Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Pedagogy of Novel Writing

In the field of curriculum development, there is a methodology called Backward Design. In principle, backward design calls for an educator to establish end goals for students and then create lessons that will – by the end of the course – provide them with the necessary scaffolding to achieve those goals.

As an educator, I was doing this before I was made aware of the term. This always made perfect sense to me. I think that’s because writers work this way, even those who don't outline. Writers, by nature, see relationships and arcs, in characters and stories.

I'm 150 pages into a book I began last summer. This one is a break from Peyton Cote and the Border Patrol novels. It's set at a New England boarding school, a setting I am somewhat familiar with.

The 150-page mark means I've entered the deep end of the pool. There's no turning back now. With this book, as with all the others I've written, at the midway point I am well beyond trepidation. The mystery is defined, and so are the characters.

I have read and reread the manuscript. Notes in the margins of my Google document say things like "bring this character back" and "who told him that?" I’m solving the mystery along with my sleuth now. This stage of the writing is fun.

My outline for this book is only a few pages long (four, I think; haven't glanced at it in months). No matter, as I write and read through the draft, I'm spotting connections and gaps that need to be tied together to achieve the end result. (Barring an unforeseen plot shift – which actually has happened in the last 50 pages of one previous book – I know who the perpetrator is and why the crime was committed.)

So what does this have to do with Backward Design?

To a writer, the pedagogy is common sense. I know where my protagonist (the students) must go and what his intellectual and physical strengths and weaknesses are (students' academic skill level) and therefore what challenges the storyline (the curriculum) will present to my sleuth. It’s my job as writer (and teacher) to guide my character to the finish line.

Writing a novel is about seeing connections between people and tasks. John Irving, I once read somewhere, compared writing a novel to creating a spider web. Teachers, I believe, see these connections naturally.

Some of us even geek-out on it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Left Coast Crime - Honolulu Havoc

I’m back from Left Coast Crime in Hawaii where I had a great time. Met new people and reconnected with some I hadn’t seen in a while. Even though the beach beckoned, I managed to skip out on very little of the conference.

The first day of the conference, I participated in the author speed dating event. Fewer people attended this one than the one at Malice where the tables are always filled. Still, it was a good experience. One really nice difference between this one and Malice—at LCC there were two rest tables instead of one. Even with the two breaks, I was exhausted at the end and those listening were, too. It’s really hard to give or listen to pitches for two hours straight.

The panel I participated in was on Saturday afternoon: Thievery: Arts, Relics and Gems. Lots of good discussion and interesting questions from the audience made the time really speed by. Here’s a photo of our group (from L to R) Cathy Ace, Dale Berry, Julie Chase (who moderated), Betty Hechtman and me.

The awards banquet was fun to attend, particularly since I knew several people who were nominated. I was at Ellen Byron and Leslie Karst’s table. Ellen won the Lefty award for Best Humorous Mystery for her book, “Body on the Bayou”.

I also had a bit of fan-girl moment when I met Susanna Calkins. She writes a series I really enjoy set in 17th-century England featuring lady’s maid Lucy Campion. Susanna was very nice and fun to talk to.

Foodwise, we tried taro rolls (nice purple color with a texture similar to potato rolls) and Japanese cheesecake. Also called souffle cheesecake, it’s the up and coming thing in the U.S. It’s very fluffy and less sweet than ones here in the U.S. It reminded me some of a cheesecake recipe I got from a college roommate where the eggs are separated and the whites whisked before being incorporated into the mix. Sure enough, that seems to be the hallmark of Japanese cheesecake.

Uncle Tetsu’s has two locations in the U.S., Hawaii and at the Santa Anita Mall here in California. Not terribly close to where I am, but within driving distance.

I had so much fun, I’ve already signed up for LCC 2018 in Reno, NV, Crime on the Comstock.

Monday, March 27, 2017

How Much is Too Much?

By Vicki Delany

No, not sex. See Donis and Barbara above.

But food.

It sometimes seems that in cozy mysteries there is no such thing as too much food description.  Many of them even come with recipes to match those delicious, enticing meals or treats consumed in the course of the book.

My own cozies don’t have recipes, but they do have a reasonable amount of eating.  My characters like to eat; I like to eat; and food provides an opportunity for atmosphere and description.  
In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, it’s no coincidence that the business next door is Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room. Some of the action takes place in the tea room kitchen as scones, sandwiches, and fruit tarts are prepared, or in the dining room over same.  With a ‘steaming’ cup of tea as well.

Which, btw, I have sworn off. I am so tired of books in which every hot drink is described as ‘steaming’  (every time the character lifts the mug) that I swore I would never use it.

Come to think of it even my non-cozies books at least describe the meals people might be sitting down to. Food can be a clue to a character’s character.  In the Constable Moly Smith series Sgt. John Winters takes his coffee black, no sugar.  Molly Smith doesn’t drink coffee. She likes a hot chocolate with plenty of whipped cream in the winter, and a cup of hot tea in the summer.

Not a steaming cup, mind you.

But, like everything in life, it’s possible to use food too much. There are certainly books in which the details of every single meal threatens to drown out the action or character development.  I am thinking of one very popular non-cozy series in which I finally said, out loud, just get on with it.
If you can have too much, can you have not enough?

And this is what promoted me to write about this today.  I have been reading My Brilliant Friend by Ellena Ferrante for my book club (I had to really, really struggle to get though it). The book is set in Naples in the 1950s and is about the lives of two young girls.

There is not one description of food. Not one. Once in a while the girls will go for a pizza with their friends. And that’s it.  At one point, they go to a restaurant for the first time in their lives. This is a very big deal, and they are nervous because they are worried about how much it’s going to cost.  

What did everyone order?  I haven’t a clue, because it wasn’t even mentioned.  Did what they had taste good?  I don’t know because we weren’t told.

What about back at home? Not a peep.  Lots of lines like, “I made breakfast,” to which I was screaming, “And what did you make for breakfast!”

I would have loved to have known what a lower class family in Napes had to eat.  

