Thursday, February 27, 2020

Turning 50

I turned 50 this week. My wife is planning a big birthday party, which I am trying like hell to squash. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate her efforts, but I just don’t see the point. My 50th birthday felt just like all the others. The day was the same as other days. I got up at 5 a.m., went to the gym, and tried like hell to write a scene that day. Same as any other day.

What turning 50 has changed, maybe, is that I’m thinking about aging well a little more this week. Heart disease (and other bad things) run in my family. (My 18-year-old freshman, Audrey, a distance runner at Denison University, called and said she had to take a physical for the Denison Athletic Department. “I had to check every box on the sheet,” she said. “Heart disease, diabetes, cancer…” “Sorry, kid,” I said.)

I’m trying to make better choices regarding my health, but that didn’t start this week; it began last summer when I went gluten-free. Haven’t lost weight, but I feel better. And I’m exercising. Years of hockey left me with an arthritic back. Running hurts my back, and my body breaks down. It’s an admission that's been a long time coming because I enjoy the solitude of running. I’ve found that weight lifting, though, makes everything feel better, tighter. So I try to get in the weight room every day. I see many benefits to doing this. My back feels a hell of a lot better, and when that happens my golf game is much improved.

But I’m not lifting weights to play golf. I’m doing it to write.

When I’m up early and exercising, my writing is better. I’m more focused. I get more done in less time, which means a lot to me because I don’t have a lot of spare time.
Haruki Murakami, in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, writes about his relationship with “serious” running, which he defines as six miles every day. I know that very often distance runners (cross country and track) have the highest GPAs on college campuses, and I imagine endorphins have a lot to do with that.

My goal at age 50 is only to set myself up to be writing at 60, 70, and 80. I think about Hemingway’s decline in his 50s and how it all ended at 61. My own father passed at 63, far too young.

So, yes, there might be a party I’m not supposed to know about. And, yes, there will probably be lots of gag gifts, and I’ll laugh, and we will no doubt all have a good time. But the truth is I’m treating 50 like any other day. Because the goal of 50 is to make sure I’m still writing at 60.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

125,744

125,744. That’s how many steps my Fitbit says I walked last week, Saturday to Saturday, when I was in Las Vegas for the Creative Painting convention. I’ve been home for 3 days, but I’m still a little Vegas-lagged. I can’t say I’m jet lagged because I didn’t change time zones and it was only a 45 minute flight. Still, my brain is still recovering from all that Vegas stimulation so I won’t be talking about anything super serious today.

The Creative Painting convention has been going on for almost 30 years. (Next year will be the 30th one.) My sister and I have been attending for about 20 of those. Honestly, I lost count a long time ago. We take classes, shop the trade show floor and enjoy the other things Las Vegas has to offer. It’s also a way for me to see what’s going on in the tole/decorative painting world since my series protagonist, Aurora (Rory) Anderson, enjoys painting as well. I like to incorporate some aspect of painting in each book so going to the convention gives me ideas.

This time we tried something new: alcohol ink. The concept is fairly simple: dab a bit of alcohol ink on the piece (in our case it was a ceramic plate) and immediately blow it with compressed air. That’s the same compressed air you use for cleaning electronics. You can make interesting things. This is what our piece was supposed to look like:
I did not paint this! Wish I had.

Let’s just say, my execution of the technique left something to be desired. Alcohol ink dries very fast, especially in the Las Vegas air, so you’ve got to spread the ink before it dries. Turns out, that was something I found hard to do. I’m sure I’d improve with a lot of practice. Just like you improve your writing by writing, writing, writing.

We also went to see several shows while we were there: Cher at the Park/MGM, Potted Potter at Bally’s and magician Shin Lim/mentalist Colin Cloud at the Mirage. All were very fun. Potted Potter was “all 7 Harry Potter books in 70 minutes.” Two Brits with minimal sets having a lot of fun. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.
Waiting for the concert to begin at the Park Theater, Park/MGM

Cher was awesome. I’ve enjoyed her music since watching the Sonny and Cher show in the 70s. And the show put on by Colin Cloud and America’s Got Talent winner Shin Lim was just amazing.

We were there over a holiday weekend so I expected it to be very busy, but it wasn’t. Everyone began to trickle in over the week because there was a lot going on in Vegas.
  • The Democrats were caucusing so the Democratic candidates were in town for a debate at Bally’s/Paris. 
  • The president was in town for four days snarling up traffic a bit. 
  • There were two Golden Knights hockey games at the T-Mobile arena near the New York New York casino. 
  • The Wilder v. Fury fight was at the MGM Grand the day we left so there was a lot of build-up during the week. 
  • And NASCAR rolled into town on Friday evening.
  •  Plus all of the other conventions that were going on at the same time as ours.
Makes me tired thinking of all of that activity!
Flamingos at the Flamingo hotel
A blinged out dragon at Caesar's Palace

When I go to a place with a lot of people, I enjoy just looking around and observing. It gives me ideas for characters I can include in future stories.

That’s my Vegas trip wrap up. I already have ideas of things to do and places to see next year. How many of you have been to Las Vegas? Do you like it? I find people either love it or hate it. Which one are you?

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Musings on how we human beings can screw up ANYTHING.

by Rick Blechta

I’m not going to be dealing with big ticket topics in this post. I know everyone is aware of the desperate straits human life, indeed the entire planet Earth, are in at the moment. You can’t listen to the news or read a paper without getting depressed at how everything seems to be circling the toilet bowl these days.

No, I’m going to be talking about something small and seemingly insignificant: spam.

As regular readers of Type M know, we had to institute a policy of all comments having to be reviewed before they’re posted on our blog. Why? Because we were getting increasing amounts of spam, people promoting things without regard to the fact that said items or services had nothing to do with why our blog exists.

At the moment, this gatekeeping duty is falling on me, although we’ll all eventually rotate this responsibility between ourselves. (Fortunately, it’s not that onerous a duty.) But having to look at spam comments submitted nearly every day — already two this morning — I’ve been struck by just how useless 99.9% of the offerings are.

What’s troubling is that the internet, something that offers such a potentially wonderful way of communicating on a worldwide basis, has become polluted by so much garbage, messages of real value can barely get through. 

As a mental image, I liken spam to all the plastic floating in our oceans. It is useless — although spam is far less harmful and the spam situation much less desperate — but it is another indication how the human species can take pretty well anything that is good, and turn it into a garbage dump.

If you’ve looked at our comments page, you’ve probably noticed the warning (in caps!) about how spam is not welcome here and will not be posted. Has this slowed down the spammers? Nope. Not one iota.

Over the weeks, this has become personal. I, for one, will not give in! I’ve undertaken as a long-term project to go over all of the 3608 posts Type M has in its archives and atomize every single piece of spam.

