Sunday, October 31, 2010

Setting As Character

Today's guest author is Kathryn Casey, an award-winning journalist, the author of six highly acclaimed true crime books, and the creator of the Sarah Armstrong Mystery series, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. The latest book in the series is The Killing Storm (November 2010). Her Web site is:

I had choices when I wrote my first novel, Singularity. I’d covered sensational murder cases for more than two decades, traveling the U.S., interviewing prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims’ families and convicted killers. At first, I wrote magazine articles, later true crime books. In Virginia, I investigated a case of a well-to-do husband and father who turned out to be a pedophile. In Colorado, a black widow that dispatched husbands with a gun got my attention. In Pennsylvania, a meticulously dressed high school student raped and attempted to murder a neighborhood woman. It turned out that he’d been more successful in three other cases. The teenager, Harvey Miguel Robinson, was a serial killer.

So, I could have made my main character a Pennsylvania homicide detective or a Florida state trooper. She might have been a Michigan prosecutor or an Arizona defense attorney. An FBI agent? Why not?

Actually, I knew from the beginning that none of those would work, at least not for me. To my advantage, I had Texas at my disposal. It’s not that I see the state as superior to others, but rather that Texas is my home. I’ve traveled it often as a journalist, and I know it well.

In the best books setting functions as a character. It’s more than location; the right setting gives insight, sets the mood and helps nuance the plot. Could James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux be a Bronx detective? Sure, but would he be the Robicheaux we know? Isn’t the South in his genes? Don’t we hear it in his voice? Even when Burke relocates Robicheaux as he did to Montana in Swan Peak and Black Cherry Blues, Louisiana is never forgotten.

So, I chose Texas, because after living in Houston for thirty years, it’s a place I understand, one I can competently explore in my books. Once that decision was made, it influenced everything that was to come. My character became a Texas Ranger/profiler named Sarah Armstrong, because as a ranger I could take her where I wanted, across the state without worrying about city and county jurisdictional lines. In Singularity Sarah entered the shadowed forests of the Big Thicket hunting a killer, and in Blood Lines she explored the world of celebrity, oil, greed, and murder.

Yet of all my mysteries, it’s in the third novel in the series, The Killing Storm, that the setting plays the biggest role, in the form of a hurricane bearing down on Houston, one that becomes the book’s ticking clock. It’s not surprising that I wrote this book in 2009, months after Hurricane Ike devastated the Gulf Coast, is it?

The Killing Storm isn’t out until November 2010, but is already garnering rave reviews. It’s been chosen as a Mystery Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection, and Publisher’s Weekly called it “the best in the series so far.” Library Journal gave the book a star, and Kirkus has called it “pulse-pounding.”

In addition, Ann Rule has called Casey, “one of the best in the true crime genre.” Her non-fiction books all published by HarperCollins include: A WARRANT TO KILL, (2000); SHE WANTED IT ALL (2005); DIE, MY LOVE (2007); A DESCENT INTO HELL (2008), EVIL BESIDE HER (2008), and SHATTERED (2010). Three were Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Club selections.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dangerous Women

As I was beginning to write my second Alafair novel, a well-known author said to me, “You’re on the merry-go-round, now.” How right she was. The writing life goes in a circle, especially for a series novelist. The excitement of an idea - the pain and horror and ecstasy of the actual writing - the amazement when you finish the MS and realize that you’ve got something - the terror of sending it off to the editor or agent - the anxiety of the rewrite - the relief of acceptance - the joy of first holding the physical copy in your hand - the drudgery of promotion - the irony and resignation of the royalty check (for most of us). The excitement of an idea...
The authors who contribute to this blog all seem to be at different stages of the process right now. I’ve barely begun a new novel and am planning for a release early next year.. Peter has just finished one and sent it off to his editor. Barbara has just received the first author copies of her latest, and Vicki is in the midst of promoting hers.

Like John, when I write, I’m not thinking of a theme. I am thinking about character and motivation. Somewhere in the middle of the process, it sometimes occurs to me that a theme is emerging, and when the book is done, I’m often surprised to realize that the story in that particular book is about something more than the mystery.

I tend to think more of my entire series as having a theme. This series is different from any writing I have ever done before, in that it’s about a woman who leads a traditional life.

All the books and stories that I had written before Alafair had to do with unmarried, childless, professional women, often scientists, always intellectuals, mostly messed up and unhappy.
After all, I came of age in the ‘60s,and like most people, my values were formed in my youth. I was very into the revolution. Toni Morrison said that her father told her, “once you know a man’s race, you know nothing about him at all.” It’s the same with women. Once you know a person is a woman, you don’t know anything about her interests, needs, talents, abilities, or desires. Not every woman is suited to motherhood and homemaking. Thank goodness we have choices now.

However... Once I got to a certain age, the one where you begin to realize that nothing is as black and white as you thought when you were young and knew everything, it began to dawn on me that perhaps by so totally rejecting the qualities that have always been associated with women, I was somehow buying into the idea that there was something inherently inferior about them. That anything that appeals to or deals with women can’t be all that important.
But when I consider my foremothers, what they had to put up with and how smart they had to be to manage - were their lives and interests somehow less important than a man’s? I think not!

Still, when I chose to write about a wife and mother, I handicapped my chances for writerly fame and fortune. To quote Erica Jong, “Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity...We may glibly say that love makes our globe spin, but battles make for blockbusters and Pulitzers.”
My series is an homage to a mindset in which love and family matter indeed. But don’t think for a minute that Alafair is weak or vulnerable. Her love for her family has teeth and claws, and makes her dangerous.

That’s a theme I find fascinating to write about.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Going, going....Gone!

Peter Here.  Today I completed revisions on my latest manuscript. I have been through it so many times now, every word is swimming around my head. I have spell-checked it, checked for repetitions, cut, added, written, re-written, read, re-read, I’m still endeavouring to figure out what else I can do.

Because what I’m really up to is trying my level best to postpone the evil moment - when I hit the return key and send the manuscript winging its way through the ether to my editor.

For the moment I do that, I have lost control. It is out there to be judged. No longer in my head or in my computer, but under the critical eye of a seasoned professional who could so easily turn around and with a few cutting words dismiss all the blood, sweat and tears of months of work.

We always hope for praise, confirmation of our writing genius. And as long as the book remains only with us, we can believe it ourselves. But the minute it leaves our hands all our doubts and insecurities take over. Is that character really credible? Maybe the ending doesn’t really work? What if the reader figures out whodunnit halfway through? Maybe I didn’t bury the clues well enough!

People always say, you are only as good as your last book. Wrong! You are only as good as your next one, and every time you sit down to write you are haunted by the thought that this time you’re gonna get found out.

Who would be a writer? What kind of paranoid masochists are we?

Oh, well. Can’t put it off any longer, I suppose. I had hoped this blog would run to a few more paragraphs so I could procrastinate a little more. But I’m all out of excuses now.

Word-processing document saved as PDF. Attached to email. Finger hovering over the mouse, cursor hovering over Send...

Oh, dammit! Here goes. Click!



Thursday, October 28, 2010


Novelist, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature, once described the novel as nothing more than an author’s “philosophy put into images.” I’m rereading THE STRANGER (English translation), and it has me thinking about theme.

From start to finish, there is no question that with THE STRANGER Camus was writing with a message in mind. As a teacher, I love discussing the book. It is a pseudo-existential 123-page heavyweight. As a writer, I’m always left scratching my head.

I believe every work of fiction possesses a mystery. It is the work’s central question after all that keeps readers involved. Much of THE STRANGER’s mystery revolves around the protagonist. Who is Meursault? Why does he act the way he does? What is his moral code? Why and how was that code formed? By contrast, these questions loom so large in the text that the plot often seems to lack cohesion.

