Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Writerly World View

Rick's post last Tuesday, "Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius hits the wall," has had me thinking since I read it. This alleged crime has certainly puzzled and frustrated him.

He's a writer, for sure.

What qualities should a writer have? It's a question I'm occasionally asked. Not sure I know. Not sure there are a set of must-have personality traits. But I have seen similarities among a lot of writers I know. Most are interested to the point of being obsessed with the human condition, with trying to figure out why people act as they do. During an interview with Mystery Scene, author Sue Grafton once said, “Mysteries are about the psychology of crime and the psychology of human nature.” In short, most writers I know are arm-chair psychologists.

I'm intrigued by the human nature and the why dun-it component of both fictional and real-world crimes. And I think there's something else that drives writers, particularly crime writers, vanity. We believe our world view to be correct and worth sharing. In the New York Times' "Writers on Writing" series, James Lee Burke once said, “A real writer [thinks] 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.” I plead guilty as charged.

Here's where Rick and I differ. He says he doesn't believe he'll write about the Pistorius situation. Not so with me. I'm certain I will – consciously or unconsciously – write about the traumas and rage that must have been present at the scene. Not explicitly or salaciously. But I, too, have a set of questions that I keep coming back to, questions about what really went on in that house that night, questions about the terror Reeva Steenkamp must have felt, about the rage Oscar Pistorius must have felt. Questions like, How does one go from being the hero of the Summer Olympic Games to a downfall as swift and sudden as the narrative of Oedipus?

For me, it comes down to the human condition: Was Pistorius's downfall really as swift and sudden as it seems? Did anyone see it coming? What could have possibly driven the two people in that house that night to the end? What conversations took place? What did each person feel?

So Pistorius and Steenkamp will show up in my work. Just not directly. And I believe they will appear in many other writers' works as well. It's what we do.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How To Keep Your Book In the Library: Part Two

As promised, here is the second part to my earlier post, “Terriers of the Information World.” Once again, a huge thank you to Monique Flasch, Susan Gibberman, Marlene Leonardi and Patricia Ruocco for being so generous and gracious with their advice and suggestions.

In a nutshell, keeping your book on a library shelf boils down to practicalities. Libraries only have so much space!

Of course each library has its own criteria before removing a title from the collection but on the whole it depends on the following:
  • The general size of the collection
  • The amount of available space in the relevant section
  • Patron usage of the collection
  • The condition of the item—was it dropped in the bath? Chewed by the dog?
  • If the title is still in print
  • The purchase price of another copy
  • Is the book (or series) a paperback original? Librarians are more likely to weed paperbacks as opposed to hardcover or large print
  • The Mission statement of the library

However, there are some tricks to making your book seem more “attractive.” Ask your friends and family members to check it out or even check it/them out yourself! Librarians say they don’t look at who checked the book out last … they look at when it last circulated.

Another incentive is if the author has a new book coming out—especially in the case of an ongoing series. Librarians will often keep a run of a series together rather than a stand-alone.

Authors can also make themselves available for panel presentations where often, the library will either arrange with a local bookseller to sell the author’s books. Joining forces with other authors is also a good idea since patrons are more likely to come and see a group of authors rather than one “unknown.”

Then … there is the tricky subject of an honorarium. I know that some authors balk at agreeing to do library appearances without some kind of compensation—possibly because very few books are usually sold. Hey! It’s a library, folks!

Frankly, I’m a huge supporter of libraries and if I do get a few copies of my book sold that’s money for jam. I’m also a great believer in library-karma … what goes around, comes around and in my experience, I’ve had the most wonderful invitations to speak at charity luncheons and book clubs that all started with a library panel. Sisters in Crime have strong relationships with libraries. So if you aren't already a member, sign up! 

And finally … as bricks and mortar bookstores continue to disappear, thank heavens for libraries! We’re lucky to have them so please, at the very least, join your local Friends of the Library.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Social media: friend or foe?

Following Frankie’s excellent post about social media on February 15th, I was going to write about it last week, and then a certain South African runner got himself into trouble. I couldn’t let that opportunity pass by (no pun intended).

I have always had an ambivalent relationship with what we now call “social media”. Early on, I got on to blogging, but it was through my website, and probably only a handful of people ever bothered to read it. When blogging websites, like the one your on right now, came along, I was all in. I still am. I take part in three of them.

Then Facebook and Twitter arrived (among others) and things went off in different directions. Lost somewhere in there are bulletin boards which are still popular with a lot of folks. With all of those things going on, and new ones arriving nearly every day, an author could spend a good deal of his/her day keeping an iron in several fires, causing them not to have enough time to spend on their writing.

With publishers now telling all their authors that it’s up to them to make sure they have an active presence on social media, there’s a lot of pressure that needs to be faced. Barbara wrote about just that sometime in the past year.

No doubt, with corporate interests controlling most of what we see and hear, social media can be a real boon to those of us with little money and not much more profile. But it can come with a cost. Things can get out of hand in a big hurry.

First, I’d like to share this article with you: How cyber-bullies got inside Rebecca Marino’s head.

This is obviously an extreme case, but it can happen at any time. For those of us who are using Twitter and Facebook, etc. to help promote ourselves, we are also opening ourselves up to the same thing Rebecca Marino has had to deal with.

Think I’m being too alarmist? Consider this: how many authors have had their work savaged by online reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, et al by a person who has just taken a massive dislike to something. I know of one author who is trying to deal with just that. One fan has taken to trashing her books by writing reviews under different identities, driving down ratings and making a good book appear to be a piece of junk. That’s sort of frightening. It might be called stalking by review. The author has no idea who the person is or why they hate her so much, but at last count there were over 50 bad reviews that all have eery similarities.

I had a horrible review put on Amazon for one of my novels and I’m pretty certain I can trace it back to someone in New York City who had a big hate on for me because of something I posted (under my own name) on a music bulletin board, warning people to be careful if they were considering buying a particular instrument from this individual. Since it was the only review the book had on Amazon for several weeks, it was definitely damaging to sales.

Am I about to close my Facebook pages and disappear into a small room to like my wounds? Heavens no! Social media is about the only place I can promote myself without spending more money than I make from my writing.

All I’m saying is to be careful and be smart.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Worlds Apart

Sometimes, finding a title for a post is the harder part. Somewhere in the literary world, I am almost certain, there is a large firm of very well-paid scribblers whose sole function is to come up with titles for books, names for car models, political slogans, and bumper stickers of all descriptions. When I was looking for a title for my first Stride opus, I compiled a short list, and originally decided on The Drowning Place. But I eventually settled on Undertow. It seemed like a better idea. Then I googled the title and found several books with that title already on the market. That told me that there is no way to copyright titles; and because I liked that "undertow" meant - a current below the surface of the sea that moves in the opposite direction to the current on the surface – I went with that. It fitted well with the personality and history of the central villain in the piece.

Also, many years earlier, in September 1957, during a short trip to New York, I went swimming off Jones Beach and was actually caught in the undertow. Although I was swimming as vigorously as I could, I found that I was being pulled farther out to sea with every stroke. Complicating the situation was the fact that the beach was almost deserted. No lifeguards at that time of year. A very scary situation.

Obviously I did survive, if only just. I waited for a wave of some magnitude, and went with it towards the shore, flailing madly, more often under the water than on the surface. When I hit the shore – literally – I was gasping and choking, but I was alive.

But I digress. (I tend to do that a lot; which makes any excursion on the internet a trap for me.)

I will start by saying that the "worlds apart" heading for this post include South Africa and Cuba.

I had intended to write a post on the Oscar Pistorius situation in South Africa, but I see that Rick Blechta – the devil! – has stolen my thunder. Just as well, really. It's a tricky situation writing about an issue that is just now before the courts.

