Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Romance in Mystery

A good friend of mine is a romance writer, and he asked me to write a little essay on romance in mystery. I’m not a romance reader—I don’t even usually enjoy romantic movies. Except this little assignment made me think about my preconceptions.

Readers love a little romance in their mysteries. Or do they prefer mystery in their romance? Do they care? Yes, many do. There is even debate as to whether romantic suspense is a sub-genre of mystery or romance. Is J.D. Robb a romance writer or a writer of suspense? How about Janet Evanovich?

In my opinion, the answers vary. If the novel is well written, with a balance of conflict and realistic human interaction, I’ll probably enjoy it, no matter what it’s called. Whether a reader likes his mystery touched with romance or her romance saturated with mystery boils down to personal preference, doesn’t it? And it’s why many literary genres exist. Hooray!

I am a mystery/crime fiction writer and have four books in a series showcasing a female protagonist named Storm Kayama. My novels take place in Hawaii, and weave the legends and folklore of the islands into a contemporary suspense story. Storm has a love interest, Ian Hamlin, who plays a prominent part in her adventures, and affects the choices she makes in her life.

Let’s take a look at romance in mystery and examine some of the roles romance can play in deepening the plot, heightening the suspense, and making the overall novel more compelling.

People have baggage. We all do, and we like to read how others deal with their unique problems. In crime fiction, complicated lives often push characters to be loners. Some are substance abusers. Some avoid commitment. Some care for small children, alone. Some were abused as children. Some, like Storm, lost their parents at a young age. Storm’s mother suffered from depression and committed suicide, and Storm, already insecure at twelve, discovered her body.

A character’s early experiences color the decisions he will make when the author starts putting him in hot water. When she is threatened with physical harm, does she use her martial art skills or run like a track star? Does he use his considerable intellect, the skill he developed as a lonely child? If her father was an angry alcoholic, what’s her view of men? If his mother left when he was five, does he, as an adult, distrust women?

My favorite novels have a complicated protagonist who has room for growth during the novel. A love interest is an excellent way to test, torment, and nurture this person. The incipient romance can highlight the character’s faults and teach her to be a better human being. It can also put him in further danger, test her past assumptions, and pull him into deeper emotional waters.

In suspense, the love interest is an excellent way of getting to the protagonist. A twisted villain will look for a weak spot, a way to deter the protagonist from revealing the criminal’s identity and crimes. And the loved one (horrors!) is a great way to twist the knife. Just as she’s opening up, just as she’s started to trust him…he’s gone. First, she thinks he’s left her. And then she receives the threat. Naturally, the phone call or note comes with a time limit, and a puzzle to solve. As fast as she can do it. The tension and pace escalate.

Other times, the loved one turns out to be a betrayer. His child is being held hostage, and even though he’s loath to do it, he’s been forced to lure her into a trap. Did you see Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler to Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes? I don’t want to give anything away, BUT… Hey, go see the movie.

In "The Five Orange Pips", Holmes mentions that he has been beaten only four times, three times by a man and once by a woman. He admires her. Irene Adler is his equal, and even Watson acknowledges that she’s his secret love.

Sometimes the love interest provides comedy, as in Janet Evanovich’s series starring spunky bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. And Stephanie has three—she can’t make up her mind. Nor does the reader know if any of them are good marriage material, or whether they always have her best interests in mind. Talk about tense and steamy!

Love is a fact of life, and though it brings boundless joys, we all know it sometimes brings trouble and heartache. A good novel delves into emotion, and peels up the armor we attempt to wrap around ourselves. The best novels teach us something, and they show we’re not alone in our fears and trials. Love, romance, and failure are the soul of life and literature. As William Faulkner said in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950, “…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself … alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Win a copy of Gold Fever: A Klondike Mystery

On Thursday (yes, April Fool’s Day) my newest book, Gold Fever, will be released. This is the second book in the Klondike Gold Rush series, the first of which was last year’s Gold Digger. Here is a little teaser:

It’s the spring of 1898, and tens of thousands of people, from all corners of the globe, are flooding into the Yukon Territory in the pursuit of gold. The town of Dawson welcomes them all, except for the people who had been there first. When young Angus MacGillivray saves the life of a Native woman intent on suicide, he inadvertently sets off a chain of events that offers his mother’s arch-enemy Joey LeBlanc, the Madam with a heart of coal, the opportunity to destroy the Savoy Dance Hall once and for all. Unaware of impending danger, Fiona has other things on her mind: among the new arrivals are Martha Witherspoon, a would-be writer with far more tenacity than talent, and her nervous companion Euila Forester. There’s something familiar about Miss Forester’s cut-glass accent, and Fiona MacGillivray is determined to keep the newcomer as far away from Angus as possible.

Twelve-year-old Angus, however, has a better idea.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Mann, the landlady, fills the yard with steam and men’s underwear in her new laundry business; Ray Walker, co-owner of the Savoy, a tough little Glasgow street fighter, spends most of his day mooning over Lady Irenee, the most popular dancer in town; Irene carefully guards her secrets; Sergeant Lancaster, the love-struck, ex-boxing champion, pursues his hopeless quest for Fiona’s hand; Journalist Graham Donohue digs the dirt looking for stories; Barney, one of the few successful miners, holds up his corner of the bar; and Constable Richard Sterling guards the morals of the town with steely determination and the occasional glance at Fiona’s ankles. And – joy of joys – a seamstress of unparalleled quality opens for business.

All the while percentage girls and drunks, croupiers and gamblers, prostitutes and clients, bar hangers-on, Bishops and newspapermen, cheechakos and sourdoughs, and the infrequent respectable businessman walk, or fall, through the doors of the Savoy.

Then a killer strikes and the Mounties are determined to get their man... or woman.

