Sunday, April 29, 2012

The importance of the setting

I’m just starting a new book, the eighth in my DI Marjory Fleming series and I’d been finding it hard to feel my way into it. When you’ve just signed off the book you've been writing for a year – plump with maturity, refined and polished, approved by your editor and ready to fly – your fledgling idea for the next one seems a poor, scrawny, puny little thing like one of those sad little birds you see fallen out of the nest.

So I did what I usually do when I'm feeling like this: I went down to Galloway in south-west Scotland where the series is set.

It's a very beautiful area, with dramatic seascapes, lochs, forests, soft rolling hills under big skies and the sort of little towns which have ceased to exist in the more easily accessible parts of Scotland, where people still ‘go for the messages’ (do the shopping) in a high street which still features a butcher’s, a baker’s and a greengrocer’s instead of  an impersonal supermarket.

It’s not a romantic idyll, though.  It’s only two hours from Glasgow which is one of the murder capitals of Europe and  it has a ferryport to Ireland so police have an ant-terrorist brief.   Rural poverty is very real and particularly during this vicious recession there is serious unemployment along with the sort of crime that arises from it, so there’s no shortage of ideas for the deeds of darkness that are the crime-writer’s stock-in-trade.

That’s not the kind of inspiration I was looking for, though. What I needed was to find the home for my story, identify the places where the events I was planning would unfold – though perhaps I should use the word ‘recognise’ instead of ‘find’.   I stood on the shores of a loch by the remains of an Iron Age settlement, I looked out over the mudflats of the River Solway at low tide and watched a stormy sunset, I felt the peace of a ruined abbey with its glorious vaulted Chapter House and knew I had got what I came for. Though I'm home now, it’s all real to me once again and I can feel the frisson that tells me the naked fledgling is growing its feathers.  Just the hard slog ahead now!

Oh, and a postscript to a previous blog where I mentioned my hundred-year-old uncle's birthday party. The next day his son went round to see how he was after such a long and tiring day. He was out at another party. Way to go!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Go forth, young grasshopper

As a writer, you get a lot of advice about how to write but not so much about being a writer. If you do get advice, it’s mostly about what you should do. Write everyday. Read. Make writing a priority. Edit. Revise. Repeat. Read some more. Network. Attend conferences. Read. Write.

How about what not to do?

 Let’s skip the foreplay and get right to it.

The Don’ts:

1. Don’t ask an author to read your manuscript.

 2. Don’t expect not to suck.

3. Don’t think getting published won’t cost you time or money.

Screenwriter Josh Olson covered much of this in his viral screed No, I will not read your fucking script. Here’s my take on the subject.

Don’t Number One. 
Don’t ever send this email:

Dear author: You are my favorite writer. I love your work. (So far, so good. We writers are frail creatures and soak up the flattery) Your latest book, OMG! I creamed my panties, it was that freakin’ awesome!!! (Now my bullshit meter is starting to ping) I would love, love, LOVE if you could read my manuscript. It’s urban fantasy like yours, only about a unicorn vampire with self-image issues who must stop the evil underworld overlord only to fall for a rogue mage on a quest...blah, blah, blah...

The problem? To begin, I’m annoyed because 1) you sucked up to me big time and 2) you say you’re a fan and have put me in the position of telling you to get lost. You’ve asked me to take eight-twelve hours out of my life for you, a stranger, and what do I get out of it? Karma points? Try paying the rent with those. And it’s not that I enjoy being an asshole. Imagine if you’re a dentist and people came up to you and said, “Hey dentist, I love your work. You don’t know me but that’s okay because you can do this root canal with gold fillings for free and in return, you’ll have my undying gratitude.”

This advice continues after you’ve been published. Authors are swamped with stuff to read--books to blurb, judging contests, manuscripts from friends and critique partners, their own work--so don’t think you’re doing any writer an honor by handing them your steaming pile of words. If a writer is interested in your work, they’ll buy a copy. (Hurray! Royalties!)

Don’t Number Two. 
Don’t think it won’t take a long time to not suck as a writer.

When I first got published, I was eager to share my mote of knowledge with the writing community (karma points in spades), and I learned several lessons. Those people who ask for a manuscript read usually don’t have a clue about how much work it takes to succeed as a writer. To put it more bluntly: their writing sucked big time. What they wanted was for me to tell them how great their writing was. I’ve volunteered twice to serve as a writing mentor and the wanna be writers latched onto me like barnacles, convinced I had nothing better to do with my time than obsess about their stories. Plus they thought I had my hand on the levers and valves that control the publishing industry. If I was any kind of a chum, a true pal, a decent human being, I’d pick up the telephone and demand that my agent immediately sign them and for my editor to offer a seven-figure deal. Ha! If I had that power, why would I use it on anyone but me?

So how do you get your manuscript read? Let’s move on to:

Don’t Number Three.
Don’t think getting published ain’t gonna cost time and money. Probably a lot of both.

The easiest way to get your manuscript read is to pay someone for it, a writing coach or an editor-for-hire. You can expect to shell out anywhere from two bucks a page from the cheapest and on up. So a 400-page manuscript is going to set you back around a grand, maybe more. It’s not easy being on either side of that transaction. Too many beginning writers assume that because they’ve completed a book-length manuscript, they’re in. They expect nothing but praise. However, to repeat the refrain--they suck.

It’s not any easier for your hired reader, a professional who can tell within twenty pages what the problems are with the manuscript and that they won’t improve as the story grinds on. The comments in a nutshell: You suck. You suck some more. You continue to suck.

You, the poor wanna be feels taken. You forked over a house payment just to be told your story is one ugly baby that deserves to be tied in a burlap bag, dumped in the river, and forgotten.

So you’ve admitted that you have a writing problem. Now what?

Assuming that you haven’t given up, the next question is: How do I get my manuscript read without paying for the disgrace of getting continuously depantsed? It’s called paying your dues. Sweat equity. Join a writers group. A critique group. Beta-readers. A tribe of like-minded writers who Kurt Vonnegut referred to as ink-stained wretches. It’ll take time, expect years, to hone your craft and get close to figuring out what writing is all about. You’ll also learn to live with anxiety, because we all (and especially our writing) fall short of the Glory of God.

Down the line, you may feel the need to hire an editor, and that’s okay. I know of NYT bestsellers who get a professional read--but that’s to address story problems, not to fix rookie mistakes--before they turn in the manuscript to their publisher’s editor. In this case, the money spent is an investment, not cash flushed down the toilet.

So heed these words, young grasshopper. Go forth and not suck!

An Evening at the Edgars

 Frankie here with my Friday post, up a little early.

I had a front-table seat this evening when our own Hannah Dennison was among the presenters at the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards. Hannah was the chair of the “Best TV Teleplay For A Series” category. Our own John Corrigan also was on that committee.

The Grand Master Award went to Martha Grimes, author of the Inspector Richard Jury series, who was delightful in person. Her two young grandsons – her “agents” – were there and stood to take a bow.

Sandra Brown, this year’s President of MWA, was the emcee for the awards ceremony. She looked smashing and was funny and charming. As a fellow Southerner, I especially enjoy her accent.

