Saturday, September 25, 2021

Gats and Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 24, 2021

Hall of Fame

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Icelandic and Snow Noir

 

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

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

Proof I've seen snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

How I see social commentary in crime fiction

by Rick Blechta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 20, 2021

Is There a Place For Social Commentary in Our Novels?


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

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

Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 17, 2021

If Only It Would All Fit Together

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

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

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

Cullen Talbot

1. Where lives?

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

2. Family background?

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

3. How old is character?

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

4.  Origin of name?

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

               Cullen – puppy, young dog (Gaelic)

               Talbot – messenger of destruction (German/French)

5. What look like?

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

6. What kind of childhood?

               Parents kind toward each other, considerate not passionate.

7. What does for living?

               Business – farming and mill

               Concerned about prices of crops – dealing with sharecroppers

8.  How deal with conflict?

               Touchy and quick to anger – just as quickly cools down

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

9. Who else in life?

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

________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

 Happy weekend, everyone.

 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Random Thoughts Before Sleeping

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

The courage to be nobody.

I have broke my heart over a lost child.

Elizabeth—this cannot stand.

I meet every man as I find him.

The book of parting.

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

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

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


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

Tobacco and soapsuds to kill aphids

Boning knife – sharp point, long thin blade

Skinned hog keeps better than scalded hog

war hot blood vandals

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

[illegible]

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

Her father hanged for murder

severed renal artery

Nothing that I see before my eyes is real

Action. Snakes. Storm. Pecan pie. Stampede.



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

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

My take on the length of novels

By Rick Blechta 

This week’s post is a riff on what Douglas wrote yesterday. You should read it.

I’ll start with no doubt the widest-selling series of all time, Harry Potter.

The first book in the saga, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, at 223 pages was a short, snappy read that was wildly successful. The next book got longer, the next longer still all the way to the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which, while not the longest in the series, was still a whopping 607 pages.

As I made my way through the series — and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story — I got the strong feeling that because of the author’s incredible success, her editors backed off on whittling the novels down to more manageable lengths. Remember, these were supposed to be children’s books. Surely they could have been made less “imposing” for the young readers demographic.

I’ve seen the same sorts of things happen with many other successful authors. As their success increases, so does the length of their novels. One of Type M’s staunchest commenters, Anna, said that she stopped reading one series because the novels were becoming exhausting to read. Surely someone at the publishing house noticed that too and might have done something about it. (I have a pretty good idea who that particular author might be, but sadly there is no lack of candidates.)

I acknowledge as series go on there is a thirst among the loyal readers to spend more time with their favourite characters but to me there comes a tipping point. That tipping point is when the stories begin to seem overly indulgent. When unnecessary subplots litter the path forward to the conclusion of the story, I become what I might call skeptical whether it’s worth going on to the end. When I begin skimming to get to the next salient plot point, then I know the end is near for my continued interest in the series.

While Douglas’ choice of iconic authors is the worthy Ed McBain, mine is Rex Stout. Both share one commonality too often absent in modern authors: they now how to tell an utterly satisfying story with a minimum of words.

Sure, tastes change. I get that, but when a plot becomes littered with de rigueur characters and scenes, I begin to rethink whether I wish to continue with the series. Lately, I have tended to vote with my feet heading towards the door.

With less successful authors, publishers tend to build word limits into contracts and it can be a pretty big deal to get permission to breach that limit. I used to bristle at that, but lately I’ve been thinking it might not be a bad idea for all authors to be held to limits.

It just might keep novels more readable in the long run.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Sometimes less is more

John Corrigan's post a few days ago about short novels resonated with me.

My crime reading tastes were honed by Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct novels.

(At this point, there will be people here in the UK rolling their eyes and murmuring here he goes again. For 'tis true, I have waxed lyrical about McBain many a time and oft. But bear with me).



Anyway, when they began they were short. I mean, unfeasibly short by today's standards. The first, COP HATER, came in at around 170 pages. The next two - THE MUGGER and THE PUSHER - at even less. 

Immortal characters were created. Scenarios etched. A city built from scratch. Believable dialogue echoed from page to ear. They didn't need to be any longer than they were.

All three were published in the same year - 1956 - and were viewed as pulp. Mere ingredients to keep the paperback pot boiling.

Of course, as the years passed and the stature of the series grew so did the pagination. 

But think about it. Three fully realised tales in the reading space that many of today's novels take to tell one.



Agatha Christie's seldom breached the 200 page mark. Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP was even less. FAREWELL MY LOVELY crept closer to the double century. The edition of THE LONG GOODBYE I have is barely 250 pages. 

And Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON? A stonking great 189 pages. THE DAIN CURSE just under 200 pages.

These are classics, folks. These are the books that have lived on through the decades. 

Of course, I'm using my copies as reference. Different editions may be longer, even shorter. It's all down to the font used, type size, even the size of pages. I've seen a version of THE LONG GOODBYE listed at 450 pages, thus living up to its title. You must be able to see that type from the moon.

But, I hear you say, we have more depth now and that may well be true. I'm not here to cast aspersions on modern day books.

As the McBain books progressed,  crime fiction began taking more than a few pages from the blockbuster genre which in the 1950s, 60s and 70s tended to run to the doorstop size. Harold Robbins' THE CARPETBAGGERS was around 650 pages, as was Irwin Shaw's RICH MAN, POOR MAN. James Jones' FROM HERE TO ETERNITY even longer. I lost my copy years ago but if memory serves it was a bugle note below 1,000 pages.

And let's not even go the James Clavell route. Yes, NOBLE HOUSE, I'm looking at you. It's a book I felt needed a series of gym workouts before I could even consider picking it up.

But these were massive sagas. Without discussing their literary merits, which to be frank I'm not interested in (I just want to be entertained when reading these books), they were busy books with lots of characters, lots going on and when I read them I wasn't aware of any padding. Perhaps there was. Perhaps I've become more critical in my old age.

So what's my point? 

Well, I think a book - any book - should be as long as it needs to be. It is true that - in my opinion - there are reads today which go on a bit longer than they need to. That also goes for movies and TV series, which can be also be guilty of having plot lines that deserve a certain running time but end up with considerably more. 

McBain, Christie et al felt no need to extend their books for, in truth, back then they didn't need to. Styles, tastes, needs change however and much of the reading public want - no, demand - heftier reads. In crime fiction's case, more bang for their buck. At least in physical copies. Direct to digital can be different.

I drew just as much enjoyment from my 150 page McBains as I do from today's 400-500 modern crime thrillers. Sometimes more. I didn't feel cheated. I didn't take to social media to complain (not that I could back then. It was a simpler, even happier time).

And, in the spirit of the subject, there I will leave it. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Don't Do This

 There are so many things they don't tell you about when you become a writer. Recently, I've had to side-step a situation that is very uncomfortable for me. That is telling friends they absolutely cannot come along on an interview.

This is a hard and fast rule that I've developed because of my first experience. I was working away on a historical book back when I lived in Kansas. A lady I hardly knew wanted to come with me to Atchison, Kansas and show me around. I could have shown myself around. It's not hard to find places in Kansas. But it was important to her to go that day, so I foolishly said yes.

I appreciated all the things she could tell me about the town and especially about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

But things fell apart when we went to a convent and I interviewed a nun who knew a great deal about her order. The lady I brought with me could not have been more insulting. An interview to collect an oral history is not an antagonistic interview.

I don't conduct an interview with the stance of a lawyer or a reporter from CNN. I want to gain the person's trust and evoke memories. I am interested in their opinion. That's all. Objectivity is a myth when it comes to family stories. Your own account of an event will differ widely and wildly from your sister's or brother's memories.

Sometimes it's easy to gain an interviewees trust. Sometimes not. However relationships change the moment someone new enters a room. Like throwing a rock in a pond. Ripples pulse. 

