Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Resolutions--Makin' Them, Breakin' Them.

Are you planning on making any New Year’s Resolutions? Maybe to get that first draft finished? Perhaps to catch the attention of that literary agent? To attend at least one writers’ conference? Your resolution might be as simple as promising to sit down and write…every single day. Something. A sentence, a paragraph. Every single day.

But I’m a pragmatist, so who better to throw cold water on anyone’s intent to have a better 2019?Only 8 percent of people who make resolutions actually keep them. According to multiple sources, some of the reasons that people can’t stick to their resolutions are they set too many of them and are derailed by small failures. And when setting overly ambitious goals, the glow of the moment fades when we realize how difficult our resolutions are to keep.

How did all of this start? It’s said that the ancient Babylonians were the first people to make New Year’s Resolutions as long as 4,000 years ago. According to the History Channel, they were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of the new year, but with a twist. Their year began in mid-March, when the crops were planted. In addition to crowning a new king or reaffirming their loyalty to the reigning king, they made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they’d borrowed. These promises were the forerunners of our present day New Year’s Resolutions.

Then in ancient Rome, Julius Caesar tweaked the calendar and established January 1 as the beginning of the New Year, circa 46 B. C. Named for Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches, January held a special meaning for the Romans. Believing that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead to the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

In the Medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the year to reaffirm their commitment to chivalry. Early Christians believed that the first day of the new year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the new year.

So, what are my resolutions?

1) A healthier diet…more salads, less carbs, less sugar…which means less wine. Well, we all know how that resolution is going to end up.

2) Exercise more often. Carve out time for a long walk or the stationary bike.

3) Don’t be afraid of my first draft. I have to remember that a bad first draft is better than no draft at all.

4) Read more. I’m a voracious news junkie, but I find when I’m writing, I can’t seem to find time to read books.  That should be every bit as important as time for writing.

5) Cut back…way back…on the Internet. That is a time KILLER.

6) Learn to relax, take a deep breath, look around and appreciate life.

I have no idea how many of these resolutions I’ll be able to say that I kept by this time next year. But I do know that I want to wish you all a Happy New Year and I hope that 2019 will be epic.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Default Setting

Sorry I'm late today. I'm getting a slow start because I was up late last night and slept in. Because I'm on intersession schedule and working at home rather than the office, I haven't been setting my alarm. Left to my own devices -- i.e., doing what I do naturally -- I become nocturnal and have to watch the clock to remind myself to go to bed. Last night, my cat went to bed before I did.

But I was already thinking about my 1939 characters and their default settings -- how they go about their lives unless compelled or making an effort to do something else. I've been thinking about that because I've been considering how I might weave that into the plot. I have multiple characters, and I want to give them lives. Real people go about their lives negotiating with the world and making adjustments -- or not. They have to cope with their natural inclinations. 

So I've been pondering each character's default setting. This is more of a challenge than I usually have with a book. I'm accustomed to writing series protagonists. I know by now how they navigate life. I even know a lot about my recurring secondary characters. I spent a lot of time learning about Jo Radcliffe, my most recent protagonist, a former Army nurse in the late 1940s who debuted in an EQMM short story.  But now I'm writing a standalone. I have a cast of characters in a much larger book than I've tried before -- not so much in word count but in the size of the canvas and the problems they encounter. It's 1939. First, they were dealing with the Great Depression. Now, they are living in a world on the brink of war.

I have to keep reminding myself that I have knowledge that they don't have yet. In April 1939, they don't know what is going to happen in September. They don't know that Pearl Harbor will be bombed and the United States will no longer have the option of staying out of the war. I need to get into their mindsets as people who are even less able to see into the future than we are in 2018. How are they going about their lives in an era of uncertainty, but one in which they are not dealing with a 24-hour news cycle and social media? What are their default settings? What makes each of them make adjustments -- work schedules, promises to friends, an evening out or church on Sunday?

I need to ponder how each deals with day-to-day life before getting themselves into the difficulties of the plot. I keep coming back to their bios and asking myself questions about them. That is my default setting as a writer. Even when I want to plunge into my thriller and see where I end up, my tendency is to keep circling back to read my characters' bios.

Last night, when I was up browsing on my computer, I had my characters on my mind. This morning when I woke up, I was wondering who among them would understand why I didn't go to bed last night and woke up late and sluggish. My Pullman porter is a night worker by necessity. But I think he would be tucked into bed before midnight if he had a choice. How does lack of sleep affect what he does? My villain on the other hand, likes to roam about outside at night. He lives in Georgia, on the plantation that once belonged to his grandfather. He is a businessman now, travels back and forth to Washington and New York City. But wherever he is, his default setting is to be up and restless. Does he leave his hotel room and go for a walk? If he does, what happens?

By the way, I have been thinking about who would play these characters in a movie. I, too, am having a problem with the ages of the actors who come to mind. So, I'm still pondering.

Happy New Year!  See you in 2019.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Casting My Movie

Happy Holidays, everyone. I hope your Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza was wonderful, and allow me to wish you a wonderful New Year's Day and a happy and prosperous and non-scary 2019.

I'm envisioning you all sitting around in a post-holiday stupor, full of good eats and good cheer, reading good books and watching good movies. For the past couple of weeks, we've had a bit of a theme going on here at Type M 4 Murder, in which a few of us have speculated on who we would cast to play the characters in our novels when (not "if") they are made into movies.

My sleuth, Alafair Tucker, is a woman in her early forties, who lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm in Oklahoma in the early part of the Twentieth Century. She never sets out to solve murders, but all those pesky kids keep getting involved in unsavory situations and need their mother to get them out of trouble. Fortunately for me, Alafair is the kind of woman who will literally do anything, legal or not so legal, for her kids.

I made a point of not physically describing my main character, Alafair, except in generalities, even though I have a clear picture of her in my head. After ten books, a few details about her appearance have slipped out. She has dark hair that she can’t do anything with. She has dark eyes and a sun-browned complexion. She’s middle-ages and middle-sized. I didn’t create Alafair or any of the other characters with actors in mind. Alafair and her family are all based on friends or relatives of mine, living and dead.

But that doesn’t keep readers from casting my movie for me.

One fan of the series suggested to me that Alafair should be played by Kathy Bates. Not two weeks later, another woman thought Joan Allen would be a good Alafair. That certainly runs the gamut of physical types. I’d be thrilled to have either of these actresses play Alafair. However, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re both too old. Sandra Bullock is closer to Alafair’s age, though considering that Alafair is a farm wife with many kids, Sandy would have to be deglamorized quite a bit. Of course, if Meryl Streep would agree to the part, that would suit me just fine, no matter how old she is.

Alafair’s husband, Shaw, is one-quarter Cherokee, six feet tall, hazel eyed, with black hair and a floppy mustache. Sounds just like either Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck in his prime. However, Shaw has a certain straightforward, honest, Western sensibility that reminds me of parts I have seen played by Matt Damon or Matthew McConnaughey. Two blonds who’d need a dye job to portray Shaw, but they’re about the right age. If George Clooney is looking to expand his repertoire, I’d be willing to give him a shot at it. Besides, it would give me a great excuse to visit the set every day.

