Sunday, August 31, 2008

Guest Blogger: Hal Glatzer - from Novel to Movie to Play

Today we welcome Hal Glatzer - author, playwright, song writer, actor, director and musician...and believe me, this is just the start of the list. Those of you who have been to Malice Domestic have enjoyed his "Theater of the Air" productions. In his guest essay, Hal talks about his latest, and perhaps most challenging project.

“The House Without a Key” – From Novel to Movie to Play

In 1919, Earl Derr Biggers was celebrating: he’d written a popular novel, “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” that had been turned into a hit play on Broadway. So he sailed to Honolulu for a vacation, and stayed in one of the first hotels on Waikiki Beach. But while he delighted in the tropical scenery, he was apparently more intrigued by the exploits of a local cop.

Chang Apana was short and wiry, and carried a gun, but his preferred weapon was a bullwhip. He was best known for combating organized crimes, such as smuggling, by working undercover, since, like many of Hawaii’s crooks in those days, he was not Caucasian (he was Chinese-Hawaiian) and he did not speak English well. If Zane Grey had based a character on Apana, he might have made him a paniolo, a Hawaiian cowpuncher, for the real Apana was much like the cowboy-sheriffs in Grey’s Western yarns.

But Biggers interpreted what he saw in Apana as Chinese virtues: a dedication to law and order, a sense of duty, a passion for decency and honesty . . . all of which was a refreshing contrast to the stereotypical image of Chinese characters as villains, like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.

So Biggers turned Apana into Charles (“Charlie”) Chan: a sagacious, middle-aged Honolulu policeman with a large family, a deep understanding of human nature, a deferential manner, and an accent. Chan tends to express big ideas subtly, through allusions and aphorisms, but he is always – in the words of popular-culture scholar Peter Feng – “the smartest man in the room.”

Biggers wrote six Chan novels, starting with “The House Without a Key,” in 1925. All of them were optioned by Hollywood; but Biggers died in 1933, after only a few silent movies and early talkies were made – and no prints of those first films have survived. Most of us have seen at least a few of the Charlie Chan movies that were made subsequently – there are more than forty, from three studios – but none is based on the book that introduced the character.

In “The House Without a Key,” a prominent man with a shady past is stabbed in his home on Waikiki Beach, where he has always felt safe (hence the title). His relatives think they can find the killer on their own; but it is Chan, of course, who solves the case. The book has never gone out of print, and the series is now being published in new editions from Academy Chicago.

As you may know, next year’s Left Coast Crime ( will be held here on the Big Island of Hawaii. For his connection to the Islands, and his creation of a local (albeit fictional) hero, the LCC organizers named Biggers the convention’s “Ghost of Honor.” And I was given an hour, on the opening night, in which to present a theatrical tribute to him.

Since I’ve been producing audio-plays at the Malice Domestic convention for several years, I initially looked for an old-time radio play. There was a Charlie-Chan series broadcast in the 1930s and ‘40s, and some recordings survive; but none of the episodes is actually based on a Biggers novel. I also looked in the Samuel French Co.’s catalog of stage plays, but found no Chan script of any kind there.

I did, however, locate a screenplay from 1933, by Lester Cole and Marion Orth, which – to my delight – was based on “The House Without a Key.” Fox produced and released the movie that year (under the title “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case”), but it’s one of those early “lost” films that we will never see. So I obtained permission from 20th Century Fox, which holds the copyright, and adapted the screenplay into a one-act play script that can be performed in sixty minutes without intermission.

In this I feel I am honoring not only Biggers but the Chan character as well. He has long been popular – there were once eponymous comic strips and comic books, too – but there has also long been a contrary, disparaging opinion of him. The Hollywood version has especially galled Asian-Americans, because – one silent film excepted – he was always played by a Caucasian in “yellow-face” makeup. And by the time the last films were made, in the 1940s, the character had shrunk to little more than the cartoon version: a kow-towing, overweight Buddha whose dialog comes out of a fortune-cookie.

But that is not what Biggers created! And in my script, Chan hews close to the original conception of him. My production will be the first time this story has ever been presented on stage; and since I will cast the play with local actors, Chan will once again be portrayed by an Asian-American.

We will present “The House Without a Key” four times, here on the Big Island, giving three performances in Hilo, on March 5, 6 and 7, and one in Waikoloa, at Left Coast Crime, on March 8. I hope you all can be in the audience, next year, to enjoy this unique theatrical experience.

# # #

Hal Glatzer is a veteran mystery writer and vintage Swing-era musician who lives now on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hal recommends this website for information on the new “The House Without a Key” edition being published by Academy Chicago.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Such Language!

One of the many things that impressed me about Charles' blooper reel (below) was the plethora of salty terms employed to express frustration.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't disapprove, unless Charles intends to run for Pope someday.

(Incidentally, when he was in his thirties, my husband informed me that forevermore he was going to be perfect in all things, but after a week he realized that he couldn't stop getting smelly feet after a run, so he gave up his quest for sainthood.  But that's another story.) 

I've been known to use less than pristine epithets myself and find them extremely useful in times of stress.  In fact, the blooper reel brought to mind a dear friend of mine who I have known since my salad days at the University of Oklahoma.  At the time, he was an extraordinarily innocent boy who on frequent occasions would curl your ears with the most astoundingly filthy curses known to man.  Because of his sweet face and gentle nature, the effect of this language was much less shocking than it was hilarious, and ever since, for good or ill,  I've had quite an affection for dirty words.

I grew up among people whose goal was to curse in the most imaginative language possible, which can really increase your vocabulary if you apply yourself.  My mother was particularly good at coming up with ways to express disapproval using only G-rated words.  One of her scariest curses was "I heap coals of fire upon him."  The words themselves weren't as frightening as her throaty growl and the curl of her lip over her eyetooth.  My father had been a Marine, and knew words that I don't understand to this day, but he had a house full of little daughters and controlled his language heroically.  He often had the pee-waddin' scared out of him and wondered what in the cat-hair was going on.

When I grew up and became an English major, I came to realize that this fashion of cursing is quite Shakespearian.  Shakespeare manipulated the English language in such a joyously profane way to scorn his fellow man.  There are actually several web sites devoted to Shakespearean curses.  One of my favorites is  The author, Derek Peterman, has created a page on which he has taken nouns and adjectives from Shakespearian curses and divided them into three columns.  You take one from column A, one from column B, and one from column C, and "curse with the the best of Shakespeare."  Examples follow:

Fie, you bawdy, dog-hearted malignancy!
        you rank, onion-eyed rudesby!
        you whoreson, fat-kidneyed pantaloon!
        you knarling, rump-fed moldwarp!

Have a nice day just doesn't have the same ring.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The revision process

Last week I posted a little video clip with some practical procrastination advice for up and coming writers (See blog entry for August 22nd below). Many people wrote to me to say how smooth and professional the whole thing looked. The truth is that, like so many things, the finished product was the result of many drafts and edits. Now while I'll admit to ad libbing the whole thing, it didn't go off without a few hitches. As the following blooper reel proves, you can fix anything in the editing process.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Your repaired lightsaber is ready for pick-up.

Vicki, try this:

Go out for a good long walk or drive -- and you have the weather and location to really enjoy that today.

Just empty your mind out. Try to get your consciousness "only into the present", no thinking about anything in the past or future. (Staring out at something really helps here.) DO NOT think about your new project!

Within a short space of time, your brain will begin to work on its own and you might very well find the inspiration you're lacking.

I often find this is the way to get moving again. Since I have to start and stop so much with my writing, this is the only thing that has kept me with a modicum of sanity, and so far it's never failed.

Occasionally it takes longer, sometimes even a day goes by, but the answer has always come eventually.

One other dodge that at least allows you to feel as if you haven't wasted your entire writing time, is to move on to a scene you envision farther down the line. I also make it a habit of writing "backstory" stuff that will never be in the ms but gives me valuable information about the make up of a character in the story: a seminal incident from childhood, for instance.

Hope this helps. If it doesn't, you've at least enjoyed a nice day out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Lightsaber's Broken

Darn! I was planning on doing a video talk about procrastination, but wouldn’t you know it, someone got there first. I can’t do it now – everyone’s doing it!

So I’ll write about writers’ block instead.

A creative writing teacher of mine once said: There is no such thing as plumber’s block. She meant that if you are a plumber, and you have a job to do, you do it. Without waiting for inspiration or the muse to take you by the hand and guide you to that blocked toilet. Writing is also a job. So go ahead and do it. An opinion I have always agreed with. As Yoda says, do or do not. There is no try.