My approach to the Pistorius story was going to be the possibility that anabolic steroids might have played a role in the tragedy. The possibility that Pistorius was taking steroids to improve his athletic performance had occurred to me early on. I noted that today – I am writing this post on Wednesday February 20th, but the post will appear on Monday the 25th – the Huffington Post has a piece on the possibility that "roid rage"might be brought up by the defense in this sad case. I would have thought that the prosecution, not the defense, might have brought that up. Not having a legal background, I would have thought that if Pistorius was shown to have significant levels of anabolic steroids in his system, meaning that he had knowingly dosed himself with same, that would work against him. But the Post article suggested that this could be a possible line of defense: a "Roid Rage-based Insanity Defense". The article also said that the police had taken blood samples from Pistorius immediately after the killing, specifically to exclude that sort of defense strategy. Interesting.

So, not having the "Pistorius affair" to write about this time out, the question was, as it so often is, what to write about? Well, I am heading off to Cuba for a week in the sun, so it occurred to me that blogging about mystery novels set in Cuba might be interesting. I know there are any number of such novels "out there".

As one example, Martin Cruz Smith placed his fictional detective Arkady Renko - famous for his adventures in Gorky Park - in Havana for Havana Bay, in 1999.

There is also Jose Latour, who was born in Cuba in 1940, but is now living in Toronto. Latour has a series of well-reviewed mystery novels set in his native land. He was initially published in his native Cuba, but he ran into serious problems with his novel The Fool, as noted in Wikipedia:

"In 1994 Latour submitted his new book The Fool to his Cuban publisher. Based on a real-life case of corruption in the ministries of the Interior and the Armed Forces, the book was considered counterrevolutionary and its author labeled an ‘enemy of the people’. "

Not too surprising, really, given the nature of the Castro government. So, after that, Latour decided to try writing in English. His output has been impressive. The list includes Havana Best Friends (2002), Havana World Series (2003), Outcast (2007), Comrades In Miami (2008), and Crime of Fashion (2010). Outcast,  published in the U.S., Japan, five Western European countries and Brazil, received good reviews and was even nominated for an Edgar.

Latour and his family moved to Spain in August 2002 and to then to Canada in September 2004.

A native-born Canadian writer, Peggy Blair, who lives and writes in Ottawa, released The Beggar's Opera (2012), set in present day Havana, to very positive reviews. Her second book in the series, The Poisoned Pawn, is due out soon, and already has garnered positive reviews in the Globe and Mail and The National Post.

But it's a Cuban writer, still residing in Cuba, who has now caught my attention. I will finish this post with some information on him. His full name is Leonardo Padura Fuentes, but he writes under his first two names, Leonardo Padura.

Padura was born in Havana and now lives in the working class suburb of Mantilla. He took a degree in Latin American literature at the University of Havana. He initially worked as an investigative journalist, where he came to prominence writing for a literary magazine, Caiman Barbudo. I will be upfront here and admit that I had never heard of Padura until I Googled "mystery novels Cuba" this morning. Very remiss of me, given that I have an ongoing interest in Cuba, and have visited the country a half-dozen times. Even more remiss considering that the Ottawa Public Library has copies of his novels in their collection.

Wikipedia writes that Padura is best known in the English-speaking world for his quartet of detective novels featuring lieutenant Mario Conde, Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons). The books are available in English translations.

The novels are:
  • Pasado perfecto, 1991; published as Havana Blue, 2007
  • Vientos de cuaresma, 1994, published as Havana Gold, 2008
  • Mascaras, 1997, published as Havana Red, 2005, and
  • Paisaje de otoño, 1998, published as Havana Black, 2006
The books are set respectively in winter, spring, summer and autumn. Lieutenant Mario Conde is a cop who would rather be a writer, and who admits to feelings of "solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards".

The fifth novel in the Mario Conde series is Adios Hemingway. The late 1950's Hemingway fits easily and well into Padura's view of the world. Hemingway and Padura have things in common: the beard, the occasional guayabera shirt, the keen interest in sports (Padura hoped to become a pro baseball player until he realised “I didn’t have enough strength to be a good hitter”). Both men started out as journalists and let their reporter’s eye lead them to a kind of fiction that strives, above all, to tell the truth. And both men chose to live and work away from Havana’s center: Padura in the house, built by his grandfather, where he was born; Hemingway in his Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), a 19th-century estate situated about 16 kilometres east of Havana.

Leonardo Padura has also been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Danish, and Greek.

The upshot of all this is that I now have a new author to read. Would that I had at least one of his books in hand for my trip to Varadero.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What's in a name?

I recently spoke at a high-school class to discuss a topic with a clumsy moniker: Latino/Hispanic/Chicano literature. Why all the names? Because every one of these handles is loaded with cultural freight. When I have to identify myself, as in when people ask, what are you? I know what they mean. Even though I was born, raised, and educated in the USofA, apparently I speak with an accent and have a "not-from-here" complexion. When others use the term "people of color," they look in my direction as if I am a green Martian. So to answer the question, given column A, B, or C, which am I? I choose Chicano, which is a Mexican-American with cultural roots in this country. Oh sure, I know about Univision but give me the Discovery Channel and AMC. I like tacos and hamburgers. And there's a political, militant thrust to Chicano that I take pride in. Why have a cultural identity at all? Why not just declare myself an AMERICAN? Because when I've gotten stopped by the police or the Border Patrol, it wasn't because I looked like a Stewart or a Knutsen.

Hispanic is a necessary umbrella word because a lot of "us" aren't Chicanos. Uncle Sam's brown chillin' include Guatemalans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Panamanians, and on and on. But the ethnic taxonomy remains complicated. What about Brazilians? They come from south of the border. Way south. But Brazilians can't be considered Hispanic because it was Portugal, not Spain, that conquered settled Brazil.

Which brings us to Latin. In an effort to find a common denominator among us from aya, etymologists fixated on the idea that since Spanish and Portuguese are Romance languages--wait a minute!!! 

Why can't I be called a Romance-American? Or a Romantic? I can totally dig that.

But no. The decision was to instead tag us as Latins. And the derivation, Latino. Should I complain? After all, when you think of Latin, what comes to mind? A Latin lover. Suave. Handsome. Debonair. Romantic. So absolutely me.

Excluded from the Latino grouping are the French (so very romantic), the Italians (even more romantic), and the Romanians (apparently not romantic enough even though they adopted the term as their ethnic name).

Which leads to another absurdity. How many of us Latinos speak Latin? So who spoke Latin? The Romans, who were long gone before the first lowrider cruised the barrio.

And this P.C. gets even more ridiculous at the supermarket. My local Kroger has an aisle labeled "Latin" foods. I should go Roman on them and ask what to serve at an orgy. Stuffed peacock perhaps.

Interlibrary Loan

Hannah contributed one of my favorite posts to Type M a couple of days ago. Entitled "Terriers of the Information World" it was all about libraries and librarians. I can never repay the debt I owe to libraries that are on the Interlibrary Loan system.

Through Interlibrary Loan I've ordered a staggering number of microfilmed newspapers and also obscure books that would be of no interest to most library patrons. It would be a waste of precious resources for a library to carry some of the books I've really really needed. Fitting collars on draft horses, for instance, or reprints of old Grange speechs.

Because of this, I waive all speaking fees for libraries that use Interlibrary Loan. I hope their budget will pay my expenses. I need money for gas and a place to stay. If there is no money at all then I try to come anyway and hit a number of libraries along the way.

I once told my husband that since I lived mostly in my head I really didn't care where he plopped by body--provided the resident county had Interlibrary Loan. It would take a twenty mule team to drag me into a county that is not connected to this service.

First graders aren't too young to start using Interlibrary Loan. The very first time a child gets hooked on an author with other books available, but not shelved locally, he or she should march right up to the librarian and ask her to place an order. Children should be comfortable with requesting services.

Loveland has a very active Friends of the Library organization. Our volunteers are awesome. Our library is state of the art and I haven't begun to tap all the resource available. There are daily workshops, training sessions, discussion groups, presentations, and book clubs. Children have a number of delightful events to choose from.

