Friday, September 25, 2020

Everyone Outdoors

My daughter (Michele) and granddaughter (Audrey) have launched a new blog--Everyone Outdoors. Both are passionate believers in the merits of getting outside. It's aimed at beginners, but has something for everyone.

I'm envious when I look at the photos. I have no desire to take up white water rafting,  but honestly, staying inside the house is getting me down. Why would I do that, since I'm quite healthy? Because of the ragweed and the smoke from the wildfires creeping up on Fort Collins! Nevertheless, simply being outdoors strengthens mind and body.  

We have had bad air quality warnings for the past two weeks. I have a hodgepodge of environmental allergies and don't handle smoke-laden air well at all. So I'm forced to make a wicked choice between my lungs and my brain. 

This forced exile (as if Covid wasn't bad enough) has given me a new appreciation for the calming benefits of open space. My usual walk is along the Spring Creek Bike Trail which is extravagantly green and blessed with a lovely brook on the South Side that wends its way around the town. 


Audrey (left) and Michele at the Hecla Junction takeout of Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River in Colorado

Thomas Kies, a fellow Type M blogger, posted a moving account of the loss of his writing buddy, Lilly, a lovely little shih tzu. It reminded me of my little sidekick, Brandy Noel. She was the most faithful companion I could ask for and the inspiration for Tosca in my Lotte Albright series. 

I adore Audrey's little dog, Mabey, but even she managed to spend time outdoors. I can't taking imagine Brandy on a river trip, but look how happy Mabey is!


Mabey doesn’t look like the outdoorsy type, but she loves floating the Gunnison through Escalante-Dominguez National Conservation Area


The waterfall at Dominguez Creek is blessedly cool

I know this self-imposed exile will soon be over. In the meantime, enjoy reading about the exploits of the intrepid Crockett family on:





Thursday, September 24, 2020

Kernels

This week, I went to Maine to see relatives and left thinking about stories –– how they come to me and more importantly where they come from.

I’ve always believed the best stories begin with a kernel of truth. They stem, in some way, from real life. This weekend, I visited my father’ grave and started thinking about the best “true” stories I know. Many stem from his life and death. Others are about times he lived through and shared with my sister and me.

I just completed a manuscript about a woman with a gambling addiction. I got the idea after reading about the downfall of a person I knew when I was in high school. The plot of the book –– at least the very first kernel –– stems from that. Of course, it evolves into much more, but the kernel, that initial idea, stemmed from me asking, "Whatever became of the best high school athlete I ever saw?" The answer stunned me. The tale resonated with me.

And so I wrote. I won’t say I wrote it because my novel isn't that story. I change it, as I should. But the kernel is there.

Here’s a newspaper story I’ve shared with student-writers over the years.


Prosecutors consider fate of 8-year-old

Published: Sunday, February 06, 2000, Lubbock Avalanche Journal http://lubbockonline.com/stories/020600/nat_020600046.shtml#.WUOlMxPyv-Y


COKER CREEK, Tenn. {AP} Neighbors said that for months the ramshackle mobile home littered with piles of trash and beer cans had been the site of loud parties and drunken fights, most in front of two young boys who lived there with their mother and her boyfriend.

When it was quiet, they said, the children often were left alone with no food, running water or electricity.

Then, last week, the mother's boyfriend was stabbed to death, and the 8-year-old boy confessed to killing him, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department said. According to police reports, the boy said Keith Podzebka, 41, had been hitting his mother.

District Attorney General Jerry Estes said authorities are reviewing the case to decide if the boy will be tried as a juvenile or an adult.

"These issues are rare. I don't recall having an 8-year-old involved in a murder," Estes said Saturday. "This is a first for us."

Where the child is prosecuted depends on the motive and whether he has committed other violent acts, Estes said.

The second-grader described by neighbors as a sweet, intelligent child is accused of stabbing Podzebka in the chest Jan. 30 in this isolated rural community, tucked away in the Cherokee National Forest near the North Carolina border.

According to police reports, the boys' mother said another man stabbed Podzebka, but then her 8-year-old son confessed.

"He was smart with a lot of potential despite what was going on in that home," said Ann Irons, the parent of child who attends the same school as the boy. "He was attention-seeking but not violent. He was a good boy. If he did it, he was pushed."