Today, for what I think is the first time EVER I couldn’t write a word. Sure I’ve had days where my writing might have been better, and has to be reworked. Days when I didn’t write because I didn’t feel like it, although they are rare. But today I sat and stared at my computer screen. And nothing came.

Let me step back a bit and give you some details.

I have finished the second draft of the aforementioned Smith and Winters book #3. It has gone to a friend of mine for critique. At this point, I won’t look at the work until I get it back from her, and then perhaps not for some weeks after that. In On Writing, Stephen King wrote that you need to distance yourself from your work before reviewing it once again. He suggests six weeks, and I find that’s always worked well for me. After that six to eight weeks passes, I’ll edit the book again. Gold Digger is at my editor, and I am waiting for it to come back with her suggestions, so I know how the mind of my new publisher works, before I start thinking again about Gold Fever, the second in the Klondike Mystery series. I write because I like to write, certainly not for fame and fortune. So in the interim I have an idea that I’d like to explore for something completely different from what I’ve done before. I started on Sunday. Put my thoughts down in bits and bytes, filled out some rough character sketches, wrote a time line of the family involved. And then I wrote the first scene. All in all a good day’s work.

This morning I simply couldn’t get into it. I felt like a superhero character whose powers have suddenly left her. And so, I gave up.

I’ve been thinking about it all day. Wondering what’s going on. The first part of a new book is usually the easiest, ideas hitting me left and right, so fast my fingers can barely keep up.

Today, nada. Tell me, Obi Wan, will I ever get my powers back?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Guest author Roberta Isleib

Our guest author this Sunday is Roberta Isleib, author of at least five Golf-Lover Mysteries (one even takes place in Hawaii!) and three Advice Column mysteries. Roberta is also president of Sisters in Crime National and a clinical psychologist. When Roberta speaks, I listen. Enjoy!

Are any of you bleary-eyed from watching the Olympics the way I am? I haven’t run, jumped, or swum one step and I’m exhausted! But one of the neat things about the coverage is the focus on sports psychology and how important the mind is for training and winning. I spent a fair amount of time studying this subject when I first became obsessed with golf and writing my golf mystery series.

Ten years later, my golf dreams have receded, replaced by dreams about making it big as a writer. Did I waste my time chasing down wisdom from the sports pros? Not at all! In fact, I use many of their tips to help manage the ambitions and fears of my writing life—and my “regular” life as well.

Dr. Richard Keefe, clinical psychologist and author of On the Sweet Spot, explained that winning a big tournament changes your life financially. “That practical reality aside,” said Keefe, “most players have dreamed about winning since childhood. They can’t stop thinking about what it would be like to win. And that is exactly the worst mindset for good golf.” His advice? Develop a pre-shot routine that kicks in on the tee, quieting the caucus in your mind. Translation to writing: Write every morning on the same computer, at the same desk, the same dog at my feet.

Golf psychologist Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, told me that the greatest pressure is generated by the prestige or ego status involved with the prospect of winning a big tournament. “Hope and fear crescendo at the same time,” said Parent. “Players hope to win the tournament and the benefits that come with it, while at the same time, they fear blowing the opportunity. The combination produces tension and stress.” Parent counseled “firing your own inner evil caddie.” Translation to writing: I give myself permission to write a lousy first draft, roughing the story out first and fixing the words later.

Dr. Shane Murphy, author of The Achievement Zone, counsels elite athletes to break down their goals into specific process, rather than product-oriented steps. They are directed to focus less on winning and more on improving their performance independent of scores. Translation to writing: I map out daily and weekly word-count goals on my calendar, and reward myself when I reach them.

And finally, sports psychologist Dr. Bea Epstein-Shepard told me: “Your subconscious mind is looking for big opportunities.” She suggested identifying big goals and then literally making these aspirations concrete: Paste them on the wall to give the imagination and subconscious a goal, and then set them aside to concentrate on the small steps that might bring you closer to those goals. Translation to writing: I keep a photograph of the winner of the 2006 Edgar award for best mystery novel and a copy of the New York Times bestseller list pinned on the wall above my desk. And then I move on to the writing.

But every once in while, I imagine the gown that I’ll wear to the ceremony…

Clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib’s third advice column mystery, ASKING FOR MURDER (Berkley), will be published on September 2.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

How Do They Come Up With Them?

I feel like the dweeb of the century having to follow Charles' author talk (it'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, because it's spot on) with nasty old printed words, but we all have to do the best we can with what talents we've been given, however feeble.  So I'll gamely continue with the theme of book titles, head held high.

Titles have been one of the banes of my authorly existence since my first mystery was published.  As my blogging compatriots have demonstrated so well, choosing the perfect title for your book is incredibly difficult and incredibly important.  Mystery author Elizabeth Gunn writes a popular police procedural set in Minnesota, featuring detective Jake Hines.  All the Jake Hines titles incorporate a number : Triple Play, Five Card Stud, Crazy Eights.  You get the idea.  Last year, Elizabeth began a new procedural series set in Tucson, the title of the first being Cool in Tucson.  She told me that it has outsold her others by a large margin, and take it from me, all of her books are top quality. She said she will never underestimate the value of a good title again.  

My first book is called The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and well may you ask why.  When I first decided to shop the book around to agents and publishers, my first priority for a title was that it be eye-catching. All I cared about was that the title stand out from the zillions of others that were on the publisher’s desk.  I wanted something descriptive, different, and ethnic, and this seemed to fit the bill.  I did not for a minute expect that whoever decided to publish the book would keep the title. 

Imagine my surprise when they did.  I had mixed feelings about it at the time.  I wondered if, to use Debby’s words, it wasn’t “too cute by half”.  But in the end, my publisher made a good business decision.  I can’t tell you how many times readers told me that they picked up the book based on the title alone.  Of course, I’ve had a number of people tell me that the title put them off.  You can’t please everybody.

One problem with choosing a title like Buzzard,  is that you feel compelled to keep finding titles in the same vein for the rest of the books in the series.  Now every time I write another “Alafair Tucker” mystery, I spend many weeks trying out prospective titles on friends and relatives, judging  titleworthiness by the look in their eyes.

My second book is called Hornswoggled. It’s an old word, but I was amazed that so few people know what the heck it means.  This was my first inkling that perhaps I grew up speaking an obscure dialect of the English language.  The third in my series is The Drop Edge of Yonder.  No, it doesn’t mean far, far away.  It means ‘the brink of death’.  Not one single person I tested this title on knew what it meant, except for blood relatives and Texans. Therefore, I was stunned to discover that a book with exactly the same title was published six months after mine came out. (The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudy Wurlitzer, who has written many books and screenplays, including Little Buddha.) 

I don’t care, really, if the potential reader knows what the title means, only that she wonder about it enough to find out.

My fourth book, which will be out in January of ’09, is called The Sky Took Him.  This is something one of the characters says.  Last weekend, I attended an author event at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, where I met fellow Oklahoman and latest star of the literary galaxy, Carolyn Wall.  Carolyn’s story of how she came to be picked up by a major publishing house is amazing, but  since we’re talking about titles, I’ll stick with that  for the moment.  Her new book is Sweeping Up Glass, which is a phrase from the story, and she says that she chose it at the last possible moment because she had to come up with something.  Yet it worked like gangbusters.

I am currently working on my fifth book, if ‘working’ is the right word.  More like ‘agonizing’.  But I digress.  The working title is Book 5.  I am still at the stage of testing titles on innocent and unsuspecting friends.  I thought perhaps I had come up with a title, until I mentioned it at a recent social gathering.  “Widdershins” I said, feeling proud of myself, until I saw the light go out of every eye in the room.  There’s a difference between choosing a title that is baffling but intriguing and one that’s just baffling.  But I’ve got a good one in mind now.  Just you wait.

And now I’m off to read Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen.  Now there’s a title.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Author talk

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Titles and Grammar (again)

Titles are tough, but some perverse part of me enjoys coming up with them. Kind of like finding that elusive word in the morning paper’s crossword puzzle. Not that I’m all that good at that, either.

I love the title Burden of Memory, which tells us something about the book. Doesn’t everyone have a burdensome memory, which may be an act we hope no one ever knows about? Good stuff for a mystery. Same with In the Shadow of the Glacier. Glacier? That’s scary already.

I never liked the title of my first book, Primitive Secrets, though I was trying (too?) hard to fit the title to the story I was trying to tell. And it seemed to come across as a little forced. I thought the title to my second book, The Green Room, was perfect because it’s a surf term, and the mystery takes place during a big surfing contest on Oahu’s North Shore. I should have known if I thought it was brilliant there would be a pitfall. Sure enough, DUH, non-TV person that I am, I forgot that the green room is also a place where a guest waits to go on the air. I’ve never been sure if the double meaning, as it turned out, was a good or bad thing.