I found Barbara’s Wednesday post fascinating in part because she explains that she is cognizant of her theme as she writes. (Also, congrats, Barbara, on the release of BEAUTIFUL LIE THE DEAD. Great cover.) When dealing with my own work, “theme” is not typically part of my vocabulary. At least not while I’m writing. This admission would seem strange to anyone who has taken my courses because whether it is Mystery Literature or a lit seminar the word pops up in nine classroom discussions out of ten. Yet, when I’m writing, I’m focused on character and motivation. Those things move my story along and provide the wide-open stretches with no speed limits, the muddy backwoods trails, and the awkward potholes I’m hoping to encounter.

Theme comes only after that fact. If asked about the theme of one of my stories of novels, I can usually offer a semi-coherent analysis. But I am always caught off guard because nowhere in my process did I previously consider that aspect of the work—at least not as plainly stated. The closest I usually get to theme when writing is when asked what the work-in-progress is about. “It’s a book about loyalty and friendship,” I might say.

I’m interested in how my fellow Type M colleagues and our readers handle theme. Is it a conscious pursuit? Should it be?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beautiful is here!

Barbara here, and in a mood to celebrate! Yesterday the author copies of my new book arrived and I held one in my hands for the first time. The thrill never grows old!

Now the season of signing, reading, blogging and flogging officially begins, and to that end I am holding a contest between now and next Wednesday, Nov. 3. All entrants who get through this blog and correctly answer the skill testing question at the end will be entered into a draw to receive one of five free Review Copies. To stir your interest, here are a few hints about the book, including the answer to the question.

Beautiful Lie the Dead is the eighth book in my gritty, psychological detective series featuring the exasperating, quixotic Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green. The story opens with a frantic phone call to the missing persons unit of the Ottawa police in the dead of night. It’s two weeks before the wedding, a blizzard is howling outside, and a young doctor has not heard from his fiancée in over twenty-four hours. Thus begins a story about old secrets and the deadly power of love.

I don’t outline ahead of time. I begin the story and follow it where my imagination and the characters take me. I usually have an opening scene – in this case a bus ride through the colourful inner streets of Ottawa – and an idea of the theme I want to address, plus a handful of possible characters. That’s all. Then I let Inspector Green loose on the case, and see where he goes. It’s unnerving and challenging, but it keeps me intrigued and looking forward to the continual adventures that my imagination springs on me. The joy (and the terror) of writing is in the surprises.

But long-running series have challenges of their own, especially series that revolve around police investigations. I don’t want to write the same book over again, nor revisit the same interview rooms and scene-of-crime discussions. I’d get bored, and I fear readers will too! One of my tricks is to move some of the investigation out of Ottawa, so that the geography and culture is unfamiliar to Green and fresh for me and the reader. So far I have not sent him to Europe (Tuscany and Greece being high on my wish list), but I have made frequent excursions into the countryside of Ontario and Quebec. In Beautiful Lie the Dead, I send him to Montreal to re-investigate an old death. Besides being my hometown, Montreal is a unique, clamouring metropolis that doesn’t get enough attention in Canadian literature. Almost a third of the book takes place there, in the grubby storefronts of boulevard St-Laurent, the rarefied heights of upper Westmount, and the eerie, windswept slopes of Mount Royal Cemetery. I hope readers will enjoy the trip as much as Green and I did.

Unlike real life where police officers are carrying out their job, a fictional detective needs an emotional undercurrent to ratchet up the tension and empathy. Some authors handle this by increasing the stakes for the detective through such time-honoured devices as threats to close friends or family, suspension from the force, frames or set-ups and unearthing old enemies. But by seeking emotional power, the writer risks slipping into melodrama.

Inspector Green is a happily married man with an elderly father, two children, a dog and a modest house. His home life is his sanctuary, and although I often create family subplots that tie into the main theme, I don’t want to place his family in harm’s way. His team of detectives is another story, however. Over eight books, I’ve grown fond of stoic, practical Sergeant Sullivan, brash Constable Peters and love-struck Constable Gibbs. I’ve given them their own personal sagas, and often they provide the emotional stakes for Green. So much so that some readers commented about the last book, “You were awfully hard on your poor characters!”

In Beautiful Lie the Dead, I set my sights on Green’s old boss and mentor, Superintendent Adam Jules, who becomes very secretive and elusive when the young woman disappears. Is he somehow involved? Is he covering up for someone? Could the man Green has looked up to all his life have a dark side? Perhaps even a criminal one?

The answer, of course, lies in the book, available in fine independent bookstores and online, through Chapters, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other stores worldwide.

Or you have a chance to win a free Review Copy by answering the following question. Email your answer to:

What exotic Canadian city does Green visit in pursuit of a bungled cold case?

Good luck and enjoy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Russell Williams Interrogation

Picking up on Vicki’s topic from yesterday, I would like to present this rather lengthy clip (30 minutes). It is an edited version of 10 hours of interrogation by a highly-skilled Ontario Provincial Police officer who specializes in this sort of thing.

So why am I bringing this to your attention? Because as crime writers, sooner or later every one of us is faced with writing this sort of scene. Note the ratcheting up of tension with each long pause where the suspect tries to collect his thoughts, tries to spot a way out that is never going to appear.

This case has particularly caught the attention of the Canadian public because Russell Williams, the commander of CFB Trenton, one Canada’s largest and busiest bases, and a superstar officer who flew the Queen and Prime Ministers, would have been about the last person you’d expect to have committed these crimes. He falls outside of every boundary you’d imagine for a serial killer and psychopath, and that’s what makes the situation and this interrogation so fascinating. If you want to write a totally gripping interrogation scene, or if you just want to see how the pros do it, click HERE and learn.

(Don’t worry. It’s not horribly graphic. If you can get through the normal scene in a police procedural, this is not much different.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

More on Colonel Russell Williams

Vicki here on Monday, and like almost everyone in Canada, I’ve been thinking about this case all week. It has numerous aspects that are both frightening and intriguing in so many different ways.

As a woman, I’m horrified at what this man did to the women he assaulted and murdered. I’m also very concerned at what appears to be a lack of interest on the part of the police in connecting the dots as regards the string of break and enters to steal women’s underwear. I’ve seen a map of the sites of the B&Es: all very tightly concentrated, but no one seems to have gone to too much trouble to find out what was happening. Now quite a few of the victums never notified the police, but in one case Williams broke in NINE times. He left messages on young girls’ computers. Some reports say that the sexual assault victims (two who were left alive) were treated dismissively by the police, who accused them of having boyfriend problems. Other reports contradict that, so we will see. One of those women has publically complained about the police conduct in her case. Again, I will hold judgement on that.

Nevertheless, there continues to be, I fear, a belief on the part of some segments of society that ‘minor’ sexual crimes are insignificant or unimportant. Surely by now we have enough examples to know that rarely does anyone wake up and decide to become a serial killer – they start with apparently small things and it all escalates from there.

As a resident of my community, I’m interested in this case because it took place close to where I live. I have friends in the police forces involved. I’m proud and grateful that the police were able to apprehend him quickly and convince him to plead guilty so as to avoid the cost and trauma of a lengthy trial.

As a citizen I’m interested in the psychology of Williams. He was a senior military officer, so responsible he actually piloted the Queen, in command of the country’s largest air force base, photographed with politicians of all stripes. All the while he was breaking into people’s houses and stealing women and girls’ underwear (from some very young girls too) and taking pictures of himself wearing it. In the pictures I’ve seen he’s not smiling and stands stiffly for the camera – this is not a person having fun with his little hobby.

And what on earth is it about wearing used underwear? Seriously, I’d like to know. I had drinks with friends last night and the husband said it reminded him of hunters of pre-industrial times who dressed up as their prey before setting off on the hunt. That is truly chilling.

As a writer of crime novels I’m interested in how much coincidence and luck played a part in catching him. His car was spotted by a couple of men one night parked in a deserted area, they noticed it, and when later they heard about the killing they remembered the car and told the cops about it. The police set up a roadblock to check the tires of cars in the area to match with the prints they’d found and Williams, fortunately, came down that road. He tried to frame his neighbour for the last murder. The police searched that man’s home but didn’t find anything. Can you imagine what that must have been like for him and his family?