The boy's mother was charged with child neglect and pleaded guilty Tuesday in Monroe County Sessions Court. She was given a suspended six-month sentence.


The story offers so many rich questions –– legal and ethical. If you think about it for a while, something will emerge that you can write about. Many students have gotten wonderful short stories from this one.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on kernels of truth and how they impact your creative process.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Desert Sleuths WriteNow! Conference Recap

 

I recently attended the Desert Sleuths Write Now! conference virtually via Crowdcast. This is a writing conference usually held in Arizona put together by the Desert Sleuths chapter of Sisters in Crime. 2020 being the year it is, they moved it online and let people attend for free.

Here’s a short recap of my experience. Note that all of the sessions were recorded and you can watch any or all of them. Go to https://desertsleuths.com/write-now/2020conference for more information.

It was a one-day event, running from 8 a.m. – 4:30 pm Pacific. Dana Kaye did a great job of facilitating the conference. There were 15 minute breaks between sessions and a 45 minute break for lunch. Since each session was recorded, I could have decided to watch some of them later, but I ended up watching everything live.

After a welcome session, Naomi Hirahara started the conference off by talking about How to Create Characters Worth Reading. She proposed that a writer starts developing a story in one of two ways: either starting with a character and developing it from there or starting with a scenario and figuring out the characters that fit it.

I realized while she was talking that I have started stories both ways, though I suspect I’m more of a scenario person. My series started with an image of a young woman finding her painting teacher in her garden. I figured out the character of Aurora (Rory) Anderson from there.

Naomi also talked about the importance of naming your characters, which I totally agree with. I can’t really work on a story until my main characters have names. They don’t seem real to me until they do. She said names should be unique, meaningful, culturally appropriate and have a good rhythm. She also noted that you should use google to check to see if any real person has that name. If two or more people do, you’re fine. If only one person does, you should change the name.

The next session was with agent Kirby Kim who gave the best and most concise description of the publishing world that I have heard.

There was an interesting panel with Naomi interviewing Matt Coyle and Michael Connelly and one later with the three of them answering questions.

Jessica Morrell gave a fairly long workshop on editing, which she called Secrets of the Dark Arts. She gave out very extensive handouts, which can be found on the Desert Sleuths website. She also participated in a publishing panel with Kirby where they answered questions about the publishing world.

All in all, I think it was a conference worth “attending” with lots of interesting information.

 *********

In other news, I’m participating in the next House Arrest sponsored by Sisters in Crime/LA, Thursday, October 1st at 7pm PT. It’s a Noir at the Bar kind of thing done via Zoom. The public is welcome, but you must register beforehand. For more information and to register go here.

 


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Please welcome Type M’s newest member!

If you have sharp eyes, you’ve no doubt noticed there is a new name on our site: Douglas Skelton, and it is my pleasure and honour to introduce Douglas to you all.

First, here’s a bit of bio information he’s supplied:

Douglas Skelton is the author of 12 true crime/Scottish criminal history books, including one which exposed a notorious miscarriage of justice in Scotland. Since 2013 when he turned to fiction, he has written ten crime novels set in Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands and New York.

Open Wounds, the final part of his Davie McCall series, was nominated for the McIlvanney Award in 2016. The first Rebecca Connolly novel, Thunder Bay, was similarly long-listed in 2019 and is available in the USA from Arcade Crimewise. The Blood is Still will be published by them in January 2021.

Please look in the righthand column where partway down, you will find a link to Douglas’s website and Twitter feed.

Second, Douglas will be alternating on Mondays with Tom Kies. Look for his inaugural post this coming Monday.

Also, I heartily suggest that you dip your toe into his books. I’ve already ordered Thunder Bay, and I suspect I’ll be ordering the rest.

Again, welcome Douglas!

Have a great week, everyone. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to Monday.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Tribute to Lilly, My Writing Buddy



 The Covid-19 pandemic, apocalyptic wildfires in the west, horrific hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast states, lawmakers and citizens denying science and refusing to keep themselves safe by simply wearing a facemask.   

Then Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday.

Bad week. Bad week, for sure.

Made worse when we picked up the cremated remains of our shih-tzu Lilly on Saturday. 

