Saturday, October 23, 2021

The General and Me

Colin Powell--former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs--passed away this week. There was a plenty of discussion about the fact he had been vaccinated and still succumbed to Covid. However, he was 84 and struggling with cancer and Parkinson's so I'm sure given his condition, a simple cold could have likewise done him in.

When I was in the Army, his presence loomed large through the ranks. Black soldiers, and particularly black officers, held him in high regard and affectionally referred to him as the HMFIC.

Though he and I never met, our paths did cross when I reached out to him personally. I had been called up from the reserves for Desert Storm and was sent overseas to serve as a soldier artist for the US Army Center of Military History. During my earlier tour on active duty, I had served as an infantry officer and then as an attack helicopter pilot, so I had already punched my ticket in the combat arms. This assignment as a soldier artist was a dream of mine as many of my boyhood heroes were combat artists such as Howard Brodie, Tom Lea (whose mural decorated the library where I spent many hours as a boy), and the great cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

By the time I got to the front, most of the fighting had quieted down. However during the day I'd hear gunfire and at night see tracers and explosions in the distance. The closest I got to real danger was when we had to clear out an Iraqi strongpoint, which turned out to be abandoned. Unfortunately, as we were approaching the bunkers, we discovered that we were in the middle of an enemy mine field. In literature there's a line when you get so scared that you can hear your pulse hammering in your ears. I experienced that, terrified that I'd get a leg blown off for nothing. 

While making my rounds of the battle area I ran into a black officer, a lieutenant-colonel in the Corps of Engineers. He had been an automotive engineer in Detroit, found that work unfulfilling, joined the Army, and was now the division engineer for the 1st Armored Division. As the expert in both construction and destruction, he was always supposed to be the smartest guy in the room, which I'm sure he was. I snapped his photo for reference, along with the minaret for local color, and a M728 Combat Engineer Vehicle with mine plow.

Months later, after I'd completed the watercolor "The Division Engineer" I read that Gen. Powell collected art featuring American black soldiers. So I send him a framed print. Unexpectedly, I received this note of thanks.  



Friday, October 22, 2021

Surprise!

 


Last week I picked up Thomas Kies's book, Shadow Hill, when I was in Barnes and Noble. I was delighted to see it prominently displayed on a table with the country's most prestigious fiction writers. I was heading to North Carolina to visit my daughter and I knew Thomas lived in that state.

Her family had rented a vacation house in Beaufort and when I arrived and cracked open the book, I realized from the flap copy he was the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the county where we would be staying. The very same county! And the very same town!

I emailed him immediately and much to my delight, he invited me to lunch. Naturally, our conversation focused on publishing and also how fortunate we were to be included in Type M For Murder. Type M is one of the oldest running blogs--since 2006. Our outstanding blogmaster, Rick Blechta is responsible for it's longevity. He gives a new meaning to "faithful to the task."

Thomas and I are with the same publishing house, Poisoned Pen Press, which was purchased by Sourcebooks several years ago. It was fun to recall the lessons we had to learn about writing, and how fortunate we were to have skilled editors to teach us how to improve our books. 

Oh the lessons I've had to learn! The humiliation I've endured. My third most embarrassing moment involved Barbara Peters. I have the world's second worst sense of direction. I was so thrilled when I was to appear at the bookstore for an interview. The other author was Michael Bowen. When I arrived and parked my car, I headed up the street in the wrong direction. Arizona was in the midst of an ungodly heat wave. 

I walked forever before I realized my mistake, nearly had a heat stroke, did an about-face, arrived sweaty, red-faced, with my lovely outfit limp and wilted. I was barely on time and went swanning in like one of those vain persons who make a dramatic late entrance. My hopes of making a good first impression on this poised sophisticated lady lessened to striving to sit upright on the stool. I settled for recalling my own name and hoped my blood pressure would return to normal. 

Nope! I'm not going to tell you who has the worst sense of direction because she's another author and I haven't asked her permission. But I will say she was at the wheel while her husband and family were asleep when returning from a Western Writers Convention. She was headed toward their home in Amarillo, Texas and ended up in Spearfish, South Dakota. Boy, was her husband startled when he woke up.



 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Seattle Fun

 

I spent last week in the Seattle area visiting my mom and sister. Had a lot of fun visiting, learning how to make lefse and doing some touristy things. One of those touristy things was a visit to the Space Needle, a place I hadn’t been in many years. Another was a visit to Chihuly Garden and Glass. The third was checking out MoPop, the Museum of Pop Culture, formerly known as the Experience Music Project. All three are in the Seattle Center within steps of each other.

