Monday, January 31, 2022

Creating a new character and a new series

I believe I've hinted a time or two about a new series I'm embarking upon (embarking on? On which I am embarking? Ach - you know what I mean).

Well, the news has now dropped.

I will now have two series running in tandem.

In addition to my ongoing contemporary Rebecca Connolly series, published by Polygon in the UK and Skyhorse in the US, Dumont in Germany and Cicero in Denmark (get me, Mr International), in October the first of my new historical crime series will be published here in the UK by Canelo. 

'An Honourable Thief' is set in 1715 against a turbulent political backdrop (when is it ever not?) and features Jonas Flynt - thief, gambler, unwilling agent of the Crown and, when he has to be, killer. The action moves from London to Edinburgh at the time of the Mar Rising, when a Scottish noble with an eye to the main chance raised the Jacobite standard in Scotland. The catalyst to Flynt's involvement - the Maguffin, if you will - is a mysterious document written by Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, which may (or may not) have somehow pledged the throne to her half-brother James and not George of Hanover. Flynt must find the document before it falls into the hands of the Jacobites.

I've mixed real-life historical figures with those of my own inventions and actual events with those I have imagined. There is even one historical incident that I have fictionalised and moved around 20 years back in time.   

My approach was to present a fast-moving tale featuring what is hopefully an interesting protagonist. Along the way the reader will learn more about Flynt and why he is the way he is - an 18th century version of Chandler's tarnished knight walking the mean streets of the 18th century. And boy, were they mean!

Which takes me on to the posts by Rick and Sybil about character background. 

I think we need to make our characters as real as we can, even if they are involved in fantastical events as in fantasy and science fiction. This first book is as much about Flynt and his past as it is about the plot because I need people to understand him a little in order to propel the series forward. He begins as a blank page but bit by bit I hope I have filled in enough of his past to help him walk from those pages - and out of the 18th century - and into the reader's room here in the 21st.

It's a tricky business - how far do you deviate from what is designed as a rip-roaring read to sketch in the character bits? While also painting a picture of life back then? And also leaving enough wiggle room for future development as the series progresses?

I'm not an historian, I'm a storyteller but I do hope I have not made any serious factual howlers. In the end, though, the entire world is one that I created and manipulated to my own ends. Hence lifting that real-life incident from 1736 to 1715 and tinkering with it a little for my story. Again, the use of that incident was all part of the character development, to show how Flynt and others peopling my story react, interact and act. 

And that's the secret I think. Elmore Leonard said that all character can be shown through dialogue and to an extent he was right but I would also add that it can be revealed by the actions they take and why they take them.

It's a difficult job but hey, that's why we get the big bucks.

I'll pause here to let you all roll about the floor in hysterical laughter.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Revival of the Fittest


Today my cousin brought me an old rocking chair that belonged to my great grandmother. I was delighted! We estimated that it dated from about 1870. It's a very small piece of furniture and needs to be refinished. As you can tell by the photo, it needs a lot of work. I'll begin with a good scrubbing and then decide about the finish. Fortunately, my cousin took care of any necessary repairs. 

Then comes the fun part--replacing all the fabric. I'm looking forward to finding just the right upholstery material. The seat is comprised entirely of cloth, so the fabric needs to be sturdy. Every bit of it is sewn by hand. When I looked closely, the hand construction explained how the top was fitted around the spindles. There are tabs between the spindles attaching the back and front cushion.

The fabric seat--also attached by hand stitching--was simply run around the rods and neatly attached underneath. I love the bent wood construction. This wee rocker is ideal for sewing and all manner of needlework. It's difficult to knit, darn, and quilt in chairs with high arms. My elbows bump into the wood. 

Reviving old projects seems to apply to my writing too. Apparently, I have a rescue gene. 

When a news reporter talked about the impact of inflation on the American economy and it was reminiscent of the 1980s, I dragged out a manuscript that has nearly been published four times. Twice by university presses. Something clicked. This manuscript would have great marketing potential right now. It falls into the historical novel category and deals with issues that are emerging again. Wow. Some of my best research was done on the disastrous savings and loan crisis in rural communities. Bank failures in small towns were devasting. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, when I reread a short story that my husband and agent disliked, I decided they were both wrong and sent it to Ellery Queen and they bought it immediately. I've had awfully good luck with short stories and don't have a backlog. Nor do I write them regularly. Once in a while I have a good idea and it perks in back of my mind until I sit down and write it. 

