Friday, July 31, 2020

Sweating Reviews

No, I'm not worrying about the reviews my books receive, although I should. I worry about the reviews I give other writer's books. 

Right now I'm reviewing a very difficult academic book, When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America. The book is not difficult because the writing is poor. But it's hard to capsulize because each chapter is self-contained. It's an excellent, very distinctive book, based on unique research that delves into a little known subject. Heroic research, in fact. 

I can happily recommend this stellar contribution to Kansas history. 

Oh to be able to give good reviews to all of the books I read. Nevertheless, I have a formula. I do not lie, but I do not give negative reviews. It takes a lot of work to write a book. Even a very bad book. It's much easier to find what's wrong with a book than what's right. 

So here's what I do:

1. If  a book is well-written--my review will mention traits that make it special. Perhaps that is characterization, or an intriguing plot. Sometimes I will love a well-developed theme or an author's unique voice. My enthusiasm will show. 

2. If the book is mediocre, I will find some one thing that an author does well. After all, someone did select it for publication. I try to avoid reviewing genres that I normally don't read. Because I don't know what I doing. 

3. If a book is rather poor, I summarize the plot without commenting on the book's merits and suggest an audience for the writing. 

4. If a book is terrible and I think the writer should quit. Period. Never write anything again, I refuse to review the book. I ask the editor to find someone else.

Although I don't lie in a review, I certainly am capable of misrepresenting my reasons for refusal to said editor. I have used such ploys as "I don't have the time." "Something has come up." I hedge. 

But most of the time I simply tell the truth, which is "I don't believe I am the right person to review this book. It's too far removed from my personal tastes for me to be objective."

The truth is I have no idea why someone loves a particular genre and another hates it. For that matter, no one really knows why a book clicks with the reading public. 

The best writing advice I ever received was "write what you really want to write. There's so little money in the business that it's stupid to do it for any other reason."

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Appropriation or Appreciation?

This week, I was told by an industry insider that a novel I recently finished was problematic because the multiple points of view I use to tell the story include a Korean female.

I use, I think, seven characters’ third-person limited POVs, including an African American teenage boy, a white teenage girl, a white woman in her 40s, a black man in his 20s, a white male in his 40s, another white male in his 50s (the co-protagonist), and the character in question, his Korean wife (the other co-protagonist).

I had a really great exchange with this insider, who is knowledgeable and thoughtful. It was eye-opening for a guy who just four years ago published the third Peyton Cote novel, a series told through Peyton’s eyes.

I’m a 50-year-old, white, male, who grew up upper-middle-class. Privileged beyond belief, admittedly. Only three years ago, an agent told me I needed a strong female character. I thought it would be a fun challenge: Could I write from a female POV convincingly? an opportunity, which, in itself, illustrates my privilege.

I’m 100% behind social-justice causes, including #OwnvoicesBooks. I’m also certain it’s easier for me to write a character who thinks, acts, speaks –– and is very much like –– me. I attempted to show the trials and tribulations I assume a female Asian woman might face in a male-dominated profession. And I see the problematic portion of the previous sentence –– “I assume” –– because, as a white male, I have the option of walking a mile in another’s shoes, when others do not. The problem for me is that I see no other way to write the book. The plot can’t be told from one POV (or I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do it). Five people who always read my work as I write indicated they knew the male lead (the American), at least in part, by his interactions with his Korean wife. It was a part of the book they all enjoyed.

I toss this conversation forward because it’s an important one, and I look forward to hearing from others.

Coincidently, I just read Angie Thomas’s fantastic On the Come Up and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. I recommend them both highly.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

My Christmas In July

All this month I’ve been celebrating Christmas in July by watching Christmas movies (some Hallmark, some not), reading Christmas books (mostly cozies, but some others as well) and painting Christmas ornaments.

The month started off with my helping Christina Freeburn celebrate the release of her latest book, Dash Away All, on Facebook. It was a fun 2-hour event. We did posts every 10 minutes, alternating them between the two of us. I think that worked out quite well. Her book takes place in July on the set of a Christmas movie. A fun read. Her main character has been hired as the onset crafter for the movie. Things did not turn out as she planned!

Here are a couple of the ornaments I painted this month. I’m working on some others as well. These two I gave away at the Facebook event I mentioned above along with a copy of my own Christmas book, Ghosts of Painting Past.

Other good Christmas books I read are Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge by Laura Levine and Premeditated Peppermint by Amanda Flower, both cozy mysteries.

The other book of note that I’m currently still reading is “The History of a Nutcracker” by Alexandre Dumas. I picked this little gem up at a Barnes & Noble a couple years ago. I’ve never seen the Nutcracker ballet, but I’ve listened to the music and sort of, kind of know the basic story. What I didn’t realize is that it has its origins in a story by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, first published in 1816, called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. Fast forward to 1845 when Alexandre Dumas adapted a version of the story in “The History of a Nutcracker”.

In terms of short stories, I’ve been enjoying Steve Hockensmith’s “Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime”. These all appeared originally in EQMM or AHMM. You can hear him read some of the stories on the EQMM podcast. There’s a list of all of the ones that have been on the podcast at

I haven’t only been reading or viewing Christmas stuff this month, but my occasional dipping into it has kept me sane.

Monday, July 27, 2020

We Are What We Read

I’m nearly at the end of teaching my Creative Writing class and it’s been as much of a learning experience for me as it has for them.   We started out as eight strangers and by the end, we know a lot about each other.