Let’s start with the Space Needle built in the early 60s for the Century 21 Exposition aka the Seattle World’s Fair held in 1962. Things have changed over the years. A glass floor was recently added where a revolving restaurant used to be. This is a floor below the observation deck. On the observation deck you can stay inside and get a 360 degree view of the city or walk around outside. We went to the restaurant once for my sister’s high school graduation. I remember it being quite fun. Alas, there is no restaurant right now in the Needle.

If you want to see what the Space Needle looked like when it was first built, check out the movie It Happened at the World’s Fair with Elvis Presley. There’s a scene in the restaurant and a number of them on the grounds of the exposition. We rented it from Amazon Prime. It’s interesting how the Needle dominated the skyline of the city then. Now it’s pretty much dwarfed by a lot of very tall buildings.

 

Part of the glass floor

View from the Observation Deck

It was a tad windy on the Observation Deck



Chihuly Garden and Glass is a museum featuring works by Dale Chihuly, a well-known glass artist. You may have seen his work at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. There are exhibits inside as well as glass sculptures mixed with plants outside. Truly amazing.

 





The last place we visited was MoPop where we saw a special exhibit on costumes from Disney films and TV shows. It was interesting to hear how some of those came about and the inspiration the designers used for them. The rest of the museum was interesting as well, but my favorite part was the costume exhibit. 

MoPop and the Space Needle

 

If you get up to Seattle, I recommend seeing all 3 of these places. We did it in 2 days, but you could probably do all 3 in one day if you started early enough.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Kinsey Headed for TV?

by Thomas Kies



 I read an Associated Press article in my daily newspaper this morning that I found jarring.  

Yes, most news stories I read, see, or hear are pretty disturbing, but I found this one particularly upsetting.  The headline reads, “Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries headed to TV.”

Most writers would celebrate when their book or series of books are picked up for the silver screen.  I have several writers who are friends who have been lucky enough to get deals with studios for their mystery/thrillers. I know I’d love to see my protagonist, Geneva Chase, played out on the screen. 

But Sue Grafton, recalling her unhappy experiences writing for television movies before becoming a world celebrated novelist, made a vow that her Kinsey Millhone series would never become a television adaption. 

In 1997, Sue Grafton said in January Magazine, “I will never sell Kinsey to Hollywood.  And I have made my children promise not to sell her.  We’ve taken a blood oath, and if they do so I will come back from the grave: which they know I can do.  They’re going to have to pass the word on to my grandchildren: we do not sell out our grandma.”

That sounds pretty definite. Sue Grafton passed away in 2017 and to my knowledge, never changed her mind about her alphabet mysteries becoming a TV series.  When announcing her death, Grafton’s daughter, Jamie Clark, publicly reaffirmed her mother’s vow. 

And yet, A+E has acquired the rights to the Kinsey Millhone novels. Steve Humphrey, Grafton’s husband, and according to the Associated Press is also the executive producer of the series, makes the claim that “the times-and the medium- have changed.”

Mr. Humphrey went on the say in the article, “Television has greatly evolved since Sue was writing in Hollywood in the 1980s.  From her experience then, she was concerned that her stories and characters would be diminished when they were adapted.  But the power of television has transformed over time, so too has the quality from writing and acting to the production values and viewing experience.”

Mr. Humphrey posted that quote on Sue Grafton’s Facebook page and there have been over 2700 comments and the announcement was shared over 900 times.  The responses were a mixed bag.  Many of Grafton’s fans are excited about the adaptation and many are appalled that her husband has gone against her wishes. 

I’ve been a Sue Grafton fan for decades.  My protagonist, Geneva Chase, has been favorably compared by two national reviews to Kinsey Millhone.  A compliment that would be hard to top as far as I’m concerned.  Would I like to see a well-done adaptation of her alphabet mysteries?  Of course, I would.

But the author didn't want anyone to do an adaptation at all.  

A friend of mine, who is well versed in the mystery field, pointed out what a studio did to C.J Box’s Cassie Dewell series—now called Big Sky.  He’s concerned that they’ll turn the adaptation into “Hungarian goulash.  Not to insult any Hungarians.  Or insult goulash.” 

Again,
I have two writer friends who have television deals in the works and I'm thrilled for them, and frankly, a little jealous.

Would I like to have my Geneva Chase novels adapted for television?  Sure, if they were done right.  That’s what I think Sue Grafton’s concerns were.  It saddens me that the family didn’t respect her wishes.  



