Saturday, May 30, 2020

Guest post: Andrew Taylor

Aline here. I'm so pleased to have been able to persuade Andrew Taylor to be our guest this week. He's famous for his historical crime novels and has had a positively embarrassing number of laurels heaped on his head. Andrew, if you don't want to blush, look away now!

He has won the Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey Dagger, Historical Dagger (3 times) and Diamond Dagger, as well as Theakston's Old Peculiar award (twice), the Edgar and Sweden's Martin Beck award, the Golden Crowbar. His books The American Boy and The Ashes of London were number one best sellers in The Times list. I could go on – there's more! – but I'm going to finish by saying that he's also the most charming and modest man you could hope to meet, with a fine line in wit.

His new book, The Last Protector, has just come out.

Most non-writers assume that lockdown provides the perfect working environment for authors. I’d have done so myself, if I’d thought about the subject in the abstract before it actually happened. After all, during lockdown we have far fewer interruptions, no need to go out and do events, and acres of time just waiting to be filled by the flow of our immaculate words. But, like many authors, I’ve found that it just doesn’t work that way.

I don’t know what impedes the ability to focus on writing. Maybe it’s the low-level anxiety, faint but constant, which lies the background like static on the radio or the weather on the streets. Maybe it’s the economic implications of Covid-19 for all of us who make our living from writing.

My latest book, The Last Protector, came out on 2 April, at a time when bricks-and-mortar booksellers were closed and Amazon was prioritising the sales of hair dye and DIY tools over those of books. Bookshop events, festivals, etc. were cancelled. In the first four weeks, as a result, the print sales were significantly down on the projections, though a noticeable bump in ebook sales partly compensated for this. This is not a complaint. It’s a fact of life. It could be so very much worse.

It doesn’t pay to look too far ahead. I’m currently trying to write the next book in my Marwood and Lovett historical crime series set in Restoration England. (The Last Protector was the fourth in the series.) For me, the writing process almost always begins with setting, rather than character or plot.

I need to know the context of a novel – both the time and place – before I can visualise characters and set them in motion among themselves. For this series, contemporary politics are a vital ingredient, so for me that forms part of the setting. It usually feeds into the storyline as well, often by unexpected routes. The plot comes last of all, by fits and starts, emerging from the interaction between the characters and the setting.

This is not a particularly efficient method of writing fiction but it’s the only one that seems to work for me. We have to make our own rules. One thing I’ve learned during the writing of nearly fifty books is that there’s no one way to do it, no magic formula.

Every author evolves their own methods (which may vary from book to book). I’ve seen a lot of crime writers give themselves unnecessary grief at the start of their careers by trying to follow someone else’s prescription for success. Given the expectations of the genre framework, this can be a particular hazard.

In the end, there’s only one important rule – or rather guideline – for authors, crime novelists included. Writers write. Everything else is a side issue.

Nothing else matters. Because nothing can happen if you don’t get the words down on the page or the screen. Which is a good point for me to stop writing this and start writing my next novel…

Friday, May 29, 2020

What We Write About

Should we keep the real world out of our books and short stories? Some writers and readers would argue that we should be able to "escape" into a book. In crime writing, those books are sometimes dismissed as "cozies." Many readers want books that provide an opportunity to spend time with characters who are likable in settings that are safe. It requires as much of those writers to craft a satisfying book as it does of writers in other subgenre, and they deserve respect.

But then we have the other question. If we are authors who write grittier books, how much should we deal with social issues? Should we respond to the current reality? This morning I woke up as a message was being left in my voice mail. The host of the morning roundtable discussion on our local public radio station was calling to ask me to join this morning panel.

During the show, he mentioned that I'm a mystery writer, but I was there as a criminal justice professor. If you've been watching the news, you can guess that the conversation was about -- the death of Mr. Floyd and the fires burning in Minneapolis and the tweets coming from the White House and the social media responses to the video. . .

As a crime fiction writer, I've spent of my fiction writing life focusing on a series set in the recent past with a couple of short stories set in the 1940s. Now, I'm working on a thriller set in 1939. I also have two novels published by St. Martin's set in the near future. Or, at least they were, now it is 2020. And my second book in the series was set in January 2020. I was writing alternate history, but that history shares much in common with the present moment. In the third book -- the one that I had contemplated writing even though I don't have a publisher -- that book involves a threat to my protagonist Hannah McCabe. She is the target of a group of rogue police officers who are aligned with the candidacy of a third-party right-wing presidential candidate who is doing "arena" rallies doing which he urges his supporters to make American Great Again. He is running against a Hispanic woman who is the Republican candidate and the African American (biracial) male vice president who is running because the first female president has been so badly damaged that she is not a viable Democrat candidate. As the election approaches, Howard Miller, the third party candidate is coming  to visit the Albany area.

Let me say, the first book in this series, The Red Queen Dies, came out in 2013. The second, What the Fly Saw, was published in 2015. I wanted to write a series that would allow me to comment on the future that nonfiction writers were foreseeing -- the environment, the food supply, pandemics, domestic terrorists, poverty, solar flares. I had a long list of concerns.

I deal with social issues in my book. I try my best not to stand on a soap box yelling. I write books and short stories in which I try to present various perspectives. But my protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is a police officer -- a detective in my fictional version of the Albany police department. She is a good cop. She works with other good cops who care about their job. But in my world, there is also rot at the core in the form of the police officers who are Howard Miller supporters. Hannah's father is a white retired newspaper editor. Her mother was a black radical poet. She is caught in the middle -- an "outsider within".

This is a moment -- with a pandemic and fires burning and fear, anger, and chaos -- that I want to spend some time with Hannah. I want to hear how she sees the world and find out what she will do when she finds out what is happening around her.

I have the murder -- my plot involving an animal-rights activist who supports bringing the wolves back to the Adirondacks and is found dead in an abandoned school -- I also have the context in which that murder occurs. My challenge if I decide to take it is to write a book that is both a good mystery/police procedural and a comment on the times we live in.


