Saturday, March 30, 2013

And now for something completely different

Our guest blogger this weekend is Victoria Abbott. Who is Victoria Abbott, you ask? An award-winning rose by another name. Read on...

When is your book not your book? This is a question I never thought I’d ask, or answer. However, now I have to. Your book is not your book when it’s a collaboration. Of course, it is your book as you contributed, but it’s also your collaborator’s book. It’s everybody’s and it’s nobody’s. And to make matters worse, it probably doesn’t sound like either one of you wrote it. Trust me.

I know this because the first book in the book collector mystery series, a collaboration with my daughter Victoria and me, has just been released.  The Christie Curse is a mysterious creature, as befits a work of crime fiction. We are very happy with the outcome: a lighthearted mystery introducing amateur sleuth Jordan Bingham, a young researcher and would-be grad student, who has scored a job with a curmudgeonly and obsessive wealthy book collector, Vera Van Alst, the most hated woman in Harrison Falls, NY.  Jordan is tasked with tracking down a play that Agatha Christie may have written during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance in 1926.  Unknown short stories have been discovered among Christie’s papers in recent years, so it’s existence is certainly possible.  As Jordan’s predecessor died under tragic yet murky circumstances, the quest turns out to have complications.  

Victoria and I both appreciate the Christie tradition and the golden age of mysteries, and enjoyed weaving familiar elements into the work. A historic mansion? Check? Peculiar servants? Check. Multiple suspects? Check. Again, don’t ask about the process. However, we also wanted a contemporary woman who could stand on her own feet and who had her own life and life lessons. How she ended up with that family of minor criminals, isn’t entirely clear, but she’s the only one in the family to go straight, even though she did get a set of lockpicks for her Sweet Sixteen. We wanted Jordan to have animals in her life. We like the texture that animals give a book. Now we feel kind of bad about all those scratches on her ankles. What is wrong with that cat? And we certainly weren’t seeking a pug. But one found us.

People are very curious about how it came to be. I wish I knew. I’d tell them.

Among the challenges we face: remembering to say we and our without sounding like we are imitating royalty, as in: “We are not amused.” Of course, we are amused as we find our characters very funny and entertaining. It’s a bit tricky to deconstruct how they came to be that way. Being two creative and intuitive people, we don’t work in a straight line.  We don’t plot on paper. Our minds hop around, ideas fly and nothing is linear. No outlines need apply. Plots unfold as the book goes on. Characters reveal themselves the same way. Naturally, there are no firm policies about who does what and who writes what. We’ve tried alternating scenes and each writing as a particular character. However, what seems to work best is a long talk over the phone—with no distractions such as each other’s facial expressions—acting out scenes with dialogue and sometimes action. Duck! Watch your ankles!

Of course, we love surprises and we certainly got a couple in the resolution of our tale.

The down side of this approach is that we might each envision a character as looking and acting quite different. Takes a bit of fixing.  We are now in negotiations for a character’s hair. I say bleached blonde. She says dyed flat black. We have settled on a wig. Stay tuned. This will be resolved in book two: The Sayers Swindle.

Never mind, we both agreed that the librarian, Lance, should be spectacularly hot. Indeed. And that the pleasantly besotted young police officer would have a problem with blushing. Jordan’s got to have fun.
Still there’s the plotting. Always tricky for those who work without outlines. As Barbara likes to say when she nears the end of a novel, “How am I going to land this sucker?”
We might not even agree about what kind of sucker it is we need to land. However, we’re here to make the case that no tears were shed and no voices raised during our first landing. Sure there were spasming jaws from time to time and sometimes fixed smiles with matching stares. But all that’s behind us when we beam at our bouncing new book.

Maybe by the time we work our way through The Wolfe Widow, we’ll have our process figured out. We have been very happy to visit here at Type M and will try to angle for a return invitation to let you in on the secret. 

Victoria Abbott is a collaboration between the always very funny and creative artist, photographer and short story author, Victoria Maffini and her mother, Mary Jane Maffini, award-winning author of three mystery series and two dozen short stories. Their three miniature dachshunds are understandably outraged that a pug and some Siamese cats have wiggled their way into the series.
Find Victoria on Facebook
Or follow them on twitter @abbottmysteries
They’re dying to tweet you.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Avatars and Uncle Charlie

I'm in Washington, D.C. right now, attending a terrific popular culture conference. But I need to get busy booking a trip that I'm going to take in about six weeks. I've signed up to tour the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (virtual reality) at Stanford University. The lab is open to the public for one hour on selected Fridays. I'm scheduled to visit on a Friday in May. Getting an inside look at the work being done in this lab will be incredibly useful as research for the mystery I'm working on. The second book in my police procedural series is set in 2020. One of my characters has an avatar and has been spending time in virtual reality, and the Stanford lab is at the forefront in this research. This tour will also be a chance to think about my academic research on crime and visual images in a new ways, to take a leap into the future.

Even so, it seems rather impulsive and extravagant to hop on a plane and fly to California to take a one-hour tour. So I'm going to give myself another treat. If I fly into San Francisco, I'll be centrally located for both my tour of the Stanford lab on Friday and a trip the next day to Santa Rosa, California. "Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa, California." Recognize the quote? If you're a Hitchcock fan, you probably do. It's what "Uncle Charlie" (Joseph Cotton) says to the operator who is taking down his telegraph message to his sister. Uncle Charlies, a serial killer, is about to pay a visit to his sister and her family in the quiet, peaceful little town of Santa Rosa.

From what I've read, Santa Rosa has changed a lot since Hitchcock filmed Shadow of a Doubt on location. An earthquake in 1969 destroyed many of the downtown buildings that were there in 1943. But, still, I am drawn to the place. It's rather like the fascination that I developed with Seattle after seeing "Here's Comes the Bride" on television. The series was about early Seattle and had nothing at all to do with Seattle in the 20th century, but I wanted to see the "greenest grass" and "bluest sky" I'd ever seen. I ended up spending 2 years in Seattle.

I certainly don't expect to move to Santa Rosa. But as a writer, I do think that it's important to follow "leads" – the ideas and the places that resonant in your head and heart. I've never gone wrote doing that. I always find a use for research I do after someone makes a passing reference to something that sounds intriguing. Or, when the idea of seeing a place makes me want to hop on a plane and be off. That happened some time ago when I first heard Joseph Cotton say, "Santa Rosa". It happened again when I was doing research on the Stanford website and saw mention of a "public tour". Public tour, oh, yes! Even though I live on the other side of the country.

I'll report back in May about what I found. I think somehow both lab and small town are going to end up influencing both the mystery I'm working on and my academic research. At any rate, like a good sleuth, I intend to follow my nose.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Worst Day

Yesterday was terrifying, my most stressful day in the publication process.

It was the review of the copyedited version of my 2013 novel This One Day. And, for me, the review of the copyedited text is always the most burdensome part of the process.

Authors feel differently about the steps they take to see a book published. First, there's the pre-publication process, which can seem like a roller-coaster ride: time consuming, full of twists and unexpected turns, and sometimes (if you can't sell the damned book) never-ending. Once the book is sold, though, the publication process begins: editing, revising, copyediting, designing the cover, locating advance reviewers, and (if you're a go-getter -- and you had better be in this market) scheduling signings and publicity.

