Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I went to the library this week and took out William Tapply's final novel, "Outwitting Trolls." Mr. Tapply passed away in 2009, shortly after I had tried to contact him to visit my mystery literature class. He must have been very sick at the time. We had traded novels in the past, but he did not return my email. Then I saw his obituary weeks later in the "Boston Globe."

“Outwitting Trolls” is like all of Bill's novels—the prose is polished and silky, the storyline tense and well plotted. Yet the acknowledgments page is what got to me.

My Readers
My Students
My Friends
My Editors, especially Keith Kahla
My agents, Jed Mattes and Fred Morris
My Parents and sisters, Tap, Muriel, and Martha
My Adored Children, Mike Melissa, Sarah, Blake and Ben
My Beloved Wife, Vicki

Thank you for everything.

I read this list and couldn't help but think Bill knew he was dying when he wrote it. Initially, that thought deeply saddened me. Yet as the week went by, I came to think about it differently. Bill Tapply’s inclusive gratuitous list will (sadly) outlive its author. We have lost so many great crime writers in the past two years—Robert B. Parker, Michael Chrichton, James Crumley, and Tapply among them—yet their words live on.

I have said before that in order to even attempt to publish you must be crazy enough to believe your work is good and believe someone will care about what you have to say. And as Donis pointed out last week, if we are lucky enough to have someone buy our stories, we should be ever grateful. However, since my first child was born, one thing I have cherished most about having published five novels is knowing my words (regardless of how they are ultimately judged) will remain on a shelf somewhere for my kids and grandkids to read (another reason why hardcovers must live on).

A fatalistic literary view? Perhaps.

But I followed closely Rick’s post last week and Donis’s follow-up, and reading Bill Tapply’s acknowledgments pounded the point home for me.

In the end, regardless of the state of the industry, we write for ourselves and maybe, for some of us, because we sense the need to leave an artistic legacy.

Fun in the Sun

Barbara here, very late posting my Wednesday blog. At least I hope it’s Wednesday. I am somewhat discombobulated. But I have a good excuse. I just flew home last night from a week in New Mexico, where I attended Left Coast Crime. LCC is a conference of mystery lovers – authors, readers, booksellers, librarians among others – which is held annually in a location in the western half of a continent. I say continent because although traditionally this means the United States, one year LCC was held in Bristol England. A stroke of brilliance. I hope someday that Canada will host it too. Vancouver and Victoria would make a wonderful backdrop, and we have plenty of local authors and mystery lovers who could organize it.

This year, Santa Fe showed off its unique Spanish history, pueblo architecture and Southwest literary heritage in a beautiful old hotel designed with enough nooks, crannies and secret passageways to baffle the most savvy of mystery experts. Given the choice of enduring a fourth month of sub-zero windchill or flying to the sunny high desert of New Mexico, a surprising number of Canadians attended the conference, among them fellow authors Joan Boswell, RJ Harlick, Vicki Delany and Lou Allin. All good friends of mine now, mostly due to mystery conferences.

Mystery conferences are gatherings of kindred souls, where authors can find new readers, share with other authors the joys and horrors of this rollercoaster world called the book business, and connect with others who love the thrill of a good case. They are the social highlights of our otherwise solitary days, reminding us why we continue to write and how lucky we are. For what could be better than four days talking about villains, heroes, and the best way to kill someone, all in some of the most scenic and interesting settings in the world.

Not to mention tax deductible.

Next up on my conference list is Bloody Words in quaint, elegant Victoria, June 3 – 5. Bloody Words is Canada’s premiere mystery conference, a chance when we Canucks get to take centre stage, meet others from as far away as Halifax and Yukon, and tell our own stories through panels, readings and much more. British and American authors and readers come too, for the intimacy and the great party. So don’t miss it! I won’t.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Humiliation, Survival, and Writing

Frankie here, on Monday this week.

Scene One - I am doing side steps and knee lifts as I “work out” (didn’t it used to be called “exercising”?). The “fitness instructor” on the DVD is upbeat and encouraging.

She is annoying. I try thinking of something else.

I’ve been inspired to exercise by an old (known long time) friend.

We haven’t seen each other in a couple of years. But I’m going to be attending a conference near where she lives in April and we’re planning to get together.
In our last e-mail exchange, I mentioned my decision to clean up my diet and get fit. To which she responded that, in addition to joining a diet program, she and her husband have joined a gym, are going three times a week, and taking long walks on weekends. She has even hired a coach for two of the weekly sessions at the gym.

I do another front kick and tell myself that if my friend can go to the gym three times a week, I (who hate gyms) can work out in the comfort of my own home.

I have been inspired.

But as I am trying not to listen to the annoying fitness instructor, it occurs to me that I have another reason for doing knee lifts and front kicks.

I do not intend to see my friend walk in looking great and . . . not.

If she looks good, I want to look good too.

A much more effective motivator than positive affirmations.

This thought reminds me about copyediting. I don’t like copyediting.

Last week, I was working with a copyeditor on a manuscript for a non-fiction book. I had responded to his queries and gone through that manuscript countless times. But I made myself read it one more time before I signed off.

Good thing I did. In the Acknowledgments that I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to after writing them, I discovered that I had left an “s” off someone’s name and gotten the name of an organization wrong.

I am incredibly grateful that my editor for my mystery series is relentless. I respond gladly to her endless and downright picky queries, and I never complain as we move through Rounds 1-4 of her copyediting process. Not even when we get to my “unidentified ‘it’” problem that always comes up in Round 3.

In writing as in getting fit, sometimes it is more effective to fix your mind on what you don’t want to happen than what you dislike doing. Think embarrassment. Think humiliation. Think e-mails from readers.

Scene Two – I come across an article about “doomsday bunkers.” The 21st century version of the 1950s “fallout shelters” that people used to build in their homes and that could be found in public places. In 2011, business is booming for the companies who build these modern bunkers, Customers can have a private, in-home underground shelter or reserve a place in a communal shelter with all the amenities. A woman quoted in the article says she used the $20,000 she was saving for a down payment on a house as a deposit for spaces for herself and her family.

What surprises me is not that people are investing in bunker space, but my own reaction. An event or series of events requiring retreat to a bunker would probably bring together a number of items on my fears/phobias list.

Yet my first thought when I read the article is not to wonder if I can come up with a deposit for a spot in a bunker. What I think instead is that if matters are ever that bad, I probably would rather not survive. This thought is a first reaction, and undoubtedly the by-product of all the “Twilight Zone” episodes I’ve watched over a lifetime.

But what surprises me is that I am more concerned with the kind of world I would be alive in than in making sure I continue to exist.

This makes me think of those “what if” exercises for writers. The kind with scenarios: “What would your character do if she were given too much change? Got stopped for speeding? Saw a teenager shoplifting?”

These exercises are intended to help the writer get in touch with a character’s values and beliefs. I don’t do them anymore because I think that by now I know my characters. But rather than assuming that, maybe I should come up with my own “what if” questions. Big questions . . .

What would Lizzie Stuart, my protagonist, think about staying alive in a devastated world? Or another choice -- what would her fiancé, John Quinn, do if he found out he were dying? Had less than a year to live and would not have a pleasant end?

Rather depressing “what ifs” and probably not going to turn up in my books.

But the kind of questions that should make me think more deeply. Think about the influences that shape my characters’ decisions.

Their decisions might surprise me as much as my own did.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guest Interview: John Ramsey Miller

Corrigan here.

