Saturday, August 31, 2013

Guest Blogger Simon Wood: A question of violence

I’d like to welcome back to Type M this weekend’s guest blogger, Simon Wood, whom many of you will know – and if you don’t, you should!

Simon Wood is a California transplant from England. He’s a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and four cats. He’s the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, Terminated, Asking For Trouble, We All Fall Down and the Aidy Westlake series. His latest thriller is No Show, the first in the Terry Sheffield mysteries. He also writes horror under the pen name Simon Janus. Curious people can learn more at

By Simon Wood

From time to time someone at a book signing or conference or something will bring up violence and the writer. Someone will say, “Aren’t you glorifying violence?” or some such. It’s usually at this point I have to take down my banner that says “Violence is fun! Try it!!”

When the movie version of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins took a bit of a battering in the media. The gist of the various articles and forum conversations I came across harped on the following topics the books and movie is violent and violence involving children seems tacky. This reaction kind of baffled me because no one hid the plot from anyone so what were you expecting. Some people may be genuinely offended and that’s okay, but at the same time, they outcry didn’t ring true in most cases. It felt like an excuse to fill column inches.

I get quite het up over complaints over violence in fiction. If a story deals with a violent act, then it needs show it because violence is ugly and it hurts. Pretending it doesn’t exist or dumbing it down is a worse crime because it’s a lie and fiction works because it might be make-believe, but it’s honest. I think it would be wrong of me to make light of someone’s murder (even in a fictional setting) by having it take place off page or between chapters. Crime isn’t a joke or venue for living vicariously as a detective and the icky bits don’t matter. I find a book that underplays or scurries by a character’s death just as an offensive as a book filled with gratuitous violence. Neither do the subject acceptable.

The reason I write crime fiction isn't because mysteries are fun or I want to invent a cool detective. I write crime fiction because I’m fascinated by the human condition and all its frailties. When someone dies on the page, I want the reader to mourn their passing as if they were a real person. That means I’m going show things none of us comfortable seeing from time to time.

This isn't to say violence has to be displayed in all its gory detail. If you’re just going to get anatomical about killing someone, it doesn’t work because the emotional element is missing. Chopping up bodies all day in a book might seem shocking, but it gets old real fast. However, kill a character the reader is emotionally vested in, the violence doesn’t have to be overt for the reader to feel it all that hard.

I will say I have a responsibility when it comes to depicting violence. I won’t shy away from it, but at the same time, I don’t believe anything goes. With my new book, No Show, my editor and I had a bit over a chat over the ending as it’s devastating to the major characters. I was going through a little bit of a crisis of faith. The violence isn't seen but its effects are witnessed. I knew it was bound to upset some readers and to be frank, it was upsetting me. I asked my editor should I change the climax. She said no. this one act was vital to the character who he would become for the rest of the series depended on it and the scene stood—warts and all. When it comes to anything in a story, it has to be warranted, regardless of whether it’s violent or not.

At the end of the day, violence exists in our culture. We may not like it, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t. That applies to real life and fiction.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Ask My Dog, He'll Tell You

On Monday, Thomas wrote about the "dog days" of summer. His post hit home with me – not just because I'm a weather junkie (who knows exactly what time the rain is due to move in) – but because I've been debating the dog versus cat issue. I'm a "dog person". I'm thinking of getting a cat. Even considering this has given me sleepless nights – well, at least a sleepless half hour before I drifted off. The problem is not that I dislike cats. I once volunteered – accidentally, I thought they also had dogs, too – to be a feeder/cleaner at a cat shelter. I came to appreciate cats as a species. But when I imagine the animal that I would enjoy sharing my house, I think "dog".

Perhaps this is a matter of early exposure. When I was growing up, my family had only one cat – an outdoor cat who came and went. The dogs were much more connected to humans – a Dalmatian, a mutt, a black Lab, my father's various hound dogs for hunting. Those dogs I knew. Those dogs I would sit and have long, serious conversations with about the trials and tribulations of being a child and then a teenager. I said conversations, because dogs listen. Maybe cats do as well, but I don't know. Maybe if I get a cat, he or she will sniff and walk away just as I'm baring my soul and asking for sympathy.

But, still, I'm considering a cat because they are beautiful, intelligent animals with individual personalities and it's all a matter of finding the right cat for me (or, so "cat people" tell me). And a cat will be much more forgiving if I'm late getting home -- got litter box, no problem. I think I could adjust to having an animal who might be sitting on my dining room table while I'm away. The thing is getting a cat would require me to re-define who I am. I would be a dog person who has a cat. I would probably have to adopt a dog just to restore my equilibrium. And then I would be a hybrid person with a dog and a cat who I would have to hope would either like or ignore each other.

Why am I writing about my "companion animal" dilemma here? Because thinking about the dog versus cat issue has gotten me thinking about animals in crime fiction. My books tend to have a dog. In my Lizzie Stuart series, John Quinn, the tough ex-MP, ex-homicide cop, has a yellow Lab mix. Lizzie goes to his house – after receiving a threatening note – and meets his dog named "George". She is amused when Quinn is defensive about the dog's name and confesses that he didn't intend to keep the dog he found on the highway, but his time was up at the pound. George, the lively dog, reveals a side of Quinn that she hasn't seen before. In my new series, my police detective's former partner is involved with a Great Dane rescue group. But there is also a cat – a Maine Coon cat because when I was writing the book I was thinking about a Maine Coon cat as a cat I might enjoy living with (still considering). My Maine Coon cat turns out to play much more of a role in the story than I anticipated. His presence and his name reinforces what one learns later about the billionaire with whom he shares a mansion.

We can all think of the many animals in crime fiction. They are there to give us another perspective on a character. They are there as sounding boards who provide the character with an opportunity to share his or her thoughts – the listener who can occasionally bark or meow and keep the scene from becoming static. An animal can even be a reason for a character to take action – as when a beloved animal has been injured by the bad guy. Of course, here, the writer must tread carefully. Readers do not like to see animals – particularly series regulars – hurt or injured. Beware the "cat taboo".

But it also occurs to me that both in fiction and in real life, animals can be used as a "prop". The serial killer who uses the adorable pup he is playing with in the park to lure his victims. It's true, isn't it, that when we see a person with a  happy dog, we assume – unless the owner is dragging the dog along and scolding it for trying to make new friends – we assume the owner must be a nice person. If we're allowed to pat the dog, we don't hesitate to strike up a conversation with the dog's companion. This  – like cute human toddlers – is the exception to the don't talk to strangers rule. In fact, one of the reasons often given for having a dog in your life is that a dog will increase your interactions with other humans – assuming your dog is a friendly pooch rather than a dog that other people cross the street to avoid (while also quickly planning you in the category of potentially dangerous stranger).

Cats could also be used for misdirection or deception in a story. The stereotype of elderly women with multiple cats. What if a woman – not elderly – needs to hide out . . . wait, forget I said that. I'm going to use that one in a short story.

I also have a character in The Red Queen Dies who has lizards and once owned snakes. I'm not sure how to categorize "reptile people". I'm sure they must be somewhat different personality types from dog or cat people. The character in my book is elusive, hard to pin down.

