Friday, October 31, 2014

The Beginning, the Middle, and the Middle

Do you know what kind of book I really, really, really don't like? Books that have a beginning, a middle, and a middle.

This concept was presented this month by novelist Mark Stevens at the annual event "Conversation with Authors" sponsored by the American Association of University Women. I immediately understood his point.

I feel cheated and betrayed when I've read such a book. It's happened to me a number of times lately, even in crime fiction. I understand that I might be setting myself up for this experience when the genre is contemporary literary fiction, but in all other categories, it used to be strictly taboo. In older classic literary fiction it didn't happen either. It was understood that the reader expected a story, not an experiment.

Endings do not have to be happy, or even be very satisfying, but I want to understand what happened. No fair if the author if simply stops writing and wanders off.

It may seem puzzling to those properly trained to hear literary fiction referred to as a genre. According to the great creative writing teacher, John Gardner, it's best to think of all writing that way. It helps sweep away the fog hanging over your intention. He wrote that everything is genre and the easiest way to understand this is through the categories (genres) attached to music. Musically, one has composed an opera, a folk tune, a ballad, an aria, a choral composition, etc.

If your offering is literary fiction and billed as such, I expect a book with a fresh distinctive voice, mastery of language, complex characterization, and ideas worth thinking about. I expect passionate books wherein the author cares about development and craft. And I expect a real story.

Books without endings are surprisingly easy to write. Blissfully easy. I've been tempted to do this a number a times myself. Especially when things aren't going well. But having been blessed or cursed with a rather pragmatic view of work, I've never fooled myself.

An unfinished novel is an unfinished novel. No ending is no ending.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The shy guy's guide to a book signing

Let's get one thing straight immediately: Rick's recent post about book signings is the gospel. But I know that book signings aren't easy, especially if you're introverted by nature, so I'd like to continue the thread here.

It should be pointed out that regardless of your personality you can't afford to be passive. This past weekend, I had two events. Now, I'm not the world's most out-going author, and the first venue was a place where I'd never previously signed. But the table was near the door – always a must – and Friday-night foot traffic was steady.

Perhaps the best thing I did all night, aside from hand-selling 19 copies, was accidentally pitching to the store owner to get myself invited back.

I spotted a middle-aged man looking at a book display.
"Do you like mysteries?"
He turned around. "Actually, I do."
"Well, I'd love to tell you about my new book. It's about a single mother and border patrol agent in northern Maine."
We chatted for a few moments more, then he said, "I like you. Nice pitch."
He went on to tell me he owned the store and would tell his manager to bring me back in May when the sequel was released. Success at a booksigning can come in many forms.

I find eye contact to be everything. Some people entering the store have no intention of stopping to meet you. They are intentionally looking the other way, they are in a hurry, or they obviously have other pressing matters. You know what they're doing by avoiding you – maybe they have groceries in the car; maybe they're late for a coffee date -- regardless, they don't want to talk. I let these people go. On the other hand, you also know when someone enters the store and simply doesn't notice you. I find that, like Rick, my simple "Do you like mysteries?" is enough. Most people respond affirmatively (only two at my last two store events said "No" outright). The fact is that most bookstore patrons do enjoy mysteries or the subgenre offshoots.

I also think you need to know your target audience. And, believe me, coming from a guy whose first five novels are about a professional golfer – a clear-cut (and clearly small) niche – this is important. Now I have a wider range of buyers, but middle-aged women seem to be the most interested group. So, following my opening question, I have a follow-up 10-second description: "This is the first in a series featuring a single-mother who's a border patrol agent." A lot of people stop, trying to conceptualize exactly what the hell that is. Now they pick up a book and read the jacket description. Unlike Rick, I don't usually offer a teaser line. Mostly because I don't have a great one. And if your teaser isn't great, it's a dud. So if they are clearly considering, I suggest they read the opening paragraph. While they're reading, I go with a simple, "If you're interested in the book, I'd love to sign a copy for you or answer any questions you may have." And people do have questions – from the writing process, to plot details, to research and procedural details involving the Customs and Border Protection. Most people who have spent this long at the table and learned that you're not such a bad guy will buy a copy.

I'd love to hear more from our readers and/or my Type M colleagues about signings.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

National Cat Day

Today is National Cat Day. Founded in 2005 by Pet and Family Lifestyle Expert & Animal Welfare Advocate Colleen Paige, the day is meant to celebrate the cats in our lives and encourage their adoption.

What’s National Cat Day without pictures of cats? Here are the two who graced our lives for many years until they moved on to the great playground in the sky. Both were rescues. The black cat was Maleficent (Mally)

and the orange tabby
was Maxwell. We used to refer to them as our Halloween cats. (Seems appropriate for this time of year.)

Cats and other animals abound in cozy mysteries. There are the Pet-Sitter and Pet Rescue Mysteries by Linda O. Johnston, the Cat Who Mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun, the Mrs. Murphy Mysteries by Rita Mae Brown and a slew of others. I found this list compiled in 2007 on of cat theme mysteries: I’m sure there are a lot of new ones since then.

I love cozies. I read and write them. I’ve heard a lot of people try to explain what makes a mystery a cozy, but I’m not convinced there’s a clear definition. For me, it’s usually a “I know it when I see it” kind of proposition. But most people seem to agree that a cozy doesn’t dwell on violence and has little or no sex in it. The emphasis is on solving the crime and restoring order to the protagonist’s world, something that doesn’t always happen in real life.

Cozies often involve amateur detectives, i.e. ordinary people. I think the reason there are so many cats and other animals in cozies is because these kinds of mysteries are about murder intruding on ordinary people’s everyday lives and animals are a part of that everyday life. Just look at the billions we spend on our pets every year. Yes, billions. The Los Angeles County Library acknowledged the importance of animals in our lives this past summer with their Paws to Read program. If you’re going to write about the average person’s life you’ve got to mention a pet here and there.

My own book, Fatal Brushstroke, is a cozy. In it, computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Rory Anderson discovers the body of her painting teacher in her garden. Well, she’s not the first one to find the body. There's this neighborhood dog: “A fluffy ball of fur named Mitzi was the first to sniff out the intruder, alerting the unsuspecting residents of Seagull Lane to the grim discovery.” Rory may not have a pet of her own, but she comes across a number of them throughout the book as someone would in real life.

Today I’m going to curl up with a cozy mystery and celebrate the cats who've brightened  my life. What about you?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A bit more on book signings

Me and my publicist, Karel.
I’ve done three book signings and one book launch so far. In two days, I will be doing another launch in Ottawa (a city of note these days, sadly) with blogmate, Barbara Fradkin whose hometown it is. That’s on the evening of the 29th so if you’re in the Ottawa region and would like to attend, just leave a comment here and I’ll fire over the details. I’ll also be doing a Halloween afternoon signing on Bank Street in section of Ottawa known as The Glebe.

So why the update and itinerary? Well, because book signings and launches operate completely within the realm of Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong, often does. The fact that those stumbles are generally completely out of the control of the poor author make them that much harder to bear.

So what’s gone wrong for me? Well, let’s see… The night of our launch in Toronto, we had rain of near biblical proportions. While the turnout was okay, it was disappointing. We’d been expecting twice as many people. What can you do? Next evening was lovely. We picked the wrong day. Luck of the draw.

As for signings, I’ve enjoyed them all but there have been trials and tribulations. How about books not being delivered to the store (postponed signing), day changed the night before the event (scheduling snafu), books in the store but so cleverly hidden no one could find them for about a half hour. All of it infuriating, but out of the author’s control.

My job as I see it is to be pleasant and welcoming to all, whether they be store staff who are having problems or readers who are rude or thoughtless. You know what? Getting angry will get you absolutely nowhere. Being kind certainly gets you a lot farther.

