Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Confined writing

Like Barbara, I’m also writing a Rapid Read novel for Orca Book Publishers in Victoria, BC. It’s proving to be a very interesting and valuable learning experience that I think is going have far-reaching effect on my overall writing.

For those of you who don’t know, the idea behind these books is that they’re novels for those with literacy challenges, either because they just don’t read well or because English is not their native tongue. The overarching mandate is “good stories well told”, but because of their nature they have to be written much differently than the sort of novel I usually write: simple language, simple sentence construction, no subplots, few or no flashbacks, a limited number of characters and no more than 20k words.

I soon fell into the habit of writing a chapter then going back next day to really looking over what I’ve written. It’s amazing how many times I’ve used a “big word” where a small one would suffice, and even though I’m focusing on simplified sentence structure, I’m still doing things that are more complicated than they need to be. Since I really enjoy the editing process, it’s no problem to shove things around, prune the dead wood and make everything simpler — and clearer.

And that’s the surprising thing. Maybe I’m building some good skills to make my writing overall better and more lucid. Maybe there are things that I can take from this little novella to my wider-ranging writing.

In the past hundred years, prose style has become much more stripped down and basic. You only need to look at a Forster novel to see how things have changed. I’m not saying that they’re better, just different.

There are things that I’m learning that I will use in my next full-length novel. In the meantime, Orchestrated Murder might be an interesting book for Type M folks to consider reading when it’s released in a year.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kate Carlisle: Covet thy Neighbor's What?

Hannah here and thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Kate Carlisle. Kate worked in television, studied acting and singing, toiled in vineyards, collected books, and joined a commune, but it was the year she spent in law school that drove her to write fiction. It seemed the safest way to kill off her professors. Those professors are breathing easier now that Kate spends most of her time writing near the beach in Southern California where she lives with her perfect husband.

Over to you Kate!

Recently, I read an article about a nonfiction book titled The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, which chronicles the misadventures of a man who stole thousands of dollars worth of rare books from booksellers.

The article caught my attention both because I am a passionate bibliophile when it comes to antique books, and because book theft and fraud are integral to my Bibliophile Mysteries series. THE LIES THAT BIND, the third book in the cozy mystery series, was released earlier this month.

I created the Bibliophile Mysteries precisely because I love old books so much, with their lovely leather bindings, the intricate hand-colored artwork, the delicate gilt applied hundreds of years ago. I don’t condone stealing, of course, but a part of me understands the passion behind the theft.

The story got me thinking of the “must-have” gifts of this holiday season. Really? Must have? I don’t usually care to have the same things that every one of my neighbors have. What a boring world it would be if the décor were identical inside every home. I don’t covet my neighbor’s iPad … but let’s say that same neighbor had a first edition copy of Oliver Twist, a book that drives someone to murder in THE LIES THAT BIND. Ah! Then I might find myself peeking in her window late at night just for a glimpse.

Antiques, whether books or otherwise, appeal to me on an emotional level because they provide a tactile way to connect with the past. These treasures inspire leaps of imagination. One might wonder at the world in which the antique was created. Who made it? Who owned it? What did they think and feel when they looked at the object? What did it mean to them?

Often, antiques are around because they are of such extraordinary quality that their caretakers over the years safeguarded them for future generations. Old world craftsmanship is a pleasure to behold.

I do believe that quality craftsmanship exists today. There still exist artisans who appreciate the importance of fine detail and who would rather do the job right than do it fast. They create the modern day treasures that will be antiques one day because they’re beautiful, and they aren’t mass-produced. And we’ll do our best to keep them safe from children and pets and drunk Uncle Larry and too much sunlight.

I don’t understand the Christmas rush to go out and buy something that anyone can have. I would much rather receive something unique, with a story behind it. Although … an unused iPad in its original packaging will be worth a mint a hundred years from now. Buy one now and resist the urge to open it, and you could pay for your great-grandchildren’s education.

What’s on your wish list this season? If you could have any treasure from any era, what would you want? If you could have any modern gadget or gift that you see advertised in the paper or on TV, what would you want?

By the way, I’m holding a contest for members of my mailing list. One random member will be selected on December 2 to receive a keepsake book with a matching box, both of which I made myself in a recent bookbinding class. Join my mailing list at www.katecarlisle.com for a chance to win!

Visit Kate online at www.katecarlisle.com and www.facebook.com/katecarlislebooks.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Will to Write

Today is the day after Thanksgiving here in the States (I’m writing this on Friday). I spent a couple of hours today trying to get myself back into work mode by scrubbing out my toaster oven. There’s nothing like brainless physical activity to clear the mind. And to paraphrase a quote from Kwai Chang Caine, it’s very nice to make things clean.

I’m always fascinated by how each of us gears herself up for the task of writing. A few weeks ago I read an interview with Walter Mosely. The interviewer asked him how he manages the difficult task of making himself sit down day after endless day and write. Mosely replied that it isn’t a problem for him, since he loves the act of writing. He said it’s like having to have sex every morning. It may be his job, but he still enjoys it very much.

I wish I were the same. I don’t love it, as a rule, especially when I’m just beginning a new work. I love the ideas, I love working out the details of the story. I love the imagining. But for me writing the first draft is like writing a term paper. What I really love - the endorphin rush for me - comes when I am finished, or nearly so. Then I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and amazement that I created something that I like so much. Because like Peter advised in yesterday’s entry, I always write what I like to read.

Barbara’s intriguing blog entry last Wednesday addressed the rapidly changing promotional landscape for us non-blockbuster, mid-list authors. How are we going to get the word out there about our books, especially now that traditional book stores are dropping like flies? Last May, Libby Fischer Hellmann did a guest entry for us here on Type M outlining her plan to publish and promote her first original work on Kindle. On December 14, she returns to let us know how it went. I’m anxious to hear what she learned about promotion and the cyber world.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Write what you like!

Peter here. I was reflecting the other day on what it is, exactly, that I like to write. And it came to me in a blindingly obvious flash of insight. I write what I like to read.

We’ve all been asked by aspiring writers what it is they should write. And the standard advice is: Write what you know. And yes, to an extent, that is true. But what do any of us know about crime, unless we are criminals ourselves, or ex-police officers?

Of course, crime is just the genre. The stories more often are about people, the human experience, the human condition. There was a discussion recently on TypeM about themes in our work, and most everyone seemed to feel that there was always a theme buried somewhere in the story.

I know that there is always some element of each book I write which is themed - whether it relates directly to the story (as in a medical or scientific theme), or to the vagaries of human frailty (as in guilt or arrogance). I once wrote an ambitious adventure story set in south-east Asia called “The Noble Path”, and it may not be obvious on the surface, but the motivation that drove the writing of it was the idea that in some circumstances innocence can be a more powerful force for destruction than evil (inspired to a degree by Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”).

So, in examining my motivations for writing what I write, I came up with several thoughts. Write what you know. Explore a theme which interests you, or with which you are familiar. But, most importantly, write what you like to read.

