Saturday, May 30, 2015

Guest Blog: Aly Monroe

Aline here. This time it's my pleasure to introduce you to the sharply intelligent and impressively thoughtful Aly Monroe.

Aly lives in Edinburgh though she lived in Spain for many years. Her Peter Cotton series – The Maze of Cadiz, Washington Shadow, Icelight and Black Bear – follows the fortunes of a young British intelligence agent amid the changing realities of the post-war world. She was shortlisted for the prestigious CWA Historical Dagger for Washington Shadow and won it with Icelight.

A Time to Kill

My first book, The Maze of Cadiz probably started one Christmas, many years ago, when we lived in Spain.

About a week before Christmas, in the building where we lived, I met a twelve-year-old neighbour who was accompanied by a turkey on a lead. I say lead but it was really a red ribbon. The girl, who was called Maria de los Angeles, explained to me that she was taking the Christmas Eve meal home. The Spanish start celebrating Christmas on the evening of December 24.

Throughout December, it was quite common to see gaggles of live turkeys in the street, brought into the town from the country, without having voted. People would install them on their verandas to fatten them up.

Being British, I was not accustomed to meeting meals when they are still able to walk. Since I have a son who lives in the US, I’m pretty sure Americans will know what I mean. The day before Thanksgiving I have never seen a turkey blinking at me.

I complimented Mari Angeles on her turkey – ‘Nice and plump,’ and she seemed quite excited. Then she told me it would be killed the next day.

 ‘Ah, ‘I said, ‘and who does that?’

She turned to me with a gleam in her eye. ‘I do,’ she said. ‘I do it every year.’ Her mother, she said, was ‘too squeamish’. I nodded politely. ‘I cut the throat, like this,’ she said. ‘Zas!’ Zas is Spanish comic strip speak for something like ‘Zoom’ or even ‘Kerpow!’ in English. In case I was in any doubt she added. ‘I like it.’

We had arrived at her floor. ‘ Come on,’ she said to the turkey. “Feliz Navidad,’ she said to me.

I did wonder on the remainder of my trip upwards what it would take to kill a person. Would a young man intent on assassination be a sufficient justification? I wasn’t sure but I decided to see what I could do with what became my first Peter Cotton book.

The next year my elder daughter’s Godmother sent us a turkey from their farm. Since she knew me, the turkey arrived plucked and very recently dead on the evening of December 23.

‘Ew!’ said my younger daughter. ‘Why is the meat twitching?’

No, I didn’t become a vegetarian, but I sometimes wonder what became of my little Spanish neighbour. I do hope she developed a taste for crime fiction.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Touchy Situations

There are so many things they don't tell you about when you become a writer. Recently, I've had to side-step a situation that is very uncomfortable for me. That is telling friends they absolutely cannot come along on an interview.

This is a hard and fast rule that I've developed because of my first experience. I was working away on a historical book back when I lived in Kansas. A lady I hardly knew wanted to come with me to Atchison, Kansas and show me around. I could have shown myself around. It's not hard to find places in Kansas. But it was important to her to go that day, so I foolishly said yes.

I appreciated all the things she could tell me about the town. But things fell apart when we went to a convent and I interviewed a nun who knew a great deal about her order. My companion could not have been more insulting. An interview to collect an oral history is not an antagonistic interview.

I don't conduct an interview with the stance of a lawyer or a reporter from CNN. I want to gain the person's trust and evoke memories. I am interested in their opinion. That's all. Objectivity is a myth when it comes to family stories. Your own account of an event will differ widely and wildly from your sister's brother' memories.

Sometimes it's easy to gain an interviewees trust. Sometimes not. However relationships change the moment someone new enters a room. Like throwing a rock in a pond. Ripples pulse.

My companion that day obviously hated Catholics. I mean seriously. She challenged every statement. Her attitude ruined the interview.

Writing is such a learning process. There are so many things that are not written down.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The good (little) guys and Big Macs

I read Rick's excellent and thorough post How writing is a mirror of what is happening throughout society and was struck by how accurate – and bleak – his take on the current state of publishing is.

Make no mistake, if you're a mid-lister, the publishers hold the upper hand.

But I was also struck by Rick's conclusion: "But there are a lot of good guy publishers out there, manned by people who get it. Here’s to the companies that resist temptation and are interested in everyone making money fairly. They seem to be few and far between – and are an endangered species themselves."

I've never been with a large publisher. In my twenties and agent-less, I sold my first novel, Cut Shot, to tiny Sleeping Bear Press, which was sold to a conglomerate a couple years later. Then I moved the series, in 2001, to the University Press of New England, which published the next four Jack Austin books. In 2013, Five Star/Gale published This One Day, a standalone. And I'm with Midnight Ink, an indie specializing in crime fiction, now.

Based on my experience with Midnight Ink, I'd say this house fits Rick's description of a "good-guy publisher." This opinion is based on an embarrassing trend emerging in my own writing life: for the second consecutive year, I missed my May 1 deadline, and Midnight Ink Publisher Terri Bischoff has read the work-in-progress and offered a thorough critique that I use as a write the final third of the novel. What this means for me is that I get Terri's input before I get my editor's feedback. Therefore, I'm getting two thorough reads on each novel. Lots to think about, yes, but I'm thrilled for the feedback.

This example speaks to the differences I see between working with a large publisher and an indie. When my agent was shopping my Peyton Cote US Customs and Border Protection series, she got some interest from New York. I called a trusted writer friend who has been in the game longer than me and who has been successful enough to be writing full time. I asked him about the New York house and about Midnight Ink. "Everyone I know who's with Midnight Ink is happy. Everyone I know who's with [large New York house X] isn't." The large publisher's business and promotional models that my friend described (and which, based on discussions my agent had with them, seems accurate) was simple: offer a two-book contract, publish them, and see what happens. If (when) they don't sell, walk away. Throw them at the wall, and see if they stick.

Indie houses don't use this mass-production business model; they can't afford to. That model seems better suited for Big Macs than books. It might mean the smaller advances Rick wrote about, but, as a writer, I'd rather take less advance than have my work be treated like a fast-food product.

Here's to the little good guys.

As an aside, tonight I'll be at the 2015 Maine Literary Awards given by (this is somewhat ironic, given this post) the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in Portland, Maine. Bitter Crossing is a finalist. It should be fun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

As Sick as a Parrot

Sybil here. I’ve been working through the comments from my editor for my next book, Paint the Town Dead. As usual, she has many useful things to say. And, as usual, some cliches have managed to slip through. To keep the flow of writing going, I don’t worry about cliches in the first draft, but I do try to excise them from the one I send to my editor.

This exercise got me thinking about cliches and how to get rid of them so I consulted my trusty(?) internet and came up with a few websites that I thought you all might find interesting.

The first one that popped up was from the Oxford Dictionary, which had a procedure to help get rid of cliches in your writing. (‘Cause as a former programmer, I can relate to algorithms and procedures.) What struck me as funny about this one was the first “cliche” noted on the site: as sick as a parrot. Well, as a United Statesian*, I had never heard of this one. Had to look it up on the internet to find out it means “to be very disappointed”. I’ve never read or heard this anywhere here in the U.S. I assume, given this is an Oxford Dictionary site, this is a British thing. Is it common in Canada as well? Has anyone heard it in the U.S.?