She was about fourteen years old and had been with us for about seven. She was a rescue, so we didn’t know much about her life before she came to be part of the family.  Stacy, the wonderful woman who brought us Lilly, told us that she thought Lilly had been kept in a crate for long periods of time.  As a result, her back legs were a little wonky and not particularly strong. Sometimes she’d get tired on a long walk and just lay down in the grass.  

Good advice for all of us, I think.  When life gets to be too much, go outside, and lay down in the grass.

Lilly loved being in my office, a finished room over the garage, sleeping on the love seat next to my desk, or snoozing among my many notebooks on the floor, while I’d write.  I liked looking over at her, watching her breathe, and somehow the world felt like it was okay.

And if I got up from my desk to go downstairs for a cup of coffee, she’d spot me when I returned,  flip over on her back, and insist on having her tummy rubbed.  

We should always make time for tummy rubs.

In the evening, that’s when Cindy and I would watch television and Lilly would snooze until I went downstairs for something.  God help me if I came upstairs without bringing her some treats.  Inevitably, I had to go back downstairs to fetch them or she’d give me the stink eye until I did.

We should always make time for treats. 

Quick story about how much we love our dogs.  About five years ago during a freak February ice storm (we live on the coast of North Carolina) my wife Cindy was getting ready to take Lilly out for her final walk of the night.

Being the good husband, I told her, “No, honey.  It’s still sleeting, let me do it.”  And she did.

I carried Lilly out into the cold dark night, ice pellets bouncing off my hat, down the driveway, and across the street to the corner, where all the neighborhood dogs seem have been at one time or another.  I set Lilly down and waited, listening to the ice hit the road and the tree limbs in the darkness above me.

There was a sudden noise that sounded like a cannon shot.  Without thinking, I put my arm up over my head.

The next thing I knew, I was on the ground and Lilly was looking genuinely confused but unscathed.  

That’s when I realized that I’d been hit by a falling tree limb and my right arm no longer seemed to work.  We both got back to the house and an ambulance took me to the hospital where it was judged that my arm was broken.

The story about the ice storm was on the front page of our hometown newspaper, noting that there had been one serious injury as a result, telling the world about my dog walking mishap.

On Thursday I went into surgery and while I was there, my assistant where I worked fielded calls from people who had read the story.  She’d tell them that I was fine and undergoing surgery.

Every single one of them said, “Yeah, that’s good news about Tom.  But how’s Lilly?”

She was fine.  I broke the fall of the tree limb with my body.  It appeared I was expendable, but everyone loves dogs, and Lilly was well known in our neighborhood. 

Not having her here has left a huge hole in our lives.  The house feels empty.  Lilly was our friend and protector of our home.  We never once have had a squirrel inside the house.  

She was also my writing buddy and right now while I’m sitting at my desk with my laptop in front of me, I wish I could turn to her, give her a tummy rub, and get her some treats. 


Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Hardest Part for an Amateur Sleuth

Donis here, still carrying on, still writing on a mystery and hoping my protagonist is smarter than I am. When I start a mystery novel, I usually know who the murderer is, and I usually know how and why s/he did it. I also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime. I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story. But here’s the hardest part: Bianca, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.

What’s the problem, you ask? Just have your sleuth sort through the clues, make the right connections, and Bob’s your uncle.

As anyone who has ever written a mystery can attest, it’s not that easy, my friend, because you have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

My protagonist,Bianca, is a Jazz age silent movie star, quite unlike my earlier protagonist, Alafair, who is an Oklahoma farm wife with a bunch of children. But like Alafair, Bianca is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t solve crimes for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. So, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway? The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved.

Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want. In other words, I can’t have Bianca doing things that a woman of her time and place - even one with her considerable resources - wouldn’t do. I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.

This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking, "how can Bianca figure out what a mobster is up to," or “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has ten kids who want dinner?”

Whatever my heroine does, it must be realistic. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.

Forcing the action is a common mistake for a beginning writer. I often see it done in one of two ways. One is the “Idiot College Student Syndrome”. This is when the character has been brilliant throughout the book, but suddenly does something stupid just so you can put her in danger and increase the tension. One by one, five college students went into that dark room alone and were massacred by an ax murderer. In the name of all that’s holy, Number Six, don’t go in there! Call the police, you idiot!