This One Day is slated for release in December, so yesterday I received the copyedited manuscript. This is the worst day of the process for me because it's my final, final, final crack at the novel. My last chance to find any errors, typos, or inconsistencies. These are the mistakes that keep me awake at night. Not bad reviews or even bad sales numbers; I can't really control those things. (Of course, I do what I can to sell books, but sales figures are typically predetermined.) But a text error -- now that's a different story. That's entirely on me. And I lose sleep over them, as I should. After all, the copyeditor's name isn't on the jacket. And there are other things about this step that I find taxing. You can't make major changes. If you do, they will cost you. Literally. And what about F. Scott Fitzgerald's final tinkerings with The Great Gatsby? Critics claim his editor Maxwell Perkins struggled to read his hand-written marginal notes and some errors in the text are the result.

Things quickly went from bad to worse yesterday. Around 9 a.m., I opened the PDF sent from my editor -- and my anxiety level instantly increased: I couldn't listen to the text. A dyslexic, I use text-to-speech to edit everything (including e-mails or bi-weekly Type M for Murder posts). But text-to-speech on my MacBook Pro didn't work on this PDF. Not sure why. Don't much care. The goddamned thing wouldn't read the file.

Deep breath. I sat back and went through all the suggested edits (agreeing with most; a digression: one suggestion I rejected was changing 9mm to nine-millimeter throughout), and by day's end, I had the manuscript back to my editor, drank a beer, and cooked dinner.

Now the fun begins. Can anyone say, Wine and cheese? When's that first signing?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

When life gets crazy-making

Barbara here. It's almost midnight on Tuesday night and I have just remembered that tomorrow (more accurately, in twenty minutes) is my day to blog on Type M. I have just returned from a Passover Seder, which among other things involves the consumption of great quantities of food and four glasses of wine. Will this blog even make sense in the cold light of morning?

Blog writing usually begins with several days of fretting about what to write about. Followed by procrastination, then more fretting, this time with a touch of panic. Tonight, however, I am faced with a thousand possibilities, each worthy of a blog on its own. But a thousand ideas scattershot onto the page do not make a good blog. Focus is the key.

But here's my problem right now (besides the four glasses of wine). I am deep in the process of writing the first draft of my newest Inspector Green novel, entitled None So Blind. So new, in fact, that it only just got a finalized contract today, and has no official publication date yet. My mind is consumed with contract details and plot hurdles.

At the same time, however, the current Inspector Green novel, The Whisper of Legends, hits the bookstores on April 6, and I am trying to gear up all the promotional and marketing initiatives that we authors have to do these days. Facebook posts, tweeting, email announcements, updating my personal website, my Amazon author page, and various events pages, wondering what on earth to do with Goodreads, etc. Oh, and planning two launches. I mustn't forget the launches. One on April 16 in Ottawa, the Toronto one on May 9. There are invitations to design and send out, food and entertainment to organize, nerves to calm (my own). What if no one shows up? What if everyone has forgotten Inspector Green's existence in the two and a half years since his last appearance?

Add to these launches the other signings and readings in bookstores and libraries around town, all to introduce the new book. All fun, but all requiring some degree of thoughtful preparation. For details of these events and the launches, check the news and events page of my website at

As if this weren't enough, I am also planning three book tours this summer; the first to Malice Domestic in Washington with a side trip to Festival of Mystery in Pittsburgh. Then a much larger tour to the Northwest Territories and Yukon with Vicki Delany to promote our books. Flights and hotels have to be booked, venues and itineraries worked out, endless correspondence with libraries, museums, bookstores and Dundurn's publicist to coordinate all the details. The third tour, to Calgary for When Words Collide in August, is barely on my radar yet, although I am very excited about this festival and thrilled to be Mystery Guest of Honour. I will be giving a couple of talks, participating on panels, and teaching a two-day workshop.

Clamouring for notice among all these demands is Orca Books' Rapid Reads series. It was to be the original topic of this blog until it was sandbagged by my life. Rapid Reads is celebrating its 3rd anniversary since the publication of the first in its first easy-read series of short novels for adults who have literacy or English-language challenges or who simply want a quick, entertaining read. With teaching guides developed to accompany them, these books fill a crucial link in strengthening life-long reading skills, and are used in high schools, employment training centres, ESL programs, prisons and other literacy settings. The authors are mostly established crime writers, favoured because they know how to tell a gripping, fast-paced story that will keep the reader engaged.

I have two books in this Rapid Readers series, which feature country handyman Cedric O'Toole, himself a man more comfortable with engines and gadgets than he is with the written word. To celebrate their 3rd anniversary and encourage readership, Orca has put all their Rapid Reads books, including mine, on a killer sale; $2.99 for the ebook versions and 40% off print versions. Orca is encouraging all its authors to help advertise this sale on our own social media sites. This is a company and an initiative that I am proud to be part of, so Orca, consider this a plug. Check out this link to their announcement.

Now perhaps I can go to bed. After I walk the dog.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Amanda Knox is in the news once again

One of our most-read postings here on Type M was a guest shot by Candace Dempsey, author of Murder in Italy, the story of what has become known as The Amanda Knox Case. I read the book and it is quite engrossing. Dempsey’s post has gone on to be one of the most-read of all-time on Type M with at least 1224 views.

Now Amanda is in the news once again. First she’s guilty, then she’s not guilty, and now Italy’s highest court has told them to go back to the beginning again.

For me, I am dying of curiosity to discover what really happened that November 2007 night in Perugia, Italy (where those delicious Baci chocolates are made). I doubt if we’ll ever find out unless someone confesses or new evidence is presented. A new trial will not solve anything because both sides in this case are just so entrenched.

In Canada over the years, we’ve seen numerous cases where people have been wrongly convicted because of what can only be called “willful blindness” by police and prosecutors. They had made up their mind that a certain thing happened, and then go about cherry-picking evidence to suit their premise. With new forensic techniques available to re-analyze evidence, the convictions of these people have collapsed.

Since we don’t yet know what the reasons are for the re-opening of the murder of Meredith Kercher and the subsequent trial of Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, we don’t know what errors in the appeals court judgment have been called into question. It’s going to be interesting to find out.

If you read the Dempsey book, and then move on to our accounts of the situation, it seems pretty clear that something went horribly wrong with the detection and prosecution of this case. It’s very difficult to lend much credence to the official account of what happened that grim night and not much evidence exists in support. It seems pretty clear that Rudy Guede, who actually was convicted (and remains so) probably was responsible for Kercher’s death. The fact that Knox and Sollecito are still on the official radar is because the Italian police and prosecution made critical errors in the way they handled the case: they spoke too soon – and too loudly. (And a whole lot more, truth be told.) They had made loud and harsh accusations publicly against the primary two, and when Guede later became a suspect, they had become stuck and couldn’t go back without looking like fools.

As a crime writer, and without breaking a sweat, I came up with two intriguing scenarios for plots coming out of this case. There are lots of others, I’m sure.

Here are mine:

  1. one of the cops realizes what’s going on and has to work against everyone else to see that justice is truly served.
  2. Amanda Knox did do it (and maybe for a reason not yet revealed) and has manipulated everyone so well that not only does she gets off, but the real reason is not revealed. The story is told from her POV.

Of course, new names, places and the situations would have to change enough to make this a true novel (and not open the writer up to some pretty horrendous lawsuits!), but I think they’re workable.

Anyone else care to weigh in?

Monday, March 25, 2013

I Spy - One More Time

This week I will be continuing with my brief - but hopefully not too superficial - look at spy fiction. Before starting this piece, though, it occurred to me that "spy fiction" or "espionage fiction" is generally regarded as a sub-genre of mystery, or detective, fiction. I am almost certain that many readers would disagree with that classification. Well, what is life, after all, without disagreements? Rather like an egg without salt, I would think. Somewhat dull.

