Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Running late!

Hi there, Type M’sters. I was hoping to be able to post something good today but I’ve been working to deadline on a job and the time has just gotten away from me. So my deep and intellectually startling post will have to wait until next week, I’m afraid, since daylight is already fading here in the not-so-frozen north.

But I have a rather apropos cartoon. Even though it has to do with music, one could easily change the words and image a bit to make this an editor talking to a writer, rather than a producer talking to a band.

Hope you enjoy it – and see you next week with something a little more substantial.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Movies ... And Life

It's that time of year again, when the Golden Globes are handed out and the Oscar nominations are announced. Each year about this time, I make an honest attempt not to get too excited. But, really, I jest. I lost almost all interest in the who-will-win-what media circus decades ago. With one caveat: I reserve the right to get mildly annoyed when a film or actor that I especially liked does not get get due notice from the PTB crew - for which non-acronym, read Powers That Be. Having written that, I don't know who the PTB crew might be. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I think. I don't know who the individuals  are, and don't much care. None has ever invited me to lunch, or for a late-afternoon drink. Or sought my opinion on anything.

But enough already with the silliness. This blog post is not really about movies. But there is one film I am really interested in. That one is The Iron Lady. But it is less the film than the subject matter that interests me. For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, TIL (almost an acronym) is a biopic about Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain (not just England) from 1979 to 1990. The film did not get uniformly good reviews. It was not nominated for Best Film, although Meryl Streep is nominated for Best Actress. I hope she wins. It's her best performance in years. While watching her, I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching an actress play a role. Streep, who too frequently overuses technical gestures and tics in her roles, vanishes into this one.

The major criticism of the film is that it focuses too much on Thatcher in decline, sliding into dementia, speaking and arguing with her dead husband, Denis. (And here, yet another brilliant performance by the inimitable Jim Broadbent.) I thought the film-makers took the perfrect approach to the subject. They humanised Thatcher instead of lionising her. But there are scenes enough of Thatcher at her peak to supply the full quotient of lionisation for any and all of her fans. You don't have to like or admire Thatcher to enjoy the film.

One of the main points the film makes was well-described and expressed a few days ago in a column in The Ottawa Citizen  by Janice Kennedy:


The Iron Lady deserves both recognition and audiences. It is a powerful human portrait which, perhaps surprisingly, is also profoundly moving. And it speaks to all of us - no matter what our age, nationality or political impulse - even when we don't want to hear the message.

The conceit of the film is retrospective, an aged Thatcher revisiting life moments both grand and mundane through eyes that have dimmed. The elderly Thatcher, in the early grips of dementia, is vague and distracted, though still capable of grace and rising to an occasion. Streep is so convincing in this she makes you want to weep.

It is in that contrast that the enduring impact of the film lies. No matter who you are, it says, aging is a process of destruction. This thematic thread that winds its way through the movie serves as both momento mori and call for compassion. Critics who have faulted the film for its portrayal of political history are missing the point. This is a film about humanity.

Who was it said that "Old age is a shipwreck"? A quick Google search tells me that it was Charles de Gaulle, who lived  almost to age 80; Margaret Thatcher is (today) 86. While we are on the subject, I will celebrate - the verb is carefully chosen - my 73rd birthday in August. I am becoming more and more aware of what may lie ahead.

Yesterday, my partner and I spent a few hours at the National Gallery here in Ottawa. One of the permanent displays there is the Rideau Street Convent Chapel, an actual chapel reconstructed in the Gallery. Even for a non-believer - meaning me - a visit to the chapel can be moving. When I entered - Suzanne had gone on ahead - an elderly lady and someone I took to be her daughter were just leaving. I smiled at them both and the older lady caught my eye. Her face lit up, she said hello, and she took my hand. I asked her how she was, we smiled at each other, exchanged a few more words, and then she went on her way, leaning on the arm of her companion. She obviously thought I was someone she knew, or had known once. But I didn't know her; I had never seen her before. The incident, which lasted only seconds, took me back to the film.

Janice Kennedy again:

Most of us will grow old, and some of us, through no fault of our own, will be altered beyond recognition. The miraculous thing is, that doesn't change our value or who we have been. As the film intimates, real failure occurs when others lose sight of the person, the whole person, behind the dimmed eyes.

It's a good thought to hold on to. And worth revisiting from time to time.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lone Elm and Old Buzzards

I span three centuries. Odd, but true. My father, born in the 19th century, was 51 years old when I was born. He was 70 when I married and my husband’s father was 74. I’ve welcomed grandchildren into the 21st century and loved the life I lived in my own 20th century, and am continuing to live now. Having a foot in three centuries gives one a peculiar insight into different eras. My parents had opinions on about any subject. It’s a great tool for a writer to be able to understand how paralyzed people once were by class, status, and culture.

Once, in a women’s studies class, the teacher was puzzled by a newly married couple mentioned in the course work who did not have intercourse for several months. The instructor wondered why. I knew! An aunt of mine wouldn’t let my uncle touch her for three months for fear a premature baby might result. A seven months baby would imply that she had been unchaste before the wedding. It was all about protecting one’s reputation. Thank heaven, my mother severely disapproved of such nonsense. But my three-century background provided a dynamic framework for the women’s studies class. I felt like a living encyclopedia.

No one from my parents’ generation is alive, but when they were, it was even more difficult to explain my children and grandchildren to old folks, than to make their codes of behavior seem reasonable to the youngsters. Why it was simply not done for ladies to wear white shoes before Memorial Day or after Labor Day?

Last week I read Donis Casey’s wonderful first mystery, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and was immediately reminded of my childhood hometown, Lone Elm, Kansas. Donis did a pitch perfect job of evoking the prohibition era in Oklahoma. Her seamless, lively plot somehow conveyed historical details with never a hint of sleep-inducing research.

Donis included some old recipes at the end. I checked them for accuracy and found them all to be flawless except the buttermilk biscuit recipe which needed  ¼ tsp. of baking soda. (Yes it does, Donis. Do NOT sass me) And it’s been a long, long time since I’ve thought about a hot water pie crust.

Since the Lottie Albright series is both contemporary and historical, one of my hardest tasks is integrating plots and intersecting motivation.

When I was half-way through Old Buzzard, my friend, and native Kansan, Max Yoho, sent pictures of his and wife, Carol’s, recent trip through Lone Elm. There were 90 people living there when I was a girl. My sister kept a list and crossed souls off when they went to their reward. I’m inserting a sad image of what remains of this once thriving community which eventually died out after horseless carriages came into their own and someone finally did something about the county roads.

I was born after the Great Depression, so escaped the profound fear of poverty that dogs so many of that era. My generation has other ghosts. Anyone remember how to build a bomb shelter?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Immortal Dollars…Um, I mean, Characters

The crime fiction community has, of course, always been obsessed with death. It is after all part of what we do—in our stories, the greater the risk, the better we can view humanity. However, death in the publishing industry seems to be a different matter.

When Robert B. Parker, one of my favorite writers, passed away a couple years back, I was selfishly saddened, realizing I could no longer look forward the annual spring arrival of the latest Spenser novel.

Until now, that is. Walking through the mystery section of my local Barnes and Noble recently, I was astonished to see that Spenser lives on. Jeez, I always knew Spenser never aged, that he was tougher than a bag full of hammers; but this shocked even me—one of his most loyal fans: the character managed to inexplicably escape death when his creator had not. That’s beyond tough. It’s immortal.

A wonderful aspect of being a published writer is that one’s books outlive their author, allowing one to leave a written legacy. I’ve often thought about my grandchildren’s grandchildren perhaps reading my dribble. But that was naïve. I mean, not only can the books live on, but the character can, too—if they’re worth enough money.

And, truth be told, I don’t much like that.

“I don’t want someone else writing my character when I’m dead,” said award-winning crime novelist Reed Farrel Coleman last week from the confines of my couch. “It’s about money for the estate,” he said.

Money? Not characters?