Second is the “Wildly Unbelievable Coincidence”, in which the author hands the sleuth the vital clue in the most implausible fashion. The detective didn’t detect. He just happened to be in the right place. He just happened to stumble across an object. The killer suddenly leaped up out of his chair and confessed. I have to be sure that my sleuth honestly found the answer using the information provided in the story.

This is one of the things I like about an amateur sleuth - she has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. In fact, there have been occasions where my protagonist came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page. Toward the end of my fourth book, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information. It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.

I'm working on my twelfth mystery right now, and praying for Bianca to come up with a blinding insight and let me in on it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

How to survive the pandemic and other chaos

 As Charlotte said in her Friday post, this has been an extraordinary month in an extraordinary year. Every day we ask How can it get any worse? And then fires happen, and hurricanes, and the covid case numbers start to creep up – at least in Canada. In our neighbour to the south, they have been insanely high all summer. People feel buffeted from all sides, and it's very difficult to stay centred. Sustained productive work is almost impossible. All our "normal" life anchors are gone and we can't predict or control what is coming. In the midst of this anxiety and helplessness, schools are reopening across the country, with teachers wondering how they will manage to teach anything in such an alien, socially-distanced, masked world, and students probably struggling to focus on learning the material anyway.

Some jobs require an external focus, forcing us out of our heads to deal with the task at hand, whether it's stocking grocery shelves, driving a bus, and performing heart surgery. It's possible to work through distraction and worry, at least for the short periods required to do the job. Others are more introspective and require deep delving into our own thoughts and feelings. Writing a novel is at the extreme of that. Not only do we have to inhabit our own imagination inside our own head, but we have to do so for hours at a time in order to "get into the zone" and create a meaningful. coherent chunk of story. 

Reading and TV provide a similar contrast. When I was dealing with grief, I found I couldn't read a book at all. I browsed through magazine articles and such but the sustained attention and immersion in the story required for a novel was beyond me. My thinking was fragmented and I felt flighty. I also could write the reports and articles required for my work but couldn't write a single creative sentence. TV watching was much easier than reading. You flick the switch and sit like a zombie letting the story wash over you without much effort on your part. 

Since March, I've gone through ups and downs on this continuum, as we all have. I have been more distracted and flighty, and have found I really have to work hard to stay focussed on the book I am writing. This is especially true if I've been watching too much news. I am spending much more time watching TV or browsing idly on the Web.

All this is normal in the face of a world turned upside down. And people's reactions are highly varied. Some deny there's even a problem. Some hide under their beds. Some believe in absurd conspiracies. Some take to the streets in angry protest. Some deliberately flaunt the rules with an almost frenetic, "end-of-days" enthusiasm. Most of us try to listen to the advice of experts, sort through the confusion, and take a reasoned stance in our behaviour. For us, the deniers, the flaunters, and the angry anti-maskers are just an added layer of frustration and worry, especially as the case numbers rise. 

There are no easy answers and no quick way out. We may have many more months of this uncertainty and as the days grow dark and cold, we will need all our resources of resilience and support. There have been lots of articles written about mental health, but I recently came across this interesting article which has some useful tips and information. 

I find that walking through nature helps me to find that peace and focus to connect with my creative side. What works for you?




Tuesday, September 15, 2020

There’s always something new to learn, but is it worth it?

I’m going to begin this week’s post with the software we here at Type M have to use in order to give our readers something to see. Since nothing says “we’re a happening website” like giving an application a new look, we’re dealing with a Blogger software update — or at least I am.

My main computer is now considered “vintage.” There is nothing wrong with it. In fact, it works rather well. As with all computers, having the latest and greatest software updates means that eventually the operating system won’t handle them. Part of this is because of advances in the heart of any computer: the processor.

I once put a question to a computer scientist, to wit: “Why are changes made to operating systems because of new processors that cause a lot of other programs to suddenly need updating too? Couldn’t it be engineered so that older programs would still work?”

He was silent for a moment and said, “Well, to be honest, then software developers wouldn’t sell nearly as many updates.”

