Friday, May 31, 2013

Dancing at Type M

We're rejoicing at Type M. Serious dancing here. This week we hit the 200,000 viewer mark. Surprisingly, 7,000 are in Russia. We could not have done this without our many loyal followers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A large number of blogs are abandoned. Very few viewers comment on blogs, so it's easy to assume no one reads them either. If you are thinking about creating a new blog, or would like to re-do an existing one, I have some ideas. Needless to say these opinions are not necessarily shared by my wonderful talented blogmates. These are my own suggestions and prejudices from reading a fair amount of blogs.

1.  Keep it short. No matter compelling the subject or skillful the writer, I do not have time to read lengthy blogs. Oh, I plan to--when I have the time. In fact, a number land on my "favorites" list to read later. But that never happens.

2. Who are you? This goes deep to the wretched psyche of writers. We are very private persons. Not outgoing, but not shy. It's just that we are basically loners. Secretive sometimes, even a little sly. Not given to sharing. So what do we do? We choose the most expository, self-revealing medium in the world. We write novels. So go figure. There has to be some element of self-exposure in a blog. Readers like to know more about the authors of their favorite books.

3. Watch it, baby. If you are not politically correct by nature, or a moderately decent person, read books on how to conduct yourself and then try to apply the concepts. Social media is a two-edged sword. You have every right to your political views, but remember, in the limited space of blog, you can be misunderstood. Last year, I paid and paid and paid for a stupid careless political remark. So why would someone who feels differently want to buy my books?

4. Take pictures. Modern digital cameras make it so easy. There are all kinds of sites for uploading. . Pick one and learn all you can about using it well. Pictures that support a photo essay will catch the viewer's eye. Include settings that serve as the background of your books.

5. Consider a mixed gender blog. It's hard to fight stereotypes! Even though it's not true, many viewers associate "women writers" with cozies, and men as creators of  "mean streets" and Mickey Spillane hard-boiled types. Mixed gender blogs seem to last longer.

6. Support your blogmates. Read their blogs. Comment on their posts. Tweet and recommend their posts on FB. Read their books and then recommend them to your friends. Many companies are hiring social media experts. Take the time to gain some expertise so you can get back to your novel.

Let me know which (if any) of these ideas resonate with you.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Another shot from the Canon

A couple years ago on Type M, we seemed to engage in the genre-fiction-vs-mainstream-works debate, and the ensuing threads of literary-canon discussion wound endlessly.

Well, as the sultan of the spoken word, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once said, "I'm back." And thanks to a fascinating post in the May 23 edition of the New Yorker, so too is our canon thread.

"Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics" is thought provoking on many levels. Several questions author Sam Sacks raises:

Once you're in (John Milton is his example) can you be asked to leave?

Does T. S. Eliot's definition of a classic -- “maturity of mind, maturity of manners, maturity of language, and perfection of the common style” -- hold up?

And how about this statement: "A look through the Classics section of bookstores -- in America or any of the Western democracies [shows] ...the offerings are wide-ranging, tilting toward diversity and inclusion. But, more to the point, artistic brilliance is no longer the most important determining factor. What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important. In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics."

The latter is a bold statement. Is this true? I'm not sure, but I do know that as the chair of an independent-school English department, I strive to offer students literary examples that expose them to cultures and peoples they may not otherwise experience. And I know I'm certainly not alone in this goal among academicians: Many high schools have revised curricula, changing traditional "British Literature" to "world literature." Are all of these global works canonical? I taught Children of the Street, by Kwei Quartey, this winter. It (and some YouTube videos) offered a glimpse into life on Ghana streets that my students -- unless they seek it -- will never see. Children of the Street was a nice story and a pretty good mystery. The sentences are not going to be mistaken with E.B. White's or George Orwell's or even (our own) James Lee Burke's. But, for my students, was the experience of reading (and hopefully learning) about people who live lives unlike their own important? Among the fundamental attributes and skills students will need in the next 10 or 20 years are empathy and cultural awareness. Pixar has its designers take French lessons in order to better understand the French culture.

In the early 1990s, while in grad school, in El Paso, Texas, I attended a book discussion by a world-renowned literary critic. Asked about the canon, he said, in effect, that it is dominated by dead white males because most others have not been allowed to write long enough to produce works that withstand the test of time. Short sighted? I can't imagine an American literature survey without Toni Morrison and August Wilson.

The New Yorker article raises more questions than I have answers to, and, for me, that's what literary criticism and literature in general is all about. I'm curious to see what others think of the article.     

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Makes a Good Spy?

One of my favorite new shows this fall was The Americans. Set in the Cold War period in the 1980s, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

It wasn’t that long ago that Robert Hanssen, a FBI agent was exposed as spying for the Soviet Union for 22 years from 1979 to 2001. Currently, he is serving a life sentence in Florence, Colorado. His story has been covered in several mediums including a documentary called “Superspy: The Man Who Betrayed the West”  and a film starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe called "Breach."

I have been toying with writing a spy story for a long time—i.e. the standalone book that I dream I can write inbetween my two mystery series and my argh-groan-sigh BUT glad I’m employed … full-time job. 

So what makes a good spy? I can’t imagine ever betraying my country and anyway, I’d make a rubbish spy because I am a wimp when it comes to any form of torture. The dentist is enough for me.

I was lucky enough to listen to Colonel (Ret.) Jill Morgenthaler's fascinating presentation called “If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Not Paying Attention.” Check out her website. As an inspirational, motivational speaker, she’s amazing and her bio is staggeringly impressive. One of Jill's roles in military intelligence was that of recruiting spies.
This is what she shared:

What makes a good spy?
A lust for adventure

What are the signs of a spy?
Too good to be true
Start with little stuff
Makes promises (all lies)
Doesn't hear no

T is for Traitor—What makes a good target?
Personnel with access and placement
Personality type—narcissistic
Personal vulnerabilities—loners
Criminal activity i.e. if dirty in one area they will be dirty in another
Family/close friends in foreign countries

Persuasion Nuggets
Sex- honey pot ravens; swans and swallows
Political asylum
Career opportunities

B is for blackmail—coercion
Booze (and drugs)

The Telltale Signs of a Spy (i.e are you living with one?)
Unexplained Wealth
Taking work home
Excessive use of copier
Working late for no reason
Constant foreign travel
Requesting access with no real need to know
Corresponding with foreigners/businesses
Repeated security violations

And if you’re curious as to whether you would make a good spy … try taking Wolfgang Lotz’s quiz from his “Handbook For Spies.” Just remember to—

Act like you belong
Behave purposefully
Blend in gray man or woman
Always assess the players and situations
Trust your instincts
Don't second guess (analyze later)
Always be aware of your surroundings

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who said you can’t change horses in the middle of the stream?

