Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Your online personality

by Rick Blechta

I was driving home from an appointment this morning, heard something really intriguing on the radio (CBC) and decided to toss this week’s topic for my new idea.

I was driving and trying to pay the requisite attention to the road, so I didn’t get some pretty important details about the discussion, but it was the basic idea that had intrigued me from the get-go:

How close is your online personality to who you actually are?

I immediately thought of myself. I post on Facebook and very occasionally tweet something. As well, I’m on two blogs and a website, so you could say my online presence is pretty big compared to the average person.

This forced me to look at how truthful what I have put up actually is. I don’t want to lose credibility with people so I can’t really lie about things (“I’m close personal friends with Donald Trump.”), but even someone like me can easily get seduced into a little “embellishment” here and there. Who doesn’t want to improve themselves a bit? I try not to do it, but it does creep in. Revisiting my online presence helps me to expunge this little indulgences.

But taken on its most basic level, you can be anything on the internet. You don’t even have to exist! And this is where it gets really interesting to someone whose business is to write about crime — real or imagined.

They are out there you know: constructs of people’s imaginations. I wrote a few months ago about an author whose works had been stolen by another author who put the stolen goods to work as her creations, hoping no one would notice. That is a form of what I'm talking about. And she almost got away with it.

In online profiles, we can easily change small details about our lives and accomplishments, embellish who we are, with little fear of getting caught except by those who know us intimately. Even then, they might simply talk to us “offline” and so not out us to the online community.

Taken further, you can make up trips, people you meet, or how much money you make. You can make-up a weekend trip to Paris. And the smaller your circle of friends, the easier it is to get away with it.

Now let’s take this idea to the creepy level: you can be a complete fabrication.

That’s where my wicked little mind took me in about two steps. And that’s fertile ground upon which to develop a hell of a plot for a thriller.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Judging a Book by Its Cover

By Vicki Delany

We talk a lot about book covers here at Type M for Murder because Rick Blechta is a cover designer (and an extremely good one, if you’re looking to have some work done). He knows what’s good and perhaps more importantly what is not good.

But aside from being good, or not, a cover needs most of all to be appropriate. The cover is the contract the author extends to the reader. The cover should reveal the mood of the book, something of the setting maybe, certainly the genre or subgenre it falls in.

Think of a photograph of the US capital lit up at night, or Kremlin square in the rain. You’re expecting a thriller, something dark and world-threatening. Now think cats and books and comfortable arm chairs, maybe a cup of tea. What you are expecting is a cozy. And if serial killers break out, the reader is going to be darn disappointed. Maybe even angry.

Simple choice of colour can be a strong clue. Baby blue means “women’s fiction” (whatever that is) and light purple or violet is romance.

Most publishing houses know this. Unfortunately a lot of graphic artists, who are not book cover designers, do not. And a lot of self-published books are being put out there with totally inappropriate covers.

I’m not going to insult anyone by giving you examples of what I mean, but I am sure you’ve seen plenty.

Last time I told you about two totally different books I have coming out in the next few weeks. Have a look at the cover images, and you’ll realize that you don’t need much of description from me.

Blood and Belonging is set in a tropical paradise. A luxury hotel sitting on what’s been voted many times as the world’s best beach. But the colours chosen for this cover give you another side to the Caribbean paradise.

Here is what I consider perhaps to be the best book cover of all time. Talk about establishing mood and setting. It's just about perfect.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Getting Out of Your Own Way, or Inspiration on Its Own Terms

I have spent the past two months doing the requisite publicity campaign for The Return of the Raven Mocker, my ninth Alafair Tucker mystery. This entails guest blogging and running hither and yon making personal appearances. Early in my career, I spent a lot of money on out-of-state book tours and conferences, which don’t seem to produce a return commensurate with my outlay. However, it can’t hurt to get yourself out there, right?

For the past few years I’ve been forced by circumstance to curtail my out-of-state travel, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. So I flit about in Arizona, which is the best I can do right now. I had a short respite last week, when I was able to stay home and do nothing but write on my tenth novel for five days in a row. It was great. The rest of this month and the next I’m back on the road.

I wish I had the money, time, and freedom to travel for my own pleasure, like I used to. Europe was my playground when I was younger. Now I’d give anything to be able to travel to India and Vietnam like a certain couple of blogmates of mine, one of whom wrote about her adventures yesterday (see below). Barbara’s experience of having an entire plot line spring forth from her overtired brain is so familiar. Anything that screws with your thinking processes is really good for getting out of your own way. In my experience, if I start trying to figure story lines out as though they are math problems, I end up like B’rer Bear and the tar baby in the briar patch, all stuck and unable to find my way out.

I have had some of my best ideas while dropping off to sleep or coming slowly awake in the morning. Or when water is falling on me or otherwise making me wet—in the rain, in the shower, in the swimming pool. I’ve heard other artists say the same. What is the mystical property of water? Water muses? Ozone? It’s best not to try and analyze it, for success can’t really be duplicated. Even if you do feel like you have to wear your lucky socks every time you sit down to write.

Genius comes when it will. I remember a story that Lawrence Olivier told about a particular performance he did of Lear that was so brilliant that the audience was left gasping. After the play was over, he went to his dressing room and trashed the place, because he had no idea how he had done it and knew he’d never be able to do it again.

I’m still waiting for that to happen to me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Inspiration on the road

I was standing in a roadside restaurant on the side of a chaotic, dusty highway between Delhi and Jaipur yesterday when an alert popped up on my iPhone. Type M blog due tomorrow. I am on a personal holiday and had planned to set aside all thoughts of writing for three weeks. However, in the back of my mind was a nagging wish to write a fourth in my Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads series, and I had been waiting for inspiration to strike, as it often does, out of a random moment.

