Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The lure of maps

Barbara here. Every since I was a little kid doing treasure hunts at birthday parties, maps – and especially hand drawn maps – have always given me a little thrill. Nothing like holding a puzzle in your hands, with directions to decipher, clues to follow, and a big X at the end to mark the treasure. It didn't matter what the treasure was (it could be a simple chocolate bar), because it was the challenge that mattered, not the prize. Had there been no treasure, of course, or worse a little note saying nyah, nyah, we would have called foul, but otherwise the fun was in the hunt.

In a sense, the hand drawn treasure map is a metaphor for the crime novel. The reader is invited to embark on a quest, with the thrill of following the clues and uncovering the solution at the end. Some readers are only interested in the characters or setting, or simply enjoy being along for the ride, but most commit themselves actively to this quest. For this reason, perhaps of all types of fiction, the crime novel engages the reader most. A good argument for reading crime novels to keep the mind alert throughout life!

Some crime novels go even farther. Not only do they present a metaphorical map for invite the readers into the story, but they also place a real one at the beginning of the book. These maps are usually simple and hand drawn, reminiscent of the treasure maps of childhood. They are like a little lure dangled before the reader, inviting them to turn the page.

My latest novel, FIRE IN THE STARS, is set in Newfoundland, in an area unfamiliar to most readers, and the reader is invited to follow my protagonist Amanda Doucette on her own wilderness quest to find her missing friend and solve a murder or two. I wrote this book with a multitude of topographical maps spread out on my dining room table so that I could get the geography right.

A number of readers have told me that they read the book with the atlas open beside them and would have liked a map at the beginning of the book. This idea had never occurred to me, but it shows how powerfully the readers were engaged in the quest.

The Amanda Doucette books are each set in different iconic locations across Canada, most of which will be unfamiliar to readers, and the setting will be an vivid part of the stories. As a result of these readers' comments, I am considering the idea of including little maps at the beginning of each book to show the major landmarks that appear in the story. There will not be an X to mark the solution, of course, for that will be included in the pages of the story, but it should be an interesting and helpful aid to those who like treasure hunts.

Drawing a map is proving more difficult that I imagined because of my limited software and design expertise, but I hope between myself and my publisher we will get a reasonable approximation  that readers can follow. Here is what I have so far for the next book in the series, THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY.

What do you think? Do you ignore maps at the beginning of books or are they helpful. Do they add an extra enticement? Or do they seem like a gimmick, rather like the cast of characters at the beginning of a book?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Little free libraries

by Rick Blechta

To the right you can see what looks at first glance like a large birdhouse. It’s not. This is a “little free library” and here in Toronto — and I expect many other places as well — they’re sprouting up on people’s front lawns like mushrooms after a fall rain. Intrigued, I recently stopped to look at a few.

Here’s how it works. You put one of these up in your front yard, fill it with books you no longer want or have space for. Neighbours or random people passing stop, find something that intrigues them, and take it away with them. If they happen to have a book they no longer want, they can leave it, thus paying it forward, as the trendy saying goes.

It seems like a quaint and friendly idea. You can even register your little free library for a small fee which will include it on a searchable map. Little Free Library, the organization of which I’m speaking, says it has over 50,000 registered worldwide.

In consulting their map for my area, however, it seems that there are also a lot of unregistered little free libraries. I have no idea whether they’re dangerous or not. Personally, I usually stay away from unregistered entities. I mean, you wouldn’t go to an unregistered dentist, would you?

Seriously, though, it sounds like a good way to share books you’ve enjoyed. Problem is, of the half-dozen front yard libraries I’ve browsed, I haven’t found much beyond paperback bestselling thrillers, self-help diet books, and other things I’m not really interested in reading. Only one had what I would consider a “literary classic” (read it in Grade 8). I definitely got the feeling the owners of these libraries were simply clearing bookshelf space, or had chucked a forgotten carton of books from their basement or attic, the flotsam of a long ago move. Or perhaps all the good offerings had been snapped up before I got there.

Another thing that is really rather sweet is that every one of the libraries I’ve seen are completely different. One matched the person’s home in colour, shutters, etc., even down to the shake shingle roof. The scope to express yourself in your library’s design is limitless. A good woodworker could keep him/herself happily engaged for hours designing something really special. Of course, you’d then have to worry about graffiti artists defacing your little architectural marvel.

Now that I’ve begun exploring this free library movement, I think I’m going to fetishize stopping at every single one I pass to see what I can turn up in the way of unexpected reading material.

I may even put one on my front lawn. Heaven knows I have books I can pass on.

Or — wait for this — I’ll go around and place my own works of deathless prose in carefully chosen neighbourhoods so that my literary gifts may be presented to all and sundry in a non-confrontational way! I mean, who enjoys being bombarded by a desperate author with a new novel when they’re going into an Indigo store simply to pick up a throw pillow for their Great Aunt Margaret’s Christmas present? Isn’t some guerilla book placement a much more elegant way to cultivate new readers?

Have you seen these little free libraries? Have you stopped at one to browse or even drop off a well-loved tome? The last place I stopped this morning had a rather nice book on perennial gardening which I borrowed. I fully intend to take it back when I’m through, and maybe leave something of my own.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Thief of Time

Recently my daughter gave me a present of procrastinating pencils. They came in a little pack and each of them bears a suggestion.
  • You probably need another coffee.
  • Go on, take me for a doodle.
  • Mmm, what's for lunch?
  • A to-do list, you need a to-do list.
  • You can't possibly work in an untidy room.
  • Just chew on me and look thoughtful for a bit.
There may be some writers who sit down at their desks at the determined hour and get to work straight away without allowing any form of distraction, but I haven't met any of them.  They are probably the same people who only ever have one slim file lying on the otherwise empty desk, who have the whole book planned out with spreadsheets before they type 'Chapter One' , who always meet their deadlines without any sort of unseemly scramble at the end and who always have a spare ink cartridge in reserve for the next time it runs out - so we don't like them, do we, boys and girls?

For the imperfect mortals among us, there is a bizarre resistance that often has to be overcome before we open the file that contains our work in progress and get on with it.  If you haven't got a big excuse, a little one will do : 'If anyone comes in and sees the kitchen floor looking like that, I'll be mortified...'

It's completely irrational. I know that writing is what I like to do more than anything else - whereas I hate having to wash the kitchen floor. Once I sit down and get absorbed, the time simply flies and I'm surprised when I find it's lunch time. I can look at what I've done with a glow of satisfaction that carries me on through the rest of the day.

