Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Dreaded Anachronism

Aline's blog about youthful slang hit a nerve with me. Nothing dates a book faster than slang. If you're paying attention, you can tell when the English-speaking characters lived just by their vocabulary. I am an historical novelist, so I don't have to worry about my dialog being dated before the book comes out. On the contrary, I'm always trying to figure out if my dialog, dialect, slang, is appropriate to the period. If there is anything that a historical novelist dreads, it’s anachronism--a thing out of time, an act whereby a thing, a custom, a word, is attributed to a period to which it does not belong. This is particularly bad in a historical novel because it will take your reader right out of the story if Queen Elizabeth (either one) says "Groovy man," or "that is phat!" Or if Caesar checks his Rolex before he conquers Gaul. Yet a historical novelist is not writing a history book. She is taking us back in time and letting us live in a different world for awhile.

How do you deal with historical terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader? How do you convey a sense of dialect or vocabulary of the time without being confusing or taking the reader out of the story? I deal with this constantly.

I've used this example before, but it is perfectly illustrative of the dialectic difficulties of the historical novelist:

I am proofreading my latest Alafair work in progress when I come across a sentence in which Alafair says:
"... it’s a big flap every night at bedtime until Mama or Daddy goes in there and knocks some heads together.”

"Hmm," I say to myself. "Would a person use the phrase 'big flap' in June of 1916? Perhaps I should look it up." So out comes the etymological dictionary, in which I discover that the first known use of the term 'big flap' was noted in 1916, being used on the battlefields of World War I among British soldiers.

All right, I think. Alafair, living in rural Oklahoma in mid-1916 would probably have not heard 'big flap' used like this, but she may very well have said 'big flapdoodle'. For according to the previously mentioned etymological dictionary, the word 'flapdoodle' was common in the U.S. and Europe dating from 1839. So I change 'flap' to 'flapdoodle', feeling very proud of myself.

One week later I'm doing historical research by reading a book which I had bought many years earlier at the Enid, Oklahoma, Historical Society entitled Reflections From the Roadside, a Quindecennial Chronology. This is a reprint of the diary kept by Oklahoma homesteader Henry Harrison Reynolds from January 1912 through December 1926. I am reading his entries for June 1916 just to see what's going on in the world that an ordinary person would remark upon and what do I see in the entry for December 1915? I quote:

"There has been a big flap for months over drilling a test well for the city north of town."

So when some reader tries to take me to task for using an anachronistic dialect terms, I can say with confidence and through direct experience that even the experts can be wrong.

It’s one thing to be accurate about historical events, dress, and vocabulary, but how do you go about making sure that your characters behave and think in a way that is appropriate to the time and place they live in? How do you handle it when your character doesn’t subscribe to the same cultural attitudes as you do? Try writing about Oklahoma in 1919 when perfectly nice people with all the good will in the world would use what today would be very offensive terminology without thinking twice about it. How do your characters deal with what we would now consider unsavory beliefs and mores like sexism/classism/racism?

In my novel Hell With the Lid Blown Off, I have a character who is homosexual, and lives in terror of discovery. No two ways about it. If he were discovered, it could be the end of him. And that is the way it was in middle America in the 1910s. After that book came out I got an email from a very troubled reader wondering what I was trying to say. Did the societal attitude in my book reflect my own attitude. To which I answered, God, no! But that’s the way it was, my dear, which is why it’s so important we don’t gloss it over. Remember how bad it was and make sure we never go back.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

It's so hard to keep your privacy these days

by Rick Blechta

Aline's post of yesterday was very timely for me (Thanks, Aline!) as I'm currently struggling with the same sort of thing, although with me, it's not current language usage/vocab but technical terms and new technology.

My current work-in-progress has posed some significant issues, the largest of which is that a major part of the plot revolves around hacking and illegal computer technology.

I have very little experience in this arena and have not been able to obtain the help of a competent hacker or illegal surveillance expert. That's been a real problem. Sure, I could always take the chance and make things up (as long as their logic is sound) and hope that my novel won't scream out, “The idiot who wrote this has no idea what he's doing!” That’s a risk I’m unwilling to take.

So for research I’ve been trolling some rather grey areas on the Internet. That’s sort of a dangerous thing to do in this day and age. I'm sure I’m now on a few watchlists with organizations like CSIS and the Department of Homeland Security.

What have I learned?

Here's one that’s pretty frightening: it’s basically child’s play to hack into someone’s smart phone. You don’t even have to be anywhere near it to accomplish this task. All you need is an app that costs under $100 and the person's phone number. Once done, you can see everything that goes on and I mean everything — unless they’re encrypting all their messages — and how many people do that. We all play computer Russian roulette far too much.

Another: Never, ever login to a free WiFi site. Again a relatively cheap device is available that will fool your computer or smartphone or tablet into thinking that it’s connected to the WiFi router when it’s actually connected to a hacker's computer. It could be the guy sitting next to you in the coffee shop. Thing is, you’d never know this is going on. I was in a fast food restaurant with free WiFi and the person sitting next to me was doing some online banking. Whoops! If there’s an unscrupulous so-and-so lurking nearby with the right equipment, the hapless soul would likely be giving up all the access codes to their bank accounts.

Sobering, right?

I've learned a whole lot more that makes me aware that a determined hacker can get almost anything out of you — and you'd never know until your life goes sideways.

Six months ago, I had someone armed with only my name and a tiny bit of easily accessible info try to get a credit card in my name. Only because we were involved with helping our son get a mortgage did we find out. It was easily remedied but we were only saved by happenstance. I've taken steps to protect myself from this sort of thing in the future but it's costing me ten bucks a month — and that's well worth it as far as I'm concerned.

It’s a dangerous world out there, boys and girls. Take some time to educate yourself.

And if you learn anything interesting about computer surveillance techniques, please let me know! I’ll give you a credit in my novel once it’s published.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Woke-up Call

Are you woke? No, I'm not really asking you to sit up straight at the back there and pay attention. As those of you who are down-there-with-the-kids will know – people like me, at least since last weekend – 'woke' means what we used to call 'with it' or even 'hip'.

Some of you guys may have noticed we had a big do over here then for our Harry and your Meghan and apparently they are 'woke'. It was a 'woke' wedding, apparently. (If you didn't catch it, everything went pretty well, thanks, we all had a great time, not a dry eye in the house and after only four or five days one or two of the more serious papers devoted a page or two to other news.)

Vocabulary changes fast these days. The Oxford Dictionary publishes updates every year and names their word of the year; since 2009 these have included 'selfie', 'youthquake', 'omnishambles' and 'post-truth'. I guess 'fake news' and 'snowflake' will make the list this year.

Particularly if you have youthful characters in your books, you have to keep up with modern vocabulary and it's really dangerous, since nothing jars so badly as a proudly used 'youth' word that is just so 2017. 'Fit' and 'buff' seem well-embedded now and in my currently limited experience of teenagers (children too old, grandchildren too young) they still seem to say 'like' a lot. As in 'He said to me, and I was, like, "What??!!" '

How do we keep up? John, you're in a good place with your young students. I read the newspapers, I watch TV and films, but unless you are around them every day it's a struggle not to sound as if you're not very competently speaking a foreign language.

And then there are the words that have been dropped as no longer in use. The trouble is, if you've used them all your life you don't necessarily know that this one's gone. There was a recent list published that includes words like 'esurient' for 'hungry' and 'caducity' for 'infirm old age' and certainly I've never used either of those. But I might have to plead guilty to 'slugabed' – superseded, I suppose' by 'couch potato', though since I haven't checked that may be a yesterday's word as well by now.

I don't do it deliberately. I had a charming email from a reader who said she had a notebook headed 'Aline's Words' and liked to write them down if she didn't know what they meant. Oh dear.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

When the Writer becomes the Teacher

How many of you teach writing? For a while, to pad my income, I actively sought writing gigs but backed off that because it was A) a lot of work finding gigs, and B) I didn't get a lot of interest. It was embarrassing touting myself as a "National Bestselling Author" and have zilch in terms of students signing up. I did have some success, don't get me wrong. I taught Writing the Graphic Novel at Front Range Community College and for the last TEN years, I've taught craft seminars at Lighthouse Writers summer LitFest. Just last week I taught a craft workshop at the Westminster Public Library. And like many of you, I've presented my fair share of panels, gratis, at various cons.

In my classes, one of my guiding principles is that I have specific take-aways for my students. I want them to feel that their money and time was well spent. I also like to include quotes to illustrate that this writing game can be a challenging biz, even for big-name writers like Hemingway, for example. Although I personally don't like writing exercises, or "prompts" to use MFA jargon, I rely on them because that way I don't have to talk for the entire session. I listen to myself enough as it is. For the most part, I seem to cycle though the same topics though the classes have different titles each time: story structure, characters, premise, and the big one--motivation. Something else I've noticed is that students, especially older ones, seem to be seeking the one secret trick that will get them published. One time I mentioned that I listen to ambient soundscapes as I write--cafes are my favorite (I'm at Starbucks without paying $$$ for a latte)--and when I shared a specific Youtube address, my students feverishly wrote it down. Older students also don't seem too interested in speculative fiction or mystery and instead prefer memoir. Understandable, I guess, though I don't teach it.

Every once in a while I'll have a student challenge me, which I find annoying. I certainly welcome different opinions because that's how I learn, but when some pompous nitwit wants to make a point at my expense I don't like being in the position of defending myself. When it happens, my ego kicks in, but I tend to downplay their response and move on.

Lately I've been a mentor in the Regis University Mile High MFA program. My personal take-away from that is how motivated and well-read these students are. They definitely keep me on my toes. One objective of the program has the graduating students identify how they'll use their MFA degree after leaving school. Not surprising, teaching is one avenue.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Double Binds

A couple of weeks ago my oldest daughter participated in a dressage event. She and her horse, Roslyn, are a really elegant combination. A number of family members attended, the weather was perfect. It was delightful day, and doubly enjoyable because attending this show rather than something else was an easy choice.

We have a close and supportive extended family. It's one of my biggest blessings. However, I've noticed over the years the time I spend choosing between conflicting events keeps growing. There's hardly ever just one thing going on.

On June 2, Colorado Humanities Council will announce the winners of the various categories for the categories for the Colorado Book Award. I'm a finalist (Fractured Families) and am in awe of the abilities of the other two finalists in the mystery category. I know them both--Barbara Nickless (Dead Stop) and Margaret Mizushima (Hunting Hour)--through my local Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America chapter.

But I have a conflict. There's a wonderful birthday party planned for one of my best friends. I can't possibly go to both. The choice is clear--I'm going to the awards ceremony--but still, I really regret not having the ability to be in two places at once.

Writing double-binds keep multiplying. All the conferences are so attractive. I want to go to Western Writers of America this summer, but my granddaughter's graduation party is on the last day. I'll leave the conference early (Billings, MT) and drive non-stop to get back to Aurora.

If I go to Western Writers can I afford to go to Colorado Gold? I hear it's a wonderful conference and it's sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It's close, too. Driving is preferable to flying because of all the stuff I end up taking. Books are the pits to manage and some events require several different kinds of clothes.

And talk about multiplication, how did I end up joining so many organizations?

Everything sounds so appealing. I want to do everything and go everywhere.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Scratching an itch

It’s how you determine which books become series. I call it “the itch.” It’s when the characters you were finished with –– or thought you were –– tap you on the shoulder and look at you with a head-cock and a smirk that tells you they know something you don’t: even if you thought you were done with them, they weren’t finished with you.

It’s how I wrote five novels set on the PGA tour and three more set among the day-to-day life of US Border Patrol agents.

I sent my latest book off to my agent a month ago, went on with my life (more on that later), but got the itch. The characters have returned, and now they’re pacing. One is even looking at his watch, wondering when we’re getting back to work.

The new book was fun to write, a way to channel my alter ego. I’m a boarding school teacher and administrator. The book features a husband and wife team and is set at a New England boarding school. The husband, an English teacher who eyes typical administrative structures with distrust and maybe even disdain, is the protagonist; the wife, the newly-appointed head of school, has her hands full breaking the glass ceiling and keeping her spouse in check.

