Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Setting things right

by Rick Blechta

“But you write about ending people’s lives! How can that be a good thing? How do you live with that?”

I got into a discussion about this a number of years ago with a dear friend, and it popped back into my life this past week when someone I know a lot less well brought up the same topic and basically asked the same thing. The difference this time was that I’d had time in between to really think about this.

First off, I have to admit that it can be tough on a writer to craft a murder scene, whether it’s a major or minor character. In my case, I can’t just dispatch people without a thought, and over the course of ten novels and novellas, I’ve killed a lot of people.

I remember the first time quite vividly. I had to stop writing for days, trying to wrap my brain around what I’d written. I’d been a huge crime fiction fan for a long time by then and had probably read two or three hundred mysteries, so naturally I’d been thoroughly exposed to literary death. However, it’s very different when you’re doing the deed yourself.

It’s tough to kill characters, and for me, it hasn’t gotten any easier over the years.

I was exposed to my first real death by violence when I was 16. After seeing a concert at the old Madison Square Gardens in NYC, a group of us was walking back to Grand Central Station to catch a train home. We saw a crowd on the sidewalk ahead, standing in front of a grungy-looking bar. We stepped into the street to avoid the crush and as I came even with the bar, the crowd opened slightly and there on the sidewalk was what looked like a dead body. I don’t remember a lot of blood, but this poor soul certainly appeared to be deceased. The cops arrived shortly after we passed, but we didn’t stick around because we had that train to catch.

I was haunted for weeks by that brief encounter, but eventually the scene faded. The other time I saw a death by violence was while I was driving cab in Toronto in the mid-70s, I saw another victim of a violent death, also lying on a sidewalk.

So yeah, the death of someone by violence carries a lot of weight for me, even though the people never existed except in my head.

The question is, though: why do I do this? Why do I write about violent death? I’m sure every writer of crime fiction has thought about this, so I’m not special in that regard. You might get different reasons from other writers, but here’s mine.

For me, it’s because in the aftermath of that death, I’m setting in motion actions that will bring the perpetrator of that outrage to justice in one way or another. I believe people read crime fiction for the same reason. The plots in crime fiction almost always set things right by the end. Justice is meted out. The guilty are exposed and will be punished. It’s a pretty rare — and grim — novel where the killer gets away with it.

This is what I told the person who asked the million dollar question last week. I do what I do to bring justice to the imaginary world I’ve created. Having spoken to fellow writers, I know I’m not alone in this.

And right now, the world could use a lot of that.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Crime Fiction Myths - Busted

I'm just back from the Crime Writers' Association conference, held this time at Windermere in beautiful Lake District, stamping ground of Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets. The daffodils were out, living up to the publicity and obligingly 'fluttering and dancing in the breeze'.

We were blessed with dry weather, not always the case here — as my husband said, lakes don't just happen by accident — but it was distinctly chilly as we took our boat trip. Here I am with my lovely agent Jane Conway-Gordon, well wrapped up against the chilly breeze.

It's always one of the social highlights of the year but it's also when we have talks from the professionals who actually work in the world we like to write about in our books. This year, the session that made the most impression on me was delivered by a husband and wife team.

He is a forensic pathologist and she is a detective constable and their eyes met, if not actually over a corpse, then across someone in hospital shortly to become one. They both, as you might expect, have the classically mordant sense of humour that you need to cope with the situations they have to deal with.

They didn't spare us. Those of a sensitive disposition look away now! The most graphic picture was of what looked to be a murder but was in fact what had happened to a man who died of a heart attack — and happened to have a large dog. (Cats are apparently worse!)

They then proceeded to disabuse us of some of the most cherished tropes in detective fiction. Firstly, no detective asks the pathologist for time of death and gets an answer that isn't 'between the time the victim was last seen and the time the body was found' There are so many variables that it is in practical terms impossible to give one. So there go a whole lot of plot ideas.

Then it was his wife who pointed out, very firmly, that the person who interviews a witness is the detective constable. Not a detective sergeant, not an inspector and certainly not a chief inspector. The role of the promoted ranks is to assess the information bought in on the computer on their desks and shape the investigation from there. She had actually turned down promotion precisely because that was the part of the job she loved doing - rather like teachers who won't leave the classroom for promoted posts that would take them away from the kids.

We'd always sort of known that but there was a collective groan and one author said plaintively, 'But a DI who never leaves his desk wouldn't be much of a hero for a crime novel.' He got the tart reply, 'Then don't make your hero an inspector. Make her a constable instead.'

So there's a thought for a new series. But I'm ashamed to say I'm going to go on as I am. I don't think my readers come to the books for an accurate portrayal of contemporary policing. I'm relying on their being content to apply what that other great Lake Poet Coleridge called 'the willing suspension of disbelief' when it comes to DCI Kelso Strang.

And finally: there were laughs too. We had an excellent talk from a barrister at the Criminal Bar. She was pointing out that unlike the villains in our books, most criminals are not very bright, and gave examples. My favourite was the one who had robbed a shop along with a pal but unfortunately for him the shopkeeper recognised him. He denied it, of course and since this was at the time of identity parades, one was arranged. For the line-up, the police used to offer £10 to anyone who would agree to join it. The accused found a friend he thought could use £10 and he accordingly obliged. When the shopkeeper was brought it he immediately identified the accused and then looked along the line and said — yes, you've guessed — 'Oh look, that's the other one!'

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Dreams, Inspiration, and the Muse

I pride myself in being a nuts-and-bolts type writer, meaning I'm not much for the woo-woo stuff. Having said that, I do admit that I've had story ideas come to me in dreams. I know that dreams are seen as the interpretations of our subconscious, but I'm convinced they're more than that. Some insist that dreams are another form of inspiration given to us by the Muse. Most dreams we forget, unfortunately, but once in a while these sleep visions stick with us. If the images were particularly strong, sometimes upon waking we're confused about where we are and what's really happening.

The Bible mentions dreams and the most famous sleep vision in Scripture comes from Genesis 41, when the pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows being eaten by seven emaciated cows, and seven plump stalks of grain being swallowed by seven thin stalks of grain. Joseph (he of the Technicolor Coat) is summoned to interpret the pharaoh's dream, which he does by explaining that seven good years of harvest will be followed by seven years of famine. So forewarned, the pharaoh appoints Joseph as his second-in-command and is tasked with storing and managing surplus food to prevent disaster.

As writers we're cautioned against using dreams in our work because dream sequences are regarded as narrative cheats. What happens is that characters wake up and nothing has changed. However, dreams in stories can be useful to build tension and foreshadow plot twists. We know that dreams can be symptoms of a troubled mind and in a story, an immersive dream sequence can illustrate the interior turmoil of our characters as they contemplate danger.

A dream that I used for a recently accepted story was one in which women suddenly stopped getting pregnant. I have no idea why my subconscious stewed on that horrific notion, but the takeaway was the global terror upon realizing that we as a species now had an expiration date. Lately, two other dreams had to do with me getting older, so it's pretty obvious what's behind that inspiration.

Another source of dreams are hallucinations from drug use. Here in Denver, we have Initiative 301, in which we get to vote on decriminalizing the use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms. I've known people who've indulged in "magic" mushrooms and then shared their mind-blowing experiences, which by the way, included plenty of vomiting. None of these psilocybin tourists ever got around to writing anything, so the best way to cultivate inspiration remains to sit at the keyboard and hammer out what the Muse delivered.

Friday, April 26, 2019


I'm frankly piggy-backing on Rick's post. He did his best to advise a beginning author about social media. I'm lucky. Most people simply ask me how to get an agent or how to get a book published. My advice is always the same on those two issues. Write the book first! Then hunt for a publisher or an agent.

I always look trapped and desperate about social media questions. Truth is, you can work into infinity and not begin to tap everything you could do on social media. My original word choice was "should" do but I think that's where the problem comes in.

Pick and choose. Despite all the bad publicity it has received lately, Facebook is one of my favorites. I love hearing what friends and members of the writing community are doing. Contrary to a lot of criticism I hear about the site, I want to know about events that are affecting their lives. Good and bad. I'm deeply grateful for all my Kansas contacts who have kept up with my books and my career. I still feel a special bond to Hoxie.

I rejoice with friends in the writing community who have receive special recognition. It's even sweeter when I know they have struggled to keep their career together.

Specialized blogs--such as Type M-- are pure gold. It always surprises me how many people read this and never comment. They know about it because I mention a new entry on Facebook. I'm grateful for Rick Blechta's faithfulness in tending to this site. A log of blogs go under because the owners aren't faithful to the task.

So here is the advice I would give to Rick's beginning writer:

1.  Make a list of all the organizations you belong to. Check out their websites.
2   Make a list of all the sites related to the non-fiction elements of your books.
3.  Make a list of the people who would really like to know what you are up to.
4.  Pick 10 of these places that appeal to you.
5.  Make a check list (just for tracking) of how often you would ideally contribute to each site. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Yearly?
6.  Learn to GET OVER IT if you can't or won't make yourself do it.

Personally, I avoid politics and controversaries. Plus I assume people don't want to hear AGAIN about my technology problems that prevented me from posting last week. Or the fall that nearly prevented me from posting today. Or . . .well, you get the picture.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Plot Points

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of outlining a novel before you begin writing. I’m still plugging away at it, and, having moved scenes and added and eliminated characters, I’m more committed to outlining than before.

To outline or not to outline? According to The Writing Cooperative website, Joyce Carol Oates claims, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” And Ernest Hemingway said, “Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”

It’s hard to argue with either of these two writers, and one of the major takeaways I have from this experience is that outlining allows me to see the story arc from thirty thousand feet. As the story takes shape, I can view the beginning, middle, and end and make decisions. For instance, I have made major plot revisions –– adding a backstory to clarify a major character’s motivation and cutting another character out completely –– before I begin writing.

In the past, I have written novels the way one drives at night –– writing “to the end of my headlights.” That is, writing each scene based on the scene that preceded it, and making plot decisions based on the previous scene and my instincts, guided by what I know about the character. This is an exciting way to write. The adage “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” can be fitting. I wrote This One Day (as K.A. Delaney) that way. I didn’t know how the book would end until I was thirty pages from the conclusion. And it was terrifying.

More recently, I pulled a hundred pages from the draft of a novel and eliminated an entire secondary plotline. Both revisions cost me months –– months that, given my day job (I’m a boarding school teacher, dorm head, department chair, and coach), amounts to large chunks of time that I simply don’t have to waste.

But opinions vary, and Stephen King says, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

I’d love to hear what my Type M friends say on the matter.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Changing Agatha

I’m heading to Malice Domestic next week so my thoughts turned to Agatha Christie and the new version of “The ABC Murders” available on Amazon. I usually jump at the chance to watch every new screen version of an Agatha Christie story, but I wasn’t too sure about this one. I’d heard things.

I finally decided I needed to check it out myself and come to my own conclusions. I liked it much better than I thought I would.

From the beginning it seems un-Christie-like. Everything’s darker, everything seems more extreme from the portrayal of English society to Poirot and some of the other characters. Then there’s the scenes with sexual overtones that don’t exist in the books and add nothing to the story, at least as far as I’m concerned.

In the book (you know I reread the book right after I saw the screen version, right?), Poirot is at the top of his game, enjoying his “retirement”, still working cases and working with Scotland Yard. Hastings is there and so is Japp, though the main Scotland Yard detective on the case is a younger man, Crome, who isn’t all that enamored with Poirot.

In this new version, Poirot has been disgraced. Japp is no longer at Scotland Yard. Hastings is nowhere to be found. The Yard no longer considers Poirot an asset and the public basically hates him. Crome is there, but his character is more amped up. He’s very very anti-Poirot.

Both stories are set in the 1930s, though in slightly different years. In the screen version, England is definitely anti-immigration. People protest about immigrants, there are posters on the wall denouncing them and people wear pins indicating they dislike foreigners. In none of Dame Agatha’s books, as least as far as I can remember, was anti-foreigner sentiment so much in the foreground. Someone might comment on Poirot being a foreigner, but it’s so slight it’s nothing.

And then there’s the portrayal of Poirot himself. John Malkovich does a fine job, but it's not the Poirot I'm used to. He’s taller, more melancholy and less fussy. He also seems a little lost and friendless. One of the subplots delves into Poirot’s background before he came to England in 1914, something which I don’t remember Christie talking about much. What’s revealed in the story is quite different than anything I expected. At least they didn’t change whodunit. The basic story line is also similar though some characters have been changed and scenes both added and deleted.

I don’t expect screen versions to always adhere to every detail of a story. Sometimes, what works for a book doesn’t work for a movie/TV show and vice versa. I’ve even liked some screen versions better. But, when it comes to Christie, I really prefer them to stay as close as possible to her story.

That’s why I prefer the David Suchet version, which is pretty close to the book, though not in every detail. Still, I think this new version is worth watching.

That brings me to today’s question: What do you think about screen versions that change characters and storylines from the original book? Yay? Nay? Depends? I’m in the depends camp.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Floundering in the book promotion world

by Rick Blechta

I was buttonholed this past week by an author who has her first book coming up for release in June. She was thrilled to meet a real live “published author” and immediately began peppering me with questions, all of which were about promotion.

She’d gotten a one-page PDF from her publisher about what she could do to promote her book. It also included a questionnaire basically asking what she’d already done. Did she have a website? Was she on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc? Was she a member of a group that would buy her book? Could she think of alternative places to sell her book? Did she know any broadcasters or media people? And so on.

The poor thing was completely confused and stumped about how to do all these things. She’d first told her publicist this and was (nicely) told that with so many authors to promote, there wasn’t time to hold her hand. “Ask another author for help.”

And then I came along.

First of all, when I’d heard her tale of woe, I was annoyed at the publicist. So it’s expected that other authors will help out? Come on!

But I also felt very bad for this nice lady, and couldn’t bring myself to turn my back on her. She was pretty darned desperate.

She’s not too computer savvy, but her daughter and granddaughter are. She knew how to search for things on the Internet, so we talked about that. “There’s a lot of free help out there. You just have to find it. It will take time to get good at searches, but you’re smart. You’ll get the hang of it.” If we’d had a computer handy, I’d have done a bit of quick work to get her started.

For the website, I suggested one of the sites that offers good, ready-made templates and great customer support. “Maybe your granddaughter could help you design something simple. You don’t need a complicated site.”

She was on Facebook, but only sporadically used it to find former classmates, childhood friends and the like. You need an author page.

After nearly an hour-and-a-half, I felt as if I’d barely scratched the surface of author self-promotion. I did have to extricate myself from the situation because I could have spent a week showing her the ins and outs, but at least I’d given her a small box of “tools” with which she could start off.

Now, this is not an isolated case. There are lots of authors, new and old, who desperately need help in this regard. I’ve never heard of a publisher who gives much help, and honestly, they really don’t have the time to help authors through this quagmire. But they also should be able to point their authors in viable directions. After all, the publisher will benefit from the sale of every book, too.

The Internet is a good source of help, but there is a hell of a lot of information out there. It would take multiple hours to wade through — and in the end you wouldn’t know what is good advice and what is bad.

She could always hire professional book publicist to help, but there are a lot of sharks in those waters and I felt obliged to warn her away from that unless she got personal recommendations. Since she doesn’t know any other authors, that’s not likely to happen. I don’t know anyone and I got horribly burned in this regard several years ago.

Does anyone out there know a source of good, reliable information on the Internet or in a book to help my new friend out? Suggestions will be gratefully received and passed on immediately.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Life Balance

In addition to having written three novels (the third, Graveyard Bay is scheduled to be released in September), I have a day job.  I’m the president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce here on the Crystal Coast.  It’s a fantastic gig.  I’m the cheerleader for one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In itself, that’s a full-time job but additionally, I sit on numerous boards (economic development, public school foundation, transportation committee, downtown development, juvenile crime prevention, etc.).  On top of that, this year I’m the president of the Business Alliance Protecting the Atlantic Coast, BAPAC,  an organization representing 42,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families from Maine to Florida.  This group is dedicated to doing what its name says,  protecting the Atlantic Coast, primarily from offshore oil and gas drilling and seismic testing.

When do I get a chance to write?

Sometimes early in the morning, even before the coffee is brewed, I might be jotting a few thoughts down.  At lunch, while I’m wolfing down a chicken salad sandwich at my desk, I’ll knock out a few sentences or rewrite a paragraph.  After work, before I start making dinner, I’ll hammer out a page or two.

Where I do the bulk of the writing is on weekends.  Before my wife is up, I’ll walk down to the ocean, then come back and work out.  Then, I always have breakfast with Cindy while we read the multiple newspapers we get on weekends.  Yes, we still enjoy getting newspapers delivered to the curb and spending time with them at the breakfast table.  And we always find something interesting to talk about.

Then I’ll go upstairs to my office over the garage, dither for a while on the internet, look at my watch and figure I’ve wasted enough time.  I turn on some ambient music and begin work in earnest.

A balancing act.

Luckily, my three children are grown.  I don’t have to drive them to soccer practice, or help them with their homework, or take them to the park or the beach.  More time for me to write.

Unluckily, my grown children and my grandchildren are a long way from where we live. I would love to see them more often.  But the fact that they’re not here gives me more time to write.

I take time for the things I enjoy doing.  I love reading (I’m nearly finished with Don Winslow’s The Border, a 720 page thriller I can't seem to put down), and I do all the cooking.  Something else I love.

Cindy and I make certain that we spend time together and with friends, we watch movies on HBO and Netflix together, and every couple of weeks, we go out for dinner.  This part of North Carolina has some world class restaurants. And being the president of the chamber of commerce, we’re often invited to events on weekends, most of them revolving around food.  It’s a wonder that I don't weigh 300 lbs.

 Writing is a solitary adventure, but life is meant to be lived with the people you love.

Knowing that this is Easter weekend and my wife’s birthday, this blog will be blessedly short. My advice is this: write when you can but always stop and smell those flowers.  It’s springtime here, and in our little patch of the world, the flowers are spectacular.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Places Remembered

I've been thinking about setting -- particularly in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame. I was in Paris for the second time a few years ago. That time around I was traveling with my aunt and we were visiting her son and his family. We traveled from the house they had bought in Normandy to Paris. At the time I was looking ahead, scouting out the setting for a future book in my Lizzie Stuart series. I was already planning to send Lizzie and John Quinn to France on their honeymoon.

Lizzie, my history nerd, would walk through Paris with guidebook in hand. How could she not have gone to Notre Dame? Undoubtedly a scene would have happened there. Maybe she would have seen someone or heard something. Maybe had a glimpse of another character I already know will appear in that book.

That book isn't the next in the series, but the one after. I've been debating France, but it is the destination I've always had in mind if Lizzie and Quinn make it to the altar. I've also recently considered Ireland because of Quinn's family ties. But if they should go to Paris, I need to make a choice. The series is in the recent past. The honeymoon would happen during the first week of January 2005. So what about Notre Dame?  How does one handle a setting that has changed in an event that was deeply emotional for many people?

This gets to the larger question of recovering the past. As my fellow Type-Mers have discussed, setting is important. I, too, spend time in the field, exploring the places where my books and short stories are set. It is disconcerting to discover how much real-life settings change. This is less of an issue writing in the recent past or near future. Enough is there to have a sense of how it once looked or will look in an imagined future. But when the setting has only a marker and the surrounding area has changed, one is left only with photos.

I need to go to the site of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Knowing how little remains from the fair, I haven't rushed to make the pilgrimage. But I will eventually. Standing there, with map and photo book, I hope I will be able to get the "lay of the land".

And if  Lizzie goes to Notre Dame in 2005, I'll need to figure out how to treat the tragedy of the fire with respect while being true to what she would have seen and commented on.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Books to Get You Through Hard Times

Last Saturday here on Type M, Vicki wrote about finding good books to read on a long airplane flight. This put me in mind of all the books that have gotten me through hours of waiting to hear the outcome of some operation or another that my husband was undergoing. Therefore, Dear Reader, allow me to offer my own list of Books to Take Your Mind off of Your Troubles for A Little While.

One of the books I suggested for Vicki's plane trip was Rhys Bowen's The Victory Garden, which I had just finished reading in a surgery center waiting room while my husband was having his eye operated upon.* The Victory Garden is a stand-alone set in Britain during World War I and featuring a young woman who volunteers to become a “land girl”, one of the women who worked on the farms while the men were fighting. She ends up tending a traditional herb garden on a large Devonshire estate and nursing the local villagers through the influenza pandemic of 1918. One of my own novels, The Return of the Raven Mocker, set in rural Oklahoma during the pandemic, also dealt with traditional healing and the way women supported one another through tragedy. It was a lovely, uplifting tale to read, especially needed at the time.

I don't remember every book I've read to get me through waiting/recovery/long days and nights beside a hospital bed, but there are a few that stand out: Deborah Atkinson's Fire Prayer, her third Storm Kayama novel, set on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, got me through the first of Don's bowel resections in 2012. Vicki Delany's More Than Sorrow, a beautifully written tale about the wounds of war, past and present, got me through the second bowel resection in 2013.

Long, involved historical series like Colleen McCullough’s five book series on the end of the Roman Republic, the first of which was The Grass Crown, and Laura Jo Rowland’s series set in 17th Century Japan (The Perfumed Sleeve is one of the titles), and her Samuri detective/chancellor/family man Ichiro Sano, have lightened my life during heart surgeries, kidney procedures, blood transfusions, wound infections, broken bones, and long periods of recovery.

One of my favorite discoveries happened during the worst of the health crises, back in 2009, when all this folderol started with a near-death and long long hospitalization. A friend of mine visited us in the hospital and brought me a honking fat book that she said she loved. I had never heard of it. It was a fantasy novel called A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones, Book One. Not my usual kind of thing at all, but I took it and thanked her. After she left I started reading it in a rather desultory fashion, but I was hooked in about three pages and ended up reading the entire 800 page book in a matter of days. It just goes to show you that you should never limit yourself to any one genre or theme when it comes to reading, beause good story telling transcends all that jazz.

So tell me, Dear Reader. What books have saved your sanity and gotten you through hard times? Your suggestion may help someone through a crisis!
*The eyeball stitches come out today (Thursday), thanks for asking.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

City vs. country

Aline's post on setting really resonated with me, as did Rick's ode to Notre Dame. I too spend weeks driving around the areas I am writing about, taking photos, dictating observations into my iPhone, and jotting notes at night. Stories take place in time and place, and the vibrancy of the story is directly related to the power of the setting. Settings are not mere backdrops; they evoke feelings - the fear of a dark forest, the excitement of a rushing river, the joy of a sunlit meadow, and the peace of loons on a lake. They can inspire awe. As Rick says, no one walks out of Notre Dame untouched by a sense of overwhelming awe.

Good writers use these feelings as a film director uses music - to wrap the reader in the full experience of the story. The setting can complement or contradict the mood of the story, but it always contributes an effect.

Granite islands in Georgian Bay

Aline makes an interesting point that rural settings may be more powerful in this regard because they are so closely linked to ever-changing nature. A concrete jungle is a concrete jungle, but meadows and forests change with the seasons, the time of day, and the weather. Having written a series set in the city (my Inspector Green series) and another mostly in the country (Amanda Doucette), I do find I am much more immersed in the rural settings. I think about the weather because it affects what the characters will be doing out on the land, how they will feel, and what trouble they might get into. I think about the specific terrain they are travelling through. The rocks they will trip over, the mud they will step in... I think about what the characters see, hear, and smell as they are moving through a scene. If I want the reader to be immersed in the story, I have to describe it for them.

Besides drawing the reader into the story, another interesting job of setting is to reveal character. Different characters notice different things, and what they notice tells a lot about them. For instance, Inspector Green grew up in the dusty back alleys of the inner city with little knowledge or appreciation of nature. He notices the drug deal going down on the corner and the homeless guy who's missing from his spot, but he wouldn't know the name of a bird or flower if his life depended on it. He would never stop to drink in the beauty of a sunset.

Cities have their own power to evoke feelings and atmosphere. Unraked leaves, razor trimmed hedges, peeling paint, gaping potholes, and spectacular peonies or azaleas are all details that evoke vivid impressions. Streets and neighbourhoods have their own smells and sounds too, from the balcony barbecue to the roaring dump truck, and characters react to them differently. Green would barely notice the belching exhaust of a passing bus, but he'd notice the smell of bagels freshly baked.

Each detail draws the reader in, enriches the story, and reveals character. But endless description stops a story dead, especially when the reader is racing toward the climax. The key is to capture a few unique, vivid details that will stand for the whole, much as a painter does when they confront a complex landscape. Choosing those details and cutting out the less powerful are crucial skills of good writing. Or usually re-writing. I often put down a bunch of possible details during the first draft and then pare them down to the most powerful during the second pass.

The hoodoos in the Alberta badlands

So city or country? Which is more complex? I think in the hands of a good writer, the possibilities of both are as endless as the details to be captured. Perhaps we have to work a little harder when writing rural settings because readers may be less familiar with them and have fewer memories of their own to help them become immersed in the scene. In that way, a high-rise is a high-rise and a belching bus is a belching bus, but if you've never been to the islands of Georgian Bay or the badlands of Alberta, you're going to need some help.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What was lost

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday was a sad day for the world.

The tragedy of losing a building like Notre Dame cathedral — and even though they will rebuild it, the structure will not be the same so I consider it lost — reaches far beyond Paris, France, Roman Catholicism, Europe. Seeing that massive structure, so beautiful in its way, 900 years old, is like a body blow to probably most of us.

I’m certain many of us have personal memories of visiting Notre Dame. After all, it is the most visited building in all of France. I’d like to share mine with you, if I may.

I visited Paris (with my intrepid wife/translator) in September 2008 in order to do final research for my novel, The Fallen One, and of course took time out to visit Notre Dame — since I had to be nearby checking locations around that area anyway. Without having a lot of time, we didn’t go up into the bell towers — something I regret even more now — but something magical happened anyway when we stepped inside the cathedral.

Sitting on a pew at the back of the nave, I was just soaking in the everything there was to see. Being a Gothic cathedral, it just goes up and up. The feeling of being insignificant in such a massive space was overwhelming.

Then an organ recital, of which we had no advance warning, began.

I’ve heard many pipe organs in my time, from small to very large, but the echoing acoustics inside Notre Dame’s vast space added something absolutely unbelievable to the experience. My wife, who doesn’t appreciate organs the way I do, sat there transfixed as was I. Even though we’d only given ourselves a half hour to walk around the church, we listened to the entire performance. It remains one of the most inspiring musical experiences of my life, and was such a gift as it was so unexpected. I was so mesmerized the experience, I neglected to take a photograph of the organ — and believe me, I take photos of everything when I’m doing research. Now I can’t because it’s gone. That glorious instrument was surely destroyed yesterday when the ceiling of the nave collapsed.

Another organ will be built, but it just can’t be the same. Every one is different, and even if they had the exact plans, manufacturing of organ parts has changed even though it was only 150 years old. The mighty instrument we heard that day in 2008 has been lost along with so much else.

And that’s a very sad thing.

Here’s a link to a fine article in The Washington Post on the Notre Dame pipe organ.

The photo above is one I took of the east end of Notre Dame from the Pont Sully which figures in the opening of The Fallen One. It was taken about an hour after that memorable recital. To my mind, the building is far more interesting from the back end. Now much of what you see is no more.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Rural Problems

When I'm writing a book, I always work hard at choosing the right setting for the story. It's a cliche to say that the landscape becomes a character in the novel, but since my books have a rural background to a large extent it does dictate the atmosphere.

That's fine.  I do a lot of research first to get the feel of the place, staying there and having my long-suffering husband drive me round while I scribble down copious notes, most of which I won't actually use but from which I can pick out salient features.  The notes are always there, though, when I want to check something out and indeed the place itself is always there and I can go back to it for a refresher visit when I need to.

A much more complicated aspect of the setting is time of year.   If I set a book in spring, it will be summer/autumn/winter during the time I'm writing it and that poses all sorts of questions.  What time did it get dark in the evening?  When did the sun rise?  Have the crocuses come out?  Are there lambs in the fields at that time? And can I think myself into a spring-like mindset when it's freezing cold and sleet is driving past the window?

Weather matters are very important too.  Having lived my adult life mostly cities where weather was a 'Do I take an umbrella or not bother?' business,  it was quite a shock when we moved to rural Perthshire.  It is a wonderful county, known as the Gateway to the Highlands, and I appreciated its beauty but living among the hills, particularly in winter, had me constantly checking the forecasts.  Snow could even mean a couple of days when you couldn't get out and severe frost meant cars ending up in the ditch.

The trouble with describing weather is that rain isn't just rain, whatever the time of year.  April showers aren't the same as winter downpours.   Cloud formations are different at different times of the year.  Wind has seasonal patterns.

I can't hold back the book until that season returns to check all that stuff out so I have to spend quite a lot of time on finicky research or rely partly on memory or, if I'm honest, on the likelihood that readers won't be absolutely sure of the details either.

There is, of course, an obvious solution.  I could set my books in a concrete jungle where the only bit of nature that you see is the thin slot of sky between the canyons of buildings.  But I grew up in a little town, next door to a farm and with fields and woods to ramble in and I suspect what I'm writing is my childhood.  Perhaps a subject for another blog!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Flight Reading

by Vicki Delany

I have some ultra-long flights in my future: 13 hours; 5.5 hours; 5.5 hours; 16 hours.

That’s a lot of time to be trapped in a cigar box with several hundred other people. And so I take my flight reading very seriously indeed. 

I find that long airplane flights are almost the only time any more I can get really stuck into a good book.  I find I can’t descend into a book the way I used to and get totally immersed in that world. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I blame the Internet and all the distractions in our lives.  But in a plane I’m able to sink into other words.  No in-flight wi-fi for me.  I rarely even watch the movies, and I don’t sleep well on a plane.

I read.

I’m looking for suggestions for what to take with me. Generally, I’m wanting pretty intense books that I can get deep into.  For my trip to Vancouver for Left Coast Crime I had The Lost Man by Jane Harper (loved it! Even better than The Dry).  On my Christmas trip I was engrossed by The Wytch Elm by Tana French and The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton.  Because I was going to Africa, I wanted something to get me in the mood so White Highlands by John McGhie served that purpose.

(A few years ago I happily passed the time floating above planet Earth with The Fallen One by Rick Blechta, another great read.)

As well as great thoughtful fiction, I like to have at least one good non-fiction read. At Christmas it was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and for last year’s trip to Malaysia, The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World by Lizzie Collingham.  

And then, for a change of pace if needed, I like something light as well. Kate Carlisle’s Fixer Upper mysteries hit the spot for that, as do the Cajun County mysteries by Ellen Byron. 

So, over to you Type M’ers. Have you read anything recently you think would be perfect to accompany me sailing above the clouds? I’m open to suggestions. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Joys of outlining

I equate being a literary agent –– and dealing with writers’ eccentricities (daily!) –– to herding cats. So I appreciate the work of my champion Ginger Curwen, who keeps me on the straight and narrow.

At a time when many agents no longer want to be frontline editors, Ginger reads (and rereads) my drafts and is always available when I need to bounce an idea off someone. That’s what I was doing last week, when Ginger and I exchanged a series of emails. In the final line of our exchange, she wrote, “Remember, when you start the Ellie POV book, outline, outline, outline!”

A page from my outline
I said I would try.

I have talked (and posted) about outlining and my reluctance to do so. When I was in grad school, it wasn’t considered “artistic” (I’ve come to realize that’s a useless word) to plan what you would write. Statements like, The characters just came to me, and I felt like I was just taking dictation when I wrote this permeated academic buildings. I recall a Robert B. Parker Publisher’s Weekly interview in which he described his reaction to that train of thought: he quipped something to the effect that if his characters started telling him what to write, he’d find immediate psychological help.

Similarly, at Left Coast Crime, many moons ago, Jeffrey Deaver, in his keynote, said he had created one-hundred-page outlines for three-hundred-page books. I was stunned. Eight months, he said, to create the outline. Three months to write the book. That didn’t seem to mesh with the No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader mentality I had adopted.

Still, on the heels of finishing a novel that required me to rewrite it –– cutting out a character to simplify the plot –– Ginger’s words seemed wise. So two weeks ago, I began in earnest.

I must say I’m not going to be anywhere near Mr. Deaver’s one hundred pages, but I do have something resembling screenplay scene descriptions for twenty-odd chapters, and counting. And this has given me space to think through and re-think-through plot points and characters’ roles as I go.

Perhaps most importantly, this work –– outlining the story before I write it –– feels safe. The canvas on which I’m working is wide, and changes can be made fluidly without wasting weeks and countless pages that someone who needs to perfect one page before moving on to the next great would, will, and does waste.

In short, I am enjoying the process of envisioning and re-envisioning the novel. Hell, I might be an outliner, after all.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

National Library Week 2019

This week (April 7-13) is National Library Week in the U.S. I noted the occasion in a blog post last year as well. If you’re interested you can read that here.

This year’s theme is “Libraries=Strong Communities”. Melinda Gates is the honorary chair. According to a USA Today article I read “In the last 20 years, Gates’ Global Libraries initiative has invested more than $1 billion in enhancing libraries and empowering communities.” A billion! Whew! That’s a lot of money.

Here are a couple other tidbits I got from the article:

- There are more public libraries in the U.S. than Starbucks. That’s quite a feat since it feels like there’s a Starbucks or two around every corner.

- The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 167 million items. And it’s a beautiful place. We visited it on one of our trips to Malice Domestic.

You can read the full article here.

I’m celebrating the week by catching up on my duties as We Love Libraries Coordinator for Sisters in Crime. This week I got to notify the Cudahy Family Library in Cudahy, WI that they were the winner of the March 2019 Doris Ann Norris We Love Libraries grant of $1000 to be used to buy content for the library. It’s always fun to give money away, particularly to libraries. Libraries can apply for the grant by going to https://www.sistersincrime.org/page/WeLoveLibraries and following the instructions
Cudahy Family Library Submission Photo

I’ll leave you with a video to watch from 2013 where the Seattle Public Library set a record with a book domino chain. Apparently, this record was broken in 2016 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I still like this video better.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The sad (but nonetheless engrossing) truth…

by Rick Blechta

Sorry for missing last week’s post, everyone. I was laid low by an incredibly virulent 24-hour stomach flu. Not wanting to risk being ill on my computer keyboard, I curled up in bed, listened to music, and waited for the damn thing to end. The next day, it was thankfully gone but I did feel as if I’d been hit repeatedly in the face with a shovel.

While not feeling up to snuff later in the week, I did a bit of reading (still enjoying Cammileri) and ran across an engrossing article in The Washington Post. Here’s the link: “The Keeper of the Secret.”

I won’t flog the political and moral aspects of this story except to say that while I understand why this particular story has such “carrying power”, in that it’s still very relevant to the people involved, I grow frantic at the thought that this may never come to a satisfactory resolution. I have the lasting impression of this man walking down a road to nowhere. To my mind he’s a hero.

What I would like to see is John Johnson’s story made into a book, a cautionary tale as it were because what he’s doing could in actual fact be very dangerous. The people of Wythe County have a shameful secret and because of their shame, or still-held beliefs, or their unwillingness to confront the past or whatever, they don’t want the full story of what was done to get out to the world. But it should.

Perhaps it was my mood when I read it, but this bit of journalism has stuck with me. Like many other non-fiction crime stories, it has all the elements of a mystery novel. The fact that what it relates is actually true, gives it huge impact.

Someone else I know who read it told me he thought it would make a great documentary or mini-series. I don’t think so. This story deserves the space only a book can give it.

What do you think?

Monday, April 08, 2019

Never Hurt a Dog

In the last two John Rebus mysteries written by Ian Rankin, a new recurring character was introduced by the name of Brillo.  A homeless bit of scruff, the curmudgeonly retired detective reluctantly brings the dog into his home.  The book where Brillo makes his first appearance is appropriately named Even Dogs in the Wild. 

In all three of my mysteries, Geneva Chase, my lead character, has a dog named Tucker.  “My Yorkshire terrier, was little more than two bright, shiny eyes tucked into a ball of brown and gray fur.”   For Genie, Tucker is family.  In the beginning, it was the only family Genie had.  Tucker is friendly, loving, playful, and his tail is always wagging.

Tucker is based on a real dog we had for about eleven years until he passed away about four years ago.

The real life Tucker didn't cotton to me much.  He was my wife’s dog and he was extremely protective. Thinking back on it, Tucker didn’t like any men at all.  I don’t know why, I’m not a pet psychologist. Don't get me wrong, I loved the little guy. He just didn’t always make it easy.

Dogs and cats can be instrumental in showing what kind of person a character is.  Geneva Chase drinks too much, makes bad life decisions, and is a hot mess, but she loves her dog and it’s obvious that Tucker loves her back. Deep down, Genie is a sweet lady.

In the very first episode of House of Cards, Congressman Frank Underwood leaves his Washington D.C. flat and observes his neighbor’s dog as it’s struck by a car.  He comforts the dog while addressing the audience.  And then he calmly strangles the animal.  From the outset, you know that this is not a nice guy.

A pet can help set a scene.  In Random Road, Genie lives in an apartment close to the waterfront.  “Tucker likes it because we’re a short walk to the docks. We can be on the waterfront in about seven minutes. Pleasure boats are tied alongside oyster trawlers and the ferry.  There’s the sound of the waves gently slapping against their bows and there’s the smell of the sea in the air and saltwater.  When I let him off his leash during the day, Tucker likes running back and forth on the wooden docks, terrorizing the gulls, who rise up reluctantly into the air and scream shrill epithets at the little dog while wheeling in slow circles, a few yards above his head.”

A pet can help describe a person’s state of mind.  Also in Random Road, a sad Genie Chase has just returned home.  “The depressing weather was lifting and pockets of sunshine struggled to find their way around the dark clouds.  I drove home in a fog, numb and exhausted.  When I got to my apartment, I picked up Tucker and held him so tight he must have thought I meant to crush him. He needed to be walked so I took him down to the waterfront where Kevin and I had been the first night we were together.  That was so long ago and it felt so lonely.”

Circling back around to Ian Rankin, at a recent conference, someone asked him if he regretted anything that he’d ever written.  His answer, “In one of my books, I killed a cat.”  He shook his head.  “I’ve never heard the end of it.”

My long suffering wife has read the drafts of my books where I’ve killed off countless numbers of people in the nastiest ways.  She thinks that’s okay.  Her one admonishment to me is, “Never hurt a dog.”

When Tucker passed away, we waited a few months and then reached out to a friend who rescues dogs to help us locate another fur baby.  She brought over a shit-tzu named Lilly.  She’s a little bit older and when she came into our house, while she was quietly claiming some of Tucker’s old toys as her own, I couldn’t help but notice she was already a little gray.

My heart melted. I’m a little gray. Ah, hell, I’m a lot gray.

We don’t know how old Lilly is but we’ve had her about four years now and she’s family.  She’s a sweetie who has earned a place in a book I have yet to write.

Friday, April 05, 2019

A Pause for a Plot Twist

It has been a busy week. I've spent more time thinking about my historical thriller than actually writing because I have nonfiction projects that I need to finish and deadlines looming. 
But sometimes a pause is exactly what's needed.

I was invited to take part in this year's Woodstock Bookfest. Yes, that Woodstock, a small town with a big legend. I live only an hour away and somehow never made the drive from Albany until I was invited to participate in the festival.
My panel on Saturday afternoon was "Write Like a Girl," about women writing crime fiction. I arrived early to have lunch at the pub with Alison Gaylin and Marlene Adelstein. We had a great time getting to know each other over lunch and discussing what we wanted to talk about during the panel.That conversation paid off. We were able to turn the panel into a three-way conversation. After signing some books and chatting with the people who came up, we headed across the street for the authors' dinner. Then I spent the night enjoying the big, cozy room the Bookfest organizers had booked for me at Twin Gables.

I had a wonderful time, loved meeting Alison and Marlene, and Martha Frankel. Hat off to The Golden Notebook, the local indie bookstore, The Pub, and Oriole 9. Great author's goodie bag -- cheerful yellow pouch with cherries filled with chocolate, jelly beans, tea, and other fun treats.

But -- aside from enjoying Woodstock and the Bookfest, I had a wonderful bit of serendipity on my drive down. I told Alison and Marlene about it during our lunch together. I mentioned it again during the panel when someone in the audience asked about getting ideas. I've been toying with the idea of having a parallel subplot in my 1939 -- a mystery set in the present that would dovetail with the events in the past. The only problem was I couldn't decide who the protagonist in the present should be. Then two things happened. A couple of weeks ago, someone showed me a unique feature in a Victorian house. Then as I was on my way to Woodstock, I was listening to the radio and heard a discussion about a Batman comic book from 1939. That reminded me of the research I'd done on pop culture in 1939. And it all suddenly came together. I had my subplot -- linked to "The Singapore Sling Affair," (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2017), my short story set in postwar upstate New York.

In fact, this book -- in one way or another -- pulls all three of my protagonists into the plot in one way or another. There in reference if not in person.

Thank you Woodstock Bookfest for getting me away from my desk.

Thursday, April 04, 2019


I've spent the past few days looking at the photos so many of my author friends have been posting on Facebook from Left Coast Crime, one of the major conferences for mystery writers, which this year was held in gorgeous Vancouver, BC.

I did not go. I am eaten up with envy, and maybe a little grief. I did not sign up to go this year because I'm afraid to travel, especially to such a distant location, because of my husband's iffy health. He has suffered a host of problems over the last decade, and I've had to cancel out of so many things at the last minute that I've become gun-shy. I keep thinking I shouldn't anticipate trouble, but just go ahead and sign up for everything I want to do and let the chips fall where they may. However, once you've had to abort a couple of non-refundable several-hundred-dollar conferences you tend to lose confidence in the future.

As it turned out, if I had made arrangements to go to Vancouver this year, I would indeed have had to cancel at the last minute. Don's eyes are going bad. On March 21, his one good eye went all fuzzy and a trip to the eye doctor resulted in emergency eye surgery the next day. Since the surgery, he has not been able to see clearly out of the operated-upon eye, which means he can't drive or read. Things were getting worse instead of better, and of course the surgeon is on vacation. So we called his office and they referred us to another glaucoma specialist who did some voodoo and told us that if things don't improve soon he'll have to have another operation. He had an appointment with the surgeon today (Wednesday), and we did indeed have to drive up to Phoenix for another emergency surgery. Finally got home about suppertime and we're now sitting in the living room staring at the walls, one of us sore and the other tired out. Thursday morning we'll be having a post op exam, and Friday the first surgeon will be back from vacation and we get to see him.

I can't think beyond that. I hope his eye problems will be over, and I expect they will at least be improved. But it's hard not to worry about the worst-case scenario. What if he loses his independence? The very idea kills my heart. Not to mention any idea of a writing career.

Don and I have only one another out here in the wilds of Arizona. We have friends, of course, but no relatives we'd feel comfortable taking advantage of. Don needs me, and I'd do anything for him. So my priority is always him, which means that any thoughts of doing what is necessary to promote my writing tend to go by the wayside. Time to learn effective ways of online promotion. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Left Coast Crime

I have just returned home from Left Coast Crime in Vancouver, where I had a "whale of a time". The weather is the perfect metaphor for my adventure. I left frigid, snowbound Ottawa, which has broken all sorts of records for snow, cold, and just plain dreariness this winter, and arrived in Vancouver to five straight days of cloudless blue sky, glorious sun, and temperatures of 13 - 17C. Everywhere I looked, fruit trees and daffodils were in bloom. I listened to writers I have long admired, like Guest of Honour Maureen Jennings and Local Legend Bill Deverell, and learned from their insight into character, their dedication to research, and their continued passion for their craft. I met old friends, made new ones, talked about all things writerly, and was uplifted and inspired by the warmth and enthusiasm all around me.

Talking to mystery fans at the author speed dating

I also took long walks along the sea wall past the downtown glass spires and the towering forests in Stanley Park. Sometimes I was with fellow writers, talking lazily about books and publishing and new hopes, and sometimes I walked by myself, escaping from the crush and hype of the conference to be with my own thoughts. I listened to the sea, watched the hordes of migrating birds, and breathed in the salt air.

A beautiful wood duck paddling in Lost Lagoon

What a balm to the spirit!

Writers work in isolation, often for years, with little encouragement or guidance and a very uncertain goal at the end of the journey. We have to maintain a belief in ourselves in the face of rejection letters, dismal earnings, and nasty reviews. To sustain us, we cherish the companionship, advice, and affirmation of other writers who share what often feels like an aimless trek through the wilderness. Crime writers are a peculiar subset of this wandering clan. Not only do we wrestle with mushy middles and characters gone awry, but we also think about the best places to bury bodies and the least detectable way to kill people. We get inspired by a steep staircase and a dark motive. It's a great thrill and relief to meet kindred souls who share these twisted interests. We inspire and excite one another. We make each other laugh when the rest of the world, including our families, look at us askance.

A walk along the sea wall with Brenda Chapman
Now I am back in Ottawa, where the temperature is 15C colder and the snow in my front yard is still 18 inches deep. Back to my taxes and to my neglected first draft. But I am filled with new energy, some fresh ideas, and renewed hope that spring, as it always does, will come.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Brexited Out

I'm sorry, but as you can imagine, watching the dis-United Kingdom tear itself to pieces makes it really difficult to think about anything else.  So by way of an apology, I'm sharing this with you instead of a blog.  Her Majesty, as always, has the right idea.