Saturday, February 27, 2021

Remembering a Mentor

I was talking with my sons about the value of mentors in your professional development. I mentioned that it was something that I hadn't done and regretted it. Then I remembered that wasn't quite true. I did have a mentor as a writer and he had been a significant influence in giving me the skills and knowledge that helped me eventually get published.

Around 1987, I got serious about writing a novel. I quickly discovered that I didn't know what I was doing and sought to educate myself. By then I had moved to Fresno, California, and signed up for an adult education class on writing. It was taught by a woman who was a copy editor with the local newspaper. While she knew the technical ins-and-outs about writing, she established herself as a gate-keeper and claimed that if we didn't do things her way, that she'd make sure none of us would ever get published. The best thing I can say about the experience is that I now know what a terrible critique group is like. 

Then when I moved to Colorado, I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and discovered what it was like to be among for-real published authors eager to share their wisdom and help the rest of us along. My first RMFW critique group was comprised of wannabes and in spite of our enthusiasm, it was the blind leading the blind. After receiving a rejection letter in which the agent recommended that I work on my synopsis, I signed up for an RMFW workshop on writing a synopsis. During the class, this man sitting behind me asked about my work-in-progress. He then invited me to join his newly formed critique group. That man was Jameson Cole.

Turns out that he had just won the Colorado Book Award for his novel, A Killing in Quail County. The fact that he had been published by St. Martin's Press and won an award gave him serious street cred. I was one of six-to-seven writers who met in his home just outside Morrison. We soon learned that this was no coffee klatch. Jim was strict with his rules about critiquing. For homework, he assigned two books that he'd quote from like Scripture, Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure. The critiques were heavy on mechanics and craft for commercial fiction, and we didn't indulge in lofty literary prose. The sessions were bouts of writing boot camp, but unlike my experience in California, the critiques were educational and directive. 

However, not all was well. Convinced that he possessed the keys to the publishing world, Jim labored on a second book that went nowhere. He started on a third and those efforts sputtered. The group fell into a funk as none of us, despite our vastly improved works, seemed to be doing little more than collecting rejection letters. Jim accepted a work promotion and moved away. With that, our forlorn band of scribes scattered into the wilderness.

After a long lonely year of not writing, we renewed contact and decided to restart the critique group, minus Jim. It was odd meeting at first, and we felt his stern hand on our shoulders. Then within six months, three of us got publishing offers, which eventually became contracts with Dutton for Jeff Shelby, Ace for Jeanne Stein, and HarperCollins for me. The group has since evolved and moves about Denver like a writing phantom. Its latest incarnation is as a tiki drinking club. Those of us still in the group are first-rate writers, though getting published remains as daunting and uncertain as ever.

Which brings me back to Jim as my mentor. Soon after that conversation with my sons, I received word that Jim had passed away earlier this month. So yes indeed, I did have a mentor, and one to whom I will be forever indebted to. Thank you, Jameson Cole.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Did I learn?

 I'm working my way through my pile of paper. I'm not talking about an innocent little inbox. My pile is the accumulation of stuff from the beginning of time. The sorting basically means three large categories: writing, household, and trash (why am I keeping this?) 

My "real" files are fairly well organized into file folders. Too many file folders, perhaps. My household pile consists of a lot of duplicate material. It will be simple to handle. Trash is obvious.

But, oh, the writing category. There's fan mail from when people used to take the time to write letters, newspaper reviews from when print journalism reigned supreme, touching little hand made souvenirs presented at programs from a time when organizations were delighted to have an author show up. There's convention badges, tote bags galore, program printouts, old letters. Carbons of letters I wrote to my first agents and letters to editors. 

And drafts of books. After a book is published there's no need to save printed first and second drafts, but I do. Now I use that paper to print out other peoples' book when I've agreed to read them. I also have some edited manuscripts and I've found myself going through them to read my editor's comments.

One of the delights of being published by Poisoned Pen Press was working with Annette Rogers and Barbara Peters. It was a double editorial whammy and a matchless learning experience. 

Structural editing (the dreaded editorial letter) is an art unto itself. The dynamic duo made books better.  But apart from plot and structural comments, here are some of the composition errors that make me cringe. 

1. Just. When did I fall in love with this word? Annette must have flagged it a jillion times. Do you have a pet word that is over-used? 

2. Passive Voice. You think it doesn't matter? Try using active and then read the sentence both ways. There's a huge difference.

3. Paragraphs. Always start a new one when the speaker changes or there is new action within a scene. 

4. Using too many words or sentences to make the same point. Say it once. Say it well and then shut up.

5. Unnecessary dialogue tags. Not just adverbs but even the "he said" and "she said" when the speaker's identity is already clear. 

6. Clear in head only. This is when a sequence is clear in the writer's head, but it's not clear on paper. 

I had a lot more to learn and still do. I'm keeping my double-edited copy of Lethal Lineage because so much was wrong with that manuscript. I had one heart-warming victory, however. Lethal was my one and only locked-room mystery. Neither my agent or the two editors saw the ending coming, yet it made perfect sense to them. They admired it.

Oh fabulous day. Oh joy beyond measure. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Writer’s Reprieve

So I’m building something from scratch. From the ground up. No, not a novel. That would be much easier. It’s an online summer writing institute. And doing so is crazy. Like 18-hours-a-day crazy.

It’s obviously cut into my writing pace. There’s no getting around that. I’m not getting 500 or 750 words a day, which is my goal. But I’m getting something. Every day.

This has been on my mind a lot recently: How has my day job this year impacted my writing? I’m busier than ever before. Making time to write –– thirty minutes here and there –– has become my outlet. A reprieve.

I imagine you all know what I’m talking about. Most of you live this same existence. Writing is what keeps you going; it’s never easy, but writing is also a wonderful break from reality. I find myself returning to the work-in-progress each day and exhaling. Do I wish I had four hours of uninterrupted time to really push the book forward? Of course. But I’ll take what I can get. I always have.

And the pace may not be breakneck. But there are many stories of writers (Ed McBain, Chuck Palahniuk) chipping away at books while working long hours: a sentence here and there until the work is done. Going back each day to see what you’ve written and driving to the next yard marker.

Stephen King says write a book in three months. It would be nice to never break the rhythm, but the reprieve is what keeps me going.

Keeley, 12, finally left the virtual classroom for in-person classes Monday. Here's her “First Day of School” pic.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Getting Motivated to Write


As Rick noted in his blog post yesterday, a lot of writers are dealing with the psychological effects of Covid these days. Some writers I know are still going like gangbusters, getting a lot of writing done. Others, like me, are just sort of plodding along. Whatever your situation, having a book or two about motivating yourself to write is a good thing to have around and crack open on occasion. Here are some I’ve discovered over the years that you might find useful.

1. Writing From The Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. ( Dennis is a writer and a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in creative issues. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, he did a presentation at a Zoom meeting of my chapter of Sisters in Crime about how to keep on writing in the midst of what’s happening in the world. This book covers a whole host of issues that writer’s face. Section titles include: The Writing Life, You Are Enough , Hanging On and Page Fright.

2. Motivate Your Writing by Stephen P. Kelner Jr., PHD. I just recently got an e-book of this one. Originally published in 2005 and recently updated in 2021, the introduction states it’s about “motivating yourself to write and finding ways to keep yourself writing”. I haven’t dug into it yet, but it sounds promising. 

3. Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Rosanne Bane. Someone recommended this one to me at some point of time. I bought it and...promptly forgot I even had it. Unfortunately, this happens often with me. It’s helped a number of people I know get out of a writing slump and get ‘er done. 

4. The Mental Game of Writing by James Scott Bell. This one is about overcoming obstacles and staying creative and productive. Worth reading. 

5. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. This one has been around for quite a while. I suspect most writers have heard of it and quite a few have read it. A really great book that reminds you that you’re not alone as a writer and that others feel the same way you do when working on a project.

Anyone else have any books you’ve found helpful?

Tuesday, February 23, 2021


By Rick Blechta

First off, sorry about missing last week. (I’m sure you were all sitting around tapping your feet impatiently for Blechta’s deathless prose to appear on Type M.) I just flat out blew it. In these Days of Covid, it’s easy to lose track of time, and since Monday was a holiday here in Ontario, I thought Tuesday was Monday until nearly 8 o’clock in the evening, too late to post anything.

But I’m back and here to elucidate on the title of this week’s post.

As loyal readers of Type M are aware, I’ve been working on a novel for several years now and not much to show for it. I know who and what the main characters are and have written thousands of words about them and the general plot line, but for some reason the story just hasn’t been taking off.

I’ve worried about this a lot. The past year I’ve also been struggling with the psychological effects of Covid which is something common for many writers it seems. All of this has left me rather despondent about my writing.

Then, two nights ago at just after 3 a.m., I was lying awake and the plot line of the novel popped into my head. Maybe, just maybe I’m setting it in the wrong era, maybe my two main characters would be more comfortable in the recent past. I’m talking about the ’70s or ’80s. I know for sure that the older one would be.

He told me so almost immediately. Long story there…

It’s going to mean a huge overhaul to many of the main plot points, and the driving force behind the investigation the two undertake will definitely change from the backdating, but I feel it’s all doable. 

My big issue now is to refresh my memory about what this era was like. It will be very easy to have something like a smart phone be in someone’s hand, and never notice that they wouldn’t appear for a good 20 years since these gadgets are such a huge part of our lives now. I will be vigilant, but what the heck, hopefully one of my pre-submission readers will be on top of this stuff if I’m not. Either that or you can all joyously tell me my failings when the novel sees print. At this point, I’ll willing accept that.

The past two days have been spent staring off into the distance imagining different possibilities the backdated story line can take, and quite frankly, it’s rather exciting.

Maybe I finally have the wind at my back!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Ink In Her Veins

 By Thomas Kies

The headline in my county’s Sunday newspaper is “Nothing to See Here”, referring to the efforts of local politicians to get a bill passed eliminating the requirement to post public notices in the paper.  They would like, instead, to post them on the county website.  

Yet another attack on newspapers. 

The protagonist in my Geneva Chase Mystery series is a crime reporter for a small independent newspaper that’s on the brink of being purchased by a media conglomerate.  Geneva is based on several women I’ve worked with over the years when I too worked in the newspaper and publishing business.  

It’s a business that I loved.  I did everything, including working as a pressman on a Goss web press in Detroit, becoming a staff writer, eventually becoming an editor, then moving into advertising management, and ultimately becoming the publisher and general manager of a magazine publishing house here on the coast of North Carolina. 

 I even delivered newspapers during a blizzard in one of the company’s ancient, rear-wheel drive vans.   Yikes.

The business was exciting, interesting, and fun, but filled with the pressures of working on a deadline.  

Unfortunately, the business has changed.  The combination of the Great Recession, the effects of the Internet, and Covid-19 has been disastrous for newspapers.  Their main source of revenue is advertising and all three of the factors I presented have shrunk that revenue stream.  

Before the Great Recession, the housing market was booming.  Real estate companies were spending a fortune in the classified section of newspapers, along with car dealerships, and companies looking to hire employees.  

Starting in 2007-2008, the housing bubble burst followed by cascading disasters in employment and consumer confidence.  Companies who always knew about the Internet, suddenly found it very attractive.  It was cheap and easy to use.  

The lucrative classified pages in newspapers diminished to a disastrous level. The advertising in the main pages of the paper also either got smaller or went away altogether. 

According to a New York Times article in December of 2019, over the past 15 years, more than one in five papers in the United States has shuttered, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been cut in half, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. That has led to the rise of hollowed-out “ghost papers” and communities across the country without any local paper. “Ghost papers” are publications what have severely cut the staff in their newsrooms making any kind of investigative reporting non-existent. 

Covid-19 has delivered even more pain to newspapers.  When the world shut down in March of 2020, stores, shops, bars, and restaurants all closed their doors for months. Advertising became even scarcer.  Even with the world starting to open back up, the number of pages in your local newspaper has become less and less.  

An unexpected circumstance from the experience of working from home, more newspaper companies are closing their newsrooms, having offsite printing companies produce their publications, and selling their buildings and assets.

A huge part of the joy of working for a newspaper was being with the people you worked with.  Yes, the pressure of daily deadlines could lead to fraying nerves and in-office tension.  But at the end of the day, these people were your “newspaper family”.  Even though I’ve been out of the business for more than ten years, I still stay in close touch with a lot of them even if it’s through social media on the Internet.

Speaking of the Internet, the way people get their news has changed dramatically.

The transition of news from print, television and radio to digital spaces has caused huge disruptions in the traditional news industry, especially the print news industry. It’s also reflected in the ways individual Americans say they are getting their news. A large majority of Americans get news at least sometimes from digital devices, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2020.

More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “often” or “sometimes,” including 60% who say they do so often. This is higher than the portion who get news from television, though 68% get news from TV at least sometimes and 40% do so often. Americans turn to radio and print publications for news far less frequently, with half saying they turn to radio at least sometimes (16% do so often) and about a third (32%) saying the same of print (10% get news from print publications often).

The point of this rambling blog is that even in fiction, I’m transitioning Geneva Chase, crime reporter, into going freelance, working gigs for her newspaper on occasion, and working for a company called Lodestar Analytics that does open-source research as well as instigating deep dive investigations.  

Personally, I still like newspapers.  I get the paper out of Raleigh every day (even they’ve stopped printing on Saturdays, however) and my local newspaper (which has cut back from three days a week to two), as well as the Sunday New York Times (which seems to be flourishing).

I also subscribe to a digital Washington Post feed and routinely scan other websites (all free) for news from around the globe. I’m a news junkie and the Internet feeds my addiction. 

Still, I’m happiest when I’m writing scenes where Geneva Chase is working in the newsroom.  She’s got ink in her veins. I’d like to think that I do too.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Upcoming Events

 I finally got my Friday right. With the beginning of spring semester and half a dozen other things happening, I've been lagging behind and trying to get on track with my life. Of course, it would have helped if my 2021 appointment book had arrived on time. Or, I had ordered with delays in mind. 

But I'm back. And I want to begin by thanking John Corrigan, my Type M blogmate, for inviting me to do a virtual visit to his class. The class had read "In Her Fashion," the Lizzie Stuart story that was published in EQMM six years ago. I did a podcast reading (intimidating) of the story while attending Malice Domestic for the mag podcast

It was fun talking to John's class about the story and about writing in general, with a few criminal justice questions mixed in. 

Now, for two upcoming events. On March 19th and 20th, Sisters in Crime, Upper Hudson chapter, will have a virtual conference. This will be our fourth Murderous March (annual conference). We were forced to cancel our expanded conference in March 2020, so this year we are picking up where we left off. With the help of our new webmaven, we are making use of the technology to bring together our own members, members of MWA-NY, and writers from Murder on Ice, the western NY chapter of SinC, and from New England and elsewhere. Here is the link with the registration information and the program:

I am hosting a symposium that is an unrelated event, but will be that same week just prior to Murderous March. Another unexpected good thing with the use of technology to bring us all together is that I finally have the opportunity to host another symposium of crime writers of color. The first such symposium was years ago -- a pre-Bouchercon event in the late 1990s, sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Givens Foundation. This time, I am hosting wearing my UAlbany, School of Criminal Justice faculty hat. I'm the project director of our Justice and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century initiative, and I want to take this opportunity to gather -- virtually -- members of the Crime Writers of Color (CWoC) organization and other guests to talk about crime fiction and social issues. Of course, we'll also be talking about writing, publishing, and their books. The symposium will be on that Wednesday afternoon and Thursday. The program and registration information (free and open to the public) will be up shortly. I will be tweeting it out, and it will be posted on our UAlbany, School of CJ website.

So, that's the news from Albany. The snow is falling, but it's much warmer here than Texas has been. I and Harry, my cat -- who had a vet appointment this morning -- and Fergus, my puppy, who is a bundle of energy and came along for the ride -- are all tucked back in for the afternoon. Thoughts and prayers to the folks in the southern and southwest US who are dealing with all the fallout from the last snowstorm. 

And back to work -- I'm still trying, even after months, to get into the pace of working at home. Still trying to figure out separating day job from my fiction writing schedule. I'm hoping to spend some time in my campus office where many of the books and articles that I need are stored. I'm running out of space in my house for all the material from the office that I need. But I'll figure it out. It's just a matter of getting organized, right?

 Take care, everyone. Keep warm and have a good weekend.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

This and That

 Is everyone all right, weather-wise and pandemic-wise? Here in southern Arizona where I live, it's sunny and 66ºF today, which is our reward for having to live through our summers. However, all my siblings are back in the deep freeze. My sister in Joplin, MO, was subject to a rolling blackout night before last, and sent me a photo of her thermometer on the deck registering -16ºF, with about a foot of snow. My sister in Tulsa went out to check her mail, stepped on the ice and, as she put it, "did a dance like Elwood Blues" before taking a tumble and bruising her elbow, and my Tulsa sister-in-law did a slider with her car right through an intersection while trying to stop at a red light, (both are okay). Below is the photo my s-i-l took of their front yard a couple of days ago. Fortunately none of my Tulsa relatives have lost heat. I can't say the same for some of my poor relatives in Texas. 

Photo by Donna Casey, Tulsa, OK

I have to comment on some of my blog mates' recent entries. John Corrigan's observation on Thursday about the process of writing is so spot on, so on the money, so to the point, that I'm going to steal it: "The path into the forest is never scary. It’s only after you’ve been in there a while and realize you’re lost that fear kicks in." 

I'm so delighted for Charlotte Hinger, whose The Healer's Daughter has won the Will Rogers Memorial Silver Medallion, a Kansas Notable Book Award, and was named a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. It's such a wonderful book and deserves every single accolade it is eligible for. Charlotte did say she wished she could go to Fort Worth to receive the Will Rogers award in person. My guess is her feeling is - not so much, right now.

