Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crystal Ball Time

Today's special guest is the lovely Catriona McPherson. Welcome to Type M!

I’m writing this on Wednesday the 26th of September, in other words NewJKRowling’s Eve, and I’m not ashamed to say I’m very excited about tomorrow.  My copy of The Casual Vacancy is ordered, from The Avid Reader in downtown Davis, CA, and after I’ve picked it up I’m going to sit right down, in the middle of the day, and start reading.  

By the time this blogpost goes live, I’ll have finished it, so will millions of others and the world will have spoken.  So I thought I’d chip in with a spot of prognostication.

It was great to be around while the publishing phenomenon of Harry Potter unfolded, wasn’t it?  It was fun.  Remember when Amazon’s headers were: books, DVD, music, household and Harry Potter?  What writer could fail to thrill at that happening in a fellow writer’s life?  And then there was the time when a crowd of us from the Harrogate crime writing festival went to watch the midnight launch of The Half-Blood Prince.  What better celebration of the joy of books could there be than all those little Yorkshire witches and wizards up past their bedtimes, fizzing with anticipation?  There was more enthusiasm on that street outside Waterstone’s than you could find in the conference bar at midnight on a Thursday, let me tell you.

And now it’s happening again.  JK Rowling is #1 and #2 (hardback and Kindle) in the Amazon charts on both sides of the Atlantic before the book is even published.  I can’t even imagine how happy that must make you. 

So here are my predictions – in advance, like all good predictions should be.  Don’t you hate how people are always showing, after things happen, that Nostradamus predicted them?  Anyone can get a name for being an oracle that way.

First, it’ll be really, really good.  She’s a born storyteller, like Stephen King and Dorothy Whipple.  Yes, she over-uses the word vast and yes, of course, the epilogue of the last Harry Potter was like something at the end of a rom-com, but come on!  My prediction is that The Casual Vacancy is going to be one of the best stories I read this year.

Second, it’ll be full of easter eggs.  Pagford, the village where it’s set was where Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane went after their wedding. So we can look forward to some charming nods to Rowling’s literary heroes, similar to the one at the beginning of The Philosopher’s Stone, when Albus Dumbledore’s eyes were described as “light, bright and sparkling” (like Jane Austen’s prose).

Third, I predict, with a spit and polish of my crystal ball, that one or two people might drop in on Amazon to share their thoughts.  The reviews will cluster at the extremities: a lot of one-stars and five-stars and a smattering of two- three- and four-stars.  The five star reviews will gush and the one-star reviews will sneer.  The three star reviewers will be so pleased with themselves they might forget to mention the book at all.

Fourth, someone will be offended.  Or at least will claim to be.  Actually they’ll be – to use a good Scots expression – not suited.  If JK Rowling’s adult novel has any sex, swearing, politics or violence, a lot of people are going to be deeply not suited.  She’s a children’s writer!  And after she had the common decency to find her own three children under a gooseberry bush, now she goes and spoils it all!

Fifth, every newspaper and magazine is going to review it, but some of them will review it undercover of drawling about how amusing it is that everyone else is reviewing it.  (Like how the Guardian writes about the Kardashians.)  All of these newspaper reviews will be considered, temperate, and fair but the comments on the online editions will be a pit of cackling madness.

Sixth, it will take less than a month for the first copy to appear in the Yolo County SPCA Thrift Store.  A related prediction: there will be one in the Edinburgh Oxfam Bookshop by next Friday.

The glass grows cloudy; the veil has fallen; these are my predictions for NewJKRowling Day.


Author of the Macavity, UK Dagger and UK Theakston’s Old Peculier nominated Dandy Gilver mysteries, set in Scotland in the 1920s. St Martin’s Press launched the series in the US in 2011 with The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains and the latest, An Unsuitable Day for A Murder, came out in June. The UK is a book ahead: A Bothersome Number of Corpses was launched there in July.  Catriona lives in northern California with two black cats and a scientist. Check out Dandy’s world at and Catriona’s at

Friday, September 28, 2012

Small Matters

Last weekend I hosted the Western Writers of America booth at the Mountains and Plains Bookseller Trade Show. It's one of my favorite events. Representatives from New York houses show up with books from their fall lists and bookstore owners eagerly look for books their readers will enjoy.

It's a great opportunity to meet the owners and managers of bookstores and the reps from various houses.

I had a surprising conversation with a representative from Ingrams which distributes books for Poisoned Pen Press.

