Thursday, July 30, 2009

Voice Equals Character

Earlier this summer, a lot of Type M for Murder discussion was focused on character (how a character is created and what comes first, character or plot?). Here, I want to discuss something that might be even more important or at least viewed as interchangeable with characterization: voice.

The voice of a piece of writing is the persona the reader hears. Voice is what makes strong writing unique. I’ve heard it said that voice is a writer’s DNA. Consider this passage from James Crumley’s THE MEXICAN TREE DUCK (Mysterious Press, 1993), “I got there as quickly as the laws of physics, biology, and pharmacology would let me. I only stopped for calls of nature, gas tank refills, then once to dig around in Norman’s glove box. Treasure time.” These sentences sound unique; the first especially sings. And in fact, you could pull the cover off the book, hand it to me along with four others, and I would know immediately who wrote these lines. Yes, I’m familiar with Crumley, but the voice above is also unforgettably that of protagonist C.W. Sughrue.

Often, writers treat voice the way they discuss the mysterious “muse,” like it is every writer’s Holy Grail and to find it means instant success. I don’t believe in the muse just as I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writing is hard work. Period. Even on the good days. So when I hear someone say that voice can’t be taught, that a writer either has it or doesn’t, I always disagree. Yes, I do think a writer like Crumley possesses a natural grasp of the language that many of us do not possess. But I also believe a writer can find and develop his or her own voice, which is why teachers ask students to keep journals—because no writer ever located their voice by just talking about it.

However, fiction is far different from academic prose. In fiction, authors routinely step into and out of a variety of voices, depending on the needs of the story. For instance, I don’t speak (or write blog entries) in the voice I use to write Jack Austin novels. This is where I think the discussion of character needs to be expanded to include voice. Writing fiction, at least for me, is no different than acting. I enjoy the Bravo network’s show ACTORS STUDIO because listening to actors discuss their craft reminds me so much of the fiction-writing process. As a writer, I assume the persona of the character from whose point of view the story (or scene) is being told.

Sometimes locating the voice the story (or scene) requires takes a lot of work. Let’s go back to the late Mr. Crumley’s passage. Yes, parts are damn near poetic. But there’s nothing hidden that any writer/reader willing to do a little analysis won’t understand and learn from. The lines are not the work of a lazy writer. Crumley makes deliberate choices. The sentences are carefully constructed; not mechanical but certainly patterned. First, the passage is tightly parallel. Second, the diction is highly unique. In fact, word choice is what Crumley hangs his hat on here. “Pharmacology”? In this context? Are you kidding me? Call the novel’s plot outlandish, if you want. I don’t care. I’m smirking the whole time I’m reading and hate to put the book down.

Maybe a better example of voice and how we can take it apart and examine it in hopes of learning is the story “A&P” by John Updike. Consider this 77-word sentence: “By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag—she gives me a little snort in passing, if she'd been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem—by the time I get her on her way the girls had circled around the bread and were coming back, without a pushcart, back my way along the counters, in the aisle between the check-outs and the Special bins.” Everything you need to know about the main character, Sammy, you get right here. Girls in my classes are annually (justifiably) annoyed by the chauvinistic voice. I remind them that this isn’t Updike; he was stepping into character when he wrote this story.

So how does Updike do it? Again, diction and syntax lead to the voice. The first-person sentence features ellipses (the dashes to interrupt), there’s a deliberate comma splice after “passing,” and the cynical view of the customer all work to reveal Sammy’s true persona, which is the voice behind the story. Can voice be taught and created? Sure. Just as the muse is found everyday if you look for it at your keyboard and not in front of the TV or lounging in your favorite reading chair.

In the end, I think voice is so closely tied to character that for some writers the two are interchangeable; moreover, as fiction writers we need to view voice as a device we can carefully construct and utilize.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another Point of View on Point of View

It’s Debby this morning, pondering Vicki’s and Rick’s thoughts about point of view. Charles, was it you who said that writing a novel was about organization? That statement resonated with me, and I believe it applies to point of view as well as a dozen (hundred?) other aspects of writing. I also heard another statement that struck me (can’t remember who said it), and that is that an author enters a contract with a reader. The readers are looking for entertainment and insight, among other things. (That topic could be a whole new blog.)

Since an author is spinning this entertaining and insightful tale over hundreds of pages, he or she has to maintain a firm grip on continuity, where the story is going and why. As a writer, this is one of the challenges I love. Doesn’t mean I’m always good at it, but it’s one of the things that keeps me trying to write a better book each time. It also includes the sense of discovery we’ve discussed before.

So it’s all in the writing, isn’t it? If the POV skips around so much that the connection between reader, character, and plot is eroded, a reader will have little chance of finishing the book.

Recently there’s been a thread on DorothyL about the likability of characters, and it’s been fun to follow because of reader’s differing thoughts. It appears that compelling characters don’t have to be likable, though there’s a wide range of acceptance. Something like readers’ willingness to accept quickly changing points of view, perhaps.

Which reminds about a film my husband and I recently saw called The Hurt Locker. Wow, what a movie! I thought it was terrific, though not easy to watch. The main character is complex, with very good points, but as a likeable human being? Not sure, and that’s the point. There’s a lot going on in this film, including some jerky camera movements and several points of view. Though I often wanted to, I couldn’t look away.

It’s all in the writing, isn’t it?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Weighing in on POV

Vicki brings up a good point on point of view. Thinking back on it, things have been changing. It now seems almost de rigueur to have multiple POVs in crime novels. It’s somewhat worrisome, though, because I get the feeling that authors are doing this to be a la mode rather than using this device because their novel's construction demands it. Her second example sounds just like what I’m talking about. Obviously, this author couldn’t handle what she was trying to accomplish. I always feel that, if I have to be constantly flipping back in a book to find out what’s going on, the writer isn’t doing their job well.

Having struggled with POV to some extent, due to the fact that I seem to set myself complicated tasks in this department, I can sympathize. But I also wouldn’t try to do something that is just not working out. “Early readers”, the people one asks to look at a novel as it’s being worked on — something every writer should take advantage of — should certainly be able to point out where the shifting of POV is causing problems. Maybe in this case, the author didn’t use readers, but certainly the book’s editor should have seen it.

Like many things in writing, though, if you notice the particular device the writer is using, then it’s probably not being used well. I can’t put my finger on it at the moment, but I read a book a few years ago (one I didn’t finish, by the way) where the POV shifted between the three characters in a particular scene at least half a dozen times. It reminded me of being at a party where everyone is talking loudly. So much is going on, you are not able to follow any conversational thread. I put the book down shortly after. I also usually shut my eyes or get up for popcorn from the concession stand while watching movies that utilize those trendy, nausea-inducing camera effects.

Using too many POVs in a story also makes it difficult to really get to know the main characters — unless there are 20 of ’em. It may just be me, but one of the joys of reading is getting to know a few people really well, finding out what makes them tick. Mix it up too much and that can’t happen.

Lastly, doing anything because it’s “the thing to do” is something that always makes my antennae twitch and I immediately become leery. Maybe it’s just an overblown sense of contrariness, but I will immediately ask why is this so? If the answer is “everyone is doing it”, then I tend to disregard it. Just ask my agent.

Back in the days of E.M. Forrester, it was customary to have long descriptive passages, showing things in minute detail. I don’t think I ever read one of these novels without doing an awful lot of skimming. I also suspect that I wouldn’t have been published if I’d written at this time. Why? Because I don’t do long descriptive passages very well. I’m a dialogue type of guy. Don’t get me wrong. Forrester could write the hind leg off a mule. He was brilliant. Everyone says so. I just wouldn’t have been.

I suspect it’s the same way with multiple POV and moi. I just wouldn’t do it all that well — so why should I try?*


*This view is subject to change at any moment.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Vicki here on Monday. Speaking of characters, as we have been, leads fairly naturally to Point of View. When I was in Los Angeles in 2007, I was at a talk by Robert Ellis (City of Fire). Ellis said that the single person POV was outdated.

After that I began noticing how the narration was handled while I read.