Alafair and Shaw have two sons, Gee Dub and Charlie, and eight daughters.* Lots of good work for younger actors.

The problem with casting the offspring is that I’m not up on today’s crop of young actors. I’m sure the perfect tall, lanky young man with a mop of dark curls is out there to tackle the role of Gee Dub, but I don’t know who he is. I like the head of hair on Graham Phillips, the young guy who played Alicia’s son on The Good Wife. Could he be a laconic, Western type? As far as a choosing a great actor, I couldn’t go wrong with Freddie Highmore, even if he is English. I mean, he IS a great actor, so surely he could handle an Oklahoma drawl. And he has grown up very well since he was Charlie in Charlie and Chocolate Factory. As for the girls, there are so many wonderful young actresses working these days, and with eight daughters of all ages and all types to be cast, there's bound to be a part for anyone who wants one. Hailee Steinfeld will make a perfect Grace, when Grace grows up a little.

I’ll play the part of Grandma Sally myself.
* In the interest of space, I'll list the girls here: Martha, Mary, Alice, Phoebe, Ruth, Blanche, Sophronia, and Grace.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Holiday thoughts

Today's blog will be brief, because I have a house full of family, so there are dinners and dishes and presents, oh my. Today is the day after Christmas, which means many things to different people. For some, the festivities are ongoing, often with visits to the extended relatives. For others, it's a day to throw out the wrapping paper, pack away the good dishes and silverware, and generally restore order to the house that had descended into chaos. For still others, it's a day to sleep, toss back Alka Seltzer and Gaviscon, and nurse the hangover from overly enthusiastic celebrations of the day before. And some (especially those with  hangovers) are waving good bye and good riddance to the out of town relatives, mere moments before blood is drawn.

And for Canadians, there is also the tradition of Boxing Day on December 26, which used to be the biggest shopping day of the year, when businesses discounted their goods by huge margins to clear the holiday merchandise before years' end. Now Boxing Day is being eclipsed by pre-Christmas sales, as each business tries to get the edge in a highly competitive market, and by Black Friday, which has sneaked in from the United States due to vigorous advertising.

Gone are the hype, the good cheer and the wishes of peace on earth. Gone are the church masses and the touching nativity stories. It's a memorable time full of anticipation, excitement, and laudable messages of caring, and in the aftermath, feelings can range from disappointment and exhaustion to exhilaration and relief. Often all of the above.

There are those, however, for whom the holiday is tinged with pain or even eclipsed by it. People who are missing loved ones, people who are alone and far from home, people who have lost their families through war or misfortune. At no time is the loneliness more acute than when everyone else is celebrating with family, talking about what gifts they are buying and the festive feasts they are preparing. To them, the end of the holidays comes as a welcome relief, when they can get on with their lives and look forward to the fresh start that a new year can bring.

Our family celebrates Hanukah and also, with our expanded family, Christmas as well, which makes for a lot of celebrating! By the time of my next blog post, we will be six days into the new year. My new year's resolutions, pro forma at best and always pointless, will be long forgotten and I will be back hard at work. So I will take this occasion to wish everyone a wonderful 2019 and a fervent hope for peace, happiness, and security across the world.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Happy Christmas

I'm writing this surrounded by the suitcases, presents and various comestibles of a festive short, ready to set off on our journey to the south of England with my daughter and her family and by the time you read it, it will be Christmas Eve and you'll all be rushing round too.  So this will be short; just sending my good wishes for a lovely Christmas and, after as bitterly divisive a year as I have ever known, my fervent hope that 2019 will be a year of peace, kindness and tolerance.for us all.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

2019 Looking Glass

Time to recap 2018 and gaze into the looking glass for 2019.

This last year gave me plenty of reasons to celebrate. I published two books, one of them my novel, Steampunk Banditos, and the anthology I'd edited, Blood & Gasoline. Plus I had one short story published, "Flawless" in A Fistful of Dinosaurs, and signed a contract for one to be published next year. I also received rejections on a couple of short stories but that's par for the course. Hopefully I'll find a home for them next year. I was honored to be a Guest of Honor at MileHi Con 50. I taught at Lighthouse and in the Regis University Mile High MFA program. Added to that is more cause for applause but I'll keep that hushed as it's not yet a done deal and I don't want to jinx myself.

My favorite read of the year has been out a while, The Promise, by Robert Crais.

Like many of you, social media has caused me to grind my teeth in frustration and disgust at many things. What's particularly grating is the increased intrusion into our lives by the tech companies. Recently Google rolled out an enhanced Gmail that supposedly improves my email "experience," but that's a lie. For one, my Gmail account is slower and more cumbersome than ever. And two, forget any pretense of privacy. Gmail automatically offers automated responses, which means they're reading my correspondence to teach their AI robots. Plus our searches are shared cross-platform. I Google something on my phone and then on my computer, without asking, Facebook pops up with relevant suggestions. Of course the companies deny they're spying, but we all know they're aggregating as much as possible about us into secret profiles, which they then monetize. Big Brother in 1984 was nothing compared to Alphabet, Inc. For 2019 I'm expecting more stories where smart speakers become part of homicide investigations. And that high-tech remains as vulnerable as ever to criminal predations.

On the writing side, I can't offer much in the way of prognostication, other than we "ink-stained wretches" have to tread on ever-more fragile eggshells. I borrowed that line from Kurt Vonnegut and I wonder how long before his reputation is pilloried for the un-pc things that he wrote back when. I've been told that steampunk has shrunk to a narrow-gauge railway, and that the time for the big breakout novel of that genre has come and gone. Demand for stories about the post-Apocalypse has stalled except when it hasn't. Vampires and other supernatural creatures, especially in YA, remain popular provided you put a timely spin on your stories. Science-fiction enjoys a resurgence. And crime fiction remains as popular as ever given that we humans are, as my favorite Bible verse (Job 5:7) puts it, "...born into trouble just as surely as sparks fly upward."

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Casting The Aurora Anderson Mysteries

It’s been fun to see the recent Type M posts on the actors my fellow writers would cast in the movie version of their books. I thought I’d get in on the discussion and talk about who I would cast for three of the characters in my Aurora Anderson mystery series.

I started thinking about this a couple years ago when an interviewer asked me that question. Some authors have particular actors in mind when they write their characters, but that’s not me. I do have a vision of what each one would look like, though.

So here are my selections for my main character, Aurora (Rory) Anderson, her BFF, Liz Dexter, and Detective Martin Green, the Vista Beach police detective who appears in all of the books.

Whoever plays Rory needs to be tall since she’s 6 feet. My choice is Mandy Moore who is in “This is Us”. She exudes a girl next door vibe, which is how I see Rory, and she’s fairly tall.

For Liz, I chose Kimiko Glenn best known for “Orange is the New Black”. I’ve never watched the show, but from what I can tell it’s not exactly a “cozy” storyline. Still, I saw an interview with her about “Waitress,” the musical she was in and thought she’d make a good Liz. They also have a similar mixed parentage.

