Friday, June 28, 2013

Stalking Editors

This week I'm at the Western Writer's of American convention so this will be short. We change sites every year, and Las Vegas isn't anyone's favorite, so I'm not sure how we ended up here.

WWA is a primarily a business conference, rather than a fan conference. A number of editors and agents attend with the intention of finding new writers, or catching up with ones they already publish. I'm ready to submit a non-fiction book to my editor at a university press. It's uncharted waters for me, so I'm a little nervous about it.

This book came about due to a meeting at WWA. I presented an idea to a senior editor and surprise! They were interested immediately. My first novel was sold as a result of contacts at the Western Writers conference. One of the agents, Cherry Weiner, works almost exclusively with writers she met at events. She says the ones that track her down will do the best job of promoting their material.

At my favorite recurring panel, we get to hear agents and editors state their requirements. They expand on their interests and don't hesitate to say what turns them off. Afterwards, attendees can sign up to pitch their work.

The secret to stalking editors is preparation. Practice your pitch, know what you are selling and why that particular house should be the one to publish your book.

Even if you are basically shy, develop the ability to approach these powerful strangers.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Power of Reverse Psychology?

Unlike  Rick (see yesterday's post) who is terribly organized, I am not. It is almost midnight in the UK (so this one is short and most likely with typos) where I am enjoying a family holiday.

Having spent last week in Devon and Cornwall, my husband and I flew north to Yorkshire today to continue our non-stop eating extravaganza (because that's all we seem to be doing) for a final week. Both of us must have gained at least five pounds.

So what has this to do with writing? Well ... a peculiar thing happened. For the first time in a decade I gave myself permission to have a proper holiday and not write my books. In fact, the only reason I took my laptop at all was just in case there was an emergency at work. My family were thrilled. They would have my undivided attention.

The mind works in weird ways because no sooner had I written in my journal of my intention not to write my books, I became unexpectedly inspired and compelled to write whenever I could. I found myself waking early, eager to sneak away and write for a couple of hours before everyone got up.  This has never happened to me before. Usually, writing first drafts are like pulling teeth. Now I am halfway through this one.

Unfortunately, this form of reverse psychology has not worked on giving up clotted cream, Cornish ice cream or home-made fudge.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Is it just me?

The porch and small deck are a “recent” add-on.
You wouldn’t know it because I wrote my blog post before leaving, but last week I was out of town, hidden away in a small 180-year-old log home fondly named Craganmor many years ago in Eastern Ontario, and writing my darn fool head off. Or, at least, I was supposed to be doing that.

I have until September first to finish Roses for a Diva, the sequel to The Fallen One, at least to the point where I can submit it to Dundurn Press, who publish my full-length novels. Considering how slowly the writing had been going for the previous three weeks, something had to be done. We have very dear friends who have owned this small piece of heaven for a long time and we’ve grown to love it as much as they do. It’s down a wandering, relatively untravelled, dirt road, set on one hundred acres, and it’s not very big (maybe 30x30 with two floors and a new all-weather basement). There is also a wood shed (I’ve never seen anything nasty there, however*) and a lovely barn. Previously it was a small dairy farm. Of mod cons, there are none. Coincidentally, it is also the setting for the opening scene of The Fallen One as well as several others later on in the story.

With a mere seven days of no Internet, no TV (not that we own one) and dodgy cell phone service, I knew I had to make the most of every minute I had. Monday morning, bright and early (six a.m.), I sat down at the laptop and transcribed several pages I’d written in one of my journals on the previous day’s drive.

I thought I’d had trouble writing in the car because of the bumpy road. In reading over my words, though, I realized the trouble was my crappy prose. What I’d written had little focus, didn’t speak with the correct voice and just did nothing to advance my storyline. I ended up pushing the delete button.

Making a cup of coffee, I went out to the small, screened-in back porch and looked across the small lake our friends dug into one of the meadows. Everything in sight was utterly bucolic. I waited for my characters to resurface and begin speaking to me. One cup turned into two, then my wife got out of bed, and there was a third. By that time, I was too jittery to write, so we went out to breakfast at Wheeler’s Pancake House.

Returning to work in late morning, I stared at the computer screen futilely, I went for a walk, I re-read some of my earlier chapters. Nothing. I decided to practice trumpet (you know, the old “change task” idea), but I just couldn’t get things started. I gave up for the day, fed up with myself.

Next morning, it was the same thing. I decided to write something for a completely different part of the book since I had a clearer idea of what I needed to say and how I needed to say it. It’s an action scene and I always find those easier to do. A few hours later, I finally had something useable. But that done, I was up against a wall again.

I’m not talking about writer’s block here. I had it all worked out, I just could not for the life of me find the right words, get inside my character’s heads.

Part of the view from the screened back porch.
It was then that I noticed (out on the back porch again) that my brain was still in “city mode”: going a mile-a-minute. I was hardly noticing the birds in the nearby trees and bushes, the sound of the wind in the not-yet-mown fields, or the silence that lurked behind it all. When my wife was on the porch, all we’d do is talk.

I made a decision not to talk at all while enjoying a glass of wine before dinner. I extended it through dinner, then into the evening while I had another glass of wine and sat by myself. By the time the sun went down (would it never set?), I had achieved a measure of inner silence.

The writing result was that my brain, all on its own, seemingly, started working on the story. Conversations between characters began. Venice (the location of this part of the story) was being painted in mental pictures. In short, I was once again inside my story.

The rest of the week resulted in about seventy-five useable pages of ms. I could breathe a small size of relief two days ago as we were packing the car.

Buy if I had my druthers, I’d still be up there, happily beavering away until the darn story is finished.

*This comment will not be remotely funny unless you’ve read or seen Cold Comfort Farm.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Perspective on Rejection.

Last night at a library event I was asked, yet again, the question Rick talked about in a post the other week: ‘How do I get published?’

He talked so much sense about the realities that aspiring writers quite often don't understand that I plan to crib them unashamedly (though of course I'll give you the credit, Rick!) the next time I'm doing a workshop.

What I would add to it, though, is not to assume that the author of that brutal rejection letter is an expert on what makes a good book, and feel totally crushed by it and end up believing that you really are rubbish. They're not always as expert as you might think.

Some time ago my daughter did work experience with my own publisher, then Hodder & Stoughton. As one of the big names in British publishing they naturally were sent piles of unsolicited manuscripts which became the 'slush pile'. so-called.  Despite the fact that the number of these that is ever published is vanishingly small, Hodder were at that time (not sure if this is still true) giving them a reading, though most publishers refuse to read anything that doesn't come through an agent.

As you can imagine, though, the slush pile isn't a high priority with editors and when my daughter arrived on the first morning of work experience they found her a desk and sat her down in front of the slush pile.  All keen and eager, fresh out of university, she started the first one and read till coffee time when she asked, a little gloomily, if she had to read the whole book.

‘Is it any good?’ the editor asked. ‘No, it’s terrible,’ my daughter said. ‘Then of course not. Junk it and send them the form letter.’

So someone got that letter and probably felt this was a seasoned judgement about their precious book when it was merely the judgement of someone on work experience whose degree wasn't even in English. So if you have had that form letter recently, don’t get too discouraged.

And there are worse things than a rejection letter. My first book was published when in fact it really would have been happier in that drawer where we keep our rejects. It sank without a trace and it was quite some time before I managed to get a firm foothold in the market with the next one. I’m happy to say that it is now long out of print, condemned to the obscurity it richly deserved!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

What's that smell?

As writers we're asked to provide details that will immerse the reader in the experience we're trying to convey. And one detail we often try to include is the sense of smell.

How many times have we read a passage where the detective (or the next victim) discovers a freshly murdered body and remarks on the odor of a fired gun? How accurate is that?

Does a fired gun produce a smell? To answer that question I organized an outing with fellow mystery writers to a shooting range. After we had fired six rounds from a .357 magnum I asked everyone to take a deep whiff. The scent of newly burnt gun propellent was noticeable but faint. In fact, a lit cigarette would've been more apparent. Since there were plenty of other shooters busting caps alongside us you would've guessed the range should stink of fired ammo, but no.

Thinking back to my time in the army, when we fired hundreds of rounds in one sitting, what I remembered was the smell of gun lube when it smoked off a hot barrel and receiver. If you put your nose close to a fired gun, you would get the pungent odor of burnt propellent. You'd also get the same smell if you stuck your face in the muzzle of a cannon.

My conclusion. Unless the killer used an automatic weapon (or a cannon) in a confined space, I vote no, you wouldn't smell a fired gun. I think the odor of blood or loosened bowels would be stronger.

What does smell is gun oil. If a goon was to unholster a pistol and lay it on a table, you would notice the aroma.

As for gun smoke, modern gun propellents are considered smokeless though they actually make a small amount that quickly dissipates. If you write westerns or steampunk, the guns of that time period would've fired black powder, which produces a hell of a lot of stinky smoke. Think fireworks.

Lastly...cordite. If you say, "the smell of cordite," and don't get the historical details exactly right, then expect plenty of hate-mail from gun nuts and armchair generals. Cordite was a brand of early smokeless propellent and replaced black powder for a short time. But it was seldom used in the US and become obsolete around the First World War. So use cordite at your own risk but I admit that cordite sounds a lot cooler than gun propellent.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Writing Habits of Productive Writers

My laptop is in the hands of my computer guy. There was a problem with the monitor and after days of trying to ignore the occasional slow fade to white and gray streaks, I finally admitted I had to let it go for a day or two. However, the parting was traumatic, with pleas by me to please have it back as soon as possible. I have finally hit my stride on my new book, and although I could work on desk top computers at home or the office, I want my laptop. I want to be able to sit at my dining room table and write.

But being without a laptop will give me the opportunity this evening (Thursday) to do something I haven't done in a while -- sit at my dining room table and write on a legal pad. Sometimes changing the writing tool frees up the mind. On the other hand, pen and legal pad will certainly slow down my efforts to write a really bad first draft. Those of you who are writers know that is what we are told to do. This is advice given to both fiction and non-fiction writers. For example, Jan Allen, Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, Cornell University Graduate School, advices students who would be productive writers to "think of writing a terrible first draft as a necessary step in producing a good manuscript."

Don't edit, don't revise, just get that first draft down on paper. I was trying to do that when my laptop began to act up. You will notice that I said I "was trying." The advice about writing a really bad first draft makes sense to me. I've said it to students and to aspiring fiction writers who tell me that they just can't get started.  I've said it because, as Dean Allen notes, sometimes fear is the obstacle to getting started. Quoting Dean Allen, "fear that what we write will be terrible". When someone seems to have that problem, it makes sense to urge him or her to "power through" that first draft and get ideas or story down on paper.

 My obstacle when it comes to taking my own advice to write fast and get my first draft done, is that I would simply rather not. I already know that I will have to revise and revise, and then revise some more. I would rather revise as I go along. It's a slow, plodding, process. At least twice, I've stop to read from the beginning before going on. I did some minor revising as I was reading, but I might have used that time to write another ten or twenty pages.

My fear about writing my first draft fast is that if I charge forward, I'll fall flat on my face. I need to get the rhythm. I need to hear the music playing in the background. That's what I do in the first draft. I write and then I begin to see and hear. Then I go back and I revise and go on. I move back and forth until I have the pacing, until I begin to see the story. I wake up in the morning and fix what wouldn't come right the day before because in the middle of the night I had an idea. I write slowly until finally the pace begins to pick up because I know where I'm headed. But I still can't plunge ahead to the end. Sometimes I have to slow down again and backtrack -- find the place where I got lost and took a wrong turn. It is an agonizingly slow process.

The part of me that would like to write a first draft fast taunts me with the reminder that I could have had this draft done by now. I hate knowing that days are passing and turning into weeks and months. But I tell myself that I have to revise a lot less in the second and third draft because my first draft isn't incredibly awful.

Today, panicked after I surrendered my laptop, I took to searching the Internet for stories about the habits of productive writers. I decided to begin with the Golden Age writers of classic detective fiction. Unfortunately, I started with Rex Stout, who told a reporter that he wrote six pages a day, preferably in the afternoon. Although he went back to read what he'd written the day before, his practice was to forge ahead. Agatha Christie offered some comfort. She admitted that she always had difficulty getting started. She was quoted as saying, "there is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off." Ms. Christie would turn to her husband, Max, in her time of self-doubt. He would assure her she had produced a publishable book before and would do it again. 

It was what husband Max had to say that gave me comfort. I've written a number of books by now. I'm never going to be able to write a fast first draft, so I may as well learn to live with that fact. Tonight I am going to sit at my dining room table with my pen and legal pad and write slow. The first draft eventually will be finished. I'll done it this way before, and it worked.

Memo to myself: Write the way you write and stop worrying about it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Love and Loathing

Last weekend I traveled up to The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale to see one of my fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors, Dennis Palumbo, whose latest novel, Night Terrors, just came out. Dennis not only writes smashing thrillers, he’s also a psychologist working in Hollywood, CA. Many of his clients are in the entertainment industry, naturally, which is job security if I ever heard of it. Dennis said something about writers at that author event that was so spot on that I nearly leapt to my feet and hollered, “That’s it!”

He observed that most of the writers he knows are raging egomaniacs with low self-esteem.

I can relate.

I've often wondered what a psychologist would say about my reasons for writing. When I am writing, especially a first draft, I write for an audience of one--me.  I write a story that I would like to read.  I did not always do this.  I used to try very hard to write for The General Reading Public.  But I began to have some publishing success when I forgot that notion.  I write about what interests me.

Then, when the editing and rewriting process begins, I listen to suggestions from my pre-publication readers (sometimes) and from my editor (always), and tweak the story as per instructions in order to broaden its appeal.

My audience, therefore, is probably people like me.  Sadly for the scope of my appeal, I am not a teenage boy or a romance-starved young woman.  I’m not judging hero tales or romance novels, here.  I think they are great, but my interests run in other directions these days. I tried to write a romance novel once.  I had a wonderful idea, and I really think it would have been a good story, but I couldn’t sustain my own interest, and the book petered out before it was finished.  I’m sorry to say this, because a popular romance novel will sell ten times as many copies as a popular mystery.

Having made the statement that I strictly write what I like and to hell with the audience, I now have to admit that I’m lying.  I do construct my current series to please myself, but there are many things I’d love to write about, yet am not brave enough to attempt.

Even that is not true.  I do write them, but am not brave enough to try to have them published.  I fear that if I did, someone would send men in white coats to chase me around with butterfly nets.

For there are things in the dark, in the past, in your head, and you don’t know where they came from, or if they’re real, or why they’re trying to get you. When dark things happen to me, rather than deal with my fears, I develop a neurosis. This is the nice thing about being a writer. I can have my characters plunge into the dark and confront my fear.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eats and Sleeps in the North

Barbara here. After two posts about our book adventures in the land of the midnight sun, I decided to write something different this time. Not a book blog, but a travel blog. Fellow author Vicki Delany and I spent 18 days in Canada's Northwest and Yukon Territories, participating in 16 book events and 5 media interviews. We had a wonderful time meeting book lovers of all stripes including readers, librarians, booksellers, and fellow writers, but along the way we also experienced the beauty and variety of the north.

Everyone should visit the north at least once in their lifetime, although I guarantee one taste will only whet your appetite for more. Not only is the scenery stunning and the wild open wilderness inspirational, but there is excellent food and homey accommodation to be had as well. This is by no means a definitive accommodation and dining guide, but rather a sampling of the hidden gems we discovered. If you have discovered others, please add them!

In Yellowknife, after running screaming from the KFC and the A&W, we were grateful to discover Bullock's Bistro in Old Town, proudly frontier in its decor and service but exquisite in its cuisine. We had wine in mason jars and arctic char to die for. The Wildcat Cafe also looked promising but was closed for renovations. For delicious fresh-roasted coffee and home-made sandwiches, the Javaroma on Franklin Street ranked among the best.

In Whitehorse. we stayed at the Historical Guest House, a heritage B&B built in 1907 (old for the Yukon) with much of the original decor and furnishings. Therein lay its charm. It had not been tarted up but left in the casual, 'make yourself at home' style typical of the north, and Vicki and I loved the opportunity to spread ourselves all over the house, including the kitchen. Owner Bernie and his wife Pam lived next door, unobtrusive but ready to help.

Also in Whitehorse we discovered three eateries to rave about. First, to get us cappuccino-loving southerners going in the morning, there was Baked, a coffee shop on Main Street with a mouth-watering array of fresh scones, muffins and croissants. I loved the raspberry/pecan whole wheat scones. Oh, and the cappuccino. For elegant dining, you can't beat the new Wheelhouse Restaurant overlooking the Yukon River and the green shores beyond. Their halibut and arctic charr (two rr's, don't ask me why) are perfection.  If you want something simpler but tasty like pasta, pizza or fusion dishes, try Burnt Toast on Second Avenue. The name is clearly ironic.

Whitehorse is home to half the population of Yukon, but Dawson City, home of the Klondike gold rush and unabashed tourist/tour bus town, has a couple of hidden gems for the discerning traveller. We stayed in the 5th Avenue B&B, which was delightful and owned by Tracy, who served a mean breakfast in the morning and performed as the cabaret singer from Diamond Tooth Gertie's Dancehall in the evening. The Drunken Goat (and its sidekick Billy Goat) was a delightful restaurant serving delicious food, and at Klondike Kate's Restaurant I had cranberry bison sausages with sweet potato fries better than I have ever had.

And for divine coffee, muffins, cookies, and lunch sandwiches, nothing beats the totally made-by-hand fare at Cheechakos Bake Shop on Front Street.

Food raves would not be complete without mentioning the fresh, hot cinnamon buns served by ex-biker Steve at Braeburn Lodge at the halfway mark of the Klondike Highway. It took
Vicki and me two days to eat one.

If you have discovered some hidden gems on your travels, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Art of writing versus the Craft of writing

After writing my blog post last week, I remembered a long discussion I had with a fledgling writer several years ago now. Before moving on, though, I need to make a declaration: I hate giving advice about writing.

There’s a pretty darn good reason (at least to my mind). You see, when it comes to writing, I’m pretty well self-taught. Sure, I took a lot of English classes through high school and university (I actually have a minor in English – whatever that means. But other than one pretty poor creative writing course in university, what you see on the pages of my novels is what I taught myself basically. That’s not to mean I’m a slacker or an iconoclast making my own way through the publishing forest through sheer pigheadedness. I read at least a dozen books on how to write. I studied what the great authors did a lot. I tried to discover what worked for me before I began showing anyone my prose. Even so, it was not the best. Yes, I was told it did show promise, but need work – and from some quarters, a great deal of work.

And this is why I would never want to teach a course in creative writing. I’m self-taught. That doesn’t mean I’m bad, it means that I don’t know more than what I need to do what I do. I’ve worked with many, many self-taught musicians who are absolutely fantastic, world-class as a matter of fact, and they’ve never taken a lesson in their lives. They are wonderful musicians, but I also know how much they are held back in some ways by what they don’t know because they never studied with a few good teachers. I’m in that situation with writing: I know only what I need to know.

Anyway, back to my story. This budding author didn’t get it that there are two facets to writing: the art and the craft.

The craft of writing is something you can be taught. It starts with the basics of punctuation, sentence structure, etc., then moves on to things like voice, construction of dialogue, description, pacing, story arc, all needed if one is going to develop the chops to be accepted as a writer. The process is a long and humbling one, but I think most people who are willing to put in the necessary time and practice can learn to do it.

The art of writing is something completely different. I suppose the word “talent’ could be used instead of “art”. To my mind, you either got it or you don’t. How many books have you read where the author has a completely deft touch with their characters. They just seem to effortlessly create memorable and believable people and it’s so transparent as to appear there’s nothing special going on. Then there are other authors who have to go overboard with quirks, kinks and screwball foibles to make their characters seem like something memorable. This poor author’s fingerprints are all over the writing. Simply put: they’re forced by their ability to try too hard. Writing “artists” can take your breath away with nine or ten words, uniquely describing something, or having a character say something so profound that you remember it years later.

The best writing is seamless and invisible. It has a unique flow. It has layers upon layers of detail and subtlety, but you may not notice that because it just reads so darn smoothly. The author leads you on a journey and you’re not even aware he or she is walking right next to you. That is the art of writing. And like I said: you got it or you don’t.

It may be there in many of us who write. I like to imagine that if I just dig deeper, try harder, I might be able to reach out and grab readers, giving them a few of those “WOW” moments. It’s the hope that keeps me going – it also makes me an inveterate re-writer, trying to coax some great moments out the tangles of my words.

I don’t know if the writer I told this to ever took my advice (it was about learning the craft of writing), but I wish someone had told me the same thing when I started out. It took me a long time and a lot of tough miles for me to learn it for myself.


I’m away this week, locked away from the world (no internet or TV) in a remote log house in eastern Ontario, struggling with words and trying to coax greatness out of my prose. Hey, it could happen!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Of Bases and Cases

The bases in question, if you have not guessed already, are the four nucleotide bases that make up the so-called "double helix" of DNA - DeoxyriboNucleic Acid - the complex molecule that carries within it the genetic makeup of an individual human being. The nucleotide bases, for the non-biological reader, are guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine: the sequences of these base pairs are coded using the letters G, A, T, and C.


                                             The DNA Double Helix

On the DNA double helix, guanine is always paired with cytosine, and adenine is paired with thymine, this giving the familiar G-C and A-T configurations.

Readers with a long memory and a taste for sci-fi films will probably recall that in 1997 a film was released that intriguingly, and cleverly, used the base-pair codes to fashion the film's title: GATTACA.

                                         Gataca Movie Poster B.jpg

In addition to its sci-fi credentials, GATTACA was also a mystery-thriller that was well-received by the critics, even if it appears to have been a flop at the box office. The estimable Roger Ebert declared the film to be "one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas." The scientific community was rather less impressed, although the molecular biologist Lee. M. Silver stated in a review in a scientific journal that "GATTACA is a film that all geneticists should see if for no other reason than to understand the perception of our trade held by so many of the public-at-large". I don't think that qualifies as a real endorsement of the film. I also don't think the "public-at-large" is a reliable source of opinion on science in general.

Anyone who reads mystery fiction, and especially anyone who reads technical material, will be aware that "DNA profiling" - originally, and inaccurately, known as "DNA fingerprinting" - is a standard and invaluable technology for solving crimes, especially crimes of violence such as murder and rape. DNA profiling is based on the fact that every person's DNA profile is unique; only identical (monozygotic) twins have identical DNA profiles. Hence the technology's value in identifying individuals on the basis of their DNA profile, through DNA extracted from bodily fluids: blood, semen, saliva, etc.; or from skin cells harvested from a victim's fingernail scrapings; or from strands of hair, as long as the hair root is present.

What is, I believe, somewhat less well-understood, is that DNA profiling is especially valuable in the exoneration of innocent people who have been incorrectly arrested and charged.

Herewith a quick perusal of some of the landmark cases in DNA profiling and forensic DNA use and application in crime detection.

  • In the 1950s, Anna Anderson claimed that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. In the 1980s, after her death, samples of her tissue that had been stored at a Charlottesville, Virginia hospital following a medical procedure were tested using DNA profiling, and showed that she bore no relation to the Romanov Royal Family.

  • In 1986, Richard Buckland was exonerated, despite having admitted to the rape and murder of a teenager near Leicester, the city where DNA profiling was first discovered. This was the first use of DNA "fingerprinting" in a criminal investigation.

  • In 1987, in the same case as Buckland, British baker Colin Pitchfork was the first criminal caught and convicted using DNA profiling.

  • In 1987, DNA "fingerprinting" was used in criminal court for the first time in the trial of a man accused of unlawful intercourse with a mentally handicapped 14-year-old female who gave birth to a baby.

  • In 1987, Florida rapist Tommie Lee Andrews was the first person in the United States to be convicted as a result of DNA evidence, for raping a woman during a burglary; he was convicted on November 6, 1987, and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

  • In 1988, Timothy Wilson Spencer was the first man in Virginia to be sentenced to death through DNA testing, for several rape and murder charges. He was dubbed "The South Side Strangler" because he killed victims on the south side of Richmond, Virginia. He was later charged with rape and first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. He was executed on April 27, 1994. Equally significant, David Vasquez, initially convicted of one of Spencer's crimes, became the first man in exonerated based on DNA evidence.

  • In 1989, a Chicago man, Gary Dotson was the first person whose conviction was overturned using forensic DNA evidence.

  • In 1991, Allan Legere, a serial killer and arsonist, was the first Canadian to be convicted as a result of DNA evidence, for four murders he had committed while an escaped prisoner in 1989. During his trial, his defense argued, unsuccessfully, that the relatively shallow gene pool of the region could lead to false positives.

  • In 1992, DNA evidence was used to prove that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was buried in Brazil under the name Wolfgang Gerhard.

  • In 1992, DNA from a palo verde tree was used to convict Mark Alan Bogan of murder. DNA from seed pods of a tree at the crime scene was found to match that of seed pods found in Bogan's truck. This is the first instance of plant DNA admitted in a criminal case.

  • In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth was the first person to have been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, whose conviction was overturned using DNA evidence. The actual murderer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, identified by forensic DNA technology, eventually pled guilty to the crime. Bloodsworth was released from prison.

Maryland v. King - The Supreme Court Decision

If you've been paying attention to the news lately, you will know that the United States Supreme Court recently brought down a landmark ruling on forensic DNA evidence. The ruling stems from the case of Alonzo J. King, Jr., who was arrested in 2009 on assault charges. When he was booked, the police took a sample of his DNA using a cheek swab. (The use of swabs from the inside of a person's cheek, which yields cells and their DNA, is one of the standard procedures.) The police did not have a warrant to do the swab, or have probable cause to think it would link King to any crime. However, King's DNA profile matched DNA evidence from a rape in 2003, and he was eventually convicted of that crime.

In 2012, Maryland's highest court struck down the state law that allows DNA collection from people who have been charged but not yet convicted, because, they said, it violates the U.S. Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision, in a 5-to-4 vote, the narrowest possible verdict, overturned the ruling and upheld the Maryland law.

The Supreme Court's decision saw an interesting pattern of alliances. Three "liberal" justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were joined by one of the most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia, in opposing the decision. Scalia believes that the Fourth Amendment clearly prohibits the use of cheek swabs in this way. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated that collecting DNA through cheek swabs, or any other procedure, is like fingerprinting, and is a legitimate part of the police booking procedure to identify a suspect.

The ruling is controversial. On June 3rd, the New York Times published an editorial damning the decision. On the same day, two eminent lawyers, Akhil Reed Amar and Neal K. Katyal, argued in an op-ed piece in the Times that the Supreme Court was correct in its decision and, moreover, that Justice Scalia (and by inference, the Times's Editorial Board) had misinterpreted the Fourth Amendment's meaning. It's fairly certain that the issue will remain controversial for some time.

When forensic DNA profiling first began to used back in the late 1980s, it was immediately controversial, with proponents and opponents lining up to argue the pros and cons. I think it is safe to say, though, that on the whole, the technology has proven itself. I am not aware that anyone has been wrongly convicted using the technology. I am also aware that a significant number of wrongly-convicted persons have been exonerated using the technology. The argument that is going on now, with this latest Supreme Court decision, is not that Alonzo J. King, Jr. was wrongly convicted of rape; it's agreed that he was in fact guilty, and fairly sentenced. The argument is over the process that identified him as the assailant in a vicious crime.

Most readers are probably familiar with "Blackstone's formulation" - from Sir William Blackstone, an English jurist and judge, in 1765 - that It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. History records that Benjamin Franklin went even farther than that, raising the number to 100 guilty persons from ten. There are of course dissenting opinions on that also.

I will leave the discussion to the lawyers and ethicists, while at the same time declaring my own opinion that forensic DNA technology has done far more good than harm, through delivering the wrongly-convicted from incarceration, while at the same time putting a lot of nasty people behind bars.

I will even go so far as to declare that I believe that, technology and budgets permitting, everyone should be fingerprinted and DNA-profiled shortly after birth. I suspect that some people will be appalled at the suggestion, and will cite Orwell's 1984 - recently back on the best-seller lists, by the way - and if such a policy were adopted, we would hear a great deal about Big Brother. Debate is good. I invite dissenting opinions. I will look forward to reading them.

An that's - 30 - for this outing.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Guest Blogger - M.L. Longworth

Our guest blogger this week is M.L. – for Mary Lou – Longworth:

For background, Mary Lou was born in Toronto in 1963; which, as it happens, is where my wife and I were living when our first daughter, Kristina, was born in November of that year. (The same month, coincidentally, that J.F.K. was killed in Dallas, but I will skip right past that.)

Mary Lou Longworth now lives in Aix-en-Provence, in Southern France, and has lived there since 1997. She is the author of three Verlaque and Bonnet mystery novels set in Aix:

Murder in the Rue Dumas    Death at the Chateau Bremont    

Mary Lou, as her post explains, is working on a fourth novel.

The substance of her post is a guided tour – if you will – through Marseille. (In English, btw, it’s Marseilles.)

And now, for a first-hand look at Marseille by M.L. Longworth.

