Monday, March 08, 2021

Covid and Literary Conflict


 By Thomas Kies

 Two weeks ago, today, my wife and I won the lottery…sort of.  We both got our second Pfizer vaccination.  It was like this massive weight was lifted off my shoulders.  After a year of wondering if I’d catch covid-19 and end up on a ventilator in the hospital, my anxiety level dropped precipitously.

If I was of a mind to write something about the pandemic into my work in progress (which I’m not) I wonder what kind of conflict that could be defined as.  

Tonight, in my creative writing class, the participants will be reading the first few pages of their book.  I didn’t define what that might be.  I left that up to them. I’ve assigned this before in other classes and it’s usually pretty interesting.

We’ll also be discussing different types of literary conflict.  

There’s character vs. self.  This might take the form of inner demons—alcoholism, addiction, phobias.  Or it might be a moral dilemma such as: If you can’t afford food to feed your children and there were no other options, would you steal?  Is murder ever moral?  Can I have one more cookie tonight and ignore the scale in the morning?

There’s character vs. character.  This is the classic good against evil—the good guy or girl versus the bad guy or girl. With shades of moral nuance thrown in.  After all, don’t most villains think that what they do is right?  They might see their actions as being outside of the law, but it’s still the right thing to do.  It can be as powerful as a life and death battle in the climax of your book or being handed a written warning by your clueless, overbearing boss.

There’s character vs. nature.  This is where the hero battles forces like weather, wild animals, the wilderness, or a natural disaster.  Think Titanic. Think Old Man and the Sea. Think Texas after a snowstorm. 

There’s character vs. the supernatural.  This is more for authors of fantasy or horror and not so much for mystery writers.  My protagonist, Geneva Chase, doesn’t do battle with demons or zombies or ghosts. But in my first book, Random Road, Geneva rides along on a waterborne ghost hunt. 

FYI, that scene is based on a real ghost hunt I went on years ago.  The only spirits I saw that night were in the bottom of my wine glass.  

There’s character vs. technology.  I think this is more in the realm of science fiction writers, but I do understand the angst, anxiety, frustration, and rage I can feel when my internet goes out and I have to call the freaking cable company to get it back on.  

There’s character vs. society.  This can incorporate a broad spectrum of conflicts.  It could stem from race or religion.  Townies vs. the jocks on campus. It might be a character caught up in the raging fires of war. It could be me staring down an IRS audit. 

Then there’s something called passive conflict.  When the protagonist is being kept in the dark, lied to, or avoided.  Much less violent than physical conflict but can still do mental damage to a character. Much like being in high school and not being invited by the cool kids to any of their parties. 

I’m not bitter. Anymore. 

So, to circle around to the pandemic.  I guess we can slide that into character vs. nature. And I’ll be damned glad when we have all gotten vaccinated. 

Friday, March 05, 2021

Using Distractions

Writing teachers tell us to make our protagonist's life difficult. 

Personally, I've had major life events that not only made my life difficult but sent my life spiraling out of control. But more often, an event that I either anticipated with pleasure or thought would be easily navigated is what causes chaos. For the past six weeks, the source of that chaos has been an adorable new puppy. (See photo to right -- Fergus at four months, now five months and taller. Note the flash of blue sock peeping out of side of old loafer that was gnawed by sharp puppy teeth).

As I pick up ripped paper (spilled from knocked over wastebasket, torn from toilet paper rolls, envelopes, or book covers) and wipe up water spilled from bowls, food dumped from dishes, and pee that missed designated pads, I have been thinking about the disruption that a puppy could cause in my protagonist's life not to mention her investigation. 

Hannah McCabe, my Albany PD detective brought home a rescued Great Dane puppy at the end of What the Fly Saw, but I left it there. The book was over and she had her father and brother to help with puppy care. But what if the dog that plays a role in my first Jo Radcliffe novel -- set in 1950 -- ends up spending a few nights at her house? A subplot that could both disrupt her investigation and move the story forward. 

In my 6th Lizzie Stuart novel, the visit to Santa Fe at Thanksgiving to meet her fiance's family for the first time takes her out of Gallagher right after a woman she saw disappears. When she gets back to Gallagher, the project that she has been working on to aid a church congregation that wants to have its building declared a historic site needs her attention at the moment when she is  drawn into the investigation of the woman who disappeared. These distractions -- the family visit and the church research -- function as subplots that grow, respectively, out of what is happening in her personal life and out of her work as the director of an institute. 

I enjoy reading other writers' books in which subplots emerge naturally from the lives of the protagonists -- the job changes, the births, the illnesses of family members, the cooking classes, the noisy neighbor -- whatever they have going on when the crime occurs. Reminding myself of that has helped me with the 1939 historical that I'm working on. Asking myself what was happening in a character's life when she left home on a train heading for New York City -- rather than focusing on what would happen when she got there -- has provided a subplot that is essential to the main plot. The character now has motivation that I had not anticipated for two important decisions.

So, back to my puppy chaos. I wonder what might have been in that envelope that was ripped to pieces?

 

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Promotion – Too Much or Not Enough?

The good old days of promotion



 My new novel, Valentino Will Die, has been released.I’ve been spending the past few weeks, and will spend the next several weeks, trying to get the word out. Trying to publicize a book during a pandemic presents problems, but opportunities, too. No personal appearances, but many more opportunities to participate in on-line promotion. I’ve been spending hours a day in front of the computer setting things up - ZOOM workshops, podcasts, guest blogs, etc.

If there is anything more boring than shilling over the internet hour after hour after hour I don’t know what it is. After a while I’d be happier cleaning the toilets. At least I’d know for sure that I have accomplished something tangible and immediate.

Besides, how much is too much? How tired do people get seeing post after post about someone’s new book? And yet, one almost has to do it and take the chance of becoming an irritation. Then again, how much is enough? I’ve heard that readers/viewers have to hear about something at least seven times before they remember it. (Don’t ask me who decided that. I don’t know.)

How do you decide what books to read? I consider my own habits. First, if I know and like the author, I’ll almost always give her books a try. Second, I am an inveterate browser. I’ve discovered innumerable titles that I’ve loved simply by browsing bookshelves both in bookstores and in libraries. I am more prone to read a book by an author I don’t know if I see it in the library.This avenue has been cut off by the pandemic for the last year. Third, I’m very much influenced by the recommendations of friends, especially friends whose taste I know is similar to mine. The only internet sites that influence my buying and reading habits tend to be a couple of review sites that I like, such as Lesa’s Book Critiques. If I read a book I like by an author who is new to me, I’ll look up his website, read about him, and see what else he’s written.

I’m perhaps one of the few readers who has never bought a book online. If I’m going to buy a book, I order it from one of my local independent book stores if they don't have it in stock. This is not to say that I wouldn’t buy a book from, say, Amazon, if I was desperate to read it and absolutely couldn’t find it anywhere else. If given a choice, I’d rather have a physical book to read instead of an ebook. When I’m done with a physical book, I can either return it to the library or resell it or give it to the local nursing home.

According to a survey issued a few years ago by Sisters in Crime, I’m not alone. The number one factor influencing a reader when she buys a mystery novel is that she knows and likes the author. Second is that the book is part of a series she enjoys. Third, the reader saw the book on an in-store display. (This was pre-pandemic, of course.) Next was that the reader got the book through a book-buying club (this surprised me), and then the recommendation of a friend or relative.

Other revelations from the survey:

The cover of the book is very influential in persuading a reader to consider it.

Most mysteries are bought by women older than 45 (though a third of them are purchased by women 18-44. That’s not to be sneezed at.), and more are bought by women in the South, closely followed by the West, than in other parts of the country. More mysteries are bought through stores than online, and personal recommendations “are the major driver of reading choices.” Even younger mystery readers, who are more familiar with e-readers and use them more than older readers, said they preferred to read physical books. As I said, this survey was taken a few years ago, but I have a feeling the results would be similar if it were repeated today.

Are you annoyed by authors’ continual on-line BSP, Dear Reader? What influences you to read a book, and in what form do you prefer to read it?

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Aiming at a moving target

Since the pandemic began, I have posted from time to time about the challenge of writing it into my current work in progress. Or not. The book, the eleventh in my Inspector Green series entitled THE DEVIL TO PAY, is due for release in October 2021. Initially we thought the pandemic would last a month or two (remember those days?), but as I continued to write the novel, I gradually realized it might last into the fall or even winter of 2020. Authors everywhere agonized about what to do, and I posed the questions a few times on social media. Some wanted to write as if life was carrying on as normal and the pandemic didn't exist. People didn't want to be reminded of these grim times, or the experience was too raw, or it interfered with their planned narrative. Others suggested the book be set in 2019 or in the near future. And still others said that the pandemic should be in the background, but merely hinted at.



This last option was the one I chose. I couldn't imagine pretending it didn't exit. It's the defining event of the century (so far). Imagine writing a book set in 1942 without mentioning the war? But surely by the fall of 2021, the pandemic would be over, and I could write as if it were in the rearview mirror. The memory and the effects on people's lives would linger, but life would be normal. But in October, when I submitted the manuscript to the publisher, we had no idea how long it was going to last. There was no vaccine, and countries were lurching from opening up and shutting down as their health officials obsessively watched the case counts. I was changing the manuscript on the fly right up until the submission date.

Fast forward four months, and I have now working through the edits and doing final rewrites. Once again, the pandemic is centre stage. It will not be over by the fall of 2021 when people will start reading the book. Furthermore, it dawned on me that the book is set in May through July, just a couple of months from now.  There is no way things will be back to the post-pandemic normal I had envisioned in my original draft.

The one good thing is that now there is a clearer picture of what pandemic life will be like in a couple of months. Vaccines will be here but may not yet be widely distributed. Many Covid restrictions and protocols will continue. So I set about making adjustments to the manuscript to reflect what I thought would be the reality in May 2021. Police officers and many other essential workers will be vaccinated, but Plexiglas dividers in restaurants and shops will likely remain. Masks will continue to be worn. So each scene had to be analyzed. Activities in the police station like briefings and meetings would not require masks but interviews with the public would. Restaurant patios could not be "packed" and streets would no longer "bustle with tourists".

When characters are wearing masks, most of the nonverbal facial cues are lost. I had to remove all the friendly smiles and tightened lips, and find other ways to convey the emotion. Scowls, furrowed brows, and blinking eyes. Those tics get tired fast! And it is so much harder to recognize suspects when half their face is hidden. Note - this can be useful.

But I still didn't want to make the pandemic too intrusive. It's a mystery story about tortured relationships and murder. I didn't want the reader to be tripping over the pandemic at every turn. It's a fine balance, and I hope by the time the book comes out it October, it won't be too far off base. Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Let’s have some fun!

By Rick Blechta

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you enjoy words, possibly enjoy playing with words. If so, you will enjoy this week’s post. It might even make you LOL or even ROTFLYAO.


Right now we certainly need things to lighten the mood and make the world seem a brighter place. What follows should help…


Ponderables:

If a bottle of poison reaches its expiration date, is it more poisonous or is it no longer poisonous?

Which letter is silent in the word "Scent," the S or the C?

Do twins ever realize that one of them is unplanned?

Why is the letter W in English called double U? Shouldn't it be called double V?

Maybe oxygen is slowly killing you and it just takes 75-100 years to fully work.

Every time you clean something, you just make something else dirty.

The word "swims" upside-down is still "swims"

120 years ago, everyone owned a horse and only the rich had cars. Today everyone has cars and only the rich own horses.

 

Four great confusions still unresolved:

1. At a movie theater, which arm rest is yours?

2. If people evolved from monkeys, why are monkeys still around?

3. Why is there a 'D' in fridge, but not in refrigerator?

4. Who knew what time it was when the first clock was made?

 

Vagaries of English Language:

Ever wonder why the word funeral starts with FUN?

Why isn't a fireman called a Water-man?

How come lipstick doesn't do what it says?

If money doesn't grow on trees, how come banks have branches?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

How do you get off a non-stop flight?

Why are goods sent by ship called CARgo and those sent by truck SHIPment?

Why do we put cups in the dishwasher and the dishes in the cupboard?

Why do doctors 'practice' medicine? Are they having practice at the cost of the patients?

Why is it called ‘rush hour' when traffic moves at its slowest then?

How come noses run and feet smell?

Why do they call it a TV 'set' when there is only one?

What are you vacating when you go on a vacation?

Did you know that if you have What, When and Where and then replace the "W's" with T's the questions are answered?

How come we park our cars on driveways, and drive our cars on parkways?

Monday, March 01, 2021

All's well that friends well

 Douglas Skelton at the Type M keyboard.

A couple of years ago I was invited to attend the annual prizegiving at a Scottish high school. My job was to shake hands, congratulate each prizewinner and then pass them their certificate or trophy. I managed it without any serious difficulty. 

Young people often get a bad press but they’re not all video game playing hoodie dropouts but the students I met were bright, energised, engaged and active. 

However, it set me thinking about my own school days. They weren’t so long ago after all I’m only 30.

I’ll pause here to allow those who know me to guffaw and snort tea down their nostrils.

I had a love-hate relationship with learning. I would have loved to have been an egghead but hated the idea of working towards it. My head, as we say in Scotland, was too full of broken biscuits and more than one teacher observed that if I applied the same amount of effort into studying that I did into basically acting the fool my grades would be much improved.

It started off so well, too.

Apparently on my first day of primary school I came home at lunchtime and announced I wasn’t going back because ‘I knew it all.’

I don’t recall this and I’m not sure what particular all it was I knew but that arrogance didn’t last long.

Truth be told, I was not the brightest bulb in the box. I’m still not.

Neither was I proficient at anything sporty. Science was beyond me. And maths and arithmetic were a mystery. That’s still the case, apparently, because just recently someone told me the plot of one of my books just didn’t add up.

What I could do, though, was string words together. Sometimes even in the right order. And I could make stuff up. As an adult, I eventually gravitated towards an occupation where being able to string words together and make stuff up came in handy.

Naturally, I became a journalist.

(I’m kidding. No angry letters from outraged reporters, please!)

School has changed, though. In my day, computers were something in ‘Star Trek.’ Even calculators were akin to science fiction. My fingers were my calculators. For complex sums the shoes and socks came off. Not a fragrant experience on a hot day. And examiners frowned upon a question like ‘what is 5x4’ being answered with '10 plus 10 little piggies.’

However, as I said, the complexities of mathematics were beyond me. I thought a logarithm was a dancing lumberjack. And when a friend told me he’d passed Highers in French, German, Latin and Algebra, I wondered how you said ‘Good Morning’ in the latter.

What you have just seen was an example of why I didn't do well at school. There is a serious point to my blog this week but I go for the laugh. That point occured to me while I was writing something on spec that, at its heart, deals with friendship - and a realisation that all my fiction is based firmly on the concept - and that in turn prompted a memory of that ceremony.

During that prizegiving, a terrific speech from the outgoing school captains underlined the value of friendship.

I still have a few friends from my youth. I don’t see nearly enough of them but they mean a lot to me. And they know that everything I’ve said above is very nearly true. They’re also the ones wiping the expelled beverage from their upper lip at me being 30.

There are a couple of lines about friendship from the film ‘Stand by Me’ (I’m not sure if they’re in the original Stephen King novella, ‘The Body’). One is, ‘Friends come in and out of our lives like busboys in a restaurant.’

That is true. Friends can come and go. I hate that they do, and sometimes it's been me who has done the come and go routine, but as a wise perspon once said, that's life.

The other line is this ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?’

That is both true and false.

There’s something about friendship when you’re young. It’s not something you think about at the time, analysis comes when you’re an old fogey like me. To the young, friendship is just something that is. Friends at that stage in life are more important than anything, even family.

As you grow older, you drift. Pressures of work, of family, of life take precedence. Soon those people who you roamed the streets with, who you played with, who you fought with, who you thought would be there forever are gone. Maybe in later life you hook up a reunion, more likely a funeral but the spark of what had once been sparks no more. 

So I think myself lucky that I’m still at least in contact with a couple of people who knew me way back then.

Of course, I’ve made more friends since school. Good friends. Close friends. Friends I rely on. Friends I know will be there when the solids hit the air conditioning. Friends I no doubt annoy regularly but are still there. Some are authors, some are not. Some are recent, some I’ve known for years. But they, like my old school chums, remain as vital a part of my life as the need to breath. I’m glad I have them.

I've lost friends, too. Sometimes my fault, sometimes theirs, sometimes nobody's. They let me down, I let them down, or that old saying That's Life did its thing. 

The school captains said their friendship would last.

Wouldn’t it be great if they were right?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Remembering a Mentor

I was talking with my sons about the value of mentors in your professional development. I mentioned that it was something that I hadn't done and regretted it. Then I remembered that wasn't quite true. I did have a mentor as a writer and he had been a significant influence in giving me the skills and knowledge that helped me eventually get published.

Around 1987, I got serious about writing a novel. I quickly discovered that I didn't know what I was doing and sought to educate myself. By then I had moved to Fresno, California, and signed up for an adult education class on writing. It was taught by a woman who was a copy editor with the local newspaper. While she knew the technical ins-and-outs about writing, she established herself as a gate-keeper and claimed that if we didn't do things her way, that she'd make sure none of us would ever get published. The best thing I can say about the experience is that I now know what a terrible critique group is like. 

Then when I moved to Colorado, I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and discovered what it was like to be among for-real published authors eager to share their wisdom and help the rest of us along. My first RMFW critique group was comprised of wannabes and in spite of our enthusiasm, it was the blind leading the blind. After receiving a rejection letter in which the agent recommended that I work on my synopsis, I signed up for an RMFW workshop on writing a synopsis. During the class, this man sitting behind me asked about my work-in-progress. He then invited me to join his newly formed critique group. That man was Jameson Cole.

Turns out that he had just won the Colorado Book Award for his novel, A Killing in Quail County. The fact that he had been published by St. Martin's Press and won an award gave him serious street cred. I was one of six-to-seven writers who met in his home just outside Morrison. We soon learned that this was no coffee klatch. Jim was strict with his rules about critiquing. For homework, he assigned two books that he'd quote from like Scripture, Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure. The critiques were heavy on mechanics and craft for commercial fiction, and we didn't indulge in lofty literary prose. The sessions were bouts of writing boot camp, but unlike my experience in California, the critiques were educational and directive. 

However, not all was well. Convinced that he possessed the keys to the publishing world, Jim labored on a second book that went nowhere. He started on a third and those efforts sputtered. The group fell into a funk as none of us, despite our vastly improved works, seemed to be doing little more than collecting rejection letters. Jim accepted a work promotion and moved away. With that, our forlorn band of scribes scattered into the wilderness.

After a long lonely year of not writing, we renewed contact and decided to restart the critique group, minus Jim. It was odd meeting at first, and we felt his stern hand on our shoulders. Then within six months, three of us got publishing offers, which eventually became contracts with Dutton for Jeff Shelby, Ace for Jeanne Stein, and HarperCollins for me. The group has since evolved and moves about Denver like a writing phantom. Its latest incarnation is as a tiki drinking club. Those of us still in the group are first-rate writers, though getting published remains as daunting and uncertain as ever.

Which brings me back to Jim as my mentor. Soon after that conversation with my sons, I received word that Jim had passed away earlier this month. So yes indeed, I did have a mentor, and one to whom I will be forever indebted to. Thank you, Jameson Cole.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Did I learn?

 I'm working my way through my pile of paper. I'm not talking about an innocent little inbox. My pile is the accumulation of stuff from the beginning of time. The sorting basically means three large categories: writing, household, and trash (why am I keeping this?) 

My "real" files are fairly well organized into file folders. Too many file folders, perhaps. My household pile consists of a lot of duplicate material. It will be simple to handle. Trash is obvious.

But, oh, the writing category. There's fan mail from when people used to take the time to write letters, newspaper reviews from when print journalism reigned supreme, touching little hand made souvenirs presented at programs from a time when organizations were delighted to have an author show up. There's convention badges, tote bags galore, program printouts, old letters. Carbons of letters I wrote to my first agents and letters to editors. 

And drafts of books. After a book is published there's no need to save printed first and second drafts, but I do. Now I use that paper to print out other peoples' book when I've agreed to read them. I also have some edited manuscripts and I've found myself going through them to read my editor's comments.

One of the delights of being published by Poisoned Pen Press was working with Annette Rogers and Barbara Peters. It was a double editorial whammy and a matchless learning experience. 

Structural editing (the dreaded editorial letter) is an art unto itself. The dynamic duo made books better.  But apart from plot and structural comments, here are some of the composition errors that make me cringe. 

1. Just. When did I fall in love with this word? Annette must have flagged it a jillion times. Do you have a pet word that is over-used? 

2. Passive Voice. You think it doesn't matter? Try using active and then read the sentence both ways. There's a huge difference.

3. Paragraphs. Always start a new one when the speaker changes or there is new action within a scene. 

4. Using too many words or sentences to make the same point. Say it once. Say it well and then shut up.

5. Unnecessary dialogue tags. Not just adverbs but even the "he said" and "she said" when the speaker's identity is already clear. 

6. Clear in head only. This is when a sequence is clear in the writer's head, but it's not clear on paper. 

I had a lot more to learn and still do. I'm keeping my double-edited copy of Lethal Lineage because so much was wrong with that manuscript. I had one heart-warming victory, however. Lethal was my one and only locked-room mystery. Neither my agent or the two editors saw the ending coming, yet it made perfect sense to them. They admired it.

Oh fabulous day. Oh joy beyond measure. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Writer’s Reprieve

So I’m building something from scratch. From the ground up. No, not a novel. That would be much easier. It’s an online summer writing institute. And doing so is crazy. Like 18-hours-a-day crazy.

It’s obviously cut into my writing pace. There’s no getting around that. I’m not getting 500 or 750 words a day, which is my goal. But I’m getting something. Every day.

This has been on my mind a lot recently: How has my day job this year impacted my writing? I’m busier than ever before. Making time to write –– thirty minutes here and there –– has become my outlet. A reprieve.

I imagine you all know what I’m talking about. Most of you live this same existence. Writing is what keeps you going; it’s never easy, but writing is also a wonderful break from reality. I find myself returning to the work-in-progress each day and exhaling. Do I wish I had four hours of uninterrupted time to really push the book forward? Of course. But I’ll take what I can get. I always have.

And the pace may not be breakneck. But there are many stories of writers (Ed McBain, Chuck Palahniuk) chipping away at books while working long hours: a sentence here and there until the work is done. Going back each day to see what you’ve written and driving to the next yard marker.

Stephen King says write a book in three months. It would be nice to never break the rhythm, but the reprieve is what keeps me going.

#
Keeley, 12, finally left the virtual classroom for in-person classes Monday. Here's her “First Day of School” pic.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Getting Motivated to Write

 

As Rick noted in his blog post yesterday, a lot of writers are dealing with the psychological effects of Covid these days. Some writers I know are still going like gangbusters, getting a lot of writing done. Others, like me, are just sort of plodding along. Whatever your situation, having a book or two about motivating yourself to write is a good thing to have around and crack open on occasion. Here are some I’ve discovered over the years that you might find useful.

1. Writing From The Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. (www.dennispalumbo.com) Dennis is a writer and a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in creative issues. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, he did a presentation at a Zoom meeting of my chapter of Sisters in Crime about how to keep on writing in the midst of what’s happening in the world. This book covers a whole host of issues that writer’s face. Section titles include: The Writing Life, You Are Enough , Hanging On and Page Fright.

2. Motivate Your Writing by Stephen P. Kelner Jr., PHD. I just recently got an e-book of this one. Originally published in 2005 and recently updated in 2021, the introduction states it’s about “motivating yourself to write and finding ways to keep yourself writing”. I haven’t dug into it yet, but it sounds promising. 

3. Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Rosanne Bane. Someone recommended this one to me at some point of time. I bought it and...promptly forgot I even had it. Unfortunately, this happens often with me. It’s helped a number of people I know get out of a writing slump and get ‘er done. 

4. The Mental Game of Writing by James Scott Bell. This one is about overcoming obstacles and staying creative and productive. Worth reading. 

5. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. This one has been around for quite a while. I suspect most writers have heard of it and quite a few have read it. A really great book that reminds you that you’re not alone as a writer and that others feel the same way you do when working on a project.

Anyone else have any books you’ve found helpful?

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Eureka!

By Rick Blechta

First off, sorry about missing last week. (I’m sure you were all sitting around tapping your feet impatiently for Blechta’s deathless prose to appear on Type M.) I just flat out blew it. In these Days of Covid, it’s easy to lose track of time, and since Monday was a holiday here in Ontario, I thought Tuesday was Monday until nearly 8 o’clock in the evening, too late to post anything.

But I’m back and here to elucidate on the title of this week’s post.

As loyal readers of Type M are aware, I’ve been working on a novel for several years now and not much to show for it. I know who and what the main characters are and have written thousands of words about them and the general plot line, but for some reason the story just hasn’t been taking off.

I’ve worried about this a lot. The past year I’ve also been struggling with the psychological effects of Covid which is something common for many writers it seems. All of this has left me rather despondent about my writing.

Then, two nights ago at just after 3 a.m., I was lying awake and the plot line of the novel popped into my head. Maybe, just maybe I’m setting it in the wrong era, maybe my two main characters would be more comfortable in the recent past. I’m talking about the ’70s or ’80s. I know for sure that the older one would be.

He told me so almost immediately. Long story there…

It’s going to mean a huge overhaul to many of the main plot points, and the driving force behind the investigation the two undertake will definitely change from the backdating, but I feel it’s all doable. 

My big issue now is to refresh my memory about what this era was like. It will be very easy to have something like a smart phone be in someone’s hand, and never notice that they wouldn’t appear for a good 20 years since these gadgets are such a huge part of our lives now. I will be vigilant, but what the heck, hopefully one of my pre-submission readers will be on top of this stuff if I’m not. Either that or you can all joyously tell me my failings when the novel sees print. At this point, I’ll willing accept that.

The past two days have been spent staring off into the distance imagining different possibilities the backdated story line can take, and quite frankly, it’s rather exciting.

Maybe I finally have the wind at my back!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Ink In Her Veins


 By Thomas Kies

The headline in my county’s Sunday newspaper is “Nothing to See Here”, referring to the efforts of local politicians to get a bill passed eliminating the requirement to post public notices in the paper.  They would like, instead, to post them on the county website.  

Yet another attack on newspapers. 

The protagonist in my Geneva Chase Mystery series is a crime reporter for a small independent newspaper that’s on the brink of being purchased by a media conglomerate.  Geneva is based on several women I’ve worked with over the years when I too worked in the newspaper and publishing business.  

It’s a business that I loved.  I did everything, including working as a pressman on a Goss web press in Detroit, becoming a staff writer, eventually becoming an editor, then moving into advertising management, and ultimately becoming the publisher and general manager of a magazine publishing house here on the coast of North Carolina. 

 I even delivered newspapers during a blizzard in one of the company’s ancient, rear-wheel drive vans.   Yikes.

The business was exciting, interesting, and fun, but filled with the pressures of working on a deadline.  

Unfortunately, the business has changed.  The combination of the Great Recession, the effects of the Internet, and Covid-19 has been disastrous for newspapers.  Their main source of revenue is advertising and all three of the factors I presented have shrunk that revenue stream.  

Before the Great Recession, the housing market was booming.  Real estate companies were spending a fortune in the classified section of newspapers, along with car dealerships, and companies looking to hire employees.  

Starting in 2007-2008, the housing bubble burst followed by cascading disasters in employment and consumer confidence.  Companies who always knew about the Internet, suddenly found it very attractive.  It was cheap and easy to use.  

The lucrative classified pages in newspapers diminished to a disastrous level. The advertising in the main pages of the paper also either got smaller or went away altogether. 

According to a New York Times article in December of 2019, over the past 15 years, more than one in five papers in the United States has shuttered, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been cut in half, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. That has led to the rise of hollowed-out “ghost papers” and communities across the country without any local paper. “Ghost papers” are publications what have severely cut the staff in their newsrooms making any kind of investigative reporting non-existent. 

Covid-19 has delivered even more pain to newspapers.  When the world shut down in March of 2020, stores, shops, bars, and restaurants all closed their doors for months. Advertising became even scarcer.  Even with the world starting to open back up, the number of pages in your local newspaper has become less and less.  

An unexpected circumstance from the experience of working from home, more newspaper companies are closing their newsrooms, having offsite printing companies produce their publications, and selling their buildings and assets.

A huge part of the joy of working for a newspaper was being with the people you worked with.  Yes, the pressure of daily deadlines could lead to fraying nerves and in-office tension.  But at the end of the day, these people were your “newspaper family”.  Even though I’ve been out of the business for more than ten years, I still stay in close touch with a lot of them even if it’s through social media on the Internet.

Speaking of the Internet, the way people get their news has changed dramatically.

The transition of news from print, television and radio to digital spaces has caused huge disruptions in the traditional news industry, especially the print news industry. It’s also reflected in the ways individual Americans say they are getting their news. A large majority of Americans get news at least sometimes from digital devices, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2020.

More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “often” or “sometimes,” including 60% who say they do so often. This is higher than the portion who get news from television, though 68% get news from TV at least sometimes and 40% do so often. Americans turn to radio and print publications for news far less frequently, with half saying they turn to radio at least sometimes (16% do so often) and about a third (32%) saying the same of print (10% get news from print publications often).

The point of this rambling blog is that even in fiction, I’m transitioning Geneva Chase, crime reporter, into going freelance, working gigs for her newspaper on occasion, and working for a company called Lodestar Analytics that does open-source research as well as instigating deep dive investigations.  

Personally, I still like newspapers.  I get the paper out of Raleigh every day (even they’ve stopped printing on Saturdays, however) and my local newspaper (which has cut back from three days a week to two), as well as the Sunday New York Times (which seems to be flourishing).

I also subscribe to a digital Washington Post feed and routinely scan other websites (all free) for news from around the globe. I’m a news junkie and the Internet feeds my addiction. 

Still, I’m happiest when I’m writing scenes where Geneva Chase is working in the newsroom.  She’s got ink in her veins. I’d like to think that I do too.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Upcoming Events

 I finally got my Friday right. With the beginning of spring semester and half a dozen other things happening, I've been lagging behind and trying to get on track with my life. Of course, it would have helped if my 2021 appointment book had arrived on time. Or, I had ordered with delays in mind. 

But I'm back. And I want to begin by thanking John Corrigan, my Type M blogmate, for inviting me to do a virtual visit to his class. The class had read "In Her Fashion," the Lizzie Stuart story that was published in EQMM six years ago. I did a podcast reading (intimidating) of the story while attending Malice Domestic for the mag podcast https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2014-06-27T06_59_34-07_00

It was fun talking to John's class about the story and about writing in general, with a few criminal justice questions mixed in. 

Now, for two upcoming events. On March 19th and 20th, Sisters in Crime, Upper Hudson chapter, will have a virtual conference. This will be our fourth Murderous March (annual conference). We were forced to cancel our expanded conference in March 2020, so this year we are picking up where we left off. With the help of our new webmaven, we are making use of the technology to bring together our own members, members of MWA-NY, and writers from Murder on Ice, the western NY chapter of SinC, and from New England and elsewhere. Here is the link with the registration information and the program: https://upperhudsonsinc.com/murderous-march-conference/

I am hosting a symposium that is an unrelated event, but will be that same week just prior to Murderous March. Another unexpected good thing with the use of technology to bring us all together is that I finally have the opportunity to host another symposium of crime writers of color. The first such symposium was years ago -- a pre-Bouchercon event in the late 1990s, sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Givens Foundation. This time, I am hosting wearing my UAlbany, School of Criminal Justice faculty hat. I'm the project director of our Justice and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century initiative, and I want to take this opportunity to gather -- virtually -- members of the Crime Writers of Color (CWoC) organization and other guests to talk about crime fiction and social issues. Of course, we'll also be talking about writing, publishing, and their books. The symposium will be on that Wednesday afternoon and Thursday. The program and registration information (free and open to the public) will be up shortly. I will be tweeting it out, and it will be posted on our UAlbany, School of CJ website.

So, that's the news from Albany. The snow is falling, but it's much warmer here than Texas has been. I and Harry, my cat -- who had a vet appointment this morning -- and Fergus, my puppy, who is a bundle of energy and came along for the ride -- are all tucked back in for the afternoon. Thoughts and prayers to the folks in the southern and southwest US who are dealing with all the fallout from the last snowstorm. 

And back to work -- I'm still trying, even after months, to get into the pace of working at home. Still trying to figure out separating day job from my fiction writing schedule. I'm hoping to spend some time in my campus office where many of the books and articles that I need are stored. I'm running out of space in my house for all the material from the office that I need. But I'll figure it out. It's just a matter of getting organized, right?

 Take care, everyone. Keep warm and have a good weekend.



Thursday, February 18, 2021

This and That

 Is everyone all right, weather-wise and pandemic-wise? Here in southern Arizona where I live, it's sunny and 66ºF today, which is our reward for having to live through our summers. However, all my siblings are back in the deep freeze. My sister in Joplin, MO, was subject to a rolling blackout night before last, and sent me a photo of her thermometer on the deck registering -16ºF, with about a foot of snow. My sister in Tulsa went out to check her mail, stepped on the ice and, as she put it, "did a dance like Elwood Blues" before taking a tumble and bruising her elbow, and my Tulsa sister-in-law did a slider with her car right through an intersection while trying to stop at a red light, (both are okay). Below is the photo my s-i-l took of their front yard a couple of days ago. Fortunately none of my Tulsa relatives have lost heat. I can't say the same for some of my poor relatives in Texas. 

Photo by Donna Casey, Tulsa, OK

I have to comment on some of my blog mates' recent entries. John Corrigan's observation on Thursday about the process of writing is so spot on, so on the money, so to the point, that I'm going to steal it: "The path into the forest is never scary. It’s only after you’ve been in there a while and realize you’re lost that fear kicks in." 

I'm so delighted for Charlotte Hinger, whose The Healer's Daughter has won the Will Rogers Memorial Silver Medallion, a Kansas Notable Book Award, and was named a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. It's such a wonderful book and deserves every single accolade it is eligible for. Charlotte did say she wished she could go to Fort Worth to receive the Will Rogers award in person. My guess is her feeling is - not so much, right now.

I totally agree with Douglas's assessment of Bad Day at Black Rock, and of many classic movies in general. Classic movies were often much more adult and thoughtful. I could name many wonderful examples, but I'll confine myself to one, the 1944 noir thriller Laura, based on the novel Laura by Vera Caspary, and starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. I often use that particular screenplay as a sterling example of suspense, characterization, and plotting, and if you haven't seen it, well, why not?

In other news, since my latest Bianca Dangereuse mystery, Valentino Will Die, came out on February 2 I've gotten several solicitations from newsletters to advertise my book to "tens of thousands" of subscribers for a week/month/year for anywhere from $29 to $150. I'm not familiar with any of them but checked them all out. I'm skeptical. Has anyone else signed up and had success with Author Week, Book Machine, Fresh Fiction, or anyone else? I posted this question on my Facebook author page and got no response, so if any of you Dear Readers are also authors and have experience with one of these newsletters, do your fellow authors a favor and give us the benefit of your insight.

And finally, since I can't resist another opportunity for some BSP, writers know what a relief it is to get a good review from Kirkus Reviews, a notoriously tough review magazine. But I'm pleased to announce that they liked Valentino Will Die. Whew! Their reviewer says: "A plausible and exciting premise, famous characters, period movie glamour, and a blockbuster ending."