There are no bookstores west of Hays, Kansas. Events flow through our lbraries. Support yours by donating time and money.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Decided to Write About What I Write About and Got It Published to Boot

Since I have been away from Type M for a year, allow me to refresh your memory, Dear Reader, about how I got into the authoring business. In 1999, after I closed my business and discovered I now had time to do research, I decided to write a family genealogy for my siblings as a Christmas present. In the course of the research I ran across stories and anecdotes about ancestors, which led me to remember stories my grandparents and parents had told me about their parents and grandparents, and life on the farm. I began questioning my mother, and then to write down my own memories. When I shared my stories with my husband he began to reminisce about his (extremely colorful) Oklahoma pioneering family. This led me to begin questioning his siblings. At the end of the process I had a book length genealogy packed with stories from the French and Indian wars, the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, ambushes, murders, adoptions, divorces and adultery — settlers and Indians, massacres, poisonings, axings, shootings, drownings, and smashing people in the head with beer bottles. In the end, I said to myself, “Donis, you have enough material here for ten novels.” Using my own background as inspiration, I set out to write a mystery.  It took me a little less than a year to write my first Alafair Tucker novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.

Though my series couldn’t be more different when it comes to time, place, and language, it is blatantly patterned after Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Just like Peters’ series, I wanted mine to be centered around a warm-hearted sleuth with a lot of insight into human nature. I wanted to have a very strong sense of place and time in my books, which is something that particularly impressed me about Peters’ books. I’m also very much influenced by Mark Twain’s use of language.

My sleuth, Alafair Tucker, is a woman in her early forties who lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm in Muskogee County Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but all those pesky kids keep getting involved in unsavory situations and need their mother to get them out of trouble. Fortunately for me, Alafair is the kind of woman who will literally do anything, legal or not so legal, for her kids.

Alafair and her family are all based on relatives of mine, living and dead. One of my great-grandmothers was named Alafair Wilson. Another was called Selinda Tucker. I interviewed many relatives for the series. Many of the details of Alafair’s life on the farm, such as using kerosine-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, come from my mother, who grew up on a farm during the Depression. Many of the incidents related actually happened, both in my family and my husband’s (the less savory ones, he points out).

There is nothing that irritates me more in a historical novel than a character who has modern sensibilities. So, as best as I can make her, Alafair is a woman of her times. She leads a life that is so busy that it wouldn’t be realistic if she could easily drop everything on a whim and go off to gather clues. But she has her army of grown and half-grown children to snoop for her, as well as her web of women relatives and friends who are willing to help her. Her information network is better than the sheriff’s.

There’s a lot of humor inherent in raising a bunch of kids, like my sleuth is doing, so I do have quite a bit of humor in the books. But I don’t think of the series as being comic. Rural Oklahoma in the 1910s was a tough place. Alafair and her husband Shaw have had more than their share of trouble and heartache.

In my youth, I wrote a long book and got an agent who shopped it around for literally years.  She never sold it, but I did get a lot of useful feedback from editors.  Years later, after I finished Buzzard, I intended to find another agent, and was getting my query package together when I checked the Poisoned Pen Press website and saw that they would read unagented material.  Since they have a very good reputation, I thought what the heck, I'll send them a query while waiting for a response from an agent.  A week later I got an email from the press asking me for an outline and 3 chapters.Then in a few more weeks they asked for the entire MS.  Three or four months after that, before I had settled on an agent, Poisoned Pen made me an offer, which I accepted.  Almost exactly one year from that first query, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming was published. It was received very well, winning the Arizona Book Award, becoming a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Benjamin Franklin Book Award, and being named an Oklahoma Centennial Book in 2007.

And now, six books later, Alafair is still going strong.

Believe me, the way Buzzard came to be published is not the normal author experience.  I expected the usual - many rejections before acceptance, and I was amazed that the very first place the book was submitted to accepted it.  All those years of practice paid off, I suppose.  And I also suppose that I finally wrote the book I was meant to write.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Innocent until proven guilty

In his post of yesterday, Rick poses a very sensible question about Oscar Pistorius (which applies equally to many other murderers and wrong-doers facing the law courts). How can the man be so arrogant as to fabricate this unlikely story about self-defence against an intruder, when all the facts cry out against him? Why can he not simply break down and admit that he took an innocent human being's life? And then do his penance?

It would be an honourable course of action, a moral one in which each of us takes responsibility for our actions and atones for the wrongs we have inflicted upon others. However, how many times have we watched people try to weasel out of their responsibility instead, by denying, blaming or deflecting? And how often have we thought, only a true slime ball would sink that low?

The truth is that it's more complicated than that. Our justice system, based on British common law, presumes that an accused is innocent and requires the prosecutor to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This idea was born of noble intentions – to avoid innocents being railroaded by the powerful and wealthy state – and indeed in principle, it remains a noble cornerstone of our justice. As the saying goes, better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted. And we know that even with that stringent burden of proof, innocent people go to jail. Before the abolition of capital punishment here in Canada, innocent people were hanged.

And yet, from this noble principle, over time a twisted perversion has emerged. Never, under any circumstances, admit you're wrong. Never confess to a crime when there's a chance you can get away with it. This perversion surfaces much more often among the rich and the powerful, who already have an inflated sense of their worth relative to others and who can afford the best lawyers and buy the best advice. It applies not just to murder but to lesser crimes like medical mistakes, errors in judgement, drunk driving and the like. Invent the best story you can, lie and keep on lying, make them prove every fact, chip away at every piece of evidence. OJ was the poster boy for this, but we don't have to look any further than our own politicians, with their deny, deny, deny mentality, for more recent examples. When was the last time you heard a politician say 'yes, we used dirty tricks during the election and we apologize for misleading and manipulating the public'? When was the last time they admitted to padding their expense account or calling in a dubious favour?

This amoral behaviour on the part of our leaders and heroes trickles down to our own everyday behaviour. People often deny their guilt; they don't apologize to each other or attempt to make amends. If our politicians can lie through their teeth to further their own ends, well, what's the big deal then? 'I'm sorry for what I did' has become the hallmark of suckers. Only in fiction does the villain break down and confess when the detective confronts him, or collapse on the witness stand under the grilling of Perry Mason. More and more people are developing that sense of entitlement Rick refers to. Me first. Make me. Prove it.

I don't have answers. I think the 'innocent until proven guilty' principle is central to protect us from the arbitrary power of the state, but I wonder about the principle's own power to corrupt and undermine our sense of moral obligation. Have we gone too far? Can we turn the tide, now that so many see nothing wrong with pretence, denial and lies? Can we bring back an old-fashioned sense of responsibility which encourages us all to stand up not only for our rights, but also, for the sake of a civil and compassionate society, to stand up when we know we are wrong.

Only in fiction, perhaps.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius hits the wall

I have to admit I don’t generally pay much attention to the Olympics. But one of the very few things I do remember from the 2012 Olympics in Britain (other than the Queen parachuting into the stadium with James Bond as part of the opening ceremony) was the story of Oscar Pistorius, a South African double leg amputee who participated in the track and field events. I also remember the controversy about his prosthetic blades possibly given him an advantage in the events in which he participated. After the close of the games, however, he faded from my thoughts.

Until this past weekend.

Since I’m sure most Type M readers have been following the sad news from Pretoria, I won’t rehash much of what the media knows for sure at this point, and the details of the murder of Pistorius’ girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is not really what this post is about. This post is also not about how the lawyers on both sides of the case are jockeying for position as the legal process gears up for yet another “Trial of the Century”.

From what has been related at the bail hearing for Pistorius, it is undisputed that the defendant fired the shots that killed Ms Steenkamp. She was hit three times by the four shots fired through a locked bathroom door. The prosecution states that it was willful murder, following a loud argument heard by neighbours. The defense is equally adamant that it was a tragic accident. Pistorius states in a defense affidavit that he thought there was an intruder cowering behind the locked door of what sounds to be no more than a powder room. (It’s described in news reports as a “small bathroom”.) I imagine there was little place to hide from the gunshots.

From the little that is known for sure, it sounds to me as if Pistorius is guilty as sin and that the defense is grasping at very thin straws. Pistorius’ affadavit maintains he “felt vulnerable” because he did not have on his prosthetic legs when he pumped bullets into the locked bathroom door. He also claims he then realized that his girlfriend was not in his bed.