Why? Because for once I can actually control and eliminate something I view strongly as being a major negative in our blog project. I can really make a difference, even though it’s a very tiny one. And you know what? It is goddam exhilarating!

Stepping off the soapbox…

Monday, February 24, 2020

Getting Readers Invested Through Emotion


In the creative writing class I teach at our local college, my students all read from their works in progress.  I was very impressed with their level of talent.  As we were getting ready to leave, I impulsively gave them homework.  I asked them to write a deeply emotional scene and keep it to no more than a single page.

While driving home that night, I wondered to myself why I’d even thought to do that.  It wasn’t something I’d planned to do ahead of time.

Then I realized that, while most of what they’d written was technically proficient, I hadn’t become emotionally invested in some of their characters.

There was one important exception and that was a piece done on a child’s suicide as written from the first person viewpoint of the mother. It was a powerful piece of writing that was both jarring and moving at the same time.

Emotion.  That’s what makes the characters and their situations real to us.  We can relate to what they’re feeling.

We’ve all felt emotions like love, even if it’s been for your pet.  Or the pain of heartbreak, or grief, or disappointment.  When your character feels those emotions, the reader can feel them as well. They’re familiar to all of us.

But better to show than to tell.

Instead of saying: She was afraid to open the box. We might say, instead, something like: Her hands trembled, her fingertips not quite touching the lid of the box. She was filled with dread, imagining what horrible artifact might be inside.

Instead of saying: He recalled how his father had loved him. We might say, instead, something like: He recalled how his father had bought him his first baseball glove, showed him how to care for it, and taught him how to pitch.  And the beaming smile on his father’s face when he won his first Little League game.

I wrote about grief in my second Geneva Chase novel. Her lover is dead and she’s trying to cope.  I wrote about it this way:

This was originally Kevin’s house and this was his bedroom. Oh sure, my framed posters and photographs are on the walls now and his Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar is long gone. My books are in the bookshelves, my sheets and duvet are on the bed, and my television is sitting on the dresser.

But this is his bedroom.

I’d kept some of Kevin’s clothes. They’re hanging in the closet next to mine.  Now and then, I open the closet door and hug his shirts and slacks to my face, wishing he were in them.

I kept his aftershave on the counter in the bathroom, next to where I keep my cosmetics. I open it and I can smell Kevin, almost as if he were standing behind me.

Where is the line between grief and fetishizing the dead?

*****************
No, fetishizing isn't a real word. I write fiction, I make stuff up.

Let me finish by quoting James Michener. He said, "I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Guest Blogger Ann Parker

Type M is thrilled to welcome the incredibly talented Ann Parker, whose Silver Rush series has won multiple accolades and deserved every one of them. Her latest, Mortal Music, was just released in January 2020.



Music, Murder, and Mayhem in the Silver Rush series
By Ann Parker

When I fashioned my protagonist Inez Stannert waaaaay back at the start of the Silver Rush series, I had a few "givens." She would originally be from the East. When her story opens in the first book, SILVER LIES, she would be running the Silver Queen saloon in the silver-rush boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, in the late 1870s. She'd be a married woman, whose husband had mysteriously disappeared, leaving her to handle the saloon along with her husband's business partner. And, she would be an accomplished pianist.

At this point, around 20 years removed, I can't exactly recall when the musicality came to mind in her character development, but it must have been early in the musing process. It made sense, given that music has always been a strong component of my life. Both of my parents were pianists. In fact my father, in his youth, wanted to be a concert pianist (but my grandmother, raising three children during the Depression, put the kibosh on that dream and he became a physician instead). When young, I played a variety of instruments, including the violin and the piano, with great enthusiasm at the start and then with waning interest before exiting lessons, stage left. My brothers had more stick-to-it-iveness than me, and both play instruments to this day—one professionally, the other semi-so. It almost went without saying that, of course, there would be music in my mysteries, and that Inez would carry the tune.

I gave the Silver Queen saloon a much-used and abused upright, and Inez a baby grand piano in her home. As I researched and wrote the first few books in the series, I listened to a lot of radio for inspiration. I can still recall the frisson that gripped me when I was driving and first heard Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words). I pulled over and scribbled down the information so I could work it into my debut, SILVER LIES. For that book, the musical theme is mostly classical—Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Vivaldi. In the second book of the series, IRON TIES, music from the Civil War and from the railroads get their due, with The Battle Cry of Freedom (Union and Confederate versions) being the spark that ignites a scene of murderous mayhem in Inez's saloon.

Just a few of the CDs I collected while researching and writing the early Silver Rush books. And yes, I still have a CD player!
Back in those days, my musical reference library was mostly composed of CDs. But time marches on, and so did the series and Inez, until she marched straight to San Francisco, California in the most recent two books of the series, A DYING NOTE and MORTAL MUSIC. Here, her profession took a turn. For a variety of reasons, it didn't make sense for my 19th-century protagonist to continue in the saloon business, however music shows Inez the way forward, and she becomes manager of a music store. Thus, I plunged headlong into the music scene of San Francisco 1881.

In A DYING NOTE, when a young musician washes onto the shores of the San Francisco Bay, Inez discovers he has ties to her past in Colorado. The music in this book reflects that which brought Inez comfort in bygone days—classics such as Beethoven's Für Elise and Bach’s Prelude to the Well Tempered Clavichord. But it is in MORTAL MUSIC, the seventh and most recent in the series, that music takes center stage, and I can blame (or thank) my fictional prima donna, Theia Carrington Drake, for that. When Theia hears Inez play the piano, she asks Inez to be her accompanist for several high-profile personal appearances in San Francisco. However, Theia is the kind of diva who sows discord, resentment, and trouble in her wake. It doesn't take long for Inez to realize that a murderer is stalking the city’s opera halls, and that Theia may be the next victim.

Opera was wildly popular in San Francisco, even in the 19th century. 

In MORTAL MUSIC, I focused on opera and the musical theater scene in 19th-century San Francisco. Thank goodness for my professional-musician brother and for my editor, who is an opera buff! I was able to glean how professional musicians work with singers and zero in on appropriate pieces of music. I wove into my story opera arias including Dove sono i bei momenti from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro as well as popular (and slightly scandalous) ditties such as You Naughty, Naughty Men from the musical extravaganza The Black Crook. (The Black Crook, which featured singers and dancers in short skirts and tights, was famously reviewed in 1868 by Mark Twain who wrote that the musical "debauched many a pure mind" adding "the scenery and the legs are everything.") For the most recent books, I didn't have to rely on CDs; I could wander over to Pandora and YouTube, listen to selections over and over to my heart's content, and pin my selections on the music page of my Pinterest site. (Isn't technology wonderful?)