I can remember in the long-ago days when I was a teacher pupils who had upcoming exams would tell me they 'just couldn't make themselves' get down to revising. An excuse, I thought at the time and was fairly crisp about this kind of problem. But now I wonder, is there something deeper at work than just being easily distracted?

As long as we are writing our book in our head, it is going to be the very best thing we have ever done — probably the best thing anyone has ever done. But whenever something is set down on paper it becomes limited, and however good the writing may be it never quite takes flight with the glorious freedom it had before.

So is procrastination, after all, not just a funny little lazy quirk but a dark, deep-seated fear of failure?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Readers versus Writers

Jess Walter and Dana Spiotta will be speaking next Saturday at Inside the Writer's Studio presented by Lighthouse Writers Workshop. In anticipation of their visit, I attended Lighthouse's Writer's Studio Book Club where we discussed Walter's Beautiful Ruins and Spiotta's Innocents and Others. We talked mostly about narrative structure, but at times the conversation got heated when we debated who wrote the better book. Having read all of Walter's novels and even taught a seminar from his Beautiful Ruins, I was definitely his champion. However, Spiotta had her fans. Not everybody involved in the back-and-forth was a writer; some were there because they are readers and wanted to share their opinions. The episode got me thinking about the conceit we writers can have about the writing process. Since we're intimately involved with the mechanics of putting words on paper and trying to have the effort make sense, we assume we have a better understanding of what makes for a good story. Just because we're more familiar with the ingredients, we think we can whip up a better meal. Conversely--and to build on that food metaphor--I may not be a chef, but I know a good dinner when I taste it.

Blog Bonus!

I wrote a piece of short fiction for the world in Aaron Michael Ritchey's steampunk opus, The Juniper Wars. In Book One, Dandelion Iron, a trio of gunslinging sisters brave a post-apocalyptic wilderness to save their family ranch. My story, "Ezekiel 37:38," let me tap into my evangelical roots as I explored the early days following nuclear disaster. It's a tough place to be. Check it out here.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The First Thanksgiving

We had a great Thanksgiving yesterday. It was the first time I hosted a large family event in my home since moving to Fort Collins. I was amazed at how my house accommodated the group. The too small kitchen seemed to swell to include all the women who had their fingers in various pies. There was even room for the essential pitch table in the living room.

I have a large leather sectional that is just right for viewing movies. A large arched three-shaded lamp provides plenty of light for those who want to knit or do needlework.

We have a lot to be thankful for this year. This autumn has been one of the most spectacular I've seen. The weather has been gorgeous and the country is slowly emerging from the wounds afflicted during the recent election.

Thanksgiving is the source of one my happiest memories. I was introduced to reading through a little book about Thanksgiving. The title was Hoot Owl.

I wanted to learn to read more than anything in the world. We were in a tiny school where three grades were together in one room. No pre-school or kindergarten. No TV, Sesame Street, or clever toys. My mother read stories sometimes out of the old Book of Knowledge. We were simply jump-started into first grade.

I thought reading was a trick or a revelation. I emulated a third grade boy I especially admired. I sat exactly as he did, held my head at the same angle, frowned like he did. But I couldn't read. Then one day the teacher told us about the alphabet and that the alphabet formed words and the words then became sentences and sentences were the basis of stories. I was swept with a wave of white-hot fury that it was that simple and everyone had withheld it from me.

The alphabet and everything connected with it became an obsession. And then came one of the most joyful days of my life. After the class had endured yet another fumble-through with Dick, Jane, Spot, and that damned ball and I was out of anything to do, the teacher told me I could choose a book to read.

And I could! I could actually read. And these books all had plots.

 The first book I ever read on my own was Hoot Owl. It was about a little pioneer boy who got lost in the woods. Just when everything seemed the darkest and he despaired of ever making it back to his colony he was befriended by a little Indian boy, Hoot Owl, who took him to his stern, but kindly Chief. A group of Indians guided Hoot Owl back to his anxious parents who, along with other welcoming colonists, were preparing a Thanksgiving feast. Naturally, the grateful colonists invited the Indians to share their meal. It was the first Thanksgiving and everyone lived happily ever after.

There now. Wasn't that wonderful? The shelves were full of similar books and I was off and running.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving & Audiobooks

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.

I found Vicki’s recent post about audiobooks interesting, and it got me thinking about my own relationship with audio reads.

As a dyslexic, audiobooks (we called them “books on tape” back then) showed me books could be friends, not just the source of academic embarrassment. In fourth grade, when the class read aloud, I would try to gauge my turn and judge which paragraph would fall to me, knowing I was doomed to stumble my way through the text.

Years later, I found Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels on audio. I fell in love with the books, read by Burt Reynolds and even Joe Mantegna. I learned to pace a scene this way, I learned a lot about narrative voice, and I learned to write by ear.

Most of all, I learned to love books, reading along and annotating as I listened to Hemingway, Falkner, Melville in American Literature. Learning, too, to read my written work aloud, first for class, then for the newspaper, and now for my publishers.

To this day, like Vicki, I listen to audiobooks constantly –– at the gym, in the car, before bed. I might be reading one book and listening to another. That’s the case right now. I’m reading Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger, and listening to Turning Angel, by Greg Iles.

My advice is this: Never try to do both at the same time.


As a writer, I shouldn’t ever say a picture is worth a thousand words. First, it’s a cliche. And second, well, I’m a writer, not a photographer . . . but, here are some pics from the past two weeks.

"Writing Multiple Series" panel(from left) Liz Mugavero, Lea Wait, Diane Valerie, and Lucy Burdette.

Crime Bake, put on annually in the Boston area by New England’s chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, is a small but intimate conference. I had a great time this year. William Kent Krueger was the guest of honor, and he gave a memorable keynote address.

Keeley's 8th birthday dinner at Friendly's

Welcome Home! Someone missed her big sister away at college

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Traditional and Cozy Mysteries

The pies are in the oven. Plans are set for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving celebration. Time to talk mysteries, cozy and traditional.

I’ve always considered my own books to be solidly in the cozy camp. Then someone commented to me that they thought they tended more toward the traditional. That got me thinking. What makes a book a cozy?

I’ve been mulling over this for a while now. Aline’s recent post on cozies brought it to the forefront once again.

For the last few years, I’ve attended the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, MD, a celebration of traditional mysteries. The Malice website loosely defines this genre as books having no explicit sex, excessive gore or gratuitous violence. Think Agatha Christie.

I think everyone pretty much agrees that cozies are a subset of traditional mysteries. So the above definition applies to cozies as well. Beyond that, though, what pushes the book over the edge into the cozy camp? I have my own thoughts, but I decided to query a group of people who read a lot of them to see what their take was.

The following came up in the discussion:

- Traditional mysteries are grittier and have more of a police presence.
- Cozies tend to be more humorous.
- In cozies, the main character is usually an amateur sleuth. And that sleuth is often involved in a hobby/craft and/or runs a business centered around a hobby/craft. Cooking mysteries are extremely common in the cozy world, so I’d add that the sleuth might have a business involving food, like a bakery. I don’t think either is a requirement for a cozy, though. I can think of series that feature college professors or columnists for newspapers.
- Historical mysteries fall in the traditional camp and aren’t cozies.
- Having a romantic interest in the story also came up. Pretty common in cozies, but not required, I think.
- And there are often pets in the stories. Cats, dogs... I wrote a post about that once on National Cat Day on my take of why that’s so common. Here it is, if you want to read it.
- Cozies often have “cute” titles in which puns are pretty common.

In addition to all of that, the crime often takes place in a small community of some kind. That might mean a small town, but it also might mean a community of people interested in the same thing like knitters, tole painters, etc. And what I think is most important, the bad guy is always revealed at the end and they get their comeuppance. I think that’s probably true of traditional mysteries as well, though I’m not sure it’s really a requirement.

So where does that leave my books? First, look at those covers. They look pretty cozy with their bright colors. And the titles are pretty cozy-like in my opinion. My protagonist is a freelance computer programmer (amateur sleuth, check) whose hobby is tole/decorative painting (craft, check). She lives in a Los Angeles county beach city, which has a small town feel. The books do involve the tole painting community so I’d say check on the small community. The bad guys are always revealed in the end and they get their comeuppance, so there’s a check on that as well. No sex, but there’s a bit of romance (check). There’s a bit of humor (check). And neighborhood cats and dogs play a role in my stories (pets, check).

So what might take me out of the cozy camp? While I don’t have gory scenes or gratuitous violence, I do occasionally have a scene where my main character, Aurora (Rory), is hit on the head or finds herself shoved into traffic. (Poor thing has been hit on the head too many times. I’m beginning to worry about her.) That may be where the idea that my books tend toward the traditional comes from. I can see that.

This has been a fun exercise, but it doesn’t really matter to me how my books are categorized as long as people read and enjoy them.

Cozies transport you into another world where you can forget about your own problems for a while. And, in the end, the case is solved, the bad guy is punished in some way, and order is restored. Rick wondered in a recent post if, with the discord in the world today, if more people would start reading more cozies. I wouldn’t be surprised.

That’s my two cents for today. I think I’ll go read a cozy right now. Those pies aren’t ready to come out of the oven yet.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

There’s a word for that!

by Rick Blechta

I don’t have much time to write my post today because I’m helping my eldest son move, but I did want to share something wonderful I learned this past week.

Bus knuckles.

Ever heard of ’em? I hadn’t until I read the following articles in the Toronto Star. ( and

So now you know what a bus knuckle is. Fascinating, no? We used to have some amazing bus knuckles on a big street near us. They got replaced by concrete pads last year. Alas. I’ll have to look elsewhere to find them.

There are words for all kinds of things you never thought about. The trades are loaded with words that are virtually unknown to the general public but very necessary. The printing trade: that dot on top of an “i” or “j” is called a tiddle. Carpentry: that about the space a saw leaves behind it as you cut through a board? That’s a kerf (kind of sounds saw-like, doesn’t it?).

Then there are the arcane words, little known and nearly forgotten. You've got to be careful of those, however, in the Age of Information, because you can be darn sure someone can find them, sometimes to your embarrassment. We have a deli chain here in Toronto called Druxy’s. Too bad they didn’t do a little more research on the name. The word druggy means “something which looks good on the outside, but is actually rotten inside”. Oops. (Druxy’s food is actually quite good.)

So there you go. My thoughts for the day. Does anyone out there have a favourite arcane word they’d like to share?

In closing, I leave you with one last word: knurl. Why don’t you look it up?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Listening to Books

By Vicki Delany

I love audio books, as both a reader and a writer. I drive long distances, often by myself, and an audio book is a great way to pass the time. It’s a different reading experience, for sure: often difficult to pay close attention, and hard to go back a sentence or two to get something you missed. But I do enjoy it when driving. My library has a very limited stock of books on CD and not much by anyone other than major bestsellers (and me! As a local author) but I have occasionally been able to find a gem I wouldn’t normally read.

Case in point: I am a huge fan of Iain Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost: one of my favourite books of all time; Arcadia: so hugely disappointing I wondered if he got a ghost writer to do some parts). I bought his small book The Portrait some time ago, and was never able to get into it. It’s just a stream of consciousness novel as some guy chatters on. But when I listed to it on audio, I loved it. The experience of listening to some guy chatter on was totally different than reading it on paper.

As for my own books, all my Poisoned Pen titles are on audio as are the Lighthouse Library books by me as Eva Gates. I always listen to them one time through and enjoy hearing it spoken out loud. It’s a very different experience.

The LL books are narrated by Elsie Arsenaut, who has a perfect soft gentle voice for narrating the cozy genre. The narrator of the Constable Molly Smith books and the standalones is Carrington MacDuffie, who does an excellent job of it, particularly switching between male and female voices so you always know who is speaking.

I have only one complaint, and that is that Carrington doesn’t even seem to try to get the Canadian accents or pronunciation right. It’s Traf-ALL-gar, not Traffic-AL-gar. A junior officer in the Canadian army is a LEF-tenant, not a LOU-tenant. And every person in Canada knows that the Canadian Security Intelligence Services is pronounced Csis, not C.S.I.S. The (former) Canadian International Development Agency is Cida, not C.I.D.A. I expect a lot of Canadians wouldn’t even know what C.S.I.S means, spoken like that.