For Detective Green, I chose Daniel Gillies who plays Elijah on “The Originals”/”The Vampire Diaries”. Dashing D as Liz calls him in the books is handsome and a tad shorter than Rory. I can see Daniel Gillies in the part. Well, I pretty much can see him in any role and I'd watch anything he's in.

I gave the above photo to a friend of mine who decided she was going to work on portraits of some of the characters in my books. After studying the descriptions in the books, talking with me about the characters and looking at the photo, here’s what she came up with for Rory.

I think it represents my vision of Rory pretty well. I’m really interested in seeing what she comes up with for some of the other characters.

This has been a fun exercise. I hope you all have a nice holiday. I’ll see you in the new year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

It’s a wonderful thing finding a new author

by Rick Blechta

I play in a big band and the guy who plays next to me in the trumpet section is a huge crime fiction reader. He’s always telling me about the books he’s reading (never mine for some reason) and asking questions about writers he enjoys, some of whom I know.

A few weeks ago during a rehearsal, he passed over a book and indicated a passage and asked what I thought of it.

I quickly read it (because we were about to start playing) and while the sax section worked something over, I had to reread it. Why? Because it was so darn good. I took down the information on the book, intending to look into them.

During another playing gap, I asked some questions. It was the third book he’d read by this author, Andrea Camilleri The series is set in Sicily and it’s your basic police procedural in form. The main character is Inspector Montalbano. The novel’s title was The Scent of the Night. I took down the information on the book, intending to look into them. The following rehearsal, my colleague presented me with the first book in the series (borrowed from his library) and gave it to me to read since it wasn’t due for another 10 days. I went home and read it basically in one long sitting.

What caught my attention immediately was the quality of the writing. Now understand, these novels are written in Italian (including some Sicilian dialect), so everything I read was filtered through a translator, and as we all know, there are good and bad translations of books. In this case, the translator Stephen Sartarelli seemed to do an excellent job. I checked it out with my wife’s Italian teacher (who is Italian). She’s read Camilleri in Italian. Skimming my translated copy she felt it was done very well.

So basically what I’m saying here is that if you haven’t yet discovered this author, go out and get one of his books. I’m sure you could start anywhere in the series because the set-up is very much like the manner in which the Nero Wolfe series began: it just jumps in with everything “up and running.” All you have to do is get to know the various continuing characters.

The first novel in the series is The Shape of Water. Very important: This novel has nothing to do with the recent movie by Guillermo del Toro.

You will be transported to Sicily at the time of the writing (early ’90s) and it is fascinating. The plot is well set up and works well but is nothing astounding. It is the quality of the writing and the skill of the author that makes the novel really quite special. Camilleri makes you feel as if you’re there with very minimal description. I read the novel for a second time and was rather amazed at how little there is. The way he pulls it off is almost like a magic trick. I’ve finished the next two novels and they are the same high quality. Now I know why Aline has such a fondness for this author.

So during my down time (what little of it there is) this holiday season, you know where can find me: vicariously in Sicily!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Twins, the Holiday, and Pushing Laundry Up the Steps

I’d like to start out this blog with holiday news on the family front.  My daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Josh, have struggled for years to have a baby.  In the end, they went in-vitro and discovered that they were going to have twins.  An ultrasound told them that the kiddos were a boy and a girl.  Due date scheduled for the middle of January.

My oldest son, Tom, and his wife, Gillian, have two sons (my grandsons) Henry, twelve, and Jake, ten, whom I adore.  They’re smart, athletic, and funny as hell. Tom and Gillian are wonderful parents and it shows in their kids.

But we doubled the amount of grandkids around here when my daughter went into early labor last week and delivered Caroline Elise, 4lb 9 oz, and Thomas Frederick, 4lb 8 oz, 22 minutes later.  Both children are doing well but they will be in the NICU while they finish “cooking”.

I got the call after midnight from my son-in-law about the delivery.  When I heard they’d named the boy ‘Thomas’, I sat down at the kitchen table with a scotch in my hand and tears in my eyes.

And I about lost it when I heard the girl was named ‘Caroline’.

A little back story: I was a single dad from the time my daughter was thirteen. Jessica and I learned a lot together.  I didn’t know anything about shopping for groceries or cooking, but Jess and I learned it together.  Now, I love cooking.  I make mention of that in an earlier blog.  It’s really the main reason Cindy married me.  I do all the cooking.

In my first Geneva Chase book, Random Road, I introduce Kevin Bell, Geneva’s love interest.  He’s a single dad raising a thirteen year old girl named Caroline.  I had written Caroline with my own daughter in mind.

And now Caroline is real.

Switching gears:
Two days ago, Frankie Y. Bailey wrote an excellent blog about how she imagined her characters would spend their holiday. 

In Graveyard Bay, scheduled for release in July of 2019, the novel takes place the week before Christmas. I can’t say a whole lot about how Geneva Chase, Caroline Bell, and Mike Dillon spend their holiday, but if you’ve read the first twobooks in the series, you know it isn’t all decorations, sugar plum fairies, and boughs of holly.  It’s more guns, murder, whips and chains.

Good holiday fun.

The time of year that I begin writing a book has been the time of year the story takes place. In Random Road the story is told in the heat of July.  That worked for me on a number of levels.  A lot of the action takes place outside but the hottest scenes are in the bedroom.  Summer was perfect, plus that’s when I wrote the opening scene.

The second book, Darkness Lane, takes place prior to Halloween.  I love that time of year.  It’s autumn, the trees are resplendent, there’s a bite in the air, and it’s spooky.  Scenes in that book unfold in a dark forest, an old theater, and a haunted house.

Establishing the time of year and the location gives me the opportunity to afford the reader details that help make the book more real.  I use sounds, sights, and most importantly, scents in my descriptions. Holiday time has such wonderful scents—Christmas trees, baking cookies, cinnamon, roasting chestnuts (especially in New York).

Some smells are nearly universal in how they trigger memories.  For example, the holiday scents I mentioned in the prior paragraph.  The smells of a pizzeria—garlic, tomatoes, peppers.  The scents of a walk through a forest in autumn—decomposing leaves, damp earth, the smoke from wood fires in distant fireplaces. All of them are relatable to readers.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough.  I’m heading out to buy last minute presents.  But before that, I’m checking out photos of the kiddos again.

One last thing, I’ll leave you with a Facebook post by my son about Jake and Henry:

After comparing the 10 year old to Sisyphus as he was pushing two baskets of clothes up the stairs one step at a time, he gets to the top and says to his brother, "help me, I'm dying"

His brother, like the rest of the family, well schooled in the nihilistic fact that our long trek towards death begins the moment we're born, responds, "we all are."

I've raised them well.

Cheers and Happy Holiday.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Guest Post - Jean Briggs

Aline here.  I'm delighted this week to introduce you to my friend Jean Briggs.  She is clever and witty and as an English teacher amused her pupils with spoof murder mystery plays with titles like A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon.    But when she decided to write a crime novel it was her passion for Charles Dickens that came to the fore.  He was interested in crimes and police work, so it needed only a small leap of the imagination to cast him as the sleuth in her 'Dickens and Jones' mysteries. For the benefit of our transatlantic readers, Dickins and Jones was the name of a famous London department store, like Bergdorf Goodman, which gives the hint that her tongue-in-cheek style hasn't been totally abandoned!