The New/Old Marseille

The current draft of my fourth book opens with a retired school teacher, Eric Monnier, looking back at Marseille from a boat out at sea. It’s at once beautiful – the old port, the limestone cliffs. hill-top Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde watching over the city; and ugly, too – the city can be dirty, noisy and chaotic. But what Monnier likes about Marseille is the city’s indifference to tourists. It makes no attempt to appease, much like Genoa or Naples. What you see is what you get. That is, until 2013, when Marseille became the European Capital of Culture.

For years we have been going to Marseille to eat; its restaurants outshine those in Aix-en-Provence. No contest. But we usually eat, and the  drive back to Aix. Last weekend, though, we stayed overnight, in a reasonably priced hotel in the old port, and soaked in the city's recent changes with awe and excitement.

The ring road that used to encase the old port has now narrowed, and two of its former lanes have become a giant sidewalk at the north end of the port. There’s so much more room now to stroll, and to enjoy the view of the boats, the sea, and the medieval forts that flank the mouth of the harbor. At the NE corner sits one of the many new structures that have been commissioned by the city; a flat-roofed open pavilion (thereby keeping the view of the port) with a mirrored roof, designed by Manchester-born super-architect Norman Foster. The photograph to the right makes it clearer:

A temporary visitors’ center, located behind the historic Town Hall is just as chaotic and mal organisé as one would expect from Marseille. But they were able to give us directions to one of the three newly constructed museums, the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM); it’s a comfortable ten-minute walk down alongside the west side of the port, behind the Fort St-Jean. That day the museum's entrance was free, so the queue was formidable. We decided to visit another time, and walked along the fort which hugs the sea, to view the museum from the outside. For years I have been eyeing the stone benches that are built into the fort's wall, with their million-dollar view of the sparkling Mediterranean. I dreamt of taking a picnic basket filled with champagne and cheeses and cold cuts, and having a feast, basking in the sun. But the benches were inaccessible; that side of the fort has always been closed to the public. Now it is all open, and as we walked along the seaside, I overheard a woman say to her friends, who were visiting from Paris, that she too had always eyed those benches. There were about fifteen of us slowly walking towards the MuCEM, and as we rounded a corner and saw the museum, a spontaneous “Ahhhhh!” arose from our throats. Most of us stopped in our tracks; others scrambled for their cameras. The MuCEM is a gem, designed by the Marseille architect, Rudy Ricciotti:

For hundreds of years this part of the port has also been inaccessible. Now you can walk around to the front of the museum, passing the white Villa Méditerranée, a performance space designed by the Italian Stefano Boeri, and walk along a huge newly-built square that overlooks the sea.

Part of the reason we stayed overnight was to witness Sunday morning’s Transhumance, when thousands of animals (mostly sheep and horses) were to be paraded through Marseille's downtown streets. A transhumance does occur every spring, but in the countryside; it’s the moment when shepherds take their flock up into the hills, or mountains, for summer grazing. I loved the idea of transplanting an ancient, rural, tradition into a 21st century city. We stayed at the New Hotel Vieux Port and had a good view from the breakfast room's windows:

But all is not new in Marseille; far from it. The city was founded 2,600 years ago by the Phoenicians; and so on Sunday we walked in the ancient Saint-Victor neighbourhood. We stopped at the Café de L’Abbaye for a traditional pastis, an anis-flavored liqueur:

The view from the café:

The Abbey Saint-Victor, built on a hill on the east side of the old port, was founded in the 5th century by Jean Cassien, a monk from Romania. A basilica was built of the site at the end of the 6th century (now the crypt), and the high church's construction, which is what we see now, above ground, began in 1040:

The fascinating, ancient crypt was closed due to renovations, but will reopen in July this year. There is plenty to see in the basilica, including this 5th century sarcophagus to the right.

Lovely details, including Christ heeling a blind man (right) and the sacrifice of Isaac (left).

Have you ever had a vacation, even a day or a weekend away, when you start seeing the links between places, and images, and people? It was in the abbey that it happened; not exactly an epiphany, but one of those moments when, as E.M. Forster claimed, ‘only connect.’ I had gone into a chapel at Saint-Victor to look at a 5th-century stone altar that had been brought up from the crypt; it was beautifully carved, and as I walked around it I noticed this:

A Transhumance! And, on the other side, these:

Birds eating grapes on the vine. And outside, opposite the church on a tiny square overlooking the port, was this: a vineyard.

I looked at that vineyard and across the port to the Fort St-Jean and realized that I'm just another visitor to this city; a city where people have been coming and going – in the past by boat, and now by car or TGV– for two thousand years. And the Marseillais continue to build their city: new museums, a vineyard, renovating an ancient crypt. They don’t care that Parisians and Aixois make fun of their odd expressions and strong accent; they remain themselves: fast-talking, gregarious, and generous in the best sense of the word. The owner of the restaurant La Cantinetta, where we had dined the previous night, joked in his broken English with our American relatives, causing them to exclaim that Marseille was their favourite city in France. As we were leaving he grabbed my shoulders and gave me the bise – a kiss on both cheeks. And in a way, we all became Marseillais that night.

Friday, June 14, 2013


I'm writing this blog from Topsail Island, North Carolina. This post will be short because I've succumbed to the sky and sand. In fact, I've found my calling. I was born to be a beach bum.

Our three daughters and their husbands and children (my grandchildren) have all rented a house right on the beach. There are 19 of us. All three live in Colorado. Through the years, the grandchildren have developed close cousin relationships.

They are following the example of their parents. All of the daughters were devoted to their cousins when they were children. They had no brothers and the male cousins were close to the real thing. When they were teenagers, they bailed one another out of messes that were kept secret from their parents.

Cousin relationships are different from any other kind of family attachments. You could count on cousins. I was devastated a couple of years ago when the only remaining cousin on my father's side of the family died unexpectedly. Rosemary and I had just recently picked up the threads of our family history.

I don't know of any mystery series that revolves around cousins. It's a shame, because of the potential for characterization.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Random thoughts from a lost week

I'm writing this post as I sip coffee outside a bourban bar in Louisville, Ky. (Rest assured, I have not just crawled out of the bar but am up early each morning to write.) This week, I've made my annual pilgrimage to Louisville to read English essays. I'm with a thousand or so other exhausted high school and college teachers at the end of the long school year. This week is always tiring (reading hand-written essays from 8 to 5 each day) but also uplifting (it's amazing what some student writers can produce) and gives me hope for the future of fiction.

And what will that future look like? Recently, I spoke to a longtime fiction veteran, a man with numerous novels and short stories to his credit, who asked me why kids no longer read short stories. He'd been asked to judge a writing contest for college students and had been disappointed by the quality of the submissions. I told him the kids I teach don't read short stories, except in English and creative writing classes. Kids read graphic novels, though, and grasp multi-text (written, visual, ect.) narratives better than their adult counterparts.

So where does that leave the future of the short story?

Hopefully novel-length fiction is in a better place. I know Stephen King has publicly denounced the e-book recently, but given the youth's fascination with technology, I think we should all be pulling the the e-book to succeed. Will it save the short story, at least the straight text version as we know it? Who knows? But it might save the novel.

In other news, I received the first round of cover art for my December novel (see below). I like it a lot.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Old Flames and Their Uses

Last weekend I was at a family wedding and bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for two years. The last time we’d spoken she’d been madly in love with Mr. X. Unfortunately, despite a promising beginning, the cad had cheated on her and eventually run off with her best friend.

In an attempt to cheer her up I said, “Well … I am looking for a victim for my new Vicky Hill mystery. Do you want me to kill him off?”

She was thrilled.

