Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dumbo's Feather

Writers are everlastingly curious about one another’s method. We imagine others have what Stephen King referred to his in superior book, On Writing, as Dumbo’s Feather.

 Other writers, you see, have a secret method.

I want one too. That touch of magic that will lift my brain to soaring heights, imbue it with deathless prose, stunning plots, and memorable characters that move and inspire readers. Instead, I have developed  an approach that a friend told me was the worst writing method she had ever heard.

Most writers either do meticulous outlines or fly by the seat of their pants. I use a weird combination of logic and intuition, the same as I do in real life. I sort of know the ending when I begin. Although it doesn’t always hold. After tacking five plot points (printed on pink paper) on the cork strip I’ve glued to my row of bookcases, I merrily begin—usually by following the image that impelled me to write book to begin with. The five plot points are a blend of Syd Field’s guide to structure for screenplays and Aristotle’s Incline.

I outline each chapter after it's written. What’s more, it’s color-coded. The first draft is “Pink for Promise.” The second draft is yellow--for “The Light is Beginning to Dawn.”  The third draft includes the editor’s critique, and it’s blue—“True Blue,” because it’s “truing up.”

Each outline page lists the number of the chapter, and the setting of each scene, followed by the chains of events that take place. Each link of the “chain” is patterned after old-fashioned chapter headings that began—Wherein: Tom loves Jane. Jane is not impressed. Jane only likes his dog. (You get the drift) While I’m  tacking each completed chapter outline on the cork strip, I’m making notes of things I need to know and do

These are very, very odd little notes. Such as: Why do you keep changing the color of her hair? What was the price of corn in 1880? Should I castrate him or just kill him? This scene is in the wrong place.

My muse simply doesn’t approve of my looking up stuff that won’t contribute to the story. The darling thinks is a waste of time. When I finish the first draft and discover who is going to show up for the book, I cut and paste the questions into the logical chapter, and answer them. This makes for a quick and reasonably coherent second draft. That’s the one my agent and editor sees.  

Historical accuracy is extremely important to me, as I'm an accidental academic in real life. The Lottie Albright series is a combination of contemporary and cold case wherein the old case is actually causing events in the present. Since it’s also a blend of whodunit and suspense, the chain of events is critical. If there’s nothing going on in a chapter, it really should go.

Naturally, my weird ways puts me in a peculiar position with my editor who wants to see the first 100 pages before she encourages a writer to finish the book. I can’t come up with the first hundred pages until I’ve written the whole thing. And I can’t produce a synopsis in advance either. But the rules don’t prohibit one from writing more than the 100. And I can and do come up with a synopsis much, much later.

I’m perfectly willing to rewrite as long and often as necessary Truly, I am. And there are many, many more colors of copy paper for sale at Staples!

Charlotte Hinger

Thursday, July 28, 2011


COKER CREEK, Tenn. - Neighbors said that for months the ramshackle mobile home littered with trash and beer cans had been the site of loud parties and drunken fights, most in front of two young boys who lived there with their mother and her boyfriend. When it was quiet, they said, the children often were left alone with no food, running water or electricity. Then, last week, the boyfriend was stabbed to death, and the 8-year-old confessed to killing him. Police said the boy told them Keith Podzebka, 41, had been hitting his mother. Authorities will decide whether to try the boy as a juvenile or an adult.

This tiny brief appeared in the Bangor Daily News’ “Nation” section one Sunday back in 2006. I remember reading it while eating cereal and reaching immediately for the scissors. Like many writers, I keep a file of news clips such as this one, always looking for items that catch my attention. Usually, these are stories about the human condition, about people teetering on the edge. These stories make me wonder about the state of humanity and wonder what led these individuals to this point and where they will go from here.

I gave the clip above to my students this week as an illustration that there are story ideas everywhere, and how nothing is off limits—a writer just needs to make the material her own. By that, I’m not talking about stealing a storyline. I’m talking about finding something that intrigues you about the story, taking that nugget, and running with it—using the material of real life to generate the material of your fiction. Consider my questions regarding the story above.

1) What does the mother say to the boy the next time she sees him? Is she angry? Grateful? A story from her POV would be fascinating.
2) Where was the brother when this occurred? What was his relationship with the boyfriend?
3) Who is pushing to have the boy tried as an adult? The D.A.? Does that person have a child? Wouldn’t it be interesting if s/he did and their son or daughter was in the young killer’s class?
4) Where is this family in ten years?

My creative writing workshop students are working on this. Try your own hand at it. And feel free to forward any fascinating news briefs my way (

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writing on Demand

My husband and I have been staying in a hotel for the past 5 days because our property is being fumigated for termites. To say this is a pain is putting it mildly. However, despite the huge disruption to my schedule, I’ve still managed to write. 

For this I thank author Dorothea Brande (born 1893-1948) and her timeless book called “Becoming a Writer.”

Her advice on scheduling your writing time no matter what, is worth repeating here: “After you have dressed in the morning, sit down for a moment by yourself to go over the day before you.  Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands and opportunities will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself. It need not be a very long time; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is in earnest about it.  Decide for yourself when you will take that time for writing. Your agreement is a debt of honor and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. If to get the solitude that is necessary you must go into a washroom, go there, lean against the wall – and write. Write anything.  Do this from day to day and each time, choose a different hour. The idea is to be able to write on demand.” Dorothea Brande. 

Writing on demand is a discipline worth perfecting. These past 5 days I’ve written in a hotel lobby, a noisy Starbucks, in my car in the parking lot and yes, in the hotel washroom … the sofa was extremely comfortable. Are the pages I turned out excellent? Probably not but the important thing is to keep the creative process going every day. 

If you don’t already have Dorothea’s book, I highly recommend you hunt down a copy. It should live on your bookshelf forever.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Doldrums

Hi there Type M fans. I have absolutely no idea what to write today, so I'm dipping in to my fund of comics that deal with the book industry. I hope you enjoy it. And I promise to think ALL WEEK about a truly great, eye-opening and memorable topic for next week's blog!

