Thursday, December 12, 2019

How Could You! Or The Perils of Writing a Spin-off Series.



The Wrong Girl, the first book of my new series, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, has been out for a month now, and let me tell you, it's been interesting. The main character in The Wrong Girl, Bianca LaBelle (nee Blanche Tucker) is a spin-off from my previous 10 book series, the Alafair Tucker Mysteries. Blanche/Bianca is one of Alafair's younger daughters, and was featured as a child in The Wrong Hill to Die On (the double “wrongs” are a coincidence...) While she was growing up in Oklahoma, one of many children in a warm, loving family, Blanche was a sweet little kid, smart and pretty. So pretty, in fact, that Alafair was a little worried about what that might mean when she grew up.

As it turned out, Alafair was right to be worried. At fifteen, naive, headstrong Blanche ran away from home with a guy who promised to marry her and put her in the movies, but turned out to be the worst kind of predator. Fortunately, Blanche is as resourceful as she is beautiful, so she manages to escape, and with a lot of luck and a lot of help, she does manage to get to Hollywood and eventually becomes a big star. But for nearly a year after she runs away, she does nothing to contact her mother to let her at least know she's alive and well. She's ashamed, she's afraid, she's half-way excited about the adventure and doesn't want to be hauled back home to face the music. In short, she's fifteen.

I've gotten quite a number of wonderful reviews and fan letters about the new book, but I've also gotten a few letters that basically say How Could You Do That to Alafair! I'm sure that there are readers out there who had the same reaction but didn't write to scold me. Well, let me say that I worried about this before I started writing. The Dangereuse books are quite different than the Alafairs, and not nearly as warm and loving. It's a whole new world. I asked my husband, “If I write it this way, will I alienate some of the readers who love Alafair?”

My husband said, “Yes.” He was right.

But let me assure you all, grown-up Bianca is really sorry about what she did to her parents, and she does make a great effort to make amends. By the time she's famous, she and her folks are very close. I'm glad some of you are so invested in Alafair's feelings! But everything will turn out all right. I promise!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Books make the perfect gift

I love this discussion about books as perfect gifts. There is an endless variety of them - one for every taste and age and skill - and unlike most useful gifts these days, they won't bankrupt you. In my own family, we have two different traditions. My children and I celebrate Hanukah, but since none of them live in the same city as me and they only get the usual Christmas holiday time off work, we choose one of those days as our family Hanukah celebration. With any luck it falls on an actual Hanukah night, as it does this year, but otherwise we add a "Fradkin's Famous Ninth Night of Hanukah". We have always exchanged gifts on that night.


My extended family - sister, brother, nephews, nieces, and families - all lives in the area and we have been getting together for Christmas dinner since forever. Over the years, the families have proliferated, adding in-laws and next generations, so that now we are quite a big crowd both for Hanukah and Christmas. It's becoming an epic challenge to come up with affordable gifts. So some time ago we turned the Christmas event into a book exchange. It's brilliant. Each of us buys one book, wraps it, and puts it under the tree. When it's our turn to pick, we can choose to steal a book from someone else or take a wrapped one from under the tree. Some books are stolen several times.

This way people usually end up with a book they might at least vaguely want to read. Horsetrading and a lively discussion about each book's merits occur as well. Some books are duplicates, particularly award winners or books with buzz. Current political books are always hot, and there is a varied selection of both fiction and non-fiction.


When the children are small, they get books of their own from each of us, but the teenagers get to participate in the free-for-all.

I always have fun picking the book I plan to contribute, and this year I know exactly what I'm going to buy. Off to my favourite independent bookstore to buy it! I expect it to cause some merriment.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book gift-giving

by Rick Blechta

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday. Hope you did too. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, please Click Here.

I love giving — and receiving — books at Christmas. I will generally read anything, so if someone wants to giving me reading material, there isn’t a “don’t bother getting him this” list to go by. The field is wide open! (Actually, that’s not true. DO NOT give me an e-book.)

However, when buying books for another person, I really focus on buying something that will give a lot of enjoyment. That can be tricky.

This year, I’m only giving four books since the “adults” have decided to forego gift-giving. The books will be going to our grandchildren and two of our grandnieces/nephews. But even for children at various stages of reading development, it is a tricky process.

