Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Today I am devoting this space to my new publisher Dundurn Press. Dundurn opted to buy my former publisher Napoleon last winter, at a time when the book industry was reeling from the e-book revolution, from bookstore closures and from the take-over of the “megabook”. While Amazon, Apple and Google flourished, traditional print enterprises like newspapers, magazines and book publishers struggled to find a way to stay afloat. Few consumers seemed aware that the demise of independent bookstores and smaller Canadian publishers would ultimately mean less diversity, choice and regional voice. In the face of this assault, Dundurn has become a standard bearer.

Dundurn has much to celebrate right now. First of all, forty years of success in the perilous, often penniless business of the publishing world. In honour of this milestone, Dundurn threw an anniversary party last week, which I attended, at the venerable Arts and Letters Club in Toronto. This is an architecturally stunning heritage building with lofty ceilings, lots of wood paneling and carved detailing. As I walked in, I recalled the first two Bloody Words Mystery conferences, which were held in that building in 1999 and 2000. At the time the building had no air-conditioning and although we had lots of fun, as crime writers always do, we sweltered.

I’m happy to report the Arts and Letters Club has come up in the world. It has air-conditioning, and updated decor that still preserves the heritage feel. The party was terrific, with lots of food, free drinks (always a dangerous proposition when writers are invited) and an impressive selection of their books on display and for sale. I met not only my editor and former publisher, but my new publisher, Kirk Howard, and marketing, sales, design and publicity people. The mood was buoyant, and although I am a relative newcomer to the company, I was welcomed with enthusiasm. Well done and Happy Anniversary, Dundurn.

A major reason for the buoyant mood, apart from the feat of surviving and thriving in today’s book world, was Dundurn’s nomination for the Publisher of the Year Libris Award by members of the Canadian Booksellers’ Association. The actual winner will be announced on June 3, but as anyone who has ever been shortlisted knows, the shortlist is the thing. It is a huge honour to be recognized by one’s colleagues for one’s contribution to the Canadian book scene. All the more in this case because Dundurn is the only 100% Canadian-owned company on the shortlist. Dundurn’s motto is “Defining Canada” and its dedication to Canadian history, biography, fiction, and indeed now Canadian mysteries is something to celebrate. If we value Canadian content, regional voices and diversity, this is a nomination to be celebrated.

I wish them all the best on June 3.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What to do when you put on your promotional hat

This is a posting aimed more at you author types out there, but for those readers among Type M’s audience, it may also be illuminating, so please stick with me here.

As discretely as I can (because I really detest those authors whose every word seems aimed at “Buy my novel!”), I’ve made it clear on Type M that I have a novel coming out in the fall. Well, and good. With June about to show its face, though, it’s time to get serious about rolling out the promotion that will be my responsibility.

For a lower midlist author like me, most of the hands-on stuff is what I’m expected to handle (signings, readings, interviews). I can call on my publisher’s very overworked promotional staff (2 publicists and 102 books this year – just do the math) for a bit of help, but obviously, my welcome will be worn out there pretty quickly.

So it’s up to me.

As Barbara pointed out recently, this weekend is Canada’s mystery conference, Bloody Words, so this is my first real chance to do a little spade work for the fall. If you’re going to be at BW and speak to me, you will probably be a guinea pig for what I call my “verbal sales pitch”.

This is a critical sales tool. It was explained to me by the redoubtable Robert Sawyer (the very excellent – and successful – SF writer) as the exact same thing that screen writers have to do when pitching their ideas to producers. Simply stated, what you need to be able to do is make your book seem irresistable to potential purchasers in one minute or less. Anything more than that, and you will probably fail.

I’ve been doing this for several releases now and it’s a technique that does work. It’s very akin to writing ad copy. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  • It’s got to be succinct and have several hooks. I come up with various versions that I hope will stick the hook firmly in.As the promotion goes on, I confine myself to one or two of them. 
  • It takes a while to come up with just the correct approach, so don’t be afraid to change things up. 
  • You want to give too little information rather than too much.
  • You have to be able to deliver your pitch confidently, almost like lines in a play, so practise! It really helps. 
  • Record it so you can hear how you’re speaking (no ums and ahs). Video is even better.
  • Above all, avoid sounding like you’re desperate for them to buy the book! Confidence is the key.

Now if you’re saying, “I can’t do stuff like this. I’m not an outgoing person,” all I can say is that you must overcome this. Think of it as acting. Everyone was in a school play. If you could do that, you can do this. You may even find that you enjoy it!

So, here’s the one-liner I came up with for The Fallen One: “This novel is about an opera singer who sees dead people.”

Yesterday was “Columbus Day” here at Type M for Murder. Aline’s post was number 1492! She should win a prize of some sort, I guess.