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Pandemic Personality

Oh, hello there! You startled me, Thursday. You shouldn't sneak up on me like that. Since this "shelter in place" thing started, I've lost track of what day it is, or maybe even what month it is. Did you realize, Dear Reader, that by this time next month it will be June? That means that 2020 is almost half over. I hope that's a good thing.

In the last couple of months Don and I have begun the strange ritual of watching "The View" in the mornings. I have never in my life enjoyed watching daytime television, but for some reason since the lockdown I can't get enough of this particular show. This morning they talked about "pandemic personality." A British University has come up with the idea that we all fall into three categories when it comes to dealing with the pandemic : The Accepters are generally older people who accept the lockdown and adjust to a new way of life. The Sufferers are more anxious and depressed since lockdown began. The Resisters often (but not always, in my personal observation) tend to be young people who flout lockdown rules and think it's all big to-do over not much.

I doubt there is such a thing as a "pandemic personality." I imagine that whatever type of person you were before this all began, you are just more of it now. I'm sorry to say it, because my pandemic personality has turned out to be pretty sluggish. I should be learning all kinds of new skills and turning out books and stories by the dozens. Instead I'm barely managing to plug along. But I am at least plugging along and have not ground to a complete halt. I call that success. What have you learned about yourself during this unprecedented time, Dear Reader? Do you like what you see?

I wish I were a better promoter. This is my biggest weakness, I fear, and I haven't done any better this year than I ever have. However, I do have one bit of news to share with you. Mysteryrat’s Maze posted a podcast this week of an excerpt from my latest novel, The Wrong Girl, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, set in Hollywood in the 1920s. The short excerpt (set at a Hollywood party!) is read by actors Maxwell Debbas and Brianne Vogt Debbas. I loved it! The production was top-notch. It’s such fun to listen to actors bring your characters to life. Mysteryrat’s Maze is a mystery podcast produced by Kings River Life Magazine with short stories & first chapters read by local California actors. If you enjoy the episode please review or rate it as that helps more people be able to find them!

Come on by and have a listen. It’s great fun and not very long. Here’s the full link, just click on and enjoy: Mysteryrat’s Maze

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Navigating the first draft

Well, as usual in Canada, we have gone from winter last week to mid-summer this week, and all around us, nature has burst into life. Plants have exploded and all the birds are singing as if to make up for lost time. The lilac bushes and flowering fruit trees are laden with fragrant blossoms, and it's sheer heaven to walk down the street. Well, perhaps not at high noon today, because it's sweltering.

Given the pandemic, we can be forgiven for not knowing what day it is. Even what month it is. But since we also know winter will be back, perhaps next week, we'll seize the day. I'm plodding along on my manuscript, which doesn't seem to want to end. I am beginning to have an idea of the climax, which is always a relief, and I think I know whodunit, although I've been known to change my mind at the last minute, but I still don't know how they're going to get caught. This is an essential element in mystery/ suspense novels. I have to develop an exciting climax while keeping the reader and if possible the detective guessing about who they're chasing and how it's going to end, up until the gotcha moment. Let's hope I figure that out before I hit 200,000 words. My contract says 90,000.

My first draft is usually fairly bare-bones as I rush to discover what the basic story is and who the characters are. In rewrites, I almost always add words because I enrich the detail of the setting and the characters, or realize I need another scene or two to flesh out a crucial subplot, fix plot holes, etc. So a 100,000+ first draft does not bode well. I know I can tighten scenes and pare my prose down, but to end up with a net loss of 10,000 words is going to take work. I may even have to turf out scenes and combine plot points.

There is a certain thrill to rewrites. During first drafts, I never know if the story is actually going to be a book, even though every other time I've written a draft, it's ended up being a book, so I should trust the process. But that's the uncertainty of the creative unknown. But once I reach the end of the draft, I can see it's a book; however imperfect, it's something I can work on. Add, subtract, deepen, fix, polish; it's all satisfying without the terror of the unknown.

If at the end of the process I have produced a brilliant, perfect, 100,000-word book, I'll throw myself on the mercy of my editor, who usually has a very sharp pen.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A grand idea?

by Rick Blechta

Sitting out in our backyard yesterday evening with my wife, discussing our weekend with our grandkids who were over for the first time since the last week of February, there was a lull in conversation when an idea popped into my head. I must have been thinking about what I need to do today and of course Type M was near the top of the list — and I needed a topic for this week’s post. With the harsh reality of our daily lives, I wanted a topic that would provide some fun for everyone.

I have a vague memory of this sort of thing being tried before, but not enough to give out names or authors, so sorry for that. (Perhaps someone can help.) My brain storm was this: what if you could put two favourite characters from some of the great crime fiction series.

So let’s have some fun. Here’s my choice for a mash-up.

How about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch with Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks? Both detectives are exceptionally experienced and good at what they do, both have a tendency to do their own thing, but more importantly, both are quintessential products of their respective cultures. Bosch just breaks rules, damn the torpedoes, while Banks operates more discretely while being equally subversive in his own way. Bosch and Banks also are not afraid to rely on hunches.

I also think this combination would work best if the characters were operating in a “neutral” third country where they’re both out of their element — although I have to admit it would be interesting to see Bosch navigate the British policing system. Since Peter and Michael are good friends, it might even happen some day (are you two listening?).

So that’s my choice. How about you? And don’t forget the why part because that’s what makes this idea interesting!

Monday, May 25, 2020


What huge lessons we've had to learn, these past weird weeks!  What new words have come into our vocabulary, what new skills we have had to master!

I've never had much interest in technology, I'm ashamed to say. Over the years I've been dragged relentlessly into doing all sorts of things on the internet and have found many of them useful - indeed, indispensable. I can repeat operations when I've been shown what to do, in much the same way I managed quadratic equations - without having the faintest understanding of them - and if I haven't performed them for a while I am lost. (Again, much like seeing a quadratic equation now and marveling that I ever even knew how to begin.)

When something goes wrong all I can do is scream, for instance to Rick who, bless him, sorted out my next weekend's guest post for me when HTML turned into gobbledegook, or to my husband who is much more skillful than I am.

Like, I suspect, many of you,  the big technological leap I have had to take recently has been to take part in Zoom meetings.  This week alone I have joined Zooms of three different sorts - one  professional, a formal directors' committee meeting; one a social group; one a family chat - and it's prompted quite a lot of different thoughts.

The first is how awful it is to have to see myself on screen.  I look truly terrible and though I try to cheer myself up by observing that people whom I know are perfectly nice-looking look bad as well, I still feel I look even worse and it's utterly demoralizing. 

The second, reflecting on the committee meeting, is that it's depersonalizing too. Several people made observations that were hurtful to someone present, in a way I'm quite sure they wouldn't have done if we were sitting round a table, looking each other in the eye.  Compromises are much more difficult to reach when you can't engage in direct communication.  Certainly you can get business done, but there is a serious cost.

The social group was admittedly stilted but was pleasant enough.  Here the problem was technical - quite often the yellow line round the gallery picture to tell you who is speaking was slow to activate and since for some reason the gallery pictures keep dotting around rather than staying in the same place, the conversation got a bit jumbled.  I have to say, though, that it was great for reaching out to people who may have been feeling isolated and would welcome the chance for a cheerful gossip.

The third Zoom meeting was pure joy.  My little grandson is thirteen months and hasn't taken any interest during previous Zooms.  Yesterday for the first time he realized suddenly that we were speaking to him and that he could speak back to us.  And boy, he did! he babbled all the time, not just random sounds but what he clearly thinks are observations, pausing to look for signs of understanding and then, as if feeling a little unconvinced about by our ability to understand words, amplifying his points using sign language.  We went on to waving, blowing kisses, clapping and playing peekaboo while we all shrieked with laughter.   It's not the same as getting a cuddle but it's a lot better than nothing.

It's amazing what technology has done.  Crime panels and festivals on line have kept readers and authors in contact; programmes on TV are being patched together by individuals working in their own homes. I'm sure that if this goes on long enough  technology will come up with new and ever more sophisticated techniques. But I have to say I fervently hope they won't have to.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Days of Our Lives

A running theme here at Type M, understandably, has been our reflections on this pandemic. For me, the disruption has been minimal. As a freelance writer, I work from home so no change there. I'm fortunate, knock on wood, that my clients are weathering the financial storm. Though the lockdown or shelter-in-place or safer-at-home or whatever your local government calls it, has given me a severe case of cabin fever. I can't wait to enjoy a good meal and a cocktail at a nice restaurant. When I walk my dog, it's amusing to see people detour around one another. If you wear a mask, then for some reason, you're given a wider berth.

I've attached a photo of my calendar to show what I had planned for this weekend. Originally, I was supposed to be at Comicpalooza in Houston; however like everything but the virtual online events, that got cancelled. Last Friday, I was looking forward to high tea at a swanky hotel downtown, and that didn't happen. For later that evening, I had a Weird West reading scheduled for the Colorado Book Awards at the BookBar on Tennyson Street. Instead the reading took place via Zoom. We had over seventy people tune in, which was more than the number who usually attend the event in person. As you can see, I also had an interview scheduled with Social Security to review my eligibility for Medicare, and thanks to the magic of the telephone, did take place. The green "Parking" indicates that I have to move my car for street sweeping, but because of the pandemic the city has suspended fining people who haven't moved their rides. The city still sweeps anyway. The decrease in parking tickets represents a significant loss of revenue for Denver but I'm not crying.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Bits of Fun

Everyone keeps on talking about how much extra time they have these days. I admit I'm a little mad about this because, well, not a whole lot has changed for me. I'm still writing, though I don't get as much done as I should. I attribute that largely to not having a hard deadline, but a little bit to the state the world is in. I'm still doing my usual exercise routine, which was indoors anyway so no change there. Construction is still going on across the street, into the 2nd year for this particular house, and almost 10 years of continuous construction on our street.

One big change is that I don't go out on errands much anymore. Not that I went out much before. Now it’s even less. Only when absolutely necessary do I venture into the great unknown. My husband does most of the grocery shopping. I only occasionally accompany him.

Still, I find that I probably don’t have the best of attitudes these days. I get more annoyed about things, especially the idiots across the street. Hey, you deal with not knowing if you can get out of your garage when you need to and picking up their lunch trash every single day and you’ll get annoyed too. I’m coming up with all sorts of scenarios I could work into a story some day. So that’s good, I guess.

Still, I find that bits of fun can change how I feel about everything. So here are a few things I’ve discovered that you might all find fun. They give me a little relief from life’s annoyances and the grim statistics I read about every day.

Google Fun: 

You can search on “Google Fun” in your browser and find all kinds of fun things. My favorite is the Wizard of Oz:
  • Type “Wizard of Oz” into google. 
  • Click on the red shoes in the results window. (Be sure you have your sound on.)
Jigsaw Puzzles:

If you’ve run out of physical jigsaw puzzles you can go to jigsawplanet and do some online. You can also create a puzzle using your own image. These can be either public, available to everyone, or private, ones you can only play yourself.

Best British Home Cook:

Then there’s the Best British Home Cook, which I recently discovered on Hulu. I’m not sure where else you can find it, but if you get a chance check it out. The cooks on BBHC all seem to genuinely like each other and they often help each other. A really lovely attitude that I wish was more prevalent these days. Plus Mary Berry is one of the judges so if you miss her from the Great British Baking Show, you can get your fix here.


