Monday, December 31, 2007

My Year of Living Dangerously

Vicki here, on the last day of the year.

I have been thinking for some time of writing a book (trying to write a book?) on my "Year of Living (not very) Dangerously". I realize that I am incredibly lucky, and pretty unique, in living in a time and a place where as a single woman I have the freedom to have done what I did this year. I’d like to explore that in a book, but I don’t know if I have enough material, and I’ve never written a non-fiction book before. That is something I’ll be devoting a lot of time in 2008 thinking about.

Freedom is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but this is what it means to me:

Freedom to be able to earn enough in your working life to look forward to a moderately comfortable retirement, without having to worry about starving or living in a box if you get sick in your old age, or your children can't afford to care for you, or all your investments fail.

Freedom to travel reasonably safely without having to worry that if you make a wrong turn, or meet the wrong people, or say the wrong thing, you're in trouble.

Freedom to travel the infrastructure placed there by your tax dollars and cared for and protected, for you, just because you're a member of the public.

Freedom to be meet people, and be welcomed by people, all sorts of people, and no one questions why you’ve decided to live the sort of life you live.

I’d say that 2007 was the best year of my life, so far. I was probably a pretty happy kid, but I didn't know I was happy so that doesn't count. And the years that my daughters were born were happy ones, but the happy times were interspersed with nights of crying-baby misery, so that knocks them out of the running. I suppose the first year I was married was pretty good - but it had its ups and downs. But in 2007 I went from one period of happiness to another. I retired in March (Mucho happiness) sold my house in May (could have been unhappiness, but I sold it in 5 days), and have been on the open road since. I drove most of the way across Canada, up to the Yukon and Alaska, down to California and Arizona (and then back), saw lots of amazing things and met some wonderful people. In between my travels I've been house-sitting in Nelson, B.C.: my favourite place. My house sits were all very different and all very wonderful, and, as a bonus, I made some good friends. I've made lots of friends in Nelson and have a busier social life than I ever did back in Oakville. My book tour in the fall was lots of fun, and I think, a big success. I finished a new book, and ideas for the next are happily percolating around in my head. My children are all well, and all gainfully employed.

So all I want for 2008 is as much fun as I had in 2007. And I wish you and yours the best, healthiest, and happiest of years as well.

P.S. My guest on Internet Voices Radio this week (Thursday, 8:30 PM Eastern time) will be Lyn Hamilton, author of the Lara McClintock Archaeological Series. Please tune in, if you can.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Happiest Year of My Life

Today is my birthday. I am 60 years old. I tell you this after long deliberation, Dear Reader, because I know full well that there is no longer the slightest possibility that you will ever again think me cool. Because if there is anyone considered less cool that a 60 year old white woman from Oklahoma, I don't know who it is.

I know that age is just a number, but I have to admit that I'm not entirely happy about the whole thing. I'm not best pleased by that the years have done to the outer me. I understand perfectly what Jake Johannsen means about waking up in the morning with sleep injuries. I mourn the fact that my perfectly peaked and tapered eyebrows have begun to resemble Andy Rooney's. Norah Ephron may feel bad about her neck, but she doesn't have jowls like Magruff the Crime Dog. If I weren't so cheap and cowardly, I'd have some work done, so that my exterior self could bear some resemblance to my interior self, which is still twenty-five. I don't appreciate the perception of me that seems to be growing among the younger set of a gentle little grandmother-type creature, because the truth is I'm actually quite fierce and rather dangerous. Outward appearance aside, the most alarming thing about all this is the realization that there is a lot less time ahead than there is behind.

But I digress.

My point, and I do have one, is not to bemoan getting older, because I'm more than happy to keep doing that for as long as I can pleasantly do so.
My point is that this is going to be the happiest year of my life.

Back in the year 2000, while browsing in a bookstore, I thumbed through a Capricorn horoscope book that gave a forecast for the upcoming decade, year by year. I don't remember anything of what it said about the decade as a whole. But I do remember that 2008 was predicted to be "one of the happiest years of your life."

I was amused, but you'll notice that I didn't forget the prediction. If your day can be ruined by a curse, can it be uplifted by a blessing? How about an entire year? I don't know what is in my stars, but I know what's in myself. Suddenly it is 2008, and I think that I shall dedicate myself to making it the happiest year of my life.

There's no telling what will happen to me that I have no control over, but I do have control over what I make of it. So, bear with me, Dear Reader, and I will post my progress every couple of months on my own web site as I live through one of my happiest years.

Friday, December 28, 2007


"If you've ever written a book, it's not really finished but abandoned.”

Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)

Rick’s blog (below) got me thinking about my own ‘finished’ experiences. While I’ve had a few plot/character issues to resolve as well the occasional ‘somebody else must have written that’ sections to revise, what drove me nuts were the number of errors that slipped past me to end up in print.

I can’t fault Rose – who reads all my stuff before anyone else – or my proofreaders, Deana Costanza and Joanne LaFave, or my editor, the legendary Barbara Peters. They spotted all the typos and spelling errors and the miss-tagged dialog bits. A few still creep in – that’s the magic of publishing, the gremlins in the presses, Deus ex machine – and folks from around the world seem to enjoy emailing me to tell me just where they are in the books. But those don’t bug me.

The ones that do bug me, the ones that keep me up at night, are the things I know are wrong that I should have made right – from little things like naming somebody Mahet when I meant Mehmet, to big things like saying the Monkey Bar was south of the Lanta Merry Huts when I knew full well it was north, or implying that the fictitious Bollywood movie in Out of Order wasn’t a hit. Each of my books contain several of these blunders, but there is one error that looms above all the others, the one that I regret most of all since it is something I hold sacred, and I went and profaned the hell out of it.

In Relative Danger, Doug is drinking at the Long Bar in Singapore and I have the bartender serve him up a Hurricane. Nothing wrong there – great bar, great city, great drink. And to this day I might not have ever known that there was a problem if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by my fellow inebriate, the eagle-eyed Tim Burke. Tim was kind enough not to say it to my face, passing the news of my failure through his brother-in-law, my best friend Rick Roth. Rick knew I’d want the bad news fast and unfiltered – “Tim says to tell you that a Hurricane is red, not blue.”

Shock. Disbelief. Panic. Shame. I felt it all, and all at the same time. I grabbed a copy of the book and, sure enough, there it was, page 198, right at the start of Chapter 26. I knew what a Hurricane looked like, I had even consumed a few right there at the Long Bar, part of an epic head-to-head competition that included Rose, an AWOL Australian private and a vacationing college student from New Zealand. I know that drink, I have made that drink with my own two hands, and yet I got it wrong.

And I call myself a writer.

Just in case you’re wondering:

1 oz vodka, 1/4 oz grenadine syrup, 1 oz gin, 1 oz light rum, 1/2 oz 151 rum,1 oz amaretto almond liqueur, 1 oz triple sec, grapefruit juice, pineapple juice

Pour all but the juices, in order listed, into a hurricane glass three-quarters filled with ice. Fill with equal parts of grapefruit and pineapple juice, and serve.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Blechta here. Ho, ho ho...

I’m currently just noth of NYC, spending the holidays with the relatives. I’m also currently working on my “response” to the edit I received from my publisher last week for A Case of You. Since it is the holidays, I have the rare (and I’m sure coveted) privilege of not having to go through the entire ms and get it back to them, like, yesterday, the usual expectation in these situations. Napoleon & Company’s offices are closed until January 2nd.

What this means, though, is that I have to be mentally in two completely different places at the same time (staying “inside” my story while doing the social thing with people who are very important to me). Wasn’t it Firesign Theatre who asked: how can you be in two places at once when you’re really nowhere at all?

There’s good news and bad news on the editing front. The ms is way better than I thought it would be, and the ms is way worse than I was expecting.

How is this possible? you might well ask.

Well, this is how it shakes down. My editor hasn’t found any plot points with which to disagree, so his comments basically deal with awkward sentence construction, bad choice of words/phrases, repetition, the occasional paragraph/comment that everyone could do without, and the inevitable typos. And that’s all very heartening. Two novels ago, we were involved with jackhammering out entire chapters.

This author, however, is appalled at how many things I did very poorly indeed. But the things I did poorly are what I call “musician’s errors”. You see, having been trained as one who makes music, I’m not satisfied until everything is polished and perfect (a state seldom attained), and the errors I see that are as big as an oncoming tractor trailer to me, are probably invisible to everyone else, or at worst, most everyone else. The sad (and expected) thing, though, is that I felt certain my ms was in this condition when I submitted it last March. Funny how a bit of time sharpens one’s eye.

So my holidays are being spent trying to keep my novel loaded in mental RAM at the same time I’m talking to my relatives about what’s been going on in their lives since I saw them last, calling up old friends (ditto), and otherwise doing the social things one does at this time of year.

I’m afraid that I’m not doing either one very well. Relatives and friends are treated to sudden faraway looks as a tiny plot point flashes through my brain, and I’ll find myself staring at meaningless words on a computer screen as I thing, How could my son have spoken like that in front of his grandmother?

It is making for a most hair-raising end to 2007.

Happy holidays and all the best in the new year!

