Monday, April 30, 2018

Conference Time

I'm just back from the Crime Writers Association annual conference, when we get together purely as a group of writers with no readers around. We relax and socialise, but we also have speakers who give us insights into the workings of the world of crime that would be hard, or even impossible, to access on our own.

As usual, they were varied, informative and even entertaining. DCI Paul Burrows, a Scene of Crime Officer, took us through his investigation into The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, bringing it of course to a triumphant conclusion.

We were also fascinated by retired DCI Jackie Bailey who was Linda la Plante's inspiration for the character of Jane Tennison in the hugely successful Prime Suspect series. She acted as consultant to that and talked as well about the brutal misogyny she'd encountered as the first woman to join the London Met's Flying Squad. It was hard to believe that it all happened comparatively recently, when you think that the head of the Met is now a woman.

I was interested, too, when she was talking about the relationship between the police and the legal profession, since my son is a criminal defence lawyer. There was a case where the defendant had been accused of carrying a weapon, but the jury found him not guilty, after being convinced that the police had planted it on him.

After the verdict, Jackie saw the top QC who had been running the defence and told him she wanted him to know that the weapon genuinely hadn't been planted. He only smiled gently and said, 'My dear, I don't defend innocent men.' When I told my son he looked a bit sheepish then said, 'Yup, that's the job.' How the law operates in a free society!

The lecture I found most revealing was the one delivered by a psychiatrist. When she was talking about schizophrenia, she got us all to form groups of three, one to be the interviewer, one to be the interviewee and the other to be the demoralizing voice in the interviewee's ear.

The woman who played the demon voice was brilliant, starting with comments like, 'Why did you apply for this job? You know you won't be able to do it,' then moving on to, 'What made you wear those shoes? Did you even brush your hair before you came?' When she said, 'You're looking at her squinty-eyed now,' we all burst out laughing and the interview collapsed in disorder.

But it had become evident already that the interviewee was quite unable to answer the questions properly, having to ask for them to be repeated, starting an answer then losing the thread, just blanking out completely. It was a startling demonstration of what it feels like to suffer from alien voices speaking inside your brain.

As usual we all went away with ideas churning in our heads for the next book. And a few new friends as well.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Till Death Do Us Part

Like many of you, I have my favorite programs to binge-watch. At the top of my list are true-crime shows. I once spent a week dog sitting at my sister's house and when done working on the keyboard for the day, I'd mix up a batch of martini's and kick back to episodes of Inside the American Mob. Besides writing, I also paint, and when busy in my studio I key up Netflix in the background. During an extended flurry to complete a series of new works I cycled through all the seasons of Forensic Files. One consequence is that when I look now at any one painting I'm reminded of whatever homicides were investigated during its creation.

Years ago, the top crime show was COPS, which I didn't like. Police raids through trailer parks and Section 8 housing seemed more exercises in class warfare than searching for the bad guys. Not that the low-life offenders didn't deserve what they got, it's just that the crimes committed by the wealthy and middle-class went unnoticed.

Until Forensic Files. The big draw of the show is of course how advances in forensics allow investigators to solve crimes and bring justice and closure to victims and their survivors. While I appreciate the forensic science, the attraction for me is the human drama, usually someone deciding that the solution to their present dilemma is to murder the spouse/significant other/immediate family member/business partner. Sometimes the show deals with serial killers hunting targets of opportunity but mostly investigators don't stray far beyond an immediate circle of the dead guy's acquaintances. Unlike the trailer-trash perps of COPS, on Forensic Files we witness the well-to-do and privileged committing homicide: bankers, lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, police detectives, and even a bestselling novelist (Michael Peterson). Though these people were uniformly educated, they made a lot of stupid mistakes, for instance stashing the murder weapon and bloody clothes in the basement washing machine. Incriminating evidence left on computers has likewise undone many a "fool-proof" plan. I also notice that in Forensic Files, on occasion the police get timely leads via a "mysterious phone call." Makes me wonder what was the source? An informant? A bugged phone? Evidence obtained through extra-legal means?

When I'd run through all the seasons available on Netflix, I moved on to Murderous Affairs. Here the gimmick is love gone very wrong. On the minus side, they use a lot of dramatizations with actors who appeared to have been yanked from the office temp pool or relatives impressed into service. Needless to say, you won't be wowed by the acting. In one episode, the "dead victim" giggled when the EMTs tried to lift her onto a gurney. It doesn't help that the cheesy uniforms look purchased from the discount costume bin at Walmart. Aside from that, the compelling hook is the drama and the violence it spawned. As in Forensic Files, victims and killers are middle-class or higher in socio-economic standing. And they make a lot of dumb mistakes. Occasionally there's crossover in cases between Forensic Files and Murderous Affairs. Though Forensic Files has better writing and effects, Murderous Affairs often sheds light on Forensic Files' mysterious phone calls--usually ex's or vengeful rivals dropping a dime. Rejected romance equals revenge.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Blessings of Ignorance

Truth is, I don't know a thing about writing. With four mysteries (soon five) two historical novels and a non-fiction academic book under my belt, I'm amazed at how little I've learned. Looking back, I'm convinced the best thing that ever happened to me was there was no one around to either encourage or discourage me.

My natural calling was reading. I simply read all the time. It didn't bother my parents or anyone else until society came up with the concept that children should be well-rounded. Then my parents worried. Because it didn't seem quite normal for a child to read that much.  

No problem. I learned to hide my reading. I propped up a book in the drain rack when I dried dishes. There was a book in my music when I played the piano. Yes, I could easily read while my fingers practiced the scales, or whatever. To this day, I'm never without a book.

Do not assume that I was a shy retiring child. In fact I liked other children, and adored adults. During my childhood, one of my biggest pleasures was listening to my father and uncles and their friends tell stories.

No one supervised my reading. When my parents played bridge with Aunt Margaret and Uncle Clarence I headed for the living room and Aunt Margaret's collection from the Doubleday Book Club. What luxury! And such a good little nine-year-old. Never any trouble. But what a brouhaha when they discovered that I had already read Annie Jordan, Unconquered, and Forever Amber.

If someone has asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up when I was nine years old, in my secret heart, I knew I wanted to write books. But saying so would have sounded crazy. I didn't know one single soul who was a writer. I didn't know how one became a writer.