Silly me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What’s in a name?

Barbara here. Yesterday I spent my writing time beset by names. Character names, that is. How to pick them, how to tell them apart, how to make them enrich character. It’s more important that one might think. How many times have you read a book with a Peter, Paul, Penny and Pam. Janet and James, or a dozen variations on Mac? These are errors that a writer, or the editor, should catch before the book goes to print If reader have to spend time flipping pages to figure out whether Peter or Paul was the wife’s lover, then the writer has lost them from the story.

When I’m writing the first draft, I don’t worry about such things. I just pluck a name from my imagination that seems to suit the character, and I’m off. Due to the miracle of “Find and replace”, I can switch all the Peters to Edwards in a few clicks of the mouse if need be. The only trick is to be on guard for partial names, possessives or nicknames that the search function might miss. The computer has no brains, unfortunately. It will change all the Peters, but not the Petes or even the Peter’s. But if you’re not vigilant, it will created the phrase ‘edwarded out’.

Once the creative first draft is done, however, and my whole cast of characters has been developed, I need to make sure the names all work. The first step is to create what I call the Vicki Cameron chart, after my friend and fellow Ladies Killing Circle author. Take a blank page, divide it into two columns and list the letters of the alphabet down the left-hand side. Then enter all the character names into the chart, first names in the left column, surnames in the right. The repetitions and gaping holes are visible at a glance. Also visible is the pattern of names. Are most of them one syllable? Do several have similar sounds, rhythms or endings which might be hard to differentiate?

Next comes the chopping block, where names get replaced by others. I usually leave my main characters’ names alone, since they have already been carefully chosen to suit not only the personality, but also the ethnicity, age and sometimes geographical origin of the character. Besides, they have become old friends, and a name change is difficult. I once met a reader who said to me, “I never guessed that XXX was the murderer!” I remember thinking “Who the devil is XXX?” I had changed the villain’s name at the last minute.

Secondary and tertiary names are fair game, however. I keep my chart in front of me as I switch that third L name for a G name that sounds fine too. Always keeping in mind the age and ethnic origin of the character, as well as how smoothly the first and last name fit. The sound or image of a name plays a huge role. Personalities are captured quickly in a name. Is it fanciful and melodic, or stubby and utilitarian? Bud conjures up a different image than Nigel. I might give a nasty character an ugly name, or contrarily a lovely, sweet name. I consult the internet for the proper ethnic names, using a simple Google search. There are websites that list popular baby names by decade, helping to find just the right name for a woman born in 1950, for example.

I set my books in Canada, but even within Canada there are regional differences in names. Newfoundlanders, for example, can not only recognize whether a surname is an “island name”, but they may want to know if the person is a Petley Mills or a Shoal Harbour Mills. Canada 411 (or the phone books in the library) is the perfect source for regional names. I just look up the town, enter the first couple of letters I’d like to use (if I’m filling in a gap on that alphabet chart, for example), and browse through the names that come up.

That’s what I’m trying to do right now. Trying to find the right name for my young RCMP corporal, who’s a good Ukrainian farm boy from the prairies. Anthony Bidulka comes to mind, but I think it’s been done.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What to leave out

I’d like to go back to John’s blog posting of last Thursday (See “Using a Cleaver to Create”) because it’s taken up a lot of my “thought-time” this past week.

I did leave a comment to his fine post addressing my feeling that perhaps Patterson’s cleaver swings a bit too freely, positing that the writer might possibly become annoyingly relentless in his prose in his quest for pushing the action to the max. I do believe there’s a middle ground that is still valuable and warranted where a bit of descriptive back-story or relaxation of the pace can supply the reader with breather from all the action. The Patterson novels I’ve read (two, I believe, and no, I can’t recall the names, nor much about the story lines – in itself a telling point) did proceed at a stinkingly fast pace. They were fun reads – but then I have to admit that I also enjoyed reading The DaVinci Code, despite its obvious writing flaws. With both Patterson and Brown, when I got to the final page and caught my breath, I wondered why I had been so pulled along by the story that I just had to finish the book. My state of mind made me think of eating too much of something, and as you begin to feel sick, asking yourself why you’d done it.

It’s a great trick to pull a reader along with that kind of force, but is it great, memorable writing?

Nearly every writer I’ve ever spoken with has struggled with overwriting. John is correct when he says that a lot of times it is due to the writer’s ego. I mean, we’ve got to face it: we love to talk and most of us think we’re good at it, or we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. That being said, I try very hard to find a balance between action and description, intense forward plot motion and more introspective bits. I also treat them as two very separate sections and try very hard never to mix them. My goal is to have two thirds to three quarters of my novels action with the remainder of the story being more descriptive/introspective – but always with a mind to amplifying my characters’ personalities and motivations.

Now if the proof is in the pudding – in this case, sales – and I can’t begin to hold a candle to someone like James Patterson. So who am I to say anything against him? For my answer, look at the paragraph above this one. Sometimes we can’t keep our big mouths shut!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Read it, become it

Humankind has always loved stories, ever since, as Kipling put it, ' 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre.' Now a psychologist at Toronto University, Professor Keith Oakley, claims to have experimental proof that stories shape the personalities of their readers.Brain scans show that while a subject is reading, the experiences and emotions of the protagonists are mirrored in such a way that the brain responds as it does to genuine actions and reactions.There seem to be some good effects. One group, which read Chekhov's “The Lady with the Dog” – the story of a guilt-ridden adulterous affair – was much more empathetic than the controls who were presented with the bare facts. And the greater the artistry of the writer, apparently, the greater the effect on the personality.We are what we repeatedly do. Aristotle pointed that out, and so did Anna Leonowens when she sang 'I whistle a happy tune' in The King and I. It looks as if we're now going to have to accept 'read it, become it' as well – which might make us a lot fussier about our reading matter!I know the books I read, and reread, as a child had a huge influence in shaping my world view: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women (though I confess to secretly having a shameful sympathy for Amy) and a wonderful book called Andries by American author Hilda van Stockum (any other fans out there?)I don't doubt, either, that it's been by reading books that I've gained insight into the way people with an experience of life and outlook which is very different from mine feel and think But 'read it, become it'? What does that say about writing crime novels? Beware of monsters, Nietzsche warned. 'If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.'Professor Oakley does have words of comfort, though. 'If you enter the fictional world the reader is going to develop in their own way; it will correspond to their views of right and wrong. One can't legislate against people who read John Fowles's The Collector and decide they're going to abduct someone.'It sounds a bit like the defence for hypnosis. And I do begin to wonder if my diet of crime novels has had a major effect on my personality. Perhaps you'd have to ask my family!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Blinking Dazedly at the Light

Greetings, Ladies and Gentlemen. Donis here. I did not expect to be here today. I expected to be sitting in my husband's hospital room following the surgery he was supposed to have had on the 20th. However, said surgery was delayed at the last minute, which as anyone who has ever had extensive dealings with the U.S. medical establishment knows, is not all that unusual an occurrence. He is supposed to be rescheduled one of these first days, so I still have that experience to look forward to. In the meantime, I find myself unexpectedly thrust back into regular life, looking around in confusion and blinking dazedly at the light. Somehow I must get my head back into writing mode during this interim.

One of my fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors, Dennis Palumbo, not only writes smashing thrillers, he’s also a psychologist working in Hollywood, CA. Many of his clients are in the entertainment industry, naturally, which is job security if I ever heard of it. On top of working as a full time therapist and knocking out novels in his spare time, Dennis also writes a blog entitled “Hollywood on the Couch; The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA”, for the online edition of Psychology Today magazine. A month or so ago he wrote an entry entitled “Envy”.

Isn’t it funny how things pop up in your life just when you need them? Just a day or two previous to reading Dennis' article, I wrote these words to a friend of mine: “I read what other authors are doing with their careers and am overcome with bitter envy.”

