Tuesday, July 05, 2022

The Downside

 Last Wednesday I received an email from Candy Moulton, the executive secretary of Western Writers of Ameria. She said a number of convention attendees were testing positive for Covid. I took a home test immediately and was positive. I immediately ran out and got a PCR test. Yes, I definitely had Covid. 

Boy, you talk about a downside to a convention! I have eluded this bug for two years and then blew it in a very short time. Luckily, my internist ordered an infusion of monoclonal antibodies. I live in Fort Collins and it was over an hour's drive to the infusion center in Broomfield. No one could drive me. I had to do it myself because of the risk of infecting someone else. There simply aren't that many Covid infusion centers available. I was able to make this drive. Good thing, because I felt worse the day after. I don't know if the disease was worse, or the infusion caused more symptoms. 

I've had a low-grade fever and have not wanted to get off the sofa. It could be a lot worse and probably would have been if it weren't for the infusion. 

What a messed up time we are in right now. At WWA I heard multiple complaints about air travel. There were cancelled flights, missing luggage, delayed luggage, and missed connections for this or that reason. 

Our hotel was chronically understaffed. But that is another story altogether. 

My short story "The Book Mama" is a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion for short fiction. The ceremony is the last of October in Fort Worth. It's a really long drive. Plane tickets are quite reasonable. 

But if I book a flight, will I miss it altogether? Shall I take the risk? Will the airlines get sorted out by then? 

Last night there was a segment on PBS that offered a partial explanation for the royal mess at airports. Apparently when Covid first hit, the airlines laid off a lot of pilots because so many people stopped flying. Also, a number voluntarily took early retirement passengers. Now there aren't enough available and airlines overbook. It isn't working. But alas, training pilots takes a while. 

The last thing I want airlines to do is shortchange pilot training. 

I'll live with the uncertainty. 

Monday, July 04, 2022

Everyone's a critic

 I have a new book coming out here in the UK this week.

Actually, such is the way with retail now, it's already in some stores, although anyone who pre-ordered on that big river place will have to wait until the official publication day, which is Thursday. Sorry, folks - I have no control over such things so don't write in!

(Not yet available in the states. Again, sorry!)

Which brings me to the main thrust of today's chat, and it follows on from the posts by Charlotte and Barbara last week.

To wit, reviews and the multifarious avenues in which readers can either praise you or gut you with a few well-chosen words.

I am often asked for advice for any young writers out there, which is a bit of an insult because I am still young myself. Hey, don't laugh - it could be true in some parallel universe.

I always say this: Never let good reviews go to your head or bad ones get into your head.

My very first review was in a Scottish daily and it was an absolute stinker. It was for my first non-fiction title and the reviewer really did not pull his punches. I was illiterate. I couldn't relate a story. I was even compared to Uriah Heep for some reason. 

I have never said I was humble in my life.

It was so bad my publisher contacted me before I saw it to assure me that the reviewer was being unnecessarily unkind. He was also an academic who had once talked about the golden age of murder. Not the fictional kind. The real-life kind. In my introduction to the book I had dismissed any such notion, pointing out that real-life murder is ugly, nasty and unpleasant. He may have taken exception to that.

Anyway, I've had many reviews since, most of them positive and for that I'm thankful.

Not everyone has enjoyed my writing and that is to be expected. All criticism, whether by a professional or a reader, is subjective and it is impossible to please everyone.

However, as has been pointed out, some people go out of their way to be cruel and will tag authors into bad reviews, thus ensuring they are seen. I'm not sure that's ever happened to me but it's jolly bad form, chaps.

Constructive criticism is fine. The books we write have to please us first but that doesn't mean they are perfect, even though they have been written, rewritten, edited, proofread, edited again, proofread again and then sent out into the wild with a cry of "fly, my pretties" by author and publisher alike. I'll always listen, or read, to such comments that but it doesn't mean I have to agree with them. Readers are entitled to their opinions - and so am I!

Of course, unbridled praise is also very welcome.

I may not let it go to my head but I admit I do bask in it for a little while.


Finally - Happy fourth of July!

Click on the link for a special card.

http://jlcards.com/oh5Om0



Thursday, June 30, 2022

More danger

I’m officially a Midwesterner, moved in and (somewhat) unpacked in Orchard Lake, Michigan. I’ve dragged my writing chair to the corner of an office, near the window, where I can sit at 4 a.m. and write until dawn when sunlights drifts in and tells me to start my work day.

I’m whittling my way through a rewrite of a novel I sent to my agents, Julia Lord and Ginger Curwen at Julia Lord Literary, a couple months back. The book is what I hope will be the first in a new series set at a boarding school, a setting I left only a couple weeks ago, after living and working in that world for nearly two decades.

The feedback I got from Julia was simple: the middle dragged a little. “More danger,” she said. I don’t disagree (Stephen King, in “On Writing,” says, after all, “The editor is always right.”), but I’m into the revision and one promised cut –– a twenty-page section in which our protagonist drives out of state to locate the book’s other major player –– I’m not going to make. As I'm re-reading, I'm finding that too many clues are there to fully eliminate the section. I will, however, tweak to add “danger.”

As I'm working, I'm realizing the importance of nuance and that narrative tension can be controlled by subtle language moves.

I’m not changing the plot as much as I am adding and cutting words and lines, changes that punch up the risk and the consequences of a bad decision. In the book a man flees campus, his girlfriend is threatened with physical harm and that threat comes to partial fruition, and the narrator’s son goes missing. Questions that (hopefully) engage the reader and create narrative tension: Is the son with the fleeing man? Was the son taken? And who is behind it all (chasing the man off campus, the vanished boy, and the injured girlfriend)? These questions drive the book, and keeping them at the forefront of whatever decisions I make is important.

All of which has me refining the book's "danger" and even redefining the word. The physical need not take place if the threat of it exists. It's like the music in the horror movie. Toni Morrison said you can’t use fiery language to describe fire. I’m trying to create narrative tension with light brush strokes.

Here’s an example:


ORIGINAL

He heard something in my voice and sat up.

“Where was this picture taken?” I asked.

He held Liam’s laptop, squinting. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t recognize that room?”

He shook his head. “That’s Liam,” he said, “and that’s Taylor. Who’s the third person?”

“They aren’t looking at the camera,” I said, “but look at the picture in the background.”

“It’s Amy and Maggie.”

Given the photo, the person not facing the camera had to be Amy Boyd –– same hair, slight build.



REVISED

He heard something in my voice and sat up.

“Look at this picture,” I said.

He held Liam’s laptop, squinting.

“Recognize that room?”

He shook his head.

“You’ve never been there?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

"I need you to look hard. Think."

“Dad, you’re freaking me out. I don't recognize the room. Is that where Liam is?”

I ignored the question and pointed. “That’s Liam. That’s Taylor. Who’s the third person?”

“They aren’t looking at the camera.”

“Look at the picture in the background.”

“It’s Amy and Maggie,” he said.

The person not facing the camera had to be Amy Boyd –– same hair, slight build. The location was on the file: Brunswick, Maine. It had to be Amy’s dorm room at Bowdoin College.


*

Aside from revision suggestions, during the call, Julia also shared some news: an agent at ICM, representing Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Bruce Norris and his screenwriter partner Caroline Wood, reached out to Julia to say the tandem likes my single mom/Border Patrol agent Peyton Cote and waned to talk to me about a “shopping agreement.” I spoke to Bruce and Caroline last week, asking about their vision for what a TV series might look like. It’s exciting because it’s different from one other foray into this discussion I've had. That time, the people who approached me hadn't actually read the series and wanted to move the character from her French-Canadian roots (the books are set in Aroostook County, Maine) to Arizona or Texas. Bruce, Caroline, and I will write a pilot and a pitch for what would be a one-hour-per-episode TV series based on the first book in that series, “Bitter Crossing" (which Caroline has read eight times). If it gets off the ground -- a big "if," of course -- my role will be as “consulting producer,” something I came up with, given I start at new (very) full-time job July 1.

