Friday, January 31, 2014

Cat-footed Ideas

When last heard from, I was preparing to leave for a writers retreat. Being among other writers, having conversations with them, kept both my energy and my motivation high. But, I went in planning much more than I could ever accomplish in a week.

The retreat turned out to be an opportunity to think rather than write. None of the projects I was working on was at the stage when I could set a word count for the day and start tapping away on my keyboard. For each project, I had brought along research material. I didn't get through most of it because there was other research I needed to do online (using library databases). So I did research -- reading and taking notes -- and produced nothing much.

But the time was not wasted. After a conversation over breakfast when someone who loves the time period asked about my 1939 book, I was so jazzed that I went up to my room and by the end of the day had created biographical sketches of all my characters and produced a first attempt at a synopsis. I'd even come up with a title for the book -- a title I later threw out. But it did get me to focus on my "bad guy" because the title referred to his view of the world. Once I begin to think about that he evolved from stereotypical villain plotting evil to someone who is dealing with his own contradictions and misdirected desires.

And then I was stuck again. So I did some work on another project, doing research and making notes. Still no significant word count, but progress.

This week -- back home and back to the routine of a new semester -- the thinking I did at the retreat paid off. The cat-footed ideas that had been playing around the edges of my consciousness took shape. (Forgive the mixed metaphors). The death of a character I had thought of while I was at the retreat suddenly morphed into a solution to the timeline that I had been struggling to figure out. A new character -- flamboyant and fabulous -- sauntered in and announced she was not only going to come along for the ride -- a train trip South in 1939 -- but that she was going to play a pivotal role in the action.

I'm trying to capture these ideas as I prepare for an author's event on Tuesday. I'm going to do a reading, and I've been practicing because I'm teamed with a best-selling writer who is incredibly at ease in that situation. So I'm making notes in between practicing the scene I'm going to read and hoping I can hold onto the ideas that waited until I was busy with something else to appear. I'm hoping they won't flee because I can't give them my full attention.

But right now I need some sleep. I'm off to bed and hoping to dream -- to spend some time with those ideas while I'm getting some rest. And provide them with enough attention that they don't slip away.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

True Seeing

Three weeks ago I (Donis) underwent an operation (which was a success and I'm doing very well, thank you), and I am still recuperating at home. I'm not in much discomfort any more, though I don't have much physical energy. That doesn't bother me too much. It's only been three weeks since a pretty substantial slice and dice, after all.

But I don't have much mental energy, either, and that has been bothering me. I need to finish a book.

I find I want to sit out in my back yard and simply soak up the sun and listen to the birdies. I do not have the will to figure, think things over, plot and plan. But serendipitously I have discovered that there is something divine about not thinking. If you don't blind yourself with thoughts, you suddenly can see truly. This is quite a gift, this ability to observe without judgement. I find myself wanting to paint, or to photograph colors and shadows and shapes. What is a thing if you don't put a name to it?

I once heard a writing teacher say that one of the best things a novelist could do was study poetry, for poetry is the art of expressing the essence of a thing or a thought or a being in as few words as possible, or by the use of the perfect word. As Mark Twain said, "the difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

The problem with true seeing and the desire to share your observation with the world is how in God's name to do it? How do you express the inexpressible?

As the Powers That Be would have it, Hannah Dennison just posted a link (below) to a TED lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert that goes a long way toward answering that question, and I highly recommend that if any of you Dear Readers haven't taken the time to watch it, you do so this minute.

Anyone who has ever tried to create a piece of art, be it writing, sculpture, pottery, painting, cooking, or what have you, knows exactly what Gilbert means when she says that creativity is divine, because which of us hasn't suddenly found herself in the midst of making something that is infinitely better than she knows she's capable of.

It's that genius that lives in the walls. Somehow you've gotten your head out of the way and the genius sees an opportunity. She jumps in the conduit and out she comes through your fingers.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Your Elusive Creative Genius

Without wanting to get out the poor-me violin, my work schedule is pretty hectic at the moment. So much so that I have missed a couple of turns on Type M. My excuse? I am commuting from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles every week for The Day Job and I definitely still need The Day Job.

Oh...and I am also 30 days away from turning in my next book and last weekend, I deleted 65 pages of rubbish. That’s quite a big chunk. To say I'm a bit anxious is putting it mildly.

So when my sister sent me a link called “Your Elusive Creative Genius” an amazing talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert (EAT, PRAY, LOVE) I wondered if there just could be a light at the end of the tunnel. My sister said, “It made me understand how hard it must be for you to be a creative person.” Her sentiments really touched my heart.

As I post this at midnight I am hoping my elusive creative genius will hurry up and appear ... but at least I feel justified in finishing off that bottle of wine.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

When life hands you a fantastic opportunity

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a major conundrum I faced: how to cut down a novel by 21,000 words in order to honour a contract. It was all my own fault. I should have noticed – and would have objected to – the word count clause. The novel I’d already more than half-written would not be an easy task to bring in Roses for a Diva at “approximately 80,000 words.”

For two weeks I worked hard and with increasing frustration at the fact that to cut down the book by even half that amount, I would have to seriously diminish its impact. To be honest, I’ve been working hard at writing more lean prose. Seldom do I indulge in more than a couple of lines of description, and in this novel at least, I seriously cut back on any subplots. In fact, there was only one of those and it was the first thing to hit the killing floor when I got to work (savings of approximately 2500 words). In the end, I was reduced to a line-by-line edit in order “to find prose efficiencies” (to paraphrase a favourite mantra of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford).

The result? I managed to lose only 6000 words. In fairness, my editor had told me at the outset to do the best that I could. “There are options.”

How does all this background tie in with this blog’s title, Blechta? I thought you said you were working on being more spare with your prose. What gives?

Last Friday I found out the decision had been made to go with the novel at 95,000 words, more or less (since my editor hasn’t had her go at it yet), and to increase the cost of the book by one dollar (it will now be $18.99).

To say the least I was happy and very relieved. I’m generally not one of those glass half-empty people, but in this case, I couldn’t avoid it. To cut deeply into the remaining ms would have seriously damaged the story, to my mind, and if the editorial board of my publisher had stuck their heels in, I would have been faced with a very difficult choice: let them hack or withdraw the book.

So, world, Roses for a Diva will come out in November as planned. Just be prepared to pay an extra dollar.

Come on, Blechta. The point! Get to the point!

All right, already! Sheesh... So I lost 6000 words (and there were definitely places the prose benefitted greatly from being tightened up). I could look at this loss of my deathless prose with a jaundiced eye and remain upset that I’d been forced to do it. And that now deep-sixed subplot was a nice humanizing addition to the story.

Then it struck me like a cold fist at the end of a wet kiss. (Firesign Theatre quote alert) Folks who purchase Roses for a Diva will be getting an extra 15,000 words for only $1.00! Isn’t that a humongously great deal? I’ve just had a marketing bonanza dropped right into my lap.

“Buy this fantastic novel today, and for one extra dollar, you’ll receive 15,000 additional words — hand-picked by the author himself! That’s right! Fifteen-thousand, correctly spelled and all placed in beautifully-parsed phrases for the low, low price of one buck. That’s like getting a whole novella extra!”

Sound like a plan?

Extra! Extra! I just have to share the following comic with everyone here. Next week is too far away.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Love or money

It was a dark and stormy night.  Out into the rain and wind a woman came, shivering as she shut the door behind her on warmth and comfort and a flickering fire.  She drove along great  sweeping roads, the stream of headlights assaulting her eyes, then off into smaller roads, and smaller, through deserted nondescript towns, searching always for the signs, remembering the obscure, puzzling instructions. And from other points, two more women set out, suffering their own struggle with wind and darkness and the terror of 'Lost!'

At last, there were the lights, the building, the place of assignation, the doors that swung silently open at their approach. They had arrived at the local library in a small town - three well-known Scottish writers, summoned for a panel to entertain an audience of  - eleven.  No, sorry, thirteen - there were two librarians.  Four and a third people each.  Total number of books sold afterwards?  Four between us.

There's a debate going on among the various writers organisations in Britain about turning up for events where clearly there isn't proper publicity, proper consideration, or proper payment.  All too often it seems to be considered a privilege for authors to give up time - often considerable amounts of it - to appear at a library or a bookshop or a festival.  We do it for love, naturally.

If it's a big, prestigious festival, where good audiences and book sales are guaranteed, it's one thing - though it's galling not to be paid, or to be paid a token amount, when they are pocketing the price of the quite expensive tickets. And if it's a small, struggling local festival you may want to support it - though when the organisation is bad and the demands are heavy, personally I do lose patience a bit.

Recently I was asked to go to one of these, set up by a small independent bookshop in the Highlands of Scotland, a considerable distance from Edinburgh where I live. Independent bookshops have a hard time these days so I agreed for travel expenses only.  It was arranged through my publicist who struggled valiantly to get the date confirmed, and failed completely to find out exactly when my event would be.  I had assumed it would either be a talk or a panel, though I had no direct word from the owner.

Eventually my long-suffering publicist managed to get a program out of her a fortnight before.  I was expected to stay for two nights, to be one of the hosts at the dinner on the Friday night, to bulk out a workshop next day, to be on a panel in the afternoon and another panel that night.  For this, I was given two nights accommodation, paying for my other meals.  The audiences consisted of the same thirty people who were friendly with the bookshop owner and it wasn't really surprising that was all since there was no publicity done in the nearby small towns, no posters anywhere and, the final insult, not even a display of our books in her own shop.  A request afterwards for the promised travel expenses was ignored.

It's events like these that make me wonder why, exactly, I do them.  Yes,you're promoting your books and in the case of bookshops and libraries you're getting (you hope!0 good will that will encourage them to stock copies and recommend them to their customers.

The thing is, I really enjoy meeting readers.  Talking in library is, with a very few exceptions, great fun and the audiences are lovely.

But what we're doing is a business, not a hobby., and in any job you have to cast a beady eye on the balance sheet.   Doing an event means a lot of time away from the desk where you earn your living: preparing a talk takes time too. The number of books you are likely to sell as a direct result is nowhere near enough to justify your time.

It's always hard to say no.  It's even harder, I find, to ask for a fee.  So what I've decided is that I will ask a few questions before I agree and if I'm not convinced it's going to be worth my while, I'll have a convenient other engagement.

That's probably cowardly, though.  I'm lucky enough to have a husband who won't see me starve but there are writers for whom the money they get from talks is a really important pat of their income.  If we all started trying to get it across that, just as a musician wouldn't be asked to come and perform a gig free,  just so people can hear them,  an author should be paid to entertain to entertain an audience .

It's a controversial topic, I know.  But there are so many other ways now of publicising your books more effectively, and though those take up a lot of time at well, at least you can do it from your own home and not waste half a day getting to and from a venue.  Is it all worth it?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bow wow, the dogs of war

As a dog owner I am fascinated by the exploits of our Military Working Dogs fighting alongside our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've learned that besides serving as patrol and bomb-sniffer dogs, our combat canines have been deployed as crucial members in secret operations. The most famous being the K-9 commando who accompanied the Navy SEALs in their mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The Internet is full of images of MWDs jumping out of helicopters, parachuting, and sneaking through the battlefield. Dogs are fearlessly protective and tenacious. Their sense of smell continues to astound us with its sensitivity. Our four-legged friends may seem to be the perfect warriors. However, I know an Army colonel who used dogs in combat and he has mixed feelings about their performance. For one, the breeds best suited for tactical use are Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds. These dogs evolved in a temperate to cool climate and as a result don't do well in hot weather. The colonel told me these dogs are very prone to heat stress and so lose their effectiveness. Plus, like humans, even the best-trained dogs get freaked out by the chaos of combat and can turn on the friendlies. And the loyalty factor works both ways. When dogs are ordered to search a cave or a house, their handlers often refuse to let their dogs go in alone since the enemy can be waiting in ambush. Dog handlers can get so keyed up that they risk court martial rather than let their dogs advance without them.

Wow, these are the elements for a great story. I got it into my head to write a novel featuring MWDs thinking that would be a different take on our wars overseas. And everyone loves a good dog story. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one with such an idea and I’ve learned that pitches for MWD tales are sluicing through agents’ inboxes. And Amazon also carries plenty of such stories. One book does stand out, Suspect by Robert Crais. Only the first chapter shows the dog in her MWD role and the majority of the story deals with how the dog and her handler (a wounded police detective) work to overcome their PTSD and bond together. Besides Crais’ extraordinary writing, he does a fantastic job of revealing the narrative in the dog’s point-of-view without anthropomorphizing her. Crais set a high bar for a dog story and one that I’ll have to work hard at meeting.

Friday, January 24, 2014

My Hero--Columbo

While babying my itty bitty case of flu, I watched an inordinate amount of TV. Barbara Fradkin's recent post reinforced my opinion that too any TV shows and movies are over the top.

Ironically, too much sex and violence is boring. Is there anything more ho-hum than a show consisting mostly of car races? Ditto, steamy sex scenes that don't contribute a thing to the plot.

Because I didn't want to be grossed out, and waste my time on really stupid plots, I turned to old shows. I have a Roku viewer and am a Netflix subscriber, so I can pretty much watch about anything. I settled on old reruns of Columbo.

They were wonderful.  In 2012, the program was chosen as the third best cop or legal show on Best in TV: The Greatest TV Shows of Our Time.] In 2013 TV Guide included it in its list of The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time. In 2013, Writers Guild of America ranked it No. 57 in the list of 101 Best Written TV Series. The plotting is masterful. There are no loose ends.

For the information of those who have never watched Columbo, the viewer knows who the villain is right from the beginning. He or she is usually extremely intelligent, usually wealthy, highly placed in their profession, definitely one of the "in" crowd. Or they would like to be wealthy, prominent, or thought of as extremely intelligent, and just a wee murder is all that stands in their way of a stunning inheritance or opportunity. They are so very, very smart that they believe no one can figure out how the murder took place or if there even was a murder.

In rambles the most unlikely homicide detective on TV. Columbo is disheveled, unclassy, poorly groomed, not well-spoken. By all appearances he is not capable of walking the dog, let alone solve a sophisticated murder. But he is! Behind his rambling speech and his annoying seeming harmless questions lies a razor sharp mind. He's funny, relentless, and brilliant. I don't think anyone but Peter Falk could have played this man. His trademark phrase "just one more thing" has become a classic

He's underestimated and discounted! He captures the universal secret belief that people don't really know how good we are. Certainly that is shared by beginning writers when editors and agents reject our submissions. And boy are they going to be sorry when we win the Nobel or Pulitzer or are at least acknowledged at the next high school reunion. They'll see. 