Not necessarily because so many other writers are so much more successful than I — that doesn’t bother me as much as you’d think. Many years ago I had a friend who could not stand the success of others. Not schadenfreude, exactly. She didn’t wish them ill, but she didn’t want them to be richer/happier/more talented than she. Even in my callow youth I never thought that happiness was a finite commodity in the universe. I like to think that good fortune begets more good fortune in the world.

What I envy is other people’s ability to work in spite of obstacles in their lives. I envy their time to promote and travel, their discipline and work ethic. My perception is that other people are better able to cope with the difficulties of their lives than I. They seem to be able to concentrate after a traumatic day, to carve out time to work in spite of all the picayune things they have to deal with during the course of a day. Why can’t I do that? Why can't I just power through?

Even as I write this I see how damaging such an attitude is. In his article, Dennis says, “only by investigating what envy means to us can we risk acknowledging it. The plain fact is, it’s just a feeling, like other feelings—which means it’s simply information, data about what’s going on inside of us.”

I’ve known for years that emotions good and bad come and go like the tide, and the best way to get through is to feel them and let them go if you can. They will go, eventually, without effort on your part. Judging yourself for feeling bad, or nursing your hurts and fears, only makes the pain last longer.

One of my favorite quotes by Sholem Asch is: “To dream of the person you would like to be is to waste the person you are.”

Read Dennis Palumbo’s article on surviving envy at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hollywood-the-couch/201112/envy

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Using a Cleaver to Create

Reading a 2006 Time feature on James Patterson, this week I discovered a fascinating passage:

His evolution into James Patterson, The Man Who Only Writes Best Sellers, had yet to be fulfilled. First came the creation of the Patterson style, which dispenses with any flowery bits or extraneous details. A typical Patterson novel might have 150 chapters, but each one is just two or three pages long. His paragraphs are short too, often just one or two sentences. It’s an approach that emphasizes action over style and pace over everything. “It was a little bit of an accident,” he says. “I was writing a book called Midnight Club, and I’d done about 100 pages, and I was planning to really flesh them out. And I read the 100 pages, and I said, There’s something interesting here. And that’s where I went to just leaving a lot of stuff out.” (March 12, 2006, “James Patterson: The Man Who Can’t Miss” by Lev Grossman)

A few weeks back, I wrote of Elmore Leonard’s rules, including #10: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Like most writers, my craft is my obsession. I am constantly assessing what I do and how I do it, always with the intention of producing better fiction. And, at 41, I feel like I am just coming into my own (hell, in baseball years, I’d be no older than 27!).

This brings me back to the Patterson quote above. We all over-write. And we do so for two reasons. One is innocent, an effort to help our readers. It’s a confidence issue by which we wonder if we have said what we intended to say. Self-doubt creeps in, and drives us to say whatever it was again, only differently. The second reason is not so innocent. Ego drives it. And I raise my hand and step forward here. It is very simple, actually. Because no other writer in history has ever described something the way you have done so (and you know what I’m talking about here—something compelling or absolutely crucial to your plot, like the color of wallpaper) you are compelled to do so. No, actually, your description of the wallpaper is so brilliant you are bound by artistic duty to share your genius. So you leave the yellow flowers on the wallpaper in your scene.

As I said, this isn’t about pointing fingers. This is about confessing my sins. For instance, right now, I’m looking at a manuscript I wrote five years ago. I started reading it the other day, sat back, and asked myself how I could make it more cinematic. The result has been adding dialogue and cutting narration and detail (and I mean two-handed swings with a machete). It’s an interesting process and one of realization. I’ve always prided myself on eliminating what doesn’t need to be there. But this is different. Now I’m challenging myself to tell the vast majority of the story through dialogue, which creates space for the reader to climb into my text and move around in there, playing a part in my telling of the story.

Hemingway said, “Be willing to kill your darlings.” A lot of my darlings have been lopped off, staggered, and fell face down and crumpled in my wastebasket. But I’m left with a better story.
In other news, Reed Farrel Coleman visited this week. I taught his novel Innocent Monster in my mystery literature elective. My students had great questions, and Reed had fascinating answers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Computer vs. The Yellow Pad

Agatha Christie had her notebooks — somewhere in the realm of 73 handwritten volumes filled with character ideas, random plot points and storylines. Elmore Leonard is rumored to order a year’s supply of canary yellow pads at a time. But I had never considered writing a first draft in longhand until I broke my right hand last November in a car accident.

I used to be a diehard computer fiend who regarded the laborious process of writing longhand with scorn. But, with the deadline for my new book looming this coming April, I knew I couldn’t wait until I was able to type properly again to make a start. Fortunately, I am left-handed. (By the way, this post has taken me quite some time to write because my right thumb and forefinger refuse to move across the keyboard).

On January 1 (a new year resolution) I dug out my old Waterman fountain pen and, armed with a few yellow pads and a large bowl of M & M’s, I got cracking.

1. When I write straight onto the computer I’m more likely to spend hours rewriting, self-editing, overwriting, censoring, copying and pasting paragraphs until they are perfect. I waste time.

2. I type much faster than I write so that when I am typing, it's easier for my typing to catch up to my thoughts and then I stop and repeat all of point 1.

3. When I write with a pen (and it must be a fountain pen) and pad (it must be yellow), I can never write as fast as the thoughts come. Maybe it’s a trick of the mind but since the thoughts just keep coming I find myself in the “flow.”

4. Another bonus is that if I'm uncertain about something, I can scribble a couple of alternate versions in the margin and just keep on going. This means that when I can finally type it up, I will be able to decide on the best version, maybe return to an original idea that I’d forgotten about. With typing you can change words in seconds but you can't recover your first ideas.

5. I like the freedom of being able to scribble symbols, use post-its and draw connections in the margins. Typing is linear and for me, seems to constrain my thinking.

And of course, there is the satisfaction of picking up a pile of yellow pages of scrawl, clipped inserts and post-its that equals a very, very rough first draft.

Roy Peter Clark in his excellent book Help! For Writers maintains that, “Yellow paper announces to the critic, internal or external…. Step back!

On the computer screen even preliminary drafts can be deceptive with that finished, professional look. Sure, it looks neat and tidy but it’s great at disguising all kinds of muddles. Today I am looking at my grim 126 yellow pages of terrible handwriting (but 126!!!). I know exactly what they are — messy pages in need of serious work.

But I have something to work with and that makes me feel as if I am making real progress.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ah! The writer’s life…

Last week was just glorious for me. The skies? Cloudy. The weather? Yucky mid-January stuff. Finances? End of the holidays sticker shock as the bills flooded in. And clients not paying their bills.

Why so happy? I spent the entire week going over the edit for The Fallen One, and I was in seventh heaven.

I know a lot of authors who really hate doing this kind of thing. I can see their point, but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I really enjoy the process. Having someone else’s opinion, and that someone actually wielding a big stick (“What do you mean you reject everything in our edit?” says the editor-in-chief. “I'm going to have to speak with the publisher about this!”) leads me to sharpen my wits and really look at what might be wrong with my deathless prose.

This time out, I was working with a new editor, and that led me to some anxious moments before I received his work and got a chance to look it over. Since I write with musical themes as backgrounds in my novel, it’s nice to have someone who knows about this. My current editor really doesn’t know much about music, but I think he “got” a lot of what I was trying to do. Some of his notes questioned musical things in the story, and he and I looked at it as a chance to educate him a bit. But it also allowed me a glimpse at what a lot of readers might struggle with, as well. That proved to be very useful because I used his puzzlement or confusion to clarify what I had written in order to solve this potential problem. Let’s face it: if someone knows little about the opera world – or is somewhat afraid of it – it’s my job to help them get past that and bring them into my story. I can’t do that if they don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

I also felt he had a pretty good grasp of who my protagonist was, how she was put together and how she would respond to situations the plot throws at her. That led him to some inconsistencies in the story and with possible solutions to rectify the situation. For that I’ll be eternally grateful.