On a slightly different front, you’d expect fiction authors to be keen observers of the human condition, wouldn’t you? Why not bring that to bear for book signings? If you read my post last Tuesday, you’ll know that I’m a believer in having a strong, well-rehearsed, concise pitch. What if your pitch seems to be missing the mark? How do you know? Well, first indication is too many people are walking away. You hooked them into coming over to find out more, but after your message they say (more or less), “Thanks but no thanks.”

A subtler tell is there eyes, expression and body language. If they’re looking around as you speak, if there expression hardens, or they seem fidgety, you’re not going to sell a copy to them, but since they’re still listening, you can try another tack on the fly. What should you say? I can’t tell you that, but you write, don’t you? Try to come up with something. On my current round of signings, I’ve refined my pitch about three times. The results have been good.

Really think carefully about what you’re saying and to whom. If a woman comes by I ask, “Do you like reading mysteries?” If a male walks by I’ll ask, “Do you like reading thrillers?” Since my novels are a bit of both, I’m not stretching the truth. While I would prefer asking if they enjoy reading crime fiction, I don’t because all I’ve ever gotten are blank stares. I also don’t say something to general like, “Do you like mysteries?” because it isn’t as clear. I have seen first hand the effect another author got when she asked, “Do you like murder mysteries?” As someone pointed out, the word murder can make too many people uncomfortable, even if that’s what your novel is built around. The key here is to experiment a bit and then observe.

Lastly, I forgot to mention something that’s proven very helpful: bring a friend or relation who is open and friendly to be your “publicist” for the signing. I did this on Sunday since my son Karel was free and it was very useful for a number of reasons. First, the publicist can stand at the entrance to the bookstore and send people your way. I always give my publicist a handout of some sort so those who can’t stop immediately will maybe be coaxed over after they’ve gotten what they came for. This is especially effective when it’s a parent bringing a child in. While their little one enjoys the kid’s section, they will quite likely read your handout. Often they stop by the signing table on the way out.

Also, your publicist can peal off a person who wants to chat with you at length. Unless you’re a real Somebody, most people won’t wait around to talk if someone is occupying your time. Often these talkers are other writers, and for some reason they very seldom buy your book in the end. So basically, you’re wasting opportunities to chat with readers who might by your book — and you get nothing in the end. Your publicist, upon seeing these can generally coax them away with a kind word or two.

There’s a bit of cachet that can accrue to you by having a publicist in tow. It means you’re important to the publisher. Only Important Authors travel with publicists. What I usually have my person say to the bookstore manager is something like, “It’s my turn to help with signings this weekend. I’m here to greet shoppers coming into the store and help the author.” You’ll notice this really isn’t a lie, just a bit of truth stretching. To people greeted at the entrance, we’re a little more untruthful, but only slightly: “Hello. I’m from [name of publisher] and we have one of our best-selling mystery authors here today to sign copies of his latest novel. Want don’t you go over and see him? His novels are really great reads!”

You’ll also have someone to talk to while you’re driving home.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


It's that time of the year. Halloween. Fright time.

Although we prefer to be safe and sound, we all love a good scare. Horror is a popular theme in literature. But why? What's the attraction of fear?

It's fear as entertainment that we enjoy. Let me explain. This is what happens when we get scared:

First the stimulus. Since we're primarily visual creatures, the object that frightens us is usually processed from our eyes to the visual cortex in our brain. The visual cortex pings Red Alert! to the cerebral cortex. That in turn tells the emotion-processing parts of your brain, the insula and amygdala, that there is a threat. At the same time, the cerebral cortex starts producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate to jazz up your physiological response--flight or fight! 

Now the good part of all this--the payoff for getting the pants scared off us--is what happens next and almost simultaneously. As more clues are absorbed by the cerebral cortex--the zombie jumping out of the closet was your sister in costume, the creepy thing in your shoe was a Gummy Bear, the serial killer you're reading about can't escape the pages--the alarm is deemed false. Then the insula and amygdala are told to settle down and gamma-aminobutyric is released to soothe your jangled nerves. Ahhh! By now though, the hypothalamus has been telling your adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline and endorphins. Beside helping to dull pain and energize muscles, adrenaline also sharpens your senses, which heightens the experience. And we know that endorphins are the brain's pleasure cocktail, also produced by exercise and sex. Basically, as you recover from the scare, your mood has been boosted with plenty of feel-good chemicals. I'm surprised that the pharmaceutical companies and their lackeys in the government haven't made getting scared illegal! And once you get your pants scared off, you're free to produce even more endorphins. Either alone or with company. Enjoy!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Keeping Secrets

I'm reading the proofs of my next book (What the Fly Saw). In one scene, my protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is having drinks with another detective, Sean Pettigrew. They agree that they are friends who can keep each other's secrets. Their conversation got me thinking about the secrets we keep and those we share.

In one study I looked at about secret-keeping and disclosure, the subjects tended to have confided a secret to at least one other person. That person was someone to whom they felt emotionally close. Generally, when we keep a secret to ourselves, it's because we feel shame, embarrassment, guilt, and/or fear the consequences if the secret becomes known. Keeping a secret can be stressful. But the prospect of having that secret revealed or discovered may seem even worse. Of course, crime fiction thrives on secrets -- secrets that threaten a relationship or a career, secrets that place a victim in the power of a blackmailer, secrets that are worth killing to preserve. In crime fiction, characters with secrets that are unrelated to the crime that the sleuth is investigating provide false leads and red herrings.

As writers, a part of getting to know a character is to get him or her to tell us what he or she keeps secret. What has she never told anyone? Under what circumstances would she reveal her secret? To a best friend? To a lover? To a lawyer or a minister? How would she react if the person she confided in betrayed her by telling her secret?

Secrets are a gold mine for a crime writer because there are so many possibilities and combinations – secrets from the past, secrets from the present, secrets that are private matters but could have public consequences, state secrets and trade secrets, secrets gathers by infiltrators and informants. Secrets can be written down, whispered in ears, kept on computers, buried in a hole in the backyard, be in code or in plain view, told to the parrot or whispered with a last breath. Secrets can be the mad wife in the attic or the baby that was given up for adoption and turns up at the door.

Personally, I like family secrets. In Death's Favorite Child, the first book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Lizzie learns that her recently deceased grandmother, Hester Rose, has lied to her. Hester Rose claimed not to know who Lizzie's father was or where Lizzie's teenage mother went when she got on a bus and left town a few days after Lizzie was born. The secrets that Hester Rose took to her grave become a part of the series arc – questions that Lizzie eventually tries to answer.

A really useful secret – whether one that the character is keeping or one that she is trying to learn – makes that character feel vulnerable. There may be nothing shameful about the secret by modern standards, but the character dreads exposure or dreads learning the truth. A good secret goes to that character's sense of self and how he or she wants to be perceived. A good secret makes a character cringe when he imagines having it whispered from ear to ear among the people he knows.

I don't know yet what secret Hannah McCabe is keeping to herself. We have only been together for two books. I suspect that her deepest, darkest secret is not one that she would tell her colleague and friend, Pettigrew, over a drink after work. It could also be a while before she's willing to tell me. After all, she knows I'm going to use it to make her life difficult.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Samhain

I miss the way Halloween used to be. When I was trick-or-treat age, back in the Middle Ages, as soon as darkness fell on Oct 31, the streets of my suburban neighborhood filled with seas of little hobos and pirates and witches. It was literally a mob scene.

And the treats! No store-bought mini-Snickers for us mid-century ragamuffins. Sadly, it’s not a good idea to give out homemade treats any more, unless both the giver and receiver have undergone a background check. I’d be loathe to let my kid eat a stranger’s cookie. But in those halcyon days, my sisters and I always came home with a pillow case full of little bags of cookies and brownies, apples and packs of Juicy Fruit gum, dimes and nickels, licorice whips, Slo-Pokes, Hershey Bars, and my very favorite treat of all time, popcorn balls! No homemade treats these days. Maybe not even door-to-door trick-or-treating. But then again, Halloween didn't used to be all about candy, either.

