Saturday, January 31, 2015

Weekend Guest Blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman

I'd like to introduce the Type M for Murder community to Reed Farrel Coleman, who is making his second appearance as a Sunday contributor. A lot has changed for Reed since we last heard for him, as you will soon read.

Reed is the New York Times Bestselling author of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series. He has published twenty-two novels and novellas as well as short stories, essays, and poetry. His a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year and a three-time Edgar nominee in three different categories. He has also won the Audie, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony Awards. Reed is a former Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America and an adjunct instructor of English at Hofstra University. He lives with his family on Long Island.

You can find him at:
Twitter: @ReedFColeman

Becoming Parker
By Reed Farrel Coleman

After his death in 2010, Robert B. Parker’s wife, Joan, went to Otto Penzler and asked him to create a project that would pay homage to Mr. Parker’s career. So was created In Pursuit of Spenser, a collection of essays on the subject of Robert B. Parker’s literary legacy. Contributors included Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, SJ Rozan, Ace Atkins, a host of other noted crime fiction authors, and yours truly. Otto asked if I would do a piece on Jesse Stone, Mr. Parker’s second most popular protagonist after Spenser. I gladly accepted the assignment. I wasn’t a voracious Parker reader. I had read some of his novels: a few Spensers and a couple of Jesse Stones. But given my assignment, I went back and read several more of each, adding a Western as well, and gained a greater appreciation for the characters and Mr. Parker’s writing talents. In the end, I wrote an essay entitled “Go East, Young Man: Robert B. Parker, Jesse Stone, and Spenser.” The well-received tribute was published in 2012, and that, as they say, was that … or so I thought.

Skip forward to early May of 2013. Two weeks earlier I had finished writing The Hollow Girl, the ninth and final installment of my Moe Prager Mystery series. The only contract I had was to write novellas for the Raven Books imprint of the Canadian house Orca Book Publishers. These are twenty thousand word books featuring little person detective Gulliver Dowd. They’re fun books to write and I love Gulliver, but they only take me about a month to do. What was I going to do with the other eleven months of the year? I suppose I thought I would write the books I always wanted to write, but never had time to do before: the YA/sci fi novel, the straight literary novel, the series of connected short stories. You know, all the ideas that had been kicking around in my head for years. I never got the chance.

At about 3 PM on the first Wednesday in that early May of 2013, I got a call from my agent. He kept asking me if I was sitting down. He asked me so many times that I threatened to strangle him if he didn’t just say what he had to say. “How would you like to be Robert B. Parker?” is what he asked. I knew he couldn’t be asking me to do the Spenser novels because my old pal Ace Atkins was doing a brilliant job with those. I had never written a Western, so he couldn’t be asking about Hitch and Cole. Sunny Randall? Maybe, but I was hoping he was asking about Jesse Stone. Bingo! It took me about a nanosecond to say yes. My life has taken quite a turn since then, including a stay at numbers 11 and number 17 on the New York Times Bestsellers list last September and October.

Here’s the funny part, though. I had assumed I got the gig because of my essay in In Pursuit of Spenser. It made sense, right? And that was the narrative I had created. Only when I had my first conversation with my editor and I mentioned the essay, she said, “Oh, that sounds interesting. I’ll have to read it.” So far becoming Robert B. Parker has been a lot like that, full of unexpected turns and surprises.

Okay, so now I had the gig. How was I going to handle moving forward with Mr. Parker’s Jesse Stone series? Would I try to do imitation of style in the way that *Michael Brandman had? Or should I take a different approach with the series? I am good at imitating voice, but after twenty-five years at this, I have also developed my own strong authorial voice. I sought the advice of several respected colleagues. The most influential of which was with my close pal Tom Schreck, the author of the popular Duffy Dombrowski series.

Tom is a huge Elvis Presley fan. What has Elvis to do with Jesse Stone? For me, everything. What Tom said to me was that he had seen the best Elvis impersonators in the world, but that even the greatest of them was limited by one unalterable factor: they could never do anything new. I can’t oversell the impact Tom’s words had on me. I realized that to do imitation would be a trap, that no matter how skilled I might be at it, the readers would always see my work as imitation. I further realized I hadn’t struggled for so long and sacrificed so much to do imitation. And had I been willing, imitation is hard to sustain. Easy to do for a page. Difficult to do for three hundred pages.

I took following approach: 1) Respect the protagonist and his supporting cast as they had previously been written. 2) Keep the form of the previous novels—third person, short chapters—intact. 3) Return to the darker, grittier tone of the early novels in the series. Even with this plan, I had to find my own way into the character(s). Although I had written several series and knew the mechanics of writing series novels, this wasn’t my series. Jesse wasn’t my character. How could I get into his head, his heart, and, most importantly, into his soul?

I came at Jesse as I have always come at characters, through their foibles, flaws, regrets. Jesse has three glaring problem areas: alcohol, his ex, his baseball injury. Of these, baseball my way into Jesse.  He regrets his drinking. Is torn over his divorce. But it is the baseball injury that haunts him. It was easy for me to put myself in his shoes. Easy to imagine being one phone call away from Dodger Stadium only to have his future turned upside down by a stupid, careless incident. Once I found that sweet spot, writing Jesse became a joyful challenge, one I hope to keep at for many years.

*A longtime friend and associate of Robert B. Parker, Michael Brandman wrote the three Jesse Stone novels immediately following Mr. Parker’s death. He was, and continues to be, a major force in the production of the acclaimed Jesse Stone TV movies.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Name's the Thing

I've been thinking about names -- character names. My strategy for finding names when I first started to write was to go to the telephone book (the old days when we received a printed directory). Often, when I was feeling creative, I would compile a list of first names from several alphabets, and a list of last names from other alphabets and mix and match. Often this strategy didn't work. I would start to write and find the name didn't fit. That's why when I look back at the notebook that I kept in the early days of my writing career, I'm amazed to see how often names -- even those of my protagonist and other ensemble characters -- changed. My crime historian Lizzie Stuart was "Sarah" at one point. John Quinn, the cop in that series, was once "Nicholas". He is definitely not a "Nicholas" or a "Nick". And the former "Sarah Adams" has fared much better as "Lizabeth ('Lizzie') Stuart".

Luckily before I stuck my characters with names they would have to live with, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to think about who they were. Maybe that was why I struggled with names in the beginning -- because I hadn't figured out who my characters were or would be. Interesting how much easier the naming of the characters came with my second series. But by then -- fifteen years later -- I had learned to think first, then write. Yes, I'm a plotter, not a pantser. I need to plan, not plunge in. Or, rather, I'm a hybrid. I need to plan enough so that I have a rough road map. That now includes knowing enough about my main characters to give each a name that conjures up an image in their head. "Hannah McCabe," the police detective in my second series, is the daughter of "Angus". Once I knew her father's name, I knew much more about her and who she would be.

The Bad Seed (1956), a movie that I'm using for some academic research, provides a textbook example of how to get maximum mileage out of names. In a riveting performance, Eileen Heckart portrays the mother of a small boy who has drowned under mysterious circumstances at a school picnic. His penmanship medal -- pinned to his shirt by his mother -- is missing. Drunk and grieving, she comes to visit the mother of another student, wanting to know if the woman's daughter can tell her what happened. In a raw, painful scene, she compares her name -- "Hortense" -- to that of the other mother -- "Christine". Christine is a "gentle name," she says. "Hortense" is "fat" and awkward. She recites the limerick that her own schoolmates made up to tease her. The two characters are a study in contrast. As Hortense Daigle points out, Christine Penmark is wealthy (the daughter of a famous reporter and the wife of a colonel). Christine knows how to wear simple clothes. When Hortense buys simple clothes, they never fit right. The irony of this scene is that Christine, of the gentle name and good breeding, is about to discover that her birth mother was a serial killer and that her pig-tailed, curtseying daughter "Rhoda" has her grandmother's homicidal tendencies. Rhoda kills "LeRoy," the janitor and contemplates the murder of their landlady, "Monica Breedlove," a large, nurturing woman, whose married name once became a topic for discussion with her analyst. Monica is a Freudian.

Some of the lessons I've learned about naming characters:

1. Consider character's size, shape, and other physical characteristics
2. Consider the time period and region of the country in which character was born
3. Consider the naming traditions of the racial/ethnic/religious/cultural group into which character was born
4. Consider the name customs of the family into which the character was born
5. Consider the special circumstances that might have affected the choice of character's name
6. Consider decisions that might have been made by others after character was named
7. Consider decisions the character might have made about his/her given name

For example, do you want to give a character a name that "fits" or that will surprise others and/or make the character uncomfortable or resigned to the reaction. If you're naming a female character born in colonial New York into a Dutch family, it might be a good idea to do some research. Do you want to challenge stereotypes and assumptions your readers might have about certain names and the people who have them? Do you want to use the character's name to reveal something important about the character's history? What does the character prefer to be called and by whom?

The more I think about names, the more I realize how names choices by a writer can open up a story and invite the reader in. Names matter. Just ask "Sherlock Holmes" or "Jane Eyre".

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Best Writing Advice Ever

Jenn McKinlay, Donis Casey, Rhys Bowen, "pimping" our latest books

I, Donis, did an event last week at a library in Sun Lakes, Arizona, along with Rhys Bowen and Jenn McKinlay. If you are a lover of cozy mysteries, Dear Reader, you are familiar with both of these best-selling authors. The crowd was enthusiastic and the panel was lively, and I had a great time talking about writing, the writing life, our books, characters, you name it. At the end of the session, a woman in the audience asked if had any helpful advice for aspiring authors, and Jenn McKinlay replied, “Don’t think too much.” Just keep writing.

That is the best piece of writing advice I’ve heard in a good long while, and one that I need to take to heart. The most important thing is to get those words onto the page. You can fix it later. You can have the most brilliant idea every conceived on God’s green earth but what separates the men from the boys is the ability to get it down on paper in an effective way.

Both Jenn and Rhys are not just talented, they are disciplined and effective. Both of them produce two or three (or sometimes four or five) books a year, and they are wonderful books, too. Rhys, whose Royal Spyness and Molly Murphy series are two of my favorites, has been writing professionally for all of her adult life, and with any art, the only way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, practice. One of my favorite adages, and one I repeat constantly, is that you can study music theory until you have a Ph.D., but unless you practice the violin until your fingers bleed, you’ll never be a virtuoso.

Jenn told the crowd that she writes a book from beginning to end without stopping, without making any corrections. As she writes she keeps a list of things she will go back and fix once she has the first draft finished. My technique is similar. I always intend to write from beginning to end without stopping. If I get stuck or can’t quite figure out what to do next, I just write something, a filler, or leave a blank and plow onwards. Get that first draft done. By the time you write the last word, the story may have taken quite a turn from the way you thought it would go when you were writing the beginning.

But now you have something to work with. You can go back, if you need to, and craft the beginning to fit the end. You can cut out all the blather and redundancies that you put in there on the fly. You can tighten up that saggy middle and add another clue that will make things clearer.

I know all this very well and this is what I tell anyone who aspires to write a book. Yet sometimes I’m not so successful in taking my own advice. I’m working on a manuscript right now, and I keep obsessing over one particular scene. I sit down every day to go, go, go from beginning to end, but for the past several days I keep going back to a family dinner and messing with it. Big mistake, and I know it. If I get the whole story down, the dinner scene will resolve itself. So today my fervent resolution is to take Jenn McKinlay’s advice and not think so much. To hell with the dinner scene. Onward to the end!

The eighth Alafair Tucker novel is on the publisher’s schedule for release in November. My deadline for the complete manuscript is April 20. That is the day that no matter what, I’ll be forced to pronounce the book done and send it in to her. Sometimes this is the only way a book ever gets finished. You simply have to turn it in.

I’ll get it done. I always do.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New beginnings

Barbara here. What an interesting, meandering examination of gender, identity, and character creation we have been having over here at Type M in the past couple of weeks. Several of us have also talked about changing hats and writing a new style, or creating a new series, and how that has enriched and invigorated their writing.

Writers face three challenges in continuing to write a long-running series. Firstly that they start to repeat themselves and fail to grow as writers, which most of us dread. Series allow us to stay with old friends we know so well that it takes little effort to get into their heads. It allows us to stay in comforting surroundings, using the neighbourhoods and background colour that has become as familiar as our own back yards. These two advantages are also the greatest pitfalls. Comfortable and familiar does not encourage risk, growth, or leaps of imagination.

The second challenge is that the series dictates the kind of story that can be told. My Inspector Green novels are police procedurals, and no matter what curves I throw at Green nor what detours my stories take, a police procedural has the particular flow of a police investigation. Moreover, all the stories have to take place in Ottawa (well, I cheat a little) because that is where Green has jurisdiction.

The third challenge derives from reader expectations. Both Rick and Vicki had alluded to this notion that a reader buys a book expecting a particular kind of story, and may rebel if they don't get it. The Green stories are gritty and realistic, but with a heavier emphasis on psychology than on blood and gore. If the next book turned out cozy (or serial-killer horror), I would likely get a slew of complaining emails. Writers, and their publishers, deviate from the winning "formula" at their peril.

But writers get all kinds of story ideas involving different heroes and places, and those stories can't be shoehorned into a police investigation in Ottawa. Writers of long-standing series sometimes solve this feeling of straitjacket by writing occasional standalones. Or by writing a second series, which is sufficiently different in tone, form, and setting that they can explore new vistas and experiment with new styles.

This is why the start of 2015 marks a new beginning for me as well, as I embark on a new three-book contract for a completely different series. There are ten books in the Green series, and it seemed like a solid place to take a break and explore something new. Green will be back, and I suspect I will be delighted to reconnect with him when I am ready. But for now, I am deep in the world of a very different character.

First off, my main character is a woman. I always thought it amusing that authors were often mistaken for their main character, or that the lines between author and character blurred, because Green was quite clearly distinct from me. Although as any author knows, not as distinct as one might think.

My new character is also not me. Amanda Doucette is a lot younger than me, the age of my daughters in fact, and is still searching for her place and her path, which allows her to have adventures and experiences which I get to share vicariously. Always fun for a writer. But she shares many of my passions and my values, and is in some ways who I might have been had I been young in today's world. I became a psychologist to help people; she became an international aid worker. She is resourceful and smart, determined and action-oriented, yet she struggles with what she has seen. She is a powerful and interesting person for me as a writer to spend time with, and I hope readers will think so too.

The setting of my new series is a wholly different concept as well. Each book will take place in a different setting across Canada, the first one in Newfoundland and the second in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains. I hope to explore wonderful locales across the country, taking myself on adventures and never growing tired of one place. Some of these adventures I will take in person, as on last fall's Newfoundland trip, but some of it will be within my own living room, as these photos attest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Vicki’s post from last week, as well as others here on Type M recently, plus some side discussions I’ve had with people, have got me thinking how the crime fiction genre has gotten divided and subdivided and then subdivided again over the past several years, to the point where it’s getting quite, well, silly in many way. Publishers, readers and writers, we’re all guilty in this…crime.

Several years ago, I was describing a novel I was working on to an interested bookseller. “Oh, it’s a chase thriller then.” Huh? “There’s a category for this kind of story?” “Certainly. I have customers who will read nothing else.”

I’ve found out since that there are now very specific categories called things like “woman in peril”, “crafting mysteries”, “food mysteries”. Vicki has started a new series that I guess should be called a “library mystery”. All of this on top of the older categories made up of things like “thrillers”, “hardboiled”, “police procedural”, “amateur sleuth” and “cozy”, to name a few of the main ones.

But now it’s all sliced and diced and readers and publishers are demanding that your novel fall into a neat, little pigeonhole. From a marketing standpoint, I can see why publishers and booksellers might want this. It used to be that you only had to deal with whether you were writing standalones or a series. Bookstore owners usually knew what they were selling so they could tell you about a specific book. Even if you preferred a certain kind of story, you could often be persuaded by someone’s enthusiastic endorsement. If you’re purchasing a book and lack that personal description and recommendation, you might well hesitate to put done as much as forty dollars on a hardcover.

So for various reasons, we’ve become a lot more exclusive these days. It goes far beyond economics and marketing. As I’ve already mentioned in a recent post, many people won’t step outside the little box into which they’ve put themselves. I guess some of it has to do with comfort zones, and for sure, those are important. If a person is not up for a “blood and guts” storyline, it would be a shame to sell them a book that contains this sort of thing.

But these “product placement” boxes may also lead to comments like, “This story is unlike anything we’ve seen. We wouldn’t begin to know how to market it.” Now, unless the writing being commented thusly on is drop-dead, best-ever stuff, the person saying this might well be tempted to take a pass, be they agent, publisher, bookseller or book buyer. I know it happens. One of my novels was stillborn because my description of its plot led to a very similar comment being made by my then-agent. That’s a shame. I still believe it might have been a very interesting story, but I have little enough time to spend on writing to take chances with a dodgy plot line somebody might not be interested in buying into.

Often the best and most groundbreaking writing comes from something experimental or just plain different. These days, for some very good reasons — but also some very bad ones — experimental writing and storylines have a much harder go of it. We’re probably missing some exceptional writing and stories because of it.

Here’s your homework: come with an exact and specific category in which to place your work if you’re a writer. For readers, describe your ideal sort of book. You must be very, very specific so that you can go right to a bookshelf in a store to find it. For my current novel, Roses for a Diva, it would have to be something like “woman in peril, psychopathic chase, musical thriller”.

Sounds enticing doesn’t it? And I’ve also given away a large part of the plot, too!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Who is Your Main Character?

John raised some interesting points in his recent post when he talked about not using real people in books. I don't either, at least not consciously, though as I've written here in the past I did base a major character on someone I had met many years before, someone I'd completely forgotten about until something jogged my memory. I suspect there are more fragments of real people in my books than I realize.

The other thing he said that intrigued me was that he constantly has to tell people, 'No, I am not Jack Austin. No, my wife isn't Lisa Trembley.'

When you've written am extended series, people do tend to assume that you and your heroine are, to some extent, the same person. I was on a panel once where the chair decided that we were actually to come as our detectives, answering the questions in the way that he/she would. I commend it to you as an idea; it was great fun, but it was quite enlightening as well.

Working out how to present myself was a challenge as DI Marjory Fleming is nearly six feet tall, slim and athletic-looking, while I'm – well, not. But I did think to bring in half-a-dozen eggs for the chair from her flock of hens to, as WS Gilbert put it, lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

The most memorable question asked the country-loving farmer's wife 'Marjory' what did she think of her author? The reply was basically, couch potato, spends all her time with her nose in a book – often a cookery book,ugh – lives in a town of all dreadful places to live, has never been known to have a good yomp up a hill.

I wasn't allowed a reply, as me, but at the very least I would have expressed my contempt for her total lack of culinary skills since it has always seemed to me that if you can read, you can cook.& Oh, I forgot. She doesn't read either. No, I'm not Marjory Fleming.

But John raised the question of identity. Whose mind is it behind the character's thoughts, decisions, judgements, values – unless our own? In fact I suppose every character we create comes from some aspect of our own brain; where else could they come from? So are we the villain as well as the hero? Just a thought.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Toting your heater

Since we are Type M for Murder, and murder is homicide, and about half of all homicides in the U.S. are committed with firearms, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about guns. First of all, talking about guns is like talking about grammar and punctuation; there's always an exception to the rule!

A lot is written about guns for mystery writers but I don't see much information aside from the hardware; advice like revolvers don't have safeties, don't call a magazine a clip, etc,. Instead I decided to write briefly about the legalities of carrying a gun in the U.S.

What astonishes a lot of non-gun people is learning that in most places in the U.S. as a private citizen you don't need a permit (or license) to own or buy a gun. (Automatic weapons like machine guns do require a special federal license and a lot of red tape to purchase.) The laws vary from state-to-state and some municipalities have their own restrictions, and these laws change as the debate over gun rights ebbs and flows. Federal law says that if you buy from a dealer (such as a gun shop, sporting goods store, Walmart), you have to fill out a form attesting that you have no record of violent felonies, never been convicted of certain drug crimes, not have any protective orders against you, not have mental health restrictions, etc., Then you pay ten bucks and the dealer runs your name through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The law doesn't restrict sales or transfers between private individuals in the same state, however, in some states all gun transfers require a background check. Also, federal law prohibits the sale of guns across state lines unless it goes through a dealer. And how does a gun cross state lines to get from dealer to dealer? Through the US Mail.

Once you have a gun, carrying it is another matter. In Colorado you are allowed (assuming you are entitled to possess the gun) without a permit to carry a loaded pistol in your car or truck for protection of life and property. The caveat is that if you get into trouble and the police find that gun, they're very likely going to slam the cuffs on you for a stay at the iron-bar hotel. You are prohibited from carrying a loaded shotgun or rifle in your conveyance and the ammunition must be stored separately. You can get a concealed carry permit which does allow you to carry a loaded handgun. The requirements (such as training) for that permit vary from state-to-state. You have "Shall-issue" which means that if you're entitled to own a pistol, then you are issued the permit. "May-issue" is a lot more restrictive and you have to prove why you need the permit. In some states, like New York or Hawaii, getting a "may-issue" permit is almost impossible. "No-issue" means what it says, and we're talking Guam and Puerto Rico. And then you have other restrictions such as no firearms allowed in places that serve alcohol, on public school grounds, on federal property, that sell marijuana, etc., However, many colleges do allow concealed carry on their campuses. Some states have reciprocity agreements that recognize a permit from another state, but that requires that you do your homework. Remember, concealed carry means "concealed" and if you flash your piece without good cause, then you've violated the conditions of that right to carry. An example would be that if you have a concealed-carry permitted pistol, get into an argument with someone and to prove your point, you show your gun...then WHOA! You could be accused of menacing with a deadly weapon. And if you do get a concealed carry permit you're advised to buy legal insurance because should you ever have to use the gun, you can lawyer up and protect yourself from over-zealous prosecutors and getting sued by your attacker!

"Open carry" is another patchwork of laws. Basically open carry allows you to carry your gun in public. In most places that means unloaded unless you're in the act of hunting and have the appropriate hunting permit. Some states allow the open carry of handguns and others do not. Interestingly, a lot of businesses that sell guns, such as sporting goods stores and gun shops, do not allow open carry. If you bring a gun onto the premises, it had better be in a case, often with a trigger lock, and definitely not loaded.

For law enforcement the rules are different. If a cop or agent is authorized a firearm, then he or she can carry concealed without a permit. And Congress passed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act which means that such a law enforcement officer or retired law enforcement officer can carry a firearm in any jurisdiction in the U.S. But there are exceptions.

Whew. So many rules. Fortunately with the mighty Internet, you can type in "gun laws" and the name of wherever you live or want to do research and find plenty of information. Just don't shoot yourself.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Clearing Time for Writing

Last summer I heard Craig Johnson speak. He's one of our family's favorite authors. Craig is a mesmerizing speaker and there were 500 people in attendance.

After he gave his talk there was a huge line waiting to buy his newest book, Any Other Name. An even longer line snaked across the Old Library Park with armloads of previously purchased books. It was the most organized set-up I’ve seen. Several employees from Old Firehouse Books politely went through the lines and handed each person a yellow sticky note instructing the customer to write the desired name to be used in the autograph and put in on the title page. It was an outdoor event. The evening was lovely, and the sound system was superb.

No one seemed to mind waiting in the long line because we were all among booklovers. I met a delightful lady who recommended a number of titles. She appreciated audiobooks. Naturally, I whipped out my card told her about the variety of books published by Poisoned Pen Press.

I was impressed with Craig’s energy. He greeted each person like they were a long lost friend. Since I was at the tail end of the line, I took the opportunity to ask him how he managed to participate in so many events and simultaneously write so many wonderful books. He said he was able to write anywhere at any time. He used a computer or a spiral notebook or anything else that was handy. It didn’t matter. He said he used to be very precious about his writing and had to do it in a certain place at a certain time of day. But he had to give that up.

Then he said what we’ve all heard a jillion times–the secret is to keep at it and write every day. He knows how to think! He gave up a method that wasn’t working anymore and rebooted himself with a new operating system. Wow!

There are many times during my life I’ve had to admit my usual modus operandi simply wasn’t working anymore. I’ve gotten trapped psychologically into believing I’m handling things when I’ve not. My latest pitfall is the myth of  believing I can “clear time” for writing. That has never ever worked for me. It’s not working now. It won’t work in the future. This Christmas has been especially disruptive. It was full of mini-exchanges that drifted into January. Something always happened to blow the “cleared time” sky high.

 My best approach has always been to write five days a week. Naturally that expands to include weekends at certain stages.

There were many questions I wanted to ask Craig. One concerns social media. Does he use hired help? How many blogs does he follow? What all does he do?

In the meantime, my life needs more Tweaking, not Tweeting. I need to get comfortable with a social media approach and go back to a more consistence approach to writing.

Some people never write when they are promoting. Some, like Craig, write every day no matter what the circumstances. Some take long breaks between drafts of a book. Some write in multiple genres.
So how do you do it, Type M'ers? Have there been times when you’ve had to switch methods? How did that work for you?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Am Woman: A Personal Approach to Gender

I read Rick's and Barbara's recent posts regarding gender in our genre, and I enjoyed their respective insights. I will stumble into the discussion here — the way I did into my new series and in turn my experience with the topic.

After writing my first six novels using the first-person point of view of hard-boiled males (both PI and amateur-sleuth), I taught a woman named Kylie, an early childhood-education major taking my night class at Northern Maine Community College. She was probably my age at the time (early thirties), and she worked harder than anyone I'd ever taught: she was a single mother (I'd see her dropping her toddler off early each morning at the same Head Start program my infant attended). Then each of us would leave to work for the day — me, to teach technical writing and composition at NMCC; she, to do menial labor (multiple jobs) all day before attending night classes.

My work at NMCC taught me many things. Among them: that most of my struggles are First World problems — that I have it a hell of a lot better than most. And Kylie, unbeknownst to her, drove that point home, wearily showing up each night, always prepared, always ready to lead discussions, writing and rewriting essays, and every bit earning her "A."

I never forgot her. And a few years later, I found myself writing a scene featuring a mother and a daughter at a kitchen table in Aroostook County, Maine, arguing about the way the younger woman was raising her daughter. The grandmother couldn't grasp the realities of single-motherhood.

I don't base my characters on people I know. (No, I'm not Jack Austin. No my wife isn't Lisa Trembley — Stop asking!) But many of my characters possess the attributes of people I have watched/known/or met. A nervous habit. A way of pronouncing a particular word. A hand gesture. These are things I notice, details I can use that (hopefully) bring a scene to life for the reader.

But as I wrote that kitchen-table scene, I knew Kylie was (in part) the daughter. And the more I wrote and allowed the character to breathe, the more I realized how heroic the character was. I knew she was representing more than just herself, that if I wrote honestly enough (I believe deeply in Hemingway's adage "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.") that my character Peyton Cote would resonate with other single mothers, who experience the same hardships, challenges, and rewards that Kylie did and Peyton does.

Did I succeed? Who knows. But the effort was and continues to be there.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Using Technology in Fiction

Rick’s post yesterday about his background in music got me thinking about my own background, i.e. what I did before I started writing. I was a Computer Science major in college, earning both of my degrees during the 1980s. When I started studying computers,

Xerox 8010 time share systems were on their way in and punch cards were on their way out. The Apple II and TRS-80 came out the year I started my undergraduate degree. By the time I received my B.S. four years later, the IBM PC was on the way to store shelves, helping to bring personal computing to the masses.

My first programming assignment was writing software for the Xerox Star 8010 (I started working at Xerox right before the first release came out in 1981.) For many years, I worked on it and the systems that followed. It was a great time to be programming. Icon based systems were new and you felt like you were on the cutting edge. I have many fond memories of my time there. By the time I stopped programming twenty years or so later, the computer world had drastically changed.

Technology can be a lot of fun to include in a story, particularly in a mystery. You’ve heard pacemakers can be hacked, right? That’s an interesting method of murder to use in a story. But, technology changes at light speed. Apparently, now traces are left behind when someone hacks a pacemaker.

So, when you’re writing a crime story you have to decide how much technology to put in and be aware that what you use in a story may not work the same even a year later. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put it in. You just have to be aware that an intricate plot device you set up today may not make sense to someone who reads the book years later.

Then there’s the ubiquitousness of cell phones in every day life today. Plots set in modern times have to take into account that calls can be made from pretty much anywhere so if you want a character to be out of reach you either have to put him in a dead zone, have him forget to charge his/her phone, have him/her lose the phone or have it no longer functioning for some reason. Then there’s the use of phones by people of different ages. Someone in their 70s probably uses a phone differently than someone in their 20s. Sometimes, I think Sue Grafton has the right idea by setting her Kinsey Millhone mysteries in the 1980s before cell phones, the internet, Facebook, twitter and wi-fi existed or were common.

My protagonist in Fatal Brushstroke is a freelance programmer. I don’t dwell on what she does because, well, programming can be quite boring to read about. But she is of an analytical bent, as many programmers are, and she does use the internet to do research. (And the fact she works freelance means she makes her own schedule and can do her sleuthing any time of the day or night.)

Keeping up with all the technology changes can be quite daunting. I’m not sure it’s even possible. But I still intend to put bits and pieces of technology in my stories. But when I need a break, I think I’ll write that historical I’ve been thinking about. Of course, that brings up a whole other set of problems...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Donning another hat

Me in 1973,  just out university and dreaming of stardom!
As I’m sure longtime readers of Type M are no doubt acutely aware, my original vocation was as a musician.

I had my first piano lesson at age 7 (I will not tell you in what year!) and I was immediately hooked. Later on, wanting to play “popular music”, I branched out to organ, started a band, and, well, that was it for me. Music absolutely consumed my life. By the time I was 16, I was playing in a bar two nights a week with a very good soul band, Gene Sayles and the Soul Salesmen. More time passed with a lot of nights spent in bars. During this time, I also learned to appreciate jazz and took lessons from a gentleman named Weldon Irvine. Along with Jimmy Smith, he was my musical hero.

Late in high school, I wanted to join the school band, and since they needed trombones, I took that up. With university beckoning and my heart set on a music career, I practised my butt off and got into the Music Department at the NYU School of Education. Playing in band sort of took a back seat after that. There was just too much to learn and not enough hours in the day to do it!

I transferred to McGill University in my third year for various reasons (love being the major one), and that required a sea change in my life. I was out on my own and living in Montreal (with my girlfriend, also a musician). I did do some semi-professional playing during this period, but it was mostly on French horn, the instrument I took up in university — mainly because there were so many great trombonists in the school and not as many hornists.

But once university ended, I immediately formed a new band, and with dreams of fame and fortune in my eyes (much like budding authors), we set out on the road to stardom. This time, though, I was playing progressive rock. You know, those ponderous songs of half an hour each, played on many instruments and with poetic lyrics that made absolutely no sense. That band, Devotion, was really exceptional. We felt we could play anything — and did. A volatile mix of talent and ego, sadly, the band broke up after two great years. After trying one more time with another band, I saw the handwriting on the wall: time to find alternative means of employment. Having gotten a Music Ed degree, I began teaching and did little performing far too little performing for the next 24 years.

But buried deep in the background, I still remembered my early roots in soul music. I’d hear a tune by Otis Redding or James Brown and get excited all over again by the music’s raw power.

Coming full circle – but on a different instrument!
As often happens as we get older, when I was back visiting in suburban New York where I’d grown up, I’d get together with old friends, many former performers in my old soul band or in others in the area. “Hey! Let’s put something together and play!” Since I’d always enjoyed and been adept at arranging, even back in the day, it fell on me to produce the horn charts and rudimentary rhythm section parts. We played. It sounded great and was huge fun. We did it a few more times, the band swelling to a dozen people. I was re-hooked on soul music.

That re-routing of my musical career comes full-circle on Thursday this week when a new band I’ve put together makes its debut performance in a Toronto club. Am I excited? You bet. This is no time to be a jaded, long-suffering musical “veteran”. We’re playing what I consider some of the best music created in the past century. Best of all, my fellow band members are playing it very well. The sound we have is authentic, a bit raw (purposely) and still very vital.

What does all of this have to do with writing? Not a heck of a lot, actually, but I am looking forward to Thursday with excitement I haven’t felt since printed copies of my first novel arrived at my house in 1992.

There! That’s a writing connection, isn’t it? If you’re in the Toronto area, please come to hear SOULidified at The Orbit Room, and watch Blechta with his musical hat on for a change.

Consider this your invitation!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Switching Gears

I once tried writing a very dark crime novel. My original premise had been about these two tough cops in B.C., a young woman and an older man, up against drug and motorcycle gangs, sex traffickers and really bad killers (as opposed to really nice killers??).

At the end of the first book in the series, the older male would be killed in a bomb explosion and the woman would go on to seek revenge.

Believe it or not, that book didn’t come out very dark and ended up being In the Shadow of the Glacier, the first Constable Molly Smith book.

Which, if you haven’t read the books, is a realistic police procedural about the lives and jobs of cops in small town British Columbia. Some reviews have called the series cozy, but they definitely are not.

In one book, Molly Smith kills a man, in them all the fall out of the murder or crime is wide-spread and devastating. I’ve dealt with the murder of a mother, the disappearance of a father, the suspected betrayal of a spouse, the death of adult children (not touching little kids), and even a soldier with PTSD and a gun on his lap.

So, not cozy. But nowhere near as dark as intended originally. Which is no doubt all for the better.

My standalone suspense novels have a modern gothic touch, and all deal with betrayals past and present.

My Klondike Gold Rush books are lighter, but they still have an edge. The main character is a woman with a past and she knows there are people out there looking for her. She runs a saloon and dance hall, and the occasional shady character drops in.

So, all in all, I think I’m a varied writer. I can write in different sub-genres and use different styles and tones in my writing.

Except, it seems, the dark stuff.

My newest style is very light. Under the pen name Eva Gates, I’m writing true cozies.

And having a lot of fun with it. Maybe I was burning out with the stuff I was writing, but the cozies have given me a giant boost. Then again, maybe I’m just enjoying not worrying about grief, and loss, and the tragedy of human existence.

Cozies are intended to be nothing more than an entertaining read. You won’t learn many lessons about the human condition, there is no one suffering from angst or threatening to kill themselves because of depression. No PTSD. No terrorist attacks or serial killers. Just people with friends and lovers and community. And the occasional enemy. And a murder of course.

Some cozies are humourous, some are not. I have tried to be.

Even if you’ve never read a cozy before, I invite you to give it a try. By Book or By Crook will be out on February 3rd. I'll be travelling extensively in the US on book tour, and meeting up with some great authors to share events along the way. The detailed schedule can be found at

Saturday, January 17, 2015

When the dream becomes a reality

This weekend's guest blogger is my very good friend and fellow Ottawa writer R.J. (Robin) Harlick, whose gritty, thought-provoking Meg Harris series is set in the rural wilderness of nearby West Quebec. Part mystery, part thriller, always exciting. Here she blogs about how and why she got started.

I’ve enjoyed the discussion on the Bechdel Test and the gender bias in literature and film. I will admit I could write ad infinitum on the topic, but like Donis, I will save this discussion for over a glass of wine.

At some point in our lives we writers make the decision to become one. Some of us know from a young age that writing stories is what we want to do, while for others, it is a more gradual transformation.

For me, there was never really a definitive moment when I shouted, ‘Yes, I want to be a writer.” I more or less slid into it, starting where most writers start, as a reader. As a child, I devoured books, in particular mysteries beginning with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and eventually graduating to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Sayres, Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolf and the like. Sometimes I thought it would be fun to write one of these myself.

Though I loved reading, English wasn’t my favourite subject. I found the piecemeal taking apart of a story destroyed the magical hold it had over me.  But I loved the creative writing part of English classes and would spend many an hour on class assignments making the stories that swirled around in my head come alive with words. Needless to say many had a mystery angle to them.

In university, I continued to enjoy playing around with words. I excelled at making essays sound as if I knew something about the topics about which I was writing, when I didn’t. Studying wasn’t one of my strengths. Perhaps this is where my penchant for creative writing started.

I also continued to read voraciously branching out into the world of the greats. Though I thought it might be fun to become a writer, like Ernest Hemingway or Somerset Maugham, I didn’t treat it seriously. I didn’t really think I had it in me.

This enjoyment for words continued on into my work life. I invariable preferred the writing part of my job to other aspects. But it was business writing; letters, proposals and reports. Nonetheless I continued to harbour the dream of being ensconced somewhere bucolic penning the next great Canadian novel.

To satisfy my need to write, I started recording my time spent at my log cabin in the woods in a journal. Finally, one day after reaching a significant birthday, I decided it was time to find out if I could become the fiction writer in the bucolic setting of my dreams. The setting was easy. I was already sitting in it; the screened-in porch of my log cabin overlooking the surrounding forests. And so I set out to write what would eventually be published as my first Meg Harris mystery, Death’s Golden Whisper.

My first goal was to see if I could even write a novel. Until that point, none of my business writing had approached the 100,000 word length of a typical novel. The next was to determine if I could write fiction, for I quickly discovered fiction writing is a totally different animal from business writing.  As I marched along this new adventure, scene after scene, chapter after chapter, towards the climactic end, I realized I really enjoyed it. And so I decided writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Six books and the odd short story later here I am continuing the adventure with the next and seventh Meg Harris mystery, A Cold White Fear.

What about you? Was it a slow gradual slide into becoming a writer or did you know from the get-go that you wanted to be one?

RJ Harlick writes the popular wilderness-based Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. RJ divides her time between her home in Ottawa and her log cabin in Quebec. And like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. There are 6 books in the series. The fourth, Arctic Blue Death was a finalist for the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. In the latest release, Silver Totem of Shame, Meg travels to Canada’s west coast, to Haida Gwaii, the mystical islands of the Haida, where she unravels a story of shame and betrayal that reaches back to when the Haida ruled the seas. She is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada. She is currently working on a Cold White Fear, the seventh Meg Harris mystery, scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016 release. Visit her website:

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Power of Trust

I think I've mentioned here that a couple of months ago I adopted a cat, now named to Harry. In this photo, Harry — eight year old Maine Coon mix —  is investigating the boxes I've collected for my decluttering project. Harry seems to share a number of characteristics — like loving boxes — with other felines. But he has other quirks that seem to be uniquely his own.

Much more of a dog person than a cat lover — having only had an outdoor cat briefly when I was a child — I have been surprised by the bond that we're forming. But what has surprised me even more is that having Harry in my life is giving me greater insight into human relationships. Harry is an opportunity to study close-up the profound power of trust to affect human behavior.

Yesterday, I dropped Harry off at his vet's to have his teeth cleaned while I made a quick trip to New York City. The night before, Harry seemed to pick up some anxiety on my part that I had received instructions that he was not to eat after 6 am. That meant I would either not be able to leave food out for him that evening or that I would have to wake up before 6 and remove his food bowls. But my greater anxiety was that he would somehow sense that the next morning I planned to put him into his carrier. Harry does not like his carrier, wisely associating the carrier not only with being caged but with a trip in the car to the vet.

At a little after midnight I went off to bed, having decided to set the clock and get up at 6 to remove his food bowls. For the next two hours, Harry wandered through the house meowing, with occasional stops in front of my close door to scratch and meow louder. The scratching at my door is something we dealt with early on. We established that I will not open my door because he scratches. At night, I go off bed, leaving him to do the same — and he is often asleep before I am. But he wakes up and plays cat soccer with his toys and dashes through the house and eats and does whatever cats do at night. His business, as long as he stays away from the door. Then in the morning, I get up and open the blinds so that he can look out. He is already on top of the radiator waiting. Over the past two months, we've worked that out. So the scratching at the door and the loud meowing was disturbing. I couldn't sleep and he wasn't in a mood to play.

At 2 am I gave up. I waited until it had been awhile since he scratched on the door. Then got up, went into the living room and set on the sofa. Now, that we have a pet cover, he is allowed to make use of the sofa without the balled aluminum foil that didn't keep him off anyway. Now, we sit on the sofa in the evening when I have the time. Easier than having an 18+ lb cat jump into my lap when I trying to work on my computer. So at 2 am, I sit on the sofa. He jumped up beside me. Exhausted, I stretched out. He stretched out in the curl of my arm, on his back, paws in the air.

When he was snoozing, I eased off the sofa. He turned over and curled up against the pillow and kept sleeping. He was still asleep when I woke up at 6. In fact, I had to wake him up a little before I scooped him up and put him into his carrier — actually, a carrier designed for a medium-sized door. I had lined it with a towel, sprayed it with a calming spray, but Harry still meowed his unhappiness as we drove to the vet. And I felt guilty, as if I had betrayed his trust, even though I knew the trip was necessary and that I would come back for him. And I hoped that 2 am time together on the sofa had helped him to believe that, too.

Harry has gotten me thinking about humans relationships, not just with animals, but with other humans. For most of us — those of us who have the power of empathy — being trusted by another human or an animal is a gift, but it comes with responsibility. The responsibility to live up to that trust.

As writers, particularly crime writers, we deal with trust in our work — usually betrayals of trust. But there are also those stories to be told about keeping trust. Harry has me pondering what I can do with that. Writer thanks cat.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

An Ugly World

Donis here. Men are outside painting my house. All the windows are covered in opaque plastic and I can't see what's going on. Is it cloudy? Sunny? I am feeling creepily encased in a kind of half-light. But to business...

The gender debate that has been...well, let us not say "raging", but perhaps simmering along for the past few days, has made for interesting reading. I've also found it a bit depressing. Barbara's post on Wednesday nicely summed up a lot of my feelings on the matter so I won't add my two cents.

But if we ever get together for coffee and you'd like to hear what I think, Dear Reader, I'd be glad to give you the entire dollar's worth of my opinion. I've been around a long time and have had a lot of experience being an American woman of all ages and throughout several eras.

In the meantime, let us discuss writing for a bit. I've been working steadily on the eighth installment of my Alafair Tucker series, which is set in the American West during the second decade of the Twentieth Century. The new book, All Men Fear Me, should be published in the fall. The first book in the series, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, came out in July 2005, which means that I've been writing Alafair's story for ten years come this summer.

Writing series characters over a long period of time is like living with real people. When you first meet them, it takes a while to get to know how they think and act, to understand their peccadillo;and to know how they are going to behave in any given situation. But as in any relationship, your characters will surprise you, no matter how well you think you know them. If they don't, you haven't written real people.

Every book I write surprises me. Alafair is raising ten children, and I'm amazed at how each of them is turning out. I mean, I had no idea that this one would grow up to be such a hothead, or that one would be an intellectual, or a tease. Or so self-destructive. Alafair is changing as she gets older, too. She used to be so sure of herself. But then things are happening in the world that affect her and her family, and she has no control over any of it. It's like she said:
"When the kids were little, I thought that if I could just keep them from killing themselves until they were big enough to take care of themselves, then I wouldn’t be worrying about them so much. Turns out I had it backwards. When they were little, I had more charge over what happened to them. But now they’re all about their own affairs, and there’s nothing I can do about it."

It was an ugly world in 1917. I've thought before that writing historical fiction or science fiction is a way for an author to comment on the society he lives in by drawing parallels to the past or future. The more I research what life was like for ordinary people in the early 20th Century, the more I realize that as a species, we humans don't seem to learn anything.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A women's lot

Barbara here. We have a bit of a gender war going on here on Type M, and it's great fun. I am going to weigh in on Bechdel quickly before taking the gender talk in a slightly more personal direction.

I think the purpose of the Bechdel Test is not to force score-keeping or to criticize anyone's work for falling on the wrong side of the test. It's to create awareness. As every woman knows, a lot of biases and prejudices influence us below the level of awareness and form such an integral part of our culture and our own personal experience that we don't even notice them. Particularly if we are not a member of the group on the receiving end. Women are more acutely aware of biased attitudes that affect them, while men are often blissfully unaware. Black people are more aware of racism than whites, gay people more aware of homophobia, and so on.

As Rick, Violette and Vicki all pointed out, we have come a long way since the barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen days; women enter the professions in equal numbers to men and have broken many of the stereotypes that formed barriers. But we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to rising to the top. The more money, status, and power a position has, the more likely it is to be filled by a man. This is true whether the field is politics, academia, finance, corporate CEOs, or show biz.

Closer to home, in the world of Canadian and American crime writing where men and women publish in more or less equal numbers, men still tend to get more reviews, more festival invitations, more award nominations, and bigger publishers. It's as if the stories women tell are somehow less important than men's. And as Vicki highlighted in her Delany Test, as if women's stories are just about women instead of people.

The Delany Test and the Bechdel Test can help us become more aware of this subtle but extremely powerful bias. It's true as Rick pointed out that women can push back with an equal bias. Some men men won't read a book about a woman, and quite a few, as I can attest, won't even read one written by a woman, because they are pretty sure it "won't interest me." As an aside, the only two female authors who have won the Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award in the last ten years (myself and Louise Penny) have male police detectives as their main character.

Which brings me to my own personal gender diversion. For fifteen years I have written about a male detective. When I first conceived of Inspector Green in the 1980s, I was heavily influenced by my favourite British crime novelists like PD James and Ruth Rendell, both of whom had male police detectives. In those days the police were overwhelmingly male in real life as well, so it didn't even occur to me to make my detective female. In the first few books, I didn't even include a female on his team (also quite normal in real life). One day a woman reader demanded to know why I chose to make my hero a man. She went so far as to say I "should" be writing about a woman, as if I were somehow betraying my own sex.

I don't like being told what to do, as my family knows. And I don't regret for an instant the time I've spent with Inspector Green. I love him as a character and he's been a source of constant inspiration and entertainment, but that comment was the first step in raising my own level of awareness. From that point on I included female officers on Green's team, both the enthusiastic but brash Detective Sue Peters and the ambitious, self-serving Superintendent Barbara Devine. In short, both people who happened to be women. Over the course of the series, I have collected a lot of committed readers, both men and women, who enjoy Inspector Green and the whole cast.

I am now embarking on a brand new series, and this time in the interests of a fresh challenge, coupled with the wish to explore new characters and new themes, I am switching things up. I am picking up the mantle of the amateur sleuth and giving up the police procedural format, and my main hero will be a woman. I will be sticking to my gritty, psychological style, with an emphasis on the human condition. But will I be pigeonholed firmly in the "woman's story" camp now? Will my male readers follow me, and will they enjoy the experience of cheering on a woman as she confronts the struggles and evils she encounters?

Let's hope so. Let's hope we've come that far.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Bechdel Test: a differing viewpoint

I read Vicki’s post last week with a lot of interest because it makes some important points. I read Violette’s guest post this weekend with the same interest, but after reflecting on both, there are some things over which I take issue. This is probably not going to make me popular in some quarters.

First and foremost, it is useless to look at books written in the past. The characters in the Tolkien books are a product of his upbringing and his time. They are also basically books about war. Women did not generally take part in combat in those days. (They still don’t, but that’s another matter.) The only strong female character in Middle Earth is Galadriel. Arwen is primarily just “the love interest”. Could more females have been used in stronger roles? Perhaps, but in the world Tolkien inhabited (not the world in which he lived), women had a subservient role, so he probably just didn’t consider it. To Jackson’s credit, he and his co-writers did try to make women more important to the plot, although this misfired somewhat in The Hobbit with Tauriel since they also burdened her the totally superfluous subplot of falling in love with Kili.

Still Tolkien and Stephenson (Treasure Island) wrote from and for their times. A woman would not have made a treasure-seeking voyage. It just would not have worked. I suppose a female elf could have gone on the quest in LOTR, but it would have been stretching things – and probably never even occurred to the Oxford don who wrote it. Both lived in a man’s world (for better or worse), and that’s where they placed their novels.

In our more modern world where women are finally beginning to get their due (and we’re still lagging badly in many areas), we should write from a more “enlightened” viewpoint (and this is where the Bechdel Test can more legitimately be applied). But my question is: why the scorekeeping? I’m sure there are now books where the old man/woman character paradigm has been flipped on its head. Would you say this is a good thing? Not if it’s forced or done as retribution or an evening of scores.

A number of years ago, I was attended a Crime Writers of Canada Christmas Party where guests were also invited. It was held at a pub and the idea was to have people change tables and get to know the various authors. A couple sat down at my table and the female half asked me if I was a writer. I answered in the affirmative and asked if she’d read any of my novels. She said, “I never read books written by males.” Of course I asked why. “I have no interest in them.” “Even if they’re good stories?” “No. I don’t want to read anything written by a male.” And then she proceeded to get up from the table.

For obvious reasons, that’s stuck with me. This person is to be pitied. Hers is the flip side of the same awful coin. Of course, she is completely justified in reading only what she wants to read, but that doesn’t make her viewpoint anything but completely self-limiting and just as damaging as the old paradigm. I’ve also heard it said several times that males should never write first person characters who are female. Huh? Would these people stand for it if I countered with the (very logical) point that, based on that attitude, women should never write first person male characters. The crime fiction world would be a much poorer place if everyone felt that way.

We owe it to ourselves as human beings to be as free and open about humanity as we can be. That should be reflected in our stories. Unfortunately at this time, it’s still not, but score-keeping doesn’t help matters. Only positive action does.

I write novels with very strong female characters. I would pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. But to tell the truth, it’s not a concern to me. I don’t consciously set out to write strong female characters to be fair or more inclusive. I write them because my story demands them. I’m not going to look back and discover with horror that a particular book doesn’t have a strong female character unless I set out to purposely tell a story like this – without regard to its sensibility to my plot. I just wouldn’t do that. I want to tell stories set in the real world inhabited by real people. I’m not out there with an ax to grind. It wouldn’t be fair to my stories, nor my readers – or even to me. I don’t expect a pat on the back, either. I do it for no other reason than that’s where my imagination led me.

When I finish a novel, I ask myself whether I enjoyed it. I don’t apply anything like the Bechdel Test and then decide based on the results whether I should like the novel. I either like it or don’t.

Okay. Take your shots.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Print Revival

It seems to me a good omen for the new year.  Waterstones, which is the last remaining proper bookshop chain in Britain, has announced that while ebook sales have faltered over the last few months, sales of real books have greatly increased.

Waterstones seemed doomed before the current manager, the brilliant James Daunt, took over. It was seen as another step on the road to ruin when he started selling Amazon Kindles and downloads from the stores, but he did it on the principle of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.' He was more than justified and he is bullish about Waterstones' future, planning to open new stores.

But there was no denying the glee in his voice when he was able to say that the imminent death of the printed book had been indefinitely postponed. Foyles, the world-famous bookshop in Charing Cross Road which has just massively expanded the store, sounded pretty happy about their figures too.

Of course, Christmas sales probably had a lot to do with it. Wrapping up and handing over a book as a present feels very different from telling someone you've put one on their Kindle. But don't get me wrong, I have nothing against ebooks; they've done me proud in hugely expanding my readership.

It's just that when I read one myself, I always feel it's like smoking without inhaling. (At least, I imagine it is. When I was a student I did a lot of waving around of Balkan Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes when I could afford them and puffing, but never quite mastered the next stage without the violent coughing and streaming eyes bit – death to the sophisticate image.)

I might read the sort of book I'd take on a long plane journey on my reader, but I would feel it was a terrible waste to do that with a book I knew I would savour, and I wouldn't have it to put it on my bookshelf afterwards where I could nod at it affectionately in passing, like a familiar friend. I know I'm old-fashioned but it's reassuring to discover that there are lots of other old-fashioned  people too.

My favorite book this Christmas wasn't given to me, but to my six-year-old granddaughter. It was The Book With No Pictures, by BJ Novak, and it is wonderful. Those of you who have small children or grandchildren may know it already, but if not, go out and get it. 

It's for reading aloud. Its shtick is that the adult has to read exactly what is on the pages: 'After all, if a book has no pictures there's nothing to look at but the words on the page. Words that might makes you say silly sounds...In ridiculous voices.'

It made for a lovely family occasion, all of us gathered round roaring with laughter at my son-n-law's efforts to comply. My granddaughter's thank-you letter said, 'I don't know what this book's about but it's great.'

She has a Nook but it's seldom in use while the favourite books piled in the bookcase a worn to bits.
I think she's starting the sort of love-affair with books that I developed at that age. I do wonder if I'd really have fallen in love with a machine?.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Violette Malan: This Will Be On The Test

Today's guest author is my good friend and fabulous fantasy author Violette Malan. Violette and I were talking recently about the Hobbit movies in particular and the Bechdel test in particular.  I wrote about the test (and my own Delany test) on Monday (link here), and now Violette chimes in.


I don't know whether it's the controversy over the character Turiel in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but there's been a big swell of interest lately in the Bechdel Test. You know what that is, right? Generally applied to movies and TV shows, it determines whether woman are represented equitably. In order to pass the test, there must be two female characters who have names; they must at some point speak to each other; they must speak about something other than men. Seems simple.

I remember my father once telling me that Treasure Island had no women in it. He seemed to think this was a good thing. He was wrong, of course, except that he was also right. What he didn't realize was that the film he was familiar with had no women, but that wasn't also true of the book. Jim Hawkins does have a mother.  We could argue, however, that the film guys got it right, since Mrs. Hawkins does little or nothing to forward the plot.

So Treasure Island, whether print or celluloid, fails the Bechdel Test.

Most films/shows don't pass the test, even the ones we fantasy and SF lovers love the most. Big Bang Theory doesn't pass, even though there are three named female characters (and not because Penny, as my friend Jim Hines has pointed out, has no last name). Stargate passes, at least SG1 – they were smart to make the doctor a woman, since that gives plenty of room for non-guy related conversation. It's been a while, but I believe that Star Trek: Voyager passes (between Captain Janeway, B'lanna Torres and Seven-of-Nine) and TNG as well – remember, the doctor's a woman.

LOTR fails, both versions. As does The Princess Bride, both versions. I'll admit it's been a while since I read the print versions of either of these, but I have read them multiple times, and I think I'm remembering correctly. I might also argue that if, after reading something multiple times, you can't remember whether two named females talk to each other about something other than men, it has to be considered a failure of some degree.

Let's see. Aliens passes. And at least the first two books of The Chronicles of Narnia. Agents of Shield seems to be doing a good job of passing the Test, and provides us with a clue as to how we can improve the numbers.

Okay, we could do this all day, so let me sum up: according to a survey done by Entertainment Weekly, eight out of ten recent movies actually fail the Test. (They give Gravity a pass because the character is so rich, but it fails the actual test) So, 80% fail. The percentages are a little better if we narrow the films down to the seven fantasy or SF movies on the list, which include the same two movies that passed in the first place. So, only 60% fail. Feeling better? Yeah, I hear you.

How do we make sure that we pass the Test ourselves?  I'm pretty sure I do, most of the time.  But I'm writing novels, not screenplays. It's easier for novels to pass the Bechdel Test, I think, which makes it all the more remarkable when they don't – at least when we're talking about modern novels. I don't expect people who were writing even 50 years ago to hold opinions that would have been unlikely for them to hold at the time, let alone to write about them.  One of the reasons that there's even a Bechdel Test in the first place is the increasing number of female writers, directors, and producers.

And those people are interested in writing, directing and producing stories about strong female leads, who, given another woman to speak to, have reasons to discuss the advancement of the plot – I mean the solving of the problem,  rather than the men in their lives.

Female doctors can speak to female characters about health issues. Females captains and leaders can speak to their female crew and followers about the events at hand. Female workers of any kind can speak to each other about the job at hand. It's that simple, isn't it? Women can talk to each other about their jobs; all we have to do is give them jobs.

One thing though. Almost all of the examples I've cited as passing the Bechdel Test have ensemble casts. I believe that's the "recent" artistic innovation that makes passing the test easier than it might have been even thirty years ago. Female protagonists can interact with each other if there's more than one of them, and that's much easier to do with a group of people working toward a common goal, than with just a single protagonist, or star.

That's a hint for us if we want to see more works passing the Bechdel Test: we're a group of people, let's work toward a common goal.

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website

Friday, January 09, 2015

Precious Possession

Our family gives an extraordinary number of books for Christmas. During one lazy Christmas vacation day a couple of weeks ago, we discussed the importance of libraries in our lives. We fondly remembered favorite books from our past and traded library stories. We recalled librarians we had known.

I'm a passionate advocate for interlibrary loan. Without that service I could not do academic research. I can locate microfilmed newspapers and obscure documents and have them mailed to my local library. When I heard of library closings or of students doing strictly on-line research I rise up to argue in favor of hitting the stacks.

The problem with using Google or other search engines rather than supplementing with library research is that on-line is too narrowly focused. By going to the library we are free to explore books that would be overlooked otherwise. It's an opportunity to expand creativity and make connections.

During this discussion, my grandson, John Crockett won the prize for library devotion. He's a junior at Colby College in Maine. He reached for his wallet and pulled out his very first library card. He received it when he was in kindergarten and had proudly signed his name.

This will be short tonight as I'm behind on a manuscript, but I just wanted our readers to know that libraries are alive and well and deeply embedded in the heart of America.

Thursday, January 08, 2015


I’m knee-deep in my 2016 Peyton Cote novel, tentatively titled Destiny’s Pawn, and the process has me thinking a lot about point-of-view

I started the novel, wrote maybe thirty pages, and immediately decided I needed to use alternating close, third-person points of view. Of course, our single mother / U.S. Border Patrol agent, Peyton, is still front and center, but the spotlight has to hit several other players for the plot to hold up. Tony Hillerman was a master of this, as was Elmore Leonard (see link for an interview with him about point-of-view).

The third person limited point-of-view fits well in crime fiction for a variety of reasons. Among them: it makes it easy for the writer to withhold information. If I’m writing in first person, I have to show my cards all the time – anything Jack Austin, for instance in my other series, knows, the reader also must be told because the book is told in Jack’s first-person voice. In third person, though, I can know things – and other characters can know things – that Peyton doesn’t. Where I ran into problems in Destiny’s Pawn, forcing me to use alternating limited third-person points of view was that things were happening in the Ukraine that were impacting events Peyton deals with in northern Maine. There would, therefore, be no logical way to end the book that offered readers enough information or details to provide a satisfying conclusion.

No one understood point-of-view and its defining elements better than legendary author and teacher John Gardner. Within third person, Gardner defined layers of “psychic distance.” Here is his now-famous chart explaining the range within which an author can maneuver in a close third-person point-of-view.

  1. It was the winter of 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry J. Warburton hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging your miserable soul.1

Here, you see the camera zoom in until the reader is squarely inside Henry J. Warburton’s head, the pronoun “your,” in the fifth sentence, forcing the issue.

Many writers feel choosing a point-of-view is the most important decision they make when starting a work of fiction. I, for one, am in that camp.

1Bernays, Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? New York: HarperCollins, 1995: 87.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Books That Last

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a good holiday, that you’re rested and refreshed and raring to go for 2015!

For Christmas, I was at my mother’s house where I spent some time getting in touch with my reading roots. Read a little Encyclopedia Brown, a little Bobbsey Twins, some Happy Hollisters and, of course, Nancy Drew.

While I remember enjoying them all, I have to admit I don’t remember many details about any of them. I remember Encyclopedia Brown had a detective agency in his garage, the Bobbsey Twins were two sets of twins and the Happy Hollisters were, well, happy.

I remember more about Nancy Drew than the others, probably because I was older when I first met her. This is what I recall: (1) Nancy had a convertible, (2) Bess and George were her best friends, (3) Ned Nickerson was her boyfriend, (4) her father was a lawyer, and (5) Nancy was adventurous and a great detective. That’s pretty much it. While I hadn’t read any of the books in years, I do admit to seeing the Bonita Granville movies from the 1930s, watching the Pamela Sue Martin TV series from the 1970s (okay, I watched the Hardy Boys more), and playing the Her Interactive Nancy Drew games. (I’ve made my way through #20 or so. I know, I know, I’m not the target market for those but, hey, that’s never stopped me!)

While I was in Seattle, I read the first 4 Nancy Drew books, took a peek at the 5th (1960s versions), and read two versions of The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. (More on that later.)

I was shocked I tell you, shocked!, to discover Bess, George and Ned don’t appear until book 5! (Secret at Shadow Ranch) I thought they were all joined at the hip from the very beginning but, no, Nancy had other friends and even (gasp!) other boyfriends. (She really played the field.) Ned was the first boy who was described as her “special friend”, though, so yay for Ned! Bess and George are described as her best friends but I have to wonder what they were doing for the first 4 books!

The Clue of the Leaning Chimney was my favorite of the ones I read. (Book 26) I first read the 1949 version, which was tucked away in a closet. (I vaguely remember buying it at a thrift store when I was a kid.) I’d heard somewhere that the 1960s versions were “dumbed down” from the earlier ones so I read the 1967 version to compare. (Hey, I was curious and, yes, I know I can be very analytical.)

I don’t know what “dumbed down” means in this context, but here’s what I discovered after comparing both versions: I didn’t see much difference between the two, really. The plot stayed the same, the characters the same. The writing was tightened, some words changed, and an event or two deleted but nothing that altered the storyline in any significant way. Here are a few differences I found particularly interesting:

  • 1949 – 25 chapters; 1967 – 20 chapters. Some of the chapters were combined in the newer version with some dialog shortened and one or two small events eliminated. Basically, it was streamlined.
  • 1949 – Nancy took 25 minutes to get ready for a party; 1967 – she accomplished the task in “a few minutes."
  • 1949 – Apparently, guests left later in 1949. They left at 11:30; 1967 – they left the party at 10:30 (Guess Nancy had an earlier curfew.) 
  • Nancy takes a plane to New York City in the book. In 1949, it was referred to as an “air liner”; in 1967 just a “plane”. There’s also less description of the flight in the later version. Guess it was more common to fly in 1967 so they felt the additional description unnecessary.
  • 1949 – Nancy generally drives her own car; Ned drove it once; 1967 – Ned drives the car pretty much every time he’s in it. I guess he no longer trusted her driving. (If you’ve ever seen the Bonita Granville movies, you’d understand his hesitation at letting Nancy drive.)

Basically, though, Nancy was the independent gal I remembered in both versions. She climbed trees, helped friends with problems, and used her brain to solve cases.

Not everyone has read a Nancy Drew book, but most people know who she is. When I think about how old those books are and how people are still reading them, it boggles my brain a little. I think that’s what most writers hope for: to tell a story and create characters readers will remember fondly and that will last for years and years.

I’m not talking about large numbers of books sold, though that would be nice. I’m talking about writing something that lasts after the writer is long gone. I don’t know what makes something last, what catches the reading public’s eye. If I did, I’d be making gobs and gobs of money, which I’m not. All a writer can do is write what they have in them. Whether or not it stands the test of time is something we may never know. I intend to write something I’d enjoy reading, have fun while doing it, and not worry about the rest.

My wish for you in the coming year: For those who write, may you produce something people will praise and enjoy for generations to come; for those who read, may you read something you enjoy and remember for years to come.


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The season of hope

As I’ve wished people a happy and prosperous new year, I’ve gotten back comments more than once on how bad 2014 was, not just for world, but personally for the people to whom I was speaking.

But last Thursday, we all turned the page on a bummer year and opened up a brand new 12 months, everything bright and shiny again.

I don’t know about you, but I always find the turning of the year to be a hopeful time. Yeah, it’s a reminder that I’m another year older and more personal doors seem to be closing than opening these days, a process sure to accelerate as the years move forward, but for every bad, there’s a good. That’s just the way life moves, and when you look at the bare bones of it, you can either embrace changes that naturally occur or spend your time shaking your fist at fate. Faced with that stark choice, I prefer to look at the hopeful side.

Like many, every year I set goals for myself. This year, they’re mostly physical ones. I’d like to lose weight (and how many years have I been saying that?). I would like to walk more, maybe play a little pick-up ball (or at least play catch with my wife or sons — and now, also my grandson!), simply get out and about rather than allowing myself to be chained to my computer. That’s a really worth (and sensible) goal, don’t you think?

Finding time for writing remains a challenge. I waste too many valuable minutes every day, allowing myself to get distracted by things that really don’t need doing. Since I’m usually up ahead of my wife, you would think that would be an ideal time to write. Unfortunately, every morning, I fire up the computer and (of course) wind up checking the overnight news, wishing friends a Happy Birthday on Facebook, stuff like that all worthy, but also not necessary when there’s writing to be done. The internet is a seductive place, and if you’re naturally curious as I am, it’s a real danger to moving my writing forward. Solution? Don’t turn on the computer; just sit down with pen and paper and lay down some more deathless prose. Sure, it will take longer doing it that way, but as I’ve said here more than once, I find I think more clearly when having to get my thoughts down more slowly. The proof is that my “manual” writing needs far less refining than when I type my words directly into the computer.

Being a musician, I have to practise daily. (“You’ve been playing how long and you still have to practise?”) Unless you’ve taken music past a certain point, you probably don’t know what a joy it is to spend quality time with your instrument of choice. Currently for me, that means the trumpet, something I never really set out to learn, by the way. There is a joy in making music as well as a real rush in being able to perform in front of an audience. In order to do either successfully and at a high level, that means slogging it out every day. I’ve played particular scales and exercises tens of thousands of times and I still manage to get a kick out of doing them. Why? I can’t really tell you. Sure, I could plod through them because I know how necessary they are, but it goes beyond that. I simply enjoy buzzing my lips at the small end of a brass instrument to receive a glorious sound out the big end. It’s as simple as that — even if I’ve done the same set of notes every day for forty years.

This year, I have a lot I want to accomplish, and to do that, I need to be very organized to make the most of each 24-hour daily allotment. To that end, I’m decided to make a daily “To-Do List”, organized into “must-dos”, “need to dos”, and “like to dos”. I’m also writing down my new year resolutions, but that’s more for historic reference next New Year’s Eve — just to see how I did.

The bad part of being faced with too many things to do in too little time is that you never can allow yourself to stop and smell the flowers. A little downtime is a good thing, too. Somehow I have to figure out how to schedule that in — without it feeling like I’m scheduling it in.

In the end, life is always a matter of balance, isn’t it?