Columbo has a happy ending. There is no ambivalence in this show. The perpetrator is always ferreted out by Columbo and brought to justice. This is accomplished by old fashioned police work, not by modern day forensics. Violence is very minimal. The scripts are superb.

 Oh for the good old days.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Losing Rhythm

John here.

I’m knee deep in the sequel to Bitter Crossing (Aug. 1, 2014). I’ve written about 38,000 words. Problem is, I’d hoped, by mid-January, to be in it up to my shoulders. The sequel is due, after all, May 1, and I’ve never missed a deadline yet.

I know there’s a first time for everything. But I am determined to make the May 1 date. I’m writing as much as I can right now. Some days that means two hours before work, some days that means re-reading a chapter when I have a half-hour free during the day.

I find that the narrative rhythm is borne of routine: if I can sit down at the same time each day, write for two hours, and end at a clear starting point, I can write well and reasonably quickly. It’s the haltingly jagged schedule that slows me down. The narrative waters get muddy, and I find myself typing @@ to mark my place and then using Control+Find to go back and reread scenes and past descriptions to assure continuity and consistency. It’s like running a mile, then turning back for a half-mile, then going forward another mile. You start to wonder if you’re really making progress.

Stressful? Sure. But it’s writing. And, stressful or not, it’s more fun than working.

Finally, a shoutout to my good friend Reed Farrell Coleman, a past contributor to Type M: Congrats on the Edgar Award nomination (“The Terminal”, up for Best Short Story).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Listening for the whispers

The season of lavish extravaganzas, known as the Hollywood awards, is upon us. I am not a big movie goer, partly because I find most films and television shows shallow, sensationalist, and boring. But then, I'm not the intended demographic.

I do, however, like to stay informed about the Academy Awards and will try to watch the films Hollywood has deemed the best of the best. As a writer, I think it's important to stay abreast of contemporary culture and to see what grabs our collective interest and heart. Sometimes I come across a gem that was worth the quest, often among the foreign film nominees. So this month I am trying to see as many of the best film nominees as I can, along with a few of the others with multiple nominations.

I will likely have more rants as the month progresses, but one is already building up steam. I have not yet seen the frontrunner 12 Years a Slave, which may calm my outrage, but here goes. Why do so many stories have to be told at a fever pitch of shock and exaggeration? What ever happened to the power of subtlety, intelligence, and real human characters? Have we become so desensitized to nuance, or so used to clamour and distraction, that more and more noise and hyperbole are needed to get our attention? After watching American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, my senses - my ears and eyes - literally ached. I was given barely a moment during either movie to reflect on what I was watching or to be touched on a deeper, more human level. No time to reflect on character or the human condition. Even Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, which was chronicling one of the most powerful human stories of our time, skipped over sixty years while barely dipping more than toe deep into any of them.

By comparison, the best film I saw this past month did not turn up on a single Academy Award list. The Book Thief. It was set in Nazi Germany, one of the blackest and most violent periods of recent history, but it was not about powerful men or oodles of money or grand acts of heroism. It was about a young girl's bewildered search for humanity. Subtle, nuanced, and understated, it touching the soul in a way that is almost lost today amid the cacophony of hype.

And this race towards excess is not just in the movies. It's reflected in today's popular television shows, many of which are filled with car chases, explosions, frantic races against time, but not much in the way of character or significance. Today's news reporting and political dialogue is also a triumph of hyperbole over substance. Of gut over thought. But that's a rant in itself.

The race to excess is reflected in TV reality shows and contests, where the reactions of both contestants and judges are often so extreme as to be laughable. Does everybody really hop up and down, flailing their arms, screaming, crying and saying Thank you thank you so much I love you so much!" to an audience of complete strangers? And on social media. Does anyone say "that was good"? No. It was SO GREAT!!!!! AWESOME!!! EPIC!!!! Epic. Seriously? As in "celebrating the feats of a heroic or legendary character"? Good is bland and generic, I grant you, but there are many more distinctive and powerful words which could be used without the need for a sledgehammer. And which would hone our powers of appreciation and understanding beyond a primitive adrenaline surge.

And sad to say, it's reflected in today's books, where seat-of-your-pants thrillers rule the best seller lists, and the characters are all pretty much interchangeable. Handsome, tough-guy men. Beautiful, spirited but vulnerable women...  As a writer, this is where it affects me personally. Good books of yesterday would probably never be picked up today, either by a publisher who is looking for big sales or by the reader, who (publishers argue) would toss it aside in boredom if there weren't a serious crisis on the first page. I understand the need to engage the reader, and I am not advocating thirty pages of suffocating tripe before introducing the first hint of drama. I am lamenting the fact that many times the initial hook is no longer an intriguing character, or a hint of mystery, or a subtle question. It's a ticking bomb, a violent attack, a stalking predator in the dead of night. And off we go on the roller coaster, never given time to see the emptiness of the character or the meaninglessness of the story.

A harsh judgment, possibly. Excessive, even? Certainly there are profound, thought-provoking thrillers and other meaningful books still being written and published. But I wonder where we will end up on this cultural rush to excess. Scream at us long enough and we will no longer be able to hear the whisper of softer, more reasoned voices. Or the all-important silence of our own thoughts.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

There’s gold in them thar composers!

I found Tom’s post of yesterday absolutely fascinating, basically because it was all news to me.

In high school, our vocal music teacher started a madrigal group. It was made up of the hard core musicians in the school, many of whom went on to professional careers in one form or another, and it really was a fascinating experience for all of us. Personally, I’d never heard music quite like this, being much more experienced and interested in R&B and Soul music.

The first two years, I just listened to this group from the audience, completely fascinated by the interwoven polyphony of just solo voices. You could say it was the start of my switch over to “classical” music (I hate all these sorts of terms, but they are convenient). The third year, I sang in the group and experienced this florid music from “the inside”. That was a transmogrifying moment in my musical life. (I’ve been saving up that word for months for just such a moment.)

I consequently decided not to apply to The Berklee School of Music in Boston to study jazz, but enroll in a regular bachelor’s program in university where jazz at the time was an interesting sideline of music, not a goal in and of itself. I wanted to find out more about this sort of music.

I did, and in doing it, enjoyed myself mightily. (What I learned in a “formal” music program was directly applicable to all the other kinds of music I also enjoy playing.) University forever altered music for me.

All the above is a roundabout way of getting to the subject of Tom’s post yesterday. Yes, I was very familiar with Gesualdo’s music, having sung it in high school, university and listened to a lot of it over the years. It really is quite extraordinary and Tom’s chosen example of it is perfect.

However, the main subject of his post elicited a “You’re kidding!” response from incredulous me. I had absolutely no idea that one of my favourite composers had anything like this in his character. I actually had to flip to the Internet to read accounts of Gesualdo’s personal life to actually believe what Tom had written. My wife (who also sang in the high school madrigal group for one year) had exactly the same response as I did. She’s currently on her computer reading Tom’s post and called out from her studio, “This is unbelievable!”

I guess we classical musicians inhabit a sheltered world.

Gesualdo lived in a very different time. Whenever I read about “the glorious Renaissance”, I’m also shocked just how violent people were – especially when in large crowds. I don’t have the details at my fingertips, but I remember the story of a person, a priest, I believe, who had the population turn on him. He was brutally murdered in the main square of Florence, and the crowd was so whipped up that (get ready) they ate him! Murder for sexual infidelity (almost always by the woman’s husband) was fairly commonplace, especially in the nobility.

This in no way means I excuse what Gesualdo did, but he was a product of his time. Sadly, this sort of thing still goes on far too frequently, even in North American society, but in western society, at least now it’s (generally) more shocking and society frowns on it. Back then, response was much more accepting (except by the murdered people’s family).

It’s an ongoing fascination of mine how people capable of producing art of the most sublime beauty can also be so incredibly amoral in other aspects of their lives. I suppose it’s just the flip side of being creative, as in “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, but it’s still very surprising to me.

So Tom’s post of yesterday was eyeopening. It also got my creative juices flowing in a big way. Great post Tom. Thanks! And if the seeds you planted in my imagination bear fruit, I’ll remember you in my acknowledgements!

A brief note: Many years ago, my wife took music theory and harmony lessons from local Toronto musician/teacher Robert Mundinger. (Mainly because I’d done most of her theory and harmony homework in university so she could practise more. To get into graduate school, she had to do an extensive theory and harmony test, hence the need for more lessons. I don’t think I could have passed as her at the test.)

Robert was a fascinating gentleman whose grandfather was Richard Wagner’s chef for a number of years. According to the story Robert told us, Wagner used to drink perfume, freak out, and then compose. If true, it explains a lot…

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Darker Side of Genius

One never knows where an idea for a blog post will crop up. For this week's contribution, the idea came eight days ago while listening to a piece by an Italian composer of the late Renaissance of whom - in my near-encyclopedic ignorance of things musical - I had never heard. His name? Carlo Gesualdo.

Gesualdo was born in Venosa, Italy, in March 1566 (the year of his birth is disputed); he died in September 1613. After his place of birth, he is also known as Gesualdo da Venosa. An Italian nobleman, he was Prince of Venosa, and Count of Venosa. In addition to being a composer of a large and respected body of madrigals and sacred music - most, possibly all, of it a capella - he was a talented lutenist. And in addition to all that - the principal subject of this post - Gesualdo was an infamous murderer. The victims were his wife, her lover, and a child who might, or might not, have been his own son.

Gesualdo was married in 1586, at age twenty, to his first cousin, Donna Maria d'Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Donna Maria was said to be the most beautiful woman of her era; there is even a rumour that she was the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. She was four years older than Gesualdo, and she'd been married twice before, the first time at age fifteen; it was said that both of her husbands died as a result of "an excess of connubial bliss". (I am almost certain I can hear someone out there saying, "You can't make this stuff up, so it has to be true.")

It's also known that two years after her marriage to Gesualdo, she began a love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria. A contemporary of Fabrizio described him as a “model of beauty,” one of the handsomest young men of his time. Presumably, then, the ill-fated lovers were very well-matched. Donna Maria managed to keep the affair secret from her husband for almost two years, even though the affair was well-known to others. (The spouse, almost by tradition, is always the last to know about these things.) Gesualdo did find out about the affair, however, and:

"...on October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, when Gesualdo had allegedly gone away on a hunting trip, the two lovers took insufficient precaution at last (Gesualdo had arranged with his servants to have keys to the locks of his palace copied in wood so that he could gain entrance if it were locked). Gesualdo returned to the palace, caught them in flagrante delicto,and murdered them both in their bed. Afterward, he left their mutilated bodies in front of the palace for all to see."

The details of the murders are well-documented, and would not be out of place in modern-day slasher films:

"... it is apparent that Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however, Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, "she's not dead yet!" The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head."

Adding a touch of the bizarre to the killings, Fabrizio was found dressed in women's clothing - specifically Donna Maria's nightdress - which had fringes at the bottom, and ruffs of black silk. His own clothing was found in a pile near the bedside, and was not bloodied.

The horrors did not end there. Gesualdo apparently suspected, or believed, that the child he thought was his second son by Donna Maria, might have been Fabrizio's child. He allegedly murdered the baby boy by swinging him to death in a cradle for three days in his castle courtyard. He might also have murdered his father-in-law after the man came seeking revenge for his daughter's death.

The purpose of this post is not just to catalogue some gruesome murders from antiquity - although murder, in one form or another, is the reason Type M exists - but to speculate on the whys and wherefores of the deeds. An interesting aspect of the Gesualdo history is that he went on, from the murders and from their geographic location, to write the bulk of the music for which he enjoys enduring fame. From vicious (and possibly deranged) murderer, he went on to do some great things. There is no question that he was gifted; as an indication of that, listen to one of his most famous and beautiful pieces, Moro, lasso, al mio duolo, which translates - almost appropriately - as "I die, alas, in my suffering":

There appears to be some debate about whether Gesualdo would be as famous and remembered as a composer had he not committed the gruesome murders in 1590; the counter-argument being that the murders would not be so clearly remembered had he not been such a brilliant composer. The link between horrific violence and creative genius and beauty is a tantalising one.

It is also said that Gesualdo's creative musical innovations would not be matched until the time, and the compositions, of Richard Wagner in the 19th century. Bringing Wagner into the discussion, as students of musical composition have done, is interesting in itself, given Wagner's alleged anti-Semitism, and his adoration by Adolf Hitler. For this reason, the associations of Wagner with anti-Semitism and Nazism, the performance of his music in the State of Israel remains a source of controversy to the present time.

There is an interesting documentary on Gesualdo by Werner Herzog, the German director, producer, screenwriter, actor, and opera director. You can view it on YouTube:

An interesting sidebar to the Gesualdo murders is that, as a nobleman, he was immune from arrest and prosecution.

Which, in a way, brings us to the present era. These days, it's unusual that the privileged in our society will escape prosecution for capital crimes, although it's a fact that the poor and underprivileged are much more likely to be prosecuted and imprisoned - and in some countries, notably the United States, executed - than the wealthy and privileged. In this context, too, one thinks back to the aftermath of the near-collapse of the world economic system because of the greed and recklessness of the "gnomes of Wall Street", and the terrible impacts on the lives of millions of people. How many arrests and prosecutions can you list for that series of major crimes?

Finally, it is somewhat comforting to note that Gesualdo, although he went on to create great musical works, did not live a happy and contented life. For one thing, he did not live to a great age; he died at forty-seven. Late in life, so history records, he suffered from depression, and the evidence suggests that this was related to his guilt over the brutal murders he committed. Apparently, also, Gesualdo descended into a deep well of masochism, and had himself beaten daily by his servants; he even kept a special servant whose duty it was to beat him regularly. He reportedly died as a consequence of serious infections of the wounds created by these beatings.

A kind of justice, one supposes.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Guest: Imogen Robertson

Aline writes:
I'm delighted this week to be introducing Imogen Robertson.  She's funny, feisty and fiercely intelligent and her latest book, Paris Winter, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Historical Dagger.  Her Island of Bones was described on as 'one of the five most addictive books of the year.'

Sometimes when I tell people I write historical fiction, they screw up their face as if I’d just told them I have a mild but uncomfortable disease, and say sympathetically ‘doesn’t that involve an awful lot of research?’

It does, but for me researching a novel is the most fun you can have whilst still claiming to be working. The Paris Winter began life when I was going through old family photo albums. In them I found snap-shots taken by my Grandmother as she travelled across Europe in the years before WWI. I also found her sketch book, and from those stimuli the idea of an English woman going to train as an artist in Paris took form. Around the same time I learned about the severe flooding that took place in Paris in January 1910, when water from the Seine was forced up the new metro tunnels and sewage system to cause floods, and pavement collapses far away from the river. I thought that would make a fascinating background for my protagonist, Maud, as her carefully constructed, but fragile existence collapses around her. 

You can probably guess some of the research I started with. I needed to know in detail about the floods, and found a wonderful collection of images online and some excellent secondary sources. But it when you delve into the primary sources that things start to open out and allow for the serendipitous. While looking up reports of the floods in The Times, I found on the front page an appeal for funds from The Ada Leigh Homes for Impoverished English and American Girls in Paris. Finding out about the Homes shed a completely new light on the women living in the city. A fictionalised version of the Homes and their remarkable founder appear in the book and all because they happened to be advertising on that day in 1910, and I was browsing through that issue over a hundred years later. I don’t think I’d have found Ada Leigh any other way. I can’t remember coming across any other mention of her in my reading. 

I also realised I needed to know a lot more about the art world of the period, so giving myself a crash course in the impressionists and post-impressionists was a key part of the research, but also tough to describe as work. I discovered the work of a number of brilliant female artists who trained in Paris at the time, and one who lived there all her life, the brilliant Suzanne Valadon. She fed her drawings to her pet goat if she didn’t like them, had a lover younger than her son and produced work that is both brutal and subtle, rich with colour and brutally honest. I also had enormous fun reading about the art collections of Gertrude Stein and the reactions of the contemporary critics to Matisse and Picasso. The paint soaked through the whole book. While I was writing I had open on my desk a 1908 catalogue full of samples of oil colours and sunk myself into the peculiar poetry of their names. The most useful hours I spent researching women and art though were with Caroline de Peyrecave. She is a portrait artist who was trained in exactly the same way Maud would have been in the 1900s. I found her on the internet and she very kindly let me visit her and ask dumb questions. Looking at her work and spending time in her studio gave me the textures and scents of Maud’s world in a way the books alone never could. Another fun thing to do while claiming to be working? Being allowed to handle diamonds of eye-watering size and clarity at a jewellers in Bond Street. All this before the essential Paris research trips… There are limits. I didn’t try opium, though I did find a brilliant account by someone who did. 

All that said, my sympathetic friends are right about research being difficult in two ways. The first is learning to resist the temptation to lecture your readers about all the fascinating things you’ve found out, which is why writing blogs on The History Girls website on Valadon, Ada Leigh and Parisian jewel heists was such a pleasure, but I think if you’re going to write historical fiction you need to know your material, then let it appear on the page naturally. You have to see the story through the eyes of your characters then trust that those details will come through and create the world of your book. The other difficulty is knowing when to stop your research and get writing. You never feel you know enough, and, of course, writing is difficult and much more like hard work than reading Laura Knight’s autobiography or wandering round the Passage des Panoramas in Paris. There comes a time, however, when your characters insist on your attention and then you must begin to follow them from the studios to the opium dens, the river to cafés of Montmartre, never quite knowing what corner they are about to turn next.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Preparing to Retreat

Next week I will be in Charlotte, North Carolina taking part in a writers retreat sponsored by Sister in Crime. There will be about thirty-five of us, writers from all over the country, staying in a lodge. The lodge is a part of the Ballantyne Hotel property, and we will have it to ourselves. After our Monday evening dinner, socializing is optional. Box breakfasts and lunches will be available. We'll be able to spend the day at our computers and only go out to eat in the evenings. For those of who are need exercise before we settle into our writing day, there are facilities available.

I'm really excited. This sounds perfect. I can't wait to get there. But this week, I began to think about what I need to control about this situation. As it turns out my fellow retreaters are also pondering this. Some of us have been sharing our writing goals on our discussion board. We'll share those goals at dinner on Monday evening -- a public announcement that will both help us all to commit and send us all to our computers with a rush of energy. Not that this group needs more energy. We are writers with a mission -- to make maximum use of our rare, uninterrupted time to work. Some of us are arriving with deadlines looming; others with projects that we have been wanting to start but haven't been able to fit into our schedules.

In my case, it's both. I must finish the proposal for my non-fiction book about clothing and crime. I've been working on this proposal for months. I have the outline, the table of contents, portions of the sample chapters I want to include. I need to get it done before I go back into the classroom for the semester (the day after I return from the retreat). My other retreat project is my 1939 historical thriller. I've been thinking about this book for four or five years, not sure what it would be or who would people it -- only knowing that it somehow linked Billie Holiday performing at Cafe Society (a club in Greenwich Village), the New York World's Fair, and the premier of "Gone with the Wind" in Atlanta. In November, when I was in Atlanta, I did research on the four-day premier of the movie. Over the holidays, when I was in Washington, D.C., I realized my thriller should start there rather than in NYC. At the retreat, I want to do my character bios, a plot outline, and, three really bad first chapters. I'm also going to outline the next book in my Hannah McCabe series. I need to get both started now, or I will spend the writing time I have back at home trying to get started.

Sounds like a lot to pack into a week, right? And it is. But there is something about a retreat that seems to work for me. It's like when I'm going stir crazy in my house, can't work in my office at school, and have a deadline looming. That's when I check into my favorite hotel down the street from where I live. Paying for a room (even one that comes with a free breakfast) focuses my mind. So does knowing that the clock is ticking on the time I have available. One summer, years ago, I had the opportunity to rent an apartment in a small town in the Adirondacks. The apartment was above an antique store and looked out on Main Street on one side and the harbor on the other. There was an ice cream shop next door. For ten days, I wrote for hours a day -- ripping apart a book that had gone astray and putting it back together again. I had to get it done because it was due to my editor. I walked out of the apartment at the end of my ten days with a revised and much better manuscript in hand. On the other hand, I once spent a portion of November (while on sabbatical) on an island in Maine. It was everything I had hoped it would be. A lovely small town and people who befriended me. I had a house to myself, only condition that I make a donation to the local hospital. I was there for two weeks. I did some research, got some writing done, attended community events, had a terrific time. And, that was a part of why I went there, to unwind and relax. Writing was important, but secondary to why I was there. I would love to go back to that island on a retreat, but if I were going back with writing as my primary reason for being there, I would go with a deadline looming.

That is something I finally have accepted about myself. I get work done under ordinary circumstances, but I do best when I have deadlines. With several projects going on at once, I need -- and I know I keep saying this -- to get organized. I need a writing calendar. I also need a "life goes on" calendar. I am still recovering from all of the things in my life that I didn't get done in November and early December. I was busy with school, focused on the December deadline for my new book, and mail went unopened on my desk, gifts went un-shopped for until the last moment, house went uncleaned, etc. Therefore, one of my goals this weekend -- in preparation for my retreat -- is to set up my two master calendars. Of course, life will intervene. But, I need to anticipate as much as possible and get out ahead of what I can. I need to create my own self-imposed structure with ticking clocks. Clocks that are realistic and don't leave me frazzled and allow me to do what I need to on a daily basis.

And then -- assuming the snow that is on its way doesn't throw a wrench in my plans -- I'm going to retreat to Charlotte and write. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Lesson in Compassion

One week ago yesterday I had an operation. I've been home from the hospital since Saturday evening. I feel like I've been run over, but everything went well so I'm not complaining (much). If any of you Dear Readers care to hear about what happened, I went into more detail on my own site. You can read about it here.

This is certainly not my first experience with doctors and hospitals. Over the past five years or so, my husband has undergone multiple health crises including: kidney failure resulting in eight months of nephrostomy bags before an operation opened up his ureters; heart problems necessitating the installation of a defibrillator device in his chest; a spot of colon cancer which led to a bowel resection, several months of a colostomy bag, and then an operation to put him back together. Many months of recovery, through which he was unbelievably calm and patient.

I learned so much about wound care and convalescence over those years that I basically earned the equivalent of an LPN degree. I would have done and did do anything for him and I was happy and eager to do it. So you can imagine that I thought I knew all there was to know about being a caregiver.


Now, my little operation, while no picnic, was nothing compared to what Don has gone through, and he is not having to sanitize himself from head to toe twice a day to clean out and re-bandage open wounds in order to take care of me. But I haven't had an operation myself since I was four years old and had my tonsils out, so unlike him I was unaware of how important the little things are to an invalid--someone who will spend night after night at the hospital so you don't have to call the nurse just to turn over. Combing the patient's hair for her so she doesn't look like a troll doll when visitors come. Driving her around with no destination just so she can get some sun and fresh air (visualize a cocker spaniel with its head stuck out the window). Giving her a hand up off the bed so she doesn't have to wallow up like a beached walrus. Getting up in the middle of the night to stand outside the bathroom door to make sure she can make it back to bed all right. Making a sandwich.

Believe me, no matter how expert you become in taking care of sick people, until you've been the patient yourself, you don't really get the picture. I'll be up and around and healthy again in a few weeks. But I'll never be the same.
p.s. after all he has been through, today you'd never know Don had been sick. He looks great and feels good. Who knows how long it'll last but we're enjoying the heck out it while we can.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The trouble with not looking closely enough

My full-length novel, Roses for a Diva, being published next November, was finished and sent to my publisher months ago. I could once again sleep through the night content that I had fulfilled my contract and delivered what I hoped might be a very good novel. (One never knows, when the twin fires of creation and revision are burning hot, exactly how good your masterwork is – or at least that’s been my experience.) All was good.

However, fate had a big raspberry ready for me. My new editor called to ask if I’d read my contract. Now I have an agent and together we’d gone over the contract pretty carefully, so I was surprised by her question. The reason she was contacting me was because there was an 80,000-word limit on my submission. I had delivered 101,000.

I looked over my contract (so did my wife) and neither of us saw it, so I called back. It was at the very end of the first paragraph. You know the one, often called the boilerplate paragraph: “The party of the first part, herein called…”. Once pointed out its location, I wondered how we could have missed it.

Obviously, I had a major problem.

Now I really don’t overwrite. I don’t indulge in all that much description. Matter of fact, I’ve been told a few times that I should use more. Once, an editor even made me add description in a few spots. So basically the ms I’d submitted was solid plot and not overly-wordy dialogue, not much description.

“Do what you can, and we’ll see what happens from there,” my editor told me.

I crossed my fingers and set to work. Not having looked at the ms for several months certainly helped as I read it through. My editor/great friend, Cheryl Freedman, who always generously takes a peek and lends her expertise when I’ve finished a novel suggested one plot sidebar I could lose and that gave me a drop of around 1500 words, a drop in the bucket, really, considering the mountain of prose that needed to be scraped away to get me close to the promised land.

I set my sights on doing a line-by-line edit of the book to tighten things up and then see where I stood. At the same time, I’d mark down any thoughts that might help reduce the mass once I’d finished that task. Could I drop a whole section? Dump a character? Reshape the plot in some way?

The effort was long and arduous. I certainly found many places where sentences could be streamlined, phrases dropped or run together with a resulting economy of words. I found a bit of redundant dialogue, or maybe I should say dialogue that drove points home possibly too hard. I also found a few paragraphs of description that could be reduced, a few that could be eliminated, but not many.

In the end, I only managed to torch 6100 words. That’s still 15,000 above my publisher’s stipulation of “approximately 80,000 words”. I spent a bad day yesterday stewing about it and looking long and hard at my creation as a whole. Can I lose more and not seriously damage the storyline?

By this morning I’d come to the conclusion that I couldn’t. It’s time to send it off to my editor. Perhaps she can see something I haven’t. If not (and I suspect that will be the case since I was very hard on my “deathless prose”), I don’t know what will happen. I would hope my publisher would say they’ll rethink the price point and we’ll go from there, but I can’t be sure of that.

It’s pretty disheartening, though, regardless. In thinking about it, I don’t think I could have written this novel effectively in anything less than 95,000 words. Certainly I would have tried if I’d seen the contractual stipulation, but I don’t know if the plot would have worked as well as it does now. Novels sometimes need a little breathing space, and heaven know, there’s not much of that left in this one.

Through this entire process I’ve been beating myself up. How could I have been so stupid as to not notice those three fateful words? I’m still faced with an awful prospect: the novel might be rejected. I hope this isn’t the case. It would be almost too much to bear because, of all the novels I’ve written, I’ve worked hardest on this one and, as it’s turned out, the longest.

Wish me luck everyone. I’m about to send it off…

Monday, January 13, 2014

Big Decision

I've got a big decision to make.

At this time of year when the sky never seems to be anything but grey, 'than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,' as Chaucer sagely observed.  It's the pilgrimage I'm thinking of taking towards the end of this year .that's the big decision I have to take.

This year for the first time nearly all of my books will be available as e books in the United States - the first six DI Marjory Fleming novels with HarperCollins Witness, the last two with Allison and Busby and two stand-alones which haven't been in print for a good few years now with Endeavour.

I know from my emails that even now I have readers in North America.  I've met some of you at British crime festivals, like Scotland's brilliant Bloody Scotland and I would love to see more of you on your own home ground.

The Bouchercon takes place in Longbeach, California towards the end of October and I'm thinking about coming over for that.  The slight drawback is that Longbeach is really quite a long way from Edinburgh - 5158 miles, in fact, according to Google.

There are other incentives, of course.  I love California, from my visits as a student when I arrived from New York on a Greyhound bus with feet so swollen that I had cankles,  and I want to take my husband to see the glorious Pacific coastline.  I didn't make it to the Grand Canyon last time and have always wanted to walk out on that glass bridge over a sheer drop despite the fact that I'll probably panic when I try.  And anyway, I just love America - the scenery's fantastic and the people are great.

But will the Bouchercon be worth traveling halfway across the world for?  I need your advice - do lots of you go, as readers or as writers, so that I can hope to find a few friendly faces, or is it so huge and impersonal I would just wander around feeling like a lost soul?

Advice, PLEASE!

Friday, January 10, 2014

An Ordinary Day

About forty years ago, there was a Dear Abby column that I think about from time to time. It made that big an impression on me. The letter appealing for advice went something like this:

Dear Abby,

I have a loving husband and four wonderful children. We are very secure financially and I have a number of friends. I enjoy hobbies and am basically happy with my life. Yet I feel discontented, like something is missing from my life. What do you think it is?

Abby's response was "trouble, lady. Real trouble. And it's coming your way."

That was a true and righteous answer, but one that would not be given now. I suspect the reader would be urged to get treatment for a mild depression, and get counseling to explore latent issues. But through the years, I've found the prediction that trouble lurks is too all true.

It's the way life works.

Through the years, I've learned to appreciate the glorious luxury of an ordinary day. What a precious gift! I no longer take that kind of day for granted. On an ordinary day, I wake up when the alarm goes off (or before) feeling well-rested and looking forward to my writing. I don't have to flog myself to exercise. It's easy to tidy my house because I tended to chores the night before.

I virtuously resist the temptation to open my email until the afternoon when I've completed my quota of pages. Lunch is a snap because I shopped when it made sense and brought all the right food. It's easy to deal with marketing and promotional duties and have time left over for research reading, which of course, includes the latest best-selling mysteries.

This is a rather undemanding approach to life. And yes, I understand the reader's discontent with the lack of excitement. I understand, but by now I've learned things can change in a heartbeat. Please know that I'm not plagued by free-floating anxiety or apprehension. It's simply a fact. Things change.

My husband and I had older parents. We started our marriage with "old-folks" health problems to deal with. We had three daughters who were in every activity invented. At-home-days were rare and treasured, but I learned to write anywhere and at any time.

Last year, I wasn't plagued by the allergy reactions I dealt with two years ago. My adult children and their spouses had great years on their jobs. My college age grandkids love their schools. No illnesses, no lost jobs, no shocks. It was great. I attended conferences, finished my third mystery, made new friends, and indulged my hobbies.

When beginning writers say they think they are going to freak out if they don't go out and do something more interesting, I worry that they are sabotaging their talent. Not everyone is temperamentally suited for the writing life. It's isolated and technically rather dull. The life I've chosen is hard to protect. The isolation required for creativity is illusive.

Wishing you all a year of  ordinary days, the good sense to appreciate them when they happen, and the courage to face changes.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Voices in my head

Happy New Year!

What a month this has been. 2013 has been ushered out amid the chaos of howling winds, arctic cold, frenzied family events and fattening food. My small house, normally inhabited by me, my dog, and whatever fictional characters I'm working with at the time, became full again. The married couple in the spare bedroom, one daughter on the pull-out couch in the TV room and the other on the sofa in the living room. Backpacks, suitcases, mittens, hats, and coats cluttered every surface, while boots and shoes were three deep in the entranceway. Dishes, coffee cups, wine bottles, chocolate wrappers everywhere! The dog was in heaven, always prepared for someone willing to play. At night, she bed-hopped shamelessly.

2014 blew in on much the same winds. The weather was unspeakable. Yet we ventured out, dressed as if for a polar expedition, to go to movies (more than I usually see in a year) and share drinks at pubs, we went skating on the canal, played hockey with cousins and went skiing on the gorgeous Gatineau trails. One by one, the children went home, returning me to my quiet house and to the work awaiting me. Not the clean-up, although that is always waiting, but the work of a writer. For the past two months I've been working on the latest Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads book, which is still in its early stages. I put Cedric aside for the month and have only just picked him up again. We have to get reacquainted. I have to find the groove that allows me to sink into his voice and write in that style.

Rapid Reads books are written in a very particular, spare style. Short sentences, simple vocabulary, a straightforward plot with little subplot, a fast-paced, active story with limited description or character meandering. Yet the story has to be compelling. Within those constraints, I have to create vivid, interesting characters involved in a unique, moving story. I have to find a voice that fits the character and the story. Cedric O'Toole's voice is very different from Michael Green's whose head I've been living in for the past year. Cedric is a simple country handyman who lives outside the mainstream and defines his life on his own terms. He is a creative, awkward loner who's more at home working with his hands than with words. I have to experience the world as he does and think the way he would. Sometimes it feels like calling in the wilderness. "Cedric, where are you?"

To complicate matters, I have indulged in a lot of pleasure reading this holiday, including THE SAYERS SWINDLE, which is a cosy romp by Victoria Abbott who is actually half my good friend and funnygirl Mary Jane Maffini. That funny, wise-cracking voice runs throughout the book and stayed in my head long after I closed it. I also read the very funny, slyly satirical THE HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED, whose quirky hero also has a voice very different from Cedric O'Toole's.

And in a couple of weeks I will receive the edits from the publisher on my latest Inspector Green novel, NONE SO BLIND, and I will need to find Green's voice again.

There is no easy way for a writer to find that crucial voice that ties their book together, and every writer has their own tricks and rituals. For me, the first prerequisite is silence. No radio or TV, no telephone or Facebook or websurfing. No chatter with family and friends. In that silence, the characters can come to me, and I can begin to conjure up their voices in my head. The second prerequisite is time. Not five minutes squeezed here and there into the few empty spaces of a busy day, but three or four hours a day of prolonged focus. No distractions or interruptions. Bum-in-chair time, as they say. A third element that I find helpful if I've been away from a character for awhile is to reread not just recent chapters but even earlier books or parts thereof. The novel's voice seeps into my head and informs the way I put words together.

And finally, there is no better prescription than writing itself. The words may be hesitant at first, the voice faltering. I may just start to write without knowing where the scene is going, just feeling my way forward. But I will usually find my footing and my direction as the scene evolves. The voice will grow clearer.

At least that's what I hope. Right now I am just trying to find the silence.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The State of the Blog Address: 2014

Type M for Murder has now been around for six and a half years. I had to double-check that as I started writing my first post of the new year. Really? It’s been that long? I next thought that, as the only member of our merry band who has been here all the way through, it would be fun to see how many posts I’ve written for Type M. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy. If I had never missed a post, it would be 338 of ’em, but alas, I have missed a number over the years. So let’s just say it’s somewhere around 300.

That’s a lot. That’s like a novel’s worth of a lot. Too bad my posts didn’t have some overarching plot, a few memorable characters, an enticing locale. I might have been able to sell the fruits of my labours for a little filthy lucre, perhaps gotten a movie deal, at least been able to go out on the lecture circuit (You Too Can Spend Hours of Your Life Writing Blog Posts).

So just where are we? Well, we’ve currently got a pretty terrific lineup of very diverse writers (although all of the crime variety) with their own unique voices. We have 92 members (and please consider becoming one!), people who enjoy dropping by consistently for a look. We are attracting an average of 9000 or so pageviews a month, with over 260,000 visits since we started, and our comment section sometimes gets a mite “lively” – which is a very good thing in my opinion. We all love hearing from the people for whom we’re toiling. This year we’re going to easily pass 300,000 visits and 2000 posts. Those are pretty big milestones for our humble blog.

Speaking as someone, actually the only one, who still posts every week, it sometimes gets a bit onerous to “see my duty done”, but then I’ll almost always get a comment here or on Facebook that makes my contributions all worthwhile. Thank you for that.

And thanks to all you loyal readers for making Type M the wonderful thing it is. I hope our posts continue to entice you into stopping by. Please take the time to comment, too. Dialogue is a wonderful thing, and we’re very interested in what everyone thinks. It often leads to further posts, and that too is good.

And speaking of entertainment, as you noticed from the image above, I’ve found something really quite fabulous: a collection of really bad covers for classic novels. I have to admit that I actually laughed out loud at one or two of them. Being the self-appointed “expert” here on the subject of book cover design, I simply had to share it with you all. Hopefully, it will make your day – as it did mine. And it’s nice to know that big-name authors also get saddled with really terrible cover art.

All the best to all of you in 2014. May the year bring you all that you want. (In the case of Toronto that means seeing the last of Mayor Rob Ford!)

Monday, January 06, 2014

An Emergency That (Probably) Wasn't....

Every writer knows that there is a multitude of factors that can get in the way of writing; or, conversely, play a part in furthering the practice of the craft. There's the infamous writer's block that I struggle with from time to time. Then there is the computer meltdown that struck at me a few weeks back, when the CPU of my desktop started sounding like a coffee-grinder, striking fear into my ageing heart that the machine would soon be a smoking heap of metal and plastic bits on my workbench.

I'd had that experience once, happily indirectly, when I went to a class at Carleton University here in Ottawa. The class was one in a series of 8-week courses given by the university for old folks like me, called - diplomatically - "Learning In Retirement". It seems that a cooling fan on the classroom computer had seized up and the unit caught fire. The stench of burning materials was both impressive and oppressive, and almost certainly toxic. The class was delayed, and when it did commence, the doors and windows were kept open, to minimise the possible damage to the assembled throng.

A vision of that happening in my apartment was impressive enough that I turned off the machine and called in a repair crew. Unhappily, it meant that I missed my posting that day. I have since taken action to ensure that a similar roadblock will not recur. I have two functioning computers now, the newly-refurbished desktop humming quietly away with a new power unit; and a wireless HP laptop, almost brand new, on which I do most of my writing.

The most recent disruption in my writing routine took place on Friday afternoon, just after lunch. I had started my day more or less as usual, with a perusal of the New York Times Opinion page online, and the printing off of the various articles I wanted to read. After that I went upstairs to my "gym" - a spare bedroom full of exercise equipment - and had an hour's workout, taking care not to aggravate the back injury I incurred some many weeks ago, slinging snow tires into the trunk of my Mustang. ( I am still taking physiotherapy for that.)

I have been working on a short story, which is family-related and not strictly a mystery yarn - well, aren't all families mysteries, really? - and the story's getting to a stage where it is almost readable by some lucky second party. I pulled the story onto the screen of my laptop, and commenced to think and write. But there was a problem. An important part of the screen was occluded by a "light-show" that I quickly decided was located in the vision field of my left eye. The light-show consisted of an oval of jagged bright lights, mostly white, but with some blue and red mixed in. Drawing on my considerable medical knowledge (gained mostly from the internet) I did what any skilled practitioner would do - I rubbed the eye with my thumb, and tried again to read the on-screen text. Unhappily, with no good result.

I got up and walked around my apartment, now and then opening and closing my left eye to see if there was any change. There wasn't. The light-show persisted. After ten minutes of this my mind went into overdrive. What the heck - "hell", actually - was going on? I took my pulse. Twice. It was normal, which for me is about 50. (Pretty good for a 74-year old; all that gym work, you understand.) My next thought was that this interesting light-show might be the prelude to a stroke. Such things do happen; my father died of a stroke, his brother died in the same way, and their father - my grandfather and namesake - also died of a stroke. It was a possibility I could not blithely dismiss. So, my next action was to change into street clothes - I tend to lounge around my apartment in sweatpants and sweatshirts - in case I had to make a dash to the hospital.

As I live in a province in a country with a national health-care system, I had the option of calling a government hotline, Telehealth Ontario, which has a "1-866" number. Within a very few minutes I was speaking with a nurse who opened a file for me, took down all the necessary information, and then provided advice. Get someone to drive me to a medical centre and consult with a doctor. I phoned Suzanne, who was actually driving not far from my apartment building. In ten minutes she was at my front door. My personal physician being unavailable, we went to a walk-in clinic. Within fifteen minutes I was examined by a doctor who suggested I might have a detached retina. He dismissed the likelihood of a stroke - or a TIA, for "Transient Ischemic Accident" - and gave me a referral to the Ottawa General Hospital's Emergency Department.

By now, the light-show was long gone, having departed the scene as suddenly as it arrived. It had lasted about 15 minutes.

So, it was off to the OGH-ED, and into the line-up for examination. Anyone who has been to an Emergency Department knows that they are almost always crowded. Unless you are having a screaming fit and frothing at the mouth, or carrying a severed limb over your shoulder, you have to get in line, and go through the triage system. (The battlefield association is inescapable.) So, I did that. First off I gave my referral paper to a receptionist. Then I sat down for a while and surveyed the people around me. Interesting the people you see in Emergency. Just like everywhere else, in fact. Just folks. Fifteen minutes later I was paged to go to Registration. I did that, and was fitted with a computerised wristband.

Then I sat and surveyed some more. Another twenty-or-so minutes went by. Then I was paged to go to a room with a nurse (unhappily, not the exceptionally pretty one in blue scrubs I had been admiring) to have my heart rate, blood pressure and temperature taken, and to be asked if I had any other symptoms, which I did not. The nurse expressed surprise at my heart rate; it was now 48. As diplomatically as she could, she suggested that this was impressive for someone as old as I am.

"Not that I'm suggesting that 74 is old, you understand, but, you know, 48! Wow! That's really good."

And then it was back to more sitting and waiting.

Thirty minutes later I was paged again and this time went with a small cohort of fellow patients to the ED's inner sanctum where the physicians and speciality nurses predominate. I was now in Nurse Jackie territory and wishing Edie Falco was there to hustle things along. She wasn't, and things didn't. I was the last one of my cohort to get to see a doctor.


(By now, Suzanne had returned to the hospital to check on my progress, and to bring me a book to read, a newspaper to peruse, and a crossword to solve. And her magic iPhone, so I could reassure my daughter, for whom I had earlier left a message, that I was not yet at death's door, or even in the neighbourhood.)

The ED doctor was careful, efficient and attentive. He was willing to discuss my "internet-self-diagnosis" of a TIA and to assure me that I was not about to have a stroke. (Which outcome, 72 hours after the initial fact, I have not had.) He tested my vision, thought about my symptoms, and told me that I had what looked like a migraine; although never having had a migraine before, having my first at age 74 is very unusual. So he concluded, in anticipation of more testing that will be scheduled for this week, that I had what he called a "migraine equivalent". Taking note of my propensity to consult the internet, he told me I could Google the term. I just did, and this is what I found:

Migraine variant (or migraine equivalent) is the term applied to a migraine that exhibits itself in a form other than head pain. Such conditions are less recognized, less common, and less well understood than the typical migraines (both without and with aura) that usually affect children and young adults.

So, maybe that's what it was. I await the further testing. And in the meantime back working on my family-mystery-related short story.

To sum up, it's instructive, and also gratifying, to be involved with a very busy and highly-expert medical system, such as we are privileged to enjoy in Canada. Sure, there are lineups and the system is overburdened, and mistakes are made, and it's expensive, and people fall through the cracks now and then, and it's hardly perfect. But, really, what I will say is that I was impressed, and felt that I was being looked after, and that the people who examined me, really did care about the outcome. And how much did this all cost me? Directly, not one cent. It's the way we do things up here in the Great White North, land of eternal snows, and frequently really bad weather.

Happy New Year, Everyone!