Tuesday, June 30, 2020

It’s so easy to over-describe

by Rick Blechta

We all have to learn to write. I don’t mean putting words together to form sentences — although many haven’t mastered that skill if you look at social media for more than two minutes; I’m talking about writing shapely fiction, stuff that someone might actually want to read.

There certainly is a talent factor. A lucky few are born writers, great right out of the box, some just need to be guided along a bit, but most of us need to be taken by the hand and helped…a lot.

However, in the end, every writer has to lock themselves away and wrestle their prose into submission, no matter how many creative writing classes they’ve taken, how many writers (editors, publishers, agents) have looked at their work and commented. Like any creative act writing is a learned thing. We each have to discover the right road — or try to.

Fortunately, writers can and should keep progressing, honing skills to tell better stories in better ways.

The reason I’m writing about this comes about from watching the Mantalbano TV series from Italy. I read all the books before I began delving into the show — which is quite good by the way — and I am amazed at how accurately I’d imagined what Sicily looks like only from reading Camillieri’s novels and short stories. I’ve never been to Sicilia and never been farther south in Italy than Rome, so I had very little to go on other than what the author put in.

After watching two episodes of Mantalbano, I went back to look over the first novel in the series (The Shape of Water). It was quite amazing to see how few words Camillieri spends on description. I mean, there’s almost nothing when you consider how unique this island is. But each word, each phrase expended in description is just enough, no more, no less.

This morning, looking over something I wrote on the weekend, I’m, well, mortified how much verbiage I waste in unneeded description — and I’ve self-congratulated myself on making my prose more economical, more sparse, lean and mean, if you will.

Seems I’ve got more work to do. The road to (writers’) hell is indeed paved with adverbs — and nouns and adjectives and subordinate clauses and digressions and… 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Creative Writing 101

A week ago, I started teaching Creative Writing again at our community college.  We’re all wearing face masks, are seated at least six feet apart, and are using copious amounts of hand sanitizer.
It’s the first time I’ve done any public speaking in a face mask. It’s a little like trying to talk while underwater.

My first class is a bit of getting to know everyone.  What do they read? Who are their favorite authors? What genre interests you the most?

Next week, they’ll start reading their own work out loud. The rules of engagement for that are once the student has finished reading, scary enough, we will all applaud. Then we’ll talk about the work’s strengths.

Then, we’ll talk about ways we might make the work stronger.

But the first week, I talked about some Creative Writing 101 tips. Most of them come from Stephen King.

Tips like stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible. I might add my own bit of advice, don’t slide down the internet rabbit hole. It’s too easy to move from the New York Times website to YouTube and watching puppy videos. King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Another one of his tips: don’t be pretentious. It took me a long time to learn that one. King said, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”

Avoid adverbs and long paragraphs.  My editor has been ruthless about teaching me this. King said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

This is a tip that I really take to heart. Understand that writing is a form of telepathy. King makes the claim that an important element of writing is transference. Your job isn’t to write words on the page, but rather to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers. He said, “Words are just the medium through which the transfer happens.”

It excites me to no end when a reader tells me how much they enjoyed a book I’ve written and how they loved Geneva Chase, the lead character in my mysteries.  In their minds, she’s a real person.

Write every single day. King said, “If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind…I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.” Amen to that.

When you’re finished writing, take a long step back. “When you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” He advises that take six weeks recuperation time after you’ve finished writing so you can have a clear mind to spot any glaring holes in the plot or character development.

I’ve found that to be immensely helpful.I’ve come back after I’ve left the manuscript in the drawer for a while and then look at with a fresh set of eyes.

The final bit of advice is to stay married, be healthy, and live a good life.

I like that very much.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Back to the 70s

A few years back, I was at a board meeting of the Mystery Writers of America. After the big dinner (with an open bar), several of us had gone to Times Square to continue the festivities. At about two in the morning we piled into a taxi for the ride back to the Roosevelt Hotel. Along the way we spotted a single young woman strolling along 47th Street. She going somewhere that was none of our business but her relaxed attitude and that she was alone astounded us. We were a bunch of old timers who remembered New York City from the 70s and 80s, the Death Wish years. Back in the day, as young men, we would not have ventured going out even as a group at this time of night without risking injury or death. This woman's blasé manner showed how much the city had changed, for the better.

More recently, my sister took a job in Manhattan and during a visit to see her, I noted how much things had improved since I was first there. When I told her about the crime, the graffiti, the squalor, the decay, the homeless and prostitutes, that you could stand on any street corner and within ten minutes, witness a theft or mugging, she looked at me like I was talking about Bigfoot or UFOs. She pointed to a spray painted mural. "You mean graffiti like that?" Not even close.

I was convinced that the Big Apple would inevitably collapse like a rotting piece of fruit. But New Yorkers loved their city too much to let it deteriorate into complete ruin and through decades of hard work and persistence, swept away the crime and cleaned the place up. No small feat as with over two thousand murders per year, New York City had the reputation of being the most dangerous city in America. At times, its streets tallied a higher body count than Beirut, which was in the middle of a civil war!

By 2018, New York City was deemed the safest big city in America. True, Manhattan resembled a theme park for the rich but you could've trekked out at any hour and not feel like you should've prepared a toe tag in advance.

Now within days, New York City, like a lot of other urban centers, Denver included, seemed to have been flipped upside down. Riots. Vandalism. Mob rule. A rash of violent crime. Homeless camps that stretch for blocks. Boarded up windows where vibrant stores used to be. Decades of progress, BAM! wiped out. And a pandemic on top of all that. It looks like we're back to where we were forty years ago and everyone's forgotten the tough lessons that made our cities worth living in.