Our granddaughter is very much into “repeat enjoyment” of books. Whenever she’s over for her weekly visit, she goes to the shelf containing her books, takes her favourites out one by one and leafs through them. We also have some books that includes sounds/recordings — press a button and they play — but they’re also somewhat fragile, so Grandma or Grandpa have to read those with her. She always indicates when she’s ready for that to take place — she’s not really talking yet — and we love nothing better than to put her on our laps and let he turn pages and play her favourite sounds repeatedly.

Our grandson is now reading (quite well!), so he’s a different problem. We want something he can read to us, but tht he’ll also want to read on his own. Hmmm…

Our grandniece is turning seven shortly, so her reading skills are even more advanced. We’re just trying to figure this one out and may have to query her parents before coming to a decision. She’ll get a book she can enjoy on her own. I’d love nothing more than to give her “The best book I ever read!”

I always keep books I’ve received as gifts and at this point the shelf is quite impressive. It goes all the way back to the first book my mom ever gave me. There are probably a few missing along the way, or ones that had to be replaced because they’d been read so many times they were falling apart. But all are treasured.

So, from my point of view, giving gifts of reading is something to be taken seriously. There is nothing grander than to hear maybe months after that the person to whom I gave a book really enjoyed it.

That’s a wonderful thing indeed.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Improving Literature

One Christmas it was dressing-gowns. I don't know how it happened, but without consultation everyone seemed to have thought, 'I know - I'll get them a dressing-gown.' I still have a photo somewhere of five of us in a line-up flaunting them over our Christmas party best.

This year, I think it's going to be books. From the whispers I hear I don't think I'm going to be the only one who's decided books are the answer for Christmas 2019, and looking at the gaily-wrapped parcel my sister-in-law left with us in October – yes, she does that every year – I reckon it isn't a football.

When you get to our stage in life, when we've accumulated so much that the gift of another little knick-knack, however charming, isn't really going to be greeted with more than a wan smile as the parcel is opened, books are definitely the answer. It's usually not too hard to know what people's taste in books is and even if they are in the habit of buying what they like for themselves, most will wait for the paperback and having the brand-new hardback for Christmas is a luxury.

Of course,other motives beside careful and sympathetic choice can come into play. When my son gave my husband, a political biography freak, a biography of one of his own heroes knowing that his father didn't like him at all, it definitely came into the category of 'improving literature'. (He read it and enjoyed the book but it certainly didn't change his opinion.)

That was a great phrase in my youth. 'Improving literature' was the sort of book that would wean you off the other category, 'trash' and usually made your heart sink even though you might later see the point – though it could also have the opposite effect. My father gave me half-a-crown to read Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and I did it, but I've never read another one.

Which brings me on to the subject of my bookworm oldest granddaughter, aged 13. She has said she would like some 'classic' books for Christmas and I'm keen that my choice for her won't have that effect. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice haven't grabbed her (she wants to be an astronaut) but she's been known to express an interest in 1984.

So, advice, please! I'm thinking along the lines of Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps even 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What are the books that really snared your interest at that age and perhaps even shaped your reading habits for ever afterwards?

Saturday, December 07, 2019

The Mesdames of Mayhem

Today I am delighted to welcome as our weekend guests the inspirational group of crime short story writers who call themselves The Mesdames of Mayhem. Initially based in the Toronto area, this group of women have made their own luck and their own success, and have a story to share! Take it away, ladies.



When Madeleine Harris-Callway announced to our writers’ group in early 2013 that she was forming a crime fiction writers’ collective, our ears pricked up. We knew the power of writers working with other writers. I had already done some online networking, but a collective of writers who lived in close proximity meant we could promote one another in person as well as online.

We called ourselves the Mesdames of Mayhem, and we started out small: the six women in the writers’ group and eight other women writers in the Greater Toronto Area. None of us were big-name authors, although several were winners of or finalists for major crime fiction awards. We started giving talks at libraries and book clubs, telling audiences why we write crime fiction and what we write.

And we plotted our first crime fiction anthology. The idea was that each Madame would have a story in the collection, as well as her biography, a complete list of her works, and links to her website. The anthology would serve as our calling card, giving samples of each author’s writing and telling readers where to find her other works. Titled Thirteen to mark the year of its release, the collection was published in October 2013 by Carrick Publishing run by Donna Carrick, a member of the collective. 