So, I took the obvious route and googled "the first mystery novel", and came up with the inevitable Wikipedia page:

A number of the names there were new to me. One name I did recognise was Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), although not in connection with the genre. His 1748 story, Zadig, which features a main character who performs feats of analysis, is considered to be an early example of detective fiction. Some names from the early 19th century were not at all familiar: E.T.A. Hoffman, Steen Steensen Blicher, Maurits Hansen and William Evans Burton. Burton is said to have been a direct influence on Edgar Allan Poe - for whom Poe worked for a period - and who is usually cited as the creator of the first real mystery novel, The Murders in the Rue Morgue; a book which also featured the first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin.

The spy novel dates back to about the same period, the early 19th century. The American James Fenimore Cooper penned two novels, The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831) that are considered to be early examples of the espionage novel. But it was the early 20th century that saw the genre - or sub-genre - take full flight. The socio-political milieu that fostered the growth of spy fiction was the First World War, and the explosive European situation that led up to it. In Britain, a major protagonist in what has come to be called "the Great War 1914-1918", The Riddle of the Sands, a novel by Erskine Childers, is regarded as a landmark entry in the sub-genre. The novel described amateur spies discovering a German plan to invade Britain. (A theme that would be repeated during and after the next great war, 1939-1945.) Two other writers whose names come forward at this time are William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Which brings me to a novelist, John Buchan, that I am "studying" - a somewhat grandiose term for what is essentially a post-retirement recreation - in a six-week course on the spy novel at Ottawa's Carleton University.


            John Buchan                                   

Buchan had an interesting career and life. He was Scottish-born, and he started his professional life as a lawyer, before entering politics and Britain's diplomatic service. He was a private secretary to Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, and colonial administrator of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. After the First World War broke out in 1914, Buchan joined Britain's War Propaganda Bureau, and wrote propaganda for the British War effort. As much war propaganda is often largely fiction - a trend that continues right up to the present day - this would have been a good training regimen for a writer of actual fiction, whatever the genre, whether espionage or mystery. With Buchan, though, the process was more or less the other way around. Before the Great War broke out in 1914, Buchan had already published his first novel, Prester John (1910), an adventure story set in South Africa. He was already well into the field of creative writing.

Buchan's most famous work is The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller published in 1915, but set just before the outbreak of the war.


The novel, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock film that followed in 1935, featured a Scotsman, Richard Hannay, a character that would appear in four more Buchan novels, two of them also set during the war. The Hannay character was based on one of Buchan's friends from his days in South Africa, Edmund Ironside, who was later Chief of the British Imperial Staff during the first year of World War Two.

The Thirty-Nine Steps can hardly be called great literature, but it is a lively read. A short novel, just 149 pages long, the book was written during and after a period of illness that Buchan suffered before the war. He writes in a preface to the book that he had "long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the 'dime novel', and which we (in Britain) know as the 'shocker' - the romance where the incidents defy the possibilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." Having read a number of such trifles during his spell of ill health, Buchan states that "I was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result..." And it is, indeed, a "little volume". It was also an enormous success.

As noted, in 1935 Hitchcock made a film of the book. Richard Hannay was played by one of Britain's best known actors of the day, Robert Donat - later to become famous in the 1939 film, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. The film - it was remade in 1958 with Kenneth More playing Hannay, and twice more after that - takes huge liberties with the book; not an uncommon fate for books adapted to the silver screen. In the book, the "thirty-nine steps" are actual steps, and integral to the plot; but in the film they become a code phrase for a German spy organisation. The 1935 film has great staying power; in 1999, it came in fourth in a British Film Institute poll of the best British films ever made.

I viewed the film recently on DVD, and to be honest it comes across to me - with my apparently jaded filmic tastes - as a comedy rather than a spy thriller. (Some of film's dialogue is deliberately very funny.) Happily, I can say that I am not the only one who feels that way about the film. Some five years ago, on a visit to London, I took in a theatrical adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus. It was a flat-out spoof of the 1935 film, and it was hilarious. (The same adaptation was presented here in Ottawa recently.) A quick check on Google tells me that the play is still running in London, a feat of durability which puts it right up there with Billy Elliot. Four actors play all of the parts from the film, including one amazing and very funny scene where two actors play four parts simultaneously. It has to be seen to be appreciated. Mere words would not do it jusitice.

All joking aside, though, Buchan's writing career presents us with an almost textbook example of the enduring literary maxim, "write what you know". His character Hannay, as noted, is drawn directly from someone he knew during his time in South Africa, and the book contains interesting references to that part of his life. Because he was so well connected to the political, diplomatic and military establishment of his day, Buchan's writing about the institutions and personages of the time, as well as the social context, ring true.

It must also be mentioned that Buchan wrote a great deal of non-fiction, and the list of titles greatly exceeds his fictional output. He was a scholar as well as a popular wordsmith.

Buchan went on to considerable heights in the British diplomatic service. In 1935, the Canadian Prime Minister Richard Bennett recommended to the British monarch that Buchan be appointed Governor General of Canada, the King's representative in the Dominion. (He had been earlier recommended for the position by Mackenzie King.) And as Lord Tweedsmuir, he was so appointed.


      Lord Tweedsmuir
     (aka John Buchan) 

Buchan served as Canada's 15th Governor General until his death in 1940. He died after suffering severe head injuries in a fall at Rideau Hall, the Vice-Regal residence in Ottawa. The fall was caused by a stroke. He underwent two surgeries at the Montreal Neurological Institute, both unsuccessful, and he died in Montreal on February 16th. After a state funeral in Ottawa, his body was cremated, and his ashes buried at Elsfield, the family estate in Oxfordshire, England.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Perfect Attendance

Hello from the not so sunny Colorado Springs where I am attending Left Coast Crime 2013. This post is aimed at fans more than the writers among us.

This morning I was on a panel "Literary Inspirations for Traditional Mysteries." In the audience was the perfect attendee. I wish I could clone her. She smiled and nodded and made eye contact with all the panelists. What a joy if there is even one such person encouraging us!

She made each of feel like we were brilliant contributors to the conference. I sought her out after the panel and told her how much I appreciated her presence.

My husband was this kind of person. Plus, he laughed heartily at every joke told. Knee-slapping and all. I could see speakers begin to address remarks to him. His enthusiasm was contagious. I, on the other hand, would sit there straight-faced and think "Yah. That's pretty funny." And never break a smile.

If you feel shy about attending a conference, please get over it. If you are an unpublished writer, conferences are invaluable. If you already publish like crazy, comparing notes with other writers is an opportunity to learn more about the craft and marketing. I've never attended a panel where I didn't learn something.

And if you are a really a real honest-to-god fan, you're worth a mint. Please let us know why you like our books.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mystery Solving, Past and Present

I was intrigued by David Cole's entry last Saturday about how the internet and technology figures large in modern mysteries, and it behooves a mystery novelist to educate herself on the subject.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I am in the process of writing my first mystery novel with a modern setting. My six previous published mysteries are all set in the American Southwest at the beginning of the 20th Century, and as I work on this contemporary story, I realize that I'm dealing with an entirely different species of literature. I've heard authors say that they think writing historical mysteries is more difficult than contemporary, but I beg to differ?

Not for me. Of course, I have already garnered quite an education about pre-World War I Oklahoma in the course of writing six books (Seven and a half, really. They have not all seen the light of day.) When it comes to Twenty-first Century crime solving techniques, I am starting from scratch.