I totally agree with Douglas's assessment of Bad Day at Black Rock, and of many classic movies in general. Classic movies were often much more adult and thoughtful. I could name many wonderful examples, but I'll confine myself to one, the 1944 noir thriller Laura, based on the novel Laura by Vera Caspary, and starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. I often use that particular screenplay as a sterling example of suspense, characterization, and plotting, and if you haven't seen it, well, why not?

In other news, since my latest Bianca Dangereuse mystery, Valentino Will Die, came out on February 2 I've gotten several solicitations from newsletters to advertise my book to "tens of thousands" of subscribers for a week/month/year for anywhere from $29 to $150. I'm not familiar with any of them but checked them all out. I'm skeptical. Has anyone else signed up and had success with Author Week, Book Machine, Fresh Fiction, or anyone else? I posted this question on my Facebook author page and got no response, so if any of you Dear Readers are also authors and have experience with one of these newsletters, do your fellow authors a favor and give us the benefit of your insight.

And finally, since I can't resist another opportunity for some BSP, writers know what a relief it is to get a good review from Kirkus Reviews, a notoriously tough review magazine. But I'm pleased to announce that they liked Valentino Will Die. Whew! Their reviewer says: "A plausible and exciting premise, famous characters, period movie glamour, and a blockbuster ending." 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021


 Today, despite two days' worth of calendar alerts, I forgot about my Wednesday Type M post. Since the day is now half over and I don't have time to write a proper post right now, I decided to just give a cheer and a shout-out to Canadian authors of all types and stripes. This is no reflection on all the other wonderful, Non-Canadian books out there, but because Canada is dwarfed between two English-language powerhouses, the US and the UK, who have far more books, readers, and promotional money behind them, sometimes Canadian authors get lost in the melee. 

So in the fall of 2019, a group of children's authors devised this idea of an I Read Canadian Day to encourage schools, libraries, and other groups of showcase Canadian children's authors. The idea enthusiastically spread to all Canadian authors and books, on February 19 2020, the first ever day was held. 

And then, before there was any chance to build on the energy and momentum, along came Covid, shutting own libraries, schools, book festivals, and just about every venue where writing and storytelling could be celebrated.

Today, February 17th, is the 2nd I Read Canadian Day in what I hope is an annual and growing tradition, this year encouraging everyone to pick up a Canadian book. Check out the CBC lists, the Writers' Union of Canada, Crime Writers of Canada, and many other national groups for lists for ideas. 

Even our Prime Minister is getting into the spirit. You'd be surprised what wonderful Canadian books are lurking in the shadows.

And post any other suggestions in the comments!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Always a good day for a Bad Day

I have only recently been introduced to the joys of streaming movies. My internet connection previously had not even realised the 21st Century had dawned. In fact, for a long time it only had a nodding aquaintance with the 20th.

Despite my new-found, new-fangled connectivity, I still much prefer DVDs and Blu-Ray for my movie watching pleasures. I like a disc, I like to see them on a shelf, I like them with extras.

Many of my purchases in the past year or two have been of an older vintage. Not that I think of them as old, mind you, but you young folk out there will. It’s not that they used to make films better, because there was a lot of dross back then (as there is today). But it is true that they regularly made films that stand the test of time.

Well, at least to old fogeys like me.

I want to focus on one of them today. It's a thriller, you could call it crime, and it is an absolute winner.

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a title that slid into common parlance in the Skelton household when I was working for a living to mean a helluva day at the office. And there was a vast number of them thar days, let me tell you.

Spencer Tracy was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1955 for this movie, directed by John Sturges, who later went on to make ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘The Great Escape’ and other classics. Apparently, this was his favourite of his own films.

In case you haven't seen it:

Set just after World War Two, Tracy plays John J. Macreedy, a one-armed man in a black suit who arrives in a dusty western town by train. The locals, personified by Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and others, are suspicious and they make their views plain. Macreedy is in no hurry to tell them why he’s there and that makes them even more distrustful.

Naturally, this is a town with a secret, a particular nasty, dark one, and they don’t want it to be revealed.

Just as naturally, Macreedy is there to do just that. Although he doesn’t know it.

I love the film, simple as that. Despite the 1950s streamliner trains and the cars and the telephones, it is a western, which appeals to me. As one of the characters says:

 Somebody's always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historians, it's the "Old West." To the book writers, it's the "Wild West." To the businessman, it's the "Undeveloped West." They say we're all poor and backward and I guess we are. We don't even have enough water. But to us, this place is our West. And I wish they'd leave us alone.’

But it’s also a thriller and a bloody good one. It hit screens on the back of a slew of quite dreadful red-baiting movies, made as both studio heads and stars sought to curry favour with the House UnAmerican Committee investigating the red threat to US society.

Like ‘High Noon’ and other films of the period, it drew on that hysteria and used it in the story-telling.

But as I was watching it, I began to think about how it would be treated if remade today. We have hysteria. We have suspicion and racism (one of the themes of the film, by the way).

The quick answer is, I believe they would ruin it.

It runs at a tight, taut 94 minutes so the first thing they would do is push it up to over two hours. However, the running time is fine as it is. The story is told with economy and speed and a fair amount of wit, courtesy of screenwriter Millard Kaufman. That wit is something else that might be sacrificed today.

Of course, they might prefer to make it for TV, and stretch the story out to eight episodes by adding all sorts of dark, and frankly unnecessary, subplots. Darkness is the name of the game now. And, generally, a big soggy patch midway through the series. Yes, even the much vaunted first season of ‘True Detective’.

In the film, Tracy tells the always watchable Walter Brennan – one of the few locals to help him – why he is in town. It involves a debt to a dead man stemming from an incident during the war.

Now, if they remade it, we would have to see that. The star, whoever he was, would insist on it to establish his character. We would have to have a flashback, showing how that debt came to be due but in the film we just hear about it. And that’s all we need. We don’t need to see Macreedy in action, being wounded, being saved from death by the man. Because, in the scheme of things, that is not integral to the action in this little dusty desert town.

(Tracy and Brennan were on different sides of the political spectrum and did not get on at all during filming. Tracy was a liberal, Brennan a conservative and at one point communicated with each other through John Sturges. Ah, the magic of the movies!)

There is a celebrated fight scene between the one-armed Macreedy and local heavy Ernest Borgnine during which the former knocks lumps out of the latter using karate, or judo, or some sort of martial art. By today’s standards it looks tame but in 1955 this was something. Even the Production code raised its eyebrow, believing the use of the martial art was somehow unheroic.

At one point, Borgnine is knocked through a door. What Sturges didn't tell him was that the door had been nailed shut so that it was more impressive when he crashed through. The stunned look as he stood up was real. John Sturges said the actor never forgave him for it.

If that scene was shot today, the Macreedy character would be required to take on ALL the bad guys at once, and beat them. Preferably on a staircase.

Incidentally, Borgnine pipped Tracy to that Academy Award for his role as ‘Marty’.

Similarly, the climax is little more than a night time showdown between Tracy and Robert Ryan. Today, he would have to vanquish half the town. Maybe even blow it up for good measure.

These days we can’t have our hero simply take down one guy, it has to be an entire army. The outlandish antics of the super hero and (in my opinion) gaming characters mean that young audiences will not accept the simple mano-a-mano, unless it’s wrapped up in some kind of CGI way.

Yes, I know – I’m just a crabbit old man, saying they don’t make ‘em like they used to. I don’t have a down on modern cinema – I enjoy much of it. I believe there are many decent movies being made.

But they really don’t make films like Bad Day at Black Rock anymore. Not with this kind of understated story telling. They don’t even make that many thrillers now, which is a shame.

OK, I’m ready to watch it again. This time with the commentary.

I’m old, but I can geek with the best of them.


Friday, February 12, 2021

Will Rogers Award

 Last Saturday I received the Will Rogers Memorial Silver Medallion for The Healer's Daughter. I was simultaneously thrilled and simply beside myself that I was unable to attend the awards ceremony. I wanted to be in Fort Worth, Texas in person. Not just virtually. 

I will receive the medallion in the mail and am scanning through Amazon for a display box to hold this award and my Kansas Notable Book Award for the same title. My finalist recognition for the High Plains Book Award is signified by a lovely mounted plaque. It will be displayed separately. 

My friend Mary Anna Evans won the gold medallion for Catacombs, a book in her wonderful Faye Longchamp archeological series. 

I'm deeply grateful for my award. This book is based on a tremendous amount of historical research about the unique community of Nicodemus, Kansas and the courageous African Americans who settled there after the Civil War. When I lived in Kansas, the town was just fifty miles away. One of the descendants of these settlers, Angela Bates, became a very close friend. She often referred to me as her "white sister with a black soul."

The book was a labor of love. I also wrote an academic book on the phenomenal contribution of Nicodemus to our country's history. Both books required long hours of poring through microfilm and old newspapers to shape the stories I wanted to tell.

Receiving any award is an incredible blessing. We writers are rather insecure folk. We work alone and dither over everything from word choice to plot construction. We wrestle with scolding characters who want to play a bigger part. We are never sure of our way or that we have arrived after we get there. Awards are like a shot of jet fuel. That and the wonder of a letter from a fan saying they liked my book.

Hat's off to all the awards chairmen and committees that soldiered on through Covid and did their best to make events as meaningful as possible during this difficult time. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Thou Shalt Dwell

I enjoyed reading Thomas Kies’s post Thou Shalt Hoard Notebooks, partly because I love Stephen King (I’m a Mainer, after all), and partly because Tom got me thinking.

Tom offers Stephen King’s rules of writing, one of which is to take a long break after you’ve finished the draft of a novel and return to it with fresh eyes. This got me thinking about a conversation I had recently with a writer-friend who talked about hitting roadblocks mid-novel and pressing pausing.

She said she gives herself two weeks away from the novel and writes something entirely new, a short story. Once the story is finished, after a couple weeks, she goes back to the book, reads it from the start to the problem area, and usually comes up with a fix. When she leaves the novel, the new project becomes her focus. She doesn’t dwell.

I like to dwell. I’m a good dweller. (Did I just write that sentence?) I think dwelling is productive. My daughter, when she was about 10, came into the office one day and said, “Mom says you’re in here writing. Everytime I come in here, you’re just staring at the wall.”

That’s me writing. I’m a dweller.

Elmore Leonard said somewhere that he wrote the first hundred pages and then figured out where the book was going. I agree, which is probable why I love writing the first hundred pages so much. The path into the forest is never scary. It’s only after you’ve been in there a while and realize you’re lost that fear kicks in.

I’m about 27,000 words into my latest project. I’ve taken breaks to write two academic pieces (both sold, which is nice) and make an hour-long conference presentation for a pedagogy in a virtual setting, which took three weeks to prepare. And I’ve dwelled about the book and where it’s headed. A lot.

Dwelling amounts to note-taking and outlining. Nothing too formal. Asking lots of questions about motivations and why characters are doing what they’re doing and acting the way they’re acting. Plotting out the next five or six scenes.

Dwelling isn’t easy. But it can be useful.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

You Know You're A Mystery Writer When... Part 2

 By Sybil Johnson

In June 2016, I wrote a post here on Type M on indications you might be a mystery writer. I think it’s time for the next round:

Some more indications you might be a mystery writer... 

You know you’re a mystery writer when... 

 - You see a bubble maker at an amusement park and you wonder if it could be used to create toxic bubbles.

 - The first thing you think of when you hear about a pumpkin race is: could a gun fit inside the pumpkin? 

 - While cooking dinner, you tell your spouse about a new poison you read about and neither of you think it's a strange thing to talk about while eating.

 -  You spend a day driving around with your spouse looking for good body dumping sites.

- You see a bonfire being built and you immediately wonder if there's a body inside. 

 - Your husband brings home a sample of Gloves In A Bottle, not because he thinks you'll find it useful, but because he thinks you can experiment with it and use it in a book.

 - You hear about a flight attendant not showing up for a flight and the first thing you wonder is if they’d find her body in her house, not if she’d get fired.

 - You watch every episode of The First 48, Forensic Files etc. and take notes. 

Here’s the list from the 2016 post so you don’t have to go look it up:

 - You see a body fat scale in a catalog and wonder if it could be modified to be used as a murder weapon. 

 - You start writing a romance and you kill off the love interest within the first two chapters.

- You like to pick out the mistakes on a television crime drama.

- The first thing you do when you enter a hotel room is look behind the shower curtain to make sure there’s no body. 

- You think twice about throwing out old underwear because someone could get your DNA off it. 

- You see someone in a hardhat working on a traffic light and wonder if they’re really fixing the light or doing a bit of surveillance.

- Someone annoys you and you immediately start planning their fictional death.

- Dinner conversation includes whipping out a set of lock picks and talking about trying them out on your hotel room door.

- You drool over the latest book on forensics.

- Your browser bookmarks include sites on poisons, how burglar alarms work and other things you wonder if the government will feel the need to interrogate you about.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Making lemonade out of lemons, Part 497

By Rick Blechta

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it must be like to be sentenced to prison. It doesn’t have to be maximum security, just a place where one can’t leave and has to live by someone else’s rules 24/7.

I’m certain everyone knows from where these thoughts are originating. Here in Toronto, we’ve been under lockdown more or less since Boxing Day, which is an appropriate start to something like this. Even though we can go out to shop for groceries and other things, we are spending most of our time in our homes, a box more or less.

Now I don’t have any experience with being incarcerated, but for 14 years I did work in a summer music camp which ran for 3-4 weeks. Since we only have one car, my wife would drive me up, give me a kiss and take off for home. I was pretty well stuck there since with only two hours off in the afternoon when the campers had recreation and our workday finishing at 9:00 pm, where could we go even if we had transportation? The nearest town was about 30 minutes away.

Even though I enjoyed many aspects of this camp, it did feel pretty claustrophobic. The best I could manage was a walk through some nearby woods. To me, it did feel a bit like prison.

So now I’m feeling that way again, my wife too. Two or three days can go by where I don’t even leave our property. The sidewalks are icy and right now it’s cold, cold, COLD, so even walking in our neighbourhood isn’t too inviting.

Michael Connelly’s most recent book, Law of Innocence (excellent novel, by the way), finds one of his series characters, Mickey Haller, in jail awaiting trial since he hasn’t been granted bail. Connelly paints a pretty good picture of the way being locked up must feel. This supplied additional fuel to my recent thoughts.

Where does my post’s title fit in, though?

Well, the other day I decided I might as well use the way I’m feeling to write some scenes of incarceration as a sort of test bed for future use, get down my thoughts while I’m in the moment.

It’s been very elucidating. In looking at stuff from a few days ago, I feel I’ve captured something worthwhile. Since there’s no immediate need for this material in my WIP, I felt free to just “let ‘er rip” and that freedom has been liberating and shows in what I’ve set down.

Will I use it? Who knows? If I do have the need for prison scenes at some future time, I’ve at least got some useable templates.

So I think this has been worthwhile to do. But it also led to an unexpected reaction: I feel a lot less worse about being cooped up indoors than I did.

And that’s a very good thing.

Stay well everyone!

Monday, February 08, 2021

Thou Shalt Hoard Notebooks

 By Thomas Kies

Starting today, I’ll be teaching my Creative Writing Class again for the next six weeks.  I always start the first class with introductions.  Then I ask each participant what they hope to get out of the class, what they enjoy reading, and if they have a work in progress. 

Then I spend some time talking about the basics that we’ll be exploring more in detail as the class moves forward.  I always start with some of Stephen King’s rules for writing.  Whether you like him or not, the man is prolific and successful and knows a thing or two about writing. 

First write for yourself and then worry about the audience—I like this advice a lot.  If I think too much about somebody reading what I’m writing, I’d never get a first draft done. 

Don’t use a passive voice--Using the passive voice distances the subject from the action of the sentence, which leads to less clarity and urgency. It can also add unnecessary words to your manuscript, since the passive voice generally requires more auxiliary verbs than the active voice does. You need a lot more space to say :The ball had been kicked by me" than to say "I kicked the ball."

Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said”—It’s not that I personally NEVER use them, I just use them sparingly.  

Don’t obsess over perfect grammar—hell, sometimes I’ve made up words.  Not using perfect grammar can drive a copy editor nuts, but as King says, “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then to tell a story.”

The magic is in you—I’m not sure what he means by this, but I like it a lot

Read, read, read— I know what he means by this.  It’s really surprising to me that when I ask my students what they enjoy reading, there are some of them who simply don’t read anything. 

Turn off the TV—I’d like to add to that, turn off the internet.  They are both black holes of time. 

Don’t worry about making other people happy—I want to make my publisher, my agent, my readers, and my wife happy when I write.  However, I don’t obsess over the subject matter or how it’s written.  My fourth book comes out in July and there’s lot in there about Climate Change.  I know some people who simply aren’t going to like it. Oh, and spoiler alert, climate change is real. 

You have three months—King suggests that a first draft shouldn’t take more than three months.  Of course, his day job is writing books.  I have a day job that’s not.  I’m not going to take this one to heart. 

Stick to your own style—I read a lot, mostly mysteries.  Sometimes I have to go back and reread some of my own work so that I don’t subconsciously try to mimic someone else’s style of writing.  

Dig—According to King, “Stories are like relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”  My read on that is digging deep into your own emotions and memories to get to something that connects with your readers.  

Take a break—I like to do this when the book is finished.  Walk away from it.  Don’t think about it.  But come back and look at it again with fresh eyes.  King says, “You’ll find reading your book over a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings—no matter how clever you think a turn of phrase might be if it doesn’t move the story forward, throw the little bugger off a cliff.

The research shouldn’t overshadow the story—Not always as easy as it sounds.  I did a ton of research on climate science and the oil industry.  I kept wanting to show my work, but honestly, it’s best if it’s kept in the background. 

You become a writer simply by reading and writing— King said, “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  There’s nothing I can add to that. 

I like teaching the Creative Writing class because it forces me to go back and look at the basics.  I like to use the NBA as an example.  Even the best players in the world are continually running drills and practicing their layups. Everything comes down to knowing and practicing the basics.

That being said, my wife set up new bookshelves in the hallway and I gave her carte blanche to come into my office and take the books with which she’d like to populate the new shelves.  Along the way, she found about seven notebooks in which I’d started a project, then set it aside.

I recall a saying that goes, “The first rule of writing is thou shalt hoard notebooks.”

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Publication Day

My twelfth novel, Valentino Will Die, dropped on February 2, Groundhog Day, but it was hardly a deja vu launch. Instead of being able to interact with a warm and friendly live audience, the launch was a ZOOM event with Barbara Peters through Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. As our own Barbara Fradkin noted in yesterday's entry, a virtual book launch has its good points, mainly that no one has to travel in order to attend. You can watch the event in your jammies. But it isn't quite the same experience for the author, anyway. I appreciate being able to read the audience and soak up the good vibes in person. I read our Barbara's entry with great interest, since she set up her entire launch ON HER OWN like some sort of superhero, whereas I only had to remember how to put on makeup and sign into Poisoned Pen's zoom invitation. (If you'd like to see how it went, the entire chat is archived here.) I'd better get used to this brave new world, because I feel this is the way its going to be for awhile. Since there will be no traveling for appearances or conferences for the foreseeable future, I'm in the midst of planning lots of hardcopy giveaways of earlier titles, as well as as many online events - guest blogs, articles, zoom appearances, classes - that I can talk people into hosting me for. If any of you Dear Readers have great ideas for authors on the best way to connect with you during this strange time, be a pal and let us know!

The good old days - personal contact!

In the meantime, I'm podcasting today, February 4, 11:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, with PatZi Gil at Joy on Paper, a syndicated radio show for writers and those who dream of writing! I hope you’ll have a listen. 

In other news, this morning I was finally was able to sign up for my first COVID vaccination on February 12, which I always considered a lucky day, since it's the birthday of both Lincoln and my uncle Paul. My husband has already had his first shot, and is scheduled for his second shot on February 13, in a different location. The entire sign-up procedure here in Arizona is convoluted in the extreme, so I consider myself lucky to have any appointment at all! Good luck to all, and stay safe until we meet again in person.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Planning a virtual book launch, Part 2; no hair left but was it worth it?

Barbara here, still alive to tell the tale. This post is the sequel to my Part 1 post two weeks ago, which you can find by scrolling through past posts. Today I talk about the invitation process, because that's where I lost most of my hair, and the actual event itself. So there I was; two weeks before the launch, I had designed a spiffy Eventbrite invitation, with the graphic courtesy of my publisher, I had bought a 100-participant  Zoom webinar package on top of the Zoom Pro Plan (for one month), and I had designed and scheduled the Zoom Webinar.

Eventbrite claimed it could generate an email campaign to send invitations to all my email contacts, and it could also interface with Facebook and Twitter to allow me to invite friends on social media sites. Having invitations delivered by both email and Facebook was important because I have friends and readers in both places. Email first. It turns out I needed to design an exciting email to catch their attention, which contained a link to the main Eventbrite invitation. More work! Fortunately they had a template which I could customize. So far so good. Then I had to send it out via my "subscriber lists", of which I had none. If I had Mail Chimp or Excel or other email list, I could import it, but it didn't like my jumbled mess of contacts. So one by one, I went through my contacts and entered their emails in my newly created subscriber list. Hours later, I had created three subscriber lists. One for local contacts, another for the rest of Canada, and a third for international friends. I figured splitting them up might save me time in the future. The good news is that Eventbrite saves these lists, so if I ever need them again, there they are! But this is not the time to ask if I'll ever use them again.

So I sent the emails out to the lists and turned my attention to social media. Twitter was a piece of cake. Eventbrite supplied a Twitter URL which I simply included in a tweet and off it went into the twittersphere. Facebook was where I lost most of my hair. Eventbrite said it had a seamless interface with Facebook, but they need to look "seamless" up in the dictionary. First, it wouldn't post it to my personal page, where most of my friends and readers hang out, but only to my author page. So it created an Eventbrite announcement that went on my author page, which almost no one looks at and which is almost impossible to navigate. I knew no one would see it there. I hunted around on the site and in the invitation, and finally found a way to "invite friends". So I went through my friend list and selected all those I thought might be interested. When I got through that task, Facebook gave me an error message so I had to do it all over again, breaking it into smaller groups.

Pressed share, and waited to see what happened. Nothing. By this time I had discovered that on my Eventbrite page, I could see each ticket "sold". Quite a few emailed invitations had been viewed and tickets "purchased." Facebook? Nada. I emailed a few friends whom I'd been using as guinea pigs, and one said there was nothing on her FB page and no alert, but she had found the invitation hiding in her Facebook notifications. Who checks their notifications? Not me. So then I posted notices (several over time) on my personal and author pages for friends to check notifications for their Eventbrite invite. An even sillier complication? The Facebook post on my author page gave people the option of clicking "going" "interested", etc. Numerous people had clicked "going", but that did absolutely nothing to get them a ticket. They needed to click on the "find ticket" button buried further down. So I posted more notices on my personal page to clarify the distinction. Bottom line? Eventbrite needs to improve their Facebook interface.

Was I ready for the event now? All running smoothly? Not quite. In the first twenty-four hours, I had "sold" half of the 100 tickets I could fit in my Webinar. And that was even before I invited on Facebook. I knew not everyone wold actually show up, but I didn't want people turned away, so I decided I had to buy a bigger Webinar package. The next size up was 500 participants, which was overkill, but given that I wasn't paying for a room, for food, or other launch costs, I went for it. I won't bore you with the details of trying to "chat" with the Zoom bots; suffice to say I needed an extra big glass of wine by the time I had made the switchover without destroying the existing webinar I had set up.

Once all that was done, I breathed easier and even designed a PowerPoint slide show to welcome people and entertain them while attendees joined in. In the end, 227 people bought tickets and 135 joined in on the night. Rick, my daughter, a tech savvy friend, and I had several practice sessions to make sure the settings were right, the chat and Q&A were enabled properly, the view was correct, and the lighting good. Even so, I chewed my nails. The event itself was a blast, and the feedback afterwards was gratifying.

Many people commented how much they liked the intimate, in-depth, conversational format and the fact they could tune in from home even if they were thousands of kilometres away. They even said they'd prefer this virtual format even when in-person events are allowed again. I enjoyed the hour but I did miss the personal contact. Launches are usually a chance to see old friends again and share some laughs, and it was very unsatisfying to talk into the green light of the camera instead. But I'm very glad that most people seemed to really enjoy it.

There were some technical glitches. Some people couldn't get it, some couldn't sign into Eventbrite on the night and others couldn't find the Zoom URL. Others just said it didn't work. I'm really sorry for these glitches, and sorry people missed out, but so much is out of our control when it comes to technology. 

The verdict? It was worth it. My hair and finger nails will grow back. Now, if only I'd remembered to record it!

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Book Restoration

by Rick Blechta

A good year or two ago I posted some videos about how leather-bound books are made and restored. Since we all enjoy books, I figured visitors to Type M would be interested. That turned out to be an understatement. Everyone found the videos as engrossing as I did.

Here’s one I ran across the other day and the skill level of the restorer is quite amazing. Some interesting parts — like how disassembled volumes are re-assembled — are missing, but there is a lot of solid and engrossing information here.

So I thought I would share it with everyone. We all have a few “well-loved books” in need of help. I certainly do. I just wonder what this talented woman’s fee would be.


Monday, February 01, 2021

What's the score?

Happy Monday from Douglas in Scotland.

One of the many common questions put to authors is whether they listen to music while they write. 

I do listen to music while I bang away at the keyboard. And I can grow quite evangelistic about the sort of music I prefer.

Ever since I was a lad I have appreciated, enjoyed, nay, loved movie scores. This goes back to even before I was fully aware that people actually wrote them. I'm sure I didn't believe they just arrived whole from the heavens but I couldn't at that time name a composer. 

It was predominently western themes that caught my interest at first, with a smattering of TV themes. The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven on the big screen, Doctor Who, Mission:Impossible, Man in a Suitcase among the small screen offerings.

I still have the first album I ever bought with my own money - well, my parents' money, because I was at the time without funds of my own due to not being in gainful employment, child labour having been effectively outlawed in the UK for a number of years. 

It was a collection of movie themes on the United Artists label and it cost me the princely sum of 21 shillings. That's £1.05 in today's decimals. And yes, it had versions of The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven.

And just to prove it -

As I grew older I realised there was a whole world of such music out there. There was a snag, though.

Simply this - it wasn't cool.

I was met by superior smirks and sneers when I professed a love for the compositions of John Barry, Elmer Bernstein and Lalo Schifrin (whose music was cool even then but they didn't understand that. I give you one word. Bullitt. I rest my case).

In fact, it was Schifrin's theme to Enter the Dragon, complete with Bruce Lee's vocal stylings, that had a sales assistant actually laugh in my face when I requested the single. It wasn't Bowie, or T. Rex, or even Perry Como, who I could have been buying for my mother. This was the tune to a film, for goodness sake! And because he never saw it on Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test (two shows popular here in the UK back then showcasing pop and rock) I was a figure to be scorned. The mocking look irritated me then and it does now. 

I refused to be bullied by these arbiters of cool. My love of movie scores grew. At that time they were called soundtracks but that had to change as more film makers opted to use pop and rock on their movies. If custom-written music was used it was released as the Original Score. That is, when it was released, or at least available here in the UK.

So when I'm writing, it is more often than not film music blasting over the speakers - and I will often select it to fit the storyline and, on a meta level, the particular scene I am writing that day. If it's something soft and perhaps lyrical then James Horner might come into play. If it's an action beat then Jerry Goldsmith is the man for me. Incidentally, he is my all-time favourite composer and no matter who else I mention here, no matter what I'm writing, there will be at least one of his compositions also used. Thought you'd want to know.

For a long time I thought I was alone in this but in the past few years I've discovered that there are other authors who take the same approach. 

There is a reason for this.

Film music should be about story and emotion and atmosphere. The best composers, past and present, have to be storytellers as much as the screenwriter and director. They have to understand pace and mood. They have to know what will work in a particular scene in order to bring out its intent. A good composer can also make a mediocre film more exciting than it actually is - Jerry Goldsmith was a master of that. 

That is why I find such music so helpful in my writing. It's all about the feels.

When writing my first Rebecca Connolly book 'Thunder Bay', my scores of choice were, among others, 'The Fury' and 'Dracula' by John Williams but also some classical pieces, particularly 'Isle of the Dead' by Rachmaninov and various bits of Sibelius. I wanted that dark, brooding feel, you see, and they deliver that in spades. 

For the next in the series, 'The Blood is Still', I went for Bear McCreary's music for various series of 'Outlander'. There was a Jacobite rebellion connection to the story and the music worked perfectly. Obviously! (Also, he is one of the best composers working today). Because there was a childhood memory element, I also used Elmer Bernstein's 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

For three months I have been battering away at a spec novel that has been in my head for years. Around 100,000 words since November. I will pause here for you all to say attaboy.

It's an historical adventure/thriller and for its score I relied on two Spanish composers - Fernando Velazquez and Roque Banos. Their work is dark, mysterious and richly romantic, making it just the job for my storyline. 

The book may never see the light of day but I had a ball writing it and the music had a lot to do with that. Roque Banos' music for the Spanish period film 'Alatriste' is an absolute joy and contributed greatly to what I hope is the spirit of my book.

Am I listening to something as I write this?

Well, I am, thank you for asking.

I have Daniel Pemberton's music to the revamped 'The Man from UNCLE' blaring right now. It's bright, breezy and carries enough of the spirit of the 60s and Lalo Schifrin cool, mixed with some John Barry and Ennio Morricone, to make it work in the film, as a listening experience and as a nostalgia piece. My only gripe is that it doesn't feature the original theme to the TV show at any stage. 

Guess who wrote that? 

Clue - his first name was Jerry...