Wednesday, October 30, 2019

For the love of libraries

This past Sunday I had the honour of being the guest speaker at the annual fundraising gala of the Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library. Haliburton is a large rural county two and a half hours northeast of Toronto in a gorgeous land of rolling hills, forests, and lakes. Although the lakes are popular cottage destinations in the summer, most of the county is fairly poor and relies heavily on volunteers and fundraising for many services like libraries that cities take for granted.
Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library
The Friends are extremely active in their support of the library. The annual gala has been held for fourteen years and in addition to the presentation by a prominent author, there is a silent auction of items donated by local residents and businesses, all held at the beautiful Pinestone Resort. Between one and two hundred people attend the event, and the Friends also host monthly talks with an invited author, which about sixty people attend. This year the funds are going primarily to the purchase of ebooks so that library patrons can access their favourite books more easily, especially during the harsh winter months.

I have been an unabashed lover of libraries since I could first read. As a child, I browsed the shelves at will for my after-school entertainment, and I always went home with a stack of books. As a graduate student, I almost lived at the library as I researched and studied the material for my courses, academic texts being prohibitively expensive. And as a writer, one of my first stops when I'm researching the topic of a new book is at the library to pick up what they have on offer.

Attentive audience at the gala
I also recognize the importance of libraries as a central hub of community and learning. In addition to the books and resources themselves, my grandchildren are benefitting from their children's programs, and there are many other activities and groups for all interests. I have taught workshops and given readings organized by staff. In the country, this central, multi-faceted role is even more crucial. So I was thrilled for the chance to support the library.

The day dawned foggy and rainy, making the drive up from Toronto less than thrilling, but the welcome I received was bright and warm. People came from miles around, an informed and literate crowd who were friendly and enthusiastic. They filled the seats, listened with interest, and laughed at my jokes. Heads nodded at my more serious points. Afterwards they came up to talk and to buy books from the local independent bookseller, Masters Bookstore. A huge shout-out for indies, who venture where Coles and Indigo dare not go.

Reading from Prisoners of Hope
Writing is a lonely pursuit and the promotional side of it can be draining, particularly the dreaded mall signings in which you flog your book to people who've never heard of you. There are many times when we writers wonder why on earth we do this crazy job. Then a day like this comes along and reminds us why we write. Not just for ourselves but for that community of readers and fellow story lovers who are eager to be transported and who share our excitement at the stories we tell. And for all the workers, volunteer and paid, who make that connection possible.

Afterwards I drove on back home to Ottawa through the rolling hills and lakes of cottage country, now sparkling from the recent rain. A long but satisfying day.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

ALWAYS ask questions

by Rick Blechta

This weekend I was in the middle of a chapter and came to a roadblock, or maybe it’s better to put it that I came to a point where the scene could take one direction or another. The conundrum I faced was this: if I took path A, I would need to acquire a good bit of very specific knowledge. Path B wouldn’t require anything I didn’t already know. It also seemed to me in thinking on this that path A might be more interesting in the end and certainly be less “ordinary.” Question was: did I want to spend the time going out and getting this information? I wasn’t even sure if any of this stuff would make it into the final version at that point.

Here’s the real rub: I could have had all that information around five years ago. A friend is involved in that business (computer surveillance) at a very high end. I could tell you exactly what the business involved, but then I’d have to kill you. Suffice it to say my friend works for a government organization.

We were just having a good bull session and I asked a question. “Well, I guess I could tell you about this in a general way. Wanna know?” For some reason I don’t understand — since I’m a very curious person by nature — I told my friend no. That was okay. And our discussion moved on to other topics.

Now I needed that information, or something very close to it, and I didn’t have it. At the time I was speaking with my friend it didn’t seem very important to know and there were other things I wanted to discuss. I can no longer remember what those items were. The path our conversation might have taken was the one that was now critical to my writing. Had I but said, “Yes. Tell me all about it,” I would be done with that scene and maybe have something really good.

I took path B in the end, not wanting to be slowed down by research. I’ve lost touch with my friend and it might take some time to get in touch again. We hadn’t spoken since that night.

Had I but known! When information falls into your lap — or looks as if it might — follow your nose. Who knows when it might become valuable?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Making a Start

It was 33C when I left Saigon on Thursday. Today, it's 4C. But the sun is shining in a brilliant blue sky and I keep telling myself that while hot weather is great for holidays I really wouldn't like to be trying to work there, especially on one of the humid days. Probably. But it's still cold!

However, I managed to send off the new ms to my publisher before I went and came back to an email saying that they are delighted with it, so Devil's Garden, featuring DCI Kelso Strang, will be published in the spring. Look out for it! She wants another in the series, so now I'm going to have to get down to it.

I'm still at the stage of infinite possibilities when I chase will-o'-the-wisps without trying to make anything actually work, but from the moment I write the first paragraph, I have begun a process of restriction:if I have this, then I can't also have that.

I was interested in John's post about working on an outline, and was fascinated that Jeffrey Deaver takes eight months to write his.I know there are a lot of major writers who do that – I think it was Frederick Forsyth who claimed once he had all the ducks in a row it only took him six weeks to write the book. So perhaps that's what I should do.

My problem is that I find it very hard to convince myself I'm working unless the story is actually evolving on the screen in front of me and I get seriously neurotic if the 'playing with ideas' stage goes on too long, so my outline tends to be sketchy to say the least. My mantra to quell the four am panic sessions is 'Follow the story', so I need to establish a solid basis for that story early on, then have frequent reviews of where it will lead me next. It's always worked for me in the past.

So that's my challenge for the next few months. I came across a wonderful quote from Edith Wharton about the process of writing a book: 'The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi desert. The end: going down the Cresta Run.' I'm looking forward to it, sort of.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Guest Blogger: Thomas A. Burns, Jr.

