Saturday, May 27, 2023

Emotional Filters

 While we humans like to think of ourselves as highly evolved, coolly rational beings, we are in fact, emotional creatures. Every decision we make must leach through our emotional filters. Ultimately, we behave based on how we feel. 

We old-hands in this writer business teach about the importance of the emotional motivations and reactions in our characters, especially when writing fiction, but how often do we think about our emotional filters affecting our daily lives?

What caused me to be mindful of this came about from my role as the jefe editor for an anthology from CALMA - the Colorado Alliance of Latino Mentors and Authors. I had put together a postcard to publicize our Go Fund Me, which I needed for a Meet & Greet this weekend. After checking out various online print companies, I settled on the best deal and sent the order. The company acknowledged with a delivery date of May 17. Perfect. 

Then May 17 came and went. No cards. The next day I sent an email asking for an order status. I received an auto reply telling me to expect an answer within 72 to 96 hours. What! The following day I did get a reply from a human informing that because of production difficulties, they couldn't promise a delivery date.

I felt like I'd gotten scammed. They had taken my money and jammed me into a corner regarding this opportunity to distribute the cards. My mind spun through all kind of scenarios. The cards arriving too late and of poor quality. The hassles of getting the credit card company to reimburse me. I imagined penning all kinds of vicious reviews everywhere that I could on the Internet, of contacting the BBB, putting the word out that this outfit was nothing but a bunch of crooked, incompetent weasels. 

With these venomous thoughts festering in my head, it was time to take my dog Scout for his walk. We took a different route than usual and passed by a house with signs asking dog owners to not let their dogs crap on the grass. Scout sniffed but didn't do any business. As we were leaving, the home owner came onto the front porch and asked, "Could you please keep your dog off my lawn?"

I snapped at him, "I'll take care of it," thinking that Scout hadn't done anything and the sign didn't say Keep Off The Grass. 

As the minutes passed I regretted how petty I had reacted. It wasn't the man's comments that had set me off, it was that I was still stewing about the postcards. Because of that, my emotional filter had been preset to bitter and so that was how I behaved, which I like to believe is not the real me. I wanted to go back and apologize but then I figured the incident was all about me so I let it go. 

After all that self-inflicted internal drama, the cards arrived yesterday, in plenty of time for the event. And they look quite nice. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

On being an Other

 Goodness, what a lot of wonderful stuff happened since I accidentally missed my last post! So much to comment on. I love all the talk about research and may tackle it next time. But today I'm going to pick apart the whole topic of appropriation of voice. It's different from book banning, which is ridiculous. There are some truly evil books out there, like Mein Kampf, but I think with proper guidance, most of them can be read in an effort to understand evil.

As for appropriation of voice, if I had to follow that guidance "Write what you know" (or more accurately, "stick to your own kind"), my books would be very dull indeed. All my characters would be white, middle-class, heterosexual women in their seventies. Trust me, we don't get up to much mischief, so thank God for our imaginations, which allow us to pretend we're someone and somewhere else, having exciting adventures, getting into trouble, and saving the day!

So I use my imagination, as well as lots of research, to get into other people's heads and try to experience the world as they do. I've written from the point of view of a middle-aged man in a coma, a learning disabled country handyman, a young girl, a male cop, and on and on. My books are peppered with diverse other characters as I try to reflect the society I'm writing about. I have Indigenous characters, BIPOC, Jewish, Moslem, and LGBTQ+ characters. My main limitation is that I need to know enough about their world, either through experience, friendship, research, or interviews, to feel I can write with authenticity and respect. I think most serious writers know their limitations and their comfort zones, and venture beyond them carefully.

So I suggest the writing rule should be not "Write what you know" but "Write what you can learn about." And it should apply to everything we write. If you're going to write about being caught in a blizzard, it's a good idea to have experienced one or at least get your facts straight from someone who has. As for venturing into other characters' heads, I have more difficulty writing from thirty-five-year-old Amanda Doucette's point of view than I do my older male characters. The world she grew up in and the challenges facing her today are extremely different from mine. I grew up in an era of airmailed letters, pay phones, maps, and "Europe on five dollars a Day". No computer, no internet (indeed not much television), and certainly no cellphone, social media, or Tinder. Pop culture and slang are also very different. I borrow heavily from my daughters' experiences. 