I don’t know if it’s just me, or the books I read, but I have noticed that mystery novels are increasingly full of different peoples' POV. I have just finished Careless in Red by Elizabeth George. There were probably 20, perhaps even more, different points of view. The main character, Inspector Lynley, had the point of view in perhaps 10% of the whole book. It worked very well – all those characters all had backgrounds and conflicts and character arcs. Of course the book was several hundred pages long, which may be why it worked so well.

The next book I read was Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Everyone and their dog had a turn at being the narrator. Even the cleaning woman, and the landlady, got to express themselves as they found clues to the murder. Did it work? Not so well, I thought, perhaps because in a short book there were too many narrators and there wasn’t time to develop them all fully.

The single person POV book seems to be becoming the exception rather than the rule. Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley is an excellent book in which one character only acts as narrator.

I have written both, and I think that it’s harder to write a whole book with just one persons’ POV. Like acting in a play perhaps, it’s hard to be on stage the whole time.

I can’t say which approach I prefer. And as always, the first rule of creating writing applies here – do whatever works for you.

Do you have a preference in narration styles in your writing and reading?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Where My Characters Come From

Please allow me to introduce this Sunday's guest blogger, Peggy Ehrhart. I'd like to say we met in a smoky New Orleans bar where she had come, guitar over her shoulder to sit in with my R&B band. Sadly, the reality is more prosaic: we were introduced by Vicki D at Bloody Words in Ottawa this past June. The rest of it may come true some day, though. You never can tell...


I’d been watching her for years, sometimes up close as I stood in line with her at the neighborhood deli, other times from across the street as she headed one way and I another. She didn’t belong in the small New Jersey suburb where I make my home and where normal street attire runs along the lines of baggy pants and T-shirts for all ages and both sexes. She wore four-inch heels, iridescent spandex leggings, ruffly blouses cinched tight at the waist with wide colorful belts. And her jet black hair was always teased and sprayed into a complicated twist. The face beneath it was made up as if for the theater, complete with thick false eyelashes and blazing red lipstick. The get-up would have been striking on anyone — but it was particularly striking on her because she was at least eighty years old.

A character, for sure, and in more ways than one!

I never consciously said to myself, I’ll use her in a book some day. But she ended up in Sweet Man Is Gone, my first published mystery. Early in the story, my blues-singer bandleader sleuth, Maxx (real name: Elizabeth) Maxwell shows up to collect her guitar player, Jimmy Nashville, for a gig. She finds Jimmy sprawled on a patch of concrete beneath the window of his ninth-floor apartment. As Maxx watches the police and emergency personnel bustle about, she’s approached by his neighbor Helen.

I knew I needed a neighbor in my story because my sleuth had to get into Jimmy’s apartment a few chapters later. And what better way to engineer that than a friendly neighbor with a set of keys? But I had no idea what the neighbor would look like, even what sex the neighbor would be, until eighty-year-old Helen (which is what I named her) stepped forward in her spike heels, iridescent purple leggings and tight purple shirt, her black hair teased into an impressive crest and her narrow lips outlined in bright red lipstick. Helen figures in several additional scenes as well, and fear for her safety helps trigger the book’s climax.

So I’m contributing my thoughts to the past week’s discussions on this blog about where characters come from. Some come from observation, as was the case with Helen. I’d watched her for so long that every detail was stored in my brain, ready to pop out unbidden. Other characters are inspired not by people I’ve merely seen but by people I’ve known. When I do that, though, I change either the appearance or the personality so my friends (or people I’m not so friendly with) don’t recognize themselves.

One of my sleuth’s challenges is dealing with the sometimes annoying quirks of the musicians in her band. Most of these characters have real-life counterparts that I kept in mind while I was writing. But I made strategic changes lest they recognize themselves — though maybe I needn’t have bothered. A wise friend once remarked that people who are annoying never realize they’re annoying.

One character in Sweet Man Is Gone is an explicit homage to someone I admire greatly. Josh Bergman, the ultra-hip and mega-talented guitar player Maxx tries to recruit to take Jimmy’s place in the band, is based on a man I studied guitar with for many years. When I gave him a copy of Sweet Man Is Gone, I challenged him to figure out which character was him. He zeroed right in on Josh — and when I told him there was a sequel in the works, he emailed me, “Please don’t kill off Josh Bergman any time soon!”

Then there’s Stan Dunlap, the goofy, hapless guitar player who Maxx fired and who becomes a key suspect when she realizes that he was in Jimmy’s apartment right before Jimmy’s death. He popped into my head fully formed, six foot six with unruly hair, a guy who’s only happy when his fingers are busily making their way around a fretboard and who’s woefully lacking in the social graces. One reader of Sweet Man Is Gone described him as grotesque, but I’ve spent so much time hanging out with guitar players that I have a soft spot in my heart for all of them, no matter how eccentric. Stan is too much of a caricature to derive from any one specific person, but he’s an amalgam of many many that I’ve known.

My characters, then, just come, with little struggle. In that realm, I’ve never felt the need for elaborate brainstorming techniques: keeping journals in the character’s voice, listing personality traits... But characters might be one of my particular strengths. And writers — all artists in fact — find that some aspects of their art come naturally and others require work.

My guitar teacher, the model for Josh Bergman, once told me that even as a child he had a natural sense of rhythm. He used to walk around the house clicking his teeth in perfect time, and when he began to study music formally, that was an aspect he never had to work on.

In the case of one character, though, I accomplished the effect of keeping a journal in the character’s voice, though inadvertently. Sweet Man Is Gone is my first published Maxx Maxwell mystery but it’s not my first Maxx Maxwell mystery. Maxx has solved a few other crimes in manuscripts that are sitting on the shelves of my study — manuscripts that got high marks from prospective agents for voice, style, and milieu but whose plots were as directionless as a self-indulgent guitar solo.

Plot is the aspect of mystery writing that doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’ve learned to brainstorm, outline, and plan so thoroughly that I know exactly where I’m going before I start a new project.

But the time I put into those unpublished manuscripts wasn’t lost. Each one placed Maxx in a situation that forced her to use her brains and musical knowledge to solve a murder, and in each one a little more backstory crept in. I must confess that at the beginning Maxx was a complete fantasy creation — the me I’d love to be if I could sing well enough to front a band. (Not to mention the complete opposite of my suburban wife and mother, college-professor self.)

But I know a lot more about her now. I know she got her nose fixed when she went off to college, bleached her hair blonde when she joined her first band, attributes her sexy figure to the fact that she wears a push-up bra, buys her clothes at thrift stores, has a weakness for guitar players, and isn’t really over her old boyfriend, Sandy Wilkins, who she left because of his womanizing.

I know her as well as if she were an old friend, which is what she has become.


Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor who now devotes her time to writing mysteries and playing blues guitar. As Margaret J. Ehrhart, she has published widely in the field of her academic specialty, medieval literature, and she has also won awards for her short fiction. She is a longtime member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. As a guitar player, she has performed with The Last Stand Band and other bands in the New York/TriState area. Her first full-length mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, was published by Five Star/Gale/Cengage in August 2008. Visit her on the web at

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Character is All

Donis today.  I've been following this string on the birth/construction/creation of characters with interest.  It has caused me to ponder on how really important characters are in a mystery.

A murder mystery isn’t really about the murder.  The murder is just a device, a catalyst for the story.  It is the crucible that tests the characters, especially the sleuth - a way to show how he is changed by events.  A mystery novel is chock full of psychology.  It’s a fabulous venue for an author the explore the human psyche - why do people do what they do?  How is it that when presented with identical situations, one person is corrupted and another maintains her integrity; one person is hardly affected by violence and another is changed forever?  Why is one man violent and another kind? Well-written characters can give the reader real insight into human nature, and maybe even into himself.

Mysteries have some of the best characters going.  Creating characters that the reader cares about can actually cover a multitude of sins in the plot.  How many murder mysteries have you read where the detective has an incredible, even unrealistic, stroke of luck which enables him to solve the case? How badly did it bother you? Did it not depend on how successfully the author had pulled you into her world and how willing you were to go along with her?  Walter Mosely said that fiction is a “collusion between the reader and the novel.  Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do.”