I emailed my friend a few questions and now it was my turn to be thrilled.
In fact, Mr. X was such an interesting character that I decided to write the story around him. Here are some snippets: Thinning hair, pasty white skin and a tendency to burn in the sun. He was a video game developer who specialized in special effects and—of course—was obsessed with playing video games as well. In college Mr. X was the captain of “Dungeons and Dragons.” He also started a dodge ball team called … Naughty Balls.

My friend loved Mr. X’s spontaneity. For their third (and as yet unconsummated) date he surprised her with two round trip tickets for a weekend in New York including dinner at a flashy restaurant and a Broadway Show. Mr. X was charismatic, romantic, smart, intelligent and funny—her ideal man.

On the flipside, she said his inability to be on time for anything drove her insane. Hence they nearly missed their flights to and from New York; they definitely missed their Broadway show and the maitre d’ let their table go when they showed up almost one hour late for their reservation. And of course, he cheated.

And finally … Mr. X. had an Achilles heel. He was highly allergic to water so every time he took a shower he came out in hives.

I always find it a challenge to build a new character from scratch. In fact, as I write more books I have a tendency to repeat generic characteristics despite keeping a Master Character Bible.

But now I have endless resources! When one reaches a certain age I find many of my friends have gone around the romantic block a few times (including myself). If a woman (or man) scorned finds revenge among the pages of my mystery book, then I’m happy to oblige and I’ve discovered a unique character.

Please note: Mr. X’s real name will never be revealed. But we know who you are. Don’t we Sandra? (Just kidding).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The budding writer

I know that every single published author has been asked at least once – and probably much more than that – the following question: How do I get published? Heck, I’ll bet most of us asked the same question of a published author (agent, editor or publisher) at one time or another. It certainly is not a new question, but it certainly is the most basic question for writers ready to make the next step forward.

There are many people who want to write books. There are some who even should be encouraged to write books. It is is the rare writer who doesn’t care whether or not they get published. Eventually, nearly everyone wants to hold that bit of paper, ink and glue in their hands, so that they can say out loud (or at least think), “I did this.”

There are also those who want to get published in the hope that they can make money, generally a whole pile of money. I will stick my hand up to say that I have thought about that along the way. The exact thought passed through my brain this morning, as it does most work days, when I sat at my computer to work on a large design project. Yes, it would be very nice to be able to make my living entirely by creating crime fiction novels.

Thing is, like most of the arts, there are superstars and then there’s the rest of us. It’s something to be faced.

When someone asks me the question: How do I get published?, I like to be able to always give them the straight goods, tell them the truth about publishing. If it’s at a social function or a book signing, that’s just not possible. I generally invite these people to get in touch with me, though, because they’re asking the most important question of all. To answer it is not a matter of nuts and bolts. They can get that from any number of books and magazine or online articles. What they often won’t get is the truth.

What I really want to pass on here is exactly what it means to get published, and what the act of getting published will ask of a writer.

I should preface the following remarks by saying that you just might get lucky, win the lottery, write such a goddam great work that publishers fall all over themselves from the get-go. If that happens to you, great! But it likely won’t.

So here’s my list and the things I tell anyone who asks me how to go about getting published. It’s the un-gilded truth. It’s blunt, but at the end, if you still want to move ahead on this idea, then welcome to the club. Perhaps you should be an author.

  • You will be required to wait, sometimes for years, to get any answer out of a publisher, editor or agent. You have to be prepared to bug these people if they don’t reply after a reasonable period of time has elapsed, but you also have to learn extreme patience.
  • You have to be prepared for someone to tell you your work is crap. A few will be nice. Many will be very blunt. If you can’t take that, then don’t show your work to anyone.
  • Even if you do get a positive response and an offer of publication, you will almost certainly not be offered much money. (If the person asks you for money, then just walk away. They’re scamming you.)
  • You have to educate yourself about the publishing game. This involves a lot of arcane terms, how the pipeline works (and how slowly!), and what your place is in it (think bottom rung hanging on by one finger). You have to know the terms that will be thrown your way.
  • You have to be prepared to compromise. It could mean your ms being torn apart and reassembled in a way you might not like. Can you accept that?
  • You will be expected to promote yourself – and do a good job at it. This goes for even the superstars (and many are superstars partly because of their promotional skills). You cannot hide in a garret. You have to be effective out in public. That’s a skill, and it can be learned. Be prepared to learn. If that doesn’t interest you, then stop right where you are.
  • You have to be ready to promote yourself at any opportunity. Learn to love and use social media. Be ready to create and maintain a website. (You don’t have to necessarily do this yourself.)
  • You will probably not make much money. Have I said that enough yet?
  • Your publisher may drop you at any time. And that hurts…a lot.
  • Critics may shred your work – and do it very publicly. Readers will trash your books on Amazon, Goodreads, any number of places. Suck it up, buttercup.
  • You probably won’t see someone on a subway or bus reading your book. You probably won’t see it in airport book racks. You probably won’t meet strangers who tell you, “Oh you're that author. I really enjoy your books. (I once met a woman who told me, “I believe I read one of your books. I didn’t like it very much. You’re not a very good writer.” It was said at a party and several people heard the comment.) Get ready to possibly be the best kept secret of all time.
  • You must find at least one person with the appropriate knowledge to read your ms and give you their honest, unvarnished opinion as to whether you should proceed with the next step (or whether you should be writing at all) – and then accept that opinion and act on it. Family and loved ones can generally not be relied on to provide this critical service.

Have I forgotten anything?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Alexander MacCall Smith

Scottish best-selling author Alexander MacCall Smith has just bought an island so he can have a peaceful place to write, rather as you or I might indulge ourselves with a shed in the garden.  Admittedly it's quite small and uninhabited, just across a narrow stretch of water from  the house he owns on the remote Hebridean island of Coll.  It's only accessible in fine weather but it's enchantingly pretty and he says he finds it difficult to write his cheerful and uplifting books in uncongenial or ugly surroundings.

This week I have had a chance to see what pleasant surroundings do for my writing since, amazingly, Scotland has been having real summer weather after two years when the summer months were indistinguishable from the winter months by the fact that it rained more in the summer.

So I've been spending as much time a possible in the garden. The clematis that climbs up through the crab apple tree is in full bloom, draping curtains of pink flowers that make a shady room beneath and the wisteria is out, pale lilac against the white walls..  We have pairs of blackbirds, robins and wrens nesting in the hedges; the garden rings with their song.  Admittedly we live in a city but having lived here for years I don't even notice the hum of traffic.

So - an inspiring atmosphere for creativity?  Well, not so much.   There is a pair of magpies also nesting in a nearby garden who have the charming habit of popping by and going along the hedge,diving down with their murderous beaks to slaughter the innocents in the nest below, while their parents shriek in dismay.  At the first 'pink-pink' of alarm I am on my feet, ready to yell at the intruder, clap my hands, throw  - well, anything, really.  It's just as well there are strict laws on gun control in Britain, since I would blast them out of the sky without compunction if I could.  Actually, given my general incompetence I would probably only manage to blast out my neighbours' windows.

As a matter of fact I don't think the beauties of nature are helpful where I am concerned.  I spend too much time admiring the irises coming out in the flowerbed and then noticing that the roses need watering and spotting the weeds that must be pulled up before they spread.  If I tell you that I'm not actually at all enthusiastic about gardening you will recognise this for what it is - the old 'anything-to-get-out-of-facing-the-blank-page' syndrome.

In my study, a pleasant if untidy room, I face a wall with a picture on it that I like but am so familiar with that I never notice it.  There's really nothing to do except get on with the job in hand and it's amazing how a spot of perspiration produces inspiration eventually.

But frankly, on a Scottish summer day  when the temperature has topped 20C, I don't care about efficient production.  In a couple of weeks the nights will be drawing in again and I'm going to make the most of it right now.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Northern Book Tour

I’m very pleased to welcome back as our guest blogger this weekend end, one of the founding members of Type M for Murder and our guiding light for many years, Vicki Delany. She is currently on tour with our own Barbara Fradkin at the edge of the civilized world in the cold, northern reaches of Canada, to whit, the Northwest Territories and Yukon. So here is Vicki’s photo scrapbook for you all. Sorry it’s late. It had to be delivered to Toronto via sled dog team and canoe.

Day 10 of the great Delany/Fradkin northern book tour.

We’ve been to Yellowknife as invited authors at the NorthWords Literary Festival, to museums, libraries, and bookstores in Whitehorse, Haines Junction, and Skagway. With one week to go in the tour, we have more stops in Whitehorse, including a presentation at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History (where I did a lot of the research for Gold Digger), a mystery lounge panel discussion, and a reading and discussion in the parking lot of a bookstore. We’re also heading to Pelly Crossing to the library there, and to Dawson City for a talk at the museum.

My interest in coming north on a book tour is largely to promote the Klondike Gold Rush series, although I have been mentioning and selling my other books as well (something for everyone!).

I’ve been here before, when doing research for the books, and it is wonderful to be able to come back with the finished product. At the Klondike National Park Museum in Skagway, I enjoyed reading the part of Gold Mountain where Fiona MacGillivray first encounters the legendary, infamous (and real life historical character) Soapy Smith. Fiona soon decides Skagway isn’t big enough for the both of them, and decamps for Dawson City over the Chilkoot Trail.

It’s been a wonderful, fun, exciting and interesting trip, as well as packed with activity. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Meeting the locals in Yellowknife.

Barbara takes a picture.

On CBC radio show Trail’s End in Yellowknife.

Carcross, Yukon.

Anyone for a swim? The passes between Alaska and Yukon.

Window display, Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse.

At Klondike Park Museum, Skagway, Alaska

Friday, June 07, 2013


Sorry I'm late today. I went off to a library this morning to lead a book discussion. Last night, I was busy re-reading the book and taking notes for the discussion. I'm finally getting back to my computer.

I'm in the midst of the juggling act that my colleagues here on Type M have commented about in the past. I have the first book in my new series coming out in September. I'm trying to make decisions about that launch while writing the second book that will be due to my editor at end of summer. 

But on Wednesday I took some time off to attend the MWA-New York Chapter's dinner meeting. It was held at the Salmagundi Club, an art club founded in 1871, located in a wonderful brownstone. I don't usually make it down from Albany to the Wednesday evening chapter events in the City. In this case, I made the overnight trip because my agent, Josh Getzler, was on the panel, and the topic was "genre-straddling." If you've never heard this term, it refers to writing a book that is not neatly pigeon-holed, but that includes elements of two (or more) genres. For example, a historical paranormal thriller. I was interested because my new book is a near-future police procedural.

The moderator, Jason Pinter, Senior Marketing Manager at Grove/Atlantic and Mysterious Press, and the panelists, Josh Getzler, literary agent and co-founder HSG Agency, and authors Katia Lief and F. Paul Wilson, provided a thought-provoking overview of the risks of genre-straddling. They all agreed that an author should not decide to write a genre-straddling book simply to follow a trend. However, sometimes a writer will be drawn to certain topics, have a background or interests that result in a book that isn't easily categorized.

Some authors who have taken the risks of genre-straddling have been successful. However, as the panelists noted there are pitfalls. These pitfalls include:

1. The possibility of alienating readers who have come to expect a certain type of book from the author. Of course, as the panelists noticed, the author could face this same kind of reaction if he or she has been writing a series and takes a break to write a stand-alone or to start a new series. And, of course, some authors have solved the problem by adopting a pseudonym.

2. Although genre-straddling may attract new readers to the author's books -- for example, sci-fi fans who buy a crime novel set in a parallel universe -- non-crime fiction readers will often bring their own genre-specific expectations. The author may fail to meet those expectations. Or, the author may be bashed for intrusion into a genre that is not his or her own.

3. But even before the book reaches readers, the author's agent must make some decisions about the publishers that might be interested in and good fit for a genre-straddling crime novel. The publisher who buys the book will have to decide how to market it.

Lots to think about. But I'm already committed and moving forward. However, I have been thinking a lot about how to reach readers who will love a near-future police procedural with an Alice in Wonderland theme and a strong historical thread involving Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.

Any other genre-straddlers out there? 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Let's Talk About the Weather

I've reached the middle of my work-in-progress. Perhaps you've heard the E.L. Doctorow quote about plot: "A plot is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far ahead as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way."

That's all very well and good until you get to the middle of the trip and the road branches out in six different directions, and you don't know which one will get you to where you want to go in the most efficient manner. Sometimes I end up trying them all. I comfort myself with the thought that I get this feeling in the middle of every book I write and thus far I've always managed to find my way out of the woods. And it's seldom the way I expected. It's usually better.

The action in this book is based around the aftermath of a tornado. The timing is creepy, for I had just finished the twister scene when the storm hit Moore, Oklahoma. Or maybe that wasn't such odd timing after all, because you can't write a long series set in Oklahoma without eventually writing about the weather. Not if you want to be realistic, because living in Oklahoma means living with the possibility of bad storms.

Writing teachers warn that one should never begin a book with a weather report, and I am always conscious of that bit of writerly folk wisdom every time I do it. I have managed to include a weather report of some sort in the beginnings of all the Alafair Tucker books I’ve written thus far. In fact, weather plays an important role in all my writing.

It would seem unnatural to me if it didn’t. I grew up in a place where the state of the weather looms large in everyone's life, every day of every year. Oklahoma is smack in the middle of the Great Plains, where, as the old saw goes, there’s nothing to stop the wind between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence. Oklahomans enjoy and/or suffer through every sort of weather known to nature, and in short order, too. A February day of 15 degrees Fahrenheit and 3 inches of ice can be followed by a day of 70 and sunshine. Weather moves through fast and furious, and this is why there are so many violent storms.

How could one write about people who live in such a place, whose lives are lived mostly outdoors, as well, and not write about the weather? The characters are certainly aware of it.

I decide what season it will be before I begin to write an Alafair Tucker book, for the atmosphere will influence the plot - snow to hide a body, a dust devil to lead Alafair to rescue her daughter from a killer, a spring breeze to shower apple blossoms over young lovers, a twister to blow death to your front door.

Until I moved out here to Southern Arizona nearly 30 years ago, where there is no weather other than warm and extra-hot*, I didn’t realize that I had spent thirty-some years of my life in a state of tension and hyper-vigilance. When I began to realize that I didn’t have to check for some life-threatening atmospheric phenomenon every single morning upon arising, I swear to God that the muscles in my shoulders relaxed for the first time in my adult life.


*Yes, I know all about rattling Arizona monsoon storms, flash floods, and dust storms that would choke a horse, not to mention the 115 degree summer days. I have lived here for 30 years, after all. Those are indeed scary and dangerous. The relentless heat ain’t no fun, though the rest of the year is heaven, and as they say out here, you don’t have to shovel sunshine. The others are relatively rare and often rather beautiful. Not like the malevolent threat of a Great Plains event that tracks you, hunts you out, and then tries to come into your house to kill you.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Playing in the Midnight Sun

Barbara here, sitting at Starbucks in the Edmonton Airport with Vicki Delany. The first leg of our "Mounties, Miners and Madams" northern book tour is over, and we have bid a bittersweet goodbye to Yellowknife and to all the wonderful book people we met at the Northwords Writers' Festival.

Northwords is the premiere literary event in the Northwest Territories, and the organizers worked hard for months to create the perfect mix of playful open mic events, readings by established and emerging writers, workshops and mentoring. Authors and book lovers came from far and wide, with a special emphasis on northern culture.

Vicki and I participated in several formal events and enjoyed many more as spectators. We combined forces with fellow crime writer Giles Blunt and local naturalist/author Jamie Bastedo to talk about writing to an auditorium full of enthusiastic, insightful high school students. Giles, Vicki and I also had a lively, informal exchange of book chat and readings at the festival's Whodunit panel. Vicki and I finished off the festival with a presentation and reading at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre, during which we chatted about how we wove research and northern history in our stories.

For me, the highlights of the festival were the open mic events, where writers at all levels of experience were given equal treatment and time at the mic to read a brief piece. Some were funny, some angry, some poignant, some lyrical, all heartfelt. It is a spontaneous, participatory format that respects all writers, and I would love to see it duplicated in literary festivals in the south.

The first open mic evening focussed on more serious literary pieces, while the second was dedicated to sensuality and erotica, which took many forms from hilarious to intensely moving. I wrote a funny piece for this event while on the plane to Yellowknife, much to the consternation of the young man seated next to me. I named it "A Touch or Two of Gray" and wore a red feather boa and red patent shoes for the reading, which brought down the house.

Nurturing northern and aboriginal writers is an important focus of the festival and I loved the opportunity to listen to aboriginal poets, storytellers and performance artists, getting my first inside glimpse into the concerns and passions of the people of the north. In my last blog, I said I thought I would take away far more than I gave. This is one example.

At a radio interview Monday afternoon at CBC North, we were asked to describe the highlight of our Yellowknife experience. We touched on our Arctic char dinner at Bullock's Bistro in Old Town, which is proudly "frontier" but serves possibly the best fish in the country. We touched on our chance to meet and mingle with poets, performance artists and authors of all stripes, especially from the north. But perhaps the greatest highlight was the "feel" of the festival. There was an optimism, enthusiasm and appreciation of all written works, whether by beginners or old, that is sometimes missing in festivals to the south. There is a lot we can learn from this city.

Now on to our next adventure - the Yukon!

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Switching gears

So, another week, another novel – or so it seems in the life I’m currently living. Having sent The Boom Room off to one publisher, I’m now ready to get back to work on the half-finished Roses for a Diva, which has been languishing in Writing Purgatory for the past two months while my attention was elsewhere. With another tight deadline staring me in the face, I can’t waste any time spinning my wheels, especially since I still need to do a lot of research on various topics from surveillance devices, to accommodations in Venice (which I wish I could afford to do firsthand but another trip to that great city is not in the cards – unless we win the lottery or a rich uncle I don’t know of yet leaves his fortune to me), to making up the plot of a plausible new opera to be premiered by the afore mentioned diva. To say the pressure is on to produce at least 4,000 words a day would be to put it mildly.

In order to get my head back into the unfinished novel, I’ve been taking long walks in an effort to reconnect with the proper “Roses” headspace. Re-reading what I’ve already written doesn’t really do it for me anymore. I need distance, not closeness to get reconnected – if that has any meaning for anyone reading this. After three days of walking and thinking, I realized today that I’d untraceably slipped back into the story, thinking up new aspects for the book, dealing with upcoming plot issues and problems that I hadn’t been able to deal with up to this point. In short, I had again become excited about telling this story again.

There is a lot of pressure on because this will be a sequel (something I normally don’t do) to my most recent full-length novel which sold (for me) quite well. I have a personal expectation for this novel to do even better and, first and foremost, I don’t want to let myself down. Since I’m my own worse critic, I figure that at least gives me a fighting chance to pen something worth reading.

Back to work…

Monday, June 03, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction?

Well, some things are, for sure.

A random reading of the papers – online editions, for the most part – over the past several weeks brought forward a few odd stories.

The first one to catch my wandering eye was datelined Seattle, WA, May 16th. A 10-year old boy was sentenced to up to 5-1/2 years in a detention facility "for his role in a foiled plot to rape and kill a girl in his school and harm other children". Ten years old? One has to be impressed. The precocious would-be murderer/rapist had taken a Remington Model 1911 pistol that originally belonged to his grandfather from his older brother's room. He and a friend had packed the pistol, along with ammunition and a knife, for the trip to school on a school bus. Fortunately, they were caught in time. The motive for the planned crime? The intended victim was the 10-year old's "former girlfriend" who was guilty of "being rude" and "always making fun" of him and his friends.

There was no information in the report on any reaction from the National Rifle Association to the news of the planned murder. One assumes, though, that they would quickly have recommended that all female grade-schoolers should in future be armed, and allowed to carry concealed weapons to school. Just in case. That would go along with the NRA's insightful statement that the citizens of Boston must have wished they were all carrying handguns at the time of the recent terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. Just what said citizens might have used their handguns for at the time the bombs went off is an unanswered question, considering that the perpetrators were not identified until some considerable time had passed. Random shooting perhaps, in the hope that one of the dozens hit by flying lead might have been a guilty party? Possibly. Of course, no one has ever accused the NRA of offering responsible commentary in any other such occasion.

Earlier that same month, there were several reports in the New York Times that a review of some fifty Brooklyn murder cases were being reviewed. It seems – and "seem" is all that it is at the moment – that an "acclaimed homicide detective", now retired, one Louis Scarcella, had used methods that can only be described as questionable, to engineer convictions in the murder cases under review. The reviews were precipitated when a judge freed one David Ranta, who had spent 23 years in prison after a murder conviction. When his case was reviewed, investigators found that Detective Scarcella and his partner had failed to pursue a more logical suspect. Further, they had apparently "removed violent criminals from jail to let them smoke crack cocaine and visit prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Mr. Ranta. A witness also said Mr. Scarcella told him who to choose in a lineup."

Detective Scarcella, now 61, and who retired from the Police Force in 1999, was quoted in the Times as saying that "he was surprised to learn of the review." The investigation is ongoing.

As is often the case with me, the Scarcella-inspired review reminded me of a film that focused its story line on a case of wrongful conviction engineered by the New York Police with the cooperation of an ambitious District Attorney. The film from 1989 is True Believer, with Robert Downey, Jr. and James Woods:


Very highly recommended.

An even more bizarre case than the Scarcella review was brought forward in late April, this one from Baltimore, Maryland. In this case, it appears that a jailed gang ringleader has taken over a prison, the Baltimore City Detention Center, and he has fathered five – count 'em, five! – children with four separate female guards. The prisoner in question, one Tavon White, aged 36, had "showered three of the guards with expensive gifts, including luxury cars and jewellery."

One has to be impressed. It appears that White and his gang, the "Black Guerilla Family", had, since 2009, literally taken control of the facility following their incarceration. Media reports  state that observers are comparing the takeover to something out of the popular crime mini-series, The Wire, itself set in Baltimore. "It is definitely life imitating art," said one Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies Jailhouse sexual abuse. Hard to argue with that, I suppose.

Do I detect a new mini-series moving towards development?