Friday, June 30, 2017

Now Playing

The remake of The Beguiled looked lush and mysterious. I like the actors in the film. However, I am unlikely to see it in the theater. I saw the original with Clint Eastwood in the role of the wounded Yankee soldier. Although it would be an interesting exercise to read the novel -- which I never got around to doing -- and then see the remake, I'm sure I won't. I'll wait to watch this version one winter evening while curled up on the sofa.

I love movies, but these days -- with limited time -- when I go to the theater to see a movie, I want a film that won't play as well on my television at home. Last weekend, a couple of friends and I saw Wonder Woman.
Special effects like that require a big screen.  And there are some movies that simply deserve to be experienced in the theater because they are quiet and thoughtful.

But getting back to remakes -- I don't think I would ever go to see a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird. I regretted seeing the remake of Psycho. But this in not to say either couldn't be done well. I'm just protective of movies I love. That list includes Double Indemnity.

On the other hand, there is Scarface. I have the fascinating experience of introducing undergrads in my Crime and Mass Media course to classic crime films. When I say Scarface, they say "Al Pacino". They are always surprised to learn that there was a 1932 film. First, we watch clips from the 1932 version, set during Prohibition. Then we turn to the 1983 film set during the Mariel boatlift.  The city is now Miami, not Chicago. Cocaine fuels Tony's rise to the top. The Hollywood Production Code has been replaced by the movie rating system, and the movie is hyper-violent.

Or, Cape Fear -- based on a John D. MacDonald novel -- first version starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer whose family is under siege by Robert Mitchum, one of the scariest actors around. Then the remark with Nick Nolte in the role of the attorney, but now with a dysfunctional family, a wife with whom he is in conflict, an adolescent daughter who is easy prey for Robert De Niro. Gregory Peck manages to defeat his enemy without killing him. Nolte, on the other hand, has to kill De Niro, who for a moment seems to be as hard to stop as a slasher in a serial killer movie. Remember that scene in Fatal Attraction, when Glenn Close pops back up in the bathtub?

I think remakes are worth seeing when the filmmaker goes in a different direction and offers commentary for a new audience. But I am bothered by the fact that modern audiences may have less context for movie watching than theater audiences used to bring to the experience. Of course, movies are intended to be fun. But they do also offer a window into our society. And we may misinterpret if we don't know what came before.

I'm looking forward to losing myself in a few more movies before school begins again. And I'm going to be spending some quality time with TCM.

Any thoughts about remakes? What summer movies on your "must see" list?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Yes, We Played in the Street

Donis here, trying to avoid sunstroke. It's been warmish in my town lately. In fact it's horrible. In the afternoons the a/c never cuts off. It's very hard to describe what it's like to step out the door into 118º heat. The hottest we've reached this month here in Tempe, Arizona, was 119º last Tuesday. We're finally below 110º today (108º on Wednesday, June 28). At this point, below 110º is sweet relief.

Every day we denizens of the Phoenix metro area receive multiple warnings about staying outside too long. Drink lots of water, even if you’re not thirsty. Wear sunscreen even if you’re just going outside to pick up the newspaper. NEVER leave a kid or dog in the car for even a minute. Watch your children around water. Excellent advice. It’s nice to know that the city is looking out for us.

And are they ever! The city of Tempe does not want us to harm ourselves or others. The city recently made it illegal to smoke in the car when there is a child on board. It is also illegal to drive in town without wearing a seat belt. I applaud the sentiment. However, when I read about the smoking ordinance, I immediately remembered the road trip my family made from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Miami, Florida, to visit my aunt in 1962. My parents smoked in the car, you’d better believe it. They smoked everywhere. We made the trip to Miami enveloped in a miasma of second-hand carcinogens.

My two-year-old sister spent most of the trip lying on the shelf between the back seat and the rear window, watching the scenery go by. My parents thought that was dandy, since it kept her quiet and amused. The rest of the time she rode on my mother’s lap or played around on the floor of the back seat. There were six of us in car*: My parents, three kids, and my grandmother. Nobody wore a seat belt. There were no seat belts in cars at the time, unless you were an Indy driver. And forget about child restraint seats.

Of course the car was built of industrial-strength steel and probably could have survived being stepped on by Godzilla. There is a scene in the movie “The Aviator” in which Howard Hughes’s sedan is broadsided by another car driven by his teenage paramour, Faith Domergue. Then she backs up and rams him again, several times. His car isn't even scratched. Up until the 1970s cars were tougher, even if they did only get 7 miles to a gallon of gas and leave a yellow haze in the air wherever they went.

I don’t want to sound like one of those old farts who reminisces about how much better it was when kids walked ten miles in the snow to school. It’s just that childhood was much different once-upon-a-time. It would have been better if I had been wearing a helmet and pads when I crashed my bike into our mailbox at ninety miles an hour and ended up with my skin half scraped off and bruises all over my body. I do wonder if it would not be better for children to have a bit more unsupervised freedom to roam, to have the opportunity to figure out life-problems on their own. The recent brouhaha about the parents in New York who were threatened with arrest because they let their kids go to the park alone strikes me as overkill.

And yet, if I had young children right now, would I let them wander about on their own? Probably not. But what delicious freedom it was to be shooed out of the house after school to play in the street or in a vacant lot with your siblings and friends. I particularly enjoyed playing in a drainage culvert one street over from my house. Then at about six o’clock, my mother—and every other mother in the neighborhood—would come out onto the front porch and holler out our names one by one and we’d run home for supper.

I’m not saying it was better. I’m just saying.
A 1962* Chevrolet sedan. My dad bought a new car every two years. It was as big as one of those tiny houses and had plenty of room for all of us.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where fact meets fiction

In this era of fake news, the line between truth and make-believe has become so blurred that it's becoming increasingly difficult to know what's real or to trust anything you read. And I'm not referring to a profound philosophical debate on whether there exists such a thing as absolute truth or whether all truth is embedded within a context- cultural, physical, or what have you.