1. I learned almost immediately that even if I'm not writing a police procedural, police procedure is going to be involved. No one in the present-day United States is going to get himself murdered without the police showing up and doing what police do unless the author undertakes all sorts of gyrations to place the victim, suspects, and sleuth outside of normal society.

2. The world used to be a much bigger place than it is now. The resources available to the local lawman in 1913 Oklahoma were much less sophisticated than they were for a Detective Inspector in 1913 London. In 2013, the Scottsdale Police Department has the same access to technology as Scotland Yard.

3. It's infinitely more difficult for an author to isolate someone in a contemporary novel. She has to figure out some way to make that cell phone unusable and/or make the wifi connection go down.

4. All novelists worth their salt try to be authentic and not make mistakes. But when writing a contemporary novel, it's not as easy to elide over verifiable facts. If you give your Des Moines cop the wrong kind of firearm, fifty readers will call you on it. If you give your Eleventh Century Welsh bowman the wrong kind of fletching on his arrows, the one guy in the world who could correct you probably won't be reading your mystery anyway.

5. As the writer, I'm not as interested in the crime solving procedure as I am in the effect of the murder on the characters. But if I'm going to create a realistic world that my readers can enter without being constantly taken out of the story by inaccuracies, I'd better do my best to portray what really happens in 2013 when someone is murdered.

And on that note I must leave you, because tonight is my third class at the Scottsdale Citizen's Police Academy. We're learning about computer crime.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The expectations of publishers, agents, editors and readers

Aline’s post yesterday got the “little grey cells” in my noggin a bit agitated yesterday, and as I worked on a graphic design project, I kept spacing out, mentally going back to her post, rather than paying attention to what I was supposed to be doing.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox
If you look at Ronald Knox’s “rules for crime fiction”, admittedly dated, you will be immediately struck by how stultified (how’s that for a 50¢ word?) crime fiction was and remains to this day. Throwing away the comment about “Chinamen”, nine of the ten rules are still very much in effect. As a matter of fact, where new writers are concerned, the rules have been carved in stone. If there were a Crime Writing Hall of Fame (now there’s an idea…), the stone tablets would be on display, a warning to budding scribblers that they breach the “rules” at their peril: it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to sell the manuscript.

[I propose that in place of the original Rule 5, we substitute: “No novel shall be written without featuring a series character or characters. If it’s a law enforcement official, they must be flawed or unhappy. If an amateur sleuth is used, they must be (at least somewhat) likable, resourceful, but above all plucky.]

Back in the Dark Ages when I attended university, I had a superb English professor who was stuck teaching required English for second year Ed students. Sadly, I don’t remember his name (other than his given name was Ted), but I do remember his sage advice: “In every novel, something must change. Whether it’s a physical state or a mental one, something must be different by the last page of the book. The narrative is carried by what happens to cause that change. Period.”

The comment came about because in class we were discussing a novel on which one of the students did a presentation. Several other students had read it, and reaction to the storyline and characters was all over the place. The argument (it couldn’t be called a “discussion” for more than the first three minutes) raged for a good hour with our prof sitting there nodding, a curious smile on his face. At the end of the class, he summed up the discussion with the words quoted above, and sent us off to write an addendum to our reports on the books we’d chosen to present, based on the comment.

I have carried that thought with me ever since. I know why the crime writing “rules” exist. They make sense in a way. They’re all about playing fair with the reader. However, “corporate interests” have also crept in, making rule breaking all but an indictable offense. Try writing a crime novel where there is no murder or at least a death. Or, unless you’re writing a thriller, you really are walking a precipice if you write novels that are not part of a series. I know. I’ve broken both those rules. One novel had no death in it. That story died of natural causes and was never completed. My publisher at the time made it clear they wouldn’t publish it. As for the other rule breaking I do with every full-length novel so far, anytime I talk to a publisher, editor, agent or reader, the first words out of their mouths are generally, “Is this part of a series?” On that score, so far, I’ve succeeded, but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to their entreating expressions.

Except in the case of readers, this expectation to write a series is driven by marketing concerns: readers want series. On the readers’ side, if they’re given characters they find interesting, they will return to future novels because there is a comfort/voyeuristic element in finding out about people’s lives. A successful series will generally sell better than a bunch of standalone novels. So that’s why there would be a reason to include my new Rule 5.

As for the other rules, a new writer breaking those will almost always run up against resistance, even if they’ve worked out a brilliant solution to their rule breaking.

That’s just the way it is.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How to write a crime novel – or not

As I said in my last blog, I am giving a lecture soon about Dorothy L Sayers and have been immersed in the crime fiction of the Golden Age.

It has got me thinking how much crime fiction has changed. For Sayers, the puzzle was all. She was much less interested in the Who or the Why; it was all about the How – indeed, she got slightly irritated that readers were so keen to focus on whodunit when the really interesting part was the ingenuity of the method. Development of character was a threat to the proper direction of the novel; it was only in the later books, once Harriet Vane appeared on the scene, that Sayers allowed herself to be seduced by the charm of her two protagonists and  permitted their relationship to develop, to the extent that Busman’s Honeymoon was subtitled ‘A love story with detective interruptions.’

Her friend, Monsignor Ronald Knox spelled out the rules for crime fiction in 1929 in the Detective Story Decalogue.

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not  light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Two brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I doubt if following these rather tongue-in-cheek recommendations would actually be much help to the modern writer aiming at publication – but then, to tell you the awful truth I’m not absolutely sure that, for all the modern how-to manuals that line bookshop shelves and occupy writing websites, they really do either.

There weren’t so many around when I was struggling to get my first book published. Certainly, when I came across an article by a best-selling author sharing tips for success I would read it avidly and become hugely enthused and certain I had it all sorted, until I actually sat down at my desk again and realised it didn't really help at all if the ideas and the drive to tell a story wasn't there.

Of course, it’s all very detailed and sophisticated now. There’s always analysis of these vital elements a book must have, like the ‘three acts’ structure, or  peaks of action plotted like a graph, or the crucial  ‘hooks’ to be placed at the end of the chapters.

When I did read one of them for the first time, I looked back at the books I had written with some amazement and even delight, like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was enchanted to discover that all the time he thought he’d just been talking, he’d been speaking in prose. I’d more or less done the sort of thing they were talking about but I thought I was just writing a book, not creating a structure – and probably the really great names in crime fiction are the ones whose books actually don't conform to the rules at all. After all, despite sending Sherlock Holmes into Chinese opium dens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did all right.

I always come back to W. Somerset Maugham’s dictum: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately no one knows what they are.’


Saturday, March 16, 2013

David Cole: Internet Anarchy

This week's guest blogger is David Cole, author of seven mystery novels in the Laura Winslow series.

David Cole
Laura Winslow, David's central character, is a half-Hopi, one-time-Ritalin-abuser computer hacker, living on the run while battling the demons behind her own anxiety disorder. His first book, Butterfly Lost, is a semi- to medium-hard-boiled mystery. Laura inhabits social, psychological, and geographic borderlands, and continually tries to solve the ambiguities of Native/non-Native identity, the ties and terrors of personal commitments, and the backstreet life of the US/Mexican border region.

David has had a long-time interest and involvement in Native American culture and issues, notably in the American Southwest.

For six years David worked for NativeWeb, Inc., a non-profit corporation offering Internet services and information to Native and Indigenous peoples of the world. He is one of the founding members of the collective: their website at currently averages about 6,000 visitors a day. NativeWeb was chosen as one of the top twenty Humanities sites on the Internet by the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) EDSitement website.

David has what I believe are the ideal credentials for a writer
in any genre, mystery included. A varied background, along with demonstrated expertise in a number of demanding disciplines.

In his own words:

"My youthful isolation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula tends to push me towards creating characters who are outsiders, caught between enjoying their small town lives and wanting to be somewhere else. This inevitably colors my writing, so that bright moments are set against a darker side. Few boys I knew in high school liked the emotional complexities of movies or literature or classical music, so I grew up with girls, and in later years, women, as my best friends. This has always influenced my preference for women as strong central characters.

"I taught English in college and at an alternative high school, and worked for many years as a technical writer and editor. A political activist since the late 1960s, I founded a political theatre troupe in California during the 1970s. At other times, I've worked in computer support and website design, as a short order cook, patent engineer, and lead guitarist and vocalist in a rock and roll band! I now live with my wife and cats (the number of cats varies) in Syracuse, New York."

David's background in computer technology and applications leads to the substance of today's guest blog.

For decades, mystery novel plots pretty much centered around money, sex, love, family problems, or corporate shenanigans. Recently, a whole new element has been added: the internet, where content evolves constantly, just as does the internet itself. These days, the state of the internet is pretty much anarchy. At the same time, the use of the internet in mystery novels has proceeded rapidly from casual to intense.

Ten years ago, authors would throw in favorite websites, but never as a real plot element. And, previously, detectives and private investigators looked for information in fairly traditional ways: searching state records for drivers' licenses, conducting personal interviews with suspects' friends and family members, accessing medical records and various criminal law-enforcement databases. You had to "know" somebody to get much of this information, and not that many people knew how to go about this. Now, almost anybody with a computer can search for almost anything about almost anyone. It's all online, somewhere. If access is not legally available, computer hacks can easily invade networked computers of all sorts, from federal and state-based mainframes to personal laptops, and everything in between.

As in: "Give me your name and I will generate a report on you within a day or two."

I already see complex changes in the mystery novels I have read in just the past year. But it's not merely the "internet" that's a factor here. It's "databases" that are on the internet, or accessible through the internet, and what can be done with them. There are so many databases of all kinds that talented criminals can steal multi-millions of dollars by hacking into them. Personal indentities can be stolen, altered, or even created. A "character" in a novel now need not be a real person, just someone with a website and an email address. Actually, a "character" can be a computer. (Reflections, here, on "HAL 2000" from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Imagine the new challenges for mystery authors. Fictional PIs are now usually proficient at gathering any kind of information. If they don't do it themselves, a new kind of character has been added, someone who hunches over a computer for hours every day. The traditional "sidekick" reinvented as proficient geek-hacker. This drastically changes the traditional element of mystery plots: how to acquire the necessary data. Also, the increase in the number of internet "dating sites" makes all kinds of character involvement new and popular.

My seven mystery novels have always featured some aspect of computer technology. But, oh what a change now from my first book, Butterfly Lost, written twelve years ago, in the late 1990s. In that book, I actually "created" computer program capabilities that didn't exist at the time. Now, any kind of program can exist, and if it does not, a talented programmer can create it in days. As an example, in Butterfly Lost, I "created" a facial recognition program because none really existed at the time. Now you can see this program just about everywhere, on TV or in the movies. Unfortunately, as is too often typical of TV, the medium distorts the reality of "searching" these databases; a facial recognition "match" can take days or weeks; it certainly cannot be done within the one-hour time frame that TV programs are limited to.

And this brings up a good point about some of the less than accurate information in mysteries I have read over the past few years. It's an unfortunate fact that most authors don't know that much about computers and databases. References to them are pretty much generalized. But I see a new wave of mystery novels coming in the next few years with plots that more and more feature digital "data" not just as plot device, but as character motivation. In fact, I see mysteries being written where nobody actually dies - a novelty until now. That would be really different, and really interesting.

So, what can authors do to catch up on rapidly-changing technologies? They will do what all authors of any quality have always done: they will do their homework and research the subjects they write about and work with. They will invest time and effort in learning about databases and computer crimes. In my opinion, Wikipedia is a very good starting point.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blaming Victims

Are victims sometimes to blame for what happens to them? Can we place victims on a continuum from the "innocent victim" who does nothing at all to "cause" his victimization (is sitting at home reading a book with the alarm system turned on when his house is invaded) to the "blameworthy victim" (who goes out to a dive, flashes his money, gets drunk, and accepts a ride home from a stranger)? In the social sciences, the idea of attributing varying degrees of blame to victims is now controversial and often challenged by both scholars and victims' advocates.

But the idea that a victim might do something really stupid or reckless or provocative or dangerous and somehow deserve what happens is a thought that many people -- let's face it, most of us -- sometimes have when hearing a story of how someone became a victim. We know that we ourselves have been careless and stumbled into situations that we shouldn't have, and we were lucky nothing bad happened. We hold ourselves and others to the standard of not walking into danger (unless we have a badge and a gun). We expect sensible people not to go for a walk in the woods at night when there might be predators lurking. This is why we aren't thrilled when female protagonists in modern novels go poking about to discover the source of the strange noises coming from the locked wing of the house with only a flashlight in hand.

On the other hand, we are prepared to give Little Red Riding Hood a pass as a victim. She is a sweet little girl who is on a praiseworthy mission. She is carrying a basket of food to her bedridden grandmother. And, wolves are mean, nasty creatures who gobble us both sweet little girls and ailing grandmothers. Of course, there are some of us who like wolves and think they're gotten a bad reputation in fairy tales.If we were retelling the tale -- as some writers have -- we would provide the wolf with a backstory. Or, we might have a closer look at Red and her grandmother. In fact, in our re-write, Red might be much older and much more dangerous, and the wolf might be minding his own business when he is lured into a trap. And Grandma might actually be Red's partner in crime. And when the wolf ends up dead, Red explains to the detectives who come to investigate that it was self-defense. Of course, by now she has exchanged her red cloak for a black wool coat and she is clearly distraught. The detectives comfort poor Red and leave with the wolf's sorry carcass, and Red and Grandma split the money that they stole from the poor wolf who had not only howled but won at the roulette table when he was in Vegas the weekend before.

The challenge for writers is to tell stories of crime and violence and somehow make both our victims and our offenders complex. The various environments (physical, social, economic, political) in which potential victims and would-be offenders come into contact with each other are important to the story. Even a victim who is "too stupid to live" deserves more than that as his epitaph.

I've been thinking a bit about this because I'm working on a new book, and I found that I needed to hit "pause" and give my victim more of a backstory before I could go on. I was trying to plunge in and power through the first draft (as some writers do so well). But having my victim become a victim because he was a "nice guy" who got caught up in something turned out not be sufficient. I had to go back to his childhood to understand his reaction to what has happened. In the process, I've gained a better understanding of his relationship with the person who is going to kill him. Is my victim to blame for his own upcoming death? No, not at all. But he does hold himself responsible for the situation that he finds himself in. And that makes me like him a lot better -- but I still have to kill him off. I feel really bad about it, but if he doesn't die, I have no story . . . as many a writer has said before he or she committed literary murder.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Location, Location, Location

Spring is (finally) creeping toward us in New England, and with it came a significant change in the Corrigan household last week: I took a new job, starting in August. Still teaching at a boarding school, but moving to a larger school, and moving from Connecticut to Massachusetts. My 14- and 11-year-old daughters are anxious, as expected, which leaves my wife and I both (very) excited but also (very) anxious for the girls. Next year should prove interesting: a new home, a new school, and a new book out in December.