I was shocked that she recognized my name. Then got a double shock when she told me I don't market my books enough. She didn't hesitate to scold me for not giving enough talks and presentations. I was surprised. And heartened to know that this kind of contact counts for so much. She says when she sells my books to stores, the response if often "never heard of her."

So much marketing has gone to on-line, that I've neglected the hard work of contacting booksellers and libraries. I really don't mind speaking, it's the process of setting things up that I find daunting.

Boy, did I ever hear some interesting advice. I asked her about the effectiveness of on-line marketing. She said small stores feel like this mainly helps the on-line stores. As to writers conferences--she said we only talk to one another while we're there.

Gulp! Nailed!  She's entirely right. At conferences, I tend to seek out my buddies.

So I changed my tactics. I decided to reform right then and there at the event. A man wandered over to our table. He was from a town close to me. He was quite chatty and interested in the books written by WWA members and my mysteries in particular. I asked if he was interested in a signing. His store is small, and we discussed topics that interest his customers.

The town has a lot of Episcopalians. Lethal Lineage begins in a small country church where a sinister bishop is performing a confirmation ceremony. I'm going to see if their local church might be interested in a program about church history,

Signings are difficult. They are hard to get. Volunteering to present a program for organizations gains immediate acceptance. I'll talk and he can supply the books.

Small matters. If this were not true, there are a lot of politicians knocking themselves out for nothing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Makes a Writer a Writer?

As secondary schools push in the direction of the ever-present educational catch-phrase "21st century education," I find myself speaking often about the importance of a traditional English curriculum and all that the subject teaches and will continue to teach regardless of what the future holds. With these discussions, I've found myself thinking about writing and its importance to me and others who make the literary arts a way of life.

Many of us say we "need" to write. (Last week, I pleaded for 90 minutes a day.) So what is it, then, that is so addictive about the act of moving a pen left to right across a paper or tapping keys and seeing black letters appear where before there were none?

Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down The Bones, urges writers to "use your senses as an animal does." She's speaking of having "every sense alive." Raymond Carver was once asked what it takes to be a writer. He replied with something along the lines of, The writer is the person who walks down the street, sees a discarded shoe, and stops to stare at it. Think of how many times each of us has seen a shoe (or a box or a bottle) beside the road. Did you stop and look at it? Maybe. Maybe not. But what Goldberg and Carver are getting at goes beyond the writer's observation skills. It's more than that. It speaks to the writer's genuine interest in the world around him or her.

Consider this statement by Ernest Hemingway, which, coincidentally, I stumbled upon this week: "I like to listen," the great author said. "I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." I have always believed that if perception is reality, then we are what we say. And I take this adage to heart in my work, relying on dialogue to convey characters and drive plot lines. (The reason for this probably stems from my dyslexia; I digest whatever I hear.)

I don't think how one writes matters. Some friends tell me they write the whole book straight through; others say they edit as they go. Some write the whole draft in longhand; others wouldn't dream of doing that. The similarity we all share is need to do so, the inexplicable drive to see and hear the world around us and then to stop and retell it by putting one sentence after another, smiling through it all.

This desire can't be taught. An addiction? An obsession? I think it's either in your DNA or is not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflections of an ambivalent author

All right, I'm late again. And I don't even have Rick's excuse of a fried electrical system. Although on second thought...

It's Yom Kippur, the single most important day in the Jewish calendar, a solemn day of reflecting, taking stock and atoning for the transgressions of the past year. I am fasting (contributing to the slightly fried electrical system) but I am at home instead of attending service. I am supposedly reflecting. In between reflections, I am writing the next Inspector Green novel and have just finished a scene where he is attending a funeral in a church.

As I imagined Green's thoughts, it struck me how much he and I are alike. Since I created him, I suppose that's to be expected, but he's almost twenty years younger than me, the opposite sex, and has worked in the trenches of law enforcement for the past quarter century, whereas I have worked in the healing, conciliatory profession of psychology. There ought to be some differences. In our souls and our values, in our passion for equity, justice and compassion for the underdog, we are similar. So too in our less lofty aversion to bureaucracy, paperwork, arbitrary rules and bosses.

But now, as I write those latest scenes, I realize that we are alike too in our ambivalence towards spirituality and tradition. Green, son of a Holocaust survivor and mindful of the whispers of his past, feels uncomfortable and vaguely traitorous sitting in church listening to the priest talk about resurrection. He straddles two worlds, the often brutally secular world of his job and the murky, mystical lure of his heritage. The demands of the secular world drive him, consume his thoughts and his days, while leaving his spiritual heritage often forgotten. He is not fully at home with it - its hopeful outlook and promises seem so at odds with what he sees every day - yet he cannot fully shake its shadow.

And here am I, fasting in order to observe an age-old imperative, yet working and like Green, feeling vaguely guilty that I am somehow falling short and failing my heritage. This is not meant as a treatise on atonement or spirituality, merely an interesting insight into the creative process of a writer. Into that permeable boundary between us and our characters and into the power of the subconscious to guide our imagination. Perhaps to enrich it and to make our characters more human. Their flaws, emotions, and yearnings more universal.

Not a bad accomplishment for the most solemn day of the year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tales from the road

Well, last week we had the launch of my new novel, The Fallen One (everyone got that title memorized yet?), and it was a huge success. The Great Hall in Toronto’s famed Arts and Letters Club was filled, we had two wonderful and talented opera singers (Emilio Fina, of Canada’s Got Talent fame, and Anna Bateman, who performs all over Canada and abroad), and people were so generous buying books that we sold out – after people who had not been able to attend had gotten in touch with me. For that, I thank everyone who attended and bought books. We raised a lot of money for Frontier College.

But that’s not what this post is about.

I’m now on the first leg of “The Endless Book Tour”, and I have to tell you it’s off to a flying start…not. Actually, I’ll find what’s been happening to me quite funny someday in the distant future. First up was a chain bookstore about an hour east of Toronto. I called, as I always do, to check in four days before the date, only to find out that the month of the booking had got confused and they had no books and had done no promotion. My contact felt terrible and we re-scheduled, but it left me feeling pretty depressed, considering that I’d sent two confirming emails and supplied a store poster – with the date.

Next up was a signing for the same chain about an hour and a half east of Toronto, kind of a long distance to travel. Everything was fine, a nice set-up right near the front door and they even brought in a few copies from my back-list. I had my son to do the publicist thing and direct people to the table and I sold nearly all the copies of The Fallen One that had been brought in. All in all, it was a pretty good day, right?

Wrongo. Disaster struck once more when we got to the car and the automatic door locks wouldn’t work. The reason? Dummy me had left the #$@(*$! headlights on three hours earlier. The car’s battery was stone-cold dead. No problem. My son hot-footed it back into the store and came out with an employee who had jumper cables and would help. (Nice lady, and if you’re reading this, many thanks!) But her car had the weirdest darn battery set-up I’ve ever seen. You couldn’t get at the terminals because of a plastic cover. Still no problem. A helpful driver offered his car for a boost. I connected up and told him that the red cable should go on the positive terminal on his battery. He was all excited because he’d never done this before. I was about to ask if I could do it when sparks flew. Poof! My electrical system was gone.

Two hours later the tow truck arrived, loaded us on and we drove back to good old T.O. with our tails between our legs.

This weekend I will be in and around Ottawa, Canada’s capitol. That’s five hours away (four-and-a-half if my wife’s driving) and I’m finding myself a bit anxious, wondering what might go wrong this time when I’m so far from home. I just hope another ride in a tow truck isn’t part of my future…

Ah, the life of a writer!

Sidebar: The sharp-eyed among you will notice the display of Fifty Shades of Grey in the lower right of the photo above. Several times during my signing people rushed in my direction saying, “Oh! There it is!” and I thought they meant my novel (a heart-warming response, don’t you think?), except that they kept going right by me, hungrily grabbing up their copy of the second-most important book in the store that day. Sigh…

Monday, September 24, 2012

London Bound

Yes, we are. Tomorrow night, Tuesday, we leave Ottawa at 11:25 on an Air Canada jet and touch down in Heathrow the next morning, Wednesday, at 11:10. Assuming all goes as planned, and there is no unscheduled swimming interlude involved. We will hope not.

In preparation for the visit – we will be in a rented apartment in London for a week – yesterday, I surfed the net for a list of theatrical productions in the West End. And came up with a list of 110 musicals, comedies, and dramas currently playing, or upcoming. An embarrassment, if you will, of theatrical riches. We have looked at any number of productions, but won't make any firm decision until "the day". We will likely pass on a play the first night. We expect to be tired from the overnight flight. For the record, I am not crazy about overnight flights. Hard to sleep, I have found, with my knees under my chin. The price one pays for flying Economy Class. So, Wednesday will be a short day, early to bed, so that the next 6 days can be full of sight-seeing and theatre.

One production we had hoped to take in is The Book Of Mormon, billed as a musical comedy. It's had great reviews in its New York run, and it is on the list for London. Unhappily, though, not until February of 2013. In the context of the current presidential race in the States, it would have been an interesting and entertaining show to see. Perhaps not as comic as Mitt Romney's stumbling run in the direction of the White House – described by GOP heavyweight Peggy Noonan as "a rolling calamity" – but it would have been worth seeing.

After a week of sight-seeing and theatre in London, we head off to Paddington Station and climb onto a train for the Cotswolds, and 4 days of hiking, combined with 4 nights of wining and dining. (That seems to be a constant in our travels.) After that we do 3 days and 3 nights of much the same in Oxford. And then back to Ottawa.

The last time I was in Paddington Station, I made a point of looking for the famous bear. And found a very large replica of the lad in a window display, decked out in a blue coat and yellow hat as I recall. There is also a bronze statue of Paddington at the station. I missed that last time, but we will make a point of seeing it this time.


One never knows what one might see in Paddington Station. On my last visit, there was a troupe of Yemeni dancers and musicians holding forth, in an effiort to entice us to visit the country. Still not on my preferred list, though. Things are a tad violent in that part of the world just now, or so I sometimes hear.

It's impossible, I would suggest, to contemplate a visit to London without revisiting, in memory, the very long list of superior crime-mystery films set partly or wholly in that city. There are, of course, websites devoted to the theme. So, herewith, in no particular order, a partial list of some of my favourites from the distant, and more recent, past.

Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, from 1966:

John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday, from 1979-1980:

Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob, from 1951:

The Lavender Hill Mob

Richard Donner's  The Omen, from 1976:

Basil Deardon's  The League of Gentlemen, from 1960:

Sudney Furie's The Ipcress File, from 1965:

Woody Allen's Match Point, from 2005:

Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers, from 1955:

Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, from 1998:

Robert Hamer's  Kind Hearts and Coronets, from 1949:

Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, from 1992:

Alfred Hitchcock's  Frenzy, from 1972:

And, last, but certainly not least, from 1957,

Alfred Hitchcock's Witness For The Prosecution:

I invite the reader to add his/her own titles to the list.

I won't be doing my regular blog on October 8. As noted above, I will be in Oxford, walking, wining and dining. Ottawa mystery writer and Young-Adult novelist, Brenda Chapman, has graciously agreed to sub for me:

You can read all about Brenda on her website:

Cheers, all!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Kill me, already

We writers are an odd lot, and we freely admit that. A lot of people hate to write, and we scribes devote large chunks of our time to putting words on paper--or on the monitor screen, as it were. We agonize over grammar, theme, plot, dialog, character, and on and on. We can practically get into fistfights over punctuation.

And if being a writer isn't loony enough, we at Type M are mystery writers. Which means we not only spend a lot of time writing, we spend a lot of time thinking about murder. Homicide in all its forms: Executions. Gangland slayings. Shiving. Sniper shots. Beat downs. Bombs. Arson. Poisons!

I forget that not all writers are so obsessed by violence. This week I was at a planning meeting at Lighthouse Writers to pimp their Denver visit of Junot Diaz. We kicked around ideas to make his trip truly memorable, and I chimed in: "We could kill him."

Then his Denver visit would definitely be Tweeted like a mo-fo. The other writers at the meeting were horrified that I could think of such a thing. (It was just an idea. I'm looking forward to meeting Mr. Diaz...alive.) But my mystery writer's mind was already spinning the plot. A Pulitzer Prize winning author is murdered during his book tour. But as we mystery writer's know, the killing only gets the story started. Now we have to fill in the who and the why. Plus we get to revel in the gruesome details like ligature marks, bullet entry and exit wounds, blood spatter, DNA evidence, and autopsies.

I had mentioned in the meeting that as a personal project I read a genre novel and a literary novel back-to-back to compare structure, pacing, and language.  One of the other writers said she doesn't like to read mystery novels because once she starts, she gets hooked and can't put the book down to the detriment of her writing and other chores. A literary novel is a read that she can graze on at her leisure.

I suppose leisure has its place except when it comes to murder.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Scene and Sequel

In a recent post, John mentioned re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Most writers have favorite books that we return to. There are a number of books I simply didn't "get" the first time through. I probably thought I did at the time.

However, after one has had several books published, the concepts are easier to understand. Right now I'm going through Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure. It's one of my favorite books on the craft of writing because it deals with one of the most difficult elements to master: structure.

Structure is the hardest subject to teach in creative writing because it goes beyond plot. Bickham's book is especially useful because it deals with the structure of sequels – that which comes after a scene. I'm not discussing other books in a series.

Scene and Structure is a nuts and bolts book.  Bickham lays out clear, concise steps for developing a sequel. At its simplist level, a scene should end with something going wrong with the protagonist. That can be subtle or a major catastrophe. But it ends the scene.

We immediately go into the sequel steps: emotion, thought, decision, and action.

Emotion is what happens in real life too. End of scene – we hang up the phone sick at heart, or ecstatic, or whatever. This can be shown by description, example, or discussion. (He lit his first cigarette in two years.)

Thought follows. We settle down and think things over. I'm a great one for "sleeping on it" in real life. This is the ideal place to introduce backstory and other little tidbits. Thought usually involves review, analysis, and planning. Getting to review events is great for mystery writers. We remind the reader (again) of everything at stake.

Decision come next. We decide we can't just let our boss get away with it, even if it means losing our job.

Action – We go to the police. Which leads directly into the next scene and conflict.

Bless all the authors of these books who save us from endless trial and error.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

90 Minutes

When someone joins the ranks of published or pre-published mystery writers – and decides to become a member of that odd collection of humans who devote large portions of their lives to thinking up unique ways to kill people or who lay awake wondering if a plot that confuses them is not only solvable but possibly interesting to a reader – they discover they have also joined a wonderfully supportive community.

There are times when you need this support more than others. Last fall, I had a 30-minute Connecticut-to-Los Angeles phone conversation with Hannah Dennison, just shooting the breeze about our work, our publishing situations, and where each of us was headed. It was great to step away from my day job and talk to someone in the same proverbial boat, and it meant more to me than she probably knows. I have had similar conversations with writers at Sleuth Fest in Orlando and via email. These are I've-been-there-pal conversations. And I'm not sure writers in other genres are so supportive. (A friend who is a poet claims her "colleagues" would push her down a flight of stairs to land a reading.)

I am always astonished that Rick Blechta keeps so many balls in the air at once. He says he has three jobs--and that's not counting steering the Type M for Murder ship. The fact is, most of us have day jobs. Sanity depends upon balancing one's job with one's passion. I'm in a rut this fall where I'm struggling to carve out even 90 minutes a day to write. And it's killing me. I'm not pleasant to be around when I'm not writing. It's a character flaw, but one I don't necessarily wish to change. Lately, there have been the usual distractions – papers to grade, dorm issues (I am a dorm parent to 14 teenage boys), administrative duties – but lately it seems the writing gods have turned on me. I've been besieged by power outages, late-night can't-wait phone calls, and even the passing of a nine-year-old guinea pig, an event Monday night that called for Dad duties to trump Writer duties.

I'm hoping to find a few hours of tranquility to finish a chapter. Just 90 minutes...      

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My own “footsteps into history” story

Oh dear, here’s Blechta again – and very tardy as seems to be the case too often of late. The past few days have just gotten away from me, it seems.

I really enjoy Aline’s post yesterday and have a similar type of story to hers that I’d like to share.

Last year, my wife and I went to Italy for three weeks. In honour of the trip, she learned to speak Italian – fluently. My Italian is strictly limited to bad words (learned from Italian childhood friends), more bad words (learned from my Italian neighbours), and really bad words (learned from Italian conductors). Oh and musical terms, lots of musical terms.

So off we went. Part of it was to do research for the sequel to my about-to-be-launched novel, The Fallen One, and part of the trip was to just experience this most delightful country. On all fronts, the trip was unreservedly successful – except I haven’t finished the damn novel yet. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even gotten the protagonist to Italy yet, other than in a flashback.

The Via Sacra descending into the Forum, Rome AD MMXII.
I was especially eager to see Rome. You see, I took three years of Latin in high school (not mostly forgotten), but our teacher was ex-Army and seemed to focus a lot of his teaching around Caesar’s Gallic Wars. We had so much vocabulary based on military terms, it was quite astonishing. I actually enjoyed those classes, so it makes sense that I grew to love all things Roman. Well, I actually didn’t like all the killing and crucifixions and stuff, but I find the way they lived and worked quite fascinating. Other than Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, UK, I’d never seen anything Roman, so I was champing at the bit.

The second day we were in Rome, I wanted to visit the Forum. After a bit of research, and some guidance from Rick Steves, we approached this ancient landmark from the east, starting at the Colosseum (impressive) walking along the Via Sacra, which was basically ancient Rome’s “main street”.

To be walking the same path so many famous historical people trod was really a marvelous experience. Julius Caesar walked to work here. It was the route of all the Roman triumphs. Two days later cycling on the Appian way, we had the same experience of being where history was made so long ago.

Can I use any of this in my novel? I doubt it. Something like that would probably come across as totally indulgent, but it is tempting…

Monday, September 17, 2012

Where it all began

I have just returned from visiting the birthplace of the book.

My summer holiday, an Aegean cruise, brought many spine-tingling moments, like walking in Ephesus on the very stones St Paul trod on his way to preach to the worshippers of Diana and where Mark Anthony strolled with Cleopatra after laying out for her the very first red carpet - gallons of red wine poured down the street she would step on to as she alighted from the boat that brought her from Egypt to her lover.  A bit sticky, I'd have said, but doubtless she reminded herself it was the thought that counted as it ruined her very best pair of the Egyptian Manolo Blahnik sandals.

As an author, though, the ancient site of Pergamon (above) - now in Turkish Izmir - was of particular fascination.  There's not much left of the once-great city: a theatre, the remains of a temple or two, a shrine, a sanctuary, the market place, all set on a high and windy hill amid barren rocks and scrubby trees.  Yet this is where books began.

Until around the second century BC the great libraries of the Ancient World held only scrolls; you couldn't open a book, you had to unroll it.  It was in Pergamon that parchment (the word derives from the name) began to be used when supplies of papyrus from Egypt dried up.

Lamb or goat skins were treated, stretched and dried - they still make it there today.  It gave a stiff, firm surface for writing on and instead of being glued into a rolling strip, the cured hides were cut to separate sheets and bound so that it became possible to 'read a book' as we do today, although admittedly these books were so heavy and unwieldy that you needed a slave to hold them propped up and turn the pages for you.  So that was how it all started.

I took my i-Pad with me on holiday, of course.  It's ideal for travelling when you have a restricted luggage allowance and I duly loaded some books on to it.  But since my worst nightmare is being stranded somewhere with nothing to read, I can never bring myself to trust a machine - what if it broke down? - so I chucked out a few pairs of shoes in favour of an ample supply of old-fashioned, utterly reliable books.

And you know what?  I never actually got round to the e-books.  I know, I know, I'm a dinosaur.  And yes, I know too that there were plenty of curmudgeonly Greeks and Romans who went about muttering that opening a book just wasn't the same as unrolling it, thank you very much.   They might have felt more like making the effort if they'd known it would be another two thousand years before the system changed.  I, on the other hand, reckon that i would only just have learned to love the e-book when I'd be expected to adapt again to reading books that are projected on to the back of my hand or floating on the air in front of me.  I'm consoling myself with the thought that there will still be plenty of actual books around for me to cosy up to in that intimate way that is so addictive -  and keep the e-books for emergency use.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rhys Bowen: A Writer's Life

I'm thrilled to welcome the fabulous Rhys Bowen as our guest blogger this weekend. Not only is Rhys a New York Times bestselling author and winner of a gazillion awards, she is a fellow British transplant. These days Rhys divides her time between California and Arizona—to escape the harsh California winter, she says. Having been a professional writer all her life, Rhys was happy to talk about what "being a writer" really means. Rhys ... over to you!

When I was young I'd read about writers sitting in their lonely garrets waiting for the muse to call. When the book was finally finished (written in longhand, complete with ink blots and a few tears on it), it was shipped off to the publisher and the writer's job was over.

Oh, how I long for that lonely garret, because actually writing the book is only a small percentage of my writing life. Take what I am doing now, for starters. I blog, I guest blog, I group blog, I have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, Goodreads, Linkedin and my website all of which need my constant attention.

I go around the country to speak, sign and attend conventions. Sometimes these occasions are lovely and really worthwhile. I meet people who have driven miles to come and see me. I reconnect with loyal fans who have been to all my signings. I meet up with writer friends and we gripe together over a glass of wine. And then there are the not-so-brilliant ones, like the ladies luncheon clubs who just need A Speaker and don't care who it is. They tell me they can't give me an honorarium but they will offer me ... and I quote "A free lunch." Do I look as if I'm starving? And then comes the kicker. One of them tells me that they found one of my paperbacks in a used book bin at the retirement center and "they have passed it around all their friends." I'm supposed to drop to my knees with gratitude.

So I'm learning how to say no—politely, of course, because one never knows who one will meet—"Oh, by the way my husband is the head of NBC drama" or "we need a speaker for our huge fundraiser which will be televised".

And then there are the blurb requests. If you have been successful with historical mysteries like me, you become the go-to person for historical mystery blurbs from all the publishers. Since I won't blurb a book I haven't read I find myself with a lot of extra reading to do. It's hard to say no to important editors or fellow writers. Because I was certainly helped when I was a new writer and really believe in paying it forward. So maybe I could forget the book writing and make a good living from my blurbs. My blurbs could range from the hundred dollar variety: "This book was okay," to the thousand dollar quote: "This was the best book I ever read."

And of course for the books that weren't so good one can always say, "I never read anything like it" (meaning no other book was ever this awful) or even "Wow. This was a book!"

I'm just kidding, of course. Blurb quotes are part of the writer's life these days and I'm happy to give fellow writers a little help when I can.

But it all eats into the writing time. I hope to find an hour or so left in every day to do a little writing.  Book writing, I mean. The reason I got into this business in the first place.

Ah, for that lonely garret!
Or a desert island wouldn't be bad either—with pina colladas.

Rhys writes two historical mystery series: the Molly Murphy novels set in early nineteen hundreds New York City and the lighter Royal Spyness books featuring a penniless minor royal in 1930s England. Her next title is The Twelve Clues of Christmas due out this November and preceded by a Lady Georgie e-story called Masked Ball at Broxley Manor coming this October.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Police in Fiction and Real Life

A couple of friends of mine, Gray Cavender and Nancy Jurik, fellow social scientists, have written a book.  Their announcement that Justice Provocateur: Jane Tennison and Policing in Prime Suspect is now available got me thinking about police procedural novels and the radio programs, films, and television shows based on them.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that receiving the e-mail announcement about their book got me thinking again about police procedural novels. Since I have recently finished writing one, I'd certainly been thinking about the subgenre and how it differs from the mystery novels that I've been writing for over a decade. I'd been thinking about why the first-person narration that I use in my amateur sleuth series was a non-starter for my police procedural novel. I'd been thinking of how my strong instinct to create a well-plotted mystery solved at the end of the book aligns with the police procedural in which it is acceptable, although certainly not required, to reveal the culprit early on and have him or her engage the police detectives in a game of cat and mouse. I'd been thinking about how character development and relationship conflict – elements that I have focused on in my amateur sleuth series – should be handled in a police procedural novel when readers are interested in watching cops go through the process of solving a crime (including details about crime scene forensics, autopsies, and legal issues).

I'd also been thinking about police procedurals because an in-class survey revealed that my students in an undergrad class know some recent cop shows (particularly Law and Order and CSI) but generally have not been exposed to the golden oldies and late 20th century classics. I sent them off to watch the first episode of High Street Blues (that two-part first episode that stunned viewers with the violent cliff-hanger at the end of Part I). I haven't asked them yet to watch Dragnet, Highway Patrol, T.J. Hooker, Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O (the original), The Rookies, Barney Miller, McCloud, Columbo, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, or Homicide. I haven't explained to them yet why Police Woman, Get Christie Love, and Cagney and Lacey were ground-breaking shows for women (and don't forget Emma Peel on the other side of the pond -- although technically The Avengers wasn't a cop show, but what female in the viewing audience didn't want to be that cool and competent, not to mention stylish?)

Of course, before the television shows, there were the police procedural novels, often dated from Lawrence Treat's V as in Victim. Among the most enduring and beloved of the police procedural series, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series was set in a city a lot like New York. I thought of Ed McBain when I was putting together the ensemble cast of cops for my own police procedural. But it was to Hill Street Blues that I turned when I was visually a bustling urban police precinct.

It's not that I've never been in a real police station or talked to real cops. I've done ride-alongs, too, and I know that -- although there are moments when policing can be adrenaline-rushing and dangerous -- much about patrol work is more "protecting and serving" than "crime-solving." This would explain why many of the books about cops feature detectives rather than patrol officers.

Fictional police detectives can be brilliant, moody, eccentric, angst-ridden, compassionate, funny, drunken, and/or relentless in their search for truth and justice -- all the things that PIs and amateur sleuths can be. But the police detectives don't need an excuse for getting involved in solving a crime. They get to walk right in and examine the crime scene, talk to the forensics team, go to the autopsy, and ask anyone they'd like any questions that occur to them. Of course, the person being questioned can refuse to answer, but then the fictional police detective can play hard ball (handcuffs, jail, yes, you have the right to call your attorney). No amateur sleuth has that kind of power. Not even private eyes or prosecutors have that kind of power. Well, may be a fictional prosecutor can get a character arrested. But the police detective has a gun and is authorized to use it.

Power to enter a crime scene, power to question suspects, power to make an arrest, and power to shoot to kill when needed – that solves a lot of problems for a writer. No need to deal with the sleuth's motivation and how he or she can obtain evidence and get witnesses to cooperate in his or her inquiry.

But the writer does need to know how the job is done. Research and observation are required if the writer has never been a cop.

And, if the author is writing a book that is true to life, the police detectives in his or her cast of characters must deal with the same issues that real-life detectives deal with -- stress related to the physical, psychological, and ethical demands of the job, stress related to the police bureaucracy, stress related to the police subculture (traditionally white and male), stress related to police-community relations, and stress related to the impact of the job on relationships with spouses, lovers, friends, and relatives.

I'm looking forward to finding out what Cavender and Jurik have discovered about police work as performed by the female detective in Prime Suspect. I'm also looking forward to trying to capture the flavor of real police work in my own fiction.

And, as Sergeant Esterhaus used to say, "Hey, let's be careful out there."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Audience Awareness vs. Meditation

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones again this week. I have used the book several times when teaching an introductory creative writing class because it seems to help kids step from academic writing to a more free-flowing setting.

It is always interesting to me to grapple with Goldberg’s philosophy, which is close to writing-as-meditation. She stresses breaking down barriers and letting your feelings pour out on the page. “There is nothing to writing,” Thomas Wolfe said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Is it that easy?

Not usually. Not for me anyway. What of revision? Although helpful, Goldberg can take one only so far. There are two types of writing, personal and public. If you are writing for publication, you need to go beyond your feelings. Audience awareness is vital.

All of which leads to a central conflict: Who are you writing for, your audience or yourself? Can you have both?

I find myself going back to this inspirational quote by James Lee Burke: “You write it a day at a time and let God be the measure of its worth. You let the score take care of itself; and most important, you never lose faith in your vision… 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.”

We all try to honor our own visions while trying to entertain others. Finding the balance, therefore, is one of the keys to longevity.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Almost too late – or – dropping balls all over the place

It’s really difficult to do three jobs at once, but that’s what I’m attempting to do currently. I have my day gig (designing – including the cover of a new book by a cardinal!), my musical pursuits, and of course a book to launch. Basically, they’re all full-time jobs, so you can imagine what I’m going through. Lately, I wake up in the middle of the night and need to pull out a pencil to add to my lengthy to-do list if I’m ever going to get back to sleep. I’m deathly afraid I’m going to completely forget something. That’s led to the creation of spreadsheets for spreadsheets at this point!

Fortunately with a book launch, I’ve been around this block a few times before, so keeping on top of things is more about time-management and organization than anything. Did I mention that my publisher just assigned me to a new publicist, the third I’ve worked with? Fortunately, Jim seems keen and with it, so it’s hopefully just a matter of bringing him up to speed and then keeping in touch with him.

I’ve got a fair number of signings organized, but organization is the key here. There’s nothing worse than driving a good distance to a bookstore only to find out that they’ve dropped the ball and had no idea you were coming, ordered no books, and seem pissed off to even see you (probably embarrassment kicking in). That’s happened to me twice, once at the end of a 3.5-hour drive. Note to any author traveling: always check in at least 3 weeks before a signing to make sure you haven’t fallen off their radar. The larger the store, the easier this is to happen. Also, take printouts of all emails exchanged and keep a log of all phone contacts. Trust me. It can help.

Launches are another matter. Most people have a small gathering at a bookstore where a bit of cheese is eaten, glasses of wine quaffed (I love that word!) and some books purchased and signed. After an hour, it’s all over, and for the author it can be sort of depressing, considering the work that’s gone into just writing the book, and for the publisher who was hoping to get some attention.

I must admit that is a lot easier than what I’m doing, but dammit, it’s been 4 years since I’ve had a full-length novel out and bringing this one to fruition has been a bigger job than usual. I want to celebrate!

But boy, is it a lot of work to organize (and expensive)! In another display of blatant self-promotion, I’m including the Official Invite with this post. Consider yourselves invited yet again.

Oh darn. A design client wants some changes. Gotta run. And oh my God, I haven’t even touched my trumpet yet today! And then there’s my ongoing website updates. And the Facebook event announcement! And…

Ah, the writing life, locking oneself in a cabin in the woods, communing with one’s inner muse. Eventually producing a manuscript, then sitting back and waiting for the interview requests, the festivals to come calling, the TV producers wanting you.

It ain’t like that, folks!

[Sorry I was late posting today. Hopefully, you sort of understand why at this point.]