I met John Ramsey Miller at Bouchercon perhaps a decade ago. I have always loved his U.S. Marshall Winter Massey novels, for their tight plotting and the touching family relationships he presents. John is the New York Times bestselling author of seven suspense thrillers published by Bantam/ Dell including “The Last Family,” “Inside Out,” “Upside Down,” “Side By Side,” “Too Far Gone,” “Smoke & Mirrors,” and “The Last Day.” His work has been published in fourteen languages, in audio format, and he has been nominated for both an ITW Thriller Award, and a Barry Award. He was one of fifteen thriller authors of the audio serial book, The Chopin Manuscript, which was the 2008 Audie Award Winner for Audiobook of the Year (beating out “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows” as well as The Bible). “Watchlist,” which includes “The Chopin Manuscript” is now available in print. John’s first book, “As Nasty as They Wanna be,” was a non-fiction book about the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial in Broward County, Florida. John and his wife, Susan, live outside Gold Hill, North Carolina.

My lasting memory of John Miller will be this: On a Bouchercon panel, the mediator asked a seemingly routine question, “Tell us about selling your first novel.” Each member of the panel talked about getting “the phone call” or about seeing his or her first novel in print. When it came John’s turn to tell his story, I, like everyone else in the audience, was stunned when he explained that “The Last Family” was rejected more than 150 times before not only being bought and published but earning Literary Guild Main Selection and being optioned by Hallmark Entertainment. One of the other writers on John’s panel, a well-known crime-fiction writer, turned to him and said simply, “I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to stay with it. I just wouldn’t have.”

Few writers would have.

Enjoy the interview.

TYPE M: How did you come to writing? Could you talk about your start?

JRM: I became an author through the back door. Literally. My background is that I wrote for my own amusement through middle and in high school. One of my teachers read a short piece I wrote and as a result she got me to write a column for the school paper. The school paper got one page in the local newspaper. After my first column stirred up the town, my subsequent columns were heavily edited and censored by the principal. I wrote short stories in college and afterwards, still for my own entertainment. I was a commercial portrait photographer working mostly for advertising agencies and one day in 1984 I was delivering a set of transparencies when the owner of this agency burst into the art director’s office. The copywriter hadn’t come in to work and there were two emergencies for quick copy for a retail ad and a feel-good piece for an amusement park that was celebrating 55 years in business. I picked up a pad and took a quick shot at both while the art director and the owner were in a conference. The clients loved both and I became the agency’s copywriter. A year later the art director and I purchased the agency. The first year we were in business we were the New Orleans Ad Club’s advertising persons of the year. In the late 80’s when the oil and real estate markets crashed in New Orleans, I sold out my interest in the agency to my partner and moved to Miami to write.

I wrote campaigns for Bacardi Rum, before I wrote several cover features (and did the photos) for the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine. My editors there, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Gene Weingarten, and Tom Shroder, both now with The Washington Post, said I was a “natural” and those guys gave me confidence to try my hand at fiction. With no background in journalism, I was never going to work full time for a major newspaper. I wrote a non-fiction book, wrote and sold a screenplay, and made the decision to write novels. I wrote four before selling THE LAST FAMILY, and garnered 160 rejections in the process. I guess you can say I paid my dues.

TYPE M: How have your day jobs influenced your writing?

JRM: Advertising helped me more than any other day job I ever had. I learned to handle rejection, to write for multiple varied accounts on a daily basis, and to make changes at the client’s suggestion. I learned when to fight for an idea, and when it wasn’t worth resisting change. I learned to use the fewest words possible to say what I needed to convey, how to write descriptions that were memorable, that I couldn’t afford writer’s block, and how to write for a target audience.

I studied abnormal psychology in college, carried a deputy sheriff’s badge in Nashville, spent countless hours in the field with police officers, US Marshals, as well as agents of the FBI, DEA, and Secret Service. I’ve known stone killers, military black ops technicians, CIA operatives, lawyers, prosecutors, medical examiners, judges, and Death Row inmates. I’ve witnessed numerous autopsies. I spent months shooting with a SWAT trainer, have had a concealed carry permit since I was in my early twenties, have been a target shooter and hunter since I was twelve years old. If I write about a weapon, I know it or I make myself familiar with it. I love research because I like to know far more about something than what I put on the page about it.

I believe the one thing that most successful authors share is a natural (and insatiable) curiosity and a willingness to work hard. When you don’t know what you are writing about, it will show to those who know.

My main day job has always been observing, listening, asking questions, and learning. I have never had access to anybody that any other writer couldn’t gain access to. I have found that 99% of people who know a subject I am interested in love to share their information and passion with me. I found that was true long before I was an author. Often one person you are talking to for information on one thing will introduce you to someone else you want to talk to, and before you know it you are sitting in a CIA ex-operative’s kitchen drinking Vodka with General Richard Secord, a week after he was on the cover of TIME. You can find yourself with the Delta Force member who shot Pablo Escobar, or the man who lay under a tarp in an olive grove in Iraq for a week before he held a laser bead on the house where terrorist leader Al Zwahiri was hiding out. Curiosity and seeking accurate information from those who know will do that for you.

TYPE M: Could you talk about the details of your writing process?

Miller: I begin by thinking a great deal about the story I want to tell, and the characters I want to populate the story. Any time I hear an author say that they just create their characters then follow them around and them write the book, I think they just say that because it means they are really that talented, or that their characters are just that real. I see it as pretentious crap. Writing is hard work, not a trip through the woods with a pad in hand recording the actions of characters. I think people who believe that are more delusional than talented. I create my characters and I force them to stick to the story I am writing. I do imagine what all of my characters would do and think in a certain circumstance, but I create the circumstance. Unless I decide to change something to improve the work, they are stuck in my story and (other than staying true to their character in my situations) have no voice in what I write. They are never allowed to go anywhere without my permission and, for their own safety, only under armed escort. I outline my stories in my head, then I refine it using cards, and lastly on paper. I can’t write a thriller without knowing the outcome. You figure out where you are going, then you fill in the “how do we get theres.” A good thriller is a puzzle with tightly interlocking pieces. I write using a series of pulling the rug from under the reader, with a huge plot “bomb” at the end where I do my best to knock the reader of their feet.

TYPE M: What’s the typical day like for JRM?

JRM: Is there a typical day in my life? Maybe. But with three sons, six grandchildren, every day is different. I live in a rural area in North Carolina, seventeen miles from Concord, my home for 13 years before we moved out to the country. An ideal day goes like this: Weekdays I get up around six AM and have coffee with my wife before she goes to work 40 miles away. We have coffee on the back porch if the weather is nice while I check my emails. After Susan leaves, I go out and check on the chickens and our garden. There’s always a lot to do, so I can think and work or I can write what I’ve worked out. If I am going to write, I go to my studio that looks out into the woods. I drink coffee while I work at the computer (Apple only since 1884). I look over my last ten pages so I can slip back into the mood to write. When I first started I wrote seven days a week, often ten hours a day. I write much better now because I mull everything over before committing it to the MS. I usually stop around one PM and spend the rest of the day running errands, doing carpentry, or reading.

TYPE M: You have written both stand-alones and a series. Which do you prefer?

JRM: Both are hard, and both are easy, for different reasons. I enjoyed writing the same characters in the series because I grew them over time as their experiences over the course of the series altered them in ways that made sense to the reader. What makes a series more challenging is that every book in a series has to be a standalone. If a reader picks up SMOKE & MIRRORS, they want to enjoy the story without having to read INSIDE OUT to know who the continuing characters are. An author also doesn’t want to have to bog down the book with backstory. When the reader does read the other books, they are more rewarding because they contain the history the newer books ricochet against. Each book in a series adds to the richness and characters’ overall development as human beings. I introduce a killer in one book who comes back later.

A successful standalone might become a series, so you don’t want to lose a strong character, hobble, or pigeonhole them. An example might be Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme who is a quadriplegic forensic genius. For the rest of the Rhyne books he will not be able to move anything but his head. He bit one bad guy’s neck open, but its something he won’t be able to repeat. That has obvious limitations in plotting, which Jeffery handles very well.

TYPE M: What were your early influences? What are they now? Authors?

