Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Writing used to be my “safe place”

by Rick Blechta 

I’ve been around long enough to have collected a lot of writer friends. Over the course of the past several years — and this predates the Covid pandemic — many of us have experienced difficulty writing.

Writing requires major amounts of concentration and focus. You cannot craft good, readable prose if you’re going along word by word. A complete thought has to be clearly defined in a writer’s mind to get the words onto the page. I’m not suggesting that it comes out perfectly, but it has to at least be complete. 

If you’ve followed my posts for the past few years, I think it’s become pretty clear that I’m having difficulty writing. Hell, I’ve written a complete, full-length novel in 11 weeks. Right now I’m stumbling along working on a novel I began almost six years ago.


This past weekend I think I figured out what’s going wrong. There’s too much turmoil in the world. 

Sitting down to write whether it was in my home office, in a library, even on transit, I developed a level of concentration that allowed me to work no matter what was going on around me.

No more. That skill has completely abandoned me. Even when I was away for a few days recently and there was no one around to bother me, no internet, no email, and my cell turned off, I couldn’t manage more than a half-hour of good concentration. I was restless and distracted no matter how hard I tried. 

Outside thoughts, meaning outside of what I was trying to write, kept intruding into my brain. It was almost as if someone was firing a ray containing a newsfeed of distracting, well, BS as far as I was concerned. I could not shut it off.

It left me feeling frustrated and unhappy, two things that are not conducive to good writing.

In asking around, I’m finding that I’m not alone. One friend describes it as “the world is too present inside us.” I think that hits the nail squarely on the head.

What to do? The same friend suggested just sitting down to write and go where the muse takes you, even if it comes out more like a poor stream of consciousness. “Certainly don’t attempt anything with your WIP. You’re trying to clear your mind and get your focus back.

Writing used to be for me a way to shut out the world and focus on my own imaginary world, hang out with my invisible friends and share in their lives.

You know those newsfeeds like CNN or Fox News that are shown in waiting rooms or airports? That’s what it’s like inside my head.

“You have to learn how to shut that off,” said my good friend in a final bit of advice.

I answered, “Easier said than done, I think.”

“You have to keep trying. What else is there to do?”

She’s right.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Getting good coverage

Let's talk book covers.

Very important thing, your book cover, because it's the first wave of the flag for the story you have laboured over, sweated over, wept over, perhaps even done over, for months, maybe years.

I'm not an expert on such matters. It takes a particular skillset to know how to create an image that will do the job. My publisher asks for my input but generally I draw a blank or give such a vague non-answer that I might as well as saved my breath. I trust them to do the right thing. After all, my job is to string the words together in some semblance of order - the packaging and selling is their area of expertise and I am no salesman, I'm afraid. I learned that the hard way, by taking a job as a salesman.

Your cover has to draw the casual bookstore wanderer sufficiently to at least pick it up, read the blurb and then - praise be - part with their folding green.

It also has to somehow reflect the content of the book.

We all know that there are trends in covers. There's the woman facing away from the reader, perhaps in a yellow coat. Or a red one. Or a grey one. There's the man facing away from the reader, perhaps with a. gun in hi Han d. And wearing a jacket. Or a coat. Both generally dark. 

There are the covers where the title, maybe three or four words, is in a san serif face (like Bob Dylan, publishers have shot the serif) and the spacing between the words is large enough to fit in the author's name and then a catch line.

There are those with a woman's face in the foreground and some sort of cityscape in the background. Less common is a man's face in the foreground and some sort of cityscape in the background. In fact, I can't think of a single one.

Readers can respond to innovation but they take comfort from the familiar and trends in covers tells them immediately what they can expect from their selected read. Similarly titles - how many novels did we have with the word Girl or Woman in the title? As soon as we saw it we knew we were in for some psychological, domestic chills.

Of course, covers are part of your 'brand'. Each subsequent book in series will have a similar look, even down to how your name is presented.

That's happened to me with my Rebecca Connolly series. I have been branded, which sounds painful although they didn't need to rope me, throw me to the ground, sit on me and wield a red hot iron. Well, perhaps not for the book cover but there was that time when...

But no, let's draw a veil over that incident. I'm not proud of it but things happen when you're drunk.

The first in the series, Thunder Bay, had two covers. This was the original:

It was also used on the US edition and it looks great on the hardback. Even so, I liked it but when that first book became a series a new 'branding' was necessary so Thunder Bay was given a fresh look:

Looks good. Moody. Conveys the sense of foreboding and the general atmosphere of the novel. And my name is of sufficient size that my ego is satisfied. And it's that look that has continued through the next two in the series.

But then it was sold to other territories. As I said, Skyhorse/Arcade Crimewise retained the original cover for their release and a damn fine piece of work it is.

But the Danish and German markets went their own way. Here's the former:

Pretty darned cool, I think. And the title means 'The Rest is Silence', which also fits the subject.

The Germans went in this direction:

Again, eye-catching and reflects the subject matter. A slight title change - The Dead of Thunder Bay - which again fits. My name is not nearly big enough, though. (I'm joking, of course. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

The object of this exercise is to show how different publishers can approach the same book in various ways and yet still find common ground in their presentation. My hat is tipped to those designers and salespeople who know how to find the correct visual for each story.

I am thrilled that the books are available beyond Scotland and very pleased with the efforts every publisher makes to get the cover right. They are all experts in their field and authors just have to trust them.

Oh - and here's something else that thrills me - the idea that my book is in the wild (in bookstores) overseas. A reader, Carmen Thomas, sent me this shot of Thunder Bay's German edition in Vienna, Austria! 

I am, as we say in Glasgow, fair chuffed, so ah'm urr.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Are We Happy?

