Thursday, April 26, 2007

Retirement and a a great book

I should have retired years ago. This is great – I’d highly recommend it. I’m busy packing up the house in which I’ve lived for 23 years and raised three children, and it’s a lot of work. I’m trying to be ruthless – if I haven’t used it for 22.5 years, I probably don’t need it any more. Next week I’m off to Virginia for Malice Domestic and then to Pittsburg for the Festival of Mystery. It is great knowing that I can take as long as I like, with no need to hurry home. Then the week following, it’s off on the big road trip.

For my retirement party I asked all my friends to give me a book – their favourite book. I knew that I didn’t want presents that I’d have to pack away and I wanted something that would be special between the friend and me. Some of my friends spent months deciding what to give. Trying to choose one book made them think about themselves, and to think of me. My eldest daughter said “One book! Are you kidding?” and gave me three. I got a wonderful variety, and surprisingly only one book that I’ve already read. The one I decided to read first is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. Wow, what a book. The story behind it is amazing: it was written in 1941-42, Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in August 1942; her two daughters survived the war and kept their mother’s papers but didn’t want to read them, thinking that it would be to painful. Only in the late 1990’s did the surviving daughter read what she thought were her mother’s notes, and find a fully realized novel. Suite Francaise was intended to be a novel in five parts, but only the first two were completed before the author’s death. Selections of Nemirovsky’s notes are in the appendix and give us a bit of an idea of what she intended for her characters. Reading this book I find myself stopping every once in a while to remember that this is not a historical novel: it was written as these events were actually happening. The novel begins as people are fleeing Paris in the face of the Nazi invasion, and continues through the occupation of France. But not only is the book fascinating because of its history it’s a truly exceptional piece of writing. Nemirovsky was a famous author before the war, and I can see why. It has its faults, in particular I find the characters to be a bit stereotyped – the members of the wealthy, aristocratic families are pretty much indistinguishable in their arrogant contempt and sense of privilege. But the writing is exceptionally beautiful. A couple of passage stood out and I want to quote them here:

In her notes to part 3 (never written): Naturally he (referring to Jean Marie, a French soldier from a lower-middle-class family wounded in the invasion and later arrested for resisting the Germans) would like France to have its revenge but he realizes that this is not a goal because whoever speaks of revenge speaks of hatred and vengeance, eternal war, and the Christian is upset by the idea of hell and eternal punishment; he is upset at this idea that there will always be someone strong and someone weaker…

From Dolce, the second book: “That Willy who asked permission to kiss my kid, saying he had one the same age in Bavaria, that Fritz who helped me take care of my sick husband… if tomorrow he was given the order, he’d arrest me, he’d kill me with his own hands without thinking twice. War… yes everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We’ll tell ourselves “They’re just like us, after all,’" but they’re not at all the same. We’re two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.

Read it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Jury Duty

Charles Here.

Last week, for the first time in my life, I was called for jury duty. As soon as I told anyone, they were quick to point out ways I could get out of it, ranging from shouting my left-leaning political views to claiming I’m radioactive. But when I told people that I was looking forward to the experience, that I thought it was important and interesting, they all gave me this look – sort of like the one you’re giving me now – a cross between stunned surprise and contemptuous pity. Then they’d shake their heads and wonder why they ever talk to me.

So, cut to the jury selection. I’m one of 50 potential jurors and they weed us out, 21 at a time, with the remainder held over just in case. I was in the second set of 21. When the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney finished with the first batch, they had just 5 jurors selected – I thought I had a great chance of being one of the 12 ( or one of the 6 alternates).

Our group takes our seats in the jury box and the questions begin. Do any of you know any police officers? A half-dozen hands go up, mine one of them. When it gets to me I explain that I’m a mystery writer and that in the course of researching and writing (and promoting) my books, I have meet and worked with dozens of police officers, FBI agents and law enforcement officials in other countries, but that I don’t know any local cops. They all nodded and the two attorneys took notes and then we were off to more questions.