Someone—and it may have been Barbara Peters—told me once that a title mentioning snakes is a bad idea. Not that I’ve been writing about snakes, but it could happen. (We don’t have any snakes in Hawai‘i, and people are working hard to keep it that way.) There are plenty of other frightening creatures, though, some with fins, some with legs—usually two.

Fire Prayer is the title of the third book, which refers to a type of Hawaiian sorcery. The word prayer is sort of a pun, as it’s used to mean both the plea and the supplicant. The next book, coming out early ’09, is called Pleasing the Dead. Because one of the characters is, well, you’ll find out. I hope people like it—the title and the book.

On another, but word-related topic, not long ago I was scanning DorothyL and came across a discussion/argument on the use of the word bad. As in, “I felt bad.” An author wrote that the word bad is an adverb, so the above sentence should be written, “I felt badly.” To me, the latter example meant that the speaker would be a wash-up at Braille.

So I looked it up, and here’s what I found. The following example came from my kids’ school’s website, where there is an excellent source of questions and answers pertaining to English usage. In case you want it, the link is:
This information is corroborated by another of my favorite grammar books, Woe is I, by Patricia T. O’Connor. Now that’s a title I can appreciate!

Whereas action verbs require adverbs ("I run slowly"), linking verbs (to be, to become, to feel, to seem) require predicate adjectives. Often people mistakenly use adverbs with to feel:
WRONG: I feel badly. RIGHT: I feel bad.
To act can be an action verb, requiring an adverb, or a linking verb, requiring a predicate adjective:
ACTION VERB: The Oscar winner acted brilliantly.
LINKING VERB: I acted innocent, but Mom knew I had broken her vase.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What makes, or doesn’t make, a good title?

The picture to your left explains why I didn’t post last week – I was on a weeklong canoeing trip in Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario. I had a great time, but we could have done with a bit less rain.

We talked recently about book covers and I thought I’d now tackle the subject of titles. Not-coincidently because I’m trying to come up with a good title for the book now in progress that so far has the captivating working title of Smith and Winters #3.

When I asked if others had trouble with their titles, Rick said, Yes and No. A good answer, because that’s the way I’ve found it. When I wrote the line about the dog snapping at the flashlight beam to scare the light away, I knew immediately I had my title, but generally they’ve been more work than that.

I loved the title of one of Anna Shreve’s books, Weight of Water, so I played with those words and came up with Weight of Memory. Which simply didn’t work until I thought of Burden – Burden of Memory.

The title of the first Smith and Winters came really easily to me. At the place I was working they were putting a lot of emphasis on a method of testing computer systems called Use Cases. Test Case! The perfect title for a book about a rookie police officer and her first big case.

Wait! Wait! You’re saying. I didn’t read a book of yours called Test Case. That’s because my editor thought it sounded like a medical mystery. So out went Test Case and we spent some time tossing various ideas back and forth until we settled on In the Shadow of the Glacier.

I knew I had my title for the second Smith and Winters last winter when someone told me that Nelson, B.C. (the real-life town that inspired Trafalgar) was called by the Natives, Valley of Lost Souls. It turns out that that fact isn’t actually true, but it gave me a great title. Valley of the Lost.

So what makes a good title: I’d guess it’s a bit like pornography – I know it when I see it. One of my favourite titles ever is Rick Blechta’s Cemetery of the Nameless. It just works so well. It sounds good and gives an aura of mystery (the word Cemetery) and causes the reader to ask a question: why are there nameless people in a cemetery?

And then there is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Wish I’d thought of that one.

One word titles can be very effective, as can titles with one word after The... I think of The Alienist. Super title. Or The Stone Angel (yes, two words but you get the drift). On the other hand, although I greatly enjoyed, and would highly recommend, The Dells by Michael Blair, I was a bit put off by the title, perhaps because Dell has little or no meaning. (I did have a computer called a Dell once – you probably don’t want a title that reminds people of unpleasant experiences).

What makes a poor title? Generally I don’t like titles that begin with prepositions. I think they sound too pretentions. Of course In the Shadow of the Glacier begins with a preposition; perhaps that’s why I was never all that crazy about that title.

As a reader, I have pretty definite ideas about what I like and don’t like, and I wouldn’t ever pick up a book with a pun in the title. Snap judgement: too cutsey by half. But that’s just me, and perhaps I’ve missed some good books that way.
I’ve read a lot of books with the word Murder in the title, but that is something I’ll always avoid using. It immediately assigns your book to a genre pile and might well turn off people who think they don’t like “murder mysteries” but they’re willing to try suspense or adventure or thrillers. Plus, if I may be so bold, it indicates (to me) a considerable lack of imagination.

Have you ever seen a Poisoned Pen Press book using the word Murder in the title? I don’t think there is one. Barbara has a list of words she won’t use in a title. A new entry to the list is ‘scare’. Because Scare the Light Away did have problems as a title. I met quite a few people at book signings who told me they wouldn’t like the book because they don’t read horror. It’s hardly horror! The light in this case refers to shining the light on the past, and the character not wanting to learn the secrets of her family. And if people told me they were turned off by the title I hate to think of how many by-passed it in the shelves.

Gold Digger was Golddigger from the very beginning; the spelling was only changed so it would look better on the cover. The next in the Klondike series is titled Gold Fever. I hope I haven’t gotten myself into a trap. Trying to come up with a good title for the thirtieth book in the series with the word Gold in it might present a problem.

So back to the original question. The new book takes place in the winter, in the mountains, and there is a lot of skiing involved. My thesaurus is wearing thin looking for synonyms for winter in the mountains. Umm... Winter in the Mountains by Vicki Delany? Nah.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thinking a different way

I was out of town this past weekend, spending some time with a group of good friends that only gets together once a year. While the cottage did have dial-up, I chose to forego using that since it would have meant using someone else's computer.

That's not to say that I didn't have a laptop. I did, my wife's great little MacBook. But I also brought two of my favourite fountain pens and a journal filled with very fountain pen-friendly paper.

What made the weekend's writing interesting (You mean you went to spend a weekend in one of Canada's most chi-chi recreation areas, the Muskokas, and you spent the time working on a book? Are you nuts?), is that I bounced back and forth between modern technology and technology that's much, much older. I'd get up early (I'm an early riser), go out on one of the decks and use the computer, generally working fast on scenes I'd already doped out doing some thinking as I'd gotten ready for bed the previous evening. (I was very circumspect with the wine.)

Later on in the morning, I'd take advantage of the weather, going down to the dock, pen and journal in hand and work on another scene while I looked out at the water. These scenes weren't generally as well mapped out. After lunch, I'd get the morning's work into the computer, and either continue on with the computer for awhile, or head back down to the dock for more manual writing.

It surprised me on Monday morning, as I looked over the weekend's output, I actually produced more final copy in the journal. Now I can type pretty quickly and accurately (thank you, Mavis Beacon) and being left-handed, I write slower than average. What happened?

My best guess leads me to believe that I write more succinctly and clearly by hand. Since it takes more effort, I tend to consider what I'm trying to say a bit more and write more "tightly" out of the gate. On computer, my thoughts tend to roll out without any sort of throttle and I wind up having to work over each paragraph a lot more before I'm satisfied. I also like working by hand a bit more, too. There's a greater feeling of accomplishment, as dumb as that sounds. Being able to use a nice fountain pen makes it all the better.

Is there anyone out there who still works occasionally with pen and paper? Do you find the same thing is true for you? Has anyone written a complete manuscript by hand?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Real to Reel with Roger M Sobin

Today’s guest blogger is Roger M. Sobin, author of The Essential Mystery Lists: For Readers, Collectors, and Librarians, published by Poisoned Pen Press, December 2007. It has been nominated for the Anthony and Macavity nonfiction mystery awards. Roger also writes a column in Mystery News, "Real to Reel." He has written for (Give me That) Old-Time Detection magazine. Roger is a true mystery lover and today he tells us about his hobby of comparing books and the movies made from them in a program he calls “Real to Reel”. You can send Roger an e-mail at or have a look at his web page

The table of books/movies/dates didn't turn out too well on the blog page, but hopefully you can still get something out of it.

"Real to Real" Program – Sharing an idea . . .
By Roger M. Sobin

For the past (almost) eight years, my wife and I have hosted a gathering once a month called "Real to Reel." This play on words is to say: we read a "real" book and then watch a "reel" movie that has been created from the story. At first we met at a local Barnes & Nobel Bookstore, but after a couple of years they kicked us out because they needed the space for other purposes. So we moved to our home. We have eighteen in our group and fourteen or more are at every gathering (vacations, work, etc. seem to take two or three away some months).