In each class, I assign a writing prompt such as create a character and put that character in an action scene. This week’s writing prompt is to write a scene of romance primarily using dialogue. Next week’s assignment, and our final one, will be to write the first few pages of your book and the last few pages of your book.

All of the members of this class are good writers.  Some are outstanding.

One of the classmates uses the writing prompts to add to his folksy short story about a boy losing his bike.  One of the writers is extraordinary at humor.  One has a remarkable ability to describe scenes.  One is a thriller addict and it comes out in his writing.

Three of the students are millennials and I hesitate to pigeonhole any demographic, but I’ve noticed that when they read their work aloud, they do it from their phones using Google-Docs. And all three of them write about medieval fantasy worlds of assassins, magic, and fierce warriors.

When asked about the subject matter, I discovered that Dungeons & Dragons has made an impressive comeback.  I’d thought that the game had died out in the eighties.  I was wrong.

I was impressed when one of the other students asked them if they’d read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and they replied that they had.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten an inkling that younger folks interested in writing enjoyed that genre.  I spoke to a middle school class about writing and asked them what kind of interests they had.  It was the medieval fantasy genre but also, and not surprising, science fiction and superheroes.

I thought back to what genres interested me when I was much younger.  Back in the seventies, pulp science fiction and horror magazines filled with strange and wonderful short stories held my fascination.  I began writing my own and submitting them.

Not one of them sold.

However, I did get a really positive personal letter from Ben Bova, the publisher of Omni.

I kept writing short stories and finally got one published in a glossy men’s magazine called Cavalier. A tawdry publication, but the one that first published Stephen King’s short stories.

Mine was called Fast Dancing Detroit Style and it was about a killer who picks up a hitchhiker in the Nevada desert who turns out to be a ghost.

It wasn’t much later that I picked up my first Travis McGee mystery.  I was hooked.  I discovered that I love mysteries.  But that's not what I started writing, not yet.

As a fledgling writer I took a few detours, trying my hand at a historical novel (awful), a horror novel (even worse), and a flat out thriller (my own wife wouldn’t read it).

No, I was exclusively reading mysteries:  Sue Grafton, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosely, Ed McBain, Lawrence Block, and Mickey Spillane, as well as many, many others.  Mysteries are my niche.  I enjoy reading them and I enjoy writing them.

The point of this rambling blog?  We are what we read.  Or perhaps what movies we watch and games we play.

Stay safe.  Stay healthy.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Not Being There

As Barbara noted in her post on Wednesday, one of the challenges of writing during a pandemic is not being able to do field research. Even thought my books are set in the past or in a near-future alternate universe, I do rely on going to real places and walking through them. Last fall, I had planned to go down to Flushing Meadows in Queens, NY to tour the site of the 1939 World's Fair. Not much is left from that famous "World of Tomorrow." The 1964 World's Fair was held on the same site. But I wanted to walk the lanes and streets of the park and see the two structures that remain. I also wanted to go to the Queens Museum.

But last fall, I was busy and I couldn't decide whether to drive or to take the train down to New York City and go from there. I reserved my tour ticket after hearing a delightful podcast, and then I dithered about logistics. I decided with all of the videos available on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, with all the photos and descriptions I had found, there was no urgency about actually going to Flushing Meadows. I could wait until spring. Then came COVID-19. And by spring break, it was obvious it would be awhile before I could go anywhere.Hardly tragic in the larger scheme of things. But I keep thinking about the mist on a street in Chicago.

It was years ago, and I went to Chicago for a week because the first quarter of You Should Have Died on Monday (soon to be reissued) was set there. I wanted to walk through what Lizzie Stuart, my crime historian, would do if she were in Chicago looking for information about the time her mother had spent there in 1968. I had been to Chicago several times before, but this time I needed to pay attention to details. A fellow author and lawyer who lived there had offered to take me out to Cook County Jail and give me a tour of some other places that might work for my locations.

That first day, I arrived at my hotel, and then decided to go for a walk. I was walking along, when suddenly there was a refreshing mist in the air. I looked around, puzzled for a moment, until  I realized the buildings were blocking the view of the river.

On the next corner, a woman asked me to buy a small press newspaper. I bought one and dropped it in my tote bag. Then I came to the kiosk offering tickets for a river tour. Of course, Lizzie would take a river tour. She had nothing to do until she met with the private detective who was looking for her mother the next day. I bought a ticket and decided to walk some more while I was waiting for the next boat. On the next block, across the street, I saw a sports uniform display -- the store Lizzie where Lizzie would buy something for John Quinn, her baseball-loving almost fiance. I went in, bought a White Sox baseball cap because that's what Lizzie, the historian, would buy. Then I walked on until I came to the little burger place where Lizzie would have a late lunch and I noted the architecture and the open door in back. Then I walked back to the harbor for the boat tour -- where Lizzie would notice the passengers and I make notes about what the tour guide was saying about the buildings and the huge Ferris wheel.

Now, here's the thing. I was looking back to see if I had a photo of the Ferris wheel that I could post here because on that tour I had a chance to see exactly how it gleamed in the hazy afternoon sun. I mentioned that in the book. But when I was checking the Chicago Architecture Center site, I saw immediately that the gondolas that I remembered as red and had described that way are blue in the photos. It turns out this is a new Ferris wheel, installed in 2016 to replace the 1995 wheel with the red gondolas that I remembered. But if I hadn't seen the red gondolas and I were writing that novel (set in 2004) right now, I might well have gotten that detail wrong. In fact, that boat tour that was really useful in the book because of what happened on board, might have gotten only passing mention and details taken from a brochure.