Hemingway said changing your location was a good thing for a writer – he wrote about Michigan while in Paris, claiming the distance offered better perspective. Of course, Hemingway also said that be to be a successful father, one shouldn't acknowledge his kid for the first two years of the child's life. I'm not into moving my family from one side of New England to the other in hopes of writing better scenes, but I do think a change of scenery offers a writer a great deal.

With any move comes new people entering your life, new sights, new sounds, new smells, and new social dynamics. These offer a writer experiences, emotional experiences, sensory experiences, and social experiences. And these three types of experiences are the elements of good fiction.

On that note, if you are looking for a story starter, try this: Select a location in your area that you have not visited (or do not visit frequently). Go there, and write a scene that uses the setting in some critical way: characters' actions/reactions, dialogue, and their emotional ranges must be in some way impacted by your choice of location.

If you do this, I'd love to read it:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What Makes a Perfect Author?

I was going through the copious notes I took from attending “Love Is Murder” in Chicago recently, and I came across the panel “Key Relationships for Authors—Agents & Editors and Publicists.”

As a writer, I must admit I have always been selfishly thinking about what I’d like out of a relationship with my agent, editor or publicist. My top three qualities would include a timely response to my emails, the occasional phone call to see if I’m still alive—and best of all—cocktails, lunch or a dinner date! I do go out of my way to meet my agent and editor as much as possible (and not just at conferences) and I honestly believe that meeting face-to-face makes a huge difference.

But what about the other way around? Moderated by Susan Gibberman, panelists Peter Miller, Maryglenn McCombs and Marcia Markland generously shared what qualities they hoped to find in their ideal author.

The author must:
  • Be dependable
  • Have integrity
  • Be honest
  • Be trustworthy
  • It’s not all about the money
  • Hopefully, the author must not be an alcoholic or bipolar
*Peter said that every so often he weeds his garden of authors. 

The author must: 
  • Have a thick skin
  • Be able to handle constructive criticism
  • Not call her crying
  • Not retaliate after a bad review
  • No meltdowns, please!
  • Don’t threaten to quit writing
*MaryGlenn believes that the publicist can only get it out there—the book and quality of writing does the rest.

  • Wants to keep the writer, she wants to cultivate a long relationship
  • Does not like being nagged and feels it is self-destructive
  • Wants a confident writer who knows he/she can write and doesn't need constant reassurances
  • The writer’s ego must be satisfied within himself
  • Looks for writers who care about people and who know how to treat people (no rudeness)
  • Authors who go out of their way to see that the book sells
  • Most good writers are “good” people
*Marcia's advice is to do the best you can, then let it go and write the next book.

I found the list of qualities really helpful and realized I had been guilty of a few of the less savory qualities myself—and no, I won't tell you which ones they are.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How much information is too much? The description dilemma

I recently had a few email exchanges with a budding writer/friend. The topic started out as a question about how much background information is necessary to keep a story feeling “real”, but also not so much that it’s slowing forward plot motion down.

Now there’s a real can of worms to open. I think every fiction writer (and probably many non-fiction writers) struggles with this constantly. Since I don’t consider myself an expert on writing, I’m usually loathe to give out advice. This time I did – but gingerly.

I think we all (writers and readers) would agree that nothing should be in a story that doesn’t a) move the plot forward, or b) inform the reader about something crucial about the characters. The trick is being able to recognize just how much is enough.

In fiction, the writers are relying on their imagination to come up with an attractive and interesting plot. But one thing we often neglect to consider is that our readers have an imagination, too, and by allowing them to use it, we can make our prose much leaner, and quite possibly more rewarding for those reading it.

My friend, like many other beginning writers (and boy, have I been guilty of this on occasion!), had several passages in the four chapters I read that really overdid it in the description department. We’re talking minutiae here, folks. Did we really need to know so much about the paintings on the wall of the room where the murder took place? I suggested the following instead of the 120-word paragraph:

The inspector gave a cursory glance around the elegant room from the doorway. “Judging by the paintings and furniture,” he said to the constable guarding the door, “somebody must have a healthy income.”

Okay, this was just off the top of my head, but it gets the point across since the fact that the hand-carved oak panelling, the oriental carpet, the stone fireplace, comfortable chairs, etc. really don’t have anything to do with the story. It’s all information the reader doesn’t need.

My friend was disappointed because she had really worked her descriptive paragraph, and it was very well-written. I told her that while it had been a worthwhile writing exercise to put the description together, it was more suited to a magazine article about room design than to a murder mystery.

This is precisely the critique I received from a more experienced writer when I was starting out. He said, “The scene you’re painting is really quite lovely, but are you writing a travel book or crime fiction?” That really struck (embarrassingly) home and has stuck with me over the years.

In my toss-off paragraph above, I did two things (I hope): used dialogue to describe what needed to be known by the reader rather than a lengthy descriptive paragraph (I’d probably also toss in a few other descriptive tidbits as the scene went on) but also hinted at biases that the police inspector character possesses.

The end result is that my paragraph will be more likely not to be skipped over by a reader. Readers don’t tend to skip dialogue whereas long descriptive paragraphs are often started and then skipped over after a paragraph of two. At least that’s my tendency when I’m reading crime fiction. Reading E.M. Forster or Herman Melville are other matters. There long descriptions are more welcome…sort of.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I Spy....

When I went to Cuba two weeks ago, I brought with me the usual overload of books.  I intended to read a lot while relaxing in the warm Cuban sun, and in the event I did. Between drinks of rum and good Cuban beer - cerveza - that is. And frequent exercise; the resort had a really good gym and there was a long pool for doing lengths; in addition to the really large pool with the swim-up bar, not really an exercise venue. Which pool I did not visit even once.

The two hardcovers I toted along on the trip were Game Change, the story of the 2008 Presidential campaign, subtitled Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. A really good read, for anyone who hasn't read it. The book gave birth (if that's the term) to the hit HBO film of the same title. That film, though, is all about Sarah Palin and her troubled campaign, and her equally troubled relationship with McCain and his advisors. (For the record, Palin's name does not appear in the book until p. 350.) The film is not a flattering portrait of Palin; McCain comes off much better, as he does in the book.

The second book I brought along was Sweet Tooth, the most recent novel by British author Ian McEwan. I had already started that book, but didn't get around to it again until after I got back to Ottawa. Instead, I found myself reading a book that was in the resort's "collection". We all know about such "collections"; they are comprised of books left behind by tourists. The book was by British author Alan Bennett, and it's a memoir of his family, and especially of his mother's lifelong battle with mental illness and eventual death: A Life Like Other People's.

For readers not familiar with Bennett's writing, he has had a long and illustrious career. At Oxford, way back in the 60s, Bennett teamed up with fellow students Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook to write and perform the satirical review, Beyond The Fringe. It was a huge success, and eventually played to full houses in London and New York. After that, Bennett went on to be any number of things literary, and dramatic, as playwright, essayist and actor. Most readers will know the film for which he is most recognised in North America, The Madness of King George. (Original title of the stage play, The Madness of George III.)

So, what, you may wonder, does any of this have to do with the title of this post, "I spy...."?