The more intimately you know something, the more power and resonance your writing will have. So dig, dig, and dig some more. I once created a character in my Inspector Green novels MIST WALKER who was a detective investigating child sexual abuse. I had fallen prey to the many negative cliches and horror stories out there about such investigations - insensitive, heavy-footed men who were rule-bound, disbelieving, and so on. As part of my rewrites, I arranged to have coffee with a senior detective who'd spent twenty-five years in that field, so I could find out what they're actually like. He talked at length about his experiences and feelings, and about one particular case that still haunted him. I realized that the real person was very different from the cliche, and I rewrote the character accordingly. It was an eye-opener even for me, a psychologist, to make sure I don't fall prey to superficial prejudices and pre-judgement.

For all of us, there are some topics that are probably too far a stretch or too sensitive to be handled by an outsider. My second Inspector Green novel, ONCE UPON A TIME, dealt with Holocaust survivors, and I was extremely nervous about whether I could do their experience justice. I read as much as I could, both their experiences and personal accounts, I found online tape recordings of survivors telling their stories, I knew some as well, but I was on pins and needles waiting to hear the reactions. When I received a handwritten note from a child of survivors saying how well I had portrayed them, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. 

Empathy is the most powerful tool a fiction writer can have. It is through slipping inside someone else's skin and trying to experience the situation from their perspective that we create the most genuine and vivid characters. Empathy comes much more naturally to some people than others, and thirty-five years as a psychologist no doubt helped me, but it's a skill that can be learned. It takes an open, questioning mind, a listening ear, a curiosity to explore, and an ability to reach deep within oneself to connect to similar experiences. We may not have murdered anyone, but surely we have all experienced the urge to kill. That rage, desperation, terror, or whatever intense feeling that might drive you to murder. There but for the grace of god...

Thursday, May 18, 2023

How Writing a Novel is Like Finding a Woolly Mammoth in Your Back Yard, or The Writer as Archeologist.

I adore Sybil's entry, below, on the joys and fascinations of the research an author does.

A few years ago I read about a soybean farmer in Michigan who was digging around on his property when he found something that he thought was a buried fence post. He tried to dig it out, but discovered it was much bigger than a fence post, and attached to something. He kept digging, and lo and behold, after much toil he discovered that his fence post was actually a tusk attached to a skull. He called in the archeologists, who discovered that the skull was part of the skeleton of a huge woolly mammoth that had been butchered and stored in a pond some one hundred and fifty thousand years earlier by prehistoric hunters. 

Now, that is quite a discovery, to go from a hole in the ground, to a fence post, to the tale of early American mammoth hunters, butchering their prey after a successful and thrilling hunt and then sinking the carcass into a pond to keep it fresh for a while longer. Why did they not retrieve it later? Did they move on? Millennia later, a scientist holds a bone in his hand and wonders.

In related news, I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel. My fourteenth, something totally different than anything I have ever done. (Working title: Number Fourteen) Believe me, I have been digging and researching like crazy because this is a whole new excavation. 

Every time I begin a new book, I survey the landscape until I find a likely place to hunt for a tale worth telling. Then I haul out my tools and I start digging, trying to find the gist of the story. At first I tend to slog around, flinging shovels full of mud out of the way, occasionally coming up with promising bits and pieces of bone, but nothing that excites me. Until I just happen to hit upon something that is different from all the mud I have been digging into. Often I think I’ve just found a fence post, but as I continue to dig, my author eye tells me that I have stumbled upon something that is going to be interesting. Then my heart rate picks up because I realize that what I’ve found is made of gold, and if I keep carefully digging, then scooping, then delicately brushing away the detritus around the story, I will have discovered a tale worth telling.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Curious Me

 by Sybil Johnson

Writers are a curious bunch We see something we find interesting or we don’t understand, we look it up. I’m constantly finding stuff to investigate, partly because it’s fun and partly because you never know what might spark an idea for a story.

Here’s what I’ve been looking into recently: 

Exterior doors in Finland - I’ve watched a lot of Finnish/Norwegian/Swedish crime dramas recently. I just finished up Bordertown, a Finnish series set on the border of Finland and Russia. It’s called Sorjonen, the name of the main detective, in Finland. It took me many episodes before I noticed that the exterior doors for all homes in Finland open outward. That meant the police didn’t kick down doors, but shot out the locks.

Here in the U.S, since the Cocoanut Grove night club fire in the 1940s, all exterior doors on places of business must swing outward so people aren’t trapped inside if there’s a fire or some other emergency. That does not extend to private homes. All of the doors I’ve seen here in the U.S. swing inward. Though I hear there are homes in Florida where they open outward.