But that means that the author is really motivated to create intriguing and empathetic characters.  It doesn’t matter if the mystery is solved if the reader doesn’t give a rat’s little heiny.  Just a few weeks ago I mentioned in this blog about a well written and critically acclaimed mystery I had just read in which practically all the characters were so unpleasant that I couldn’t finish the book - because I couldn’t spend one more minute in the company of any of them.

As an author, I want you to feel like my characters are real people, who have lives that matter to you.  I’d like for you to know them, to care about them.  I want you to say, “Oh, no! whatever is she going to do now?”

But how?  That’s your problem as a writer.  How do you make a world and fill it with people that your reader believes in?

The best way to make characters real, in my humble opinion, is to get them up and moving, and let the reader observe and judge for himself.  This is how we get to know people in real life.  We see how they act, how they react, how they behave in different situations.  A real person doesn’t tell us that he’s a liar.  We suspect that he is because when he speaks, he can’t meet our eyes, he shifts nervously in his chair, he covers his mouth.  A voice doesn’t come out of the sky and tell us that she’s naive.  We suspect that she is because she believes what Shifty is telling her. And subsequent events confirm our suspicions.

A character - a person - is a product of her past, her place, her time.  If I don’t know anything about the people I’m reading about, if I don’t have some insight into them, then I don’t much care about what happens to them.  So show me where she lives, what she does, how she talks and relates to her place and situation, and to those around her.  Make me believe.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Need Reading Material

Charles here, on vacation in Syndney, Australia and I need your help.

Othere than the lovely Kerry Greenwood (a PPP author), anyone have some suggestions for books by Aussie mystery writers?

I can suggest one for you that you might not know - Andrew Whitehead's Solomon Quest. It's a good old fashioned adventure-style read. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's the kind of stuff I like to write and read.

Ooops, must go - Free Internet in the hotel lobby is apparently not "Free" after all.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It's Debby this morning, and I’ve been thinking about Vicki’s and Rick’s comments on creating characters. Let’s see...born or made. Given those two choices, I have to say born. They certainly aren’t built brick by brick. But they often spring into scenes perfectly formed, which is different than arriving as a baby. But like children, they arrive with inherent characteristics.

For me, writing a new character is similar to meeting someone new. I encounter (as opposed to create) them at some important point in a story. For example, in real life I began doggie obedience school not long ago. (Yes, I’m taking the dog with me) Naturally, I met a couple of new acquaintances, people with whom I share a common doggie bond. Week by week, I learned more about them. Some are heart warming and generous. But not everyone. One woman has a lovely big black Labrador, much like my silly pup, which she hangs from its chain collar when it disobeys. It requires both arms for her to hoist the 80 pound animal, and the poor dog chokes and coughs while its feet barely brush the ground. In case you were wondering, the instructor encourages this “discipline.” When the dog’s tongue is just about blue, the owner smiles at the rest of us with a touch of smugness, because her dog is going to outshine ours on graduation day.

These two may end up in a book, where one of them (both?) will be a strangling victim. Which brings me to another thought: every time I’ve picked someone from real life, someone too malignant, brilliant, kind, Fill-in-the-Blank to allow to escape from the page, the character goes and changes into someone I hadn’t expected. This is even more likely to happen if I’ve got them in my literary gun sights. Strangling victims, indeed. We’ll see.

One time, I decided to kill off a good friend’s ex-husband. He was the villain of the novel, and his philandering and cruel deeds would be revealed to the world. I relished writing his demise, which would come about in an epic show-down with the ex-wife. It was good vs. evil, her life and her child’s versus the abuser’s. Naturally the wife and child would prevail.

However, the night she was going to retrieve her son from the creep’s clutches, the ex fell asleep on the couch, lit cigarette in hand. The son escaped the burning house from his bedroom window and ran to the neighbors to call the fire department. When the mother finally showed up, she was in time to see a fireman carrying her unconscious ex to a waiting ambulance.

Wait, hold the scene! This guy deserved his fiery fate! And the mother had earned her confrontation and triumph. But the kid did, too, and he was both smart and quick. He also loved his dad. I hadn’t figured on that. The kid taught both the mother and me a lesson.

Which is when writing gets fun, isn’t it?

Character Blog

Vicki jumping in when it isn't even my day, (John's away, so he won't notice) to announce that I've taken the advice of our Sunday guest blogger, Deanna Varble, and created a new blog. When the spirit, or the keyboard, moves them Klondike Dance Hall Owner Fiona MacGillivray and Trafalgar City Police Constable Molly Smith will be blogging about their lives and times. Fiona kicks it off with the original, never published, first scene of Gold Digger. The blog is called Klondike and Trafalgar

Lee Child, Weddings, and Dirty Diapers.

John here. This is about Jack Reacher, my mother getting remarried, and a 39-year-old getting reacquainted with the art of changing diapers. Sort of. It’s about where writers find inspiration.

Every writer is different, but for me finding a story equates to finding a character. As I’ve said before, the character leads me to the plot. And I enjoy reading stories in which the protagonist faces internal conflicts greater than the external ones. I’m halfway through THE ENEMY by Lee Child and am enjoying it, not because of the military detail or pace, but because protagonist Reacher learned 50 pages ago that his mother will soon die. Now he and I are waiting for the phone call bringing bad news as he goes on with his investigation. A clever plot maneuver—and not unlike one used by John Steinbeck in his novella OF MICE AND MEN when the dog is shot five pages after its euthanasia has been agreed upon—but it is my favorite part of the novel. How will Reacher handle the death of his mother? How do we react to things beyond our control—a plot that can be traced back to HAMLET and the Greek tragedies. But still one that always offers great internal conflict, one that still puts me on the edge of my seat.

On May 23, my mother married a wonderful man three years after the passing of my father. It will be a great thing for her. And it has me thinking about happiness, aging, and about life and (unfortunately) death. Likewise, in November, my wife Lisa and I welcomed our third daughter, Keeley, into the clan. Delaney is 11 and Audrey is 8, so I’m learning about sleep deprivation (although admittedly not to the degree of my poor wife) and about changing diapers all over again. But I also realize Keeley will never meet my late father, the man who was the family’s rock for so many years. And my mother’s new beginning oddly coincides with Keeley’s birth. These are details of my life that make up my preoccupations, ones I see popping up in my writing.

Writing fiction is my way of exploring characters, their conflicts, and a way to clarify my own thinking—all while, hopefully, telling a good story.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Playing god

I’d like to pick up on Vicki’s entry from yesterday. You definitely need to read it first. I’ll wait here...

I firmly agree with Vicki that characters need to grow organically on their own to be truly believable. Based on the reviews my books get, and the comments that readers have made to me, I know that I have been successful.

Anyone who is a parent knows that the little being you (and your spouse, partner, whatever) have lovingly created, is their own individual very early on. No matter what, no matter how much guidance, advice, even swats on the bum you give them, they will ultimately do what they want/need to do. And so it is with the characters who inhabit our books. We create them, then we have to give them the freedom to do what they need to do, in their own way.

Be warned, though; it can be dangerous. Characters created in this manner occasionally create plot dilemmas of magnificent proportions. I’ve experienced this more than once, almost to the point of sinking the novel. When that happens, as in any successful relationship, you have to negotiate. To this end, I will often take long walks with my “invisible friends” in order to talk things over with them in a non-threatening environment (on the page is not the place to mix it up). We discuss what I need them to do in order for the plot to move forward in a cohesive manner, and they tell me why that won’t work for them. On all but one occasion*, we worked it out amicably, in fact, a few times they've actually convinced me to change the plot to suit them.

I know this all sounds very schizophrenic, but I also know there are a lot of writers out there who will agree that what I’m describing isn’t all that abnormal — at least for us wordhawks. In fact, it's sort of fun.

To the uninitiated, though, I’m sure it seems bizarre. (“You have discussions with imaginary people?!”) But, for me, it also really works. It’s my firm belief that no amount of creative writing exercises, outlining, summarizing or other time wasters can equal it. Of course, if the writer has very little imagination to begin with, he/she may need all these crutches, but I’ll bet that writers using these methods don’t often come up with memorable characters that readers identify with as real people.