Well, Bennett, among his other works, wrote three memorable pieces about spies and espionage. He grew up in an England still cringing from one of the great espionage-treason disasters in British, and Western, postwar history, the flight of three British intelligence officers to the (then) Soviet Union; Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. These three were members of what came to be known as the "Cambridge Five". A fourth member, Anthony Blunt, was identified some years later.

Blunt was a special sort of embarrassment for the British Government, and also for the British Monarchy. He was a gifted and cultured man of great intelligence, a Professor of the History of Art at the University of London, a Director of the marvellous Courtauld Institute of Art in London (which Suzanne and I had the pleasure of visiting last fall), and perhaps most significantly, the "Surveyor of the King's Pictures" - later, after the death of George VI, the "Queen's Pictures" - in London; essentially the vast art collection in the possession of the Royal Family.

(Blunt was also a man of, shall we say, cosmopolitan sexual appetites, straddling (so to speak) both sides of the sexual spectrum. On a DVD collection of a number of his plays, Bennett recounts a story he heard about Blunt being caught, one afternoon, in flagrante with a young woman on his staff, and later that same day in a similar position with a young man. The witness quasi-reproached Blunt for his behaviour with the words, "You seem awfully fickle, Anthony." To which Blunt is said to have replied, "Well, dear fellow, many a fickle makes a fuckle.")

So, Blunt was the infamous "Fourth Man" of the infamous Cambridge Five. And the "Fifth Man"? There is much speculation about that, but so far as I know, his identity has not been established.

Bennett wrote a satirical-serious play on the Blunt misadventure, A Question of Attribution. It originally was staged at the National Theatre in London in 1988; and later, in 1992, was staged for television in the BBC's Screen One series. The play deals with the "outing" of Blunt as a spy, and member of the Cambridge Five. I remember seeing it about that time on Masterpiece Theatre.

At the same time that the Blunt play was staged at the National Theatre, a second Bennett play, An Englishman Abroad, was also staged. That short play deals with an episode in the life of Guy Burgess, and focuses on his rather miserable life in Moscow after his defection from MI6. The play came about because of the chance encounter between the British actress Coral Browne and Burgess in Moscow in 1958. Browne was touring with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre's production of Hamlet, in which she played Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Rightly or wrongly, the play treats Burgess very gently, and with humour. It is great entertainment. Perhaps Bennett felt it was punishment enough that Burgess lived in a dingy flat in Moscow, and was followed constantly by a Soviet agent, his every move recorded. He did not have a happy life in Moscow. He never learned to speak Russian, and he died in 1963 of alcoholism, aged just 52. On the bright side, Burgess maintained his Englishness and, with Coral Browne's help, continued to have his suits made by his personal tailor on London's Savile Row.

The third Bennett play that deals with spies is The Old Country, written in 1977. The play was staged in London's West End and starred Alec Guinness in a role based on Kim Philby's life in exile in Russia. Guinness began his collaboration with Bennett in 1973. In The Old Country, Guinness's Foreign Office traitor has created an entirely English atmosphere at his defector's dacha in Russia. I had the good fortune to see the play in London in 1977 (or was it 1978?) and for the first half of the play, I thought it was in fact set in the English countryside. When it became clear that "we" were in the Soviet Union, I remember being shocked. I knew only a little about the Philby-Maclean-Burgess affair in those long-ago days. Happily, I now know a little more. The internet helps.

That the Cambridge Five have had a lasting impact on the literature associated with the "spy business" is undeniable. In this post, I had planned to delve into "spy literature" in more detail, but I will save that for another day. It's not a genre I know a great deal about, but I am planning to attend a 6-week, 12-hour course on the subject at Carleton University this month. Four authors and books have been selected:

John's Buchan's The 39 Steps; Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories, Ashenden: Or The British Agent; Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana; and John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That's assuming that the course is not already filled to capacity.

As a closing note, I will add that there is a marvellous collection of Alan Bennett's work available on a DVD set, and it includes both An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.

The Alan Bennett Collection

In addition to the two plays above noted, there are nine other pieces. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Colby Marshall: Crutch Words

Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby Marshall has a tendency to turn every hobby she has into a job, thus ensuring that she is a perpetual workaholic. In addition to her 9,502 regular jobs, she is also a contributing columnist for M Food and Culture magazine and is a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. She is actively involved in local theatres as a choreographer as well as sometimes indulges her prima donna side by taking the stage as an actress.

Colby lives in Georgia with her family, two mutts, and an array of cats that, if she were a bit older, would qualify her immediately for crazy cat lady status. Her debut thriller, Chain of Command, is about a reporter who discovers the simultaneous assassinations of the President and Vice President may have been a plot to rocket the very first woman—the Speaker of the House—into the presidency. Chain of Command is now available, and the second book in her McKenzie McClendon series, The Trade, is due for publication by Stairway Press in June 2013.

Watch the official book trailer for Chain of Command here: You can learn more about Colby and her books at

Please join me in welcoming Colby as our guest blogger this weekend on Type M for Murder.

When I finish writing a manuscript, one thing never fails to make it into my revision notes: a list of word searches I need to perform.

Unfortunately, I’m not referring to the fun kind sold in the puzzle row of the local Barnes and Noble, either. Nope, this kind is that evil group of words I've used way too much in one manuscript: my “crutch words.”

These fallback words and phrases tend to be different for everyone, and sometimes, they vary from book to book. For example, during my first read through of my latest work in progress, the word “beast” appeared in the manuscript a disturbing amount. However, certain crutch words are common in writing, and many a manuscript can benefit from finding them. So take a deep breath, hit control+ F on your keyboard, and hunt down these top ten offenders:

10. Breath. Check out how many times your characters take deep breaths or how many times you describe the quality of their breathing. Unless you're writing a lung transplant story, chances are you don't need as much breathing as you might think.

9. Started. A bad habit several writers have (and I am guilty, too) is inserting the words “started to” or “began to” prior to a more active verb. For some reason, this feels like a good idea, but sentences are nearly always stronger when the “starting” is cut and the action begins right away.

8. Adverbs. Okay, okay, so I’m not talking the word “adverbs” so much as the part of speech. That said, one of the things I most often hear criticized in writing is the use of too many adverbs. So search out those “ly” words and vow to cut at least two-thirds of them.

7. Thought. Such and such thought about doing xyz. Xyz, she thought. Too many thoughts can get bulky. Instead, try weaving thoughts into the narrative where possible.

6. Mind. Along the lines of thoughts, brains appear way too much in most writing. In fact, “brain” probably ties “mind” for the number six slot.

5. Amazing. If it’s that amazing, find a better, more descriptive word. Breathtaking, adorable, fantastic, flawless, magnificent, indescribable- whatever it might be, it’s more than amazing. Same thing goes for “beautiful.” If it’s beautiful, you can tell me more than that.

4. There. There were people in the room. There was a man in the park. Those “theres” will never tell your reader as much as a noun with an active verb. The people in the room whispered. The man slept on a park bench. Slash your “theres,” and I bet you’ll find stronger choices help both your pacing and description.

3. Look. Lots of times the looks are glances or stares, but other times, this word is thrown in to describe facial expressions or body language in lieu of what might be a more difficult effect to achieve. For example, “He looked afraid,” might be the easier way to convey fear, but easiest doesn’t equal best.

2. Make. He made a funny face. She made a fist. I think I’ll make dinner. (Gah! There’s the pesky “think” again! Gah! There!)

And the number one crutch word offender: That.
’Nuff said.

My rule of thumb for crutch words is to delete as many as I can, then be sure where I do use them, I don’t have proximity errors. I try not to pick the same word twice within a page of the last time I wrote it.