I mean facts that can be supported by evidence or replicated in some way. Claims for which there is some proof. People vary on the breadth and type of proof they require to accept something as likely true; rigorous science types demand evidence based on objective scientific knowledge, while others entertain other possible, as yet unknowable, realms of truth such as the supernatural, astrology, ghosts, divine revelation, etc.

But within the realm, some consistency and set of principles exist against which information's veracity can be measured. So if two news sources make opposing claims, or someone says one thing one day and the opposite the next, most of us know one of the claims at least is not true. We may choose to believe the one we like better, or we may end up not believing either. The inaccuracy may stem from simple error, ignorance, incomplete knowledge, or deliberate deception, but in this global information age, in which social media allows the rapid dissemination of information without any checks on accuracy, "untruths" can be repeated over and over so quickly that the repetitions themselves become the proof. How do you know...? Well, I read an article...

One end result of this, besides confusion and ignorance, is a distrust of all information. It's a shaky foundation on which to stand - not knowing what is real and what isn't - and it makes us cling all the more fiercely to the sources we do trust.

What does this have to do with writers? Well, making things up is our stock and trade. Science fiction and fantasy writers make up entire universes, but mystery writers generally ground our sinister deeds in the real world. Readers generally know that the whole thing is made up, and don't rely on the facts from novels to support their PhD dissertations.

Yet among writers, there are those who research meticulously, not just the topics they tackle but the setting, the time period, the dialect, and the local customs, while others don't research much at all. I once heard a very well known and respected author of police procedurals say that he'd never talked to a police officer or checked protocols. Others say, "I make it all up. It's fiction, after all."

But what about historical fiction? Medical or legal thrillers? Or adventure novels set in exotic locales? If a writer makes up all the detail on which these stories are based, the reader is taken on a fake journey. Part of the thrill of these books is the the peek inside a real world very different from what we know. From these books, we learn about 12th century Spain, or the back alleys of Venice, or the drama of the courtroom. Most writers of these books are historians or doctors or lawyers, and we trust that the world they have led us into is real (except for the body, of course). We would feel cheated if we learned they'd made the whole thing up.

When it comes to regular, contemporary novels, the rules are less clear. Some readers don't care that hairdressers solve murders or that cats talk. They know it's all in good fun. But once the writer has set the rules of engagement, they should adhere to them. Is this a real place? A real profession? A genuine issue? If so, know what you're talking about. Writers spin a web to draw a reader into their story, willing the reader to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. Any false note that jolts the reader out of the story breaks the spell.

As readers, we all have our trip wires - those false notes that ruin a story for us. It can be crime scene investigators who tromp all over the crime scene with their long hair flowing in the breeze. It can be streets in the wrong place in a city we know intimately. It can be weather that is wrong for the season in that place. For me as a psychologist, it is any superficial, pop psychology explanation of motives and behaviour.

So I am firmly in the research camp. Not only do I want readers to go on a journey with me, but I don't want them to be jerked out of the story and I want them to trust that what they are reading is as accurate as I can make it.  That's why last year I spent my summer reading books on Jihad and ISIS, and my winter on a winter camping trip in the mountains, all to research THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY. It's why next week I am renting a cottage in Georgian Bay (a great improvement over winter camping!) to research the setting of my next book, PRISONERS OF HOPE.

I'm sure I will still get some things wrong, but the more believable the web I weave, the more I hope readers will stay under the spell. And in the process I hope it's more than a journey into make-believe; I hope they enjoy learning some interesting information about a world different from theirs. Information they can trust.

I'm curious to know how other writers and readers feel. As readers, what are your trip wires? Does it bother you to encounter factual errors or misrepresentations in fiction? As authors, how important is accuracy in your books and how much do you research to "get it right"?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Accepting compliments well is a skill that can be learned

by Rick Blechta

Let me state right off the bat, that I don’t get compliments on my writing all that often. Like Aline and everyone else who’s commented, they’re wonderful when they come and they should be cherished, because the vast majority of them are sincerely meant and that feedback is very special to all of us who create.
But you do need to think ahead of time about how you’ll respond when this sort of thing happens.

I got an early start on accepting compliments because I was performing in public at a very early age. When I turned professional at age 16, I got a lot of compliments. “You play so well!” was the most frequent one, but it didn’t take long to realize that an important part of the compliment was unsaid: “for someone so young”, because saying that would have been rude. Believe me, though, I was a real baby face and looked only about 14 at the time.

Anyway, it was obvious that I needed to figure out how to respond. I worked out something similar to Aline and Frankie. I’d been taught self-aggrandizement was not a good thing, so even if I thought I had played really well, I couldn’t come right out and say it – although I’m sure I did that occasionally in those early years.

The one thing that really helped me, though, was done behind the scenes. One of my French horn teachers heard the parent of a friend compliment me on something I’d played during a concert. He felt my response was far from adequate. Next lesson, I played very little of my prepared work, but instead he spoke to me at length about etiquette and why we do what we do and say what we say — especially in the musical world. It really opened my eyes.

It’s not that my parents brought me up poorly in this regard, but he felt that there was specific knowledge that a performer needed, and he felt that it was a big part of my musical education that I be tutored in this as well as playing my instrument.

It was my secret weapon and to this day, whenever someone compliments me, my first thought is that I have received something very special, but to also immediately express my gratitude that the person has said it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

You're Very Kind

One of the very nicest things about being an author is getting emails from people who have read your book – at least the complimentary ones that make up the vast majority. In general people don't email to pick holes in the plot or say what rubbish it was or how they absolutely hated the heroine. In fact I only remember a couple, one of which pointed out that there was a typo in the blurb – 'seperately' for  'separately' – and as a consequence my correspondent wasn't going to read my book. For spite, I think.

Happily, most of the emails are lovely, often thoughtful and sometimes even touching. They make my day and I settle down to work glowing with pleasure, once I've sent back a suitably grateful reply. No problem there.

But when I'm at events and meet readers who are kind enough to tell me face to face how much they enjoy my books, it's different. The more generous they are with their praise, the more awkward and 'Oh, shucks,' I get and the glow this time is a most unbecoming blush. I look a total idiot.

I had a brother-in-law who had beautiful manners and in response to a compliment would murmur, 'Thank you. You're very kind,' and I've adopted that, but it only takes you so far in a prolonged conversation. I can't agree, 'Oh yes, it's awfully good, isn't it?' and I can't say, 'Oh, not really,' without calling their judgement into question. And despite the fact that afterwards I will go over in my mind and treasure what they have said I find myself changing the subject by doing a Queen Elizabeth  – 'Have you come far today?'

I don't know why I find it so difficult to take a direct compliment, or even if I'm the only one who does. If readers didn't like what I write I'd be out of a job and I do, I really really do, appreciate their kindness in telling me. I'm enormously grateful for their good opinion, but I just wish I knew what to say.

I'm asking for tips here. How do the rest of you respond to these great, and obviously highly-intelligent and perceptive people with becoming modesty?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ludimus Deus

I've got great news to share. After years in the making, my YA novel, University of Doom, is ready to hit the streets. In fact, the official launch signing is Wednesday, July 19, at the Tattered Cover-Colfax, here in Denver. Y'all are invited, especially you folks up in Canada.

Kirkus Reviews said this: "A zooming Grand-slam of sci-fi fun."
and you can read the entire review here.

And I have these two blurbs from a couple of writers you may have heard of:

"A fun and zany mad science adventure."
Richelle Mead
#1 International Bestselling Author

"...simply delightful...immediately engaging and wickedly twisted..."
Kevin J Anderson
NY Times Bestelling Author

The original title was FrankenDad. I started writing this book more than ten years ago, and I had high hopes for its reception by New York. Which was zilch. So it stayed on the back burner for years. UofDoom is the sort of book I would've read at 13yo. Back then, there was no YA or middle-grade genre, and even if there was, I wouldn't have read it—I hated stories that were supposed to "teach" me things--preferring adult fiction from HG Wells, Asimov, Leon Uris, John D McDonald, Michael Crichton, and my favorite, Harold Robbins. As the manuscript slowly came together, I pulled from various movie and science-fiction motifs so the story has a wacky retro feel to it. Picture the Marx Brothers doing Ghostbusters doing Frankenstein and Metropolis. I also got my digs in at corporate science who--for the good of humanity--pursue one crack pot scheme after another without much regard to its true consequences or value to society. And what would a book from me be without mashing in assorted conspiracy theories?

Last year Hex Publishers approached me with an offer to publish UofDoom. I had just self-published it to a lackluster start and like most of you have learned, getting attention is especially difficult when you put out a book on your own. Hex commissioned a new cover and juiced some attention. So we'll see. If anyone has real definite answers on how this publishing game works, let me know. In the meantime, please enjoy UofDoom.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The New Religion

My father used to say: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." Wise words.

We all know better than to talk about religion or politics unless we want to start a fight. But I've discovered a new hot topic that will raise the hackles. Nutrition!

Recently when I was at a garden party a man we all respect and admire was holding forth on the merits of a low-carb diet. Since I share his views I was nodding in agreement on most of his beliefs. Since I'm diabetic I know the importance of limiting carbs.

He and I and possibly a few other were in the Paleo Adkins diet belief spectrum. On the opposing side, of course, were the low fat whole grain junkies. And another group believed that weight control, terrific health, etc., was simply a matter of calories. It was science. The tension was obvious.

Actually what I really believe is what works for one person will not work for another. This week I'm at the Western Writers of American conference in Kansas City. We're having a great time. I've never attended a writers conference where I didn't learn a lot and make new friends.

However, the methods used by writers to create books vary enormously. I like the general classification that we are either plotters or pantsers. Plotters outline everything and pantsers write by the seat of their pants. I'm sort of a combination of the two. I begin as a pantser then outline each chapter after I've written and tack this chain of events on a wall. If there is no chain of events or movement within a chapter I face the bitter truth: There is No Movement Within a Chapter. That means it's impossibly dull.

This is just part of my method. I wouldn't dream of trying to persuade anyone else that they should adopt it. In fact I've given up on trying to pass along writing advice. Having published six books now, a historical novel, an academic book, four mysteries, and having been included in a number of short story anthologies, and created oodles of published articles and encyclopedia entries, I feel that by virtue of my variety of experiences I know a lot about the business.

I would love to help budding writers avoid some of the pitfalls. But creative people are so resistant to advice. It's part of our psyche. After judging books in contest recently, I was struck by the number of books that could be taken to a much higher lever with better editing or if the authors would correct a major writing flaw. A fellow judge assured me that he had been an editor at a major publishing house and also at one time had a "book doctoring" business and that no one would listen.

They had to figure it out for themselves, he assured me. Some do and some don't. It's like finding the perfect diet and approach to food.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Visual Rhetoric: Where does inspiration come from?

Writers find inspiration in many places. In my next two posts, I’m going to share some of my ideas on the issue.

I teach a rhetoric course. It’s a nonfiction course similar to the composition course we all took in college. Except the study of rhetoric has changed a lot since I went to college. Where I wrote only papers, and “texts” were only written, now students listen to and produce podcasts and view visual rhetoric.

Rhetoric, by definition, is the sending or receiving of messages. These may be written, spoken, or viewed. One of my favorite exercises (to do and to assign) is to have students view a work of art and write about it –– a reaction, a description, or a riff.

Consider the “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. This painting says so much about humanity (not much good) and its creator and even history (something brought this out of Bosch in circa 1500).

So what do you see? What images speak to you? How might this painting motivate (or distract) you if it hung above your desk? Now’s your chance to riff.

Visual rhetoric can offer inspiration. It will also play a large role in what “writing” looks like in 15 years. As a teacher, I’m seeing that students grasp narrative structure (certainly long form) from episodic TV shows. They are more likely to understand narrative from a visual mode, such as a Netflix show, than a written mode. They grasp argumentation and persuasion from things like this Direct TV Commercial.

Hopefully, books are still being read, but inspiration can come in other forms, including art, episodic TV shows, and even commercials. Where do you find yours?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

CCWC 2017 Recap

I recently attended the California Crime Writers Conference here in Southern California where around 200 like-minded individuals got together and talked about writing and the publishing biz. Let me tell you. The conference just keeps on getting better and better.

Over the years, I’ve attended a number of fan-focused mystery conventions, but this is the only conference geared toward writing I’ve been to. I’ve attended every CCWC since its start in 2009 and co-chaired the one in 2011. I credit the 2013 conference with helping me get published since it’s where I met the managing editor of Henery Press who now publishes my Aurora Anderson mystery series.

CCWC is put on every two years by the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and the SoCal chapter of MWA. It takes lots and lots of volunteer hours to put together. My hats off to everyone who contributed, including this year’s co-chairs Sue Ann Jaffarian and Rochelle Staab.

The two days were jam-packed with information and opportunities to mingle with other crime writers. Attendees could pick from workshops in four tracks: Writing Craft, Industry/Business, Law Enforcement/Forensics, and Marketing. I spent most of my time in the marketing track because I feel like that’s where I need the most help. Still, my favorite workshop was the mock crime scene. We learned all about how the FBI processes a crime scene. It was fun and educational.

The crime scene

Volunteers suited up to investigate the scene

This was also my first foray into moderating a panel. It was titled Obi Wan Kenobi: Veteran Authors’ Strategies to Survive the Publishing Force with panelists Sue Ann Jaffarian, Patricia Smiley and Jeri Westerson. We had a great conversation, talking about how to survive the ups and downs of the publishing industry.

Obi Wan Kenobi panel

The conference fee included breakfast and a sit down lunch both days. Saturday, the keynote speaker was Hallie Ephron and Sunday was William Kent Krueger’s turn. Both were great speakers and left us inspired. The event closed with a short interview with Hallie and Kent, as he likes to be called.

Both of the keynote speakers also put on workshops on writing. Hallie’s was on harnessing characters to drive plot and Kent’s was on how to build suspense. I didn’t get a chance to attend either one, but those who did go told me they were wonderful so I purchased the recordings of the workshops. Yep, every session was recorded. CDs and mp3s were available at the conference. You didn’t have to wait and order them afterwards. Though you can. Here’s the link in case you’re interested:

There was also a cocktail party on Saturday evening where I had some wonderful conversations with people I’ve known for a while and some I just met.

Overall, it was a great event. Sure, I was tired afterward, but I met some great people and came away inspired to write. Isn’t that what a conference is all about?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is crime fiction the “comfort food” of literature?

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday, I was listening to The Next Chapter, a weekly radio show on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) hosted by Shelagh Rogers. She convened her usual summer mystery panel, who made some very interesting recommendations — which actually included some Canadian books for a change.

While interesting, that segment of the show got me thinking in another direction entirely.

Around this time of year, I’m sure we’ve all seen folks at the cash with a stack of crime fiction. You only need to ask and uniformly be told that these fine folks are heading out on vacation. Heck, I’m sure most of us have done this exact thing. I certainly have. My good friend, Marian Misters of the (fabulous) Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore here in Toronto sees a steady stream of these large-volume book buyers every Friday over the summer months. And that’s a very good thing.

What do these people read? Usually something new Marian has told me, so she’s busy making recommendations. “But then there are some who buy older books, one’s they’ve enjoyed in the past and no longer own.” In other words, we’re talking about something people find familiar and enjoyable to read at least a second time. And isn’t that sort of like literary comfort food?

Me being who I am, I started thinking of my favourite places to read, and if I were there right now with a complete crime fiction library of old series, what would I reach for in order to spend an enjoyable afternoon?

For me, I would have to say it would be Nero Wolfe novels. I first discovered crime fiction through the works of Agatha Christie, but one summer, I got a job as the pool boy at a resort in Bridgton, Maine. The place wasn’t very busy and had an older clientele, so I had long days of sitting beside an empty pool, and even if some folks toddled down, it didn’t take a lot of time to fetch fresh towels, a soft drink or cocktail, or send up for food from the kitchen. (I also was expected to save folks from drowning, which fortunately never came up.)

Not knowing about the empty hours when I took the job, I arrived without reading material. Fortunately, the resort had a fairly large library of donated books (or ones left behind), and there were at least two dozen of Rex Stout’s novels and short story collections featuring his corpulent detective, ably assisted by Archie Goodwyn, his man-about-town — as well as a recurring cast of great supporting characters. I found and devoured those books like candy over the first two weeks of my summer, and then scrounged some more in local libraries.

After all this time, put me in a cabin in the woods for a week, hand me a few Nero Wolfe books, and you’d have a very happy reader on your hands.

Now, here’s the thing: I’d like to know what book series (that you’ve already enjoyed) would like to have in your reading pile while enjoying some much-needed time off — and what is it about this series that attracts you?

Please answer! I’d really like to know and I’m sure Type M readers would, as well. Come on. All we need is a couple of quick sentences and that won’t take you long, will it?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Bechdel and Delany Tests

By Vicki Delany

Way back on New Years Week 2015 I discussed the Bechdel test, which is applied to movies, and invented my own test which I call the Delany test.

The Bechdel test:

To pass the test the movie must fulfill three criteria:
  • ·         It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  • ·         Who talk to each other
  • ·         About something besides a man

The Delany Test:
  • Female characters must be portrayed as people, not just women.

Both tests, we realized, are surprisingly hard to pass in movies.  TV shows and books are much more likely to pass both tests.  Probably because of the long plot lines in most TV shows today as well as the rich ensemble casts.  Books, frankly, are a lot more realistic than movies anyway and thus their portrait of women’s relationships with each other and their lives are more realistic.

What prompted me to return to this subject is that last week I went to see Wonder Woman.  First of all, just going to the movies is an unusual outing for me.  I probably see one, maybe two movies a year. Not much appeals to me (see above Blechdel and Delany tests). And I certainly don’t go to superhero movies.  

However, with all the attention and praise Wonder Woman is getting, I thought I’d see what it’s all about.

My thoughts, briefly, are that the beginning is great.  I loved the Amazons.  The middle (when they are in London) was amusing and well done.  The second half of the middle, particularly the battle in the trenches of WWI was thrilling.  And then it all fell apart when we had the climactic battle between WW and the ultimate baddie.  Much destruction ensues. Yawn.

As for the Bechdel test and Delany test?

The first part (on the Amazon Island) passed both with flying colours.

Vicki Writing (not exactly as shown)
Vicki Reading (not exactly as shown)

The London part sorta passed the Bechdel test when the secretary and Diana interact. (Although why a spy and airman has a secretary is never mentioned).  Unfortunately they mostly talked about womanly things, like dressing.  Although, and good for the movie producers, the secretary is a robust middle-aged woman, not some sexy Hollywood thing.

Unfortunately, from then on, the Bechdel test fails. Once they leave London, Diana interacts with no other women and she is surrounded only by men. (Hey, it’s a fantasy: if WW can dodge bullets why can’t French village women at least ask her what’s going on here, if not charge the trenches behind her?)

It does pass the Delany test, in that the evil scientist is played by a woman, in a role that could very easily have been done by a man. Meaning the character is a person, who just happens to be female.  

And WW, despite her skimpy costume and love interest with Chris Pine could be, and has been many, many times, a male role.

For what it’s worth, there’s my analysis!

Do the Bechdel test and the Delany test matter to you? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Characters and Seasons

Donis's blog yesterday about summer reading reminded me of what I've always liked about summer. As a child (student) and as an adult (teacher), I have three months of "summer vacation." Of course, now that I'm a grown-up, I do need to use my summer to get some work done. But summer is the time when I can stay up late reading a book or go to a matinee in the middle of the day (Wonder Woman is at the top of my list).

What has changed is that I don't go outside as much as I did when I was a child. Of course, I've never been a fan of summer heat and bug bites. But growing up in the country in Virginia with a big back yard and paths through woods and dogs, I would never have thought of wasting a summer day inside. Nowadays, living in a house in the city, I've been contemplating setting up my empty (until winter) garage as an "outdoor" space. The problem with the grass in my small yard is that it might have ticks. And, besides, even with sunscreen, I could get too much sun. Grilling -- I remember those wonder family barbecues in the front yard under the big old tree. But I could blow myself up trying to start a grill and what about the health risks of hot dogs?

My seasonal preferences have carried over to my characters. My Southern-born protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, loves the South but hates heat and storms. Hannah McCabe, my police detective, lives in Albany, New York, and is dealing with the sizzling summers produced by climate change. I've set some books during the summer, but haven't had to think like a "summer person".

That brings me to my challenge with one of my major characters in my 1939 historical thriller. He lives in Georgia, and summer is his season. The heat and the sun. The smell of his own sweat. He stands out in a field watching the black clouds roll in. Then he sits on his porch with a drink watching the storm erupt.

He loves the land and the smell of the soil. If I don't capture this part of who this character is, then his motivation for the things he does will fall flat. But I need to step into his work boots.

So in answer to Donis's question about summer reading, I'm heading South with books (fiction and non-fiction) written during the 1930s. Books about summer, with heat and sweat and storms. And I'm hoping that the weather here in Albany will not echo what I'm reading.

Does your character have a favorite season? A time of year that he or she loves, but you don't?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Summer Reading

My latest Alafair Tucker novel, Forty Dead Men, is in the can, as they say, and I await my editor’s final approval. I’ve already begun researching my next novel, but the major thing I want to do before I get deep into writing again is really clean the house—and maybe do some summer reading. I read a lot, but I don’t often get to read what I want. Most of my reading is either a novel for review or something that will help me prepare to teach a writing class.

Since I live in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area, summer is NOT the time for reading a good book out by the pool. That pleasure is reserved for any other time of year. In the middle of summer, the best one can do is close all the curtains, crank up the A/C (and hope that the electricity doesn’t go out), drink lots of water, and lie very still. And if you think I’m kidding, the forecast temperature for the weekend is 116º F, and a projection of 120º F by Tuesday (close to 49º C). As I write this, it’s a reasonable 104º, which by the end of next week will seem almost chilly. All we can do is pray that the National Weather Service prediction is wrong.

In short, when it’s summer in Phoenix, don’t go outside. Stay inside and read a good book.

I have a tendency to choose works by author rather than random title, though a few really great titles have drawn me in. Allow me to list a few authors for your summer reading consideration, present Type M company excepted, because really you can’t go wrong with any of the contributors to this blog. Otherwise:

I love the Hamish Macbeth Mysteries by M.C. Beaton. Her latest is Death of a Ghost.

Mark Pryor’s The Paris Librarian is entertaining and a great way to take a cheap trip to Paris. His latest, The Sorbonne Affair, won't be out until August.

Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden Mysteries feature a Georgia librarian who is recently married to a mystery novelist. This series is back after a long hiatus. I like them because they have a certain depth and humanity without being ponderous about it. The latest is All The Little Liars.

Any Louise Penny book will take you away to a  mystical world in Quebec. Inspector Armand Gamache is an amazing creation. I find this series rather uneven, but the village of Three Pines is such a nice place to visit that it doesn’t really matter that much. The first novel in the series, Still Life, is the place to start.

If you’re into Regencies (which I can take ‘em or leave ‘em, as a rule), I was impressed with A Useful Woman by Darcie Wilde. Wilde’s description of the haute monde in early 19th Century London is fascinating, and her characters seem like real people.
I also like biographies and non-fiction, and I really thought The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown, was exceptionally good.

Do you have a delightful summer reading suggestion for me, Dear Reader?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Guiding the string

Aline's Monday post made me smile, especially the "pounds, shillings, and ounces" in Winnie the Pooh's poem. But she poses a serious question; how long is the book you're writing at the moment going to be? Do you know?

This has always been a source of wonderment for me. As I am writing a book, I don't know where it's going, how long it will take to get there, or indeed, most terrifying of all, will it get there at all? As a modified "pantser", I set off on the book's journey with only a few guideposts and a blind trust that others will come into view as I draw nearer to them. I travel this unknown, uncharted road with the thrill of adventure and discovery, as well as the terror that I might never get to the end of it.

And yet, I always do get there, and in my case, almost always within roughly 90,000 to 100,000 words, coincidentally the word count specified on my contracts. How do I do it? What magic guides me? I don't know, nor do I want to put my creativity under a microscope, because I'm afraid it would fly the coop. But I do keep in mind a few crucial guidelines while I'm writing, and one of them is to keep the ounces out of the pounds and shillings. We want complications in our stories. They are the heart of tension. Without throwing obstacles in the protagonist's path, the story would be over in thirty pages. But an irrelevancy is not a complication; it's a distraction, and as Aline says, it pulls the reader away rather than pulling them forward. Sometimes a cool sidetrack pops into my head as I'm writing, and I feel like exploring it, but all the while I am trying to see if I can fit it into the main storyline. If it can add tension or intrigue to the overall question of the book, then I keep it. Otherwise, sadly, I kill it.

There are a few other guidelines that I use to keep my story moving forward and on track. I call myself a modified pantser because as I am writing, I try to see at least three or four scenes ahead. Since in my current Amanda Doucette series I have three main point-of-view characters each pursuing their own story lines, which have to be braided together into one story with proper pacing, tension, and timelines, I have discovered I need to plan ahead a bit.

Usually the idea for the next scene comes out the scene I am writing. I ask myself one or two of the following questions: "What would logically happen next?" Or "What would this character do next?" And in some cases, "What is the worst thing that could happen?" The first question helps to keep the plot on track, the second keeps the story character-driven, so that characters are not doing things they'd never do just for the sake of the plot. And the third - it's where the spice of the story comes from. It creates the twists, which are often as much a surprise to me as they are to the reader. In FIRE IN THE STARS, for example, I had Amanda's dog running up the path ahead of her, on their way to visit a hermit with some information. I hadn't figured out what Amanda would discover, so I asked myself "What will the dog find?" Followed by "What's the worst thing she could find?" And presto ...

But use the spice sparingly. Otherwise it will lose its punch. I once read a book which had a car chase or fire or explosion in every chapter. After awhile I thought, Oh yawn, not another explosion.

I agree with Aline. Life is too short to spend time on a 500-page novel that meanders and rambles. Some long novels are spell-binding and draw the reader deep into a fascinating world that we never want to leave. But the more I read and write, the less patience I have for padded verbiage and precious literary devices that leaves me feeling as if I'm spinning off-kilter. As writers we have to be ruthless with ourselves and our prose. That's what rewrites (and rewrites and rewrites) are for – to ask ourselves Do I really need this? Does it add to the story? Is it predictable? Boring? Irrelevant? Sometimes ounces are useful in a mystery novel, as red herrings that lead the reader down the garden path, but they need to do that in a way that is tied to the resolution of the story.

I don't need the story to be all neatly tied up in a bow at the end. Life is not tidy. I like ambiguity and even loose ends, especially in a series, where some questions remain to be answered in the next book. But the central question of the book has to be answered somehow, and I would find a tangle of irrelevancies and loose ends utterly unsatisfying. So the final job for a pantser is to hunt down all the loose threads and make sure you've tied them off.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The visceral image of the “smoking gun”

by Rick Blechta

“The smoking gun.”

This is a very much-used — you could easily say overused — colloquial term, especially in the supercharged political climate of the US. But its use paints such a strong visual, it doesn’t tend to grate with me. Maybe I’m just not that sensitive to cliché or maybe it’s just that there really is no better term.

We crime writers deal a lot with smoking guns in our plots, but I can’t think of a time where the exact term was used in a book I’ve read. Certainly I’ve never used it — and I did a cursory check to be sure, going back six publications.

Personally, I still like it in that it allows one to immediately cut to the heart of an issue. “We’ve finally discovered the smoking gun and that’s going to lead us to exactly what has been going on.” “Smoking gun” tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it?

Not that the media cares much about overuse of a term, but good writing practice dictates that clichés should generally be avoided, and “smoking gun” certainly is used often enough to fall into that category. I’m sure it’s continued wide use is due to the fact that conveys so much information in only two words. That kind of shorthand is very useful for the media and people’s quick general understanding of what can be complicated ideas.

My question is this: since it’s become such an overused term, what would we substitute for it if it’s now time to move it onto the cliché pile?

Would anyone out there be willing to make a suggestion?

Monday, June 12, 2017

How Long is a Piece of String?

Or rather, how long is the book you're writing at the moment going to be?  Do you know?

Perhaps you are the sort of writer I greatly admire, who has it all mapped out chapter by chapter to exactly the appropriate length?  Or perhaps you're like me and the book will be as long as it takes to tell the story?

I've always done it that way and in fact most of my books tend to work out around the 120,000 word mark, plus or minus. But recently I've wondered whether letting the story have its head is actually the best idea.  I found myself thinking about Winnie the Pooh writing a poem that mentioned 'pounds, shillings and ounces'; when Piglet protested that he didn't think the ounces ought to be there, he replied, 'They wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them.'

What prompted this was recently reading two or three very long books - 500, 600 pages. The story was usually very complicated; it seems to be a current fashion for having more than one timescale.  Though I always started off with great enthusiasm I found myself struggling well before the end.

The problem was that just at the point where you had got involved with the characters, the author allowed another story to butt in, not because it was essential to the plot but because it wanted to come in.  Very often the intervention went on so long that by the time you got back to the first subject you couldn't remember anything about those characters at all.

I read quickly, but even so reading a very long book can take a week or more. If you are a slow reader you must be living with some of these books for months at a time.  And I find books tend to go off with long keeping, just the way milk does, so I wonder how many doorstep books do actually get read right to the end.

For most of my life I operated the 'I've started so I'll finish' rule.  More recently I've decided that unless you're talking about something with the calibre of War and Peace, life's too short to go on with a book I'm not enjoying.

I think perhaps I'd better take a harder line with my own plots if I want to be sure that doesn't happen to mine.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Guest Blogger Dan Baldwin

Type M is thrilled to welcome guest blogger Dan Baldwin. To say than Dan is a prolific author would be an understatement. He is both traditionally and self-published in non-fiction and in multiple-genre fiction. He is also a paranormal investigator who uses his pendulum dowsing skills to help find missing persons and solve crimes. His non-fiction book on psychic detecting, They Are Not Yet Lost, earned the Winner designation in the Arizona-New Mexico Book Awards.

Write What You Know.

(And You Know More than You Think)

Dan Baldwin

Writers are advised to “write what you know.” That’s great advice, but what if you believe your genre makes it impossible to know? I’ve never looked for the Maltese Falcon, never fought organized crime in the Tombstone of the 1880s, played a game of thrones, fought seven samurai, or, try as I may, warped through space to the Lost Planet of NFL Cheerleaders. How can a writer make unknown worlds real when he or she has no experience in them?

Take heart; you know far more than you think.

Obviously, none of us know the ins and outs of faraway places with strange sounding names. (Have you ever fought a Slugorthian Flame Dancer at the Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe?) So how do we run that literary blockade?

Writing is about people and you know people. You can fill in the blanks through research and imagination when crafting your worlds. I’ve never been a gumshoe investigating a burglary during the 1950s. But if I want to write about crime solving in those years I can turn to my copy of Modern Criminal Investigation by Charles O’Hara for the facts and figures and the ins and outs of that time. Research is the easy (and fun) part.

All that’s great, but the writing will succeed or fail on conflict and character.

Transplant the information you have stored up in your life experience into your scenes. For example, you’ve never been in a dangerous confrontation between ace detectives Samantha Spade and Mildred Pharlowe and their nemesis, Casper Gutman. But you have probably been to a board meeting. You have certainly been to a committee meeting. You’ve experienced conflict in the club’s locker room, the Friday night get together, the break room at work, the golf course, the women’s political action committee, the supermarket and any number of other places. You’ve seen bullying, cowardice, bravery and people looking the other way. All those emotions and more come into play in a good story - and you know those emotions.

Use that experience to fuel the scene in your book, short story, screenplay or Internet post.

For example, if you’re writing a crime novel set in the Wild West, think back to that committee meeting. The pushy chairman with his own agenda becomes the greedy cattle baron determined to take over the town. The yes men on the committee are his hired guns. That quiet guy from accounting becomes the alcoholic doctor trying to find some dignity before cashing in his chips. The attractive woman across the table is the school marm fighting against the odds to civilize an uncivilized town. Or, she could be the soiled dove with the heart of gold. The others members are the defenseless towns folk fearful and in need of a hero. You, well, of course, you’re John Wayne. Or Annie Oakley. Or even Rin Tin Tin.

Take the events and conflict of that meeting or confrontation, transpose them to your work, expand and exaggerate where appropriate. “I call this meeting to order” becomes “All right, cyber-copper, now I’m gonna plug yer memory hole.” You’ll be surprised at how accurate your scene becomes – because it’s real. It’s based on genuine human emotion and interaction. Readers will respond because your words reach them with the common language of emotion regardless of whether it’s spoken in the slang of film noir, cowboy drawl, Scottish brogue or the slimy syntax of a Slugorthian Flame Dancer.

Plug in the details as needed. For example, Casper Gutman’s swarthy assistant no longer carries “a big gun.” He carries a Colt .45 1917 Service Model revolver, “a roscoe like the punk’s mouth - too big and guaranteed to get him into trouble.” Details are important. But you can dig up the details you need in books, online, in interviews, and through personal research.

The key to successful writing, however, is the true human emotion you put into your work.

But you already know that.


Dan Baldwin is the author of the Caldera series of westerns, Trapp Canyon, Bock’s Canyon, and A Stalking Death, also westerns; the mysteries Desecration, Heresy and Vengeance; and the thriller Sparky and the King; two short story collections – Dank Summit and Other Stories and Vampire Bimbos on Spring Break (as Michael Baudoin). Baldwin’s short stories Two to Go and Jimi Strawberry’s Gas Bomb earned a 1st and 2nd place, and Flat Busted earned an Honorable Mention, and his poem "Ol’ Marty He Done What He Should" earned 3rd place in the Society of Southwestern Authors writing competition. He is also the author/photographer of the Wildflower Stew series of photo books on wildflowers of the Southwest. Other non-fiction works include Find Me as told to Dan Baldwin, The Practical Pendulum, The Levine Project-Fighting Terror in Tucson, and Time Served-Investigating History Through the Voices of Those Who Lived It.

Contact Dan at,,\

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Don Henley and Voice

Tuesday night, I drove two hours across Massachusetts on Route 2 and into Boston to see Don Henley play at an outdoor venue on the waterfront in 40-degrees and rain. He played all the songs I remember from the 80s, and (along with 5,000 other gray-haired aficionados) I stood and sang along with him. At one point, I turned to my friend Greg Leeds and said, “The guy’s voice never changes.”

Which got me thinking: the songs (the lyrics about memories and about loves lost; the blend of guitars and horns; and the long, sweeping choruses) sound the same. And so too does Don Henley –– that whiskey voice we all recognize instantly.

Voice, we talk about when discussing authors, is a writer’s DNA. I can take a paragraph from Annie Dillard, set it next to one from Alice Walker, and a reader will immediately be able to name the author of each paragraph.

So what is voice?

Technically, it’s the nuances of diction and syntax that roll into a sound/personality/persona on the page. I read somewhere that a writer finds his or her voice when they’ve written a stack of pages that exceeds their own height. I’ve also read that you know you’ve found your voice when you know it. I had that experience: seated in the damp basement of our first home early one morning, writing my third novel, I sat back and re-read the sentence I’d just written, realizing it sounded precisely as I’d hoped. To a guy who loves writing because you always feel like the dog chasing its own tail, this was a startling moment: I had produced one sentence that offered the absolute clarity I hoped for. (Hopefully, there have been a few more and others along the way.)

It was Hemingway, who, after all, also wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Does truth equate to voice? Maybe not entirely. Consider James Crumley’s opening line to The Last Good Kiss (1978): “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” We can examine the line for its rolling syntax, subordinate and main clauses, look at the clever adjectives, and as Billy Collins would say, “beat it with a hose.” But what’s the use? We know everything we need to know about the speaker, C.W. Sughrue, an alcoholic former military man now a private investigator. And we know a thing or two about his creator: Crumley’s voice –– cynical, observant, and lyrical –– appears in his opening line. You meet the writer, the speaker, and want to spend more time with both of them.

Which brings me back to Don Henley and Voice. We can all try new sounds. I’ve written from the perspective of men, women, children; tough guys and mothers; people who hold my political convictions, and those who do not. Yet in the end, I’m certain there are aspects of my syntax that does not vary. I wish I was as fluid as Crumley but admittedly am not. For, as Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” which keeps us all writing –– and searching for our own voices.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Persistence is Key

This weekend I’ll be in Culver City attending the California Crime Writers Conference. On Sunday, I’ll be moderating a panel on surviving the ups and downs of the publishing world with Sue Ann Jaffarian, Patricia Smiley and Jeri Westerson. Between the three of them, they’ve published over 50 books plus numerous novellas and short stories. I didn’t count, but I’ve probably read at least half of them.

Even though I’ve known these folks awhile, I learned even more about them while preparing the questions for the panel. They’ve all had their problems from agents and editors dying or quitting to publishers dropping a series. Through it all they persisted.

I think persistence is key in all walks of life. Sometimes things run smoothly and go as you planned, but more often you run into stumbling blocks, some big, some small. The key is not to let those problems prevent you from reaching your goal, whatever that is. Sometimes that means events not happening at the time you expected or wanted them to.

I’m also a firm believer that most things happen for a reason. I was disappointed years and years ago when I couldn’t get an agent or find a publisher for my first book. Now that I look back, I’m glad I didn’t. The version of the book that eventually did get published is so much better than the one I’d originally shopped around. Over the years I grew as a writer and learned how to better tell a story.

My wish for you all: Whatever your goal, may you sail through the calm waters and navigate the rough seas successfully.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Here’s a thing we writers need to remember

by Rick Blechta

Driving back from a book event I attended this weekend (Limestone Genre Expo), I had plenty of time to reflect on plenty of things.

Sure, I did a lot of scrolling back over what my experience had been, but one small comment from a reader rose to the surface and has stuck in my brain: “About ten years ago I ran across one of your books at during a cottage stay with a friend. She didn’t remember how it had even gotten there but I picked it up on a rainy day and I couldn’t put it down.”

The book in question turned out to be Cemetery of the Nameless. We struck up a more lengthy conversation about some details from the book (she remembered them still!) and I answered as best I could. She also bought a copy of The Fallen One (my recommendation, though she was taken with the cover and probably would have chosen it anyway) and I hope she’s enjoying that story as much as the first.

Now here’s why the conversation has really stuck with me. Putting aside the fact that it’s nice to have one’s ego stroked a bit like that, I have 11 books that are floating around out there. When I put down my pen for the last time, they’ll still be around. Somebody perhaps a hundred years in the future might pick one up, read and enjoy it and wonder who this Blechta character was.

We all tend to live in the here and now and a little in the “not-too-distant future”, but do we often think of ourselves 100 years hence? Of course not. But when we publish books, produce paintings or sculptures, compose music, or do anything artistic or creative, we’re actually making it possible to outlive our mortal timespan.

Now isn’t that a very cool thing to keep in mind when the going is tough?

Monday, June 05, 2017

Thank you.

by Vicki Delany

It has often been said that writers toil in solitude. We then release a book and wait anxiously for reviews to start coming in.  We might meet a few readers at conferences or book signings but generally we then retreat back to our unheated garrets and toil on the next book.

Image result for thank you images

There is some truth to that, but the rise of social media has given us a way of interacting with our readers that previous generations of writers could only dream of.  

This was brought home to me this past week when I announced on Facebook and Twitter that my Lighthouse Library cozy series (written under the pen name of Eva Gates) has been saved. As you may know Penguin Random House did a massive cull of their mass market line, and cozies were particularly hard hit. The Lighthouse Library series included. As the series was a work for hire, the publisher owned the copyright and thus I couldn’t continue to write it.

The people at Crooked Lane Books, who publish the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, wanted to take it on, so they asked my agent, the marvellous Kim Lionetti of Bookends, if she would ask Penguin if they’d release it.

And they did! I got the copyright and then signed a contract with Crooked Lane for the next three books in the series.

I made the announcement on social media, and the response from readers was overwhelming and heartfelt. I was genuinely touched at what people had to say.

So, thank you to everyone who wrote to me.

We don’t have a publication date yet, but probably spring 2018 for Lighthouse Library #4. And I will be keeping the Eva Gates name.