Do you know the area where the crime took place? (yes, our first house was a few blocks away), Do you have views about the legalization of marijuana that run counter to the laws? (yes, but I can set those aside and judge the case on the merits of the evidence and the laws on the books), Can you hold the police officers who testify to the same standard you would hold any one, not more or less? (yes), Is there any reason why you should not be required to be on this jury? (no, when do we get started?).

Questions over, they made their cuts. I was the last one not selected.

The judge thanked us and sent us home, saying that we had completed our civic duty and that we wouldn’t be called again “for at least six years.”

I think I was the only disappointed person in the room.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Fun Part

It's been a month since I completed what will be my next book, _A Case of You_. It will be out a year from now, which is like having to wait an extra six months to get your Christmas presents, but heck, with five books behind me, I am beginning to know how the publishing industry works.

Yesterday I looked at the ms (I'm just trying to show I recently learned that this is how you abbreviate manuscript, so I look smarter than Charles.) for the first time in nearly a month. As I expected all sorts of weaknesses had begun to stick up the little heads from the smooth lawn of my prose. (How's that? Not bad, eh?)

At this point, with countless hours already in the book, and having sent my publisher what was the cleanest copy I could produce, you might think I would be despairing over how much I'd missed. Actually, I'm just the opposite. In past mss (that's plural!), what faced me after a month or two of dwelling in the bottom of a drawer (well, actually a computer folder) was a virtual morass of things that needed to be fixed.

I know it's that way with every author. Many, though, don't like to go over and over their work. It gets to the point where they just want to walk away and get on to something else (usually the next book). Sometimes they run away...screaming.

Now, I'm not saying I never feel that way. There is a point along the way where going through the ms yet again is a bit of a drag, but I can get over that.

It's because my primary training is as a musician.

"What the hell does that have to do with it?" you might well ask. Here's what: I'm used to going over and over and over things until I can play them perfectly. Nothing else will do, really. You can't stand up in front of an audience and explain why you just made all those errors (or even a few). They really don't care -- other than you made them.

A teacher I studied with told me I should never perform a piece until I can play it perfectly ten times in a row. Does anyone know how difficult that is to achieve? (Charles probably does. No, wait. He plays sax.)

I have a confession to make: I've never actually been able to do this outside of maybe "Mary had a Little Lamb" or "Blame it on the Bossa Nova".

But that doesn't mean I don't keep trying. The other thing is, I enjoy this process of going over and over things, seeing those incremental improvements, knowing that it will pay off in the end, whether it's a piece of music or my next Magnum Opus. Besides, I just enjoy fooling around with my prose as much as I like writing it in the first place -- maybe more.

What started off this whole thing is that I appeared as one of the guest authors at a writing class a friend of mine runs and I decided to read some of the new book. It was a good idea, and a bad idea. Good because I actually got a bit of response on what I'd been focussing my life on for the past three months, and bad because I didn't look at the section before I got up to read.

I have a very bad habit which I haven't been able to break as of yet: I edit while I read aloud. I mean how can I let a bad phrase or a wrong word loose on an unsuspecting public? There were plenty of them in the two pages. I exaggerate. There were three, but they bugged the hell out of me. How could I not have seen them a month ago? What WAS I thinking? They had to be corrected ON THE SPOT. Nothing else would do.

It doesn't make for the smoothest of readings.

Anyway, energized by the positive response I got from the class, I went home and immediately dug into the ms again. I also have the benefit of an experienced and talented editor friend who is looking at the book for me and who has made all kinds of wonderful (and embarrassing) catches of my slightly defective prose, along with some excellent structural suggestions.

The book will be the better for all this work. Anyone of our mighty crew of writers on the blog will tell you exactly the same thing. The devil is certainly in the details when you're a writer.

And I'll certainly keep trying to be perfect.

An aside: the pages from the book launch for _When Hell Freezes Over_ has finally been put up on my website. Why is this so special? Isn't it just like looking at someone's vacation photos? Well, maybe, but the photos are pretty cool. You see, I put together a band to play some of the tunes mentioned in the book and I also played. It was a lot of fun and I think it sounded pretty damn good. I had some great backing musicians. Check out the photos:

Special note: Thanks to Charles Benoit for letting me rag on him a bit. I don't know what came over me...actually, yes, I do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Weekend in New York

Vicki here.