 So I was curious why Finland has doors that open outward. Is it weather related? Is it something else? Turns out, a false fire alert in Finland in the 19th century during a church service left dozens of people dead. They became crushed against the doors as they struggled to get out. Yes, you guessed it, those doors opened inward. Since that time, all exterior doors open outward, not just in public buildings. 

Black lines on the Freeway – While driving on the freeway here in Southern California, I noticed that the white lines that separated the lanes now have a black line on each side of the white stripe. I wondered what that was about. Apparently, putting those black stripes on can help drivers see the lines better on rainy days or when the glare is bad.

Åland islands – I watched Thicker Than Water, a TV series that is set mostly in the Åland islands, which are in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. Since the language used in the series is Swedish, I assumed the islands were part of Sweden. Silly me! When I looked them up, I discovered they are an autonomous and demilitarized region of Finland. The history of the islands is interesting. At various times, they were part of Sweden, Finland and Russia. The League of Nations in 1921 decided they should be part of Finland. The official language of the islands is Swedish.

Psychic Meditation – We were driving on the West side of Los Angeles the other day and I noticed a billboard that advertised psychic meditation. I wondered what that meant, so I did a little digging. Apparently, it’s a form of guided meditation that helps you focus on your psychic senses so you can tap into your psychic abilities. Regular meditation focuses on clearing your mind, psychic meditation focuses on enhancing your psychic gifts. Sounds very L.A., doesn’t it?

Disposal of animal carcass in a rural area – There was a column in the local paper where someone was complaining about a CA DMV written test that they’d taken. They’d taken practice tests, read the manual several times and still came across a question regarding disposal of a dog carcass in a rural area that they didn’t remember seeing in the manual. I don’t know what the exact question was, but I skimmed through the CA DMV manual online. Didn’t see anything that I thought would apply. But my searching did reveal that California recently passed the Wildlife Traffic Safety Act aka Roadkill Bill. It was recently signed into law by the governor, but is currently active in only 3 pilot regions. It allows people to take roadkill home and butcher it for the meat. Apparently, it was illegal before this.

I know from watching lots and lots of episodes of North Woods Law that, in Maine, if your car hits a moose you have first dibs on the meat. If you don’t want it, it goes to a needy family. You have to call and report it, of course. They investigate and, as long as you didn’t run into the moose on purpose, you can have it. I don’t know why anyone would run into a moose with their car. That seems a very dangerous thing. You'd be lucky to survive and your car probably wouldn’t. 

That’s what I’ve been looking into lately. Not sure if I have a story to go with any of these, but they were interesting. And, who knows, maybe one of them will spark an idea for a story in one of you.



Monday, May 15, 2023

Putting Novelists on a Leash?

 There’s an excellent op-ed piece in Saturday’s Washington Post entitled “Limiting What Novelists Write About Won’t Help Readers”. The column talks about how a writer can no longer depend on his or her imagination. According to the emerging social climate, one must only write about what one knows.

Yes, I’ve heard that old, tired cliché, “Write What You Know.”

Boloney. Writers use their imagination.  Did Tolkien live as a hobbit? Did J,K.Rowling live in a wizarding world? Did George R.R. Martin ride a dragon? 

Was Pat Conroy Black?  Was he ever a slave?  No?  And yet he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner. 

Could he have published that book today?  I seriously doubt it. 

According to the Washington Post piece, the “literary dark age” started in 2020 when Jeanine Cummins published American Dirt.  It’s a story about undocumented immigrants, a woman and her son, were forced to flee when the woman’s husband, a journalist, exposes a drug cartel.  

The book was picked as an Oprah Book Club selection, it was on the New York Times bestseller list, selling three million copies in 37 languages.  It was an unqualified hit.

And then it wasn’t.  Cummins and her publisher were the victims of public blowback.  Cummins wrote from the viewpoint of the immigrants…and the author is white and from New Jersey.  Her book tour was canceled.  

In my series of mysteries, I write in the first-person viewpoint of Geneva Chase, a female reporter.  I’m very lucky that I’ve received mostly good reviews and that most of my readers are women.  I have, however, gotten reviews labelling me as a misogynist and one review in particular, was unusually harsh: “I hate this book with a passion. While the murders were initially interesting the main character is so obviously written by a man it’s vomit inducing.”

