Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A year-end wish to you all

by Rick Blechta

2019 was not a banner year for the planet nor for many people. Rather than give you my enumeration of the good and bad things of the year for me, I’m voting to just turn the page and hope the coming 365 days are better for everyone.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Resolving to Write Every Single Day!

Since the beginning of December, I haven’t been on a deadline and have fallen into a very bad habit.  I’m not sitting down and writing every day.

Whenever I offer a workshop or give a talk to a group of readers and aspiring writers, I’m asked for my advice.  I always tell them, no matter what- write something every day.  Even if it’s a single sentence.

Write something every single day.

But how much should you write?

There’s no good answer to that, but let’s break it down in a quasi-scientific manner.  Most novels are between 70,000 and 100,000 words.  If we average that out to 85,000 words and we write 1000 words a day, you could write a novel in 85 days.  That’s under three months.

But that’s not counting revisions, false starts, or tossing your first, second, and third draft into the fireplace.

Michael Crichton, who passed away in 2008, wrote 28 novels, some under his own name and some under a pen name.  Author of books like Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and The Great Train Robbery, Crichton was extremely prolific, writing up to 10,000 words a day.  He said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.  It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Anne Rice is the author of an eclectic mix of gothic horror, Christian literature, and erotica. Best known for her book Interview with a Vampire, she knocks out about 3,000 words a day.  In her words, “I have to get all the distractions out of the way. I plunge into the work and write an episode; I can’t just clock in at 3,000 words.  I have to have time free to resolve things.  I write in episodic ways.  But when I’m ready to plunge in, I write from late morning through all afternoon, all evening.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, the grand master of mysteries and the author of the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, wrote 3,000 words a day.  He said, “Anything is better than stagnation.”

Lee Child who pens the Jack Reacher novels writes about 1,800 words a day.  “I write in the afternoon, from about 12 until about 6 or 7,” he said.  “I use an upstairs room as my office.  Once I get going, I keep at it, and it usually takes about six months from the first blank screen until the end.”

Here are a few of my suggestions for reaching a word goal.

1) Work in a location in which you are comfortable.  Much like Lee Child, I have an office in a small room over the garage.  I’m near enough to a window that I can see if it’s raining but it’s not a distraction.  I have access to the internet in case I need to do some research, but I try not to overdo it. When I’m writing, I usually have some low ambient music in the background.

2) Limit internet usage.  It is a killer of time.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, news websites, and kitty videos are addicting and rob you of your productivity.

3) Find the time of day that you are the most productive.  Most writers find that they can get into a writing rhythm during a certain time of day.  Whenever it is, make sure it’s devoid of distractions.  For me it’s about 1 in the afternoon until about 5.

4) Don’t write boring stuff. If you can’t stay excited about your work, readers won’t either.

5) Don’t be afraid.  A bad first draft is better than no draft at all.  Keep in mind, that unlike in real life, you can go back and change a scene, or make dialogue sharper and wittier.

Shifting gears for just a moment, let’s talk about New Year’s resolutions.  Mine are the same as last year, with one important addition!

1) A healthier diet…more salads, less carbs, less sugar…which means less wine. Well, we all know how that resolution is going to end up.

2) Exercise more often. Carve out time for a long walk or the stationary bike.

3) Don’t be afraid of my first draft. I have to remember that a bad first draft is better than no draft at all.  Wait a minute, didn’t I already say that?

4) Read more. I’m a voracious news junkie, but I find when I’m writing, I can’t seem to find time to read books.  That should be every bit as important as time for writing.

5) Cut back…way back…on the internet. That is a time KILLER.

6) Learn to relax, take a deep breath, look around and appreciate life.

The addition?  Write. Every. Single.  Day.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Something old, too much new

As a kid I loved Christmas presents. I liked to think I was easy to shop for since what would always make me happy were model airplanes. There was the year that I dropped hints, in the form of brochures, of my desire for a minibike. The experience taught me not to put much credence in the Law of Attraction. Older now, and as a dad having masqueraded many times as Santa Claus, my perspective on the giving of presents has shifted. I realize that the best things we can give one another are not material objects. But I'm not going to risk being labeled as a Grinch by withholding gifts. I know the pressure of giving something, and the closer the relationship, the more money you tend to spend. As a result, I've bought expensive gifts that ended up gathering dust or were promptly regifted. Gift cards are a convenient way to assuage gift-giving guilt.

At my age, I pretty much have what I need. As to what I'd like? Beachfront mansions are unfortunately out of the question. In fact, like most of us, I have too much stuff. I have a closet full of coats, of which I wear only three with any frequency. My spring/autumn coat, my winter coat, and my Are You Kidding, It's a Blizzard Out There coat. For some reason I have five pairs of heavy-duty snow boots. Years ago I wrote a story where a gangster told a smart-mouth wannabe, "Hey kid, I got shoes under my bed older than you." Which is true.

When I was growing up, I was always losing stuff. Since then I've earned how to hang onto things. I'm proud that I still carry a pocketknife that I bought for myself for my 40th, twenty-four years ago.  My yoga mat is likewise more than twenty years old. On my nightstand rests my Ninja Turtle water bottle that dates back to the mid-80s. I get cranky if I lose gloves or a pair of sunglasses, even though I only buy cheepy ones. What doesn't last? I can wear out a pair of jeans in two years. Sneakers and bedroom slippers last about a year. And I've got a cardboard box of obsolete phones, mismatched chargers, tangles of cable, busted keyboards, and dead mouses.

Seeing as this is a writer's blog, I'd like to say that I give the gift of reading, i.e., books. Which I do, sparingly. I have a stack of books given to me which do little more than gather dust. It's bad karma to give them away until the requisite time has passed. I could give cards to Amazon or a local book store, but that seems too much like, "Here, let me give you something that's good for you, versus what you'd rather have."

So as we close out 2019, enjoy the rest of the holidays and have a Great New Year!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Farewell to 2019

It's the end of another year. This time it's also the end of a decade.
I would like to think that I'm not only older but much wiser. But I keep forgetting the lessons I thought I had learned.

This year I forgot the lesson I should have learned about saying "yes". I have this superstition about not answering the door when opportunity knocks. I'm always afraid that I will miss a chance to do something that would be life-changing. As superstitions go, this one isn't irrational. For example, I found a publisher for my Lizzie Stuart mystery series because I said "yes" when I was invited to take part in a mystery/detective fiction conference in New York City -- and then "yes" (or, at least, a hesitant "okay") when I was asked to lead a tour group on a walking tour of Harlem (a place that this Virginian had never been). A friend who knew Harlem came along. . . and, as it happened, a criminal justice professor from the Southwest was in New York, came to the conference, and joined the walking tour. While we were engaging in shop talk, we both admitted that we were would-be mystery writers. It was he who later passed on a tip about the crime fiction imprint that a Southern publisher was launching. So, you see, if I had said "no" my mystery series might never have been published. That's why I am superstitious about not saying "yes." But this year I should have thought more about what I could get done.

That brings me to that other lesson. We all know that one -- assuming that life will go along as one planned with calendar in hand. That there will be no snow, no household emergency, no two-week cold, no . . . this month, it was Harry, my cat. A bacterial infection and not eating. One weekend when we make an emergency trip to a vet clinic, the following Monday when I had to take him to his own vet because he wasn't eating. He got a shot and a couple of days later was eating again, but had a cold. Now the cold seems to be over. But I'm stopping to play when he wants to because I relieved that he's healthy again. Life happens and writing schedules fall by the wayside.

The third lesson is about staying organized while juggling multiple balls in the air. Being organized ensures that you don't waste valuable time trying to find something -- an article, a book, a website -- that is crucial to the project. Once, for a week or two this year, I was on the verge of being organized. Then I had to get to work on something that was more urgent. But what I should have learned is that I need to make the time to be organized. I have gone beyond the point of knowing what is in my stacks of papers. Before 2020 begins, I need to go through those piles and make sense of them.

But there was one lesson that I'm glad I didn't learn. I have been trying to be more productive by forcing myself to plow ahead even when I'm not happy with what I'm writing. This year, I missed a real deadline for a nonfiction book and deadline or two I had self-imposed while my agent waited for the thriller I'm writing. But all of my false starts have produced results. I've been digging deeper than I intended for the nonfiction book and made some fascinating discoveries. With the thriller, a few days ago I had an idea that solved my POV problem. Instead of a book written from the points of view of four characters, I am now down to two. These are the two characters who have the strongest voices and the clearest views of the events in the book.

 So I'm going into 2020 and the new decade, older and slightly wiser.

Happy New Year to my Type M mates and to all of you who join us here!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Happy Boxing Day

Don and I hope you all had a wonderful holiday, be it Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza or Festivus. We had Christmas brunch with friends and then went home to take a nap, since neither of us has recovered from our two-week driving trip to Oklahoma, which was most productive and we were happy to see millions (yes, millions) of relatives, though after living in Arizona for 35 years I can no longer tolerate cold weather. I'll tell you all about my Oklahoma trip soon, Dear Reader, when we aren't both bloated from too many cookies and latkes. Today I feel I might as well talk about Boxing Day. Boxing Day isn’t much celebrated in the States. In fact, I never heard of it until I was a teenager. For me, December 26 is the day that Good King Wenceslas looked out.

Until I was about ten, I thought that Good King Wenceslas looked out upon the feets of Stephen. At the time, I supposed the reason that Good King Wenceslas was looking upon Stephen’s feets was that Stephen was barefoot. Since the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even, it occurred to the King that Stephen’s feets were very cold. And so, moved by the poor man’s plight, the King had his goodly page bring him flesh and bring him wine, and bring him pine logs hither. Then page and monarch, forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament, so that they could bear them thither and see him dine.

I did eventually discover that Stephen was not yonder peasant, but the Saint upon whose feast day Good King Wenceslas looked out. That realization took some of the joy out of the story for me, for the the thought of the actual Saint Stephen’s broken corpse lying under a pile of rocks doesn’t comfort me much. I loved the idea of poor cold-footed Peasant Stephen standing in the king’s toasty footprints and receiving an armload of pine logs and meat and wine for Christmas dinner, and to this day, I am warmed by the image of this act of compassion.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

My holiday wish to you — assuming you don't already live in Iceland!

by Rick Blechta

By all accounts, Iceland is a very admirable and civilized country. Sadly, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit, but it is definitely on my list.

One of the things that makes Icelandic society stand out to people like us is their tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve. Speaking not as an author here, I feel this is a very lovely thing. There is something wonderful about people spending an evening reading together. Sure, it’s sort of a solitary thing to do, but so is listening to music or watching television. It is also, well, very civilized.

So my holiday wish to all of you is this: may you receive a wonderful book this holiday season and may you enjoy the heck out of reading it!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Happy Christmas

I'm sorry! No time to write a full blog - and I suspect you wouldn't have time to read it if I did!

Every good wish to you all for a happy, healthy and successful 2020.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Guest Post - Laura Oles

Please welcome author Laura Oles to Type M. I had the pleasure of hanging out with her and her sidekick, Micki Browning, at Bouchercon in Dallas. It was a fun and, sometimes, silly time. I look forward to catching up with both of them at future conventions. Take it away, Laura...

Meta Magic: (Listening to) Writers on Writing

by Laura Oles


As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads.

It’s not just me, is it?

As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break. I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel.

I’m one of those people who enjoys listening to other creatives discuss their process. I think, early on in my writing career, I hoped to glean that ONE RIGHT WAY to outline/plot/write a novel, but after so many years, I have come to learn that there is no single right way. And that each book may be different. A process that worked for one book no longer seems to bring results on the next project. Still, there’s something inspiring and interesting about listening to others talk about how they take their ideas and turn them into a story, how they wrestle with the demands of work/family/life obligations while working on a project. So, when I want to remain in the creative space but need a little distance from my own work, I turn to others to better understand how they manage their creative lives.

Here are a few of my favorites:

(Night Vale Presents) Start With This (Podcast): This podcast, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, tackle all aspects of writing from dialogue and pacing to creative crises and dealing with feedback. Each episode is in the half hour range, perfect for a listen as you walk your dog or work around the house. If you’re struggling with some aspect of your writing, take a break and tune in. It might be just what you need to get back on track.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Netflix): Jerry Seinfeld is known for his intense discipline to the craft of writing, for the daily dedication he still has in improving his skill at one-man storytelling, even though his Seinfeld show fame means he would never need to work again. This passion for creating and writing is on full display as he interviews other comedians to discuss all aspects of storytelling, writing and entertaining an audience. It’s a quirky show that speaks to my quirky heart. And the episode with Mel Brooks is pure gold.

Ten Minute Writers Workshop (NPR Podcast): Although this podcast wrapped last year, there are sixty ten-minute episodes with writers such as Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Tana French, and Tom Perrotta. This remains one of my favorite podcasts because Virginia Prescott gives us a peak into the habits of some of today’s most talented writers, and her interview format is designed to help other writers in their own pursuits.

Here’s the Thing (NPR Podcast): Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills. This one surprised me in all the best ways. He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan. Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships. For those who want to listen to the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong.

Laura Oles isn't quite sure where she's from. As an Air Force brat, she started school in the Philippines and ended up Texas, attending a different school almost every year in between.

Laura’s debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers' Choice nominee. She is also a Writers' League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her most recent short story, “The Deed” was included DENIM, DIAMONDS AND DEATH: Bouchercon Anthology 2019. 

Before turning to crime fiction, Laura spent two decades as a photo industry journalist covering technology trends for a variety of consumer and industry magazines. She lives in the Texas Hill Country with her family. You can find her at https://lauraoles.com

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Winterly (and Writerly) Conflicts

Less than a week before Christmas, here in western Massachusetts, and things are great and a tad frustrating at the same time.

As a dad with an 11-year-old fully engaged in the coming of Santa and a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old arriving home from college, it’s a wonderful time, one during which memories will surely be made. Day trips. Walks. Late nights. Maybe not much writing.

Keeley, our fifth-graders, has maybe a year or two of Santa left. So the Corrigan family –– parents and older sisters –– are all in. The Elf on the Shelf is moving magically each night. The note to Santa has been written. Gifts are hidden in nooks and crannies throughout. I’ve got my ugly Christmas sweater out and at the ready; my Santa hat on.

We are traveling to my parents’ home this year, and saying my mother enjoys Christmas is like saying the Easter Bunny has a minor affection for eggs. The house has been decorated for a month. Empty boxes are wrapped and displayed on staircases. She got –– because three granddaughters are coming –– a 12-foot tree (you and I are both glad we didn’t have to bring it inside, believe me). We will all eat too much, drink a little too much, and have a ball.


...the writer in me knows the holidays are always a time of stops and starts, momentum rushes and halts. I’m eager to spend time with my family, for sure, but my New Year’s resolution will inevitably be to play catch-up.

First-world problems? Absolutely. I’m lucky to have a great family, and I am looking forward to spending time with them.

Still, if I’m being completely honest, I won’t be upset if the ladies in the house want to go shopping and leave me and the dog behind for a few hours…

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

More Christmas Favorites

I enjoyed Thomas’ post on Monday about favorite Christmas movies and books, though I have to admit I’m always taken aback when someone names Die Hard as their favorite Christmas movie. I don’t really think of it as a Christmas movie. I think of it as a great action flick. But, hey, what makes a Christmas movie, anyway? It is set around Christmastime so I guess that’s good enough.

I read my share of Christmas cozies. Any time there’s a Christmas-ish cover on a mystery I check it out so I was pretty excited when I got a chance to write my own mystery set around Christmas, Ghosts of Painting Past. It’s the latest (and 5th) installment in my Aurora Anderson mystery series.

My personal favorite Christmas book is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I try to read it around this time every year or at least have Patrick Stewart read it to me. Not in person, alas, but he did record a wonderful audio version years ago when cassette tapes were still common. I believe it was reissued on audio CD in the early 2000s.

Not surprisingly, my absolute favorite Christmas movie is a version of the story: The Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992. Michael Caine is great as Scrooge and you can’t beat Gonzo as the narrator, Kermit as Bob Cratchit and Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit. Plus there are some nice songs. My second favorite is Holiday Inn which Thomas also mentioned. I've seen both of them more times than I can count.

We can’t forget those TV specials, though. I grew up on A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, both of which debuted in the 1960s. I have them on DVD and still enjoy them to this day.

Then there’s the Christmas music. I have a huge selection of holiday music from Big Band versions of songs to Bing Crosby to Chris Botti’s Christmas album to Lindsey Stirling and Barry Manilow and Michael Buble and, well you get the picture. But my favorite Christmas album of all times is one I remember from my childhood, one that my father picked up at our local Firestone tire store. Yep, tire store. Back in the 60s and 70s, both Firestone and Goodyear produced some great albums that they either gave away or sold in their stores for $1. Firestone produced 7 volumes. The one we had was Volume 4, which included songs by Julie Andrews, Vic Damone, The Young Americans and Dorothy Kirsten among others. I played it over and over again growing up. Two songs in particular that I love are on this album: Julie Andrew singing The Bells of Christmas and Dorothy Kirsten and the Young Americans singing I Wonder as I Wander.

I hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season and get a chance to enjoy your own favorite books, movies, TV shows and music with your friends and family.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Blew it again!

by (a very contrite) Rick Blechta

I operate on a very specific timeline for getting things done each week. If one thing changes, it can throw the whole thing out of kilter. I had a gig with my band, SOULidified, on Sunday, but then on Monday I usually have a rehearsal with the big band I play in. Last night, I didn’t attend because I’m not playing the band’s next gig on Saturday. Are you with me so far?

Well, my posting day for Type M is always the next morning after Monday band rehearsal (or gig), and since I didn’t go to rehearsal, I had no idea it was Tuesday until just now. I know, I know, I’m totally a creature of habit and it usually doesn’t let me down. Unfortunately, there are times…

See everyone next week!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Unofficial Poll of Favorite Holiday Books and Movies

My latest Geneva Chase mystery, Graveyard Bay, takes place shortly before Christmas. Now, under no circumstances, would I classify it as a holiday tale. Of my three published novels, Graveyard Bay is probably the darkest. Whips, chains, assassinations, jailbreaks—not a lot of eggnog moments. Toward the end, I broke down and gave Geneva a proper holiday ending, but that’s not the kind of girl she is. We know she’s really not going to enjoy it. Pour her another Absolut.

When someone asked me what my favorite Christmas movie is, I immediately answered Die Hard. Filled with murder, action, explosions, gun play and Bruce Willis wisecracks, there aren’t a lot of warm and fuzzy holiday moments. But in the words of that infamous bad guy, Hans Gruber, “It’s Christmas, it’s the time of miracles, so be of good cheer and call me when you hit the last lock.” Yippee-ki-yay.

Curious about everyone else, I reached out on my social media platforms and asked what their favorite Christmas story, book, or movie is.  The book (and many movies it spawned) named, overwhelmingly, was A Christmas Carol.

There’s no need to recount the story because we all know it, but a couple of little-known facts are: the book was published on December 17, 1843 and was sold out in three days. By the end of 1844, thirteen editions had been printed. Dickens began writing the novella in October and finished it in six weeks to have it ready before Christmas.

One last fact, Mark Twain was in the audience when Dickens did a reading (actually, more of a performance than a reading) in New York and gave him a tepid review. “There is no heart. No feeling. It is nothing but glittering frostwork.”

Before his readings, Dickens would drink two tablespoons of rum with cream for breakfast. Later, he would have a pint of champagne, and just before the performance, he would drink a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the reading he would sip beef tea and would have soup just before bed.

Much like Graveyard Bay and Die Hard, there’s not a lot of laughs in A Christmas Carol. It does have a satisfying story arc.

The number one movie pick in my unofficial poll was It’s a Wonderful Life. Here’s a little known fact about it. Philip Van Doren Stern, an author, editor, and Civil War historian was inspired by a dream he had, based on A Christmas Carol, and wrote a 4000-word short story called The Greatest Gift. He shopped it around, but couldn’t get it published. So, in 1943, he printed 200 copies and sent them out as Christmas cards to his friends. Someone showed it to a producer at RKO Pictures who gave it to Cary Grant to read. The actor was interested in playing the lead and the studio purchased the film rights for $10,000. Grant eventually passed on it, however, and Liberty Films bought the rights and George Capra made the film calling it It’s a Wonderful Life.

Should you forget, there are some mighty dark scenes in that movie as well.

The next most popular movie choice was Miracle on 34th Street. Look hard at Kris Kringle’s Foley Square trial scenes. If it looks vaguely familiar, it’s because in the movie The Godfather, those are the same steps where Barzini is murdered.

Interestingly, the comedy Christmas Vacation came in third. This was the last film for Mae Questal who played Aunt Bethany. She started her career as the voice of the cartoon character Betty Boop in 1931, then voiced Olive Oyl starting in 1933 in the Popeye series of cartoons. And in the movie, look closely at the kid playing Rusty. He’s actually Johnny Galecki, who went on to become a megastar as Leonard Hofstadter in the series Big Bang Theory.

Some honorable mentions in the poll were White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Christmas Story, Polar Express, Elf, Bells of St. Mary’s, Mixed Nuts, Home Alone, and Nightmare Before Christmas.

Other than A Christmas Carol and the Bible, the only other literary vote was cast by my daughter-in-law, Gillian. She says, “There’s a series of children’s books by Graham Oakley about church mice. I’ve always loved Church Mice at Christmas. The written story is entertaining, but the illustrations are what really ties everything together. My mother and I would spend hours looking through the book, finding little nuances and clues about what will happen next.”

Gillian hits it on the head when she talks about how she and her mother bonded over that story. Perhaps that’s why we have favorite holiday stories and movies. We have warm memories of sharing them with our families and friends. Tearing up a little when a bell rings and an angel gets his wings or laughing our butts off when Cousin Eddie shows up unannounced and uninvited at the front door.

So, step away from your Work in Progress, close your laptop, pour yourself some eggnog and spend some time with people you love. Happy Holiday and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 13, 2019

'Tis the Season

The season that comes at the end of every semester. Today I have research papers coming in from one class while responding to the other about comments on their drafts of the papers due on Monday. In between the deadline for submission of one set of papers, I need to attend a meeting on our main campus.

In my first post next year (can you believe it's about to be 2020?), I will try to make up for not lingering here today. But the topic that comes to mind today is how the seasons -- the weeks --- the days -- even the hours affect my ability to write. Except in summer and the "intersession" that we are about to begin between the fall and spring semesters, I rarely sit down and write every day. I have learned to use the times when I can't to make notes, think through structure, and live in the world of my characters

Being away from my computer gives me time to work through the book or short story. With less time, I think I am more efficient than when I have long days to write.

Does anyone else find the same?

Wishing you all a joyful and stress-free season of the year!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

How Could You! Or The Perils of Writing a Spin-off Series.

The Wrong Girl, the first book of my new series, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, has been out for a month now, and let me tell you, it's been interesting. The main character in The Wrong Girl, Bianca LaBelle (nee Blanche Tucker) is a spin-off from my previous 10 book series, the Alafair Tucker Mysteries. Blanche/Bianca is one of Alafair's younger daughters, and was featured as a child in The Wrong Hill to Die On (the double “wrongs” are a coincidence...) While she was growing up in Oklahoma, one of many children in a warm, loving family, Blanche was a sweet little kid, smart and pretty. So pretty, in fact, that Alafair was a little worried about what that might mean when she grew up.

As it turned out, Alafair was right to be worried. At fifteen, naive, headstrong Blanche ran away from home with a guy who promised to marry her and put her in the movies, but turned out to be the worst kind of predator. Fortunately, Blanche is as resourceful as she is beautiful, so she manages to escape, and with a lot of luck and a lot of help, she does manage to get to Hollywood and eventually becomes a big star. But for nearly a year after she runs away, she does nothing to contact her mother to let her at least know she's alive and well. She's ashamed, she's afraid, she's half-way excited about the adventure and doesn't want to be hauled back home to face the music. In short, she's fifteen.

I've gotten quite a number of wonderful reviews and fan letters about the new book, but I've also gotten a few letters that basically say How Could You Do That to Alafair! I'm sure that there are readers out there who had the same reaction but didn't write to scold me. Well, let me say that I worried about this before I started writing. The Dangereuse books are quite different than the Alafairs, and not nearly as warm and loving. It's a whole new world. I asked my husband, “If I write it this way, will I alienate some of the readers who love Alafair?”

My husband said, “Yes.” He was right.

But let me assure you all, grown-up Bianca is really sorry about what she did to her parents, and she does make a great effort to make amends. By the time she's famous, she and her folks are very close. I'm glad some of you are so invested in Alafair's feelings! But everything will turn out all right. I promise!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Books make the perfect gift

I love this discussion about books as perfect gifts. There is an endless variety of them - one for every taste and age and skill - and unlike most useful gifts these days, they won't bankrupt you. In my own family, we have two different traditions. My children and I celebrate Hanukah, but since none of them live in the same city as me and they only get the usual Christmas holiday time off work, we choose one of those days as our family Hanukah celebration. With any luck it falls on an actual Hanukah night, as it does this year, but otherwise we add a "Fradkin's Famous Ninth Night of Hanukah". We have always exchanged gifts on that night.

My extended family - sister, brother, nephews, nieces, and families - all lives in the area and we have been getting together for Christmas dinner since forever. Over the years, the families have proliferated, adding in-laws and next generations, so that now we are quite a big crowd both for Hanukah and Christmas. It's becoming an epic challenge to come up with affordable gifts. So some time ago we turned the Christmas event into a book exchange. It's brilliant. Each of us buys one book, wraps it, and puts it under the tree. When it's our turn to pick, we can choose to steal a book from someone else or take a wrapped one from under the tree. Some books are stolen several times.

This way people usually end up with a book they might at least vaguely want to read. Horsetrading and a lively discussion about each book's merits occur as well. Some books are duplicates, particularly award winners or books with buzz. Current political books are always hot, and there is a varied selection of both fiction and non-fiction.

When the children are small, they get books of their own from each of us, but the teenagers get to participate in the free-for-all.

I always have fun picking the book I plan to contribute, and this year I know exactly what I'm going to buy. Off to my favourite independent bookstore to buy it! I expect it to cause some merriment.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book gift-giving

by Rick Blechta

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday. Hope you did too. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, please Click Here.

I love giving — and receiving — books at Christmas. I will generally read anything, so if someone wants to giving me reading material, there isn’t a “don’t bother getting him this” list to go by. The field is wide open! (Actually, that’s not true. DO NOT give me an e-book.)

However, when buying books for another person, I really focus on buying something that will give a lot of enjoyment. That can be tricky.

This year, I’m only giving four books since the “adults” have decided to forego gift-giving. The books will be going to our grandchildren and two of our grandnieces/nephews. But even for children at various stages of reading development, it is a tricky process.

Our granddaughter is very much into “repeat enjoyment” of books. Whenever she’s over for her weekly visit, she goes to the shelf containing her books, takes her favourites out one by one and leafs through them. We also have some books that includes sounds/recordings — press a button and they play — but they’re also somewhat fragile, so Grandma or Grandpa have to read those with her. She always indicates when she’s ready for that to take place — she’s not really talking yet — and we love nothing better than to put her on our laps and let he turn pages and play her favourite sounds repeatedly.

Our grandson is now reading (quite well!), so he’s a different problem. We want something he can read to us, but tht he’ll also want to read on his own. Hmmm…

Our grandniece is turning seven shortly, so her reading skills are even more advanced. We’re just trying to figure this one out and may have to query her parents before coming to a decision. She’ll get a book she can enjoy on her own. I’d love nothing more than to give her “The best book I ever read!”

I always keep books I’ve received as gifts and at this point the shelf is quite impressive. It goes all the way back to the first book my mom ever gave me. There are probably a few missing along the way, or ones that had to be replaced because they’d been read so many times they were falling apart. But all are treasured.

So, from my point of view, giving gifts of reading is something to be taken seriously. There is nothing grander than to hear maybe months after that the person to whom I gave a book really enjoyed it.

That’s a wonderful thing indeed.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Improving Literature

One Christmas it was dressing-gowns. I don't know how it happened, but without consultation everyone seemed to have thought, 'I know - I'll get them a dressing-gown.' I still have a photo somewhere of five of us in a line-up flaunting them over our Christmas party best.

This year, I think it's going to be books. From the whispers I hear I don't think I'm going to be the only one who's decided books are the answer for Christmas 2019, and looking at the gaily-wrapped parcel my sister-in-law left with us in October – yes, she does that every year – I reckon it isn't a football.

When you get to our stage in life, when we've accumulated so much that the gift of another little knick-knack, however charming, isn't really going to be greeted with more than a wan smile as the parcel is opened, books are definitely the answer. It's usually not too hard to know what people's taste in books is and even if they are in the habit of buying what they like for themselves, most will wait for the paperback and having the brand-new hardback for Christmas is a luxury.

Of course,other motives beside careful and sympathetic choice can come into play. When my son gave my husband, a political biography freak, a biography of one of his own heroes knowing that his father didn't like him at all, it definitely came into the category of 'improving literature'. (He read it and enjoyed the book but it certainly didn't change his opinion.)

That was a great phrase in my youth. 'Improving literature' was the sort of book that would wean you off the other category, 'trash' and usually made your heart sink even though you might later see the point – though it could also have the opposite effect. My father gave me half-a-crown to read Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and I did it, but I've never read another one.

Which brings me on to the subject of my bookworm oldest granddaughter, aged 13. She has said she would like some 'classic' books for Christmas and I'm keen that my choice for her won't have that effect. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice haven't grabbed her (she wants to be an astronaut) but she's been known to express an interest in 1984.

So, advice, please! I'm thinking along the lines of Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps even 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What are the books that really snared your interest at that age and perhaps even shaped your reading habits for ever afterwards?

Saturday, December 07, 2019

The Mesdames of Mayhem

Today I am delighted to welcome as our weekend guests the inspirational group of crime short story writers who call themselves The Mesdames of Mayhem. Initially based in the Toronto area, this group of women have made their own luck and their own success, and have a story to share! Take it away, ladies.

When Madeleine Harris-Callway announced to our writers’ group in early 2013 that she was forming a crime fiction writers’ collective, our ears pricked up. We knew the power of writers working with other writers. I had already done some online networking, but a collective of writers who lived in close proximity meant we could promote one another in person as well as online.

We called ourselves the Mesdames of Mayhem, and we started out small: the six women in the writers’ group and eight other women writers in the Greater Toronto Area. None of us were big-name authors, although several were winners of or finalists for major crime fiction awards. We started giving talks at libraries and book clubs, telling audiences why we write crime fiction and what we write.

And we plotted our first crime fiction anthology. The idea was that each Madame would have a story in the collection, as well as her biography, a complete list of her works, and links to her website. The anthology would serve as our calling card, giving samples of each author’s writing and telling readers where to find her other works. Titled Thirteen to mark the year of its release, the collection was published in October 2013 by Carrick Publishing run by Donna Carrick, a member of the collective. 

Thirteen did very well. Three of its 15 stories were nominated for major awards. Donna’s watermelon Weekend” and Sylvia Maultash Warsh’s “The Emerald Skull” were finalists for the Arthur Ellis Best Short Story award. My story, “The Sweetheart Scamster,” was a Derringer Award finalist. The Mesdames subsequently released three more collections, all with the numeral 13—our lucky number—in their titles. 13 O’Clock came out in 2015; its 15 tales of crime all contained elements of time. Madeleine’s “Glow Grass,” was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Best Novella award.

13 Claws followed in 2017; its 17 stories featured animals—and dragons and snakes. This collection did extremely well. Three stories were nominated for the AE Short Story award: Catherine Astolfo’s “The Outlier,” Jane Petersen Burfield’s “There Be Dragons” and Sylvia’s “The Ranchero’s Daughter.” “The Outlier” went on to win the Arthur Ellis, Crime Writers of Canada’s top award for short fiction. Madeleine earned another nomination for the AE Best Novella award with her noir tale “Snake Oil.” And Catherine and Sylvia’s stories were both mentioned in Otto Penzler’s The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018.
The success of 13 Claws will be tough to beat, but our fingers are crossed for our fourth anthology. In the Key of 13 was released this October, and its theme is music. It has already received a thumbs-up from Jack Batten, the Toronto Star’s crime fiction reviewer. “One of the book’s appeals,” he wrote in his Oct. 16 review, “lies in the often ingenious ways the writers sneak Mozart or the Beach Boys or ‘Turandot’ into the plots.” 
The Mesdames’ anthologies have taken on lives of their own, but there is more to the collective than these four books. We’ve expanded to 21 members, including three men. And we’ve moved outside the GTA, with members in Fort McMurray, Alta., and Ottawa. Best of all are the ways in which individual mesdames and messieurs have lent their unique skills to the group. Donna has given us her publishing expertise. Veteran journalist Ed Piwowarczyk has edited the last three anthologies. Catherine Dunphy has scouted out venues where we can meet readers. Lynne Murphy, Marilyn Kay and Rosalind Place have worked their magic on our website. And Madeleine has kept us focused and committed.  
There really is power in writers working together, and the Mesdames have tried to pay it forward by holding two story contests for unpublished crime fiction writers. The winning stories were included in our last two anthologies: Mary Patterson’s “Night Vision” in 13 Claws, and Blair Keetch’s “A Contrapuntal Duet” in In the Key of 13.
Earlier this year, Toronto filmmaker Cat Mills was intrigued by a notice announcing a panel discussion by the Mesdames at a Toronto Public Library branch. She attended it. “These women were so interesting and vivacious and courageous,” she told CBC.ca. “They didn’t seem scared of anything. They were confident and excited and curious.”
Cat and CBC producer Felicity Justrabo interviewed the Mesdames as they worked on In the Key of 13. The result was a short documentary, The Mesdames of Mayhem, currently airing on CBC Gem.

“They are pursuing their dreams,” Cat said. “It’s hard to make it as an author. But they keep at it because it [the Mesdames of Mayhem] has given the women a community and a creative outlet.”

 The Mesdames of The Mesdames of Mayhem are 21 Canadian writers who share one deadly mission: to thrill readers with their passion for crime fiction. Several Mesdames are winners of or finalists for major crime fiction awards. The Mesdames--and Messieurs--are: Catherine Astolfo, Rosemary Aubert, Jane Petersen Burfield, Melodie Campbell, Donna Carrick, Lisa de Nikolits, Catherine Dunphy, Cheryl Freedman, Madeleine Harris-Callway, Marilyn Kay, Blair Keetch, Rosemary McCracken, Cat Mills, Lynne Murphy, Mary Patterson, Ed Piwowarczyk, Rosalind Place, Madona Skaff, Caro Soles, Kevin Thornton and Sylvia Maultash Warsh.

Friday, December 06, 2019

A Fine Bar for Dogs

I've spent many happy hours listening my daughter Michele's band, the Trucker's Daughter. But a couple of Sundays ago I had the pleasure of hearing her in a really unusual bar--the Soul Squared Brewing Company. It was a haven for dogs. 

Michele's fabulous guitar player, Josh Long, invited her to accompany him and what a performance it was. 

Talk about dog heaven! The bar was like a dog park. 

This certificate is very coveted recognition. Not every little doggie makes the grade.

There was a best-selling book several years ago: The Tender Bar. The bar the author described served as a parent during his childhood. What a great topic. I would love to know the story behind Soul Squared. 

Love and inspiration is where you find it. 

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Knowing your audience(s)

I’m caught between two projects right now: I'm trying to finish a novel that I've waded into 50,000-words deep, and I'm trying to write the pilot script for a would-be TV series based on said novel. My agent is awaiting the book, and a producer and an agent are waiting on the script. Of course, both are written on spec. (It wouldn’t be a mid-lister’s life, if they weren’t, after all.)

But something interesting happened on the way to the completion of both: I realized I'm writing for two different audiences.

The book, it seems to me, is written for an audience of mystery readers. People like me, I assume. People who want to find a new series, new characters, a new setting, and fall in love all over again (and hopefully buy this book and many more in the series). The book features a husband-and-wife team, and we move with them, learning about their lives together and apart, their struggles to raise a set of twin boys (one with a severe stutter) and a hyper-socially conscious daughter. We follow them on their journey to the solution of the crime. This is, first and foremost, a book I would want to read –– which is why I'm writing it.

The script, though it features the same husband and wife team, is dominated by the young people in the story. I knew it had to be as soon as the teenagers started talking. I went to a boarding school and now work at one. I know the pressures these kids face, know how they talk, and I know what they watch on Netflix. I also know that if the POV is to bounce around, as it must in the script, the kids can –– and will –– steal the show, so I’m going to let them.

All of this has produced an interesting lesson for me –– a lesson in audience awareness. The storyline for the script had to shift away from the novel’s plot. The script veered off the tracks of my outline as soon as the kids climbed aboard. Once they did, I knew we had left my favorite crime writers at the door. This was more Gossip Girl than The Long Goodbye.

All I do but try to keep all of it straight in my head, go along for the ride(s), and keep plugging away.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

It's The Journey

It’s Hallmark Christmas movie time once again. I’ve watched my share of them over the last few years after my sister got me hooked. Some I really love, some I think are just okay. But I always know what I’m getting with them. The couple always gets together and any other issues that come up are resolved in a positive manner.

I’ve heard some people complain that they’re too formulaic, too predictable and you always know the ending when you start. I suspect that’s why a lot of people watch them, because they know things will turn out okay in the end. For me, they’re a nice respite after watching grittier TV shows where things don’t always turn out as I want and favorite characters die.

It doesn’t matter to me that I know the basic ending. For me, these stories are all about the journey. How do they get together? What obstacles do they encounter that could keep them apart? Is it an interesting setting or an intriguing idea?

A recent one I watched, Write Before Christmas, had an interesting premise—at least to me. The woman’s boyfriend broke up with her a couple weeks before Christmas. She’d bought him 5 cards to send to him during the holiday period. So, instead of throwing them away, she sent each one to someone who’d been important in her life and told them how much they meant to her: her music teacher, the boy band member whose music had gotten her through tough times in adolescence, her best friend, her brother and her aunt who’d taken the two of them in after their parents died. The movie was about how those people were affected by receiving the cards. And, of course, there was romance.

I have a similar attitude toward cozy mysteries. They aren’t quite as predictable as Hallmark movies, but one hallmark(!) of them is that the killer is identified at the end and brought to justice and the world is righted once more. It doesn’t bother me if I can figure out who did it before the end of the story (this isn’t always the case, btw). I just enjoy the journey that brings me to the unmasking of the killer.

I used to fret a whole lot about how to hide the killer in my own books, but not so much anymore. I know there will be those who figure it out right away and those who don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I still am saddened when the former happens and I mentally pump my fists in the air when it’s the latter.

What’s really most important to me now is the reader’s journey. I try to set scenes in interesting places with interesting and fun characters and to put in twist and turns that surprise people. Because I think for a whole lot of readers, including me, it’s all about the journey.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

End of book depression

by Rick Blechta

First, let me set you straight what I’m referring to here. This post is not about being depressed when you’ve finished writing a book, but finished reading a particularly good book.

Obviously there is some connection between the two things. One point of conjunction is the fact that you won’t be hanging around with these very interesting people any longer. If you’re a writer, of course you can begin to craft a new story for your characters and just carrying on being with them. If you’re a reader, you’re at the whim of the author (or publisher), plus if you’re reading a current series, you know there’s going to be a wait of most likely a year of more.

And that’s depressing if the novel and characters you’ve just finished enjoying is particularly good.

Fortunately, the depression doesn’t last long. In my case, it’s generally just a few hours, but it is actual depression.

I’ve been down with a particularly bad cold the past week, with the result that I’ve been staying indoors and allowing myself to just relax and focus on getting better —Christmas season being what it is for musicians (lots of gigs) and get-togethers with friends and such.

So I went over to my favourite bookstore, the excellent Sleuth of Baker Street, and bought some novels by my favourite authors who thoughtfully released books in time for the Christmas season.

I finished a Peter Robinson novel yesterday, and as always, he didn’t disappoint. It was excellent. As I lay the book down for the last time, a strong wave of sadness filled me. I couldn’t hang out with Peter’s invisible friends until the next book is published. Bummer that!

My question is this: am I weird or are there others out there who get depressed when they have just enjoyed a particularly good book?

Monday, December 02, 2019

Storytelling—Casablanca Style

One of my favorite films, Casablanca, turned 77 on November 26. Whenever it’s on television, I never miss it. But what about it leads me to watch it over and over again? We do the same thing with movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Is it the nostalgia? Possibly.

Or is it because they check off all the right storytelling boxes?

Let’s stick with Casablanca. Our protagonist is the mysterious owner of a café in a very dangerous, exotic location against the backdrop of World War II. Our hero, or anti-hero, is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man with a dark past. He’s known to have run guns to Ethiopia during its war with Italy and to have fought with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. But something in his past has made him bitter, unwilling to take sides. He says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

And yet, we see a soft side of Rick when the randy opportunist Captain Renault (Claude Rains) offers to trade letters of transit to a young couple, newlyweds and refugees, for sex. Okay, it’s never actually said out loud in the film, but it was 1933, and we know what Renault wants. Rick lets the husband win at roulette, allowing them enough cash to buy their way to safety.

Casablanca comes with a fabulous MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is an object or a device in a book or a movie that moves the plot forward but is largely irrelevant. In this case, it’s the letters of transit that the creepy Ugarte has stolen from two murdered Nazis. Ugarte is played by Peter Lorre and nobody does creepy any better than him.

The Germans are hot on his trail and he begs Rick to take the letters of transit and hide them until he can come back safely to retrieve them. They’re worth a fortune on the black market. Ugarte is arrested and eventually dies in captivity. In the words of Renault, “I’m making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

The letters of transit are papers allowing their bearer to move about Nazi occupied Europe. They are the key to getting to a neutral country and safety

Enter the love interest. Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) is part of Rick’s dark history. She thought that her freedom fighter husband had died in a concentration camp and Ilsa had fallen in love with Rick. On the day that the Germans stormed into Paris, Rick and Ilsa were supposed to meet at the train station and leave for a safe haven. Rick waited at the train station in vain, never knowing why Ilsa never showed up, why she had forsaken him.

It wasn’t war that had made Rick bitter, it was lost love.

When she arrives in Casablanca, it is with her husband, alive and well, having escaped the concentration camp. Her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) is a famed Czech resistance fighter, someone the Germans want badly to get their hands on again.

Lazlo and Ilsa need letters of transit to find their way to neutral Portugal and time to organize their fight against the Nazis. They need the letters of transit that Rick has in his possession.

So let’s review what we have here in this storytelling process. We have Casablanca, an exotic location in a dangerous part of the world during World War II. We have a strong, taciturn, hero who is reluctant to help anyone but himself. We have Rick’s former love, Ilsa, torn between her feelings for Rick and her love and loyalty that she has for her husband. We have Lazlo, who desperately wants to get his wife to safety but also to fight the Germans.

And then we have the bad guys. Captain Renault is part of the Vichy police force but willing to play both sides of the fence. But the actual villain is Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) willing to go any length to, once again, take Lazlo into custody.

And percolating behind the story is the tension between the French, yearning for their freedom, and the Nazis. One of the most stirring scenes of the film takes place when a group of Nazis gather around the piano at Rick’s Café and loudly sing “Deutschland Uber Alles”. Disgusted by what he hears, Victor Lazlo leads the band and the rest of the bar in singing “La Marseillaise”. It’s a duel of national anthems that the Nazis lose.

The story arc is nearly perfect. In the end, the bitter loner has regained his humanity and his patriotism. He proves his love to Ilsa by allowing her to leave with her husband, after she's tried to make a deal with Rick for the letters, telling him that she'd stay in Casablanca and leave her husband.

I won't tell you how the movie ends, although I'm sure anyone who's reading this has seen the film a dozen times. But for me, as schmaltzy as it is, I thought it was the perfect way to tie things up.

And finally, the movie has some of the most memorable lines in movie history. My favorite? “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Play it Sam.