The winners of the various book, short story, TV, and play awards were joyful, stunned, and/or speechless. But they all managed to convey what an honor it was to be the one in their category of talented writers to take home an Edgar (a bust of Edgar Allan Poe). The list of winners went out from MWA immediately after the banquet. 

One of the two winners of a Raven Award was M is For Mystery Bookstore in San Mateo, CA. I happened to be seated beside Ed Kaufman, the proprietor of that bookstore. After he retired from his career as a lawyer, he followed his second passion and opened a bookstore. The other Raven recipient was Molly Weston, who has hosted many a visiting mystery writer to North Carolina and is the editor of inSinc, the Sisters in Crime quarterly.

I should say more, including telling you how much I enjoyed chatting with the people at my table and seeing old friends. But I have an early morning train to catch. I’m on my way to Malice Domestic, and I need to be off to bed.

This is my favorite week of the mystery year. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

All I have....

John here. It's been a crazy week, one during which I have struggled to get my writing done, let alone my blogging. Sorry I don't have more for you, but I will share this photo of a Connecticut sunset I took and get back to my novel.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Putting Life Into Perspective

I'm often asked: "What do you read at night?"

It depends on where I am in my writing process. Right now, I'm so immersed in this last stage of my manuscript that I can't focus on any other plot except my own. This is the only time I read biographies.

Perhaps, because I'm suffering from the usual self-doubt and fear that what I have written is utter rubbish – I find solace from reading about people who have passed on. I find it tends to put life in perspective – a case of "for heaven's sakes, get over yourself, Hannah! In fifty years time none of this will matter!"

For my birthday, my mother sent me Wild Mary – A Life of Mary Wesley  by Patrick Marnham. Mary Wesley published her very first novel when she was 70 years old. She went on to write a further nine bestsellers, including the legendary The Camomile Lawn until she died at age 84. Mary caused a huge stink in her family because it was widely accepted that her scandalous novels were based on her life – and believe me, it was a fascinating one.

As writers, of course we all draw from our own experiences, too. Included in the Introductory pages of the book was a quote from Evelyn Waugh writing after the success of his second novel, Vile Bodies. Here is a snippet:

"There must be a connection of some kind between a writer's work and his life. His knowledge of the world is limited by his experience ... a writer who has never been seriously in love cannot make his characters seem so ... But here the connection ends. Novel writing is a highly skilled and laborious trade ... One has for one's raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smoldering rubbish-heap of experience ... until one finds a few discarded valuables. Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them."

And for those of us who write about murder we must weave that in as well!

A few months ago a friend of mine suggested I create a "project grid." I always have tons of ideas in my head about stories I'm going to tell one day, but in the act of writing it down, I realized that I would be dead before I even got halfway through. Mary Wesley was said to write in a "tearing hurry, acutely aware that there was little time left" for her.

Perhaps that's another reason why I enjoy reading biographies. It makes me take stock of my own mortality and roll up my sleeves and get cracking.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Stirring up bad memories

Tom’s excellent post from yesterday is certainly one that should make us all stop and really think. He comes from the same place I do: murder is not something to be taken lightly. I am profoundly uncomfortable with the taking of human life and I want my readers to feel the same thing. Can you imagine how you would actually feel to stumble onto the scene of a murder? I don’t know how accurate my portrayal of murder actually is. My writing may be wildly off the mark. I have a good imagination, but it may not be good enough. I want to know that it's accurate, but at the same time, I never want to find out for sure.

Regardless of how we portray the taking of a life in our books, we are all fascinated with it. So are our readers. Is it an example of the ghoulish interest of those who slow way down to view a car accident? Or is it something else?

I still hold a very vivid memory of being on the outskirts of Ottawa in 1974. Devotion, the band I formed after university, was on its way to a gig, all six of us crammed into a car on a Sunday afternoon. We ran into a bit of a traffic slow down. As we crept closer to its cause, we noticed a number of people out of their cars. A car had hit a tree right next to a cemetery of all things. It must have just happened because no emergency vehicles had as yet arrived (this being long before instantaneous contact via cell phones). As we slowly drove alongside the vehicle, we could see the driver clearly impaled on the steering column, obviously dead. Pretty shocking, no? It was traumatic for me because this is exactly the way my dad died ten years earlier. But that’s not what burned this experience into my psyche. Stopped alongside because of the traffic, I watched as a father lifted up his small child so he could get a closeup view of the end of someone’s life. I nearly vomited. You can imagine how well I played later that evening.

My thoughts occasionally turn back in the direction of that small child. What possessed his father to do that? But more importantly, what was the effect on the child? Did the experience have a profoundly change who this person became in later years? Barbara is the psychologist in our group. Perhaps she has some thoughts. I can’t make a conjecture. Perhaps it did nothing. Perhaps it did everything.

Then another part of me kicks in, the writer part. It’s not hard to imagine taking this wee person and turning them into a character in a novel. The thought repels me, because I was there. I saw it happen. But there is also that little tickle in the back of my mind that I might someday use my memory.

And that’s one of the things that makes us crime writers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Murder Most Foul

I will start this post with an admission of faulty memory; I had thought the phrase "Murder most foul" came from Shakespeare's Macbeth. It's actually from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V, where the Melancholy Dane converses with the ghost of his murdered father, King Hamlet – who is always called "Ghost" in the stage directions:

Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

Hamlet: Murder!

Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is; but this most foul, strange and unnatural.

You have to love the line: Murder most foul, as in the best it is. A notion, I believe, that has guided the minds, pens and keyboards of most crime writers.

I suppose I can be forgiven the slip, though. About a hundred years ago – 56 years, actually, in the spring of 1956, my final year of high school in St. John's - I participated in a stage production of Macbeth put on by the St. John's Players. I played (misplayed, really) the role of Ross, thankfully a small role that allowed me to do no real harm to the production. Memory records that my fake beard did not fall off – I was sixteen and shaving was more a fond hope than a daily ritual. Memory does record that Macbeth's beard did take a southward plunge on opening night, where it lay on the stage floor like some lifeless rodent. Memory also records that Ross was the only notable at the famous banquet scene, other than Macbeth himself, who too obviously saw Banquo's ghost rise up from under the dining table. I think it was the avalanche of ketchup on his spectral person that captured my gaze.

There is a dialogue going on now, on LinkedIn, on the whys and wherefores of writing about murder, when there are so many other, and nicer, things to write about. I cannot imagine that there is a single good answer to the question. Which question was posed at the first reading I did after my novel, Undertow, came out in December of 2002. I replied that I wrote about murder, in the context of an historical  mystery, because I was able to. I had tried writing in other genres, but without success. I never seemed to get anywhere. But when I placed the body of an American Army corporal on a street in St. John's in 1943 – there were thousands of American troops in St. John's during the Second World War – the rest of the story flowed fairly well. I had more or less found my niche, gruesome though it is.

It's still a good question, though, and seems to come up regularly at gatherings of mystery writers. But I still think it's interesting – maybe even odd – that so many apparently normal and healthy people enjoy reading about murder. There's nothing very new in that, obviously. People have been "enjoying" stories about murder for centuries; eons, almost.

Back to Shakespeare, again. His plays are full of murder and monstrous violence. (So is the Bible, I am told, but I will stay away from that.) Elizabethan audiences were at least as bloodthirsty as our current generation of readers and playgoers, perhaps even more so.They did live in violent times, after all, with Protestants and Catholics taking turns slaughtering each other in the name of their all-knowing and benevolent God.

Consider the following examples from some of Will's plays:

Unjustly accused of adultery, Desdemona is smothered to death by her jealous husband, Othello;

Emilia (Othello) is stabbed by her husband, Iago, when she reveals his role in the plot against Desdemona;

Lady Macduff is chased down and slaughtered offstage by Macbeth's henchmen, and her son is also murdered;

Hamlet stabs his stepfather Claudius with a poisoned rapier and then forces him to drink from a poisoned goblet;

A murderer hired by the evil Edmund (King Lear) hangs Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, in her cell;

Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's most blood-spattered plays; murder and mutilation abound. Towards the play's end, Titus has baked Tamora's two murdered sons into a meat pie and feeds it/them to Tamora and Saturninus; after which Titus stabs Tamora to death; and in turn is himself killed by Saturninus.

And so on.

Hamlet, as most readers will know, is one of the most gruesome of Shakespeare's plays, the stage littered with the bodies of the violently dead in the final scenes. But there is a brilliant and moving counterpoint, delivered in the farewell speech by Horatio:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

That pretty much makes up for the preceding carnage; well, almost, anyway.

All of that having been said/written, I am not entirely comfortable with murder as popular entertainment, even if I play a small part in that. Murder is a very grim business, after all. In real life, it is not easy to find much joy in it. Here in Canada, supposed land of bland, we have very recently had our morning and evening papers – and TV screens – filled to overflowing with murder trials.

Just now, we are working our grim way through the Victoria Stafford murder trial in London, Ontario. Tori Stafford was an eight-year old girl abducted from her school in Woodstock, Ontario in April, 2009. She was later repeatedly raped, and then bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer. Her body was finally disposed of in a plastic garbage bag.


The trial of one of the accused, Michael Rafferty, will go on for some time yet. His accomplice, Terri-Lynne McClintic, has already been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Last year, The Canadian news media were saturated with the trial of the murders of four women, three of them very young, in what is described as an "honour killing". What have become known as the "Shafia Family Murders" took place on June 30, 2009 in Kingston, Ontario. Three Shafia sisters, Zainab (19), Sahar (17), and Geeti (13), along with their "aunt" – actually their father's first wife – Rona Amir Mohammed (50), were found dead inside a car submerged in a lock of the Rideau Canal near Kingston.


                                                               The Victims


                                                                 The Perpetrators

The girls' parents, Mohammed Shafia and his wife Tooba Mohammed Yahya, and their son (the girls' brother), Hamed (20), were tried and each found guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. The family, who lived in Montreal but were originally from Afghanistan, had a long history of abusive incidents, with the father angry that his daughters had violated his "honour" by wanting a more independent and western-style life.

I believe we are all of us, in the writing trade, aware of the differences between our own fictional murders, and the "real thing", two examples of which are given above.

There is a passage in Undertow where I attempted to write about this. My Inspector Stride is talking with his friend, and former partner in rum-running, Jean-Louis Marchand, a French National. After a lavish dinner in Stride's flat, Marchand makes a comment on crime and justice:

"Justice is a capricious bitch. That is not a blindfold that she wears, I often think. It is really the mask of a brigand."

"Sometimes," Stride said. "Sometimes, it does seem that way."

"This case you have, Eric. A murder. Tragic, of course, but interesting for you, n'est-ce pas?"

"Yes, murder can sometimes be interesting."

"More often it is only banal and ugly," Marchand said.

And I will leave it at that.

For now.

And a P.S. to an earlier post wherein I lamented the difficulty of finding books by Paul Winterton, who wrote under three pseudonyms: Andrew Garve, Roger Bax, and Paul Somers. Browsing in a local Chapters bookstore yesterday, I came upon a collection of older mysteries, newly published under the imprint, Crime Classics. Two of Winterton's novels were included: Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax, and NoTears for Hilda by Andrew Garve. I scooped up both of them, along with a third novel, All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards, a Harry Devlin Mystery. Edwards is a writer new to me. Three books for $10.00. A "steal", really, and therefore irresistible.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What Lies Beneath

Nearly everything I write has a musical sub-text.

Funny, I didn’t notice that until a friend said asked if some of her students could interview me for a class project. She gave me a list of questions so I could give some thought in advance to my comments.  One of them was, “you always write about music—could you expand on that?”

My immediate reaction was—that is so not true. Not that there is something wrong with having music in the background of everything I write. It’s that it wasn’t so.
Then amazed, I thought about all my published work. Music anchored Come Spring. Music is a vital part of the Lottie Albright mystery series.  “The Family Rose,” a short story first published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, was republished in two anthologies—Murder to Music, and Death on the Verandah. It featured a broken down old country western singer.

Bette was right!

Years earlier, another friend had commented that all the pictures in my house (other than family pictures) were that of young girls. I hadn’t noticed. The music questions brought back that surprised reaction.
I was already aware of “the house” and the part it played in shaping my psyche. When I was four, my parents bought a farm in Lone Elm, Kansas. A magnificent three story house, part of the I.K. Reeves estate, was part of the property. It was filled with precious antiques that my parents didn’t appreciate. They tore out marble fireplaces, marble bathroom fixtures—and trashed walnut furniture.

I adored this house and my yearning for an old house--with five staircases--comes up in my work over and over again. Through the years, I’ve come to understand this is actually the yearning for childhood when adults knew what was going on and could guide children through complexity.
Did/do writers have some unconscious themes that simply come up from the deep? Do we dare trust it?

Absolutely, and I’ve decided these unconscious themes are the truest part of who we are. And it’s the only thing worth trusting. Themes can be tangible such as my love of music, my curious affinity for pictures of young girls on the verge of womanhood, or my adoration of old houses with many, many rooms.
Or themes can reflect a worldview, even if one’s outlook is somewhat sunny in the real surface world. I’m always surprised when people in positions of authority turn out to be liars and crooks and murderers. My books have heroes, and villains, by George, and folks who get their just desserts.

Nevertheless, many of my best characters are all shades of grey. I understand them a little too well. It’s distressing to know how well I understand liars and con artists and charlatans and shady ladies and…well, you get the drift.
I can spot “contrived” books. I call them “fake” books. These are produced when writers consciously set out to create a real hum-dinger. Ironically, the books never do very well. The best books rest on a good deal of psychological exposure. It’s critical to banish one’s mother, priest, principal, best friends, anyone saying “are you sure you want to write that? That’s not very nice! Why don’t you write about good people?” It’s paralyzing when these ghost look over your shoulder.

So beware, those of you who are beginning and hope to gain some insight through Type M. Beware of what lies beneath.
Be warned. Writing can stir up all kinds of muck.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is there such a thing as nonfiction?

This week, my students finished Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun (McSweeney’s Books, 2009). They loved the real-life story of hero, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who stayed behind to assist those in his New Orleans neighborhood when his family (four children and a wife) fled Hurricane Katrina.

It is a powerful and moving book, detailing the racial profiling that led to Zeitoun’s false arrest, his ensuing torture as wrongly-accused terrorist suspect, and the aftermath of the ordeal—his wife’s post-traumatic stress issues and the family’s financial woes. Eggers makes certain in his “Notes About This Book” that readers know he has done his homework by interviewing numerous people, reading widely, and noting that the book “was written with the full participation of the Zeitoun family, and reflects their view of the events.”

However, my students struggled when presented with a Feb. 4 Los Angeles Times article detailing a 2011 police report detailing the arrest of Abdulrahman Zeitoun for domestic violence. The graphic report claims that Zeitoun “began to strike her [wife Kathy] with a closed fist to the head. The oldest daughter of Mrs. Zeitoun heard her mother screaming for help, ran into the room, and struck Mr. Zeitoun in the neck with a kick forcing him off her mother. Mr. Zeitoun then fled the residence.” Zeitoun, 54, pleaded guilty to negligent harming.

My students were conflicted: How should one feel about the book after Zeitoun’s arrest? How should one feel about Zeitoun himself? How might author Dave Eggers feel about the incident? (Eggers owns McSweeney’s, and the book is no longer available from McSweeney’s in hardcover, only in paper from Vintage.) If Kathy suffered from post-traumatic stress issues, might Zeitoun have as well? How did the book’s success impact Zeitoun?

Similarly, I love Truman Capote’s ground-breaking work In Cold Blood, but the book has also led me to ask many questions about nonfiction: How much faith should I have in the author of a nonfiction work? Capote funded some of the killers’ legal expenses, essentially keeping them alive long enough to get the interviews needed to write his book. What does that say about the author?

And, finally, whose story are these? In the end, isn’t Zeitoun’s story really Eggers’s view of the man, his actions, and the events he lived through? And aren’t the events of November 15, 1959, in Holcolm, Kansas, really Truman Capote’s interpretation of them?

In the end, isn’t every story fiction?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Re-imagining Classics

I came by today’s topic from two different directions, and with very different feelings on each one. My wife and I have been having discussions about stagings of various operas we’ve seen lately, and bemoaning the fact that many of them just do not work. Case in point was the production of Rigoletto that I wrote about several months ago (sorry, I can’t put my finger on it at the moment). The one set they used was jaw-dropping, but the problem was that it didn’t work for several scenes. If one didn’t know the opera well, it would have been nearly impossible to figure out where the action was supposed to be taking place.

The issue is that stage directors and set designers always seem to want to do something fresh with these older operas. Opera lovers would yell and scream, stamping their little feet, if someone started messing around with the music, so what else is left? The staging, of course. Sometimes the results are unintentionally hilarious, like the production of Wagner’s Ring that took place in a post-apocalyptic subway. Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met this season elicited strong “boos” at its performances.

To sum up, re-imagining classics often doesn’t work. But this post has a dual-thrust as I mentioned in the opening paragraph.

My son recently loaned us discs of the new BBC re-look at Sherlock Holmes set in our current world. Called just Sherlock, stripped away are many of the trappings of the original stories and they’re replaced by some pretty thought-provoking details that Conan Doyle only slightly hinted at. The results are, in a word, brilliant.

I have to say I came to the series preparing to be thoroughly underwhelmed. After the Jeremy Brett series in the ’80s, I figured the bar had been set impossibly high. Sure the Robert Downey Jr/Jude Law movies have been entertaining, but they really aren’t anything all that special. Sherlock is.

First of all, the acting is first-rate from top to bottom, especially the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (soon to be appearing as Bilbo Baggins!). Rupert Graves is DI Greg Lestrade and the character is played as an exasperated cop whom at wit’s end is forced to call in Holmes.

Holmes is still a “consulting detective” and Watson is still an army doctor recently returned from Afghanistan (lucky, that), but they have been thoroughly “modernized”. Holmes has a website called “The Art of Detection” and Watson’s stories about Holmes appear on his blog. They Twitter, they Facebook and they text like mad, cell phones and computers are everywhere, as they should be, because Holmes would have made great use of the new media. Oh, and now Jim Moriarity is a “consulting criminal”.

And it all works! The dialogue goes like stink, is sharp and witty. The camera work is brilliant, and the whole production just cheeky enough towards The Canon that someone like me, who thinks the whole Cult of Sherlock Holmes is a bit ridiculous, can have some honest chuckles in that direction.

The first show in the series, “A Study in Pink”, had my jaw on the floor and the show went up from there. For those of us who write, the DVD set also comes with the original 60-minute pilot of the same episode shot before BBC decided they wanted 90-minute productions. It is intensely interesting to note how the script changed, the production values moved ahead, and with a different director, how the whole story was re-imagined. Both work – and work well. Why? Because someone thought about this a lot and didn’t push the concept past where it would stop working so well.

Certain opera directors and production designers should take note.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Dog Dilemma

I love dogs. I've always lived in doggy households; when I got married,we had a puppy before we had children, and when the kids came along they always claimed we loved the beagle more than we loved them. My standard reply was that when they developed a nature as sweet and uncritical as hers, we might reconsider.

It's a real sadness for me that since Lucy, the most beautiful and charming Dalmatian in the world, died at fourteen a bit over a year ago, we've decided that with regular visits to grandchildren at the other end of the country, business trips to London and quite a bit of travel too it wouldn't be fair to get another one. Anyway, I don't think I'm brave enough now to sign on for 'giving my heart to a dog to tear.'

But I can have dogs in my books. A collie named Meg is a permanent fixture in my crime series and my favourite ever email came from a reader in Toronto who had loved a greyhound character in my book Lamb to the Slaughter and on the strength of it went out and got herself a retired greyhound whom she adores. Christine, if you should happen to be reading this I'd love to know how Nike is!

Received wisdom has it that whatever violence happens in your book, readers just won't stand for you killing a dog. People seem not to care too much about happens to the unfortunate human characters, but dogs are different. Horses too; I've never forgotten a Crime Writers conference when we were shown blood-curdling images of various unpleasant ways in which humans could die and no one batted an eyelid as we all scribbled the useful technical details in our notebooks. It was only when the picture of a horse hit by a car came up that there was a stir of dismay and gasps of horror came from all round the room.

So I find myself in a dilemma. In a book I'm working on just now, there is a devil dog, perverted to be a killer by its evil owner. It is wholly dangerous and no amount of retraining could convert it into a household pet. Any future it could have would be a miserable life in a secure kennel and in any case that would hardly be a plausible outcome.

Killing it at the end is the obvious solution. For the integrity of the plot I think I will have to do it, though I dread the hate mail and the readers vowing never to read anything else I write. Not only that, I dread doing it. Yes, while I have become used to having fictional human blood on my hands, dogs really aren't the same.

Maybe I could just write a different book.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Type MYKONOS for Murder

Jeffrey Siger

We are delighted to welcome the multi-talented Jeffrey Siger as our weekend guest. The Greek Press called Jeffrey Siger's work “prophetic,” Eurocrime described him as a “very gifted American author...on a par with other American authors such as Joseph Wambaugh or Ed McBain,” and the City of San Francisco awarded him its Certificate of Honor citing that his “acclaimed books have not only explored modern Greek society and its ancient roots but have inspired political change in Greece.”  TARGET TINOS is the fourth novel in his Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series, following up on his internationally best-selling Murder in Mykonos, Assassins of Athens, and Prey on Patmos: An Aegean Prophecy.

Target Tinos (Starred PW review)

I live half the year on the Greek Aegean island of Mykonos.  The rest of the time I’m based in the greater New York City area.  Late last week I returned to Mykonos after being away for far longer than I like.  An hour or so after I landed I was sitting at table in a harbor taverna waving to passing friends and having nothing more pressing to do than contemplate my wine.  At peace, relaxed, no pressure—aside of course from finishing that new Greece-based mystery I’m working on, but that would come later; after I’d participated in all of the Easter Week festivities I’d made the centerpiece of my 2011 book, Prey on Patmos. (Greek Orthodox Easter is April 16th)

That’s just about where my head was when I decided perfect wasn’t good enough and reached for my iPhone to check for emails.  A big mistake, which I promptly compounded by opening one from my good friend and fellow Poisoned Pen Press writer, the just plain all-round terrific Charlotte Hinger.

I love whatever Charlotte writes, even emails, so I figured opening hers was a safe bet.  Little did I realize the invitation lurking within.  In her own inimitable style she let me know there would be absolutely no bad feelings if I turned down her offer to guest blog on TYPE M FOR MURDER.  Even on such short notice how could I possibly turn down that honor?  No way.  Besides, I’d just finished my Saturday blog for Murder is Everywhere and if I missed a day at the beach or a night on the town, so what—that new book research could wait. But what to write about?  No way anyone wanted to read a BSP piece on my new mystery coming out in June, the one titled TARGET: TINOS which Publishers Weekly gave a starred review and called “Superb…a winner.”  Uhh uh, I’d need another subject.

That’s when I hit upon the obvious.  TM4Mers, welcome to Easter Week on Mykonos:

Easter is by far the main event in Eastern Orthodoxy.  It is preceded by more than a week of significant religious and cultural observations.  And on Mykonos, Easter literally brings the island back to life.

In the winter, Mykonos is a sleepy island village with virtually no tourists, no business, few open bars, fewer restaurants, and no clubs.  But come Easter Week everything changes.  Red and yellow springtime poppies burst to life all over the island’s hillsides, and those and still more varieties of flowers embroider the blanket of green covering the nearby holy island of Delos.  There are Church services every day of Holy Week, as well as daily preparations for the feast to come at the end.  Breads and cookies are readied on Monday and Tuesday, baking is done on Wednesday, and eggs are dyed red on Thursday, the day Christ was put up on the Cross.

By Thursday, Mykonos is filled with mainland Greeks flocking to their vacation homes and others looking to participate in a perfect example of spiritual and temporal coexistence: Easter church rituals strictly observed during the day, followed by the island’s as nearly hallowed party traditions through the night.  But that taste of the coming mid-summer craziness is short lived, for if you don’t catch the action that weekend come by in June, because Mykonos is back in hibernation come Tuesday.
Evening services on Good Friday start at seven in the old town’s three main churches, Kiriake, Metropolis, and Panachra.  At precisely nine, each church’s clergy and worshipers leave their church in separate processions carrying their church’s epitaphios (the painted or embroidered cloth representation of Christ on a bier elaborately adorned in spring flowers and symbolizing his tomb) along a prearranged route, winding past the other two churches before ending up back at their own to complete the service.  It represents the funeral of Christ, and Mykonians and visitors line the route, some standing on balconies and sprinkling the participants below with a mixture of rose water and perfumes as used on Christ’s body when taken down from the cross.

The same three churches serve as the scene of the following night’s Holy Saturday services.  Most generally start heading off to church around ten, but for certain everyone is there by midnight.  For that is the high point of Easter, when church bells ring out across Greece and even total strangers exchange the traditional Christos Anesti and Alithos Anesti greetings that Christ has risen, kiss each other, and light each other’s candles to share the light and joy of the occasion—a light brought to Greece for just this purpose from the Holy Flame of Christ’s nativity cave in Jerusalem.  Worshipers carry the light back into their homes or their favorite restaurants, except for the hearty souls who remain in church for the balance of a service that lasts hours more into the morning.

Now it is time to challenge each other with the customary one-to-one smacking of those dyed-red eggs for good luck to the winner (mine always cracks first) and devour the traditional mayiritsa soup (made from parts of a lamb you may ask me about if you really want to know), fluffy tsoureki Easter bread, and salads to break the forty-day fast leading up to Easter.

But the big feast, the one everyone looks forward to, comes on Sunday.  That’s when all the work of the week and all the spring lambs find their purpose.  There is church, too, of course, but this day is more about celebrating with family and friends.  And eating.

Dieting—and back to work time—starts Monday.  Kalo Paska
 —Jeffrey Siger

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mystery Writing and Popular Culture

Frankie here. My apologizes for the afternoon post. I'm in Boston attending the annual meeting of the National Popular Culture and American Culture Association. This morning I presented a paper (wearing my academic hat) on dress codes in schools. Yesterday (as a guest of the Mystery & Detective Fiction area), I joined three other members of Sisters in Crime on a mystery writers panel. The PCA-ACA conference moves around the country, and wherever it's held, the Mystery & Detective Fiction area (scholars who study the genre) invite in two or three panels of local authors to talk about writing. This year, my day job and my life as a mystery writer overlapped.

But being at the PCA-ACA meeting is always a pleasure. Aside from how much fun it is for a cultural criminologist to get to hang out with scholars from an array of disciplines, this is also a wonderful place for a mystery writer to be. Yes, I get to listen to scholars deliver terrific papers on the mystery genre and attend the panels of the local authors. But I also get to be a kid in a candy store dropping into panels in areas ranging from "A" (e.g., Academics & Collegiate Culture; Advertising; American Literature; Armed Conflict; and Arthurian Legends) to "M" (e.g., Men/Men's Studies; Musicals; Stage & Film; and Mythology in Contemporary Culture) to "W" (e.g., Westerns & the West; Women's Studies; and World's Fairs & Expositions). And there are all of the letters of the alphabet in between.

So please forgive my brief post today. But I'm out of this room and back out to see what else I can find to explore and who else I can find to talk to among the attendees.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

First Cuts

This week, I was told my manuscript has made it past a publishing house’s editorial board and now sits with the publisher and marketing folks, who will decide its fate.

I am pleased by the acquiring editor's enthusiasm but also leery. The novel features a PI with esophageal cancer who is hired to look for a missing teenage boy. Hollywood isn’t exactly groping for cancer novels, and this novel, compared to my previous work, is admittedly dark. (After all, can a cancer book be uplifting?)

But moreover, I’ve been here before. A month ago, an editor told me his publisher was meeting with the marketing department, and that they were “just waiting for the official go-ahead.” That book features a female sleuth and has much more—I think—commercial potential. So I, too, figured it was formality. Of course, it wasn’t. A recent mystery series (by an author I really enjoy, in fact) has not sold well, and the press has decided to buy fewer mysteries.

All of this leads me back to why I do it. I write because I enjoy the process. Not for Hollywood. Not for commercial publishers. Certainly not for money. (Although, as Stephen King writes in “On Writing,” If you think you can ever be too skinny or too rich, you were never really fat or really poor.) I write because I like to be the first reader, to see where the book goes, and to see where I end up. And I like trying to write well.

So I’m glad to have once again made the first cut, and my fingers and toes are crossed. But now I go back to controlling what I can—writing the next book.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Help! My Plot Doesn't Work!

It’s no secret that I’ve got a deadline approaching in three weeks. It’s tax time, my day job is insanely busy and I’m finding it hard getting up at 4.30 AM every day to fit in my writing.

The finish line is in sight but I just couldn’t get past a certain scene in my book.

I have spent two weeks trying to figure out why. Last night I had a sickening epiphany.

My plot doesn’t work. It is too complicated, convoluted and just a muddle. In an attempt to be clever, I wrote myself into a corner and it’s just too confusing.

To say I’m panicking, is putting it mildly.  So what to do?

I gave it to a trusted friend who suggested taking out an entire story line. But taking out a story line is like playing Jenga. The entire structure could collapse! However, he was right.

So what should I do?  Give up or dig in? I found this handy check list and wanted to share it here: 

  • Give your m/s to a trusted friend (already did that – surprised he’s still talking to me) and be open to suggestions. They could spark new ideas.
  • Ask yourself - does your plot make sense for your book?
  • Read the entire m/s as if it belongs to someone else—preferably someone you don’t particularly like so you can really relish looking for flaws. Do not edit or make notes at this stage.
  • Read the entire m/s at least twice more and notice where your attention drifts off or you get taken out of the story.
  • Plot out the entire book again, scene by scene.  See what you can delete or add.
  • Roll up your sleeves and jump right back in, sentence by sentence, page by page.

Any other suggestions would be gratefully received!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What I’ve learned

Way back in time, 1990 to be exact, I had an epiphany while sitting on a hillside above Porlock, Somerset. My wife and I were on our first real vacation (twenty years into our lives together!): three weeks of walking, camping and sightseeing all over Great Britain. We’d bought a venison pie from the local butcher, some fruit from a greengrocer and we’d spent the morning wandering the woods above the town. Towards noon, we’d come out of the trees onto a meadow and to the west we could see the Bristol Channel opening below us. The sun was warm (as were we) and we sat there munching and taking long sips of water from our canteens. It was heaven.

There on that hillside, I realized that something was wrong with my life. I needed to find another path, something that didn’t involve teaching music to classrooms of kids, many of whom had little interest in what I was offering. That was my epiphany: my life was going in the wrong direction.

A number of months later, I was still casting about for what it was I was supposed to be doing. Almost as an afterthought, I began writing a short story about a minor league baseball team. I really enjoyed it creating it. Some friends read it and thought it was lovely. They were very kind friends. Even I could see that it was a dreadful story.

But some of the prose showed promise, so next I began a crime short story. Five months later, it was over 350 pages long. Obviously, I wasn’t cut out for short stories. Still, the writing was getting better and the plot wasn’t half bad, so I began to polish it. The result was my first novel, Knock on Wood, and I was off to the races. When it came out in 1992, self-published because I just couldn’t wait around for the molasses-slow publishing world, it was a pretty amazing day and I knew I was thoroughly and completely hooked on writing. Trouble was, I really had no idea what good writing was or how hard you had to work to perfect the craft.

Seven books and a hell of a lot of rewriting later, I’m beginning to get a handle on this writing gig – when I enjoy a good day. Having self-published two novels and then getting re-involved in graphic design (I grew up running around and helping in my dad’s photo engraving plant), I learned the production end of publishing pretty well. I can’t devote the time I’d like to the actual writing of my books because I have to help put food on the table, but I do what I can. The graphic knowledge has proven very helpful.

So I’ve been publishing novels for twenty years now and have only managed to produce eight novels. On the surface, that’s much less output than I would have expected when I started out, visions of authorial fame dancing in my head. But I’d also had delusions of rock and roll stardom as a young man, and we all know how that turned out.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned that, ultimately, you can only rely on yourself. Many people will offer help, some will actually come through for you, but you can’t depend on anyone or anything – even if the people are getting paid to help you. I’ve made that mistake and paid dearly for it. Never again.

Would I go back to self-publishing? Perhaps. It’s certainly a lot easier and cheaper now. If I had the time, I would republish as e-books the three books whose rights I control. Trouble is, I’d want to rewrite them first since all have shortcomings that need fixing. Since time for me is in such short supply: sadly, mañana.

There is a real community among crime writers, folks who will offer help and usually deliver. They’re encouraging. They understand and are willing to share the good times and bad. Many will even buy a round at the bar. I’ve made a lot of life-long friends in this game.

There are too many writers. On the surface this comment looks pretty bad, I know, but there really are too many people who are getting published who shouldn’t be. They’re not ready. Heaven knows I wasn’t ready when I self-published my first two novels. I’m sure there are some who would say that I’m still not ready and many, many times I still feel that way. When I see the number of crime fiction novels that come out every year, I just wonder how many are good. On the other hand, if someone wants to put in the time and effort to produce a novel (whether published by a third party of self-published), then I say, God bless ’em. I’m only making this statement because it makes it so difficult to get noticed. Promotion has always been difficult. Now it’s damn near impossible.

Being a good writer isn’t enough. There are a few talented (and lucky) sods who have a publisher four-square behind them from the beginning. They just write and someone else does all the promotion stuff for them. For the rest of us, there’s reality. If you want to sell books, you have to learn how to be an author (there’s a difference), a personality, someone who attracts attention and knows how to present themselves effectively. It’s difficult to do for most of us. I’m really rather shy and retiring, truth be told. I can hear the guffaws as I say that, but I learned as a struggling musician, that presentation, not talent, is most of the battle. Get good about presentation and you’re more than halfway there.

Learn as much as you can about publishing. Like any other “entertainment” business, publishing is full of BS. They have a job to do, and many in the industry find that writers only get in the way – at least that’s their perception. So they feed you a line of BS whenever they want to move the conversation on. Now my initial statement is not made so that we writers can stand our ground and call BS for what it is. I say it in the spirit of you need to understand what’s involved in publishing your book. The more you know, the more you can be a team player – even if you’re gritting your teeth while you do it. With my new publisher, I want to be seen as a source of solutions, not a source of problems. (That also doesn’t mean that I’m going to be a push-over, either.)

Keep your published books close to you when you’re writing. I know some darn good and very successful authors who have been summarily dumped by their publishers. It’s a devastating blow. I take heart in that when I’m on the receiving end of bad news. But even as you get that phone call or email, or open that letter that’s filled with gut-wrenching news, you can look up and see your novels sitting on the shelf above you (in my case). No one can take those away from you. That’s helped me carry on more than once…a lot more than once.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Only a Writer Can Make a Tree (Weekend Guest Camille Minichino)

We are delighted to welcome Camille Minichino to Type M for Murder.

Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer. She has 3 releases this spring: A re-issue of The Hydrogen Murder as an e-book; the second in the Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries, The Probability of Murder (by Ada Madison, March 6); and the sixth in the Miniature Mysteries, Mix-Up in Miniature (by Margaret Grace, April 2). Soon, every aspect of her life will be a mystery series.

Only a Writer Can Make a Tree

I celebrated Women's History Month by reviewing the lives of some of my favorite heroines. I lingered with mathematician Sophie St. Germain (1776-1831), after whom my latest protagonist, math teacher Sophie Knowles, is named. I stopped by the amazing lives of other women I admire: suffragette Harriet Tubman (1820-1913); scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934); public health nurse Margaret Sanger (1883-1966). Too many for one blog.

Flipping through a bio of pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart (b. 1897), I was struck by this quote of hers: "You haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky." My kind of girl. One who recognizes the power of technology and its role in our lives. The airplane, for example, is an extension of our ability to jump in the air, to move effortlessly higher and higher, against gravity. And what we see from there may be more astounding than what we see close-up on earth.

Fiction does the same thing for us. We invent characters, plots, and settings not simply to share our stories, but to see beyond them, to see their undersides and their shadows. As I interpret Amelia (and until we find her, she can't contradict me), the shadow is more "real" than the tree. And, in the same way, fiction can be more real than the life and the people it portrays.

In fiction we rise above the everyday world in order to understand it better and to bring others to that new view.

Can we reach such lofty goals through mysteries? I think so. We are, after all, looking at the highest of stakes, the taking of a life. We examine motives, consequences, emotional reactions, and, above all, we attempt to make sense in a world that only randomly kicks out an orderly event.

It's possible that elsewhere Amelia Earhart echoes Gertrude Stein and says "a tree is a tree is a tree," but it's too late for me. I'm holding onto her shadow quote.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Nearly Normal

Writing conferences make me feel normal. There’s something about hanging around other writers. They lay to rest my underlying perception that something about me isn’t quite right. Other people have this 1000 yard stare. Other people come up with absent-minded insipid comments that have little bearing on the conversation in progress and everything to do with. . . something. I forget what. Other people have a sort of impenetrable focus that makes spouses and children feel like they basically live alone.

When conferences overlap, I just hate it. We all are familiar with this conflict. I especially hate double binds that occur in writing. This year Bouchercon and the Western History Association conferences are on the same dates. Weighing finances is traumatic enough

The decision was easy as to which one I’ll attend. I’m committed to participating on a panel at Western History so Bouchercon is out. I’ll talk about the material used in my article for an anthology, The Harlem Renaissance in the West. My subject was on the Harlem Renaissance in Helena, Montana and Laramie, Wyoming. I sweated blood to produce this. It was my most difficult research project. So I’m looking forward to defending it. I rather like academics as they are such a scrappy lot.

One of my favorite conferences last year was Left Coast Crime. In fact, it was there, I was made into an honorary Canadian. This occurred after the 2nd or 3rd scotch at the conclusion of the conference. True, the number voting was slim and a rather boozy lot, but I was enormously flattered. And it was through this meeting that I became friends with Barbara Fradkin and other contributors to Type M.
So much written about conferences is negative. Although I’m certainly not one of the mega-best sellers who has lines forming to buy my books, there’s something about talking with other people in publishing. It’s brain fuel. It’s instructive. It’s consoling to learn that the writing isn’t super simple for other authors either.

 I’m not alone.

My first conference, years ago, was Western Writers of America. I found my agent and published my first novel as a result of going  to Santa Fe. Some of my dearest friends are members of WWA.

Now I’m making friends in the mystery field. I toyed with the thought of going to Bloody Words. My fellow Canadians convinced me their country is on a par with Kansas when it comes to wild politics and environmental challenges. Bet it’s not, but I would like to see for myself.  
Next year, I hope to make it to Canada!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Continuing the thread: my reading life

This week, I received a copy of “In Pursuit of Spenser,” a just-released collection of essays written by crime writers about the late Robert B. Parker, the man and his works. That book, coupled with the posts of Rick, Barbara, and Aline, has me thinking a lot about my reading life, past and present, and my introduction to the mystery genre.

“In Pursuit of Spenser” begins with a touching essay by Ace Atkins, who is now writing the Spenser novels on behalf of Parker’s estate. Previously I have used this venue to state my feelings about having the series continue posthumously, so you know that just doesn’t feel right to me. However, Atkins writes of discovering Spenser at a crucial time in his life, citing the character as nearly a father figure, and I respect his appreciation for Parker’s good work.

In fact, my back-story is similar to Atkins’s, and Parker’s influence on me came much in the same manner. A dyslexic, reading never came easy to me. My mother, upon my fourth-grade teacher telling her to “face it, some kids are just slow,” vehemently countered by feeding me a steady stream of reading materials she thought I would be willing to battle through—hockey magazines, sports books, and then, when I was in high school, Spenser novels. I learned how to write newspaper articles (journalism was my night job during college and my career before grad school) by reading “The Hockey News” cover to cover each week and later to write fiction by listening to Parker’s books on audiocassettes. “What a great way to study voice,” a fellow writer once said. I never saw it that way. I just loved the books and listened to several more than 10 times. Considering each unabridged audiobook takes between 10 and 15 hours to listen to (abridged audio books are, after all, worthless), for a guy whose books are written 90% by ear, this was great training. After all, Parker, it has been said, wrote better dialogue than anyone this side of Hemingway.

So where does all this leave me? As a writer who has been greatly impacted by this genre and one author, the late Parker, in particular. Although only 42, I have been at this game to have seen many different sides of the book industry, and I routinely come back to these words written by another author for whom I have tremendous respect: “You write it a day at a time,” wrote James Lee Burke for the New York Times’ Writers on Writing series, “and let God be the measure of its worth. You let the score take care of itself; and most important, you never lose faith in your vision. A real writer is driven both by obsession and a secret vanity, namely that he has a perfect vision of the truth, in the same way that the camera lens can close perfectly on a piece of the external world. If the writer does not convey that vision to someone else, his talent turns to a self-consuming bitterness.”

Will my works still be read 100 years in the future? I’m chuckling as I write that question because I teach “Hamlet,” so I know I’m not even playing for second place. Perhaps someone (maybe a relative somewhere in the future) might pick up a copy at our family camp. Yet that scenario and the questions that ensure from its consideration, it seems to me, speak more to a discussion of reading mediums (hardcover versus e-book) than it is in one of literary merit.

So I focus one why I write—because I love the process—and I am grateful to the authors, like the late Mr. Parker, who led to my passion.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Not so gently into that good night

Barbara here. Like Rick, Aline’s post on the March of the Centenarians started me thinking. Aline pointed out that many of us will live to be 100, and that scientific and technological advances will ensure a reasonable quality of life during that time, promising years of happy reading ahead. But as the memory of and desire for romance grow dim, our interests may increasingly turn from romance novels to the delicious satisfaction of murder. Music to a crime writer’s ears.

It is also a fact, however, that the older we get, the more our senses fail us. Print gets tiny, sounds fade and grow garbled. The multiple plot twists, hidden clues and character names are harder to keep at our fingertips. We don’t whiz through books at breakneck speed, juggling two or three at a time. We read more slowly, in order to decipher the words, keep track of things and process the nuances of the story.

Luckily, it’s that same technology to the rescue. We old timers grumble about all that’s been lost in the technological revolution, such as face-to-face conversations, handwritten notes, free-form play, old-fashioned board games and many other types of direct, unstructured fun. The reality, however, is that technology is a godsend.

For centuries, books scarcely changed. They were stacks of paper on which squiggly symbols were printed, to convey and receive knowledge. When I first began working with struggling school children as a psychologist, flash cards, phonics drills, alphabet charts and dog-eared readers were the only tools to help a child learn. If they couldn’t learn to read and write, they were doomed.

Then gradually the assistive devices began to emerge. Calculators, little gadgets that provided the correct spelling, books on tape, simple computer games to teach phonics and sight words. Still later, software programs emerged that not only converted a spoken answer to text but also read the written page aloud. Word processing and story editing programs helped structure written work as well as correct the spelling and grammar. None of this is perfect; computers can’t tell bear from bare, and they have no imagination to figure out what you actually meant to say or do. But technology has provided a way around limitations and difficulties that would have been unimaginable even thirty years ago.

Nowadays, a world of information is at our fingertips, literally a mouse click away. We can store, compare, analyze and combine information in ways we could never have done before. I could go on, but you get the point. There’s plenty to complain about in our perpetually plugged in generation, but a little grudging respect is in order.

When our limbs fail us and we have trouble getting out of the house, it’s nice to know the internet and social media will be there to keep us connected to the world and with far away cousins and international news stories. If our eyes, ears and memories begin to fail, it’s nice to know there are audio books, e-readers with adjustable font, electronic bookmarks, search functions and even easy-read short novels to satisfy our craving for books right up until the pine box arrives.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

All those books: staring into the future

Aline’s post of yesterday got me thinking in a similarly long-term way but in a slightly different direction.

I don’t really expect to see the centenary of my birth (although it would be very interesting), but I expect my novels to. Given our digital age, they will travel on into eternity. It’s been the same since books came into existence, although definitely more tenuously until the digital age. I’m sure that books that were never widely available have been lost over the past 500 years (referencing the invention of the printing press), and that’s really a shame when you think about it. We’ve certainly lost a lot of junk, but some gems, too, have disappeared.

This is also the reason for national libraries, most important of which is arguably the Library of Congress, the primary reason for which is the cataloging of all books published in the US – and that’s a very large market. But in the cataloging, books are also preserved.

Regardless of all that, my writing will go on in some form or another long after I’m gone. The thing is, though, will anyone notice?

The summer I was eighteen I worked at a resort in Maine. I was the pool boy. I sat down there from early morning until evening, catering to guests’ needs and wants. Mostly this involved handing out fresh towels, moving chaises and tables, plus handing out the odd soft drink. (They didn’t allow alcohol sales down at the pool. Pity…)

Since the resort had sort of fallen on hard times, there weren’t often many people at the pool, and if the weather was cold or damp (hardly out of the norm for Maine – even in the summer), there often wasn’t anyone to serve. Unless it was bucketing, I had to be at my post, ready to spring into action.

Besides learning the hard way that you can get a horrible sunburn from light reflected off the surface of water – even if you think you’re safely under an umbrella – I discovered crime fiction. My reading interest at that point was mostly with SF. I hadn’t thought to bring any reading material with me when I’d taken the job, and it was pretty hard to get to the nearby town that had a library, so I relied on the resort’s collection of reading material, mostly left behind by guests. It was heavily weighted to crime fiction.

Since I had to be poolside eight hours (or more) a day, I did a lot of reading. There was a huge collection of Nero Wolfe novels, Lord Peter Wimsey, Poirot, Miss Marple, and also a large number of novels by people I’d never heard of, and whose names I no longer remember.

Many of these lesser lights’ books were pretty plain, a few downright awful, but there was a handful that I remember being very impressed with. As with a number of things from those early years, the authors’ names have disappeared into the mists, but Aline’s post and my subsequent mental wanderings have me trying to remember anything I can about these “orphan” crime novels. After this particular summer, I had become firmly addicted to reading crime fiction and I’m sure if I’d spotted something else by these authors, I would have laid down my cash to buy a copy. But…nothing. I never saw another book by any of them. Now I don’t even remember the plots of these novels let alone the authors. That has me feeling rather melancholy. They had written good stories, but even I, who have an interest in crime fiction, couldn’t recall anything about them.

I often wondered what Shakespeare would say about his still-huge popularity. I know of a number of composers whose music is seldom played anymore (JS Bach was one of these until Mendelssohn “discovered” him in the mid-1800s), even though it deserves to be. How many authors have fallen into this black hole and don’t deserve to be there?

With heavyweights like Bach being relegated to the back benches, how can I expect that someone will be reading my novels fifty years from now, let alone five hundred? How about all those really good authors whose names I no longer remember from that long-ago summer? Sadly, there are a lot of books that have never been widely read, and the ones I’d read that summer (1969) certainly deserved to be.

A really comforting thing, though, is that my novels will still be around if someone does want to read them. I think it would be very cool to hear someone in 2500 say, “This is a really good story. I wonder who the author was?”

One more reason why starving in a cold, dark garret maybe isn’t completely a bad thing.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The March of the Centenarians

Greetings from sunny Scotland, where it seems to have been decreed that our summer should be in March this year.  Edinburgh has been hotter than Athens, Barcelona, Rome, Cairo and Tel Aviv and we have been stumbling round in a sun-soaked daze with everyone muttering, as Scots are inclined to do, 'Aye, but we'll pay for it later!'  In fact, from the forecast for next week which mentions snow on the hills, that's probably right and by the time you read this we'll have dug out the woolly vests that must have been surprised to find themselves banished to the drawer this side of midsummer.

I'm writing this in advance because we're off at the weekend to celebrate my husband's uncle's 100th birthday.  He's in good health and spirits, still living in his lovely house in a green glen, surrounded by paintings done by famous Scottish artists when they were young and struggling and still affordable, still driving his lawnmower-tractor and reading the latest books and taking an interest in the younger generation.

I don't think I've actually met someone who is 100 before, but it seems this is something more and more of us will experience in the future.  In the 1960s there were around 600 centenarians in Britain treasuring a birthday card from the Queen; now she's out of pocket for 14,500 and a child born today has better than a one in three chance of getting one too - presumably not from Her present Majesty, though don't bet on it.

There are going to be an awful lot of people in this aging cohort and as modern medicine improves the prospect of reasonable health, many of them will, like my husband's uncle, still be readers with time on their hands.  Is this going to have an effect on the sort of books that are successful?  Indeed, is it already having an effect, with the popularity of romantic novels dropping and crime novels increasing?    Perhaps it's more difficult to be caught up in illusions of romantic love when the joints are creaking than to empathise with a serial killer as yet another young whippersnapper patronisingly calls you 'dear' and implies that your brain is as disabled as your ailing limbs.

Is it possible that, with chick-lit fading fast, zimmer-lit could be the New Big Thing?