I understand business, so I can see the sense in that, but it still left me very annoyed and feeling…sort of ripped off.

Getting back to my main computer, I can no longer use it to write my posts, and it’s a huge pain in the patootie. Fortunately, I bought a MacBook Air so I’d have something more portable, and that does have the latest and greatest software — at least for the browser app I use — but I’d rather be using my mainstay.

I got into the book-writing business back when computers still used floppy discs. There was not much internet and social messaging had not yet appeared. Things were more simple. Writers wrote book, publishers bought them, and promoted them, with the author chipping where helpful (interviews, appearances and the like).

Then applications like Facebook appeared. Twitter came along. All of a sudden publishers realized the didn’t need to do quite so much promotion. Heaven knows, everyone is happy to save money.

So a lot of the heavy promotional lifting fell on the shoulders of the poor author — and man, did we have a lot to learn! I’m certainly no Luddite when it comes to computers, but dealing with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, etc, etc, take up massive amounts of time — and most of the time, it’s not much fun. But all of us had to learn how to self-promote, so we learned how to use all these tools. It was clear that if we didn’t, our publishers would lose interest in a big hurry.

Progress is a good thing. I’m not disputing that, but sometimes it would be nice if progress wasn’t always tied to the almighty dollar. The “new look” blogger dashboard is no better than the old one, except that it looks different. Google (who owns Blogger) decided that, in order to save a bit of money, they would no longer support older browsers. To continue here, if I didn’t have my second computer, I would be forced to go out and buy a new one, or resign from Type M.

I’m fortunate, but how many others are not — and is that fair?

Guess I am a bit of a Luddite after all.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Bewildered


 


Yesterday my daughter send me this picture taken west of her house. It's one of the many fires blazing in Colorado. She's safe, she says. The fires would have to jump Horsetooth Reservoir to reach their land.  

While the Colorado fires are not as vicious as those in California and Oregon, smoke and ashes drift and the air is filled with the aroma of destruction. 

What a sad year. This week we had a weather variation so unexpected that it's left everyone bewildered. It's as though Mother Nature has turned on us. It went from 96 degrees F. here in Fort Collins to 28 degrees F. in two days time. Trees and shrubs can't survive that severe a drop in temperature. 

My morning glories were suddenly snow capped and then drenched in ice. It's an annual plant that would not be alive in a couple of months anyway. But still, I wasn't ready to see them go. I wonder how my new bushes will fare. 



 
Last year, we had a preview of this kind of weather. Due to a sudden cold snap the trees lost their leaves before they had a chance to change color. They simply wilted and fell off without getting a chance to display the usual gorgeous array. Colorado aspens are famous for their magnificent foliage. Being deprived of fall is creepy. 

Deprivation of so many things is contributing to a gloomy lethargy right now. We have a lot to deal with. Covid, fires, the dreadful election politics, violence, unrest. 

Covid hit during the beginning of Lent. St. Luke's Episcopal could not have it's usual celebration of Easter. This denomination is highly liturgical and from Lent to Easter is a solemn ritual that I sorely missed even though our Diocese did a magnificent job of switching to on-line methods 

And the writers' conventions! I have to say that there was a hollow spot in my heart by the time June came and went without a trip to Western Writers of America. It's where I get my battery recharged every year. 

I'm proud of the country's ability to cope and come up with new ways. Groups and offices switched to Zoom in a heartbeat. Teachers and school children are the hardest hit, of course. I have no idea how they all manage. 

Hang in there everyone. We survived 9/11, the most horrific day in American history.

We will work our way through this year of plagues. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

I Wanted To Be A Cartoonist

 

I enjoyed reading the recent posts by Thomas and Rick about how they came to be writers. So I thought I’d talk about my own writing journey.

As a kid, I never once thought about writing as a career. Sure, I enjoyed the creative writing assignments in grade school and junior high. I even worked on the school newspaper. But that was only a fun thing to do, not a potential career choice.

No, the first thing I remember wanting to be was a cartoonist. I spent many happy hours in grade school drawing the Peanuts gang, copying what I saw every day on the comics page of the newspaper, dreaming about creating my own strip one day. This is the only drawing I kept from that period.