Thirteen did very well. Three of its 15 stories were nominated for major awards. Donna’s watermelon Weekend” and Sylvia Maultash Warsh’s “The Emerald Skull” were finalists for the Arthur Ellis Best Short Story award. My story, “The Sweetheart Scamster,” was a Derringer Award finalist. The Mesdames subsequently released three more collections, all with the numeral 13—our lucky number—in their titles. 13 O’Clock came out in 2015; its 15 tales of crime all contained elements of time. Madeleine’s “Glow Grass,” was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Best Novella award.

13 Claws followed in 2017; its 17 stories featured animals—and dragons and snakes. This collection did extremely well. Three stories were nominated for the AE Short Story award: Catherine Astolfo’s “The Outlier,” Jane Petersen Burfield’s “There Be Dragons” and Sylvia’s “The Ranchero’s Daughter.” “The Outlier” went on to win the Arthur Ellis, Crime Writers of Canada’s top award for short fiction. Madeleine earned another nomination for the AE Best Novella award with her noir tale “Snake Oil.” And Catherine and Sylvia’s stories were both mentioned in Otto Penzler’s The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018.
The success of 13 Claws will be tough to beat, but our fingers are crossed for our fourth anthology. In the Key of 13 was released this October, and its theme is music. It has already received a thumbs-up from Jack Batten, the Toronto Star’s crime fiction reviewer. “One of the book’s appeals,” he wrote in his Oct. 16 review, “lies in the often ingenious ways the writers sneak Mozart or the Beach Boys or ‘Turandot’ into the plots.” 
The Mesdames’ anthologies have taken on lives of their own, but there is more to the collective than these four books. We’ve expanded to 21 members, including three men. And we’ve moved outside the GTA, with members in Fort McMurray, Alta., and Ottawa. Best of all are the ways in which individual mesdames and messieurs have lent their unique skills to the group. Donna has given us her publishing expertise. Veteran journalist Ed Piwowarczyk has edited the last three anthologies. Catherine Dunphy has scouted out venues where we can meet readers. Lynne Murphy, Marilyn Kay and Rosalind Place have worked their magic on our website. And Madeleine has kept us focused and committed.  
There really is power in writers working together, and the Mesdames have tried to pay it forward by holding two story contests for unpublished crime fiction writers. The winning stories were included in our last two anthologies: Mary Patterson’s “Night Vision” in 13 Claws, and Blair Keetch’s “A Contrapuntal Duet” in In the Key of 13.
Earlier this year, Toronto filmmaker Cat Mills was intrigued by a notice announcing a panel discussion by the Mesdames at a Toronto Public Library branch. She attended it. “These women were so interesting and vivacious and courageous,” she told CBC.ca. “They didn’t seem scared of anything. They were confident and excited and curious.”
Cat and CBC producer Felicity Justrabo interviewed the Mesdames as they worked on In the Key of 13. The result was a short documentary, The Mesdames of Mayhem, currently airing on CBC Gem.

“They are pursuing their dreams,” Cat said. “It’s hard to make it as an author. But they keep at it because it [the Mesdames of Mayhem] has given the women a community and a creative outlet.”



 The Mesdames of The Mesdames of Mayhem are 21 Canadian writers who share one deadly mission: to thrill readers with their passion for crime fiction. Several Mesdames are winners of or finalists for major crime fiction awards. The Mesdames--and Messieurs--are: Catherine Astolfo, Rosemary Aubert, Jane Petersen Burfield, Melodie Campbell, Donna Carrick, Lisa de Nikolits, Catherine Dunphy, Cheryl Freedman, Madeleine Harris-Callway, Marilyn Kay, Blair Keetch, Rosemary McCracken, Cat Mills, Lynne Murphy, Mary Patterson, Ed Piwowarczyk, Rosalind Place, Madona Skaff, Caro Soles, Kevin Thornton and Sylvia Maultash Warsh.

Friday, December 06, 2019

A Fine Bar for Dogs


I've spent many happy hours listening my daughter Michele's band, the Trucker's Daughter. But a couple of Sundays ago I had the pleasure of hearing her in a really unusual bar--the Soul Squared Brewing Company. It was a haven for dogs. 


Michele's fabulous guitar player, Josh Long, invited her to accompany him and what a performance it was. 

Talk about dog heaven! The bar was like a dog park. 



This certificate is very coveted recognition. Not every little doggie makes the grade.


There was a best-selling book several years ago: The Tender Bar. The bar the author described served as a parent during his childhood. What a great topic. I would love to know the story behind Soul Squared. 

Love and inspiration is where you find it. 