Such a moment had occurred the night before, and I decided it might be worth sharing in today's blog.

India is ten and a half hours ahead of Ottawa as well as a fourteen hour plane ride. My body clock had to stand itself on its head along with adjusting to a new setting, food, street noises like horns and barking dogs that went on all night. Thus there I was, when I should have been exhausted and crashing into sleep, lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling, my mind in overdrive. I did the usual – willpower, deep breathing, counting sheep – but to no avail. And I thought I've got loads of time with nothing to do but think. And imagine. And Cedric came to mind. Maybe toying with plot ideas, flat on my back in the dark, unable to make noise or turn on the light because of my roommate, will put me to sleep.

Surprisingly, after months of drawing a blank on interesting possible story lines, one came willingly out of that over-tired mind. I thought I'd get an opening or maybe a couple of scenes before sleep took over, but two hours later, at 4 am, I had sketched out almost an entire plot line, characters and conflicts, and a possible killer twist.

Given the hour and my fried brain, I didn't trust myself to remember it in the morning, so I rummaged as quietly as I could in my back for paper and pen, sneaked into the bathroom, turned on the light, and sat in the corner on a little stool to jot it down.

The result? The first bare bones outline of my new Cedric mystery. Maybe at my leisure on this holiday, the story will grow and deepen. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest for a writer's tired muse. So stay tuned for more news on this front. For now, I'm going to bed and I hope that this time, that muse leaves me alone to sleep.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shifting sands in the Post-Truth Era

by Rick Blechta

“Oh, look—he must be from one of those fake-news outlets.”
We are now living in the Post-Truth Era.

What is going on all around us, in the “legacy media” (the old “standard” broadcast networks and newspapers), the newer online media (websites with a journalistic mandate), and of course, social media makes it hard to keep track of what is real and what has been made up.

It’s not just a phenomenon in the USA. Fake-news* is all around us. The spread of “alternative facts” is mostly facilitated in social media. I’ll bet if you’re online either with Twitter or Facebook or some other aggregating site, you’ve unwittingly spread false news yourself. I know that I have — much to my embarrassment.

It’s easy to have it happen. You read an article, sometimes from what you would consider a reliable source. You’re shocked and decide that you should help spread the story further. You actually think you’re performing a public service. I don’t care what you’re political persuasion is, either. The “alternative fact-sters” can make their work pretty darn convincing a lot of the times.

Now we get to crime fiction. Whether you’re a producer of it or a consumer, there exists an unspoken covenant between us all. Unless you want to risk the ire of readers, writers have to “play fair”. In a nutshell, this means a writer can’t magically reveal a bad guy from a closet at the end of a story: “Yes, I did it, but you didn’t know a thing about me until my existence was revealed in the last chapter!” Frankly, I doubt a manuscript with this sort of “dodge” in it would get by any reader — professional or otherwise — long before it would ever see print. And if it did, I can foresee rioting in the crime writing community streets. Writers have to be trusted by readers. If readers have no chance of solving the mystery as the story winds through to its conclusion, the whole construct collapses. We all know this.

“Post-Truth” media, politicians, anybody who produces or spreads falsehoods are no longer playing by the rules. If you can’t trust what you read, you can always do research, but now you have to suspect even those sources. We are getting perilously close to the point where a thinking person will not be able to trust anything unless they experience it personally. That is a really terrible thing.

Why can’t the real world play like we denizens of the crime writing world do in our made-up one?

*As for what “fake-news” actually means, I offer this article based on the work of the journalist who actually coined the term (not what the term has morphed into): https://www.thestar.com/opinion/public_editor/2017/02/17/the-facts-about-fake-news-public-editor.html

Monday, February 20, 2017

Jekyll and Hyde

This April Edinburgh is hosting the Crime Writers Association annual conference and as one of the organising committee I've had to be very hard at work making arrangements for this to be positively the best conference ever.

The city itself is a great advantage, of course, and having Ian Rankin and Alexander MacCall Smith to welcome the delegates certainly helps. But we thought long and hard over our USP. It was our chair, Aly Monroe – a recent visitor to Type M – who came up with the theme: The Jekyll and Hyde City.

Like most cities, Edinburgh has two faces: the City of Culture, respectable and even prim, the place where little fingers are crooked above the tea-cup handle and the inhabitants of the poshest district are said to believe that when someone mentions 'sex' they're talking about what the coalman brings the coal in, and then the rough and violent housing schemes that were the background for Irvine Welsh's hugely successful novel Trainspotting. (The film was ranked one of the best British films of all time and its sequel is coming out just now).

So talks from the creator of Rebus, the cynical, hard-boiled detective, and the chronicler of 44 Scotland Street and other demurely middle-class tales, will provide a perfect introduction to our double-natured city.

There is, of course, another reason why it is a particularly apposite theme for Edinburgh. The tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has never been out of print since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it and numerous films and plays have been based on it, but the background to the novel is perhaps not quite so well known.

One of Edinburgh's most notorious citizens in the eighteenth century was William Brodie. A respectable cabinet-maker and the deacon of a trade guild by day, he was a gambler (allegedly with loaded dice), a libertine and the leader of a gang of burglars by night. He was eventually caught and hanged, it is said, on a gibbet of his own devising.