What’s in a name? 

Graveyards; obituary notices, and births and marriages; the British Newspaper Archive; the Bible; The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames – these are some of the places from where I steal the names of my characters. Graveyards, though somewhat melancholy, are a very useful resource for nineteenth century names – names you’ve often not heard before. I came across the Reverend Moister in a churchyard near me. The Resurrection Woman – he sprang to life as vividly as anything from Charles Dickens. He would be damp about the hands, naturally, moist about the brow, and oystery about the eyes – something of the hypocrite about him, I thought, stuffing the funeral baked meats into his crocodile mouth while wiping away the tears for the murdered man – or woman.
            Dickens made up some of his names. He clearly enjoyed the sounds as well as the moral connotations of the words. Who can forget Pumblechook, Wopsle, Sweedlepipes, Pecksniff , Squeers? And Scrooge, of course, with its connotations of screw and scrouge, the latter an archaic word for squeeze. Dickens borrowed names, too, from graveyards, streets, shop fronts and people he knew. He saw the name Pickwick on a coach. I borrowed Vholes from him, imagining a moment in one of my murder mysteries when Dickens, disguised as a lawyer, suddenly needs a name. Vholes is a lawyer from Bleak House – his name suits his creeping character. Dickens tells his policeman partner, Superintendent Jones, that he saw the name on a passing cart – thus fiction grows out of fact.
            So often, the names of Dickens’s characters fit their personalities. In naming my characters, there is some alchemy at work, especially for the good and the bad. Sometimes names just come – perhaps unknowingly known, but suddenly apposite.
            Brim is the surname of two innocent children, Tom and Eleanor. It seemed right: short and suggestive of delight. Tilly Moon is an albino child with strange, silvery hair – scorned by the neighbours, and not long for this world. Robin Hart, a missing boy, is ‘bonny sweet Robin’ of Ophelia’s song. His mother drowns. I found the name Drown in a newspaper and gave it to Edward Drown so that Dickens could call him ‘Drown-Ed.’ Dickens loved puns. Dickens befriends a street urchin in my first book, a ragged sort of lad, small for his age. He became Scrap.
            I like a bit of comedy, too – murder’s a grim business. Betty Chew is the toothless charwoman to Mrs Ginger, mistress of a very bad man. Maggie Brine keeps a pub and dilutes her gin with vitriol – it did happen. Georgie Taylor was an infamous dog thief in 1850s London. I gave him a wife – Charity – the meanest woman alive. I found the name Meteyard in one of Dickens’s letters. Then I found it again in F. Tennyson Jesse’s book Murder and Its Motives – Mrs Meatyard, baby murderer. I needed a butcher. I wanted a big one so Sampson Meteyard came along. His partner, Slaughter, breaks down, leaves the business, and becomes a vegetarian – not a murderer.
            The naming of murderers is a tricky business. Surely Drood with his stony name, Jasper, is the murderer of Edwin. Dickens liked stony names: Bradley Headstone has murder in his heart, and Mr Murdstone is as much a murderer as if he had killed David Copperfield’s mother with his bare hands. Cruelty can kill.
            But, the detective story writer does not want to give away too much too soon. Death – from Middle English ‘deeth’ would be tempting were it not one of the aristocratic names of Lord Peter Wimsey, and too obvious, I think. This is why I choose the most glaringly criminal names for minor villains. Blackledge sets your teeth on edge; I’ve Blackborn and Blackbone in reserve – they sound like pirates. Jonas Finger is a bad lot, a thief and a pimp. Jonas, I stole from Dickens and I found Finger in the dictionary of surnames. It was recorded as early as 1219 in the York Assize Rolls. Fikey Chubb is a receiver of stolen goods – Fikey appears in one of Dickens’s detective anecdotes from his periodical Household Words. Chubb – I was thinking of locks and safes. The Chubb Company dates from the early nineteenth century. Betty Tode is a prison wardress. The name is probably linked to Todd which derives from the Middle English word ‘Tod’, meaning fox, but I was thinking of something more poisonous. And there’s Mrs Brimstone, baby farmer – I thought I’d made it up, influenced by Mrs Squeers, but it exits in Brimstone Hill in Essex. Her unprepossessing associate is Bertha Raspin, known as Mother Hubbard because of the instruments she keeps in her cupboard. A nurse, she is not. Saturnino Betti is an Italian criminal who is known as Satan.
            Satan as the murderer – oh, no, no, no! Too much of a giveaway. The murderers must  hide behind very ordinary names, but I won’t be telling you those, of course.
A last thought: Deadman for the victim? No, I haven’t made it up – seventeenth century tax records for Suffolk!

Friday, December 14, 2018

How My Characters Will Spend the Holidays

It's 11 days before Christmas,
And not a gift has been bought.
No decorations are hanging,
No tree has gone up,
But the writer is plotting,
Dastardly deeds concocting. . .

Forgive the really bad poem. It came to me as I was waking up this morning. I don't know why I always get my best ideas for the plot I'm working on when I'm in the midst of something else. I made a few notes. Then I went to my faculty meeting. Now, I'm about to start reading research papers. We're at end of semester.

Thinking about the holidays got me wondering how and with whom my characters would be spending the season. It's a no-brainer about Lizzie Stuart, my crime historian. In her world, the year is 2004. She has met her future in-laws at Thanksgiving (although I haven't gotten that book written yet), and she is getting married on New Year's Eve. So, she's spending the holidays with John Quinn, her former-homicide-detective fiance. What she doesn't know is that her mother, Becca, is about to put in another appearance.

Meanwhile, Hannah McCabe, my homicide detective, in my near-future (soon to be parallel universe) novels is spending Christmas in Albany at home with her father, Angus, the former newspaper journalist and editor. The year is 2020. Adam, her brother, will come to dinner and bring his girlfriend, Mai. Their Great Dane puppy, who finally has a name, will be there. He will need to be reminded of his training when he sees the ham on the dining room table. Hannah's best friend and her husband will arrive, bringing dessert from their restaurant, and a surprise visitor will drop by.

The character I'm not sure about is Jo Radcliffe, my World War II Army nurse. She is a new protagonist who I introduced in "The Singapore Sling Affair." This short story (in EQMM's Nov/Dec 2017 issue) is set in 1948. Jo has come back to the village in upstate New York, where she has inherited her aunt's house and her Maine Coon cat. The cat has not warmed up to her yet. But I'm sure several people will invite her to Christmas dinner. I don't know whose invitation she will accept. And then there's New Year's Eve. Will she stay at home with a good book? Or, maybe she'll be invited to go down to the City to celebrate there.  

Right now, I need to start reading papers. Then I'm going to try to get in a couple of hours of shopping. Tonight I'm making fudge. Tomorrow our Upper Hudson chapter of Sisters in Crime has our annual holiday party. And maybe tomorrow, I'll get some decorations up.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

It's All Gravy

Donis here, facing a conundrum...what to write today. My blogmates have introduced so many interesting topics over the past weeks. I'm really enjoying reading about who to cast in the movies made of our books, and I'd love to tackle that subject. In fact, I will do that when next I post on December 27. You wouldn't believe some of the suggestions I've heard over the years as to who should play Alafair Tucker in the movies.