Friday, June 26, 2020

How to Begin

Well, this day has gotten away from me. I remembered as I was heading off to bed that today was my day to post. But between an unexpected service call and an equally unexpected invitation to contribute an anthology, I forgot that it's Friday.
Rather than try to write about something, I'm going to ask for some thoughts about when and where to begin a story. My historical thriller is incubating as I work on other projects. But I need to get it done in the next few months. Current events are overlapping with my story -- case in point, HBO's decision to take down Gone With the Wind temporarily. It now has an introduction by Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar. I haven't watched that yet because I'm torn. My thriller ends at the four-day premier of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. I've done lots of research and gone to a museum in Marietta, Georgia. I'm going to watch the movie again, but I'm trying to maintain a delicate balance between what I know now and what my characters knew them. Stewart's introduction may be too much information.
 That brings me to a larger question. I could open the book on February 1939 with the Nazi rally in New York City, or April 1939 at Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday performance. In the first case, I start with the female protagonist; in the second, with my sleeping car porter, male protagonist. His story is the driving force in the thriller, but her story is going to be crucial to what happens in Atlanta.
Here are the two opening scenes in the rough first draft. Chapter 1 would begin the book with Ophelia's departure from Gallagher and arrival in NYC as the rally is taking place at Madison Square Garden.She accepts a ride from a couple who she doesn't quit trust. Jacob's first appearance is in Chapter 2. He goes to Anderson's concert, see Cullen, his foe, in the crowd and wonders why he is there. I could begin with Jacob, but then Ophelia's arrival in NYC would be dropped from the story. The reader wouldn't meet her until Jacob goes to Harlem. As is, the end of Chapter 1 would leave readers wondering what happened. 
Gallagher, Virginia
Monday, Feb. 20, 1939 
Ophelia                                                                                                                                                                                                           "All aboard!"    
Wheezing, trying to catch my breath, I stopped there inside the door of the colored car and looked to see where I should sit. A few people looked in my direction with blurry eyes. The others were asleep or trying to be. A man near the front coughed. A baby whimpered and began to cry. I started down the aisle, clutching the musty carpetbag I had stolen from the attic of the house I was escaping.
Washington, D.C.
Sunday, Apr. 1939
        Some lies are easy to believe, especially when people need to believe them. I thought about that later.
        But that Sunday afternoon all I had on my mind was getting my work done.
      As soon as I had finished my count of the sheets and blankets and my paperwork, I spoke to the conductor. Then I changed out of my uniform and almost ran out of the station.
      I was hoping to get there in time to get a place up front. The best I could do was half-way. But I was s close enough to see. I tugged up the collar of my coat against the brisk wind coming off the river and looked around.      


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Writing Historical Novels in a Turbulent Time

I, Donis, write historical novels set in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. This has always been a little bit problematic since the type of novels I write are a bit of a fantasy about what life was really like at that time in that place. I have tried to avoid getting too deeply into the ugly parts, though I've always made at least some reference to reality in every book. That's all very well and good, but the world has exploded and suddenly I feel that writing a historical novel is like tiptoeing through a mine field. I've dealt with this problem before. Below is an updated version of an entry I wrote for this blog in 2011, but it seems particularly appropriate now.

I’m sure every author and avid reader has more or less the same attitude toward censorship, that being that it’s a bad, bad thing, and that the antidote to unsavory ideas is not less talking, but more talking.

But here is an interesting question for an author - how much do you censor yourself, and why? Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true. My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about. In 1910s Oklahoma and 1920s Hollywood, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century find unsavory in the extreme - casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children. Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store? In 1915, it would be expected. Language, too. Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye. And I don’t mean just racial epithets, either. My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them. Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place? Very, very carefully, let me tell you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Cops in crime fiction

Last week my daughter told me that TV shows and stories about cops are out. The recent protests about police brutality have cast police in a very different light; not as heroes pursuing justice and saving lives, as portrayed on TV and in novels, but as brutal thugs supporting a corrupt and discriminatory way of life. Even in Canada a harsh light has been cast in the dark corners of police interaction with the Black and Indigenous community.

Since I am currently writing my eleventh Inspector Green novel, my daughter's pronouncement gave me pause. My fictional police officers are flawed but, at their core, mostly good guys. I do not write about police corruption, discrimination, or the morally murky world where organized crime and police enforcement meet. My stories are about ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary crisis, and Inspector Green himself, as the son of Holocaust survivors, is passionate about bringing bad guys to account, pursuing justice for victims and supporting the marginalized in society.

Like most of my fellow writers of police procedural novels, I've never pretended my stories were about how policing operates in the real world, not because I want to whitewash the flaws and portray a fantasy ideal, but because most real-life murders and the minutiae of police investigations don't make good storytelling. And that's what mysteries are all about. It's not about the police per se, but about the struggles of people facing their darkest hour, the choices they make, and the fallout from those.

In most mysteries, the murder is merely a dramatic device around which the story revolves. Whether the writer splatters blood all over the page or hides it discreetly offstage, the resulting story is about the interactions, relationships, and conflicts of the characters, both within themselves and between each other. It's about the unravelling of those relationships and the quest for justice for those involved. The protagonist, whether it's an amateur sleuth, an investigating journalist, or a professional police officer, is just the agent in that search, and not the main focus of the story. I think readers love mysteries because of that fundamental theme of searching for justice and righting a wrong.