This program and the discipline/commitment by the folks involved, is tremendous. I would like to share a bit on how we approach the idea and carry out the program in hopes that some of you might take some of our ideas and create something for yourselves and friends.

Meeting time: Usually the first or second Friday night of the month, 7 p.m. (try and gather about fifteen minutes early to set up). We meet in our home, with 50-inch screen, and use DVDs as the source. Folks are asked to bring a movie snack/food to share (a must). In the early days, we discussed books/films to watch, but sometimes found it difficult to decide on a title. Now the group allows me to select the titles and I try to keep a balance in the selections. Friday: 7:10 p.m. I give a brief introduction. We usually take a break in the middle of the film. Then after the film, we have a discussion of the film and book. I usually talk with several members in the group on selecting titles, send out the information via e-mail and include purchasing, library, and ordering suggestions for that title. On some of the older titles, out of print, and (used book section) have been helpful. Yet, many older titles are still in print in later additions.

Handout sheet: For each book/film I create a handout sheet of 8 to 12 pages. Use of, web searches on the author, films are used. Some photos and film lobby cards, posters are added for creativity (from the web). The handout sheet is e-mailed the Sunday night prior to the Friday we gather. From the IMDB web site, I restructure information from: Plot Outline, Cast, Crew, Trivia, Memorable Quotes, Taglines, User Comments, External Reviews (professional), Awards, Plot Summary, Plot Keywords, Goofs, Filming Locations, Photographs. (If you go to the web site, you will see these terms on the left side of their web page.) In other words, I do not write a paper on the material, I use items from the web.

Also, I search for information on the author, list of their writings, try to find a picture of them, a review of the book, sometimes even check or read a bit from a biography of their life, etc.

We tried the play, The Petrified Forest (1935) by Robert Sherwood, obtained copies, and enjoyed the re-mastered 1936 film with Humphrey Bogart and Betty Davis. They really enjoyed reading the play. Many screenplays are available online, free.

Short stories are another possibility. For example, we have used Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox (1937) that was made into the 1939 classic Stagecoach with John Wayne. Also, Duel by Richard Matheson which was Steven Spielberg's early classic film made originally for TV.

Why a Real to Reel approach? This event opens up the reading of many older books. In our situation, probably no one would have read any of the books we have used – on their own. We have stayed away from most newer films for three reasons: A) many people have seen newer films recently, B) do not want to be any competition with movie theaters, and C) some newer films have heavy, or very adult subject matter that can embarrass some folks. Try to be sensitive.

Concerns: Getting over the fact that in almost every case, the book and the film will have differences and in some cases the film version makes many major changes. This bothered some folks at first, but now they have worked through that.

Films: Over half are mystery, crime fiction, adventure, espionage, thriller types. Some titles are selected for seasonal reasons. Others for a change of pace. Every March is baseball month for me (I go to spring training for 10 days) and we have watched a baseball theme film. Christmas time, use of a film that has that theme. When the Pope died, we read/watched: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West. People in the group offer suggestions to me and I keep a list. Sometimes, when an older film has been re-mastered and released on DVD, we will go with it (like In a Lonely Place, June 2007; Von Ryan's Express, July 2007). I try to use DVDs and several times have recorded films from Turner Classic Movies. The reason I like to obtain the DVD is for the director or historical commentary track. Sometimes there are special shorts on the film, actors, writers, and subject matter. I always watch those in advance and try to share a bit of the helpful information to the group.

A comment on the handout sheet that I create for each title. I do not write a paper or do personal writing, instead, I use the sources I mention above and enhance those sources.

OFFER: if any of you would like to view an example of the handout sheets, e-mail me ( and I will send you one. Also, if you would like to be on my e-mail list to receive them each month, let me know and I will see about adding you to the bulk mailing list.

I now write a column in Mystery News (a mystery fan magazine) called "Real to Reel," and in each issue, I write about one book/film. So far I have written articles on: Laura, The Petrified Forest, To Russia With Love, In a Lonely Place, The Mask of Fu Manchu, and the Eye of the Needle will be sent in by September 2.

Here are some of the titles we have used in our monthly program gathering; underlined are those in the mystery, adventure, espionage, thriller area (60 percent):

Done Title Author Publish date Film date

Accidental Tourist, The Tyler, Anne 1985 1988
Adventures of Robin Hood, The writings 1938
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Gillette, William (play) 1890 1985
Advise and Consent Drury, Allen 1959 1962
African Queen, The Forester, C. S. 1935 1951
Alexander's Ragtime Band screenplay 1938
All the King's Men Warren, Robert Penn 1946 1949
All the President's Men Bernstein & Woodward 1974 1976
Amadeus (Mozart) screenplay 1984
Americanization of Emily, The Huie, William B. 1959 1964
An Affair to Remember screenplay 1957
And Then There Were None Christie, Agatha 1939 1945
Andromeda Strain, The Crichton, Michael 1969 1971
Bang the Drum Slowly Harris, Mark 1965 1973
Big Sleep, The Chandler, Raymond 19391944/46
Breakfast at Tiffany's Capote, Truman 1958 1961
Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Wilder, Thornton 1927 1944
Chocolat Harris, Joanne 1999 2000
Coma Cook, Robin 1977 1978
Contact Sagan, Carl 1985 1997
Count of Monte Cristo, The Dumas, Alexander 1845 1934
Day of the Jackal, The Forsyth, Frederick 1971 1973
Dead Reckoning screenplay 1947
Death on the Nile Christie, Agatha 1937 1978
Double Indemnity Cain, James M. 1936 1944
Duel (short story) Matheson, Richard 1971 1971
Eye of the Needle Follett, Ken 1978 1981
Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury, Ray 1951 1966
Field of Dreams (Shoeless Joe) Kinsella, W. P. 1982 1989
Four Feathers, The Mason, A E W 1902 1939
From Russia, With Love Fleming, Ian 1957 1963
Gentlemen's Agreement Hobson, Laura Z. 1947 1947
Girl With the Pearl Earring Chevalier, Tracy 1998 2003
Glass Key, The Hammett, Dashiell 1931 1942
Good Earth, The Buck, Pearl 1931 1937
Great Train Robbery, The Crichton, Michael 1975 1979
In a Lonely Place Hughes, Dorothy B. 1947 1950
Inherit the Wind (play) Lawrence & Lee 1955 1960
Jane Eyre Brontë, Charlotte 1847 1944
King Solomon's Mines Haggard, Rider 1885 1950
Lady in the Lake, The Chandler, Raymond 1943 1947
Laura Caspary, Vera 1943 1944
Lost Horizon Hilton, James 1933 1937
Lust for Life (Vincent van Gogh) Stone, Irving 1945 1956
Maltese Falcon, The Hammett, Dashiell 1929 1941
Man from the Alamo Busch, Crawford 1953 1953
Mask of Fu Manchu, The Rohmer, Sax 1932 1932
Miracle on 34th Street Davies, Valentine 1947 1947
Mrs. Miniver Struther, Jan 1940 1942
Natural, The Malamud, Bernard 1952 1984
On the Beach Shute, Nevil 1957 1959
Petrified Forest, The (play) Sherwood, Robert 1935 1936
Picture of Dorian Gray, The Wilde, Oscar 1891 1945
Postman Always Rings Twice, The Cain, James M. 1934 1946
Rear Window (short story) Cornell Woolrich 1942 1954
Rebecca du Maurier, Daphne 1938 1940
Red Violin, The screenplay 1998
Riders of the Purple Sage Grey, Zane 1912 1996
Saint Maybe Tyler, Anne 1991 1998
Shane Schaefer, Jack 1949 1953
Shoes of the Fisherman, The West, Morris 1962 1968
Simon Birch (A Prayer for Owen Meany) Irving, John 1990 1998
Somewhere in Time (Bid Time Return) Matheson, Richard 1975 1980
Spirit of St. Louis, The Lindbergh, Charles 1953 1957
Stagecoach (Stage to Lordsburg) Haycox, Ernest 1937 1939
Strangers on a Train Highsmith, Patricia 1950 1951
Talented Mr. Ripley, The Highsmith, Patricia 1955 1999
Thin Man, The Hammett, Dashiell 1934 1934
To Have and Have Not Hemingway, Ernest 1937 1944
To Kill a Mockingbird Lee, Harper 1960 1962
Topkapi (The Light of Day) Ambler, Eric 1962 1964
Treasure of the Sierra Madre Traven, B. 1927 1948
Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Smith, Betty 1943 1945
Von Ryan's Express Westheimer, David 1964 1965
War of the Worlds, The Wells, H.G. 1898 1953
Witness for the Prosecution Christie, Agatha 1925/53 1957

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Big Read

Early last week I got an email from the assistant director of the Phoenix West Valley Arts Council asking me if I'd be interested in participating in the 2nd Big Read in September and October. This is a program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  The program chooses a classic book - last year it was To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee - and brings in several writers to do lectures around town, at libraries and bookstores.  Last year, she tells me, they held over 60 events throughout the metro area, which if you will remember, Dear Reader, is pretty big.  (There are only some five and a half million people in Arizona, but three and a half million of them live in the Phoenix area.)