It was a story well-known to Robert Louis Stevenson as he grew up in the Georgian New Town and it is believed that what he described to his wife as 'a fine bogey tale' was based on the life of Deacon Brodie. And, in a sinister little twist, in his childhood home there was a wardrobe that had been made by the dead man himself.

When Edwin, Lucy and Susan stepped through the wardrobe they found Narnia. But what, I wonder, did the young Louis find when he stepped through his?

There's a lot more work to do before the conference but we're having a fun time doing it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Year of the Rooster

2017 is the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac. There is something about this that appeals to me. My sign is the Dragon and this year the prediction is very optimistic. So much so that I ran right out and bought this glorious gaudy ceramic rooster to set on the windowsill in my kitchen.

2016 was a very tumultuous year. Good and bad and good and bad and all of it wildly unpredictable.

I worried about my editor's reception of Fractured Families. As it turned out she liked it more than any book I've written. To her (and my) relief, it received excellent reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and Library Journal. It's way my darkest mystery so I'm still surprised. It will be released March 17th.

The horoscope warned me that my success would depend on hard work. When does it not? Luck counts, but not for much.

Here's what's true (at least for me)

There is no substitute for writing everyday. Even if it's only one page. That practice starts a mental process like setting yeast a-working. Plots, people, bubble away in the background even when you're tending to other matters.

No one really understands the writing process. Don't try. Just do it. Writing is best learned by writing and by going to other writer's books for instruction. Study how they get people in and out of a room. Why have you remembered a book for years? Why are these characters memorable? What makes you stop reading half-way through?

Write a manuscript twice before you show it to anyone. You know darn good and well what's wrong with your book when you've finished. Go through it again and fix it. Fix the plot, the characters, the grammar, and then, and only then, throw it to the wolves. Then pay attention to what they say.

This is short list. I'll save more for another blog. But it all boils down to the same thing. There is no substitute for self-discipline and putting your shoulder to the wheel.

I'm going to stop admiring my rooster and head for my not-so-lovely computer.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Story Arcs and Trump

Last week, I was asked to create a list of talking points for a television producer to use while pitching a would-be Peyton Cote TV show. The gist was to offer a season-long story arc.

Not an easy task for me. For a few different reasons. First off, I don’t watch a lot of TV. (I’ve read a few scripts then watched the shows to study the craft of scriptwriting.) Second, I’m not big on outlines. When I write a novel, I write a page or two of character sketches before I begin, mostly coming up with motivations and backstories. Sometimes, I write what amounts to the description you’d read on the dust jacket. Then I go –– and follow the story where it leads.

One thing I do have going for me is that I write series fiction. Always. (Even my one stand-alone, This One Day, has a protagonist I’d like to return to.) This speaks to my love of the dynamics between characters and the relationships in the books and also to how and why the crime is always secondary for me.

So thinking in terms of a multi-episode arc and how a larger mystery looms in the background of each episode was a fun and interesting challenge.

It makes me wonder, though, would that work in book-length fiction? Could you have an ongoing unanswered mystery in the background of each book, while characters solve another crime? Ed McBain’s Deaf Man never gets caught in the 87th Precinct series. He never outright succeeds, but he never gets caught. So maybe it’s possible that readers would buy in.

I’d love to hear my Type M colleagues’ and our readers’ thoughts on this.


Food for Thought: Trump

One thing on my mind often of late is this question: What does a Trump presidency mean to publishing? Lots of articles are being written about it. Here’s one. While many are calling this a time of anti-intellectualism and thus a threat to publishing, most believe this is a time when literature is needed more than ever, particularly works celebrating diverse voices. Perhaps this will be a time when inde presses are celebrated more than ever. Houses like Akashic, which has a rich and diverse list.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Creating Interesting Characters

I’m in the beginning stages of the next book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creating characters. As a writer, I want to create characters that are memorable enough that readers will keep coming back to my books. But what makes a character interesting or memorable?

I’ve read a lot of writing books that talk about creating well-rounded and interesting characters. In one of them (don’t ask me which one, I’ve read a bazillion of them), the author talked about giving a character an “obsession” like loving chocolate ice cream. They also noted that whatever interest you give them, it should be there for some reason. e.g. she loves ice cream because she has fond memories of eating it with her mother when she was growing up.

The shredder
Most people have some sort of obsession. It might be as small as loving ice cream or it might creep into the realm of stalkerville. I’ve talked before on Type M about my love for the Great British Bake Off and may also have alluded to a slight obsession with Celtic Thunder. Even our cats had their own little quirks. The oldest loved shredding paper with her claws. Any piece of paper that landed on the floor was fair game. Leave paper too long and she’d methodically rip it to shreds. The other cat loved tearing down towels from the bathroom towel racks. He would systematically move around the house, from bathroom to bathroom, reach up and bring down every single towel with his claws. He wasn’t satisfied until they were all on the floor. Then he’d just walk away. He didn’t do anything with them. For some reason, he wanted them all on the floor. After awhile, I just left them there and he eventually grew out of that obsession. I adored my cats. Their quirks made them more interesting to me.

The towel puller
The same goes with characters in stories, I think. As an added bonus, you can use those obsessions for and against them. In an episode of the TV show “Rosewood”, the detective knew someone was lying because of her love of a particular brand of pretzel. Because of it, she knew exactly where in the local mall the store was located, which told her the person she was talking to was lying. On the “Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon loves trains. Besides showing a different side of him, it’s also been fun for the writers to work with. I can also see a character using another character’s obsession against them, perhaps to lure them into a trap.