Ultimately, fiction is a process of the imagination, and if a writer can’t imagine who their characters really are, then perhaps they shouldn’t be writing fiction. Heck, fiction doesn’t often pay more than a pittance. If you can write, but lack that inner spark of character creativity, perhaps non-fiction is a better choice. At least it generally offers a better financial return.

But if you can’t wait to spend more time with your invisible friends, then you should realize you’re stuck in a fictional world.


* In this case, the first draft of what would become Cemetery of the Nameless, my character, a composer, evolved all by himself into someone who whined and snivelled his way through life. By page 80, I hated the little bastard. Rewriting didn’t help. He’d straighten up and fly right for several pages and then would start whining again as soon as my back was turned. I knew then that I’d be forced to kill him before the novel hit page 150, and that was sort of a dead end since the story was being written in first person.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Characters? Made or born?

I am giving a workshop on August 15th at the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival. I believe the Festival has been mentioned on this blog before, but for the few of you who missed it, this is a wonderfully unique festival held each year on Wolfe Island, the birthplace of Canada’s First Mystery Writer, one Grant Allen. The Festival is small and intimate. You need to take a short (free) ferry ride from Kingston, Ontario to get there, and your ticket gives you not only authors’ readings, a lecture on a subject of interest to mystery fans, an authors’ panel, interview with the Grand Allen Award Winner, Peter Robinson, who needs no introduction, this year, but you ALSO get lunch and a proper Church Supper. Can’t be beat. For more info and to buy tickets, please go to

Anyway, as mentioned I am giving the workshop this year (part of the Festival, but an additional fee to attend) and the topic is Creating fully realized characters: Protagonist, Villain and everyone in between.

I have been working hard at preparing the workshop, reading some books on creative writing, looking at internet sites on the topic. And it makes me ask the question: Do you manufacture your characters, or give birth to them?

There are books and instructional web sites that suggest you complete a two-page outline of questions before starting to write your book. The questions are everything from favourite food to worst fear; brothers and sisters names to worst enemy. Another suggests you interview your character. Fire questions at them and write down the answers as they appear. Another would have you read a favourite book, and make notes about all the characters therein and ask yourself how your characters compare.

No suggestions are provided as to how to find the time to actually write the book.

I don’t mean to disparage these writing methods – like outlining or revising, nothing is write (sic) or wrong, there is only the way that works best for each author.

When I start a new book, I have an idea of the main character, where she is in her life today, and some of her background that I’ve worked out in my mind as I go about doing other things, sorta like Charles and Arthur Schiff. The secondary and minor characters, they just go with the flow as I write.

My first book with Poisoned Pen was called Scare the Light Away. The character Aileen, who is married to Rebecca’s older brother, was intended to be hard-as-nails, chain-smoking, swearing, bitter and angry at the world. When I started writing the scene in which Aileen first appears, she turned out to be really nice. I can’t say how that happened, but I think it made for a better book. It is through liking Aileen that Rebecca begins to understand that her brother might have changed.

When we first meet John Winters in the first Smith and Winters book, In the Shadow of the Glacier, he is in a restaurant with a woman he is trying to impress. He’s worried about his credit card, he has a jewellery box in his pocket, and he’s hoping to score. I had her down as a high-maintenance date, one whom he’d never see again after getting a call telling him he’s going to be picked up by a patrol car to take him to a murder scene.

No, she said to me, with a spark of determination in her gorgeous green eyes, I don’t think so. And she became Eliza Winters, beautiful, yes, but practical and down-to-earth, his wife of 25 years and the foundation of his life. Anything but high-maintenance.

So, are your characters made – by filling in forms and doing interviews, or born – evolving into the people they are?

I wonder, now that I think of it, if there is a male/female or parent/non-parent divide in this. Having given birth to, and raising, three daughters, I well know that characters, like children, will turn out perfectly well, despite what plans you or I may have for them.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Today's Guest Blogger: Deanna Varble

Today we get to chat with social media expert, web guru and out-there thinker Deanna Varble. Deanna has seen the future of author-reader connections and has a nifty suggestion as to how it can pay off - in readers and in good old fashioned cash.

Give the fans what they want: MORE

So I’m sitting in front of my TV Thursday night and J.K. Rowling confirms my fears. My favorite authors have been holding out on me! In your brain – in the lovely, lovely creative spheres that sit on top of your necks are WORLDS past the end of the book.

And you NEED to share them with me. Well, okay – need might be a little dramatic. But I WANT you to. In fact, I want you to SO much that I would more than likely (pay) you for access into that world.

I mean, hell, I’m as attached to these characters as you are. In fact – I might be MORE so (believe that or not) because I’m sooooooo like your character. Okay – I’ll admit it, I’ve fabricated my own sad belief that I really am that character, and obliviously that character’s fantastic plot & success is somehow going to help me deal (or ignore) with my own life struggles.

That or the character is married to a really hot hockey player / Anthony-Bourdain-like snarky culinary genius and I’m just vicariously living through the romance scenes. In either regard – I’m hooked and I’m willing to give you (or your publisher) my eye traffic (Possibly leading to advertising rev for your next book) or maybe even a small amount of cash depending on my devotion. (If you’re Jodi Picolt, call me!) In return for my time/money I would like to know the rest of this character’s story.

So what are you going to do about it? May I suggest a blog. A character blog. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s what I read during my lunch break (and in between) anyway. I mean, think about it – people write blogs all day long about what they’ve had for lunch and the last time they used the loo – why can’t my favorite characters tell me what’s going on in their world like humans do?

Bloggers are already becoming authors with devoted fans, writing books and getting movies.(P.S. If you’re Julie Powell, call me!) So why can’t it work in reverse? You give me the continuing story, I’ll give you my time (and okay, possibly my money. And definitely if you can get your character blog available on my Kindle.)

And I mean, it’s not like you have to create a perfect plot to be solved in 200 pages – a paragraph at a time will satiate me for the next 24 hours or so. And a LOT can happen in 24 hours (as Jack Bauer can tell you). In fact one day in the life of a character can set into motion the ending or beginning of the next chapter, right? So lets live it a day at a time. Like a journey. Together.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Delights of Research

I write a historical mystery series set in Oklahoma in the 1910s.  The first book of the series was set in 1912, and each subsequent book moves forward a year or so in time.  I’m on the fifth book now, which you will realize in a flash means it takes place in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. I find myself doing quite a bit of research about what was going on in Oklahoma at that time, which isn’t that easy when I no longer live there.  Local historical research is easy enough if you still live in the locale, and have easy access to library newspaper archives, historical societies, and museums.  

I’m able to find out a lot on the internet, but it’s surprising how difficult it sometimes is to find simple facts that would be readily available if I was on the scene.  So, I often end up on the phone, explaining what I need to a librarian or historian in whatever area of Oklahoma I am interested in.

The very best fun thing about doing research, if I may coin a phrase,is that even if you’re looking for the most mundane piece of information, you often discover amazing stories and connections that you could not possibly have made up on your own.  

Before I continue, you should know two facts, Dear Reader.  First, the Tucker family of my series is partially based on a branch of my own family by the name of Morgan, of whom there are gazillions in Muskogee County, OK.  My great-grandmother was named Alafair Morgan.  Second, for the past 25 years, I have lived in Tempe, AZ.

Here’s the tale.  I wanted to know the name of the sheriff of Muskogee County in 1917, but was unable to find the that seemingly easy piece of information online.  So I called the library in the city of Muskogee, and asked the local history librarian to look it up for me and e-mail the answer to me.  Later that afternoon, she sent me a wonderful campaign photograph of Sheriff J.S. Barger.  

Now that I knew his name, I was able to find his obituary online.  From this I discovered that it is indeed a small world, and time does not dim our connections to one another.