Friday, October 15, 2021

Animal Stories

 The posts from Charlotte, Rick, and Donis over the past week struck a chord. I have to admit that as much as I love Fergus, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who turned one year old on October 2, and Penelope, my Maine Coon, who I adopted this past spring, I sometimes feel like a frazzled mother of toddlers. Last week, I actually heard myself warning Fergus, who bounces and zooms through life, to "Stop chasing your sister!"  At which point both dog and cat stopped dead and turned to stare at me. Were they wondering about that "sister" thing? Or confused by my tone because they had been playing when Penelope ran with Fergus on her tail. Obviously, they were puzzled.

In fact, they both spend a lot of time looking at me while I carry on conversations with them about whatever is going on. I am the leader of their pack. Penelope stares at me with a feline's unblinking gaze or meows if she would like to have her face and chin stroked. Fergus tilts his head, as if he understands what I am saying. But, according to an article I read, that has more to do with his floppy ears and orientating to hear better than being an expression of his intelligence. He is certainly not listening for further instructions. The word "No" means nothing to him when he is chewing on an electric wire and about to send himself up in a puff of smoke or running with my reading glasses in his mouth, stopping at a distance to watch me go for his "training treats" to pay his ransom demand. He needs training -- training in obedience, schooling on not ignoring the commands that he knows but only deems to follow when it suits him. We are going to an obedience class as soon as I can find one that isn't already at capacity with other people who have puppies acquired during the pandemic. In the meantime, strangers pause to tell me how "adorable" he is and he greets them like long-lost friends. "Everyone loves Fergus," the owner of his doggie daycare told me. 

I have returned late to pets ("companion animals"). For much of my adult life after college and beyond, I had no animals in my life. Then I bought a house and almost accidentally adopted Harry because I saw that the local shelter had a Maine Coon, and I wanted to see one of the big cats that I had written into my book, The Red Queen Dies. The cat in the book was there for a reason. The cat, who had only a walk-on-scene, held the secret to the mystery. 

In that same book, Hannah McCabe, my Albany police detective, and her partner, Mike Baxter, run into her first partner, now retired, while visiting the University at Albany campus. As in real-life, the university mascot is a Great Dane, and McCabe's ex-partner has one in tow and reminds her again about adopting a puppy. At the end of the book, she brings home a huge puppy that is such a mix of various breeds that both her father and her brother, from whom she has been estranged, are in awe. Discussing names for the puppy gives them a warm, family, moment. At the end of the second book, What the Fly Saw, another character sees the dog and suggests a name -- and shares an important moment of rapport with McCabe. My animals are in my books because they move the plots along and reveal something about the characters. Why else would a black cat have attended a seance in the same book? Would I be that campy for the fun of it?  

 George, a yellow Labador mix, debuted in A Dead Man's Honor, the second book in my Lizzie Stuart series, and became a continuing character. I didn't consciously think about adding a dog to the series. It was one of those moments when something happened -- Lizzie arrived at John Quinn's house and discovered he had a dog. A dog he had rescued from the side of the highway and had not intended to keep. But he had, and his bashfulness in talking about being a softie when it came to a stray dog gave Lizzie a glimpse of another side of the former military police officer, ex-homicide cop. George becomes the victim of a crime in Old Murders. He survives and recovers, but the incident is a turning point in the book.

In Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave, George is left at home, but he manages to "skunk up" Quinn's beloved Bronco before Lizzie and Quinn leave for a weekend visit with Quinn's friends. Thanks to George's pursuit of a skunk, Quinn is driving Lizzie's Ford Escort when they are in an auto accident soon after arriving on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The accident launches the subplot involving migrant laborers.

So far, no animals have appeared in the flesh in my 1939 historical thriller. But the senator's housekeeper has reported that his niece, Evelyn, has gone out riding. She has a conversation with the niece's suitor about Evelyn's outrage about the death of a horse during the making of a western movie (a true story). Since several of the characters are going to Saratoga, undoubtedly a race horse will have a role. Evelyn's suitor owns a plantation in Georgia. Is he the kind of man who has a dog that walks by his side? I don't know yet. If he doesn't, is it because of something that happened when he was a child? Something that helped to shape his character?

I have an aunt who doesn't like cats. She will probably never come to visit me with Penelope and Fergus in residence. I have a feeling there is a story somewhere in that. In the meantime, my first Jo Radcliffe novel, set in 1949, will be about the murder of a mean-tempered village storeowner who claimed the dog of a homeless World War II veteran bit him.  


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Zeros

I enjoyed Rick's and Charlotte's latest Type M Entries about using pets our novels (though I'm sorry about Charlotte's grandson losing his friend and companion Mayzie). Rick says he doesn't include animals in his books. I certainly do, especially in the Alafair Tucker Mysteries. That series is set on a farm in the 1910s. Their lives revolve around animals, both companion animals, hunting partners, and dinner, so I pretty much had to include them. In the Bianca Dangereuse books, set in Hollywood in the 1920s, my protagonist grew up on said farm and can't imagine a life without animals. 