How about you? What are your worst crutch words? What words have you noticed writers lean on too much?

Friday, March 08, 2013

Tra la – Tales from a Happy Blogger

There has been a lively discussion on my publisher's newsgroup about the merits of blogging. Some of us are happy to blog. For others it's like slogging through molasses. I'm one of the former. I'm glad to blog and ecstatic when other people find my posts worthwhile.

As to the worth of blogs for peddling books – I absolutely track down books when an author’s posts intrigue me. I feel like I'm becoming acquainted with the Poisoned Pen Press authors who blog regularly. I look forward to meeting them at conventions. Through my Type M blogmates, I'm eager to attend Bloody Words sometime.
To me blogs are an opportunity to attract new readers. However, one of the biggest benefits of blogging  especially with my Type M friends  is that I no longer feel alone and incredibly stupid in my slog through the frustrating business side of marketing. It helps to know how others cope with disappointing signings.
I've learned how to be a better panelist and how to have a better experience at writer's conferences. I've learned better research techniques and the importance of getting fans names and emails down on paper.
Since I always have a nagging sense that practically everyone knows more than I do, I appreciate the advice given in posts and the sharing of personal opinions and experiences. They have sharpened my professional approach. I have a more relaxed attitude to disappointing signings.
Thanks to Vicki Delany, I now know I have to contact bookstores far in advance. Most valuable of all has been the stunning revelation that others have a really, really hard time coming up with a synopsis or outline because we are “pantsers” instead of plotters.

My favorite Type M post was a wild card. Rick Blechta sent a link to a flashmob video where a street gathering ended up with a full symphony performance of Ode to Joy. Blogs can be anything from rants to the very personal sharing of life experiences. It's up to the writer.

I find that I'm more inclined to read shorter posts. How about it readers? I would like to have feedback on the blogs you like best, and why.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Past Has Long Arms

Like Barbara, Aline’s post on Monday about how much research one does in the interest of authenticity certainly rang a bell with me (Sorry, Aline). I write a historical mystery series, and thus do a tremendous amount of research on the times.   But only a very small percent of the research I do for each book finds its way onto the page. I’m not writing a history book, I’m trying to create a world, and it’s amazing how little it takes to add just that perfect touch of authenticity to your story.

Why, then, do I spend so much time learning everything I can about the times, lives, and mores of my characters when I know I’m not going to write about most of it? Because my own familiarity with the era I’m writing about is going to show without my having to make a big deal of it. The characters are going to move naturally through their world without thinking about it, just like we do in our own world.

For each book I write, I keep a notebook and file full of information that I read up on as I need it.  Much of my research may not be used, for as a book advances some of the ideas I started out with fall by the wayside.  Even so, when the book is finally done I will have added quite a bit to the huge amount of arcane knowledge rattling around in my head.

In fact, the very best fun thing about doing research, if I may coin a phrase, is that even if you’re looking for the most mundane piece of information, you often discover amazing stories and connections that you could not possibly have made up on your own.

To illustrate, allow me to tell you a story I have written about before, but which is just too good not to repeat.  For one of my earlier books I wanted to know the name of the sheriff of Muskogee County in 1917, but I was unable to find the that seemingly easy piece of information online.  So I called the library in the city of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and asked the local history librarian to look it up and e-mail the answer to me.  Later that afternoon, she sent me a wonderful campaign photograph of Sheriff J.S. Barger.

Now that I knew his name, I was able to find his obituary online.  From this I discovered that it is indeed a small world, and time does not dim our connections to one another.

For after John Barger lost his reelection bid in 1918, he became a county “Speed Officer”, whose job was to curb the then-growing automobile menace, and was given a county patrol car to cruise country roads and highways.  In 1924, the county’s “speed patrol” car was stolen from the garage by the Lawrence brothers, “Babe” and Bill, young Muskogee desperadoes who were wanted for auto theft in several towns around OK.  After several unsuccessful attempts to catch them in OK, the sheriff was notified that the pair had been caught at El Paso, and he sent Deputy Barger and his partner, one Joe Morgan, who happens to have been a cousin of my grandmother’s, to pick them up and bring them back to Muskogee.  After taking charge of the prisoners, Barger and Cousin Joe started back with them in the county car.  Barger was driving and Morgan was in the rear seat with the Lawrence boys.

Barger heard a shot, looked around and found himself peering down the barrel of a gun in Babe Lawrence’s hand.  Cousin Joe was on the floor, shot through the head with his own pistol. The car, going at the blazing speed of at least 20 miles an hour, crashed into a fence, righted itself and mowed down fence posts for 40 yards before stopping. The boys forced Barger to walk off the road into the woods and handcuffed him to a tree, before escaping again in the county car. Barger shouted until he attracted the attention of a ranch hand, who refused the help him.  He was handcuffed to the tree for 3 hours, until officers arrived and rescued him.  He then went back to Ft. Worth, where he organized a posse and went after the Lawrence boys.They were later apprehended in Tempe, AZ.  Bill was later hanged in Arizona, and Babe served a life term in Texas.  Barger died in 1938 at the age of 77.

I haven’t yet used that tale in a book, but you can bet I will eventually, because I could never make up a story quite as good.

Hollywood and the mirror of life

Aline’s Monday post on research made me smile. I can relate. My research has ranged far and wide over the course of my books. I have researched the oddest and most arcane questions, from antique locks to the colour of twenty-five year-old bones. I believe in realism in my writing, not just about people and their struggles, but about the places and events I describe along the way. It is not that I expect readers to use my Honour Among Men as a definitive essay on Canadian peacekeepers in Yugoslavia, nor my This Thing of Darkness as the last word in schizophrenia. But I hope that in addition being drawn into a gripping story, they will learn something new about subjects beyond their daily experience. Yet the balance of fact and fiction is a delicate one. It is not just the danger of drowning the story in excessive and irrelevant facts, but also the dramatic thrust that fiction demands.

This past week there has been a lot of chatter about the “Hollywoodizing” of history, a phenomenon which subscribes to the adage “never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”. Thus we see the Oscar-winning film Argo playing so loose with the historical facts of the Iranian hostage crisis that even Jimmy Carter spoke out in protest. The film Lincoln, an equal triumph from the dramatic perspective, had enough outright lies and distortions to threaten another civil war.  Just about any film or book selects its facts to suit its biases and its dramatic flow, and as a novelist, it is difficult to know how much bending of the truth is acceptable. But it is worrisome that entire generations are growing up learning their history from the simplified, often whitewashed, truths and moral lessons of Hollywood.

That's why I’m a realist. Knowing that people reading my books may have no other sources of information and no other basis on which to judge their accuracy, I feel an obligation to stick as close as possible to the truth while still telling a good story. I research meticulously, and if I am not able to find the answer, I usually leave the information out altogether rather than lie or make something up. If I have to distort the truth for the purposes of the story, I try to let the reader know it’s a distortion. My first responsibility to the reader is to tell a powerful, moving, entertaining tale, but my secondary responsibility is to hold up a mirror to life. Implicit in this is the responsibility not to mislead or manipulate.

Fantasy and science fiction writers operate within very different parameters and expectations. People know this is a made-up world, that the science being portrayed is invented. As a mystery writer, however, I feel as if I am dealing in the real world, with real struggles in real-life situations. My writing has the potential to influence people's views and understanding of those struggles, and with that comes the responsibility to get it right.

If I am talking about post-traumatic stress disorder and child abuse, I’d better not be making it all up.