Friday, July 31, 2015

How Can I Use That?

I may be speaking for only a small group of heartless, cold-blooded scribblers. But from the conversations I had over the years, I suspect this is true of most of us who write crime fiction. In an emergency, we do our best to respond effectively and with compassion. We do everything we can to help. Then we step back, think, "That was really interesting" and wonder how we can use it in our next book or story.

The following tale will illustrate my point. The cat in the photo below is Harry, my Maine Coon mix, who I adopted in October of last year. He is sniffing an old sock filled with organic catnip and experiencing total bliss.

 Last weekend, Harry was experiencing a completely different emotion. And it was my fault. I live in an old house, 100 years old. My house is one-story, attic overhead, well-insulated since I moved in four years ago. But there is nothing to be done about the basement. The basement has two sections. The smaller, front section is accessed by going down the stairs from the kitchen. The "laundry room" is located there. Gray outdoor carpeting covers most of the rock and dirt floor. The washing machine and dryer are up on platforms. The trim hot water heater sits against a wall. On the other side of that wall is the furnace. One can access that other section of the basement by taking a few steps. When I first moved into the house, I was sure a serial killer lurked on the other side of that wall -- in spite of my alarm system -- waiting for me to come down and do laundry. For several weeks, I would not do laundry at night. Until I really needed something to wear the next day. . .

I still take a flashlight and turn on the lights on the other side of the wall -- just to make sure everything's okay around there in that cavernous space occupied only by the furnace and the work table and tool cabinet on the other side of the room. And a radiator that my contractor told me I should save in case I ever wanted to re-install it. . . My basement isn't as scary to me as it used to be.

When I go downstairs, I always close the kitchen door so that Harry won't be tempted to follow me. Last Saturday morning, I was careless. I didn't realize this until I came back upstairs from putting clothes in the dryer. The door was ajar. I assumed, I had left it that way. But Harry was nowhere to be seen. Not out on the enclosed "sleeping porch" where he had been watching the birds fly by. Not on the radiator watching the birds fly in and out of the bird apartment house on a pole in my neighbor's yard. Not stretched out on the rug in the dining room or the futon in the sun room having a nap. Not under my bed or behind a chair. Nowhere. Harry was gone. 

But both front and back doors were closed and locked. He had to be in the house. I ran back down to the basement, thinking he must have slipped by when my back was turned. Of course, I was calling his name . . . calling with increasing desperation when he didn't respond.

No Harry in the basement. No Harry when I ran back upstairs and looked in all the places I had looked before as if he might have been invisible the first time.  

Back down to the basement still calling his name and reminding myself (the dog person) that cats often ignore their names being called. But he had to be somewhere. And then I head a "meow". It seemed to be coming from outside -- outside just beyond the window above the tool cabinet. Upstairs, I ran. And realized as I reached the front door that the window over the tool cabinet had been closed. 

Back down to the basement again. This time, I tipped over to the cabinet. The cabinet that was against the wall and should have left no room for a large cat to be behind it. But he was. And he hissed at me from midway between either end. Obviously, Harry didn't recognize me or was too scared to come out even if he did. I stopped to think about that for a moment. About what could have scared him so much. He must have been startled by the dryer that I had turned on and dashed into the other section of the basement and found himself there in that strange space. And he had hidden in the only place there was to hide. 

The question was how to get him out. I went upstairs to get the open can of cat food in the refrigerator. Surely when he smelled the food. . . .

That got him almost out, and then he dashed back when I reached toward him. Dry food. The dry food he isn't allowed to have any more because he needs to lose a couple of pounds. But I still had half a bag. Harry always responds to the sound of that bag being opened. 

And he did respond. To the sound of the bag. To the food in my hand. To my verbal encouragement. Slowly, step-by-step, as I backed across the room. Harry following, focusing on me and my outstretched hand. Harry crouching as we came around the wall, staring at the dryer and then moving closer for a better look. Harry dashing under the kitchen steps, but then peering out. Following me up the kitchen steps, one at a time. Harry crossing the threshold and realizing he was back in known territory. And instead of meowing for the dry food he was not allowed to have, dashing into the dining room. And sitting down by my chair at the table as I came with brush and wet wipes to clean away the dust and cobwebs clinging to him. Even allowing me to wipe his paws. Harry jumping back on the radiator to watch the birds.

And me, sitting down and taking a breath. Thinking that had been scary. If I had been that scared -- heart pounding, on the edge of panic -- when my cat disappeared, what would it have been like if the cat had been a child? And thinking the next moment -- "I could write that. I could write that scene with a mother and a child who vanishes. But I don't have anywhere to use it." And thinking maybe I should write it down anyway, while I can still feel the emotions . . .

I did have somewhere to use it! The book I was working on. My 1939 thriller with the first chapter that wasn't working because my protagonist was doing nothing. Yes, he was watching other people who had come that Easter Sunday to see Marian Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial. He was observing and he was thinking. He spotted my villain and then he thought about that. But my hero was static, passive. 

What if I moved him back a scene or two? What if that first chapter began as my hero was rushing to get to the event, running late, and concerned that he would be so far back in the crowd that he wouldn't be able to see. And then he encounters the woman -- the desperate mother whose child has vanished. People are rushing by. No one is listening to her. She grabs his arm because he is wearing his porter's uniform. Begs him to help. He tells her she needs a policeman, tries to rush on. . .but she clings. He stops. He helps her look and finds her child, who is hiding and afraid to come out because he thinks his mother will be angry.

My hero has done a good deed (and been heroic). But now -- from his point of view -- he is late. He is irritated. Since he is far back in the crowd, he looks around at the faces as Ms. Anderson sings. He sees joyful, transfixed faces. He sees a few people weeping. He seems my villain -- who shouldn't be there in that crowd. Their gazes meet. My hero is puzzled, disconcerted. . .

Thank you, Harry. I'm so sorry you were frightened. I'm so sorry I was careless and a bad "cat parent". I'm really happy you are curled up on the floor by the table as I write this. But, thank you for solving my first chapter problem. You are going into my acknowledgments.

And I admit I was reaching for my notebook within minutes of making sure you were safe. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

How Much Research is Enough?

As I, Donis, mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve just begun a new novel, and I must say that though I have been working my little tail off lately, I haven’t written very much on the actual story. I’ve been doing research.

The series that I’m writing now is historical, so there is always a certain amount of research that must be done, but every single time I start a new book I end up wrestling with the question of how much research is too dang much. I mean, eventually you have to write the book.

I keep telling myself that it isn’t necessary to do so much research that I become the world’s foremost expert on my subject. Right now I’m researching realistic and historically accurate ways to kill people. This is always problematic for me. Sadly, I have reached such a state of paranoia that I am a little bit afraid to do murderous research on my home computer, lest the NSA bust down my door in the middle of the night. Once I I spent many hours doing anonymous research on library computers because wanted to discover exactly how oil field workers used nitroglycerin to clear obstructions from a well. I am writing murder mystery, after all, and I thought that blowing someone to hell with nitro seemed like a colorful way to commit murder.

I really want to give my reader a true experience of the time and place I write about. I want you to know what it was like to live in southeastern Oklahoma during the flu epidemic of 1918. I want to be accurate, but in the end, I’m writing fiction, not history. Less is almost always more. It’s way too easy to overwrite. You don’t need to explain everything (which I have been guilty of doing.) Even so, that doesn’t mean I can play fast and loose with the facts. One thing I absolutely do not want to do is take the reader out of the story by writing something so obviously anachronistic that she stops and says, “What the …?”

Many years ago a woman told me about a movie she had seen in which an aspiring author walks into a publishing house with a manuscript in hand and asks to see an editor. He gets right in. The editor says, “sure, leave your manuscript with me and come back tomorrow.” The very next morning, the author returns to find that the editor has read the book overnight and loved it. He gives the author a check and tells him that his book will be on the shelves in two weeks.

What? What is this? The Nicholas Tesla Time Warp Publishing House? Their motto is Publishing Faster Than the Speed of Light. I want this publisher.

A lot of people who saw that movie didn’t know or care that that scenario is wrong, but we writers know it’s not only wrong, it’s ridiculous. I remember that story when I’m tempted to think that most of my readers know nothing about Oklahoma in 1918, so I can fudge a little. Somebody knows the truth, and believe me, they’ll let you know when you’ve got it wrong.

Usually history is not front and center in a historical novel. In novels of any ilk, I think it’s the characters that make the story. Walter Mosely said, “Fiction is a collusion between the reader and the novel. Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do. It won’t be exactly the world you intended them to see, but it will be close enough—sometimes it will be better”.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In praise of the writers' retreat

Barbara here, writing from the idyllic shores of Sharbot Lake in classic Canadian cottage country. It is 34 degrees celsius in the city and here on the lake, it is a balmy 29. My cottage has no air conditioning, but who needs it when you can roll into the lake every half hour or so as the whim strikes?

I am lucky enough to have a group of writer friends who live within reasonable distance, allowing us to get together to inspire, commiserate, offer answers, and generally help soothe the solitary angst of a fiction writer. Every writer needs the company of our own kind. No matter how supportive our family or spouse is, no one understands the struggles of writers' block, the teeth-gnashing frustration of publishing, and the exhilaration of a good review better than a fellow writer. I would never have believed in myself nor had the courage to keep going if it hadn't been for the critiquing help and enduring friendship of the Ladies Killing Circle – Mary Jane Maffini, Linda Wiken, Sue Pike, Joan Boswell, and Vicki Cameron – each with their own special talents.

I have always loved nature and find the peace of water, birds, and silence to be the perfect creative environment. I bought my cottage especially as a haven where I could write, far from the demands and hubbub of the city, and I still do my best creative writing on the dock by the lake. This week, as in the past few years, I am hosting an informal writers' retreat for some of my friends, inviting them to share the peace and inspiration of the cottage while we all work on our own projects. RJ Harlick and Vicki Delany have joined me.

The weather is cooperating magnificently. This afternoon, after a morning of writing, we all swam out into the lake with our noodles and spent a half hour bobbing in the cool water, discussing book launches and tours. Yesterday it was how to move the plot forward from a stuck place. There was admittedly some book gossip and rants about the book biz, mostly fuelled by wine at the end of the day. And the dinners were delightful. The perfect way to finish the day.

In this photo, we enjoy Robin's dinner of herb-crusted chicken, chanterelles picked from her woods, and tomatoes with bufala mozzarella and fresh arugula from her garden. And we capped off the day with a refreshing moonlight swim under the full moon.

Thanks to the example of hard-working friends and the discussion of plot tangles, I have made some headway on my new novel, the second in the Amanda Doucette novel. I hope these memories will sustain me during the cold, dark days of February.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What is the deal with CAPITAL letters on so many book covers these days?

by Rick Blechta

I know I’m going to step on some toes with this (even with some of the crew here at Type M), but dang it, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing entire book covers with nothing but capital letters for their front cover copy. (I’m also getting tired of seeing the slab-type fonts that are being used more and more these days, but that’s another beef for another post.)

Having designed many book covers myself, I know why this is happening. If you’re a big-time author, your books have been done this way for years. In that case, it's to alert everyone within 100 feet in a bookstore that JOE BLOW’S latest book is out. I get that. Add this to the fact that publishers like having an author's books display a certain “family look” — presumably so readers can identify them more quickly — and I personally feel as if I’m being shouted at when I walk into a book store. If your store has a James Patterson section (and many do these days), go there and you’ll instantly see what I mean.

Caps are a bit of a slam dunk design-wise. They'’e less problematic to set. They certainly attract notice more quickly, especially if they're in a neon colour, are embossed, or one of the metallic colours is used. They scream a practically audible “LOOK AT ME!” when executed that way.

When a publisher also makes the author's name bigger than the title of the book, you know the author is considered a Big Deal. I actually once overheard a bookstore browser say to his wife while holding up one of these books, “Honey, do you know this author? She must be important.” (Honest!) After the man walked away with the book in his mitt, I noticed two things about the book’s cover: it was rather thick (a good 2") and the author’s name took up more than half of the real estate. I mean it was H-U-G-E. And that’s sort of what got me thinking about this trend.

Now I’m on record here as saying that a book’s cover should also act as a poster for the book. From that viewpoint, it makes sense to use caps, especially when you consider that many people only look at book covers online where the images are pretty darned small. Caps definitely do help get the critical things across.

However, with some thought and a good dash of design knowledge and experience, a very successful cover can be worked out that has some design flair and gets the promotional job done — and doesn’t use caps.

Maybe the problem is publishers being more interested in keeping costs down. Lots of covers now use stock photos as a matter of course because commissioned photography and (especially) illustrations are a lot more expensive. If the design department has a few slab fonts (or “heavy” cuts of other serif or sans serif fonts) that do the job for them, why not just throw these on, squeeze a small moody or otherwise appropriate stock photo in at the bottom, and you've got another cover done with time to do two more before you knock off for lunch.

Problem is, the book will eventually wind up faced on a bookshelf with any number of other titles that have similar covers (like in the JUST OUT section). Trouble is you’ve completely shot your bolt and there’s no way to amp up anything that would distinguish your cover from any of the others following this design trend.

Like most authors, I’ve spent countless hours in bookstores. In watching shoppers interact with books, I would still put money down on a book with a really interesting, well-designed cover, coupled with an intriguing title and some solid back cover or inside flap copy. Browsers consistently pick up these kinds of books. They don’t shout; they just catch your eye with something that piques your interest.

Maybe it’s time that less should become the new more.

Monday, July 27, 2015

On the Bench

After my last post, Rick was kind enough to say he would be interested to hear more about my experience of being a Justice of the Peace, so here goes.

I don't know if the Canadian and American courts do this, but in Scotland and England there are lay magistrates in the lowest courts who aren't legally qualified but make judgements in the cases presented. We're given training of course, and we sit 'on the bench', as the saying is, with a legally-qualified clerk in attendance to stop us doing things like pronouncing the death penalty for double parking – just kidding, even the Supreme Court in Britain can't do that!

In England, every case, right up to murder, is brought before a panel of magistrates who decide if it might merit a higher sentence than they are allowed to impose, and pass it on up to the higher courts. If necessary.

It would be quite exciting to deal with major cases, but it doesn't happen here. In Scotland we have a completely separate system – we Scots just like to be different – and it is a prosecutor instead who decides which court is appropriate for a trial; murder, for instance, would go straight to the High Court.

So the cases I tried were always minor – parking fines,  breaches of the peace, petty theft, minor assaults – and at this level I sat in judgement alone.

It's an awesome responsibility. I had powers up to a fourteen-day prison sentence, though I don't think I gave that more than a couple of times in ten years. Generally what we tried to do was to impose a sentence that might make repeat offending less likely – community service, anger management course, that sort of thing – but inevitably there were the faces that popped up regularly and trying to find constructive ways of dealing with them was a challenge.

They were often very sad cases, alcoholics or addicts. One will always stick in my mind, a lady with a drink problem who was constantly in trouble; any court where Jean didn't appear was a good court. On one particular occasion she stood in the dock looking quite dreadful and I said delicately to her long-suffering defence solicitor, 'Is your client – er – fit to plead?' – meaning, 'Is she so drunk she won't understand what's going on?'

However, he beamed at me. 'As Your Honour and I both know this has sometimes been a problem, but I'm happy to say that my client is more fit to plead than I have seen her for a very long time.'

At which point Jean glared at me. 'Are ye sayin' am I drunk? I'm no' drunk. I wish I was – I'd be feeling a helluva lot better now.'

One of the most serious challenges for a JP is keeping your face straight.

But it was a wonderful education for a crime writer and no, Rick, it was really never boring, except perhaps when I was running through postal pleas for speeding to determine levels of fine and number of points, and even then the young defence agents kept me amused. The rule about lawyers being pompous simply doesn't apply to lawyers with a crminal practice.

The trials were utterly fascinating. Even in these small cases, all human life is there and there were some that Chekov could have used in a short story – for instance the love triangle where two men had got into a fight over a woman.

She had apparently been cheating on her partner with another man and I waited with some interest to see the  object of their desire. In fact, she was a wee dumpy woman in her late fifties with a bad perm and the 'other man' when he appeared was just short of eighty, walking with a stick and wearing a kilt. It was a timely reminder that passion belongs not only to the young.

The cases, of course, were so minor that they were no use as inspiration for a plot, but the chance to observe human interactions and behaviour under stress from an almost 'fly-on-the-wall' position was a priceless opportunity for a writer and I learned a huge amount about people.

It was also a wonderful way to learn about police procedure and indeed it was from the women officers who policed my court that the idea of my own DI Fleming developed. They were all very normal working women with partners and children and perhaps ageing parents to cope with as well as a very demanding job, and I wanted to create a detective who wasn't a dysfunctional loner with a drink problem, a string of lovers and contempt for any sort of authority – I wanted her to be the woman you would meet if you went down the local nick.

I owe a lot to my experience and I was sad to give it up, but I was leaving the court area when my husband retired and I didn't want to start again under a system that was bound to be slightly different – especially since my son is a criminal defence solicitor here (now advocate)  and it could be a bit awkward – 'Mum, you never listen to a word I say...'

Sorry, I've rambled on! It was such an interesting time for me, so I hope some of you, particularly Rick, may have found it interesting too.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Church of the Writer

Last Sunday I was drinking beers with some buddies and one of them asked if I had read the Ernest Hemingway book on writing. I said that I had, and we talked about the letters Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald shared about writing. Our conversation turned to discuss my writing process since I was the only one at the table who has been published. Another asked where my ideas came from. I'm afraid I disappointed my fellow beer drinkers when my answers turned flip. I don't like to talk about the writing process because it's easier to talk about writing than it is to write. When asked how do I write, meaning how do I approach the daunting task of writing, I replied that I sit at the keyboard and start writing. I don't regard where I write as a sacred space; I tend to think of it as a sausage machine. There's a lot of work to be done, and unless you turn the crank relentlessly, nothing comes out. I think people who don't write--or try to write--want me to say how the Muse kisses my forehead and the words magically flow. They don't feel the Muse's kiss and therefore, they don't write.

I get a similar impression at conferences when new writers crowd around us published authors like we're the chosen anointed, holders of the secret key that will unlock the hearts of agents and editors. The truth is that if I had such a key, I'd be at the top of all the bestseller lists, winner of every freakin' literary prize, and so rich I'd hire Stephen King and E L James to entertain me with pie fights. But there is no such key. And even more irksome, the path for every writer's success is different. After Hugh Howey, author of the mega-hit Wool, punched the sweet spot with a Reddit Q&A, untold other writers have since tried to leverage that venue for similar results...and zilch. Using a different tactic, one writer used Instagram to gather an army of followers. Others have Tweeted their way to stardom. Countless others have tried to follow their examples and their efforts became exercises in futility. So what works? Who the hell knows? You have to blaze your own trail.

On social media, it's an echo chamber of advice for writers. Lots of scribes post all kinds of aphorisms and you-gotta-dos. Most of them are trite or vague. Once in a while someone twists the obvious into something that sounds profound and other writers pile on with the Hallelujahs. It's like church, and we behave like backsliding, guilt-ridden Baptists turning to the Holy Scriptures for comfort. And like church, we seek the company of fellow believers, those with the precise kind of faith. Ever notice that shopping for a critique group is much like looking for a congregation? In either case, we want a close-knit community who understands us, who welcomes us, who shares our parochial view of the world. Within the sanctuary of that group we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism in the struggle to improve our souls.

But don't think that I'm cynical about the need to gird yourself. Writing is an intense, intellectual process. It's easy to quit out of frustration. It's easy to stare at the screen and feel like your head is an empty balloon. It's easy to pour yourself onto the page only to see your writing appear like a confused mess.

What's the best writing advice? First, gain command of writer craft and understand storytelling. Read. Read. Read. If you're serious about writing, then it's got to be a priority in your life. And lastly, because writing--as much as we say we love it--the act can be a pain in the ass. With that in mind I share these powerful, illuminating words from Steven Pressfield:

"Our enemy is not lack of preparation; it's not the difficulty of the project, or the state of the marketplace, or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why he can't/shouldn't/won't do what we need to do."

The Title Dilemma

Oh what to call the precious gem. Actually, I'm convinced books are precious only in the eyes of the author. Once a book reaches a certain place in the production process and is subjected to the ideas of the marketing team nothing is more unnerving than the process of choosing the best title to maximize sales.

I'm used to houses changing my titles by now. The title of the first short story I ever published was changed from "Night Song" to "Alone at Night." After all, it was for a trucking magazine, Overdrive. And from then on it was strictly downhill. Or was it? Through the years, I've found the reasons for title changes fascinating. Come Spring was originally A Different Spirit. The reasoning there was that A Different Spirit sounded occult.

Bound by Blood was changed to Deadly Descent because my editor pointed out that clerks don't have time to read all the books and it would end up in the vampire section. I had envisioned the "Bound By" series. Bound by Blood, Bound by Death, etc. It's now the Lottie Albright series and each books has a distinctive name, although all have two alliterative words. I'm very glad. I have trouble keeping track of which books I've read in some series. John Sanford's Prey series comes to mind.

The academic book I'm publishing with University of Oklahoma press has been especially troubling. I worried about the first word, Nicodemus. It's about the ideas of three men who played a critical role in founding the town and I was afraid the descendants of people in Nicodemus would be distressed that their family wasn't mentioned. There are a number of books that could be written about the original colony and I hope those familiar with the genealogy will consider doing it.

Mine is about A.T. Hall, Jr., John W. Niles, and E.P. McCabe and its all about politics. I think the final title will be Nicodemus: Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas. The sub-title will narrow the focus an people's expectations.

I'm very, very happy with this one although Post-Reconstruction Politics would be more accurate. I started by wanting Creating a Civilization because African Americans had to do just that after they migrated to the High Plains.

This has been a hard book to write. Tracking down documentation is a lot of work. It's sort of like the sleuthing process in a mystery.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Here I Go Again...

It seems that several of us TypeMers are starting new projects right now, including me. So I read with great interest Vicki’s post on believing in yourself and Barbara’s post on creating characters.

All the changes for my second book, Paint the Town Dead, have been made. Other than looking over the ARC, it's essentially done. So I'm now moving on to my third book, which I've tentatively titled Tromp l'oeiled to Death.

Starting a new project is both exciting and daunting. I have all of these ideas floating around in my brain, but no plan or outline yet. So I've started writing down as much as I can, including partial scenes, hoping that I'll be able to make sense of it all very soon. Things are ever so slowly coming into focus.

At times like this I feel like I'm not accomplishing much, that I'm going nowhere. I liken it to the design phase of a software project. You've got lots of stuff written on whiteboards and in documents, but since no code has been produced, it doesn't feel like you're getting anywhere. You find yourself wandering hallways, hoping the movement will trigger something in your brain. (Or in the case of writing, surfing the web researching some aspect of the book in hopes something will come to mind.)

Just as I did with software design and coding, I have to keep on reminding myself that I need to believe in the process. To believe that I can produce a good and interesting story people other than family members will want to read. And do it in a fairly short time frame. (That last part is what I have trouble with!)

I’m fairly new at this writing game so I’m still refining my process. I come up with a basic premise (for Fatal Brushstroke that was “a woman finds the body of her painting teacher in her garden” and for Paint the Town Dead it was “Rory’s friend collapses in a class at a tole painting convention and dies.”)

From the premise I move on to working on the characters that will inhabit the story since I believe that out of the characters comes the story. Since this is the third book in the series I already have half a dozen I’m going to reuse, so it’s a good start, but I still have a lot of work to do. Once I have the basic characters and understand something about them, I write a short description of the murder and the cover-up from the murderer's point of view and come up with the main turning points in the story. Then I’m pretty much off to the races. This time around I think I'll write a one to two page synopsis of the story, which I think will help me focus my writing better.

I have no idea if this is the best approach, or even if it’s the best approach for me, but you have to start somewhere. So, I’m interested in how everyone else starts a new project. Do you start with creating characters? Or do you just start writing? Any words of wisdom for me?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The joys of research

I’m at sixes and sevens over what to write today for my weekly posting.

When I wrote that first sentence, I realized that this was a phrase I've heard numerous times over the years and yet I had no clear meaning about what it actually means (“the dictionary definition”, as it were) nor from where it came. Time for the Internet to come to my rescue.

I'll leave it to you to look up if you wish (start with Chaucer), but the process is called research, and for me, it one of the joys of doing anything of an intellectual nature.

It's also an absolutely perfect day here in southern Ontario, coolish, bit of a breeze, nice blue sky, the picture postcard of a lovely summer day.

Put together, I thought of some of my past research trips for the novels I’ve written. Being in a storytelling mood, maybe a good post would be to describe one of the more memorable ones.

This took place in March 1996 in Vienna. My wife, assistant, travel companion and translator Vicki and I were visiting the Schönbrunn Palace which was the Habsburg’s quaint, little “summer residence” – all 1441 rooms of it.

Yeah, we were there partly to do a bit of sightseeing, because its rococo splendour is really something to behold. But it was also part of my research for Cemetery of the Nameless a title that was “given” to me by a Viennese gendarme (but that’s another story for another post). What I was looking for was a location for the novel's climatic scene. Before traveling to Vienna, I had been thinking of using the Vienna Phil’s concert hall in the Musikverein. A quick visit there showed me it wasn’t suitable.

What to do?

Time to pull out our Baedeker Guide and find something more suitable. (Never travel without Baedeker, I always say.) I remember being immediately intrigued by the fact the emperor of Austria's cottage boasted 1441 rooms.

The palace — let's call it what it is, okay? — is truly spectacular. As we traveled through it, our jaws on the floor, I noticed a security guard coming out of a door hidden in a wall. What’s back there? I thought.

So I asked a guard (with Vicki’s help since her German is pretty decent) and he told us, “The servant’s hallways and rooms.” Of course the Emperor, his family and guests wouldn't want to see such mundane things as linen closets, kitchens and storage rooms, so they built these things out of sight in the centre of the building or between the “official rooms”.

“How do we get back there?”

“It is closed to the public.”

“Who could I speak to about it?”

“Herr Direktor, I suppose,” the guard answered, “but he will not allow you entry.”

With directions how to find the Direktor's offices in the basement, off we headed. You see, traveling through the Empress Elisabeth’s private bedroom, I’d spotted something intriguing, something where you might hide a great treasure and where you could be assured no one would look. And this was just what the ending of my novel revolved around. It was just (possibly) too perfect.

If I could only get back into the servant’s area. The way I had it figured, the worst I could be told was to get out. It wouldn't hurt to at least try.

We got to the Direktor’s office and I gave his secretary my calling card — something quite distinct from the usual business card, and something I'd been told to carry, so I'd made up a couple of dozen before leaving home. I explained to her what I would like permission to do. She disappeared into the Direktor’s office with my card, and came out a few moments later. “Sit here. Herr Direktor will see you in a few minutes.”

Maybe I was in? Ten minutes later, we were seated in his office again explaining that I was writing a crime novel set in Vienna and the climax of it might well be behind the walls of the Schönbrunn. I was flipping my calling card in his fingers while I spoke. Finally, he jumped to his feet, retrieved a huge ring of keys from a closet, and said, “Off we go!”

For the next hour we got a personal, literally behind-the-scenes look at this huge building. He was a delightful tour guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of the building and its history.

And miraculously, that is how I got exactly what I needed to build a really amazing climactic scene for Cemetery.

I can’t tell you what it was. You’ll just have to read the novel.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Believe in Yourself. Your Characters Do.

by Vicki Delany

I started writing a new book today.  Now if you know my writing you know that's not a particularly unusual or special event.  But it always seems special to me. 

No matter how many times I’ve done it, it’s a daunting task beginning a novel.  I have to turn one blank page into some 300 pages full of a different assortment of letters.

I recently came across this old post from way back in 2009 that works as well as advise for getting started as for finding your way though.


If there is one thing successful fiction authors have to have it’s a belief in themselves. They have to believe absolutely that they have the ability to create a good story.

Plenty of people, probably numbering in the millions, have an idea for a book or have begun to write one. More often than not, nothing comes of it, and the work is never finished. In many cases they hit the ‘soggy middle’ or can’t find their way through a tricky plot point, and give up.

Once you have a book or two under your belt, there comes a time in which you believe in yourself, or in your characters, and that knowledge will carry you through.

Case in point – I am a rough outliner, meaning that I have an idea of how I want my story to progress, and what obstacles are going to impede the characters. But the outline is drawn in broad strokes only and all the details have to be filled in as I go.

I’m working on Smith and Winters #4 (2015 Note: The book became Negative Image) in which there is a subplot involving a series of break and enters when people are away on vacation. From the very beginning I knew I had to come up with something that the homeowners had in common. Some reason why these people were broken into and others were not. But the reason had to be obscure – otherwise the police would discover it quickly. Cancelling the newspaper, or using the same house sitter, is too obvious. Trusting myself to think up something eventually, I made a note on a blank page saying “Reason XX knows these houses are empty?” and then settled down to write the book. I was approaching the end of the first draft. Still no idea. Kennel? Kids sports teams? Nope, Sergeant Winters would have considered that. I have to be smarter than Sergeant Winters.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. I trusted myself to come up with an idea, but I will confess I was getting a bit nervous. And then it happened - I was taking a walk, thought of something I’d seen, and – presto - I knew the answer. So perfect it even fit into another plot point without jiggling. 

The moral of the story is to trust yourself. Or trust your characters. I’m sure John Winters would have thought of it eventually.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cynthia Kuhn: "Nothing Like Here"

I'm pleased to welcome Cynthia Kuhn as our weekend guest. Cynthia's work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern; Literary Mama; Copper Nickel; Prick of the Spindle; Mama, Ph.D. and other publications. She blogs regularly at Mysteristas and is a member of Sisters in Crime, Guppies, and Mystery Writers of America. Lectured to Death, her first book in a new academic mystery series, is forthcoming from Henery Press in 2016. Visit her at or @cynthiakuhn.

A woman of mystery -- who confesses she hasn't yet gotten her author photos done – Cynthia provided her profile image from Mysteristas.

Well-published as a professor, including scholarly books, Cynthia shares with us the challenges of writing an academic mystery. 

“Nothing Like Here”

There I was, in a bright, overly warm room, facing a group of professors who would soon vote on whether or not I should be promoted.  The interview went along pretty much as I’d expected—that is to say, I was increasingly dizzy and inelegantly chirpy as I described how much I loved the work. When the subject of my current writing project arose, I heard myself stressing that the setting was “A fictional university. Totally made up. Nothing like here.” That was the first moment I realized that writing an academic mystery while currently working in academia might not be the best idea I’d ever had.

I couldn’t help myself, though. Academia is paradoxical in the sense that while faculty expertise in the critical examination of ideas could be expected to lead to thoughtful and measured interactions, the result is often quite the opposite. Just a quick glance at The Chronicle of Higher Education provides ample evidence of plentiful conflicts, skirmishes, and battles. Contextually, it’s perfect for mystery plots.

When I began drafting Lectured to Death, I aimed to create hyperbolic versions of common academic experiences, pushing past the boundaries of typical professorial behaviors to (gently! lovingly!) satirize certain hierarchies and issues. Particular aspects may have been inconceivable outside of a fictional world, perhaps, but useful for foregrounding subjects worthy of consideration, I thought.

But as I continued to work on the book, some of those inconceivable things actually happened to people I knew at various schools. So all of it had to go. I came up with new inconceivable things. Then some of those happened, too. The line between satire and reality seemed disconcertingly thin. All I could do was revise yet again, acknowledging, like Inigo Montoya, that such things were (sadly) not inconceivable at all.

In the meantime, as word got out that I was working on an academic mystery, several colleagues suggested that I put this or that incident into the story. (I didn’t.) And one early reader said they’d enjoyed how I had turned so-and-so into a character. (I hadn’t.) The further into the project I went, the more I started to worry: could I write about any academic environment without everyone thinking that I was recording history rather than writing fiction?

Then a well-published author kindly explained that it didn’t matter because the people you know who read your fiction will think the events and characters are based on them, anyway.

Even though they aren’t.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Losing Atticus

I need to make a decision about Atticus Finch. Or, rather, about whether I will read Harper Lee's new book, Go Set a Watchman (2015).

As you probably know by now, this new book is the book that Lee wrote first, although this is a bit "murky" as one reviewer said. It is a newly discovered book and/or the book that  Lee, guided by her editor, wrote and revised and eventually turned into another book entirely. The book that we thought was her first and only book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named "Scout" (Jean Louise), her brother, Jem, and their father Atticus, a lawyer, in a sleepy Southern town. In Watchman, Lee's original concept, a grown up Jean Louise has come home from New York City to visit her father. During her visit, she is heartbroken and disillusioned when she discovers, Atticus, her childhood hero, has feet of clay. According to reviewers and early readers, those of us who love the Atticus of Mockingbird will share Jean Louise's pain. Atticus Finch, iconic defender of justice, kind, compassionate, a moral compass for his children and for us and for all of those lawyers and law students who were inspired by him – our Atticus – has been destroyed. He is not a hero, he is only a man of his time and place. A better man than some perhaps, but not the man we always believed him to be. He is a bigot and a segregationist.

I have not read Watchman. I am only repeating what I have read about the book. I feel that I should read it because To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the books that has shaped my worldview.

As a criminal justice professor, I have used Mockingbird often in my classes. Mockingbird is the one book that I can be sure the majority of my undergrad students will have read. I have assigned the book for discussion during my class on Violence in American Literature. I have shown clips from the movie when discussing images of lawyers in popular culture in my Crime and Mass Media course. In my graduate Race and Crime class, I refer to Mockingbird when I discuss the Scottsboro Boys case. That was a sensational 1931 (Depression-era) case in which nine black teenagers were accused by two white women of rape. All of them were found aboard a slow-moving freight train that stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. I have shown the movie clip of Atticus Finch's cross-examination of Mayella Ewell, the alleged rape victim in Mockingbird, when discussing the cross-examination of Victoria Price, one of the accusers in the real-life Depression-era case. The Scottsboro Boys case is said to have influenced Harper Lee's Mockingbird.

A few years ago, I took part in a “Big Read” of To Kill a Mockingbird. Librarian patrons and school children were encouraged to read the book and take part in discussions and other events. I was a panelist for a discussion recorded by local public television before a live audience. During the discussion, we panelists talked about various aspects of Lee's classic– the time, the setting, the characters. I mentioned that I had read an article that challenged Atticus Finch’s cross-examination of Mayella Ewell. The author of the article argued that the defense attorney had subjected Mayella to that “second victimization” that women experience when they are cross-examined in a courtroom during rape trials. The audience attending the panel discussion was incredulous. How could anyone accuse gentle, compassionate Atticus of subjecting Mayella to psychological harm? He believed she was lying. It was his duty to his client to try to get his accuser to admit the truth. He had been courteous to her even as she raged first at him and then at the members of the jury.

Lee's Watchman presents a different Atticus. There are reasons why I should read Watchman. I am a teacher, and I should know about this book so that I can discuss it with my students. One of my areas of specialization as a criminal justice scholar is crime and mass media/popular culture. I am listed as a “university expert” in this area. I could receive a call from the media about this book. I should also read it because Atticus Finch inspired a character in one of my own novels. The third book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Old Murders, takes the real-life early 20th century execution of a young black woman for murder as its starting point. I move the case forward in time and change the facts. In my novel, my crime historian protagonist is approached by the white lawyer who defended the teenager. He is still haunted by the case and wants Lizzie to help him write his memoir. I portray this old lawyer as “an Atticus Finch gone to seed”.

I should read Lee’s Watchman because I am a Southerner. I am an African American from Virginia, who grew up as segregation was unraveling. I might well find Watchman thought-provoking. It might become a text that I can refer to in my classes when discussing the response of the South to Brown v. Board of Education.

I should read this book because Harper Lee, as a writer, has the right to portray her characters as she will. She has no obligation to me to honor my illusions. I should read this book as a reminder that heroes fall from grace. But I'm not sure I will read it. At least not for a while. I need first to mourn losing Atticus – or rather the Atticus of Lee’s book. I will always have the Atticus that I see in my mind. That Atticus is the man that Gregory Peck brings to life in the film. That Atticus will survive . . . but perhaps only as a brilliant actor giving the performance of a lifetime. If I look too closely at even Peck’s Atticus, I am forced to consider him as a one of the “white knights” of books and films who are the heroes of stories that focus on them rather than the black men and women who are in jeopardy.

But To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout's story. We see Atticus through her eyes. Perhaps it is Scout – now Jean Louise – that I should focus on. Perhaps that was what Lee intended in both books.

Have you read Watchman? Thoughts about the book?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Right to the Point

Donis here. My latest book, All Men Fear Me, will not hit the shelves until November. But since one can't afford to let the grass grow under one's feet, I’ve started working on the first draft of a new novel. It will be the ninth book in my Alafair Tucker series. At the moment the extremely original working title is Nine. I’m planning on coming up with a perfect title later. Usually I wait until one of the characters says something pithy and to the point, at which moment I say to myself, “Hmm, that would be a good title.”

I’m always trying to find the perfect word to convey the subtle shade of meaning that I want, both in my titles and in my manuscripts. My first drafts are filled with blank spaces, which I leave because even though I can think of one hundred nouns/verbs/adjectives/adverbs that would be adequate in that place, I know the Absolutely Perfect Word exists, and I can’t quite come up with it. However, I can’t afford to spend fifteen minutes wracking my brain for it, so I leave a blank and torture myself with it on the rewrites. Sometimes I do end up having to use one of those one hundred almost-right words, but when I do, I feel a sense of abject failure.

Trying to convey some subtle meaning is only one reason why I strive to find the perfect word. Sometimes the way the sentence sounds, the poetry of it, only works with a particular combination of words. I have been know to write a narrative in the voice of one character, and then decide later that it would be better to have a different character experience the event and tell us about it. Changing the point of view necessitated a major change in language, even though the gist of the scene was the same.

I heard a Famous Author say that one of the best things he ever did to improve his prose style and technique was to learn to write poetry. He thought that there is nothing like poetry to teach a writer how to use the fewest possible words to make the biggest possible impact on the reader.

The amazing thing is that once you have written a few poems and learned how to fit your idea into the shortest possible form, your long-form style automatically changes without your having to even think about it. Your prose gains a vigor that it didn’t have before, because its power is no longer dissipated in a miasma of unnecessary words.*

I read that if you ask an author why he writes, the better and probably more successful writers will answer that it’s because they love language. I think that learning how to use language is like learning to play of a piano. Language is a writer’s instrument, and if she doesn’t practice, study, experiment, and play with it, she might end up writing “Chopsticks” instead of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
*Case in point …a miasma of unnecessary words.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In the beginning

A few weeks ago I blogged about the light summer reading I had compiled for my newest novel, the second in the Amanda Doucette series. The first, entitled FIRE IN THE STARS, is in the hands of the editor, and I expect to get the first edits back in a few weeks. But in the meantime, as is often the case with writers, I am already deeply immersed in the second. FIRE IN THE STARS is set in Newfoundland and deals with foreign refugees and the international trade in hapless, desperate people.

The second, tentative titled THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, deals with ISIS, Jihadism, and radicalization– hence the light summer reading. Lest people wonder whether I am turning into an international spy thriller writer, have no fear. I don't know anything about the international espionage world, and I would not even attempt to fake it. I want to write about what I know, or at least what I can learn about and hope to understand. Psychology.

To me, stories begin and end with character. Why do people make the choices they do? What pushes them to the brink? What happens to them and how do they extricate themselves. If we don't care about the character, we won't care about their story, no matter how many breathless car chases there are or how many people they sleep with.

The new novel sits on the table, awaiting inspiration.
So in tackling a new story, my first job is to try to get myself inside the heads of the characters I create. All writers do this, unless they are merely painting by numbers. It's the only way to create vivid, believable characters instead of cookie-cutter, one-dimensional placeholders who move robotically through the plot at the whim of the author. I call my technique "method writing", because it involves slipping into the character's skin, imagining myself in the scene, drawing on all the senses and all my own memories and imagining how the world and the situation looks from this character's point of view. Although most writers are quite empathic and can readily put themselves in another's shoes, I suspect my years as a psychologist help me in this regard. Psychologists get to hear the personal struggles and feelings of all sorts of different people from different walks of life. But more importantly, a good psychologist spends his or her life listening and trying to see the world from another person's point of view in order to figure out how to help them and how to build bridges to them. It becomes second nature to us, to the extent that my children used to accuse me of mind reading.

Last week my fellow Type M-er Sybil posted about the value of acting lessons and improvisation skills in the creation of character. I think she was getting at the same idea. Actors immerse themselves in the character they are to play, so they can live, breathe, and imagine that character's every move. This too is about empathy, literally feeling for another. Improvisation is a tool actors use to discover their character and to probe more deeply into their feelings and needs. Reading her post, I realized I use improvisation on paper too.

At the beginning of a new novel, I don't know my characters very well. I discover them as they encounter each other and the situations I throw at them. Background character sketches can be stilted and static, whereas the characters who confronts  each other on Page 4 have to come alive and react. So my initial scenes with new characters are tentative and exploratory. Sometimes, especially when I'm stuck, I throw two characters into a scene with very little idea what they're going to say or how it's going to turn out. That's the essence of improvisation. In those interactions, the germ of the scene emerges and the story races ahead. Sometimes. Other times the interaction leads to nothing and is ultimately cut from the manuscript. But it is never wasted. Through that aimless wandering, I have learned more about my characters and fine-tuned them into more interesting, layered people worthy of being in the story.

Or I have turfed them out and brought in someone better.

None of that would have happened if I hadn't climbed into their skin and let them loose to explore the story.  What about others? What are your secret techniques for creating character?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday concerning truth and a bit of background on her experiences as a Justice of the Peace. I, for one, would love to hear more on this subject. Probably a lot of the job was rather boring, but I’m certain that interesting things and situations arose on many occasions during her tenure on the bench.

But more absorbing were her comments on truth.

Truth is a funny thing. Everyone sees it differently. One person’s truth is another person’s lie — and oftentimes both parties believe they are correct, that their truth is the correct one.

Take witnesses at an accident scene. Conflicting statements will abound if the number of witnesses is large. It’s one reason police always take witness statements in private, so that they might be able to sort through them and come to firmer conclusions on what actually took place.

Then there are smaller situations. I’m sure everyone has had heated discussions about many things. I call it (somewhat jokingly) a red/green discussion. Basically stated it’s this: one person thinks something is one way (“I think it’s red.”), the other disagrees (“You’re wrong, it’s definitely green.”) and both are certain that they are correct. They cannot be dissuaded. If it happens to be someone near and dear to you, it’s always best to just walk away, because arguing will only make it worse. Arguments over religious views come to mind here.

The point with Aline’s post is that it can be awfully hard to separate truth from lies.

It might be mighty difficult to get reliable witness statements at an accident scene, but it’s far more difficult to get reliable truths when 2 sides (or more) are firmly convinced that they are correct and even have a belief system to bolster their argument. For instance, how do you tell them that thing they’re holding is blue when they know it’s red? They may be deluded, they may be lying, or they may be furthering some agenda. How do you deal with it?

I haven’t seen this dealt with in too many crime novels, but it would be an intriguing thing to spin a story around, wouldn’t it?

Monday, July 13, 2015

What is Truth?

'"What is truth?" said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for answer.' It was Francis Bacon, the brilliant 16th-17th Century writer, philosopher, scientist and statesman – also the father of the frozen food industry, allegedly dying of a chill after trying to freeze a chicken – who wrote this in his essay 'On Truth', a meditation on its nature.

Several of us have been blogging about just that in the last few weeks, and it's a question right at the heart of what we write – truth, and its opposite, untruth.

There has recently been a vogue for the 'unreliable narrator' and indeed, as we all drag our red herrings across the trail to seduce out readers down the wrong track, we're just doing what crime writers have always done.

I was a Justice of the Peace for ten years, a lay magistrate sitting in court and dealing with minor cases, breaches of the peace, speeding fines – that sort of thing. Before I started I imagined that the hard part of the job would be working out which side in the argument was telling the truth and which side was lying.

Very shortly I realised it wasn't like that at all. Both sides were lying, all the time, and when a truthful witness appeared, their honesty would shine like a good deed in a naughty world, unmistakable. It didn't happen often. I know from my legal experience that the criminal system isn't about justice, it's merely about proof, and that's why. 

As a writer I want justice for the victims, but in a way that is lack of realism – of 'truth', if you like –  as much as the romanticising of police procedure is. But I still think it's important to do it.

One of the reasons people read crime novels is, I think, that they believe  wickedness should be punished in a way it seldom is in the cruelly unjust world we have to live in.

They're right; it should be. So perhaps, in bringing our villains to possibly unrealistic justice we are acknowledging  a fundamental truth, a literary truth.

But then, what is truth? Pilate asked a pertinent question but we don't know what the answer would have been.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Weekend Guest: Tess Gerritsen

It is with great pleasure that I re-introduce Type M readers to my good friend and mentor Tess Gerritsen.

She is the international bestselling author of the Rizzoli and Isles series, now a hit TNT series, and is likewise a former M.D. Tess took an unusual route to a writing career: she is a graduate of Stanford University and went to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. She began to write fiction while on maternity leave and published her first book in 1987. After eight romantic-suspense novels, she wrote a screenplay, Adrift, which aired as a 1993 CBS Movie of the Week.

by Tess Gerritsen

When I field questions from readers, I find many of them are fixated on the writing process: “Where and what time of day do you write? Do you outline? Do you use a computer?” But frankly, I find discussions of process uninteresting. When I talk with other writers, what I always want to know is: “Where did you get the idea for that story?” When I’m asked that question, my answer is very often: “While traveling.”

It needn’t be an exotic destination; simply getting stuck in an airport or on a train often leads me to story revelations. I’m forced to sit and daydream. I’ll spot a girl in a leopard coat or a man in a cowboy hat, and suddenly I’m imagining them in a story. I find that when I’m stressed or tired, I’m especially open to inspiration. One very late night, while sitting in the back seat of a cab on the way to my hotel, I had a chilling thought: All I can see of the driver is the back of his head. Who is he, really? What if he’s an impostor? That scary thought inspired my book The Apprentice.

A few years ago, while on safari in South Africa, my husband and I had a frightening moment. Our group of tourists had stopped to watch the sunset and we were all out of the truck, standing with cocktails in hand, when a leopard walked out of the bush and headed straight toward us. Our guide immediately reacted by using his body as a shield. The leopard chose not to attack and slunk back into the bush. That guide kept us safe and alive, but I couldn’t help thinking: What if you place your faith in the wrong man? What if the most dangerous creature in the African bush walks on two legs? A moment of fear in a strange place was all it took to come up with my story Die Again, about a group of tourists who go on safari in Botswana – and vanish into the bush, never again to be seen.

My upcoming book Playing with Fire is another story that sprang from foreign travel. While in Venice, I had a bizarre nightmare. I dreamt I was playing my violin, and beside me sat a baby who was suddenly transformed by the music into a monster. I had no idea where that dream came from, but I became obsessed by the idea of music having the power to channel evil. But what nature of evil? That same day, I wandered into the old Jewish quarter, and the entire story bloomed in my head. It would never have come to me if I hadn’t been standing in that square in Venice.

Writers are supposed to have boundless imaginations, but sitting at a desk day after day can drain the creative well. We also need to be travelers and observers. We need to leave behind what’s comfortable and familiar and look around the bend. As Bilbo Baggins says, “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door… there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Or what stories you’ll stumble into.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Helping with Publication

I've spent a large amount of time helping an elderly man publish his memoirs. He is 91 and an Episcopal priest. When he told me about his background, I urged him to get his compelling life story on paper.

He is a terrific writer and whipped out a 190-page manuscript in no time flat. The title is Apology for a Monk in the World.

Not a one of us can top this story nor the extraordinary life of this man. It's one of the most self-revealing memoirs I've ever read. The Rev. Dr. Jean Jacques D'Aoust first became a Monk in 1947 and lived in the strictly cloistered and contemplative monastery of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in the province of Quebec, following the Rule of St. Benedict.

Then in 1963 he left both the monastic life and the Roman Catholic Church and became an Episcopal priest. During this agonizing period of religious exploration he acquired a doctorate from Yale, four masters and two bachelors degrees. He is a world renowned authority on the works of Maurice Blondel. whom the Roman Church regarded as heretical.  Although four books of Henri Dumery, Blondel's favorite disciple, were put on the "forbidden list" by the church, this controversial philosopher influenced Vatican II. In fact, D'Aoust saw all three drafts of Vatican II.

Apology for a Monk in the World is a painful, fascinating story of a man, a priest, and a brilliant scholar's struggle to reconcile the spiritual and temporal world. Married twice, Fr. D'Aoust is unsparing in his account of his triumphs and failures in the role of husband and father of two sons. The recipient of three grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, Fr. D'Aoust has taught at a number of universities in the United States and Canada. Now at age 91, he lives at the Wexford Center in Loveland, Colorado. He has been licensed to preach in the Diocese of Colorado since 2003. Last year he became an Oblate of St. Walburga Abbey in Virginia Dale, Colorado and is back in affiliation with Order of St. Benedict.

Honestly now, don't you think that is story worth telling? I chose Amazon's CreateSpace program and was surprised at how easy it was to use. I didn't change a word of his manuscript. Nor did I want anyone else to meddle with it. D'Aoust has shown it a few other people. Predictably, his French Canadian family would like him to take back some of the criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, which he refuses to do. "It's what I believe," he says.

I was glad to give my time to this project and learned a lot in the process. It's done and available for sale in print through Amazon. We have to do a little more work to get it on-line through Kindle.

What a book and what a man. What a life!

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Another way to tell the story

I'm trying something new, something that demands that I write in a manner more economical than any style in which I have written. (The previous sentence, for instance, is the longest I've written in two weeks.) Often writing fragments. Searching for a metaphor or simile that will convey 500 words or narration.

No, I'm not talking about Twitter.

I'm trying my hand at scriptwriting, working on a would-be pilot for a show featuring my US Border Patrol agent / single mom Peyton Cote. I turned in Destiny's Pawns (2016), the third title of my three-book contract. Technically, I'm between contracts (although I expect and hope to write more books in the series). I needed a breather anyway, and a good friend gave me a copy (legally) of Final Draft 9, the leading script-writing software. So I'm trying – and enjoying – a new form.

I've heard talk, through my agent, Julia Lord, of what a Peyton Cote TV series might look like. (No one asks her about film adaptations, always TV.) Previously, I'd not taken the idea seriously. (Upon first inquiry, I said to Julia, "...and the Boston Bruins are on line two…") But then I thought about my vision for a would-be TV series and how it differed from what I was hearing. So here we are: I'm trying to write a script – totally on spec – that shows my take on what a show might look like.

I was told by a Pulitzer Prize winner that there's no artistic reason for a novelist to write a script. No artistic reward whatsoever to be had. Got to say, after a couple weeks, I totally disagree. I'm having a ball reading scripts to see how it's done, writing in present tense, and developing characters using dialogue as the primary vehicle. (Anyone who's read my work, knows that's not far removed from my books anyway.) And the early feedback – from a veteran show runner who's currently developing two shows – has been positive.

So where does all of this lead? Who knows? But I'd like to have a pilot written, should someone approach my agent in the future. And any writing experience can only make me a better novelist.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Actors on Paper

Acting is a very mysterious profession to me. I truly have no idea how anyone can make an audience believe he/she is an 18th century aristocrat in one film and a 21st century parent in another. Yet I see actors who are chameleons all the time in the TV shows and movies I watch.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I realized writers are, to a certain extent, actors on paper. For every character created, a writer must figure out how that person would react under various situations: what they would do, what they would say, how they would feel. I can see how acting skills would be a big plus for any writer.

So I was particularly interested in a recent blog post on Ladies of Mystery, written by fellow SinC/LA member Sally Carpenter on using acting skills to create dramatic characters. ( Sally managed to simplify something that I’m sure is quite complex enough so I could understand how I could use it in my work.

I know writers who are or were actors. I’m sure they use their hard-earned skills when creating their characters and writing their books. I can also see how it’d be a big plus when asked to read from their latest novel.

Unfortunately, I have no such skills. Sure, I participated in plays in grade school and took a drama class in junior high but, believe me, that doesn’t count. I’ve heard of other writers who’ve taken a beginning acting class to help them with their work. At least one blog I read recommended it. (

I’ve considered it off and on but, really, I can’t see myself doing it because you see, I stutter. Not in the repetition of sounds kind of way but in the getting stuck on certain sounds at the beginning of words way. That means there can be a lot of unintended hesitations in my speech and why reading from my novel to an audience fills me with dread. (Although, being on a panel at a conference doesn’t bother me and giving a presentation on a subject I know doesn’t either. Go figure.) I have days I’m quite fluent and other days when I can’t get a single word out. I just can’t see myself actually taking an acting class.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t get tips from blog posts and books written by people who’ve taken those classes and who also write.

Here are a couple of other posts I read recently on this subject that I found interesting:

I’m curious. Who out there has applied acting skills to their writing? Any tips to be shared?

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

A counterintuitive way to write

With the everyday work stuff I’ve always got on my plate, it can be tough to grab time to write. Being a freelancer definitely has drawbacks since I basically have to take everything that comes in the door, or risk losing clients forever. Couple that with the fact that a lot of the work I do is time-sensitive, and it’s not a winning recipe for crafting a fine novel. And we’re not even talking about my musical endeavors here, folks.

The biggest drawback to writing is constantly having to withdraw from the creative process. When you have those excellent (and far too infrequent) days and everything is just flowing to the point that you can barely get it all down, to have to stop because revisions to a design job have just come in the door and the client only has an hour before a meeting at which the revisions are desperately needed, you just have to reluctantly put down your pen, change hats, and carry out their wishes – if you want to keep your client, that is.

So in a nutshell, life always seems to get in the way of my writing. I try to do some every morning when I get up, just to keep things moving forward and the juices flowing, but even that doesn’t always work.

The past week, though, I’ve tried changing things up a bit.

I’m trying out not writing linearly, instead jumping all over the place in my current novel-in-progress. Since I have a pretty good idea of most of the plot – except the climax and how that needs to be handled – I can just write a scene here and another one there. Most of what’s coming out seems to be the character development parts, mostly between my two protagonists as they get to know each other (and I get to know them). There’s no rhyme nor reason to what I’m doing and when I do get back to actually working on the novel as a through plot line again, I may not even use a lot of what I’ve been writing. It may no longer work, be necessary to the story or just not something readers would need to know. The point is I need to know it.

I sometimes use this approach when I find myself written into a corner. I just stop where I am and go on to some other point then begin writing there. I’ve found most of the time that while I’m working at point B, point A’s problems are percolating in the background and eventually sort themselves out.

I suppose the way I’m currently working is helping me get to know my characters (the good ‘uns and the bad ‘uns). It is also helping me try plot ideas on for size, to preflight them, as it were.

The main benefit is that the other demands on my time aren’t holding me back as much as they would be if I were working in a more normal fashion.

Needs must, I suppose.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The art of story weaving, by Peggy Blair

My guest this weekend is friend and fellow Ottawa author, Peggy Blair. Peggy is a former lawyer and author of three books in the award-winning Inspector Ramirez series. She lives in Ottawa where she works in real estate. Her latest, HUNGRY GHOSTS, has just been released by Simon & Schuster, and in this post, she talks about how that novel came together

Check out her blog at


My third book in the Inspector Ramirez series, Hungry Ghosts, started with a kernel of an idea. I wanted to write about an art heist. The idea of someone breaking into a museum or gallery to steal art seemed kind of romantic and very few of those thieves are caught. An art heist in Cuba, with the difficulty getting stolen art out, would be a challenge for any thief. And I like creating characters who are smarter than I am.

So that's where I started. But I got stuck at around 25,000 words. It was an interesting work-in-progress, but I didn't have enough for a novel. I needed 80,000 to 100,000 words.

Since I wasn't making any progress on that front, I turned to writing an entirely different story involving my Aboriginal detective, Charlie Pike, who is introduced to Inspector Ramirez (and readers) in my second book, The Poisoned Pawn.

I've always thought Charlie Pike should have his own series and since the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is one I care about greatly (I was an Aboriginal lawyer for decades), I decided to write about him investigating a few of those cases. But once again, I got stuck at about 30,000 words and couldn't figure out where to take the plot.

Then my daughter Jade came home for a visit, and somewhere in our conversation, we began talking about entomology. I loved the idea of having a forensic entomologist who could help Hector Apiro, my Cuban pathologist, determine a time of death for murder victims by using blowflies recovered at the scene. When I looked up these remarkable insects, I discovered just how beautiful these shimmering iridescent insects are: they are absolutely gorgeous! (How macabre is that!?)

A little more research about these amazing creatures and I had a whole new character: a Chinese entomologist visiting Cuba who can tell when someone died almost to the second but who is also wildly eccentric. (She loves her bugs too.)

And then I realized I could put all of this together. There was no reason why Inspector Ramirez couldn't investigate an art heist and have a cold case involving a murdered woman at the same time. After all, cops usually have more than one investigation on the go and there's always the one that got away that haunts them. (In Ramirez's case, literally.)

Meanwhile, Charlie Pike could be involved in his own investigation into missing and murdered Aboriginal women up north. The reader would know that the cases were connected, but not the characters. And sure enough, it worked! Within a few weeks, I had finished a first draft that I was happy enough with to send to my agent. And now it's actually a book: pretty amazing, really, when I think about randomly the story line developed.

Hungry Ghosts is my favourite of the Inspector Ramirez series. It's complex and layered with lots of humour, just like life in Cuba and on First Nation reserves.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Small Things

Last night I was watching an old episode of  "Shark Tank". If you don't know the show, contestants make presentations to the "sharks" (a panel of celebrity investors), hoping to convince one of them to invest in the contestant's new product.  On the episode I caught last night -- because I'm always fascinated by the presentations -- a young man had developed a product that he offered as the solution to "bed head".  Rising to find your hair standing on end or a matted mess, you would put on a plastic cap that would saturate your hair with moisture, take it off and style as usual. As the young entrepreneur demonstrated the cap could even be used after you were fully dressed -- no mess, no fuss. As one of the sharks pointed out the product looked a lot like a shower cap. No one invested in the product, and I have to admit I wasn't impressed either.

But my reason for being unimpressed was that the young entrepreneur had lost me when he began his presentation by explaining that he showered at night and hated waking up "clean" with "bed head". For those of us who shower in the morning, the problem is either having to use a real shower cap or hair dryer or go out on a winter morning with damp hair. That brought me to the great debate -- and, yes, I have heard people come to rhetorical blows over the issue of when one should bathe or shower -- before going to bed or upon rising. Do you go to bed grimy from your day or do you put on clean clothes in the morning without washing your body. Of course, there is a third group that insists showering or bathing twice a day is the obvious solution. And a group like me that favors the morning shower but compromises with a stop at the bathroom sink before going to bed.

Yes, I am about to make a writing-related point. As I was thinking about the morning versus evening debate, it occurred to me that I was missing something when it comes to character creation. In my last post, I wrote about the challenge of creating a cast of characters for my historical thriller. As I mentioned, I've been consulting the writing books on my shelf. As a result, I'm been doing character bios and family trees and looking at dreams, fears, goals, and assorted motives. I've been asking myself questions such as, "What would  your character never do?" What I haven't asked myself -- and will now -- is how my characters do the things they do. When I'm reading a book, I love the dramatic moments. But when I'm getting to know a character, I look for and attend to the small things.

Actually, in real life, isn't it the small things that define who we are?  The way we do the things we do that the other people in our lives find irritating, bizarre, lovable, fascinating, or all of the above. Think of those 4th of July exchanges at the picnic table:
"Did you really just put mayonnaise on your hot dog? Yuck!"
"You do realize that cole slaw has mayo in it, right?"
"That doesn't count. Mustard. That's what you put on a hot dog."
"Thanks for telling me."

Think of the woman at work who uses her own silver teaspoon to stir organic honey (a jar brought from home) into her herbal tea. And across from her, the guy who is gulping strong black coffee while wolfing down a chocolate glazed something or other. He smirks at her, she gives him an icy stare.

So what occurred to me last night during the "bed head" discussion was that I need to flesh out my characters -- make them human -- by giving them preferences. Before I plunge them into the midst of my thriller, I need to follow each of my characters through an ordinary day and observe his or her choices. Some of these preferences could end up being moments of conflict in the book. Does Character X remain silent about Character Y's choice of mayo on his hot dog or feel compelled to voice an objection? Does Character Y smile, shrug, or ignore Character X's comment? How does Character X respond if he is ignored?

And that's why I'm going to make a chart displaying each character's personal habits and preferences. Somewhere in that chart will be gold.

P.S. I should add that the young entrepreneur with the "bed head" cap has since gone on to successfully market his product.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Thistledown Time

Don Koozer, age 2, Enid, Oklahoma (click to make larger)

Happy Canada Day yesterday to all my beloved Canadian friends, and happy Independence Day this weekend to my compatriots. I hope all the celebrations go off without a hitch. The world has been a sad and scary place lately, as my blogmates have noted over the past weeks. Sometimes it feels like everyone on earth has lost his mind and we wonder what awful thing could possibly happen next. Of course the world has always been a scary place, and humanity as a whole has never been particularly sane. But that fact doesn't make it feel any better when the next insane event occurs. So for the summer holidays, allow me to take you back to what seemed like a more innocent time. Though the truth is maybe we were just more innocent.

The following is a poem by Donald Koozer, who happens to be my husband. This work first appeared in his book of collected poetry entitled The Road, from Bellowing Ark Press. This particular poem is a celebration of Americana and a remembrance of an American boyhood. Enjoy the holiday, and have some watermelon and corn on the cob.


It was a thistledown time for a boy,
A time of white frame houses
With porch swings,
And bells ringing out
From steepled churches;
A strawberry and shortcake time,
A time of watermelons
Cooling in tubs of water,
Of buttered corn on the cob,
Of eggs fresh from the chicken nest
And milk bottles waiting on the porch;
Of the silence of mornings
Broken by daybreak and the rooster's crow,
Of family gathered around the dinner table,
Of short pants and stubbed toes,
Of fishing poles and bobbing corks
On quiet lakes,
Of fried okra, corn bread, and butter beans,
Of mute imposing oaks
Climbed by chattering squirrels;
Of dandelions, four leaf clovers,
Grasshoppers, and hound dogs;
Gardens of tall corn stalks,
Climbing pea plants, pumpkins,
Hollyhocks, morning glories,
Petunias, and honeysuckle.
And the plains,
Beyond, like the great soul
Of earth and sky,
Was always the plains.

The land was a sacred realm--
Grasslands reaching beyond the horizon,
Towering cottonwood trees
Lining banks of winding creeks,
Red dirt country roads
And windmills beside tanks of cool water,
Skies filled with
Ten thousand stars,
Moonlight shining off
Fields of green wheat,
The spirit possessed
Howl of coyotes,
Catfish and cooing doves,
Soaring hawks and hooting owls.
The quiet days seemed endless,
And the nights,
A bewildering star-filled mystery
That filled the heart.

In the evenings my mother
Would call me from the fields
Where I played
To the brightly lighted house.
There was always food
And family and safety
In the aura of the glowing chandelier.
But I knew that a part
Of myself was elsewhere,
Beyond the circle of light
From shaded lamps,
And the boundary of homes
With neatly mowed yards.

For a few hours I belonged
To the sphere of light and family,
To the ticking clock
And singing radio.
But later, lying alone,
Beneath the blankets
In the unlighted bedroom,
I felt the sacred darkness
In my heart and all around
For a thousand miles.