Friday, November 29, 2019

The Passage of Time

I'm late today because I "slept late" and only woke when Harry, my cat, began to meow outside my closed bedroom door. His stomach and the daylight had obviously told him that it was time for me to get up, brush, and feed him. The curious thing is that with daylight saving time, Harry, who is usually up and meowing between 8 and 9 in summer (because I am up late and he eats a bedtime snack) is now napping until between 10 and 11. Sometimes, when he is in my bedroom, he wakes up, notices that I am awake but not getting up, and cleans himself and goes back to sleep.

I'm writing about my cat and time because I wonder how it is to experience 24 hours if you are a cat (or a dog). What is it like to spend so much time napping? When we, who love our animals look at them and regret the speed with which the time with them seems to pass, do they have the same sense of time passing. Does my cat, Harry, who is now officially a senior at 13 years of age feel as if he has aged when he dashes through the house with even more glee than he did four years ago because he is much more "at home" than when I adopted him? Does he know about time passing when he plays like a kitten, chasing his own tail around and around? Maybe it's because of his breed, a Maine Coon mix, and how they age (or don't).

I'm thinking about all this because I had a birthday this month, and I've been pondering the passage of time. But I've also been thinking about cultural history and fiction. I woke up and headed to the computer this morning to do research because I've been thinking about the everyday lives of my characters in 1939. In my thriller, they are on the move -- traveling frequently by train because my protagonist is a Pullman sleeping car porter. Another character  is traveling back and forth between Georgia, where he lives on a plantation that his grandfather purchased before the Civil War. This character is involved in the state's preparation for the opening of the 1939 World's Fair in New York That fair is themed "the world of tomorrow." Another character migrates from a small city in Virginia to Harlem in New York City. And a fourth character moves from a summer home in northern Virginia to Nantucket. How do these characters experience time and place? Do they walk faster in New York City as I do when I go there from Albany? Or, did people in New York City walk slower in 1939?

With none of our modern technology-- mobile phones, Internet, television (debuting in 1939 at the World's Fair), are my characters really unplugged? Was radio an inherently slower experience? Or. were 1930s movies with chase scenes the equivalent experience of our chase scenes?

What about cooking with 1939 appliances? By virtue of technology, "slow cooking?"

I woke up and did a deep dive into a database called "America: History and Life" to see if anyone had written an article about this. What came up first was a wonderful book review in the February 1, 2013 issue of History & Theory by a scholar named Brian Fay. He calls his review "Hammer Time," a title that made me smile because it seemed a tongue-in-cheek reference to the performer who now does commercials. But the review is of a 2011 book by Espen Hammer in which Hammer examined what various philosophers had to say that might be relevant to our modern sense of time. Hammer, who Fay describes as a man of reason, takes as a given that we now perceive the passage of time as "a series of present moments each indefinitely leading to the next in an ordered way," We measure time by the clock. This allows us to have technological breakthroughs, but at the same time we have problems of "transience and memory."

In his review of Hammer's book, Fay was thoughtful and poetic in describing how he himself experiences time. He noted that as he watched his daughter running down the hall after her bath, he experienced time not only as moving forward toward the next moments of putting her to bed, but backward in time to when she was younger. Fay argues that any moment can be filled with "the what is, that what might-have-been, the what-will-be, the what has been, and the what was." These experiences reflect our perceptions, memories, expectations, hopes, fears, and regrets. Because of this, Fay argues, modern time seems to him to be "fundamentally multidimensional." And he wonders if there is any period (at least in modern history) when time hasn't been experienced in this way. How is the way T.S. Eliot perceives time in "Burnt Norton" and "Dry Salvages" differ from Shakespeare's Macbeth when he refers to "the petty pace from day to day" that lead to "dusty death " (Act 5, Scene 5, 19-28).

I know this may be a writer's dive "down the rabbit hole" of research. But I'm fascinated by this subject and I'm going to spend a bit of "my precious time" reading about it. I suspect that if I can grasp the sensory experience of the passage of time in 1939 (another period of uncertainty and anxiety but without the modern technology) than my book will be all the better for my deep dive.

Harry is awake again and after meowing and poking me with his paws to get my attention, he has stretched out beside my chair to remind me that it is time for his lunch. His stomach has told him that it is time, no need for a clock.

I look at the clock and realize half my day is already gone. Would I have experienced that in 1939? And if 40 is the new 30 now, what was it like then?

Harry's meowing. Got to go. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

Impossible Pumpkin Pie

It's Thanksgiving Day in the States, so instead of writing about writing today, I'm going to write about pie. On top of that, I'm going to gift you all with my mother's wonderful Impossible Pumpkin Pie recipe, below, which is easy as pie (as it were). There are several kinds of "impossible" pies that make their own crust, but this is a good one for the holidays.

For the past several years, Thanksgiving has been something of a problem for Don and me, since we (mainly he) have so many dietary restrictions. We've been vegetarian for the past thirty-five years, though I've relaxed my meatlessness a lot lately when I'm not at home. Sometimes it's just too much trouble to ask what is in the soup. On top of that, Don is supposed to avoid too many oxalates, so no greens, rhubarb, strawberries, or beans. Since his cancer operation, no refined sugar or pure fruit juices, either, and certainly no artificial sweeteners. Stevia is all right, if it's pure stevia leaf and no dextrose.

Have you ever tried to make a non-pumpkin, non-sugar pumpkin pie? Believe it or not, it can be done. Don has become an expert stevia-sweetened pastry chef. He can make a "pumpkin" pie out of pureed butternut squash and stevia which I defy you to tell the difference between it and the real thing. It's the spices that make the pie, I think.

Substituting squash for pumpkin is no big deal, anyway. Ever tried sweet potato pie? My grandmother used to make pies out of the most unlikely ingredients. Whatever she had on hand. Apple cider vinegar pie tastes like apples. One of my favorites was her Ritz cracker pies. I haven't had that since...well, practically forever. The crackers dissolved into a pudding-like consistency. I don't know how she did it.

But this is the real thing:

The following recipe is for the easiest and most amazing pumpkin pie ever made. This is my mother’s recipe, and I’m presenting it here exactly as she wrote it down.
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup biscuit mix (such as Bisquick)
1 can (16 oz) pumpkin
2 tsp. butter
2 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 can (13 oz.) evaporated milk
2 tsp. vanilla
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9 inch pie pan. Beat all ingredients until smooth. Pour into pan. Bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, 50-55 minutes.
(No, you don’t make a crust. The pie will make its own crust.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Catching those silly words

On Monday I sent off the revised manuscript of THE ANCIENT DEAD to my editor, well ahead of the deadline. The revisions included some substantive changes based on his suggestions, some story changes I came up with on my own, and some minor tweaking and polishing. Do we ever stop editing our work? Every time I read over a section, I find things to tweak. Delete that unnecessary word, add another for greater clarity, change a word for one that flows better, or for an elegant variation as Aline described in her post this week. In fact, even once the book is published and been on the shelf for ages, I've been known to tweak phrases on the fly when I do readings, wishing I'd noticed that silly word choice earlier.

At a certain point, the tweaking has to stop. It's time to send the manuscript on its way and let others have their way with it. With fresh eyes, the copy editors and proofreaders come up with different improvements, and by the time the book gets to the printers, it is the most polished it can be. Except for that silly word that gets changed at every reading.

The last edit I do before I send the manuscript off is to run it through a series of mind-numbingly dull but crucial filters. I don't have any fancy apps that tell me I've used the word 'possibly' five hundred and eleven times in three hundred pages. I don't have an app to tell me my character has 'rolled their eyes' at least once in every chapter. Or drummed their fingers, or whatever verbal tic I am currently fond of. I am more aware of these now, so possibly I catch myself before my character rolls his eyes, but maybe some new tics creep in instead. And then there are the very useless words that just seem to pop into a sentence because I am on automatic pilot.

That's where the filters come in. For this, lacking a fancy app, I use good, old-fashioned "Find next". I type in the word I want to catch and then plow through the manuscript instance by instance, deciding whether I need that word or not, and deleting as many as possible. Because I don't want to catch all the embedded words like every, or justice, I have to do the search several times with a space preceding it and a period or comma afterwards. When you put as many just's into three hundred pages as I do, it takes a while. That takes even longer.

After that I tackle the adverbs. This involves typing ly followed by a space into the Find function and then wading through the adverbs that clutter the page, along with an awful lot of only's and family's,  but that can't be helped. Each adverb has to be considered on its merits and either spared, deleted, or replaced with a single punchier word. Then I repeat the whole exercise with comma and period after the ly.

Now the manuscript is almost ready. It only needs a final spellcheck. In my case, in the matter of hyphenated words, my Spellcheck happened to disagree with the manual of style being followed by my publisher, so I had to ignore all the times Spellcheck told me to fix coworker or reestablish.

After that, I press send and off it goes, out of my hands. And I go to the fridge, where the wine is already chilling. Perhaps I walk the dogs first, because that boring filter process can take a few hours and they and their bladders are running out of patience. But in the end, there is wine. Probably chocolate too.

I'm curious to know what editing apps and tricks other authors use to catch those pesky little phrases and words that the brain just glosses over when we reread our pages. If there is a cheap, easy fix for an old Luddite like me, I'll happily try it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Spam comments on Type M

by Rick Blechta

The time has come to do something about spam comments on our blog. I use “our” here because I (for one) consider Type M for Murder to be a big family.

However, like every family, we have “troublesome relatives.” I’m referring to that odious segment of humanity known as spammers. These people come to our blog to sell things or tell you about things that they want to sell you. They troll their way through blog pages like ours and leave their copy & paste messages, hoping to attract more business.

I’m sure the vast majority of people visiting Type M don’t bother to click on the links left behind by spammers, but it certainly does degrade your experience seeing all these messages.

I handle the moderation of our web page, and I’m constantly checking comments to remove spam. This past weekend, I happened to look back to some older blog posts (and don’t forget, Type M goes back to 2006!) and found hundreds of spam comments that have been left long after the posts were published. It took me several hours to purge them all. To say the least, I’m completely fed up.

Sooooo, beginning right now, ALL COMMENTS on Type M will be checked before they are posted. I will do my very best to review comments as quickly as I can and upload them. I suspect that this alone will cut down on spam comments right out of the box because these Odious Creatures will see that there is no hope.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that I’m sorry this has come to pass. Believe me, it’s a huge pain in the neck for me, but the Type M crew all want your experience here at our blog to be a lovely one, and spam doesn’t help that. Some recent spam messages have been quite appalling.

This DOES NOT mean that comments will be censored in any way. Good discussion often involves disagreement, and we do want to encourage good, vigorous discussion. The ONLY reason a comment will not be posted is because it is spam.

Thank you for your understanding!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Elegant Variation

Mario's mention of 'purple prose' reminded me of a linked subject I'd been meaning to write about – elegant variation.

I don't know whether the dislike of repetition is instinctive or instilled but I know that whatever I'm writing, using the same word twice in close proximity – unless deliberately – sets off a little warning buzzing in my head. It makes me uncomfortable, even if I'm just writing a quick email to a friend. And certainly it's something my copy editor pounces on if I've slipped up.

The danger is that it's so easy to go too far the other way, when the effort not to repeat puts the language through terrible contortions. It was HW Fowler, author of The King's English – the bible for classic English style – who introduced the phrase 'elegant variation'. Garner's Modern American Usage suggested that it should be rechristened 'inelegant usage', misunderstanding the ironic tone of Fowler's comment – 'elegant' implied 'pretentious.'

There are some wonderful examples, particularly in newspapers. At the Guardian newspaper they are known as 'povs' after a hapless journalist, trying to avoid repetition when he was writing about carrots, described them as 'the popular orange vegetable.' It went along with another where 'the elongated yellow fruit' was used to describe - well, I hardly need to tell you, do I?

Once you start looking out for it you see it everywhere. I found an article about the emperor who was later termed 'His Majesty' and then called 'the monarch.' (See what I did there?) Sports writing does it a lot – you get the guy's name, then it'll be 'the midfielder' or 'the star scorer' or 'the bearded player' – I could go on and on.

This approach is apparently particularly popular in France. A humorist explained, 'In an article about Gaston Deferre, it's OK to say Deferre once. So next you say the mayor of Marseilles. Then the Minister of Planning. Then, the husband of Esmonde. Then Gastounet, and then ... well then you stop talking about him because you don't know what to call him next.'

My favorite, though, was the report about a pet rat that was so fat it got stuck in an opening. In the course of the article, it became 'the rotund rodent', 'the furry fatso', 'the chubby pet', the well-upholstered mammal'. After that, I suppose the reporter just had to stop talking about it because, as the humorist said, he didn't know what to call it next.

I still can't stop myself from trying to avoid repetition but it's a timely warning to be very, very careful.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Making a Better Human

After his time in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and his common-law wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus, set out for Alaska, where they ran the Dexter Saloon. What intrigues me about this photo of their saloon is the humor, a hundred years after the fact, which still holds up.

Humor is an integral part of human nature, and though we are a civilization centuries old with many differences in customs, languages, and shared experiences, I'm amazed when jokes manage to transcend the ages. One of my favorites is from ancient China and discusses the origins of the house cat. The story is that cats had been sent by the Gods to watch over us, but the cats don't do a very good job of it because they sleep so much.

This interest about human character stems from panels at science-fiction conferences where we discussed future developments involving humans and high-technology. One favorite topic addressed the human-computer interface and potential changes to human biology. For example, connecting our brains directly to computers would allow us to access information from vast libraries and process that data at incredible speeds. The eventual goal would be "singularity," where every mind would be wired to the Internet to create one global super brain. What a schizophrentic mess that would be. Who would set the agenda? Proponents of that technology argue in purple prose that such a development should be hailed as the next step in human evolution. Homo-Google.

That ability would surely make us smarter. Right? And by extension, better. What's missing in this talk of becoming more advanced humans is any discussion about what truly makes us better. I've yet to see a software app that'll make anyone more honest. Or more empathetic. Or wiser. Conversely, I haven't seen an app that would prevent dishonesty, theft, treachery, or even murder. Human nature as expressed through humor, or doing good, or doing bad, won't change. To that end, here's one of my favorite quotes from Scripture, Job 5:7 Man was born into trouble just as surely as sparks fly upward. 

And that trouble is what keeps us crime writers busy.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Wrong Girl? Not by a Long Shot

My dear friend Donis Casey launched her new series this month. The Wrong Girl is the first title in the Bianca Dangereuse Hollywood Mysteries Series. It's a terrific way to slide into a new series without jettisoning all the readers who love her Alafair Tucker books.

I don't know if Donis composed the following or one of Poisoned Pen/Sourcebooks promotional whizzes came up with the following but it sure captures the transformation of Blanche Tucker in Bianca LaBelle:

Blanche Tucker longs to escape her drop-dead dull life in tiny Boynton, Oklahoma. Then dashing Graham Peyton roars into town. Posing as a film producer, Graham convinces the ambitious but naive teenager to run away with him to a glamorous new life. Instead, Graham uses her as cruelly as a silent picture villain. Yet by luck and by pluck, taking charge of her life, she makes it to Hollywood.
Six years later, Blanche has transformed into the celebrated Bianca LaBelle, the reclusive star of a series of adventure films, and Peyton's remains are discovered on a Santa Monica beach. Is there a connection? With all of the twists and turns of a 1920s melodrama, The Wrong Girl follows the daring exploits of a girl who chases her dream from the farm to old Hollywood, while showing just how risky—and rewarding—it can be to go off script.

Many established mystery writers have spun very successful series by plucking out a favorite character and spinning him or her off into a brand new adventure.

Here's wishing one of the most thoughtful contributors to Type M For Murder the very best of luck with the new series.

I can't wait to read it and really admire this skillful transition.

Thursday, November 21, 2019


Timeouts. I don’t know what else to call these pauses. I get in a rhythm, write 50 or 75 pages of the novel I’m working on and something –– let’s call it life –– gets in the way and delays me for a month.

Part of this is my OCD: if I break stride in a book, I have to go back and reread the whole thing, and that means reading it aloud (I think Rick has previously blogged on the importance of reading your manuscript aloud), which, although vitally important to me, is not a fast process, at least not for me. So I spend several weeks reading my work aloud (yes, apparently I’m talking to myself, to anyone who walks past my office) before advancing the narrative.

I’ve hit Pause again this week, about halfway through the novel I’m writing. I led a faculty retreat, which took a lot of planning and distracted me enough to slow me down for a week, and –– and more pertinent to this audience –– I was asked to write a three-season arc for a TV script I wrote based on said novel (yes, the one that’s not finished). Cart before horse? Probably. But the requests come from a producer and an agent who like the concept, and, as we know, nothing sells books like TV, so…

...the novel is on hold, and I’m fleshing out three seasons.

I like small goals and set them each week. Currently, I’m trying to get the arc done by Christmas, update the pilot script by New Year’s, and dive headlong back into the novel and finish it by April Fools’ Day.

I’ve called a timeout to write this, so I’m going back to work…

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

5 in 5

Monday marked 5 years since my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, was released. Tuesday was the release day for my 5th book, Ghosts of Painting Past. That’s 5 books released in 5 years. Hard for me to believe sometimes.

When I signed the first 3-book contract, part of me doubted that I could actually get the books completed in the time frame given, but I knew I had to try. The second book was particularly hard for me. It took me 10-15 years to write the first one and I had 9 months for the second. Yikes! Let’s just say that things did not go well. I did eventually finish Paint The Town Dead a few months late thanks to my publisher for hanging in there with me. For whatever reason, book 3, A Palette For Murder, was much easier to write. I still think it was a tight schedule, but that one seemed to flow out of me.

That goes to show you that every book is different.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to sign that second 3-book contract, but I knew I wanted to write Halloween and Christmas themed books and I wanted as many as possible on audio, so I signed it. I’m glad I did, but I admit to being very exhausted. I still have book 6 to complete. For whatever reason, it’s been much harder to figure out this story than books 4 (Designed For Haunting) and 5 (Ghosts of Painting Past.)

I think I’ll be like Scarlett O’Hara and worry about that tomorrow. Right now I’m celebrating the release of my 5th book and everything I’ve accomplished in the last 5 years. Happy Book Birthday to me! (Okay it was yesterday, but I can still celebrate!)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Two random thoughts

by Rick Blechta

I found Tom’s post yesterday quite interesting. Here are a couple of riffs that his description of Washington inspired in me.

I’ve never been to Washington (despite growing up in the New York City area which is reasonably close), but I have been to several other world capitols (London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Ottawa). They all have one thing in common: government buildings all have rather self-conscious grandiosity incorporated into their designs. I suppose this is supposed to reflect each country’s feelings of importance and standing. Tom is right in his comment about the use of marble. It is a very common feature in all government buildings.

Viewing them up close, somehow, I always come away feeling a bit, well, squashed. I suspect that’s a deliberate function of the architecture of Important Government Buildings.

For instance, have you ever noticed how huge the main doorways are? A Tyrannosaurus rex could walk through one without worrying about bumping its head! There might be a smaller door-within-a-door, but you can’t help but be aware of how small and insignificant you are.

Just the thing any government would want from its citizens, I think…


Even though I was born and brought up in the States, I’ve lived in Canada since I was 20, so I guess I’m more “Canadian” than “American” these days — whatever that means.

So why am I completely consumed by the political shenanigans in the States? I mean, it’s got so bad that I actually find myself with an online subscription to the Washington Post (even though it Fake News).

Who else is suffering from this?

I used to not really follow politics all that much, just gleaning what I needed from various news sources to be an adequately informed citizen. Now I find myself wanting to check into the Post on a nearly hourly basis.

But that in turn has led to other thoughts. They’ve managed to turn Trump’s trials and tribulations into click-bait, haven’t they? It’s almost like an addiction, and is sort of frightening.

Well, last night I decided I’m only going to check in when I sit down at the computer in the morning, and then just after dinner. That’s it. My life is too busy to spend a half hour here and an hour there reading breathless reports on just what is happening. Between times, I’m going to resist the urge to see what new bombshell has landed in our laps.

Wish me luck…

Monday, November 18, 2019

Thoughts From Capitol Hill

This week I took a break from working on my fourth novel and flew to Washington D.C. where I joined a group of about fifty coastal business leaders and elected officials to talk to our federal legislators about banning offshore oil drilling and seismic testing. This lobbying effort was coordinated by Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization focused on influencing specific policy decisions on the national level to preserve and restore the world's oceans.

The trip fit nicely with the book I’m working on with the working title of Shadow Hill. That term is coined by one of the characters, already dead in the first chapter from a murder-suicide event. Instead of calling it Capitol Hill, he derisively called it Shadow Hill. The reason being, everyone on the Hill has a secret agenda hidden by the shadows.

So in addition to my lobbying effort, it was also a research trip.

Here are a few of my observations from my trip to Shadow Hill.

I lost count of the number of security checks I had to go through, and that doesn’t count airport security TSA. Every federal building we entered forced us to empty our pockets and walk through the metal detector. Which made me ponder that if everyone on the Hill is so concerned about weapons, why don’t they tackle simple common sense regulations like universal background checks for gun ownership for the rest of us?

The day we were in and out of Senate and House offices was also the first day of the impeachment hearings. Every congressional office had a television tuned into the hearings so the aides could keep track of what was going on. Not surprisingly, the televisions in the Republican offices were turned to Fox, the Democrats were watching CNN. Same hearings, same discussions, same questions and answers…different networks.

Even the televisions in the cafeteria were turned onto the hearings. Half tuned into Fox, half tuned into CNN. I was reminded of the last time I’d been in DC and the looking up while I ate my hamburger and seeing multiple images of Stormy Daniels.

I was amused by the hierarchy of offices. For example, the more senior members of the House were ensconced in reasonably spacious offices in locations close to doorways and bathrooms. The newest members of the House were not. We visited a Representative who had just been voted into office in a special election in North Carolina whose office was so cramped, we held our meeting in the hallway. His office, by the way, was way the hell away from the closest exit. If I remember correctly, it was right next to a janitor’s closet.

In spite of the fact that I’ve been to Washington several times to lobby for various causes, I’m always impressed by the grandiosity of the place. On this particular trip, I was blown away by the Capitol Visitors Area. It was where we were greeted by a cocktail reception with our delegation and additional elected officials. I don't recall ever seeing so much marble.

I was driven back to Dulles Airport to fly home by a cab driver who was originally from Ethiopia and had immigrated to the United States twenty years ago. He told me how much he loved this country. He loved the freedoms we seem to take for granted. We also had a comprehensive discussion about politics and I was very impressed with his knowledge of the political players and current events and he had the inside scoop on what was going on with the impeachment hearings. If you want to know what’s going on, ask a cab driver in Washington D.C.

Some of the earlier blogs over the last couple of weeks talked about what people read while waiting for their flights or on their airplane. I noted, like everyone else, that most people were staring intently at their phones or tablets. Smatterings of people were reading books. One man shocked the hell out of me by reading a…gasp…newspaper.

Back to working on my manuscript. I’m on deadline.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Writing Weather

When I was growing up in Virginia, we lived "out in the country." Not deep country, but a few miles outside the city limits. Far enough out to have several acres of land, sloping down from the road as a driveway and stretching out in back toward a field that could be used for planting vegetables and small fruit trees could be grown. My father mowed this yard. But when autumn came, raking the leaves that had fallen from the huge hickory nut tree and blown down the hill from my uncles' houses on each side of ours -- raking the leaves was a ritual that my parents and my younger brother and I did together. First, we raked. Then the dogs ran through the leaves. Then we piled the leaves up again and burned them. The bright fall day would be filled with that wonderful smell of burning leaves as we leaned against our rakes.

Fall is my favorite season. Snuggle up on sofa with book season. Add blanket to bed season. Sleep late and eat oatmeal season. I have my own rituals now. The moment when I bring out my small heater. The first night I make cocoa. This is "sleeping weather" when I make up for all the uncomfortable nights when I tossed and turned even with the air conditioner on.

This is also writing weather. The weather when I wake up and go to my computer. Weather when I feel like a storyteller -- when there are readers gathered with me around a fireplace, listening as I weave my story. My cat naps on top of the radiator and time has slowed down.

Today, after three trips in two months (Kansas City, Missouri, Bouchercon in Dallas, New England Crime Bake in Massachusetts), I am home. I have work to do -- time has not slowed down. I have errands to take care of, students to meet with at school, reports to write. But when I sit down at my computer with my mug of cocoa, it is writing weather.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Another Book Launch Under My Belt

Donis, Barbara Peters, Martin Edwards

What a weird couple of weeks it's been. I've had so many things going that I'm in a constant state of anxiety that I'm going to forget something important. In fact, I did forget to write my Type M blog entry on October 30. I'm sorry, but I suppose if I'm going to forget something, that's better than forgetting to put on pants.

October 29 was the official launch party for my 1920 silent movie era novel, The Wrong Girl, Episode 1 of my new series, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse. It was a wonderful event - a big crowd and I was pleased to appear with Edgar winner Martin Edwards, author of The Golden Age Of Murder, who was in the States to attend Bouchercon and tout his latest, Gallows Court. I didn't get to go to Bouchercon, but I am planning a road trip early next month to go back to my home country of Oklahoma to do a couple of events. (more on that later). Yes, my husband Don and I are planning to drive from sunny Arizona to who-knows-what-it'll-be-like Oklahoma. Don has not been "home" for a dozen years, and he is having a period of relatively good health right now, so we thought we'd better take advantage of the opportunity while we can. Besides, tomorrow (Friday the 15th) is our 45th wedding anniversary, and by damn, we're going to do something together to celebrate.

Always work the crowd.

The Wrong Girl is getting some nice attention already. It got a starred review in Booklist, and has been listed as one of their Best New Books of the Week! You can see the full list here: Cathy Cole's review at Kittling Books made me very happy, as well.

I also did a fun, short podcast at Biblio Happy Hour on Monday in which I wax eloquent about The Wrong Girl. Have a listen!

And if you haven't had enough, and want to see how it all came about, Elisabeth Storrs interviews me in her November inspiration newsletter here. If you subscribe to her newsletter you can enter into the draw for a digital copy of The Wrong Girl. As a special treat, my friend Judith Starkston is offering 3 copies of her new release, Sorcery in Alpara, at the same address:

Oh, there's more, but for the moment I'd better pause and think about all the things I've forgotten to do.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Cover Design

Covers sell books. Well, not by themselves, but covers are the "curb appeal" of books. They are what first catches the eye and makes a book stand out from all the others so that the casual browser stops for another look. Perhaps picks it up and turns it over to read the back blurb.

So it's essential to get it right. The colour, the image, the amount of detail, the title, and the font all combine to give an overall impression of what's inside. Pastels like pinks and purples suggest a nice, gentle cozy, and a cat in the image cements the impression even before you get to the title "Baking up Murder". By contrast, vivid, violent, and clashing colours like red and orange are more likely an action thriller, and moody, dark colours like grey, brown, and dark blue, often with a single, haunting image, hint at menace. If you're not in the mood for a tortured, moving read, you won't pick up that one.

Cover designers rarely read the novel beforehand. They rely on the blurbs and descriptive material provided by the editors, and sometimes, as in the case of my publisher, Dundurn Press, they ask for suggestions from the author. Here are two examples of FIRE IN THE STARS, my first Amanda Doucette mystery. Because it was a new series, there were no guidelines for how the covers ought to look. I had suggested a Newfoundland landscape, so here is the first cover that was developed.

A beautiful scene that captures the essence of Newfoundland, but does it speak of danger and menace? The scene , with its calm ocean and its quaint houses, is too peaceful and colours are too soft. After this feedback, here is the cover the designer came up with. (Thank you, Laura Boyle, you are awesome.) I think it speaks for itself.

We are now just beginning the process of designing the cover for THE ANCIENT DEAD, the fourth Amanda Doucette mystery, and this time I sent Laura about five photos taken during last fall's location trip to the Alberta badlands, and although she may find something even better, they can be a starting point for her. Here are a couple of of them.

I can't wait to see what she comes up with!

Monday, November 11, 2019

How To Grow Readers

Reading Rick's post this week about how few people are reading these days, I wanted to say that as a family we are doing our best to boost the numbers!  This shows my daughter, my son-in-law and two of my three grandchildren on holiday in France.  The reason the third grandchild wasn't in the picture would be because she was inside, reading.

We have a film clip of her as a five year-old: she was told to clear the table after lunch which she duly did, one item at a time, while reading the book she had in her other hand the whole time.

The reason they are such bookworms is the same as the reason my own children were, and I was - in self-defense. When Mummy and Daddy were reading you didn't get much attention so you had to entertain yourself on wet afternoons.  Nowadays the internet is the competition but for them time on line is very limited but books aren't.The result is, of course, that we all have a problem with books like some people have with mice.

Reading, of itself, is an educational advantage.  It's how you pick up spelling, grammar and punctuation as well as all kinds of useful information.  But what does concern me, a little, is what they're reading.

My grandson, aged eight, has developed a passion for Calvin and Hobbes.  Great!  I love them too, and there's plenty of other stuff he likes as well.  The ten-year old is into dragons, in a big way.  But the oldest grandchild is just entering her teens.

When I was her age there was no such thing as a teen novel.  Oh, there were series like Little Women and Anne of Avonlea and Pollyanna and Katy when the young heroine grew older and even had a very tasteful romance and got married, but apart from that, you had to move on to adult novels.  The books I read were by the Brontes, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoy, even.  Later I discovered the great Americans like Salinger and Scott Fitzgerald.

But how many really challenging books did I pack in my bookbox for the recent holiday?  One or two good modern novels, an interesting biography - and 'easy-reads.'  They're so tempting, they sweep you along so you don't have to think; you enjoy it at the time by they don't leave you with anything to think about afterwards.

I did much of my serious reading between 11 and 18, but I know perfectly well that if there had been these wonderful 'teen reads' available I wouldn't have done it.  It's like eating candy; you lose the taste for chewing the tough crust of sourdough bread.  But it's much better for you.

I do hope that my smart-as-a-whip granddaughter gets dissatisfied with them and moves on. But it was a lot easier for me.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Flogging My Way to Success

Just can't do it folks. Can't nag my friends and family members about writing reviews of my books. I consider it an honor when someone tells me they bought one of my books and just loved it. Yes, that happens! But as far as going the extra step and twisting their arms to get on Amazon and give me a good review, I just can't. 

Good reviews are very important. I'm thrilled every time I get thoughtful comments from one of the four major review magazines: Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. One of my biggest honors was when Hidden Heritage, the third book in the Lottie Albright series, was flagged by Kirkus as one of the 100 Best Mysteries, and one of the 100 Best Fiction Books of 2013. I wondered if they had made a mistake.

Publicity directors send books all over the country to magazine and newspaper editors who write book reviews. These people are swamped. There were over 1 million books self-published in 2017. In 2018, 675 million print books were sold in the United States. That's print books. The statistic doesn't include ebooks. And every one of the these writers would love to have a review.

Everyone who has ever held a job knows there are parts to their employment they really don't like to do. Personnel in health care complain about the volume of government forms they have to fill out. Some management positions involve a lot of travel. When my husband had the livestock truck line I remember one of the drivers commenting that if had wanted to be a bookkeeper he would have taken a job in that field. Filling out envelopes, check records, fuel purchases, dispatch information, and log books was a tedious undertaking.

Most of the writers I know would like to write. The more gregarious among us like speaking to groups. Frankly, I enjoy this. But I balk at constant blogging, creating newsletters, commenting on my computer, and even updating my website.

But the reality is--the work has changed. We are no longer sequestered in a garret courting our Muse in blessed silence. I'm very interested in how other authors manage this problem.

Nevertheless, I draw the line at pressuring my friends to write a review for me on Amazon. When someone does, I am grateful. But somehow asking them to do this reminds of chain product selling. You buy a product and the seller immediately pounces and wants you to become a distributor under them.

Doesn't that sound like a grim approach. "You've bought my book! Wonderful. Now review it."

Thursday, November 07, 2019

What’s in your wallet?

This week, my audiobook is Dreyer’s English, by Random House copy chief, now NYT best-seller, Benjamin Dreyer. I listen to it at the gym, in the car, and walking the dog. It’s funny, insightful, and authoritative. I want a hardcopy for my desk.

My tired but trusted 3rd ed.
One thing I enjoy most about the work is Dreyer’s early mention of the style books he has on his desk.

This got me thinking . . .

Every writer keeps their favorite style books –– those broken-spined, annotated, dog-eared copies they return to over and again –– on their desk. I’m going to offer an I’ll show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours look at my desk copies.

For me, the book I have toted in my laptop bag on vacations, brought with me on business trips when I know I’ll have time to write, and rests on my desk when I’m at home is The Elements of Style –– timeless, brief, easy. If I’m being honest with you –– and I am –– I must confess to double-checking the difference between and Lay/Lie so often that my 1979 edition of the book practically falls open to page 51.

When I published my first novel, my editor told me the publishing house used Chicago Style, so I ran out and spent close to $75 on the The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition). (That edition now lists for $18.99 on Amazon, if you’re interested.) It’s easy to use, and everything you could possibly need is in there.
As a former newspaperman, the AP Stylebook is always nearby. It’s handy for checking abbreviations and capitalization rules. On a related note, The Word: An Associated Press Guide to News Writing, by Rene Cappon, is one of the best style guides –– and just a really interesting read –– that you will come across. (It’s $3 used on Amazon.) I often share the section about syntax and sentences length with students.

These are my top style books, guides I turn to when the prose waters get choppy, companions I find it reassuring to have on my desk. I’d love to hear what style books you have on your desk.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Bouchercon 2019 Recap

I spent all last week in Texas, half of it in Dallas for Bouchercon, half doing a little sightseeing in Austin and San Antonio. One of the highlights of our pre-conference travels was the Natural Bridge Caverns near San Antonio. We took the Discovery tour and descended into a world of stalagmites and stalactites. I’ve been in quite a few caves in the U.S. before. I always find them very interesting.

This was only my second Bouchercon. The first was the one in Long Beach several years ago, fairly close to where I live.

At this Bouchercon:
  • I learned how to pick a lock and realized how terrible I am at it. Some of the people in my session were frighteningly good. I admit to being a bit envious. Maybe I just need more practice?
  • I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in awhile and met new people. We talked about writing, the publishing world and numerous other things. This is always one of my favorite parts of any conference.
  • Books, books, books were everywhere. I got some free and bought a few more.
  • Attended the Sisters in Crime breakfast where I talked with other SinC members and witnessed the handoff to the new board including incoming president Lori Rader-Day who also won an Anthony for Best Paperback Original and moderated the panel I was on. 
  • Attended interesting panels and talks. With eight things going on at one time, there was a lot to choose from. The Poison Lady, Lucy Zahray, was there, which is always interesting. I attended the session where she talked about poisonous plants. Scary and interesting at the same time. I admit that I didn’t attend as many sessions as I could have, preferring to hang out with people.
  • I did make it to the performance of “The Ghost Town Mortuary”, a radio play by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. Members of MWA NorCal played the parts. This was the first time it had been performed since its original 1946 broadcast. It was originally written as an episode of The Casebook of Gregory Hood. This was a shortened version and was quite fun to watch. 

  • Had a great time with fellow authors Lori Rader-Day, J.A. Jance, Libby Klein, Liz Milliron and Suzanne Trauth on the Small Towns, Big Crimes panel. We had a good turnout even if it was 10 am on Sunday morning and a lot of attendees had already gone home.
I’m glad I went. I had a good time and actually met real people who’d either read or heard of my books. Gasp! I’m seriously considering attending Bouchercon in Sacramento next year. One of these days I will decide. But right now, I have catching up to do and a book to write.

Speaking of giveaways, it’s #winItWednesday every Wednesday on my Facebook author page in November. I’m celebrating 5 years since my first book came out. Just stop by the page ( every Wednesday and check out the giveaway post for that week.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

More on travel-related reading habits

by Rick Blechta

If you’re a regular reader of Type M, you’ll know I traveled by air recently and did a bit of rough and ready research on how my fellow travelers were occupying themselves. There weren’t a lot of books in sight, nor were there many e-readers, either. Most people were looking at their cell phones — and I doubt they were reading books.

I’ve expanded my amateur research since then because I’ve been using Toronto’s transit system a fair bit lately. On one of the subway lines, the trains are open between cars making it easy to just stroll along and observe people (assuming it’s not rush hour with completely packed cars).

What have I noticed?

Still not many printed books or e-readers in sight. Most people were staring at their smart phones, again checking messages and responding. I’d say the proportions are nearly the same as what I saw in the airports. In one recent trip, I strolled through 8 cars (since we were stopped between stations while a problem cleared). Each car held around two dozen people, so let’s call it 200 people observed. I saw a total of 5 books, what looked like 4 e-readers, approximately 120 people staring at their cell phones (I embarrassingly lost count partway through), and the rest were either talking with someone or staring off into space.

I also noticed 7 ads for books and one was in every car and that’s a pretty good thing!

Remembering back to my youth and using trains every day into New York City to attend school, nearly everyone was reading, mostly newspapers or magazines, but there were a fair number of books. These cars were packed most of the time since it was rush hour, but even standees were reading their cleverly-folded papers or holding a book one-handed (which is a tiring thing to do if the book is a thick one).

While one can read books on a smart phone, I don’t think many people do that because it’s difficult. Flash fiction hasn’t really caught on either. My suspicion is it’s just easier to whip out one’s phone and check messages, visit news sites, or do social media. It’s also easier than lugging around a book, too.

So are people reading less while traveling about because they have cell phones and those are easier to carry around, or are they reading less because, well, they’re reading less?

Monday, November 04, 2019

Writers who inspired me to be a writer

As I write this, I’m on the 11th floor of the Hyatt Regency in Dallas attending Bouchercon. Last night, I had cocktails with Michael Barson and Warren Easley (both with Poisoned Pen/Sourcebooks) and Molly Odintz (an editor with Crimereads). One of the interesting topics of conversation was books we read when we were young who made us want to be writers.

It made me reach back and think about which writers inspired me to want to be an author.

The first that came to mind was Ian Fleming. Many, many years ago, I devoured every single James Bond Signet paperback that I could get my hands on. I vaguely recall that in those days they were an expensive sixty cents if you bought them from your local drug store. In school, all the boys (and some girls, too) would read them and then we’d trade those dog-eared copies like baseball cards.

To digress a moment, during our cocktail discussion last night, we talked about who portrayed the best James Bond in the movies. We couldn’t come to a unanimous conclusion. The three we liked the best were Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, and Timothy Dalton, not necessarily in that order.

We also talked about how, with the exception of From Russia With Love, the movies were nothing like Ian Fleming’s books. A good example that came up last night was Diamonds Are Forever. The book was about horse racing in Saratoga. There’s nothing about that in the movie.

Back on topic. One of the other writers who inspired me was John D. McDonald with his iconic Travis Magee series. He’s a beach bum who lives on a houseboat called the “Busted Flush” that he won in a poker game. He’s a self-described “Salvage Consultant” and “Knight Errant”. He makes his living by finding items that have been lost or stolen and taking a cut (usually half of what the item is worth).

Travis was a hero that didn’t seem to age although at the beginning of the series, he intimated that he was a Korean War veteran and somewhere along the way that subtly changed to being a veteran of the War in Viet Nam.

I was impressed that, even in the ‘60’s, he was a prototypical environmentalist, waxing poetic on how damaging encroaching human development was on the Everglades.

It wasn’t until about 1979 in The Green Ripper that Travis starts to slow down. In the last book of the series, The Lonely Silver Rain, Travis learns he has a teenage daughter and takes all the cash he has on hand and puts it into a trust fund for her.

Who can’t love that?

The last writer I’ll talk about is Stephen King. I recall that the very first book I read by him was Salem’s Lot. It scared me so badly that I couldn’t go down into our basement for months. I’d never been that affected by a book in my life.

The next book that I was transfixed by was King’s The Stand. The villain, Randall Flagg, stands out in my mind and I use him as the benchmark for my own villains. And the tunnel scene, scared me right down to my socks.

But King’s finest book, in my opinion, is his non-fiction memoir called On Writing. If you’re trying to develop your craft, it’s well worth your time.

One more digression. If you google how many books Stephen King has written, the answer is a vague “At Least 95”. The man is prolific.

I’ve left out dozens of other writers who have inspired me to write, but hey, I’m at Bouchercon. I don’t want to spend any more time in my hotel room than I have to.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The Next Big Thing

We writers are always getting hit on the head about the need for marketing. You can't turn around without tripping on yet another promotional idea that you must try. Fundamentally we want to reach new readers while keeping in touch with our stalwart fans. To that end, over the years different platforms and venues have come and gone. I cringe when I see my first promotional attempts on the Internet because they list my contact info on Myspace. How's that for dated? Back then, my agent was constantly browbeating me to find new fans on Myspace and get my titles and name out there. About the same time a group of urban fantasy writers that I belonged to, The League of Reluctant Adults, was all set to launch our blog. It was supposed to be a sophisticated operation with fan forums for every member. Then Facebook came along and Myspace sank faster than the Titanic. Few of our fans stuck with the League of Reluctant Adults and through an unspoken consensus, we contributors abandoned ship. The blog remains in cyberspace like a derelict Flying Dutchman.

Another promotional shtick was the infamous book trailer. I remember my agent and editor at the time breathing down my neck for a book trailer.  Since most book trailers were lucky to get a hundred views, I tried something different. My son Emil is a talented stop-motion animator and we collaborated on two Lego trailers, Vampire Lego Movie and Jailbait Zombie, the latter of which includes a cameo of me. Each accumulated over 150K views, which is far better than average for a book trailer. But did those views translate into sales? A tiny bit, perhaps.

Some of my writer friends tried engaging fans through video blogs but those didn't gain traction. Talking about writing and presenting book reviews in video format wasn't very appealing unless you had a compelling presence across many other interests.

Currently, Facebook is my primary means of reaching out to fans. I post my appearances at cons and pimp whatever new work I or fellow writers might have. When Twitter began I spent time there but didn't get much attention. Today I only visit Twitter about twice a week. My account on Instagram stalled because of the constant need for new visual constant and I couldn't keep up. Venues like Snapchat I haven't bothered with.

Ironically, some writer buddies have pulled back from their social media platforms. Online discussions have devolved into political flame wars about pretty much everything and those can suck the life out of your day. Plus, you can get tossed into Internet jail for violating "community standards," whatever those happen to be at the time. And sadly, many of my women writer friends have shut down their accounts because of stalkers and harassment.

So what will be the new thing? I knew you would ask. Here's my learned opinion. I dunno.