In one of my past working incarnations, I owned a Celtic gift shop. I imported gift items from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales - all the Celtic countries, in fact, which include Man, Brittany, and Galicia. This time of year is a very big deal for Celtic peoples, for midnight on Oct. 31 is the turning of the year – Samhain, or Celtic New Year, and the origin of our Halloween. This is the time when the veil between this world and the next is at it's thinnest, and those with eyes to see are able to see right through to the other side, where the dead live. Some Celtic people would light bonfires on Samhain eve to guide the souls of loved ones, and make lanterns out of hollowed out turnips to lead the dead home for their annual visit.

My husband remembers that every Halloween, his father would dig a pit in back of the house, line it with bricks, fill it with wood, and light what they called a "bonfire", though it was more like a good sized campfire. The family would sit around it and roast wieners and marshmallows on sticks and stretched-out hangars. He has no idea where the family tradition came from, but I'm guessing it was passed down through the family from the misty past, for such traditions are remarkably enduring. So, if you live in the country or don't worry about being fined for building an open fire in your back yard, stretch out those hangars and get yourself a bag of marshmallows, and take a trip into the past with some campfire s’mores.

Put a slab of Hershey bar on top of a Graham cracker, put a melty-hot roasted marshmallow on the chocolate, top with another Graham cracker, and enjoy.

By the way, Samhain is pronounced "SHAW-win." In Gaelic, that mh makes a "w" sound in the middle of a word.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A letter to readers

Barbara here. This past Saturday, October 18, marked the official release date of my tenth Inspector Green novel, NONE SO BLIND. Soon I will be putting Rick's terrific tips for successful book signings to good use. I have signings lined up in both Toronto and Ottawa, as well as several book club guest appearances.

But today, in order to celebrate the book's release, and to give people a hint of what inspired me to write it, I would like to share this letter I wrote last spring when the ARCs were being prepared.

Dear Readers,

NONE SO BLIND is the tenth Inspector Green novel, marking a milestone of sorts. Each of the nine previous novels revolved around an issue of social or moral justice that inspired or troubled me, and in Michael Green I created a character who, although flawed, was relentless and unwavering in his commitment to justice. He always saw himself as a voice for the marginalized and victimized in society. His career and reputation were built on that belief.

I’m very proud of the success and respect the series has garnered, and I want the series and the characters to grow richer over time. In this tenth novel, I have given Green his greatest challenge yet. Not a physical one, as in THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, but a challenge to his very belief in himself as a champion for justice.

In NONE SO BLIND, Green is forced to re-examine the case upon which his career and reputation were built. As a rookie detective twenty years earlier, he had gone against the advice of senior investigators to track down a college professor responsible for the death of a young co-ed. Green was widely praised, but the professor continued to protest his innocence through letters to Green from prison. Shortly after his parole, he is found dead of apparent suicide, a fitting end as far as most people are concerned. However, as Green investigates the suicide, he uncovers evidence that forces him to reconsider the original case.

NONE SO BLIND examines justice itself, not in the abstract, but with all the flaws, biases, doubts, and best efforts of those who strive to carry it out. I hope it proves as worthy a challenge for readers as it did for Inspector Green and me.

Thank you,
Barbara Fradkin

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blechta’s book signing manual

I’ve got a new book out. It needs promoting, and like so many other authors, I’m expected to do a lot to help with that promotion. Fine. Actually, I don’t mind it, even though balancing the book’s promotional needs with my regular working day, as well as the general stresses and strains of daily life makes it a pretty tough load to carry at times.

I’ve gone through this for each of my books, so this is the tenth occasion I’ve hit the road to do signings in bookstores. I’ve learned a lot, refined my approach, changed tools, figured out what works and what doesn’t. In short, I’m now pretty good at it. Given reasonable traffic in a store, I can move 20+ books in a three-hour “author event”, even though most people wandering by have never heard of me or my books.

Today, I’d like to share my formula with you, so you don’t have to go out and invent it yourself.

First of all, there are things you must have with you when you leave the house. They will be essential tools to help you find success. 

Here’s the list:

Your patter well worked out beforehand: You need something to say to people. My go-to line is generally, “Do you like mysteries?” Another one that often works is “May I tell you about my new novel?” Find something that works for you, your book and for that particular store/event/crowd. If they seem inclined to want to hear more, you have to be able to set your hook in under 30 seconds max. Don’t tell them what your book is about. Think of a movie trailer. Sell them the sizzle, not the steak. Do all of this at home where you can practise it until it flows smoothly. The worst thing is to stumble through something like this. Even if you need to say the same thing every time to get through it, that’s not such a bad thing. If a publisher sat you down and said, “Convince me why your book is worth publishing,” what would you say? Make your last line a shameless cliffhanger. I’m currently telling people things that happened before the opening of the book. It is mysterious, intriguing and I give it frisson of danger (which is not a stretching of the truth), then finish off with “And that’s where the novel begins.” It’s working about 25% of the time, so if I talk to 80 people during the course of a signing, I’m doing pretty well at the end of the day.

Bookmarks: Have a good-looking one to hand people. Most people will take it. They will probably wind up using it in some other book, but the bookmark will remind them of you. I think it’s very important to have a good teaser line on it, along with the required cover image. My current one reads, “Soprano Marta Hendriks has a devoted fan who sends her beautiful bouquets of roses... but what does he really want and where will he stop?” Even better was my previous novel’s teaser (and not my idea): “Only one thing is standing in the way of Marta Hendriks’s opera career... her dead husband.” If someone does by your book, I always tell them “And today only you get the matching bookmark absolutely free!” Why do I want them to have a bookmark at all costs? Because on the back, I have my other books and the address of my website. If you don’t have a double-sided bookmark, you’re missing a great opportunity.

Another sort of handout: Sometimes I do up a double-sided newsletter, the purpose of which is to introduce myself and my new book, but also to talk about previous books and, of course, any reviews your current book has received and maybe a few older ones. Establish your literary bona fides with this piece. This time out, I’ve produced a smaller piece called a tear sheet to see how that works. It’s smaller and easier to carry while someone browses in another section of the store. Once Roses gets a newspaper or magazine review, I’ll put an excerpt from it at the bottom where the blue copy is now.

A poster of your book’s cover: You need something to stop traffic, grab people’s attention. I had my go-to firm for large output do up a 20" x 32" poster and then mount it on foamcore. The finishing touch is some slid on metal framing to protect the edges. Total cost was $110 — and it was money very well spent. Trust me, it stops traffic, and that’s what you want. When it catches their eye, you can spring on shoppers with your come-on line. This time out, I purchased an inexpensive metal easel that puts the poster near eye level (it also holds the poster securely and breaks down easily, storing in a small cloth pouch). I put the poster and easel right next to the signing table on the outside where passersby will be sure to see it.

Book stands (in case the venue doesn’t have any): Get your book standing securely upright. Most stores have these, but this past Sunday they didn’t give me any. I just whipped out two that I always carry in my bag.

A pop-up with a printout of any reviews your book has received: This is one of those plastic sleeve-like things into which you can slide a sheet of paper. Copy out any reviews your book has received (or any blurbs). I find this especially useful when you’re talking to one person and another one stops. Hand them the pop-up and tell them you’ll be right with them. If they put that down, hand them a copy of the book. Hopefully they’ll stick around.

Water: You’re hearing this from someone who taught band every period of every school day, plus before school, during lunch, and after school. Trust me, you need to keep your throat and especially your vocal cords irrigated. I always bring a big thermos of water and take a swig every now and then. It makes a huge difference.