Monday, December 24, 2007


Vicki on my new posting day of Monday. This picture is of me and my dog shovelling the driveway at the place I'm staying in Crescent Valley, B.C. (Actually I'm shovelling and Shenzi is supervising.) You have to look very, very carefully to see me standing at the end of the driveway. And I've done it all by myself with my little shovel. Not even Christmas Day, and I'm wondering how high that bank is going to get. I could gripe and complain, but I'm really enjoying it. It doesn't get very cold out here, and not very windy. So it's pleasant outside, and the wind doesn't blow the snow into high drifts. So far, at least, the snow has been light and fluffy, so it isn't too heavy. It might be a different story if it was wet, heavy rain. I love the snow, and have really missed it the last few years in Oakville.
A couple of hours outside in the brisk winter air, getting some exercise. What could be better.

And the snow didn't even spoil my holiday plans. In something of a Christmas miracle, my youngest daughter was due to fly into Castlegar yesterday. Castlegar's nickname is Cancel-gar. The airport is in a valley, beside the joining of two rivers, surrounded by mountains. It was snowing very heavily when we left for the airport, and the clouds were so low I couldn't see the mountains. The plane had left Calgary, so even though I didn't expect it to be able to land, I thought I'd better go out to the airport anyway. Moments before I drove into Castlegar, it stopped snowing, and the clouds thinned enought that I could see the shape of the mountains. On the plane, the pilot told the passengers it wasn't looking prommising, and then suddenly he drove through an opening and landed. By the time the luggage was being collected, it was snowing heavily and the mountains had disappeared.

I love the snow and it loves me! Happy Holidays to all!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Strange Times

Donis here. For most of my adult working life, I was a U.S. Government Documents librarian. Back in 1895, the Congress of these United States passed something called the Depository Act, the purpose of which was to make all non-classified government publication as accessible as possible to U.S. citizens all over the country. Any library in the nation can elect to receive as many documents as it could maintain from as many government entities as it wished, as long as it agreed to make the collection available to anyone who wanted to use it, even if the rest of library was private or restricted. This is very good. Even if you live in Washington state instead of Washington D.C., you can have access to government papers. This was freedom of information.

The deal is that the documents still belong to the U.S. Government, and not the library, and the government can recall any document it wants whenever it wants. Because of this, historically most depository libraries keep their docs in a special collection, with a special call number system, and specialist librarians to maintain and reference it. I was a docs librarian at two full depositories in universities, both dating from the inception of the program in 1895. Needless to say, both collections were massive, and incredibly fascinating. This is where I developed my fascination and extreme familiarity with U.S. history and government.
We had all versions of bills submitted to Congress, White House papers, old geological surveys, papers from both World Wars and every subsequent conflict, Census reports from 1790 onward. Want a WWI infantry manual? Got it. A list of Civil War pensioners? Got it. How about the Pentagon Papers, the HUAC hearings, the Watergate transcripts?

Every once in a while, some department (usually Defense) would have second thoughts about something they had released, and we would get a call saying that a U.S. Deputy Marshall would be shortly paying us a visit to retrieve all copies of said offending document. We would naturally rush out to the stacks, pull the document, and pass it around the office as fast as we could so that everyone could read it before the marshall showed up. I really can't remember ever learning anything that compromised national security.

Things have changed quite a bit since I was in the docs biz. In the first place, most of it has gone electronic. In the second place, free access to government information has undergone a sad dimunition. The collections of most large depositories may now be of more historical interest, I fear.

Now the goverment gathers information about us, rather than the other way around. Librarians who are served warrants must turn over a patron's circulation records, and they are not allowed under threat of arrest to inform anyone - especially not the patron himself - that the records have been summoned. I don't think the idea that the government wants to keep tabs on or manipulate the behavior its citizens is a new one at all. I do a lot of research about the early 20th Century for my series, and most civil liberties were pretty much suspended during WWI. People were encouraged to spy on their neighbors, and one could be arrested for criticizing the war or the president.

The difference now, as Charles reminds us, is how much more info about each of us is available and accessible. And do we ever cooperate! It's impossible not to, if you own anything or have a bank account or a phone. Or if you have a Face Book account and think it's funny to post pictures of yourself drunk and naked with your head in the toilet. Advertisers may use this information to create a campaign to psychologically manipulate you into buying their product, and how benign this is is a matter of opinion. But you don't have to buy the product. As for government ... well ... perhaps with the best motives in the world, they can at least keep you from getting on an airplane, and at worst, you might find yourself disappeared to some third world country for questioning.

What a wierd world we find ourselves in. Things are possible now that never were before, most of them entirely wonderful. But we walk a razor's edge, and have to keep a close watch. As Franklin said, anyone who would give up his liberty for security deserves neither.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Spies like us

Charles here.

First, kudos to Vicki for all the great work on the blog. Unfortunately now I’ll have to write more interesting entries to live up to that new look, but if she’s willing to do all that work I have to at least try. And she certainly has been busy, what with the new radio show and all. Way to make us all feel like slackers, and just in time for the holidays, too! Where’s my bottle of Old Smuggler?

Now skip down to Debby’s blog about government spying.

I used to be real worried about how the government is keeping tabs on ordinary citizens, keeping track of what we read and what we watch, how we vote and where we travel, who we hang out with and what we feel deep in the deepest parts of our hearts. I’ll tell you, it was scaring the heck out of me that somebody, somewhere knew every damn thing about me.

Then I became an ad man.

Us advertisers? We already know all there is to know about you. What you like, what you hate, what you want and want you dream about late at night. We know what you eat, where you eat it and how you like it cooked. We know your favorite bar, your favorite drink and your favorite song on the jukebox. We know what you did last summer, what you did last week and what you’ll do a week before you know what you’ll do. Your favorite authors, your political leanings, your secret porn watching habits? Down to the tiniest details. And best of all? We know how much you can spend on any of it.

And we got this information the easiest way possible. You told us. With every purchase, every survey, every Shoppers’ Club swipe, every coupon, ticket, call, visit and click. Oh and it’s not just that aggregate data you hear about, the kind where we identify demographic groups (Divorced White Females with College Education in the Greater Metro Area), we know YOUR data, too. True, it’s more valuable in the larger demo, but if we wanted to target you – as in you, specifically – we could do it.

An outrage? An affront to your independence? Hell, you gave us the info and checked, knowingly or otherwise, that it was fine and dandy for us to do whatever we want with the information. Honestly, if you didn’t give it to us, we couldn’t afford to get this information – it’s too detailed, too targeted and too accurate to buy.

“That may be true for most people,” I hear you saying, “but not me.” Sorry, unless you’re like Ted Kaczynski, living in some cabin in Montana, we got you. And even if you are in that cabin, if you’re reading these words, we got you. Oh, not us as in the folks behind this blog, I mean ad people. If you’re this connected, you’re ours.

So is government spying a real threat? Sure. For amateurs.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Things

Vicki here. I hope everyone likes the new page design. I think the colours are brighter, and the pictures add some visual impact. When I first created this blog, in order to add some customization I had to hard-code raw HTML (which I can do, being a very early Internet programmer), but the new version of the blogger template is much more user friend, and more visual.

Now my exciting news: Beginning tonight (Thurdsay, December 20th) I'm going to have my own show on Internet Voices Radio. I have a half an hour to devote to talking about mysteries. I'm going to have a guest author each week. To start things off with a big bang, I've invited the lovely and talented Charles Benoit to be my guest. Please tune in, if you can. The show will air every Thursday at 8:30 PM, Eastern Time on Just click and listen in (You might have to install a quick and easy bit of software the first time). Next week, my guest is the equally lovely and equally talented Rick Blechta, and on January 3rd, I'm very pleased to have Lyn Hamilton.

I can't think of a name for my programme yet, so being the rather lazy sort I decided to have a name-the-programme contest. Send your entries to vicki at vickidelany dot com. (you know what to do to make that a proper e-mail address: I'm trying to avoid spam e-mail address scoopers) I'm looking for a name that incorporates the idea of mystery or crime writing. The winning entry will receive an authographed book. If you can't tune in to hear the show live, it will be archived for your later listening pleasure.

Yesterday I had a great day at the RCMP forensic offices in Nelson. I learned all about fingerprinting, and DNA testing, taking molds of tire tracks, blood identifiers and all that good stuff. I really do like being a crime writer!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Government spying

Debby here, who is still reading the Sunday NY Times. One of the front-page articles set my antennae a-quiver. It's about personal lobbying on the part of Bush and his "top officials" to pass legislation protecting the communication companies who helped the government in the National Security Agency's warrentless wire-tapping. The administration wants the companies to have immunity from lawsuits. This is some companies, mind you. There were a couple companies who refused to turn over records.

A few weeks ago on Type M for Murder, we had a nice discussion going about the indiscriminant use of tasers and certain police actions, but what about this? The government is fighting both crime and terrorism, but where do we draw the line on Orwellian tactics? And what if someone wants to collect other kinds of information, especially in an election year? And do we believe them? This is great crime fiction stuff.

According to the Times, the NSA relies more than ever on telecommunications companies allowing access to their records. Twenty years ago, most phone calls and many other forms of communication was relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The NSA had its own satellite dishes to intercept the flow of talk. (Wow, it really was 1981!) Fiber optics and communications by land and undersea cable have changed the accessibility, and now the government needs to rely on the corporations' cooperation. Meanwhile, these companies are looking for protection in the case of lawsuits. After the disclosure two years ago that the NSA was eavesdropping, more than 40 lawsuits have been filed against the government and phone carriers. Consequently, the Bush administration is working hard to get retroactive immunity for companies who cooperate with its plans.

