Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why We Write

Ever wonder why people choose to write what they do? It’s very interesting to see how other writers work. It seems to me that the authors whose works stand the test of time write what they love regardless of the market. When I was a baby author, I was very conscious of what was selling, and always trying to jump on the bandwagon. It didn’t take me long to learn that it can’t be done. The bandwagon is always miles down the road before you can get your bags packed. In fact, I only began to have any success selling my fiction when I forgot about the market and began to write only what interests me personally. That’s why I write historical mysteries. I’m a lifelong lover of historical fiction.

If I wanted to broaden my popular appeal, I’d use a modern setting instead of a historical setting. But I love to go to a place and live there for a while. I love to travel, and that desire to explore the unfamiliar which intrigues me about exotic locales is the same one that fascinates me about exotic eras. To me, reading historical fiction is time travel without a time machine. It’s a cheap vacation to the past. William Faulkner said that the past isn’t dead The past isn't even past. Sometimes, in doing research for these books, I am amazed at how the same things keep happening over and over again. We never learn. This is a sad human fact, but great for a novelist. You can use the consequences of a historical event to make a point or comment about something that’s going on right now. You can do the same thing with science fiction - comment on the present by writing about the future.

If I were more concerned about appealing to the market, I would set my historicals in Tudor England. There are legions of people who would read a book about Tudor England whether they had ever heard of the author or not. Why choose Oklahoma, for God’s sake? Because I know and love the place and the people in my bones. I learned early in my life that most people don’t know much about OK, and what they do know is wrong. And all I can say about that is “Curse you, John Steinbeck.” Oklahoma was a place like no other in the world in the 1910s. It was incredibly rich - there was oil and cattle and land. It was poor and lawless at the same time, because people were coming from all over the world with nothing, trying to make their fortunes however they could. It was still the Wild West, and yet because of the money, it was the most cutting edge modern in the cities. It was an amazing racial mixture for that time. It had been the Indian Nations, after all. The Oklahoma Indians were not like the Indians in other parts of the country at that time. They had run their own country for seventy-five years. They were used to being in charge of themselves, and they didn’t much appreciate all these whites flooding in from other parts of the country with their unsavory ideas about the native people. From the beginning, OK Indians have been much more integrated with the general society and much more self-determining than anywhere else in the U.S. Right after statehood, OK was the most socialist state in the Union. The labor movement was very big there, and they didn’t cotton to the U.S. getting involved in the “rich man’s war” in 1917. It’s a historical novelist’s dream.

Okay, Donis, you may ask, if you’re so into history, why not write a straight historical novel. Why make it a mystery on top of everything?

I will tell you, Dear Reader. For me, a mystery is quite a satisfying form. A mystery novel is an archetypical story A mystery novel is a hero quest. Evil is done. Our hero goes on a quest to right the wrong. The hero confronts the villain and they do battle. Right triumphs over wrong and balance is restored. Justice is done in the end. It’s satisfying. But more importantly to me, the interesting thing about a mystery is not whodunnit, or even how they done it, but why they done it. Mysteries give the writer a very good forum for exploring human nature, why on earth people do the things they do. How is it that some people, when faced with a particular situation, rise to the occasion, sometimes in a truly heroic manner, but others sink to the depths of cowardice, heartlessness, weakness, thoughtlessness, or stupidity. Sometimes a good person is simply backed into a corner and can see no way out other than to commit and act he would never do under ordinary circumstances.

Have I narrowed my perspective audience as much as I possibly can? Maybe. But my stories have a lot of meaning for me, and I think my books are the better for it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Joys of Summer: Random Thoughts

In truth, it seems like very little has happened since I wrote last Thursday, and it seems like the week has flown by.

Last week, I discussed my venture into online publishing, as I have posted all five Jack Austin PGA Tour novels on Smashwords, iBooks, and Amazon’s Kindle. I am watching the “sample download” and “sales” figures closely and reading numerous articles on the E-book industry.

Aside from building an Amazon author page, the week has been spent working on (or rather fighting with) a short story inspired by this fascinating article, creating a Power Point presentation for a pedagogy discussion I will give at a conference in October, and packing—we are moving (less than a mile) in August—and packing and packing. When I’m not packing, I’m driving my daughters to and from tennis, lacrosse, and now pottery camp (ever think you’d hear of such a thing?).

I want to recommend a wonderful novel I just finished, LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS by James Lee Burke. Burke is a poet, an absolute master. He has won two Edgar Awards (no one has won more), and LAST CAR is vivid, dark, existential, and funny. Definitely worth a read.

Back to my story and my boxes!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More on Non-Print Books

What are ya gonna do? Keep telling those stories, I guess. I’m certainly still trying to figure it out.

The Wall Street Journal, June 3, reported on the front page that U.S. book sales fell 1.8% last year to $23.9 billion, but e-book sales tripled to $313 million. The journal goes on to inform us that e-book sales could grow to 20-25% of the total book market by 2012.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the Google alert I’d received that informed me of the sale of 6286 copies of Pleasing the Dead. The link led to another, and another. One of them was Audible Books, and I called them. These people were friendly and helpful, and directed me to Blackstone Audio.

Anne Fonteneau, Director of Digital Sales at Blackstone, spoke to me at length. Blackstone Audio has twenty-five partners, among them Audible Books, iTunes, Borders, Barnes & Noble online. Each quarter, these partners report their sales to Blackstone. More and more, these sales are digital downloads. Note, too, that all the sales are audio books, not hard-copy, paper books. (Say, what do we call old-fashioned books these days?)

Every six months, Blackstone reports all digital and physical (CD’s, cassettes) sales to the book publishers, in my case, Poisoned Pen Press. This is generally done by a mailed statement with a royalty payment.

Anne gave me sales figures for Pleasing the Dead, which came out in February, 2009. Two hundred thirty seven copies were sold, and only 73 of these were physical sales, i.e. CD’s. Digital downloads totaled 164.

So—I’m a long way from 6286 downloads, but this was one company, and a very helpful one. Does anyone know some of the other companies that are downloading? Blackstone seems to have some big partners, but there must be a lot of others.

Poisoned Pen Press has mentioned the confusion of how to sort through the deluge of reports from different companies reporting on different schedules, plus sorting through which authors’ books are included in the statements. This sounds like a nightmare.

I want to close on an upbeat note here, so I will again mention how helpful Anne was. Blackstone is also willing to work with authors on publicity. I’m sure she won’t mind if I include some of her comments:

Here are some of the marketing/ promotion tools we use with our retailers and digital partners:

- Reviews

Have your titles been reviewed by newspapers and/or magazines? If so, please feel free to send them along. We will update our title description pages on all the different sites. The more positive reviews we post, the best impact in sales we see.

- Social media promotion (Facebook Fan Page/ Twitter/ author blogs)

These tools have proven to be very successful. For example, if you tweet that your title is available on (currently the biggest digital audiobook retailer), Audible will pick up your tweet and forward it to all of their subscribers.

- Author Page

- Offering the 1st chapter for free

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Digital Book Signings

Okay, gang, this little funny, sent to me courtesy of Charles Benoit, late of Type M, sort of says it all.

Is this where we're headed? Please tell me it ain't so!

