Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Neither a plotter nor a pantser be

I am fascinated by the many approaches writers use to writing a novel, and the attempts they make to conceptualize and pigeonhole their approach. Plotters and pantsers have been around for a while, and now my fellow Type Mers have introduced me to another – the plantser, aptly described by Sybil as a hybrid version. This 'neither here nor there' approach recognizes that writing is a spectrum, not a dichotomy. In fact, although writers may predominantly favour one style, they may use another if the mood or the task requires it. I am much more likely to be a plantser when writing a short story, mostly because short stories don't allow much room for stumbling around wondering where I'm going.

I also used the plotter style for some of my earlier Rapid Reads novellas because the publisher required a thorough outline before offering a contract. With these novellas, like short stories, there is no room for wandering, and the plots are straightforward, linear, and devoid of subplots. It's easy to write an outline in a straight line. 'This happens, which leads to that, and then that...' Even so, when I actually sat down to write the novella, the outline proved inadequate and both characters and storyline became richer. Luckily, few publishers complain when the end result is better than the plan.


Rapid Reads novella

Sybil also described another intersecting spectrum  -- lawful to neutral to chaotic - which I had not heard before, possibly because I avoid reading "how to" books. I don't like to analyze how I write, where my ideas come from and how my characters emerge. For me, there is a certain magic to the writing experience. Ideas come to me from somewhere in the jumbled cauldron of my subconscious, and I'm afraid if I look too closely, they will disappear. I also don't want to follow someone's plan for how to create the perfect novel, complete with heroes' journeys and three thrill points. These guides can be useful at the self-editing stage when you're trying to figure out why on earth the story isn't working, but as a creative aid, they are killers. Too close to paint by number. 

I read Sybil's link on lawful to chaotic styles with great interest. It breaks the process into more elements, like how you create character, what order you write scenes, how you use outlines. I still don't fit into any box, although there are some I never enter, but I generally jump around between pantser and plantser, and between lawful and neutral. 

Note the change of direction at the end 

I was interested to discover that I am rarely chaotic, even though in my mind my process feels quite chaotic. Chaotic as used in this matrix seems to refer to the order in which you move through a story. Do you write scenes out of order, copy and paste or shuffle them around, and end up with a "Frankendraft"? This is the one approach that would never work for me, because each scene grows out of the scene before, and the character's later actions and thoughts evolve out of what they went through before. I will insert scenes or move a scene around during rewrites once I can see the whole story.

It's a useful look at the writing process and entertaining to see how other writers approach it. I actually met a highly successful chaotic plotter (a combination I would not have thought possible). The important point is that there is no right or wrong way to write, just your way, and that depends on your personality, your experience, and the way that magic muse comes to you. What do other writers think? Where do you fit in?

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Sorry I'm so late!

by Rick Blechta


I unexpectedly had to go out of town this morning to pick up something in the nearby city of Hamilton. I only realized after I’d said I could go that today was Tuesday — meaning Type M for Murder.

Anyway, here I my thoughts and observations for this 27th of October, 2020.

The original title of this post was going to be: Book Promotion in this time of COVID, so let’s start from there!

Several months back I was approached by Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library in Florida, to take part in an online authors event. To say the least, I was very honoured to be asked. It’s part of a program called Written By. (I was even more thrilled when I saw how many of my novels and novellas they had in their collection.

Thing is, I’ve never done anything like this online. We had to do a tech check to make sure that I could connect when the rubber hit the road — good thing too because I skidded right off the information highway a couple of times!

The odd thing about the set-up is that I will be speaking to a faceless audience. They will be able to see me and the moderator, but we won’t be able to see them. We can’t speak directly, either, and all questions at the end of my talk will be read by the moderator.

Have things changed over the last several months. Speaking online is something very new to me.

I’m hoping I will be an effective speaker, but not being able to look out over the audience is going to mean I have to just trust that I’m doing a good job. Normally I look at an audience and tailor what I’m saying and the direction in which I’m taking my talk judging by how engaged the audience looks. Having been a school teacher for a good part of my working life, I know how to spot glazed eyeballs! Too bad that ain’t gonna work this time.

That’s all out the window with this assignment, and I have to say I am a bit concerned. Maybe it might be a good idea to take a break in the middle of my talk (the difficulty of writing fiction when the format has to be kept very simple for low-skill readers) and take a few questions from the audience to better gauge where their interests lie. I just don’t know. I’m pretty good at thinking on the fly, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy doing it.

The talk is open to anyone, anywhere, so if you wish to drop by, please do so. I need all the moral support I can muster! Thanks in advance to any of you who can make it.

Here are the deets you need to know:

Wednesday, November 4th at 6:30 PM Eastern Standard Time

It finishes around 7:00

And it’s absolutely free!

Here is the link to sign up: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4279599831956390155 

Support your local Type M for Murder author — and do it from the comfort of your own home. Such convenience!

I thank you. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Cruising the block

I made mention of the guilt writers can feel when not writing last time I was here. Was that really two weeks ago? Time flies when you're having fun. Or when you're dealing with edits from the seventh circle of hell.

The fact is, I can very easily not write. In fact, I am something of an expert. I will seize any excuse not to throw words at the screen and sometimes it's as if there are traps all around my desk preventing me from even reaching it, like Indiana Jones trying to get to the golden figurine at the start of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' 

And I don't even have a bullwhip.

What is also a fact is that when I don't write - if, say, I abandon all hope of getting anything cogent down and I retire to the couch to watch a movie (for instance, Raiders) - the guilt kicks in.

You see, writing is a job and I know I should be doing it. I can make all the excuses I want but in the end I see them for the imposters they are.

The thing is, there are days when I just cannot string words together. That does not mean I have the dreaded writer's block.

I don't believe in writers' block. The Late Terry Pratchett once said, "There is no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write." My apologies to anyone in the Golden State who is reading this. I'm sure Mr Pratchett was wrong.

Philip Pullman said, "Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?"

Whenever I feel my little hand fluttering to my forehead and I sink onto a chaise longue bewailing the fact that my muse has deserted me, I remind myself that I'm a writer and writers write. Right?

By the way, I have never actually done anything like the above. I'm from Glasgow, the toughest city in Scotland, and such behaviour would be viewed with contempt and quite possibly an admonishment to pull oneself together. Swearing and perhaps physical encouragement may also be employed.

So, no writers block but that doesn't mean I don't find myself stuck. There can be many reasons for this, principally the fact that I am not a plotter. I am not even a plantster, as I read here on Type M last week. I am very much a pantster and as such I hit many patches where, frankly, I don't know what the hell is happening.

I wrote around 30,000 to 40,000 words of my book The Dead Don't Boogie before I had to force myself stop and decide what it was actually about. I had all kinds of mayhem going on in Glasgow (it really is a relatively peaceful city despite being the toughest) but with no clear notion as to why. 

So I took myself and my dog off onto the moors to let the Scottish elements blow away the cobwebs. And sometimes just about everything else. The next day, I had a germ of an idea and I was able to complete the draft, then retro fit what I'd already written. 

When you hit a block in the road you either drive round it or, if you are Indiana Jones, drive through it. Sometimes you have to go back and find a different route.

I have come to a shuddering halt with at least two books and could not power through, go round or go back. I began filled with enthusiasm and I knew where I wanted to go but had reached a point where I was questioning why I was actually writing this damn thing. They were examples of an author writing the wrong book. I didn't know it when I began but I sure knew it by the time I found my words, ideas and interest dried up. I wasn't blocked. I just didn't care anymore.

That wouldn't happen to a plotter, I'm sure, but try as I might I don't have the discipline or the patience to go that route.

Here's the thing though - I still feel guilty that I didn't complete those stories. Maybe I will one day, when the time is right.



Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Robots Have Won

Pardon my erratic posting. You'd think with the pandemic lockdown I would've settled into a definite routine but things can get very uncertain with interruptions coming at the last moment. 

The title for this post was inspired by a comment made by Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, and I'll get to that in a bit. Not too long ago, a couple of years maybe but seems like eons in our current conceptual thinking, the big scare was the Robot-apocalypse. Machines would take over and start to push us humans around. Eventually we'd end up in a Terminator world or The Matrix. Now a biological virus has temporarily shelved those fears. 

Back to Scott Adams. He claimed that AI--Artificial Intelligence--is now in charge of human decisions, in other words, the machines have won. His reasoning is that much of what goes online is decided by algorithms administered by AI that can reach across platforms. These algorithms exist for one reason, to maximize profit for the owners of the AI. How this happens is that the AI culls through reactions to what's posted on media--click bait is the most common example. The AI compares what generated the most clicks and delivers reports accordingly to the programmers. AI can now write new algorithms for itself (no need for meat-bag programmers), the measure being what generates the most traffic, not just on social media posts but across the spectrum of electronic content from phones, smart speakers, license plate readers, cash registers, you name it. Powerful computers with enormous banks of memory have you under the microscope. Keep in mind that everything about you is being cataloged--what you wrote, where you go, when were you there, what did you look at, what did you listen to, what did you buy, who was with you? Health monitors and smart watches add your physical vitals. It's possible for AI to track your physiological response to what you look at on Facebook. If you had an intense emotional reaction to a news article, for example, AI knows that, and more importantly, what did you do afterwards? Who did you contact? What did you share? AI has amassed about each of us an extensive glossary of personal trigger words and incorporates them to nudge us toward a desired response. Positive scenario: if we're shopping for a winter coat, the machine knows what styles and colors we prefer and displays the appropriate selections. Negative scenario: if AI, rather its big tech owner, wants us to vote a certain way, then dark trigger words can be used to steer us from the "wrong" decision. 

We've already known people who've been in Facebook jail or demonetized on YouTube because an algorithm decided what they posted was against "community standards." What AI did was read or listen to the content and decide based on certain words that it was inappropriate, regardless of the context. Twitter banned links to the Babylon Bee because the AI didn't understand satire. Sadly, rather than admit the shortcomings of the algorithms, big tech prefers to side with them because in the long term, the gains in massive data harvesting outweigh the occasional stumble.

We've created a symbiotic relationship with AI, which has morphed into a ruthlessly effective parasite because it gives us what we want. We in turn, let it grow and expand and take more and more control. We could unplug from AI but we've become emotionally dependent on its power to provide instant gratification. And every solution we have to the perils of this dependency seem to involve yet a deeper co-dependence. Spending too much time online? Then try this app that monitors your usage and decides when you've had enough.

All this time George Orwell thought we'd have Big Brother forced upon us when instead we willingly climbed into his lap. Little did we suspect that Big Brother would be a robot.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Our Poor State



This picture was taken in the front of my house. The actual fire is miles away. Nevertheless this is what the sky looked like in Fort Collins on Wednesday. 

So many homes have been destroyed, so much acreage and trees. It's heartbreaking. The biggest fire in Colorado history is now competing with the second largest fire in Colorado history. 

I'm sorry to be so late posting this. I'm a little under the weather today. It's difficult to tell at this point what is causing a health problem. Covid, allergies, the flu, and an ordinary cold all have the same systems. Now smoke irritation has been added to the mix. I tend to error on the side of caution and self-isolate rather than risk infecting my friends or my family. 

I intended to report on a terrific talk given by Michael Gear and Kathleen Gear. They were the keynote speakers at the Women Writing the West conference. I'll save it for next time. 

Thanks!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"Thank God for Books"

 “Thank God for books.”

The remark made me smile when she said it and makes me smile again as I write it here. I’d asked my mother, a woman with type 1 diabetes, missing half of one lung after a victorious fight with lung cancer, and 19 heart stents, how her week was.

“Just like every other week since March,” she said, stubbornly. “Thank God for books.”

My mother isn’t one to sit still, and she sure as hell isn’t one to be told what to do by her son. How has she survived her litany of health issues? “Positive outlook,” she says. She likes to “go.” So being told by me (and her granddaughters, her husband, even Dr. Fauci on CNN) that shopping, book club, restaurants, travel –– all of it –– is off the table brings out her stubborn side.

“I’m reading three or four books a week,” she said. We got her a Kindle Fire for Christmas two years back. She reports having 500 books on the thing.

COVID changed lots of things.

I’m teaching over Zoom and wearing a mask in the classroom when I don’t. (My wife says I “have a Fozzie Bear voice,” so the mask only makes it worse.)

The publishing industry has changed, too, and not in a good way. An editor at a small independent house known for eclectic crime titles told me his house had been hurt badly by COVID. The email exchange saddens me because we need those independent publishers (and inde booksellers) if we aren’t going to only read what “the big 5” puts out –– high-concept thrillers.


Our local mystery bookstore recently closed. It was more or less a one-man operation. It was also a place where I could walk in, say, “Give me something I can’t get on Amazon,” and the owner, there day and night, would smile and lead me to a book. His recommendation was a homerun every time.

It’ll be interesting to see how things look from the other side of COVID. A look at the Edgar Award nominees tells us just how important the independent presses are. As we help local businesses stay open, I hope readers also remember their small presses and independent booksellers because my mother’s book-buying habit can’t save everyone. 


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Are you a plantser?

 

I, Sybil Johnson, being of sound mind (not sure about the body) fully admit to being a plantser. Not a plotter or a pantser, but a plantser.

When I first started writing, I put myself squarely in the plotter category even though it didn’t seem quite right. I don’t do the extensive outlining that seems to be common to plotters. But I sure as heck wasn’t a pantser. I could never fly by the seat of my pants. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can work that way even though I know a lot of people who do.

Then I started saying I was a hybrid, which more accurately describes the way I work. I know the crime, the killer, the victim, suspects and most of their secrets (sometimes new ones are revealed during the writing process). I also know how the story starts as well as what happens at key points along the way. I do occasionally change what happens at those key points, but I’ve never yet changed the victim or killer or reason for the crime. I’m open to doing that, however, if it makes a better story. And, finally, I know what the 3 subplots that form the basis of my novel are. But I don’t know as many details as a typical plotter does.

Then I heard the term plantser. A little googling tells me that this term has been around for several years, but I’ve only come across it in the last few months. Basically, the writer who is a plantser takes a little bit from the plotter and a little from the pantser, a hybrid, which I already thought of myself as. Plantser is a much better term and more fun to say.

I don’t know why it makes me feel better about the way I write to have a term for what I am. Doesn’t really change my process. But somehow I feel better knowing that there are enough people out there who work in a similar manner that there’s actually a term for us.

While I was googling, I found this blog post on different Writing Alignment styles: Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic Plotter; Lawful, True and Chaotic Plantser, and Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic Pantsers. Looking at these definitions I’m a mix of Lawful and Chaotic Plantser since I know the ending and write towards it and do some character bios, but I also write out of order and assemble scenes into a “frankendraft”.

I don’t think it matters what your writing style is, but I think it helps to understand a little about the way you write.

Any other plantsers out there?

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The art of the interview

By Rick Blechta
      
I’m currently involved in a non-fiction book project. No, I’m not writing the book, although I’m on tap to either do an introduction or a closing. The project is the biography of a little-known but highly influential guitarist who sadly died far too young. I won’t go into details here since it’s not cogent for this post, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. Somehow I never found the time/energy needed to get the job done myself. Now out of the blue, a publisher in Florida has taken on the task. I got involved because I have a number of hours of interviews with those who knew the guitarist best: the people who played with him.

So I’ve dug out my cassette tapes of those interviews. They are somewhat disappointing because I didn't know then what I do now. I’d made a very fundamental mistake: I interjected myself too much. What I was doing was not a conversation. I should have given these people as much opportunity to speak as possible. My comments didn’t help the interviews along much at all. Yes, I did make some good observations, but I could have done that by myself afterwards. Too often I cut off my interviewees with my own thoughts.

Wrong, wrong, WRONG!

Now why am I bringing this up here?

It’s pretty hard to get through a crime fiction novel without needing some expert help. For instance, unless you’re actually involved in law enforcement, it’s impossible to know everything you’d need to make a police procedural real and believable.

I’m sure everyone who has written fiction has needed questions answered at one time or another. And that leads us to interviews. What I've learned along the way is that you want to get the experts you’re consulting to open up. They may go far beyond the answers to the specific questions you have. They may also give you insights you don’t expect but that can make your novel even better.

In order to do that, you need to ask your questions and then get out of the way.

I learned this key technique in Vienna during the mid-’90s doing research for a novel that became Cemetery of the Nameless. I put it that way because when I first arrived in Vienna, the novel had a very different, dare I say bland title.

During the course of my research I needed specific information on how Viennese law enforcement operated. I knew it was very different than what I was used to.

We were staying a pension west of the main part of town. Our host knew the local policemen, so off we went to the local police shop. First thing I learned is that local police work out of shops. This one had a store selling security items, locks, alarms, etc. in the front with the police offices in the back (a good detail to have in my pocket).

My biggest question was about the ranks of the various officers and how murders would be investigated. I had my trusty cassette player and recorded the whole interview. Problem was they spoke German, so our host translated my questions for the two police officers. It was impossible for me to do much talking since the language barrier added a whole layer of difficulty.

So I’d ask my questions and they’d talk. Sometimes what their answers went on for a long time when I had been expecting a sentence or two. It was obvious they were going off on tangents all over the place. I didn’t find how far until later when the conversation was translated for me. What I got a ton of extra information that could add much to the plot of my novel.

I also unexpectedly got a new title for it.

The story began with a body floating in the Danube River. Who would investigate something like that? My two police officers began talking excitedly about a backwater where floating bodies sometimes washed up. When these poor souls can't be identified, they're buried in a small cemetery nearby called the Friedhof Der Namenlosen (Cemetery of the Nameless).

Later, when I was told what they'd said, I realized my story had a new title. I could never have come up with that good — better yet, it was a real place!

I learned my lesson about interviews that day.

I wish I could go back now and redo those interviews with the musicians. Ask them questions and then get the hell out of their way. I’m sure I would have learned a lot more. Sad thing is, several of them are now no longer with us.

Next time you’re requesting inside information from someone for your books, don’t be like Blechta — well, the old Blechta — by all means ask the questions for which you need answers, but give your experts as much latitude as possible in their answers. I expect you’ll be very surprised with all the extra things you learn.
__________________________
Note: The above cover of my novel is a (highly doctored) photo I took at the Friedhof Der Namenlosen (minus the overlay of Beethoven). Pretty evocative place, isn't it?

Monday, October 19, 2020

Dirty Words


On Friday, Donis wrote an excellent blog about curse words in her writing and in real life. It made me think about the creative writing class that I’ve been teaching. It’s winding up tonight (six weeks goes by in a flash). One of my students is a retired Marine who has served in Afghanistan. He’s a natural storyteller but at the start of our course he was pretty rough around the edges. Nearly every sentence had at least one f-bomb in it.

That shouldn’t come as any surprise. That’s how Marines talk. In the first story he wrote for us, a little girl is shot and killed by accident in a terrifying incident that kept escalating. If those Marines want to swear up a storm, so be it!

Back when I was in the newspaper business, that’s how we talked as well…men and women. That’s just real life.

But that’s not necessarily how we write. One exception to writing comes to mind and that was the HBO television series Deadwood. Nearly everyone in the show dropped multiple f-bombs on a regular basis.

When used that often, it loses its ability to shock.

So how much swearing in a novel is too much? The old cliché offered by people who are offended by cursing is the usage of expletives arises from a lack of imagination.

I don’t agree. The judicious usage of curse words can do a number of things. For one, it can give a sense of realism.

For example, if I was writing a book from a soldier’s point of view, not swearing just wouldn’t be realistic. If I was writing a novel about nuns, I’d most likely rule it out. But I’m writing crime novels. Criminals use some pretty salty language, and so do most journalists I have worked with, and my protagonist is a crime reporter.

Curse words can show powerful moments of anger or despair. If your protagonist has refrained from cursing through most of the book, but at the moment of crisis, she shouts the f-bomb, then you know that this is serious.

On the flip side of all of this, I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago by Laura Steward who was interviewing the author, Brad Parks. He just released a thriller by the name of Interference that is now on my reading list. She asked him an interesting question. Do you use any curse words?

His response was that his agent had given him some advice early in his writing career. Ten percent of readers who encounter expletives will close the book and never pick it up again. Most likely the same thing happens with the author. They’re done with you.

Brad Parks said that he makes his living by writing thrillers. It’s how he pays the bills. He doesn’t want to alienate ten percent of his customer base.

I get it. But I simply can’t make my characters less real to me. I fear that would make them less real to my readers.

So, dammit, I’m going to get off my ass now and go in and finish writing my next mystery. I might even swear a little to get warmed up.

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Hidden Motives

As my colleagues and I have said these are strange, surreal times. Working at home, I sometimes forget what day it is. Friday felt like the weekend. It was my day to post, but I completely forgot because I was trying to get my cat to eat (stomach upset) while grading midterm exams and watching the clock because at 2 pm EDT (11 am PDT), I was going to be on a virtual Bouchercon panel. 

Today, Harry, my cat, finally got hungry enough to eat some of the chicken breast I had cooked for him and then some of his wet food. I made progress on the midterms I've been grading. I watched the Bouchercon Anthony awards, and then I decided to do a quick post here before getting a little more work done. 

I had a breakthrough today as I was listening to a Bouchercon panel on the "villain" in crime fiction. The authors were discussing the importance of making the villain a complex character. This is something I have thought about and have been trying to do as I plod along with my historical thriller. It is the most difficult book I've ever tried to write. I'm sure I'll be able to finish the first draft of my sixth Lizzie Stuart mystery before I get through the first draft of the thriller. 

I've thought about it. I've made multiple starts. Tried first-person narration by multiple characters. Tried third-person POVs and a mix of the two. Began in February and gone forward through 1939. Began in the middle and tried flashbacks. 

If I didn't want to tell this story so much I would have given up long ago. 

But today, while listening to the Bouchercon panel and working on something else, I had a thought. The problem is my "hero" not my villain. I have make my hero too upright, too pure of heart. He is angry. That is what is motivating him, not his belief in truth, justice, and the American way. He wants revenge against the villain for an old wrong. He wants to bring him down. He is lying to himself when he tells himself he is only interested in learning what the villain is up to and stopping him from carrying out his dastardly plot. He wants to bring him down, to pay him back. That's what I should be plotting toward -- that moment when he confronts his rage and has a choice.

Like real people, complex characters have layers, parts of themselves they try to bury because they are afraid of what would happen if they didn't. That's what I need to focus on. I need to push each of my main characters to the limit until they are confronting not only each other but their own demons. 

With the realization, I'm feeling more hopeful that I can pull this off. I even know who has to die. 

And I know where I should begin.

Fingers crossed, but I think it will work.

 

 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Curses

Donis here. I sometimes wish I didn't live in such interesting times. I often find myself scared and depressed, so much so that I'll purposely avoid news and social media for days at a time. My husband doesn't do this. He stays informed and takes it upon himself to inform me, as well.  I can always tell when something alarming has happened by the plethora of salty terms emanating from the den. Don't get me wrong. I don't disapprove of Don's uncivil language. He has no intention of running for Pope.

(Incidentally, when he was in his thirties, my husband informed me that forevermore he was going to be perfect in all things, but after a week he realized that he couldn't stop getting smelly feet after a run, so he gave up his quest for sainthood. But that's another story.)  

I've been known to use less than pristine epithets myself and find them extremely useful in times of stress.   In fact, this brings to mind a dear friend of mine whom I have known since my salad days at the University of Oklahoma. At the time, he was an extraordinarily innocent boy who on frequent occasions would curl your ears with the most astoundingly filthy curses. Because of his sweet face and gentle nature, the effect of this language was not nearly a shocking as it was hilarious, and ever since, for good or ill, I've had quite an affection for dirty words.

I grew up among people whose goal was to curse in the most imaginative language possible, which can really increase your vocabulary if you apply yourself. My mother was particularly good at coming up with ways to express disapproval using only G-rated words. One of her scariest curses was "I heap coals of fire upon him." The words themselves weren't as frightening as her throaty growl and the curl of her lip over her eyetooth. My father had been a Marine, and knew words that I don't understand to this day, but he had a house full of little daughters and controlled his language heroically. He often had the pee-waddin' scared out of him and wondered what in the cat-hair was going on.

When I was writing my Alafair Tucker mysteries, which take place in Oklahoma in the 1910s in a family setting, I was very careful about the language I used, since my characters wouldn't normally use profanity. The series I'm writing now is set in 1920s Hollywood, which is another story altogether. If my characters didn't curse it wouldn't be realistic. Yet I know my audience and try not to be too shocking, which means I try to find creative ways around using f-bombs and hideous racial/sexist epithets.

When I grew up and became an English major, I came to realize that this fashion of cursing is quite Shakespearian. Shakespeare manipulated the English language in such a joyously profane way in order to scorn his fellow man. There are actually several web sites devoted to Shakespearean curses. One of my favorites is http://www.pangloss.com/seidel/shake_rule.html The author, Chris Seidel, has created a page on which he has taken nouns and adjectives from Shakespearian curses and divided them into three columns. You take one from column A, one from column B, and one from column C, and "curse with the the best of Shakespeare." Examples follow:

Fie, you bawdy, dog-hearted malignancy!

             you rank, onion-eyed rudesby!

             you whoreson, fat-kidneyed pantaloon!

             you knarling, rump-fed moldwarp!

Have a nice day just doesn't have the same ring.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Spies among us

Rick's Monday post was sobering. Not only because of the many ways we can be monitored and tracked and spied on, but also because this technology changes and evolves all the time. So even if we writers do include the most up-to-date gadgetry in our latest opus, by the time it has wended its way through the glacial publishing process and arrived on bookstore shelves, the technology will be out of date. And some astute reader will call us out.

But we can but try. Technology has facilitated the job for our characters in many ways. How many times has one of our characters looked up needed information in the middle of a case, or Googled someone to find out background? How many times have they used alerts, GPS, and whatnot to guide them through their day. But technology has also made plot twists more challenging. We can no longer make our characters lost in the wilderness (either urban or rural), when a reader would just say, Turn on your map app, idiot! We can no longer place our characters in peril without a reader yelling Why don't you call 911? Or your mother? We writers have to go to great lengths to get around this instant world-at-our-fingertips. Batteries have to die or the phone has to be dropped in water, both of which make the character look inept, or the character has to be in a dead zone, of which there fewer and fewer. At least in Canada in the dead of winter, batteries seem to have a life of about five minutes, so it's still possible for a character to be caught out unexpectedly.

Back in the mists of time, when my eldest was a newborn and neither cellphones nor personal computers were around, we bought a marvellous new-fangled gadget called a baby monitor. (Aside: look this up on Google and you'll find the first baby monitors were developed in 1937 in response to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). We placed the recorder by the crib and took the receiver downstairs with us. It had two channels, A and B. We selected one at random and were delighted to be able to monitor our daughter's every breath. One day, being daring, I switched to the other channel, and suddenly, out of the blue, we were listening to a ferocious argument of our neighbours down the street! Ummm, talk about too much information. As a crime writer, however, I immediately saw the potential of this device for a crime story.

Since then, technology has intruded further and further into our lives, with some of us preferring to hide under our bed to stay out of the digital spotlight, and others embracing each new invasion. Today, that same daughter lives in a "smart home" where everything is wirelessly connected. She can sit in Ottawa and watch the Uber Eats driver delivering her family's food to their house in Toronto. She can play with the temperature in their house and add items to their grocery list. Clearly, most of us don't mind being ruled by that little round gadget on the counter that seems to know every aspect of our lives. No chance for sneaking around behind your spouse's or parents' backs with this home!


This summer we were up at my cottage, where life is still pretty simple. We bring our smart phones and laptops with us to stay connected on the mobile network, but there is no wifi and we waste very little time online. One day we were all sitting in the living room, glumly watching the rain pour down the window panes, and I wistfully remarked, "What's the weather going to be tomorrow, does anyone know?" And my two year-old granddaughter, sitting on the sofa beside me, pipes up "Why don't you ask Google?"

In a flash I remembered that baby monitor that watched over her mother all those years ago, and I thought, what a change in one generation. Could anyone have imagined it? And can we imagine what the next generation will bring?

That, of course, is the landscape of science fiction writers, not crime. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

How many of us realize this?

by Rick Blechta

For several reasons I’ve been thinking about the state of our (digital) world for the past several weeks.


When creating crime fiction, we writers need to always be aware of how technology can affect our plots. It really doesn’t make any difference if one is writing in current times, the near future, or far in the past. It matters — unless one is setting a plot far in the future, in which case the sky’s the limit for anything technological.


For the purpose of this post, though, let’s talk about today, right now, what’s going on around us about which we may not be as aware as we should be.


How many of us own “smart” phones? I’ll bet nearly every hand has gone up.


Some things I’ve found out about our phones are pretty jaw-dropping:


As long as your phone is turned on, police can track wherever you are, most times within a couple of feet. They only need a court order to obtain that data from your phone service provider.


Your phone calls and text messages can also be easily monitored. Ever hear of a  StingRay? It’s a device law enforcement can use that mimics cell phone towers. Set one up nearby a person they want to surveil and voila! Every single active cell phone in that area will go through the StingRay.


Think about that one for a moment. Say you live in an building where a bad guy the cops are after also lives. You make an innocent phone call. It will be swept through the StingRay and can be listened to, if the person(s) monitoring all those calls wants to listen. That’s sort of frightening, isn’t it?


And I’ll bet some of the bad guys also have access to this technology.


Cellphone spying software is also readily available — to everyone who wants to pay for it (and it's surprisingly affordable too).


According to Wikipedia, “Cellphone spying software can be downloaded onto cellphones. Cellphone spying software enables the monitoring or stalking of a target cellphone from a remote location with some of the following techniques:

  • Allowing remote observation of the target cellphone position in real-time on a map
  • Remotely enabling microphones to capture and forward conversations. Microphones can be activated during a call or when the phone is on standby for capturing conversations near the cellphone.
  • Receiving remote alerts and/or text messages each time somebody dials a number on the cellphone
  • Remotely reading text messages and call logs
  • Cellphone spying software can enable microphones on mobile phones when phones are not being used, and can be installed by mobile providers.” Or the cops or nearly anyone who has access to your phone.

So you’re busily working on your latest thriller or police procedural, you’ve got to know this stuff or risk losing credibility with your readers.


Makes life a lot more complicated, doesn’t it? 


Not only that, you now have something else to worry about in your day-to-day life.


Let’s all go back to landlines and rotary-dial phones. No, wait… Those can be bugged too.

Monday, October 12, 2020

You can’t handle the tooth

Let me just say this now – toothache is not a lifestyle choice I would recommend.

Late last year I began having trouble with a tooth at the back. It was loose, rubbing against the one in front and giving me some discomfort. After a while my dentist said it would have to come out and an appointment was set for the following week.

Then lockdown hit here in the UK and dentists were ordered to lay down their drills and step away from the chair.

I was told I would have to live with it for now. And I did, manfully putting up with the pain. I’m a Scot. If we can put up with bagpipes, we can put up with anything. (Author’s note: I actually love the skirl of the pipes).

And then it went away and stayed away for a few months.

Then, suddenly, it came back. I bombarded it with painkillers. It vanished again.

You can’t keep a good pain down, however, for it returned and stronger than before. Then it stopped again.

It was as if it as playing with me.

Then, last Monday, it returned again while I was in picturesque Glen Trool in south west Scotland (I’ve included a photograph just so you can see what you folks are missing).



And this time it seemed personal. No painkillers could overcome it. It resisted all attempts to dull it down.

Frankly, I’ve never experienced pain like it. Yes, I know I should try child bearing but as I am a) not physically equipped for such an endeavour and b) not Big Arnie in ‘Junior’ I am unlikely to experience that so I have no frame of reference. Take my word for it, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being no pain and 10 being exposed to any kind of reality TV, toothache is a big fat 20.

All this means I wrote nothing for a number of days and the subsequent guilt stabbed at me in counterpoint to the ache radiating from my offending molar.  

I have managed to arrange an emergency appointment tomorrow – given I made it last Thursday clearly not much of an emergency but that’s the way of it at the moment. In the UK we are in a strange twilight world of not quite lockdown and dentists don’t offer full services.

That prospect now gives me something else to worry about. I haven’t had a tooth extracted since I was a child and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m terrified. I have visions of the dentist washing his hands carefully and then turning to ask me ‘Is it safe?’

I’m sure he won’t be drilling Szell-like into a healthy tooth but it’s amazing how powerful scenes from films – and of course William Goldman’s masterful book – stick in the mind. Especially with someone like me.

Seriously, though, I just want this damn thing out of my head. I’m certain there will be discomfort but that’s a small price to pay to stop this agony.

I’ve also been assured the process is painless but we’ll see about that when I bite him.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Gong Show, Anyone?

I want to moderate the next debate. Let's resurrect the gong show. Every time a speaker ignores a question that could be answered with a simple yes or no, and launches into an off-topic tirade the moderator would clash cymbals. The louder, the better. 

Honestly, during the vice-presidential debate both candidates immediately steered the conversation around to their pet topic and the points they were determined to make. A virtual debate would be perfect. The moderator would simply mute their mikes when their time is up. 

Here are some gongable moments for writers when we wish we could mute the speaker.

Writers' panels where a fellow panelist simply will NOT stick to the question, but persists in reading prepared remarks. Or worse, when the moderator dominates the panel and constantly asserts his or her glorious credentials.

Panels that reached the stage of "now we will answer questions from the audience" and a person stands and give a personal promotional speech. The moderator can ask "is there a question in there somewhere?" but it does no good. The speaker continues to tell us about his or her publishing experiences.

A book signing when a fan holds up the line to tell you the entire plot of the fantastic book they've written? Or in my case--since I'm a historian--their family history. This is doubly frustrating to me because I'm often really interested in their family's story. But the next person in line isn't. I'm definitely not interested in the plot of their book. 

An acquaintance who suggests that they give you an idea, you do the writing and "we'll split the money." Hot dog. If they only knew. What money? Besides, I usually have six good ideas before breakfast every morning. It's the writing that's hard. 

Persons who give us business advice. Everything from improving our website to the joys of self-publishing. I absolutely know I could and should be doing more on social media. I could and should be doing more with my family, attend more Zoom events sponsored by my brave little church, and figure out ways to support my community of Fort Collins as it copes with the twin demons of fires and coronovirus. 

Persons who give us unsolicited mini-writing lessons for improving our books. They have never published one themselves, understand, but instinctively know they could do a better job than nearly any other author out there. They would be glad to read our next manuscript and offer helpful suggestions before it reaches the publisher. 

Well at least the recent vice-presidential debate didn't make me cry. I confess the last presidential debate did. 


Thursday, October 08, 2020

Reading in a Time of Chaos

I loved Frankie’s post “Writing in a Time of Chaos” last week, about writing in the wake (that’s the right word, I think) of all that is going on in the current political climate. And it got me thinking about how I choose to deal with nights like the presidential debate (not the right word, I think).

I’m supposed to watch the debates, right? Civil duty and all that. Be an informed citizen and voter and all that. And, as an educator, I ought to know what the kids will see, so we can discuss argumentation and debate. (Really, John, are that naive?) So I had a late cup of coffee and was ready to watch.

Or so I thought.

I turned the TV off at 9:30 and went upstairs to the safety of my Kindle, where I could make like an ostrich.


The truth is, I’m reading more than ever.

I live a pretty simple life, really. I spend time with my family, I write, teach, try to exercise daily, enjoy a glass of bourbon after dinner with a good fire pit, and I try not to get too high or too low (a mid-lister can’t afford to do either, can he?). But watching the debate, my reaction was similar to Frankie’s. No need to go into details, but you can guess what I think of the man.

I’ve been reading to quiet my mind at night. As a news junkie (I was a newspaper reporter before I went into teaching), I’ve found that reading helps me sleep. Not this night. Not after what we all witnessed. I reached for my Kindle (I’m bouncing between an old Travis McGee book, One Fearful Yellow Eye, and K.C. Constantine’s Saving Room for Dessert), fell asleep about an hour later, but then woke at 1:30 a.m. Like an idiot, I reached for my phone to see how the debate ended.

I read my CNN app and was even angrier. Even Travis McGee couldn’t put me at ease. I never fell back asleep, which made the next day a 20-hour marathon.

If there’s a silver lining (and, I always look for one) in the political chaos we’re living in right now it’s that I’m reading more than ever: Bluebird, Bluebird; Dark Rooms; Cold a Long Time; This Tender Land.

A loaded Kindle is a great thing these days.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Halloween Oldies But Goodies

 

We live in very strange times. Thomas’ post on Monday reminded me just how crazy the world is right now. Every day seems to bring something unexpected and generally not welcome. When the history books talk about 2020, I’m not sure readers will believe any of it.

Right now I’m a little tired of the real life drama so I’ve decided to spend some time this month watching classic black-and-white movies with haunted houses, ghosts, vampires and mummies come to life. I have a bunch of them on DVD. Here’s what I’m watching:

1) The Uninvited (1944) with Ray Milland. This came out on DVD a couple years ago, remastered audio and video. A very good haunted house/ghost movie with a mystery attached. My favorite of the ones I own. This is based on a book of the same name by Dorothy Macardle that was reissued a few years back and is available in various formats. Haven’t read it yet, but I plan to.

2) The Haunting (1963) with Julie Harris. This is based on Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. Another haunted house, lots of psychological stuff here. Great version.

3) Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi. Part of the Universal Studios Classic Horror Collection.

4) The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff. Another Universal Studios Classic Horror film. I also enjoy the four sequels, which are nowhere near as good but still fun to watch.

5) House on Haunted Hill (1959) with Vincent Price. Directed by William Castle.

6) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.

7) 13 Ghosts (1960) Also directed by William Castle. A more campy ghost story. Fun to watch.

On the TV side there’s The Addams Family, which I remember watching and loving when it was on TV, and Dark Shadows, the supernatural soap opera that I ran home from school to watch. Both from the 1960s.

What are you all watching this month?

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Tom is right!

by Rick Blechta

We’re all currently living inside a thriller novel.

If you haven’t read Tom’s post yesterday, you should. He lays it all out very well so I won’t repeat it.

When 9/11 happened, I was north of Toronto, rehearsing with a band I formed back in 1973 right after graduating from university. We had decided it was high time to do a reunion gig and once again play some terrific music in a one-night-only show. Our bass player, who had done very well in life, owned a beautiful compound out in the woods of Muskoka, so we went up there to spend a week rehearsing and enjoying once again being together.

The second day, I was dealing with some business email before rehearsal began when said bassist came in to tell me that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. I came over to the main house and spent the next five hours watching endless loops of the unbelievable collapse of the NYC’s two largest buildings. I’ve always felt it would be the most surreal moment of my life.

A friend who lives near 106th and Broadway had fallen asleep in the early hours of September 11th, 2001, watching a movie on TV. He woke around 10 in the morning to see the news coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center. For several minutes, he thought he was watching another movie. It was only when he heard multiple sirens of emergency vehicles racing down Broadway that he got up and opened his curtains. He could normally see the twin towers at the far end of Manhattan Island.

They were no longer there. He told me later that the hair on his neck stood on end.

I was told of an author — whose name I can’t remember at the moment — who, in the late ’90s tried to sell the idea of a thriller the plot of which eerily paralleled what happened on that day. It even included the attack on Washington, although he had the White House being destroyed instead of the Pentagon.

He was rejected by every publishing house to whom he submitted his synopsis because it was felt the plot was “grotesquely unbelievable.”

Those two words have stuck with me all these years. It so perfectly describes what happened that day.

And now we’re living through something that can also best be described as grotesquely unbelievable. Tom’s post lays it all out. Late yesterday and this morning, it became even more grotesque.

Could anyone five or more years ago have sold a thriller whose plot was what the USA is now going through? I highly doubt it. It’s all just too bizarre, too unbelievable. At their heart, thrillers have to give readers a plot they would feel could possibly happen. Stray from that truism, and your book would not have success.

I spent the first 19 years of my life in the States. I’m still a citizen, but living in Canada — where I am now also a citizen — I can only shake my head in wonder and sorrow at the upheaval that is going on down south. It is like the plot of a completely out of control thriller — unbelievable and jarring. All we can do is helplessly keep turning pages to find out how it all ends.

I fervently hope the ending is a happy one — but I have my doubts.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Recipe for a Thriller No One Will Believe


 Let’s put together a recipe for a kick ass thriller, shall we?

Hmmm…the time should be an election year.  The setting should be a polarized nation in the throes of unrest in the streets, protests against systemic racial injustice.  Let’s throw in some ultra-right-wing white supremacists wearing camouflage and carrying weapons. And the ultimate backdrop is a pandemic that has effectively dismantled the economy and killed more that 200,000 Americans. 

That should catch the reader’s attention.

Let’s not stop there.  When you’re writing a thriller or a mystery, you have to turn up the heat.  Let’s not let the reader get too comfortable.

A much-loved Supreme Court justice has passed away only weeks from the election.  Even better, mail-in ballots have started coming in. In effect, the election is already underway.  Over howls of protest, one faction of the Senate pushes to confirm a justice, even though four years before, they denied confirming a judge under another president they didn’t like. 

Ah, good, now the clock is ticking.  But how can we ratchet up the tension?

How about if the current president introduced his pick for supreme justice in the Rose Garden of the White House and hardly anyone in the audience wore a mask and sat shoulder to shoulder.  Remember…this is in the middle of a pandemic.

Hmmm…I wonder if that would stretch believability.

Well then how about a debate?  While the two candidates square off on stage, one candidate’s family and friends sit shoulder to shoulder and aren’t wearing masks.  Plus, get this, the debate goes off the rails. One of the candidates turns the evening into a hectoring mess of lies and insults. Even the moderator can’t get it under control.

I’ll bet my publisher would say, “That would never happen.”  

Now the plot twist that the readers should have seen coming a mile away.  The president, his wife, many of his staff, and guests at the Rose Garden event are now infected with the virus. Two of them are senators on the judicial committee who will be critical to confirming the next supreme court judge. 

The president is flown to Walter Reed Hospital.

No, I don’t know how this thriller ends.  It hasn’t been written yet. 

But if I WERE the author, I’d start over.  It’s just too damned crazy. 

Friday, October 02, 2020

Writing in Time of Chaos (2)

At around 12:50 am, I found time to set down in front of my computer and start to work on my post for today. I had switched on CNN to catch up on the news that I had been ignoring all day as I held a Zoom meeting with students getting ready for our midterm exam next week and then have a Zoom interview that I had been invited to do. The Zoom interview -- about an upcoming mystery conference that I attend annually -- had been fun. But it was at the end of a busy week, followed by a final group meeting with students. 

When I turned on CNN, I was thinking of the news as background noise. I monitor the news constantly because I study crime, justice, and mass media. This morning, when Don Lemon signed off at 1 am, I was about to get a cup of tea. Then the British anchor person who followed him moved immediately into "Breaking News." She quickly sent the anchor desk back to Lemon -- and I as quickly forgot what my post was going to be about. 

I still can't remember this morning because I've been listening to all of the experts discussing the various scenarios when a president of the United States comes down with an unpredictable virus. Of course, this becomes even more complicated when the administration is not inclined to be forthcoming about what is happening in the White House. 

So, what is happening in the world is again making it difficult for me -- and I'm sure all of you -- to focus and write.  To perhaps get much of anything done without multiple emotions keeping our stomachs and minds churning. 

Here's what I intend to do:

1. Go outside.

Even though the sun isn't out and I'll need a jacket. I am going to take a walk and breath. Except for one afternoon when I sit for a half hour absorbing the warmth of the sun, I've been inside all week.

2. Text a friend 

To talk about our week and how we are navigating the world.

3. Work through my to do-list

This last is important. When I am distracted, the one strategy I can depend on to get me through is to put my head down and work my list. Simply being in motion doing tasks that don't require great thought re-sets my mind and gives me a sense of control. After I've gone to the post-office and mopped the kitchen floor and done midterm study guides and all the other home and work tasks I need to do, I should be ready to shut out the chaos and write.

I hope. 

 



Thursday, October 01, 2020

In Memory of Happier Days


Watercolor of the kitchen garden behind our apartment in France

 First of all, I (Donis) want to say "Welcome, welcome, Douglas!"

Second,  I was going to write about writing today, but after watching last night's "debate", I am in a mood. We don't want to go into what kind of mood that is. I remember an incident from 1968, when I was a fiery young thing; my grandmother, who lived through 2 world wars, the 1918 epidemic, death, divorce, and the Great Depression, said to me, "I've seen some hard times in this country, but I've never seen anything like this." I wonder what she'd say now? I'm not a young thing any more. I've been through my own crap. This is not the atmosphere I wanted to spend my Golden Years in.

I find myself thinking about better times, when the United States was looked upon with admiration by many in the rest of the world. In July 1969, a girlfriend and I were in Italy when the first men landed on the moon. For the next few weeks, Italians and other random Europeans would stop us on the street as soon as they realized we were Americans and offer their congratulations.

On one trip to Yorkshire, my husband and were followed around by a bunch of kids who were fascinated to meet actual Americans.

A few years after the moon landing, my husband and I lived for a brief time in a beautiful little town in southern France called Cagnes-sur-Mer. Cagnes sits on the Mediterranean coast almost exactly between Nice and Cannes, and was at one time the home of Auguste Renoir. Which may tell you something about its portrait-worthiness.

We rented a little apartment on the second floor of a building about one block from the beach. I say “beach”, which technically I suppose it is, but do not envision sunny stretches of golden sand. The beach was made up of rocks. Perfectly polished round or ovoid black rocks just big enough to fit in the palm of your hand, smoothed by the sea and tide. Pretty in their own way, but after sitting on them for a while, one ended up with an interesting pocky pattern on one's behind. The beach also seemed to be clothing-optional, but that's another story.

We had no television in our little two room apartment - a living/sleeping area and a well-stocked kitchen. Very French. Don and I spent delightful days cooking, painting, and wandering. The little market down the street is the first place I ever saw Yoplait and Nutella. Don spoke fair French but at the time I did not. After a few weeks, though, I could get around fairly well, especially at the market where I could ask for une otre chau with the best of them.

Often we went down to the beach and watched people harvest mussels from the rocks while we read or drew. Some days we would walk up the long hill to the Haute de Cagnes, where a gold-colored 14th Century Grimaldi castle dominates the town. Once a week, we would hop on the train and make the 20 minute ride into Nice to spend the day. My husband is an art lover, with an art history degree and several years experience running an art library. So we saw every art show that came through, and there were plenty. I got quite an education in French art of all eras, but especially Post-Impressionism. The day in Nice always ended with a stroll down the Promenade des Anglaise and a visit to the English-American Library near the Anglican Church on the Rue de France, where we would check out as many books as we were allowed. I loved that library. We developed a relationship with the volunteer librarian, an Englishwoman whose name I unfortunately cannot remember. She told me that the library had been in business continuously since the 1820s, except for a few years during World War II, when the local Nazi commander ordered it closed since it was a meeting place for the resistance. In response, patrons began to spirit books out of the building, and after the war the library reopened with what they had saved. The librarian also told me that the official who had ordered the library closed made away with a boxcar-load of books for his own personal collection. They thought those books were lost forever until the rail car, books and all, was located on a siding outside of Lyon after the Germans left France.

Nostalgia may not be useful in correcting our current difficulties, but sometimes I find myself escaping back to happier times just to give myself a break!