Monday, May 28, 2012


An opinion poll has recently been conducted to discover Scotland's favourite book – that's Scotland, the homeland of Walter Scott, of R L Stevenson, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

To prolong the suspense, I shall announce the top three in reverse order, with suitable drum rolls.

Third: (small roll of drums): Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. (So far so good)

Second (louder roll): To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (splendid.)

First ( thunderous roll)  Er... The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown.

Horror, shame!  I feel humiliated by having to expose to you the appalling taste of my fellow-countrymen and women.  In our defence, it was a very small survey – certainly no one asked me! – and perhaps people confused 'favourite' with  'best-selling.'  I know how well it sold because I man a bookstall at our church's Christmas Fair and second-hand copies are unsellable because everyone's got one already.

Actually,Ii don't want to be too mean about The Da Vinci Code.  I was given it to read on a long flight and it did exactly what it said on the tin: thrills and spills and a pace that didn't give me time to balk at the absurdities.(I then made the mistake of reading Angels and Demons, where the ending had me crying with laughter, and I never read another one).

But favourite book?  That's the one you've always loved, that you read again and again and find something new in every time.  The Da Vinci Code – really?

It seemed strange that apart from this one, most of the rest of the list was surprisingly heavyweight: Great Expectations and To Kill a Mockingbird, as mentioned, as well as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps I have a nasty suspicious mind, but there have been a lot of very good film and TV adaptations of all  of these shown recently, and it occurred to me to wonder how many people, put on the spot by the pollster, claimed to have a favourite book they had only actually seen as a film.  Did anyone check whether the Pride and Prejudice fans thought Elizabeth Bennett's attraction to Darcy arose from seeing him in his wet shirt?

In any case, what a silly question to ask.  Do you have one favourite book?  How could I choose Jane Austen's Emma over Evelyn Waugh's Scoop or PG Wodehouse's The Clicking of Cuthbert, or Henry James's The Golden Bowl or Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, or...

Tell me yours!

Friday, May 25, 2012

War Movies

As a writer you’ll learn that action on the page is not the same as plot movement. The action has to be relevant to the characters on the stage, otherwise, all that Bamm! Zip! K-Pow!!! is just background noise.

When I was a kid, I loved war movies. I loved the spectacle. The explosions. The adventure. But as I got older, my interest waned. Being a history buff, I was irked by historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. And then later I would get bored by the story. Which is the irony. A war movie has plenty of conflict. Jeez, it’s a war. The problem is, all those explosions and mayhem don’t seem real. It’s not until we feel empathy with the characters do we get hooked.

Which makes war movies such a tough sell. We got the BIG tribute movies which appeal mainly to history geeks and action junkies. Battle of Britain. Midway. Gettysburg. 

Recognizing this, some movies are written with a built-in rivalry to pit the good guys against the bad at a personal level. But the scope of war is too big for a grudge match between combatants, and the showdowns between hero and villain come off as contrived.

So to make the story compelling, we’ve got to focus on a microcosm set within the cauldron of battle. The plot becomes how the individuals cope on a personal level with their comrades and against their fears.

Look at Patton. The Blue Max. Platoon. Twelve O’clock High. The Bridges at Toko-Ri. All Quiet on the Western Front. Cross of Iron. Paths of Glory. 

In those movies, the enemy is regarded as an anonymous foe. When the enemy is met face-to-face, it’s to enhance the barbaric viciousness of the combat. One great example (All Quiet) is when Paul Baumer, the young German infantryman, stabs a French soldier and is forced to watch him suffer and die. And it’s not just killing of the enemy. In The Victors, a truckload of war-weary American GIs gets detoured to serve as witnesses for the execution of a fellow soldier, a deserter. It’s a cold, scathing scene.

 The last war movie I saw was War Horse. Spielberg used a horse as an allegory for the inhumanity endured by the soldiers. I found it unsettling that on screen men are massacred by the hundreds, yet it’s the horse we’re supposed to feel sympathy for.

 Something else that disturbs me about war movies, which is not a fault of the movies themselves, but rather how they bring into question the insanity of war. All that waste of money, killing, and heartache...for what? Seems that one war is merely a rehearsal for the next catastrophe.

Women and Murder

The discussion this week about serial killers reminded me of what happens when I teach my Crime and Mass Media course. I ask each student to choose a real life criminal and follow the media coverage of that case. Generally, at least four or five students in a class of twenty-five will opt to analyze the coverage of a serial killer case. One of the students will ask a question about how to do the media analysis for a serial killer (where coverage of the killings often begins before a suspect is identified). And we will get into a discussion about how serial killers are identified and that often-quoted description of the typical serial killer (white, male, in his 30s). At this point, I will find myself pointing out the problem with serial killer typologies -- hey, dude, where are the women?