So, Type M readers, what makes a character stand out to you? Do you find it interesting when a writer gives them an obsession?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Considering the aftermath of murder

by Rick Blechta

My post this week sort of riffs off Vicki’s post from yesterday.

Every crime writing author has to face how they deal with violence and death, because let’s face it, that’s what our books are about at their roots. I won’t go over the same ground that Vicki has already covered so ably about her personal choices as a writer when her stories face and describe violent death.

I want to cover how we writers deal with something further down the line: the effects of violence and death on those unfortunate souls who are the “collateral damage” when someone’s life is taken: the families, the loved ones, friends, colleagues. Those effects can be horrible and long-lasting as well as wide-ranging. They can completely ruin lives. It takes a very strong person to put it all behind them and carry on.

In a previous post here on Type M, I touched on this. It must be pretty far back because I can’t find it in the past 4 years of our little blog. (Sorry!)

I have some personal experience with this. A high school friend had to face something beyond comprehension when his son was tried and convicted because of his involvement in the brutal death of a woman in her home. I’m not going to go into any detail about the actual crime, but instead how the son’s actions affected his parents.

Their support for him was unwavering, and since this was a crime that garnered national attention, the media presence was intense. All they said (stripped down) was that they loved their son and felt horrible about the death of the woman. I cannot imagine having to run the gauntlet of reporters shouting questions at them as they arrived at and left the courthouse every day of the trial. Knowing my friend (a kind and gentle person), it must have been unbearable. (I’m sure equally so for his wife.) I was so heartbroken for them. They didn’t deserve any of this.

A lot of crime novels can get pretty violent descriptively. These are ones I usually put down. I’m not squeamish, but I just feel that violence can be done in the setting of a novel without choreographing it exhaustively. It’s the difference between seeing the “results” of an attack as Hitchcock did in Psycho or actually watching each knife stroke in full gory detail — as it most likely would be shot in today’s world. Which is better? Which is stronger? I think you know where my choice lies. Knowing about murder is bad enough. My imagination is very good and I don’t appreciate having my face rubbed in it.

But we writers don’t often delve into the aftermath of violence such as I described in my personal example above, primarily because our plots are focused on the catching of the criminal(s) responsible, but we should at least think about the personal aftermath as we work through our plots, even if we don’t describe it. It can only make our other writing stronger.

Deliberate murder is an ultra-violent act, and we should be very respectful in our treatment of it. It’s not a plaything for us to use in a careless or frivolous manner. It is a tool, certainly, that must be used for us to tell our story, but we need to be mindful of its potency as a depraved human act.

We owe that to the dead — but also to those unfortunate souls left behind, sucked into a vortex not of their own making.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Light vs Dark: Writing in different sub-genres

By Vicki Delany

Crime novels fill the entire spectrum. Everything from the lightest of cozies to the darkest of noir.

Most writers stick to the style that they like, and that they know they are good in. Some readers do also but many like to try new things.

I like to mix up the moods and styles I write in. I’ve written psychological suspense (Scare the Light Away), modern Gothic thrillers (More than Sorrow) historical fiction (the Klondike Gold Rush series), gritty police procedurals (The Constable Molly Smith series) and cozies (The Lighthouse Library series by Eva Gates and the Year Round Christmas mysteries).

I’m now pretty much established writing cozies, and will continue to do so mainly because I enjoy writing them. They’re light and funny, and they take me into a good place, rather than spending a lot of time in a dark and frightening world.

I’m glad I’ve written about dark things though: it’s important that we all (readers as well as writers) get out of our comfort zones.

When I say dark and frightening, I am not talking about graphic violence. If anything, I believe that in the world today we are in danger of becoming immune to the effect of violence by the plethora of it, in books and certainly in movies and TV. It’s the aftermath of the crime or the situation that can be the deepest and the darkest. How people, – victim, family and relatives, police, even the perpetrator – react is what interests me.

I’m not interested in writing or in reading or in watching torture porn, thank you very much.

I’m very lucky to be able to continue mixing up styles and sub-genres.  Case in point: I have two new books coming out soon. Elementary, She Read is a light, funny (I hope) cozy set in a Sherlock Holmes bookshop and it’s been enormous fun trying to write a Sherlock-ish character. It will be out on March 14. Then in April, the Rapid Reads imprint of Orca Books is publishing Blood and Belonging, the third Sgt Ray Robertson novella. These books are most certainly not light. They’ve dealt with some dark topics (again, nothing graphic on the page. It’s not needed and can be counter-productive). In Blood and Belonging, Ray, an RCMP officer working for the United Nations in developing and dangerous countries, is on vacation in Turks and Caicos. Needless to say, his peace and tranquility is interrupted.

I’d be interested to know what sub-genre our Type M readers like. Do you have a preference or do you love them all?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

This weekend's guest blogger: Lisa Black

Type M would like to welcome back novelist Lisa Black for a second visit!

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Visit her website: www.lisa-black.com and follow her on Twitter: @LisaBlackAuthor


by Lisa Black

Research is a wonderful thing, except when a pesky fact gets in the way of something you’ve already written. Ever set a heartbreaking scene among the weeping willows at the city park and then, just to gather added atmosphere for some last finishing touches you decide to actually visit the park only to find that the trees have been cleared out for a children’s wading pool? And they had been birch trees anyway? And the park is right next to an off-ramp so the hero’s fervent proposal would have been drowned out by engine noises?

Sometimes reality sucks.

Yes, you’re writing fiction, so you could erase this picture of the real park and recolor it in your preferred images. But we write mysteries, hard gritty things in which gunshots don’t smell like cordite and heroines aren’t stupid enough to wander around dark basements unarmed and DNA results aren’t back in an hour. We want the details to be right.