 In my mind this ties in with my thoughts about Vicki Delany's new series set in 1953. I cannot wait to read it. 1953 is about the time I was becoming aware of the world. The very mention of the year catpulted me back to that time, the feel of it, the way it looked, the smell of it. The beloved peopl, all gone now, who populated the little world I lived in when I was a small child. It's funny how a word, a thought, a conversation, can evoke memories and feelings you thought you had long forgotten.
The building in the distance is where Grandma's cafe was located from the late 1920 to 1970. I took this photo in 2018. Even the building is gone now. 

 A few days ago, my husband and I were driving down the street discussing candy bars. He’s one of the few people in the world who doesn’t like chocolate, so we were trying to think of as many non-chocolate candy bars as we could. I mentioned Zeros, and suddenly was transported back half a century, to Boynton, Oklahoma, and the eatery that my grandmother owned for over forty years, Mrs. Casey’s Cafe, on Main Street. 

That cafe was a very large part of my childhood, since we traveled to Boynton from Tulsa every other weekend to visit my dad’s mom, and we kids spent at least two weeks with my grandmother every summer. Our two summer weeks were no vacation, either. My grandmother couldn’t afford to take time off from her cafe, so she put us to work. I imagine that at the time we were like any other family ristorante in Italy or corner cafe in Greece, where a ten year old with a dishtowel wrapped around his waist comes to your table to take your order. I don’t know what Family Services would say these days about all the times I carried a tray full of open beer bottles to the men in the back room when I was pre-pubescent, or fried up hamburgers on the grill, or stood on a step stool in the kitchen to wash up glasses in a sink full of lukewarm dishwater. 

 Her cafe was a very small affair; a counter with half a dozen twirling stools that we kids made good if annoying use of, and three booths. Every weekend that we went down there, one of the rituals my sisters and I indulged in was to take a small paper sack and fill it with candy bars from the display behind Grandma’s counter to take home with us. We were thoughtless and greedy little buggers, and it never occurred to me that this was costing my grandma money. I hope that my father reimbursed her. I wasn’t aware of it, but knowing Grandma, she probably did bill him. 

 There were certain candies and treats that she always stocked, such as Hershey Bars, Mounds, Milky Ways, Snickers, Mr. Goodbar, Baby Ruth, Butterfingers, Three Musketeers, Pay-Days, Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes. But there were others that only made an occasional appearance, and we would snap those up with delight when they did show up. One of these was the aforementioned Zero Bar, which resembled a Milky way, except for the fact that it was white chocolate, or something-that-would-be-called-white-chocolate-in-the-future. I don’t remember that term being in wide use back in the olden days. I also kept a sharp eye out for Heath Bars, Brown Cows, Almond Joy, Krackles, and good old Hostess Sno-Balls, which came in white and pink. I liked the white. Pink snow balls just seemed wrong to me. We didn’t neglect the chewing gum, either. My sister liked Double Bubble and Juicy Fruit, but both were too sweet for me. I liked Spearmint and Beeches Clove gum. I can’t say I enjoyed bussing tables every summer all that much, but I’m sure it was good for my character. Perhaps one of the reasons I write about food so much in my fiction doesn’t have something to do with the experience. 

I wonder if they still make Zeros?

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Going to the wild side


 Barbara here, at last. Although I'm not sure anyone missed me, I have been AWOL from this blog for the past month and only remembered this week's post rather late in the game. Life has been getting in the way, but most of it is boring stuff about cottage close-ups, laundry, broken washing machines, thanksgiving prep, and such.

The only really interesting reason for my negligence was my sixteen-day trip out to Vancouver Island to research the next Amanda Doucette novel, which is set in the Pacific Rim area on the wild west coast of Vancouver island. Each Amanda book is set in a different iconic location across Canada, starting in the far east on the island of Newfoundland, then moving to Quebec's Laurentian mountains, Ontario's stunning Georgian Bay archipelago, and then the fascinating, slightly spooky Alberta badlands. In this fifth book, Amanda has finally reached the western extremity of Canada. 

Not every region has been represented, and I apologize for that, but had I chosen to include every province and territory, I would be closing in on a hundred years old before penning that last book. I did write about the north in my Inspector Green book, THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, and should my publisher and I decide to do a sixth Amanda book, it would be set in the north.