For after John Barger lost his reelection bid in 1918, he became a county “Speed Officer”, whose job was to curb the then-growing automobile menace, and was given a county patrol car to cruise country roads and highways.  In 1924, the county’s “speed patrol” car was stolen from the garage by the Lawrence brothers, “Babe” and Bill, young Muskogee desperadoes who were wanted for auto theft in several towns around OK.  After several unsuccessful attempts to catch them in OK, the sheriff was notified that the pair had been caught at El Paso, and he sent Deputy Barger and his partner, one Joe Morgan, who happens to have been a cousin of my grandmother’s, to pick them up and bring them back to Muskogee.  After taking charge of the prisoners, Barger and Cousin Joe started back with them in the county car.  Barger was driving and Morgan was in the rear seat with the Lawrence boys.

Barger heard a shot, looked around and found himself peering down the barrel of a gun in Babe Lawrence’s hand.  Cousin Joe was on the floor, shot through the head with his own pistol. The car, going at a rate of at least 20 miles an hour, crashed into a fence, righted itself and mowed down fence posts for 40 yards before stopping. The boys forced Barger to walk off the road into the woods and handcuffed him to a tree, before escaping again in the county car. Barger shouted until he attracted the attention of a ranch hand, who refused the help him.  He was handcuffed to the tree for 3 hours, until officers arrived and rescued him.  He then went back to Ft. Worth, where he organized a posse and went after the Lawrence boys.

They were later apprehended in Tempe, AZ.  Bill was later hanged in Arizona, and Babe served a life term in Texas.  Barger died in 1938 at the age of 77.

How could I make up anything better than that? 

Friday, July 17, 2009

Do you feel a draft?

Charles here.

Yesterday John wrote about the revision process and asked for our input. I guess every author has an opinion on this – write the whole thing, then revise; revise as you go; write a bit, revise a bit – but the revision process really begins long before we commit a single word to the page.

As I’ve reported here before, I’m working (put some air quotes around that for me, will you?) on my next YA novel and I’ve got at least 100 solid hours in so far – quality, focused time that has improved the story considerably – but as of yet I haven’t written a word. For me, the story has to feel right in my head before I can start writing it down. I’m not talking whole scenes or the plot all figured out, just a sense I know what I want and I know how to get it. I’ve made so many revisions to this soon-to-be-manuscript that it no longer resembles what I set out to write.

Eventually, I do write. And no matter how slow a writer you think you are, I am slower. John knocks out 5 pages in a day? Hell, I’m happy if I get 5 sentences I like. I do revise as I go and I’m brutal – I will not go on if I don’t think a line is right. And then I revise (not as much, though) when it’s all done. The constant revision – pre-writing/during writing/post writing – ensures that I say what I want to say, the way I want to say it. Every scene, every paragraph, every line, every word. Look, I can’t control the fact that I’m never gonna get rich at this (or that I may write books that never get published), but I can control what I write, and for me the painful, honest, brutal, continual revision process is the best way to do it.

I wish there were an easier way because this way is really frickin’ hard, but I don’t think there is.


On a lighter and far, far better note, Sunday’s guest blogger is social media expert and professional geekspeak interpreter, Deanna Varble. She’s got some really cool ideas for all you authors out there on how to tap into the hot trends in social media, so make a date to be here. And be sure to post comments – she gets into that whole two-way conversation thing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer Musings, Revision, and A slow Man’s Method for Plotting

John here. Teaching at an independent school is wonderful for many reasons: I get to talk about great books every day, teach a Mystery Literature course, coach golf, and of course there’s summer vacation, which, as of this writing, is in full swing. While my colleagues mull away their days running, fishing, golfing, and spending time with their families, I try to do lots of writing. Not to the total exclusion of the items on that list (especially since 7-month-old Keeley is now crawling), but I do shoot for three to five pages a day.

Last summer, I completed 100 pages between June and August. I wish I’d have gotten more done, but I revise as I go, foolishly believing I’m generating finished copy, which slows me down. Many writers have told me they write the first draft of a novel straight through and then go back and revise. I wish I could do that and don’t know exactly why I can’t. I realize I’m something of a perfectionist, but I don’t think that’s it. I never know what will happen more than a couple scenes ahead of where I currently am in the book I’m writing, so I think that rereading each scene several times and endlessly tinkering gives me a chance to think things through, a method that perhaps has become part of my plotting process.

Everyone has their own process. I know a writer who swears that he must write the first draft single spaced and then double spaces when he revises. He says he needs to “see how it will look on the printed page” as he drafts. When I was on a panel at Bouchercon, a writer who works as a lawyer, said she creates 30-page outlines, including dialogue, for a 300-page novel.

Once again, I’ll call on my blog mates and any readers: What are your thoughts and methods for the revision process? And why?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When an author rears his or her ugly head...

I was recently reading a novel where a very well-known author’s political leanings suddenly intruded into the story. It was all handled very smoothly and might have even gotten by me were I not in “writing mode”, working on something myself, a time when my antennae are more attuned to what I’m reading than is normally the case.

It got me thinking: is it ever all right for an author to intrude on his/her story line?

I’ve certainly tried hard not to do that, but this particular case seemed egregious, ultimately. It had nothing to do with the plot. However, the passage was quite entertaining and relieved the pressure that had been building up in the story. (That’s something else for a later discussion: when the author ratchets up the tension too early on and then doesn’t relieve it somehow.)

I can understand why the passage was allowed to remain and I’m sure that it was questioned by the editor (or should have been). Yes, it was a bit indulgent, but like I said, it did serve some purpose in the story. By the way, in this case, it clearly showed the political leanings of the author.

We all do intrude into our stories, though. It’s unavoidable. Little bits of us inhabit nearly every character, inform the actions and reactions to things and situations. How many times have you been told, “I can so clearly hear your voice in your stories”? Or how many times have you told an author that? I admit I have.

But how much should you intrude?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Guest blogger Lise McClendon

Lise McClendon's eighth book (wow), Blackbird Fly, has just hit the bookshelves, and I can't wait to read it. She's also an active member of MWA, having served on the board, Sisters In Crime, and the International Association of Crime Writers. Lise has a wealth of knowledge about the publishing industry and the book biz. Thanks, Lise, for contributing today!

Guest blogger Lise McClendon

Summer is for getting your (oh-so-tanned) arms around the story.

I envy people who can work all year round, whatever the weather. For me, winter is the time to write, to sit inside and tell myself stories. But the story I tell depends on how I spend my summer brainstorming. As writers the imagination, or that damn voice inside your head -- whatever you call it -- works all the time, while we're weeding the garden, driving the car, or taking a walk in the sunshine. Can we call this work? Some would scoff but it seems necessary, this thinking time. And doing it outside in the summer is fine with me. I live in the Rocky Mountains where summer is a scarce commodity. (This year it just arrived!)

But it can't all stay in my head. I have to write stuff down like everybody else. This year I'm trying some new tricks gleaned from writers more organized than I am. At the beginning of the year I started my annual writing journal in a file on my computer. I pumped myself up, wrote down ideas for characters and plots, zoomed around the internet cutting and pasting research and background stuff. I bought lovely but basic spiral notebooks from Clairefontaine with thick, smooth paper. I downloaded a couple outlining programs, Inspiration and Tinderbox, as trials. I have yet to get organized enough to actually make an outlining program work for me but I like the idea. (Maybe in the fall...) The computer writing journal has gone a bit fallow after I started writing in the spiral notebooks. I have been filling them up with ideas, notes for things to research, bits of scenes, and character sketches. I have no idea why the spiral notebooks from the Dollar Store aren't as inspiring. Maybe it's the French thing? I am a serious Francophile, as you can figure from my new book, set in the Dordogne. All I know is the paper quality is on a level rarely found in Staples.

Another author, Jeff Abbott, wrote about these notebooks and how writing longhand makes him slow down and think more. It seems to be true. I am such a fast typist after all these years that I can almost type as fast as I think and often run out of things to say. Writing longhand lets my brain whirl a bit. (Hey -- Pun alert -- put in some peas and I'll have whirled peas.) My brain is a whirler. It is not methodical and logical, at least in this stage of writing. It leaps from thought to thought, ADD-like, from what-if to how-about. It knows no mistress.

In other words, it's a mess. But writing ideas down straightens the mess out, makes it logical, makes me see the patterns in the chaos. Writing a novel is basically an organizational chore, getting the first-second-third parts, weaving in patterns to richen the texture, finding the pace that works, cutting out the dull stuff, and seizing the right bit of background that makes a character come alive.

