Saturday, August 29, 2020

Change of Venue

I'm a creature of habit and getting more so the older I am. I don't like a change to my routine and can become somewhat of a grump when that happens. Since I was lucky enough to work from home already, the pandemic didn't alter much for me in that regard. But the outside world does occasionally intrude into my cozy little cocoon.

Here in Colorado we have the Pine Gulch Fire, which is the largest single wildfire in the state's history. If you see photos, the scene is very much apocalyptic. My home is sixty miles east of the inferno and a gray haze colored the air. In the morning and evening you could smell the smoke. A week ago I woke up about 2 AM, sniffing smoke. I lay in bed asking myself, what was burning? I got up and walked through the house, giving every room the sniff test. The odor was so strong I expected the smoke detectors to start shrieking. When I stuck my head out the front door, there it was, the smell of forests burning. Previous to this, the state smell was weed smoldering in a bong.

Days of summer heat didn't help diminish the fire or the smoke. Then on Thursday, I noticed that the afternoon sky was overcast. I heard the crack of thunder. The Internet forecasted rain. I stepped outside to enjoy the rattle of a cool breeze though the neighborhood trees.

The fragrance of impending rain was too enticing to ignore so I decided to set my laptop on a front table table and watch the storm roll in. My dog Scout doesn't like thunder but too bad for him. I dragged him onto the porch to keep me company.

As I typed away, the rain started. A drizzle at first, then the proverbial cloud burst. I expected hail but we didn't get any, thankfully. Rain poured out the gutter spouts and spattered on the sidewalk. Scout curled up in a corner of the porch, safe from lightning and the rain, giving me a doggie stink eye the entire time.

Though I wasn't suffering from writer's block, the prose gushed out my fingers. Fifteen hundred words later, the rain subsided with a serene drip, drip from the trees. I sat back, pleased and thankful for this break in my routine.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Keeping Track

Recently I read a medium length suspense novel that was overloaded with characters. I expect a long historical novel to be packed, but with this mystery novel the number of persons was confusing.

Coupled with a weak plot, the book was a difficult read. 

The main characters and important bit players should be portrayed as memorably and distinctly as possible. Or conversely, if the author is touched by Dickensian genius, so brilliantly stereotypical, that the reader swears he's met them in real life. We already know Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, and Madame Defarge in our hearts. They are members of our family, or the folks next door, or the ones running for office this year. 

It's better not to give major characters similar names. It's very irritating when the protagonist is named James--sometimes called Jim--and his worst enemy is called Jim all of the time. More subtle are names that sound too much alike, such as Bill and Will. Or names that people shorten. I know a man named Matthew and I carelessly say "Matt" when in fact, I've never heard his family call him by that name. 

So why do authors stumble into these traps? With a series it's very easy. In book five, for instance, we cook up a name and when this person comes into contact with a person introduced in book one, it's complicated. 

Another complication is using a name that belongs to someone in real life. It can be embarrassing and costly. Once I innocently cast the son of my husband's best customer in an unfavorable light. I did not know the kid and certainly was unaware of his history. It did not go well. Now I Google first to make sure I'm not defaming someone's character. 

I have a Word file that I carry over in the Lottie Albright Series. It's the "Lottie Albright Master Character File." Under the title of each book, I list all the characters introduced in that particular manuscript.  That way, when the family doctor is mentioned in book one, it's the same person in book five. I can go back through this Character Master File and see what I named the County Clerk in book one. If I had to do it over again, I would record a more detailed description of each character. 

Needless to say, too, not every person needs a name or a memorable description. Most days we interact with people we take for granted. I don't know the shifting series of Amazon Prime drivers who come to my door or the man driving the mail delivery truck. 

Fans have incredible memories. If you screw up, they will let you know. 


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Take a break to add tension

This week has been a busy one. School kicks off, in a hybrid version, I published a pedagogy article, and got about 3,000 words of fiction written. I enjoyed the suspense/tension thread weaving through the Type M posts this past week as well, and will add to it here.

When my writing is going well, the experience is similar, in some ways, to Donis’s description, but less obvious to those around me. My daughter once said, “I thought you said you were writing. All I see you do is stare at the wall.” Like Donis, dialogue is being spoken, only for me it’s more like watching the movie I will later attempt to transcribe in a way that effectively gets the words from the scene in my head onto the page.

Raymond Chandler once said, (I’m paraphrasing), When things get dull, have someone walk in with a gun. I take Chandler at his word. I’ve written about this before, but I have a (tiny) outline when I begin. Often times, though, I deviate. Or, rather, the story deviates. And it’s usually for the best. For me, plot stems from character, and I try to give characters room to grow. So my outline might not remain intact.

I’m interested in the intersection of plot and tension. When I read Raymond Chandler, I marvel at the free-wheeling feel of it all. But there is a clear structure, too. A typical Chandler novel has Marlowe sitting down every hundred pages or so to think his way through the events, to date. Seated at the lunch counter, he ticks off the events and reviews questions posed by the mystery. Then another person walks in with a gun, and we’re off and running again.

I’d argue that these moments of reflection not only add clarity to the plot but by allowing readers to come up for air and process all that has occurred these breaks add to the story’s tension, allowing readers to feel the full weight of the story’s events.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be formulaic or predictable. I think of the Spenser series and Parker’s use of alternative chapters/scenes between the mystery and the homelife of Spenser and Susan. Spenser’s domestic life added levity and down time for readers and, at least for this reader, were welcomed breaks from the primary plot line.

As always, I’d love to hear what others think about all of this.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Writing in the Age of COVID-19


The posts this week from Thomas and Rick reminded me how writing has changed since COVID-19 reared its ugly head. I’ve heard from a number of writers how their concentration is off while others continue to write without seemingly any problems. This last week my concentration has definitely been off, but that’s largely due to the heat wave we’ve been experiencing here in Southern California. While it’s not as hot here at the beach as it is in other parts of L.A. County, it was still annoyingly hot. When it gets 86 inside the house, that’s when my brain shuts off. Luckily, it’s cooled down and I can once again think and get some work done.

Luckily, I don’t have the problem Rick has of not being able to visit an area that I’ve set a story in since all of my books so far take place in a beach city not unlike the one I live in. Any research I want to do consists largely of walking to the downtown area of my city and looking around a bit. For awhile though, the beaches, pier and the bike and walk paths were closed. Right now, though, they’re open as long as you wear masks and practice social distancing.

One other thing that’s different is the inability to interact with my fellow writers at a conference or chapter meeting of Sisters in Crime. I’ve had to content myself with attending the Zoom chapter meetings and various other things online. The most recent thing I attended was a House Arrest event sponsored by SinC/LA. This was an evening event through Zoom where 5 writers read from their books and our chapter president taught us how to make a Manhattan cocktail. 

While I don’t currently have any plans to write a story set during this pandemic, I realize I may decide to write one some day so I’ve been taking pictures to remind my future self what this time was like. Here are a few of them: 

Here are all of the gray hairs that have recently been exposed since I haven’t had my hair cut or colored in a very long time. Currently, hair salons and barbershops are closed in L.A. County unless they can cut hair outside. So it’ll probably be awhile until I get my hair done. 

It’s been interesting to see how stores have been jumping into the mask arena. Here’s a display of masks you can buy at my local CVS. Didn’t see anything like this before this pandemic. I wonder if it’ll still be around in some form after the crisis is over. 

Then there’s the coin shortage here in the U.S.. Definitely not something that I would have predicted would happen. 

Then there are all of the signs reminding people to wear masks. In my city, there’s a $100 fine for not wearing one under a lot of different conditions. This sign is on a walk path near my house.

 Then there are all of the parking spaces downtown that have been taken away to give restaurants outdoor spaces to serve food. Restaurants can’t serve food inside right now, but they can if they have a patio so a lot of cities are allowing them to expand into nearby parking spaces. 

Then there are all of the marks on the ground marking off how far apart you should stand when waiting to get into a store. I haven’t had to stand and wait to get into a store in quite awhile, but those X marks are still there just in case.

 I’m hoping we all get back to normal sometime in the near future so we can more freely travel around the country and the world and do all of those things we usually do. For now, I’ll just keep on writing albeit at a slower pace than usual.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

A potpourri of thoughts

by Rick Blechta

As usual, this week again finds my thoughts scattered and with zero focus. I’ve taken to calling it “Covid brain”, and in speaking to friends, I’ve found a lot of us our suffering from this. After reading Tom’s post from yesterday, he’s got it too. 

So I’m going to make lemonade out of the handful of lemons I’ve got, hence the title of my post.

My WIP (when will it be finished and not in progress?) has hit a huge snag. A good part of the storyline was set to take place in Washington, DC, and because of the border closure between Canada and the US, that obviously ain’t going to happen. Yes, I understand I might be able to fly across the border if I had to — but I don’t. 

What to do? Move the setting someplace else? 

I come from New York so I know it well, but to be honest, I don’t think that would cut it. The book is totally about the US which means I’ve got to come up with some workable solution. I can't switch it to Canada, where I can travel anywhere I need to.

At this point I’m leaning in the direction of consulting Dr. Google, write what I need to using that limited information, then finding someone who lives in DC or knows it very well to read the “offending” portions of the book in order to tell me what’s wrong. And there will be a lot wrong.

Which brings me to setting. I’ve given that a lot of thought lately.

I tend to look askance at authors who set their novels in places they’ve never been or have only visited briefly and have the character telling the story who is a native. My feeling is you need to live someplace to really understand it enough to write about it. That’s why when I have to set something in, say, Paris (The Fallen One), I always make my “narrating character” an outsider, someone visiting or working there briefly. Then if I make an egregious error on something, I can be more easily forgiven by a reader who spots it. And I visit the place myself to gain the same knowledge my character would have.

Now I’m faced with a similar situation in my WIP, and as much as I want to, I can’t visit the place I’m writing about. I’ve flown over the US capitol a few times and driven by it as well, but I’ve never set foot in the place. To me, that’s a huge deficit to overcome.

The one hope is that maybe things will get better by the time I’ve completed my first draft (if only!) and I get to visit before I have to submit my novel to a publisher. It may be a vain hope, but what else do I have?

The last “thought” for this week is why does adversity seem so much harder to overcome than it usually does? Perhaps Barbara, being a psychologist could explain it, but I can be brought to a halt, lose heart at the most trivial of things. My “Washington” problem is a good example. I feel as if I’m staring at a blank wall without an ounce of resolve to deal with the issue.

Paging Dr. Fradkin!

Monday, August 24, 2020

Writing Distractions and Building Tension

I have a confession to make.  Other than this blog, I haven’t written a word in three days.

I’m easily distracted and the last few days have kept me from being creative.  First of all, the obvious distraction is the pandemic…and the upcoming election.  The Democratic Convention was this past week and that kept me glued to the television. 

Well, that and the new Perry Mason reboot on HBO.  I highly recommend it.

Then, on an upside, I received an email from a former student who told me I’d inspired her to finish her novel. She told me that after finishing the class, she went back and completely rewrote her first chapters.  Then she asked what her next step should be.

I gave her my phone number and told her to call me.  I advised her to get a beta reader to take a look and then, if she can afford it, a professional editor to help find typos and punctuation mistakes.  Then I told her how I found an agent.  I also told her to keep in touch. 