In choosing my locations, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the incredible beauty and diversity of Canada's landscape and culture. Not only is the rugged, rocky coast of Newfoundland very different from the parched moonscape of the Alberta's badlands, but the lifestyle and daily preoccupations of its people are unique as well. To do justice to this uniqueness, I needed to visit each place I wrote about. While I was more familiar with Newfoundland, Quebec, and Ontario, my knowledge of the badlands was more limited and my knowledge of the wild Pacific Rim was non-existent. There is only so much one can learn by parachuting into a place and racing around it, taking notes and photos, talking to people, and trying to walk in my characters' shoes, but it is still better than the internet, books, and maps (although I did use those too). Nothing gives the sounds, sights, smells, and feel of a place quite like being there. 

The spirit of Tofino

Naure is awe-inspiring, and there is an emotional and spiritual impact to standing in the middle of it. Before I stood on the endless beach near Tofino, listening to the breakers gather and crumble and watching the surfers rise and fall, I would never have appreciated the soft, yellow luminescence of the early morning sun. Nor the humid, vibrantly green rain forest, which is both soaring and claustrophobic at the same time. I had pictured Amanda bushwhacking through the forest to get from one place to another, something that is difficult enough in eastern forests, but impossible in that dense, choked greenery. Had I not walked those forests myself and corrected my descriptions, I would have lost many readers who should have been immersed in the story.

Rainforest perspective


So in the interests of bringing a vivid, credible story to life, I spent sixteen days and took two day-kayak trips in different parts of the area, a whale watching trip in a Zodiac in three metre ocean swells, a bear watching trip along the inner shores of the many inlets, and a seaplane flight over the coastal islands that form the backbone of my story. I hiked numerous trails, walked for miles along the beaches, rolled up my jeans and walked barefoot in the surf, and visited the location of the local cemeteries and the old hippie commune at Wreck Bay. Now I have to incorporate what I learned into the book.

Long Beach in a storm

Sixteen days is not long to get the sense of a place, but it will be better than nothing. The pandemic nearly ruined all my plans. Closures and quarantine requirements, not to mention the dangers of social interactions, meant I'd had to cancel a previous trip and write a lot of the book beforehand on sheer guesswork. Even now, several of the hikes and activities central to the book are still closed, and one of the islands is still completely off limits to tourists. The famous Wildside Heritage Trail on Flores Island, which is in the book and which I had planned to hike, was closed, as were the Hot Springs. 

My acknowledgements will have to include a caveat and an apology for all the things I might get wrong, but I am trying my best to do justice to an astonishing place.

Plus, it was a fabulous trip!


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Pet peeves

by Rick Blechta

I’ve used this title before for one of my weekly posts on Type M, but this post is different. It’s actually about pets, not things that annoy me.

The germ for my post today came from two sources: firstly from Charlotte’s post this past Friday, and secondly because our elderly cat is obviously reaching the end of her days.

I do understand people’s attachment to their pets. Our family dog when I was growing up slowly became my dog because I was the one who usually walked him and we went all over our small town together. Yes, I was upset when Spunky finally shucked his mortal coil while I was attending university in Montreal — but I got over it pretty quickly, which is odd because I’m normally a pretty emotional person.

Why is this? Because when I was in high school I had a weekend job for two years working at a local animal hospital. You pretty quickly begin to understand that pets’ lives are far shorter than their owners. I also realized that when you got a pet, you had to understand that this would eventually happen or it could drive someone to serious despair. This realization hardens you pretty effectively to the eventual death of pets.

My wife and I have always had cats. When you’re busy with life and not home much, and often at irregular hours, cats are a much better pet solution than dogs. Over the years we’ve had six. Our current feline, Abby (short for Abby Normal), was originally our son Jan’s pet. When he had to let her go for various reasons, we said we’d take over.

While a real character as a young cat, Abby is now 13 and her health is catching up with her. Based on her medical conditions, she only has a few months left. Our goal is to keep her comfortable. Once we can’t do that, it will be time to let her go. And it will be a sad day, especially for my tender-hearted wife.

Charlotte’s post got me thinking of why pets can often appear as important characters in crime fiction. We even have novels where animals are main characters and actually solve crimes.

My feeling has always been that unless the pet has a good “plot reason” to be included as a cast member, then it’s best to leave them out. I can’t remember the book title now, but the best inclusion of a dog in a crime novel was because the police detective main character found it useful to think about cases while walking his dog. The dog also seemed to understand this and would beg for a walk when her master had a particularly sticky problem in a case. It fit well and was handled in a pretty funny way.

Other times, though, you realize the pet is there for no real plot reason. They’re more window dressing than anything else and to me that distracts from the plot.

I’ve never even considered having a pet in one of my stories. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become a hard-ass about our beloved animal companions — which is no doubt a mechanism to spare me from woe — or maybe it’s a way to keep the storylines less cluttered by extraneous things. Heaven knows I struggle with that!