But today I must add one more entry about food in novels. Type M's own Charlotte Hinger mentioned on Facebook that I had included a recipe for red eye gravy in my latest novel, Forty Dead Men, and many FB denizens replied to her post with their fond memories that most Southern of dishes. So I thought that I'd relate that recipe here, just before Christmas, so you can try it with your leftover Christmas ham. I'm going to include another fabulous family gravy recipe that I grew up with–chocolate gravy! We used it on biscuits for breakfast, and I can't think of a better Christmas treat.

If you've never tried red eye gravy or chocolate gravy, you're in for an experience. Farm families used all kinds of interesting things for gravies and sauces, mostly because you used what you had on hand and never let anything go to waste, and in this case, necessity is the mother of some really delicious culinary inventions. Besides, they're easy! So give them a try. You won't be sorry.

Red Eye Gravy

After frying several slices of country ham in butter, deglaze the skillet (a cast iron skillet is best) with a cup of strong black coffee. Use a spatula to loosen the meat bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add a cup of water and simmer the gravy until it has reduced by half. After the gravy is poured into a dish or gravy boat, the coffee and meat bits will sink to the bottom and the drippings will rise to the top. Long ago, some clever wag decided that the dark coffee under the clear grease looks like a human eye looking up from the bowl. Yum! Give it a stir before spooning the gravy onto your rice or potatoes. Be sure to use quality pieces of ham to fry.

Now, I never ate red eye gravy made with anything but coffee, but there is an equally beloved recipe made just the same way but with Coca Cola instead of coffee. My books are set in the 1910s, so Coca Cola was available, but I can't imagine that Alafair would waste money by using a fancy bottle of soda to make gravy. You can add a tablespoon of flour to thicken the gravy, but that's not the old way. If you try it, Dear Reader, let me know what you think!

Chocolate Gravy

The recipe for chocolate gravy came into my mother's family through my Aunt Loreen. When I spent the night with my cousin, my aunt would make this with homemade buttermilk biscuits in the morning. I wonder sometimes if I was more interested in the chocolate gravy than I was in playing with my cousin. My family also uses variations of this recipe for pudding and pies. This gravy is quite simple to make, but potent. You must be an extreme chocolate lover to eat this. One of my brothers-in-law pronounced it too rich for normal human consumption, and this guy will eat boiled sheep's eyes. The rest of my family loves it.

Mix together thoroughly 1/4 cup of powdered cocoa (I use plain old Hersheys), 2 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of white flour, and 1/4 tsp. of salt. Add 2 cups of milk to the dry ingredients and mix well. Cook in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to desired consistency. I usually wait until it begins to boil with a dull plop. Remove from heat, mix in 1 tsp. of vanilla. Delicious on any kind of bread (think chocolate-filled croissants), or anything your heart desires.

Have a merry and delicious holiday season!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

From page to screen

What a fun topic Aline introduced in her post Monday! Most of the past week's Type M posts have touched on the business of writing in some way; polishing and submitting a manuscript, getting used to rejections, creating pitches for TV and film, and promoting the book after it's finally released into the world. And now Aline has touched on one of an author's favourite games; dreaming about who will play your character when your series is produced for TV. And Aline makes a good point. It's not all about making enough money to pay the mortgage for once and even possibly to take a trip (although that would be nice). It's about the interpretation of your work, which is as close to reflecting your soul as it is possible to get.

When we read a book, the character emerges out of our imagination. We conjure them up in our mind's eye, and we put as much into their identity as the author does. The character is not just his or her physical appearance but the sum total of how they react, the words and tone they use, the gestures they make, the clothes they choose, the meals they like... Maybe the reason some authors don't actually have a clear visual image of their main character is that details like the colour of their hair are possibly the least important aspect of their identity.

A character on screen, on the other hand, is not a product of our imagination but a real person we can see. In fact the reader's first impression of a character is not what they're thinking or saying, but what they look like. And from then on, all our impressions of that character are grounded in that concrete reality.

What the great actors like John Thaw and Brenda Blethyn succeed in doing is capturing the essence of the character as we the readers imagined them, not just in looks but in gesture, tone, and style. I would add to that list of successes Stephen Thompkinson as Peter Robinson's DCI Banks. I was ambivalent about Nathaniel Parker as Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley, mostly because he didn't seem Patrician enough, but I thought petite, pretty Sharon Small (a perfectly fine actor) was entirely wrong as lumpy, awkward Barbara Havers.

In my own, more modest imaginings, I have gone through a number of Inspector Greens, most of them relatively unknown Canadian actors. In the the twenty years since he came on the scene, a number of my favourites have grown too old for the part, like Michael Riley. So I am now casting about for a new possibility - mid-forties, unremarkable looks but a bit ADHD and obsessively driven. Do any of you have an ideas about who would make a perfect Michael Green? As for my new series,  Jennifer Lawrence would do an admirable job as Amanda Doucette. Hey, dream big or go home. In the end, however, I think my own daughter Dana would have the spirit, fierce drive, and vulnerability to play Amanda.

And thinking about Aline's conundrum with Marjory Fleming, what about Miranda Hart from Call the Midwife?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Holiday Movie Entertainment

by Rick Blechta

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this past week about favourite Christmas movies. Like many, my favourite for many, many years is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim and whole cast of brilliant character actors. Interesting factoid: The movie was filmed in August!

His favourite Christmas movie really startled me: Die Hard. I had to think back, and yes, the action (of the first two movies in the series, actually) takes place at Christmas. We have a DVD copy so my wife and I pulled it out and watched it. It was as I remember: filled with lots of macho action from Bruce Willis and the crew of bad guys led by estimable Alan Rickman. There isn’t all that much Christmas in it, though. It could just as easily taken place “in the heat of an August bank holiday”.

I got back to my friend after viewing the movie again and asked him why this was the Christmas movie for him. Answer: “It’s all about a man trying to save his wife so that they can spend the holiday together.”

I don’t mean to be insulting to my friend, but come on! That seems pretty shallow to me. Yes, the holiday season is a time for family coming together, but I don’t think most people would imagine that within the movie’s framework. But my friend is not a particularly sentimental person. I guess I am.

His wife, interestingly had another surprising choice: Love Actually. This is a very entertaining film but a number of the multiple story threads are really quite sad, and there is an overall feeling of anger and hurt in many scenes. Again, a rather surprising choice for a favourite holiday film. And this woman is quite sentimental.

Am I out of step? Am I missing something?

What is your favourite holiday movie?

(And by the way, if you have Netflix, you might want to watch The Christmas Chronicles which is new this year. It has flaws but also snappy dialogue, great computer graphics, and Kurt Russell as Santa is very entertaining. I don’t know if it will become a classic must-watch holiday staple, but it is definitely worth a view.)

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Interpreters

A question I'm often asked is, if my books were to be filmed (I should be so lucky!) which actress would I want to play my detective?  I can never manage a very satisfactory answer:  I've never seen an actress who made me think of  my 'Big Marge' Marjory Fleming. She would have to be Scottish, of course, and very tall - though I suppose if Lee Child can accept Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, that may just be me being picky.

