Friday, January 31, 2020

The Roller Coaster

One of the best talks I've ever hear about writing was given by Wister Award winner, Win Blevins, at a Western Writers of America conference. It was superb. Even if the audio of his presentation had been recorded it would not have been adequate to convey his emotions to the listener.

The title was Give Your Heart to the Hawks. He spoke about the dangerous rise and fall of fortunes for those of us who write professionally for many years. He spoke of falling from the sky to the rocks below. He spoke of ascending once again on the wings of a hawk to a cloudless blue sky.

Writing is like being on a perpetual roller coaster. Yesterday I received an invitation to participate in a collection of novellas featuring myself and three other writers. I was absolutely thrilled. I said yes immediately. What a great boost.

Since the first of the year, I've been writing steadily, at my most workable pace of five pages a day, five days a week. I'm sure of the book. The plot is sound, and I'm comfortable with my characters. But I'm not sure how well it will be received by my editor.

So I'm happily putting the Work In Progress aside for a different Work In Progress. One that's a sure thing and requested by a publishing house that is terrific to work with.

Recently I watched a YouTube presentation that featured three agents from my new agency, Folio Literary Management. I was struck by the fact that agents experience many of the same problems faced by their authors. Agents might love a book and be shocked that their favorite editor does not.

Just doesn't. Isn't going to buy it either.

Agents are on a roller coaster too.

Nevertheless, it's winter now. And the rise of hope whether induced by hot-house tulips in the grocery store or an ego-boosting email from my favorite editor is mighty pleasant.

Spring is coming!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Travel and writing, not travel writing

I have the good fortune this week to be writing this post from Morgan Hill, California. I arrived Saturday afternoon, got my rental car at the San Francisco International Airport, and drove an hour south to Morgan Hill, taking in the scenery (and the traffic) all the way.

One of the interesting things about stepping into a new location is that your perception of your surroundings becomes heightened.

I called my wife from the car, passing San Jose, and said the area felt a little like El Paso, Texas, where we lived for three years. When I arrived in Morgan Hill and spent time driving around the town, I told her it felt like a combination of Bend, Oregon (big-money, outdoorsy), and El Paso (mountain ranges, farm land). Being in a new place forces me to observe, and being forced to do that makes me think about how and where I incorporate setting details into my writing.

I love atmospheric books. James Lee Burke’s rich portrayal of New Orleans. Robert B. Parker’s depiction of Boston. Alexander McCall Smith’s use of Mma Precious Ramotswe to offer insights into Botswana. Even settings that can’t be described but are present, like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the physical structure of which I can’t explicitly describe but I feel the weight of the lighthouse on the characters on every page of the novel, nonetheless. (I’m still not sure how she does that.)

The settings in these books offer a layer of richness and nuance that readers might not even notice as they follow the plot and grow attached to the characters. And writing setting details is never easy. Hemingway said, Writing is always architecture, never interior design.
Likewise, the “clever” metaphor is only clever if it helps the reader by saving her time. Symbol, unless you are Steinbeck, is a critic’s word, not a writer’s.

So the use of setting to enhance a work can be a tightrope walk. I find myself often adding and just as often cutting in the same scene. A brushstroke here. A cover-up there. How much is too much? Am I writing that because I like it or because it will add something to the scene? (Be honest, John!) All are questions I struggle with as I go.

I’d love to hear what others think about setting and the place those details play in one’s work.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

How Cozy Mysteries Changed My Life

Awhile back—don’t ask me how long ago because I’ve forgotten—I was on a panel titled “How Cozy Mysteries Changed my Life.” As you can guess, the topic was about writing cozies, although I don’t remember directly addressing the question mentioned in the title. Still, it did start me thinking about how they’ve affected me, both as a reader and a writer.

I’ve read cozies for most of my reading life, though I don’t think I’d heard the term “cozy mystery” until well into adulthood. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a newer term or if I was just oblivious to the different categories of crime fiction and what “everyone” called them until then.

I find reading cozies a very calming activity. There’s generally an interesting puzzle, characters and settings plus the killer is always identified and brought to justice. By the end of the book, the world is righted once again. Something that brings me great comfort and doesn’t always happen in real life.

I’ve also learned new things. I wrote a post for Chicks on the Case awhile back titled Unexpected Influences where I talked about how reading has influenced me to learn about things I would either never have known about or never have thought to study. You can read the full post here.

While I love reading, I never intended to be a writer, particularly of mysteries. I always thought it would be too hard. But when I woke up one morning with an idea for a book, I immediately thought it would make a good cozy so I decided to give it a shot. I believed because I’d read so many that I understood what made them tick. While that was partially true, I soon realized I still had a whole lot to learn. Still, if I hadn’t read a lot of cozies, I wouldn’t have had the courage to try my hand at writing one.

Writing cozies has changed the way I read them. I still get immersed in the stories and characters and enjoy them, but now I also notice things—how a book is structured, how a character is described. Sometimes I jot down interesting lines and paragraphs so I can study them later to see how the writer works their magic.

Probably the biggest change is that I get out of the house more and attend local events. I’m pretty much a homebody. I live near the beach because I prefer the weather, not because I’m into swimming, surfing or sunbathing. I’m not super fond of crowds, either. Here’s where you ignore my love of Disneyland and Las Vegas, which tend to attract lots of people. Somehow, I’m not as bothered by them in those two places, although I do avoid the busier times of the year.

Since my series takes place in a beach city similar to the one I live in, I like to put in events in the books similar to the ones that happen in my area. It’s fun to create my own version of a fair or festival. But to do it justice, I feel I need to see what the real events are like, which often means attending them. Sometimes I can get enough info from videos on YouTube or pics on a website, but that can only take you so far. It’s not the same as attending the event itself. Some I would have gone to anyway, but others I probably would have avoided if I weren’t writing my series.

When I found out my city holds a pumpkin race every year, I knew I had to go and see what that was all about. It’s a short walk from my house to downtown so we’ve attended a few times. The race is an all-day event. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it, but enough to create my own version for my book Designed For Haunting.