This funny brought to you by the fact that I'm swamped with work at the moment and just can't get my Type M brain in gear. Sorry 'bout that.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bloody Words

Vicki here today to show you a movie. Spencer Barclay (son on Linwood) filmed this year's Bloody Words conference and has put together a great four minute film of the highlights and an introduction by the founder of the conference, Caro Soles. You'll spot some well-known writers. Have a look, perhaps it will entice you into coming next year to Victoria, B.C.

I incidently, am changing into my Constable Molly Smith persona at 44 seconds; giving the Boney Pete Award for best short story at the 1.33 minute mark, and attempting to spar with a policewoman, and not looking too sure about it, at the 3.23mintue mark.

The photograph above is by Iden Ford, husband of Maureen Jennings. Too see more of the great photos Iden took at BW: click here

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Writing a Book That People Want to Read

Last week I mentioned that on June 28 I’m going to be doing a talk for the Scottsdale Society of Women Writers about “the one thing I wish someone had told me about being a writer”. You know how you never notice Hyundais on the road until you buy one, and then you see Hyundais EVERYWHERE? Or you think you’re being so original when you name your kid Olduvai, and then when he gets to kindergarden, there are six other Olduvais in his class?

I’ve been finding illustrations of the points I make in my talk in everything I read these days. In my presentation, I go on for a bit about how to write a book that people want to read. I postulate that the best way to do it is to create characters that the reader really cares about.

Last night I was reading an older Barbara Kingsolver book, High Tide In Tucson. a collection of essays. In one of the essays, “Jaberwocky”, Kingsolver notes that “a novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life ... The power of fiction is to create empathy.” As an example, she says that a newspaper will give you the facts of a situation, say a plane crash, but a novel will show you just how it felt to be one of those hundreds of people who were killed in the crash.

One of my basic beliefs about fiction is that you as the author have to figure out how to make your reader care about the people in your book. It seems to me that truly empathetic characters can even cover sins in the plotting and construction of your book. Think of how many bad plots or unbelievable situations you’ve read in really popular books, and yet, even as you were aware of the novel’s weakness, you still enjoyed it. How does an author manage that?

Jean Auel’s books are a great example. Her “Earth’s Children” series is spectacularly fascinating. Talk about being able to create a world! She manages to make a character in Ayla that millions of readers wanted to follow all across Ice Age Europe though five encyclopedia-sized tomes. And yet in Auel’s world, one woman is responsible for every technological innovation known to Stone Age man. Do we care?

Here’s an egregious example: ever see the movie Troy? I love The Iliad. When I was an English teacher, I taught The Iliad. I know it well. And yet - in the movie, the Trojan War lasted three days instead of ten years. Paris and Helen lived happily ever after. Menelaus got killed. Agamemnon met his fate somewhere other than his bathtub. However, when Brad Pitt stripped down and sluiced himself off after a battle, did I care?

It all depends on how successfully the author (or filmmaker) is able to pull you into her world and how willing you are to go along with her. In his book on writing, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosely said, “a novel is a collusion between the author and the reader.” The reader wants to walk in your character’s shoes, to believe in the world you’ve created, and you don’t want to let him down.

One more unrelated but fabulous thing for anyone interested in the past: My brother-in-law sent me this link to a You Tube video of the first 35mm film ever made. It was taken by camera mounted on the front of a cable car in San Francisco, filmed only four days before the Great California Earthquake of April 18th, 1906, and shipped by train to NY for processing. It is hypnotic. I’ve watched it several times. This is from the intro:

A fascinating movie taken by a camera on the front of a street car 104 years ago. Look at the hats the ladies were wearing and the long dresses. Some of the cars had the steering wheels on the right side. I wonder when they standardized on the left? Still a lot of horse drawn vehicles in use. Mass transit looked like the way to get around. Looks like everybody had the right of way.

The number of automobiles is staggering for 1906. Absolutely amazing! The clock tower at the end of Market Street at the Embarcadero wharf is still there. How many "street cleaning" people were employed to pick up after the horses? Talk about going green!

Click here to see the film. Enjoy!

p.s. Jean Auel fans, I just checked her website in order to make sure I remembered all her titles, and saw that after a nine year gap, her sixth “EC” book, Land of the Painted Caves, is set to be published in March of 2011.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Two (thousand) is a Crowd

Anyone heard of crowdfunding? I hadn't until I read an article in The Guardian the other day.

Seems it is a way of raising funds from many small contributors, mostly on the internet, to finance projects - anything from charity work, to recording a new album, to making a movie.

Here's how Wikipedia defines it:

Crowdfunding (sometimes called crowd financing or crowd sourced capital) describes the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money together, usually via the Internet, in order to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. Crowdfunding occurs for any variety of purposes, from disaster relief to citizen journalism to artists seeking support from fans, to political campaigns.

And there's an interesting article in Time Magazine on how a website called helps bankroll new fashion designers; how Brit filmmaker Franny Armstrong raised more than $800,000 to make a movie that went on to premier at the Sundance Film Festival; how another site called brings together music lovers with unsigned musicians wanting to record albums.

But the thing that caught my interest in The Guardian article was how a French publisher called Editions du Public, employing the slogan "I invest in what I want to read", is harnessing the power of crowdfunding to help readers publish authors. Selected books are promoted on the publisher's website, and readers can discuss it with the author via the website's forum, ultimately deciding whether or not to invest in it's publication.

That investment amounts to €11 ($14), and each book requires 2000 investors, or what are known as co-publishers, to finance its publication. When the requisite number of investors has been found, the publisher will discuss text and layout with the author and sell the book both online and through bookstores. They claim that the co-publishers could make up to eight times the amount of their investment, depending upon sales of course, as well as getting a free copy of the book.

Think of all those mid-list authors dumped on the scrapheap by publishers who didn't give a damn about the thousands of readers out there who still wanted more. Wouldn't any one of those readers be happy to pay $14 for a copy of a book by their favourite author - a cover price which would also buy them into a share of the book's profits?

What an opportunity for some enterprising small publisher to put a host of established authors back in print, financed entirely by their readers. Now that's what I call reader power!

An interesting idea. What do you think?

You can read The Guardian article by clicking on this link.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Smashwords Experience

After two months spent revising my first Jack Austin novel, CUT SHOT (2001), a week spent in front of the computer converting the published PDF versions of my other novels to Word documents, and a half day writing 400-character descriptions for each book, four of my five novels are now up on And I have lived to tell the tale.

The back-story is that my agent, Bob Mecoy, found a loophole in my contracts with the University Press of New England that gave my full rights to any/all electronic versions of my Jack Austin PGA Tour mystery series. I had been following J.A. Konrath’s blogs and comments about e-books. Then I got an iPad for my 40th birthday, and I knew I had seen the future of publishing, so I decided to take advantage of Mecoy’s gift.

Writers often revisit their first novel with the loving eyes of a conflicted parent. At once, the author has unconditional love for their offspring, yet he is not blind to the imperfections of his or her first effort. I wrote the first drafts of CUT SHOT when I was in my early twenties; it was published four or five years later. As the Jack Austin series progressed, so too did my proficiency. I later thought of that first novel in terms of what it could have been, thinking the concept exceeded its execution. When the book went out of print in 2006, I thought the novel had met its final resting place. However, the electronic format offered both the book and its author a second chance. I didn’t do a complete overhaul; the plot remains intact—as per advice from many including my kindly Type M for Murder colleagues. But I did clean the book, tighten it, and add suspense. It was enjoyable work.

I thought the easy part would be uploading my saved versions of the other five Jack Austin novels, SNAP HOOK (2004), CENTER CUT (2004), BAD LIE (2005), and OUT OF BOUNDS (2006). After all, these had earned good (even starred) reviews, so no revision was necessary. Then I realized I didn’t possess the “final” draft of any of the books. Those were on file somewhere in the innards of the University Press of New England, and I had to ask for them. Guess what they said. You betcha’. They wanted $$. The upshot is that between paying for the PDF files and the new cover design for CUT SHOT, I have $400 into the e-books. I have some titles listed for $0.99, $1.99, and $2.99, so I have to sell about 150 to break even.

However, there are many positives. The author controls the list price (ever thought you’d hear a writer say that?), and the distribution through Smashwords is good: within two months, all five novels will be available at every online major retail outlet including the big three,, Amazon,com, Borders. The process is as follows: the author uploads a stripped-down Microsoft Word version of the text to Smashwords, and it is re-formatted to HTML, JavaScript, MOBI (Kindle), Epub, PDF (ironically), RTF, LRF (Sony), Palm Doc (for palm devices), plain text version download, and plain text view for distribution. The economics also makes sense for the writer. You keep 85% of profits generated on the Smashwords site and 70% generated from subsidiary outlets such as Amazon.

What impressed me most was the “customer service” aspect. I emailed Smashwords with several questions--sometimes three a day--and got e-mail replies (one coming at 3 a.m.) from Smashwords creator, Mark Coker himself.

In the end, the downside is that I didn’t write fiction while I was trying to teach myself to be formatting proficient. The upside, though, is that for maybe the only time in my writing life, I have 100% full control over my work, from pricing to cover design. I’ll be crossing my fingers for 150 sales.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride...

There is a certain amount of courage needed to write a novel. An author has to believe in what he or she is doing on many levels: characterization, plot, subplots, setting. It is a doubt-filled process. “Am I making the right choices?” is something we commonly ask ourselves, and the answers can be long in coming, arduous to find and disappointing when they arrive.

One of my worst writing experiences was when a novel (Cemetery of the Nameless) took a very wrong turn and it wasn’t until nearly two weeks of writing — and four chapters — had gone by that I realized just what had happened. It was a very depressing moment.

I was faced with two choices: soldier on, attempting to make it all work, or scrap two weeks of output and go another direction. Visually, I could see myself standing at a lonely intersection, vast wastelands on either side, with a cold wind blowing down my back and an empty knapsack hanging behind me.

The big question: are you going to make the right decision? What was the right decision?

I hung around that crossroad for nearly a week, unable to make a choice. During that time, I tried to imagine my way through the remainder of the book. I knew the ending that I wanted. Would the left-hand route take me there, or would the right-hand one be better?

Part of the issue was that I was loath to throw away all my work. Looking back on it now, I can see how stupid that was. My job as a novelist is to tell the best possible story that I can. How much I have to write and then discard is totally irrelevant to the job at hand.

The other dilemma was a stupid, self-imposed deadline on finishing the novel. At that point, I had one novel out for consideration with a publisher and that wasn’t going anywhere fast. I had all the time in the world to get this novel right. Who cared whether it was completed next week, next month or next year? Only me.*

But even as I answered these questions, the big one still hung over me: do I go this way or that way?

Trying to be really logical, I decided to do both. I kept writing the story arc that I was on, but I also went back four chapters and took the diverging path to see where that would lead me. It became clear after only a few day’s work that Storyline 1 was quickly adding layers of complication to my plot. I was forcing the characters to do things that required a ton of backstory in order to make their actions believable. Storyline 2 seemed to be less complex, but was that a good idea? Number 1 would be richer, more nuanced, the way I saw it.

The problem was solved by my wife. Torn to the point that I didn’t want to continue until I’d answered the questions that were bothering me, I gave her the ms with Storyline 1. She read it and then I asked her what she thought. “It was really good until Chapter 8 and then you started telling me all these things.”

Bingo! Why hadn’t I seen that? It’s “show” not “tell”, dummy! That’s what was wrong with the novel — and I fell into that pit right at the point where Storyline 2 wanted to diverge. Simple.

I didn’t even show her the second version of the ms. Next morning, the sun rose in a cloudless literary sky, I hoisted my full knapsack onto my back and headed down the left-hand path, confident that, for the moment, I was going the correct way.

Know what? I wasn’t — but that’s another story.

*Why is that most publishers want their crime authors to crank out a book a year? Are they going to get the best novel possible? Not in a lot of cases. “Literary” authors get to take as much time as they want. Why shouldn’t we?

Monday, July 19, 2010

More on Characters

I loved Mary Jane’s post yesterday about creating characters. How right she is that you have to give your character flaws, but still make them not entirely unlikeable; and give them good attributes but not make them entirely goodie-two-shoes.
It’s a tough balancing act.

When I began writing, the comments I got from readers as well as editors and agents were that they did not like the character. My reaction was – you’re not supposed to like her. In my early standalone novels I was trying to create women who had had hard lives and were hard people because of it.

Naively, I thought readers should realize that. It was only with time that I came to understand that, generally speaking, readers are not going to invest a substantial amount of their precious reading time with a character they simply don’t like. There are a few books out there that work with an unlikeable protagonist, but they are rare. That is the true meaning of noir, is it not? A book in which there is no one you would want to have on your side?

Even if your character is generally an unlikeable person they have to have something in them that makes the reader believe in them.

Thus when I settled down to revise Scare the Light Away, based on comments received, before sending it to Poisoned Pen, I softened the character of Rebecca by showing her vulnerabilities through such things as the feelings she has for the dog, Samson, who was her late husband’s beloved pet.
At the same time, your character can’t be all good, all the time. Boring. Think Superman. Fine if you’re writing a cartoon character or an action-movie hero, but for a complex novel? Doesn’t work.

Is there anything worse than the constantly whining protagonist? I’ve seen that in manuscripts I’ve critiqued over the years. The character who’s had a rough time, and is in a difficult situation, but doesn’t do anything about it, just lets circumstances control them, and can’t stop whining about it. That character type is weak, and weak equals uninteresting.

Point of View can make a big difference, I think, to how you present your characters. My Klondike Gold Rush series is intended to be light-hearted and funny. The main character is Fiona MacGillivray. No one has higher opinion of Fiona than she herself does. She is self-described as the most beautiful woman in the Yukon, men fall at her feet and hang onto her every word, they clamber to marry her, or perhaps just have a dance. A crowd gathers when she walks down the street.

Hopefully, two things stop Fiona from being unbearably insufferable. First, her twelve-year-old son Angus, who definitely doesn’t worship “the liquor-spotted, spat-upon, sawdust-coated, cheap wooden planks that I walked on.” And Fiona is written in first person. I think it’s a lot easier to do a comic character in first person. In third person, pointing out a person’s faults and foibles can come across as mean-spirited.

And there is nothing funny about that!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mary Jane Maffini on Choosing a Character

The Dating Game: on choosing a character (again!)

“I love you!”
Oh those magic words. Many of us are inclined to fall head over heels when a certain someone comes along. That’s how all those spouses, partners and significant others turn up in our lives. What else would explain the socks on the floor? We soldier on together making memories, children, and lives based on this romantic spark.

But authors beware! You may think that you have control over your characters. Think again. Choosing a character is a ‘dating’ situation that can turn you into a great team when it goes well or a life sentence with no parole when it doesn’t. You have to choose with care. You too could be stuck with an aging alcoholic hack that can’t follow orders or keep a relationship going or even fill out an essential piece of paperwork. What? Oh. Right. That has been done successfully, many times. Fine. Never mind.

Here’s the thing: a main character has to be flawed enough not to be annoying, but not too flawed to remain interesting over time. You wouldn’t like readers to feel like slapping her every time she opens her mouth to hiccup. That character has to be interesting and distinct, without being weird and unlikable. You not only have to count on her (or him – although I mostly deal in ‘her’) in the darkest hour to save whatever needs saving, but then she also has to keep everyone awake for the first two hundred and twenty pages of your book. That’s one serious job description.

When you pick a character for a series, you will stuck for the life of that series. It’s a really big help if you find that personality fascinating. If you don’t, your readers sure won’t. I should know about these commitments. I have three main characters in three series. They all have their flaws, warts and weak points. If I were starting over, I might make a few changes. Let them have a love life for one thing. They might be more cheerful.

Now I am asking myself the key questions: What baggage does this new person bring with them? Are there relatives who will be demanding time and scenes in every book? Will these hangers-on be nattering and complaining about dishes in the sink?

What about bad habits? Running red lights? Secret smoking? Voting record? Readers are getting sooo politically correct lately.

Then there’s that tendency to hang about in graveyards at midnight, no longer acceptable in even the most amateur of sleuths. Any sign of that? What’s the balance of common sense and audacity?

Food preferences can also be a problem: I think I’ve run through ice cream in all its variants. What’s left? Borscht? As for pets, will they show up with a parrot/ferret/python/armadillo? Who will look after that critter when the sleuth is handcuffed to the plumbing in the public library? So much to worry about.

Call me a serial monogamist when it comes to my characters. I love them, of course, and I am faithful when I’m writing each one, but every now and then, I feel like a fling. Is that so wrong?

Now that Closet Confidential my latest Charlotte Adams book is on the shelves in Canada and the USA and the final polishing is being done to The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (April 2011), I’m starting to look around.

I’m pondering the pitfalls of a new character relationship, because I’m about to embark on a new series with Berkley Prime Crime writing collaboratively with my daughter, Victoria. We’ll be writing as Victoria Abbott and we’ll have two protagonists. I understand that I’ll get the crotchety older homebound obsessive book collector and she’ll get the younger, hip, graduate student who chases down the elusive collectables. She presumably trips over the bodies and has all the fun of being on the road. No doubt people will flirt with her and more. I just hope she doesn’t pick up a python.

Wish us luck in this new venture! For all my worry about dating the right characters, I think we are off to a great new adventure together.

It’s been fun pondering characters here on Type M. Thanks to Vicki Delany for inviting me to be a guest and thanks to the rest of you who dropped by.

But enough about me, what do you love in a character? And what turns you off?

Mary Jane Maffini is a lapsed librarian, a former mystery bookstore owner and a lifelong lover of mysteries. She is a former President of Crime Writers of Canada and served two terms on the board of directors of the Canadian Booksellers Association. In addition to the four Charlotte Adams books, she is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk adventures and nearly two dozen short stories. She has won two Arthur Ellis awards for best mystery short story as well as the Crime Writers of Canada Derrick Murdoch award and was nominated for a Barry Award in 2006.

Her latest Charlotte Adams book is Closet Confidential (Berkley Prime Crime, July 2010). She says she’s grateful for all the tips she gets from Charlotte. Mary Jane is a frequent speaker on crime fiction, Canadian mysteries and the writing process. She lives and plots in Ottawa, Ontario, along with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds. Visit her at

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The One Thing I Wish I Had Known About a Writer’s Life

My latest manuscript, Crying Blood*, passed muster and is on the Poisoned Pen Press publishing schedule for February of 2011. Whew. I don’t have to think of it again until I get the advanced reading copy. Except that I do think of it. Every once in a while, now that I can’t do anything about it, a brilliant new approach to some scene I toiled over and finally resolved jumps unbidden to the forefront of my consciousness.

But I put starch in my spine and move on, because I have other things in my life that must be done. For instance, in a couple of weeks, on July 28, I’ll be speaking to the Scottsdale Society of Women Writers about “The One Thing I Wish Someone Had Told Me About a Writer’s Life”. ** That title is a contrivance, of course. There is no “one thing”. There are hundreds of things that I wish I had understood better before I embarked upon this career. If I had, I might not have had to endure as steep a learning curve as I did.

When I was researching my topic I found that if you ask any published author what she wishes she had known beforehand, you’ll get all kinds of interesting answers. But the overwhelming favorite answer has to do with how much work you have to put into promotion. The words “more work than writing the book” were spoken several times. There’s a lot of truth to that. I offer as testimony many previous entries on this very blog. But I can’t say I hadn’t heard that what J.A. Jance calls “the merry-go-round” of write, publish, promote is never-ending and hell on wheels.

Several writers also expressed surprise at how little promotional help they were given after their books hit the shelves. I always thought it was pretty well known that publishing houses will often only spend money on their big name authors (the ones who could afford to pay for their own tours, ironically).

Some authors mentioned how persistent one has to be in order to get published. I myself belong to the honorable group of those who finally place a books after untold years of trying. So that was no surprise.

A couple of people said they were taken aback at how little input they had on their cover design. Really? I didn’t expect as much input as I got, to tell the truth. I figured publishers know a lot more about what is eye-catching than I do.

I don’t think that successful writers know something that the rest of the world doesn’t, or that they’re way better or luckier or more skilled than any given person who is yet to be discovered. What I really didn’t have any idea about before I took on the writing life was how brave you have to be. You really have to put yourself out there, from the beginning of the process to the end.

You have to be able to dig deep, to write from the depths and not worry about trends or what’s hot, or about what your mother is going to think. You have to be able to stand and take it - advice, criticism, rejection, indifference, blows and slings and arrows - and keep going.
Even though you know you may not succeed.

The Summer 2010 edition of Mystery Scene magazine contains an interview with Carolyn Hart, who I think we can all agree has achieved a degree of success to which most of us can only aspire. In the article, she says:
I don’t think most writers, unless they are on the level of Mary Higgins Clark or John Grisham, ever feel they have “got there.” Most of us run scared. All we can do is write the best books we can write and know that is all we can do.
You will never succeed unless you are willing to fail.

*About that title, Crying Blood : A friend of mine said that it sounds harsher than my other titles. The book does contain an element of creepiness, but Crying Blood doesn’t mean what you think it does.
**Check out the ‘Events’ page on my website for the program particulars. If you’re in the vicinity that night, I’d love for you to come by.

Friday, July 16, 2010

On the Trail

Although my new book, "The Blackhouse", will not be out until February, I have been spending the last week working on the script for the book trailer.

I know that there are varying schools of thought on the value, or otherwise, of the book trailer (an oft discussed subject on this blog), but the statistics are interesting. They were explored in a recent article in the New York Times, which will make useful reading for anyone considering making one:

But in reading the article, I followed a link to one of the most successful book trailers around. I was seduced by it's simplicity, its humor and it's truth. And I would love to share it with readers of TM4M...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

E-book Reporting

Like most writers, I put a Google alert on the titles of my books and on my authorial name, which looks like my driver’s license: Deborah Turrell Atkinson. Not long ago, I got an email alert to a site called, which I opened. The message made me sit up with delight.

It precipitated this email to my publisher: “It looks as if Pleasing the Dead has been downloaded 6326 times. Are we making money on this:-)? Hope so!”

And my publisher responded: “Debby, I don't know where it ultimately leads but almost certainly to a link with a buy button. Regardless it's garbage until proven otherwise.”

I don’t doubt that he’s right. But shouldn’t we be chasing down that ‘otherwise’? I mean, if they’re downloaded at $8-10 apiece (Kindle? Audiobooks?) and my contract pays 25% per download, this would amount to between $12,000 and $15,000 just for me, a lot more for the publisher. And I’ll take it! It’s a fraction of a year’s college tuition, but it’s 75 weeks—a year and a half—of groceries. It’s half of a teacher’s salary. It’s a big down payment on new a car. Hey, it’s payment for my labor. I worked hard for that, just like all of you.

Plus, if it’s happening to me, it’s happening to you.

I followed the link back to Audiobooks, got to their website, and followed the “Contact Us” button. By the way, they carry all four of my books. There, I found a customer service phone number and without too much trouble (much less trouble than satellite TV support, believe me), reached a real person.

I phrased my question like this, “I’m an author and I’m delighted to see that you carry my books. Thank you. I’m also curious as to how many books I’ve sold and how sales are reported to my publisher.”

The customer service rep said, “Good question. May I put you on hold?”

“Of course. I appreciate your help.”

Several minutes passed and the rep came back with the phone number to the main office in New Jersey and an email address. I sent an email, but found that the office was closed because it was afternoon my time, past dinnertime in New Jersey. I’ll call again tomorrow.

But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. I called one place, and they seem like a well-organized, helpful company. Stay tuned. And if anyone out there has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


No, it's not Talk Like a Pirate Day here on Type M. I've been having "Internet Problems" for the past two days and it was driving me nuts.

My ISP kept telling me that the problem was completely at my end. Nice try. I actually do know a lot about computers and I also have made it my business to learn a lot about how Internet connections work because my day job (graphic design) absolutely requires my connection to be up and running at all times. When it's not up, I have to resort to the bad old days of annotated faxes ("See that colour block at the top? It's a really nice shade of green. You'll love it!") and phone calls — which always take longer than they need to.

So here I am speaking to someone who is telling me I'm the one who has problems, when I have done all the testing at my end and know it's theirs. It was definitely a Catch-22 situation. By noon today, with my frustration level on overload, I needed to do something while they sorted out their issues. (I did finally get a second level tech to admit that they were having problems. Hah!)

It was a hot and humid day in Toronto, but my wife has made a green oasis of our back yard, so I took some paper and a pen, found a shady spot, put a cooling beverage on a low table at my right hand, and spent 3 glorious hours writing nearly 5 pages of the novel I'm currently working on. Not only that, I was writing about a cold and blustery day in late November, so I also provided my own literary air conditioning.

God, I love writing!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Scene of the Crime Festival on Wolfe Island

For those of you living in or visiting the east next month, I wanted to drop a mention of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival.

The Festival is an annual affair, this will be the tenth year, held on Wolfe Island, the largest of the Thousand Islands (just off Kingston Ontario). The Festival is small and I think unique, held in honour of one Grant Allan, Canada’s first crime writer. Allan was born on Wolfe Island and became a friend and contemporary of the writers of his age including Sir Arthur Conon Doyle.

Registration is limited to 100 attendees so everyone gets a chance to talk in a casual setting with the authors. The day is full of readings, interviews, panel discussion, a lecture, book sales and signings, and good-old-fashioned meeting and schmoozing. This year the Grant Allan Award recipient for her contributions to Canadian crime writing is Gail Bowen. The other authors are Michael Blair, Susanna Kearsley, James Nichol and ahem... Vicki Delany.

The setting on Wolfe Island is perfect. It’s a very small island, only accessible by ferry from Kingston Ontario or St. Vincent New York. If you take the Kingston ferry everything is easily walkable (from St Vincent you would need a car). The morning’s events are held in the beautiful United Church and in the afternoon we move to the historic Anglican Church where Grant Allan’s father preached.

Did I mention the meals? Your registration gets you a coffee and muffin breakfast, lunch put on by the congregation of the United Church, and a traditional church supper from the Anglican Church women. Like pie? They make pie like you would expect Church ladies living on an Island to make!

For an additional small fee, a morning workshop is also being offered. This year the topic is Point of View and the workshop is being conducted by Barbara Fradkin.

This year’s date is Saturday August 14. . Note that in order to guarantee your meals, registration must be received by July 31st.

Information and registration is at

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Guest Blogger: Former Special Agent, Now Author Paul E. Doyle

John here. It’s a pleasure to introduce today’s guest blogger. PAUL E. DOYLE served as Special Agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Drug Enforcement Administration and is currently Chairman of the New England chapter of the Association of Former Federal Narcotic Agents. Additionally, he is on the board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America New England chapter. In this Sunday guest blog, he discusses some of the fascinating challenges faced by writers of true crime. Above are photos of Paul on a recent trip to Shanghai Sparring with Kung Fu expert Sun Bin and presenting his book HOT SHOTS AND HEAVY HITS, a riveting first-hand account of life as an undercover drug agent, to the Shanghai Police Museum. You can learn more about him at

The Dangers of Writing

Facing a deadline is much like staring down the barrel of a gun. I know; I have done both. The outcome is uncertain, but no matter what happens, you’re never going to be the same. I always thought of myself as an action guy, never a philosopher or writer. But days after the attack on the World Trade Center, while standing in the rubble, with smoke rising all around me, I was confronted by my own mortality, looking up at the twisted iron girder looming precariously overhead. Thousands of men and women were alive, working in the Twin Towers only days before, and now they were dead. The ashes that blanketed my clothing, the structures, and the landscape surrounding Ground Zero were all that remained of the two buildings and the people. I realized that I could be gone in an instant, also, if I fell seven stories to the subway below or got crushed by falling steel - a sobering thought.

After clambering through the destruction and combing through the debris for several days, we found no one alive. The mission then changed from rescue to recovery, and I returned to Boston. In my dust covered work-clothes and boots, I walked the mile and a half from the station to my home, a calculated attempt to decompress, after witnessing the unimaginable. Physically, I was heading home, but mentally, I had never left. Totally exhausted, when my wife met me on the doorstep, wanting to know everything, I was unable to talk, but agreed, reluctantly, to put my experiences in writing. That moment after 9/11 was the catalyst. I became a writer.

In an emotional maelstrom, nerves raw, stomach nauseous, and heart racing, the images still vividly fresh in the forefront of my mind, I began - a first person account of my experiences. The act of writing was at once spontaneous and cathartic. I wrestled with my wife’s suggestion to submit it to a magazine. Was it a betrayal? I felt a bond with the men and women buried under the rubble, as if we connected, while I was on that sacred ground. It was a difficult decision. Once I decided to have the article published, I struggled with my conscience. Was it right? Had I been faithful to the memory of those who died?

After Ground Zero was published, I realized that I had done the right thing, comfortable that my story had affected many people in a meaningful way. The feedback was very positive. My account was well received, especially by those who lost relatives and friends. They appreciated what I wrote, and they told me so. It made me think more about being a writer.

After much soul searching, I decided to write a memoir about my experiences as a DEA Special Agent in the 1970’s. I began the story, as my career did, in the summer of 1971. While recounting the story, how I infiltrated the drug underworld, I also relived the experiences; the overwhelming loneliness and isolation of working without boundaries, the dangers lurking everywhere, the violence, the trauma - the shootings, the over-doses, and the deaths. I wrote from a first person perspective and finished in two months - ten years undercover captured in two hundred pages. Only then, did I realize I was hooked. There was much more to write about; I was becoming a writer.

Writing isn’t easy. As I said in the beginning, it’s much like a gunfight to me, the ending always in doubt. I tried to get the idea out of my mind, but I found myself scribbling in notebooks in cafes, airplanes, and on trains. I can’t stop. I’m thinking of writing another book, and believe I have the story; I just have to decide how to write it. My journey through life has been full of excitement, rife with unbelievable experiences, and crowded with colorful characters. I have witnessed life from an unparalleled vantage point. There is a problem, though. Many of the people I have known and want to write about are not fond of seeing their names in print. They resent intrusion, are not fans of transparency, and are secretive and unremitting. They are criminals, and they do not want their stories told. That’s my dilemma. They could kill my family and me.

I was about to scrap the idea, when I ran into Warren Adler, famous author of twenty-nine books, several now movies, including War of the Roses. We were kindred spirits, he reminded me, because we share the same birthday. I wish I shared his talent for writing. Warren is the kind of guy who always leaves you feeling better than you did before you met. After listening to my predicament, he smiled, before explaining the virtues of writing a novel. I could avoid the restrictions imposed on a true crime writer, but capture the essence of my story, by writing creatively about the characters I have known and the incidents I have been involved in. To illustrate, he drew a parallel to his novel, Funny Boys, based on his childhood experiences. He grew up in Brooklyn, the haunt of Murder Incorporated’s most notorious Jewish gangsters similar to my South Boston neighborhood that harbored the murderous Irish mob.

I was smiling, myself, when I left the table, fresh and inspired as always, after breaking bread with Warren. Everything he told me made sense, so logical, so simple. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself. I’m writing like crazy now, hunkered down at my desk, and nobody’s shooting at me - at least not yet.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Perception and Reality - Five Blind Men and an Elephant

We’ve been talking about voices over the past week, and Peter brought up a good point. There is the narrative voice, and there are the characters’ voices. Of course, both the characters’ voices and the narrative voice are actually the author’s voice.

I don’t remember where I learned to do it, but I do write character biographies. After writing several Alafair Tucker novels, I know my series characters quite well as independent human beings, each with his own way of looking at the world and of expressing himself. I don’t have to ask myself if Alafair or Shaw would do this. I know in my bones what they will do. But every novel is populated with many one-off characters, and it’s very helpful for the author to know that character’s story in order to write in his true voice. Once you know him, you don’t have to make up a “voice” for him. You just have to let him speak.

When preparing this entry, I first intended to expound on the concept of voice in a great deal more detail than I have. But giving a character a voice creates a point of view, and when I think of point of view, I think of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell wrote the quartet of novels, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, in the late 1950s. Each of the books presents a different perspective on the same events, the same characters, over the same time period before and during the Second World War in Alexandria, Egypt. In each book, we get to experience the same sequence of events through several points of view. A brilliant concept, I think. It's a mind-bending experience to read the four books one after the other. Reality changes as it is filtered through each character's point of view.

What skill it must take for an author to experience and describe a single event over and over in such a totally different fashion for each observer, to have your words be like a prism that changes your view of the world depending on which angle you look through it.

Friday, July 09, 2010

I hear voices

I've been hearing voices all week - the voices of my fellow bloggers talking about the "voices" of characters and narrators.

So here's my two cents' worth.

It seems to me there are two kinds of "voices" when discussing the novel. There is the voice of the character, or characters, and there is the voice of the narrator. Sometimes these can be quite separate, as when the narrator adopts the voice of the neutral spectator reporting upon events. And sometimes they can be one and the same, as when the story is told from the perspective of the main character.

In all cases, the voice should reflect the nature of the character, both in dialogue and narration. Even the neutral observer reveals him or herself in the nature of the observations made and the conclusions drawn (even if it is you, the writer). Every detail in every description is, or should be, loaded, because like it or not, our opinions are always invoked by our interpretation of the world around us.

Which leads me to the more vexed question of perspective.

Coming from a background of screenwriting, I brought with me a tendency to jump perspectives, telling my stories from the viewpoint of several characters at the same time. It took a vintage editor at my British publisher (a Canadian actually) to pull me up on this. My book was essentially written from the perspective of my two main characters. I had no problem moving from one to the other, or dealing with both in the same scene. And it seemed to work well. What didn't work, my editor told me, were all those scenes where I had moved away entirely from my central characters, and taken a completely outside perspective.

"Your readers will become confused," she told me, "and you will lose the focus of your main characters, instead of allowing your readers to follow and empathise with them as the story unfolds, unravelling the mystery with them." And with a wry smile she added that when I wrote the screenplay I could restore the perspectives she was asking me to cut.

Well, I did cut those extraneous perspectives, and stuck with only two through the rest of the series. I think it worked, and worked well, and improved the books - as well as my storytelling.

But I have noticed that many contemporary writers like to adopt several perspectives, breaking up their narratives into bite-sized chunks. And I have to admit that it seems a little like cheating to me, making up for a deficiency in being able to sustain the narrative of the novel, like taking a film script and novelizing it, which is really not the same thing as writing a novel.

On the other hand - and I have experienced this myself in several of my Enzo Files books, and the one I am wrestling with now - there are some stories that can really only be told by cutting away to other perspectives, and building tension in the reader by providing him or her with information that the hero or heroine doesn't possess.

And, of course, we live in the digital video age, and an audience whose attention span is rapidly diminishing. That they enjoy the machine-gun rattle of short scenes spat out in rapid succession from a plethora of perspectives, is evinced by the massive sales achieved by writers like James Patterson.

Clearly there is no right, and no wrong. Just a matter of personal preference. Mine, wherever possible, is to stick with that single perspective, that sole voice which takes me as a writer on a very personal, highly individual voyage through the story. A journey on which I hope the reader will join me, while deriving just as much pleasure.

PS: I am writing this from the bar of an enormous ferry as it sails out of the French Mediterranean port of Marseille, bound for the island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, to attend a three-day crime writing festival. The panoramic view of this ancient port as it disappears in the evening haze is quite extraordinary. I have a cabin aboard and when I wake up tomorrow after a 12-hour sail, I will be in the Capital town of Ajaccio on an urgent quest to find a wifi hotspot so I can post this blog. If you are reading this, then you know that I found one.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Atmosphere and Voice

I’m reading a book that has me thinking about the recent insightful “voice” posts. The novel is LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS by James Lee Burke, who will surely go down as one of the greatest crime writers of all time and, for my money, is one of the best American novelists writing right now. The voice in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels is unique, but it is something else that adds to the voice and, in my opinion, makes the works so distinct.

Atmosphere, a sense of place, is absolutely vibrant in these books.

You’ve heard Elmore Leonard’s rule Never Begin with Weather? Thankfully, Burke never got the memo. This is his drop-dead gorgeous opening line: “The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl.”

Leonard’s rule is a good one, one I am wise to abide by, but it is always trumped by the first rule of fiction write: There are only rules if you get caught breaking them. Burke is talented enough to break all the rules. By way of example, in this first-person novel, he routinely switches to third-person and writes scenes in which our protagonist is not present and thus of which he can have no knowledge.)

Burke’s imagery—from line number one—is breathtaking, his ability to convey a sense of place unparallel in our genre. Hell, I’ve been holed up in the only room in my house with A-C for a week to escape Connecticut’s hundred-degree temps, and even I want to go to New Orleans after reading the opening line.

So how does atmosphere relate to voice in this novel? I go back to character. The opening-line description comes from Robicheaux himself, a first-person account. It is insightful, informative, and establishes the protagonist as someone we can trust. The technical aspects of voice that my colleagues have wisely and gracefully covered this week—diction, syntax—are clearly there. For instance, “spiderwebbed” is the perfect modifier for “cracked earth” in part because it conveys a sense of dryness as well; and the “ceramic bowl” image conveys a low sky, one you could almost touch. I’ve lived in Texas, I know that southern sky well and I buy the image.

But, for me, voice always stems from character. Robicheaux clearly is born, at least in part, of Burke’s life experiences, the author’s deep understanding of regional nuances, and the diction he uses—the very basis of character—comes from that. It does for all of us. It must.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

La la la la, Voice or Viewpoint?

Vicki and Rick have made some excellent points and I want to throw another idea into the mix. At the writers’ conference I just attended, the editors kept saying how they were looking fresh, new voices that transcended genre. Naturally, everyone perked up to figure out what they meant.

To the the editors, voice is the author’s style, developed over time with use. It’s the tone, word choice, and sentence structure he or she uses to tell a story. It also includes how the author mixes description, narrative, and dialogue. It’s pace, tone, sentence length, lyricism. It’s like music.

Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald sound different. So do Kiri Te Kanawa and Deborah Voight. If you know a singer, you can hear a measure or two and say, “Hey, that’s Deborah Voight’s Ariadne. What a voice!”

Same with authorial voice. There have even been computer analyses of authors’ works. Remember that book Primary Colors, by Anonymous? Studies of synax and, well, handwriting (okay, not computer or voice) finally pointed to Joe Klein as the scribe. Most readers can identify Hemingway, Faulkner, and other famous writers by word choice and sentence structure.

So what word do we use to describe when we, as writers, change our syntax and word choice to draw a character? If Vicki writes a 19th Century Englishwoman, or I have a character who speaks Hawaiian pidgin, what is that called? Viewpoint? Character voice?

Ed Gorman, in his blog on voice, says, “I instinctively adapt my style and choice of words to the story at hand. I agree, this is absolutely essential. One of his commenters went on to say that he/she tries to be anonymous so that the character speaks. Also necessary, but I think we're talking about nuances.

Part of us goes into our writing. It’s inevitable, and it’s also desirable. It’s like a fingerprint. It’s what makes writers different. It’s our viewpoint on a story and plot. It’s voice.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

More Voice

Vicki brought up a very intriguing topic yesterday. I’ll wait while you read it over to refresh your memory...

Okay, Vicki is, of course, very right. But I also want to disagree with her a bit.

Yes, you can find the voice of a character by reading, but my feeling is that you will be more successful if that voice comes from observation of a real person. There are nuances in someone’s way of speaking that just won’t come off the printed page. They have to be heard, if at all possible.

So, how do you accomplish that when your character has been dead for a hundred years? That’s where you have to rely more heavily on the written word, but you can probably find a movie made from a play from that period. (Hopefully, in that production, they got it right.)

Voice, to me, is not just about what words the characters are choosing to use, but how they use them, especially in stressful situations -- which is a large part of what crime novels deal with.

How do we know when we’re successful? We don’t. We have this particular voice in our ear, but what has to happen is that it has to transfer to our readers’ ears. Only they will be able to tell us if we’ve been successful or not.

Even so, I’m sure we’d be amazed at how much we probably miss the mark if we could hop into a time machine and spend a day in the historic location where our story is set.

Here’s a musical case in point. Every musician learns to play minuets very early on. The minuet is a dance (like the sarabande, gavotte, etc.) and we happily play away on our easy Mozart minuets and think we’re doing a great job. Our teachers smile and tell us how well we’ve learned how to play one of these pieces. But how many musicians have actually seen a minuet danced? This is, after all, music to accompany a dance.

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of seeing a dance company perform minuets and other historic dances. Assuming they had their movements historically accurate — and I have little doubt that they did — every minuet I’ve ever played was at a completely wrong tempo. No one could have done the required steps. Ditto for all the other dance forms. It was a pretty humbling experience.

So, if Vicki were to go back to Dawson City and meet her character, what would her experience be? Would she be appalled by the words she’d put in Fiona’s mouth? I guess the point ultimately is: who cares? If Vicki’s made her readers believe that this is the way Fiona would speak, she’s done her job, regardless of historical accuracy or what objections the real Fiona would make.

Monday, July 05, 2010


What is voice? How do you know when you have it? How do you know when it works? And perhaps more importantly, how do you know when it doesn’t work?

As you know I write two quite different series as well as standalones. The voice between the three types of books is very different. At least I attempt to make it so. The Constable Molly Smith books are third-person multiple POV; all of the characters are contemporary Canadians, usually with middle-class backgrounds. Thus a lot like me.

The Klondike Gold Rush books are set in 1898. One first person narrator and two third-person POV characters. None of them are anything like me.

I finished* Among the Departed, the fifth Molly Smith book, last week and immediately turned from my keyboard and took up my long pen and dipped it in the ink well to begin Gold Mountain, the third Gold Rush book.

I wrote for two days and then went back to read over what I had put down. Didn’t like it much at all. Granted it was early days but the words seemed stilted and the flow just wasn’t right.

I had not found my voice. I was trying to write Fiona MacGillivray, dance hall owner, former second story woman with a cut-glass English accent as if she were Molly Smith, product of the University of Victoria, lover of heavy metal music, cop.

I took a break yesterday and today dove back in and fixed it up. At least I hope I did.

So, how did I find my voice?

By reading.

Simply by co-incidence I opened the copy of God of the Hive which Laurie R. King signed for me at Festival of Mystery in May. God of the Hive is set in the 1920s and is mostly in the first person of a woman who is not anything like me or like Molly Smith. Just reading King’s lovely prose, helped me get Fiona’s voice back, the slightly slower cadence of their speech, the ever-so-slightly more complicated sentences, the fractionally bigger words and less use of contractions in speech.

I read a lot, and I believe a writer has to read.

How else to experience worlds that are not your own?

*Finished doesn’t really mean finished. I have always set a book aside, following the advice of Stephen King, for six to eight weeks. Then I can go over it one more time with a reasonably fresh eye.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Larry Karp - Instant Success

Our Independence Day guest blogger is one of my favorite authors, Larry Karp. His latest book, Ragtime Fool, was just issued by Poisoned Pen Press in April of this year. Ragtime Fool is the final installment of the Ragtime Historical Mystery Trilogy, which covers the fascinating world of ragtime and the American music business from the early to mid-Twentieth Century. The book Larry describes in this blog, the one that was sprang forth overnight after fifty years of gestation, is First Do No Harm. It was worth waiting for. That's the book that made me a Karp fan. Enjoy.

I've heard many a wry and tart word about people who comment upon an author's 'instant success.' “How about the twenty (or thirty, or more) years I put in before this particular book got some attention?” is the author's usual grumble.

Much the same can be said about the growth and development of the books themselves. An idea that resonates in an authorly mind may sit there, bubbling and festering, for a mighty long stretch before the writer gets a handle on it. By way of example, I'll tell you about a book of mine which I justly could have titled “The Fifty-Year Itch.”

People ask me where I get my ideas, and where my characters come from. Well, back when I was ten years old and living in Paterson, a medium-sized city in New Jersey, I watched in awe for several months as a mansion went up in our neighborhood. When I found out the owner was a former junkman who'd made a fortune in black-market metal during World War II, my indignation knew no bounds. Kids had donated metal toys to the war effort; they'd gone out in the streets to collect aluminum foil from cigarette and candy wrappers. Why wasn't this crook looking out at the world between bars?

So I grabbed my mother's Royal manual typewriter, and tapped out a ten-year-old's account of a junkman gone wrong who came to a bad end. My parents told me it was good (they were lying, of course), but made sure I understood that if my magnum opus ever saw the light of day outside our house, I would myself come to a bad end.

As I grew up, I never forgot about the junkman and his mansion, but I couldn't figure out what to do with them. Every time I sat at my typewriter, that's all I did, sit. I had the character, I had the setting, I had the background. What I didn't have and couldn't find was a story. I talked the idea up at length with writer-friends, most of whom agreed it was a great idea, but potential remained as the story's only attribute.

Some forty years after the fact, with some writing experience under my belt, and having reduced my day-job workload to half-time, I sat myself down to write a mainstream novel about my junkman, how he came to make his bad decision, and what happened to him afterward. It was awful. A year after I'd started, I found myself with 200,000 words of unpublishable screed. But it wasn't a complete loss. In the process of writing the manuscript, I'd developed and delineated the junkman, Murray Fleischmann, and to my surprise, I found I actually had some sympathy for the poor slob. Complex character, Step One.

But for another ten years, there it sat. I left my day job altogether to write full-time, discovered that what came out of my head were crime novels (that's another story entirely), got my work published, and began to develop a small but select readership. And then came the millenium, both literally and figuratively.

In 1997, I was visiting a friend in Denver, and while he was at work one morning, I sat in his back yard and read that day's edition of USA Today. I lit on a story about an adoptee who was trying to find her biological parents. The trail led her to a small town, McCaysville, GA, on the Tennessee border, where, many years earlier, Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks provided a refuge of sorts for young Southern women who found themselves in the family way without having first established official co-head of family status. Assisted by Vera, one of his two mistresses, the doctor arranged housing for the mothers-to-be, delivered their babies, then sold the kids to infertile couples of sufficient means to pay him a good fee. Presumably, the young women went home after their deliveries to tell people they'd enjoyed their half-year in Europe, or something like that. Dr. Hicks kept no records, and a woman who brokered some of the adoptions and bought four babies herself refused to talk to any investigators, so the adoptee's search ended there.

I was more fortunate. I had my story. My own family doctor when I was a child was a legendary figure in Paterson, someone able to make diagnoses and effect cures where other, highly-specialized medicos had failed. He instantly fused in my mind with Dr. Hicks to become Dr. Samuel Firestone, a sorcerer-like physician with a serious character defect, one which made him a natural friend for Murray, the crooked junkman. I pulled out my pocket notebook and started scribbling; then, as soon as I got back home, I raced to the computer. Characters grounded in fifty years of my life experience emerged from the wings and jumped onto the screen: Murray's heartsick, infertile wife, Lily; Red Dexter, the cheesy hood who functioned as liaison for a local black-marketeering gang; George, the honest junkyard-worker drawn into Murray's and Red's scheme; Murray's father, Oscar, the uncouth, offensive immigrant who felt his social disadvantages justified any foul behavior; Rowena Firestone, Samuel's medically-addicted wife; Leo Firestone, Samuel's sixteen-year-old son; and Harmony Belmont, Leo's next-door girlfriend. (I've noticed that teenaged boys with more curiosity than common sense have played key roles in a number of my books. I'm not inclined to analyze that). And driven by the trio of Samuel, Murray, and young Leo, my story of the junkman became embedded into a much wider narrative of overweening and misguided ambition, and, as the PW reviewer put it, “of the frailty of love and human devotion.” First, Do No Harm was published in 2004, and I'm happy with the result of my work. So it took fifty-plus years? Who's keeping count?

Morals of the story: (1) It's never too early to start writing. (2) It's never too late to go on writing. (3) If you're patient and persistent, you just might live long enough to be an instant success.

Larry Karp's web address is

Saturday, July 03, 2010


I sent the rewritten manuscript of Crying Blood to my editor day before yesterday. It is out of my hands. Unless she sends it back to me for more work, and until the galleys are ready, I am done.

The last few weeks of writing before a manuscript is due in to the publisher is intense and hair-raising. Then you finish. You send it off. It’s out of your hands. You are like a cork that has been anchored under the water for weeks and months, and now the string is cut and you pop to the surface. You’re floating. The sun is shining, the air is fresh. You are drifting. Aimless. You are disoriented. You’re blinking at the light. You don’t know what to do next.

All those things I put off while I was finishing the book are now tugging at me. I should make that doctor’s appointment before I get involved again. I want to finish that short story I started last month. The bills need paying. Time to do something about my web site. I meant to scrub down the shower last week. I have two hundred emails I kept as new because I wanted to read them, or because they require some action. Should I start setting up the promotional activities for next winter when the new book is scheduled to come out?

I am committed to giving a writing workshop at the end of the month, and I haven’t begun working on it yet. I promised myself that when I finished the MS, I’d plan some menus and start cooking again instead of eating sandwiches or take out every night.

My brain is flooded with random thoughts. 1) It was 114 degrees yesterday (really), and the garden is burning up. 2) I read an article yesterday about Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson YA series. When my first book came out in 2005, I did my very first author appearance at Poisoned Pen Bookstore with Rick. He was a mid-list author touring with his fifth mystery novel. Now he’s a bajillionaire who is being compared to J.K. Rowling. 3) I finally bought an office chair for my computer desk. I’ve been using a regular folding chair for years. When my sister visited me in January, she said, “You don’t mean to tell me that I wrote five books sitting in that chair!” She shamed me into buying a real chair. 4) Don’s book of poetry, The Road, finally came out from Bellowing Ark Press. I try to read through the poems, but many of them are so personal that I bawl like a baby. 5) Thursday was Canada Day. In 1977, we sailed into Montreal from London on Canada Day. Fireworks were going off. We thought it a lovely homecoming. Then we crossed into the U.S. on the Fourth of July.

I start making notes for the next book.
My guest blogger tomorrow is one of my favorite authors, Larry Karp, who writes the fascinating Ragtime Kid series. I can’t think of a better guest for Independence Day.