Saturday, August 31, 2019

Guest Post - Libby Klein

Please welcome Libby Klein, author of the Poppy McAllister series, to Type M. I first met Libby at Left Coast Crime in Reno where her appearance on a panel kept me in stitches. You can visit her online at Take it away, Libby...

My Annual Pilgrimage to South Jersey


by Libby Klein 


Cape May is the birthplace of the Poppy McAllister series. Victorian charm meets tourist hell in all its beachy glory. Readers can take a virtual tour through my series that visits every landmark and experience that I treasure, and / or that keeps me awake at night filled with regret.

I grew up in beautiful Victorian Cape May, NJ and absolutely hated it. Rural living was not for this girl. Like Zsa Gabor, “Darling I love you but give me Park Avenue.” This plus sized, fair skinned, blonde had no ability to tan or look good in a bathing suit. I wanted a life far more exciting than picking out tomatoes at the farm stand for tonight’s dinner – although now I miss that terribly. I moved away more than thirty years ago in search of excitement, but there are two things that bring me back every year in spite of the mosquitoes, the humidity, and the crushing summer prices.

The first thing is the lure of the ocean. There is nothing more relaxing than sitting by the surf as the sun goes down. The crash of the waves. The golden glow of the sunset glittering off the water as it disappears over the horizon. The beach is near empty and peaceful. Most of the tourists have gone to meet dinner reservations or head to the thrills promised by the Wildwood boardwalk. Sea planes, retired from the never-ending drag of their advertising banners, park in hangers until tomorrow morning’s run. Even the seagulls calm their aggression by fifty percent as day turns to night.

Then there is the nostalgia, and specifically – food pining. Yes, the high school is bigger and the shops on the mall have all changed, but the fudge is exactly the same that you remember from when you were a kid. I’m not a seafood person so all my favorite spots are of the low budget inland variety. Every trip I have to hit the trifecta: Cheesesteak, Pizza, Frozen Custard. The best cheesesteak I ever ate was at a little country store in Green Creek. You probably don’t know where that is if you’re not a local because there are no touristy things to do or see over there. I also can’t give you a recommendation for it because the cook is retired, and the grill is closed. So, I’m pretty much just rubbing it in at this point. But I can tell you an excellent second choice and where I go now is Russo’s Market in North Wildwood. Be careful though, they make a cheesesteak the size of an elephant trunk. I can’t even finish a small by myself and I’m only eating the filling.

The second stop on my culinary tour of South Jersey is Mack’s Pizza on the Wildwood boardwalk. There has long been a vicious contention that the other place has the better pizza. That’s a ruse, but you want to keep the rumor going strong so you can still get a table at Mack’s, eh? This is not gourmet pizza. It’s summer pizza. Childhood memory pizza. It’s the pizza you eat as a teenager when you wander up from lying on the beach. I mean, not me – but the teenagers who don’t burn when the sun touches their skin. It hasn’t changed in fifty years, and it’s the one thing I will ignore the repercussions of and take an emergency gluten pill for. Hey, pizza emergencies are real! Don’t judge me.

The last stop on my ode to summer is in a little burg called the Villas. There is a frozen custard stand that’s barely more than a shack with a window, and a tiny miniature golf course behind it. It’s called Milky Way and there are only four parking spaces. The Milky Way is in a residential neighborhood - right in the middle of Lower Township government buildings, a hardware store, and a fish shack. Was there no zoning fifty years ago? If you should find it, ask for a small vanilla cone. Trust me – they don’t know what small means. It will be huge! And get it with crunch coat. Crunch coat is the stuff that dreams are made of. If someone chopped up a bunch of peanut brittle and tossed in some rainbow jimmies (sprinkles for the rest of the country) that would be crunch coat. It took me forty years to come up with the brilliant idea to get extra crunch coat in a bowl for dipping after the outside layer was gone.

There is so much more that you need to complete your visit for South Jersey authenticity, but there is no time to go into skee ball, the boardwalk, water ice, Italian hoagies, saltwater taffy, and funnel cake. For that you’ll have to make your own pilgrimage or read my Poppy McAllister Mysteries for a virtual vacation. All you’ll be missing is the very tiny sample of fudge that comes with a coupon for your next visit that you will never redeem. If you need one, let me know. I have thirty.

Libby Klein graduated Lower Cape May Regional High School sometime in the '80s. Her classes revolved mostly around the culinary sciences and theater, with the occasional nap in Chemistry. She loves to drink coffee, bake gluten free goodies, and befriend random fluffy cats. She writes from her Northern Virginia office while trying to keep her cat Figaro off her keyboard. Most of her hobbies revolve around eating, and travel, and eating while traveling.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Life? or I-25?

All publishers love to have their authors promote books to various groups. I enjoy giving talks and presentations. When people tell me they have read my books and enjoyed them, I am delighted. It makes me feel like a real writer.

Nevertheless, I've become increasingly nervous about traveling the main artery that serves Colorado. I-25 is a real nightmare. In order to go just about anywhere in the state it's necessary to travel on this main interstate.

I had my first highway accident coming back from giving a talk in Kansas. Luckily, I was the only car involved. It occurred during a construction zone. I braked to avoid rear-ending the car ahead, then grazed the concrete barrier on the driver's side. I was able to drive across the lanes and get to the shoulder on the right side, but boy! It was a miracle that I didn't hit someone.

When I got out to survey the damage, there was none to the body. But a back wheel was at a weird angle. Not knowing anything about cars, I thought the wheel could be fixed quickly and easily. Instead, it's complicated. The twist harmed the suspension and that's a major repair. I'm driving a rental that I really like, but I had no idea that scheduling body work, arranging tows, and retrieving belongings would be so time-consuming.

Travel used to be easy. I like to drive and the well-maintained Kansas roads were /are wonderful. But it's occurred to me they are in terrific shape because we don't have a fraction of the traffic we have here in Colorado. This state--and especially the Denver area-- is growing by leaps and bounds. The tech industry is booming. Western Kansas is primarily agricultural and farms are few and far between.

I don't feel safe driving at night anymore. I don't know if this attitude is accurate or fed by the media's reporting of every last grim detail of urban crime.

For right now, I'll keep on trucking. The September meeting of RMMWA is about human trafficking. I would like to know more.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Passion and Widgets

Life has a habit of getting the best of me, and I often find myself falling behind in one aspect of life or another. There are days, admittedly, when I do not make it over to Type M for Murder to read the daily post. So I find myself sitting down later and reading posts in bunches. Today was one of those days.

As we know, writers inspire other writers. And after my binge-reading, I’m thinking a lot about my Type M colleagues Frankie Baily’s recent post and Tom Kies’ column, which preceded hers. Frankie wrote about the summer coming to an end and our respective academic lives beginning once again. Tom wrote about the different “personalities” writers have –– the artist at home, the widget-maker when we close the front door behind us each morning. Both of my colleagues seem to be speaking about the parallel lives writers lead.

I'm at a place, personally and professionally, sitting here in western Massachusetts in late August, that falls somewhere between the situations both Frankie and Tom wrote about. I am preparing for the school year at Northfield Mount Hermon school and, like Frankie, will spend the fall trying to carve out time to write among many other commitments. Similarly, as Tom mentioned in his post, I don't believe there is ever a time when I’m not a writer –– even when I'm making widgets.

As the father of a college senior, I find myself giving career advice. (My three daughters would probably tell you I have a habit of giving a lot of advice.) Part of the advice I give to my oldest is certainly nothing groundbreaking: find a job you enjoy leaving the house to go to every morning. Most writers I know would give their left arm to write full-time. For most of us, that's not an option. I feel like I have found the best combination there is: I get paid to talk about great books with insightful and motivated kids and with the adults who inspire them. I get to choose the curriculum and, as well as other classes, get to teach a course I've designed, Crime Literature. So when I close the front door behind me and go off to make widgets, often, these widgets are useful to my creative pursuits as well. Case in point: I’m making my way through Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in order to teach it this fall, and I am more awed and inspired by Chabon’s prose with every passing page.

I'm currently working on a novel that is written in multiple points of view. Chabon’s control certainly won’t be lost on me when I leave the classroom. I think writers read as writers. Yes, we love reading books. We are fans of books. And when I'm reading in an airport, I'm not highlighting. But I also believe writers read books differently than people who don’t write. There’s the oft-quoted T.S. Eliot line, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal” that speaks to the writer’s desire to find inspiration and ideas from –– and have genuine admiration for –– those who came before them. I, for one, admit to learning much of what I know about punctuation through straight osmosis. Strunk and White‘s “Rules” got me through my journalism career. I couldn't diagram a sentence until I started teaching how to do so.

So as summer fades into fall, I am grateful that my passion is connected to my widgets.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Amazon - A Bricks and Mortar Field Trip

I returned recently from a trip to Seattle to visit family. One of the stories on the evening news there was the latest bricks and mortar store Amazon is opening in Seattle. Called Amazon 4-star, everything in it averages at least 4 out of 5 stars in online reviews or is currently trending on Amazon's website. There are also 4-star stores in California (Berkeley), Colorado (Denver) and New York (Manhattan – SoHo).

This reminded me that I hadn’t yet checked out the Amazon Books store that opened in Marina del Rey, not that far from where I live. So we took a field trip to it yesterday. I wasn’t expecting much from it. I’d heard things. I have to say, though, that I was pleasantly surprised.

The store is at one end of the Waterside shopping center near a California Pizza Kitchen. As soon as we walked in the door, we were greeted by an employee. There were plenty people working so there was no problem finding someone to help you. Something that’s not true at the Macy’s I frequent where it’s often difficult to find help on a weekday morning.

The store from the entrance

My first impression was that it was bigger than I expected. Books were displayed similar to a “regular” bookstore—some books were displayed in stacks on tables while others were on shelves, some with the cover facing the customer, others with the spines. I’d heard from others that all books were displayed cover out. Not the case in this store.

As you might expect, their selection of books was fairly small with pretty much everything being from well-known/best-selling authors. The mystery/thriller section featured books by Louise Penny, John Grisham, Stephen King, etc. No cozy mysteries, but I didn’t really expect there to be any in the store.

There was a fairly large Childrens’ books section as well as a nice selection of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks. There were plenty of other cookbooks as well, but I like vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, so I notice them. They also carried some items that apparently were high on people’s Amazon wishlists.

Each of the books had an Amazon Prime price, generally significantly below the “regular” price of the book. This is the same price if you bought the book online. If you’re an Amazon Prime member you’ll get that price when you purchase the item if you use the Amazon app to pay or use the credit card that is associated with your Amazon account. Those are the only two methods of payment they currently take. No cash. I’ve heard rumors, though, that they may be taking cash soon.

Electronics is featured fairly prominently in the store. You can buy a Ring Security system, various Kindles, Echos etc. There was also a fairly large display of Google Chromebooks. And employees were at the ready to answer any questions about them. Someone was right there as soon as I stopped at the Ring table display. Okay, I found that a bit annoying because sometimes I just like to look around. But employees weren’t pushy, just asking if they could answer any questions so it didn't bother me too much.

I didn’t buy anything, but it was a fun field trip. I suspect I won’t be frequenting the store because it doesn’t carry enough things that interest me.

Have any of you visited any of the Amazon bricks and mortar stores (Amazon Books, Amazon Go, Amazon 4-Star and Presented by Amazon)?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

When characters wake you up at night

by Rick Blechta

Back from a few days away to regenerate the inner self, aka a lovely — although far too brief — vacation, I feel as if I’m ready to face the fall and winter.

Did I manage to get a whole bunch of writing done? Frankly, no, but now I’m primed to get back down to it.

The past few days, I haven’t written a word (except emails), but there were a number of things to catch up on. Plus I also managed to screw up my work computer again — this time completely my own fault. I should have known better than to mess around with computer things on which I’m not really “literate”. Luckily, I managed to clean up my mess myself (thank heaven for Apple’s Time Machine feature).

So I thought about my WIP (work-in-progress) a whole bunch and then didn’t act on anything yet. Seems I pissed off one of my protagonists.

She woke me up at 2:30 a.m. this morning, after I’d gotten to bed just short of midnight. Seems she wanted to talk.

Now, us writer-types are used to having discussions with our character-creations. Some of us here on Type M have written posts about it. Last night was different, though, with my character not contacting me during “business hours”.

I tried to ignore her for nearly an hour, using all my tried and true get-back-to-sleep methods. She kept shouting on me to give up and listen to what she had to say. I also must have slightly dozed off somewhere during the struggle because I had the clearest image of what she looks like. Interestingly, my previous mental image was incorrect.

I finally gave up and went downstairs, thought about various aspects of my nascent novel and realized she was trying to share some pretty good ideas while also pointing out some things I’d written that were dead wrong about her. In the end, I was glad that I hadn’t managed to roll over and go back to sleep.

After taking nearly two hours of dictation, she returned control of my brain to me and I suddenly was very sleepy.

So that’s the reason I slept in and my Tuesday post is rather late.


A follow up to my post from two weeks ago about the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. Seems the closed-circuit video footage of his cell at the critical period when he supposedly took his life is "unusable". Hmmm… You’re not surprised are you? View some coverage HERE.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Literary Lush Legends

Since alcohol figures highly in my Geneva Chase mysteries, I thought I’d devote a little time to booze and writers.

I’ve long heard the mythological tales of excessive drinking by writers, the literary lush legends. True? Not true?

All I know is there’s no possible way I can write of edit while consuming alcohol.

Let’s talk about some of the legends, though. In a 2002 article about Norman Mailer written by Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian, he says, “Drinking — like writing, fighting and womanizing — is a sport he (Mailer) has pursued with reckless force ever since he crashed on to the literary landscape at 25, and it has led to fistfights in the street, head-buttings of hostile reviewers, and a vicious clubbing from a policeman whose car he was trying to hail as a taxi. Well into his 60s, he stumbled drunk on to stages and television shows, all the time railing against feminism, friends and fellow writers.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald was another party legend (along with is wife, Zelda). It was said that Fitzgerald was partial to gin because it couldn’t be smelled on his breath. His quote on alcohol is, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

Reportedly, it took only a small portion of gin to get Fitzgerald drunk. There are tales about how he and his wife jumped into the fountain at the Plaza Hotel and stripped at the Follies. When asked to come to a “Come as you are” party, he and Zelda arrived in their pajamas. It didn’t take long for Zelda to take hers off and dance naked for the crowd.

Raymond Chandler offered this famous quote, “I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won’t let himself get snotty about it.” Legend has it that before Chandler had written a single line of The Blue Dahlia, Paramount Studios put the movie into production. Before he could write the ending, Chandler was stopped cold by a severe case of writer’s block. He told his director, John Houseman, that though he was a recovering alcoholic and had been on the wagon for a long time, the only way he could complete the script was if he started drinking again.

Houseman place six secretaries in his house around the clock to look after him, hired a doctor to give Chandler vitamin shots (he stopped eating when he drank), and cars waited at his door to rush pages to the studio as they were written.

Interesting sidebar, it wasn’t until Chandler’s character Philip Marlow introduced the Gimlet in The Long Goodbye that it became a popular cocktail in the United States.

Ernest Hemingway is a favorite literary lush legend. When asked if it was true if he took a pitcher of martinis to work every morning, he answered, “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes-and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?”

Part of the Hemingway legend is that his favorite cocktail was mojitos. The truth is his ‘go-to’ drink was a martini, made very cold. It’s said that he even froze his Spanish cocktail onions and bragged that he made his martinis so cold that you couldn’t hold it in your hand. “It sticks to the fingers.”

Interesting sidebar: Hemingway’s house in Key West was across the road from the Key West Lighthouse. He often said that it was convenient to live next to a lighthouse because it would guide him home from the bars when he was drunk.

So, what did other authors enjoy drinking?

Oscar Wilde- Absinthe

William Faulkner—Mint Julep

Dorothy Parker—Whiskey Sour

Edgar Allan Poe—Brandy Eggnog

Truman Capote—Screwdriver

Jack Kerouac—Margarita, of course.

I’m not any where near the ballpark as these writers, but personally, I like a nice glass of chardonnay, and I REALLY enjoy an occasional single malt scotch on ice.

Please raise your glasses. My third book, Graveyard Bay, is due out on September 10th. I know I’m going to celebrate. For more information, go to

Friday, August 23, 2019

Summer's Over

Well, not for most people. It's still hot, muggy, stormy. There are still a few weeks before night falls early. There is still Labor Day weekend and last picnics and barbecues. But for those of us who have never left school or are coming back, summer is over. The first day of classes is on Monday.

This year is no different than any other. Every May for three decades now, I have looked with joy and hope at all of the long days of summer. I have started with a to-do-list, had a calendar, been in control. Every summer I have planned to get so much done. Every summer I have found myself rushing to finish something before school begins.

Monday we start. Today I need to do my syllabus and plan my first lecture. I never made it away for a real vacation this summer. Didn't get to Maine. Didn't set by a lake or river. Didn't spend a summer afternoon at a matinee. Didn't have an ice cream cone (did do a decadent cup or two of my favorite blend). But I am planning to take advantage of a two-day "fall break" to get away for an October trip. A friend talked me into a "Road Scholar" tour of Kansas City. I'm going to do some background research for a jazz musician character in my 1939 book.

But meanwhile, I have a manuscript for a book about gangster films due next month. Have to clean up my dress and appearance book. Need to work on the 1939 book and a new Lizzie.

Lots of projects. . . .and summer's over. Got to go and do all I can to enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Bianca Dangereuse to the Rescue

I was struck by Tom Kies excellent entry of Aug 12 on an author's multiple personalities, because I have been thinking that very same thought lately. You can base every character you write about on a real person, or you can make somebody up out of whole cloth, but the truth is that every character you create has to be somewhere inside of you.

Yes, every little girl or knight in shining armor or housewife or serial killer is in you, and somehow you have to find that living place inside that you share.

For the past dozen years, I've been writing a historical series set in Oklahoma that features Alafair Tucker, a 40ish farm wife with ten children. She fits her life perfectly and finds deep meaning in it. She's content with her place in the universe. I admire her immensely, but I could never live like she does. Yet she is me. How could she not be?

Alafair and I have been raising her children for a long time, through the decade of the 1910s. but now the world is changing. World War I has played havoc with everything. The 1920s have dawned. Alafair's children are mostly grown. And it occurred to me that I'd like to see a little farther into the future. I've gotten several of the older children settled, but what is going to happen to the younger ones, who are coming of age in a very different era?

Besides, children don't necessarily grow into the people you wish they would. What would happen to someone who was raised in a secure, loving environment, but grew to lust after adventure and excitement?

Bianca LaBelle is cock-sure, headstrong and headlong, adventurous. She's also disappointed, wounded, and angry. But no matter how much you reject the values you were raised with, you are shaped by them. Bianca goes from being a sheltered farm girl to one of the most famous and admired women in the world, but she doesn't do it without applying a whole lot of the good old-fashioned creativity and bootstrap self-sufficiency she learned by growing up in early 20th century Oklahoma.

Bianca gets in an awful fix and has a lot of help to overcome it. But she was raised to know that you can't count on having your fat pulled out of the fire every time. You have to rely on yourself. So in the end, Bianca always takes care of it.

The Wrong Girl, the first Episode of the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, is finally available for pre-order on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Remember that early reviews and preorders are important for authors, so we always appreciate it if you can do your bit to keep us in print! Want to learn how to get e-copies of books before they're published in exchange for an honest review? Check out Netgalley.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

On switching hats, or boats in mid-stream

Today I'm tempted to take Rick's approach from yesterday. See ya later, all! I'm off to the beach.

But before I go to the beach – AKA my cottage – I'll just make a few comments about another reality in a writer's life. Multi-tasking. Or multi-writing. If you write more than one book, or even worse, more than one series as I do, sooner or later you'll run up against it. You'll be doing final edits on one book, doing readings and talks about an earlier book, and beginning the creative process of imagining a third book.

In my case, I have just finished Book # 4 in the Amanda Doucette series, entitled THE ANCIENT DEAD. No sooner had I pressed "send" and emailed the manuscript to the publisher last week (exactly on its due date) when the mail carrier deposited the author copies of my fourth Cedric O'Toole on my doorstep. Time to promote BLOOD TIES and give Cedric his time at centre stage.

At the same time, however, having sent off THE ANCIENT DEAD, I am already turning my thoughts to the next book in my contract. The book that will be occupying my mind for the next year until its fall deadline. The book that has the provisional title (to appease the publisher) of DARKEST BEFORE DAWN, although that will probably change once I know what it's actually about. The book that has yet no shape or plot points and only the vaguest idea of a theme. The book that brings me from the badlands of Alberta, where I have been with Amanda for the last fifteen months, back to the the familiar streets of Ottawa.

The eleventh Inspector Green novel. After five years, he's back! It will feel very strange to step back into his life and surround myself with old friends I've known for years. Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green is back but older, maybe wiser, and no longer in the thick of things in the police service.

This week, however, feels like a transition. I've never been able to write two books simultaneously. I can edit one book while writing the first draft of another; in fact, this is almost always required because the editor's critiques from the publishing house always arrive smack in the middle of the first draft efforts of the next book. But even so, I have to set the draft aside and re-immerse myself in the first book for however long the edits take. The setting, characters, mood, and even the styles feel different from one to another. Skipping between them would feel shallow and unauthentic. I don't think either would profit from the lack of full focus. I need time to get into the feel of each book and to get the creative muse humming.

So for the next couple of weeks, I am fiddling around doing nothing very profound but celebrating the arrival of BLOOD TIES. The book is due out on August 27, and received this very nice review from Booklist:

And then I'm off to enjoy the beach! Maybe give Inspector Green a quick call.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Off for an adventure!

by Rick Blechta

It’s time for a little rest and relaxation — and writing!

Here’s where I’m going to be and this is the view that will inspire me for the next several days:

And after looking at that, there’s really not much else to say, is there — except for “See you later!’

Monday, August 19, 2019

Edinburgh is Full

It's Edinburgh Festival time.  You can tell this by the fact that the natives forced to traverse the streets of the city going about their work have black scowls in their faces as their commute takes three times as long because the buses have been diverted to make way for the shacks, selling overpriced drinks and Disney-style souvenirs, that disfigure some of the most elegant streets in Europe and they have to dodge clowns prancing in their path trying to force flyers on them inviting them to shows where the performers will almost certainly outnumber the audience.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have a choice, forswear all visits to the center and stay at home and at night pull the duvets over our heads, hoping to sleep through the midnight fireworks at the Royal Military Tattoo and the bongo drums that play on till three in the morning.  Like many other Lonely Planet top tips for tourism,  Edinburgh has Had Enough.

I guess we've all been tourists.  I'm as guilty as anyone of wanting to see the Bucket List places and I've been very lucky - try Tutunkamen's tomb,  the Summer Palace in China, the Acropolis, Niagara Falls, the Doge's Palace in Venice, among others.  But these are the memories I cherish because at the time I visited none of them were so crowded that I was hemmed in on every side and couldn't look at what I wanted to see - look at, not take a photo or an i-Pad film - without being jostled.  Go very early in the morning - tourists tend to rise late - or choose an unpopular time of year, and you can be lucky.  (Tip here - if you want to see Venice at its best, book the weekend immediately after Easter.  At one point we were the only people on the Golden Staircase in the Doge's Palace, which was magical).

But there are other visits I've made where the crowds were so thick that that magic vanished - like the Winter Palace in St Petersburg when we had to move in unison with the people round about. Astonishing interiors, but only the sort of memory that ticks a box, like having seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, when all I can remember is the plastic screening and the queues.

Over-tourism has become a serious problem.  Of course it's a major boost to the local economy but the quality of life for the local inhabitants is increasingly threatened.    Venice is talking about imposing a charge for entering the city and limiting the number of tickets it sells as well as banning cruise ships above a certain size.  Popular Scottish islands like Skye and Orkney are also becoming overwhelmed.

Once the Edinburgh Festival was truly a feast of culture in a stunning setting.  The sad thing for me now is that while the festivalisation of Edinburgh goes on with more and more new 'festivals' being introduced every year, the visitors who genuinely want to see the glories of our beautiful city - the vistas of the Georgian buildings, the wonderful medieval Royal Mile, the views of the gardens and the Castle - are being cheated by the Ferris wheel that dominates Princes Street, the sordid market stalls by the National Gallery, the hoardings with tacky posters right along the famous Gardens.  Taxi drivers now say they are taking visitors back to the airport who say they're not coming back.  It didn't used to happen.

If you do want to see the real Edinburgh - the Edinburgh of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, of David Hume and Adam Smith, of Arthur Conan Doyle and yes, of Alexander McColl Smith and Ian Rankin - brave its weather (so much milder than New York's!) and come in January, when the old grey town truly reveals its soul.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Two Weeks in One

Ever feel like you've packed too much living into a very short time?

It was that kind of week for me. My daughter had a bad car accident the first of the month. She's doing just fine and will come home Monday. Despite extensive breakage in her upper body (sternum, clavicle, three ribs, and a punctured lung) there were no internal injuries and she was fully alert from the very beginning.

She has a terrific attitude and set to work cooperating with the physical therapists.

Logistics in our family are always complicated. Her youngest daughter will soon start classes at CSU. Her oldest is starting a new job. The deadline for my new mystery is September 1. We've worked everything out. I'll even have the mystery finished by the end of next week.

I drove to Kansas Tuesday to give a talk to the librarians in the Northwest Kansas Libraries System. What a terrific group of people! I was grateful for this opportunity. However, I drove through cascades of rain. It was bizarre. Kansas is usually dry.

Accidents always take a toll and I'm tired. Persons who wait for inspiration before they write are making a mistake. Once a line is crossed--when one assumes the responsibilities of a professional writer--the rules change. Or rather rules come into play for the first time.

I've read there are 75 persons involved in the production of a traditional book. There are many little deadlines that involve creating cover copy, a synopsis, courting the sales reps.

Life becomes capsulized. We learn to juggle. And before you know it, there's a new happy normal and all the balls are back in the air again.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Summer musings from a nostalgic writer

Delaney, Dad, Audrey
Each year, autumn rolls around, and my emotions are similar: summer has ended, and a new school year is upon me. It’s a time for renewal and fresh beginnings. Often, I’m starting a new book.

This year, though, my emotions are a little different. My wife and I will drop our two eldest daughters off at colleges in Ohio, two days after you read this. They will be only twenty-six miles apart (at Kenyon College and Denison University, respectively) but a twelve-hour drive from home. One, entering her senior year, works on a document she hopes will represent her well, working on it and then working it over repeatedly (welcome to Dad’s world!). This is her resume. The other packs excitedly for her own new beginning: life as a first-year college student.

And I’m left in an emotional grey area, falling somewhere between nostalgic and even sad. Where did those twenty-one years go? What has changed as the girls grew? What has stayed the same?

As I think back –– recalling four jobs, six houses, four towns –– one constant has remained: writing. The characters have passed through, sprinting it seems from my imagination, to the computer screen, to the pages, and onto my bookshelf (or the netherworld). Series have seemingly evolved into the next. And through good times and trying times, as the girls grew into smart, strong women, and I have aged (at least a little), writing has always been there, through hundreds, no, thousands, of predawn hours and late nights. Through it all, I have learned this: if you dedicate yourself to a writing life, to putting the craft above the industry, writing will never let you down.

Delaney, 21; Dad (age unknown); and Audrey, 18
I have friends we have raised children with, wonderful people with whom our kids brought us in contact. These lifelong friendships have remained. They are in the same stage of life as I am. Yet they speak of retirement, of “next phases,” of making significant life changes. But a writer doesn’t retire. My house might eventually get smaller (on many days, a condo sounds pretty good). Yet I can’t imagine a time when I won’t write. The girls will graduate and move away. Family meals will shrink to two. But the next phase will be only a new page.

And thank God for that.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sybil's Summer Reading 2019

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this summer. Almost all fiction, which is unusual for me. In the past, I’ve split my reading pretty evenly between fiction and non-fiction. Part of the reason, I think, is that I have a stack of books I’ve gotten at various mystery conferences over the past few years and, well, I’m rather tired of having that large a stack that I haven’t read.

Here are my highlights from my reading so far:

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Camille Minichino. She writes under her own name as well as Ada Madison, Jean Flowers and Margaret Grace. I’ve been on panels with Camille and she is a delight. I also admire her. She got her PhD in Physics at a time when there weren’t many women in the field. Okay, there probably still aren’t very many women in the field. I’ve sampled all of her series and they are all great reads. My particular favorites, though, are her Sophie Knowles mystery series written as Ada Madison, featuring a mathematics professor, and her Postmistress mystery series written as Jean Flowers.

I’ve also been enjoying a lot of middle grade mysteries. Yeah, I know, I'm not the target demographic. Still, adults can enjoy them too! My favorites in the middle grade world are the Moon Base Alpha series. They are fun reads with a lot of interesting characters and situations that occur on the first moon base. I know I’m enjoying a book when I gasp as I’m reading and say no, no, no!

In the historical mystery area, I’ve enjoyed Heat Wave by Maureen Jennings, Art in the Blood by Bonnie MacBird and Dangerous to Know by Renee Patrick. Heat Wave is a new series for Jennings set in the 1930s. (She’s the author of the Murdoch Mystery series.) Art in the Blood is the first of a new Sherlock Holmes series. I bought it at the California Crime Writers Conference in June, largely based on the cover. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Dangerous to Know is set in the 1930s and features the famed costume designer Edith Head.

Probably my favorite of all though is The Skeleton Makes a Friend by Leigh Perry. I just love the Family Skeleton series, one of the few that I’d read over and over and over again.

There’s still more of summer left and I have a lot to read still. What have you been reading lately?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Seems like fact once again trumps fiction

by Rick Blechta

I’ve been avidly reading news reports the past few days. Current events have given us the rather horrible saga of Jeffrey Epstein. I’m sure you all have a good grasp on at least the general details at this point, so I won’t bore you with repeating them. If you need to bone up, though, go HERE.

Epstein’s case presents a star-studded cast with many very powerful people involved. They partied and spent time with this guy and if it comes out they had anything to do with underage girls, they are in serious trouble. Every single one who has been mentioned so far has stated their case strongly that they knew nothing about it, had no involvement in it, and in some cases “I hardly knew this man.” They have a lot to lose if that’s not the case. My guess is there are — or were — a lot of sweaty palms once again when Epstein was recently arrested.

Normally in a crime that’s given the “novelization” treatment, a particular case gives you one good book. Peter Robinson did an excellent job using some facets of the sensational Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka case, turning it into the excellent Aftermath (highly recommended).

In the Epstein case, though, I’m seeing two novels. The first would involve the time up to his first trial, where he pretty well skates free spending very little time in jail for a pretty horrendous crime. Imagine how the detectives who investigated and built their case must have felt when Epstein made his deal.

Then our dedicated defenders of the law work to build a second case against Epstein (nice series character set-up here, no?) and he’s thrown back into jail to await trial since bail was denied. Then suddenly, the man is dead, apparently by his own hand.

We’ve all read the books, seen the movies. I wonder how many people feel that it was just guilt weighing down on him that drove Epstein to hang himself in his jail cell? Probably not many. There are just too many anomalies in how the jail screwed up, how all the systems failed at once.

Powerful people can do powerful things. Our intrepid sleuths would certainly have to put their lives on the line in their search for what really happened in that jail cell.

I can think of several scenarios that would make a totally gripping thriller and I’m sure you can too.

My guess, though, is that we’re far from the end of this tale. Whether the actual truth comes out or not remains to be seen.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Writers and Multiple Personalities

My wife is not shy about giving me her opinion or ideas.  So when I asked her what she thought I might write about for this week’s blog, naturally, she had some thoughts.

“I took a photograph of your coffee cup that you leave in the sink every morning before you go to work.”

That’s your idea?

She smiled.  “In that moment that you put it there, you’re changing from one persona to another.  Here at home, you’re the writer.  When you walk out that door, you’re the president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce.”

There’s a little of that, I think.  Inwardly, I’m the writer all the time.  I’m constantly thinking of plot twists and dialogue and descriptions of characters.  But, certainly, in my office, my attention is prioritized to helping new businesses, improve the quality of life, working with the public school foundation, economic growth,  job creation, as well as much more.

To some degree, my wife is correct, however (although don’t tell her I admitted that).  I think writers have to have many personalities.  After all, in our books, we’re many people.

An old high school friend wrote to me last week telling me about a relative who has five distinctive personalities.  It’s created a life time of problems for their family.  Real life multiple personality disorder is serious stuff.

Of course I don't have the actual disorder, I think.  But writers have to be able to put on and take off multiple personalities.  We have to be able to think like our characters, talk like them, and act like them.

We are the good guys and the bad guys.

I’d like to think I can be as heroic, although less flawed, as my kick-ass heroine, Geneva Chase.

But obviously, I’m also the bad guy, because I’ve created him…or in my case, often many.  Where does that come from?  Is there a perverse, dark, evil person hiding in dark recesses of my psyche?

My editor sent me an email last week and this is how she described me after rereading Graveyard Bay, “such a warm cheerful persona covering up a dire, dreadful, bloodthirsty writer.”

Multiple personalities.

And as a writer, I hear voices, all the time.  Characters chatting away in my head while I drive to the grocery store, or as I walk down to the beach.  Thank heavens they go away while I’m in my work office.

They always come back, though, when I’m in my home office over our garage.

Multiple personalities that are the writer’s creations live and breathe in our books.  That’s why when we get a nasty review, and we do get them, it stings so much.  Our books are our world that we created out of nothing more than our imagination and experiences.

While I’m writing, characters that I’ve created often take on a life of their own.  They design their own plot twists or dialogue.  Often in directions that I didn’t originally see coming.


I’ve actually grieved after I’ve killed some characters in my books.  In my first book, Random Road, one of the main characters dies unexpectedly.  A neighbor of ours came up to me one day when I was walking the dog and said, “I’m really pissed off at your for killing that character off.”

I took it as a compliment.  That character was as real to her as he was to me.

Miraculously, while writing and imagining multiple personalities, we can snap back in a single moment and be ourselves again.

Or can we?

Friday, August 09, 2019

Walking into History

Last week I went down to the City -- the way we folks who live up here in Albany describe taking the train or driving south to NYC. I explain this because it always sounds a bit like coming down from the mountains to visit civilization. We are civilized (if not as sophisticated) here in Albany. But in  Albany, I am aware of history. In the City, I walk into and am sometimes startled by history.

The trip to the City last week was to do research. The summer is winding down fast. I have several writing projects underway and I'm trying to get as much done as I can before school begins at the end of the month. So I got on a train -- we have multiple trains between the City and points north on any given day. The ride down to the City passes alongside the Hudson River.

I went down planning to accomplish three research tasks. I accomplished only one. For my 1939 historical thriller, I needed to go to Harlem to tour the famed Apollo Theater. Unfortunately, there were no tours that day. I wanted to go out to Queens to visit the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of the 1939 and 1964 World Fairs. But I didn't have enough time to do that and take the first tour on my list -- Greenwich Village. I had been to Greenwich Village before, but only passing through. This time I wanted to have someone who was an expert of the geography of the neighborhood walk me through it.

After some research, I found a tour company that looked promising. That day, being overly ambitious, I set out to walk from my hotel located across from Bryant Park. The day was hot and humid and I made the mistake of stopping to do a little shopping along the way. I finally flagged down a taxi to take me the rest of the way. That turned out well because I arrived early, had time to get a cold drink at the Starbucks across the street, and to chat a little with our tour guide. He was an actor, who led tours as his day job. We were a small group of eight or nine, from the United States, Australia, and, I think, Norway.

As we walked, our tour guide told us the history of the Village. I had asked about Cafe Society, the club that was known as "the wrong place for the Right people." The club where Billie Holiday performed "Strange Fruit" (a song about lynching in the South written by a Jewish high school teacher) that summer in 1939. The club that brought together an interracial group of "radicals" and "progressives" -- and, significant for my historical thriller, attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In my thriller, the focus is not on Cafe Society, but it is the place where several of my characters encounter each other as they begin the journey that will lead them to Atlanta in December 1939.

Greenwich Village is famous for the many artists and writers who lived there at one point or another, Edgar Allan Poe among them. The Stonewall Riots (rebellion) was an important event in the history of gay (LGBTQ) activism and civil rights. I made notes to myself to talk about all of that when I teach my grad course on cities this semester.

But it was the stop at Washington Park that brought me up short. Stanford White, the architect who designed Madison Square Garden and was shot there by millionaire Harry Thaw, also designed the Washington Park Arch. It features two statues of George Washington, one in war, one in peace. I had been thinking about Stanford White and George Washington and their overlap. I was about to take my camera out, when our tour guide pointed to a building across the street -- and sent a chill down my spine. On this lovely summer afternoon, we were looking at an unassuming brick building. A ten-story building that blended in with the others on that street but that is a National Historic Landmark. Like much of the other property in the neighborhood, the building is owned by New York University.  As our tour guide told us, that building was the home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In March 1911, a fire broke out there. The young immigrant women working at their sewing machines on the tenth floor of the building had no escape. A door was locked; the fire department ladders could not reach them. Many jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. I had seen the photos and watched documentaries. I had never thought about what that building would look like today. . .that there would be no outward sign of what had happened there.

That gave me pause. I'm still thinking about it. And about how the residents of Greenwich Village in 1939 might have felt about an event that would have been within the historical memory of many of them. It has nothing to do with my plot, but it is relevant to the world in which my characters live.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Brain Scan

I've been very much enjoying the current threads on this blog about fun with computers, especially Barbara's entry yesterday about the most complex computer of all, our brains. This is especially timely for me, since I had an MRI on my head this past Monday. I mentioned in my last entry that I'm losing my hearing. I have been asking people to repeat themselves for years, and I've asked many a doctor about the fact that I really can't hear anything out of my left ear. The response has typically been a big shrug since there is not an obvious mechanical problem, like wax. It has reached a point where I either have to have a hearing aid or learn sign language, so I finally went to see a specialist. Thus the MRI to make sure there's no tumor.

I've have MRIs before and found them highly unpleasant (claustrophobic), so the doctor gave me a prescription for a nice horse tranquilizer. It worked very well. I barely remember parts of the procedure, which is good because they clamped a cage-like thing over my face and slid me into the tube and if I hadn't been tranquilized I would have broken their machine clawing my way out.

I went back to the clinic to get a copy of the report yesterday. (My husband and I always get copies of our medical reports and spend a few days brushing up on our medical terminology before we follow up with the doctor. We've learned the hard way not to rely solely on the doctor's interpretation of things.) Long story short there's nothing too alarming going on in my brain. However, the very first sentence did disturb me.

“Mild cerebral and cerebellar cortical volume loss, compatible with the patient's age.”

So, Barbara, dear, you have struck a nerve. My computer is getting old. The signals are not as quick and snappy as they used to be. But I keep finding ways to work around its glitches and will keep trying until the signals flicker and die out all together. Will my writing suffer from my cortical volume loss? I suppose someone will have to tell me, for how else will I know?

Oh, and I'm going to be fitted for a hearing aid next week.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The most amazing personal computer of all

Food for thought. I had been wondering what to post on my blog today, when a couple of coincidences fell into my lap. First of all, this week's posts have been about old computers, freezing screens, and corrupted files – all terrifying experiences for a writer. Not being millionaires, most of us try to coax more life out of our moribund computers than they are really capable of.

Secondly, my daughter posted a photo of my wedding day to the family What's App group. It would have been our fiftieth wedding anniversary today, and I realized looking at the photo that everyone in the photo was dead except me. How did that happen? I still feel the same as that young, mini-skirted bride in that photo.

Well, almost.

It got me to thinking about old writers, brain freezes, and information overload. Can an old brain truly keep writing at the same level as its younger self? Philip Roth stopped writing novels in his late seventies because he felt he no longer had the stamina or verbal fluency needed, and he did not want to write a mediocre work. Other writers have kept going but, reading their later work, you can see a decline. A subtle lack of sparkle, creativity, and complexity. That's a scary thought. We all strive to be better with each book. No writer wants people to shake their heads and say, "She should have quit a year or two ago".

And yet other writers carry on well into their eighties, and in the case of PD James, into their nineties. My own mother wrote a book (a non-fiction social history, not a novel) at the age of 86. How will we know when our best work is behind us? Mysteries are among the complex of the genres. We have to keep track of many threads and not only worry about plot, characters, and setting, but also build suspense, create clues and red herrings, and weave it all together into an exciting, coherent whole at the end. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air and a BIG picture to keep track of. No simple slice of life or rambling free association story here!

The curse of being a psychologist is that I know more about the brain than I'd like. Some of its functions, like memory, processing speeds and reaction times, begin their decline in the twenties. Working memory and fluid reasoning – the ability to juggle and recombine elements to create novel solutions – are not far behind. In women particularly, menopause hits verbal memory hard. We all laugh about our trouble remembering names and finding the right word, but the effect is unsettling. Often I stare at the page, trying to capture that elusive word or phrase that I know is lurking somewhere in my brain, out of reach. I use the thesaurus as a memory trigger, or I write a poor alternative in the hope that the perfect one will pop up at some later time (like the middle of the night). And often I find myself asking my children "Have I told you this before?"

Still, there is much to value about older brains. There is greater experience and wisdom. There is an empathy, breadth, and patience that comes across in our stories. I think as long as the latter outweigh the problems in memory and verbal fluency, it is worth carrying on. I hope I know when the scales tip. It doesn't mean a writer has to stop writing. I plan to write short stories when I can no longer keep track of whole novels, and I also hope to do a memoir of my father's life and maybe some journaling of my own. Writing itself helps to keep the brain sharp.

Meanwhile, exercise, diet, stress reduction, new experiences, and other lifestyle activities can all help keep us young at heart. Check out some thoughts on this page about the care and maintenance of the best personal computer of them all.

Here's to continuing the adventure of our lives!

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Sympathy for Aline, plus my own Sad Story

by Rick Blechta

First of all, I’d like to apologize for once again failing to post. “But I have a really good excuse for why it happened,” he said, feeling like a schoolboy again. You see, I was in New York for a family memorial and wound up spending most of the trip trapped in my mother-in-law’s basement because it had a pretty bad mold problem. We were smart enough to call in the experts — black mold being nothing to fool around with if you’re an amateur — but what was to be kept and what was to be chucked needed to be dealt with.

By the time we hit the road to return to Toronto, my wife and I were both pretty wasted. I didn’t even associate the fact that Tuesday is “Type M Day” until Wednesday morning. Not that I could have done anything much about it. Driving a car on an Interstate and writing a clever bit of blog posting (Hey, I can hope, can’t I?) tend to be mutually exclusive endeavours.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

You see, I am in the same boat that Aline is. My computer — an old one — appears to be completely moribund. It’s been in the shop since last Friday and they still don’t know what the problem is.

I’ve at least learned to be prepared for these inevitable events, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Maybe, I should say “live through” since it feels as if my life is on hold.

The preparation part comes from the fact that all my work files, projects, and “important stuff” are loaded on separate hard drives. I can remove them, which I did, and carry on with the assistance of an insertable hard drive base — but it is a huge pain.

Computers are very wonderful devices. For a writer or a musician they are a godsend, but as Aline so clearly pointed out, they come with a huge caveat. Eventually they will do something, well, horrible, and you’ll hear those dreaded words: “I’m sorry. This can’t be fixed.” Be prepared to hear this sometime if you use a computer because, sooner or later, it will happen.

In Aline’s case, she’s got a corrupt file, one chapter of a book. It also sounds like she’s got a robust back-up system. In her case, though, she just threw “craps” and when a good file goes bad, there’s little that can be done. But it still is only one chapter. I’ve known writers who have lost entire manuscripts, and that’s REALLY sad.

In my case, my old computer might have just ridden off into the sunset. The only really important thing that could be lost is all my current emails and my email archives. There is a way to retrieve this information, but it will probably be expensive. I may have to just swallow that loss. Time will tell.

Barbara enjoys writing the first drafts of her books and stories in long hand. I sometimes do this, but maybe it’s time I did it more often. First drafts are the hardest things in writing too recreate. Edits are a snap in comparison.

I’ve said it here before: Be prepared for your computer to bite you someday. The moment you begin using one, you’ve opened yourself up to that inevitability. If your work-life is on that computer, you must remain vigilant at all times or risk losing what you’ve spent so much time on. Aline got bitten, and so have I. It is always a bitter pill to swallow.

I’ll leave you with my favourite saying vis-a-vis these wonderful/infernal machines: Computers are great — as long as they’re working.

You can quote me.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Awful Warning

You have all been party to my struggles with my PC, commonly known as Beelzebub.  I've tried to give credit where credit's due, even giving him a whole post where I highlighted all the things I liked about him and was grateful for.  This, I understand, is an approach that is recommended for conflict resolution by relationship counselors.

Well, that's it!  I've tried.  And what happened this week?  He suddenly froze.  Well, he does that sometimes and I am even prepared to be moderately understanding.  Even Homer nods, or in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy terms, even if you have a brain the size of a planet you need a bit of downtime.

So I switched off, went through and made a cup of coffee then switched on again, safe in the knowledge that the autosave was on and when I came back I would have a choice of two versions, possibly lacking the last couple of lines I'd written - annoying, but no more than that.  And even if there was some problem, everything I write is automatically saved to One Drive.

Not this time.  The chapter I'd been working on all week came up with an error message, Unable to Open.  Alarmed, I followed the suggested instructions to find Open and Repair.  The slight snag here was that to repair it, I would have had to open it and it wouldn't open.

So I went on to One Drive.  Yes, there was all my stuff, neatly backed up, including the affected chapter.  It had backed up the corruption as well.

In full panic mode I contacted Jim, my go-to guy, begging him to come round instantly.  He listened as I explained and then he said, 'No point.  There's nothing I could do and I'm not going to waste your money.'

Then he said, which chilled me to the bottom of my soul, 'Lucky it was only a chapter.'

I've always worked on separate chapters, only combining them at the end.  But I had actually been thinking maybe it would be easier to have them all combined rather than dotting to and fro to make changes.   Perhaps it was my guardian angel that forced Beelzebub to show his dastardly hand  before he got the chance to destroy 65,00 words and eight months' work.

I spent the end of last week trying to reconstruct what I had lost and it's been like pulling teeth.  In the middle of it, as I rooted round trying everything, I got a notice from Microsoft asking me to lodge a report with feedback.  Oh boy, they got it!

Friday, August 02, 2019

RMMWA and Live Broadcasts

A couple of days ago, I received this email:

"Beginning August 8th, the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of American will begin broadcasting our meetings LIVE, making them available to members who are unable to attend  in person. It will allow members online to ask questions through CHAT and to participate in real time." 

I'm just thrilled. I signed up right away. There have been a number of meetings I've signed up for and then couldn't make the trip from Fort Collins to Denver. I simply won't do snow and ice.

I hate paying for meals in advance only to find that I can't make the trip.

The Rocky Mountain Chapter has outstanding programs. We have great speakers on a variety of subjects. Their expertise helps keep my writing as accurate as possible.

For our August RMMWA program, Stephen Pease will present the real duties of the licensed private investigator, myth- and cliché-busting. He’ll cover things like how you become a licensed PI in Colorado, what sorts of things PIs do, along with things they would never do, and how a case works. Future meetings will include information on human trafficking, surveillance, and Sierra Detection.

Chapter meetings are valuable for a number of reasons in addition to the informative programs. It's great to hear what other members are publishing. We pick up valuable tips for selling and promoting books and form lasting friendships with other members.

Coming up in December is our delightful six-word mystery contest. This was inspired by the famous Earnest Hemingway short story challenge.

It is claimed Ernest Hemingway once wrote a six-word short story that could make people cry for a bet. The wager was ten dollars, which Hemingway won with the following:
“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Our challenge is to write a mystery using only six words. The categories are: Hard-boiled, Cozy, Thriller, Police Procedural, or a mystery with Romance & Lust. There is also an all-over winner.

My favorite grand champion one year was: "Eyes so lovely, I kept them."

I will attend as many meetings in person as I can, but it's great to know that I will now have the on-line options.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Opening Lines, Opening Questions

Thomas Kies’s terrific post about opening lines this week got me thinking. As I commented on his post, first lines mean a lot to me –– as a writer and reader.

What makes a good opening line? Students, journalists, fiction writers, poets –– everyone –– wants to engage the reader immediately. People speak often about the “hook.” But I’ve never thought of opening lines that way. To me, the goal of a first line is to have the reader face a question that requires an answer –– at some point. And as a reader, I certainly want an opening that poses one or more questions.

Consider these gems:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts." (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” by Ernest Hemingway)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. (The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley)

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. (“Nine Lives to Live” by Sharon McCrumb)

The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late. (City of Bones by Michael Connelly)

Two short stories and two novels. All four opening lines ask questions of me (the reader). Hemingway’s opening is legendary. All make me continue reading. And no matter your method of writing –– whether you plan everything in advance or fly by the seat of your pants –– the opening can (and, in my humble opinion, should) pose a question.

It has become a classroom writing activity for my students: Write down five opening lines that require readers to ask one (or more) question. Then take the most compelling opening line (presumably the one that forces you –– the writer –– to answer an interesting question). And write for twenty minutes, seeing where that line leads you.

All of this got me thinking about the novel I’m writing now. I went back to check the first line, making sure I’m praying what I preach. Here it is: Ellie Whitney saw the hesitation and waited for Pam Rush to make her choice.

What do you think?