So here’s to pets, whether they be our boon companions or simply plot devices. I’m happy to know that many readers enjoy the inclusion of animals in stories. Maybe they’re a way to make crime fiction less dark, giving them a bit more humanity by their presence.

In today’s world, that’s a good thing.

Monday, October 11, 2021

A character by any other name brings notes from your editor

My editor sent me notes this week on the next book in my series and one of the comments made me laugh out loud.

I had used four different names for the same character in the MS and he suggested that I pick one and stick with it.

The funniest thing was, this is not a new character — she actually appears in an earlier book!

Names can be my downfall. Words, coherent sentences, spelling, syntax, plot, dialogue and endings also give me trouble.

I forget character names so easily. I have to write them down on Post-It notes as I go along, just to keep me right. Then, of course, I lose the Post-It note.

Writers have to keep track of a lot of different things. Names, back stories, time lines, whether there is a character with one leg called George (I forget what the other leg is called). I suppose there are apps that can help but I shun the appliance of technology. Until I use it, of course, then I wonder why on earth I was doing all that shunning.

Even coming up with names is difficult, well at least for me. It's easy to devise a character called Jehosephat McGillicuddy. Outlandish names are simple — it’s those that are both memorable and yet everyday that can be problematic.

Whenever I introduce a new character sometimes their names come to me instantly, more often than not I can be found scanning the spines of the books on my shelves to see if anything sparks.

As for forgetting names, this mild form of anomic aphasia extends to real life. I have often carried on complete conversations with someone who clearly knows my name but for the life of me I can't recall theirs!

There is no serious root to this — I hope not anyway. I think it is quite common. With me it is genuinely just a vagueness, even perhaps a lack of attention, caused by having a mind filled with so much nonsense that something has to go to make room for just how many times has Steven Spielberg worked with composer John Williams (I count 28, but there were also two episodes of TV’s Amazing Stories on which they collaborated).

Obviously, I'm not talking about people I know well. The names I forget are people I have perhaps met only one or twice, which I think is perfectly normal.

But to forget the names of people you have created and have spent at least part of however long it takes write a novel is ridiculous and I must do better.

Not losing those Post-It notes might be a start.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

This weekend’s special guest Vicki Delany!

I am most pleased to welcome back Vicki Delany, one of Type M for Murders founders and long-time members. She is here to tell us all about her new series set in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Take it away, Vicki!

Researching the Catskills Resort Mysteries

1953. I was there, but I wasn’t exactly taking notice of the social and political environment of the day, so when I decided to write a series set in 1953 I had to do a lot of research. Fortunately, it was easy.

1953. Think girdles and stockings, fancy cocktails, grand ballrooms, cigarette smoke (and more cigarette smoke), angel food cake and Cheeze Whiz on celery sticks, Reds under the beds and slow moving fans.

It’s the Catskills. Comedians and big bands and glamorous singers. Paddle boats and bellhops, tomato cocktails and Jell-O salads, swimsuit competitions and unattended children.

1953 really wasn’t so long ago. Unlike writers with books set in, say Ancient Rome, or 18th Century Venice, I could watch movies. Not movies set in the era I am interested in, but actually made then. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, Esther Williams in the water, gritty hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon (although that was made in 1941). Movies are a fantasy, sure, but they are also reflective of their times. I watched the dance movies for scenes in the ballroom of my Catskills Hotel. I listened to big band music by the likes of Glenn Miller, as recommend by Type M’s own Rick. I studied the clothes, the furniture, the tilt of a cigarette in the mouth of a sophisticated woman and listened to the expressions.

I also read a lot of cookbooks from the era and looked at design magazines. Many of these are available online. I can’t say I tried cooking anything I read about though. Jell-O salads with canned pineapple just doesn’t appeal.

All of which helped me, I hope, to create the feel of the times, particularly in those minor but important details such as the cut of a character’s dress or her hair style or what she might order from the bar.

As for the specific history of the Catskills at the time of the famous resorts, there’s a lot of first-hand information available. Many people have very fond memories of the times they spent at the great hotels, or cheap bungalow colonies, either as guests or as employees, or children of owners and employees. “Mountain Rats” the latter called themselves.
1953. The Catskills. Put them together and you have my new series, the Catskills Resort Mysteries. Out front: swimming pool, beach, lounge chairs, tennis games, cards on the veranda, a full dining room, helpful bellhops. Behind the scenes: offices full of women pounding typewriters and answering phones, harried switchboard operators, temperamental cooks, non-stop smoking. Hundreds of employees from gardeners to bellhops to chambermaids to entertainment directors, lifeguards, and dance instructors.