Monday, July 25, 2011

What I did in my holidays

Aline here. I was hoping to make you all green with envy this week with my tales of long hot summer days in the South of France, relaxing on a lounger in sunny shade, a glass of chilled Chablis at my elbow. Alas, it was not to be. The first week, the weather was colder and wetter than the weather we'd been calling unseasonable in Edinburgh before we left. It was headline news on French TV - nearly three weeks of rain and cold over most of France, and in Hautes-Pyrenees, where we were, it was worse than anywhere else. Admittedly, we struck it lucky one day with a trip into the mountains in sunshine, and at almost 3000 metres had all the peaks clear about us, with the snow on their tops and a sparkling lake below, which almost made up for dreary grey skies the rest of the time.

Still, we were plucky about it. We had arrived with a box containing a preposterous number of books and with Scottish stoicism sat outside in our woollies to read them, while M Pogue the neighbouring farmer drove past on his tractor towing a thought bubble saying, 'Les fous Anglais!' Not unreasonably - suggest I should do it in similar temperatures at home and I'd laugh in your face.

The book box is the key component of the French holiday we take most years. We start compiling it in the dark days of January, dreaming of French sunshine (see above), and make judicious alterations as the summer approaches. It's a serious challenge to get it right. It must be assembled like a good menu:the amuse-bouche - elegant, neat, witty; the starter - light in nature, but opening up new ideas; the main course - weighty, serious; the dessert - a wicked temptation, deliciously frothy; coffee with brandy, a sophisticated meditation.

Among my highlights this year were our own Peter May's The Black House, a dark and atmospheric crime novel set in the remote Western Isles of Scotland, and Louise Penny's brilliant Bury Your Dead. The Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography of Katherine Graham of the Washington Post was a serious read, as was AS Byatt's The Children's Book, short-listed for a recent Man Booker. Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw was a thought-provoking starter and with Daisy Goodwin's My Last Duchess for dessert I was ready to end my literary meal with Margaret Attwood's The Door and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. A feast to match any with a Michelin star.

Another writer once said to me that she wished she could undo her head, to escape the maelstrom of ideas permanently whirling around inside. My weeks in France are my chance to do just that, when I have time to refresh my mind with other people's ideas, and to me it's vital. I come back with my head clear, ready to focus more objectively on my own work.

And maybe the weather was bad, but the food and wine were as wonderful as ever and my love affair with France, which started when I was ten years old, is undiminished. A la prochaine!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Perfect Word

If you don't believe that ideas originate in the ether and are transmitted into brains that are operating on the correct frequency, witness John Corrigan's entry on poetry, below. You will notice that his theme this week is quite similar to mine. I have stolen other people's ideas on more than one occasion, but in this case I can assure you that this time it's simply
a matter of similar brain vibes.

Poetry is in the air. I have mentioned more than once that my husband, Don Koozer, is a poet who has had many dozens of his pieces published in small literary magazines. Last year Bellowing Arc Press published an entire book of his work, and just this month eight of his pieces were published in a new anthology called Current: A Journal of Experimental and Metaphysical Poetry, from a very small poetry publisher called Primeval Press out of Seattle.*

A poet is continually striving to distill something as huge as a universal truth into a single image. This is a skill that is invaluable in good story-telling. No matter what sort of thing you write, learning to construct poetry will improve your narrative skills like nothing else will. I heard a Famous Author say that one of the best things he ever did to improve his prose style and technique was to learn to write poetry. I’ve pondered this statement, and I must agree that there is nothing like poetry to teach you how to use the fewest possible words to make the biggest possible impact on the reader.

The amazing thing is that once you have written a few poems, once you have learned to fit your idea into the shortest possible form, your long-form style automatically changes without your having to even think about it. Your prose gains a vigor that it didn’t have before, because its power is no longer dissipated in a miasma of unnecessary words.

Anyone who is enamored of words knows what it’s like to try and find that perfect word to convey the subtle shade of meaning you want to convey. The first drafts of my novels are filled with blank spaces, because even though I can think of one hundred nouns/verbs/descriptors that would be perfectly adequate in that place, I know the Absolutely Perfect Word exists, and I can’t quite come up with it. However, I can’t afford to spend fifteen minutes wracking my brain for it, so I leave a blank and torture myself with it on the rewrites. Sometimes I do end up having to use one of those one hundred almost-right words, but when I do, I feel a sense of failure for not having adequately communicated with the reader.

If you ask an author why he writes, the better and probably more successful writers will answer that it’s because they love language. I think that learning how to manipulate language is akin to learning to manipulate the keys of a piano. Language is our instrument, and if we don’t practice, study, experiment, and play with it, we might end up writing “Chopsticks” instead of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.

This very morning Don told me that he thinks of poetry as "the music of literature". I'll leave you with one of his very short poems from the anthology and let you judge for yourself.

The rising moon stops me
on the illumined road
I never thought
the first person I'd meet
would be myself.
*So hot off the press it is not yet available on Amazon.
Primeval Press
PO Box 65144
Seattle, WA 98155

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Poets at Heart?

I’m teaching a five-week creative writing seminar for non-native speakers of English this summer. It’s fascinating work—I have 20 students from more than 10 nations. We’re writing poetry for two weeks before moving to fiction.

“Why not all fiction?” one student asked.

“Why not fiction, then poetry?” another asked.

The answer is simple: writing poetry always improves your fiction, so we not only make time for it; we begin with it.

At Bouchercon several years back, Dennis Lehane told an audience that he wrote poetry as writing practice, flexing his descriptive muscles. After all, the well-placed metaphor or unique description often serves as the proverbial picture that saves the writer a thousand words. Pick up anything by the late Ed McBain to see what I mean. (I often ask myself how he creates a complete character in 10 words, when the same sketch would take me 50.)