Thursday, December 05, 2019

Knowing your audience(s)

I’m caught between two projects right now: I'm trying to finish a novel that I've waded into 50,000-words deep, and I'm trying to write the pilot script for a would-be TV series based on said novel. My agent is awaiting the book, and a producer and an agent are waiting on the script. Of course, both are written on spec. (It wouldn’t be a mid-lister’s life, if they weren’t, after all.)

But something interesting happened on the way to the completion of both: I realized I'm writing for two different audiences.

The book, it seems to me, is written for an audience of mystery readers. People like me, I assume. People who want to find a new series, new characters, a new setting, and fall in love all over again (and hopefully buy this book and many more in the series). The book features a husband-and-wife team, and we move with them, learning about their lives together and apart, their struggles to raise a set of twin boys (one with a severe stutter) and a hyper-socially conscious daughter. We follow them on their journey to the solution of the crime. This is, first and foremost, a book I would want to read –– which is why I'm writing it.

The script, though it features the same husband and wife team, is dominated by the young people in the story. I knew it had to be as soon as the teenagers started talking. I went to a boarding school and now work at one. I know the pressures these kids face, know how they talk, and I know what they watch on Netflix. I also know that if the POV is to bounce around, as it must in the script, the kids can –– and will –– steal the show, so I’m going to let them.

All of this has produced an interesting lesson for me –– a lesson in audience awareness. The storyline for the script had to shift away from the novel’s plot. The script veered off the tracks of my outline as soon as the kids climbed aboard. Once they did, I knew we had left my favorite crime writers at the door. This was more Gossip Girl than The Long Goodbye.

All I do but try to keep all of it straight in my head, go along for the ride(s), and keep plugging away.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

It's The Journey

It’s Hallmark Christmas movie time once again. I’ve watched my share of them over the last few years after my sister got me hooked. Some I really love, some I think are just okay. But I always know what I’m getting with them. The couple always gets together and any other issues that come up are resolved in a positive manner.

I’ve heard some people complain that they’re too formulaic, too predictable and you always know the ending when you start. I suspect that’s why a lot of people watch them, because they know things will turn out okay in the end. For me, they’re a nice respite after watching grittier TV shows where things don’t always turn out as I want and favorite characters die.

It doesn’t matter to me that I know the basic ending. For me, these stories are all about the journey. How do they get together? What obstacles do they encounter that could keep them apart? Is it an interesting setting or an intriguing idea?

A recent one I watched, Write Before Christmas, had an interesting premise—at least to me. The woman’s boyfriend broke up with her a couple weeks before Christmas. She’d bought him 5 cards to send to him during the holiday period. So, instead of throwing them away, she sent each one to someone who’d been important in her life and told them how much they meant to her: her music teacher, the boy band member whose music had gotten her through tough times in adolescence, her best friend, her brother and her aunt who’d taken the two of them in after their parents died. The movie was about how those people were affected by receiving the cards. And, of course, there was romance.

I have a similar attitude toward cozy mysteries. They aren’t quite as predictable as Hallmark movies, but one hallmark(!) of them is that the killer is identified at the end and brought to justice and the world is righted once more. It doesn’t bother me if I can figure out who did it before the end of the story (this isn’t always the case, btw). I just enjoy the journey that brings me to the unmasking of the killer.

I used to fret a whole lot about how to hide the killer in my own books, but not so much anymore. I know there will be those who figure it out right away and those who don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I still am saddened when the former happens and I mentally pump my fists in the air when it’s the latter.

What’s really most important to me now is the reader’s journey. I try to set scenes in interesting places with interesting and fun characters and to put in twist and turns that surprise people. Because I think for a whole lot of readers, including me, it’s all about the journey.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

End of book depression

by Rick Blechta

First, let me set you straight what I’m referring to here. This post is not about being depressed when you’ve finished writing a book, but finished reading a particularly good book.

Obviously there is some connection between the two things. One point of conjunction is the fact that you won’t be hanging around with these very interesting people any longer. If you’re a writer, of course you can begin to craft a new story for your characters and just carrying on being with them. If you’re a reader, you’re at the whim of the author (or publisher), plus if you’re reading a current series, you know there’s going to be a wait of most likely a year of more.

And that’s depressing if the novel and characters you’ve just finished enjoying is particularly good.

Fortunately, the depression doesn’t last long. In my case, it’s generally just a few hours, but it is actual depression.

I’ve been down with a particularly bad cold the past week, with the result that I’ve been staying indoors and allowing myself to just relax and focus on getting better —Christmas season being what it is for musicians (lots of gigs) and get-togethers with friends and such.