And finally, as a writer of police procedural novels, who spends lot of time and effort to get the policing right in my books, I’m just plain interested in the policing that went into catching him. Extensive parts of the initial interview with a police officer who’s an expert in behaviour analysis are on the Internet, if you’re interested. Fascinating stuff. Williams comes in and sits down, all unconcerned, nice and comfortable. The questions are asked, he hedges, then begins getting anxious. The cop is friendly, casual, getting familiar, identifying with Williams. He never asks for a lawyer. And then – bang the cop reveals the evidence. He confesses.

How can I not end this without mentioning that in Negative Image, my new book from Poisoned Pen Press coming out next week, there’s an extensive scene in the police station interview room as Sergeant John Winters takes a suspect through a series of questions about break and enters, and gradually, skilfully, has them confessing to something much more serious.

Life and art cross sometimes. Although I so much wish the art of the crime writer was never reflected in real life.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Of Stereotypes and Men

Peter here.  Our guest blogger this Sunday is Janice Hally whose Wikipedia page says: Janice Hally is a Scottish playwright and television screenwriter who has written more than 300 broadcast hours of prime-time British television drama serials and individual screenplays.

(If you look closely it also mentions that she's my wife)

She has, additionally, written fiction and non-fiction books. Her latest book, is the psychological mystery, "Distant Echo"(June 2010, Hachette).

Of Stereotypes and Men...

Linked to the recent discussion about formula is the question of characters, and how three-dimensional or not they should be.

As a reader or viewer, I can't get involved, or "care" about a story where the characters are black and white, goodies and baddies, girlies and tough guys, but goodness knows an awful lot of books and movies are populated by people straight out of cartoons. No hold on, that does a disservice to cartoons! The Simpsons have failings and weaknesses, and battle with moral dilemmas and, in short, have much more humanity than some characters in books and movies.

To me, the most engaging stories have a sense that the characters existed before the story opened and will go on existing after it.

I've read book reviewers describing characters as "warts and all", as if to have a flaw is a bad thing, but I think it makes a character all the more human and sympathetic. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if characters aren’t properly developed then it's just plain bad writing.

When I teach writing courses, I give students a character questionnaire - it starts with easy basic questions about the identity of the character, but includes some questions that with any luck the writers don't fill in with quick answers off the top of their heads: such as "what is the last thing the character thinks about when lying in bed, after the lights go out and before falling asleep". I think it's very important to get inside the characters' heads.

Of course as a scriptwriter, I have to get inside every character's head. I have to find the humanity and be sure of the motivation of each one of them. Drama is character-driven and conveyed through the dialogue and so each line has to "true" to the character's voice - there's no easy way out with an omniscient narrator talking the reader through the events.

Also, the characters have to be fully-rounded because each one of these people I create is going to be played by an actor who is going to take every line very seriously and question it if there is any apparent inconsistency.

As a writer I spend a lot of time before I start writing getting to know the people I'm going to be writing about. I think about who they are, what their daily life is like, what I like about them, what I don't like about them. When I start writing, they'll still have the chance to surprise me, just like real people do all the time. But I need to know as much as I can about them before I start writing.

Linked to discovering who these people are, is working out what happened before the story opens. Developing the "backstory" thoroughly informs and improves the drama of the story I'm about to tell.

Although some writers believe in "starting at page one" and discovering where the story takes them, I find the time that I spend thinking about the backstory makes it much easier to "discover" what the plot is. Backstory is a well to draw upon for story material. By thinking through the past, I ensure that my well never runs dry. It makes the process of writing easier. It also decreases the chance of inconsistencies and errors of continuity. It makes the characters more believable as there are always throwaways you can toss in that give a character a sense of individuality protecting them from stereotyping or cliche. It makes a story more believable, engaging and moving with less chance of the deus ex machina or "surprise" ending that no-one quite believes.

But still some readers or viewers don't notice or worry about 2-dimensional characters. Some actually complain if a character has too much individuality or history. I was at a crime writing conference where a writer on a panel declared, "I don't want to hear about the fact that a policewoman has to pick her kid up from school! A character's personal life has got nothing to do with the crime that they're investigating."

Well, it's true that if it isn't relevant to the plot, I don't want to know about the police woman picking her kid up from school, either. As Hemingway said, "never confuse movement with action". However, I can see many ways in which the complications of bringing up a child, while trying to solve a case as a policewoman CAN have plot implications.

Just once in seven series of 24, I would have liked to have seen Jack Bauer go for a pee, or have to stop to buy a bar of chocolate (goodness knows he must have needed the energy boost at times). I'm sure it would have led to a plot twist. And think about how much richer - or more ironic - that twist would have been to us, if it had come out of a believable human need that we could all identify with.

Another name for all this preparation and "thinking" time I give to character and backstory might be‚ procrastination! But I've successfully convinced myself that it's a constructive sort of procrastination! Real procrastination‚ well that would be deciding that I have to wash the curtains before I can get down to writing (especially as we don't use curtains here in France because there are shutters on the windows).

Janice Hally's website can be found here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

To Conference or Not to Conference?

I spent much of the day yesterday helping out at a charity garage sale. In fact, if you’re reading this on Saturday, that is where I am right now, selling tchatchkies to bargain hunters for a second day. It’s very hard work, and I feel a bit like I’ve been run over by a truck. My sedentary lifestyle has notprepared me well for real physical activity. I spent much of last week with doctors and laboratories and the like, as well as trying to catch up with my correspondence after three days in Wickenburg, Arizona, attending the Women Writing the West annual conference. I’ve been very busy and gotten a lot accomplished this month. Except for writing. Sometimes I wonder what I think I’m doing trying to have an actual writing career at this particular point in my life.

The conference was very nice, though. There has been a lot of discussion lately in the Poisoned Pen Press author chat room about the value of writers’ conferences. Bouchercon, one of the premiere mystery conferences in North America, was held last weekend in San Francisco, and there seems to be a feeling of disappointment among some of the attendees. Many authors with titles in print discovered their books were not being offered for sale. Some were overwhelmed by the size of the conference and felt anonymous in the crowd, Many wondered if the expense of travel, hotel, and conference fees were justified.

There is not a working author who at some time or another doesn’t wrestle with the same questions. I’ve been to Bouchercon as well as some other big cons in past years and enjoyed them a lot. I always come away full of ideas and new enthusiasm, and I really like meeting other authors and making contacts in the community. If I could afford it, I’d go to every conference I could, but it would strictly be for the human interaction.

So I make my choices. I chose the much smaller conference closer to home, and for me it was a wise choice. I was able to present one of the programs. I was presented with a plaque for being a WILLA award finalist for The Sky Took Him. I did a lot of networking that will lead to some good promotional opportunities. The conference was held on a ranch resort in the Sonoran desert - a dude ranch, basically. Incredibly beautiful, peaceful and elegant. All in all I learned a lot and enjoyed myself, and met some wonderful people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I think writers conferences are valuable, if you’re realistic about the benefits and returns from attending.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Peter here. I was just sitting the other day wondering about those things that had influenced my writing over the years.

My parents; the culture I grew up in - the south side of Glasgow in Scotland; my childhood experiences; and, of course, the writers I have read.

It is interesting, I think, that when you come from a small country, a minority culture like Scotland (and it is quite different from the dominating English culture in so many ways), you inevitably reach out to other, bigger cultures and influences to draw nourishment.

It helped, too, that my father was an English teacher, steeped in literature, and that his bookshelves were groaning with great writers from all over the world - Scotland, England, Ireland, Europe, America. As a young teenager I read everyone from Dostoevsky, through Camus, to Shakespeare and Burns, before crossing the Atlantic to submerge myself in Twain and James, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Chandler. I drew no distinction between those books regarded as “literature”, and those seen as mere popular fiction. I was as much at home with Erle Stanley Gardner as Emily Bronte.