My husband and I were both born in Anderson County, Kansas. When we married, we moved to Western Kansas. He was a truck driver and hauled cattle. A bullhauler. My creative side responded to the vastness of the Kansas prairie. I was certainly free from any social constraints. There was no one to tell me I read too much. I could open the back door and holler if I wanted to. Or eat ice cream. Or go fishing.

Or I could write a book. No one to stop me from doing that either.

I began writing for real when I was about twenty-two or twenty-three. Somewhere in there. I taught myself from articles in the Writer's Digest and from books I ordered through Interlibrary Loan. Although I've never had a creative writing course, my self-education was lengthy and very rigorous. I've never been in a writing group.

Because my "method" is rather strange and seems to vary from book to book, I simply cannot imagine reading part of a manuscript to people who might offer suggestions. Praise or criticism would be destructive during the creative stage. I don't even know who will show up for a book until I'm through with the first draft. It's a work in progress.

I remain convinced that everyone should write a book twice before showing it to anyone. If you have any integrity at all, you will know what's wrong with your own book. So fix it. Then let other people read it. If they have good suggestions that you know are right, apply their ideas. The quickest people to offer criticism will come from people who have never published a book themselves.

My first novel was published by Simon & Schuster. If there were anyone at all around to tell me how hard it was to find an agent, get published, learn how to write, I never would have tried. On the other hand, I really needed a mentor. I've made a lot of mistakes. I would love to take them back. But that applies to a number of missteps in my life.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The waiting

Last Friday night, around 11:30, I finished a manuscript and sent it off to my agent. So now I wait.

The book, from day 1 of conceptualizing until last Friday, took nearly two years to complete. That’s by far the longest any book has ever taken me to write. I changed points of view, tenses, and spent about a month this year in the hospital (all is good now, though). I wrote probably 75 pages that ended up being discarded totally. The storyline, from beginning notes until the final revisions, never changed all that much. But the writing got a lot tighter, the prose became more sparse, and the characters grew more fully realized. (At least, that’s what I think. We’ll see what my agent says.)

One thing I know for sure is this is a family of characters I’d like to go the distance with. But that’s beyond my control. I’m in no-man’s land, the purgatory mid-list authors face when they try to launch a new series, a time of waiting.

One thing I learned writing this book came in the editing process. I’m a listener by nature. I use the text-to-speech option to edit anything I write, from important emails to this blog post to novels. I carefully select the speaker’s voice, fine-tune the pace, and stop often to listen as I compose. I did this while I wrote the novel, listening to passages over and over to rework the syntax, adding fluidity and clarity, always editing by ear. And when the novel was done, I listened to the entire 85,000 words, stopping to re-hear, then reword, clarify, tighten and tweak, until, alas, I sent the book off.

I’m dyslexic, and have always been an auditory person. Audiobooks have always been a large part of my life. During my day job –– I’m an English teacher –– I utilize a listening pedagogy, picking up, on a good day, nearly all of what is said by my students, determining where we go next based on what they say and my assessment of what they grasp.

But nowhere in my life is working by ear more important than my revision process when writing a novel. How does the book sound? That’s what I need to know. As writers, we all think we know what we’ve written. However, it’s not until we hear what we’ve written that we really know what we’ve said, actually understand how our words will be experienced by a reader.

It probably took me 15 hours to carefully listen to every word of the manuscript, and those are probably the most important hours I spent on the book. They were, hopefully, worth every second.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books 2018

Last Sunday, I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held at the main campus of the University of Southern California. That’s my alma mater so always fun for me to go back on campus. Lots more buildings than when I went to school there eons ago.

I signed at the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles booth again this year. The weather was warm, but not overly so. Had a nice time talking to people who stopped by. I also met some Sisters from other chapters (San Diego and Colorado) who were also signing at the booth.

 New this year was something called Newstory Zone, Creative Telling Beyond The Book. It included this Vortex Immersion Media 360 Dome. “Newstory is all about telling stories in inspiring ways that move audiences by offering up new and life-altering perspectives.” That’s what I read online, anyway.

I did not enter the dome, but here’s a video I found on YouTube from the experience.

On the more ordinary side, there was the usual giant crossword puzzles and a place where you could write down what book changed your life. I don’t know if I can think of one book that changed my life. Maybe Nancy Drew. The husband suggested I put my first book down because, well, it did change my life.

Plus areas for YA, children, poetry...

We didn’t spend as long there as we have in the past. Lots to do preparing to go to Malice Domestic. That’s where I’m headed next. That pretty much ends my run of conventions and major events for the year. Phew! Then I can get down to writing Aurora #5, Ghosts of Painting Past. I think I’ll kill off a surfer in this one...

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

On a more sombre note

by Rick Blechta

I find myself very contemplative today after the tragedy that occurred in Toronto yesterday afternoon. Those of us who write crime fiction deal with violence and the aftermath of violence nearly every time we pick up our (literal or virtual) pens. But with us, it’s just “funning’ around.” I doubt if many of us have actually come across the body of a person whose life ended in murder. (I did once, but that’s a story for another day.)

What has hit home with me (as with many others in and around Toronto) is that I’ve walked that stretch of sidewalk many times over the years. We don’t live that far away, there’s a movie theatre we patronize, and in Mel Lastman Square there is an outdoor amphitheatre where I’ve performed several times with various groups over the years. Literally, I’ve stood right where one person was struck and killed yesterday. A fact like that really tends to make one feel very mortal.

Thank the Lord, this doesn’t appear to be a terrorist attack, just the random act of a troubled person. Because of the actions of a very brave and very well-trained police officer, the suspect was apprehended alive. He was obviously itching for “suicide by cop” if you’ve watched the video of his capture, but the cop resisted using deadly force to end the stand-off. As a result, we might get answers as to why this man did such a horrible thing — not that it’s going to change anything, but answers are always good.

I’m at a point right now in my novel-in-progress where a murder needs to occur.

I don’t think I’ll write about that today.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Using Location. Or Not

By Vicki Delany

We’ve been talking a lot about location here at Type M lately.  I suspect that conversation was started when I discussed my recent trip to London to do on-the-spot research for the fifth Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Book (as yet untitled).

My fellow typists talked about the importance of visiting a place to write about it. Which is something I think is important, and very much like to do.

When I travel people always ask me if I’m going to use that place in one of my future books.