Hi there! Sorry Type M fans that I missed last week’s post, but I was desperately trying to keep my head above water with two large graphic design projects due, as well as the manuscript of my new Orca Book Publishers novella to complete (and at that point, it was frighteningly behind schedule. Ah, the joys of trying to keep two full-time jobs going!

But I have a little breathing room this week. The Orca ms is now completed – if not finalized – and I’ve tamed one of the design beasts.

Now, a very curious thing happened as I began writing the penultimate chapter of The Boom Room on Friday morning. I had all my “plot ducks” in a row: clues placed, red herrings (ditto), what little background information I could squeeze in to make the solution to the mystery credible. I was ready to take a deep breath and “get ’er done”. Since I was having to work so fast, I’d been making lots of little notes to myself so I could keep everything together and avoid stumbles.

I wrote about half a page of that chapter, then stopped, literally in mid-sentence. It suddenly dawned on me that the wrong person had committed the murder and for the wrong reason. Huh? Where had that come from? But it was a brilliant little idea. Basically, I was now faced with having to completely upend my carefully structured plot, dumping the whole thing in the old creative blender and hitting frappé. That sure stopped me in my tracks.

I went outside and sat in the backyard looking at the logistics of turning my plot inside out. With time short, the first question was: Should I even do this? It would mean rewriting whole swathes of the story,  picking up all the little details, asides, and dialogue where they would need to be changed.

Fortunately, I was working with a manuscript that can’t exceed 20,000 words. Faced with a 100,000-word ms, I might have seriously considered avoiding the whole mess.

The thing was, this change and what it would do to the whole tenor of the book had me really excited. The ending would be much stronger, an ultimate tweak to the nose of my readers thinking they had everything worked out. [I don’t know if I’m right about that yet, but my two “first-glance” readers/editors will be sure to let me know in that regard.]

I finally decided that the book would be much better with my completely-changed focus and conclusion, so I went back in the house, took a deep breath and got to the task of completely disassembling my manuscript and making the necessary changes. I worked many hours over Friday night, as much of Saturday as I could manage, well into the wee hours of the night. After a couple of errands on Sunday morning, I set to work writing that now totally different penultimate chapter, and then the final wrap-up one. At 4:27 p.m. that day I put in the final period and heaved a large sigh of relief.

Now, to all of you, my question this week is this: have you ever had this happen to you? It certainly was unknown territory for moi, and sort of frightening in that I didn’t even have an inkling it was coming. I had to include a chapter by chapter summary when submitting the novella proposal to Orca, and I’ve now completely shredded that, so there’s some additional risk. But I’m betting there won’t be too much of a problem when my editor there sees the results of my massive change of direction.

Has this every happened to you?

PS: You probably know now that I really like soul and funk music in particular. As a matter of fact I play in one of those musical outfits whenever I’m in the New York area. “Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream” is one of my favourite tunes by arguably the greatest funk band ever, Tower of Power. Here’s a link to it. While I was working my way through those tumultuous changes this past weekend, the song was looping over and over in my poor beleaguered brain.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Angel in the Detail

I parked my car at the supermarket the other day - centre of a row, sensibly parked, nothing to attract attention or mark it out from all the other cars.  I was in the middle of my shopping when i bumped into a policeman firend.  We chatted for a few minutes and then he said, 'Oh, by the way, I think you should change that tyre on the nearside front of your car.  The tread looks as if it's below the legal minimum at the edge and if you're picked up it's penalty points.'

I thanked him gratefully, not least for not shopping me there and then, but as I walked back to the offending car I marvelled at his powers of observation.  I don't believe he's seen me in that car more than a couple of times and yet he registered it as he passed and observed it closely enough to see the detail of the worn tread.  It's his job, of course.  It's what he's trained to do.

My favourite books are the ones where the writer grabs me with some well-observed detail of character or appearance - the minute insight that suddenly brings the person to life.  It's a fine skill, but I think that, like a police officer, you can train yourself to do it too.

There's a fashion at the moment for what is called 'Mindfulness' as a remedy for stress.  It seems to mean that you blot out troubling thoughts by focusing exclusively on the moment, the here and now, observing even the automatic breaths you take so that your mind doesn't stray.  Using that sort of intensity on observation is good training.

I love train journeys, not least because you can watch other passengers, see the ways they move, the ways they react to their companions.  You can invent the story of their lives; the irritated flicker of the muscles round the man's mouth as the woman opposite interrupts his newspaper reading; the softening of the eyes and the tiny involuntary smile as the girl stares dreamily out of the window; the elderly lady's hopeful eyes scanning her neighbours to see who might be prepared to talk to her.

It's not just the devil that lies in the detail; there's an angel in detail as well; the neat, significant observation that is more effective than lines of description.  Perhaps it's just a question of rediscovering the sort of absolute concentration we all had as children when we were interested in something  - as in this picture of my grandson, his puppy and a snail.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

We've been here before

If you've gotten close to a writer lately, you'll probably witness plenty of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth over the seemingly Apocalyptic changes in the publishing business.

But such seismic change has happened before.

First up: A Story of the Short Story.

Up through the 1940s it was possible for a writer to earn a living publishing short stories. In fact, the pulp magazines--known for establishing the mystery, science fiction, and romance genres--provided many writers with a reliable income. And the larger magazines such as Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post paid amazingly high sums (even by modern standards) for short fiction. Stories published in the big "slicks" could earn $2000--a year's salary in those days! Sadly though, rates paid for short stories have changed little despite inflation. A writer for the pulps could expect 1-3 cents a word, meaning a check between $20-200 (same as today) depending on the story length. In 1940 the average salary was $40/month so it was possible to pound out a living at the typewriter.  And consider that back then there were around 500 magazines paying for fiction.

What killed the pulp market and put the squeeze to the short story writer? Two things.

The first chop to the neck fell in 1939 when Robert Fair de Graff convinced Simon & Schuster to help him start Pocket Books. He repackaged the "book" into a smaller, cheaper format with hard stock paper vs cardboard covers and just as importantly, made the new pocket book available in places like drugstores, supermarkets, bus stations, and airports. Before then, if you wanted a book, you'd have to trek to a bookstore and fork over $2.50 for a hardback. Now you could pluck a novel off a spinner rack for 15-25 cents and stash it in your...pocket. Suddenly, people were reading books everywhere. De Graff's successful foray into what we now call the mass market paperback was followed by new publishing lines, some of which you may recognize and others that have since gone extinct: Avon, Dell, Bantam, Pyramid, Checker, New American Library, and Ballantine. The first paperbacks were reprints until Fawcett Gold Medal decided to print originals and then cherry-picked established short-story authors to fill the pages. Writers such as Louis L'Armour and John D. MacDonald. Not only were the more well-known writers migrating to paperbacks, but these novels were crowding into newsstands and competing directly with the pulps. Why buy a magazine when your favorite author had a whole book to himself?

