Friday, October 15, 2021

Animal Stories

 The posts from Charlotte, Rick, and Donis over the past week struck a chord. I have to admit that as much as I love Fergus, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who turned one year old on October 2, and Penelope, my Maine Coon, who I adopted this past spring, I sometimes feel like a frazzled mother of toddlers. Last week, I actually heard myself warning Fergus, who bounces and zooms through life, to "Stop chasing your sister!"  At which point both dog and cat stopped dead and turned to stare at me. Were they wondering about that "sister" thing? Or confused by my tone because they had been playing when Penelope ran with Fergus on her tail. Obviously, they were puzzled.

In fact, they both spend a lot of time looking at me while I carry on conversations with them about whatever is going on. I am the leader of their pack. Penelope stares at me with a feline's unblinking gaze or meows if she would like to have her face and chin stroked. Fergus tilts his head, as if he understands what I am saying. But, according to an article I read, that has more to do with his floppy ears and orientating to hear better than being an expression of his intelligence. He is certainly not listening for further instructions. The word "No" means nothing to him when he is chewing on an electric wire and about to send himself up in a puff of smoke or running with my reading glasses in his mouth, stopping at a distance to watch me go for his "training treats" to pay his ransom demand. He needs training -- training in obedience, schooling on not ignoring the commands that he knows but only deems to follow when it suits him. We are going to an obedience class as soon as I can find one that isn't already at capacity with other people who have puppies acquired during the pandemic. In the meantime, strangers pause to tell me how "adorable" he is and he greets them like long-lost friends. "Everyone loves Fergus," the owner of his doggie daycare told me. 

I have returned late to pets ("companion animals"). For much of my adult life after college and beyond, I had no animals in my life. Then I bought a house and almost accidentally adopted Harry because I saw that the local shelter had a Maine Coon, and I wanted to see one of the big cats that I had written into my book, The Red Queen Dies. The cat in the book was there for a reason. The cat, who had only a walk-on-scene, held the secret to the mystery. 

In that same book, Hannah McCabe, my Albany police detective, and her partner, Mike Baxter, run into her first partner, now retired, while visiting the University at Albany campus. As in real-life, the university mascot is a Great Dane, and McCabe's ex-partner has one in tow and reminds her again about adopting a puppy. At the end of the book, she brings home a huge puppy that is such a mix of various breeds that both her father and her brother, from whom she has been estranged, are in awe. Discussing names for the puppy gives them a warm, family, moment. At the end of the second book, What the Fly Saw, another character sees the dog and suggests a name -- and shares an important moment of rapport with McCabe. My animals are in my books because they move the plots along and reveal something about the characters. Why else would a black cat have attended a seance in the same book? Would I be that campy for the fun of it?  

 George, a yellow Labador mix, debuted in A Dead Man's Honor, the second book in my Lizzie Stuart series, and became a continuing character. I didn't consciously think about adding a dog to the series. It was one of those moments when something happened -- Lizzie arrived at John Quinn's house and discovered he had a dog. A dog he had rescued from the side of the highway and had not intended to keep. But he had, and his bashfulness in talking about being a softie when it came to a stray dog gave Lizzie a glimpse of another side of the former military police officer, ex-homicide cop. George becomes the victim of a crime in Old Murders. He survives and recovers, but the incident is a turning point in the book.

In Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave, George is left at home, but he manages to "skunk up" Quinn's beloved Bronco before Lizzie and Quinn leave for a weekend visit with Quinn's friends. Thanks to George's pursuit of a skunk, Quinn is driving Lizzie's Ford Escort when they are in an auto accident soon after arriving on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The accident launches the subplot involving migrant laborers.

So far, no animals have appeared in the flesh in my 1939 historical thriller. But the senator's housekeeper has reported that his niece, Evelyn, has gone out riding. She has a conversation with the niece's suitor about Evelyn's outrage about the death of a horse during the making of a western movie (a true story). Since several of the characters are going to Saratoga, undoubtedly a race horse will have a role. Evelyn's suitor owns a plantation in Georgia. Is he the kind of man who has a dog that walks by his side? I don't know yet. If he doesn't, is it because of something that happened when he was a child? Something that helped to shape his character?

I have an aunt who doesn't like cats. She will probably never come to visit me with Penelope and Fergus in residence. I have a feeling there is a story somewhere in that. In the meantime, my first Jo Radcliffe novel, set in 1949, will be about the murder of a mean-tempered village storeowner who claimed the dog of a homeless World War II veteran bit him.  


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Zeros

I enjoyed Rick's and Charlotte's latest Type M Entries about using pets our novels (though I'm sorry about Charlotte's grandson losing his friend and companion Mayzie). Rick says he doesn't include animals in his books. I certainly do, especially in the Alafair Tucker Mysteries. That series is set on a farm in the 1910s. Their lives revolve around animals, both companion animals, hunting partners, and dinner, so I pretty much had to include them. In the Bianca Dangereuse books, set in Hollywood in the 1920s, my protagonist grew up on said farm and can't imagine a life without animals. 

 In my mind this ties in with my thoughts about Vicki Delany's new series set in 1953. I cannot wait to read it. 1953 is about the time I was becoming aware of the world. The very mention of the year catpulted me back to that time, the feel of it, the way it looked, the smell of it. The beloved peopl, all gone now, who populated the little world I lived in when I was a small child. It's funny how a word, a thought, a conversation, can evoke memories and feelings you thought you had long forgotten.
The building in the distance is where Grandma's cafe was located from the late 1920 to 1970. I took this photo in 2018. Even the building is gone now. 

 A few days ago, my husband and I were driving down the street discussing candy bars. He’s one of the few people in the world who doesn’t like chocolate, so we were trying to think of as many non-chocolate candy bars as we could. I mentioned Zeros, and suddenly was transported back half a century, to Boynton, Oklahoma, and the eatery that my grandmother owned for over forty years, Mrs. Casey’s Cafe, on Main Street. 

That cafe was a very large part of my childhood, since we traveled to Boynton from Tulsa every other weekend to visit my dad’s mom, and we kids spent at least two weeks with my grandmother every summer. Our two summer weeks were no vacation, either. My grandmother couldn’t afford to take time off from her cafe, so she put us to work. I imagine that at the time we were like any other family ristorante in Italy or corner cafe in Greece, where a ten year old with a dishtowel wrapped around his waist comes to your table to take your order. I don’t know what Family Services would say these days about all the times I carried a tray full of open beer bottles to the men in the back room when I was pre-pubescent, or fried up hamburgers on the grill, or stood on a step stool in the kitchen to wash up glasses in a sink full of lukewarm dishwater. 

 Her cafe was a very small affair; a counter with half a dozen twirling stools that we kids made good if annoying use of, and three booths. Every weekend that we went down there, one of the rituals my sisters and I indulged in was to take a small paper sack and fill it with candy bars from the display behind Grandma’s counter to take home with us. We were thoughtless and greedy little buggers, and it never occurred to me that this was costing my grandma money. I hope that my father reimbursed her. I wasn’t aware of it, but knowing Grandma, she probably did bill him. 

