Friday, April 16, 2021

And Then There's the Dog

I understand what Donis wrote about in her post yesterday. I, too, have been dealing with "monkey mind." I'm doing distance learning (teaching from home) because my university has gone virtual for most classes. I've been doing Zoom meetings since last March. I've gotten better and more comfortable with the technology, but I've also been spending much more of each day in my house. 

I relied on the change of pace of moving from home to office and back again. Not being an early morning person, I got up around 9. I often sat down half-asleep, still in my robe, and woke up as I read what I had written the day before. The crime fiction, that is. Morning, work at home on novel or short story in progress. Then leave for my office at school around noon, in time to get a parking place when the faculty who did mornings left for lunch or headed home.

During the afternoon, I would teach my classes on Monday and Tuesday afternoon (3 hours each day). The rest of the week, I would meet with students, attend committee meeting, and do other teaching -related activities. And I would do my research and work on my nonfiction books -- which often overlap with my research for fiction because my areas are mass media/popular culture and crime history. 

Sometimes I was in my office from noon to seven or eight. Then I would go home and have dinner and write if I needed or wanted to get more done. Often as I drove the ten minutes -- 20 minutes for years until I move into the city -- often as I drove back and forth, particularly going home, I thought about what would happen next in a story. Worked out the scene and played out the dialogue in my head. 

I enjoyed that transition from home to office and back again. It was important because I got many of my best ideas in the cocoon of my car. Out of touch and in my own head. Sometimes I stretched the time out by doing errands before going to the office or home.

But for a year now, I haven't had that structure that was so important to my day. I thought in the beginning I would get more done because I didn't have that transition -- no need to watch the clock in the morning and get up and dressed. No need to plan my afternoon so that I got in everything I wanted to do and still made it home at a reasonable hour. An opportunity to do what I did in the summer and have more control over my worklife than during the rest of the academic year. 

What I didn't take into account is that even in the summer, I normally go into my office at school in the afternoons. I don't have to go. But going in, settling down with my bookcases with all of the books I need in reach, with my computer set up just right, and the library next door -- that is how I like to work on my academic books. Going into the office gives me structure and ensures I don't spend the day watching TCM and nibbling on snacks. 

And then there is the dog. During the pandemic, I decided -- as did many people -- to finally adopt a dog because I would be at home to take care of a puppy or help an older dog settle in. I got a puppy. An adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who arrived from Maryland when he was about four months old. Fergus came well-socialized by the breeder, healthy, and full of energy. Too much energy. He is exhausting. He goes to doggie daycare because I need him out of the house so that I can focus. He likes to be where I am -- when he isn't he is up to mischief. Or, in his crate barking because he isn't where I am. He is six months old now, and beginning to hang out in my home office napping or set on top of the radiator or the sofa looking out the window. He has his own pet steps to get up to the radiator. But this week he is at home because his vet put him on an antibiotic because he has been sneezing and may have a virus. And when he's not looking out the window or napping or in his crate or playing toss with his favorite doll or bone, he is up to mischief. And I really want to be in my office at school with my books around me. But he is adorable and soon he will be past the toddler stage and he is smart -- today he learned "down" -- will learn for treats. 

But still I long for my routine, for the rituals that settle my "monkey mind" and allow me to focus. I'm a plotter -- and, yes, for this plotter, it is harder than it used to be to get the structure of my works in progress to come together. I would love to be able to plunge in and see what happens. I think that would help me to shut out distractions. But I can't work that way. 

Fingers crossed that soon we will all be able to get back to what works for us. 

 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Monkey Mind

I've been reading my blogmates' entries about lockdowns with interest and sympathy and some fear. We are doing better here in Arizona, quarantine-wise. This sunny southwestern state has lifted its mandatory restrictions (though mask-wearing is widespread and still required by most public buildings and businesses). Outdoor temperatures hover around 90º F for a high every day. My husband and I are fully vaccinated now, and I've actually gone out to eat with similarly vaccinated friends a couple of times. I've been asked to do a book talk at an outside library venue early next month and I said I'd love to. I see light at the end of the tunnel, though I expect I'll be wearing masks around strangers for the foreseeable future. 

It won't be long until our weather becomes so hot that doing anything outdoors for any length of time is impossible. I can only pray that when it happens we haven't become so cavalier in this state we have to lockdown again as well.

I'm already half-crazy as it is. 

When I was lunching with author friends yesterday, discussing our works-in-progress, as one does, I had to admit that I'm suffering from a bad case of monkey mind.  I have a finished manuscript awaiting acceptance, and in the meantime I'm trying to start another project – "trying" being the operative word, here. I've begun three different stories: another Alafair Tucker mystery, a fourth Bianca LaBelle Hollywood mystery, and a third novel that is so different from anything I've ever written I expect if I manage to finish it and find some way to get it published, I'll have to use a pseudonym. I can't concentrate on any of them for very long. I can't concentrate on anything for very long. 

I'm alarmed by my inability to stick with a thought. My poor mind jumps around from one thing to another like a monkey in a tree. I'd tell you more about it, but I have to do something else. Maybe later...

By the way, a lovely interview with me appeared April 9th at Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader in which I answered this very question and a few other fascinating queries about Valentino Will Die. You’ll be surprised at who I identify with…

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The rollercoaster continues

 I agree with Rick. Here we are in another  bleeping lockdown, only a couple of months after our hopes were soaring high because vaccines were arriving and our liberation was near, along with the arrival of spring. As an aside, we Canadians relate everything to the season and the weather. Warm, sunny, deluge, freezing, blizzard; nothing is ever the same old same old. Right now we are in the midst of a gorgeous, sunny, summer-like heat wave. The tulips are blooming, when in other years dirty traces of snow might still linger in the shady parts of the yard.

This weather should be enough to energize and lift the spirits, but instead this recent crushing lockdown has made us all slightly unhinged. People are doing nutty things like trashing businesses in Old Montreal, already struggling from lockdowns. Driving donuts inside rings of fire created by pouring gasoline in a circle in an empty parking lot. Holding huge, maskless beer parties in public parks in normally well-behaved Ottawa.

As writers, as observers and commentators of human nature, this should all be fascinating stuff. We kill people for a living, for heaven's sake. What's a flaming donut or maskless beer party? But while we're living through it, this mass hysteria is pretty scary stuff. The best we can do as writers is file it away in that mental file marked "random story ideas" and try to cling to our sanity. As many writers have already noted, keeping our focus and our energy in these times is exhausting. I am writing in fits and starts, finding it difficult to get any purchase on the crumbling ground of my concentration. 

Maybe it would be easier if I were a plotter. It seems to me that's a more methodical way to write, because you proceed almost point-form from one scene and stepping stone to the next. Once you have the structure and the essence, there is a built-in scaffolding to hang on to and keep your focus. I'd like to know from plotters whether this is a help to this pandemic writing challenge.

Unfortunately I'm mostly a pantser. I don't know the overall story or what's coming next or where I should end up. This scaffold-free creativity demands lots of energy, concentration, and inspiration. The muse doesn't need to be here all the time, because once I hit on a new idea to move the story forward, I happily run with the idea until it's done. But the muse needs to make frequent visits. Pandemic lassitude saps the creative mind of energy. It takes a lot of determination to force myself to sit in the chair and stare at the page, willing the next brilliant idea to flit in. It's so much easier to walk the dogs or browse Facebook. I haven't resorted to mopping the floors yet, but this morning I did vacuum them. Yikes.

Because this is my twentieth book, I do know that it will get written, that at some point as the deadline approaches, the required amount of panic and frustration will kick in to give me the energy I need. With each book, there has always been a time when I thought I didn't have an idea left in my head and the book was going to fall flat on its face. Somehow, by the end of the teeth gnashing, hair pulling, massaging and rewriting, a passably good book emerges. And so it will this time. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Rediscovering an old friend

By Rick Blechta

Ontario, where I live, is in yet another Covid lockdown. Actually, Toronto, where I specifically live, has been in some kind of lockdown or other since last Boxing Day, so we’re approaching four months of staying home — more or less.