I don't actually describe her in the books except in a very general way and I'm not even sure that I know what her face looks like. When I'm reading, I don't often conjure up a picture of the characters.

Film is different, though. The actor has to be the interpreter of the character and when I'm watching a series I will be very clear in my mind whether the chosen actor is right for the part or not.    There have been several TV series of Agatha's Christie's Miss Marple but for me the only real Miss Marple was Joan Hickson (those shrewd, faded blue eyes!) just as Hercule Porot was undoubtedly David Suchet.  John Malkovitch, pooh!

Ian Rankin, I know, never described Rebus specifically, yet Ken Stott seemed perfectly tailored to the part - a hard man, but soft at the same time.  Colin Dexter was thrilled with John Thaw, and indeed it's hard to imagine Morse having been the success it was if he hadn't defined the character so brilliantly.

For me Roy Marsden absolutely was PD James's Adam Dalgleish in the TV dramas and I was horrified when Martin Shaw took over, but for Phyllis neither was her Adam.     Similarly Brenda Blethyn with her Northern accent seems to me perfect for Ann Cleeves' Vera, but according to Ann she has the wrong Northern accent - a distinction rather wasted on those of us who don't live in the Pennines.

On the other hand, when the first Inspector Wexford series was made Ruth Rendell was so thrilled with George Baker's interpretation of the character that she thought of him from then on as Wexford himself in the subsequent books.

So, do you have someone in mind to play your favourite sleuth?  And of course, that does lead on to the other question - when they make that film about your life, who would you want to play you?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Coconut Cupcakes

by Vicki Delany

Late to the party as usual, but I loved Rick’s suggestion of us putting some recipes from our books up on this blog.

There is a lot of cooking and eating in my books. In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room is located next to the shop; In the Year Round Christmas series, Merry’s best friend owns Victoria’s Bake Shoppe, and in the Lighthouse Library series (by me as Eva Gates) Lucy’s cousin owns Josie’s Cozy Café.

I sense a theme here.  To continue the theme, my just-announced series for Kensington is the Tea By The Sea Mysteries (Spring 2020).

I myself love to bake, but I don’t do much of it any more mainly because now that I don't have children at home, I don’t need an entire cake after dinner, thank you very much.  But when I have guests, I like to pull out all the stops. A lot of the baking mentioned in my books is things I make myself., although the books don’t have recipes.

So here, from Vicki’s kitchen as well as Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, are coconut cupcakes.  These aren’t traditional Christmas treats, but the white icing, I think, gives it a lovely wintery feel.

I won’t be back on this page until the New Year, so I wish you all very Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas.

What will I be doing this year for the holidays you ask? Here’s a hint:


·               1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
·               2 teaspoons baking powder
·               1/2 teaspoon salt
·               1/2 cup packed sweetened shredded coconut
·               6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
·               1 1/3 cups sugar
·               2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg whites
·               3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
·               1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
·               1 1/3 cups large-flake unsweetened coconut

1.      Preheat oven to 350°F. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners.

2.      Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Pulse shredded coconut in a food processor until finely ground, and whisk into flour mixture.

3.      With and electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in whole eggs, whites and vanilla, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of coconut milk, and beating until combined after each.

4.      Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling eat three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers come out clean, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven; turn out cupcakes onto wire racks and let cool completely. Cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or freeze up to 2 months, in airtight containers.

5.      To finish, use a small offset spatula to spread a generous dome of icing onto each cupcake, and, if desired, garnish with flaked coconut. Store at room temperature until ready to serve.

Icing: Use your favorite buttercream vanilla icing. I like to use a splash of coconut milk rather than plain milk. If you don’t normally add milk to your icing, you can cut down slightly on the butter and replace with coconut milk.

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Rise of the Foodies

The Type M'ers have gone temporarily nuts. Suddenly instead of discussing really cool ways to murder people some sort of fatal attraction to favorite recipes seem to have infected the faithful.

I've especially enjoyed Donis Casey's old recipes. In her latest book, Forty Dead Men, she includes a recipe for Red Eye Gravy. I've heard of it, but never tasted it.

In my own Lottie Albright series, Lottie as undersheriff doesn't spend much time in the kitchen so I really can't contribute recipes used by my characters. However, my family had a few that were really dillies when I was growing up. One of our favorites was Wacky cake. I've heard this cake called by a variety of names: Poor Man's cake, depression cake, hobo cake, war cake. The reason it was so popular was that it didn't depend on expensive ingredients. It's delicious. Here's the recipe:

1-1/2 cups flour (sifted)
1 cup sugar
3 Tablespoons Cocoa
1 Tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
Mix all together, then punch three holes in the mixture. Add the following ingredients (only one per hole)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup warm water

Mix by hand. Don't use an electric mixer. Bake in a 9 x 9 pan at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

And for Christmas I have the world's easier popcorn ball recipe. If you are ambitious, you can shape the popcorn into a miniature Christmas tree and add colored gum drops for ornaments.

I use one recipe per popper of corn:

1 cup light corn syrup and one 3-oz package of Jello. Bring to a boil over medium heat and pour over about 11 cups of popped corn. Mix very quickly and use butter on your hands (or gloves) to shape the mixture into balls. Be very careful. This concoction is really, really hot.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

And so the waiting begins.

The real Keeley in Copenhagen
The waiting. A holding pattern. I finished the first book in what I hope will be a new series, one set at a New England boarding school, and my agents Ginger Curwen and Julia Lord have sent the manuscript off to six editors, each of whom I’d be thrilled to work with.

And now I wait –– and try to stay busy: I’ve written a pitch for a TV show based on this novel, sought feedback on it, written a brief plot sketch of book No. 2 and will begin fleshing that out in earnest.

The TV pitch has been fun to work on. A friend who has successfully pitched TV shows gave me a sample pitch to read. I’m not even one hundred percent sure what I’ll do with it when I feel like it’s ready to show someone. I’m hoping my agents Ginger and Julia have ideas. But the process has been worth the time. Developing a character list and creating and rethinking the story’s long-term arc has made me consider subsequent novels and who will come, who will go, and where our family of characters might find itself in several books.

Audrey (left), Delaney, and Dad on boat tour in Copenhagen

I don’t like being between contracts. I’m a person who functions better when I’m busy. Writing on deadline forces me to focus and brings out my best. Give me too much time, and I over think things. I don’t procrastinate. That’s not me. But I will overwrite and over plot.

The book has been on editors’ desks for a couple weeks now. I’m hoping to hear something soon.


In my reading life, we spent Thanksgiving week in Copenhagen visiting our 20-year-old daughter Delaney, who’s there studying this semester. I loved the city and picked up Silent Woman, by Sara Blaedel. It’s a terrific procedural, featuring a female Dane as our homicide detective. I’m not yet finished and hoping the atmospheric qualities live up to the characterization. I’m also reading Walter Moseley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, featuring an ex-con as our antihero. It’s dark and thematic. A wonderful, short read, told in a series of stories.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Have Book, Will Travel

I recently went on a mini bookstore tour with Ellen Byron (author of the Cajun Country Mystery Series) and Nancy Cole Silverman (author of the Carol Childs Mystery Series). Or, as Nancy puts it, Have Book, Will Travel.