Someone sent me these links to 3 version of “Ode To Joy”. The first one is a quartet playing together from their balconies. The other two are orchestras playing the piece together from their homes. Really enjoyable, all of them.

Furry Friends:

We haven’t had any cats in our household in quite a while so I’m making do with cute kitten videos. Here’s my favorite:

I know it’s not much, but that’s my little contribution to your mental health. Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Too much time on my hands

by Rick Blechta

In these most novel of times, everyone has had to face new realities and new ways of doing things. Hell! We have had to come up with less than new ways of living our lives. The pandemic shutdown has locked us all in cages, nice ones if you enjoy your living quarters, but cages nonetheless.

One seemingly good offshoot of this is time. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job where you can work from home, everyone should have more time to do things that they normally wouldn’t. If you’re unfortunately not working, well all you do have on your hands is time.

But something is going wrong.

I was speaking with a musician-friend yesterday. He was lamenting that even with hours on his hands every day, he wasn’t getting much done. Sure, he was practising a lot, but he had other musical goals (recording, arranging new pieces, learning a new recording program he’d bought, but somehow he never got around to these things in any meaningful way. “I feel completely stalled.”

That really resonated with me. I, too, seem to be spinning my tires more than would expect. Part of that is due to the curse of the internet. Even though it’s like watching a slow-moving car crash, I can’t resist reading about current events on various platforms. It’s appalling and fascinating at the same time. Like being in the middle of a great novel, I’m constantly thinking, How is this all going to end? At least we don’t have a TV…

That’s my main time-waster, but there are others. We have bird feeders right outside our back door and I can easily spend a half-hour dawdling over a cup of coffee and watching our guests — especially since a pair of Baltimore orioles arrived last week. There’s also another male hanging around, so there’s lots of chivying going on. (Birds can be really quite nasty to each other.)

You get the picture on how much time can be wasted during the day. I’m sure many of you have similar stories to tell.

So this morning I woke up and vowed that I was not going to allow myself to keep being distracted, keep myself on a schedule and actually accomplish the things I want to accomplish — and above all, not waste so much time!

First off, make a list. Always make a list when you wish to Get Things Done (that’s my mom talking).

Here’s today’s list:
  1. Write Type M post: 1 hour
  2. Take birthday present over to our granddaughter (she’s 4 today!): 2 hours
  3. Practise! : 1.5 hours
  4. Record 2 flute pieces for darling wife’s students: .5 hours
  5. Change water in fish tank: 20 minutes
  6. Make dinner (ratatouille): 1.25 hours
  7. Finish song arrangement and print parts while waiting for dinner to cook: 2 hours
Get the picture? You don’t see anything on there about writing, do you? This is how all my days seem to go. Sure, it does take more time whenever you have to go out to the store. It’s not currently a matter of bopping our to the , grabbing what you need and arriving back home in under half-an-hour. It just doesn’t happen.

Something’s got to change or I won’t be able to call myself a writer anymore.

Starting today, I have a timer at my desk and I’m going to use it. Need to ? I set the timer for my budgeted time and when it goes off, I stop cold and move on to something else.

And no looking at the internet between tasks!

Monday, May 18, 2020

Real World Tension

In my creative writing class that I was teaching for our local college, cut short by the pandemic, I stressed the value of ratcheting up tension as your book progresses.

Well, welcome to the real world, where the tension is rising nearly every day.

On Friday, the governor of Michigan shut down the Capitol in Lansing in fear of armed protesters. For the past week, lawmakers have been debating how to safely enable lawmakers to work and vote in session while the state’s laws allow people to bring firearms into the capitol building. The debate grew in intensity as some lawmakers read about threats to the governor’s life on social media, which were published in the Detroit Metro Times.

There’s a tense video on YouTube filmed by a female customer in a Trader Joe’s, arguing with a young worker who was trying to enforce company policy by asked the woman to wear a face mask. The discussion grew heated, the young man called the police, who never showed up, and the woman finally left. When she did, the other customers in the store applauded.

A Target employee in California ended up with a broken arm as she helped escort two customers who also refused to wear masks.

In Pennsylvania, a female convenience store clerk refused to sell a man who refused to wear a mask a pack of cigars. He punched three times in the face.

In Texas, a man was told he couldn’t ride a public bus if he didn’t put on a face mask. He shot another passenger who ended up in the hospital and the gunman was arrested.

Then in Flint, Michigan, a security guard outside a dollar story insisted that a customer wear a face mask. The guard was shot and killed.

On a much lesser note, but still ugly, I was in line at our Food Lion, wearing a mask. As the lady behind the counter checked me out and I place my groceries in my cart, I turned to put my credit card in the machine to pay. I saw a man and woman standing right next to me, neither of whom were wearing masks. I politely asked the man to please step back. In a loud belligerent voice, he said, “Where do you want me to go? The back of the store?”

Wanting to defuse the situation, I didn’t tell him where I really wanted him to go.

The poor clerk smiled sadly and told me, “Have a nice day, honey.

I’m working from home and in my spare time, I’m working on edits for my fourth mystery, Shadow Hill. But it’s difficult not to fall down an internet rabbit hole when an alert pops up on my phone letting me know when some new kernel of news has arrived. Usually it’s bad news.

It’s not productive. At some point I just switch it all off and lose myself in my work. It’s a little like a movie or a book where the tension has nearly peaked.

So my advice is that when the world serves you more tension than you think you can handle, turn it off, go for a walk or open your work in progress and lose yourself in that.

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Under the Gun

Hi Everyone,

Hope you are all well. I'm grading papers with the clock ticking. I don't have time to write a post today.

But I thought you might find this interesting:

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Real Heroes

It suddenly dawned on me (Donis) that it's time for my Type M entry. I'm amazed I remembered, because as far as I know, the date is Thronday, Maprilune the twenty-oneteenth. I was wondering whether to muse on the pandemic yet again. Have we all heard enough? Then I read Barbara Fradkin's excellent entry, below. "As artists, we document the emotional reality of our times," she said, and I couldn't agree more. The great Barbara Kingsolver notes that “a novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life ... The power of fiction is to create empathy.” As an example, she says that a newspaper will give you the facts of a situation, say a plane crash, but a novel will show you just how it felt to be one of those hundreds of people who were killed in the crash.

We will convey to future generations what it felt like to live through this pandemic. Many times I've been reminded of the absolute indispensability of nurses at times like this. Doctors may get all the glory, but it's nurses who really do the work, especially when science doesn't know the answer and tender loving care is all that keeps people alive. That's the way it was during the 1918 pandemic and that's the way it is now. In 1918 there was a war going on and the government censored the pandemic news because nothing could be allowed to interfere with war production. There was no cure, anyway. No one knew why this strain of flu was so bad. A person could be well in the morning and dead by sundown. The great heroes of that time were the Red Cross volunteer nurses. When I did the research for The Return of the Raven Mocker, my historical mystery set in Oklahoma during the pandemic, I didn't have to make up any stories about the heroism of the women who took on the job of helping the sick. I just used the stories I read about in the papers and heard from family members who lived through it. Here's an excerpt from the book:

“There are fifteen of us left,” Martha said, as she showed the doctor around the makeshift command post. “Eight other volunteers have either come down with the flu themselves or decided they don’t want to risk it. We all meet up here at dawn and make our plans for the day. Usually somebody stays here at the school to make soup and deliver messages. We have tried to let folks know that they should telephone here or send a message if they need help. We have access to a telephone in the school office. We divide up house calls. We go to anybody who asks for us, but lately a couple of us will ride or walk up and down the streets looking for a red ‘X’ on the doors. That is the signal the town council decided that everyone should use to let folks know that there is influenza in the house.”

"What do your nurses do for their patients when they call on them, Mrs. McCoy?”

“Whatever we can. Try to see that they are clean and fed, that the house is clean and the air in the sick room is not too warm or too stale. I carry aspirin in my kit, and menthol rub, and lemons, when I can get them. My mother and some other ladies in the area make useful tonics and medicines for fever, the cough, nausea, and for diarrhea. Sometimes the best thing we can do is stay with the patients for a while, especially folks who have nobody else to look after them.”

“How many in the vicinity have died?”

Hattie and Martha exchanged a glance. Often when they knocked at houses with the sign, no one would come to the door. Sometimes someone inside would yell at her through the door, or gesture to her from behind a closed window. Go away. We’re better. Don’t bring more illness to this house.

Other times no one would come to the door because no one could. Martha could tell the difference by the smell. Her nose had become acutely sensitive to the odor of sickness. In that case she would simply open the door and walk in, praying that she would find everyone ill but still alive. She wasn’t always so lucky.

On the day that she and Cousin Hattie revved up Scott’s touring car and made the circuit of nearby farms, they found that both Fosters and their five children had all succumbed during the night. The women wrapped the bodies in blankets, dragged them into the parlor, and laid them on the floor in a row for the convenience of the gravediggers. Then they filled a washtub with well water, washed themselves with carbolic soap as best as they could, took another dose of garlic honey, and drove to the next farm.

“I don’t believe any of us have wanted to take a count. There have been several,” Martha said.

If they lived through it, the women (and it was mostly women then) who voluntarily put themselves in danger in 1918 suffered shell-shock afterwards just like soldiers who had done battle. So here it is 2020 and we're living through our own version of a little-understood plague. Screw the politicians and protestors. We know who the real heroes are here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Pandemic voices

For weeks now, our Type M blog posts have circled around the central player in our lives - the pandemic. We have talked about the inability to write, the question of whether to include the pandemic in our stories, the lament over lost opportunities to celebrate and promote our books, and the ups and downs of our moods. As I tried to figure out what to say today, I thought "Can anyone stand one more blog about the damn pandemic?" Are we sick of it? Do we want our lives back? Can't we at least pretend things will go back to normal?

Then I realized this is our job. As artists we document the emotional reality of our times. Economists will talk about job losses, stock market rollercoasters, and accumulating debt. Scientists will talk about advances in virology and herd immunity, epidemiologists about infection curves and deaths per million, etc. Social scientists will analyze lockdown fatigue, crowd contagion, and the delicate balance of maintaining public cooperation. Ecologists will describe the return of the animals and the blue of the sky.

All important for the historical record. We are living through possibly the most significant global event in a century, in terms of its scope and impact on every single person (and indeed on nature and the planet). Other crises have had a more drastic effect on specific parts of the world, such as the world wars, the Holocaust, and the Khmer Rouge. And even then, much of normal life went on in the streets and towns. But this crisis is against a single enemy worldwide, and has changed almost every aspect of our daily lives, from hugging our families to trying to buy yeast.

People's experiences and reactions are all over the map, and as several posts have already pointed out, they change from day to day and evolve over time. Artists have always been a mirror to our inner life. Psychologists and other mental health researchers are going to dissect our adjustment and struggles minutely. They are going to subject us to surveys and statistical analyses and possibly even experimental re-enactments. All this is going to be very valuable for future planning, but trust me, as someone who worked in that field for years, it's going to be dry as dust. It will not bring to life the essence of being alone on Mother's Day, staring at your one-year old grandson trying to eat the phone his parents are using for Zoom. It will not capture the sound of your silent wail. Nor the hummingbird restlessness you feel some days after listening to too much news. Shall I bake cupcakes? Watch Netflix? Or even, horrors, wash the floors?

The blogs, poems, paintings, and short isolation videos that artists are producing all over the world will serve as a record of our times, a mirror of our feelings and thoughts at the moment we go through them. And any books that come out of it, whether about the pandemic or not, will be a testament to these times. So feel free to create and to put it out there, to be shared online across the world. Someone will be listening, and equally important, history will be listening.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Sorry, folks!

by Rick Blechta

I’ve got some things on today that will prevent me from writing a post this week — in fact, I should have posted this early since I knew what would be going on.

