Monday, May 31, 2021

The Rich and Famous

 In my series of mysteries, that villain is most likely rich and famous. Whether it’s surprise, anger, betrayal, or disgust, most of us have strong feelings when someone in that exclusive club of the rich, famous, and powerful commits a crime. 

 To explain why, we need to look at why we’re fascinated with celebrities in the first place.  There are a multitude of theories, but most of them hinge on how we perceive the rich and famous.  To achieve that kind of star status, that kind of success, they must somehow be “better” than us--smarter, faster, more athletic, more talented, better looking. 

 In some cases, they’re role models. They are the people we want to become, the people we wish to be, the friends and lovers we wish we had. 

 We become familiar with celebrities because they entertain us in our cozy living rooms, their faces beaming from our big-screen televisions.  They’re interviewed, talked about, photographed, and caught on video.  We can interact with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TicTok. Their wealth buys them a life we can only dream about.

 Like the protagonist in a good novel, they’re admired.   They are ‘like us’, but with something ‘more’. They must be smart and talented because they’re star athletes, singers, actors, and writers.  They must be special because they’re rich and famous.  

 Of course, they have flaws.  Robert Downy Jr. was plagued with numerous drug arrests early in his career but ended up the superstar Avengers character, Iron Man. In 1987, Mark Wahlberg was charged with attempted murder, pleaded guilty of assault, and served 45 days in jail, but became an actor, producer, and restauranteur. Tim Allen, star of the hit TV shows Home Improvement and Last Man Standing as well as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in all of the Toy Story movies, was arrested and served time in prison for drug trafficking in the late 70s. 

 We’ve forgiven, if not forgotten, their trespasses. Like the flawed protagonist in a book, they’ve overcome their addiction or anger management issues and have gone on to achieve success.  And moreover, they’re likable. They’ve learned from their mistakes.  At least we want to think so. 

 When Martha Stewart went to jail for insider trading, didn’t part of us think “What’s the big deal?”  We suspect that all successful investors will use insider knowledge to make money. Didn’t we think:  The feds must be making an example out of her because she’s not only a success, but she’s a famous woman? 

 After a firestorm of media coverage and a six-week trial, Ms. Stewart was sentenced to five months in prison and a hefty fine.  And if anyone thought this would be the end of her career, they were sadly mistaken.  She’s jumped back into a limelight that includes magazines, videos, and television She’s as popular now as she’s ever been. 

 While there are some crimes we can overlook, there are some celebrity crimes that we can’t forgive. 

 Starting out as a stand-up comic in the sixties, Bill Cosby released several award-winning comedy albums. Then, from 1965 to 1968, he was the first Black man to appear in a leading role on television, starring in I Spy.  After that, for two seasons, he appeared in his own sitcom called The Bill Cosby Show.  He hit his stride, however, from 1984-1992 as the lead of The Cosby Show. The program was number one in the ratings from 1985 to 1992.  His character, Cliff Huxtable, was named “The Greatest Television Dad” by TV Guide. 

 With even more projects in the works, Cosby was an esteemed, world famous, role model.  

 Throughout his career, there had been dark rumors, but then the hammer finally fell. In the mid-2000s, dozens of women came forward and accused Cosby of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual misconduct.  He was convicted in 2018 of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three to ten years in prison and required to pay $25,000 plus court costs. 

 Prior to that, The Cosby Show had gone into syndication and the reruns were ubiquitous across a spectrum of channels.  But as the accusations and trial unfolded, station after station dropped them.  The projects he had in the works, including one with Netflix, disappeared. 

 Collectively, we were not only surprised, but deeply disappointed and betrayed. For Bill Cosby, there is no ‘come back’.

 There are examples of the rich and famous committing awful crimes that we can’t forgive or forget, but take some measure of pleasure from the punishment, the ultimate karma that overtakes them. Schadenfreude.

 As a film producer, Harvey Weinstein had the magic touch, releasing films like Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, and Shakespeare in Love. He was a star maker, enormously successful, and with that comes power.  He could launch show business careers, but he could also destroy them. His story of sexual assaults, rapes, and harassment are well known, and he may still face more charges of rape in California.  Thus far he’s been convicted of five felonies and sentenced to 23 years in prison.  

 In my first draft of this blog, I’d written that Mr. Weinstein had been a catalyst for the #MeToo movement.  My wife called me to task and reminded me that it was the women that had been bullied and assaulted that had the courage to come forward who had instigated the #MeToo movement.

 Jeffrey Epstein is a much darker story.  Over his career as a financier, Epstein had become wealthy enough to buy several homes, a personal jet, and even his own island.  He built a circle of famous and powerful men.  He was also a sexual predator of the worst kind.  He trafficked underage teenage girls, sharing them with his wealthy friends as if they were party favors.   

 In 2005 in Florida, federal officials identified over thirty underage girls he’d preyed upon, but Epstein was convicted on only two counts of procuring a child for prostitution.  He served 13 months, but most of it was spent on a relaxed work release program.

 Then in 2019, he was arrested yet again for sex trafficking minors and died in prison awaiting trial. The medical examiner ruled that it was suicide, but circumstances around Epstein’s death have sparked widespread suspicion and conspiracy theories.

 So, if the rich and famous are living their dreams, their best lives, why do they commit crimes? In a 2019 article by Ronald E. Riggio PhD for Psychology Today, he claims that famous and wealthy people can become “intoxicated” by the power and prestige that comes with their celebrity status.

 He goes on to say that their power makes them believe that they’re special and the rules don’t apply to them.  They begin to think that they get a free pass that allows them to misbehave. And if they do get caught, that their money and fame will help them escape punishment.

 So, just because they’re rich and famous, celebrities won’t stop being human which means that some of them are going disappoint us.  We won’t stop being surprised, we won’t stop being disgusted, and we won’t stop feeling betrayed. 




Thursday, May 27, 2021

My Home, Myself

 I (Donis) am driving myself insane lately by trying to learn new and more effective methods of online self-promotion. I tried an experimental BookBub ad yesterday to no avail. I've signed up for Instagram. Suffice it to say I'm not an influencer yet. I'm doing giveaways. For the rest of this month I’m giving away three copies of my 2014 release, Hell With the Lid Blown Off, which, if someone held a gun to my head, I’d have to say is my favorite Alafair Tucker Mystery (which,  if you’d like to enter the drawing for a paperback copy, go to my website, here, click on “Contact”, and leave your name. I’ll draw the winners’ names from a hat on May 31.)

Why, you ask, am I torturing myself thus? I'm trying to make my publisher happy so they'll deign to keep publishing me. Will it help? Ask me later. 

In the meantime, I loved Rick and Barbara's entries, below, on where they write and how they sit. It made me take a good look at my own surroundings. I write in my living room, sitting in a gliding rocker, with my laptop on a small lap desk, with a big pile of miscellaneous papers on a footstool next to me. I'm a messy writer. I have to have a number of things to hand because I don't want to interrupt what is hopefully a brilliant run of words to get up and look for something I need.

I am a relatively tidy person otherwise, but I haven't had a visitor in my house for over a year, so I've kind of become blind to my surroundings, like an old bear in her cave.You grow used to your environment, and after a while you don’t see what is right before your face, until you go into it in depth, picking up each item, moving things around, digging into corners. It is amazing what you can learn about yourself if you look with new eyes at the space you inhabit. 

Here is what close examination of my domicile taught me about myself:

I live in an atelier.  Every room in my house has to do with writing. Shelves, tables, surfaces, closets, desks, all contain notes and files, reference books and manuscripts, computers, printers, supplies.  I keep a notebook on my bedside table, so that when I wake in the middle of the night bursting with a fabulous idea or the perfect image or combination of words, I can scribble them down before they are lost. It was fascinating to read some of the gems I wrote.  A few of them even made sense, and even the ones that didn’t often had a certain poetic je ne sais quoi.  To wit: “I didn’t remember the word, but I knew there was an ‘N’ in it, because I could feel the spirit of “‘N’-ness .The ‘N’-ness of it.”   And, “ I want to protect her, which makes me want to hurt her.”

I live in a library.  We had books piled on and in every available space in the house.  We were tripping over books.  So we decided to do a major go-through and box up any book that could not be lived without and donate them to the library. We boxed close to 500 books, and yet we still do not have one inch of space on any bookshelf. At least I can see a few of the table tops. I would be embarrassed to admit how many books we have, but I feel sure that most of you reading this post are just as bad as I am, if not worse.

I live in a museum. Our house is filled with artifacts of our lives. I painted the landscape in the den in 1975.  I picked up those grave rubbings in England in the ‘60s.  My parents bought the end table in the living room for their house in the early 1950s.  My sister hand-embroidered that wall-hanging. Most everything my eye falls upon - furniture, decoration, art, even clothing - has a backstory.  In fact, as I look up from this computer, I see four watercolors Don and I did of the views outside our apartment in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, in 1977.


My sister's embroidery

I live in a shrine.  Don loves Asian religious art, so the house is blessed with dozens of statues of the Buddha, Krishna, Ho Toi, Ganesh, Rama, Kwan Yin.  I also have a peculiar little shrine to myself.  When my mother died a few years ago, we four sibs divided up the hundreds of photographs, mostly claiming pictures of ourselves.  Consequently the entertainment center in the family room contains  Donis' Life Story in Pictures, from the ages of two to forty, when I ceased to be quite so adorable and lost interest in having my portrait made.

Me, age 2

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The sounds of inspiration

 Rick's post got me thinking, so although I have nowhere near as storied a chair as he does, I decided to answer his question, but with a little twist. What is my favourite place for writing? Since I write longhand curled up in a comfortable chair, that place is usually the same comfy place that I read in. Even when I'm working on a computer, as I am now, I sit in my comfy chair and perch the computer on my lap. 

For me, writing is all about feeling cosy and relaxed so the muse will feel like visiting. In fact, there's more to that cosy, cocooned feeling than simply the chair. I need the sound of silence or the natural rhythms of nature. Some writers sit on a desk chair, hunched over their laptop at a table or desk. Still others write while standing up at the counter or balancing on a yoga ball. Some like the sound of the radio or TV in the background, and freeze up when there is nothing but silence. 

I can't imagine anything worse than standing up or having the radio chattering in the background. In fact, it would give me a headache in two minutes flat. Even something as soothing as Mozart would drive me to distraction. Those sudden chords and lilting runs would jolt me out of my writing zone.

I think all our brains are wired differently and need different types of stimulation to function optimally. And part of that may be what our brain has become adapted to. If you grew up with the TV or music on all the time in the background, that would be your brain's natural resting level of stimulation, and anything else would be uncomfortable. There are parts of the world that never know silence or stillness - large urban centres, for example, are always overloaded with the sounds of revving engines, construction, competing music, the flow of traffic and people, flashing signs, etc. People who grow up there may actually find silence and emptiness unnerving. Put them in the peace of a Canadian woods, and they want to turn on some music.

My sweet spot for writing and reading varies with the weather and my location. I have a lakeside cottage as well as a city house. The cottage is my favourite place because of the beauty of nature and lack of distractions and noise. In the summer, my perfect place is in my Muskoka chair on the dock, listening to the wind whispering through the trees, the loons calling, and the waves lapping against the dock. 

Yes, the dog is a distraction that has to be managed.

In the evening or in cooler weather, I migrate inside to my poang chair in the sunporch, which overlooks the lake. Even colder, and I curl up inside by the fire. I find peace and inspiration in water, fire, and the soothing green of trees. Primal stuff. In the city, my preferred place is outside on my patio  but it's hard to escape the lawnmowers, weed whackers, and screaming children nearby. In the winter, I have my love seat against the window, with one of my dogs curled up beside me. The love seat is so well-used, the cushion is almost destroyed. 

The quiet bliss of a good book
and a glass of wine.

So now I pick up Rick's question again, with this twist. What gives you inspiration? A comfy chair? Music? Silence? Nature? The chatter of a coffee shop? We all discover our own way to invite the muse.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A you sitting comfortably?

By Rick Blechta Okay, by giving my blog post this particular title I’ve given myself a major ear worm in the form of a song from the late ’60s by the Moody Blues. (

However that’s not what I’m getting at with my post today. I’m writing about actual sitting, as in parking one’s posterior in one particular place or other.

In other words, where do you most enjoy sitting while you read?

My question concerns real-life experiences, not the place you most like to be if you were lucky enough to get there — and in our current times, that is a very tempting daydream to entertain. 

To be really specific, where do you generally plant yourself to really enjoy a few hours of turning pages in a good book. 

I generally read sitting up in bed, as I suspect many of us do, but that is not my favourite place. We also have a rather lovely chaise lounge and several bits of shade in our backyard, and on a nice summer day, it can be quite delightful. 

To tell you about that place where I most like to be I must first tell you a brief story. 

My last two years of university were spent at McGill’s Faculty of Music. You see, I met this rather beautiful redheaded young woman who was attending Montreal’s best known post secondary institution, so I had to switch not only schools, but countries to be with her. 

We shared a very lovely apartment in the area near the eastern entrance to the campus called “the student ghetto.” While some of the apartments in this area were indeed appalling, we lucked into a very nice space, a bit down in the heel, but it was cozy and quite spacious. 

One day, we helped a neighbour bring some things up from the basement of our building where he had a locker. We couldn’t afford one and actually had no need for extra storage space because we had very little furniture. Down there we discovered an old upholstered armchair, sitting in a corner of the main room. It was in rather poor shape, but it was sound and when I sat in it, I was instantly comfortable.

“Who owns this?” I asked our neighbour who had lived in the building for several years. 

“I have no idea. It was sitting here when I moved in and hasn’t budged an inch. Since I’m the longest-tenured person living here, I suppose it was left here by someone who moved out long ago. 

Later that day, I asked the superintendent the same question and got the same answer, followed by, “Get it out of there and it’s yours.” 

As I mentioned before, we had very little furniture, actually mostly pillows on the floor and double-stacked twin mattresses pretending to be a sofa, so this orphaned chair was a welcome addition. My girlfriend (now wife of 50 years) bought an India-print throw to cover up the worn, stained, and threadbare covering and we had finally a Real Piece of Furniture — as long as no one lifted the cover. 

We moved twice more while attending school and the chair always came with us. I did a lot of reading and studying sitting in it, and when we moved to Toronto with the band I was in, we naturally brought my favourite chair. It’s moved an additional three more times since then and is still with us. 

Sometime in there, we found ourselves with a few extra dollars so we finally got the chair reupholstered. I remember the old man who did commenting, “They don’t make furniture like this anymore. You’re doing the right thing by getting this old girl fixed up.” 

I felt absurdly proud. 

Since we’ve always had cats, everyone of which has liked to sharpen their claws on My Chair, it’s had to be reupholstered twice now and to be honest, it will shortly need the job done again, but we’re waiting for our final cat to shed her mortal coil before we do that.

And at the end of my tale, that is the place where I most like to read. I believe my body has changed over the years to fit that seat better, and it’s in the place of honour in our living room. Any time I can’t sleep, you’ll find me in it, reading something while trying to get sleepy again.

Now that I’m done with this week’s post, I’m going to repair there and dig into the novel I’m currently reading. 

Tell me about your special and most favourite place to read, if you will. I’m certain we’ll all be fascinated.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Scotland - the land of mist, mountain, midges - and murder

Ah, Scotland.

The land of mist and flood, of mountains and heather, of men in skirts and the mighty midge – a small creature that, like the Glasgow hardman, packs a powerful punch.

But behind the haggis and shortbread image so beloved of biscuit tins and soup cans, there was always another Scotland – and it’s one that has leapt to the fore with all the force of William Wallace despatching an English nobleman.

Tartan Noir, they call it, and it’s not a label I particularly like but it works as a handy marketing tool. According to lore, it was first coined during a conversation between our own (or oor ain) Ian Rankin and US legend James Ellroy. I’m not sure which of them came up with it but it stuck.

You can’t toss a caber these days without hitting some best-selling author delving into the dark side of Scottish life. Some credit William McIlvanney and Laidlaw for beginning this mini-industry. Mr McIlvanney, who knew his literary lore, always denied it.

The truth is that Scotland had a tradition in crime writing going back further than that.

Settle in, folks, because we're going to cover 200 years of history here.

James Hogg was known as The Ettrick Shepherd and his 1824 novel ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ is a precursor to serial killer novels like ‘Dexter’. Hogg’s character is a Calvinist who believes he is justified in killing those out of favour with his God.

The novel certainly influenced Robert Louis Stevenson, who was fascinated by the darker side of the psyche, most obviously in a wee book about a certain Dr Jekyll and his chum, Mr Hyde, but also in ‘The Master of Ballantrae’. The sickly boy from Edinburgh also wrote the short story ‘The Bodysnatchers’, inspired by the Burke and Hare case, and what is ‘Treasure Island’ but a story about vicious crooks?

And if you want to talk about a more obvious contribution to the crime canon, I’ve three names for you – Arthur, Conan and Doyle. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the first fictional sleuth but he is, as sure as God made the little green things, the most famous and his deductive powers were inspired by Dr Joseph Bell, one of Doyle's professors in medical school in Edinburgh. Bell, as a pathologist, was involved in a number of celebrated real-life cases in Scotland's capital.

Which brings us to true crime and I give you William Roughead, a lawyer with a wicked sense of humour and a fine turn of phrase who detailed many famous cases from Scottish legal history. You may not know it from their lack of exposure on TV but Scotland does have a plethora of fascinating historical true crimes over and above the aforementioned Burke and Hare, a shadowy (alleged) serial killer nicknamed Bible John and Glasgow gangsters. But that’s a rant for another day.

Perhaps one of the most famous Scottish crime books is ‘No Mean City’, a blood-spattered tale first published in 1935 and still in print today. The storyline deals with the notorious razor gangs of Glasgow, who turned the dear green spot blood red in the 20s and 30s. Its author was Alexander McArthur, a baker in the Gorbals area of the city, but his rough-hewn wordsmithery had to be smoothed down by journalist H. Kingsley-Long in order to make it more reader-friendly. The City Fathers – then and now – deplored its content but there was no denying its power even though today it is quite a difficult read. It was McArthur’s only success and he died a sad death, a penniless alcoholic.

Perth-born John Buchan - the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, don't you know - is seen as one of the fathers of the modern thrillers. Alistair MacLean took it to new heights. It could be argued that all modern thrillers writers owe a debt of gratitude to this gruff former school teacher. Yet he set only one in his native land – When Eight Bells Toll, the film version of which is a favourite on afternoon TV.

His niece Shona, under the name SG MacLean, carries on the literary tradition with many fine historical thrillers and I recommend them to you.

And we should not – must not – forget Glasgow-born Helen MacInnes, who wrote many fine thrillers, a number of them filmed. Her early works concentrated on wartime thrills but later she turned her attention to the cold war. She may well have known quite a bit about that, for her husband, classics scholar Gilbert Highet, was an agent for MI6!

Their influence can be seen in other Scottish writers like Campbell Armstrong and the Late Jack Gerson, whose thrillers richly deserve a wider audience. He cut his teeth writing for TV on series such as Z Cars and was in the forefront of creating the three-part TV thriller which was in vogue for a time before these things had to extend to six episodes or even more, which someone had to invent padding. 

Gerson produced a number of cracking novels, including a Kennedy assassination conspiracy thriller 'The Back of the Tiger' and the Ernst Lohmann thrillers set in Nazi Germany.

For TV, he created 'The Omega Factor' which is seen as many as the forerunner to 'The X Files', and his daughter Natasha, who featured in the original show, continues the tradition by penning original audibooks based on the series.

On a personal note, Jack was also very supportive of me when I worked on a local newspaper in the west end of Glasgow, where he lived. He was a funny, decent and knowledgable man.

Ayrshire-born Edward Boyd wrote predominantly for TV but also co-scripted the movie ‘Robbery’, directed by Peter Yates, which helped set the template for British crime series like ‘The Sweeney’.

But, for me, it was Boyd’s ‘The View from Daniel Pike’ that really put Scottish-set crime on the map.

It started off as a one-off drama in the BBC2 compendium series ‘Menace’ and spun off into a series.

Roddy McMillan played Daniel Pike, a down-at-heel Glasgow private eye with a no -nonsense approach to life, a fine line in snappy patter and, under a gruff exterior, a heart as wide as the Clyde. It was a hugely under-rated show but was incredibly influential on one young man living then in a new town near Glasgow.

That young man was, of course, me. Until then I would never have believed that a crime thriller could be set in my home city but Eddie Boyd and Daniel Pike opened my eyes.

Some of the scripts were later adapted by journalist and writer Bill Knox – himself no mean crime scribe with a host of ‘Thane and Moss’ cop procedurals to his name – and released as a book.

Boyd was so highly regarded that many of his scripts and plays are now part of the library at the University of Glasgow. He, like Pike, is waiting to be rediscovered and venerated.

While we're talking scriptwriting - Greenock's Alan Sharp wrote a number of notable scripts for Hollywood, including the crime thrillers 'The Last Run', which starred George C Scott, and the classic private eye movie 'Night Movies,' with Gene Hackman.

And Gordon Williams, born in Paisley, may have been of a literary bent but his potboiler 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm' was filmed as - wait for it - 'Straw Dogs' and he also created London private eye Hazell with footballer Terry Venables.

Earlier, Hugh C. Rae issued a number of crime stories from his typewriter, beginning with ‘Skinner’, loosely based on the real-life serial killer Peter Manuel. The Glasgow author later abandoned the grit of the streets to pen, under a host of historical romances under a variety of pseudonyms (notably Jessica Stirling, originally with Peggy Coghlan). When Jessica was revealed to be a Hugh, he quipped 'a tall, dark, handsome fellow, suave as a yard og shantung - and a born liar to boot.'

And then along came ‘Laidlaw’ and, hot on its trail, TVs ‘Taggart’.

Like Boyd, William McIlvanney was from Ayrshire, in his case Kilmarnock. His book generated a great deal of heat and there were always rumours it would be filmed. One report said an American company wanted to shoot it – in New York. McIlvanney refused. To date, it’s not been adapted for the screen.

But a show called ‘Taggart’ did hit the tube and anyone who’d read McIlvanney’s book spotted similar themes. However, to be fair, it is a pretty universal theme – tough, street-wise, seen-it-all cop is partnered with a bright-eyed and enthusiastic young detective to investigate murder.

However, in Glasgow at the time there were two very large motor dealers in competition. One was Laidlaw’s. The other was Taggart’s.

File it under ‘Life’s full of coincidences.’

So from there it was straight to Rankin’s Rebus, right?


First there was Peter Turnbull. Okay, he’s a not a Scot but we won’t hold that against him. In 1981 he produced the first in his P Division thrillers, ‘Deep and Crisp and Even’. Police procedurals, with an ensemble of characters, set in Glasgow, they followed a direct line from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which is fitting as Glasgow is deemed the most American of British cities – and is even known as the 51st State. He produced 10 novels in the series, ending in 1998.

Turnbull has returned to his native Yorkshire and left P Division behind but the series is well due for rediscovery.

And then, in 1987, along came Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, both Fife born. That their fine work took Tartan Noir (there’s that label again) to new heights is a given and hot on their heels marched an army of writers who have littered the streets, alleys, fields, rivers, lochs and mountains with more bodies than any small country deserves.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Missed Opportuniies

 We are slowly emerging from the Great Ordeal. Human groundhogs are finally poking their heads above ground and beginning to peer around. Restaurants are loosening restrictions. Masks are "suggested" rather than required in my favorite branch of the Fort Collins library. 

I have four Zoom presentations scheduled for June. Additionally, the Western Writers of America conference will be held in Loveland which is just sixteen miles from Fort Collins. For me, the highlight of the event will be when Kathleen O' Neal Gear and Michael Gear receive the Wister Award.

The Gears have been my friends for years and have inspired countless other writers. Their spectacular rise to the ranks of best-selling authors has come from innate talent and incredible persistence. They are both dedicated archeologists. Kathleen has produced over two academic articles and has been awarded medals from the Department of the Interior for her work in conservation.

A number of friends will attend this conference. Some I have known many years. Others are relatively new. 

There are a number of conferences I will skip. In fact, since I write both historical novels and mysteries, I could attend a conference every single week. 

Yet, I'm struck by the missed opportunities by organizers of in-person conferences. Women Writing the West had a spectacular Zoom conference last fall. It was dazzling. I'm still amazed at the organizational work done by Pamela Nowak, the conference chair. 

Every single event, panel, and presentation that would have been included in a live conference was scheduled for the Zoom event. Keynotes speeches, breakout rooms, everything. The formatting depended  on logistical training, clear instructions to participants, dedicated moderators, and most of all Nowak's inspirational flexibility. 

The registration fee was lowered. There were no expensive hotel fees. The end result was a surge of  registrations by people who normally could not attend. Membership increased. Best of all, this convention resulted in a profit rather than the usual projected loss. 

Sadly, too many organizations are rejoicing over "returning to normal" without integrating the new approaches that worked during the shutdown. Conferences are very expensive. Hotel and travel fees alone are prohibitive to the bulk of the membership. 

We should not ignore the opportunity to integrate the lessons learned during the Great Ordeal. Try combining a Zoom approach to events with in-person participation. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Squirrels and Notebooks

Most weeks in the Corrigan household are a little nutty –– part of that comes from living in a dorm with 50 teenagers; part of that comes from the Corrigan DNA. This week, though, took things to a different level.

My twelve-year-old Keeley found a baby squirrel, and it added to the craziness by joining the family for a few weeks as we got it ready to go off into the world on its own.

Between building squirrel houses and figuring out what 5-week-old squirrels eat (puppy formula, if you’re wondering), keeping the dog from doing what dogs want to do to squirrels, and getting Keeley prepared for it to leave . . . my post is late.

Aside from squirrels, I’m plotting a scene or two ahead in my journal and “writing” at the keyboard, nearing the midway (fingers crossed) point in the book I’m working on, which is also about a squirrely family at a boarding school.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Musings on Writing in Present Tense


I settle down in my chair and open the book. A smile spreads across my face as I read the words on the page. A sound outside causes me to look up moments before the bullet breaks the glass in a nearby window, narrowly missing me. I... 

Hmmm. that was easier than I thought it would be. It seems very odd and unnatural for me to write a story in present tense. I noticed that, when I wrote the few lines at the start of this post, that I opted for first person, not third, which is my normal comfort zone. Somehow, first person seems more natural when it comes to present tense.

I’ve never written a story in present tense. I have no problem reading books or short stories written in it. I know there are people out there who are adamantly opposed to reading anything written in present tense. That’s not me. As long as it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter to me what tense or person it’s written in as long as it’s well done and captures my interest. Okay, maybe I’d have an issue with something written in second person.

What got me started on these musings about present tense? I recently picked up the first book in the Oxford Key mystery series by Lynn Morrison, Murder at St. Margaret. It’s a cozy mystery series set at, you guessed it, Oxford University. The main character is an event planner who also happens to be one of the caretakers of magic at the university. It’s a fun read with interesting characters and a good mystery. It took me about a chapter before I realized it was written in present tense. The same was true when I picked up Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. In both cases, I noted it, then pretty much ignored it and kept reading.

I’ve read a lot of cozy mysteries over the years. This is the first time I’ve found one written in present tense. Maybe there are others out there, but I haven’t run across them.

That got me wondering if I could write a decent story in present tense and what kind of story would best be told that way. I’ve heard that present tense creates a sense of immediacy you don’t find in past tense. The events seem to play out in real time. Honestly, I’m not sure it makes that much difference to me.

Maybe those of you who teach writing could enlighten me on writing in present tense. The few YA novels I’ve read, like The Hunger Games, seem to be written in that tense. Is that a rule for YA these days? 

I’m also curious about everyone’s opinion on reading books written in present tense. Do you like it, hate, don’t care? How long did it take you to notice the book was written in present tense?

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The value of listening

by Rick Blechta

It’s no great news that modern society is not very good at listening anymore. We tend to talk at each other, thinking only of the points we would like to make or concentrating on the next thing we’d like to say. The causes of this trend are not what I want to discuss today. My guess is I can’t offer any solution that you couldn’t think up yourselves.

Rather, I would like to talk about something that occurred to me this past week which immediately bore fruit when I tried it.

In a past blog post, probably several years ago now — after all, Type M is close to celebrating its 15th anniversary — I pointed out the value of speaking your writing out loud at some point in the editing process. I’d like to refine that idea a bit further.

Actually, my “Aha!” moment came while I was practising trumpet. I’m involved with a recording project for my band SOULidified and I just wanted to check what I was sounding like. That’s hard to do when one is doing the actual playing, so I pulled out a mic and recorded one of the songs. I was appalled and pleased in equal measure when I listened to the playback.

I didn’t pack things up when I finished my practice session and went on to a bit of writing. I’m nowhere near the editing stage on my Work In Progress, but as I’d come up against something that required further thought, I decided to do a spot of editing to maybe get myself unstuck.

Inspiration struck.

I had the recording software still turned on, a mic at hand, so I turned it on and recorded myself as I read something from the previous chapter.

I often read passages aloud to check the flow and uncover weaknesses, but I never have recorded myself and then listened back to it.

When musicians practise, we seldom record ourselves and that’s a shame because when you’re playing it’s hard to really listen closely. There are too many things going on requiring concentration, so we really cannot devote the mental space to closely follow the nuances of our performance as closely as one can when only listening.

I discovered the same thing happens when we speak out loud, although truthfully, to a lesser extent.

Just reading the passage out loud and then editing the weaknesses would have worked pretty well. That I already knew. But sitting there passively as the playback of my reading went on, more and more things leapt out because my concentration was total on what was being said. There were all sorts of little nuances I would have missed.

I was pleasantly surprised by some things and appalled by others. So much more was revealed.

Trying again a few days later, I got the same result.


From now on recording and listening back will be part of my editing arsenal. Try it and see if you agree.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Art Imitating Life?

 My newest book, SHADOW HILL, due to be released in August has the following descriptive blurb: 

“Just days before Morris Cutter, a retired powerful oil executive, is scheduled to give a pseudo-scientific report to Congress that will delay crucial action on climate change for decades, he and his wife are found shot to death in their Greenwich, Connecticut, home. The police call it murder-suicide. The couple's son refuses to accept the official conclusion and hires Geneva Chase, crime reporter turned private detective, to prove otherwise.

“Genie soon learns that there are suspects everywhere, including within the deceased's immediate family. Morris Cutter's own daughter hadn't spoken with him in years, and his nephew is a climate activist with a radical organization. But Cutter's former company has a vested interest in keeping a low profile until it is able to present its mock-science on Capitol Hill. Genie is bribed, then threatened, to wrap up her investigation before the scheduled hearing date and to concur with the police findings.

“When the lead scientist of the study goes missing, followed by Cutter's daughter, Genie begins to piece together what actually may have happened to Morris and Julia Cutter, putting herself in harm's way as she races to find the truth.”

In addition to being the president of our county's chamber of commerce, I'm also the president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast (BAPAC) representing over 42,000 businesses from Maine to Florida.

On Thursday of last week, I was invited to testify in front of a Congressional Subcommittee and Mineral Resources at a hearing called, “Protecting Coastal Communities and Ocean Resources from Offshore Drilling.” I was there to support a bill called the Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism (COAST) Anti-Drilling Act that, if passed, will permanently ban offshore oil drilling off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.  

Similar bills are moving through the House of Representatives protecting the Pacific Coast and the western coast of Florida. 

In SHADOW HILL I write about how some lawmakers know the truth about climate change and how dangerous it is but are still hellbent to support burning fossil fuels.  I suspected that was true, but after seeing the performance of some of the members of the House of Representatives, now I’m certain.

It’s ironic when one of the witnesses offering testimony against the bills that will ban additional offshore oil drilling, said that in the state of Louisiana, the percentage of revenue they get from oil helps to build levees and mitigation efforts to protect against powerful hurricanes and sea level rise.  The irony of that is if we weren’t burning fossil fuels like we’ve been doing, we wouldn’t have more and more powerful hurricanes or rising sea levels.

This week, we saw the shutdown of the Colonial pipeline from a cyber ransomware attack.  Here in North Carolina, there were long lines at the pumps for the better part of a week.  One of the members of the committee in their opening statement said, “See?  See what happens when we cut off the supply of gas and oil?”

I wanted to point out that this was not a lack of supply.  This was a lack of security being in place to safeguard the smooth flow of supply.

Enough about oil and how art imitates life. 

The mask mandate has been removed here in our state for those who have been vaccinated.  I’ve missed seeing peoples’ faces and their smiles. I’ve missed shaking hands and the hugs.  

I know we’re not out of the woods yet, but boy it feels good. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Bouncing Back and Forth

Frankie here. It's end of semester and in between reading my students' papers, I am working on a couple of book projects. I missed Charlotte's post last Friday about the "cold, hard reality" of being a writer - that most of us need to have another means of support. 

Charlotte mentioned that I am a criminal justice professor. In the comments about her post, Tanya asked how I work on fiction and nonfiction simultaneously. I thought I would respond to her question today. 

Here's what I do:

1.  Look for connections. 

2.  Do double-duty research.

3. Keep notes and reminders.

4. Have separate writing spaces.

5. Divide the day into blocks.  

Because I'm a criminal justice professor whose academic areas are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture, my nonfiction writing has a built-in connection to my crime fiction. I always look for overlap. Am I doing research on a real-life crime or about a movie or TV show that might be useful for a short story or novel? For example, Old Murders, the third novel (soon to be reissured) featuring my crime historian Lizzie Stuart, was inspired by two sources. The first was the dissertation I had read about the real-life case of a young African American woman who was executed after killing the white widow for whom her family sharecropped. In my novel, the lawyer who defended her was inspired by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  But Lizzie encountered this other fictional lawyer decades later, when he was in his decline, and the details of what happened in the murder case were more complicated. 

To do double-duty research, I made a trip to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I was there to go through the papers about the real-life case that were archived there. I wanted to be able to write about the case and to include it in my classroom lectures. At the same time, since I was walking through what Lizzie was going to do in the book, I made a second set of notes about what she saw and her process (as both crime historian and sleuth). Since I was changing the facts of the case for my mystery, I also needed to make notes about that for my "Author's Note" to the reader about what was true and what I had made up.

In Old Murders, Lizzie has a young graduate assistant named Keisha (who is now a continuing character). Keisha is eager to tackle the injustices of the case. She has gotten Lizzie to make the trip from Gallagher to Richmond to go through the papers about the case. Lizzie is trying her best not to get involved in whatever is going on with the old lawyer and the now adult son of the woman who was killed. After going through the archived records, she sets some boundaries for what they will do:

    "All right," I said, hoping I wouldn't regret it. "But an academic paper, Keisha. An article, not a documentary. We leave Sloane Campbell [the son] out of this other than his role doing the trial. We do not climb fences to get onto his property. We do not try to interview him or Jebediah Gant [the lawyer] or any of the other still-living participants. Understand me?"

Of course, the boundaries don't hold. But Lizzie is saying what a real-life faculty member might say to an over-eager grad student. She is not plunging in recklessly. 

So, this is the process that I follow for drawing on my academic research for inspiration. Sometimes I move from the research for a novel to research for nonfiction. For example, I have been plodding along on my historical thriller set in 1939. I needed to know more about what J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was doing that year. That led me to several books that took me deeper into his life and career than I had gone before. In one book I found a marvelous description of how he dressed. That quote is going into the manuscript of my nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and impression management in American crime and justice. 

I always do research with a notebook close at hand to jot down anything that catches my eye. Or, that I happen to hear on NPR or while listening to music. A Kenny Rogers song inspired my first short story in an anthology. I have referenced that same song when telling my students about murder ballads.

As for the writing itself -- to avoid bouncing around to the point of losing focus, I try to create separate physical and mental spaces for my nonfiction and fiction. It was easier before the pandemic, when I could work at home in the morning than make the physical transition to my office on campus in the afternoon. Simply changing clothes -- from at-home casual to workday skirt and jacket -- began the transition that was completed by the time I had driven the short distance to campus. For the past year, that transition has required more mental gymnastics -- such as moving from my laptop on the dining room table to my desktop in my home office. I am really looking forward to getting back to my bookshelves and boxes in my campus office. 

I admit that my ability to bounce back and forth between fiction and nonfiction has a lot to do with my day job. I have flexibility about how I order my day and what I work on. But I am not terribly disciplined. What is most important for me is that I let my imagination have free play. I was able to do that -- to look for connections -- even when I had a dull job in the housewares section of a department store after I graduated from college. While I dusted china and tried to look busy until a customer walked in, I plotted more than one fictional murder. 

I also broke more than my share of plates, cuts, and other fragile objects. I'm still having trouble with that. A couple of weeks ago, I spilled half a mug of tea on my laptop keyboard while I was thinking about a connection that had occurred to me. Good idea, dead laptop. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Life Adjustments

Charlotte's entry on Tuesday hit a nerve with me (Donis). My writing career has always been about as mid-list as one could get, but I was lucky to have a publisher who stuck with me through thick and thin because she liked my style and believed in my books. But I have a new publisher now to whom I seem to be an afterthought. Will I soon be an orphan author? I don't know. Trying to introduce a new series during a pandemic, when you cannot travel, go to conferences, do any in-person promoting, is not a good career move.

On top of everything, as I've mentioned before, I've been having attacks of vertigo for the past couple of months. They come out of nowhere and make me sick as a dog for the whole day. I had hoped it was positional vertigo, which is fixable with a simple exercise (Thanks, Charlotte). But I went to an audiologist who specializes in balance and vertigo problems, and after a long battery of tests, he suggested I have something called Meniere's disease, which is an inner ear problem that is not well understood and for which there is no good treatment. Of course!

It also affects my focus. Aside from being horribly unpleasant, I find I can't sit in front of the computer for very long without putting myself in danger of an attack. I have to limit my screen time, which is difficult if you're trying to write and are on a roll. I'll be checking with an eye doctor shortly.

So ... because one has to do something, I've been seeing an acupuncturist. It seems to help. 

Funny how things happen that force you to make changes in your life whether you want to or not. Perhaps if my publisher drops me, I'll find a new path - a new publisher, a new direction my writing, a whole new direction in my life. If I have to adjust to my new spinning reality, perhaps I'll go back to writing by hand, or find some dictation software like Dragon. Or learn to type efficiently with my eyes closed.

Or maybe I'll take up gardening or animal fostering.

  By the way, I'm still promoting my latest novel online as best I can, so if you're looking for a fun read set in Hollywood during the very Roaring Twenties, Dear Reader, pick up a copy of Valentino Will Die and immerse yourself in the glamorous world of the silent movies. It's available in paper, ebook, or audiobook.

And now I have to stop before my eyes start crossing. We authors thank you for your support. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Memories given a Help!ing hand.

Howdy, Type M folks, Douglas Skelton at the keyboard.

I want to talk about triggers today. Not the ones that crime writers usually talk about - you know, the ones that makes things go bang. 

Yesterday (Saturday) I was watching '8 Days a Week', Ron Howard's brilliant documentary on The Beatles, and as soon as the song 'Help!' began I was instantly transported back to when I was very young on the streets of Springburn in the north of Glasgow. There is a bond between the words melody and memory, for the former lingers on the latter for a lifetime. 

A few years ago I went back to those streets and this is what I wrote:

The man was talking to someone I couldn’t see. Or maybe he was talking to someone only he could see.
All I knew was that when I reached him, there was no one at the top of the steps.
He carried a plastic supermarket bag and he looked about my age. He was wearing a dark jacket and his shoulders were stopped but his hair was still dark and full. As I neared, he turned, nodded to me and walked away.
I wondered if he’d lived here all his life. I wondered where he’d been, where he was going.
I wondered if, at one time, I knew him.
I was back in Springburn, where I spent part of my childhood. We moved around a bit – I usually say that we moved whenever the rent was due. From Glasgow to Manchester to Ashton–Under–Lyne back to Glasgow to Cumbernauld to East Kilbride (the latter two new towns built to tackle what was called the overspill from Glasgow).
But this was where I was born, in the very street I saw the man talking to someone who might not even have been there.

Valleyfield Street. There used to be tenements on both sides but now only one. There was a little shop here then, Dale’s Dairy. I remember I used to think about a popular radio show called ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ whenever I saw the sign.
I’d had a lunch meeting just down the road (boy, that sounds grand) and had a few hours to kill before meeting a couple of close pals for dinner. At the lunch I’d talked about Springburn, about being born there, living there.
My memories, though, are fragmented. Snapshots, really. Shadows of time that flicker in my mind and then are gone. Some may be false. Memories can be tricky.
My grandmother – my Nana – lived in Adamswell Street, up the flight of steps from Valleyfield Street. It was a much longer street back then. Part of it has been bulldozed to make way for a wider road taking traffic to and from the M8. All the tenements have gone, although the street remains.

The café at the corner sells drinks for a penny. Irn Bru in little glasses, just like the cowboys used in the films. We sashay in, order a drink, slap our money down and stand at the counter like it was a bar. And, if we’re flush, there are Penny Dainties and Blackjacks and lucky bags.

I remember coalmen in leather jackets with no sleeves carting huge bags up the stairs of the tenements to the flats, big, burly men covered in coaldust, and they lifted the heavy loads with such ease I thought they must be supermen.
I remember, or think I do, men with little ladders lighting lamps but that can’t be, because we’re only talking the mid-1960s and that didn’t still happen, surely?
I remember the rag and bone man on his cart, calling out RAAAGS, RAAAGS. And his horse, which I hope was cared for properly but we didn’t think about it back then.
I remember bits and pieces, and many came back to me like flashbacks that day.

I’m running through a dark passageway. We call it ‘The Dunny’ and it runs from the back courts of Adamswell Street to Valleyfield Street. I’ve been dared to go through and honour dictates that I do it. It’s pitch black and seems to go on forever. There’s a smell of damp. And there’s water dripping somewhere, I’m splashing through it. But there’s something else here, I know it, something breathing in the shadows. Something watching. Something waiting for my step to falter so it can pounce. But I keep moving, faster now, feeling the fear build with my beating heart and when I finally burst back into the daylight that fear escapes in a giggle. I’ve made it. I’m safe. And my honour is intact.

I was asked during the lunch about street gangs in Springburn. I’m sure they existed but I was too young to be aware of them. Our gang was made up of the kids from Adamswell Street and there was a brief rivalry with kids from a neighbouring street.
I recall us facing them down one day. There was about six of us and maybe a dozen of them, strung out across the street. They had sticks and leather belts as weapons. We had a few cheeky comments and not much else. There was at least one coward among us that day, and he ran off and hid up a close. I couldn’t help myself. I’m no fighter. The street battle didn’t amount to much in the end. A lot of shouting. A lot of running. No one was hurt. I’m not even sure any blows were actually struck in anger. So much for my juvenile delinquency.
The other side did capture two of our guys, though, and I redeemed myself by sneaking over the old disused wash house roofs to free them. They’d been tied to an old metal washing pole and I’d watched their captors running round them and whooping like the Native Americans we’d seen on the telly. We didn’t call them Native Americans, though, for these were less than politically correct times. Being PC back then meant getting into blue serge and keeping your thermos and sandwiches in the blue police box on Adamswell Street.

An old car. Rusting. Abandoned. Unlocked. We can climb in and pretend we’re driving, hands running up and down the steering wheel in exaggerated fashion.

My old primary school is still there – Hyde Park. It’s now a business centre, but you can still see the two entrances, one for Girls, one for Boys. It was my first experience of school and I was there twice – before we moved to Manchester and after we came back.

I’m fighting with a boy outside the gates. I don’t know why. We’re rolling around the ground and landing weak punches. There’s very little pain but real tears. Especially from me because I’m losing. My honour is not so intact now.

We used to walk down the hill to Valleyfield Street and the dinner school, a collection of low pre–fab buildings (or that’s the way I remember them). We used to sing a hymn every day before food was served. All Creatures That On Earth Do Dwell. I now can’t hear that without smelling boiled cabbage.
There are houses on that bit of ground now but as I stood looking at them I remembered the dark day I ended up with a severe gash on my leg. We’d snuck into the dinner school grounds, the mean, fierce, scary old man who watched the place must’ve been away, and we were playing at the far end, up against what is now Flemington House. There was a steep concrete ramp from the grass to the fence at Adamswell Street and we used to take a runny up to try to reach the top. There were metal railings at the side of the building, big, rusting old spiked things, and somehow – I still don’t remember how, although I was probably climbing them – I managed to slide down one and gouge a large flap of flesh from my leg. There was pain and there was blood and there was crying and there was more blood, so much blood.

I’m being carried out of the grounds. There’s a crowd of people at the gate. My sister, Katrina, is there. An ambulanceman is there. They take off my shoe and it’s filled with blood. I remember nothing else.

I still bear the scar of that encounter.
What I don’t remember are the names of my friends and that makes me sad. I know some of them lived across from my Nana but that’s all.
So maybe that guy, the one with the companion who may not have been there at all, maybe he has lived around there all his life and maybe we once knew each other. And if that was the case, what’s he been doing all these years? What has he seen, what has he done, what’s happened to him that he talks to the air?
Did he see ghosts?

I’m walking back from a youth group, passing the great cavernous sheds where they used to build the locomotives. Springburn was famous all over the world for its locomotives. They’re empty now, the din of the machines and the riveters and the voices of the men who worked them has stilled. But now and again I find a way to peek into the empty sheds and faintly, behind the steady and incessant drip of the water from the holes in the roof, I fancy I still hear hammering and tapping and shunting.

The past. It’s not what it used to be. But it never dies.
They can bulldoze the buildings and they can build factories on parkland and they can turn the schools into business centres. They can flatten the old washhouses and the bin shelters we called middens. They can take away entire streets and create new ones. They can do all that but the old places – the way they were – live on as memories.
We grow out of childhood but it also never dies. It nestles within us, living, breathing, the way we were shaping what we are. Good, bad, happy, sad, loved, neglected. It’s all in there.
And that day parts of it came back to me. Snapshots, certainly, but vivid and real.  Chronologically I didn’t live in Springburn for very long but wherever I am, I will forever take a piece of it with me.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Cold Hard Truth

 A strange thing happened during when Americans were shut in during the Covid crisis. They started reading books again. This should be terrific news for writers, but according to a recent article, they mostly read authors they already liked. They read old familiar books. The cold hard truth is that these readers were wary of newcomers. 

A friend emailed me recently who was worried about a young man she knew who was not doing too well. He had never held a "real" job. He wants to become a writer and she wanted to know what I thought of his ability.

In fact, I think he is quite talented. That said, it's very, very hard to assess the merit of a work in a genre you don't regularly read. But talent is not the problem here. The problem is reality.

Only a very few writers make really big bucks. They are very talented and have something quite special going for them. Never mind that this one or that one is not your own personal cup of tea. When they first started out, each person on the best seller list time after time brought something new to the marketplace. These are the born naturals. The cream of the crop. They cannot stop. Case in point is J.K. Rawlings. The lady doesn't need the money but she keeps on anyway. She can't help herself.

And then we move on to another wealthy tier of writers. They are really good, usually genre specific, but things can get a little weird down the line. Books are outlined and someone else does the actually writing. Names are licensed. Writing becomes harder. Trips beckon. Time with family. A cocktail at sunset. They make a terrific living. Have a sweet life.

But the cold hard truth is that most writers need a day job. Seldom does one's writing alone provide enough to support a family, generate income for research trips, or enable one to attend the endless round of conferences that compete for time and bucks.

So what kind of day job? How many hours a day? I find it puzzling that some of the people with the most demanding jobs produce phenomenal books year after year. As to the type of job? When I taught a course in writing at Fort Hays State University one spring, I found myself worrying about the students' stories, instead of my own writing. It was like trying to water two fields from the same well. Yet, Joyce Carol Oates--who is incredibly gifted--has taught writing at Columbia for decades. Our own Frankie Bailey is a professor in the department of justice.

Some writers find that working in a trade or doing something involved with physical labor is just the right contrast. That makes sense to me.

I like bookkeeping and accounting. It's comforting to do non-creative work that is exacting and precise. It's black and white. Right or wrong. Writing is a very messy occupation, but it's so exhilarating! I would rather be a writer than anything else, nevertheless sometimes I think how nice a regular paycheck would be. Sometimes I hate the fog that is a part of creativity.

So my question for the young man would be "How do you intend to support yourself?" The cold hard truth is that if you plan to become a writer you must figure something out.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Writing or Typing?

I read an interesting quote once by a poet that went something like this: I write 23 hours a day, I type for one. It indicated that the poet spends a lot of time in her head. Similarly, Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac’s work, That’s not writing, that’s typing.

Typing vs. Writing is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. No, no one said to me what Capote said of Kerouac; not yet, anyway. But I do know myself: when I get in trouble on the page, I’m overwriting. 

I once believed overwriting came from over-thinking. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe overwriting comes from not thinking enough. I’ve turned to journaling –– thinking through my plot in my notepad. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should it have taken me this long to figure out. In my classroom, students must free-write in a notebook, never on a computer, because we know they digest the material better when writing longhand. Why it took me until age 51 to take my own advice is a conversation for another day (or post).

But now I’m much more likely to slow down or even stop writing and return to my journal. I’m not working from an outline. The journal is where I think things through, where I make realizations, where I solve the puzzle I’ve created. In short, it’s where I trouble-shoot. It saves me from writing scenes (or as many as I usually write) that will never see the light of day in a final draft. It’s also a place where I can make plot decisions. This is key for me. In the journal, I’m making deductions and figuring out why and how things have happened to date. For a “pantser” (someone who writes best by the seat of his pants), the journal provides a safety net.

It takes me away from the keyboard and, if I’m being honest, slows me down. But both of those are good things. We’ve all spent too much time in front of our computer screens these past 18 months; and slowing down to speed the novel up, is a trade I’m willing to make.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

My Own Little Happy Dance


You know that happy dance that Snoopy does? That’s what’s going on in my head right now. 

 Last week I finished the book I’ve been working on for about two years now, the sixth book in my Aurora Anderson Mystery series, Final Brushstroke. Now it’s with a Beta reader who will tell me if I’ve jumped the shark or not. I think it’s pretty good, but I always feel there’s room for improvement in my writing. This book took way longer than it should have, but I persevered, working on it in some capacity most days, either writing or researching things like love locks, lock sporting groups, bank robberies and stun guns. Yep, they’re all in my book somewhere.

While I’m waiting for comments, I’m celebrating by taking a little time off and doing things I’ve been meaning to do for a while now: cleaning, painting projects, watching Icelandic crime dramas and doing other stuff around the house. I think it’s important to pause and acknowledge a writing victory.

Things are looking up here in Los Angeles County, virus-wise, as well. We went from overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes to having way, way fewer cases of COVID-19. More things are opening up, as well, including Disneyland. I don’t intend to go anytime soon. I’m just glad it opened back up. Not that everything has been peachy-keen in my world, but there’s been enough positive stuff, I’m optimistic.

My challenge right now is what to do with this book. The publisher who published the previous five books in my series passed on this one. I’m reluctant to look for another one because this is the last one I want to write in this series, at least for a while. I have other ideas I want to work on. I’m considering self-publishing this one, but I have yet to grasp the magnitude of that task. I’ll figure it out. Right now, though, I’m just enjoying the victory.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

You can’t stop making up stories, can you?

by Rick Blechta

I had really limited time over the past week to do much writing because we put in a new front lawn and I did a lot of yard work in the back. Hey, it’s that time of year!

However, I was also guilty of using some of that scarce time to do more model railroading than I should have.

I previously wrote about building “Miss Lucy’s House” and lately I was working on her big brother’s tribute building, “Jackson’s Village Pizza.”

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve added two HO scale figures. That’s Miss Lucy watering a pot of flowers on her front porch and Jackson getting some much-needed fresh air after turning out a busy evening’s batch of pies, fresh and hot.

Here’s where the storytelling comes in.

Miss Lucy is a successful young musician. What you’re not seeing yet is her 1953 baby blue Porsche Spyder. (She did have two #1 hits in the past year after all, so she splurged a bit.) It arrived yesterday afternoon. I’ve yet to construct her yard, with a driveway for the car, and no doubt a garage. There will also be a garden in the backyard and I have a lovely apple tree to go in the front yard.

A pretty, young girl would have a boyfriend being in her mid-twenties, wouldn’t she?

So I bought her two possible beaus. One is an army officer who has just returned home since he’s carrying a suitcase. Lucy hasn’t spotted him yet. I guess — assuming he makes the cut — I’ll have to buy the taxi cab that just dropped him off. He’s stopped midway up the sidewalk gazing fondly at his girlfriend.

Bachelor #2, as my wife feels, looks like a bit of a bad boy. He probably combs his hair a lot and he has a definite slouch. Maybe he’s a want-to-be boyfriend. He’ll have to toe the line because Lucy is a girl who knows her mind. I think she’ll be able to handle him — if she even gives him the time of day.

I haven’t even gotten to Jackson’s back story, but you no doubt see where this is going. I’m unable to do anything without adding the human factor. I can’t even resist giving my model buildings a story.

My granddaughter isn’t even five years old yet and her grampa has imagined her 20 years in the future with a career, her own life, and a complete back story.

After uttering the words in the title of this blog post, my wife told me she thinks it’s cute…

Monday, May 03, 2021

My Seven Rules to Raise the Heat in a Novel

 I'm halfway through teaching my first-ever Advanced Creative Writing course.  Most of the students are returnees from my earlier classes and it’s a treat to see them all again.  They’re all outstanding writers.  

Tonight, I'm presenting my list of seven rules to raise the heat in a novel. 

A good book is like a well-prepared meal.  A lot of key ingredients go into it—relatable characters, a believable plot, a satisfying story arc, evil villains, and the occasional plot twist.

But like when you’re cookin’, ya’ gotta bring the heat.

Storytelling is characters under stress. But, keep in mind, there should be an ebb and flow of tension.  Non-stop stress will wear a reader out.  Too little and you become boring.

Here are my seven rules of building tension in your novel.

1)There should be internal conflict within your characters.  And that’s not only just for your protagonist and his friends, but for your villains as well.  Internal conflict can take many forms—alcohol or drug abuse, fear, PTSD, a fear of spiders—really almost any phobia will do. 

Want to amp it up a little?  Add a physical hurdle for your protagonist.  Jeffery Deaver turned his hero, Lincoln Rhyme, into a quadriplegic. If that’s not taking it to the extreme, I don’t know what is.

2) There has to be believable and engaging characters with competing goals. The simplest example of this is the bad guy wants to kill the good guy and the good guy wants to keep breathing.  

Sometimes the competing goals aren’t so clear cut.  In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s goal is to catch a serial killer.  To do so, she needs the help of Hannibal Lecter.  At first it seems Hannibal’s goal is to simply use Clarice as a distraction from the boredom of his jail cell.  Then his goal appeared to be just how far into Clarice’s head he could crawl, like a spider digging deeper and deeper into her psyche. Ultimately, his real goal was to escape prison.  

3) Create secondary sources of tension.  We see these in our personal lives all the damned time.  

Think of some of the daily sources of secondary tension you might experience.  Your boss has a bad day and takes it out on you.  You’re late for a job interview and you get a flat tire. You see charges on your credit card statement that you didn’t make.

In and of itself, relatively minor annoyances.  But add it up and mix it into your story, and it ramps up the stress.

4) The main story conflict must be crucial to your character. In the film Fatal Attraction, Dan Gallagher is married to Beth but has an affair with a female magazine editor by the name of Alex.  Dan, thinking the affair was a one-off, is ready to forget about the fling.  Alex, crazy as a bedbug on meth, isn’t ready to forget anything and obsessively stalks Dan.  

The conflict here heats up when Dan thinks his marriage is in danger.  Then it grows when he realizes that his life could be in danger.  It escalates yet again, when he comes to grips that both his wife and daughter’s lives are in danger.  

Oh, FYI, if there’s a boiling pot on your stove and your pet bunny is missing, don’t look in the pot.

5) Let the tension ebb and flow.  The best thriller writers are the ones who take you on that rollercoaster ride but slow it down from time to time to let the reader catch his breath. And just when you’ve let your guard down…

6) Bam, you raise the stakes and keep raising them. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, his protagonist is left for dead on Mars after his team blasts off during a dust storm to head back to earth.  Using malfunctioning equipment, his cunning, and knowledge of science, the hero manages to eke out an existence, thinking he can last the four years until the rescue rocket can retrieve him.

But Weir suddenly raises the stakes, throwing fearsome obstacles into his hero’s path, one after the other, until it appears all hope is exhausted.  Read the book, see the movie, it’s a nail biter right up until the end. 

7) Make it a race against time. You’ve laid out the conflict, you’ve thrown in secondary conflicts, you’ve raised the stakes, now you give the protagonist a deadline.  And if the conflict isn’t resolved by then there’s deadly consequences. 

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, we visit a house full of people on a remote island and one of them is a killer.  One by one, they’re being murdered.  The ferry that will take them off the island doesn’t arrive until tomorrow.  Can they survive the night?  There’s nothing that will raise tension like a ticking clock.

Writing a book requires many ingredients—engaging characters, a thoughtful plot, artful descriptions.  But in the end, ya’ gotta’ bring the heat.