This year, the selected book is The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.  The Arts Council is bringing in Hammett's biographer, Richard Layman, as well as authors Bruce Hale, William Kent Krueger, and my friend Jon Talton, to present programs.  

Ms. Bernadette Mills, the aforementioned assistant director, informs me that they are looking for someone local that specializes in mystery/crime fiction, and Jon Talton recommended that they contact me to see if I would be interested.  Which I would, thank you very much, Jon.

My participation has not been finalized yet, so I don't know exactly what will occur, but I expect a busy couple of months.  Which brings me to my point.  I find that I am being asked to speak a lot more in the last year or so, for which I am very grateful.  But the more time I spend promoting, the less time I spend writing. Talks, workshops, and programs take hours of prep time that have to come from somewhere, and your choices, as Charles pointed out in yesterday's post, are : a) your job, b) your family, c) your social life, d) your sleep.  An awful number of authors choose d), which may be why so many are pale, hollow-eyed creatures who hallucinate a lot.  Of course, maybe it's good for the writing to disengage the rational mind and simply babble on, rather like I'm doing right now.  You be the judge, Dear Reader.

Back to the matter at hand, if you would like to learn more about NEA's Big Read program, and perhaps consider instituting one in your community, the web site is  I'll let you know what happens on this end.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Roger that

And it’s Charles’ Time.

It was one of those days, part of one of those weeks. The pressures at work were intense, things were crazy busy at home, and I had little time to write for myself, and when I did write I was lucky to get 100 words down before something pulled me away or if I did write like a fiend I’d read it over the next day and realize it was so bad and so off target that the only humane thing to do was put it down. We all have these days/ weeks/ months/ lifetimes, and the writers in the house will agree that the toughest part about getting through a patch like this is that you start feeling like a person who used to be a writer. Then something happens that brings a little of that 'I really am a writer' feeling back. My something was a quick note from my editor, the esteemed Barbara Peters, forwarding a blog review of my first book fellow author Timothy Hallinan had sent her.

“He can do everything: write clean, clear narrative; create engaging, wholly individual characters; transport you physically to settings as diverse as Cairo, Singapore, and Pottstown, Pennsylvania (it’s about as glamorous as it sounds); set a breakneck pace that makes perfect sense given the story and never once feels forced; and make the reader laugh out loud an unreasonable number of times.”

When you’re in the grinder, it’s hard to remember that yes, you are a writer—and a darn good one. This one little paragraph helped me remember. In her email to me, Barbara calls Mr. Hallinan “a great writer”, and that qualifier made his comments all the more meaningful.

And at the same time, the email made me feel even more frustrated. Why don’t I spend more time writing, why aren’t I doing more to promote myself, why can’t I just say no to all those distractions that keep me from finishing the next book? The answer was equally frustrating—that’s just the way it is. Jobs are demanding, and as I’ve become fond of things like eating and electricity, I’ll be sticking on. My hectic social life? What do I give up—my friends, my family, exercising, playing my saxophone, my share of the housework?

There’s a guy I work with, let's call him Roger because that's his name, who just never seems to get frazzled. The work piles on and yeah, he’s not thrilled about it, but he has this ability to manage it all with a quiet, focused determination. Yesterday, I was feeling crushed by the work I’m juggling. Then I chatted with Roger and heard what was on his plate. I was amazed at how cool he was about it all. Then I realized how many non-frazzable people I work with, people who live lives just as busy as mine if not more so—some with kids thrown in the mix and that, as we all knows, really messes things up. So my moment of insight was a bit anti-climatic—we’re all busy and we’re all doing the best we can, and the goal is to do it all with a sense of style and grace, and, at my age, I still have a lot to learn from folks a lot younger than me. Like Roger.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Unintended Research or Waking Up to the End of the World

I had a weekend that was far too interesting.

On Sunday at 3:45 a.m., my wife and I were jolted awake by a HUGE clap of thunder. Or perhaps something at the hydro substation down the street had exploded yet again. I thought to myself, Maybe the whole thing went up this time because the house actually actually shook that time. Then I thought, No, that was thunder but it hit really close. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

It was some storm, thunder over and over, but most of the time in the distance, occasionally one closer. Then it dawned on me: there's no lightning and the thunder isn't echoing across the sky.

Getting out of bed, I slid the curtains back. North and west from us there was a pretty large fire burning. We have a second storey bedroom and the flames were well above the houses and trees. My wife got out of bed and stood next to me. All of a sudden there was a huge fireball, several hundred metres high and another terrific boom. I don't remember what I said, but I'm sure it's not printable here.

The angle from which we were viewing this conflagration made it look as if the smaller explosions were trailing off into the distance, the largest one being the closest.

A chill ran down my spine and all thoughts of terrible thoughts began racing through my head. Did one of those big planes go down? Was it a terrorist attack? Were we being invaded?

Turning on the radio, I couldn't find a thing about it, and that made it seem like a Twilight Zone moment. The world was coming to an end and nobody else was noticing.

By now, though, we could hear sirens all around us as the explosions went on and on, some small, but a couple nearly as huge as that big one. Stunned is the only way I can describe the way we both felt. All I know is that if the explosions came any closer, we were outta there. The other thing we both felt is that people were dying, perhaps hundreds of them, and it was sickening.

Gradually, it dawned on me that all the explosions were coming from one place and we finally heard on the radio that a gas station was on fire. (Turned out that was wildly wrong.)

The upshot is that we were about 2 miles south of where that propane depot exploded and we were never in any danger. Only one person died (a fireman, probably from a heart attack) and an employee of the depot who was on site is missing, presumed dead. There was no downed airplane, no terrorists, no aliens or invaders.

But now I know what it feels like to be on the edge of oblivion, to think that maybe someone is dropping bombs and that maybe the next one is coming down on you.

I'll file those feelings away, maybe even use them in the book I'm writing (I was already toying with the idea of a bomb blast.), but I'm also going to be thinking of WW2 when both sides were dumping thousands of bombs on cities every night, of those poor people in Georgia who are dealing with Russians invading them, of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of any place on earth where you can wake up to the sound of your death approaching.

What remaining hair I have is probably two shades whiter today.

Here's a photo of the biggest blast which happened shortly after we opened the curtain:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Judy Starbuck,

Want to be a mystery writer? You've got to pay your dues, just like today's guest blogger, the deliciously named Judy Starbuck.
A Story in Three Acts
By Judy Starbuck

I am thrilled to be a part of this terrific group of authors. So much so that when Donis asked me at lunch one day if I’d like to contribute to this blog, I spilled my ice tea all over her. Something tells me this better be good. Now I have to follow my friend, Hannah Dennison and her terrific guest column. Since I don’t drink cheap red wine like Hannah mentions (although, if I did, it would be cheap), I’ll have to rely on other vices. I guess having a library of books throughout my home qualifies as my indulgence. And that’s really how my story began.

I’ll borrow an example from the often-cited three-act structure of story writing to describe how I became a writer.

Act I – Get the girl up a tree.
Scene I – I walked into the Poisoned Pen bookstore. Like the children who entered Narnia through the wardrobe, I found an enchanting new world. The owner, Barbara Peters, hosted fascinating speaking events for a variety of writers and offered a store-full of diverse mysteries. Thanks to Patrick, Lorri, and John, the store was such a pleasure to frequent that I became a groupie in no time.
Scene II - About a year after I found the Poisoned Pen, my husband, Mike, said, “You should write a mystery. It’s probably not hard.” (That statement still makes me weak.) So I took classes, joined a writers’ group, and persevered.
Scene III - Then, at a Poisoned Pen signing, I met Carolyn Hart, the prolific author of three mystery series. She has become a mentor and guardian angel to me, and I’m sure without her sage advice and gentle encouragement, my enthusiasm would have waned several years ago. I finished my book, a traditional mystery, then titled ABC Death, which addressed some unsettling issues in today’s schools.

Act II – Throw rocks at the girl.
Scene I - Rocks came at me in the form of critiques, agent rejections, and editor rejections. For example, the front end was loaded with backstory, the hook wasn’t strong enough, and the protagonist was reactive, rather than pro-active. What could I do to enhance my school mystery other than throw it off a cliff? I decided to spice it up, adding a new ingredient to my soup (to borrow Donis’s metaphor).
Scene II - My interest in handwriting analysis started years earlier so I decided to learn more about it. I studied under graphologist Irene Levitt, author of Brain Writing. We became friends and eventually I asked her for a favor. I had discovered my birth mother several years before, but she had already passed away before I could meet her. I wanted to know what personality traits her handwriting indicated, since my half-siblings had differing assessments of her. Irene studied my birth mother’s writing and gave me an insightful description. I realized that I had to use graphology as a tool for detection in my mysteries. So I bought Sheila Lowe’s Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis. That poor book is now dog-eared and marked up, but it’s been worth a hundred times its original value to me.
Scene III – I had lunch with Sheila Lowe. Penguin has published Sheila’s first handwriting mystery, Poison Pen, and her second, Written in Blood, will be out in August. Sheila helped me immeasurably by recommending a wonderful woman, Ellen Larson, whom she had used to edit her book. Thanks to Ellen’s insightful edits, which came in boulder-sized proportions, I earned an M.A. in revisions (in my own estimation). My mystery is now titled Felon’s Claw, and each chapter begins with a handwriting stroke, and the personality trait it demonstrates. Some examples I use are:
“If your o’s and a’s are wide open, your mouth probably is, too.”
“ A wide y or g below the baseline indicates a strong sex drive.”
“If you have a writing sample with an extreme right slant, and heavy pressure to boot, run for cover. This person can go ballistic.”

Act III – Get girl down from tree.
Scene I - Things began to look better after I added handwriting analysis to the mix. But I needed one more ingredient. Since adoption has been such a significant part of my life, I decided to take a course offered by the Arizona Supreme Court to become certified as a Confidential Intermediary. That officious title means I am sanctioned by the state to reunite family members separated through adoption, but only if they are 21 years of age or older, and the reunion is agreeable to both parties. The CI course opened an understanding of the many detours these searches can take.
Scene II - In the CI course I met two sisters, Judy and Kristen, who are private investigators as well as being CIs. They have written a wonderful book entitled Back to the Beginning, which relates stories of many of the reunions they have handled. I highly recommend it. Judy and Kristen have become resources for investigative ideas, as well as devious plots, creative sleuthing, and lively humor. The knowledge I gained from the CI course and the investigative ideas my PI friends have shared have added enough spice to make my book significantly better.
Scene III – Since I began writing, I have had one newspaper article and two short stories published, worked with two agents, written three books, and received twelve rejections. With any luck, I’m on my way down the tree.

Before I write The End, I have to put in a plug for Sisters in Crime. What a great organization. Together we work hard to support one another’s projects, and to offer good speakers and programs.

For better or worse, I’ve had a wonderful time, and found myself in a nurturing community of friends. Thank you, Donis, for this opportunity, and I guess this is finally The End.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rites of Passage

Reading about all this senseless violence gives me a chill.  People are capable of such awful things, and there is no sense to be made of it.  Why do people do what they do?  How is it that when presented with identical situations, one person rises to the occasion and another is ruined by it. One person is hardly affected by violence and another is changed forever.  Someone brings violence upon himself and another becomes a victim for no reason at all.

We've talked before on this blog about why readers like mystery novels, and noted that perhaps it's because even if the killer isn't arrested and brought before the law, justice is usually done in the end.  It's more complex than that, I think.  Unlike real life, in a mystery novel, at least we get an answer.  A well written mystery isn't about an act of violence.  The murder is just a device, a catalyst for the real story.  It's the crucible that tests the characters, especially the sleuth.  The story is a exploration of the human psyche, and if it's done well, it can give the reader a real insight into human nature.  And as a bonus, there is a resolution.  We know why he done it.

My husband and I often wax philosophical about why this shoot-em-up mentality is so prevalent in our society, and we've come up with the theory that it's partially because young men no longer have any sort of rite of passage.  They don't have to undergo an ordeal in order to join the society of men, like Native American youngsters did, or Australian Aborigines.  Nobody teaches boys what it is to be a man any more, so they use television and movies as guidance, and make up their own initiation ordeals, like gang initiations.  Or maybe they join the Marines.   Otherwise it's like Lord of the Flies. Now, I never was a boy, and I can only make observations from the outside, but I'd be very interested to hear how a man decides he's a man.  My husband tells me that men are very aware of the opinions of other men, and exquisitely aware of the pecking order in any group. 

In any event, I've wondered more than once if it would be useful to reinstate the Vision Quest for young men.

And on a more cheerful note - A woman walks into a bookstore, and the next thing you know, she's writing a mystery. Tomorrow's guest blogger, my friend and mystery afficianado extraordinaire Judy Starbuck, enlightens us about the mystery writer's rite of passage.

Friday, August 08, 2008


Friday’s is Charles Day. Alert the media.

Rick, Vicki and Debby bring up some interesting points about movies and violence, one of the points being, I think, that people get unrealistic ideas about guns, violence, terror and danger from the movies. That’s all true, but we also get unrealistic ideas about love, honor, justice, marriage, sex, college, work, children, religion, physics, nature, history, theology and killer robots, too. And while I accept my esteemed colleagues’ position that people’s movie-based ignorance about firearms leads to some outrageously stupid statements (see the quote from ‘the Texan’ noted below), I think our movie-induced ignorance about any of the above noted topics is just as/more dangerous. But since this is a mystery author’s site and we should stay on topic, so I want to point out a few movies with guns everybody should see because they teach valuable lessons. So, in no order:
The Maltese Falcon. The Scene: Joel Cairo pulls a gun on Sam Spade, only to have Sam get the gun from him and proceed to knock him out. The Lesson: Your weapon may not protect you and can be used against you. True, Sam doesn’t shoot Cairo, but he could have.
Bonnie and Clyde. The Scene: The ambush. The Lesson: There is nothing glamorous about getting shot.
Band of Brothers. (Okay, it’s a mini series, but deal with it) The Scene: One of the guys accidentally shoots himself in the leg with a captured German Lugar and dies. The Lesson: Even expert people trained in handling weapons make fatal mistakes.
Hang ‘em High The Scene: A dozen guys shoot at The Man With No Name and none of them hit him. The Lesson: Most people can’t hit the target. Naturally, this message is negated by every shot Clint’s character makes, but I still like the movie.
The Terminator. The Scene: Twenty cops all hit the Terminator with “kill shots” and he still does not drop. The Lesson: You gun will not help you against killer robots.
I hope this short review of films taught you a few things: One, I don’t remember movies very well, Two, I will continue writing even when I realized, oh, around the fourth line, that my so-called thesis was stupid to begin with, and three, while this blog is usually a can’t-miss daily web check, it’s safe to skip checking on Fridays.
That event in Canada? It could happen anywhere. The reaction of the people who were there? Normal human behavior. The belief that you could have/would have saved the day with your trusty six-shooter? Delusional.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A call for more realism

Like Vicki and Rick, the Texans' comments about the Canadian authorities and passengers who intervened in the recent horrific bus incident as being "too civilized" got my wheels turning. Creak...

It's made me think about the overall tendency to use violence to sell books and movies. And unfortunately, the message that these works spread (Rambo, Terminator, certain thrillers, we can go on and on), is that "heroic" acts depend on some violent confrontation. This information is so false it would be laughable--if we stop to think about it.

See Rick's comments below about handguns held sideways. Next time you see or read one of these thrillers, take a moment to ask yourself whether the authors or directors consulted firearms, military, or political experts. Would people in authority act the way depicted on screen and would you want them to? (Vantage Point, which my family recently rented, comes to mind)

Where did so many get so far off the track of reality? How could anyone imagine that firing guns at a crazy murderer on a crowded bus could solve an already heinous (sadly, too late for Tim McClean)crime?

Why has physical confrontation been made to look more, well, heroic? This despite the fact that it's less apt to work. A few months ago in my home town of Honolulu, a place known for its friendly goodwill, a good Samaritan rushed to help a woman whose purse was being stolen. In the fracas, 58 year-old Ned Nakoa was hit in the head and later died of his injuries. The same month, Steven Wilcox, 19, was stabbed to death outside a bar in Kane'ohe trying to prevent a violent domestic dispute. In January, a 69-year-old man was knocked unconscious when he tried to intervene as a man on a residential street beat his estranged wife to death with the butt of a shotgun. These were brave people, trying to do the right thing. I hope I'd have their courage.