Chop to the neck number two. The Second World War brought paper rationing to the U.S. publishing industry. Already seen as literary pariahs, the pulps got axed and most were never resurrected after the shooting stopped.

Second Big Shift: I smell money.

In 1968, the insurance company National General bought the hardback publisher Grosset & Dunlap, which owned half of Bantam Books. Later that year, Intext bought Ballantine Books. Then CBS bought Popular Library. Warner Communications bought Paperback Library and begat Warner Books. The staid publishing industry morphed into a stew of mergers, sell offs, and buy outs, stirred by conglomerates with no interest in books except as commodities. While such business strategies can be argued as leveraging resources, eliminating redundancies, and exploiting economies of scale, in reality a corporate takeover siphons profits from the core business to feed a new layer of bureaucracy and fatten executive salaries. With such a focus on profits, the emphasis shifted from cultivating a stable of authors and their books to finding The Mega Hit. Something like Airport, The Godfather, Shogun. And writers who you thought had hit their stride still managed to get cut off at the knees. Good sales were no longer good enough.

Which brings us to the situation today. A miniscule short story market pursued for publishing credentials and prestige because obviously, the money ain't there. A publishing industry owned by international conglomerates whose bean counters bring a used-car salesman approach to the book business--What's the immediate ka-ching!--which remains oblivious to the slippery logic of the literary market: who really knows what's going to take off? There is no magic formula. Quote me one rule and I can counter-quote you with an exception.

A new scary place to be.

Faced with a shrinking and more competitive traditional market, we writers have to consider ebook self-publishing to survive. Even NYT bestselling authors feel the edge of the publisher's scalpel. We are well aware that the self-publishing road is lined with pot holes and snake-oil vendors. But the best of us will persevere, just as we always have.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Rebellious Characters

I find myself once again the victim of a revolt by a character. Two of them, in fact. Yes, I know that some authors swear that their characters never engage in rebellious behavior. After all, writers "create" characters. We make them up. We set them in motion. Characters should do what writers tell them to do. That is one school of thought, and some writers swear that no character in any of their books has ever refused to do what he or she wanted that character to do. I, however, am one of those other authors who admits to sometimes being shoved around by his or her characters.

This time, I was zipping along, plot outlined, sure of where I was headed. And then the character who I had identified as my killer staged a mutiny -- held up a hand and said, "Not so fast, Shakespeare." It was true that the ending I had in mind did have some resemblance to one of the Bard's tragedies. But I didn't appreciate the sarcasm. Especially when that raised hand stopped me dead in my tracks.

Having experienced such mutinies at least a couple of times before, I had given my other characters equally good motives for needing/wanting my victim dead. When my character with the raised hand refused to budge even after we had spent a day arguing with each other, one of the other characters stepped up and confessed to the crime.

Problem solved? Not by a long shot. The character who had confessed informed me that we were about to have a major plot change. "Oh," I said. "Is that really necessary?" I was assured that it was not only necessary, but would add another twist -- a twist that I thought a bit controversial. "Do we really want to go there?" I said. "You may not want to, but I do," my character said. It seems there is an issue that I hadn't planned to give a great deal of consideration but that my killer thinks is important.

Well, the issue is interesting. But this new twist requires additional research. I don't want to do more research. I want to keep writing. However, since my character, the killer, has convinced the others that nothing else should happen until I get off my writer's duff and go do the research . . . oh, and by the way, we're going to have a second victim. Right, terrific, another crime scene. Can't wait.

The really irritating aspect of all this is that I had a schedule, a word count that I had planned for the next month. So many words each day and the first draft done. Now because of two rebellious characters, my plan is in disarray. I am hoping that the characters know more than I do about what should happen.

But this is rather distressing because I had planned with this new series to be in control of the process. To power my way through the first draft. To outline the plot and go with it.

I haven't tried to do character bios. I always do that with my Lizzie Stuart series. But with the first book in this new series, and now the second, I have had only character sketches. Maybe it's the difference between writing a first-person amateur sleuth and writing a third-person, multiple viewpoint police procedural. My assumption was that third person characters would develop as I wrote and behave themselves. That didn't work in the first book, and it isn't working in the second. I might need to sit down and do those character bios.

Of course, since rebellious characters are nothing new in my writing experience, maybe it doesn't matter a lot. Bio or no bio, knowing more about them when I start or not, my characters are going to let me know when they don't like where the whole thing is headed. I hope this is my wiser subconscious trying to get my attention. I like that explanation better than thinking I'm just a wimp who gets pushed around by "people" who only exist in my head.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Big Flap About Dialect

Last month I, Donis, was pleased to be invited to write a guest post on dialect called "Don't Shoot the Painter"  for the blog of author, editor, and writing teacher Heidi Thomas.  I started out by saying that since I write a series set in early 20th Century Oklahoma, I’m very aware of dialect when I write. And often worried about it, too. The characters in the Alafair Tucker series do in fact use what may be considered cliche terms and phrases. The reason is that this is really the way my grandparents talked, all of whom were in their teens and twenties in the 1910’s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did.

Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, and so most teachers warn students away from it. Now that most people no longer use such a strong dialect in their daily speech, I find that I miss it. To me it sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to give a flavor of it in my writing.

However, as I said in the guest post, sometimes writing dialect for the near past is trickier than for the more distant past. Sometimes it’s tough, but we do our best. Would my teen boy have said “jeepers” in 1916? Yes he would have. How can I know? Popular literature of the time, newspapers, and etymological dictionaries like the good old Oxford English Dictionary help a lot.

But not always.

Example 1: A mere week after I wax eloquent on Heidi's blog about how careful I am in doing my dialect research, I am proofreading my latest Alafair work in progress when I come across a sentence in which Alafair says:
"... it’s a big flap every night at bedtime until Mama or Daddy goes in there and knocks some heads together.”

"Hmm," I sez to myself. "Would a person use the phrase 'big flap' in June of 1916? Perhaps I should look it up." So out comes the etymological dictionary, in which I discover that the first known use of the term 'big flap' was noted in 1916, being used on the battlefields of World War I among British soldiers.

All right, I think. Alafair, living in rural Oklahoma in mid-1916 would probably have not heard 'big flap' used like this, but she may very well have said 'big flapdoodle'. For according to the previously mentioned etymological dictionary the word 'flapdoodle' was common in the U.S. and Europe dating from 1839. So I change it, feeling very proud of myself.

Example 2: One week later. I'm doing historical research by reading a book I bought many years ago at the Enid Historical Society entitled Reflections From the Roadside, a Quindecennial Chronology. This is a reprint of the diary kept by Oklahoma homesteader Henry Harrison Reynolds from January 1912 through December 1926. I am reading his entries for June 1916 just to see what's going on in the world that an ordinary person would remark on and what do I see in the entry for December 1915? I quote:
"There has been a big flap for months over drilling a test well for the city north of town."