From Chicago, Lizzie went to Wilmington, North Carolina. I had been there several times before. This time I went to the library and did the research Lizzie would have done -- and when I asked the questions she would have asked, a helpful patron in the local history room offered a suggestion about the neighborhood I wanted to go to. There I parked, walked over to the fish market and order lunch, then walked along the adjacent street -- where I saw a broken place in the sidewalk and the house where I knew Lizzie would find another lead. In my mind, when the door opened, the person there would be a child. I didn't know what he was going to say, but I knew it would affect the outcome of her search. That conversation sent her -- and me -- to New Orleans. I had been there several times before, but now I was in Lizzie's skin. This time, I needed to find the right hotel for Lizzie and walk her through finding Becca -- a trolley tour of the Garden District, a early morning walk on Bourbon Street with the smell of stale beer, the location of Becca's restaurant.

I'm getting nostalgic writing this. I love field research. It's like going on-location in a movie. I can only be grateful that although I wasn't ready to begin my sixth Lizzie book, I did take the opportunity I had almost two years ago to go to Santa Fe.
A friend came along and we walked through my locations -- driving from the airport to Santa Fe, walking around downtown, stopping in art galleries so that I could get details for the gallery that Quinn's sister owns. I collected maps and menus and newspapers. I have all of that in a banker's box along with my notes. I have photos. I'm ready to start writing. I plan to have that book finished by the end of the year.

I am so glad I have seen and felt Santa Fe for myself. I know even though Lizzie is going to be distracted while she is there, she will want to go back.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Tale of the Printer

So much good news from my blogmates lately! (well, except for Rick, who has to go back to the drawing board on his WIP. I sympathize. I've been there.) Congratulations to Barbara for finishing the first draft of her new novel, to Aline on the occasion of her Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary, and to Charlotte, whose historical novel, The Healer's Daughter, won a Kansas Notable Book Award, is a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist for the High Plains Books Award!

As for me, I'm slogging through, like so many writers. I've started a new novel and am trying to muster up the discipline to write a certain number of pages every day, when in reality I'm so distracted by the disturbing state of the world that it's a wonder I manage to get out of bed in the mornings. Added to the fact that I live in the festering germ swamp that is Arizona, things keep going oddly wrong in my little world, which doesn't help my state of mind. I had all kinds of trouble with my internet connection in May and June. We had repair people out twice in a matter of weeks. But as it turns out it wasn't us – in the alley behind out house, someone had run into the provider's tower with his car and caused some kind of short. That's what they told us, anyway. Whatever it was, we seem to be doing all right now, connection-wise. I have read, however, that since the pandemic began and the number of people working from home has skyrocketed, home internet connections have been problematic for everyone.

Then yesterday my printer gave up the ghost. I did everything I could think of, but the message on the printer screen says “Your printer needs repair. Please unplug.” I hunted through the online jungle to find out who is selling the same Canon PIXMA printer that I could buy online and perhaps pick up curbside. No luck at any venue. That type of printer is no longer made. Figures. I bought $75 worth of ink cartridges for it last week. So today we put on our hazmat suits and went to Best Buy to actually look at printers, and guess what? The local Best Buy stores are basically sold out of printers since, as the salesman told me, everyone is working at home and they can't keep them in stock. (aside – the young man, though properly masked, kept unconsciously stepping closer to me, invading my 6-foot safety space, and I kept backing up like he was coming at me with a knife.)

So here are my printer choices: I can order a new printer of unknown quality (plus ink) online, or I can haul my old printer in for repair, which might be faster, but will probably cost more than buying a new printer. I could also go to more electronics stores, but I think I've had as much human contact as I care to for a while. My husband and I talked it over, and decided to drop the old printer off with the Geek Squad and pay the price to get it fixed. In the meantime, there will be no printing here at the Casey household for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Reaching the end

This is the height of the summer, and up here in Eastern Canada, we've been enduring an unprecedented, prolonged heat wave. What is it with 2020 anyway? Being an arctic species, we Canadians fall into a stupor once the temperature soars above 30 degrees C. Usually this is accompanied by enough humidity that you can wring out your hair after a five-minute walk.

I've been writing the first draft of my next Inspector Green novel in fits and starts for months. Humming along nicely in February and slammed to a halt in March by the pandemic. Spent two months obsessively reading news, checking numbers, sewing masks, and listening to our PM's daily briefings. Picked the novel up again in May when I found I could concentrate enough to write a coherent paragraph. And then in June to July, turned to a sloth by the heat. BUT... Drumroll...

This afternoon I finally wrote THE END on the final page of the first draft of Green #11. It weighs in at 89,050 words and 352 pages. That will no doubt change, with the paring down of blubbery prose and the fleshing out of characters and subplots I didn't know I needed. There is much work to be done yet, but at least I now know it's a book, which is a tremendous relief. It is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are characters who can be tweaked but who know what their job is. And it now has a title that may stick around! THE DEVIL TO PAY.

One of the challenges I face in the rewrites is that because of the pandemic, I wasn't able to do much of the research I planned to do or discovered I needed as the book went along. So I had to rely on Mr. Google or make stuff up. I made a lot of stuff up, like the procedures the Ontario Provincial Police uses when investigating a homicide, or the protocols followed for bail hearing in the Ottawa courthouse. I want to avoid being contacted by an astute lawyer reader who says "That's not how it's done at all." I'd like to talk to the OPP, I want to visit the courthouse, but neither are feasible right now. I also don't know how protocols will have changed by the fall of 2021 when this book hits the shelves. Will there still be masks and physical distancing, or will we all be rejoicing in our post-vaccine freedom?