My companion that day obviously hated Catholics. I mean seriously. She challenged every statement. Her attitude ruined the interview.

Writing is such a learning process. There are so many things that are not written down.

"Helping" someone with their writing is another hidden land mine. No matter how congenial a person appears to be we writers are a touchy lot. Our books are our babies. No one wants to be told their baby is ugly. 

Learning the craft of writing (never mind theory) is a tedious process. Structure is rarely taught in creative writing classes. 

Recently, a nephew called and wanted me to "help" his granddaughter. I groaned. Softly. Even though I didn't know this person from Adam's off-ox, this kind of thing never goes well. But what I said was "sure, I'll be glad to." 

Surprise! Not only was she the most naturally talented person I've every worked with--she understood everything that need correcting and went to work. 

Now there's the hard work of finding an agent. And that's another story  

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Shorties: Blog posts and Novels

This week, I’ve been wondering about short books, books that weigh in under 250 pages. Some shorties are among my favorites –– Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series, Robert B. Parker’s early paperbacks, and the 2020 novel that got me thinking about this, Law of the Lines, by Hye-Young Pyun, which I just finished and loved.

I’m about 50,000 words into my work-in-progress, and I’m thinking it might top out around 65,000 words, short by most standards. I used to get nervous about the word count, often pushing for 80,000, and, of course, still leaving lots on the cutting room floor as I pared it down. Most crime novels run about 80,000 to 120,000 words.

Part of the discussion must focus on my choice of point of view –– I’m writing in the first-person (similar to Macdonald and Parker), which lends itself to a streamlined story; and we must also focus on . . . well, my focus: I’m working hard to be lean and keep the storyline on point. Outlining has never come easily to me, so my first drafts can wander. This time, I’m spending more time journaling and less time typing. It seems to be paying off.

At the end of the day, we know it comes down to telling the story that needs to be told the way it needs to be told. It comes down to telling the story the best way you can, even if it ends up being a shorty.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Signs of a Good Story

 

How do you know that you’ve read or watched a particularly good story? For me there are a number of signs.

 - I’ve read a lot of good books or short stories over the years. They all leave me with a satisfied feeling. But I know it’s a particularly good one when I close the book with a contented sigh.

 - If I have the urge to tell others about the book/story, that they should read or watch it, that’s also one of my signs.

 - If I think about the story for days or weeks afterward, that’s a well put together story. I recently watched “Cruel Summer”, a 10 episode TV show that aired on FreeForm TV before going to Hulu. It’s a she said/she said story. The main characters are two high school girls. One is kidnapped and, when she’s found, accuses the other one of seeing her in captivity and doing nothing about it. The accusation rips the town and families apart. Who do you believe? By the end of the show, everything is revealed. There are lots of twists and turns. I still think about it off and on.

 - In his post on Monday, Thomas talked about emotional connections. How people had come up to him and told him they’d felt an emotional connection with the book. That’s a sign of a good book.

 - If I feel the need to walk up to an author at a conference or send them a message via Facebook or Twitter that I liked the story, that is a sign that I’ve read a good story. I’m not one to reach out to people much, so if you get email or some message from me that I liked your story/book, that means I really liked your story/book.

What about you all? What are signs to you that you’ve read/watched a good book/story?

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Why writers can be a little “odd”

by Rick Blechta

A while back a friend asked me how hard it is to write a novel. “Is it sort of like writing a very long composition?”

I thought for a moment, and then replied, “Absolutely not.”

“How so?”

I decided to give him an example. “A person who’s used to writing things like compositions or letters only has to convey information. A writer has to convey many more things like emotion, sense of place, psychological motivation of characters, stuff like that. And you have to do it with clarity as well as style.”

As an example I asked him to compose a sentence about autumn that you might find in a novel.

He came up with, “It was autumn and the colourful leaves were falling down to the ground.”

Admittedly, I’d backed him into a bit of a corner, and I’m sure with more thought he could have come up with a much better sentence given a chance to think about it.

I thought for a moment and then came up with this rewritten version of his thought: “Leaves, tossed by the wind created a blizzard of reds, oranges, and yellows. I hate autumn.”

Now that’s not the brilliant prose ever, but my friend seemed impressed. “How the @#$! did you come up with that?”

I shrugged. “Practise. Writers need to think about every word. Your sentence was filled with dead words. You conveyed your thought clearly and with good grammar, but it was flat. It lacked style. With my sentence I was attempting to make you see and feel something; I wanted to engage your imagination.”

“But what about the ‘I hate autumn’ bit?”

“Aren’t you curious to find out why this person hates autumn?”

“Whoa…” my friend said under his breath.

I think he got it.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Emotional Connections—Intended or Not

In spite of Covid, here on the coast, we’re still having some events, mostly outside. A few nights ago, our downtown association held an outdoor concert on the waterfront that’s free to the public. Since they sell beer and wine, someone has to check IDs. That’s my job. I like the opportunity to meet people at the gate.

As my wife and I were arriving, just before we started out volunteer shifts, one of the other volunteers waved me over. She hugged me and whispered, “I’m reading your new book. It made me cry.”

That’s when a writer knows he or she has connected with the reader. I’ll be teaching another creative writing class at our local college starting in two weeks, and one of the classes deals with making emotional connections. 

In this particular instance, my friend cried in a place in the book that I hadn’t considered to be sad as much as jarring. In Shadow Hill, I hit on a couple of current themes—climate change and mass shootings. In a particular passage on shootings taking place in schools, I talked about Newtown, Connecticut, the place of a horrible incident that left twenty children between the ages of six and seven and six adult staff members dead.

My friend had lived in Newtown at the time and had a connection with Sandy Hook Elementary School. So that emotional connection had been unintended. 

In another instance, in my first book Random Road, there’s a character by the name of Frank Mancini. He’s charming, attractive, and erudite but he’s married and had an adulterous relationship with my main character, Geneva Chase.  

He might be a cad, but an awful lot of my female readers find him engaging.

I have a friend whose last name is Mancini. She had my book with her when she was flying home for the funeral of her father, whose name was also Frank Mancini. 

When she returned, she told me about the coincidence, and I felt a little awkward about it. She put her hand on my shoulder and told me that the family thought it was amusing and had lightened everyone’s mood. 

Unintended circumstance. 

In the same book, I kill off one of my main characters. I ran into a neighbor who had read the book and she told me how angry she was at me. Then she chuckled and told me that once she finished the book, she understood why I wrote what I did.  

And finally, I knew I’d struck gold when another neighbor told me he’d recently finished reading Graveyard Bay. I asked him how he liked it.

He told me, “It gave me nightmares.”

Well, then I’ve done my job.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Guest Author Hannah Dennison

Hannah Dennison


Hannah's back! Type M 4 Murder is thrilled to welcome guest poster and one-time Type M regular Hannah Dennison back to the fold to catch up and to celebrate the release of her latest Island Sisters Mystery, Danger at the Cove. British born, Hannah originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant and Hollywood story analyst. Hannah has served on numerous judging committees for Mystery Writers of America and teaches mystery writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program now on Zoom. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas. Take it away, Hannah, and tell us all about it.

Hannah Dennison


It’s wonderful to be here on Type M again. Thank you so much for inviting me. There have been a lot of changes since I last appeared as a guest in 2017—embracing my gray hair during lockdown for starters! 

Personally, it’s been an “interesting” time. They say you should never go back home again but go back I did and luckily, I haven’t regretted it. After twenty-five years in the USA – twenty of those living in Los Angeles, and five in Portland, Oregon, I returned to the peace of the English countryside with no husband but two dogs instead. 

Professionally, it’s been an exciting time since I now have three mystery series still in print (definitely something to be grateful for these days)—the Vicky Hill Mysteries chronicling the adventures of an aspiring investigative reporter who is stuck writing the obituary column; the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries featuring a mother-daughter duo who live on a country estate (a contemporary Downton Abbey meets Midsomer Murders), and my new series, the Island Sisters Mysteries that, as you might have guessed, star two sisters who live on an island. 

My new series was inspired by my new life and returning to the family fold. Gosh I had missed everyone—especially my sister Lesley, whose house is half a mile away if you take the shortcut through a field of extremely curious alpacas.

Hannah and Lesley

A relationship with a sister is like no other. Who else can I belt out songs with from Queen, Genesis and David Bowie or still drive our mother to distraction with our signature—and disgusting—Hot Snot Bogey Pie schoolyard rhyme? 

Although we’d been super close growing up, Lesley and I had drifted apart as the years passed, especially after my move overseas. As the eldest, I used to be the bossy one but I discovered that now it was Lesley who ruled the proverbial roost. As my 91-year-old mother pointed out, “Sorry darling, it’s your sister who holds the rolling pin these days.”  

Sisterhood can be both wonderful and challenging. I find that being labeled Eeyore to her Tigger is still extremely irritating. “That was fifty years ago,” I’d grumble, sounding very Eeyore-like. 

But it was through Lesley that the idea for the Island Sisters Mysteries grew. She introduced me to her friend Gill Knight who had worked as the HR manager on a tiny island called Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago twenty-eight miles off the southwest tip of the Cornish coast. 

Tresco has no police presence, no street lights, no cars and no hospital. In fact, when Gill went into labor, her husband had to call out the lifeboat to make the twenty-minute journey across to the main island of St. Mary’s. Gill also mentioned that those seasonal workers who came to work on Tresco were either running away from something, or hiding from someone. As a mystery writer, I couldn’t think of a better place to set a series! 

Scilly has five inhabited islands with a combined population of around 2,200, and over 142 islets and a lot of rocks. The islands are known for their flowers—especially the legendary scented Narcissi. They are a birdwatcher’s paradise where sightings of rare birds with names like Pink-Footed Goose and Rose-breasted Grosbeak jostle with the Egyptian Vulture—apparently not seen for 150 years and just sighted last Monday so this is breaking news. To add to the magic, the surrounding ocean floor is littered with hundreds of shipwrecks having been a main trading route from the East to the New World. It’s an incredibly romantic place fringed with sandy beaches, heathland and the ruins of seventeenth century fortifications that had been built during the English Civil War when fleeing Royalists sought refuge there.

My island of Tregarrick does not exist but that’s the fun of being a writer. Even more fun is teleporting the Burgh Island hotel from Bigbury-on-Sea and dropping it at the end of a causeway on a rock, hence the Tregarrick Rock hotel. 

Death at High Tide, book one, introduces us to the sisters, amateur photographer Evie Mead and Hollywood film producer Margot Chandler. Evie is a young widow and Margot, a reluctant divorcee who had been living in California for decades, (yes, I know it sounds familiar). After a couple of murders, the siblings end up as chatelaines of the Tregarrick Rock hotel.

Danger at the Cove, released just last month, is the second in the series but it can easily be read as a standalone. We meet the sisters again just ten days before the grand reopening. They’re behind schedule and struggling financially so when Margot’s former Hollywood friend turns up followed by a mysterious boyfriend, mayhem—and murder—ensue. Of course, I couldn’t resist adding in a shipwreck and buried treasure. 

Aside from the mystery and stunning setting the Island Sisters Mysteries are about the complex relationship between sisters. There is a saying, “Sisters by blood, best friends by choice,” and to that I say Amen!

__________

Hannah writes the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable) and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable)


Social Media Links

https://www.hannahdennison.com

https://twitter.com/HannahLDennison

http://instagram.com/hannahdennisonbooks

https://www.facebook.com/HannahDennisonBooks/





Thursday, September 02, 2021

Ordinary Lives

Wreck of the White Ship, 1120 CE


 Lately I've been thinking a lot about William Aelthing, only legitimate son and heir of England's Henry I. Of course I have, because that's what I do. I wonder – how would English history be different if William hadn't died in a shipwreck when he was seventeen? I love history and read about it constantly, especially European history, and specifically British and Roman history, and have since I was a child. I know quite a bit more about the history of late Roman republic/early Empire than the average person off the street. Same with English history.  I read about the famous folks because they are most written about, but what really interests me is the lives of ordinary people in the past. Like so many historical mystery authors of my generation, I was inspired by the books of Ellis Peters, who wrote about the day-to-day life of a humble Benedictine monk who lived during a vicious period of English history called the Anarchy, a forty-year-long civil war in the twelfth century between two claimants to the throne –  after the Aelthing's death, the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, his daughter Empress Maude, and Henry's nephew Stephen, whose claim was at least partly based on the fact he was a guy and not a girl. 

When the opposing armies passed through any area of the country, misery and slaughter ensued. But most of the time ordinary, run-of-the mill English people lived their lives undisturbed. Most of them probably didn't care who was on the throne. A lot of them probably didn't even know. 

I've always thought that's interesting. What was it like to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times?

This interest in ordinary people's lives began to extend into American history for me when I got into my own genealogy in the 1990s and found out that I have many ancestors who were famous-event and/or famous-person adjacent, i.e. one of my so-many-greats grandmothers was the sister of Revolutionary war general Mad Anthony Wayne. General Daniel Morgan's sister is another direct ancestor. My Casey  grandfather of many generations back was in Francis Marion's regiment. My favorite direct ancestor from Revolutionary times was a young British soldier named Stephenson who deserted in South Carolina, hid out for the duration with an Irish-born farmer and ended up marrying his daughter. And those are just ancestors who lived in the 18th century. None of them are famous, but all of their lives were touched by the actions of powerful people and by events they did not cause and some may not have even cared about if they hadn't been forced to deal with them. 

That's what I like to write about. Ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times. What must it have been like to live then? How'd it feel? How'd they cope? 

You Dear Readers are familiar with the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” We're all cursed, I think, because we always live in interesting times. In 200 years our descendants will be looking back at us in wonder and thinking, “How'd it feel? How did they cope?”


Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Writing struggles

 Rick's post of yesterday reflects what a lot of us writers feel, as we struggle to block out the outside world and enter the world of our imagination long enough to craft decent stories. I too am behind on my latest WIP and find it much more of a slog than previous books  "The world is inside our heads". I think that's a better description than "I'm getting too old for this". 

But because I am a professional and I have a deadline to meet, I am soldiering on. By sequestering myself at the cottage these last two weeks with few outside distractions beyond those that lurk on my internet feed, I managed to get some good writing done, but I am at that stage in the book - the stage every writer knows well - when I don't like the story and think it's crap. Not a happy place, but I just have to keep ploughing ahead, looking for ways to make it more exciting, and the characters more vivid, interesting, and likeable. The latter because I think having at least a few characters I like being with and find interesting is essential to really engaging with a book. It's the same when I read a book. If I don't like or care about anyone, especially if everyone is annoying, I will toss the book aside.

I have an essential research trip to British Columbia coming up next week, and I'm hoping that being on site will be both inspiring and energizing. I often get great plot ideas from walking in my characters' shoes. Meanwhile, I have lots of preparations to do, so this is a short (and late) post. 

But I can't sign off without a quick cheer for one of the experiences that truly lifts the lonely, frustrated writer's mood - the arrival of author copies from the publisher. So look what arrived today!

This latest Inspector Green novel is due on the shelves in late October 2021, although it may show up earlier. But it's up on Net Galley for review and available for pre-order at your favourite bookstore as well as online. Order soon and often to help a poor writer survive! And stay tuned for other events. Sadly, Covid may squash all my hopes of real in-person book launches this fall, but I will wait a couple of weeks before deciding.

Is anyone else so done with Zoom?