So I went over to my favourite bookstore, the excellent Sleuth of Baker Street, and bought some novels by my favourite authors who thoughtfully released books in time for the Christmas season.

I finished a Peter Robinson novel yesterday, and as always, he didn’t disappoint. It was excellent. As I lay the book down for the last time, a strong wave of sadness filled me. I couldn’t hang out with Peter’s invisible friends until the next book is published. Bummer that!

My question is this: am I weird or are there others out there who get depressed when they have just enjoyed a particularly good book?

Monday, December 02, 2019

Storytelling—Casablanca Style

One of my favorite films, Casablanca, turned 77 on November 26. Whenever it’s on television, I never miss it. But what about it leads me to watch it over and over again? We do the same thing with movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Is it the nostalgia? Possibly.

Or is it because they check off all the right storytelling boxes?

Let’s stick with Casablanca. Our protagonist is the mysterious owner of a café in a very dangerous, exotic location against the backdrop of World War II. Our hero, or anti-hero, is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man with a dark past. He’s known to have run guns to Ethiopia during its war with Italy and to have fought with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. But something in his past has made him bitter, unwilling to take sides. He says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

And yet, we see a soft side of Rick when the randy opportunist Captain Renault (Claude Rains) offers to trade letters of transit to a young couple, newlyweds and refugees, for sex. Okay, it’s never actually said out loud in the film, but it was 1933, and we know what Renault wants. Rick lets the husband win at roulette, allowing them enough cash to buy their way to safety.

Casablanca comes with a fabulous MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is an object or a device in a book or a movie that moves the plot forward but is largely irrelevant. In this case, it’s the letters of transit that the creepy Ugarte has stolen from two murdered Nazis. Ugarte is played by Peter Lorre and nobody does creepy any better than him.

The Germans are hot on his trail and he begs Rick to take the letters of transit and hide them until he can come back safely to retrieve them. They’re worth a fortune on the black market. Ugarte is arrested and eventually dies in captivity. In the words of Renault, “I’m making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

The letters of transit are papers allowing their bearer to move about Nazi occupied Europe. They are the key to getting to a neutral country and safety

Enter the love interest. Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) is part of Rick’s dark history. She thought that her freedom fighter husband had died in a concentration camp and Ilsa had fallen in love with Rick. On the day that the Germans stormed into Paris, Rick and Ilsa were supposed to meet at the train station and leave for a safe haven. Rick waited at the train station in vain, never knowing why Ilsa never showed up, why she had forsaken him.

It wasn’t war that had made Rick bitter, it was lost love.

When she arrives in Casablanca, it is with her husband, alive and well, having escaped the concentration camp. Her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) is a famed Czech resistance fighter, someone the Germans want badly to get their hands on again.

Lazlo and Ilsa need letters of transit to find their way to neutral Portugal and time to organize their fight against the Nazis. They need the letters of transit that Rick has in his possession.

So let’s review what we have here in this storytelling process. We have Casablanca, an exotic location in a dangerous part of the world during World War II. We have a strong, taciturn, hero who is reluctant to help anyone but himself. We have Rick’s former love, Ilsa, torn between her feelings for Rick and her love and loyalty that she has for her husband. We have Lazlo, who desperately wants to get his wife to safety but also to fight the Germans.

And then we have the bad guys. Captain Renault is part of the Vichy police force but willing to play both sides of the fence. But the actual villain is Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) willing to go any length to, once again, take Lazlo into custody.

And percolating behind the story is the tension between the French, yearning for their freedom, and the Nazis. One of the most stirring scenes of the film takes place when a group of Nazis gather around the piano at Rick’s Café and loudly sing “Deutschland Uber Alles”. Disgusted by what he hears, Victor Lazlo leads the band and the rest of the bar in singing “La Marseillaise”. It’s a duel of national anthems that the Nazis lose.

The story arc is nearly perfect. In the end, the bitter loner has regained his humanity and his patriotism. He proves his love to Ilsa by allowing her to leave with her husband, after she's tried to make a deal with Rick for the letters, telling him that she'd stay in Casablanca and leave her husband.

I won't tell you how the movie ends, although I'm sure anyone who's reading this has seen the film a dozen times. But for me, as schmaltzy as it is, I thought it was the perfect way to tie things up.

And finally, the movie has some of the most memorable lines in movie history. My favorite? “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Play it Sam.