For my new novel of suspense, Blackbird Fly, I rewrote the book so many times I've forgotten all the organizational struggles. But starting a new novel, fresh and summery as a bouquet, is exciting. All these new what-ifs! At least it's exciting while I'm still whirling about it. Ask me again in January.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Oh, the Suspense!

Donis writing today. I am in the process of finishing the first 100 pages of a new book for my editor’s approval.  When I’m really in the zone, in the midst of a scene, I’ve been known to leap up from the computer and begin pacing the floor, unaware of my surroundings, muttering dialog to myself.  I imagine that to an observer I look like a hands-free cell-phone user.  Except there’s not a person on the other end - there’s another world.

I sometimes have to figure out how I’m going to pull off a particular scene I have in mind.  I know what I would like the reader to see in her head, what emotions or feelings I’d like to convey, but what is the most effective way to paint that picture, to evoke those feelings?  If I write the scene in two or three different ways, I’ll often be able to come up with the right combination of images, but occasionally, I’ll realize that I don’t quite have it.

That’s when I go hunting.  If I need more suspense, for example, I pick out several works - literature or movies - that made me tense, and try to pick apart how it was done.

I’m always looking for effective ways to building suspense.  In the course of writing several books, I’ve seen and read all the classic suspense-building techniques in action, and keep a list of examples, not only to remind myself, but to use as a teaching tool as well.

A refresher never goes amiss, Dear Reader.  And if you have other examples, I’m all eyes.

The Ticking Clock : Our hero must accomplish something before a horrible thing happens.  Diffuse the bomb!  Find out who really did it before the wrong man is hanged!  Great example, the movie D.O.A. (the 1950 original with Edmond O’Brien is better than the 1988 Dennis Quaid version.)

Drag Out the Action : Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But if you just know the trap is going to spring, and it doesn’t ... doesn’t...doesn’t...  The anticipation is killing me! The trick here is timing.  Great example, Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble.

Add More Peril : Our heroine is running through the jungle and the Columbian drug suppliers are right behind her, brandishing their machetes.  She crashes through the brush, and finds herself on the edge of a cliff!  There is a river at the bottom of the gorge, so she takes a leap, just feeling the breeze as a blade slashes over her head.  She falls 75 feet into the river and realizes it’s infested with piranas! She swims like the dickens, piranas nipping at her heals, and as she nears the shore, 40 tribesmen with poisoned dart blowguns step out from the trees...   No matter how bad it is, it can always be worse.  Great example, any of the Die Hard movies. 

I Know Something You Don’t Know : We’ve seen the villain hide under the stairs, but the hero has no idea as he walks down into the dark basement.  The author gives us a piece of information that the characters don’t have.  Great example, Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace.

The Cliffhanger : Remember the villain under the stairs?  He leaps out!  He grabs the hero around the neck!  He pulls a knife!  Meanwhile, back at the ranch...  Great example, Hour of the Hunter by J.A. Jance.

My Hands Are Tied : Our hero can see disaster about to happen, but is powerless to stop it.  Greatest example of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. 

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back : The sleuth is investigating Laura’s murder.  He cannot discover a single clue to her death.  Everyone loved her! She was wonderful and squeaky clean.  He’s baffled, and sits in her apartment long into the night, pondering.  At midnight, the front door opens, and ... it’s Laura!  She’s alive!  Then who is the woman who was found lying on the floor of Laura’s apartment, wearing her clothes, shot in the face with a shotgun?  Ultimate example, the 1944 movie Laura.     

And one of my favorites, 

Foreshadowing : This takes some skill to pull off well.  Two guys are sitting around discussing the possibility of some nefarious occurrence.  “Oh, that’ll never happen,” says one.  Want to bet?  If the author has set it up well, we now spend two hundred pages waiting with baited breath for it to happen. Excellent example, Robert McCammon’s Queen of Bedlam.  What a set up!


Take a trip over to today and check out Vicki Delany's guest entry.  How is it she can cook, but her characters can't?  I don't know.  I have the opposite problem.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Talking to myself

Charles here, posting a tad late today but that’s only because I wanted to build the suspense.

Interesting stuff being posted on dialog. I’ve always considered dialog to be one of my strengths, and if the critics are to be believed, dialog may be the best part of my books. Part of that comes from years of eavesdropping, but more comes from my near-constant need to create dialog in my head. I’m not kidding here – and I may need professional help – but I spend way too much time creating imaginary conversations, most of which I’m not even in.

Just ask Rose. She’ll tell you that one of my favorite things to do on long rides is to hold Kiwanis Club meetings as I drive. Out loud. Now I’m not a member of the Kiwanis or any other similar organization, and other than a few speaking engagements over the years, I’ve never been at that kind of meeting, but that doesn’t stop me from holding a meeting anyway. If you were to be sitting in the back seat, you’d hear something like this:

“Gentlemen, if you’ll take a seat…guys?...Jerry, if you’d help get folks movin’ in. Thanks. Good to see you Bill. How’s your son doing? Glad to hear it. Tell him I said hi….Okay, almost set here? Good. Howard, if you’d call the meeting to order…”
“The July tenth meeting of Kiwanis Club number 467 will come to order. All rise for the pledge…”
[Here I’d recite the US Pledge of Allegiance. If we’re driving in Canada, I’d sing O Canada]
“Thank you, Howard. Alright then, lets start with a reading of the minutes. Steve, you ready.”
“Ready and willing. The last meeting we had was on June twenty-third. Now, we were supposed to meet last week, but as Dave will be telling us later tonight there was a bit of a, uh, water situation in the building.”
“A bit? Try a flood.”
“Okay, Noah…by the way, thanks for loaning us that generator.”

Now is this good stuff? Hell, no. Is it painfully annoying to sit and listen to? You bet! But just doing it – making it all up as I go for no reason or purpose, keeping it going until Rose finally cracks (usually about the eight minute mark, although once she waited out a whole meeting, just to show off her superhuman powers) – has helped me hone my dialog skills and ‘voices’ I need to tell a story.

I know this sounds/is crazy, but it’s a technique I honestly use. And this weekend, as we drive down to a B&B in the Finger Lakes, I’ll be hosting another meeting. Unless there is a motion from the floor to bring a quick end on account of the fact that Rose will kill me in my sleep if I don’t.

Thoughts? (Not on my sanity, on the technique.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

“Dialogue attribution,” he said, nervously and eagerly and in a manner that ruined the author’s scene, “is very important.”

A few weeks back, Vicki wrote a terrific blog that still has me thinking titled “Stop That! She Said Angrily.” In this column, she pointed out some pitfalls of dialogue. I’d like to revisit the topic and to begin with a disclaimer of sorts: You may think you are the only one writing your books, but here I will argue that your readers write your stories along with you—and that you need to consider that when scripting dialogue.

First, let’s define dialogue in a way that helps fiction writers: It’s the verbal and non-verbal language used by the author to convey a scene in which a conversation takes place. A line in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” speaks to this. You all know the story. A man and women are discussing abortion. The dialogue establishes the story’s tension and continuously amps it up:

“It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It's not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.”

The non-verbal line is very simple: The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. That’s it, but the sentence conveys a great deal of information. Of course, we know what she is doing physically. But we also know what she is like. She is in deep contemplation here, considering her plight, their future, and possibly even feeling guilty, which would open up all kinds of characterization possibilities (does she hold religious belief? etc). And we know what the man is doing—based on Jig’s non-verbal communication, on her reaction to his statement. The man has to be staring straight at her, waiting intently for her answer, which comes much later in the text. Thus, Jig’s physical action becomes non-verbal dialogue here. It is non-spoken communication that actually propels the scene forward.

Surely there is no need for the dreaded ly adverb here. Imagine how the scene would read if Hemingway had written:
“It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said urgently. “It's not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked down.
“I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.”

Only two changes, but the scene is very different, not nearly as unique. It is also not nearly as effective for one simple reason: The author doesn’t allow the reader to play an active role in the scene. Every reader wants to get lost in the scene. Stephen King calls this “the magic” of fiction, that space between the first page of a book and the last when a reader is so lost in the story that the work is not fiction, it is not text on a page, it is simply a place in the reader’s imagination where she has gone unaware that a book is in her hands, that an author has taken her there.

In my Hemingway revision (imagine being able to say that!) the reader has lost that. The writer is now telling the reader what to think. With “urgently,” I might as well have written THIS IS YOUR AUTHOR SPEAKING FROM THE FLIGHT DECK. THIS LINE IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE! No way anyone is missing the author here. And anyone who was lost in my story has been awoken from their enjoyable trance with the subtlety of a tree crashing through their bedroom window. To continue, my insertion of “The girl looked down” drains the characterization from the scene. Readers learn nothing of Jig. Now her actions are not unique. They are entirely expected. In short, readers are given no hint that will lead them to a realization about Jig. She is just looking down. Is she thoughtful? I don’t know. Maybe there’s an ant on the floor. The bottom line is that “the magic” is gone. No one is lost in my story.

Vicki put this best when she wrote, “If you can’t tell by the dialogue that the speaker is angry or cross or suspicious or cool, or in a hurry, then there is something wrong with the dialogue.” I would add only that you also use the surrounding actions—the non-verbal dialogue, if you will—to let your readers develop your characters and to allow them to play an active role in the scene.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Writers Conferences

I’m sitting at my desktop computer in the office I finally have (mostly) to myself, after writing at least three novels on a computer desk in our bedroom. What a mess that was. I should have been in a closet. And what a luxury to now have a spot of my own, though other members of the family “borrow” it from time to time.

This week, I’ve been ruminating about the writers’ conference I just attended in Jackson Hole. As you know, there are all kinds of writers’ conferences. Jackson Hole is one of the smaller ones. Tim Sandlin, screenwriter, novelist, terrific human being, and director of the JHWC, keeps it on the smallish side (150 attendees plus faculty). That way, all visiting faculty are approachable to attendees. In fact, there are cocktail parties and barbecues where everyone mingles, yaks, and compares writerly experiences.

Tim does an excellent job of rounding up notable authors of fiction and nonfiction, young and hungry New York agents, and grounded and instructive editors from well-known publishing houses. This year, for example, Julia Glass was a keynote fiction speaker. As you may remember, she won a National Book Award for Three Junes. She is approachable, articulate, and kind. In fact, Tim insists he requires nice over notable when he invites authors as faculty.

There are also one-on-one manuscript reviews with a published author, which cost an additional $30 for a short review (20+ minutes; I never can finish critiquing in 20 min), and $90 for an hour critique. Contrast this with the Hawaii Writers Conference, which charges $1195 for their Writers Retreat. Granted, this is 6 days with a published author, but it’s a group session.

There’s something for everyone, and I believe a good conference can be inspirational. I came home from Jackson Hole with lots of ideas on how to write better, which is one of my big goals right now (faster, too).

Some conferences are fan-based. For fan-based mystery conferences, I think of Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and the upcoming Poisoned Pen Webcon (online, at ). Two good instructional mystery conferences are BookPassage, and the new Midwest Mystery Fest, (

Anyone have any other suggestions?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Where do you like to write?

When summer weather finally arrives (and it was really late this year up here in Ontario), most of us like to move outdoors as much as possible. After all, there really aren’t enough days to take advantage of enjoying life al fresco.

As writers, we’re often chained to our computers in a cold, dark garret, but why put up with that when the weather is glorious? Since I’m a “power computer user”, I don’t have the luxury of a laptop, much as I’d like to have one. My wife has one, though, and if I can pry it out of her grasping hands, there is nothing more luxurious than sitting outside by the water garden, listening to the sound of our little waterfall, birds — and all the emergency vehicles and buses careening up and down the nearby north/south street — those last sounds I try to filter out — as I type away merrily.

All this brings me to a question: where do TypeM readers like to do their writing? I’m sure some need the quiet and minimal distractiveness* of their cold, dark garret, but I’m equally certain that others often go walkabout when the writing bug bites and you find yourself with a few hours to indulge your passion — or do your work if one of those very fortunate full-timers.

Our family used to go out camping when the boys were younger, often to Flowerpot Island just off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in Lake Huron. Not only is there no power, but once the tour boats stop running at night, you’re out there alone (along with anyone on one of the five other campsites).

It was there I discovered the joy of writing fiction in longhand. When breakfast was done and cleaned up, I’d go off someplace comfortable, quite often using a bench down near the boat dock, and work for several, exceptionally enjoyable hours while my wife read and the kids swam, caught crayfish and minnows or observed the snakes that sun themselves on larger rocks just off the cobble beach. Nobody would even miss me and I could escape to fictionland for a few blessed hours, writing about murder and mayhem in the music world. Ah! The pure indulgence of it was bliss.

So, where do you folks like to indulge your writing passion when summer (or any season) unlocks the shackles, binding you to your lonely, little desk?


*This distinctive new word is Copyright 2009 by Rick Blechta. All rights reserved. Please contact the copyright owner for unique licensing opportunities that are now available.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Origins of a writing career

Vicki here with, first, a word from our sponsor. I am blogging all week at On Wings of murder ( with a new entry every day. Pop over and see what I have to say about writing, and the writing life.

Next week, Monday and Tuesday, I will be proudly staffing the Poisoned Pen Press booth at the ALA convention in Chicago. As well as attending a great event, meeting tons of librarians, who are always interesting and engaging, I am bunking with Libby Fisher Hellman. Can’t wait.

If you are at the convention, please drop by and say hi.

Sang Pak’s story of how he pretty much stumbled into writing a publishable novel, made me think of my first, meager attempt. My first attempt at fiction was more an exercise in escapism than writing a novel. I was thinking that I might like to write for children (an ambition I abandoned the time time I attended a meeting of CANSCAIP) so enrolled at a creative writing class at the local community college. The teacher believed that you had to constantly exercise the writing muscles, so to speak, and we had to keep a journal every week. At this time I was having some trouble with one of my teenage daughters, nothing out of the ordinary – just normal teenage girl angst, but I didn’t want to write about my own feelings. Instead I wanted to turn my back on my problems and escape into that mythical, always beckoning, Canadian wilderness.

Which I did, in my imagination. Rather than write the class exercise, I wrote the first chapter of what became my first novel, Whiteout. The story, roughly, begins as follows: middle-aged computer professional flees the fallout from a troubled teenage daughter and quits her job, cashes in her savings, and rents a falling-down old cabin on the outskirts of a no-hope town in northern Ontario.

The class loved it. Most of them were middle-aged women, also dreaming of escaping suburban and family life. They encouraged me to continue with the story, because they wanted to find out what happens to this woman. I primarily read crime novels, so it was natural for me to have a crime happen in this woman’s new life.
And thus I wrote a book.

Noticeably, I have never kept a journal since.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Naivety ain’t such a bad thing.

Today's guest blogger is Sang Pak whose first novel, Wait until Twilight, will be released by Harper Collins next month. It's pretty exciting to see that first book being put on the shelves!

First I want to thank Vicki and her generous compatriots for giving me some face time on their blog. Okay introductions are in order here. My name’s Sang Pak and I’m a writer. Eerily similar to an AA meeting, right? Well one thing I’ve discovered with writing and trying to get published, one has to have the tenacity and obsessive nature of an addict to be a viable writer. That and naivety but I’ll get to that later. Now that my first novel is being published August 4th it’s like I’m about to put on a new pair of shoes. I just don’t know what they’ll look like or how they’ll feel. One thing I do know is I’ll be relieved, excited, concerned and generally beside myself.

My book is Wait Until Twilight. A relatively slight tome but stuffed with mystery, grotesques and southern culture. Think J.D. Salinger meets David Lynch meets Flannery O’Connor. Personally that’s my kind of triumvirate. Technically it’s a coming of age/ southern gothic tale with dream-soaked tinge. (Let me add I am officially qualified to write about the south having been raised in Carrollton Georgia.) It took me a year to write the book and five years to get it published. How naïve I was at the beginning. A babe in the woods. A helpless innocent who had no idea the dark forest I was about to enter. But it is that naivety that not only facilitates that first step but allows the writer to continue through the swamp of rejections and false positives.

I had just quit NYU graduate school. First year psychology and moved in with my brother in Irvine, California. That warm Southern California sun was like butter on my skin after months in Manhattan. I’d take these long walks from my brother’s flat just meandering and wondering what the hell I was going to do. My brother, who was middle-management at Disney, was trying to cajole me into starting up a business. Something related to the English as a Second Language domain, which I was familiar with as a former teacher. I’d been doing the legwork in gathering research for such a venture but I found myself walking around the neighborhood more and more. For hours I’d walk in those lazy residential areas with the perfectly manicured lawns and pricey homes with that incessant sunlight on everything.

I found myself going to a nearby park and sitting in the grass. I started going there everyday. I’d get there early afternoon so it would be empty. The first group of people to show would be a line of little girls carrying their backpacks, the luggage kind with the wheels, across the park. They’d be coming from an elementary school across the way. It was strange seeing these children seemingly without a care in the world and there I was a ship without a rudder, no prospects, no desire to enter the workforce or join the corporate world. Everything looked like soul sapping wastes of life. It was while watching this line of girls pulling their backpacks that I decided to make a go of writing. Hey I thought, I’d write a novel in a couple of months and get published soon after. Sure it’ll be easy! I had no idea why I felt that way at the time. But looking back I think it was those little girls without a care in the world walking home after school, a world of possibilities opened to them. I wanted that same feeling. And that kind of naivety allowed me to start an endeavor I otherwise would have never started. Sometimes naivety ain’t such a bad thing.

Visit Sang Pak at

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Independence Day

Donis here, wishing all you American Dear Readers a lovely Independence Day.  I no longer make much of a deal about the Fourth of July.  We usually have hot dogs and potato salad for lunch, then watch Will Smith save the world from an alien invasion.  If we hear booming noises coming from nearby Kiwanis Park, we may go out into the back yard and catch a bit of the fireworks display.  These days, we observe the Fourth more out of a sense of nostalgia than patriotic fervor.  When I was a kid, my dad bought enough fireworks to blow up Baghdad, and we'd go out into the back yard after dark and grill burgers and dogs, shoot Roman candles, write our names in the air with sparklers, shoot off strings of firecrackers.  Maybe we were just lucky, but nobody ever put out an eye or burned down the house.  Don, who lived in a more rural area, remembers that his dad dug a pit behind the house every year and built a bonfire, and he and his many siblings would roast anything that could be poked onto a stick.  I've often thought this is some long forgotten Irish tradition handed down over the generations in his family.

I've had some interesting Fourths in my time.  I was in Florence, Italy, on July 4, 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.  My friend and I watched the whole thing on a tv in the lobby of our hotel.  All day, random Italians kept coming up to us and congratulating us for being Americans.  

In 1976, the Bicentennial, we were living in Lubbock, Texas.  We joined the crowd downtown that day and watched a parade so big that it took two hours to pass.  There were more citizens in the parade than watching the parade, I think.  Local businesses were giving away free food - red, white, and blue cake, lemonade, and hot dogs.  I was nearly trampled by the mob trying to get free hot dogs, but I persevered and managed to grab a couple.  When I got back to Don, somehow one of my hot dogs had been torn in half.  I gave him the whole one and ate the half myself, because I was worried about my weight.  I had recently gone up to 112 pounds.

I'm not forgetting Canada Day, either.  One year after the hot dog incident, we landed in Montreal on July 1, after spending a year in Europe, and thought for a minute they were having a big party just for our benefit.  We came back from Tilbury, England, on a Polish ocean liner, the Stefan Batory.  We spent five days crossing the ocean, and three days sailing up the St Lawrence seaway to Montreal. If you will remember, Poland was a Communist country in 1977, so every night the movie in the ship's theatre was something that showed the dangers of Western capitalist decadence.  At least it was cheap. We eased back into the Western Hemisphere by lingering three lovely days in Montreal, then taking a long train trip back to Oklahoma.  We crossed into the United States on July 4.

I spent July 4, 2005, getting ready for the launch of my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.  That was four years and four books ago, and feels like decades.

Since this blog is supposed to be about the writing life, I'll also mention that I'm going to be participating in Bookfest in the West at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, at 7 p.m. on July 17. Ken Kuhlken, Priscilla Royal, and Yours Truly will be there to talked about the art and science of writing historical mystery novels.  Come by if you're in the neighborhood.  It should be fun.  Check out the whole Bookfest in the West schedule at  

Friday, July 03, 2009

Reading your audience

Charles here.

My blogmate John has asked for our thoughts (yours too) on doing readings. My philosophy on this is simple: don’t.

About a month ago I participated in an excellent book event at the Moonshine Café in Oakville, Ontario. There were big names on the lineup – Vicki Delany and Rick Blechta among others – as well as me. We were each give tow, 15-minute slots during which we could read or just chat. While the other authors all chose to read, I stuck to chatting. Each of the authors who read did a fine job indeed, and the audience was engaged and interested. And each author was able put a voice to the characters and move the story along at a good clip, each wisely leaving the audience at a cliffhanger moment, sparking I-just-gotta-know-what-happened-next sales.

I didn’t read from my books at that event.

Now I have a good voice, and if you live in upstate New York, the Lowcountry region of South Carolina, the Elkville area of California, and various regions around the Atlantic coast, you may have heard my voice in numerous commercial spots. And if you tune into the Smart Set (Saturday nights from 5-6pm EST on Jazz 90.1FM in Rochester and around the world) you can enjoy my dulcet tones. Without sounding immodest, I know how to read dramatically and can even make a phone book sound like this summer’s blockbuster must-read. I know how to read.

So why don’t I read? Because I don’t like to be read to.

I do like the occasional Book on CD and I will go to a reading of a play, but in general, I don’t like people reading to me what I would rather read myself. Part of it is that I like to imagine my own voices and intonations, but mostly it’s that, by choice, I’m a slow reader. I like to savor the words, the thoughts, the rhythms and tone, and when someone is reading to me, I have to focus, almost solely, on the narrative. Sometimes I re-read the same line a half-dozen times simply because it feels so good, or I’ll stop after a line and close my eyes just to enjoy it more. As a result I get through fewer books than most people, but I also get through fewer fast-food meals than most people. There are enough things in my life I have to rush through because someone else is setting the pace, enough things that are told to me—told at me—that I choose to avoid those situations when I can. And, because I like to do unto others as I’d like them to do unto me, I don’t do readings.

Rick and Vicki did a great job on reading their books at the Moonshine Café, but even they were not able to read their books to me as well as I read them to myself. Their books deserve to be savored and deserve to be read the way you want to read them, and not the way someone else would want to read them to you. And that includes Rick and Vicki.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Readings: Thoughts and an Open Question

This week, I’m teaching fiction writing to 13 teens, 11 girls, two boys, ages 14 to 18 at the Broken Bridge Summer Arts Program at Pomfret School in Connecticut. It is invigorating work. The kids ask questions that make me think, they take revision seriously, and, when not in class, always have a book open. In short, the future of this thing we all love and choose to live—the literary arts—appears secure. The kids work diligently on their craft from 9 a.m. to about 9 p.m., and each evening, as if to provide creative nourishment, published fiction writers, poets, and playwrights give readings.

I was asked to read my work Tuesday night, told to go for about 40 minutes, then field questions. Forty minutes, to me, seems like a long time. I know I wouldn’t like to be read at for 40 minutes, especially from one text. So I selected the opening chapters from three different books featuring three different protagonists (and I always open a reading by sharing my favorite Philip Levine poem, “The Simple Truth”). Thirty-five minutes later, we were all still awake.

One writer, who had the unfortunate fate of following a 25-minute introductory reading, and is a mainstream author whose work I love (it reminds me of Richard Russo’s), read for 50 minutes from the same book. The audience’s interest level had waned by the time he finished.

Authors read to create interest in their work, even in a forum like the one I have described here. Therefore, I’ve always believed the best approach is to leave them wanting more.

I’d like the thoughts of my blog mates and any readers. What are your approaches/philosophies on readings? Keep it short? Go long and read from several books?