So for now I will research what I can, contact my police friends and other experts to answer the questions that have cropped up, and make a note of what will have to wait until the book is in the final editorial phase with the publisher (like the vaccine info). I may also have to live with some of the stuff I made up. It is fiction, after all.

So I have printed the draft out, and as of tomorrow, I turn from THE END of Draft One to Chapter One, Draft Two. And begin to tear the whole thing apart, with the file of notes and questions compiled during first draft at my elbow. But for now, I'm going to pour a glass of wine. And do a little jig. (Photo not provided).

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Coming to a VERY painful conclusion

by Rick Blechta

Two nights ago I woke up at 3:00 a.m. because I smelled a skunk, but that’s another story…

As I tossed and turned trying to clear my mind and get back to dreamland, something flitted through my consciousness that was exceptionally disturbing: my WIP is telling the wrong story. That certainly woke me up completely! Allow me to explain.

The basis of my plot is about skullduggery within high the US government and my protagonists are trying to discover exactly what’s going on and then how to make it public — without getting themselves murdered. And that turns out to be a very difficult thing to accomplish.

All perfectly normal stuff for a thriller, right?

I believe it was Barbara who first brought up on Type M the problems the pandemic is causing writers who are trying to write novels that are relevant. Do we acknowledge how societies’ are coping with the new reality of our lives or do we carry on as if nothing has changed? To my mind, that won’t work unless we set our plots in 2019 or before.

And that’s my problem. I was trying to tell my story ignoring the pandemic, and two nights ago it suddenly became apparent that this would flat out, not work.

I didn’t sleep the rest of the night as I wrestled with what I could do. First off, would anybody right now — and in the foreseeable future — actually care about an illegal operation within the US government to make off with huge amounts of cash? Should I scrap the entire novel and come up with something else? Could I adapt the plot somehow and move it in another direction?

Now I usually don’t dish out much information about things I’m writing, but in this case I feel it’s necessary to make my conundrum clear.

As I puzzled through the issue over the course of several hours I began to see a possible way through the mess, to possibly improve my story by working in the pandemic.

I’ve gotten to a place where I believe much of what I’ve written can be saved, but there’s a lot that will need to be cast aside. Also disheartening is that a fair bit of research is heading right down the drain. 

Sad as the whole thing is, this is what writing is all about. It could have just as easily happen when the novel got to a publisher or editor, “We really like the story you’re telling but could you change it to…?

So it’s once again Back To The Drawing Board for moi. Sigh…

But perhaps in the long run, I’ll be saving myself even more work.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Excuses, excuses!

On Saturday, we will have been married for fifty years.   Our family is arriving this week and things are a bit hectic here. I  hope you'll forgive me if my post this week is just a cartoon that made me laugh.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Facing Reality (Virtually)

I've had a very exciting month. Last week I learned that my historical novel, The Healer's Daughter,  had won a Kansas Notable Book Award. I cannot find the words to tell you how thrilled I was. Was then, and still am.

A week earlier I was informed that this book is a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion. And the week before that I received another call--I was a finalist for the High Plains Books Award. So many, many good things happening all at once. It was almost too much to take in. I'm simply stunned.

Then yesterday my local Sisters In Crime chapter told me The Healer's Daughter was also historical suspense. For that reason, I'm asking Rick Blechta, our blogmaster, to post that more current cover photo in place of Fractured Families. 

Everything I write is set in Kansas or about Kansas. Even my mysteries (The Lottie Albright Series) are set in Western Kansas. It doesn't exactly make an agent or editor's heart go pitty-pat. Even worse, at the heart of everything is agriculture. Kansas is all about land. Never mind about following the money. In Kansas, follow the land. There has always been murderous tensions surrounding the land.

When the Kansas Notable Book people asked about my home town, I asked that they list it as Hoxie, Kansas, even though I now live in Fort Collins, Colorado. I moved here after my husband died because I wanted to live closer to my three daughters. Even then, I could only bear to do so because Colorado was once part of Kansas Territory. I could still say I was a Kansan.

But now, two exciting award ceremonies will be conducted virtually: The Kansas Notable Book Award and the High Plains Book Award. Right now, it appears that the Will Rogers Award ceremony will be live. If that happens, I will consider driving to Fort Worth, Texas. Some of my friends are planning a wine and cheese party the night of the High Plains Award ceremony. It will be fun to hear "the winner is...." surrounded by this giddy crew.

I believe that authors should support their publisher. I've always been traditionally published and in the past, I've done the best I could with promotion. But the old ways won't work any more. I've had to rethink everything. I've decided to jump right into mastering Zoom technology.

I'm going to contact the organizations that asked me to speak before COVID hit and ask if they would consider a video presentation. I can't personally sell books that way, but I can sustain interest in my novels. If attendees buy a book through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or their local book store, and email me, I will send them an autographed bookplate.

The problem is that "virtual" might be the new reality.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

An ode to my Kindle

I spent this past week considering my digital footprint. Often, it feels like I live two lives, one as an author, the other as an educator. My educator’s digital footprint, if I’m being honest, is probably more sound than my author’s, and that’s something I spent this past week working on.