An event that I probably would have avoided because of the size of the crowd was our annual pier lighting ceremony. I was writing a Christmas book at the time so I decided I needed to see what it was like. The husband and I walked down to the beach so I could get a feel for it. I’m glad I did. I got a lot of good ideas from attending, things I wouldn’t have known about or thought of if I hadn’t been there. My own version of the pier lighting ceremony appears in Ghosts of Painting Past and is one of my favorite scenes in the book.

When I was in junior high and high school, I was a “joiner”. In junior high, I was in FHA (Future Homemakers of America, now known as Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA)) plus I worked on the student newspaper and yearbook. In high school, it was FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America, now known as FBLA-PBL where the PBL is Phi Beta Lambda), student government, worked on the yearbook for one year and was part of the Bicentennial Quiz Team. (Not hard to guess what year that was.) But in college I was too busy studying and working to join anything.

But when I started writing, I decided it was important to join a group of like-minded people so I joined my local chapter of Sisters in Crime, which led to my being on the board for six years as Recording Secretary, Vice President and President. It also led to my co-chairing the California Crime Writers Conference in 2011 and doing a stint as We Love Libraries! coordinator for SinC National. I wouldn’t have had any of those experiences if I hadn’t started writing cozies.

What about you? How has writing the kinds of books you write or reading the kinds of books you read changed your life?

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Accompanying your writing

by Rick Blechta

I’m still working on my promised post (more research than I expected!), so I’m filling in with this post idea instead since it’s getting pretty late in the day to post.

I’m finding more and more that I like listening to music when writing. Somehow it helps to “grease the wheels” creatively-speaking. I have no idea why this is, but most days, I’ve got music on in the background as I work.

That being said, there are some very strict rules applied (through trial and error) if music is going to work its magic on my deathless prose:
  • No music with vocals in English! If it’s in a language I don’t know, lyrics don’t bother me; in fact, I listen to a lot of opera. But if the singing is in English I’m in trouble. On more than one occasion I actually listened a bit too hard and included a phrase or two of lyrics in my writing. It’s easy to spot the next day, fortunately, but it’s pretty jarring to see.
  • No music I’ve never heard before. I’m sorry. I’m a musician and it’s easy for me to get caught up listening to something new. Then I realize I haven’t written a goddam word for the past half-hour. That sort of defeats the whole exercise.
  • I have to pick out all the music beforehand. If the music runs out, then I start hunting for something else which means opening a browser window. Then I’m lost. YouTube is especially bad for this. All of a sudden I’ve wasted 15 minutes just looking at choices. It’s best to bring a few CDs into the studio with me. And no covers or program booklets to tempt my wandering eye! Just the CDs.
So that’s what works for me.

Oh, one more thing: it seems to help if the music I listen to is complimentary to the mood of the scene I’m working on.

And there are days I find I’m just too distractible so I remove the earbuds and work in silence.

Does any of this resonate with you folks? It doesn’t have to be fiction writing. Really, it can be any sort of work.

Let us know!

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Movie 1917, Action, and Characters

In my last blog, I talked about how and why you need tension to keep a story moving forward.  A week ago, my wife and I saw the movie 1917.  The action was so non-stop,that at the end of the movie, while the credits were rolling, I felt myself exhale.

Had I held my breath for two hours?  Of course not.  But it felt like it and I know I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire film.

So, what worked for the movie and what didn’t?

1917 has already won the Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Director as well as a slew of other awards.  It’s nominated for 10 Academy Awards and a ton of nominations from such organizations like BAFTA and dozens of film critic associations.  The movie has received numerous glowing reviews.

However, the New York Times was less complimentary, “The idea behind the camerawork seems to be to bring viewers close to the action, so you can share what Blake and Schofield endure each step of the way. Mostly, though, the illusion of seamlessness draws attention away from the messengers, who are only lightly sketched in, and toward Roger Deakins’s cinematography and, by extension, Mendes’s filmmaking. Whether the camera is figuratively breathing down Blake’s and Schofield’s necks or pulling back to show them creeping inside a water-filled crater as big as a swimming pool, you are always keenly aware of the technical hurdles involved in getting the characters from here to there, from this trench to that crater.”

The review continues, “In another movie, such demonstrative self-reflexivity might have been deployed to productive effect; here, it registers as grandstanding. It’s too bad and it’s frustrating, because the two leads make appealing company: The round-faced Chapman brings loose, affable charm to his role, while MacKay, a talented actor who’s all sharp angles, primarily delivers reactive intensity. This lack of nuance can be blamed on Mendes, who throughout seems far more interested in the movie’s machinery than in the human costs of war or the attendant subjects — sacrifice, patriotism and so on — that puff into view like little wisps of engine steam.”

In a review by Peter Sobczynski, he says, “… the film is so obsessed with its particular technique that it doesn’t leave room for the other things we also go to the movies for—little things like a strong story, interesting characters, or a reason for existing other than as a feat of technical derring-do. Sitting through it is like watching someone else playing a video game for two solid hours, and not an especially compelling one at that.”

Two weeks ago, in my blog about building tension into a story, I wrote that the readers must be invested in the characters.  I was invested in the action and wanted the characters to complete their important mission (saving 1600 British lives) but didn’t know much about the protagonists at all.

Giving the movie credit, you can make some suppositions about the lead characters through their actions.   That’s not a bad thing at all.  It's just that throughout the movie, I was more invested in the mission rather than the protagonists.

I mentioned in my blog how you have to ratchet up the tension. Just when you think things are bad, you have to make them worse.  1917 certainly does that.  However, it's lucky for the good guys that the  bad guys are such bad shots.

There should be an ebb and flow in the tension.  1917 is shot brilliantly, seemingly in one long seamless take, one breathless action shot after another.  There’s nearly no place for breathing space.  Like I said at the beginning, I exhaled at the end of the movie as if I’d held my breath for two hours.  If it hadn’t been such a dark tale, it would have felt a lot like an Indiana Jones movie.

It all worked, though and I predict the film will collect a whole basket of awards.  I highly recommend you see it, if for nothing more than the cinematography.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Wokeness Killed My Favorite Movie

On the off chance you don't know what "wokeness" is, it's viewing the world through the lens of whatever is currently deemed politically correct. And being "woke" killed my appreciation for one of my favorite movies, The Quiet Man starring John Wayne. It's a saccharine homage to Ireland in which Wayne plays an Irish-American boxer who killed a man in the ring and out of guilt, decides to return to his ancestral homeland and start over. The screenplay lards on the clichés so thick that it's a wonder that a real Irishman didn't lob a firebomb onto the set in protest. I realized those shortcomings the first time I saw the movie but gave it a pass because why let reality interfere with a good tale? If nothing else, what I most admire about the Irish is the way they let everyone mangle their heritage and customs, but buy them a pint and they shrug it off. The rest of us should live by their example. In The Quiet Man, Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne play their roles in a typical romance-movie template of cold-warm-cold-warmer-colder-hot-coldest-hotter-happily ever after. For me, the wokeness part comes in when after a spat, O'Hara locks the door of her bedroom. Wayne kicks it open, demonstrating that he will not allow anything to come between them. When he did that, I immediately thought of "Domestic violence. He's off to jail." The movie had plenty of other period tropes that are now painfully uncomfortable to watch.

A couple of TV shows that trigger wokeness are Cheers and Frasier. Both sit-coms depend on double entendres, sexual innuendo, and outright come-ons that would get you hustled to HR and then right onto the street. What blunts the offense are the sharp put-downs and physical reprisals, though I would not suggest acting this way in any professional setting. At least, not without legal representation.

The one author who most activates my personal "wokeness" meter is John D MacDonald. As a teenager I loved his Travis McGee series but on a recent revisit, his women characters are decidedly milquetoast. On the other hand, Mickey Spillane would today be pilloried for his lack of political correctness, though at the time, he was his own brand of woke. Plus his women characters tend to be as dangerous as the men and that trumps any level of wokeness. Sometimes, you just gotta go with the flow.

Just a Little Tummy Ache

Thank you, Aline, for your post on Monday. You've given me another destination if I actually do take a vacation in late May (meeting up with friends who want to do a bus tour of Scotland). You also made me happy that I'm working on a historical novel set during an era when one could still hope to get away with accidentally seasoning the stew with a poisonous flower.

I long to have an herb garden. Since our growing season here is short, I thought of doing a window box. My only problem is that I have a cat who snacks on anything green. I've taken to the internet to Google the various lists available on plants that are dangerous for four-legged family members. I've even noted the green plants that my cat's vet has in her office waiting room. But I'm still wary that somehow I will manage to purchase the wrong plant at the garden store and do my cat in. And, yes, I have asked the staff in several stores. They always seem reluctant to assure me of the safety of their lovely plants. I suspect they're concerned about a lawsuit if my cat decides to have a snack and gets more than a stomachache. 

One of the workshops that I'm scheduled to do at Sleuthfest in March is titled "Food, Crime, and Justice." Since I'm not an expert on poisons, I'm leaving that discussion to the presenter who is. But I do plan to discuss the theories in criminology about killers who use poison. For example, the male criminologist who in the mid-20th century wrote a book in which he argued that poison was the preferred murder weapon of female killers. This preference, he argued, was for both practical reasons and because women were secretive and devious. 

I'm going to encourage my workshop participants to think about everyday interactions that involve food and drink. I've thought about this because whenever I go back to revise my own books and short stories I notice how often my characters eat and drink. I don't think I'm capable of writing a high-octane thriller in which no one ever stops for a meal or a bathroom break. Not that I want to. My characters stop off in their favorite cafe or restaurant. They make trips to the supermarket. They talk as they are cooking and sitting down to dinner. Their favorite foods and how they consume them reveal something about them.
I always notice how characters prepare and consume food in crime films. It's one of the topics I'm discussing in my book about gangster films. For example, two of my favorite scenes in Goodfellas involve food preparation -- the gangsters cooking their own elaborate meal in the prison kitchen, and, later, Ray Liotta (as Henry Hill) back in the kitchen preparing a meal as his character's world is about to come crashing down.  

In everyday life, we do tend to pigeonhole people by what they consume -- vegans versus meat eaters. Hard-working, drive-thru black coffee drinkers versus the espresso latte elitists who lounge in cafes. We have stereotypes of who these people are -- work, friends, beliefs. In fact, these perceptions have become so much a part of American culture that politicians can alienate voters by fumbles when they try to shop in a supermarket, order a hamburger, or eat a slice of pizza. Note to politicians:  Do not eat your pizza with a fork in New York City. 

My fascination with food is one of the reasons that I'm writing a book set in 1939. My characters  travel in a Pullman coach, attend the New York World's Fair, and appreciate having enough to eat because they have survived the worst years of the Great Depression. 

Time for lunch. I missed breakfast, and I will be grateful for the meal I am about to consume.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Agony and the Ecstasy and the Agony Again

As I (Donis) noted in my last blog entry, I have recently returned from a two week book-tour/family reunion to my native state of Oklahoma, during which I did some quite successful book events but no actual writing while I was on the road. Then five minutes after we returned home I came down with an evil plague and spent the next week or so trying simply to live. In short, I did not write on my WIP for three weeks. The fact that Christmas, my birthday, and New Year's Day were in there didn't help, either.

Well, I'm back at it now, trying to get the first half on the new book in order so I can sent it to my editor for her approval THIS WEEKEND. I like what I have, and I certainly hope my editor does, too, because the book half done, by god, and I certainly don't want to have to start over at this late date. On top of everything, I'm still involved in publicizing my last book, The Wrong Girl, which is set in Hollywood in the 1920s In fact, I did an event at my local library a couple of days ago. That is where my husband took the above photo, which is one of my favorites. I've started using power point illustrations when I do talks, if the venue can handle them, and I've found that the audiences like it. It's fun for me, too. That particular photo is of 1920s screen icon Mae Murray, the Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. I used it to show how movie make-up was done in the silent era.

The Wrong Girl seems to be doing well. I have gotten some mail from a couple of Alafair fans who think I mistreated her in this book (which is ironic since Alafair does not appear in this book), but most of my fan mail and reviews have been very good. In fact, I just got a note from one of my favorite authors, Tim Hallinan, which said:

Dear Donis --

Just finished THE WRONG GIRL, and I could kill you because I want the second book RIGHT NOW. This is just amazing, and I can only hope that your publishers know what they've got.

I finished it about 90 minutes ago and posted a five-star review on Amazon. If they run it, here's what it will say"


I love Donis Casey's Alifrair Tucker books for their living, breathing characters, their meticulous prose, and their remarkable sense of place. The good news is that Casey has brought all those gifts to this remarkable new series, set in silent-movie Hollywood during the still-roaring Twenties and she's struck solid gold. In telling the story of the Oklahoma teenager Blanche Tucker, swept off her feet and out of her tiny home town by a handsome, smooth-talking man who has dire plans for her, Casey takes a wonderful route that leads us ultimately to the Hollywood of stars whose voices no one ever heard, where the studios eradicated real life stories in order to manufacture new names and legends to go with them. Holding things together is a believable private eye who, trying to solve a years-old and trace a missing financial ledger, finds himself in the highest stratosphere of Hollywood, where nothing and no one are what they seem. I'm looking forward impatiently to the next one and wondering whether Casey will explore Oklahoma's sprawling Tucker family. which (it seems to me) must include both Alafair and Blanche.

Now, that made my day, you betcha! And then, while I'm basking in this much appreciated praise, my sister calls and says she's listening to the recently released audio version of the book and the reader mis-pronounces one of the characters' name over and over.

So much for my momentary elation.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

In search of a name

It's two weeks since I wrote my post 'Ready, set go!' about putting my pen to paper and getting started on the first draft of my new, no-name Inspector Green novel. At that time I had about 10 pages written. I am now proud to announce that I have 73 pages! Mind you, it's 73 handwritten pages and half the paragraphs are crossed out, but still, it's progress! Moreover, while I was doing that, the proofs of my novel THE ANCIENT DEAD arrived from the publisher and I have been wading through those too. And I had to prepare a talk to give to the local editors' association.

As an aside, that group is impressive! It was a regular monthly meeting but almost all the seats were filled. Not only did they laugh at my jokes but they listened for nearly an hour and then asked questions for another half hour, despite a snowstorm brewing outside. One tip I learned for any association struggling with poor attendance: serve excellent snacks (croissants, cheese, strawberries, among other things), and in addition to coffee and tea, serve alcohol! I noticed several members pouring Baileys on their ice cream.

I also updated my website, did some social media fiddling, and spent hours researching on the internet. And by the end of two weeks, I had 73 pages and two problems. First of all, no body. There was lots of mystery and intrigue, but I was writing and writing and writing without ever reaching that crucial point in a detective novel: the appearance of a body. It arrives on p. 74, but it remains to be seen, once I get this handwritten scribble down on the computer where I can examine it, whether that's soon enough. I don't think I've ever put off murder for so long before,

The second problem is, no-name doesn't cut it as a title. A title is like the cherry on the top of a sundae, the perfect touch that ties the whole creation together. Sometimes it comes to me easily, even before I've started the book. Sometimes it jumps out at me from a phrase I've written. Other times I play with words, comb through Internet quotations and generally tear out my hair before I hit upon the perfect title that captures the essence of the story.

No-name is about domestic violence, so I toyed with variations on the wedding vows. 'For better or for worse' and 'Till death do us part' have both been done to death. To have and to hold... Meh. I combed through Shakespearean quotes online. Nobody does death quite like Shakespeare. But so far, I've struck out.

So the search continues. I hope that by the summer I will have found my answer. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Pet Peeves

by Rick Blechta

I’m feeling ornery today, which means my planned blog on “character dangers” is postponed for a week. So there!

This is going to be an “audience participation” post.

I’d like to request that everyone reading this contributes a pet peeve of theirs. Allow me to explain.

I’m going to limit peeves to something usage-wise in the English language that annoys you to the point of distraction.

Here are a few of mine:
  • Bogus use of apostrophes, as in: “Houses available NOW in the low $600’s!” A book titled Eats, Shoots and Leaves deals with this and other usage topics in a most entertaining manner. If you haven’t read it, you will find it rewarding.
  • People who say (or write) “restauranteur” instead of restaurateur. It’s not a huge thing, but dammit! It’s just sloppy and, well, WRONG!
  • This one originates from texting and I understand why it came about (texting is a very onerous thing): “ur” instead of your. I’m probably fighting a losing battle here, but I’d like to stamp this one out right here, right now! Are you with me? People who use it should be shamed and ostracized from polite society firmly and immediately!
  • But there’s one that makes me want to scream: When I hear someone say “nucular” (sic, sic, SIC!) in place of nuclear. Again, it comes about from pure sloth, but it REALLY grates on me.
So there are some examples of what I’m looking for. Please add your own to entertain and elucidate us all.

I thank you.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Name Your Poison

I've never poisoned anyone. Even after I dropped the lemon meringue pie taking it out of the oven, and it landed on the floor, miraculously intact and I scooped it up and served it to my supper guests with a bland expression, they all survived unscathed.  (Science later proved that the 10 second rule is right - it isn't long enough for bacteria to get organized and climb on.)

And I haven't poisoned anyone in fiction, either.  I'm not sure why, but perhaps it's because using poison seemed a very complicated thing.  You might be able to research the likely effects, but then you'd have to work out when your poisoner could use it so that he/she wasn't the obvious suspect, and whether the victim wouldn't realise, as PG Wodehouse's hero Rollo Podmarsh did, that 'the arrowroot had tasted rummy.'

Then of course, how would someone go about obtaining strychnine, say, when Health and Safety regulations have done away with the handy gardener's shed with all those pesticides that worked just as well on human pests in the classic murders? A knock on the back of the head with a blunt instrument when no one is around is easier and certainly more true to life.

Then I went to visit the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

The gardens are well worth a visit anyway and the castle was used in the filming of Harry Potter, but it was the garden where every plant was poisonous that fascinated me. Smelling or touching is forbidden. It was pretty horrifying to realize how many of the plants I lovingly treasure in my own garden (and smell and touch) have lethal qualities, and how easy it would be for anyone, with the help of their beautifully illustrated brochure, to literally choose their poison from the handy line-up in the herbaceous border.

Fancy complete kidney failure for your target?  There's the clematis over there, with the pretty pink flowers. Or the rhododendron - put your beehive next to it, regularly spread the honey on the victim's toast and oops! vomiting, dehydration, tremors,  convulsions and death.  Then there's a whole range of bulbs that could be  popped into a delicious, spicy stew - snowdrop, bluebell, lily of the valley - with gratifying results like intense sleepiness followed by coma and heart failure.  There are dozens and dozens more - like that hydrangea, containing cyanide.

Every part of the innocent daffodil  is poisonous.  During the Second World War there were numerous cases of people slicing up the bulbs as a substitute for scarce onions.  Some survived, some didn't.  So perhaps the villain could claim to be a non-gardener who had made a terrible mistake?  It's certainly an idea.

I think it's a little bit too Golden Age for the books I write, but I'm sure there's a good plot - in both senses - out there in the garden!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Fraud Mania

What on earth is going on? So many times lately I have opened my email and been greeted with another warning of a scam.

Last week, my church (St. Luke's Episcopal), cautioned the parishioners that someone was soliciting funds in the name of our priest.

Western Writers of America sent out a group email stating that someone named "Jacqueline" was fleecing members under the guise of our organization. My AARP bulletin has dire articles in both the magazine and the newsletter.

My week was capped with both a print and email warning from my local health organization about fake third-party billing.

Last year, I was invited to attend a conference in London (all expenses paid) and speak about my historical specialty: African American history. They were going to pay me $25,000. That was way too much money. Which I needed, but never mind. It was the wildly inflated amount that aroused my suspicions. If they had offered about $5000 for an overseas appearance I would have been inclined to take it seriously.

The letter was off. Just slightly. There were some phrases that were not constructed in accordance with standard American usage.

 Nevertheless, I was wistful enough to do some research. I was so happy, so flattered. They said such nice things about me. So I checked. The cathedral was real. The Bishop was real. And then I emailed the church secretary. Church secretaries know everything. It was a fraud. Their next step would have undoubtedly been the classic "ask" for my bank account number so they could mail my expense check.

I have no idea how beginning authors manage to pick their way around in the publishing industry. There were so many really crooked people when I was starting. It's a thousand fold now. There are fake agents who have never sold a book in their lives, fake publishers who expect authors to put up seed money, fake reviewers, fake publicists, etc. The list goes on and on.

I'm grateful for all the breaks I have received. Grateful for the wonderful friends I have made through the years. And more grateful than ever for stumbling onto a wonderful agency at the very beginning of my career who put me with editors who really care about books.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Where editing meets my Mac Or a curmudgeon’s guide to technology

I teach because, as I tell friends or young teachers I’m working with, I get paid to talk about books. What could be better? I also get paid to talk about writing and the writing process. (There is also a never-ending pile of papers to grade, but we don’t have to get into the negative stuff here.)

The truth is it’s about symbiosis: teaching feeds my writing, and writing feeds my teaching.

I’m working with a young writer this spring, a senior who wants to write novels. It’s a one-on-one class. He’s absolutely driven, and our focus is on his work. But I am sharing some of my processes with him.

One is absolutely painful:
  • Find your weak verbs and replace them.
Using the CTL + F option, typing in “has” (or “was” or “be”) and spotting, say, eight uses of “has” in a 500-word argumentative essay, taking time to punch up those verbs with suitable revisions is one thing. Try doing it for the first 57,000 words of a novel. This took me two hours last week. Time well spent? I hope so. I wish I was a write-it-and-edit-when-you-are-finished writer. But I’m not wired that way.

CTL + F is useful for many things:
  • How many times have I written “had been”? Yikes!
  • Did I tell the reader that she wore RED glasses too many times?
  • Lower case to start an independent clause after a colon?
  • Can I shorten my sentences? Search for the word “and.”
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a stickler (did I just write “stickler”? Am I becoming an old curmudgeon?) about reading works aloud or having the rat on the wheel inside the computer (or whatever powers the thing) read it to you. On a Mac, this is OPT + ESC. On a PC, it’s Windows + ESC (there are other ways on a PC as well).

The benefits of hearing your work are many: you find clunkers, spelling errors (the rat will read whatever you write –– if your hands move like mine, “to the” becomes “tot he” often.), throw-away lines in dialogue, and cliffhangers that simply hang. You hear the pace of your scene. You hear the rhythm of the language. In short, you hear what you really wrote. Not what you think you wrote.

These are some places where old fashioned editing meets technological advancements for me. I’d love to hear how others are using technology.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

My Year in Books 2019

It’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2019 I read 108 books, 38 more than last year! Unlike last year where about half of my reading was non-fiction, only about 5% was in 2019. Not really sure why that was since I do love reading non-fiction. Maybe because I listened to a lot of Great Courses series this past year instead.

The most interesting non-fiction book I read in 2019 was “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” by Cara Robertson. Just a fascinating book with a lot of details of the investigation and the trial. Well worth reading.

Another book of note in the non-fiction category was “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean. You may remember I mentioned it in a post last March. It’s about the library fire in the downtown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Also well worth reading.

As you know, I read a lot of cozies. This past year I finished up some series that I really enjoy. I read the last books in the Button Box Mysteries by Kylie Logan and the Mall Cop series by Laura DiSilverio. I’m saddened that there won’t be any more of these. I enjoy them so much they have a permanent place on my bookshelf and they’re probably one of the few series I will read again.

But my absolute favorite books in the cozy category were two in the Family Skeleton series by Leigh Perry: “The Skeleton Makes a Friend” and “The Skeleton Stuffs a Stocking”. I’m hoping there are many more of these on the horizon.

Another great traditional mystery series (I hesitate to call them cozies) is John Gaspard’s Eli Marks mystery series featuring magician Eli Marks. I’d recommend reading all of them, but if you only read one make it “The Floating Light Bulb”.

I also continued my fascination with middle grade books. I finished off the Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud and discovered the Sixty-Eight Room series (which I finished reading) by Marianne Malone. Another series worth mentioning is the Moon Base Alpha series by Stuart Gibbs. Just pick up anything by Gibbs and you’ll enjoy it, but this series is my favorite.

In the non-mystery fiction category, I recommend “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks set in 1666 when the plague reared its ugly head once again in England. It’s about a town that voluntarily cuts itself off when plague surfaces in their midst and the consequences of doing that. It’s based on the real town of Eyam who isolated themselves from the outside until all signs of the plague had disappeared. I found this one particularly interesting because I’d just listened to the Great Courses series on the Black Death.

I also read a fair amount of historical mysteries. 2019 was the year I discovered Bonnie MacBird’s series featuring Sherlock Holmes
(“Art in the Blood”, “Unquiet Spirits”) as well as Renee Patrick’s series featuring Lillian Frost and Edith Head (“Design For Dying”, “Dangerous to Know”.) I picked up MacBird’s books largely because I love the covers. They turned out to be great reads. And I had to have Renee Patrick’s series because it has the Edith Head in it. I remember when I was growing up seeing her accept Oscars for her work in films. I always found her fascinating.

I could go on and on about other great books I read, but I won’t. Did you have any particular favorites from this past year of reading?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Can a crime novel have too much tension?

by Rick Blechta

As seems to happen more often than not, a previous post from one of my Type M confreres causes my well-made plans to change at the last minute. That’s happened again today — and is the reason I’m so late with my own post.

Yesterday, Tom posted a great piece on successfully building tension and stress into a plot. It is something every single crime fiction writer must face and overcome. If this isn’t accomplished the book is not likely to hold readers’ attention.

Probably the most important thing he points out is this: “Be mindful that there should be an ebb and flow of tension, a little breathing space. Otherwise, you'll wear your reader out. But at the end of the breather, that's always a great place to put a plot twist.”

A novel’s plot? feel? can only approach “relentlessness” in those few final chapters. By that point the writer should just be dragging readers along at a run. But you may disagree.

Tom is very right about breathing space. Sure, start a novel with a bang. We all try to do that. As we’ve all pointed out a one point or another, those first few pages are where readers are “auditioning” the story. It can’t be all exposition at that point, some action is needed to keep things zinging along. But once you figure you’ve got ’em hooked, it’s time to relax and let some of your characters’ other qualities come out, it’s time to get your readers invested in your characters.

Years ago I read a spy novel — the title of which escapes me at the moment — that opened with some tremendous, gut-wrenching action scenes. I was hooked. But then the action kept on…and on…and on.

A third of the way into the book I was exhausted. Not only that, there was no substance to any of the characters, especially the protagonist, because there had been no time to develop any. This was long before video games, but the plot structure was very much like a video game’s. The whole plot involved our intrepid hero going from one “level” to the next. There was no real substance.

My job that summer was as the “pool boy” at a resort in Maine. The place was not very busy and basically my job was to watch over the pool more than serve the guests. Consequently I had hours each week to spend reading. The book mentioned above is the only one during my entire time there that I remember not finishing.

I was too gormless at the time to analyze why this was so, but it’s interesting to note that most of the books I literally galloped through were ones written by recognized masters of the genre: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. It would be hard to stack up well against these authors even if the novel were pretty good. But I do remember thinking, “Time to find something else to read,” and putting the book back on the resort library’s shelves.

So it’s a balance, a very precarious one, that each author must find for every novel they write. And it can be very tough to do.

Next week: Never fall in love with your characters!

Monday, January 13, 2020


I received this by private messenger in Facebook this morning:

“Good evening, any idea when Shadow Hill will be hitting the bookshelves? I just started Graveyard Bay this week and can’t believe how much your books make my heart race. I find myself tensing and holding my breath, trying to prepare myself for when the boogeyman jumps out. I just ordered all three of your books today for a friend at work. They’ve got a birthday coming up and I know they’ll love them. Your books are really amazing.”

That made my day! I can't stop smiling.

Tension—the mighty engine that moves the plot forward. The dictionary defines tension as mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement. It also defines it as being stretched or strained. Isn’t that the ringer we want to put our readers through?

Here are my thoughts about creating tension.

The readers have to like and relate to the characters. They need to be invested in them, to care for them, and worry about them.

The protagonist has to be an active participant in the plot, their decisions and actions have consequences. How many times have you gone to a movie where the protagonist starts down a dark stairwell or dangerous hallway when your inner voice is screaming, “Don’t go down there!”

Be careful here, however. There’s something called “Too Stupid to Live” syndrome. If you’re allowing your lead character to walk into the serial killer’s tool shed, she’d better have a damned good reason. Otherwise your reader’s going to be saying, “Oh, for heaven's sake, she’s too stupid to live” and close the book.

There should be character conflict. We’ve all been in relationships with friends, family, lovers, or even co-workers and sooner or later, there's gonna' be drama. Readers can relate to that. They've been through it. No relationship is rosy all the time.

There’s internal character conflict. My protagonist has a problem with alcohol and relating to authority. And in spite of being extremely intelligent and aware, she makes bad life decisions. Most of my readers find these quirks to be endearing. I want her to be someone you'd like to have a glass of wine with...just not too many of them.

Your lead character should have a dark threat hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles. Maybe it starts out when your protagonist doesn’t know how she's going to pay her bills. Or when a lover talks about leaving. Then it might build with an unknown killer on the loose. Oh, my God, the boogeyman is hiding around the corner. Escalate the threats.

Want to ramp that up even higher? Threaten your lead character’s loved ones! Put them in danger.

Time itself might be a threat. Your character may only have a specified amount of time to solve the mystery before there are horrible consequences. Tension escalates when the clock is ticking.

Have you written a tense scene? Is your protagonist racing to beat a deadline? Is she running through the forest to save her daughter? Ramp it up. Do it during an ice storm, making it difficult to get traction, dodging falling tree branches, the clock is ticking. As the story unfolds, the road to any kind of success should get harder and the stakes get higher. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, create another hurdle.

Be mindful that there should be an ebb and flow of tension, a little breathing space. Otherwise, you'll wear your reader out. But at the end of the breather, that's always a great place to put a plot twist.

In some ways, writers have to be cruel. You’re putting your babies in harm’s way, putting them in extreme danger, striking fear in their hearts, dropping them into a life and death situation.

In real life, I think we try to avoid tension and drama. I know I do. But when I read a novel or watch a movie, I want to be on that roller coaster ride with characters in whom I’m invested and want to see survive. I want to see them win.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

A New Year, A New Book, an Old Problem

Happy at Magic City Books in Tulsa

If you haven't been following the recent entries here on Type M, Dear Reader, you've missed some interesting observations about the joy/problem of writing and trying to have a life at the same time.
I lost a little height and slinked away when I read Aline's last entry wherein she said "I'm so impressed with fellow-Type Mers like Donis and John who have gone on with their determination to write every day, no matter what, right through the festive season."

Because guess what? Did I faithfully work over the holidays? No, I did not. And here is my perfectly excellent reason - I took a road trip back to my homeland of Oklahoma in the middle of December. It was the first time Don and I have driven back together since he began having health problems over ten years ago, and it was great fun (though more tiring than when we were energetic young things) We drove through our old stomping grounds, through the mountains of New Mexico past the Very Large Array and Pie Town, through Lubbock Texas, where we were married oh so many years ago, to Norman Oklahoma, where we first met in grad school and went back to years later to work at the University. I did an author event at the new Public Library in Norman which is a beautiful three story building, and the event was beautifully attended. I was told that I was the very first author to talk in the new building, and for the inaugural event featuring my 1920s era novel, The Wrong Girl, a jazz band played before and after my presentation, and silent movies were projected on the back wall above the cookies and punch. The very nice crowd included five - count'em! - five of my first cousins, along with the cousins-in-law and cousins once removed they brought with them.

My sister Martha and my husband Don

If that wasn't lovely enough, we drove to Tulsa the next day, where I was born and raised and near where all my siblings have returned after a lifetime of being scattered all over the U.S. and the world. I'm the only one still living away from the homeland. For now, at least. We spent five nights with my youngest sister and her husband in their new house. Oh, brave Martha. Can you imagine hosting relatives in your house for five days? Fortunately we all get along great and spent some quality time yelling at the television together. Don and I tried to make a point of getting out of their hair for several hours a day. I had lunch with a childhood friend, and visited with the great Carolyn Hart, who now lives in Tulsa. The other siblings did meet us for meals, etc. Middle sister and her husband drove down from Joplin to see us a mere few hours before they caught a plane for Florida and a Christmas cruise to the Bahamas.

On the day before we left for home I did an event at a new bookstore in downtown Tulsa called Magic City Books, also surprisingly well attended considering that it was icy cold and drizzling. I have to admit that I am related to about a third of the people who showed up. We had gorgeous sunny weather on the drive back to Arizona, of course. Then the instant I got home I became deathly ill and collapsed in a heap for several days.

The gist of all this is that I did not write a word for three weeks. I'm back in the land of the living again, and desperately trying to write. Desperate, because my editor wants to see at least the first 100 pages in mid-January.

VERY IMPORTANT POINT HERE. PLEASE READ. If you are a writer, you really should sit down and write every single day, because if you don't YOU WILL LOSE IT. I didn't write for three weeks, and when I finally got back to the computer, I had forgotten everything I ever knew. It's still in there somewhere, because it's been several days now, and I feel the muses stirring again. But let me tell you, I had a few days of panic, there. Oh, I wrote down words, crappy words, but they were words, and words can be shaped and smoothed and made uncrappy, because as you know, you cannot edit a blank page. Some writing days are good, and some make you question your life choices. As Barbara Fradkin said yesterday, "at some point the descent will slow, even reverse, and I will grind to a halt, forced to plod along and even climb again with great effort. Stories bog down and become mired in dead ends when one is a pantser. More and more forks crop up, with no clear path forward. The one principle I keep in mind (which is the same in skiing) is: choose the fork that promises momentum." And keep on going!

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Ready, set, go!

I've been amused by the recent posts by my fellow bloggers, all along the lines of Happy Holidays, here's what I did with the family, why I didn't do any writing, and so on. I confess that because my last post was due on Christmas Day itself, it didn't get posted at all. I had a house full of family, a seventeen pound turkey to cook, and more family coming to help eat it. I was too busy even to take photos. So here's my first holiday photo of the blog. This is only one table of two. I call it The Aftermath. 

But I was most intrigued by Aline's post about starting her new book, to which I said "That's exactly me!" In fact, I think that so often when I read Aline's posts that I wonder if we aren't secret identical twins with different accents.

I have been researching my next book for almost three months, reading cheerful tomes on domestic violence and trolling through the internet to learn about shelters, police response, therapy groups, etc. As I read, the characters in my drama slowly began to take shape in my imagination and some key plot possibilities emerged. But I kept stalling on actually getting down to write. New Year's Day was my drop-dead deadline. Like Aline, I am mostly a pantser and once I have a couple of opening scenes, I start the journey, knowing that if I planned ahead, I would be seduced by the first intriguing fork in the road and be off in another direction anyway. If anything, trying to follow a plan would only frustrate and bore me. I do think ahead in fits and starts, but I like the surprises my imagination comes up with and I like not knowing how it's all going to work out.

But it is also terrifying to be lost in the wilderness, not knowing where I'm going or whether I'll ever get there. This is the curious paradox that I think pantsers find so addictive. The journey is both thrilling and terrifying. Rather like plunging down a ski hill on the very edge of losing control. And, keeping with that metaphor, there I was on New Years, poised at the top of the mountain with my ski tips pointing over the abyss, gathering my courage. Finally there is nothing for it but to push off. Put pen to paper and start the first scene. Which I did on January 4. It's a brand new Inspector Green novel: I am bringing my favourite detective back after an absence of almost six years. So on January 4 I started feeling my way down the mountain and now have four scenes written, with ideas for the next three that emerged out of the writing of the last one. The story is picking up momentum.

The skiing analogy breaks down somewhat at this point, unless the mountain is very high and the path very circuitous. Because although at the moment I am gliding along and enjoying it, I know at some point the descent will slow, even reverse, and I will grind to a halt, forced to plod along and even climb again with great effort. Stories bog down and become mired in dead ends when one is a pantser. More and more forks crop up, with no clear path forward. The one principle I keep in mind (which is the same in skiing) is: choose the fork that promises momentum. The Goldilocks fork. Not the Black Diamond run that plunges me to the finish line too fast and recklessly out of control. Not the Bunny Hill that lulls me effortlessly down through each safe and predictable turn. But the Intermediate hill that keeps me close to the edge of my skis, gripping my poles and screaming curses into the wind.

I've got a long way to go, but each day I try to put myself back on that mountain, picking up where I left off and feeling my way down through the open spaces and dense woods, the cliffs and the bogs. I've got about eight months to go and 85,000 more words to write, but it's exciting to be starting the journey. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Robot Writing

by Rick Blechta

I began last year’s post with an article about books as works of art. That’s physical works of art rather than written ones.

Call it fateful, but in December I found a very interesting article in the Washington Post about people turning to computerized robots to write invitation, greeting cards, inscriptions and the like.

CLICK HERE for a link to the article.

My first encounter with robot handwriting happened a number of years ago at the (late and lamented) Toronto Book Fair. Believe it or not, Margaret Atwood was there to present a machine the idea for which she had conceived. It was called LongPen. CLICK HERE for a link to the website.

Her idea was being able to attend book signings in remote places (like the Canadian north without actually being there. She would be visible on a computer monitor and attendees could get personally signed and inscribed books by Ms Atwood via her LongPen invention. If you’ve looked at the website, you know how this was accomplished.

I duly took my place in line and after a short wait, got to sit down at one of the LongPens and wrote out something. Being the cheeky bastard I am, it went something like: “Now the amazing Ms Atwood in an inventor. Brava!” She thought that was very “sweet” and thanked me. She even said I could call her Peggy as we chatted about working out the tech details for the prototype. How cool is that?

Now people are using a simpler and speedier riff of the LongPen idea to make their greeting cards seem more personal. Since mostly pre-existing fonts are being used for this, the results don’t seem all that personal.

That’s something like getting computer software to write short stories or books. It can be done, and while the results might be interesting as a mental exercise, we imperfect humans are still definitely needed to conceive of and write works that truly are worth reading.

So why the pretense of sending a personal message when it really isn’t actually personal? It might just be me, but I would be more insulted getting something like this than I would be with some sort of printed out message that isn’t trying to look as if it was actually written by the person sending the message.

How about you? Have you received a faux personalized greeting card? Do you feel the same way?

If you’re going to go to all the trouble of this kind of subterfuge, why not get hold of a LongPen and do it right? Just let me know and I’ll get in touch with my good friend Peggy!

Monday, January 06, 2020

Ploughing the Field

I'm so impressed with fellow-Type Mers like Donis and John who have gone on with their determination to write every day, no matter what, right through the festive season. That admirable habit failed with me around mid-December when with the entire family coming for Christmas I realised that it was a choice between having a clean house, food in the fridge and freezer and no work done and having a thousand or two words written, plus chaos and a nervous breakdown where I just kept mumbling wildly, 'Mince pies! Christmas pudding! Home-made fudge...'

So I've been a bit of a slacker lately, but now I feel the better for the break. As it happened, Christmas came along at just the right time, when I felt I'd done all I could on the new book in the way of planning.

We've all talked a lot about being planners or pantsers and at heart I'm a pantser, usually prepared to set off once I've got the first couple of chapters ready to roll and a vague idea of what the ending will be (usually wrong) but this time I thought I would try looking a bit further ahead, attracted by the notion that once you had blacked it all out in summary, the book itself would be a doddle.

To be honest, it just didn't do it for me. I even tried that theory of writing one paragraph, then expanding it to a page, then a chapter and so on... By the time I'd got on to the second stage, I was completely revising what I'd written in the paragraph, and the chapter never happened. All it seemed to be doing was stopping the flow and making me panic that it wouldn't happen, ever.

Still, I did spend a lot of the planning time doing research that I'm inclined to postpone until I need the details on the way through. I checked out possible names for the characters I have in mind, instead of grabbing for a baby names dictionary every time a new character is introduced and thumbing desperately through it (there are people who actually call a helpless baby Zipporah?). I've got to know the characters themselves better now by living with them without putting them under pressure - though of course once I actually start writing they will change. They always do. I even have lots of ideas and snatches of dialogue written down ready for use later.

So I'm starting the new decade with the new book, ready to find out what the story is really about. And yes, to some extent it feels as if I've got the field ploughed ready for sowing but the drive that keeps me writing – to find out what happens in the end – is still there.

January gets a bad name, but I like it. After the frenzy of the festive season I'm looking forward to all of its 31 quiet days, when it's just me and the new book

Friday, January 03, 2020

A New Decade! Hip Hip Hooray

Short but heart felt. May this be the best year ever for my fellow Type M'ers and for all our faithful followers.

Onward and Upward!

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Sneaking off....

Happy belated New Year!

I’ve been holed up with family and friends through the holidays, and it’s been wonderful.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s always a challenge to keep pace –– at least for me, it is –– during the holidays. But I’m sneaking away (to the basement) here and there and getting some writing done. But most of the highlights from the past two weeks have involved having my two college kids home and the five of us spending time together. (My oldest is, after all, 21. So how many more holidays will the five of us have together?!)

Therefore this week, I’d like to share some pictures with you.

(And then sneak off to write a little more…)
Delaney, 21, and Keeley, 11, enjoying Old Orchard Beach (Maine, U.S.A.)

Delaney, Keeley, and Audrey, 18, on New Year's Eve "Lighthouse Tour"

The Corrigans

My step-father, mother, and sister Kelli in the kitchen working on Christmas dinner.

The college girls return....

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Happy New Year!

May your year be filled with love and laughter.

May your days be filled with joy.

May you read many wonderful books.

For all those writers out there, may the words flow onto the page.

Happy New Year!