Thursday, April 30, 2020

All The Things I'm Going to Do

Here's a list of some of the things I've resolved to do during the quarantine:
Make pancakes.
Learn Italian.
Get back to my drawing and guitar/piano playing.
Start another book.

Have I done any of those? Well, yes, all of them. Kind of, in a desultory way. Just don't ask about housecleaning.

I find it fascinating to read the entries that my blogmates and other writers share about their time in lockdown. I have to admit that I feel better about my own lack of progress on … anything … when I see that others are struggling as well. It didn't help me feel better about myself when I watched a Poisoned Pen Bookstore Facebook video interview with author Jenn McKinlay this morning. She was touting the release of her twelfth cupcake shop mystery, Pumpkin Spice Peril. This is like, her 40th book in the past decade, and they're all good. Jenn has two teenaged sons and a husband and more energy than anyone has a right to have and manages three, four, five books a year, most reaching the NYT bestseller list.

As for me, not so much. I've recently finished writing a book, Valentino Will Die, the second in the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse series. Sadly, it was originally scheduled to come out in November 2020, but I was recently notified that the publication date has been pushed back to February 2021. I’m disappointed, but by that time, I hope I’ll have the third book ready to go, so maybe there won’t be such a gap between books. We'll see. I usually have a period of complete blankness after I finish a book, and this hang-fire period of corona virus quarantine doesn't help my thinking processes. I’m pretty pleased by the way Valentino turned out, so I hope you’ll like it, Dear Reader. In the interim, I’m cogitating about starting another Alafair Tucker mystery. Wish me luck in coming up with a great story idea. These days I feel lucky if I manage to get out of bed before ten.

There was a starred review in the April 15 Booklist for the audio version of the first Bianca Dangereuse tale, The Wrong Girl, read by the talented Romy Nordlinger! Here’s an excerpt of the review:
“Nordlinger easily depicts lecherous cads and despicable older men and fluidly differentiates between the female leads: a childlike, inexperienced 17-year-old; a spoiled, privileged, but big-hearted star; and a stabilizing, practical assistant with a bare hint of a Southern Black accent. More impressively, she subtly shows each woman’s voice variations over time, reflecting in phrasings and darkening tonalities their changes in attitudes and expectations, as well as discoveries of unexpected capabilities and strengths as Blanche/Bianca’s life unfolds—leaving readers impatient for the sequel.”

Stay safe, read lots of books, and wash your hands.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Pandemic hurdles

Recent posts (including my own) have noted that the pandemic has changed our work as writers in many ways. For many of us, our concentration and focus are shot. We find ourselves easily distracted and sidetracked by Facebook and email alerts, news bulletins hovering just behind our manuscript, and a general feeling of restless malaise that drives us to the fridge or the window several times an hour.

We also wrestle with whether to include the pandemic and its aftermath in our work in progress, which will likely come out in 18 - 24 months. It is difficult to pretend the huge upheaval we are living through did not exist. But it's also difficult to know what the world will look like by then, so we are trying to imagine and write about a world that is still out of sight. In addition, will the concerns and struggles of our characters – indeed the central drama of the book – seem irrelevant and perhaps even trivial in the brave new world our future readers will be living in? Right now, as I write my novel, it certainly feels like that.

Or is it possible that reading a story that contains no reference to the pandemic, that transports us back to that flawed but normal world we used to know, will be a welcome relief? Who knows?

So I am proceeded at a snail's pace through my first draft, writing in fits and starts as I feel my way forward and avoid the mental distractions and sloth we have all been experiencing. As if that isn't difficult enough, I've encountered yet another problem with writing in the pandemic age. I am a realistic writer. I research as thoroughly as I can the locations and details I am writing about. The Internet is an extremely useful tool but it is no substitute for real-life location scouting and interviews with experts, etc. I am used to visiting locations, talking to locals, and walking though all the steps my characters take. I am used to going to the source to verify police, coroner, and scene of the crime procedures.

Researching my Alberta book, THE ANCIENT DEAD

I can't do much of that now. I wanted to visit the Ottawa courthouse not only to get the lay of the land but also to attend a trial and watch how the lawyer and police worked, what they wore, etc. None of that can happen now. I wanted to visit Ontario Provincial Police detachments in nearby rural communities and talk to the local staff on the ground about how they would respond to certain situations, how resources would be deployed, how they would liaise with the specialist teams, etc. I can phone, but a cold call in the middle of a pandemic will likely not garner much cooperation. First responders are probably busy and focussed on other (more important) things.

I wanted to stroll through the small villages, poke around for potential burial sites, and talk to people, but that too is now a challenge. In the old days, my questions would have roused curiosity and a good laugh, but now... Who knows what kind of feelings I might be treading on?

Rural village in my latest book

I managed to do some of the research before the writing began, but more questions always come up as the story evolves. So all I can do not is rely on Mr. Google and my imagination, make the stuff up, and hope I can fact-check before the final manuscript has to be submitted.

My final plan will be to apologize in the acknowledgements and blame the pandemic for all the things I got wrong. This too is an evolving story.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Ahoy, Mateys! I be here with news of great import.

By Rick Blechta

I’ve got more on the whole non-permission book piracy thing.

First off, I heard back from Linwood Barclay. I won’t share the exact email response he sent to my query — it’s rather tart and too-the-point — but I can say he found what I told him “outrageous” and he was going to contact them immediately.

Apparently he was more successful than I’ve been (in many ways!) because his novels that were on the site are now completely gone. Good for you, Linwood! You’re my new hero.

I’m going to find a friendly lawyer — since I play in a big band, the Advocats, that has several — to get a letter crafted that Internet Archive will be inclined to obey.

However, my main point today is to share the following link: 

I’ll wait while you read it. It’s not very long.

Now the Hidden Gems site is for helping authors get reviews of electronic ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) of their works. They charge for this service. If you wish to poke around the site, you will quickly see how it works. It seems that the focus in on individual authors to sign up for some easy self-promotion. It seems a bit pricey considering all the service provides is reviews, and obviously, you’d only want to use the good ones. Also anyone can review these ARCs, so they don’t carry the weight of a review by a professional (i.e.: paid) reviewer.