 There were certain candies and treats that she always stocked, such as Hershey Bars, Mounds, Milky Ways, Snickers, Mr. Goodbar, Baby Ruth, Butterfingers, Three Musketeers, Pay-Days, Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes. But there were others that only made an occasional appearance, and we would snap those up with delight when they did show up. One of these was the aforementioned Zero Bar, which resembled a Milky way, except for the fact that it was white chocolate, or something-that-would-be-called-white-chocolate-in-the-future. I don’t remember that term being in wide use back in the olden days. I also kept a sharp eye out for Heath Bars, Brown Cows, Almond Joy, Krackles, and good old Hostess Sno-Balls, which came in white and pink. I liked the white. Pink snow balls just seemed wrong to me. We didn’t neglect the chewing gum, either. My sister liked Double Bubble and Juicy Fruit, but both were too sweet for me. I liked Spearmint and Beeches Clove gum. I can’t say I enjoyed bussing tables every summer all that much, but I’m sure it was good for my character. Perhaps one of the reasons I write about food so much in my fiction doesn’t have something to do with the experience. 

I wonder if they still make Zeros?

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Going to the wild side


 Barbara here, at last. Although I'm not sure anyone missed me, I have been AWOL from this blog for the past month and only remembered this week's post rather late in the game. Life has been getting in the way, but most of it is boring stuff about cottage close-ups, laundry, broken washing machines, thanksgiving prep, and such.

The only really interesting reason for my negligence was my sixteen-day trip out to Vancouver Island to research the next Amanda Doucette novel, which is set in the Pacific Rim area on the wild west coast of Vancouver island. Each Amanda book is set in a different iconic location across Canada, starting in the far east on the island of Newfoundland, then moving to Quebec's Laurentian mountains, Ontario's stunning Georgian Bay archipelago, and then the fascinating, slightly spooky Alberta badlands. In this fifth book, Amanda has finally reached the western extremity of Canada. 

Not every region has been represented, and I apologize for that, but had I chosen to include every province and territory, I would be closing in on a hundred years old before penning that last book. I did write about the north in my Inspector Green book, THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, and should my publisher and I decide to do a sixth Amanda book, it would be set in the north.

In choosing my locations, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the incredible beauty and diversity of Canada's landscape and culture. Not only is the rugged, rocky coast of Newfoundland very different from the parched moonscape of the Alberta's badlands, but the lifestyle and daily preoccupations of its people are unique as well. To do justice to this uniqueness, I needed to visit each place I wrote about. While I was more familiar with Newfoundland, Quebec, and Ontario, my knowledge of the badlands was more limited and my knowledge of the wild Pacific Rim was non-existent. There is only so much one can learn by parachuting into a place and racing around it, taking notes and photos, talking to people, and trying to walk in my characters' shoes, but it is still better than the internet, books, and maps (although I did use those too). Nothing gives the sounds, sights, smells, and feel of a place quite like being there. 

The spirit of Tofino

Naure is awe-inspiring, and there is an emotional and spiritual impact to standing in the middle of it. Before I stood on the endless beach near Tofino, listening to the breakers gather and crumble and watching the surfers rise and fall, I would never have appreciated the soft, yellow luminescence of the early morning sun. Nor the humid, vibrantly green rain forest, which is both soaring and claustrophobic at the same time. I had pictured Amanda bushwhacking through the forest to get from one place to another, something that is difficult enough in eastern forests, but impossible in that dense, choked greenery. Had I not walked those forests myself and corrected my descriptions, I would have lost many readers who should have been immersed in the story.

Rainforest perspective


So in the interests of bringing a vivid, credible story to life, I spent sixteen days and took two day-kayak trips in different parts of the area, a whale watching trip in a Zodiac in three metre ocean swells, a bear watching trip along the inner shores of the many inlets, and a seaplane flight over the coastal islands that form the backbone of my story. I hiked numerous trails, walked for miles along the beaches, rolled up my jeans and walked barefoot in the surf, and visited the location of the local cemeteries and the old hippie commune at Wreck Bay. Now I have to incorporate what I learned into the book.

Long Beach in a storm

Sixteen days is not long to get the sense of a place, but it will be better than nothing. The pandemic nearly ruined all my plans. Closures and quarantine requirements, not to mention the dangers of social interactions, meant I'd had to cancel a previous trip and write a lot of the book beforehand on sheer guesswork. Even now, several of the hikes and activities central to the book are still closed, and one of the islands is still completely off limits to tourists. The famous Wildside Heritage Trail on Flores Island, which is in the book and which I had planned to hike, was closed, as were the Hot Springs. 

My acknowledgements will have to include a caveat and an apology for all the things I might get wrong, but I am trying my best to do justice to an astonishing place.

Plus, it was a fabulous trip!


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Pet peeves

by Rick Blechta

I’ve used this title before for one of my weekly posts on Type M, but this post is different. It’s actually about pets, not things that annoy me.

The germ for my post today came from two sources: firstly from Charlotte’s post this past Friday, and secondly because our elderly cat is obviously reaching the end of her days.

I do understand people’s attachment to their pets. Our family dog when I was growing up slowly became my dog because I was the one who usually walked him and we went all over our small town together. Yes, I was upset when Spunky finally shucked his mortal coil while I was attending university in Montreal — but I got over it pretty quickly, which is odd because I’m normally a pretty emotional person.

Why is this? Because when I was in high school I had a weekend job for two years working at a local animal hospital. You pretty quickly begin to understand that pets’ lives are far shorter than their owners. I also realized that when you got a pet, you had to understand that this would eventually happen or it could drive someone to serious despair. This realization hardens you pretty effectively to the eventual death of pets.

My wife and I have always had cats. When you’re busy with life and not home much, and often at irregular hours, cats are a much better pet solution than dogs. Over the years we’ve had six. Our current feline, Abby (short for Abby Normal), was originally our son Jan’s pet. When he had to let her go for various reasons, we said we’d take over.

While a real character as a young cat, Abby is now 13 and her health is catching up with her. Based on her medical conditions, she only has a few months left. Our goal is to keep her comfortable. Once we can’t do that, it will be time to let her go. And it will be a sad day, especially for my tender-hearted wife.

Charlotte’s post got me thinking of why pets can often appear as important characters in crime fiction. We even have novels where animals are main characters and actually solve crimes.

My feeling has always been that unless the pet has a good “plot reason” to be included as a cast member, then it’s best to leave them out. I can’t remember the book title now, but the best inclusion of a dog in a crime novel was because the police detective main character found it useful to think about cases while walking his dog. The dog also seemed to understand this and would beg for a walk when her master had a particularly sticky problem in a case. It fit well and was handled in a pretty funny way.

Other times, though, you realize the pet is there for no real plot reason. They’re more window dressing than anything else and to me that distracts from the plot.

I’ve never even considered having a pet in one of my stories. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become a hard-ass about our beloved animal companions — which is no doubt a mechanism to spare me from woe — or maybe it’s a way to keep the storylines less cluttered by extraneous things. Heaven knows I struggle with that!

So here’s to pets, whether they be our boon companions or simply plot devices. I’m happy to know that many readers enjoy the inclusion of animals in stories. Maybe they’re a way to make crime fiction less dark, giving them a bit more humanity by their presence.

In today’s world, that’s a good thing.

Monday, October 11, 2021

A character by any other name brings notes from your editor

My editor sent me notes this week on the next book in my series and one of the comments made me laugh out loud.

I had used four different names for the same character in the MS and he suggested that I pick one and stick with it.

The funniest thing was, this is not a new character — she actually appears in an earlier book!

Names can be my downfall. Words, coherent sentences, spelling, syntax, plot, dialogue and endings also give me trouble.

I forget character names so easily. I have to write them down on Post-It notes as I go along, just to keep me right. Then, of course, I lose the Post-It note.

Writers have to keep track of a lot of different things. Names, back stories, time lines, whether there is a character with one leg called George (I forget what the other leg is called). I suppose there are apps that can help but I shun the appliance of technology. Until I use it, of course, then I wonder why on earth I was doing all that shunning.

Even coming up with names is difficult, well at least for me. It's easy to devise a character called Jehosephat McGillicuddy. Outlandish names are simple — it’s those that are both memorable and yet everyday that can be problematic.

Whenever I introduce a new character sometimes their names come to me instantly, more often than not I can be found scanning the spines of the books on my shelves to see if anything sparks.

As for forgetting names, this mild form of anomic aphasia extends to real life. I have often carried on complete conversations with someone who clearly knows my name but for the life of me I can't recall theirs!

There is no serious root to this — I hope not anyway. I think it is quite common. With me it is genuinely just a vagueness, even perhaps a lack of attention, caused by having a mind filled with so much nonsense that something has to go to make room for just how many times has Steven Spielberg worked with composer John Williams (I count 28, but there were also two episodes of TV’s Amazing Stories on which they collaborated).

Obviously, I'm not talking about people I know well. The names I forget are people I have perhaps met only one or twice, which I think is perfectly normal.

But to forget the names of people you have created and have spent at least part of however long it takes write a novel is ridiculous and I must do better.

Not losing those Post-It notes might be a start.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

This weekend’s special guest Vicki Delany!

I am most pleased to welcome back Vicki Delany, one of Type M for Murders founders and long-time members. She is here to tell us all about her new series set in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Take it away, Vicki!

Researching the Catskills Resort Mysteries

1953. I was there, but I wasn’t exactly taking notice of the social and political environment of the day, so when I decided to write a series set in 1953 I had to do a lot of research. Fortunately, it was easy.

1953. Think girdles and stockings, fancy cocktails, grand ballrooms, cigarette smoke (and more cigarette smoke), angel food cake and Cheeze Whiz on celery sticks, Reds under the beds and slow moving fans.

It’s the Catskills. Comedians and big bands and glamorous singers. Paddle boats and bellhops, tomato cocktails and Jell-O salads, swimsuit competitions and unattended children.

1953 really wasn’t so long ago. Unlike writers with books set in, say Ancient Rome, or 18th Century Venice, I could watch movies. Not movies set in the era I am interested in, but actually made then. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, Esther Williams in the water, gritty hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon (although that was made in 1941). Movies are a fantasy, sure, but they are also reflective of their times. I watched the dance movies for scenes in the ballroom of my Catskills Hotel. I listened to big band music by the likes of Glenn Miller, as recommend by Type M’s own Rick. I studied the clothes, the furniture, the tilt of a cigarette in the mouth of a sophisticated woman and listened to the expressions.

I also read a lot of cookbooks from the era and looked at design magazines. Many of these are available online. I can’t say I tried cooking anything I read about though. Jell-O salads with canned pineapple just doesn’t appeal.

All of which helped me, I hope, to create the feel of the times, particularly in those minor but important details such as the cut of a character’s dress or her hair style or what she might order from the bar.

As for the specific history of the Catskills at the time of the famous resorts, there’s a lot of first-hand information available. Many people have very fond memories of the times they spent at the great hotels, or cheap bungalow colonies, either as guests or as employees, or children of owners and employees. “Mountain Rats” the latter called themselves.
1953. The Catskills. Put them together and you have my new series, the Catskills Resort Mysteries. Out front: swimming pool, beach, lounge chairs, tennis games, cards on the veranda, a full dining room, helpful bellhops. Behind the scenes: offices full of women pounding typewriters and answering phones, harried switchboard operators, temperamental cooks, non-stop smoking. Hundreds of employees from gardeners to bellhops to chambermaids to entertainment directors, lifeguards, and dance instructors.

And at the center of it all, Elizabeth Grady, war-widow, bookkeeper, reluctant resort manager. Her mother, Olivia Peters, retired Broadway dance star and unexpectedly the owner of a Catskills resort.

So take a trip back in time with Elizabeth and Olivia and enjoy your visit to Hagerman’s Catskills Resort. It is, after all, 1953.

_________________________

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Catskill Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books,  and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane.

Vicki is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival.  Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. Vicki is the 2019 recipient of the CWC’s Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Friday, October 08, 2021

The Long Goodbyes

 


This is a photo of my grandson, John Crockett, with Mayzie, the dog he received for his birthday. And if ever a boy and a dog were meant for each other! John is in Rhode Island in graduate school now, and two weeks ago the family laid Mayzie to rest. 

Next week my youngest daughter and her family will say goodbye to Dakota, another well-beloved dog who has so many ailments that she leads a miserable existence and the vet said it's time to consider her quality of life. 

The response to a pet's death is pure grief, even if we know it's coming. Because the love they give us is so pure, I think. A dog hears our troubles without judging. Dogs seem to know when we are down and need a little extra attention. They are a barometer for our moods and simply commiserate without trying to cheer us up. 

My favorite dog was a little Shih-Tzu named Brandy Noel. The daughters got her for Christmas one year, but eventually they went to college and Brandy became my dog and the inspiration for the ridiculously spoiled Tosca who is in all of my mysteries. I was grief stricken when I had to say goodbye to Brandy. 

I've heard that one of the big taboos for writers is killing off a dog or pet that has been a constant in a series. We can kill anyone else, grandparents, all sorts of relations, close friends — but not the dog.

I wonder how many Type M’ers have pets that are their writing companions? How many integrate pets into their series? 

Can you think of series that wouldn't be the same without the dog? 

There's a reason why I'm not including cats in this blog. Cats really don't need us. Nor do they much care how our day is going. Dogs do. 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

I’ve heard writers described as “pantsers” (writers who write “by the seat of their pants,” not knowing where the book will go as they’re writing) and “outliners” (someone who dutifully outlines before they begin; Jeffrey Deaver once gave a speech I attended during which he said he spends 8 months writing the outline, 3 months writing the novel).

Two weeks ago, SJ Rozan visited my classes after we read her story “Going Home” and offered another view: She said she works in a circular motion –– writing and pushing the story forward, then going back and rereading, before moving forward again. The image she drew for the students was this:

 



I thought it was a great description of the way lots of us write –– forward progress, then circling back, and moving forward again. I usually begin with character sketches and maybe a paragraph describing the plot, something like the description on the back of the book. Then I start writing. When the story lags or I don’t know where to go next (typically, that’s one and the same), I go back 50 or 100 pages (or even to the beginning –– desperate times call for early mornings of rereading).


There are a few benefits to this circular writing style. It allows me to edit as I go. It also speaks to how some of us plot. When the book stalls, it’s usually because I missed something in the writing. That sounds absurd (the book doesn’t write itself by any means), but I have found when I go back and reread that I discover opportunities to clarify the plot for the reader (and myself).


So if you’re not a “pantser” or an “outliner” maybe you’re a circler. 


Wednesday, October 06, 2021

AI and Audiobook Narration

 

For a long time, audiobooks were something I’d only listen to on a driving trip. On cassette tape. Yep, it was that long ago.

I believe that books should be available in whatever format people want to consume them in: print, audio, ebook. I was very happy when my first three books came out in audio format. But, as I noted above, I didn't listen to audiobooks on a regular basis.

Sometime in the last couple years, I started consuming more non-music audio content: podcasts, audio dramas and books. The books started when I wanted to read all of the Dark Shadows novels originally issued in the late 1960s, early 1970s. I had a few paperbacks that I bought when they first came out, but the majority of them I didn’t have access to until they were reissued as audiobooks. Read by one of the actors from the original soap opera, Kathryn Leigh Scott, they were all available for checkout from my local library on Hoopla Digital. It took me awhile to get through them but, after I finished, I realized I enjoyed them so much I wanted to check out other audiobooks.

I've listened to a variety of books since then with different narrators. The most important thing is the content. If you don’t have a good book, you’re not going to have a good audiobook. I did discover, though, that the right narrator for the project could enhance my enjoyment of the story.

In the past week, I heard about the use of artificial intelligence in audiobook narration. Google is getting in on the act as well as Speechki and DeepZen. Google Play Books has a beta version available and is working on making it available to publishers. You can check out some free audiobooks created using their software here. These are all books in the public domain.

Speechki is a recording platform that claims to be able to produce an audio book using AI synthetic voices from input in 15 minutes. The publisher or author uploads their book and selects a voice. DeepZen has a stable of actual, real voice over artists who have contributed their voices in some way, don’t know the details. From whatever sampling is done, DeepZen takes an input file of a book and does their magic to create the audiobook using a voice selected by the publisher or author of the book.You can go here and listen to some samples. I’ll wait for you.

Ah, you’re back. What did you think? I listened to the sample of Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was not as awful as I anticipated though some of the pauses seemed a little odd to me. I don’t know that I would have figured out that artificial intelligence was at work if I hadn’t known in advance. Still, I don’t think I want to listen to an entire book.

I’m not sure how I feel about this marriage of computer science and book content. A part of me is interested in how natural language processing has progressed since I was in college when it was fairly primitive. The part of me that consumes books is resistant to the idea.

On the plus side, for DeepZen anyway, they say that the voice over artists whose voices they use get paid for every audio book that is produced using their voice. Don’t know how much or how it relates to what the voice over artist would get if they read the audio book in the usual way. I suspect it’s less. On the other hand, they don’t have to sit down and record the audio book. Audiobooks can also be produced cheaper and faster using this method. But, from the little I’ve heard, the quality doesn’t seem as good as would result from a voice over artist reading the book. On the other hand, this may make some content available where it wouldn’t have been before.

There’s also the issue of rights. Do these need to change with the development of AI narration? I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know the answer to this, but I think the question needs to be asked.

While from a technology standpoint I find this fascinating, it still makes me uneasy. It seems like it’s taking away jobs from voice over artists. Plus I really prefer a good narrator for the audiobooks I listen to. But, then, I’m not dependent on audio for my book consumption. I can choose to read the book. Not everyone has this choice.

If you want to read more there are a lot of articles on the web on this topic. Here are a few of them: https://www.tckpublishing.com/ai-narration/

 https://towardsdatascience.com/how-ai-contributes-to-the-audiobook-industry-boom-2cc5406331eb

  https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2020/12/04/voice-technologies-streaming-and-subscription-audio-in-a-time-of-artificial-intelligence-ai/

So what do you think about the use of AI in audiobook narration?

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Scaring myself silly

by Rick Blechta

Once I read Tom’s post from yesterday, it was just too tempting to riff off it for my post this week.

Coincidentally, I was away last week because my wife and I took a few days to visit Elora, a small town about two hours west of Toronto. Why coincidentally? Because in October Elora’s small historic downtown comes alive with giant scary sculptures. People flock in from all over just to see them. We went for the annual studio tour, but alas, since it was still September, the sculptures weren’t out yet. They are quite spectacular. Click HERE to see some examples.

Anyway, on to the things that have scared me silly.

I’m with Tom all the way. It’s fun being scared by books or movies. There are, however, only three movies that have really gotten to me.

The first was The Mummy, not the one with Boris Karloff (which is legitimately quite scary, but the remake that came out in 1959 from Hammer Films. It stared Peter Cushing as the hero with Christopher Lee as the mummy.

I saw it as an eight-year-old with some friends at our local cinema in Mamaroneck, NY, where I grew up. It genuinely frightened the bajeejees out of me, so much so that I couldn’t go to sleep at night if the closet door in my bedroom wasn’t shut tight. I was probably 11 when the effect of that movie finally wore off and I could fall asleep no matter what the state of the closet door.

Next came The Uninvited. This was an out and out example of the classic ghost story. When I was 13, I stumbled across it on TV one Saturday afternoon in October (natch!) and watched it, alone in the house. When the ghost finally appears in the second act, I was so scared that I had to snap the TV off and run outside. It wasn’t until many years later that I watched the movie again and found out how the story ended. No wonder it was a big hit in 1942 when it came out. It’s a real chiller.

Last on the list is one Tom already mentioned, The Exorcist, both the book and the movie. I saw the movie first and then read the book. Since I was in my 20s at the time I saw it, I didn’t suffer any nightmares or have issues with closet doors, but the movie was indeed terrifying, the book less so, but still exceptionally good for what it was trying to do.

Interestingly, an extended director’s cut was released in 2000 and I saw it with my older son who also enjoys horror movies. There was a scene where the young, possessed girl comes down the stairs in the home upside down, moving like some kind of human spider. I don’t know why it was not included in the original movie because it is really very unnerving to watch.

And that’s maybe why some people gravitate to horror, whether it be books or movies. If done well, they are all certainly unnerving sometimes in the extreme.

Now I think it’s someone else’s turn with this subject. What do you find scary and why do you enjoy being scared?

Tis the season after all.

Monday, October 04, 2021

October: Time for Scary Stuff


We’ve just flipped the page on the calendar to October.  Definitely one of my favorite months, it’s the time when the air turns cool and crisp, leaves on the trees magically transform into brilliant bursts of color, and football is in full swing.

Pumpkin spice lattes?  I might do one.  Only one.

October is also the month of Halloween, the time when nearly all the streaming services are showing horror flicks.  What is it about horror that we love so much? 

My theory is it’s like being on a really scary rollercoaster ride.  When you get to the top of the first rise and you’re just about to hit that precarious drop, your heart is pumping, your palms are sweaty, and there’s a scream in your throat you know you’ll be helpless to stop. In short, it’s terrifying and exhilarating, but in the end, you know you’ll be safe. 

We like sitting in a darkened theater to watch a scary movie or cracking open a horror novel if in the end we know it’s all going to be okay.

As close to a horror novel that I’ve written was Graveyard Bay. It’s the darkest of the Geneva Chase Mystery Series.  It’s the book that when I asked my neighbor if he enjoyed reading it, he looked away and muttered, “The ending gave me nightmares.”

What book or movie has stayed with you for a long time or scared you silly?

For me, there have been quite a few.  As I was growing up, I binged on weekend horror flicks like the nineteen-thirties version of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolfman. Back in the sixties, Aurora manufactured plastic model kits based on the old movie monsters.  After I’d put those bad boys together and painted them for my bedroom, I decided to read the old classics.  

Dracula by Bram Stoker had some similarities to the movie, but it was much scarier to read.  Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly is a much different story than the movie starring Boris Karloff and I really enjoyed it.

Then I went through my H.P. Lovecraft phase.  It doesn’t get much darker than his Cthulhu Mythos.

My thirst for horror had taken root.  As I grew older, I read the likes of The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.  That was pretty scary book, but the movie frightened the living hell out of me.  It was one time when the film was scarier than the book.

The book that gave me nightmares, however, was Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. It scared me so much I hated going down into the basement for any reason for years.  His book The Stand comes in a close second.  

And of course, since then I’ve read many of Mr. King’s novels as well as such horror writers as Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice.  

Just a quick aside, did you know that in addition to horror novels, Anne Rice wrote erotica under the names of Ann Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure? BDSM erotica...written years ahead of Fifty Shades of Gray.

So, I’m going to pour a glass of wine, pop some popcorn, and get ready to binge on some horror before Halloween gets here.  What are your favorites?

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Guest Blogger Wendall Thomas

Wendall

Type M is beyond thrilled to welcome guest blogger Wendall Thomas to our little family this weekend. Besides authoring one of the most witty, entertaining series out there, featuring a wildly appealing, hilarious protagonist, travel agent Cyd Redondo, Wendall  teaches in the Graduate Film School at UCLA, lectures internationally on screenwriting, and has worked as an entertainment reporter, development executive, script consultant, and film and television writer. Her first Cyd Redondo novel, Lost Luggage, was nominated for the Lefty and Macavity Awards for Best Debut Mystery of 2017. Her second, Drowned Under, has been nominated for a Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery of 2019 and an Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.  Her short fiction appears in the crime anthologies Ladies Night (2015), Last Resort (2017), and the Anthony nominated Murder-A-Go-Go’s (2019).  Her third Cyd Redondo mystery, Fogged Off will drop on November 2, and is available now for pre-order.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

 by Wendall Thomas


I’m delighted to be here, where so many authors I love share their secrets. Thanks very much, Donis, for having me.

Travel has always been my passion. And now as someone who writes about a travel agent, it’s also my business.

As a kid, I traveled vicariously through books like Lost Horizons, David Copperfield, Mrs. Mike, The Three Musketeers, The Jungle Book, and my parents’ copies of Dorothy Gilmour’s Mrs. Pollifax novels. As my reading became a bit more sophisticated, I headed to China in The Good Earth, Russia in Dr. Zhivago, and Southeast Asia with Grahame Green. 

Our family vacations were domestic, but still thrilling to me—Silver Springs and St. Augustine, the Smithsonian, Myrtle Beach, the Smoky Mountains. So, by the time I finished high school, I was ready to hit the road and go as far, and as often, as I could. During my college summers, I waited tables and sang in bars on Nantucket, in Estes Park, Colorado, in Berkeley, in the Keys, and once I graduated, I headed to Montreal, London, Paris, Ireland, Holland, Italy, and eventually, Australia and New Zealand. 

Every one of those books and all of those places moved me and influenced the way I look at the world. So, when I thought I might try writing a mystery series, I figured it would be great if the research involved travel—preferably international. When I created Cyd Redondo, a travel agent who had never been farther than New Jersey, it let me relive the wonder and panic of everything involved in navigating a different culture in an unfamiliar place. 

As a writing teacher I’ve always been fascinated by where my students’ stories start. Is it with a concept, with a character’s voice, with a theme, with a scene? I think it depends on the writer and the project and personally, as a screenwriter, my projects had usually started with a character or concept. This time, I had the skeleton for my “fish out of water” protagonist—but before I could really start developing her character and working out the story/mystery, I had to pick her destination. 

I wanted the series to be an homage to films like Romancing the Stone, Charade, or Bringing Up Baby, where the characters were off-balance and completely out of their comfort zones. Since Paris, South America, and Connecticut were already taken by those films, I needed someplace new. I thought about Cyd’s home in Brooklyn and what might be the most extreme opposite, a place she’d have the biggest learning curve. 

I suddenly had an image of her in the middle of a jungle clearing, in four-inch heels. She was wearing multi-colored bracelets from her wrist to her elbow, and, when a man with a gun appeared, she disarmed him with a whack from her bangled forearm while a leopard looked on. It felt like Africa. I started to research crimes on the continent and was shocked by the extent and horror of the endangered animal smuggling and poaching trade. Cyd, with her snakeskin shoes and tortoise shell barrettes, was not concerned about this issue—yet—so it allowed her an environmental learning curve, and let me place a Madagascan chameleon in her purse. So, once I had a location, everything in the book sprang from there. 

Now that the series is up and running and I have a handle on Cyd, her family, and her natural habitat, the “where” is always where I start. Until I know where she’s going, I can’t really decide on the crimes, the secondary characters, the ways her character will be challenged, or what she has in her background—and her purse—that might help her survive. Location is everything.

I was lucky in the Australian setting for Drowned Under—I had been to and loved Tasmania, the home of the “functionally extinct” Tasmanian tiger. So, it was easy to find the “endangered” piece of the adventure. Once I decided it would be a cruise ship book, that gave me my world and inspired my secondary characters, and I was off.

Wendall in London

For my newest book, Fogged Off, out November 2nd, I got lucky again. By the time Covid hit, I had already decided to set the book in London, where I’d been a frequent visitor over the years. I’m also married to an Englishman I met on one of my trips, so I could see, taste, smell—and discuss—the city from the desk in my bedroom. 

As always, the place generated the content. The book is set in world of London Walking Tours where Cyd’s client—a Jack the Ripper expert—winds up dead. Then I researched endangered animals in the UK and, since Carl Hiassen had already taken voles, my first choice, I settled on the hilarious hazel dormouse as the animal in danger of extinction. Everything else came from there.

Bruce, the hazel dormouse

Right now, because it’s still not clear when and where we’ll be able to travel again, I’ve chosen a location where several friends have lived. Because I’m lucky yet again, that happens to be Bali. I definitely want to travel there, but just in case I’m still marooned in my apartment as the deadline approaches, they can help me add details that research alone can’t supply. After that, I’m thinking about Macao, or maybe Greece. . .

So here’s hoping that we will all get the chance to explore the unknown from somewhere other than our couches soon, but if not, books will be there to get us through.

_________

Visit Wendall at her website, www.wendallthomas.com

and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/EWendallThomas

Click here to pre-order Fogged Off on Amazon



Thursday, September 30, 2021

Tell Me Your Story

 Since I seem to be at something of an impasse lately, I've decided that if I can't make headway with my own writing career, the least I can do is support my fellow authors the best way I can. On my own site I've been doing giveaways at the first of every month – physical copies only. Thus far I've only offered my own books, but I'll be expanding to other authors soon. I've volunteered to help with ZOOM panels at an upcoming writers conference. (Torture. I'm not fond of ZOOM conferences.  But needs must.)

Over the many years I've been writing and reading, I've been fascinated by other authors – their process, where the ideas come from, but especially their journeys – why they decided to start writing, what keeps them going, what keeps them writing in the face of the inevitable difficulties of life. 

In June, 2021, I began hosting  on my website a monthly series of author essays called Tell Me Your Story, inviting successful authors to share their life experiences and how those experiences have influenced their writing. Thus far my guests have included handwriting expert Sheila Lowe, whose life view changed forever when her daughter was murdered; Pricilla Royal, who recently took a leap of faith with her long-running historical mystery series; Mariah Frederickson, who was born with a speech impediment that has informed her whole life and world view, and our own dear friend Hannah Dennison, an Englishwoman who spent 25 years in the U.S., then made the hard decision to move back home—and what boost to her life and career that decision turned out to be! She discovered you can go home again. In October I'll be hosting Wendall Thomas, who will be our guest here on Type M this coming weekend, and I've lined up Karen Odden to tell me her story in November. I'm filled with admiration at how frank these women have been. It just goes to show that perseverance is all, and I don't feel quite as hopeless about my own difficulties.Visit  these brave authors as they share their intimate stories on the 20th of every month at  http://www.doniscasey.com 

p.s. If you've got the cajones to tell your own story, or know an author whose story must be told, contact me. I really want to share it. Someone out there need to hear it.


Monday, September 27, 2021

When suspended disbelief crashes down

Let's talk about handbrake moments.

Those are the points in a story where the suspension of disbelief, needed for so much genre fiction, finds the pull of gravity so strong that it comes crashing back to earth.

I experienced that recently, not with a book but a movie. 

This film started off so well. Almost a chamber piece, with the protagonist, a woman, locked in a small space on a bomber while all sorts of things were going on around her. It was set during war time so there were various threats - from the enemy, from the misogynistic crew members and, not the least, a vicious creature.

Yes, it was a horror thriller and for much of its running time a damn decent one. Characterisation, performances, dialogue, effects, pace all contributing to a hugely enjoyable watch. 

(I won't name the film although some of you may have already identified it. I apologise to anyone connected with the production  but I'm afraid this is the way I saw it. Also, if you haven't seen it and want to , stop reading now as there may be spoilers ahead.

(Anyway...)

I just about swallowed the protagonist crawling along the plane's undercarriage while it was a few thousand feet off the air, under attack both by fighter planes and the creature on the loose. I accepted with some reservations that a bag containing something important to the plot was dangling by a strap from a shard of metal and not blown off by the slipstream. I was still invested in it at that stage, the old disbelief still hanging up there with that bag.

But then they went - for me - too far.

(Seriously, spoiler coming - look away now!)

While clambering back into the plane, she lost her grip and began to plummet to the ground - just as an enemy fighter blew up underneath her. Caught by the air disruption she was blown back through the hole in the undercarriage and safely into the plane.

I expressed my incredulity with some vehemence. Mickey, the dog, looked up. Even Tom, the cat, opened one eye.

All the tension the film makers had skilfully created went up in that ball of flame and everything that happened afterwards mattered little. They had lost me and there was no getting me back. 

This is the handbrake moment. That moment when you just stop and say - whoa! I'm grateful to my friend, author Gordon Brown also known as Morgan Cry for the term, by the way.

I find this is becoming more common as I grow older - and there may be something in that phrase that carries a hint as to why I have become less forgiving.

All those action movies where the bad guys can't shoot for toffee (as we used to say in Glasgow) while the hero strides through with nary a scratch. Yes, I'm looking at you John Wick.

The brutal, bone-crunching fights, often involving a number of combatants, where people get up and have at it after receiving a blow that would have felled Goliath. Yes, I'm looking at just about any modern action movie here.

Add to that the way they come at the protagonist one at a time. Oh, it's disguised quite often but when you have opted out of the reality of the piece then you often see the stunt men hanging back.

And don't start me on CGI stunts.

But it can be a lack of attention to detail that will ruin things for me. The book where they get something very basic very wrong, either procedurally (at least two TV series here in the UK have shown a complete lack of understanding regarding Scots law) or, in the case of one novel I read recently, the mention of an actor who didn't make his film debut until five years after the year it is set. Yes, I'm being pedantic but for goodness sake it's a very easy check!

OK, we all make mistakes. We can all get something wrong - I know I have. In one of my books I made an error regarding a Glasgow street. Yes, the city of my birth! In another I made a huge blunder regarding a gun. I was criticised for both and if those stupid mistakes led to the readers hurling the book across the room I understand.

As for long form TV! I've mentioned before that they can be too long form, with eight or ten episode runs carrying a four or six episode plot. There was an incredibly popular series recently that I was thoroughly enjoying, even if it was somewhat padded, until I discovered the plot hinged on a number of points that I just did not buy.

The fact is, if we had done that in a book we would be lambasted, I'm certain of it. 

I know I was!

Once again I'm not sure what my point here is. Perhaps I'm in a bad mood (crabbit, we say here). However, I'd be interest to hear from any what their pet peeves are in this field. What will turn you off from a book, movie or TV show?




Saturday, September 25, 2021

Gats and Cats

I'm known as a workaholic and so it was unusual to pry myself loose for a long overdue vacation. Last year, the cons I planned to attend got cancelled because of Covid and I was left with airline tickets to use or lose. A few months back, a buddy of mine I've known since the 6th grade suffered a heart attack and that prompted me to make plans and get going. Since I was traveling to the East coast, I decided to visit as many friends as I could in one trip. 

I started in Dumfries, then headed to Falls Church to visit Duane, a college chum and Ranger buddy. Being guys in America, we stopped by a gun range to bust caps, using a suppressor. Duane served in Military Intelligence, then Special Forces, and switched careers to work in the CIA. He published an excellent memoir of his last field assignment, which was about the early days of the war in Afghanistan. We didn't talk much how that mess ended.

My next stop was to see a writing buddy, Quincy Allen, who moved from Denver to Charlotte, NC. One of his cats apparently approved of me as it left a feather on my backpack. 

Then north to Rocky Mount to visit Greg, another Army buddy. He and I flew Cobra helicopters in the Air Cavalry. Again, as we were still in America, we went shooting, also with a suppressor.

My last stop was Charleston to visit Mark and Rebel, who I was lucky enough to meet years back when I first got published. Mark is local tour guide and historian with several books to his credit. He and his wife are also cat people and besides taking care of their own felines, twice a day the neighborhood alley cats stop by for chow.

If you're in Charleston, you have to say hello to the carriage horses.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Hall of Fame

 


The Colorado Authors' Hall of Fame last Saturday is without a doubt the most exciting event in my career as a writer. I was thrilled to be included. My lovely wonderful family turned out in full force. I'm very grateful to have had their smiling support. Governor Jared Polis and  Denver mayor Michael Hancock designated September 18 as Colorado Authors' Hall of Fame Day. These were the inductees:

  • Kevin J. Anderson: Author of over 170 published books, 58 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He has written numerous novels in the Dune seriesStar WarsX-Files, and Batman/Superman universes, as well as unique steampunk fantasy novels Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, written with legendary rock drummer Neil Peart.

  • Penny Rafferty HamiltonA world-record setting aviator, she currently focuses on aviation and aerospace. Recently, she authored America’s Amazing Airports, Inspiring Words for Sky and Space Women, and 101 Trailblazing Women of Air and Space. Hamilton earned numerous journalism, education, business, and aviation awards.