Three-time Shamus Award winner and author of the Moe Prager series (and one-time Sunday guest to this site), Reed Farrell Coleman studied poetry at Brooklyn College with David Lehman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ashbery before discovering the detective fiction class. Coleman has claimed it was like thinking you’re decent “at basketball, then getting your ass kicked by Michael Jordan.” How can poetry improve your prose? Pick up one of Stephen Dobyns’s Saratoga mysteries featuring P.I. Charlie Bradshaw. Dobyns, far more well known for his award-winning poetry than his mysteries, is a fine prose stylist whose “The Church of Dead Girls” is listed as a must-read by Stephen King in “On Writing.”

Fiction writers can enhance their work by practicing poetry. The form forces one to embrace brevity, clarity, and the artful use of imagery. If you’d like to try your hand at practicing all three, the activity below is useful:

Read “Mirror” by Silvia Plath, then try your hand at a personification poem. Choose an object from this list or come up with one on your own—cell phone, car, a favorite book, computer, lipstick, writing desk, lamp, TV, coffee mug—and write the poem in the first person from the object’s point of view. What would the object say to you? How would the object characterize itself? Your goal: drop the title, then read the poem to someone. Can they guess the object?

Remember to be brief. Good luck.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Experiences in Ebook Land

Barbara here. In these hazy, hot days of summer, the work ethic often takes a back seat to crisp white wine spritzers and languid patio chats, but while most of the world snoozes, the Ladies Killing Circle has been hard at work on a new project. First a brief historical note. The Ladies Killing Circle began twenty years ago as a group of six aspiring Ottawa writers looking for a critiquing group. After a few years of critiquing each other’s stories, they decided to put together an anthology of crime short stories by local women writers and pitched it to an area publisher. The inaugural LADIES’ KILLING CIRCLE was published in 1995, and was so successful that six other anthologies followed over the next 13 years. Besides garnering numerous nominations and wins for Best Canadian Short Story at the annual Arthur Ellis Awards from Crime Writers of Canada, the anthologies helped launch the solo writing careers of some of Canada’s most successful female crime writers, including the six members of LKC itself – Mary Jane Maffini, Joan Boswell, Sue Pike, Vicki Cameron, Linda Wiken and myself.

The last anthology, appropriately titled GOING OUT WITH A BANG, was published in 2007, and since then we've resisted all pleas to make another. Time constraints, other writing commitments, and new challenges are all factors. But we’ve watched the rise of the ebook with interest, particularly the ease with which unusual formats like novellas and single short stories can be made available on the web for minimal fees, opening up new ways to make old stories accessible again.

A few months ago, we idly mused about the possibility of packaging our stories from the original anthology into a mini ebook. A sort of ebooklet. The anthology is now out of print and its wonderful stories are lost to new readers. In addition to containing the very first story most of us had ever published, it contained a story from Mary Jane Maffini that won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Short Story that year.

The idea caught fire, and before the month was out, the stories had been selected, a cover had been designed, and we had found someone with the expertise to convert our files into the required formats and upload them onto the ebook sites. The result is LITTLE TREASURES, a collection of seven short stories, one by each of us as well as the title story by Audrey Jessup, an original LKC member who sadly passed away in 2003.

The process was not without challenges, the first being to find the original digital files of the stories. All of us had gone through several computers between 1994 and 2011, and some of the stories were lost in the moves or stored on unreadable floppy disks. Several were in archaic software like Word Perfect 5.1. Fortunately, I still use Word Perfect, albeit the X3 version which can convert back and forth to Word. Also fortunately, Linda Wiken had an old computer lurking in her basement that had a floppy disk drive. Between us, some of the stories were salvaged, but others had to be scanned and still others re-typed. An interesting lesson on the vulnerability of our technology.

A second challenge was the pricing of the ebook. The print anthologies ranged between $14.95 and $18.95, as do our individual novels. Since this is not a full-length book, we planned to price it much lower, perhaps around $3.00 to encourage new readers to take a risk. We quickly discovered two things about the ebook marketplace. First, there are billions of short stories, novels, novellas, and collections on the web. Billions. The chances of getting noticed, indeed of even getting found, in this cluttered marketplace are next to nil. Second, in their attempt to get noticed, writers have lowered their prices so much that full novels are being offered for 99 cents. 99 cents! For a work that would have taken at least a year to write. Even if one were to sell 50,000 copies of that ebook – improbable at best - one wouldn’t make a living wage.

The only ones likely to profit from this bizarre marketplace, where supply so far outstrips demand that hard work is valued at next to nothing, are the few big name authors, and the platforms themselves like Amazon and Apple. Hopefully a new equilibrium will sort itself out and new channels will be developed like online review sites, which help interested readers wade through the flood of offerings. Meanwhile, there is a lot of very good material available for pennies on the internet.

Including, very shortly, LITTLE TREASURES by The Ladies Killing Circle. So watch for it. It’s a bargain.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Toronto, the city where I live, is under a black cloud. That cloud emanates from City Hall where our new mayor, Rob Ford, has set about remaking Toronto according to his image. Wanting to find the “gravy” in ways the city goes about its business was the mantra that got him elected. Enough voters figured that someone who wanted to cut taxes and make the business of the city smaller was a person they wanted to see in office. The man got elected last fall.

Of course, cutting taxes or eliminating them while at the same time promising not to reduce services is something that just can’t be done. Mayor Ford’s strong suit has never been mathematics and finance. He proved that as a long-time councillor before he got himself elected to the “big chair” at city council.

One of his first orders of business was to bring in an outside company do a complete review of every city department to find the gravy that could be sopped up. He also eliminated an unpopular vehicle tax, froze property taxes for a year and wiped out the city’s contingency funds while doing this in order to balance his first budget.

Now, the chickens have come home to roost. There is a budget deficit of nearly $800 million for next year. Very little gravy was found, surprise, surprise (we’ve had several other gravy expeditions over the years in Toronto).

What to do? And more importantly, why is Blechta telling me this on a writers’ blog?

Simple. One of the city’s operations that was looked at is the Toronto Public Library. Here’s some history you should know before we go further: it is the most utilized library system in North America. It is the envy of a lot of other big city library systems on the planet. They know what they’re doing and usage increases every year. The city is getting a huge bang for their tax buck here.