So when some reader tries to take me to task for using an anachronistic dialect terms, I can say with confidence and through direct experience that even the experts can be wrong.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In search of the midnight sun

Barbara here. Author book tours are reputedly the stuff of legends and glamour. Imagine agents swanning around, media jostling for interviews, adoring fans lining up to snag their own autographed copy. Limousines, luxury suites, standing room only.

If you're JK Rowlands, that is. For the rest of us, welcome to the world of DIY. Next week, friend and fellow author Vicki Delany and I will embark on an 18-day book tour of northern Canada, hitting Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Dawson City, Skagway, and places in between. As in any new venture, we are bursting with equal measures of excitement and apprehension. Besides the usual – will our flights land, will our luggage arrive, will the B&Bs be nice – we also face that stage fright familiar to artists of all stripes. Will anyone come?

This tour was our dream and our initiative. Vicki has a historical series set in Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush, and my latest Inspector Green mystery is set primarily in the legendary Nahanni National Park Reserve with side trips to Whitehorse. We both wanted to take our books on the road to the places that inspired them. In some ways it will be like walking into the lion's den, for putting our books under the scrutiny of those who know the north far better than we do is a scary prospect. I expect to go away from the encounters having learned far more than I gave.

We conceived of the tour last summer and have spent this whole winter painstakingly putting it together, venue by venue. Numerous people have worked with us, from the publicity, design, sales and marketing departments of our publisher, Dundurn Press, to the librarians, booksellers, museum staff, the regional vice president of Crime Writers of Canada, and even northern tour company operator. But as with most authors these days, the book tour would never have come off if we ourselves had not been determined to pull it off.

The tour kicks off on May 29 in Yellowknife, at the Northwords Writers' Festival, where we will be participating in panels, readings and school visits with the other featured authors. It ends June 14 with an evening in a parking lot in Whitehorse. Below is the full itinerary. Much of this is unknown territory for us, far from friends and familiar fans, but whatever glitches and hiccups we meet along the way, we expect to have a grand adventure and to come home with lots of new friends and readers. Insights shared, bonds formed.

Northwords Writers Festival
@ Explorer Hotel
May 30th and June 2st
4825 49th Ave 
Yellowknife, NT  X1A 2R3

PRESENTATION: Mounties, Miners, and Madams: The History of the North Through Fiction
@ Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
June 3rd, 7 PM
4750 48 St.
Yellowknife, NT  X1A 3T5

PRESENTATION: Mystery, History, and the Mystique of the North
@Whitehorse Public Library
June 5th, 7:30 PM
1171 1st Avenue (at Black Street)
Whitehorse, YK  Y1A 0G9

WORKSHOP: Secrets of Great Stories
@ Haines Junction Community Library
June 6th, 7 PM
Yukon Government administration building
Haines Junction, YK  Y0B 1L0

SIGNING: Skagway News Depot & Books
June 7th, 4 to 6 PM
264 Broadway St.
Skagway, AK  99840

PRESENTATION: Mounties, Miners, and Madams: The History of the North Through Fiction
@ Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, Skagway Museum
June 7th, 6 to 8 PM
700 Spring St.
Skagway, AK  99840

SIGNING: Mac's Fireweed Bookstore
June 8th, 12 to 2 PM
203 Main St.
Whitehorse, YT  Y1A 2B2

PRESENTATION: Crime Writers Reveal: Secrets of Mystery and Their Latest Plots
@ Well-Read Books (Hosted by Crime Writers of Canada Mystery Lounge)
June 9th , 7 to 9 PM
4137 4th Ave
Whitehorse, YT  Y1A 1H8

PRESENTATION: Mounties, Miners, and Madams: The History of the North Through Fiction
@ MacBride Museum of Yukon History
June 10th, 7 to 9 PM
1124 First Ave
Whitehorse, YK  Y1A 1A4

PRESENTATION: Mounties, Miners, and Madams: The History of the North Through Fiction
@ Dawson City Museum
June 13th, 7 to 9 PM
595 Fifth Ave
Dawson City, YK Y0B 1G0

PRESENTATION: Parking Lot Reading Series
@ Coles Bookstore:
June 14th, 6:30 – 8  PM
36 Chilkoot Way #120
Whitehorse, YK,  Y1A 6T5

If you live in the vicinities, we'd love to see you! And if you know someone who knows someone who lives nearby, please pass on the invitation!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Words And Such

First of all, Happy Victoria Day, fellow Canadians.

Which salutation does not, by the way, have anything directly to do with Victoria, the Capital City of the Canadian Province of British Columbia, although both hearken back to the lady who was Queen of England from June 1837, until her death in January 1901:

Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1882

More correctly, Victoria was the Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She was also, in the time of her reign, Empress of India. Things now are not what they were in Victoria's day, of course.  In December 1922, twenty-six of Ireland's counties left the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, after a bloody uprising, and formed the independent Irish Free State. (The six counties of Northern Ireland, or Ulster, remain part of the United Kingdom, in spite of all the blood that has been shed over the issue since 1922.)

India exited from the British Empire in 1947 and also became an independent state. Which, of course, was not an entirely happy occasion: at about the same time, what had been 'India' under the British Raj was partitioned into India and Pakistan, with massive bloodshed and hardship; up to 12 million people were displaced, and perhaps as many as a million killed.

Traditionally, Victoria Day was celebrated on May 24th, the old Queen's actual birthday. It is now a federal Canadian public holiday; but for convenience, it is now celebrated on the last Monday before May 25th, which gives Canadians the opportunity for a 3-day long weekend coinciding with the soon-to-start summer season, a time when lawns are mowed, and flower beds regenerated for the warmer months that hopefully lie ahead. I say 'hopefully' because May this year, in Ottawa, has been a long string of chilly disappointments. 

Growing up in Newfoundland, which did not become a part of Canada until 1949, I was compelled by tradition to take the "Queen's Birthday" very seriously. When I was a young boy in grade school, there was a chant that started up in the days before May 24th, and it went like this: "The 24th of May is the Queen's Birthday, and if we don't get a holiday, we'll all run away." In those long-ago pre-Confederation days, Newfoundland was a quasi-independent country. Not yet a province of Canada, and not really independent, the island had something called a Commission of Government, run essentially from Whitehall in London. Any reader curious about this pseudo-democratic anomaly can read about it here:

Alternatively, and this is the route I recommend, the reader can get hold of my first two Inspector Stride Mysteries, Undertow and The Rossiter File, where the system is described in the context of fictional murders that take place in the island's capital, St. John's.

But on to some of those other things I noted in the title of this post.