I don't know whether to be more disturbed that the government is openly seeking cooperation in an illegal eavesdropping scheme, or whether to be happy that at least they’re unable to be as sneaky as in the past. There is a possibility of opposing the policy using legal means. But if congress goes along with granting retroactive immunity (and they’ve caved on some other important issues), we've got a lot to be concerned about.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Holiday Open House

Rose and I are putting the finishing touches to our holiday party plans, a party that I hope christens the bar in a festive and felonious fashion. I know you would want to be there (and if you’re in town, drop in), but to make you feel like you’re part of the action, here’s the set list I will be playing for my gig on Jazz 90.1 Saturday night from 5 to 6pm. This week The Smart Set will be broadcasting live from The Swordfish Speakeasy and Dry Cleaners. Yes, it turns out that those same chemicals that get out the toughest stains make the tastiest cocktails. So tune in and start the holiday party with me!

All Night Party – Buster Poindexter
Swingin’ at Club Sweets – David Berger and the Sultans of Swing
Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt
Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend – Marylyn Monroe
Shake Hands with Santa Clause – Louis Prima and the Witnesses
Shakana Santa Shake It – Bo Dollis and Wild Magnolias, featuring Bonearama
For the Last Time I Cried Over You – Cab Calloway
Hot Christmas – Squirrel Nut Zippers
White Christmas – Bob Marley and the wailers
Let it Snow – Leon Redbone
Baby, it’s Cold Outside – Jessica Simpson (featuring Nick Lachey)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Swingerhead
Hey Santa- The Royal Crown Review
Getting’ in the Mood (for Christmas) – The Brian Setzer Orchestra

And if you’re thinking that this is a bullshit blog entry, you’re right! Hey, somebody has to test drive those drinks and the clock is ticking.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Quest of Charles

Blechta in the pilot's seat.

At last a quest! Checking below, you must read Benoit's most recent entry (I hesitate to use the word "last", because when a quest is involved, one never knows...). World traveller that he is, I should have expected this from the intrepid Charles. Don't forget to have your passport ready when returning to the U.S.!

(One thing Charles neglected to mention is that Charles Bulwer-Lytton's writing was very highly thought of during his lifetime.)

In response to Donis' response: fashion changes for everything all the time, music, clothes, speech and of course writing. We all write in an acceptable style for today's readers -- otherwise we wouldn't get published. I've often thought that it would be interesting to write a novel in the style of Dickens, Forrester, or Kipling. Problem is getting it published. CF (my newly-minted moniker) might be a little easier than "literary fiction" to pull something like this off since CF readers don't seem to mind retro as much, but I still think it would be a hard sell.

Several composers alive today could probably write a damn good Beethoven-esque symphony, but boy, would they get hoisted on their own petards by their peers and the critics! It's too bad, really, because there are a lot of people who don't enjoy what we call "contemporary" music. I like it a lot, but I have to admit there are times where I can't listen to it. Wouldn't it be interesting and nice to hear something new that's Beethoven revisited?

About the only way you can get away with this sort of thing is in movies. There it's cool to be retro -- especially in Europe. Everything is up for grabs there: music, photography, the screenplay. One of my favourite movies of relatively recent times is Twilight a Paul Newman movie from 1998. It also has Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and James Garner. It is a wonderful homage to Hammett et al. They've figured out what works in those old movies from the '50s and done the job with real style. Check it out.

I wonder why this is? Why can movies get away with it where the other arts can't? One other place you seem to be able to look back with impunity is fashion, but there I think it's more a matter of making money than anything else.

Vicki seems to have a good handle on Tolkien-esque writing. Maybe we should all do a few paragraphs of writing in someone else's style and see how well we do. Anyone reading Type M should also be welcome to try their hand, too.

What say you?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

She Tried to Sit On My Lap, And I Was Standing Up at the Time

I've read both Tolkien and Dashiel Hammett and loved them both. Anybody who can turn a phrase is okay with me. Prose style goes in and out of fashion, but nothing can convey the spirit of the place and time in a book in quite the same way as the style. Those beautifully overblown tomes from the end of the 19th Century are really organic - just as emotional and romantic as the times in which they were written. I've never read an entire Bulwar-Lytton book, but what I've seen is no more overwrought than most Victorian novels. One of my favorite potboiler delights is Trilby, by George du Maurier, Daphne's granddaddy. It was the most popular book of it's time (written in the 1890s, I think), and not many people today have ever heard of it! Most have heard of Svengali, though, I'll bet. The story is of a tone-deaf Irish girl, Trilby, who is hypnotized by the manipulative Svengali and becomes a great operatic singer whenever he puts her in a trance. It is a trip. The book was the inspiration for the Phantom of the Opera.

At the other extreme, the noir style of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are such wonderful evocations of that cynical and hopeless time at the end of the Depression and through the war. The Third Man is just spectacular. The really great thing about these authors is the dialog they use. Really, Chandler could hardly plot his way out of a paper bag. Witness The Big Sleep. I defy anyone to tell me what the heck is going on. But what gorgeous dialog! When Marlowe says, "He was the kind of guy who'd knock your teeth in and then kick you in the stomach for mumbling," who cares about the plot, really?

Debbie talked about the use of the paranormal in her books. I have dashes of the paranormal in my books, too. But I think that only we 21st Century westerners would call what Debbie and I write about "paranormal". I think we write more about people who see the world in a different way, and what we might call paranormal is perfectly normal and usual to our characters. My 1910s Oklahoma farm people are incredibly practical and hardheaded. If your late grandpa comes and knocks on your windowsill late at night, that's not supernatural, that's just the way it is. And who are we to argue?

There has been some discussion about what conventions we mid-listers feel we have to follow in order to get published. The best way to write, of course, is to write what feeds your soul and damn the consequences. I think the very best writers are the bravest. I've yet to be as brave in my writing as I'd like to be. Much like the rest of my life.

A Dark and Stormy Quest

Charles here, procrastinating instead of writing.

In Vicki’s entry (below), she talks about enjoying The Lord of the Ring’s florid writing style and jokes that her own prose “might start to turn a mite purple.” And, because I was frighteningly close to actually writing something today, I decided to track down the origin of the phrase Purple Prose.

Like most online researchers and all procrastinating writers, I started with Wikipedia. In the Examples section, the webpage notes the oft-quoted opening of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford – “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Now everyone knows the line (and the ‘bad writing’ contest it inspired) but how many people know the rest of the sentence that follows those seven infamous words?

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Laugh at it all you want, but that sentence sets a clear scene and a clear tone – Victorian London and Victorian writing. I don’t know what the rest of the book is like, but this is not all that different from other Victorian writers that are considered literary giants. Open up to a random page of Dickens, Kipling, Stoker, Brontë (either), Stevenson or Eliot and I bet you can find something similar. If Bulwer-Lytton is bad, so is most everything from that era. Maybe it all is, but why pick on one guy?

Blame Charles Shultz. In a Peanuts strip back in 1965, he has Snoopy start his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night…”, a comic device he reused often. An author and all of his work dismissed by punch line in a comic strip. I’m sure thousands of English teachers posted the strip on bulletin boards in classrooms around the globe, the same classrooms that forced the aforementioned Victorian writers on millions of students.

Well tell you what, folks, I’m taking up a quest of Tolkein-ian proportions. I will track down a copy of Paul Clifford and, by god, I will read it! And none of this download crap, I want the physical book in my hands. It may take weeks, months…hell, it could take years, but I will find this book and I will fight my way through the purplest of purple prose.

An epic quest.

A worthy goal.

And a clever way to procrastinate.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Debby here. Since I forgot again to post on Monday, I hope I’m not stealing anyone’s space! Sorry, gang.

This thread about neat endings being a necessity of CF (nice acronym, Rick) has my wheels turning. I, too, like to have characters struggle with moral ambiguity. Other types of ambiguity, too. There are a lot of phenomena that can’t be explained, aren’t there? There’s always religion, but I’d better not get started...

My last book, Fire Prayer, deals with the long-lasting effects of a violent death in a fire that happened 10 years before my story begins. Since I try to weave in a handful of local folklore and culture, the book makes a strong reference to Hawaiian sorcery. That's what the title means.

Molokai, where the story takes place, is the home of the most powerful of the Hawaiian sorcerers. There are different kinds of sorcerers in Hawaiian lore, and among them is the fire pray-er. In case you’re interested, in Hawaiian this person is known as a kāhuna kuni.

Like other groups who believe in paranormal or psychic powers (voodoo comes to mind), this is a very real phenomenon in the islands. Whether or not one believes these people have actual power isn’t really the point. Many believe, and many don’t. Just like the burning bush, stigmata, Easter morning, or the parting of the Red Sea. Oops, there I go on the religious tangent.