That said, there is certainly room to inject some reality into this idealized fictional scenario. The atmosphere in the police squad room, the inclusiveness, and the biases can and should be addressed. When I wrote my very first Inspector Green novel, back in the mists of time, I included no female police officers (because that was the reality of the day), but I have slowly been adding them and addressing their unique struggles in later books. Still later I began to think about racial inclusiveness, and in this latest book I have tried to take this one step further.

There has been much written recently about how white the crime fiction world is, both in terms of who is writing it and who is reading it. There has been talk about how to increase diversity and inclusion. I won't go into that further here, but I think all of us writers should be taking a look at the stories we tell and the characters we create. We are always looking for new, compelling themes to wrap a good story around, and the insights emerging from the recent soul-searching on racism can only enrich them as well as making them more relevant to more people's lives. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Small stories

by Rick Blechta

This week’s post concerns tiny ideas. These can be mere snippets of prose, maybe a little story told by a painting or drawing, or just a story title. The thing I’m getting at is that, skillfully done,  this bit of information can tell you a lot more than you expect it might.

Here’s a very good example of what I’m talking about. 

The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine of prominence in the 20th Century featured covers that told stories. Many, many of them were painted by the incomparable Norman Rockwell — but I’m not going to show you one of his. 

The artist of this cover was Dick Sargent and his painting tells a clever, humorous little story. Sargent did many Post covers starting in 1951 and into the ’60s when the magazine switched to much less expensive photographs for their covers. Since The Post published every week, there was a lot of work for illustrators. You couldn’t expect Rockwell to turn one out every week, could you? So other clever artists were hired and Sargent was among the best of them.

And now the inside story. My dad started out as a commercial artist, and one of his colleagues was Dick Sargent. The Sargents also lived near us in Westchester County (north of NYC). My dad was no longer doing commercial art by that time (he owned a photoengraving business), but my parents remained good friends with the Sargents.

My mom had a Cub Scout den (since I was a Cub Scout) and when Dick came up with the idea for this cover, he asked my mom if he could photograph the bunch of us in uniform as models. So we all went to his house, crowded inside of four sticks (standing in as the phone booth) and looking like, well, 10-year-old kids out for what should have been a fun hike. A few months later, the issue with us on the cover was on newsstands right across America. Were we proud!

In case you want to know, I’m the one on the far right (click on the image to make it larger if you want to see my 10-year-old-ness better). Dick didn’t ask me to make any particular expression other than, “Look sort of sad, Ricky.” It wasn’t a stretch for me since Stan Hedeen got to wear my brother’s hatchet on his belt — and I didn’t!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Devil's Garden

It should be an exciting time when a new book comes out, and of course it is, but when the bookstores are shut and the launch party has to be cancelled, it kind of takes the fun out of it. Still, the good thing is that Devil's Garden is a real book now, with a good cover, and there have been readers out there waiting for it.

There is one other good thing – I won't have to talk at the launch party. Usually I positively enjoy doing talks, but this one's different.

Once I realised that this was a very significant part of being a writer, I more or less consciously developed a public persona. When I'm on the stage on a panel, or doing a talk at a festival, or in a library, I'm Aline Templeton, Author. When I'm among my family and friends, I'm just Aline and they're two different people.

At a book launch, I'm struggling with a split personality. It makes me feel self-conscious, and I find it really, really difficult. Having one of your relatives asking probing questions about how you did this or that (in a nice way, I hasten to say) it somehow feels terribly pretentious to answer as you would to a reader you'd never met before.

I'd love just to read from the book – I've always enjoyed reading aloud – but that's definitely seen as cheating. People want to hear about the inspiration for the book and usually I simply don't know what to say.

It's galling that this time I'd have known exactly what I could say. This time, the title was its inspiration. Devil's gardens are found in the Amazon rainforest. It's a symbiotic relationship between a type of tree and a type of ant. The tree provides food and shelter for the ant and the ant produces a poison that kills off all other plants round about so that the tree can thrive.

This relationship is reflected in the book, where a world-famous author is protected by her closest friend whose life has been dedicated to preventing anything from harming her, and her Brand. She can't do that, though, when it comes to the ugly secret they both share because it's known to one other, very threatening person – but they don't know who. They live in the Borders of Scotland and just at the hour of maximum danger the Beast from the East arrives – a violent snowstorm that paralyzed Britain for several days.

It's my third DCI Kelso Strang novel and I've really enjoyed writing more about him and the chippy DC Livvy Murray who is now mostly able to control her wilder ideas.  Mostly.

Of course, I'm now well into the next book, and now the last book is looming over it.– You see it's a real book, with nice layout and proper covers and all, whereas this new one is just files in a computer. How can it possibly match up?

I go through this every time.  Sometimes I wonder why we do it!

Friday, June 19, 2020

Good news!

This week I received the happy news that my historical novel, The Healer's Daughter, is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. I'm absolutely thrilled. And astonished!

I realized, too, that I'm so used to hearing bad or disheartening information that my expectations have become grey. That's too bad because lovely things are happening all around us. I'm amazed at how many organizations have pulled themselves together and soldiered right on via Zoom and other media offerings.

It's not the same. I've decided not to go to the annual convention of Western Writers of America this year. It breaks my heart because Johnny D. Boggs will receive the Wister Award. Johnny is a wonderful writer and I can't think of anyone else who has contributed so much to this organization. I would love to be there when he receives the Wister.