Anyway, I will be back with more deathless prose next week, full of cogent thinking and sparkling ideas. Ha!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Sunny Afternoons

Having your life so suddenly constricted has been a curious and, in an abstract sort of way, interesting experience. Before I say anything else, I need to declare my privilege - I have a comfortable home, a nice garden, endlessly helpful neighbors, a supportive family and a husband whom, even after almost fifty years I actually like.

So when I say that some of the results of lockdown are beneficial, I'm all too aware that this doesn't apply to everyone.  And certainly, for the first two or three weeks I was to some degree in shock, finding it hard to concentrate or settle to anything.  There was a frantic scrabble to arrange the practicalities of life and all I could think about was whether we would have milk, or butter or eggs. Toilet rolls, not so much.

It struck me this was similar to the pattern in some of my books where the character has been hit unexpectedly by tragic life events - a murder, say.  There is the initial shock of bereavement, then the hectic pace of  practical arrangements and investigations before the emptiness and the slow adjustment to life as it has to be in future.  I will have more insight into that in the future.

But as a wise friend of mine once said, 'You cannot sustain crisis.'  However hard something is at first, sooner or later the rhythm of life reasserts itself. I'm back to working my normal hours again and slowly the book is taking shape.  The hours I would have spent on traveling, entertaining, shopping and socialising are empty now.

The weather here, for a Scottish summer, has been amazing - weeks and weeks that have been dry and sunny.  As I sat in the garden watching leaves unfurl and new flowers appear every day for, I think, pretty much the first time in a busy life, I felt time slow to a crawl.

I've never been much of a one for personal introspection.  I've never forgotten what my mother said when I was an angst-ridden teenager, 'If you spend your time looking inwards, you'll find it's like peeling an onion - when you take off the last layer there's nothing left.'  I've found it good advice, but
there has been something very soothing about having the time to let thoughts unfold like the leaves.

It has helped to keep me cheerful - mainly.  Though today is a bit hard: as I write this, I should have been in London rehearsing for a scratch performance of the Mozart Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall. ( small sob.)

Friday, May 08, 2020

The New Normal

Colorado is now in a "partial reopening." I don't have the slightest idea what to do. The prohibitions have been in place just long enough to scare the hell out of me and change my behavior.

My state of mind isn't helped much by the dire news accounts of angry customers shooting clerks trying to enforce their company's mask policy. 

I've convinced that we will never return to the "old" normal. We certainly didn't after 9/11. It was a whole new ball game. We learned to accept tightened security measures and inspections. The "new normal" back then became policing children's safety at school and an enormous increase in people carrying guns. We were forced to absorb one mass shooting after another. Our country continued to function under the new rules. We became suspicious and vigilant. We also became more anxious. 

As is the case with most writers, self-isolation isn't as hard on me as it for people with extroverted personalities, although last Monday I went back to the regular routines that have always served me well. It was time to stop lying around.

Nevertheless, I'm feeling very vulnerable. I'm diabetic and if my miserable allergic responses to spring are any indication, I certainly have a compromised immune system. My age doesn't help ether.

This week I wrestled with melancholy. I was struck by our blogmaster, Rich Blechta's post. He said that nearly every musician was unemployed. I was stricken with the awareness that I couldn't go to Rocky Grass this year. It won't be happening! I recalled all the dances I've attended--the joy of music and concerts. Even if the events take place, I won't feel safe attending venues with large groups of people.

God speed to all the scientists who are struggling to develop a vaccine. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Nancy Drew at 90

2020 marks 90 years since Nancy Drew’s first appearance and she doesn’t show any sign of stopping. (Okay, well, there is the graphic novel, Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys: The Death of Nancy Drew, but we’ll talk about that later.)

Being a big fan of Ms. Drew, I decided to read her debut novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, in both its original 1930 version and the revised 1959 version, the one I remember reading when I was a kid. And, of course, I had to analyze the differences because, well, I love doing stuff like that. Some of you may remember a previous post here on Type M where I analyzed the differences between the original and revised versions of The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. You can find that here.

This analytical exercise suits me right now. It calms me down, brings a smile to my face and keeps me sane in this corona virus world we live in. So here we go...

First the statistics. The 1930 version is 25 chapters and 210 pages long. The 1959 version is 20 chapters and 180 pages.

In all of the original versions, Nancy is 16 years old and, apparently, has finished school. She runs the household for her father and occasionally does errands for him. They have a maid, Hannah, but Nancy’s the one in charge. “On the death of her mother six years before, she had taken the entire management of the establishment.” Quite a feat since Nancy was 10 years old at the time!

In the newer versions, she’s 18 and has finished high school. Hannah has been upgraded to housekeeper. She runs the household so Nancy is free as a bird to do her sleuthing.

I’ve always thought that River Heights, the town where Nancy lives, is in the mid-west somewhere though I don’t remember ever seeing that in the newer books. But in the 1930 book, Nancy is “a true daughter of the Middle West” and takes great pride “in the fertility of her State and saw beauty in a crop of waving green corn as well as in the rolling hills and the expanse of prairie land.” Sounds like the mid-west to me! But then they mention the Muskoka River, which seems to be a river in Canada, so maybe she’s been a Canadian all this time and I never knew!

The story line in both books is basically the same: Josiah Crowley dies leaving a will that gives all of his considerable fortune to a really, really annoying and undeserving family, the Tophams. But there are reports he drew up a new will when he died, naming far more deserving people as his heirs, and hid it somewhere. (Could it be in an old clock, perchance?) Nancy, of course, finds the will and the more deserving people get life-saving money. On a side note, Josiah Crowley’s wife in the 1930 version was said to have died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Seems rather timely given the current state of the world.