Another interesting facet this time out was that I hadn’t looked at my ms in over a year. This allowed me to view my prose with wide-open, observant and more critical eyes. And what a story that told – sometimes embarrassingly so. Still, there was one step forward from similar exercises in the past: no sentences in the ms were cringe-worthy – just the odd phrase here and there.

By the time I got to the end, everything seemed to be falling well into place. Now, Matt Baker, my editor, might not feel the same way when he reads over what I want to do, but even if we need to have a “discussion” about this, and I lose on certain points, I have a lot more confidence in this book than I did with some of my past novels.

Usually, I’m very much up in the air at this stage, wondering whether a book is “good enough”. I have just lost all perspective on it. For The Fallen One, I think I may have a winner.

Let’s hope the reviewers feel the same.

Regardless, I wanted last week to never end.

And by the way – thanks, Matt!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Etymologically Speaking

We in the word-slinging business know that the pitfalls of writing are many and various. Arguably, writing historical fiction has more pitfalls than the contemporary sort. It’s one thing to look around one and record what one sees and then put it down on paper (or on screen), and in a readable fashion, and quite another to metaphorically look around at things as they were fifty or a hundred years ago. The complexity of the challenge increases, I believe, the farther back one goes.

My Inspector Stride novels are set – thus far – in 1947. (The next one will be partly set in 1933.) For those who have been paying attention, that was two years after the end of the Second World War, and two years before the nominally independent country of Newfoundland voted to join up with Canada as that nation’s tenth province. Or, as it is usually written, the Tenth Province, the capital letters giving the territory of Newfoundland and Labrador a little added significance. For the arithmetically-challenged, that was 65 years ago. A long time, indeed, and much has changed, physically and linguistically. It makes for a sometimes tricky business, getting the language right. (To complicate matters, Newfoundland has a dialect all its own, even boasting a weighty tome known as the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.) The differences can be subtle, but nonetheless embarrassing for the author when a reader picks him up on an error. And that has happened often enough with me. Happily, though, more often in the editing phase than post-publication.

One of the downsides of this historical burden is that when one becomes even somewhat familiar with changes in the language, as well as changes in the physical surroundings, one becomes annoyed at mistakes other people make. On the other hand it can also be a kind of semi-sadistic fun, affording no end of Aha! moments while watching a film, a TV program (which I almost never do), or reading a book. As an example, about a year ago I started reading a mystery novel from a highly-rated Brit writer and found so many historical errors in the first chapter related to the time period (around World War Two) that I gave up in despair. I simply couldn’t go on. I can’t remember the writer’s name, but I know he’s way more successful than I will ever be. Just isn’t fair!

The trait is also, I have found, transferable. Just now, my partner and I are watching The Borgias, the very good series with Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander. The series opens in 1492, the same year that Columbus blundered into North America on his supposed journey to the Orient. In the first episode, Irons-Alexander makes reference to the number of Cardinals he might need for his election as Pope as being a ‘baker’s dozen’. Suzanne, who prior to her association with me would not have paid any attention to such things, wondered aloud if the term had been in use back then. As indeed it had not. Baker’s dozen, meaning one over the mark at thirteen, didn’t come into the English language until a hundred years later, in the 1590s. (And might never have been used at all in Italian.)

But, etymological errors aside, The Borgias is good entertainment value, although not for the squeamish. They were a murderous and bloody lot, those supposedly pious folk in Rome (and elsewhere in Italy), towards the end of the fifteenth century. Watch an episode or two, and you might start to think that the late Hitchens was bang-on about the toxic effects of religion after all. At the very least it was a highly competitive game the religious leaders of the era played in their scarlet robes, all the time mouthing pieties about God and the Catholic Church.

At a time like now, when I am trying to be inclusive and erudite about etymological and other errors in books and films, I find myself wishing I had kept careful notes of all the errors I have picked up on over the years. So I am thrown back on a faulty memory, but even at that a few come to mind. In the very good Paul Newman film, Hombre, from 1967, the sheriff of the small town worries aloud to his ladyfriend that his life could easily be cut short by some ‘punk’ with a gun looking to make a name for himself. The film is set in the waning years of the 19th century, when stagecoaches still crossed the landscape; the word ‘punk’, however, was not in use in that context until 1917. But then the novel, and the screenplay, for Hombre were penned by Elmore Leonard, whose temporal territory is much more modern than that of the Old West.

Would that I could be even fractionally as successful as Mr. Leonard, even with an embarrassing etymological error or two!

In 2006 I attended the Left Coast Crime gathering in Bristol, and enjoyed a session on historical fiction. One of the speakers, an historian of note, took huge (and rather devilish) pleasure in quoting a line from Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, from 1991. When Robin and his pal, played by Morgan Freeman, land on England’s southern shore, Costner-Robin intones that “Tonight we shall dine in Sherwood Forest.” Well, not bloody likely. Sherwood is more than 100 miles to the north, there were no roads to speak of, and the then heavily forested landscape was full of thieves and brigands. They might not have made it to Sherwood at all, not ever.

With all of this in mind, I have to be careful of what I describe and what I have my Inspector Stride say and do. He cannot come home after a hard day’s slogging on behalf of the Newfoundland Constabulary, pick up the phone and dial his girlfriend-of-the-moment’s telephone number. Newfoundland did not get a direct-dial telephone system until 1948. He would not, while driving around the city in his spiffy MG pay close attention to the traffic lights; there were none back then. And he certainly would not have flopped on his sofa (more commonly known as a ‘chesterfield’ back then) and turned on the TV. Televisions did not appear in Newfoundland until the mid-fifties.

But here a necessary caution. Sometimes supposed historical reality catches one out. Years ago, watching the old David Niven film Raffles, from 1939, on late-night TV – remember ‘The Late Show’ from all those long years ago? – I was astonished to see in one of the scenes a television set playing in the background. Of course I had to check it out; and discovered that the BBC – affectionately known as Auntie – had a limited TV service in the early 1930s. The coronation in 1937 of George VI was actually televised by the BBC. Yes, that’s George VI, the second Windsor son who was baptised Albert Frederick Arthur George, brother of Edward VIII who abdicated to marry his American commoner. You will remember George VI as the chappie in last year’s surprise film hit, The King’s Speech. For which role Colin Firth was awarded a well-deserved Oscar.

And in closing, for anyone who has concerns about words and phrases, here’s the internet link to the online etymology dictionary:

Happy hunting! And happier historical writing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

YA Events: Unconventional Thinking.

Today, Type M welcomes back one of its charter members, the redoubtable Charles Benoit. Known for his wit, charm, and grace under fire, Charles has (hopefully) temporarily left the crime writing field for the greener pastures of Young Adult writing. This doesn't mean the fine balance of tension and humor has gone out of his writing – far from it! Welcome back, Charles!

Yesterday I was one of the authors participating in the first ever Young Adult Book Festival in Keller, Texas, fittingly called YAK Fest. A grand time was had by all.*

When I was writing adult mysteries (i.e., mysteries aimed at adult readers as opposed to pornographic mysteries, which may just be the Next Big Thing), I attended a lot of mystery conventions. Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Bloody Words, Malice Domestic, Magna Cum Murder, Sleuthfest, Noircon—I did them all, and most of them several times. Since shifting my focus to young adult novels, I’ve had the opportunity to attend several YA conventions, and it goes without saying that they are very different events, but maybe not in the way you’d think.

The Weekend — People start registering at Mystery Conventions on Thursday mornings and stick around till the end of happy hour on Sunday. This is great since you get to spend time with fans and fellow authors. A lot of time. And since you paid the money to get there and you have the hotel booked for 4 days, you make sure you’re out there, getting the most bang for your booking. YA events, however, are one Saturday from 9 am to 5pm. And that’s it. There’s usually an author dinner on Friday night and sometimes a Breakfast With The Authors event for students who won some academic prize or wrote an essay or who are on the High Honor Roll. But the whole thing is over in one day. But don’t worry, you’ll still see everyone, just not as much.