I’m just back from three weeks in Malaysia, and I can guarantee you it will never appear in one of my books.  Not only did I not give my writing a single thought while I was there (unlike many writers who insist they are ‘always’ working, I can and do shut the whole thing down for weeks at a time when I’m on the road) I have no interest in setting a book in Malaysia, or many of the other places 
I’ve been recently.  For one thing, I have no contacts in the police, nor any way of getting any. And even a book about a tourist who runs into trouble in xx spot, needs to know something about how the policing works.  Cozy mysteries generally speaking stick mighty close to home.  Even the trip to London in book 5 required some devious plotting on my part to get the cast of regular characters to tag along.

But I had a great time in Malaysia.  It was like three vacations in one. The jungles and wildlife of Borneo, the cities and culture and food of the Peninsula, and then a beach holiday at the end on Langkawi.

Hope you enjoy a few pictures.

Me and a leaf

Into the jungle on Borneo

An Orangutan in the wild

Sometimes the accommodation was rustic

And sometimes it was not

It rained a bit

My order of an iced  coffee

Loved the town of Melaka
Dinner time

Street art in George Town

Friday, April 20, 2018

Working from Strength

Something occurred to me last night as I was trying to work on several projects at the same time with one eye on my calendar and a to-do-list scribbled on a piece of paper. What I realized -- and should have long ago -- is that I do need that calendar that I had once thought of putting up on my office wall. I need an "at-a-glance" way of planning.

That brings me to the title of this post. My strength is visualizing. If I can "see" it, it falls into place. If I can see it, I can get it done. The tasks I get done on time and with minimal stress happen because I'm so concerned that they will go right that I sweat every step, consider every scenario, and take proactive and preventive action. I think of this as "worrying"and usually save it for only the "too big to fail" projects. But what didn't occur to me until last night is that what I was actually doing was making mind pictures. My strength is "creative visualization" (with a nod to how that phrase is usually used).

This means that I need to get the biggest 2018 calendar I can find and put it up on my wall. Then I need to overlay that calendar with my important dates, using colored pens and appropriate images. A calendar version of a "vision board" that I can see at a glance. Then I will put together my own notebook organizing system that allows me to step into each task and walk my way through the steps -- "mind mapping" as I go and get the steps down on paper.

This sounds like a lot of work. A distraction from getting things done. But when I thought about it, I realized that on the days that go really well, this is what I do. The night before or that morning, I think about what I need to get done and map each "stop" during the day and what I'll need to move from place to place and accomplish what I should. Using this method, I remember the check I'm going to need when I get to the bank and the recipe I should look at before going to the grocery store because I see myself in each place. I've also used this method to remember books I want to look for in the library. And I sail through that day, much more efficiently than when I start out with a to-do-list that I haven't rehearsed.

I also realized I need to walk my way through each writing project I'm working on. This is an improvement on my usual outlining process and much more fun. Rather than saving this step for the revising process, I need to do it now. Play through the character's bios, imagining each character going through his life up to that moment, and then watch the entire movie. When I've done that, I'll be ready to go back and outline. In fact, I suspect this will also work with the non-fiction book. I've been bogged down because I had so much material to weave into a discussion of 400 years of dress and appearance in American crime and justice. Get those images up on my wall and write about them.

This morning something else occurred to me. I'm writing this sitting at the desk in my office at my desktop computer. I've been using my laptop a lot because it's mobile. But I need to be at this computer. When I imagine myself as a writer, I don't see myself working on my laptop. I see myself at my desk -- hands free to move over a keyboard that doesn't distract me because I need to think about it.  Sitting at my desk, I can "see" myself in the long line of writers at their desks.

I'm on my way to the office store to buy my giant wall calendar and my big notebook for organizing. I'm going to pick up anything else that might help me to visualize my way through the rest of the year. I've got a lot to get done -- finish a non-fiction book, finish a historical thriller, write two short stories that I promised to do for anthologies, teach a four-week writing class in June and take part in library events related to an award I'm receiving, conferences to attend -- and a lot of life upkeep and home improvements things that need to be done. But I'm feeling calm. I may be stressed out again tomorrow, but I'm pretty sure stopping to see my day and "walk through it" and then mapping out the tasks I need to get done will help.

Does anyone else use visualization to sweat the small stuff?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Keeping Up With the Times

I’ve started a new novel and am slogging along in the jungles of the first draft. When I’m trying to get a first draft to look like something and having a tough time of it (which is always), I often wonder why I put myself through it. But then if I didn’t have a first draft I wouldn’t have anything to revise. I much prefer doing revisions to writing the first draft of a novel. In my metaphorical little world, writing the first draft is a coarse, rough, sweaty process. You slap that gesso on the wall by the bucket load and slather on the background paint. It’s messy and hard and, for me, a daily act of will to accomplish. But rewriting takes skill. It requires a true eye, real delicacy and finesse to shape that big old expanse of plaster into a work of art.

With rewrites, you get to see the story change shape and, if you’re lucky and skilled enough, grow into something beautiful. Of course, there are those horrible moments when you realize that you’re going to have to lose a scene that you really liked, or that word of which you are so enamored because it no longer fits the picture. I think perhaps that’s when you know you’re a real writer, when you can cut good stuff for the greater good of the story.

I must comment about Barbara's post, below, about how a writer faces the end of her book. I totally relate to her fear of not being able to pull it off. It's really horrible to know exactly how you want it to come off and not be sure you have the chops to do it. I never quite achieve the brilliant, knock-your-socks-off triumph that I had envisioned, but I'm usually pleased enough in the end. I often don't know exactly how it's going to end, myself, until it does. Once I do finish a book, I love to go back over it and fiddle with it, changing a word here, a sentence there, like polishing a new-made piece of furniture. Pulling off a great ending requires not only skill, but insight and not a little luck!

And one last word about computers (see Rick’s cautionary entry, April 17, below). I’m about twenty years behind the times when it comes to technology. I wonder if the reason isn't because I have no kids to shame me into keeping up with the times. For those of us who attained majority before the advent of the computer age, it just ain’t fair. We aren’t stupid. But we grew up in a world that required a whole other set of skills.

I hate to sound like an old curmudgeon who goes on about how she used to live in a shoebox in the middle of the road and eat mud for supper when she was a child, but that’s not going to stop me. I write a historical series, but I don’t think the past was better than the present.  Far from it.  I’m not nostalgic for the past. I don’t rue the fact that the world is changing. That’s the way it is. But it does seem that I hardly recognize the planet I grew up on any more. I don’t value the things that most of society seems to value.