I find that Fort Collins, especially Larimer County, is very conscious of the dangers of COVID. Here, and next door in Weld County, we've been hard hit. I pretty much fall in line with our governor's Safer At Home instructions.

Normally, I would be anticipating attending the High Plains Award ceremony in Billings, Montana this September. I would be fussing around over clothes. My shoes, my hair. Everything having to do with grooming. My heart would be in my throat as the chairman announced the winners. But as with Mystery Writers of America and nearly all organizations, the awards ceremony will be virtual this year.

Isn't it wonderful that we've found a way to work around this limitation? A couple of weeks ago, the Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America had another outstanding program, via Zoom. I've missed our local Sisters in Crime meetings due to conflicts, but the group hasn't cancelled a single meeting.

I realize substituting media for personal interaction is not as satisfying, but it's keeping things together. I've had four events cancel. Then yesterday I realized that I could be copying some the techniques used by the major publishers. I could contact the persons and arrange for a presentation via Zoom. It wouldn't be the same as being able to sell and autograph books, but I could let them know how much I appreciate their support.

Who knows? By the time we develop a vaccine and work our way through the COVID crisis, we may discover new promotional techniques for our books.

Hang in there!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The importance of advance readers’ questions

How do we know if a story will work?

Isn’t that the central question, the one that keeps writers up at night? Will my story hold water? Will the story present a unified, play-fair plot that satisfies readers?

I know these questions keep me up at night.

Have I given readers a satisfying plot that at once challenges yet is logical in its base premise?

Edgar Allan Poe, in 1841, wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first mystery, and as the introduction, which goes on for two pages (get to the hook, man!), states, it will offer a new genre, a “chess game,” a “mental discourse.” Scholars Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois Marchino write that the story also provides the “Five Rules of Detective Fiction” (Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction):

  1. There must be a crime, preferably murder, because it fascinates readers more than any other crime and offers multiple ways to be committed.
  2. There must be a detective, someone with superior powers of inductive and deductive reasoning, who is capable of solving a crime that baffles the official police system.
  3. The police must be seen as incompetent or incapable of solving such a complex crime.
  4. Readers must be given all necessary clues/information to solve the crime, if the information is properly interpreted.
  5. The detective must explain who the criminal is and the motive, means, and opportunity by the conclusion of the story.
And, of course, Raymond Chandler, in his list of “Ten Commandments,” reminds us that the story “must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement,” “the solution must seem inevitable once revealed,” according to The Book of Literary Lists (QTD in The Thrilling Detective).

Both Poe and Chandler were concerned with plot, albeit a century apart.

I’m receiving feedback on a novel this week, all of it valuable. But the questions advance readers ask always provide essential feedback because it leads me back to plot and/or clarity. In these questions, I see how the readers experienced the book. Their questions are never yes/no, even when they are. By that, I mean the answer to the question is rarely as important for me, the writer, as my personal follow-up question is: Why did they ask that question? I evaluate the reader’s experience of the book and try to deduce what led to the question.

I am lucky to have some close friends who will read anything I write. They approach the books from different career backgrounds and varied perspectives. What they have in common is that each is a serious reader. And the questions they ask give me pause and take me back to my overarching goal: to write a story that is complex without being confusing, that leaves readers satisfied. That means plot.

And, in the end, it means asking myself why readers asked the questions they did.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Tips For Writing Suspense

I belong to the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. With all of the pandemic restrictions, we haven’t been able to meet in person for quite awhile. But we have met via Zoom twice now. It’s nice to see people’s faces and hear what’s going on in their worlds. I don’t even mind how I appear on the screen. Added bonus: I don’t have to drive 45 minutes each way. Still, I’m looking forward to eventually seeing everyone in person.

Our monthly meeting consists of mingling time, a member of our chapter who reads from one of their books and a speaker. We’ve had a variety of speakers over the years on all sorts of topics. Our speaker at our last meeting was Lori Rader-Day who came to us from her home in Chicago and gave us tips for writing mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction.

Lori is the current president of Sisters in Crime National and the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. Her latest book is The Lucky One set in a true-crime amateur online sleuth community.

As she went over all of the tips, I was happy and a little surprised to realize that I do many of the things she talked about. I thought I’d briefly go over the tips she talked about at the meeting. You don’t have to use all of these in one story. Just consider them useful items to add to your writing toolbox. I’ll give them to you in the order she presented them to us.

14) Create a great main character

 If readers care about or are interested in the character, the author doesn’t have to work as hard. A character doesn’t have to be likeable, just has to be interesting.

Even though this is number 14 on her list, for me as a reader it’s actually most important for me when reading cozy mysteries. When I read them, I want the main character to be likeable and reasonably intelligent. I have stopped reading a book and literally thrown it across the room because of a wimpy main character. But, if we’re talking about other crime books, the main character can be unlikeable and I’ll keep on reading as long as the book’s interesting.

13) Make your character need something to desire or fear

12) Make your readers worry

If you have a likeable character, a reader will naturally worry about them. But, even if the main character isn’t, you can still have things happen that will make a reader worry.

11) Plant big questions in the reader’s mind

This is really the main plot of any book. Who killed X? Why did Y disappear? Things like that.

10) Plant smaller questions in the reader’s mind 

These are the subplots for your story. They can involve families, jobs, love lives. In my books, I usually do a main plot and 2 subplots. One of the subplots is generally something about the personal life of my amateur sleuth. The other depends on the main plot.

9) Play with dramatic irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that the characters don’t.