  • Justin Matott: A children’s author, notably known for Ol’ Lady Grizelda and I think My Dog Might Be a Nerd. Picked up by Random House after selling 5,000 copies of his self-published children’s book in three weeks, he left the Corporate world to see if he could live the dream of being an author/speaker as his vocation. Millions of his children’s books have been sold across the world.

  • Sandra Dallas: Denver based New York Times best-selling author Sandra Dallas is the author of 16 adult novels, four young reader novels, and 10 nonfiction books. She was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley in Vogue Magazine.

  • Carol FensterWhen major New York publishers rejected Colorado authors Carol Fenster’s pioneering work featuring gluten-free cooking strategies and how to eat healthy and happy, it didn’t stop her. She is the pioneer of gluten free cooking.

  • Michael GearProfessional archaeologist and New York Times bestselling author with 60 novels, 2 short stories, and 82 non-fiction articles in print that have been translated into 29 languages is what brings William Michael Gear to the Hall.

  • Charlotte HingerCharlotte Hinger is a multi-published, award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction—long and short, historical, and contemporary—primarily, but not exclusively, focused on the Western experience with an emphasis on the African-American/Black experience in the historical West, primarily in the Great Plains region.

  • Manuel RamosAmong the first Latinos to publish in the mystery genre and was given the title “the Godfather of Chicano Noir” by the esteemed writer Luis Alberto Urrea. His books are set in the community in which he lives – Denver’s Northside, aka Highlands – and in rural Colorado.

  • Patricia RaybonIs an award-winning author, essayist, and novelist who writes top-rated books at the daring intersection of faith and race. Her most notable books are My First White Friend: Confessions on Race, Love and Forgiveness and All That Is Secret: An Annalee Spain Mystery.

  • Richard Weissmanone of the most productive and important authors writing about American roots music and the music business. Music Business: Career Opportunities & Self Defense has sold over 100,000 copies and used in many college music programs. His work was among the earliest books written about the music business.

  • Flint WhitlockHe’s been the Editor of the WWII Quarterly magazine since 2010. The Smithsonian, National Geographic, Colorado National Guard, and other groups is honored to have him as a battlefield tour guide. His notable books include Soldiers on Skis: A Pictorial Memoir of the 10th Mountain Division and The Beasts of Buchenwald: Karl & Ilse Koch, Human-Skin Lampshades, and the War-Crimes Trial of the Century.

  • Avi”: Avi is the author of more than seventy books for children and young adults, including the 2003 Newbery medal winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He has won two Newbery Honors and many other awards for his fiction.
I was deeply honored to be included in this group. I felt very humble in the presence of these talented authors.


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Icelandic and Snow Noir

 

I've been watching a lot of foreign crime dramas over the last couple years. Most of them are set in very cold climates, often during the winter when snow abounds. I’ve seen those called Snow Noir on the internet.

I'm not sure what attracts me so much to snowy areas. It’s not like I’ve ever lived in a super cold climate. I grew up in the Seattle area, which I think of as a fairly moderate climate. Sure, there was snow in the winter on occasion, but mostly it was ice on the roads that was an issue. I swear, though, that Seattle has gotten a lot more snow in the last ten years or so than it did when I was growing up.

Proof I've seen snow

Perhaps it's in my DNA. Most of my grandparents immigrated from Norway and Sweden when they were adults and settled in the northwestern part of Minnesota, close to the Canadian border. That's where my parents grew up. I've only been there in the summer when mosquitoes are everywhere, but I’ve heard about those cold, cold winters.

Most of the crime dramas I've watched so far are Icelandic ones in Icelandic with English subtitles. I enjoy listening to the rhythm of that language. I did watch one that was set in northeastern Quebec in a mining town. That one was in French with English subtitles.

I've enjoyed all of them. Maybe enjoyed is not the appropriate word given the horrendous crimes that take place in them. You also never know if your favorite character is going to be killed off. Everyone is fair game in these shows. And the detectives are often damaged in some way because of things that have happened to them before the story starts.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, while I will watch shows with these dark themes, I generally won’t read a book that is that dark, especially these days. For some reason watching this stuff doesn’t bother me as much as reading it.

I’m curious. Are there types of shows that you would watch, but wouldn’t read the same story in book form?

Here are my favorite Icelandic and Snow Noir shows. Some are available on Amazon Prime, some on Prime with a PBS Masterpiece add-on, some on Netflix.

The Cliff (Icelandic title is Hamarinn) – This is the first one I watched. Really enjoyed it. It’s set in a small town in Iceland with citizens protesting an energy company they believe is destroying the environment. This isn’t set during a snowy time, but the scenery is gorgeous.

The Lava Field (Icelandic title is Hraurniծ) – On Amazon, this is called the second season of The Cliff. When it originally aired, it was called The Lava Field. The action moves to a different part of Iceland with the same detective as in The Cliff.

The Wall – (Original title is La faille) - This is the one set in Quebec in the mining town of Fermont. Lots of snow in this one. Everyone lives in this immense structure called the Wall.

Trapped – (Icelandic title is Ófærð) – There are two seasons. The internet tells me that a third season will be on Netflix soon. This is probably my favorite. The two detectives are great characters. In the first season, there’s lots and lots of snow plus an avalanche and weather that cuts everyone off from the outside world. In the second season, the action starts in Reykjavik where a man sets himself and a government minister on fire. It then moves to the same town as in the first season.

The Valhalla Murders (Icelandic title is Brot) – This is a show about an investigation into Iceland’s first serial killer. It involves a state run institution for troubled boys, long since closed when the action starts.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

How I see social commentary in crime fiction

by Rick Blechta

This week I’m riffing off Tom Kie’s post from yesterday. I’ll have to make this short and sweet because I’m already a day behind some important things because my grandson dropped by yesterday and we had to “play trains” together.

My simple explanation is that social commentary is an almost unavoidable part of crime fiction. We’re talking about people in stressful situations with violence as the driving factor in the plot, so social commentary just happens as the storyline unfolds.

The issue for me as a reader is when the social commentary is layered onto the plot. Simple test: Can that part of the storyline be dropped without creating any insurmountable plot issues? If you can answer yes, then it’s egregious. Basically, it’s the author pontificating — likely rightly so — about something that they feel strongly about.

However, adding social commentary to a plot is easy if it’s made a driver of the plot. Say a character is a exceptionally vocal proponent of stopping climate change and is killed, likely because of that stance. An author is then free to talk about this. If the character is just left to rant about the dangers of climate change but this really doesn’t have anything to do with the central tenet of the plot, then it’s quite likely a vehicle for the author to pontificate.

And I’ve seen many a promising novel go down this path. I generally don’t finish them.

So there’s my 2¢ on this subject. Please weigh in if you will. Comments on Type M are always welcome, in favour or not in favour!

Monday, September 20, 2021

Is There a Place For Social Commentary in Our Novels?


How much social commentary should a writer put into their work? Should they put any in at all?

I think we all know how polarized our country is right now. Say the wrong thing in your novel and you’re liable to lose fifty percent of your readers. For that reason, I stay the heck away from politics.

Mostly.

These days, the strangest things set up a political firestorm. Masks, vaccines, mandates. Instead of following the science, we follow the rhetoric.

In my fourth book, Shadow Hill, I touch upon LBGTQ bias, school shootings, and climate change.

One of my characters, fifteen-year-old Caroline Bell, writes a column for her high school newspaper that centers on school shootings. Without pontificating about gun rights or gun control, she very simply talks about how many children have died in horrific, senseless mass murder events. And how, with semi-automatic weapons easily at people’s disposal, how fast it can happen and how bad the body count can be.

Caroline goes on to interview her teachers and fellow students about how they feel as they practice lockdown drills. The queasy stomachs, the nightmares, the headaches are the resulting trauma of having to train for a possible mass murder event.

When I talk about climate change in the novel, I talk about the science of the greenhouse gas effect, primarily as a result of burning fossil fuels. I also talk about insane amounts of subsidies the United States Government gives to oil and gas companies. I also mention how much money the fossil fuel industry spends on lobbying against climate change policies.

Have I lost any readers over it? I don’t think so. I’ve had neighbors on both sides of the political spectrum tell me how much they enjoyed the book. One of them even mentioned a character I introduced who was a United States Senator. The congressman in the book is sexist, hypocritical, and an opportunistic liar.

One of the hats I wear here on the coast of North Carolina is that I serve as the president of a non-profit organization called the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. BAPAC represents 43,000 businesses from Maine to Florida and 500,000 commercial fishing families. Our primary goal is to oppose the offshore drilling for oil and gas. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is fresh in our minds even though it happened eleven years ago.

I’ve been to Washington DC three times and testified in front of a US House committee stating our position and why. There are presently a number of bills moving through the House that would permanently ban offshore drilling off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Do I I know of any politicians as bad as the one I describe in the book? No comment.

I just finished reading a wonderful mystery by my good friend Warren Easley entitled No Witness. He spends a great deal of time in his novel talking about how immigration laws affect the Hispanic community and the distrust that they create. It too is kind of a political book but without being preachy. Will he lose any readers over it? I hope not.

So, back to my original question. How much social commentary should you put into your book? Heck, I lost a reader because I once took a shot at Fox news.

I guess it’s all about how passionate you are.


Friday, September 17, 2021

If Only It Would All Fit Together

 I'm late today because I had some day job tasks to do. Then I got distracted. I realized I couldn't remember all the details of a short story that I contributed to an anthology (Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter). I went back to read it, and I was pleasantly surprised that I managed some low-key humor. I'm not known for being funny.

When I was searching my documents for the manuscript of the story, I came across some notes -- notes I'd made over the last two or three years about my historical thriller. I was delighted when I logged on intending to write about something else and saw that yesterday Donis had shared some notes from her writer's journal. 

My notes are on my computer and in the journal I keep on the bookshelf beside my bed and on scraps of papers and the backs of envelope. The notes on the computer are the most complete and I can understand what I intended. For example, these biographical notes about one of my main characters. The book is set in 1939:

Cullen Talbot

1. Where lives?

               A Southerner. Between Atlanta and Savannah on family plantation, mortgaged. Lives alone except for a servant or two. Has three families of white sharecroppers. Wants to bring place back to glory of his grandfather’s days before the Civil War.

2. Family background?

               Grandfather was colonel in Civil War. Lost an arm. Father was a doctor, married daughter of a neighbor. She died of influenza in 1918. Father shot by black man -- intervened in argument between man and his pregnant wife. Had a black nurse, then tutor, then sent to military academy, attended  University of Georgia – majored in agronomy and business.

3. How old is character?

               33 years old – born in June 1906. Twelve when mother died. Just back from college – 1929 – when father killed. The man who shot him was shot by sheriff.

4.  Origin of name?

               Cullen Talbot – British and German on his mother’s side. Her grandfather was a German immigrant.

               Cullen – puppy, young dog (Gaelic)

               Talbot – messenger of destruction (German/French)

5. What look like?

               5’10” – 175 lbs – blond hair, pale blue eyes – scar on chin from fall during teenage fight-- comment of boy about girl he liked – thinks of himself as chivalrous toward women – “gentle gentleman from Georgia”

6. What kind of childhood?

               Parents kind toward each other, considerate not passionate.

7. What does for living?

               Business – farming and mill

               Concerned about prices of crops – dealing with sharecroppers

8.  How deal with conflict?

               Touchy and quick to anger – just as quickly cools down

               Would prefer to use his wits rather than fists – take proactive verbal strike

9. Who else in life?

               Fraternity brothers, senator (mentor) and his daughter, her cousin 

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This is all well and good -- except I still don't know if Cullen is an antagonist of Jacob Baldwin, my sleeping car porter protagonist, or a true villain. That's why I have four different versions of his backstory and much more on his motivation. The same is true for the other main characters, who include two women. 

My notes to myself vary -- depending on whether the story is set completely in 1939, or with a prologue in 1968, or with a parallel story set in 2020 during a murder investigation. That 2020 murder investigation would be conducted by the detectives from the two police procedural novels I have set in Albany, New York (alternate history). 

The note about 2020 was scrawled in my beside journal when I woke up in the middle of the night. It's either a brilliant idea and the solution to my problem with the pacing of a thriller that needs to stretch over an entire year -- or, it's a really bad idea.

It would be nice if I could work it all out in an outline - or even in the notes I keep writing to myself. But it seems I'm going to have to write the book and then strip away the 2020 plot if it doesn't do what I'm hoping. At best, it will at least break me out of my log-jam and allow me to keep moving. 

 Like Donis, I wish all the notes I keep writing to myself would come together as a solid plot with all the pieces falling into place. Alas, it isn't that easy.

 Happy weekend, everyone.

 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Random Thoughts Before Sleeping

 I often read myself to sleep with a book of poetry or a play. Yes, I'm a nerd. Being a writer, I also keep a notebook by my bedside. Many authors do this, for as you know, brilliant thoughts are ephemeral, and if you don’t get them down immediately, they are gone forever, lost, and ever to be mourned. In fact, I usually look at what I've written the next morning and have no idea what I was thinking. Here are a couple of particularly strange and poetic notes I found on one page of this notebook:

The courage to be nobody.

I have broke my heart over a lost child.

Elizabeth—this cannot stand.

I meet every man as I find him.

The book of parting.

Do you know what love is? It is bringing all of who you are every single day (I probably read this somewhere)

From Ellis Peters—they found nothing incongruous in having one foot in the 20th century and one in the roots of time.

As I look over the rest of the notebook, it occurs to me that anyone who read these scribblings would conclude that I either need a psychiatrist, or that I write mystery novels.


Here are some more odd notations taken from another random page, in order. These may be from the time I was writing Crying Blood which has a long passage about hog butchering in the fall. Or maybe All Men Fear Me, which has a riot scene. I don't know what the ennui business had to do with:

Tobacco and soapsuds to kill aphids

Boning knife – sharp point, long thin blade

Skinned hog keeps better than scalded hog

war hot blood vandals

What is this ennui? I think it must be possible to die of ennui.

[illegible]

now I had never seen a riot, but I expected I was about to

Her father hanged for murder

severed renal artery

Nothing that I see before my eyes is real

Action. Snakes. Storm. Pecan pie. Stampede.



I wish I could fit all these random thoughts together. There’s a hell of a book in there, somewhere.