But I found myself increasingly drawn to those twentieth century writers, mostly American, who were breaking with the traditions and conventions of English literature and writing about things and places no one had ever written about before. The minutiae of daily life, the examination of the human condition, the placing of ordinary men and women under the microscope in what were often the most mundane settings. It revolutionised writing. It broke all the boundaries, and as writers stepped forward on to virgin territory they had to find a new vocabulary to describe the experience - a vocabulary taken from the mouths of ordinary mortals. Often crude, but always colourful, and rich like the soil from which it had sprung.

The Irish/American writer, J. P. Donleavy taught me, too, that you could break every rule of grammar you had ever learned, and in doing so free yourself from the constraints of a language which the guardians of “literature” had kept in chains for so long.

I was in my early twenties, and revelling in the freedoms that other writers were creating.

But now, thirty years on, I find myself returning to the culture from which I sprang, writing about the country in which I was born, and returning to the traditions and vocabularly that I lived and breathed as I grew up. And realising, almost for the first time, that Scottish writers had been doing a hundred, two hundred years ago exactly what those American writers I so much admired had been doing in the twentieth century. Writing about every day folk in the language they spoke.

And as I write once more about my native land, I am rediscovering the richness of its vocabulary. The tragedy is that outside of Scotland, very few people will understand or appreciate it, in the way I have absorbed and appreciated the language of bigger cultures. So, of course, in the end it will be lost, and I can only take comfort from the fact that if you consult your Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, you will be amazed to find how many of the words that trip off your tongue have Scottish roots.

So my influences come from far and wide, but are also fundamental. And this was brought home to me with great clarity when re-reading yesterday a story I had first read as a teenager. A story within a story. It is called “Wandering Willie’s Tale” and is to be found in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Redgauntlet”. A story told in a wonderful, earthy Scots tongue, and a magical piece of storytelling.

I challenge you to read it and tell me what you think! It can be found here.

And in the meantime I shall continue to temper my vocabulary so that it might be universally understood.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What needs to be in a work and what can be taken out?

Last week, I followed closely the public-reading thread started by Peter and followed up by Rick and I’ve been thinking of one of Rick’s suggestions the past five days.

“You don’t have to read the passage with everything included,” Rick wrote. “Most descriptive stuff can go or at least be truncated. Sidebar material should go. You can even drop bits of dialogue that aren’t necessary. Remember: it’s a performance. When a book is brought to the screen, they don’t (and can’t) put everything in.”

His remarks remind me very much of an interview I once read in Time titled “James Patterson: The Man Who Can’t Miss,” by Lev Grossman (March 12, 2006 ed.). In discussing how Patterson went from chairman of J. Walter Thompson in North America, who wrote on the side and happened to win an Edgar in 1977 for THE THOMAS BERRYMAN NUMBER, to the commercial success he is today, Grossman cited the evolution of Patterson’s stripped style.

“His evolution into James Patterson, The Man Who Only Writes Best Sellers,” Grossman wrote, “had yet to be fulfilled. First came the creation of the Patterson style, which dispenses with any flowery bits or extraneous details. A typical Patterson novel might have 150 chapters, but each one is just two or three pages long. His paragraphs are short too, often just one or two sentences. It’s an approach that emphasizes action over style and pace over everything. ‘It was a little bit of an accident,’ he says. ‘I was writing a book called Midnight Club, and I’d done about 100 pages, and I was planning to really flesh them out. And I read the 100 pages, and I said, There’s something interesting here. And that’s where I went to just leaving a lot of stuff out.’”

Rick mentions cutting out what isn’t needed when “performing” the text. Likewise, one of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing: leave out the part readers tend to skip. Leonard is speaking of thick narrative paragraphs (no one, he insists, skips dialogue).

I’m as guilty of overwriting as anyone. (My first drafts are filled with cross outs and self-inflicted red ink wounds everywhere.) So I try to read my work aloud before submitting. I tell students reading a paper aloud before turning it into me will show them what I will read or what they “really wrote.” After all, how a prose piece sounds is how others read it. When proofing and reading my work aloud, if I stumble on a sentence, I shorten the sentence. If the work has set, or aged, for a couple months, and I find myself distracted by descriptions that I loved when I wrote them but now find distract me from the storyline or characters, I cut the description.

Thinking of Rick’s comment about stripping a piece prior to a reading, about Patterson’s sparse style, and about Leonard’s lesson (which, by the way, he says he didn’t fully grasp until 1983, well into his storied career), I’m left considering what needs to be in a work and what can be taken out. Less is usually more.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Synopses, Sales Sheets and Outlines

I didn’t get to Bouchercon this year, after all and I still feel disappointed. Due to a family emergency, my roommate, Kate Carlisle had to cancel. I thought long and hard (or rather my bank account did) and decided, since I wasn’t on a panel and would be just a nameless, faceless author, I could really use a “free” weekend. I also couldn’t put off the chore of writing a synopsis for a new series I’m working on that I’ll be submitting in—good grief—ten days.

Apart from the fact I loathe writing these things, I only have a vague idea of where this particular story is heading after the mid-point. This is where the Outliner vs. the Seat-of-Pants is King. I outline until my characters take over – about a third of the way through. And that’s it.

A synopsis is different from an outline in that the goal is to sell your proposal—or novel. Among my many “careers” I wrote sales sheets—or one-page teasers—for Hollywood production studios to sell distribution rights to international territories at various festivals—Cannes, AFM, Mifed et al. In these sales sheets, the final paragraph is a cliffhanger, not a giveaway way e.g. “… and moments before the Tsunami hits the tiny island, Jenny makes a decision that will change the course of history. Will she save the world or die a martyr?” (I just made that up). I like being tantalized. It leaves me wanting more. But apparently, a synopsis must reveal the ending. And I don't have one.

A synopsis should also be written in single spacing, in the present tense and in the third person. A synopsis should jump straight in with the inciting incident. It must contain only the key events and plot twists. It is not a summary. A synopsis must also focus on exposing conflict between the primary characters and make them utterly fascinating creatures. Dialogue must be used sparingly if at all. Length is up for debate—I’ve heard of synopses running at 5 – 8 pages, mine usually come in around 3.

Re-reading this I have a sudden urge to have a nap. Writing an entire novel seems easier—at least for me. Any tips are gratefully received. If this goes well – drinks are on me!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How teaching can focus your thoughts

I taught school music for a lot of years, finally stepping away from it in 2001. Believe me, teaching music in middle school is a lot harder than anything else I’ve done in my life — and I’ve had some difficult jobs.

Recently though, I’ve taken on a private student, something I didn’t think I wanted to do anymore. That experience has given me the subject of this week’s blog posting: having to teach something to someone else focuses and crystalizes your own thoughts to the point where you improve your skills right along with your student. Let me explain.

In order to make a student understand what you’re trying to impart, you have to distill your own experience and knowledge into easily understood, cogent thoughts, ideally from multiple approaches (in case the first one doesn’t work). That’s not as easy as it sounds and anyone who’s taught will agree with me — especially if that knowledge is particularly ephemeral, like you often find in music or in writing.

Yes, there are simple nuts and bolts things, like how to figure out a particular rhythm or how to punctuate a sentence correctly, but what do you actually say to someone when you want to impart the projection of the emotional component in music or writing, for instance? How do you help someone understand a concept that to many people is “airy-fairy”? Aye, there’s the rub.

My current student has gotten me back to thinking in that direction again. My dormant skills didn’t take long to resurface (actually it was frighteningly quick) and we’re well on the way to jointly rediscovering the French horn.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the lesson. I began to also think more about the mechanics of how I write, sort of like editing in reverse. Here’s a sentence I’m about to write. If I had to explain to someone what I’m going to do, could I make it understandable to them? The realization is that if I’m going to be my most successful as a writer, I should be able to do that. To do that, though, I have to explain it to myself so that I understand it. The alternative is just letting the moment take me, write down a passage, and often, month’s later, wonder just what the hell I was thinking when I wrote this rubbish. It’s happened too often for me to ignore any longer. I have to be more clear, more precise. more thoughtful in that moment of first creation. Going back and fixing stuff is getting a little wearing. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

But before I can do that successfully, I have to have complete understanding. Understanding that’s clear enough that I could explain it clearly and precisely to anyone. If I can't do that, I’m falling short.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The shoemaker's children and Colonel Russell Williams

Monday morning and the Type M office is buzzing with activity. As CEO I am making a quick pass through, much too busy, in true CEO fashion, to actually stop and do any work. To switch my metaphors, like the shoemaker whose children go unshod, I don't have a blog post today. I'm heading off on blog tour myself over the next couple of weeks for Negative Image and have been writing up a storm about my writing life down on the farm, my police ride along fun, writing Canadian cops, small town mysteries, series vs. standalones, and anything and everything else that interests me. So I will leave you with a link to a very fun interview I did at Sea Minor. The best, most insiteful, intelligent interviewer I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Amazingly penetrating questions.

One more thing - for those of you interested in true crime, the Colonel Russell Williams case is due to end today. He will be pleading guilty to all charges (incl. two counts of first degree murder). If you haven't heard of this case, it is particuarly notorious because at the time of his arrest Col. Williams was the commander of the largest air force base in Canada (quite close to where I live). According to today's Globe and Mail, he says he did it because... he was upset about the death of his... cat.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday guest blogger Tara Taylor Quinn

Vicki here welcoming our guest blogger Tara Taylor Quinn author of the Chapman Files books

I’m not big on murder. As a matter of fact, I’m not big on conflict at all. I recently read something a friend of mine had written about me and surprisingly felt as though I was reading about myself. She captured my essence so well – as only the closest of friends can do. Here’s what she said, “That she has never retaliated (not even to spill a Diet Coke on a perp) is a testament to her character.” The character part isn’t the topic here, it’s the retaliation. I don’t do it. For better or worse. I’ve also been described as one who gets run over in the middle of the street. Because I don’t retaliate.

So what I am I doing blogging on a murder site?

In a little more than two weeks The Third Secret, the third book in The Chapman Files Series, debuts. The Chapman Files are a series of books centered around expert witness psychologist Kelly Chapman. Each book is one of her files. One of her cases.

In The Third Secret the protagonist is an ex-covert ops agent who shows up to his construction job at a Homeland Security office and finds an agent dead on the floor. By day’s end, he’s been arrested for murder.

Murder. That word again. “Tara dives into the darkest heart of evil, to places I dare not go, in ways I cannot imagine.” Wait, this is still me we’re talking about. She didn’t wait, though. She kept right on expostulating. “…led her to interweave malice, depravity, and terrifying actions with the struggle for trust, truth, and justice.”

Before I go any further, let me make very clear, this is a very close friend of mine. She is not reviewing a book. And I’m left looking at myself from both sides now – just like the song says – and shaking my head. I am not a fighter. I don’t even kill bugs because I can’t bear to squish them. And I spend my days alone living in dark worlds of violence and mayhem for a living.

How did I get this job?

And how does someone like me write stuff like that?

I’d love to continue on here and give you all the answers. Truth is, I don’t have them. Writing is not and never has been, for me, a choice. Nor has it ever been a practical or logical entity to which I bring myself. I write because I am called to write. I am driven to write. There is nothing else I want to do.

And the stories that I tell? They are not practical or logical entities to which I bring myself. They aren’t plotted circumstances that I create and weave together to form good reads. I don’t make the stories. They present themselves to me. Entirely. The few times I’ve had to struggle to write are the few times I, as the author, have tried to interfere with the process. Those were the times I tried to create the story, rather than simply listening to the story and allowing it to create itself.

I learned early on, I am the conduit. Not the controller. I do not choose my stories. They choose me.

I have to fill holes sometimes. I have to figure out how someone got from one point to another. Sometimes I have to figure out what kind of gun someone was using, or dispose of body parts in a way that they won’t be found. I usually go to others for that kind of information. Often times that ‘other’ is my husband. He has a much more murderous mind than I do! And it’s convenient having him so close and all. But overall, the stories tell me who did what. And they tell me in their own time. In The Second Lie, out this month from MIRA books, I didn’t even know for sure if a crime was being committed until I was almost through with the book. I knew part. I didn’t know the other part. And yet it all flowed together as though I’d masterminded it.

I’ve been reading a lot about rituals among the folks here and I, of course, have them, too. And that got me to thinking about all of this. My rituals are my stability in an unstable world. They are the fence inside which I sit when I allow myself to be catapulted into unknown worlds. I have music that sustains me when I write – a cd for every book. I use aromatherapy. I eat frosted mini wheats at my desk. These are the things that hold on to me, the things that stay the same. I have Raggedy Ann quilts in my chair. A space heater at my feet even when it’s a hundred degrees outside (it isn’t always on!). They are my feel goods. And when all of these things are in place, I let go. I put my fingers on the keyboard, I open my mind, and I trust the energy that takes me away to land me safely back in my life when it’s through with me. I trust it to have a story worth telling. And I trust it to tell it to me.

I’m not big on murder. But I don’t have to be. I just have to be willing to listen. And to type. That I can do.

Tara is raising money for Strengthen Our Sisters, the US’s first battered women’s shelter. If you can, join us in our fight against Domestic Abuse. Go to and click the donate button to go directly to a secure Paypal site. Or just comment here to show your support.

The author of more than 50 original novels, in twenty languages, Tara Taylor Quinn is a USA Today bestseller with over six million copies sold. She is known for delivering deeply emotional and psychologically astute novels of suspense and romance. Tara is a four time finalist for the RWA Rita Award, and appears regularly on the Waldenbooks bestsellers list. She has appeared on national and local TV across the country, including CBS Sunday Morning and is a frequent guest speaker. Tara loves to travel with her husband. They’ve been spotted in casinos and small town antique shops across the country

Saturday, October 16, 2010

More thoughts on presenting yourself in public

Peter’s blog posting yesterday is certainly worthy of further discussion. This is also the first time I’ve posted on a Saturday. Gee, Type M sure is a lot emptier when the staff have gone home for the weekend!

Okay, so you’re an author faced with ultimate difficulty: reading in public (especially if you’re hoping to sell copies after). What do you do?

The article Peter referenced in his posting has some excellent ideas: get someone tough but fair to listen to you, tape and video yourself and, above all, to practise. That last one seems so obvious, but how many of us do that? I like the idea of having someone more capable doing it. But in most places, you'd have to pony up the fee yourself.

I have a few more excellent suggestions mostly courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer, dean of Canadian SF writers. Rob is also one of the best presenters I've seen.

1. You don’t have to read the passage with everything included. Most descriptive stuff can go or at least be truncated. Sidebar material should go. You can even drop bits of dialogue that aren’t necessary. Remember: it’s a performance. When a book is brought to the screen, they don’t (and can’t) put everything in.

2. Don’t read from the book! Do a printout with all the selected text, with the font size larger for ease of reading. Books are clumsy to hold and hard to read at a distance. Rob uses a handheld PDA which is smaller than most books (his type is still big) and he can really engage his audience because there’s basically nothing between him and them.

3. Get out from behind the podium if you can. Walk around. Look at the audience. Gesticulate. Try to be as much of an actor as you can manage. Let me put it this way: if I offered you $10,000 to read from your book and payment was dependent on how well you did, you’d work a lot harder to be good, wouldn’t you? Put the same effort in on your own, and maybe some day someone will pay you 10 grand to read.

Hope these few tips help you to do a better job along the way. I can tell you this from my own experience: the better you get at reading, the more you’ll like doing it. Performing is fun when you aren’t intimidated by it.

As promised: The best reading of one of my books ever: Peter Oundjian, conductor of the Toronto Symphony. He agreed to read from my novel, Cemetery of the Nameless for a Crime Writers of Canada event called “Guess Who’s Reading Canadian Mysteries”. (The idea is that celebrities read from members’ books.) I got Peter to commit and he read the part about my protagonist battling a conductor for control of a concerto during a concert. And Peter was incredible. He did all the accents (American, Welsh, British and German) and read with real panache. I offered to hire him for all my readings. He laughed and said I couldn’t afford him.

Friday, October 15, 2010

To Read or Not to Read

Peter here. As most authors know, the writing of a book is just the tip of the iceberg. And lurking below the water are all the things we really don’t want to do. Re-writes and revisions, haggling over the title and the cover, contract negotiations and... yes, that dirty little word, promotion.

After all, there’s no point in writing the book if you can’t sell it. And since the publisher is not going to get on the road and do that for you (or even spend any money on it), you have to get out there and do it for yourself.

A process for which most writers are innately unsuited, since most of us chose to write in the first place because we are anti-social loners who enjoy the solitary act of creation.

So how hard is it to get out there and be the opposite of who you are - confident, articulate, funny, interesting...? In my case, VERY. It took me years to be able to find the courage to stand up and give a talk without being a slave to my notes, pink-faced and clutching my speech in shaking hands, hardly daring to lift my eyes from the text.

In the end, I found that the secret was not to have any notes at all. Just some stories to tell - about the writing or research, where the idea came from, my rites and rituals - and to speak from the heart.

But the one thing I still hate to do is read extracts from my work. Because at the end of the day I am not a performer, and if I can’t do my work justice by reading it aloud, then I am probably doing it a disservice. So I simply never do it.

The French have a great tradition, in bookstores and libraries, of presenting an author and his or her work like a TV interview. I was reminded of it last Friday night, when I had to make an appearance at a library in Toulouse. There was an audience of about 50 or 60, and an “animateur” - a presenter. She knew my books and my personal history and presented both to the audience, frequently turning to me to ask for elucidation - which gave me the chance to tell my stories. But the French also love to hear extracts from your books, and what they do is get a professional or semi-professional in to read them.

In this case it was the director of the local am-dram group, and he did a fantastic job, reading four extracts from different books at different times during the two-hour presentation, really bringing them to life in a way that I never could (particularly in French!).

I read an interesting article in the Huffington Post the other day about a writer about to embark on a book tour of Germany, and he seemed fixated on the writer’s need to read extracts. If you are going to do it yourself, then he offers some interesting advice. You can read it here.

But personally I would rather run a marathon than read an extract. How about you? How do you think an author should present his or her books? Or if you are a reader, what is your preference at an author talk?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where has the lightweight division gone?

I’m reading Lisa Gardner’s HIDE right now and enjoying it. The book has alternating points of view. On my iPod, I’m working out to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, also enjoying that.

My own work this week has me revisiting a novel I finished last spring. Going back with fresh eyes. As I polish the manuscript, I find myself swimming against my usual currents: as I edit, instead of paring the book down, I’m adding to it—enhancing secondary characters and building a stronger back-story for my antagonist.

All of this is done—and can be done—because the book, like the two I’m currently reading, is written using multiple points of view. I can remember vividly finishing the first draft and being exhausted, longing to do a single point of view book—just set the character on the stage and follow him or her around. Some of my favorite writers, contemporary and many of the classics, use a single point of view, typically first person. Of course, Chandler comes to mind. But so does the late New England writer William Tapply, whose Brady Coyne and Stoney Calhoun series read like a slow, soothing walk through the woods.

All of this leads me to wonder what ever happened to the lightweight division, those 180-page featherweight extraordinaires like Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. Even THE BIG SLEEP totals only 220 pages. Much recent discussion has taken place on this blog regarding stand-alone vs. series novels. Typically, the stand-alone must be a “bigger” book, figuratively and literally. Radio programs in the 1940s, DRAGNET in particular, are credited with broadening the popularity of crime fiction. Perhaps contemporary television shows continue to have a similar effect on our genre. Society, after all, has an insatiable appetite for realism. And cop shows typically offer multiple points of view. Has crime fiction followed that trend? Where has the glorious character-driven lightweight division gone?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Learning to love my laptop

Barbara here. During the past month I noticed some peculiar things about myself. Since I’ve known myself rather a long time, I enjoy discovering new quirks. It suggests I’m still changing. Possibly even evolving.

Because there has been a lot of talk about rituals in this blog recently, I decided I’d mention my discovery. In the past, my creative muse and my computer have had a seriously adversarial relationship. They can’t work together; sitting down in an office chair in front of a blank screen and an impatiently blinking cursor was enough to send my creativity fleeing from the room. It felt too much like work. It wasn’t comfy, snuggly or encouraging. For years I have written professional reports on the computer; hence it was the analytical psychologist who took over the moment I faced that screen.

So all my life, I’ve done my creative writing long-hand on yellow lined paper, curled up in a comfy chair in peaceful surroundings of some kind (water lapping on the shore works best, but wind whispering through the trees works too). I then had to decipher the scribble of arrows, blocked text, notes in margins and crossed-out sentences in order to transfer the whole mess onto the computer. Then I had to print out the pages so I could curl up in my comfy chair and edit them. If I wanted to add a scene or a significant block of text, I had to go back to pen and paper.

Then I bought a 15” laptop. I could curl up with it wherever I wanted, and so surely I should be able to create on it! Not so. I could write small amounts (like this blog) and I could add the occasional scene, with great struggles, but I could not write a first draft of a short story or an Inspector Green novel. But because I was spending more and more time with email, blogs, Facebook updates, and online reading (all curled up in my comfy chair with a nice drink at my elbow), I was making friends with my laptop. It was becoming more an extension of myself, and less an alien tool.

Then a funny thing happened this summer. I began writing a new series with a very different style. Intended as a quick, easy read for the impatient, reluctant or beginning adult reader, the language was simpler and crisper, the plot linear and less layered. I started the first chapter with my usual pen and paper, but when I transcribed the beginning onto the computer, I just kept going. The rest of the book was written on my laptop, easily and without the hair-pulling and stumbling of my previous efforts. I still had to print it out to edit it. But even here, I noticed a fascinating distinction. “Big picture” editing, such as storyline and overall character development, worked better with the printed pages in my hand. However, micro-editing – that is, looking at each sentence and each word (do I really need that adverb?) – was more easily done on the screen. I particularly found this when I tried to edit using my netbook. Perhaps it’s because the screen was so small I could only see a couple of sentences at a time, and had little ability to scan the whole.

It got me thinking about the link between habit, medium and product. We don’t just write. We have a relationship with each of the tools, and it was fascinating to discover that each – pen and paper, desktop, laptop and netbook – plays a different role in my writing rituals, and each has its strengths. Other authors are aghast when I tell them I still write long-hand, but I wonder if anyone has noticed these peculiarities in themselves as well. Which do you find works best for each task?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alafair's Antecedents

Jeri Westerson’s guest entry last Sunday struck quite a chord with me (Donis). I too write historical mysteries, and like Jeri, I do it out of love. I have always loved historical novels. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and would read anything I could get my hands on, but I would always choose a historical novel above any other genre. For me, a historical novel is like a cheap vacation. I love to go to a place and a time and live there for a while.

I discovered English author and scholar Edith Pargeter when I was in my twenties, and she quickly became one of my favorite historical novelists. The day came, of course, when I had read every historical novel of hers that I could find here in this country. Though I’m always happy to reread a good book, I did find myself hungry for any new historical dish by Pargeter. It didn’t take much research on my part to find out that under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter had created a fabulous series of historical mysteries featuring a Benedictine monk by the name of Brother Cadfael. The Brother Cadfael mysteries are set in Twelfth Century Shrewsbury, close by the Welsh border, during the long war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the English throne. Cadfael may be an elderly monk, but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the ways of the world. He gained all the skills necessary to untangle the knottiest mystery during his young manhood and middle age, when he served as a soldier and a sailor in the Crusades. There is little of human nature he hasn’t seen. And since he is also an accomplished herbalist, growing and mixing medicines for the Abbey, he is an expert on the properties of plants and poisons.

Each of the twenty Brother Cadfael mysteries is a ripping tale of close calls, treachery, and narrow escapes. How eemingly unrelated events eventually weave together to create amazing, but totally believable tales, is a testament to Peters’ skill as a story teller. She creates haunting images of winter; blizzards and wind like knives, cold stone castles, misty fall evenings and sunny summer days. Her characters are capable of inhuman cruelty, as well as great acts of kindness and compassion, cowardice and heroism. Actions of a past long gone affect the events of the present.

I had never had anything against mysteries, but neither was I a mystery addict in any sense of the word. But Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries rocked my reading world and inspired me to write historical mysteries of my own. Peters’ voice - the very way the books are written - evoke the times and the place with the language she uses. The character of Cadfael himself captured me. He is wise, tolerant, and world-weary, a man of his times. He has a true warmth, and by that, I don’t mean sentimentality or emotion, necessarily. I mean a deep humanity and heart that transcends even his formidable intellect. I want to spend time with him, and that is the secret of a successful fictional character. The setting, 12th Century Shrewsbury, is evoked so strongly that the reader comes away with the sense that she knows what it must have been like to live in that time and place.

The books I write are set eight hundred years later, and a place thousands of miles away, and feature a character whose life couldn’t be more different from Brother Cadfael’s. Yet he is Alafair Tucker’s true ancestor.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jeri Westerson: Why I Write Historical Mystery

Vicki here today, welcoming Jeri Westerson who writes the wonderful Crispin Guest Medievial Noir Mysteries. Here she tells us why.
Why do authors write what they write? Is there some hidden meaning in the genre they choose? Is it purely marketing? Or is it something else?

I guess in my case, it might be all three.

Let’s start with the “something else.” When you are raised in a household of rabid Anglophiles as I was you can’t help but get the Middle Ages under your skin. Books aplenty were on our shelves. There was historical fiction from the likes of Thomas B. Costain, Nora Lofts, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, and many others. They sported covers with square-jawed knights in sometimes comical clinches with maidens showing far too much décolletage (this was the sixties, after all. Sex, drugs, rock and roll…and jousting?) But even so, it was a fascinating world of manly men and pointy-sleeve gowned women; chivalrous rules and cunning villains. We also had a fully illustrated child’s version of the Canterbury Tales…with some of the more fabliaux stories excised, of course. The strange Bosch-esque illustrations only served to draw in a curious ten-year-old which led to a life-long devotion to calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts.

But there were also the non-fiction books about the Middle Ages, the histories, the biographies, the big beautiful tomes with lots of photos of cathedrals and manuscripts and paintings of knights (gotta love the knights!) And if that wasn’t enough, there were dinner table conversations about the British monarchy. Not the present day monarchy, mind you, but of days past. I could name more wives of Henry VIII than I can American presidents.

So once set on the course of being a novelist, I naturally chose to write about the medieval period. Was there some hidden meaning in it all? A psychological one, perhaps?

I might have gotten my love for things medieval from my parents, but like many American homes in the seventies, divorce reared its ugly head. We all have an ideal of Camelot, but as Arthur learns, the reality is somewhat different. There is a lot to be said about immersing oneself in the fantasy of a knight in shining armor saving the day. I never lost that desire to see honesty and virtue triumph…with all the pageantry and pomp of another place and time. There is something that calls to us to remove ourselves from the present and take up residence in our imagination. A medieval setting is both exotic and dark in the sense that it is a bit dangerous, that behind the shining armor is the face of intrigue and thrones to be lost and won. And in the gloomy recesses of a London street, there is every expectation of mayhem.

Who wouldn’t like that?

And then finally, there is marketing. Let me emphasize that choosing to write an historical—whether a straight historical novel or a mystery—is not the best choice to make you rich. And choosing a subgenre like a medieval mystery is even more of a niche. But I know that there are folks out there, like me, who have coveted their love of history to the point of obsession (there is a freakin’ suit of armor in my living room for God sake) that they, too, would love to immerse themselves in a fictional account of the Middle Ages. And why not make that a mystery? And why not go an extra step and make it a hard-boiled mystery in a medieval setting? That gets all the pistons pumping as far as I’m concerned. That would be me writing something that I couldn’t find out there to read. So, there you go. Taking a on something new.

I gambled. I won.
Jeri continues to gamble with her protagonist Crispin Guest’s life by putting him in peril yet again in her latest medieval noir THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, now in bookstores. You can read the first chapter on her website

Saturday, October 09, 2010

More Rituals

Donis here. Are writers like athletes, who must have their rituals in order to perform? Hannah's entry on Wednesday, and all the comments it elicited, certainly confirm the suspicion.

I was amused to see how many of the rituals that were mentioned are very similar to my own. Like Peter, I, too, have a Buddha on my desk next to the computer, though I don't rub his belly. I do however invoke the Muses before I start to type. When I have other things in my life that are pressing, I make myself get up early and sit down to write before I do anything else, because I know myself too well. Once I open my email, that's literally all she wrote. This is why I sometimes don't check my email until late in the afternoon, or even after supper.

When the rest of life is humming along, I write in the afternoons, especially during the summer. I long ago developed the habit of doing my chores and errands in the morning, before the Arizona heat is at its worst, then spending the hottest part of the day at my computer in air-conditioned comfort. I routinely take a break at about 3:00 for 15 or 20 minutes, to eat an apple, stretch, and maybe read something that has nothing to do with anything. However, if I’m on a roll, all bets are off.

Like John, I routinely get lost around page 100, and take some time to review and rethink the story. l usually do this at the dining room table in longhand on a pad of paper. Sometimes it takes a couple of days, and when I finish, the story has picked up some elements I hadn't thought of when I started out.

When I'm in my lost stage, I do like to talk the story over with my husband. He listens with interest but seldom makes suggestions. Even so, I'm usually clearer about things after I've said them aloud.

However, unlike some other authors who are perfectly welcome to do as they like, I do change out of my pajamas before I go to work.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Only Joking!

Having moved from the new book to the “scene-by-scene” stage of the screenplay, and having to head off first thing this morning to a weekend crime festival in Toulouse, I will leave you with this lighthearted selection of paraprosdokians.

For those of you who have no idea what a paraprosdokian is, here is a neat summation:

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part.

Much loved, of course, by stand-up comedians. Which effectively makes it a figure of speech describing a joke.

Here are a few examples for your delectation:

I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.

Light travels faster than sound. Which is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

If I agreed with you we’d both be wrong.

War does not determine who is right - only who is left.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse always gets the cheese.

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?

Dolphins are so smart that within a few weeks of captivity they can train people to stand on the very edge of a pool and throw them fish to eat.

A bank is a place that will lend you money, if you can prove that you don’t need it.

Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but always check when you say the paint is wet?

Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.

When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

You’re never too old to learn something stupid.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Have a great weekend (that’s not one, by the way)!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Writing to Think

Listening to NPR Monday morning as I packed my girls’ school lunches, I heard retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, discuss his work and how writing played a role in his career. His remarks reminded me a great deal of how and why many of us come to this craft and why we remain so passionate about it.

In the online version of the interview, titled “Justice Stevens: An Open Mind On A Changed Court,” by author Nina Totenberg, Stevens said he was often surprised by how the act of writing his rulings allowed him to think through opinions. “I have found very often, I'm surprised [that] the result I come out with is not necessarily what I assumed in advance.”

Sounds a lot like fiction writing, especially for those of us who don’t outline. Many of us start a novel knowing very little and absolutely nothing about how it will end.

“For Stevens,” Totenberg continues, “writing the first drafts of his opinions himself, instead of delegating the task to law clerks as many of his colleagues do, helped with that process [of reaching his conclusions]. In writing it out, Stevens says, "your reasoning will either make sense or it won't. And if it doesn't, you change your vote, or you change your whole approach.”

Often, about 100 pages into each novel I get lost. I go back and reread what I have written and—usually—I see where I went wrong. Or, as justice Stevens would say, I see where my reasoning was flawed.

After all, that’s what writing fiction is all about, isn’t it? Posing a central conflict for a protagonist to overcome. Whether a mystery or not, fiction writing is the art of deduction and reasoning. And when I’m writing at my best, I’m working just as hard as my protagonist to solve the mystery. For me, writing is thinking.


On a side note, to get my seniors writing and thinking this week, I assigned the following: Write a short story or a fictitious newspaper account based on the following scene before you. A woman sits casually at the table. No expression on her face. A man is on floor, knife in armpit, blood is present. (750 words max.)

Be sure to consider and explain all of the props and exactly in your account of what happened: Who are these people? Where are they? Why? When is it? What happened?

You may take notes or pictures.

1. Clear Care eye solvent (Hint: the fastest way into someone’s bloodstream is through the eye)
2. Plum (half eaten)
3. Table with linen
4. Two coffee mugs
5. Two chairs
6. Knife
7. Blood
8. Dishes, silverware

My colleagues Ellen McGloine and Ben Niles graciously played the role of Woman and Man in the photo (above).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Writing Rituals, Anyone?

Last night I overheard my husband on the phone talking to one of our friends. "No, Sunday lunch won't work," he said with a heavy sigh. "Hannah stays in her pajamas until two." Later, and somewhat embarrassed, I told him that everyone must think I'm an unsociable couch potato when he knew I was writing. "But you are always in your pajamas at weekends," he said. "You write in them. It's your thing."

The pajama "thing" started on weekdays with having to get up at 4.45 AM to write before heading off to work. I'd move from our bedroom—via the kitchen to collect three cups of coffee (with lids to keep them hot)—and into my office which is really our guest room. I'd clamber into the spare bed which I kept made up with nice pillows and blankets, get my laptop and the cat would jump in too. There I'd stay for two or three hours. At weekends, my writing time simply extended—as did wearing my pajamas.

Without realizing it, I'd created a ritual which had become an important part of my creative process. Anne Lamott in her wonderful book, "Bird by Bird," mentions donning lucky socks; Christa Faust says her office must be immaculately tidy before she can even begin to write; Stephen King insists he has "... my same seat; and the papers are all arranged in the same places." Some writers have piles of jelly beans close by. Others keep the television on—CSI is a favorite—but with the sound off.

I'm curious. Do you think most writers create rituals as they prepare to write? Frankly, I'd love some new ideas. I'm growing rather tired of getting pairs of pajamas for Christmas.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A re-direct

Hello Type M readers!

Blechta is not here today. I'm over guesting on another blog and I think you might be very interested to read a true-life murder mystery. So drop on by and check it out:
Mystery Maven

Please feel free to look around. Linda Wiken has some pretty interesting stuff posted.

And I'll be back here with my usual hard-hitting and incisive posting next Tuesday.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Contest Time! Win an advance review copy of Negative Image

Vicki here. No editorial comment from me on Monday this week. Just a notice. I am thrilled to announce that with just one month left to go until the release of Negative Image, the fourth book in the Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press, I'm going to give away two Advance Reading Copies.

First, a word from our sponsor:

When his wife’s former fiancé is found dead of a single shot to the back of the head, Trafalgar police Sergeant John Winters is forced to make the most difficult decision of his life: loyalty to his job or to his wife. Meanwhile, tragedy strikes the heart of Constable Molly Smith’s family.

Now: go to my web page and read the first two chapters (link is posted on the main page) and send an e-mail to me at vicki @ vickidelany dot com (or use the contact page) telling me what colour are the eyes of the woman in the old photograph. I will draw two winners from the correct entries. Contest closes Monday October 11th. Bonus points for knowing what special day that is in Canada (although that won't help you win the contest). Happy Reading

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Guest Blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman

John here. It’s my Sunday to introduce the guest blogger, and it’s a pleasure to do so.

I met Reed Farrel Coleman before he was a three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year, before he earned the Barry and Anthony Awards, and before he was twice nominated for the Edgar. It was years ago, at a Malice Domestic panel speakers’ book signing. If you’ve never attended, it’s awkward: they line authors up, following their panel discussions, in alphabetical order. So Reed and I sat side by side. Several heavyweights were there, too (I think Michael Connelly and Jan Burke), so we had few customers. We started chatting. Not about writing. About raising daughters.

I have followed Reed’s career—and enjoyed his books—ever since. He has gone on to serve as executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He has authored 12 books in three series and one stand-alone co-written with Ken Bruen. His books have been translated into seven languages. Reed is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, teaching writing classes in mystery fiction and the novel, which is fitting, given his topic this morning.

Teachers Matter

I’ve been doing a lot of posts lately as part of a blog tour I’m doing in support of my latest novel, Innocent Monster (Oct 5, 2010, Tyrus Books). Inevitably, my mind drifts into puzzling over just how I wound up being a writer. Only now, at the ripe old age of 54, have I figured some of it out. First things first: I was born with a brain for it, the talent, if you will. Talent is sometimes a dirty word in publishing. Many people out in the world believe writing is like model building. If you just give them an instruction booklet and all the pieces, they’re sure they can do it. Most of the time, they can’t. They lack the talent, the glue that holds the metaphorical model together. Second, I come from an angry family, a family that communicated by screaming at one another. It’s how we expressed everything, even love. So by the time I was 12 or 13, I was desperate to find a way to express myself so I could be heard above the shouting. My seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Isaacs, is largely responsible for giving me the push in the right direction. He focused on poetry, not the sing-song rhyming stuff we were force fed in elementary school, but song lyrics, ee cummings, TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens. That was my way into poetry. I loved the power and economy of it, that I could say so much with so little. I quit playing high school football to devote my energies to writing.

It was in college, however, where I studied writing poetry with David Lehman, that I truly began to find my voice. One of the first things Professor Lehman did was to make us take a pledge—right hands up, left hands on the Norton Anthology—that we would think of ourselves as writers from that moment forward. I can’t speak for anyone else in that class, but I have never stopped thinking of myself that way, and that was 36 years ago. You are what you think you are. Professor Lehman was giving us permission to believe that, unshackling us from the expectations the rest of the world had for us. He also liked to tell us apocryphal stories. One was about WH Auden. As Lehman told it, a woman approached Auden asking the great man about what her son needed to be a great writer. Allegedly, Auden told her that if her son loved playing with words, he had what it took. In another, Lehman talked about a lunch between a poet and a painter. Across the lunch table, the painter tells the poet he believes he can be a great poet as well as a great painter. The poet asks the painter how he arrived at that conclusion, and the painter says he can be a great poet because he has such wonderful ideas. The poet laughs and says, Poems are written with words, my friend, not with ideas.

In fact, the path to my writing career is easy to follow. The road markers are the names of all of my teachers. I was blessed to have had very good English teachers and to have gone to a college with a wonderful English department. If I owe anyone credit for my twelve published novels, dozens of published poems, essays, and short stories, it is my teachers. But please, don’t tell them. There’s not enough in my royalty checks to go around.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Oddest Book Title of 2010

I haven't yet chosen a title for the book I am currently writing. For most of my past endeavors, I have chosen a title early on in the writing process, and then changed it when the book was finished. For the Alafair series, all the titles are taken from something that one of the book's characters says in the course of the story, so lately I have taken to waiting for someone in the novel to tell me what to call it. I never really care whether the reader knows at first glance what the title means, as long as he finds it intriguing.

Apparently I'm not the only author who struggles to find good titles for her books. Every year my sister Carol, who is always on top of things, sends me the winners' list from's annual contest for the book with the oddest title. You'll be glad to know that this year's big winner was Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes.

The Bookseller magazine's diarist, one Mr. Horace Bent, said, "Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is a worthy champion to stand alongside the likes of [past winners] Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers and Living with Crazy Buttocks as winners of this distinguished award."

The complete list of finalists is:

1. Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes

2. What Kind of Bean is this Chihuahua?

3. Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich

4. Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter

5. Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots

6. The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

I vote for Living with Crazy Buttocks as Oddest Title of the Decade.