In fairness to the male creators of those typologies, men as a sex are far deadlier than women. Whether killing individuals, serially, in mass, or in war, men are the champs. This is not to say that men are genetically-wired to be more violent than women. There is that argument, of course. But socialization also matters. And physical strength and being placed in situations where one must kill or be killed. And cultures is which manhood is described in terms of willingness to use violence to defend not only life and property, but “honor.”

But, getting back to where I was going with this. There are – always have been female serial killers. At first, there were no scholarly typologies describing female serial killers. This is less of an issue than it used to be. A number of scholars and some popular writers have come up with typologies – categories based on MOs – for female serial killers using colorful catch-phrases such as “angels of death” and “black widows.” These descriptions are helpful in thinking about how female serial killers function, but problematic in that such descriptions also reinforce stereotypes about women. Of course, men have a similar problem. How many “monsters,” “deranged predators,” or “bloody cannibals” have we encountered in news magazines segments or the covers of true crime books about male serial killers?

But when women are identified as killers, there is a tendency to focus on traditional roles, sexuality, and their physical appearance. When Aileen Wuornos attracted media’s attention she had followed a pattern that was recognizable as similar to male serial killers in that she had "preyed" on strangers. But media coverage also focused on the fact that she was a lesbian who worked as a prostitute, a "raging" woman who claimed she had killed her first victim because he raped her and the others in similar circumstances.

About a decade ago, a colleague and I started research on a book that we eventually titled Blood on Her Hands: The Social Construction of Women, Sexuality, and Murder (2004). The blood on her hands was a reference to the monologue by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, a character we found fascinating. We were interested in the images of women and murder in real life and popular culture. We wanted to understand the stories that have been told about women and violence and how these narratives have shaped our responses to women who kill. We started with the ancient Greek physicians and what they believed about women and their sexual needs (e.g., the “wandering womb”). We looked at goddesses and witches, wicked women in the bible, wicked stepmothers in fairytales, warrior women, and women rulers. Medea, Medusa, Lilith, Eve, and Joan of Arc. We looked at the “moral panic” in the 19th century when there were a number of high profile cases in Europe and American involving women accused of poisoning husbands or lovers. And we looked at the work of male criminologists, such as late19th century criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, who described female criminals as more masculine in appearance and more depraved than their feminine and passive sisters who obeyed the law. And then there was Otto Pollak, who in his book, The Criminality of Women (1950), asserted that women engage in hidden criminality and avoid detection of their crimes. When we got to the 20th century, we looked at women -- most of them not serial killers but all the subject of significant media coverage -- such as Barbara Graham, Velma Barfield, Karla Faye Tucker, Susan Smith, and Andrea Yates. We also looked at popular culture images in ads, on television, and in true crime book. We gave some thought to the women in films who use violence – from breakout female action heroine Pam Grier back in the ‘70s to those deadly damsels in Kill Bill, from Thelma and Louise to the wild-eyed women with sharp objects in Fatal Attraction and Single, White Female.

What did we conclude about women who kill and how they’re perceived? Probably the most important conclusion was that if you’re a woman who kills, you often end up being stereotyped in ways that men who kill are not. Women are expected, always have been expected to be good wives and mothers. Women who violate role expectations are often punished – think about those "witch" trials in Europe and Salem, Massachusetts. Women are often described in popular culture, including news media, and in courtrooms in terms of their roles, with references to their sexuality and appearance. Ruth Snyder, of the Double Indemnity Murders, tried to present herself as a good mother who took a lover because she was married to a cold, unloving, abusive man. She was presented in the press and in the courtroom as a “brassy blonde” and a “venomous” killer.” Barbara Graham, who was charged with male accomplices with murder, was described as the “tiger woman” (after holding up a stuffed toy) and as a “party girl.”

Of course, we are now in the 21st century, but when it comes to women and murder, old stereotypes still shape our perceptions, old themes get played out. So, if you are a beautiful blonde accused of murder, being photogenic may land you a few high-profile interviews and allow you to tell your story, but if you kill your husband and you had a lover, the media attention may not save you. Especially if your husband had an insurance policy.

I'm still thinking about all this in terms of the characters I create. The fascinating part is how easy it is to draw on the stereotypes because they are so recognizable to readers. For example, one of my personal favorites, the femme fatale (i.e., deadly woman)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Short Reflections

This week, I have been revising a manuscript, rewriting the ending of a book I wrote four years ago, adding a major character and subsequently a storyline in hopes of a more shocking ending.

The process is interesting, like revisiting an old friend, seeing his warts and flawless patches. But mostly it has been reaffirming – I liked the book a lot when I wrote it; I remember telling my agent it was the best thing I had written. Rereading it now, I stand by that and look forward to hearing what the submission process brings.

