Thursday, January 17, 2019

In Medias Res

Some recent excellent posts, including “Plotting, Plotting,” by Vicki, have me thinking about that timeless phrase in medias res.

I’ve been considering launch points –– of scenes, of novels –– simply where to begin. I like dialogue –– like to read it, love to write it. In many ways, I think we often know people best by what they say. In terms of plotting and moving a narrative forward, I buy into Elmore Leonard’s great line, Skip the stuff no one reads, entirely, and so dialogue is my bread and butter.

I’ve been reading TV scripts of late and have been observing where the scenes begin, the launch points. The audience enters most scenes mid-stride, mid-conversation, which, for me, is both fun and useful because I’m consistently launching in the middle, starting a scene with someone speaking. No preamble necessary. The stage (setting) has literally been set visually.

How does this translate to fiction? And therein lies the rub. After all, how much in media res is too much in medias res? Tom Wolff begins The Bonfire of the Vanities with straight dialogue. We have no idea where the scene is set until half a page into the scene, but the tension is captivating and Wolff, like Ed McBain, accomplishes so much with how people speak that we almost know the setting by the way people talk. But consider this opening by James Lee Burke of Last Car to Elysian Fields:

The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot winds and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once again danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned a hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky, the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.

Stunning imagery. Burke’s lyrical voice shines through. And more importantly, Robicheaux’s latest internal crisis is hinted at. He is, after all, eating alone. The tone is ominous. We sense that we are starting after the fact. I want to keep reading to see what I’ve missed.

Where and how to begin? In medias res can have many different looks and take many different forms. And the beginning of a story is different than the beginning of a scene. Billy Collins says stepping from a poem’s title to the first line is like stepping from the dock into the canoe, which lets us know how tenuous launch points can be.

In Medias Res. So many choices.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Year in Books, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

When you're feeling poorly…

by Rick Blechta

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

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

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

Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Plotting, Plotting

By Vicki Delany

I hate plotting. But I do it.

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

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

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

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

And I hate it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 11, 2019

Starting the Year

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the complete list here.

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