Still, the few stories I wrote must have been important to me since I saved them, stashing them away in a box of memorabilia. When I found them a few years back among the report cards, autograph books and miscellany I’d collected, I discovered I gravitated toward crime stories even then. I remember reading a lot of mysteries, but hadn’t realized I liked to write them as well.

The older of the two stories I found, “Sleepy Toes and Fido,” featured a donkey (Sleepy Toes), a hippie dog (Fido) and a jewelry theft. By the end of the (very) short story, the jewelry had been returned and all was well. The second story, “Murder in Catville,” involved cats, a murder, a ghost, a séance and a secret panel in the wall. At the end, the murderer is caught and peace restored to Catville. Both of these stories end well, so I can see at a young age I was more inclined toward cozies than noir. That’s still true today.

At the time I wrote “Murder in Catville,” my interests had turned to more academic subjects like math and history. I’d pretty much given up on the idea of being a cartoonist. When I entered college, I was considering math as a major, but hadn’t fully committed to it. Then, on the campus of the University of Southern California, I discovered Computer Science and fell in love with programming. The major was fairly new at the time and was pretty darned exciting. After graduation, I spent many fulfilling years in software development.

Fast forward twenty years. I woke up one morning with the image of a young woman finding the body of her painting teacher in her garden. That image stuck with me for days. I was coming to the end of a programming contract and looking for a new challenge so I decided to dive in and give writing a cozy mystery a try. Many years and lots of trial and error later, that idea became my first published book, FATAL BRUSHSTROKE, the first book in the Aurora Anderson Mystery series.

 I’m glad I started writing when I did. I don’t think an earlier me could have written books or short stories. Even though it can be frustrating at times, I’m proud to call myself a writer. Just goes to show you that you never know where life will take you.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

I didn't want to be a novelist!

by Rick Blechta

I hope everyone has read the excellent posts by Donis and Tom about being a writer. My story is somewhat different.

Unlike probably everyone else who’s ever contributed to Type M, I never harboured a burning yen to be a writer. To be honest, I fell into it by accident. Allow me to explain.

Since November 11, 1958 I’d known I was destined to be a musician. The reason I can nail it down that precisely is it’s the date of my first piano lesson — and also the date I discovered I hated practising scales. (Also, November 11th is my sister's birthday, so that also helps me remember.)

I was a modest student at first, not really willingly practising every day the way I knew I should, but still really interested in music. Then I discovered Rock & Roll, and boy, was I off to the races! I just flat out connected with that music and found I could play it really well. I kept up with my piano lessons until right before my 13th birthday.

By the time I was 14, I had a band that eventually grew to 11 members including two horn players and five (count ’em, FIVE) singers. We were what's known as a show band and we really did put on a good show. Of course with that number of players, we were destined to not make much money, and the band imploded. My next band, which included several of the players from Band #1, was more modest. I did all the arranging and discovered I was also very good at that.

When it came time for university, I figured the best place to learn more about music in general, but also about arranging would be to go to a music school. I eventually graduated from McGill University in Montreal — long story how I wound up there, but suffice it to say there was a pretty redhead involved in that decision — with a Bachelor of Music in Education (always hedge one’s bets) and started another band with an eye to securing a record deal. This band eventually relocated to Toronto.

Sadly, we just missed on that goal even though the band was extraordinary. I tried once more with another group of musicians, and that also ultimately failed. 

Both attempts left me with some pretty substantial debts (and a lot of regrets), so I dusted off the old teaching degree and began to work in schools teaching bands. It was supposed to be for a year or two, so I could get my finances in order, but then, well, a family came along and it was 24 years before I managed to extricate myself from teaching.

However about seven years before that, I burned out as far as music went. I was teaching a full load five days a week, teaching privately and conducting Saturdays at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and I just maxed out on music. 

This made me very unhappy and depressed. My wife told me I should find something else to occupy the creative part of my brain. “Maybe you should write something. You’ve always been good at that.”

I resisted at first, but one day, I sat down and began drafting a novel about a minor league baseball team. (I love baseball.) It didn’t go very far because I had no idea how to structure long-form fiction.

At that time, for recreation, I was tearing through the Dick Francis oeuvre and thought, Hey! I could do a similar thing, but use music instead of horse racing. 