To celebrate the release of Gold Fever, I am having a contest and two lucky readers can win a copy. Please go to my web page at, read the first chapter, and send me an e-mail at Vicki at Vickidelany dot com (you know the drill) and tell me the name of the river from which Angus saves the woman. Contest closes Saturday April 3rd.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Guest Blogger - Carl Brookins

Peter May writes:  Five years ago, I was at one of those dreadful publishers' cocktail parties at Bouchercon in Chicago - where those in the inner circle greet each other like long lost lovers, while glancing around to see if there might be anyone more interesting to talk to.  I, of course, was not a part of that inner circle (and clearly not very interesting), so stood around like a lemon, nursing a glass of wine and wondering if I could slip out unnoticed. 

I was rescued from the ignominy of sneaking out by a charming man with silken silver hair and bristling beard.  He turned out to be Carl Brookins, that distinguished member of the highly entertaining Minnesota Crime Wave.  He shoved another glass of wine in my hand and we began to talk - and have been firm friends ever since.

Variously a freelance photographer, a director and producer with Public TV, a Cable TV administrator, and a faculty member at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Carl is a top rate mystery author and well-known book reviewer. 

He writes a sailing adventure series, the Sean Sean private investigator series, and has introduced a new protagonist, Jack Marston, a mid-level administrator at an urban college. His short work appears in anthologies Silence of the Loons, Resort to Murder, and Heat of the Moment.


There are two sides (at least) to the question of settings. Real or fictional? In my sailing series I tend to be precise. Since the books are grounded in the real world, at least as I define the real world, and by that I mean this one I’m living in, I believe readers are interested in the locations as well as the sailing aspects of the mystery.

Location, that is the geography of the story, has, or should have, some discernable influence on the action, the attitudes and even, perhaps, the kind of characters who show up. Otherwise, the story could be lifted from one city and placed in another with almost no noticeable difference. When I was in Morocco, we learned a couple of interesting things. Each of the major cities was distinct, different in atmosphere and style. Add to that each city had a unique identifiable color that they exploited. If you’re going to use Marrakesh, it better not be sort of like any number of early Twentieth-Century French cities, even though France ruled Morocco for many years and its influences on the architecture of these African cities is apparent. Marrakesh is a unique city with its own personality. Fes, the red city was an amazing and different place.

On the other side of the argument is first, the obvious one, that by establishing a completely fictional setting, even if similar to real locations, you, the author, are free to manipulate things to the needs of the story. Kent Krueger does that extremely well in the Cork O’Connor series set in the Minnesota north woods. His town and county are completely fictional, yet his careful research has grounded him to the specific characteristics that are unique and unusual to the scenery in northern Minnesota—with only one or two very minor missteps early on.

The principal danger in writing about totally fictional places is something I see quite often in crime fiction. An example: your protagonist is running down a street away from the killer who is about to shoot her in the back. Conveniently, an alley appears on the left. She darts into the alley just as the killer fires a bullet that chips some granite from the building just beside our heroine.

Easy. But if you are dealing with a real place, you have to figure out the details that let you save your heroine in real terms and real time. That leads, I believe to more thoughtful, careful plotting and writing. And to return to my own writing, readers of my sailing mysteries expect to be told about real places where the action could only happen the way it happens because the geography is what it is.

My short story, “A Winter’s Tale,” available on line, takes place on the snow-locked wind-blasted northern plains. Read it and tell me if the story could have taken place anywhere else?

Carl's latest sailing mystery, DEVILS ISLAND is out now.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Unaccustomed As I Am to Public Speaking...

Reading Peter’s wonderful entry about his upcoming book tour across France not only filled me with envy and admiration, it also brought up some book touring memories of my own, some good, some not so good, and some that made me want to rethink my whole self-promotion strategy.  Fortunately for the poor, shy, and/or otherwise travel-restricted among us, the internet does provide one a venue for getting the word out about yourself.

The truth is, though, that there’s really nothing like meeting readers face to face.  I will say that the more books I write, and the more tours and events I do, the better I get at it, or perhaps I should say, I’ve become a lot more comfortable performing in front of a group. 

When my first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, came out in July of 2005, it had been many years since I had spoken before a crowd. I used to do a lot of public speaking, in a previous vocational incarnation, and I had always enjoyed it. But it had been 15 years since I had appeared before an audience, and I wasn’t entirely sure I was still capable of turning on the old poise and charm quite as readily as I used to.

 I decided to boost my confidence by going into the event looking like a million bucks. My original plan was to lose twenty pounds and get a face lift, but as time grew short and neither of those things magically happened, I settled for a new pair of fetching shoes. I looked for weeks for something delicious to go with my carefully considered outfit, and finally chose a pair of gold backless sandals with a 1 1/2″ heel. They looked lovely as long as I remained still.  I hadn’t worn heels in so long that I tended to pitch forward when I tried to walk with any speed. They made me taller, as well, and I found myself trying not to knock myself out when I passed under low objects. 

When the day came, I was more nervous going in to it than I hoped I would be. You know how it is when you’re driving down the highway at 70 mph and suddenly you realize that you don’t remember anything about the last 90 miles? It was sort of like that. However, I was told by those who love me that I didn’t do too badly, under the circumstances, and I choose to believe they were telling me the truth. 

It is now five years and probably a hundred personal appearances later. Here is what I’ve learned:

1. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition to be witty and spontaneous on the spot.

2. There’s nothing wrong with using your 'A' material over and over, especially when you’re traveling.

3. If you’re going to read from your novel, keep it short.

4. Look at your audience when you speak - make eye contact.  They’ll like you better as a person, and you’ll better be able to judge how you’re going over and make adjustments in your presentation as you need to.

5. Don’t worry about it if you’re nervous.  Your audience is predisposed to like you.

6. Always wear comfy shoes.

post script: I have had more than one author tell me that joining Toastmasters is an excellent way to become comfortable before a group and to learn the ins and outs of public speaking.

Friday, March 26, 2010

On the Road Again

An increasing proportion of a writer’s life these days is taken up with promotion, and from tomorrow I embark on a huge, three-month promotional adventure that will take me all over France and the United States.

The adventure begins in Paris - a good place to begin adventures.

The French capital is a four-hour train ride north of where I live in the south-west, and I will spend three days there at the Paris book fair, talking to publishers, meeting readers, and signing books.

