Saturday, March 30, 2019

Weekend Guest Thomas Burns

 We're delighted to welcome Thomas to Type M for Murder.

Thomas A. Burns, Jr. was born and grew up in New Jersey, currently lives and writes in Wendell, North Carolina, and is the author of the Natalie McMasters Mysteries. Tom started reading mysteries with the Hardy Boys, Ken Holt and Rick Brant, and graduated to the classic stories by authors such as A. Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout, to name a few. Now that he's truly on his own as a novelist, he's excited to publish his own mystery series, as well as to contribute stories about his second most favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes, to the MX anthology of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.

 The Evolution of the PI Novel

I want to thank Donis Casey and Frankie Bailey for allowing me to do this guest post. Since my heroine, Natalie McMasters, is a private detective (trainee, to be precise), I’d like to briefly discuss the evolution of the PI novel in American crime fiction.

The private investigator can be distinguished from the amateur sleuth because investigation for hire is the PI’s profession, not avocation. I think the PI most responsible for the popularity of this genre was, of course, the master, Sherlock Holmes.

 It is arguable that Holmes, both in Doyle’s seminal works and in countless pastiches, is even more popular today than he was when the original stories were published. Evidence for this is provided by the MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, which have gone to 15 volumes since their first publication in 2015.

 After Holmes, the PI became much more popular in America than in England where police officers and amateur sleuths seem to predominate, with the notable exception of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. The popularity of noir in the early decades of the 20th century led to the development of the hardboiled PI in American crime fiction, typified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and Mickey Spillane’s epitomical Mike Hammer. All of these men were flawed, struggled to follow a rigorous code and meted out justice to wrongdoers despite their flawsthese characteristics doubtless accounted for their popularity. Notable exceptions to this archetype were Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, who were much more in the mold of Sherlock Holmeseccentric to be sure, but neither struggled with ethical choices as much as the typical hardboiled PIs did. Stout also introduced one of the first woman PIs – the redoubtable Dol Bonner. Younger readers were lured into the genre by the boy detectives in the Stratemeyer syndicate’s series books featuring the Hardy Boys.

After WWII, a lighter, more happy-go-lucky type of PI became popular. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is a good example, as are Jim Rockford and Thomas Magnum, who had their origins on TV. These guys had the same fierce independence as their progenitors, which made them attractive to an American audience, but seemed less tortured by personal demons. The first women PIs arose shortly thereafter, the most famous being Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, but Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski must also be mentioned.

I would like my Natalie McMasters to follow in these formidable footsteps, and it’s a daunting responsibility. When my series opens, Nattie is a pre-law student who’s moonlighting for her uncle’s 3M Detective Agency, surveilling insurance claimants to be sure they’re hurt as severely as they claim. It’s not long before she’s confronted by the ugly reality of a horrific crime, which results in a loss of innocence and ignites her innate sense of justice.
Nattie changes as the series progresses, and not always for the better, reinventing her career and discovering her sexual orientation is not what she first thought it was. Like many of today’s young people, she has a strong moral code, but she’s unsure of the basis for it and must constantly struggle to make the right choices as she encounters the evil in the world. For this reason, the stories are dark and gritty, definitely not cozies! Trafficked will be available on Amazon April 1.

I think the private investigator has always been an archetype of the American psychestrong, independent and at war with traditional ideas while simultaneously embracing them, and driven to right the wrongs in the world, often to his or her own detriment. I deliberately chose a young American woman as the heroine of my new series, because I hope to bring a new generation of readers to this wonderful genre.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Not Again!

I was amused by the flurry of true confessions by my fellow Type M'ers. Donis Casey's contribution really struck home. She mentioned grammatical errors that were a source of deep embarrassment because she was an English teacher and dithering over lay, lie, laid, and lain. For some reason, I can't send a letter ending with "yours truly" without checking on line to see if truly needs an "e."

For the life of me I can't understand how proofing errors can slip by when I've read a manuscript a jillion times. My most frequent manuscript error is leaving out words. I could swear little articles (a, an, the, etc.) are there. Until someone points out they are not.

My most embarrassing error of that nature was a FB post lauding one of my dearest friends and explaining why I was unable to attend her birthday party. As luck would have it, FB turned on me that day and the post didn't go through. I hastily rewrote the darn thing and wouldn't you know, it flew right through this time. As "my dead friend" not "my dear friend." I had a lot of explaining to do. Especially to those who were alarmed by her demise so close to the party.

For some reason historical errors really bother me even though in a novel I'm supposed to be able to invent stuff. I make a heroic effort to keep everything in historical novels and mysteries accurate. But with my first mystery, Deadly Descent, I mentioned that people had stolen Matt Dillon's papers from the Dodge City court house. It's true that some of Wyatt Earp's documents went missing. But a former chairman of the Department of History at Fort Hays State University emailed to ask that I surely knew Matt Dillon was a fictional character?

Actually, I didn't. I was mortified! Gunsmoke was one of my favorite series. Naturally that meant Miss Kitty was also fictitious. I was grief-stricken.

Another error was in Hidden Heritage. I thought Laura Ingalls Wilder's father was John J. Ingalls and he wasn't. It didn't take long for fans to correct me.

I got my first taste of the perils of historical reference when I wrote my first historical novel, Come Spring. I mentioned the legal description of a land location. Made it up, of course. A man wrote to tell me that was his property and he didn't appreciate my using it. Who would have thought?

Historical and grammatical errors don't weigh on my soul forever. I'm over them, painful though they were at the time. But how about it, my darling Type M'ers? What was your most embarrassing moment as a writer?

I have to go down the list a ways. I'm willing to share my fourth most embarrassing moment.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Thoughts on Being a Visiting Writer

This past week, I had the good fortune –– and great honor –– of being invited to a college where I once taught and in a town where I once lived to kick off the college’s visiting writer series. It was great to see old friends, meet new ones, and reconnect with the public side of my work as a writer.

I gave two readings and book talks, signed a few books, and spent a lot of time with the college’s creative writers. The group of writers is dynamic and thoroughly engaged in the craft. They meet weekly, share their works, talk about the craft, and help motivate each other. Members of the group are at all stages –– from college students first realizing that they love the literary arts, to writers with a novel in the editing stages preparing for agent submissions. And, as with other beneficial writers’ groups I know, there is zero pretenses or ego. Mutual support is borne of the realization that not only is the art difficult, but the road to publication is littered with potholes.

Northern Maine Community College is about eight hours north of my home in western Massachusetts, but the writers I spent time with seemed much closer to me than the 400 miles that separate us. I was the one invited to sign books and speak, but I still stare at the same blank page they do. In fact, the blank page always remains blank until you put your butt in the seat, and take the risk of writing from the heart. And that never gets easier, regardless of how many books you’ve published.

It’s why the writers' community, writ large, is one of the most compassionate and supportive artists’ groups I know of. Need an agent? Here’s my agent’s name. Tell her I recommended you to her. Want a blurb? Send me your book.

And this is especially true if you’re just starting out.

Spending time with this group of talented, fearless, hopeful artists reminded me not only of where I am but of where I’m from, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Fond Typing Memories

I’ve been enjoying the recent posts on Type M about learning to type. It’s brought back a lot of fond memories for me.

My first experience with a typewriter was around fourth grade. For some reason, the powers that be decided we students would benefit from short courses on a number of topics outside of our usual curriculum. I don’t remember what the other options were because I pretty much didn’t look at anything else once I saw typing was one of them. So for 3 weeks or so a few of us spent some time with a manual typewriter. I don’t remember what I learned, but I do remember enjoying it and wanting to know more.

Fast forward to tenth grade when I took my first official typing class. I figured it would come in handy in college, but I also just really wanted to learn how to do it. I’m so glad I took all of those typing classes. It’s turned out to be the most useful skill I’ve ever learned. And I still find it very soothing.

In typing class, we started out with manual typewriters, but soon graduated to electric ones. How I loved the IBM Selectric keyboard. What a dream to type on! I’m still picky about keyboards. I find the ones on most laptops to be not to my liking, so I have an auxiliary keyboard I use instead.

Somewhere along the way I joined FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America). Not because I wanted to be a future business leader, but because it was fun. I enjoyed the people and the activities. One of those activities was an annual convention where chapters throughout the state got together and did stuff. What that stuff was I can’t really remember, except for the competitions in various business related subjects.

At my first convention, I entered the Junior Production Typewriting competition and, apparently, I came in second. I say apparently because I knew I did well, but didn’t remember where I placed until I found the certificate. The competition wasn’t only about how fast you could type, but also about typing up different kinds of documents – letters, manuscripts, etc. – in the proper manner. That meant having to center titles, get the margins right, etc. All the kinds of stuff that Word now does for you automatically.

By the end of high school I could type 80 wpm or so. Now it’s probably in the 60s or 70s, depending on the keyboard. I still occasionally check out my speed with a typing test online just for the fun of it. Hey, I’m easily amused.

You can check your typing speed out at

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

My little writing rituals

by Rick Blechta

Again I find myself inspired by my Type M colleagues. This time it’s Tom.

I’m pretty sure that every writer has little rituals or quirks that help them find the place in their imaginations from where ideas and words emanate. Tapping that “happy spot” is important if anything meaningful is going to be the end result.

I know from speaking with writing colleagues that distraction can be a major issue. They have to be surrounded by silence or some sort of very specific sound, like music, or birdsong, or something of that calming nature.

I know that’s where I diverge from most writers. I really can’t put on music, because being a musician, I naturally start listening followed by analyzing what I’m hearing. I learned very early on that having music on is just not something that works for me.

I can certainly work in silence, or with low-level surrounding noise such as birdsong, wind in the trees, stuff like that, but it can’t be too regular or it drives me nuts.

Now here’s where it gets really odd. I don’t mind a lot of noise around me. I’ve done some of my best work in airports, train stations, and waiting rooms. This past weekend, one of the band’s in which I play did a wedding gig. The stage was at one end of the hall, separated from the wedding ceremony set-up by a long black curtain. Our instruments were set up and ready to go, and surrounding the stage were all the tables which were having the service laid.

So here I am, sitting on the stage, journal in hand, madly scribbling away at a scene in my work-in-progress. It was going rather well, too, I thought. On the other side of the curtain was the Jewish wedding ceremony which included singing and a lot of talking. Around me about a dozen servers were moving about. None of it bothered me. I don’t know any other writers who enjoy working that way.

I also find that working in different surroundings can be very stimulating to my muse (in a good way), so sometimes, I’ll go outside, visit a nearby park, go to the library. I’ve even ridden the subway back and forth for a few hours on two occasions. I’ve written here about my love of writing at the Osgoode Hall Law Library in downtown Toronto.

Some of this may be about getting away from distractions like the phone and the Internet, and if I find that I’m too “distractible” on a specific day and I have the mental fortitude to break away, leaving these things behind is a Good Thing.

If there’s a particular ritual in which I indulge it’s that I always begin by reading what I’ve written the day before (or the last time I was working if it’s on the same day). But I believe that’s more to allow me to get back into the same headspace than being an actual ritual.

Anyway, that’s what works for me.

Now for the writers out there in the audience, what do you like to do to stimulate your muse?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Writing Rituals

My blog this week will have been written shortly before I left to attend and speak at the Virginia Festival of the Book on Saturday, March 23. Some of the other authors speaking during the Crime Wave Programs were Don Winslow, Stephen Mack Jones, William Boyle, Kellye Garrett, and Erica Wright, among many others.

By the time you read this, the event will be over and done. However, I’m writing before it happens. So, should I be writing this in the future tense or the past tense? And by the time this blog is posted, I’ll be in Winchester, VA, getting ready for a book signing event at the Winchester Book Gallery. It feels a little like one of those paradoxes that happen in time travel stories.

I’ve been following the other Type M blogs about learning how to type. I was going to follow in their footsteps, except my story is pretty straight forward. I knew from an early age that a typewriter was going to be instrumental in whatever I did in life, so I took a course in high school, learning how to touch type. Thank goodness because the letters have pretty much worn off the beat-up laptop I use to write my books.

Should I get a new one? Probably, but this one is lucky. This is the one that found an agent for me. This is the one that helped get me published.

Writing on it has become a ritual, along with listening to ambient music that’s little more than a low hum.

Is it unusual for a writer to have rituals? I don’t think so.

Ernest Hemingway wrote while standing up. He’d get out of bed at dawn, write furiously while standing at his typewriter, and then wander down to the local tavern to get hammered. His ritual, other than standing while writing was “done my noon, drunk by three”.

On the other hand, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Edith Wharton, George Orwell, and Truman Capote all wrote while lying in bed. Capote had a few other quirks as well. He wrote everything in longhand and was superstitious. He avoided hotel rooms and anything having a number that ended in “13”. He also avoided starting or ending a piece of writing on a Friday.

Gertrude Stein did most of her writing in a moving Model T Ford driven by her partner Alice Toklas.

Dr. Suess liked to wear an unusual hat while he wrote. He owned several hundred headpieces that he would try on until he felt creatively charged.

Charles Dickens would only sleep facing north. He carried a compass with him at all times, preferring sleeping with his head pointed toward the north pole.

John Cheever wrote while only wearing his underwear.

Victor Hugo wrote in the nude. It was rumored that Hugo would strip down, hand his clothing to a servant, and lock the door. He wouldn’t have his clothing returned until he was satisfied that he’d written something substantial.

So, the fact that I prefer to write on my beat-up laptop…that’s not so unusual after all. At least I write with my clothes on.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

On The Road Again

After a self-imposed hiatus from touring, I'm again loose from my cage. A couple of years back I was part of the WordFire Press road crew hefting books from convention to convention. That was a great experience not only hawking books shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers but it was also an amazing opportunity to meet fans. When I first got published I attended as many writer conventions as I could afford such as Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and ThrillerFest. While these cons were a blast--suffice to say a LOT of booze was consumed--I decided they weren't worth the money. Flying out of town, plus hotel and meals, and the con fees would set me back a cool grand. Anything in New York was almost twice that. Truthfully, at these cons, the public was mainly interested in the hardback NYT bestsellers and most times, the vendors wouldn't bother stocking my vampire novels. I'd usually only get one panel, not surprisingly, first thing Sunday morning. We panelists were lucky if we didn't outnumber the audience!

This year I'm traveling with the Bard's Tower, the venture headed by Rabid FanBoy. They took over the operation from WordFire and streamlined the process. As before, our venues are the comic cons, actually known now by several other names, as Comic Con has been trademarked and reserved for use by those within the proper fold. Besides the format, the biggest differences between what we do and traditional writer cons are attendance and the workload. Attendance meaning greeting between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand people who file by our booth. Workload meaning unpacking hundreds of books, setting up the booth and tower, staffing the booth from 10AM to 8PM, then the final tear down. I bought new Dr. Martens with extra cushy soles, however even with them, at the end of each day, my dogs aren't just barking but howling.

Typically, those of us working the booth sell out at least one title. And it brings a big smile when in these distant burgs, a customer remarks, "Aren't you Mario Acevedo? I have your books!" Bless you, kind reader. I only wish I had a thousand more fans for each of you.

If you want to come by and browse the Bard's Tower, check out my 2019 schedule. See you there.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Walking the Line

Frankie here. I've been chuckling through my colleagues posts this week. In empathy, not superiority. I just left a comment apologizing for what was both a typo and a grammatical mistake in a guest post. I typed (on my computer keyboard). I meant to say that my "books are," but instead wrote my "series are." Are commas and periods in the right place in this paragraph? I have admitted to myself that even though I was both a Psychology and an English major, I have trouble remembering the rules. I go back to double-check before reading term papers.

I did learn to type in high school even though I was on the academic track. There was a simple reason for that. My cousin taught at the high school I attended during my senior year. I rode to school with her some days when I missed the bus. I took typing because I knew it was going to be useful. But I'm pretty sure I didn't get an "A" in the class. I was not a whiz on the keyboard. I jumped for joy when I realized that computers allowed one to erase and edit without ripping a hole in the paper. Without a computer, I might still be trying to type a book that could be submitted. My first two efforts are tucked away in my desk awaiting that mythical one day when I have the time to try revising them. The manuscripts can't be scanned because there are so many typos and whiteouts.

But getting to the intended topic of my post today. As I've mentioned, Speaking Volumes is re-issuing the five books in my Lizzie Stuart series. The first two books, Death's Favorite Child and A Dead Man's Honor, are available now in both print and Kindle.Old Murders, is with the publisher. The last two books will be out this year, too. And my publicist, PJ Nunn, is doing a marvelous job of helping me relaunch the series. All good, but this does present a challenge.

If you're writing a series, you know about the delicate balance that a writer faces when it comes to marketing. On one hand, we want to interest prospective readers enough to get them to go to our websites and learn more about us and our books. On the other hand, when talking about our books, there is the danger of saying too much. We can spoil a new book for a loyal reader by giving away an ending. We can spoil an entire series for a reader who have just discovered us and our books by revealing how the series evolves. Who lives, who dies, who gets away with murder. I've been finding this particularly challenging as I am relaunching a series five books in.

For example, I have revealed (although it was mentioned by readers and reviewers when the book was published) that Lizzie's mother, Becca, is a femme fatale. I commented on that in a guest blog that came out today. Again, on one hand, I was talking about a character that I love who has popped up in a series that is not cozy, but certainly not noir. On the other hand, I'm hoping that knowing Becca survives her first appearance won't spoil the book for readers who pick it up -- especially for  readers who prefer to begin with the first in the series and wouldn't have learned Becca's fate until Book 4.

Walking the line during a marketing campaign is a challenge. But it's lovely to work on the plot of a new book as new readers are discovering the series. I need to think before I blurt out any important plot twists and remember to say "the killer" rather than identifying by pronoun. But I'm having fun trying to find creative ways of saying enough and no more.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Typing Joys

Reading the previous entries, below, about how we acquired our typing skills,* made me (Donis) think of all the wonderful times I've had trying to catch all the typing mistakes I've made while proofreading a manuscript that I've already gone over at least a hundred times. Typos are creative and amusing. Years ago I wrote something about a man who saved dozens from a fire and called him a "true herp". Since that day I have a tendency to call anyone who rises to the occasion a "herp".

Typos may be funny, but grammatical errors are humiliating, and yet I still make plenty. I was an English major in college and later an English teacher, to boot. I even taught remedial English to freshmen when I was in graduate school, so I like to think of myself as well-versed in the rules of English grammar and punctuation. But by damn, with every book it seems I've either forgotten what I knew or the rules have changed (I'm looking at you, Oxford comma).

In one particular novel, I became hopelessly confused when trying to differentiate between “lay” and “lie” and all their permutations. In fact, my editor noted that I got it wrong nearly every time! She even wrote “Yay!” above the one time I got it right. I told her that at least I’m consistent. Now, how did this happen? I know that people lie down to sleep and that they lay their watches on the beside table. It was the tenses other than the present that threw me. I got lost in a miasma of “laids” and “lains”. The odd thing is that I never had that much trouble with it before. All I can suggest is that I had suddenly developed a metal block. In any event, no one in that novel either lays or lies. Everyone places, puts, reclines, or reposes. Except for that “Yay!” I left that one.

In another novel, my editor suggested that I refresh myself on the difference between “may” and “might”. Here’s the deal. When it comes to “may’ and “might”, I become ensnared in the net of my own ethnic dialect. Where I come from, “may” is for asking permission and “might” is synonymous with “perhaps”. However, this is not necessarily correct Standard English. I must remember that.

On a third occasion, my editor accused me of using too many commas. Okay, I admit it. But I have an excuse. Punctuation rules have changed since I learned them. (No cracks about runes, hieroglyphs, or cuneiform.) I was taught that in a list of three or more descriptors, there is no comma between the last two if there is an “and” between them. "He was tall, dark and handsome." It seems that the serial comma now reigns. (i.e. "We invited two strippers, a politician, and a minister," rather than "We invited two strippers, a politician and a minister.") Knowing that the preferred rule has changed, I apparently went on a rampage and put commas all over the place, whether the sentence needed them or not. My editor’s rebuke immediately reminded me of my late aunt, who literally put a comma after every other word she wrote. Perhaps I have inherited some genetic punctuation flaw. Whatever the reason, I’ve become hyper-aware of my commas. I must have removed 500 commas during that rewrite. It has occurred to me that I may now have a book full of run-on sentences.

And as for typos -- after a while you just don’t see them. You know how the sentence is supposed to read, and that’s what you see whether it is actually there or not. For example, during the last re-read of an advanced reading copy, I found a place where I had left the “g” out of the word “dog”. "The do began to bark." I had typed that sentence three months earlier and had read over it dozens of times. But I never saw that missing “g”. Neither did my husband Don. Neither did my editor. We all knew what it was supposed to be and that’s what we saw.

I think there may be a life lesson, there.
*I acquired mine before the union of electricity and typewriters.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tricks and old dogs

What a fun trip down memory lane we are having on Type M this week. Typing and typewriters. I can relate to so many of the stories! Back in the mists of time when I attended high school in the early '60s, students were streamed into academic or commercial (and within academic, into Latin or science, the former being more prestigious). There was flexibility to mix some science into Latin, which I did, but there was no room in the day to fit in typing. It was strictly for those heading to the work force after high school, rather than university.

Although I never took the classics in university and instead focussed primarily on science and psychology, I have never regretted those agonizing two years I spent learning Latin conjugations and struggling to translate Virgil under the fierce glare of Latin teacher Mr. Marcus (I kid you not). Not only is Latin the basis of so many languages, but knowing the Latin root and the connections between words is very helpful in enriching understanding and vocabulary.

I have often had occasion to regret that I never took typing, however. Like Aline, I learned to type haphazardly on my mother's very old typewriter that banged and clacked and regularly jammed into a tangle of keys if I typed too fast. The ribbons were two-toned - red on the top and black on the bottom - to allow for more interesting presentations. I became quite proficient at the hunt and peck technique and also at the liquid white-out that was supposed to correct mistakes. All the way through university I typed up papers on the noisy old machine, usually at 3 a.m.

When I first worked as a psychologist, I wrote my reports long-hand, and these were typed either by someone in the "typing pool" or by the secretary down the hall. Both approaches involved much back and forth to correct errors and edit text. At home, however, I was writing my first fictional masterpieces first on that old typewriter and later on an electric typewriter. I recall the sheer joy of typing my first manuscript on a computer word processing program. No more white-out or correct-o-tape. No more typing pages again and again to edit and re-edit material. Word Perfect was a dream.

Sometimes I long for the simplicity of that early word processing program. I told it exactly what to type and it did it. If it did something peculiar like double-indent a piece of text, I just selected "reveal codes" and I could see exactly what code I needed to delete. It did not attempt to anticipate my formatting or insert sneaky codes that I couldn't see and couldn't delete. It was not full of complicated  options that I would never figure out how to use and would never need anyway. It was a very sad day when Word Perfect was discontinued and I had to switch to MS Word.

I think we are products of our time and become comfortable with what has worked for us well for decades. I still write first drafts in long-hand, and I do not use any of the fancy writing and editing software available to writers to help them organize their ideas and keep track of story points. I just write and keep lists. Like hunt and peck, my technique is laborious and certainly not efficient, but it works for me.

However, I do wish I could touch-type, so maybe I will hunt down Mavis Beacon and give her system a try.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mavis Beacon changed my life!

by Rick Blechta

This week’s post is in answer to Aline’s post yesterday. I, too, once suffered from a lack of typing skills, but fortunately for me, a new piece of computer software had just been released and was being used in the schools in which I taught. That program was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

But first, a digression…

Like Aline, I’d become an Advanced Hunt and Pecker on the typewriter. I could type pretty darn fast. My high school graduation present from my mother was a portable Olivetti. Funny thing was, my mom never suggested that I take a typing course (I used her typewriter all through high school).

In those days, “college-bound” students didn’t take “lowly” courses like typing. Why this was the case I have no idea. Did the educators think that we’d hand-write term papers and then pay someone to type them for us? Because when I got to university the professors made it pretty clear they didn’t want handwritten submissions.

So in the late ’80s when Mavis Beacon was released — the same time as the rise of the computer — it had finally been realized that all students should learn how to touch type. For me, it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Listening to my students, I was hearing that they really liked learning how to touch type.

So in 1989 I plopped down $29.95 and bought this program. Never have I spent money more wisely.

Knowing what I did about learning from my musical studies, I realized the clearest way to success was to spend time every day using my new program. As in learning to play an instrument, you can’t expect good results if you only sit down and practise for an hour every four days. Fifteen minutes a day will work far better in the long run whether it’s learning to play a Mozart minuet or learning to touch type.

I made it my business to do my keyboarding practice between the time I got home and dinner. If I hadn’t gotten to it in time, I’d feed our two sons and do it while they ate. My goal was a minimum 10 minutes every day with 15 as my goal. Surely I could find that amount of time in every day.

Surprise, surprise, in a month I could touch type pretty well, maybe 40 words a minute which was more than sufficient for my burgeoning writing career. The Mavis Beacon program is geared towards kids (games and such as a learning tool) but I found it relatively fun and practising never seemed onerous.

I am thankful I took the plunge every time I sit down at the computer to work. So Aline, and anyone else out there who only hunts and pecks, take a few minutes out of your day for one month and you will be a much happier writer. I guarantee it.

Mavis* is my hero!


*While there are other software programs that will successfully teach you to touch type, I have a “relationship” with this program, so I’m recommending it.

And here’s an interesting factoid I just discovered courtesy of Wikipedia: “Mavis Beacon’s first name was taken from Mavis Staples, lead vocalist for the Staple Singers. The surname derives from beacon, as in a light to guide the way.”

No wonder I was drawn to this program. I love the way Mavis Staples sings!

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Qwerty Keyboard

As yet again, I realise I've written the word 'hosue' (a favourite mistake) and murmur grateful thanks as my spellcheck changes it to 'house', I regret the fact that I never learned to touch-type. When I was at school it was pretty much discouraged if you were on a academic syllabus since you'd only need it if you were going to be a typist.

Of course, when it became obvious that this was a serious, all but essential skill in the internet world, I could have taken time out to teach myself but by then I was really quite speedy in a slapdash sort of way and so I've gone on.

The typewriter that I was first allowed to try was an ancient model, the kind you see in old black and white movies, used my my minister uncle for his sermons. I was seven, I think, and I was enchanted. I already wrote stories, but how much more like real, proper stories they seemed when they were printed, even if the letters jumped sometimes. I got my own, very similar, sit-up-and-beg typewriter when I was eleven, and I loved it to bits. The much slicker one that eventually replaced it never had my heart in the same way and my computer keyboard is just a means to an end. I miss the triumphant ping! and slam back as you came to the end of each line.

I never gave much thought to the weird qwerty arrangement of letters, an arrangement that has been in place unchanged for well over a hundred years. If you'd put me on the spot, I suppose I'd have said it was probably based on the letters most frequently used in the English language and the quickest way of reproducing them.

Then I heard the theory that this was entirely wrong; they were actually arranged in such a way as to slow down typing speed, since if you typed so fast that one key had not gone back to its place before the next one was hit, the machine would jam - and yes, when I got ahead of myself I certainly remember that happening.

But apparently this isn't accepted as entirely true either. When Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor and senator from small-town Pennsylvania became enamored of the idea of 'playing the literary piano' instead of using a pen in 1868, he first devised a machine that did indeed look like a piano, or organ, perhaps, with two rows of ivory and ebony keys. Over the years it was modified and altered as its uses became more defined in a rather haphazard way, but after Remington started producing the qwerty arrangement on their typewriters, somehow that was what stuck.

What it most definitely isn't is the most efficient arrangement. In 1936 August Dvorak designed a much more ergonomic keyboard. Using the qwerty keyboard to copy a test text a typist's fingers would travel twenty miles, compared to one mile on the Dvorak version.

And what happened? Nothing. We all just stuck with qwerty. There are new systems on offer now that can easily be installed on a computer. But I think the reluctance to take time away from our feverish typing, which stopped me learning to touch-type long ago, still operates and qwerty is still king.

I have to admit I now wonder exactly how many typing miles I do on an average working day. Anyone got a fitbit for fingers?

Friday, March 15, 2019

(BSP) Blatant Self Promotion





Charlotte Hinger

Starred Review in Library Journal

“Readers who appreciate historical accuracy in their fiction will find this a powerful read. The impressive degree of realism and Hinger’s skillful weaving of personalities and story lines make it a real page-turner.”

I know this is shameless. But it really makes me very happy. More along a proper writing post next time.

STARTING OVER by Guest Blogger Tom Savage

Hi, folks. I was delighted when John Corrigan invited me to submit a guest post here, and I wondered which aspect of the writing life I should address. I’ve chosen a subject that isn’t exactly pleasant, but it’s a reality for many of us.
I’m talking about starting over. I don’t mean abandoning or rewriting a story or a novel; I mean hitting the Restart button on your writing career. It may have happened to you, and it’s definitely happened to me. Twice. Here’s my cautionary tale:

I wrote my first novel, Precipice, in 1990-91, and went shopping for an agent. After 20+ rejections, I found one. He sent the manuscript around to all the big houses. There was an auction, and the highest bidder gave me a two-book deal. Precipice was published in 1994. My second novel, Valentine, was sold to the movies, and they actually made the movie! I wrote two books in a detective series for another big house, and I eventually wrote two more thrillers for a third big house. That’s six books for three big houses in six years, plus one movie.

Then, in 2000, I walked away from it all. Why? Your clue is in the three publishing houses. Every time I got momentum going somewhere, my editor either got fired or ran away to another house. Two of my novels had one editor at the beginning and a different one by the time they were published. The new editors weren’t interested in me. My books faded and fizzled. So, I stopped.

I didn’t stop writing, mind you, but I stopped publishing. I parted ways with the agent and went back to my day job as a bookseller at Murder Ink®. I wrote several manuscripts that stayed in my computer, unseen and unread, until 2008. That’s when my friend SJ Rozan asked me to join her writing group. I started reading those manuscripts aloud to a gang of fellow writers who convinced me to go out into the marketplace again.

I found a new agent, and she found me a publisher—a new, ebook-only imprint of Penguin Random House called Alibi. My first novel in fifteen years, A Penny for the Hangman, was published in 2015. I started a new series about an actress named Nora Baron who becomes a field agent for the CIA, and Alibi published three Nora Baron titles over the next three years. Of course, my acquiring editor was fired in 2017, so I ended up with a new editor who wasn’t interested in me. Sound familiar?

Two months ago, I didn’t just lose the new editor—I lost the whole publisher! Yep, Penguin Random House did a clean sweep, firing dozens of editors (including mine) and shutting down several imprints (including Alibi). They’ll publish the fourth Nora Baron thriller, The Devil and the Deep Blue Spy, next month, but that’s the end. I’m back to square one.

This time, I’m not walking away. I’ll have to write new books and find new publishers. I’ll have to start all over again, but I’ll do it—I’ve had practice. And that’s the moral of this tale: We can always start over. All we need is the need to tell our stories.

Tom Savage is the author of 12 novels and numerous short stories. He's served as a director on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and on the Best Novel committee for MWA’s Edgar awards (three times) and International Association of Crime Writers' Hammett Prize (two times). He's a founding member of MWA-NY’s Mentor Program, advising and encouraging new mystery writers. He lives in New York City, where he worked for many years at Murder Ink®, the world's first mystery bookstore.  You can learn more about him at his website and his Facebook page. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019


“Where do you get your ideas?” This vague question is asked in two contexts: During Q@A sessions when audience members haven’t read your books; or by readers who know your work and are genuinely curious as to the mental swamp from which they emerge.

My answer is equally vague: Sometimes writers choose the topics about which they write; other times, topics choose writers.

For me, it’s much more enjoyable and engaging when the latter occurs. A topic jumps up and grabs you by the throat and says, Write me. I’m in that mode now.

I attended a boarding school in the 1980s, when my parents were searching for an academic community to help their “learning disabled” (we don’t call it that anymore) son, and a school was looking for hockey players. It was a match made in heaven. Sort of. Like many students who arrived with large athletic dreams, I had been a big fish in a small pond; at boarding school, with students from around the globe, I soon realized Maine wasn’t the hockey hotbed I thought it was.

One student didn’t have that problem. His name was Mark Green, and, simply put, he was in a different league than I (and just about every other teenage athlete in New England) was. I now teach and live at a boarding school. And after nearly 30 years of high school, I can say confidently that Mark was the best high school athlete I have come across. He was New England’s top lacrosse player, probably the best offensive hockey player, and could throw a football 70 yards. He was six-foot-four, 200 pounds, and recruited by Div. I colleges in all three sports. He was two years older than me when I was 16, and to say that I learned the difference between what it meant to be a good hockey player and a great hockey player skating alongside Mark would be an epic understatement.

This is when Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte were coming up, and Mark was exceptional, even skating against them. But Mark never made it to the NHL, which, always surprised me. I never knew why. When I played with him, the accomplishment of that goal for him –– no matter how lofty –– seemed a forgone conclusion.

For years, I wondered what happened to Mark Green. Like a lot of writers, I’m interested in human interest stories, and I read the news all the time. Then, when I returned to boarding school –– following stints covering the city desk at a daily and a weekly and teaching public school and community college –– I began coaching hockey. The memories of Mark and that team (four players were chosen in the 1987 NHL Draft) returned. And my curiosity led to some late-night Internet digging. One story led to another, and I stumbled upon this one.

It led to so many questions and hopefully to a story, not fully realized yet but one that’s tapping my shoulder and whispering scenes. It’s a story that’s complicated and has more questions than answers and won’t be told completely, but one that offers a starting point for a novel. And it’s one that is certainly worth telling.

Sometimes you choose your stories. But when you’re lucky, your stories choose you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Calm Between

I’m turned my book in, I’m back from Vegas and I’m enjoying a bit of calm before I receive comments from my publisher. Once I get those next week, I’ll be back at the writing biz.

For now, though I’m enjoying that bit of calm. I’m catching up on things like updating my website, taxes, cleaning and reading. The last month before my book was due, I didn’t get much reading done so I’ve been very happy to dig into several books that have been on my TBR pile for a while now. Here are the three I’m currently reading.

In the nonfiction realm, I’m reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s an account of the fire that destroyed a lot of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986,
burning for seven hours and consuming 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more. It’s a fascinating look not only at the fire, but also the history of the library itself.

I’ve lived in L.A. since I came down to go to college in 1977, but had never been to the Central Library until a few years ago. I admit also that I’d only briefly heard of the fire. I suspect that’s for two reasons: (1) it occurred the day after I got married in 1986 and we were more concerned about getting on a plane for Tahiti to go on our honeymoon cruise around the South Pacific than in the news and (2) Chernobyl happened at the same time so it got a lot more attention.

I’ve since taken a tour of the library, which now seems to be bigger and better than ever. If you get a chance to tour the library, do it. It’s really quite beautiful and interesting. While you’re there you can see if my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, is still on their shelves. It was there when I visited a few years ago.

In the historical fiction realm, I’m reading Tombland by C.J. Sansom. This is the latest offering in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.
I’ve been interested in Tudor England since my sister introduced me to Henry VIII and his wives when I was a kid. This is a great series set during that period. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who crosses paths with Henry VIII, Catherine Parr and Lady Elizabeth over the course of the series. In this book, Henry VIII is gone and his son, Edward, is on the throne. Matthew has been hired by the Lady Elizabeth (you know, the one who becomes QE I) to look into a murder. I highly recommend the series.

The last book I’ll talk about is one meant for ages 8-12, The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone. It’s a charming book about two kids who discover a magic key that allows them to shrink down and enter the 68 Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago. This is the first book in a series. It’s full of mystery, magic, history, exploration... Just a fun read even for an adult. I’ve never been to Chicago, but some day I’d like to see the gallery that inspired the book.

That’s it for me today. This is my birthday week so I’m enjoying the calm. I hope you’re doing the same.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Pungent Fish

Mystery writers love red herrings. We’re like magicians who distract the audience with a flourish of the right hand while we're deftly pulling a card out of our sleeve with the left.

The definition of a red herring is a piece of information in a story that distracts readers from an important truth, or leads them to mistakenly expect a particular outcome. The term “red herring” is often used to refer to a false clue—a piece of evidence readers to believe that a crime (or other action) was committed by someone other than the actual culprit.

Where did the term “red herring” originate? There are a number of theories.

One story is that dog trainers would create a trail of scent for a dog to follow in order to teach them how to hunt. To test the dogs’ ability to follow the trail of a single animal, without being distracted by other scents, the trainer would drag a smelly pickled fish across the trail in an attempt to mislead the dogs. Just like in a mystery, a red herring is a false clue to lead readers or characters in the book away from the truth.

Another origin story is that the term came from an English journalist named William Corbett around 1805. He claimed that when he was a boy he used a red herring (cured and salted herring) to mislead hounds following a fox’s trail. He used the term as a metaphor for the London press which had earned Corbett’s anger by publishing false news accounts regarding Napoleon. Fake news, if you will.

My favorite, however, is the theory that it originated in the 1800’s when British fugitives would rub a herring across their trail, diverting the bloodhounds close on their heels. Clever criminals.

The queen of the plot twist, Agatha Christie, even uses the term “red herring” in And Then There Were None. Ten murderers who had escaped conviction are invited to a deserted island by an unknown host (U.N. Owen). One by one, they’re murdered resembling the deaths of the characters in the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldiers”.

By the way, I’ll make mention that the rhyme, as well as Christie’s mystery, originally had a much more offensive name. For the sake of good taste, I will not tell you what it was. That’s a mystery you’ll have to solve on your own.

By the time their number has dropped to five, Vera, one of the characters trapped on the island, recalls a verse in the nursery rhyme: “Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.”

She realizes, to little avail, that they were being duped. They were looking in the wrong place for the person who was killing them one by one.

Red herrings are a staple in mysteries, as well as most literature that holds a plot twist. Without misleading evidence, it would be much too easy for clever readers to guess how the book will end. And isn’t that the magic trick…giving just enough clues, some of them false, to allow a reader to figure it all out…but not letting them figure it all out?

Another form of red herring is when one directs a discussion or argument to another issue to which the person doing the redirecting can better respond.

Don’t we see this nearly every day when a politician (no names) is being asked a question by a journalist and the politician never comes close to an answer? He or she blithely moves to some other talking point that may or may not have anything to do with the original question.

I dare you. The next time you see someone on television being interviewed and they blatantly change the subject, yell “Red Herring” as loudly as you can. Then nod knowingly and gaze about the room. You’ll see that all eyes are upon you. Point to the television and repeat is a sage voice, “Red herring.”