A toothbrush and toothpaste: I was offered a muffin at my signing on Saturday. Am I glad I had a toothbrush with me! I would have spent the afternoon with a piece of raisin glued to one of my front teeth. Not a happy thought...

A big smile: If you want to attract people, you have to look happy and upbeat — even if you’re not. Always be cheerful and look welcoming. I’d say at least half the people I reach out to with my come-on walk right by with a negative answer or no answer at all. That’s their right. Don’t take it personally. If someone does stop, listens to your patter, and then walks on, just shrug and carry on. You did nothing wrong — and neither did they. They’re just not interested. If someone tells you they’re not interested, then just drop it with a pleasant, “Well, thank you for stopping by” or something similar. Even if you loathe doing signings or are having a horrible day, you don’t need to burden potential readers with that.

I’d like to close with this thought: Signings are a necessary evil for all authors. If you’re a beginning author or even a mid-list one, they can do a lot of good. If you’re shy and don’t do well in public, you need to think of this as a “performance”. Anyone will tell you I’m a glib bastard (sometimes they neglect the word “glib”), but you’re not, then practise being glib and approachable. After all, you just lied your way through your novel, didn’t you? You must appear confident, friendly, and prepared to do what’s needed. Be pleasant to the staff in the store, even when they have screwed up. Make a good (and professional) impression on everyone. It really helps.

Oh, and a final tip: Bring along printouts of all correspondence you’ve had with the venue to set up the event. That way when you show up at a store and someone looks at you blankly with an “I have no idea who you are,” you can shove the confirmation email into their hand and tell them, “Obviously, someone has slipped up. How can I help so we can get started selling books?”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Imaginary Friends

I loved Rick's recent postings with the cartoons, particularly the one that said, 'Writer's Block: when your imaginary friends won't talk to you.' I'd never thought of it that way before, but it's an excellent definition.

Just recently when David Nicholls' latest book, Us, was published he described the agonies he went through after the huge success of One Day. It paralysed him to the point where he wasn't writing anything and subscribed to Write or Die, a programme that starts eating the words you've already typed if you don't write at a certainly rate or stop  for any appreciable length of time. (Terrifying, or what?)

The result, he said, was that he managed with the traditional blood, sweat and tears to produce 35,000 words of the new book which he then showed to his agent and a trusted friend, both of whom went very quiet and then suggested he put it aside for a bit and start something else. It was only later that he realised that what was wrong was the Point of View, and it transformed the whole thing.

I  write in the third person but more often than not I will be looking at the scene through the eyes of one of the characters and if I find myself struggling, writing against the grain and getting nowhere, the problem almost invariably isn't the material but the wrong PoV. Change that, and the whole thing will  suddenly start flowing again. I'm then usually kicking myself over all the time I wasted battling with it before I realized this was what was wrong.

At the time I started writing I heard a lecture from someone with the glorious name of Diane Doubtfire ((her real married name) when she told us that we should never allow ourselves to be inside the head of more than one character in a scene, that if it isn't your viewpoint character you can't know what another person is thinking unless an observable action would make it obvious. She said that otherwise, it was like watching a tennis match where your head keeps turning to watch the ball go back and forwards over the net – thoroughly distracting to the reader..

I was very impressed at the time and it's become an ingrained habit. And the advantage of that is that if one of your imaginary friends isn't talking to you, there's a good chance that another will!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Split personalities by Linda... I mean Erika

Today's guest at Type M is Ottawa's Linda Wiken, who needs no introduction to the Canadian crime writing community as she was the owner for many years of Prime Crime Bookstore. Although, maybe she does need an introduction, as you will see.

And — there's a trick question at the end!

I’ve done it. I've now moved into the writer of multiple mysteries category. With one signature on the dotted line, I’ve doubled my output and now have two cosy mystery series on the go. And, two author names.

The first in the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries written by Erika Chase, A Killer Read, hit the shelves in spring, 2012 and much to my astonishment and delight, was nominated for an Agatha Award from Malice Domestic for Best First Mystery. The fourth one, Book Fair and Foul, was released in Aug. and I’ve just submitted the fifth in the series.

Now for a break, of sorts. The new series, for the same publisher, Berkley Prime Crime (part of the Penguin group), is called the Culinary Capers Mysteries and I’ll be writing as myself. No more split personality until it’s time to return to the land of Ashton Corners, AL.

Now, this blog isn’t really one about BSP, although I appreciate the opportunity to do just that, but I’ve been thinking about just what it means to be coming up with a complete new cast of characters, an entirely different set of premises, in a setting that’s so not Southern U.S. In fact, it’s set near Burlington, Vermont.

I've stuck with the group plan – my book club has now morphed into a supper club, with a monthly dinner hosted by a different member each month. I like the idea of the protagonist having a number of sidekicks who brainstorm the identity of the killer and can also be useful to the sleuth, such as bailing her out of jail if necessary.

As before, my main character is a single feisty female. She has to be both single and feisty to permit me to get her involved to such a large extent in murder investigations. So that’s the problem. How to make them the same but different. One obvious difference is that one of them, Lizzie Turner is Southern, with that certain demeanor that Southern implies. Kat Myers, on the other hand, is not. She’s turning out to be the more assertive and direct of the personalities, a distinction that will get her far in her crime fighting career.

So, how to get this across in the writing. It starts with getting into each head as deeply as possible when writing. Every writer knows what a difference this can make, infusing life into a page of words. This will affect everything she does and everyone she comes into contact with. This will make the two series distinct, one from the other. This is my hope although it is early days. The setting is an obvious difference and although most cosy mysteries are set in smaller cities or towns to help promote that community feeling, each place has its own personality which should come across in the writing.

What’s next? The crime, of course and tied into that, the motive. I think every author would like to think they've come up with the perfect crime, in that the reader won’t be able to guess whodunit until the very end. However, crimes are also based on the cast of characters and settings. What works in New York may be entirely inappropriate for an Ashton Corners small town. But being small town, there’s the problem of killing off the community. There has to be someone left in town to provide for a cast of suspects. This, of course, is providing the series continues to please the publisher’s sales demands for many years running. And in coming up with a crime, it’s always wise to remember that some that happen in real life, when transferred to the pages of a fictional mystery, would immediately be labelled as being too unreal to happen. You know I’m right. You’ve heard about it before.

That’s a lot of challenges for someone writing a mystery series, and as I've mentioned, double the concerns with two series. But it can be done. We have a lot of fabulous Canadian mystery authors who have managed this with great skill and managed to carry their readers along with them to everything they write. I won’t name them because you know that will get me in trouble, as I know I’ll forget some obvious names.  Vicki Delany and Mary Jane Maffini come to mind immediately, though. Can you name their pseudonyms?

I have great admiration for anyone in this business who puts fingers to keyboard most days. It is a love and at times, a curse. It is fulfilment and anguish. It is a whole lot of fun. As long as that split personality knows its boundaries.

Linda Wiken, writing as Erika Chase, authors the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries.  She’s been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel and an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story. She’s a member of the Ladies’ Killing Circle and a former mystery bookstore owner in Ottawa.  Currently, she's writing a second series for Berkley Prime Crime, the Culinary Capers Mysteries.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Gentle Reviewer

I don't give nasty reviews. But I don't lie either. This philosophy puts me in some rather delicate situations.

First of all, I'm deeply aware that it's much easier to find what's wrong with a book than what is good about it. In fact, looking for what's right instead of what's wrong is not a bad approach for assessing human beings. When it comes to evaluating a book, I always keep in mind that writing a book is hard. Even if the book stinks, it's hard.

Commenting on a book I love is easy. Descriptive words come easily. It's a joy to urge readers to run down to their local bookstore and add the title to their collection. If I'm really crazy about it, I'll foist it off on all my friends. "You gotta read this. Just gotta."

Next down the list are books that I don't really like but recognize their merit. These are mysteriously painful reads that I simply don't care for. I simply soldier on and do my best to expand on themes and or point out some special strength.

Next are books that are competent, but mediocre. The plotting is predictable, the characters trite, and the writing lazy. I simply come up with a completely objective plot summary, with no praise whatsoever. It goes something like this: "John Doe's historical novel, Blue Against the Grey,  is set during the Civil War. Doe follows the story of two families caught up in the Late Rebellion." I don't recommend these books, but don't make negative comments either.

And then there are the books I simply refuse to read beyond the first five pages. When that happens, I turn them back to the editor with the comment that I don't feel like I could do a good job reviewing this book. Find someone else!

An author I met at Bouchercon last year told me about a situation she was in and asked my advice in handling it. Although it had never happened to me, I knew what I would do. A lady who was very aggressive asked her to review an ebook and post the comments on-line. Blatant Self Promotion was the lady's middle name. She was shameless in pursuing people to offer their opinions.

My new friend finally agreed to give her a review. She herself wrote  hardcore ebooks, but when she reached the lady's second page, she knew it was the most depraved book she had ever read. What should she do? She loathed the book, but the lady was quite influential. She knew a lot a people.

I told her to nevertheless to refuse to have anything to do with the book. Refuse immediately and firmly. Use polite wording if you can in this kind of situation.  Something like "Your writing is completely different than mine. A recommendation from me wouldn't help your book. Find someone who supports your genre."

In fact, not only would I ditch the book, I would ditch the person. There's something blackmailish about someone throbbing with a veiled threat of "Give me a good review or I'll ruin your career."

Keep your distance from mean people.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Random Musings: Dostoyevsky to Audible

I have fallen in love. Again. But this time it's different.

Those are words you don't want to hear from your teenage daughter.

But, here, it's true. It happens every time I read a book I just can't get enough of.

The great thing about teaching English is that it's sort of a job requirement to constantly read things you haven't read before. The great part about teaching high schoolers is that they are open to everything. Therefore, I read Crime and Punishment in July, and I'm rereading it with the students Frankie Bailey visited last month. I could read the novel over and over again for the next five years and not reach saturation. I've set up guest lectures from members of the history department to put the text into cultural and historical contexts, which adds even more enjoyment.

This isn't a book report or a sales pitch, but if you're reading this post, you either love mysteries or writing (hopefully, both). So all I can say is get a copy and check it out. You'll find that most of your contemporary authors (crime and mainstream) are deriving themes from Dostoyevsky.

On another front, I promised to keep you posted regarding my foray into the audiobook realm, and I have two updates, both regarding Audible. First, using my backlist (the Jack Austin PGA Tour mysteries), I'm taking advantage of Audible's Audiobook Creation Exchange program, where an author, who owns rights to his work, can post a novel for auditions, select a narrator, and then share royalty profits with the selected narrator (each taking a 25% slice), roughly $5 a book, I'm told. The process has been slower for me than the writer who recommended the program. (I'm on my second narrator.) But I have nothing to lose, so I'm riding it out and still recommend the program. Second, I'm joining Audible via a more traditional route: my agent recently fielded a three-book offer for Bitter Crossing, the sequel Fallen Sparrow, and the third in the series, which I'm working on currently. It will be interesting to go through these two audiobook experiences with Audible simultaneously and see which I prefer.
I have two events in New England this weekend and would love to meet anyone who reads Type M. The first is Saturday, Oct. 18, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Portsmouth, NH; and the second is Sunday,Oct. 19, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Barnes and Noble in Augusta, Maine.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Blast from the Past

While sorting through a box of childhood memorabilia recently, I came across a couple stories I wrote in the 5th and 7th grades so I thought I’d embarrass myself and share bits and pieces of some of my first forays into writing fiction.

I vaguely recall writing “Sleepy Toes and Fido” in 5th grade. I’m pretty sure there were illustrations that went with it, but I can’t seem to find them. (I would have shared them if I had them. I have no shame.) The first thing I noticed about this story was my 5th-grade self was paragraph-challenged.

Sleepy Toes was a donkey and Fido a dog, a hippie dog if phrases like “peace is my game,” “neat pad,” and “love beads” are any indication. (It’s pretty obvious from that I grew up in the 60s and 70s.)

Here are the first couple lines: “One day in late June, Sleepy Toes was walking sleepily in the meadow. He was small because when he was born he accidentally fell into the washer and shrank.” Go ahead, laugh. I did.

The story goes on to describe Sleepy Toes meeting Fido and inviting him back to his “pad” where Fido proceeds to steal some jewelry. The first thing that comes to mind—what was Sleepy Toes doing inviting a complete stranger back to his home? I obviously grew up in a more innocent time. By the end of the (very) short story, Fido returns the jewelry and all is well.

I may remember writing the Sleepy Toes tale, but I’d completely forgotten about one I wrote in 7th grade, “Murder in Catville.” Hmm, another crime story. I sense a trend here.

By the time this one came around, I was now dividing stories into actual paragraphs. “Murder in Catville” involves cats, a murder, a ghost, a séance, and a secret panel in a wall. There seems to be some cross-genre stuff going on here, something I haven’t yet tried as an adult.

Here are the first couple lines: “One shadowy, moonless night, fifty years ago, a cat was walking down Catnip Lane. Suddenly a scream was heard.”

This story was written about the time the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows, was finishing its run. That was one of my favorite shows. I remember watching it every day after school. I definitely see its influence here in the description of the séance and the discovery of the secret panel in the wall. At the end of the story, the murderer is caught and peace has been restored to Catville.

Both of the stories end happily so I can see at a young age I was more inclined toward cozies than noir. That’s still true today. Most of my mystery reading is on the cozy end of the spectrum, though I do read historical mysteries, private eye novels, and even some noir on occasion.

One final observation—with last lines like “So they all lived happily.” and “Crime doesn’t pay!” I can see I wasn’t good at coming up with ending lines. That’s still true today. Endings and last lines are some of the hardest things for me to write. I struggle over them far more than any other part of a story.

I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since I wrote these two stories. I’m curious. Have you ever gone back to read stories you wrote when you were young? What was your impression of them? Could you see indications of the writer or reader you’ve now become?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I just did something I said I would never do

The title above says it all. So what did I do? I asked a reviewer to correct a rather large error in their review of Roses for a Diva on It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, however, since I’m from the school of “let the review chips fall where they may”. This is not the first time someone has made an error in a review, but it is the first time I felt compelled to ask them to correct it.

It’s not as if this person didn’t like the book. That didn’t really matter to me. But from the bulk of it, they did seem to enjoy a large part of the book. I got 3 stars, a fair to middling rating, and I believe based on the review it was a fair and accurate rating for this person’s reading of the plot, characters and voice.

A friend pointed out the problem to me. It was contained in the spoiler. Since I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone interested enough to want to read it, I won’t say what it was, but it was a misreading of something to do with the time frame of the story. I looked back at the uncorrected proof to be certain, but it was not something that needed to be fixed after ARCs were sent out. I got it right from the beginning.

To be fair, English might not be this reviewer’s native tongue (although the review was quite well written), so I don’t know if that was an issue. You would think, though that if you’re going to write a review and find fault with something, you would make sure that you’ve got your facts correct.

For some reason, it irked me enough this time that I had to make a comment. It was a very polite (and I went out of my way to make it so) request that this person change their review to correct their error. I don’t know what this person will do. I’m not even sure if you can edit reviews.