Panel Discussions — Every Mystery convention I’ve attended has had the same format – one-shot panel discussions that forces attendees to pick This Talk over That Talk. It’s a great format for ensuring the greatest number of authors get at least one panel discussion, and for drawing enough authors to make the convention irresistible to ticket buyers. But every author knows that there are some time slots you want and some you don’t, and we’ve all experienced the same feeling of looking at the program for the first time and discovering that your only slot is 6:45 Sunday morning, or it’s opposite the interview with Michael Connelly (who is being joined that time only by Meg Abbott, Sue Grafton, Lee Child and, back from the dead, Raymond Chandler). At YA conferences, they invite a handful of authors – yesterday there were just 12 of us – and you do the same panel three times in a row. Attendees get to hear every author, and authors get to talk to every attendee. Sure, you’re answering the same questions with the same panelists, but that’s not all that different than what we experience at Mystery Conventions. I always found myself on same Around-The-World panels with the same authors, the only thing changing was the clever title the organizers would give the panel. (My favorite was Frequent Liars: Authors Who Are Going Places). Attend three conventions in a year and you experience the same type of panel as a YA author, just stretched out over weeks instead of hours.

The Audience — At Mystery Conventions, attendees get to meet authors they never met before and authors get one, 45-minute opportunity to sell themselves. That’s kindda true for YA events, but I’ve been surprised at the number of students who show up who have already read the books and want to grill the authors on very specific plot points. They don’t give anything away—they’re surprisingly savvy on that point – but if they disagreed with what you had a character do or say, you are going to hear it. I like it, but I will admit that it’s strange to have to defend your work to a 15-year old, who remembers what you wrote better than you do.

The Bar — We’re talking about teens and pre-teens here, so there are obviously no fan/author drink fests (and if there are, I’d prefer not being invited, thank you). However, authors are authors, so rest assured, quotas are being met.

The Tab – Am I a bad person for saying that I love the fact that every YA event I have attended has paid for all of my expenses? Okay, not the bar tab, but everything else. I know that some authors at mystery conventions enjoy this perk and I don’t begrudge them the privilege since they are obviously worth it, but it had never happened for me. I suppose they can do this since YA events (which are always free to all attendees) have spent a year or more raising funds or securing corporate sponsorship. Plus, like I said, they only invite a handful of authors. What I do know is that it’s great – so when the organizers of YAK Fest asked if I’d mind showing up three days early and speaking (for free) in schools around the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, I didn’t hesitate. I’ve included a few pictures from those talks, which were held 5 or 6 times a day. In 3 days I think I spoke to 1,000 kids, one of who may someday buy my book.

So to review, YA events differ from Mystery Conventions in time, structure, audiences and costs. Yes, I miss the mystery world and will come back to the fold eventually. It’s all part of my plan. You see, in a few years my YA readers will be older and will be attending mystery conventions. I’m hoping they’ll remember me, say hello, especially at the bar, where after pretending to say no, I’ll let them buy me a drink.

*Full disclosure – I’m writing this piece in the bar at the Marriott in Westlake, Texas, the night before the event.

A Brief Benoit Bio: His first YA was YOU, published by HarperCollins in 2010. It got the starred review treatment from PW and it’s been described as YA Noir. His new one, Fall From Grace, comes out in May 2012. That one is being billed as a YA Romantic Comedy Caper Novel with a Noir Twist. See? I’m still writing crime novels.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dreaded Synopsis

Earlier this week I was notified that my sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, has been scheduled for publication in October, 2012. I still have some rewriting to do, and a few weeks before I must have the perfected manuscript in. I have already received the multipage author questionnaire many presses ask their authors to fill out with detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review. Most of this information I can gather and send in later. However, the minute the book was placed on the publisher's schedule, she sent me the following note:

I need the following items as soon as humanly possible.
1. A subtitle/series title
2. A 250 word summary.
3. A brief bio, and I mean brief.
4. An author photo with credit line.
5. Cover suggestions.

One and three through five are a piece of cake, but that second one is a killer, as anyone who as ever tried to summarize a novel can attest. How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, education and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it. Some may even enjoy it, but I find it painful. Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have.

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years: I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost. Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry. Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence. In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause. This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

Practice makes perfect, too. For my fifth book, Crying Blood, it only took me five drafts to reach the mark. Draft 1 - 663 wds. Draft 2 - 535 wds. Draft 3 - 450 wds. Draft 4 - 353. Draft 5 - 256 wds.

I've just begun working on the summary for The Wrong Hill to Die On, but this time I've started out with a mere 353 words. Maybe it'll only take four drafts this time. Wish me luck.

Friday, January 13, 2012

January Junkie

I’m a January Junkie. A hopeless addict. Against all reason, I feel a mysterious surge of optimistic energy this time of year. The sort of “irrational exuberance” that Alan Greenspan once warned about before the disastrous market crash.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in Kansas all my life and the state is the epitome of “next year” country. We truly believe that “next year’s” crops will be abundant, operating notes will be paid off at the bank, prices will hold steady, rain will come at the right time, and bankers will smile on farming ventures.

Capital will flow in abundance and the Chiefs will win the super bowl.

In fact, publishing and writing is the ideal venue for Kansas farmers who stray beyond their humble beginnings. I love New York and the entire publishing industry. It’s the East Coast counterpart for Kansas’s hype and hope. Editors and publishers, believe that “next year’s” list will be the winner, that a magical book will fly over the transom, or a book that enchanted the whole house (including the bean-counters) will be equally respected by the literary critics. At the very least, the book will garner a Pulitzer.

It can happen! It does happen every year for scattered wheat farmers and publishing houses. A crop emerges, rains come, and the price holds. Books come out of nowhere that the public loves. Who knew? For despite all the effort put forth by the Big Six publishing conglomerates, not all books can be hyped onto the best-seller list. There are some best-selling authors who have dominated the lists forever and ever. But every year there is a wild card book sold by word of mouth.

Perhaps next year will be your year. Perhaps the novel you’ve always wanted to write will sell beyond your wildest expectations. Crops don’t grow unless they are planted. Books can’t sell until they are written.

It can happen to you. Against all odds, someone’s wheat crop and someone’s book emerges, finds the sun, and makes it to the harvest every year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How characters can set up your writing for a fall

I am currently reviewing and fixing next autumn’s* offering from me, The Fallen One, and in looking at the ms with very fresh eyes (the last time I’d even thought about this story was nearly a year ago), I am pleased with how orderly and organized the plot seems to be. Then I began to consider why this happens to be for this particular story, especially in comparison to some other novels I’ve written.

My conclusion is that it’s a reflection of the novel’s protagonist. She’s very organized and orderly. Marta Hendriks is an opera singer, and at the story’s opening, it’s at once made clear that she’s also very self-sufficient at her core. That’s how the novel get its impetus: she’s thrown into a series of situations where this basic and important part of her personality doesn’t work. She doesn’t deal well at all with turmoil. The plot throws major turmoil at her and she’s forced to react to it. For her, making “sense of it all” is of paramount importance to her psychological well-being. Without this, the plot could not move forward effectively.

But what if a writer creates characters who are quirky, unpredictable, and well, difficult?

I did this with two novels that share the same character, violinist Victoria Morgan: The Lark Ascending and Cemetery of the Nameless. While the finished products turned out just fine, thank you, I don’t remember writing these novels very fondly. There were dead ends, false starts, whole scenes that were a complete waste of time to write. Why? Because Victoria Morgan is a flake. She’s one of those musicians who is incredibly brilliant musically, but a complete disaster personally. She lives for the moment, has little foresight and never considers consequences. Basically, she just reacts to life. Her husband is left to pick up the pieces.

Was it any wonder that her scenes in both novels never went the way I imagined they should? Thank heavens the other protagonist was the opposite. When he took center stage, I could relax and let the plot unfold in an orderly fashion. In Tory’s chapters I was always on edge, waiting for the next outburst that would take my story careening right off the sheet of paper and heaven knew where.