We did a weekend in Orange County, CA hitting Mystery Ink in Huntington Beach and Book Carnival in Orange. Had great fun chatting about our books, answering questions and meeting mystery lovers.

The final stop on our mini tour was the Holiday Party at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. I'd never been to the store before, though I was familiar with them. They specialize in mysteries as well as sci-fi and fantasy.

They had 12 authors stationed at tables throughout the store. Mystery authors, YA authors, fantasy authors, authors of non-fiction books... We got a chance to meet and greet readers and sign books. They also had a short program where we could describe the book we were promoting. For me that was the latest book in the Aurora Anderson Mystery series, Designed For Haunting.

Some pictures from the events:

Nancy, Ellen and I at Mystery Ink in Huntington Beach

Here were are at Book Carnival in Orange

Our table at Mysterious Galaxy

Listening to Nancy talk about her book

Waiting to talk about our books

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Bouncing off Tom

By Rick Blechta

First, read Tom’s excellent post from yesterday. Even if you’re not a writer, you will find it interesting. His post lays out very clearly some of the things that writers go through before you get to see their (hopefully) deathless prose in print.

But especially read this if you are someone at the beginning of a writing career. Everything he says makes wonderful sense. Yes, there are tricks of the trade and Tom lays out the most important of them.

Back in the dim, dark past, I took a university-level creative writing course while at McGill. Basically, I needed one more general academic course for my Batchelor of Music degree and, well, this course fit into my schedule, plus the classroom wasn’t too far away from the Faculty of Music, so I signed up. The teacher was pretty good, but a lot of the heavy lifting was done during seminars by a teaching assistant who was pretty green, by my reckoning.

I learned a fair bit about the nuts and bolts of shaping acceptable prose, but when I finally decided to sit down and write some fiction, and actually turned out a novel, I found that I had zero information about what to do next. That I had to learn by myself — as so many of us have.

Same thing with my music studies. The performance students were taught everything they needed to know in order to perform. What they weren’t told was how to go about being a professional musician in a business sense. What are the protocols for auditioning, promoting yourself, preparing yourself for a performance past the technical aspects of your chosen instrument. (Fortunately, in recent years, my alma mater has instituted a course that all performance students must take that prepares them with all the “business tools” needed for a successful active career. Good for them!)

We writers are in the same boat. If a creative writing teacher is thorough, one hopefully gets some of this important information. There are some excellent self-help books (Read Judith Applebaum’s excellent How to Get Happily Published!) but I suspect most of us are left to our own devices when setting out down the book marketing trail. By the way, that’s one of the things Type M is designed to bring you: stories of our own author travails, which might actually help guide an aspiring author towards getting published. Tom’s post from yesterday is of that ilk.

I suppose the point of this post is that there’s so much more to being a successful writer/author than turning out a great novel. Don’t expect to write a terrific story and the (publishing) world will beat a path to your door. The days of throwing your manuscript “over the transom” are long gone — if they ever existed at all.

Remember, it’s very difficult to write a good novel, but it’s far more difficult to get it published. Prepare yourself for that, do your homework, be prepared for rejection, and get really good at waiting. With any amount of luck and perseverance you may be rewarded with seeing your name on the cover of a book!

Monday, December 03, 2018

Thoughts on Rejection, Editing, and Scotch

On October 8, I turned the manuscript for GRAVEYARD BAY in to my editor. After a set of edits with her and then a second set of edits with my publisher (and a few suggestions from my agent), Poisoned Pen Press signed off on the manuscript this past Friday and it will now go to the copy editor for yet one more round.

For me, submitting my work and waiting to see if the story makes sense, the dialogue sounds genuine, and the clues are in the right places can be absolutely nerve wracking. Although, Annette, my editor has repeatedly told me to relax.  There’s nothing we can’t fix…if we have to.

The fact that the book is finished is a relief. However, while I exude a tough guy exterior, on the inside I’m a lukewarm puddle of insecurity. In my head, I recall the countless rejection slips and worse—no response—from agents and publishers when I was trying to get my foot in the door.

Back in the day before I found an agent and a publisher, I sent out countless query letters, synopses, and sample chapters, then waited with fingers crossed, hoping to hear back that someone liked what I was writing. The waiting was always the hardest part.

Except for the rejections. That was pretty bad too.

Oh, and when you didn’t hear anything at all.  That’s the worst because there’s no closure.

By the way, I sent out queries for my first book in the Geneva Chase series, RANDOM ROAD, in 2015. The book was published in 2017. I actually got an emailed rejection from a literary agency after the book was on the streets, nearly a year and a half after I’d queried. It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise though, my own agent gets a hundred queries a day!

So back then, as now, I tried to get my manuscript as close to perfect as I could before I let anyone see it.  I read some tips from Stephen King that were true when I first saw them and are just as valid now.

The best of those tips is to read your work aloud. You hear things one way when you read silently. When you read it out loud, you hear it the way a reader might hear it.  You can get a better feel for scene description (Too much? Too little?), for action (Too fast? Too slow?), and for dialogue (Too snappy? Too sappy?).

Get a hard copy printed out. Personally, I can’t edit from looking at a manuscript on the computer screen. Spell check makes it too easy to write your when you meant you’re. A hard copy makes it easier see that I’ve got way too many commas goin’ on in a sentence. Or when I’ve used the same word three times in the same paragraph. Plus, it’s a much better method to refer back to earlier chapters to see if I’ve inserted that clue where I thought I left it. In GRAVEYARD BAY, I discovered that I’d left out a major clue.  It was still in my head, but not in the story.

Set it aside—sleep on it. Because a mystery can be a bear to write, what with all the clues, plot twists, and ruthless characters, I like to keep moving on it. I hate to put it down because I’m afraid that I’ll lose the plot thread. But to get the best perspective and train a fresh eye on what you’ve written, put the manuscript in a drawer and walk away for a couple of days. When you come back to it, you’ll see new ways to improve what you’ve written.

These are just a few editing suggestions that I use.  One other piece of advice—trust your editor and trust your publisher.  They’re very good at what they do and their instincts are invaluable. Take their advice and suggestions to heart.

Okay, book is essentially done. Time for a celebratory Dewars and ice.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Preserving a Taste of the Past - Grape Dumplings!

I'm sticking with our food-in-literature theme this week, Dear Reader, since food is such a big part of my Alafair Tucker Mysteries. Many years ago, as I began outlining ideas for my series, I heard that the wonderful old pear tree in my mother’s back yard had died. All during my childhood, my mother made the most delicious pear preserves from the sweet, hard pears from that tree. I have never before or since tasted anything like it. My first thought on the demise of that tree was that no one will ever taste those preserves again, because nobody cooks like that any more. Or eats this way, either. I'm thinking of my grandfather, who buttered his green onions before he ate them. I decided that I wanted to take the opportunity to try and evoke not just the events of the time, but the smells, the tastes, the sound, the hot and cold of it — the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other life of a farm wife with ten children.

