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.