The next site I visited was tips from Grammar Girl on avoiding cliches. This one has some interesting historical tidbits on where some cliches come from as well as suggestions on how to get rid of them. Plus there are some links at the bottom of the article that I found interesting.

One in particular was the Phrase Finder where you can type in a word like “cat” and it’ll tell you phrases that include that word. Raining cats and dogs, no room to swing a cat,... For each phrase there’s a discussion on its origins. Great fun if you want to avoid doing real work.

And the last site I found before I gave up on searching was

I’m sure there are a lot more sites out there with tips but I must get back to my edits since they’re due in a week.

*United Statesian – see Donis Casey’s post awhile back on Thanksgiving where she mentions the phrase in a footnote:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How writing is a mirror of what is happening throughout society.

by Rick Blechta

It seems as if every day brings a new report of some corporation or other shuttering factories or closing down altogether. “The jobs have are all being moved to [enter third world country name here],” as if these things happen by accident. It’s almost like “Honest! We came in Monday morning and all the jobs had gone to China. We have no idea how that happened! When we locked the doors on Friday all the jobs were here. Then this morning, poof! Every single job (except mine, of course) has moved out of the country.”

Another trend is making do with less. Taxes are as high as ever but the services they pay for keep shrinking. Here in Toronto, we get far less garbage pick-up, door-to-door postal service is being phased out, we’re paying more and more for programs that used to be free, and our infrastructure is still falling about. That’s just on a local level.

Closer to home (for writers), we’re also being expected to do far more for far less. When the idea of advances against royalties was first adopted, it was put forward so that a writer could support him/herself while writing the book. It wasn’t free money by any stretch. If the book did reasonable business, the advance would be paid off and the company would begin handing out more royalties when it was. In the meantime, the writer didn’t have to try to juggle a day job and writing or risk starving to death along with their families. An advance against royalties was also a vote of confidence by the publisher that the book would do well enough. If they picked well and promoted well, they’d get their advance paid off.

In more recent times, the playing field has shifted dramatically and each shift has been away from writers. Here’s a partial list:
  • The value of advances has plummeted. These days a writer is lucky to get even $5000. Quite often it can be under $1000. For most of us, that’s a few weeks of very frugal living, certainly not long enough to write a full-length book.
  • Authors are expected to do the majority of their own promotion. Publicity departments even ask us to write ad copy. Ad copywriting is a very refined and arcane art. I don’t believe most authors are equipped or experienced enough to do it effectively. Why are publishers asking for this to be done when it’s in no ones’ best interest?
  • Most authors have to organize their own live appearances, book signings, readings.
  • We’re expected to have websites and pay the cost of them.
  • We’re expected to blog (which is precisely why I and the rest of the Type M members are here).
  • Need to travel for research? Pay for it yourself.
  • Need to travel for an appearance? Get someone else to pay for it.
The real changes in publishing, though, have gone by with fairly a whimper.

Here’s one: Advances given out for one book, may be paid for by the royalties of another. It works like this: Book 1 gets an advance of, say, $1000. It does okay but royalties on sales made only reach $500. Book 2 also gets a royalty advance of $1000 and is far more successful, paying back its advance quickly. The royalty statement comes in. What’s this? The author should have received $400 in royalties from Book 2, but they aren’t there. They’ve been applied to what was owing on Book 1. That is not the way the system was set up. Advances become a much more win/win situation for the publisher. (And don't get me started on the dodge that royalty periods are now a year because it’s “so expensive to calculate and produce royalty statements”. It’s done by computer. You must have bought the wrong software, bunky!)

Here’s another: Due to technology changes, books no longer go out of print. Even if they don’t have stock, a publisher can do a print run as low as 1 book at any time. Voila! We’re back in print. E-books serve the same function since they only exist as a file stored on a computer. Technically, the book is always in stock. So if the author wants the rights to their work back, good luck with that.

A third one (and this is a really troubling trend): An author gets a book deal for a new series. A clause in the contract states that the publisher gets the rights not only to the novel but also its characters. Huh? That way, if the author moves on, the publisher holds the rights to the characters so no new books in that series can be written by the creator for another publisher. The goal of this is two-fold: the publisher can hire another author to continue the series, or the publisher can demand cash to sell their rights to the character. Either way, the author is left in a terrible bind. This one is on the new-ish side and not all publishers are doing it, but my guess is that it will spread.

Agents can help with all of these things, but in the end, the publisher generally holds all the cards or has at least a very strong hand. Quite often (with new authors especially) it’s presented as “take it or leave it”, and many are desperate enough to get published that they take it.

We’re all in this together. Publishers have always claimed poverty. In some cases, it’s true, in others, not so much. Either way, we’ve been so conditioned to expect less and less, who can blame corporations and businesses by trying to use the paradigm shift in general society to their own advantage?

But there are a lot of good guy publishers out there, manned by people who get it. Here’s to the companies that resist temptation and are interested in everyone making money fairly. They seem to be few and far between – and are an endangered species themselves.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Perils of Technology

By Vicki Delany

I enjoyed Barbara’s post on the complications of crafting a plot around modern technology, cell phones in particular. In the Constable Molly Smith series, I have to always be thinking of DNA results, fingerprint analysis, cell phone records, bank warrants, and on and on, when what I really want my characters to concentrate on is what the suspect says, and how they react, what the witnesses saw, and what they only think they saw.

But now that I’m writing cozies for Obsidian and Berkley Prime Crime, I am delighting in not having to worry about most of that stuff. Because the so-called-sleuth isn’t a detective or police officer, she doesn’t have access to any forensic methods, or computer data bases. She can’t order suspects to talk to her or obtain a warrant to check bank or phone records.  

Cozy mysteries are often called traditional mysteries. Somewhat of a misnomer, I think, but in this one aspect the name fits. The sleuth has none of modern policing and forensics at her disposal. All she has to go on is her observation of human beings, what she knows about people, what she can detect from what’s happening immediately around her. And gossip, of course, where would the amateur sleuth be without gossip?

Usually obtained at the bakery or coffee shop over a latte and blueberry scone.

I am enjoying writing these books a lot, and part of the reason is that I can forget about all that techo stuff, and just concentrate on the people. It’s all about the people. Sometimes people lie, or they forget, or they misrepresent, and it’s up to the amateur sleuth to parse her way through lies and misdirections. Sometimes she’s not so good at it. And that’s the fun of the writing too.

However, there’s still the sticky problem of cell phones and calling for help. Even an amateur sleuth has a cell phone. In the second book in the series, Booked for Trouble, I had to tie myself into knots when someone is kidnapped and spirited away in a car and Lucy Richardson chases them in her mother’s Mercedes SLK (and was that a fun scene to write!) Why the heck, the reader might ask, does Lucy not just phone the cops and tell them what’s going on?

You’ll have to read the book to find out how I got around that one.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Up and at 'em!

Finally, after five long years, my new book is out, Rescue From Planet Pleasure. What took so long?

Well, first of all, I had to write the damn thing. But it's more complicated than that. In 2010, after my fifth book in the series was released, HarperCollins chose not to renew my contract. The reason? Sales. The situation baffled to me. Everyone told me each book was better than the previous, but as you tracked my sales numbers, they declined with every new title. So I was frustrated and bitter with publishing. Seems that no matter what I did, I felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. Let me qualify that. I was and am grateful for all the success that I've had, but I can't deny my frustration at trying my best and coming up short.

I had cooked up some new stories which I submitted as partials. But no bites. So for two years I was spinning my wheels with nothing new in the pipeline. Since no one in publishing showed interest in my stories, I didn't finish them. Meanwhile, the Amazon ebook boom was taking off, and I had nothing to offer. But day by day, fan emails trickled into my mailbox. "Where's the new Felix story?" "You left so much unresolved. You owe us." So I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back on that horse to start writing book six. My intention was to self-publish but at Comicpalooza in Houston, TX, I ran across the WordFire Press booth in the dealer's pavilion. I was impressed by their hustle and presentation. WordFire is a regional press owned by SF writer extraordinaire Kevin J. Anderson. He and his stalwart crew have not only put together an impressive stable of writers, they also formed partnerships with other publishers to juice everyone's authors. I decided to throw my hat into their ring. I commissioned an artist friend, Eric Matelski, for the cover and he did a fantastic job. WordFire did the legwork with the editing and formatting. This weekend an advanced copy will be available at Denver Comic Con.

Am I happy? You bet. How am I celebrating? By writing Book 7, Steampunk Banditos. Coming next year.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding a Character's Achilles Heel

In the mythology of Archaic Greece, Thetis, a sea goddess, marries the mortal hero Peleus. To give their son, Achilles, immortality, she – in one version of the myth – dips the infant into the Styx, the river of Hades. But she holds him by his heel, and that part of his body remains vulnerable.

Although Achilles becomes a legendary warrior, he is killed by Paris with an arrow to his heel.

I have been thinking about Achilles and his heel. I've also been thinking about the "tragic flaw" that is the undoing of Shakespeare's heroes – Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's indecision. I've been thinking about vulnerabilities because of the two main characters in my 1939 historical thriller. I have an upright, highly moral hero who right now would be chewed up and spit out by my villain. I have a villain who is vile and despicable, who will not hesitate to do what is required to achieve his goal. My hero is a black college-educated sleeping car porter and son of a Southern Baptist minister. My villain is a white New South business man, the son of a doctor and grandson of a Civil War general. Right now, I'm finding my hero's minister father and my villain's father, the doctor, a lot more interesting than hero and villain.

Something's wrong. And I know what it is. My thriller is a big story – moving through the real life events of 1939.  But my hero isn't up to the task. Easy enough to have him discover that something is a-foot. But not at all believable right now that he would pull together his own team of men to pursue the villain and his co-conspirators. Right now, I can't imagine my sweet, idealistic hero doing battle with my villain at the end of the book. My hero must grow. I need to find what it is that would push him to do the things that he can't imagine doing – taking charge, going after the bad guys, taking them down. Idealism will only get him so far.

And then there's my villain. I need to get him out of that black cape – not that he's wearing one. In fact, he seems to be a amicable, cultured, man of integrity. But in my head, he is wearing a black cape and twirling his mustache. I don't like him. But I need to know him. I need to find the Achilles heel, the tragic flaw (from his point of view) that will make him vulnerable. What will shake my villain? What will make him hesitate or make a questionable choice? He will have all the advantages in this game, but I need him to have an Achilles heel.

I've been thinking about these characters for a while, and I had hoped to know them better by now. I've never tried to write a thriller, but I know that the kind of thriller I want to write requires characters who are both three-dimensional and bigger than life. My villain has a plot of epic proportions. He has the money and the knowledge and the access to carry it off. But the question is why would he? Making him a mad man is too easy. I need him to be a zealot, a believer in his cause, a man who thinks he is can do this and get away with it. I need him to at the same time be a son and a friend and a man who is in love. I need to use what is "good" about him to make him three-dimensional. And then I need to give him an internal conflict. He needs to be a man bent on a course, but something makes him stumble or overreach or get careless.

As for my hero – my poor, sweet, kind hero – what is going to fire him up? The book will only work if he is who he is. Right now, I can hear his voice, but it's a voice that is so alien to me that I'm resisting letting him be who he is. I think my only solution is to dig deeper in my historical research and understand him better. College-educated, working as a porter, saving money to go to law school – about to take on a task that he could never imagine. Why? Because he is who he is and can't turn to the police or the FBI with his suspicions. But he's still not up to this. He is smart enough, but not determined enough. He believes in justice. He is optimistic about the future. Now, I need to have him believe that the future he imagines for himself and his country is in jeopardy. He needs to believe as passionately as my villain does that he needs to do what has to be done.

My hero, my villain, and I have a long way to go before the final confrontation. But writing this post has helped me see what I need to do. I need to believe in this story that I want to tell. I have a plot. I have characters. One more dip into research and then I need to start writing and see what happens. Sometimes a writer needs to take a leap of faith.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

I Feel Your Pain...

I, Donis, get so many ideas for blog entries from my fellow Type M-ers. When they write about their writing influences, about being over-committed, on-line presence, plotting and characterization, conferences... Oh, I understand every word. I feel you pain, your worry, your love and longing, your satisfaction, in my bones. It's the joy of writing. I had difficulty deciding which theme to follow up on this week, but when I read Rick's post of May 12 (Ah, the Writer's Life for Me), I was immediately reminded of a post I did many years ago about what really runs through an author's head when she's doing a book signing. I would bet that there is not a published author living who has not had at least one of these thoughts run through her head. Please indulge me, Dear Reader, as I repost an entry about an experience to which we can all relate.

What did you just say?

The Author is spending her afternoon in a bookstore, doing a signing. She is pulling out everything she has in her bag of tricks, trying to interest shoppers in her latest book.  She does not sit.  She has all kinds of things to give away, including candy, on the table.  She hands bookmarks and flyers to anyone who comes within ten feet of her table.  She smiles so much that her cheeks hurt.

She does not bother those who pass her table with their faces averted in order to avoid eye contact, but she engages with anyone who seems interested, and she talks about whatever they want to talk about, all the while trying gently to steer the conversation around to her book.She is tact itself.  She knows exactly what to say to the questions and comments that are directed at her again and again.  But what she says and what she is thinking bear little relation to one another.  Let’s listen in…

COMMENT 1: I don’t like mysteries.
THE AUTHOR SAID: What sort of thing do you like to read? OR Do you know someone who does like mysteries?
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: What do you mean you don’t like mysteries, you knucklehead?  Have you ever read one?  Do you know what a mystery is?  A good mystery is a psychological drama extraordinaire.  Even Hamlet is a mystery – did Uncle Claudius kill Daddy, or is Hamlet just nuts?

COMMENT 2 : I don’t read anything that doesn’t have a contemporary setting.  If it happened before I was born, it doesn’t interest me.
THE AUTHOR SAID: Sometimes you can learn a lot about what is happening today by reading about the past.
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: Come over here so I can slap you upside the head, whippersnapper.  Don’t you know that people in the past were exactly the same as they are today?  Don’t you know that people never learn, and the same things keep happening over and over again?  That those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it?  Of course you don’t, since you were either born yesterday or just fell off the turnip truck.

COMMENT 3:   I have a great idea for a novel.  If I tell it to you and you write it we can split the profits and become millionaires.
THE AUTHOR SAID:  I’m sorry, but I’m under contract to write X number of novels for the next 20 years and just don’t have time to ghost write.  But there are people who do that.  Look on the internet.
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: Are you too busy/handicapped/lazy /illiterate to do it yourself, or do you simply have no concept of reality?

COMMENT 4:  You’re the first real author I ever met.  I just finished my first novel.  Will you show it to your editor/edit it for me/recommend me to your agent or publisher?
THE AUTHOR SAID:  I’m sorry, but my agent/editor/publisher won’t allow me to read or recommend unpublished manuscripts in case one of my future stories has similar elements and we get sued for plagiarism. But I can give you some tips on how to get started.
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: No.  I’ve never seen you in my life.  How do I know you’re not a psychopath? Get away from me.

COMMENT 5: I’m not interested in your book.  I’ve never heard of you.
THE AUTHOR SAID: (she launches into a long tale about how years ago she bought a signed first edition of Outlander before anyone ever heard of Diana Gabaldon and now that book is worth at least $650.)
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: Actually, I’m going to be on the six o’clock news tonight after my arrest for assault.

(The author is just joshing.  I LOVE everybody who speaks to me during a signing and would never have an ungenerous thought about any of them.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Those pesky cellphones

Barbara here. We have all seen the park benches, restaurant tables and buses where everyone is hunched over their favourite electronic devices, thumbing through data on a minuscule screen to the complete exclusion of the outside world and their friends beside them. The art of conversation, and of real-time, real-life connection, is being lost, and at times I despair of the future of humanity.

I am not writing about the demise of humanity today, however. That's a post for another day. I am writing about the challenge of writing a suspenseful thriller or mystery in our digital, over-connected world. Almost everyone has a smartphone, and digital towers are springing up all over the world, even in remote deserts. Not only can these phones communicate instantly by text or voice, but they have built-in GPSs and location functions, so you can look up where you are, and others can look up where you are. In addition, the phones have cameras, so you can take photos of bad guys, pursuers, and suspicious characters and instantly text or email them. Help is rarely more than a click away. Danger is averted and the murder solved, possibly within fifty pages.

That is a serious problem. As cellphones slowly encroached on our lives, we writers devised ingenious ways of disabling them in order to ensure that the suspense and drama could continue to escalate. The wretched things have been dropped in puddles or absentmindedly left on bedside tables. The batteries have died. But we are running out of fresh ideas. Our hero can forget her cellphone once, but do it twice, and the writer risks an impatient eye roll from a reader who, having seen this ploy before, has been silently screaming from the sidelines "Don't forget your cellphone, you idiot!" Or "Not another puddle!"

In the city, a writer has to stand on her head to get around the problem of cellphone coverage, public wifi (and old Starbucks or Tim Hortons will do), and Google map functions that can tell you the location of any place you want and how to get there. It's really hard to be lost or out of touch in the city. It used to be that there were enough dead zones in rural areas that a writer could get away with having no signal for their hapless hero to use. This still happens, but it's increasingly rare. Add to that the availability of satellite phones, and the excuse of no signal becomes tenuous. What halfway competent, forward-thinking hero would head into the wilderness without a satellite phone, beacon locators, or at least a hand-held GPS?

Well, mine. In my latest book,  FIRE IN THE STARS, which was just submitted to the publisher, there would have been no story if she'd had those things. She would have phoned the RCMP, they would have pinpointed her location, and that would be that. I was forced to use some ingenuity to explain why she had no sat phone, GPS, or even a functioning compass, when she headed into a remote region of northern Newfoundland. I knew she was a smart, resourceful woman, so I had to explain why she would risk her life and continue on rather than going back for help or being prepared in the first place. Many remote parts of Newfoundland have spotty cellphone coverage, and handily even the police radio signals are not always reliable– another challenge for the writer of modern crime novels. Satellite coverage– whether for radios, phones, or GPSs– can also be disrupted if a hill or other obstacle blocks the signal, but using that excuse more than once or twice also risks an eye roll from jaded readers. "Just climb the freaking hill", they would shout.

The problems really started with the advent of 911 (or possibly with telephones themselves) but has steadily worsened. We have all read books where the hero gets herself into a ridiculously complicated situation while the reader is silently thinking "Oh for Pete's sake, why doesn't she just call 911?" Modern readers are savvy, and you can bet some of them know the latest tech gizmos that every intrepid hero should not leave home without.

Cellphones and other devices can be used to advantage for the writer too, of course. A cellphone can be found by the dead body, and its history and messages can provide clues. Cellphone conversations can be choppy or incomplete, the signal fading at the crucial moment when the killer's name is being mentioned. Computer search histories and emails are a gold mine of information to enhance the mystery. We writers have embraced that. Now if we could just lose that pesky smartphone when we need to. Anyone out there have any other ideas?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Old friends

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday. There are a lot of former bestselling crime writers whose literary light has dimmed over the years. Sometimes it’s for a good reason: their work has gone out of print, just wasn’t that good, or possibly their stories don’t related to the world we now live in. But for some of these writers, there’s just no explanation. They simply faded away – usually after they died or stopped writing.

I remember quite clearly when I started reading a lot of crime fiction. It was in my 18th year and I was working as the “pool attendant” at a resort in Maine. The clientele was older and many never came down to the pool. My job was to hand out towels, serve soft drinks out of one of those great, water-filled coolers that were once very popular, and take food orders which I’d phone up to the kitchen. I guess I was also supposed to be the life guard, although I didn’t have any official papers in that regard. I did have to fish out the odd youngster who got down to the deep end without sufficient swimming skills.

Needless to say, many of my days were filled with mostly nothing work-related.  Unless it was raining, I had to be there at all times from 9:00-6:00, if memory serves, and there were whole days where no one came down. (Sidebar: I wish I’d been a writer then. I probably could have written an entire novel that summer!)

Like many resorts, there was an unofficial library full of books, donated by patrons who’d finished them while vacationing. Looking for something to fill my otherwise vacant days, I raided the shelves religiously. Since I’m a fairly fast reader, this was often a daily occurrence.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of crime fiction. People tend to read it while on vacation. I remember a whole shelf of Agatha Christie. Once I’d gotten through the Poirots that were there, I moved on from her, not enjoying the Miss Marple novels.

I also found a lot of Nero Wolfe novels. I didn’t understand at the time why it happened, but I instantly fell in love with Rex Stout’s writing. In looking back at my own work, I can now see how the seed was planted for my penchant for telling stories in first person. When I first began writing seriously, I also studied Rex Stout to understand exactly how his crisp dialogue moved the story along and described the action so well. He didn’t need paragraphs of descriptive prose when he could tell you so much about surroundings using what his characters said. I also identified with the real places about which he wrote. I could “see’ Archie driving up the Saw Mill River Parkway to a weekend at Lily’s country home since I knew that road very well.

Archie Goodwin remains a character favourite with me. I never really warmed up to Wolfe, but I don’t think Stout wanted readers to necessarily do that. Kramer, Fritz, and Saul became like old friends.

That golden summer, I read every single Stout book on the resort’s shelves and bought the very few they didn’t have.

Today, Stout is not all that popular. The last time I went to a (non-mystery) bookstore up here in Canada, they didn’t have even one of his books. Many are out of print.

I’m not equipped to judge whether Stout’s day has past, because I have too much emotional investment in his novels. There are real events and things he mentions that are lost in the mists of time. Certainly a young reader would find much that wouldn’t be understood unless you undertook some research. The characters speak in a way and use vocabulary that is long out of style.

For me, though, these books remain quite delightful whenever I pick one up to reread again. Perhaps it’s because they represent a time in my life that was really wonderful. I had a very pretty girlfriend whom I loved desperately. There were long summer evenings (in Maine!) with her. I had a job that allowed me, basically, to spend almost every day reading — and I got paid for it!

Now, my question is this: Aline has Margery Allingham and I have Rex Stout. Do you have a favourite author whose books have fallen out of style or favour? Come on! Don’t be shy. Tell us all about them.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Forgotten Writers

I've been having to work hard at my homework this past couple of weeks. CrimeFest, the huge crime festival in Britain, gathers the clan of crime writers together from all parts of the British Isles and far, far beyond and I'm on two panels.

One presents no problems. 'It's a Fair Cop' is its title and four women writers – Elizabeth Haynes, Sheila Bugler, Valentina Giambanco and me – with a moderator, Priscilla Masters, will be discussing our female protagonists. I've often done this sort of panel before and it's usually both easy and fun, with lots of interesting issues coming up.

The other one is different. The other is called 'Forgotten Writers' and it's based on Martin Edwards' fascinating and scholarly book, The Golden Age of Murder, about the crime writers between the two World Wars who were involved in the famous Detection Club – GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, John Creasey, and so many more.The challenge for each of us on the panel is to talk about two of the writers who  have somehow been forgotten over the years so I have to know something about them, instead of just chatting on.

My two writers are Ronald Knox and Margery Allingham. I was taken by surprise when I realised that she had somehow dropped out of the truly famous bracket since for me she has always been one of the greats. As a result, I went back to the books with some trepidation but found that they are still just as fresh and lively as they were then. They are dated, of course, but no more so than the ever-popular Agatha Christie's are, and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion is quite as much of a character as Hercule Poirot. And with Allingham, you have the amazing bonus of Magersfontein Lugg, the burglar turned gentleman's gentleman – one of the joys of English literature.

I have become totally addicted. Who wouldn't be, after reading the section where Lugg solemnly teaches the six-year-old daughter of the country house where the murder has taken place how to pick a lock? The stories are clever too, and suspenseful with some quite serious insights into human nature, particularly in the later books. Go out and read one now!

Sourcing Allingham's books wasn't a problem. I still have my father's copies published as green Penguins and I've added a few of my own since. Ronald Knox, however, was more elusive. I knew him only for the famous Decalogue which stipulates, among other prohibitions, that in writing detectives stories, 'No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right; No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end; Not more than one secret room or passage is allowed.'

Humorous stuff. But the only copy of his books I could find was on, which had several so I started out with The Footstep at the Lock, planning to tackle them all. But alas, I wearied. Humour is all very well, but facetiousness, quite frankly, isn't. Endless, nit-picking discussion of alibis, wooden characters and a totally implausible solution isn't either.

Some books deserve to be forgotten. But some don't – like I said, go and read a Margery Allingham!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Guest Post: Annette Dashofy

Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE, which has been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, was published by Henery Press in March 2014, followed by LOST LEGACY (September 2014) and BRIDGES BURNED (April 2015). Her short fiction includes a 2007 Derringer Award nominee featuring the same characters as her novels. She also serves as vice president to the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime and to Pennwriters

Greetings from the Pennwriters Conference 
by Annette Dashofy 

As you’re reading this, I’ll be attending—and teaching workshops at—the Pennwriters Conference. Unlike Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, Pennwriters is geared for writers (instead of fans) with instruction about craft, pitching to agents and editors, and marketing. I’ve been to every one since 2004 and credit the fact that I’m now published to this organization and to this conference.

Over the recent years, I’ve taught a workshop or two, but confess to feeling a bit like a fraud. Why should anyone listen to me? Even though I was sharing good information, most of which I’d learned from our very own Pennwriters authors and members, I had no clue why anyone would pay attention to a word I said. After all, I was in the same trying-to-get-published boat as they were.

This year, finally, I feel worthy. A little, anyway. I have three books out. I’ve hit the USA Today bestseller list with two of them. I was nominated for an Agatha for Best First Novel. If that isn’t “street cred,” I don’t know what is.

So I’m teaching TWO workshops and moderating the In the Line of Duty panel.

One of my workshops has to do with POV. Point of View. Or “Fun with POV” as I like to call it. The subject gives some folks fits, but I enjoy getting not only “inside the heads” of a few of my characters, but “under their skin.” Have you ever watched Johnny Depp completely immerse himself into the character he’s playing so that you almost don’t see HIM any more? That’s what POV is like for me. I cease to be Annette, and I become Zoe. Or even Pete. I see through their eyes, hear through their ears, think from their world view, and taste through their tongues.

Which is weird considering I’m a vegetarian and Zoe loves cheeseburgers. But that’s a topic for another blog.

My second workshop this weekend is Making Your Setting a Character.

(I think I need to TAKE a workshop on coming up with better titles for workshops.)

In this one, I plan to discuss some of my favorite books and authors and how they transport me through their writing to new and wonderful locations. From Craig Johnson’s Absaroka County, Wyoming to Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill, New York to David and Aimee Thurlo’s Farmington, New Mexico. I study these authors and hope to create a similar sense of setting for my fictional Monongahela County, Pennsylvania. Hint: it’s not just description. It’s the people who populate these towns and counties. It’s how they speak and what they believe and how THEY see their world. It’s weather and the complications a blizzard or dust storm can wreak on a crime scene or on a simple drive home. It’s the types of food and the types of shelter common in that area. It’s the sights and smells. It’s the history and the lore.

Can you tell I get very excited about this subject? Excuse me while I call the airlines and make reservations for my next trip.

Quick story: I had read a number of David and Aimee Thurlo’s Ella Clah mysteries set in northwestern New Mexico. I’d never been there, but could see, smell, and taste it through the Thurlos’ words. Two years ago, I finally made my first trip out west and spent several days driving around Ella’s world, and yes, I felt as if I knew it. I recognized the landscape even though it was completely foreign to my easterner’s eyes. I recognized the Navajo people and their beliefs. I recognized the dust and the arroyos and the canyons.

I hope someday someone will read one of my books and then travel to southwestern Pennsylvania for the first time and feel as though they’d been frequent visitors over the years.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Contact the Author

The credit for this post belongs to Heather Havrilesky who wrote a hilarious column for the "Shouts & Murmurs" page of The New Yorker entitled "How to Contact the Author." I'm just including little snippets. You can read the whole thing here:

"I love to hear from my readers. My readers are my everything, and hearing from them makes me feel so blessed! So, connect with me, already! Here’s how:
Friend me on Facebook. My readers are my besties 5ever!
Follow me on Twitter: @youcompleteme33. I follow back, because I want to know what you’re thinking about, every second of every day. Your little mind-doodles are sweet nourishment to my soul!
Add me to your network on LinkedIn. Networking is so awesome!
Follow me on Instagram: @icantlivewithoutyou95. Great new pics of me and my closest friends & family on there! Check out the whole crew! ;-)
Do you have any questions for me? Tweet away! I ❤ reader questions, no matter how personal or prying. I can’t wait to reply to your inquiries in front of hundreds of strangers!
Why don’t you text me, in fact? I love getting texts from my readers: 1-555-913-1212. Sexts are also totally welcome, any time of day. Feel free to push my boundaries! When my readers interrupt my life with their inquisitive digital messages, I feel truly blessed.
Also, call me at home, anytime! I’d love to hear your voice right now. 1-555-913-1213. My readers are my sun and my moon and my stars, and I adore it when they check in with me, even when I’m about to sit down for dinner or I’m in the middle of watching something on TV. My readers are my first priority, always.
In fact, drop by my house! I love it when readers swing by and say hello and introduce themselves: 554 Ruby Lane, Sacramento, CA 95831. I feel so blessed when someone cares enough to invade my personal space! Dinnertime works fine. Middle of the night, also perfect. I am so incredibly humbled to have you in my life, whoever the hell you are!
Please do buy my book on Amazon, though.
Pretty please? 