The final scene is at a wedding.  A big reception with the entire neighbourhood in their best clothes, fancy tables, dancing. Did they have food at the wedding?

I don’t know. She didn’t tell us if they ate, much less what they ate.

Out of all my criticism of that book, that's the point that stands out for me. In not describing food, Ferrante didn't fully describe the lives and times of her characters. 

There, I fixed it for her. 

Image result for pasta images

Saturday, March 25, 2017

En español, con ganas

Today I'll be giving a talk at the Denver Public Library, Escribiendo parte de nuestra historia con el autor Mario Acevedo. What makes this presentation especially noteworthy is that I was asked to give it in Spanish, no duh, given the title. While I am more or less conversant in Spanish, preparing for this talk filled me with trepidation. Like many other immigrants, the language skills my family brought to this country have deteriorated over the generations. The first generation is fully literate, the second generation (me) much less so, and by the third generation we speak English only. As a young child my first language was Spanish, which we spoke at home. But then you go to public school, are immersed in English, and at that point the vocabulary in the other language stops growing. As you are assimilated in American culture the relevance of the mother culture gets pushed aside. (Up to a point. No one mistakes me for being anything other than Mexican.) Of course, people can blame the school system for this but there was nothing that prevented me from taking the initiative at keeping my Spanish language skills sharp. So I used this recent opportunity to brush up on my español. I just finished reading--in Spanish--Cuban mystery writer Leonardo Padura's intriguing Paisaje de Otoño. As a writer, I choose my words carefully--a challenge enough for me in English--and now I have to do it in Spanish. It's more than simply using Google to translate my address, their software is useful, but it's far from perfect. I also used another website, Front Door, which is more comprehensive and accurate though not as convenient. My ace-in-the-hole is a childhood friend who is a retired ESL teacher and he tutored me through the process. Those of you who are fluent in another language are aware of the subtle shifts in meaning as you translate from English and back again. And then there are phrases that if translated directly lose their meaning or there might not be a literal translation. For example, "soft porn" translates into "porno blando," as in "bland porn," not a bad twist on words. I wondered if there was direct translation of "navel-gazing" and there was! Ombliguismo. "Unwholesome" (we're talking about my books) translates into a rather cool-sounding "moralmente malsano." In Spanish, you don't trip over your words, you "swallow" them (tragar).

So I was going to play on that by asking the audience to "swallow" shots of tequila every time I "swallowed" a word. My friend said, do that and your audience will be drunk before you get a minute into your talk. Salud!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Body in Motion

On Tuesday night, I had trouble sleeping. I tossed and turned and wanted to throw something at the alarm when it went off. But I had an appointment -- with a physical therapist. My doctor asked if I'd like to see one after she concluded that the occasional sharp pain I was having around my neck and shoulders could be related to fact that I spend most of my working days at a computer. She suggested that a therapist might do an evaluation and give me some exercises to do.

The therapist did her evaluation and noted that I had limited range of motion in my neck before experiencing pain and that there was a problem with the distance between my shoulder blades. I nodded and explained my bad habit of sitting too much at the computer, even though I use my adjustable standing desk when I work at school. But I have two monitors on that desk, and looking back-and-forth between them counts as "repetitive motion". And at home, I tend to work a lot at my dining room table on my lap top. Wrong position for arms, too much looking down. Even more when I read a book with my head down while slouching in a chair. The physical therapist mentioned that spending hours not moving from a sitting position can be as bad as smoking.

I heard all this and still expected to walk out with exercises to do and come back in three months. Instead, the therapist went off to get a large heating pad and a device with electrodes. She wrapped my neck in the heating pad, put the electrodes on the back of my neck and left me with a magazine. The heating pad to reduce inflammation felt wonderful, so did the pulsing from the electrodes. When the session was over, she came back with the exercises that she wanted me to start doing. And the news that she wanted me to come in twice a week. But the problem should be better soon if I work on my bad habits. Set an alarm and get up and move every hour. Watch my posture. Position my computer properly. Do the exercises.

Actually, I already knew I've been engaging in body abuse. That was why I requested an adjustable  desk at work. But I hadn't allowed myself to think too much about how that might be counteracted by sitting for hours at home, carrying around a shoulder bag that weighs at least ten pounds, and trying to make one trip from garage to house with two grocery bags and a 24-count case of cat food.

Thinking about writing and the body reminded me of a book that is somewhere on my shelf -- diet and exercise for writers. I know it's somewhere, but I haven't found it yet. I did come across Stephen King's On Writing. If you've read his memoir, you'll recall that he is candid about his former drinking problem that he justified at the time with "the Hemingway Defense" (that writers are sensitive, but real men don't show their sensitivities, instead they drink). About his life now, King observes that having a healthy body and a stable relationship (his marriage) enhances his writing. And his passion for writing contributes to his health and his marriage. King has a schedule, writing in the morning and the afternoon when necessary, but reserving evenings and weekends for his family and relaxation.

We all know, writing can be a pain in the neck, the back, the legs, and the posterior. Writing can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, and weight gain. We get eye strain from writing. Too much time alone or the stress of a deadline can make us grouchy and give us insomnia. Knowing when to move our bodies -- to stand up and step away from the computer -- is essential.

I'm going to do better. I don't have the time to go to therapy two times a week, so I will sit up straight and get up when the alarm goes off and pretend I'm my cat, Harry, who wakes up from a sound sleep to turn around and stretch. Zumba. Interval walking. Will do. Yoga. Meditation. Will try.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

In the Weeds, or Keeping the Reader Interested Through the Middle of Your Novel

I, Donis, was fascinated by Barbara’s entry, below, on writing about sex. How much is enough, how much is too much? When do you cross the line and offend your reader? Myself, I usually skip over the graphic sex scenes, mainly because they tend to bore me. There are only two people in the world whose sex life interests me at all—mine and my husband’s. As for the rest of you, enjoy yourselves but leave me out of it.