And at the center of it all, Elizabeth Grady, war-widow, bookkeeper, reluctant resort manager. Her mother, Olivia Peters, retired Broadway dance star and unexpectedly the owner of a Catskills resort.

So take a trip back in time with Elizabeth and Olivia and enjoy your visit to Hagerman’s Catskills Resort. It is, after all, 1953.

_________________________

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Catskill Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books,  and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane.

Vicki is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival.  Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. Vicki is the 2019 recipient of the CWC’s Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Friday, October 08, 2021

The Long Goodbyes

 


This is a photo of my grandson, John Crockett, with Mayzie, the dog he received for his birthday. And if ever a boy and a dog were meant for each other! John is in Rhode Island in graduate school now, and two weeks ago the family laid Mayzie to rest. 

Next week my youngest daughter and her family will say goodbye to Dakota, another well-beloved dog who has so many ailments that she leads a miserable existence and the vet said it's time to consider her quality of life. 

The response to a pet's death is pure grief, even if we know it's coming. Because the love they give us is so pure, I think. A dog hears our troubles without judging. Dogs seem to know when we are down and need a little extra attention. They are a barometer for our moods and simply commiserate without trying to cheer us up. 

My favorite dog was a little Shih-Tzu named Brandy Noel. The daughters got her for Christmas one year, but eventually they went to college and Brandy became my dog and the inspiration for the ridiculously spoiled Tosca who is in all of my mysteries. I was grief stricken when I had to say goodbye to Brandy. 

I've heard that one of the big taboos for writers is killing off a dog or pet that has been a constant in a series. We can kill anyone else, grandparents, all sorts of relations, close friends — but not the dog.

I wonder how many Type M’ers have pets that are their writing companions? How many integrate pets into their series? 

Can you think of series that wouldn't be the same without the dog? 

There's a reason why I'm not including cats in this blog. Cats really don't need us. Nor do they much care how our day is going. Dogs do. 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

I’ve heard writers described as “pantsers” (writers who write “by the seat of their pants,” not knowing where the book will go as they’re writing) and “outliners” (someone who dutifully outlines before they begin; Jeffrey Deaver once gave a speech I attended during which he said he spends 8 months writing the outline, 3 months writing the novel).

Two weeks ago, SJ Rozan visited my classes after we read her story “Going Home” and offered another view: She said she works in a circular motion –– writing and pushing the story forward, then going back and rereading, before moving forward again. The image she drew for the students was this:

 



I thought it was a great description of the way lots of us write –– forward progress, then circling back, and moving forward again. I usually begin with character sketches and maybe a paragraph describing the plot, something like the description on the back of the book. Then I start writing. When the story lags or I don’t know where to go next (typically, that’s one and the same), I go back 50 or 100 pages (or even to the beginning –– desperate times call for early mornings of rereading).


There are a few benefits to this circular writing style. It allows me to edit as I go. It also speaks to how some of us plot. When the book stalls, it’s usually because I missed something in the writing. That sounds absurd (the book doesn’t write itself by any means), but I have found when I go back and reread that I discover opportunities to clarify the plot for the reader (and myself).


So if you’re not a “pantser” or an “outliner” maybe you’re a circler. 


Wednesday, October 06, 2021

AI and Audiobook Narration

 

For a long time, audiobooks were something I’d only listen to on a driving trip. On cassette tape. Yep, it was that long ago.

I believe that books should be available in whatever format people want to consume them in: print, audio, ebook. I was very happy when my first three books came out in audio format. But, as I noted above, I didn't listen to audiobooks on a regular basis.

Sometime in the last couple years, I started consuming more non-music audio content: podcasts, audio dramas and books. The books started when I wanted to read all of the Dark Shadows novels originally issued in the late 1960s, early 1970s. I had a few paperbacks that I bought when they first came out, but the majority of them I didn’t have access to until they were reissued as audiobooks. Read by one of the actors from the original soap opera, Kathryn Leigh Scott, they were all available for checkout from my local library on Hoopla Digital. It took me awhile to get through them but, after I finished, I realized I enjoyed them so much I wanted to check out other audiobooks.

I've listened to a variety of books since then with different narrators. The most important thing is the content. If you don’t have a good book, you’re not going to have a good audiobook. I did discover, though, that the right narrator for the project could enhance my enjoyment of the story.

In the past week, I heard about the use of artificial intelligence in audiobook narration. Google is getting in on the act as well as Speechki and DeepZen. Google Play Books has a beta version available and is working on making it available to publishers. You can check out some free audiobooks created using their software here. These are all books in the public domain.