I’ve run into this more than once.

In Takeover I had planned a bank robbery to set up the rest of the plot, then on a whim decided to set it at the gorgeous Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Cleveland. However, Federal Reserves don’t function like your corner S&L and besides, the ground floor of the Fed had been turned into a tourist attraction. I kept it at the Federal Reserve and used all my erroneous preconceptions in the story.

I had planned to end Takeover with the criminals faking their own death by driving a car off the end of East 9th street into the cold waters of Lake Erie. I lived there, right? I knew the street came to an end at the pier that used to have the fabulous seafood restaurant at the end of it. I dragged my always-supportive mother along and we did a little photo shoot at the Cleveland Public Library and the Fed, checked out their lobby displays, and as an afterthought drove to the end of East 9th. Which now terminates in a pretty park area rimmed with large, concrete—you couldn’t even call them posts. More like rotund bollards. Any car trying to reach the water would end up with a badly crumpled front end and quite dry.

In Unpunished, my last murder would have been dramatic and quite bloody, a body hacked to pieces in the printing press of the Cleveland daily paper. I envisioned huge blades clamping down to cut through several reams of paper, and what that would do to a body—eek. But when kindly staff members gave me a tour of the Fort Myers News-Press building, I discovered that newspaper are cut, a sheet at a time, by a round blade smaller than what Domino’s uses to slice its pies. A person tossed into that machinery would get no more than a boo-boo. Oh, if the rollers caught an arm he might have a few crushed bones, but still nothing that would kill him. I stood among the clacking mechanisms and stared in horror and the completely unhorrible tableau.

But, the printing supervisor comforted me, there’s this method…different means, but able to produce an equally grisly corpse. I looked. I listened. And I rewrote the end of the book.

Things usually work out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Visual Aid

Yesterday was a snow day here in Albany. My driveway was covered and the streets (according to local news) were treacherous. I slept in and then spent the rest of the day working. Around mid-afternoon, I was deep into what I was reading, completely focused, when I heard a bump in the kitchen. I got up to see what had happened. Harry, my 16 pound cat, had managed to leap from the counter top to the top of the refrigerator. Forty-six perpendicular inches according to my tape measure -- twice his 21 inch length. I was dismayed because (a) he has taken in the past couple of months to prowling across and perching on my kitchen counters. I've been wiping them down with disinfectant cloths before preparing every meal, and (b) the jump he had made was the equivalent of a roof-top leap by a movie action hero. It scared me to think of what would have happened if he hadn't nailed his landing (hampered by an ornamental mug, a bunch of bananas, and the container of oat grass that had motivated his leap). But I sure wished I had seen him do that because when I adopted him two years ago, he was chubby even for a Maine Coon and preferred to stay close to the ground. His diet is working. I would also like to have seen that leap so that I could describe it in a book or short story one day.

I am a visual writer. I need to see the scenes play out in my head like a movie. I also write best when I have seen what it is that I'm describing. Last week I discovered a wonderful new visual aid --

Last week was not the first time that I'd used Pinterest. I opened an account three years ago when I wanted to do a photo essay of Albany, New York  locations (the setting for my Hannah McCabe police procedurals). Since posting the photographs, I haven't used my account. Until last week.

Last week, a speaker visiting UAlbany mentioned how powerful the use of a vision board had been in staying focused on his goals. I've flirted with vision boards before, but never really completed one. This time, I decided to make it easier by giving myself access on all my devices. Didn't work. Fortunately, the website I had signed up for offered a 60-day-money-back guarantee.

That was when I thought of Pinterest -- except I didn't want to have my vision board on display. It turns out -- I must have skipped the tutorial when I set up my account -- it's possible to make a Pinterest page "secret" and designate people who are allowed access. That solved my problem. But when I was about to start selecting images for my vision board about life and career goals, it occurred to me that Pinterest would be perfect for visualizing my books.

I'm now using it for both the nonfiction book about dress, appearance and criminal justice. It's really helpful to be able to "pin" both images of the clothing (colonial era to present) and the memory joggers about the cultural themes that I want to include. I'm doing it chapter by chapter.

I've also set up a page for my 1939 historical thriller. The images that I'm pinning (searching by keywords) come with page links. I now have 240 items related to that year, people, settings, and events. Some of the pins that I've pulled are linked to YouTube music or videos. I'm really excited about the music because I'd thought of using a song for each chapter and now I can incorporate that into my research and plotting.

I'm sure some of you are already using Pinterest for marketing. You may be way ahead of me when it comes to using Pinterest for your writing. But it you haven't tried this other use, I recommend it.

And Harry just leaped from counter top to refrigerator again, and I missed it. Maybe I need to set up a camera to catch him in motion. Or, move that oat grass in case his feline agility is rusty.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Whither Is Fled...

…the visionary dream?
William Wordsworth asked that question. Nowadays he’d say “Where has the imaginative idea gone?”

William Wordsworth

Donis here today. I love my blogmates’ previous observations on the way the English language is changing, and how we are losing or changing the meaning of so many many perfectly good words. I’m sorry about the loss of “whither” and “whence”, at least in American English. So much more concise than “where are you coming from” or “where are you going”? I once read an essay by Mark Twain in which he complained that no one seemed to know how to use “whither” or “whence” correctly, so I suppose those words have been on life support for a hundred years, anyway.