JRM: I grew up in Mississippi and lived through the Civil Rights era. My father was a Methodist minister in Mississippi and my mother a history professor. As the child of liberals I saw the best and worst people there in those days had to offer. In Starkville, in the early sixties, we lived across the street from a funeral home and the children whose parents ran it were constant companions of mine. I saw a lot of bodies in those years, people in stages of grief, corpses in various states. I was fascinated at an early age by violence and its effects on people. I was also fascinated by people who did the right thing even when it was difficult and usually against their best self-interests. The police and the people in power often did what they wanted, whether it was legal or not, or morally in keeping with who they were—or should have been. The tradition of maintaining a status quo at any cost, and keeping secrets that fester over time has always interested me.

The authors who have influenced me and continue to do so are so numerous, and cover so many kinds of books, it is impossible to select a few. I’m scanning my book case and I see: Truman Capote, James Clavell, Walker Percy, Frederick Forsythe, LeCarre, Eudory Welty, William Golding, Ira Levin, Larry McMurtry, Carl Hiaasen, John D. McDonald, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Harris, Clyde Edgerton, Richard Price, Larry Brown, Harper Lee, Jeffery Deaver, John Gilstrap, Kent Haruf, William Goldman, Shane Stevens, Stephen King, Robert Ludlam, Cormac McCarthy, Ann Rice, Ian Rankin, Ken Bruen, and maybe a hundred more.

TYPE M: Where do you see publishing headed? E-books? Do you own an electronic reading device?

JRM: I resisted for a long time, being set in my ways as I am. My wife gave me a Kindle less than six months and I use it constantly. I have not bought a paper book that was available for Kindle since. All of my books are still in print, but are all now available in eBook form, and so they will be available for a lot longer than if they were in paper only. I think reading paper books will become like people using typewriters, or cellular phones to trade spoken words through. Not one cell phone advertisement shows anybody talking to another person. It’s all about games, and texting, and Internet access speed. Kids don’t buy or read paper books and won’t miss holding the physical paper in their hands or turning the pages. I think collecting new first editions is a dying proposition. I think what maters is the stories making their way into minds and I do not thing the method of transfer is all that important. I have more books in my Kindle than on my book shelves and they weigh nothing and do not take up any space.

TYPE M: Any advice for new writers?
JRM: I had no idea what the odds were when I decided to write fiction or I’d probably never have done it. I tell aspiring authors that it’s a bad business to get into. I say don’t go into writing because you expect to make a lot of money at it. You’d probably do better panning for gold on a sandbar on the Mississippi River. I once read that ninety six percent of published fiction authors don’t make a living writing novels. Also remember that being published by a reputable house doesn’t mean your book will sell. And self-published books rarely sell more than a handful of copies. A person only a limited number of friends and relatives to market to. The problem with most of the books I read is that they have nothing new or different to say. Books are like drugs in that the more you read the more it takes to get you to the same place. A well-written book is just another book unless the writer has a memorable voice and isn’t writing a story you can see on television every night. Style means little if the author doesn’t have a slant on a story that grabs the reader, characters that are alive, and these days a way to market a book so that it breaks out of the hundreds of thousands of books that are competing.

That said, trying to keep an author from writing, is just as futile as trying to get a teenager not to try a first beer. Every day of the week a J.K. Rowling, Stephen king, or Truman Capote is putting a pen to a piece of paper, or opening a laptop for the first time and the best of these beginners don’t give a damn about their odds. Even if the know the odds they also know in their hearts that it’s what they have to do, and they believe they will make their mark. Thank God for each and every one of them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Can't Complain...

Well, I can, but I (Donis) shouldn't. I'm an author who is actually published by an actual publisher who is actually very good to me, and that's a thing much to be desired these days. Last week I moaned about having to do so much PR, yet the truth is I don't do that much in comparison with many other authors. One of my blogmates on the Fatal Foodies website, Gayle Trent, whose new book Murder Takes the Cake comes out tomorrow, just posted a schedule of her upcoming blog mega-tour, and I nearly fainted from exhaustion just looking at it. I feel as though I spend all my time writing as it is, and not on a new book, either!

On this very blog, Rick most convincingly argued that internet promotion is infinitely more cost-effective and probably more effective altogether than personal touring. Amen to that, though most of us agree that conferences and touring are a lot more fun. Yet if you spend more money traveling than you make in royalties, how is that good?

It's been brought home to me quite forcefully in recent days that the fast-changing landscape of our business and the poor economy have just as badly affected those of us who write as they have musicians or teachers or house builders. Even the very well-known and well-established among us are running scared. Will we be able to carry on doing this thing we love? Who knows? The future feels like a dark and threatening place right now. There seems to be no help for us in the Business, nor loyalty. Publishers drop your wonderful series because it doesn't "sell to expectations." (It might sell to expectations if you had supported it in the smallest degree, you knuckleheads.)

Those of us who are hanging on are so happy to be published at all that we're afraid to complain about anything, even ill-treatment. Late royalties? Bad covers? Disadvantageous contracts? Have to get your own reviews, buy your own ARCs? At least you're published! (No pension, reduce your salary and benefits, no health plan, no union? Kwitcherbellyachin! At least you have a job!) It's hard not to be depressed about the whole thing.

So what to do? It's not like I have an answer. All I know to do is do the best I can, enjoy the ride while it lasts, and count my blessings. If nothing else, I have the pure joy of storytelling, which I had long before I ever was published. And after watching the little French storyteller in Aline's post of yesterday, I'm reminded that that is certainly the happiest, and probably the most important, reason to go on.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Here I am at Type M for Murder!

Hello from Scotland on a sunny morning, when spring as last has sprung after a long, dreary winter, with crocuses, daffodils and primroses in the front garden under the silver birches and even red camellias under my study window.

Vicki, many thanks for inviting me to join Type M and thanks to Rick for his friendly help and advice. I'm looking forward to getting to know you all.

I should probably start with the addict's confession: My name is Aline and I am a writer. I scribbled my first 'novel' at six, the risqué tale of Mr Wiz and Mrs Woz who went off to Paris together for the weekend – yes, perhaps I was a precocious child!

I'm still scribbling, because it's a compulsion, because I can't not. I'm happiest at my desk, trying to write fast enough to keep up with the story in my head, though as Vicki said last week, meeting other authors and gossiping over a glass in the bar is kinda fun as well..

I love, too, my tax-deductible holidays – I mean, of course, trips undertaken exclusively for necessary research, in beautiful Galloway in south-west Scotland where my DI Marjory Fleming series is set. It fascinates me: it has glorious seascapes, lochs, hills and forests but there's rural deprivation, too, and unemployment and small communities struggling to preserve their unique qualities - and it's only two hours away from Glasgow, murder capital of Europe. Urban fantasies of the idyllic country life are just that.

As my new book, Cradle to Grave, launches in paperback, the familiar cosy book world I used to know so well is changing beyond recognition: e-books, social networking, piracy, tweeting, bookshops that don't exist except on the internet, and small bookshops thjat don't exist any more. As all the old certainties disappear, it's stimulating but scary at the same time. Whatever else changes, though, they'll still need what's pompously called 'creative content' – stories, to you and me.

And there are still kids who know from the start that they're tellers of tales. If you want proof, I've attached a delightful video below of a very young French storyteller. It's as good as spring sunshine.

Cradle to Grave is the sixth in the DI Marjory Fleming series which starts with Cold in the Earth. All are available from Hodder & Stoughton.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Decisions and Violence

Brent Ghelfi’s discussion of violence last week was thought-provoking and raised several issues. I am not so much interested in acts of violence in fiction but, rather, what leads to them.

Any form of action in fiction, regardless of its level of violence, emerges as the result of setting and character, developing naturally from the elements of the story. Yet what interests me more than the act of violence itself is the decision faced by its perpetrator. Therefore, I’m equally fascinated by a character’s impulse to draw his weapon as I am by his determination of when not to draw it.