Consequently, I left it up to the reader to decide whether a “fire pray-er,” or kāhuna kuni, could cause a conflagration powerful enough to kill an intended victim. That 10 year old death was the only unresolved aspect of the story. All current, real time, deaths are explained. (BTW, no animals died, just humans. But there were a couple of imperiled horses, along with an eleven-year-old boy)

And my editor, for whom I have great respect, had me change the end. I needed to explain the fire that resulted in the old death, too. So I did, and I had to make a choice as to whether the fire was caused by a sorcerer or by some other means. But I liked it better when it was ambiguous.

Certainly moral choices are ambiguous, but even death can be ambiguous, can’t it? Does any one remember that movie with Nicholas Cage, “Leaving Las Vegas?” That was a great example of ambiguous death. In my eyes, Cage’s character was suicidal. But there could be an element of doubt, just in his loss of control. And in the oft-discussed “suicide by cop,” ambiguity reigns large.

Enough rambling. Thoughts, anyone?

My Favourite Book

Vicki here.
Charles mentions that his favourite book is the Maltese Falcon. I’ve never read it, perhaps I shall one day. I have seen the movie and thought it was boring. But, of course, one shouldn’t judge a book by the movie version.

My favourite book of all time is The Lord of the Rings. I’ve loved it ever since I first read it somewhere back in the mists of time. I’ve probably read the book twenty times. I loved the movie adaptation, and thought they did a super job (with the possible exception of some parts of the Two Towers). I saw the Fellowship of the Ring in the theatre nine times. I was at the midnight showing on opening day for the Two Towers and Return of the King. This is a big deal for a person who averages one (1) movie a year. Sometimes two (2).

I’ve been wanting to read the whole thing again for a long time, and bought myself a new boxed set before hitting the road for Alaska and Bouchercon, thinking that I’d have lots of time to read on the long lonely nights in motel rooms in the back of nowhere. And I did. It was interesting to read the books now that I know the movies so well. Yes, I’m a nerd, and yes, I can quote lines and passages. What I appreciated, rereading the books, is how well the movie used the language from the book, even in quite a few cases moving the words from one scene to another and putting them in someone else’s mouth. For example, if you remember (and I’m sure you all do) when they are about to enter the Paths of the Dead Gimli says ‘the very warmth has been stolen from my blood’. In the novels, Bergil, who shows Pippin around Gondor, says those words. But they worked perfectly for Gimli, and Bergil doesn’t have a part in the movie.

Reading the books again made me think also about pacing. About how books have to be paced much differently than movies. They are, of course, completely different medium and I think that many movie adaptations fail when they either try to recreate the book, and can’t, or miss the point and the subtleties of the book trying to stuff the plot into a movie. For example, in the book, 17 years pass between Bilbo’s party, when he leaves the Shire and the Ring, and Frodo beginning his journey. In the movie, it looks like a week or two. In print the author can slowly explain what’s happening over those 17 years, but to keep to the much more frantic pace of a movie, they had to speed it up. In the movie, the Hobbits are chased out of the Shire by the Ringwraiths, running for their lives through the fog with much yelling and dramatic music, swirling of garments, and screaming of horses and Wraiths. In the book, Frodo looks back to see that they have been followed to the Ferry. And it works: I remember finding that scene incredibly frightening when I first read it.

Charles wishes he could write like in the Maltese Falcon. I guess I should be happy that I can’t write like J.R.R. Tolkien. I love passages such as this: At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgul, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.

How about this. At the urging of the cell phone, turning the wheel with a rending cry, in a desperate race she drove, faster than the Indy 500, Molly Smith, Constable of Trafalgar, and with a lightening flash of red and blue lights, she sped northwards to the doom of the bank robbery.

Guess not, eh?

Or: “In that hour of trial it was love of his master that helped most to hold him firm.”

“In that hour of trial at the bank robbery, it was love of her Sergeant that helped most to hold her firm.”

People would definitely get the wrong idea about that one!

I’m about to start the day’s work on the second Molly Smith. I have a feeling that my prose might start to turn a mite purple.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Crime Fiction Paradigms

Blechta here.

Charles brings up a very interesting point in his most recent post, and I'd like to play with it a bit further. Some of the points below have been touched on in this blog before, but it might be an idea to bring it all together here.

He's right: if you want to get published, you have to follow "The Rules". What are those? Here's my list. Please feel free to add any I've missed!

1) You must have a "clean" ending. No loose ends, nothing left hanging, avoid ambiguity.

2) It must have a "happy" ending -- especially if you're publishing in the U.S.

3) Whatever you do, NEVER kill a pet -- especially a dog or cat.

4) You stand a much better chance if you're proposing to write a series.

5) Somewhere, somehow, publishers decided that books have to be "a certain length". I'm sure it's dictated purely by expense. Whatever you do, don't go over 100,000 words in a first novel.

6) If you're a "big gun", you can break every one of these rules with impunity.

Now, let's discuss these.

I think Charles has pretty well covered #1. Readers of crime fiction are looking for moral order to be restored at the end. I think it was Donis who said that this was one reason they read CF (I think I may have just coined something useful here!) is that our times are so uncertain. If you're reading fiction, you're generally reading to be taken somewhere else. In general, people don't like ambiguity. Even if your novel is fabulous, if you have an untidy ending, you risk rejection.

"It's very difficult to sell a first time author with an ending like this. Can you change it to something more upbeat?" This one really sticks in my throat. (You'll find out why in March.) One terrific movie favourite of mine is L.A. Confidential -- as long as I stop it at the point where the movie's makers wanted to end it, that is before the last two scenes. When it was being test screened, the movie got poor audience response because of its bleak ending, so two more scenes were apparently shot to allow our hero and the girl to drive off in a cab, presumably to live happily ever after. Bollocks! We just spent the previous 2 hours or so having that bleak, but ultimately truthful ending set up, and they go and blow it so that crowds will leave the theatre in an upbeat mood. (And bring in more revenue to the studio.) What a cop out! As mentioned, Americans seem especially prone to this. Come on, we're all big boys and girls. You would think that a movie that's truly good would trump yet another "and they lived happily ever after because good once again triumphed over evil as it should". Wake up and smell the kitty litter. The world doesn't work like that. Maybe if we faced up to that more often, we might be able to do something about it.

Why can a dozen people get brutally murdered in the course of a novel, but if you harm one hair on Fluffy's pretty little head, dog lovers will howl for an author's head on a pike? Is a pet's life worth more than a humans? You can even in some situations kill a child with more impunity than a pet. This is just plain nuts.

Readers want to slip into an author's new novel the same way they like to slip into a favourite pair of shoes when they return home after a hard day. There's nothing wrong with this. However (and of course I've got a "however" ready), some authors and all publishers will gladly crank out book after book in a series that's gone dead long ago, as long as it's making money. I could name names, but I won't. You know who you are out there! You should be ashamed about writing basically the same book over and over. Only thing they've got going for them is that they're probably making buckets more money than I am. What price art, hmmm? Why is a series considered better than stand-alones? Because they're familiar. People fight change. They want stability and if they can't get it in their escapist fiction, that's a "bad thing". (Someone in the book industry actually told me that.)

Hands up; how many of you have been told to trim your novel's length because it's "too long" or "we don't publish books of that length"? To my mind, that's a cop out. I don't want to be told that by my editor (or whoever is evaluating my ms). That's like answering "because" when someone asks you a question. An editor is supposed to tell you what they feel needs fixing. I want to know what it is that they want removed. They have every right to tell you your novel is too long, but not because it's X amount of words, but because it's got subplots or scenes that slow it down or don't have any purpose. Those things have to go. Cutting out words for the sake of reducing the page count is silly.

Actually, speaking as a typographer, words counts are silly. Some people use a lot of long words (E.M. Forrester comes to mind) and some use short. By the end of a book, that sort of thing really matters. Why don't publisher's think in terms of character count? Our word processors can tell us that, too. Then at least we'd have something meaningful to work with if they want us to shorten a book for whatever reason it is they want us to shorten it.

All you have to do is look in bookstores to see that point #6 is true. There's a reason: readers go into stores to pick up the next (insert favourite author's name here). These writers are the true lucky devils in the publishing game. Nobody is going to tell Ian Rankin to shorten his damn novel. In fact, if it's longer, they'll just charge more for it.

Hmmm... Maybe I've stumbled across at least a plausible reason to limit a book's length as far as a publisher is concerned. "We want to sell it for $XX.XX, even if it damages the novel."

Comments? Rebuttals? Thinking of getting out the old flame thrower?

Update on the "Vancouver Airport Mess":

Read this ( then tell me who you think the public is going to believe? Is this RCMP Cpl. Dale Carr for real? Who does he think he's kidding? Sad thing is it's the cop's word against the fireman's. Unless someone breaks rank and does the right thing, they'll get away with it. See point #2 above...

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Little Ironies

Donis here.

Boy, Charles, you are just a ray of writerly sunshine with your observations on the lot of the midlist mystery novelist. Correct, sadly, but depressing. I love to have my characters struggle with moral ambiguity. I like to see how they handle it, since I often have to deal with it myself in real life and usually don't have a clue.

In my books, too, the murder is solved and everything more or less works out. I'm very aware that readers like that. In all three of the books I've had published, and in the one I'm working on now, I do leave a couple of untidy loose ends, which I think adds interest and at least some authenticity to the story. But it's true that the second book, wherein everything doesn't quite work out to the antagonist's satisfaction, seemed to upset some readers. My best reviews and best sales come with the happiest endings. What is an author to do? The plan is to become a New York Times Best Seller List regular and reach a level where you can write what you want. Or else write what you want and not care whether you sell or not.

On another note, I'm proud to report that that my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, has been added to the Junior High English reading curriculum in Enid, Oklahoma. That book, at least, apparantly achieved the proper level of innocuous moral ambiguity.

And for my last little irony, I thought my fellow bloggers might be interested in an article that appeared in the Arizona Republic newspaper yesterday entitled "Taser Parties' Success Stuns". Here is an excerpt : "Pack up you Tupperware, and get ready for a new kind of party. Dana Shafman, founder of Shieldher Inc., has recently started sponsoring Taser parties, giving women a chance to buy Tasers ... 'We have Tupperware and candle parties to protect our food and house, so why not have a Taser party to learn how to protect our lives and bodies?' Guests have the opportunity to shoot the Taser for the first time at a cardboard cutout during the parties. For safety reasons, no alcohol is served and no one is actually Tasered. [A guest said] 'I'm going to buy one for my mom. It's going to be her 81st birthday present.'"

There's more to the article, but that's about all the moral ambiguity I can stand for now.

Friday, November 30, 2007

How to get published: A cynical perspective.

Charles here again, this time on a bit of a rant.

Rose and I went to see a movie the other night, one of those critically acclaimed flicks with big name actors choosing small roles, the kind of movie that plays at art houses (The Little Theater here in Rochester), the kind that stay with you weeks after seeing them. Often – but not always – those movies leave more loose ends when the final credit rolls than a dozen mainstream movies. The movie we saw met/exceeded all of those standards, especially the unresolved ending. The name of the movie isn’t important, but the fact that it was 100% satisfying without a neat ending got me to wondering why fully resolved, neat endings seem to be a requirement in the mystery genre. Not for the Big Names – they can do what ever they want. But us mid-listies? We better stick to the rule that demands an ending all warped up nice and neat.

Which is strange since the books I love to read the most are precisely the ones that are don’t have the kind of endings I feel compelled to write. It seems that the bigger the book – big as in complex thoughts and philosophical conundrums – the messier the ending.

But just try to write a mystery with an ambiguous, messy ending. First, your editor will probably reject it – not because it’s not well written or interesting but because the very real problem that it is un-saleable. Mystery readers like tidy endings, publishers what to publish books mystery readers will by (and recommend), therefore publishers look for/insist on mysteries with tidy endings. Very predictable and probably very profitable (since if it wasn’t they’d change the business model). But is it this insistence on a “happy” ending (most loose ends resolved, motives explained, justice delivered in one form or another) the thing that’s holding most mystery authors from writing a book that is as memorable and debatable and subjective as the art house movie I went to see (which, by the way, was billed as a thriller/crime story movie)?

By writing the kind of stories the market wants (even a small market, like mine) rather than writing what we could be writing, are we little more than sub-contracted skilled workers producing a marketable product for a for-profit business? Yes, you can always write what you want, but given the market, it won’t get published unless you follow the conventions of the genre, i.e. a tidy ending.

Let’s say you’re a first-time novelist and you decide, the hell with it, you’ll follow your muse and not the market since it’s a damn good story that deserves to be read. As I explained, you will find it hard (read impossible) to get it published. You are left with few palatable options. You can go to a vanity press and kiss your chances of ever being taken seriously goodbye (with that book, any way). Or you can self-publish the book on your own, which is almost exactly like going to a vanity press but you get to put your own logo on the back. No matter how good the book is – and I’ve read some excellent vanity/self-published books – you will have a hard time finding a book store to carry them, you will find yourself not listed as an author at most of the mystery conventions, and the only awards you will be eligible for are the self-serving awards created by the vanity presses, print-on-demand shops and writing magazines.

So the lesson today, kiddies, is this: If you want to get published, write the same book every one else is writing. Just be sure that you’re original!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

National vs Local Policing (and a winters day)

Vicki here. I had breakfast yesterday with a group of friends. Someone asked me if I was planning to go away for the winter. I said, “Yes, to Nelson. I’ve come to Nelson to spend the winter.” I guess I’ve become such a part of the community that people forget I don’t actually live here. That’s nice. We had about 12 inches of snow the other night. It looks wonderful on the mountains and the trees. I really do love it. (I can hear Charles shivering with horror).

Up here in Canada the news is still full of the Dziekanski case, as well as another incident that just happened in Halifax, I believe, of a man dying after being Tasered by the RCMP. Reports also suggest that Canadian’s faith in the RCMP as our national police force are being seriously undermined. Certainly there is no doubt that the Mounties are in a lot of trouble. As a quick explanation to our U.S. friends, the RCMP is a national police force to the extent that you don’t have in the U.S. Very few towns in Canada have their own police force. The big cities do, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal etc. The smaller cities sometimes do, i.e. Oakville, Ontario where I’m from, pop 150,000. But outside of the urban centers, it is highly unusual to find a local police force. In Ontario rural and highway policing is done by the Ontario Provincial Police; in Quebec by the Surete du Quebec, otherwise it’s the RCMP. In areas, such as Nelson (pop 9,000) that have their own small police force, the RCMP is called upon for forensic investigation, help with big cases such as murder and the like. The RCMP also have responsibilities for duties such as guarding politicians and the Houses of Parliament, and intelligence work. We began to fear that something was wrong in the National Police force with the Mahar Arar case. The Commissioner of the RCMP was fired for lying to Parliament; an inquiry accused the RCMP of illegal activity and incompetence, and Arar was given $10 Million in compensation. (If you want to know more, you won’t have any problem Googleing “Mahar Arar”)

Then the deaths recently of young, inexperienced officers in remote communities in which there is some suggestion that young officers aren’t being trained properly before being sent out on their own, a high-profile death in custody case, and, of course, the Dziekanski death.

All of which has little to do with the officers on the ground, such as the ones I’ve met here in Nelson, who are just trying to do their jobs.

Is there a solution? I think there’s a lot to be said for a national police force. For example, my daughter has worked on the exploited children task in conjunction with the Government of Canada, the RCMP, the Toronto Police, and Microsoft, who developed the software. She says that the project has been deployed much slower in the U.S. than in Canada because they don't have an equivalent to the RCMP, which was able to disperse the software to Canadian police services across the country, as well as to train them on how to use it.

On the other hand, the people of Nelson really want to keep their City Police. There has always been talk about disbanding the Nelson City Police and using the RCMP as the other areas in the province do. (Having your own police force is much more expensive). But the citizens like having police who know their community and are part of it.

Stay tuned – I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more!

P.S. In the cabin where I’m staying, there is a shelf of old mystery novels and anthologies. I casually picked up a book called “Clues! A History of Forensic Detection.” I’m now racing through it. It was published in 1989 so has the beginnings of the use of DNA in it, but I’m still reading about the early years of toxicology and fingerprinting. One thing leapt out at me that five years ago would have passed by. In the description of early methods of crime solving – torture the suspect until he or she confesses, crime solved - there is a description of one Marquise de Brinvilliers being subjected to the ‘water torture’ along with a print of same done at the time. Have we really gone back to that?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When news collides popular culture

Blechta here.

I'm a bit short on time at this end of the week, but I did want to get something up for my night.

I just got this in an email. Sort of says it all on many fronts, doesn't it? For those not familiar with it, the Olympic-coloured inukshuk is the symbol of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Big Gun

Charles, shifting gears.

This Thursday I’m participating in a panel discussion on the Maltese Falcon, part of an event called The Big Read here in Rochester. I’m honored to do this because I think that the Maltese Falcon is just about the best book the mystery genre has ever produced.

There is some close competition, however.

The Donald Westlake/Richard Stark series is, line for line, the best-written series I have ever read. There is not a wasted word in any of these books – and he packs more nasty into one paragraph than anyone else crams in a book. And all without a swear word. Hard, cold, word-perfect writing. I defy you to name a better series.

Next on my list, Walter Mosley’s early Easy Rawlins books. Now I wasn’t quite born yet when Easy was working his Devil in a Blue Dress case, but I sure feel like I was there. I taught US History for years but none of the text books we used or any of the ancillary readings portrayed what it was like to be Black in America before the Civil Rights legislation better than these books.

Jon Clearly. Not a mystery writer but if I’m mentioning my top guns, he’s on the list.

Maybe the best second-best novel is Lawrence Block’s When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. If I hadn’t read Hammett’s Falcon, this would be #1.

But I did read the Maltese Falcon and everything else is an also ran.

Forget the story about the details of Miles Archer’s murder, forget all about the Falcon – this is a story that deals with core human values and the best-realized post-modern philosophy in print. If Camus had been this clear, religion would lack even the hocus-pocus, superstitious, well-it-was-good-enough-for-grandpa value it has enjoys today. I can’t even think at this level without getting headaches, let alone write at it. When I re-read the Falcon I wonder why I even bother to write at all. And I wonder why I waited so long between readings.

It’s not perfect. There’s all that homophobic/homoerotic stuff as well as the implied xenophobia and sexism, but those same charges could be leveled against The Odyssey. And yes, I believe they are of the same caliber. Long after people stop reading Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton and every single obscure-occupation detective with a cat, The Maltese Falcon will still be read.

So why don’t I just tell you what makes it so great?

If you read it, you’d know – and anything I’d say would trivialize it.

If you haven’t read it, don’t admit it. Just rectify that situation as soon as possible.

So, my fellow bloggers, what say you?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Police, Tasers, and attitude

Debby here.

Catching up on the recent posts has been fascinating and thought-provoking. About a year ago, I took the Honolulu Police Department's Citizen Police Academy. My purpose in enrolling in the class was to learn more about police procedure and make my crime/suspense fiction more credible. But why were the other twenty-four people there? It takes an effort to show up every Thursday night for 3-4 hours over a twelve-week period. And it was quickly apparent our perseverance was a fraction of what HPD was putting out. Why the devil did they offer this class, anyway?

The CPA class was one way of recruiting interested people--and there was no age limit. You just have to be able to pass the physical. No small feat, I discovered. Police departments in Hawaii need around 20% more staff. It's hard to find people who can do the rigorous training AND accept an annual starting salary of about $33,000. (This seemed to be on a par with the problem of getting new competent teachers, who make about the same starting salary.) Consider that the average house in Hawaii costs $600,000. There are committed people who do the work and make ends meet, but there aren't enough of them.

Meanwhile, the class was fascinating. HPD offered insight into each of the departments, and we got to do fun things like shoot guns at targets(although I am not a gun enthusiast), drive police cruisers, and visit the crime lab. Part of the gun-firing day included a demonstration of tasers. The police officers who showed us how they worked were excited about the prospect of the newly passed state laws that will allow officers to add tasers to their equipment. The argument I heard over and over was that the tasers would save lives by offering an alternative to guns. Since the police are just beginning to carry tasers, there isn't enough information here to know how they're being used. Time will tell.

My interaction with police has always been fairly positive--and I hark back to when my eleven year old son (six years ago) got arrested with some buddies for spray painting a school fence. Argh, parenthood! They did it next to a baseball field full of off-duty cops. The police took them to the station and booked them, but mostly they talked to the kids and tried to explain what vandalism was and how important it was to stay out of trouble. We parents had to come 2-3 hours after the arrest to pick up our boys at the downtown station. The kids walked out pale, shaken, and carrying their shoes. They also had to come back for another "talking" session--kind of like counseling. I was impressed with the way the incident was handled.

I don't know how it would have been if the boys were young men instead, and presented a perceived threat. Not as good, I imagine. On the other hand, I have seen officers interact with older law-breakers by talking and coaxing. Perhaps it depends on the officers involved--as a plane trip depends on the skill and humanity of the attendants/pilots. Or the skills of teachers.

This humanity and skill is not guaranteed by higher pay. Don't get me started on the crooks and bozos running too many companies in the U.S. But wouldn't it help if we placed more value on certain professions? If departments weren't short handed and people didn't have to work double shifts in already stressful jobs? I can't help but think that it would be a step in the right direction.

Just some ideas. In terms of America's love affair with firearms, I don't know where to start. It's another side of a complicated problem.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Don't Know What to Say...

about this topic we've been discussing. We've had two or three taser deaths of people detained by the police here in the Phoenix area over the last few years. Just recently, an intoxicated and disturbed woman was detained at the Phoenix airport. She was left alone and shackled in a holding cell, where she became entangled in her chains while trying to get free and managed to strangle herself to death. She had become hysterical when she missed her flight to Tucson, where she was going to check herself into rehab. Her wealthy New York family is suing the airport police for leaving her alone.

It's tough to be a police officer. They put their lives on the line every day, and bad guys really are out to get them, and they continually deal with the worst of the dregs of humanity. I'd think it'd be easy to become paranoid and way too trigger-happy, and entirely too prone to assume the worst of anyone they come in contact with. If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas. It's like Charles' quote from The Untouchables.

I well remember when the police were "pigs" and could do no right. I was really afraid we were headed for a police state. The government was intruding into the lives of citizens in the most alarming way. (No comment about the current state of affairs.) I was involved in many a protest, because I was scared of what was happening, but I was plenty scared of being hosed or truncheoned or dog bit, too. Nothing of the sort ever happened to me, but I still get palpitations when I think of it. Yet you have to try to do something, to say something. What else can you do? Wait until they come for you?

In this day of cel phone cameras and ubiquitous media, it's harder and harder for the police, or the bad guys, either, to be able to get away with brutality. I think that having the actions of the RCMPs at the Vancouver airport splattered all over tv for the world to see and deplore is going to have a chilling effect on any other law officer who has to decide whether or not to Taser someone.

I just finished reading Vickie's In The Shadow of the Glacier. Her small-town Canadian police officer became a cop following the violent death of her fiance, much to the dismay of her ex-hippie, draft-dodging, ex-pat American parents. She did a great job of creating thoughtful people who made the best choices they could at the time they were faced with them.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What cha' gonna do when they come for you?

Charles at the mike.

Lots of interesting discussions lately on Canadian and US policing techniques and the comments are falling pretty much along party lines, with the Canadian authors noting that, not counting current issues with the RCMP, the police in Canada are less prone to violence, more eager to seek a peaceful solution, and less concerned with solving a crime than with respecting the rights of everyone involved. In short, the Canadian police are more, well, Canadian. By inference then, police in the US are more like us, as in US.


How can the police of a certain country – any country – not be like the people of that country? (And no jokes here about the US in Iraq, let’s stick to domestic police first.) If the police force is made up of officers from that country, they have to be like the people of that country, with the same values and approaches you’d expect to find from people in that country. But there’s one big difference – they are police.

I don’t care where you are from or what values your country holds dear, the police are police, and by the nature of their job they are bound to offend many people. Let’s take two fictitious countries – Brutallia and Freedonia. In Brutallia, violence is a way of life – you have a disagreement, ya slap ‘em upside the head till they see it your way. Because folk are more violent in Brutallia, the police have to take it up a notch when they are breaking up a fight or quelling an unrest – if they don’t they won’t be noticed. As Sean Connery’s characters says in The Untouchables, “He pulls a knife you pull a gun, he sends one of yours to the hospital you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way.”

Meanwhile, in Fredonia, the citizens would always choose to talk things out, hardly raising their voices to make their point and the thought of using violence as a way to solve things or acquire goods illegally is almost unthinkable. Here, the police would sit and have a chat as they tried to get to the bottom of the social evil that precipitated the ‘crime’. Very Fredonian.

But you can bet that in Freedoina there will be many folks who ‘just don’t like the tone’ the police use, just like in Brutallia where the citizens are a tad upset because the cops used tire irons breaking up the Special Olympians’ victory celebration. “Rubber bullets, sure…but tire irons?”

No matter where you live, the cops probably cross the line some time or other. It should piss you off. Because it shows you something you don’t want to think about.

What was it that Pogo said? We have met the enemy and they are us.

Something like that.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cops and Robbers

Vicki here.

Very interesting post by Rick about the Vancouver Taser incident. And an even more interesting discussion in the comments between Rick and Charles. I also saw the video of the incident the day it was released, and, like Rick, I was horrified. The whole thing just gets worse and worse. The man is disoriented, breathing very heavily, he’s been trapped in the airport for about 10 hours, and no one, no one, is trying to help him. He can’t find his mother. She eventually gives up trying to find him, because no one will help her, and goes home. Just awful. Before the police even get involved, you have to ask, what the heck was going on with airport security, border services, and any sort of airport employee. Nothing, apparently. He didn’t speak English, not exactly unusual for a county with the immigrant population this one has, but an interpreter was not called.

Then the police arrive, and whamo – he’d dead. Frightful. My police contacts tell me that they think it unlikely the taser killed him, it was probably the compression of the knee to his neck (remember that he was having difficulty breathing even before being tasered).

By the way, I note that my version of Word doesn’t know the word Taser. Well it will soon!

When I traveled in the U.S. recently on my book tour, I often talked about the differences between U.S. and Canadian policing. That’s something I know a bit about because I read lots of American mysteries (which makes me an expert!) and because I write Canadian police procedurals. A couple of days after the release of the Taser incident videotape, I had coffee with my police detective friend, and an RCMP forensic investigator he brought along to meet me. The subject, naturally, turned to the taser incident. The police I know are all pretty horrified, but not rushing to judgment. I told them a bit about my book tour discussion topic and they said that Canadian policing is “gentler”. An interesting word. “Until Vancouver” one of them put in.

So I thought I’d write a bit today about “gentler” and what that might mean. A couple of years ago I went to a talk at Bouchercon (the largest annual mystery convention) when it was held in Toronto. A Toronto police officer was there from the ERT. Emergency response team. Those are the people called out to hostage takings and such like. It was a really enjoyable presentation. The officer told us that they train and train with police from all over the world. With one exception – Americans. They think that Americans, both police, bystanders, and perpetrators are too quick to use their guns. In Canada, according to this guy, a situation has been a failure if anyone – including the hostage-taker – is hurt. In the US, again according to this guy, if the bad guy is killed by the police, and no one else hurt, that is a successful conclusion.

U.S. police officers are required to carry their guns off duty; Canadians are not allowed to. At the end of In the Shadow of the Glacier, Constable Smith is in her civilian clothes, and all she has to defend herself are her stiletto heels and cell phone. Of course, she is such a resourceful officer (being the product of my own imagination) that she manages just fine with the shoes.

Which style of policing is better? I have my opinion, I’m sure you have yours. If one good thing comes out of the investigation (and it looks like everyone and their dog will be investigating), perhaps it will stop Canadian policing from sliding down that slippery slope towards automatic armed confrontation.

Make no mistake, policing in Canada isn’t a lark. Several young Mounties have been murdered in just the last couple of months in remote northern communities. And then there was the shooting death of two Mounties in Saskatchewan about a year ago and the killing of four in Maplethorpe, Alberta by a lone, crazy gun-lover.

It’s interesting that as gang violence in the cities has been increasing, and fast, and guns are flooding the bigger cities, all the police murders that I’ve mentioned have been in rural, or very small town, areas. Still, it’s gotta have an effect on police and policing.

I’ll give this all some more thought, and perhaps write more next week.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

My problem with Lumberton

Charles here, and I've got a problem. It's not an epic important problem, nothing that will elicit meaningful commentary, but it's a problem nonetheless.

I just spent a wonderful week in Lumberton, NC, doing a series of small events and capping the whole thing off with a grand event at the auditorium. Fellow author and rising Lumberton star, Trish Terrell and her hubby Don were my gracious hosts, and I was treated like a superstar by Bob Fisher, the Director of the Robeson County Public Library. But just as kind and helpful and truly wonderful were all the people I met in Lumberton. They were all great, every one of them, and they all shared these wild stories that were just crazy enough to be true. “You know what you ought to do?” I heard again and again. “You ought to set your next book right here in Lumberton.”

And that leads to my problem.

I write books where bad things happen to good people. I can never understand authors who say that they ‘love’ their characters and ‘enjoy spending time with them’. Well, I must be a closet sadist because I’m happiest with my writing when I’m making my characters miserable. I love to rip away the pleasant veneer we see when we travel, spending more time in the seedy lowlife hotspots than I do in the places the locals want you to see. My books include the red light districts, drug dens, filthy prisons and rat-infested hotels and they're populated, mostly, by immoral, self-serving con-artists, petty thieves, hookers with no hearts of gold, and soul-less killers.

And you want me to write a book that takes place in your town? Sorry, Lumberton, I can’t do it.

I’m sure that somewhere in Lumberton there are versions of all the things I put in my books, versions of all the types of people I like to write about, but I didn’t see any of it. And you know what? I’m glad.

It seems that every time I travel to a city I go out of my way to find the things no one usually goes to find, and more often than not I find them and in one form or another they end up in my books. When I was in Lumberton I went to luncheons hosted by the local and Kiwanis, has honored at a dinner party at the beautiful home of Dr. John and Farleigh Rozier, and ate like a pig at the potluck dinner at the Episcopal Church. I didn’t have time look for the dark side and frankly I didn’t want to.

The Lumberton I saw was a pleasant, attractive and caring community, one filled with good people doing good things, where the very divers population gets along well, where the kids are all polite and the future is looking bright and folks are proud to say they’ve lived there all their life. Is there another Lumberton? Sure there is, but I don’t want to know it.

So I won’t be writing a book based on Lumberton and the people I met while I was there.

I liked it all too much.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bad Times

I just read Rick's entry below, and I was immediately reminded of something my grandmother said to me many years ago.

"I've lived through wars and deaths and upheavals and bad times," she said, "but I've never seen things as bad as this."

That was in about 1972. It seems that human nature never changes, especially when it comes to man's inhumanity to man. I could recite dozens of similar incidents between civilians and the police, some the fault of the police and some the fault of the civilians, but I don't want to be any more depressed about the state of the world than I already am.

Carolyn Hart told me once that she thought the popular resurgence of mystery novels was due at least in part to the fact that, at least in a mystery novel, justice is usually done in the end. I like to think that mystery novelists are people of compassion, who are doing what they can to impart to the reader a sense of order and rightness in a world that is messy and often unjust.

Or at least divert them with a ripping yarn.

And now I think I'll watch Charles' streaming video again and give myself a good laugh.

When the Real World Comes Calling

Blechta writing -- and completely out of turn. My apologies for stepping on my colleagues' toes!

Being a writer of fiction, I have the luxury of arranging everything in my stories just the I want. Characters have to do what I say.

A situation in the real world imposed itself on me this week in a way no things have since 2001 and what it is a very hard thing to back away from or forget about -- and I can't tell any of the characters of this drama what they should do.

I'm speaking about the death last month of a traveller from Poland at the Vancouver airport. Many of you will have seen the video shot by a member of the public who was on the scene. If you haven't, make it your business to watch it. It might well make you sick, but it is something you need to see. Click HERE if you want to see it. I caution you that the content is disturbing.

Being the news junkie I am, I have been following the story from the beginning and took a special interest when the RCMP (the fabled Mounties to those of you not in Canada) suddenly refused to return the video the owner had given them voluntarily at the time of the incident to aid in the investigation. Being a crime writer, my antennae began to twitch at that. A lawyer was hired and the video was reluctantly returned this week. To say the least, its contents are explosive.

I've read at least 50 articles and interviews on the matter this week, and the one glaring thing that cries out to me is that the RCMP cannot be trusted anymore. If this video had not been shot, returned and then publicly disseminated, the Mounties present that night might well have gotten away with what they did.

In a news conference shortly after the event -- and presumably after the video had been viewed and initial statements of the Mounties present had been read -- the RCMP spokesman lied. There is no nicer way to put it. This constable would not have been allowed to stand up in front of the press if he had not been thoroughly briefed. Here are some facts.

He said:
* there were only 3 constables present (there were 4)
* that the constables were experienced officers and tried to calm the man down (they clearly did not)
* that he continued to resist them and throw things around the baggage area where he was (he did not)
* that after he was tasered, he continued to resist (he was clearly convulsing -- as people who have been shot by a taser do)
* that he was restrained by pressure on his back (you can clearly see one Mountie with his knee and what looks like the full weight of his body on the man's neck)
* the Mounties couldn't use pepper spray because of members of the public nearby (they were several feet away behind a glass wall and in another room).

I am equally certain that the Mounties didn't go into that enclosed area intending to kill this man. It was late, we have no idea what they'd been told by airport security (who seem to have made no attempt to communicate with this man), but we also do now know that the man was tasered barely 25 seconds after the Mounties entered the room and they didn't appear to try very hard to engage this man.

My feeling upon viewing the video numerous times is that the constables just wanted to get the situation over as quickly as possible and went with what they felt was the most expedient thing. Tasers are very powerful weapons, just a step down from using a gun and they have already, in limited use, been a factor in 30 deaths here in Canada. The RCMP is surely aware of this. To cut to the chase, the constables present that night chose the easy way out. They failed in their duty.

Police and the military are the only members of our society whom we legally allow to use deadly force. That is a very fragile and tenuous right and is subject to any number of checks and balances. It also carries an awesome amount of responsibility.

In this case, the Mounties did not act with proper responsibility. These are some of the most well-trained law enforcement people in the world. They should have known better. The DID know better. Now they (and all of us) are left with the horrendous consequences of their precipitant behaviour. They have wrongly taken the life of a man who had already been shamefully treated for over 8 hours by the country that should have helped him through the maze of Customs and Immigration that every airport now has. Every official of the Canadian government with whom Robert Dziekanski came into contact that fateful evening failed in their duty to him -- and their country, since they represent every one of us. The world is outraged, as well they should be.

But on top of all this, it now appears that the Mounties, our fabled national police force who always "gets its man", attempted to lie to Canada and the rest of the world.

I am ashamed for my country.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A short entry

Blechta here.

I've been well and truly laid out with a cold the past 6 days, a parting gift from my eldest son who recently moved out, so this week's entry is a really paltry effort.

If you've read and enjoyed Charles' entry just below (I certainly howled while watching it), you will quite likely enjoy this, which is another aspect of the minefields writers must navigate in order to reach bestsellerdom.

I promise a better entry next week when I'm fully functional once more. This should at least keep you chuckling.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Writing Again

Donis here, Dear Reader.

Since my long-distance travels are over until next year, I've been concentrating on trying to finish my fourth book, working title Book 4. I didn't do more than jot down random notes for more than a month while I was traveling to promote The Drop Edge of Yonder, and sitting down for long periods to actually write again is like coming home. I love it. I may be anxious that I can't make it work like I envision, and I may be worried that I can't get it done in the time period alotted, but all that aside, creating a world with my writing is what feeds my soul.

I finally made the trip up to Scottsdale to the press and picked up my 2007 Arizona Book Award for Best Mystery/Suspense Novel, which I won for my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, just last month, much to my delight and amazement. The book was published in 2005, but apparently they only give out the award every two years. The actual award is a clear plexiglass affair in the shape of the state of Arizona, with a big sun and the words "Arizona Book Publishing Association's Arizona Book Awards - Glyph Winner 2007". It is mounted on a stand that has has the title of my book and the name of my press on it, and award category. It stands about 10 inches tall and is about 8 inches wide, and I have it on the coffee table in my living room. I'd wear it around my neck on a chain, but it would be more like a breastplate than a necklace. Besides, that might be considered unsubtle.

I also picked up my copies of the audio version of my second book, Hornswoggled, and since then, I've been driving slowly around town, going to places I don't necessarily want to go, in order to listen to it. (Don't tell me I should do the logical thing and bring it in the house and listen to it. I have a book to write.) I have to say, it's really a hoot to hear someone read your words aloud. My reader is a woman by the name of Pamela Ward, she of the bright red hair, if her picture bears any relation to reality. And lo and behold, she twangs! She sounds a bit more Southern than Oklahoman to me. (Yes, there's a difference. Think Texas crossed with Arkansas. Or Clinton x Bush, if that's easier), and she says "Gramma" instead of "Granmaw", but she said my name right, and she pronounced "Muskogee" correctly. So I have no complaints.

Last night, I drove back up there to see Vickie at Poisoned Pen Bookstore. We had a great time, and I can't wait to read The Shadow of the Glacier. She told me she's off to Sedona, Arizona, today. Lucky, lucky person. I hope she's standing on an energy vortex under the red rocks and selling books by the dozen.

The creative process, explained

Charles here.
Rick, Vicki and Donis have written wonderful entries (which you should scroll down and read) but I decided to post something for all you illiterates out there, fed up with all this reading. Just click here and enjoy a short video that explains exactly how the books you love came to be written.
(Next week I'm in Lumberton, NC for a bunch of events - if you're in town, drop me a note and maybe we can get together for a cold one. And don't forget the big event at the Osterneck Auditorium. Cheers!)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Book Tour Update

Vicki here. I'm writing this sitting in a Starbucks in Phoenix waiting until it's time for me to go for my TV appearance. This evening I'll be at Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, and I'm really looking forward to that. The book tour is coming to an end, and I'll be glad to be heading back North. To the cold and snow. Yummy. (BTW that is not a sarcastic comment). The highlights: Four Eyed Frog books in Gualala, California (pronounced Wallawalla). A delightful store in a lovely little town. Not only did people come out to hear me, but I was invited back to the home of Howard and Mary after for a glass of wine, and Howard, who is a diver, gave me a gift of a beautiful abalone shell. San Francisco and LA were a bit of a blurr of bad traffic. I went to Book 'Em in Pasadena expecting a normal talk and signing, to find the book club gathering for a pizza party. That was a fun surprise. Donna (I hope I remembered the name) was wildly enthusiastic about the book, as she'd been to Nelson last year and LOVED IT! Being what she called a native Angelino, she also loved the drive from Vancouver - no traffic!

The people at Mysterious Galaxy were warm and welcoming, but unfortunately no one came! They explained that business had been very slow since the fires. Mysterious Galaxy sells Science Fiction as well as mystery, so as I have a Fantasy reader on my Christmas list, I did some shopping.

When I was in Portland, my friends lent me their GPS to get around town. After using that, I had to run out and buy one for myself. It was probably a life saver, particuarly in Los Angeles. I genuinely don't think I would have managed without it. I would have given up and left! Not only does the GPS give you directions to your destination, but you can look up hotels, gas stations, Starbucks and it will direct you there.

Everywhere I've gone I've been invited to come back next year. And I think I will.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Meanwhile, back in Portola

Blechta writing.

One of my most favorite parts of writing a novel is the setting and how my characters interact with that setting. Two blog entries back, I spoke about my recent research trip to Portola, California. (Was it really a month ago already?) This is just the latest in a number of research junkets I've been on. Previous books have sent me to Vienna (twice!), and to Scotland and England, as well as more mundane trips around the area I live in. This time, though, I'd already written the novel, so I at least knew EXACTLY what I did and did not need.

With my "Vienna book", _Cemetery of the Nameless_, the location certainly had a large impact on the story. The two protagonists are American, and even though they have travelled a lot, they are basically out of their depths in the capitol of Austria, so they were the same as me. I could write that sense of my own discovery of this city into their stories. More recently, _When Hell Freezes Over_, has one protagonist who's from the UK and the other is from Canada. That forced me to wear two different hats and was a bit more tricky. How did it all work out?

Well, Vienna is a magical city, not very large -- especially the First District, which is the oldest part -- and it's easy to get to know the place as far as the nuts and bolts go: where the landmarks are, how to get around, what the locals eat (pizza with niblets corn as a topping???), what the place looks like. Of course, if you use these correctly, they add a lot of colour to your story. But to really make a place come alive, you have to know what its people are like. That means getting out and talking with them, interacting with them and just observing them. You can ONLY do this on site and on the ground. I have several Viennese friends here in Toronto, and they'll tell you any number of useful things. If they're back in their native city, though, they are completely different. They become more Viennese.

The UK is even more skewed in this regard. I think they have more eccentrics per square metre than any other place on earth. Would I populate a book with all the "characters" I've met on several trips over there? No (although some authors seem to delight in this). I want to have background players in my stories who speak and think and react like the actual locals, but I DON'T want readers to think I've populated my story with a bunch of oddballs. (I've read too many books where the author has done that and it rings false, and they're a big turn-off.) Getting that sort of thing takes a lot of work: the speech patterns and word choice have to be just right. Taping people helps. Is it worth the effort? To my mind, absolutely -- and the reviews and readers' comments about my novels bring up that aspect of my writing again and again. I want a local to read my book and feel afterwards that I got it right.

Now I'm working with Portola and its population. I only had 3 days there and needed to soak up as much as I could in a limited time period. I must have wandered through town and talked with 100 people (and in a town the size of Portola, that's a sizeable chunk of the population. Even though I won't use a tenth of what I learned, I will be able to draw my bit players accurately -- and fairly. The woman who runs the cafe I use in my story will owe a lot to the woman who owns the actual cafe in Portola. To anyone who's been through that town, she'll hopefully ring true. To those who haven't been anywhere near California, let alone this Portola, the bit of colour my Portolians add will give the story veracity it might not otherwise have.

I was on a panel at a mystery convention with someone who has written a novel that concerns the Vatican quite heavily. She proudly told those in attendance that she loves writing about places she's never been to because she learns so much about those places. I had a moment of real disconnection there and said so. If I had never gone to Vienna, _Cemetery_ wouldn't be half the book it was. It wouldn't even have had the same title (and I think _Cemetery of the Nameless_ is a damn good title). If I hadn't been talking to two Viennese gendarmes, I wouldn't have known this place actually exists, let alone that it had such a colourful name. When my wife and I actually visited the Friedhof der Namenlosen on a blustery, cloudy day in early March, I stood in the middle of this eerie place and told her, "If I wrote for the next 10 years, I could never come up with a place as perfect as this for the start of my story."

And you know what? As an author, I can even write my research trips off!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Colorado and the West

This is Donis typing.

It's obviously travel time for the authors on this blog. I just returned to Arizona day-before-yesterday from my Women Writing the West conference/Colorado book tour, tired but happy. I've been traveling and doing appearances for about a month, since Drop Edge of Yonder came out at the end of September. Not nearly the schedule that some of my compatriots have been keeping, but then I think I may have a year or two of age on them. Funny how much energy I left back in my 40's.

But, howsoever wimpy a traveler I may be, I loved the trip. I'm always amazed at how vast and beautiful the West is. I adored Colorado. I haven't been up there in many years, since I was a teenager. I thought it was spectacular then, and my youthful opinion was reconfirmed ten times over. Both my husband Don and I have sisters who live in the Denver area. Mine lives right in Denver, and his lives in Monument, which is between Denver and Colorado Springs, where my conference was. Thanks to our sisters and their families, we were driven around the area a lot, both the view the scenery and so that I could call on as many libraries and bookstores as I could find. We visted the cities of Colorado Springs, Monument, Limon, Canon City, Manitou Springs, Estes Park, as well as the Rocky Mountain National Park, where we found lots of elk but no bookstores. My sister spent quite a bit of time showing us Denver after my program at the Tattered Cover, and I have to say, that as much as I liked the lovely, nature-filled smaller towns, and as much as I dislike big cities, I loved Denver. It is filled with beautiful old, tree-lined neighborhoods, full of charm and history.

We drove home down I-25 from Denver to Santa Fe - land of the flat roofs and turquoise bridges - and spent a night. Don and I used to visit Santa Fe a lot, especially when we lived in Lubbock, TX, in the 70's, and we still like to go back there on special occasions. It has changed a lot in the last thirty years, but it's still spectacular. I think sometimes that I've been there so many times that the thrill will surely be gone, but it's never happened yet. There're reasons it has the reputation it does.

Not the least of which is the food. New Mexico has a cuisine like no other place, and we take full advantage every time we go back. It's a great way to clear the sinuses, too.

We spent our last night on the road in Flagstaff, AZ, which meant that we did not sleep below 6000 feet for nearly two weeks. Then we made the easy drive home to Tempe right through the middle of my breathtaking Arizona mountains, which are a totally different creation than the Colorado Rockies, but just as incredible. We got home early in the afternoon on Halloween day, just in time to drag ourselves to the store to buy candy for the trick-or-treaters. And now the laundry is done and the bills are paid, and I don't have another program to do for two weeks, so it's time to write.

And, post-script, I was notified by the publisher that they're holding a copy of The Old Buzzard Had It Coming on tape for me, which I will pick up next week. After reading Vickie's and Charles' experiences, I can't wait to hear what my reader sounds like. I suggested that they ask for someone with a twangy accent, but I'll be happy if they found someone who can properly pronounce Muskogee.