I expect this happens to everyone, and has since the beginning of time. I wonder sometimes about those souls who manage to live to be 100 or 110. How must they feel about the fact that everyone else who understood their world has entered the choir eternal? How must they feel when the very world they knew how to live in is gone, when they find themselves on what amounts to a different planet, and they are the only ones of their species left in existence?

Hmm, there’s a plot in there somewhere. And now I beg to be excused so that I can go back up all my work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Leaping into the abyss

John's post of last Thursday struck a chord. For me, writing the end is one of the most challenging aspects of creating a novel. Some people struggle with the mushy middle - pacing, twists, how to fill 200 more exciting pages. However, for those of us who fly by the seat of our pants, figuring out how to end the book is what keeps us up at night and fuels many an argument on a solitary walk.

There are actually two parts to the end: the climax, when the hero solves the crime and catches the killer, and the denouement, where everything is explained and loose ends are tied up. Gone are the days of the sleuth gathering everyone in the library (or courtroom) and talking to one suspect to another until he reveals the killer. Nowadays, even in gentler cosy mysteries, readers expect some drama to keep them on the edge of their seats. The climax is usually an action scene that pits hero against villain.

When I write a novel, I don't know whodunnit, why, or how the hero is going to figure it out. I plow ahead from scene to scene, unrolling more twists and complications and putting more balls up in the air. About two-thirds of the way along, I start to panic. Enough complications and balls up in the air! How am I going to land this sucker? I need to keep the hero (and the readers) in the dark, chasing suspects and red herrings, until the last possible minute, when they have an epiphany and go after the right suspect. I also need to have them capture that suspect in a reasonably dramatic scene, to keep the excitement and suspense going to the final moment.

It's a very intricate, high-stakes dance that requires quite a few pieces to come together in exactly the right way. Sometimes I don't even know for sure who my villain is until the final climax, when I have an epiphany of my own. As in "Ahah! This is the perfect villain to pull the whole story together!" Oh, the stress of standing on the edge of the abyss, knowing the end of your novel waits on the other side but with no idea what it is and how you're going to get there. Or indeed whether there is another side.

Tying up loose ends actually plays a role in figuring out the climax. Loose ends are those dozens of balls I have thrown up in the air during the story. Each one of them is a question that need to be answered. Sometimes after days of pacing in front of the abyss, asking "What do I do now?", I list all those questions on a sheet of paper and stare at them, like pieces of a puzzle, asking how they can best fit together, do I need them all, and what if I do this instead of that. Usually out of all this hair-pulling and what if's, the kernel of a solution emerges. A key piece, around which I can start to fit the others.

Once I've written this hopefully spectacular climax, I breathe again. I have a book. Rewrites will focus it, sharpen it, and get rid of the inconsistencies and rough bits. But it works! After this, the denouement is a time to breathe again, to address most the questions as yet unanswered and to hint at the future. The hope is to leave the reader satisfied with the story rather than thinking "But what about...", but also intrigued enough by the characters and the lingering questions to pick up the next book. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The thing about computers

by Rick Blechta

I read Aline’s post yesterday, and contrary to what she said about my anticipated response, I  felt only sympathy.

Computers remain a mystery to those of us who grew up in an age where these mystical machines filled whole rooms and the biggest job of a programmer was to produce punch cards, those mysterious things that told computers what they were supposed to do.

We now have mobile phones that can do everything those room-size computers did back in the Dark Ages. Think about that for a moment. Technology has advanced to the point that you can slip a formerly room-size machine into your pants pocket, and contrary to making out those very abstract punch cards, my 4-year-old grandson can operate our modern devices. More about this later.*

The thing we oldsters can’t seem to get through our antiquated skulls is that computers have been and always will be Very Complicated Machines. I’ve actually seen the computer code needed to operate (what we call) a simple word processing program. Suffice it to say, it is voluminous, and to the non-programmer, completely impenetrable. Seriously, do not even contemplate trying to understand how your computer program does what it does.

Most of the time our amazing machines cooperate and run splendidly, but like any complicated piece of machinery, things do break down over time.

During the course of my work life I’ve had to learn a number of complicated programs, things that can do really amazing things. There are music scoring programs (3 of those so far), music recording programs (2), graphic design programs (3), photography (1 — thank the Lord!), web design (2), word processing (4). Literally, the instruction manuals for these take up over a metre of shelf space in my office.

Being a musician, one thing that’s been pounded into my head is that you must understand your instrument. In the computer sense, that’s the software you’re using (plus how to do various things on the computer itself). Did I spend a lot of time learning all these programs? You bet! Far too many hours gone forever but it has been of benefit.

Most people don’t  bother to reallylearn more than the bare minimum needed to operate their software. Some don’t even bother doing that. They just learn by the seat of their pants.

Blechta’s Computer Rule #1: Spend time learning your software. Like, actually read the manual first. Don’t use it as a tool to bail yourself out. It pays off in the long run. Oh, and those tutorials actually can help!

The next thing to understand is that because computers are so complicated, there are many more opportunities for them to break down. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. With that in mind, you need to take steps to protect yourself and all your hard work. If it’s a good idea to run maintenance programs on a regular basis — do it! Don’t put it off, don’t ignore it. Your computer will eventually bite you in the patootie. Count on it! (And usually at exactly the wrong time.)

Your hard drive is the heart of your machine. Think of it as your memory. What happens if you lose your memory? You’re in real trouble. Plan on your hard drive breaking down. It. Will. Happen. How do you get out of this conundrum? Back up your files regularly. You cannot be too careful about this. Offsite back-up is the best. If you, say, back-up to a hard drive you bought that sits right next to your computer, what will you do if your house burns down, or somebody robs your house while you’re out? Bet you all the computer gear will disappear. If you have offsite back-up, all you need is to download files to your new computer or hard drive, and away you go. If you’re paranoid like me, you have both a spare hard drive and offsite back-up.

Blechta’s Computer Rule #2: Always plan for the worst when it comes to computers. They will break down and you must have offsite storage or you will lose your work — or risk having to pay thousands of dollars to get it back.

Because computers are complicated, unless you’re a heavy-duty, experienced technician, you’re probably going to be stumped on how to fix it. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate a working relationship with a good and reliable computer technician. Believe me, they can be life savers. At the very least, ask around and see if you have friends or relations who Know About Computers. They can often get you out of a tight spot, and direct you to further resources if they cannot help with your problem. And don’t discount those far younger than you. *Twelve-year-old computer genius’s do exist — and one might live just down the street from you.

Blechta’s Computer Rule #3: Know where to get help before you need it.

So go forth and work with your computers in happiness and contentment — and may your hard drives never fail!

Monday, April 16, 2018


I have an ambivalent attitude towards my computer. Actually, that's not strictly speaking true. Most of the time I mutter at it in a surly way and if I tell you I refer to it as Beelzebub it might give you a more accurate picture.

It has nasty habits, like suddenly freezing when I've written a long and tricky email. It refuses to accept my decisions; it likes my documents to have 'mark up' and even when I set it to 'no mark up' and save it, when I next go to the document, 'mark up' is back. Sometimes. Other times, it does as it's told for a bit and gets bored and reverts.

When it underlines a word and I click on 'ignore all' it does, but then next time I open the document the underlining comes back. Only sometimes, and only with certain words it irrationally takes against; I click 'Ignore all' again but then whoops! back it comes, next time.

It installs updates to do extra things I don't want, and even whole new systems without my consent – yes, Windows 10, I'm talking about you – which make my life more difficult and awkward. Sometimes it decides it doesn't want to print right down to the bottom of the page and even with visible formatting it's impossible to see a reason for this. (This has defeated several experts and I gather I'm not the only one with this problem.) Its 'help' program has yet, even once, to be helpful.

I know I'm incompetent too, of course, and sometimes whatever is irritating me is my fault because I've accidentally touched a key with mysterious effects. Rick is probably even now shaking his head and muttering, 'Silly woman!' But it's just, well, unfriendly. When my first computer went to the place where far too soon (NB Microsoft) tired computers go, I almost shed tears. I certainly shed tears, but of frustration, with the new one.

It's undoubtedly easier to click on Google than to schlep up to the library for a reference or hunt through every poetry book you own for a quotation. And I'm old enough to remember having to type with carbons in, and using industrial quantities of Typex – not to mention having to retype a clean copy after revision. Not fun. But I was fond of my typewriter; you knew where you were with it and mine still lurks at the bottom of a cupboard, just in case the Russians decide to close down the whole system because they're feeling cross.

Oh, I know it has transformed my working life, so I'm grateful for it, of course. It's nice to be grateful and I was very well brought up. But my gratitude to Beelzebub tends to be of the 'Do I have to say thank-you?' sort.

However, today I am genuinely grateful. Not long ago, some of us were talking about the pet phrases we regularly use, more or less without being aware of them, that can easily catch the reader's attention in an irritating way. This time, revising a new book, I realized the way to control them.

The first time I come across one, I type it in and the lovely Find button immediately parades all the shaming repetitions. I can then work through them all with a triumphant cry of 'Eradicate! Eradicate!'

So a real thank you for this, Beelzebub. I'm not ready to rechristen you – you'll have to do a lot better for that – but I'm prepared to soften my voice when I mention you, instead of snarling.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Beware the Hoodlums!

Ann Parker--science/corporate writer by day and crime fiction author by night--writes the award-winning Silver Rush historical series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, set in 1880s Colorado. The newest in the series, A Dying Note, brings Inez to the golden city of San Francisco, California, in 1881. Publishers Weekly calls this latest addition to the series "exuberant" adding that it "...brims with fascinating period details, flamboyant characters, and surprising plot twists."

Hoodlums in 19th Century San Francisco by Ann Parker

As a writer of historical mysteries, I'll admit I am a fool for period slang, intriguing turn of phrase, and the etymology of words. Language-related trivea is a rabbit-hole I disappear down time and time again when I should be doing other things. . .such as putting words on the page of whatever book I'm working on. So, it was with great delight that I sumbled across the background of the word "hoodlum" during my research for A Dying Note, the newest book in my Silver Rush historical mystery series.

Hoodlum is hardly an uncommon word, even today. In fact, you can view its image over time with a neat-o-Google algorithm called the Ngram Viewer in Good Books. (NOTE: The Ngram Viewer graphs the frequency in percentage terms, of the text being searched, over the time period being specified.)

As you can see right away, "hoodlum" first cropped up around 1870 and ascended in popular usuage from then. However, were you aware that the term was originally coined in San Francisco?

I wasn't!

That is until I stumbled across an online SFGate article titled "'Hoodlums,' a distinctive San Franciso product of the 1870s," by Gary Kamia.

For more historical edification, I turned to (take a deep breath, here comes the title) Americanism, Old and New: a dictionary of words phrases and colloquialisms peculiar to the United State, British America, the West Indies, &c., their derivation, meaning and application, together with numerous anecdotal, historical, explanatory and folk-lore notes. This vastly entertaining reference book by John Stephen Farmer was published in 1889, and you can read it, and download it from the Internet Archive here.

Farmer's definition of hoodlum is a whole lot shorter than the title of his book:

Hoodlum.--a young rough. The term originated in San Francisco, but is now general throughout the Union. 

For a historical perspective on hoodlums and hoodlumism, check out Lights and Shades in San Francisco by Benjamin E. Lloyd published in 1876, which has an entire chapter on the subject (and yes, you can view and download the book with this link I've provided).

A couple of passages from Lights and Shades involving hoodlums caught my eye. The first--quoted below--discusses the sorry state of San Francisco's "corner groceries," which, as it turns out, are not at all what I initially thought they were (i.e., local stores to buy canned goods, mild, cheese, what-have-you):

Of evenings, these corner grocery bar-rooms are largely patronized as "loafing places," by the mechanics, laborers and idlers, whose home are in the neighborhood. A simple lunch is set out here, and also a card table is provided. Here young men and middle-aged men, boys and grey beards congregate at night, to talk vulgar slang, play cards for the "the drinks," and smoke and chew--to go home at a late hour with heavy heads and light purses. It is at these places that the youthful San Franciscan Hoodlums are developed.

This second excerpt is the opening of the Lights and Shades chapter on hoodlums:

THE Hoodlum had his origin in San Francisco. He is the offspring of San Francisco society. What particular phase in social life possesses the necessary fertility to produce such fruit is not obvious. It is certain, however, that the seed has been sown in productive soil, for the harvest is abundant.

The hoodlum has been called a "ruffian in embryo." It would be a better definition to call him simply a ruffian. He has all the essential qualities of the villain. He is acquainted with crime in all its froms. The records of vice are his textbooks. He is a free-born American in its widest sense...

If these passages pique your interest, I encourage you to wander on over and read the rest of Lights and Shades, which offers an intriguing perspective on the world of 1870s--1880s San Francisco (and proved a very useful reference to me for A Dying Note.)

Finally, I just have to add a coda to this post. Th illustration below is from a book titled Quad's Odds by M. Quad 9 (publication date 1875). Here is the text that accompanies the picture:

It requires nerve and courage to be a hoodlum. The boy has got to have the heart of a man, the courage of a lion, and the constitution of an Arab. Only one in a hundred gives him credit for half his worth. No one cares whether he grown fat or starves: whether Fortune lifts him up or casts him down; whether night finds him quarters in a box or a comfortable bed. He's a hoodlum, and hoodlums are generally supposed capable of getting along somehow, the same as a horse turned out to graze. Not one boy in ten can be a hoodlum. Nature never overstocks the market. If left an orphan the average boy dies, or has relatives to care for him, or falls in the way of a philanthropist and comes up a straight-haired young man with a sanctimonious look. The true hoodlum is born to the business. He swallows marbles and thimbles as soon as he can creep, begins to fall down stairs when a year old, and found in the alley as soon as he can walk.

Beware the hoodlums! (The title of this illustration from Quad's Odds is, believe it or not, "The Future Presidents." I shall refrain from political comment, difficult though it is...)

For more information about Ann and her series, chick out

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Writing the end: How much detail do you really want?

Writing a novel is never easy, no matter how many times you’ve done it. We hear so often the first 50 pages must establish conflicts and grab the reader by the throat; the middle develops characters and the plot; and the ending must not be predictable but also provide a satisfying solution.

When I work on the ending of a book, I’m usually thinking about pacing and twists. What must logically take place? Where can I offer an unexpected event that also makes sense?

With this in mind, setting details often take a hit. My agent pointed this out the last time I turned in a manuscript. She told me there were fewer setting details at the end of the book. She was right. There were, and that was by design.

I tend to write novels in which the action takes place in several repeated locations. For instance, my current project is set at a New England boarding school. This provides a contained locale. It also allows me to not waste the readers time by describing the setting more than once. I can focus on using setting details to establish tone within each scene. Dialogue drives my writing, and this consistent setting allows me to focus on that. It was Hemingway, after all, who said writing is architecture, not interior design.

The end of the novel, then, often feels like a sprint, which is what I believe my agent was saying. How sparse should the text be? How much detail does the reader really want at the end of a novel? I can answer for myself. As a reader, at the end of a novel I enjoy, I've got my head down, and the pages are turning. (I'm not even aware there are pages.) The awkward silences that existed in the opening moments of this first date with this novel have long since passed. By the time I reach the end of the book, the relationship is well established and we’re way beyond awkward silences.

I hope the ending of the novel I'm working on right now provides the reader with both an unexpected and logical solution. I also hope the climax and resolution of the novel were like being at the top of a roller coaster, teetering, just before the final descent. Because when the roller coaster starts down, you're not looking at what's around. You're concentrating only on what's coming at you, and the pages are turning on their own.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

National Library Week

I’m at the tail end of my first round of edits for Designed For Haunting, the next book in my Aurora Anderson Mystery Series, but I’ve come out of my writing cave long enough to discover this week is National Library Week.

This is the 60th year of the celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. This year’s theme is “Libraries Lead” and its Honorary Chair is Misty Copeland, principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Life in Motion.

I’m lucky to have many, many libraries within a reasonable distance of my home. That’s the good thing that comes out of living in a densely populated county. I’m a 15 minute walk from my hometown library in Manhattan Beach, a branch of the Los Angeles County Library system and named one of the most beautiful libraries in Los Angeles, and a short drive from several others. Right now I have four library cards. And, yes, I use them, some more than others.

I’m aware that libraries offer more than just books, e-books and movies these days, but I didn’t realize how much more until I read this article. Drones, vegetable seeds!, violins are all available from some libraries somewhere. I think that’s pretty amazing.

As We Love Libraries Coordinator for Sisters in Crime, it’s my pleasure every month to notify a library somewhere in the United States that they’ve won a $1000 grant to purchase books and audio books for their library. Any library in the U.S. is eligible as long as they haven’t won before. Please encourage your local library to apply for the grant. Simply have them go to, fill out the form and include a photo of a library staff member with at least 3 books in the library’s collection written by Sisters in Crime members.

Well, I need to get back to my changes. If you’re attending Malice Domestic this year, I’ll be there too! I’m participating in the Malice Go-Round this year. I’m also on a panel Saturday morning 9-9:50 a.m. called The Art of Murder. Also on Saturday, I’ll be doing a Facebook Live interview with A Cozy Experience around 3pm Eastern Time. The interview will go live through their Facebook page

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Location, location, location! (part deux)

by Rick Blechta

My post last week was a riff off one Aline had published the day before.

The importance of setting is indisputable. Every story is set someplace. If it’s a made-up land, then the writer is free to indulge themselves to the max, but what they write must firmly set their location in readers’ minds. The same is true if a writer is using actual locations — or portions thereof. Job #1 remains the same whether you’re utilizing pure fantasy or reality.

There is a large difference, though, when reality is used, either partially or completely: the writer should expect mail, good and bad. Anyone who knows that location well enough will certainly feel the urge to correct errors — and they may act on it. “There’s no bar on that street corner!” “That’s a one-way street and you have a car going the wrong way!” The answer to the first quote might well be that the writer needed a bar to be on that street corner for plot purposes so that’s what was done. Tough boogies. The answer to the second quote might be that the author boobed on the research. If one is using actual places for setting, it is critical that errors are kept to the bare minimum. Much can be gotten away with if the setting is not known to many, but get something wrong in Times Square and you risk being flooded with irate comments. Of course that would mean the book is selling well, which would make responding to irate comments much more enjoyable.

Which brings me to my own experiences. As I mentioned in last week’s post, I used the living room and garden of a good friend’s home in Scotland for the climax of When Hell Freezes Over. I didn’t think of asking if this was okay with him. I described the location of the house pretty specifically (it was critical to the plot). Only later did it dawn on me: “What if this book becomes a bestseller, a classic if you will, and people start showing up on my friend’s doorstep?” Don’t laugh. It has happened. (And I should be so lucky to write a classic thriller…)

Since that time, if I’m using real places for setting, I weigh my considerations more carefully. Two of my novels, The Fallen One, and its sequel, Roses for a Diva have my protagonist living in a large apartment block in downtown Toronto. It is easily identifiable. To my mind, that’s not an issue. It has concierges at the entrances. However, I would never use a specific apartment number. A private person does not need to dragged into my scribblings.

I always try to use real places for setting. It helps me to have a fixed image (plus reference photos) in my mind as I write. But now I’m more circumspect in being too specific (or shall I say 100% accurate if I’m using a private individual’s residence or a small business. If I set something in a public space, I consider that fair game.

To finish off about locations, I recently watched the second series of the Netflix production, Jessica Jones which is shot in and around New York City. The final episode used two locations with which I am very familiar. One is a diner in Ossining, NY that my mother-in-law really likes and we’ve eaten there frequently over the past two years. While watching, I’m thinking, That looks like Route 9 in Ossining. As the camera moved around I thought, That’s gotta be DD’s. A minute or two later my guess was confirmed when Jessica escaped from the place (after ripping out a table top and throwing it at two cops. Funny thing was, the signage out front was changed for the shoot, and unless one knows the specific area, you wouldn’t be able to find it. (I wonder if the owner’s didn’t want the notoriety.)

The climax in that episode, though, was the real kicker for me, It takes place at Playland, an amusement park in Rye, NY and is fully identified in the episode (the title of which is “Playland”). What’s really incredible is the climactic action takes place on the park’s Ferris wheel, which my future wife and I rode moments before she told me she loved me — and the location of that event appeared in one of the final scenes in the movie Big.

How’s that for locations with real impact — well, for me at least.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Weekend Guest Sasscer Hill

Frankie, here. I'm delighted to welcome Sasscer to Type M for Murder. If you aren't familiar with her work, you should be. 

Sasscer was involved in horse racing as an amateur jockey and racehorse breeder for most of her life. She sets her novels against a background of big money, gambling, and horse racing, and her mystery and suspense thrillers have received multiple award nominations, including both Agatha and Macavity Best First Book nominations, as well as a nomination for the Dr. Tony Ryan Best in Racing Literature award.

THE DARK SIDE OF TOWN, out April 2018, won the Carrie McCray 2015 Competition for First Chapter of a Novel, as well as a 2015 Claymore Award nomination for best unpublished mystery-thriller. 


With six published novels, and multiple award nominations, how was it possible my current WIP suffered from this error?

Was it the new subject? My first six novels are racetrack mystery-thrillers, and horse racing is a game I lived for more than thirty years as an owner, breeder, and rider of Thoroughbred racehorses.

I suspect my failure was due to the unfamiliarity of a story world about Irish American Travelers, those gypsies so famous for their cons and scams here in South Carolina.

I was two hundred pages in, when I agreed to send the work to my agent for her opinion. But as I read what I was about to give her, problems leapt out at me. It’s one thing to give pages to your critique group, and quite another when you’re placing it before the eyes of an accomplished agent. Reading it this time, I saw the story had a whole lot of telling, and not nearly enough showing.

Learning about the Travelers required in-depth research, and parts of my manuscript almost read like a documentary. Probably all that research, which is supposed to enable you to write with authority, not beat your reader over the head with facts and figures.

Though there was action and dialogue, there was also an endless first-person monologue from my protagonist, Quinn, telling the reader what the Travelers do and how they do it. Oh, yuk! What was I thinking? Quinn was even telling her backstory!

My agent was not thrilled with the manuscript, but being kind, simply said it wasn’t “organic enough.”

When I said there was way too much “telling,” she said, “I’m so glad to hear you say that!”

I’d saved her having to tell me I’d made one of the worst beginner’s mistakes. So, I’m back into those pages and instead of telling about the travelers, I’m using dialog, and action to show the reader their culture and behavior. I have cut out much of the lumps of backstory and will piece them in later, if they are needed. Although I don’t believe a dead body must appear on the first page, this novel was taking too long to get to the action!

When I finish this manuscript, it must suck the reader right in with action, emotional conflict, and vivid sense-laden descriptions. I’ve done it before. I know I can do it again.

Have you ever lapsed back to your beginner days?

Thursday, April 05, 2018


This coming weekend I will learn if my 2017 novel, The Return of the Raven Mocker, has won this year’s Oklahoma Book Award. I was notified a month or so ago that Raven Mocker is one of the finalists in the fiction category. This is the eighth of the ten Alafair Tucker mysteries to be a finalist for the award. As of this moment, none of the eight have won. The truth is, though, that whether I finally win or not, I will not be disappointed. It's pretty good news to be a finalist for the award eight times for eight different books, and I am most happy about it. The entire finalist list is sent to every library in Oklahoma and it’s hard to top that kind of publicity.

Now that I think about it, I have to admit that I don't readily feel disappointment when something doesn't pan out, nor am I particularly elated by success. I've had a lot of both success and failures, and when the dust settles, nothing much is changed and I am still me. Another author told me once that she shopped a novel around for eight years, and she grew so calloused by rejection that when her agent did sell it, she felt nothing. I can easily be seduced by praise, though, and I wouldn't say no to an award of any ilk. Something has to keep you going in this business, because the likelihood is that it won't be riches.

A wall full of finalist consolation prizes.
I have just begun the preliminary research and planning stages for the next novel in my series. and soon I'll be in that apply-glue-to-rear-end-and-sit-down-in-front-of-computer-whether-you-like-it-or-not stage. Wringing out the first draft.

Or trying to. I find my mind wandering at the most inconvenient times, and considering that I have a tendency to give in to random thought as it is, I'm not having any luck completing the tasks I should.

For instance, rather than work on the manuscript I've just spent the last fifteen minutes thinking of names for a rock band. I discovered several books ago that if I’m going to be able to power through the pain of a first draft, I have to set myself a rigid writing schedule. This is difficult for me, since I’m not by nature a disciplined person. I don’t enjoy forcing myself to put words on the page, whether I’m feeling inspired at that moment or not. I’m always anxious and unhappy for much of a first draft. Why, I ask myself, isn’t this better? It seemed like such a good idea when it was still in my head.

Somerset Maugham follows a similar rule about sitting down to write whether you’re in the mood or not. An interviewer once asked him if he kept a strict writing schedule or if he simply waited for the Muse to strike him before he sat down to compose. He replied, "Oh, I wait for the Muse to strike. Fortunately she strikes every morning at precisely nine o'clock."

My piece of advice? The number one thing that works for me is just to sit down and do it and quit trying to figure out how to do it. Quit fooling around, Donis. The dishes will wait.

p.s. I looked up the Somerset Maugham in an attempt to get the above quote right, and I must say that Maugham is a fountainhead of quotable wisdom. Here are a couple that particularly spoke to me:

"The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected."
"There are three rules for writing a novel Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
"You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences."
And this, which seems especially apt right about now: "My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror."

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The best and cruellest of April

Barbara here. The arrival of spring always brings a sense of optimism and renewal especially for those of us living in the Great White North. Crocuses are pushing up, tiny leaf buds are forming, and the new book season is beginning to unfurl. In addition to the release of the ARCs of my new Amanda Doucette novel, Prisoners of Hope, I have two exciting book events to look forward to: the Arthur Ellis shortlist parties on April 18 and the 1000 Islands Writers Festival on April 27-29.

The Arthur Ellis awards are juried awards given annually by Crime Writers of Canada to honour the best in Canadian crime writing. There are seven categories, and every spring a panel of judges reads through all the entries in their category and selects a shortlist of five. This is a time-consuming, important, and sometimes contentious job, and their dedication is greatly appreciated. The shortlists will be announced on April 18 at parties across the country, with readings, signings, and sometimes blood-letting by local authors. I will be participating at the Ottawa event. Check out the one nearest you at Crime Writers of Canada and come on down to join the nail-biting!

The 1000 Islands Writers Festival is being held on the final weekend in April in the picturesque riverfront town of Gananoque, and brings together a mix of talented authors for a large gala reception, more intimate conversations, and lively interviews. The theme this year is Stories: a matter of life and death. Among the guests are myself, Kelley Armstrong, Maureen Jennings, and Terry Falls. Check out the website for details and tickets. Maureen and I are doing a luncheon chat where we promise to reveal some of our writing secrets (but not all!).

But this year April brings sad and shocking news as well. The wonderful independent mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aunt Agatha's, announced today that it is closing its doors this summer. Aunt Agatha's is not only a local and national treasure, but an international one as well.  For years the owners, Robin and Jamie, have been bringing mystery authors and readers together through their books, newsletters, reviews, book clubs, and invited author programs.  It's been my privilege to be invited several times and I gladly make the trek from Ottawa to Ann Arbor for the event. There are no greater fans and advocates of mystery.

It is a sad testament to changing times and buying habits that this loving, personalized service is being lost. Robin and Jamie, thank you so much for your years of support to readers and writers alike. You are irreplaceable and will be missed. As a final hurrah, Aunt Agatha is hosting a series of author events and book sales until the doors close, so check out their Site and come on down to share your thanks and best wishes for the future.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Location, location, location!

by Rick Blechta

My reference photo of Loch Striven
My post this week spins off what Aline was speaking about yesterday. One thing I’ve learned over the course of 10 books is that location can bring a story to life as much as great characters.

I agree with Aline that fiction writers should never apologize for their imaginations. So what if we add a castle to the landscape? If it helps our story, then go for it. The only disappointed people will be those who travel to the locale and don’t find the castle there. If they have their own good imaginations, they’ll “see” the castle where the author placed it and understand why it was placed there.

I have my own Scottish story to relate. While researching in Argyll for my novel When Hell Freezes Over, I needed a lonely house in a picturesque location. We were staying with a friend and not having had much luck on two research forays from his home just north of Dunoon, I asked him for some help.

“What you’re describing we would call a bothy, basically a farmhouse. There’s a road that goes around the bottom of Loch Striven. You should try that.”

Off my wife and I went. The views from the road were really lovely, but there was no building placed anywhere which would work in my story. None that we saw gave me what I was looking for: lonely but with a great view. Reaching the end of the road, we turned back. It wasn’t until we returned again to the bottom of Loch Striven where the road is about a quarter to half a mile from the shoreline and up fairly high that I realized the location was perfect for my needs — except there wasn’t even a shed in sight. And then I though, Well, there could be

Back at our friend’s house after taking some reference photos, I sketched out a description of my old bothy, the outbuilding I needed, and a short but precise description of the view, and voila! I had just what I needed.

And I did not feel a twinge of guilt.

For the record, I used our friend’s house (particularly his living room) for the climactic scene of my novel.*

We fiction writers lie for a living. Really. Everything we do is made up. Sometimes it might be based on fact, but at their hearts, our works are always made up, aren’t they? If that means adding buildings to a landscape, so what?

I’m with Aline on this one.

Next week: *the dangers of using recognizable landmarks in fiction writing.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Imaginary Places

Catherine Macdonald, commenting on Donis's post last week, said that she felt guilty about creating a castle in Scotland because there wasn't one in the right place. I was enormously impressed by her moral standards because I do far worse and don't feel guilty at all!

My books are always very firmly rooted in the landscape, but I create the village, the town, or even the island that's going to be my main setting. There are various reasons for this.

I always have at the back of my mind the thought that if I use a real place and comment adversely on an organization, a business or an institution, or have an unpleasant character linked to one, I could fall foul of the libel laws. People have an amazing tendency to 'recognize' themselves in books – my mother was always convinced that she was the elderly lady who was murdered in the first chapter of my first book. (She wasn't, honestly!)

Real places are so inconvenient, too. They will persist in not having the streets organized in a way that would make it convenient for my story and local readers do tend to get stroppy when you move their buildings around. Not only that, if they spot a mistake they don't hesitate to point it out; I got an irritable email from a reader pointing out that I had got one figure in the number of the road my character was driving on wrong.

But my creations are always precisely placed in a gap where they could plausibly be and the descriptions of the scenery round about are exactly what you would see if you stood on that particular spot, and the distances from real towns or landmarks are carefully calculated.

The other reason I choose to invent is that I love doing it. The best fun of all was creating my island for my book, Evil for Evil. There is a series of tiny islands, the Isles of Fleet, just off the coast of Galloway and I slipped in my own, just at one end. I had a totally clear picture in my mind's eye – still do! At one end a rough causeway led from the shore at low tide and from there it swept smoothly up, past the little ruined chapel and the Norse graves, to the bothy and sheds for the feed for the roe deer that were farmed there, close to the little wood with the sea-cliffs on the farther side. I almost can't believe I wouldn't find it there if I went back.

I wouldn't do it without having done a lot of research in the area first. Atmosphere is really important and I have to get it right, since that will be the background to my own creations, and the only moral aspect for me is that I don't distort the places that really are there. If I name a genuine town, the description will match what I know is there. Can't have people getting totally confused!

When I explain the principle to people who ask me exactly where a book is set, they seem, so far, to be quite happy to accept that. It's fiction, after all!