Yesterday, I watched part of the final round of the PGA event that used to be known simply, and elegantly, as The Byron Nelson, but is now, because of evolving sponsorship, The HP Byron Nelson  Championship. The 'HP' in the title being 'Hewlett Packard', not the tasty steak sauce originally developed and marketed in England. And 'Byron Nelson', for the golfing novice, was one of the greatest golfers of all time, right up there with Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan; and, for that matter, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Today, Nelson is probably best known as having had the longest string of victories in PGA history; a total of eleven consecutive wins in 1945, and a total of 18 victories that same year. Those are records that will likely never be approached, much less broken.

But this part of my post is not really about golf. It is about words. (How the mind does wander!) One of the resident wits on PGA telecasts is the Northern Irish (former) golfer, David Feherty. The title of his semi-autobiographical book says it all, or almost all: Somewhere in Ireland a Village Is Missing an Idiot. Yesterday, as the tournament leaders were moving towards the 72nd and final hole, Feherty noted that it is quite alright to make a verb out of the noun, golf, while at the same time wondering how many other sports can be so-treated. In recent decades, we have embarked - in English, anyway - on a course of making verbs out of many nouns. It is quite alright these days to 'action' something, for example, even if such actioning causes language purists to blanch and moan.

It is quite alright for one to play tennis, of course, but one does not go 'tennising'. Similarly, one can play hockey, baseball and basketball, all reasonably healthy activities, if one is careful about body contact, but 'hockeying', 'baseballing', and 'basketballing' are not kosher. One can go footballing and cricketing, though. I won't be too surprised if three newly-created verbs appear in the lexicon sooner rather than later.

And that got me moving towards some pet peeves regarding words. I have, for example, lost count of the number of times I have seen in print that someone was "lead" to a place or a conclusion. (Very heavy word usage, I am inspired to note.) This is one of those pesky examples where the spell-checker does not help at all.

Another irritation is the misuse of the word "acronym". An acronym is by definition a string of letters that refers to, say, an organisation, and which can be spoken as a word. NATO, for example, is an acronym; so are SNAFU, FUBAR, UNICEF, SEATO, AIDS, RADAR and INTERPOL. UN, for United Nations, though, is not an acronym; neither are USA, IRA, BBC, CBC, ABC, CBS or NAACP; not in this writer's opinion.

I suppose I am excessively crotchety, but I even get irritated when the word "shrapnel" is misused. But I think, for my peace of mind, I had better get used to that. Originally, shrapnel referred to metal balls or bullets contained in an exploding artillery shell, specifically designed to inflict as much injury and death as possible on enemy troops. It was named for its inventor, Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), an English artillery officer. Nowadays, though, shrapnel is used to describe all sorts of things that are scattered about by an explosion, or even an accident; fragments of metal, glass and even plastic are routinely described as shrapnel. The bits of metal and nails that killed and injured so many at the Boston Marathon were also so-described.

One new use for the word that I do like, however, applies to loose change of little value. As in the following exchange:

Q: "Do you have any money on you?"
A: "No, just shrapnel."

A few other irritations.

"She feels badly about that." No, she does not; she feels "bad". Feeling badly would require the use of her hands to actually feel something. For movie fans, this is beautifully, and hilariously, illustrated in a Kirk Douglas film from 1949, A Letter To Three Wives. You can watch it here:

How many times have you seen bacteria and criteria misused as singular nouns? As in "an important criteria", or "a dangerous bacteria". Somewhere along the way, the singulars, "criterion" and "bacterium" seem to have dropped out of the language. I am almost tempted to say that I feel very badly about that.

Here I will add that, because my Inspector Stride books are historical - set in the late 1940s - I have to be careful that the words I use fit the language of the time. In my third novel, I originally referred to an ailment, Parkinsonism, that afflicted one of the characters as "the elephant in the room that was never mentioned." Only to find that the phrase dated from 1959. Parkinson's disease, or Parkinsonism, though, dates back to 1877.

A very useful site to check the etymology of a word or phrase is:

Today, reading a column in the New York Times, I became aware of the website, Wordnik:

This one is new to me. I have been browsing its content, and I can already tell that it might prove to be as great a time-user as FreeCell or Spider Solitaire. I have to love a website that introduces me to words like animadversion, demantoid, and cribriform. I see many happy, if not really profitable, hours ahead of me in the very near future.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Guest

 I'm delighted to be able to introduce you today to Alison Joseph, the newly-elected Chair of Britain's Crime Writers' Association.  She started her career as a television researcher and then later directed documentaries for the BBC.  She is now a full-time writer and radio dramatist and her very successful series featuring Sister Agnes, a nun based in contemporary South London, is also a BBC radio drama series.  She's just starting another series, with DI Berenice Killick, which sounds intriguing: it's about particle physics.  Respect!

So, this is how it came about that I, a born-and-bred Londoner, attended a performance of Agatha Christie's play, The Mousetrap, for the first time in my life.

After an extremely enjoyable Conference in Windermere in the Lake District, I found myself Chair of the Crime Writers' Association.  I have no recollection of ever voicing the ambition, 'One day I'll be Chair of the CWA,' but it somehow happened.It's probably the nearest I'm going to get to having greatness thrust upon me.  And, it's our Diamond Jubilee year - sixty years since John Creasey our founder created the CWA.

So, what happened was, that, in conversation with the Mousetrap producer a couple of months ago, I discovered it was their 60th too, and we hatched a plot for a group of crime writers to attend the play and have a backstage tour too.  Then the Romantic Novelists' Association heard about it, and so in the end we were a jolly party of both groups.

So there I was, at a theatre I've probably walked past hundreds if not thousands of times in all my decades as a Londoner, actually walking through the doors and into the auditorium.

And I loved it.  I didn't even foresee the twist.  Alone among my party, I was the one with my hands up to my face gasping with surprise at the denouement, along with all the American visitors, whereas my fellow-crime writers were nodding sagely, even if they didn't know the story.  (They are obviously more suited to our profession than I am.)

Afterwards we were shown the set.  The sound effects are all manual - the ancient wind machine is older than the play.  There we were, a group of people whose day job is to make things up, cooing over the tricks of the set, 'Ooh look, the wood panels are just painted on, they looked so real...'

It was interesting to see Christie's skill at work.  There is a view that crime fiction has moved on since her time, but the economy of her story-telling and the neatness of her characterisation was striking.  There was nothing lazy, no moment wasted.  It seemed to me that for all the apparent cosiness, she does in The Mousetrap what the best crime writing does today, which is to allow the motive for murder to be believable.  The story may appear to be no more than a crisply-engineered puzzle, but it still has its roots in real human suffering.

We came out into the London drizzle and drifted away to tube station and bus stop.  And I felt somehow more of a Londoner.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Post Malice

This is my first post after attending Malice Domestic in Bethesda. I met some wonderful people. However, there was a whirlwind feeling to this event. I roomed with Type M's own Donis Casey. She, too, publishes with Poisoned Pen Press. We arrived late Friday evening and got in on the tail end of the PPP gathering.