Where does any of this go? Who knows? You and I both know many calls are made, but few shows actually are.



Wednesday, June 29, 2022

100!

 

by Sybil Johnson

This is a short post today. It’s been a busy couple weeks for me. I finished a short story and submitted it to an anthology. I also finished the book I’ve been working on for way too long, Brush Up On Murder, the sixth in my Aurora Anderson mystery series. I don’t have a publisher for it at the moment. I quite likely will self-pub this one. I’ll decide all that in July. 

For now I’m taking a break to help my mother celebrate her 100th birthday! Yes, that’s right, 100.

This is the card the husband found at CVS. I was impressed that one existed. Can’t be much call for them. He actually bought two cards since we know someone else who is turning 100 in July.


 

It amazes me how much the world has changed in the last 100 years. Heck, it’s changed a lot in the last 30 years or 10 or... My mother weathered the Great Depression, World War II, both of which directly affected her. She had brothers who served in WWII. All of them came back and lived for a long time after. Then there are all of the other wars that have happened and the birth of computers and...

I wonder what the world be like 100 years from now. Will there finally be flying cars like The Jetsons promised? (That was the year 2062, btw. Still got time.) Okay, we sort of have that now. Los Angeles is starting an air taxi service. Not sure how that’s going to work out, but we’ll see. Apparently there are other cities who already have this. Don’t know which ones.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the moment.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

WWA Conference

 by Charlotte Hinger

The annual Western Writers of America convention will always be my favorite event. It was due to connections made at this conference that I sold my first book. Ironically, I had been warned away by an official in another writers' organization. He said "it's not for the likes of you. This is a business conference with a lot of New York editors in attendance." 

I decided that's where I wanted to go. Because real editors went. And because it was a business conference

The conference is held in a different locale every year. This year it was in Great Falls, Montana and next year will be in Rapid City, South Dakota. The group is intensely interested in history and the settlement of the West. Learning about different regions and tours is an important feature of the meetings. 

Our attendance was down this year. We are still feeling the effects of the Covid scare. The event was cancelled in 2020.

I wouldn't have missed for anything because my best friend in the writing community is and always will be Irene Bennett Brown, and she received the Wister Award for lifetime achievement. She began with award-winning children's books, then later moved on to novels for adults, and at the age of 90 (this year) Irene signed a new two-book contract. She and her husband, Robert, recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and were married at 19. 



Angela Bates, my friend from Nicodemus, and I drove. Even though it was a 12 hour drive we clipped right along. We got up at 5:00 am and arrived in Great Falls at 5:00 pm.



One of the highlights of WWA is the Roundup Room. Every evening, after sensible members head off to bed, there are a group of musicians who keep us entertained. I always stay until the last dog is hung. I could listen to W.C. Jameson all night. 


Our panels are terrific. One of my favorites involved a spirited discussion about cultural appropriation, censorship, and book burning. As historians, we struggle with over-zealous editors who worry about offending readers. Bad things have always happened and we feel duty-bound to write about them. David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a Lakota Sioux, has won the Spur award for his novel, Winter Count, and this year for "Skin" a short story. 




Next year's convention is at Rapid City, South Dakota. You bet your life I'll be there. Boots and hat and all.


Monday, June 27, 2022

Murder Mystery Dinner




 

By Thomas Kies

Fair warning that this blog will be short.  One of the reasons is that it’s summertime here on the North Carolina coast and it’s too damned nice to be sitting for long in my office behind the screen of my laptop.

The other reason is that when I am in my office (which I do more often than I should) I’m working on a couple of projects including a new one for me.  I’m working on the script for a murder mystery dinner to take place early in September and hosted by our local college's culinary school. 

The characters for the mystery are all recurring from my Geneva Chase mysteries.  Seeing them come to life should be interesting.  We’re going to be holding auditions tonight and the director told me that the interest level is high.

She then went on to tell me that now the word has gotten out, people are asking how they can buy a table. 

When I write a book, there’s a certain amount of internal pressure involved.  I want to write something engaging and tell an interesting story. I want to write something that people want to read and once they have, they’ll say that it was worthwhile.

While writing this script, I’m feeling a familiar pressure, but in a different way.  When someone reads my books, I can’t see them.  Any reaction I get comes later.

There’s an old saying that goes when you write a book it’s like telling a joke and waiting a year or two to see if anyone laughs.

The murder mystery dinner is a different animal.  I’ll see right then and there the audience reaction.

That’s terrifying.

What if they hate it?  Or worse yet, what if they’re bored?

The working title for my mystery dinner is Death of an Author.  I hope that’s not prescient.

I’ve written a script mostly for laughs.  But now that I’ve sent it to the director, I’m thinking that perhaps I should have included more pathos.  But when you’re at a table with friends eating chicken cordon bleu, do you want a lot of soul searching?

This whole thing is a fundraiser for the Carteret Community Theater.  Their building was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Florence and they’re raising money to put it all back together again.  As I said, tonight the theater is doing auditions where they’ll be reading lines from the script.

This whole thing is making me almost as nervous as when I’m waiting for the national reviews for an upcoming book.  Point of information, this dinner was to be the launch of my newest book, WHISPER ROOM.  But the release date is August 2nd and the dinner is scheduled for a month later.

So, I may be doing a launch/book signing before the theater puts on its show.  But, hey, we can sell dinner tickets while I’m selling books. Can't we?  This show business thing is all new to me. 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Art of the Blurb

 Once you've been published and have achieved even a modest amount of fame, you'll be asked by another writer to provide a blurb. Sometimes the request might be uncomfortable because it comes from a writer whose work you aren't familiar with, or by a writer you don't think much of. In that latter case, a good excuse is to claim that you're too busy... a brush-off I've heard more than once. 

There's an art to writing a blurb. The premise for a blurb is to generate interest in the book by leveraging the technique sales people call a third-party endorsement. It needs to deliver the theme or ethos of the story, be punchy, memorable, part logline and part advertising jingle. Less is more. A blurb by a famous author or celebrity could certainly juice sales. In that regard, I'm bemused other writers think that a blurb by me would get a prospective reader to buy their book. Still, I'm honored that anyone would think enough of me to ask for a blurb and I take each chance as an opportunity to excel.

Here are some of my favorites:

"Supernatural intrigue and criminal mayhem that ricochets from double-cross to double-cross." Paradox by Jeanne Stein

"A twisted, kinetic escapade through darkness and danger." The Legend of Carl Draco, by Gary Reilly

"Humane and brutal but never false...an illuminating critique of American history and myth." Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

"A labyrinth of misdirection and treachery." Angels in the Winds: A Mile High Noir by Manuel Ramos.


You've hit the mark when your blurb gets picked for the book's cover as what happened with these two:

"A quirky and thoughtful reflection on what it means to be human." Fated, by S.G. Brown 

"Raw. Visceral. Compelling. As unforgettable as a stabbing." Ex-KOP by Warren Hammond


And the latest, which I'm especially proud of:



Thursday, June 23, 2022

A Love Affair With Writing

 A lot has been happening in my daily life, as usual, and it's been hard to find adequate time to write. Especially considering the fact that I'm trying to write two novels at once. 

When my first mystery novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was published by Poisoned Pen Press in 2005, I was hardly a neophyte author. I had been writing professionally for untold years, and though I had never had any fiction published before, I expected that being a novelist was not going to hold any surprises for me.



My twelfth novel, Valentino Will Die, came out last year, and after twelve books I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. Oh, I held no illusions about the romance of the authorly life. I knew it was going to be hard, and it is. I knew there would be days when you sit and stare at the screen, unable to type a single word that isn’t crap and you know that you’ll never be able to write again.



I knew that it was going to be wonderful, that there would be days that deathless prose flows so effortlessly that it makes you believe in God and divine inspiration. 

I knew you had to have a hide like a rhinoceros and never take your reviews to heart, good or bad. I was perfectly aware that you have to know your craft. You have to practice, practice, practice, like a concert violinist, because it doesn’t matter if you have the skill of your art like Leonardo DaVinci and the genius in your field of Albert Einstein, if you don’t actually sit yourself down and put words to paper with ruthless determination, you ain’t a writer.

I was well aware that, unless the planets aligned and the gods conspired, I was not going to be able to support myself on royalty payments. Thus far, the planets have not aligned nor have the gods conspired.

I knew that you must never give up, even when you wonder why on earth you’re putting yourself through this for so little reward. I even knew how brave you have to be, to persevere, to trust the process, to write what you know you should write without wondering if it’s going to sell. (And believe me, that takes more courage than I sometimes have.)

I even knew that it was going to take over my life.

What I didn’t fully realize is how much writing is like being in love. You do things for it that you never thought you’d do. You long for it when something keeps you from it, and yet you resent how it takes over your life. You break your heart for it. You can’t give it up.

But when it loves you back, there’s nothing like it.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

More on reviews

 Charlotte's post yesterday on writing reviews caught my attention. I loved her thoughtful, sensitive, but honest approach. In a world where independent professional reviewers are becoming scarcer than hen's teeth, online, "ordinary man" reviews are becoming not only the norm but the main guide to decision making. This goes for almost everything we buy nowadays. It seems before I buy anything, whether it's a vacuum, a patio umbrella stand, or a new car, I read the reviews. These reviews, taken as a whole, are enormously helpful. If half a dozen ordinary Janes tells me the patio stand crumbled within a week, or the vacuum can't handle pet fur, I give the product a pass. Those are objective, observable faults that can be easily recognized by everyone.

Books are a different story. Judging a book is subjective. Not only do people have different preferences and tastes, but different standards. Rarely is a book universally bad, but almost all will be considered bad by some readers. It's extremely difficult to remove your own preferences from your evaluation of a book. I don't read romance or fantasy and know nothing about either genre. Most likely, I would apply my standards for literary or mystery novels, both of which I do read, and my review would not only be worthless but potentially damaging not only to the book's sales but to the author. As an author, I know how much it hurts to get a negative review, particularly one that is ill-informed or mean. As Charlotte says, writing is hard. It can take more than a year, and a lot of heart and sweat, to write a book, and no matter how it turns out, it is very personal to the author. 

Because of this, I almost never write reviews. The writing community is small and close-knit. I have a lot of author friends, and although I know how important reviews are to our sales and rankings, and thus to our chances of getting our next publishing contract, but I value my friendships more. I can't give Author X a five-star rating and Author Y a three-star rating, leaving that author wondering why I was so stingy. For the same reason, I can't review Author X and not Author Y, leaving self-doubts and questions in Author Y's mind. 

A similar problem arising with cover blurbs, which we authors get asked to write frequently. Some authors refuse all requests, others accept all, and many of us pick and choose. I do the latter, but always with trepidation and the explicit caveat that I will read the book before deciding. If it's a friend or a connection of some kind (same publisher, met you at a book event), I will probably agree to read it. If the book seems to fit my style or preferences, I am also more likely to agree to read it. I will not accept a book by someone I've never heard of who writes books entirely different from mine unless the author or publisher makes a very good case.

I say trepidation because what if I hate it? What if the writing is appalling? We authors put our name and reputations on the line when we endorse a book, and I won't be misleading, even for a friend. But it's extremely difficult to find a gentle way to refuse once I have read the book. Fortunately so far, I have been lucky. Sometimes I have loved the book and had no trouble saying so in the blurb, and at other times, I have managed to find positive things to say even when the book wasn't to my taste. But I dread the day when I encounter a book that I can't endorse at all. I will have to think up some convoluted excuse such as "I'm sorry, I realize I have no time after all..." or "Once I started to read your manuscript, I realized it's not my strong suit...".

Writing a good review or a blurb takes time and careful thought. Any less, and 


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Reviews and Mean People

by Charlotte Hinger

I don't give nasty reviews. But I don't lie either. This philosophy puts me in some rather delicate situations.

First of all, I'm deeply aware that it's much easier to find what's wrong with a book than what is good about it. In fact, looking for what's right instead of what's wrong is not a bad approach for assessing human beings. When it comes to evaluating a book, I always keep in mind that writing a book is hard. Even if the book stinks, it's hard.

Commenting on a book I love is easy. Descriptive words come easily. It's a joy to urge readers to run down to their local bookstore and add the title to their collection. If I'm really crazy about it, I'll foist it off on all my friends. "You gotta read this. Just gotta."

Next down the list are books that I don't really like but recognize their merit. These are mysteriously painful reads that I simply don't care for. I simply soldier on and do my best to expand on themes and or point out some special strength.

Next are books that are competent, but mediocre. The plotting is predictable, the characters trite, and the writing lazy. I simply come up with a completely objective plot summary, with no praise whatsoever. It goes something like this: "John Doe's historical novel, Blue Against the Grey, is set during the Civil War. Doe follows the story of two families caught up in the Late Rebellion." I don't recommend these books, but don't make negative comments either.

And then there are the books I simply refuse to read beyond the first five pages. When that happens, I turn them back to the editor with the comment that I don't feel like I could do a good job reviewing this book. Find someone else!

An author I met at Bouchercon one year told me about a situation she was in and asked my advice in handling it. Although it had never happened to me, I knew what I would do. A lady who was very aggressive asked her to review an ebook and post the comments on-line. Blatant Self Promotion was the lady's middle name. She was shameless in pursuing people to offer their opinions.

My new friend finally agreed to give her a review. She herself wrote hardcore ebooks, but when she reached the lady's second page, she knew it was the most depraved book she had ever read. What should she do? She loathed the book, but the lady was quite influential. She knew a lot a people.

I told her to nevertheless to refuse to have anything to do with the book. Refuse immediately and firmly. Use polite wording if you can in this kind of situation.  Something like "Your writing is completely different than mine. A recommendation from me wouldn't help your book. Find someone who supports your genre."

In fact, not only would I ditch the book, I would ditch the person. There's something blackmailish about someone throbbing with a veiled threat of "Give me a good review or I'll ruin your career."

Keep your distance from mean people.


Monday, June 20, 2022

As others see us

Even though I have been writing stories for almost as long as I can remember, which is about two weeks back, I didn't always want to be a writer.

I was going to be an actor.

That was my dream for a very long time. I performed in school plays. I took part in amateur drama. I attended a course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. I took a bow every time someone switched on a light. I even took elocution lessons because it was felt that an actor's diction had to be closer to Received Pronunciation. That was garbage then and it's garbage now and was little more than prejudice against any kind of regional accent, an insistence that we should all talk as if we've just stepped in from the cricket pitch in search of cucumber sandwiches.

I hated those classes and only attended, I think, half of the sessions. At the end I had to take an independent audition/exam, presenting two readings - one from the court scene of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the other as Fagin teaching Oliver Twist how to steal. The tutor was sniffy about my chances, telling me that I didn't have a chance.

I passed. 69 per cent, if I remember correctly.

I took great pleasure in returning to her studio and telling her. She accepted it with ill grace. (I hope Grace got well soon)

Despite my still fairly strong Glasgow accent,  I still thought I could have been a contender for the big time.

Until I landed a small part in a BBC TV show called 'Sutherland's Law'. I played a young car thief.

Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, filming during the day and overnight near Oban on the west coast. I believe I've written about that on Type M before.

The problem came when I saw myself on screen.