However, the main point of this post is I feel the linked article’s take on piracy is pretty sobering. I suppose the fight needs to be taken to these bastards, but it looks as if the task is a daunting one:

What do you think?

Monday, April 27, 2020

Be careful what you wish for.

 'We would be sorry if our wishes were gratified.' Aesop.

'Beware, my lord!  Beware lest heaven hate you enough to hear your prayers!'  (French novel, 1881)

'When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.' (Oscar Wilde).

We can't say they didn't warn us.  Yet how many times did the words, 'I wish I had more time!' pass our lips?  With an irony that the most sadistic satirist couldn't better, we've got our wish.  Now we have time.  Lots of it.

I can remember when I started writing I had so many demands on my time that I could write only in short snatches - a couple of hours, here and there, if I was lucky. A long, uninterrupted session with my new book was an almost unimaginable luxury.

When we went on holiday my treat was to be allowed to get up at six when no one else was allowed to come downstairs till nine.  This was when we had a favourite French gite that we went to for years; it had a wonderful terasse looking out over a peaceful valley.  It was chilly at that time with just the first light of dawn and  I sat working with a rug over my lap as the bats went home to roost in the abri - Mmme la Voisine thought I was crazy, shaking her head as she handed fresh peaches over the wall. The valley would turn golden before me as the sun came up while the only interruptions as I scribbled as fast as I could to get the story out of my head and on to the laptop would be the calls of the golden orioles, the tree-creeper to watch on the ash in front of me and occasionally the kee of a Bonelli's eagle that would have me jumping up with my binoculars to see it as it regularly patrolled its patch.

Today, there's no reason why I shouldn't spend eight hours working on my new book.  But I won't.  Will you?

We all complain about stress, but psychologists tell us that a certain amount of stress is good for us.  It's usually what prompts us to action and when it's removed we're at risk of that medieval mental illness, accidie, defined as spiritual or mental sloth.

'Granting our wish is one of fate's saddest jokes,' said James Russell Lowell.

And remember WW Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Day what? Week what? And wealth that never happened.

I imagine a lot of you are like me, stuck in this lockdown with the passing time smearing into a blur. Here in Colorado I think we're into week six or is it seven...eight?

To cope with the anxiety of the quarantine and the virus and the economy, I've been channeling my thoughts into a cartoon series called Cats In Quarantine.

You can follow the daily offerings on my Twitter feed, my Facebook page, or on Instagram.

But this economic meltdown did present an opportunity, of sorts. Earlier this week, when oil dropped to less than a dollar a barrel, I got the great idea of making lots and lots of money. I'd buy the oil now when it's dirt cheap and hang onto it until after the economy opens up. People will start driving. Airlines will be flying. The economy will be moving again, literally. When that happens, then oil will shoot back up to $40, $50, $60 a barrel. Buy low. Sell high. I'd be rich. Not Jeff Bezos rich but further ahead than where I am now. Then a friend with experience as a professional trader explained to me using short sentences and small words the folly of my plan. As background, if you looked at my bank account and my standard of living you'd see that my financial acumen is on the shy side of dazzling. Turns out that oil is a commodity and when you buy oil, you are buying an actual quantity of oil. You can't hang on to that oil for long unless you take physical possession. Which is why you have dudes scheming to lease tankers brimming with cheap oil and holding on to them until the price is right. There are instruments such as oil options, oil futures, oil EFTs, and others, and my friend cautioned that the road to financial ruin is paved with guys and their visions of easy money. And to underscore how perilous gambling on the stock market can be, the Wall Street Journal ran a brief article where US Senators - a class of people you'd think would have their thumb well positioned on the pulse of the financial world - have a worse track record than the regular investor. So my plans for quick bucks went poof!

Friday, April 24, 2020

Mind For Rent

This morning I looked up all the details for Clay's Compromise of 1850. It has five parts. I forget what they are already. Also, I'm sure you will all be interested in the exact Latin translation of mea culpa. Did you know that it's really too early to plant canna bulbs?

Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. and not only made everyone in Rome mad, he left us with cute phrases such as "crossing the Rubicon," and "the die is cast." When contact makers ask for "power" on their on-line prescription form it doesn't match up with anything on the optometrists sheet.

Last week I finished a really hard book review about an academic book, When Sunflowers Bloomed Red. It was hard because the editor only allowed 150 words for a really complex book. I also joyfully jumped right into the edits for my very short novella. It took me one day.

And now. . .clearly I'm descending into some kind of Google craziness wherein it seems really, vitally, extremely important to look up something this very minute.

Oddly enough I have all kinds of essential household projects I could be doing. I want to go through all my files and papers before I die. I want to finish quilts for my grandchildren. And oh yeah, the photos. But I can't get motivated.

One of my very best and most admired writing friends once told me "writers who aren't writing are prey to a sort of free-form anxiety."

Little did she know that writers who swear they don't mind the coronavirus isolation are even more susceptible to Google Fever, and electronic consumption in general.

Is there anyone out there who is taking advantage of this social sequestering to complete all the tasks they have put off in the past?

Thursday, April 23, 2020

To write the pandemic into your book or not to write the pandemic into your book.

That, in essence, is the thought-provoking question Thomas Kies raises in his post Pandemic...writing it into your work? Or not?, and it’s a question I faced just this week.

I live and work at a New England boarding school. To say COVID-19 has impacted the school and my work in it would be a gross understatement. I’m charged with overseeing a dorm of 60 teenagers and an English department of 15 teachers. That means many, many face-to-face conversations, meetings, and classroom observations.

However, I write this post seated in a four-story brick dorm designed for 220 teenagers that now sits empty. Wondering the halls makes me feel like I’m in a scene from The Shining. Worse, students’ belongings remain in their rooms (they left for spring break unaware that they would not return). “Teaching” these days means talking into my computer via ZOOM from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The sports fields are empty. The theater is dark. The library is locked. The faculty is sequestered at home. A post-apocalyptic experience.

And I must say that I feel blessed to be here. I can get outside, walk the dog for 30 minutes, and not see a soul.