Anyone who is enamored of words, which most writers are, knows what it’s like to try and find that perfect word to convey the subtle shade of meaning you want.  My first drafts are filled with blank spaces, which I leave because even though I can think of one hundred nouns/verbs/descriptors that would be perfectly 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 failure for not having adequately communicated with the reader.

Subtle meaning is only part of what a writer strives for with the perfect word.  Sometimes the poetry of the sentence, the way it sounds, can only be served by a particular word.  In my current manuscript, I originally wrote a narrative from the POV of one character, but decided later that it would be better to have a different character experience this 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 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 manipulate language is like* learning to manipulate the keys of a piano.  Language is our instrument, and if we don’t practice, study, experiment, and play with it, as I’ve said many a time, we might end up writing Chopsticks instead of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Confronting that vast empty space

Hah! It worked. Barbara here, and actually on time for my Wednesday Type M blog post. Two weeks ago I posted that I was always forgetting because I had a very casual relationship with the calendar and the days of the week, so I had vowed to put an alert into my electronic calendar. The result? Here I am.

I might add that I am also looking for any excuse to avoid my current writing project. I have not yet reached the "cleaning the refrigerator" stage, but that might yet come. Writing first drafts is incredibly hard work, especially when you are staring out over that vast expanse of emptiness, knowing you have to fill it with roughly 90,000 words, and knowing a deadline hovers overhead, ready to crow in your ear or peck at your heels.

The first in the Amanda Doucette series
As part of the original contract for this novel, signed over two years ago, I had to dream up a title and "synopsis" for the book, along with those for the two previous books in the contract. At the time, that third book seemed awfully far away, and every writer knows a synopsis for a hypothetical book three years out usually bears little resemblance to the book that eventually gets written. Better ideas come along, or the idea, hastily dashed off, does not stand up under closer scrutiny. Furthermore, I am mostly a fly by the seat of my pants writer who finds outlines tedious and confining and who prefers to leap in and see where things go.

So here I am, with the two previous books in the Amanda Doucette series written – the first released in last September and the second due out this coming September – and running out of excuses to confront the third book. I have a title, PRISONERS OF HOPE, that is not likely to change and I know vaguely what theme I want to explore and probably who will get killed to kick things off, but Ive been keeping my options open in case better ideas come along in the writing.

About a month ago I leaped into the opening scene and wrote forward for about forty pages before hitting a wall. I did not know where this story was going, I didn't know what the characters should do next or why anyone should care. I have three main characters to play with (and a dog, but she doesn't get to tell her own story), which is one reason the pantser approach is such a challenge. One of the tricks I devised for unlocking a stalled story is to check what one of the other characters is up to. So I bravely soldiered on with my second character, until he too hit a wall. I fussed and fretted, took long walks, cleaned the house (well, sort of), and finally realized I had to brainstorm ahead. In other words, sketch out a dreaded outline, at least to get me out of this dead-end into which I had stumbled.

Georgian Bay, the setting of Prisoners of Hope
As soon as I started looking ahead and applied myself to the overall picture, I realized I needed to boot one character out of the story, at least temporarily. Her presence was clogging up the scenes and dialogue between the two more important characters through the first forty pages. Secondly, I changed my mind three times on who needed to die, all in the interests of generating juicy suspense and creating lots of questions. Then I brainstormed the next twenty scenes in rapid succession, ending up with an outline of what will likely happen in the next hundred or so pages. That is all I need for now. By page 150, I should be well into the story and lots of characters and subplots will be milling around, providing fuel for my imagination for the next 100 pages or more.

This morning I printed out my outline and wrote the first two scenes in it. Everything went fairly smoothly and what a relief it was to have something to remind me where I was going and why. I'm not saying I will ever learn to love outlines or even that I will actually follow this one if a better idea flies into view, but at least I am moving forward in the maze with some confidence that I am not in a dead-end.

I will keep you posted on how it all works out for me. How do other pantsers feel when they confront that vast empty space and realize they are lost?

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

False words/false meanings

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s post from yesterday may have opened a can of worms — at least it has with me.

One of my greatest joys in writing (in English) is the chance to play with language. We ink-stained wretches can easily become obsessed with finding just the correct word to use that will bring a delicious nuance of meaning to our scribblings. In short, English has a tremendously expressive vocabulary, it’s a shame not to make use of it, right?

So I am completely onboard with Aline’s feelings that too often words and phrases are misused — sometimes to the point where those meanings can change due to ill-usage. Aline pointed out some examples. Here’s my favourite bugbear at the moment: fulsome.

Fulsome used to mean (in Middle English) that something was abundant to the point of arousing disgust (to paraphrase). My memory of it has to do with odors, as in something smelling truly disgusting (“a fulsome reek”). So basically, fulsome was not what you would call a “positive” word.

More recently, though, fulsome is being used to mean “copious or abundant” (as in “the press secretary was fulsome in his praise of the president’s political agenda”). Strictly speaking that’s an incorrect usage. To my mind, it somehow diminishes the word to use it in a positive — not to mention incorrect — way. To quote The American Heritage Dictionary, “Thus it may be best to avoid fulsome except where the context unambiguously conveys the idea that the praise in question is excessive or fawning.”

There are any number of other interesting examples of changes in usage of words over time. Indulge yourself and read these articles: “11 Words With Meanings That Have Changed Drastically Over Time” and “25 Words Whose Meanings Have Changed Drastically Over Time” to start with.

To finish off, I made several changes in my word choice to construct the sentences above. In the second paragraph, the second sentence contained right instead of correct. Both words would have worked, but I felt correct was a bit more “graceful” than going with right and is certainly more expressive of the way I feel.

And that is a major reason I enjoy writing and, especially, revising what I write.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Caring About Language

I'm reluctant to admit that I'm a pedant. I'm all in favour of colourful additions to the English language. I'm quite relaxed about casual speech, with a particular fondness for American slang. 'Badmouth' for instance: it's neat, it's economical, it fills a gap.

Perhaps I should put my hand up to having a bit of a thing about the correct use of 'I' and 'me'. And I get irritated by the misuse of 'may' and 'might' - favourite example: 'The Queen may have married several times before she wed Prince Philip' You're suggesting that it's possible that she did and we just didn't notice? If in doubt, might is always right.

But when it comes to losing a useful word because people don't make the effort to learn the proper meaning, my inner pedant comes roaring into battle. At the moment, my particular fury is directed at the popular attack on the splendid word 'disinterested.' There is a perfectly good word, 'uninterested', to describe lack of interest, but increasingly 'disinterested' is used with that meaning. So what can I use when I want to say that someone is not influenced by consideration of personal advantage?

And then there's 'begs the question'. It's on every interviewer's lips when grilling some unfortunate politician, meaning that this is a question that is begging for an answer. But it doesn't mean that. It means to carry on a false argument that ducks away from answering, but that usage is long dead now.

Perhaps it's because English has such an enormous vocabulary that we're so careless about it. There are around 200,000 words in common use; French, for instance, uses only about half that number and they actually have a body devoted to guarding the purity of the language, the Academie Francaise. They have a thankless task as the French themselves seize on 'le weekend', 'le parking', 'le best-seller' with great enthusiasm, but there is still great pride in the integrity of the language.

Recently, the shocking suggestion was made that the circumflex had no place in modern French. Accents are a nuisance when it comes to typing on a computer and this one has no effect on pronunciation. But the French, as has been their habit since the French revolution, went to the (literary) barricades. The cry went up, 'Je suis circonflexe!' and the idea was dropped, at least for the moment.

What impresses me is that they cared. I admire that. And perhaps pedantry is just caring about the uses of language, and if it is I'll admit to being one after all.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Guest Blogger: Brendan DuBois

Brendan DuBois has published more than 150 short stories in such magazines as Playboy, Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as well as in numerous original short fiction anthologies.

He has twice won the Shamus Award for Best Short Story of the Year from the Private Eye Writers of America and three times been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his short fiction. His stories have appeared in
Best American Noir Stories of the Century, and Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. He is the author of 20 Lewis Cole novels. published by St. Martin’s Press, and is currently co-authoring works with New York Times bestselling author James Patterson. He is also a one-time "Jeopardy!" game show champion, and is also a winner of the game show "The Chase."

The Challenge and Art of the Series Character


Brendan DuBois

A few months ago, my tenth novel in my Lewis Cole series – STORM CELL – was published, and it struck me that the first book in the series, DEAD SAND, was first released in 1994.

Wow, 1994!

Imagine all that’s changed in the world since that time. Back when I was working on DEAD SAND (which turned out to be my first published novel), the Soviet Union had expired just a few years earlier, a new era of peace and prosperity was predicted for the world due to something called “the end of history”, and MTV still played music videos. No cellphones, no GPS, home computers barely coming into the market.

So much has changed in the world since DEAD SAND was published, and that’s part of the challenge of writing a series character, for the author has to think, how much should my main character change as well?

It sounds simple but it’s not. For example, my lead character, Lewis Cole, was 35 years old when DEAD SAND was published in 1994. Now, 23 years later… is he really 58? Um, no, I really can’t see him running around getting into fistfights, doing stakeouts, and putting his life at risk in the pursuit of justice. I think that’s one of the reasons why Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series still remain in the 1980s; that way, she doesn’t have to worry about aging her heroine or stretching her timeline to places that don’t make sense.

And then there’s one of the masters, Robert Parker and his series character Spenser. Good ol’ Spenser. In his first appearance, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT, he’s listed as 35 years old (hey, the same age as my man Lewis Cole in his debut), and also was a Korean War veteran. Fair enough. But Parker’s Spenser novels – before the very able and talented Ace Atkins took over the series – ran up to SIXKILL, published in 2010, meaning that our tough-guy, weight-lifting, two-fisted hero would have been… 75 years old.


So what’s an author to do?

Pay attention, but don’t freak out.

Meaning what?

Meaning you should write your novels in their own universe, but try not to connect them to the here and now. For example, I tried to keep politics and current events out of my novels as they came out, year after year. For if I had my Lewis Cole talking about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton in a novel published in 1999, then it instantly dates it for readers in 2005, or 2010, or today. Remember that the passions and politics of this year doesn’t necessarily translate into anything of interest to readers down the road as you – hopefully! – continue publishing.

But that doesn’t mean some things shouldn’t change. If you’re fortunate enough to write a series character, that character should grow and be different with each novel. You can’t have a character remain frozen in amber, unchanging, year after year.

In reviewing DEAD SAND, I see how Lewis Cole then is much different than the Lewis Cole of “now”, whatever “now” means. Lewis is a former Department of Defense research analyst who is the sole survivor of his section – everyone else was killed in a training accident – and to keep his mouth shut, he is pensioned off to a beach community in New Hampshire, working a columnist at a Boston-based magazine called Shoreline.

But he has an urge to make things right, to seek justice, to right wrongs, and as DEAD SAND opens, it’s only been less than a year since he left government service. He’s tired, he’s feeling very guilty at being a survivor, and has troubles sleeping at night and making relationships. He’s also edgy and slightly paranoid about his new life.

Yet in book ten, he’s more relaxed, has grown to love his new community, and he has deep friends and relationships. He has suffered along the way, he’s experienced loss and wounds, but he’s definitely grown. And the same has occurred with his friends and supporting cast members that have appeared in each of the novels.

That’s the most important part, in working with a series character. To keep the reader’s interest, your character has to change, has to grow, has to suffer and move on.

Oh, and how old is Lewis for real?

According to the timeline of the novels and publishing history, he “should” be 58 years of age. But that’s only if you count each novel as a “year.”

Which I don’t.

When asked by readers, I say that each novel takes place within a six month period, meaning that instead of being 58, he’s probably in his mid-40s. Which makes the both of us happy.

Wait, you might say. How can that be? How can each novel just end up as a six-month period of time?

Just because.

Remember, you’re the author.

You can do anything you want.

So long as it makes sense.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Making Do

Last Friday I drove back to Kansas to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Solomon Valley Highway 24 Alliance. It was nothing short of miraculous that the weather was unseasonably pleasant both in Colorado and Kansas.

I don't mind long drives. I listen to audiobooks written by writers I haven't had an opportunity to read. Flying is impossible when I take an assortment of books along. I always drive when I can make my destination in a day.

The growth of the Solomon Valley Alliance was very impressive. Once again I'm stunned by the energy and accomplishments of small rural communities. Budget cuts have about brought Kansas to its knees. Everything is do-it-yourself. We make the most of what we have. We make do.

Much to my delight I was awarded a special merit plaque for writing Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas. Additionally, I received an exquisite miniture copper windmill.

When people ask me where I live, I always say Kansas. My kids look at me funny because I've been in Colorado eight years now. But here's my story and I'm sticking to it: Colorado was once part of Kansas Territory. I don't care what these ignorant people call this state. I would never leave Kansas.

The next day I went to the Kansas Salt Mines. What an amazing trip. And yes, it has everything to do with my next mystery. The mines are 650 feet underground and the humidity and temperature are constant year round. The mines are where the negatives of Ben Hur, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and countless other films are kept. There are thousands of government documents stored in the mines.

There's nothing like on-the-spot research. The mines are not at all like I had imagined from on-line reading. There are so many tunnels, the ceilings are lower, and I still can't understand how the shape could be so perfectly rectangular.

The Salt Mines are a natural wonder. But in the make-the-most-of-what-you-have category, a wonderful lady who helped me with my book signing introduced herself as "the ball of twine in Cawker City."

Oh, you've never heard of this? Kansas has the world's largest ball of twine. People come from all over the world to see it. She said recently there was even a vistor from Mongolia.

But you would have to live there to understand this brand of humor. And who would have thought the ball of twine would become a leading tourist attraction.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Goal setting and Gremlins

I believe in worrying about what I can control. Some days this is easier said than done. But by and large, this has served me well as a parent, husband, educator. And writer.

By nature, I’m a goal setter. Short-term goals are very important to me. I try to accomplish something on the writing front most days. Be that writing a paragraph, rereading and revising a chapter, or writing five pages of fresh copy. The result is usually a book a year.

Some writers make it sound easy. At Crime Bake this fall, several writers said they write three pages a day no matter what. That gives them a draft of a novel in six months. Like clockwork. Hmmm. My writing, no matter how detailed my outline is, is often interrupted by problems the manuscript poses –– the need to stop and research; a plot move that forces the revision of a previous section; even the need to stop and think for several days and go reread what I’ve written to see where the train has come off the tracks. Outline or not, my process usually feels like E.L. Doctorow described writing: “. . . like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It’s usually scary, but I always survive the trip.

When the process is stressful, goal setting is important. I can control finishing 30 pages this month. And 30 more next month. Thirty pages a month is an attainable goal. It needs to be because the gremlin never leaves my shoulder.

He’s always whispering doubts into my ear, asking where I get off thinking I can write a good novel. There are times in the process of writing every novel where the book gets hard and I am suddenly the fourth-grade version of my dyslexic self struggling to find the confidence to continue. So focusing on the here and now, and controlling what I can is a way to tune the gremlin out.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Mystery on the Menu

Last Saturday I planned on cutting down the roses in our back yard (it’s that time of year here in Southern California), but instead I found myself appearing along with 14 other authors at Mystery on The Menu at the Cerritos Library. One of the scheduled authors dropped out so they asked me to fill in, which I was happy to do.

Presented by the Friends of the Cerritos Library, it ran from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Besides me, participating authors were: Jill Amadio, Connie Archer/Connie Di Marco, Mike Befeler, Marcia Clark, Dianne Emley, Betty Hechtman, Naomi Hirahara, Linda O. Johnston, D.P. Lyle, M.D., Christopher J. Lynch, Paul D. Marks, David Putnam, Nancy Cole Silverman, and Patricia Smiley. I was happy to be included among so many wonderful authors.

This was the 13th year of this sold out event. I’d never been to an event like this before so I didn’t really know what to expect. There were 3 panels lasting about 35 minutes with each author serving on one panel. The first panel was held prior to lunch, the two other panels after. The ballroom was full of enthusiastic mystery readers, 18 tables worth! The time just flew by. It was wonderful to see and connect with so many people who enjoy mysteries as much as I do. The Cerritos Library is also quite beautiful, listed as number 28 in Best Value Schools 50 most beautiful libraries in the world.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos so I don’t have any to share.

P.S. Yesterday was official release day for A Palette for Murder, the third book in the Aurora Anderson Mystery series.