I was horrified and right there I decided that an actor's life was not for me.

So I concentrated on the writing, which I had been doing since childhood anyway, thinking that TV and I were finished.

But it wasn't finished with me.

Don't get me wrong, I still performed. Community theatre. Comedy shows for hospital radio. Mostly material I wrote myself. But I didn't trouble anyone's screens.

But then I became involved in a campaign regarding a miscarriage of justice here in Scotland. I won't go into the details but it did lead to me being asked to comment for TV news and documentaries. And that has extended to appearing in segments concerning Scottish true crime. 

That particular case has been with me for 30 years now and last year I presented an hour-long documentary on the case that required me to drive around Glasgow in a vintage 1990s Ford Capri. A beautiful car, to be sure, but a nightmare to drive. How on earth did we survive in the old days without power steering? 

More recently I contributed to a programme that I have vowed will mark my last word on the subject. I am mindful, however, of the old adage to never say never.

I have made a point of never watching anything that I do, because seeing yourself as others see you can be something of a shock. They say that a mirror merely reflects reality but let me tell you that's not true. Mirrors lie like a grifter on the long con.  

In the past few years my TV appearances seem to have ramped up in documentaries concerning various true crime matters in Scotland and almost sounding as if I know what I'm talking about, but I've still never watched them and I don't think I ever will. I recorded a segment for another just this week and the chances are I won't ever see that, either.

I'll stick to hiding behind a keyboard. If I want to be disturbed I'll watch the horror channel. 



On another note, my last Rebecca Connolly book has been longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize here in Scotland. 

It's my third time up to bat - one every three years - so maybe this time it will be a charm. Or maybe not!

Whatever the outcome, it's nice to have work recognised and I am proud to be on this roster.


Friday, June 17, 2022

Summer Plans and Agatha Christie

I've lost track of my posting schedule, but I'm sure I missed last Friday. Mid-week I went down to New York City to do an interview for a documentary. That was fun. But the documentary won't be out until 2023, and I wasn't told I could talk about it. Since I could end up being left out of the final cut, I will wait to share the details.

Last weekend, I attended the Maine Crime Wave. I had intended to drive because there is no train or plane that would have taken me directly from Albany to Portland. But as it happened, the production company that asked me to come down to NYC for the interview flew me to Portland for the festival. Then I flew back to NYC and took the train back to Albany.

The festival was on the campus of University of Southern Maine. It was a wonderful gathering with great panels and guests of honor. Lovely weather. Highly recommended. 

But I was glad to get home without delays along the way. Penelope, the cat, was pleased to see me because -- although she'd had a sitter who came in twice a day -- she was in the house alone. Fergus, my bouncing boy, had spent the week boarding with the owner of his doggie daycare. We have been getting back to our regular routine this week as I try to finish an article for a special issue of a journal. The article is about Gothic literature, Edgar Allan Poe, and "haunting" in works by several African American mystery/detective writers. I'm aiming to have that out the door this weekend. 

Then I'm going to start my summer projects with fall in mind. I have a sabbatical coming up in this fall. I intend to savor every minute of it, and try to actually get some writing done. In the lead-up, I need to finish my book about gangster movies and get it polished and out to my publisher by the end of August. 

Then in September . . . a coincidence that Agatha Christie came up in the posts this week. I'm about to settle into a couple of months of reading/re-reading her novels and short stories. I'm scheduled to do a presentation during the International Agatha Christie Festival in September and seeing my travel agent next week. 

 https://www.iacf-uk.org/festival-2022/if-you-like-agatha-christie-then-you-ll-like-with-professor-frankie-bailey

I was first invited to present in 2020. Then came the pandemic. Last year, I was invited again and decided to wait one more year. This year, I want to go to Torquay and deliver my talk in person. I love England. My first Lizzie Stuart novel is set in Cornwall. That first book, Death's Favorite Child, was my tip of the hat to Dame Agatha. The victim is a young housekeeper in a private hotel. My sleuth and her best friend, a travel writer, are guests there. A friend had invited me to meet her for a week's vacation in St. Ives, and I began writing the book during that delightful week. 

My festival presentation will have an observation or two about Christie's 1939 And Then There Were None. I've already shared my thoughts about that novel in Out of the Woodpile, my book about black characters in crime fiction. Christie's plot itself is one that other mystery writers would love to pull off with such finesse. That's why every writer of crime fiction should read Christie's books and short stories. She was not only prolific, she has influenced us all. 

Personally, I also love the movies. My favorite is Death on the Nile  -- gorgeous photography and great cast. After I get my article done, I'm going to make a bowl of popcorn and watch it again. What better way to launch my summer with Agatha.

 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Live from . . .

I’ve been off the grid for a couple weeks, in transit, between Massachusetts and Michigan, between schools (Northfield Mount Hermon and Detroit Country Day), and between lives. The dog and I drove 14 hours ahead, arriving in Lake Orchard, Michigan, to meet the movers. Now we’re surrounded by boxes, awaiting my wife and daughters.

On the writing front, I’ve gotten positive feedback from my agents about a book set at a boarding school that I hope will be the first book in a new series. Now, I’m revising. There’s one more stop before we submit, and, for me, it’s a unique one: I’m sending the book to one more reader, this one an editor.
Boxes and boxes and boxes



This is new for me. I’ve never used an editor before when writing on spec, only my friends, but the opportunity makes sense to me, at this time. She’s had a storied career at a host of publishers, and considering everything I’ve had going on this year (a move, a surgery, a new job), I welcome the chance to have someone look for plot holes and call my bluff(s)

It'll be a new experience, one I never considered previously, but I want the book to be as strong as it can be when we go out with it, and the price seems reasonable.
The dog discovered a new neighbor



Well, I’m sensing that the dog isn’t going to unpack any boxes, so . . .

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

More On That Hot "New" Writer

 

by Sybil Johnson

I read the recent Wall Street Journal article Thomas mentioned in his post on Monday, the one about younger readers discovering Agatha Christie. I admit that I was surprised that she wasn’t already well known to the younger set. This ranks up there to when I first met someone who didn’t know who the Beatles were.

Dame Agatha was still alive and writing when I first checked a book of hers out of the library in junior high. I still remember how sad I felt when I saw the newspaper headline announcing her death in 1976.

She’s often labeled a writer of cozies, but people forget how many different kinds of crime stories she wrote over the course of her career. The only ones I would label as cozies are her Miss Marple books. Poirot I would classify under traditional mystery. She also wrote spy stories, romances under Mary Westmacott, and even some stories with supernatural elements. My favorite of her books, “And Then There Were None”, I would even label as noir. (Only the book version, not the play version that has a different ending.)

I’ve read all of her mysteries, some of them numerous times. They are my go to read when I need some comfort. It seems strange to say a murder mystery brings you comfort, but Agatha’s books always do that for me.

I’ve also enjoyed a lot of the film adaptations done over the years. My absolute favorite is the Helen Hayes version of “A Caribbean Mystery”. That’s also a go-to for me when I’m needing some comfort and I don’t feel like reading.

I’m glad people are rediscovering her books, but I haven’t much enjoyed the newer film adaptations that seem to have sparked that interest. Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is too athletic for my taste, though his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” was beautifully shot and decent. I really disliked his version of “Death on the Nile”, though. The David Suchet and Peter Ustinov versions are far superior. The 2020 version of “The Pale Horse” was also not to my liking. I honestly found the ending very confusing and very un-Agatha.

A lot of the newer films and TV shows add sex scenes and back stories for characters that I really don’t see any need for. The only time I didn’t mind the addition of a backstory was the series with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. They moved the stories into the fifties and gave Miss Marple a bit of a backstory that was interesting but not intrusive.