Perhaps it's time movies and thrillers stop crashing and bashing brainlessly and show examples of intervention that pay off. Can't we make intelligence as exciting as a gun or street fight? Some books and movies are pulling this off. Some actually parody the violence.

Another Honolulu story caught my eye just this morning. Theresa Harden, a 35- year-old real estate broker, saw a man force his way into a woman's car, hit her, and drive off with the woman still in the car. Harden followed in her own car and directed the police via cell phone until they arrived and intervened. The woman was rescued, the man arrested, and Harden's success made the local news.

If I'd been in Harden's place, my hands would have been shaking so badly I would have had trouble driving and talking on the phone. But she was the only one in the four incidences I've read about lately that pulled it off. The more confrontational attempts were, tragically, unsuccessful.

Just some thoughts, but I'm getting fed up with the sideways guns and the testosterone-hyped thrillers that influence certain people.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The "Hollywood Factor"

Blechta here.

Sounds sort of like the latest new thriller from Robert Ludlum, doesn't it? Yeah, yeah, I know he's dead, but death hasn't been able to slow down this man's output.

Vicki's entry from yesterday hits an awful lot of nails directly on the head. I'd like to amplify a few points if I may.

Last year, I believe, the Toronto CWC (Crime Writers of Canada for those who don't know) chapter had a guest in for one of our meetings. He was an arms expert and quite engaging. A few things he said really stuck in my memory.

First was the fact that far too many people who have guns, really know very little about them. "What they think they know about guns they learned in Hollywood movies. And that's not a good place to learn these thing."

He talked about the fact that guns have a tremendous kick to them, even smaller calibre weapons. So, each time you shoot a gun, it moves up (assuming you're holding it in an upright position).

Now here's the kicker, when the gun is an automatic weapon, the bullets come out in a very rapid stream. What happens with an inexperienced shooter is that the pistol, if that's what you're using, just goes "right up the ladder", as this man put it. So in effect, you're spraying bullets in an upward path. This can happen even when you hold the gun in two hands, if you're not ready for it. With one hand on the gun, it's very difficult to control even for an expert marksman.

The popular thing in movies now is to portray cops (or bad 'uns) holding their pistols sideways -- in one hand. Following the scenario of the gun expert, you're now spraying bullets in a level circular field.

He also said that no one in their right mind who knows anything about shooting would ever hold a gun sideways. "It looks great on the screen but really is a dangerous way to shoot."

We had this scenario for real a few years ago on Boxing Day here in Toronto. A firefight broke out between two gangs right on our main downtown street. A teenage girl, coming out of a clothing store was hit by a stray bullet from one of these idiots and died at her mother's feet.

Can you imagine someone starting to shoot on a crowded bus? How many people who carry loaded firearms (on a bus?) would be properly trained in shooting, let alone shooting with extreme accuracy in that sort of explosive situation?

To recap from Vicki's blog entry: everyone got off the bus in an orderly fashion, the damage was limited to the one terribly unfortunate soul; once off the bus, three of the people tried to do something and could not; and once the police arrived, the situation was resolved in the best manner it could have been.

It is a horrible tragedy, yes, but it could have been much, much worse. So Canadians are too civilized? What a horrible indictment of what far too many of our neighbours south of our border think is the right way to do things (not to mention a large number in this country). The point is, from start to finish, this event was handled in a civilized manner.

The man who perpetrated this heinous act is obviously mentally ill. There is no other conclusion. I will be exceptionally surprised if it proves to be anything else (and I'm not talking here about some slick lawyer getting him off). How else can you explain attacking someone you don't know, who is asleep and who is unarmed?

A few months ago I stated here how ashamed I was of Canada for the way a Polish immigrant was treated by Vancouver Airport staff and the four Mounties who were involved in his death (how and to what extent we don't know at this point).

Right now I'm cheering for "civilized" Canada. A pox on that man from Texas and all his cronies. The side with his viewpoint represents much that is wrong in our world. Sorry to say, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" really never worked very well in practice, did it?

We have the ongoing wars to prove it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Reality Check

Reality Check by Vicki

I’m sure most of you have heard about the horrific knife attack on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba a few days ago. If not, you can read about it at . (memorize that URL because it’s about to disappear!)

What bothered me, aside from the crime itself, was a selection of letters the following day to the Globe and Mail. Along with letters expressing shock and outrage and sympathy were two letters by men (it’s always men!) telling us that THEY wouldn’t have run, THEY would have fought the guy. Plus the now standard letter saying that if someone on the bus had a gun, it would all have been A-Okay. A gentleman from Texas let us know that all Canadians, including the RCMP, are cowards, for leaving the killer alive on the bus to desecrate the dead body. The police, he said, should have ‘neutralized’ him. And by the way, and I quote, “you people are too civilized”.

Let’s examine the facts as they’re known, briefly. The victim, Tim McLean, 22 years old, was killed by what has been described as a large knife, or a butcher’s knife, stabbed by a total stranger into his throat as he slept, and other blows. Mr. McLean was dead, or dying, by the time his fellow passengers even knew what was going on. The bus driver immediately pulled the bus off the road and stopped, the passengers got off the bus, without a stampede. Some of the passengers and the driver barricaded the door of the bus so the killer couldn’t get off. I read somewhere that the driver and a passing truck driver tried to get back onto the bus but were chased off by the killer waving his knife, but wasn’t able to find that report this morning as I refreshed my memory prior to writing this.

The police arrived and surrounded the bus while the killer waved his knife and, how hard it is to imagine, Mr. McLean’s head at them. After about three hours, the killer surrendered peacefully.

What more could anyone ask for? (Other of course than that the bus arrived at its destination in peace). No one else was hurt, no one was trampled in the rush to get off the bus, no one was taken hostage, a police sniper was not forced to kill a man. Tim McLean was dead, or dying, and no heroics would have changed that. If anyone had attempted to rush the killer, well, after a confrontation with a mad man armed with a butcher knife, they wouldn’t be writing letters to the paper. If anyone on the bus had been carrying a gun, it most probably would have been the killer, and he might not have been satisfied with one victim.

The two men were seated at the back of the bus – I’d say the worst possible scenario would have been some guy from Texas (or Alberta, even from Prince Edward County, Ontario) at the front whipping out his gun and shooting wildly as the passengers, including children, try to get past him and out the door. Remember, this is a bus, not the lobby of the Royal York Hotel with plenty of room and solid furniture for everyone to take cover behind.

Too many movies, I think, have warped some people’s ideas of reality.

I see about one movie a year, and my movie for 2008 was Vantage Point. In the film, after an attempted assassination of the U.S. President, the Secret Service chase a suspect (no one who could have actually fired the gun, just a guy acting strangely who runs when they try to grab him) through the crowded streets of Madrid. A president has been shot, a bomb has gone off, people are running in panic, and the secret service men are shooting through the crowd at the fleeing suspect who is, at a guess, fifty to a hundred yards away. They might have been shooting blanks because no one, not even the target, is hit.

What do people mean, when they write that they would have attacked the killer on the bus (bare hands vs. a blood-covered butcher knife) or that the other passengers should have been armed? They mean, I think, that they want it to have happened like it does in the movies, with themselves playing the Mel Gibson or Dennis Quaid role. Bullets swerve around innocent people (unless their death would add poignancy and a plot point), men’s reflexes are so quick they can weave their arms between a slashing knife, and their fists are so strong they can disable the knife carrier with a single well-aimed blow. If necessary they’ll drop on him from the roof a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And hey, it’s just a knife wound; the guy’ll be up in no time, trading witty one liners with the nurses. Happens all the time. In the movies.

One more thing – there is a beautiful woman (the type that wouldn’t be caught dead on a Greyhound bus) in the background with whom they are soon going to have sex. Sigh.

Does this rant have anything to do with writing crime books? I believe it does. I’ve said before that there seems to be a much higher standard of credibility expected in novels vs. movies or TV. Too many coincidences and the reader will close the book. In historical novels, the facts and the tone have to be perfect for the times or the writer will hear about it (if they ever get that thing published!) Criminal investigations – no fudging of the timeline to get the DNA results back before the characters break for lunch. Or the next commercial.