I launched my new website, finally got around to straightening out my Twitter account (it’s been hacked twice, and my password was deemed irretrievable, so I had to start over). Has anyone out there tried to contact Twitter’s customer service? Don’t.

But I digress. Among all this, I took a look at my Kindle offerings. I have the good fortune of owning my Kindle titles, so I can set the prices, something I’ve been considering and reconsidering the past few weeks. How much should an ebook cost? What’s a price that encourages sales? I read this article, but didn’t learn a lot.

As a consumer, I hesitate to “buy” a book that’s free. I’ve heard people say they won’t buy one that’s “too cheap,” assuming the worst about the title’s quality. Fair? Who knows. But perception continues to be reality.

So I’m curious, Type M readers, what’s an enticing Kindle price?


All of this leads me to another topic –– the benefits of a Kindle.

As a life-long lover of books, I enjoy the smell of books, the feel of pages turning, the weight of a physical book on my palm. As a dyslexic, the new dyslexic-friendly font, Dyslexie, on my Kindle is life-changing. I recently told a friend: “This is how you’ve been reading since we were kids.” Reading has never been easy, per se. It’s always been enjoyable, a large part of my life, but the new font allows me to read faster than ever. It’s made my Kindle a large part of my life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Writing a Christmas Cozy

I love Christmas. The movies, the music, the books. When I started writing cozies, one of my goals was to write one set around Christmastime. I met that goal last year when the fifth book in my Aurora Anderson series, Ghosts of Painting Past, came out.

I also like the idea of Christmas in July. And yes, I’ve been watching Christmas movies, reading books set around Christmas and occasionally listening to Christmas music this month. It’s a nice bit of mental relief from some of the things I’ve been watching lately (Mindhunter on Netflix and Very Scary People on CNN) and reading (the dystopian Maze Runner series). Since I’m in a Christmas in July mood, I thought it appropriate to write this post.

Writing a mystery takes a lot of planning (at least for me) and work. But setting it around a holiday made it a tad easier (just a tad) to write. I had holiday events where I could set interesting scenes. Seeing how a city or area celebrates a holiday also gives the reader a sense of place. How Christmas is celebrated in a warm climate is different than how it’s celebrated in an area where it’s colder.

One of the first things I did was make a list of the various events that usually happen in December in the beach cities of Los Angeles County since that’s where my fictional town is set. After a little time on Google, I came up with a list for me to choose from. Some things I knew about already, others I didn’t.

I found: a sand-snowman contest in Hermosa Beach, a pier lighting ceremony in Manhattan Beach, various Christmas concerts, holiday fireworks in Manhattan Beach, a 5K run in Manhattan Beach, a snow festival in Hermosa Beach where they close off the street down to the pier and cart in snow (or make snow) for a day.

You can’t use everything in a book so I decided on a few key events to include. I made my own version of a pier lighting ceremony, a sand-snowman contest and a school holiday concert for my fictional town. I attended the MB pier lighting ceremony while I was writing the book and got lots of added atmosphere that I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t seen it in person. You can get a lot of info online, but it’s nice, if you can, to experience something for yourself.

The other thing I wanted to do in this book is include a decades old crime to go along with the modern day one. It’s not super cold here in December so I decided the decades old mystery would revolve around surfing, something that’s done year round.

I always include three story lines in my books. For this one, A was the decades old crime, B was the current crime and C was my main character meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time. Since family is important during the holidays, I included different kinds of families.

The decades old crime involved the discovery of a skeleton when the house across the street from Rory’s place is torn down. The skeleton is an 18-year-old surfer (and friend of Rory’s father) who was thought to have gone off on a surfing trip around the world, following the path of the surfers in “The Endless Summer”, decades before and just never came back.

I created my characters, decided on the crimes and who did them, and did a little bit of outlining of major points. The story took off from there.

Unlike a lot of writers, I don’t write linearly. When I start a book, I usually write the first few chapters in order, but after that it just depends. If I can picture a scene in my mind, I’ll write it. I don’t always know where it fits into the story, but this method seems to work best for me. I don’t get as stalled as I would if I wrote in a linear fashion. When I do figure out where a scene fits, it requires a little rewriting, but it’s usually a fairly simple task.

As I was working on this book, a heat wave set in. We’re talking around 100 outside (extremely unusual for the beach), no air conditioning (unusual around here for houses to have it) and 85 degrees inside. While it’s not what I would call cold in December here, it’s still not that warm so it was hard at times to get into the Christmas spirit. Listening to Christmas carols helped, but sometimes you just have to forge ahead and use your imagination.

I really like the way the book turned out. I’m currently working on one set around Valentine’s Day, though I’m finding it harder to write. It’ll get done though. I’ll just keep on writing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Crime and punishment

by Rick Blechta

Tom’s post yesterday got me thinking — as they often do — about justice and retribution. That’s hardly surprising considering how things are going on our little blue planet these days.

I’ll freely admit that I’m a news junkie. It started to get really bad when Toronto elected Rob Ford to be its mayor. Practically every day brought to light new outrages: bad behaviour, scandals, drug use. Canada’s largest city seemed to be circling the drain. I read all the papers and watched videos from news websites (We don’t have a TV.) Ford really kicked my news junkie-ism into high gear.

Later we got a certain political leader in the country to the south, and glory be, Rob Ford’s big brother got elected to lead Ontario, Canada’s largest province! Now I severely have to curb my news habit or risk accomplishing nothing all day long.