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Lately, I've been thinking about story structure – how it takes shape, and how to best achieve an effective plot.

This stems from two recent visits (and conversations) with Edgar-winner SJ Rozan and screenwriter and show-runner (Dexter) Clyde Phillips. These writers have very different takes on plotting and structure, and my discussions with each was fascinating.

SJ says plotting, for her, is like driving cross country at night: she writes to the edge of her headlights, knowing only that much of her story in advance. Clyde, accustomed to working out his plots on a storyboard before writing a TV script, has a novel-crafting process similar to the way he plots his TV shows: he outlines books meticulously (upwards of 70 pages for a 350-page thriller).

For me, a writer whose process falls somewhere between the two mentioned above, I find it fascinating to talk to SJ and Clyde because I can see – upon reading each writer's work – how their process plays out. Clyde's novel Unthinkable is airtight and sparse, and the end is absolutely wonderful – you will never see it coming. SJ's novel Winter and Night is every bit as satisfying but completely different – full of rich details and descriptions. I would recommend both books. And you will see each writer's process as you read.

As we all know, there are no rules to writing, no one best way to do it. When it comes to plotting, you find your way (literally and figuratively) as you go. Below, is a writing activity I've used to teach some elements of plotting. If you try it, let me know by e-mailing me. I'd love to read what you come up with

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotline Activity

Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories cinematically? By using scenes to convey the story-line. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.

Read the following plot-line and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which you could begin. How will you include the information that came before your starting point? Must you include all of it?

Write a first- or third-person opening scene (narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.
  1. Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.
  2. She went to UMaine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.
  3. After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.
  4. Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.
  5. Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.
  6. Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.
  7. Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.
  8. Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”
  9. Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.
  10. She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.
  11. In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.
  12. Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callous?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Computer Programming & Writing Mysteries, Kindred Spirits?

Rick’s post yesterday about some of the comments he’s received when people find out he writes crime fiction made me laugh and shake my head at times. I haven’t been writing long enough to get a lot of comments from people I meet. The only one I fairly consistently get is something along the lines of: “You used to be a computer programmer? That’s quite a change to writing mysteries.”

I’m here to say it’s really not that much of a change. Sure, there are differences, but there are more similarities than you might think.
  • Both writing and programming require you to sit in front of a computer for long periods of time. They’re both fairly solitary activities. But, since I worked on fairly large projects that required over a hundred programmers, I had more interaction on a day to day basis with people when I was programming than I do writing. I can also program for many more hours at a time than I can write.
  • They both require you to create something from nothing. A writer starts with a blank page; a programmer starts with a blank file.
  • They both start with an idea. My novel, Fatal Brushstroke, started with the image of a young woman finding the body of her painting teacher in her garden. A program starts with the idea of what that program should do. Should it allow the user to create and edit documents? Should it be a game? Should it allow you to read e-books? You get the idea.
  • They both have a set of requirements. Programs have a list of features or things that they’re supposed to do, more specific than the general idea of the program. e.g. in a document editing program, those developing it need to know/decide the very specific tasks that a user can do. Should the user be able to edit an already created document? Add graphics? Add pictures?... Mysteries have a set of expectations/requirements that a reader has of them. If you’re writing a cozy, that expectation is somewhat different from what a reader expects from a P.I. novel or a thriller.
  • They both involve a period of design. Programs, especially large projects, require a period where you design algorithms, decide on data structures, decide how each element is to be partitioned into work for the programmers assigned to the project. In writing, if you’re an outliner (as you might have guessed by now that I am), there’s a period where you’re deciding on the crime, the victim, the general plot points. Even if you’re a pantser, I still think there’s a period where you’ve thought about the crime and the characters involved. It’s just not written down or formalized.
  • They both (can) involve deadlines. If you’re writing to a contract, it definitely involves deadlines. If you’re writing for yourself, not so much unless you impose your own deadlines. Programming also involves getting tasks done by some specified period of time. (I feel like programming deadlines were a lot more flexible, though.)
  • They both have artistic elements. I consider programming to be an art. Sure, it’s basis is in science, but writing a program can be a very artistic endeavor. There are a lot of ways to write a specific program, some more elegant than others. Creating an elegant piece of code is as satisfying as writing a good story.
One big difference between the two is the word count requirements. The equivalent of that in programming would be number of lines of code. The number of lines of code is an interesting statistic in programming, but it's never a requirement. But, when it comes to writing, a contract specifies the word count requirements. Since I tend to write short, this is always a challenge for me to get to the specified count.
The biggest difference in my mind: In programming, the judgment of the finished project is a lot less subjective. If the software you’ve written meets the requirements, it’s good. Sure, someone may grumble about how messy your code is but, if it works, it’s okay. But, even if you’ve written a book that meets the mystery expectations/requirements, that doesn’t necessarily mean people will think it’s good.

I find programming to be a much easier activity than writing. (A lot less angst-ridden, as well.) I may feel that way, though, because I programmed for a lot of years and haven’t written for as many. Maybe twenty years from now I’ll feel differently. I think I’ll tuck this article away somewhere so I can revisit it years from now.

On a different note, I was at Malice Domestic recently where I got a chance to see my editor in person. Always a good thing. Here we are. (That's me on the right):

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ah! The writer’s life for me!

Looking at Vicki’s post yesterday and what she currently has in her job jar sort of made my head swim. If I had that kind of workload, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

Wait a moment! I do have that sort of workload. My issue is that it doesn’t involve just writing. If you were being generous, you’d say I cast my net widely. If you were being ungenerous, you’d say I was a bit schizophrenic. Let me tell you folks, it would be just lovely to have only writing deadlines.

Anyway, it set my mind to thinking on comments I’ve had over the years from people who are intrigued when I tell them that I write crime fiction for (part) of my living. Here are some memorable ones:
  • “Do you like sit in a room and work all day long on your novels?” (I wish!) “Doesn’t that get really boring?”
  • “You must be doing well. Writers make a lot of money, I hear.” (I wish!)
  • “What do you do with the rest of your time?” (I usually spend it drinking…)
  • “I’d write a novel if I had the time.” (Usually followed by…) “Hey, if I give you my plot premise, you could write the novel and we can split the money 50/50!” (Good luck on that one!)
  • “You’re so lucky doing something you love that’s also pretty easy. Must be nice.” (I’m not even going to comment on this one!)
  • “Isn’t it a really depressing thing to do? Novels are usually so sad and stuff.” (And yes, this person did say “and stuff”.)
  • “Well, I wouldn’t read your novels. I only have time to read magazines.” Then I asked how many magazines per week. “Three or four.”
  • “What a waste of time!” (Seriously)
  • “I would really like to write a novel, too. Do you have time to walk me through what I need to know?”
  • “I’m writing a novel, too! I’ve written over 40,000 words!” Then I asked what it’s about. “I’m not really sure yet.” (Houston, I think we have a problem…)
  • “Have you ever been on TV? Every author’s on TV!”
I’m sure the other writers among those who visit Type M, must have similar comments with which they’ve dealt. Come on, share the good ones!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Overcommitted Much?

By Vicki Delany

So what do I have on my plate for the rest of this month?

1)   Editors edits for third Lighthouse Library mystery, Reading up a Storm
2)   Copy editors edits for First Christmas Town mystery: Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
3)    Page proofs for second Lighthouse Library mystery, Booked for Trouble
4)    Literary evening to benefit the Price Edward County Library, which I am organizing the authors and entertainment part of. 
5)    Baking for the above (why you might ask? Seemed like a good idea at the time)
6)     Library book signing in another town
7)    Arthur Ellis Gala dinner in Toronto (where I do not live) given by the Crime Writers of Canada
8)    Try and get my blasted garden in before it’s too late.
Then on to June:
1)    Finish Constable Molly Smith #8, Unreasonable Doubt.

Am I complaining? Sorta, but not really. Seems like a lot, but I am actually organized (who knew) and I have a pretty strict work schedule that keeps me on track.

And, most of all. I wouldn’t do it, if I didn’t want to. I love the writing life. Even if the garden has to underperform a bit this year.

And, to prove it, here is a great picture from one of my recent adventures.  

Brenda Chapman, Mary Jane Maffini, Erika Chase, moi 

I drove down to Bethesda Maryland for Malice Domestic with Mary Jane Maffini, Linda Wiken (aka Erika Chase) and Brenda Chapman.  I can not tell you how much fun we had.  We pretty much laughed the entire 
way down and back.

We weren’t laughing too hard the first night when we checked into 1) the wrong hotel in the wrong town and then 2) the right hotel in the wrong town.

But, fortunately all got straightened out and they were able to make room for us in hotel number 2. So we laughed about that.

On the way back from Malice, we stopped at the wonderful Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookstore in Mechanicsburg PA. They certainly advertised our arrival in big letters!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Never Look Down

Our guest this week is Warren Easley who recently became the Blog Master for Poisoned Pen Press:

Warren grew up on the west coast and was educated in the UC system, where he majored in chemistry and minored in “wave mechanics and surfboard hydrodynamics.” His love affair with the mystery genre started with Ian Fleming’s James Bond gems when he was in graduate school at Berkeley. After receiving a Ph.D. he pursued a career in R&D and international business, including a stint in Geneva, Switzerland, where he learned he had no facility for foreign languages and was often accused of preferring skiing to work.

A closet poet most of his life, Warren started writing fiction 12 years ago, and currently writes for Poisoned Pen Press. Never Look Down, the third book in the Cal Claxton Oregon mystery series appears this September.

When I started writing the Cal Claxton mystery series, I had this vague notion of my protagonist, a burned out ex-prosecutor from L.A. who had moved to the Oregon wine country to start a one-man law practice in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. I began writing the first book (a book that rests in a drawer, never to see the light of day) in first-person POV, as we say in the biz. This means the story is being told directly by Cal, so he refers to himself as “I” in the book. I did this, to be honest, without giving it much thought since I was a writing novice.

Little did I realize that I had just made a very significant decision.

As I began to tell Cal’s story in that first book, I could simply place myself in his head and “see” the story unfold from his point of view.  This was great for helping me bond with my protagonist.  As I began to see him more clearly, it was as if his thoughts and feelings emanated from him rather than me.  What would Cal do in this situation?  What would he say to this person?  After a while, I didn’t have to think about those questions as much.  I just knew.  First-person POV gave me that intimacy. 

But, wait.  I quickly learned that there’s a price to pay for this intimacy.  Since I’m telling the story strictly from Cal’s point of view, the plot can only advance through what he directly sees and does.  For a mystery with a complex plot and lots of twists and turns, this can be a daunting limitation.  Had I chosen to tell the story using a narrator who knows all and sees all (called an Omniscient Narrator) I could roam around the story and tell it from multiple points of view.  Such flexibility!  Such power being omniscient!  It was tempting, to say the least.

I began writing my first published book, Matters of Doubt, in first person POV.  After slugging through about twenty chapters and wondering if I could pull it off, I began rewriting what I had using an omniscient narrator.  Sure enough, it was easier to move about the story, which involved a couple of murders and a bunch of unruly, headstrong characters, all vying to take charge.  If I needed the reader to know about an important clue, I could simply have the narrator reveal it.  No problemo.

It was around chapter 12 of the rewrite when I had the epiphany.  I remember that moment well.  I stopped in mid-sentence, pushed myself away from the keyboard, and said out loud, “I’m not doing this!” 

 Sure, it was easier to tell the story, which was important for a writer like me, who finds it difficult if not impossible to outline.  Sure, I could plant clues and see a few more chapters ahead.  But, I had lost that intimacy with my protagonist, Cal Claxton.  It was as if he had become simply one of many players in the story.  I didn’t want this.  I wanted the story to be his story, and I wanted the reader to experience it through his eyes and nobody else’s.

 The beauty of writing, of course, is that, aside from grammar, there really aren’t any rules.  Some writers, probably most, use an omniscient narrator to tell their tale.  I’ll stick to first-person, thank you. 

 Warren C. Easley is the author of the Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries, Matters of Doubt, Dead Float, and coming in September,  Never Look Down.

Friday, May 08, 2015

False Starts and Half-Baked Ideas

Yesterday I dashed out of the door for a 10 a.m. appointment. I was distracted, but on the Northway (the highway in upstate New York that takes up from Albany right up to the Canadian border), something caught my eye. A light pink Volkswagon Beetle. And, of course, I wanted to know who was driving such a "make you smile" car. I had only a glimpse as I passed at 55 miles an hour. But the driver was female, probably middle-aged, and she had her window half-rolled down and a cigarette in her hand. Immediately, I started giving her a life, creating a character that would turn up in a book or maybe a short story at some point. It also occurred to me that I had a topic for today's blog. Something about the cars that characters drive -- but the only character who came to mind was James Bond.

So, I thought, I'll do some research, and I can write about my character Lizzie Stuart, who drives a Ford Focus. Or, Hannah McCabe, my near-future police detective, who occasionally gets to ride in a high tech vehicle but isn't that interested in cars.

As I was thinking about McCabe's attitude toward cars and her partner, Mike Baxter's profound love of them, I realized that what I find interesting about cars is what they reveal about their drivers. That was when I wandered off into self-analysis. For years, I have leased my cars. In fact, I've never owned one. Every three years, I swap the car I'm driving for the newest model. The car I've been driving for years now has been a Ford Focus (economical, easy to park, safety features). My Focus has always been light gray (silver). But last summer, I chose a deep red (ruby) Focus. The question is why I -- who love color -- spent years driving a silver car. Probably because I love the color gray [or grey]. I find gray soothing. And thought-provoking. But I was in a rut, and I opted for a color that would give me a new perspective. My ruby red car has done that. If I were creating me as a character, how would my perception of me (the character) be different if I were first seen in my pale gray Focus (fading into the sea of other cars) rather than my ruby Focus (not flashy, but willing to stand out)?

By the time I had finished thinking about myself and the color of my car, I had lost the momentum that would have sent me to do the research for my cars and characters post. My cat seemed to come to my rescue. You may remember that back in October, I adopted a Maine Coon mix that I named Harry. Harry's movements fascinate me. He sometimes simply leaps up on a desk or a bookcase. At other times, he sits for several second contemplating a jump onto the radiator where he spends much of his time looking out the window. But he seems to need at that moment to think before he leaps -- as opposed to those moments when he hears birds chirping and dashes from across the room to sail up on top of the radiator cover. I am intrigued by why he sometimes pauses. He does the same thing when he is planning to jump up into my lap. He will "meow" or sit there until I look at him before leaping. This pause is understandable. He has had false starts when I shifted in my chair or moved my legs just as he was jumping. He seems to find that clumsy slide back to the floor embarrassing -- so embarrassing that he retreats to the table he likes sitting under to pretend he wasn't even trying to jump onto my lap. So now he waits for eye contact and then he waits for me to shift in my chair to accommodate 18 lbs of cat who now likes to turn over on his back and have me support his head as he stretches out. Harry knows his human needs to be in the right position for that maneuver to work.

So, Harry jumped into my lap, and I thought about his occasional false starts. And I thought that could be a metaphor for the false starts we writers sometimes make as we are looking for an idea that works. But it's the end of semester, and I'm looking at a pile of papers I need to grade. My thought process broke down before I could work through my second half-baked idea.

And that's why this blog is about false starts and half-baked ideas. It is my tutorial on how to write a blog post when you have nothing brilliant to say.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Doomed to Repeat It?

Ah, May already. A beautiful month in much of the country, and very nice here in Arizona as well. Until the end of the month, when the desert summer begins to rear its ugly head. So I, Donis, shall enjoy the relative cool while I can and try not to complain too much when June arrives. At least I no longer live in tornado alley.

Already I digress. Writing is what we wish to to discuss today. Last time I posted here I wrote about having to cut my latest manuscript from 91,000 words to a manageable 85,000 before I sent it in to the editor for her approval. I've noticed that my books are getting longer. The first installment of my Alafair Tucker series came in at just a little over 60,000, which is really short. But with that tale I felt that I said all I need to say. With this book, I had a lot to say, and I hope I didn't oversell the story. I never know. Here's the new cover:

The book was accepted for publication with hardly any editorial changes to the story. I'm doing corrections on the ARC (advanced reading copy) right now. Lots of minor copy editing--a misplaced comma here and an inappropriate italic there. Other than that, the story is in its final form and will hit the shelves in November. The book is called All Men Fear Me, an Alafair Tucker Mystery, and it is set in Oklahoma at the beginning of World War I (for the Americans. The rest of the world had been at war for three years.) The title is lifted from an American propaganda poster that said: I am Public Opinion. All Men Fear Me.

It was interesting and rather difficult to do the research on the American home front. There is a lot of literature about the European home front and about the battle front, but what life was like for ordinary Americans during the war was not as easy to find, much to my surprise. I ended up doing a huge amount of research in contemporary newspapers.

My grandparents were all in their early twenties during WWI, but none of them ever told me anything about life while the war was on. Neither of my grandfathers went. I fear I grew up thinking that the distant European war didn't have much of an effect on folks buried deep in the hills of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Was I ever wrong. There was a tremendous backlash in Oklahoma when the U.S. declared war on Germany, and when a draft was instituted there was nearly a civil war. Thousands of tenant farmers, workers, socialists, and Native Americans gathered in enclaves in Central Oklahoma and planned to march all the way to Washington D.C., gathering "soldiers" as they went, take the city, arrest President Wilson, and put an end to the war. The group was infiltrated by spies, and before they could put their plans into effect, a huge posse rode on the camp and scattered the rebels. In the end, some 500 people were arrested and 250 arraigned. Only a few dozen of those particular rebels ended up in prison, but some were given thirty year sentences for sedition. The last of them was pardoned by President Taft in 1921, after the war was over and everyone had calmed down.

The uprising came to be called the Green Corn Rebellion, and it helped lead to a big government crackdown on dissension. The laws that were passed at the time to limit civil rights make pretty scary reading.

Forty to fifty years later, I went through the public school system in Oklahoma and was never taught a word about the Green Corn Rebellion, among other unsavory things that had happened during the state's history. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Spaniard George Santayana said, "those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it." Does that apply to trying to erase the shameful past by not teaching it to our children?

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Want to know how books used to be made?

Like most of us here on Type M, visitors and bloggers alike, I love books. Yeah, reading e-books has its place in our lives, mostly when travelling, but nothing can beat holding a beautiful tome in your hand, comfy chair underneath you, and maybe a beverage of choice at your side. Heaven…

When my wife and I were much younger, we bought a set of leather-bound books from Franklin Library. Each volume was a collection of short stories by one of the world’s great authors. Every month a new one came (all were bound and typeset differently) and they remain absolutely lovely to read (especially on a night when you can’t sleep and one short story will get you back into sleep mode). They have pride of place in our living room and have proven to be a wise investment – assuming we could ever give them up. It really stretched our meagre budget at the time we purchased them, but the amount ($35) now, seems ludicrously inexpensive.

In bopping around Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I found the video below. It shows exactly how a leather-bound book was made, going right back to setting the type. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I found it utterly fascinating. It’s also nice to know that the art hasn’t been lost. Yeah, I can just imagine how much something like this would cost, but to me it would be worth it for a very special book.

So here is the art of making a book:

The art of making a book! VISIT ►
Posted by Inna Official on Monday, March 2, 2015

Monday, May 04, 2015

Island Festival

I've been far afield this week. It's a two and a half hour sail to get to the beautiful Hebridean Isle of Colonsay, off the west coast of Scotland. It is a tiny island, with a population of 120 souls, but last weekend it held its book festival. The ferry across was packed with cheerful souls ready to enjoy their feast of culture and the audiences, of 100 and more, were warm and enthusiastic.

The festival phenomenon has taken Britain by storm and there's hardly a village of any size that doesn't have some sort of book festival at this time of year – often a crime weekend, which has kept me busy driving all over Scotland. Everyone gets caught up in the preparation and the excitement and it's often a shot in the arm for local businesses and hotels too, very welcome in these difficult times.

There's something special, though, about a festival on an island. I'd been to one before, on the neighbouring Isle of Islay, and that had certainly whetted my appetite. The atmosphere was wonderful and the craic went on late into the night, but the only problem was that the next day, when the book festival had a full programme, was also the day of the funeral of a well-known local lady. Funerals are taken seriously here and it started at nine in the morning and finished with a wake that ended at eleven at night. Since almost the whole population was attending, our audiences were composed almost exclusively of  the organisers and their long-suffering spouses, strong-armed into coming and looking as if they were enjoying it.

There were fortunately no such problems this time. One of the benefits of being a speaker is having free access to all the other talks as well, and I learned a lot about the island's history, going right back to St Columba, who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland, landing here though legend has it that he left to sail on further because from here he could still see his beloved Ireland. His brother, St Oran, stayed on, and is commemorated by a Holy Well and this curious little statue. There's a story to be found there, I'm sure – a good place for a body.

As I write at my desk in Edinburgh I can hear the sound of traffic, of busy people all rushing on their way to do important things and I try to hold on to the memory of the slow island pace of life and the silence that is so profound you can hear the blood singing in your ears. Perhaps we've got it all wrong.