(Is that a Canadian speech pattern, does anyone know? To take initials and turn them into a word? When I got my first contract with N.A.L., I told someone I was with Nal, and I was corrected: N.A.L. Is proper. About the one thing we don’t make a word of is RCMP. Probably because Rurcump wouldn’t sound quite right. But we do drop the period between the letters.)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Dialog is Tricky

I'm delighted to welcome Doug Lyle to Type M for Murder. D. P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of 16 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

Crime & Science Radio:

Dialog Is Tricky by DP Lyle

Dialogue can indeed be tricky. But, it can also do so much for your story. It can bring the reader more deeply into your fictional world, reveal character, move the story forward, expose thematic elements, and create a realism that allows the reader that “willing suspension of disbelief” so essential to effective story telling. That’s a lot of work. And it means getting dialogue right is essential.

One major problem is that it’s far too easy for authors to use their own voice and not that of the character when writing dialog. This is particularly true in first person narrations because the writer often identifies deeply with first person characters. This is fine IF the character is you, or very similar to you. If not, that’s a different story.

This leads to creating characters that “all sound the same.” In reality, good dialog should need no tags as the words and rhythm of the speech should allow the reader to immediately know who is talking. That’s the ideal, the goal. But that’s not as easy to do as it might seem.

So how do you make each important character distinct? It requires living inside that character. Really getting to know them. Understanding how they think, act, and speak. Like making good chili, this takes time. It can’t be rushed.

Think about when you meet a new friend. You know that person on a fairly superficial level, at first, but maybe you later go to lunch together, and then spend more time doing various activities, vacation together, and gradually you become deeper friends. The person you thought you knew back during that first encounter is now someone else altogether. You know how they think, act, and speak. Can even anticipate what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. You now know them.

Same is true with fiction.

I, and many others, consider Elmore Leonard the master of dialog. If you haven’t read him and you want to write true dialog, you are shortchanging yourself. Each is a textbook on dialog. Many years ago at the now defunct Maui Writers Conference, I met Elmore and had the great pleasure of sitting and chatting with him for an hour or so on two different occasions. Hours I relish to this day. We talked about writing and story telling. I told him that I loved his characters and asked if he did character sketches or anything like that. He said no but that he would spend weeks, sometimes months, coming up with a name and once he had a name he knew the character. That struck me as pure genius. It was so simple, and so true. What he meant was that he lived with these characters in his head—getting to know them—and once he did, he had a name—and he knew them intimately. He knew who they were, how they would act and think, and how they speak.

This taught me two valuable lessons.

First was the importance of names. A name should reflect the character. Who he or she is. I mean, if you look at some of Leonard’s characters, Chili Palmer is not a neurosurgeon, he’s a loan shark. Linda Moon doesn’t sit on the Supreme Court, she’s a lounge singer.

The second lesson was the need for time to truly know any fictional character. A process that doesn’t happen overnight, in either real life or in the world of fiction.

I have always recommended writing first drafts fast and not sweating the small stuff. Don’t edit heavily until you finish. The reason is that your characters will evolve. The character you knew in Chapter 1 is very different from the one you know by Chapter 50. When you go back and edit, you have a better grasp of how that character acts, thinks, and talks. You will say to yourself, “No, she wouldn’t say that.” Happens all the time. More proof of the writing adage: Writing is rewriting. And this rewriting is often where the characters will distinguish themselves.

So relax, take some time, get to know your little imaginary friends and soon you will instinctively know how they speak.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Three Days in Santa Fe

As are my fellow bloggers, I'm still trying to regain my equilibrium. I had planned to fly to Santa Fe last Wednesday to do some research for my next Lizzie Stuart mystery. A friend who had some vacation days left and wanted a getaway came along with me. It says something about our shared state of mind that neither one of us even mentioned the election when we met at the airport on Wednesday morning. In fact, it was Thursday afternoon before we got around to acknowledging what had happened.

But the trip itself was wonderful. I had never been to Santa Fe and by the time I left on Saturday morning, I was ready to move there. 

On the other hand, Lizzie, my protagonist, will be distracted and anxious to get home to Gallagher, Virginia. The disappearance and murder that she has on her mind happened in Gallagher, not Santa Fe. In spite of my own enjoyment of the city, I tried to see it all through Lizzie's eyes.

I also spent some time thinking about what she would actually have the time to see and do on a Thanksgiving visit with her future-in-laws – people she'll be meeting for the first time and who she hopes will like her. But they would suggest that Quinn, Lizzie's fiance, show her around the city. Aside from the question of what would have been open during the Thanksgiving holiday, I also need to know what buildings and businesses were there in November 2004. I read everything I could access before I left, asked questions while I was there, need to dig down and do newspaper research now that I'm back.

Meantime, here are photos from the Santa Fe, November 2012:

Outside a state building

Rotunda dome in capitol with flags on display

Also in the capitol, wonderful leather furniture 
– and an odd sign asking not to put ice in the plants.

Downtown plaza with Native American artists and artisans
selling their work to browsing tourists

I have lots of other photos. I need to sort through what I have in my camera and cell phone and decide which are useful. What would have caught Lizzie's eye and what would she have thought?

I need to make sure the trip to Santa Fe is not an interesting but pointless detour on the journey to solving the murder. But now I have been to Canyon Road and I have a model for the art galley that Quinn's half-sister owns. I've seen the neighborhood where she and her family live. I know more about her husband's work as an archeologist. More important I know how a conversation in Santa Fe will lead to the solution to my mystery back in Gallagher.

It was a good trip and a welcome time-out.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What a Month it Has Been

This has not been the best couple of weeks I have ever lived through, my friends. The first Tuesday in November found me sitting in a hospital waiting room while my husband had a minor operation on his esophagus. Nothing serious, but it did entail a night in the hospital, with yours truly sleeping on a recliner next to his bed, which, as I told my family, was rather like sleeping on a speed bump. Since the operation was throat-related, Don was on antibiotics and a liquid diet for the next ten days. Not fun, especially since he does NOT need to lose weight, and it’s hard to keep the pounds up on soup and Jello. You can only eat so much ice cream. Not that I didn’t try to provide a good example for him.

Then came the second Tuesday in November, election day here in the good old U.S. of A. That very day a friend in Oklahoma called me, feeling very nervous and scared, and I was so encouraging…. It’ll be a rout, I said. Well, it wasn’t a rout, but it was a disaster. I was shocked and miserable, but my husband was devastated. It’s one of the few times that I was more philosophical about the state of humanity than he was. I will say that since that day, we have not watched the news once. I’m sure we will come around after our period of mourning, and fight the good fight as best we can.

After a few days of moping, around rolls last Friday, the 12th. I drag myself out of bed later than usual and am just getting dressed when I hear Don cry out in the living room. I rush in and find him on the couch with his hand on his chest. “My ICD just fired,” he said.

Long story short, he’s had this implanted defibrillator for eight years and it never fired once until then, when it fired six times in a row. He slid over onto his side, eyes wide open, and wouldn’t respond to me. I called 911, couldn’t remember my own phone number, couldn’t tell if Don was breathing, couldn’t understand what the operator was telling me. But by the time the EMTs arrived, he had recovered and sat up like nothing had happened.

Still, he did have a trip to the ER in an ambulance and we spent the bulk of the day sitting around waiting for test results. The cardiologist suspects that the event had to do with the ten days of liquids and antibiotics, and re-adjusted his meds. No shocks since then.

I am writing this post on the third Tuesday in November. Today is my 42nd wedding anniversary, which is odd, since I’m only 42 years old. I have decided that I’m sticking with 42, no matter how many more birthdays I have. Getting old is too damn difficult.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Can fiction save the world?

As the previous posters have said, this has been quite the week. Indeed, quite the year. Brexit, Paris and Calais, Trump... Not to mention the daily tragedies of frantic refugees risking everything to reach Europe's shores. As a Canadian, I have been watching the recent drama of conflict, accusations, and counter-accusations from afar, worrying about all the anger and confusion and fear. As I listen to the bitterness and disbelief on both sides ("How could they?" from the left, and "Sore losers" from the right), I am reminded of a Beatles song: What the world needs now is love, love, love.

Or more accurately, empathy. Because there is precious little of it around right now. People are dividing themselves into us and them. They are crossing their arms, thrusting out their chins, and refusing to listen. Refusing to hear. Worse, they are lashing out, cruelly and vindictively.

How are we ever supposed to reach across the divide if we stand on either shore, hurling insults without ever venturing out onto the bridge?

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to share someone else's feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation". In the majority of people, empathy develops naturally as we grow up, but psychology had focussed a lot of research on what factors influence and strengthen its development. If you're interested, here is one quick summary of their findings.

Empathy increases as we grow older, so that most of us adults are pretty good at reading minds. You can test this concept, and your own skill, by taking this short quiz on reading the mind in the eyes. But there is always room for improvement, and I'd say from the increasingly intolerant behaviour being displayed, we all have serious work to do. Here's a short article on ways even adults can increase their empathy. Not surprisingly, really listening to others and getting to know people different from yourself top the list.

BUT... There is another way that even the most brick-headed person can develop more empathy, and that's where we writers come in. Empathy is all about walking in another person's shoes, about being able to step out of your own skin (in your imagination) and into another's. Research has shown that groups of people vary in their level of empathy and in who they feel empathy for. It's easier to empathize with people who are similar to you than with people who are extremely different (from another culture, another country, even another political viewpoint). Intriguing research is also emerging about the differences between conservatives and liberals, and between extremists and moderates of either stripe, about the difference between men and women, and between the ordinary joe and the very wealthy ... But these are all subjects for a different blog.

This blog is about writing, and one of the fascinating findings is that reading fiction increases empathy. Not only do people who read a lot of fiction score higher on empathy, but even reading a piece of fiction in a psychology lab will increase your empathic reaction in the moments afterwards! Check out a summary of findings here. Despite some faults with methodology, the studies confirm what we writers and readers of fiction intuitively know -- that walking in the shoes of the characters in the book, experiencing their struggles vicariously and trying to make sense of why they act as they do — enhances our understanding of people in the real world as well. Fiction has been called empathy's "flight simulator".

Extrapolating from this, I would guess that the greater the emphasis on character, on subtle differences and changes, and on complexities and layers of motivation, the more powerful the effect would be. That's where mystery fiction comes in. Research found that literary fiction had the greatest effect because of its focus on character, but not all crime fiction is created equal. Many (but not all) of the best-selling thriller variety pays scant attention to character, and many (again, not all) cosies intentionally downplay the pain of conflict. However, I suspect that mystery fiction that reveals complex character, conflicting motive, and blurred boundaries of good and bad will foster empathy better than shoot-'em-up, "good vs. evil" action stories.

So, crime writers, take heart! Writing books that explore the human condition and invite readers to walk in you characters' shoes and think "there but for the grace of God go I," may not make us rich and famous, but they can make a difference.

And readers, in this gift-buying season, consider giving the gift of fiction, and venture past the best-sellers to the back of the store to find those lesser-known books that tell tales of struggle and conflict and the wondrous highs and lows of being human. Tales that really transport you into the world of another. Read about people and situations different from your own. From the safety of your armchair, explore beyond your comfort zone.

Book by book, we can strengthen our understanding of each other and reach across the divides where at the moment all we see is "the other". Not "us".

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

More than politics may change

by Rick Blechta

First of all, sorry about not posting anything last week. My Tuesday (actually, my entire week) got away from me, and though I started the following post, I just never got back to it. This week isn’t much better, but the end is in sight. Plus, I’m not going to miss my spot two weeks in a row!

The political landscape is changing, not only in the US but all over the world. These changes are quite troubling to many of us (Chin up, Charlotte!), but what can we do except live through it and try to make it all work (plus stay vigilant and change whatever we can if we don’t like the way things are going).

Actually, on more than just the political front, our planet has become a much scarier place. If you follow world news extensively, it’s easy to become nearly paralyzed by what you see and hear, and that’s not a good thing.

But cogitating on reality’s dreadfulness, it made me think that fiction may change to compensate. And specifically, how might that affect crime fiction? Here’s my thought and we’ll just have to wait and see if I’ve hit on something or not.

Many of us read crime fiction because we like being drawn into “alternate realities”, meaning the little universe each author has created. If something in the characters, plots or situations resonates with us, we’re more than happy to read (sometimes devour voraciously) an entire series because we enjoy being in the characters’ world. Often our journey is escapist in nature. With the world a scarier place, escape becomes even more attractive, doesn’t it?

Nowhere is escapism more apparent than in “cozy” crime fiction. A good cozy creates a comfortable place to be, quite often far removed from harsh reality. When writing a cozy, the author can indulge in building whatever idealized universe they want. It is inherent in hardboiled crime fiction to portray the world in its harshness, in fact, many hardboiled novels revel in harsh reality. Authors can still “sanitize” things somewhat — not injecting current events into their plots/ignoring things that are going on in the real world, thus creating a somewhat idyllic space for their characters — but the novels’ “realities” will still not be very comforting.

So I have to questions to put to you. First, will more people take to escapist reading as the world darkens, specifically will crime fiction rise higher in popularity? Second, we will see growing strength in the numbers of cozies being published?

Now and then, it would be nice to disappear into a kinder and gentler world, wouldn’t it? More than ever, we need that.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Getting Cosy

I have spent this morning reading the Sunday newspapers as stunned commentators come to grips with the astonishing result of the US election. Like most of them I had certainly figured it wrongly, just as I did the Brexit vote. The world just at the moment seems a very uncertain place.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that recently, here in Britain at least, hygge has become the buzz word. Has it hit America yet? It's a Danish word, pronounced 'hooge' if you sort of flatten the 'o' with an 'eu' sound. More or less. I think. And everybody's doing it – taking a sort of very stylish duvet day.

The word describes the lovely comfortable feeling you have in a warm room with a log fire burning, a soft throw wrapped round you, lots of candles, coffee and cake and a few good friends. You are secure. Safe. Cosy.

And that word 'cosy' brings me back to something I've always struggled with a bit. When I started out writing crime novels I'd never heard the American term 'cosy' applied to them and to be honest I still haven't quite worked out how you decide whether a book is, or isn't, a 'cosy'. I just don't get it.

I think I can confidently recognise 'noir'. Graphic violence, entrails, maggots – definitely noir. Hard-boiled - you have a man come in the door with a gun. Miss Scarlet, in the library with the candlestick - cosy, presumably? But a bit of strangulation, blood, a body long dead and definitely not nice to be near – is this a cosy if the circumstances in which it is found are highly respectable?

A psychological thriller - could this be a cosy if nothing too violent is described but nonetheless it's the sort of book you wouldn't take to bed with you if you were alone in the house on a dark and stormy night? Or what about The Hound of the Baskervilles? I had nightmares for years after I read that at an impressionable age, so not cosy at all, really. But the scenes in Baker Street are distinctly domestic, even if what's in Holmes's pipe isn't actually tobacco.

I'd really like someone to explain the criteria for me. I might want to write one myself. Since more than one person's reaction to the political news on Thursday has been to stay in bed and pull the duvet over their head for comfort, there might be a big rush on torches and reassuring 'cosys' to take in there with them.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sorry—Just Can't Do It

So sorry my Type M blogmates and readers. I started a blog on Monday that was underdeveloped but at least a proper post. It dealt with timing in beginning a new book.

I can't complete that blog today or come up with a new one. Wednesday's blow was too great a shock.

In another two weeks I'm sure I'll come up with some cheery adaptation to the results of this election. But not now. It's just too soon. Too stunning. Like a death in the family, too unexpected.

But I'm determined to move on along with the rest of the country.

God bless America and may there be unexpectedly good results from a decision that is very bewildering to me.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Using advanced readers

Autumn is upon us in New England. It hasn’t “come on little cat feet,” as Carl Sandburg says, but rather appeared and vanished, the foliage season now gone.

This is when I usually enjoy writing a new book, and I’m doing so now, starting a new series, in fact. I’m in the honeymoon period. Everything is fresh –– new characters, new setting, new (and interesting) conflicts. The only real stress I have at this junction is finding time to actually write. I’ve put many hours into the new book to date –– outlining and writing and rewriting the opening; I changed point of view three times (and tense once) before settling on one. Now, I’m off and writing.

Receiving feedback has gotten more important to me over the years. I attended an MFA program, graduating in 1998 from the University of Texas at El Paso. The overall experience was wonderful, the workshop experience, though, upon completion –– similar to most graduate students –– left me longing for nothing but privacy: I was ready to take what I’d been taught and write on my own when I graduated at 27. Now 46, I look for advance readers and have put together a strong stable of trusted confidants.

What I struggle with now is when to share works. How many pages are necessary in order for me to receive feedback I can use? This probably varies from writer to writer –– I can understand why some want to have a work completed before sharing. I, however, work in a Google doc and once I hit 50 pages, just share the doc with my friends, who comment as I go. Come to think of it, I’ve receive feedback even in the conception phase this time around: my agent Ginger Curwen critiqued my outline.

I’m curious to hear from my Type M colleagues and our fellow scribes as to their use of advance readers.

These are the wee hours of Wednesday, Nov. 8, the day after the United States Presidential Election. Donald Trump is now president, and I have the same sensation I did the day after 9/11 –– change is coming.

He has promised it, after all, for the past 18 months.

What changes will America see? What changes, if any, will the publishing industry see?

As a liberal-leaning registered Independent, who plays a conservative in his series (Peyton Cote, after all, is a border patrol agent), there will be additional political fodder for those books. He promises to ratchet-up the fight on ISIS, so the border patrol will be impacted, either financially or through immigration policies.

This weekend, I’m speaking on a panel at the New England Crime Bake. It will be interesting to see fellow writers and gauge their respective levels of satisfaction with the outcome, to hear their predictions of the president-elect’s impact, if any, on our business.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Cover Reveals and Interviews

I’m tickled pink these days. My third book, A Palette for Murder, is available for pre-order this week. Once people start being able to pre-order, things seem more real to me somehow.

This time around I did a cover reveal on Dru’s Book Musings. I’d never done one before, but I know lots of other authors who have. I love the covers of my books so it’s nice to be able to highlight the artwork and, hopefully, get people excited about the book. In my last newsletter, which I admittedly rarely send out, I put in a short interview with Stephanie Savage, the talented artist who creates the covers for my books as well as those for a lot of other Henery Press authors. She designs roughly 12-16 covers a year. It normally takes her 8-12 hours per cover. The shortest one was completed in 5 hours.
The other interesting thing that happened to me recently – I was contacted by a high school student who is doing an independent study project. She’d gotten my name from the Henery Press website and thought I was interesting enough she wanted to interview me. Me, being interviewed for someone’s project!

That may not seem like much to most people, but I was first off, gobsmacked that anyone wanted to ask me questions about my experiences in the publishing industry and was actually interested in hearing what I had to say. I was happy to help her out and I had a very interesting phone conversation with the student. She asked a lot of interesting and insightful questions.

Apparently, most of the authors she interviewed for the project had always wanted to write, most of them continously writing stories from the time they were kids. That’s not me. I wrote stories in grade school and junior high and enjoyed doing those at the time. I mentioned a couple of them in a blog post I wrote way back when I started on Type M. You can read that post here. But, after that, I never thought about becoming a writer until I was in my 40s. Mumble, cough, mumble years ago.

That’s what’s been going on in my world. What’s been going on in yours?

Monday, November 07, 2016

A Message to My American Friends

By Vicki Delany

Hi, dear American friends, readers, colleagues,

Tomorrow you are having a major election. If you haven't already, be sure and go out and vote.

Now, you might say off the bat that you didn't tell me who to vote for, or even to bother going out and doing it, in our federal election of last year.  And that is true.  But the United States is an important country to the rest of us in the world, and perhaps most of all to your two closest neighbours. Your president does, after all, have access to the nuclear button. Plus some effect on the world's largest economy. And there is nothing any of the rest of us can do about our mutual changing climate, if you don't help too.

I am not here to tell you (suggest) to whom (or whoms) you cast your vote, but I am going to link to two sources up here in the Great White North.

(The Globe and Mail is Canada's National Newspaper. Corporate owned, conservative, it endorsed S. Harper and the Conservatives in our last election)

Dear America: Please don’t vote for Donald Trump

The Toronto Star is a left-of-centre paper, one of the few major newspapers who can still say that.

Donald Trump: The unauthorized database of false things

The Star article has been written by Daniel Dale, who's done a heroic job of covering the US election. He his very methodically, and consistently, reported on all the lies that each of the major candidates have said over the course. And, let me say, one candidate has far, far outdone the other in the lying department.  

If you'd like to see what Daniel is reporting, follow him on Twitter at @ddale8

Friday, November 04, 2016

Time and Setting

"Well, let me catch you up. It's now later the same afternoon. . ."

That's what Blanche on The Golden Girls says when Dorothy mentions it's been years since she read a certain slow-moving, long-running comic strip. Time hasn't moved quite as slowly in my Lizzie Stuart series. But it now four year later in a series that began in 2000. The series is now set in 2004.

The first challenge I'm facing is that I've forgotten the details. I'm about to write a book in which Lizzie Stuart and John Quinn, my sleuthing couple, fly off to Santa Fe to spend Thanksgiving with his relatives. This will be the first time Lizzie meets her future in-laws. Only thing, I've forgotten the bits and pieces of their lives from earlier books. I know Quinn's half-sister owns an art gallery. I don't know if I gave her husband an occupation. I don't remember if I mentioned the ages of their children. I know Quinn's mother and step-father are coming from Oklahoma. I don't remember what the illness was that had the step-father hospitalized in the third book. All those pesky little details that I've forgotten. And I haven't been keeping a series "bible" with information about the minor characters because my editor did that so well. But I won't have the same editor or publisher for this new book. I am going to have to go back and look for these details.

Actually, I may re-read the earlier books. I have never done that – read all of the books in the series. I was afraid of an encounter with passages that would make me cringe. But much has changed in both Lizzie's life and my own since we began sixteen years ago. At this moment in her life when she is only two months away from her wedding day at the age of forty, we should look back at how she got there. Since she is not going to do that in the midst of the awful situation that I'm about to put her in, I should do it for her.

Also, re-reading could help me with the warm-up exercise that I always have to do with a new book. I've been writing about another character, Hannah McCabe, for the past few years. During those years, I wrote one short story about Lizzie. I was thrilled when that story was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but I didn't immediately return to the series. A reader asked if the short story was a set-up for the next book. I said "no". But as I began writing the new book, it occurs to me that one of the characters in the short story was in Paris during World War II, and Lizzie and Quinn are supposed to go to Paris on their honeymoon. The short story was complete in itself. A passing episode in Lizzie's life as the director of the Institute for the Study of Southern Crime and Justice, but there is that tantalizing mention of Paris. Who knows what . . . but getting back to the book I'm working on now. First, Lizzie has to meet her future in-laws.

I've never been to Santa Fe. Reminding myself that research trips are tax-deductible, I'm going to New Mexico later this month. A whirlwind three-day trip to try to imagine what Lizzie would have seen when she was there in November 2004. Last night I had dinner with a wonderful woman whose son lives in Santa Fe. She brought along a magazine, a map, and tips about "must sees" in downtown Santa Fe. While we were talking about where Quinn's sister and her family might live, she texted her son for more information. The pal who is coming along with me on my research trip had her travel guide to Santa Fe on hand and we discussed short trips Lizzie and Quinn might take – keeping in mind that they need to spend time with his family because that's why they are there. Thanksgiving dinner, football, conversations – except Lizzie is distracted by that missing woman back home in Gallagher, Virginia. . . the woman that she last saw changing a tire on the side of the road.

Because I'm description-challenged I need to go to the place I'm trying to describe. Yes, even if that means going to Santa Fe in this book and to Paris for the next. Those of the hardships of being a writer. But I hope that going to Santa Fe will allow me to see the city through Lizzie's eyes. She is a first-person narrator. Reading a guidebook and watching YouTube videos will not suffice. I will read books about Santa Fe history because Lizzie is a crime historian and she will read those books. I'll do research on art and culture in Santa Fe because Lizzie will want to be able to have an informed conversation with her future sister-in-law, the art gallery owner.

As I gear up for my trip to Santa Fe, I'm reading Mary Buckham's A Writer's Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings (2015). I plucked this book off the shelf at a local bookstore. I brought it home and put it on top of a pile of other books that I hoped to read at some future date. Last week when I was thinking about Santa Fe and what I needed to know, I happened to spot Buckham's book. Buckham emphasizes the importance of getting inside your character's head when it comes to describing the setting. Whether it's a city street or her own bedroom, what a character focuses on should reflect both personality and mental state. Buckham analyzes passages from well-known writers to demonstrate how to use setting to strengthen depiction of character.

Lizzie once complained about New Orleans – didn't love the place and couldn't get into it – but she was there to find her long-lost mother and things were not going well. I want to go deeper with my settings, make every description work harder. That means I need to get out of my author's head when I visit Santa Fe for the first time and get into Lizzie's. I hadn't intended to write those earlier scenes in the book yet – the before-the-trip scenes when she encounters the woman who is later missing – but it seems I must. When we arrive in Santa Fe, Lizzie needs to be worried and anxious . . . and we need to be back in 2004.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Plotting Tricks, or Turning Points and Snowflakes

I'm in the midst of facilitating a ten-week writing workshop with a bunch of retired professors from the Emeritus College at Arizona State University. This has been an experience, I must say. I've taught many a workshop and short course in my time, but mostly they have been for beginners, aspiring writers, or even for experienced authors who are looking to refresh their skills.

