Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A change of scene

Well, I’m finally in the home stretch of completing the new novella, basically in the someone-needs-to-pry-this-from-his-fingers stage. It’s been a tough slog even though the number of words used are pretty small. It’s tough when you have two other jobs that require your full-time attention, but that’s not a complaint — just a statement of reality.

Today we have to travel to the eastern end of our province for a memorial service for a very dear friend whose 75th birthday would have been today. I’m going to use the car trip to take one last, long gulp at my ms before sending it off to my editor late tomorrow. I want it on her desk first thing Wednesday morning.

I’m hoping the change of scene from my cramped studio will help me see my prose with refreshed eyes. I’ve often had great success doing my last look this way.

The drive is only 4+ hours. I’m lucky this is a novella. Otherwise, I’d probably have to force my wife to drive to California while I work!

Monday, June 29, 2015


I have been reading with huge sympathy the soul-searching posts about the massacre in the Charleston Church. This weekend in Britain we are all reeling after the dreadful carnage on the Tunisian beach, the innocent holidaymakers gunned down on their beach loungers. The newspapers are full of their heart-rending stories – the pretty hairdresser who had blogged so excitedly about the holiday she was packing for, the three generations of the same family who were wiped out.

Most dreadful of all was the plight of the families at home who are waiting with waning hope for news of relatives who haven't been in contact since the shootings but haven't been identified as victims. Because, of course, you don't carry ID in your swimwear.

A bunch of flowers left at the massacre beach had a note that read in bold letters simply, 'WHY?'

I am deeply grateful that I have done a lot of travelling because the world is shutting down around us. I sailed down the Nile and saw the temples at Karnak and stood in Tutankhamen's tomb – an unforgettable experience – but I wouldn't go there now. I saw the amazing ruins at Carthage but the cruise ships won't be keen to stop in Tunisia any more. I had wanted to visit Palmyra and the other wonderful archaeological sites in Syria, but I can't imagine that being safe again in my lifetime – or even be sure that anything will be left to see after ISIS has finished with it.  Seeing Petra – Ruskin's 'rose-red city half as old as time' – is something I've always wanted to do and was even thinking about until this year, but now Jordan too is involved with the war against ISIS I don't think I'm brave enough to do it.

How much are the white supremacists like Roof in the US and Anders Breivik in Norway inspired to do these hideous things by the daily diet we are fed in the media of the horrors inflicted by Islamic terrorists? Revenge can seem a noble motive to their warped minds, even if they're really just inadequates with a desperate desire to make the world sit up and take notice of them.

Seeing themselves as headline news, if they survive long enough to see it, is probably reward enough. A British teenager, who was arrested recently after his horrified parents found evidence that he was getting together material to make a bomb, had no cultural or political grievances, just a desire to become famous. [In parenthesis, I have to point out that if he'd had ready access to a machine gun, no one would have found out in time. Even if there is a 'right to bear arms' who could possibly need a machine gun for peaceful purposes?] I wonder, too, if the dramatic beheadings of hostages that the jihadist delight in would take place quite so often if the news agencies didn't oblige them with worldwide coverage.

The frightening thing about ISIS is that a huge number of them aren't devout Muslims anyway; they drink and smoke and use their religion as an excuse to apply restrictions that amount to bullying and oppression. There is a very unholy pleasure in imposing your will on another human being.

Of course, there is the occasional female jihadist too. But we have to face up to it: vigorous, combative young males enjoy violence. Watch a group of schoolboys interacting: sooner or later someone will jostle someone, or push someone else, and it will end in a wrestling match. It's done in a spirit of friendship, but it's definitely physical.

The healthiest outlet is contact sport; less healthily, they support a football team by attacking supporters of another football team or join a gang. We civilians tend to think that while being in the Army would be all right in peacetime, it would be dreadful when there was a war on, yet that's when recruitment of volunteers surges. So is the surge of violence and horror that is gripping the world feeding a characteristic lurking in the 'lizard brain'?

But then, crime fiction has became increasingly popular in recent years. Should we be uneasy that perhaps we, too, are in some sense playing to that instinct?  


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Real Murder

Our name is Type M for Murder and so I decided to tackle murder for real. This last week, the U.S. had another mass-murder, nine shot dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. As a gun owner, on hearing the tragic news, I hung my head, both in condolences for the dead and their survivors, and to tell myself, here we go again. The American gun-control shouting match immediately heated to white-hot rhetoric before veering into an argument about racism and the Confederate battle flag.

Though many claim gun ownership in the U.S. is defined by political lines, it's not. I've got strong leftist sentiments and own guns, and I know plenty of liberals who stock quite an arsenal. And I know conservatives who have never fired a gun and don't care to. When I'm among gun aficionados, politics is rarely discussed.

The numbers I'm offering below are drawn from the most verifiable statistics available to me such as the FBI crime tables, GunPolicy.org, and others. The comparisons won't be exact but hopefully will paint an accurate enough picture. And any numbers I use will certainly incite trolls of all political stripes.

There's no doubt the U.S. is seen as a violent country. In 2014 we had 12,253 murders, of which 8,454 were committed with firearms. If we take the difference, 3,799, that homicide total still places us at the top of the murder list of Western-developed countries. But not so fast...if we include violent crime that didn't end up with bodies Dead Right There, then England and France are more dangerous than the U.S. What complicates any fact checking is that countries have different definitions of "violent" crime.

To the anti-gun crowd, the answer is quite obvious. Ban all guns, and gun-related crimes (and deaths) will go away. But it's not so simple. First of all, the U.S. is the only country where private ownership of guns is specified by law: the Second Amendment. And, almost all countries do allow private gun ownership in some degree (even Australia, which is often mistakenly touted as gun-free). Two countries that don't allow any private gun ownership are China and North Korea, and I don't think we want them as our model for civil rights.

The U.S. leads the world both in rate of gun ownership and numbers of guns. We have about one gun per person, and so the guns number about 300 million. At number two in rate of private gun ownership is Switzerland at 45.7 per 100 people. Number 3? Finland, 45.3 per 100. Who is second in number of guns? India! With 40 million in private hands.

So if lots of guns equals lots of gun deaths, then Switzerland, Finland, and India should be awash in bullet-riddled bodies, but they're not. Based on that, the argument can be made that strict licensing is what reins in gun-related deaths. However you have the example of Brazil, with 8.6 guns per 100, which translates to about 17 million guns (lots of people in Brazil). Owning a gun and ammunition in Brazil requires a license, with a criminal, mental, and employment background check, and that license must be renewed every three years. But given these controls, the Brazilian homicide rate, to include gun-related, dwarfs that of the U.S. Brazil in 2010 (most recent numbers): 43,272 total homicide; 36,153 gun-related. U.S. in 2010: 16, 259 total; 11,078 gun-related. Plus, in the U.S. as the number of guns is going up, both the numbers and rate of homicide is on the decline. So something else is prompting murder besides the availability of guns. Like poverty. Income disparities. Lack of opportunities.

But if we move to episodes of mass-murder, then what's at work is something more problematic than what motivates other violent crime. It's a failure of the spirit, it's a surrender to nihilism, it's dissociation from society. It's what drives some people to suicide and on that subject is where we can find tools to help address these problems. The recent mass-murders occurred in circumstances similar to what Viktor Frankl discussed in his monumental book, Man's Search for Meaning. He pointed out the irony of an increase in suicide in developed countries despite greater prosperity and material comfort. Killers driven to mass-murder clearly have mental/emotional issues, and here the failure lies with family and acquaintances who didn't step in. Easier said than done. In our family we had a murder-suicide, and the tragedy blindsided us. What could we have done to prevent this heartache and bloodshed? In hindsight, plenty. But looking forward, nothing suspicious or dangerous presented itself.

To stop these mass-murders, we have the responsibility of educating ourselves, of looking out for one another, of reaching out. Of asking questions, showing concern, and acting.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Spreading the Word

Last week, I had the good fortune to do four successful book events in six days. If you follow me on Facebook, you know it was not your typical book tour and one that certainly raised my blood pressure.

Signing at the Caribou Street Festival
The tour consisted of driving 1,200 miles in my reliable 2007 Honda Pilot, leaving Gill, Massachusetts, at 10 a.m. Tuesday and arriving in Houlton, Maine, at 5:30 for a 7 p.m. library talk and signing, the first of four events.

I say the tour was not “typical” because, in large part, of the impetus behind it. A single phone conversation spawned the trek.

“Can you run to the B Dalton in the mall to make sure my new books are there?” I asked a friend.

“Ah, that B Dalton closed,” he said.

“Well, can you buzz to Caribou and make sure they have them?”

“John, the Mr. Paperback closed a year ago.”

“Well,” I said, “whatever. What’s the local bookstore?”

“Dude, you’re not getting the picture . . .”

My new series is set in northern Maine, along the Canadian border. The region is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined and home to 72,000 people.

And there’s no bookstore in sight?

Delaney and Sharon Campbell
Needless to say, I contacted my publisher and offered to buy two cases of books and drive to the region selling them to whomever I could find. My 17-year-old daughter Delaney came along. We had plenty of time to catch up after a hectic year for both of us. (She will be a senior, so there was plenty to discuss on the college front.) But this was far from a vacation trip. I had $250 into the books (thanks to my author’s discount) and at least $200 in gas and food. A friend was in Washington, D.C., for the week, so we crashed at his house. Still, selling trade paperbacks for $15, and hand-selling each individual copy, I had my work cut out for me.

My pitch was simple, “Do you like mysteries? I’d love to tell you about one I wrote that is set up here, and if you’re interested, I’d be thrilled to sign it for you. It features a single mother who’s a border patrol agent.” It’s about up here? People wanted to hear about the setting. We all love regional fiction. We love books we can identify with, and local bookstore or not, this community is no different.

And when all was said and done -- after book talks and signings at Houlton and Presque Isle libraries and serving as the Caribou library guest at a Thursday night street festival -- I sold out. Words cannot express the gratitude I feel toward the community members. The trip could have very well been a disaster. But the people of Aroostook County, Maine, came out and supported the series, I generated some media attention, and, hopefully, word will spread around the community that there’s a series being written about the area.

So now that the tour is over, where do I go from there? I might have found a small store, central to the region, interested in carrying the Peyton Cote novels. I’m waiting pass them on to my publisher.

Regardless of whether or not they carry the series, I’ll be sure to go back next summer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Only 150 Words

Writing 150 words. No big deal, right? Most of the time that’s true, but I’m talking about back of the book copy. The words potential readers use to decide whether or not your book is worth purchasing.

They are the hardest 150 words I’ve ever written. Well, actually, it turned out to be more in the neighborhood of 120.

When I signed my publishing deal, I didn’t realize I’d have to write those all important words. I figured there were people who did that, people who knew how to write copy that would inspire a reader to buy a book. Turns out for my publisher that person is...me.

Once I stopped hyperventilating and got down to business, I discovered I rather enjoy doing it. (Remind me of that the next time you see me banging my head against the wall in frustration.)

There are positives about writing your own back of the book copy. First, you know what your book’s about so the text will actually match the story. (I’ve read copy on books where that wasn’t true or, at least, was misleading.) Second, it’s nice to have control over what’s on the back cover. The only negative is that it takes time. Lots of it.

I wrote the back copy for my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, but that was much easier. Mostly because I already had some text I’d written as an exercise for a mystery writing course I took years ago so I had a good start. I think the copy turned out pretty good. Or, at least, I’m not embarrassed about the result. Here it is:
A dead body in her garden and a homicide detective on her doorstep...

Computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Aurora (Rory) Anderson doesn’t envision finding either when she steps outside to investigate the frenzied yipping coming from her own backyard. After all, she lives in Vista Beach, a quiet California beach community where violent crime is rare and murder even rarer.

Suspicion falls on Rory when the body buried in her flowerbed turns out to be someone she knows—her tole painting teacher, Hester Bouquet. Just two weekends before, Rory attended one of Hester’s weekend painting seminars, an unpleasant experience she vowed never to repeat. As evidence piles up against Rory, she embarks on a quest to identify the killer and clear her name. Can Rory unearth the truth before she encounters her own brush with death?
For my second book, Paint the Town Dead, I had to figure out once again how to write words that fairly portrayed my novel, while at the same time, would convince someone to consider reading more. So here’s how I went about it.

First, I thought about what I wanted to see in back of the book copy. As a reader, I really just want to get a sense of the type of book (cozy, thriller, private eye), to know who the protagonist is , where the story is set and what the main problem is. That’s all I want to know. I get irked when the back copy tells me too much about the story. Really irked.

This kind of copy has a particular style so I immersed myself in reading the backs of dozens of books similar to my own. The text on the back of a thriller is different from that on the back of a private eye novel or a cozy so reading the right kinds of books is important here. That wasn’t terribly hard since I have an extensive library of mystery books, most of them in the cozy vein. All I had to do was walk down the stairs and start reading. I also checked out Amazon and read the descriptions of other books similar to my own.

Then I checked online to see if anyone had any words of wisdom about writing back of the book copy. These two posts were the most helpful to me:

Finally, I started writing. Or, should I say, staring off into space thinking about what to write. I wrote a sentence here, another there, and finally I had text I found reasonable enough to submit to my publisher. Here it is:
The Ocean Painting Society invites you to join the painting wave...
It’s June in the quiet Los Angeles County city of Vista Beach, the place computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Aurora (Rory) Anderson calls home. Decorative painters are flocking to the newly built Akaw hotel to attend the Ocean Painting Society’s inaugural convention.
During the weeklong event, Rory plans on shopping the trade show floor, working in her mother’s booth, taking classes and connecting with other decorative painting fans. She doesn’t expect to witness her childhood friend collapse in class and die.
When the police find no evidence of foul play, Rory embarks on her own investigation. Can she brush aside the lies to uncover the truth and bring the killer to justice?
It’s not the most wonderful text in the world. It could probably be better, but I think it fairly portrays the book I wrote and sounds cozyish.

I’ve submitted the copy to my publisher. I have no idea if they’ll deem it acceptable or if I’ll have to go back to the drawing board. I’m hoping it’s the former, but I'm prepared for the latter.

Has anyone else written back of the book copy? Any tips? ‘Cause I’ll have to do it again for book 3...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A few things to make you smile

by Rick Blechta

Crunch time this week for yours truly with some big graphic design jobs needing to get out the door, and my soon-to-be-done novella ms to get out the door, so I don’t have the time to also get a post out the door this week.

But fear not! It’s also that time of year when folks might need something to bring a little grin to their faces. As always, I’ve got a few goodies stashed away for just such an occasion and I want to share them with you.

So here goes, in no particular order…

This is one grammatical error that REALLY bugs me.

Just think about it for a moment.

No caption needed…so why am I doing one?

Why menus need editors…

And the thing is, this is no exaggeration.

There has to be a good pun included…

…or maybe two.

My favourite comic strip!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Death and Despair on a Sunny Morning

By Vicki Delany

It’s Sunday June 21 as I write this, and a pleasant summers day here in Southern Ontario, although rain is expected later.

Birds are chirping, grass is growing, flowers are blooming, pool is sparkling, and the coffee is at my elbow.

And now it’s time to plunge into a world of death and despair.

Why would I do that? And why would anyone want to read it?

Funny situation isn’t it? But all over the world, even as I speak, people are writing and other people are reading about horrible stuff.

Why? Perhaps because outside of our comfortable world of a summer Sunday morning, bad stuff is happening, and we have a compulsion to try to understand and perhaps to also try, even if only mentally, to make it right again.

This post is inspired by three things – Barbara’s talk about researching ISIS, Aline and my recent posts about unrealistic police procedures in novels, and last week’s events in Charleston.

In most (all though not all and not all the time) police novels, the officers use their substantial intelligence and sharp wits to catch the clever and diabolical (or just lucky!) bad guy. Motivation has to be excavated by investigating witnesses, the detectives hunt for clues, they follow red herrings, they examine every detail of the victims’ lives and uncover all their secrets.

In real life: not so much. In Charleston, the killer walked into a public building, not worrying about covering his face or trying to leave a false trail for the police to follow later, told one of the survivors why he’d done it, and then walked out again. He also left a “manifesto” outlining his motive. You’ll have read it elsewhere, I have no further need to go into details.

Not exactly a hard case to crack, and he was arrested not long after.

I don’t really know what my point is. Maybe as writers and as readers all we went to do is try to understand.

On a lighter note: while Barbara was researching ISIS, I have been researching historical men’s bathing suits. This is for the third Year Round Christmas mystery which is set in July, so I wanted Santa Claus to wear something suitable in my town’s Christmas in July Parade. This is what I chose.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dreams, Schemes, and Character Creation

I've been fascinated by how often dreams have been coming up in our posts of late. As I mentioned in my last post, I learned some important information about the villain in the book I'm working on as I was waking from a dream. I now also have the plot for my book. On Wednesday, after struggling for months with the question of how I could focus my research on 1939 and the years leading up to World War II, it finally came to me. I have the scheme. I can pull out the important details from the book and articles that I'm reading. J. Edgar Hoover may even make a cameo appearance. If he does, I will know enough about him to be able to handle that walk-on.

But that leaves my other characters. I know their names. I know some basic information about the major characters. However, this process of writing a stand-alone book is much different from writing a book in a series. I am five books and a couple of short stories into my Lizzie Stuart series. After all these years, I know Lizzie and John Quinn and my small cast of continuing characters well. I can step in and set everything in motion. Although I have written only two books in my Hannah McCabe series, I started by creating an ensemble cast and identifying the initial relationships among characters that I hope to develop and explore. But with the stand-alone, I am creating characters that will live and exist only in this book. Everything that is important about them needs to be there and drive the plot. I can't leave issues that I will deal with as a part of the series arc.

I feel obliged to spend more time than usual on character creation -- particularly the secondary characters. I have a complex plot that spans months in 1939. I don't want to end up with 10 or 15 characters that are playing supporting roles and that readers can't keep sorted. I need each character to do double duty and to work hard to justify his or her existence.

This weekend, I'm going to try to identify the characters that I need. I've done this once before, even giving the characters names. But now I need to go back and take a hard look. I need to look at how my two groups -- the good guys and the bad guys -- fit together internally. I want conflict and tension among the members of the two groups. I want each member to bring something to the table that will turn out to be an asset or a hindrance.

Once I've gone through the list, I'm going to spend some time working on individual characters. Bios are helpful, but I also have pulled my books on character creation off the shelf. Here are some of the books that I've collected over the years:

Debra Dixon -- Goal, Motivation & Conflict:  The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
Orson Scott Card -- Characters & Viewpoint
Brandilyn Collins -- Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors
Tami D. Cowden, et al. -- The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes
Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. -- The Writer's Guide to Character Traits
Nancy Kress -- Dynamic Characters:  How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated
Eric Maisel, Ph.D. and Ann Maisel -- What Would Your Character Do?
Robert Newton Peck -- Fiction is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters
Victoria Lynn Schmidt -- 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters
Lynn Seger -- Creating Unforgettable Characters

I am something of a compulsive buyer of books about writing. I always hope there will be one book that provides the magic solution to a writing problem. I find each of the books above interesting enough to keep. Now that I'm facing this stand-alone challenge, I'm going to read back through them and see what useful tidbits I can find.

I suspect that before this is over, I will also have resulted to assigning my characters astrological signs and reading their Tarot cards. I am not ashamed to admit that I've occasionally done that with continuing series characters. Usually, it's been a way to tap into my subconscious. This time, it could be desperation.

Will keep you posted about how this is going. Meanwhile, does anyone have favorite techniques for creating characters you'd like to share?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Happy Ending

Lately, my husband Don and I, Donis, have been preparing to die. Not that either of us are currently in the process of dying. Or even feeling poorly. It’s just that the day eventually comes for all of us, and trying to ignore the fact isn’t going to help anything. Our thinking at this point is that if we try and get things relatively prepared beforehand (knowing full well that you’re NEVER really prepared), we can sit back and relax and amuse ourselves with living until the inevitable happens.

We’re doing a fair amount of research and trying to see that everything is neatly tied up. To that end, I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book called Being Mortal, Medicine and 
What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. If you’re interested in managing your own demise, I would recommend it.

But even when planning my own induction into the choir invisible, I can’t help but think like a writer. Toward the end of Dr. Gawande’s book, he quotes a study done by Daniel Kahneman, who says something to the effect that it doesn’t matter too much how much pleasure or pain we endure, it’s the ending of the experience we remember. As an example he cites the experience of watching an exciting sports match, when your team, “having performed beautifully for nearly the entire game, blows in the end. We feel that the ending ruins the whole experience…The experiencing self had whole hours of pleasure and just a moment of displeasure, but the remembering self sees no pleasure at all.”

What does that tell you, Mr. or Ms. Writer?

We are told that we must have a gripping beginning to our novel in order to engage the prospective reader as soon as possible. Then we have to keep drawing the reader on, keep him interested as we work our way through the long middle of the story. All excellent advice.

But, by God, the ending better deliver. Because as we all know, a great beginning makes a reader want to read your current book, but a great ending makes her want to read your next book.

I don’t really care if the reader figures out ahead of time who the murderer is, but I do want to leave the reader with some kind of twist or jolt or delight, or something memorable about the end of the story. In one book I wanted the to be killer to be someone who absolutely could not have done it, and it was tremendous fun to figure out a plausible way for the person to have pulled it off. I’ve had characters who were supposed to be alive actually be dead, and vice versa. More than once I’ve tried to make characters not be who they seem to be, or some situation to be completely other than it first appears. The happy ending has to be hard-won and entirely worth it, plausible and satisfying.

And that is not so easy to pull off. Ask anyone who has ever tried to do it. When I begin a book, I usually know where I want the story to go. It never ends up there. Where it does end up is as big a surprise to me as to anyone. The ending usually works out better than I had planned. I feel like if I can surprise and delight myself with an ending that fits perfectly, I’m on the right track.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

More on the joys of writing

Barbara here. Aline's post of yesterday– so teasingly true– got me thinking about why on earth we writers put ourselves through what we do. I am currently in the initial concept stages of my next book, due to the publisher in October 2016. I have chosen the theme I think I want to explore (I say 'think' because I often find as the story unfolds that I am writing about something else entirely), and in the usual frantic search for a way into the theme, I am researching. So far I have taken three books out of the library and ordered three from Amazon which are too new to have found their way into the library system.

Behold my light summer reading...

These are not what one would call 'beach reads' nor are they conducive to a leisurely perusal on the dock at my cottage, where I like to do my creative work. Quite apart from the subject matter, which is by turns terrifying, infuriating, bewildering, and depressing, but always fascinating, there is the business of wet dogs shaking exuberantly in front of me or placing muddy balls into my lap. The books look somewhat the worse for wear, which is worrisome for the three that are not actually mine. I have become quite inventive and quick-witted about protecting them. Which is also not conducive to deep, analytical thought about the subject matter.

Still, this is one of the joys of writing. In pursuit of a powerful human interest story, we writers get to explore subjects we know next to nothing about and in the process become intrigued and better informed about important issues that affect our world. I have always noticed that the less a person knows about a subject, the more firm and confident he is in his opinions and solutions. Learn a little about the topic, and certainty become far less clear, the answers far less simple. Bomb them into submission? Yeah, that'll work.

Most of this research is to inform me, and it will not make its way into the book except as part of the backdrop tapestry to the story. But in research, a writer usually doesn't know what they will need to know until they need it, so we cast a wide net in the hope of capturing the facts that will inform the story and the behaviour of the characters in it. Since my main interest and expertise is in psychology, and psychology lies at the heart of character, during most of this research I will be trying to understand and get myself inside the heads of the people involved. 

Quite apart from how it helps my story, this is a useful exercise for anyone trying to understand anything people do. That's one of the great powers of fiction. Research has shown that reading fiction enhances empathy, which is often in short supply in our present society's eager rush to judgment. If all this agony spend on the dock of my cottage leads me to a greater understanding, and to the creation of characters that help others understand, then I will have accomplished my goal. Understanding is not the same as excusing. Understanding might help us find some solutions that actually work.

Meanwhile, someone is waiting for me to throw the ball.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Dream a little dream

by Rick Blechta

Dickens Dream by Robert William Buss, 1875
What we see in our “mental movie theaters” nightly is one of the strongest forces shaping our lives. A particularly vivid dream can stick with someone for a lifetime. One I had many years ago while still in my teens remains as vivid to me as the day I had it. In the dream I was flying over the playing field at my old grammar school. In writing this, I did a quick cataloging of those sorts of dreams and I have six of them.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this (our own Donis Casey wrote about this a short while back), but I occasionally experience what I like to call “novel dreams”, highly detailed, linear “stories” from which I wake and tell myself, “You should write this down. It would make a hell of a book.”

Of course, I never do. I might wake up enough to think this. I might even wake up enough to think about the dream in order to memorize the salient points of the story. Then I roll over, go back to sleep, and have most of those salient story points disappear into the great beyond by the time I wake up the next morning.

As a side comment, I’ve also taught myself to dream lucidly — a bit. For those not familiar with the term, it simply means that you are aware of the fact you’re dreaming as you’re in the middle of the dream. People who are adept at this technique can actually impose their conscious mind on their unconscious mind and somewhat direct the course of their dreams. I’ve only managed this a handful of times over the years, but I have taught myself to regularly wake up from frustration-type dreams whenever I have them.

About a month ago, I made a vow that the next time I have one of my “novel dreams”, I would wake myself up at the end, and this time I would get it all down, even if that meant completely disturbing my night’s sleep.

So, last Friday, it happened, and everything worked like a charm. The dream was just winding down, I realized from inside the dream that this was happening, woke myself up and grabbed my little digital dictation machine.

Rather than go downstairs, I snuck into our en suite bathroom and spent just over 6 minutes dictating the high points of the dream’s plot. Satisfied, I went back to bed, and even managed to drift off again after a half hour.

Only one problem: when I got up the next morning and switched on the dictation machine, what greeted me was a complete string of gobbledegook. It sounded as if I was talking in my sleep. Much of it was unintelligible, little of it made any sense, and what did sort of make sense was absolutely ridiculous.

My guess is that I never woke up enough. If I didn’t have the hard evidence of the recording, I would likely swear that I dreamed getting up and going to the bathroom to dictate my story.

Little flashes of the original dream are still floating around in my noggin, but nothing like the complete story. Even so, those bits and pieces are intriguing and might have been something worthwhile.

Undaunted, I’m going to try again. Next time, though, I will get out of bed, go downstairs and write it all on the computer, fully awake. Unless I can somehow manage to “sleep type”, I should get a proper read on whether these dreams are anything worth mining for story ideas, or some half-baked thing that’s created by my unconscious mind to taunt me.

There are accounts of authors who have dreamed their books first (Robert Louis Stevenson with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for instance), so I have to believe it’s possible. Has anyone else accomplished this or tried to do it?

I’ll let you know how my noble experiment is progressing.

Monday, June 15, 2015

It must be lovely to write a book

If I had a pound, or even a dollar, for every time someone has said this to me I would have enough money not to have to write books.  They always say it with such a wistful expression that I can't bear to say that actually, when you're sitting facing a blank screen, devoid of inspiration and with a deadline fast approaching, it isn't lovely at all. I usually mutter something feeble about it having its moments, and leave it at that, in case their next question is 'Then why do you do it?'

George Orwell put it this way. 'All writers are vain, selfish and lazy and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand.'

I certainly have that inner demon. Indeed, I have a little personal fantasy that when I was born my parents had a christening party to which, in the best traditions, they invited the Good Fairy. In she came, in pink tulle with spangles, tiptoed over to my crib and peered in. 'Oh, what a dear little thing,' she cooed. 'I must give her a wonderful gift.'

But while she was thinking what that should be the door burst open and in stormed the Bad Fairy wearing black rags and DMs whom my parents had, also in the best traditions, forgotten to invite. She stomped across to the crib and said, 'Yuck! What a disgusting little brat! I must put on a horrible curse.'

And then, in unison, they said, 'She shall be a writer.'

When I was younger I used to say that one day I would retire, relax and do all the other fun things you can't do when you have a book to write. A couple of friends, successful authors, have said to me that if their next project doesn't work out, they'll do just that.

I realise now that I couldn't. I wouldn't enjoy it. I'm miserable without the imaginary world I've lived in since a childhood peopled with imaginary friends, who were so much rewarding in their obedience to my wishes than the real ones were.

For better or worse, for as long as I can string together coherent sentences, there I will be at my keyboard telling stories. I have no alternative. The fairies' gifts didn't come with a 'Use By' date.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Extra! Extra! Charles Benoit returns to Type M for Murder!

Way back in the mists of time (or was it in midst of thyme?), three friends got together and one (I believe it was Vicki Delany) said, “I have some web space. We should put on a blog!” Another of them said, “Yes! And we could invite some of our friends to join in and help!” (That was probably me, lazy bugger that I am.) The third person thought for a moment then said, “And we can write and write and write, then invite everyone to read our stuff. We’ll become rich and famous and I’ll retire early and take up the tenor saxophone!”

That third person, my friends, was the amiable Charles Benoit. At that time, he was writing incredibly entertaining thrillers cum travelogues cum I-don’t-know-what for adults to read. I believe he penned three of them, one of which was nominated for an Edgar and a Barry. It must have been his first one, Relative Danger, since it was nominated in the Best First Novel category. But Charles is a tricky devil, so you never know…

More recently, he’s been a leading light in the YA genre world, where he’s doing very well, thank you. His forthcoming (or should I say fourth-coming – since it’s his 4th) YA novel is Snow Job. (Living in Rochester, New York, as he does, Mssr. Benoit is an expert on the subject of neige.)

So here once again is one of the grand old persons of Type M for Murder, the one, the only, Charles Augustus Benoit!


 The Elements of (personal) Style

by Charles Benoit

Any day now, the ARC (advance reading copy) of my next novel, SNOW JOB, will arrive in the mail. It’s my second young adult novel with Clarion Books. I did two other YAs with HarperCollins, and, before I crossed over to the dark side, I published three mysteries with the great folks at Poisoned Pen Press. That’s seven books with three different publishers and two different editors. I’ve been nominated for a bunch of awards, won a few of them, and, generally speaking, earned a fair amount of praise from critics and fans alike. Kinda makes a guy think. And what I’m thinking is this: What makes a Charles Benoit book a Charles Benoit book? So with copies of all my books within easy reach, it’s time to step back and survey the damage. 

Flipping through and reading random pages, I noticed a lot of similarities among my books. You could call it my literary style, but that sounds a bit too literary for me. It’s just the way I write. And those last three sentences are an example—two sentences (each with a comma stuck in there) followed by a shorter sentence that sums it up. It’s a pattern I get locked into more than I should admit, adding lots of fun hours to the revision process.

Something else I tend to do—and this goes for public speaking and general conversations, as well—is to use rambling, meandering, serendipitous sentences that head off waving in one direction, then veer drunkenly into the weeds, swinging back across the highway before careening downhill to the gutter, eventually crawling—exhausted and confused—into one of those storm drain culverts escaped prisoners always hide in, their original missions lost in a maze of misused em dashes and mixed-up metaphors.

I also like one-line paragraphs. 

In my books, lines are said. Sometimes they’re whispered or shouted or mumbled, but never laughed or giggled. Or ejaculated. I don’t even want to know what that would sound like.

My characters stare a lot. At each other, out windows, at guns, at their own reflections. And when they’re not staring, they’re busy gazing or eyeing or looking or glaring. I bet if you added them all up, I’d have a solid day’s worth of staring-like action in my books. 

My books written with adult readers in mind have light, upbeat endings, where my YA novels are way over in the dark, noir part of the room. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it has nothing whatsoever to do with getting picked last for dodgeball in my freshman year. Jerks.

There’s another thing you’ll find in all of my books, and I wrote about it many years ago on this very site. But nobody’s memory is that good, so I’ll tell you again. It’s Odenbach beer, a fictitious concoction I created to avoid a cease-and-desist order from a real, never-to-be-mentioned brewery. Now just how do I brilliantly weave that not-real-product placement into the story? That’s the part you have to find out for yourself.

Oh, and I like phrases with hyphens.


Besides hanging around Rochester street corners playing requests for $5 each on his tenor sax, you can usually find Charles at charlesbenoit.com where he takes no song requests.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Being a full-time writer (for two months a year)

School's out. Summer's here. And my May 1 deadline for the third Peyton Cote novel (Destiny's Pawn) has come and gone. This is an equation with only one solution: constant writing. I'm banging the keyboard morning, noon, and night. And I'm loving it. I've pounded out 18,000 words this week (not counting these) so far.

The summer is when I go back to being "a writer." That's not so say I don't write all year long. In fact, I try to write every single day, even if I only get a paragraph written or even just revise a few pages. But the summer is when I really make a push – finish a book, set up a tour, bang out a new story. I work at being a writer.

This month has been (and will continue to be) crazy. I was in Maine last week for the Maine Literary Awards. Bitter Crossing didn't win, but sitting through the whole and the finalists for the best crime book are... was pretty neat. And, of course, I got to meet some new writers. Paul Doiron was also a finalist, and he blurbed Bitter Crossing, so I was able to thank him face to face and to tell him how much I enjoy his series.

This past Monday was the official release date of Fallen Sparrow, the sequel to Bitter Crossing, so on June 15 I'll drive eight hours north to Aroostook County, Maine, where the novels are set and where I lived for 10 years. It's a place very close to my heart. I'll catch up with friends and do three library talks and signings in three days. I'll turn around and sign at Books-a-Million in Portland, Maine, on the way home. If you're interested, you can follow the tour on Twitter. (My 17-year-old, Delaney, has agreed to break from studying for the ACT and playing summer lacrosse to tour with her dad. It's not her favorite band, but hey...)

Being a full-time writer a couple months a year is the best gig in the world!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

You Know You're a Mystery Writer When...

I spent last weekend at the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City, CA. Workshops included presentations on the forensics of creepy crawlers (bugs, of course), secrets of the Secret Service, the art of pitching, marketing through libraries, historical novels, Going Hollywood: novels to television (this is southern California after all) and many, many others including the one I was on, Putting Your Blog to Work. The wonderful keynote speakers were Anne Perry and Charlaine Harris. The night before the conference there was also a Noir v. Cozy “fight” at the bar at the hotel. (Elaine Ash has a short recap and pictures at https://ashedit.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/noir-the-bar-ccwc-2015/) Rumor has it the cozy writers won in a TKO, but the noir scribes may beg to differ. It was a wonderful conference, well worth attending. Held every other year, the next one will be in 2017.

Being among all those writers of stories filled with murder and mayhem reminded me how unique we are. Here are some indications you might be a mystery writer.

You know you’re a mystery writer when...
  • You see a body fat scale in a catalog and wonder if it could be modified to be used as a murder weapon.
  • You start writing a romance and you kill off the love interest within the first two chapters.
  • You like to pick out the mistakes on a television crime drama.
  • The first thing you do when you enter a hotel room is look behind the shower curtain to make sure there’s no body.
  • You think twice about throwing out old underwear because someone could get your DNA off it.
  • You see someone in a hardhat working on a traffic light and wonder if they’re really fixing the light or doing a bit of surveillance.
  • Someone annoys you and you immediately start planning their fictional death. (My personal favorite.)
  • Dinner conversation includes whipping out a set of lock picks and talking about trying them out on your hotel room door.
  • You drool over the latest book on forensics.
  • Your browser bookmarks include sites on poisons, how burglar alarms work and other things you wonder if the government and local law enforcement authorities will feel the need to interrogate you about.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

When characters start calling you

by Rick Blechta

It’s been enjoyable reading my blog-mates’ varied thoughts on the subject of characters. Let’s face it, characters are the most important aspect of writing fiction in most writers’ opinion. You can be telling the greatest tale in the world, but without a good character or two to inhabit it, your magnum opus will fall flat on its butt.

On the subject of characters, I’ve been having the most curious experience the past few weeks.

I’m finishing up a novella. My two characters, Pratt and Ellis, are developing nicely in this, their third appearance. I have a very clear idea of who they are, and this time out, I’m focusing on revealing their personalities more (within the framework of the “Rapid Reads Novella Mandate”).

The strange thing is my new series’ characters (one in particular) keep trying to talk to me. I’d tell her to bug off and wait her turn, but I’m worried she’ll be insulted (she can be a bit on the touchy side), stomp off and refuse to talk to me when I get back to work on the story in which she’s appearing. These intrusions have happened repeatedly, too.

For instance, last night I was working on a very critical chapter in the novella when she butted in, dragged in the other main character in her story too, and they started to tell me about her critical chapter which occurs near the beginning of the narrative. It was great stuff, too, so I dragged out my journal (where I keep notes) and started copying their words as quickly as I could.

Howls of protest went up about the intrusion from my novella’s protagonists, as well as a character who was in severe jeopardy at the time. I mean, how can you just up and leave when someone might very well lose his life?

Such is the schizoid existence of a fiction writer.

And now back to the chattering classes before I piss off someone else…

Monday, June 08, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief

By Vicki Delany

I loved Aline’s discussion last week of how much we readers are prepared to suspend our disbelief when reading fiction

It’s a fascinating subject as there is a definite line between a reader pretending not to notice that the head of the entire police division for half a county is actively investigating a single murder case, and then stepping into un-believability territory when the reader decides they've had enough and puts down the book in disgust.

Sometimes it’s the small things that test the reader. Get that street name in New York City wrong, and you’ll hear about it.  Have the forensic results back the next day, and the reader will pretend to go along with it.

I have written about how in some ways I am finding it easier to write cozies than police procedurals because I don’t have to worry about stuff like forensics or criminal or police records. And readers enjoy that along with me.

But I don’t  know a heck of a lot of librarians who solve murders when the police are unable to do so.

Now some readers will scoff at cozies on the grounds that they’re sooooo unbelievable (see point about re librarian), but then they are perfectly ready to accept the brilliant bad guy who challenges their detective (equally brilliant) in a game of wits.

I always remember a police friend of mine saying, “If they weren’t morons we wouldn’t catch half of them.”

I think perhaps the biggest thing the writer can do to maintain suspension of disbelief is consistency. I mean, come on, do you think people wrote to J.K. Rowling to say “That would never happen.”? No, because she created a world and kept it constant to itself.  I can pretty much guarantee that if Hermonie’s wand had changed colour mid-book, Joanne would have heard about it.

We can fudge some of the facts, but ultimately we have to stay true to our characters and to the world they live in, and to human nature as it is. Or disbelief will come crashing down.

On Saturday I joined Type M's Barbara and some of Eastern Ontario's best crime writers for the hugely successful inaugural Prose in the Park in Ottawa. This pic shows the beautiful venue.  Thanks to Brenda Chapman for the picture. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Thomas Turner, Guest Blogger

Please welcome our weekend guest author, Thomas Turner. A native New Englander, Tom ran a bar in Vermont after college, then moved to New York and spent time as an award-winning copywriter at several Manhattan advertising agencies. A few years later he ended up in Palm Beach, buying, renovating and selling houses. On the side, he wrote Palm Beach Nasty (one of my favorite titles of all time), its sequel, Palm Beach Poison, and a screenplay, Underwater. He currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and recently completed his third novel, Killing Time in Charleston. Take it away, Tom.

Sleuthfest is one of the great writers conferences. Held in Deerfield Beach, Florida, I have been to it four times, three as writer wannabe and this past Spring as published author, panelist and moderator. Back in 2008 Lee Child was the what I call the 'headliner,' but maybe that's a little too Vegas-y, so let's just call him, Special Guest of Honor. Lee is not only tremendously articulate and funny, but a very nice, down-to-earth guy. The last night of the conference, there was an auction for naming rights for a character in one of Lee's upcoming novels. The bidding was fast and furious and, in the end, I was the one left with my paddle raised. And now seven years later, Major Susan Turner is a cohort of Jack Reacher, living on in immortality in three of Lee's novels.

With that Sleuthfest history, I drove down to Deerfield Beach, filled with anticipation and eagerness, not to mention a little stage fright--having never been either a moderator or a panelist before. Well, turned out the Sleuthfest organizers had a special job picked out just for me, the rookie moderator. I was moderator of a panel called The Art of Embalming. With words like lividity, rigor mortis, cadaver and formaldehyde dancing in my head, I met the presenter, George Rafaidus, and a few minutes later introduced him. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating forty five minute presentations I've ever attended. The audience was totally into it and George was informative, well-prepared and, believe it or not, really funny. I walked away with a souvenir, too, a bottle of embalming fluid. I still haven't figured out what to do with it.

The next day, I went to my panel, which was entitled Laughing at Death. It was about humor in the face of death and destruction in the respective panelists' novels. I was the last to speak and I was awestruck at how smooth and silver-tongued my fellow panelists were. The moderator lobbed me what he thought, no doubt, to be a soft-ball question: "So, Tom, tell us about a funny scene in your novel, Palm Beach Nasty. I read it and thought it was jam-packed with good ones." I totally froze. If you asked me where my novel took place I wouldn't have known (clue: it's in the title.) I wanted to say, "Okay, Mr. Moderator, bail me out here…  give me a clue about one of those scenes you thought was so damn funny…" I guess I muddled through  it okay, 'cause at the end the moderator came up to me, shook my hand and said, "great job, Tom."

"You're kidding," I thought.

After a nice lunch that day, I eagerly approached the next event: signing books for my adoring readers. The drill was there were long tables which eight or ten authors sat behind looking out. Readers then came up with books they'd just purchased at the adjacent book store which authors signed. I was seated next to the son in a well-known mother-son writing team. He never deigned to turn to me and acknowledge my presence, maybe because he was so busy signing books.  I got exhausted watching him inscribe book after book. Ka-ching, ka-ching, I remember thinking as I sat there twiddling my thumbs. After about twenty five minutes and no adoring fans, I was about to flee. Find a bridge and jump. But then, finally, a timid woman approached. "Hi, I really liked Palm Beach Nasty, would you--"

Would I? Are you kidding? I almost kissed her.
Check out Tom's website at tomturnerwrites.com

Friday, June 05, 2015

And Then It Clicked

Summer brings out my inner Adrian Monk – not the obsessive compulsive Monk. The Monk who worries about "the jungle out there". I worry about ticks when I walk across my lawn. I would never take off my shoes and walk in the grass – who knows what kind of bacteria I might pick up. I've been doing research on the public health movement and the effort to eradicate diseases. So, of course, I'm worrying more this year about those potentially malaria-carrying mosquitoes that torture me even when I wearing bug spray. I worry about the snake that might be stretched out on the path if I go for a hike in the woods. I did once encounter a large black snake when I was a teenager in Virginia walking along a country road. And then there are the things lurking in the ocean that I love. Blame that one on Jaws (this year celebrating its 40th anniversary and being screened two days in June in theaters).

The photo below is of Assateague Island, the island in Virginia where the wild horses live. I've been there twice. Once in autumn (when this photo of the beach facing onto the Atlantic was taken). But the first time I went to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, it was summer. I had a wonderful time. But summer is not my happy season.

Did I mention the early morning light? But this morning when I woke up at dawn, I had a possibly life-changing thought. It could have been prompted by those Little Debbie commercials that I've been seeing on television for the past few weeks. The one where the child version of the adult appears and reminds the adult how much he or she loved Little Debbie snacks when he or she was a child. That could be what reminded me of my forgotten child.

I don't remember liking summer even when I was a child. The only good part about summer was three months of no school when I could read and dream and do what I wanted. But I do remember liking ice cream cones and corn on the cob and hamburgers on the grill (well, I have always liked food, whatever the season). And I remember going to movie matinees. I remember going to my bookcase and finding books that I loved and reading them again during long summer days. I remember laying on a blanket on the grass (after checking for ant hills) and looking up at cloud shapes. So this summer – which isn't officially here yet – I am going to make my list. That list will include planting tomatoes and cucumbers (my father who "truck farmed" in summer in addition to his day job, used to let me have my own garden patch). I am going on nature walks. In fact, I'm going to get back into my walking program that fell by the wayside when I moved from the suburbs to the city. (There is some irony there because I was sure I would walk more when I had ready access to sidewalks). And, I am going to begin the mornings with breakfast on my little enclosed sun porch.

This morning, however, I began the day with a moan when I realized how early it was. I tried to fall asleep again. Instead, I fell into that twilight stage between sleep and wakefulness. And that was when I solved several problems. First, I had a half-dream about taking my laptop computer – that is now over five years old and that no longer has sufficient space to do regular backups -- to my computer guy. My laptop crashed last night and after trying to fix its own problem finally informed me that some systems could not be recovered. I had to unplug it to turn it off. So, this time -- I realized in my half-dream about my conversation with my computer guy – I must admit defeat. I must hand him my old computer and tell him I'm ready to buy a new one.

Problem number one solved – and then something else clicked into place. I was awake again and thinking how much I hated never being able to get a good night's sleep when the weather begins to warm up. And then I must have drifted off because suddenly I was seeing a man who was standing at the edge of a field. He had dirt cupped in his hands and he seemed to be taking great pleasure in the smell and the feel of the soil. I woke up and realized the man in my dream – who had looked like Kevin Spacey – was the villain in my 1939 historical thriller.

If you read my last post, you may remember that I was struggling to connect with my villain and make him a three-dimensional character. Somewhere in my dream, he came to life. My villain owns a large farm – a plantation – in 1939 Georgia. He is a successful businessman, but he has a strong sense of heritage. He would feel a love of his land. He would love the summer and the heat. He would go for walks in the woods with his hound dogs. To get into in his skin, I need to try to "do summer" – and maybe that's what I had realized before I fell asleep again and dreamed about him. Or maybe deciding to embrace (well, at least, try to occasionally enjoy) summer allowed me to find the link that was missing between my character and me.

Cullen (that's his name) would stand outside during a thunderstorm enjoying the lightning display and the rain soaking him to the skin. Ain't going that far! But I'm beginning to understand the pleasure that he takes in nature and his senses.

And that leaves me with my sweet, gentle protagonist. My hero, who is still as much of a mystery to me as my villain (sorry, make that my anti-hero, or hero to himself) was. But if I've find the core of one of them, I'm sure the other will come. I just hope my hero isn't a winter guy. I can't wait until January.

Okay… I was typing that when I realized maybe he is. He grew up in the South, too, but maybe he wasn't a boy who took to nature. Picked cotton and hated getting sweaty and sticky. But never liked jumping into the creek, looked first. Used to be teased about being a "sissy" by his friends. But a good-natured boy who took the teasing in stride. Read books and went to small Southern college. Now, a Pullman porter, who takes pride in his appearance in his uniform. Saving his money to go to law school, imagines himself in a courtroom. Never thought of himself as particularly strong or adventurous…

This could work. Maybe I should try writing the whole book when I'm sleep deprived and have stumbled to the computer. Or maybe I write better on my desk top than the laptop. Shucks! Does I need to replace my old desk top, too. It still works (I'm writing on it now) but it may not be up to a book.

All right, have breakfast out on my sun porch and think about this. And remember summer dreams can be good for my writing process…

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Dream

I (Donis) would like to talk about dreams today, Dear Reader. Have you ever had The Dream? You know the one. You wake up in the morning and realize that something extraordinary has happened.

A couple of days ago I conducted a journaling and memoir workshop. I pulled out some of my own old journals beforehand and went through them in hopes of finding a couple of creative examples of entries I could share with the class. Here is what I discovered: It’s horrifying to go back in time and see what was on my mind twenty or thirty years ago. Mainly because I really haven’t changed much. I was hoping I’d have learned a thing or two.

The journal that interested me most was one that I kept about a dozen years ago. At the time I was going through a period of recording my dreams.

   Mar. 5, 2004 — I dreamed that Lois and Beckie and I were sitting around smoking weed…

I have always been a big dreamer. When I was very young, up through my twenties, my dreams were incredibly vivid and sometimes prescient. As the years passed, my dreams became more mundane. Now that I am no longer young, I mostly dream about something I read or ate or just saw on television.

   October 12, 2004 - last night I dreamed I was driving John Kerry to a political rally but I got hopelessly lost. He was very patient. I kept acting like I knew what I was doing.

Like everyone else, I have the occasional weird, archetypal dream of the sort that you can find in any dream interpretation book.

   June 11, 2004 - I dreamed I went to a deli for a sandwich. I realize I’m naked, so I wrap myself in my newspaper, which turns into a gauzy blue scarf and looks very pretty. Finally I order a roast beef sandwich but realize that I can’t sit and read my paper without getting naked again…

I actually believe that many of the dreams of my youth were out-of-body experiences—floating around the house, or over the house, or visiting people in my sleep. Oh, yes, I do believe that dreams can be a portal to something. The other side, the past, the future, the answer to the question that had no answer. Early on in our relationship, my husband and I had a long discussion about The Dream that sometimes happens when someone you love dies. This is a dream that is different from all others, and I don’t care how many logical people try to explain it away for you, you know you’ve been a party to something extraordinary.

Don said three of his five siblings reported that before they knew their mother had passed, she had come to them in a dream so real that they all swore they were awake. In fact, she woke his brother by squeezing his toe. Maybe they were awake. Who am I do say otherwise?

My own mother told me that a few months after my father's unexpected death, he visited her in a vivid dream and assured her that he was all right.

Many, many years later, the January that my mother died, I told Don that I had never had The Dream, even though for decades I had really wanted some contact with my father, and now I longed to know that my mother was okay. Wanting does not make it so. But that didn’t keep me from wishing.

   Sept. 20, 2005 - I dreamed that my father was leading me through a forest. We found the nest of a tiny hummingbird, with a tiny blue egg in it. I said I wished I had a little egg like that, and my father produced one and told me to hold it in my mouth. I put it between my lips and a little bird flew up and took from my lips with its bill, and I realized the egg would eventually hatch into a blue butterfly. I knew I was being given a gift of magic words.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Awards and the elusive reader

Barbara here. Am I in the mood to rant or crow today? Well, a little of both, actually. Last Thursday night, Crime Writers of Canada held its annual awards dinner at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, at which the winners of the 2015 Arthur Ellis Awards were announced and feted. The Arthurs are juried awards administered by Crime Writers of Canada and given to the best in Canadian crime writing in seven categories. You can look up the winners here.

My latest Inspector Green novel, NONE SO BLIND, was a finalist in the Best Novel category, and although I didn't win, I was thrilled to be shortlisted from among 74 submitted books, and felt like a winner already. The Inspector Green series has been shortlisted four times out of ten books, and has won the award twice, which is none too shabby. Not too many series can boast that record, especially if they're written by a woman, but that's a rant for another day.

Being a finalist or winner of a prestigious award accords the writer a level of gravitas and respect that is hard to quantify. It makes them more likely to be reviewed, considered by libraries, invited to festivals and events, and so on. But does it add to their book sales? In the case of highly publicized literary awards like the Giller, very likely. In the case of the Arthur Ellis, probably not. And that is largely because the awards get almost no media attention. Since the winners were announced five days ago, I have tried to track down all the media coverage, and it is dismal. CBC had an announcement on their book page of their website, but only the truly persistent would likely ever track it down. Quill & Quire had an announcement (thank you, Quill & Quire, for your continued support of all things literary and Canadian!), which means the list will at least be read by book industry people although not likely the reading public.

But from the large daily newspapers such as the National Post, the Globe and Mail – which only a few days ago wrote that opinion piece on starving artists that Rick Blechta referred to– the Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, and the major dailies in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, or Calgary... not a peep. I hasten to add that this is not for want of trying. For years, Crime Writers of Canada has conscientiously sent out press releases to a long list of media, not only of the short lists but of the winners, but rarely do the major media pick them up. As with many things these days, it is left to online bloggers, specialty online magazines, and mystery book sites to carry the flag.

When I do book signings in malls, I meet committed mystery readers who are hard pressed to name a single Canadian mystery writer. There were 74 books submitted in the Arthur Ellis Best Novel category this year alone, and there are at least 200 active mystery writers in Canada, but the public can be forgiven for thinking there is no indigenous writing community, for who ever hears about it?

Apart from a few big stars and award winners, Canadian writers are becoming increasingly invisible. The Writers' Union of Canada recently conducted a survey of its members' earnings, and determined that writers' incomes are dropping; similar studies have documented comparable drops in the UK and US. The average Writers' Union member earns about $12,000 a year. I remember thinking that's higher than I expected, until I realized it was income reported by members of the union. The union costs nearly $200 a year, so many marginal or beginning authors wouldn't even join.

Okay, so that's the rant; now the crow. Readers are learning about new authors through online blogs, Goodreads, and other internet social media avenues all the time, but another way for authors to connect with readers is through festivals, conferences, and other grassroots book events such as Word on the Street, which is held in several big cities across the country. Ottawa, to its shame, has not held a Word on the Street in over ten years, but finally, thanks to the vision and hard work of a local group, Ottawa has a new full-day outdoor festival of the written word. The first annual Prose in the Park is being held this Saturday June 6, at Parkdale Park beside Parkdale Farmers' Market from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Here are some of the highlights.  As of this writing, 150 Canadian authors will be there selling their books and talking to the public, 20% of them Francophone. Fifteen author panels and numerous special events and readings will be held, by everyone from poets to crime writers. I myself am on a mystery panel at 3:30 called With Criminal Intent, along with fellow crime writers Brenda Chapman, Vicki Delany, Dave Whellams, Robin Harlick, and Erika Chase. Our books will all be for sale in the Capital Crime Writers Tent.

It's a great new initiative, and a wonderful chance for those who love the written word to learn about the talent in their own country. In some cases, right on their own doorstep. Pray for good weather, and come browse, chat, and meet the artistic creators who reflect on and chronicle your own life and country. That's the best part about the day. The second best part is that it's free!

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

If the artists starve, we’ll all go hungry

A few weeks ago I was trolling the internet (meaning searching, not writing snotty responses to postings!) and came across the linked opinion piece on The Globe and Mail website. After my posting of last week, I think it’s entirely appropriate to follow up with this view. It certainly hits the nail squarely on the head. Why don’t you read it? Click HERE. I’ll wait for you…

As you know if you’ve hung around Type M for any amount of time, I wear two hats, artistically speaking. Not only do I write, I also play music. I have many friends who are creators of art in many fields. I think we could all say the same thing: it’s nearly impossible these days to make a go of it.

To be honest, it always has been. In times past, artists used to have sponsors and supporters, people who felt that their art was important and valuable – and were willing to put their money where their mouth was to support starving artists. Sometimes these people commissioned works. Sometimes they just gave money. The important point was, the chosen artists had the financial means to devote their life to the creation of their art.

Such sponsors still exist, but they’re  few and far between. Philanthropists tend now to bestow their largesse on institutions. That’s worthy, too, but it doesn’t necessarily create new art.

When I first came to Toronto, I was playing in a band, a very good band called Devotion. We could actually make reasonable money playing in bars on weekdays and doing one-nighters on weekends. This allowed us to work days on original material, rehearsing it, refining it in front of audiences, all with an eye to getting that chance at the big time with a recording contract. It didn’t happen, of course, but that wasn’t the fault of anything but our own stupidity and inability to rise above our egos.

The point was, though, we could survive doing music full-time.

Now? Good luck. Very few clubs have live music and almost zero hire bands for a week. You’re lucky if you can get one night per week in a particular club. The money also hasn’t kept pace with inflation at all. In fact, it’s less than what we made in 1974! It’s said with gallows humour in music circles that a musician is a person who piles $50,000 worth of instruments into a $5000 van to drive 500 miles to play a $50 gig. The sad thing is, it’s actually true.

As noted in last week’s post, it’s pretty much the same thing for mid-list authors.

Even combining what I make in both my artistic endeavors, I wouldn’t be able to even make the dividing line between poverty and “doing okay”. Hence the graphic design job I also do.

Does anyone owe me a living? No. I do what I do because I’ve chosen to. I probably could have been an excellent lawyer or doctor. I chose music as my career (the writing came later and more slowly) because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I spent a hell of a lot of time and quite absurd amounts of money to learn my craft, and I’m good at it.

It sure would be nice to be able to pay all the bills and have a little disposable money left over at the end of the month, though…

Monday, June 01, 2015

How Real is Real?

I wrote a previous blog just before I went to CrimeFest, the big Bristol crime convention. I always enjoy these events: interesting panels, nice parties, kind readers and old friends – what's not to like? But afterwards when I think back it's often one of the topics I've been asked to discuss that stays with me long after the parties are only a fond and distant memory.

On one of the panels I was on, the question of realism came up. Realism – often described as 'gritty' – is all important now; the flippant fiction of Golden Age detectives who wonder round explaining to the police where they are failing is long gone and TV crime dramas parade their consultants with on-the-ground experience to prove they have got things right.

But one of the panel members was Elizabeth Haynes, who had actually been a police intelligence analyst working to make sure that police effort is, given the available evidence, directed to the areas of investigation most likely to produce results. It sounds exactly the sort of background you might choose for a protagonist – a little off the beaten track, not just quite another copper – yet she admitted that in reality her job was actually sitting in front of a screen, trawling through reports.

I think we all know, though we may not often say it directly to our readers, that any book that accurately depicted the life of a detective would be so boring that the reader would be asleep before the end of the second chapter. If our protagonist was a humble DC, his life would be spent knocking on doors. More than likely the breakthrough would come when someone turned up at the police station to tell them what happened, possibly even in exchange for money.

The crime scene job is so specialised now that a DI would never be at a crime scene; he'd see the photos or read the reports on screen. By the time he or she reached the dizzy heights of senior rank, their working life would be administration and meetings.

What we write is fiction and the good thing about fiction is that you can make your own rules. On the other hand, there was a highly successful TV drama in Britain called Broadchurch that had everyone on the edge of their seats. It was brought back for a second series but this one involved a court case which was so ludicrous in its inaccuracies that it lost thousands and thousands of viewers, despite a very compelling story. (I stopped watching till the court part was over but I confess I dropped back in for the denouement.) They stepped over the line and forfeited what Keats called 'the willing suspension of  disbelief',' the tacit agreement we all hope to have with our reader.

So does 'realism' actually have any proper relationship with reality, or is it no more than the painted flats at the back of a stage that pretend to be a landscape?