I’m working on the the middle part of my WIP right now. The beginning flowed right out of me. I knew exactly what I wanted to say to set up the novel. I have a great idea for an ending, if I can pull it off. But getting from here to there isn’t as easy as I hoped. I know which direction I’m going, but I seem to have veered off the road a little and am finding myself a little bit lost in the weeds. Long ago I learned that one way to keep the middle part of your book interesting and not get bogged down is to have at least one interesting side story going. And as long as they are interesting and add depth to the novel, I don’t even mind two or three side stories. You just need to keep people reading. Maybe I need a sex scene…

The only problem with that idea is that graphic sex really wouldn’t fit in this particular series about a married mother and grandmother in 1919. My long time readers would definitely be surprised, to say the least. Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true. My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about in my current series. In 1910s Oklahoma, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century would find unsavory in the extreme – casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children. Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store? In 1919, it would be expected. Language, too. Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye. And I don’t mean just epithets, either. My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because farm people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them. Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place? Very, very carefully, let me tell you.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Will she or won't she, and other questions about sex

Barbara here. Sex is the theme for today. Or rather the do's and don'ts of writing sex scenes. The reason for this is that I am currently trying to write a sex scene in PRISONERS OF HOPE, the third book in the Amanda Doucette series, and have found myself dithering and evading and resorting to the time-honoured "dot dot dot".

I have not faced this challenge much before because in both my previous series, sex never seemed relevant. Inspector Green is married, and the old mantra of "each scene needs to advance the story in some way" seems to preclude married sex, unless it prevents the detective from answering a crucial phone call or getting someplace important. I suspect that technique would seem contrived enough that readers would yell boo-oo. Similarly, in my Rapid Reads short novel series, poor country handyman Cedric O'Toole has been too romantically inept to make it that far.

But Amanda Doucette is a different matter. She's smart, worldly, single, and thirty-five. In the series, there are two eligible men vying for her attention. In a book club discussion last fall about the first book in the series, FIRE IN THE STARS, the members (all women) said I should have let the poor woman have a sex life. Amanda might have been keen, but being aware of the perils of rushing into a romantic entanglement too soon in a series, I had been holding out. But now that I am writing Book #3, perhaps it is time. That's when I realized it was harder than it looked.

For one thing, a writer suddenly realizes they have readers. Like their mom, their kids, and even grandkids. And friends and colleagues who might imagine we really live like this. In the interests of helping me grapple with this problem of writing sex in crime fiction, a couple of my friends sent me a link to a timely article on the subject, which helped to get me thinking. Check it out here.

Many factors influence the decision of will he/she or won't she, how much detail, what kind of detail, etc. First of all, the will she or won't she? I suspect female characters, like women in real life, are held to more exacting standards and their moral integrity judged accordingly. Male characters seem to be able to get away with lots of bad behaviour – being falling-down drunk in the gutter, not coming home for days, cheating on partners in "a momentary weakness", breaking the law in the interests of the greater good, to name a few. But let a female character forget to feed the dog, and someone will call her on it.  So part of an author's decision to let her female character have sex revolves around how this will be reflected in her character. If you're creating a raunchy, "bad girl", "no holds barred" character, she can have hot sex with whomever, whenever, wherever she wants. But Amanda is not that kind of character. She's passionate and adventurous, but she has a strong moral compass. She believes in helping people and doing the right thing. If she's going to sleep with someone, there has to be some depth of feeling and sense of commitment behind it.

So far so good; I could relate to that. But how to relate to the sexual feelings and romantic experiences of a character when there's a thirty-five years gap in years and cultural evolution between us? I was young in the sixties, which may have been the era of free love and the pill, but still just one step out of Victorian repression. No one even swore in books or in the movies, let alone showed a little flesh. Amanda would have been exposed to much more freedom, openness, and frank pressure. Plus I had never been a single thirty-five year-old woman navigating the landscape of dating and sex. At thirty-five I'd been married fourteen years, had two kids, car pools, and a full-time job.

Luckily, we writers have vivid imaginations. I've never actually murdered anyone either, but imagination (and stories from friends and family in that age group) can take you pretty far. And I suspect that some things don't change. Whether the feelings and experiences I dream up for Amanda bear any resemblance to a real woman's world is open for debate, however.

Point of view is another really interesting minefield in the handling of sex scenes. A scene written from a male character's point of view will focus on the feelings and experiences that character is having, what turns him on, what actions he takes. A scene written from a woman's point of view will, or at least should, describe her body's reaction, her thoughts and fantasies, what turns her on. I think it's very hard to write accurately across the gender divide. I've almost never read a sex scene written by a man that I found erotic, because it is focussed on what turns him on and not what turns a woman on. Even if the writer is trying to describe a woman's experience, he usually gets it wrong. Female writers probably do equally poorly trying to get inside a man's head.

But it gets even more complicated than that, and I'll have more to say about point of view later. For now, suffice to say I am still in safe territory, because I was going to be female writing about female.

But now we are down to the nitty gritty. How to describe the sex, how graphic to be, how poetic and metaphorical. Again this is partly influenced by the style of the book and the effect you want. Raw and shocking? Subtle and romantic? I rarely go in for "do's and don'ts" in writing, but I will throw in some cautionary notes here. In every scene, a writer is going for effect. In a sex scene, you hope to capture the reader and sweep them along on the journey so that they are immersed and experience it as vividly as possible. Anything that trips them up and pulls them out of the story will ruin this journey.

Metaphors and similes and euphemistic language can be killers. It takes a very skilled writer to hit exactly the right note with a metaphor or simile. Bad sex scenes are replete with images of fountains, geysers, fireworks, rocket ships, and other hilariously clumsy attempts at poetry. And once the reader laughs, all magic is lost.

Graphic detail can be an equal magic killer. First off, as you're reading about a particularly spectacular position, you might privately think "ow," or "how is that even possible?" In the article above, the writer makes reference to sex in a "disabled toilet" and I was immediately wondering how does that work, how do they fit, and how do they know it's disabled? A gush of cold water certainly would cross my mind. Magic killer.

