Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A place of peace and silence

I spent a good part of yesterday sitting around outside. Why? Because it was the first really nice day we’ve had in Toronto for about two weeks. It was once again a pleasure to be outdoors.

Well, I do have to confess that I was outside working on a graphics job that has to get out the door before I leave early on Thursday for Bloody Words in Victoria, BC, but it was too nice a day not to be working al fresco. As the computer chugged away processing image files, I had time to enjoy the gentle breezes and let my mind wander off. About mid-afternoon, having been completely silent for a few hours, the noises surrounding me began to register more on my consciousness.

We have a water garden with a waterfall and that always adds a pleasant aural ambiance to our backyard, and the sound of birds with their singing and chatter is a constant because of our feeders, but I have to say that the noises of the city overwhelmed it all pretty quickly. There were buses, cars, trucks and loud emergency vehicles on the largish street four houses over, and it was really quite amazing how much noise it all makes. Our neighbours had their window air conditioning unit going full blast and someone in the apartment building on the large street was playing annoying music at inappropriate volume.

I’m sure all of it had been going on the entire time I was outside, but my brain had been filtering the annoying sounds out for the most part – right up to the point where it had either gotten too tired to continue, or, more likely, my inner thoughts and voices had gotten silent enough to make it all the more obvious.

Filtering out background sounds (and we humans have gotten good at that!) takes a lot of mental energy. Perhaps that’s why we writers instinctively look for those places where we don’t have to spend our mental energy making the noise around us go away.

I always do my best work late at night or early in the morning, and heaven for me is a week in a cottage out in nature where I can work – and think – all day long. What’s the common element? Silence.

I’ve always wondered why that is and I think a good portion of the reason is that my brain was trying to tell me that, without having to expend all that energy filtering, it has more focus to do what I need it to do. Out of the quiet comes inspiration – because it can.

How about you?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Aline here again. I’ve just got back from Crimefest, in Bristol, which brings together delegates from both sides of the Atlantic, and this year from Greece, Iceland and South Africa as well. It’s the son of Left Coast Crime which came here five years ago, and there was so much enthusiasm for it that this new event took its place. It was great to meet some of my American readers who are loyal fans of DI 'Big Marge' Fleming.

Bristol’s a beautiful merchant city, just down the road from Jane Austen’s Bath, which grew up round the River Severn on trade with the New World, with streets of Georgian houses in honey-coloured stone and glorious medieval streets, and a thriving street market too. The Clifton Village area is crammed with antique and vintage shops and delicatessens – I can speak for Tom’s delicious pies. Cary Grant was born here, and you can even have your photo taken beside him – well, his statue anyway – and make like you're Grace Kelly. Or, if you're a guy, the second of the Couple of Swells. Think about it for next year – details on info@crimefest.com – and tell Adrian I sent you!

Conferences are always a great way to get in touch with what other authors are thinking, and much of the talk was, naturally, about the revolution in the book industry. This year for the first time there was an eDunnit Award, open only to ebooks and now there seems to be a groundswell of excitement rather than nervousness about what’s happening. There’s even a feeling that power is passing, at last, from publishers and editors to authors and that the day of liberation is at hand.

You spend a year, or more – sometimes much more – labouring over a book, and send it off hopefully to agents and publishers, but it develops homing pigeon tendencies and pops back to see you with depressing loyalty. You know it’s a good book, you reckon there are people out there who would pay good money to read it, but because the gatekeepers in the world of publishing say no, it will never see the light of day.
No longer!

In some ways, of course, book publishing is more gratifying. Knowing that you’re not the only one who has confidence in your book is a terrific confidence boost and the feel of a book that you have written in your hand, all crisp and beautiful, is like nothing else. On the other hand, your creativity won’t be supporting a huge industry, in which everyone is paid better than you. The budget I heard quoted by an editor was £22,000, of which £4000 was available as an advance for the author.

My own interest, at the moment at least, is in republishing my back list. I have several books written some years ago which are out of print, and of course I can understand that bookshops and warehouses can’t keep unlimited stocks. But I’m often asked where they can be found and have to say sadly that they’re out of print. So I’m going to get them out there in their new guise as ebooks – watch this space!

It’s always been an encouragement to writers that Frederick Forsyth was repeatedly rejected before he found a publisher willing to take a risk with The Day of the Jackal. There must be more manuscripts like that out there with authors who gave up sooner – maybe that’s you, and maybe this is your big chance?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Get Lost, Sister.

Most of my fiction writing begins with an image of a person or a place. When the image lingers—I’m hooked. There is something there. Certainly this was the case for Lethal Lineage. A female priest (Episcopal) popped up. She was passing the Chalice to communicants and a person whispered to her “I know who you are, and I know what you’ve done.”

This isn’t much to go on—certainly not enough to write a book about. But the image wouldn’t go away. And so it goes. Who was this person? What did they know? That’s the fun part. I love the work of making sense of all this.

So here, in a nutshell, is how this image became a full blown movie in my mind:

A sinister Episcopal Bishop ruins the joyful confirmation of historian Lottie Albright’s niece through a scathing fire and brimstone sermon. Already seething over the bishop’s insults, Lottie and her twin, psychologist Josie Albright, are catapulted into a murder investigation when they discover the body of the beloved priest, Reverend Mary Farnsworth, in the locked anteroom where she fled after dropping the chalice during the service.

Now alone with Bishop Talesbury, in her dual role as undersheriff of Carlton County, Lottie is aghast at the bishop’s indifference and terrified of his bizarre knife-wielding rituals. The fractious four county congregation’s brave new little frame Western Kansas church, St. Helena, appears doomed through this first service.

Lottie is still reeling from the bizarre death, when at the Fiene family farm immediately afterwards, a frail arthritic old woman, Edna Mavery, tells her a man kneeling at the communion rail “caused Mary’s heart attack,” by whispering “I know who you are, and I know what you’ve done.”  Skeptical that foul play was involved, nevertheless Sheriff Sam Abbot and Lottie treat the ante-room as a crime scene although the room was locked, windowless, in full view of the congregation.

That night, when the twins attempt to locate Farnsworth’s family through her office records in the neighboring county, they run afoul of the hopelessly inept Copeland County Sheriff, Irwin Deal, who arrests the two for breaking and entering. Incensed over spending a night in jail, Josie returns to help with an election to recall Deal. Alarmed, Keith, Lottie’s husband, knows the two women are antagonizing an extremely dangerous family, and becomes a deputy sheriff to protect them. Lottie is irate.

The twins are quickly confronted with an insolvable tangle. The beloved Reverend Mary was poisoned and has no traceable personal history. An unauthorized bishop performed an illegitimate service in an unconsecrated church occupying irregularly secured land. The real bishop of Western Kansas, James P. Rice, is livid over the illicit circumstances.

Lottie attempts to comfort Edna Mavery who is still devastated by the death by persuading her to contribute an oral history. Lottie hopes working on Edna’s story, as well as those of two other Carlton residents, will distract from her obsession with the investigation which has been preempted by the KBI. However, the three persons’ lives intertwine in unexpected ways. When Talesbury claims his inheritance rights to an ancient glebe, the land occupied by St. Helena, the distraught congregation learns they labored in vain, and the rogue bishop, raised in Africa, and a survivor of the Tutsi/Hutu civil war, is connected to the malevolent Deal family.

But for all Lottie’s investigative skills, and the prowess of the KBI they cannot trace Mary Farnsworth nor determine how the impossible murder occurred.

So image be gone. Vamoose. I’ve told your story, and a right complicated one it was too. Get Lost, Sister.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Planes, trains and ferries

Barbara here, looking at next month’s agenda book (I still use the paper kind that I can cart around in my purse) and wondering whether I ought to sprout wings. Who ever said the life of a writer consists of hunkering down in a lonely garret for months on end, pouring out a masterpiece that no one else sees until he shoves it in the mail to his editor? And then when it comes out, the publisher fires off a few review copies to the New York Times, books a couple of appearances on Oprah, and sits back to rake in the millions.