I think that if, as a writer, you take yourself on a journey which you enjoy, then that will transmit itself to the reader.

The mistake I made as a young man was in trying to write the great novel. I had steeped myself in the great writers of the twentieth century, and wanted to write like they did. And so I wrote several books in an attempt to emulate their success. Of course, none of those early books got published, although the writing of them was not in any way a waste of time, as I can look back now and recognise that I was learning my craft.

But it wasn’t until I wrote a thriller - the kind of book I enjoyed reading as an escape from the daily dirge - that I got my first book published. And in retrospect I realise that I had effectively (and quite unconsciously) rolled all those bits of advice into one. The story was about an investigative journalist - I was working as a journalist at the time. It was set in Scotland and France - countries I knew well. The theme was corporate corruption - something which, as a journalist, had fascinated me. And, of course, it was a book I would have liked to read (or a movie I would have liked to see).

But I have a confession to make. I also used to love to read stories which explored the power in relationships between men and women. Not romances, in the conventional sense, but stories of tragedy, betrayal, redemption. One of my favourite writers, whose books often explored such themes, was H. E. Bates. To an extent I have always touched on these subjects in my own writing, but somewhere deep down I guess I always wanted to write the great love story.

I think, perhaps, in my forthcoming book, “The Blackhouse”, I finally achieved that ambition. The fact that it is as much a novel as a thriller, also fulfils two more of my own criteria. The book is the first of a trilogy. I have already written the second, and following the recent discovery that my first love - who had inspired one of the main characters - died eight years ago, I am not at all sure that it will end well.

It is a journey that awaits me. But one that I want to make, if for no other reason than to find out for myself how it all ends.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everyone has a great day. Thanksgiving at my house means skating, turkey, and football.

Enjoy the day!


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hang on to Your Hat!

The book business is like a wild train ride these days. Everyone on it, from author to agent to bookseller and publisher, is scrambling to figure out where it’s going and how they can get on board, or at least cling to the outside hoping not to fall off.

In past years, when my Fall book was released, I would have as many as fifteen to twenty signings in bookstores within a two-day drive. I raced from store to store, greeting potential readers and talking up my books. It helped to build not only readership but also personal ties to the booksellers, who were invariably gracious and supportive.

This year, my book signing tour is almost dead. In city after city, the independent bookstores are gone, along with the knowledge and personal connections I had cherished. Left are the Chapters and Coles stores, spreading across the country in possibly the largest monopoly ever created in this country. While the in-store staff generally love books and are delighted to connect with you, they have no power. A small cadre of buyers at central office controls what books are bought and how many. Another small cadre set policy on bookstore events, and stores can’t plan their own local events without having them vetted more centrally. A complex event application form has to be submitted and approved. An eight-week lead time is required in order to ensure the application form can be processed and the books ordered. Furthermore, their new policy appears to be no signings in November and December. This means that an author or publicist seeking a signing has to start the process before Labour Day. If you have personal connections with individual store managers, this overly bureaucratized process can be hastened, but harried managers have little time to take on the extra work.

Instead of signings, I find myself in cyberspace along with all the other authors. Blogs, Facebook, interactive websites, Twitter, and You Tube are the new marketplaces, and they have become as crowded with competing chatter as any third-world flea market. It’s tiring, bewildering, and not nearly as satisfying as face-to-face talk. I also have absolutely no idea whether it’s doing any good. Everyone in the book business is trying to figure out what will connect them with readers without consuming every spare moment of their lives. At the same time, newspaper book sections are shrinking, ad costs are exorbitant, and book placement surcharges are out of reach for all but the biggest publishers, leaving publishers or authors scratching their heads about how to get the word out about their new books.

Dire predictions are being made about the future of books. Ebooks, vertical monopolies, declining readership, the rise of frivolous celebrity books… Is the train about to wreck, or is there some small side spur that can salvage, if not the industry as it is now, some elements of it still worth saving? I’m not an apocalyptic thinker, I’m a natural optimist. If you take a long enough view of history, some things die, others transform, and still other things are born. I have noticed some very interesting trends beginning to emerge in this clamorous cyberspace where we all congregate.

Online bookstores, although playing a large part in the demise of brick-and-mortar stores, are reaching customers quickly and efficiently in all corners of the country. Indeed, the world. No longer are you out of luck if there is no bookstore near you. Through Amazon, one can order my books everywhere in the world. Chapters, Barnes and Noble, and Borders all carry my books online. And through a clever payment scheme, Amazon encourages the sale of books through private blogs and websites. Even as professional review sites dry up, customer reviews are cropping up on blogs and in all the online bookstores. Everyone is invited to rate or review books. One can certainly argue the quality of customer reviews vs. professionals, but readers are talking about books and participating in the evaluation process more than ever before. Water cooler chats in cyberspace.

Online bookstores are also using complex algorithms to track customer buying habits and to recommend other books. I first learned this when a friend told me Amazon had notified them by email that my latest book was now available. They had bought a previous book on Amazon, and the juggernaut had “remembered”. Furthermore, when you click on a book, Amazon generates several lists of book suggestions. For example, “customers who viewed this book also viewed…” and “customers who bought this book also bought…” and “frequently bought together...” The books being connected to mine are far from random. Along with expected authors like Mary Jane Maffini, Joan Boswell, Vicki Delany, RJ Harlick – with whom I share many friends and signing tables – my book generates connections like Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen and Louise Penny, along with gritty British or Scandinavian mysteries. In other words, books similar to mine.

This virtual recommendation list will never replace the independent bookstore whose owner knows your taste along with every book in the store, and where you can browse back covers and first pages at your leisure in search of a new author. But it will go some way towards helping the bewildered reader navigate the overwhelming selection of titles crowding the virtual shelves. From the recommendations list the reader can click on the book, read reviews, editorial summaries, check out the author page and even read an excerpt.

There is nothing like the feel of a paper book cradled in your lap as you curl up by the fire or laze on the beach. There is nothing like the ambiance of an independent bookstore filled with carefully selected titles and a committed bookseller. Like the personal book signing, I hope they are not swept off the track by this speeding monolith of a train hurtling into an unknown future. We can’t turn back time or ignore the digital revolution. But perhaps, around the bend lies not a train wreck but a series of spurs that will foster new growth, new loyalties and whole new generations of readers. An author can only hang on, and hope.

A must-see

Okay, the title is definitely tongue-in-cheek. And this week’s blog posting is a bit of a cop-out since I’m currently really busy on other things, and heck, it’s not every day that Blechta gets interviewed for anything. For the record the clip above is an interview that I did a few weeks ago for The Mark News, a Canadian online news service.

We decided to do the interview and “B-roll shots” at Toronto’s historic Distillery District. It’s got great visual atmosphere and a ton of good places to shoot. The real issue is to avoid security because you aren’t supposed to shoot anything (other than vacation shots) down there without permission. That’s a train’s bell ringing in the background at the beginning. The property abuts Union Station. I love trains, so I’m glad they used that part of the sound track. What you saw was edited down from about 15 minutes worth of yours truly shooting his mouth off.