I set out to write a short story. Seven months later I finished and realized that maybe I wasn’t suited to writing short stories because what I’d written was definitely not short.

The rest is a matter of record. I discovered I really enjoyed “messing around with words.” My creative side was satisfied and I could hold the fruits of my labour in my hands.

But it was all a happy accident. I’m still a musician, of course — and still hate practising scales —but I found another way to express myself and spend many happy hours messing around with words.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Yeah, I Wanted To Be A Novelist!

I was going to do a riff on Labor Day, but I just reread Donis Casey’s excellent piece that she posted on Thursday titled “So You Want To Be A Novelist”.   She does a good job at capturing the difficulties, the terror, the stress, and the pain that sometimes goes along with being a writer.

But yes, I’ve always wanted to be a novelist.  All my life. And, yes, there is a downside that includes hundreds and hundreds of hours spent alone in front of your laptop, your only company being the characters in your head.  The only conversations you have are the ones you make up. The only life you have are the adventures in your imagination.

It can lonely.  Luckily for me, I can take a break, go downstairs and hug my wife and pet my dog.

Obviously, there’s an upside. The joy when your editor finally signs off on your novel.  The thrill of seeing the cover of your new book.  The kick of opening up a box and seeing a dozen copies of your new mystery about to be released.

I love it when I’m out of taking a walk and someone comes up to me and asks, “Hey, are you the writer?”  Or, going into the grocery store and having a neighbor tell me how much they loved my last book.  Or, getting my haircut and see a set of my books on the shelf.

Before I was published, I’d go to book conferences and sit in the audience and listen to panels of authors talk about writing and publishing and crime. I wanted to be on those panels.

And now I am…at least I was until the damned pandemic.

Certainly, there’s a lot of work involved with writing a novel. But I love thinking about how my characters come to life in the minds of my readers, how they are captivated by stories I create, how invested they get in the plots.  I smile when someone tells me that they couldn’t put down my latest novel. And, I love doing book signings, book events, and talking to book clubs.

And I love it when my agent sends me a royalty check.  I once heard that only about 250 writers in the world can make a real living writing novels.  I’m not one of them.  But I get paid to write books.  That makes me a professional novelist and there’s a certain pride I can take in saying that.

I’ll close by paraphrasing a writer friend of mine, Jeffrey Siger.  He said, “Writing is a hard way to make a living, but it’s a great way to make a life.”

Now, a quick riff on Labor Day:

At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the late 1880s, the average American worked 12 hour days, seven days a week, just to make a meager living.  Children as young as 6 toiled in factories, farms, mills, and mines making even less than their adult counterparts.  Conditions were miserable.

As manufacturing overtook agriculture as the primary source of jobs, unions came into being.  As a result, organized strikes and protests erupted demanding better pay and fewer hours. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, making it the first Labor Day Parade. It was from this that a “workingmen’s holiday” celebrated on the first Monday of September began to take form.

On May 11, 1894 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the termination of union representatives. On June 26, the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, in effect shutting down nationwide railway traffic. The federal government dispatched troops to Chicago to break the Pullman strike.  The result was a wave of riots resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.

Congress attempted to ease the massive unrest and attempted to repair ties with American workers by passing an act making Labor Day a legal holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894.

So, will I be celebrating Labor Day and taking a day off?  Nah, writer’s gotta’ write.

Stay safe, stay healthy.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

So You Want To Be A Novelist.


You think that it would be a pleasant life to be a published novelist, do you? Allow me to let you in on a thing or two about the act of writing a novel that no one may have told you.

It isn’t pleasant to spend weeks of your life writing scenes and sentences and paragraphs that are actually wonderful, and then have to take them out because you realize – or your editor or your writers' group points out quite correctly – that they don’t fit the story. It’s horrible! I loved that character. That was a brilliant line. But the vicious truth is that a well constructed novel does not include anything that does not advance the plot or reveal something about a character. You want that story published? If your publisher/editor says to change or delete that scene you love, you suck it up, wipe your eyes, and take it out.

