffer during those two weeks. But I feel guilty. On the other hand, Harry's sitter has a camera in the room reserved for the one cat she is boarding. I can dial in and even talk to him. So if she can keep him, I will probably go.

That brings me to how this is related to writing -- as I was thinking about Harry this morning, it occurred to me that what we feel guilty about provides a clue about what we feel important. I have a character that I'm trying to get a handle on -- two of them in fact -- and I'm going to ponder this.

It turns out there is a difference between feeling "guilt" and feeling "shame". The two emotions are aligned, but not the same

As you can see from the title of the article, people who experience guilt are attuned to how our behavior affects others. But the question is what we do about that guilt. If a character does something because of guilt -- or doesn't do something that everyone would expect him or her to do, knowing that the character would have felt guilty if he or she didn't  . . . follow that?

Of course, it's possible to make a decision and then backtrack. I'm still feeling guilty about going away later this year and leaving Harry alone at home -- even though he'll have twice-daily visits from his sitter. But I'm locked in, having paid. What if I wasn't, and he climbed into my suitcase as I was packing. . .

I'm penciling in time to think about what each of the characters in my thriller might feel guilty about. This could also work for the character who disappears in my next Lizzie Stuart book. I might as well put my own guilt to good use. 

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Time for Nice Girls to Be Bad

Mae Murray, the Girl with the Bee Stung Lips

Donis here. After spending more than a decade writing about a family in Oklahoma in the 1910s, I've started a new series set in Hollywood in the 1920s, featuring a glamorous, young, up-to-date woman named Bianca LaBelle. I'm in a whole new world, and in trying to portray a realistic picture of what Bianca's life is like, I find myself doing research on the strangest and most interesting things.

Bianca is a silent movie actress, so I had to learn about movie makeup as well as the daily makeup routine of a modern young twenties-era woman. In the age of the Flapper, even nice girls wore makeup on the street, and young women were very much influenced by the glamorous ladies in the movies – pale complexions, dark red “bee stung” lips, and a ton of kohl eyeshadow.

There was a reason that movie queens sported that particular look, and it had more to do with lighting and film quality in the early silents than any particular idea of female pulchritude. In the 1910s and early part of the 1920s, film was orthochromatic, or blue-sensitive. Red appeared to be black and light blue filmed as white. In fact, blue-eyed actors had trouble finding work because their eyes basically disappeared. Imagine a movie full of characters as blank-eyed as Little Orphan Annie. Actors’ skin would appear dark gray, and their facial features tended to disappear and look fuzzy. Flaws were magnified tenfold. Studio lighting was harsh. Special makeup was necessary to make actors look like real people with eyes and mouths.

In the 1920s, makeup artists like Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor began creating different tones of greasepaint and powders especially designed for film, making it easier for actors to look natural. White chalk was sometimes added to hands to match the whitened faces. Eyes were nearly always lined with kohl and darkened with grey or purple eyeshadow to help them stand out.

By 1923, the movie industry started using better studio lighting and panchromatic film, which registered colors more naturally. Actors could cultivate a much more natural look on film. But by that time, all the smart young things were sporting mascara and bow lips.
The Wrong Girl: The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode 1, now available for pre-order on Amazon

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Trials and tribulations

by Rick Blechta

I guess this week’s post might be of more interest to authors than non-authors, but I believe anyone might find my topic interesting.

Here it is in a nutshell: as an author, what is the most annoying thing you face? I’m not talking about the big-ticket items such as agents or publishers not getting back to you, having your novel’s title changed because of a “marketing decision”, or maybe being interviewed by someone who has not read your book or who has any idea who you are.

So, we’re talking about the more petty annoyances. Here are the top three on my hit list:
  • At a signing, being buttonholed by someone either telling you their life story or asking questions about how to get their novel published — but at the same time having no intention of purchasing your novel.
  • Someone you hardly know or maybe don’t even know asking you to introduce them to your agent/publisher, maybe even going so far as to ask you to recommend them.
  • Someone who tells you they have an amazing idea for a novel. “I’ll tell you my idea. You can write the novel and we’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty!”

The first one on my list is the really sticky wicket, mainly because it takes place in public. It doesn’t take long for an author to spot these folks. The obvious solution is to tell them something like, “I’m signing right now. It’s not kind to make the folks behind you wait. Perhaps we can talk after the signing concludes.” Trouble is: what if there no one else in line?

I’m not by nature an unkind person, but there have been times where I’ve wanted to scream, “Look here! If you want advice, I'll give you advice! Just bugger off!” But I often wonder why these people never buy your novel.

The second one is very awkward. I’m not willing to risk my reputation recommending someone whose writing skill I don’t know, nor do I have sufficient time to invest in reading their manuscript. They don’t seem to realize it’s a pretty big request to make. My default is to tell them to contact either my agent or a publisher through the normal channels, then contact either of those and tell them what I’ve done and that I have no idea whether this person has anything usable on offer.

The last one is less fraught. I simply say, “I’m sorry but I can’t work like that. But I wish you great luck and may you make me regret my decision for the rest of eternity.”

So those are my top three. What are yours?

Monday, September 02, 2019

What's in a Name?

I wonder if you've ever been asked to allow some worthwhile charity to auction the right for someone's name to be used as a character in one of your books? And if you did, how much did you afterwards regret your charitable impulse?

I did it a few times and got away with it. There was never a promise that the named character would be the murderer or the victim or even one of the principals and luckily the winners were people with perfectly ordinary names that could be fitted in quite easily to the book I was currently writing – and indeed, one was someone I knew and I already had a character who was much in the same mould.

I think there was a particular fashion for this at one time and stories began coming through that it had become a 'thing' for people with unusual names to make a point of winning auctions, just to wind up the authors. That was when I had a problem.

The book I was writing, Lamb to the Slaughter, was set in a small Scottish border town where feelings are running high about the threat to the small local shops posed by a supermarket's plans to open on the doorstep. Elderly Colonel Carmichael is shot dead on his doorstep; other characters have names like Forbes, MacNaughton, Burnett, Wilson – all common Scottish names.

So you can imagine how I felt when I was told the name of the man who'd won the auction and whom I was now obliged to insert somehow into my story – Wilfrid Vernor-Miles. There may be Scotsmen who are called Wilfrid, but I've certainly never met one. And Vernor-Miles – he'd definitely have to be posh, with a name like that and it was going to stick out like a sore thumb.

Mercifully, one of my characters was working for a pheasant shoot and I could actually slot in Wilfrid as one of the clients. But it did make me decide that in future I'd give the charity a donation instead of a name in future.

Ian Rankin has had a bigger problem. He recently offered two slots for names that would be put in his next Rebus novel and was, I think, gratified that he got two very high bids, each for £5000. He didn't know who had bought them, though, until the names were disclosed to him later. The bidders, clearly possessed of a lot of money and a wicked sense of humor, were – Lee Child and Karen Slaughter.

I'm waiting with interest to see how he deals with that – and whether he ever agrees to auction a name again!