And the characters in mystery fiction have to be real people. That means police like Inspectors Rebus or Banks or Green, Lieutenant Decker, even Officer Cindy Decker, Chiefs Cork O’Conner or Russ van Alstine. Private Investigators like Joe Shoe or Russell Quant, lawyers like Arthur Beauchamp, not to mention, if I may, Sergeant John Winters or Constable Molly Smith. All these fictional characters are expected to be real people, capable of nothing but what real people can accomplish. Sure the plots might sometimes be a bit of a stretch – would you ever invite Jessica Fletcher to spend the weekend? – but we accept that in the cause of fiction. Because, if mystery fiction followed real life, truth be told, there wouldn’t be much of it and what there was would be pretty darn boring. There was a police road block at the end of my road the other day, when I came walking by on the way to the farm stand to buy blueberries. They were checking for drunk drivers. And what do you know – no child called out for help, no one pulled a gun and shot up the tomatoes, no squealing tires as a wanted terrorist broke the line and headed for the hills. Probably not even any drunk drivers, considering that it was 1:00 in the afternoon. I bought my carton of blueberries and went home.

So remember that you’re more likely to win the lottery (have you checked your e-mail lately?) than be the victim of a random crime, and spare me the wanna-be heroics and daydreams of Spiderman-like glory. And damn those letter writers for disparaging the people on that bus who actually had to live through a story so real it will never be made into a movie.

Now I'm off to read a good mystery novel, about a real person dealing with life, and sometimes doing it badly.

One last thing – the Globe ran a photo of Tim McLean on the front page. He was at a beach, holding a beaming little girl, both wearing their bathing suits. The tattoo on his arm was of a cartoon character. That was enough to break your heart.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Guest Blogger Linwood Barclay

Our guest blogger this Sunday is the absolutely fabulous Linwood Barclay. His most recent novel, No Time for Goodbye, a Richard and Judy Summer Read pick, hit the London Sunday Times bestseller list at #5 on Sunday, June 29, and catapulted to the top of Amazon UK's bestseller list. It has sold over 500,000 copies in Germany alone.

He was for many years the humour columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation newspaper. I can attest that he's also a really nice guy.

Feel free to hate him.


Is there any better feeling for an author than when you finish writing a book? Okay, finding the book in a store is nice, but that's usually undercut when the place you find it is the back of the store, on the lowest shelf, spine out, and instead of being placed in "mystery" it's in "self-help" next to some bit of nonsense that says you can realize your full potential if you just look yourself in the mirror every night and say, "I LIKE you!"

I finished writing a novel last week. I shipped it off to my agent, who deemed it in good enough shape to send off to my U.S. and UK editors. And the really good news is, my editors are on holidays, so it could be several weeks before they actually have a chance to read the damn thing and find all the things that are wrong with it.
So now I'm in this wonderful little window where the book is done and there's nothing else I can do with it.

I like this feeling. It's like having a couple of cinder blocks lifted off your shoulders. Plus, it's nice not to be sitting in a computer chair for hours every day staring at a computer screen, checking your email every 79 seconds because you're very worried someone ELSE might be trying to perform some nefarious activity with your Scotiabank, PayPal, eBay, Wells Fargo Trust and God knows what other accounts, which is all the more unnerving because you didn't even know you had Scotiabank, PayPal, eBay and Wells Fargo Trust accounts. (Can I tell you something? I was typing this very quickly, and back there I had written "PapPal" account. I hate to think what that would be.)

Anyway, this book I just finished -- I started it the end of May, and it will come out in the fall of 2009 -- is tentatively titled "Not a Word," which also happens to the title of a book I wrote between January and April. The reason I was able to give the new book the same title as this other book is that the other book is never going to see the light of day. I'm told every author has one of these, eventually. It's not the the book was bad. It's just that the plot, the characters, the pacing, the setting, and pretty much everything else, were terrible. There were, however, remarkably few typos or spelling errors, which I think has to count for something.
When I realized the book was not what I had hoped it would be, I put it aside and dived into another, and I feel a lot better about this one. (My UK editor, noting I had written two books in seven months, said, "You see what you can get done when you just apply yourself?") But I don't want to start writing the next one until January or February.

So now that I'm finished, I have very big plans. I am going to mow the lawn. I'm looking out the window at it now. You should see it. All this rain, it's like a goddamn corn field out there. I expect to see Kevin Costner, figuring out where to put his baseball diamond, bumping into Mel Gibson, looking for aliens and crop circles.


Visit Linwood's website at

Saturday, August 02, 2008


I'm late posting today, so I'll make it short.  I just got back into Tempe a few minutes ago.  I've been up in Sedona, (Most Beautiful Place on Earth TM ) participating in a Mystery Writers of America event, ironically.  It was a panel presentation, featuring thriller writer Ben F. Small, true crime writer Kerrie Droban, mystery author Betty Webb, and My Humble Self. This was a special Arizona MWA meeting, part of a weekly author series for the 50th Anniversary elebration for the Sedona Public Library, co-sponsored by local bookstore The Well Red Coyote.  The owners of Well Red Coyote are mystery author Kris Neri and her husband Joe, who acted as our hosts.  It was a very useful, pleasant, and well-received event, and good publicity, too, since the local papers did several articles about it and about the authors.  The bookstore sold out of my titles and even bought some of my personal copies to sell, which made me happy.  I'm sure I gained several new readers. I wouldn't have been invited to participate if I did not belong to MWA.

 I'm always happy to visit Sedona.  The scenery is a knockout.  However, the trip cost me $150 for the hotel, $60 for gas, and $40 for dinner.  Do you think I made that much in royalties and future sales?  I'm asking - I really don't know. I, too, ask myself every day which expenditures are worth it and which aren't.  I just keep trying.  Like Charles, I'm not a joiner.  I'm always just the teeniest bit skeptical of the benefits being offered, and I usually don't find membership all that much fun, either.

It's a crap shoot.  Most of the time it's not worth the strain and the expense to me, but all it takes is that one perfect connection, that one stroke of luck, that one occasion when you're in the right place in the right time.  Hope springs eternal. (Note to self : in future try not to use four cliches in one paragraph.)

Oh, and last night, after the event, Don and I were headed back to the hotel when we looked up and saw a sky full of stars.  Since I moved to this city of 3 million plus, I never see the Milky Way any more, and I was transported.  That alone was worth $250 to me.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Renew or not renew?

Charles here, pondering why I waited until 10pm to post the entry I wrote last night.

Yesterday I got a past-due renewal note from the Mystery Writers of America. They politely pointed out that I’m behind on my 2008 dues, and that if I wanted to remain a member in good standing, I had better ante up quick. And that’s the thing—do I want to be a member?

I’m not a joiner by nature and in the past when I did join something it turned out to be more work and a lot less enjoyable than I had hoped. Like when I joined the Army. Sure, it looked like fun, but then they don’t show you all the non-fun stuff you end up doing. I joined a softball league a few years ago and, other than the post-game beers, it was nothing but a lot of running and “fun” exercise. Now since I joined the MWA, they haven’t made me run, but who knows what they got planned?

I first joined the MWA because I thought I had to. Not legally had to, just had to. They had just nominated Relative Danger for their prestigious Best First Mystery award and I felt I sort of owed it to them. So I sent my check and, less than 6 months later, got my business card-size Official Membership Card, allowing me access to all the perks and privileges afforded to members in good standing. It also put me on the official mailing list, ensuring I would receive official publications. I’ve been a dues-paying member now for 4 years—do I want to make it 5?

There are some good perks that I could access—like a fund for writers who have fallen on hard times, a mentoring program for new writers, a link to experts on poisons and the law and copyright—but I really haven’t found a need. I do get the mailings, usually informing me about weeknight meeting in Manhattan, a mere 6 hours away. They also send me a newsletter that has a couple good (short) pieces each month (plus pages of stuff I don’t read, like MWA Chapter Updates and proposed changes to sub-section 2A-7 of the MWA bylaws). And when I go to a larger convention, I can attend a cocktail reception (free wine and cash bar) hosted by the MWA. Also, as a member, I have the privilege of attending the yearly Edgar’s Week festivities in New York City. True, I have to pay for a room and transportation and then pay the conference fee itself, but as a member, I have that right! All for just $125 a year. [CORRECTION: $95. CB]

I give more than just the money. For 3 years I have volunteered for the mentor program, reading selections of manuscripts by pre-published authors. It’s a lot of work—I read my assigned submission at least three times before writing my 500-1000 word critique. And I’ve submitted a proposal for creating a high school level Mysteries in the Classroom website for teachers, but that fizzled out I guess since I haven’t heard a word on it in six months.

Rose thinks I should just go ahead and pay. “You’re lucky to be eligible and you never know what it’ll bring your way.” Perhaps. But last night I made a two-column list—on one side, the benefits I’ve enjoyed as a member of the MWA; on the other, promotional things I could have done with the time and money instead. Guess which side is longer?

What say you? Are professional organizations like the MWA (or the CWC or the International Thriller Writers) worth the cost of membership?