That’s the danger, I posit, when writers create quirky characters. If they’re going to be true to who they are, and therefore believable, they’re going to have to do unexpected and quirky things. As writers, we have to be ready to deal with that. We must be ready for them to run riot through our story. We will be forced to clean up after them.

With that thought, I’ll close by saying that I’m glad I’m not Elmore Leonard. Although, that being said, I think I may be up for another challenge. Life isn’t as vibrant when it always runs to expectation...

* Due to the novel’s title, I do believe I’m going to be using this word a lot in 2012!

Monday, January 09, 2012

New Year

As the last of the Christmas decorations go back in their boxes, I send greetings from Scotland for 2012. A guid New Year, and lang may your lum reek!Translation, for those not totally au fait with the Scottish vernacular: for 'guid' read 'good', for 'lang' read 'long', and though 'lum' is a chimney and 'reek' means smoke, it's not an unfriendly wish that you may be cursed with a smoking chimney. A more romantic nation might phrase it, 'May the fire in your hearth long burn.' But maybe I should just have said, 'A' the best, pal,' – the greeting of every maudlin drunk in Glasgow on Old Year's Night.Unlike Rick, I'm not very good at making New Year resolutions. Could it be because, after a Scottish Hogmanay, January 1st is always too fuzzy round the edges for stern, clear-sighted promises of personal reformation? However, it is an old Scottish tradition that before the new year comes in, the house must be cleaned from top to bottom, with all the rubbish and clutter thrown out, so inspired by Rick I’ve thought of a few cleaning-up resolutions of my own. 1. I won't play more than three games of Solitaire to get me started in the morning. Or maybe four.2. I won't count replying to emails towards the hours I describe as writing time.3. I won't use phrases like 'she chuckled' or 'he groaned' when I mean 'she/he said.'4. I won't let myself be distracted from the plot of the book I'm reading by rearranging sentences into the form I would think they should be if I was writing it.5. I won't let being a cynical old hack, with far too many years of professional writing behind me, blunt the excitement that bubbled up when I sat down to write way back when I started. I plan to model myself on the elderly lady who was getting on so well with the little girl she was talking to that the child, puzzled, said, 'Are you very, very young too?' To which her friend replied, 'Yes, dear, I am, but I've been very, very young for a very, very long time.'I'll let you know how I get on!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Year in the Life

Aline here. Some time ago, Peter May invited me to do a guest blog on Type M – with very happy consequences – and now it gives me great pleasure to return the compliment. When he left, the first book in his Lewis trilogy was just starting to take off and since then, as he'll tell you himself, it’s gone like a rocket.

We met years ago doing a panel in the tiny village of Wigtown in Galloway, now Scotland's vibrant official Book Town. It was a momentous time for us both: Peter was leaving Scotland the very next day to live in France, and I was inspired by the beautiful countryside to choose it as the setting for my DI Marjory Fleming series.

Welcome back to Type M, Peter, and I’m looking forward to seeing you on Monday at the Edinburgh launch of The Lewis Man, the second in the trilogy.

When Aline first asked me to be her guest blogger for today, it came as something of a shock to realise that it had been a whole year since I had left the TM4M blogging team to focus on the promotion of my new book and the writing of its successor.

So first off, let me say how good it feels to be back among old friends!

And let me tell you – what a helluva year it’s been!

Most of you who followed my blogs for Type M will know something of the publication history of The Blackhouse – how it was rejected by all the major publishing houses in the UK before being snapped up by my French publisher who sold it all around Europe. They then sold it as part of a three-book deal to a dynamic new London publisher called Quercus, who were the UK publishers of the year in 2011.

Well, The Blackhouse was finally published in English a year ago, and went straight into the top twenty hardback bestsellers list in the UK. Meantime, having already won a literary prize at the Le Havre crime writing festival in France, it was then shortlisted for one of the biggest readers’ prizes in the world – the French Cezam literary award. Ten books from around Europe are selected for this shortlist, and are then read and voted on by more than 3,500 readers in adjudicated groups all over France.

That nomination obliged me to travel widely around the country to talk to these groups about the book, and about my writing in general. I was also busy writing the third book in what is now called “The Lewis Trilogy” (The Blackhouse being the first). In hotel rooms and trains I spent countless hours tapping on the keyboard of my laptop, criss-crossing France – from Brittany to Paris, and from Lyon to Nantes.

I was also getting in training for research for that book, which would take me in June into the mountains of south-west Lewis – the furthest north-west you can go in Europe. This entailed getting sturdy walking boots a waterproof jacket, and tramping up hill and down dale to try to get myself fit.

In the event, nothing could prepare me for the appalling weather conditions that battered me on my arrival on the Isle of Lewis. Winds gusting to 100 kph carried rain and hail stinging into my face as I hiked through some of the most rugged, desolate and inaccessible wilderness in Scotland.

Returning, exhausted but satisfied, to France, I learned that The Blackhouse had been selected as one of eight books for the Richard & Judy Autumn Book Club – which is the UK equivalent of being chosen by Oprah Winfrey. But this book club has the added advantage of being sponsored by WH Smith, which is the biggest book retailer in Britain.

I had to take a pause in my writing to head off to London at the end of August to do a TV interview with Richard and Judy. This coincided with the paperback publication of The Blackhouse. It shot straight into the top ten. In all, it spent nearly three months in the top thirty, and sold more than 100,000 copies. And because it turned out to be the bestselling book of the R&J autumn selection, it received its own extended display in all 1000 WH Smith retail outlets after Christmas and is still selling like hotcakes.

As if all this wasn’t heady enough, I learned in September that I had won the Cezam prize. This entailed attending a national prizegiving at an amphitheatre in Strasbourg in mid-October, before embarking on a two month tour of France to collect twenty-one regional prizes.

And for those of you in the States wondering when you will ever get the chance to read The Blackhouse, the good news is that the trilogy has been bought by one of the biggest publishing houses in America, and The Blackhouse will make its first US appearance in September, with an initial hardback print run of more than 50,000 copies.

As I sit here writing this, the second book in the trilogy, The Lewis Man, is a day away from publication. My publisher tells me that advance sales already guarantee its status as a bestseller, and if the first reviews are anything to go by, it looks set to surpass the success of its predecessor.

Quercus even commissioned a very glossy book trailer produced by a big name pop video maker. I think it’s fantastic! You can view it here:

Even as I stop to try to draw breath, I have learned that The Lewis Man (already out in France) has been shortlisted for a literary prize awarded by the readers of the French daily newspaper, Le Télégramme. And so it all begins again!

But what of the writing. It’s easy to forget amid this maelstrom that, in the end, the writing is what it’s all about. Well, I have completed the third book in the trilogy, and just signed a new three-book contract, but I have to confess to a deep melancholy.

My sadness comes from saying goodbye to the characters I have lived with 24/7 during these last few years. Characters who have been with me through the ups and the downs, from the despair of rejection to the elation of success. Characters whose lives I have lived with them, people as real to me as my family and friends.

And yet, as I wrote the last few words of that final book, I knew that I would never see them again. The sense of loss is almost as great as the grief you feel with the death of a loved one, or the loss of a lover, and I have to admit to sitting at my computer, weeping unashamedly as I closed the final chapter.

I guess the only consolation is that new friends await me. I have no idea yet who they are, but I know that together we will have a roller-coaster few years ahead of us.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Brain Drift

Donis thinking, here. I may have mentioned that I finished the first draft of a book a few weeks ago. Consequently I have become brain dead. This had happened to me every time. I despair of ever being able to write another word. After a period of time, though, I feel the machinery beginning to turn again. Ideas start to float up from the depths, rather like the cryptic messages in one of those old Eight-balls. They don't seem to have anything to do with anything at first, but then they begin to cohere like a string of DNA. Eventually, if all goes as it has before, some sort of literary creature will take form, stand up, and walk.