Oh right. I forgot the blogs, the launch parties, the tweets and the general internet deluge to trumpet the book’s arrival, followed by the mall signings, library readings, community centre talks, book club visits, and endless tours to places close enough to reach by car. In the case of my home town of Ottawa, that includes Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Petit de Gras, Cape Breton.

This month, I will be flying to the Atlantic coastal city of Halifax one weekend, and to the Pacific coastal city of Victoria the next. A total distance of 6200 km, or about 4200 miles. Canada is approximately 9300 kms, or 5800 miles across, from Cape Spear, Newfoundland to northern British Columbia. Put this way, my coast-to-coast journey doesn’t seem so bad. Perhaps you could tell my credit card company that.

All of this is in an effort to promote my Ottawa-based Inspector Green series, and other Canadian crime novels, to Canadian audiences. In Halifax at the Canadian Library Association Annual Convention, and in Victoria at Bloody Words, Canada’s Premiere Mystery Conference. It’s an uphill battle. When customers across the country walk into their local bookstore or even click on the mystery selections of the major online sellers, they are confronted with Dan Brown, Stieg Larssen, or the latest release from PD James or John Grisham. The books are piled in mountains by the entrance and peering face out from the “Hot and new Fiction” shelves. It takes money to make money in this business, like any other, and the big guys have the advantage. With a population of 35 million spread over 9300 kms, Canadian readers don’t wield much clout. Even if they have managed to hear of us.

So here I go, tilting at windmills but enjoying every moment of my quest. Cramming a mall signing into my Halifax weekend and a Vancouver library reading into my west coast trip. I am sharing my Halifax appearances with my friends and fellow Canadian crime writers Mary Jane Maffini and Tom Curran, and my Vancouver appearance with another dear friend and colleague RJ Harlick. Talented writers all, with stories to tell about our own land. Tom writes about Newfoundland, Mary Jane about Ottawa and RJ about Quebec and the First Nations. Their stories are universal and should touch any mystery lover’s heart, but they are particular as well. To touch the Canadian heart. If not us, who will tell these stories?

Discover more of us at www.crimewriterscanada.com

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When inspiration strikes

Frankie’s blog from last Friday really inspired me. I certainly do what she described: “With each I rushed to my computer . . . or grabbed a napkin. Often it was a napkin or a stray scrap of paper because these brilliant ideas seem to come to me when I’m away from my desk, sitting in a restaurant or in my car or standing in the shower. And I have to get them down or they disappear into thin air.” —Frankie

I suspect most creative types are like this. Many great ideas have famously first been noted on napkins over the years. I have one sitting on my desk at the moment. The fact that it was one of my wife’s white linen napkins and I used an indelible marker to jot down my deathless prose perhaps explains why I’ve been living in my 8x8 studio for the past week. (I jest.) But I do currently have a napkin (paper) with a book idea on it, sitting underneath my computer monitor.

Anyway, like all good writers, Frankie’s post caused me to think: why are we always away from our desks when great ideas strike? What’s happening here? Here’s my theory.

Sometimes our brains get in the way of thinking. It’s pretty humbling to sit in front of a computer monitor or a blank sheet of paper, knowing that we should be filling it up with the novel or short story we’re working on. Quite often we may know exactly what’s going to happen in the next scene – but we have no idea how to get there. Often it’s a matter of a paragraph or two that’s needed to segue from the current scene, but somehow it just won’t come out.

Eventually, we get up in disgust at ourselves for being so stupid and wasting yet another day of work. If there’s a deadline looming, it only makes it worse, and we seem to stumble this way more often in that case.

Or maybe it’s just a creative bolt out of the blue, an idea for the next novel that hits us when we’re not otherwise creatively occupied. Either way, in talking with other writers, it seems we all fall victim to inspiration at awkward times far too often for it to be a coincidence.

...bringing me back to why this happens. Sometimes we just need to un-occupy our brains to get the creative juices flowing again. We can find what we’re missing by not thinking about it. I wrote a blog posting two years ago about going for a walk or a drive when stumped. What I neglected to note at the time is that if I do this and then start thinking, “Okay, now where’s my solution? Come on! I’ve been walking for 20 minutes and nothing’s happening,” nothing will happen. The problem is I’m trying to force creativity. Do that and the muse will stubbornly remain in the distance. The right side of our brain is not wired to work on command. It’s capricious and does things in its own time and in its own way. It likes to work in the background most of the time.

So when inspiration strikes, we have to grab it. If it’s in a situation where you can’t run to your computer and start working, we must take notes, jot something down – even if it’s in the middle of the night. Frankie’s right: don’t let the moment slip away!

Anyway, Frankie has inspired me to carry a pocketful of paper napkins wherever I go from now on. It will certainly cause talk, but I don’t care.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The History of Mystery

I’m thrilled to welcome Jean Henry Mead as our Sunday guest as she travels the globe on her virtual book tour. 

Jean is a mystery/suspense and western historical novelist. One of Jean's fortes is interviewing writers, actors, politicians, artists and ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. She is also an award-winning photojournalist who began her writing career as a California newspaper reporter/editor/photographer. 

Murder on the Interstate, Jean's third novel in the Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, chronicles the adventures of two feisty 60-year old women sleuths who encounter murder, homegrown terrorism, kidnapping and disasters as they travel Arizona in their motorhome

Three copies of Murder on the Interstate will be given away and one of the winners (from a drawing of blog visitors leaving comments) will be a character in her next book.

Today, Jean discusses the history of mystery. 

Edgar Allen Poe's first detective story is credited with creating the mystery genre in this country, but “What’s happened to the mystery since [Sherlock] Holmes hung up his deerstalker hat and started keeping bees?” Carolyn Wheat asks the question in her book, How to Write Killer Fiction.  

Wheat says that mysteries have been split into three distinct strands: the classic whodunit, the American hard-boiled detective story and the procedural. She further divides up the whodunit category into the regional mystery, historical, comic relief, niche mystery and the dark cozy. Her book was published in 2003, and a number of subgenres have since been added to the list, including the science fiction mystery.

I love niche mysteries such as Carolyn Hart’s series featuring a red haired ghost who returns to earth to solve murders following her own death in a boating accident. And former NASA payload specialist Stephanie Osborn not only taught astronauts what they needed to know about space travel, she wrote a mystery involving the disappearance of a space shuttle after her friend was killed in the Challenger explosion.

The American hard-boiled detective story evolved from The Great Detective, who solved crimes with his intellect. The list isn’t complete, however, without the books of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block. The plots take place in urban areas where murder and mayhem happen on a regular basis. You’d be hard pressed to find a hard-boiled detective story set in Cabot Cove, Maine, or St. Mary Mead, England. Or as Chandler once said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid.” The phrase epitomizes the hard-boiled detective story that's alive and well in any number of currently written series.

The police procedural evolved when writers came to the conclusion that the majority of crimes were actually solved by detectives who used scientific methods to track down and apprehend criminals--much like Sherlock Holmes with modern equipment. They weren’t bunglers like the cops in Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead or mainly corrupt like the cops in Bay City, California. No one seems to know who first wrote procedurals although the genre was influenced by Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff in his book, The Moonstone, published in 1868, and TV’s Sgt. Joe Friday of the LAPD of the 1950s. Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy later refined the subgenre and placed a spotlight on the corruption, violence and racism of the Los Angeles police.

The dark cozy has lightened considerably in this country. I still love Christie’s sleuths and have written a few of my own, adding comic relief to my Logan & Cafferty senior sleuth series. The dark cozy came into being with Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the first novel to use fingerprinting as a method of detection, long before it was used in real-life police work.

With all the subgenres to choose from, which do you prefer?

Jean's virtual book tour runs from May 2-May 27. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Three Minute Talk

Tonight I'm going to be speaking at a fancy-schmantzy library fund raising event along with five other authors, all of whom are infinitely better known than I. The set up is thus: Each author will have three minutes to tell the audience about her or his work, then each of us will be stationed at a separate location for twenty minutes to talk and sign for anyone who wishes to come by. Considering that my fellow authors include two international best-sellers, two local newspaper columnists, and a guy whose book is being made into a movie, I fear that I'm going to be sitting at my station with a brave smile on my face listening to the sound of crickets.