And what about people who are simply "animal lovers." Who have a houseful of cats, dogs, snakes, ferrets, turtles, and other animals who all happily co-exist. Maybe these are the people who in real life and books should be sent out to solve the tough problem of "world peace." In a book, this person might be a part of a busy, happy family. Or, he or she could be an animal hoarder, who lives alone in squalor, and would probably have an interesting backstory.

Always good when thinking about life's little dilemma's – dog or cat – leads to new story ideas.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Piece of Cake

I, Donis, made a cake from scratch today to take to an event. It was one of my mother's recipes and couldn't really be done with a mix. When I got done I was hot from having the automatic oven on and tired from beating the batter by hand. What a bunch of wussies we modern cooks have become.

My grandmothers were both quite expert at American-style scratch cooking, which is what I write about in my books. My mother was no slouch at scratch cooking herself. But when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, scratch cooking was considered oh-so-old-fashioned. The modern Mid-Twentieth Century American Housewife was encouraged by all the smartest lady’s magazines (and food companies) to utilize the latest time-saving canned and packaged foods to save herself needless hours in the kitchen, presumably so she could put on her shirtwaist dress and pearls and meet her man at the door with a dry martini and a delicious meal on the table when he came home from work.

Since my poor young suburban ‘50s mother wanted nothing more than to be hip to the times, that’s the kind of food I was raised on. I’m such a health-foodie now that I shudder to remember what we grew up eating. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t delicious.

How I occasionally long for a nice side-dish of Uncle Ben’s instant white rice mixed with a can of undiluted Campbell’s cream of celery soup to go along with my Hamburger Helper goulash. My aunt was particularly fond of magazine recipes, especially for cake. Ever had a mayonnaise cake? How about Coca-Cola cake? I think the savvy cook from my youth could create an entire month’s-worth of meals and hardly repeat herself just by keeping a few basic ingredients in her pantry for mixing and seasoning:

Canned cream-style soup, Lipton’s Onion Soup mix, crackers, American cheese slices and a chunk of Cheddar, a bag of noodles, instant rice, Jello, Kool-Whip, packaged cake mix.

One of my mother’s specialties was Ambrosia. Drain a can of fruit cocktail (you know - those little chunks of peach and pear, tiny green grapes, and the odd unnaturally red cherry) and dump it into a tup of Kool-Whip. Mix it up nice, maybe with some packaged shredded coconut, and scarf it down. We loved it, and she made it for us practically until the day she died. I wouldn’t be surprised if my sibs still make it. Admit it, you guys.

There are so many things you can do with Jello that I don’t have the time to go into them all, so I’ll just hit the Mid-Century highlights. Emerald salad - that green stuff made with lime jello, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, maybe some finely grated cucumber. Broken glass pie, made with two or three bright colors of Jello, set and cut into jagged pieces, mixed with Kool-Whip (or heavy whipped cream, or unflavored gelatin mixed with a can of evaporated milk for a firmer consistency), pour into a pre-made graham cracker crust and chill. How about an orange Jello salad filled with grated carrot and served with a glop of mayo? Lemon Jello with crushed pineapple and little marshmallows.

One of our party staples in the 1960s was lime punch. Just dump a quart of lime sherbet in a punch bowl and pour quarts of ginger ale or 7-Up over it. Our tuna casserole was made with noodles, a can of peas, a couple cans of tuna, and a can of cream of mushroom soup. Speaking of parties, when I was old enough to throw my own, I went through a stage of making tiny cheese balls out of grated cheddar mixed with cream cheese and rolled in crushed Doritos.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go rummage around and see if I can find an old box of Jello in the back of the cabinet.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

So you want a distinct image for your book cover?

I started to write this post last week, and then one of the greats of crime writing died, so my latest look at the world of book covers needed to be moved onto the back burner for obvious reasons.

So now I’m back to “the lighter side of book cover design”.

Way back when, especially in the North American market, book covers had commissioned illustrations as their cover images. This came with a plus and minus. The plus was that your book would have a unique cover. The minus was that your book would have a unique cover. In the second case this meant if you didn’t like what your publisher’s illustrator came up with, you were pretty much stuck with it because time and a pretty good chunk of change had been spent to produce it.

The UK led the way with using photos on the covers of their books, but North American and European markets quickly followed suit because photos could be produced more cheaply. An even cheaper alternative was using stock photo libraries rather than commissioning a photographer to shoot a cover to order. These still could be a bit on the pricey side (up to $500, depending on who shot the photo and where you bought it), but things were looking down, as far as expenditures went. Then cut-rate stock photo libraries like and came into existence, and the stock photo market tanked. Publishers could now get a cover image, often for well under $100.

That’s why you pretty well only see photos on book covers these days – especially on crime fiction books.

Recently I got a link to an interesting gallery about book cover cliches. I’m going to present some images pulled from it, then close with a link to the full article. My selections show something that can happen when using stock images, and believe me, it will give us poor, downtrodden authors a few more gray hairs. So here’s my rogue’s gallery of book covers:

Notice any similarities? What’s happened here is that the same image has been chosen for the covers of three crime novels. When a stock photo is bought (whether part of a DVD series, or as a one-off from a site like iStock, a publisher has no control or knowledge of whether it will be chosen for the cover of a book by another publisher. My favourite is the third one, and it’s my guess that they knew about other uses of the image on other books, so they flipped it over in hopes that it would look different enough. The worst part is, this isn’t the only use of this image. When you look at the whole gallery from the link below, you’ll see there are least three others in existence. In the fifth use, the designer changed the fedora (or it might be a homburg) for a top hat which certainly makes it far more distinctive than its littermates. Still, if this were the cover of one of my books and I found out the image had been used on at least 5 other books, I would not be a happy camper.

What can you do, other than search Amazon for each new book as it’s announced? Maybe your publisher will listen to you, maybe they’ll just say it doesn’t matter, or fall back on that old tried and true put-off: “It’s a marketing decision.”

Either way, tough luck.

Here’s a link to the full article. It’s quite clever and someone has obviously done their homework:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dies Caniculares

Which, for the non-Latin speakers and readers out there in the larger world, means "Dog days".

It's that time of the year, the dreary days of late summer. Although, in fact, "dog days" does not specifically refer to August; it could also include most of July. My online etymology dictionary tells me that the "dog days" are simply the "hottest and most unwholesome time of the year", usually July 3 to August 11, "but variously calculated, depending on latitude and on whether the greater Dog-star (Sirius) or the lesser one (Procyon) is reckoned."

It has nothing really to do with dogs, per se, although the image of the overheated canine, panting, tongue dangling, is usually conjured up by the term.

By way of further explanation, I found this online: Dog days are actually referring to the star Sirius, also known as the dog star, found in the constellation of Canis Major, and deriving its name from the Greek word “seirios”, which means "scorching".

So, now you know; as do I.

August does seem sometimes like a dreary time. It's often too hot, and too sultry, and one longs for shade and rest, and respite from strenuous activity. It was probably no coincidence that the past week saw several of my fellow bloggers come out with apologies for not having done their regular posts. I sympathise. I am feeling a bit ragged around the edges myself. It didn't help that early one morning last week, a neighbour stopped by, as I was finishing breakfast, to tell me that his vintage (1979) Corvette had somehow slipped its parking gear and rolled across the communal garage to collide with my Mustang. Happily the damage is not great; but there is the bother of spending time on the phone with insurance companies, and more time consulting with an auto body shop to arrange for repairs.