Now here’s where the whole thing above ties together with Type M for Murder’s mandate. (“There’s actually a mandate?” ‘Yes, there is.’) I’m finding myself constantly filled with Righteous Indignation at people who should be brought to justice but are getting away with it. So put me in the same camp as my blogmate Tom.

Since I’m also working on a novel, I’m finding it difficult not to do away with anyone who’s a bad egg. Sometimes I even succumb and kill them for fun, knowing I’ll have to remove that bit since my plot won’t work without that character.

Why am I doing it? Because I’m angry and doing away with these offending (and offensive) characters makes me feel better. It’s childish, but there it is.

Really, I’m not a violent person. If anything I bend over too far in the other direction, but well, tough times call for tough responses. If I can’t see real life lawbreakers being frog-marched off to the hoosegow, I can at least do it, or worse, in my story.

I have an idea the body count in this novel is going to be positively Shakespearian by the end — unless things improve dramatically in the next few months.

Monday, July 13, 2020

On Justice and Writing Don'ts.

As you may know, my daytime gig is as the president of our county’s chamber of commerce.  As such, I’m not in a position to support or oppose any political party or candidate, in spite of the fact that many chambers do.

In this political climate, it’s extremely difficult for me to keep my big mouth shut.

That’s why as I write, there’s a certain freedom that I can exercise. Through my recurring protagonist, a wise-cracking crime reporter, I can pretty much say whatever I damned well please.

I’m nearly finished with the second round of edits for my newest book, Shadow Hill, and in it, climate change figures prominently. So do greedy corporations and lying politicians.

I get to take them all on.

I guess what prompted this particular blog was seeing a certain “political dirty trickster”, after being convicted on seven felony counts including witness tampering and lying to investigators, had his sentence commuted.

In my book, the political dirty tricksters get what’s coming to them.

In real life, I’ve watched as a certain attorney paid hush money to a porn star to keep her from talking about a brief affair she had with the president.

In my new book, I write about a company CEO who does the same thing, he pays hush money to his mistress. Guess what? He’s murdered in the very first chapter.

So, what's the point of this rambling blog? I'd like to point out that the reason mysteries continue to be so popular is because there is justice. Most of the time, in the end the good guys win and the bad guys lose.

We want to see the bad guys go down.  As a mystery writer, I’m happy to do just that.

Okay, rant is over. Here are a couple of writing don’ts I’ll be discussing with my creative writing class on tonight.

Don’t procrastinate. 

Honestly, I can be one of the worst offenders.  Just as I’m sitting down to attack a new chapter, I’m up and headed downstairs for a cup of joe, or taking a look at my email, or skimming online news sites. Just sit down write!

Don’t believe that you won’t get better.  

I liked the way that Rick compared writing a novel to mastering a musical instrument. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. With every day that you sit down to write, you get better. It took me five attempts at a novel before I scored a publisher. Looking at my earlier work, yes, I have gotten much better.

Don’t Quit. 

Do most writers find a publisher right out of the gate? Hell no. Back in 2001, I was signed by an agent in New York. I thought I had it made. But as it turned out, he shopped my book to the major publishing houses in the Big Apple but was declined. Then he dropped me like a bad habit.

I didn’t write again for a year. Fear of failure is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

But as I’ve said before, a writers gotta write. Oh, and who else will bring the bad guys to justice?

Friday, July 10, 2020

Two Things I've Learned during the Pandemic

First, I need a plan. Not only a "big picture" plan but a plan for each day. On the days when I have only a vague intention to "get some work done," I don't accomplish a lot. One day this week, I took a break to order some groceries -- and discovered that in spite of all those images of paper towels on store websites, no local store seemed to have paper towels in stock. I finally ordered from Amazon and resigned myself to waiting until next week for delivery.

Now, I know that with the state of the world and people's lives in turmoil, my paper towels dilemma is unimportant. Who cares? But that's my point. When I have no plan, I obsess about small things. I waste large chunks of my day trying to do ordinary things that now require weighing pros and cons.   But when I am specific about what I want to do each day and prepare a road map for the day, I move through the day with much less stress. I don't become obsess because I do the important stuff first.

On Wednesday evening, I did three things I had been putting off forever because each involved tedious paperwork. That was when I discovered the second secret -- I work better with music playing in the background. But, it has to be a particular kind of music. I was on YouTube looking for an interview I wanted to link to in a syllabus I'm working on. I saw an official video for one of my favorite songs and clicked to listen. I went back to my syllabus, and YouTube began to run through a playlist. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and Pips -- songs that I knew the words to and didn't have to think about. For the next couple of hours, I sang along while I worked. And, contrary to what I usually find, I was not at all distracted by the music.

So what I've learned and intend to apply going forward is to have a plan and have the right music. And, I'm adding, set a timer to get in 5-minute exercise breaks.

I'm finding this article useful:

Of course, being a plotter, planning has the same appeal. Off to bed. I need to get an early start.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Good Advice on Writing, Or, Easier Said Than Done

I love the musical theme that has arisen over the past couple of entries here at Type M. On Tuesday Rick noted that “There is a well-regarded truism about learning to play an instrument: you must put in 10,000 hours of practice to master it. I suspect this might be true in writing as well. In order to become really good at it, you must put in the hours...” When I teach writing classes one of my favorite things to tell my students is that you may study violin theory until you have a Ph.D., but if you don't practice until your fingers bleed, you'll never learn to play the violin.