8) Hold back on sex and violence

The promise of sex or violence creates tension, but the playing out of sex or violence on the page doesn’t.

7) Pile on the problems for your protagonist

Think about all of the bad things that could happen to your main character and have some of them happen.

 6) Isolate your protagonist 

Make them have to handle something on their own. Have the usual support systems be unavailable for some reason.

5) Place time constraints on the story 

This is the whole “ticking clock” bit. Maybe they only have so much time to defuse a bomb. Or the culprit will be getting on a plane, so only have so much time to prove that they’re responsible.

4) Delay gratification for your reader as long as the story warrants 

Leave something open-ended at all times. If you answer a question, make sure there’s another one unanswered. Save your biggest questions for the end. If there’s always a question in a reader’s mind, they’ll keep on reading to get the answer.

3) Use language to create or release tension 

Use words and the structure of your sentences to speed things up or slow things down. Short words and sentences for really tense scenes. Longer words and sentences for the quieter moments. It’s generally not great to stop a character in an urgent moment to have them think about something. Save introspection for when the character is safe.

2) Play with the give and take of the tension

Constant tension can be trouble for a story. Relax and release the tension. Constant tension should not be our goal.

1) Show a little bit of your hand up front 

That’s it. I hope you found this useful and interesting.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

So where WAS Blechta last Tuesday?

by Rick Blechta

Last Tuesday the entire planet wobbled on its orbit, the population looked up and wondered. Well, actually, I don’t think anyone batted an eye and planet earth went its merry way as it usually does, but it would be nice if at least one or two readers of Type M wondered why I hadn’t posted anything.

The reason is simple: I was laid up on a bed of pain and here is the sad story of how it came about. The news isn't all bad, however. My accident has also led me to re-examine how I write about the physical wounds I dole out in my novels and how my characters respond.

Last week while wearing sandals and moving too fast cutting around the front of my car as my wife waited behind the wheel, I stepped on the tiniest of pebbles and rolled my ankle. Falling to my right, I bounced off our wooden fence and finally came to rest on my left side under the front bumper of our car. My right ankle was already screaming at me as well as my left thigh where I’d landed squarely on a big wad of keys in my pocket. I couldn’t have moved if my life depended on it.

Probably everyone reading this has sprained their ankle at some time, maybe both, maybe numerous times, so let’s assume we all know how much this injury hurts.

My wife and son helped me into the house and upstairs to the bedroom. Ice was applied and I lay there in utter misery for two days as my foot swelled to glorious proportions. I couldn’t lie on my left side. I couldn’t lie on my right side. Even with over-the-counter pain killers, I couldn’t sleep. And I certainly couldn’t walk without someone supporting me, not even the eight steps to the bathroom.

And was I pissed! Literally, in one second, my life got turned upside down at least for the near future.

As far as injuries go, it’s relatively minor. No bones were broken, no tendons shredded, I just had a really bad sprain. “Stay off it,” I was told. I didn’t need much persuading.

However because of all this, I didn’t realize it was Tuesday until it was nearly Wednesday. It’s easy to lose track of what day it is during the pandemic, and my sprain made this even worse.

So that’s the reason my byline didn’t appear last Tuesday.

One good thing did come out of this mishap, though. As fate would have it, the scene on which I was working when I had my fall happens to be one where one of my characters is injured in a car accident. Lying there with throbbing ankle and opposite leg (big bruise where the keys were), I realized just how much I had minimized the injury my character sustains in the crash. I had her up and around in a couple of days, with a following chapter where she’d be right as rain again.

It. Would. Not. Happen.

Now, one week after my fateful journey to the ground, with my right foot glorious shades of purple, red, and yellow, I can hobble about, and I’m faced with a few months of wearing an ankle brace whenever I’m out and about. There ain’t no way I’m ready to go out dancing anytime soon, covid-19 or not.

The result is that I’m having to re-think everything I’d planned for that section of my novel. Either I have to take my character’s injury and the resulting period of healing, or I have to allow her to have a miraculous escape.

Right now I’m leaning towards the miraculous escape. I wouldn’t want to put her through what I’m dealing with right now.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Food--My Guilty Pleasure

Shadow Hill, my latest Geneva Chase Mystery, is in the hands of my copy editor at Poisoned Pen Press.

No sooner had I hit the Send button, that same copy editor sent me a version of my very first Geneva Chase novel, Random Road.  Before Shadow Hill is launched in 2021, Random Road is due to be rereleased and I need to read through it to see if I want to make any changes.

At the same time, I’m preparing for my next Creative Writing course that starts on June 22 at our community college. And oh yes, I have a day job, mostly working from home these days.

Along with all of that, I’m bombarded by news of the pandemic, the protests about racial disparities, the broken economy, and politics making it very difficult to concentrate.

So, as a distraction, I turn to food. The supply chain at our grocery stores here on the coast has fits and starts.  Like the rest of the universe, for a long time, you had to hunt for elusive paper products. Then when meatpacking plants were hit hard with the virus, I had to be creative when it came to preparing dinners.

There were times when the only protein in the meat section of the store was ground chicken.  Lo and behold, I discovered this recipe.

I’ve made chicken coq au vin before and it can be a real production.  But the recipe below it a whole lot easier and it’s really tasty.

I hope you enjoy as much as I do.

Coq au vin chicken meatballs.