Many of the books written in the crime genre deal thematically with honor. Readers come to our novels for more than entertainment; some arrive on our doorsteps seeking reassurance—in an uncertain world, they want a story that proves evil will not win the day. After all, when we read a crime-fiction novel, we are suspending our disbelief, knowing from the onset that the protagonist will not lose. She may not produce a clean victory, but she never loses outright. Outcome, at least to a degree, predetermined, readers are left to contemplate character. Acts of violence are the result of character, and character is the result of his or her environment.

So for a character to be three-dimensional, the author must side with nurture over nature.

Violence is important in many of my favorite books including “The Great Gatsby.” I have no interest in reading about a serial killer who lacks a back-story or about a bank robber who just wanted to see if he could "get away with it." Those are caricatures, not characters. I want to know why someone chooses violence over passivity in a particular circumstance just as I want to know why someone else chooses to walk away from a similar confrontation.

This is not to say that every act of violence must be reasonable to me, the reader or the writer. However, the rationale behind the decision must be reasonable to the character committed to it, and it’s my job as the author to sell that rationalization to my disbelief-suspending reader.

Unfortunately, there are serial killers in the world, and there are crazies among us. Yet fiction, when it succeeds, is often more realistic than the world in which we live. After all, when you think about it, could there possibly be a more fitting way for “The Great Gatsby” to end?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Search Engine Optimization and other Thoughts!

I was in two minds as to whether to add my two cents to the recent discussions about the effectiveness of online promotion. 

As an author who, sadly, has just been dropped by Berkley after 4 books (because of “the numbers”) I’ve been wondering what more I should have done. I don’t have the funds to hire a publicist. I work a long day at an advertising agency and finding time to write, let alone promote, is always a challenge. However, if I converted my day job salary into an hourly rate and then calculated how many hours I spend doing online promotion, I’m quite sure I could afford to quit my day job! 

Bearing in mind that the Bowker Report discovered that mysteries are purchased primarily because of an attractive book jacket, through word-of-mouth, libraries and book clubs, I often wonder why bother. The snag is, I just don’t know enough about driving “traffic” to my site. 

On the one occasion when I was a guest on Kate Carlisle’s Romance Bandits, my statistics went up 400%. I captured at least a dozen new readers and many said they’d buy my books so there’s definitely something in it (whether they kept their promises remains to be seen). 

This past weekend I met Michael Varma who is not just an expert in online PR. Along with being a professional magician, a recipient of the Distinguished Toastmaster award and author of  “Tasteful Toasts.” Michael mentioned SEO or “Search Engine Optimization” and how to drive traffic to websites. I had no idea that I should be incorporating “keywords,”  “metatags,” “site structure headings,” and “indexing.” I’d never heard of “BackRubs” or “Link Farms.” I do use Google analytics but up until now hadn't bothered to interpret the data because I didn't understand. 

The weird thing is that far from feeling overwhelmed by all this techno jargon, I got excited. If there is something I can do to improve my chances, then I’m all for it. But if all else fails, I share Vicki’s sentiments. The wonderful new friendships I've made along this journey have become more important to me than selling books. Of course I'd love to quit my day job, but I realize I look forward to conferences not because of the book room, but because of the bar.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Our own worst enemies

Vicki’s post from yesterday got me thinking: how did it all come to this?

Publishers have most of their authors over a barrel. It seems it's always been that way, too. I know for a fact that Edgar Allan Poe complained about his publisher. I’ve actually seen one of the letters, kept in said publisher’s safe for over 100 years. In this case it was a very pathetic plea of “Where’s my money?”

I suppose it should be comforting to share something so much in common with one of the world’s great writers. I bet if I would have had the opportunity to see the rest of his correspondence which was also in the safe, I would have read about “damned promotional junkets, readings and personal appearances”.

The vast majority of us ink-stained wretches write because we need to...we have to. There’s just something in us wanting to hold that book in our hands, that book with our name on it and our story between its covers. And because of that compulsion, we will do whatever is needed to have it all happen.

I’ll say it myself. I’m one of them.

With my seventh and eighth books coming out in the next year, I know that I won’t make any money out of it. Oh, money will come in all right. Publishers are generally pretty honest people who pay attention to their contractual obligations. But very much as every one of us does, I’ll turn around and shovel my hard-earned royalties in to the insatiable maw of the promotional machine, doing what I can to get the word out to sell a few more books. Like Vicki I’ve driven long distances to sell a half dozen books. Heck, together Vicki and I have driven long distances to sell a half dozen books! I once got talked into driving to Ottawa (a five hour trip from Toronto) to a library gig that included playing a half-hour concert with another author, a reading, a Q&A and then sold maybe eight books. After all that, I drove back to Toronto and arrived home at three a.m.

I know my horror stories are no different from anyone else’s. In fact it makes good conversational fodder when we authors gather in hotel bars at conferences and conventions. There’s almost always oneupmanship on the topic of book touring horror stories.

It’s getting worse, too. Even authors who sell pretty well (and I’m talking about US sales on the order of 50,000) are being told by their publishers that they’ll have to get out and promote their books — on their own dime. The publishers just don’t have much in the way of promotional budget for any but their most sure-thing, best-selling authors. Not many of those non-best-selling authors will walk, either. They just suck it up, fork over the dollars and hit the road.

It’s sort of sad being a writing junkie. That next fix is there every time the box of the new book arrives at our door. As long as we’re getting that fix every so often, we’ll just close our eyes, take a deep breath and do what’s needed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On Promotion and the new line up at Type M 4 Murder

Vicki here on Monday with a bit of news. But first:

Donis brings up a good question: Why do we do it? Why do we travel so much and work so hard to promote ourselves and our books when the financial reward is pretty much laughable in comparison to the money spent?

For me at least, the answer is that I do like it. The thing I like most about being a writer is all the friends I’ve made. Talk about an unexpected by-product! I didn’t decide I wanted to try to write a mystery novel because I’d like to meet new and interesting people. I doubt very much that even crossed my mind. But being a writer has opened up a whole new world to me. I had a fabulous time in Birmingham, Alabama in February with the likes of Rosemary Harris and Jeri Westerson and Chris Grabenstein and Mary Anna Evans and more people than I can name. I’m looking forward to catching up with Charlotte Hinger and Ann Parker at Left Coast Crime this week. Then to Scottsdale and Phoenix to talk books with Barbara Peters and Lesa Holstine.

All this, and tax deductible too!

In other news, it’s great to have Brent Ghelfi on board on a casual basis. And I’m very pleased to be able to let you know that Scottish writer Aline Templeton will be sitting in for me on Mondays once a month. The last Monday of every month, Aline will be bringing us the word from Scotland.

Aline is the author of the Inspector Marjory Fleming books set in Scotland as well as a couple of standalones. Cradle to the Grave is the newest: Accused of murdering the baby in her care, seemingly cold and measured nanny Lisa Stewart maintains her innocence. But when she changes her name and tries to run away, the terrifying threats always find her. Is she an innocent victim of public anger? Or a calculating murderer on the run?

I love the cover and I will admit that I'm a fan of Aline and really looking foward to another Fleming!

I’m excited about the range of authors and books we have here at Type M and hope you are too.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Guest Blogger Charlotte Hinger

We are very pleased to welcome Charlotte Hinger back to Type M. Kirkus Reviews praises Lethal Lineage Charlotte's newly released second Kansas mystery as "a worthy successor to Deadly Descent (2009). Deftly drawn characters and a complicated but believable mystery leave you yearning for more."

Writing Groups—A Double-Edged Sword

He meant well. This splendid sincere young man who smiled brightly and proudly announced some people were thinking of a starting a “little writing group.” He suggested “of course I would want to be part of it. Being a writer and all. In fact, they thought I was the ideal person to be in charge of it. Being a writer and all.”

I backed away saying I had some come back from a book tour and had driven through snow and sleet and hadn’t gotten to bed until two o‘clock in the morning and “I needed time to think.” Part of this was true—the bit about ice and snow and getting from Kansas and Colorado in the wee hours. Not true was needing time to think. I only needed time out to abstain from throwing a tantrum.