Now I’m worried that what I did was in bad form. Is it just me or should it be expected that reviews have correct information in them? I mean, I would certainly take it seriously if someone were to point out an error I made in writing any of my novels. It’s part of the covenant writers have with readers. Should we expect the same — even if it’s a review on a site such as Goodreads?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Vicki Delany

Today is Thanksgiving Day, and I am celebrating at my daughter’s house in Ottawa. Many of our American readers will be checking the date of this posting to make sure they haven’t stumbled on a blog from 11 months ago.

No, you’re in the right place at the right time.

In Canada Thanksgiving is the second Monday of October. Which makes total sense to us because Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration, having nothing to do with pilgrims and First Nations. It also seems to me to make a lot more sense to have a big holiday on a Monday, so people with jobs have time to get there and to do all the cooking, rather than a Thursday which is the middle of the week.  But I digress. In my family we always have the big dinner on Sunday, which is very common. This year we had it on Saturday, because one of my daughters is a paramedic and had to work Sunday and Monday.

Christmas is a much bigger holiday in Canada than Thanksgiving. In most families, people will gather for Thanksgiving but they aren’t likely to go vast distances and travel across the country (or around the world) as they are for Christmas. Traditionally the meal at both Thanksgiving and Christmas is turkey. We do not eat green beans with cheese sauce (ug) or anything with marshmallows on it. Marshmallows are for putting on hot chocolate or roasting over a campfire. Nothing else except maybe Rice Krispy treats. We do like those.

On Thanksgiving in Canada, many people make pumpkin pie, but not usually at Christmas. Of course pumpkin is plentiful in October but not in late December, although these days we are quite likely to use canned pumpkin. For Christmas dinner I will make two desserts: a fruit pie and a cake or pudding. This is because one of my daughters is the only person in the western hemisphere who does not like fruit pie.

The latest Constable Molly Smith book, Under Cold Stone is set over Thanksgiving, and Molly Smith is making her first-ever Thanksgiving dinner.

I am (if I do say so myself) quite a good cook.  Molly is not. I had fun trying to remember what it was like NOT to be able to cook.

Here’s a sample:
Molly Smith eyed the turkey. It did not eye her back.

It was frozen solid and had no head.

Now, what was she supposed to do with it? The Internet said the safest way to defrost a turkey was to leave it in the fridge. Unfortunately it also said that this twenty-pound beast would take five to six days to fully defrost. She didn’t have five to six days. She had forty-eight hours.

Her mom had left her with instructions for cooking the turkey as well as recipes for her favorite side dishes and desserts. She’d said to go to the butcher to order a fresh, organic, free-range turkey. Her mom hadn’t told her to put the order in a month ahead of time, and when Smith showed up this morning – Friday – to buy one, expecting to pick it up on Saturday, she was told she was too late. All those birds who had only days ago been happily pecking in the weeds of their spacious enclosures surrounded by green fields overflowing with organic produce ripening in the sun were accounted for.

She wasn’t too disappointed. A free-range turkey was always nice, but plenty of people bought a factory-farm raised bird from the supermarket, and they seemed good enough. Unfortunately, the supermarket in Trafalgar didn’t stock fresh turkeys, only frozen ones.

Back to the Internet to search for plan B. Okay, apparently you could defrost the turkey in cold water. That method seemed to suit a cook who had nothing at all to do for an entire day as the water should be kept cold and constantly refreshed. Smith was scheduled to begin a twelve-hour shift in two hours. It might have been doable if she still had her apartment above Alphonse’s bakery on Trafalgar’s main street, to which she could slip every few hours to replace the water. But now that she was living a good half-hour outside of town, it was unlikely her shift supervisor would approve of her driving back and forth all night.

Ah, what the heck. They were young and healthy. A bit of improperly defrosted turkey wouldn’t kill them. She wiped out the sink, dropped the heavy bird into it, and ran cold water.

Lucky had given her the family’s favorite recipes – stuffing (not dressing!), butternut squash casserole sweet with a hint of maple syrup, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pecan pie. She eyed the pile of grocery bags spread out across the counter. Even if she did have time to defrost the turkey in the fridge, she’d have trouble finding room.

She checked the recipes one more time to make sure she hadn’t forgotten to buy something important. She was on afternoons this week, would get home at three on Sunday morning, nap for a few hours, and then get up and start cooking. Fortunately, Sunday was the start of four days off, so she didn’t have to squeeze the preparation and then the meal into between-shift time.

She headed upstairs to get ready for work. She showered, washed her hair and tied it into a ponytail, put on her uniform, struggled into her equipment-laden belt, went to the gun safe and retrieved her Glock. Last of all she slipped off her engagement ring and tucked it into its box in the table on her side of the bed. She never wore the diamond to work.

Back downstairs, she drained the sink and added fresh cold water. She studied her efforts – the bald white turkey looked mighty unappealing. Then, feeling like a proper fifties-era housewife, she shifted her gun belt, settled the weight of the Glock into a better pace on her hip, and left for work.

Molly's mom has left her with recipes for all the family favourites. What's the can't-do-it-without dish for your family? For us, it's my mom's stuffing. I make it exactly as I was taught all those years ago.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Oops! It's me...

I just checked in with Type M to read the guest post for the weekend – since they’re generally pretty good – and found…nothing. Okay, I thought, who’s fallen down on the job this time? Got out the guest posting rota and guess what? It was me. When we changed things up a few months ago, I neglected to update iCal. Boy! Is my face red now.

So, since I have no one to share pearls of publishing wisdom with you, I’ll at least supply you writing and reading types with (hopefully) a few laughs.

And for the Canadians out in the audience, Happy Thanksgiving to you! And if your last name is Columbus, enjoy your day.

And for those of a certain age and musical genre:

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Plant That Wouldn't Die

I've been staring at the plant in front of a window in my dining room. That plant is supposed to be dead. I know. I killed it.

We had been together for over twenty years. I bought it when I moved back to Albany. For years it flourished on a table in front of my terrace doors where it had full afternoon light. It was a tropical plant that needed dry soil and craved the warmth. I ignored it and it grew. Finally, I realized I should put a stake in the pot to help it stay upright. By then it was too late. Even with the stake, it forever after curved to the right. But it kept growing, losing only a few leaves when summer turned to fall and the light changed.

And then we moved. Three years ago, we moved into a house. I carried the plant – now huge – in my car rather than send it the few miles to our new home in the moving van. As we settled in, I found it the only spot that received enough sunlight to avoid a shock to its system. I put it on a table in a corner in the dining room, in front of a window.

But summer came and I needed to install an air conditioner in that window. I moved the plant each day, out of the blast of cold air. The plant adjusted, losing only a few leaves. Adjusted to the movement back and forth in the summer, adjusted to the shallow sunlight of winter, adjusted to having that blind pulled down when I went away.

For three years, the plant adjusted. Until its roots were too crowded in its big pot. Until the sunlight through the window wasn't enough. Until I tried to help by giving it water and plant food. And then it begin to die. The twisted branches dried up. Each morning more leaves were on the floor by the table. Until finally, the branches were almost bare. Except for one tiny cluster of leaves that had sprouted as the rest of the plant was dying – that seemed not to have gotten the memo that it was supposed to be dead.

But I had. My plant was dead. After more than twenty years, I had finally managed to kill this plant that ignored my lack of a green thumb when lesser plants fell by the wayside. I told myself that maybe it had simply been old and tired and ready to die. I picked up the pot to dump it into a garbage bag to go outside with the trash. But at the last moment, I broke off that cluster of green leaves – and stuck it into a paper cup half-filled with water.

The plant went out in the garbage. And I waited for that cluster of leaves to die, too. A plant that hated water couldn't possibly root in a paper cup on a kitchen window sill.

But it did. Root strands began to appear. I watched and added more water now and then. . . and begin to think it might actually live. Finally the roots seemed long enough. I moved the cluster of leaves to a pot – I planted it in soil. My plant that should have been dead had come back to life. I watched it begin to grow.

And then I thought the soil looked too dry for the roots to be taking hold. And I watered it. And the leaves began to curl and turn brown.

Now, the plant is sitting in its pot by the window. The blind is up. It is getting sunlight. The leaves that curled brown at the edges I have not fallen off. Another cluster of green leaves is growing from the center. I am witnessing the miracle of the plant that would not die.

Of course, as a writer, I'm compelled to look for a lesson here. A lesson about life and death. When that plant begin to die, I felt not only sadness but awareness that we had both been a lot younger twenty-four years ago. When that cluster of leaves appeared in the midst of death, I was reminded of the phoenix in all of us. I was also reminded about the heroes that I love in real life and in fiction. The ones who are strong, who find a way to hold on, who will not curl up and give up. I think I'm going to give Hannah McCabe, my cop protagonist, a plant.

P.S. I would have included a photo of Exhibit A for this post. Unfortunately my laptop is in the shop and this computer won't allow me to load the photo. My plant will appear in my next post – whatever I'm writing about.

Thursday, October 09, 2014


I spent September traveling around Arizona giving creative writing workshops, which was great fun, but I didn't get a lot of my own writing done and I'm way behind in my daily living tasks and kind of pooped, to boot. My darling husband, who has had some health difficulties over the past few years, is still dealing with some problems that are much less serious than others--but do have to be dealt with. So one of our latest coping mechanisms is that we have returned to doing yoga.

We "yoga-ed" a lot in our youth, but operations have precluded twisty sorts of exercises for both of us for nearly a decade. So as you might guess, Dear Reader, we've both become a heck of a lot less bendy than we used to be. We signed up for unlimited classes and thus far we've gone nearly every day in October. We only do the really wimpy classes right now, the ones where you lie on the floor and stretch. No standing on your head or winding your legs behind your neck. It's been great, and after a week of stretching things that haven't been stretched in years, I'm finally beginning to be able to rise from the couch without assistance.

It's strange what sort of things come to your mind while you're lying on your back in a dim room, listening to ocean noises and paying attention to your breathing. Thoughts arise from such a depth that I am reminded of things I would never have brought to mind of again. Sometimes I hear in my head the voices of people whom I loved but are long gone. I'm amazed when that happens. I haven't heard my father' speak for almost half a century. I can't consciously bring his voice to mind after so long. Yet he's still there. And my grandmother passed over in 1979. I had forgotten how she always sounded amused when she spoke. And she had the most wonderful accent. She was born and raised in Kentucky at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Her vocabulary was absolutely Elizabethan. When she went to garden, she put on her gauntlets and hunkered down over yonder. A gauntlet is a heavy glove, and if you were born in Kentucky in 1893, you pronounced it "GANT-let."

In a couple of weeks I'll be doing a talk on dialog for our local Sisters In Crime chapter. I often tell people in workshops that it's helpful to go to a public place and listen to people talk. You can tell a lot from their voices. Lately I've learned that if you're lucky, you can listen to people in the most private of places as well--your own past.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

L-Day is here -or- why the heck am I so nervous?

Last time out: all those books. What if nobody shows up?
Today sees the launch of my tenth publication, Roses for a Diva, and quite frankly, I’m nervous as hell.

If you’ve hung around Type M for any amount of time, you probably know that I’ve been a performer since age fourteen — earlier if you count piano recitals. As a musician, I’ve played in front of 14,000 people (an interesting and funny story in itself) and I handled the stress of that pretty well. So why am I nervous about my tenth book launch? It’s not as if I haven’t done this before.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been finding launches increasingly stressful. First, there’s all the organizing that needs to be done. To me, doing it right is a big deal. I’m hosting what is ostensibly a party. It’s not meeting a couple of friend “down ’t the pub” to hoist a few pints in celebration. I believe that after all the hard work and hours put in, a book deserves a proper introduction to the world, doesn’t it? This time out, I’m sharing the event (and one later in the month in Ottawa with Barbara Fradkin), so that’s making it marginally easier.

I’ve come to realize that a great part of my anxiety is worrying about how many people are going to show up. I’ve attended — and hosted — book launches where the turn-out was, shall we say, rather disappointing. Geez, no one likes throwing a party only to have it flop because of poor attendance! My wife tells me this is not something I have any control over, so I should just let it go and not worry, but that’s easier said than done.

So wish us luck. Since we’re supporting Frontier College with the sale of every book, I want to completely sell out, not just for myself (I’m sure Barbara feels the same) but also for them. They do such good work and have for over a hundred years.

If you are in the Toronto area and would like to come out and party with two Type M-ers, please come down. Details are attached.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The scene of the crime

Last week I had the fun of joining a party of Americans, mainly from Texas and Philadelphia, who were avid crime readers and had spent a fortnight visiting first Bloody Scotland – the Scottish Crime Festival – and then Northumberland the setting for Ann Cleeves' Vera, and then finished in Galloway, retracing the steps of my detective, DI Marjory Fleming – Big Marge.

The idea was that I'd take them to the places that featured in the books and talk to them about the fictional events that had happened there. They were a lovely, enthusiastic bunch and I really enjoyed our time together.

There were a couple of problems, though. First there was the sheer size of the county I write about, and though I know that talking to North Americans about big distances when you're discussing a Scottish county is likely to provoke scorn, the fact remains that if I'd wanted to take them on very narrow roads down to see the lighthouse on the isolated Mull of Galloway to the south and then on up to the Glenluce Abbey chapel in the north of the area, it would have meant most of their day being spent in a bus.

The other difficulty was that I very frequently invent the town or village where the action takes place – even an island, once. (It gave me a terrific sense of power to create an island!) I always know exactly where it would be and if I'm describing the scenery it will be accurate - it's just that the place itself isn't there. So as you can imagine, it's not very satisfactory to take people who have come all the way from the USA and say to them, 'You see this empty space? This is where Kirkluce would be, if it existed.  Which it doesn't.'

The best I could do in the time available was to hope they would get  a flavour of the place, its beauty and its varied character, from the wonderful seascapes to the forests and the lochs. And luckily, one of the places where I really did set the action was conveniently placed and they were able to see the Iron Age broch (house) beside Clatteringshaws Loch where Marnie Bruce, the main character in Bad Blood, cowered in terror.

Is it ever wholly satisfactory, trying to step inside the setting of the book?  I've been to Haworth, where the Brontes lived, and walked on the moors around Wuthering Heights' but evocative as it was, Catherine and Heathcliffe still eluded me. Once, though, when I was young we had a picnic in a field near Rudyard Kipling's house, Bateman's, in Sussex. I noticed that we were encircled by 'oak ash and thorn' and had quite a creepy feeling that Puck might appear at any moment.

I'm not sure if the American visitors felt they had found something of Big Marge and Tam MacNee on their tour, but at least  they did meet one of the most characters in the books – Galloway.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Betty Webb, Guest Author

Type M 4 Murder is pleased to welcome Betty Webb, author of two fabulous mystery series. The eighth installment of her highly acclaimed, noirish, Lena Jones Mysteries, Desert Rage, will be released by Poisoned Pen Press this month.

The Trouble with Sub-Plots

by Betty Webb

Sometimes the sub-plot causes more trouble than the main plot.

As most of my fans know, the seven Lena Jones mysteries were all based on real cases, and the eighth, DESERT RAGE – due out mid-October – is no exception. While the book’s main plot concerns IVF, (in vitro fertilization, a specific version of “test tube babies”), the subplot delves into Arizona’s troublesome death penalty.

The only state in the U.S. that executes more convicts than Arizona is Texas, which makes Arizona the second-ranked legal killer in the U.S. Startling, yes, but you’ll notice that I described our death penalty as “troublesome,” which seems a rather insufficient word considering the fact that we legally kill people in this state. Yet “troublesome” is the correct word when writing a novel. Because, as I found out in my research, it’s really, really hard to kill someone. Legally, that is.

Back in what people like to call The Good Old Days, Arizona hanged its Death Row inmates. The method worked perfectly until 1930, when convicted killer Eva Dugan was accidentally decapitated during her hanging. The hangman had miscalculated Eva’s weight and the height of the “drop,” so when he hit the lever to lower the trap door, Eva’s body dropped — but not her head.

In 1934, when Arizona recovered from its collective shock and started executing people again, it joined the ranks of states using the gas chamber, although some critics of the new method grumbled that cyanide pellets were too merciful for convicted murderers. Proponents of the death penalty grumbled even louder in 1992 when — after a brief flirtation with the electric chair — Arizona decided to implement lethal injection. No decapitations, no gasping, no frying inmates, just a quick and merciful drift into eternal sleep.

That was the theory, anyway.

Theories don’t always work out. Since 2010 the lethal drugs used in Arizona executions included midazolam, hydromorphone, thiopental, propofol (remember Michael Jackson?), and pentobarbital. Any combination of those drugs, when handled correctly, should have been strong enough to kill an elephant. But a snag developed when drug manufacturers, one by one, began refusing to sell their drugs to the state if they were going to be used for executions. So Arizona began hopscotching from drug to drug. Each time the drugs had to be switched, I had to rewrite the execution scene in DESERT RAGE. In all, there were four rewrites. For a one-page sub-plot scene.

Then, in June of this year, came the botched execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood. It took almost two hours for Wood to die, and horrified witnesses said he appeared to have suffered considerable pain.

By then, my book was at the publisher’s, so I called it back. But the long, troublesome task of rewrite after rewrite had finally taught me something. Instead of naming the new compound used by the state, I rewrote the execution scene a fifth time, dropping any mention of a specific drug.

Comparatively, DESERT RAGE’s main plot — in vitro fertilization — was relatively easy to write. After a donated egg and donated sperm got cozy with each other in a Petrie dish, the then-fertilized egg was implanted into the uterus of a soon-to-be birth mother. Nine months later, a beautiful baby girl named Alison was born.

In DESERT RAGE, the beginning of life turned out to be much easier to write about than the end of life.

Betty Webb, Author of DESERT RAGE and other Lena Jones mysteries
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Friday, October 03, 2014

An Unacceptable Blog

Please. There is a word I never want to hear again. It's "unacceptable." I mean the word itself. "Unacceptable" is a weak, timid, exhausted word that is invariably used incorrectly. It should refer to unpleasant, offensive behavior and that which "simply will not do, my dear."

When a young bride neglects to send thank you notes, her behavior is unacceptable. Farting in public, is unacceptable. Neglecting to make proper introductions is unacceptable. So is using a cell phone during a public event.

Beheading people is not "unacceptable." It's a horrific act that disregards the impact on grieving families and the inflammatory effect on nations that respect human life.

Kidnapping and raping children is not "unacceptable." It's an atrocious despicable act that not only destroy precious souls, it send whole nations reeling into despair.

Destroying a nation's art and cultural archives is not "unacceptable." It is blatant disregard for precious collections that symbolize the collective myths of a country's heritage.

When the Secret Service fails in it's mission to protect the first family it's more than "unacceptable." It demonstrates an appalling failure of competence and a casual sense of duty.

I'm for using accurate labels. Not to do so waters down the significance of vicious activities with horrendous consequences.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Being Peyton Cote

I've always loved reading (and, in turn, writing) character-driven fiction. I've been told there's a down-side to this bent, at least commercially — unless millions of readers are already familiar with the character, Hollywood wants thrillers, not mysteries, an agent once told me. But commercial success isn't what made me or most writers I know, for that matter, start writing.

Character-driven fiction appeals to me because, whether reading or writing, I enjoy watching characters grow, book to book, and maybe even growing a little with them. I sure did that with Jack Austin, from 2000 to 2006. He became much more complex from book 1 to book 5, and as he did, the books themselves did, too. I saw how the other half lived — and knew what I was missing — when I wrote a stand-alone, This One Day (Five Star, 2013). That protagonist, Max Tyger, was a one-and-done character, and as I finished the novel, I knew there were more stories to be told with him, more to learn from him.

But then U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent and single mom Peyton Cote appeared, and now, I'm spending a lot of time with her and seeing things from her (third-person) point of view and thinking like her (at least from 4:15 a.m. until 6:15 a.m. most days).

Writing character-driven fiction is a lot like acting. The Austin books (featuring a tough, straight-forward golfer) and the Max Tyger book (starring a tormented, self-centered, cancer-stricken P.I., who, when push comes to shove, will show decent core values) were first-person novels. I literally had only to "step into character" to write those books.

Being Peyton Cote is different.

And harder.

Part of why I wanted to try to write this new series was simply to see if I could do it — could I write a female character well? My neighbor said, "As I'm reading this, I keep picturing you sitting next door, dressed as a woman, writing this stuff." The best compliments I receive are when people tell me they assume Bitter Crossing was written by a women.

A fellow writer recently brought up this male-writing-a-femle situation and said, "Well, you are surrounded by women," pointing out that I'm married with three daughters, living in a dorm with 55 teenage "extended" daughters (hell, even my dog is female.)

I think there's more to it, though, more to writing Peyton Cote than surrounding myself with female influences. I'd like to believe that anytime a writer writes what s/he doesn't know, s/he is forced to display empathy, to truly view things from another's perspective. And I think this is vital to do, given the global community we live in. It's why I routinely ask my student writers to step out of their comport zones when they write, to try to write from another's perspective.

They discover, as I have, that being Peyton Cote isn't easy.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Fictional Towns and Real Places

Big Ole
Blog readers meet Big Ole. Big Ole meet blog readers.

Now that the introductions have been made, let me tell you a little bit about the big guy. He graces the town of Alexandria, Minnesota, home of the Runestone Museum. (At the time I took this picture, he stood in the street near the museum, but he’s since been moved to a park.) In the early 90s, we took a driving tour of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota and ended up in Alexandria specifically to see the runestone, which I’d read about in a guidebook.

The main feature of this small museum is the Kensington Runestone, discovered in 1898 in the roots of a tree on the Olof Öhman farm near Kensington, MN. (15 miles southwest of Alexandria.) From the moment it was unearthed, this runic artifact, dated 1362, has been controversial. Some claim it’s definitely real, some it’s definitely a hoax. No matter which you believe, it’s a fun place to visit. You can check out the controversial stone as well as enjoy the exhibit on Norse history, the Native American exhibit, a Minnesota wildlife display, and an exhibit on early pioneer life.

What does this have to do with writing, you may ask. The other day I was reading Apple Turnover Murder by Joanne Fluke and ran across a reference to the museum. The daughter of one of the characters was going on a field trip to see it. When I read that, I got all excited. I’ve been there, I thought. I know exactly what she’s talking about. I surprised myself with my reaction to the mere mention of a place I'd visited once.

The book is set in the fictional town of Lake Eden, Minnesota, but somehow the mention of a real place that I’d been to made me sit up and take notice. Odd though it may sound, Lake Eden seemed more real to me.

That got me thinking. Should I be using more real places in my books? My own mystery series is also set in a fictional town—Vista Beach, California. I mention Los Angeles County and Malibu, but nothing as specific as a local museum. Now, I’m wondering if I should occasionally mention a museum, a park, a theater—somewhere that people could actually have visited.

I’m curious. What you do you all think? I don’t know if my reaction was an anomaly or if others have a similar one. Does the mention of a real place in a book set in a fictional town make the story more real to you? Or does it not make a difference?