I’d like to say I’ve been kept very busy by writing, but the truth is, I didn’t have, I don’t know, the mental stamina for that these days. In speaking with other ink-stained wretches, and not just my littermates here on Type M, I know I’m one of many.

Not having performed in the past 412 days — but who’s keeping tabs that closely? — practising trumpet for the sake of practising is getting pretty old.

“You know the back of the basement is a real mess,” pointed out my very observant wife two months ago in a leading sort of way.

Little did she know what those simple words would unleash.

Yes, indeedy, the back of the basement was a mess. So with good intentions, going down to give it the old heave ho, I, well, got sort of sidetracked…literally.

You see, in the back of our basement on shelves and languishing for years was my model railroading equipment and tools. I began taking things off shelves, opening boxes and the wave of nostalgia was overwhelming.

In my late 20s and early 30s, I was really into this hobby — and I was pretty good at it. As our family arrived and grew, and faced with a ridiculous work load filling six days of the week, something had to give. I’d already been forced to give up performing music. Model railroading went next. I packed things up, put them on shelves I’d bought, and there it all sat for over 30 years. Sure I saw it from time to time, but I never felt inclined to go any nearer.

Until that day — as requested, remember! — I went down to straighten up the basement.

Something else happened a couple of days later that sealed the deal. I was browsing the site of the biggest model railroad retailer/manufacturer in North America. In the structures section was a model kit to build a charming clapboard-sided house. Nice, but what captured my heart was its name: Aunt Lucy’s House.

Our four-year-old granddaughter is named Lucy, or as we sometimes call her Miss Lucy.

Bingo!

I suddenly had to buy this kit, now and forever to be called Miss Lucy’s House.

And that kicked off the whole model railroading mania once again. With my wife’s enthusiastic approval (surprising, that), Miss Lucy’s House soon needed a vegetable garden, complete with a snake and rats(?!)), as well as a garage, a sporty car, and an adult Miss Lucy herself.

Then our grandson asked, “What about me, Grampa?”

So now I’m working on “Jackson’s Village Pizza” (Jax lives in the apartment upstairs), and Lucy lives on a soon-to-be-built side street with two other houses.

Going back to my hobby turned out to be a good decision. I feel more energized and enthusiastic about everything, and during our current lockdown, that’s a pretty big deal. I’m getting more writing done, more practising done and I’m ahead on getting our backyard ready for the warmer weather (with my son’s help). Life feels a lot better.

But the basement’s still a mess…

Monday, April 12, 2021

Getting back to work

Happy Monday to you from Douglas Skelton in a sunny but chilly Scotland.

As you know, I have been moving house. And if you didn't know, where have you been? Do you not pay attention when I'm talking? Yes, I mean you at the back there. Stop your giggling and behave!

I am now fully ensconsed in my new bolthole, having swapped the peace and quiet of rural Scotland for the excitement and traffic noise of the big city (the new place is Glasgow adjacent).

With the house now in some semblance of order. Books are shelved, pictures are hung, rugs are down and shampooed. Mickey the dog and Tom the cat are more or less settled.

Time now turn my mind to the day job.

That's writing, just in case you didn't realise. 

I have a new book to complete by July. I hit the halfway mark of the first draft just before all the moving madness began but now it's time to pick of those threads and see if I can weave them into something magical. Or at least readable. Or, at the very least, completed.

Halting a work in progress in the middle is a double-edged sword. On the one hand there is the danger that whatever muse was working to get me to the midway mark has flitted elsewhere and alighted on some other writer's brow. 

On the other hand, the break may help me see the piece more clearly and let me attack it with renewed vigor. Or something. (And I hope you noticed I used the US spelling there. I am nothing if not considerate.)

Time will tell, I suppose.

I've used the word time three times so far. Where's an editor when you need one?

I mentioned the muse earlier. People often think of such a thing in relation to creatives.

Here's the thing...

It doesn't really exist.

Writing is a job, at least it is to me. Sometimes it's a chore. It's something I do. It's how I (try to) make a living.

Inspiration - the muse - is that flash at the beginning of the process. In other words, the idea. The big 'What if...?'

After that, it's application. Sitting at the desk, thumping those keys. I'm a two-fingered typist and I tend to poke at the keyboard as if I'm trying to prod it awake. 

The work progresses one letter, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. Sometimes it's as slow as molasses in January. (Yup, another US reference). Other times it flows like....like...

Oh, dear. I can't think of a simile. 

This does not bode well for getting back to work on Monday.

Writing is something you work at. Books do not appear as if guided by some unseen hand. It has to be written and rewritten, honed, edited, smoothed, manipulated. In our genre (crime, just in case you've wandered in off the street) clues have to be dropped with the kind of legerdemain that could give us membership of the Magic Circle. Twists have to be twisted so subtly that no-one sees them coming. Characters have to step off the page and walk around the room. Dialogue has to sing (not literally, unless you're pulling a Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or Cop Rock. Remember that? Steve Bochco's short-lived show which saw cops burst into song, literally on the beat.)

So by the time you read this on Monday I will have selected a suitable soundtrack and will be back in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Back with Rebecca Connolly and her friends. Back, this time, in a dark world of murder and magic.

Cover me - I'm going in...

Thursday, April 08, 2021

What will the world look like, post-Pandemic?

It’s a question I keep coming back to. Tom’s post this week, in which he mentioned the changes 2020 brought regarding book promotion, only created additional questions. Among them, for me: What, in the book industry, will go back to pre-Pandemic? What new ways of doing things will remain?

My agent reports that she’s worked from the Berkshires almost exclusively for the past year-plus and doesn’t feel the need to maintain her New York office. In terms of reading and submitting, the move out of the City changed little.

In my day job, as director of writing and founder of the Lamplighter Literary Arts Summer Writing Institute for Northfield Mount Hermon, many online ventures have been successful, author readings among them. A.M. Homes read to a virtual crowd of 225 people over ZOOM, then hosted a spirited Q@A. Books sales? I have no idea. Nothing signed obviously. But the night did allow her to reach 225 potential book buyers. Was the connection between author and reader as authentic as a face-to-face reading and signing? No, but . . .

. . . but it was not bad. Not bad at all, really. People liked the story she read (if you haven’t read her, you should. She has ties to our genre, in fact. She produced Mr. Mercedes for TV). People laughed at her jokes. People found her, even over Zoom, totally genuine, humble, and sincere. And I didn’t need to spring for travel and lodging. Was the evening as compelling as a live reading? I won’t go that far. But the Zoom option was cost-effective and allowed many more people to attend.

So I wonder, come post-Pandemic, what goes and what stays? Will my daughter have six-plus snow days each year and go until damn near July to make them up? Better not. This year, I had several authors visit classes over Zoom, something the students embraced and got a great deal out of. That will stay.

Signings?

I hope those come back. A Zoom conversation, especially with strangers, isn’t the same as a face-to-face one. But it’s a good option to have.

#

Speaking of live readings, here's the real Keeley when she was 6 reciting Shel Silverstein's "True Story."


Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Emotions and Characters

 

In the last year, we’ve all experienced a lot of different emotions, each of them probably more intense than they would have been under normal circumstances. Fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, envy, relief...

Fear of going out and contracting the virus... For me, it was more a fear of not knowing the new rules and unknowingly breaking one of them.

Frustration that we can’t go to the usual places and do the usual things...

Anger at some of the events that have happened in the last year and how the government/police/community has responded... 

Envy that other people seem to: have more spare time than you do, are handling the pandemic better, getting more writing done, have gotten their shots while you’re still waiting to be eligible... 

Relief at finally getting that shot (or even just an appointment for one) and that you can go out a little more... 

Not everyone handles these emotions in the same way, which can lead to conflict. 

I think it’s a good exercise, when developing characters for a story, to take one or two of these emotions and figure out how each character responds.

When experiencing: 

Fear: do they lock themselves away? square their shoulders and confront their fear? make sure they’re never in a situation where they have that fear?...

Frustration: do they get angry? throw up their hands and quit? get someone else to do the frustrating task for them?... 

Envy: do they go into a deep depression? strike out at the person they are envious of? try harder? give up?...