Book fairs - or “Salons de livres” as they are called here - are a common feature of French life. Almost every small and medium-sized town in France has an annual book fair. Most are of a general nature, covering all the genres, but there are many that specialise in “polars”, or mysteries.

Most of the book fairs are subsidised by local or national government, which invests heavily in the arts, and they are phenomenally well-attended. The French of all ages still love to read and turn out in their thousands to buy. I am fortunate to live very near to the second largest book fair in France, at Brive la Gaillarde, which attracts more than a quarter of a million people over one weekend each October.

Writers are invited to attend salons by the organisers who pay all their expenses, arranging meals and accommodation. There are debates and discussions, lectures and readings, and of course lots of signings. Books are provided by the local bookstores who set up stands for the writers.

After twenty years as a screenwriter in television, where writers are commonly treated with little more than (well-paid) contempt, I was amazed to discover that writers in France are both revered and respected - even if poor (which most are). The organisers of book fairs, publishers, and booksellers, all bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of the writering fraternity who are regarded with something approaching awe by readers.

Signing a book for a reader is not a simple matter of a signature, and perhaps a date. You are almost expected to write another novel. Readers are disappointed if you do not cover the title pages with your hand-written thoughts on life, the universe, and everything. I very quickly had to polish up my written and spoken French to accommodate such requirements.

In June I will be attending books fairs from the Alps to the Pyrenees, from the Mediterranean to the English Channel, but the intervening two months will be spent touring the United States.

After the salon in Paris, I fly off to the first stop on a very long tour. Minneapolis, Minnesota. I will step off the plane after a nine-hour flight, to do a stock signing at Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore, and a talk and signing at Once Upon a Crime, before flying on the following morning to Denver, Colorado. Two events in Colorado in two days, are followed by one in Seattle, and then a whole host of events down the west coast, from Sacramento to San Diego. And so it goes on, finishing up two months later in Washington DC, from where I will fly home to Paris.

It’s hard work, but I do love these tours. I get to meet the amazingly dedicated independent mystery bookstore owners who are the lifeblood of the genre. Without exception, great characters and lovely people. I get to meet my American readers (who, thankfully, only require my signature on the title page). And I get to see the wonderful diversity of geography and culture that goes to make up the biggest English-language market in the world - the United States of America.

And when I say adventure, I mean adventure. Previous tours have variously seen me wrestling with burst water pipes, whale-spotting in the Pacific, losing a tooth and spending a fortune on dentists, driving three hours across a desert to attend a book event that the store owner had forgotten about...

As always, I will keep a daily blog of my travails for friends, family, and readers. You, too, can follow them on my blog here. And in case I am coming to a town near you, you can find the full itinerary on my Facebook fanpage here.

But I shall also keep readers of Type M for Murder up to date with a Friday digest during my two months on the road. I hope you’ll join me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The E-book is no iTunes

Like most writers, I sense that we will see major changes in the publishing world soon, thanks to the e-book and a variety of portable computing devices on which one can read them. I don’t know whether to quake with trepidation or embrace the possibilities.

Recent Type M threads have discussed the feasibility and merit of e-books, raising many interesting points. One stance many e-book supporters (perhaps the optimists among in the book business) take is to draw a parallel between a version of e-publishing and the music industry, which, thanks to Napster, went through a similar revolution several years ago. However, I have a hard time with this analogy. It seems to me that drawing a parallel between the music industry’s use of the Internet and the potential of the e-book might be dangerous for a couple reasons—one mathematical, the other cultural.

According to a June 2009 Reuters article, iTunes has caused a major industry-wide dilemma for recording artists: the revenue from digital sales is rising too slowly to make up for the loss of CD sales. To compensate, iTunes has raised prices from 69 cents to 99 cents and now to $1.29 per song since it began. So I get nervous when people offer the iTunes business model as an example when discussing the future of the book industry. For one thing, I see the Internet, as it pertains to publishing, as a potentially effective promotional tool (though many will dispute this), rather than a publishing vehicle. The difference between the iTunes model and what we have is simple: theoretically, a recording artist could sell one song—from a CD comprised of 12—a hundred thousand times. That formula simply doesn’t work with novel-length fiction. No one is buying a section or a chapter individually from the whole. Moreover, $9.99 is a hell of a lot more than $1.29—in fact, during a recession, the difference might be exponential.

The second reason why the iTunes business model scares me is that the average American eighth grader knows 50 percent fewer words now than in 1950. I read an article recently claiming that television hasn’t hurt this generation’s ability to read—it is the constant commercial interruptions: children watch enough TV to effectively grasp narrative structure; however, they cannot focus long enough to read a significant novel because they are programmed to focus in 10-minute intervals. If this is true, a four-minute song poses no problems, and the Internet is the mode of choice for most teens and twenty-somethings anyway; therefore, the electronic download is just a happy click away. Yet, if this theory is true, the same cannot be said for novel-length fiction.

Irony of ironies, my wife, just last week, announced she ordered an iPad for my 40th birthday. It will arrive April 3. I can serve as Type M’s official guinea pig for electronic reading, so there will be plenty more to come on this topic.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So, CAN the Internet set writers free?

I’ve spent a busy week thinking about last week’s blog entry. I also received some emails privately that pointed out one or two things. (Thanks for that, Craig and Jane!)

To cut to the chase, the premise of my previous entry is that writers can use the Internet in the same way that musicians have for several years now: to bypass the usual channels (publishers, in our case) to get their wares to the public.

Well and good. It isn’t hard to publish your own e-book, and it doesn’t involve the same massive cash outlay that publishing your own paper book requires. Makes it pretty attractive, doesn’t it? No sending out those manuscripts, waiting forever for it to be read, rejected and then sent off to another publisher. Even if you’re lucky enough to have your novel picked up, there’s no interminable wait for it to appear on bookstore shelves. You’ll be working for yourself, right?

Problem is, if your beautiful baby (i.e. your ms) hasn’t been picked up by any publisher or agent to whom you’ve sent it, there’s likely a good reason: it’s not good enough. Whether you self-publish in print or electronically, there’s always the stigma that there’s something wrong with what you’ve written. The reason? There usually is. It is really quite easy to self-publish. You just have to be willing to put in a whole lot of time and energy (and money). But really, is your novel good enough to be out there?

For all intents and purposes, let’s say that it is. Let’s say it’s a great novel. Will you be more successful if you put it out as an e-book, rather than going the traditional route and signing on with a publisher? Is it worthwhile?

The answer is “maybe”. That answer would be the same if you went with a publisher, too. I’m sure everyone has read a novel that almost slipped by unnoticed, never sold that well, and which never made much money — but it was fantastic and should have sold several million copies. It happens all too frequently, sadly. Put it down to no marketing, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe the publisher just didn’t know how to sell the book.

What is needed is a framework for good books to be self-published, then marketed heavily to the appropriate audience. Hopefully, then, the low price of an e-book will allow increased sales. (PS: Why try to sell to everyone? That’s the way a lot of book marketing is done and it’s silly. A targeted audience is much more cost effective way to sell.)

What is needed is some sort of clearing house for e-books, one that can vet submissions, and if they pass muster (both in quality of writing and production), then they’re put up for sale. I suppose what I’m talking about, in effect, would be an e-book publisher, but I’m thinking of it as more of a cooperative model. The ideal groups to handle this sort of thing would be writers’ groups, such as Crime Writers of Canada, but regardless, there would have to be some sort of quality assurance, such as wineries here in Canada have, as a form of industry self-regulation. To be designated VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance), wines have to be of a certain quality standard to be able to us the special labeling. These e-book marketing structure I’m proposing would aspire to the same sort of thing. “Buy this book. We can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but the writing and production will be of a certain quality standard.”

On the other hand, an author could just produce their book, and put it out there, doing their own marketing and promotion, then hope for the best. As the e-book side of the business grows, I’m sure something like iTunes or CD Baby will spring up for book marketing and that will make things far easier for selling.

So if you have a strong heart, a strong back and lots of time on your hands, you could bypass all of that publisher stuff right now and go for it yourself electronically. Putting out 1000 trade paper copies of a book will cost you in excess of $12,000 by the time you do everything needed, probably closer to $18,000. Putting out an e-book will cost you just a few thousand since you don’t have the same layout costs, printing, transport, fulfillment, etc, etc. If you’re good with page layout and can design a good cover and promo material, and then are willing to do all the promotional spade work, you should be able to do it for even less.

Will it be worth the effort? Who can say? But as e-publishing matures, it may become a viable way to get your book out there, if you’re of that iconoclastic bent. Please let us know how you do.

Also, if you have experience doing this sort of thing, please let us know.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Naked People Doing Nothing

Coincidently, I am in a Zen state as described by Donis on Saturday. A cup is more than a cup.

I am home from my research trip to New York City and raring to get back to work on the new book. As I was running through the streets, taking pictures and jotting down notes, my mind was racing with ideas. Not plot ideas, but I was translating the things I was seeing and experiencing into words - how my characters will see and experience these things. The protagonist has never been to New York City before either, so she will approach the city with the same fresh eyes as I did.

You can do so much these days on the Internet in terms of research that sometimes it doesn’t seem worthwhile to travel, and spend all the time and money involved, just to check out some locations. But the Internet misses so much: for example I found Manhattan to be so incredibly crowded. I know it’s crowded – it’s a big city – but this weekend past was the first nice warm sunny Saturday and EVERYONE was out enjoying it.

I’ve seen pictures of the crowded streets, but in person found it to be quite intimidating. And I wasn’t in a hurry. I can’t imagine fighting those crowds when you’re in a rush to get somewhere. (Or pursuing the bad guys).

I have a scene where the protagonist meets her police contact at Starbucks for breakfast. I wasn’t going to bother going to the exact Starbucks, heck I know what Starbucks looks like. But then I saw a couple in Manhattan that don’t have any seats – it’s just a takeout place. So I rushed over to the location of ‘my’ Starbucks to make sure it had tables and chairs.

The trip wasn’t all work. We had great meals, went to the Frick, which I just loved, and to the MOMA where I saw the exhibit Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present. The one with the artist staring at people who are staring back and naked people doing nothing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Guest Blogger Michael Little

Debby here, introducing this Sunday's guest blogger, Michael Little, an award winning short-story writer and novelist. I have had the honor of working with Michael in creating both fiction and music. If you have the opportunity to read one of Michael's creations, get ready for a treat.

Michael is the author of Chasing Cowboys (2009) and Queen of the Rodeo (2001). His short stories have appeared in Bamboo Ridge’s collections, including “Pickles and Shawnilynn and Me at the Mall” (November 2009), “Mango Lessons,” “Walter and the Dream Girls,” “Seven Ways to Tell If You Married a Cosmo Girl,” and “Walter! Walter!” (a grand prize winner in the Honolulu Magazine Fiction Contest).

Michael also co-edited The Breakup Queen and Other Romantic Tales by Hawaii Writers (2007). He served as President of the Aloha Chapter of the Romance Writers of America for five years. He is currently working on a historical novel, Fanny the Pirate, and writing a blog for and a blog for writers at Michael’s characters also hang out at

Thalia and her Sisters by Michael Little

Thalia, Muse of Comedy
Do you believe the Greek Muses are still around to inspire musicians and dancers and writers? I choose to believe in Thalia and her sisters, partly because they are a way of connecting with classic times and great writers, and partly because they explain a growing list of inspired moments when stories were thrust before my eyes and into my hand.

Thalia and her eight sisters. Were they spirits or goddesses or water nymphs? Muses dancing with Apollo

They were all of these. Their daddy was rather famous. Hesiod, in the seventh century BC, wrote that they were the daughters of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Over time Thalia and her sisters became associated with specific fields of patronage:

• Calliope (the “beautiful of speech”), chief of the muses and muse of epic or heroic poetry;• Clio (the “glorious one”), muse of history;
• Erato (the “amorous one”), muse of love or erotic poetry, lyrics, and marriage songs;• Euterpe (the “well-pleasing”), muse of music and lyric poetry;
• Melpomene (the “chanting one”), muse of tragedy;
• Polyhymnia (the “[singer] of many hymns”), muse of sacred song, oratory, lyric, singing, and rhetoric;
• Terpsichore (the “[one who] delights in dance”), muse of choral song and dance;
• Thalia (the “blossoming one”), muse of comedy and bucolic poetry; and
• Urania (the “celestial one”), muse of astronomy.

Invoke a muse at the beginning of your poetry or prose, and you follow the example of Homer and Virgil, Dante and Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Here are a few examples from the wondrous Wikipedia:

Homer, in The Odyssey: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course, once he had plundered/ the hallowed heights of Troy.” Virgil, in the Aeneid: “O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;/ What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;/ For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began/To persecute so brave, so just a man.”

Dante, in The Inferno: “O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!/ O memory that engraved the things I saw,/ Here shall your worth be manifest to all!”

Milton, in Paradise Lost: “Of Man’s first disobedience, the fruit/ Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste/ Brought death into the World, and all our woe,/ With loss of Eden, till one greater Man/ Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,/ Sing, Heavenly Muse.”

Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde: O lady myn, that called art Cleo,/ Thow be my speed fro this forth, and my Muse,/ To ryme wel this book til I haue do.”

Shakespeare, in the Prologue of Henry V: “Chorus: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention,/ A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/ And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

Great or small, published or unpublished, each writer follows in the footsteps of giants. Abandon the giants? Forsake the Muses? Do so at your own peril. We don’t have to invoke the Muses explicitly at the beginning of a story or poem, but we should not ignore them. A silent invocation is appropriate. Pray to God for strength and wisdom and beauty in your writing, but also keep the Muses in mind.

I write comedy, which explains why the painting of Thalia adorns the beginning of this essay. I often write romantic comedy, so I also pay tribute to the amorous one, Erato, the muse of love and erotic poetry. Thalia and Erato, each excellent in her own right, make an unbeatable combination.

Although I rarely introduce the Muses into my stories, I recently found a perfect opportunity to do so, at the end of the opening chapter of a historical novel I’m working on, Fanny the Pirate. The narrator, a young unknown poet named Jack Fielding, reads about an opening for a Ship’s Poet on a three-masted schooner, but the ship is to sail the next day, so he rushes through the streets of Boston to interview for the position. Now here is a character who knows he needs help:

Out on the street, in the rain, I make a silent plea to the muses. Speed me on my way, oh Thalia, muse of comedy and bucolic poetry. Then I remember how agonizingly fickle Thalia is, coming and going as she damn well pleases, so I add another appeal. Guide my steps, oh Calliope, chief of muses and muse of epic poetry. But surely Calliope is too busy for one struggling poet racing through the streets of Boston. And when did I ever write an epic poem? More muses. I must remember more muses. Then it hits me. Erato! Of course! Be with me today, oh Erato, muse of erotic poetry, and I promise that I will honor you with your favorite kind of verse.

As I make my way to the harbor, and the “grand voyage of discovery” that must be mine, I begin to compose a lyrical poem in my head to show Erato that I mean to keep my promise. The title is easy: “The Redhead in the Hay.” Finding words to rhyme with Prudence, now that’s the hard part.

Like Jack, I often feel in need of help, in need of a break, in need of inspiration, in need of a new story. Each of my past stories has a history. Whether it was talking to a rodeo queen in Reno, or watching a steer wrestler perform in the arena, or picking mangos with a long pole in Honolulu, or riding on a bus downtown and suddenly imagining a man living on top of his house for no apparent reason, or staring at a picture of a woman on a refrigerator magnet in Boston, or studying a Komodo dragon at the zoo and wondering what would happen if the dragon studied the two-leggers outside its cage and yearned to be human and free, or spotting a book about historical women pirates on the bargain table at Barnes & Noble—whatever it was, I have always tried to thank the Muses for throwing stories my way.

As Jack Fielding says, Thalia is agonizingly fickle and comes and goes as she damn well pleases. The same could be said of Erato, but the sisters eventually do come around again, for which I am grateful. I know that Thalia and her sisters have busy lives. But they’re still on the job. And, after all those years, they’ve held up quite well.

Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Race is On

Crying Blood, my fifth Alafair book, has been penciled in to Poisoned Pen Press’ publishing schedule for March 2011.  One year from this month.  The pressure is on.  “But what,” you say? “That’s a long time from now! You should have plenty of time.”

That’s not how the publishing business works, Dear Reader.  Unless your book is sure to be a best seller about a scandalous event, the publisher wants lots of time between the moment you hand over the manuscript until the day book hits the shelves. In order for Poisoned Pen Press to have my book ready to go to press in twelve months, I have to provide them with an acceptable manuscript by the end of this June, and that is not a long time from now.  Especially considering the fact that I expect I’ll need to produce around fifteen to twenty thousand mor

e words (50-60 pages) before I’m finished.  And not just any words.  They have to be fifteen to twenty thousand good words that all go together and make sense, and, we dearly hope, enthrall the reader. I hope I can do it.  In fact, I anticipate that I can do it without too much trouble, unless something awful happens between now and June. In my experience, that’s been known to happen, so I am not facing this deadline without anxiety.  But, like my friend Hannah Dennison said, nothing motivates a writer like abject terror.

I’ve noticed that there is an altered state of consciousness that comes upon you when you’re fully in writer mode,  You get into your ‘writer’s head’, and everything you see, or hear, or do, takes on a new meaning that relates in some way to the story you’re writing.  Everything becomes grist for your mill. Then, after the book is done and gone, your head returns to normal, and you go about your life.  It reminds me of a Zen saying (as I’m sure you’ve noticed, most things do) - “Before you begin to study Zen, a cup is just a cup and a dish is a dish.  While you’re studying Zen, a cup becomes more than a cup, a dish more than a dish.  After you achieve Zen, a cup is just a cup, and a dish is just a dish.”

I do want to mention that last weekend I attended the Tucson Festival of Books on the University of Arizona campus.  

This is an enormous annual event.  Over 350 authors participated, including some very big names.  Last year, somewhere around sixty thousand people attended, and I was told that attendance was even bigger this year. I was fortunate enough to be asked to do two events - a mystery-writing workshop on Saturday, and a historical mystery panel with Jennifer Lee Carrell (author of NYT best seller Interred With Their Bones) on Sunday.  The weather was fantastic, my events were a great success, and I spent some quality time with several of my favorite authors. More about that on my own website.  These pictures are of a tiny part of the central exhibit area on the Campus mall.   I’d like to say I’m the hottie in the dark brown blouse, but I think you know that I’m the ever so attractive woman in the beige wrap.  

Friday, March 19, 2010

To Trail or not to Trail

At the beginning of February Vicki wrote an interesting and well-observed piece on the value of book trailers. I would like to add my own little coda to this debate.

When I first became aware of the emerging fashion for making book trailers I thought: What a cool idea.

Then I had a look at some, and realised why maybe it wasn’t such a cool idea. Most are woeful - even the “professionally” produced ones. The problem? Well, most writers aren’t film-makers, and most trailer-makers don’t know how to sell books.

Then there is the question: Is it worth it? There is no statistical evidence to show that book trailers sell books, and most anecdotal evidence would suggest not.

So why are publishers encouraging writers to make them? I recently read a long list of suggestions made by one of the world’s leading publishers to its writers on how best to promote their books - a list which prominently included MAKE A BOOK TRAILER. And, to be honest, that made me mad!

The publisher takes the lion’s share of the profit on a book. Sure they have overheads. But so do we - like a year of our lives spent writing the damned thing, subsidising ourselves out of the meagre earnings from the last one. So why should we spend thousands on promoting a product from which the publisher will make more money than we do?

Well, the reality is, if we don’t promote our own books nobody else will. And the reason that publishers are so keen on trailers is that a good one promotes the brand - the book title and the author.

So are they worth it? I have a sneaky feeling they are. Major advertising agencies are now making ads. purely for viewing on Youtube. Because they know that if they are clever enough, the ads. will go viral and be seen by millions.

But I have one major caveat.

Under no circumstances spend the kind of money the so-called professionals are asking to make them.

A leading maker of video book trailers advertises that they will charge a mere $1,249 for a standard trailer - which turns out to be little more than captions over a series of still or video clips - and $2,299 for the same thing with “a professional voice-over”. That price, they advertise, includes digital distribution and music. Well, what is digital distribution? Uploading it to Youtube and emailing it to your fans costs nothing to do yourself. And there is a wide range of copyright-free music loops available to anyone on Apple’s Garageband software.

When my book “Virtually Dead” - set in the virtual world, Second Life - came out in January, I decided to try making my own trailer. So with the help of a few friends, I shot my trailer in Second Life, created my own soundtrack using Garageband, and uploaded it to Youtube. It didn’t go viral, but it’s had nearly a thousand views, and almost everyone who’s seen it said it made them want to read the book. I also made it available in Second Life itself, where it has had several thousand more viewings, and where I have spent the last two months doing inworld promotional events inspired by interest created by the trailer.

And what did it cost? A day of my time. Worth it? I think so. I just need to get a little better at it. But, hey, we’re writers. We live on good ideas, and all a trailer really needs to be successful is a good idea. You can take a look at my effort, with all its shortcomings, here.

• As a coda to my coda, I have actually been doing video trailers for years. When I research a book I take video footage of all my locations, and early on began cutting together 4 and 5 minute sequences of shots set to music, just to give a flavour of the book’s setting. The video I made for my latest book, published in France but not yet available in English, created so much interest at the publisher’s, that they actually used it to sell on the rights around Europe. A very simple piece of editing, you can take a look at it here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fiction Must Be More Realistic Than Fact

As Type M’s resident “golf guy,” you can bet I’ve been following the gory Tiger Woods saga, and I—like you—have been stunned by Woods’s personal and professional hubris-riddled freefall.

Each year, I teach Sophocles’s OEDIPUS REX, one of the original tragedies. In the play, as with all Greek tragedies, the protagonist, Oedipus, suffers a downfall beset by hubris. Everyone, including the audience, watches and predicts what awaits him. In fact, Oedipus seems to be the only one oblivious to his impending doom. I’m a sucker for internal conflict, but the play’s conclusion could not be more anticlimactic. It’s like watching Rod Blagojevich’s final days in office. The only difference is that in 420 B.C. there was no paparazzi, no 24/7 HEADLINE NEWS. If there was, no one would buy the plot.

Or would they?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for willful suspension of disbelief. Yet I’ve long believed that fiction—especially contemporary crime fiction—must be more realistic than truth most of the time. For instance, as much as I love the ancient tragedies, I’d never come up with a Jack Austin plot calling for the world’s No. 1 player to lead a secret life for years only to have it catch up to him and, in the course of two short weeks, have him seemingly lose everything. Any thoughtful reader would logically (and rightfully) ask, How could the world’s most recognizable athlete lead a double life? No way, not in the age of 24/7 media coverage. Who can argue that logic? The plot would seem ridiculous. My editor wouldn’t read ten pages. Similarly, what writer would have the audacity to propose a novel in which the wealthy son of a former U.S. President somehow gets elected and launches a war founded on false threats of WMD and then gets re-elected? Again, a demanding reader would say, This could never happen. The U.S. media would be on top on the story.


There are two ways to look at the reality-is-stranger-than-fiction concept. Perhaps these recent storylines mean nearly anything is possible. Again (as I did last week), I will lean on Raymond Chandler’s accurate line, “There are no dull stories, only dull minds.” However, willful suspension of disbelief only goes so far, especially among mystery fans. The average mystery reader wants to learn something new—about a unique occupation, about a unique setting, about the human psyche, about a particular crime. The genre has evolved immeasurably from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Murders in Rue Morgue” or even Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. In the age of CSI, COPS, and other reality-based TV shows, accuracy is at a premium. If you write contemporary crime fiction, don’t show up to work without it.

It was Ernest Hemingway who, in A MOVEABLE FEAST, wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know” –a lesson for fiction writers, a mantra for crime-fiction writers because our readers demand much more reality than our daily newspapers sometimes offer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Will technology set writers free?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the breakdown of the music industry. It’s all due to the sharing of music, starting with Napster, and it’s still going on, sometimes officially sanctioned, oftentimes not. Through it all, though, the music industry seems helpless to stop it. But the really interesting thing is that now the creators of music (musicians) are able to reach out to a wider audience without having to sell their souls to the music industry devil.

It’s inevitable then for the publishing industry to go through the same thing. We’re at the start of that, but did anyone learn anything about the trials of the music industry?

That’s a bit hard to tell. Certainly publishers have haltingly embraced e-books in a way that music didn’t at the beginning with mp3s. Google, too, has muddied the water with their unprecedented grab at taking electronic control of copyrights that they do not own.

So what’s a lowly author to do? No one knows what sort of royalty structure should be in place for the much-cheaper-to-produce e-books. No one has any foolproof way to track something as ephemeral as an e-book download for a fee. The producers of what people read (and please be certain that this term does NOT include publishers — they only facilitate) are left standing around while the big boys (i.e. book store giants, the big publishers, Amazon, Apple et al) duke it out.

But isn’t the internet, and our own ability to publish our own books and then reach out to the world something that could be of exceptional value? Might it be possible to forge a successful career on one’s own using the power of new technology? Could a knowledgeable and creative author forge new ways to reach out to the reading public?

I think so and next week I’ll outline how. Sorry to be a teaser about this but I’m snowed under with work, both of the daily-grind sort, as well as due to several characters who have to stand around all day, waiting for me to join them as we try to figure out the plot to the new book.

Tune in again next Tuesday when all will be revealed...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Vicki in the Big Apple

New York New York. In line with Anthony Bidulka’s Reason Number 6 on the Perks of being a crime writer, I am off soon to New York, New York. This will only be my second visit to that city. I went a few years ago with Rick Blechta and the late Lyn Hamilton for a book store appearance. We had a great time, but the visit was all too short.

There are a couple of scenes in my new book, tentative title Edward County, that are set in Manhattan, and although I have done a lot of work with Google Streetview looking for locations, I need to go there to satisfy myself that I’m getting it right. At one point in the book there is a foot chase through the streets of the Gramercy Park area, and I know that I have to walk the streets myself to get a genuine feeling for it. So if you are in Gramercy Park later this month and see a woman taking pictures of street signs and jotting down notes, it’s probably me.

One of the problems with writing novels is that the seasons change faster than we can write. I first came up with these scenes in December, and thought it would add a touch of poignancy to the story to have the protagonist searching the streets for a runaway child at Christmas time. Of course it is now spring, and the Christmas decorations will all be put away and the flowers popping up, but that’s where imagination comes in.

I am also hoping to have the opportunity to drop into a couple of shelters for runaway youth and street workers and organizations that work to combat human trafficking while I am there.

As it turns out my eldest daughter has to go to New York City for work and so we are going to stay on over that weekend and see the sights.

So if anyone can recommend 1)sights to see 2) hotels and restaurants 3) street youth workers who would be willing to talk to me, 4) bookstores to which I can pay a drop in visit, please let me know.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Anthony Bidulka on The Hidden Perks of Being a Crime Writer

Today I am very pleased to again welcome my good friend and fabulous crime writer Anthony Bidulka to Type M. Tony writes the Russell Quant series set in his home town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and all sorts of other wonderful and exotic places around the world.

In the past ten years or so, since becoming a full time writer, I’ve been lucky enough to be a guest of many book clubs. First, let me tell you, each one is quite different from the next. After a couple of unexpected – but nonetheless intriguing – situations, I learned to query the person who extended the invitation about what exactly were the club’s expectations of me. If all they want is to sit around, drink wine, eat dessert and shoot the breeze with an author (discussion of my book - or any book - is not a given) – I’m all for that, I just want to know to come hungry. If they want a reading from something new and unpublished, that’s great too – but I don’t normally travel around with my latest scribblings in my back pocket and I can’t “just remember it”. But all that is besides my point today. I bring up book clubs because one of my recent visits distinguished itself when a club member asked a question I’d never really been asked before: What do you consider the perks of your profession?

After a short hesitation, I threw out a few pat answers to fill the silence; all the while my brain was doing loop-de-loops as I carefully considered the unusual question. The first thing I realized was that I hadn’t thought about this in a while. I’m pretty good about remembering to celebrate successes. And I do wake up every morning knowing that I love what I do. But had I really been appreciating what a good thing I’ve got here? Instead I’d been focusing on meeting deadlines, finalizing galleys, considering how to reinvent promotional touring when so many of the bookstores I visit are disappearing, evaluating my true feelings about e-Readers, having perfectly good night’s rests disturbed by my mind chewing over concepts for a new book, worrying about when I was going to have the time to prepare for a meeting with my tax accountant. Plus dealing with the seventeen-thousand-and-three other details of living a busy life.

It was high time I (re)identified the perks of my profession, line them up, and give them their due.

As I did so, an interesting thing I discovered about these perks, is that almost all of them came as a surprise to me. I didn’t know they were perks until they happened to me. No one took me aside ten years ago and said: “Okay, now that you’re a writer, here’s all the cool stuff you get.”

So, in no particular order, here are my:

Top Ten Hidden Perks of Being a Crime Writer

1. People want to sit next to me at a dinner party

Immediately prior to beginning life as a full time writer, I had a decade long career as a corporate auditor with a major Audit and Accounting firm. See! You’re yawning already!

I consider myself a decent conversationalist. But the routine was always the same: I’d get seated at a dinner party. Eventually the “What do you do?” question would come up. I’d say: “I’m a Chartered Accountant”. Eyes began to glaze over. Every time. Not so anymore. Being a published crime writer is actually a pretty cool job. And there aren’t too many of us around; particularly in Canada. People want to know about what we do.

And for extra fun, you can always answer the “What do you do?” question with something like: “I commit murder for profit.” What fun.

2. Immortalizing proclamations of love and appreciation

For me, one of the best parts of coming to the end of writing a book, is that it means I get to write the Acknowledgement and Dedication sections. I love doing this. I get to think about all the special people who’ve been part of my writing process, part of my life, during the past months while I worked on the book, and say thank you in a very public way. I find that very satisfying.

3. Asking unusual questions is part of the job

Prefacing any conversation with “I’m writing a book, and I was wondering if you could tell me about…” is a very powerful tool. Not only do I get to meet and chat with interesting people, but I can probably get away with asking some questions (in the line of duty) that others can’t. As a rule, people are very generous with sharing what they know. Even dirty little secrets. Which are the best kind!

4. Doing bad things

Without concern for legal repercussions, crime writers can do bad things to evil people whenever they want. Although I (honestly) haven’t consciously done this myself, I know of colleagues who take this a step further. One writer I know of in particular, quite regularly bases his bad guy characters on people he does not like. Then, over the course of 250 pages or so, he painstakingly unravels their lives, then throws them in jail or kills them! Who needs therapy?

5. Making mom proud

What mother wouldn’t like being taken into a bookstore’s café for a bit of lunch, and being seated under a massive black & white photo of her son? I get to do that whenever we’re in the McNally Robinson bookstore in my home town of Saskatoon. I’m not quite sure how I feel about having an embarrassingly huge picture of my mug hanging out in plain sight (just calling out for a few well-placed scribblings with a magic marker), but it gives my mom bragging rights with her friends, and that’s a pretty cool thing.

6. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Baltimore

I travel a lot in my personal life. Although my mother believes I’ve probably been everywhere there is to go, I know the truth. I worry I’ll run out of time to get everywhere on my list. Plus return to the places I really love. And so, I likely would never have visited Ann Arbor, Michigan. Or Indianapolis, Indiana. Or Madison, Wisconsin. Or Sacramento, California. The first time I ever visited these places, or even places like Ottawa, San Francisco, Washington, DC or Atlanta, Georgia was on book business. Most definitely, one of the great perks of this career is having a reason to go places I might never have gone otherwise. And, there is something pretty darn neat about going to a strange city and having people you’ve never met before come out to meet you at a book signing or reading.

7. Readers are awesome people

Probably the most unexpected perk, and the one I most cherish, is that every single day I boot up the computer and there are all these great messages from readers. Some are funny, some are heartfelt, some are messages of support, some are just to say hello or to tell me they’ve read one of my books and enjoyed it. What a gift. What a kindness. It still floors me that people take the time to write these notes.

8. Joining a new community

I remember attending my first writer’s conference after my first book was published. I had no idea what to expect. At the end of the first day, I sat on the bed in my hotel room, called home and said: I’m with people like me.
It was a thrilling experience to find a new community of people who did what I did, had the same dreams and worries, hopes and concerns. It’s a community I still value today.
With this family of writers I tour, participate in panels, attend conferences, laugh and cry, celebrate successes, or sometimes just sit around in a bar somewhere and talk about stuff.

9. Unlearning

Have you ever had the experience of knowing you know something, then being proved wrong? So far, thanks to my readers, I’ve learned that bougainvillea do not give off a scent, between knitting and crocheting–with only one can you hear the sound of clicking needles, and my grammar skills stink. But hey, that’s what editors are for.

10. Being surprised

Over the course of my career so far, I never anticipated the wonderful surprises along the way. Like when two readers used their summer vacation to visit Russell Quant’s home city and Saskatchewan for the first time. Receiving a box full of University of Michigan paraphernalia from a reader and his mother (including a jersey with ‘Bidulka’ inscribed across the back) after a visit to Ann Arbor. The thoughtful and sobering letter from the reader who was making his way through the Quant books while recovering from a devastating illness. Being asked to judge a performing talent contest (my credentials to do so are still a little murky to me). Awesome.

What are the perks of my profession, you ask? Well, they are plentiful, and wonderful, and they make my life a better place to live. And for that, I am very grateful.

Please visit Anthony (and Russell Quant) at It's one of the best author web pages around.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mystery Quest

I’m not actually here today, Dear Reader. As you read this, providing you read it Saturday, March 13, or Sunday, March 14, I am in Tucson, Arizona, at the second annual Tucson Festival of Books.  I’ll be participating in two festival events this year.  On Saturday, I’ll be conducting a workshop on mystery writing techniques, and on Sunday, I’ll be on a panel of authors discussing historical fiction.

I’ve presented this mystery writing workshop several times in recent years, and it has always been pretty well received.  I give the attendees an overview of the elements of a mystery novel, a little bit of everything, nothing in any great depth, along with a technique for teaching oneself how to construct an effective mystery, all in one action-packed hour.  

Years ago, my husband brought home from the library a copy of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. He writes poetry, and symbology is important to him.  I borrowed it from him, and as I read, it dawned on me that one of the defining traits of the mystery story is that it is basically a hero quest, an archetypical tale, a medieval myth in modern clothing.

Evil is done

The hero goes on a quest to right the wrong.

The hero finds the villain, confronts him, and they do battle.

The hero triumphs, and balance is restored.

All right, you’re saying, I can think of seventeen mystery novels where the hero didn’t triumph, the villain didn’t lose, yadda yadda yadda.  

First of all, quit trying to mess up my theme.  Second, I realize that there are plenty of mysteries in which things don’t quite work out that the killer is caught by the law and punished for his deed.  But that doesn’t mean that there was no justice.  In a mystery novel, a satisfying ending occurs when the right thing happens.

Consider Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot finds out who murdered the victim, all right.  But when was justice done?  As far as our hero is concerned, justice was done when the victim was done in by those he had horribly wronged.  And so, he contrives to convince the police that the murder was committed by a phantom train conductor who has disappeared forever through the snow.

Even in the blackest of noir mysteries, where even the hero comes to a bad end, he brings it upon himself.  He has a fatal flaw.  Perhaps he sacrifices himself because he’s done a bad thing and this is how he atones.  The dragon is slain, even if St. George goes down with him.

Letting the reader see right prevail - whatever that may entail - is what gives a mystery novel its satisfyingly mythic ending.