I approach conferences with a spirit of happy expectation. I've been to a number now. Each time there are surprises. I was delighted to meet Ellen Larson, the exuberant new editor of the presses' new young adult mystery line, Poisoned Pencil. I can't think of anything more exciting than to be present at the launch of this new venture. Let your friends know Poisoned Pencil is looking for books. Guidelines are on the Poisoned Pen website.

As an example of the need to stay open at these events, my slot on the program was a presentation for Publisher's Alley. Mine was poorly attended! In fact, most of them were. I talked about important steps to publication. However, when I called for questions, a lady in the back of the room asked if she could have a five minute interview with me afterwards. I assumed she wanted information on how to publish her book.

As it turned out, she was filming interviews for different publications. She planned to post ours on YouTube. She had a camera room all set up and prepared me for some of the questions she would ask. She intends to edit the tape, which is blessing. But my point is, it was an unexpected opportunity. A gift! Out of nowhere. That's the joy of conferences. At Left Coast Crime a couple of years ago, I met a number of my beloved Type M'ers--and was made a honorary Canadian and invited to join this blog shortly thereafter. A gift! Out of nowhere.

Another gift was making the acquaintance of Clea Simon. Our conversations had the feel of a lasting friendship.

Now to the disappointments. I saw Frankie Bailey in passing, waved to Sandra Parshall. Met Hannah Dennison long enough to say hello before Carolyn Hart whisked her and Donis off to dinner. Barbara Frandkin, and Vicki Delany, and I managed to say a breathless "hello, how are you?" I would have loved to spend more time with them all.

Malice was great. But, then, so many conferences are.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A writer's best friend

Last week, I drove to Penns Creek, Pa., to get a dog.

It was an experience: I left at 2:30 a.m., armed with an audio copy of a Don Delillo story collection, drove six hours down, stayed 40 minutes to get the dog, and drove six hours back to northeast Conn. all in hopes of having her at the bus stop when my youngest daughter walked off the pre-K bus. Mission accomplished. Now Edith (that was ner name on the Amish farm -- a little too formal for me: she's Edie now) has been with us for a week, and, as I've watched my three daughters with their newest sister, I've glimpsed many raw emotions: two-way unconditional love, joy, and even fear of loss.

This coincided with an assignment I asked my fiction-writing students to undertake. Select a situation, subject, or person from your real life, one that you think about often or even obsess about, and use it as part of a story; as Hemingway said, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." Far from a groundbreaking assignment. Simple. Straightforward. Essentially, I'm asking them to write a story based on their lives. But these are high school writers. Turning real life into fiction is not easy. Many don't have a lot of expereinces from which to draw upon.

Coming up with a situation was hard for them. I understand that. (After all, I'm not sure how many things I obsessed over at age 16.) But, I told them, emotion shouldn't be. Everyone wants something and fears many things. In my explanation, I found myself talking, in a roundabout way, about the girls' new puppy, about the emotions that dog had instilled. How it felt for them when they first saw the puppy. The fear each girls has expereinced when letting it run loose for the first time. And we all know how it would feel to lose that dog.

These are raw, bone-scraping emptions we try to instill in our characters (or inflict them with) and even explore in our own psyches as we write. These emotion are a writer's best friend.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Tricky First Paragraph

A young unpublished writer wrote me an email yesterday asking if the following were true:
 "I heard that both editors and agents judge a manuscript based off the first few paragraphs and determine whether or not it would be a good use of their time. Is this true?”

Well … yes and no.

According to Lisa Cron’s must-read book “Wired for Story” she believes these three elements must appear on page one:
  1. Something needs to be happening.
  2. Who is it happening to? Whose skin are we going to be in?
  3. Something needs to be at stake—something we can see that’s hanging in the balance.
In other words ... All is not what it seems!

Lisa believes we should include all of this on the first page—better still ... in the first sentence.

How about these:
Elizabeth George What Came Before He Shot Her
“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.” 
Louise Penny: The Cruelest Month
“Kneeling in the fragrant grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper.”

Both brilliant!

I’m tortured over my first paragraph in my latest book. I must have rewritten it at least fifty times. My editor is currently reading the latest draft of my manuscript but I can’t stop fiddling with it. It doesn’t sing. 

With my first series – The Vicky Hill Mysteries—I remember spending a whole week noodling with that first paragraph. In the end … this is what I settled on: “The brown envelope addressed to Annabel Lake sat on her empty chair. Of course, it was marked confidential, but given that Annabel was home, suffering from a severe case of food poisoning, I thought it prudent to open it. After all, it could be urgent and what was in a name anyway? Weren’t we journalists all seeking truth and justice?”

Here are a couple more to muse over. 

Sue Grafton: A Is for Alibi
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a nice person and I have a lot of friends. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. I’ve lived in trailers most of my life, but lately they’ve been getting too elaborate for my taste, so now I live in one room, a “bachelorette.” I don’t have pets. I don’t have houseplants …”

Joanna Hines: The Murder Bird
“Five weeks before Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a cliff top cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband.”

I have a many more in my collection but alas, those books are still packed in boxes from our move (yes, I know it was months ago).

Anyone care to share their favorites?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A little something for your viewing pleasure

I am molto swamped by work this week. But not wanting to let you all down, I offer this little video for your viewing edification. For all of you Type M fans thinking of taking a vacation, I offer this...

See you all next week.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Conference Economics

Judging by recent posts, the conference season is getting into full swing. We arrive, across countries, across continents, even, by train or plane or after long, long car journeys, at hotels and conference centres of varying degrees of comfort. We collect our goody bags and head upstairs to see if we've got the room with the sofa and the extra table and the view of the lake or the one with the view of the car park, above the kitchens. The seasoned conference-goer then checks to see if the bedlight is working and if it's possible to get the shower to operate without a qualification in advanced mechanics.

The next thing, of course, is to scan the list of delegates – checking for friends, famous names, useful contacts, before heading down to see who's going to form the bar crowd, unless we decide to eat the fudge from a local supplier that came in the goody-bag first...

The conference opens. There are speakers, panels, signings. Contacts are made over breakfast, a drinks reception, even outside with the wicked smokers, in the hope that the social relationship may transform into a useful professional one. Everyone has a good time, meets a few keen readers, sells a few books – usually very few, unless the name on the cover also features on the best-sellers list. It's all great fun, and as we tell ourselves, totally tax-allowable.

Then there's the grand finale – the final ritual known as 'paying the bill.' It's always a lot more than we thought it was going to be. It was just a few sociable drinks, for goodness sake, but of course the craic was good and we couldn't be  party-poopers and head off to bed. But we go home with very bruised, if not actually bleeding, credit cards.

There are all sorts of good reasons for going to conferences. If you're on the best-seller list, you have to go so as not to disappoint your fans – and your publisher.  If you're a new writer, they're a great way to make writer friends; it's a lonely job and being in the company of others who understand can make it feel like a holiday and you go back to your desk refreshed.

There are often publishers and agents attending, and you could strike it lucky and find someone who is looking for exactly what you have to offer. You may get valuable advice about which publishers are good and which are to be avoided at all costs. If there are lectures, one of them may suggest the plot for your next book.  Sometimes you even have the lovely experience of someone – someone who isn't your mother – actually telling you that she loves your books and you are very possibly the best writer in the world. The whole thing can feel like a shot in the arm.

But there are so many conferences, and the number seems to increase every year. I've been to a few when there were far, far more authors than readers. The trade in books was basically us all taking in each other's washing, and sooner or later most of us have to do the math. When you realise that even if every single person at the conference bought one of your books, and another to give to a friend because they were so impressed, your royalties probably wouldn't even cover the bar bill.

Is it value for money? I don't know, except that I've got a bit pickier over the years. I go if I'm invited to speak, I go if I particularly like the place it's being held, I go if I know I'll see a lot of my friends. But pay to be put on a panel with another couple of mid-list authors, speaking to an audience of perhaps fifty people, to sign half a dozen books?  I'm not so sure.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

My Journey to Publication

One of the most exciting things about modern technology is that our blog reaches authors and readers all over the world.        
It gives me great pleasure to welcome this weekend's guest Beate Boeker who hails from Germany!

Her name in itself, is rather apt ... she tells me that while "Boeker" means "books" in a German dialect, her first name "Beate" can be translated as "happy." I love that.

Beate's work has been short-listed for the Golden Quill Contest, the National Readers' Choice Award and the Best Indie Books of 2012. As well as being a prolific writer, Beate holds a degree in International Business Administration. She is a marketing manager by day which—she says–gives her plenty of fodder for her novels—be they hilarious or cynical.

Beate speaks German (her mother language) and is fluent in English, French and Italian. She lives in the North of Germany with her husband and daughter.
Please extend a hearty hello to Beate Boeker.

Hannah asked me to share my journey to publication with you, and as it is a bit unusual, I'm happy to write about that topic.

I was in my mid-thirties when I decided to pen my first novel, and when I had finished it,  tried to sell it right away.  You have to know that I'm German and live in Germany, so this was in the German market.

As you can guess, I got plenty of rejections, and while re-reading  my precious manuscript one day, I realized that some places sounded kind of stilted or plain wrong. I cringed when I imagined how others would react to my writing if even I, the loving author, could see so much room for improvement! Clearly, I needed to learn more about the craft of writing because I had no idea how to fix those mistakes. So I started my research and tried to find courses that would teach me how to write well.

Soon, I realized that there is a fundamental difference between Germany and the U.S. when it comes to dealing with dreams. Tell any German that you're planning to write a book, and they'll pat you on the arm and will tell you kindly that it'll go away soon, much as if you had hay fever! If you tell an American, they will tell you that that's a cool idea and to go for it.

Due to that fundamental difference in attitude, I found plenty of online workshops for the beginning writer in English, but none in German. Finally, I shrugged, put the German novel into a drawer and wrote a new one in English. When it was done, I invested some money and found a book doctor in the US (Elizabeth Lyon) who kindly set me right on a zillion details. She then pointed me to Avalon Books, who (after much waiting), bought that novel—and two others in the following years. I was over the moon with joy. Over the time, I built up friendships and ties in the industry and learmed more than I ever dreamed I would.

With the change in the publishing industry and the sale of Avalon Books to Amazon, I decided to go indie.  Ten novels and short stories are already available online now, and I love to be in charge of my destiny! The best thing is that I don't have to wait for anybody anymore. When I'm done with my novels and all the edits, I upload them right away. In the past, I had to submit them and wait for nine months or a year to hear back, if all went well.  Besides, traditional publishing is just a small step away—if you're successful as an indie author, they will come knocking on your door anyway—so I can only recommend it.

After many years of learning and publishing in English, I have now decided to go back to my roots as well and have just translated my short story Chic in France into German. I'll soon upload it and others will follow.

Having started with romances, I have now also expanded to cozy mysteries. The first series "Temptation in Florence" is called "Delayed Death" and I can't tell you how much fun I had while creating this eccentric family.  Below, you can find more information about it, but as we chat, make sure you tell me about your journey to publication too.

What do you do when you find your grandfather dead half an hour before your cousin's wedding? You hide him in his bed and tell everyone he didn't feel like coming.
Delayed Death is an entertaining mystery set in Florence, Italy. When Carlina finds her grandfather dead on the day of her cousin's wedding, she decides to hide the corpse until after the ceremony. However, her grandfather was poisoned, and she becomes the attractive Inspector's prime suspect. On top of that, she has to manage her boisterous family and her luxurious lingerie store called Temptation, a juggling act that creates many hilarious situations.

Find Beate on:
Facebook – Beate Boeker Author
Twitter - @BeateBoeker
Homepage (you can sign up for her newsletter here) -

And if you want to buy the book ... here is her associate link to Amazon:

Friday, May 10, 2013

Unexpected Themes and Connections

I have started work on the second book in my new series set in near-future Albany, New York. The working title is Cock Robin's Funeral, and the victim is a funeral director. That has me watching YouTube videos about topics such as embalming and interviews with funeral directors. I'm also watching episodes of British and American shows. Of course, the TV show Six Feet Under is on my list. I loved that show the first time around. Can't wait to watch again.

But today's post is inspired by something that I realized as I was reading a book about funeral rituals and customs. The author used the phrase "rituals for the dead." And I suddenly realized that the first chapter in my first published mystery begins with the words, "Rituals for the Dead and Dying". My protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, tell the reader that she scrawled the words across a yellow legal pad as she was keeping watch at the bedside of her dying grandmother. And, now, here we are over 15 years later (allowing for the time it took me to write that book and get it published), and I'm still thinking about the rituals that we perform for the dead.

What I realized as I thought about this is that I seem to have this theme in my writing that keeps playing out in various ways. On one hand, I'm writing murder mysteries and dealing with sudden death. On the other, I'm engaged in an on-going meditation about how we -- humans -- respond to death. I say "meditation" because I seem to have been thinking about this over time as I am seeking answers. What is this thing called "death" and what does it mean? What do our rituals before and after death say about our beliefs about the connections between the living and the dead?

It seems that this time around I subconsciously planted a link from the first book to this second. Why, for example, did I decide a funeral director would be the victim in Cock Robin's Funeral? There are several important plot-related reasons. But it seems that I -- without realizing what I was doing -- planted the seeds for this book in The Red Queen Dies when I had a scene in a funeral home. Maybe that happened because I had spent more time than I needed to reading about Abraham Lincoln's burial and re-burial. And then there was the mummy story about John Wilkes Booth . . . I used neither story in the first book. But, here I am in the second, deep into funeral homes, burials, and, yes, mummies.

My point is that I suspect that if I went through my mysteries, reading from first to most recent, I would find that this theme about death rituals is not the only one that recurs. I know I am fascinated by families, particularly by relationships between parents and children. I can see that in my Lizzie Stuart series, with her mother Becca. It has come up again in several different ways in the new series.

I'm sure -- thinking about this as a reader -- that other writers also have themes that get played out in their books. Themes that lead to connections between books and series. Writers must have this in common with musicians and artists and other people who create . . . and use the process to think through the subjects that fascinate us. But when we become aware of what we're doing, does that deepen our writing? Or, does it mean readers have probably figured it out a while ago, and it's time to move on to something else? I hope it just means we should try to pull together our scrambled thoughts and write better about the theme and the connections that we see.

P.S. Just realized that it's afternoon in Albany. I'm in California, and it's still morning here.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Malice and Me

I just returned home to Arizona after attending my first Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, MD. It was wonderful. It was exhausting. It was expensive. It was worth it. It was enlightening (reference Barbara's post below). I was overjoyed to meet my friends face to face, as well as some of my fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors and my fellow Type M blog mates. I shared a room and quite a bit of philosophy with Charlotte, met Barbara and Frankie for the first time in the flesh. I reconnected with my favorite traveling companion and ex-Type M-er Vicki Delany. Hannah and I had dinner with this year's Amelia Award winner, our beloved Carolyn Hart, author JoAnna Carl, and friends.

When my first book was published in 2005, I spent my entire advance and the tens of dollars I made in royalties on mailings, and doing signings and book tours. It’s difficult when you start a writing career to know what the most effective things are to do to gain attention for your books. I was advised to concentrate on a narrower audience until I was better known, which I have done, and it has served me well. But I began to wonder if the law of diminishing returns was kicking in. It occurred to me that I’d be better served to do fewer signings and start concentrating on attending the big writing conferences. That way I’d get to know some of the other mystery writers around the country, and maybe get some real world advice and a little bit wider exposure.

So I attended Bouchercon and a few other conferences, and discovered quickly that no matter whether or not attending conferences is good for your career, it is absolutely good for your soul to be around other writers. You discover that even the rich and famous suffer the same insecurities as we not-so-rich-and-famous.

I just finished my latest barely under the deadline and I'm exhausted. I don't know if I'll ever be able to write again. I'm stuck and have no idea how to get unstuck. This last book turned out great but I don't know how I did it.

One of the best things of all about attending conferences, in my humble opinion, is that I discover that people actually read my books. Now, I live in Arizona, which is a long way from Bethesda, MD. But I had three or four people actually come up to me and say they liked my series. One woman went out of her way to tell me she had found one of the books in the Richmond, VA, library and ended up reading the whole series. That was practically worth the trip.

I did get to participate on a panel--mine was entitled "A Little Education on the Side", which had to do with writing about social issues in fiction. Why the organizers put me on that one I'm not sure. Probably because my last book, The Wrong Hill to Die On, dealt with Arizona/Mexico border issues in 1916, and as we all know, things never change.

So if you are wondering whether to take the time and go to the expense of attending a large mystery conference, I would recommend it if you can manage it. If you are a mystery reader, you'll get to meet your favorite authors. If you are a mystery writer, published or pre-published, it's essential to rub shoulders with your peers occasionally. After all, we writers don't get out of the house much.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Quirks of the trade

Barbara here. Mystery people, whether readers or writers, are an odd lot. We love murder, gleefully discuss the merits of poisons and bludgeons, and the intricacies of plotting the perfect death. Some of us like our murders light and cheery, others profound and moving, some like a dash of social justice or redemption, others a recipe or two. But murder, foul or fair, is the key.

Yet mystery people are the nicest characters you'll ever meet. This is not a new observation; in fact, everyone from reporters to literary writers, both of whom may inhabit a more cut-throat world, has made that wistful comment. But I was reminded of it again this weekend when I attended a huge mystery celebration in the States. Malice Domestic is a reader/writer conference which celebrates the "traditional" mystery and which has been going strong for 25 years. About six hundred readers, writers and book business people converged on the Hyatt Hotel in Bethesda, Maryland for three days of readings, interviews, panels and book talk to explore every aspect of this mysterious world we call crime fiction. There were guests of honour, Peter Robinson and Laurie King, awards for novels and short stories, and books galore.

But the best part was the weekend spent enveloped in a world of kindred spirits. Warm, funny, and so happy to share. From the moment I walked into the hotel, exhausted from an eleven-hour drive, I was greeted by hugs and welcomes. This went on all weekend, whenever I met old friends from former conferences or was introduced to new ones. Whether they were readers or fellow authors. Everyone else was greeted by hugs and welcomes too. There were smiles, laughter, shared news of new successes or dismal failures. New writers got advice, sometimes unsolicited, from veterans in the bar, and requests to stay in touch. Famous writers like Laura Lippman and Louise Penny hung out with those who only dreamed of writing.

Oh, there were moments of gleeful gossip, of envy and competition, of self-aggrandizing stories about dinners with editors, five-star reviews, and impending film deals. No gathering would be human without those foibles. But for people who make our living probing the depths of greed and envy and revenge, there was precious little on display when we got together.  A few times I stood on the sidelines, both bemused and amused as I watched the crowds, wondering whether all this laughing and hugging could possibly be real.

I concluded that, in large part, it was. And I have a few theories about why. Two are not new. The Canadian crime writing community is well known for being friendly and supportive to each other, and I've always said, only half in jest that it's because there's no money at stake. Crime writers have tended to be the bastard stepchildren in the literary scene, with no access to big money prizes, prestigious grants or serious critical acclaim. Throw a $50,000 Giller Prize into a crowd of writers and the knives would quickly come out.

The second reason is that we get all our jealousies, hostilities and nastiness out on the page, in some sort of emotional purge that leaves us with warm, fuzzy feelings for our fellow man. But the third reason, which seemed really evident this weekend, is that we are an odd lot with very quirky thought patterns, and we love the chance to share our fascinations with kindred spirits. There are not too many people who will respond with enthusiasm to queries about undetectable poisons or perfect places to hide bodies or the latest in blood spatter. Ordinary dinner companions, even if they are family members, look at you askance.

But mystery is not just about murder and detection, it's about human struggles, justice, redemption, heroes and triumph. All the writing, all the fascination with villains and plots, is really in the service of that fundamental passion. That's what makes us kindred spirits most of all.