We shot the cover of my fifth novel, When Hell Freezes Over, in an open area of the Distillery District. They also shot a lot of Cinderella Man down there (along with a ton of other productions) because of the cobblestones and old buildings, and according to Wikipedia it’s “the largest collection of Victorian era industrial architecture in North America”.

So now you know “the rest of the story”. If you’re ever in Toronto, a trip to the Distillery District is certainly worth the effort. You probably won’t see me there, though...unless someone wants another interview!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why I Write Crime Novels

Vicki on Monday. This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Creatures and Crooks blog. I hope you don't mind the repeat, but I think it's worth repeating.

What would you do if you believe the person you trust most in the world has betrayed you? What would you do if you discover that the person you trust most in the world believes you capable of betrayal?

That is the question that forms the heart of my new book, Negative Image, the fourth in the Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press.

Mystery novels, or as I prefer to call them, crime novels, are frequently disparaged as not being important or literary. Particularly in Canada, where I live, the very idea of a crime novel being short-listed for an important award would have people rolling in the aisles in laughter.

It seems a strange mind-set to me.

Crime novels, it has been said, show the human psyche under pressure.

Crime novels take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

Would I do the right thing, or would I fail?

In Negative Image a long time marriage is under almost unbearable strain. One partner distrusts the other, the other is horrified to discover how deep the distrust goes. Old secrets, long concealed, are revealed. Another marriage ends shattering all involved, and a young woman is very hesitant, frightened almost, about the beginnings a new relationship.

The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

Crime novels often reflect the worst (and the best) of the world in which we live. Here in Canada we have been captivated by the tale of one Colonel Russell Williams, commander of the largest air force base in the country. A military man so prominent he has piloted the Queen.

And in his spare time he dressed in stolen women’s underwear and was a sexual sadist and serial killer. An unprecedented amount of the police investigation was revealed to the media, including the video of the initial police interrogation. Williams starts off calm, sure of himself; by the end he’s confessing to murder. “Why did you do it?” asks the officer. “I don't know the answers, and I'm pretty sure the answers don't matter” he says.

Of course it matters, it matters a lot. And because we’ll probably never know the answers to why Williams did the things he did, we’ll read and write crime novels to try to get some insight into what causes a person to go bad.

And perhaps also give us some insight into what we might do, if we come across such a person.

As we all know, crime novels can come in many forms. Some are as I have described, some are not. Mystery novels can feature emotionless automatons or have formula plots. But so-called-literary novels have been occasionally been stiff or unoriginal as well, you know.

An article recently in the Globe and Mail was headlined “Freedom’s just another world for absolute banality”. The columnist went to refer to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as, “Dull narratives about dull people leading dull lives”. “Coming up,” she says, “with actual plots and genuine revelations is exhausting work.”

Fortunately we have crime writers prepared to do the exhausting work, and mystery novels to read.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I Can't Believe My Own Eyes

Many years ago I wrote a book set in Australia. It was while I was researching Aboriginal religions for this book that I first learned about “pointing the bone.”

“Pointing the bone” is a ritual curse that Aborigine shamans perform which causes the person pointed at - the “pointee”, as it were - to die. The shaman does nothing whatsoever to the pointee other than point the bone at him. And he dies. This is not a rumor or superstition. Over many decades, English observers, including research scientists, were unable to unearth an example whereby a person so cursed did not die. However, when the curse was laid upon a European, the European invariably went about his business in good health. The obvious conclusion to be gained from this example is that human beings create their reality.

Now, I don’t intend to imply in the least that our misfortunes are our own fault or that fortunate people deserve their luck more than the rest of us. It’s way more complicated than that.

A couple of days ago, Don and I were having breakfast in a restaurant and being royally entertained by a watching three-year-old girl in the next booth make people and buildings out of condiments and napkins and narrate their lives and histories aloud to herself.

“She’s in another world,” Don said.

I wondered then, as I have many times, if the world a little child inhabits is in fact less real than mine. When a little guy plays with a companion we can’t see, is his friend really imaginary? When a kid says she remembers when she was a cowboy before she was born, does she really?

We shape our children’s attitudes. No one would dispute that. But do we also shape the way they perceive existence? We dismiss their perceptions as unreal if they don’t fit in with how we see things. Slowly, as they grow, the kids begin to fall in line. They believe us when we say they didn’t really see that woman in the corner of their bedroom. And eventually, their vision adjusts itself and they can no longer see her.

A Native American parent confirms her child’s vision of a spirit helper, so the spirit helper really helps him. We 21st Century Westerners teach our children that money has power, so in our world, it truly does.

This niggling feeling that existence is fluid influences my writing a lot. I try very hard to put aside my own beliefs about the way the world works and perceive things as my characters would without judging them. It’s hard. Almost impossible.

In my upcoming novel, Crying Blood, Alafair’s husband, Shaw, sees what he believes to be a ghost. It’s common knowledge around those parts that the place he saw the ghost is haunted. Whether what he saw is actually a ghost isn’t as important to his view of reality as the fact that not one single person in his world tries to tell him that it can't be true since there are no ghosts. Because in his time and place, everyone knew that the dead walk.

And perhaps because everyone knew it, the dead did walk. Who am I to say otherwise?

Friday, November 19, 2010

A French Toast

The thing that I love about research is that not only does it inform your book, but very often it enriches your life.

The reason for the late posting of my blog is a case in point. With Irish and American friends, I am currently on a wine-tasting tour of the Gaillac region of France. This was an area that I discovered while researching the second book in my Enzo Files series, "The Critic". I fell in love with the area, and with the wine. And in return for my writing, I was made a chevalier of the local wine-making brotherhood, the "Dive Bouteille".

But it is also heartening to know that my book brought me new fans here, even although it has not yet been published in French. When I arrived this morning for a tasting at one of the wineries that featured in the book, I found that they had mounted a display of the books and a poster advertising it in their tasting room.

When, they were desperate to know, would the book appear in French. Well, here's the thing... the books in the Enzo series were not written for the French. They were written for "foreign" readers - English, Russian, German, Scandinavian. I explain some of the peculiarities of French culture, as well as describing daily life. Of course, such things are known to the French, who would find it irritating to read about them. None of us likes to be told what we already know about ourselves.

So this week I have embarked on a process of adapting books set in France for a French readership. How bizarre is that? I am already well into the adaptation of "Extraordinary People", and am amazed at just how much I am cutting, and how the cutting is improving the manuscript.

A lesson for the future, perhaps? How much do we really need to explain to the reader, and how much can remain as "subtext"?

Strangely enough, in looking at some of the later books in the series, I realize that I have explained less and less. Story and character dominate, as they should. After all, if a reader picks up the books mid-series, he or she will not be privy to all those earlier descriptions and explanations. So, in the end, all those revised manuscripts are almost certainly going to be an improvement on the originals.

Maybe I can persuade my American publisher to take them on board for possible future editions.

Meantime, I must rush off. I have a pressing engagement with a bottle of wine.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Work vs. Work?

This week, my free time has been dominated by two things: adding characters to an completed manuscript and grading 65 five-page essays, as we are in the midst of finals week at the boarding school where I work.

Try to guess which is more fun.

I never deny that writing is a lot of work. I once read that Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) wrote a minimum of 10 hours a day and that Stephen King writes 10 pages a day. By contrast, I’m usually ready for a break after 90 minutes. But now, after a15-hour workday, when the 18 15-year-old boys (and my wife and three daughters) are asleep, I can’t wait for the chance to work on the novel. It’s my release.

This revision is also interesting because I’ve never worked this way before. Typically, one cuts during the revision process. I’ve added an entire storyline to a bioterrorism novel. Most of the legwork was already done—I’d researched and interviewed bioethicists, university chemistry professors, and others in the medical and legal fields—so now I’m doing what I enjoy, creating and following characters.

What I’m especially curious to discover is whether or not my current ending still fits the novel. I like the thrill of discovery as I write, and usually I don’t know the endings of my books until I’m 50 or even 20 pages from the conclusion. (Twenty was cutting it close, and that was scary; ironically, it might also be my best ending.)

The papers will not grade themselves, so back to work I go.

But I’m interested to hear from others about a unique revision process.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor

As a member of Sisters in Crime I often take part in panels held in various libraries scattered throughout Southern California. I love supporting our libraries. They’re fun and each time I always come away having learned something new about a fellow author or find some great writing tips. Often, it’s just nice to spend an afternoon commiserating or celebrating about the trials and tribulations of being an author.

This past Saturday—topic, Spice Up Your Holiday Reading—my kindred panelists were Michael Mallory (a terrific moderator), Aileen G. Baron and Betty Hecthman. Aileen, who writes archeological mysteries, was sharing her frustrations about the challenge of finding the right place to put the historic Mission at San Juan Capistrano in her book since it had served as the initial spark for her plot.

Earlier posts on Type M last week talked of how life-changing personal experiences appear in novels in various disguises—after all, we write what we know. But what about those vivid scenes that became the seed of a story but perhaps, as the story develops, no longer fit?

Aileen’s dilemma reminded me of the completed manuscript submitted to my publisher for A Vicky Hill Exclusive! I had written eleven drafts—it was my first novel—and the climactic scene was something that tied the entire plot together. It was also the one scene that had given me the idea for the plot in the first place and was intensely personal. As a cub reporter for our weekly newspaper, I’d gone undercover and got myself into a rather tricky situation with the local coven of witches. Without going into the juicy details, I escaped unscathed.

Unfortunately, my editor felt the scene too risqué for the genre and insisted I take it out. The plot collapsed (of course) but, after the initial horror of having to rewrite the entire thing with a new storyline, I got to work and fixed it. It made a better book but jeez, it was tough.

What about you? Have any scenes dear to your heart ended up on the cutting room floor?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I’m currently working on a novel for Orca Book Publishers’ “Rapid Reads” imprint. I believe Barbara spoke about it already, so I won’t bore you by repeating the details of what the idea is behind this. Her blog posting was recent, so just go back and look it up if you’d like. I’ll wait here...

Good. So I’m writing one of these novellas and enjoying it as much as Barbara did. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The plot involves the murder of an orchestra’s conductor. Now I know my way around one of these unwieldy organizations pretty well, but not having done more than get hired on as an extra for the odd gig here and there, I haven’t been in one day in, day out. When you are, you understand the dynamics of inter-musician relationships much better, probably better than you want. Suffice it to say that they’re pretty much incredibly large dysfunctional families. Bad blood abounds, relationships are made and broken (as are marriages between orchestra members), and factions can’t help but form. The biggest upheaval always comes when a new conductor takes the helm. They naturally become the father (or mother) figure since they’re in the position of power, and the musicians respond accordingly.

So here I am toodling along through the novel and I start having all these questions and doubts about what I’m writing. Even though readers probably won’t detect when I make up things out of whole cloth, but even so, it’s important to me to get things right and have everything be as accurate as possible.

Yesterday, I was wondering on whom I might impose myself for a spot of research and reassurance. Like magic, I hear from an old friend who plays in an orchestra (which shall remain nameless). Seizing the opportunity, I pepper him with my questions. Do things really happen the way I’ve been describing them? I don’t want to be too over the top here, after all.

“Why do you want to know all this?” he asked.

I explained about the novel I’m writing.

“So who’s the person who gets murdered?”

“The conductor. All the musicians confess.”

Silence on the line for a moment, then he answers with a bit of a laugh, “I play in that orchestra.”

Life imitating art – or art imitating life?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Goodbye, Bobby Tucker, Whoever You Are

I had another entry ready to go until I read Peter’s story of how he used a poignant incident from his past as a plot element in his latest book. He fell in love at six years old and got his heart broken. And if you don’t think a six year old can truly fall in love, you don’t have a very good memory.

Our entire lives can turn on a single happening, a trauma or joy, or even the smallest thing, like praise for a picture you drew as a child, or an unkind or thoughtless word from someone you admired. Sometimes your life is forever overshadowed by an incident you can’t even remember.

A few weeks ago, my brother noted that on that particular day, he had finally lived longer than our father. Our father’s sudden death 43 years ago cast a pall over our family that lasts to this day. My brother grew up under its shadow. He was eighteen months old at the time.

All the books in my series are full of scenes and characters that I drew from my own life, Dr. Freud might say that I’m trying to come to terms with things in my past that affected me deeply. We all have something in our lives that we’ll never be able to make sense of, so all we can do is acknowledge it, bring it out in the open, look at it. Let it be. Writing about it is an excellent way to do that.

In my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, I tell the tale of Bobby Tucker. In my fictional little world, Bobby Tucker is Alafair’s little son, who died tragically in an incident that still haunts Alafair years later.

The real “Bobby” was my husband Don’s sister, Lorena Fay. In about 1938, during the depression, Don’s parents and siblings were living in Montrose, Colorado, where his father had gone for work. Lorena Fay, known to her family as Honey, was the youngest of the children at the time, just a toddler. The place in which the parents lived was heated by a pot bellied stove, which is started with coal oil (like kerosene). The starter was kept in a jar behind the stove, and the baby somehow managed to get back there, pick up the jar and drink from it. Her mother picked her up in a panic and ran toward town in her bare feet with the baby in her arms, trying to reach the doctor, but she didn’t make it in time, and Honey died. Her mother never quite got over it. Even now Don’s siblings can be moved to tears when they talk about it.

I included this story in Buzzard because it was so heart-wrenchingly real and not particularly unusual for the time. Babies’ lives were pretty precarious until quite recently. In fact, all lives are pretty precarious, as I learned to my sorrow at a young age. All I can do is acknowledge it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Writer's Tale

Peter here. As writers we all draw on life, and our own experiences, whether consciously or sub-consciously. My new book, which comes out in February, is a case in point. There is a LOT of me in that book, most of it drawn from my childhood - which led me recently on a search for a very important player in my early life on whom I had based a central character in the story.

Rather than relate the results of that search here, I am going to link to the very first posting on my new personal blog, which I kicked off this week with that rather sad tale.

I would be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on it.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thinking about Dialogue

I’m not usually a big vampire fan, although my 12-year-old daughter has read every Twilight book. But I’m into Charlie Huston’s ALREADY DEAD and like it a lot. It’s fast, and I’m noticing how swiftly Huston’s dialogue propels the story.

In fact, I’ve had to think about dialogue a lot this week. I wrote a story over the summer that I just came back to, revised, and sent off to several publications. The story ends at its climax—and hinges on its final line, which is spoken by the 10-year-old protagonist.

The story has its genesis in a news article I clipped from the USA TODAY last summer, a feature on the Revisiting Hearts Day program, which is a prison program in the U.S. designed to let convicts spend one day each year participating in normal parenting activities.

My story, “364 Days,” is about a boy who struggles as he awaits his annual visit with his convict father and explores the ensuing issues any fatherless boy would face. The story ends with this final scene:

“Did you take that bike, son?” the officer asked, eyes narrowed, head tilted to the side as if uncertain of the situation. He was a large black man and kept looking from T.J. to the $219 price tag hanging like a written confession from the handlebars.
“Uh huh.”
The man’s dark face shone, glistening beneath the moon.
“You did?”
“Yes, sir.”
T.J. didn’t answer. He stood staring at the ground.
“Son”—the man knelt beside him—“do you know what you’ve done?”
“Yes, sir.”
“How old are you?”
“You took the bike just to ride it in front of the store?”
“Uh huh.”
“I’m not your son.
“…you’re in a lot of trouble.”
T.J. nodded.
“Why did you take the bike?”
He looked at the man. Then he looked away, back toward Ridell Street, where his mother was still with Marty, where his days of playing basketball were over. Finally, he turned back and refocused on the ground. “Because once a year ain’t enough,” he said.
“What?” the officer said.
“Put me in Garriston,” T.J. said. “Once a year ain’t enough.”

I went back and forth with the ending of this story. In June, the story ended without the final two lines, simply, “Because once a year ain’t enough,” he said. Then, after giving it a couple months to rest and coming back to it with fresh eyes last week, I thought the conclusion needed clarity, and I added the cop’s final question and the boy’s explanation in which he names his father’s prison.

Fiction writing is often like a tightrope walk: How much information is too much? I want to take care of my readers. But I also want them to play a part in my story. However, “364 Days” ends at its climax. The pathos must be clear.

It’s a delicate process, one that might not be over.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

If it's Wednesday, this must be Oakville, and my muse missed the train

Barbara here, just back from a day at the spa and feeling very mellow. Which is a good thing, because my writing life is somewhat hectic at the moment. I have a new book out, a launch to plan, book signings to set up, announcements to send out, and several blogs to write. Multiple demands, deadlines, long to-do lists and overflowing inboxes do not encourage the writing muse to visit. Just ask Vicki Delany.

On this week’s Monday blog, Vicki talked about her struggles to come up with an idea for her new standalone. After seven series novels in a row, had she lost the knack for creating a story from scratch? Was she dried up? Burnt out? In passing, she mentioned that she is in the middle of a huge publicity push for the release of her latest novel, Negative Image.

No writer wants to feel that our creativity has deserted us, and that we’re condemned to writing the same story over and over in thin disguises. We always want to improve our craft, explore new frontiers, experiment with new forms. But there is also this sneaking fear that those boundaries are finite and our well of ideas is shallower than our ambition.

We all write differently. Some of us strive mightily to come up with one decent idea every few years, others are bombarded with fresh ideas constantly. Some of us need hours of uninterrupted peace to get into our creative zone, others do their best “writing” while stuck in traffic on the expressway. Some of us find the looming shadow of a deadline galvanizing, others find it terrifying. I do know that there are endless possible stories out there, and endless intriguing characters, but when the mind is too distracted, overloaded or preoccupied, even the most faithful muse will desert us.

It says “You’re not listening. I’ll come back another time when you’re not so busy.” Without a doubt, Vicki’s muse will be back.

But her dilemma got me thinking. It casts a whole new light on that all-too-familiar question posed to authors. “Where do you get your ideas?” “From everywhere and anywhere” is our usual patient response. Ideas are in the old guy with the mismatched shoeslaces at the coffee shop, in the snatch of angry conversation overheard on the bus, in the small snippet of news on the back page of the paper. But how do we know they’re good ideas, and how do we grab hold of them and use them to launch a story?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my writing process and mentioned that all I need to get started is the theme I want to write about. Some authors commented that they never know the theme until the book is over, or that the theme emerges only gradually as the story unfolds. For many, the story seems to start with character. Who they are writing about, not what. Vicki herself is waiting for a character to emerge in vivid enough detail to start her story.

My experience is quite different. I don’t know my characters very well when I start out with them. I write scenes with them, I create journeys for them, and meet the other people in their lives, and over the course of the book, they develop and grow from their initial vague beginnings into vivid, unique characters. It is only once I have finished the book that their full character is revealed to me. Once I know who they are, I can flesh them out further in rewrites.

This is not to say that I know my theme in all its vivid detail either when I start my story. It is usually a vague idea, but one compelling enough that I want to explore it. War crimes. Post-traumatic stress in soldiers. In the latest book, the deadly power of love. I decide I want to write about XXX, I ask what characters I might need, and off I go. I usually don’t know what I want to say about XXX, and indeed sometimes I realize halfway through that I’m really writing about YYY. But the theme serves to focus me.

Perhaps this different approach stems from the fact I write a detective series. Thus, some of the main characters are already laid out for me. The question I ask is not so much “What is this character’s story?” but “What is Inspector Green’s case going to be about this time?” The only character who dictates the storyline from the outset is the victim. Once I ask “What is the story of this person’s death? What happened here?” then Inspector Green and I are off on the case. I may ask “Who is he, and why would someone want him dead?” but often that too unfolds maze-like as I follow the story. The character may not be who I thought he was, and the reasons for wanting him dead change with every twist.

Sometimes writers are asked “What’s more important in your writing – character or plot?” They are two sides of a circle, each incomplete without the other. A story is about characters doing something, and somewhere, hidden in that doing, lies the theme. Ideas, whether they be characters, plot points, snippets of news, or themes, are like the grain of sand in the oyster. They gets the muse working, and slowly bit by bit, a pearl is built around them. Perfect, multi-layered, and often bearing no resemblance to the original idea that started it all. I wonder where other authors find their grains of sand.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

You can’t force inspiration

The Supremes had a big hit in the ‘60s, “You Can’t Hurry Love”. I’ve also been in the creativity game long enough (first music and now writing) to have discovered that you can’t force inspiration. An idea can't be bullied into the open, it has to come out into the light on its own terms. The more you worry about it, push, worry some more about maybe having lost the creative spark, the more your imagination will laugh at you from the shadows.

So, Vicki, don’t worry, be happy. I’m certain knowing your prolific ability (as opposed to profligate), you’ve already got at least one novel in the can. You’ve had an enviable string of books in the past 18 months. Maybe your imagination has just decided that it needs a holiday.

I’ve been stuck in the doldrums many times and it ain’t fun, especially when you have a gun to your head. As you might expect, the gun makes it worse. And as that pressure builds, creativity slips farther away. It’s maddening.

My suggestion is with the wonderfully clear evening we’re having in Ontario, that you take out a chaise longue, bundle up warmly and have the warming beverage of your choice at hand, and just commune with the night sky. Another alternative is to take a long walk, as you’ve already suggested. The main thing, though, is to let your brain just relax and unwind.

It may take a few doses of this medicine (ignoring the whole problem), but if you’re like me and any number of people I’ve spoken with over the years, eventually you’ll find that all of a sudden the defining idea, that brief spark that sets off the whole conflagration once again, will just pop into your head and you’ll be off on another 300+ pages of discovery.

Just don’t try to force it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Coming up Empty

I’ve decided to take a break from Molly Smith for now (Look for Among the Departed in May) and write a standalone for Poisoned Pen Press. The next Klondike book, Gold Mountain, is at my critique group receiving critique (not too harsh I hope).

And I sit poised over my computer, awaiting inspiration.

It ain’t coming.

Usually at the beginning of a new project my mind is humming with activity for weeks before. Ideas for characters, names (nod to Hannah), details of the setting, rough plot points. This time, pretty much not. I don’t even have the main character’s name, which is a big thing for me. Unlike Rick mentioned in the comments to Hannah’s post on names, I never begin a book without the protagonist’s name, and I’ve never changed a name once I’ve settled on it.

As I typed the above sentence, something occurred to me – perhaps I can’t get started on this book because I don’t have a clear idea of my protagonist. If she doesn’t have a name, then she isn’t real. The question then becomes, why isn’t she taking shape in my mind? Is it because after writing seven series books since my last standalone I’m not used to making up a protagonist from scratch?

Maybe I’m getting burned out. I’ve been on blog tour for a couple of weeks and writing constantly about myself, and trying to make me and my books sound interesting is a heck of a lot of effort. As well as the blog tour, I’m also doing booksignings for Negative Image and have the publicity machine going full force.

And I’m just back from a family vacation in Las Vegas (11 Delanys staying in the same hotel). Didn’t think much about writing books while in Vegas.

And now my computer is broken. I spilled coffee into the laptop. Fortunately I bought this little netbook recently and fortunately I backed up all my current projects to work on in Vegas, so I am at least partially connected.

Perhaps I just need to go for a long walk or clean the house (and does it need it) and let my mind wander for a while. It’s not failed me before. Somewhere in there there is an exciting, interesting, vibrant character waiting to come out.

Incidentally, I’m doing a lot of booksignings around Eastern Ontario and the GTA this month. My schedule is posted here: http://booktour.com/author/vicki_delany.

That long walk might have to wait for a while.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Mary Anna Evans-A Novel-writing Engineer Takes a Look at the BP Oil Spill  - Part II

Today's is part II of yesterday's post by guest blogger Mary Anna Evans, on her first hand observation of the Gulf oil spill. Mary Anna's latest book, Strangers, set in St. Augustine, Florida, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.
The next day was my last in Louisiana, so Cheryl's friend Kenny graciously volunteered to take us out on his friend's boat. Because no Louisianan can conceive of a boat in the water without fishing line dangled over the side, we took fishing gear.

It was a gorgeous day, with bright sparkling sunshine and waterbirds going about their business all around us. I know there were fish underwater, because they jumped in the air periodically, but they were all genius fish who knew better than to eat the shrimp I had speared on my hook. To get to our fishing spot, we had traveled down a canal with banks that featured a string of fishing camps that actually looked like fishing camps, as opposed to the palace where we were sleeping.

There were "For Sale" signs stuck in the muck, in case other people wanted to vacation on the water. (And I mean on the water.) As best I could tell, the "land" being sold poked out of the water during all phases of the tide, but that was about it. The camps were built on pilings, and you could tell that owners were using various strategies to build up their plots, including dumping oyster shells out in the yard. Those folks either brought the shells in as fill, or they eat a lot of oysters. I, for one, rather like the idea of eating my way to higher ground.

The notion of building on pilings, then building up the land around your home, made me think of Venice. The notion of raising the level of the land with oyster shells made me think of the Native Americans, who were doing that very thing long before Columbus showed up. The notion of sleeping in...no, the notion of walking in...one of those mildewy cabins gave me the willies, but I did admire the ingenuity of people who built them out of whatever spare building materials they could haul out on their boats. Most of them had air conditioners protruding from the walls, powered by generators that are stored in strongboxes in the yard.

I don't think this ingenuity extended to plumbing. I'm sure they had plenty of water to cook and wash with, because there were various collection systems set up to store rainwater in barrels. However, we saw no pipes beneath theraised buildings to carry sewage away, so I figured we were looking at a latrine situation. One cabin actually had a couple of toilets sitting out in the yard, for all the world to see. We did not fish anywhere in this area.

Here is a pic, but understand that my camera seems to magically make them look more beautiful. I wish it worked that way on me.

Do you notice that there is no one visible in this photo? And no visible boats other than our own? Kenny thought this was odd on a weekend. We should have paid attention to this oddity.

We pulled into an open bay and commenced fishing. About the time we got our hooks wet, a Fish and Wildlife boat appeared. This was a negative turn of events, because we'd conferred over whether Cheryl and I should get fishing licenses, and Kenny said he'd never been stopped, not once, in the twenty years since he'd moved to Louisiana. It just didn't make any sense to pay for licenses, when we were only going to fish for an hour or so, then go look for the oil spill.

Bad decision.

The really tragic part of this fishing tale is that, for the only time in my entire life, I actually do have a valid fishing license...in Florida. Another tragic part of this story is that we were fishing in restricted water, so I got two citations. (I have no idea howmuch these citations are going to cost me, because I'm waiting for my laryngitis to subside before I try to call and ask. I'll also be begging for mercy, because Plaquemines Parish requires you to appear in court for such things. If they don't waive that requirement for this Floridian, I'll be driving back to Louisiana on September 27. Not that returning to the land of good music and beignets is necessarily a bad thing...)

The most tragic part of this, however, is that the restricted water extends so very far. We were in the wrong. We knew there were restrictions and we certainly should have checked for them. (And I shoulda got a local fishing license.) Butnone of us had any inkling that we were so close to the oil spill.

Here are the hardworking and very nice public servants, in the very act of declaring me an interstate criminal. That's Cheryl in the foreground. She's just an intrastate criminal.

After this, we went back to the camp to drop Cheryl off, because she wasn't feeling well. Then Kenny and I headed back out. We'd confirmed with the Fish and Wildlife officers that the restrictions were just on fishing. We were free to take the boat anywhere we liked, as long as we didn't fish. I have put my criminal days behind me, so I made sure we didn't run afoul of the law again.