I also relate to John's Hemingway quote that as time goes on, one doesn't become a better writer, one becomes a better editor. A Very Famous Author once gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve heard in a good long while, and one that I need to take to heart. The most important thing is to get those words onto the page. You can fix it later. You can have the most brilliant idea every conceived on God’s green earth but what separates the men from the boys is the ability to get it down on paper in an effective way. “Don’t think too much,” she said, “Just keep writing.”

I always intend to write from beginning to end without stopping. If I get stuck or can’t quite figure out what to do next, I just write something, a filler, or leave a blank and plow onwards. Get that first draft done. By the time you write the last word, the story may have taken quite a turn from the way you thought it would go when you were writing the beginning.

But now you have something to work with. You can go back, if you need to, and craft the beginning to fit the end. You can cut out all the blather and redundancies that you put in there on the fly. You can tighten up that saggy middle and add another clue that will make things clearer.

I know all this very well and this is what I tell anyone who aspires to write a book. Yet sometimes I’m not so successful in taking my own advice. I often have Aline's problem of not being able to let go. I’m working on a manuscript right now, and I keep obsessing over one particular scene. I sit down every day to go, go, go from beginning to end, but for the past several days I keep going back and messing with it. Big mistake, and I know it. If I get the whole story down, the dinner scene will resolve itself. So today my fervent resolution is to take advice and not think so much. To hell with the dinner scene. Onward to the end!

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

An answer to Aline’s “Fur Elise” problem

by Rick Blechta

Having made a life in music — as well as writing — I read Aline’s blog post yesterday with a lot of sadness.

I’ll say it right up front, Aline, you unfortunately suffered from a common malady, but not the one you might expect. Yes, you might have been a difficult student, but I feel you had two not-very-good teachers.

There are a lot of them out there, people who just don’t get how to teach — especially youngsters. Learning an instrument is difficult, even if one is a genius at a Mozart level. There’s no way around it, you have to put in the hours. Not only that, a lot of the things you’re asked to do can be pretty BORING. But if one perseveres, it’s possible to become a decent player.

Here’s the place where your teachers fell down on the job. They didn’t give you meaningful practising techniques. When I was teaching, I called it a student’s “toolbox”. These tools were helpful tips on why things are going wrong, and specific techniques to fix them. I also had to guide my students to be able to recognize the stumbling blocks. 

The first tool was always “play only as fast as you can handle what you’re practising. Slow and steady will win this race every time. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, that’s not particularly fun. A good teacher will explain that, show the student how well it works to go slowly and give them longer range hope for seeing success at the end of what might be a long road.

I suspect my second tool would have really helped you, Aline. That’s the one where you learn that when you make a mistake, it is a total waste of your practicing effort to go back to the beginning of the piece — especially when the same mistake keeps happening in the same place.

Everyone, but especially children, needs to see success in order to want to do something. Dealing with the stumbling block (more tools!) will get rid of it so the result will be quickly obvious and self-reinforcing. There's no better feeling that being able to play through a piece, no matter how slowly, and get to the end successfully. It certainly make me want to play more!

How does all this fit into writing (since this is a blog dedicated to writing)? 

Learning to play an instrument, like writing a novel, is a marathon, not a sprint. Patience here is a very great virtue. You need to have a long-range vision and realize you need to take steps every day towards your goal. This is going to sound simplistically obvious but “you can’t get there until you get there.” The critical thing is to keep working, stay within your story. Same thing with practising: you’ve got to do it every day. I used to tell my school students: “If you have to average 20 minutes of practice every day, it won’t do you any good to do 140 minutes one day each week. Nothing good will happen and you know how much I hate to see you waste your time. Practise a little every day and you’ll get great results in less time.”

All writers — if they have any chance of success — realize this pretty quickly. It’s exceptionally difficult to write like crazy one day a week and keep things in order in your brain. My feeling is it will take you longer to complete the project since you constantly have to “reload” the story into your brain each time you work. That means a lot of time wasting “wheel spinning” each time you sit down to work.

I could go on and on about the similarities between mastering an instrument and completing a novel.

There is a well-regarded truism about learning to play an instrument: you must put in 10,000 hours of practise to master it. I suspect this might be true in writing as well. In order to become really good at it, you must put in the hours, do the self-examination, and get help where you need it in order to master this craft.

I sure hope that it doesn’t mean writing 10,000 pages! On second thought, if that’s what it is, maybe I just have to be more patient and keep plodding along. It’s not as if I haven’t done that before.
And if you want a good chuckle, look closely at the above photo of someone named Boris showing off his prowess on guitar. I don’t believe he’s put in his requisite 10,000 hours to master it…

Monday, July 06, 2020

My “Fur Elise” Problem.

I was never any good at playing the piano. You'd have to say my parents did everything to encourage me – nice piano, music lessons, constant demands to know whether I'd done my practising – but somehow it never took. It might have had something to do with the fact that the piano was in the unheated drawing room, or that my first teacher was a small stout man who called me 'wee girlie' (twee not sinister, I hasten to add) and the second was a tall, thin, acidulated woman who would sing, 'One-and-inna-two-and-inna' to keep me in time as I played. (Her name was Templeton, and it's amazing that I agreed to marry my husband. No relation, fortunately.)

It might also have had something to do with my discovering that if I made my fingers go like sticks it got everyone very satisfyingly cross. (I was a very annoying child.) But above all, it had to do with never learning to keep going and ignore mistakes. I had to stop and put it right, which, since I wasn't very good, meant constantly and it's amazing how long it can take to get to the end of “Fur Elise”.

It must be something that goes deep in my psyche and it's carried on into my writing career. Perhaps it's a perfectionist thing, though I'm certainly not famous for that in any other direction – look at my knicker drawer, or rather, don't, please!

I know many, possibly even most, people do a first draft, then a second and on and on until it's right, but I simply don't understand how it's done. OK, I write the first chapter, edit it, and move on. Then I write the second chapter, and something happens that doesn't square with what I said in the first one.  If I reckon this is just the first draft, presumably I just set that to one side and move on, planning to sort it out later in draft 2.

But I'd have a constant itch at the back of my mind if I didn't go back and change the first chapter so it squares with the second, and then when the third chapter introduces something that needs revision for chapter one and two, I go back to do that as well. It's a constant to-and-fro process, and I suspect that people who just go hell for leather and write on regardless will get a much faster paced story.

I'd love to be able to persuade myself to do that, though I think there'd be a blood, sweat and tears spell later sorting out continuity. I have to say, too, I do like it that when I get to the end of telling the story, I only have to do tidying up rather than embarking on a rewrite. So I just have to accept it – you can't change human nature.

To round off the story of my career as a pianist, I gave it up for some time. Then I was lucky enough to find a truly wonderful teacher who brought me on by leaps and bounds so that sometimes I did have a piece or two I could play through without a mistake, but it was a brief purple patch and I don't play now, having skipped the basic slog that would have kept me going through the years.

When I was protesting about practising my mother used to say, 'You'll regret this when you're older.'

And she was right, as she always was.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Happy Fourth of July

I've had a hard time getting this image to cooperate with my copy. I'm late writing this as my daughter from North Carolina is visiting and we've had a lot of catching up to do.

For the first time since February I went to a real restaurant and had a real dine-in meal. It was an absolute treat to just sit and enjoy food. I'm thankful that Colorado has had a fairly successful and cautious reopening.

Tomorrow my little community will have an informal come and go musical concert on our lovely commons area. Properly social distanced, of course. Our ground rules are to bring your own chair, your own bottle, your own food, and do not share.

These are indeed interesting times.

Stay safe and happy during this holiday.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Knowing yourself

Rick’s post and Thomas’s post each got me thinking about the nitty-gritty, the hows and whys, of writing.

Hemingway said somewhere that one doesn’t become a better writer, only a better editor. Like most of what Hemingway said on the topic, I agree. For me, improvement has always been tied to knowing myself –– knowing my strengths and weaknesses and using that knowledge and self-awareness to evolve.

Character and dialogue are things I do best. Those aspects of writing fiction have always come easily. Plot, not so much. Plot I have to work at. I write in a Google document, and the margins are filled with notes and comments –– reminders about who knows what, who said what, who did what, and what needs to happen in the course of the story or book. Keeping track of the threads of the spider web has never been as easy.

And, as Rick mentioned, over-writing is always an issue. I think this is a common problem most of us battle. How much is too much? Is the line of dialogue clear? Do I need one more brushstroke here? I talk about this with my students often, telling them, Overwriting happens when you’re not confident in what you’ve conveyed. And I am quick to admit (to them and to you) that I’m as guilty as anyone.

All of which points us to the importance of revision and, as Hemingway would say, always working to become your own best editor.


As an aside, summer is off to a nice start. My reading list consists of Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up, William Kent Krueger’s A Tender Place, and I need to reread Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to teach it in the fall. My oldest, Delaney, graduated from college (we held our own ceremony), and is moving to New York City to start her first job. She recruited a cheap painter...

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

July 4th in the time of COVID-19

The 4th of July holiday is coming up here in the United States. It’s usually celebrated with fireworks, backyard bbqs, 5k runs, parades, concerts in the park... But not this year – at least not here in Los Angeles County where I live.

The beaches and bike paths that had only recently reopened will be closed this weekend. Fireworks have been cancelled as well as a 5K race in Redondo Beach that’s usually held every year. Really, all events that might result in large gatherings have been called off. I can’t say that this is a bad idea, especially since we’ve had quite a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the county.

Still, if you’d told me in March when we were told we were “safer at home” that this would have lasted this long, I would have been skeptical. At that time I was cautiously optimistic.

Cities around here are coming up with other ways to celebrate the holiday. One of them, in lieu of all of the usual events, is placing 1,800 American flags of various sizes around the city.

Redondo Beach is hosting a virtual 5K race to replace the usual one. The virtual event won’t be a competition as in previous years. Those who want to participate sign up online and pay a fee, which helps benefit the Redondo Beach Educational Foundation. They also receive a swag bag of a T-shirt and patriotic items. Participants start the race at 8 a.m. on July 4th, running from their home. Each person sets up their own 5K run. All timing and recording is done by the individual runners. People post their times and photos online. It’s an interesting way to keep the event alive. Not sure how many will participate. Will have to wait for the report in the local paper.

I’ve never really been someone who did much on July 4th, anyway. I have seen some fireworks over the years, but I much prefer to hang out at home. Still, it’s sad to see so many events cancelled.

For those of you who celebrate the 4th, what’s going on in your part of the world?

In other news, Christina Freeburn and I are working on Christmas in July posts on our Facebook author pages. We’re starting off next Tuesday with a Facebook party celebrating the release of book 3 in Christina’s A Merry & Bright Handcrafted series, Dash Away All. See this event page for more details: