Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The problem of reviews

I expect today’s post is not going to be popular in some quarters. So be it. I feel I need to say something about current problems in that have arisen with book reviewing.

With a new book being launched next week, of course I’m thinking about ways to sell more copies. Probably since the dawn of the written word, the best way to get noticed is through reviews.

These can be more formal critiques and comments in the big newspapers, especially ones like the New York Times Sunday book review section. A good review there is like manna from heaven, reaching huge numbers of potential readers. Newspapers used be publishers’ and authors’ best friends in this regard. A best seller could be made simply by a great review in one of the big papers. Even smaller circulation periodicals can be very beneficial to get the word out.

Sadly, the number newspaper reviews has been dwindling steadily over the years to the point where it’s very likely you won’t get reviewed because there just isn’t space in the truncated book review sections that exist these days.

Online reviews have taken up a bit of the slack. There are some great reviewers who do their work in this medium and to get some line space in their publications and blogs is always welcome.

But there still isn’t enough space.

What enterprising publishers have recently begun doing is offering e-versions of the standard ARC (Advanced Reading Copies) of their new releases to anyone who promises to give an unbiased review. I admit I haven’t looked into what other criteria or checks there are in who gets sent one of these e-ARCs, but I think it would be safe to say that there isn’t all that much in the way of oversight. Many of these reviewers merely post their thoughts on Goodreads.com and other such sites.

I guess the thinking behind this is of the “any publicity is good publicity” kind, and with the shrinking legit review options, any way to get the word out is looked on as being at least marginally helpful.

If you’ve read Type M for any length of time, you’ll know that my feeling is (strongly) that if you can’t handle a negative review, then don’t publish. So this little rant of mine isn’t about negative reviews that my new novel might be getting (actually, they’ve been uniformly good to great).

What is distressing me about this new switch is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand what reviewing actually is all about. Yes, your likes and dislikes enter into any criticism of any work of art, but a credible reviewer has to go beyond that. If you are going to say anything about a book (in this case), you have to understand what it is all about and what its author is trying to accomplish, and judge it from that standpoint.

Case in point: “I don’t like this kind of book and never read them.” (True statement I’ve seen for a friend’s novel on goodreads.com.) Huh? Then why are you reviewing it — especially when you obviously hated it? Any thinking person would start the book, discover that it’s the sort of thing they don’t like to read, and move on to another one they will like. In this case, the review was scathing, and not for the authors’ craft but because of the nature of the book. It was a thriller, and rather “gritty”, and the reviewer obviously leaned toward cozies and other lighter fare based on their more positive reviews.

We authors all have to take our lumps. It’s part of the process. But it really hurts to be pilloried unfairly. I’m not saying that there aren’t “professional” reviewers who don’t have axes to grind. The things Carl Maria von Weber made in reviews about Beethoven’s compositions are hilarious seen through the filter of time.

I have no idea what the solution is. As newspapers drop book reviewers and publications of various kind close, we are left with makeshift efforts such as asking anyone to review books.

Personally, I feel honoured whenever anyone makes the effort to read one of my novels. That’s special. A person has to devote a lot of their personal time to do this. I’m thrilled when they enjoy the story, and chagrined when they don’t — and always feel as if I’ve let them down.

But due to the social media aspect of “the new face of book reviewing”, I worry that we authors are in danger of not getting a fair shake.

As with so much about what we do, we have very little power to change things. This is just another example.

Your thoughts?

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Tastiest Time of the Year

By Vicki Delany

It’s fall, and the eating is good.

Here in Southern Ontario, the growing season is short, with the result that we end up with a month jam-packed with fabulous foods.  And it’s a mad rush to get all that produce canned and frozen and made into other things (like jam) while it’s still fresh and good.

I live in farm country so I am particularly blessed.  When I first moved in there was a farm stand about 1 km down the road from my house. They closed, sadly, but it’s still not much further away to several more.  I put some pictures up a couple of weeks ago of my day at Vicki’s Veggies (definitely no relation) home of the world’s best tomatoes.  Here's the link if you missed it. http://typem4murder.blogspot.ca/2014/09/tasting-tomatoes-to-mark-end-of-summer.html

By late September the tables are groaning and the abundance overwhelming.  Remember that Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October, for just this reason. It’s a harvest festival, so we celebrate during the harvest.

In my small garden it’s a race against time that would out-thrill any book by Linwood Barclay.  Many of my heirloom tomatoes are big and fat but still green – will they be ready for picking before the first frost kills them all in one fell swoop?

Last year I went to the Outer Banks on a research trip for the Lighthouse Library series the first week of October.  They were promising no-frost nights, and when I got home – a garden of mush.

For those of you lucky enough to be overwhelmed with tomatoes and peppers at this time of year, here’s a soup recipe that I make in great quantities and freeze every year.

In the bleak-midwinter, the taste of fresh tomatoes comes across loud and clear and so very welcome. 

Vicki Delany’s Tomato and Pepper Soup
You can use as many tomatoes as you have, and adjust other ingredients accordingly. Don’t worry too much about being exact.
4 lbs ripe red tomatoes
3 sweet red peppers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp hot red chilli pepper, chopped and seeded
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 ½ cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Large handful of torn fresh basil leaves
Put large pot of water on to boil. When at a full boil add tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from water and cool. Then peel and chop, discarding as many seeds as you can.
Grill sweet peppers under oven broiler for about 15 minutes, turning until charred on all sides. Cool and then peel and finely chop, again discarding as many seeds as you can
In saucepan heat 2 tbsp. oil; add sweet peppers, chilli peppers, salt.Cook about 5 minutes, stir in garlic, cook 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, vinegar, salt and basil. Cook 10 minutes, stir occasionally. Add stock and bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered for about 15 minutes.
Cool soup and puree in blender or food processor. If serving immediately reheat gently. Can add more basil for decoration.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A is for Ambition, E is for Envy

Fall is here. My favorite season -- in part because it means that with the end of summer heat, humidity, and bright early morning sunlight, I can finally get a good night's sleep again. When I sleep well, I dream deeply. Years ago in college, I participated in a research study that brought together “vivid dreamers” from all over the country. As defined by those researchers, vivid dreamers are aware that they are dreaming and able to manipulate the events in their dream. They dream in color and in detail. My guess is that a significant percentage of writers are vivid dreamers.

Last night I had my first vivid dream of the fall season. I was sitting in the back of a classroom. I knew I was the teacher -- it was my class. But I didn't know what the class was or recognize the classroom or the students. A young woman was making a presentation. She was confident and brilliant. To illustrate whatever it was she was talking about, she picked up a big piece of white chalk and begin to draw on the blackboard. Both chalk and board were out of place in this modern classroom. But as I was thinking this, I realized that she was drawing an elaborate picture. I got up and walked to the front of the classroom to look more closely. She finished what she was saying. As I was praising her presentation, another student said in mournful tones, "We can't compete with that." I said, "Don't worry. She's an outlier. You don't have to compete." The class ended -- with students simply getting up and leaving. As I headed back to my office, the elevator wasn't working. I found a rickety ladder and begin to climb to where I was trying to go. I got to a balcony and looked over. People I vaguely recognized continued to chat as they observed my awkward attempt to climb over the railing and join them.

My alarm clock went off. I woke up -- and started laughing. The dream was so obvious, it was ridiculous. My new book (What the Fly Saw) is coming out in March. March is coming really fast -- much faster than back in May when it seems an incredibly long time away. Now, I'm moving into that season of anxiety and delight that all writers experience before their new arrival. The reviews are coming. Readers will decide if they want to buy a book I sweated blood to write. And with the publishing season in full swing, I've been reading about best-selling writers with new books just released or coming out in the next few months. Obviously, that little voice in my head has been asking how I can compete with writers who are not only talented but have "star power".

"A" is for "Ambition" and "E" is for "Envy". In the Greek myths and Shakespeare, ambition and envy lead to tragedy. But -- post-dream analysis -- I'm leaning toward the argument that neither is bad in itself. For writers -- as for people in other occupations -- ambition and envy can get up motivated. I don't really want to be a celebrity writer. I suspect that must be pretty exhausting. But I do want to "climb the ladder" by writing better. I want more readers and glowing reviews. The ambitious me -- peeping out from behind the reserved me -- can learn from those writers I envy. I don't need their star power. What I need is their dedication to clarity. They work hard at showcasing who they are and what they do well. I can do that.

Message to my dream self -- stop whining and have another look at your marketing plan. What can you do better?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mystery Mind

When Frankie listed the books on her nightstand last Friday, she made me go into my bedroom and look. At the moment there are four books on my night table, all mysteries or history:
Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston
Cold Tuscan Stone by David P. Wagner
Phoenix Noir, ed. by Patrick Millikin
The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin
a book of New York Times Sunday crosswords.

I'm often reading myself to sleep with a book of poetry or a play. Yes, I'm a nerd. Being a writer, I also keep a notebook by my bedside. Many authors do this, for as you know, brilliant thoughts are ephemeral, and if you don’t get them down immediately, they are gone forever, lost, and ever to be mourned. Here are a couple of particularly strange and poetic notes that I found on one page of this notebook:
The courage to be nobody.
I have broke my heart over a lost child.
Elizabeth—this cannot stand.
I meet every man as I find him.
The book of parting.
Do you know what love is? It is bringing all of who you are every single day (I probably read this somewhere)
From Ellis Peters—they found nothing incongrous in having one foot in the 20th century and one in the roots of time.

As I look over the rest of the notebook, it occurs to me that anyone who read these scribblings would conclude that I either need a psychiatrist, or that I write mystery novels.

Here are some odd notations taken from a random page, in order. I swear I am not making this up:

Tobacco and soapsuds to kill aphids
Boning knife – sharp point, long thin blade
Skinned hog keeps better than scalded hog
war hot blood vandals
What is this ennui? I think it must be possible to die of ennui.
now I had never seen a riot, but I expected I was about to
Her father hanged for murder
severed renal artery
Nothing that I see before my eyes is real
Action. Snakes. Storm. Pecan pie. Stampede.

There’s a hell of a book in there, somewhere.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Smidgens of time

Barbara here. Late, but I have an excuse. It was the dog!

If you have read my blogs before or seen my Facebook and website posts, you will know I have a dog. Well, as of two days ago, I have two dogs, and the addition of this fluffy, adorable ball of fur has put a serious dent in my writing time, not to mention my concentration. He is currently sleeping on the floor at my feet and the other, who is unimpressed with the new arrival, is sleeping protectively on the sofa beside me. The little one will wake soon, and so this had better be a short blog.

It is now fourteen years since the publication of my first novel, DO OR DIE, but I have been writing all my life. It was initially a catharsis and a creative outlet for me, without the thought or hope of publication, until I discovered a network of fellow crime writers in the city and drew inspiration from their enthusiasm. In my various book appearances over the past fourteen years, people have often remarked, wistfully, that they always wanted to write a book but they don't have time. It's true that many of us lead busy lives and between the full-time job, the kids, and the household obligations, we have trouble carving out the time to write. That is why so many people finally get down to serious writing once the children have grown up and the job has been downsized or ditched altogether.

But for most serious writers, including myself, writing is not a choice; it is a passion. We are driven to write. Stories whirl in our heads, begging to be put to paper. Even if we have extraordinarily busy lives, we find the time because we have to. Housework may not get done, dinners may be slapdash, or sleep itself takes a back seat. Some of my friends get up at the ludicrous hour of 5 a.m. so they can put in a couple of hours of writing before heading off to their day jobs. This was not an option for me. I could not formulate a coherent sentence at 5 a.m. I am a night owl, so when others are crawling gratefully into bed, I am just hitting my stride. Once the children were asleep, or later while the rest of the family watched television, did homework, etc., I scribbled away for a couple of hours a night. I stole smidgens of time through the day, I plotted new ideas while stuck in traffic jams, emptying the dishwasher, or taking the dog for a walk. Dogs are very good listeners, by the way.

I am reminded of this now as I wonder — how will I get any work done for the next few months? I have a first draft to complete, and the usual endless round of blurbs and synopses and blogs and promo activities to do. I will find a way, just as I did before. I will adjust my writing schedule. No more luxurious long stretches of time to sink into the writing zone and punch out 2000 words a day. I wrote an entire PhD dissertation while my children took naps or watched Polka Dot Door. I can do this. One small bit, one dog nap, at a time.

That's a message worth passing on to those who think they want to write a book. Do you fill the small empty spaces in your day with writing, even if only in your head? Does the story possess you and demand to be told? Are you blind to the dust bunnies accumulating in the corners and deaf to the often vacuous lure of television? Would you rather write than go to a movie?

I'm not saying the house should never get cleaned and you should never just relax. In the interests of your mental health and family life, you need a balance. But if you're going to write that novel you dream about, you have to start by finding those smidgens of time. Fighting for them. Fending off the distractions.

Like children and puppies and other things that clamour to be heard.

I should end this blog with a couple of promo announcements. NONE SO BLIND, the tenth Inspector Green novel, is about to hit the bookstores, and I have two launches planned in October. The Toronto launch is Oct. 7 at the Arts & Letters Club, 14 Elm St. at 7 p.m. If you live in the GTA, come on down! I am sharing the launch with Rick Blechta, who is releasing ROSES FOR A DIVA. Great books both!

And secondly, THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS is a finalist for the 2014 Ottawa Book Awards. Winner to be announced Oct. 22. Thrilling affirmation for all those lonely stolen smidgens of time spent at the keyboard.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Okay, so I didn’t shave that day.
Sitting in a cold, dark garret day after day scribbling for ones living can leave a writer feeling desolate and alone. Sure, you could wander down to Ye Olde Taverne on an evening and cavort and gambol with one’s wastrel acquaintances, but that takes money and leaves the writer feeling enervated and alone once a return has been made, climbing the five flights up winding and narrow stairs to light a candle and work once again on ones magnum opus.

In other words, writing can sometimes be a big pain in the patootie.

On a beautiful day, sitting inside wrestling with prose that just won’t flow can seem like you’ve been condemned to perpetually doing homework. The hurry up and wait aspect of writing is also No Fun. Sure, we can complain to friends about the things we have to go through (as I am now with you), but in the end living the writer’s life is a self-inflicted decision. Publish or perish? Sometimes I wonder weather the latter isn’t preferable to the former, especially when the once-a-year royalty cheque arrives.

Then something unexpected and wonderful occurs to lift one’s depression.

That happened to me last week when my wife stepped into my home office to stop me practising trumpet (a very LOUD experience for onlookers and one that always forces our cat to cry piteously at the back door).

“What the #$%$^@ did you order?” she asked.

I paused from my efforts to play a steady F above high C (an awesome thing to witness).


“Didn’t you hear the delivery man knock?” Looking at the musical instrument in my hand, she added, “No. I guess not.”

“So what arrived?”

“It feels like a box of books. You sure you didn’t order some?”


Then it dawned on me and stepping into the living room to look at the carton confirmed it. Author copies of my new novel, Roses for a Diva, had appeared, completely unexpectedly — as they often do.

Grabbing a razor knife which I had been tempted to use on my wrists earlier in the day, I quickly opened the carton, removed those air packets used these days for shipping, and there it was: the latest addition to my literary family.

“We should take a photo for Facebook,” my long-suffering wife observed as she thumbed through one of my babies.

So we trooped out into our backyard and I held up three of them, beaming like a fool and feeling on top of the world.

Holding one’s new book is an indescribable feeling, even if it’s the tenth time (in my case) that you’ve done experienced it. For the moment, you can bask in a feeling of real accomplishment. Yeah, there will be bad days coming when you get a particularly harsh review, or you stand behind a table at a bookstore, ignored by the entire world. Then there’s my particular favourite: someone picks up your book at a signing, glances for a moment at the back cover’s description of what lies within, and quickly puts it down with a muttered, “Oh, I don’t think I’d want to read something like that!” As Inigo Montoya would say about launching a new book, “Humiliations galore!” That’s going to be visited on me soon enough.

But for the moment, life is good.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Scotland says No

This, I'm afraid, is going to be quite a short post. I can't do it at the weekend and today I am absolutely exhausted, having been up all night after spending six hours the day before campaigning for No Thanks.

The referendum the Scottish National Party instigated, proposing that Scotland should separate from the United Kingdom, has made this a horrible and bitterly divided place. Yesterday a carload of Nationalists drove past and yelled, 'F------g b-----d' at me because I wore a No sticker. Two young friends experienced frightening and obscene abuse on a train. There has been a huge amount of this sort of intimidation. This isn't the country I have loved and been proud of all my life.

I was born both Scottish and British, loyal to both. If the Yes campaign had won, I would have been robbed of half of my identity, my currency, my passport and my bank. I would have become a foreigner to my English grandchildren.

Mercifully, No won the day but it doesn't feel like victory. I am too saddened by what the referendum unleashed and I can only pray that the scars will heal with time.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Guest blog: Lin Anderson

Aline here.  I'm delighted this week to be able to introduce Lin Anderson to you. She is one of Scotland's best-known 'Tartan Noir' authors, with a string of successful books to her name. She's energetic, dynamic and her writing style is pared-down and elegant – and her eye for forensic detail is bloodcurdling! She's currently Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland

Here she tells us the story behind Paths of the Dead.

Books begin for me with a very vivid scene. If this scene stays with me, then I know there is a book in there. That opening scene often centres around something that frightens me. As a writer I explore those fears, confront them and try and deal with them.

As a student at Glasgow University, I studied Maths and Astronomy. My Professor of Astronomy was Archie Roy. As well as being one of the most entertaining and charismatic of lecturers, he was also ambidextrous. While discussing spherical trigomometry he would draw two large perfect circles on the board at the same time, and fill them in with diagrams. Most impressive.

Professor Roy as, well as being a renowned physicist and having a comet named after him, also became an authority on the paranormal, being past President of the Society for Psychical Research and Founding President of The Scottish Society for Psychical Research. He told a story once of how his interest in the paranormal had come about. As a young lecturer, he had stumbled on a library of books on the occult, housed in the main university building. He was surprised to note that many of the authors of the tomes were scientists like himself and decided if they were interested in studying the paranormal, then so should he be.

One video he showed on the subject in an evening class, involved a medium at work in a spiritualist church. Many years later, that idea was to inspire the opening scene in Paths of the Dead. Set in a Spiritualist church in Glasgow, not far from the university, Amy is persuaded to attend a Sunday morning service by her friend, Doreen. During this service, the medium reveals that Amy’s teenage son Alan has a message for her. Stunned and disbelieving, Amy argues that she left Alan at home alive an hour before. (You can see from this what my fear might be)

When Alan is found in a neolithic stone circle in the hills south of Glasgow, he has a stone in his mouth with the number five scratched on it. Shortly afterwards a female victim is found in the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney in similar circumstances, this time the stone in her mouth is marked with the number four. And thus the countdown begins, setting Dr Rhona MacLeod, forensic expert, Dr Magnus Pirie, a criminal profiler and himself from Orkney, and Detective Inspector Michael McNab on the trail of the killer.

In a previous life I lived in Orkney, not far from the Ring of Brodgar, which I visited often. The title Paths of the Dead was inspired by the excavation of the narrow strip of land between two lochs that links the Stones of Stenness to the Ring. The size of three football fields, this excavation has revealed a series of neolithic buildings thought to have been used for ritualistic purification purposes on the way between life at Stenness to death at Brodgar – a bit like crossing the River Styx.

I taught Computing Science for seventeen years before becoming a writer and this tale weaves the world of Artificial Reality Games (ARGs) with Druidry, marrying neolithic Scotland with the psychology of the modern mind. A puzzle that turns out to be a game, which turns out to be a puzzle, with lots of twists on the way. I never plan a book, but rely on the story to unfold as the participants of the little gang of characters that inhabit the world discover things – much like a proper investigation. This makes it exciting for me and I hope for the readers.

I therefore have no idea how things will end, which can be a little scary at times. A fellow writer calls that ‘the red fog of the denouement’. As a storyteller you must just trust your judgement to find a way out of that fog to the story’s ‘natural’ end.

I am fascinated by the structure of story and our understanding of it. How a story like Paths of the Dead fits together is what generates the pace and excitement – and keeps the reader reading, sometimes continuously until the end. Early in my writing career, I was lucky enough to take part in a new writers’ course with 7:84 theatre company. Ian Heggie who took the course gave lots of good advice which I still follow.

One such piece of advice was to keep the secret as long as possible. Life and people are full of secrets, some small, some not so small. Whenever you as a writer are about to reveal a secret in your story, whatever its size, always question whether you could keep it a little longer. I find the answer is invariably yes and that’s what keeps readers turning the pages. And remember a story is circular – the end should always reflect the beginning.

The most exciting thing about writing is what you discover on the way. Through researching Paths of the Dead I have learned a great deal, particularly about Scotland’s neolithic past, but also about the science we don’t yet understand, but can still use to our advantage. By the end of the writing process, I found myself in complete agreement with Emeritus Professor Archie Roy, namely the only thing we know, is that we don’t know (or not yet anyway).

The application of forensic science and psychology, plus the natural instincts of a seasoned detective, all combine to solve the neolithic puzzle that is Paths of the Dead. None of those skills could have solved it alone. Paths of the Dead is book nine in the series which features forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Each book stands alone, but there is a continuing thread in the lives of the group gang of characters who inhabit her world.

When I wrote the first in the series, Driftnet, I had no idea that it would turn out to be a series. I also knew next to nothing about forensics. Rhona was inspired by a former pupil of mine who left to study forensics at Strathclyde university.

In Driftnet, Rhona turns up at a scene of crime only to find the seventeen year old victim looks so like her, he might be the son she gave up for adoption. This was the dramatic premise. She soon finds out he isn’t her son, but because of the circumstances of the victim’s death, she is driven to find her son, as well as the killer.

Making Rhona a forensic scientist was the best thing I ever did. I even went back to my old university to do a diploma course in forensic medical science to aid with research. But at the end of the day, stories are characters in action, whether a crime story or otherwise. Readers come back to a series because they love the characters and want to be with them again and again. As do I.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Contact Your Author

The New Yorker ran a hilarious column in its September 8th issue. Written by Heather Havrilesky it was entitled "How to Contact the Author." In it the cartoonish author declares "I love to hear from my readers. My readers are everything to me, and hearing from them makes me feel so blessed." She continues with her email address, begs her readers to friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, add her name to the LinkedIn Network, and follow her on Instagram. She begs the reader to tweet her questions no matter how personal or prying saying that she can't wait to reply and having the answers available to hundreds of strangers. She goes on to give her text number and urges the fan to call her at home or drop by the house. "Dinnertime works fine. Middle of the night, also perfect. I am so incredibly humble to have you in my life, whoever the hell you are."

 There much more to this satire. It ends, of course, with an appeal for the reader to buys her books on Amazon. All writers nowadays are acutely aware of the value of BSP. Blatant Self Promotion. How far does one go and does bombarding the public actually sell books? Frankly, I am totally turned off by daily emails from writers regarding their latest activities. They are quickly routed to junk email.

Do authors welcome contact with fans? Actually, I do. When someone cares enough to write me about a book I feel honored and deeply grateful to know they like my series. I also appreciate knowing why they like my books.

Recently a lady wrote to correct a historical detail in Hidden Heritage. I was humiliated because I spend a lot of time on research and really thought I knew in this case. I quickly learned I was wrong and will apply that lesson to future books. We corresponded and became friends. I sent her a free book and she sent me some priceless information about a real madstone that had been handed down through seven generations.

There have been a couple of exceptions to enjoying contacts with fan. When my historical novel, Come Spring came out, I was contacted by a man who wrote a nice letter (in pencil) saying how much he liked my book. I sent my usual personal reply saying how much I appreciated his interest in my writing. He wrote back saying he was in a maximum security prison for criminal sexual assault against little boys. He bet my grandchildren were cute. My blood chilled. That finished polite responses on my part.

It wasn't the end as far as he was concerned. I started receiving collect phone calls from his prison. Naturally I refused. My husband worried that he would show up on my doorstep some day. I contacted my lawyer who was a good friend and was subjected to a general bawling out in the form of "what in the hell were you thinking?" Following that, he instructed me to take the letters to the sheriff so there would be a paper trail.

Don commented that was to make sure when the sheriff found my dismembered body in the vacant field next to our house the detectives would know where to start with suspects. No more came of this.

Now that I've established that I love hearing from fans, those of us on Type M would love to hear from our readers. How much contact do you want with authors? Lots? None? or somewhere in between? For that matter, what would you like to know?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Look who I ran into

Type M's Frankie Bailey spent a couple days with my family and me this week and visited a host of classes here at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Mass. It was a great experience for my students to get the chance to discuss not only Frankie's wonderful story "In Her Fashion" (Ellery Queen, July 2014) with her, but also to discuss other literary and social topics with a college professor of Frankie's stature.

As I have written many times, the mystery community is a small and close-knit one. And, for me, it is always wonderful to take a break from my academic life and spend time with another crime writer. Writing is a lonely second job, and having someone to talk shop with over a glass of wine is always refreshing and invigorating.

I have shared several pictures here. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Writing to Music

After reading Frankie’s post the other day on the number of books on her nightstand, I checked out the list of questions posed as part of the Sisters in Crime September Blog Hop. The questions about music and writing caught me eye so today I’ll be addressing those: Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I really like music, all kinds. According to Cornell University, there’s evidence that music is good for your health. I’d love to be able to listen to music while I’m writing, but I just can’t write fiction to most of it. I can’t write to anything with words. Interestingly enough, when I wrote technical documents I had no problem listening to, and singing along with, all kinds of music. But fiction is another story.

The only exceptions to the no-words rule are Gregorian chants and the music of Hawaiian singer Keali‛i Reichel (as long as he’s singing in Hawaiian.) I’m even picky about the instrumental music I listen to while I’m writing. Mozart, Bach, smooth jazz artists like Chris Botti and Dave Koz are all okay. Harp music is a particular favorite. (Right now I’m listening to Christine Grace Magnussen’s On Wings of a Dove: Harp Music to Soothe the Soul.) I heard once that harp music can calm down an agitated cat. I tried it on one of our cats and it seemed to help. I know it calms me down. Perhaps I’m part cat.

But I cannot listen to instrumental versions of well-known Christmas carols while working on a book. I find myself singing along, drifting off into a winter wonderland instead of paying attention to my writing.

So, I’m curious. Does anyone else have this problem? Or are you all happily writing to the latest hits?

And now I’ll introduce you to the author I’m linking to as part of the blog hop: Diann Adamson. We’re both members of the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Diann is currently serving as the chapter’s Membership Director. This weekend on djadamson.com she’ll be talking about the writers that have influenced her.

In the fun word category I have a couple more for you this week. I was watching an episode of Sleepy Hollow and they used two words I found particularly interesting: gongoozler and gumplefik.

Gongoozler is an idle spectator. (British English) According to oxfordictionaries.com its origins are from the early 20th century, originally denoting someone who idly watches activity on a canal. Rare before the 1970s.

>Gumplefik means fidgety and restless. I couldn’t find it in the OED or any other dictionary I have access to, but there are a number of references online to it long before the Sleepy Hollow episode aired. Let me know if you find it in a dictionary. I’d love to know the history of this word!

(See, television can be educational!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing and “writing”

Working as I do in graphic design, I have to deal with a lot of advertising copy. Since that’s often in flux as much as the design I’m working on, I get a bird’s eye view of the editing process. Sometimes I’m even a part of it.

If you think we novelists sweat over ever word, you should see the copywriter’s lot in life. They sweat every detail down to periods versus exclamation points, underlines versus no underlines and everyone second guesses what they do. Usually, there are multiple people looking over his/her shoulder, making their own judgements and comments. They all think they know what they’re doing, too — and some actually do — but many times I’ve seen promising copy get sideswiped by too much meddling and over-thinking. And it’s very hard to stop this process. Copywriters, like the graphic designers, want to give their client something the client likes and about which they feel confident that the job has been done properly. Sometimes this involves saving the client from themselves. Oftentimes, though, they don’t want to be saved — or so it appears.

About writing, everyone has their own opinion past a certain point. I’m talking about after all the “nuts and bolts” things have been fixed. Does this work? Should that be tried? Why is this even here? Because advertising copy is, by necessity, extremely distilled, the process is intense. So too with poetry, I would imagine (believe me, you don’t want to read any poetry written by moi!).

Given the length of novels, even short ones, this laser beam scrutiny is harder to achieve. From what I’ve seen in the advertising world, the same editing treatment would result in a writer completing a novel around once every decade. But can we not take something away from the advertising world? The most important thing I’ve learned about great advertising copy is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. The real trick is to get the reader to recognize that the word and punctuation changes are a subtle marker to ideas that are completely sub rosa, but still critically important.

I wish I could show you examples, both good and bad, in packages with which I’ve been involved, but it wouldn’t be fair to my clients. However, next time you read an ad, whether it’s found on a bus, in a magazine or newspaper, a billboard, anywhere, take a look at the construction of the copy and look at the emotions it stirs in you (or not) and whether it makes a connection with you.

Regardless of what you think about the value of ads, that’s the whole purpose of any writing, isn’t it?

Monday, September 15, 2014

The no longer dreaded synopsis

By Vicki Delany

Did someone say synopsis? (What’s the plural of synopsis? Synopsi? ).  Over the course of my writing career I have been what we call a pantser (i.e. write by the seat of my pants).  At Poisoned Pen Press, as Donis pointed out, they require a very brief outline and then the first 100 pages of the MS.  

The best instance of me writing totally by the seat of my pants was the third Constable Molly Smith book, Winter of Secrets, where I knew nothing but the first chapter when I began and continued to know nothing about what was going on until I finished.

I blogged about the process at the time:

But now, I have to announce that I am a convert! I am writing two new cozy series: the Lighthouse Library Series from Penguin Obsidian and the Christmas Town series from Berkely Prime Crime.  You will be hearing more (a lot more!) about those books as time passes, in the meantime, have a peek at my new web page for the Lighthouse Library Series (www.lighthouselibrarymysteries.com) BTW, I am using a pen name for the Lighthouse books, Eva Gates.

Those publishers not only require an outline for the new book, they wanted an outline for every book before signing me to a three-book contract!

I’ll never be able to do this, I thought.

I have to if I want this contract, I said to myself.

And so I did. And I found that I really, really like writing by an outline.  The initial coming up with the outline isn’t easy. You have to come up with the main premise, then decide how all the characters are going to behave during the book, who the ‘guest’ characters are and what they are up to, and how it’s all going to be resolved.

But once it’s done, I find that it makes the writing of the book so much easier.  It doesn’t destroy creativity, not at all. Because the outline is just the roadmap, it’s what you see as you travel the road that is creative and fun.  For example, in the second Lighthouse Library book, Booked for Trouble, the protagonist’s mother comes to Nag’s Head (where the series is set) and finds herself accused of a murder.  Okay, that was in the outline. But that she drives a Mercedes SLK was not.  That just came to me as I began to fully describe the mother and some of her habits. Did I have fun putting Lucy, my librarian, in the SLK, particularly during the desperate car chase that leads to the climax.

I am finding that once the hard work of coming up with a plot and all its complications is done, then the writing process is so much easier.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Master… Jeweler?

Please welcome this weekend’s guest blogger, Holly West. Her Mistress of Fortune series transports the reader to late 17th century England, a trip well worth taking. When Holly’s not wandering the captivating streets of 17th century London, she lives, reads, and writes in Los Angeles with her husband, Mick, and dog, Stella.

Take it away, Holly!


Writing Lessons from a Master… Jeweler?

You might notice that Mistress of Lies, the second novel in my Mistress of Fortune series, is dedicated to master jeweler Ralph Goldstein. To give you some context, my series’ protagonist is amateur sleuth Isabel Wilde, a mistress of King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortuneteller. But part of her back-story involves her older brother, Adam Barber, who worked as a goldsmith before he died in the Great Plague of 1665. The profession I chose for him is no accident: I spent many years learning and practicing the very techniques used by Adam Barber and his 17th century colleagues under the expert tutelage of Mr. Goldstein.

cover of Mistress of LiesWhile present day goldsmiths might be aided by the use of gas torches and various other conveniences, I can fabricate a ring very much the same way that 17th century goldsmiths did. In fact, I’m fascinated by how little the craft has changed in the past three hundred-plus years. When I sat down to write Mistress of Lies, I knew I wanted to pay homage to the trade I love so much, and as a result, Adam’s story and the possibility that he might’ve been murdered are central to the novel’s plot.

As it turns out, I learned more than goldsmithing from Mr. Goldstein. Though it wasn’t necessarily his intent, he taught me that the dedication required to become a master jeweler is also required to become a master writer. Even if one possesses a natural talent, it takes time, effort, consistent practice and patience to become proficient. Both require the understanding that if something is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well, and with care.

Though some will argue that Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” has been debunked, the idea that the mastery of a given subject requires a good deal of time and practice resonates with me. It took me five years to write my debut novel, Mistress of Fortune, and much of that time was spent studying the writing craft. I took classes, I wrote regularly, I edited and revised and then revised again. The resulting novel is a polished gem I’m tremendously proud of, and I put these skills to further use in crafting its sequel, Mistress of Lies. I’m far from being a master writer yet—Malcolm Gladwell might say I’m still about 5,000-hours short—but I’m dedicated to pursuing the craft and becoming the best I can be.

The tools of the writers trade might differ from that of a goldsmith—pen and paper or a computer replace gas torches and mandrels—but the principles of mastery remain the same. I’ll be forever grateful to my mentor, Mr. Goldstein, who instilled these standards in me before I ever wrote my first paragraph.

To celebrate the September 29 release of Mistress of Lies, my publisher, Carina Press, is offering Mistress of Fortune at the sale price of 99 cents. Both titles in the Mistress of Fortune series are available for purchase wherever ebooks are sold.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In Danger of Being Crushed

This month Sisters in Crime (SinC), the organization for women mystery writers (and men who support our mission), is sponsoring a "SinC-up for bloggers". SinC members are encouraged to blog about one or more of the suggested questions and then link to another author who will do the same:


I going to answer the question: "What books are on your nightstand right now?" I like this question because I was horrified by how many books were on my nightstand. I had a Collyer Brothers (the notorious hoarders) moment  
as I imagined the pile getting higher and higher until it towered over my head on the pillow. Then I would make an awkward sweeping movement as I tossed in my sleep and all the books would come crashing down on my head. What a way to go! Done in by a pile of books in various stages of being read.

At present, there are only four books on my nightstand. I'll talk about what they are in a moment. But the reason there are only four books is because I realized the danger of having a pile of books between me and the water glass I sometimes wake up and fumble for in the middle of the night. I realized that about the time I bumped a book, hit the lamp, and knocked the glass over. By the time I had gotten out of bed and found a mop I'd concluded there was no sensible reason to have more than one book on the nightstand at a time. But somehow three more books found their way back there.

The problem is that I have so many books I need or want to get read, that it's not only what is on my nightstand but what I've just scooped off the floor by my armchair in the living room or what I've piled on top of other books in my bookcase.

Right now, I'm trying to focus on George Orwell's 1984. I've read this one before. But this semester, we're planning an event at school -- a screening of the most recent film adaptation followed by a panel discussion -- and I want to make sure the book is fresh in my mind. So I read 1984 last week on my flight home to Virginia and on the way back. And then I lost it for two days among the books in my house or at the office. The truth is, I still haven't found the copy I was reading. But, luckily, I'd purchased a new copy because I couldn't find the old one -- and then I found it and lost it again.

What else am I dipping into as I try to finish 1984?  A Short History of Rudeness by Mark Caldwell. I've read that one before, too, but I'm reading it again as I think about civility. I'm thinking about civility because that's the other part of our theme for the semester -- civility and surveillance in public spaces. I'm also reading Caldwell's book again because I'm thinking about these issues in relation to the book I'm writing about dress, appearance and criminal justice.

I'm still working -- slowly -- on my historical thriller set in 1939. So I have a copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression on my nightstand. Important scenes in the book take place in New York City, so the fourth book on my table -- a bulky paperback of 700 pages -- is The WPA Guide to New York, produced by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.

Two book are about to take their turn circulating off my bookshelves to my nightstand, or maybe only as far as the dining room table -- Does This Mean You'll See Me Naked: Field Notes From A Funeral Director by Robert D. Webster and Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. I'm reading the Webster book because the victim in my next Hannah McCabe book (What the Fly Saw, due out in March) is a funeral director. I started reading about the funeral industry and death rituals and superstitions as I was doing research. The Kingston book is rotating back in again because I'm in need of de-cluttering. I turn to that book when I need a boost to get my clutter at least sorted into tidy piles. If I could ever finish the process, I'm sure my feng shui would be much better and my life would become orderly. But, at least, having Kingston's slender book there on my table ensures I won't sink into Collyer-like chaos.

There you have it -- what's on my nightstand and a few of the books that are scattered about elsewhere. I know there was a time in my life when I read one book at a time. I still try to do that when I want to relax. But with so many books to be read, I often end up multi-reading -- going from book to book based on what calls to me any given moment. Confessions of a scattered reader.

And now, I'd like to introduce the author to whom I'm linking --Eleanor Kuhns:


Eleanor and I are both members of the Upper Hudson Valley (Mavens of Mayhem) chapter of Sisters in Crime and we share the same publisher. Eleanor's first book, A Simple Murder, was the winner of the 2011 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel. She writes a historical mystery series set in the late 18th century. Take it away, Eleanor.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two Hundred and Fifty Words

We've been having some unusual weather here in the desert over the past few weeks. You Dear Readers may even have heard of our Hard Rain. We usually get some seven inches of rain in a year here in the Phoenix area. Last Monday morning we got five to six inches in less than 24 hours. Needless to say, we aren't set up for that sort of thing around here. The drains couldn't take it. There was nowhere for that water to go. Many folks were flooded out of their homes, and believe me, no one has flood insurance around here. I'm happy to say that even though we got ankle deep water in the back yard, there was no flooding in the house. By Tuesday the freeways were no longer rivers and I was able to make a creative writing workshop I was giving that day in Cottonwood, a town about 115 miles north of where I live. If I enjoyed weather like this I would have stayed in Oklahoma.

Photo of the freeway, from The Arizona Republic Newspaper

But back to business. Over the past week, some of my fellow Type M-ers have been writing about the agony of the synopsis. Never has a truer word been spoken than when they pointed out that you may send in a synopsis of what you think the book will be about, but by the time you finish writing the book, it will probably bear little resemblance to description you worked so hard on. The synopsis/outline that I submit to the publisher beforehand isn’t all that complex. I simply tell the story in a short, narrative form, and that seems to be fine. Before I submit a complete manuscript, my publisher requires that I send her the first 100 pages for approval. Having the publisher review the novel’s progress has on more than one occasion saved me some major rewriting.

After one’s book is accepted for publication, many presses ask their authors to send them detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review. But in my humble opinion the very hardest thing to do well is the 250-word summary. That one is a killer, as anyone who as ever tried to summarize a novel can attest. How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, education and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it. Some may even enjoy it, but I find it painful. Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have.

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years: I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost. Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry. Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence. In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause. This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Searching for truth in a wonderful strange land

Barbara here, writing this blog in a small cabin on the western coast of Newfoundland. A full moon is shining through the spruce trees and a wide, shallow brook is swishing by a few feet from my front deck, although I am inside because there is a fierce wind sweeping off the Strait of Belle Isle and a forecast of possible frost.

I am here researching locations and details for my latest book, and am having a wonderful time hiking the shorelines and mountain trails of one of the most beautiful and remote places in the world. One of the charms and frustrations of this beautiful peninsula is that cellphone and internet coverage is very spotty. The locals laugh about it. Stand over there by that tree, m' dear, hold your phone out towards the ocean, stand on one foot, and it might work for you. This afternoon, sitting in this very same chair, I had no signal, but now the wind has died down a bit and I am getting full bars. I hope they hang around long enough for me to post this blog.

This is one of the reasons I came to Newfoundland, and to the Northern Peninsula in particular. I have visited the island several times and grew up on stories told by my Newfoundland-born father. But a writer needs more that general memories and impressions. If we are writing about a real place, we need to know the smells and sights and sounds of it. Otherwise some Newfoundlander is going to say "That girl doesn't know what she's talking about!" And more importantly, those specific details provide the vivid texture and colour that make the story come alive.

So I am photographing and writing notes on every scene along the way - the stones on the shoreline, the colour and sound of the surf, the way the boats are scattered on the shore, the ferns and moss on the forest floor, the strange, twisted tangle of the tuckamore (which makes a perfect hiding place for a frightened fugitive). Often this exploration provides plot ideas and inspiration, such as the tuckamore. Sometimes, and equally important, it provides a reality check. Oh,oh, that idea won't work because the villagers are much too nosy, or keep too sharp an eye out, or there are local AVT and hunting trails all through the area I had thought was deserted.

I am also talking to local people to get the information I need. Yesterday I spent the morning talking to a woman from canine search and rescue here on the peninsula, and tomorrow I hope to talk to fishermen and plant workers at the local shrimp centre just north of here. Later in the week I hope to talk to the local RCMP. Going to the source, like a journalist, gives me a richness of detail and a personal perspective I'd never get on Google.

Which brings me back to the internet. Today's mystery writers are constantly trying to find ways around it. Nothing more frustrating than that niggling voice in our heads that says why doesn't she just use her cellphone? Or her GPS? People are connected within an inch of their lives today, making it really difficult for writers to make them lost or in jeopardy or unable to call for back-up, etc. Dropping cellphones into puddles or draining their batteries can only work so often. My Newfoundland story requires that the characters be out of touch, or at least only sporadically able to communicate with the outside world. Hence I was thrilled to discover that large swaths are without coverage, and sometimes you had to stand on one food and hold the phone over the ocean to get any signal. I have been testing the dead zones and signal strength all the way up the coast and will continue to map it for the rest of the trip. All part of realism. I don't want any resident of the remote little village of Conche saying "Wait a minute, there's perfectly good reception here, m' dear! That girl don't know what she's talking about!"

For now, let's just see if I can send this blog.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

More on synopsifizing

Boy, can I relate to Aline’s post from yesterday. I’ve had to do way more synopsis writing in the past three years than I did in all the previous years of my existence. There must be some out there who enjoy this kind of exercise, but I certainly am not one of them! It feels way too much like “doing homework”, and for the most part this buckeroo didn’t get along with that exercise, either.

Funny thing is, they’re really worth doing — and doing to the best of your ability. Here’s the thing I understood after I’d executed two of my Rapid Reads novellas, and my soon-to-be-released full-length novel, Roses for a Diva, all of which began life as synopses: do a really detailed synopsis, and then put it away in a drawer. I didn’t like doing them anymore than I had in the past, but at least I could see the point — from where I stood. Their value to publishers is an obvious one.

The clarifying of thought that takes place when writing your ideas down really helps later on. Problems arise if you consult your work’s “map” every morning before you begin working. Doing something like that seems to force your creativity into a kind of straightjacket, however unwittingly. It’s better to sit down with a bit of a foggy memory about “what comes next” and let the story wander where it will. If things don’t work out, you can check on what your synopsis said at the point of departure from it. In all cases but one, the new ideas worked out just fine, thank you, and ultimately my storyline was better for the divergence. Of course you do run the risk of your editor saying, “This bears no resemblance to what you told us going to write,” or worse yet, like Aline, your publisher uses your synopsis to describe your book in their catalogue while you’re at home happily ignoring it.

Ultimately, if I had my druthers, I’d jot down a few notes, no more than a page-worth about the arc I’d like my story to have and then get to work. That would probably give me enough of an idea to keep myself out of trouble, but not so much that it would get in my way. But publishers seem to want the comfort of a synopsis more and more these days. I’m sure the big guns don’t have to submit them, but us poor mid-listers sure do.

In the end, you just have to live with what’s required and make the best of it (or self-publish). My method outlined allows those of us who do it but hate it and not drive ourselves crazy. But it also requires a leap of faith for the writer as well as the publisher. In the end I really don’t think someone is going to complain if you’re work is solid and holds together really well. If there are objections, tell them that partway through writing you realized your synopsis was crap and the book would be, too, if you’d stuck to it. As long as your written words back that up, you should be good to go.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Just send in a synopsis...

I've always admired authors who know exactly what is going to happen in their book before they start writing it. I can only suppose they have very cooperative characters. It doesn't seem to matter what I want my characters to do, if they don't want to do it, they won't. (DS Tam Macnee is a repeat offender and I've learnt just to let him have his head.)

As a result, though, I hate writing a synopsis in any detail. Apart from anything else, I have an ingrained resistance to telling anyone – family, friends, agent, editor – what the twists and red herrings I am going to plant will be; I want them to read the book and be drawn in like any other reader. It will be spoiled, I feel, if they know what's going to happen.

In the book I'm currently writing, the murder method has changed (twice), the names have changed (several times) and the murderer is definitely not the person I thought it would be at the beginning. This is quite standard, though in one of my earlier books I had reached the second-last chapter before I realised that I had fingered entirely the wrong person. What was bizarre was that when I went back to make the mechanics work I found that they did, perfectly; I only had to bring the murderer into prominence a little more, so as to play fair with the reader. It was quite clear that while my conscious mind had been working in one direction, my subconscious had been working in another.

It happened at a time when I was having to deal with a lot of interruptions and I think my brain had worked rather the way it does when I'm stuck on a crossword clue; even when I'm not consciously thinking about it, the answer will suddenly pop into my head. I still find that when the plot is sticking, picking away at the problem isn't the best idea; just leaving it to simmer for a bit often produces the answer I need.

I once had the embarrassment of having a synopsis I'd written appearing in the publishers catalogue before the book had been delivered – and yes, all the usual changes had happened as I wrote it and it now bore no relation at all to the book I was going to be sending in. I phoned my editor in a panic and asked what on earth we were going to do. She was very philosophical. 'I don't think anyone pays much attention to that anyway,' she said, and I think she was probably right.

Now I'm more careful and any synopsis goes out with a health warning about accuracy attached.  I think I must be learning, though; I know now just what will happen in the new book and for interest went back to look at the synopsis. It's accurate, up to a point – but mainly it's so general that Tam MacNee is free to do his worst!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Smell of the Grease Paint...

This weekend's guest blogger is friend and fellow Canuck Janice MacDonald, who writes the Randy Craig Mysteries published by Ravenstone Books (an imprint of Turnstone Press). She lives in Edmonton, where she is working on the seventh in the series. Her detective is an academic manqué, who finds various niche jobs in and around the University of Alberta. Welcome, Janice!

My latest mystery novel, The Roar of the Crowd, is set against the backdrop of the Edmonton theatre scene, a rich and colourful tapestry indeed. Ours was the first Fringe Theatre Festival outside of Edinburgh, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is twenty-six years old and going strong, and there are said to be more theatres per capita in Edmonton than any other city in North America. What's more, we are a people who support local talent. We line up to partake of our cultural activities. When you link some very small lobbies with some very cold temperatures during a majority of the year, you have to admit that Edmontonians love their theatre.

And so do I. In fact, at one point I wanted to act, which then morphed into wanting to write plays. I went so far as to get through half of the studies necessary for an MFA in playwriting. Then I left – to play in radio for a while, and then settle into solitary writing, a more staid MA, college lecturing, and now writing for the government. Most of my creative energies are exercised in the privacy of my comfiest chair at home, or in my quiet cubicle at work. In busy meetings, I tend to take notes, doodle or meander.

So, now I find myself back in the midst of the theatre folks, some of whom have been my very best friends for the longest of times. Part of the push to promote this book means participating in theatrical variety shows, tweeting from the Fringe, appearing on pre-show panels to discuss Shakespeare, and generally being on the side I like less of the spotlight. I will do it, of course, since one does what one must to promote one’s books – it’s the literary equivalent of buying your children orthodontia and piano lessons.

But it’s not something I am necessarily looking forward to. When tested in Myers-Briggs tests, I am that odd duck that Susan Cain writes about in her book, Quiet, the ambivert, right on the line between introvert and extrovert. I am not afraid of crowds, but I gain no juice from them. Eventually, and surprisingly to those who see me happily chatting/ joking/ storytelling/ tapdancing/ singing/ holding court, I get all “peopled out,” and crawl off to my sanctuary to regroup.

I love the theatre, and I enjoy the occasional tread of the boards. But mostly I would rather be experiencing it from Row G. After all, we writers prefer the worlds and stages in our own heads.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Say what?

The process for recording an audiobook is fascinating. Blackstone Books produces Poisoned Pen Press books. The company is meticulous and I’m very fortune to have had Karen White, a top narrator, for all of my mysteries. She has a terrific voice and carefully collaborates on every pronunciation decision.

How can there be any controversy over how to say a word? You would be surprised. There was a lot of discussion involved with the Spanish honorific doña. Since the Spanish family in my newest book, Hidden Heritage, had lived in this country a long, long time, would they be using a fairly rare variation of pronunciation followed by a little known group in Spain. Or would they instead cling to the more formal and better known Castilian? To Castilian or not to Castilian. That was the question. Four researchers were involved. I can’t tell how much I appreciated the care they took.

Where you live and where you are from has everything to do with how you pronounce a word. If you live in the top half of Kansas you will refer to the Arkansas River as AR-Kansas. If you live in the lower half of the state, it’s Ar-kan-saw. (like the state) I write about Northwest Kansas, so I say AR-Kansas.

This spring when I was in Northwest Kansas we had a very lively discussion over usage. When my family lived in Southwest Kansas I was puzzled over the word "bar-ditch."  I honestly did not know what it meant. Then I learned it was what those of us in Northwest Kansas simply called a "ditch." And it certain regions of Texas it's "barrow ditch." All the words meant the same thing. It's the hollow area resulting from borrowing dirt to make a road.

Usage must be negotiated before the final copy of a manuscript. All of my conflicts have been settled amicably. However, with some authors this is nothing short of a duel to the death. I pay a lot of attention to an editor's preferences because they are more to tuned in to the population as a whole.

 I was amused at how annoyed we were at this discussion when city folks used the wrong words. The worst offence has to do with vehicles. An SUV is NOT a truck and it’s referred to by the manufacturer’s name. I would say “go out to my Tahoe (or fill in the blank) and get my address book out of the glovebox.” Yes. glovebox. A truck is a truck. A pickup is not a truck. It’s a pickup and it is NEVER a pickup truck.

We in Western Kansas have spoken.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Fall Pessimism

It's early autumn, and the dorm at the independent school, Northfield Mount Hermon, where I live and work will soon fill (or refill, it seems, after many years in this business) with 60 teenagers once again. My classes are designed and – hopefully – ready to go (including a September school visit from Type M's Frankie Bailey!), and I am off and running for another nine-month stretch of teaching and writing.

In my academic life, fall breeds optimism; in my writing life, fall spawns distrust.

Last year, I began my novel in August and struggled to keep all the balls in the air. And when push came to shove, I let the ball that doesn't pay the bills hit the floor: I missed my May 1 book deadline (and, subsequently, had to write 120 pages in 12 days in June to finish). I am determined not to allow that to happen again.

Stephen King, in On Writing, says you should try to finish a book in three months. That's a tall order for most people not named King or McBain. There's another mantra that speaks to writing pace, and I'm sure you've heard it: If you write two pages every day for a year, you'll have a novel.

Or 730 pages of junk.

As you probably realize (and if you've tried it, you most certainly realize it) writing a novel is never as easy as a mathematical formula. Silly items, you know, the little things, like plot problems or foolish characters who don't turn out to be who you thought they'd be, arise. And soon, if you're anything like me, you're spending two hours a day rereading what you wrote two months ago to see where those bastard characters led you astray. And your two-pages-a-day goal goes out the window. Hell, you're thrilled if you get one solid paragraph (in two hours) that moves the book forward.

So as the hopeful, beaming teenagers return to campus for another year, and I'm 5,000 words into my new book (standing at the edge of the forest, peering through the trees to the lovely field at the other side, not yet seeing where the woods grow Howthore-ian dark), as optimistic as I try to be, I know, looming just out of sight, (maybe hiding in one of the now-empty campus corridors), stands one of those bastards I will create (and maybe haven't even thought of yet) who is planning a plot surprise that will leave me scratching my head and rewriting for weeks.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Like most writers, I love words, especially ones that sound interesting or are unusual. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of historical mysteries set in the Middle Ages. As you might expect, I’ve come across a word or two that sound a bit odd to modern ears. As you also might guess a lot of them are archaic. Here are a few unusual words I’ve come across recently. Not all of these date back to the Middle Ages, but they’re all interesting:

begrumpled – displeased. According to the reference in The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten, this one came from a dictionary of obsolete words published in 1857. I think we should bring it back. I was begrumpled last Friday when I realized the local post office didn’t open until ten a.m.

blutterbunged – confounded, overcome by surprise. Okay, I was begrumpled and blutterbunged at the post office.

fizgig – a silly, flirtatious woman.

funambulist – tight rope walker. I suppose they’re having fun up there.

fustilugs — a ponderous clumsy person or a fat slovenly person.

higgledy-piggledy — topsy-turvy, jumbled. This one I’ve seen in more modern books and it’s not listed as archaic in any of the dictionaries I consulted. I just love the way it sounds. And it pretty much describes my work area these days.

miscomfrumple — to rumple, crease. According to The Word Museum, it’s Northamptonshire dialect. The book references an English dialect dictionary from the late 1800s/early 1900s.

skimble-skamble — rambling and confused. Shakespeare gave us this one. According to the OED, it first appeared in 1598 in Henry IV, Part I.

snirtle – to attempt to suppress one’s laughter.

traveltainted – fatigued with travel. I’ve been this a few times, especially when traveling to/from Europe. Those twelve hour flights are not fun.

trinkle – to eavesdrop. Another one from that 1857 dictionary of obsolete words. Besides The Word Museum, I’ve got my eye on Totally Weird and Wonderful Words edited by Erin McKean. It’s a combination of two previous books: Weird and Wonderful Words and More Weird and Wonderful Words.

Guess I know what goes on my Christmas list this year.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Start of a New Year -or- Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

The first day of school (it is here in Ontario) has felt more real as the start of a year than the first of January ever has once I began teaching in 1976. I know it’s that way for a lot of teachers, most, in fact. I haven’t had a classroom assignment since I left the Toronto District School Board back in 2001, but I still do some teaching here and there when someone wants me to.

But the first day of school still resonates with me and I still feel as if is a perfect chance to get it in gear and really accomplish something. (Whether I do or not is another matter…)

Right now in my writer’s life, I have a number of irons in the fire and could easily fill two people’s lives with all that needs to be done. The list is intimidating to say the least whenever I contemplate it, so I tend not to do that, just close my eyes and try to barrel through. I often find that an overflowing job jar can cause one to suffer from complete stasis, don’t you? But I will suffer through the list for all you loyal readers of Type M.

Here it is:
  1. My new full-length novel, Roses for a Diva, hits bookstore shelves in mid-October. Being a sequel to The Fallen One — my most successful publication to date — there’s a lot of pressure for this one to do even better. I’m in the middle of arranging a flurry of signings prior to the Christmas rush and I will be sharing two launches for the book (one in Toronto, one in Ottawa) with Type M confrère Barbara Fradkin, whose None So Blind is being released at the same time, by the same publisher. How cool is that? But arranging an effective book tour is a lot of work and very time-consuming.
  2. I am trying to find consistent time to work on my new novel (name withheld for the moment — but it’s a good one!) which also happens to be the start of a new series. Knowing the numerous pitfalls of writing a series from all my friends who are currently writing series, I have been working at a much slower pace than normal, and taking tons of notes as things occur to me. The initial novel causes such a ripple effect through subsequent novels that everything must be just right. It is an intimidating project on its own. So far, so good…
  3. I’m waiting for the contract to be delivered for a third novella for Orca. Once that arrives and I sign on the dotted line, I’m committed to have something publishable in to them next June. I’m really excited about this since a) I think I’ve come up with a terrific plot, and b) I love working with everyone at Orca. If you haven’t picked up one of the Rapid Reads series, you should. They are excellent books, even if they are short and simple. Think of them as the crime writing version of Haiku. Vicki Delany and Barbara Fradkin also have Rapid Reads out. Buy all of them! My favourite place to read one is on a short plane ride or car trip. You can finish any of them in under two hours.
Bear in mind with the above list that these are just my writing endeavors. There’s also a new band just getting onto its feet (and all the arrangements that still have to be written for it), the big band I play with, a bit of free-lance teaching (two gigs so far for this fall) and of course design work to help hold body and mind together.

Perhaps I should consider giving up sleeping as my “New Year’s” resolution.

Speaking of Roses for a Diva, it just got it’s first little shout out from Jack Batten in the Toronto Star (and also includes a shouts out for my friend Phyllis Smallman’s new book:

“Not to be outpaced, Canada boasts two top writers in fine form. Phyllis Smallman is back with Martini Regrets featuring Sherri Travis, a smart woman who can’t stay clear of murderous situations (October). And Rick Blechta’s Roses for a Diva finds the opera soprano Marta Hendriks once again singing for much more than her supper (November).” — Jack Batten, Toronto Star

Now that’s a great way to begin a new year!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Tasting Tomatoes to Mark the End of Summer

By Vicki Delany

That didn’t last long. Is summer over already? Here in Southern Ontario we didn’t even seem to have one.  There wasn’t a day over 30 degrees, it seemed to rain every day, and when it wasn’t raining the clouds were low and the wind strong.

A lot of people were delighted to not to have the heat and humidity that we’re used to here, but not me. I like my summers HOT and my winters COLD.

But, no one asked me to help plan the summer weather, so it was what it was.

But it summer ended well with two great days at Vicki’s Veggies Heirloom Hurrah.  

Vicki ready for the buying frenzy

Setting up

My 2012 novel, MORE THAN SORROW, is a modern Gothic thriller set on a small-scale vegetable farm in Prince Edward County, Ontario in 1783 and 2012.  The main character, Hannah Manning, is an internationally renowned journalist who has been injured in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury she comes to live on her sister’s farm.  There she meets an Afghan refugee and, down in the dark, dank root cellar, sees visions of the original inhabitant of the property, a refugee from the American revolution.
Don't we all

In doing the research for the book, I spent a day at Vicki’s Veggies farm, learning all about running a small-scale, organic vegetable farm.

Some of the choices
I don’t normally do craft fairs or similar things, because I am a writer not a bookseller, but this weekend is special for me.

A particularly good one
I set up my table at the tomato tasting day, among the 109 varieties of tomatoes, the food trucks (yummy), and various local food-product vendors, because visitors to the farm love knowing that my book is set RIGHT HERE!
After eating, time for buying!

My lunch, day one. Sausage sandwich from Angelo's

My lunch day 2, Vicki's incomparable bread salad

I sold out of MORE THAN SORROW on Saturday. Had to rush to the bookstore to get the last two copies they had in stock to have something to display on Sunday morning.  When those went I still had a good day, talking to people about the book and showing them what else I have to offer.

It was a great two days – except for the rain on Sunday morning, necessitating a mad scramble to get all my books under the table!

Want to know more about More than Sorrow? Here's a handy link.  

Tomato Goddess herself, Vicki Emlaw