There are quite a few differences between the books. The 1930 version starts with Nancy talking to her father about the Tophams and saying what a shame it was that they inherited a lot of money. The 1959 version starts with Nancy driving her dark blue convertible along a road and witnessing a child fall off a wall. She, of course, stops and saves her. That’s how she meets the Turner sisters who are a couple of the deserving people who should have inherited. The topic of the will is brought up here. It also introduces the storyline involving thieves who steal silver and what not from unsuspecting people. She’ll meet up later with them when they’re stealing furniture etc. from deserted summer homes on Moon Lake. We don’t find out about the thieves in the 1930 version until Nancy meets up with them at the Topham’s summer cottage.

In the original version, Nancy doesn’t save a child. There’s not even a child in the story. She also doesn’t save a dog like she does in the 1959 version. Not sure why they added those bits, but maybe they just wanted to immediately portray her as a good person, hence the saving of the child in the first scene and the dog later.

They made a few other changes to Nancy’s personality. Later in the story, Nancy is in possession of the old clock mentioned in the title. She got it out of the moving van of the thieves. In the 1930 version she hides this fact from the police while in the 1959 version she fesses up. Also, in the 1930 version she doesn’t mention to her father the real reason she wants to go to a camp on Moon Lake (sleuthing!), but she's aboveboard in the 1959 version. I suppose they didn't want to give young girls any bad ideas. She'd become a role model by then, after all.

There might be a few differences in her personality between the editions, but she’s still capable of changing her own tire and fixing a boat engine in both books.

But, I don’t know what it is about having Nancy drive her car. In the older books no man suggests he should drive her car, they just hop in the passenger seat and away Nancy goes. But, in the 1959 book, a police officer offers to drive. At least he doesn’t insist. It’s not quite as bad as “The Clue of the Leaning Chimney” where Ned drives her car pretty much every time they drive somewhere together. Yes, people, Nancy can drive!

Another difference between the versions was in the profession of one of the young women. In the 1930 version, she keeps chickens and wants to expand to having a chicken farm, but needs money to do that. In the 1959 version she has a lovely voice and wants to be a singer, but needs money for lessons. An interesting change in story line.

There are some other differences that are probably because the story is moved to a different time period.
  • The woman in the book who is described as older is over 80 in the newer version instead of being over 70. 
  • A $100 bill is used in 1959 instead of a $20 bill 
  •  The caretaker of a house on Moon Lake in 1930 is black (not described that way, btw) and is just described as elderly in the newer version. Here is one place where I think the story was much improved. The way the caretaker in the 1930 version was portrayed and gotten out of the way by the thieves was quite racist. The way they got him out of the way in the 1959 version was much more believable.
  •  There’s a shootout between the police and the thieves in the 1930 version that Nancy witnesses! (Hard not to think of the potential for our heroine getting shot.) No guns in the 1959 version, thank goodness. 
  • Procedures for how they get access to a safe deposit box are different and more detailed. 
So those are my thoughts on the differences in The Secret of the Old Clock.

While I was immersed in the books, I did some googling and discovered a couple interesting things. First, there’s a Nancy Drew Mystery Podcast hosted by two women, one who read Nancy as a kid, one who didn’t. I listened to their thoughts on the Old Clock, which was quite fun. They only read the 1959 version. I wonder what they would have thought if they’d read the original as well. You can learn more about the podcast here:

At the end of the podcast, they played the song “Nancy Drew” by Kathy Johnson. (With her permission.) It’s quite fun and catchy. I may start singing it around the house! You can listen to it here:

The other thing I discovered was this graphic novel Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys: The Death of Nancy Drew. Apparently, Nancy is killed and the Hardy Boys investigate her murder! No, say it isn’t so! That’s all I know about it. For all I know, Nancy faked her death and is helping the boys investigate the mob or something.

Still, there’s a bit of controversy about this graphic novel. They’ve been accused of comic “fridging”. This is where a female character is injured, raped, killed or depowered, used as a plot device to move a male character’s story forward. That’s putting a female character “into a refrigerator”. Hadn’t heard of that one before. Probably because I’m not into graphic novels at all. Thought it very interesting though.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my Nancy Drew musings. Now, I think I’ll learn the words to that Nancy Drew song.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Learning to listen

by Rick Blechta

Over the years I’ve become more and more aware of this defect. There has been many a conversation that I’ve totally dominated. It’s not done out of conceit or an I_don’t-care-a-fig-about-you attitude. I just get on a topic and roll with it. Afterwards I kick myself in the behind for being a social jerk.

But I’m trying to do better, honest I am!

If there’s one good thing that’s happened to me during this time of pandemic, it’s that I’ve had the chance to really hone my listening skills, to learn to step back and let other people lead a conversation.

Why has this happened? It’s all due to video conferencing software.

No matter the platform, be it FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Houseparty — I could go on but you get the picture, I’m sure — the way they all work is only one person at a time can speak. When multiple speak, everything becomes incomprehensible as the software struggles to handle multiple feeds when it can only handle one at a time. If you’ve been on one of these, you know what I mean. It just doesn’t work.

Over the past two months, I’ve taken part in professional meetings, get-togethers with colleagues and friends, and conversations with my family. There has even been a birthday party.

For some reason, I find myself pulling back on all these occasions and only contributing a comment or statement here and there. On occasion people have asked me if anything is wrong or if something isbothering me. (I guess my listening continence looks rather dour.)

It’s only that I’m listening, really concentrating on what’s being said and who is saying it and how. Maybe I feel a bit as if I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t know.

But it has been illuminating.

I find it interesting to observe how idiosyncratically everyone speaks. They have a consistent rhythm if you will to how they express themselves. Taking it a step further, I’ve found myself thinking, How would I craft dialogue for this person?

Anyone who writes well knows that dialogue taken down verbatim seldom works well on the printed page. People don’t speak in full sentences, and those sentences will often jump the track and take a completely different direction — sometimes multiple times. (I’m thinking of a certain world leader here.) It can often lead to confusion for the reader.