I started the new phase of my life in perfect style the weekend before Easter. It was the occasion of the annual Keuka Lake Murder Mystery Tour, and I was the guest author at Keuka Springs Winery. As guests toured eight wineries they picked up clues to solve a mystery. Each winery had a mystery author providing the clues and, not incidentally, selling and promoting their books. I had a lot of fun, sold a lot of books and gave out stacks of my handouts and postcards. Len and Judy and the staff at Keuka Springs were most hospitable and made me very welcome indeed. And as a bonus I got to try some great wines. I sampled two white wines made by Keuka Springs, the Gewürztraminer and Vignoles and loved them both. For Easter dinner I served Keuka Springs Chardonnay and the family seemed to enjoy it very much (I did!). The winery setting is just beautiful, a gorgeous tasting room set amongst the vineyards high on the hillside above the lake. March isn’t the best time of year in this part of the world – everything is pretty much a monotonous brown. But I could just imagine how lovely the area must been as soon as some green starts appearing on the grass and the hills, and I’ll definitely try to get back. My thanks to Charles, for suggesting the event to me, to Len and Judy and the entire staff of Keuka Springs Winery for their hospitality, and Joe for organizing the weekend. And if anyone who bought a book from me, or took one of my handouts, and is checking out the blog – happy reading – and drinking!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Listening in

Charles again

“I had the hardest time with your book,” more than one close friend has said over the years. “I was reading it but I kept on hearing your voice. It was weird.”

To be honest, when people told me this I thought they were just thinking up an excuse why they hadn’t bought my book, but no, they all were quick to point out that they read the book(s) and enjoyed them, “But man, it was hard getting past hearing your voice.” I thought they were kidding, just saying something clever because they know me. But now it’s happened to me and I understand what they meant.

I am fortunate to have many author friends and it’s a real treat to read their books, not just for the great writing but also to see how they put it together. Sometimes you can see their personalities shine through – maybe in the way they put the words together or the unusual way they phrase things, or in the subject matter or the locations. Not always, but sometimes. It adds an extra level of enjoyment to the books. But in all the books written by people I know, I’ve never had the authors voice in my head as I’m reading. Until now.

JD Singh of Toronto’s Sleuth of Baker Street mystery bookstore saved me an import copy of Zoë Sharp’s First Drop. So far it’s a great read, but Zoë’s the one reading it to me.

This is not the first book by this wonderful British author that I’ve read. I loved Zoë’s Road Kill but I read it before I met her. Her protagonist, Charlie Fox, is the kind of woman you want on your side – tough, smart, wise enough not to be fearless but bold enough to do it anyway. Then I was lucky to spend some time with her and her husband Andy at Left Coast Crime in Bristol England and at some other stateside events, slamming beers and swapping stories. A good time, as they say, was had by all. But now…now I’ve got Zoë in my head while I read.

Maybe it’s because Zoë and Charlie are so much alike – both know motorcycles, both know guns and both are make good drinking buddies. And although I’m sure I’ve read descriptions of Charlie, in my head she looks and talks just like Zoë. For most of the book it’s great, like all the intense action scenes and the believable background dialog and the internal monolog stuff. It can all be Zoë, no problem.

But then there’s the sex. Oh, nothing graphic (yet), but there’s enough that makes it kinda weird. And what makes it even stranger is that Charlie’s love interest, Sean, looks nothing like Zoë’s husband Andy (sorry, Andy). Part of me is thinking ‘I should just skip ahead and give Zoë some privacy,’ and part of me is thinking, ‘what the hell, Zoë, what about Andy?’ And if there’s part of me hoping for more of these uncomfortably visual and way too easily pictured scenes, you won’t hear me say it.

This summer I’m sure that I’ll bump into Zoë and Andy at an event. It’ll be great to see them and fun to catch up on stuff. But I have to tell you, Zoë’s writing is so good I’m half expecting to see her sporting Charlie’s scars.

And I sure hope Sean and Andy don’t get into it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Well worth looking at...

Here is this week's blog from me: a link to something that is quite mind-blowing. It is well worth your time to look at.

I could write my usual drivel, but even at my most erudite, I could never touch this.

It's called "Shift Happens".

Monday, April 02, 2007

Getting back on track

Barbara here. I've just returned from ten beautiful days in Costa Rica, half of them spent hiking, exploring and zipping through the canopy of the cloud forest in Monteverde, and the other half spent playing in the surf, reading in a hammock, and enjoying pina coladas near the Pacific beach village of MonteZuma. I brought a notebook with me so that I could begin the new novel that's been percolating in my head, but I did not even get it out of the suitcase. That's how relaxed I was. Instead I read, which is a luxury in itself for me.

First I read David Hewson's The Sacred Cut, which is the second of his Nic Costa books I've read. He writes intelligent, sophisticated mysteries set in contemporary Rome, and he brings the city alive with rich historical detail. It's great fun to visit Rome through one of his books and this one was highly enjoyable. An interesting set of characters, a complex puzzle, and like all of David's books, social and moral dilemmas to explore. Since I myself had written about the traumatic aftereffects of war experiences on soldiers in Honour Among Men, I was very interested in the character he created and the compassion and insight he displayed. There is plenty of action, suspense and violence in this book, but it is the thoughtful insights and subtle characters that stick with you. Like many male writers, he has less success creating realistic, vivid female characters, but I suspect the reverse is true for female writers.

After Hewson, I switched gears and read Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which recently beat out Margaret Atwood and other literary Goliaths for Canada's richest literary prize, the Giller Award. It's a series of linked short stories, some of which are brilliant and touching, others disturbing. My To Be Read pile is still alarmingly high, but I've enjoyed this reading interlude.

Back home now, I have to get back to serious work. I'm doing the final re-writes on my latest Green novel, based on the feedback of my police officer who read the manuscript while I was away and who tells me when I've got the procedure wrong, and in the next day or two I shall send it off to the publisher. After that I'll turn my attention to that blank page that awaits me. I know the reason it's still blank; I have an opening scene in my head, but I still don't know what I want to say, what moral or personal landscape I want the explore with the story, so I feel as if I'm just floating. That's a common feeling for me at the very start of a book, when I'm contemplating those vast empty 300 pages ahead of me. I know the only cure is starting Scene One.

Which is why I'm here writing this blog instead.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Cover Story

Charles here.

On FridayI saw the mock-up of what I hope will be the cover of my next book.

As regular readers of this blog know, I spend my days writing ad copy for Dixon Schwabl, that hotbed of creativity that simply oozes brilliance. From my first day at the agency both Lauren (Dixon) and Mike (Schwabl) and have supported my efforts as a writer, encouraging me every way possible and making it easy for me to pursue my dreams. I’d like to say I get the special treatment because they like me more than the others but the truth is they treat everybody like they’re a superstar. (But I am your favorite, right?) For me that encouragement includes attention-grabbing Public Relations and, since it’s what this entry is about, the amazing covers for my books.

Take a second and grab copies of Relative Danger and Out of Order off your shelf. They should be easy to spot because of the frickin’ outstanding covers. Impressive, huh? Artist/National Treasure Tim Coyne is the genius behind both designs, capturing the essence of each book while weaving in all those subliminal enticements that make it physically impossible to resist buying (or stealing) a copy. As I said, today I saw the concept for the new cover. He’s done it again.

It’s hard to describe how cool it is to see the cover for your book for the first time. I don’t have kids but I think it’s got to be pretty much the same thing – nine months of waiting and then the kid pops out and looks perfect. Except it only took Tim a couple days and when he showed me the cover it wasn’t all crying and slimy. Still, I bet it’s the same thing.

Now I can’t tell you what it looks like because Tim might end up changing it (you know those artistic types) and beside, I want you to be as surprised as I was when you get your copy (copies) when it comes out in October. But trust me on this, it’s worth the wait.

Now, way off topic, congratulations Vicki on your retirement – hope you snagged some pens before you left.