This experience, I think, epitomizes the lifestyle we writers lead and the philosophy you must have: if you don't believe in yourself and your work, no one will.

It shows something else, too: no book is ever finished. I am improving this manuscript every day, relying more on dialogue, making each scene more cinematic, and thus quickening the pace.

I also continue to try to learn everything I can about the ebook business. I will leave you with this post on J.A. Konrath's Newbie's Guide to Publishing site. It's a long post that speaks to ebook pricing. I found it interesting.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Geez, I almost forgot!

“Today is Tuesday because Monday was a holiday.” Maybe I should stamp it backwards on my forehead whenever we have a three-day weekend so that I’ll see it when I brush my teeth in the morning. Unless it’s attached to the date of a specific holiday like Christmas, all our free days from work involve having Monday off not Friday. Since my posting date is Tuesday, you can see the dilemma I often find myself in. This time, it was nearly 4:00 pm by the time I realized what day of the week it is. How embarrassing! I hope you will all forgive me.

John Wayne Gacy
Tom’s post of yesterday brings something to mind for me: what is it about serial killers that we generally find so fascinating? I could go down a long list of the famous ones, starting with Jack, and I bet that nine out of ten people on the street would say that they’d heard of them at the very least.

Serial killings are just about the most horrendous of crimes, to my mind. You can almost sympathize with a murder, such as a crime of passion, that happens when someone just snaps and does something so very drastic, but only does it once. Serial killers do it over and over, often with no remorse whatsoever, and then often try to manipulate the police, the media, the families of their victims. You would think we would all be so repelled that we’d simply turn away, not wanting to know anything more about something so awful.

But most generally don’t turn away. Some of the most successful of all non-fiction crime books have serial murder as their subject matter. Tom points out that Jack the Ripper’s story has spawned 114 books and numerous movies and TV shows. That is truly amazing when you think about it. Part of it is because the identity of the Ripper was never uncovered, certainly. But here are some more figures: there are at least 10 books about John Wayne Gacy, plus numerous TV shows; Ted Bundy’s story has resulted in at least 15 books. I could go on, but I won’t. A number of these books have sold millions of copies. There’s even a serial killer calendar, for pity’s sake!

Is it voyeurism? Is it for the vicarious thrill? Simple curiosity? What?

Another thing that crosses my mind is how many other serial killers have their been? You can be sure that Jack the Ripper was not the first.

Speaking as a crime writer, you can see why serial killers make good subject matter for mysteries and thrillers. First off is the public’s seeming appetite for the material. You can make your plot zip along quite easily since the race for time in stopping the killer is a natural. Even though many publishers say they won’t offer a contract for a novel about a serial killer, the books keep on coming out.

My question is why? I find it hard to even look at photos of these monsters. I cannot imagine living inside the head of one for the months it would take to produce a novel or book.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Random Thoughts on Victoria Day

Today, May 21, is Victoria Day in Canada. A National Holiday. National Holidays are always something to be happy about, especially when the weather's nice, as it is now in Ottawa.

Readers who live south of the "world's longest undefended border" – the 49th parallel – might not know what this is all about. Some who live close to the border might know. In colloquial terms, today is The Queen's Birthday. An odd sort of thing to celebrate, perhaps, but Queen Elizabeth II is (still) Canada's Head of State. She has no political power, of course, but she is still there, and will be for some time yet.

The day's name, though, goes back more than a century to Queen Victoria, who reigned for almost 64 years, the longest tenure of any British Monarch. Elizabeth II has been on the throne now since 1953, a total of almost 59 years, and odds are better than good that she will have a reign longer than Victoria's. Elizabeth is now 86, a good age by any standard, but she in excellent health, and her mother – the late Queen Mother Elizabeth – lived to be almost 102. If I were a betting man with cash to spare, I would lay money on her reaching the century mark.

The National Holiday – Victoria Day – used to be celebrated on May 24th, Victoria's actual birth date, May 24, 1819. Now, however, by Government decree, Victoria Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May before the 25th.

For the record, Elizabeth II’s actual birthday is April 21.

So, what does any of this have to do with a mystery writers' blog? Well, cast your mind back a century or more to the Victorian Era, and you will probably recall that one of the most infamous criminals in history walked the grim and fog-bound streets of London then. I am talking about Jack the Ripper. Somehow, this seems an appropriate subject for today's blog post. And even if it isn't really appropriate, I will do it anyway.

The "Ripper murders" took place in 1888, between August and November. The city was London, the area London's East End, specifically the district known as Whitechapel. Hence the killings are often referred to as the "Whitechapel murders". The number of victims of the Ripper – all of them female, all of them prostitutes – is generally set at five; and they are known in the literature as the "canonical five". Their names: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.