That was a nice distraction.

Then on Thursday, I got up at 4:30 to take my wife to a surgical center for a minor procedure.  They said it would take about three hours and they wanted me close by so the instructions were that I should stay in the parking lot.  I brought a Harlan Coben mystery to pass the time. 

About a half hour into my vigil, sitting in the North Carolina heat and humidity, I went to start my car, a hybrid, and discovered that my battery had died.  Calling my mechanic, he told me that the soonest he could get a battery for my car would be a week from then.

I was feeling the tension.

I called an Uber, went home, and got my wife’s car.  An hour later, I was driving her home.  The rest of the day, I forgot about my car and looked after her recovery.

The next day, I called Triple A, gave them my information, and they told me to call them again when I was in the same place as my car.  I drove across our high-rise bridge to the mainland and back to the surgical center to find that the road was blocked off with police officers and ambulances everywhere.  I could see that my car was the only one in the parking lot, because the center had been evacuated.  Police barriers prevented me getting anywhere near my car with a tow truck.

A police officer told me to come back in an hour. 

More tension. And a plot twist.

An hour later, they had extended the lockdown area and now there was a SWAT team onsite.  When I again asked an officer about my car, he told me it wouldn’t be before tomorrow.

Even more tension.

But out of adversity comes opportunity.  I have a work in progress and I’ve been a little dissatisfied with it. 

That’s when it came to me. It needs more tension!

And I need fewer distractions.

So, on Saturday, I had my car towed, the mechanic told me I might get my battery much earlier than he had predicted, my wife is recovering well, and I’m writing again.  And the SWAT team thing?  The press release was maddeningly vague.  Someone had threatened themselves with harm.

And they lockdown four city blocks? And have a SWAT team onsite?  That individual must have threatened to harm themselves with a nuclear weapon.

Just kidding.  It all ended peacefully.  Happy ending. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

What You Don't Know

Sorry to be so very late today. Classes begin on Monday, and this morning we had orientation for incoming grad students -- virtual orientation with each faculty member taking 3 or 4 minutes to introduce ourselves to the students who hadn't met up during PhD student weekend. 

I was thinking about my first classes of the semester on Monday and Tuesday and the work I still need to do on my online courses when I remembered today is my day to post. 

 I was up really late last night and up early this morning. The first thing I thought this morning was the short story that I have due (for an anthology) at the end of the month. The theme is the midnight hour. I had nothing -- no ideas. Then while Googling for images from 1939 (as I thought about a scene in my historical thriller), I came across one of Edward Hopper's 1942 painting. On of my favorite paintings by him, called "Nighthawks," The nighthawks are three people and a counterman in a diner. This painting always makes me think of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," and of the movie based on his short story, "The Killers." 

I saw the painting, and I knew my short story would be set in a diner. I couldn't decide who my sleuths would be -- whether it would be a Lizzie Stuart mystery featuring my crime historian and her fiance, John Quinn, a former homicide detective. Or maybe a Hannah McCabe story, with my Albany homicide detective and her police partner, Mike Baxter. 

Because of a series of unexpected events -- including conversations I had with two baseball fans -- I'm now writing a Lizzie Stuart story. I have already established that Quinn is a baseball fan. And it seems that the year of the story -- the series, including my 6th book in progress, is now up to 2004. As I was informed that was a landmark year in baseball. That Red Sox curse that I then remembered. It makes sense that Quinn would stop to watch the game that he has been listening to on the radio. It's late, and he needs  a cup of coffee and something to eat after driving back to Gallagher from the airport. 

I discovered a few minutes in one of the games -- I happened on it in a video -- when play stops because one of the players is hit with a ball. That is the perfect moment for my killer to strike -- while everyone is looking at the television screen. And Lizzie, who Quinn calls from the diner decides she really wants a hamburger and fries and will sleep a lot better if she gets out of the house after spending  the day trying to finish a paper that is due. She gets to the diner just before or just after the murder.  . . 

I think it will work. But I know next to nothing about baseball. I have never been to a baseball game. I have never even seen an entire game on television. I do know a bit about the history of the game -- the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the Negro baseball league, Babe Ruth, baseball movies and documentaries. But Quinn is a fan because my friend -- with whom I talk through my plots-- convinced me that baseball is a thinking person's sport. A sport that Quinn would appreciate.

Thankfully -- one of life's blessing if you're a writer-- people who know about a topic are always willing to share their knowledge -- love sharing their knowledge. My thanks to my two guides through the 2004 baseball season.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

A Refresher Course in Suspense

 When I (Donis) am really in the zone, in the midst of a scene, I’ve been known to leap up from the computer and begin pacing the floor, unaware of my surroundings, muttering dialog to myself.  I imagine that to an observer I look like a hands-free cell-phone user.  Except there’s not a person on the other end - there’s another world.

I sometimes have to figure out how I’m going to pull off a particular scene I have in mind.  I know what I would like the reader to see in her head, what emotions or feelings I’d like to convey, but what is the most effective way to paint that picture, to evoke those feelings?  If I write the scene in two or three different ways, I’ll often be able to come up with the right combination of images, but occasionally, I’ll realize that I don’t quite have it.

That’s when I go hunting.  If I need more suspense, for example, I pick out several works - literature or movies - that made me tense, and try to pick apart how it was done.

I’m always looking for effective ways to building suspense.  In the course of writing several books, I’ve seen and read all the classic suspense-building techniques in action, and keep a list of examples, not only to remind myself, but to use as a teaching tool as well.

A refresher never goes amiss, Dear Reader.  And if you have other examples, I’m all eyes.

The Ticking Clock : Our hero must accomplish something before a horrible thing happens.  Diffuse the bomb!  Find out who really did it before the wrong man is hanged!  Great example, the movie D.O.A. (the 1950 original with Edmond O’Brien is better than the 1988 Dennis Quaid version.)

Drag Out the Action : Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But if you just know the trap is going to spring, and it doesn’t ... doesn’t...doesn’t...  The anticipation is killing me! The trick here is timing.  Great example, Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble.

Add More Peril : Our heroine is running through the jungle and the Columbian drug suppliers are right behind her, brandishing their machetes.  She crashes through the brush, and finds herself on the edge of a cliff!  There is a river at the bottom of the gorge, so she takes a leap, just feeling the breeze as a blade slashes over her head.  She falls 75 feet into the river and realizes it’s infested with piranas! She swims like the dickens, piranas nipping at her heals, and as she nears the shore, 40 tribesmen with poisoned dart blowguns step out from the trees...   No matter how bad it is, it can always be worse.  Great example, any of the Die Hard movies. 

I Know Something You Don’t Know : We’ve seen the villain hide under the stairs, but the hero has no idea as he walks down into the dark basement.  The author gives us a piece of information that the characters don’t have.  Great example, Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace.

The Cliffhanger : Remember the villain under the stairs?  He leaps out!  He grabs the hero around the neck!  He pulls a knife!  Meanwhile, back at the ranch...  Great example, Hour of the Hunter by J.A. Jance.

My Hands Are Tied : Our hero can see disaster about to happen, but is powerless to stop it.  Greatest example of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back : The sleuth is investigating Laura’s murder.  He cannot discover a single clue to her death.  Everyone loved her! She was wonderful and squeaky clean.  He’s baffled, and sits in her apartment long into the night, pondering.  At midnight, the front door opens, and ... it’s Laura!  She’s alive!  Then who is the woman who was found lying on the floor of Laura’s apartment, wearing her clothes, shot in the face with a shotgun?  Ultimate example, the 1944 movie Laura.     

And one of my favorites, 

Foreshadowing : This takes some skill to pull off well.  Two guys are sitting around discussing the possibility of some nefarious occurrence.  “Oh, that’ll never happen,” says one.  Want to bet?  If the author has set it up well, we now spend two hundred pages waiting with baited breath for it to happen. Excellent example, Robert McCammon’s Queen of Bedlam.  What a set up!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Poking the beast again

In my post two weeks ago, I described how I was "letting my manuscript rest" before beginning rewrites. That was a good excuse for my month of inactivity while I spent much needed real time with family at my cottage and received many much needed hugs after nearly five months of isolation.

This past week I finally began to think about the notes I had made and the questions that needed to be answered, and began to fill in the holes in my research. I contacted a friend in the local duck club to tell me about ducks and a couple of retired social worker friends to ask them about issues of client confidentiality because I wasn't sure whether there were different rules for psychologists (me) and social workers. I contacted the director of a local woman's shelter to ask about their relationship with the police. The answers are beginning to flow in and the gaps in the manuscript are slowly being filled in. Fortunately none of the answers I got created major problems for my storyline, just a tweak, elaboration, or small change here and there.

Next comes a serious examination of my characters, their emotional depth and credibility, and the vividness of their conflicts. I am not a believer in "larger than life" characters who "leap off the page". I want characters who inhabit and enrich the page. I want readers to imagine them as if they were real, interesting, complex, but believable as someone they might know, for good or ill. I want their conflicts and relationships to feel both unique and relatable. Apologies for that awful word; it's late, I've had two glasses of wine, and this blog is due. 

THE DEVIL TO PAY is a police procedural with a small group of suspects. Character and motive are crucial to my stories, and so each one of the suspects has to be fully fleshed out with a credible, interesting motive. I don't usually know until I've written the climax who all the suspects are and who the actual killer is, which makes for a lot of reworking and enrichment during rewrites. To a psychologist like me, fascinated by what drives people to the choices they make and by the possibility that everyone is capable of killing someone given the right circumstances and the right reason, this character work is one of the most interesting aspects of creating the novel.

I will do a lot of thinking in the next ten days as I toy with these questions, add scenes, and poke at the heart of existing scenes. It will be frustrating and puzzling and fun. So stay tuned for the next blog, when I may report on my progress. Meanwhile, I'm curious to know what other writers do in their rewrites.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A bit of flag waving

by Rick Blechta

Photo by maplerose from FreeImages
The flag I’m referring to is the one with the big red maple leaf in the middle, i.e. Canada.

My post this week is a bit of a cheat, actually. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — Canada, see?) article to which I’m going make reference came out at the beginning of July, but I only ran across it this morning.

It’s a list of 14 Canadian mysteries — more correctly, books by Canadian authors and published in this country — recommended for summer reading. None of the authors listed (with one notable exception) are well-known even in this country, let alone the world at large.

Click HERE for the link. (

I’ve read two of the listed novels and I know a few of the authors, but based on other reviews of these books and my own reading experience, what you’ve got here are some damned good reads.

Canadian crime fiction is not well-known outside — or even inside, for that matter — the Great White North, and that’s a real shame. Louise Penny, lovely as her novels are, is not the only Canadian writing crime fiction. We have a real star right here on Type M: Barbara Fradkin, a multiple award winner and very fine writer. You could do no better than starting with something of hers!

There are other excellent Canadian crime writers, of course, just waiting for the larger world to discover them. This list is a great place to start if you want to read something from a different viewpoint and (generally) setting.

With many people now owning e-readers, it’s easy to have one or more of these novels ready-to-go if you’re about to head out on vacation, no waiting for shipment, just download and enjoy.

If you’ve already gone on vacation, why not make summer last a bit longer by vicariously spending a few hours in Canada?

I’m betting you’ll be glad you did!

And in a bittersweet moment, I cannot let this week pass without saying goodbye to Aline Templeton who is taking her leave from our blog. I have always enjoyed reading her posts and getting her viewpoint on various things. We all wish you well, Aline. You will be very missed — and please come back whenever you’d like to share your thoughts or promote your next book. The door is always open!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Once Upon a Time.... and Now

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, there was a brilliant writer called Peter May who was one of the Type M team. I was thrilled when he invited me to do a guest blog, and even more thrilled when, after his brilliance became more widely recognised and book tours and personal appearances all over the world ate up his time and he stood down, Rick invited me to join them.

It was very exciting to reach across the Atlantic from my desk in Edinburgh, Scotland, and find myself in company with Canadian and American writers. There was a lot I didn't know about the crime writing scene there that they were so familiar with: I didn't fully understand what a 'cozy' was, I'd never heard of 'pantsers' and the spellcheck was constantly querying words I knew I had spelled perfectly correctly, at least as far as the Oxford English Dictionary was concerned. (Sometimes I changed it and sometimes I got bolshie and reckoned you would probably work out what 'recognised' meant, even if it was spelled with an 's' instead of a 'z'.) Every so often I would throw in a Scots word, like 'peelie-wally' (off-colour, not well) to mix things up a bit.

The wonderful thing was the welcome I had and the friendship that has grown up over the years, not just with the present writers but with the others in the past, and with the readers too who have responded and even been kind enough to buy my books. Type M is truly a family, which makes this a difficult blog to write.

Lockdown in Scotland has been very hard, as it has been everywhere.  When you're not able to go anywhere, or to do very much, it's not only a depressing experience, it cuts you off from the meetings and conversations that spark new ideas about the fascinating world of crime writing. Certainly there is usually something fresh you can say with a new angle on an old idea, but I've become worried that I might end up just giving you what is, to use another Scots phrase, 'cauld kale het' (cold cabbage, re-heated)and having you say, as Mr Bennett so tartly did to poor Mary, 'You have delighted us long enough.'

So this, dear friends, is good-bye from me. Oh, of course I'll pop in and see what you're all doing, but it's time you had someone new. I'll look forward very much to reading their posts.

Rick, thank you so much for your inspiration and patience over the years and thank you to my kind and supportive colleagues. I know you have great ideas for the future and wish you every success with this fantastic blog.

And thank you too, to everyone who has been interested enough to read my posts. You can always find me at my website, or on Twitter, @Aline Templeton

Good-bye and good luck. 😀

Friday, August 14, 2020

Dog Days

Even without Covid, there has always been something about early August. My mother called this time of year Dog Days. Eastern Kansas, where I grew up, was impossibly hot during Dog Days.

Before air conditioning, life stopped. Not dead still.--there were still chores and rituals. Chickens to water, cows to milk, and that ever-blooming garden! Air didn't move during sleepless summer nights. Only fans provided some relief.

An overwhelming lethargy hung over life. My sister and I weren't allowed to go swimming. Not just due to the heat, but as nearly as I can recall, Mom believed there was an increased chance of contracting polio during Dog Days.

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, "in ancient Greece and Rome, the Dog Days were believed to be a time of drought, bad luck, and unrest, when dogs and men alike would be driven mad by the extreme heat."

Other sites mention a time of increased infections, strokes, and sudden thunderstorms.

The Almanac again: "This period of sweltering weather coincides with the year’s heliacal (meaning “at sunrise”) rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Majoris—the “Greater Dog”—which is where Sirius gets its canine nickname, as well as its official name, Alpha Canis Majoris. Not including our own Sun, Sirius is the brightest star in the sky."

There was light at the end of the tunnel. My sister and I knew that if we made it through Dog Days, it would cool off. And there was the ultimate prize at the end; we got to start school. Schools had a distinctive odor. Floors were re-waxed during the summer and chalk dust was as alluring as perfume. There were brand new pencils and Big Chief tablets and erasers and our very own desks in which to store everything.

I was in Walmarts a couple of days ago and teared up over the aisles of school supplies. Who would buy them now? What would they do with the excess merchandise? I was suddenly overwhelmed with the awareness of all the bewildered, disappointed children who no longer will have a positive end to Dog Days. What about all the families with 3, 4, or more kids faced with on-line learning? Do they have to buy extra computers?

I have been patiently waiting out Covid and all it's implications. Then it dawned on me this week that this plague might be around forever. Like the flu. Like the common cold. Vaccinations didn't make the flu go away.

Soon people will start coming up with better ways to jump start our lives. Educators are really smart. They will figure out some way to preserve our educational system.

Our lives will change again. But's important to remember that when Pandora opened the box that let out all miseries of the world, hope remained inside.

Soon it will be freed too.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Summer Reading List

It’s been quite a week! I made the 11-hour drive (each way) from western Massachusetts to Ohio to drop Audrey off at Denison University, where the cross country team is having preseason for a non-existent season. (They are a dedicated tribe, those distance runners.)
And, like I assume Frankie is and other are, I'm gearing up to teach in my virtual classroom starting next week. But I’ve managed to do some reading of late as well -- always a good thing for a writer!

My reading list this summer has been diverse and influences me on many levels.

The Mistress’s Daughter: A Memoir, by A.M. Homes

Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik

On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Three of these books I consider mysteries: This Tender Land, The Thief, and Dark Rooms. A.M. Homes' memoir was a book I wanted to read because she's a friend. DiAngelo's book I read because I should. The crime books I read because that's just what I do and have done since I was a kid.

I’m not going to rate them. That’s not what this platform is for. But I enjoyed them all and am pleased with how much I was able to read this summer. Admittedly, about half of these were consumed via audio (and listened to twice).

If anyone has read any of these, I’d love to hear what you think of them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Going Down The Punctuation Rabbit Hole


Exclamation marks, periods, semicolons, etc. We use them every day and don’t think anything about it. They’ve always been there for us. We think of them as being necessary for the written word. But they didn’t always exist. Even spaces between words or divisions into paragraphs wasn’t there when written language came about.

I’ve seen this myself from the years I’ve spent studying Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Coptic. Nary a space in sight. It’s amazing how fast you can get used to figuring out where words and sentences begin and end. Or, in the case of AE, what direction the text is written in. 

But I didn’t really know anything about when punctuation marks came into being. I still know only a little, but I’m finding it a fascinating topic.

This whole foray into the history of punctuation started when I read a post by author Kathleen Valenti on Chicks on the Case about exclamation points. I, myself, am a heavy user of exclamation points in emails and letters. I’ve learned to rarely, if ever, use them in stories I write.

Her post got me thinking about the several semesters I took of Swedish (don’t ask me to translate anything, ‘cause I’ve pretty much forgotten it all). I had this vague memory that the use of ! in Swedish differs from how we use it in English. So I did a little googling and found an article on the top 5 mistakes Swedes make when writing English. Number 1(!) was in the use of the exclamation mark. In Swedish it’s used to indicate a positive friendly tone while in English we tend to think of someone shouting or being overly excited about something.

This got me thinking about how punctuation marks came about in general. So I did more googling and came across an article by Keith Houston on “The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation.”

That led me to his book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks where I’ve learned a bit about the pilcrow (paragraph mark), the interrobang (combination of question mark and exclamation mark) and other symbols like the at sign and hyphen. I’m still in the process of reading the book, but it’s great so far.

I also found the book Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation by David Crystal. This one gives a history of punctuation in English as well as advice on how to use it.

From what I’ve read so far, written texts were seen as an aid to reading aloud. Reading silently was a tad suspicious. So letters were all caps, squished together with no punctuation. Aristophanes in 200 B.C.ish came up with the first forms of punctuation to help with reading aloud. That didn’t stick. But punctuation started gradually being added until, in the 7th century A.D., spaces in English became common practice and reading silently was no longer suspect. Basically, our current punctuation has its roots in the middle ages and was pretty much set when the printing press was invented.

There’s so much more to learn and it’s much more complicated than I’m making out. You’ll just have to pick up one of those books and see for yourself.

The interrobang is an interesting little twist. It’s a cross between an exclamation mark and a question mark and was invented in the 1960s. You can put it in your Word documents by using the Wingdings 2 font. You can read a short history of it here.

Yes, you’re right, I’ve seriously gone down the rabbit hole on punctuation and I’m enjoying every single minute of it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Something for more for writers to think about

by Rick Blechta

As if the writer’s life isn’t already such a struggle given the state of the publishing industry let alone the state of the world, I ran across an article last week that every novelist should read: Alan Dershowitz claims a fictional lawyer defamed him. The implications for novelists are very real. Please click HERE to read the article I saw in the Washington Post.

Okay, after reading the article you might be saying, “This isn’t something I would write about. I don’t put real people in my novels.”

True, but I know several novelists who inject the occasional real person (usually a public figure) into their plot. This person may not actually appear on the page, but the author might comment on this real person in a negative way — maybe they have an ax to grind — and the next thing they know, a very unwelcome lawsuit arrives on their doorstep. Whether the suit is successful or not, you know it’s going to cost you a lot of money in lawyer fees to defend yourself.

Here’s an example. When W.P. Kinsella wrote Shoeless Joe, he included a large number of real people in his plot, starting with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Another real person used was J.D. Salinger — or should I say the famously litigious J.D. Salinger who was not happy that he’d been co-opted into Kinsella’s novel and “intimated he would sue should the character ‘J.D. Salinger’ appear in any other medium, should Shoeless Joe be adapted.” (Wikipedia:

In short while Kinsella avoided a lawsuit in the case of his novel, when the book was adapted for the big screen, the producers, leery of being sued, changed the name of the character to Terence Mann, casting James Earl Jones in the part.

Is it worth it to use real people in one’s plots? I’m thinking that in these litigious times it’s not. Or should I say that a writer has to seriously contemplate if there is not another way to accomplish the same thing? In the suit brought by Alan Dershowitz, he doesn’t appear in the TV show, but the fictional lawyer certainly makes some inflammatory remarks about the real lawyer.

How will this all play out in the courtroom is anyone’s guess, but I for one will be following this story.

I’ve never used real people in my stories, but I have been tempted to have characters make possibly inflammatory observations about real people I don’t like. I know other authors who have done that. No lawsuits on those yet, but who knows? I don’t think it’s worth the indulgence. I make little enough money writing as it is. No sense having to hand it (and more) over to a lawyer.


There’s even more litigation involving Field of Dreams, if you care to read about it (it is interesting):

Monday, August 10, 2020

A Healthy Respect for Teachers

As some of you know, I’ve been teaching a Creative Writing Class at our community college for the last six weeks.  Tonight will be our last class.  As a writing prompt, I’ve asked them to write the first few pages of their book as well as the last few pages.  No, I wasn't specific as to what that book might be.

I look forward to hearing what they’ve written.

Teaching this class in-person has given me a new perspective on what heroes our schoolteachers, school administrators, bus drivers, and janitorial staff really are.  I teach seven adults, neatly spaced apart in a fairly large classroom, where masks are required.  It’s a pretty safe environment.

There are going to be times and circumstances where in kindergarten up to college classrooms where that will not possible.  I’m hoping that all the students and teachers stay safe and healthy.

In my classroom we discussed heroes and how they might be written.  how they need to be relatable but flawed in some way. And heroes are always up to the task at hand, no matter the consequences or the danger.

We have them in real life. We always have, but it’s much more obvious now. The doctors, nurses, and health care workers risking their own lives to treat those sick with Covid-19.

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

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

Our teachers are also heroes.  They always have been, but now more than ever they’re putting themselves on the front lines.

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

But this isn’t fiction.

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

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

Friday, August 07, 2020

Inhabiting Characters' Minds

I realized something a couple of nights ago when I was reading before lights out. By the time I get to bed these days, I really need to escape from all of the depressing and scary thoughts that would otherwise follow me into sleep. I've found that any book works, as long as it holds my attention for that half hour.

For the past week, I've been reading Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai novel, Hiroshima Boy. If you haven't encountered him, Mas is in his 80's, a member of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, and a retired gardener. In this book, he travels back to Hiroshima to bring half of  his dead friend's ashes to the man's sister. On the ferry to Ino, where the woman lives in an assisted living facility, he notices a teenage boy in a red San Francisco T-shirt. Later, he finds the boy's body. Then the ashes he has brought with him disappear, apparently taken by the woman who wandered into his room.

What I realized about this book is that my brain shifts gears when I'm reading it. I am seeing the world through Mas's eyes. I am inhabiting his mind, and the way he thinks is almost like meditation. I'm not good at meditation. It makes me impatient. I want to get it over with and check it off my list and move on. I almost put this book back on my TBR pile. But then I clicked on a news website (in my endless surfing from one website to another looking for good news). There was an article about the 75th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima. Obviously, this was the right time to read this book. So I went back to it -- back into Mas's head. I'm slowing down and letting him take me along at his pace. Having surrendered, I really love this character. Bonus: the plot is intriguing and I'm getting a history lesson from the perspective of a survivor. 

Oddly enough, this has reminded me of Goodfellas. I have watched this movie multiple times. Several times recently because it's among the films I'm discussing in a book about gangster movies. If you haven't seen the movie, it's based on the life of real-life mobster, Henry Hill, who became a government informer. I thought of this movie while reading Hiroshima Boy because watching Goodfellas requires being in Henry Hill's head. Hill is played by Ray Liotta, who provides the exuberant voiceover. We follow Henry from boyhood, when he becomes fascinated with the mobsters who hang out across the street, through his life as an adult criminal, and then his downfall when he is forced to go into the federal witness protection program. What stands out about Henry is his enjoyment of what he does. He "normalizes" the world in which he lives. But the sudden, explosive acts of violence that he and his colleagues engage in are an aspect of this world. These men are criminals and killers. And in the scene that leads up to his arrest, being in Henry Hill's head is like being deranged. He (Liotta) tells us about his crazy day, as he is preparing an elaborate meal, picking up his brother, getting the woman who is transporting his drugs ready for her trip, and worrying about the plane overhead that seems to have him under surveillance. He is high on his own drugs and so tightly wound that a doctor insists on examining him. Being in Henry's head toward the end of the movie is knowing you're in a bad place and -- if you didn't know how his story ends -- you would wonder if he (you) are going to make it out alive.

As a reader/viewer I appreciate the depth of these characters. As a writer, I'm analyzing how I'm brought  so fully into their worlds. I'm also thinking about why I find it impossible to do more than skim American Psycho, and why I still haven't been able to make it through the much less graphic movie. I suspect it's because there is nothing about the protagonist that I can comprehend. There is too much darkness there.

At any rate, it's something to consider as I work on my historical thriller. Do I want to have readers enter my villain's head and understand how he sees the world? Do I want to give him that opportunity to reveal himself? The thing is it could completely change my book. For the reader to go there, I have to go there first. The last time I did that with a character in another book I was working on, I saw the world through his eyes and realized he was not capable of what I wanted him to do. If that happened with my thriller, it would completely screw up my book.

Thinking. . .

Thursday, August 06, 2020


I (Donis) am feeling low today.* I'm tired and headachy and just plain tired. I've been fighting with depression a bit over the past couple of weeks, like so many people. I'm bothered by the news. I'm bothered by the fact that it's been over 110ºF for three weeks and not only can I not go out to eat because of the pandemic, I can't even sit outside on my porch. I want to work on my new book but I'm uninspired.

I typed a lot of words on my work-in-progress today, most of which I’ll either have to take out later or totally rework. But I did it, by damn, and I’m hoping I dug out a lot of slag that has a piece or two of gold in it that I can use later.

When I’m on a roll, I can produce several usable pages in a day, but today there were only one or two paragraphs that I feel confident about.

Some days I can slog along quite handily, but there are days like today when everything I write feels like pure schlock. When that happens, it causes me great agony and despair that I can’t whip up the will to do what needs to be done. I have a bad attitude.

On such days I sit at my desk for an hour staring at a pad of paper, or at the computer with my fingers poised over the keyboard, and … nothing. It’s not even that I can’t think of anything to write. I am always writing in my head, and have done for as far back as I can remember.

All I wanted to do today is clean something, or garden or dust or cook. Brawny tasks which take only muscle and no brilliant turns of phrase. But I have to persevere. So much of writing is just grunt work. Sit and type it out, choose the best way to say this or that, watch the repetition, find the right word, the right sentence.

Even when the world is not as messed up as it is these days, I never know why one day is better than another when it comes to writing. Why are some days so unsatisfactory? 

I can always blame a bad writing day on my sensitive nature. Earlier this evening I spent half an hour reading the news online and now I want to lie upon the couch and press the back of my hand to my forehead until my soul is soothed. People are capable of such awful things, and there is no sense to be made of it. Just the titles of the articles gave me the vapors.

Yes, that must be why I had such am unsuccessful day — the news, or the weather, or the stars. It certainly can't be my fault, because I did everything required of me, and yet I couldn't produce anything brilliant, or excellent, or particularly adequate.

But I can see that there is something good going on here. There's a story here that I want to tell, so what else is to be done but try and tell it? Tomorrow morning I’ll get up, invoke the gods and pray for intervention, sit myself down at the computer, and try, try again.
*On top of everything, I feel guilty for feeling low. So many people have it so much worse than I do.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Letting it rest

Barbara here. For the last two weeks I have been on a family holiday at my cottage and have not done a lick of work on my WIP. But I have found the perfect excuse; I am letting it rest.

Two weeks ago, I proudly wrote THE END on the last page of the first draft of my new Inspector Green novel, titled THE DEVIL TO PAY, and printed all 352 pages off in order to start the first rewrites. This first rewrite is "big picture" stuff. Since I invent the story as I go along, the plot takes many unexpected turns, and the characters change, grow, or disappear, leaving loose ends, plot holes, ghosts, and non-sequiturs - in short, a ragged mess. By the end of the first draft, it's a story but a very rough one. While I'm writing the first draft, I keep a separate file of notes about things to change, add, delete, or enhance, and I use this to help me focus my edits. I also spend time simply daydreaming about the story to tease out the plot tangles, develop crucial subplots, and deepen characters and relationships. This often random mental meandering frees my imagination to take wild flights that hopefully will enrich the story.

One time-honoured way to free the imagination is to get some distance from the story so that you can see it through somewhat "fresh eyes". By the time I get to THE END of the first draft, I've lived with the story and its characters for over half a year. They are very familiar to me, which makes it difficult to think about them in new ways or to see the flaws and contradictions right in front of me. Working with a deadline, it's difficult to get enough time away from the manuscript to really see it through fresh eyes, but even a few weeks away from it and trying not to even think about it can help. Hence my holiday in the cottage sun. 

I'm letting it rest. And as this photo shows, the cottage is the perfect place to do that. At least that's my story.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Star turns

by Rick Blechta

I couldn’t sleep the other night so I took my laptop to the living room and watched “an old friend” on YouTube. I’ve written previously about my enjoyment of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. The old friend was an episode of the fantastic TV series from the early 2000s starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin.

The interesting thing about this production was it used an ensemble cast. Generally, the same actors would appear in every episode as different characters. Some shows even had actors doubling up on roles. It was an interesting way to work and something quite out of the ordinary for a TV show. But best of all, the troupe of actors were really excellent. It was a fun show to watch. (

The episode I watched the other night was “Death of a Doxy”. Appearing early in it was Kari Matchett as Archie Goodwin’s girlfriend, Lily Rowan. However, later on she appears as a showgirl, Julie Jaquette, and it’s this role that I’d like to discuss. Best of all, it’s one of Stout’s best Nero Wolfe stories.

Whenever she’s on screen, Ms Matchett just kills it. Her performance is note perfect and breathtaking. In short, she eclipses everyone and it’s just magical how she brings this quirky character to technicolor life. If you wish to see it, visit YouTube and search for “Death of a Doxy + Kari Matchett”. The complete episode is three down.

If you enjoy good theatre, you will enjoy this production!

Actors have the opportunity to make more of their part than was intentioned by the playwright and craft a performance that is more memorable than what is written. They don’t have to be in a leading role.

And that got me thinking: Could writers do more with minor characters than we generally do? Some writers do this well — I’m thinking Elmore Leonard here — other not so much.

It would be wrong to make every character so quirky and interesting that it overwhelms the story’s arc and slows the plot down to a plod, but might we, well breathe a little more life into minor characters in some cases?

I’ve got to put a lot more thought into this. I may be missing some good opportunities in my WIP.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Breaking Out

We are just about to set off on a research trip. It will be the most adventurous thing we've done since lockdown, apart from having applied a very slightly generous interpretation to the 'three households' allowance and having a forbidden hug or two last weekend.  But you can't take a risk, of the sort you take every time you set out on the motorway,  to celebrate fifty happy years, when can you take it?  And so far at least, we've all survived.

But now we're going to be brave, break out and go to a hotel for a couple of nights.  Neither of us has health issues apart from our age and since the place we're going to has had no new cases for some considerable time we decided it was safe enough to go ahead.  That was admittedly before Covid 19 like a hydra reared its head all over again in Europe and despite the best efforts of government it is affecting us here too.

But my new book - Old Sins, provisionally - is set in the beautiful northwest Highlands of Scotland, and though I know and love it well from many holidays, there is no substitute for checking it out on the ground once you've decided more or less where the action will take place. Memories are famously untrustworthy and from previous research experience there will be something that crops up like a gift to give me a slant I hadn't thought of before - like the lighthouse that simply begged to have a body washed up at its foot. 

My long-suffering husband is my chauffeur and uncomplainingly drives for miles and miles while I look for ... well, whatever it is I need to see.  I can't give him precise directions because I'm looking for a feeling, an atmosphere, that I just can't find on Google Earth, however closely they focus in: the smell of sea air, the colour of the sunset over the mountains, the sound of the waves, the touch of the rain which, since it is the West Highlands, will almost inevitably be falling. (Forecast for Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday next week: rain. Though since it's so unreliable, who knows?)

His reward is a break (tax-deductible, of course) in a hotel with a fine line in seafood  fresh from the water and, of course, the sheer joy of being amid the moors and those extraordinary mountains, dramatic volcanic plugs that rear up from sea-level in a flat, almost lunar landscape.  And even if there's rain about, the natives will tell you, 'If you don't like the weather, wait a minute.'

And I must admit that I'm haunted by the fear that the liberty we have at the moment to do something like this may at any time be taken away and at least we'll have it to look back on when the doors are locked again.