Friday, September 28, 2018

Book Learning

I taught myself to write from books and magazines such as The Writer and Writer's Digest because I didn't know any better. I had a high school education and a year and a half of college at Kansas State University.

I was married at 19 and we moved to Western Kansas. Looking back, I've been incredibly lucky in so many ways. I had the capacity for happy self-delusion. Writer's Digest was incredibly upbeat in those days. It promised success to nearly anyone who would persist. And I believed it.

There were no writing groups to burst my bubble. I read and read about how to write. I've never had a creative writing class.

Because we were poor, I ordered books through Interlibrary Loan. Then I outlined them. I still have that precious notebook filled with pages printed on my cranky lightweight portable Royal Typewriter that I received for high school graduation. The "e" didn't work right. Every time I used it, I had to manually pull the key back in place. Something about the process of typing out my little outlines imbedded techniques in my brain.

Through Writer's Market I discovered articles made more money than fiction. I wrote a great query letter to Overdrive Magazine, a publication for owner-operator truck drivers. They were interested immediately. I was higher than a kite. Then I submitted the worst article I've ever read. They rejected it immediately. Since then I've sold a number of articles, but I've never forgotten the shame I felt when I re-read the opening paragraph when it came back by return mail.

The article was "You Don't Have to Learn the Hard Way." It was a great idea urging owners-operators to avoid beginners' mistake. A list followed. But my opening sentence was "The Road of Life is full of chuckholes."

Ironically, I submitted my first short story to the same magazine and they bought it right away. They bought the second one too. Then I had a good sale to Woman's World. When we moved to Liberal, Kansas, I wrote my first novel, The Octogen House. It was sort of a gothic, which were all the rage back then, and sort of a historical novel. I wrote to a couple of agents, and one was sort of interested.

I sent it to one agency that charged a reading fee and I managed to scrape up the money. I was ecstatic over the thoroughness of the critique. Because I didn't know any better.

Finishing that book gave me a wonderful feeling. I knew for sure I could write one, but I also knew I didn't want to write gothics. I wanted to write historical novels. My next book was Come Spring and it was published by Simon & Schuster. It was a great first publishing experience. Following that was a series of blunders. Too many to go into in this post. Explaining my mistakes will make a good blog.

When I decided I wanted to tell the story of Nicodemus, the first all-black settlement on the High Plains, I finished my bachelor's degree and also got a master's in history.

I'm still learning from books. I stumbled across a great one last week: Richard Russo's The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life. He has one of best essays on full omniscience I've ever read.

Full omniscience is my favorite voice. I use it in historical novels, but I don't know if it's used by mystery writers. I would love to know if our readers can think of any.

Lottie Albright, the protagonist of my mystery novels wanted to speak in first person. I had nothing to do with it.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Challenges facing the contemporary crime-fiction writer, cont….

Rick’s excellent Sept. 18 post “Is it getting harder to write contemporary crime fiction?” has me thinking. He astutely examines the works of Rex Stout and Michael Connelly and wonders if one’s need to keep up with technological advancements dooms writers entering the genre.

Good question.

Part of why I love Robert B. Parker novels so thoroughly is that –– viewed through the lens of which Rick writes –– they are simple. Spenser knows himself, and he knows human nature. And, thus, he solves the crime. “It’s a way to live,” Spenser tells us in Ceremony. “The rest is just confusion.” Sounds like Hamlet, when he utters those wonderful words: To thine own self be true . . .Know yourself well enough, and you can know the world around you. Wonderful. Poignant.

But outdated?

Say it ain’t so.

After all, it’s Connelly himself, in his essay titled “The Mystery of Mystery Writing” (the Walden Book Report, September, 1998) who states:

“The mystery has evolved in recent decades to be as much an investigation of the investigator as an inquiry of the crime at hand. Investigators now look inward for the solutions and means of restoring order. In the content of their own character they find the clues. I think this only bodes well for the mystery novel. It is what keeps me interested in writing them.”

Sounds like a Parker fan to me. I’m not questioning Rick’s assertion here. The passage above is dated 1998, after all. I agree that –– given the authenticity of TV’s cop shows and streaming networks’ crime thrillers –– the writer is better off cursed with writer’s block than to be inaccurate. There is no longer room to fudge details. But we aren’t doomed. The package might have changed. It’s a little shinier, a little spiffier, more precise, and procedurally more authentic.

But the heart of the story –– that heart that Wolfe Nero and Spenser and Kinsey Millhone and even Poe’s Dupin gave us –– remain at the core of why we write, readers read, and even our Netflix binge-watching next generation love this genre: at the heart of the story is the character.

The genre has changed and grown and now demands a level of authenticity of which Poe could never have dreamed. That’s a challenge, but it’s also a sign of evolution.

There’s another challenge we face that concerns me more: The way young readers now experience, learn, and consume narratives will pose the largest challenge to one who wishes to write crime fiction full time.

As many of you know, I work and teach at a New England boarding school. (I’m probably the genre’s only dorm parent to 60 teens.) So I know the habits of the teenage species well. And, frankly, I’m worried about our futures. Speaking to SJ Rozan this week, I mentioned that any writer I know who writes full time right now has their hand in some form of script work, as if TV/film work pays for them to write novels. Maybe that’s the new business model.

Or maybe Shakespeare was just further ahead of his time than I realize. Perhaps the Globe Theatre was supporting his poetry enterprise.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Knee Deep In Blog Posts

I just sent off my last blog post for my upcoming promotional “tour” of the internet and to say I’m relieved would be an understatement. One more thing I can tick off my list of things to do before my next book, Designed For Haunting, officially releases October 9th, a little less than two weeks from now.

I didn’t write as many posts as I have in the past, but I still feel like I’m knee deep in them. I always underestimate how much time they’ll take. The actual writing time is usually not too long, but it takes me forever sometimes to come up with a topic. Still, I enjoy doing them. It’s fun to talk about writing in general and my latest book in particular.

To my surprise, my favorite one to write was a post for The First Two Pages where authors analyze the first two pages of something they wrote. I love analyzing other people’s mysteries to see what makes them tick, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that I would enjoy analyzing my own work. Still, somehow it came as one.

Here’s a list of the blogs I wrote posts for and the dates they’ll be up:

Chicks on the Case – October 3
The First Two Pages – October 9
Dru’s Book Musings – October 12
Cozy Up With Kathy – October 16
The Montana Bookaholic – October 17
Mysteristas – October 26

With the blog posts done, I can now focus on the other things I need to do before launch day. I’m always worried I’ve forgotten something I have to do. I have visions of release day arriving and my realizing something critical has gone undone. Someone had to remind me recently to add Designed to my Amazon author page so forgetting something isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. After 3 previous books, you’d think I’d remember about my Amazon page but, noooooo. Once again it slipped my mind.

I’m also a little paranoid about forgetting to be places. I have dreams about some library or bookstore event that I’ve forgotten I’m supposed to be at. Or that my internet connection will inexplicably go away in the middle of my book’s Facebook launch party hosted by A Cozy Experience. (That’s October 10, 5pm-6pm Pacific/7-8pm Central at That’s something new I’m trying out this time. Instead of having an in person launch event that only those in my local area can enjoy, I’m doing a Facebook party where people can stop by and join in the fun.

Talking about all of this is making me tired. I’ve been fighting a cold the last few days and, right now, I think it’s winning. I’m hoping I’ll be cured by book launch day. At least most of my events are online so you all don’t have to worry about catching it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Living in the Past

by Rick Blechta

(No, I’m not talking about the song by Jethro Tull — and boy, does that date me! It came out in 1969. But it is a terrific song…)

I’ve continued to think on the topic I brought up in my post of last week. The inner discussion has transmogrified — maybe not the best word to use here, but it does make me sound quite erudite, does it not? — into “maybe I should consider this”.

What I’m talking about is not writing a series set in Second Century B.C. Rome. That would be way too much work and probably involve more research than one would need for a PhD thesis.

My thoughts were bending towards something set during my lifetime, in which case I would be my primary research source — something infinitely easier and less time-consuming. Instantly my stories would become bombproof to changing technology, and as I pointed out in last week’s post, changing technology can create huge problems in a contemporary story.

But then in discussing this with a friend, he pointed out that any novel I get published will instantly be set in a specific place and time due to any number of things that happen in the story. “You can’t get by this no matter how hard you try.” Problem is, he doesn’t read much crime fiction. He’s a science fiction nut and most of the novels he reads are set in the far-flung future, so who cares? The writer of those novels generally winds up actually creating the technology used in the stories.

What my friend didn’t realize is that many crime fiction novelists who set their stories in the here and now, don’t use actual dates on a calendar, the idea being that doing this automatically “dates” their books and somehow will limit future sales.

Having cogitated on that, I’ve decided that this is totally bogus. Do we really care when we read a Sherlock Holmes story that it’s set in Victorian England? (Actually that’s an advantage for most readers of Holmes.) Rex Stout didn’t care a fig for the fact that Wolfe, Archie et al never aged. The world around them changed. Wolfe bought a television set, for instance. World War II intervened. And from 1934 to 1975, the world around the characters evolved but they never change. Stout just ignored the passage of time on his characters.

Does that work? Pretty well, actually. You’re so engrossed in the doings inside that brownstone on 35th Street, the age thing goes right over readers’ heads — at least it does in my case.

Other authors have slowed down time in a series. Their characters age slowly. So let’s say Book #1 is set in one particular place at one particular point in time. Over the course of a year, the author writes Book #2 which is set immediately following Book #1. Well, unless the timeline of the plot of the second book takes over a year, you’re already in the past. With each succeeding book, you’re getting farther and farther behind. So why utilize this dodge?

You know what? Trying to remain contemporary or writing something in the past gives a poor writer headaches regardless of what he/she does. Face it: if the writing and characters are good, most readers will be willing to park their disbelief at the door.

As for me, I’m thinking of nailing the first novel in my new series at a specific time and if there are more in the series, I’ll cheerfully resign myself to living in the past.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hurricane Florence

I got back just in time from Bouchercon to prepare for Hurricane Florence. I live on Bogue Banks Island in Carteret County, North Carolina. Initially, when I landed in New Bern (which, as I write this, is still struggling with flood waters from the storm), Florence was a Category 3, growing to a Cat 4.

My wife, Cindy, and I have stayed on the island through Category 2 hurricanes, but not a 4. We considered our options, stay or evacuate. We’d make a decision closer to the actual event. On Monday I filled gas cans, filled water bottles, and bought nonperishable food.

On Tuesday, the storm crept closer to land. Even though Florence wasn’t scheduled to make landfall until late Wednesday or sometime on Thursday, evacuations were being called for…mandatory evacuations.

Mandatory evacuation means you really should leave. You can legally stay in place, but if something goes wrong, first responders can’t come help you. You are on your own.

Businesses started closing Tuesday afternoon, boards were going up on windows, more gasoline was being purchased. Bread, milk, and bottled water were in short supply. People were heeding the advice of government officials and leaving the coast for wherever they felt safe.

The problem with that is the interior of the state takes on a lot of flooding. Cindy and I weren’t sure where that safe option might be. We conferred with each other, talked with our neighbors, as well as town and county officials, many of whom were riding the storm out.

On Wednesday, our last day to make a decision and cut and run, the storm took turn to the South and weakened to a Category 2 storm. The prognosis was that it would weaken further to a Cat 1.

Piece of cake.

We were wrong. Florence was a monster in size and was moving lethargically. It would drop 8.1 trillion gallons of water on the region in the form of driving rain. Storm surge was predicted to be between 9 and 13 feet. 110 mile per hour winds tore into our area, dropping trees, damaging buildings, taking roofs off of houses.

Part of our island, where we live, is maritime forest. It’s a mixed blessing because the trees help protect buildings from the vicious wind. But they’re punished for that protection and most lost limbs and leaves and needles. Some were broken in half or pulled out by their roots.

Power went out on Thursday afternoon and didn’t come back on until four days later. What a blessing it was to take a hot shower when we got our electricity back. We had plenty of food, water, and we have a generator. I had a stack of mysteries to read and would work on my own book for short periods of time, charge up the laptop battery when I’d run the generator to juice up the phones and cool the refrigerator.

Every afternoon at five, the group of neighbors who stayed would get together for a happy hour, clustered around an oil lantern, drinking what beverages we had, and sharing snacks. The first few nights, when we showed up, we all were soaked, muddy, and tired. Shared misery builds strong bonds.

A low point came at the height of the storm and we lost cellphone service and couldn’t let our loved ones know were safe. Even now, we don’t have cable, landline phone service, or Internet. To send this blog to Type M for Murder, I had to find a mobile hotspot.

We didn’t ride the storm out on our island without making provisions, planning ahead, knowing our elevation, and letting everyone know where we were, including our town officials. Would we ride out a storm at Category 3 or 4?

Absolutely not.

Oh, and one last comment. Before we lost power, I’d been watching nonstop coverage of the storm on the Weather Channel and some of the other cable stations. I know that writers can sometimes suffer from hyperbola. But at one point, in the town where I work on the mainland, a weather announcer was standing on the waterfront, holding onto a tree.

The storm hadn’t really even hit yet. Puh-leeze.

Oh, and I will be using the hurricane experience in a future book. I’ll make damned sure that my hero isn’t in front of a TV camera hugging a palm tree.

To finish this blog, I'd like to thank all the first responders who did swift boat rescues primarily for homeowners inland. And to all the men and women, from all over the country, who came to North Carolina to help turn the lights on and bring supplies and provisions for people who literally lost everything in this storm.

Cindy and I were lucky. We didn't take any structural damage, had to clean up a minimal amount of storm debris, and we can get our lives back on track quickly. So many people can't say that.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Going on Location

This week I went out to do location scouting for my 1939 book in progress. I went to Nantucket -- a fast turnaround of two nights and a day. I had a credit at an inn from last year when the ferry wasn't running because of a hurricane. I needed to come back quickly because of an event my students and I will be attending on campus this afternoon. Since I really needed to get to the library on Nantucket, I decided the quick trip for a first look would be worth it.

If you live in the Northeast or have been watching the weather report, you know that the remnants of Florence have been bringing us rain. Nothing like the devastation in North Carolina and hardly worth complaining about -- just enough to produce flash flooding and to make the drive to Nantucket on Tuesday an exercise in peering at other people's brake lights and on-coming headlights through downpours. I stopped at one point to remove a temporary registration renewal from from my dashboard because the white paper was being reflected on the windshield and I couldn't see through it. That was the weirdest effect I'd ever seen, and I have to remember it for future use (somewhere, somehow).

But getting back to my soggy drive from Albany to Hyannis -- I ended up stopping and calling to change my ferry reservation. Lucky I did because even with the change in time, I barely made the next ferry. And had a hard time getting a taxi in the rain once I arrived in Nantucket. But finally made it to the lovely bed and breakfast where I was staying. The rain continued, and I ordered a pizza, had a hot shower, and settled down to make some notes about the book.

The next day was much better. After enjoying breakfast with the other guests, I walked over to the Nantucket Atheneum, the public library. One of the reference librarians told me that I would be able to access the digital collection of the Nantucket newspaper. That freed up the time I thought I would need to spend reading in the library. Then he showed me the Nantucket section (local histories, fiction, cookbooks, picture books, everything Nantucket). I settled down at the table and knew I was about to have a wonderful afternoon.

Any Moby-Dick fans here? I admit it. I've struggled since high school to read that novel. I love the opening lines, the first few pages, but I never gotten beyond that either in print or audible. I am now ready to try again. Now I know that at one point Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. I know that Melville's novel was inspired by the true story of the sinking of the Essex. I've read sections of the account written years later by one of the survivors, who was a fourteen year old cabin boy on the ship. I started to read the nonfiction book based on that account and other research. Now, I'm ready to tackle Moby-Dick again -- an unexpected bonus of my research.

But the real find was the prairie dogs. In the 1890s, for unknown reason, prairie dogs were brought to the island. The population quickly got out of hand. One of the problems was that the prairie dogs dug holes. Horses could break legs if they stepped in those holes. The town where most of the prairie dogs were found decided to eradicate the prairie dogs. This happened in 1900, long before the beginning of my novel. But the mention of horses breaking their legs reminded me of the real-life story from 1939 involving the death of a horse during the filming of a movie. One of my POV characters loves horses. I thought this would be an interesting minor detail. Two characters mention this in passing when she is out riding. But since she is the character who will go to Nantucket, followed by my bad guy (who is trying to court her), the prairie dog/horse story has caught my attention. In fact, it has sent me off in a new direction as I imagine an argument she might have with my bad guy and re-think what she does for a living. All that from one brief entry in a book about Nantucket history. More than worth the trip.

But that wasn't all. There were other bits and pieces that I can weave into my plot -- like the Fourth of July celebration that summer in 1939.  Now, I know what my female character would have done that week in Nantucket. I have photographs and descriptions.

In my room that evening, I also had time to think about the relationship between two other characters. To think and realize that I could eliminate a minor character by making one character do the work of two.

Anyone else love getting out and doing location research after days and days at your desk? Wonderful how being there can open a story up and make it work.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pay Attention!

Donis here. Is it my turn again? Time certainly flies, especially when you have a jillion things on your mind and you barely know what day it is. Husband and I spent several hours today at the Sprint store upgrading our phones. I was hoping that we could take advantage of some deals and end up paying less per month than we do now. Instead we both have nifty new phones and are paying an extra $60 U.S. per month. Dang things better be worth it.

Today was also cast-changing day. If you’ll remember, Dear Reader, my husband broke his arm a couple of months ago and has a clamshell cast on his arm which needs to be removed and cleaned once a week. Gone are the days of plaster casts, thank god. This should be the last cast-changing I have to do. He’s due to have it off permanently this Friday (tomorrow). Hallelujah!

Anyhoo... I almost forgot that Thursday is my blog day for Type M. I live in fear that some day I'm going to turn up at some bookstore to speak when I should be at the library giving a workshop. I often have dreams that I suddenly realize I'm supposed to be at some event in Texas, or Colorado, or I forgot that I'm supposed to be at a conference in fifteen minutes. Not that I'm in such demand, God knows. It's just that I'm not always aware of the passage of time like I ought to be, since I spend so much of it in my own head rather than in the world.

Which reminds me of a story, as most things do. I've always been interested in the writings of J. Krishnamurti for their absolutely no nonsense to-the-pointness. For those of you who don't know, in the late 1910s, when he was just a small child, Krishnamurti was declared by the Theosophical Society to be the final reincarnation of the Buddha, who when he grew up was supposed to take over the Society (and the world, presumably) and usher in a new age of enlightenment. So, in 1927, after being raised and educated in England by this group, the young man Krishnamurti called the devotees to a gigantic gathering, promising to finally impart to them the great wisdom and enlightment they had been waiting for. And it was this:

"You've said for years that I was born to tell you the truth and you would do what I say, so here it is. Why are you people looking to me to enlighten you? You have to do it yourself. I can't save you, and neither can this group. Therefore, this group is dissolved. Everybody go home."

And all the thousands of people looked at each other and said, "Well, this guy can't be the Buddha." The Theosophical Society continues on to this day, and Krishnamurti went on his merry way.

The gist of his teaching was that you have to pay attention. You can't figure things out with your brain, you have to be conscious. Many years after the above event, he told a tale of being picked up at the airport in India by two young men who were supposed to take him to a friend's house in the country. As they were driving along with Krishnamurti in the back seat, the two young men were so absorbed in a discussion about consciousness that they ran over a goat and never even knew it.

So, whenever I do some idiot thing because I wasn't paying attention, I say I "ran over the goat."

Which leads me to make this disclaimer: When I write my historical novels, I do all kinds of research to make sure my facts are straight. When I sit down to write my blogs - not so much. So don't take my blog tales to the bank.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A day in a writer's life

It's that time in a writer's life– at least in my writerly life– when I am trying to inhabit two worlds. I have been researching THE ANCIENT DEAD, the fourth book in the Amanda Doucette series, for a few months now, and am at the stage where I have written the first three tentative scenes as well as created a vague outline of a few more to follow. And this morning, I am embarking on a two-week location scouting trip to the badlands and prairies of Alberta, where the book is set.

I've often said there is no substitute for standing in the spot where the characters stand, breathing in the scents, listening to the sounds, and seeing how the sun plays across the land. As well, by talking to locals and visiting museums and towns, you uncover all sorts of tantalizing ideas and details that can take the plot in unpredictable directions. It's one reason why I need to go now, while the story is still in its infancy and essentially unformed. (The other reason is called winter). I am really looking forward to figuring out what this book is going to be about at its core! I have the setting, some conflicts, and a buried body waiting to be discovered, but not the mystery behind it all.

But for the past month I have also been trying to line up fall promotional plans for PRISONERS OF HOPE, the third Amanda Doucette novel, due out in three weeks. I've been on the phone to potential launch and book signing venues and emailing back and forth to my publicist about posters, etc. And today the whole enterprise felt much more real when the UPS driver delivered my box of author copies to the door. Yay! The book is in one piece and they spelled my name right!

Switching gears between creative writing and promotional planning is a challenge. Therefore, as much as possible, I try to split up my day. The mornings, when the brain is hopefully fresher, I devote a few hours to writing. I write longhand, and make a right mess while doing it, but it's the most powerful way I know to call up my muse. Curling up in a chair with a cup of coffee at my side, pen in hand and pad of paper in my lap, seems to connect me to my familiar writer self who's been doing this for over sixty years, long before word processors and computers came on the scene.

I usually try to complete at least one scene every morning, so that I can fully engage in the scene and imagine it from beginning to end. Often by the end of that scene I have a good idea of what scene will come next. But I put the writing on the shelf and leave that for the next day.

Instead I celebrate that accomplishment by taking a break. I eat lunch, walk the dogs, swim, or whatever, before settling down in the afternoon to deal with social media, emails, phone calls, and PR writing. This can often take several hours. Then it's unwind and glass of wine time! Of course, there are often other obligations, family and friends, or commitments, but on a day without outside commitments, that's what I aim for. While I am on my research trip, this schedule will blown apart and I'll be lucky to get any scene writing done. But my mind will be churning and storing things up. All to the good.

Now for a little bit of BSP at the end of this blog - part of my PR activities. Here are the dates of the two launch parties I have set up for PRISONERS OF HOPE:

Ottawa launch: The Clocktower Brew Pub in Westbooro, October 16 at 7 - 9 pm, shared with Vicki Delany, who's launching THE CAT OF THE BASKERVILLES

Toronto launch: Sleuth of Baker Street, November 3 at 2:30-4 pm

Those of you within driving distance of either place, come on down to the celebration, and bring a friend! It's free and fun.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Is it getting harder to write contemporary crime fiction?

by Rick Blechta

I recently read — if you’ve been paying attention — a few Nero Wolfe novels. The Wolfe series began back in the ’30s, so they’re pretty elderly. The world they portrayed at that time has long since ceased to exist and to be honest they seem rather “creaky” in spots, in that regard. I suspect I’m not uncommon in still wanting to read about Wolfe and Archie because of nostalgia for the time in which the stories were set, but some of the writing, perfectly acceptable then is very jarring now.

Fast forward to a more recent series, the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly. The Black Echo first appeared in 1992. That’s over 25 years ago now, and thumbing through that while contemplating this post, I’m again struck by how out of date it is. While the years have been pretty kind to it, our contemporary world is far different than what Connelly describes in his novel in many important ways. The main thing separating 1992 Bosch with Bosch in 2018 would have to be technology. Like everything else, computers have swept over policing like a tidal wave. Harry is an old-style gumshoe even by 1992 standards, being all about pounding the street for clues, as an example, so the anachronisms are not all that important. But even skimming the book, I can see how his having a mobile phone would knock out quite a few scenes in the plot that were handled using 1992 technology.

It is with great trepidation, therefore, that a wise writer approaches technology as a main driving force in a novel. The shelf-life of current technology is very, very short and there lies the danger. In just one publishing cycle (the time it takes a book to go from concept to publication) so many things can change completely.

I’m feeling more and more as if I need the skills of a good futurist to make sure my current work-in-progress doesn’t wind up being anachronistic even before I finish writing it, since the plot relies heavily on current technology and its effects on contemporary living. Case in point: I’ve already had to change one plot point because it could no longer happen the way I initially described it. Technology caught up with me.

It now feels as if I have to finish this novel at lightning speed so other plot points don’t go the way of the dodo.

Is anyone else out there feeling this squeeze? And to the readers in the audience, does it bug you when something is obviously out of date?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Responding to Change

I read Sybil's blog about the changes to the bail system and the knock-on effect on crime writers with great interest since a few years ago there was a major change to the police force in Scotland that horrified writers of police procedurals up and down the country.

Until then, Scotland, like England, had been divided into constabularies, geographical areas each organised  under their own chief constable with a lot of autonomy.  As writers we tended to have our own pet stamping grounds, if not real then at least plausible - my DI Fleming belonged to the Galloway Constabulary instead of the genuine Dumfries and Galloway one.  It was all very straightforward.

A lot of us felt positively dispossessed when the Scottish government decided on a radical change.  The constabularies were all swept away and it became a unitary force, Police Scotland, with only one Chief Constable instead of a dozen.  This in itself was a loss to writers; the Chief Constable could appear in the books with whatever character you wanted him or her to have.  Now there was only one, it was harder to create, say, a villainous CC without seeming to libel the present incumbent.

Officers now didn't just sign on to the nearest force; they could be sent at any time to any part of the country and a lot of solid local knowledge was lost. The organisation wasn't set in place before the change took place with the result that the new force has limped along from one problem to another, pilloried by the press and losing one Chief Constable recently to allegations of bullying.

I could, of course, have just gone on in my make-believe world pretending it hadn't happened. However realistic we might try to make it sound I don't think we kid ourselves that we are actually giving a representation of genuine police work, which would be monumentally boring.   But it's important to give a nod to reality when the situation changes so radically and we all had, reluctantly, to move our feet.

Apparently it isn't true that the Chinese character for 'crisis' combines the two notions of danger and opportunity, but while I was fretting over the problem it suggested the scenario for a new series, featuring DI Kelso Strang. 

The motive behind the change was to save money.  In fact, as far as one can tell, the crisis in police funding is now worse than it ever was and thinking about that led me to the idea of the Serious Rural Crime Squad - a task force that could be sent immediately if there was major crime in one of the rural districts where very little crime of any sort takes place, saving money by running down the local CID. 

I rather fell in love with the idea.  So far, I haven't been approached by the authorities for advice about how it should be set up, but you never know.  For the purposes of fiction it has a lot of attraction - a new background for every novel, instead of having them all based in the same area.  For Human Face, that was Skye; the new book which comes out in November, is set in Caithness, the northernmost coast of Scotland.

Oddly enough, under the latest Chief Constable, there seems to be a move  back to more local policing once again, with District Commanders taking on something like the role of the previous Chief Constables.    Maybe, with a few minor tweaks, we can repossess our own favourite spots after all and DI Fleming can return to running investigations in something very like the Galloway of old.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Event Surprise

Once in a while I agree to a presentation or an event that is dramatically different than what I'm expecting. Last week I spoke to the Sertoma Club in Lakewood, CO. The group was small, but what a powerful mission!

Sertoma is a service organization that raises funds to assist children with hearing issues. I was impressed with the energy and dedication of the members. They had ingenious projects to raise money to provide hearing health for children. 

The Annual Fund supports Sertoma’s hearing health mission and heritage. Each year, Sertoma Clubs and individual members raise funds from coast to coast to continue the mission of improving the quality of life today for those at risk or impacted by hearing loss through education and support. The Jeffco club mentioned selling poinsettias, peaches, May flowers, and other seasonal offerings.

My talk was more of a discussion than a lecture. I talked while they ate lunch and as usual the conversation drifted to my life as a native Kansan.

I'm always surprised at how little I know about the state. I've lived there all my life, and all my books are about Kansas, but one of the members added to my knowledge considerably. 

I talked about each of my mysteries and Hidden Heritage is about the cattle industry. One of the more intriguing details she supplied was that branding cattle is not mandatory in Kansas. It's on a voluntary basis. For that reason the state has a high rate of cattle rustling. You certainly can register brands but it's not mandatory as it is in Colorado. 

Since my husband was a bull hauler and involved with the cattle industry both as a driver and as the owner of a livestock hauling truck line, I was surprised that I didn't know that. 

She also told me that Kansas was one of the few states that had different regulations regarding open records. Since I'm not certain about the stipulations, I'll leave that for another time. 

When I was a 4-H community leader, the members had to give a fact about Kansas during their model meeting. One of my favorites is that we are one of the eight states that never ratified the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Kansas is technically a dry state. 

One of my daughters argued that it could not be true. But it is. The state has local option. Local option is that the smallest voting entity had mandate rules for their area. That's why one part of a county can be dry and another wet. Sorting this out can be a challenge. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Slow days

Growing up, I remember autumn being the “slow season,” the time of fresh starts and of new beginnings. Spring may universally be considered the season of renewal, but for me –– as I begin my 26th year of high school –– fall annually launches a new school year.

In my writing life, fall is a time to rev up and start again, the time I slowly descend the stairway into a new project. Nine months is typically the time it takes me to write a book, so accompanying the school year with a new writing project makes sense. This is where I am this year: I just finished a novel, and as my agent prepares her pitch, I’m back to work on a new project, a screenplay based on said book.

I say “based on” because the script will be different from the original text, a concept that in itself fascinates me and makes the writing of it worth my time. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating, taking notes, and evaluating the plot. Compression is the key. What goes? What stays? What’s important? What’s really important? Tough choices.

And there’s no way around it. The story will indeed change. Several secondary characters in the book have larger roles in the script. One consideration in this decision is the audience. Right or wrong, I feel like the audience for the film will relate to the cast of teenagers in the book more than the reader will, so those characters will have larger roles when I condense the storyline. I see the film viewers as younger than the novel readers. Right? Wrong? I don’t know. But I teach and live with teenagers, and I know they experience narrative differently than I did at that age. Binge watching a show (catching up on Stranger Things, say, by watching a season in a weekend) is their reality. Sadly, I don’t see teens carrying books, but they are always plugged in, viewing a show or listening to something. The original storyline in my novel features teenagers, through the eyes of a 40-something, first-person narrator. But in the script, there is no narrator, so I’ll let the teens tell their own story.

I’m also enjoying reading scripts as I embark on this project. American Beauty and Devil in a Blue Dress are the first two I’ve read. I will read more. But there’s no need to rush. The journey is just beginning. After all, it’s only autumn.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Bye Bye Bail

The times, they are a changin’ here in California. The state legislature recently passed a bill eliminating money bail in the state. When I read the article about the governor signing the bill, I immediately thought about how an entire industry would be wiped out in California. The second thing that came to mind: How is this going to affect crime writers who set their stories in the Golden State?

Even though California is getting credit for being the first state to eliminate the use of money bail for suspects awaiting trial and replacing it with a risk-assessment system, New Jersey did something similar about 18 months ago. There are still cases in that state where money bail is used, but they seem to be few and far between. So far it seems to be working fairly well for them. The jail population is down and so is crime. Here’s an interesting 20-minute podcast on New Jersey and its system:

From the articles I’ve read so far on California’s elimination of bail, what the risk-assessment system will look like is not yet clear. It does allow each county to decide its own procedures for who will be released while awaiting trial. The only thing I heard for sure was that all suspects arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors will be released within 12 hours of being booked and those facing serious, violent felonies will not be available for pretrial release.

Proponents for the change say that the bail system is biased against the poor and people of color. The wealthy can pay the bail, the middle class pays a non-refundable 10% to a bail bondsman, still an income shock for many people, and the poor can’t afford even the 10%. Proponents also believe incarceration should depend on the risk the defendant poses if they’re released. Critics of the bill say it puts too much power in the hands of judges.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, California holds about a quarter of the market of the $2 billion bail industry. Yep, that’s right, 2 Billion!

The law won’t take effect until October 2019 but, as you might imagine, the bail bonds industry is fighting back. They’re working on a voter referendum to block it. They have about 3 months to come up with approximately 366,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. If they get them, the referendum will be on the November 2020 ballot and the law will not go into effect as scheduled. Its fate will depend on the result of the referendum.

The change doesn’t really affect me all that much even though my books are set in a fictional town in Southern California. Since they’re amateur sleuth mysteries, I don’t really dwell on police procedures. Any change to the bail law would be fairly easy for me to incorporate.

I think it's more of a change for those who write books featuring private investigators, bounty hunters or detectives as the sleuth set in California. Of course, they could always set a story in the time-before-bail-was-eliminated to get around the problem.

I’m not sure how much it really will affect crime writers in the future, but it at least points out that you should keep abreast of changes in the law for the places you set your stories in.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Oh, the things you will see!

by Rick Blechta

Every writer who does their work on a computer knows how useful having an internet connection can be. Need an airline schedule to get a character from point A to point B at a certain time? You can look it up on one of the airline schedule aggregators. That’s just one tiny “for instance”. I can spend a lot of time looking at street maps when I’m doping out scenes set in real places.

Of course, with everything there comes a downside. For nearly everyone — not just writers — the internet can provide hours of useful fun looking up, well, just about anything in the real world — and fantasy worlds too, for that matter. I am as guilty of this as anyone, probably more guilty…

Anyway, here are some things I’ve read about lately. They’re all probably useless factoids but I suppose some of them could be used in a plot somewhere.
  • Bunny Show Jumping: Really? Something like this exists? Apparently so…
  • Cheese Rolling: The Brits seem to delight in doing odd things and this is one of the oddest.
  • Strange Food Addictions: I happen to enjoy eating bacon and doughnuts together. Some people look askance at this. I’m thinking I’m rather normal after reading this page.
  • From the Odd Pet Department: Okay NOW I’ve seen everything!
And I could go on.

I’m thinking of a character for my work-in-progress who is deep into the world of bunny show jumping and can’t stop eating drywall.

Think anyone will buy it?

Monday, September 10, 2018

In a Writing State of Mind

I’ll admit, I’m a pantser. I don't plan ahead when I'm writing.  It's a discovery process.   I know what the first scene of my books look like and what I want my ending to feel like. Most times, I’m not even sure who the bad guy is.

That being said, I began this blog by typing it in my hotel room in Phoenix. My wife Cindy was still asleep, I had a cup of a coffee and a breakfast sandwich from the café downstairs, and the lights were dim. Later that day, I’d sit on two panels at the Poisoned Pen Mystery Conference. While in Arizona, I had a great time mingling with other novelists, and talking with readers and aspiring writers. And of course the highlight was spending some time with Ian Rankin and Hank Phillippi Ryan who are delightful individuals, as well as my Poisoned Pen family of wonderful writers. What was extra special was meeting fellow Type M for Murder contributor Donis Casey. It was so nice to meet you in person, Donis!

Even though I was in Phoenix, I did my best to work on my third Geneva Chase mystery. A couple of months ago, Annette (my editor) and Barbara (my publisher) signed off on the first hundred pages of Graveyard Bay. In the first chapter, two bodies are found chained to the forks of a mammoth forklift used in boatyard marinas. The tines of the giant machine are under the dark, gray surface of the icy bay leading to Long Island Sound.


I’m thirty chapters into Graveyard Bay but in the back of my mind, I’d envisioned the ending and it was really messy. I was not satisfied, I hate messy. I’d wrestled with the ending for weeks and just hadn’t been able to envision an ending that both makes me happy and scares the bejesus out of me.

But it came at four o’clock that Phoenix morning. I got up out of bed, went into the hotel bathroom and wrote it all down in my notebook so that I wouldn’t forget it once the sun had come up over the Arizona landscape.

And guess what? It was the ending I’d been looking for.

What precipitated my epiphany? One, I was at a conference filled with mystery writers and readers. I was surrounded by creativity and those who appreciate it. That has an incredibly positive effect on the writing process.

In addition to that, however, my wife, who has a PhD in Psychology, and after she had her first cup of coffee, explained that it might have had something to do with time of night when the ideas came to me, that nether world between dream and reality. She says it’s called hypnagogia.


When I Googled it, this is what I found: Hypnagogia is a well described neurological phenomenon that can occur when one is waking up (hypnapompic) or going to sleep (hypnagogic). It is an in-between state where one is neither fully awake nor fully asleep.

The term hypnagogia comes from the Greek words for “sleep” and “guide,” suggesting the period of being led into slumber. In this state, which lasts a few minutes at most, you’re essentially in limbo between two states of consciousness.

According to Carlolyn Gregnoire in an article for Huffington Post, surrealist artist Salvador Dali called hypnagogia “the slumber with a key,” and he used it as creative inspiration for many of his imaginative paintings.

“You must resolve the problem of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which is the essence of the dialectics of the dream, since it is a repose which walks in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking,” Dali wrote in the book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.

Mary Shelley, too, said she got the inspiration for Frankenstein from a “waking dream” in the wee hours of the morning, “I saw with eyes shut, but acute mental vision.”

To what extent, then I wonder, are we in a waking dream state while we’re writing, even in the cold light of day? At some point, don’t we find ourselves immersed in the scene we’re writing? When we’re driving to the grocery store, aren’t we listening to dialogue between characters in our head? During a particularly stressful point in our story, don’t we feel what our protagonist is feeling?

Stephen King once described his writing process in this way:
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write…I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning…I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

I guess ultimately, it’s difficult to be creative if you’re trying too hard. Sometimes you just have to let it flow, and, once every so often, it comes to you when you’re half awake.

Happy writing, happy dreaming.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Facebook: Not just another pretty (social media) face

Vicki Delany here to introduce my friend and fellow author Judy Penz Sheluk, who has a brand new book coming out at the end of the month.  

 Facebook has been in the news a lot in recent days, and not necessarily in a good way. I’ll also admit to having been a Facebook holdout before I became a published mystery author. The thought of sharing what I’d had for dinner, where I went for lunch, and how I spent my summer vacation didn’t appeal. But my publisher insisted on a Facebook presence, and so I reluctantly started a Facebook Author Page and posted generic content about books, writing, comics, and the like. Then, a couple of years ago, Facebook changed the rules, insisting that in order to have a Page, I also needed a “Friends” profile.  I complied, never dreaming that my “friends” would soon outnumber my Page Likes by a wide margin—many of those friends unknown to me on a personal level. But hey, I’m all in when it comes to shameless self-promotion. After all, I’m here, aren’t I?

That takes me to how Facebook first surprised me. I started posting pictures of my (now almost three-year-old) Golden Retriever, Gibbs (and yes, for fans of NCIS, he’s named after Leroy Jethro Gibbs). Lo and behold, the friends just kept on coming—and some of them actually started buying my books. In fact, Gibbs became so popular that he now has his own dedicated WEDNESDAY WAGGLES post on my author page, where he reports in (an NCIS Marine reference) and shares a photo or two and some doggie wisdom. It’s a bit humbling to admit that his posts typically get far more Likes and Comments than mine. If only he could write…but I digress. The point of this post was to tell you the way Facebook has worked for “Author Judy” beyond Gibbs. And it has.

Case in point is my most recent novel, Past & Present, the second book in my Marketville Mystery series, and the sequel to Skeletons in the Attic. The premise is that protagonist Callie Barnstable has started a new business, Past & Present Investigations, and her first client is looking for information about a woman who came to a “bad end” in 1956—a woman who immigrated to Canada from England in 1952 on the T.S.S. Canberra, and subsequently made the journey from Quebec City to Toronto by train to meet her fiancé.

Now, I know nothing about train travel but I suspected some of my Facebook friends might. I posted a photo of an old train on Facebook and included a message asking for any information on train travel from Quebec City to Toronto in 1952. The post met with multiple responses, some of which ended up in the book, including a detailed response from R. L. Kennedy, the man behind It’s not a huge part of the book, but I’m a stickler for accurate research, likely because I spent the better part of 15 years as a freelance journalist.

I went on to post a couple more “research” questions, which also had the added benefit of creating some early buzz for Past & Present. The bottom line: this Facebook holdout is now a convert. I still don’t post what I’ve had for dinner or lunch, but I’ve learned that for authors, Facebook can be more than a marketing tool—it can be a source of information, some of which may actually find its way into your story.

It’s also a great forum to post pix of your furry friends. Trust me, they’ll be a lot more popular than photos of what you had for lunch. Semper Fi!

Judy Penz Sheluk’s latest book, Past & Present, will be released on September 21, 2018 in trade paperback and Kindle. Find out more about Judy and her books at

Friday, September 07, 2018

Bouchercon Time

Hi, everyone. Sorry for the late and brief post. I'm in St. Petersburg, Florida attending Bouchercon 2018. As most of you know Bouchercon is an international mystery convention held in a different city each year.

Having a wonderful time catching up with old friends, making new ones, and having a chance to meet with my agent. I'm not in the conference hotel (The Vinoy), but there are several hotels, including mine, that are located nearby. But most people are waiting for the shuttle bus rather than walking because we've been having afternoon rain for the past two days. And even without the rain, the humidity would make a mile walk unpleasant. But St. Petersburg is a lovely city. I wish I had more time to get out and see it, particularly the Salvador Dali Museum down the street.

I'm on a panel on "Amateur Crime Solving" on Sunday morning. Then I'm on my way back to Albany.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Mark Twain and Me

I (Donis) have been watching the PBS rerun of Ken Burns' documentary on the life of Samuel Clemens, the last episode of which ran last night. It is a most excellent documentary, I'm sure you agree, as are all of Burns' offerings. But this particular one speaks to me in a different way than the others. So let me tell you a story, Dear Reader.

Many long years ago, when the world was young and I was a slip of a girl, my husband and I lived for several months in a little apartment in a town called Cagnes-sur-Mer, which is located between Nice and Cannes on the French Riviera. Once a week, Don and I would hop on the local train and take the short, nine mile trip to Nice to visit the Anglo-American Library and check out a boatload of books.

The library collection at that time consisted mainly of English language and English translation classics, and it is there that I found and read so many old titles that are difficult or nearly impossible to find these days anywhere except in ancient dusty bookshops. For instance, I was able to read the entire eleven volume translation of the eleventh century Japanese novel The Tale of Gengi by Lady Murasaki, and was blown away by the fantastical world she portrayed. 

The library also owned the entire collection of Mark Twain's writings, and I read every one of them, in order, including the autobiography. Now, like all good little English majors, I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and analyzed the crap out of them. I was familiar with The Prince and the Pauper and A Yankee in King Arthur's Court, though whether I had read the books or seen the 1950s era movies I can't say. I can only remember that I thought that the Connecticut Yankee looked just like Bing Crosby.

But it was only when I read the entire body of work for my own pleasure rather than for academic analysis that I found myself falling in love. And I mean that. Especially after reading his late life works, I felt such a kinship with the man that I felt true grief that he was long dead and there was no possibility that I would ever get to meet him in the flesh.

It's cliche to say the man was a genius, but he had not only a beautiful facility with words, but he was so far ahead of his time in his thinking that it is startling. Some of the things he wrote about human rights would be controversial today–especially in this current political climate. So if you have not done so, do yourself a favor, Dear Reader, and read every Twain piece you can get your hands on. Whether he enlightens or offends, he'll rock your world.

Let me leave you with one of my very favorite pieces of writing and what Wright Morris called a 'triumph of the vernacular'.

This was authored by  Twain, not as any sort of literary enterprise, but as a letter of complaint to the Hartford Gas Company in about 1901.

Someday you will move me almost to the verge of irritation by your chuckle-headed Goddamned fashion of shutting your Goddamned gas off with giving any notice to your Goddamned parishioners.  Several time you have come within an ace of smothering half this household in their beds and blowing up the other half by this idiotic, not to say criminal, custom of yours.  And it has happened again today.  Haven't you a telephone?
S.L. Clemens

I consider this a prime example of how a great writer composes with language like a great musician composes with music.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

More fun with names

It's fascinating to me how great Type M minds are thinking alike these days. Several of us are pre-occupied with characters - their names, their creation, and their centrality to the story - and several of us appear to be starting new novels, or even new series. Thinking up character names is is one of the first steps in beginning a new novel. Most of us choose names very carefully and deliberately. First of all the name has to be true to the age, ethnicity, and region of the character. Second, it has to have a certain rhythm so that it either rolls off the tongue or completely trips us up, depending on the traits of character we are creating. Some names sound soft and gentle, Justin, for example, while others sound more hard-hitting, like Rock. Third, it has to be distinguishable from the other characters in the book; so avoid having six one-syllable names that begin with J, like Jim, John, Jeff, etc. If readers can't keep characters straight, they'll get lost.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, we want the name to evoke particular impressions in the readers' minds. Certain names, such as Adolf, are forever fused with history. Others are associated with cultural stereotypes. I would likely not name my rural Eastern Ontario farm characters Nigel, for example. Jim, John or Bud for him. Unless I want his name to be an issue in itself.

Aline jokingly said no action hero would be called Cedric. I smiled because the hero in my Rapid Reads series for reluctant readers is named Cedric Elvis O'Toole. It's a weighty, tease-worthy handle that the shy, self-effacing young handyman has had to carry all his life. It forms a delightful contrast to who is he. Amanda Doucette is the series hero in my regular mystery series, and her name was chosen with careful attention to the rhythm of it, the combined impression of softness and toughness, and to some extent the ordinariness of it. Both Amanda and Doucette are names often found in Eastern Canada where she is from, and Amanda is a common but not too common name in her age group. I find the current tendency to give heroes, particularly female heroes, really quirky names annoying; to me, it detracts from the realism of the character.

One of the beauties of Canada is its cultural diversity. In addition to its Indigenous peoples, it is being settled by people from around the world, so there is a wealth of names to pick from, increasing the challenge of getting the right name for the age, gender, and ethnicity of the characters in a particular region. In FIRE IN THE STARS, set in Newfoundland, I had to make sure that all the Newfoundland names I used were not only genuine to the island but also to the specific part of the island. Luckily the Internet allows me to poke around in villages, websites, tourism ads, local news reports, and so on to poach the names I needed.

In THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, I had characters from Vietnam, Haiti, Syria, and Nigeria, as well as French Canadians. Once again, the Internet to the rescue. It's still possible to get the name wrong - did I get the right regional/ religious affiliation for the Nigerian name I chose, for example - but I hope I've reduced my margin of error.

I am just beginning the earliest draft of my fourth Amanda Doucette novel, currently titled THE ANCIENT DEAD. It is set in southeastern Alberta, among prairies and badlands. Some of the characters are descendants of early settlers from various parts of Europe, and I will be picking surnames that are reported in the local history books from that era.

Characters appear unexpectedly during the writing of a book, and in each case, I pause to consider exactly what name to give them. At the end of the first draft, however, I have one final test for the entire cast. I list all the letters of the alphabet down the page, and then fill in each name, first and last, beside the letter it begins with. This allows me to see at a glance whether I have too many names beginning in M, or names that are too similar in appearance, sound, or length. Thus a character may find itself with a new name at the end of the process, which can be amusing when I forget who that character is. Usually fairly minor characters make this sacrifice.

Choosing character names is like choosing baby names. The writer wants the name to conjure up something about the character's nature. Emily is a very pretty, feminine name, ideal for a gentle, caring character. But all this care may be derailed by a reader's own experience. If your reader has been dumped by the love of his life Emily, he's going to have a very different emotion.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Getting it all correct at the beginning

by Rick Blechta

Stories, or plots if you will, are funny things. The correct balance must be struck at the beginning or the darn things won’t stick their hooks into readers (or listeners) and one’s audience, and well, then the writer has blown it. It’s not much good either to have a reader get to, say, page 50 in a novel and think, I’ll give this another 25 pages, and if I still don’t like it, I’ll toss the book. Talk about damning with faint praise!

So in last week’s post I revealed that I’m still having trouble with the beginning of my work-in-progress. I’d reworked it three times and at 12,500 words — where I normally stop to take a good long think about how it’s all going — something still doesn’t feel right.

The issue is a thorny one. I’ve got to introduce the two protagonists and a side character, another character who looks as if she’s going to be one of the plot’s main drivers, and of course, lay out what I hope are intriguing indications as to the excitement that’s going to follow.

After reading Tom’s most recent post, I suspected that my nascent novel might be suffering from the same situation — that the plot really wasn’t going anywhere — and if I ever wanted this to be the first book of a projected series, or even have a publisher agree to give me a contract for just this one book, I had to be on my A-game.

I read through what I had and formed a conclusion, but I also wanted someone else’s opinion before I went back to the beginning yet again. That night, I passed my laptop over to my wife and said, “Could you please read this?” It wasn’t all of what I’ve written, just those crucial first 12,500 words.

I took a walk around the block while she read. When I returned, she was back to the book she was reading when I interrupted her.

“So what did you think?”

“Overall, not bad. Was that a flashback in the first chapter? It wasn’t quite clear.”

I looked at the first chapter and because of a page break, the fact that this was a separate scene had no visual cue. Easily fixed.

“Would you keep reading this story? Were you looking for more when you got to the end of what I gave you?”

Long pause while she thought. “I’m not sure. I like the main character, at least I hope he is the main character, the retired detective?”

“Yes, but the pacing, the hints of the story to come, were they compelling?”

“There wasn’t a lot of that there as far as I could tell. It was more talk, talk, talk than action. I supposed you needed to explain who everyone is before the story can really get going.”

Bingo! I failed.

Here’s what I’d realized when I’d read it over: Is there any reason I need to explain character background and motivation right at the beginning? As long as the important things are revealed somewhere along the line before the story concludes, if the information is worked in well, who cares?

I went back to the first Nero Wolfe book Rex Stout wrote. The Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin was pretty well complete and ticking along. We really knew nothing about Wolfe’s amazingly varied background, ditto for Archie. And that lack of knowledge didn’t hinder the story one bit. We just go with what we’re being told with little thought to character motivation. At least that’s the way my wife and I (we both recently re-read Fer de Lance) responded to the story. Rex Stout just plops the reader down in the middle of his characters’ universe and tells us an intriguing story. As we go along, we get more and more engrossed in the finer details of character and place.

So I was left thinking about my own novel, why don’t I just do the same thing. I need to trust my creations, put them into the middle of an intriguing plot and let them do their own thing.

I’m now back to word number 12,500 and things are feeling a lot better. I’m also on Chapter 5 rather than Chapter 3, that’s how much I’ve cut out. Did I throw all that excess away, though? Absolutely not! The writing is good and it explains a lot about the characters. I’ll simply dole that information out at other places in the story, or maybe even keep it for another novel where it can be dressed in different clothes to fit the different production.

I sure wish it hadn’t taken me four tries to get to this point, however…

Monday, September 03, 2018

The Naming of Characters

What with the mysterious happenings in Sybil's car and the uncanny number of times another  post has exactly echoed what I was planning to blog about myself, I am beginning to wonder if a strange spirit of some kind is abroad on Type M.  As I'm starting a new book, finding the right names for the characters is at the forefront of my mind and I was planning to write about it when I read Sybil's post asking us what we felt about characters' names.

It's the old 'That which we call a rose' question.  Would the human love affair with roses ever have developed if it had been called a rutabaga instead?  Would the unromantic sound of the word have made the scent less seductive?

I wonder if anyone else has as many baby name books as I do?  Admittedly, one was inherited from my daughter after they had completed their family.  It's called 'A Thousand and One Baby' names and when I asked her  how they'd chosen their first-born's name she said that it was the only one they could both agree on.

Yes, we all have very definite views on names and I'm only thankful I don't have to consult anyone else about what to call my characters.  It's hard enough to satisfy myself that I've got it right.  I'm really, really fussy, so I spend a lot of time leafing through the books to find the name that will jump out at me for the character I have in mind.

The name of my first series detective, Marjory Fleming, was easy, though. It is a deliberate homage to a Scottish 19th century child poet.  She was wonderfully precocious, writing sharp and funny poems that caught the attention of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, but died before her ninth birthday.  I had always loved her and she came from the county of Fife, as I do - the saying has it that you need a long spoon to sup with a Fifer - and it seemed a good precedent for the name.  Fifers are a clannish lot, and the only other person to guess the reason for my Marjory's name was Val McDermid - another one of the tribe.

Her sergeant, Tam MacNee, came into my mind with the name attached.  Other names, I suppose, reflect my personal prejudices.  Marjory's  husband is stable and dependable; to me he's a natural Bill.  Charles Dickens obviously didn't think so; Bill Sykes was one of his nastier villains.

Opinions differ strongly but there must be some names we all agree on.  I doubt if many authors would call an an action man hero Cedric or Percy; you wouldn't call a mousy librarian Atalanta.  On the other hand, take Jessica, for example - to me that's a strong, professional-type name but a friend of mine thinks it's sort of mimsy and feminine, so not Jessica for my Detective Chief Superintendent.  My new detective is Kelso; I like  hard consonants for a strong character.

But in general it's very difficult to explain why one name is right and another isn't. I don't have a system of any sort. Rather feebly, I think I would say it's just that this character sort of feels as if they would have a name like this. I'd love to know how other people do it.

And I'd particularly like to know what readers feel about characters' names.  Would a name you don't like put you off?  Do you think as you read, 'Can't think why it should be that name.  That character is obviously a Jennifer not a Jane.'  It would be fascinating feedback.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Guest Post: Jackie Baldwin

Aline here.  I'm delighted to introduce Jackie Baldwin,  a Scottish author who is rapidly going places. With a background in criminal law, she moved from real life to fictional crime with a series of thrillers featuring ex-priest DI Frank Farrell and she joins us today with a contribution to the long-running Type M discussion about planners and pantsers.

Losing the Plot.

 I have written two books in my DI Farrell series but I approached the plotting in vastly different ways.  With Dead Man's Prayer, I knew how my plot would develop right from the start as it sprung from a very specific idea.  Essentially, then, I was viewing other characters from the start as red herrings and grafting suspicious behaviour on to them whilst knowing all along they were wholly innocent.  This felt contrived to me while writing it but apparently, according to my readers, I had gotten away with it.

My first book was ten years in the making with multiple drafts, including three years languishing in a drawer.  So you could say I had taken leisurely into a whole new dimension.  The offer of publication two weeks after submission was profoundly shocking.  There was a ridiculous amount to do in a very short space of time.  It felt like being put in an authorial car wash and I emerged buffeted, dripping wet behind the ears and rather stunned into publication six months later.

My editor wanted to meet me for a drink at Harrogate to discuss the second book.  What second book?  Already?  I rushed into an empty room, scribbled some stuff down on a piece of paper then went to meet her.  'Oh it's about blah blah' I announced.  She enthused.  I panicked.  I'd best get on with it then.

This time, remembering how I had felt about writing a plot when I already knew all the answers and how artificial that had felt to me, I decided to try a bold experiment.  Bear in mind her, I'm more of a mouse than a lion!   I decided to launch into my second novel, Perfect Dead, without a clue as to who the murderer or murderers were.    There were about six potential villains to play with.  I have to say this was a lot more fun to write and I found myself rushing forward almost in the manner of a reader myself.  It went faster because I wasn't second guessing every tiny thing.

Then the inevitable happened.  I hit the soggy middle.  Both the characters and plot were raging wildly out of control.  All those tiny decisions I had effectively deferred now came back to haunt me.  I felt paralysed with indecision.  I ate a discomfiting amount of cake.  I developed a passion for ironing.  On the verge of transforming into a domestic Goddess, I forced myself back to the book and the words started to drip if not flow.  The soggy middle firmed up and developed a six pack.  Once I had left that behind my fingers fairly flew over the keys until I typed my two favourite words in the English language, The End.

I am now starting book 3.  I want to be through the first draft by the end of the year so I am already
feeling the pressure.  The aim is to keep the excitement of writing Perfect Dead but avoid the soggy middle.  To this end, I have a little more idea of who might have done what but nothing is pinned down too firmly.  I have vague suspicions of my characters but, as of yet, no proof of their wrong-doing.  Hopefully, DI Farrell will do all the investigating for me...