All the while, I’m writing the final scenes of a new book. It is set at a boarding school (I know, don’t say it, at least I can claim to write what I know). How much of the current pandemic should be in the book? I’m one year and 450 pages into it. When I began writing it, boarding school life, at least parts of it, resembled the way it was three, four, even five decades ago. “Kid work,” that is, the social interactions we make time for –– checking on students, reading the nonverbal cues, the body language –– was done face-to-face. But when I start final revisions (fingers crossed, in a week or two), I absolutely will add references to the pandemic. It has changed the way we deliver instruction and has changed the culture within this small society. “Kid work” now is done via Zoom, via text message. And the new normal will continue to evolve.

Of course, the pandemic goes far beyond the tiny world in which I live and write. Societal changes are happening hourly. In a scene I just completed, my antagonist needed to enter a building undetected. He had to be incognito. It dawned on me that given a book’s publication timeline, i.e. sale to shelf (will we still have bookshelves post-COVID-19 or will Jeff Bezos simply send me a Kindle reading list?), I’m actually writing for the book to be read 12 to 18 month from now. Why not have the character wear an M95 mask, sunglasses, and a hoodie? A year from now, it probably won’t be striking to see someone wearing a mask on a New England city street.

The world in which my day-to-day life and work takes place has been upended by this coronavirus, and the fictional world I’m writing about has, too.

To write the pandemic into your book or not to write the pandemic into your book.

For me the answer is clear.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Revealing Too Much

Cozies are my comfort food and my favorite kind of mystery. As you might guess, I’ve been reading a lot of them lately.

Most, if not all, cozies are series. I can’t think of a single cozy that was written as a standalone. Some series might be only two or three books long, while others can run to well over twenty. However long the series, there’s an unspoken contract to the reader about its content: no extreme violence, no sex scenes, the emphasis is on the investigation and, at the end, the killer is identified and brought to justice.

I’d like to add another one to this list: While a crime from a previous book in the series might be mentioned in a later book, the perpetrator and solution to that previous crime should not be revealed or even hinted at.

At least, that’s what I expect when I read a series. I think most cozy authors think the same way I do. Of course, this doesn’t matter as much if you read a series starting with the first book, but not everyone does that.

I admit to being one of those people who, for various reasons, reads a series out of order. Generally, I prefer to read from the beginning, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. I might get a free book at a conference or receive a book as a gift or buy a book because I like the title/story line/cover.

In my own Aurora Anderson series, I’ve tried to keep this in mind. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what needs to be said to keep the reader oriented but, at the same time, not reveal too much, ruining the previous books for them. I want a reader to be able to pick up any of my books and enjoy the story even if they’ve never read the ones before it. There’s often a fine line between saying too little and revealing too much. I think I’ve largely been successful. At least reviews of my later books from readers who are new to the series tell me that.

But I’ve noticed in my recent reading that not all cozy writers seem to think the same way I do. I read one book that I think didn’t explain enough. A single line of explanation would have gotten rid of my confusion without giving anything away. I didn’t worry about it too much and kept on reading, ending up generally understanding the story. Still, I would have liked that sentence.

I read another series recently that had the opposite problem—revealing way too much. I don’t understand why the writer chose to reveal pretty much the entire plot of the previous books in the series including the killers. It wasn’t necessary to understand the characters or plot line of the book I was reading. Luckily, I actually had read the series from the beginning so it didn’t spoil anything for me. I still found it concerning and annoying that so much was revealed.

My appeal to cozy writers out there – please, please, please realize that not all readers read your series form the beginning and plan accordingly.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

My continuing tale of piracy woe

by Rick Blechta

Here is the email I sent on April 15th in response to their original email that said “lending access has been disabled for the URL(s) identified”:

Good morning,

I'm sorry, but I just checked your website and all of the books listed below still seem to be available for lending. I did not try to download since I do not want to sign up to your site.

I would like my books completely removed from the website, please.

I look forward to your response.

Rick Blechta

A short while later, I received this response:


Thank you for your email. The ebook items were removed from National Emergency Library (no waitlists) and the Internet Archive's general library lending program (one user can check out a held copy at a time). They now are available only to blind and print-disabled patrons. 

For such listings, blind and print-disabled patrons may access special electronic versions of the book that can be used with accessible software. The Treaty of Marrakesh outlines conditions under which book access may be expanded to the blind in signatory countries (the World Blind Union's take on that legislation and use rights for blind access is here). Users agree not to make copies or distribute materials (one option allows users to download scans and use them for a limited time with DRM to protect against copying). Our program to enable blind and print-disabled access has been in operation since 2010 (see our original press release). 

Again, thank you for your email. If you have continuing objections or questions, please let us know. 
The Internet Archive Team

Luckily I know some lawyers who put me on to others whose practices deal with this stuff. I was basically told that Internet Archive is definitely on the windy side of the law on this. However, if I wish to pursue this there is likely only one option: a lawsuit. There’s no way I have enough money to go through that. “Well, then you have to hope that one of the big publishers will take them on.”

So back I went to the Internet Archive site for further research. I looked up five very successful crime writers I know: Peter Robinson, Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and Linwood Barclay.
Not surprisingly, most of these authors’ novels are not on the website, just a scattered one here and there. Could this be because their publishers’ have dealt with this and IA complied because they know there are sufficient resources behind these requests that they risk being sued? I wonder…

There is one exception, however: Linwood Barclay. IA offers 12 of his novels. I’ve written to Linwood to ask a) if he knows about this, and b) if he has given his permission to offer the books, also what his thoughts might be.

Stay tuned. I am going to send IA one more request to remove my books completely. Hopefully I’ll also hear from Linwood in the meantime.

Things could get interesting!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Pandemic...writing it into your work? Or not?

I’m facing two problems with my newest writing project.

One: Should I incorporate the pandemic into my plot?  Should I make reference to it?

Two: What will life be like in a year from now?

I have a hunch that wearing masks will become ubiquitous, much like it always has been in Asia.

I also believe that shaking hands will become a thing of the past.