These emeritus professors are quite the group. The youngest is probably between sixty and sixty-five, and the oldest is at least eighty. They are all scientists. I have two physicists, the former chair of the math department, an astrophysicist, and a geologist. They are all authors of multiple books, essays, studies, articles. These are people who know their way around a piece of scholarly writing. I feared at first that I'd have to deal with some big egos, and I must admit that none of these people suffer from low self-esteem. Yet all of them want to learn how to write effective fiction and are eager to hear what I have to say. And they all want homework at the end of each class!

There are only three classes to go. The professors have shared several stories and exercises by now, and really, all of them are quite good. They know their grammar and spelling, they all have an impressive vocabulary, and they all know how to take criticism. I'm wondering if I would be having such a positive experience if the class were full of retired English and literature professors. (I'm not wondering too hard. The answer is not on your life.)

Last week we discussed plotting. I always think long and hard before I try to tell anyone how to effectively plot a novel, because the truth is there is no hard and fast rule. However, it is helpful to know a few tricks to help you keep your story straight, and perhaps help you find your way when your story gets bogged down and you can't figure out how to find your way out of the swamp.

I came up with several plotting theories and methods to share. None of which I really use, but it's nice to have a few arrows in your quiver.

The late sci-fi author Algis Budrys suggests a seven point story structure.
It has:
  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result.
Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey is a handy way to structure a story. (Think of Star Wars)
  1. The hero is confronted with a challenge,
  2. rejects it,
  3. but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it.
  4. He travels on the road of trials,
  5. gathering powers and allies, and
  6. confronts evil—only to be defeated.
  7. This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which
  8. the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to
  9. confront evil again and be victorious.
  10. Finally, the student becomes the teacher.
Then there's this novelist named Randy Ingermanson who came up with something called the Snowflake Method, which goes something like this:
  1. Write a one-sentence description of the novel.
  2. Expand to a paragraph of description of the novel, including one sentence each for the setup, the main conflict, the obstacles, and the wrap-up.
  3. A one-page summary sheet for each main character that reviews that character’s goals, conflict, motivation, and summarizes the story from his/her POV
  4. Create a brief plot synopsis using the sentences in step two and expanding each to its own paragraph
  5. Write about the story from the point of view of various characters- one page for main character and half a page for minor characters.
  6. Expand the one page synopsis to four pages.
  7. Develop expanded character charts and histories
  8. Map out each individual scene of the novel on a spreadsheet using one line per scene.
  9. Write the first draft of the novel.
The scientists loved that one, but I'd be bored with the story before I even started writing.

I went over the three-act structure and the five-act structure, and my favorite plotting guideline, three disasters and an ending.

What I actually do after all this time in order to keep myself on track: I write a sentence about each scene on a 3x5 card, noting place, characters, and time. Then I arrange and rearrange them to see which scene sequence works out best.

Or, sometimes, I just wander around lost until I see a glimmer of light, then follow that light out of the forest.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

So you’ve got to do a reading

by Rick Blechta

This Saturday is book launching day for Vicki and me. During our event, we’re going to do some short readings. This is my only BSP for this post because this week I want to talk about readings and share my thoughts on how to do them successfully.

I have a memory of discussing this topic in a post years ago, but I couldn’t find it, so I have no idea where I may be repeating myself and where I’m sharing fresh ideas. I’ve been to many launches and library readings over the years, and more often than I’d like to say, I’ve been disappointed by how poorly the readings were done.

First and foremost, the person doing the reading must understand this: you’re acting, just as if you were in a play. The reason I say this is that one must be aware of voice projection and reading speed. Both things are crucial.

Most people don’t know how to project their voice. You’re not having a conversation with a few people standing around with you. You’re speaking to the farthest corner of the room. Fill up your lungs so you’ll have enough breath support.

Most people also speak too quickly. Doing a reading, like acting onstage, requires slower, more deliberate speaking. Pauses should be added so that everything doesn’t run together. Pauses can also inject more drama into the passage. Give people a chance to imagine what you’re describing, see what you’re seeing.

Eye contact with your audience is very important. It helps draw them in. Don’t stick your head into the book and never look up. As a matter of fact, don’t even use your book. I’m sure you have an electronic version of the ms. Reformat that with larger type and greater line space so it’s easy to read, print it out and read from that. Nowhere is there a rule that says an author must read directly from his or her book and nothing else.

When reading dialogue (probably the most effective thing to feature in a reading) at least try to make some differentiation in your voice between the characters speaking. You have visual cues in written dialogue that makes it clear who’s speaking when. Audiences don’t have that luxury. Many times at readings, I’ve lost that crucial thread and consequently struggled to understand what is actually being said by whom. Pauses as voices change also helps.

You don’t have to read from the opening of the book. The best thing to read is something dramatic that you think you handled very well. It helps if you have to do minimum setting up of the passage by way of explanation, too.

Leave your audience hanging.

You don’t need to read everything you wrote in a particular passage. What I mean here is leave out any explanation or descriptive passage that is unnecessary to make the chosen passage understandable.

But here’s the most important tip: practise the section you’re going to read! I cannot stress this enough. It will help you keep stumbles to a minimum, help you to get awkward parts under control, help you control your nerves (if you’re subject to nervousness), and if you tape your practising, you will instantly be alerted to just how you’re doing and be able to correct it. Here I go back to my initial statement: basically, you’re acting when you read.

The reward will be that more people will feel inclined to buy your book. Case in point: the conductor of the Toronto Symphony, Peter Oundjian, read from my novel Cemetery of the Nameless for a celebrity event a number of years ago. Peter had obviously worked on the passage he selected because he not only read brilliantly (following many of the techniques I’ve outlined above), but he even did accents! One character in the passage was Viennese, one from Brooklyn and the last also American but fluent in Welsh (her parents were Welsh). He handled them all brilliantly.

I wanted to hire him on the spot to do all my readings in the future, but he declined because he already had a pretty good day gig. I have never heard a better reading, and it became clear that I had to up my game or be one of those authors who says, “And now I’m going to read something from my new book,” as those in attendance are thinking to themselves, “I hope he keeps it short.”

Don’t be that person!