As I said, my books have garnered hundreds of good reviews.  But you know, it’s the bad ones we remember. 

And I’ve also been criticized for a single paragraph I wrote about Fox News in my book Random Road. It was a single sentence and it’s been described as being overtly political.  It wasn’t…but yeah, it kind of was. 

 I write about current affairs.  They’re things that concern me like climate change, sea level rise, school shootings, LBGTQ issues, and sex trafficking. They’re subjects I think are important. 

Write what you know?  I don’t think so. 

How many mystery writers have actually murdered someone?  Hint…I’m hoping the percentage is really, really low.  

And that brings us book banning.  According to PEN America, these are the subjects most often banned in schools and some libraries:

o Titles that deal explicitly with LGBTQ+ topics, or have LGBTQ+ protagonists or prominent secondary characters have been a major target in the current wave of book bans. This is reflected in the Index, with 379 such titles (33%), including a distinct subset of 84 titles that deal with transgender characters and topics (7%).

o Fiction novels and non-fiction books with protagonists of color also made up a significant part of banned books in the Index, including 467 titles (41%).

o Books dealing with Jewish and Muslim characters and religious/ethnic themes have also been targeted, with 18 titles listed in the Index.

In some school districts, even some classics have been banned at one time or another, such as The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Handmaid’s Tale, and Slaughterhouse Five.  

Pat Conroy once said, “Fiction is where I go to tell the truth.”  

Let’s hope the pendulum swings back to center again sometime soon and our imaginations run wild. 

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Poor Souls

By Charlotte Hinger

 I was moved by Donis's last post. She raised the question about the merits of a work of art when the artist is not a good person. I'm of the opinion that a beautiful song is a beautiful song no matter who has composed it. However, I respect the opinions of those who disagree with me and believe that a rotten person is a rotten person, and that fact affects how they hear the song. 

In fact, the number of people who don't agree with any of my opinions is staggering. Just poll my daughters and grandchildren.   

Nevertheless, I'm appalled by growing movement of groups that suppress all dissention. There's no opinion to object to because anything controversial is squelched immediately. The era of passionate verbal articulate donnybrooks is going the way of the dodo bird. 

Although I'm a liberal, in times past, I've liked hearing the ideas expressed by my conservative friends. I'm sad when I read about college students refusing to allow a speaker to present a program opposing the liberal canon.

Last summer I listened to a man on a panel explain why he asked for a book to be removed from his local library. I disagreed with both his action and his choice of book to remove, He explained he was dealing with his daughter's attempted suicide and felt the book she checked out contributed to her sorrowful state of mind. He didn't want other teenagers influenced by it.

What immediately struck me, though, was that I had never--not even once--listened to a person explain why they wanted a book banned. I used to listen! Now I don't. I'm so opposed to banning books that I close my ears at once to anyone who disagrees with this stance. I've been contaminated by group think and I going to correct that. 

When I read of parents wanting to protect their children from feeling "sad" when they are exposed to some of the less attractive aspects of our country's history, I'm speechless. 

I adored our lovely music teacher when I was in grade school. She traveled from school to school within the county. Much of my interest of African American history can be traced to the stirring of my heart when Teresa Shurr led us in traditional spirituals. They made me very sad.

She taught us about people through their country's songs. To this day, during the opening of the Olympics I recall the line "but other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as high and pure as mine." Right now, my heart aches for the people whose "hopes and dreams" are broken through war. 

Developing a soul is painful. It always has been.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Art and Outrage

I (Donis) have been seeing some discussion on television about this year's Met Gala being a tribute to the late German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Some people have taken exception to the choice of Lagerfeld because of some of his unsavory positions in the past and some of the offensive things he said. And they were offensive, for sure. But his designs are beautiful and were quite influential in the fashion world. All of this brings up the eternal question: How do you separate the artist from the art? And should you? Picasso was an egomaniac. Hemingway was a raging misogynist. They were both brilliant.

Several years ago an NPR program held a contest to rank the ten most offensive classical music composers over the last 500 years. They had plenty of nominees. Beethoven never bathed. Mozart gambled away everything he earned and left his family destitute. Vivaldi was a libidinous priest. Whether any of these accusations are true I would never presume to hazard an opinion. However, even if they were all true, would this mean their music was not beautiful or worth listening to? The winner of the contest, by the way, was Wagner, who really was a despicable anti-semite. No orchestra in Israel can play his music without furious opposition. There's even a play about it called "You Will Not Play Wagner". I recently read an article in the Brandeis newsletter about the play, and the author made a good case that  "music itself cannot be antisemitic. But music has memories attached to it, and music moves the soul." (It's an interesting article. Click here if you want to read it.)