All in all, though, I’m glad Agatha continues to find new readers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Will Rogers Medallion Award

 

by Charlotte Hinger

What a surprise! When I picked up my mail this evening there was a brown envelope sent from Fort Worth. It contained a letter from Chris Enss, the Executive Director of the Will Rogers Medallion Award Committee. My short story "The Book Mama" is a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion Award. I am absolutely thrilled. 

I was honored to be included in this quartet of writers and am proud to announce that of the six finalists for the Short Story Award, Randi Samuelson-Brown, Mark Warren, and Candace Simar--the other three contributors to Librarians of the West--are also contenders for the coveted medallions. Our publisher, Gale Cengage/Five Star has been a leader in supporting westerns and historical novels about the American West. 

My historical novel about the African American community of Nicodemus, Kansas, The Healer's Daughter, won the silver medallion in the Western Maverick category in 2020. How I wanted to attend that ceremony, but Covid was rampant that year and I decided not to try it. Wild horses can't keep me away this year. 

The Annual Awards Banquet is held in Fort Worth in October. I'm going all out. I'll attend the Friday afternoon book signing and the evening Meet-and-Greet. It's terrific to see organizations and conventions return to their regular activities. So many events in the publishing world were cut back or eliminated in 2020 and 2021.

Luckily, I'm close enough to drive. I've heard from a number of people who have had problems with airlines. 

My daughter and son-in-law were going to a Lisbon, Portugal to a business sponsored retreat. The first stumbling block was that she tested positive for Covid. He was negative. Then when they both had proof of negative test, the plane was delayed several hours, then a day. Finally, they were able to board. Then I received a text that the plane was broken. They couldn't fly. No chance of making the connecting flight. Then after a harrowing bought of rescheduling everything worked. 

My good friend, Angela Bates, and I will be traveling to the Western Writers of American convention next Tuesday. Unless I develop a miraculous reserve of energy, we will have to break the trip into two days. 

I very much love the energy boost I get from writers' conferences. However, since I write both historical novels and mysteries, for financial reasons I select carefully. I could easily attend a conference a week. 

And then where would I be? Besides, broke, I mean.

Another writer who isn't actually writing. That's where.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Younger Readers Discover Agatha Christie


 By Thomas Kies


A little a week ago, I attended Thrillerfest in New York.  It was my first in-person conference since 2019 and I loved it.  The organizers of the conference did a terrific job even though it was at a different venue than it’s been in the past.  The Sheraton Times Square is a wonderful facility, but it took me a couple of days to figure out the configuration of the conference area.  

Because of Covid, it appeared that attendance was down, and I noticed that a couple of the panels were missing some of the participants.  Toward the end of the conference, there was a panel on News and Investigations.  Three participants were missing leaving only two authors and the facilitator.  In an interesting quirk of fate, John DeKakis, formerly a CNN writer for Wolf Blitzer, and I were drafted to sit on the panel.

Yes, I had my own panel the day before.  This was just extra and something fun.

But even with the threat of an uptick in Covid, there were hundreds of attendees including authors, publishers, agents, and most importantly, readers and fans. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, there was in an interesting article entitled “Young People Discover a Hot New Writer—Agatha Christie.” It talked about how a young generation has “discovered” Christie.  Indeed, scrolling through TikTok, videos labeled #AgathaChristie have clocked in at 26 million views. 

Sales of Agatha Christie books in the US have risen 39% in the first quarter from last year’s period according to book tracker NPD BookScan. 

Part of the reason may be the popularity of the 2017 movie “Murder on the Orient Express” that featured Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot.  Then there was another spike in popularity when the 2022 movie “Death on the Nile” arrived.  

Indeed, at ThrillerFest, it appeared there was an increase in interest in mysteries and thrillers from those who are under 40, both readers and writers. I have no hard evidence of that.  Only my observations in the panel rooms, the cocktail parties, and at the hotel bar.  You know…the typical mystery writer hangouts.

So, let’s go to the basics.  Why do people like mysteries and thrillers?  It’s an opportunity to sit at home, or on a train, or in a coffeeshop, safely, and experience danger, fearsome scenarios, and life and death struggles with some really nasty villains. In a world fraught with injustice, nearly all of these books have a satisfying ending.  The bad guy is brought to justice, the good guys win.  That’s life as it should be. 

It also gives us a chance to match wits with the detective.  If the mystery is well written, the clues are all there.  You simply have to recognize them and figure it all out…before the ending. 

But if it’s well done, the reader should get to the ending, slap his hand against his forehead and say, “Of course, I should have seen that coming.”

And that’s another reason why Agatha Christie is finding a renewed audience. She wrote 72 novels, 150 short stories, and 20 plays over a writing career that spanned fifty years.  She’s synonymous with writing intricate stories, incredibly clever plotting, and red herrings…leaving trails of false clues. 

In addition to meeting some great people and interesting characters at a conference like Thrillerfest, you inevitably bring home a new cache of books, many from authors you’ve never heard of.  That’s part of the thrill of Thrillerfest.  While some readers are just discovering Agatha Christie, others are discovering new mystery writers. 

Speaking of new…my newest Geneva Chase Mystery, WHISPER ROOM, will be released on August 2nd.  I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think. 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Guest Blogger Mary Anna Evans


Type M is thrilled to welcome our friend and guest blogger Mary Anna Evans, author of thirteen award-winning Faye Longchamp mysteries. Her fourteenth mystery novel, The Physicists' Daughter, is the first in a fabulous new series set in WWII-era New Orleans and introduces Justine Byrne, whom Mary Anna describes as “a little bit Rosie-the-Riveter and a little bit Bletchley Park codebreaker". What's it like to start anew after a long successful run? Mary Anna has some thoughts about that.*



The Terror of Starting Something New

Mary Anna Evans

It has just now occurred to me that there is a strange symmetry to my writing career as of this moment. From the time I submitted my first short story to a magazine (and was rejected) to the time I sold my first novel, Artifacts, about eighteen years passed. 

Now, I wasn't writing and submitting and being rejected continuously all that time. I had jobs. I had children. I published a few poems. But, by and large, the publishing world spent eighteen years telling me "No," loudly and often. 

It has now been about eighteen years since I sold Artifacts, so my writing life hands in the balance, at least in terms of time. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that I'm doing something new? And is it any wonder that I'm nervous about it, after writing thirteen books about Faye Longchamp, a protagonist whom I still admire and enjoy? I could easily keep writing about Faye, and I may well write about her again, but life and art are about learning and growing. It's time to flex some new muscles. 

The Physicists' Daughter went out into the world this month. It's a historical novel, and 1944 is a new time period for me. While still published by a mystery imprint, it's as much a spy thriller as it is a traditional mystery. I had enormous amounts of fun learning about 1944 and World War II and top secret weapons and mid-twentieth-century science. My new protagonist, Justine Byrne, is young and awkward and brilliant and loyal, and I think my readers will have as much fun spending time with her as I do. Her best friend, Georgette Broussard, has been another gift to me as a writer. These two women were born for adventures, and I hope I get to the intrepid pair on many of them.

None of these things makes the nervousness go away, but you know what? I think we're supposed to be nervous. It's not good for us to get complacent. Who wants to live in a rut?

I like to think that I've brought everything I've learned in the years I wrote Faye to this book. I like to think that those things have made The Physicists' Daughter the best book I can write today. Next year, I'll know enough to write one that's even better.

In the meantime, don't mind me. I'm just sitting here in my corner of the internet, watching my new baby go out into the world and worrying about her.

_________

*p.s. Mary Anna has nothing to worry about. The Physicists' Daughter is an absorbing, heart-pounding read - Donis

visit Mary Anna's website at https://maryannaevans.com

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Random Thoughts on Writing


I (Donis) have been doing my best to write over the past months - though it's hard to concentrate these days. I'd plead that I've had writer's block, but I've thought for years that “Writer’s block” is not really a thing. If you’re stuck, put something down, some reminder, or thought, a place-filler, or just a blank. Recently I read about an author who writes the word “bagel” when he can’t think of anything else. This allows him to keep moving. He can always go back and find the perfect term later. Believe me, even Shakespeare’s first draft looked like the dog’s dinner.  I live by this philosophy, especially lately, since I am not only not bringing my A game when I sit down to write, I’m not even up to my W game. But you must plug on. Later, after you have something to work with, you rewrite, and then you go back and do it again. And again. I think that most authors are never really satisfied with what they’ve created.  As for me, I’ll tinker with a book until I absolutely have to turn it in for the last time. Years after the book is published, I’ll find myself coming up with fresh ideas for a scene and wishing I could go back and work on it some more.

I once read an essay that postulated that a person’s thinking patterns might be formed by the geography of the place he grew up. I don’t know if that is true. However, I have observed that people are happier in some places than others, possibly due to where they were reared. My husband was raised on the wide-open Great Plains, and becomes claustrophobic in heavily wooded country. A friend from the Ozark Mountains once told me that she loves the woods. She feels protected and secure in wooded country, and exposed and vulnerable on a treeless plain. Many a city-raised person is disoriented in the wilderness, and vice-versa for someone who grew up in the country. It’s what you’re familiar with, I suppose. I read a piece in the newspaper several years ago about an unusually long period of sunshine in Iceland, which is normally has cloud cover for some 300 days a year. An interviewee said that the clear sky was nice at first, but after a week, she was beginning to feel nervous and unhappy. I’m sure there is a story idea lurking in there somewhere.

If I’m going to spend two or three days of my life reading a novel, I would prefer to like at least some of the characters. I try not to spend too much time with real-world people I dislike, after all. I once read a well-known book by a Very Famous Author and found the mystery quite interesting and the writing excellent.Very Famous Author really knew how to invoke a setting and construct a plot. The characters were  well drawn, but they were  all so unpleasant that even though I really wanted  to know how the story turned out, I had trouble finishing the book. I finally skimmed through just enough to get the gist and then read the end. I take a lesson from this experience and try to create characters who the readers will enjoy spending time with. Not to say that all the characters should be nice. Where’s the fun in that? I  do enjoy seeing evil people get their comeuppance.


Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Inspector Green or Amanda Doucette

I am facing a dilemma. My current contract with Dundurn will soon be fulfilled, with Wreck Bay in its final edits and scheduled for winter release. Dundurn and I are discussing what should come next. Once Wreck Bay comes out, the Amanda Doucette series will have five books with settings that span Canada from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. The much-longer running Inspector Green series has eleven books. I am trying to decide which series I want to address next. 

Both series have similarities – they are gritty, realistic, psychological stories with underpinnings of social justice – and both have a following. Although many people like both series, some are fonder of  Green, which is a more classic police procedural whodunit, while others like the more adventure thriller style of Doucette, along with the exploration of Canada.

There are differences for me too. The Green books are easier to write, not because the plots or issues re simpler, but because the setting is Ottawa, which I know very well, and more of the characters carry over from book to book. His family and colleagues, for example. As well, police procedurals have the built-in structure of a police investigation which I can fall back on for inspiration. Amanda requires research into a whole new setting for every book, most of which are unfamiliar, necessitating more reading and at least one trip out there to explore and get the details right. The books also have only three characters (four including the dog) in common, so I have to start from scratch creating a world of characters and their relationship to Amanda.

Moreover, plotting an amateur sleuth book is much more challenging. There are no guideposts of what might come next, and I have to be very creative about how Amanda becomes and stays involved in the crime.

I love writing both series. I love the adventures Amanda takes me on, and I love the old friends I've created in the Green books. Both series offer intriguing possibilities for a next book. I would travel north for the next Amanda, probably setting the story somewhere in Nunavut or the Yukon, which I know from previous visits and have contacts in. I have no idea what the story would be, but that would come.

In The Devil to Pay, I shook up the series by introducing his daughter as a rookie cop and a brash, young detective who wants to get ahead. This younger generation modernizes the series and adds a new dimension that I'd enjoy exploring. 

At this point I have no idea what either story would be about, but that will come once I focus my energies. I will continue spinning possibilities in my head until one emerges as a clearer frontrunner. Meanwhile I leave you with the question; do you have a preference for what you'd like to see. I'd love to hear from you! Tell me which, and maybe why, in the comments. 


Tuesday, June 07, 2022

The Fatal Click

 by Charlotte Hinger

I'm about five pages away from finishing my new mystery. I think. As usual the first 100 pages have been gone over a number of times and there's somewhat of a rush at the end. This is the second time I've finished the book. It usually takes three drafts before I'm satisfied, or least not totally in despair over the sorry quality. But for some reason the foundation of this book was there from the beginning. It was a pleasant surprise. 

And next, and next, comes the fatal click. The decision to send it to my agent. The irreversible engaging of the "send" button on my email program. With a file attached. There's no taking it back. It's every bit as final as going to the post office years ago and saying farewell to the big heavy manuscript box that contained a couple of years work. I was psychotically fussy about this mailing. The book was printed on very good paper. The box had a removable lid, and my label was immaculate. 

Mailing or emailing a manuscript is a bittersweet experience. One of the most satisfying experiences is finishing a long project. It's exhilarating to reach the end. And yet--the next stage is anxiety. For me this happens every time. 

I have a new agent and I'm worried about her reaction. My former publishing company was sold to another which has a sterling reputation for marketing and sales. I'm worried about making the cut. 

Vigorous promotion is part of the game now. I believe that those of us who are lucky enough to be traditionally published have an obligation to do our best to publicize our books. 

Wish me luck. Friday is the day of the fatal click.  


Monday, June 06, 2022

Time traveling on paper

 At the moment I am in the 18th century.

I don't mean physically for despite the best efforts of Mr Herbert George Wells - not to mention the various captains of the starship Enterprise - we have not yet perfected time travel. Our memories can go back in time but not our bodies. Sorry, HG. And James T.

Having completed next year's Rebecca Connolly book, at least until the edit lands with a figurative thud in my inbox, I moved immediately on to the next in my historical series. The first, An Honourable Thief, will be published in September.

That means I am immersed in the London of 1716 and it's been a bit of a wrench jumping from 21st century Scotland to a time when there were no mobile phones, no DNA, no CCTV, no organised police force. The famed Metropolitan Police would not come into being for another 113 years - and it was not, as some would have it, the first in Britain. There had been a municipally funded city police force in my home town of Glasgow for almost 30 years before Sir Robert Peel set up the London boys in blue. And York Minster had a private police squad going back to the 13th century while Paris's policing history stretches back to 1667.

I hope you're taking notes, because I may ask questions later.

They did have criminals, for ever since Cain gave Abel that bump on the head there have been people who would kill, maim, steal, con and generally make themselves a nuisance to the lieges. And there was intrigue a-plenty, for these were turbulent times in history, complete with wars, corruption, political self-interest and violence. 

Not much has changed.

I've been fascinated by history since a child. I still have a book given to me as a Christmas present when I was 10, a Picture Book of World Exploration, which introduced me to the exploits of explorers of the past. I devoured Robert Louis Stevenson, CS Forester, the historical works of Dennis Wheatley and other authors whose names I no longer recall. I also took in a lot of westerns, which are - let's face it - also historical.

However, I'm not an historian. A few years ago I wrote a non-fiction account of the exploits of Peter Williamson, a man taken from Aberdeen in 1743 and sold into indentured servitude in the American Colonies who on his eventual return to Scotland waged a legal war against the businessmen behind the abduction trade. It was a tale of high adventure, of courtroom skullduggery, of war, injustice and corruption. Of all my non-fiction books that is one of which I am most proud. 

In that I made it clear that I was a storyteller and not an historian. It's the tale that appeals to me and that has continued with these historical novels. I am making every effort to be as accurate as I can but I am taking liberties. I am moving events around to suit my story. I make no apologies for that.

When I was writing non-fiction I often found that it was a tiny little fact regarding an historical crime that stimulated the storytelling portion of my brain. It was a single line in an account of spies during the Jacobite risings that sparked An Honourable Thief. In this new one it's a real-life escape from The Tower of London that set me off, while the fact that the winter was so harsh that the Thames had frozen has given me some atmosphere.

But that's the way it is with writers. That's the inspiration. After that, it's all application. There's no sitting around awaiting the muse to land on my forehead like an angels' kiss - from here on it's hard work.

And that, dear reader, is this week's writing advice. I know, I took a long road for a short cut but there you have it.

Now, pardon me while I don my periwig and head back to Hanoverian London, where there's about to be a murder.

As I said, nothing much has changed.


 


Wednesday, June 01, 2022

No Words, Words

 

Like Charlotte and Thomas, I am saddened by recent events here in the U.S. The last couple weeks have also been tiring for other reasons. In that time I have been to two memorial services and seen two family members visit the ER on two different occasions (they’re both fine). That still doesn’t compare to what the family members of the people killed in the recent shootings are going through right now.

All I can do is pray for those affected and keep on writing and reading and doing things that interest me/make me feel better.

One of those things is finding interesting words. Here are a few of them, many of them no longer in use. 

aflunter – in a state of disorder. This describes my hair when it’s windy. This is from the “English Dialect Dictionary 1891” by Joseph J. Wright. It apparently originated in West Yorkshire. This one is not in the OED. I guess they don’t go for dialects. 

ailurophophile – a lover of cats. I am one of these. 

ailurophobe – one who hates or fears cats. Not one of these.

baffound – to stun and perplex. This is also from Yorkshire; also not in the OED.

enchiridion – a handbook, manual, guide book.

hebdomadal – weekly, every 7 days

incunabulum – a book printed before 1501; plural is incunabula. The Gutenberg Bible is included in this category. https://www.ndl.go.jp/incunabula/e/chapter1/index.html 

merry-go-sorry – a mixture of laughing and crying; an experience that elicits feelings of both joy and sorrow. The OED lists this as obsolete, first appearing in 1599. I think we should bring it back. 

overmorrow – day after tomorrow. The OED lists this as obsolete, rare, first used in 1535. I think we should bring this one back as well.

paranomasia – a fancy word for pun.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Memorial Day

 I prefer to write this column the day before it's due. But all my work has been overshadowed by the massacre in Texas. Our whole country is in mourning. Thomas Kies's post summed up my feelings. I can't improve on what he said. My heart goes out to all the families affected by this tragedy. 

As Thomas said, writers are very good at putting ourselves into other peoples' heads. I'm haunted by the image of little children lying on the floor, playing dead, praying for help that doesn't come soon enough, knowing that if they move, they will die, the overwhelming terror of it all. 

Memorial Day used to be one of my favorite holidays. I grew up in Eastern Kansas very close to the Missouri line. Peonies burst forth in all their glory at that time of year. Roses, never pruned, climbed over fences and clung to sides of our outbuildings. We stuffed these wonderfully odorous flowers into water-filled buckets and made our annual parade through the many grave sites in Lone Elm, Kincaid, and Garnett. 

There were never any artificial flowers deposited on the graves. Just blooms from our own yards. We would stop and talk with various family members who had also come to pay homage to their dead. It was the only time I saw some of my distant and aunts and uncles during the year. Memorial Day was a journey and a ritual for so many families. My parents would introduce me to a bewildering number of relations and catch up on news.

I would hear stories about people buried at each site. Invariably, someone would explain a connection: "Yes, this Baby Ruby, Clarence and Mattie's daughter. Yes, she was just four. She died at a community dance. She fell and hit her head." (True story). 

Now Memorial Day has become simply a three-day weekend with more drunk drivers to contend with, and more events ending up in shooting sprees. Yesterday I yearned for those innocent days when families traveled to hometowns to honor their loved ones.

I'm yearning for a time, a week, or even a day when this country doesn't have its heart ripped out. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

No Appropriate Words

 By Thomas Kies

I’ve been wrestling with the topic for this particular blog for a couple of days now.  It’s not unusual for me to struggle from time to time for a subject, but this week is just felt harder than the others.

On Sunday morning, after Cindy and I finished breakfast and reading the Sunday New York Times, I told he that I had to go upstairs to my home office and work on this column and I had absolutely no idea what it would be about. 

She mentioned that perhaps I should write about how difficult it is to write on demand, especially when events happening in the world are so disturbing. So, yes…Cindy…you’re right, as usual.  

The day that this blog will appear is Memorial Day.  Unofficially, this is the first day of summer.  We’re gathering our families, going to the beach, having backyard BBQs, taking the boat out on the water for the first time this year, or going camping.  We’re looking forward to sunshine, warm weather, and vacations. 

Officially, it’s the day we honor those who have died in active military service of this country.  We thank them for their ultimate sacrifice.  They gave their lives for what they believed in, the greater good of our country and its people.

But what of the other deaths we’ve seen take place lately?  The headline in today’s New York Times is “1,500 Dead Since 2009; Can U.S. Do Something About Mass Shootings?”

According to the Times, just this year alone, there have been 214 instances of mass shootings where four or more people have died or been injured.  Most recently, ten people murdered in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and nineteen children and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas. 

Both of those massacres occurred after two men, each just eighteen, managed to legally obtain semi-automatic weapons and an inordinate amount of ammunition.  Just a passing note, neither were old enough to buy beer. Those men killed 31 innocent people for no good reason. 

Writers are subjects of extreme imagination.  It’s both a blessing and a curse. In our minds, we put ourselves (our characters really) in all sorts of situations.  In many times, terrifying…really terrifying… scenarios. 

But I’ve never written anything like what happened a few days ago in an elementary school in Texas.

In my mind, I visualize classroom of ten-year-old children, all of them watching as a stranger enters the room, wearing combat gear, holding a long gun, and telling them, “You’re going to die.”  Children, who only moments ago were watching an animated Disney movie, Lilo and Stitch.  Children, who were looking forward to their summer vacation of sunshine, BBQs, and family. 

Those children didn’t die for the greater good of our country and its people. 

Last year, I released SHADOW HILL.  In it, there’s mention of school shootings.  One of which was foiled because the perps had telegraphed what they were going to do (shoot up their high school) on social media and one of their schoolmates alerted the police. The cops arrested kids before they got to the school.  I wrote that scene with a happy ending.

If only there were more happy endings in real life. 

So, no, this blog won’t be about character development or story arcs.  This blog is about my inability to write a blog about writing because I’m distracted and distraught. 

My wife is right.  Sometimes, you just can’t write on demand. 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

A New Time for an Old Read

 As a writer, I advise newbies to read, read, read, and I find myself laboring to abide by what I'm telling others to do. My excuse is that I sit at the laptop all day, writing and editing, and in spare moments, it's too easy to zone out watching YouTube or Netflix. Reading for the sake of losing myself in a good story has become a challenge. I fondly remember my years in high school when I could spend the better part of evenings and weekends devouring the works of Leon Uris, James Clavell, John D MacDonald, Harold Robbins, and Arthur C Clarke. Feeling the need for such literary stimulation (okay, Harold Robbins would've chafed at being labeled "literary" but he did make bank with his writing), I decided to return to an old favorite, West With The Night, a memoir by Beryl Markham. In her day she was a renowned horse trainer and an accomplished pilot, being the first aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, east to west. Interestingly, I found out that two friends were also reading this same title.

Markham starts by describing her experience as an African bush pilot, then shifts into her backstory as a young girl living on a farm hacked out of the Kenyan bush, chronicling a life that seems more fantastic than any CGI adventure offered by Hollywood. In one episode, she skips school, and accompanied by her dog, joins a hunt with the local Masai. When they fell a reed-buck, it's up to Markham and one of the boys to skin and butcher the animal, which they feed to the hunting dogs. Later, the hunting party confronts a lion, and thankfully, after the lion and the Masai leader, Arab Maini, signal that they won't back down from a fight, the two sides retreat and go about their business. Markham fantasizes about saving the day with her trusty spear. She then sets her dog loose to chase warthogs, an exceptionally dangerous and cunning adversary. Not wanting to lose her faithful dog, she searches and discovers him, gravely wounded and next to a warthog vanquished after a ferocious battle. She won't abandon her dog and decides to spend the night alone with him in the jungle. She wears shorts and describes how her legs bleed from cuts inflicted by thorns and elephant grass. Arab Maini finds Markham. He is naked, having wrapped his simple robe about his arm to free his movements. The images overwhelmed me. Markham, an adolescent white girl in the African wilderness, with no water and no food, tending to her dog, so badly injured that his ribs are showing, spending the night with an unclothed man and and yet there's an innocent Eden-esque naturalism about it. 

As a teenage horse trainer, Markham relates treading barefoot through stables that need mucking and shares her trials of being bitten and thrown, even knocked unconscious against a tree, and having to convalesce for several days before returning to work. Throughout the memoir, she describes the environment with keen reverence and others with a profound understanding, always with empathy and without rancor. What a difference to today's verbal barf-fest on social media. However, Markham's no pollyanna about life's difficulties, showing her father worrying and toiling to save his farm as drought ravaged about them, only to lose everything. As marvelous as her anecdotes are, what makes her narrative sparkle is her extraordinary prose. Of the effect of World War One upon her community, she writes: 

"The days that marked the war went on like the ticking of a clock that had no face and showed no time."

To say that she was a superb writer would be too flimsy of an accolade. Ernest Hemingway, who seldom expressed praise of any writer, wrote this about Markham:

"I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pig pen...(she) can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers."

Friday, May 27, 2022

The People We've Never Met

Ray Liotta died this week. We had never met, but I felt the blow to my heart when I saw the headline. Dead at 67. A secret illness? A mob hit --- Goodfellas style.  Someone who had confused the gangster roles he had played with reality.

On the way from dropping my dog off at daycare this morning, there was an update on the radio. The morning show host who also was feeling the loss of this actor who neither one of us had met, reported that Ray Liotta had died in his sleep while on location in the Dominican Republic. No foul play was suspected. His fiancee had been with him. He had been working. He had been contemplating the future and his next film.

I don't know what it was about Ray Liotta that I loved. Maybe it was that smile. Maybe it was his jauntiness. Maybe was the emotions that played across his face or the voice that was always recognizable. Whatever it was, I felt his loss. 

There was other losses this week. Nineteen of them were children in a school in Texas. The father of one of them wept as he asked Anderson Cooper or someone from CNN how an 18 year old gunman could look at his little girl -- his beautiful, happy little girl -- and shoot her. Anderson or who ever the reporter was reached out to touch his arm as he wept. And I felt as if I knew that little girl and that father.

I cried again when I read the story of the man "who died of grief" -- his wife of 24 years and the mother of his four children had been one of the teachers who died in that school when an 18 year old boy with a high-powered gun in his hand opened fire. He died of a heart attack -- a "broken heart" -- two days later.

This week has been sad. During our three-day celebration of "the unofficial beginning of summer," I am going to pause and think about Ray Liotta and a weeping father and a man whose heart broke.  And about all the other losses we have had -- losses of people and stability. 

At some point this weekend, I will sit down at my computer, and I will write one of the scenes of the book I am working on. I don't know what I want to say or how I will say it. But I know I need to say something about what it means to be human. I need to say something about how we mourn for and with people we have never met.


Thursday, May 26, 2022

This Is Not How It Was Supposed to Turn Out

 Donis here. It's Wednesday afternoon, and I've been sitting in front of my computer for an hour, trying to muster the energy and the wit to come up with something meaningful - or at least cogent - to say. 

Yesterday did not go well. I spent most of the morning at a doctor's office with my husband. He was there for a follow-up appointment after a minor outpatient surgery a couple of weeks ago to remove several kidney stones. To begin with, we sat in the waiting room for nearly an hour before the doctor saw us - something that has certainly happened to us before, but unusual for this doctor. Then, to make a long long story short, when we finally saw doctor he told us that he was unable to remove all the stones and Don is going to have to go through the surgery all over again. He's barely recovered from the painful effects of the first procedure.

Then, after we finally finally got home, I got a call informing me that a dear friend who has been having some scary symptoms lately has been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. I knew something was wrong, but oh, my God...

And then I turned on the news.

I think about a quote I heard in a movie once: "Men are wretched creatures."

It feels like all the years of activism have done nothing. It's hard not to be tired. Right now I just need to concentrate on something small and sweet. Agatha Christie once said, (I paraphrase) "Sometimes I wonder at my age what's the point. Why I should keep on living. But then I have a lovely cup of tea and a nice scone and think life can still be pleasant." 

After taking a moment to rest and recoup, there's nothing to do besides keep on trying to make something better. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

In celebration of mystery conferences

 One of the most unexpected and gratifying side effects of writing mysteries has been the discovery of the mystery community. Other genres have their groups of like-minded souls with a passion for fantasy or sci-fi or romance, but I wonder if any of them have quite the welcoming warmth and touch of devilry of those who plot murders  Some of the friendliest, most fun-loving people I know spend their time researching poisons and autopsies and ways to blow people up.

Writing is a solitary pursuit and we have to  spend a lot of time in our own heads, but it's nice to get out every now and then, and social media only goes so far. Book launches, tours, signings, readings, and book clubs allow us to connect with real people who share our love of books, and they are crucial to feed the soul. Literary conferences and festivals are like a huge feeding frenzy for the soul. I have attended some wonderful festivals over the years, some small and intimate, others almost overwhelming. 

Festivals and conferences devoted to the crime genre have a very special place because they give mysteries their chance to shine, and they bring together mystery lovers from all across the spectrum from cozy to terrifying. I have attended conferences in the United States, Canada, and England, among them big events like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Bloody Words, and small ones like Scene of the Crime and Women Killing it! I've loved them all and made new friends each time as well as reconnecting with old ones.

 Conferences take a lot of work and require dedication, passion, and a tremendous time commitment from the organizers, and eventually they grow tired and stop. Bloody Words, Canada's premiere mystery conference, lasted about twelve years before the organizers pulled the plan, and it left a huge hole in the fabric of the Canadian crime writing community. Bloody Words was our chance as Canadian crime writers to highlight our own stories and to connect with one another. Without the chance to get together every year at Bloody Words, the ties that bind us across this sprawling, sparsely populated country have weakened or had no chance to form. 

There has been sporadic talk of starting something new, but then the pandemic landed with a thud into the middle of our lives, and all thoughts of getting together were put on hold. But now there is a new effort to create a truly Canadian mystery conference, founded by a small group of writers determined to highlight Canadian writers, who so often are overshadowed on the world stage. The Maple Leaf Mystery Conference is online this year, but will hopefully be in person in the future, and it runs from Tuesday May 24 to Saturday May 28. Evenings during the week and all day on Saturday. There are guests of honour in major categories as well as a slate of panels that range from cosy to thrilling. A single registration fee gets you access to everything all week.

I myself am moderating a panel called "Thrilling and chilling" on Saturday afternoon, with four other authors. Their books, all unique and powerful, make you rethink your definition of a thriller, even as they keep you up late into the night. Check out the whole schedule here, and treat yourself to some cool Canadian crime.