And I'm off again.

When I was in college, I was a crammer. I never studied much for tests until a day or two before, then I'd study until my eyes fell out. I'd never recommend this process to anyone, though it seemed to work all right for me. Even at the time, I was aware that in order for cramming to work, I had to have a literal change of consciousness, and become almost hyper- aware. When I look back on it, I think it was just a matter of paying close attention.

When the writing-muscles start to engage again, it feels to me like the same process. I become hyper-aware of what is going on around me, of what other people are saying, of what is in the news, of the weather, but especially of what I'm thinking. Most of the time, my thoughts float around in my head like fluffy little clouds that I pay no attention to, but when I'm in this state, I stare at them until I find interesting shapes.

This is how it works for me: (I'm not making this up. I sat in a restaurant and wrote my thoughts down.) I see a little girl cross the room coloring. She's left-handed. I notice she has on red cowboy boots. I start noticing the footwear of the other people in the room. A lot of women have pointy-toed shoes. Carrie on "Sex in the City" wore incredibly expensive, uncomfortable shoes. Manolo Bialiks. Manolo is an interesting name. It corresponds to Manuel. We don't have a corresponding English name. Some Jewish guys are named Manny. My brother-in-law's name is Gary, but everyone in the family calls him "Man", because he was such a little man when he was a kid. My husband Don told me that he and Man to throw raw eggs at fence posts when they were kids. That would be a great scene in a book.

And Bob's your uncle.

I would love to hear about other writers' processes. I imagine everyone's mind works the same, but writers just know how to make sense of their seemingly senseless thoughts.

Friday, January 06, 2012

The World At 7 AM

Frankie here. As Rick pointed out earlier this week, now is the time to make resolutions. By inclination and body clock, I am a night person. I get more done between 9 PM and 2 AM than I do during the rest of the day, Or, at least, that’s what I have been telling myself for years. But, is it true?

Maybe not. When I'm at school, I'm certainly working during the day. I do manage to prepare for my classes, read and grade papers, and meet with students.

Maybe what I've meant was that I'm a more productive writer in the evening and early morning. Yes, I did finish the last revisions of my new book at around 2:30 AM a couple of days ago. And I felt terrific, not even tired.

But later that morning, when I wanted to send the revised manuscript off to my editor, it took me until afternoon to crawl out of bed, wake up, and get to my computer. By then, much of the day was gone, and so I got a late start on the article that I’m working on. And last night, I repeated the cycle. That explains why my post today is late.

Those of you who are fellow night owls are probably nodding right about now. You've been there, done that. But like me, you probably do have to get up early (for us) at least three or four times a weeks. All week if your day job doesn't allow for flexible hours. We get up and we make it where we have to be. But we do it grumbling, daring anyone to speak to us, answering questions in monosyllables, with brain at half-mast. And we sigh with relief when we make it through the morning and get our energy surge as all those larks are winding down. Problem is, when we're ready to go, other folks are ready to call it a day.

Occasionally, a couple of times a month, I have insomnia. I can't sleep, and so I'm awake when dawn comes. The world at 7 AM is a different place. That is, it's a different place when you're a night owl and decide to actually see if you can get outside and enjoy the morning air and wave to your neighbors (not to say that such exertions don't require coming back and falling into bed). But what I'm speaking of here is trying to embrace the experience.

This year, I resolve that I will experiment with going to bed early and getting up with good will.

I want to see if doing something else would work better. This does not commit me to changing forever. For example, right now, I’m into my second day of not snacking on popcorn every evening. Sounds like a small thing, but I have a serious popcorn addiction that goes along with being up late at night. I also have been reminding myself to take five minute exercise breaks when I'm sitting at the computer for hours. I may have to set a timer to remind myself to get up and move. But this is a part of my larger plan. I want to see if cutting out late night snacking and getting more exercise will make it easier for me to get to bed by midnight and fall asleep.

Will these efforts make me a more productive and/or better writer? I don’t know. But I’m going to see if Ben Franklin was right. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a [writer] healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

I’ll let you know what happens.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Kindle Discussion Groups

This past week, I went looking for an answer to a simple academic question (which many Type M readers might be able to help me with as well; if so, please pipe in): Can anyone offer names of female police procedural authors?

I was searching for writers to add to my mystery literature course, and I was amazed at how many helpful and insightful the responses I received from the Kindle Mystery Forum. Some authors I had read and enjoyed, but many, many I have not. This information was helpful and much appreciated.

And a little unexpected.

Not that I doubt the knowledge of Kindle users. In fact, as a huge fan of my Kindle app and as a cheapskate who starts most days with a quick skim of the “daily Kindle deals,” I have long professed on this blog that I think the e-book is the future, that the print book may well go the way of collector-item status. But I’d never before thought of my Kindle in terms of its community of users. I’ve always thought of my Kindle as the device on which I can read and spend money. What I did not know, however, was how many well-read people are joining those groups. (My cyber world view has been limited to the glorious-but-narrow scope of our beloved Type M for Murder blog and its much-appreciated readership.)

Like my mother always told me, There’s a whole world out there. I just never knew she was talking about a not-so-distant cyber galaxy.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Keeping those brain cells hopping

Barbara here, posting late because I neglected to enter my posting dates on my 2012 calendar. What a slave we are to these things. As I gallop towards old age, I’m not sure I’ll remember my name in ten years’ time, let alone all my appointments and commitments.

This was going to be yet another post about resolutions, but first let’s get this memory thing out of the way, because they’re connected. When I worked full time as a child psychologist, I traveled to about ten schools, interacted with hundreds of different people, had to remember hundreds of names, deadlines, meetings and details that could easily overload a computer, let alone a middle-aged brain. At the same time I raised three children, all of them with numerous appointments, soccer, ballet, music lessons, etc.

I managed all this, after a fashion, using an extremely full daily planner, which I carried in my purse and checked at least four times a day to see where I was supposed to be next, what was upcoming, who I had to phone, and so on. All of this was very good for my brain, if not my blood pressure. Now that my children are grown and I write full-time, I still keep a day planner, but two problems arise. First, I forget to write things in it, and second, I forget to check it even if I do. Without the pressure of outside deadlines and obligations, I drift along happily in a timeless void, spending hours researching for my book, or lost in the characters and story of that book, or even browsing the web in a random fashion as I flit from one interesting writer link to another. I forget what day it is; indeed I would forget the outside world for hours if the dogs didn’t insist on a walk or a meal.

My father, who taught philosophy at McGill and was the quintessential absent-minded professor, used to keep a little black agenda book. When he retired from teaching, he spent much of his day in his book-lined study in a cloud of pipe smoke, reading, writing and critiquing fellow philosophers. This is about as other-worldly as it gets. I remember being astonished when I happened upon his black book and it contained a to-do list for the day which included “brush teeth”. I am not at that stage yet, but the future looms.

I like to think that creative writing itself, especially plotting mysteries, exercises the brain and thus should stave off my dotage, but the truth is I think we all need structure, deadlines and outside pressures. I do impose structure – write at least one scene a day – and I do have deadlines, albeit far away (May 31 for the submission of the next Inspector Green manuscript, for example). Outside pressures include book clubs, talks, conferences, and other writer commitments. But I think I need a few more New Year resolutions to help me get out of my writer’s cocoon more regularly. I resolve to work towards my younger dog’s therapy dog qualifications so we can volunteer as a therapy dog team. I resolve to take a fitness class. I resolve to see my friends and entertain more often.

And I resolve to write it all down in my day planner so I don’t forget.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

I hereby resolve...

This is the time of year for resolutions. I am one who is certainly not immune to the lure of doing this, and I suspect that almost everyone is, as well. As a new year approaches we all take stock of where we are, who we are and where we’d like to be in a year’s time. I believe it’s a good thing to do, too. There is always room for improvement, isn’t there?

So as my wife and I drove down to the Niagara Region of Ontario this past Saturday, that was what was on my mind. I was also contemplating the resolutions of 2011 on which I’d completely failed. You see, I actually do keep a list of my resolutions, removing the excuse that I’d forgotten some of them over the course of the year.

Sadly, there were once again failures. There always are, always will be, I suspect. I hadn’t gotten my weight to budge, even a tiny bit, in a downward trend (that’s a creative use of italics back there, folks). I didn’t spend at least two hours a day writing, either. I did manage to reorganize our kitchen (I do most of the cooking in our house) and keep the dirty dishes to a twenty-four hour limit the majority of the time. And I learned how to properly sharpen our knives.

I also accomplished something else that is potentially very important to the running of my life and whose tendrils could possibly permeate everything I do over the course of this year. Last January first I decided that every morning when I wake up, I will decide to do something small – and make sure when I go to bed that evening that I have accomplished my task. It may be something like cleaning the aquariums or trimming the hedge, filing invoices and receipts, writing a letter. The only stipulation of my choice is that it’s very doable regardless of how busy I get that day.

This precludes writing from that list. The only reason I don’t write two hours every day is that my day job as a graphic designer gets in the way. Since I own a one-man shop, everything devolves onto its only employee: me. Too often in 2011 Castlefield Media had too much on the go. If I didn’t slave into the evening, the day’s efforts left me too exhausted creatively to do any sort of useful work on my writing projects. It’s great to be so busy with work that brings in your daily bread, but it’s also exceptionally discouraging when you get to the end of yet another day where you haven’t exercised those writing muscles.

So what are my resolutions for 2012? Well, I AM going to lose some weight (come back next year at this time to see how I did on that one), I am going to repaint our bedroom and replace all the trim. Our pots and pans will all be hanging from a ceiling-mounted rack, freeing up space where they’re stored now for the small appliances that litter our counters. Those are the big jobs.

For small things, I’m going to continue my daily walks – another success from two years ago, sadly neglected too often in 2011. I’m going to practice every day on some instrument or other for at least a half-hour, and I’m going to continue with my one small daily task.

The really important resolution is to spend two hours a day writing, even if I’m tired, even if I write a week’s worth of drivel, even if I don’t come up with anything useful at all – and not be discouraged by my results. That’s the path to complete stasis and something I really suffered from in 2011: discouragement at my writing progress.

With a new novel coming out next fall (and being toastmaster of Bloody Words 2012), I have a lot to look forward to and the pressure is on to finish the novel’s sequel. I don’t want to wait another four years for a something to be published.

Like all resolutions, it ultimately comes down to how strong our resolve is.

Monday, January 02, 2012

October Echoes in December

The Christmas season is now comfortably behind us. And a very good thing, I can hear some people say. While at the same time other voices intone, ‘We can hardly wait until next year’. I am probably somewhere in between. Christmas does have its pleasures.

This past Christmas, my partner Suzanne and I journeyed from Ottawa to Montreal for a Christmas-Eve midday dinner with members of her extended family. The dinner was hosted by her cousin and his wife at their home on Redpath Crescent on Mount Royal. Their home, purchased some five years ago, was in October 1970, the residence of the British Trade Commissioner James Cross. On October 5, 1970, Cross was kidnapped from his residence by two members of the FLQ, the Front de Libération du Québec. Ultimately, Cross was held captive for two months; he was finally released on December 3.

The kidnapping of Cross set in motion what has become known in Canada as the October Crisis. The events of that tumultuous time have been written about extensively in the forty years since. The CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – produced a two-hour documentary, Black October, in 2000. More recently, an eight-part miniseries, October 1970, was released in October of 2006.

One book that I have read on the crisis is The Revolution Script, by Brian Moore. Moore was a very good writer with an admirable collection of novels to his credit. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Moore became a Canadian citizen, and eventually moved to California. He died in 1999. Although Moore eventually “disowned” the book – it’s sometimes described as a foray into the kind of “non-fiction novel” made popular by Truman Capote of In Cold Blood fame – my memory of it is that it explained the events very well, and also placed them in a meaningful historical context. I am unaware of any other fiction writer, Canadian or non-Canadian, who had managed to do that.

On October 10th, just five days after the Cross kidnapping, members of the FLQ’s Chenier Cell kidnapped the Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre LaPorte. Unlike Cross, LaPorte would not survive his kidnapping: on October 17th, he was murdered by his captors. His body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car abandoned near the Saint Hubert airport. He had been strangled to death.

The day before LaPorte’s body was found, the Premier of Quebec formally requested that the Government of Canada grant the Quebec government emergency powers to “apprehend and keep in custody” individuals believed to be associated with the two kidnappings. This request resulted in the implementation of Canada’s War Measures Act; the legislation permitted the suspension of habeas corpus and gave the police wide-reaching powers of arrest. The powers thus granted were eventually found to have been abused by the police in Quebec. It was reported that 497 people were arrested; only 62 were eventually charged with an offence, and of that number, only 32 were charged with crimes serious enough for them to have been refused bail.

It was the only peacetime use of the War Measures Act in Canadian history. Although there was widespread support in Canada, generally, and also in Quebec, for the imposition of the legislation, there were many who criticised the decision. Among those speaking against the imposition were two prominent English-speaking politicians, Robert Stanfield and Tommy Douglas – respectively, leaders of the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties in the Federal Parliament – and René Lévesque, a prominent journalist-turned-politician in Quebec who would, in 1976, lead the first (of several) sovereigntist (or separatist) governments in that province. Lévesque eventually led two provincial governments in Quebec, but never – obviously – managed to separate Quebec from Canada. He resigned as leader of the Parti Québécois in 1985.

The various perpetrators of the October Crisis were dealt with by the authorities, although in what might seem rather odd ways. The murderers of Pierre LaPorte eventually were tried and convicted, and served time in prison, being sentenced to twenty years and paroled after seven. The five known kidnappers of James Cross were apprehended, but under a deal negotiated with the provincial and federal governments, they were given safe passage to Cuba in a Canadian Forces aircraft. All eventually returned to Canada, but three of them lived in France for a time. Several served prison sentences in Canada for their role in the kidnapping. All are free today, and most are working in Quebec in various fields, notably in communications.

On a personal note, I was living in Ottawa when the October Crisis hit. I was politically naïve at the time, but I do have one explicit memory of the event. In October of that year – as an employee of the federal Department of Agriculture – I went to Montreal to attend some meetings. I travelled by train. While I was waiting to board, I looked back along the platform and saw the (then) Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jean Chrétien, striding briskly in my direction with a soldier by his side holding an automatic rifle at the ready. Chrétien, by the way, had advised Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act, using the phrase “act now, explain later”.

Jean Chrétien would have his own Quebec-separation “October crisis” years later, in 1995, when he had been Canada’s Prime Minister for two years. A referendum on separation in Quebec that October was only narrowly defeated: 50.58% of Quebecers voted “No” and 49.42% voted “Yes”.

Canadians have been living with the possibility – or threat – of Quebec’s separation for going on 40 years now. In the aftermath of the last Canadian federal election in May of 2011, it’s tempting to think that the issue might finally be in its death throes. In that pivotal election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority of seats in Parliament – 166 out of 308 seats – although with only 39.62% of the popular vote. The bigger news was the huge increase in the number of seats for the New Democratic Party, going from 36 seats to 103, and winning an amazing 59 seats in Quebec, where previously they held only one. The NDP’s gains were mostly at the expense of the dominant Quebec party, the Bloc Québécois, which went from 47 seats to only 4; even their previously popular leader was defeated. Also, a new Quebec political party has been formed and a major plank in its platform is that the sovereignty-separation question will be put on the “back burner” for at least ten years. As I write, the party’s leader is more popular in the province than the current Premier or Leader of the Opposition.

Is it possible that Canada will have an extended period of peace and quiet on the Quebec sovereignty front? One can hope.

And, with that fond and fervent hope, I wish everyone a Very Happy 2012.