If you have signed a contract, and you have agreed to deliver an acceptable manuscript by a certain date, you will undergo a period of hair-raising terror and desperation as the deadline approaches, mark my words. You will offer your first born to the muses if you can just get the requisite number of words on the page by the deadline. You will pray that your manuscript is at least good enough that your editor won’t throw it back in your face and tell you that you’ll never write in this town again. Once the MS has been read and approved, and even praised, you will be relieved beyond measure while at the same time swearing that you’ll never put yourself through this again. Until another damn good idea pops into your head. I promise you that Toni Morrison, Steven King, and William Shakespeare have all had this experience.

You will undergo actual physical pain. I’ve just spent the past week in a writing frenzy. This frenzy includes long interludes of staring at a computer screen, waiting for just the right word to occur to me. Aside from doing what is necessary to keep myself alive and fit for human society, I’ve spent day after day, hour after hour, in this chair, typing away. When I cannot take it any more, I wrench myself up into a standing position. I’m bleary-eyed, and have a headache. My back hurts. My butt is numb. My wrist hurts. Where did I put that wrist brace? My husband asks why I’m walking like Quasimoto. Take a stretch. Get a drink. Get a pillow for the chair. I go to the bathroom, splash some water on my face, and examine my face in the mirror. Oh, my God. No more writing today. I have to have something to eat. I sit down with Don and have a bowl of soup and some crusty bread. He asks me how it’s going.

"Well, my dear, I wrote a scene in which Bianca discovers a clue in the bedroom. I worked on it all day, but I’m not happy with what I’ve got. Perhaps if I approached it from another angle. Perhaps it would be more effective if it weren’t in the bedroom, but the kitchen instead. I’ll have to rework that whole scene. Maybe I don’t even need it. Four hours of writing, shot."

In the morning, you plant yourself in front of the computer and go at it again. This is one thing they don’t tell you about the author’s life. It is relentless.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

What's in a name?

 Charlotte's post on characters got me thinking. I agree, it can be very difficult to keep track of characters, particularly if I'm reading the book very sporadically with gaps in between for other things like holidays, family visits, or editing. When reading a book, I sometimes have to flip back to see who the character was and what their purpose was in the story. This is harder to do with ebooks, where the "flipping back and forth" is much more cumbersome.

There are a number of tricks authors use to try to ensure readers remember the middling and minor characters. One is to give them names that are distinct from each other, or names that fit the character, either in ethnicity or age or even class and job. Thus Mario for the Italian plumber, Ethel for the old lady next door, Bob for the farmer down the lane. One can play against type in this name game too, and name the old lady Krystal and the farmer Raj. Either way, readers will take notice. 

Another way to keep characters unique is to give them a vivid, distinctive trait of some kind. It can be appearance, such as a red beard, or a speech pattern, or manner of dress, etc. A brief description that creates an instant, vivid impression is better than a long description of height, hair, and clothing. I was recently watching a period TV show in which many of the men were in uniform and all had brown hair and moustaches. I couldn't tell any of them apart, so gave up on the show. 

Choosing character names, both first and last, can be an enjoyable challenge. As noted above, the name should reflect the age of the character, and for this, checking popular baby names for the decade of your character's birth can help. In my age group, every second girl was a Barbara, but the name has barely been heard from since. Make sure the name matches the ethnicity and geography. Luckily the internet is an boundless resource. You can Google common Slovak names, both first and last, and also names that are common in a particular region through online phone listings. Elegant names like Nigel conjure up a different character than earthy names like Buck.

Last but not least, as Charlotte said, names mustn't be too similar. Five names that start with J or contain only one syllable, for example, will have readers saying "Who's Bill? Who's Bob?" One of my jobs during rewrites is to divide a page in half lengthwise for first and last names, write the alphabet down the left margin, and fill in all the character names in their proper box. That quickly shows where the problems lie and what letters are being underrepresented. Usually it's easier to change minor character names so they no longer conflict.

Which brings me to the final trick to making characters memorable. Don't have more of them than you absolutely need to tell the story. I'm not a fan of "how to" books that pretend to tell you how to write a great book, but I learned this tip in a workshop years ago and I still think of it today. Consider all the characters you've put in your book and the role they play. Then ask yourself whether you could eliminate a character by having another character take on two roles. If you do this a few times, you have reduced the number of characters while simultaneously making their relationships more complex and layered.

Happy writing!