And once this is over, I’m guessing there will be a glut of office space that will become available.  Companies will have proof that their employees can function quite nicely from home.

Teleconferencing has already become the new normal.

Will people be carrying around cards proving that they’ve either tested normal or tested that they have had the virus and have built up immunity?  Will those people be the only ones who will be able to go to work, socialize in a bar, or dine in a restaurant?

I recently sent my latest book, Shadow Hill, to my publisher.  Of course I’m always on pins and needles until I hear back from her.  You’re hoping that your work is good, but in the back of your mind, you’re worried sick that they’ll think it’s trash.  When I started writing Shadow Hill, it was easily a year ago.  No one had even heard of Covid-19.

So, there is absolutely no mention of it in the manuscript. Not one word.

In the book, people shake hands, they have face to face meetings, they have drinks together, and they have sex.

In writing the new book, I hate to think that my protagonist might be forced to conduct her investigation and do an interview from her kitchen using Zoom.  I’m not sure I can write an action scene where everyone is wearing a mask. And writing a sex scene between two people who haven’t been isolating for fourteen days?  “No, darling, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait until they invent a vaccine.”

In the New York Times this morning, there’s a lengthy piece about what the next year or two may look like.  It ranges from the mildly frightening to the downright horrifying.

So the big question is: what will be the effects on our writing?

Friday, April 17, 2020

Settling Into A Routine

Like everyone else, I've been trying to adjust to being home-bound. Yesterday, I tried my hand at making a mask so that I could go out. I needed to drop off my tax documents. The office I've been going to for two decades was about to close as it usually does on April 15 (even though this year the deadline is in July). If I had missed the person I've worked with for years I would have had to the branch office that was remaining open and work with someone there by email or phone. Since my person knows all about my writing deductions I opted to make a quick trip to give her what she needed.

What surprised me was how anxious I felt when I ventured out of the house after being on shutdown (here in New York) for four weeks. I have been having everything delivered -- and, yes, that really is a time-consuming process. Way too much time involved in trying to think about what you might want to eat two weeks from now because it takes five days to get a delivery slot. Also a problem to have to order veggies that quickly go bad if you don't cook with them first.

But going out yesterday reminded me that I need to get some fresh air. I need to step out the door and go for a walk at least every other day. I also need to get a routine in place. This afternoon, I ordered the supplies I need -- printer paper, files, storage boxes, and a larger shredder -- so that I can bring some order to my home office.

 I'm alternating organizing with working. I have a proposal to get in, and I need to finish my book about gangster films. At the same time, I am teaching two classes online. That's a learning curve that I and a lot of other teachers are experiencing right now. I normally do hybrid courses, but now I need to do  Power Point slides. I rarely do a complete Power Point presentations for my in-class lectures. So Monday and Tuesday I focus on classes. The rest of the week, I'm doing research and writing. I'm also attending Zoom meetings.

Of necessity, I've becoming more skillful in navigating virtual meetings. I'm learning how far to sit from the camera and to pay attention to what's on my desk. Or behind me. I realized in the middle of one meeting that my cat's litter box was visible on the screen. I use a litter deodorizer, and it's okay there (the only convenient place to have it out of the way). But anyone looking must have wondered. Anyone who saw this little dragon must have wondered about him, too.

 I always wonder about what I can see of other people's rooms.

There is also the question of what to wear for a virtual meeting. With celebrities dressing down and showing us their unmade-up faces and just out of shower hair, everyone else seems to have followed the trend. But I still feel as if I should at least tidy up enough not scare people when my face pops up on the screen. I do have this hair thing going on. Like some other ill-advised people, a few days ago I decided to trim my own hair. Now, the gray is really showing. I can't decide how I feel about it. I've been seeing gray hairs since I was in my 20s, and I'm really tired of doing touch-ups every two or three weeks. Now that I'm house-bound I could see what I look like if I don't. Except for those Zoom meetings where other people are seeing my experiment.

I think I need a hat. Maybe I'll knit one with that beginner's knitting kit that I bought a couple of years ago and never time to use. Knit while I learning about French culture from a Kanopy course or taking a Master Class (now that I have a year's subscription). I could knit my hat while I'm learning how to make something really interesting for dinner.

Except I need to stay focused. I want to get back to my 1939 historical thriller. The delay has given me a few ideas. Although Sleuthfest was cancelled, I had a character-naming opportunity in the auction. The winner offered me two names to use. I decided to use both, pairing them with another couple whose names I had already offered to include. As soon as I thought of that, I could see the four of them chatting together on a train bound for New York City. They are discussing the World's Fair that both couples plan to attend. The sleeping car porter, my protagonist, is moving about in the background -- an echo of the scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. But instead of telling the two couples about the man who hasn't been seen since he boarded the train, my porter will be worrying about his own problems. The perfect set-up for a flashback. . .

So that's the news from here on my sofa. It's late and I should go to bed. Stay well, everyone.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Hermit Life

Welcome to my house

It's interesting to see how everyone is handling their enforced isolation during this strange and unusual time. It seems that everyone is hanging fire, as we used to say, waiting to see what the future will bring. Will Rick's pirated books be taken down? Will John's daughter get to move to New York on time? I'm anxious for her. I especially enjoyed Tom's observations on heroes and villains and Barbara and Aline's entries on writing problems. Any writer will recognize the thoughts that go through one's head while creating a literary world and deciding how to write a contemporary novel set during the time of a pandemic. How much is enough? How much is too much?

Sibyl's entry on podcasts caught my eye, as well. I've been more aware of podcasts in the past few months, ever since my last novel, The Wrong Girl, came out, and for some reason I don't know (but appreciate) I've been asked to do several podcast interviews myself.

Like Charlotte, I'm quite an introvert, but it has been strange to totally cut myself off from the little outside human contact I had before the lockdown. Strange ... but I have to admit that I kind of like not having to deal with people. I didn't realize what a natural-born hermit I am. That worries me about myself. I do FaceTime, and it is fascinating to see the news and talk shows taking place through Zoom. I love seeing other people's living spaces (and the non-make-up, non-dressed up chats with friends are interesting too. )

One thing about living in Arizona at this time of year – the weather is gorgeous. The only problem is that my allergies have acted up so I can't stay outside for very long. I have gotten a lot of work done. This very day I finished the ARC edits of Valentino Will Die, the second installment in the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse series, and sent it back to the publisher. The new book is supposed to come out in November. It's a brave new world, though, so who knows what will happen? No matter. I will go ahead and begin a new book because that's just what one does.

Everyone stay safe, and KEEP ME POSTED. I care about you people.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Writings from the pandemic

I am almost two thirds of the way through the first draft of my upcoming Inspector Green novel. The contract for this book was signed somewhere back in the mists of time. Possibly 2018. Pre-pandemic timelines are blurry. I started researching the topic in October 2019, began writing in January 2020, and by the time the pandemic really hit this country, I had written about half.

The book is due for release in November 2021 and my deadline to submit the final manuscript is October 2020. In normal times, that deadline is very manageable. The whole summer stretches ahead of me, with lots of time to sit on my dock at the cottage and get inspired. But these are not normal times. The first challenge was getting my creative brain to work. For weeks, I've been mesmerized by news headlines, Facebook links, and that addictive Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. Every morning I've tuned in to our Prime Minister delivering his daily update to the nation, followed by endless media commentary. At times it has felt as if I was standing on a small sliver of sand slowly being washed away by the ocean. My fictional world, whenever I tried to enter it, felt irrelevant and even meaningless despite the compelling human drama I was writing about. Mine was make-believe, while all around me gallant struggles were being fought and real lives lost.

I have begun to settle down and after weeks of forcing myself to stare at my draft, I've begun to inch forward again. Only to confront another problem; how to handle the pandemic. My books are set in real time and often against the backdrop of current events. When readers pick up my book in late 2021 or beyond, should they be reading about characters going about their lives in a world that is the same as pre-2020? It would feel jarring, and indeed, as I try to write about their daily activities, it feels jarring as well. Lots of hugging and handshakes, lots of gathering together in the squad room for briefings, no masks or worries about social distancing.

But by the time the book is available, eighteen months from now, I think the main pandemic will be over. There will be some return to normal activities. So thankfully I don't have to describe police trying to investigate in the midst of a lockdown. But what kind of world will we live in? What will be the changes to our behaviour and our feelings that will linger long after the virus is over? My characters will have all lived through the pandemic, and the effects and memories will still be very vivid. I don't expect us to "get over" the collective world trauma soon, and many parts of the economy such as travel, entertainment, and sports will still be decimated.

If I write a realistic story set in roughly the time the readers will be reading it - i.e. late 2021 - I can't ignore those realities. But at the moment I can only guess what the world will look like and how profoundly our lives will be changed. I've asked writers and readers what they would want to see in a novel like mine. Interestingly the opinions seem split between those who want me to ignore the pandemic (or set the book in 2019) because they don't want to read about it, and those who think it's important to have it as a backdrop, but judiciously sketched. No one wants to read a whole book about the pandemic (which is understandable at this point, nor do I want to write one).

I have concluded that, because that's the kind of story I write, I have to include the aftermath and fallout from the pandemic, but it will be in subtle touches. For one thing, I don't plan to change the overall plot of the story, and for another I have no idea what the world is going to look like. Will we all be wearing masks, or at least the paranoid among us? Will we have adopted the Namaste greeting or fist bump in larger numbers? Will we shy away from hugging acquaintances? Will half of us be broke and in danger of losing our homes? Will we value our relationships and our planet more than we used to?

These are all possible outcomes. And some of them may find their way into my book as I proceed with the draft. I can keep changing details as the pandemic situation evolves, and by the time the book is in final edits almost a year from now, I hope we have a clearer picture of our new reality. So in subsequent drafts and rewrites, I will be chasing a moving target and adjusting my subtle touches to whatever new realities I can imagine just out of sight. An interesting challenge that at least makes me feel my work is less irrelevant and meaningless.

I think every writer and reader is going to approach this differently (historical and fantasy writers are exempt from the question). I'd love to hear your opinions on how this world-altering experience is changing our approach to reading and writing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

An update on piracy and other things

by Rick Blechta

Well, I sent my email in to Internet Archive and none of my books have been taken down from their website. I guess after this news broke, they were inundated by legal demands. I’m going to keep monitoring it over the coming days. I must say it’s disheartening that so far, no good.

Other than that, I’m keeping on keeping on. The weather has been pretty cold here in Toronto for the most part, and rainy as well on most days. Tonight we’re going to get snow flurries. Oh joy. But this is Canada and it is only April, so it’s not unprecedented. The threat of snow, though, is rather depressing.

I’ve got a question for everyone today: What is the book you’re reading right now and why?

Please share!

I’m reading one of the last Camillieri novels, The Overnight Kidnapper. I’ll be sorry when I get to the end of the line. This series is really quite exceptional.

Monday, April 13, 2020

You Are What You Eat

So much of our time at the moment seems to be spent on quartermaster duties. We're not in the 'shielding' group but the government, and more importantly my family, have been insisting that we self-isolate as much as possible. Finding a supermarket delivery slot is a full-time job on its own, and then finding what isn't out of stock and planning for three weeks ahead when you've been used to trotting down to Sainsbury's (within Zimmer distance when the time comes) every two or three days is very distracting.

My family is always asking, 'What did you have to eat?' when someone's been out for a meal so perhaps we're over-interested in food any way. But can I ask you, how often do your characters eat? It worries me when they don't.

There was one particular book I read that had a great plot, very tense, and I was eagerly reading on until the woman with her three children fled to this wooden cabin for refuge. The backwoodsman welcomed them and they stayed there, but then there was absolutely no mention, for the rest of the book, of anyone actually eating anything and it totally distracted me. Presumably he went out and shot stuff, but there was no mention of cooking it, no mention of a vegetable garden (which actually seemed unlikely) or a visit to a local store. I was so bothered about those poor starving children that the rest of the book was wasted on me.

DI Marjory Fleming is famously a hopeless cook, but I do see to it that other people provide her with regular meals. DCI Kelso Strang is quite handy in the kitchen. DS Tam MacNee's pie-and-beans habit wasn't exactly healthy and DC Livvy Murray can't resist a doughnut. It's an important part of the character shorthand for me.

Perhaps it was Ratty's picnic in The Wind in the Willows that made me feel food was an essential element to any book. We know Ratty intimately after that first colddchickencoldtonguecoldhamcold
beefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeer lemondesodawater...'

Friday, April 10, 2020

Social Animals

Late afternoon or evening I go for a walk. Usually along the Spring Creek bike trail. A couple of days ago I passed a group of neighbors who found a way to socialize at a distance. They took their lawn chairs to a large green common area and visited. 

Now they would be wearing masks. But I think this is a very good idea. The lack of human contact is even getting to me and I'm extremely introverted. 

This morning one of my friends from my knitting group came to my house to get some elastic. We both are making masks and I happen to have quite a bit of elastic on hand. I met her on the patio and wore gloves to hand her the plastic sack of material. We both wore masks and sat more than six feet apart. I was so happy to see her!

We talked for quite some time. This six member knitting group has been meeting at Barnes and Noble in Loveland for about ten years. Three of the members are expert knitters. It's also a confidential support group and a group of avid readers. We have never had a meeting that we didn't share information and opinions about books although it's not a formal book club. 

We love meeting in B&N because we can leave our table and run to purchase the books other members are recommending. It's a busy happy group and I really miss it. 

In fact, during this sad bizarre time, I've done a lot of thinking about activities I've always taken for granted. Our Diocese has done a marvelous job of producing on-line religious services, and I admire the work that has gone into the presentations. But Easter! Home alone? 

I have a book to review and last week I finished a piece a publisher had requested. Beyond that, it's difficult to anticipate where the publishing industry is heading. It's always a mistake anyway to write to the market. The best plan always has been to write what you really want to write. 

I'm reading like crazy, watching too much TV, and making masks. 

Thursday, April 09, 2020

A Bleak House

By all accounts, this is predicted to be the worst week yet in the U.S. for Covid-19 deaths. Last night, before I went to bed, I turned on CNN for twenty minutes. The blame game was being played by the White House. The number of fatalities for the day in the U.S. hovered around 1,400. And, worse, I learned that 72% of those dying in the U.S. from this coronavirus are people of color. From the obvious lack of leadership to institutional racism, the news was bleak, to say the least.

So where does all of this leave us?

A friend, living and writing in New York City, wrote on Facebook that it’s like 9/11 but in slow motion. My daughter, in January, and ahead of her graduation from Kenyon College, accepted a position with a company in New York City. She turns 22 on Easter. Living in the City and working on Madison Avenue at age 22? We were all over the moon. Now, I have my Dad hat on: Start date is still June 8? Looking for an apartment and moving there when?

But I am one of the lucky ones (and, yes, I am knocking on wood as I write that sentence). My family is safe and, as of this writing, healthy. I am holed up with my wife and three daughters, all five of us working or studying virtually. We are reading a lot. My 19-year-old showed me that Instagram can be a useful tool and got us to make a family Tik Tok.

As I look to the future, I can only wonder about the aftermath. Three months? Six months? I heard yesterday, we will know where things stand from a medical standpoint in 18 months. People in my circles are reading more. That can’t be a bad thing. We are learning that technology can fill some spaces. Zoom doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but it’s better than email.

Still, I have friends who have lost loved ones. I know I will have more. Those people are not making Tik Toks, and they are not worried about getting their next Kindle download.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Podcasts, Anyone?

I’ve been hearing about podcasts for years, but never thought I’d listen to one. They just didn’t interest me. Even after reading Laura Oles’ guest post awhile back, I still wasn’t sure it was for me. But now, well, I never thought I’d say this, I’ve become semi-addicted to them. Not addicted-addicted because that would mean I would listen to every single podcast no matter what, but I have become fans of a few selected ones. I tend to listen to them while I’m cleaning or working on painting projects.

This all started when I got an opportunity to be interviewed by author Alexia Gordon on her podcast, The Cozy Corner with Alexia Gordon. I had done a podcast interview before for Destination Mystery but, other than listening to my own interview, I never listened to any of the other episodes.

This time I thought I should listen to some of the other interviews Alexia has done to get a feel for her interviewing style and the type of questions I might encounter. Plus, a number of the people she’s interviewed are either authors I know or ones whose books I’ve enjoyed.

Most podcasts are available on a number of different platforms, free with commercials. I have an iPod Touch so I just went searching on the podcast app and found The Cozy Corner and started listening. The podcasts are relatively short, 20 – 30 minutes or so each, so it was easy to squeeze them into my day. I found I enjoyed hearing authors talk about their books and their writing.

Then the History Channel started a HISTORY This Week podcast so I started listening to that one. This is where I found out about the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. The author of a book on the flood was interviewed so I got a copy and read it. It’s an extremely interesting book by Stephen Puleo called Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. HISTORY This Week also recently did a podcast on the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1919, which I also found interesting.

Then I found Hollywood and Crime where I listened to a multi-episode series on the Black Dahlia and other horrific murders of women that occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. That was an eye opener. I’d heard about the Black Dahlia, of course, but not the others.

Now, let’s get back to the podcast interview that started it all. It was recorded on March 7th before all of this craziness started using Zoom (audio only). I’d never heard of Zoom until that interview, now I see it mentioned everywhere as people shelter at home and use it to hold meetings and classes and generally connect with others.

The interview is available today (Wednesday 4/8) at 7 a.m. CDT. I’m always a bit nervous about being interviewed because sometimes my mind just goes blank or I think of a much better answer to a question long after the interview is over. And, of course, this time was one of those times where I thought of a much better answer or at least additional things I could have said.

My main character is a computer programmer so Alexia wanted to know if I’d made her one because I was trying to encourage young women to get into the field. (Or something like that. I don’t remember exactly how she worded it.)

Honestly, that question floored me because I never thought of any characters that I’ve created as having an impact beyond the story. Maybe I should think about that more. I made Rory a freelance programmer partly because I needed a job for her that would be flexible enough so she could do sleuthing during the day if needed and partly because I was a programmer for 20 years so I understand how she thinks. Plus anyone who writes code tends to be a little analytical so I figured that was a good attribute for an amateur sleuth. Then I think I blathered on about something for a while.

What I really should have added, but didn’t think of until later, is that when I chose my own major in college, I never really thought about whether it would be difficult or “appropriate” for me because I was a woman. I just did what I wanted to do. And, really, that’s what I think everyone should do when it comes to deciding a major or profession. Forget about gender stereotypes and go for it. I was fully aware that I was doing something that was a little unusual at the time. This was the late 70s when Computer Science degrees were still fairly new. In the class of 100 CS majors I was a part of there were 4 or 5 women. I just didn’t see why that should stop me.

So, that’s my story. That’s what I would have added if I’d thought of it.

What about you all? Does anybody listen to podcasts? Any listening suggestions?

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

A real conundrum

by Rick Blechta

One of the two publishers with which I work, Orca Publishing, sent out their usual newsletter to authors yesterday and the lead off article was something rather disturbing.

It seems a website called Internet Archive makes books available online at no charge, operating as sort of a lending library has some of my books. Right now, because of the coronavirus situation, they’ve made their entire collection available all the time. Normally, only one person can be reading a book at a time. Now, it’s wide open.

The issue is that they have not obtained permission for using these books in this way, nor paid any money for them. I found five of my books in the collection. Looking more closely, I found the books have all been bulk-scanned from print copies. Some of the books appear to have been originally part of a library collection – which is disturbing in itself – while others might have been donated by individuals.

At this time, all libraries are closed in most of Canada, and probably in the US and elsewhere. I haven’t checked with the Toronto Library to see if one can “withdraw” books using the internet, but certainly smaller libraries would be unlike to be able to offer this feature. Libraries have to work out a payment schedule with publishers for the use of e-books that does offer some recompense, but Internet Archive has not done this.

Which brings me to the conundrum. Should I just look the other way at the moment in order to help out people who cannot get fresh reading material, or should I contact Internet Archive right now, establish my right as the author of these works – and holder of the copyright – and demand they be removed or paid for in some way? (I know what the answer to that last part will be!)

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this overnight and cannot decide what to do.

Help me out, folks! Any thoughts?

Monday, April 06, 2020

About Heroes

Like many of my fellow bloggers, during this time where we’re self isolating, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks to the grocery store, I’m finding it difficult to dive into my current work in progress.

I fear that anything I write will pale in comparison to the drama tragically unfolding hour by hour all around us.

But I do have time to think and observe.

The subject of heroes occurs to me.  Earlier this year I taught a creative writing class (we still have two more classes to complete) and talked extensively about protagonists. We discussed how they need to be relatable but flawed in some way. And they're always up to the task at hand, no matter the consequences or the danger.

We have them in real life. We always have, but it’s much more obvious now. The doctors, nurses, and health care workers risking their own lives in overcrowded hospitals, not able to access enough ventilators to keep up with the number of people suffering from Covid-19, unable to get the proper gear to keep themselves from getting sick.

As always, our heroes are also the law officers, firemen and EMTs that continue to work even though they’re putting themselves in danger of contracting the disease. And many of them have.

Less obvious are the people who are working in our grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and (thank heavens) the liquor stores. We also need to thank the truck drivers, the mail carriers, and sanitation workers.

In our creative writing class, we also discussed bad guys. We have those in real life as well. We have the people who refuse or ignore the call to practice safe distancing. There are decision makers who refused to recognize the virus as a threat or moved much too slowly to mitigate it. Then there are those individuals and companies that hoard needed supplies and profiteer from tragedy.

What we don’t have yet is a proper ending. We're not sure what that would look like.

One of the many reasons we enjoy reading mysteries, especially in uncertain times, is that we’re pretty certain that by the last page, justice will be served and the heroes will be victorious.

But this isn’t fiction.

It’s real life. And it's scary as hell. So, when you interact with our real life heroes, thank them and tell them how much they are appreciated.

Real life heroes, good on you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Friday, April 03, 2020

Navigating Social Distance

Frankie, here. I'm an introvert. I mention that because of the tweets from introverts pointing out that a personality trait that is often viewed as a deficit is actually an advantage right now. Unlike extroverts, introverts have no problem being at home alone. We are experts at "social distancing." Even those of us who have learned to be outgoing when we need to be, find large groups exhausting. By the third day of a conference we have either found sanctuary with two or three friends or are retreating to our hotel room to read or write. 

But this is different. Even introverts are not prepared for pandemics. It is stress-inducing to share space with extroverts who are prowling around the house because they want to go out. And a cough, sneeze, or pain is a reminder that this is one time when being at work and having weekend invitations wouldn't be at all bad.

 I've been setting my clock each night because psychologists are telling us that if we are working at home, we should try to maintain normal working hours. But my normal working house vary. Since I've been wanting to get more sleep, I decided to set my alarm for 10 a.m., and then work until 8:00 in the evening. That allows time for getting ready for my now online classes, writing, and taking a break to watch ''The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful. By 8 p.m. I'm either ready to stop, or I have made enough progress to want to go on a bit longer. And I'm getting more sleep. Except when I wake up and can't get back to sleep. 

In newspaper articles, blogs, and Twitter photos and cartoon, "pet parents" are reporting that their dogs and cats have to adjust to having them at home. Dogs are finding that they are being walked more often because their humans want an excuse to get out of the house. Cats -- who may enjoy having the house to themselves doing the day -- are now finding their humans underfoot all day long. Some of them like it; others find a place to hide out. 

My cat, Harry, is accustomed to my odd hours and realizes by now that when summer comes I will be around much more. What he must find puzzling is that I rarely go out these days. Yesterday I thought we both would need to venture out. A couple of weeks ago, I hear him land hard as he jumped from a chair or off the radiator. Later, he was limping. Not much, but a little. I planned to call his vet the next day, but by then he was running after treats again. Then this morning, I saw him jump and then limp as if he had sprained a back leg. Whatever he had done the first time, it was worse this time. 

I spent an hour or so watching him. Then I Googled to see what I should check for before calling his vet. No swelling, no jerking away when I stroked his leg. Catnip seemed to help. But I decided I'd better call.

The recorded message I heard said my vet's office was not doing routine visits. Humans were required to maintain social distance when they arrived for appointments. They were to call from the car and then bring the cat carrier to the door. They were then to wait in their car. That resolved the debate I was having with myself about the safety issues involved in going to any doctor's office. After all, I had rescheduled my routine appointments. But maybe a limping cat was almost an emergency. 

So I followed the instructions and sent an email explaining why I had called. By then Harry was walking better. He had lunch and climbed up on his cat tree for a nap. I decided to give us both a break and went out for a walk. 

I drove to my university's uptown campus and parked. There were cars in the parking lots and a few people walking themselves and/or their dogs. One or two getting in a run. But a silence hung over a campus where thousands of people gathered on a typical Thursday during spring semester. Away from the roads and sidewalks around the perimeter of the campus, it was quiet enough to hear birds singing. I paused to watch a ground hog who had waded out of his hole. By the small lake near the athletic center, a pair of geese came out of the water and stood on the bank looking around. We looked at each other. 

I stepped back into the grass to keep my social distance from a woman passing on her bike. She smiled and called, "You know you've been inside too long when you start talking to the geese." True. But I had only been sharing the quiet with them. 

 Next time, I'd like to go for a a stroll in Washington Park. I love looking at the water. Since I am not likely to be on a cruise ship again any time soon, that now means ponds, lakes, and rivers. Washington Park is lovely, based on a
design by Calvet Vaux and his junior partner,  Frederick Law Olmsted (Central Park). A good place to spend an hour or so. If it isn't too crowded.

Stay well, everyone. 

Thursday, April 02, 2020

My Mother Would Be Proud

My mother and her parents, 1945

Like everyone else in the world (who has any sense), I, Donis, am hunkering down, seeing no one in person except for my husband, and feeling very thankful that: 1)we get along so well 2) we have no small/medium-sized/teenaged children to entertain 3)we don't have to worry about losing our jobs or being forced to work and expose ourselves and our loved ones to this rampant illness.

I just finished the final rewrite of Valentino Will Die, the new Bianca Dangereuse novel, a few days before the shut-down, and am currently awaiting the arrival of an electronic copy of the pre-ARC (advance reading copy), which will entail my having to spend a couple of days proofreading and approving the final version of the book. So I'm not doing much writing at the moment. I am doing some preliminary research for the next novel in the Bianca Dangereuse series, but mostly I'm kind of in limbo.

One thing that has occurred to me in the past couple of weeks is that I am suddenly applying all the lessons I learned at my Depression-era mother's knee about how to save, reuse, and cut waste. My mother was an absolute recycling genius. She grew a huge garden and canned/froze/dried enough produce to get her family of six through the entire winter. She never threw out left-overs. She cleaned left-overs out of the fridge every Friday and made a stew. She composted coffee ground and other inedibles. When clothing was outgrown or worn out, she repurposed it by making something – a pillow, a vest, an apron, doll clothes, a mop, even button covers – out of it. I remember her washing out the plastic produce bags she brought home from the grocery store so she could re-use them. I thought of her when I pulled out the cloth napkins to use instead of paper napkins and cloth dishtowels instead of paper towels.

We haven't yet had to apply my grandparents' habit of using magazines and the Sears catalog in the outhouse yet, but we do have a mulberry tree in the back yard that has pretty large leaves in case worse comes to worst.

One wonderful advantage we have over those who had to live through other plagues, wars, and economic upheavals is that we are so electronically connected. At least we can see our loved-ones' faces through Skype or Zoom of FaceTime. At least we can download movies or games or books to entertain us. This is a perfect time to read. Which leads me to a little Blatant Self Promotion, Dear Reader. My publisher informs me that my first Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse mystery, The Wrong Girl, is currently available as an ebook for $1.99 (that's 80% off!) through all online vendors through April 9. If you're looking for a great escape, this is it.

Please be safe out there, my friends. Read the lovely entries on isolation and creativity that my blogmates have written over the past few days. If you are in a position to do so, please support your local small businesses, your bookstores and artists, the best way you can.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Washing floors, anyone?

I know I promised to reveal my four secrets to a successful story on this blog, one secret at a time, but that was a  month ago. As everyone has noted, that was another life. We have entered a period of surreal, suspended animation. As my daughter calls it, it's as if the world has stopped. And in many ways it has. All our daily routines and activities have changed, replaced by constant email, text, and phone conversations and non-stop news. A trip to the grocery story is now a huge excursion, and as Aline said, the highlight may be that daily walk. In my case several walks since I have two dogs, but now the walks are around the same few neighbourhood blocks. Gone are the parks and trails I used to take them on, because in their wisdom the National Capital Commission that runs them all has shut them down to avoid crowding. So now there is no quiet, serene place to avoid the crowds.

Life is not normal, and people are distracted and discombobulated. As writers, we are all struggling to find focus, to find our characters in the desert of our imagination, and to sink into that oblivion that we call the creative zone. I have all the time in the world, I tell myself, and surely this is not so different from my usual hermit life. So I've been pushing myself and berating myself for my meagre output and for my desire to wash the floors (yes, wash the floors!) just to put off picking up the pen.

And then I found this article on Facebook. It's very human and full of understanding, hope, and sound advice. The author wrote it for her fellow academics but it applies equally to us writers. To anyone whose work comes from within their own head. Judging from her story, I assume she has lived through war and terror, and has now found safe haven in Canada, and so she knows a thing or two about disrupted lives. Canada has never had a war on its own soil (discounting the war of 1812, which was very localized and very long ago), and so people born in Canada have no experience facing the kind of trauma and turmoil that much of the world has lived through. We have much we can learn from the refugees who have chosen our country, in terms of resilience and wisdom.

So I decided now is not the time to blog about the third secret to a successful story. Someday – I have no idea when – I will return to it, but it's not what we need right now.

This is what we need.