•         1 1/4 pounds ground turkey or chicken
•         1 egg
•         1/3 cup bread crumbs
•         1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
•         kosher salt and black pepper
•         2-3 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
•         1 yellow onion, chopped
•         4 cloves garlic, minced or grated
•         4 carrots, chopped
•         2 cups cremini mushrooms, sliced
•         2 tablespoons tomato paste
•         1 1/2 cups dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
•         1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
•         2 bay leaves
•         4 thyme sprigs
•         1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
•         mashed potatoes

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

2. Add the turkey, egg, bread crumbs, parmesan, and a pinch each of salt and pepper to a bowl. Coat your hands with a bit of olive oil and roll the meat into tablespoon-size balls (will make 15-20 meatballs), placing them on the prepared baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the meatballs are crisp and cooked through.

3. Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. In the skillet, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until softened and fragrant. Stir in the garlic, carrots, and mushrooms. Cook another 5 minutes, until the vegetables are caramelizing on the edges. Add the tomato paste. Cook 1 minute.

4. Add in the red wine, chicken broth, bay leaves, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine, bring the sauce to a boil, cook 10 minutes or until the sauce thickens slightly. Stir in the meatballs, cover and cook 5 minutes, until the meatballs are coated in the sauce. Remove the bay leaves and thyme and discard. Stir in the parsley and reserved bacon.

4. Serve the meatballs and sauce over mashed potatoes.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Character Playlist

In this moment of fear, anger, and discontent -- in the midst of hope vs. despair -- I am wondering what my characters would say about all this. Lizzie, the liberal, engaged to Quinn, the white former cop. Hannah, my police detective, who is now in the 2020 election year with a third party candidate who bears a striking resemblance to the present occupant of the White House. What kind of conversation is she having with her liberal, white, retired journalist father?

I've been thinking about their playlists. Actually, Angus, Hannah's father, is easy. Roger Whittaker, "New World in the Morning":

And he loves this song, and would have this commercial stored on his ORB. Beyonce reminds him of his late wife, a strong woman who channeled her fierceness through her poetry. And, of course, he's not too old to enjoy the costumes:

And Lizzie, my crime historian? What would she play for her white ex-military police officer, ex-homicide detective, fiance when she wants to get him to talk to her about what's happening?

Quinn, being Quinn, would probably not to have a lot to say when she tries to get him to talk about cops. She would get upset with him and storm out to walk his dog. He would watch her go while he's thinking about what to say. When she returns, she would hear this song playing:

I am composing my own playlist for 2020. I'm sure many of you are doing the same.

Take care and be safe.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Don't Get Sick - With Anything.

Donis here.  I intended to do a post on writing about race in a historical novel, but the other current world-wide plague made me change my plans. My husband Don was sick for much of the past week. This is is not a good time to be ill, especially since we weren't sure what the problem was. On Saturday he had a bad headache all day. By Sunday it had developed into a blinding headache, nausea, dizziness. On Monday he wasn't able to get out of bed at all. But he had no fever, no coughing, no problem breathing. The symptoms of the Covid seem to present differently in different people, and the infection rate in Arizona keeps going up. We've been very careful about leaving the house, but we have donned our masks and gone to the store on occasion. Was it Covid-19 or something else?

This reminded me of the kidney failure incident of 2009. On that occasion he got worse and worse, couldn't get out of bed for several days. We thought it was the flu – until he began to hallucinate and I bundled him up and rushed him to the emergency room, and thus began an ordeal I don't care to think back on.

Many of you Dear Readers know of Don's history, since I haven't been secretive about it at all. He's been doing very well for quite a while now, but over the past decade, he has endured just about every health problem you can think of – eye bleeds, heart failure, kidney failure, Crohn's disease, colon cancer, broken arm, post-op infection (fifteen surgeries in twelve years). He's also of an age. He is in the number one category for a bad Covid outcome.

I tried to call the doctor's office but couldn't get through. What to do now? Shall we go to Urgent Care? Would he infect people? Would people infect him? I don't want to go to the hospital emergency room, not right now, not if we can help it. I don't know if it's an emergency. What if they admit him? I wouldn't be able to go in with him. I don't want to be separated from him when he's sick. I asked him what he wanted to do and he squinted up at me and said that if he didn't feel better in the morning we'd go to an Urgent Care. I still couldn't get through to the doctor. I couldn't decide whether I should keep calling and pushing, which left me annoyed and upset. To be cautious, I went to bed in another room and tossed and turned Monday night, checked on him every few hours. It amazed me how quickly I fell back into my emergency caretaker mode.

Tuesday morning he was better. The nausea abated and the headache just a dull throb. By the end of the day he was much better and was able to eat. Today (Wednesday), he's tired but much back to normal.

Once upon a time he was plagued with knockout headaches like this, but he hadn't had one for more than twenty years. What a bitch of time for his migraines to return. I can only hope that this was a one off.

So for God's sake, my friends, take care of yourselves, because this is no time for anybody to get sick, Covid or not.

By the way, the doctor's office has not yet called back.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

In defence of molecules

My goodness, Wednesday has crept up on me! Days blur together in this new "date-less" regime, so I was happily perusing the internet this morning, checking email, social media, news headlines, and various other intriguing links that popped up along the way, when I suddenly realized it was Wednesday. Blog post day! What possibly gems of insight do I have to share today?

Like Aline, I have been plodding along on my first draft at a snail'a pace, in fits and starts as I feel my way forward. Like her, there have been exhilarating moments when the story just poured out and it was exciting to see what would happen next, and other moments when I would ask myself the usual writer questions. Why in earth am I writing this dreck? Where is it going?

The pandemic has sapped a lot of creative energy. First of all, the formless anxiety we feel from the constant news of suffering, dying, and outrageous reactions, along with the disruptions to our routines and social supports, makes concentration very difficult. Secondly – and I felt this very acutely at the beginning – our stories, even though about murder and mayhem, seemed silly and trivial in the face of global real-life tragedy. And as if the pandemic weren't a big enough crisis, the death of George Floyd has triggered anti-Black protests across much of the world and brought the struggles and despair of Blacks and other people of colour into sharp public consciousness. All of which has made my own story seem even more trivial and irrelevant.

Yet fiction is about people, and crime fiction in particular shines a spotlight on people in pain. People who are desperate, frightened, enraged, or horrified. It doesn't usually paint on a big picture, global canvas, but rather it drills down into the unique and individual lives of those make up that canvas. Put together, molecule by molecule, fiction can tell the story of that global canvas.

So I will write on, delving deep into the story of my unique band of characters and hoping that I contribute in some small way to the bigger picture. And also hoping that when my next Wednesday comes along, I will have something more coherent to say.

Monday, June 08, 2020

People Need Books

The recent traumatic events of one kind and another have impacted on us all in so many different ways.  Grief, sickness, anger, loneliness  - despair, even.

Yet through it all, people need books.  We read for comfort, for distraction, for information, for whatever may blunt the pain of reality.  Maybe just for something to pass the long slow hours of the day.

So someone has to write them.  We're authors.  It's our job.  But it's been very clear, both here and on other social media, that writers have been finding it hard.  There doesn't seem to be any satisfactory reason why so many of us have struggled and progress on the WIP has slowed to a crawl.

It is only this week that the infection numbers here have slowed to allow a slight relaxation in the lockdown.  Very slight, but last week it meant that we could have a civilised, if socially-distanced, drink with friends in the garden, go to a garden centre for plants to fill the garden pots and with suitable precautions meet family.

And what a difference it made!  I sat down at my desk this week feeling upbeat, and suddenly the words were flowing.  It was such a relief, particularly since this is the first time I've set off on a book with very little idea of where it was going to go.

I've been what you'd probably call a cautious pantser - setting off with the shape of the book in mind, though ready to change direction if that was what felt right.  I was pretty scared about it, and when the virus came in it managed to make my problems worse.  There were lots of four am panics when I thought about throwing away even what I'd managed to write so far.

But now I've discovered the joy of pantsing. The story's unfolding and I'm excited every day to get to my desk and find out where it's going to take me.  I just wish I could write faster.

Would I do the next book the same way?  I don't know.  The bad times were very bad,  and could I really be sure that next time the plot and the characters will be so obliging?  I'll have to wait to find out.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Lincoln Weeps

I'm at a loss for words. As is the case with our blogmaster, Rick Blechta, I've not  posted any political comments on Type M. It's not what this blog is about. Nor do I comment on political situations when I give presentations.

Nevertheless, the past two weeks have broken my heart. As an African American historian I'm aware of the inequality endured by blacks in America. The brutality of our justice system cannot be ignored. The senseless murder of George Floyd was the culmination of unchecked bigotry in our country's police departments.

I hope that as a result of the protests our law enforcement system will undergo sweeping reforms. I hope that when a black man commits a crime he is treated exactly that same way as a white person. I hope that both white police officers and racially prejudiced black officers (yes, they exist) will find themselves thinking twice before arresting African Americans for no reason at all and for brutalizing them when they do. I hope they are scared to death that they will go to prison themselves when abuse the civil rights of other human beings.

I hope that people casually joining protests will be aware of how quickly innocent participants can find themselves surrounded by persons who are destructive. I'm furious with the hoodlums who are hijacking these gatherings and using them as a cover for looting. I despise the police officers who automatically equate peaceable protests with criminal mobs.

I'm worried for the police officers who are doing their best to control crowds by relatively sensible methods and are then suddenly confronted with dangerous weapons. Because that is happening too.  Of course they escalate their responses.

The murder of George Floyd, the protests, the suffering of his family, and other African Americans must not be in vain.

Sweeping reform of our justice system must be the result.


Thursday, June 04, 2020

So much to digest

There has been so much to digest this week. The news cycle nearly forgot COVID-19, as the death toll topped 100,000 Americans, and swung to nationwide protests in the wake of the horrific killing of George Floyd.

On Monday evening, I, along with the rest of the nation, watched the president use military force to clear a path through protesters so he could have his picture taken in front of a church. He was holding a Bible as the armed military members stood at the ready.

As a privileged white man, I don’t pretend to understand the emotions my Black friends and colleagues feel this week. I am not teaching right now, so I’m not working to help students process images seen on TV or the words they hear coming from home. My work at present is primarily as a father: in conversations about systemic racism, about the anger spilling into the streets in nonviolent and violent protests borne in the deep and dark waters of slavery, about the ways we, as a white family in this particular nation, have benefitted from a financial system built on oppression and designed to allow us, above others, to own property, and about how owning property alone creates opportunities for things like college loans. Admittedly, this effort on the homefront is not much, certainly not enough.

If you are looking for a compelling read about race and its relationship to the American police forces, check out Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me.


When scenes like the one I saw on CNN Monday evening elevate my blood pressure and these next five months loom large, I, like probably many who turn to this blog do, turn to the blank screen –– and write.