As I wade into the next book of the series, I know that music will again play a part, although how big a role remains to be seen. All I can say at this point is that with San Francisco being the major West Coast port in the 1880s, the songs of the sea are calling to me...

Coda: Here is a short list of links to some of the music in the Silver Rush series. If nothing else, listen to Dove sono I bei momenti and follow it up with You Naughty, Naughty Men. Click, listen, and enjoy!
Felix Mendelssohn's Lieder Ohne Worte
Franz Liszt’s Grandes Etudes de Paganini
Ludwig van Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
George Frederick Root's Battle Cry of Freedom (the Union version and the Confederate version, both performed by Bobby Horton, a noted authority of music from the Civil War era)
Thomas P. Westendorf's I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Dove sono i bei momenti from Le Nozze di Figaro
You Naughty, Naughty Men from The Black Crook (composer: G. Bickwell; lyricist, T. Kennick)

-------------------------

Ann Parker is a science writer by day and fiction writer at night. Her award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series, set in the 1880s U.S. West, features Colorado saloon-owner Inez Stannert. When Inez leaves Colorado and moves west to San Francisco, California, she re-invents herself as the manager of a music-store and a 19th-century "angel investor" for women-owned small businesses. The latest book, MORTAL MUSIC, finds Inez dealing with dastardly doings in San Francisco's opera world. Broadway Direct (which provides Broadway theater news and reviews) notes, " The period details of life on and off the stage in the 19th century are fun dressing for Parker’s usual clever mysteries. Inez Stannert will surely be back for an encore." For more information about Ann and her books, see www.annparker.net

Friday, February 21, 2020

Writing in the Midst of Much To Do

I forgot today is my day to blog. I've been checking my phone every morning for the day of the week. Then I check my appointment book. I'm still old-school with that. A book that I can open and flip through the pages.

This morning, I forgot I was blogging today because I didn't have time to check my calendar. I had an appointment to take Harry, my cat, to the vet. One of his eyes has been watering, but it was looking better. I almost canceled, but then I would have felt guilty if later it turned out to be something painful or serious. He dashed toward the bed when he heard me bringing in his crate, I lured him out by spraying the bathroom with Clorox. Don't ask me why, but he loves the smell of it. He trotted right into the bathroom and started to sniff and looked ready to hop into the wet bathtub. I shut the door and dashed for his crate before he suffered lung damage. 

He was not happy when I opened the door again and scooped him up for that hated trip in the car that always winds up on the table being poked and prodded. But today, he only got his nails clipped, eye drops, and treats with nutrients for vision. He was happy to have lunch and go out on the enclosed porch to turn paws up in the sun. I had to go back out to do errands before I could go to office. 

Now, it's the end of the day and I am going home to settle down to writing. I believe more and more that I should go back to the way I used to write. Log off the email, ignore the news alerts popping up, and settle in for five hours of uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This week, I made numerous notes to myself about both my historical thriller and my two non-fiction projects. The time I wasn't writing actually proved useful because in one of those marvelous examples of serendipity (I love that word), I happened across articles relevant to all three projects. 

With the 1939 thriller, I accidentally ended up on a Yahoo page devoted to interesting news stories. One of them was about a man who had bought a dresser at an auction and discovered a secret drawer. Then I was re-reading Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile because it was published in the United States in 1938, and one of my characters in my 1939 thriller will have read it. As I was reading I came across several lovely references to clothing that I want to quote in my non-fiction book about dress and appearance in American crime and justice (because, of course, Americans were reading Christie in real life). I also stumbled across a quote in a newspaper article about a real life gangster that will work well in my book about gangster movies. So my time was not wasted. I now have a frame story for the events in the historical thriller and several useful quotes for the other two books. 

Today the sun was shining. That was good. It was even better when I heard from one of our SinC chapter members that we have only 23 seats left for the second day of our Murderous March conference (March 20-21). That's good news because it means that with the Saturday portion of the conference still a month away, the library that we are partnering with for the third year is already near 80 person capacity. But we have lots of space at the hotel where we have a block of rooms so we can accommodate any of those people who decide to attend the Friday afternoon workshops with Sujata Massey and Alison Gaylin and the buffet dinner that evening. I think it also means that the people who attended last year's conference are excited about the third year of what is now an annual conference. This year, we are being joined by authors from MWA-NY. I'm among those upstate members who can rarely make it down to the City for chapter meetings, so I'm happy that they're coming upstate. We are also going to have authors from New England and the SinC Murder on Ice chapter in western New York. For the first time, we'll have a Pathways to Publishing panel with industry professionals. With luck we won't have a blizzard that weekend. 

Tonight, I am going to turn off all my distractions and settle down to write. That's also how I'm going to spend the weekend. Even with the notes I've jolted down, I need to get back to work.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Segue



Segue (SEG-way): to make a transition without interruption from one activity, topic, scene, or part to another – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I (Donis) have just written a really great scene. It really explains a lot about my character and why she does what she does. Now I need to figure out where in the story to put my scene. I know where I want to put it, but I need a really good segue. Otherwise the scene will stick out like a sore thumb.

My book-writing technique is rather like quilting. I tend to write separate scenes, like quilt blocks, and then stitch them together to form what I hope is a unified whole. Sometimes I take my scene-blocks and try different arrangements to see which makes the most beautiful/logical/suspenseful pattern. If I put this scene here, will it reveal too much too soon? If I arrange these three scenes next to one another, will that make too many pages without action or a clue for the reader to follow?

Once I have all my scene-blocks in an order that pleases me, or at least works, then I have to start stitching. I don't particularly enjoy starting on the segues. By the time I get to the “stitching” part, I've written the fun stuff, the beautiful descriptions, the exciting action, the subtle clues and red herrings. Now it's just a slog to make it all hang together.

You have to be careful with segues. You don't want to add anything to your story that slows down the action, so it's best to be minimal when all you're doing is moving from one scene to the next. Sometimes, though, while I'm slogging, I realize all kinds of things about the movement of my story. Perhaps I don't even need a segue from this scene to that one. Maybe it's better story-telling if I shock the reader with a sudden jump in the action. Sometimes the segue itself turns into another entire scene that adds a lot of color or explains things a lot better.

There is an art to it, and a science, too, to know just how much is enough and not one word more. It's a lesson I have to learn with every book I write.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Walking for mind and soul

Facebook is very useful for the random links it shares, sometimes posted by friends and other times by sponsoring companies. Facebook is also good at tracking what I like or might want, so I would never get a link to Rebel Media, for example. (if I did, it would be killed as fast I could click delete.)

Recently The New Yorker posted a link to an article about the connection between walking, thinking, and writing. I apologize if this link is behind a paywall, but the gist is that walking stimulates creativity and novel thinking by allowing the mind to drift in and out between the real world and our own inner world, and furthermore, that walking in nature does this better than walking in the city.


Other studies have confirmed the benefits to both physical and mental health of walking in nature, this at a time when more and more people live in clamorous cities and green spaces are fewer and fewer (because there are no property taxes to be collected on parks, for one thing). My city of Ottawa has an official city planning policy of "intensification", which means building more tall condos and multi-unit dwellings on lots where there used to be smaller homes on lots with lovely mature trees and gardens. But I digress.

The main interest for me in this article, and in similar ones, is that walking in nature stimulates creative thought. Scientifically, this is apparently because blood flow to the brain increases when we move and because our body, including our brain, tends to move in sync with our surroundings. Hence if we are listening to hard rock music or walking down a busy street, our body revs up. While this can be energizing and enjoyable at the right time, it is not conducive to creative thought, which needs a drifting openness of mind to allow novel, random thoughts to enter.


Like most authors, I suspect, I have always known this. Because I have dogs, I take long walks every day and that's when I do my best story development. If I have a plot snag or a character puzzle, I often take a walk just to "clear my head". I find the act of walking is a non-intrusive backdrop with just enough stimulation to keep me thinking. Have you ever tried to sit in a chair doing absolutely nothing except think? Chances are you start to doodle or jot down notes or pace from the kitchen to the office.

The walks in nature are by far the best. Distractions are fewer, you don't have to watch for street lights or dodge cars or pedestrians, you can look for occasional inspiration at the rustling trees and glistening lake. Or you can stay almost entirely inside your own head, imagining your story. Taking this nature walk idea one step further, another scientific benefit is that walking on uneven, unpredictable terrain like a hiking trail engages more parts of the brain than walking in a straight line along a flat path. This has limits for creativity, I find, because if you have to pay attention not to trip over a root or rock, you can't lose yourself as completely in your imagination, but in moderation, it can help get the juices going.


One worrisome thing I notice on my walks is how few people are actually enjoying just being in nature. Almost everyone is listening to something on their earbuds (audio books, music?). Since I find that disruptive to my thoughts, I never do, but I'd like to know if it helps or hinders "mind drift". Or if the walkers are not attached to earbuds, they have their nose in their phones, oblivious to everything around them. This transports them to another world, for sure, but not one of their own imagination. I am afraid that imagination and mind drift are becoming a lost art.

And what a loss that would be to our creative future.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The saddest thing

by Rick Blechta

Too often we crime writers get caught up in our own plots and either gloss over the tragedy of sudden death or decide the pressure of keeping our story zipping along require us to just move on and not acknowledge that the death of the victim has will most likely create a mountain of heartache for those who cared and have been left behind to deal with it. I know I’m more than guilty of doing this.

On the other hand, paying attention to documenting the emotional fallout that always follows a murder would become emotionally crushing after awhile. I’m certain it would turn readers off. To be perfectly cold about it, in many cases it does slow down the story. We often use the dodge that “the killer must be found!” (Whether we’re consciously using this as a dodge or just a plot convenience is a moot point.) If we did stop and weave the sadness into our plots as a matter of course, our books would become overly depressing. Readers like to be told a good story full of twists and turns, populated by interesting characters, and at the end, all would be explained and the miscreants brought to justice. Real life is so depressing these days that who wants more to be piled on when reading for enjoyment?

Yes, sensitive writers do try to work something of this personal tragedy into their plots where they can, and that can be a good thing, but by and large it’s glossed over.

Now here’s where real life comes into our discussion. I’m sure we could all come up with multiple instances of tragic death that we’ve heard about in only the past week. But as uncomfortable and depressing as it is, maybe there’s something that could be used as a quick snapshot to bring the suffering that is visited on those left behind when a loved one dies.

I have a story I’m going to share and it happened here in Toronto last week. It is heartbreaking, but there is also a sliver of something that is uplifting nonetheless.

Two victims of the shooting down of the Ukrainian flight out of Tehran on January 8th, mother and daughter lived just north of Toronto. Reera Esmaelion, 9 years old had tickets to  a performance of Hansel and Gretel with her mom this past weekend. It would have been her first opera experience and as a budding pianist, she was very excited about it. In the aftermath her father Hamed asked that their seats be left empty to honour them. Here is the result of that request posted on the Canadian Opera’s Facebook page:
“Reera Esmaeilion and her mother, Parisa, had been excited to join us this weekend for our final Opera For Young Audiences performance of HANSEL & GRETEL. We were heartbroken this week to learn of their passing in the crash of Flight PS752 on January 8, 2020 and kept their seats empty yesterday afternoon, in honour of their memory and shared love of music. Our thoughts and hearts remain with Hamed Esmaelion, who kindly shared his family photos, and all those touched by this tragedy.”

Absolutely heartbreaking, yes. But perhaps a similar scene, a mere paragraph or two, would help hammer home the grievous story beyond the recounting of a violent death in a crime fiction story and allow a bit more humanity to shine through rather than racing on to tell our story and glossing over something so important. We owe it to our “victims.”

Monday, February 17, 2020

Weathering the Weather

Here in Edinburgh the winter has been good so far. When the south was getting day after day of rain, we had those perfect cold winter days – frosty, the sky clear and brilliant blue, the air so cold it almost feels fizzy on your throat like champagne.

This weekend it all changed.  Violent winds, with 90mph gusts in some places, torrential rain which turned sleety and has now left a wet slushy coating on everything and outside now it's grey sky right down to the ground. I don't need to go out tonight so I can look for a good book and huddle by the fire.

Since my books have rural settings, the weather always plays a big part. In Devil's Garden, the new book that's coming out in June, DCI Kelso Strang has to cope with the major storm that hit the country at the end of February last year, the one that became known as The Beast from the East.

It actually stranded me in London, with no trains getting through to Edinburgh until they could get snowploughs through the drifts that had shut the line at Carlisle, so I remembered it all very clearly. The only trouble was that when I was actually writing about it, it was sunny and warm and we were having meals in the garden and it was a real effort of the imagination to get back into feeling what my characters would be experiencing.

I've had that problem before, when the work is going well and I'm really absorbed.  When I reread, I find that I've described what I'm seeing out of the window instead of what the characters would be seeing – leaves on the trees, perhaps, which would be very confusing to a reader who has been under the impression that the action takes place in November. If I fail to notice even then – well, that's where the copy-editing comes in – see my last post!

One of the other problems is knowing what flowers or trees you can expect to be in flower at which time of year – I spend my life looking up botanical references. Birds too are a bit inconvenient – here we have a lot of migratory ones and you have work out when the ones you've chosen to feature aren't still enjoying themselves in sunnier climes.