We went down the same canal, heading south. Past the spot where we got our citations, we started seeing moored boats, encircled by boom. We saw skiffs ferrying lifejacketed workers hither and yon. We saw a barge loaded with disposal containers, collecting oily waste. Two big shrimp boats were coming in, and Kenny said that they were fitting those with boom instead of nets, to sweep the oil off the water. Here are a few scenes from the trip down the canal.

Take a good look at those pictures. You can see a large commitment in terms of people and equipment. But then look at the wide open marshland and open water. The area affected is just so huge that it swallows all that effort whole.

We followed the canal until it opened into Barataria Bay. I was still looking all around me for oil, but the boat's sides were clean. (Which was good, since it was borrowed.) And the workboats were all clean, too. Then Kenny said, "Look at the grass."

All along the shoreline of the bay, several inches of oil darkened the base of the grasses. That was all, just stained grass, as far as the eye could see. I have no idea how deep into the wetlands that staining extended.

The water of the bay looked clean--no sheens, no free product on the surface. Maybe the oil had come in with the tide, then left as the tide changed, leaving behind a tremendous area of damaged wetland. Or maybe the hardworking cleanup workers had successfully skimmed the bay clean. But you can't skim a swamp, and you can't rip out several parishes worth of fouled grass.

Those grasses hold together the marshes that protect New Orleans and all the people of south Louisiana. They are the nurseries for the seafood we all eat. By diverting the Mississippi and its silty floodwaters, we have starved the marshes, and they are receding. They can no longer withstand the natural battering given by hurricanes. It seems unlikely in the extreme that they can bounce back from this.

I wish I could show you a photo that depicts the enormity of what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico, but you can get those on TV and in the newspaper and on the internet. I can only show you a snapshot of a stained shoreline, taken by an engineer/writer/non-photographer with her cell phone. It's up to you to extrapolate it, imagining square miles of land laid waste.

We headed back to the camp, waving at workers all the way. Now that we'd noticed the staining on the grass, we saw a lot of it as we made our way back up the canal, but eventually it faded away. It was only then that I got a good face-full of the odor of raw oil.

Why hadn't I smelled it when I was looking at it? I have no idea. The chemical engineer in me thinks that the oil is pretty weathered by the time it hits the upper reaches of Barataria Bay. It has had days and miles to lose the volatile fractions that are easiest to smell. Then what was I smelling? I don't know. Maybe the volatile fractions evaporating from the oil that has freshly spewed out of the earth are swept in quickly, by sea breezes. Maybe that explains the odd reports of petroleum odors here in north Florida, presumably far from the action. And maybe it explains the fact that I smelled oil in my car as I drove to New Orleans on I-10, miles inland from the disaster on Pensacola's beaches.

Another thing that strikes this chemical engineer is the problem of separating all that oil from the environment, once it has been released. Chemical engineers take whole classes in separation techniques--distillation, leaching, extraction--but you can't distill the Gulf of Mexico. And I have no idea how you'd extract oil from a living swamp without killing it. It seems that if BP and the agencies regulating them had really considered the consequences of a failure of the blowout preventer, even if the likelihood of such a thing were tiny, then someone somewhere would have designed a system with better contingency planning, in case the unthinkable happened.

Much has been written about the ongoing tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. What can I add to that mountain of reporting? I think I can offer perspective.

I got in my car last Friday and drove all day without escaping the massive influence of this event. I spent Friday and Saturday watching many dedicated people work feverishly at the Sisyphean task of mitigating the effects of it. We've all watched for nearly two months while hardworking and intelligent people fail to keep the disaster from getting worse. I'm not sure that the human mind is wired to grasp the enormity of the affected area.

Just because aerial photos of the oil spill will fit on your TV screen does not mean that the problem is manageable. We are only human. We can only do so much. This is a sobering thought.

As I sit here typing this narrative, and watching the news, and wondering how bad this thing will get, I feel vulnerable. And I feel small.
Mary Anna Evans' web site is located at www.maryannaevans.com

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Mary Anna Evans - A Matter of Perspective:  A Novel-writing Engineer Takes a Look at the BP Oil Spill  - Part I

Donis here. I’m doing something a bit different this weekend, Dear Reader. My Sunday guest blogger, Mary Anna Evans, suffered a death in her family last week, and rather than h

ave her take the time to write a new entry for Type M, I asked her to send me something she had written or blogged about in the the past that she particularly liked. The following essay about the Gulf oil spill is so fascinating that rather than edit it in any way, I’m posting part of it today and the rest tomorrow. Enjoy!


Mary Anna Evans has degrees in physics and engineering, but her heart is in the past. Her series character, Faye Longchamp, lives the exciting life of an archaeologist, and Mary Anna envies her a little. Her latest book, Strangers, set in St. Augustine, Florida, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.

This is a post I wrote in June, after visiting the area south of New Orleans that was so affected by the BP oil spill. I think this is such an important event that I am setting my current work-in-progress, PLUNDER, in that area. We'll be seeing the fallout from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon for a long, long time. - Mary Anna.

Aerial images of oil covering the surface of waters that were once turquoise and clear.

Suffering turtles and water birds, thickly coated with petroleum.

Computer-generated maps purporting to tell us all how bad the situation in the Gulf of Mexico is going to get.

Like the rest of America, I'd seen all those things on my television, but I'm writing a novel set in south Louisiana and the oil spill changes everything. I needed to see the situation with my own eyes. And as a person with a long history in the area, including a brief stint working offshore south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, I needed to see it for myself.

I am the author of a series of mysteries that feature an archaeologist who works in the southeastern United States. Because of the nature of archaeology, it only makes sense that I weave the history of my books' settings into the plot. Because of who I am--a chemical engineer with another degree in physics, who has worked as an environmental consultant--I feel compelled to make sure my fictional world operates properly. My stories are intended to be entertainments, so the history and science are buried

deep beneath the surface. I do not believe you will ever pick one up and say, "This reads like a textbook! Yuck!"

On the contrary, the books get great reviews that use words like"fascinating" and compelling," and they've won awards for being fun to read. But they also get good reviews from archaeologists and recognitions like an award from the Florida Historical Society. When I start researching a new story, I'm serious about getting things right, so I go to the source.

When I wrote my fifth book, Floodgates, I sold it to my editor by pointing out that I was the author to write a book about post-Katrina New Orleans that would be different from any other, because I have family there and a personal history there that includes a summer working offshore in the Gulf. I also pointed out that, as a licensed engineer, I just might have something worthwhile to say about the levee failures.

She saw my point and let me write the book. I made much the same argument in favor of my writing my current work-in-progress, Plunder, a book that features the oil spill catastrophe and, again, she let me write the book. (I love her for being willing to listen to me.)

I figured that something as unprecedented as millions of gallons of oil stretching over a goodly chunk of real estate was something I needed to see with my own eyes before I could write about it intelligently, so I got in my car and drove east until I got to New Orleans.

As I drove across on I-10, the only certain indication of the disaster was periodic announcements on the Panhandle radio stations that scattered tar balls had begun washing up on their beaches, but that they were otherwise fine and open for business. As we all know, by the end of the day, those tar balls had proliferated and morphed into the splattering of oil globs that has at the time of this writing has affected 150 miles of what were the prettiest beaches I've ever seen.

There was an odd moment when I an unmistakable whiff of raw oil seeped into my car cabin. I still don't know how this could be. I was miles inland from the gulf. I spent the next few days after that way down in the Mississippi delta, which is soaked

with the stuff just a few miles way from where I was, yet I only detected such a strong scent of oil once. And when I did, there was no oil in sight. Can sea breezes really carry volatile organic compounds so far? Who knows? I'm sure BP doesn't.

Another subtlety I noticed during my drive were two trucks loaded with pipe that was maybe 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet in length. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy sight, except for the police escort, before and after the trucks. There was no wide load sign, and the loads weren't wide. These escorts weren't the traffic technicians that usually accompany wide loads. They were marked cars with blue lights flashing. Coming home, I saw other trucks carrying the exact same load and being escorted in the exact same way.

I think the pipe was destined for the relief wells being drilled to stop the oil flow, and it was a visual reminder of the enormity of that task. If it takes two trucks and two law enforcement vehicles to transport about 120 feet of pipe, what level of effort will it take merely to get the equipment for those very important wells to the site, much less to drill two such tremendously deep wells? This may be part of the reason we're being told that it will be August before the wells will be finished. Again, who knows? Maybe somebody has to make the pipe before the wells can be completed. It seems to me that someone should have thought of the logistics of this Herculean effort before they ever began drilling at that depth in the first place.

As I neared New Orleans, I drove over swamps and industrial canals and neighborhoods that shouldn't be still trashed from Katrina, but they are. I whizzed past high-rises and the Superdome, and my car climbed high, high above the Mississippi River. Then I hung a left and stopped in Algiers to pick up my cousin Cheryl.

Cheryl grew up on the West Bank and still lives there. She spent several years living in Plaquemines Parish. She'd told me that she thought she could find a friend with a fishing camp we could borrow for the weekend. She could think of three off the top of her head, but she hoped she could get us access to her friend Kenny's camp because it "was nice."

I was expecting something like this:

(Notice how the gorgeous water and sky makes plumbing-free shacks built with scraps of plywood and random pieces of roofing look fairly beautiful.)

Here's the actual camp:

It has four bedrooms, granite countertops, stainless steel professional appliances, and it is beautifully decorated. I looked and looked for something in that "fishing camp" that wasn't nicer than anything I owned. Nope. I was hoping for a relaxing getaway, but I really didn't expect luxury. Score!

On that first evening two exhausted single moms planned our tour of the Mississippi River delta. We did this while sitting on the porch of that magnificent "camp", looking out over the water while we soaked in the jacuzzi, drank beer, and digested a big platter of crawfish. It was truly hard to imagine the devastation that is surely coming to that very spot.

The next morning, we headed south, intending to drive down Plaquemines Highway until it ended in Venice.

To picture this drive, you must first know that the countryside is utterly flat. The difference between water and land in this part of the country is sometimes a mere matter of opinion. If a person digs a ditch, hecreates a canal. If he takes the dirt from that ditch and piles it alongside, he creates something that looks to the Louisianan like dry land, so he thinks he might as well build a house on it...and it will be a canalfront house, which is a wonderful thing in this place where everybody loves to fish.

The land on either side of the highway was always low-lying and it was often swampy. The Mississippi River was to our left, and various bays and waterways that are attached to the Gulf were on our right. Waterfronts in both directions are protected by levees, so there was almost always at least one levee within sight. Often those protective piles of dirt rose above us in both directions, a visual reminder that we were following a narrow spit of land as far out to sea as it would take us.

Between our camp in Myrtle Grove and Venice, I had spotted Fort Jackson on the map. It was labeled as a historical site, so I figured it was more than just a campsite named after a long-gone fort. The fort was well-marked, so we had no trouble finding the beautifully constructed old (1822!) masonry building. Unfortunately, it was closed, probably in the wake of Katrina, but we could drive along the access road between the fort and the river. We parked there and got out to explore the area that wasn't closed. Up on the levee was an observation point with a wonderful view of the river and the fort, and of a bayou across the river known as Mardi Gras Bayou that is said to have the oldest place name (1699!) in the Mississippi Valley.

This little tour would have been exactly as I expected it to be, except for the constant thwapping of helicopter blades. Some sort of relief effort was being conducted from the fort property, and many helicopters were taking off in quick succession. They were dangling cables loaded with...something. Dispersant? Cameras? Cheryl and I could hardly contain our curiosity.

We didn't feel comfortable striding into that busy makeshift heliport, so we approached two gentlemen walking across the parking lot. They were wearing protective jumpsuits and had just disembarked from a helicopter that didn't seem to be associated with the others. It turned out that they were with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and they'd been out doing reconnaissance. They'd come in to deliver an oiled pelican to someone who could help. We asked if they'd seen the spill. They said, yes, and that it was bad. They gestured across the highway and said "It's about fifteen miles over there."

Now the twisty river makes the geography of that area mindbendingly difficult to grasp, but I know one thing. Fifteen miles isn't as far as I'd like it to be. We were well above the end of the road at Venice, and Venice is a long way from the river outlets. I did not like hearing that the oil had come up so far.

The two workers needed to go get some lunch, so we didn't keep them, but we did ask if they knew what the helicopters at Fort Jackson were carrying. "Sandbags," they said. "To fill the gaps between some of the barrier islands."

Now, sand is heavy. The sandbags that those big helicopters were able to carry were relatively small. How many trips will it take to move an

appreciable amount of sand by air? Nevertheless, those pilots were giving it a good try. Helicopters came and went so rapidly that the whole area sounded like a war zone.

Here's one of the choppers flying over the old fort. You can see the sandbag cable dangling.

And here are some other helicopters, flying over the fort's riverside lookout post, heading off on a mission that doesn't seem to involve sandbags. They were heading across the river, while the sandbag activities seemed to be west of us. I'm thinking they were doing reconnaissance.

When we left Fort Jackson, we headed to the end of the road in Venice. There, we saw a command post sending many workers out into the spill zone. When we got back to the house in Myrtle Grove, we were surprised to see another command post at the marina there. Again, workers arrived by the busload, and a flotilla of boats loaded with passengers were heading out.

Two things crossed my mind. First, all that effort is just not enough. Huge efforts by lots of people will help the situation, but the affected area is unimaginably vast. And second, I was disconcerted to see so much work being done so far north.

We had plans the next day to take a boat out to see the spill. The presence of these workers made me think we wouldn't need to travel nearly as far as I would like.


Tomorrow : The spill

Mary Anna Evans' web address is www.maryannaevans.com