Anger: do they keep it all inside and explode at a much later date? throw an object across the room? punch a wall? exercise until the anger lessens? protest an injustice?...

If you place people in a story who handle emotions differently, natural conflict arises. One can’t understand why another isn’t reacting in the same way. I think this is also a good way to get to know your characters better. During the course of writing the story, you just might need to use this information. 

 #

On another note, I found Rick’s post yesterday very interesting. Even though I don’t take criticism terribly well, I actually like being edited. I want to be called out on things that just aren’t working. Part of being a professional writer is believing that editing is a good thing and handling the comments gracefully. You need to find a good editor, though. The very first editor I had was absolutely wonderful. We fit together well. She always delivered her comments gently, but firmly. And, believe me, she had some comments! In general, I took every one of them. The few times I didn’t, I tried to figure out what she was really having a problem with and addressed that issue. My books are much better because of it.

If you want to be a professional writer, you’ve got to learn to deal with the editing process, no matter how painful it can be at times.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Writing and the hard truths

By Rick Blechta

As anyone who’s ever had a book published knows, relatives, friends, friends of friends, even complete strangers will eventually find their way to you, asking for help getting their book published.

I had this happened to me again last week, and in a fit of (misguided) generosity, I said I would look over a few chapters of the novel the writer told me, “…is finally ready to be sent to publishers!” (The budding novelist was also asking for help with that.)

There were a number of positives in what I read, but there were also a number of rather huge problems. I first gave congratulations on the good things I spotted (a couple of good characters, a plot that looked — based on four chapters — as if it might go somewhere, and reasonably good writing, as in the nuts and bolts of punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, etc.

Then I had to move to the things that were definitely not good, the biggest of which was verbosity. The writer just went on too long about things that did not need to be told to readers. For instance, characters couldn’t just walk into a room without it being minutely — and I mean minutely — described.

There were also tons of what I refer to as “dead words”, as in they just weren’t necessary for any good reason.

I knew, based on just these two things, that no publisher or agent would be interested in the manuscript. The person I was offering to help seemed very nice, so I took some extra time and provided what I hoped would act as a template for the ms being, well, pretty massively revised.

As an example of more economical writing, I took two multi-paragraphs of description and rewrote them. At the end, one was now only two paragraphs long with about half the number of words, and the other had even fewer words and was one paragraph long. With a covering letter explaining the thoughts and reasoning behind my suggestions, I sent everything back.

As I feared, the reaction from this writer was somewhat hysterical. She’d previously shared her manuscript with her husband (“an avid reader of mystery novels”) and some friends (ditto), and they’d all loved what she’d written and thought it was great. “Now you’re saying that I need to go back and completely redo my novel!”

All I did was tell her the truth. Based on my own experiences, I knew I was 100% correct. Of course every writer thinks all their prose is deathless. The truth is, it isn’t, and you have to expect and accept that. As I’ve said on this blog several times before, “I’d rather be good than right.”

These days publishers aren’t willing to take the manuscript of a writer who shows some promise and do the heavy editorial lifting required to see a novel make it to print — assuming they ever were.

In a return email, I told this person that I was only giving her my opinion, but that, based on my experience with 10 published works under my belt, I felt I was on solid ground. “But by all means, if you disagree with what I’m saying, send your ms out into the world and see what feedback you get.”

I have good suspicions how this will end. I just hope she’ll have the resilience to accept the truth and continue polishing what I think might actually be a good story. She simply has a good bit of growing to do in the craft of writing. But I suspect she might well give up.

I fervently hope she proves me wrong on that score.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Announcing the Reissue of My First Book, RANDOM ROAD.


They say that writing a book is a little like telling a joke and waiting two years to see if anyone laughs.  I wrote my fourth book, Shadow Hill, in 2019.  It was originally set for publication for July of 2020.  But, even before the pandemic struck, the publication date was moved to September of 2020.

Then all hell broke loose, and the new date was set for July 2021.

I was fine with that.   In addition to the delay, Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks, my publisher, is reissuing my first book, Random Road, for April 13 (about a week from now) to gin up some interest in Shadow Hill.  The new edition of Random Road contains an introduction by the author, a conversation with the author, a reading group guide, and the first pages of the sequel to Random Road entitled Darkness Lane.  It also sports a dynamite new cover. 

Something I didn’t expect happened.  The interest level and buzz for the reissue has been so intense that the publisher asked to move the publication date of Shadow Hill one more time, to August 10, to extend the marketing efforts for Random Road

Additionally, Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks has redesigned all the covers of my former books and asked me to start work on a fifth Geneva Chase mystery.  By the way, the redesigned covers are fantastic!!

2020 was a strange year and I watched while a lot of my author friends launched their books during the height of the pandemic.  Many of them had to pivot in the ways they marketed themselves and their novels.  

Many bookstores were closed altogether and, even now, they’re open at reduced capacity.  Nobody did book signings.  No mystery conferences were held. You couldn’t visit book clubs. 

Online video was nearly the only way to reach potential readers.  I think that even as life returns to normal, we’ll find that online will remain a powerful marketing tool.  Shameless self-promotion…I’m doing an online conversation with the Poisoned Pen Bookstore on Thursday, April 22, at 8 p.m., Eastern Time. 

So, this is my celebratory blog for the re-release of Random Road and it’s mercifully brief.  

I hope you’ve been vaccinated and were able to be with friends and family this past weekend.  I know that the only thing that will make me happier than seeing my books released is when I can visit my own family and see my grandchildren. 

In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.


Thursday, April 01, 2021

Strange Days

 I (Donis) came very close to missing my day to post. I literally didn't know the date – and I don't mean just what date I'm supposed to post. These days, I often don't know what day of the week it is,  or the date, and sometimes I even forget the month. As I posted two weeks ago, I am now fully vaccinated and could carefully begin integrating into the world again, but I find I have forgotten how to do that. The idea of going out to lunch with a friend fills me with trepidation. I suppose the only way I'm going to get over that is to actually do it. If I can find a brave friend who is willing to go with me. Who should I ask? I've kept in touch with friends by email, Skype, Facebook and Zoom, but I haven't seen any of them in the flesh for over a year. Have they changed?  Sometimes I feel as though I've aged ten years during the last year.

This feeling  hasn't been helped by the fact that I've been a bit ill lately. Nothing serious, I think, just allergies, but bad ones, with knockout sinus headaches, fatigue, swollen eyes, even occasional nausea and vertigo. The irony is that this allergy attack began exactly two weeks from the day I had my second COVID shot, so I didn't even get to celebrate my new immunity. 

I'm feeling better now, thanks for asking. I've done a couple of Zoom classes for local writers' groups and written several articles and guest blogs to promote my February release of Valentino Will Die. Just today (March 31) my guest article for Marshal Zeringue's My Book, The Movie blog came up.I got the chance to pick the guy I'd like to play Rudolph Valentino if my book Valentino Will Die were made into a movie! And it took a while, but I think I've found my fictional silent screen adventuress Bianca LaBelle. Check it out here to see if you agree with my casting. 

In my waking life, I'm living in a timeless, immobile place on the earth right now, but in my dreams I've been traveling the world, looking for something. Monday night my husband and I were searching around the Italian hills on a Vespa. I was in South America, looking for I don't know what in the Amazonian jungle. Last night I was hiding from the Nazis in the German forest with a group of other women, looking for a way out, or waiting to be rescued. These are strange days. I don't know know what I'm hunting, but I'm certainly scouring the world to find it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Celebrating literacy

 Today I am excited to be giving a lunch-time Zoom talk sponsored by Literacy Quebec. Literacy has always been dear to my heart, not just because I grew up in a house full of books or because I make my living with words, but because literacy opens up a whole new world of information, entertainment, and knowledge. It makes life so much richer.


In my career as a child psychologist, I witnessed first hand the defeat that children faced in school when they struggled with literacy, the avenues that became closed to them, and the lifelong frustrations and discouragement they faced as adults. That's why I was delighted to participate in the initiative of Orca Book Publishers to write short, engaging novels for reluctant and emerging adult readers. It married my two loves – my psychology interests and my writing. Mystery novels are perfect for encouraging reading, because they are fast-paced page-turners that grab the readers' interest from the first page.  I gave a lot of thought to the kind of books I would write. What kind of hero would I create? What problems they would face? How would they solve them? 

I decided to create a hero that reluctant readers might identify with. Not a police officer or a lawyer, but an ordinary guy who has struggles of his own with reading and who keeps his life as simple as possible to hide it and cope with it. The problems occur when that simple life was disrupted by demands from the outside.


Cedric O'Toole is a simple country handyman who lives on a farm in rural Eastern Canada that he inherited from his mother. He ekes out a living growing organic vegetables and doing minor carpentry jobs. He barely finished high school, is socially awkward, and feels inferior because he can't read his job contracts or come up with quick repartee. But like many people who struggle with literacy, he is very good with his hands, can visualize, build or repair anything, and dreams of one day creating a great invention that will make his fortune. It is this strength that helps him solve the mysteries he faces in the books. 


I hope readers will not only identify with the life challenges Cedric faces, but also see his strengths, and gain inspiration from how he solves the mysteries. These are short, easy-read books, but the issues they tackle are not simple or superficial. As such, they can be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good mystery and an interesting cast of characters. So far Cedric has appeared in four mystery novels; he is slowly coming out of his shell but there are still plenty of problems waiting for him.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Just going for it

By Rick Blechta

Eric Wright (photo: Valerie Wright)
In my post two weeks ago I spoke about my difficulty remembering the sort of recent past with any kind of accuracy. Researching this has been both enlightening and, well, tedious.

Basically what I’m trying to do is get the overall broad strokes of current events at the time in which I’m writing which I somewhat remember, and knocking that into shape in my head, more or less, okay this — which will or may have something to do with my plot — happened here and people thought this about it.


The other important item to have firmly fixed is what was happening with technology. Now that sort of thing may have gotten by me at the time because I had no interest in it, so it’s not a matter of refreshing my memory, but learning about what was going on.


Take computers. I clearly remember the first computer I fooled around with, the Radio Shack TRS 80  or “Trash 80” as we called them. One of the schools where I was teaching (I always taught in multiple schools) had several and I brought one home during our spring break to mess around with it. So that’s what I remember about computers in the ’70s.


But clearly there were far more sophisticated machines than this basic one. What could they do? How were they connected to the internet — which existed at this time — and who had access to this technology? Both of these are important to my plot.


It’s taken a surprising amount of effort to get that information, and I’m certainly far from done. Will I use all that research in writing the book? Heavens, no! But I need to have it firmly in my mind to avoid needless technical gaffs.


And then in the middle of all this I remembered the sage words of Eric Wright, one of the people whose writing started what has become the Golden Age of Canadian Crime Writing. Eric was an academic who would tell writing students (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Don’t let research bog down your writing. Just do it. You can pick up the pieces when you start editing.”


So that’s what I decided to do this past week. I have the research sort of roughed out in my brain and notes.and when I get to the end of the story, I’ll simply find a friendly technology historian (do they even exist?) and ask them to proofread what I’ve written. It’s not as if I haven’t done that kind of thing before.


Know what? I’m feeling more energy and the novel is moving ahead. I’m certain I’m getting things wrong, but who cares at this point?I’m certainly a lot happier.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Give us a smile

Good Monday to you, Type M peeps - Skelton back at the keyboard.

I am in the throes of a house move, as those of you who tuned in last time already know. Were we last together only two weeks ago? As they say, time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana.

(Think about it).

I am now ensconced in the new place although perhaps as you read this I will be back in the old one transporting yet more of a lifetime of stuff. I thought I had been pretty ruthless in the game of keep or chuck while packing but clearly I was less ruthless and more ruthmore.

Mickey and Tom seem to have settled into the new quarters quite happily though.



Anyway, while I was unpacking boxes and trying to decide where to put the contents, my writer's mind was stimulated by Charlotte's recent blog on Murdering the Myth, in particular her line about happy endings in which 'the good guys won and the bad guys were defeated'. Charlotte also talked about the increasing tendency in TV drama to allow evil to flourish unchecked.

Here in the UK we are well acquainted with unsatisfactory endings (usually in elections 😁). Our crime dramas often were downbeat, with the bad guy getting away with it and justice not only failing to be served but barely making it to the menu. 

My book 'Thunder Bay' was rejected by one US publisher because (spoiler alert!) one strand of the plot remained unresolved. Naturally, I disagreed. For me the plot played out the way it had to and to try to wrap it up in a neat bundle would diminish the whole.

Having said that, I understand everything Charlotte said. I think we need some hope that good will always overcome evil (it kind of did in 'Thunder Bay', by the way), at least in the world of fiction if not reality. And we need those rays of light in these days of increasingly venal politicians who get away with crimes, rising international tensions and, of course, a global pandemic.

That last statement will surprise any who may have read my books. I remember a conversation I had with Scots crime writer Alex Gray, who said she liked a happy ending. I told her I don't do them.

And looking back on my fiction, I really don't as a rule, although my new title coming out in the UK in August is pretty damn close.

I've not done the old DNA thing so I may not even have Celtic blood in me but I'm happy to self identify. And there is something in that Celtic blood, real or just claimed, that welcomes the darkness, I think. 

That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

However, I leaven it all with an often hefty dollop of humour. The Davie McCall books had a lot of Glasgow patter, while a wisecrack was never far away from Dominic Queste's lips. 'Thunder Bay' was perhaps the one with fewer laughs than usual but they were back in 'The Blood is Still' and I think even more in the new one 'A Rattle of Bones'. My protagonist Rebecca Connolly is growing older, more assured, and now, at times she talks to other characters like Philip Marlowe on speed.

But that darkness is still there, within me and, by extention, within her. Of course it is. It goes with the territory.

We need humour in our work. No matter how dark things are, there will always be someone who will say something witty. Or just plain stupid. For the record, the person making the latter is usually me.

Lightness of touch is lacking from a great deal of TV drama now. Many crime shows are so bleak and mournful. There's a lot of slow motion walking, mooning about, navel-gazing and staring off into space with furrowed brow and pained eye.

Yes, I know crime is not a laughing matter but we can tackle dark subjects while also bringing much-needed lighter moments. Look at the works of Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane and, the author I grew up with and who inspired me to take up the genre, Ed McBain. They handle some distressing stuff but always find room - where appropriate - to throw in some snappy banter.

(Incidentally, Robert Crais thanked me on Twitty the other day for an RT. I've never been so thrilled.)

Light relief goes a long way. It makes the darkness even darker, it helps build up characters and it makes for an entertaining read. 

And that's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it? Entertaining people? 

Yes, we can explore the human condition if we wish. Yes, we can reveal deep truths. Yes, we can examine issues of concern.

But if we don't tell our story in an entertaining way then all we're doing is preaching and we have enough of that in real life, thank you very much.

Even superhero movies are now places of angst. I just want to grab some of them by the shoulders, give them a shake and say, 'You're in a ridiculous costume, maybe even tights, in a world that doesn't really exist outside of a computer. Lighten up, for goodness sake!'

Thank heavens for Deadpool and Shazam! And, to an extent, Robert Downey Jnr.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

High Crimes and High Adventure

 Next month my newest novel comes out. Or more specifically, one that I co-wrote. My day job is as a ghost writer. Most of my projects are memoirs or business-type books. Occasionally I get hired to flesh out a novel and I've done about ten. They're all work-for-hire projects and the client gets the copyright and whatever profits they can manage from publication. Sometimes a client is so pleased by my work that I get asked to share author credit on the cover. 

Luther, Wyoming took a long, long time in getting published. The client, Tomas Alamilla, a Mexican restauranteur, brought a rough manuscript that he wanted me to polish into a Western novel. The genre demands high adventure, high stakes, and high crimes and Alamilla's concept included all these. A key plot twist was one of my favorite literary devices, a well-timed double-cross. As the writing progressed, I changed some of his other ideas like move the setting from Montana to Wyoming, flip the lead characters--Adam Sanchez became the protagonist and Sheriff Nelson Cook the secondary--and introduce a romantic angle to give the story more texture. I gave Sanchez backstory as a Comanchero, who are typecast in Westerns as impoverished and sadistic villains. I liked the story so much that I asked Alamilla when I completed the contract, that I'd like to work with him to get the story published, a hard nut to crack as Westerns are a very narrow niche. I solicited a couple of Western presses, including one in the UK (go figure) and got rejected by both. Along the way, I met Tiffany Schofield from Five Star Press and kept her in mind as I continued to work on the manuscript. For many novelists, a challenge is paring down the narrative. For me, it was beefing up the word count to meet Five Star's requirement, which added a lot more depth to the characters and replaced exposition with active scenes. One topic that I discuss with my clients is that of publication. Getting picked up by any press is a labor of love and an ordeal of frustration. The process can take years. Consequently, most go with self-publication or pursue an in with a small press. I started working on Luther, Wyoming, in 2012 and here we are, finally, nine years later. Covid pushed the original pub date back from last October.

One of my guiding precepts was to write a Western that hit all the tropes--shootouts, chases on horseback, bad hombres, saloons--while steering clear of the cliches. I studied Daniel Woodrell's Woe To Live On to get the period language right. I included details we seldom see in traditional Westerns like Indian scouts, Buffalo soldiers, Chinese help, cavalry wearing Prussian-style helmets, and a trip to San Francisco's Barbary Coast. 

Here are a couple of blurbs that my fellow mystery writers were kind enough to provide:

"Luther, Wyoming is a like a crack Louis L'Amour western infused with Quentin Tarantino steroids. You're in for a ride with Adam Sanchez, man of the law -- and other priorities as needed."

- Mark Steven, author of the Alison Coil Mystery Series, including The Melancholy Howl

"The frontier town of Luther, Wyoming, is a hardscrabble dot on the prairie map where the bad guys are clearly and always bad, and the good guys are sometimes good, sometimes bad.

Tomas Alamilla and Mario Acevedo have created realistic characters for an action-packed story filled with tense gunfights, barroom brawls, explosive jail breaks, and deadly ambushes. Adam Sanchez is the lone stranger who rides into town with a broken hear from a love destroyed by bigotry. He teams up with an old friend, Sheriff Cook who served with Sanchez in the War Between the States. Together the men take on a gang of outlaws terrorizing the town. Sanchez risks his life for his friend and his love, and he must test not only his sharpshooting skills but also his courage.

Before the final bullet has been fired, Sanchez struggles with the meaning of friendship and loyalty, the temptation of honest men and their guilt for succumbing to that temptation and the uneasy balance between justice and vengeance."

- Manuel Ramos is the award-winning author of the Luis Montez and Gus Corral crime fiction.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Murdering the Myth

 Recently I've watched a couple of series that were well written, with a sterling cast. The episodes held my interest. Then the bad guys won. The endings were wretchedly unsatisfying. They made me feel the same way I did in the period after the election when the country was in so much turmoil

I was raised on ridiculously pleasant westerns. There was always a happy ending. The good guys won and the bad guys were defeated. It was especially satisfying considering there was broad agreement in our society about what constituted good and evil. 

These myths--and I'm speaking of belief systems, not fairy tales--bind civilizations. Our belief systems about "we the people" shape our morality. We know when we sin. And we know when someone else does. 

It's unsettling to me that so much of the art created now rewards what would formerly have been considered bad behavior. It's confusing and depressing. Granted some artists are honestly pulled in this direction. If it's your experience of life, I say more power to you and no one has the right to stop you. 

Even if I hate every word you write, I applaud your courage to go right ahead. 

But must so many TV shows and books have a bleak ending rewarding characters that make us cringe? It is simply not my worldview.

Rewarding people who commit terrible crimes erodes the myths that underlie our civilization. These myths aren't lies. They are basic truths. Good eventually wins. Justice prevails in the end. "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine."

We love heroes. For those of us who can remember what the good guys actually did and acted like, let's bring 'em back from time to time.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

From Chabon to editing

I’m reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union again this month, teaching the book, in preparation for the author, Michael Chabon, to visit. This is maybe the third time I’ve read the book, and I continue to be more in awe of the novel that won both the Edgar Award and the Hugo Award with each turning page.

My takeaways from the book are many. Among them is the absolute fearlessness with which Chabon writes. The prose is breathtaking, but risk-taking as well. Reading the book leaves me feeling like I’m listening to a jazz musician riffing. Character and prose trump plot in this work, and the Edgar committee rewarded that.



That’s the magic formula, though, isn’t it? Character and prose?

It’s certainly what I strive to focus on. I’m about 30,000 words in (a hundred or so pages) into the project at hand, the place where Elmore Leonard said he usually stopped and figured out where he needed to go. And that’s what I’m doing –– printing the manuscript out, tearing into it with my pencil, cutting lines, adding lines, jotting a rough outline in my notebook, all in an effort to push the story ahead.



My agent and I spoke this past week about my need to print and work on hardcopy, about my belief that the work suffers if I don’t. Not superstition. There is something about seeing the pages on paper that changes (and improves) how I edit and work through a draft.

I’d love to hear others on this topic: Do you edit on the screen or on the copy?



Wednesday, March 24, 2021

National Craft Month

 

March is National Craft Month. Any month is craft month as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve been doing a fair number of craft projects over the past year, more than usual anyway. It’s a nice form of escapism from the bad things in the world including the recent shooting in Colorado and, of course, all of the Covid news. So I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve worked on

My Aurora Anderson mystery series is the set in the world of tole/decorative painting. As you might guess, this is one of my hobbies. In the last year, a lot of decorative painters who would normally teach at painting conventions have gone online. I’ve taken 4 classes via Zoom and have enjoyed them immensely. In some ways, it’s nicer than taking a class at a convention since I get the recording of the video afterwards to review. These are 2 of the projects I’ve done, both classes taught by Chris Haughey of cdwood.com. I’m pretty sure that, even after we can attend painting conventions again, teachers will continue to offer some classes online. That’s one good thing that’s come out of this pandemic.

 

I’ve also gotten into macrame. The last time I did that was in the 1970s in 7th grade when we had to do a macrame project for art class. I remember really enjoying it. Last year, I was browsing Herrschner’s catalog, saw this cute project and just had to get the kit. Took me a bit to remember how to do a square knot, but I’ve really enjoyed it. There’s something very peaceful about tying knots. I did these Christmas gnomes and just finished the Halloween ones.


 


I have a bunch of other painting projects lined up, plus some counted cross-stitch ones I started mumble mumble years ago and never finished. Has anyone else done any fun craft projects recently?

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

My thoughts on Tom’s post

By Rick Blechta

I read Tom’s horrible account yesterday of gun violence that took the lives of two of his friends. Then, before I could even write a comment to his post, a gunman once again took the lives of ten people in Boulder, Colorado. I originally planned to continue last week’s post today, but I’m just too numb to write much of anything.

The United States leads the world in mass killings such as the one we saw yesterday as well as the week before. There is no doubt of that. The reason for this is easy to see and I don’t think I even need to mention it because I’m certainly no wiz in figuring these things out.

Can anything be done to stop it? To my despair I have to say no. Firearms are way too prevalent in the US. Basically, if you want a gun, you can get one. If you have mental issues, there’s still little to stop you. Because of American society, the government cannot take them away. The fallout to any politician seriously suggesting this would be too great. The Constitution even tells citizens that they have the right to bear arms — even if the original intent was to provide a “well-regulated militia” to defend the country, rather than a standing army. That idea lasted only to the War of 1812. 

The really terrible end game to this state of affairs is that there is no way to stop mass shootings from happening again. The people of the US just have to live with that. And that’s not to say other countries are immune from the same thing happening.

Life can be so grim sometimes.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Senseless Shootings

On Tuesday, eight people were gunned down in Atlanta at three different massage spas. The suspected gunman, Robert Aaron Long, told police that he’d been a regular customer at two of the massage spas. The spas are suspected of being as places where sex acts could be purchased—and locations where sexual exploitation may have taken place.

The suspected gunman said that the people who worked in those spas were “temptations” and needed to be “eliminated”. When the police tracked Long down through his cellphone, he was apparently on his way to Florida to kill yet more people.

Whenever I hear of a senseless event like this, it reminds me of one that struck home. When I was at a newspaper in Connecticut, a young man by the name of Sean was working for me. He had a personality that could be both hilarious and abrasive at the same time. I considered him and his fiancée, Stacey, to be friends.

On the day of Sean’s marriage, over my objections, he introduced me to Cindy who would eventually become my wife. I had objected because I was a single father and wasn’t interested in meeting new people at the time. Plus, it was obvious that when Cindy and I met, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

Nonetheless, Cindy and I eventually fell in love and married. We stayed friends with Sean and Stacey even after Sean left the newspaper. The two of them and their daughter moved to Tennessee where Stacey managed a home supply store and Sean was a stay at home dad. For several years, they visited friends in Colorado to go backpacking until eventually, in love with the mountains, they moved to Boulder.

Once there, they bought a struggling little business called Boulder Stove & Flooring. While they owned it, the business flourished. Sean and Stacey and their daughter made working there fun for the four other employees and everyone profited. They became staples in the community. Their daughter started a babysitting service.

In 2010, the fun atmosphere changed when Sean and Stacey altered the bonus program for the sales team. Robert, one of the employees, complained to the company’s accountant who explained to him that he would actually be making more money. He refused to believe it and allowed his anger to fester until it boiled over into rage.

On a Monday morning, all the employees were supposed to be in the store, but on that particular day, there was only one other salesman at the front counter. Sean and Stacey were in the backroom. Robert walked quickly past the one other employee, seeking out the owners.

By the time Robert was done, there were thirteen spent shell casings on the floor and three people were dead. After gunning down my friends with a dozen bullets, Robert put the gun to his head and killed himself with one shot.

My friends died because one of their salesmen had poor math skills and a gun.

In a bit of irony, before moving to Tennessee, Sean and Stacey and their daughter had lived in Newtown, the place of another horrific, senseless shooting in 2012.

The point of this blog? Last week in my creative writing class, we talked about what constitutes a solidly written villain in fiction.

The bad guy/girl needs to have a backstory, must be three dimensional, must show that he/she isn’t completely bad, and believes that what he/she is doing, no matter how despicable, is the correct thing to do.

The shooter in Atlanta and the shooter in Boulder? They both thought what they were doing was right. But this is real life and that doesn’t make the victims any less dead.

And the senseless shootings? They never seem to end.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Murderous March conference

 My apologies for not having a real post today. Sisters in Crime-Upper Hudson chapter ("Mavens of Mayhem") is hosting our 4th annual Murderous March conference this afternoon and all day tomorrow. We were forced to cancel in 2020 because of the pandemic. This year we are going virtual.

There may still be spaces available, so please drop by and register if you would like to join us for this afternoon's workshops and/or tomorrow's panels. The conference is free and open to the public.

https://upperhudsonsinc.com/murderous-march-conference/

 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Vaccinated!

I (Donis) am writing this on St. Patrick’s Day, a day which always makes me nostalgic. From my early childhood, I’ve considered St. Patrick’s Day my lucky day, a day to celebrate. I still feel an uplift on the day, even though it’s been a long time since we actually celebrated. 

My first trip to Ireland when the world and I were young.

A few St. Patrick’s Days ago, my husband Don and I were standing at the check-out counter at Trader Joe's. As he was ringing us up, the very good looking, very young and studly clerk asked us, "So, are you celebrating tonight? Going to a party? Having some green beer?"

"No," I said. "Been there, done that."

"Don't worry," he told us, "I'll take up where you left off."

I think of that exchange every March 17, now, how life is just a continuum. You’re born, you go through a bunch of things, learn stuff, and when you’re done with that lesson, you move on but someone takes up where you left off. It seems that no one learns from those that came before them. We all have to go through it on our own.

All of this is my round-about way of bringing up the topic of vaccinations. Don and I are both fully vaccinated now. Neither of us hesitated about signing up for even a minute - we’d to just about anything to contribute to the end of this plague.

Vaccinations were the going thing when I was a kid. I was about ten when they lined us all up in the gym of my elementary school and used what looked like a gun to shoot us in the arm one by one with I-don’t-even-know-what. Did the school even ask our mothers for permission to vaccinate us? I don’t know. I just know that we had mass vaccinations at school every year for several years until I was a teenager. 

I smile when I hear people express annoyance at feeling tired and achy after receiving the COVID vaccine. I felt tired and achy, too, even had chills and a low fever for a day. It wasn’t fun, but it was nothing compared to getting a smallpox vaccination and enduring that horrible, sore, pus-y wound that had to be covered with a plastic dome for two weeks. But then Don and I are both old enough that we were part of the crowd that took the shots that helped eradicate polio in the U.S. and smallpox in the entire world so those of you who came after us don’t have to worry about it. We have the scars to prove it. 

 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Lest we forget

Douglas's post about the world of forgotten things really touched me. Those bits of the past are our link to memory, often our touchstones to a past remembered only in fleeting fragments. I am not a hoarder, but I cannot understand the type of ruthless dweller-in-the-present who throws things out if they haven't any current use. Six months is a very short time in our lifetime and gets shorter the older we are! I find that whenever I do a culling and toss things out because "Oh, I'll never use that again", I inevitably want it a few months down the road. I have an entire jewelry box of tangled necklaces and bracelets from times when tastes were different, and yet, I don't like to throw out a single one. That peace symbol on the leather strap from my protest days? That walnut shell and seashells from the trip to Costa Rica? Each of them is more than a tangle in a jewelry box.

I've been writing since I was six years old, and by the time I left home at 21, I had produced reams and reams of stories, TV scripts, and fan fiction, as well as probably a dozen unfinished books. I have no idea what happened to all that writing. It resided in drawers and boxes in my childhood bedroom and when my parents moved houses years later, I imagine my mother must have hovered over those boxes and wondered what to do with it all, as well as the report cards, mother's day cards, and kids' art that she'd accumulated. All I know is that none of it made the journey to their new home. When she died and we went through her papers, however, we discovered that what she did save were the letters she had sent home from France when she was 16, priceless windows into an era (the 1930s) and a time in her life that tells me so much about who she was.

My parents as newlyweds 1943

She also saved that very first book of mine, printed in a child's lined notebook with hand-coloured illustrations. That is also priceless to me. All my adult life I have been writing for pleasure, even though I had a primary income-earning job, and I have kept one copy of each of those admittedly dreadful books for posterity. Once the computer arrived, I saved my writing to floppy discs, and I have numerous short stories and early drafts of novels on 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 inch discs. It will take some special equipment to transform them and I hope they have not degraded over the years, but at least that record of my past still exists. Someday, someone may be curious enough to read them. Maybe me.

A jumble of stories

Memories are also captured in photographs. When my parents, parents-in-law, and various aunts died, we acquired boxes and boxes of old photos, most unlabelled by date, locale, or even name. Very frustrating! I held history in my hands and tried vainly to identify people by their surroundings or some vague resemblance to the old person I knew. I know my children will also inherit thousands of photos and slides that marked my journey through life. Perhaps they  will mean as little to them as those old black and white photos meant to me. Going through old photos is a wonderful trip back through our life, and even if no one in the future generations will care, I will enjoy the trip. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Living in the past

By Rick Blechta

No, this week’s post title is not a reference to the 1969 song by Jethro Tull but I suppose it could act as a musical background, I suppose. Not familiar with this song? Click HERE to listen to it. 


In my post two weeks ago now — more on that later —I spoke of coming to the realization that my current work in progress should not be set in the present but maybe as much as 35 years ago.


Since then I’ve been cogitating on when that when should be. My characters seem comfortable with somewhere between 1975 and 1980. That choice would necessitate a huge change in the crime that drives the story, but I have a few ideas how that might work out okay.


If, however, I went with the later ’80s and 1990, I would have to change the original storyline less.


So that’s one conundrum I’m facing, the one that will have to be solved first.


The other issue is how much I don’t remember the ’70s, ’80s, or even the ’90s. I mean, come on, Blechta, you lived through it, didn’t you? I’m beginning to think I sleepwalked through it, though. There is just so much I don’t remember.


I’ve taken to reading about it as if the whole era took place before I was born. It’s the only way to refresh my memory enough that I can write about it authoritatively. How weird is that?


I’m currently on 1983 and looking at what changes to technology took place that year, and it’s astonishing to me how long some of the electronics that are so much a part of our lives has been around, even though much of it was pretty crude at the time.


I’d like to say as I research it’s all coming back to me, but it’s not. I feel as if I’m an archeologist of my own life. I could blame it on having a young family at the time, working far too hard for too many hours, or  just not paying attention, but I lived through this stuff! It seems so foreign to me.


So I hope to nail down my time period and get back to work. I’ve written a few experimental scenes based on how I’m leaning towards changing the plot, and while it’s been elucidating in some regards, it’s hardly providing any forward motion.


We’ll get back to this in next week’s post.


____________________________


As for last week’s non-post, I was under the weather with a dizzy spell, something I’ve suffered with the past three years right around this time and continuing into June, then disappearing. Apparently I have loose crystals in my right inner ear. It’s all very boring, but the doctors are working towards a solution. However, when one of these spells occur, I’m laid flat out until it subsides, and last Tuesday was a bad one. Sorry ’bout that!

Monday, March 15, 2021

The World of Forgotten Things

Hi - Douglas Skelton coming to you from Scotland.

I'm in the process of moving house at the moment. That means I'm surrounded by boxes, bubble wrap and packing tape. 

I have so far resisted the urge to build a fort.

Thank you 'Friends' for that thought.

I've been here for 15/16 years. A lot has happened in that time and packing things away can often be a saunter down that lane we call memory.

As most people do when moving I've been playing what we in Scotland know as Keep or Chuck. 

It's when you have to decide if an item is worth hanging onto or if you should send it to dump.

I've disposed of a fair amount of stuff and more will go. I've handed over old bits of furniture to be given a new lease of life before they go to charity. I've trashed some that were beyond repair. Most of my rugs will be picked up by the local council. Years of dogs, cats and, it has to be said, me have taken their toll.

But it's when you go through drawers and shelves and pockets that you find you have entered into a new world - the world of forgotten things. Little items that are not gone, merely left, stored, placed, sitting sometimes in plain sight and yet still unseen. 

Until you pick them up.

And you remember.

They are generally inconsequential, sometimes even everyday, but they carry with them memories like dust which, as you hold them, come back as if through osmosis. These forgotten things can represent a moment in time that you cherish, a place that you haven't seen for too long, a face no longer visible, a voice no longer heard.

A pen, given on a milestone birthday by someone who was special then and is special now, clipped in the inside pocket of an old suit and long since dry.

A small hip flask, a gift never used, still in its box, but it reminds you of the day it was handed to you by the giver with whom you have long since lost contact.

A book, sitting on a shelf among others, its spine cracked and frayed, its pages dog-eared and loose. It was well-loved, well-read, and well-worn by someone who will never read again.

A concert programme brings back the excitement of seeing composer Jerry Goldsmith in Glasgow. A big deal for me.

A paw print in ink of a dog that has long since crossed the bridge.

And books from my own childhood that have been unnoticed on shelves all this time and never taken down in all these years. My copy of Tom Sawyer. A Pictorial History of World Exploration. My Ed McBain collection, some editions dating back to the 60s. Alistair Maclean. Jack London. Ian Fleming. All monuments to a young boy reading in his room and wishing he could be like them.

And more. Ornaments. Old photographs. A poker chip that came from who knows where but which, for some reason, I keep on my desk.

They are all time machines transpporting me across the years to when life was simpler, or better, or happier. 

I have a friend who says that as a matter of course if she has not used, touched or worn something for six months it goes.

I can understand that ethos but there is something within me that cannot part with these and other items, so they are packed away and will find a new home with me. 

The world of these forgotten things is one that I will carry until I am part of it.

Friday, March 12, 2021

The End is Near

 Winter, and the ghost of Covid 19 is stealing away. I'm writing this while Fort Collins is preparing for a massive snow storm and we are warned daily about the emergence of variants to this disease. Nevertheless, spring is just around the corner. I can feel it coming. 

My spirits always lift when I do what I'm supposed to do: write books. Today, I got back to work on my mystery. I have liked the basic plot from the very beginning, and was going great guns, then got side-tracked. I had an assignment from the publisher of my historical novels and put the mystery aside. That was a good move, but then I didn't get fully back to the work-in-progress, and that was a dumb move.

 The time spent during the Covid shutdown could have been a great blessing for writers. It should have been for me. But strangely enough, I found myself frittering away my days. I've always been a compulsive reader and I couldn't stop myself from reading book after book. It's my primary way of dealing with anxiety and just about anything else. Atypically, I became a binge TV watcher. 

There was this sense of all the time in the world to complete work. I worked sporadically, and not with my usual zest. My days lacked the joyful bewilderment of immersion so complete that I would lose track of time. When this immersion occurs, the real world, with all of its real problems, fades away because the process is more compelling. 

During this wasted year when I should have finished my book and begun a new one, or reorganized my house, or hand waxed all of my hardwood floors, or sewn lovely gifts for all my daughters and grandchildren, or refinished furniture, or tackled math, or learned a language, or cooked and froze meals, or worked on my saggy body, I treated the time like it was a vacation.

Still, I'm not clinically depressed and a lot of people are. I'm ready to get back to work. I've had both of my Covid shots and so have a lot of my friends. 

Between this strange sorrowful disease that came out of nowhere, and the terrifying wildness of American politics, simply surviving seemed like a worthy goal. 

I'm here. Bring the new year on. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Thank You Last Responders

 

I’ve heard the term “first responders” for quite a while now, but I hadn’t heard “last responders” until local newspapers started publishing a series of articles on the impact COVID-19 has had on the death care industry. Too often, I think we ignore those who work in this industry. I suspect it’s a need to not think too much about death and dying until you absolutely have to. The articles focus on Southern California, but I suspect similar experiences are playing out all over the country and the world.

As an author of mystery novels, I’ve written my share of memorial service scenes. If a writer is going to set a story during this pandemic, they need to understand how the world has changed with regard to funerals, cremations and burial and do the appropriate research in the area the story is set in.

Here’s what it’s been like here in Los Angeles County, home of 10 million people:

As you can imagine, it’s been a stressful time for funeral directors, morticians, cemetery workers and everyone else who works in this industry. New government regulations have forced changes in how, or even whether, funerals are conducted. And the sheer number of bodies has overwhelmed the system.

Private mortuaries only have so much storage capacity. Some are converting rooms where services are normally held into temporary refrigeration units. Others are renting refrigerated trucks. Under normal circumstances, if someone dies under a doctor’s care in a hospital, the body is transported to a local funeral home. But now, the county coroner’s office is storing even those bodies until a funeral home can handle them. The coroner’s office has added refrigerated trailers to up their storage capacity. Usually, they can hold 500 bodies, now it’s up to 2000. It's not unusual for a family having to call multiple funeral homes, sometimes 10 or 15, to find one that will take the body of their loved one.

Then there’s the problem of getting death certificates. Doctors and hospitals are strained themselves, which tends to slow down this process.

There’s a greater demand for cremations. Normally, a crematorium can only do so many cremations a day because of air quality rules. The AQMD (Air Quality Management District) has had to suspend those rules during this crisis. Some mortuaries have stopped allowing families to watch the body of their loved one being placed in the cremation chamber because it takes too much time.

Private autopsy firms are also affected. Their services are more in demand as families contact them to get confirmation that their loved ones did, indeed, die from COVID.

Large funerals are no longer allowed and Zoom services are not unusual.

Then there’s the psychological and physical toll it’s taking on the people in the industry. Long hours, continuously ringing phones, not being able to offer the services they normally offer, desperate people looking for someplace who will take their loved ones—they all take a toll. Even those who deal with death on a regular basis are overwhelmed.

Here you can listen to two funeral directors talking about their experiences (there’s also a transcript if you prefer to read). One is from Southfield, Michigan, the other from Los Angeles, California. As one of them noted, they are funeral directors not mass fatality experts.

I hope this crisis soon passes and the world can return to normal.

Thank you, last responders, for everything you do. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Covid and Literary Conflict


 By Thomas Kies

 Two weeks ago, today, my wife and I won the lottery…sort of.  We both got our second Pfizer vaccination.  It was like this massive weight was lifted off my shoulders.  After a year of wondering if I’d catch covid-19 and end up on a ventilator in the hospital, my anxiety level dropped precipitously.

If I was of a mind to write something about the pandemic into my work in progress (which I’m not) I wonder what kind of conflict that could be defined as.  

Tonight, in my creative writing class, the participants will be reading the first few pages of their book.  I didn’t define what that might be.  I left that up to them. I’ve assigned this before in other classes and it’s usually pretty interesting.

We’ll also be discussing different types of literary conflict.  

There’s character vs. self.  This might take the form of inner demons—alcoholism, addiction, phobias.  Or it might be a moral dilemma such as: If you can’t afford food to feed your children and there were no other options, would you steal?  Is murder ever moral?  Can I have one more cookie tonight and ignore the scale in the morning?

There’s character vs. character.  This is the classic good against evil—the good guy or girl versus the bad guy or girl. With shades of moral nuance thrown in.  After all, don’t most villains think that what they do is right?  They might see their actions as being outside of the law, but it’s still the right thing to do.  It can be as powerful as a life and death battle in the climax of your book or being handed a written warning by your clueless, overbearing boss.

There’s character vs. nature.  This is where the hero battles forces like weather, wild animals, the wilderness, or a natural disaster.  Think Titanic. Think Old Man and the Sea. Think Texas after a snowstorm. 

There’s character vs. the supernatural.  This is more for authors of fantasy or horror and not so much for mystery writers.  My protagonist, Geneva Chase, doesn’t do battle with demons or zombies or ghosts. But in my first book, Random Road, Geneva rides along on a waterborne ghost hunt. 

FYI, that scene is based on a real ghost hunt I went on years ago.  The only spirits I saw that night were in the bottom of my wine glass.  

There’s character vs. technology.  I think this is more in the realm of science fiction writers, but I do understand the angst, anxiety, frustration, and rage I can feel when my internet goes out and I have to call the freaking cable company to get it back on.  

There’s character vs. society.  This can incorporate a broad spectrum of conflicts.  It could stem from race or religion.  Townies vs. the jocks on campus. It might be a character caught up in the raging fires of war. It could be me staring down an IRS audit. 

Then there’s something called passive conflict.  When the protagonist is being kept in the dark, lied to, or avoided.  Much less violent than physical conflict but can still do mental damage to a character. Much like being in high school and not being invited by the cool kids to any of their parties. 

I’m not bitter. Anymore. 

So, to circle around to the pandemic.  I guess we can slide that into character vs. nature. And I’ll be damned glad when we have all gotten vaccinated. 

Friday, March 05, 2021

Using Distractions

Writing teachers tell us to make our protagonist's life difficult. 

Personally, I've had major life events that not only made my life difficult but sent my life spiraling out of control. But more often, an event that I either anticipated with pleasure or thought would be easily navigated is what causes chaos. For the past six weeks, the source of that chaos has been an adorable new puppy. (See photo to right -- Fergus at four months, now five months and taller. Note the flash of blue sock peeping out of side of old loafer that was gnawed by sharp puppy teeth).

As I pick up ripped paper (spilled from knocked over wastebasket, torn from toilet paper rolls, envelopes, or book covers) and wipe up water spilled from bowls, food dumped from dishes, and pee that missed designated pads, I have been thinking about the disruption that a puppy could cause in my protagonist's life not to mention her investigation. 

Hannah McCabe, my Albany PD detective brought home a rescued Great Dane puppy at the end of What the Fly Saw, but I left it there. The book was over and she had her father and brother to help with puppy care. But what if the dog that plays a role in my first Jo Radcliffe novel -- set in 1950 -- ends up spending a few nights at her house? A subplot that could both disrupt her investigation and move the story forward. 

In my 6th Lizzie Stuart novel, the visit to Santa Fe at Thanksgiving to meet her fiance's family for the first time takes her out of Gallagher right after a woman she saw disappears. When she gets back to Gallagher, the project that she has been working on to aid a church congregation that wants to have its building declared a historic site needs her attention at the moment when she is  drawn into the investigation of the woman who disappeared. These distractions -- the family visit and the church research -- function as subplots that grow, respectively, out of what is happening in her personal life and out of her work as the director of an institute. 

I enjoy reading other writers' books in which subplots emerge naturally from the lives of the protagonists -- the job changes, the births, the illnesses of family members, the cooking classes, the noisy neighbor -- whatever they have going on when the crime occurs. Reminding myself of that has helped me with the 1939 historical that I'm working on. Asking myself what was happening in a character's life when she left home on a train heading for New York City -- rather than focusing on what would happen when she got there -- has provided a subplot that is essential to the main plot. The character now has motivation that I had not anticipated for two important decisions.

So, back to my puppy chaos. I wonder what might have been in that envelope that was ripped to pieces?

 

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Promotion – Too Much or Not Enough?

The good old days of promotion



 My new novel, Valentino Will Die, has been released.I’ve been spending the past few weeks, and will spend the next several weeks, trying to get the word out. Trying to publicize a book during a pandemic presents problems, but opportunities, too. No personal appearances, but many more opportunities to participate in on-line promotion. I’ve been spending hours a day in front of the computer setting things up - ZOOM workshops, podcasts, guest blogs, etc.

If there is anything more boring than shilling over the internet hour after hour after hour I don’t know what it is. After a while I’d be happier cleaning the toilets. At least I’d know for sure that I have accomplished something tangible and immediate.

Besides, how much is too much? How tired do people get seeing post after post about someone’s new book? And yet, one almost has to do it and take the chance of becoming an irritation. Then again, how much is enough? I’ve heard that readers/viewers have to hear about something at least seven times before they remember it. (Don’t ask me who decided that. I don’t know.)

How do you decide what books to read? I consider my own habits. First, if I know and like the author, I’ll almost always give her books a try. Second, I am an inveterate browser. I’ve discovered innumerable titles that I’ve loved simply by browsing bookshelves both in bookstores and in libraries. I am more prone to read a book by an author I don’t know if I see it in the library.This avenue has been cut off by the pandemic for the last year. Third, I’m very much influenced by the recommendations of friends, especially friends whose taste I know is similar to mine. The only internet sites that influence my buying and reading habits tend to be a couple of review sites that I like, such as Lesa’s Book Critiques. If I read a book I like by an author who is new to me, I’ll look up his website, read about him, and see what else he’s written.

I’m perhaps one of the few readers who has never bought a book online. If I’m going to buy a book, I order it from one of my local independent book stores if they don't have it in stock. This is not to say that I wouldn’t buy a book from, say, Amazon, if I was desperate to read it and absolutely couldn’t find it anywhere else. If given a choice, I’d rather have a physical book to read instead of an ebook. When I’m done with a physical book, I can either return it to the library or resell it or give it to the local nursing home.

According to a survey issued a few years ago by Sisters in Crime, I’m not alone. The number one factor influencing a reader when she buys a mystery novel is that she knows and likes the author. Second is that the book is part of a series she enjoys. Third, the reader saw the book on an in-store display. (This was pre-pandemic, of course.) Next was that the reader got the book through a book-buying club (this surprised me), and then the recommendation of a friend or relative.

Other revelations from the survey:

The cover of the book is very influential in persuading a reader to consider it.

Most mysteries are bought by women older than 45 (though a third of them are purchased by women 18-44. That’s not to be sneezed at.), and more are bought by women in the South, closely followed by the West, than in other parts of the country. More mysteries are bought through stores than online, and personal recommendations “are the major driver of reading choices.” Even younger mystery readers, who are more familiar with e-readers and use them more than older readers, said they preferred to read physical books. As I said, this survey was taken a few years ago, but I have a feeling the results would be similar if it were repeated today.

Are you annoyed by authors’ continual on-line BSP, Dear Reader? What influences you to read a book, and in what form do you prefer to read it?