How does a midlist author make herself as intriguing as a superstar in three minutes? If you have I an idea, I'm all ears. It's a great exercise, though, and one that anybody who expects to be a novelist had better try hard to master. There are going to be a lot of occasions when you're only going to have five minutes or less to sell yourself.

Here's tonight's three minute spiel:

I write an historical mystery series featuring Alafair Tucker, a woman in her early forties who lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm outside of Boynton, Oklahoma, in the 1910s. I first had the idea for this series after writing a family genealogy for my siblings for Christmas, and I discovered so many fascinating tales of settlers and revolutionaries, cowboys and Indians, scandals and murders, axings, ambushes, and beating people over the head with beer bottles that when I was done, I said to myself, "Donis, you've got enough material here for ten books."

And that was the original plan--a ten book arc, something like a family saga about Alafair and the lengths to which she's willing to go to keep these children alive and get them raised in a wild and wooly time and place. Thus far I've written five books in the series. The first, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, came out in 2005, and the latest, Crying Blood, was just issued this past February.

Crying Blood is a little different from the first four books. Alafair figures large, but the story revolves more around her husband, Shaw. It’s the fall of 1915, and Shaw and his brother and their sons are on their annual quail-hunting trip. This year they’re camping on a piece of abandoned land their stepfather owns in southeastern Oklahoma. The outing goes awry when instead of a bird Shaw's dog retrieves an old boot. And in the old boot are the remains of an old foot. Which leads to the discovery of the skeleton of a Creek Indian with a bullet hole in his head. This spells the end of the hunting trip, of course. But when Shaw returns to his farm, he discovers in short order that somebody--or something--has followed him home. His first thought is, "I shouldn't have disturbed that grave."

I've wondered what Dr. Freud would say about my state of mind when I wrote this book, for there are things in the dark, in the past, in your head, and you don’t know where they came from, or if they’re real, or why they’re trying to get you. When dark things happen to me, rather than deal with my fears, I just develop a neurosis. This is the nice thing about being a writer. I can have Shaw plunge into the dark to confront them. Sometimes what you find is even scarier than you feared. But Shaw Tucker is willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of the monster in the dark.

Okay, that's it. Wish me luck.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Brilliant Ideas

In keeping with the discussion earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about how I get started when nothing comes to mind. It occurred to me that the one thing that all my “false starts” for books and short stories had in common is that they began in a rush of self-satisfaction. With each, there was that moment when I said to myself “Good gosh, you’re brilliant!” With each I rushed to my computer . . . or grabbed a napkin. Often it was a napkin or a stray scrap of paper because these brilliant ideas seem to come to me when I’m away from my desk, sitting in a restaurant or in my car or standing in the shower. And I have to get them down or they disappear into thin air.

The thing about these ideas that fizzle out is that when I sit down at my computer, I’m at first carried away by momentum. The adrenaline flows as I peck away at the keys. But then after fifteen minutes or half an hour or even an hour or two, I begin to slow down. And then I stop. And I have nowhere else to go with my brilliant idea.

I’ve been thinking about why these ideas that I save in a special file on my computer are different from the ideas that I get that become the genesis of a book or a short story. I think the difference is that I don’t feel brilliant when I have a real idea.

I have struggled and wrestled and yelled at that real idea. I have turned it upside down and shook it until finally it begins to work. And the words are still a struggle. I have to write the first paragraph dozens of time before it begins to take shape. But I can feel it evolving in my head, fleshing out rather than drooping and dying the way those brilliant flashes do. A real idea speaks to me and hints at how it might match up with what I was dreaming about last night (and jotted down on the pad on my night stand). A real idea may be unkind and mock and laugh at my ability to tame it, but it waits to see if I will understand what it is trying to say to me.

And the people who this real idea conjures up arrive speaking. They have substance. Alas, my brilliant idea characters are often insubstantial beings who I try to get to rush through a flimsy plot before the holes appear.

When an idea is real, the setting has substance too. I know this is the place where this story must happen. And if I don’t know this place I must find out about it.

Right now I am hoping that the idea I have for a stand alone set in one of my favorite cities is real and not a brilliant flash of nothing. Maybe if I don’t rush to my computer . . . maybe if I let it come to me. . . because I really do want an excuse to go there. And brilliant ideas that fizzle out are not tax deductible.

Of course, the problem with this idea which may intend to stay is that the story is set in 1947. That means time in the library. A lot of time in the library and months of research.

Why is it that I never get an idea that doesn’t want me to spend time at a microfilm machine? I guess that’s how I know it’s real. Eyestrain and back ache.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reflections on a Visit

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with a "New York Times" bestselling author Ridley Pearson, who spent two days at my school last week as an alumnus and visiting fellow. His classroom discussions were fascinating.

Pearson may be best known for his YA books, some of which are coauthored with Dave Barry, but he has sold many crime novels, both series and stand-alones. He talked to students at length about what it means to be a full-time writer. He spoke of the pressures to constantly sell more and of the limitations to which branding can lead. And, yes, as if on cue, he also spoke of outlining, saying he spends up to four months planning a crime novel that will take him eight additional months to write. Pearson said he currently writes three books a year (11 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and four hours on Saturday and Sunday) and spends upwards of 100 days per annum on the road.

This man is very good at what he does. In fact, he may be the best public-speaking author I have witnessed, and I've been fortunate to hear some heavyweights—Richard Russo, Billy Collins, Tess Gerritsen, and Sharon Olds among them.

I came away from the two days both envious but also somewhat content. Would I love to write full time and sell enough copies to make the NYTimes list? Hell, yes. But Pearson said a couple things that stayed with me: He spoke of the pressure he feels to constantly sell more copies (we all do, after all), and he mentioned wanting to write a first-person novel, something he said his publishers wouldn't allow. Branding, after all, does have its limitations, and the mid-list allows for continuous (even maddening) reinvention.

In the end, I always enjoy spending time with fellow writers, hearing how they work, and discussing the business landscape, which is very different for each of us.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The value of practice

Having been played music since I was seven (and I won’t tell you how many years ago that was!), I’ve spent a lifetime practising. Now when you’re talking music, everyone is aware of how essential practising a musical instrument is to eventual success. Even the self-taught “genius” musician spent a ton of hours in some lonely room working on his/her craft. That beautiful playing you hear on recordings or live performances came with a huge commitment of time.

Okay, if you examine my opening paragraph, you’ll notice two phrases that should resonate with all writers: “a ton of hours” and “lonely room”. Don’t we pretty well do the same thing when we practise our craft?

There is one big difference between writing and playing an instrument: perfecting one’s instrumental technique is very much athletic training. The practising musician is developing muscles that are needed in order to play the instrument. But couldn’t we say that writers are developing their mental “muscles” when they work?

I find that when I’m writing on a daily basis that the process becomes easier. I don’t believe I’m alone in this. A flow and rhythm starts to happen. I may not write any better, but the sentences certainly do come out easier.

For the past several months, time to write regularly has been difficult to find. Life has very much gotten in the way. We all go through that. It’s been bugging me, though, because when I do find time to sit down and spend a few hours with my imaginary friends, they often remain obstinately silent.

Then, for the past three weeks, I’ve had some writing deadlines that had to be met. I could hear the proverbial gun being cocked next to my head. Again I sat down to work, had little success and began to despair. One day, taking some time out to get my warm-ups done on French horn, it suddenly dawned on me how I might relate instrumental practice to getting my writing kick-started.

So, finishing up with the horn, I just started writing with no goal in mind. It was a scene where a character with no name and no physical attributes walks into a house where the front door was open. It was just a page or two of description and basically turned into a writing exercise in building suspense, I guess. I tried another scene, this time a bit of dialogue between two vague people on a train. Was any of it any good? That wasn’t the point. I was practising writing.

I did this for another day or two, gradually circling in on what I needed to be writing. The creative juices began flowing and I segued easily into my task, finishing what needed to be done in a matter of three days.