Thinking about August and dog days, though, brought back a memory from 1962. That was the year Marilyn Monroe died, and her death occurred on August 5. I attach her picture, which will likely be the most attractive part of this post by far:


Along with the shocking news of her death – she was only 36 – was the equally shocking comment from a news media person in New York City, who said something along the lines that he was as sad as anyone that she was dead, but that if she had to die, he was glad that she died in August, because August is always a terrible month for news. (He might even have said "dead month", but I do hope not.)

Continuing along this "August" line of thinking, there is a superior Hollywood film that focussed on the dog days of August; Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet, and starring Al Pacino and John Cazale as two hapless bank robbers who hold up a Chase Manhattan Bank and take the bank employees hostage.

The film was based on an actual bank robbery attempt that took place in Brooklyn on August 22, 1972. Just about everything that can go wrong in the attempted robbery does go wrong; and needless to say, the film ends very badly for the would-be robbers, neither of whom is terribly bright. It is a great film, though, with standout performances by Pacino and Cazale. Really worth watching if you haven't seen it; or seen it recently.

There is also an odd Canadian connection to the actual robbery, although I don't think it makes it into the film. At the time - and still for that matter - there was a CBC Radio interview program called As It Happens.  The program host at the time, Barbara Frum, telephoned the bank during the hostage drama and interviewed the Pacino character, "Sonny Wortzik"; the real-life character's name was John Wojtowicz.

(The late Barbara Frum, for those of you who follow American politics, was the mother of David Frum, a Canadian-American journalist, and a leading conservative Republican spokesperson. He was also a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Yet something else that a substantial number of Canadians will likely feel we should apologise for.)

I had actually intended this week to write about two columns from last week's New York Times. One had to do with choosing names for characters in novels. The other had to do with a writer's likely reaction to the dreaded two-part question from a friend on a work in progress; a question along the lines of, "What's the story about, and how's it going?" I think every writer has been there. And dreads being there again.

I will look at those items next time out.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wired up and pinned down

Years ago, I was watching Bullitt and in one scene, a detective was in a taxi and he said to the driver, "I gotta make a call. Pull over to that pay phone." Today, that request seems so laughably quaint.

However, I still keep reading new crime fiction where modern-day characters refer to answering machines and phones ringing. I haven't seen an answering machine in close to twenty years. I know of only one friend who still has a home phone; all the rest of us have since chucked that land-line connection.

One of the conundrums in modern science fiction is that our technology has raced ahead of what we expected in our imagined future. True, we don't yet have anti-gravity boots and our forays into deep space are modestly pedestrian. No moon bases, or underwater cities for that matter. But our cell phones are far superior to anything imagined on Star Trek. The Internet has become a significant mode of commerce and social interaction. And that same Internet has made us incredibly vulnerable to business marketing, government snooping, and criminal fraud in ways no one predicted.

What tools are the cops already using? Besides data mining your email, Internet use, and cell phone traffic (usually without a warrant and in violation of the Fourth Amendment) the authorities can use your Internet connection and cell phone to pinpoint your location. They've already used facial recognition to cull through crowds. Secret GPS trackers are routinely attached to cars. Drones are staple weapons of war for reconnaissance and attack. Domestic drone deployment is in its fledgling stages, but the police have already used remote-control aerial cameras to surveil active crime scenes and to find missing people. These flying robots are cheaper than helicopters and just as effective. It's the rare major intersection that doesn't have cameras or radar monitoring. All this snooping is rife for abuse, by both the authorities and the crooks. And the enterprising PI will also have interesting ways to leverage this technology.

My favorite is the robotic surveillance drone that continues to shrink and become more sophisticated by the day. Think about it. How can we expect any semblance of privacy when drones the size of flies and roaches can infiltrate our homes? Imagine when the paparazzi get their sketchy mitts on these. What are the implications for corporate spying? How about capturing cheating spouses in flagrante delicto? Of course expect businesses that will make a fortune detecting and eliminating such eavesdropping pests...a high-tech Orkin as it were.

Like any new development, this technology cuts both ways. What would prevent gangsters from tapping into the facial-recognition databases to finger undercover cops and ferret out snitches in witness protection? A gun manufacturer has developed a computerized sniper rifle that will allow a neophyte shooter to knock out a bull's eye first shot at incredible distances. Hmmm...of what use could that be to terrorists?

These electronic gizmos broadcast signals that make them vulnerable to detection and hacking. You can buy a device that collects data from RF chips and WiFi transmitters. One ploy is to stroll with this electronic pickpocket through a crowd to harvest credit-card info and passwords.

It's a brave new world for the good and bad guys, and those characters in between. Plenty of material for some great mystery novels.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Past tense vs. present

John here.

Just started a new job chairing the 17-member English department at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Mass., and the week got away from me. Here's a 7 A.M. photo of the river valley.

I don't have much to say, but I'll share what I'm thinking about this week: present tense vs. past. I'm 125 pages into my May 2015 novel, and I have two versions of the opening scene. I'm toying with the idea of making the opening page-and-a-half scene present tense. A drop-the-reader-onto-the-treadmill approach. There's a lot to consider: will the transition to past tense in the next scene be too jarring? It's not a prologue and can't be, given the narrative structure. And there's a lot of backstory that must be moved, which is probably a good thing.

Anyway, as you can see, I'm drafting, stressing, and am consumed by this. I'll share the opening three paragraphs of each with you here. Any thoughts?

The charred remains of the cabin were blackened and smelled like dying embers from campfires she remembered from her youth. A two-by-four tore away from the remnants of the roof and fell, hitting the soft ash floor like a branch landing in new-fallen snow. Cinders danced, sparked, and spawned a small flame.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote stood outside the cabin and pocketed her radio after reporting the fire. The volunteer fire fighters would have trouble getting out here, four miles down a rut road off Route 1. But they could take their time. At this point, all they could do was douse the ashes.

She moved around the perimeter of the structure, not risking entry. She could see inside the small cabin because no walls remained, the roof held up by only three two-by-fours. Firefighters would have to knock it down before entering the middle of the structure. In the distance, she saw a rolling, fifty-acre canary-yellow canola field, its beauty a stark contrast to what she stood facing. Shed smelled what was left of the cabin well before shed seen the broken glass and chunks of blackened wood, which landed near the tree line. The explosion sent debris, according to her count, forty-three paces from the cabin.


The charred remains of the cabin are black and smell like the dying embers from the campfires of her youth. A two-by-four tears away from the remnants of the ceiling and falls, hitting the soft ash floor like a branch landing in new-fallen snow. Cinders dance and spark, spawning a small flame.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote stands outside the cabin and pockets her radio, knowing the volunteer firemen can take their time: nothing left to do but douse the ashes.

She moves around the perimeter, not risking entry. But she can see inside. The walls are gone. Three charred two-by-fours support the roof. She sees a metal bed frame, now twisted and blackened.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard, October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013

I was going to write a far different post for today, but writing something clever as I planned seems to no longer be possible.

Elmore Leonard has finally put down his pen.

One of my favorite authors who always entertained, could write the ass off nearly everyone. His style and voice were completely unique – that is, until a lot of other authors tried (and mostly failed miserably) to copy his style. He always entertained.

I won’t bother to list all the books of his that I’ve enjoyed. One interesting thing is that his fans seem to all have different favourites. That’s because this man didn’t write just a handful of great books. He produced them by the shelfful. The funny thing is that no one seemed to notice. He was well into his 60s until he had a bestseller (Glitz) in 1985, and his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, was rejected 84 times before it saw publication in 1969.

Think about that for a moment. It says many things about the man, first of all, about his perseverance. He wrote in a fresh and unique style and he had the (certainly justified) belief that he could write well. Industry professionals (including reviewers) have always seemed to have a hard time when faced with something new and unique. Having started out in 1953 writing westerns with some success, he had faith in what he was doing. He took up crime fiction when the popularity of westerns fizzled out. He also had to wait 32 years to finally taste real success with that first bestseller in 1985. After than, thank the Lord, he never looked back. Would any of us have done that? I certainly would have given up long before that.

My favourite Leonard story came from an interview with Peter Gzowski on CBC’s Morningside many years ago. Seems that Elmore was in a mall while visiting someplace and passed a bookstore. They had his latest bestseller in the window display. He went in.

“That’s my novel you have in the window,” he said to the young clerk. “If you’ll fetch it, I’ll be happy to sign it.”

She indeed went and got the book. The author duly signed it and handed it back to her.

“That will be $29.95,” she told him.

“You don’t understand. I’m the author of this book.”

“I don’t care who you are. You wrote in this book and now you have to buy it!”

Leonard’s remark after telling the story (which he did very well), was to say it’s moments like these that keeps one humble. (Obviously, I don’t remember the story this exactly, but I’m not embellishing at all.)

So to you, Elmore, a heartfelt thank you. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for remaining true to what you believed. Thank you for the many hours of exceptionally enjoyable reading you gave us. Thank you for leaving so much behind for future generations to explore and enjoy, because I am firmly convinced that Elmore Leonard books will be read hundreds of years from now. Like so much really great crime fiction, you provided a (admittedly quirky at times) look into how we live and how we think.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Empty Page

Reading all the posts this past week from people who are away on holiday has been hard, since my own holiday in the south of France is well behind me. We did, however, return to the best summer Scotland has had for some time which has helped a bit.

Now, though, while the sun is still shining and the temperature is pleasant, there is an slight autumnal feel – a cool little breeze, darker evenings. The old crab apple tree, which is host to clematis in May, yellow roses in June and pink roses in July, now has little apples starting to ripen – time to look out the jam jars to make jelly.

This year, when I finished my new book Bad Blood, ready to go into the system for publication in October, my editor wanted me to start on the next one. I've been producing more or less a book a year for some time and I felt exhausted at the thought. Arguing with an editor who is keen on having your next book has never seemed a smart idea to me, but when I murmured delicately that  I wanted a three-month break she was very understanding.

I told my husband I was on holiday but as he said to me recently, 'What's the difference?' I mooched around for a few days, feeling totally at a loose end, then found myself back at my desk, just doing bits and pieces – writing a short story, planning, trying out a few new ideas... I suppose I've spent much the same time at my desk as I do when I'm 'working'.

With September on the horizon, my 'holiday' is almost over, but it feels to me the natural time for a fresh start. Perhaps it's the result of a lifetime spent in and around schools that September has always seemed more like the beginning of the year than January does.

I can clearly remember the excitement of the new exercise book – all those crisp, smooth, empty pages to be filled, of course, with faultless work. To this day l have what amounts to an addiction for stationery, the smell and the feel of it, and have to be escorted past the most elegant and expensive shops like Smythson's in London, where PM David Cameron's wife Samantha works..

A new book is rather different. The blank page is the author's enemy and can produce a sort of paralysis of terror. When I do a workshop, I always say that you should never sit down to start writing  a book until you have it absolutely clear in your mind what you are actually going to write on that first page.

But there's a real sense of excitement about it too, and after my summer 'holiday' I'm brimming with the  thoughts and ideas that will get me started. And I  still have that old feeling of optimism that this is the  time I really will get everything right.. As that shrewd commentator Alexander Pope said, 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast.'

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Guest Blogger Judith Starkston

A big Type M welcome today to Judith Starkston, founding mother of the Arizona Chapter of the Historical Novel Society and student of the mysteries of the past.

A Voice From the Clay

I’m pleased to be a guest on Type M for Murder, or in my case, Press Stylus Into Clay for Slaughter. My soon to be published manuscript, Hand Full of Fire, tells the tale of Briseis, the captive woman Achilles and Agamemnon fought over in the Iliad. It is set during the Trojan War of the Bronze Age in what is now Turkey. I’m a Classicist who fell in love with Homer’s epic poems way back in college (Jurassic Age, was that?). My interest grew over years of teaching the Iliad, enough to prod me to write fiction set in the Homeric world of 1250 BCE.

The Bronze Age in Turkey is a period with plenty of murder and, as we have discovered through archaeology, plenty of writing on clay tablets in cuneiform script. The literal uncovering of this civilization occurred primarily during the latter half of the 20th century. Scholars then translated the libraries of tablets that had been dug up. The Trojans, Hittites and other Bronze Age peoples of this area came to light in detail not available to past generations.

That knowledge makes Briseis a good subject for a novel at this point, but it isn’t what got me started. The impetus for my book came from a question that had bugged me each time I taught the Iliad. Briseis, being a woman in a patriarchal epic, gets only a handful of lines, but one thing Homer insists on is the mutual bond of love between Achilles and Briseis. Huh? Isn’t Achilles the guy who destroys Briseis’s city, reduces her from princess to slave and kills her husband and three brothers?

Yes, he is, but before anyone assumes “Stockholm Syndrome,” let me add some critical Homeric characterization. Achilles is a conflicted, half-immortal hero, the best warrior who nonetheless questions the value of war and wonders what the purpose of life is. Achilles is an existential hero who is way too fragmented and likeable to be a brainwasher. He’s the one in need of mental assistance.

So what, I wondered, drew Briseis to Achilles? That was my quest—to find the qualities in Briseis that could make her understand and need this odd if hunky hero, in spite of all the bad history between them. Strangely enough, I found much of the answer to this question of flesh and blood character in translations of those dry and dusty clay tablets. These tablets revealed the details of ancient life. I took this background and combined it with careful doses of imagination and common sense to build a world and a plot. Most importantly, I found the living Briseis in them. Contrary to the oppressed women you expect to meet in the ancient world, many tablets were written by powerful women, priestesses who served as healers and intermediaries with the gods. Interestingly, the mythic tradition says Achilles also trained as a healer and he was a singer of tales, as were these women in their rites. From this clay-stored history, I imagine Briseis as one of these women, strong enough to challenge the greatest of the Greeks. I discovered from the clay tablets that she had enough in common with Achilles to bind them together—if I mixed in some circumstances that helped her overcome her emotional pain. I hope I’ve created an historically believable Briseis in a fast-moving tale that finally gives this mysterious young woman a voice the epic tradition denied her.
Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire, as well as the occasional contemporary short story. She also reviews for her own website, Historical Novels Review and The Poisoned Pen Blog. She is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. As part of the research for her novels, she has traveled extensively in Turkey. For Publication news about Hand Full of Fire, check out Judith's website at, Twitter, Facebook, and

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writer with Camera in Hand

Empire State Plaza 
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been going around Albany,with my recently purchased camera in hand. I have committed to doing an on-going "writer's essay" about Albany. In fact, I plan to do a "day in the life" of Albany -- as soon as I have a whole day to roam around the city.

With my step up from disposal cameras to a "real" camera that takes terrific photographs even when I simply point and click, I can now see what I've been missing. I can see how much there is to be seen through a camera's eye. I feel a little self-conscious about walking around the city that I live in taking pictures. Except, of course, when I'm seeing the city that I know through a camera's lens, it isn't really the city that I know. In the photo above, I discovered the richness of the colors and the spectacular symmetry of the government buildings on and opposite the Empire State Plaza.

Oddly enough, I'm running into another problem with this writer's essay I want to do -- the need to provide captions.  For example, the photo below offers another view from the Plaza. In my essay, I could say that "The Egg"  (top left in photo) inspired me to think of having a UFO sighting in the recent history of The Red Queen Dies. Official name "Center for Performing Arts," it is one of the most recognizable architectural structures in the city. The nickname was inspired by the egg-like shape. Personally, I don't see an egg when I look at it. I see a spaceship.
View of the Egg with highway below.

Or, what should I say about the image that I captured by accident. Two of the towers on the Plaza reflected in the shallow pool, the details of the windows reduced to the appearance of solid gray granite. And in the photo below that a mother duck and her ducklings use a tiny miniature ramp to gain access to the pool.

Towers reflected in water.
Mother duck and ducklings.

I have other photos of Albany streets and odd corners that I can ponder as I imagine Albany as both setting and "character" in my series. Even in my parallel universe/alternate reality of 2019 and after, there are some things about Albany that haven't changed. The physical dominance of the Empire State Plaza, the architectural diversity of the city, the Hudson River (visible as one enters the city), the neighborhoods, each with its own history. This is the Albany that I can draw on to provide setting and social context for my books. But in my Albany, the future has arrived, bringing innovations such as an airship landing site at the airport and a vertical farm attached to a restaurant.

So now I have another way of seeing. Today, I started to give some thought, again, to music. I've heard other writers talk about using music as an inspiration while writing -- soundtracks to suit the mood of the scenes that they've working on. I'd tried this with some success when I was writing my first published short story, inspired by my favorite Kenny Rogers song, and later with You Should Have Died on Monday, the blues-themed fourth book in my Lizzie Stuart series. I decided to try listening to music when I was working on The Red Queen Dies. I wanted to think of my police procedural with opening credits -- a panoramic view of Albany, my detective Hannah McCabe chasing a bad guy. Since the book is near future and there's a reference to a UFO sighting in 2012, I thought of the music from the old TV show, "Alien Nation." But that wasn't quite right. So I tried "New Age" and classical. Nothing was inspiring enough to  listen to while I was writing. But today, as I was working on the second book in the series -- inspired by "The Ballad of Cock Robin" -- I happened to remember a reference on the Internet to a band that I had never heard of named "Cock Robin". So doing a break from writing, I went to YouTube to listen to their music from the 1980s. And in one of their songs,"The Promise You Made," I discovered not only a sound track, but lyrics that were perfect for the book. Synchronicity. One of my favorite words.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Trying to Write Lightning Instead of Lightning Bugs

I greatly enjoyed reading Rick's entry of the 13th, below, since I empathize entirely (not to mention that for the past several days I've been re-reading all my old Calvin and Hobbes collections)

My last couple of entries on this blog have been laments on what a hard time I'm having getting my latest novel finished. I'm still lamenting. How is it that Carolyn Hart has written 13 novels in the time it has taken me, Donis Casey, to write 6? Why do I not have the knack of writing a good book in good time? Why is it that I go over and over and over it, trying to come up with the great American novel every time?

I see how other authors produce one well-written novel after another and am overcome with bitter envy.

I am not necessarily envious because so many other writers are more successful than I -- that doesn’t bother me as much as you’d think. Many years ago I had a friend who could not stand the success of others. Not schadenfreude, exactly. She didn’t wish them ill, but she didn’t want them to be richer/happier/more talented than she. Even at my most emotionally immature did I ever believe that happiness and success were finite commodities in the universe. I like to think that good fortune begets more good fortune in the world.

What I envy is other people’s ability to work in spite of obstacles in their lives. I envy their time to promote and travel, their discipline and work ethic. My perception is that other people are better able to cope with the difficulties of their lives than I. They seem to be able to concentrate after a traumatic day, to carve out time to work in spite of all the picayune things they have to deal with during the course of a day. Why can’t I? Quit whining, Donis, and power through.

Oh, well. I’ve known for years that emotions good and bad come and go like the tide, and the best way to get through is to feel them and let them go if you can. They will, eventually, without effort on your part. Judging yourself for feeling inadequate only makes the pain last longer.

I recently read Jonah Lehrer's non-fiction book Imagine, in which Lehrer propounds that daydreaming and otherwise allowing the mind to wander is the most effective way to tap your true creativity. If this is so, then I am the most effectively creative creature alive.

And now that I have kvetched to my satisfaction, it's back to agonizing over each and every word. Because as Mark Twain noted “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What's a little ghost or two?

Two weeks ago I blogged about my rare chance to be a diva at When Words Collide. As hard-working authors we often feel like that proverbial duck who stays afloat on the surface by paddling madly below it. When Words Collide is an annual cross-genre literary festival held in Calgary, and it really knows how to make a hard-working author feel like a regal swan, even while we are paddling madly underneath. Not just the big touches like paying hotel and airfare, per diems, and workshop fees, but also the small touches like being picked up at the airport, chauffeured to events, and treated to a fun day at the Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum at the end. There were five author guests of honour and one publisher guest of honour. I represented mystery and crime, Patricia Briggs and David B. Coe (AKA D.B. Jackson) revealed the many faces of fantasy, Michael Cassut carried the standard for science fiction in both books and screenwriting, and Shirlee Smith Matheson brought her multiple talents to YA fiction and historical non-fiction, while Jamis Paulson of Turnstone Press brought the insights of editors and publishers.

Everyone at When Words Collide took a personal interest in us and in our needs and comfort, and in return, we gave them our best effort. Two solid days of workshops, two public readings, four to five panels each, keynote speeches, formal hour interviews and two hour-long informal coffee klatches. Hours and hours dedicated to the celebration of the written story in all its forms. The festival had 460 attendees, eight tracks of programming, a murder mystery dinner banquet, and a dizzying nightly array of parties celebrating book launches, local writing groups and fine scotch.

I think the organizers will sleep for a week. I know I will. And as from any good conference, I believe all the attendees went away feeling energized, inspired, and in love with storytelling. As the conference name suggests, part of the programming magic came from setting up inherent contrasts between panel members, with titles such as Mystery, Science Fiction and Fantasy – with myself, David B. Coe and Rob Sawyer each arguing the merits and limitations of our genres – and East vs. West in Canadian mystery writing.

On the former panel, the discussion of crossing the genre lines was very interesting, indeed thought-provoking. Both Rob and David pointed out that although mystery and crime feature prominently in their own stories, mystery writers rarely venture into the realm of science fiction or fantasy, beyond the occasional vampire or ghost. Mystery readers, in their observation, are much more rigid and narrow in their interests and preferences, and many prefer to stick not only to straight mystery but even to a particular sub-genre, such as cosies or British police procedurals. A mystery writer introduces a fantastical element at his or her peril. Cross-genre mysteries which do expand into fantasy or sci-fi will not attract readers of both mysteries and speculative fiction but will instead limit their appeal to that narrow band of readers who like both.

It seems some of us like our stories, characters and settings to be "real" and others don't, although it's arguable whether talking cats or quilting ladies who solve mysteries, or even superheroes like Jason Bourne bear any resemblance to reality. One man in the audience hazarded a guess that since part of the appeal of mysteries is solving the puzzle, the laws of nature and the universe must be predictable and reliable, rather than subject to the whim of the author who changes reality as he pleases, introducing disappearing knives or ghost who walk through doors without regard to whether that could really happen.

It's an interesting idea. What do you think? Do you read both types of fiction, and if not, why not? I confess I have never had any interest in the "unreal" world, but after meetings and lively discussions with several interesting and thoughtful speculative fiction writers, I have decided to give fantasy a try. Not as a writer – let's not get ahead of ourselves – but as a reader. And who knows, maybe a little ghost will sneak its way into an inspector Green novel down the road... Do you think he'd mind?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When the tap turns off

I’m currently in the New York City area, “upstate” as they say around these parts, meaning for me, Westchester County, where I grew up. Basically, this is a trip partly to see relatives and friends, partly to do some playing (my brother and friends are putting together a band), but hanging over my head is the novel I’m trying desperately to finish by the end of the month. “Desperate” is not any sort of hyperbole at this point. I’m really up against it.

A large part of the problem is that my focus and concentration are incredibly fractured at this point. I feel as if I’m being pulled in eight directions at once. When one is trying to write fiction (or probably even non-fiction), this can be terribly disruptive to the creative process. Writing requires exceptional concentration and focus. That is something in short supply for me at the moment.

The result is I’ve been staring at the proverbial blank page for an hour this morning with nothing much coming out of the creative tap. Yeah, I’ve written some sentences, but I’ve given all of them the boot. What I need is a way back into my story. I’m outside that door right now, and can’t find the handle, let alone the key.

Having been on Type M since the very beginning, I wondered if I or others had written anything on this subject. Turns out I did. To strip my acres of prose down to a pithy few words, what I said way back when was basically this: if you’re stuck, move on to a different part of your story and start writing that. Being close to the end of Roses for a Diva, I have the plot pretty much lasered in at this point, so working on a later scene is not a really big deal. I already know what needs to be said. So as soon as I finish this post, that’s what I’m going to do. Who knows? I may even write the last scene. Hopefully, by that point I’ll also know how to say what I need to say back at the place I’m currently got stalled.

The key is to not despair, throw up your hands, and walk away. I’ve got to get words down on the page any way I can at this point. And there is always something that can be done. Heaven knows, the parts of the novel I have written need work. I could also go back and do some revision.

So, even when the creative tap turns off for awhile, you can always keep working – if you really want to.

And now, back to work…

Monday, August 12, 2013


Just now back in St. John's after a 300 km - 180 mile - drive from Eastport, site of the 2013 "Winterset In Summer Literary Festival" where I had the pleasure - and honour - of being an invited speaker and panelist. The Panel, consisting of yours very truly, and Gail Bowen and Giles Blunt, was titled Mysterious Voices. Which I hope we were. We were a popular trio, as it happens, guided through the tricky shoals of paneldom by Patricia Parsons, who not coincidentally loves mystery novels. As per the established format for these affairs, we all did readings from our work, and then answered questions. Gail and Giles read from their most recent novels; I read the prologue from my work-in-progress, Birthright. That's the fourth Inspector Stride novel that I have been working on for what seems like the last twenty-seven years - to pick a number at random.

After that, again following the established routine, we signed books for people. I lost count of the number I signed, but it was somewhere north of twenty, I think. That is always gratifying.

My publisher, Gavin Will from Boulder Publications, was there also, with his wife Amanda. That was gratifying. I took the opportunity to commit myself to finishing Birthright in a year. And I believe I will do it. The dreaded writer's block has receded of late. Words are starting to flow again.

Over the past week Suzanne and I have done a bit of low-level hiking. There are so many great hiking trails in this province that it would be near-criminal not to hike, at least a little. And so we did. I will add that in addition to stunning scenery and vistas, one has the opportunity to feast on wild blueberries along the way.

And here I will make the second and last reference to things mysterious. In the community of Salvage - pronounced, by the way, as "Sal-Vayge" - we hiked to the oldest cemetery in the area, a picturesque spot now lushly overgrown with a great variety of shrubs and wildflowers. Among the foliage were large numbers of wild blueberry plants, with the lushest and largest berries we encountered on our trip. And given my bent towards things mysterious and criminous, I could not help reflecting on the fact that the plants were nourished by the remains of the departed. A title leapt to mind; Eaters Of The Dead is what it was, echoing Michael Crichton's novel. Or to put it another way: what goes around inevitably comes around.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Guest Blogger Vicki Delany and Making facts fit the story

The founder is back! The founder is back! We’re all pleased as punch that our guest blogger this weekend is none other than Vicki Delany. That’s right the Vicki Delany!

“It’s a crime not to read Delany,” so says the London Free Press (It is in Canada at least, and will get you 5-10, I hear.—Rick). Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers. Her newest novel is A Cold White Sun, the sixth book in the Smith & Winters police procedural series for Poisoned Pen Press. She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense, and the light-hearted Klondike Gold Rush books which are published by Dundurn.

Her Rapid Reads book, A Winter Kill, was shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for best novella.

Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki enjoys the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Visit Vicki at, on Twitter @vickidelany and Facebook at She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave (

Making facts fit the story.
by Vicki Delany

How much real life do you put into your books?

I get asked this question a lot, and I’ve found over the years when I do public appearances that the audience enjoys hearing about how we either make things up out of whole cloth or tweak something real to make it fit into fiction.

They get a lot of snow in those mountains.
I try and make everything as realistic as I can within the bounds of fiction. How many bodies does a real life person come across in the course of their day?

Even many cops might never encounter a murder, much less engage in a battle of wits with a different diabolical killer regularly.

Having said that, books are expected to have far more veracity than movies or TV. And that definitely suits me as a reader: I rarely watch TV because I’m too busy noticing things that aren’t realistic. The suspension of disbelief is important, but really…

It certainly bothers me to read a book in which the author hasn’t even bothered to get easily checked facts right. My biggest turn-off is Canadian books where everything the author knows about policing they got from watching American TV.

In pursuit of veracity for the police in my books, I’ve asked loads of questions, been on ride-alongs, walk-alongs, been to in-service training, and to the firearms range. Even if an author doesn’t have time for all that or the contacts, for heaven’s sake they could look on the web page of a typical police department to check the ranks.

A cold white sun in Nelson, B.C.
My Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press is set in the fictional town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. The town of Trafalgar is not-at-all loosely based on Nelson, B.C. It is Nelson, but Trafalgar gives me the freedom to move things around as I need to. For example in the fourth book in the series, Negative Image, what the room service waiter sees is critically important. There isn’t a hotel in Nelson that has room service, but under the guise of fiction, I can wave my magic wand and create one. I might have made up a town, but I have tried faithfully to keep to the flavour of the place, its beautiful scenery, isolated setting, assortment of eccentric characters. I’ve grounded the fictional location in reality so that readers do have a sense of where the stories take place - the characters go to Trail for autopsies, to Castlegar to catch a plane, even to Nelson to concerts or police meetings.

My last year’s book, a standalone titled More than Sorrow, is set in a place so real, I live there. Prince Edward County, Ontario. The County is an island in Lake Ontario, a place of family farms, gentle hills, long sandy beaches, small villages and meandering country roads. Over the course of the book, I describe the train station in Belleville, the nearest city, the main street of Picton, the primary town, the beautiful historic library on Main Street. I have a scene set in the library where, if you look closely, you’ll see me seated at my weekly bridge game in the side room that houses the historical archives.

I was comfortable setting this book in a real setting because not a lot of action takes place in the town itself or other recognizable places. Unlike in the Molly Smith books, the Chief of Police or the Mayor – people known to small town residents as people not just job descriptions - are not characters.

This month I’m heading back to Trafalgar for the release of the sixth book in the Constable Molly Smith series, A Cold White Sun.

In this book Molly engages in a couple of police actions, first a knife fight in a bar (she deescalates the situation, something some real-life Toronto police could learn to do), and then a door-to-door search looking for an active shooter. I relied heavily on what I learned watching police in-service training and I hope I got it accurate.

One of the problems with learning all this interesting stuff, is knowing when to stop. I’m not writing a police training manual after all. But Molly is just a beat cop, not a detective, so that is the sort of thing she does on the day-to-day job. And help the detective sergeant solve the murders, of course.

I have been told that there is no one on the police in Nelson who can quite remember when the last murder took place. That had to change when I created my fictional town, didn’t it?

I try as hard as I can to get things as right as I can, but in the end, the facts do have to fit the story. It is called fiction, isn’t it?

Friday, August 09, 2013


Last night I attended a meeting of the Denver Woman's Press Club. I'm going to apply for membership. I've always admired women's organizations and this one has an awesome history. It was founded in 1898. In the presentation, the speakers highlighted some of the accomplishments of the heroic women who breached gender barriers.

The members were active in the suffragette movement.

It's still inconceivable to me that women did not get the vote until 1920. The reasons were complex, but one of the must amusing I heard offered was there was only so much blood in the human body. Thinking about politics was really, really hard and required a great deal of blood to be channeled to the brain. The uterus would then be deprived. If the woman was pregnant, the little baby she was hoping would be a healthy specimen of humanity would most assuredly be sickly when it was born. If it lived at all. There was a good chance it wouldn't.

In short, giving the women the vote would put the nation's children at risk. Men of the late 1800s and early 1900s would be happy to know that nowadays thinking about politics hardly requires any brains at all. The most complex issues have been reduced to sound bites.

The Denver Woman's Press Club was founded by Minnie J. Reynolds and had 19 charter members.

Reynolds was one of the first female political writers for the Rocky Mountain News, and an early stump speaker. She was active in the Populist Party.

The Club’s membership, throughout its history, has included numerous leaders. Among them:
  • Mary Elizabeth Bates, one of the first women doctors in Denver;
  • Mary Florence Lathrop, one of Denver’s first women lawyers;
  • Helen Ring Robinson, Colorado’s first woman state senator;
  • Helen Marie Black, first woman business manager of a major symphony orchestra (she was instrumental in the founding of the Denver Symphony)
  • Mary Coyle Chase, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the play “Harvey”
It's an honor to be asked to join an organization that has contributed so much to culture.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

School on Sunday? Errors of Chronology

This past week, I received an email from my new editor outlining strengths and revision ideas for my spring 2014 novel.

The big-ticket mistakes my editors usually find in my novels are what I call "errors of chronology." These are slip-ups that lead editors to write things like "the ch. began at 9:30 A.M., so why is she eating lunch six hours later?" This time, my editor pointed out (among other errors) that the novel takes place over seven days, that we start on a Sunday night, but that the protagonist's son gets up and dressed for school on the final day of the book. He's going to school on Sunday? Maybe he's a seven-year-old who just really loves school... (You can see why I wrote this lovely lady a heart-felt thank-you note for her efforts to make me look smarter than I am.)

I deem these "errors of chronology" for another reason, too: it takes me a year to write a book. Stephen King, in "On Writing," suggests that one should never spend more than three months on a novel, that the writer often loses flow of the book if he spends longer writing it. I concur. But I also lead a double life -- something most writers I know do. That  may sound devious, but I'm talking about work and family and "life" commitments. I once read a great quote by a poet (I forget which one) who said, "I write all day long, but I type for one hour." Most working writers I know actually write only a couple hours a day. I fall into that category.

Sequential problems arise because writing a novel is a lot like riding a train. You get on it for two hours in the morning. Then the train stops. You get off, go to work. Then you ride it for a couple hours the next morning. No matter how hard I work to keep notes as I write, no matter how many times I hit the "search-and-find" option to go back and review a character description, this leads to slip ups and lapses of memory on the writer's part -- at least it usually does for me.

A friend -- someone who writes full time -- told me he reads the entire novel in progress each day before he writes a new word. That would take all of my allotted daily two hours, and some. But it would probably rid me of my errors of chronology. The character who had blue eyes on page 10 wouldn't have brown eyes on page 350, and poor seven year old boys wouldn't be asked to go to school on Sundays.

This all speaks to why every writer loves a good editor, and why once you find one, you never want to leave him or her.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


Hi folks. It’s me, the guy with egg on his face. You see, yesterday was a holiday here in Ontario (Simcoe Day, and a prize for anyone outside of Canada who has any idea what the day is celebrating), and so I forgot that today was Tuesday. It felt just like Monday. Honest! So I didn’t write a post.

I am so embarrassed…

Monday, August 05, 2013

The problems of proof-reading

I've just emerged from a long stint of proof-reading – checking the paperback page proofs for Evil for Evil and the initial proofs and then the page proofs for the new book, Bad Blood, coming out in hardback later this year.

It's been a thoroughly stressful business and what follows is a dire warning to other innocents. Last year, for the hardback of Evil for Evil, I had my first copy edited proofs sent electronically. I spent hours going through, checking and revising and answering all the queries, just as I was told, saved it religiously, then sent it off and Poof! Magically, all my marks disappeared. I redid it all – more hours and hours - then sent it off as hard copy since I was too scared to try the technology again. Being a technological moron I assumed this was all my fault and apologised profusely to my editor.

Come this year, I was determined not to make the same mistake again. I was sent the proofs just before I was going away on holiday, in what was already one of my most frantic weeks in the year (two days away from home doing events, three days of house guests with a long-standing invitation). I was told the copy editor couldn't get it to me earlier and that the heavens would fall if I didn't get it finished before I left. So that meant 5am starts and late nights, and not unnaturally I asked for very clear instructions about what I was to do this time.

I followed all the directions meticulously and checked that the corrections were appearing, then worked for six hours before saving my work, and what do you know? Poof! It all disappeared again. 

This time I was less sure it was my fault and when I moaned to my tech-savvy daughter, she said, 'Oh yes, that can happen if the systems are incompatible. If it's a good system it will warn you it's not saving, if it isn't, you learn the hard way.' And when I went back to my editor, she said cheerfully, 'Oh yes, I've looked it up and apparently sometimes it's a problem. That's what happened with your last book.'

Is there such a thing as justifiable homicide?

But what I really started out to say before I got sidetracked into moaning was, isn't it odd how hard it is to spot typos and continuity mistakes? I read my script endlessly while I'm writing it. I read it through several times after it's finished. My editor reads it. The copy editor reads it. I read it again. The proof editor reads it. And when I do my final read through on the page proofs, there are still mistakes I can pick up. And you can be sure that some picky reader will find a couple I haven't noticed and be rude about it on Amazon.

I suppose the reason it's so difficult is that all of us in the writing business are fast readers.  I saw once a demonstration of how an efficient reader scans a page and basically it's impressionistic. We pick up the shapes of the words, not each individual letter and indeed,it's surprisingly easy to read a passage where only the consonants are printed.

When I watch my four-year-old granddaughter reading, she traces the words with her finger and if she doesn't immediately recognise one, she sounds it out letter by letter. 

I can see it's not actually the answer to employ people who read slowly and with difficulty as proof-readers, but I bet they'd make a better job of it.  Do any of you have any practical tips for improving efficiency? I'd be really grateful.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Keeping All the Balls in the Air

We sometimes talk here about the juggling act involved in being a writer. Forgive me if I return to that topic today. My post is inspired by best-laid plans gone wrong. I had intended to post about the wonderful experiences I'm having as I work on taking photos of Albany (the setting of my new series) for a writer's essay. I had some photos I wanted to share to illustrate how going out with camera in hand can help a writer to "see" better. But that will have to wait for my next post because my laptop where my photos are stored and neatly ordered will not come on. The battery is dead because the adapter stopped working. So now I have to wait for Best Buy to open to pick up a new adapter. If that doesn't work, I need to make a trip to my computer guy and then decide whether it would be more cost effective to buy a new laptop to replace my aging machine or do yet another repair.

I recite this tale of woe because the laptop went down just as I finally figured out how to deal with a subplot that has been driving me crazy. Or, at least I had it almost figured out -- except for the matter of travel during that blizzard that I really need but that does keep my killer from zipping across town. But I was getting there. Finally, unstuck. I think it was stopping to watch Project Runway (yes, I admit it. I'm a fan). After watching tempers flare, tears being shed, and creativity on display, all of the "mind mapping" I had been doing about my plotting problem suddenly paid off. (Do you do that -- the key words and connecting circles?)

Anyway, that was when my laptop went down. I'm writing this on my desk top computer -- which is finally connecting to the Internet again after several long telephone troubleshooting sessions with my cable company's customer service technicians and a trip to the cable store in the mall last week to pick up a new modem. Only problem is, I don't have time for another session of trying to upload the photos on my new camera that I've had to learn how to use. So the photos will have to wait. Except today I had planned to work on my Pinterest page for The Red Queen Dies. I was torn between posting the photos on Facebook or doing Pinterest. Then I read Laurie King's comments about Pinterest and saw her lovely photo essays for her books.

But I need to learn how to "pin". I'm hoping it's easy because yesterday was the first day of my virtual book tour. With the help of my escort, Partners in Crime, I'm stopping at various websites where the hosts will post a review of the book, interview me, or I will guest post. On sites where the hosts does giveaways, my publisher is donating a book for a giveaway to a reader. I don't know if virtual book tours work. Certainly, it's a great way to reach Internet bloggers and readers and start to create a buzz about the book. But I don't know if this will translate into sales. Chances are I will reach some readers who had never heard of me before. Of course, I also have to be prepared to take some lumps. The website hosts who review the book are not required to give good reviews.

So I'm working on book two, dealing with computer problems, trying to get my photos that I should have taken a couple of months ago up on Pinterest, taking my virtual tour, trying to plan for my book launch party in September (which requires some thought because Alice in Wonderland themed decorations aren't as easy to find as I expected -- at least not for adult book parties), and trying to get around to adding all of the terrific research material that I have for The Red Queen Dies to my website.

For months, September 2013 and the debut of the new series seemed forever away. Now, it's almost here and my attention is half on that book, half on the one I'm writing. And, of course, there is my other career as a professor and the academic book that I'm also working on. School is about to begin. Bouchercon in Albany is coming up. Life is crazy.

Oddly, enough I'm having a wonderful time. I was thinking the other day how when I imagined being a writer, I always knew I would write. But I never really thought that people would read my books. That is really cool. I would write even if no one read what I'd written. But it is so incredibly cool to actually share the stories in my head and connect with other people who may or may not completely understand what I intended to say -- and sometimes that's my fault because I didn't say it well -- but there is this exchange of ideas going on. Communication.

Off to see if I'm lucky and the problem with my laptop is only an adapter. Next time -- the post about writing with a camera in hand. Assuming nothing else goes wrong with that, and I can keep all my balls in the air.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Wonder Girl

Did you ever see the movie “Wonder Boys”, with Michael Douglas, based on the book by Michael Chabon? It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and here (besides the Bob Dylan theme song) is why: it’s about writers. On top of that, it’s an excellent film about writers. Douglas plays a university professor of creative writing who once upon a time wrote a novel which won the Man Booker Prize for Literature.

Seven year have passed, and he is still
unable to finish his much-anticipated second novel. What this has done to his psyche is pathetic. It’s not that he has writer’s block. Just the opposite. In one scene, he puts a blank page in his typewriter (yes, he still uses a typewriter), and at the top types in page number 2121. In a later scene, one of his students goes behind his back to read the MS and says to him, “You know how you tell us that writing is all about choices? Well, this reads as if you didn't make any choices.”

Boy, can I relate. I’ve been on the verge of finishing my latest novel for the past two months, but the darn thing keeps getting longer. I just keep writing and writing, and I can tell plain as day that in the end I’m going to have to get rid of half of what I keep writing. But I can’t stop. I like my murderer and how the murder was accomplished, but dang it, I can’t figure out how my sleuth is going to figure it out, not in a logical, uncontrived manner, anyway. So I keep writing. I’ll try this for a while, then I’ll try that. Maybe it’ll work better if I do this. I have a bunch of great scenes which may or may not go together. Probably not. But I keep going.

It’s not like this has never happened to me before, and I must remember that miraculously it always works out. As I write the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the story, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line. And I didn’t waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness. I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just kept going until the book was done, with every confidence that I could repair all the inconsistencies when I was done.

The first draft is eked out of you like bone marrow, but with the rewrites, you have something to play with, to refine, to remodel, to put makeup on and make beautiful. You reread and adjust, and eventually the the beginning matches the end.

Then years later, as I reread the story, it’s interesting to see how it all turned out, to remember what I originally had in mind and see how the tale changed as I moved through it.