So what do the politicos propose doing? Why cutting the library’s budget, of course, something that’s been done a many times in the past. Everybody has to take their lumps, don’t they? Why should a library be different? They’re also proposing closing some branches. How many and where? They won’t tell us that (they probably don’t know). But here’s the real kicker: the company doing the review (KPMG) has also proposed hiring a company to run the library. It’s not clear whether the library would be sold or a company brought in to run it. Either way, the proposal is to privatize.

Huh? There are companies prepared to run libraries? Here’s something else you should know: the library’s board ran afoul of our good mayor almost immediately when the first budget consultations were ongoing early this year. Rob Ford doesn’t forget people who cross him. Here’s a quote from a recent radio interview: “I have more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons (a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain).” Boy, there’s a good reason to do a hatchet job on a public institution if I’ve ever heard one!

So here’s what I think is really going on. By privatizing the operation of the library, Ford gets to punish the board, drop a lot of cost and force a lot of employees out of a job. The first thing you’ll see with an outside operator are much smaller, unprotected jobs and all kinds of fees. Want a book? You pay a fee. Want to use a computer to research something? You’ll pay a fee. Want to use a room for a meeting of your literary club? Fee.

Another thing: what will be the rules of operation? How many new books will the operator be forced to purchase? The purchasing budget has been dropping steadily over the past few years. It will get worse. They won’t purchase my novels (or as many copies as they have in the past) and the same thing will happen to the rest of us. I’ll bet library use will drop – and this is at a time when school boards in Ontario (our province) are closing their libraries at alarming rates. When only a library will do, where will those students go?

This promises to be an ugly fight. I’m sure our mayor hasn’t read a book in years. He’ll tell you he doesn’t have time, but we can guess the truth: he’s never been a reader. If that is indeed the case, he’ll never see the value of having a world-class library system. "I don’t use it, so why should my tax dollars support it?"

Now here’s the real reason I’m telling you all this: be prepared for it to happen in your community. Be ready and be willing to get active. If you live in Toronto, there’s a petition you can sign: Do it today.

Your children and grandchildren will thank you.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Hardest Part

When I start a mystery, I know who the murderer is, and I know how and why s/he did it. I also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime. I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story. But here’s the hardest part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.

What’s the problem, you ask? Just have your sleuth sort through the clues, make the right connections, and Bob’s your uncle.

As anyone who has ever written a mystery can attest, it’s not that easy, my friend, because you have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

Alafair is very much an amateur sleuth. She is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. So, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway? The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved.

Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want. In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do. I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.

This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has ten kids who want dinner?”

I could just have her up and leave, or I could contrive to have all the kids and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1915 equivalent of McDonald’s was. But that wouldn’t be realistic. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.

Forcing the action is a common mistake for a beginning writer. I often see it done in one of two ways. One is the “Idiot College Student Syndrome”. This is when the character has been brilliant throughout the book, but suddenly does something stupid just so you can put her in danger and increase the tension. One by one, five college students went into that dark room alone and were massacred by an ax murderer. In the name of all that’s holy, Number Six, don’t go in there! Call the police, you idiot!

Second is the “Wildly Unbelievable Coincidence”, in which the author hands the sleuth the vital clue in the most implausible fashion. The detective didn’t detect. He just happened to be in the right place. He just happened to stumble across an object. The killer suddenly leaped up out of his chair and confessed. I have to be sure that my sleuth honestly found the answer using the information provided in the story.

This is one of the things I like about an amateur sleuth - she has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page. Toward the end of my fourth book, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information. It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.

I'm working on the sixth book right now, and praying for Alafair to let me in on her insights one more time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Making My Child's Life Difficult

Frankie here. It's a simile that I've heard writers (is it only women writers?) use. That writing a book is like giving birth. And then you send your child out into the world. I have a new book coming out at the end of this month. I finished it last year. It made a brief appearance at the end of April at Malice Domestic becasuse I asked my publisher to rush to print and have copies available because I was on a panel. Then my book disappeared again until its official release date at the end of this month.

I fear I may have given my child (uh, book) a rocky start by creating confusion about when it was available. Anyone who contacted the publisher has been able to order it (as I explained on my website), but it has been invisible. The book by the way is titled Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave. And I hope I can keep my poor child from drowning. You see aside from its awkward debut, I set my book in a real place -- the Eastern Shore of Virginia -- and then instead of using the setting only as backdrop, I really used the Eastern Shore in the book.

The story happens in 2004, and an early scene was inspired by a newspaper article that I read when I was doing research. The article was about hit-and-run automobile accidents involving migrant laborers happening then on the Eastern Shore. The book has a subplot running through it about migrant labor on the Eastern Shore. My protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, has lunch with someone who works with migrant laborers. And the subject creates some tension during the weekend gathering because the friends that Lizzie and her fiancé, John Quinn, are visiting own a large farm and have next door neighbors who are a struggling farm family. Did I mention the next door neighbors are African American (inspired by an exhibit I saw in Baltimore about the disappearing black family farm and a class action lawsuit and the fact my family once owned a small farm).

And then there's the issue of "Big Chicken" and environmental pollution from chicken processing plants on the Eastern Shore. But these social issues come up in the context of a "Big Chill"- type gathering of Quinn's old West Point buddies to celebrate a birthday. So there's also a lot of talk about their lives. The group even spend a pleasant day (although a hurricane is on its way up the coast) visiting Chincoteague and Assateague Island (home of the wild ponies), And Lizzie enjoys her visit to the Barrier Islands Center. Of course, she does make some observations along the way about things like tombstones in a soybean field and that becomes a part of another historical subplot about a murder that I made up. . . but, hey, it's a mystery. Question is, how the folks on the Eastern Shore are going to react to the fact that I didn't just use my setting as a lovely backdrop.

The Eastern Shore isn't the only watery location in the book. Chapter One opens with a murder in Newport, Rhode Island. And another character claims to have spent time on Vinalhaven, Maine, prompting Lizzie to look up the island and comment on what she reads. I spent two weeks in November on Vinalhaven, and it was perfect for what I needed in the book. For the record, no murders happen on Vinalhaven. Lizzie even comments that she would like to go there to visit.

I also spent two weeks on the Eastern Shore doing research. I had a great time there -- charming small towns, delicious seafood, and I stayed at a wonderful, pop culture-inspired bed and breakfast during my second visit. But I kill some people on the Eastern Shore and not all of them are visitors. And I fear I may have made life difficult for my child (uh, book) about to go out into the world by not describing my setting in glowing terms that would have gotten me invited to speak up and down the peninsula and gotten the book into every bookstore and shop on the Eastern Shore and in nearby Richmond, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach as a "fun read" for visitors to the Shore.

In my last book, You Should Have Died on Monday, I also used real places -- Chicago, Wilmington, North Carolina, pre-Katrina New Orleans -- but what I forgot is that in Chicago and New Orleans, you expect noir and murder and nothing bad happened in Wilmington.

Anyway, the end of the month is coming. I've sent out copies of Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave to bookstores, shops, and the library on the Eastern Shore where I did some research. Soon I'll know if my child is going to get a friendly reception in its birthplace. This weekend, I'm going to get an essay about the locations in the book and some photographs up on my website. For the record, I highly recommend a trip to the Eastern Shore. I'm a native Virginian, and the Shore is one of Virginia's treasures (the reason I wanted to set a book there).

Just make sure you aren't going there for a birthday gathering of your fiance's old West Point Army buddies. Did I mention, I also get into the impact of war on warriors? But there is a lighter soap opera thread . . . except the character who is a former soap opera star was once kidnapped by an obsessed fan and . . . Oh, my poor child. What did I do to you?

Thursday, July 14, 2011


John here.
Two weeks ago, I posted regarding short story writing and openings in particular. I have been working sporadically on this untitled story, and the opening has undergone two rewrites.
This was what we started with:

When the motion sensor was tripped near the Crystal View River, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote looked at the digital clock of her government-issued Chevy Tahoe, knew she had fifteen minutes left in her shift, and cursed the impending overtime, assuming another night-wandering deer triggered the sensor. Then she saw the blood on the while birch tree.

Re-reading it now, two weeks later, I don't much like it--it's slow, the details I have offered (the truck brand, for example) offer very little and could have been learned by looking at Google Images. The other thing is that my goal was to pose a question. It takes a long time to get to it. The opening sentence is 42 words, after all.

Here's the the next version:

When the motion sensor tripped, Peyton Cote cursed. The U.S. Border Patrol Agent had fifteen minutes left in a miserable nightshift. Her uniform shirt was sweat-soaked, her lip was split, and this call would definitely lead to unwanted overtime above and beyond the mandatory ten hours she had already logged.
"Got that?" a voice barked over the radio.
She got it. Knew the location well. Had been there twice this month already.
Another Goddamned deer or kids smoking dope. The fact that the call had come over the radio at 10:45 P.M. bugged her. For more serious matters, the call would come via cell phone, eliminating listeners--those recreational ambulance chasers as well as the more sinister, those who owned radios for more lucrative reasons. This was Northern Maine, after all, and the prescription-drug trafficking had not relented.
But this call was over the radio. The tripped sensor was a deer, no doubt. Except it would still take an hour and a half to prove the damned assumption right.

You can tell that the scene is coming into focus a little for me. For starters, the opening line offers more immediacy (and hopefully more tension). In subsequent lines, I tried to add clarity--not all but some of those pesky who, what, when, where, and why details (I began literary life as a newspaper scribe and still teach composition classes, after all)--as well as sensory detail (the sweat) in an effort to let readers feel what Peyton does (old-fashioned "showing"). The ten-hour shift information is also an attempt to paint detail but also establish this story as a procedural, too, and to do that early. After the first paragraph, dialogue ensued, but I never ever felt engaged with the story. For example, the cell-phone-vs-radio information was relevant but killed the flow.

This the third (and most recent) version is as follows:

The 9mm rounds, fired through a silencer, sounded like quarters dropping to the snow around her.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote rolled to her left, felt her shoulder strike the base of the pine, and moved like a turtle on its shell, burrowing through the snow, until her back was pressed firmly against the base of the thick trunk.
A slug hit the trunk above her, and the tree shook, light snow falling to the ground around her.
How the hell had it come to this? May I see your license and registration? The stupid bastard had even given it to her, watched as she took it to her Chevy Tahoe, and then fired a round through her windshield.
A chunk of the tree, maybe four inches from her skull, leapt into the air, tumbling end over end, landing softly in the snow.
There were three of them. That much she knew. She also knew she had to keep the off her--maintain at least thirty yards.
She leaned out and fired once, twice, and pull back behind the tree.
"Marty. Jesus, look at the blood. Marty say something. Oh, Jesus, Tommy, look at the blood. I think she...what about our mother? Marty, no. What about Mom?"
"We can't leave her out there," a different voice shouted. "She knows. This ends now. It has to."
The gunfire had died out. She knew they were approaching. Afternoon sun was fading. (It got dark before four this far north.) She leaned to her right again, spotted a short squat leather jacket struggled through the three-foot-deep snow. Could hear him wheezing. "Stupid bitch. I'll finish her for you, Marty."
He was weaving and muttering as if delirious. Stoned? Drunk?
Again, she wondered about the overreaction. A shootout? For a traffic stop?
She leaned put, settled the site on his left kneecap and squeezed.
His left leg went back as if if kicked by a horse. He did a 360, landed on his back in the snow, and screamed.
She couldn't see the third man and instinctively pulled back in behind the tree, hunched low, and heard her own breath rasping in and out. Where was he? Her head swiveled, both hand on the 9mm, gun held chest high, barrel pointing up straight out in front of her--not textbook technique, but right not she didn't care. What she cared about was making it home to her son, Tommy. A single mother to a nine-year-old, her priorities were ironclad.

I think this one is much stronger. I don't know the antagonists (and I think it reads this way, too, right now). By the time I finish it, though, I'll know the plot and will go back and flesh those characters out. But I like the progression of Peyton here. The monologue and questions are establishing her voice, conveying back-story, and (again, hopefully--you're the real judge) additional tension. And there are two conflicts at play in this version: the shoot-out (external) and her internal struggle as a single mother (internal). Hopefully, readers also find tension in Peyton's internal battle. After all, she shouldn't be thinking about anything but defending herself at this time. Yet as a single mother, there is always an additional responsibility that her male counterparts don't have--and many don't comprehend.

That's where I'm at. Love to hear what my Type M colleagues and readers think.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finding the Funny in Murder

I write the quirky Vicky Hill Mysteries set in the wilds of Devon. Often, murder and humor don't go hand in hand so it's always a challenge to "find the funny" without plunging into farce. 

Last Saturday I deleted 10,000 words of the first draft in my new series. This was not funny. It wasn't so much a case of "killing my babies" - I was killing an entire nation. Did I mention I had only written 10,000 words? No, I didn't think so ... which means I am starting on page 1. Again. The reason? Nothing was funny. The protagonist was boring, the setting was dull and the writing was leaden. I was forcing myself to be "funny." 

So I started surfing the Internet about writing comedy. Research is an excellent form of procrastination. 

Harold Ramis suggests that many comedy writers are loners who develop a comic view of the world because they aren't caught up in mainstream thinking. I agree. I also discovered that it’s important to cultivate a sense of the ridiculous; perhaps be okay with all those embarrassing situations you've ever been in and maybe even masochistic enough to relive them. 

Sol Saks, the creator of Bewitched, knew how to write humor. I was fortunate to meet him and his lovely wife Sandy (an excellent writer), at one of their Fourth of July parties.  Sadly, Sol passed away earlier this year at the grand age of 100.  In his well-known book Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing he says, humor comes from conflict or misfortune. Which brings me to The Pea Incident.

When I was sixteen, I won a competition that meant I had to represent the town at various functions. ANYWAY, one day I had to attend a very stuffy lunch with local dignitaries. There were about thirty people seated at an enormous mahogany table. We had cut crystal glasses, silver cutlery and bone china—the works. We even had footmen. During the third course, my knife slipped and about a gazillion green peas flew off my plate, scampering along the table, jumping into wine glasses, landing in laps and hurtling down cleavages. To say I was mortified was putting it mildly. Being a self-conscious sixteen year-old, you can magnify the mortification by about a thousand.  

There was utter silence. No one said a word. Wait! No, I lie. There was a brief cough from one of the footmen just before he began painstakingly picking up one pea at a time between white-gloved fingertips and placing each on a silver tray. I didn't leave the house for months after that (just kidding) and I've never eaten peas again. 

I learned that character is 98 percent of comedy. Don't skimp on character preparation before starting a new book. Give your characters idiosyncrasies, weird habits and unusual afflictions. Maybe introduce a deaf cat. Be authentic. Remember that your own true sense of humor is unique and will always be your single greatest asset. 

Look around you. Real people and the absurdities of every day life are the richest sources of comedy. Take it from one who knows. Now … I just need to throw in a dead body—preferably someone who choked to death on a plate of peas.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Coming to a screen near you...

It’s been rather beastly hot here in Toronto the past week or so. This is not a complaint on my part. I love summer and am quite willing to be warm when called for. Consider the alternative and it’s not much of a battle against which is worse: being too hot or being too cold – and north of the 49th parallel that’s a consideration.

Anyway, the other evening, thoughts of being somewhere cool for a few hours led my wife and I to take in a movie. Only one thing really caught our eye: The Lincoln Lawyer which is based on the very fine novel of the same name by Michael Connelly.

Books brought to the screen don’t generally cover themselves with glory. Remember that horrible attempt to bring Sara Paretsky’s iconic V. I. Warshawski to the silver screen back in the early ’90s? I’ve tried to erase that from my memory. Kathleen Turner was a good choice as the title character, but what the hell were they thinking when they wrote that script? How did Paretsky deal with the embarrassment of what they did to her creation?

Don’t get me wrong. Adapting books to the screen can be done with excellent results. The problem seems to be that screenwriters, directors and producers think that they can just add and subtract whatever they want. It’s as if they feel that since they bought the rights, everything now belongs to them to do with as they please.

There are certainly things to consider and problems to solve when adapting a novel. It has to be streamlined, most subplots thrown away and often large portions of the work left out. The problem is that the adaptor has to understand the basic idea of the novel, or you’re going to get something that might have some of the same names and maybe bits of the plot, but the end result isn’t going to resemble anything like what you started with. Fans of a book who go to see the movie will be very disappointed, and if the movie they’ve “made up” from the story isn’t good cinema, it will have a very short run.

I’m here to tell you that The Lincoln Lawyer does not fall down on these points. It is a good film (if you’ve never read the novel), and if you have read it, the screenplay captures a lot of what Connelly wrote. (Surprisingly, he had nothing to do with the script.) Yes, they had to cut out a lot, but what remained held together well. The title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is excellent and the supporting cast well-chosen, and they ultimately make the movie what it is: a very enjoyable way to spend an evening – and stay cool at the same time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Titles

The Man who was Thursday. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Pride and Prejudice. Gone with the Wind. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. The Talented Mr Ripley.

Book titles – yes, it's that time again, when I start sweating blood over what I'm going to call my next book. I know there are other authors seem to find titles the way you find the candy in the tray when you've put the money in the slot machine, but I'm not one of them. Just mention the word 'title' and my mind goes blank.

I could ask my husband. The only trouble is that he doesn't read my work until it's a proper book, and he doesn't want me to ruin the suspense so I can only tell him the barest minimum about it. Even so, he came up with my favourite title, Lying Dead – my third book. I told him it was about a woman who had led a deceitful double life, and was found dead in a forest, and there it was, just like the slot-machine candy. The only thing was that it led to a most macabre experience: a neighbour who was found lying dead with one of my books at their bedside…. Yes, it was. I'm a bit nervous about asking him again.

And titles are so important nowadays. I've come up with titles I've liked, but it's the marketing department making the decisions these days. They know, they tell us, what title will immediately make readers want to buy the book. Not that they can find it for us, of course: we have to go on guessing what sort of title it might be, until we find the right one. Or collapse into a whimpering heap, whichever comes first.

The only thing is, I'm just not absolutely sure that the title is as vital as they say. (Please don't tell my editor I said this; I think they have punishment cells for heretical authors.) If I ask my husband to bring the book I'm reading downstairs, and he asks what it's called, I never know. 'It's by so-and so,' I say, or sometimes, if I haven't been much impressed, 'It's the one by my bed.'

Still, it's got to be called something. So if any of you out there have a really sexy idea about a title for a book about revenge, don't feel shy about sharing it. It could save me some sleepless nights.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Phoebe Lois, or How Reality Influences Fiction

I would like to remember my maternal grandmother Lois Bourland today. July 9 was her birthday and were she still living she would have turned 116 years old. Phoebe Lois Rankin, known as Lois, was seventeen in 1912, the same year I set my first Alafair Tucker novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. In fact, the character of Phoebe in that book and all the subsequent entries in the series is named after her. Phoebe Tucker physically resembles Lois Rankin, as well, and I based her gentle personality on my grandmother’s.

All of the characters in the Tucker family are named and/or modeled after ancestors and relatives of mine. Alafair is one of my paternal great-grandmothers, Shaw a great-grandfather. Alice is my other grandmother, and closely patterned after her. All the other children, Martha, Mary, Gee Dub, Fronie, Blanche, Charlie, Grace, Ruth, are aunts, uncles, cousins of my parents. Gee Dub (G.W.) was my father’s cousin, and one of my earliest memories is of watching him saddle-break a pinto pony. It was my own personal bucking bronco rodeo and made quite an impression on me.

It is obvious to anyone who has read my Alafair books that all of those beloved relatives made quite an impression on me. One reason I set out to write this series was because these people were of a type that hardly exists any more and I felt it is important that they not be forgotten. Both men and women were a kind of tough that is hard to believe, self reliant in a way that is practically impossible today. They were unsentimental and had little sympathy for weakness. In fact, they were kind of scary, at least to a spoiled little baby-boomer such as I.

When I created the Tucker family I made them somewhat softer and more civilized than my real relatives. The real people were loving and talented and funny as hell, but truly clannish and entirely willing and able to take matters into their own hands. “Rough justice” was no joke. I had a great uncle by marriage who was known as a womanizer and a wife beater. He was found dead by the side of the road one morning, shot off his horse by persons unknown. No one ever found out who did it, either, or perhaps I should say no one was ever arrested for the crime. My great-aunt’s brothers did like to mention that he got what he deserved, though. This was around 1920.

I said that such people are rare these days, but they’re not extinct. They can still be found if you care to search far off the beaten path. In his novel Winter’s Bone Daniel Woodrell gives us a glimpse of life in the wilds of the Ozarks, where my dear grandmother Phoebe Lois Rankin was born and raised. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The ephemeral nature of writing time. Or “Stuff Happens”.

Barbara here. There are times in a writer’s life when events conspire to defeat us. It could be job commitments, or visiting relatives, or that summer dinner party that seems to be days in the planning. When writing that all-consuming first draft, momentum and continuity are important. I am currently writing the first draft of the ninth Inspector Green novel, entitled THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, and it is proving especially difficult because there is so much I don’t’ know. So the momentum itself is constantly being interrupted as I flip through reference books or run endless Google searches, particularly for pictures of the things I am trying to describe. Unfortunately my old stand-bys – Google street view and satellite view – don’t work in the far north where much of the story is set. So in order to maintain my momentum, I leave blanks or make things up, to be verified later once the first draft is done.

This past week, however, lots of things have happened to take me from my writing. Most of them have been wonderful, like cottage visits with my children and my 92 year-old mother. Whenever I found myself stressing over the neglected first draft, I asked myself – isn’t a writer entitled to a holiday too? What is life worth, if there is not time for those distractions?

Some distractions, like the dog with the ball in my picture, or the call of a loon on the lake, are fleeting and fun, meant to bring a smile and a sense of calm and balance to the creative process.

Some distractions, however, I can do without. This morning I nearly set the cottage on fire trying to cook some bacon in the broiler, and it took much of the day to clean up the aftermath. Those chemical fire extinguishers make an awful mess! On the plus side, no one was injured and the only casualty was an aging stove in that “almond white” colour popular in the early 1970s, which was well past its due date and had no self-cleaning capabilities. It will not be mourned.

But my writing day was shot. That scene I’ve been working on in fits and starts for a week, will have to wait another day. This blog too has suffered. It’s being written at the eleventh hour, after two soothing glasses of wine, and it is likely barely coherent. But at least it’s getting written, because unlike my wretched novel, its deadline is tonight at midnight. And it’s a lot easier to spin out a 500-word blog during the lazy, wine-soaked days of summer, than it is to write an intense and riveting scene for a novel.

I could say that even though I haven’t put pen to paper on the novel, I have been working on it in my head. That is often half the work – figuring out next steps, untangling plot problems or fleshing out characters while taking the dogs for walks, emptying the dishwasher, or twiddling my thumbs in rush hour traffic. But the truth is, that takes mental focus, something in short supply when a dinner party needs planning or the cottage is burning down. No, for today I had just better give up the hope of a coherent string of thoughts.

Maybe tomorrow?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Back from Italy!

I had every intention of writing a few more blog entries for the weeks I was away, but like was just way too hectic in those last few days before departing. I apologize for the hole on the past three Tuesdays!

So you probably want to know how the trip was. In a word, it was fantastic. My wife, whom I have taken to calling my “linguini” (a pun on "linguist") learned to speak Italian and served as my able translator. Actually, that’s giving her short shrift. In nine short months, she became fluent in Italian, and was pretty darned impressive throughout the trip.

My job was “logistics”. I read a ton of books about the cities and areas we visited and suggested what we might want to see based in the time we had available. I also had another reason for handling this facet of the trip: research.

I’m currently playing around with a novel that will be a sequel to next May’s The Fallen One, a book whose main character is an opera singer. This is the book I went to Paris to do research on late in 2008. As I completed TFO, I realized that my character’s story wasn’t yet completely told, hence this new novel. Where better than to send an operatic crime fiction novel than Italy, the birthplace of the art form?

The already completed part of the story has a few passages set in Rome, about which I was purposefully vague, having never been near the place before. As we made our way around the Eternal City, I had my writer’s hat firmly on, soaking up the ambiance, the feel of the places I am going to use. Armed with a good camera, I also took a lot of reference photos of appropriate buildings where my characters might live and visit, restaurants where they might eat, etc. And then there’s Rome’s opera house (a ho-hum structure on the outside which is all we saw) which got the full photo treatment.

A later part in the story will take place in Venice. I won’t bore you with comments about what a magical place this city is, but it has several features that I am dying to take advantage of when I come to write that part of my novel. My concern is to do it justice. So many writers have blazed the same literary trail down which I’ll be travelling. I know I won’t do it better, but will I at least be able to do something that’s true to life and captures even a little bit of the ambiance of this singular place on our planet?

I only have about 800 photos and even some video. I won’t bore you with that, but I am attaching two of Venice as a sort of teaser about what is going to happen there.

This is a place we’re already dreaming about visiting again.

I posted our favourite pesto recipe while we were gone (my one blog posting). For those who are interested, I clarified some of the instructions so that it makes things a bit more straightforward and understandable. Once you’ve made pesto a time or two, you can literally whip it together in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil. By the way, we usually use linguine or fettuccine, but any pasta works. Click HERE to go to the recipe.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

One Hundred Pages Redux

I mentioned last week that I finally finished the first 100 pages of my next Alafair novel. Have I sent it off to the editor? No, I have not. I don't know what my problem is, but I can't stop futzing with it. In the first draft the story cut back and forth in time. Upon re-reading, I second guessed myself, went back and rearranged the story in strict chronological order. My first reader (husband) told me that there's now far too much set-up and not enough action early on, so now I'm putting it back the way I had it in the first place.

I believe in rewriting and polishing but I also believe that you have to trust the process. You'd think I'd have learned that after five novels, but sadly these rookie mistakes keep recurring in spite of me.

Perhaps I should blame the weather. Yes, perhaps I shall do that. It's June in Phoenix and too damn hot. I find my mind wandering at the most inconvenient times, and considering that I have a tendency to give in to random thought as it is, I'm not having any luck completing the tasks I should.

For instance, rather than work on the manuscript I've just spent the last fifteen minutes naming my rock band. I was listening to Death Cab for Cutie when it occurred to me that they must have come up with their name by throwing darts at a dictionary. "Donis," I say to myself, "if you close your eyes and stab your pencil point at random spots on the newspaper, surely you could come up with your own effective band moniker." So here they are, my four, three, two, and one word band names, in just the order random chance dictated.

Last Movie Which Vegas
Formula Over Cacophany (I swear I didn't alter.)
Passes Lopez

Now for a bit of information that is actually useful, Dear Reader. My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has just started its own blog featuring a fabulous roster of PPP authors taking turns to post something interesting, informative, and fun once a month. Our own Vicki Delany, late of Type M, is the first blogger. If you're interested in discovering fabulous mystery authors, check it out. It'll be a different author blogging every day! Here's the link:

Friday, July 01, 2011

Writers and Sleep Habits

Frankie here. Sorry I'm late, but I overslept. And I was so thrilled that I'd overslept that I tossed out my intended post and decided to write about sleep habits. You see, in summer I have an awful time getting a full 8 hours of sleep. I usually average around 4 hours. That's because I like staying up late to write. That's fine in the winter when I can snuggle under the covers and sleep well past dawn. In fact, I have no trouble at all sleeping in fall and winter.

But then come my "summer blues". Aside from the heat when I try to snuggle under the covers, there are birds chirping and dogs barking and neighbors mowing . . . you get the picture. But last night I was really exhausted. I'd spent 5 days in New Orleans with the Sisters in Crime team attending the American Library Association conference (more about that soon). When I got home, my sleep pattern was even more out of whack. So I was delighted to finally get eight hours sleep.

Well, not really eight hours. Towards the end, I had slipped into that half sleep that some of you may have experienced. Mind ticking along, working on writing ideas, trying to solve a problem. That, alternating with dreams that you're directing. But still close enough to sleep that you don't want to let go. I think of it as a part of the writing process. The reason writers keep note pads on their night tables and jump up in the middle of the night to rush to their computers.

This morning I was so intrigued by the subject of writers and sleep that I did some research to see what articles might pop up. I found a fascinating one titled "On the Edge of an Abyss: The Writer as Insomniac" (by G. Johnson, Virginia Quarterly Review, 66 (4), 1990, 643-655, for those of you who feel the urge to read it). According to the author, insomnia has been a common affliction of many well-known writers. Real insomnia -- not my seasonal disorder. D. H. Lawrence wrote in a poem, "nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep." His fellow insomniacs include Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickson, Charlotte and Emily Bronte (who walked around and around the dining room table until they were tired enough to sleep), Joseph Conrad, and Joyce Carol Oates. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a 1934 essay, "Sleeping and Waking," detailing his trouble with sleeping. Ernest Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald about his problems sleeping after the critics panned his Green Hills of Africa in 1935. But Virginia Woolf, who also had trouble sleeping, thought that she was more productive when she was wakeful.

The author of this article looks at the research on insomnia and concludes that what these writers and other writer-insomniacs may have in common are some personality characteristics which include both anxiety and a need for control. Some of the writers seem to have developed bad sleep habits over time. Some of them did attempt to self-medicate (with alcohol and drugs) to get a good night's sleep.

Given what we know now about the psychology of sleep and how much the body needs sleep to prevent all kinds of maladies from high blood pressure and diabetes to deterioration of eyesight, I have to say I'm willing to trade some writing time for a really good night's sleep. I think I get much more done when I "work" with my eyes closed and then jump out of bed and head to my computer. How about you?