I guess the point of this post is that, as writers, we need to constantly be exercising our writing muscles. Like playing an instrument, you can’t expect to do your best if you’re only doing it in fits and starts.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rick blogged last week about the creative process, and what you do when the Muse simply won't obediently appear when you sit down at the desk. At the same time there was an article in one of the British newspapers about creative writing courses and degrees, wondering if good writing could really be taught, or if it was simply a talent or an instinct that you either have or don't have.

It was all very relevant to me because I've been asked again to do a crime-writing writers' workshop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It's a fantastic event, which started in 1983 with 30 events, and last year had over 200. Charlotte Square, in the elegant heart of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town where it takes place, was once a private garden but now hosts a little tented village for three weeks in August where the great writing names from all over the world gather and almost aquarter of a million people come to hear them speak, and picnic on the grass where once the nannies in starched uniforms from the smart town houses round about would have wheeled their charges in coach-built perambulators for their daily outing. The authors' yurt, a Mongolian-style hospitality tent carpeted with oriental rugs, is famous world-wide. The atmosphere is wonderful, whether there is sunshine and ice-cream, like last year, or rain and a family of plastic ducks floating where a deep puddle had gathered like the year before.

I always wonder, when I'm doing a workshop, what people expect from it. If any of you would like to tell me what you would want, I'd really appreciate it. I always get good responses when I ask afterwards, but then I suspect people are too polite to tell me if they're disappointed.

No one ever explains how to run one, and I can remember the first one I did, some years ago. I think I saw it as being almost like a school class – once a schoolmarm, always a schoolmarm! – and the ninety minutes seemed to take forever to pass. Last year, though, I couldn't believe it was time to stop when we all still had so much to say. It's a group of about thirty usually, and I've given up asking them to write something and then read it out. There isn't time for constructive analysis and anything other than encouraging comment can seem brutal in that context.

Now I try to make it a two-way process. They tell me their writing problems and, if I can I pass on techniques I've found useful in coping with them – or, alternatively, I say, 'Yup – me too,' and all I can do is sympathise. I can't tell them how to write, or what to write, and I do try to disillusion the ones who say wistfully, 'It must be lovely to write a book', because it isn't; it’s incredibly hard work, and lonely work too, there in your study with your computer, and after you've spent a year or more doing this, the agonising bit starts as you try to get published. I always quote the classic 'Advice to those about to .marry – don't!' and apply it to writing – with the tailpiece, 'Unless you absolutely have to.'

But there are still good, serious writers, looking for ways to make their work publishable in today's competitive world, and I've come to the conclusion that my job is to share with them what I've learned through long and sometimes painful experience about what works, and even more importantly what doesn't, and any techniques and tips I've found useful.

For instance, when the Muse doesn't obligingly appear, I've found that if I sit down anyway, and just write and write, and sooner or later it's as if she sighs, then says, 'Oh, for goodness sake! Let me do that,' elbowing me aside ( I seem to have a rather bossy Muse – can't think why) and after that it's all right. Even if I do have to throw away the rubbish I wrote before!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

D.J. McIntosh on Bookstores

Vicki here to introduce this week's guest blogger. You thought I'd left Type M, didn't you? Well as one last job I wanted to have the honour of introducing my friend, critique partner, and wonderful writer, D.J. McIntosh.

With a little less than a month before my first novel The Witch of Babylon is published, bookstores are on my mind. I know one of the first things I’ll do is rush to see The Witch sitting proudly on its shelf. Until that moment, the very long process of writing, revising, critiquing, seeking publishers and promoting feels like a product-less enterprise. But when the book actually appears with its companions in the store, all those endeavours will finally converge into the real thing.

As we know, the opportunities to sell the bundle of carefully thought out words we call books are rapidly expanding. Predictions of what share of the market E-books will occupy in a year or two change almost overnight as more and more readers rush to the Kobo, Kindle or I-Pad. If paper is still appealing, you can now print off your favourite tome in the time it takes to order and drink an espresso. Back lists, dusty with age, are blooming again.

And if that isn’t enough of a challenge to the traditional bookstore, novels are readily plentiful in grocery chains, big box stores, druggists, even your local variety store. It’s common to hear that what’s happened to CD’s as a result of downloadable music sets the stage for the future of the book industry. Traditional music stores are closing or at best, limping along, and have had to bulk up on DVD’s, T-shirts and electronics just to survive. It was greatly ironic when the other day, I saw a downtown music store now selling none other than............books!

I hope it isn’t simply a dream but I like to believe bookstores will survive. I think they will do so because bookstores aren’t just about moving product off the shelf. Whether I’m shopping for groceries, or lightbulbs and batteries, knowing that it will take an inordinate amount of time to struggle with the self-checking kiosks, I load up the cart as fast as possible and get out of there.

In a bookstore it’s just the opposite. Permission to browse. Find a nook and sit with a new book you’ve discovered and leaf through it to get a sense of the writing before you decide to take it home with you. Maybe have a cup of tea. The other day at one of my favourite bookstores, I looked around and noticed how much people seemed to be enjoying themselves. No one appeared to be frantically rushing, or texting for that matter, and it was very busy in the store.

In the metropolis bookstores are an oasis from the frenzy. Even in the country, like libraries, they help knit the community together. A wonderful old yellow brick building sits on a triangle of land in Clavering on the Bruce Peninsula. It is a bookstore, a little island amid farmer’s fields that has become a landmark. It seems to contain an almost inexhaustible supply of used books, most of them old, piled to the rafter and full of undiscovered treasures. I remember a friend once unearthing a fabulously illustrated book of children’s stories there.

Bookstores – long may they live!

Visit the web page for the Witch of Babylon at http://www.babylontrilogy.com/

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Collective Inspiration

Carolyn Hart was through town last week, along with Earlene Fowler. Carolyn is one of my favorite people, and the three of us had a great time together with our friend Judy Starbuck. We spent a lot of time bonding over food and talking about writing and the writing life (and catching up on all the delicious gossip, too, but I won't go into that.) I had seen Earlene speak before, but this was the first time I'd ever met her as a friend, and I must say, in addition to being an amazing writer, Earlene is a lot of fun. I took this picture at Carolyn and Earlene's Poisoned Pen gig. That's Barbara Peters on the left, Carolyn, and Earlene. I took a bunch more but only this one came out. I'm not that good a photographer.

It's always a boost to be around other writers. This is such a solitary life that sometimes you wonder if you're not just a voice crying in the wilderness. I've just started a new book, and it's hard. In fact, I ought to say that I've just re-started a new book, because I actually began this manuscript last fall, then became distracted by life issues and put it away until recently. It's a mystery to me how a book ever gets written, to tell the truth. I've written books in the midst of crises that went on for months, but then found myself paralyzed when nothing in particular was going on.

I'm always interested in other writers' processes, because frankly don’t know how I do it. I’m not very disciplined. I suppose I’m more of a spasmodic writer. It takes a great act of will for me to get started, but once I’m on a roll, I've been known to really knock it out. I’ve had five mysteries published, now, and every one came about in its unique way. It took me three years of languid writing to finish The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Hornswoggled was finished in about six months. The Drop Edge of Yonder and The Sky Took Him were written in the most disciplined fashion and took eight months to a year apiece. Crying Blood grew like Topsy, in fits and starts over a two year period, and yet turned out well almost on its own.

Writing a book is sort of like having a baby, I suppose. I’m so happy to have it in my hands when it’s done that I tend to forget how painful it was to write. The first draft is always difficult for me. It’s hard to figure out how to dole out the clues in a way that makes sense, plays fair with the reader, and yet doesn’t reveal too much. Even more difficult than that is figuring out how Alafair is going to figure it out. She has to come up with the answer in a logical and believable way. Sometimes I just want to make her psychic and have done with it! Considering the current trends in popular literature, that might not be a bad idea.

Toward the end of Carolyn's visit, she and Judy and I knocked out an idea for a new series for me. Anyone who has written several books in one series knows that a fresh new idea can even invigorate your older series. Carolyn, who has written many stand-alones and dozens of entries in three different series over forty years, is in the process of starting yet another series herself, so she knows whereof she speaks! The book I'm working on now is another Alafair, but I find myself thinking about this new idea as I write.