These are the official photographs of four of the victims, from police files. The fifth victim, Mary Kelly, is shown below, in a picture taken at the crime scene:

                                                Black and white photograph of an eviscerated human body lying on a bed. The face is mutilated.

                                                                 Mary Kelly

Although five is the usually cited number of the Ripper's victims, the actual tally might have been considerably higher; ten, fourteen, even thirty. No one really knows for sure. Police investigative techniques then were primitive by today's standards, and Whitechapel was a massively crowded area, with rampant crime, and frequent murders.

The Ripper, or "Whitechapel murderer", was of course never arrested, or identified. There were suspects, but none that have stood the test of critical examination. There are even more theories. In today's terms, the Ripper would be described as a "serial killer"; although that term did not become current until 1981 when the horrific cases of John Gacy and Ted Bundy came to light.

But there could be basic similarities between the Ripper murders and certain characteristics we ascribe today to a serial killer, through the process of profiling. We can guess some things about the Ripper that would fit with profiling theory. He may have been a resident of the Whitechapel area, the location where the five "canonical" murders took place; modern day serial killers are believed to hunt their victims on familiar turf. The Ripper was likely a white male between the ages of 20 and 35; serial killers are most likely to be white males, and that is the most common age range. He likely had regular employment; this is deduced from the fact that the murders took place on weekends and holidays. The Ripper was likely soft-spoken and personable, and drew little attention to himself; that is typical of known serial killers: they seem like "regular guys", a characteristic that would allow them to approach their victims without raising an alarm.

And it's likely also – in keeping with my most recent post – that the Ripper might well have been a psychopath, able to kill repeatedly, and without any regret or real emotional involvement. Although the savage manner in which some of the victims were mutilated, particularly Mary Kelly, could indicate intense rage.

Largely because the Ripper murders were never solved, a veritable "industry" has grown up around the killings, and the unidentified perpetrator. In 2003, it was stated that some 114 non-fiction books had been written about the Ripper and his murders, with a half-dozen new titles appearing every year. Most recently, an experienced "Ripperologist", John Morris, has written a book, Jack the Ripper – The Hand of a Woman, theorizing that the Ripper was actually a female. This new thesis has not apparently met with much enthusiasm. But that will probably not harm sales.

In 2002, Patricia Cornwell – creator of the fictional Kay Scarpetta – wrote a book that modestly stated in its title, "Case Closed". She identified the Ripper as the English painter, Walter Sickert – and one could say that the surname alone is suggestive. It's in fact almost too clever. But Cornwell's thesis has also been generally dismissed. That hasn't stopped the book from being, like the Scarpetta books, a huge bestseller.

The movie industry has been much involved also. And as I am a movie buff of some repute – at least among a small circle of friends – there are some entertaining films on the Ripper that I can recommend. My favourite is the 1979 film Murder By Decree, with Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. John Watson:

                                Murder By Decree (Sherlock Holmes) [DVD]

Holmes does solve the mystery of the Ripper's identity and motive. Of course he does. And with Plummer (an Oscar winner this year for his role in Beginners) as Holmes, he does it in great style.

Other films on the Ripper that I can recommend are:

            From Hell (2 Disc Special Edition) [2002] [DVD]
                   Time After Time [DVD] [1979] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] 

                                              Jack The Ripper [1988] (Michael Caine) [DVD]

I saw the Johnny Depp film some years ago, and was very impressed. But, then, I am almost always impressed by Johnny Depp. (Call it a weakness!) Time After Time is an interesting film which has H.G. Wells travelling through time in the time machine of his own creation, to nab the Ripper. The Michael Caine film is actally a TV mini-series from 1988, and was well-reviewed. 

The best novel I have read on Jack the Ripper is by the late Michael Dibdin: The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.


Dibdin casts Holmes and Watson in this fascinating treatment of the Ripper muders; and it's a fascinating treatment of Holmes himself. I think it is a great book. And with a very surprising ending.

For those who would enjoy a non-fiction dissertation on the Ripper, a Ripper-dedicated website, Casebook – recommends The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, by Philip Sugden.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Writing About What You Know Doesn't Work

Tomorrow I’m making a flying trip back home to do research in Western Kansas. Getting ready is a chore considering all the god-awful paraphernalia that we writers seem to regard as essential.

Nearly all the writing manuals urge beginners to write about what they know. It doesn’t work.

Even if you are writing about a life you think you are familiar with, it’s amazing how much research is involved in even a contemporary novel.

My upcoming book, Hidden Heritage, begins in a feedyard. My husband and I were involved in cattle trucking all our married lives. But I find there are a ton of essential details I never paid attention to.

Hoxie Kansas has an enormous feedyard and the owner, Scott Foote is going to show me around and answer a myriad of questions. He’s very generous and extremely knowledgeable. He has a bachelor degree in Agriculture Economics and masters in Economics.