I have a manuscript with my agent, so I’m playing the waiting game. Meanwhile, I’m writing a short story with the idea of using it as the frame for the sequel to the novel my agent has. I got the idea by reading Ed McBain’s story “Sadie When She Died” and then the novel by the same title. The story is wonderful. McBain liked it so much he turned it into a novel. I did this with the first Peyton Cote novel, Bitter Crossing.

Using the short story form allows one to take a plot and try it out. To see where it falls flat, see where, if you had another 90,000 words, you could expand it with additional storylines, characters, suspects, and complications.

Writing a story is good practice. I’m keeping a careful eye on my word count. There are no extraneous scenes. No fluff. Hemingway said fiction writing was architecture, not interior design. Nowhere in fiction writing is that more true.

It hasn’t been a good week, but I am hopeful that change is coming.

Be well, be safe.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

The Power of Music

I like all kinds of music, but I don’t pretend to know anything about it. The one music theory class I took pretty much went over my head. But, what I do know is how different kinds of music affect me. I know what makes me happy, what gives me energy, what annoys me, what agitates me and what calms me down and helps me to focus.

The U.S. military certainly felt music had power when they tried to force Noriega out of the Vatican embassy in Panama in 1989 by continuously blasting all sorts of music through loud speakers directly at the building, at a deafening volume, around the clock. I probably would have surrendered after a few hours because really loud music, even stuff I like, grates on my nerves. But he stuck it out for a very long time. Eventually, the military stopped the music and sometime later he surrendered. You can read more about that here.

There is some music that, shall we say, I haven’t yet learned to appreciate. I walked into a greeting card store once where I found the background music so annoying that I couldn’t concentrate on the cards so I walked out without buying anything and went somewhere else.

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post here on Type M about writing to music. Basically, I said that I could only write fiction to certain kinds of music, mostly instrumental. I’ve discovered in the years since then that the kinds of music I can listen to while writing has broadened to including oldies from the 60s and 70s, music that I grew up with. I'm not sure what brought on the change. Perhaps I've gotten more confident in my writing.

I haven’t been the calmest person lately, as I’m sure is true of many people right now. I’ve been having trouble focusing enough I can write so I’ve been actively using music to calm myself down enough I can get some work done. My favorite right now is harp music, which really lessens my agitation.

So, what about you all? How does music affect you?

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

What do you say at a time like this?

by Rick Blechta

Last Thursday, I already began thinking about what I would write for this week’s post. As the weekend progressed I realized it could not be “business as usual” for me at Type M. We try to keep our pages as apolitical as possible because that’s not why we’re here, but I think recent developments have to override that mandate. I cannot remain silent.

For the record, I was born in the United States, moved to Canada for university, and basically never returned home. My wife and I have now lived in Canada for more than two thirds of our lives, and are also Canadian citizens. For all intents and purposes, we are Canadians. But for several reasons, we also remained Americans.

It is simply overwhelming for me to observe the convulsions sweeping the US. I’m not going to lie: I now fear what I’m watching is the death of that country. Will the United States of America disappear? No. But it is going to change. It has to change. Things can no longer remain the same. It might be for the better, but it also might be for the worse.

America has been hit by a pandemic which is taking a huge toll in illness, misery, and death. With that came an economic downturn only seen once before in its history. The effects of both only seem to be getting worse as the weeks pass.

However, every other country on the planet is currently facing similar challenges, some handling it better than others.

Then a week ago Monday, the US’s dirty history of racial injustice boiled over again in the most horrible way imaginable: a black man slowly murdered by a white policeman live and in living colour right on our TV screens and devices. The actor Will Smith perhaps said it best: “Racism is not getting worse. It’s getting filmed.”

What can be done? I wish there was a clear answer to that. The leadership of the country is pulling in two different directions making things worse, not better — with no end in sight. For anyone living out of the country, regardless whether a US citizen or not, comes the knowledge that demonstrating against racial inequality in the US will be blown off by the administration in the White House. I believe they just don’t care what the rest of the world thinks.

My plea to all of you reading this is to speak out and do whatever you can. The only obvious way forward for me is to make it impossible for racial/religious/whatever injustice to continue being tolerated, to stamp it out wherever it shows it’s ugly face. The time has come to not let this scab over again, ready to be ripped off once another racially-motivated murder takes place — regardless of where it happens.

This problem is not present only in the United States. Vigilance and will must be applied in every society where injustice is found — and in that quest, all of us have a part to play.

Your choice is to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Your actions can make a difference, even if it’s only in a small way. Please consider doing whatever you can.

Thomas used a funny graphic yesterday from Star Trek. I’ve always felt the most profound takeaway from that show was the Vulcan saying, “Live well and prosper.”

That is my fervent wish for everyone on this planet.

I’d like to thank everyone for letting me ventilate, and I’m sorry if I upset you. You don’t visit Type M for Murder to hear political diatribes. But I’m upset, angry, and confused, and I know I’m not the only one. I needed to share my thoughts with my friends, which is something I consider everyone who writes for and reads these pages. I won’t presume to take up your time in this manner again.

Monday, June 01, 2020

An image of levity and an image of calm

I’m on deadline to get my final revisions of my latest mystery to my publisher by today, so this blog will be necessarily brief.

As I write this, over 102,000 Americans have died from the covid-19 virus. There are over 40 million Americans out of work. There’s widespread turmoil in the streets across the country. We have a president at war a social media platform.

So rather than try to coherently write about writing, I’m going to leave you with two images. By the way, the one at the bottom was actually posted by Stephen King. He admitted that he’s a softy at heart.