I frankly don't know how I'll do it. But then I never know if I can pull it off and somehow it gets done in the end.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nearing the Finish Line

I can see it. It’s white, like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. However, this is the contemporary publishing industry, so perhaps it’s an oncoming train. After eight months, I hope not.

I am nearing the end of a novel, perhaps (fingers crossed) within 30 pages. At my current pace, that’s two, maybe three more of writing. Then, as always, I’ll print the manuscript out, take out my lucky mechanical pencil, start the intravenous flow of coffee, and attempt to finish “final” (before an editor gets his or her hands on it) revisions within a few days. Hopefully, it will ready to go to my agent within three weeks.

The process has been many things: One, for certain, is exhausting. Living on four hours' sleep is, well, tiring. But it has also been exhilarating—laying brick after brick until you finally seen wall completely constructed. More than anything, though, finishing this book in particular has required a lot of blind faith. After I sold my first novel, the next four were written under contract. However, I'm writing this book on spec. Hopefully, someone will buy it. I think it is the best thing I've written. In the end, though, all you can do is finish it, make it the best you can, and let the process unfold.

James Lee Burke, in a "New York Times" article, once said, “You write it a day at a time and let God be the measure of its worth. You let the score take care of itself; and most important, you never lose faith in your vision." I've always loved this quote because it speaks to what happens at the desk and how writers must deal with all that takes place away from the desk—most of which is beyond the average author’s control: publication or rejection, advance size, print-run totals, publisher support are all based on things most writers have very little control over. And, based on the above quote, it seems that Burke cares little about any of that.

I'm looking forward to seeing how that process plays out with this book. But I must finish it first, so I'm going back to my novel. Enjoy the day.

He says, she says... Part Two

Barbara here, with the second installment on creating dialogue. On my April 30th blog, I talked about choosing the right words to convey character, dialect, accents and authentic-sounding speech. But spoken words themselves are not enough to create an effective dialogue scene. Three running pages of speech, with no accompanying tags, descriptors or stage directions, are tedious and confusing. The result is “talking heads”, giving the reader a sense of watching a pingpong game.

Today I talk about the scaffolding that supports the spoken words. These are the descriptive words that frame the dialogue. Support words serve several functions:

  • At a minimum, they identify who is speaking
  • Provide details of setting and props to draw the reader into the scene visually
  • Describe the emotions and behaviour of the characters
  • Provide unspoken, “internal monologue” which adds layers, texture and tension to the actual words the character says.

I am not a believer in “how-to” rules for good writing, other than Somerset Maugham’s famous “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” There is no right or wrong in writing. Different words and styles have different effects, which may all have their place. The key is to know what effect your words are creating and how to control it. That said, there is “better or worse”, so here are a couple of guidelines to choosing the better words to frame your dialogue.

  1. Keep them as simple and minimalist as possible..
    • Use only enough tags to make it clear who is speaking.
    • Use “invisible” words like said and asked, rather than countered, exclaimed, argued...
    • Let the dialogue speak for itself. Avoid explaining why speaker said it or how he’s feeling. ( He was very angry. "I don't give a damn!")
    • Avoid adverbs to characterize speech. Instead, make the dialogue itself convey anger, joy, impatience, etc. or introduce an accompanying action. A search of “ly” will help eliminate these lazy descriptors which tell rather than show.
    • Limit number of characters in a scene. Conversations with more than three characters are very difficult to follow, even with the best tags.

  1. Make sure the supporting words serve at least one of the above functions, and ideally, two or three simultaneously. Any descriptions that don’t contribute to setting, character, or plot should be tossed out.
    • Have speaker perform an action which conveys his mood and character at the same time as it identifies who is speaking. (He slammed the door.)
    • Choose unique, telling actions like “she plucked a speck of lint from her skirt” rather than generic clichés like “she dropped her eyes”.
    • Don’t clutter dialogue with too many actions or support phrases. They break the flow of the scene. Read the scene aloud to see whether there is too much start-and-stop.
    • Use support phrases to vary pacing. Use short, terse dialogue with almost no non-speech in fast-paced scenes, add longer descriptions to slow pace and provide deeper moments of reflection.
    • A little internal monologue goes a long way. As with description and action, it can yank the reader out of the scene and become an annoying distraction. But used carefully, it adds interesting layers, texture, and contradictions which add to the tension of a scene. (“Your cake is delicious, Mildred.” If you like flavoured cement.)

“How to” books often emphasize the value of dialogue scenes in moving the story forward quickly, in pulling the reader directly into the action and in providing relief from heavy prose which can bog down the reader. Some readers skip over descriptions and only read the dialogue. Which is a great pity, since in a well-crafted book, each word and sentence should contribute to the whole. I am currently reading Cool Water by Dianne Warren, which recently won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. I read through 45 pages of descriptive prose and action before encountering more than a line or two of dialogue at a time.

And yet the book works beautifully.

There is no right or wrong.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Letting it happen

The creative process is a funny thing and seems to follow roughly the same lines for all creative endeavors. My experience is almost completely in the music and writing worlds, but I do have friends in the other arts who tell me their experience with creative inspiration is very similar to mine, so I’ll proceed from that viewpoint.

The one thing I have learned over the years is that the inpiration can’t be demanded, pushed, rushed, or forced. It’s either working for you or it’s not. Regardless of deadlines, you can’t make creativity happen if the muse has taken the day, week or month off. When Elvis has left the building, you just have to wait for him to return.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to help coax your muse back into your head.

I’m sure any creative types reading this blog posting have certain things they do when they’re setting out to work. We all seem to have times of the day when we get our best work done. For me, it’s either very early in the morning or very late at night. If my work schedule permits, I often prefer to work during the night and sleep during the day. Alas, that doesn’t happen much these days.

We have our set patterns, too. Whether it’s a certain kind of tea in your favourite mug, your desk arranged just so, a particular kind of music playing in the background, we all find ways to help induce the creative juices to flow. Being the nomad I am, I can write anywhere. Having taught band in school for more years than I care to think about, noise isn’t a distraction. I could write at a rock concert if I had to. With my crazy work schedule, I also have to grab the minutes where I find them. This weekend I worked on a scene while getting my hair cut (with my bald pate, that’s a quick process these days). Then, while I waited for my wife to take her turn, I tuned out the background chatter and wrote down what I’d conceived in the barber’s chair. Two days later, I still like it, so it will stay in the book.

The point is, though, that when inspiration struck, I tried to make the best use of it that I could.

Right now I have some time to write, and unfortunately, the old noggin is empty. I even tried my usual “go back and read the last thing I wrote”, sort of prime the pump – and nothing.

So I sat down to write my blog posting. Hopefully, it will help.

Nope. I just checked: still nothing.

It’s a nice day, so I’ll go for a walk and see if that jogs something loose.

If it doesn’t, I’ll just have to sit and wait for Godot. I know any words I set down without the muse firmly in my head will have to be tossed out within a day or two.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Farewell, and hope to see you soon.

Vicki here, reminiscing. Hard to believe that it’s been five years since Rick Blechta, Charles Benoit, and I started Type M for Murder.

Blogs were something new back then; I was working at the Royal Bank in Toronto and living in Oakville. Charles was an action-adventure writer and I had published two standalone novels of suspense and had never heard of a young policewoman by the name of Molly Smith.

Our original line up of writers was, if memory serves, Rick, Charles, Michael Blair, and Alex Brett. And me.

It’s been an enormous amount of fun, and I’ve met so many wonderful and talented crime writers.

But, I’ve run out of things to say. I’m heading off on a six week cross-Canada book tour and it seemed like a good time for me to leave the blog. I know that I’m leaving it in very good hands, and I just love the varied line-up of authors we have now. I hope they’ll have me back for a guest posting now and again.

But – before I go… As I said, I’m driving across Canada heading for Bloody Words in Victoria June 3 -5. I’ll be in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Castlegar, Nelson, Salmo, Victoria, and Calgary. With a side-trip to Seattle for the Seattle Mystery Bookstore. I’m doing libraries as well as bookstores, so please do come out if you’re in the neighbourhood. All the details are posted at Booktour.

First stop is Ottawa on Monday May 9th for the launch party of Among the Departed in conjunction with Mary Jane Maffini who's launching the 5th Charlotte Adams book, A Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder. Ottawa launches are just about the best around, being held in the sunken atrium at Library and Archives Canada. We’ll have food (MJ is responsible for the chocolate) wine by donation, live music, talks and readings, and a chance to schmooze with the mystery literati. The MC is Canada’s Mystery Maven, Linda Wiken. The festivities begin at 7:00.

I’m going to try to keep my personal blog more up to date, so please, come on over and join me at One Woman Crime Wave. And keep hanging around at Type M for Murder.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Sunday Guest Blogger: Chuck Hogan

Chuck Hogan is the international and New York Times bestselling author of The Standoff, The Blood Artists, The Killing Moon, and The Town (originally published as Prince of Thieves). You might know that title better as The Town, which spawned last year’s acclaimed major motion picture. With film director Guillermo del Toro, Chuck is coauthor of the New York Times bestselling Strain trilogy. I met Chuck years ago at a Bouchercon conference. I was sitting on a bench when another young guy sat beside me. We got talking, found out we were both born and bred New Englanders. The next night, Chuck won the Hammett Prize for excellence in crime writing, given by the International Thriller Writers of America, for his novel Price of Thieves, and we had a celebratory beer. He took time to weigh in on some topics other Sunday guests have addressed.

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

CH: I always wanted to tell stories, I just didn't know if I had any talent or not. I started seriously my last semester at college, missed graduation with the chicken pox, and plotted my first real (unpublished) novel in a feverish state.

TYPE M: What do you read and how do those authors influence your work?
CH: Early influences were John Gardner (Art of Fiction) and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Also James Ellroy. I still read more older crime fiction than new. I would say I am influenced by the same things, frankly. Wish I had more time for reading these days.

TYPE M: Talk about your books. The characters? The concepts? What you hope readers take from them?
CH: I'm drawn to good guys who are bad, or bad guys who are good. Crime exists in everyone's heart. All they need is the right push at the right time.

TYPE M: Could you talk about the details of your writing process?
CH: I'm a brooder, so it takes me a long time. I start work early and go pretty much all day - not all of it writing words on paper, of course, but brooding, always brooding.

TYPE M: How much research do you do? Any interesting research stories?
CH: Research has given me some of the most interesting character and plot turns. The best thing I can find out is some small, telling detail that implies much deeper knowledge. It is vital to establish authority at the beginning of a novel, and you do that through vivid details.

TYPE M: How did you get your current agent?
CH: My current agent was my original agent's assistant. We've been working together for more than a decade now.

TYPE M: What is your relationship with your editor like?
CH: I have two editors currently, at two different houses for two different kinds of books. Both are exemplary. I've been incredibly fortunate in that respect. The secret, for an author, is to get the manuscript in as close to finished form as possible before submitting it. Make the editor's job easy.

TYPE: M: What has your experience been with film? How did the book-to-film come to be?
CH: THE TOWN was great. I was involved as a screenwriter with an earlier director, and the experience was amazing. It has led to other opportunities, which I am currently exploring. Not all movies come out well, despite the filmmaker's best efforts, so I feel very lucky.

TYPE M: How is script writing similar to/different from writing the novel?
CH: Scriptwriting is close to puzzle solving. You have a fixed amount of pages and you have to make a dramatic story work within those confines. Novel writing is more freeing, and more daunting.

TYPE M: Where do you see publishing headed? E-books? Do you own an electronic reading device?
CH: I haven't a clue! Love my Kindle though. Whatever keeps people reading is fine by me.

TYPE M: Any advice for new writers?
CH: It's a vocation. You have to be called to it. If you find yourself sacrificing other things for your writing, you are probably on the right track.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Looking for Something Interesting to Say

We at Type M are bereft by the departure of our Founding Mother, Vicki Delany, though she promises to drop in once in a while and let us know what she's up to. Which by the way, get thee hither right away and obtain a copy of her latest Molly Smith novel, Among the Departed. It's quite wonderful.

Vicki, Charles Benoit, and Rick Blecta started this blog together five years ago. Charles has moved on, and now Vicki, leaving only Rick to wrangle the rest of us relative newcomers and be our guiding light. Vicki told us that she feared after blogging every week for so many years, she was running out of things to say.
Which instantly put me in mind of an essay which John Updike wrote shortly before he died. He said that after a long career as a novelist he felt as though everything he wrote was just a rehash of something he had written before.

I suspect all writers feel this eventually. One always wants to be relevant and interesting. Not just to reader, but to oneself, as well! You can bore yourself silly trying to come up with something original to say about writing and the writing life week after week after week until the end of time. My friend and fellow mystery author Larry Karp (left) recently gave me the answer to this dilemma. (I paraphrase) "I've enjoyed writing my blog a lot more since I decided to write whatever the hell I want." This is my mantra, though I think readers who have followed my entries for any length of time figured that out a while ago.

On that note, I'll mention that I saw Julia Spencer-Fleming at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale last week. That's her to the right, along with the lovely Lesa Holstine, at the store. I had met Julia briefly several years ago, but this was the first time I'd ever seen her speak. She's really entertaining. I liked her new book, One Was A Soldier, a mystery that revolves around the problems of returning war veterans. She always gets her characters into a lot of trouble and leaves them there for a while, a trait I admire in any author of a mystery series. Many writers don't have the guts to torment their series regulars, but the truth is that things don't always turn out well in real life. A novelist who's brave enough to do what needs to be done to serve the story often ends up with a superior piece of writing.

Since I'm writing whatever the hell I want, I'll tell you that the last time I saw Julia in person was at Bouchercon in Alaska in 2007. At the time, Julia's hair was a lot redder, and I was quite a bit blonder (note blonder me with Karp, above). One of the speakers at that conference was the newly elected governor, Sarah Palin. I had never heard of her, but I thought she was very pretty. And that's all I'll say about that.

Friday, May 06, 2011

A Writer in the Wasteland

Happy, Friday, everyone. Frankie here, and the sun is finally shining in Albany after several days of rain. I have to confess that I'm among that minority who loves cool, rainy spring days. But the sunshine does have a way of making one feel more optimistic about life in general. At least until the temperature hits 80.

I had intended to write about setting today. I have a new mystery set on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I even have a photograph or two. But since the book is only half out (made a debut at Malice Domestic, but not yet readily available), I will save setting for next time. Instead, I'm going to tackle the subject of television.

Last evening I pulled Stephen King's On Writing from my office bookshelf. I started to leaf through the book and came to the chapter in which Mr. King states, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." He goes on to discuss the various ways in which one can squeeze in more reading time (taking a book along to read in waiting rooms, theater lobbies, and check-out lines; listening to books on tape; being rude and reading during meals; reading on the treadmill). I was nodding in agreement until Mr. King advised weaning oneself from the television "to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing." I should mention that I had migrated into my living room as I was browsing through Mr. King's book. I realized with a blush of embarrassment that my television was on. Anderson Cooper had been interviewing one of his colleagues about Pakistan as I read.

What was on could as easily have been a movie or a sitcom or a cop show. I have the television on a lot in my house. I grew up with television.

However, Mr. King's observations about television did give me pause. He asked how many reruns of Frasier one really needed to watch. Since I love Frasier and have been in the process of re-discovering all my favorite episodes on the Hallmark Channel, Mr. King touched a nerve.

How much brain rot have I suffered since the day I convinced my mother I could do my homework while watching television? How much better a writer might I be at this moment if I had spent my time reading the classic books that I intend to read some day when I have the time. I was an English major, true. But there are still books to be read. War and Peace, for example. Perhaps I would be a better writer if I had settled down with War and Peace instead of watching movies on TCM.

On the other hand, I am not sure I would have more time to read if I turned off the television. Often television is simply "white noise" in my background, in the same way music is for some people. I find music distracting when I'm reading or making notes about a book I am writing. And since I teach popular culture, I have an obligation to be up on the latest fads discussed on television that I sometimes surface enough to notice.

When I do focus on what is on the screen, I don't think I shut off my brain. In fact, even though I grew up watching television with my family, I really prefer watching alone when I am focusing. That's because it has always struck me as rude not to carry on conversation about what one is watching with the other person or people sitting there. But when the program is of enough interest for me to focus, I find myself using whatever I am watching as a springboard for my imagination. I don't want to have to explain to someone else that, yes, we are watching Law and Order, but I was thinking about something other than what you're now commenting on.

Television may be "a vast wasteland" (that quote is from a speech by former FCC chairman Newton Minow, not poet T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." You see, I do know the difference). Mr. King may be right when he argues that writers should read, not watch television. My grammar would probably be better. My mind might be clearer. My thoughts might be more profound.

But I wonder if I would be a writer if I had not grown up watching television. The books I read fed my imagination. But the images I saw on television and the stories that I watched unfold fed my sense of wonder. Perhaps I would have drawn enough from the books I read to move on to the next step of becoming a writer. Perhaps I would have been a writer without television, but a different sort of writer. I'm not sure. But I do believe I learned as much from television as from the books that I read.

I was an African American child of a working class family growing up in the South, and television brought the world into my living room. Or, at least, Hollywood's version of the world.

So, yes, I am a writer who reads with my television on.

Is a steady diet of television bad for writers? Yes, if the writer or would-be writer never picks up a book. Aside from anything television might do to our minds, there is the issue of what it does to our health. If you've been following the recent research, sitting too much can be deadly. And most of us sit when we watch television.

I wonder if I bought a treadmill and read War and Peace while watching another Frasier rerun. . .

You may now object to my defense of television . . . and, by the way, no offense to Mr. King, who is one of my favorite writers even when I disagree with him about television.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Writers as Teachers

First, let me begin by thanking Vicki for all she has done for this blog site and for all of us who have been fortunate enough to participate in it. Thanks, Vicki, for everything. Keep in touch.

Now to the business at hand.

It seems lately there has been a lot of talk about giving workshops and helping pre-published writers to break in. (That is, after all, a reason for many readers to visit our humble blog each week.) And it has reminded me of the pot-of-gold question every mid-list writer is asked:

If you could write full time, would you still… (work your day job)?

In my case, the day job is teaching English, and my response is always the same: I would, just not as much.

Like most writers, I feel an obligation to help other writers who are trying to publish. The late Robert B. Parker (as an aside: I just bought the final Spenser novel and can’t wait to read it) once told me that the publishing business was vastly different for John Grisham than it was from him, and in turn it is vastly different for me than it was for Mr. Parker. Alas, the publishing mountain has many levels on its corporate climb, and the three of us are on very different plateaus. However, Mr. Parker took time to speak to me when my first novel was released back in 2001. Likewise, another well-known mystery novelist (sadly also dead now) once wrote that his wife called him a “blurb slut” because he couldn’t seem to bring himself to refuse to blurb a book when asked. I’m not asked to do so often, but I know the feeling—I was lucky to get some nice jacket blurbs for my first novel, and therefore I could not imagine saying no to anyone who asked me to do the same.

Teaching can be similar, which is why many of us enjoy giving workshops. I had great educators over the years, men and women who loved what they did and thought of their occupation as a calling. They took pride and found joy in teaching a learning-disabled kid like me to enjoy and appreciate the literary arts. I have signed on to teach creative writing and writing fundamentals to non-native speakers of English for five weeks this summer in New Hampshire. It will be great to get out of the humidity in Connecticut for July and August, but there is more to it.

I was lucky to have men like Rick DeMarinis (“The Mortician’s Apprentice,” “Borrowed Hearts,” and many other award-winning novels and story collections) take an interest in my dribble when I was young and knew nothing save for that I wanted to write novels, and that I was willing to do whatever it took to achieve that goal. Rick once told me, “No one can teach you to write, but a good teacher can save you time.” I took his words to heart, worked my butt off, and sought advice often.

This summer, I probably won’t be able to teach anyone how to write, but, as Rick (and others) did for me, hopefully, I can save some kids a little time.

What is the Value of a Facebook Fan?

I’m writing this on my flight home from a truly fabulous trip. First, it was the Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Maryland followed by the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. 

Both events are fan-based and have been going forever. This was the twenty-third year for the former and the sixteenth for the latter. Both attracted between two and three hundred mystery fans and dozens of authors. Vicki – so great to hang out with you! Frankie? I saw you across a crowded room and I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to chat. 

This year I met many of my Facebook fan-friends for the first time. It’s no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. I’ve often questioned whether it’s worth the effort of keeping a daily presence, wracking my brains for witty comments and trying to accumulate “friends” regardless of whether they even enjoy reading mysteries let alone buy them. I have even created a Vicky Hill Facebook page written in my protagonist Vicky Hill’s voice that seems to cause me far more angst than trying to entertain folk on my own page. So … when I came across a post entitled “What is the Value of a Facebook Fan?” I was intrigued. 

Scott Brandon, the CEO of The Brandon Agency discussed a recent study by Syncapse, a company that was formed in 2007 to “help businesses make sense of a the rapidly evolving social media landscape.” In this instance, Brandon was talking about the ROI or return on investment i.e. what is the value of a Facebook Fan? His conclusion? Zero! This got me thinking. 

What do we authors hope to get for a return in the investment of our time? In the world of advertising, it’s all about building brand loyalty and encouraging sales. Aren’t authors becoming increasingly “branded” too? Do people who like a brand buy more of the same brand? Yes - definitely for mysteries! As authors do we feel that a fan is going to buy more than one copy of our book/series? Probably not. Is word-of-mouth more effective in creating a buzz? And what about the increasing trend to “buy” Facebook friends and so bump up the friend pool into the thousands? Will they automatically buy more books? Drive new fan-friends to our websites? 

Brandon believed there was more value in a small group of fully engaged loyal fans then there could ever be in fans-for-hire. I have to agree. Meeting Facebook fan-friends in the flesh this past week may not necessarily follow a big increase in book sales but I did happily discover I was often the recipient of an apple martini at the hotel bar which frankly, is a great return on my investment. For me, the power of the physical and visual communication will always win over virtual networking.

 p.s. forgive typos and errors, I only got home late last night and forgot to post it. Now I must dash off to my day job!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Are we all sounding a bit hysterical?

This past weekend, I went back into the Type M for Murder archives. Let me tell you, it was dusty and dirty back there, but somebody had to do it. My quest was to try to get a feel for where we’ve been and how that all stacks up with where we are now.

I’d forgotten how many people have lent their thoughts and writing talent to this blog over the years. My count wasn’t exhaustive, but I came up over sixty writers and others who have either been an official part of the team or who have been guest bloggers. Often there were good things being said, interesting things. Sometimes, though, I got the feeling that we were beginning to run around, sounding suspiciously akin to Chicken Littles over some change or other in the publishing world. And yes, I do number myself among that slightly hysterical crew, much to my embarrassment.

The thing I noticed most was how intense we all are in trying to raise our profile, get to the next level, whatever you want to call it, in the publishing world. Then I began to question: is it really wise to go at it at all costs? One of the blog posting in particular, struck me as if the writer had no confidence in whether they were any good or not. The underlying message clearly came across as, “You have to believe me! I’m really, really good!! Go out and buy my books and see if I’m not correct!!!” (Those exclamation points are intentional.) In any event, methought the person did protest too much, and what came across was that this author didn’t really believe they had written anything worthwhile.

And there we come to the edge of the knifepoint: when does self-promotion become self-hysteria? When does a confident, “I think you would enjoy checking out what I’ve written,” become, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m an author and you should buy my book!”

Which brought me to the final conclusion: are we not seeing the forest for the trees? We are often so intent on promoting our books (heaven knows, it seems no one else is going to do it), that we’re losing all our perspective? When does self-promotion become off-putting? I asked myself how often I might have crossed that line.

So many crime novels are published each year that it’s downright intimidating just to have something out. Unless you’re a Big Name, or the Author Du Jour getting a major push, how do you even get your little voice noticed in the uproar of the marketplace? But let me ask all of you this: would you rather have sales at all costs, or sales because readers actually read and enjoyed your books because they’re good?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Among the Departed: A Constable Molly Smith Novel. A Free Gift.

Vicki here on Monday and happy to report that this week sees the release of my newest novel, Among the Departed. This is the fifth book in the Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press.

Among the Departed is much more than a mystery novel: it is also a story of love – new and old, long-concealed, life-affirming and fatal.

Fifteen years ago a young girl by the name of Moonlight Smith went to her best friend Nicky Nowak’s house for a sleepover. Moonlight joined the family for breakfast the following morning and was then picked up by her mother. Shortly after, Mr. Nowak went for a walk.
He was never seen again.

Autumn has arrived on the mountains above Trafalgar, B.C. and the promise of winter is in the air. Constable Molly Smith is cuddled by the fireplace with Adam Tocek of the RCMP when Tocek and his dog Norman are called to a wilderness camping ground to join the search for a little boy who snuck away from his family in a brave hunt for bears.

The child is found, dirty, terrified, weeping, but unharmed. Then the inquisitive Norman digs up something else: human bones.

The ID isn’t positive, but it is enough to have Sergeant John Winters of the Trafalgar City Police pulling old boxes from the basement to re-open the Brian Nowak investigation. He finds a family shattered beyond recognition by the disappearance of their husband and father. Mrs. Nowak is an empty shell of a woman, dressed in pyjamas, never leaving the house. Her son Kyle haunts the streets of Trafalgar at night and spends his days creating beautiful, but highly troubling, art. Nicky Nowak lives in Vancouver and has grown up to be gorgeous, charming, elegant. Yet behind that facade lies a woman whose heart has closed so tightly against human relationships she comes to Trafalgar trailing in her wake a terrifying threat to another innocent family.
As the investigation into the life and disappearance of Brian Nowak grows, old secrets are brought to light and new ones struggle to remain hidden. The prologue and first chapter are on my web page if you’d like a sneak peek. www.vickidelany.com

I participated in the Page 69 test at http://page69test.blogspot.com/2011/04/among-departed.html with an analysis of Page 69 and what it reveals about the book.

Library Journal gave Among the Departed a starred review saying,”By using western Canada as her setting, Delany gives us a breath taking vista, in which she places her deceptively minimalist plots. Her exceptional ability to create characters, both realistic and sometimes creepy, makes this another terrific addition to her outstanding body of work.”

Dana Stabenow, author of the Kate Shugak series says, “A rugged western landscape and modern day Mounties make this a series to watch.”

Kirkus Reviews says, “Delany invigorates the… genre with an unsparing look at love in all its variations, including coming to terms with it the second time around.”

One of the mystery world’s favourite librarians, Lesa Holstine says on her popular blog, Lesa's Book Critiques, "When I want to read a good traditional police procedural, with characters whose lives change in the course of the series, I'm very content to pick up one of Vicki Delany's Constable Molly Smith books."

Among the Departed is now available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble. Com, and available for pre-order at Amazon.ca and Chapters.ca. Your independent bookstore will be happy to order it for you if it is not in stock, and will your local library.

There has been a delay in the Kindle release, and I am hoping it will be available very soon as well as for other electronic formats.

Happy Reading!

Free Offer: If you would like a signed bookplate or a postcard for Among the Departed or one of my bookmarks, please send me an email to vicki at vickidelany dot com. I'll pay the postage!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Tina Whittle on Writing Atlanta

Today Type M is proud to welcome guest blogger Tina Whittle. Tina is a mystery writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. The Dangerous Edge of Things, her first novel, debuted February 1st from Poisoned Pen Press. Set in contemporary Atlanta, The Dangerous Edge of Things is the first book in a series featuring gun-shop owner Tai Randolph and corporate security agent Trey Seaver. When not writing or reading, Tina enjoys golf, sushi, and spending time with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens). You can find her at www.tinawhittle.com.


An interviewer once asked me if I considered myself a Southern writer — I told her that was an easy yes. After all, I qualified on every count I could possibly imagine. I’m from the South, raised in the flatlands of Middle Georgia. I live in the South, in a small town near Savannah. And I write a mystery series set in Atlanta featuring characters who also have pedigrees that place them firmly on the non-Northern side of the Mason-Dixon line.

So with all this vast Southern territory to choose from, why choose Atlanta as my series setting? What is it about this particular Southern city that I find so fascinating?

In The Dangerous Edge of Things, the first novel in my Tai Randolph series, I describe Atlanta as a city perpetually too big for its britches. With a population of approximately 5.4 million people, Atlanta is always stretching out and up. The sounds of jackhammers and ringing steel are a constant, mixing with traffic noise and birdsong. Its population is a crazy quilt of people with skins in every shade from freckled buttermilk to rich saffron to dark ebony.

Atlanta is mouthy and sweet-talking, charismatic and prone to laughter. It’s also edgy and sophisticated and fond of drinking too e

arly in the afternoon. Atlanta knows what wine goes with cornbread and collards, injera and wat, or quail in

puff pastry. It has a big hat for church on Sunday. And just when you think you’ve seen all it has to offer, you turn a corner and discover an artisanal chocolate sh

op run by a gorgeous Latino guy in an emerald green sundress and in-line skates (an adventure which happened to a friend of mine last week).

Like any richly diverse urban area, Atlanta must be experienced to be appreciated. But until you get that chance, here are just a couple of my favorite tidbits about the city often referred to as the L.A. of the East.

1. One iconic fixture of the Atlanta skyline — The Peachtree Westin — is the tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere. It measures 723 feet from the street level to the top floor, an elevator ride that takes 85 seconds.

2. Atlanta is the only city in North America destroyed by a fire as an act of war. For this reason, the legendary phoenix — the mythical bird who dies in flames and rises from its own ashes — is Atlanta’s symbol, appearing on its official seal.

3. There are approximately 71 streets with variants of the word "Peachtree" in Atlanta, even though the city wasn’t named for peach trees at all, but for a large Creek settlement called Standing Pitch Tree.

4. The Fox Theatre, an example of Egyptian revival architecture built in 1929, was designed as headquarters for the Shriners and was originally called the Yaarab Temple Shrine Mosque. It’s a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil decoration, from the plaster and steel Bedouin canopy that serves as an acoustical funnel to the indigo night sky, which is really seventy-seven twinkling electric lights and a cloud machine.

5. The house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind is preserved now as a museum. Mitchell and her husband lived in Apartment #1 of this three-story Tudor revival home which they affectionately referred to as The Dump. Mitchell composed the work on an old Remington typewriter she kept on a sewing table — when guests visited, she threw a towel over the set-up to keep it a secret.

6. The Buckhead area of Atlanta is the ninth most expensive zip code in the United States.

Integrating real Atlanta snippets into the Atlanta of my novel has been a lot of fun. I named my fictitious corporate security company Phoenix, for example, and my protagonist keeps getting lost on the myriad Peachtrees crisscrossing the city. But as the saying goes, the truth really is stranger than fiction. As much as Writer Me would like to close the Downtown Connector because of an escaped zebra — which really happened last year — I think my creative license might get yanked if I tried it. But for a writer who enjoys exploring themes of identity, growing pains, and the challenges of stretching one’s boundaries, Atlanta provide fertile creative ground for both my characters and me.

Despite my appreciation and affection for the city, I’ve never gotten the chance to live there. We’re perpetual kissing cousins, Atlanta and I. But even now, forty years after my first visit, I still get a thrill every time I head up I-75 and see it rising at the horizon like Oz, then dipping behind green stands of trees, only to reappear at a different angle, but always in the distance, always just ahead.


The Dangerous Edge of Things -Tai Randolph thinks inheriting a Confederate-themed gun shop is her biggest headache--until she finds a murdered corpse in her brother's driveway. Even worse, her supposedly respectable brother begins behaving in decidedly non-innocent ways, like fleeing to the Bahamas and leaving her with both a homicide in her lap and the pointed suspicions of the Atlanta PD directed her way. Suddenly, she has to worry about clearing her own name, not just that of her wayward sibling, and a shop chock-full of firearms doesn’t help matters. But it takes another murder -- and threats to her own life -- to make Tai realize that to solve this crime, she has to trust the most dangerous man she's ever met.