Here are some questions to which I want answers:
  • Why would he go down that hall without his artificial legs if he “felt vulnerable”?
  • Why would he think that an intruder had locked him/herself in the bathroom and why wouldn’t he just wait there with his handgun for the police to arrive?
  • But upon hearing a possible intruder, wouldn’t anyone’s first response be to tell the person with whom you were sharing your bed?
  • And why wouldn’t you tell that person to call the police while you investigated the sounds you heard?

The answers to these and many other questions will form the basis of the coming trial, and it will be interesting to see how the defense responds. Personally, I don’t see how they can hope to pull this off. From my vantage point (as I’m sure from yours), this looks to be an open and shut case.

But what has me really spellbound is the arrogance of it all.

Didn’t we just see the same sort of thing from Lance Armstrong? Wasn’t the case against him more than overwhelming, too? And yet for years he also adamantly held out that he was not involved in any sort of cheating by using performance-enhancing drugs to win all those bike races. In the end, the evidence became too much to overcome by lying and stonewalling, leaving him no choice but to come clean, although his Oprah “confession” seems to me to have been rather disingenuous and grudging. How can this man live with himself? The only saving grace was that he didn’t kill anyone – although he tried really hard to ruin several people’s lives.

And that’s where my crime writer’s hat gets put on my head.

I doubt if I’m going to write a novel based on Pistorius’ horrendous fall from grace, but I just might take a run at a character of such overwhelming entitlement who cannot bring himself to say, “Look here, I screwed up horribly and ended the life of another human being. I cannot express my sorrow at what I’ve done, but there it is. I’m guilty of murder.”

The psychological make-up of a person like this would be a fascinating centre to a novel, an anti-hero of gigantic proportions if handled correctly. Perhaps Barbara with her professional background would be better suited to best deal with character like this, but I have to admit that the prospect of trying to tell a story based on an examination of someone like this is a very enticing one.

And from here on in, the story of Oscar Pistorius will be firmly in my sights.

Some late-breaking news: I wrote the post above without having access to the prosecution’s information. I should have waited, because if proven true and accurate, Oscar is in even more trouble than I imagined.

According to the prosecution’s affidavit in the bail hearing, Steenkamp was hiding in a closed off toilet area of a larger bathroom. Because it was broken open, the strong inference was that it had been locked by her from the inside. This means that Pistorius fired his gun four times into this confined area. Surely he had to know that at least one of those shots would have nailed someone. It begs the larger question: why had Steenkamp locked the door behind her? This isn’t the behaviour of a lover when spending the night alone with her significant other. Surely she can’t have been that modest if she got up for a wee in the early hours! And he claims he called out to Steenkamp to call the police, since he believed she was still back in the bedroom. She didn’t answer from the toilet area. Wouldn’t that be the expected thing to happen.

Who are this guy and his lawyer kidding? Open and shut from where I sit. He should be a real human being, admit his guilt and take his lumps.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fifty Shades of Something

Charlotte's post last week mentioning Peyton Place got me thinking how much times have changed, now we are in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Long, long ago, my children, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I spent a few months between school and university working as a librarian.  In those days censorship was alive and kicking and books like Peyton Place were weeded out from the public shelves and removed to a section called the 'Blue 'Books' – is 'blue' meaning  'indecent' still in common use? – which could be accessed on request, by anyone brave enough to ask. There was, you understand, nothing that was anything like as sensational as Lady Chatterley's Lover – the trial, when the famous question, 'Is this something you would wish your wives and servants to read?' was asked, still lay ahead.

The Blue Books in our library were kept upstairs in the little office where we had our coffee breaks and proved quite educational after a sheltered girlhood. Sometimes we were quite late getting back.

The day came when a man actually came and asked to see the Blue Books. With the shock waves the request produced, it is surprising that the walls of the library didn't start to shake and crumble. The Assistant Librarian, who was at the desk, went pale and said, 'I'll fetch the Chief Librarian.'

She was exactly like the caricature of a librarian: spectacles, hair in a bun – though not the sort someone would pull loose, murmuring as they whipped off the specs, 'Why, Miss Ryan, you're beautiful,' since they were combined with beady dark eyes, sallow skin and a pointed nose. She favoured grey skirts and hand-knitted cardigans a lot. (I know you think I'm exaggerating but I swear I'm not.)

She had a habit of sniffing when she disapproved of something and when the hapless gentleman was presented to her she employed this to considerable effect before saying, 'Follow me,' in frigid tones and escorting him upstairs to the office. With her eyes averted she gestured generally in the direction of the Blue Book shelf and said, 'There you are!.'

The man seemed confused. 'Where?' and she pointed again.

'I'm sorry,' he said, still puzzled. 'I don't see them. The Blue Books – the government reports?'

To her credit, she made a swift recovery. 'Oh, I'm so sorry. They must have been moved. They'll be in the reference library – this way.' She was extremely charming to him thereafter.

And unlike Charlotte, I remember Peyton Place quite vividly!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Social Media and the Bashful Author

After a conversation over lunch with my publisher's marketing and social media pros, I am convinced that I should give social media a chance. I have to do my part as a good author to help them promote me. However, you see before you a bashful author. I'm a teacher. I'm accustomed to standing up in front of people and talking. I don't mind at all chatting with readers and other writers at conferences. In fact, I usually enjoy it.

But I am not looking forward to sending out tweets. Anything I can say in so few characters would probably be much better said in half a page or even two. I worry about stripping what I am writing about of "context". This may have something to do with my areas of research as an academic. I study crime and mass media/ popular culture, and crime history. I spend a lot of my time telling students and anyone else who will listen about the importance of examining crime-related issues and events in larger social and historical context. My tagline on my website is "Every Crime Deserves Context."

And then there is the question of whether I have anything interesting to say. I know from conversations and research that I am not required to tweet about myself. That's fortunate because my day-to-day life is not exciting. No red carpet events. No late breaking news. Just me at my desk in front of my computer or in the library or in the classroom. Or, getting out and about now and then to do some research. Hey, last weekend I did go to an archery store to find out about bows. I'm even going to take some lessons. But I don't think I want to tweet about my lousy form which will require some practice to correct.

I am going to tweet about whatever I can say in very short form about crime, culture, and history. Particularly if it is relevant to my new series and my new book - set in Albany, New York in 2019, with Alice in Wonderland, the yellow brick road, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, climate change, and my own university all playing some role in my parallel universe. I'm hoping there will be enough there to keep me going for a while. And I understand that I can pre-load my tweets. So maybe I can manage one or two a day -- forget that four or five that I saw recommended. But maybe that includes reading other people's tweets and responding. I understand that is a part of the process.

And, of course, there is Facebook. I believe I have a Facebook account because I needed to see someone else's page. My theory about Facebook is that it will be a lot easier than Twitter for me to master. I intend to do an "author's photo essay" of places in Albany, New York. I have no talent at all with a camera. I use disposable cameras. So my first step -- this weekend -- is to go out and buy a camera and get someone to explain how I upload photos to Facebook. The other thing I have to do is go out and take some photos. Since these photos are going to be in keeping wirh my Alice in Wonderland theme, I'm not too worried -- distortions and odd perspectives will work.

So I have a mission -- become a bashful author who uses social media. And I have a game plan -- don't make it about me -- make it about crime, history, the book, and the place.

We'll see how it goes -- and, of course, if you communicate with me on Twitter or Facebook, I will overcome my bashfulness and reply. If I can figure out how to do that.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Colliding Worlds

There was a great Seinfeld episode where George claimed, after his girlfriend met Jerry and Elaine, the his "worlds were colliding." I had a similar experience last week, when my daughter showed me a comic about what authors mean and what annoying English teachers ("like you, Dad") think the author means.

You've probably seen these comics before. To my 14-year-old daughter, whose lowest grade is a B+ in English (much to the chagrin of her father, who chairs the damned department), the comic (bad language and all) is hysterical.

Hyperbole? Sure. A smattering of truth? Hmmm.

Admittedly, the poster gave me pause. Am I one of those teachers? No, probably not. Yet the joke speaks to my duel life as author and literature teacher. It's a delicate balancing act. Many find it troublesome; some of the most talented writers I studied with in graduate school found their own creativity stifled when they started teaching – no free time and too much time spent reading truly great writers to feel good about their own rough drafts.

It is why I compartmentalize my world. The writer stays home when the teacher puts on the jacket and tie and heads to the classroom. The writer says the opening paragraph in Steinbeck's "Chrysanthemums" is heavy handed and too obviously symbolic. The teacher points the symbol out to the students and asks them what it might represent.

 It can be a tough balancing act, but it is necessary and one I find fulfilling.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Terriers of the Information World

Two weeks ago I attended “Love Is Murder” in Chicago. I had never been to this conference before but I’m very glad I did. The panels were terrific. One panel in particular I found really helpful—“Straight Talk: From Librarians to Writers. Getting and Keeping Your Book in Our Libraries.”

Calling themselves “Terriers of the Information World,” the panel consisted of four amazing librarians—Monique Flasch, Susan Gibberman, Marlene Leonardi and Patricia Ruocco.

The Scoop:
With over 17,000 libraries in the USA, libraries wield tremendous power. When a library buys a book it is stamped and cannot be returned. Although print is still the predominant market in a library, Kindles and other e-reader devices are becoming more and more available and in demand. Each device holds a specific genre e.g. “the romance device” or the “mystery device.”

Librarians have to consider cost when purchasing a book. They don't get a discount! Each library has a different budget and patron requests to consider. Residency is always an advantage since some librarians automatically buy books written by their local authors.  And of course, author visits are always popular. Let libraries know you are happy to come in and talk. Be an expert on something you can tie in with your book since libraries will often buy the book of the visiting author.

Librarians select their books as follows:
  • Reviews in professional journals like Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. Surprisingly enough, librarians focus more on the synopsis rather than the number of stars. They know their patrons and they know what their patrons read.
  • Local and/or national newspaper reviews.
  • Genre-specific publications (e.g. Mystery Scene, RT Book Club)
  • Genre websites.
The panelists were quick to point out that they take no notice of Amazon reader reviews—in fact a lively discussion ensued regarding the Harriet Klausner debacle. Read here if you missed it. It’s fascinating and a bit depressing actually.

How can authors become more “attractive” to librarians?
  • Join organizations like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.
  • Keep websites current—they DO visit author websites. They like the idea of a ready-made mailing list. They love a highly visible link to your book lists in series order. Make this list (if possible) a printable list.
  • Note prominently if your books are available in Large Print, Audio books and Kindle or download-compatible.
  • If you get a stellar review—put it up on your website. Again, make it visible.

Librarians go to conferences, bookstore signings and book fairs—Printers’ Row is a favorite—so look out for them and introduce yourselves. Librarians love authors! They want to meet you!

Visit your local library but make sure you ask for the right person who handles your genre. When donating your books, again, ask for the right person—don’t just leave them at the desk where they are most likely to end up in the dumpster. If you are local–tell them.

Remember, librarians receive a ton of solicitations to purchase titles so be respectful. If emailing them … remember to have a link to your website in your signature line and always put in your library card number!

Check back on February 27 for part two of this post which will deal with keeping your book on the shelf and not in the dumpster!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

When a book’s “calling card” falls flat

Time to return to that evergreen topic of book covers. I’ve written extensively on Type M about covers, and while none of my postings have become classics in blog-dom, many readers have told me they have found them informative.

As e-book sales started their ascent, many graphic designers were wringing their hands at what might be the death knell of a large part of many’s income. That worry was proved baseless long ago. Every book needs a cover, whether it lives only electronically or is physically sitting in a stack next to one’s bed. The craft of fashioning an arresting and intriguing cover will continue to march into the future.

But there is another worrying trend: the covers of self-published books.

Self-published books have always been around, but in the computer age, they are sprouting up at an alarming rate, like so many weeds in a pristine English garden. I don’t mean to disparage those who self-publish. I started out that way myself in 1992 with my first novel, Knock on Wood, in an attempt to jump-start my career. I haven’t been able to bear to read even a page of it for many years. It had a reasonable storyline, but the quality of the writing… How about we just draw a veil over this artifact of an ongoing writing career and move on, shall we?

The one thing that almost always gives away a self-published book is its cover. Sometimes that’s really unfortunate, because being self-published doesn’t necessarily mean a book is bad. I’ve read a few that have been stunning. One in particular sticks out in my mind. If it hadn’t come recommended by a friend with taste, I never would have cracked the spine. Why? Because the cover was beyond terrible. It screamed amateur hour. It did not inspire confidence.

That’s not to say that just because your book is published by a major house that it’s guaranteed to be good. Sometimes, they are inexplicably bad. We’ve all seen examples of those. For instance, Ian Rankin’s books’ current cover design is really quite appalling. Fortunately, he sells on his name alone. If he were not known, I believe the cover design would work against sales. But you all know how I feel. I’ve spoken about that already.

When readers are in browsing mode, the single most important thing to get them to look more closely at a book is its cover. If the cover is uninteresting, indecipherable, or off-putting, it won’t get a second glance. Publishers at least understand this truism and give their best efforts into supplying their books with at least a professional treatment.

Self-published authors often don’t really get this. The book is “their baby”, and they want to be involved with every step of its creation, which usually means that they design the cover or are heavily involved in the process. They may have a bit of skill with a computer; they may have a good cover concept, but often the results are appallingly bad.

I offer this compendium of bad attempts at covers, some, unfortunately, hilarious failures. Did the world miss something good because the cover of these books fall so short of the mark? That would be sad indeed.

I have been hesitant to share these, because I don’t want to hold these authors up to ridicule. Heaven knows I’ve inflicted that on myself enough to know it isn’t fun. Instead, to those of you who want to be involved in book cover design, whether it’s your own production or one being produced in a more mainstream fashion, know the dangers and don’t be blinded the process. Give your proposed cover to people who know good design and will really give you their honest opinion. Allowing them free-rein to be accurate in their assessment may spare you the pain of being ridiculed or causing your book to fail.

Click HERE to see the unfortunate gallery.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Characters Real - And Unreal

Until this morning, sometime after breakfast, I really had no idea what I was going to write about this week. I was truly out of ideas; not that I am normally "in of" ideas about writing. Not these days when I am sitting unhappily under a Gibraltar-sized writer's block. But life does go on, writer's block or not, and I enjoy doing the blog because it does stir the creative juices a little, and that's usually fun. And then I read an interesting piece in the Opinions section of the New York Times, and that got me more or less on track.

Although I might have posted a piece about the inherent evil of large jigsaw puzzles. Last week - or was it the week before? - Suzanne decided it would be fun to put together a jigsaw puzzle. The one she (or we) picked out, at the bookstore at our National Gallery, was a Canadian art icon, if you will, Tom Thomson's The Jack Pine:


The scene is from Ontario's Algonquin Park, a few hours drive north and west from Ottawa. Thomson lived and worked there in the early years of the 20th century, and it is where he painted many (most?) of his justly famous works. It is also where he died, very mysteriously, in July 1917. The official cause of his death was accidental drowning - he was on a solo canoe trip at the time - but there has been frequent speculation that he might have been murdered. So a post on the "mystery" of Thomson's untimely death would not be inappropriate.

There is probably no way to count the number of reproductions of this particular painting; it adorns coffee mugs, teapots, calendars, prints and tourist brochures. It also makes for one frustratingly difficult bitch of a jigsaw puzzle. The colours and tints are numerous and subtle. Trying to sort and then fit together the 1,000 little pieces inspires thoughts of murder. Murder of what or whom is the question. For which I do not have an answer.

We spent most of the weekend working on it. We might have gone cross-country skiing, or skating, or to a movie, or even to the National Gallery to look at the many Thomson paintings in the collection. But, no, we stayed home, pyjama-clad, hovering over the large living-room coffee table, muttering oaths. It took hours just to construct the border. And that was the easy part. The 800 or so other pieces remain to be be sorted and fitted together. With luck, we might be finished by August.