Truth is, I don’t like writing groups. I’ve never been in one, but I’ve visited a fair share and have opinions. I went with a friend to one where the members were mean as snakes. Writing is hard enough without subjecting oneself to this brand of negativity. I spoke to one for a hefty fee and realized the participants were presenting the same work year after year and the “leader” gave a new meaning to dominant personality. The members of another read their “work” to wild applause. All of them.

I critique a few persons' writing. One on one, and never for money. It’s a whimsical move on my part. Something in the eye of the person asking for help, or the irresistible appeal of sincerity. I’ve been helped and would like to pass it along. However, it’s a task I approach with a great deal of wariness, knowing I’m edging toward sacred ground. Although I have an impressive publication list, what do I know? I’m not qualified to comment on science fiction. I don’t seek out romances, but outstanding love stories make me cry. I don’t just love vampires, although I’m quite taken with some and believe the ultimate vampire book was The Historian. My tastes are rather literary, but I don’t like pretentious and obscure writers. So what do I know?

I know a lot of persons in writing groups don’t know much either. Only they are often fearless, whereas I’m inclined to quake with terror at the thought of messing someone up.

And there’s this problem: By some obscene quirk of fate, I’ve ended up working with five editors. Suddenly the gods of the publishing world smiled on me again. I have a weird half-life as an academic, my mystery series with Poisoned Pen Press (which I LOVE writing), and an editor at a university press who wants to publish a historical novel. When evening comes, I do not want to be in a “little writing group.” I want to read trashy novels and watch junk TV. In saner moments, I exercise to compensate for all that sedentary activity.

Some professional writers adore their critique groups, so I know my universal bias against them is unreasonable. Based on information I’ve gleaned from others’ experiences. here’s my advice to someone thinking of starting one. (1) Never, never allow the practice of reading work aloud. Send copies to participants in advance of the meeting and then elicit comments on the work. (2) Set a time limit on the meeting so it won’t morph into a mental health support group. (3) Have a set agenda or format for meetings. (4) It is not necessary for individuals to offer suggestions on each piece.

Years ago, Kansas novelist, Nancy Pickard offered the best advice of all at a conference: If a group makes you feel like not writing, leave it at once. Even if you don’t know why, just leave.

Come to think of it, Pascal said it first—“the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.”

Deadly Descent (September 2009) Poisoned Pen Press (Kirkus Starred Review)

Winner of the 2010 AZ Book Publishers Award for Best Mystery/Suspense

Lethal Lineage March 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The One

I've been doing a lot of travel since the release of Crying Blood last month. Nothing as dramatic as trips to foreign climes like some of my blogmates, but still... enough to put a dent in the gas budget. Last weekend I was at the Tucson Festival of Books which I wrote about at length and posted pictures of on my own web site, so I won't reiterate here, except to say that TFOB is huge! I understand some 100,000 people attended over the weekend. It reminds me of the LA Book Fair.

This was my second trip to southern Arizona for an event in a three week period, and I'll be making yet another trek to Tucson at the end of this month to appear at Clues Unlimited, Tucson's mystery book store. Between all this flitting hither and yon, I've been blog touring. A post about the genesis of my sleuth, Alafair, appeared yesterday on a Western fiction writer's blog. (Want to read about and see a picture of the real Alafair? Click here.)

I've been at this non-stop PR since before the book came out. My work currently consists of little more than publicity. Am I hard at work writing the next book? What do you think? I mention all this for a reason other than BSP. I don't think any published author will find this unusual. While I was in Tucson I spent some time with an author friend of mine so we could catch up on each other's lives. This woman is a solid midlister, certainly better known than I, and currently on a driving tour of the southwestern U.S. She told me that she has developed health problems due to the stress of promotion - and doing the endless online stuff hurts her more than the travel.

I asked another friend as we were sitting at an outdoor booth waiting for people to come by and buy our books, "Do you think this is worth it?"

"No," she said.

"Why do you do it?" I asked.

"Because I can't say no," she answered.

Why do we do this? I've had occasion to ask myself that question quite a lot lately, and here's the answer. Not that I can't say no when I'm asked, but because even if only two people show up at some event you do, one of them may be The One. You never know when that one person who can really boost your career will see some comment you made on a forum, or read a blog entry you wrote, or attend a conference panel you're on, or a workshop you're teaching, and be moved to read your book.

i.e. I'm signing books after a talk and a woman comes up and says, "I think Joan Allen would make a great Alafair in a movie, what do you think?"

I smile and say, "I'd love it, and if you know anybody who makes movies, send 'em my way."

The woman looks thoughtful. "My cousin writes scripts for Lifetime. I wonder if he'd be interested..."

Will I ever hear from her cousin? Highly unlikely. But who knows? We authors maintain hope in the face of long odds. Maybe that woman is The One.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Brent Ghelfi on Literary Violence

Today I'm pleased to announce that Brent Ghelfi, author of the Volk books set in modern-day Russia, is joining the Type M Line up on a casual, alternate Friday Basis. Brent starts his stint off with a provocative question.

I write violent books. Some readers like that aspect of my books, but some don’t. They tell me so in emails, and some bring it up at book my signings. So why do it? Why not blink sooner, turn away, leave more to the imagination?

The answer starts with a simple premise: violence in literature should be organic. Violence should grow from the setting, from the subject matter, from the seed of the story itself.

My novels are set in modern-day Russia, one of the most violent places in the world. The last twenty years there have been like the Industrial Revolution on crack, a savage race for riches, all the wealth of a nation up for grabs in a cage fight where the biggest and the meanest get to make up the rules as they go.

Many of the scenes in my books were inspired by events reported in the Moscow Times. Two stand out. An anti-Putin politician executed in daylight on a busy street outside the Duma (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Congress); another progressive pol gunned down by a sniper while visiting an outdoor park. Imagine my dismay, then, when the Moscow Times reviewed my first book with the following observation:

The prevailing color here is less red than purple, with Ghelfi not-so-secretly enamored of his hero's propensity for casually dispensed atrocity, and inclined to excessiveness in his poeticizing of the horrific.

I’ll buy the part about “poeticizing” the horrific. Violent scenes open the door to poetic prose. Slow down, speed up. Linger or run. Taste it, touch it, feel the warm slide of blood. I like writing those parts. I think there are terrible people and places in the world, and if we’re going to write about them we should do it honestly. So did I do that? Did the violence achieve its purpose? Here’s the Moscow Times reviewer again:

As numbing as the violence in ‘Volk's Game’ may be, it does serve its purpose of indelibly rendering a brutal world of the powerful and the damned, where oligarchs and politicians duke it out with the impoverished, the weak and the needy as pawns in their endless struggle.

I’ll buy that part, too. In fact, that’s the whole point. Why would I render “a brutal world of the powerful and the damned” in anything other than indelible prose?

I think most writers struggle with the question where to step out of the way and let the reader fill in the blanks. At one time or another, most of us have missed the mark. That may have happened with one or more of my violent scenes. But those are decisions only a writer can make, one word, one sentence, and one scene at a time.

Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW, released in 2008, and THE VENONA CABLE, released in 2009. His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film. The fourth novel in the Volk series, THE BURNING LAKE, will be released in April 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Rick’s Tuesday post regarding the mid-list author’s marketplace dilemma is troublesome because it is so accurate—today’s crowded e-market is quickly becoming a saturated one.

I entered the e-book game last summer, when I discovered my contract with the University Press of New England (somehow) allowed me all electronic rights for my five Jack Austin novels. I hired a terrific digital artist to redesign the cover of “Cut Shot,” revised that first novel, purchased the final text and artwork for the others, and uploaded them all to Smashwords and Amazon.

An agent told me I need to be online, meeting e-book readers and Kindle owners. He insisted that I ought to be all over the Internet. He’s probably right. Yet I’m not a player on Kindle Boards or other e-book chat rooms. In fact, I do zero promotion of my e-books (unless one counts this weekly blog). Instead, I use my free time to write.

Would it matter if I spent three hours a day (or even a week) on Kindle Boards? Would sales improve? A little? A lot? I don’t know. Maybe. I do know that Rick is correct—the e-book market is “cluttered.” A cursory perusal of Smashwords and Amazon will validate his sentiment. My (admittedly naïve) hope is that a potential reader scans the blurbs from reviews of my novels, which are there on my e-books, and sees that these novels have been, for lack of a better word, “approved” by the literary community, and then chooses my book over a self-published author’s work. Is that asking too much of the average e-book buyer? Again, maybe.

I can promote my work. I have done so previously. Each time I have had a novel released, I have done book tours, countless signings, and even some TV and radio interviews. More than once I drove two or more hours to sign ten or fewer hardcovers, which, given a writer’s typical royalty scale, makes very little fiscal sense. So maybe I’m missing the boat on e-book promotion. I realize it has to be more cost-effective than what I have done previously. Is the old-fashioned bookstore sign-and-handshake method becoming antiquated?

I have many more questions than I have answers to them, so I would love to hear what other writers are doing to separate their e-books from the e-pack.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Igloos and dogsleds aside

If this is Wednesday, I must be Barbara. Late as usual, but picking up Vicki Delany’s Monday blog about Left Coast Crime. This is a mid-sized mystery conference that manages to combine a friendly intimacy with a broad range of authors, readers and mystery people. There is something for everyone at Left Coast Crime, whether you like your detectives hard-bitten and serial killers graphic, whether you like the moody atmosphere of historicals or whether you prefer the uplifting laughter of cosies. And the conferences are always in such wonderful places, at least from this Eastern Canadian’s perspective. I’ve been to LCCs in Monterey, California, in Bristol, UK and in El Paso, Texas smack on the border opposite Juarez, where in an historic, death-defying journey, a group of us Crazy Canuck women including yours truly walked across the Rio Grande border to have dinner.

This year the conference is in Santa Fe. As soon as I heard that, I signed up. Last week I blogged about my panel on police procedurals across time and space. Today I want to talk some more about the Crazy Canucks. Santa Fe is safely tucked into the high desert of New Mexico, so there’s less chance for us to go astray and get into trouble, although we may try. But it’s interesting how preconceptions and ignorance work. I thought ‘Santa Fe in March? South, desert, hot sun… sandals and sunhats, right?’

Wrong, came the chorus of voices from down south. Sometimes it SNOWS in March, and certainly you will need jackets and layers for the cold evenings. Layers? The very word chilled my already chilled Canadian heart, sick of snow and winter and layers. But reluctantly I opened up my mind to reality. I will be packing layers.

After all, Canadians know all about weather and preconceptions. My first book, Do or Die, was set in the middle of a June heat wave in Ottawa. A reviewer from Florida commented that she didn’t find the weather believable, because it didn’t get shirt-stickingly hot in Canada.

Canada has all kinds of geography and weather, perhaps more varied than anywhere else on earth. We have four very distinct seasons. We have prairies, harsh northern tundras, crisp mountain peaks, humid sticky cities and windswept coasts. And we have mystery novels set in all those locales. So Thursday afternoon, three of us Crazy Canuck women, RJ Harlick, Vicki Delany and I, will be giving a cuentos talk on the criminal hot spots in Canada, from Three Pines to “Canada’s Caribbean”, and from the far north to sticky Ottawa. We will be reading choice snippets and bringing along quintessentially Canadian treats, funny costumes, and a map to serve as a guide. All to show that taking a trip to Canada between the pages of a book can be an unexpected and enriching pleasure. You will not freeze.

You don’t even have to bring layers.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The “beauty contest” and the new reality of the publishing world

The online edition of the Globe & Mail today has an article in their book section about mid-list authors in the growing world of e-books. You should read it: “Are mid-list authors an endangered species?

Now the article is written from the standpoint of publishers trying to protect their turf, but it warrants further thought. Underlying protecting their sales of e-books I detect worry about authors self-publishing. Mentioned is Amanda Hocking, who has sold one million of her e-books online. They’re self-published.

Yes, there is a real problem now (which will only get worse) concerning the ease with which any writer can now publish their work. “She wanted to publish her novels in the worst way — and she has succeeded.” This is a quote I remember seeing a year or so back in an (online) review of a self-published novel. The reviewer was being funny (in a cruel way), but it also is a truth when someone decides to publish a work that has not been well-written and rigorously edited. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent self-published books out there (I haven't read Hocking), but the majority of self-published work should never have seen the light of day.

So if you’re a mid-list author and the e-book world is getting cluttered up by “amateur” writers, how do you get noticed? This is a real and growing concern.

A few weeks back, one of Vicki Delany’s books was up for an award on the CBC website. It was to be voted on by the public. The award was won by someone whose book was voted in by a seeming avalanche of yeas in the final hours of voting (some people might smell a rat). I see this as the shape of things to come.

The internet has arrived to set free all those individuals with access, hence all these “beauty contest” awards, giving voice to the common man. It’s a growing trend, and it’s not a good one. However, there’s no way to stem this rising tide.

Homework assignment: Think about how mid-list authors can make this sort of thing work for them, allowing them to break away from anonymity caused by the flood of e-books coming onto the market.

It stinks but it’s a dog-eat-dog promotional world out there. We have to try to swim with the successful fish or risk sinking into the depths forever.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Packing my bags

Vicki here and happy Monday to you.

It’s time for me to hit the road once again. I’ve got a very busy spring coming up.

Now, I’m a winter person, I love winter and I stay close to home. I love walking the snowmobile trails in the farmers’ fields and woods around my house, and strolling on the beach – frozen solid – when I’m absolutely the only one around. I live in a tourist area, and it gets more crowded than I like in the summer, but the winters are quiet. I have a wood burning stove and a comfy wing-back chair to read in and I like nothing better than to draw the curtains at 5 o’clock, light a couple of candles, and snuggle down to read.

As soon as the clocks change and the light gets brighter and the rain starts to fall, then it’s time to crawl out of hibernation and head back out into the real world.

Right now I’m packing for Left Coast Crime in Sante Fe. I’m at the point in my writing career that I choose conferences by their location. Never been to New Mexico, but I’ve always wanted to go, and now’s my chance.

A good number of my Canadian friends are going (including Lou Allin and Joan Boswell) and it will also be a great chance to catch up with my Poisoned Pen Colleagues and new writer friends I’ve met over the past year, such as Rosemary Harris.

If you’re going to Left Coast Crime here’s a couple of things to watch out for: My panel is the first one of the conference, not a good time at all. But someone has to go first. Thursday at 1, on how climate affects mysteries.

Then at 2:00 it’s the day’s piece de resistance: A Criminal Tour of Canada. Barbara Fradkin, R.J. Harlick and I will take you on a tour of literary (mysteriously speaking) Canada. Want to know where Trafalgar actually is, how about Three Pines, or why Inspector Green lives in Ottawa? We’ve got the skinny. And we will be serving some of our national dishes and dressed in a scaled-down version of our national costumes (gotta get it all on the plane, you know) and having a draw for one or two of our national treasures.

On Saturday I’ve been given my own time slot to talk about a subject dear to me in my writing: how my books reflect the changing role of women. From Fiona MacGillivray who needs a male partner to legally own her dance hall, to Moira Madison fighting her family to become a nurse prior to World War II, to Molly Smith whose main problem as a female police officer is that her boyfriend is being overprotective. We’ve come a long way.

Saturday night I’m hosting a table at the banquet. I’ll have a contest for more of those Canadian national treasures as well as goodies for all my guests. I might even buy a bottle of wine or two.

Can’t make it to Left Coast Crime? I’ll be in Scottsdale the following week, at the Poisoned Pen on Tuesday March 29th with R.J. Harlick and newcomer Wayne Arthurson, at the Teague Library with R.J. on Wednesday afternoon and I am speaking on the Simple Writers Life to the Scottsdale Society of Women Writers that evening at their regular meeting.

April, its North Carolina and Maryland and Pennsylvania with Mary Jane Maffini and Elizabeth Duncan. More about that closer to the date.

For one last time (at least Anthony Bidulka hopes so) here’s the picture of the Canadian Panel at Bouchercon 2009. Bring your cameras to A Criminal Tour of Canada. The other picture shows me in the hat I will NOT be wearing for the talk on the progress of women, ‘cause I can’t get it on the dratted plane.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bits and Pieces

Rick’s blog earlier this week about the story he could never write because it involves real people and a real tragedy reminded me (Frankie) of a conversation I had recently -- a much more light-hearted exchange, bur relevant. During lunch with two women that I was meeting for the first time, our conversation turned from day jobs to other activities. One of the women smiled and said she hoped I wouldn’t mind if she asked me a question. With that lead-in, I was bracing myself. What she said was, “As a writer, where do you get your ideas?” Not wanting to monopolize the conversation, I gave her the 25 words or less version. I said, it was a matter of bits and pieces – something catches my attention here, something else there. I carry these random ideas around in my head, I told her, until I find a connection.

She still looked a little puzzled. I could have mentioned reading newspapers, watching old movies, going for walks, taking showers, sitting in malls, listening to conversations in coffee shops, trains, and other public places where nowadays people will talk about bad breakups and jobs in jeopardy and lies told, often on a cell phone.

Or, sometimes, in the middle of my own conversations, I get an idea.
I have a friend who introduces me to people at gatherings in her home by telling them that I write mysteries and to be careful what they say because it could end up in one of my books. Actually, the only spoken words I ever use with minimum editing are the fleeting exchanges I overhear between strangers. But my friend is well aware of my bits and pieces approach to writing. I did once ask her daughter-in-law if she would mind if I gave a character the white streak in her baby girl’s dark hair (a genetic trait shared by three generations of women).

And then there was the tree. One summer day, as we were driving up to her family cabin (“camp”) in the Adirondacks, my friend told me this story. She had been standing on the porch of the cabin, admiring an ancient tree by the lake and wondering how long it had been there. The phone rang, and she stepped inside to answer it. A sudden wind storm blew up. When she looked out the window, the tree had been ripped up by its roots. She told me this story with a kind of wonder and a touch of superstition about the power of thoughts. I asked if I could use it in the book I was working on.

The tree in my book was struck by lightning. But my friend still remembers that it was her tree by the edge of a lake in the Adirondacks that inspired my character’s tree in a backyard in Kentucky.

I can talk about it here because I always mention in my acknowledgments the occasional bits and pieces of her life that my friend contributes to my writing. But it is sometimes unsettling to realize that even when you don’t intend to file it away, a joke, a turn of phrase, an observation becomes fodder. It’s even more unsettling to be in the midst of an event in your own life and realize you are thinking about how you can use it – whatever “it” is.

For example, on Tuesday, a day after rain/ snow/sleet, the sun was shining and I was on my way to work. I went into my garage through the side door, put my tote bag in the car, and touched the remote on the wall that should have opened the outer door. Instead, the metal device attached to the outer door ripped off and swung backward, narrowly missing the rear window of my car. Since the rope that was supposed to allow me to open the door manually had been attached to that device, my car was now stuck in the garage.

In a brilliant Sherlockian deduction, I concluded that the garage door must have frozen to the pavement. The next thoughts that flitted through my mind were, “I didn’t know that could happen. What if I had been running for my life, trying to escape a killer and that happened? Would I be able to back the car through the garage door?”

No, I didn’t try to back the car through the door. I didn’t think my insurance companies – home or car -- would appreciate the experiment.
And it did occur to me that I still needed to get to work. That meant I should go into the house and find the name of the company that had installed the garage door opener. But this practical response to the situation occurred only after I had paused to file this comic moment in my life away for future use in a much more frightening fictional scenario.

There is something to be said for this writer’s habit. Instead of pacing the floor until the technician arrived to free my car, I went on the Internet to look for posts about frozen garage doors.

But (returning to Rick’s thoughtful comments), I too believe I need to make ethical choices about what I use from my life and the lives of others. My choice is to use only the bits and pieces, to mix and disguise and to ask permission when appropriate. And still, particularly because I study real-life crime, I do now and then worry about becoming an “objective” observer who forgets to feel. My way of resolving this is to try not to create disposable victims in my mysteries and to have my characters ask thought-provoking questions even if neither they nor I can provide the answers.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Synopsis Story

Tuesday morning, I sent a query email to a small publisher pitching a novel I recently finished. By 2 p.m., someone from the publishing house had emailed a response requesting electronic versions of the completed novel and a synopsis.

No problem, right? Just email everything over.


Synopsis? Not a jacket blurb, my Type M colleague Vicki Delaney explained. And not an outline or a chapter-by-chapter summary either. So what is a damned synopsis? I had to learn quickly.

I've had agents pitch my work in recent years, and the last time I attempted to sell a novel myself my query letter was answered by a request for the entire manuscript. Apparently, times have changed. It seems a synopsis is not as tedious as an outline or as vague as a jacket description. It should include all the major events that impact the arc of the novel, all major characters, and even themes and conflicts. It should also provide the novel’s resolution and dénouement.

Little did I know it would take me four hours to boil my 90,000-word novel down to a 700-word tension-filled (hopefully) summary.

I once heard or read that a writer should know his or her novel well enough to be able to summarize it orally in one or two sentences. I usually can do that, which is why I tend to insist on writing the catalogue copy and jacket description for my publisher. Yet when I attempted it, the synopsis proved to be a whole different beast--catchy yet clear; complete yet suspenseful; insightful yet brief; and detailed yet present tense. I didn't want to hold the process up, so I gave it my best and fired it off. I'll know how I did soon enough if the synopsis was effective.

Either way, it was a worthwhile writing experience. Every writer would rather be working on a book than spending time on business aspects of the profession. However, spending an evening (well into the late-night hours, actually) consolidating my storyline into two pages forced me to delve into my plot and see what was truly critical. I had to decide which plot points were important enough to include in the description of the novel—something we should all be honest enough and able to do.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

SleuthFest: Dennis Lehane's Top Ten Tips!

I spent last weekend in balmy Fort Lauderdale attending one of my favorite mystery writing conferences—SleuthFest. Organized by the Florida Chapter of MWA, SleuthFest's two keynote speakers were Meg Gardiner (China Lake, Liar's Lullaby) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone). Dennis very generously shared his top ten tips for writers and I am shamelessly going to repeat them here because ... well ... they are really worth repeating. 
Thank you Dennis!

Here they are. 
1. Does the story begin on page 1?
If you have to write reams of back-story, pre-story etc. that’s okay but start the “real” story on page 1.

2. Does the main character act soon enough?
Avoid stasis. The first chapter HAS to be a “happening” chapter.

3. Does the main character have a recognizable “want”?
A clear want leads to action, which illustrates the inner life of a main character.

4. What does the character need?
This is different from the “want.”
Need is theme
Want is plot

5. Are your characters authentic?

6.Does the major character go on a journey and have an epiphany?
Story is the journey
Plot is the vehicle you use to drive on your journey

7. Do the events in the story have dramatic inevitability?

8. Is something at stake?
Does something matter beyond the story i.e. the character’s soul?

9. Write the book you want to read.

10. When in doubt, tell the ****ing story!!

And lastly, always try to transcend your genre. Challenge yourself each time. Raise the bar. Never ever settle.

For anyone who has not experienced SleuthFest ... I encourage you to attend next year!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A story maybe best not told

Over the past several months I’ve been thinking a lot about a situation someone that I’ve known since childhood has been suffering through. That person’s life has, not to put too fine a point on it, been torn to shreds. You see, his son participated in and was convicted of a particularly gruesome murder. I cannot tell you the profound sorrow I’ve felt for him and his family as I watched it all unfold. It’s almost too horrible to contemplate.

As a crime novelist, it’s probably hit me harder than it would have hit most people who know him since I make money writing about things just like this. The story of the tragedy would probably make a very good book. I’m sure someone is already turning it into a book. It could never be me.

The situation really did throw me into a black funk where I seriously looked at what I write about. I suddenly felt vulture-ish, picking over the bones of dead things. I’ve written about characters getting murdered, and while I may have considered and written about the despair of those to whom the murdered person was dear, I never really considered the same despair that relatives and friends of the murderer might feel.

The death of a person is such a tragic thing, and when murder is involved, it is doubly tragic. The damage is just so widely distributed and so many people are touched by it.

I didn’t consider for a moment visiting any of the facts of this case in any of my writing, but so what? Even when I’m making something up, dredged from the depths of my imagination, if it’s going to be believable, it has to be based on something that could have happened, if it didn’t actually take place. Inadvertently, I have probably written something that could be horribly painful for someone who might happen upon one of my books.

It’s something to think about.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Murder at Lost Dog Lake by Vicki Delany

I’m arriving late to the revolution. The barricades have been breached, the demonstrating hordes have passed. The bonfires have been put out and the discarded placards collected. The police are back at the station with their feet up and coffee mugs at hand and their horses are in the stable. And along I come, playing my tambourine and carrying my handmade poster, chanting slogans and wondering where everyone is.

No, I’m not in Wisconsin or in Toronto for the G-20. I’m in cyberspace and I’ve just published an e-book.

It's called Murder at Lost Dog Lake. It’s a PI novel that takes place on a wilderness canoe trip to Ontario’s Algonquin Park. I wrote it shortly after I was on a wilderness canoe trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. This book had an extremely short life as an e-book way back in 2004 – sort of the dark ages of electronic publishing – and I earned a grand total of $3.50 (US) on it. I never did cash the cheque. The book, incidentally, was nominated for an EPPIE award for the best mystery published on the Internet. Without that I might have only earned $2.50 (US).

Anyway, the book has been resting in the recesses of my computer, gathering bytes of dust. I decided to take it out and dust it off and join the revolution.

Today it’s available on Kindle. Tomorrow, Smashwords and other formats. It’s priced at the low low price of $2.99 which was the minimum I could charge, and I am hoping that it will draw people who will like it and then they’ll have a look at my other books. (Incidentally, I might mention that all my Poisoned Pen Books are available for Kindle and other e-readers at the very reasonable price of $6.95).

My friend and fellow mystery writer Donna Carrick of Carrick Publishing ( did all the work of formatting the book and getting it up onto Amazon and Smashwords.

She did a great job.

See for yourself.

Follow this link: Amazon and fork out your $2.99.

If you like the book, I’d really appreciate a comment on Amazon.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Singing Wind

I spent last weekend traveling around Arizona for events - Saturday at Velma Teague Library in Glendale, hosted by my favorite librarian/book review blogger, Lesa Holstein, and Sunday at an event in the most unusual bookstore I've ever seen, Singing Wind Bookshop. Singing Wind is located on a working cattle ranch just outside of Benson, Arizona, which is some 60 miles east of Tucson, in the southern part of the state. The shop is owned by Winn Bundy (below left, with me) and her husband Joe and managed by the inimitable Kathy Suagee( right). I don't want to betray any confidences, here, but I will say that Winn and Joe are people who have been around for a while, Arizona ranchers who are about as no-nonsense as they come.

Singing Wind has been a Tucson/Benson/Sierra Vista institution for decades, and is going strong, I'm pleased to say, even though it is located out in the wilderness, and one literally has to drive half a mile down a dirt road to get to it. The parking area is an empty field some yards from the house (Yes, the shop is in the ranch house), and you get the added pleasure
of a nice hike past a herd of friendly horses to get where you're going.

Much has been written lately about the demise of bookstores. If Borders stores can't make it even though they are the size of Walmarts and located in the middle of affluent population centers, what can be the message when an eclectic shop like Singing Wind - which does not even have an internet presence,
I might add - is still drawing crowds of 75 to 100 people per event?

Part of it certainly is that Singing Wind is unique. It is also a southern Arizona institution, as is Winn herself. She puts on large author events several times a year and includes a big buffet spread. She advertises in the local newspapers and has an international mailing list. I always meet several Canadians when I'm there.

When the weather is nice, which it usually is, the luncheon is outdoors under the trees, often a barbeque. Last weekend was chilly (in fact I saw snow for the first time in five years), so she laid out the buffet in her living room. I would guess that fifty or sixty people showed up, for which Winn blamed the snow. The last time I was there in February, there were easily 100. Four mystery authors (Elizabeth Gunn, Susan Cummins Miller, Jeff Marriott, and myself) spoke and a fabulous local folk band called the Ronstadt Generation performed. We all mingled and schmoozed,ate together, laughed a lot and signed dozens of books apiece.

Has Winn has caught lightning in a bottle, or does she simply adhere to the basic tenet of retail? Give the people what they want, which in this case is a great product and an equally great experience.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

My Favorite Blog

A very busy week here. I got only half of my blog written before a conference, my day job, and life in general got in the way. So for this week’s post, I will share with you one of my all-time favorite blog posts. It was written by Alafair Burke to honor her father (one of my literary heroes), James Lee Burke. The blog originated as her introduction at the 2009 Edgar Awards, where her father received the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America.

I find the post—and its details of James Lee Burke’s journey—inspirational. I hope you do, too.

Have Gun, Will Fire

Barbara here. These days it seems to me everyone but me is on holiday down south. All my Facebook friends are posting from a lounge chair with a little umbrella drink in their hand. And a big grin on their face.

I am happy to report that I too will be going south, to Santa Fe in New Mexico. Granted, it’s to attend a conference and to spend four days competing for notice among other similarly frenetic authors. But the sun will be hot, the dessert flowers in bloom, and with any luck I will be sporting sandals and a sun hat. A welcome thought.

Mystery conferences are a mad round of panels, presentations, networking and schmoozing. At this conference, I will be teaming up with fellow Canuck writers Vicki Delany and RJ Harlick to give a talk about crime hot spots in Canada. Naturally Trafalgar in British Columbia, rural west Quebec, and Ottawa, the setting of our own mysteries, will feature high on the list. Who knew there could be so many bodies in these friendly, well-behaved places?

I will also be on a panel discussing the police procedural across space and time. One of the questions we’ll be discussing is whether there is a difference between police procedurals by British, Canadian and American writers. I think this will be lively, thought-provoking discussion. Instinctively, thinking of great writers like Michael Connolly and PD James, I’m inclined to answer a resounding yes. Peter Robinson, himself a British-born Canadian who sets his Inspector Banks series in Yorkshire, points out that one of the major distinctions influencing the tone of police procedurals is the use of the gun. British officers do not carry guns and must rely more heavily on psychology and negotiation in defusing a crisis, whereas American officers must carry their guns at all times, whether on duty or not. Canadians, as in many things, occupy the middle ground. Officers must carry their guns on duty but never off duty. Use-of-force protocols and paperwork tend to discourage their use, however. My detective, Inspector Green, hates his gun and draws it only when my real-life cop advisor tells me he has to. Like Robinson’s Inspector Banks, Green tends to use his wits. Does this make for gentler, more character-oriented novels? An interesting question.

Digging deeper into this question I wonder if there may be more differences between writers within each country than between them. Louise Penny’s gentle village mystery series and Giles Blunt’s dark, visceral Detective Cardinal series couldn’t be more different. Or could they? Is there a common thread between them? A common world view or sensibility? Is there a thread that links Val McDermid’s and Mark Billingham’s edgy series to the gentler stories of Morse and Dalgleish?

Whatever the answer, the discussion promises to be lively and informative. So stay tuned for a summary when I come back to these northern climes.