And this leads me to the biggest hazard about writing sex scenes. The more graphic you are in your description of who does what to whom, where, and with what, the more likely you are to trip someone's "ew" wire. In the article cited above, the author's rule of thumb is if it turns you on while you're writing it, it will probably turn the reader on too. I disagree. We are not all turned on by the same things. Each of us has unique sexual triggers that come from our sexual orientation, our formative sexual experiences, and our partner's skills. And we have unique turn-offs. A three-some in a poster bed with handcuffs may drive some readers wild, but you've lost me at the gate.

So at the end of all this soul-searching, I've come full circle to that first rule of good writing. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes a gentle allusion or two is all that is needed to allow the reader to use their own imagination to fill in the scene with their own details. Like a good artist, more can be achieved with minimal brush strokes than with a flurry of minute detail. There are some universals in sexual arousal. A longing gaze, a tilt of the head, a touch of the finger. Maybe a caress or two.

And then dot dot dot.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Authors: the importance of knowing your business

by Rick Blechta

I have written at length on Type M about the difference between the job of “writer” and “author”. Yeah, those thoughts are very much my view of the two, and you might well not agree with them, but please hear me out. I’m not going to rattle that cage very much in this week’s post, anyway.

A few years back I did a very rash thing. Toronto was being considered to host the 2017 Bouchercon and I went to the meeting (held at the end of the Cleveland Bouchercon in 2012). What happened next I may live to regret. I said I would be willing to do the convention program book. Now payment is coming due and the sheer amount of work involved is daunting in the extreme.

Anyway, I’m currently dealing with processing author photos to accompany the brief bios that form a review of the authors in attendance. Here’s where I didn’t think through my commitment when I said, “I’ll do the programme!” At this point over 600 authors will be in Toronto next fall. Each should have a nice photo in the programme, right? That means dealing with those photos.

(When is he going to get to the writers vs authors part?)

With my professional designer’s hat on, I have to say that 20% of the author photos I’ve received have been (to put it bluntly) appalling: awful photos, too small photos and even ones that are quite blurred.

It seems to me that if you want to be taken seriously as a published author, first off, you should have a professionally done photo that can be used for situations just such as this. Yeah, your husband may have taken a great photo of you on your last holiday in Cancun, but is it up to professional standards?

I also put together a pretty exhaustive list of what authors need to know before sending in their photos. I know some of the authors submitting didn’t even give this a moment’s consideration.

One of the biggest things an author can do to help themselves stand out from the crowd — and probably the easiest to accomplish since it’s completely under their control — is to appear professional. For instance, a newspaper asks for a nice headshot for a profile they’re doing of you. Your job is to fire off a professional photo of yourself — and you do it promptly and in the proper format for print. That’s called being professional. It will help them to take your seriously.

That means educating yourself about things like finding out the difference between a photo on a computer screen and a photo on a piece of paper. (And it’s easily “google-able”.)

The thing that appalls me is that not only do too many authors attending Bouchercon not know anything about these requirements, but they obviously didn’t bother reading my instructions (designed to help them if they don’t know).

And they expect to be taken seriously as professional authors? Ain’t gonna happen. You tend not to get second chances with other professionals, especially media outlets.

I’ve just covered one small area of knowledge that an author should know. If you’re new to this game, especially, do yourself a favour and educate yourself. It will only help you.

One additional thing: Bouchercon2017 sent out a call for author photos over two weeks ago. Do you know how many I’ve received? Just over 10%. I’ll bet a good 20% of the attending authors will submit their photo at the eleventh hour. Guess what’s going to happen? I’m only going to have time to be able to just throw their photo on the page and hope for the best. So if you’re one of those authors who has registered and not taken care of this, do yourself a HUGE favour and get me your photo now when I can give it my full attention. Details are on the Bouchercon website.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The World's Largest Book

We often talk about 'losing ourselves in a book.' Here at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) it is quite easy to lose yourself among the serried ranks of the 729 dazzling white kiosks that are the 'pages' of the text of the Tripitaka, the Theravada Buddhist dhamma teachings, grouped around the spectacular Pagoda.

Each kiosk is lined with stone tablets, each containing 80-100 lines of inscription, originally in gold; a stone-mason could complete perhaps 16 lines a day. The 'book' was finished in 1688 and though it suffered a fair bit of destruction over the years – not least by the British during the Anglo-Burmese War, I'm ashamed to say – it has now been restored to its pristine state of splendour.

We've just come back from a holiday in this amazing country. For me, it fulfilled a dream I've had ever since I read Kipling's 'The Road to Mandalay' and wanted to see 'the dawn come up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay' – as indeed it does, a red and angry sun rising through the grey mists of the morning.

It is the first Third World country we've ever visited and certainly it has severe problems with a 10% child mortality rate and clean water a rarity in the countryside. The military dictatorship has ruined the economy and despite a fig-leaf of democracy in the person of Aung Snag Suu Kyi is still in control. Yet there is no malnutrition and in a fortnight we saw far fewer beggars than you would see if you walked along Princes Street in Edinburgh. The monasteries and nunneries, run solely on alms-giving, feed anyone who comes in – even if they do little towards medical care or modern education.

The sheer bling of the pagodas takes the breath away – tons of gold, thousands of rubies, sapphires and diamonds – but my principal memory is of the people themselves, smiling and sunny, and as intrigued by our foreign-ness as we were by theirs. Wherever we went little children would beam and wave or run up for a 'high five'!

I can't say it has given me useful ideas for a book. One guide engagingly explained that if there was trouble in the village the Chief Elder (elected every five years) would try to deal with it but if necessary would send for the police. If the police weren't coping, in the last resort they would send for the monk and after that, he explained serenely, everything would be all right. As a plot, I feel that would lack something.

What the experience did give me, though, was brilliantly summed up by Somerset Maugham in one of his Burma novels. When he travelled, he said, 'I do not bring back from my journey quite the same self that I took.'

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Guest Blogger Mary Anna Evans

Type M is pleased to welcome guest blogger Mary Anna Evans, author of the wonderful  Faye Longchamp Mystery series. Faye lives the exciting life of an archaeologist, and Mary Anna envies her a little. In her latest Faye Longchamp mystery, Mary Anna takes Faye to Oklahoma, which I, Donis, think is a very fine thing indeed. Find Mary Anna on Facebook and Twitter, where she runs regular contests for her followers, who can win books, swag, or the chance to have a character named after them!


I just moved to Oklahoma, the very heart of Tornado Alley. My new book is set in Oklahoma, thus it has a tornado traveling menacingly across its cover and I have deadly whirlwinds on my mind.

This should be no surprise to anyone who has read my work, since Artifacts closes with the mother of all hurricanes. To research that story, I read a book called Florida's Hurricane History from cover to cover, but I also dredged my own memory for colorful details. When I was seven years old, Hurricane Camille blew ashore 60 miles south of me and roared over my head. When you read that Faye is hearing the trunks of thick-bored pine trees snap, know that I remember that sound. And if, perchance, you should read in Burials about Faye experiencing extreme weather in the form of severe thunderstorms and maybe a tornado in Oklahoma, know that I have personal experience with those, too. I grew up in Mississippi, which weather aficionados have dubbed with its own stormy nickname--Dixie Alley. I've lived through enough hurricanes, tornadoes, and near-misses to know that it's all fun and games until The Weather Channel sends Jim Cantore to town.

So what does it feel like to be way too close to a tornado?

Well, a tornado took out my school's football stands and field house when I was eight, just a short walk from my classroom. I should have been able to see it happen, but all I can tell you is that the sky turned so black that we couldn't see even that short distance. When I was in the fifth grade, a funnel cloud skirted our elementary school campus, but I can't tell you much because we were all in the hall, sitting on the concrete floor with our heads between our knees. The same thing happened when I was a student at Ole Miss, but we were all ushered to the library basement, where we could trust that we'd be safe, unless all the floors, ceilings, books, shelves, and furniture on the upper floors caved in on us.

Fortunately (fortunately?), I can tell you more about the tornado that interrupted my eighth-grade English class. The sky turned green. (Yes, it really does that.) The clouds were a shade of purple that was somehow both deep and bright. As they lowered over us, daytime went nighttime-dark and the streetlights came on. We were herded into the hall to, once again, sit on the concrete floor with our heads between our knees, but this time there were skylights over us. And this time I peeked.

Those purple clouds roiled above the skylights and they dropped hailstones the size of softballs. The hail hit the roof with loud thunks and clanks, and the sky got even darker. The sound of the wind did indeed sound like a locomotive, just as every witness of a tornado has always said. Later, school gossips said that our school principal was outside watching the storm as it happened. Now that I'm an adult, I'm guessing that he was wondering what he'd do to protect us all, if things turned bad, but the gossip among youngsters was more lurid. Everyone said that he had to wrap his arms and legs around a post just to keep from being blown away. Remembering the force of the wind's gusts, I do not doubt it.

I'm writing this post on the sunniest of days, but a thunderstorm just two nights ago brought marble-sized hail to my Oklahoma back yard. It took those icy nuggets for a reminder that the earth is big and that I am small. And I took it for a sign that the tornado gracing the cover of my brand-new book was just the right image to usher it out into the world.

Happy spring to you all!

Visit Mary Anna's website at

Friday, March 17, 2017

Multi-Author Signings

Last fall I participated in a multi-author signing. It was sponsored by the Loveland Public Library, which is a state of the art facility. There were over fifty authors present with their books on display.

These kinds of events can be very frustrating for the newly published if they have wild expectations for sales. Unless you are a big-name author, chances are you'll be lucky to sell a couple of books.

So why go? There are many reasons to attend and here are a few cheery tips, warnings and observations to make the most of these events:

1. Just because someone doesn't buy your book on the spot doesn't mean he won't buy it later in a different format. On-line offerings are less expensive. 

2. Note the number of persons who explore the displays with a pen and pencil--taking notes. They might plan to download directly from the library. Electronic services through local libraries have exploded. Hoopla, Overdrive, Freading, Librivox, and OneClickdigital are sites that allow instant access to material.

3. If you've published a number of books, bring all the titles. Browsers usually ask "what is the first book in the series?" And that's the one they will want to buy! Not your latest. Multiple titles also demonstrate that people buy and read your books and the publisher finds it worthwhile to stick with you.

4. Put some thought into your display. Buy little bookstands. Make the collection colorful. Some of the authors tables at this event were works of art. Print out a little sign with prices and lay it to one side so customers won't have to ask.

5. Concentrate on getting browsers to stop at your table. Yes, lure them with chocolate. There is no way they can buy books from fifty authors. A little boost to their blood sugar and some pleasant conversation (about your books) can be a welcome pause in the lengthy time it takes to survey the tables.

6. About that pleasant conversation! Make each person feel good about not buying your books. What? Sounds crazy? It's not. Most folks feel guilty about not supporting local authors. People who have done you the enormous courtesy of stopping at your table should be encouraged to read flap copy, the blurbs on the back, and a few sample pages. Get the books in their hands while you talk. Then encourage them to look at other tables before they purchase. After doing so, you and your books will stick in their minds. Not the surly author who sighed and looked cranky when the overwhelmed buyer didn't shell out.

To be my next posting.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Busy Mini-Retirement

My mother is retired. But every time I call, she tells me she’s busy. I shake my head and think, How busy can you be, Mom?

Well, this week I’m on vacation –– my own mini retirement, if you will. Students are gone. My oldest daughter is in college, my middle daughter is visiting friends in New York City, and my youngest is in school all day. Theoretically, I should be getting lots done on my work-in-progress.

But theories are based on hypotheses. And hypotheses are only guesses. Very rarely are they outcomes.

So far this week, the dog has a vet appointment, this year’s FAFSA report must be completed, and I have school projects that –– if I allow –– can keep me busy all week. Yesterday, I wrote 700 words and revised a chapter twice. More than I’d accomplish during my usual 4 to 6 a.m. writing session. But I didn’t get done as much as I hoped.

You’d think after writing three novels featuring US Border Patrol agents –– and researching until the cows come home for each book –– that this new project (a novel set at a boarding school) would be something I could write very fast. Yet that’s not been the case. Lots of starts and stops. Lots of interruptions. Balancing a writing career with a teaching career and some educational consulting forces me to get as much out of my 4 to 6 a.m. sessions as I can.

So how did my week off get filled up? It’s probably a question my mother asks about her “busy” retirement.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

California Crime Writers Conference

As you read this, I’m out of town once again. This time I’m attending Left Coast Crime Honolulu Havoc in Hawaii. I’m on Oahu celebrating my birthday and promoting my latest book, A Palette for Murder.

I’m attending a couple more conferences than usual the first half of this year. Besides LCC, I’ll be at Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD in April and the California Crime Writers Conference June 10th and 11th in Culver City, CA.

CCWC holds a special place in my heart for a couple reasons. I co-chaired the 2011 conference with the talented Naomi Hirahara, and the 2013 conference is where I met the Managing Editor for Henery Press, the publisher that ended up giving me a 3 book contract that includes my latest book.

Every two years the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and the SoCal chapter of Mystery Writers of America team up to put together this two-day conference geared toward writers. It’s filled with helpful information for crime writers at any level. Attendance is limited to 200. As I write this, there are still slots available, but it’s filling up fast.

The conference has its roots in the No Crime Unpublished one-day conference put together for years by SinC/LA. In 2009, SinC/LA joined with the SoCal chapter of Mystery Writers of America and put on the first CCWC.

It’s a great conference with two days chock full of sessions featuring craft, forensics/crime solving, publishing industry and marketing experts. It’s been my pleasure to see it grow and improve year after year. The keynote speakers for this year’s conference are NY Times best-selling authors Hallie Ephron and William Kent Krueger.

Besides the workshops and panels, the conference fee also includes a sit down lunch both days, an agent and editor cocktail party on Saturday evening, a book room and a charity auction.

I’m looking forward to attending once again. Maybe I’ll see some of you there?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How much do you need to know to know that you don’t know much?

by Rick Blechta

I don’t know about you, but I tend to second-guess just about everything I do — especially in my writing. At times it can become quite debilitating. But I look on it as a strength rather than as a weakness.

Take the first sentence of this post as an example. Should second-guess be hyphenated or not? Of course I had to look it up. Making any mistake is anathema to me. (Darn, now I have to look up anathema to make sure I used it correctly… Yup.)

So this week’s post has already cost me extra time to write. Anything I write is like this, not just the fiction writing. Sure, I don’t enjoy looking stupid by making stupid mistakes. Who does? And I do find it particularly embarrassing to use a “big” word incorrectly.

But I also just like to know about things. It can lead me down long and involved rabbit holes, and cause a lot of time-wasting delays. There can be gold in them tar tunnels, though, because I’m also the possessor of a brain that stores arcane knowledge quite well. More than once I’ve pulled something out of it that really makes an effective point.

The point of this post is the importance of always questioning oneself. Are you sure? Is there a better way to do/say it? Should you consult someone? I’ve found time and time again that not just barreling ahead, damn those torpedos is the smartest way to proceed. It may be a small point. It may just be a throwaway bit of writing, but getting it right is important.

Every error due to not bothering to check something out diminishes what you’re doing — and that’s never a good thing.

So yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to honestly say, “Yeah, I know enough. I’m completely 100% sure. I have no self-doubt about this.

“Experts” will tell you that self-doubt is a very bad thing. I suppose if you let it take over your life and stop you from moving forward with something, then it is bad. Personally, though, I find self-doubt a good thing, almost comforting. Because I know I can always do better. I’m willing to accept that and work harder. And along the way, I’ll learn more and have less self-doubt about something in the future.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Home again! Nope, on the road again!

by Vicki Delany

Barbara faithfully wrote and submitted her Type M posts while she and I were away in India and Nepal. She shared some of her pictures with you.

It was a great trip, but I can't say I found any writerly inspiration there. I just enjoyed myself. No, I have no plans to set a future book in India.  Other than a hapless Western Tourist tale, I really couldn't anyway.  A couple of weeks is not enough to get a feel for a country and how the people live well enough to attempt to use it in a book.

But we did see some wonderful things and here are some of my favourite photos. I particularly loved the old Mughul forts and palaces that were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Marvellous examples of magnificent architecture from a time of no electricity, no computers, and no engines. Just architects scratching on paper (or in their heads) and manual labour, human and animal.

The Red Fort in Old Delhi

Amber Fort, Jaipur

Detail from Amber Fort

Barbara and Vicki at the Taj Mahal, which is as marvellous in person as in pictures

I am home long enough to wash some clothes and then it's back on the road. Elementary, She Read, the first in my new Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series comes out tomorrow, and I'm going to the US for a mini-book tour.

I'll be at Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor,MI,  Tuesday March 14, 7:00.  They're putting on a tea party for me!
Then Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA on Wednesday, also 7:00 and
Mechancsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA Thursday, also 7:00

Hope to see some of you there.

Friday, March 10, 2017

My Week

Reading "My Day," Eleanor Roosevelt's syndicated newspaper column, one can't help but be struck by how she weaves the details of public and private. A description of a family evening seems ordinary until one realizes who the guests were who came to dinner. An account of a trip to the New York City World's Fair with friends leads one to pause and wonder about the security surrounding an event that Mrs. Roosevelt mentions so casually.

I was once asked to write a guest blog about a typical day in the life of my police detective, Hannah McCabe. I have occasionally been asked how I divide my time between my career as an academic and my other life as a mystery writer. Yesterday, as I was thinking about how to fit some designated writing time into my schedule for the rest of the semester, I paused to look not only at my day, but at my week.

My life is lived on a calendar that is never quite in step with people who look at a year and see twelve months. Academic-types look at a calendar and see semesters or quarters or intersessions. We see the times when classes are in session. We are sometimes unaware of holidays when other people have days off because our classes are meeting. We have spring break, and for a week -- as in summer and for almost a month in late December and much of January -- we may be working at home. We have "flexible" schedules in that we have work to get done, but are generally free to come and go unless we have a class or office hours or a committee meeting. Having such an undefined "work day," we often carry around papers to be graded or books to be read and end up in errand-to-do places with computers open. Think waiting room at the car dealership while oil being changed and tires rotated.

Next week is spring break for the students at UAlbany. This week was mid-term week -- a marvelous way to send them off with a sigh of relief that the first half of the semester is over and nagging anxiety about how well they did on the exam. I had two classes this week. Crime and Cities, a grad course, on Monday afternoon, 1:15-4:05. Violence in American literature, a 400-level, writing-intensive, course from 5:45-8:35 on Tuesday evening. Late evening classes are a recent addition in my school, and we take turns teaching them. The idea is that it allows students who are unable to take a class during the day to register for an evening class. What I've discovered is that I spend much of my day knowing that I'll need to teach in the evening and not getting too involved in anything else.

On Monday, I went into Crime and Cities feeling confident that my grad students would remember the discussions we'd had about the evolution of American cities from colonies to early 20th century cities. They had read, watched videos, discussed in class and their online journals the role of commerce in the establishment of the colony of New Amsterdam (where Peter Stuyvesant, the director general banned knife fights and fined failure to attend church) and Chicago (where location was everything, Mrs. O'Leary's cow was wrongly accused, and Henry Ford took note of the dis-assembly line used to butcher hogs). After the last student had finished her exam, I dashed back to my office to leave the exams on my desk and then hurried to the uptown campus (10 minutes away) to attend a meeting. I had already said I would be late (the problem when meetings have to be scheduled based on availability of the majority of attendees on two campuses). I got there in time to settle into my seat before the presenter was too far along. A bottle of water was waiting on the conference table, always welcome after a hike from one of the parking lots. I headed home after the meeting and spent the evening working on my Tuesday exam (while watching "The Voice").

Tuesday stands out as a high point in my week because a library director cc'd me on an email she sent out to the librarians in her system. The email was about me. She was letting them know that the three-volumes that co-editor, Steve Chermak, and I had edited on Crimes of the Century had made Library Journal's list of "Best of 2016" reference book. I zipped off a quick thank you for the news and sent an email to my co-editor. We did the email equivalent of a "high-five," both pleased that a project that had been so labor-intensive had turned out more than okay in the end. He suggested I email the editor we work with as co-series editors for crime and media and let her know. I also sent an email to my agent, who had nothing to do with the project, but I like to let him know when something good happens.

Tuesday evening I gave another exam. My undergrad students tackled multiple choice questions, true or false, matching, and the two essays questions of their choice. They felt more confident about the essay questions because they had made them up the week before. I caught up on the news on my podium computer while they wrote about Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," Dunbar's "The Lynching of Jube Benson," and Glaspell's "Trifles" and "A Jury of Her Peers". We wished each other good spring breaks as they deposited their exams on the table and headed out one by one. 

On Wednesday, I looked at the two stacks of exams on my desk and considered when I would start grading. I wanted to finish before spring break begins so that I would have an entire, uninterrupted week to work on my dress, appearance, and crime book. I also needed to do a draft of a proposal for a conference in Spring 2018 and send it off to my collaborator in a community project. I needed to read a manuscript that I had been asked to review by an academic publisher. I needed to finish reading  Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, because I'm distributing copies of the book to my graduate class when they return after spring break. Justice Sotomayor is coming to campus on April 4 to give a public lecture.

During the day, the supervisor of our three-volume project sent congratulations on Library Journal. I glanced around at the stacks of articles that I'd read and printed out for my dress and appearance book. I debated whether -- since my one office window was going to be covered with green netting until July while renovations were going on -- I might actually pack up some of the boxes and spend more time working at home. I decided working in a gloomy office where no sunshine penetrated was probably easier than concentrating when a 16 pound cat decides he wants to set on your lap as you're writing. Besides I had tried that during the summer and the books I needed was always at school.

On Thursday, I confirmed that I would be on a panel during spring break if the organizer really needed me. I made a note to myself to rent the documentary that I would need to watch. Earlier, I'd remembered that I hadn't made my hotel reservation for Malice Domestic. I called the hotel and had a few tense moments on hold that turned out to be about the computer not a full hotel. I'd called my doctor's office to make an appointment to get my ear checked -- clogged since I'd had a cold -- and needed to scramble for my appointment book when the receptionist surprised us both by saying she could fit me in on Friday. I spent the evening, thinking about what I want to accomplish next week -- and realizing I need to get as much done up front as possible. A week goes by in the blink of an academic eye.

This morning -- or late last night -- I decided to write about how I'd spent my week. I'm thinking of keeping a daily journal to help me find more time to write every day. I'm going to see if setting aside a couple of hours a day to work on the 1939 book will get me through the first draft.

Just realized this post is really long -- but no time to edit. A meeting at 1. 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Coming Up – Tucson Book Festival 2017

This photo is from 2011, but I like it

Every year at this time I pack up my old kit bag and head down to Tucson Arizona to work the Tucson Festival of Books. TFoB is a giant gathering of nearly 400 authors of all ilks, all participating in panels, talks, signings, presentations, and workshops. Nearly 120,000 people normally attend over the two day period. That's pretty good, considering that the population of Tucson is around 585,000. The festival draws readers and writers from all over the desert Southwest, and has almost reached the size of the Los Angeles Festival, which boasted 150,000 attendees last year.

I'm only going to be down there one day this year, Saturday, March 11. But it's going to be a busy day. I'll be moderating a panel, signing books at the Clues Unlimited Bookstore booth, teaching a class on writing historical mysteries, and participating as a panelist on a third panel.(for my complete schedule, click here) Participating on a panel is a little nerve-wracking if you don't care for speaking in front of crowds. I don't mind public speaking, but one does feel a some pressure to be entertaining. It takes a lot of preparation to be spontaneously witty and profound. The real work comes with being a panel moderator. Now, that does take a lot of prep. The moderator's job is to make the panelists look good. I've moderated many a panel in my time, and sometimes the authors are real pros who make it easy and sometimes you get a bunch of stiffs and you work your hindquarters off trying to keep the audience from either walking out or sliding out of their chairs in a coma, overcome by boredom.

It’s always a boost to be around other writers. Writing can be such a solitary life that sometimes you wonder if you're not just a voice crying in the wilderness. It's a mystery to me how a book ever gets written, to tell the truth. I've written books in the midst of personal crises that went on for months, but then found myself paralyzed when nothing in particular was going on with the rest of my life. But however lovely it is to get out in the world, I must say that I can’t help but wonder if all this travel and outlay and acting as free entertainment just for the exposure is really worth it. Especially when you can hardly find the time to finish your novel.

I want to write my stories. That's the thing I want to do and the thing I really enjoy doing. My mother taught us that in order to reach our financial goals, we should always pay ourselves first. In other words, put money aside for yourself before you even pay your bills. My mistake lately has been not doing the same thing with my writing. Do the writing first. It doesn't even have to be good, just get some words down on the page before you do anything else. That's my job, to do the writing. All the rest is gravy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

More on inspiration

Barbara here. In my last post, I wrote about inspiration on the road, specifically a three-week personal holiday travelling through India and Nepal. I am still on that trip, now staying at the final destination of Kathmandu before flying home later in the week. Throughout the trip internet access has been capricious and slow, so I will try to be short.

The trip has been filled with inspirational moments that make your spirit and imagination soar. Imagine the passion and enduring loyalty that drove a grieving emperor to build a tomb to his beloved dead wife, embarking on a dream that took 22 years, employed 20,000 workers, and cost an unimaginable sum. Clad in shimmering white marble inlaid with precious stones, perfect in its symmetry, set off by fountains and gardens, it is breathtaking. Humbling yet exalting.

Another inspirational moment was sunrise in a boat on the Ganges River, joining the many faithful who make a pilgrimage to this sacred river seeking blessing or fulfillment of a wish. Along with others I lit a candle in a tiny flower boat and watched it dance along the current with the others, bearing our wishes out towards the sea.

A third inspiration came at sunrise again, on a flight out of Kathmandu over the legendary Mount Everest. Despite the persistent smog that plagues Asian cities, the sky over the Himalayas was a fierce, crisp blue, and the sun lit the white glacial peaks in perfect detail. Everest is but one of dozens of jagged, terrifying peaks around it, but its power lies in the human dreams that it has inspired. Cold and solitary, it still carries with it those legions of climbers who have dared to dream big, who've fought and triumphed and sometimes died on its rugged slopes.

There were many other touchingly inspirational moments as well. Watching a young rickshaw driver who couldn't have weighed 100 pounds, valiantly struggling to pedal his large charges around the markets. Watching young mothers trim the excess silk from the scarves and fabric bolts in the silk factory in Varanasi, sitting on the floor in a circle with their babies and toddlers by their side.

As Aline said in her Monday post, writing is about stepping into another person's shoes and imagining their world. Travel not only offers us other shoes, but other worlds and lives beyond our own. Not only will that enrich our writing, but our humanity as well. I will carry the inspiration of these moments with me for a long time.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

On the lighter side…

by Rick Blechta

I’m a bit under the gun today with Things That Need Doing, so I’ll eschew the Sturm und Drang of my recent posts and instead present something for your delectation that’s fun but also interesting. It comes from a posting I saw recently on Facebook, that wonder of information and time-wasting engagement.

The basis of the article is this: what would it look like if you stripped away everything except the punctuation from some famous novels? (

Interesting, no?

Now try this (whether you’re an ink-stained wretch or not): take an extended piece of your writing and do the same thing. (The search and replace function will help with this. Just ask it to replace all the letters and numbers with nothing.)

What do you see?

Well, in my case, I see too many damn commas. The trend over time in writing has been to use fewer commas. The thought being that they stop or slow down the eye’s flow as lines on a page (or screen) are scanned. Basically the current accepted role of commas is this: use them only where clarification or easier understanding of a sentence is needed.

Stripped of my verbiage (and that’s another whole can of worms for me), I am obviously way behind the curve as far as current use of punctuation goes.

So, I’m left with this: use fewer commas and simplify my sentence structure and use of “waffle words” — as one editor-friend calls them — to just make everything more “lean”. That still leaves me with a lot of latitude to craft wonderful descriptions and engaging dialogue while making things move along more smartly and clearly.

And who says Facebook is a total waste of time?

Monday, March 06, 2017


Recently I came across a quote from Joanna Trollope.  I'm not sure how well known she is outside Britain; she was first successful with books that were labelled, with a faintly scornful curl of the lip, 'Aga Sagas'.

I'm never quite sure how well phrases like this translate. An Aga is a very expensive type of stove that warms the house and provides hot water as well as having a hob and a cooker with four ovens at different temperatures permanently ready to bake, simmer or even, in the lowest one, prove dough  or keep orphan lambs cosy should the need arise.

Every farmhouse kitchen in the glossy magazines that I tend to think of as property porn will have an Aga in some colour - bright red, dark green, duck egg blue or even pink - so the expression 'Aga Saga' denotes a story revolving round the  middle-class people who have what is sometimes known as 'first-world problems.'

I'm not a fan of Aga cookers myself.  I love to cook and I always think the oven temperatures are very approximate. But I have no patience with the attitude that suggests that the only people who have real feelings are those who live life in squalor and violence.  Yes, of course, those stories are deeply meaningful too, but human nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

The problems that Joanna Trollope's books deal with are universal - worry about one's children or one's parents, dealing with debt, jealousy, difficult relationships, infidelity - I could go on. But the reason I'm writing about her today is because of that quote I came across.  It described the writer as needing to have 'an acute consciousness of putting yourself in someone else's shoes.'

It's such a good description.  And it doesn't matter whose shoes they are, and it doesn't matter what label gets attached.  For a crime-writer hard-boiled, cozy, police procedural, gumshoe are only a few of the labels that are stuck on our books.  But the same thing applies to us all: if we are able to walk the miles in another man's moccasins we are, to be grand about it, illuminating the human condition, whether we have floral chintz on our windows or  dirty, tattered net curtains.