So, yes, I did think thoughts of murder most foul. I also found myself casting my mind back twenty-some years to a superior mystery-thriller film that I remembered as being titled Jigsaw. But the mind plays tricks on one. There are a number of films with the title Jigsaw, but the film I was thinking of, from 1985, and starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges, is titled Jagged Edge.

That's close enough to a jigsaw puzzle, I think. Well, for me, anyway. All those little "jagged-edged" pieces defying our efforts to join them up. Anyway, I remember watching the film on VHS (back in the pre-DVD days) and being so engrossed in it that I had to watch the final climactic scenes standing up. It was that tense.

But all that having been written, what I really wanted to post about today is the use of real-life characters in a mystery novel. (Shades of the Tom Thomson mystery.) That, I have discovered, is a difficult thing to do, although I did do just that in my first book, Undertow. I set that book on the street in St. John's, Newfoundland (now formally known as the province of Newfoundland and Labrador) where I grew up. I peopled the book with characters both imaginary and almost-real. I used the names of people I knew. Halfway through the book, I had an anxiety attack of great enough severity that I phoned a lawyer friend and asked if I could be sued by the families of people I had used if they recognized some departed uncle or grandfather, or whatever, as a character in the book. The answer, for anyone who is curious about the possibility, is "no". One cannot apparently be sued by a descendant of someone no longer living. They might turn up on your doorstep and call you names, or punch you in the nose, but they cannot sue you.

My paternal grandmother appears in the book as a large unpleasant woman who might have committed one of the murders in the book. (She was a large, mostly unpleasant woman, in fact, but I also know for a fact that she did not actually murder anyone.) My paternal grandfather, her unhappy husband, also appears, but he is treated much better. I had a lot of sympathy for him, even though he was long dead before I appeared on the actual scene in 1939.

I also used a neighbour, thinly disguised, as a major character in the book, the husband of the woman who is murdered in her bath in Chapter One. I described him so well from real life that a few years after the book came out I had a telephone call from a gentleman in St. John's who was the real-life grandson of the book's character. He told me that when he read the book, the hair stood up on the back of his neck because he believed he was reading about his grandfather. After only a moment's hesitation, I told him that indeed it was his grandfather in the book. I was able to reassure him that the character's more negative qualities were fictional. He was relieved to hear that. And also just a bit pleased that a family member was, in a sense, immortalized in a novel.

But it's a tricky business using real-life characters in a work of fiction, especially if they are family members, or fabrications of people one has known. It is also, I think, hard to resist. We write - at least I do - what we know. And who we know, even if they are reconfigured in the retelling. I came late to writing fiction, taking on the task only after I had retired from my day-job in 1997. I had tried many times in the past, but without success. I had imagined, when I finally started the process in earnest in January of 1998, that I would somehow manage to write a single novel, probably a very bad novel, insist that my two daughters read the printout, and then spend the rest of my days working on my golf game. It didn't work out that way. The first book was pretty good, it was published, got mostly very good reviews, and was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel. After that, I managed to write two more pretty good novels, which have garnered mostly positive reviews. The fourth novel in the series? That remains a question mark. At least until I climb out from under that Gibraltar thing.

Having written all of the above, I will now cite the piece, mentioned above, from the New York Times, the one that got me started on this tack. It has the catchy, and very appropriate, title: The Body Under The Rug.

It is about the writing of a family memoir, and all of the attendant anxieties of writing about family. It really is worth reading. Consider a part of the penultimate paragraph:

Within this kind of work there is inherent conflict. The characters in a memoir are not real people, but inevitably feed on the blood of the living like vampires.

Substitute in the above "novel" for "memoir", and I think the thought holds true. I have often found an "inherent conflict" when I write characters who are based on people I know, or have known. It can be tricky, and difficult, but it also much more interesting and involving when it's done that way.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Resisting Resistance

Today's guest is Bernadette Pajer, author of the Professor Bradshaw Mystery series. Publisher's Weekly called Pajer's A Spark of Death (2011) a "deft, highly entertaining debut" and Library Journal said of Fatal Induction (2012), “Pajer’s second series entry shines brightly.” The third in the series, Capacity for Murder, will be released May 7, 2013. Pajer is a member of MWA, SinC, Northwest Science Writers, Washington Academy of Sciences, and the Research is Pajer's favorite activity, and she happily delves into Seattle's past and the early days of electrical invention as she plots Professor Bradshaw's investigations.To learn more, visit her website at

This short-short was created for "Read with Me," a literary art installation in Occidental Park, Seattle, June 7 – September 30, 2012. This ARTSParks program, coordinated by Urban Art Concept, sought to illuminate possibilities for narrative in our daily lives. More than a dozen Pacific Northwest writers wrote site-specific pieces inspired by the park. Pajer's assigned site-object: a manhole cover.

Resisting Resistance: 
A Professor Bradshaw Mini-Mystery

By Bernadette Pajer

Manhole cover. The name said it all. This hole allowed a man to descend into the dark depths.

"You're stalling, Ben."

"I don't suppose you'd…"

"Would if I could." Henry put a hand to his bad back. "Besides, you're the great detective."

"I'm an electrical forensic investigator. This is not my realm of expertise."

"Nah, it's electric cables and gas pipes. Right up your alley."

"It's darkness, and cramped space, and rats, and spiders."

They stared at the circle of iron covering the vault beneath the street.

"You sure it's down there?"

"There was a witness."

Henry grunted. "Best get it done." He wedged the tip of the crowbar under the heavy cover and leaned onto the bar. "Heave it over, Ben!"

Professor Ben Bradshaw shoved the lid onto the asphalt. A dank foul smell rose to them. This section of Seattle was built upon the remains of old buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 1889, plagued by underground springs, saturated by rain.

"I can't." Every inch of his being resisted. After a grueling week of investigation, Bradshaw feared his resistance would lead to failure. Soon, the repair work on a nearby water main was expected to flood the utility vault. It was now or never.

"You can." Henry lowered the lantern into the vault with a rope.

Bradshaw sat with his legs dangling into the gaping hole, grabbed hold of the iron ladder rungs, and descended, gripping tight to fend off vertigo until his feet touched cement.

As he lifted the lantern, a rumbling sound began to build in the old brick vault walls, rattling the gas pipes overhead.

"Ben! Come up! They flooded early!"

The rumbling escalated as cold water began to creep up Bradshaw's legs. He ignored the pressing panic and lifted the lantern.


Where was it! The vault shook fiercely now; the water rose to his knees as he reached up and between every pipe and fitting. Nothing!

He dropped the lantern and, as the light fizzled and faded, bent into the dark water using both hands to feel. His fingers met a soft lump. He instinctively flinched, but then forced himself to grasp it. He flung himself at the ladder and climbed until he stood dripping on Henry's feet.

"You get it?"

Bradshaw squeezed filthy water from Cloppy—a stuffed woolen horse his son had once loved but stopped playing with a decade ago.

"How'd it fall in?"

"The manhole cover was off when the Salvation Army wagon hit a bump and toys flew." It had been one of the most difficult investigations of his career, tracking the toy from his housekeeper's inadvertent donation to finding the witness to the toy's plummet into the vault.

"You're a sentimental old fool, Ben."

"You and me both, Henry. Let's go home."

Bradshaw stuffed the damp toy snuggly into his jacket pocket, and after replacing the manhole cover, they headed for the streetcar. Case closed.

Friday, February 08, 2013

My Dirty Mind

Some of you follow the Poisoned Pen blog where a version of this first appeared. I'm borrowing some of it for Type M readers because the post received a lot of comments.

When I was a sophomore in high school my father said with some concern that three of the dirtiest books he had ever read had been brought into my house by me (age 15). He wanted to know it was “an accident? Or did my mind run that way?” I thought a moment and replied “actually, I think it’s a little of both.”

The books were Peyton Place, God’s Little Acre, and Not As A Stranger. “Just wondering,” he said sweetly.

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on. In our wee town of Lone Elm, Kansas, (population 90) that wasn’t much. When I was eight and nine, twice a week during winter months, my parents went to my Uncle Clarence and Aunt Margaret’s house to play bridge. Parents took their kids everywhere in those days.

Aunt Margaret was a member of the Doubleday Book Club.While my parents played cards, I laid on the couch next to gas heater, and read the latest monthly selections. By the time it occurred to adults to pay attention to my reading tastes, it was way too late. At a young, young age, I had already read Annie Jordan, Unconquered, and Forever Amber.

We went to town, Garnett, every Saturday to shop for the weekly supply of groceries. While there, we went to the library. I was in heaven! I developed a taste for historical novels, in addition to Nancy Drew. And oh the joy of acquiring the latest Wonder Woman comic book at Spradlin’s Drug Store.

Daddy read Kipling, Tennyson, and Sir Walter Scott, and a lot of historical novels and non-fiction. Mom read Harold Bell Wright, and Grace Livingston Hill. The family owned The Book of Knowledge. Through that, I became obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. When I chose French as my required language in college, it was because of those tantalizing inaccessible little stories in the Book of Knowledge.

Sometimes when I’m giving talks, anxious parents want to know what they can to do to help their children become better readers. I hesitate to say what I really think because they won’t like the answer. I’ve always believed the greatest catalyst is the example set by a non-observant reading parent preoccupied with a book.

It makes a difference if a kid is brushed aside with a “wait until I finish this chapter” rather than “wait until commercial.”

I’ve never been too concerned about censorship and the written words. I think there is a natural selection process. I suppose my tastes run toward “literary commercial.” I love mysteries with an dose of psychological intrigue. My favorite book of poetry is the Spoon River Anthology. My all-time favorite novel is Green Dolphin Street.

I can’t remember a thing about Peyton Place, or for that matter, God’s Little Acre.
Not As A Stranger has stayed with me forever.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Happy to Be Here

Good day, all. Donis here. I'm thrilled to be back with you here on Type M for Murder. Did you miss me? Did you notice that I was gone? I was one of the regulars here at Type M for six years, from 2006 through February 2012, when one family health crisis after another finally got the better of me and I had to take a blogging sabbatical. But now, almost one year to the day later, things are really looking up and I find I can actually think of something other than hospitals and doctors.

In the interim, I managed to finish my sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On*, which came out in November 2012, and have been busily promoting ever since. I don't know how long this happy period is going to last, so I'm trying to make up for lost time while I can. I don't take anything for granted any more.

I’m more grateful for small things these days than I used to be. I used to have big expectations and was disappointed when they didn’t materialize. I’m seldom disappointed by anything now, since I no longer have expectations. Is this a bad thing?

For forty years, a swami lived in a cave high in the Himalayas, seeking enlightenment. For forty years he sat meditating in complete isolation, naked except for a blanket, never seeing another living soul, eating only rice and drinking plain water.

When the forty years were over, the swami’s mind was as clear and still as a mountain lake, at peace at last. “I have achieved enlightenment,” he said to himself. He decided to come down off the mountain and attend the Maha Kumbh Mela, the great Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges, which only occurs once every 144 years.

The crowd was so great that the swami was caught in the tide of humanity and swept along as though he had fallen in a river. The noise deafened him, the colors blinded him, the press of people took his breath away, but he was at peace. Until a beggar stepped on his foot and he yelled, “OW, get the #$%*& off my foot, you *%^@_!”

Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass, spiritual seeker, teacher, and author of Be Here Now, suffered a stroke in 1997 that nearly killed him and left him barely able to speak. He reports that when the stroke happened and he realized that he was probably dying, his entire lifetime of faith and understanding flew out the window and he became a whimpering coward. What courage it takes to be able to admit something like that.

I think of both those stories often, especially when someone tries to convince me of the rightness of his philosophy. Or when I think I have it all figured out myself.

I used to know stuff, but no more. In fact, in many ways I used to be a better person than I am now. I used to have prescient dreams. I meditated. I played music, painted, and believed things. I read everything and wrote what I wanted. I loved and had passion, and even when I was sad, and afraid, and grief stricken — and I often was — I was basically a cheerful little person.

Now I know nothing, nor do I understand anything. Yet I’m not pessimistic. Or optimistic either. It’s more like I am whatever tide or emotion or event is happening in this moment.

And this moment I am very happy to be back at Type M 4 Murder.
*Read the first chapter of The Wrong Hill to Die On on my website by simply clicking on the book’s title!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Riding elephants and other writerly pursuits

Some of you may have noticed that my regular bi-weekly blog posts have been absent this past month. Comments, emails, and book updates have also been few and far between. And I confess that I have not done a lick of writing either, except for personal emails and lively anecdotes about distant lands. Instead, I have been galavanting around the Far East, drinking in the sights, sounds and tastes of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

It's been wonderfully liberating. A writer's life is rarely free of obligations and to-do lists. We don't work nine to five and we don't get weekends off. Even when we are not anchored to our notepad or computer, we are usually thinking, planning, plotting, juggling demands.  The idea of taking a whole month off and escaping to a parallel, non-writing universe was daunting, and indeed in this cyber world, complete escape was not possible. Emails from my former life sailed across the ether, bounced off satellites and landed in the inbox of my borrowed Playbook, demanding action. Bio and photo for the Malice Domestic program book, topic and description of my keynote address this summer, contacts and promo information for my new book, schedules for the upcoming Ontario Library Association signings... Etc. etc.

To most of these requests, I was able to reply that I was out of the country, without access to my files, and with only intermittent and unreliable internet access. I promised to handle everything when I returned (Hah! Be careful what you promise). Most of the time that worked. Intermittent and unreliable internet was a very real obstacle, but also a handy excuse for not doing the requested work. There were related, equally valid excuses. In China, for example, there is a firewall blocking access to most social media sites. Hence no Facebook, no Wordpress or Blogger, not even the dreaded Twitter. Freedom! I couldn't have posted my blog even if I'd wanted to. Furthermore, I couldn't open attachments on my Playbook. I'm sure there was a way, but I couldn't figure it out (and psst... I didn't try too hard).

In my writing life, I am used to checking my email every hour or so, checking Facebook several times a day, and generally keeping my finger on the electronic pulse of my world. During this month of liberation, I was lucky to get fleeting access once a day, often not for several days, and with very little time to do more than scan the inbox for crucial emails. When we did have access, it was funny to watch all us cyber addicts huddled hungrily over our various devices, muttering and laughing as news from our outside life filtered through to us.

The rest of the day, however, I rarely gave that world a second thought. When you are atop the Great Wall of China, riding an elephant in Thailand, drifting down the Mekong and cycling through Lao villages, all else is eclipsed by the sheer adrenaline rush of the experience. Travel and adventure does more than just liberate, cleanse and rejuvenate; it puts us back in touch with our real selves. With visceral experience, with our senses and our emotions. With the raw earth beneath our feet.

As writers, all too often we function in a small, circumscribed world. The proverbial "writer's garret". Alone with our imaginations and our manuscript, surrounded by fictional friends and invented drama. Increasingly, our social networks and human interactions are also from within that lonely room, using emails, Facebook and other electronic communication as a substitute for real contact. There is something touching about receiving 52 Happy Birthday wishes from Facebook friends, but it doesn't begin to compare with a real birthday party.

All of us need to get out and ride an elephant, chase a dream, race bareback along the beach, or do whatever really stirs us to feel fully alive. But for a writer it is especially crucial. Without those reminders, without the full experience of joy and fear and the discovery of new frontiers, how can we write with conviction about the full breadth and depth of human drama?

Everything I experienced in the past month will find its way into my writing, somehow. For a writer, all experience is grist for the mill. In fact, I am already wondering how to get Inspector Green up on top of an elephant. What quest, what twists of plot, could possibly get him there? And what fun I will have in the process.

Once a writer, forever a writer.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

An absolutely essential tip for computer users

After nearly seven years at Type M – and proudly, the sole member of the founding team still here – I’ve written a heck of a lot of posts. A lot of virtual ink has been spilled in the pursuit of hopefully bringing something interesting, thought-provoking or helpful to folks who drop by here. It is an awesome responsibility. I only say that partly in jest…

I was up early today, and knowing that today is my day on Type M, I’ve been trying to get inspiration to hit and give me a little help on finding a topic for today’s posting. By ten-thirty I was beginning to despair. Would I be reduced to posting a number of really bad book covers that was passed on to me by a friend?

Then my Inbox chirped and there it was: inspiration in the guise of heartbreak.

What came in was an email cri de coeur from a writer friend. Her computer had burped (actually, it was probably something more akin to acid reflux) and she fears her hard drive has crapped, taking her partially finished (“More than halfway!” she wailed.) manuscript with it.

Why had she contacted me? Well, to be brief, people seem to think I know everything about computers. It’s not really true, of course, but I do admit an affinity for the cursed machines, and have made it my business to find out more than the average user about how they work and how to keep them ticking along nicely, and as I’ve always been an Apple proponent, I can sometimes provide expert help (well, as expert as I can be). More importantly, I usually also know where to send people when the problem is something beyond my skill set.

Anyway, today I had to be the deliverer of bad news to this person. Unless the hard drive in her computer has actually burned up (it does very occasionally happen), she will be able to get her manuscript back. The bad news is, depending on how big the hard drive is, it could cost her a packet. A design colleague recently had to retrieve information from a crapped one terrabyte hard drive and it cost him $6000.

Today, I’d like to share one huge tip with you, and no matter what computer you use, it could help you avoid a tight scrape and very bad situation.

It’s not a matter of if your hard drive will fail, it’s when. Remember this! Engrave it on your forehead backwards so that when you brush your hair in the morning, you’ll see it. Always plan for the worst. Your hard drive could fail at any moment and take everything that’s on it right down the toilet. A hard drive failure is the digital equivalent of a stroke: the information is still there, you just can’t access it. And like a stroke, it’s possible you may never be able to access it. Also: to get that information back could prove to be very expensive.

So what can you do? Always back up your work. “I already do that religiously!” you might be saying. I will counter with this: are you thinking catastrophically? You have to plan for all eventualities.

For those of you who back up to a second hard drive in your computer, kudos, that’s also my first line of defense. If one drive goes down, you still have your information on the second. (Sidebar: If you’re on a Mac, you can also use the Time Machine program that comes with all recent operating systems. I also use that and you should, too. It will only cost you the price of another hard drive and it works very well.)

But you’re not thinking catastrophically enough yet: what if someone stole your computer or your house was destroyed? Seriously, you have to think this way. I hope it neither thing ever happens to you, but it can come to that. What would you do?

Years ago, before hard drive storage was cheap and the Internet was in its infancy, I would copy my current ms onto a floppy disk every evening when I finished writing, throw it in my briefcase which was always with me at work. So I had my work effectively stored in two separate places. It was sort of a pain, but I had a reasonably failsafe back-up.

As technology moved along, I used CD-Rs (rewritable CDs), then flash sticks. All worked out okay.

Then a friend of a friend who did the same sort of thing I was doing lost his house and his car in a flood. Everything was still lost because he hadn’t been thinking catastrophically enough.

I took to zipping up my files and emailing them to myself every night. That sort of worked well until my files started getting too large for one email.

Now I use an online storage system.

I needed something more “robust” for backing up files for my small graphic design business. I could go with something fairly inexpensive like, but I wanted something a little more full-service – and automatic. It naturally made sense to hook my writing back-ups to this system. Now, at the end of the day, I push a button and everything new backs itself up. If I wanted to mess around with the software, I could probably get this to work without me having to push a button, but I haven’t taken the time for that so far.

The key to protecting yourself is to ALWAYS have your storage in at least two physically separate locations. If something goes horribly wrong, you can simply rent a computer, download your files, and start work immediately. This is the way businesses set themselves up (the smart ones, at least), and it’s because their solvency depends on it. Your “business” needs this, too, even if you’re merely an unpublished writer trying to finish your first story or novel. You simply don’t want to lose that, do you?

If I’ve set off alarm bells in your head, then I have done my job. You can mention me in the acknowledgements of your book if you wish. ;)

Monday, February 04, 2013

The end is nigh

This may be rather a short post. I have reached the end of my new book – reached the end, you will notice, not finished it. My deadline is the end of the month and I now have to go right back to the beginning again and work through it in time to get it to my agent, giving her time to tear it to pieces and send it back, giving me time to put it back together and still not incur the wrath of my editor for submitting late.

It's always a huge relief to get to the denouement and find that you haven't set a puzzle for your readers so complex that you can't solve it either. My heart bled for a favourite writer – very well-known and highly successful – whose acknowledgements included heartfelt thanks to her editors for their help with chapter 25. And indeed, when you reached chapter 25 it was clear that the author had painted herself into a corner and the solution did indeed read as if it had been devised by a committee. Not her finest hour!

I suppose what I've written might be called a first draft, but mercifully the task ahead of me isn't writing the whole thing again.(I hope.) I sort of nit-pick as I go along, going back to revise previous chapters as the story  evolves because I can't work on with a clear mind if I know there are gaping holes in the narrative. I think it goes back to knitting – leave a dropped stitch and the whole thing unravels.

The theory is that working through it again  is a minor matter of ironing out a few glitches. That's the theory. I'm now about to find out whether it's worked this time!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Getting Out From Under

In 1947, Homer and Langley Collyer, two recluses, died together in their home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Hoarders, who had retreated into their own world, the Collyer brothers were done in by their clutter. Their sad lives have been the subject of documentaries and a novel by E. L. Doctorow.

I think I have an inner Collyer brother, who is lurking inside my head, waiting to get the better of me. This is why I never allow newspapers to accumulate. Out the door and into the recycling bin for pickup. I may one day be crushed by something falling off a shelf in my closet, but not by a pile of newspapers.

Actually, my clutter is not that bad by most standards. It is the immobility of my clutter that troubles me. In two rooms of my house -- the small room that I intend to make into a guest room and the second bedroom that I claimed as my office when I moved in by putting my desk there -- in these two rooms, there are boxes stacked up against the walls, leaving walking space, but insistent in their presence. They say, "Why don't you store my contents away or toss what ever this stuff is out?" This is the same question that the papers in the three baskets -- my system that no longer works -- on the desk in my office at school have been asking me for months.

I make this confession of my tendency toward immobile clutter as a sinner would who is seeking salvation.  For the past two weeks, I have been working my way through the clutter in my office at work. I am now up to my fourth large garbage bin of paper -- old student papers, articles I have read and don't need anymore, notes to myself, greeting cards, maps -- things I haven't seen in years and am now tossing. I have at my side a small book titled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. I may never do the feng shui. In fact, the last time I tried this a few years ago, I read the book but didn't do much else. But this time around -- having reached the point when I don't know what I have and sometimes can't find what I'm looking for -- I have been converted to the idea that, even though this is taking time and effort, when I am done my life will be better.

I am holding on to this belief even though at the moment there is nowhere for anyone coming into my office to sit. The thing about de-cluttering is that it creates chaos. I have articles piled in my two visitors' chairs until I can sort them into the proper file boxes. I also have articles and books piled on my desk. I am peeping at anyone who comes to the door over piles of paper. And wondering in moments of panic if this is actually a diabolical scheme by my inner Collyer brother to get control.

But, no, I tell myself. It is okay. I have gone through my largest file cabinet and now I actually have space to file some of the article stacked on my desk. I can now get to my window without stepping over file boxes containing old student papers.

As to why I am writing about this here -- I keep coming across notes I wrote to myself about books or short stories. One of the notes I found today was an idea for a short story. A really good idea that I apparently had and then completely forgot and would probably never have thought of again if I hadn't found the note tucked in side a folder.

In spite of my anxiety about the piles of paper stacked around me, I am enjoying this process. When I finish my office at work -- sometime this weekend -- I'm going to come home and tackle those two rooms with the boxes and my closets and drawers and the kitchen cabinets. Probably another week's work . . .

Yes, I could be writing. I could be doing half dozen other things that I need to get done. But Ms. Kingston seems to be right. Getting rid of clutter frees up psychic energy. Tossing junk has reduced my stress and improved my mood. I should write better when my offices (work and home) are neat and tidy. Or maybe I'll write better just because I've proven to myself that I can stand up to my inner Collyer brother and take control of my environment.