Which brings me back to the book I need to take my mind off the weather tonight.  Out of Africa, perhaps – or would that just make me miserably discontented?. Maybe I'd be wiser to pick up T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, with all the horrors of desert heat to remind me how lucky I am to live where I do.

I find myself muttering a little rhyme my mother used to say provokingly when we were complaining about rain spoiling holiday plans: 'But we'll weather the weather whatever the weather, Whether we like it or not.'

Friday, February 14, 2020

Series Characters--To Cherish or Not?

One of the problems with a mystery series is that of reintroducing characters. Fans of the series don't want a detailed synopsis of each and every person who appeared in previous books. On the other hand, new readers will be quite bewildered when a person suddenly shows up with a built in role. 

In real life, I feel the same awkwardness when I'm supposed to know someone I've never been introduced to. One situation that was hilariously funny was when one of my daughters was married and no one introduced me to the father of the groom. We were across the room from each other at a party and nodded with weak polite smiles. I would like to think I finally resolved this by simply saying "Hello, I'm Charlotte Hinger. The mother of the woman your son is going to marry."

I probably didn't because I have a real talent for complicating matters. But really, our families would be joined for life. Surely we could do better than identifying one another through the process of elimination.

For once writing a series in first person helps solve this problem, because--as Lottie Albright--and by incorporating the blessed technique of projecting thoughts, Lottie can dread the volcanic disruption of a visit by her husband's daughter Elizabeth, or worry about his daughter, Angie, who falls for cruel men. 

With third person the process is more awkward, plus there is a danger of "spoilers." Revealing plots of previous books. As in, "you know, the evil psychologist we put in prison a couple of years ago." This isn't fair to the new reader who loves book number five, decides to read ALL of the series and discovers he or she already knows how previous books have turned out. 

There are four characters who simply must be in all of my books: the sheriff, Sam Abbot, Lottie's twin sister, Josie Albright, her husband, Keith Fiene, and Tosca, the adorable little Shih-Tzu who somehow wiggles her way into every plot. 

I would love to hear tips and advice from my savvy blogmates on reintroducing all the people we've managed to accumulate through the years. 


Thursday, February 13, 2020

The light and the dark

Over the past month, I’ve read Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, by Walter Mosley. These are two great books, both. But they are entirely different and show us many things about where the genre is, has been, and will be.

Owens’s Crawdads is a perfectly plotted and insightful coming-of-age story about a young woman who is accused of a murder. The crime scene is well detailed but cozy-like in its descriptions. Owens plays fair with the reader, and the whodunit is answered on the last page. Agatha Christie could not have plotted it better.

Mosley’s Outgunned is Mosley at his best –– offering a glimpse into the African-American experience, shedding light on the results of incarceration, and the illusion-versus-reality of our criminal justice system. It is cruel, dark, and real.

I love both of these books. And I think each of them tells us something interesting about the state of the genre. Raymond Chandler said there are no dull topics, only dull minds. He was speaking of the concept of plot. Each of these books illustrate his point. And it’s a point worth making: any topic is a good one for a crime novel, in a capable writer’s hands.

Both of these books feel authentic and atmospheric and very real. They speak to the possibilities and the options of the genre, and to what is available to writers: themes in these books (I’m being careful not to give spoilers here) are both heavy and light. Reads find discoveries of identity; race and socio-economics in the criminal justice system; and violence is explored and handled differently by each writer.

So what does this say about the state of the genre? The options for you (and me) are endless. Write what you know. Or write what you’re scared to know. But as you go forward, remember Chandler’s quip. The concept is rarely bad. It’s only handled badly.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Books of Dark Shadows

Lately, I've been rediscovering the books based on the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows, which aired in the mid sixties to the early seventies. I was one of those kids who "ran home" from school to watch it. Okay, I actually took the bus, but I ran into the house as soon as it let me off.

I read a number of these books (there were 33) when they came out starting in 1966. In junior high, when we had to do a dramatic reading of a book, I chose one of the DS books. I don’t remember which one, but I can tell you that the passage I read was a lot more interesting than anything others read. I’m pretty sure it involved a vampire and/or a werewolf.

The books were all written by Marilyn Ross, pen name of writer William Edward Daniel Ross. I guess the powers that be thought having a woman's name on the books was the best way to go. He was a Canadian author (among other things) who wrote over 300 novels in a variety of genres.

My home library includes some of the books I bought way back then for 50 cents each as well as others I found in thrift stores.

Recently I learned that they’re all being reissued in paperback and audio formats. I’m sure when “Marilyn Ross” wrote them, he thought they’d be forgotten once the soap ended. But Dark Shadows has never really been out of the public eye. Episodes have been syndicated as well as being released on VHS and DVD. There have been conventions. (I’ve been to quite a few.) And in 1991 there was a revival of the series, which was beautifully done, but had the bad luck of airing at the time of the Gulf War. The CW did a pilot of a new version, but it was never picked up. I hear someone else is giving it a go again.

But, up until now, the books haven’t been easily available. Kathryn Leigh Scott who played Maggie Evans plus other characters on the original series, does a nice job reading them for the audio versions. Even if you know nothing about the soap, they are still fun reads. They certainly bring back fond memories for me.

Dan Curtis, the creator of Dark Shadows, never expected it to have the longevity it’s had. None of the actors did, either. There’s a newly released documentary on Curtis called Master of Dark Shadows that’s worth watching.

All of this just goes to show you that no one knows what’s going to catch the public eye and be successful. I’ve never been one to chase trends, anyway. I intend to write what I want to write and see what happens.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Falling in love with characters


by Rick Blechta

Dorothy L. Sayers
It’s a fact of life that we writers must find a connection with our characters in order to write effectively. Basically, if we don’t feel something about them, how can we expect anyone else to care, and care they must, or they won’t continue reading.

The second favourite child of my novel output, Cemetery of the Nameless, started life as a completely different story. I wrote nearly 70 pages with a totally different protagonist. After working for nearly two months on the manuscript, I crashed into a hard stone wall that would not budge.

Agatha Christie
The reason? I really disliked my protagonist. No matter what I did, he complained. He whined. He whinged. And I couldn’t stop him. Lord knows I tried! To borrow a somewhat rude British term, David was a total wanker. I knew wouldn’t be able to restrain myself and would likely bump him off before reaching the end of my story. Not a good situation when the narration is first person!

I’ve documented this several years ago in a post here, so I won’t belabour the point, but the solution was to keep the main idea of the story (a lost Beethoven manuscript) but change out the protagonist to one with whom I was more simpatico, one whom I liked better.

While this is the opposite end of what the title of this post indicates, I felt my personal story about a writer’s relationship with main characters in a work would illustrate why it’s important to have some kind of feeling for the people who populate our plots. Let’s look at two of the crime fictions more notable citizens.

It’s well known that Dorothy L. Sayers was more than a little in love with her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. Read a few of these (excellent) novels and you can’t fail to see it.

Agatha Christie on the other hand came to hate Hercule Poirot — even though she wrote 33 novels and 50+ short stories about his exploits. In a matter of 10 years, she found her creation to be a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. Even so — probably with one eye on her bank account — she continued to write about the “insufferable” detective for another 45 years!

Why were both these series so enjoyed by readers even though one writer clearly loved her character and the other hated hers?

Because these talented writers made their readers feel something compelling about them, despite how they personally interacted with their creations.

And aren’t love and hate opposite sides of the same coin?

Monday, February 10, 2020

Nervous About Teaching Creative Writing.

Tonight I’m teaching my first Creative Writing class at our local community college. It’s a continuing education program so I won’t be grading papers or scoring tests. It’s purely for people who are interesting in learning about being better writers.

I’m a bit nervous because, while I’ve taught a couple of college courses in the past and given writing workshops, I’ve never taught a course on Creative Writing.

To be sure, I can offer advice on the mechanics of writing. How you can go about developing characters that are interesting and memorable. I can show ways to create a protagonist who is relatable. I can talk about how you should “show” rather than “tell”. I can offer my thoughts on plot structure and even a few tricks about plot twists.

We can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of narrative viewpoint and how to write believable dialogue.

I’ll suggest that they read aloud what they write. It’s a great way to “hear” what’s been rattling around in their heads and then hammered out onto their laptops.

I’ll let them know that often it’s a good idea to leave your manuscript in a drawer and walk away from it for a few days or even a week or two. Then when you’re ready to write a revision, open the drawer and you’ll have a fresh set of eyes critiquing it.

But what I’d like them to do, more than anything, is to bring in some of their works in progress and read selected passages from them aloud to the class. I’m hoping the feedback they get will help them become stronger writers.

I’ve taken creative writing classes and was scared out of my wits to read what I’d written to a room full of people. Even to this day, I can speak to an audience about my books and my thoughts on writing, but reading from my novels still makes me nervous.

But the great thing is, in a creative writing class, you’re in a room full of people who share your passion. Everyone there has a joy for writing.

So, I think I can do a good job helping them with the mechanics of writing. But can someone teach creativity?

I’ve read articles that say that it can be taught and some that say that it can’t. There are exercises that can help strengthen someone’s creativity. But as an adult (and all my students at adults), unless you are already endowed with it, is it really possible to suddenly grow creativity if you don’t already have it?

Tonight, I’m going to ask each student what they hope to get out of the class, who their favorite writers are, and tell us about their ‘work in progress’? And if they tell me they don’t have a WIP, I’m going to have to ask them, “Why the hell not?”

Now, I’ll end this blog with three quotes:

“It aint’ whatcha’ write, it’s the way atcha’ write it.”—Jack Kerouac

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”—Ernest Hemingway

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do for them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”—Dorothy Parker

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Guest Blogger Judith Starkston

Type M is thrilled to welcome our guest Judith Starkston, whose historical fantasy series is set in the most fascinating place, in the most interesting era, and features the most original protagonist you can imagine!



Murder and Magic in the Bronze Age

Thank you, Donis Casey, for the invitation. I’m delighted to be here and to introduce you to my historical fantasy series set in the distant Bronze Age past of the Hittite empire that once spanned the area covered by modern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.



Type M for murder, you say? That was the easy part: the murder, I mean. What about the other m’s? The murderer, the motive, and the muse? I studied classics. I believe in muses.

I’m not sure if I discovered my particular muse because I love to explore archaeological ruins, or if the muse decided to make herself known in the person of Puduhepa because the long-forgotten queen was tired of waiting more than three thousand years for someone to pay her proper respect. Puduhepa ruled the huge Hittite empire for decades. The legacy she left behind survives today inscribed on clay tablets. Through these writings I’m able to “listen” to her across time in her prayers, letters, judicial decrees, and diplomatic skirmishes with her various foes, particularly Pharaoh Ramses II (of Biblical fame). She had a brilliant mind and a tough but gracious manner. Reconstructing her ancient world so my readers live there for a time—see, smell and taste it—is one of the pleasures of writing fiction based in a culture unfamiliar to most of us. Queen Puduhepa became the inspiration for my priestess Tesha in the series. The Hittites became my Hitolia.



As for the easy part, the murder. In Priestess of Ishana, an unsuspecting shepherd discovers a charred dead body in a dank hillside cave and, lying next to it, the murder “weapon”: “…a black lump of bitumen, the size of a man’s thigh. Even with its arms and legs partly melted, the tarry figure formed an evil effigy.” I borrowed this murder method directly from the Hittite records written in cuneiform on clay. They had some fantastical beliefs—an obsession with sorcery and curses, for example—that make great source material for murderous plots that combine mystery, romance, political intrigue, and magic. I use these tantalizing ancient descriptions as the base from which my fiction grows.

Then there are the murderers and their motives. The villains step into my books from the fascinating conflicts of this empire. Some reflect the deadly disagreements within the royal family that the tablets hint at. Some march in from rival empires and bring international intrigue in their wake. Some more fantastical foes arise from the Hittite penchant for the supernatural and afflict their victims from within. Thus, I craft historical fantasy from both specific rites or customs found in the records and from the broader sweep of events suggested there. I allow full range to the magical beliefs arising from this world and that produces the fantasy amidst my historical grounding.

The initial two books of the series are available now, Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara. Sign up for my monthly newsletter and/or my weekly blog posts to download a short story set in this world and updates on my latest history and archaeology finds that could wind up shaping one of my future plots.
__________

www.JudithStarkston.com
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Friday, February 07, 2020

And Life Goes On

One of the facts of a writing life -- as I and my blogmates have noted -- is that life goes on even when we would rather be focused on a work in progress. I'm having one of those weeks. Last week, we learned of a reorganization that is going to affect my academic unit at school. That has meant meetings and discussions and the need to re-orient before we move on. The fact that all this is happening during one of our gloomier weeks here in Albany has me thinking of Shakespeare's  "winter of our discontent" or Melville's Ishmael "growing grim about the mouth."

School is closing this afternoon because of the weather. It looks like rain from my dining room window, but obviously more is happening. So I may not be able to make it to the post office to mail out some paperwork about reissuing the next book in my Lizzie Stuart series. And I won't be able to get to Best Buy to pick up a printer and take it to my computer tech to be programmed. (I ordered a new Dell to replace my ancient desk top, but I was so focused on choosing the right computer that I neglected to order the speakers and a new printer). My computer tech has the speakers waiting to be picked up. But it looks like a few more day without sound on that computer.

Getting back to Ishmael and his gloomy mood. Last night I was looking up that paragraph from Moby Dick -- one of my favorite first paragraphs even when I'm in a good mood. I clicked on one of those sites with quotes from famous authors. I had never done a search for quotes from Melville before. After reading a few, I wanted to post them over my desk


I share below three quotes from Melville that sent me back to my keyboard feeling inspired and invigorated:


I try all things, I achieve what I can.

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. 

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it. 

So I am going to venture out to see what I can get done before the weather gets worse. Then I am going to spend the afternoon and evening trying to "achieve what I can."

(And the rain just turned to snow, so now I'm in for the day. But I'm ready to work).

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Hamster on a Wheel



As usual, I'm under a deadline and feeling desperate to finish the second installment of my new Bianca Dangereuse series, which is ironic because I just finished the launch events for the first installment, The Wrong Girl. But that's the way it is on the writing merry-go-round. At this point I don't have many launch events left to do - a couple of local talks on Mar. 11, which is the day before I fly off to San Diego for Left Coast Crime, one of the premier author/reader mystery conferences! I'll be on a panel called Hooray for Hollywood: Tinsel Town as a Setting (and what a setting it is!) on lucky Friday the 13th at 4:00 p.m. along with fellow mystery authors, multiple-award-winner Kellye Garrett, Sherri Leigh-James, and Phoef Sutton. I don't get to go to many conferences, so I'm crossing my fingers that everyone who lives in my house stays healthy and nothing weird happens so that I have to change plans at the last minute, which has happened to me far too often.

Speaking of weird things that interfere with one's writing but must be dealt with - February is going to be very doctor-y around here. My husband is having minor surgery on the 12th (pacemaker replacement), and I'll be chauffeuring him to surgery, the follow-up appointments, and a couple of eye-shots (yes, if you have certain eye problems, the current treatment is to get shots in you eyeballs.) on Feb. 17th, 19th, 25th, and 27th. He actually was scheduled for a different minor surgery last Monday, but (long long story) it ended up getting cancelled at the last minute. We're looking forward (irony alert) to having that rescheduled.

Ending on a much more fun note, I recently got to do a Page 69 Test for The Wrong Girl, my mystery set in 1920s Hollywood. What is the Page 69 Test? It's a test to see if page 69 of your novel is representative of the rest of the book. Marshall Zeringue posted my page 69 test - and guess what? Yes, page 69 is an important turning point for the main character in The Wrong Girl. You can read my page 69 test, which of course includes the entirety of page 69, here - https://page69test.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-wrong-girl.html

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

I read Canadian

A very special day is coming up on February 19, 2020: the very first I READ CANADIAN day celebrating Canadian authors and stories coast to coast. Why this blatantly nationalistic hype? As a true Canadian, I apologize in advance. Canada is a modest, relatively unassuming but awesome country full of diverse regions and cultures. Proudly, it has many voices, but with the exception of Quebec, its literature is mainly in English. It is stuck between two English-speaking cultural behemoths – the UK and the US – which have a far larger readership and much larger budgets to reach that readership. The population of the UK is 67 million, and the US 328 million. Canada's is 38 million, of which 20% are French-speaking.


Canadians have many influences. In many ways we float midway across the ocean between the two powerhouses. A bit British, a bit American, with lots of other colours thrown in. American culture swamps our TV, our airwaves, our movie theatres, and our bookstores. UK culture acts as a kind of counterweight to this, providing another voice that seems familiar, at times nostalgic, to our ears. In this clamouring of cultural offerings, Canadian offerings find it hard to be heard. I have been doing book signings across Canada for over twenty years, and I am often discouraged that readers who express an interest in crime fiction often can't name a single Canadian crime writer. This despite the fact there are about 300 active published authors who are members of Crime Writers of Canada.

In the music industry, there are Canadian content requirements for radio stations that have nurtured a world-class Canadian music industry. Some Canadian content regulations also exist for TV and film. But sadly there are none for books. No requirement for Canadian writers to be included in school curricula, no requirement or even incentive that they feature prominently in bookstore displays, alongside the "Scandinavian Noir" or "James Patterson" piles. The big publishers are international businesses, and they don't make their money on Canadian authors, but rather on international best-sellers  Independent Canadian publishers don't have the money to compete with them for space.

Hence this grassroots social media campaign by authors, publishers, and literary organizations aimed at raising awareness. Hey, Canadian stories exist, and they're actually pretty good! Although the focus is on children's books and the campaign is aimed at school and library participation, the idea is gaining traction within the broader community. So with any luck, on February 19, there will be events in schools and libraries across the country, and blitzes on social media as well as traditional media. All authors are encouraged to wave the flag. If Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are suddenly awash in I READ CANADIAN slogans and stories, that's why. Please share them, and I hope they will inspire some of you to pick up a Canadian book from your library or bookstore.


As a lead-up to that big day, a more modest campaign will be held this upcoming weekend, February 7 - 9, to celebrate that subcategory of books called "High interest/ Low vocabulary". Although most of these books are aimed at struggling or emerging young readers including middle school and YA, some imprints are written for adults who for whatever reason are looking for a quick, easy read. Some are busy or have short attention spans, some just want a quick read for the airplane or the doctor's office, while others, such as ESL, LD, or the elderly, enjoy the simpler format. Orca Books is a leader in HiLo books for all ages, and my Cedric O'Toole series is from their adult Rapid Reads line. Their mission is to develop a love of reading that lasts a lifetime. So if you see a flurry of posts and conversations with #GetToKnowHiLo or @GetToKnowHiLo, please share and join the conversation. Spread the world.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

If you've been to an author interview/panel…

…you’ve seen the truth in this little cartoon.

by Rick Blechta

I got conscripted into some emergency grandchild coverage today and so there’s no time to write a proper post for Type M. I’ve got something started but will need an hour or two more to finish it (research mostly).

So I’ve pulled out one of the cartoons I’ve been saving for just such a situation as this.

At every author event where the floor is opened up for questions or comments from the audience, there’s always something like this.

Hope you enjoy it — and see you all next week!


Monday, February 03, 2020

Let's Hear It For Copy-Editors.

The copy-edited ms of Devil's Garden, my new book, arrived this week so I've been head-down for the last few days.

Usually the copy-editing is a straightforward matter – I just work through to the comments, change if I think it's necessary, explain why I'm not going to change if not. There are usually only a handful anyway – and I'm particularly grateful when they pick up on the fact that I have somehow not noticed using the same word three times in as many lines or contradicted what I had said in Chapter Two when I reached Chapter Eleven.

This time I was surprised and not a little dismayed when there were three pages of queries as well, nearly all of them relating to a time problem, where they couldn't work out what day it was meant to be – the evidence was contradictory.

Most of my books have a tight time schedule, and in this one the whole action unfolds in the course of a week, on the basis of real time, so trying to unpick it all looked as if it was going to be a major nightmare to sort out.

My copy-editors had meticulously gone through the whole book, quoting and highlighting phrases where the time was mentioned. I hate to think how long it must have taken and when I got down to studying the comments I could see why it was a problem.

Then I started working through the book and I realised the whole thing had stemmed from one word. I remembered considering whether the junior detective should arrive on the scene on the Monday or on the Tuesday. I'd thought at first it should be Monday but then as I wrote on the action dictated a Tuesday arrival and somehow in the revision I didn't notice what I'd done.

With the change in that one word, it all worked, with only a very few minor tweaks of the 'last night' when it should be 'two nights ago' variety. (At least I hope it has – they'll be checking it next week!)

When I was small and learning to knit I would get it into a bit of a mess and take it to my grandma. She would painstakingly rip a bit back, pick up the dropped stitches and give it back to me – sorted.

That's what copy-editors do. I'd like to say a great big thank you to mine, and a great big apology too, for giving them so much trouble by my carelessness.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Going back to the beginning


Michael Sears

This weekend, I'm delighted to welcome guest author Michael Stanley, who is actually two fabulous writers in one. To make matters even more amazing, they manage this collaboration while living on two different continents. Here, they talk about why, after writing six books in the Detective Kubu series, they went back to the beginning. Take it away, you two!

Stanley Trollip

In most cases, the writer of a series has from the very beginning a good grasp of the protagonist’s character, personality, and skill set. And has a general idea of how he or she will develop over time.

In our case, things happened very differently.

First, our motivation to write a mystery was largely to see whether we could do it. The catalyst was a trip to Botswana’s wonderful Chobe National Park to watch birds and animals. During the visit, we watched a pack of hyenas attack, kill, and devour a wildebeest. In a matter of hours, there was nothing left because hyenas eat both flesh and bones. 

That gave us the idea for a new way to get away with murder – leave the corpse for the hyenas to dispose of. No body, no case. We decided to take the idea and try to write a complete novel. For ourselves. Certainly, there was no thought of a series, so we put only a little effort into planning our protagonist.

We’d been advised by experienced writers to write what we knew. Because both of us were professors, it made sense to have our protagonist be a professor—in his case, a professor of ecology at the University of Botswana.

So, in chapter one of our mystery, titled A Carrion Death, our ecologist and a game ranger stumble upon a human body being eaten by a hyena. It was immediately obvious to our smart professor that the absence of clothes and teeth suggested that this was no accident. It was murder. So, he had to call the police in to investigate.


We decided to have some fun with this policeman. We made him a very large man, so large, in fact, that his nickname was Kubu, which is the local word for hippopotamus. He packed ample food before he jumped into his Land Rover, as well as cassette tapes of his favorite operas. Then he set off for the Kalahari to inspect the half-eaten corpse.

It was a long way to drive, and Kubu mused about how his bushman school friend had shown him things in the desert that other people overlooked, and how that had sparked his interest in being a detective. By the time he’d arrived at the scene of the crime, Kubu had made it clear to us that he had to be the main character. That came as a complete surprise. We thought we were in charge of the story.

So Kubu was even less planned than our ecologist.

We wrote away, and three years later we had a manuscript. We’d accomplished what we’d set out to do. We twisted the arms of some of the friends who’d been with us in Chobe and asked them to read our magnus opus. They obliged and liked it. So we decided to see if we could get it published.

Forty rejections later, we landed an agent in New York, who, in a matter of weeks, landed a conditional offer from HarperCollins. The condition was that we write a series.

And so from wondering whether we could write a mystery for ourselves with an academic as a protagonist, we ended up with a contract for a series with a protagonist we hadn’t planned.

We were delighted that Kubu won readers’ loyalty, but how well did we actually know him? He was smart and good at solving problems. Unlike many detectives in police procedurals, he was happily married and sober almost all of the time. Of course, during the series his character developed, and his relationships with his wife, parents, and colleagues deepened. There were clues about his childhood in the books—things that had come up as we wrote. We knew he had loving, traditional, but Christian parents and knew of his Bushman friend. We knew he loved to do puzzles with his father. We knew where he’d met his wife. But there was nothing that explained how he’d gone from school to being the star detective in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. 

Since the seventies, diamonds have been Botswana’s most important export and allowed the newly independent country to flourish. The richest diamond mine in the world is there, owned by a joint venture between the government and the giant De Beers. The fact that the country was almost totally reliant on diamonds for its success made us wonder about the impact of a massive heist. Could it shake the country’s financial foundation?


We decided to explore both the issue of Kubu’s early role in the CID and a robbery at the height of the diamond boom by writing a prequel to the series—a Kubu mystery that starts the day he joins the CID as a new detective straight out of university. 

Kubu’s first case is a minor matter, yet it’s a challenging puzzle, and he loves it. However, he has to struggle to find a place for himself in the CID. Sometimes his new boss, Assistant Superintendent Mabaku, seems disappointed in him. Then a massive diamond robbery takes place and suddenly everything changes. Everyone is thrown into the case, even the raw detective in his first week on the job.

As we wrote the prequel, we were delighted to watch Kubu develop, having insights, but also making the mistakes that only experience can avoid. He earns respect, but also opprobrium. And as Mabaku comes to appreciate his talents, Kubu becomes more and more central to the case. Eventually, they deduce who the mastermind behind the robbery actually is, but they have no strong evidence. Now they have to find some way to catch him, and Kubu and Mabaku both find their careers on the line—in Kubu’s case, before his career has even begun. 

By the end of the book, Kubu has learned a lot about being in the CID and how to interact with his colleagues and his superiors. He has also fallen in love with a wonderful women and sees some hope that his feelings are reciprocated. 

Writing Facets of Death was a very enjoyable journey of exploration for us. We learnt a lot about how Kubu became the CID’s best detective and about who he is as a person. We know him better now. 


Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip write under the name Michael Stanley. Their award-winning mystery series, featuring Detective Kubu, is set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The latest book in the series is a prequel, titled Facets of Death. Their latest thriller Shoot the Bastards introduces Minnesotan environmental journalist Crystal Nguyen. Set mainly in South Africa, it has as backstory the vicious trade in rhino horn.
Michael has lived in South Africa, Kenya, Australia and the US. He now lives in Knysna on the Cape south coast of South Africa. Stanley splits his time between Minneapolis, Cape Town, and Denmark. To learn more about them, check out their website.