 If we all really wrote about what we know, there would be no historical novels, no Harry Potter—very few novels indeed. So tomorrow I will ask about cattle shrinkage, the treatment of empty pens, computer systems for keeping track, vet questions--you name it.

Nevertheless, details are such an important part of settings, that I stick to Kansas. I know a lot about that state and about the whole agriculture industry. For sheer drama, nothing can equal tensions experienced within farm families. Willa Cather proved that with Oh Pioneers! Passing down the farm is still one of the most loaded situations I know.

One of the greatest authors of manuals for writers, John Gardner, said we know all we need to know about human emotion by the time we are four.

It's true. Call back your childhood for feelings, and research the rest.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Random thoughts from the week

Archer Mayor, a Vermont-based author of the 22-book Joe Gunther series, visited my students Monday, after we finished reading the first book in the series, “Open Season.” Mayor is a death scene investigator and a sheriff's detective in Vermont and full-time writer, so he knows of what he writes.
Also, this week, my students worked on this assignment. Assignment: Write a fictitious newspaper account based on the following scene before you. (500 words max.) Be sure to consider and explain all of the props and exactly in your account of what happened: Who are these people? Where are they? Why? When is it? What happened?
Props: 1. Clear Care eye solvent and contact canister 2. Apple 3. Scissors 4. Aspirin 5. Contact Lenses in cleaner 6. Table with linen 7. Two coffee mugs 8. Two chairs 9. Benicar (5 mg.) 10. Knife 11. Blood 12. Dishes, silverware. Let's see what my students come up with.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Party Invitation

Barbara here. May is National Crime Writing Month here in Canada, the brainchild of Crime Writers of Canada, which this year has been extensively promoted both by the CBC and the National Post. The initiative began rather modestly some years ago as National Crime Writing Week, a week of readings, signings, workshops and other criminal activities organized at the grass roots level across the country and culminating in the Annual Arthur Ellis Award banquet and Bloody Words Mystery Conference.

However, we crime writers were an eager and enterprising bunch, and we soon discovered we couldn’t fit all the events we wanted to into one week, so for the past couple of years it has expanded to a month. This year, in addition to local readings and displays, the awards banquet and the mystery conference, there are ongoing blogs on the CWC website and the wonderful Canada Writes Crime series on CBC. There is something new on the CBC website every day – writing tips, short stories, contests and challenges, and series of master classes by award-winning and best-selling author Louise Penny. And if you miss a day, all the past posts are archived.

What impresses me most about this endeavour is the warmth and collegiality of the crime writing community. This Canada Writes Crime month is truly a joint effort, as we all pull together to support each other and to shine a spotlight on the best in Canadian crime writing. In addition to Penny, who offers both inspiration and practical advice, veteran writers like Gail Bowen, Peter Robinson and Mary Jane Maffini have contributed brilliant short stories, and other less established authors have won publication through a short story contest. There are lively writing challenges to engage the public in the fun experience of writing crime. As well, thirty established writers have each supplied 100-word writing tips, so that by the end of the month, there will be thirty tips on every topic imaginable from setting to voice to character. My writing tip, on creating an engaging series character, will be posted tomorrow (May 17).

Most writers do so because of a passion, perhaps obsession, to write. We write first for ourselves, and then for our readers and for the publishers and editors who crack the whip. It is often lonely, discouraging work, with long hours and poor pay, but the best rewards are often intangible. The sense of triumph at the end of a book, the pride in a piece well done , the thrill of a good review or an award nomination. The most unexpected reward, and perhaps even the greatest, is the community of fellow writers and friends who welcome you in when you venture into this dark world of crime fiction. Maybe it’s because we’re literary underdogs, small in number, who have to fight for legitimacy, bookstore and review column space, not to mention a place at the table at literary festivals and literary awards. We’ve learned to laugh about it (most of the time, and with a rueful touch) and have a good time together.

Thanks, Crime Writers of Canada and CBC, for giving us a chance to toot our horn! Everyone can check out the party at

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Can you bear more thoughts on the topic of book covers?*

Aline’s post yesterday got me thinking. At the moment, I happen to be working on a rather long and involved book interior for a client, and being in the thick of that, there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with design explanations going from my end and responses coming from the editors’ end.

With my author’s hat firmly on, I would say that it would be great to have some real input into what goes on the covers of my books. Actually, up until the current two, I did. I designed them. While I got the cover I wanted, it left me lacking one big thing: I had nothing to complain about to other authors, booksellers, reviewers and readers.