The 1910s American country cooking that I write about is heavy, rich, and fattening, and I tend to overindulge in my test products. I was raised on this kind of food, and this is the way that my mother taught me to cook, so it isn’t foreign to me. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret, Dear Reader. This is not at all the way I cook at home. We are very health-foody. I’m all over the organic, local, meatless style of cooking. However, just because I don’t generally eat like that any more doesn’t mean that I don’t have a certain nostalgia for it. For my books, I concentrate on American Appalachian-style food, because just like my mother's pear preserves, the kind of cooking that my protagonist Alafair does is disappearing. That is one reason that I always put a special section of recipes and food lore in the back of each of the books.

When time comes to test and write about the recipes for the dishes that I mention in the books, I have to say that I really enjoy the heck out of myself. Here's one of my favorites, a true heritage recipe:

Cherokee Grape Dumplings

This is the recipe I used to make my dumplings. It is from a traditional Cherokee cookbook. Some recipes call for an egg, which makes the dumplings more noodle-like. I dropped my dough into the juice from a spoon rather than rolling and cutting. My dough was not as stiff as it should have been. Be sure to add a little more flour if your dough turns out too sticky. This is delicious with ice cream.

Grape Dumplings
1 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp shortening
1/2 cup grape juice (I use plain old Welches purple grape juice, but suit yourself)

Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and shortening. Add juice and mix into stiff dough. Roll dough very thin on floured board and cut into strips ½” wide (or roll dough in hands and break off pea-sized bits). Drop into 3 cups (or more if desired) boiling grape juice and cook for 10 – 12 minutes.

Some Cherokee cooks continue to make their grape dumplings by gathering and cooking wild grapes, or ‘possum grapes’ instead of using commercial grape juice. Here is the finished product, with juice:

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Inspector Green's killer latkes

This month's theme on Type M is food recipes as they figure in our books. Thanks, Rick, for this idea! I actually like the idea of having themes which we can follow or not as we wish. If we have something compelling we want to blog about, we can ignore the theme, but if, as often happens after years of writing blogs, we are scratching our heads about what to write this time, a theme offers some readymade inspiration.

Reading through the earlier blogs, I'm intrigued to see how many of our protagonists don't cook much, mostly because they have no time and are focussed on solving the case. Often they are also incompetent, wishing they'd paid more attention to their mothers growing up. Sometimes there is even a mother or the ghost of one nagging in the background.

Recipes and food feature much more prominently in cosy mysteries, where the emphasis is more on community, friendship, and comfort than on nail-biting suspense. Even if the cosy mystery has a reluctant chef, as in Vicki Delany's Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries, there is a popular tea shop or restaurant where the protagonist and friends hang out.

Comfort and community have less place in grittier, darker mysteries and thrillers, for obvious reasons. We don't want the reader settling in for a comfortable cup of tea unless there's a stalker hiding in the next room; we want them holding their breath in excitement and apprehension. And yet, interludes of relaxation have an important place in any story, to vary the pace and give the reader and the characters a chance to reflect. Not to mention catch their breath. A family dinner promotes conversation or at least inner musings about the case and about the state of their lives, which adds depth and richness to the characters.

This is why I don't like the very lean, mean, edgy thrillers that race forward from cliffhanger to cliffhanger with no time to get to know the characters or learn about their complexities and other dimensions. These characters all seem interchangeable. In grittier stories, however, balance is key, and even the food scenes should add to the atmosphere and the momentum of the plot.

My current series character, Amanda Doucette, has little time for cooking, and besides it's no fun cooking for one, but having worked all over the world, she loves the spicy, imaginative food of Thailand, India, Cambodia, South America, and Africa. So far in the series, I have added food scenes related to the setting of the book. FIRE IN THE STARS is set in Newfoundland, for example, so she eats seafood chowder and shrimp. In THE ANCIENT DEAD, the book I am currently writing, set in the Alberta badlands, they are eating a lot of Angus beef steak.

But because of the festive season about to start, I am reaching all the way back to my Inspector Green series for my recipe of the month. Green comes from a rich Eastern European Jewish tradition, so I do mention Shabbat roast chicken dinner, honey cake, and other holiday fare in the books sparingly. This week marks the beginning of Hanukkah, when foods fried in oil are served to commemorate the miracle of the lights. For my own contribution to Type M's recipe collection, here is my father-in-law's recipe for potato latkes:

Inspector Green's Killer Latkes

5-6 medium potatoes, grated (hand is best but food processor if you wish to preserve your knuckles)
1 medium onion, finely grated or minced
3 eggs
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
enough cooking oil to deep fry (not olive oil)

By hand, mix together the eggs, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper until they are light and frothy. Add the minced onion. Grate the potatoes, squeeze the excess moisture out with your hands, and add to the egg mixture.

Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a large frying pan and test heat with a small amount of mixture. When it sizzles, add batter in spoonfuls (about 1/3 cup, but they can be bigger or smaller to taste) to fill the pan. Turn when golden and cook the other side. Remove to a platter lined with paper towel and repeat until finished, topping up the oil as needed. Serve piping hot with sour cream or applesauce.

Enjoy, and Happy Hanukah!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Recipes into the future

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday Aline wrote something in her post that really resonated with me. It was also the main topic of the comments to her excellent post. I’m speaking of sharing favourite family recipes with our children and hopefully their children — and so on.

It seems a shame that valued recipes can become lost to time, often by simple oversight. This happened in our family to several treasured dishes. Grandmother Blechta’s excellent rye bread, my mother’s pressure cooker brown chicken fricassée (she would have insisted on the accent) are two notable recipes that have gone the way of the dodo. What I wouldn’t give to have both of those!

This realization happened eight years ago, and being aware that time was not standing still, my wife and I hatched a great concept for our 2011 Christmas gift: a cookbook of family recipes.

Most of them were ours, especially ones we had enjoyed with our children which they would want for the future. But we also had a number of older family recipes garnered from our mothers and grandmothers as well as recipes we gathered from our wider family. In a fit of great intelligence, I spent a day with my aunt on my father’s side and got several Czech recipes that she and her mother had been making for years for all of us (sadly, no rye bread). Those, of course, were front and centre in our cookbook. To fill in empty spaces, I used family photos, usually humorous. It was tough finding space for everyone to have their photographic moment.

As many of you know, I worked as a graphic designer for a number of years, so the actual production wasn’t difficult, although it was time-consuming. I’d already done the design work for two cookbooks put out by Crime Writers of Canada, so what was one more, right? By the time we finished, though, the book was 138 pages long!

To say the least, it was a big hit with everyone who received a copy. It was so popular in fact that we put out a second edition four years later and the page count had ballooned to 180 pages.

Will we do it again? I think so, especially since a number of forgotten recipes have resurfaced and we’ve developed a number of new family favourites, now for our grandchildren.

Food is a great connector in life. It is a way to nourish ourselves, but also to share and socialize. It can reach across generations and connect us to where we came from. As an example, one of the highlight recipes (peach kuchen) can be traced back five generations to Germany where my mother’s family originated.

In today’s rapidly changing world, that’s something to be treasured.

Here’s the peach kuchen recipe page: