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.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Vicki here, and tonight I'm in Fort Bragg, California heading for the improbably named Gualala where I'm doing a booksigning tomorrow at Four Eyed Frog Bookstore. With a name like that, I'm expecting a fun place!

I've been on the road since May. I've crossed half of Canada, from Oakville, Ontario to Tofino (as far west as you can go before getting wet) and by this time next week I'll have driven from Alaska to San Diego. I'm getting very, very tired of the CDs I have in the car. I love Bruce Springsteen, but even Bruce can get tedious. And yes, I've bought the new album (I'll give it a B). Just before I left Nelson a CD arrived from Poisoned Pen. A CD of the audio version of In the Shadow of the Glacier. So I've had something exciting, thoughtful, insightful, penetrating, thrilling, wise and funny to listen to.

It's been an interesting experience, listening to someone read your words. Carrington MacDuffie is the narrator, and she's done a great job. She can really change her voice so that the characters are distinguishable, and she puts plenty of emotion and emphasis into the reading. I don't know if I like how she reads Molly - she sounds a mite too schoolgirlish to me. She pronounces some words incorrectly (or differently, I suppose) including the name of the town. Everyone say after me, it's Traf-all-ger, not Traf-AL-ger.

I laughted heartily when the character Rose Benoit (I borrowed the name of the wife of the lovely and talented Charles) is mentioned, and Carrington correctly pronounces it Ben-oit, rather than Ben-wa as any Canadian would.

At one point one of the officers tells another to check into 'the owner of that fancy Merc' (nickname for a Mercedes, right?), which appears to be a word Carrington hasn't heard of as she calls it a Mer-se. Huh?

But all in all, she did a great job, and I've really enjoyed listening to it. And it's probably done me some good. I never read my books, I'd imagine that most authors don't, do they? but as In the Shadow of the Glacier is the first in a series, and I haven't written series novels before, it reminded me of some small details about the characters.

The drive down the coast has been fantastic, great weather all the way. Unfortunately I've had to move to get to Gualala in time, so I haven't been able to stop at all the sites I'd like. That would take a couple of weeks.

Until next week, when I hope to be able to sum up my book tour so far.