[Any time authors get together (usually in a bar at conferences), someone eventually brings up the topic of bad covers. The only thing I could ever do is bask in the adulation I received from my fellow ink-stained wretches that I got to have nearly everything to do with the covers on my books. But I also felt really isolated in that I couldn’t do much complaining. One time, someone said (and I really liked this guy up until that point), “Oh, you’re one of those,” meaning one of those designers who ruins a writer’s dreams by shoving a dog of a cover onto their book.]

Sorry for the personal digression. What I wanted to talk about is why an author really shouldn’t have much to say about the covers of their books.

In a nutshell, most don’t know squat about what makes a good cover – not that a lot of marketing people and editors know all that much more. I can see why Aline would be unhappy about the small details of her books’ covers (the stripe on the lighthouse or the fireplace poker murder weapon). These are important things to a writer. Trouble is, marketing doesn’t think it’s any sort of issue that should concern them. First thing a writer should be aware of: probably no one outside of their editor has read their latest deathless prose. Marketing doesn’t have time to read every book. Cover designers only get the barest of marching orders. Quite often it’s just the back cover or flap copy or maybe the copy that’s going into the publisher’s catalog.

I’ll use the cover of my next novel, The Fallen One, as an example. It’s the story of an opera singer who’s searching for the truth about her dead husband. The cover has one of those fancy masks that are part of the yearly Biennale in Venice. I’m here to tell you that the image has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Why was this image chosen? I have no idea. Now if I were just another author with no design experience or credentials, I probably would have gone ballistic. How dare they! This will give everyone a completely wrong impression of my novel!! Are they stupid?! It’s set in Paris for Cripe Pete, not Venice!

Instead, I look at it and say, “Hey, nice image, very arresting,” as I imagine how it will look faced on a shelf in a store or onscreen at Amazon. (The dog of a spine is another matter altogether.)

What’s happening here is that the marketing department of my publisher is selling the “sizzle” and not the “steak”. The cover should garner attention (Aline’s “shop window”) and that’s all it needs to do. As a cover, it works perfectly – and I’m very happy about that. Hey, operas have elegant things like masked balls in them, don’t they? (Actually, only a minority do, but I’d be shocked if any of the people responsible for the cover have been within a mile of an opera house.) It doesn’t matter. Shoppers will notice this cover.

So it’s all a matter of expediency for authors to be involved as little as necessary in the design of their books’ covers. It only slows things down, can lead to bad confrontations – and bad decisions. Is it right to leave them out of the loop? Yes, considering how the publishing process works. Does it make sense? I have to say yes again – except when someone in marketing makes some really dumb choices – and that does happen.

We poor authors just have to suck it up and move on. The sad thing is when vision fails the marketing/design departments and your book winds up with an awful cover (whether you know it’s awful or not). Then, sales can be hurt and the book can even fail because of it. I know of one very famous author who had a terrible cover for the US edition of one of his novels (I think it’s his finest), and sales in the US were miserable. Funny thing was, the Canadian and British covers were both quite good and sales of those editions were brisk. The book even got better reviews in those countries.

So much for marketing savvy, eh?

*I hadn’t meant to post about this today…honest!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cover story

Your book cover is your shop window.  It’s the eye-catching promotion that says to the browsing reader, ‘Look what we’ve got!  Come inside!’

That's what it should be. All too often, though, it's chosen on the basis that it's a 'good design' which may not have anything much at all to say about the story within, or worse still it may be something taken from a photo library because it's cheap to produce and it may even be a photo that's been used before on another book, or even on more than one, just with your name and title superimposed. If you're lucky enough to be asked your opinion and you say you really, really hate it, after a bit of huffing and puffing they may indulge you just this once, but it's made clear you'd better be effusively pleased with the next one, even if it's worse.

Do other people like their book jackets? I've had one I do like (Cradle to Grave, as seen on this site), one I quite like and I've been indifferent to, or have actively disliked, most of the rest. I've had complaints from readers about the red on the lighthouse on this cover here, when I clearly describe it as being yellow (my editor explained it 'worked better' for marketing) and I even had a picture of a slim steel poker, the murder weapon, on the cover of one of my earliest books when it was described in the first paragraph as 'a brass poker with a heavy brass knob on the end'.

Do you ever buy a book just because it has a great cover? Often, I've tried a new author because of an atmospheric cover that tells me something about that book to suggest it's the sort of thing I like to read. Once or twice, I suppose there's been something so different that I've picked it up out of curiosity, which admittedly gives the author a chance to tempt me with an interesting blurb and a good opening.  But I don't think I've ever seen a conventionally smart cover and thought, ‘Such great design! I must buy that. Never mind about the story.’

Rick talked about this a while back, instancing Ian Rankin’s dull new ‘designer’ covers. I used to think, ‘Oh well, these people are the professionals. They must know their own business.’ Now, after long experience, I find myself having to avert my eyes as the emperor prances naked past.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Then and Now: Two women fight for their lives

This weekend we welcome back a founding member of Type M, Vicki Delany, who has been very busy lately. I’m sure you’ll all enjoy this piece. —Rick

“Look out,” someone shouted. “He’s got a knife.” Everyone scrambled to get out of the way.

She pivoted on her heels, came around to face him. He charged, blade held high. Light from the lamp on the far side of the street glistened on steel. She stepped to one side, out of his path. Her right hand struck his arm, shoving him aside. He stumbled and she stepped back, moving her body out of his reach. Without conscious thought, her Glock was in her hand and she shouted, “Drop it, now.”

He looked at the knife. He looked at Molly Smith. She knew she could stand here all day, waiting. If he came towards her, or moved towards the onlookers, she’d have no compulsion about shooting him. She kept her breath steady and controlled.
Among the Departed, a Constable Molly Smith novel

He swung around and lifted the rifle. I raised the knife high and brought it down, slicing it across his arm, wrist to elbow. The blade was very sharp, and it cut deeply. Bright red blood spurted. Sheridan said not a word, but threw the rifle to the ground and faced me. His mouth was set, his eyes so round, the surface so white, I wouldn’t have recognized them. He moved fast, sending a fist towards my jaw. I pulled back in time and thrust the knife forward but he also moved and my blade sliced cold mountain air. We circled each other, eyes fixed, hearts pounding, hands up.

I ducked down and slipped under his arm. I was aiming for the centre of his belly, but he slid to one side at the last second and the knife cut only his jacket. His fist crashed into my face and I fell. I landed hard, once again, but kept my grip on the knife and the blade pointing up and out. Sheridan swung his foot at my face, and I brought my weapon up. It sliced into the calf, just above his boot.

He stepped backwards. Blood was pouring down his arm and now his leg. He stared at me through those crazed eyes. His chest heaved and his breathing was ragged, but he’d not said a word.

He came towards me, and I braced myself for another attack. Instead he dodged and ran around me. He took one step, and then another, and disappeared.

I staggered to my feet, thrust the knife behind a boulder, gathered up the rifle and dashed a few yards down the path. Whereupon I fell to the ground and arranged myself so I was draped across the trail in a dainty swoon.

Gold Mountain: A Klondike Mystery

These two novels are set 110 years apart. Among the Departed is a contemporary novel, about the adventures of Constable Molly Smith, a young policewoman in small town British Columbia. Gold Mountain is set in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the adventures of Fiona MacGillivray, a dance hall owner.

Both books are intended to be entertainment first and foremost. But it’s impossible to write anything without capturing the mood, attitudes, milieu of the times, whether historical or contemporary.

I have come to realize that my books reveal a lot about the changing role of women over the past hundred years.

Molly Smith decides she wants to be a police officer. She applies for the job, is accepted, gets the training, and is given a gun and a badge and a patrol car. She does the job for which she is trained – protecting the citizens of her town.

Fiona MacGillivray is smart, resourceful, entirely unscrupulous. By necessity she leads a life of subterfuge. Forbidden by law from earning a living legally (as most occupations were closed to women), she spends her youth as a pickpocket and second story woman. Now that she is the owner of a dance hall and saloon, she is still often unable to simply take or ask for what she wants, but has to manipulate others: I’ve always found it so easy to convince men they should do things the way I wanted while leaving them to believe it was their idea all along. Was I getting soft, losing some of my skill at manipulation?

In the above two scenes we can see the sharp contrast between two tough, entirely capable women.
Molly Smith is a police officer. Uniformed, armed, trained, with the weight of the law behind her. She is confronted by an assailant, and she deals with him.

But Fiona MacGillivray, even more capable, far more ruthless, a woman who can, as she says, fight like a man, must pretend to her ‘rescuers’ that she needs their rescuing. Thus the dainty swoon once her attacker has been efficiently dealt with.

Corporal Richard Sterling of the NWMP is in pursuit of Fiona and her kidnapper. When he hears a shot, he thinks: No doubt she lay cowed in the shelter of a boulder, shocked at the sudden display of man’s violence.

Constable Dave Evans, on the other hand, has no illusions that Molly Smith can’t handle herself in a dangerous situation: They stood on either side of the door, and Smith reached for the knob. She turned it shouting, “Police.” The door swung open. Smith went in first. Evans followed.

Only a hundred years, but what a difference in attitudes and behaviour.

“It’s a crime not to read Delany,” so says the London Free Press.

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers. Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) from Poisoned Pen Press have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures. She writes standalone novels of modern gothic suspense such as Burden of Memory and More than Sorrow (Sept 2012), as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush, published by Dundurn. She is also the author of a novel for reluctant readers, titled A Winter Kill, part of the Rapid Reads series.

Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki is settling down to the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.

Visit Vicki at,, and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave (