Tuesday, November 30, 2021


By Rick Blechta

These days, it’s difficult to keep one’s focus. (“Gee, now there’s something no one else has ever said before,” stated Captain Obvious.)

No, I’m not going to go on about Covid-19 — even though the current news about the new variant is definitely anxiety-provoking.

I’m beginning to feel as if life is speeding up. With everything going on in the world, it’s hard to stay on top of things to which one really needs to pay attention.

Whether you believe in manmade climate change or not, it’s perfectly obvious the earth is going through rapid changes that are going to severely impact life as we know it.

Then there’s political unrest from peaceful protests to all out, devastating wars.

The icing on the cake is the pandemic that just won’t stop.

The causes and solutions to every one of these issues have been discussed to the point where we just want to switch off, jump on our beds and pull the covers over our heads until it all goes away.

At present, hope seems to be in very short supply.

The result for a lot of us seems to be brain fog. There’s just too much to think about that we become overwhelmed.

The solution is obvious: switch off. It can’t be done permanently, of course. That would be foolhardy. But with the media, social media, and even friends and relations, pounding at us every day with Bad News maybe it’s just a good idea to ignore everything for a day or two.

Take a walk. Read a book. Don’t look at email, Facebook, Twitter, all of them. Don’t even open your mail.

When I sat down to write last night, there was no story in my head. It was as if it had all been erased. What had replaced it was the myriad of things that are troubling me at the moment. Couple that with overstressed brain fog, and I knew nothing good was going to happen. Something had to be done.

So after I post this email today, I’m not going to look at the computer, listen to the news, and tell anybody who wishes to talk to me that I’m currently unavailable.

Here’s hoping my little “reset” works! I’ll let you all know next time.


When I went to publish my post today, I noticed that John Corrigan’s post for Thursday has the same title. I didn’t steal your idea John; I swear it! I’m also not going to look at your post until Thursday. I wonder if we’re discussing the same thing?

Monday, November 29, 2021

Plot Twists and Being Lucky

By Thomas Kies

One of the topics I teach in my creative writing class at the college is how to write effective plot twists. In many cases it’s a lot like a magic trick. While the audience is paying attention to what the left hand is doing, the right hand is the one making the trick happen.

Covid is like the plot twist that just keeps on giving. 

My book SHADOW HILL launched last August. I’d finished writing the book in April of 2020, but the publication date was pushed back for obvious reasons. Trying to promote a book in the throes of so many people dying in a pandemic was a bad idea.

Once it had been announced that a vaccination had been developed at the beginning of 2021, it gave me hope that I could promote SHADOW HILL as it should. I hoped to be at the usual locations including the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale where I’ve launched every book so far in my writing career.  

About the same time that vaccinations were rolling out, Barnes & Noble made a sizeable commitment to the rerelease of my first book RANDOM ROAD. It was going to be on the front table of every one of their stores. I had visions of going from one B&N to another to do book signings. 

I’d signed up for Bouchercon that was going to take place in New Orleans just in time for the release of SHADOW HILL.

It was all falling into place.

Then…POW…the Delta variant stepped in. Add to that, a confusing and confounding reluctance of a sizable portion of the public to getting a vaccination that's left a high percentage of the population to being ravaged by the disease. 

Just as the world was emerging back into a relative sense of normalcy, it all went wrong. A local restaurant I was due to have a book signing closed when one of their employees was diagnosed with Covid.

We did manage to have a book event at that restaurant two weeks later when everyone tested negative and then we did another book event at a local country club. We sold out of books in both events.  

In the meantime, Bouchercon was cancelled because of Covid fears. Just as well since Hurricane Ida hit the same weekend the conference was supposed to take place. The old double whammy.

Ever optimistic, my fifth book, WHISPER ROOM, is due for publication in August of 2022. I’m scheduled to be at Malice Domestic in April and Thrillerfest in June. That same week, I’m hoping to do a book signing at a library in Norwalk, Connecticut. I’m looking forward to having a book signing at my favorited restaurant here on the coast in August.

The latest plot twist? Omicron, the latest variant of Covid. No telling how bad that’s going to be.

I’m not complaining. I’m really not. So many people have it so much worse.  

Steven Sondheim passed away on Friday and days before he died, he reflected, “I’ve been lucky.”

So have I. My childhood dream was to be a novelist. And I am. I’ve been lucky.

Back when I was working for a newspaper in Connecticut, I had an assignment in Manhattan. A colleague of mine was with me on the Metro-North train into the city. The entire one-hour trip, she whined and complained about pretty much everything under the sun.

When we finally got to Grand Central Terminal, we went straight to the iconic clock in the Main Concourse where we were to meet our contact. We got there early and as we were chatting and people watching, a woman came up to us and asked if we would take a picture of her and her daughter. She said, “This is the first time we’ve been to New York.”

It was difficult to tell how old her daughter was because she was in a wheelchair and her poor little body seemed to be bent at strange angles. It made me want to cry.

In spite of it, they both had huge smiles on their faces. 

The little girl had the biggest grin of the two of them. After we took the photo, the mother thanked us and told us how excited they were to be in the city and how much her daughter had been looking forward to it. 

After they left, my colleague looked at me said, “If I ever bitch about anything again, just slap me.”

So, yes, Covid is sending us another plot twist. But like Steven Sondheim, I’ve been lucky.  www.thomaskiesauthor.com

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Fuel Handler of the Air Cav

Recently, Donald Hall posted this photo on Facebook and asked about the painting's origin, sensing a story similar to what I had shared about the painting I'd gifted to the late General Colin Powell. During Desert Storm, Donald Hall and I met when we'd billeted together in King Khalid Military City, Saudi Arabia.

My painting hanging in the Pentagon. Photo by Donald Hall.

The genesis to this painting, Fuel Handler of the Air Cav, goes back to my first tour of active duty. I was an attack helicopter pilot with the 7/17 Air Cavalry and we'd been deployed for desert training in the Imperial Valley of California, somewhere between Slab City (outside the Salton Sea) and the Chocolate Mountains. Late the first night, during a briefing in the squadron's TOC (Tactical Operations Center) we heard the commotion of a parade of big trucks roaring out of the darkness. A few minutes later, a female captain of the Transportation Corps strode into the tent. She was dressed in combat garb, covered head-to-toe in dust, and goggles had left a raccoon mask on her face. She reported that our logistical support had arrived--thousands of gallons of aviation gas and diesel plus tons and tons of ammo, mostly rockets. For some reason, our S-3 (the operations officer) was very dismissive of her even though at the time, I thought she had the hardest job of any one of us there. The moment stuck with me.

Fast forward eight years and I was recalled from the Individual Ready Reserve and sent overseas as a soldier-artist for Operation Desert Storm. I wandered about the battle area, mindful of my instructions--don't get yourself injured or killed--which I followed to the letter. What impressed me about the US military was that our combat forces were like rampaging titans but even they needed sustenance. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach and to that you have to add, without gas, you ain't getting anywhere. So out in this desolate wilderness I found this female Specialist, doing her job, making sure our thirsty flying beasts got plenty to drink. When I was sorting through ideas of what images to paint, I thought back to that female captain also doing her job, and so this work is an homage to both women soldiers.

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Yawn-Worthy Hero

 I, too, have experienced what Barbara wrote about on Wednesday -- those moments of wondering "Why am I doing this?" with all that is going in the world. Shouldn't I spend all of my time writing about real-life events?

I have come to the conclusion that crime fiction writers make an important contribution. Aside from entertaining our readers and offering them an opportunity to escape from grim realities, we provide them with an opportunity -- a "safe space" -- in which to ponder the nature of "crime" and "justice". 

But for all my soul-searching, I've still been struggling with my historical thriller. Who cares about 1939? Over the past two years -- in the midst of the pandemic -- I haven't made much progress in completing my ever evasive first draft. The book that I should be able to write -- the book that might be my eighth published novel -- is harder to write than either of those two unpublished novels in my desk drawer. I have cycled through a range of emotions, from enthusiasm and excitement while doing the  research to not caring and being ready to jettison the whole idea and move on to my next Lizzie Stuart mystery. 

Writing this book feels like climbing a mountain. Even getting to the soggy middle feels like strolling it onto American Ninja Warriors and trying to leap from platform to platform on that first obstacle. 

Committing (once again) to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has made it no easier. My 50,000 word + goal for the month of November isn't going to happen. I am not going to morph into "Super Writer" and spend the next five days glued to my desk knocking out thousands of words a day.

But this month has not been wasted. I have confronted what I didn't want to admit. My protagonist bores me.  

I was excited when I had the idea of having a sleeping car porter as my "hero". In 1939, an educated African American man who is working as a sleeping car porter is true to life. My protagonist, Jacob Baldwin, is the graduate of a small college in the South. He is working to save enough money to attend law school. He believes in the American ideal of truth and justice. He is a striver.

When first seen, he is attending Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial.  He spots Cullen Talbot, the white Southern plantation owner for whom his family once sharecropped in the crowd. He sets out to find out what Cullen up to. But Jacob as I have been writing feels like a character who is going through the motions. He has not come to life. 

The "hero" that is too good to be true is recognizable to most writers and many readers. Jacob is too noble. I've Googled online lists of character flaws and flipped through the books about creating characters that I own. But I already know what I need to do. 

What I have been saving as backstory needs to open the book. I have an ugly, shattering scene that I need to write about something that Jacob experienced when he was ten years old. Jacob is a black man in 1930s America. For all his idealism, he is filled with suppressed rage. The impact of what follows will be much greater if readers know this and can watch him unravel. 

As Cullen taunts him, playing his own game, Jacob will find it increasingly difficult to hold onto his distance from the fray. He will be forced to make some decisions that will challenge what he claims to believe. He may fail as a role model, but his motivation will be stronger. 

He has my attention now. He can carry the weight I'm placing on my shoulder. However, the book ends, he won't bore me. And I may finally get through my first draft.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving.

 I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. Eat what you want to eat, be with those you want to be with, and stay safe and healthy. For the past couple of Thanksgivings, I've posted my mother's recipe for "impossible pumpkin pie", so I thought I'd mix it up this year and give you my paternal grandmother's recipe for another one of my dearest favorites, old fashioned pecan pie. I'm using a ready-made pie crust for this recipe, because why make it hard on yourself?

My great-grandfather had a pecan orchard on his farm in eastern Oklahoma (the very farm I modeled Alafair’s home after in my Alafair Tucker mysteries). Every fall my family would go out to the farm and spend an afternoon picking up pecans that had fallen from the trees. This usually happened late in the season. The little pecans were sweet and delicious, but hard as heck to crack. By the time I was old enough to remember how it was done, my grandmother had a little pecan-cracking device, which made the task much easier. Pecan pie has always been one of my favorites, and it’s fairly easy to make. However, I warn you, Dear Reader, that it is not low-cal. But then you only live once.

Grandma Casey's Pecan Pie

one nine-inch unbaked pie shell


3 eggs

2/3 cup of sugar

1/3 cup of melted butter (if using unsalted butter, add 1/2 tsp salt. A pinch of salt gives the pie depth and keeps it from being too sweet.)

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup corn syrup (I like dark corn syrup, but light works just as well.)

1 cup of pecan halves (or pieces)

Pre-heat the oven to 375•F. Beat the eggs, then stir in the rest of the filling ingredients until well-blended. Pour into the pie crust and bake 40 to 50 minutes, until set. The pecans will rise to the top.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The cherry on top

 Last week I hit a milestone in my current work in progress. After about ten pads of foolscap scribbling, I wrote ... 

This has been an extremely challenging book to write. Many times it felt as if the words, the ideas, the plot, were being dragged out of me, inch by painful inch. I don't know the reason for this; perhaps the overarching angst of the pandemic, with its distraction of waves going up and down, the wait for a vaccine, the ongoing daily struggle to stay safe, and the increasing, astonishing craziness of people ranting on social media, throwing stones at politicians (in nice, peaceful Canada), blocking health workers from accessing hospitals, and guzzling horse dewormer.

I've been trying to write this book as this drama dragged on and on and often felt the pointlessness of it all. What did my made-up story matter, after all, compared to the catastrophe unfolding in the real world? So the book was written in fits and starts, with real life disruptions in between which made me completely forget where my story was going. All the usual writerly doubts were magnified. Doubts like "this story is crap, I can't write anymore, it's nothing but a jumbled mess," etc. 

But finally, I got to write The End. Now I know it's a book, and I know what it's about. Now I can fix it. Rewrites are all about fixing the jumbled mess. Normally when I am writing, I keep a separate file containing all the things I have to fix. Add this, take away that, change this, develop that. Plot holes and inconsistencies need to be plugged, characters need to be tweaked to fit the job I have ended up giving them, or their job has to be tweaked to fit what they've become. Settings and background are enriched. 

This time, I never did keep that file. I spent so much time wandering in the wilderness that I had no idea what needed tweaking or changing until I finally limped across the finish line. So I now have to keep all these things in my head as I reread and adjust the story. So the rewrites may be as arduous as the first draft.

This is not to say that the book is bad, or that I'm unhappy with it. Against all odds, I think I have managed to write a pretty good book, although readers (and my editors) will be the judge of that.

One of the challenges I faced was choosing the title. The title is like the cherry on top of the sundae. Until it's in place, the book doesn't feel truly finished. For me, a title should capture the essence of the book. It is my final statement about what the meaning of the book is. Titles come to me in various ways at different stages of the writing process. Sometime I know it before I start to write, like HONOUR AMONG MEN, sometimes a phrase that I write suddenly leaps out at me as the perfect title, as in FIFTH SON. 

Wreck Bay, site of the 1960s commune,
as it is today.

This book has a few themes but the historical backdrop to it is the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s, coinciding with the anti-Vietnam war movement. As I was writing, the Dylan song "Blowing in the wind", kept floating through my head as a reflection of the struggles of the central character. Dylan was the voice of that movement and that era. So the first title I came up with was Blowing in the Wind. But I wasn't sure whether younger readers would know the lyrics well enough to get all the references, so I sprinkled a few lines from that song through the book (in dialogue and other ways). However, although copyright laws allow me to use a song title, they don't allow me to use even a single phrase of the lyrics if the song can be identified by that phrase. 

Back to the drawing board. Or rather back to the internet to research other 60s protest songs to find one that would work using the title alone and that would reflect the character's struggles just as well. Fortunately, having been part of that protest movement and having listened to all those artists many times over, I had some basis for where to look. And I soon found a title that was not only just as good, but in fact better. THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE. This is a phrase so well known that people can finish the sentence even if they have never heard of singer/ songwriter Phil Ochs.

Now THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE is heading into its first rewrite, with its cherry sitting firmly on top, capturing its essence perfectly.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

How long should you give a book you’re reading?

by Rick Blechta

Today’s post is going to be a short one.

I’m sure we’ve all begun books where after a certain number of pages a thought crosses your mind, Why am I bothering to read this? For whatever reason — poor writing, poor characters, poor plotting, maybe just general apathy, etc. — you simply haven’t engaged with the book.

When do you throw in the towel, or perhaps I should say, when do you fling the offending book across the room and look to other tomes and better stories?

I’m a person who is rather empathetic so I tend to hang on for longer than I should. I also tend to bail on a book earliest when I don’t like the protagonist. Either I find them obnoxious or two dimensional.

One personal story about rich reward of not bailing on a novel happened back when I was heavily into SciFi. The novel was Dahlgren by Samual R. Delany (no relation to Vicki!). I picked up a copy on a whim (I liked the cover).

It remains the singularly most confusing story I have ever encountered. It seemed as if the author threw normal life into a blender and hit frappé. Most of the time I couldn’t make heads or tails about what was happening. I only kept plowing forward because I found the main character (the Kid) strangely compelling, as was the quality of writing. The story made no sense at all — think (possibly) unreliable narrator times twenty.

For whatever reason I stuck it out to the end, then sat back and just said out loud, “Wow!”

Perhaps that’s why I will continue on past where most people give up. I’m hoping for another experience like Dhalgren. Thus far, no good…

So, I’ll go back to the question I posed back in paragraph three: when do you give up on a book and why?

Monday, November 22, 2021

Places in the memory

Book Week Scotland has only just ended.

This is an annual clambake of all things bookish thrown by the Scottish Book Trust and supported by Creative Scotland and the Scottish Library and Information Council. 

In previous  years it has seen authors going hither and yon to talk about their books, writing in general and meeting readers in events held within libraries, books stores and other venues.

Naturally, last year it was badly hit by the pandemic, with many events going on-line, but you can't keep a good book promotion down because this year, arms filled with vaccine, pockets with masks and hands liberally coated with various gels and unguents, many of us were once more traversing this great land to promote the written word. And ourselves, of course, for there is no ego like an author's ego. 

Well, maybe an actor. 

Or a rock star. 

Or a politician. 

OK, there are many egos like an author's ego but this isn't about those others. 

Early reports, however, indicate that in many cases audience numbers are down, with readers perhaps still hesitant to come out thanks to "the Rona." It's understandable but let's hope next year life is back an a more even keel.

One of my events took me back to Inverness, where my protagonist Rebecca Connolly is based. For those who don't know, Inverness is seen as the capital of the Scottish Highlands, situated on the Beauly Firth and at the head of the Caledonian Canal, that great waterway carved out of the Great Glen, linking various lochs to take shipping from west to north east and thus avoid the long and arduous passage up the west coast and traversing the blustery north.

I love the highlands, which is why I decided to set this series among their rolling hills, ragged mountains and lochs whose depths conceal many mysteries. This time I stayed in an inn with history going back hundreds of years situated on a road that was once a main arterial route in the days before internal combustion and oxygen having to be made available at petrol pumps to bring us round after the price shock.

I had some time to wander around the city, naturally signing copies of my books in the local Waterstones bookstore, and, on the way to Grantown-on-Spey to visit a fabulous independent store, the Bookmark, I took time to wander in a vast forest of Scots Pine so tall that it wasn't the breeze that stirred the tops but the breath of angels.

There are memories in these wild places for me. The route there and back took me past Pitlochry in Perthshire, where the autumn colours still clung to the trees as if reluctant to part from us. It was here I went camping for the very first time with my wife and even as I sped past all these years later I could smell the bacon frying in the morning. 

I passed the turn off for Kinloch Rannoch, 18 miles to the west, and my idea of heaven. We used to rent a cottage near there at least twice annually for many years.

The Beatles sang of the places they remember and it came into my head as I thought of Kinloch Rannoch and Schiehallion, the fairy mountain, rising from the mist. I thought of walks around the woodland, the leaves golden brown in the soft autumn sun, and wondering at the peace of the Black Wood, the largest tract of the ancient Caledonian forest in Scotland. I thought of the dogs that were once my companions on these walks and, naturally, of my late wife who loved the area as much as I love it. I thought of its history, rich with incident, red with blood as much of the highlands are. And I thought of Rannoch Moor;  vast, bleak and dark in its mystery. 

The thoughts ran through my head as if on fast forward as I sped north, passing the chasm of Killincrankie where once a battle was fought and, centuries later, I once walked with my wife and friends in dead of night as we made our way back from the pub to our campsite. 

But then I was beyond the area and all these memories were but ghosts in my rear view mirror.

Looking back, I believe that I was always at my happiest there and I have the urge to return and let Mickey (my dog) romp in the pawsteps of his much-loved predecessors. 

Maybe I will, if only one more time, for the good times. As the Carpenters once sang.

(Here are some images from the area)

Charlie, a dog who has long since left me, just seems to fit in.

One of the views with the ruins of a once grand house just visible beyond the tree

Dunalastair Water

Bleak Rannoch Moor

The autumn colours on the River Tummel are always breathtaking

Schiehallion rising above the mist

Even in the rain, the valley is spectacular


Friday, November 19, 2021

The Sacred Process

 I almost misspelled the title of this blog, making it "The Scared Process" rather than "The Sacred Process." Actually, one word is as good as another. There have been a series of posts by my beloved Type M blogmates about their writing process. 

The truth is that writing a book is about like raising kids. Anyone who has had more than one quickly learns that what applies to one child doesn't the next. I thought after I wrote my first novel all subsequent books would be really, really easy. Ha!

There has been one constant, however. When I'm doing my best work it's a quota of five pages a day, five days a week. That's for the first draft, not subsequent drafts. The truth is that when I don't stick to that I deliberately let life interfere. 

Life, of course, just interferes naturally, without one bit of encouragement from me. When my kids were little I got up very early in the morning and hoped by some miracle I would get my writing done before they popped out of bed. That didn't happen often. Consequently, I learned to write anytime, any place, and under horrendous circumstances. 

Now I don't feel like I'm under any kind of pressure and it's not good for my productivity. Because I slithered away into historical novels I jeopardized my slot with mystery novels. Nevertheless, I'm in the middle of a new mystery that I feel very passionately about. I have a good idea (I think) for the following book, if I have the guts to write it. But I cannot summon up my old stern inner strictness. I'm prey to all kinds of ill winds: meetings, and socializing, and lazy lunches, and too much reading, and binge TV. 

Five pages a day--not polished--is a fairly wicked, but not excessive output. I've learned that when I stick to the quota, on the days I really, really don't want to write my work is just as good (or bad) as days when  words come easily and ideas merge. I've noticed that when I settle for fewer pages, I write more self-consciously and piddle around. When I push for the five and am semi-desperate to just get them done better ideas come out of nowhere. 

Again, I talking exclusively about first drafts. My first draft is totally linear. I never write scenes out of sequence. The following drafts are a different process altogether. That's a critical and intellectual undertaking. At one time I was a first draft junkie. Now I like straightening out a manuscript the best. 

Strangely, I've never known two authors who approach writing the same way. 

Talented, best-selling author Sandra Dallas, once said in a keynote speech that she "didn't understand the writing process." She said she just knew that it worked.   

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Processing Process

I really enjoyed Tom’s post this week. The writing process interests me a great deal, and processing the process always leads me to more questions than answers.

I’m about three-fourths through my work-in-progress, and for the first time ever life has gotten in the way and significantly slowed my progress. I’m usually pretty good about compartmentalizing, but this fall, that’s not been the case.

It’s been a time of starts and stops, and, for me, that’s a killer. I need to write every day, to follow the thread consistently. I have tried to outline in the past –– and learned I don’t do it well. Or, rather, I don’t do it efficiently. (I can create an outline, but I never seem to follow it.) So, instead, I spend lots of time sketching characters –– who they are, what makes them do what they do –– enough to know how they’ll react in particular situations.

This fall, when traction has been hard to come by, writing to the end of the headlights has been more difficult than ever. I’ve had to go back and re-read the entire manuscript (53,000 words and counting) to know where to point the car. I’m at that stage again, having rediscovered my lane and pushing the pedal once more.

I’m a note-taker. I carry a notebook at all times. It’s a chance to outline as I go, to scribble questions my protagonist should be asking as he clutches the puzzle pieces, to sketch out possible endings. Notebooks get filled with ideas for titles, names, plots, lines of dialogue.

In the end, when I talk about the writing process, I have fewer insights than questions. As Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, it’s why I keep at it, pointing the car into the dark and seeing where it leads.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Seven Years Later

 Tomorrow, November 18th, marks seven years since the first book in my Aurora Anderson cozy mystery series, Fatal Brushstroke, was released. Four books followed, spaced a year to a year and a half apart. The last one came out at the end of 2019.

Kindle Box Set

 It’s hard to believe that much time has passed. I recently reread a post I wrote for the Mysteristas blog right after my second book came out, reflecting on my first year as a published novelist. I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of it. I’ll have some comments after.

Reflections on Being A Published Novelist

 by Sybil Johnson 

When I signed the book contract with my publisher, I thought I knew what to expect. I mean, as a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and former board member of that chapter, I know a lot of published writers. I've heard the war stories. I've gotten lots of great advice. So I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't realize just how hard and, at times, gut-wrenching it was going to be.

Not that I regret signing that contract. Not at all. It's been quite a growing experience for me as a writer and a person. I've discovered a lot of things about myself and this mystery writing world I’ve become a part of.

  • The mystery community. The generosity of the mystery community never ceases to amaze me. Not only have authors written endorsements for my books when I know their plates are already overflowing, they’ve also helped me gain exposure and given me encouragement and advice when times got tough. For all of these things I’m eternally grateful. I pay it forward wherever I can.
  •  Writing. I’m a slow writer, probably the slowest in the world. I’ve discovered in this past year that writing to a deadline is hard, way harder than I expected. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me it sometimes causes so much anxiety it can be crippling. So I’ve found coping mechanisms that help out. I’ve also discovered that writing the first draft longhand often works best for me. I write better drafts and I’m not tempted to check out things to buy on Amazon or watch that cat video someone told me about.
  •  Convention Panels. I've been on panels at conventions—Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and California Crime Writers. What I've discovered, and this shocked me: They don't make me nervous at all! For some odd reason, they don't bother me a bit. Not even a twinge of nervousness, not even the first one I was on. In fact, I actually *gasp* ENJOY them and, *double gasp*, look FORWARD to them. Now, this particularly shocks me because, well, I stutter. I have since grade school. Not the kind where you duplicate sounds, but the kind where you get caught on certain sounds at the beginning of words. So, on the days where I'm not fluent—usually high stress days—there are a lot of pauses in my speech pattern. I know exactly what I want to say, I just can't get it out. When I was a kid, some people who didn't know me thought I was retarded. (It was the 60s, no political correctness!) Nowadays, people think I'm done speaking or think I can't remember my own name. (Yeah, S is one of the sounds that often trips me up.) So speaking in public can be a bit nerve-wracking for me. But for these panels the enjoyment that I get out of being on them overrides any fears I have about talking.
  •  Learning when to say no. Conventional wisdom says do not turn down an opportunity. If someone asks you to do something related to promoting your book, do it. In general, I agree but I also know how much I can handle so a few times I’ve said no when most people would say yes. It may not be the brightest thing to do, but I’m the only one who can truly know if that “yes” will be the straw that breaks my back.
  •  Persistence and courage. I’ve discovered persistence is probably the most important thing to have in writing. When you encounter a setback (I’ve had doozies, believe me), just dust yourself off and keep on trucking even if you’re scared to death.
  •  Compliments. Whenever someone tells me I’m a great writer or that they enjoyed my book, my gut reaction is that they must be mistaking me for someone else; they couldn’t possibly be talking about me! I don’t say this to their face, of course, but that’s what’s going through my mind. I’m also blutterbunged* at the impact a positive comment has on me. A simple email can transform a bleak day into a bright one. Now when I enjoy a book I try to reach out to the author to express how much I liked their work because I know the impact it can have on a writer.
  •  Social Media. I’ve read so many articles and heard so many talks about what authors should be doing on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Post at least twice a day on Facebook. Tweet multiple times a day (I’ve heard everything from 3 to 10). The list is overwhelming. I understand the value of social media, but I know I can’t do everything, get writing done and have a life. I’ve made peace with that. I do what I can and concentrate on the activities I enjoy the most.
  •  Breaks. I know so many writers who work on several series at once. I don’t know how they do it; how they balance a day job, family and writing. They don’t seem to need breaks. I’ve discovered that, for me, I need periodic breaks from writing or thinking about writing or promoting my writing. I used to feel guilty about it, but I know that I come back stronger from a day off than I would have had I continued to try writing.
  •  Making your own path. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that there’s no one approach to writing and marketing your books. Everyone needs to figure out their own path like author Jenny Milchman who went against conventional wisdom and embarked on a year-long book tour. Read about it here: https://writerunboxed.com/2015/06/29/the-worlds-longest-book-tour/

* confounded, overcome by surprise

 I’m back. You notice in the piece that I didn’t say “published writer”. I’d considered myself one of those when I had some short stories published in online mystery magazines a few years before my first book came out.

I still believe everything I said. I still write my first drafts long hand. I still believe it’s important to know when things are too much for you. I still believe in the power of persistence.

One thing that has changed is my writing process. I’ve been pretty much a plantser since the beginning. That means I know who did it and why, I know the victim and the major characters. I do a bit of outlining, figuring out the major events in the book before I start writing from point to point. I started out writing the story in sequence. But, while writing book 3, I discovered that it was easier to write scenes out of sequence. The book got done faster and I wasn’t half as stressed out. Now, if a scene pops into my head, begging to be written, I write it even if I don’t know exactly where it fits in the story. I may have to rewrite bits of it when I do figure out where it goes but, surprisingly, they aren’t major rewrites.

 Another thing I learned about writing is that every project is different. Some stories are easier to write than others. Overall, writing a book takes a lot of work. I also get a lot of satisfaction out of completing the project. That makes it all worthwhile.

Monday, November 15, 2021

My Process

 By Thomas Kies

I’m going to riff off of Donis Casey’s excellent blog this week about her writing process.  

Mine is best described as chaotic.  As a rule, I have a general idea what the book will be about and the location.  Sometimes I even have thoughts on what the plot will be and who the villain or villains are.

But not always.

The book I’m currently working on I’ve started six times already.  Not unusual for me.  At some point, about thirty or forty pages in, I either like what I’ve written, or I don’t.  Six times now, I haven’t liked what I’ve created.

Initially, when I started this project, I had an idea for an opening scene but wasn’t sure how it might work so I mentally filed it away.  Plus, it was a murder scene that felt a little gruesome to me.

But I recalled what Barbara Peters, my first publisher and owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, had told me during a live interview online.  “All of your books open with a murder, each one a little more gruesome than the last.” 

After six false starts and a long walk around the neighborhood, I decided to scrap everything I’d done up until then and start over…using that scene I had originally envisioned. 

I love it.

Now I’m about thirty pages into the project and I’ve completely changed the direction I’m taking the book.  Do I know where I’m going with it?  Kind of.

Stephen King said in a Wall Street Journal interview, “The thing is, I don’t outline, I don’t have whole plots in my head in advance. So, I’m really happy if I know what’s going to happen tomorrow, which I do, as a matter of fact, I know what’s going to happen in the novel I’m working on. And that’s enough.”

Now, so I don’t start out with an outline.  That being said, at some point during the writing of the book, I know where it will end up and who the baddies are.  I just have to find a way to get there.

That’s when I start outlining what has to happen to move me to that final scene. 

Then at a certain point, I know I have to lay clues.  You can’t have a mystery if the reader doesn’t at least have some kind of chance to solve the crime. But the clues have to be subtle and that’s where I have the advantage.  

I can go back into what’s been written, like going back in time, and alter what I’ve created.  

The same goes with dialogue. Haven’t you had a conversation with someone and wish you could have said something differently?  I can do that. 

Back to laying the clues out.  You don’t want them to be too obvious or the reader will figure out who the baddies are about halfway through the story. What you want is to have them reach the end of the book, and slap their forehead and say, “I should have seen that coming.”

So, now, I’m going to take a walk down to the beach and then come back, sit down at my keyboard, and knock out another chapter.

Cheers and I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Process

 I, Donis, am working on a new Alafair Tucker mystery right now, and am very interested to see how it's going to turn out. I never know what the entire story will be before I begin. I learned early on that you may think you have it all figured out, but you don't. However, in all my previous mysteries, I at least had a murderer in mind before I actually began writing. I knew who was going to meet his or her doom and how, where the body was going to be discovered and by whom. I usually knew who did the deed, though I'm flexible about that. Before I start, I always think I know why the killer did it, but by the time I reach the end I often discover I was wrong. The motive seems get modified every time.

Thus far I have written about 50 pages for the nascent Alafair Eleven. I know which characters will be involved, I know where the story will be set, what the season will be, what historic events will unfold, what the side stories will be. But I haven't yet discovered a who killed the victim!

A murder mystery isn't really about the murder, of course. It's about the mystery. But without a murder, or some other incredibly compelling reason for your protagonist to get involved, it's mighty hard to create the mystery. Not long ago, I told someone she should "trust the process" with her writing. Even if you don't know where the story is going to go, just start writing and trust that all will become clear as you go along. Have faith that the answer will reveal itself in time.

I should pay attention to myself.

I've taken a few years off from my Alafair Tucker series to work on three Bianca Dangereuse Hollywood Mysteries set in the 1920s, so working on another Alafair feels a bit like coming home. This series started in 1912 and moved forward years or months with each book. Book Eleven has finally reached the spring of 1921, a period fraught with racial tension after the end of WWI, especially in eastern Oklahoma. I've done tremendous amounts of research. For each of my books, I keep a notebook and file full of information that I read up on as I need it, and just before I sat down to write this entry, I was perusing the file, and was interested to see how much information I’ve collected about post-WWI Oklahoma history.  Much of my research won't be used, for as a book advances, some of the ideas I started out with fall by the wayside.   

As I write on, brilliant new ideas for advancing the story will occur to me, and I’ll find myself looking up things I never would have thought of, otherwise.

Is this a "writing process"? I don’t know. Ideas come to me from the oddest places–from something I’ve read, or some off-hand comment someone says within earshot of me (be careful what you say around a writer). Once or twice from a dream I’ve had. In any event, the idea gets in my head one way or another and wiggles around in there for a while. Eventually it begins to take shape and I think, “That might make a good story.” I choose a narrow time period, such as March of 1921, and start reading the March 1921 newspapers from anywhere in eastern Oklahoma to see what was going on in the world and what Oklahomans were thinking about it. This usually adds layers of story to my basic idea. Then I ponder some more, make a few notes, and then start writing. Where the story ends up is as big a surprise to me as to anyone. It usually turns out better than I had planned, so thus far I have no reason to complain.

Mickey Spillane, when asked how much research he does in the interest of authenticity:  “None. My job is not to tell the truth.  My job is to make you believe.”(Note:  I’ve used that quote for years, but when I looked it up for this entry, I see that it’s actually “I don’t research anything.  When I need something, I make it up.” However, I like my version, so there it is. D.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Your hologram awaits

"I'm getting too old for this s**t," I muttered to the dogs recently. I'd been trying to wrestle Instagram to the ground so that I could post about an upcoming book signing. My millennial daughter had snatched the phone from my hand and flipped through my Instagram account with horror. Where are your stories? she asked. You have no hashtags. With this post you should include #barbarafradkin, #inspectorgreen ("Look, Inspector Green has his own hashtag already!"), and #Torontobooklaunch. People will find you with those hashtags.

She unearthed details from my Instagram presence that I didn't even know existed. There were likes and messages and reposts that I'd been blissfully ignorant of. Who knew what all those little icons meant? Facebook is all very well, my daughter said, but that only works for people who are already your friends. Instagram is where new readers discover you, where you build your audience. She started in on TikTok, but I drew the line. Because she'd set it up, I've had an Instagram account for a couple of years and Twitter even longer, but I could never see much point in either. There obviously is a point, but it feels like navigating a brazen new cityscape with speeding traffic, flashing lights, indecipherable signs, one-way streets, and a pace so hectic that I just feel like parking the car and walking. 

Perhaps that's when I decided I was getting too old for this s... Or it may have been a couple of weeks earlier, when I had a birthday after which my last quarter-century looms around the corner. I thought I'd been keeping up pretty well. After all, I had lots of friends on Facebook, I HAD a Twitter and Instagram account, although I had no idea what the use was. Sometimes I'd get a notification that so-and-so whom I'd never heard of was now following me, and my gut reaction was "Why? I'm not going anywhere." I had set up and successfully pulled off two virtual book launches using Eventbrite and Zoom Webinar. 

Not bad for someone who grew up with rotary phones and radio plays! I got this! 

But then Mark Zuckerberg's smiling face came on my TV last week to promote his brand new reimagining of social media. So long Facebook, say hello to the future: the Metaverse. With dizzying speed he talked us through the holograms, the virtual, holographic workplaces that you navigate wearing special googles, teleporting. The possibilities for human interaction are endless. What, real people? Oh, no need.

It did cross my mind as I watched "I wonder what plans he has for sex."

I suspect that as all these tech changes accelerate, there will be a whole generation of us left in the dust. You may find us weeping in fury over our three TV remotes, or possibly walking arm in arm down a country lane somewhere, talking about the good old days. Or something.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

My brushes with stardom (or famous people I’ve bumped into by accident)

by Rick Blechta

I loved the post by Douglas yesterday, and having not a jot of an idea about what to write about today, I’m going to riff off his post.

I seem to have a knack to run into famous people. I don’t know why this is; it just happens.

Here’s a list and a very brief description of each encounter:

  1. When I was 15, I caddied for Ed Sullivan. Really. He wasn’t a terrific golfer and disliked giving up on a ball off the fairway, so I spent a lot of time in tall grass and the borders of the woods surrounding the fairways. He was a good tipper, though. And the way he was on his TV show was the way he was in real life, so you could say I spent 18 holes on The Ed Sullivan Show.
  2. I slammed jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery’s hand in an elevator in New York City. It was one of those self-operating ones. I was shutting the outer door when he stuck his hand in to stop me. I wasn’t paying any attention and was in a rush because my brother was double-parked on the street below — at rush hour (not a good thing in the Big Apple). Fortunately I didn’t break anything! Wes wasn’t too happy with me, though.
  3. I once got on an elevator in the Toronto Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters. The Prime Minister of Canada at the time, Jean Cretien followed me in along with his two Mountie bodyguards. Trouble was I had a very lethal pair of scissors in my pocket at the time. We went up several floors silently with me trying to melt into a corner so I wouldn’t be noticed while I kept my hands far away from the pocket where the scissors were.
  4. By far the most amazing event was meeting Eric Clapton and spending over an hour chatting with him. Trouble was, I didn’t know it was him until at least an hour had passed. I’d never seen him with a beard. His band at the time, Cream, was playing in New York the next day and needed some speakers repaired. He knew the repairman from a previous gig in town and decided to spend the afternoon with him (better than sitting in some hotel room). I rushed in needing a speaker repaired for a gig I had that night. Tony, the repairman, asked Eric if he could just take care of me, and then get back to work on Cream’s blown speakers. I assumed the bearded Englishman was one of Cream’s roadies, so while Tony worked, I chatted with him. I asked about touring with Cream and he answered that it was gruelling, complaining that he was tired of listening to Jack Bruce (bass) and Ginger Baker (drums) fighting all the time. Almost done with my speaker, Tony said he’d like a coffee. Eric offered to go to the luncheonette down the street and asked if I’d like a coffee too. I declined. As he left, Tony called out, “Thanks, Eric! I appreciate it.” Then the penny dropped. All I could think about were the things I was asking him as if he was just a nobody roadie and not really twigging on to the way he was talking about the band. Boy, did I feel like an idiot!

There were other brushes with fame, but these are the cream of the crop.

Oh! One more that's too good not to share: my darling wife once hit Richard Nixon in the head with a door…

Monday, November 08, 2021

My brush with stardom

I've long been a fan of actor Brian Cox, now even more recognisable than before thanks to playing Logan Roy on the TV show 'Succession'. Whenever he has appeared in a film, in the past more often than not as a villain, he has brought something to some underwritten roles that only a good actor can bring.

The fact that he happens to be Scottish is immaterial. This is not some flag-waving exercise.

My appreciation began before Hollywood beckoned, however, before he was that indefinable thing - a star. It began when I spent the night with him.

Perhaps I should explain...

Back in the mists of time, when you and I were young, Maggie, I wanted to be an actor. I was a gangling youth living in East Kilbride, just outside Glasgow, with visions of glitz, glamour and glorious technicolour. I took acting classes and elocution lessons that were intended to berate the Glasgow out of my voice (they didn't take). I attended youth courses at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and with the Citizen's Theatre company. I was in school shows and amateur dramas.

And then I got my big break - a part with my friend Stan Leech in a BBC TV series called Sutherland's Law.

We were to play drunken thieves who may - or may not - have killed a young woman while driving a stolen car.

This was it. The big time beckoned.

Sure, it was only a small part with a couple of scenes, but everyone starts somewhere, right?

The filming took Stan and I to Oban on the west coast of Scotland. The star was Ian Cuthbertson, a big deal on British TV back then, but we never met him, although I did hand him his jacket in the hotel foyer. 

One of our scenes was in broad daylight as we studied damage to the front of the car. It was a sheep we hit, said Stan (or rather his character). I'm not so cure, I said. You were too drunk to remember, said Stan.

We pulled it off in a few takes. Cut, move on, said the director. You were wonderful, said the assistant director, are you sure you have never been on camera before? 

We preened, even though deep down we knew he was only doing his job and giving us some positive reinforcement.

Our other scene was a night shoot, when we steal the car and drive off at speed. I had to be in the passenger seat for that bit, with a member of the crew being a stunt driver, swerving onto a country road at speed and weaving off into the night. That was an experience. But before we reached that we had to wait around while other things were shot.

And that's  how I met Brian Cox.

He was that week's guest star, if memory serves playing a police officer who was having an affair with the young woman. He, too, had some night scenes so he was with the rest of us in the minibus and seemed to take on the mantle of unofficial morale officer. It can get cold in the highlands at night and there is a lot of sitting around on a set unless you are one of the crew. Even the constant hot food and beverages failed to keep up the spirits so Mr Cox kept us all entertained with a constant flow of jokes and stories. 

Frankly, he was brilliant. Approachable, likeable and affable. 

He even signed my application to join Equity, the acting union. I think he may well have proposed me for membership, although it didn't do me much good as I didn't get in.

That was one of the things that finally ended any hopes of becoming the next James Bond.

I see Brian Cox has an autobiography out. I've not yet read it but I wonder if there's a passage where he met an aspiring actor in the wilds above Oban and signed his union application.

And does he wonder, whatever happened to whatsisname?

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

What Qualifies as a Historical Mystery?


I’ve been working on a historical mystery lately, one set in the 1850s. So far I’ve just been doing some outlining and research. Haven’t written a word yet. But it did start me thinking about what qualifies as a historical mystery. Mysteries that were contemporary when written, such as ones by Agatha Christie, even though they’re set in, say, the 1920s are not considered historical. That makes sense to me.

I’ve heard a number of different definitions of a historical mystery.

1. A mystery is considered historical if the author was not alive when the story takes place. So, if a mystery is set in the 1960s, say, it would be considered historical if the author was born in the 1970s or later, but not if they were born in the 1950s.

I rather like this definition, but I can see where it would be confusing when it comes to awards and deciding if a book fits into the historical category. You’d have to know how old the author is.

2. A mystery is considered historical if it’s set X years in the past. I’ve heard 50 years, but I’m sure there are other numbers that people have put in here.

3. A mystery is considered historical if it’s set before World War II.

4. A mystery is historical if it takes place in a time clearly distinct from our own. 

5. A mystery is historical if it takes place in any era other than the one it is written in.

I could probably make a case for any of these. Some mysteries are clearly historical to me. Others, such as ones set in the 1970s, are, for me, not historical since I was alive then. But, I can see why they could be considered historical for those born in the current century. 

What do you think is the best definition of a historical mystery? Does anyone know what the Agatha Awards uses for its definition? I couldn’t find it on the Malice Domestic website.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

A random observation about reviews

by Rick Blechta

My post last week dealt with getting reviews for one’s book. It’s common knowledge that reviews make or break books, and getting reviewed by someone influential or in an influential publication, are the best kind. That’s logical, right? But getting your book in the hands of one of these people remains a significant issue, unless you’re a best-selling authors. Everyone else is left to scramble — and hope at winning the review lottery.

As last week progressed, my thinking about my post continued. How reliable are reviews on social media and websites? So I did a bit of poking around.

My highly unscientific conclusion is that reviews on Amazon and web retailers of that ilk tend to be more positive than not. Yes, there are one-star reviews, but these tend to be outliers, some by those with an obvious ax to grind. I randomly chose several dozen titles and tabulated the aggregate review numbers. The only criteria I used in making my list was that the book had to have 20 or more reviews. Seventy-three percent were 3+ stars or better. Not of all of the titles I looked at were by recognized authors or authors published by recognized houses. There were also some self-published titles (22).

It’s easy enough to get friends to write a review for one’s books, and I doubt if these people would give you a bad review. Everyone wants to help their friends after all. This goes for traditionally published authors as well as self-published ones.

But in doing my spot of research another thought occurred to me: with the exception of those reviewing friends’ books, there is likely an unintentional bias in the purchase of books which are then reviewed by non-professional reviewers. Think about that a bit. We tend to purchase books we think we might enjoy reading. Speaking for myself, I’m not about to lay out some hard-earned cash to buy something I probably won’t enjoy. Who would? Reading books is not at all like taking medications your doctor prescribes!

So how do you know if you’re ever getting the straight goods on a book? Did someone purchase the reviews? Were friends recruited? How accurate are they?

Geez, this whole review thing is a lot more complicated now than it’s ever been.


Monday, November 01, 2021

Tidbits From the News

by Thomas Kies 

I worked for newspapers and magazines for over thirty years so I’m a news junkie, pure and simple.  A few stories jumped out at me this week.

The first one was about how the executives of six oil companies and various lobbying groups disseminated false information to the public about the how fossil fuels have had a major negative impact on climate change. 

That struck me hard, because that’s the basic plot of my last book. Shadow Hill.  In my mystery, a major oil company has commissioned their own “scientists” to write a paper on how climate change is part of the natural rhythm of the earth and that burning fossil fuels has a minimum, if any, effect. The company is hoping to stave off a bill moving through Congress that would cut their obscene subsidies and give the money and tax breaks to renewable energy efforts.

Last Thursday, the executives stuck to their scripts while testifying in front of a House committee, not quite admitting that they had delivered fraudulent information for years but claiming that they were all moving in the right direction with clean energy. 

According to the New York Times: Mr. Woods, the C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil, faced questions about company statements over the years that cast doubt on whether fossil fuels were the main driver of climate change. He said the positions were “entirely consistent” with the scientific consensus of the time.

He also said that a 1997 statement by Lee Raymond, then Exxon’s chief executive, that “currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive” about the role of human activity in warming was “consistent with the science.” Two years earlier, the United Nations’ top climate science body had reached a consensus that global warming is occurring, and that the burning of fossil fuels was a significant cause.

Mr. Woods also said that Exxon Mobil now recognizes climate change, yet “there are no easy answers,” to solving it.

A second story I thought was interesting was from my old newspaper covering Norwalk, Connecticut.  It was about how Netflix is filming a movie based on Stephen King’s story called Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. The filmmakers are using various locations around the city as well as the neighboring town, Westport.

The plot of the story is that a young man, employed by an older man, buys his employer a cellphone.  When the man dies, the phone is buried with him, but the conversations continue…via that cellphone.  Yikes.

I’m glad they’ve picked Norwalk for their movie location.  I’ve based my Geneva Chase novels in a fictional town called Sheffield, but in my mind’s eye, looks an awful lot like Norwalk. I always loved that town.  Rich in diversity, South Norwalk, or SoNo, has a wonderful vibe and fabulous restaurants.  It's also a great place to stage crime novels.

The last story I’ll tell you about is how one of the most popular Carmen Mola, one of the most popular crime writers in Spain, won the coveted Premio Planeta literary prize and the million euros that go with it.  The protagonist of Mola’s mysteries is a female detective by the name of Elena Blanco.

The surprise was when Mola was supposed to go onstage to collect her million euros, three men appeared instead.  As it turned out, all three of them had collaborated on the Elena Blanco books. 

When my wife saw this, she smiled and said, “See, it takes three men to write as a woman.”

I’m still not sure how to take that.  My protagonist is Geneva Chase, a female reporter.

I don't have any collaborators.