Speechki is a recording platform that claims to be able to produce an audio book using AI synthetic voices from input in 15 minutes. The publisher or author uploads their book and selects a voice. DeepZen has a stable of actual, real voice over artists who have contributed their voices in some way, don’t know the details. From whatever sampling is done, DeepZen takes an input file of a book and does their magic to create the audiobook using a voice selected by the publisher or author of the book.You can go here and listen to some samples. I’ll wait for you.

Ah, you’re back. What did you think? I listened to the sample of Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was not as awful as I anticipated though some of the pauses seemed a little odd to me. I don’t know that I would have figured out that artificial intelligence was at work if I hadn’t known in advance. Still, I don’t think I want to listen to an entire book.

I’m not sure how I feel about this marriage of computer science and book content. A part of me is interested in how natural language processing has progressed since I was in college when it was fairly primitive. The part of me that consumes books is resistant to the idea.

On the plus side, for DeepZen anyway, they say that the voice over artists whose voices they use get paid for every audio book that is produced using their voice. Don’t know how much or how it relates to what the voice over artist would get if they read the audio book in the usual way. I suspect it’s less. On the other hand, they don’t have to sit down and record the audio book. Audiobooks can also be produced cheaper and faster using this method. But, from the little I’ve heard, the quality doesn’t seem as good as would result from a voice over artist reading the book. On the other hand, this may make some content available where it wouldn’t have been before.

There’s also the issue of rights. Do these need to change with the development of AI narration? I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know the answer to this, but I think the question needs to be asked.

While from a technology standpoint I find this fascinating, it still makes me uneasy. It seems like it’s taking away jobs from voice over artists. Plus I really prefer a good narrator for the audiobooks I listen to. But, then, I’m not dependent on audio for my book consumption. I can choose to read the book. Not everyone has this choice.

If you want to read more there are a lot of articles on the web on this topic. Here are a few of them: https://www.tckpublishing.com/ai-narration/

 https://towardsdatascience.com/how-ai-contributes-to-the-audiobook-industry-boom-2cc5406331eb

  https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2020/12/04/voice-technologies-streaming-and-subscription-audio-in-a-time-of-artificial-intelligence-ai/

So what do you think about the use of AI in audiobook narration?

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Scaring myself silly

by Rick Blechta

Once I read Tom’s post from yesterday, it was just too tempting to riff off it for my post this week.

Coincidentally, I was away last week because my wife and I took a few days to visit Elora, a small town about two hours west of Toronto. Why coincidentally? Because in October Elora’s small historic downtown comes alive with giant scary sculptures. People flock in from all over just to see them. We went for the annual studio tour, but alas, since it was still September, the sculptures weren’t out yet. They are quite spectacular. Click HERE to see some examples.

Anyway, on to the things that have scared me silly.

I’m with Tom all the way. It’s fun being scared by books or movies. There are, however, only three movies that have really gotten to me.

The first was The Mummy, not the one with Boris Karloff (which is legitimately quite scary, but the remake that came out in 1959 from Hammer Films. It stared Peter Cushing as the hero with Christopher Lee as the mummy.

I saw it as an eight-year-old with some friends at our local cinema in Mamaroneck, NY, where I grew up. It genuinely frightened the bajeejees out of me, so much so that I couldn’t go to sleep at night if the closet door in my bedroom wasn’t shut tight. I was probably 11 when the effect of that movie finally wore off and I could fall asleep no matter what the state of the closet door.

Next came The Uninvited. This was an out and out example of the classic ghost story. When I was 13, I stumbled across it on TV one Saturday afternoon in October (natch!) and watched it, alone in the house. When the ghost finally appears in the second act, I was so scared that I had to snap the TV off and run outside. It wasn’t until many years later that I watched the movie again and found out how the story ended. No wonder it was a big hit in 1942 when it came out. It’s a real chiller.

Last on the list is one Tom already mentioned, The Exorcist, both the book and the movie. I saw the movie first and then read the book. Since I was in my 20s at the time I saw it, I didn’t suffer any nightmares or have issues with closet doors, but the movie was indeed terrifying, the book less so, but still exceptionally good for what it was trying to do.

Interestingly, an extended director’s cut was released in 2000 and I saw it with my older son who also enjoys horror movies. There was a scene where the young, possessed girl comes down the stairs in the home upside down, moving like some kind of human spider. I don’t know why it was not included in the original movie because it is really very unnerving to watch.

And that’s maybe why some people gravitate to horror, whether it be books or movies. If done well, they are all certainly unnerving sometimes in the extreme.

Now I think it’s someone else’s turn with this subject. What do you find scary and why do you enjoy being scared?

Tis the season after all.