The prompt for this blog was that I found my old cell phones stashed in the back of a drawer. For grins, I decided to power them up and surprisingly, they all buzzed and beeped to life. What made me smile was scrolling through the address books and text messages. It was like discovering a forgotten box of letters in an attic. I missed the simplicity of these old phones. Our newer smart phones and their apps make them supreme data collection devices, always eavesdropping, scanning our photos, marking where we are, who we communicate with, what we communicate, what we shop for, etc., etc., etc., We're truly in the age of 1984 but that's a topic for another post.

Every technological leap forward is couched as progress, as a rung on the ladder to utopia. Apple is great at marketing this idea. A bright shinier tomorrow. Happy! Happy! 

But are we? On the individual level, while only speaking for myself, and that makes me the expert, I say yes. Those who are not happy, it's their own fault. In social media, people are always grouching over the imperfections of this and that, mostly in politics and culture. Sometimes, when I point out the need to be positive, especially in your personal life, I get dumped on as either a partisan troll or a delusional fool.

If anyone in this world had a reason to not be happy, it was Helen Keller and here's what she said:

Your success and happiness lies within you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you will form an invincible host against difficulties.

Life is of course, the struggle against difficulties. Though some are seemingly born under a rainbow, nobody gets a pass. One of my favorite Scriptures is from Matthew 5:35 "... for He maketh His sun rise, on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust." In other words, God, the Creator of the universe, is telling you, Life is not fair, so suck it up and smile.

However, there is a rising tide of despair in the developing world and the culprit is the very technology that promises to make us happy. Our interactions with these devices has been engineered to make them addictive and like all addictions, there is a dark side. The advice for good mental health is to unplug and seek affirmation with in-person interactions.

Yesterday, I started thinking on this post and then unexpectedly dreamt about it last night. In this dream I had been invited by the mayor of Denver to participate in a working group in how we could make the city a happier place. The replies turned out to be more practical and less woo-woo. When it was my turn, my suggestion was for everyone to do better at their jobs. We all benefit when things work as they're supposed to, when the busses and trains run on time, to take pride in what you're doing, to be happy as you do so, and if you don't like your job, then find something better and move on. If that advice makes me a troll, then I like my place under this bridge.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Sentences: The Intersection Between Reading and Writing

This summer, I read a handful of books I enjoyed, books that landed in various ways for me. When I read, I’m highly aware of authors’ prose choices and styles. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer; maybe it’s because I’m an English nerd. (I’m sure there’s an intersection there somewhere.) Regardless, my summer reading has me thinking about sentence-level writing.

I began The Radetzky March a month ago. The book has been a slow crawl for me, not because author Joseph Roth isn’t holding my attention. On the contrary. I find myself entranced by his language choices, reading and rereading sentences. Pitching the 1932 book to a friend the other day, I explained that one chapter “begins with a long description of a steak dinner.” My friend rolled his eyes. I know, I know. “But the language will keep you turning pages,” I said. This brings me back to Raymond Chandler’s wonderful statement: “There are no dull books, only dull minds.” In other words: What constitutes compelling fiction? Anything, if the writer can convey the message in an engaging manner.

So how does that happen? As writers, we need to carefully consider the question: How do we engage readers? Because if you’re publishing your work, you’re no longer writing only for yourself. Beyond creating characters readers relate to and want to spend time with, beyond a storyline readers find suspenseful enough to keep turning pages, how can we engage them?

As a reader, I love books that offer language that woos me. However, when I write, I write not as a reader, but as a writer. Again, there’s an intersection there, I’m sure, but I know my strengths lie in character and dialogue. I’m not a prose stylist of Michael Chabon’s ilk. I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union four times the past two years and continue to laugh aloud at his dark humor and marvel at Chabon’s string of clauses and compound sentences.

When writing, I’m attempting to get what it is in my mind onto the page as clearly and cleanly as possible. (Stephen King, in On Writing, says writing fiction is archeology –– the goal is to get the story out of the ground intact.) When do the language and style choices occur? I’m certainly influenced by what I read, but I’m not thinking of “style” or “compound sentences” or “description.” I’m thinking of story, of character, of helping readers to visualize the scene in a way that is vivid.

I’d be interested to hear from others: How does your reading impact your writing? How aware of style and language choices are you when you write?

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Words, Glorious Words


Like most writers, I love words, especially ones that are unusual or aren't used anymore. I write down words I come across from TV shows, books, movies, etc. I have lots and lots of little pieces of paper around the house with words on them. I also have words written in margins of puzzle books or whatever paper is handy. I do not, however, write in books!

Every once in a while I gather them up and write a blog post on them. Here are some of the words I've run across since my last word post.

snarge – This is the goo left when a bird slams into a moving plane. It’s a portmanteau of snot with garbage. I came across this one while watching an episode of the Great Courses series, Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works. I shouldn’t have been surprised that there’s a term for this, but I was.

snickersnee – This is a knife resembling a sword. What a fun word to say. Unfortunately, I can’t see how to work this into everyday conversation.

wamble – To move in a weaving, wobbling pattern. This is probably a good description of people when they’ve had too much to drink. But it also described how I walked when I got an inner ear infection that caused a severe case of vertigo. So, don’t assume anything about people who wamble!

petrichor – The pleasant, earthy scent after rain falls on dry soil. I’ve smelled this many times over the years, just didn’t know there was a name for it.

gongoozler – An idle spectator. According to the OED, it originally described an idler who stares at length at activity on a canal. First noted in 1904 and later used more widely as a person who stares protractedly at anything. I’m sure I’ve done this many times over the years. This one I got from watching an episode of the TV show, Sleepy Hollow. Sigh, I miss that show.

glabrous – hairless. Like a glabrous scalp or glabrous leaves. And, perhaps, it could describe a chest of one of those male dancers on Dancing With The Stars after being waxed.

woodpusher – A weak player of chess, one who basically only knows how the pieces move, but doesn’t really know or understand strategy. I suspect a lot of people know this one, but I hadn’t heard of it until I watched The Queen’s Gambit on Neflix, an excellent show.

oysgezoomt – This is a freshly coined Yiddish word meaning fatigued or bored by Zoom.

Long time readers of Type M may remember a post I did in 2014, Skimble-Skamble, where I described a number of fun words I found. Unfortunately, that post is no longer available so I thought I’d include some of the words from it because I still like them and they're worth repeating.

begrumpled – displeased. According to the reference in The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten, this one came from a dictionary of obsolete words published in 1857. I think we should bring it back. I’ve been begrumpled many times in my life, including when I realized the local post office didn’t open until ten a.m. and I'd spent 15 minutes walking to it.

blutterbunged – confounded, overcome by surprise. Okay, I was begrumpled and blutterbunged at the post office.

funambulist – tight rope walker. I suppose they’re having fun up there.

skimble-skamble — rambling and confused. Shakespeare gave us this one. According to the OED, it first appeared in 1598 in Henry IV, Part I.

snirtle – to attempt to suppress one’s laughter.

traveltainted – fatigued with travel. I’ve been this a few times, especially when traveling to/from Europe. Those twelve hour flights are not fun.

trinkle – to eavesdrop. This came from that 1857 dictionary of obsolete words.

Your challenge for the week is to see how many of these words you can work into everyday conversations.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Random Thoughts on Editing

 This blog will be shorter than usual because I’m working through the second set of edits from my publisher and I’m staring at a looming deadline. 

My first editor, Annette, described the editing process as a tennis game.  The way we worked was I’d send her the first hundred pages of a manuscript and she’d let me know if I was on the right track.  Then, when the manuscript was finished, I’d send it to her, she’d edit it and email it back to me.

What she would send back would be my original work marked up and obviously scanned.  I’d than get that printed and work from a hard copy.  Old school.

Now, both my editor and copy editor, work on an electronic version, email it to me and I take it from there.  New school.

I’m no longer working on a hard copy, so the good news is that a tree will live to see another day.  Bad news, I’m a knuckle dragger and not technologically inclined.  There are a lot of marks and lines and colors in the text and in the margin.

Which I find a little distracting. 

But Diane and Beth are both talented and excellent to work with, and frankly they end up helping me make my manuscript a much stronger book. 

So, this is the final set of edits I’m looking at.  And probably the twentieth time I’ve read through my book, tentatively titled WHISPER ROOM and scheduled to be released in 2022. 

Someday I’m going to count how many times I actually read my own work before it’s launched. 

Completely off topic, SHADOW HILL was released two weeks ago and I’m blessed that I’ve gotten great reviews.  One was from a writer I hold in extremely high regard.  Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Mystery and Suspense Magazine have all been exceedingly kind. 

But a review I received that surprised me was from the lady who cuts my hair.  I was there a couple of days ago and she had just finished my first two books, which she asked me to sign.  She said, “I’ve known you for years now and just got around to reading your series.  I love them and so does my father.”

She told me that even though she’s dyslexic, she read the first book in two days.

Of course, I always take that as a compliment.  But, hey, it takes me a whole year to write a novel.  It’s like Thanksgiving dinner.  It takes days to plan and cook and then just like that, the meal is over. 

Then Carley told me that the other ladies who work there were in the middle of reading my first book and loving it.

While Carley cut my hair, we all had a pleasant discussion about what a hot mess my protagonist, Geneva Chase, is.  

Then I gladly signed their books and thanked them for their kind words. 

So now it’s time to look over the last of the final edits.  

Stay safe!

Friday, August 20, 2021

Is It Friday?

 Echoing Donis's post from yesterday, yes, it does feel as if time is moving much more quickly. The summer's gone. Our new grad students joined us (virtually) this afternoon to meet the professors. In pre-pandemic days, we would have done this in person and then had lunch together. But we will be back on campus when classes begin on Monday. I will be in and out of my office, but I'm going to do my two courses online this semester because I've always used lots of videos and that happens to work well online.

I knew it was Friday when I got up this morning. But somewhere between driving my puppy, Fergus, to doggie daycare, and answering emails before the 1 pm meeting with students, I forgot to look back to see if it was my Friday to post. I woke up early when Fergus stood up in his nighttime enclosure and banged against the gate. I took him outside in the dawn's early light, keeping an eye on him to make sure he was over his reaction to the Lyme disease vaccination he had yesterday. He was his usual perky self. I, on the other hand, had to pretend enthusiasm that he was being a "good boy" and letting me know he needed a trip outside. 

I'm rambling because it's now later in the day, and I'm tired. So I am going to use my post to invite you all to join the symposium I am hosting in September. It is free and open to the public and won't be dull in spite of the word "symposium".  My flyer refuses to upload, but here is the information: 

Crime Writers of Color Symposium

Sept. 8-9, 2021


Virtual Symposium hosted by

School of Criminal Justice

University at Albany


This symposium features diverse authors who are members of Crime Writers of Color (CWoC) and academic scholars who study crime fiction.


Free registration required to access live sessions and recorded webinars. You’ll need to sign in with your Zoom account.

Day 1 (3 pm-7 pm ET)


Day 2 (11 am-7 pm ET)



Participant bios and symposium schedule will be available at:


Contact:  Professor Frankie Y Bailey, PhD


Thursday, August 19, 2021

100 Monkeys

An Old Fashioned Press Kit

After nearly two full years of pandemic isolation,  I'm beginning to feel that my life is like a car whose brakes have failed and I'm hurtling downhill toward a brick wall with no way to stop. One may say that this sensation is simply the theory of relativity at work -- time just seems to move faster when one has more behind than ahead. But I beg to differ. I think time actually is speeding up. It must be. It can't be that my brain just can't keep up. Sometimes I become homesick for the 1970s, as though that decade were a physical place.*

Things, they do change, don't they? For most of human history, the skills a person learned in youth served him most of his life, but over the last century, events have been moving at such an accelerating pace that it has finally become almost impossible to keep up. A person's knowledge becomes obsolete practically as soon as it is learned. When my first novel was published in 2005 (which is not that long ago, I'm telling you!), I was advised to create a physical press kit with photos and flyers and mail it to as many reviewers and book buyers as I could afford to buy stamps for. Ebooks were a novelty. Author websites were the new thing. 

Nothing is physical anymore - it's all virtual. Yesterday morning I attended a Zoom meeting on how to promote on Tik Tok.** Instagram is apparently old hat now, and I just created an Instagram account which I still don't know how to use.

A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend about the “One-hundredth Monkey” philosophy, which, briefly, goes like this: If you teach a certain number of monkeys (maybe a hundred, it’s a nice round number) how to do something, then suddenly and mysteriously every monkey in the world will know how to do it. This idea is based on a Japanese research project that occurred during the 1950′s, which is too convoluted to go into here, but in the end, the scientists proposed that this phenomenon suggests some sort of monkey collective consciousness in the universe. There was a book that was published a few years ago by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point, which proposes something along the same lines for human beings. One person can come up with an original idea, and tell it to another person, who tells someone else, etc., until a point comes where the idea has spread throughout human consciousness, whether each individual has been told or not. I like the idea that we’re all connected somewhere on a subconscious (or should I say superconscious) level.

All throughout my life, I’ve felt rather like monkey number 101, at least where my generation is concerned. I’m a leading-edge baby-boomer, and since I was quite young I’ve noticed that as soon as I get a brilliant and completely original idea, it suddenly becomes a standard Boomer fare — from getting tired of curling my hair and letting it grow long and straight (1960s), to horrible fear of housewifeliness (1970s), to suddenly wanting all-white walls in my house (1980s) And those are just a few of my innumerable 101st monkey moments.

Then as I passed the half-century mark, I started to look back and take stock. I became open to something I had never even considered before — appreciating my elders. I think that writing about the past is an attempt to understand a mind-set and way of life that was completely foreign to my young self. I was clueless about the world of my foremothers. Just as the Millennials are clueless about the world that made me.


*I’m kidding. No one who ever wore platform shoes or drove a Pinto is homesick for the ‘70s.

** Just shoot me now.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Untangling a plot

It's Tuesday evening and I'm sitting on my dock in my Muskoka chair with a glass of wine, trying to write this blog. The scene is idyllic. I have always loved the peace of the lake - the lapping of the waves, the muted sounds of birds in the trees, the bump of the canoe against the dock - and I find it very inspirational for writing. I bought this cottage almost twenty years ago as a writing retreat.

I am now at the cottage for a two-week stretch without interruption. The family visits have ended and although I have scheduled one visit with friends half-way through, these two weeks are to be my writing time. Time to make some serious headway on my much-neglected novel. I have been floundering around in the plot for some time, not staying in the groove long enough to figure out where I am and where I'm going. It's time that changes! I have a research trip booked to British Columbia in three weeks, and I need to know more about what I have to research.

My peaceful place

Yet right now it feels as if this novel is a tangled mat of threads that I can't figure out how to knit together. I have added a bunch of "what if" future ideas and initiated a number of complications that eventually have to go somewhere, but I feel lost in the tangle. 

Two days ago, I started to untangle the mess. When confronted with all these loose threads and potential plot ideas, I try a number of techniques. I write down the threads in point form, and I stare at them. I ask "what would/ could/ should happen next?"" in each thread. I write down the major characters and where they are in the story, and ask where they need to go next. How can I push each part of the story forward? And how can I keep (or make) their stories intersecting? Usually once I stare at the points long enough and play with the questions long enough, I get an idea. I pull on a thread. I develop it, and it starts to emerge from the tangle into a plausible step forward. It exposes another thread, which I pull apart from it and lay out. In much the same way one tackles a huge knot, this story slowly untangles, thread by thread, and separates into storylines. I'm not done yet, but I have worked my way forward through the knot, and I have some threads to follow.

I know I will encounter more tangles, or these separated threads will tangle back up again, but for now I have a way forward and I am excited. This takes work and concentration, and maybe two weeks with almost no one to talk to and nothing to distract me.

Drop by in two weeks for my next post, and I'll let you know how much I've succeeded! 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A sort-of fresh promotional idea

by Rick Blechta

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of chatter on Type M about launching books in our Pandemic Era. Yes, it is a tough and possibly demoralizing slog, very much hit and miss. 

But book promotion has been degenerating for many years now. Publishers, especially those with a number of mid-list authors, eagerly seized on the cost benefits of social media — to them, happily offloading that onto their authors’ shoulders.

So it’s time for a good idea. Just call me Candide, if you like.

I’ve always found that reading a good excerpt from a book is the quickest way to get me to buy it. Even more effective can be someone reading that excerpt. Trick is, they have to be good at it, and well, most of us ink-stained wretches aren’t. I’m sure we’ve all sat through more than our share of cringe-worthy reading performances. I’m certainly guilty of that faux pas myself — although, with a lot of practise I have improved my skills.

Anyway, here’s my idea: video yourself doing a carefully-chosen reading from your new work after first taking a few minutes to introduce your book in general terms. In other words, get readers’ attention by setting a few interesting hooks and then reel them in by a good reading experience.

Here’s the hard part: it has to look as professional as you can make it. Don’t sit in front of your computer in your studio and do it. Don’t read from a prepared text. Memorize it. Multiple takes will probably be in order too, especially if you’ve never done this kind of thing before. You could get someone more experienced to do it for you, but I believe the personal touch is best. That’s not to say you can’t get professional help to critique and help improve what you’re doing.

As for the reading portion — and I’ve said this before here on Type M — you don’t have to read everything in order. Do some editing as if you’re adapting your work for the screen. Keep description to a minimum. Include lots of dialogue if you can. Use different voices for different characters.

Now the next part is critical. Your video has to be as widely disseminated as possible. Have it on your website, your publisher’s website, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Get it to bookstores. But most of all, make sure it’s on at least the back cover of your book, if not the cover.

This means that you have to prepare ahead of time, but then there’s a huge span of time as your book is in production in which to do your own production.

The cost/benefit ratio to this makes it well worth doing. Perhaps your publisher might even kick in some money to help get it done. Regardless, it shouldn’t cost much, and if you have enough experience, it doesn’t need to cost anymore than your time.

I’ve only given a rough sketch of the project, but I’m sure you have enough imagination to see why and how it could be done. Since it’s very difficult to promote traditional ways (the book tour, signings, appearances in general) we have to think untraditionally.

If there’s enough interest, I can expand on my thoughts in another post.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Launching into the digital ether

Well, that's my latest book out here in the UK with as much fanfare as could be mustered in these times of pandemic. Unfortunately, said fanfare was all digital. Social media has its uses but - as Rick pointed out in his column earlier this week - it is somewhat hit and miss. 

Another example of quite gratuitous self-promotion for which I am just barely ashamed.

In his post, Tom highlighted the effect of Covid on launches, mentioning that Bouchercon has been cancelled once again. In the UK last year every single festival fell away one by one, although we are now seeing the green shoots of recovery. The Harrogate event went ahead earlier in the summer, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is underway even as you read this and in September Bloody Scotland - one of the festivals dear to my heart, not to mention close to my home - has announced it will proceed with a mixture of live and digital events. Naturally, everything is subject to change should a new variant rage through the populace. However, we have made excellent headway with the vaccine rollout here, although there remain pockets of resistance.

Anyway, there was no live launch for me. No ego-boosting. No lines of well-wishers clutching freshly bought copies waiting for me to scratch a pen over the title page, although I did visit a couple of bookstores in Glasgow to deface their stock with a Sharpie. Which I borrowed from behind the counter because I had forgotten to take a pen. I hope to get out and stage such raids on other stores soon. I may even take my own pen.

Instead, there was a flurry of Twittering, Facebooking, Instagraming and even Linkdining. Those more savvy with the technology can meld the various ingredients into a satisfying broth. My approach is more like throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks.

My efforts are aided by those bloggers, readers, friends and other authors who share and comment - and I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of them. Also booksellers who place the book in prominent positions and also do more than their fair share of Twittering. (Yeah, I know it's Tweeting, don't write in.)

Reviews have been good so far, which is heartening. Again, thank you to all who have taken the time to do so. As for sales? I have no idea but given the glut of product out there I can only hope for the best. 

On a general note, given the past 18 months, that's really all we can do. 

Oh - and get vaccinated, for goodness sake.

Friday, August 13, 2021

A Joyful Surprise

 My first live event since the Covid shutdown was at Fort Morgan, Colorado, a town with a population of about 1l,500. There were over 130 persons there at a beautifully organized luncheon. Tables of eight were laid with exquisite china and hand-lettered name plates. 

The organization hosting this was the Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) I couldn't have been more surprised by the attendance. I sold every book I brought, including the four copies of my academic book. I always overpack, so I this outing was easily my biggest money-making talk.

I'm not only a weird combination of pantser/plotter in my writing methods, that's my approach to talks also. All of my books, whether mysteries or historical novels, have a non-fiction element that serve as the foundation of my presentation. My knowledge of African American history is embarrassingly narrow. Believe me, in a general sense, I don't know anything. 

I focus on the experiences of Blacks in Kansas--and the Great Plains and Nicodemus, Kansas in particular. However, I know a lot about that particular subject. 

Sandra Dallas, a great and prolific Colorado writer, once said she didn't understand the writing process. I loved that comment. I don't understand it either. Since I slither back and forth between genres and fiction and non-fiction, it's easier to explain the non-fiction process. Academic non-fiction is analytical and miserably tedious. Fiction is a magical process, and I don't know what I mean by that.

I can't explain how I intuit the approach to take in talks. My content to this lovely group of women was focused on history. There was a spark of attentiveness from the very beginning. Another time I might switch immediately to crafting mysteries and some publishing experiences. 

I speak for about thirty minutes and then call for questions. When the talk has been focused on history, I have to keep myself severely reined in or I will talk for another thirty minutes on a subject raised in a question.

Before a meeting starts, I ask the person organizing the event for a volunteer to help with money at the table where I will be signing. This is essential. People will only wait so long to get a book signed. It the process drags out while an author is making change, etc., they will leave. 

I'm hard of hearing and a group of voices creating background noise makes the situation worse. Also, events are invariably held in a bad acoustical environment. Usually the venue has high ceilings and and smooth floors. I've started carrying little sticky notes with me and ask people to write out the name they want used for the autograph. It's amazing how many ways there are to spell common names. 

In this discouraging environment it's easy to forget that good things happen. Books are written. Books are read. And they last forever. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Getting by with a little help from my friends & my murder book

The summer has come and (nearly) gone, as of this writing, and it was a whirlwind. In July, I founded and directed a summer writing institute for teenage writers. Actually, July was the easy part, the culmination of 13 months spent planning, designing, and recruiting both faculty and students, and I have Type M’s Frankie, Tom, and Barbara to thank for serving as three of my seven visiting artists.

So now, as the fall launches a new school year, and I prepare to do it all over again, I’ve also hit the second half of the novel I’m writing. This is where things get hard. I’m 45,000 words in, the story line has taken a rough shape, and it’s time to get serious about plotting and tying up loose ends. It was interesting to hear all three of my Type M friends speak about writing, about plotting in particular. Most are “pantsers,” writing, as they say, “by the seat of their pants,” not knowing where their book will go.

Elmore Leonard said he spent the first hundred papes getting to know the characters. I love writing the first hundred pages. Now, as I approach page two hundred, I recently returned to my personal “murder book,” the notebook where I write character sketches, plot ideas, and questions I have about the manuscript on which I’m working. It’s literally my murder book.

I read again this week (in a Mystery Writers of America publication honoring him) about Jeffrey Deaver’s hundred (or more)-page outlines. I wish –– I REALLY wish –– my brain worked that way. My murder book is as close as I get, and, believe me, I’ve tried to outline. The story, it seems, always has other ideas (or my subconscious does and those only appear when I really turn everything off and sit down at the desk).

The other day, I sat for six hours at a picnic bench in a loud water park as my 12-year-old daughter Keeley and her friend went up and down crazy slides, ball-point pen out, murder book open, and filled seven pages, creating would-be plot points and coming up with what (hopefully) is a surprise ending (one I didn’t see coming when I began the book).

So as I head into the fall, the murder book will remain open, allowing me to finish the work in progress while another year begins, and I get to do it all over again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Writing Short Stories


I think of myself as more of a writer of novels than short stories. I find books easier to plot. I’m pretty much a plantser (cross between plotter and pantser) when I’m writing a book, but I transform into a full-fledged plotter for short stories. I just have to understand in fairly great detail where I’m going with a short story before I can start writing it.

I’ve written half a dozen short stories over the years, all crime related, all of them eventually published online, but haven’t attempted one in many years. I know other writers who can work on a novel and a short story at the same time, but that’s not me. I’m a slow writer when it comes to books and an even slower one for a short story. Or so it seems.

I recently decided to try my hand once again at writing a short story or two when I saw a call for submissions to a Malice Domestic anthology. It took me quite awhile to come up with characters and a plot, but I managed to finish it the other day. So I’m doing my Snoopy happy dance in my head.

When I first started writing short stories years ago, I read a lot of how-to books on writing them, though I don’t recall finding one that specifically addressed crime/mystery stories. If anyone knows of one, let me know. My favorite of these books is Jack Bickham’s Writing the Short Story from 1998. I still reference it on occasion.

I think one of the best ways to learn how to write a short story is to take one that is similar to the kind you want to write and analyze it. I enjoy picking apart a story and seeing what makes it tick. For some reason, analyzing things makes me feel calm. I know, I’m a bit odd.

My advice for anyone who wants to write anything is to read, read, read the kind of books or stories that you want to write, then analyze some that you think are particularly well done. You’ll learn a lot by doing both. Then, of course, just keep on writing and submitting and writing and submitting...

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Back from holidays!

By Rick Blechta

So for the past two Tuesdays we were out and about in the world, specifically on a trip to the US to visit family we hadn’t seen in nearly 20 months. With a 91-year-old MIL and a brother who’s recovering from a severe illness (not Covid), it was high time to make the trip.

I’m not going to beat this horse for long, but I do want to say we were shocked when we drove across the border near Buffalo, NY. We got through in 4 minutes, a new record for that chore. The border person asked three questions: “What is the reason for your visit,”, “And where are you going,” “How long are you staying?” Since we were entering using our US passports, these questions were out of line — but it’s not a good policy to point that out. I’m sure you noticed there was nothing about Covid, a question about how we were feeling or if we’ve been vaccinated. We drove away shaking our heads at the bizarreness of what had just happened. It was as if Covid didn’t exist.

Returning to Canada was just the opposite. We had to pre-register online for our crossing, supplying proof of our two vaccinations, presenting a negative Covid test result no more than 72 hours old, and then having to take an additional test which, if it proved negative, would allow us to avoid quarantining for 14 days.

I was so sad to read in Tom’s post yesterday that Bouchercon is again cancelled for this year because of Covid. It was also sobering to read of his, well, lack of enthusiasm for the launch of his new novel. That does not mean he’s unenthusiastic about the novel, just the launch. No matter how many you’ve had published, the launch of a new book is always a joyous occasion. Tom sounded, well, melancholy about it.

What are we poor authors to do? It’s hard to promote a novel when you can’t easily get out in public, and let’s face it, book promotion via social media is hit and miss at best.

What can readers do to support authors whose works you enjoy? Just what we’ve always done: buy books. I’m starting with Tom’s latest which I’m buying — from a brick and mortar store — just as soon as I post this.

But things will never get better until everyone stops pretending that Covid 19 doesn’t exist and does something about it.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Launch Date

Tomorrow, my fourth book Shadow Hill is officially released.  I’m having a book launch party on the patio of one of my favorite restaurants here on the coast called Floyd’s 1921 Restaurant.  It’s an outside venue which has become an important factor now that the Delta Variant of Covid is raging through the unvaccinated public.  

Sadly, only about 35% of the population here in our coastal county has been vaccinated and the number of illnesses and hospitalizations are spiking. 

So, I’m writing about good news/bad news.  

A book launch is always good news but why are they always on Tuesdays?  I’ve Googled it to death and no one has a solid answer.  One theory is that Tuesday is the slowest sales day.  That really doesn’t make sense to me, but there it is.

Another theory is that all the new books launching on that particular week are out on the same day, there’s less of a cost for distributors.  But why Tuesday?  Why not Wednesday?

Yet a third theory is that if the book sells really well early on, that gives a bookstore an opportunity to order more before the weekend.

The real reason?  They’ve just always done it that way.   

In the past, a book launch date was just that, the  first day you can buy the book.  But for Shadow Hill, that didn’t seem to be the case.  For the last month, Amazon has been shipping them out as quickly as the orders come in.  Barnes & Noble was shipping and selling at the beginning of August.  Other bookstores had them on sale as well.

Am I complaining?  Absolutely not.  Sell those books as fast as you can.

Anyway you look at it, launching the book is really good news.

What’s the bad news?  The Delta Variant of Covid is raging through the unvaccinated public.  Just this past week we heard that Bouchercon 2021 in New Orleans was cancelled.  It didn’t come as a surprise. If you have any kind of presence on social media and you’re friends with other writers, they were dropping out one at a time.

I’d been asked to be on a panel and to moderate a second.  I reached out to the five panelists last week to introduce myself and immediately, three of them told me they had cancelled.  

With New Orleans being one of the cities with the highest infections rate, it made sense for the conference organizers to make the painful decision to cancel.  They offered to refund my registration fee or I could donate it back to them.

I know they have expenses to cover so I didn’t hesitate to donate it to them

Tomorrow, I’m raising a glass with my friends, signing some books, and eating the outstanding appetizers that Floyd’s will be serving.  And for the rest of today, I’m looking over a manuscript due to be released in 2022 that has been marked up by my editor.  


Friday, August 06, 2021

Thoughts about Process

 Frankie here. Charlotte's post last Friday about tenacity and her writing process made me think once again about "getting to finish" with my various works in progress.

My puppy Fergus has been at home from  doggie daycare all week as he finishes a course of antibiotics for a virus. Although I sometimes wonder if it is extravagant to spend money to send him to daycare, the past week has convinced me once again that it is worth it. Daycare is important to his socialization, and -- as important -- having him out of the house allows me to get work done. If all goes well, I'll at least earn enough to keep dog and cat in kibble and treats for a year or two.

While preparing for a Sisters in Crime National webinar I did on Wednesday, I had an opportunity to think about what always works for me. The one aspect of my process that I can always rely on is -- wait for it! -- research. Doing research gets me started, helps me push on through the muddled middle, and gets me across the finish line. 

Sometimes what I call research is no more than reading a newspaper and looking for articles that jump out at me. I keep a notebook at hand to jot down ideas inspired by the articles. When I'm stuck I flip though my notebook. I also keep a digital file. 

Today I was in my digital file and came across this note I made to myself about my 6th Lizzie Stuart novel. I'm still in the early stages of writing the first draft, but I've been keeping plot notes for months. This note is from an early synopsis. I wrote it when my working title was Nothing As Planned.  

It’s a month after the events in “In Her Fashion”. Lizzie has been reading about expatriates and that has brought her to Albert Einstein. She is reading a book about his struggle to complete his theory of relativity. She is fascinated by his effort to break through his block and his discovery of the solution while reading patent applications and then his boldness in challenging Newton’s theory.

"In Her Fashion" is a Lizzie short story that was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  


The story was complete in itself, but a month later, Lizzie is still thinking about the people who were involved. The thing is I have no idea why I thought Einstein would be relevant to what happens in the novel. Lizzie is driving home when she sees a woman trying to change her flat tire. She stops to make sure she is okay. Later, she learns the woman is missing. The current working title of the book is A Rainy Night in Gallagher

But -- whatever I was reading -- I found something that I thought would be useful about Albert Einstein and his patent application. With luck it was a brilliant idea that I forgot. I'm going to have to find that article again. 

Meanwhile, Fergus is playing with his stuffed lamb. There is a hole in its belly, and Fergus has strewed white cotton from kitchen to dining room to living room. But, at least, it's something I can sweep up. I'm ignoring and trying to get a little more done before I call it a day.


Thursday, August 05, 2021

Flash! Humankind Getting Stupider

Donis here. A few years ago, a study published in the journal Trends in Genetics postulated that once humans started living in dense agricultural settlements several millennia ago, we lost the evolutionary pressure to be smart. In other words, people are getting stupider*. The study author, Gerald Crabtree of Stanford University, wrote in the article that, "A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his/her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past." 

 The ancient Celts disapproved of writing. They believed that it spoiled the memory. An educated person spent a lifetime memorizing lore and stories to word-for-word perfection. A modern person would consider a bard's memory nothing short of miraculous.

Somehow I don't think Crabtree's revelation is a surprise to any of you Dear Readers, given the current intellectual state of our great nation, wherein ostensibly normal people with what we would hope is an equally normal desire for self-preservation would rather die than admit they are wrong about ... well, anything. This anti-intellectualism has been going on for some time. I am reminded of something Earlene Fowler said to me a couple of years ago: "First there was e-mail, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now there's Pinterest for those who can't be bothered to use words at all."

The fact that after a year and a half of semi-isolation has turned my brains to mush has caused me to ponder this stupidity hypothesis. I am trying to get a handle on a new manuscript but thus far it's only an enormous tangle of words that is full of jewels stuck in a big pile of you know what. I've worked so long and hard on it. Why isn't it as fantastic as it ought to be? I know where I want to end up, but I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to get there. Sometimes I feel frightened, and wonder if I still have it in me. Will I find my way out of this maze? Am I getting stupider?

I try to comfort myself with the thought that I get this feeling with every book I write. And I'm not the only one. We’ve all heard many times that writing is rewriting, and anyone who’s ever scribbled a page knows that’s true. At least I’ve never met a literary Mozart, whose first draft is so perfect that it doesn’t need any alteration. In fact, most authors I know, even very well known and accomplished authors, think of their first drafts as something too embarrassing to be seen by anyone. It’s the rewriting that makes the book. If I may repeat something I’ve said here before - and never let it be said that I missed an opportunity to repeat myself - you have to have that block of marble before you can carve out a statue of David. Well, right now I'm sitting on a huge block of marble. I just hope I'm still smart enough to chisel a David out of it.


*All right, I know the correct phrase is 'more stupid'.  But 'stupider' is funnier.


Wednesday, August 04, 2021

The Olympian in each of us

 Here it is, August. Where has the time flown? In my last post, I talked about the distractions caused by summer visitors and the recent release from covid restrictions, resulting in almost no work being done on my current novel. Since then, several blog mates have described their unique methods for imposing self-discipline and "getting 'er done" as the locals say, even when it's the the last thing you want to do. 

I am having a temporary lull in visitors at the moment and should have time to make serious headway on my manuscript. However, suddenly I needed a new computer, and with that comes the search followed by the usual hair-tearing frustrations of getting all the apps and software to work properly (or even install). Trying to find the right passwords, remember user names, configure things so they make sense. Precious days lost. But now my new version of MS Word is working, my manuscript is loaded, and I have caught up on transcribing my longhand scribbled pages onto the computer. Time to move forward!

Reworking and reworking

And then along came the Olympics. I started off slowly, not knowing many of the athletes and not caring much. I watched a few swim races as a way to unwind at the end of the day. Slowly started to learn names, slowly started to care. So now I am spending more time watching than I should and listening to athletes' stories, their training regimes, their ups and downs. Meanhwhile, my manuscript languishes.

There is, however, a writing lesson in all this. And that is about trying, trying, trying, always aiming to do better. Falling down and picking yourself up. Losing a race, missing a medal, taking time to grieve and then doubling down on the effort to win next time. 

No one gets to the top of the podium by taking the easy way out, by accepting mediocrity, by throwing in the towel at the first roadblock. Elite athletes believe in themselves, but none of them feels entitled to be on the podium. Hard work, disciplined practice and dedication, and endless hours of trying to do better is what put them on the podium. Most of an athlete's life is heartbreak, pain, and sacrifice, and yet they don't give up.

Sound familiar? There are, of course, writers who rest on their laurels and who feel entitled to be on the bestseller's list even when they punch out a mediocre book. But for most of us, the road to publishing success, however modest that success may be, is littered with failed efforts, rejection letters, brutal reviews, and years of practicing and learning to write better. Each manuscript undergoes a slow transformation from scribbled mess to polished gem by working, reworking, and reworking some more.

Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada

Some beginning writers try to hurry the process. They punch out a story, think it's perfect as is, and send it out to agents and publishers. The inevitable rejection letters either make them throw the story in the trash, give up writing altogether, or decide the professionals don't know what they're talking about. Rather than asking themselves the obvious question - how can I make it better? They dispute and reject suggestions from editors or beta readers, rather than asking - do they have a point?

Self-publishing has been a boone for many writers who, either by choice or by necessity, have opted to take control of their publishing career, but in my opinion, it is a double-edged sword. It allows some manuscripts to be rushed into print before they are the very best they can be. Being forced to pick yourself up after a brutal critique, or try again after a rejection letter, almost always results in a better book. Writers who succeed have persevered through rejection and criticism, through self-doubt and failure. They believe in themselves and the story they are telling. They always ask the question how can I make it better?

So all these hours of Olympics have been worth something. The athletes have inspired me and re-energized me to get back to work, to aim higher, to make this story the best it can be. Now, if i could only find time to write! 

Monday, August 02, 2021

Market Forces

Howdy all - Douglas Skelton comin' at ya from the sunlit uplands of the UK, specifically Scotland.

Publication week is usually an exciting time for an author. I say usually because there may be some out there who no longer feel such a publication day thrill.

Me? I find the idea that something I have laboured, sweated, cursed over has escaped the confines of the publishing halfway house that is the space between me typing The End and finally breathing the air conditioned air of the bookstores.

Apologies for what seems like self promotion but as this isn't available in the USA yet, my conscience is clear. Well, clearish. 

I wrote A RATTLE OF BONES while we were still in the clenched teeth of lockdown here in the UK - last summer to be precise - and I've written two more since then. That makes it very difficult when discussing the imminent release because, frankly, I have trouble recalling with any degree of accuracy some elements - like character names - of what I wrote back then. Even when writing I have to note them down because it wouldn't be the first time I changed a character's name midway, leading to extreme perplexion at the editing stage. Who on earth is Mr X? And why does he seem to talk like Mr Y? 

Yes, I could have a read at it but there's nothing more spirit-sapping than revisiting my own work. I always feel I could have done better and it's too late to change it.


A new one is out there, free at last to run through the sunbeam-dappled forests of readers' imaginations.

Or something. Not sure where I'm going with all this imagery. I think the fine weather we've had here has addled me. In Scotland, fine weather means it hasn't rained.

Of course, the pandemic continues to throw a mask over most live events so there will be no bookshop launch or appearances, no library talks, and even festival events remain up in the air (though organisers are hopeful). I may, however, visit said bookstores, signing pen in hand to deface copies with any scribble. Some of them may even by my own!

I miss performing, which is strange because the real me is very much a solitary person. At social occasions I am the one in the corner doing his best to merge into the wallpaper.

And yet, some strange alchemy transforms me when I am asked to perform. Gone is the quiet, shy, self-effacing introvert and in his place is a wisecracking extrovert who has sung, danced and even donned wigs in pursuit of sales. It's like Jekyll and Hyde. And I'm not certain which is which.

I have recorded some interviews relating to the new book. I think I got away with them.

But the book is out there now, on shelves, hopefully flying from them so fast you can hear the Doppler effect. Come Thursday - the official publication date - it will drop into Kindles.

Will people like it? 

I hope so.

Will people be fooled by any narrative sleight-of-hand? 

I really hope so.

Will I remember my character names? 

What character names?