Now she’s eyeing me like an unhappy boss, and he’s pacing. They’ve even brought me a new (and interesting) plot. Let’s go, buddy. Time’s a wastin’.

So I’ve begun. Tepidly. I wrote a brief synopsis (no more than what would appear as a jacket description). While running, I’ve thought about who the new players will be, where the characters in the last book are now, and where all of them might journey.

It’s the itch. And it’s when I know it’s time to begin again.

As an aside, I’ve always enjoyed solitary activities: writing, golfing (alone, in the evenings or at the crack of dawn), fishing, and running. As someone who coaches and spends time with athletes, as a teacher and a father –– Delaney, 20, plays lacrosse at Kenyon College in Ohio, and Audrey, 17, is a distance runner (much faster than her old man; notice you’ll find no mention of my time in the FB post) –– the correlation between endorphins and writing interests me. For instance, I know I write better when I’m running regularly. (Sir Conan Doyle found a way to combine my passions taking long walks on golf courses where he held solitary rounds to plot.)

In the spirit of all this, on Saturday, I posted this.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Going Down the GDPR Rabbit Hole

 I turned in my final edits to Designed For Haunting last week. The dedication and acknowledgments are done. So this week I decided to catch up on things like updating my website, creating discussion questions for book clubs for all of my books, and other such things I haven’t yet gotten around to.

I kept on hearing about the EU's new GDPR law so I thought I'd look into that as well and see what I need to do, if anything, to comply. It didn’t take long before I fell down the GDPR rabbit hole.

What is GDPR? you ask and why is an author in the United States even bothering to learn about it?

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is a law passed by the EU that goes into effect May 25th. It covers data protection and privacy for EU citizens as well as addressing the export of such data outside of the EU. While this law isn’t really aimed at authors, it does apply somewhat to us. Since I have a newsletter and an EU citizen could sign up for it from my Facebook author page or on my website, it seems that it does apply to me. So I decided to look into what other authors were doing.

In the U.S., we have the CAN-SPAM act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) (betcha didn’t know what that stood for! I didn’t.). The act establishes requirements for commercial email, establishes the right of people to ask that you stop emailing them and imposes penalties for those who don’t comply. We’ve been dealing with that since 2004, one reason why I use MailChimp to send out my newsletter. It has items built in to help me comply.

The GDPR seems to go further regarding the keeping of someone’s personal data including email addresses. You have to have proof of how they signed up, for one thing.

To figure out what I have to do, I started looking around online, quickly discovering that the reaction to the law varies from “OMG, what a lot of work I have to do to comply” to “you really don’t have to do much.” I went to MailChimp’s website to see what they said I have to do. What they suggested seemed like an awful lot to me.

Here are some of the other posts I read:
What GDPR Means for Authors and Bloggers
Author Marketing Help Desk: GDPR and Your Email List
6 Myths GDPR Email Marketing Debunked

I also listened to this podcast, specific to what authors should do to be compliant with the GDPR. It was interesting (it’s an hour and fifteen minutes long, BTW).

The more I looked into it, the more I realized no one really seems to know what the appropriate thing to do is. Opinions vary between lawyers even on what’s necessary.

MailChimp advises asking everyone on your current list to opt in again. However, articles such as this one from The Guardian note that doing that is generally unnecessary and possibly illegal. This is where I mentally threw up my hands.

Right now I figure I have 3 options: (1) completely ignore it, figuring I have few EU residents on my newsletter list and the powers that be in the EU aren’t going to be interested in little old me, anyway, (2) do everything MailChimp says or (3) take a middle of the road approach and do a few minor tweaks.

I think I’m going for the third option. I’m going to make sure the newsletter signup forms I have make it clear that people are signing up for my newsletter and that I understand how the people on my list currently got onto the list. I never put anyone on my list unless they specifically request it so I don’t have to get rid of people that didn’t opt-in. And I’ll be ready to get rid of someone’s data if they so request. Just seems like common sense stuff to me.

This is my take on the GDPR. It’s not legal advice, etc., etc. Everyone should decide for themselves what they need to do.

For the authors out there, what are you doing to comply with GDPR? Anything?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Some fun for a Tuesday

by Rick Blechta

Well, I’m doing pretty poorly the past couple of weeks. Last week, I didn’t even remember it was Tuesday until 9:00 pm. This week, I’ve got too much on my plate and an overly-full brain to even consider writing a post.

I’ll be back next week with a fully thought-out post of tremendous erudition. Well, maybe I should say I hope to write something worth reading, erudition being what it is. That’s a tall mountain to climb — especially for a blog post from moi.

One last thing: good luck to all the nominees for this year’s Arthur Ellis Awards that are being handed out at a gala dinner here in Toronto on Thursday evening!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

And a Good Time was Had by All

By Vicki Delany

As Donis posted a picture of me with her and Ann Parker in Scottsdale on Thursday, let me follow up with my .02.
The Vicki Delany shelf at the Poisoned Pen

I was in Arizona last week for CozyCon at the Poisoned Pen bookstore. It was an afternoon of nine authors, not all of whom are cozy writers, but most were. As usual in a PP appearance we talked books, books and more books, with each other, with our moderator Barbara Peters and with those kind enough people to come out and hear us.

In short, it was great.

Kate Carlisle, Paige Shelton, C.S. Harris, Jenn McKinlay, Vicki Delany

The following day, Donis, Ann Parker and I went to the Tempe Public Library, where we did much the same.

Again, a fun appearance.

I do these sort of things now so I can hang out with my friends.  The day before CozyCon I had lunch with Donis, I shared a hotel room for one night with Kate Carlisle. Kate, Jenn McKinlay, Paige Sheldon, C.S. Harris, Ann, and I hung out at the hotel bar (some hanging for longer than others).  On Sunday Ann, Donis and I had brunch before our library visit.

The only reason I know all these people and I consider them to be my friends is because I did the slog of conferences and book signings earlier in my career.  Now, don’t get me wrong. Generally, I like bookstores and conferences, but they are work.  A lot of work. And you’re paying your own way most of the time.

It’s the networking that counts, in my opinion.

And the networking counts in the long run. Maybe not in book sales, but certainly in fun.

Speaking of book sales: THE SPOOK IN THE STACKS, the 4th Lighthouse Library book by me as Eva Gates comes out on June 12. I am particularly pleased about this, because that series was cancelled by Penguin Random House after the third book. It was then picked up by Crooked Lane Books. YEAH! If you know anything about the book biz, you'll know that it's very unusual for a new publisher to continue an existing series, unless the books are in the mega-bestseller range. Mine are not, but I am thrilled to have it back.  A lot of credit goes to the Facebook group SAVE OUR COZIES. 

Speaking of Facebook, with the new book about to come out, I'll be running more contests for ARCs or earlier books in the series, so pop over and like my page.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Sunset Boulevard

This post will be short because it's end of semester and I'm in the midst of grading. I still have a pile of papers to read between now and Monday evening 11:59 when grades are due to the Registrar's Office. In between, this Saturday and Sunday, I will be joining fellow faculty members as we send our graduates out into the world -- to their joy.

But I want to speak in praise of the TCM project that brings classic films to movie theaters. The movies are in theaters for only two days. This month the movie was Sunset Boulevard.
On Wednesday, knowing the 2 o'clock matinee would be my only chance to see it, I jumped up from my desk and headed for the multiplex in the mall.

I arrived too late to hear the narrator -- face-down in the swimming pool -- identify himself as the person who was about to tell us how he ended up there. What can I say? I was counting on ten minutes of coming attractions, and I stopped for popcorn. But I was there when the flashback began.

The longer I watched, the more I regretted missing the swimming pool scene. Seeing this classic black and white film on the big screen was a revelation. As many times as I had seen the movie, there were some things that simply didn't register until I was completely focused, sitting there in the dark, both watching and listening.

Joe Gillis (William Holden), the narrator and the dead man in the pool, is an unsuccessful writer. I knew that, but somehow I had never really listened closely to what he says about that in the opening scenes of the movie. The conversation he has with his agent before he dumps him. The look on his face as he listens to a studio reader (Nancy Olson) rip the movie script he is pitching apart -- unaware that he is the person who wrote it. The decision that he should give up, admit defeat, and go back to the newspaper in his hometown where he will be greeted by smirks. Maybe the first time I saw the movie, I was not yet writing. Maybe after I became a writer, I simply nodded and stopped listening. But on the big screen, Joe Gillis trying to evade the repo men who are trying to take his car was  a reminder about the benefits of having a "day job".

If he hadn't been broke, Joe Gillis would never have taken a job as a script doctor for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the silent movie queen. He wouldn't have become her reluctant live-in lover while escaping in the evening to collaborate with the studio reader (who knows he is capable of much better work than the script he pitched). There is so much in this movie about being a writer that I'm sure I will use a clip the next time I'm asked to speak about the writing life.

There is also a marvelous scene when Gloria Swanson takes her live-in script doctor shopping for new clothes. And the scene when they visit the studio where she once reigned. And the scene that anyone who has seen the movie remembers when Swanson comes down the stairs with newsreel  cameras rolling. What I hadn't noticed on the small screen was the expressions on the faces of the reporters who clear a path for her.

Watching this movie in a theater as it was intended makes me wonder if: (a) I should mortgage my house and build a home theater, and (b) what it would be like to see my own characters come to life on the big screen. Not that I wouldn't be happy with a made-for-television movie. I think. Maybe not. Sunset Boulevard also offers some thought-provoking commentary about movies and movie-making.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Putting Yourself Out There

Staying connected

Very interesting posts this week on the joys of being a writer. John wondered about the effectiveness of social media, Sybil pondered the usefulness of going to conferences. When it comes to promotion, what one writer is willing and able to do may be quite different from another. I enjoy conferences and think they're very useful for making connections. But I don't go to many, one or two a year if family health and finances permit. I'm not a particularly shy person, and I'm not at all bothered about speaking before a group. But I'm slow to warm up in a social situation, at least until I feel I have a handle on whomever I'm talking to. I told a friend once that I think I was born to be an observer in this life. This is a great quality to have if you're a writer, but not as useful if you need to work the room. I actually do make the rounds at every conference I attend and talk to as many people as I can, but I'll never be as effective at it as someone as outgoing and naturally talented as, say, Louise Penny. However, I'm guessing I'm a much better schmoozer than J.D. Salinger, who could buy and sell me. So as effective as that technique is, it must not be the end-all and be-all.

I've been doing this author thing for years, and I keep trying a little of this and a little of that, and attempting to judge what promotional activity works best for me. Other writers have been extraordinarily helpful to me, but I can't afford to go to as many conferences as I'd like in order to make those connections. I'm much less promiscuous with bookstore signings than I was when I started out. After sitting in lonely solitude behind a table a few times, I now choose my bookstores and signing times with great care, and do everything I can to publicize the event beforehand. For every other bookstore I come across, I find it much more effective to talk to the booksellers.

I'm very lucky to live within driving distance of Poisoned Pen Bookstore, which is owned by my editor (whose husband happens to be my publisher). Whether I can travel or not, most mystery authors eventually find their way to Poisoned Pen for an event. This a a wonderful way for me to keep in touch with the many author friends I've made over the years. Witness the above photo of Yours Truly, Ann Parker, and our own Vicki Delany, having lunch after their event in Scottsdale this month. Then we did a library panel together, below, looking much more proper, and as we know, looks can be deceiving.

Ann Parker, Vicki Delany, Donis Casey

I find that the more I speak to groups, the more I'm asked to speak. I get a lot of library business. I was a librarian for 20 years, so I know a lot of library types all over the country. Book clubs are good. If you can find a non-book group to talk to that has some sort of connection to what you write about, that can be fabulous for your sales. History groups are good for me. I know another writer who used to sell her books at an annual zoo event and cleans up. (Makes money. Though I think she does actually volunteer to muck out cages.)

My husband, however, would rather stand on his head in a mud puddle while poking himself in the eye than speak in front of a group. I understand that most people are terrified of public speaking, so my publicity plan, such as it is would be torture for them.

The internet is a godsend, if you know how to work it, though less so for us Luddites. I try to do something on Facebook, author page or personal page, every day. I don't tweet. This may be a big mistake, but the very idea makes me tired. It would be hard for me to host an internet radio program, because I simply don't have the technical skills--or the interest. My webmaster, who is also my brother, told me that my website should be "all Donis, all the time", and not concentrate solely on my books. This gives you leeway to change your focus, if you decide to do something other than what you have been doing. Change genres, for instance, or become a playwright, or an actor. Do working actively on blogs and Facebook and Goodreads and BookBub increase my readership? I don't know, to tell the truth. But I'm a writer, damn it, and more writing is always better than less. On my own site, I've more or less kept a public diary of my experiences as a novelist, and whether it's instructive to others or not, after a dozen years I have written enough material for a book.

This writing game is tough. And when it comes to selling yourself, you just have to put your head down and go. What works for one may not work for you, so you try everything you can manage and do the best you can. The really important thing, though, is to do the best you can without making yourself miserable. Life is too short.

p.s. and aside: This has nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I tend to write short. Or, more accurately, I write long manuscripts and end up whittling them down to the nub. I want to get to the point.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Loving Babel

Barbara here.  This will be a short, possibly rather incoherent, post because I am on holiday in Portugal, and all thoughts of writing are far away  So is my laptop, which I left at home in favour of my lightweight mini iPad. Portugal has been around as a country since the 12th century and although its language is romance in origin, it has evolved as a unique language distinct from its Spanish neighbour. The rugged mountain range to the east and the country’s affinity to the ocean to the west have also helped to maintain the uniqueness of Portuguese language and culture.

But things have certainly changed since I last visited continental Europe nearly 50 years ago. The European Union, free movement of citizens and commerce, and fifty years of peace have created a wonderful sense of diversity and coexistence. Walking down the streets of Lisbon, sitting in restaurants, and riding the bus, I am surrounded by a sea of languages.  Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, and every variety of English. Plus Chinese and Japanese.  Snatches of language, all expressing the same sentiments; awe at a stunning vista or intricate cathedral, delight at a succulent shrimp dish. All sharing the landscape together. And even more importantly, switching back and forth between languages depending on the need.

One sunny afternoon at a sidewalk cafe, we were listening to our waiter switching effortlessly from English (us) to French (next table)to German (table across). We asked him how many languages he spoke. Five, he said matter of factly. Proudly.

Multiple languages abound on signs and menus as well. Being from Quebec and living now in Ottawa, I am used to bilingual signs and chatter (not to mention the many New Canadians and visitors). But this effortless, unselfish-conscious intermingling, this eagerness to embrace whatever word works, is so refreshiing. Stripped of political subtext and social stratification, words help us share our commonalities. They open up our world.

Now off to bed. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Long and the Short of It.

Like many of you, I was interested  in my guest Christine Poulson's post about 'long or short' when it comes to book length.

Like her, I think I have a natural length.  I don't decide ahead of time what it's to be and my editor doesn't impose constraints on me one way or another, but my books mostly come in around the 120,00 + mark.  I definitely write long.

I write crime novels rather than thrillers.  I suspect most of us tend to write what we like to read; above all as our plot unfolds we're telling ourselves a story along with the reader.

 I like reading big crime novels that allow time for the characters and their backgrounds fully to emerge; I like descriptions that let me see the characters' surroundings and give space for the setting to develop its status as a character in the novel.  I like slow-burn tension, where the screw is gently tightened and tightened and the pace is inexorable rather that helter-skelter. I like PD James, Sophie Hannah, Louise Penny.  I feel their books are rich and satisfying and time spent with them is time well spent.

Of course, we're not all Jameses and Hannahs and Pennys.  The traps for a long book are wordiness and padding, or the sagging middle when the book seems mired in a slough of detail and not going anywhere.  You have to work harder at persuading the reader to stick with you to the end and you certainly need to have a scalpel handy when you start revising.  

The other big drawback to writing long is  that it takes a long time.  I'm always awed by people who turn out two books a year, though I suppose that's only a little over half the number of words I write.

There are 'short' authors I love too, of course - Andrea Camilleri is a great favourite and there's nothing to beat the old 'gumshoe' stories.

So the long and the short of it is, 'We're all different' - and isn't that a lucky thing!

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Price of Tea in China

Certified International Indigold 36 Oz. Teapot In Blue
When I was a child and people began veering off from the main point of a story they were telling, someone would bring them up short with the phrase "That has nothing to do with the price of tea in China."

It took me a number of years to figure that one out. And I might add that people don't tell stories much anymore. Great storytellers were once prized. They were good for an evenings entertainment. Good storytellers always built to a suspenseful climax. My father and my Uncle Clarence were two of the best. Cousin Frankie came close. In fact, on some occasions, he could top anyone. 

A number of these stories have stayed with me forever. When Frankie became a lawyer he defended a man who insisted his murdered victim was going to turn himself into a snake and bite him. (True, this one) Frankie went to the reservation and asked a medicine man if by any chance his client honestly believed that. "No," the shaman replied solemnly. "Everyone knows it take three days to turn yourself into a snake." 

My father's recitation of the "Biggest Liar in Kincaid" was one of the funniest stories I've ever heard and like most, it was grounded in truth. Sort of. These stories relied on a keen and benign awareness of human nature. 

But woe to the would be storyteller who lacked timing and pacing. Woe be to the person slapped down with "that has nothing to do with the price of tea in China."

The phrase means a segment is absolutely pointless. Not only does it not add to the story, it's aggravating as hell. 

Exhausting passages that have nothing to do with the prince of tea in China are one of the most common mistakes made by beginning novelists. They are usually inserted to beef up an author's credentials, but have more to do with the author's ego, not the story. It's so tempting to show off one's mastery of the history of a period. Especially when the story is shaped by setting and the environment of the everyday world. 

All historical details should be integrated in such a way that they advance the plot. For my historical novel, Come Spring, I read a whole book about fitting horse collars properly. I really, really wanted to show off my knowledge of horse collars, but knew it would bore readers stiff. I ended up with a scene where my hero, Daniel, padded the horse collar with a piece of precious calico, infuriating his wife, Aura Lee, who had planned to use the fabric in a quilt. 

There's extra tension when descriptive details are so crucial to a scene that the elements stick with readers forever. The account of the Count of Monte Cristo's stay in the dungeon would not be the same without the slimy walls, the moldy food, the crushing deprivation. 

Integration into plot is the best way, but if a writer must use narrative passages, I like Jack Bickham's book, Scene and Structure. Bickham offers an excellent explanation about sequels to a scene and how they set the stage for action to come. Of particular interest is the emphasis on a character's reaction--often brooding--to tension generated and his decision to do something.

Sequels are also a very convenient place to slip in critical observations while the mumbling hero is talking to himself: passing beggars, stumbling over the sick, etc. It's a chance to slip in political opinions. All sorts of stuff. 

I could add many examples of passages that have nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I'm sure every reader could point to books where they abandoned them half way through for this every reason

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Word-of-Mouth Sales?

This week, I ran out and got Alex Marwood’s THE DARKEST SECRET. I’ve started reading and am enjoying it. I heard about it via word of mouth.

Well, kind of.

You see, I saw the following tweet by Stephen King: Rereading THE DARKEST SECRET, by Alex Marwood. If there has been a better mystery-suspense story written in this decade, I can’t think of it. Maybe THE PAYING GUESTS, by Sarah Waters. Both transcend the genre.

The book is living up to Mr. King’s praise. All of which has me wondering about the role of social media on book sales. How many times have I bought a book because a friend recommended it? Often times, this comes in the form of an author friend: Reed Farrell Coleman suggested Megan Abbott; SJ Rozan suggested Naomi Hirahara.

Maybe this is all a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. People have, after all, been swapping and recommending books forever. Goodreads has 65 million members and was born of this long-standing tradition.

Yet Goodreads, even with its seemingly large membership, is designed for –– and serves –– book lovers. But does success on Goodreads (strong reviews, etc) lead to sales? The data indicates this can be hit or miss, while NPR radio mentions and reviews in large-scale mainstream publications will produce noticeable results. One interesting item: 84% of Twitter users say they use the platform to look for deals, especially during the holidays.

So where does Stephen King’s twitter praise rank? Certainly, he’s not your typical word-of-mouth promoter. (I follow him mostly because his Donald Trump tweets make me laugh. And think.) I have no way of knowing how many sales it generated for Alex Marwood, but she was sure to tweet back.

Oh, thanks so much!

So I’m assuming King’s praise didn’t hurt.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Conventions - Are They Worth Attending?

I’m back from Malice Domestic, my last convention of the year. While I’ve enjoyed the conventions I’ve attended, I’m glad to be home with no plans to travel in the near future. The last couple years I’ve done a painting convention in Las Vegas end of February/early March, Left Coast Crime in Hawaii/Reno a couple weeks later, and Malice Domestic end of April. I’m now reassessing my attendance at mystery conventions. Are they worth the expense and time away from home and writing?

Up until last year when LCC was in Hawaii, I only attended once before when it was in Downtown Los Angeles, a 45-minute drive. LCC often coincided with my painting convention, which won out because, well, I have my priorities. But the lure of Hawaii and the timing around my birthday made this a must attend event. I signed up for LCC in Reno for two reasons: we could drive there and one of the guests of honor was a friend. I had some great conversations with fellow authors at both events, but I’m not sure I picked up any new readers.

This was my fifth Malice and my favorite so far. Even though it was held at a different hotel this time around, I still felt like I was coming home, so to speak. I know a lot of people who attend and I feel like I belong there more than at other conventions. Cozy/traditional mystery are the books I enjoy reading most and the kind of stories I enjoy writing. Sometimes, at LCC and Bouchercon (I’ve attended that one once when it was in Long Beach), I almost feel like I have to apologize for writing the lighter side of mystery. Not so at Malice.

I think I also enjoyed it more because I filled my time with a lot of different things. I did the Malice Go Round (aka speed dating with authors), attended the Sisters in Crime breakfast for the first time, was on a panel, did a Facebook Live interview and co-hosted a table at the Agatha Awards banquet.

The banquet is my favorite part of the event. I never thought I would say that. I’m not good at small talk, but I always seem to have a good time there. This time around, I teamed up with Agatha award nominee Kathleen Valenti and co-hosted a table. Turns out I’m much better at small talk when I’m a host. I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone has a good time so that seems to get me out of my shell.
Giveaways for our table. Missing is a pill bottle filled with M&Ms from Kathleen. Give me M&Ms and I eat them!

Another reason I enjoy Malice is I get to see my Henery Press peeps. While we stay in touch online, it’s nice to see them in person. How many HP authors attend depends on the year. This time around it was 14 or so. We attend each others panels, get together for drinks and compare notes on writing and the publishing world.
Henery Press at Malice. Photo taken by Eleanor Cawood Jones

I also enjoy going to Washington, D.C., and taking some time before the convention starts to go to a museum or two and just walk around. We often visit the pandas at the National Zoo.

But, it’s a long flight across the country and not exactly cheap. Still, if I were to attend only one convention a year, it would be Malice. I feel like I’ve picked up some readers there and I enjoy talking to readers as well as authors. I know many authors who don’t attend any conventions, saying it’s not worth it. They don’t sell enough extra books to warrant the time and money spent. I certainly don’t get my “money back” in sales. For me, right now, it’s more about exposure and about feeling like I’m part of a community.

Still, I’ve pretty much decided I’m cutting down on mystery conventions next year. I won’t be attending LCC, but I’ll most likely do Bouchercon since it’s in Dallas where my publisher is. While I enjoy Malice, I’m still on the fence about attending next year. I have plenty of time to decide.

What about you writers out there? Do you think conventions are worth attending?

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

More on Novel Length

by Rick Blechta

Following on from our weekend guest blogger Christine Poulson’s excellent piece, I’m going to keep this week’s post from moi short and sweet.

As for book length, my feeling is that it’s up to the writer (and editor) to make the length work. I generally put down novels that feel as if they’re padded, either because the writer did a lot of research and obviously feels it must all be thrown in or because the writer has fallen in love with their deathless prose.

You see this quite often in the later novels of successful writers. Almost invariably the page count goes up and up. The poster child for this is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. In her case I found the length was due to plot complications and multiple threads, and for the most part, it didn’t bother me. With other writers, longer length often feels like padding. Sometimes I suspect that the poor editors feel they can’t trim out excess if a very successful author’s novels — we’re talking top of the bestseller lists here — are obviously increasing in length without good reason. What do you think would happen if the million-selling author complained to the publisher when the editor wanted to trim huge swathes of prose? The editor at best would be told to back off.

For newbie authors, editors can — and often for good reason — prune brutally.

In the best of all possible worlds, it would all work out for the best. As a reader, though, I will either skip over parts of novels that feel self-indulgent in the prose, or I’ll just give up and toss them across the room.

On the other hand, we’ve all no doubt read novels that feel as if something important has been left on the cutting room floor.

It’s a fine line to walk.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Guest Blogger Christine Poulson

Aline here. Today I'm happy to introduce you to Chrissie Poulson, whose new book, Cold, Cold Heart, has the intriguing setting of a remote Antarctic plateau during the long Antarctic winter from the time the last plane leaves at the end of February to the time the next plane arrives in late October. Sends the shivers down my spine even thinking of it!

The Long and the Short of It

'For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.' This is supposedly what Hemingway came up with when he was challenged to write a six word story. I thought of that recently when I downloaded the audiobook of War and Peace, all sixty hours of it. According to the Guinness Book of Records that is not even the longest novel ever written: the prize goes to A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust, which contains an estimated 9,609,000 characters.

Hemingway tended to be terse, Proust just the opposite. Do writers have a default length, I wonder? And if so, how does this apply to crime writers? To an extent, book lengths are determined by publishers and perhaps that is particularly the case with genre fiction.

Even so, I feel confident in saying that Simenon wrote short. The Maigret novels are scarcely more than novellas. Agatha Christie didn't waste her words either. You can comfortably read one of her novels in an evening. Dorothy L. Sayers on the other hand tended to write long, especially in her later books. But the Golden Age writers were not usually verbose and there is a good reason for that. If you are writing a traditional fair play detective novel, you don't want your readers to have forgotten the clues at the beginning before they get to the end. The short novel can work well with noir too in sustaining atmosphere and narrative drive: think James Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

There have of course been long crime novels that have been bestsellers. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose springs to mind and so does Ian Pears' An Instance of the Finger Post. Both of these are historical novels and perhaps length is more acceptable there. More recently CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels, set in Tudor England, are also fairly hefty and the accumulation of details certainly adds to one's sense of being immersed in a period.

Does this tendency to write long or short translate into the actual process of writing a novel? Jane Harper had a well-deserved success last year with her debut novel, The Dry, which at 90,000 words is by no means short. But I was interested to read in an interview with her that she writes a much shorter first draft, preferring to get the plot in place before she fleshes it out in later drafts. There are other writer – Stephen King is one of them – who write long first drafts and then cut back in later drafts, though in King's case he is still one of the longest writers around!

As a reader I do like short, especially with crime fiction. I love to be able to settle down and read a novel in an evening. I feel with long books, as with long films, that the writer has to work a lot harder to justify taking up so much of my time and I am more likely to set the book aside and not get round to picking it up again. On the other hand, if a novel is really good...

As a writer, too, I am definitely on the short side. I usually worry that I am going to be too short, yet strangely, almost magically it seems, my novels invariably come out at almost exactly 75,000 words. True, that is the length required by my publishers, but it is also the perfect length for me.

So, readers – and writers – what do you think? Long or short? Do good things come in little parcels? Or do you prefer more bang for your buck?

Friday, May 04, 2018

Bad Girls, Bad Boys

It's happened again. I've been seduced by my villain. The first time it happened, I was writing Old Murders, the third book in my Lizzie Stuart series. Being a plotter (or, at least a hybrid), I started writing feeling sure I knew whodunit. But during the last fourth of the book, I realized I couldn't do it. My killer had convinced me that someone else should take the fall.

It happened again, that time much earlier, when Lizzie went in search of her mother, Becca. She had never seen her mother, who was 17 when Lizzie was born and got on a bus and left Drucilla, Kentucky five days later. Lizzie was raised by her grandparents, and she wanted to find her mother before accepting her lover's proposal. I knew from the beginning that Becca was not going to be a cookie-baker. As Lizzie followed her mother's trail, Becca took shape. When Lizzie finally came face-to-face with her mother, Becca was smart, beautiful, and cold-blooded. I loved Becca -- and she threatened to walk away with the book.

Now, I'm writing my 1939 historical thriller. I like my characters. But my protagonist -- decent, intelligent, a believer in justice and doing the right thing -- was boring me. When his antagonist was on-stage and I was in my villain's post of view, I was intrigued, not sure what he would do, waiting to see. In desperation, I switched my protagonist's point of view to first person. That helped. He turned out not to be as squeaky-clean as he at first seemed. In fact, he has a secret that is going to walk up and bite him in the middle of the book. He is in turmoil, and that's makes him more interesting to write.

But I will need to dig deeper to make him the equal of my villain. Not that I am dealing with a comic book super-villain. But he is complex, and his downfall will come about because my hero discovers his vulnerabilities.

The thing about villains is that they have few compulsions. They don't feel the need to be good. And, for writers, who spend our real lives trying to be as decent as our heroes, villains are freeing. My closest analogy is that villains are like avatars. To do a villain well, one has to step into his body and walk and talk and think as he would. To play an unfamiliar role.

The good news is that most of us are only temporarily seduced. Being in the head of someone who rejoices in villainy is disturbing. Unsettling. Being in the head of the killer in my last Lizzie Stuart book convinced me that I would never be able to go too far to "the dark side". The villain in my 1939 book may "smile and smile," but he is up to things that I find despicable. He is someone who may carry me along with him -- good for the plot and pace of the novel -- but in the end, he must be stopped.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Beginning a New Series

Tempe Public Library

I, Donis, started my Writer in Residence program on May 1 at the Public Library here in my hometown of Tempe, Arizona. Tempe is a town of about 140,000 people, not counting the students at Arizona State University (another 60,000). And yet Tempe only has one public library. No branches. Still, the one library is quite the establishment. It is incredibly busy and the number of events it sponsors is mind-boggling. The librarian in charge of events, Jill Brenner, is particularly interested in offering writing programs for the city, and judging by participation, these programs have been wildly successful.

I am Writer in Residence for this summer, May through July, when any locals who haven't left town to escape the heat are looking for some kind of indoor activity, because hiking or picnicking when it's 115º is not fun. So I'll be available to consult one-on-one with aspiring writers for a couple of hours on the days I am in house, and I'm contracted to present six classes throughout the summer on some aspect of writing. All very lovely and well and good and charming, and I'm going to enjoy that.

I'm also supposed to write on my own book, and that is a lot more work. Especially considering that I'm working on the first novel in a new series. I've written ten Alafair Tucker novels over the past thirteen years. I know those characters like I know my own family. And now I've set myself the task of getting to know a whole new bunch of folks who are living their lives in a place and time that I have never written about before. I have crossed over a couple of characters from the first series, which is comforting. At least there's one person I know well in this new world! But it's exciting, as well, to move to a new state and start living among a new crowd.

But I'm a little anxious. How successfully am I going to be able to pull you into this new world, Dear Reader, and how willing are you to go along with me. In his book on writing, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosely said, “a novel is a collusion between the author and the reader.” The reader wants to walk in your character’s shoes, to believe in the world you’ve created, and you don’t want to let him down.

I’m often 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.

Why do I put myself through it? I’m never sure I can pull it off, no matter how many times I’ve pulled it off before. But then there are those days, even while you’re struggling with the first draft, when you do hit the perfect note, or compose a passage so beautiful and true that it brings tears to your eyes. Ray Bradbury spoke truth when he said that real success comes when you begin to write from the inside, and not from the outside.

Besides, once the first draft is finished and you’re on to the second and third and however many more, world without end, it all starts to come together and you realize with a start that you’ve got something. Maybe that old mojo is working after all!

By the way, if you'd like to fly over to Tempe on your day off and sign up for a writer consultation with me or attend a class, you can find all the requisite information about the Writer in Residence program here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The magic of small town literary festivals

Barbara here. This past weekend I was a guest author at the 1000 Islands Writers Festival, set in the picturesque town on Gananoque on the St. Lawrence River, in the heart of the 1000 islands. There are actually more than 1000, but it's too hard to count!

This was a special treat because there were nine invited authors from a range of genres, in addition to the Festival patron author Terry Fallis, who was charming, relaxed, and funny as the MC. There were YA authors, crime authors, non-fiction, and literary. At many literary festivals, crime writers and authors of fantasy, science fiction, etc, are regarded as merely "commercial" as opposed to "real" writers and we are sidelined or left out entirely. But it's always very enriching to meet authors who write different material. We are all writers; we all work hard at our craft and strive to tell the best stories we can, and when we get together, we discover we have a lot to learn from each other. We share, we laugh, we drink...

Terry Fallis MC'ing the opening evening

The 1000 Islands Writers Festival is like the town itself - warm, welcoming, informal, and intimate. The whole town participated, and although most of the events were at the stunning Thousand Island Playhouse overlooking the river, there were also events at the public library, the Heather Haynes Art Gallery, the Boat Museum, and the charming Victorian B&Bs scattered throughout the town. The author dinner was at the Stonewater Pub and final breakfast at Ye Olde English Pub. The wonderful independent bookstore Beggars Banquet Books supplied all the books for sale. All the venues were an easy, energizing stroll away from each other through the downtown or over the Gananoque River (where Maureen Jennings and I both pictured drowning our victim; such is the mind of a crime writer).

Besides offering variety in genres, the festival also offered different types of events, some of them unique. In addition to readings and writing workshops, there were "living room" sessions which were held in the living rooms of the B&Bs and offered a chance to talk with and listen to authors in the intimacy of a small group. My two sessions were at the beautiful Sleepy Hollow B&B where I was staying.

There was also a lunch session where Maureen Jennings and I were given free rein to chat about all things mysterious. And one great bonus, musical interludes which illustrated the connection between art forms.

There is an intimacy to small town festivals that sets them apart from big city ones. In addition to the whole town participating, the audience comes from all over and stays in town for the weekend so that they can attend numerous sessions. There were also a number of gatherings like the opening reception, the readings and music at the boat museum, and the Sunday author breakfast, all of which gave both readers and writers a chance to chat, share a drink, and become friends. I am notoriously bad at estimating numbers but I think there were at least 200 attendees.

I am reading at the opening evening

Anyone who's every been involved in running a festival knows how much hard work goes into it, and when things run as smoothly as they did, it is because every detail has been planned. But there is no replacing the enthusiasm and warmth of the festival organizers in creating the atmosphere that makes the festival a success. A huge congratulations to Alison Dunn, Liz Austin, Pam Hudson, Deidre, and all those involved, and heartfelt thank you for all that you do for book lovers!

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Shakespeare still fascinates

by Rick Blechta

I ran across an interesting article several weeks ago and found it absolutely fascinating. You should read it before we continue our discussion. Take your time. I’ll go get a coffee while I’m waiting.

So the Bard, like any other writer, seems to have always had his eye out for good material from which to work. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he kept a notebook of source ideas. Unfortunately something like this — if it did exist — has been lost in the mists of time. It would certainly be a most interesting read.

Enter the computer tech guys. Software has existed for a number of years now that is used mostly by college professors and teaching assistants to find out whether assignments are being plagiarized or sources not acknowledged properly. This especially became an issue when various online sites began offering services to provide compositions and even theses for a fee.

Using this software, it’s easy to plug in a few key phrases and find out if they were used previously on things that are now posted on the internet and elsewhere. It doesn’t take long to wheedle out the source if a student has “cut a few corners” in completing assignments. The penalties can be severe.

However, “An yll wynde, that blowth no man to good, men sae.” (A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue; John Heywood, 1546*) So a couple canny literary sleuths plugged in several phrases and connected Shakespeare with a source from which he seems to have “consulted” quite freely in writing his plays.

I’m certain this success is going to inspire more research into how these great plays came into being and who knows, we might find out once and for all if William Shakespeare had help —

No ill wind indeed!
or if he helped others.

*I always acknowledge sources…