Still, does this mean the music is not brilliant? I can understand not buying the works of a living artist who is horrid because you don't want to support them personally. What about after he's been dead for years?

I've pondered this question for decades, but I've been thinking about it more since so many government entities have taken it upon themselves to start banning books. If you don't want to read a book or support the author, then don't. But there's something disturbingly Nazi-like about passing laws to keep anyone at all from reading a book or author because you don't like their point of view.

Many, many years ago - 1961, to be exact - Lawrence Durrell and the Austrian writer Alfred Perles published a book called Art and Outrage, A Correspondence About Henry Miller. It's a collection of their letters to one another over several months in which they wrote about this very subject. The author Henry Miller had no filter and his books contain passages that border on porn, which got him banned in many places at the time. But his writing is beautiful and deep. Is it art, Durrell and Perles wondered (very wittily)? Miller himself had a thing or two to say about it.

I can't help but be influenced by an artist's personal beliefs, if I know what those are. But as an author myself, I also know that when you're in the writing zone (or painting or composing or designing zone), what comes out feels like it has nothing to do with you, but comes from some higher power. I think this is why the ancients believed in the Muses. In the movie "Amadeus", the composer Antonio Salieri was moved to renounce God because his rival Mozart was blessed with genius, and whose music was heavenly, even though Mozart was a totally unworthy sinner and Salieri had spent his life composing only to please God. 

That's the problem with genius. It's like the rain. It falls on the worthy and the unworthy alike.

I'd be very interested to read what you think about Art and the Artist, Dear Readers. Perhaps you can clear things up for me.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books


by Sybil Johnson

I spent part of the weekend of April 22nd at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (LATFoB). It’s a huge book festival that is spread across the main campus of the University of Southern California here in Los Angeles. It includes events inside various buildings and lots and lots of booths outside. Events inside included interviews and panels with authors and a screening of the first episode of an AppleTV+ series, “The Last Thing He Told Me”, based on the novel by Laura Dave. There was a children’s book area, a YA stage, an En Espanol stage, a Cooking stage...

Some of the many booths.

The entrance near the Expo Line (or whatever it's called these days) and the En Espanol stage.

Everything is free, though I believe the ticketed events (all inside) were charged a processing fee. It’s a great way for an author to get their books in front of lots and lots of readers and for readers to discover new books and authors.

In 2022, the festival was held for the first time since the pandemic started. I missed that one since it was the same weekend as Malice Domestic. This year, though, I was good to go.

I haven’t seen any official attendance numbers for this year, but the 2022 festival drew 150,000 people, making it the largest book festival in the U.S. My feeling, though, was that the number of people there was lower than the times I attended before the pandemic.

Rides on Metro to the festival were free this year. At least that’s what people tell me. I admit to being slightly embarrassed that I drove there on Earth Day.

I attended the festival on Saturday where I signed at the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles booth for a couple hours. Had a good time talking to readers and my fellow writers. I saw people I knew and some that I didn’t. Even sold several books! Always a bonus.

Me, Wendall Thomas, James T. Bartlett signing at the SinC/LA booth

The SinC/LA booth

USC is my alma mater, but I hadn’t been on campus for several years. Turns out it is now a no smoking and no plastic campus. The no smoking is self-explanatory. No plastic means they do not sell plastic bottles of sodas or water. It’s all aluminum.

The day was a bit warm for my taste. It was probably around 85 or so at 10 a.m. when I arrived. At least it felt like it. The Trojan Marching Band kicked off the festival on one of the stages. I listened for a while, then wandered around for a couple hours before my signing and for a bit after. Lots of booths. Lots of interesting things to see.

Trojan Marching Band opening the festival

I always enjoy attending even when it’s raining or too hot. You never know what the weather will be like in April.

I found this article about the festival interesting from the Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper: 

If you’re in the Los Angeles area the weekend of the festival, I highly recommend going. It's usually held on a weekend in April toward the middle or end of the month. You can see more about this year’s festival here:

Tommy Trojan. The SinC/LA booth was a hop, skip and a jump from here.


The festival map

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Banking Woes

By Charlotte Hinger

Guess what! The historical novel I'm writing right now is timely. It's about that period in America's rural history when small communities were losing their banks and farms. The bank failures afflicting our country right now sound very familiar to those of us who remember the 1980s.

I've been writing this book, Mary's Place, forever. Happily, it will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. But who would have thought the non-fiction aspect of this novel would be a hot news item?

 Everyone's book is about some particular setting or topic that can be exploited for talks. Speaking about that little something in the background is much more likely to hold an audience's attention than trying to persuade people to buy your novel. 

I've always known this, but with the advent of social media it's easy to get sidetracked. So many platforms, so little time. With the daily bombardment of emails and messages, I've become a chronic and habitual deleter. Yes spellcheck, I know deleter isn't a real word, but I'll bet Type M followers know what I mean. 

Sometimes, traditional methods work best. When was the last time you read a novel where a banker is a heroic character? I'm going to target agricultural bankers with postcards and letters. One banker recently told me a friend of his was shot for not loaning the client money. He personally had been kicked. People in this occupation need soothing and that's always best accomplished with a book that makes them feel appreciated. 

Ah, marketing. The perpetual burden. I was warned that I couldn't expect to sell my mystery series along with historical novels. But that's not true. Because all of my books are set in Kansas and I have a flaming state loyalty, the duality works. 

With Mary's Place, I'll start contacting clubs and organizations far ahead of the publication date to see if they would welcome a program about banking. For instance, I'm a member of Westerners International and that's the first group that came to mind.

It's so heartening to speak to people on a topic that they are interested in. 

For some reason planning marketing comes hard for me. It's not that I can't think. It's just that I don't like to lock in plans. Oddly enough I love to solve problems. An ability to solve problems would seem to carry over to futuristic planning, but it doesn't. I tend to be crisis oriented.

To stay afloat in this noisy overcrowded word of mystery writing, we simply have to learn to plan campaigns. Oddly enough, there has been very little written on this subject.

Care to share how you do it? Do you simply respond to whatever falls in your lap? Or plan ahead.?

Monday, May 01, 2023

Cataloguing Things I See

  This weekend, my wife and I are enjoying time spent in Southport, NC.  It’s a lovely, quaint little village right on the edge of the Cape Fear River.  From the shore, you can see Oak Island and Bald Head Island.  

It just so happened that this is the same weekend as a huge vintage car show.  I loved seeing a 1963 Ford Galaxie, similar to my the first car I ever owned.  All metal, massive engine, big as a beached whale, no AC, no power windows, a radio that was only AM, and a steering wheel the size of a hula hoop.  

Even the smell of the leather interior brought back memories. A new car smell is nice, but a car with some age to it is even better.  I don’t know why.

Southport is also famous for being a location where movies and episodes for television shows have been filmed.  Some of the movies include Firestarter, Crimes of the Heart, Weekend at Bernie’s, I Know What You Did Last Summer, as well as many others.

The town’s most favorite (yes, they seem to have a favorite) is Safe Haven adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel.  Now, admittedly, romance is not my genre, but we did watch the movie before we came to visit.

During the movie, they clearly identified the location as Southport, North Carolina. We took a golf cart tour of the town and our guide cheerfully pointed to where all the scenes were filmed.  Of course, our guide also informed us that he’s met a few of the celebrities.  One of them was Ryan Seacrest who was dating one of the actresses in town at the time.  Mr. Seacrest’s bio states that he’s five feet eight inches tall.  Our guide said he’s 5’7’’.  The guide told us that he had doubts as to the veracity of the biography because standing next to him, he felt like an NBA player. 

So, what does any of this have to do with writing mysteries?  Nothing, really, other than I’m filing and cataloguing things that I see, sounds that I hear, scents I smell, and people that we meet.  All grist for the mill. 

Lesson for today, nothing is wasted on a writer.  Enjoy everything and then use it in your next story. 

One last thought, the Washington Post ran an excellent opinion piece about how novels are important now more than ever in difficult times.  If you get a chance, take a look!

Opinion | Reading novels in times of trouble - The Washington Post

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

More thoughts on marketing

 I'm always astonished when my day to post arrives and I'm delighted to read the posts by others. Charlotte's post on marketing was informative and alarming. If preorders and marketing strategies have already determined the future sales of a book, why am I going to book signings and readings, or reporting reviews on social media, or keeping my website up-to-date? Or even writing this blog.

Partly, I think it depends on what your goals are, both for writing and for promotion. I know I am really lucky, in that I am retired from a "regular" job and have a modest income from pensions that keeps food on the table before I even factor in my writing income. I am grateful that this gives me the freedom to tell the stories I want to tell, knowing they will never make me a bestseller. Yes, it would be nice to make more money because there are always things and experiences I'd like to have, like taking an African safari or going on a theatre tour to London or New York. But I would hate to be writing a book that didn't inspire me, just because it might sell more copies. 

Early in my career, I had an agent who told me to write a book set in the United States and make it more like the bestselling thrillers. I was told the "big" publishers don't want a book set in Canada because they don't sell. I understand that publishing is a business and that they buy products that they expect will make them money, but their money goals are loftier than mine. I want to tell stories that reflect my culture, my experience, and my land. Luckily I found a home with a Canadian publisher whose motto was just that. I love to write, but it's the passion of storytelling that drives me, and if I lost that, I doubt there would be much point in writing at all.

So what about marketing? Ultimately it's the challenge of making yourself known to the audience that might enjoy your kind of book. If they do, they also spread the word through their own social media and friendship circles. I have a pretty good idea who my target audience is. Louise Penny was apparently once asked who read her books and she replied "intelligent women with colds". The answer is brilliant, and I think it applies to many mystery writers. I know men read my books, and Millenials too, and maybe even busy people who can only sneak a few minutes of  reading into their day. But the bulk of my readers are educated women who enjoy the challenge and subtleties of a good mystery and who have the time to read. 

I leave the mega-marketing to my publisher (the targeted advertising and review copies, the bookstore and library sales reps, and so on). I focus on the one-to-one, by engaging on social media (mostly Facebook and Instagram), setting up bookstore signings and library readings, and attending book clubs. I actually love doing all those things, because they involve direct interaction with book lovers and readers. Nothing is more inspiring to a discouraged writer than meeting someone whose eyes light up as they describe reading your book.

Charlotte's post was comforting in a strange way. I know I'm probably missing swaths of potential readers by not using TikTok or BookBub or Goodreads, or sending out newsletters, etc. But maybe, at the macro level, it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. What do others think?

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Start Soon

 A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a seminar sponsored by Sourcebooks, a powerhouse publisher whose sales are soaring. The house is frankly data driven and places a huge emphasis on marketing. 

When I began contacting vendors to schedule signings for my first book, my agent informed me that my sales had been determined long before my novel was published. 

How could that be? The truth is, it's the vast network of sales representatives, catalog copy, reviews, and word of mouth that determines preorders. By some fluke, that first novel was poised to take off and there weren't enough books available. That was years ago when it wasn't as easy to schedule another print run as it is today. My publisher gave me four printings--a thousand books at a time. But by the time the extra printing made it to the market, the bird had flown. 

Preorders can be critical. The problem is figuring out how to lure buyers when prices are soaring. It's more important than ever to spend time figuring out a strategy.

Who are the people the most likely to buy your particular book? Do they fall into a particular category of interests? If so, what kind of marketing campaign would most likely appeal to them? 

I'm working on a book now that has a strong contemporary/historical theme. That sounds like a funny way to put it, but it's set in the 1980s. Not old enough to belong in the truly historical category. Since it involves the banking and farm crisis that hit rural America my most likely readers will be those who experienced that devastating upheaval. 

I'm relying on sites that provide marketing savvy about various age groups. 

Luckily, this book will appeal the most to age groups that use the platforms I understand the best. Gen X (41-55), Baby Boomers (56-77), and the Silent Generation (76-) read a lot of books. Although, the prize goes to Millennials (21-40). This group reads the largest number of books in a year and is the most likely to use a library. 

The book will have little appeal to Gen Z (5-25). However, one never knows. If it's suggested as a gift book for grandparents, someone might buy it. 

Targeted marketing might work, and it might not. People are paid staggering sums of money to figure this out. But all the authors I know are concerned with beefing up their market share.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Slivers of History

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts is the book that most recently advanced from my TBR pile and into my eager hands. Like many other writers, I've always been an armchair historian. Frankly, I'm jealous of Roberts' skill and academic labors. This is the kind of project many writers dream of--delving into original source material (in this case, journals handwritten centuries ago in French), having access to national archives and private collections, plus the time and resources to devote so much of your life to such a monumental effort. And this tome (926 pages) is but one of several works that Roberts has contributed to the historical and literary record. 

The book is as expected an illuminating account of the broad sweeps of events with enough supporting content to give both context and a flavor of the times. Besides helping me understand French history and its relevance to the world we live today, I am fascinated by the underlying details of Napoleon and his contemporary life. Despite relying on everything getting documented by ink and quill pen, we get a very thorough look at events as they unfolded. When things occurred is noted to the hour. From the movies, we expect to see armies lined up in neat rows before they massacre one another. Here, we are told of running battles that are surprisingly fluid and starting in the early hours of the morning and lasting well into night of the next day. There is no artificial light, no radio, no telegraph: the fastest means of communication overland is by horse; over the water, by sailing ship. Command and control must've been chaotic, yet they managed. Some better than others and this is where Napoleon prevailed.

We also get a sense of the casual attitude toward sex the French are known for. We read accounts of adultery and cuckolding (even to Napoleon), of men and their mistresses, of women and their companions. I'll home in on one anecdote as an example of how quirky and complicated people were then, just as we are today.

In 1798, Napoleon and his army marched into Egypt. It wasn't unusual for the wives, and especially the paramours, to follow the officers on campaign. On this occasion, Lieutenant Jean-Noel Foures of the 22nd Chasseurs brought along his wife, Pauline, who was an exceptionally striking woman. So much, that Napoleon became smitten with her and began an affair. Imagine today, a general having a dalliance with a subordinate's spouse! Jean-Noel discovered the infidelity and divorced Pauline, and she then became Napoleon's maitresse-en-titre in Cairo. When Napoleon left Egypt, he handed Pauline to one of his generals, and he passed her to yet another. Before you take pity on Pauline, she like other women of the period, knew how to game the system. She used the connections she had accumulated to make a fortune in the Brazilian timber business, then returned to Paris wearing men's clothing and smoking a pipe, accompanied by a menagerie of pet monkeys and parrots. That sliver of history would be a book in itself.

Friday, April 21, 2023

I'm Back

Frankie here.  It's the end of the day and I'm finally getting a chance to post. I didn't want to miss another Friday, I want to add my thanks to Johnny for his time with us. I'm going back to catch up on what I've missed.

It was one of those situations that became another and another.  You know that supersition about things happening in threes?  I hope I'm done with my three for the rest of the year.  

First, I thought I might possibly have gotten Covid somewhere along the way when I realized that I couldn't smell anything. I ordered all the essential oills that are recommended for the sniff test. I was relieved when it turned out not to be a prelude to "long Covid". I got back to work on my two classes and the gangster movies book..

That was when the second thing happeneed.  I found out that I had a bottles of eyedrops fron a brand that had been recalled because they might be contaminated. When I had gotten through that major scare, I had my third -- and hopefully final -- d thing. I saw my GP for my annual physical and told her about an issue with my hnad. She referred me to a specialist, who sent me for an ultrasound. It turns out I have carpal tunnel syndrome.

But I don't have most of the symptoms, so I'm hoping when I see the specialist again he will prescribe exercise and a glove and tell me to adjust my computer. And that I'll be able to carry on as usual. 

Anyway, here I am. I'm looking forward to the end of spring semester because it's been a rocky semester after my return from my fall sabbatical. But the good news is that I'm getting back on track and looking forward to Malice Domestic, one of my favorite conferences. This year I'm going to be moderating a panel on Saturday -- "The Best Advice I Ever Got".

Actually, come to think of it, among the best advice I ever got was the warning to remember to book your hotel room. I just found out today that I thought about it but didn't remember to do it. But that's sort of okay because I'll have my car. I usually fly with the one that has been having the meltdowns. That's an easy hour from Albany to Baltimore and then a shuttle. But I'm thinking twice this year. I''m also considering taking the train, but that's as expensive as flying and takes longer. So I'm considering a leisurely drive down and that means I'll have my car if I want to drive back and forth to the sessions. And, as much as I love seeing everyone, I'll be able to retreat and get some rest.

I've enjoyed reading the blogs this week. It's always reassuring to read posts from my blog mates in which they describe similar experiences. Right now, I am anticpating the good, bad, and the ugly of a new book when I'm done with the gangster movies book. I'm -- believe it or not -- working out and eating right and taking a vacation in May to get ready for that. 

Meanwhile,  I'm delighted to be back. If you see me at Malice, be sure to say "Hello!"