Thomas A. Burns, Jr. is the author of the Natalie McMasters Mysteries. He was born and grew up in New Jersey, attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, earned B.S degrees in Zoology and Microbiology at Michigan State University and a M.S. in Microbiology at North Carolina State University. He currently resides in Wendell, North Carolina. As a kid, Tom started reading mysteries with the Hardy Boys, Ken Holt and Rick Brant, and graduated to the classic stories by authors such as A. Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout, to name a few. Tom has written fiction as a hobby all of his life, starting with Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories in marble-backed copybooks in grade school. He built a career as technical, science and medical writer and editor for nearly thirty years in industry and government. Now that he's truly on his own as a novelist, he's excited to publish his own mystery series, as well as to contribute stories about his second most favorite detective to the MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.

The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks

Audiobooks are currently the fastest growing segment of the electronic publishing industry. Audiobook revenue increased by almost 25 % for a total of nearly a billion US dollars in 2018. There are many reasons for this. People have busier lifestyles than ever before, and it’s increasingly difficult to find the time to read. An audiobook can fill formerly wasted commuting time—just download the audio file to your phone, plug it into the system in your car, and get your daily mystery fix. Some think that audiobooks evoke memories of being read to as a child, and there’s a growing body of evidence that audiobooks can help kids learn to read. They’re also great for the visually impaired, or people with dyslexia or other learning challenges. Downloaded files can be played on multiple devices without losing your place—some Audible books (Amazon) also have the Whispersync feature, which lets you listen and read your book on Kindle, and updates either the print or the audio file as you switch back and forth between devices. Audiobooks have become so popular that the New York Times is even beginning a monthly audiobook bestseller list.

Now I’ve decided to enter the audiobook market with my book Stripper!, the first book in my Natalie McMasters series, to bring Natalie to a wider audience. Natalie McMasters is a detective for the new millennium. As the series opens, Nattie is twenty, short and blonde (OK, it’s bleached!), way cute, and a pre-law student at State. She's also straight, or at least she thinks so. To put herself through school, she's moonlighting as a private detective trainee at her uncle Amos Murdoch's 3M Detective Agency, where the most exciting thing she does is sit in a car, staking out people who’ve claimed workers’ compensation to be sure they’re hurt as badly as they say. It’s the perfect gig for a college student, because she can study on the job. But one day she directly confronts a subject on a stakeout, and Amos fires her. Then she meets another student who bears an uncanny resemblance to her, and everything in her life changes. When her new best friend is brutally murdered and Amos is critically injured, Nattie immerses herself in the seamy world of web cams and strip clubs to hunt the killer. Her investigation forces her to reassess many of the ideas that she’s lived by her whole life and do things she’s never considered before – strip on a stage, question her sexuality, and rediscover the meaning of love itself. Nattie eventually exposes a drug ring, police corruption, and an assassin-for-hire online. Then she stumbles upon the true face of evil, and her encounter does not leave her unscathed. The Natalie McMasters Mysteries have done fairly well, with about 11,000 copies in circulation world-wide, and I hope that will greatly increase as the Natalie McMasters series becomes available on audio.

The narrator of an audio book is arguably just as important as the author. Remember that college professor who lulled you to sleep with his droning voice? That’s definitely the narrator you do not want for your audiobook. However, many audiobook narrators are actually voice actors who can bring a story alive. The talented Lisa Ware, of Voices from lsware, who reads Stripper!, is one such narrator. Lisa captures Nattie’s voice perfectly, as well as those of the other diverse characters in the story. I’m sure you’ll find her work enjoyable.

The audio version of Stripper! is scheduled for release sometime in November, 2019. Look for it on the Amazon page for Stripper!. I’m also looking for audiobook reviewers. Anyone interested can contact me on my website, and I’ll send you a credit (provided by Audible) for a free audio copy, if you’ll commit to leaving a review on Amazon.

Random Inspiration

When my granddaughter Leah was in high school she participated in Equestrian Vaulting Competitions. Not pole vaulting, but acrobatics on top of a galloping horse. The above picture was a practice session. During the actual competition the contestants are all blinged up in sparkly attire like circus performers.

These are thrilling events and easily my favorite to watch of all my grandchildren's equestrian activities. Reaching this level requires a lot of practice, awesome coordination, extraordinary balance, sure-footedness, and well-developed muscles.

Although any breed of horse can be trained, the most common is the Irish draught and Belgium draught horses. Horses selected for vaulting training must have a calm even temperament. They have to be really strong, with a broad back, and the ability to canter in a circle for an extended period.

At one time Equestrian Vaulting was an Olympic event and there has been talk of bringing it back, but no luck, so far.

At one event I dug out my camera and prepared to take pictures. Leah's father cautioned me that flashes were forbidden. The horses could tolerate any sound, but not sudden flashes of light.

Naturally I had an immediate idea for a short story. Although the germ was planted many years ago, I'm just now writing it.

One of the most frequently asked questions of writers is "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" From everywhere. From nowhere. From the clear blue sky. From a desperate attempt to come up with something because we must. Random remarks might stick with me a long long time. When they do, you can bet a short story--or possibly a book will emerge eventually.

The surest foundation for a story or a book (for me) is an image that simply will not go away.

I love the blessing of random inspiration.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Outline or handcuffs?

I’m about 50,000 words into my work-at-hand, I’ve edited what I have, and feel good about it. To date, I have followed my outline, which, truth be told, only lists scenes in two or three sentences. It is admittedly far less detailed than other writers who outline that I know, but I’ve honored the outline so far.

Yet now as I reach chapter 50 and look over the outline, I’m seeing plot threads that can be tightened and others that can be expanded.

I spent a couple of months creating the outline –– again, nothing compared to writers like Jeffrey Deaver, who says he spends 8 months on an outline and 3 months writing the book. Nevertheless, I’m leery to let go of it because it seemed so rock solid when I finished it.

But the book comes alive on the page, not on the storyboard. So my instinct is to let go of the wall and skate to the middle of the ice. (This is the first real outline I’ve ever used, after all.) Michael Chabon says he outlined The Yiddish Policemen’s Union thoroughly and then deviated (obviously successfully) about halfway through.

So how married to one’s outline should one be? Is there a point where the novel should simply take off? Os is the trick in knowing when to skate on one’s own?

My plan is to spend a few days on the outline, looking specifically at the second half of the book. Sort of a “measure twice, cut once,” as my father used to say, approach.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this topic.


Some photos from my road trip to Ohio, where daughter Delaney, 21, a senior and lacrosse captain at Kenyon College had her last Parents Weekend. Keeley, 10, and I loved seeing Audrey, 18, our freshman XC and Track runner at Kenyon's rival, Denison University.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Introducing Characters

The posts the last couple days from Tom and Rick on creating opening scenes got me thinking about the best way to introduce characters in a story. How the reader or viewer first sees a character, whether it’s in an opening scene or one much later in the book/movie, impacts their expectations about that character as the story continues.

In one of the gazillion how-to books on writing I’ve read over the years, there was one suggestion on this topic that has stuck with me. Basically, it’s that a writer should introduce a character in a place they’d typically be found or doing something they’d typically be doing. e.g. a character who’s a magician could be introduced performing a magic trick; a lawyer could be introduced in a scene in a courtroom or somewhere else doing lawyerly things. Stuff like that.

I don’t remember who wrote this pearl of wisdom or anything about the book it came from, but it’s helped me out over the years. It’s pretty straightforward and maybe I was a bit stupid for not coming up with it myself. I think of it every time I’m deciding on how to introduce a character in a new story I’m working on. The times that I’ve ignored it and inserted someone into an environment that really didn’t suit them, the character seems to come across as boring and flat. It’s turned out much better when I move them to a scene that’s more suited to them.

I had this one character in my first book that I introduced in one scene that really didn’t suit her. It’s been so long ago I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that she bored me. Not a good thing. If something bores the writer, it’s certainly going to bore a reader. I wasn’t sure what to do about it until I thought about that pearl of wisdom I mentioned earlier. As soon as I moved her initial introduction to a scene set in the decorative painting supply store that periodically appears in my books, she really came to life. That’s an environment you’d expect to see her in and one she shines in. I was no longer bored with her.

Now consider that opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Rick mentioned, it tells you a lot about Indiana Jones. I also think it fits right into the concept I just talked about. Sure, Indy’s a professor and could have first been shown in the classroom teaching his students, but I think overall that the fundamental part of his character is that he’s an adventurer. The impression I have is that, while he might be a decent professor, he’s really just doing it so he can get out there and do adventurous things. That’s why I think choosing to show him in adventure-mode is a much better way of introducing him.

What about you writers out there? How do you decide how to introduce a character? Any pearls of wisdom for us?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The things put into that opening scene are SO important!

by Rick Blechta

I enjoyed Tom’s post from yesterday, not only because Raiders of the Lost Ark is particular favourite movie of mine, but for how brilliant that first sequence is in establishing many of the things you need to know about the main characters and the direction the movie’s plot will eventually take, even though the goal of this sequence is too build excitement and pull viewers into the movie. It really is quite extraordinary how many moving parts it all has and how masterfully its done.

So here’s my quick breakdown of what is going on “behind the machinery” that makes this scene work so well.

First, Indy is introduced as being smart, knowledgeable, resourceful, brave but a bit reckless, cool in a crisis, but still very human (his fear of snakes), and more than a little lucky. All of these are important in building his character rapidly and is accomplished with breathtaking skill by the script, direction and acting.

We’re also introduced to his skill with a whip and his cool hat. (Interesting factoid: the part was nearly handed to Tom Selleck!)

Secondly, the character of his antagonist is also rapidly established. With barely a dozen lines, we learn everything we need to know about Belloq. (Actor Paul Freeman does a magnificent job but this role in Raiders also got him typecast into villainous characters which is too bad. He really is a fine actor with a lot more scope than this.)

What is really interesting to me is that the opening sequence has little relation to the coming main plot idea. In the movie’s next sequence, the plot takes an extreme left turn. But since we’ve already learned so much about Indy’s character, all we can think is, “Yeah, he’s the right person for this job.” And that is very important.

To me, I can’t imagine an opening sequence that could be better. Regardless that it’s part of a movie and not a novel, every writer can learn a lot about how to open a story with a bang while sneaking in nearly everything you need to know about the protagonist and the antagonist to make the rest of the story work. And all this is accomplished so effortlessly. Without the viewer noticing, we’re learning everything we need to know about why these two characters do what they do.

That is, we’re not privy to all the hard work and thought behind what we’re watching. We can only aspire to do as well in our own works.

Do you have a favourite opening scene/sequence for a movie or book, and why do you think it works so well? Please tell us!

Monday, October 21, 2019

It was a dark and stormy night!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of your book's first line.  You can't let up after that first sentence though, you have to have a dynamite opening scene.

But first, let me tell you about a discussion I had a few weeks ago with an editor I know.  She told me about the hundreds of submissions she looks at every year.  She said, “I can’t tell you how many of them start with the weather.  If I’ve got to give a budding novelist one bit of advice, unless it’s a key part of your opening chapter, never, never , never write about the weather except as background."

Back to my original topic, a boffo first scene.

My wife is out of town so I can watch anything I want on Netflix.  Last night I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the millionth time.  The opening scene in that movie is classic.

The intrepid adventurer in the fedora, traveling with a troupe of shady characters through an Amazonian forest.  Indiana Jones, coming upon the tomb in the thick of the jungle, filled with bats and spiders and traps.  Indie taking the weird golden icon and outrunning the giant boulder, only to find himself ambushed by jungle natives.  Then watching Indiana Jones sprint for his life, swimming to the airplane, and upon getting into the plane, his seatmate is a snake named Reggie.  We find out Indiana has, of all things, a fear of snakes.  When he complains, the pilot says, “Show some backbone.”

During a book event last year, I was asked if I thought European mysteries move more slowly than American mysteries.  The answer to that is yes!!

American readers are impatient.  They want to be gripped immediately and taken for a tense, page turning thrill ride.

I try to do that with my Geneva Chase mystery series.  In my first book, Random Road, I open with six nude bodies found hacked to death in a mansion on an island.  I’d originally written the scene with two people found dead, decided to spice it up by adding two more bodies.  By the time I was done, I’d made it a six-pack.  When it comes to murder, more is better, isn't it?

Do you always have to start a mystery with a murder?  No, but you still have to start by grabbing the reader by the collar.  In my second novel, Darkness Lane, the book opens with Geneva, my intrepid crime reporter, finding out that her fifteen-year-old ward’s best friend (also fifteen) has disappeared.

Well, I’m fudging a little, there is a murder, but we know upfront who the killer is.   In that same first scene ,we find out that a woman who’s been physically and mentally abused for years finally snapped.  She waited until her husband is drunk and passed out, coverd him in gasoline and lit a match.  As the fire department struggled to quell the spreading flames, the cops found her outside with a glass of wine.  When they asked her what happened, she said, “I’m just toasting my husband.”

My third book, Graveyard Bay, has the darkest opening of all.  Geneva is watching the scene unfold in the middle of winter at a marina where two nude bodies are found under the icy surface of the bay, chained to the prongs of a massive forklift used to lift boats in and out of the water.  Brrrrrr.

Just a couple of other outstanding books  I’ve read this year with dynamite opening chapters.

One is Don Winslow’s The Border. This book starts out with a prologue in which the protagonist is caught up in an active mass shooting.  You have no idea what it’s about and won’t really learn until nearly the end of this 720 page thriller.  But it’s a page turner if there ever was one about drug cartels and politics and the parallels to what’s going on today are incredible.

The other book is a mystery called Head Wounds by Dennis Palumbo.  It starts out with “Miles Davis saved my life”. A domestic dispute outside the protagonist's home explodes into violence and a gunshot nearly kills Daniel Rinaldi.  After that, the tension ramps up and the action never stops.  You can’t put this one down.

To end up where I began, your first scene should grab the reader by the collar.  Oh, and never lead with the weather.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Guest Blogger Karen Odden

Type M 4 Murder is thrilled to welcome historical mystery author Karen Odden, who writes wonderfully evocative novels set in 1870s London, including the smelly Thames and the costermongers, medical puzzles and odd facts about poison, anything Scotland Yard, the true weird stories that surround musicians and visual artists, and good old-fashioned romantic plots.

On Time and Place by Karen Odden

Every year some girlfriends and I hike the Grand Canyon south rim trails, sixteen miles down Kaibab and up Bright Angel, all in one day.

I still remember the first time I did it, how struck I was not only by the beauty of my adopted state (I was raised in upstate New York) but also at how over the course of the 5,000 feet of elevation change from top to bottom, the color of dirt on my boots changed from yellow to brown to red and back to brown. I was literally walking through time, telescoping thousands of years into minutes, and as I turned at the one-mile marker and gazed up toward the rim, I felt surprised, stirred, humbled, and curious. And in that moment, I swear something in my brain sparked and spun in a new direction.

For me, the Canyon collapses time and place—or perhaps, more precisely, it renders time as a material place. I think the sheer enormity of the rocks overhead pressed two truths into my bones: first, that I should start paying attention to those wondrous moments when time collapses and takes a physical shape, and second, that sometimes, when I’m trying to absorb the essence of a site, there is no substitute for getting my feet on the ground, even if it’s decades or centuries later. Like some other writers who have blogged on this site, I write historical fiction and feel it is important to get as close as I can, physically, to the specific time and space of our settings—in my case, 1870s London. I do this partly for authenticity’s sake, but also because being in a place that evokes a particular time lights the creative spark in my brain better than anything else. And I am lucky because there are still bits of Victorian London in today’s city.

One of these bits is Wilton’s Music Hall, which is the last remaining Victorian music hall in London, occupying its original space on Graces Alley in Whitechapel. Most people know that borough as the site of the Jack the Ripper murders in the 1880s. Now the neighborhood is all gentrified and prettied up, but Wilton’s retains some of its Victorian grittiness and charm. I had been playing around with the idea of a novel about a young woman pianist who takes a position in a London music hall as a male entertainer because—yes—men were paid more. (Shocking, I know.) On a trip to London with my husband, I decided I would find Wilton’s.

I entered the twin painted doors and found myself in an irregularly shaped bar area with raw wooden planks.  Peering around and sniffing the lingering smell of hops, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and my shoe caught on a nail head. Recovering, I proceeded through that room and went down the wooden stairs into a space created by three basements patched together. Again, I had the sensation of descending through time. The concrete floors were uneven; the smell was musty; and the plaster was drawing away from the brick in parts.

All was quiet, and I stood still in the murky light, with the faint clamminess and the tang of rust in the air, and let it all work upon me. At last, I moved slowly along the passageway, pausing to inspect a stone carved with an inscription about the original owner, John Wilton; to read a framed newspaper article about a performer who leapt from the stage to attack his heckler—accidentally killing him; to study a framed piece of sheet music from the 1850s. Then I climbed the stairs and peered through the back door of the hall itself. To my surprise, it was elegantly painted in a pale greenish-blue, with chandeliers and spiraling gilt pillars.

(If you’ve watched the movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey, Jr. you’ve seen this room. It’s where Holmes takes Watson for a bachelor party that devolves into a chase scene with Holmes being pursued by a raging Cossack.) The stage was raised off the wooden floor, and suddenly I could see my heroine Nell at a piano in an alcove at stage right. In that moment, Nell’s world became real. And when I returned to my computer to write, naturally I had to plot out my novel. But often, at first, I would just put Nell in the music hall and back away, so I might observe how that time and place would work upon her.

I’m not one for fiddling with a formula that feels right, so for my next book, I again wanted a world that I’d actually walked through and laid my hands on. In A Trace of Deceit (forthcoming, December 2019), my heroine’s world is the (real) Slade Art School and (a fictional) London auction house.

I was drawn to that setting because I worked at Christie’s auction house in New York in the 1990s. For two years, I was their media buyer for all forty-some departments—American Silver, European Furniture, Latin American Paintings, Jewelry, Antique Books, Rugs, and so on. In order to purchase advertising space in magazines and newspapers effectively, I had to read many beautifully illustrated art publications. (Hand to forehead, dramatic sigh.) Under the guise of doing my work, I devoured stories of thefts, absurd wealth, death, sabotage, forgery, corruption, and embezzlement. I found myself enjoying the art but thrilling to the stories behind the pieces—and the passion or anguish or desire on the part of the artist, the subject, or the purchaser.

Upon reflection, I believe part of the attraction of art for me is the way a piece collapses time, or creates layers of it. The time of a painting, for example, invokes both the artist’s present and the viewer’s present; sometimes it calls up the present of the subject of the painting, which can be different from the artist’s. Often when I gaze at a painting, that feeling I had at the Canyon returns, and ideas begin to spark in my brain.

And now I’ll leave you with a question. We all have places that serve as a locus for feelings, sometimes both wonderful and unpleasant. To what extent do we love these places because they materialize and collapse our pasts for us? And do you have a place that makes time material for you?

Note: for more on why the 1870s are my absolutely favorite Victorian decade, see my blog “Why the 1870s?” at

Friday, October 18, 2019

Field Trip

My email today will be short because it's after 2 a.m. and I have a plane to catch this afternoon. I've been in Kansas City, Missouri all week. I had a couple of days off this week because of a school break. I joined a friend on a Road Scholar tour. At first, it was only going to be the vacation that I didn't take this summer. But it has turned into a research trip for my 1939 thriller.

As I was thinking about Kansas City jazz a bell rang in my head, and I realized that it would be the perfect backstory for one of my characters.
In fact, having the character come from Kansas City and giving him those memories and that perspective has made him three-dimensional for me and I hope for readers. I'm much more excited about his voice and how he moves through the story.

Before he was vaguely "Midwest." Now, he is someone who knows the things I've learned and has a worldview shaped by spending the first twenty-four years of his life in this place. The photo is of a Kansas City "Negro baseball team."

My character isn't African American, but he does love baseball. So did he know about this team in his hometown? Did he ever see them play? I've spent the week asking myself such questions. The answers have given me a much better sense of who this character is and what he will do in the book.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What to Wear

As I (Donis) mentioned when last I wrote, I'll be launching my latest novel The Wrong Girl, A Bianca Dangereuse Old Hollywood Mystery, at 7:00 p.m., October 29, at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ll be appearing with the great Martin Edwards, who is also launching a new series with his book Gallows Lane. I hope that if you are anywhere in the contiguous United States, or heck, why stop there? - anywhere in this wide world - you'll hop a plane and fly in to join me. Or if that's asking too much, pick up a book (or ebook or audiobook) wherever books are sold.

All that may sound like a bit of promotional overkill*, but after writing ten Alafair Tucker mysteries,
The Wrong Girl is the first of a new series for me and I hoping it does well enough to warrant a second. Some of my author friends who are talented and disciplined enough to put out two or three really good books a year, probably don't worry as much about their launches as I do. But I'm a slow writer at best, only managing a book every year or year-and-a-half, so when I launch a book I have a tendency to over-prepare. Even though I've done this many times. Some may say this makes me neurotic. I wouldn't argue.

One thing I spend way too much time on is pondering what to wear. Why oh why so I make such a big deal out of the launch outfit? When I attend book events with well known male authors, it seems that none of them much care what they wear. In fact, I wonder sometimes if some guys cultivate a insouciant artist vibe, like "I live on too high a plane to care what I look like." I haven't noticed quite the same attitude with women authors. I believe that after all this time I've developed a kind of superstition about my outfit. Just the right outfit will - I don't know what - please the gods? I've stopped trying to figure it out and just give in to the inevitable.

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

It is now 19 years and probably a hundred personal appearances after my first book launch. Here is what I’ve learned:

1. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition to be witty and spontaneous on the spot.

2. There’s nothing wrong with using your 'A' material over and over, especially when you’re traveling.

3. Look at your audience when you speak - make eye contact. They’ll like you better as a person, and you’ll better be able to judge how you’re going over and make adjustments in your presentation as you need to.

4. Don’t worry about it if you’re nervous. Your audience is predisposed to like you.

5. Always wear comfy shoes.

*or a whiff of desperation?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Travel riches

In various ways, the past few Type M posts have been about setting. Airports, our favourite places to write, and visiting new parts of the country. I too have been thinking about setting. I recently returned from a trip to Russia, with brief detours into Finland and Sweden. It's why I missed my last Type M post. I had a fight with Google, who wasn't happy with my trying to log in on a different device (my mini-iPad) in the middle of the Baltic Sea. It was even less happy when I couldn't confirm my identity using the code they sent to my iPhone (which had a Russian sim card that didn't work on the ferry to Stockholm). It deemed me a security threat, and I had to wait until I was home to convince it otherwise. Clearly the tech world has not caught up with world travelling.

I love travelling the world and seeing different landscapes, cultures, city-scapes, and lifestyles. Admittedly, one can do little more than scratch the surface in two weeks, but even two weeks through the eyes of an eager stranger can be enlightening. In preparation for my trip to Russia, I started to read A Gentleman in Moscow, set in the decades following the Communist Revolution. The author's wry, charming observations on Soviet life provided a rich backdrop to the sights I was seeing, especially now that Russia is in the post-Soviet era, allowing me an even longer view of history. I visited the summer and winter palaces of the tsars, which rival le Palais de Versailles in opulent, gilt-dripping excess. It is this lifestyle that our hero in the book lived as a young Count, and it was fun to imagine him, if not in these grand halls, at least dancing in something similar. And it was sobering to imagine the struggles of the peasants on whose backs all this extravagance was built.

The Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg
I wasn't able to finish the book while I was there, so I finished it at home, and this provided another kind of enjoyment. I had walked many of the squares and streets the author described in the book, and I'd sipped champagne at the famed Metropol where the Count spent forty years under house arrest. I could picture the potted palms and the marble floors.

Champagne at the Metropol Hotel with Vicki Delany
I could picture the grandeur of Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg and the bridges over the Fontanka Canal. I could picture the walk up from the Moskva River past St. Basil's Cathedral into Red Square. What fun to follow a character through streets in your mind!

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
I have always made a point of visiting the settings that I write about, spending time there and trying to walk all the paths my characters will walk. I have travelled across Canada for each of the four Amanda Doucette books I have written so far, and have loved every minute of the exploration. Well, perhaps not the snowstorm in Calgary last fall I have learned so much about my country, and I hope that my books take my readers on a virtual voyage of discovery, even if they have never visited the places in reality.

I have also written ten books set in my own city of Ottawa, and I know how much local readers love buzzing around the familiar streets with Inspector Green. Here's a little hint of what is to come... An eleventh Inspector Green novel, which I have only just begun. Who knows what back alleys and elegant neighbourhoods I will drag into the spotlight this time!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hey! What’s everyone doing while waiting for their plane?

by Rick Blechta

Having spent far too much time in airports last week drove home why I don’t like to fly. Problem was, there was no choice in travel modes I could use, considering what needed to be done and how quickly it all had to happen.

So I was forced to spend too many hours in airports waiting to board my various flights. Here’s a list of my itinerary and the minutes spent in each waiting area: Toronto (120 minutes), Philadelphia (80 minutes), Richmond, VA (140 minutes), Philadelphia (60 minutes). It’s a huge waste of time, of course, but that’s the reality of modern airplane travel.

It can all be improved with the aid of a good book. I was in the middle of one on baseball (Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game) which is interesting if one is a baseball nerd (I am), but still, a little dry. By the second stop I was beginning to get tired of reading it. That means Toronto isn’t part of this bit of tabulating.

So I came up with the idea of doing a bit of research: what are people doing while they wait for their plane? I wandered around the seating area for various gates and adjacent restaurants, trying to look nonchalant because you do not want to look suspicious in this day and age.

The expected result did happen at the gates: many people were staring at their smart phones or using them to listen to music, I’d say about 50% of the people 254 I observed. A few had newspapers (5), magazines (4), with an amazing 35 people reading either paper books (15) or e-readers (8).

In the restaurants, I found most (138) staring at some sort of news feed on the overhead TVs that are everywhere these days, followed by people conversing (77), with 36 staring at their smart phone, 12 listening to music, and only 5 people reading.

My numbers may be slightly off because I was having to store information in my head, but it’s reasonably accurate.

Oh! One more bit of counting: 189 were sitting with eyes closed or staring off into space. Any parents with young children I didn’t count because they were, um, rather preoccupied.

What does this mean? I don’t know because I don’t have enough data. However, if anyone wishes to help and has to do some air travel, please help out. I’m sure smart phone watching will win, but how many of your fellow travellers do you observe reading? It can be any medium, by the way.

And to conclude, boy, was I happy to return home!

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Room of One's Own

A room of one's own (with a lock on the door) and £500 a year were what was necessary for writing fiction, Virginia Woolf famously stated.  If it really was essential, there would be few of us writing today: that £500 was the present day equivalent of around £30,000.  (As a guide to prices, she was able to buy a whole house, not just a room, for £700.)  I'm rather taken with the idea that this wasn't what you were going to earn, it was what you needed before you could start.

It's always interesting to know where other writers feel they can work. There are the ones like Alexander McCall Smith who just scribbles away wherever he is, undeterred by the crowds around him in the airport or the railway station, or like JK Rowling, who wrote most of the first Harry Potter sitting at a table in a cafe.  I wonder how often their train of thought is interrupted by someone stopping to say, 'What are you writing, then?'

I would hate that.  I don't even like having someone else in the room with me when I'm writing - it somehow feels embarrassing.  I'm lucky enough to have my own study  and though I don't actually lock the door, it's very much a private space.

I like to have all my reference books to hand, even if now I don't consult them as often  as I click on Google.  And I like my shockingly untidy desk; it may look bad but I know where everything is and the only time I lose stuff is when I feel obliged to tidy up.

But, perhaps perversely, I don't envy people who have their own private office in the garden. It must be very peaceful but isolated and I like to be in the centre of the house so I know what's going on. And when I'm searching for the right word I can take a wander round and check on the soup for lunch or jot down something I've just remembered we need on the shopping list in the kitchen. For some reason, that always seems to help.

So I'm with Virginia Woolf all the way on the importance of that room.  I feel mine is almost as much a writing tool as my computer is, and if I have to give it up - for a visiting grandchild, say - I go round feeling like a snail without a shell.  

Sadly, I can't quite match up to her £500 - or £30,000 -  criterion.  Perhaps it's this that has stopped me attaining the dizzy heights of fame. I always wondered what it was.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Changing Locales

Daughter Cherie and Granddaughter Leah on Lake Jeannette

Last week I visited our oldest daughter who recently moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. Her lovely new home is adjacent to Lake Jeannette. What a gorgeous setting!

What a great place for a murder. There's all those trees. And a body of water. And well, you know. .. Let's face it. My mystery series is set in Western Kansas. There's something about the Great Plains that is nakedly honest. It's a chore to hide a body out here.

However, I once did a historical article set in Montana. The subject was the pits to begin with: "The Harlem Renaissance in Helena, Montana." It was for anthology about African Americans in the West.

The article took forever for me to write. Not only was gathering historical information difficult, but I discovered that I knew nothing about the state. To write well about a locale, one has to know the history of the state, the topography, the weather, the way the birds fly, the grasses that grow. The list is endless.

The only way I could write about mysterious North Carolina would be as an outsider. Some of the best books are written from a stranger's point of view, but my heart would not be in it.

The call of Kansas is well known.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Editing Thoughts: Technology is (and is not) Your friend

For the past two weeks, I’ve been revising my work-in-progress. I’m about (cross your fingers) two-thirds finished the manuscript, and I’ll share some go-to revision moves that work for me.

I’m a big fan of technology –– I sometimes compose using a dictation app –– but, as I wrote recently, I’m a stickler about editing on hardcopy. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Edit hardcopy. Don’t trust the screen. The computer screen plays tricks on you. You don’t always see what’s really there (and not there).
  2. Always read the book aloud (or listen to it). Someone once told me, “Read it aloud. You think you know what you said when you wrote it. Hearing it will tell you how other people will read it.” I use a text-to-speech app to hear what I wrote. But I like reading it aloud more because I know if I get knotted up in my own long sentences the reader surely will. Force yourself to read it aloud. It takes time, but it’s time well spent. One way to do this is read it for someone. (I offered the opening scene of my book at a reading Tuesday night, although reading a work-in-progress is another post altogether.)
  3. The Find option is your ticket to more active prose. Use it to search for repetitive phrases, inconsistencies, and weak verbs. I recently did this to see if I was capitalizing a title consistently (I wasn’t) and to find every use of the verbs to be, has, have, and had. I ran a scan finding every gerund and eliminated a bunch for more active verbs. Know your tendencies: I write has and had way too often in drafts, and I search for them and get rid of as many as possible. It takes hours to search out each one and evaluate it, but it’s worth it. I do this with and and but, too. As you can imagine the word and appears over 2,000 times in 175 pages. I spent upwards of four hours on this chore.

This list is short and sweet, and certainly not absolute. But this is part of my revision process, and it works for me. I’d love to hear additional thoughts on this.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Talking About Your WIP

Some people like talking about the stories they’re working on. They have no problem telling anyone who asks how it’s going, what it’s about, some of the scenes they’re thinking of putting in, etc. I’m not one of those.

About all people get out of me these days about my WIP is that it’s the 6th book in my series and it’s set in February so Valentine’s Day figures into it. Awhile back I did talk about on Type M how I’d been reading about love locks (those padlocks attached to bridges, etc., demonstrating a couple’s undying love for each other) and how I planned on using them somewhere in the book. But that’s all you’re going to get out of me on that subject right now.

Ask me a question about my other books and I’ll talk about them all you want. (But I won’t talk about the details of the murder unless you’ve read it, so don’t bother asking.) There’s something about talking too much about what I’m working on right now that doesn’t set well with me.

Some of the excitement of creating a new story out of an idea seems to go away for me if I talk about it too much. I also know that I can change my mind about putting a scene into a story and I don’t want people asking me why I didn’t include it in the final version.

For those writers out there, how do you feel about talking about the stories that you’re working on? Is it something that you regularly do? Or is it something that you generally avoid?

In other news, I’ll be attending Bouchercon in Dallas at the end of the month. Sunday morning, November 3rd at 10:00 a.m., I’ll be on a panel called “Small Towns, Big Crimes”. My fellow panelists are J.A. Jance, Libby Klein, Mary Sutton and Suzanne Trauth.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

An explanation

by Rick Blechta

Sorry, but there will be no post from me this week — other than this brief explanation.

I'm currently in Virginia to attend a memorial gathering for my brother-in-law, Scott Meynig, who tragically died very suddenly last week.

As you might imagine, it’s thrown a HUGE spanner in the works — for a lot more than this week’s post.

I promise to be back bright and early next Tuesday with something hopefully worth reading, God willin’ and the crick don’t rise, as they say around these parts.

Be good to yourselves. No one gets out of here alive.

If you wish to get a good snapshot of who Scott was, click HERE. One thing the article neglects to tell you is that he started out as a ballet dancer, which is how he met my sister. Imagine, if you will, a male ballet dancer from Texas. Scott was fond of saying that there were only two: him and Patrick Swayze. Probably not true, but it was funny. Scott could be very funny.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Building Your Brand...One Book at a Time.

I parked cars at the North Carolina Seafood Festival in Morehead City yesterday.  My Rotary Club does it to raise money for local non-profit organization projects as well as college scholarships for deserving local students.

It was difficult to sneak away for the afternoon because I’m on deadline to finish the fourth in the series of Geneva Chase mysteries.  By the way, my publisher says they’re going to rebrand my books as Geneva Chase Crime Reporter Mysteries.

I like that.  Sorry, I'm free associating.

So, speaking of branding…

My latest mystery, Graveyard Bay, launched on September 10th.  Since then, I’ve done a local book signing on the patio of one of my favorite restaurants.  I did a book talk over dinner at our local country club. I drove to South Carolina to appear as a featured author at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Trade Show.  And this past weekend, I flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, to sign books at the renowned Poisoned Pen Book Store.

Coming up, I’ll be flying to Dallas for Bouchercon.  I’m lucky enough to be on a panel there called “Stop the Presses”. Then, a week later, I’ll drive up to a town in North Carolina called Chocowinity to speak to the Pamlico Writers Group at the China King restaurant.


Is it all worth it?  Of course it is.

Not because the number of books that were sold in any particular book signing put me on any bestseller list.  But I’m building a brand. I’m getting my name and the names of my books into the public eye.

My publisher’s publicist works hard at getting my name out, but every writer has to do his or her part as well.  And I enjoy it.  I love meeting people, talking with them, and telling them about Geneva Chase.

Some book signings are home runs.  But not all of them are.  I was invited to a library in a town where only one individual showed up.  That’s the kind of thing that keeps you grounded.
And early on in my writing career, I did book signings at some of the local bookshops where customers came in and avoided eye contact.  That was a little disheartening.

But I’m now three years into this adventure and I can say that I’ve had the best time of my life.  Yeah, there was that time when only one reader showed up.  But then there was that time when I was invited to a public library conference in Philadelphia where my distributor threw a party at the Pyramid Club, 52 floors above downtown Philly.  There was all the food you could eat, an open bar, and a live band.

There had also been a bad snow storm the day before and a lot of authors who were supposed to attend the conference couldn’t get there.

So, I was one of three authors signing books.  We went through cases of them.

Then, just two weeks ago, I flew to Scottsdale for the book signing at Poisoned Pen Bookstore.  I was there with the owner, Barbara Peters, and three other writers: Dennis Palumbo, Warren Easley, and Mark Coggins.  It was standing a room only.

Sure, I had to get up at 2:30 in the morning to make my flight, and the airline lost my luggage, and my hotel room wasn’t ready when I’d arrived.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s chump change.

The joy is talking with people about writing and your books and mysteries.  That’s not only fun, but building my brand.

So, back to parking cars at the festival.  I’ll let you in on a secret. I collect characters and their descriptions.  They’re all based on people I see and interact with.  And let me tell you, at almost any festival, you’re going to get some doozies.  Some of them will most certainly be in my next Geneva Chase Crime Reporter novel!!

Friday, October 04, 2019

The Thin Line

I'm working on a book about American gangster movies. All my writing career I've moved back and forth between "real life" or "true crime" or "nonfiction" (pick your term). In fact, when I decided to write a mystery novel, I gave my first protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, a profession that would provide both a focus for her sleuthing and a systematic way of going about it. Like me, Lizzie is a criminal justice professor who specializes in crime in American history and culture. To be precise, she focuses on Southern crime and culture, and she teaches at a fictional university in a city that bears some resemble to my hometown.  

This book about gangster movies require me to deal with the thin line between fact and fiction. It is in a series that my academic publisher is doing about history and movie. As have the other genre authors, I've selected the 8-10 important films and I've provided the backstory. One aspect of my assignment is to discuss the historical era and the cultural forces that were at work when each movie was released. The other -- much more challenging -- is to distinguish fact from fiction. 

As any fan of the genre knows, gangster movies came of age during the era of Prohibition and the
Great Depression. Real-life gangsters (such as Al Capone), and the "G-men" who pursued them,
participated in the "social construction" of the "public enemy." During the same era as the urban "gangster" or "mobster," the "rural outlaws" such as Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were also being pursued by lawmen. This era of myth-making coincided with the era when "talkies" were drawing even cash-strapped Depression-era audiences into theaters.

In the aftermath of Prohibition, real-life gangsters expanded their activities and so did movie gangsters. Eventually, the focus was on urban gangs and organized criminals who were involved in trafficking drugs, sex trafficking, and other activities that were depicted in much more graphic detail than the movies of the 1920s-40s. But the references to those earlier movies were still there. The rise and fall of the gangster was still the most common plot trajectory even though the Production Code had been replaced by a movie rating system.

And all of this makes it particularly challenging to separate fact from fiction. As with movies about the American west (westerns), I am dealing with decades of movie storytelling that has drawn on and contributed to real-life mythology. Real-life gangsters have inspired movie-makers; movies have influenced the style of real-life gangsters. Early films that produced their own mythology that influenced later movies. Writers and directors has sometimes attributed what was done or said by one gangster to another. Fiction hasn't required that they be accurate.

At the same time, the real-life people have told their stories. In interviews and memoirs each has offered his or her own perspective on events. This is like any eyewitness testimony. What a witness sees and remembers -- and is willing to share -- depends all any number of factors. Witnesses disagree.

My challenge is not to go down the rabbit hole with each movie and spend the same amount of time that I would on an book trying to disentangle fact from fiction. I could spend months following each gangster from birth to death. I am not going to do that. I am going to stay focused, finish this, and get back to my historical thriller -- and go back down that rabbit hole.

Did I mention I love research. But I am going to get this book done and gone. 

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Promote, Promote, Promote!

A Previous Engagement

-Please join me, Donis Casey, for the launch of The Wrong Girl, 7:00 p.m., October 29, at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ll be appearing with the great Martin Edwards, who is also launching a new series with his book Gallows Lane. -

Don’t worry. I’ll remind you again later.

I'm getting ready for my book to come out, the first of my new series, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse. I’m in the midst of planning the promotional campaign - and not enjoying it very much, sorry to say. I'm one of those people who doesn't care for the planning part. I don't like calling up people who've never heard of me and trying to convince them that I'm the greatest thing since little green apples and they should by all means have me speak at their bookstore/library/club. It's not that I'm particularly shy, and I'm certainly not overly modest. I secretly suspect that I am the greatest thing since little green apples.

Writing is a - let us not say 'late' - but more like a 'mature' life career change for me. I put in my thirty-five years in the workplace, and now I find that getting out there and beating the bushes doesn't appeal. I like to be quiet for a change, and write. I like the public speaking. I've done a lot of it in my life and am good at it. But I don't like having to set up the gigs. If I had the money, I'd hire a publicist to do it for me.

It’s difficult to know what the most effective things are to do to gain attention for your books. I think sometimes that I’d be better served to do fewer signings and start concentrating on attending more big writing conferences. That way I’d get to know more of the mystery writers and readers around the country, and maybe get a little bit wider exposure. Sadly for me, travel is not easy for me to plan, since I don’t know from month to month if some family health crisis is going to intervene and I’ll have to cancel my trip at the last minute. When I first started, I was advised to concentrate on a narrower audience until I was better known, which I have done, and it has served me well. But the law of diminishing returns kicks in after a couple of books, and you have to keep finding new venues.

I think that I'm going to try to do more internet promotion. Which is pretty optimistic of me, since I don’t much enjoy that, either. Fortunately, with a new series that has a new setting and new character, I have lots of fun new stuff to write about.

However, when next I write my blog entry, Dear Reader, I’ll visit a familiar subject : What to wear for your launch! Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Finding an unexpected kinship with artists in a totally different field

by Rick Blechta

Sorry I’m so tardy today. My wife and I went out of town for a couple of days of much-needed R&R and were delayed getting back today. It’s amazing how much road work is being done in rural Ontario!

Anyway, one day of our time away was spent at the annual Elora Fergus Studio Tour. Over a very tiny area — two small towns more or less — the tour comprised 35 artists working in various media, mostly painting, but a few glassmakers, jewellers, and others. Most of them were surprisingly excellent.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. One of the artists we visited, Kathi Kuti Harding’s, specializes in miniature sculptures (fairies, fairytale characters, witches, small anthropomorphic animals, etc. All of them are hand sculpted in polymer clay. The tiny faces Kathi creates are incredibly striking and expressive.

We got to talking and I revealed I was a writer when we began talking about creating characters, in my case on paper and in hers, clay. She related to me how she only starts off with a rough idea of how she wants a particular face to look. Then the magic begins. “It’s as if they reveal themselves to me as I work. They also tell me how they want to be dressed and sometimes they can be quite difficult about it.”

Does that sound familiar? More than one of us here on Type M have discussed the same thing about our made-up people. I’ve written about going for a walk so I can discuss with a character whatever difficulty we’re having, usually caused by me wanting them to do something they don’t feel particularly like doing.

Now I find out sculptors can have the same issues with their works.

I’m beginning to think we artists, in whatever field they choose to express themselves, are mad as snakes!

Check out her website: Better yet, if you’re around southern Ontario, drive out to Elora and you can meet Kathi on Saturday or Sunday next weekend!