If I were trying to write that down to include it in a novel, I’d have to alter it in order to try to make everything comprehensible to a reader.

People also ramble when they speak — heaven knows I suffer from this affliction — and so judicious pruning is often required or the writer risks readers losing interest, the “get-on-with-it” syndrome is what I call this.

So if you’re on a video conference with me and I’m just sitting there not moving, seldom speaking, and with a dour expression on my face, just know that what I’m doing is re-writing what you’re saying so that it would make good dialogue in a novel.

Not that I would ever actually use something like that!


Monday, May 04, 2020

Bad boys and bad girls...why do we like them so much?

Bad boys and bad girls…why do we like them so much?

During this time of quarantine, my wife and I are binging on shows we’ve found on both Hulu and Netflix.  We just finished season three of Ozark and we’re in the middle of season two of Killing Eve.

Both have antiheroes who are the lead characters.

In Ozark, the program focuses on a married couple who are laundering money for a drug cartel.  They started out as nearly normal in episode one of the first season, but as the program progresses, the fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.  In order to save their lives, they had to break the law.  But as the show unfolds, they’re clearly outstanding at what they do and, to a degree, are enjoying it.

In Killing Eve, the show is about an MI6 operative who is chasing down an international assassin.  While Eve, the operative, is interesting, it’s Villanelle, the killer, who is endlessly fascinating. Villanelle has a childish quality and is a charming psychopath.

Then again, so was Ted Bundy.

Tony Soprano from the HBO series The Sopranos. Walter White from Breaking Bad.  Don Draper from Mad Men.  All antiheroes.

A few literary antiheroes?  Jay Gatsby, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Tom Ripley, Lestat de Lioncourt from Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles.

How about James Bond?  He’s an assassin with a license to kill, drinks heavily, likes to gamble, and is an incessant womanizer.

What about anti eroes draws us to them?  I think it’s their depth of character.  I’ve written that a protagonist can’t be too perfect or they’re deadly dull.  They have to have flaws to make them human.

For an anti hero those flaws are much more pronounced.  And in many cases, becoming an anti hero was the result of a noble cause.  Walter White in Breaking Bad learns he has terminal lung cancer and wants to leave a financial legacy for his family so he turns to cooking meth and selling it.  And he becomes damned good at it.  And through the course of the show, devolves more and more into a monster.

So, an antihero should be good at what they do.  Don Draper was an awesome ad guy.  Tony Soprano would do most anything for his family and he was adept at staying one step ahead of his enemies.

In all of their cases, they can rationalize their bad behavior because they think they’re doing it for a good reason.

And when I talked about depth of character it can also mean being colorful.  Of the two female lead characters in Killing Eve, the MI6 operative starts as a boring but likable protagonist.  As she chases her killer quarry, her behavior becomes more and more questionable and I’ve found that she's becoming more interesting. More like the assassin.

The second lead in that series, Villanelle, started as a colorful character and never lets up.  When she kills a target, it’s macabre theater.

In the end, we're fascinated with antiheroes because they’re damned entertaining.

Just as a side note, years ago I wrote a thriller where the lead character was an antihero.  He worked as a bartender in a strip club, was dating one of the strippers, and in his spare time he was a con artist. One of his cons gets him in trouble the Mob and he and his girlfriend have to go on the run.

I never found an agent for the book and it was never published.

However, the agent I’m working with now told me that she recalled reading the first fifty pages of the book when I'd submitted it to her.  Then she said that the reason her agency didn’t take it on was that she immediately didn’t like the lead character.

Writing anti heroes is a tricky business.  So, who is your favorite antihero?

Friday, May 01, 2020

If I Said . . .

I used a balled up piece of aluminum foil to clean a casserole dish after I burned what I was baking. As I was rising my sparking clean dish, I thought of this character who was known for unconventional solutions to problems at hand.

I'll hum while the theme music of this game show plays and you think.

Did you get it?

The character is "MacGyver", and the game show is Jeopardy.

I really did use that ball of Reynolds Wrap to clean my oven-ready casserole dish. As I was cleaning I couldn't remember the magazine that had offered me "10 clever ways to use aluminum foil." What I did remember was MacGyver. I felt really clever when the mess cleaned right up -- clever because I had remembered -- and I thought again about my long list of things I'd like to know how to do.

Never having been a Girl Scout, I have a small collection of those hardcover books for children with the instructions on how to do things like start a fire without matches or find your way in the woods. I also have a go-to book for adults -- The US Army Survival Manual. In fact, my protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, has read the Army's guide to surviving in challenging situations. She is engaged to a man who was an Army Ranger, a military police officer, and a homicide detective. He also has a master's degree in criminal justice and FBI training. Lizzie likes people who know how to do things. She finally learned how to swim because he does and she thought it was time she overcame her fear of the water. And wouldn't you know that at some point that knowledge would come in handy. Two books later, after mentioning in that book in the next that she was taking swimming classes, she found herself in danger of a watery death. She wasn't ready for the Olympics, but she was able to do what she needed to do..

But I started this post intending to write about iconic characters like MacGyver or Sherlock Holmes or Adrian Monk. Characters who are so unique or groundbreaking that if you mention their name that's sufficient to explain what you mean. For example, I can say to a friend of mine that I had a "Monk moment" when I dropped something on my kitchen floor and she knows exactly why I threw out my expensive steak instead of rinsing it off and cooking it.

I don't know about you, but I would love to have a character like the one whose name comes to mind when someone says, "I went down the rabbit hole." I still go down that rabbit hole with Alice. That book was one of the inspirations for my near-future police procedural, The Red Queen Dies.

Who makes your list of iconic characters? Alice was the only female character I mentioned, but there are others. However, I have to get to work. My notifications are popping up.

Take care, everyone.