However, I have another historical novel that I would like to revive. The background is that of the frontier Catholic Church. I'm a better writer now and I suspect if I will do the work, it can be brought back to life. 

My brand new mystery is going reasonably well and my agent wants it accompanied by a synopsis of a following book. I loved Doug Skelton's recent post. It really is a matter of buckling down and getting to work. 

Have a great rest of the year everyone. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Same story, told differently

Four years ago, I finished my Peyton Cote contract, the publisher was in trouble, and it felt like time to turn the proverbial page. I told my agent I wanted to get back to writing a male protagonist, to writing something I knew, something that wouldn’t require copious amounts of research into the world in which the books were set.

My first five books are set on the PGA Tour –– fun research, but lots of it, nonetheless; my most recent three books are set in the world of the U.S. Border Patrol, a tight-lipped agency, where research is tough to come by, and my “ride-alongs” were acquired playing pick-up hockey with a group of agents, are now banned, and, frankly, probably illegal.

So I turned to what I knew and created a world set at a New England boarding school, a world we see through the eyes of an English teacher, who says his “nose is a little too crooked, his tie a little too low” to truly fit in. Bo Whitney is an outsider in an insider’s world.

I wrote a book featuring him four years ago. The plot was a good one, I thought, but it got complicated and got away from me. I rewrote the book, changing the point of view from first to multiple third, bringing in more characters, and veered off course. I still liked the plot, still believed there was something in that story that was compelling. So about a year ago, I went back at it –– same character, same plot, but first-person, much tighter, much more direct. Now I’ve got a finished draft, whittled down from 100,000 words in the first version to 65,000 now. Same story, told differently.

So we’ll see what happens. I’m combing through it one more time, then sending it to my former English teacher, a man who taught at a boarding school while reviewing crime novels for Publisher’s Weekly for years to get his two cents, before sending it to my agent.

Insanity, we’ve all heard, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes. Maybe that’s what this is: believing in a plot so much that you’re willing to write the same book three times, three different ways. Maybe it’s blind faith.

Or maybe it’s simply the writing life, the one we’ve chosen.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

More on Character Background


I read with interest Rick’s post yesterday, “How much character background is too much?” As I see it, how much character background is tolerated depends on the type of book. As he pointed out, too much character background in thrillers can slow down the story. I’ll tolerate the personal stuff in a thriller, like family situation, as long as the personal stuff intersects with the main story. e.g. the a character’s family is threatened in some way because of their actions in trying to solve a crime.

Cozies are a different animal. Readers of these types of stories like to know about the personal life of the amateur sleuth. Still, you don’t want to go overboard. But, if you write a craft-based cozy like I do, you should have your sleuth doing the craft in some areas of the book. Ideally this would lead to a sleuthing opportunity or something to do with the crime.

I usually have three plot lines going through my books – a main crime, a secondary crime that may or may not be related to the main one, it could just be muddying the waters making it difficult to figure out what’s really going on, and a personal story line. The challenge and fun is figuring out how to make the personal story line intersect with the main crime.

I’m not a fan of a lot of description in stories, but I think there does have to be enough to get a feel for where you are, especially if it’s a location not everyone knows about. That goes for descriptions of clothing as well. I try to make those as brief as possible and to do it in some sort of action like “She put the piece of paper in the pocket of her jeans.” I’ve not stopped reading a book because of too much description, but I have hesitated to read a second book in the series.

It can be quite difficult at times to figure out how much is too much. That’s where a good editor comes in.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

How much character background is too much?

by Rick Blechta

As I read novels, especially in established series, I often find to many diverging sub-plots getting in the way of the storyline. At the same time I understand why they are there and why the books’ editors didn’t strike them out with multiple slashes of their blue pens. Fans of series generally buy in because of the characters’ backstories.

Maybe it’s just me. I read because I want to be told a story, and if it’s a really engaging one, I don’t want multiple detours getting in the way. This is the main reason that I generally prefer thrillers to other genres, even when they are part of a series. If we do take detours with the characters, they are kept short, more quick hits then prolonged sidebars.

Trouble is many thrillers’ plots get to be too relentless by the time you’re approaching the climax. I am not suggesting that a background detour would be a good thing at that point, but sometimes it would be nice to catch one’s breath before plunging back into the fray.

I know. I know. That’s just a terrible contradiction. I don’t want sidebars into the characters’ love lives or home situations stopping the story too much at critical plot junctures.

The thing that I don’t understand is why authors’ feel compelled to feed us too much background at one time when they’re writing a series. I mean, don’t they have multiple upcoming novels, allowing the to dole information out more slowly. Unless the background is critical to a particular plot in order to more easily understand/believe that character’s response, can’t it just be hinted at with an eye to adding to it in a later book?

I put down a relatively good book recently because of three “character-developing” subplots derailing the forward motion of the story. I’ll probably pick it up again when I’m in a more forgiving headspace. I don’t like to skip things in a book, but I was getting my “not another sidebar” response too many times. However, since I haven’t read the entire book, I might miss something really important by skimming past things I find irritating.

It’s a conundrum. Does anyone else feel this way about certain series?

Monday, January 24, 2022

Ice, Titles, and Edgars

By Thomas Kies

I’m writing this in my home office, gazing out my second-floor window over the garage, with two pairs of socks on my feet, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and denim shirt over that.  There’s ice covering the trees in our yard, and I can feel the cold radiating from the floor.  The garage, after all, is not insulated. 

We were hit with an ice storm last night.  Rare for this part of the country.  It was bad enough that the weight of the ice brought down a huge oak tree on top of our neighbors’ house.  One of the limbs came right through the ceiling of their bedroom.  Luckily, no one was injured.

According to the social media platforms, where I can spend way too much time, there were multiple power outages around our county, but they are all in the process of being restored. All in all, things could have been much worse.

In much of the country, it is.  Bitter cold, blowing snow, impassable roads all make life miserable, particularly in some of the mid-western and northern states.  Before moving to North Carolina, my wife and I lived in Connecticut.  Both of us could weather our winters pretty well. But since moving south of the Mason-Dixon Line, we’ve lost all capacity to withstand the cold. 

So, today I’m preparing for my Creative Writing class that begins again in a week. I'm also drafting a synopsis for my next book that I’m working on. I'm anxious to get it to my editor along with the early chapters. 

Like some of my brother and sister bloggers, I’m struggling with the title.  Usually, I have one in my head before I even type out the first line. Not this time.

I’ve put myself in a box as far as my Geneva Chase mysteries go.  The titles of the first four books have been place names: Random Road, Darkness Lane, Graveyard Bay, and Shadow Hill.  My fifth book will be out in August, and it’s called Whisper Room.

Are you seeing a pattern? The first word has been a descriptor with two syllables and the second word is the place with just one syllable. I know it’s kind of silly to make myself hold to that, but the pattern has been lucky for me. 

And yes, I’m kind of superstitious. 

Every one of my books has been saved on the same thumb drive. Would it be bad luck to use a different thumb drive?  I don’t know and I don’t want to find out.

So, book number six has no official name yet but I’m about eighty pages into it and casting about for a two-word title that fits the pattern.  Something like Murder Street or Poison Pit or Viper House. And, no, I’m not using any of those. 

As I look out my window, the only title popping into my mind is Icy Mess.

Totally unrelated, I got news on Thursday that my fourth book, Shadow Hill, has been Edgar nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the G.P Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award.  The award honors work that has the hallmarks of Sue’s writing as well as those of her most famous character, Detective Kinsey Millhone: "a woman with quirks but also with a sense of herself, with empathy but also with savvy, intelligence, and wit."

I hope that Geneva Chase fits the bill.

I’ve never been nominated for any sort of literary award before and I’m deeply honored, especially for this one.  I’ve been a huge fan of Sue Grafton’s work and I’m proud to say that my books have been favorably compared to hers. 

I can think of no higher honor than that.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Mezzanine Bookstore

 As a writer, I love to read and I've always loved books. I could lose myself for hours in a library or a bookstore. As a kid I accompanied my dad for his twice-a-month trip taking my grandmother to visit her sisters in El Paso and to buy groceries in Juarez. Even though I was in elementary school, I had to wear a coat and tie because back then, you got dressed up when venturing into public. Think about it, during World War Two, soldiers wore ties into combat. Unlike now, where people go to a fancy dinner looking like slobs.

One highlight of the trip to the big city was our stop at the Popular Dry Goods Company in downtown El Paso. It was the quintessential department store, a bustling maze no matter the time of year. Most of what I remember is a blur but what comes into focus is the candy counter where you could buy fudge by the pound (like that ever happened); the elevator operated by a guy in a red coat manipulating a brass lever; the toy department in the basement with stacks of model airplanes, and my favorite place of all, the mezzanine level with the bookstore. My dad would leave me there unattended while he went to pay an installment on whatever my mom had put on layaway.

I wandered the tables and shelves of hardbacks. I avoided children's books and was on the prowl for a good read about airplanes, warships, or army tanks. The one book that particularly fascinated me was about 19th century train accidents, complete with illustrations. I learned about boiler explosions turning locomotives into bombs. One memorable tragedy involved a company outing. On the way home, the women gathered the children in the last railcar, away from the men who were a mob of loutish drunks. The locomotive boiler blew up, hurtling what was left of the locomotive high into the air, to guessed it. On the car with the women and children. A gruesome detail of period train wrecks was "telescoping," where one railcar slides inside another, usually a freight car ramming through a passenger coach, smearing the human contents into goo. No Dr. Seuss for me.

From the mezzanine, you could look through the glass barrier upon the ground floor with its labyrinth of cosmetic counters and women's fashions. Above the cacophony of customer chatter, sounded chimes summoning sales clerks. Incredibly, when researching for this post, I found this photo of the mezzanine view, though from years after I was last there. Memories.

Photo courtesy Keith Andrews

Friday, January 21, 2022

About Titles

 Frankie here. Sorry to have missed my last Friday post. 2022 started before I got around to setting up the calendar that I intended to do to keep myself on schedule. 

Now I'm trying to finish the craft essay I was invited to write about setting in crime fiction. Classes begin on Monday, so I want to get it out the door today.

I do want to comment on the title discussion. I find it almost impossible to focus on what I'm writing  until I have a title. Some titles come easier than others. The title of my first Lizzie Stuart book is Death's Favorite Child. That came from associating a line about death in a poem with Lizzie's sleuthing and the presence of a child in the book. It took me all of the five years of drafts and revisions to come up with that title. In contrast, as I began to outline the sixth book in the series after a long hiatus, I knew exactly what that title should be -- A Rainy Night in Gallagher. The story begins on a rainy night. And the title is a reference to "A Rainy Night in Georgia" (one of my favorite songs and the TV series theme song for In the Heat of the Night).

The title of my 1939 historical thriller came after months of trying different titles. I was inspired by another TV show. On an old episode of The Andy Griffith Show, little Ronnie Howard (now director Ron Howard) asked his father for a penny to put outside during a storm. A friend claimed that a penny struck by lightning would multiple. Since one of the exhibits at the 1939 New York World's Fair was about electricity and the World of Tomorrow, I suddenly thought A Penny Struck by Lightning. That was it. The contrast between past and future. 

But I'm still struggling to find a title for my nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and impression management in crime and justice. The book is for a general audience rather than academic. I want a title that will be intriguing enough to delight both an editor and the marketing department in a publishing house and to stop bookstore browsers in their tracks (not too ambitious, right?). My agent says a one or two word title would work well in the current market. I can use a subtitle to provide more information about the contents. I've been looking for a word that describes clothing in disarray -- frayed, shabby, stained, bedraggled, hemmed? A reference to Justice's robes and to four hundred plus years of American crime and justice history from colonial era to present. I've considered "Clothing Justice" or "Naked Justice."  I thought of "Strip Search" and "Dressed to Kill" (already used). I'm still looking for a title that captures the biases, stereotypes, and conflicts in the criminal justice system involving victims, offenders, police officers, courts, and prisons. The title should also suggest that the book draws on popular culture and mass media. 

I really need a title that I can stick up on the wall in front of my computer as I revise my introduction and the sample chapters of my proposal, then write the final chapters. Any suggestions appreciated.

Back to work on my essay. Have a great  weekend.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Perfect Word

 Donis here, at last. I missed my last Thursday slot because I've been having lots of trouble with my eyes, but today is a pretty good day, so I'm writing while the writing is good. 

First of all, I extend my dearest sympathy to those of you who live in blizzard-land. I hesitate to point out that the temperature here in the Phoenix area has been around 70ºF for the past few weeks lest you think I'm gloating, but remember that this is our reward for living through our Southern Arizona summers. Check back with me in July. You can gloat then.

I've been enjoying my blogmates' entries on titles. Titles are important. You want to convey something of the spirit of the story, catch the reader’s eye, intrigue her enough that she wants to read that book. For the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the book takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

That title has served me well, even if early on, my late sister-in-law Dolores couldn’t quite remember how the title went and called it The Old Coot Deserved What He Got, which is pretty good, too. In fact, we considered an entire series with similar titles: The Miserable Son-of-a-Gun Got What Was Coming to Him, The Skunk Couldn’t Have Died Soon Enough, and the like.

I decided to go for something short for the second book, and agonized for a long time before my husband actually dreamed the title Hornswoggled. Since that book, I’ve more or less given up on short titles. The production manager at my press used to tease me for using such long titles that she couldn’t fit them on the spine. But what can you do? 

I sometimes have a title before I have a story in mind. That’s what happened with my sixth book, The Wrong Hill To Die On. The idea for that title was given me by an Illinois mystery author, Denisa Hanania. People are always giving me ideas for book titles. Seems every person living has heard her grandmother reel off a folksy saying that would fit right into the world of my early 20th Century Oklahoma family.

Most of the time I don’t have a title in mind. I just wait until one of the characters says something that sums it all up in one eye-catching phrase. Often for me, good title is like pornography. I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it. That’s what happened with Hell With the Lid Blown Off. One of the characters was surveying the devastation following a tornado that rolled over Muskogee County Oklahoma. It looked like hell with the lid blown off, says he. 

I'm working on a new Alafair manuscript right now. I have no title in mind. I've always been lucky enough to choose my own titles - at least until my second series, the Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, was acquired by a different publisher. They chose the title for first book in the series, The Wrong Girl, which was also something one of the characters said (One of these days, you're going to pick the wrong girl).

It made sense, but to my ear, it just didn't have quite the cachet...

They let me pick my own title for book two, Valentino Will Die, since it's about, what else, the death of Rudolph Valentino. I like that better. The third book, which has yet to be picked up, is called The Beasts of Hollywood. I feel like I'm hitting my stride.

And last but not least, my guest on my own website for this month's Tell Me Your Story is the fabulous Mary Miley, who tells us how she got into the historical mystery business. If you missed her guest entry here at Type M, you missed a treat. Check it out here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Finding the perfect title

 My apologies for the lateness and brevity of this post. Like Rick, I spent most of Monday and yesterday digging out from 47+ cm of snow (that's about 20 inches) that had blown all over the place. It was very pretty and I was happy to see it, but moving it off the car and driveway, as well as off the paths and my three porches (one I use, one the postal and delivery people use, and one the dogs use) took a large part of the day and blew all my other plans out the window. And in between, the delighted dogs needed their walks. All this on a strained ankle that I am supposed to be "resting". A concept unknown to the dogs.

My back deck

The positive in all this, besides the beautiful, fresh powder, is how much neighbours come out to help each other. The person with the snowblower becomes everyone's best friend. And the kids are thrilled. Watching them sliding down snow piles, making snow angels, and digging snow forts brought a smile to even the most disgruntled, exhausted passerby. The kids have had so much taken away from them the past two years that it was nice of Mother Nature to give them this little gift of joy.

While I was digging away, my mind was wandering around in alleys trying to figure out another title for my current book. I had just received word from the publisher that marketing did not like my title THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE. It doesn't roll the tongue. Does too, I thought, saying it fast several times in a row to prove my point. Besides, THE HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPEARED, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue either. My title is perfect and it captures the essence of the book in four words that harken back to the 1960s where the tragedies in my story began. That title hadn't just fallen from the sky; it came from hours and hours of searching. So I huffed and grumbled for awhile as writers always do when someone challenges a word of our perfect prose. Then the snow came, and I had to put all my grumbling aside to focus on real life. 

My front porch

Outside in the crisp, pristine world of white, I stopped mourning the loss of my beloved title and started to idly consider alternatives. Not staring at the screen demanding an answer but just playing with combinations of words and themes in my head. THERE BUT FOR FOTUNE is a perfect title, but it isn't the only perfect title. All day long I played, laughing at some of my comical creations, rejecting many as cliched or pretentious or meaningless. Nowadays snappy two-word titles are all the rage among the thriller crowd, also probably driven by the marketing set, but I did not want a title that sounded like everyone else's.

By the end of the day, I had a couple of viable alternatives – one of them only two words long! – and am now letting those percolate and roll around on my tongue for a few days before writing the publisher back. So stay tuned, and eventually I will announce who the winner is. 

Meanwhile, it has started to snow again. To the shovels!

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

It's all part of growing up and living in Canada…

We had a heck of a blizzard yesterday. Our driveway is about 60 feet in length in a 9-foot space between our house and the triplex next to us. Sometimes, when the wind is coming from exactly the wrong direction, the snow drifts in something awful. One thing we’ve learned over the years is to never begin shovelling until the snow stops, especially if we have the wind sending the snow between the houses, because you’ll wind up doing the same job twice — and it’s not fun the first time.

This morning we walk up to a sunny day and decided we needed to get our driveway clear. What we found was drifted snow that was close to four feet.

It took us until a few minutes ago to clear the mess. So now our small front yard is now at least five feet higher than it was before the storm.

I’m bushed and so that’s why I haven’t posted anything better than this excuse. I was planning on writing a post this morning. Honest!

Monday, January 17, 2022

Writing is just a job, let's not get dramatic

When does being creative become a job?

I'm presuming that everyone who dips into these pages is either actively involved or actively interested in the process of stringing words together in some semblance of order.

So when does that act of stringing words together transform from an art (hobby, pastime, wish, ambition) to a means of employment.

I don't mean the moment when you are paid for the first time. I mean at what point is the creative process deemed work like any other? In other words, it becomes merely what we do.

I've held that view for some time, probably because even before I made a living (of sorts) from writing books I was making a living (a regular one) from writing news and features. Thanks to that, I have shown open disdain for any notion of the muse alighting upon a fevered brow and, its stablemate in the big book of author's myths, writer's block.

As the late Terry Pratchett once said - and I believe I have quoted here before - writer's block was created by people in California who couldn't write. (Sorry, Californians, I think you're lovely)

That doesn't mean we can't get stuck, of course we can. Those of us who don't plan run the risk of wandering down a blind alley with our stories. But what do you do if that happens in the real world? You turn around and go back, because somewhere you have made a wrong turn. You don't stand there and wail, 'I can't go on any further. This walking business is just too hard!', then collapse on a chaise longue, your palm pressed to your forehead and sip absinthe, there always being a handy couch and some strong aniseed flavoured liquor available up a blind alley. Well, at least in Glasgow.

So, no - I don't believe in writer's block. If something's not working then fix it. We are the creators of our little world of words and we can change whatever the hell we want. If things have come to a standstill creativity-wise in whatever we are writing then it probably means we've gone wrong somewhere back along the road. And as we made that stuff up, we can remake it up.

It could also mean you are writing entirely the wrong thing. I've been there.

There's an old adage that writer's write. Authors far more successful and wiser than I (me? Who knows? I'm no English professor) often advise that writing every day, no matter what, is the way forward. It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be written, as they say. Today's nonsense is tomorrow's bestseller, with a little work and application.

And there we have another point - what is needed is such application, not inspiration. Inspiration is the initial idea. I often visualise Peter Benchley thinking something along these lines: I think I'll write a book about a great white shark terrorising an island community. And I'll call it MUNCH! Okay, maybe the title needs a little work but I will now sit down and get the damn thing written and fame and fortune will follow. Maybe I'll get to meet that young guy Steven Spielberg some day - I did so enjoy 'Duel'.

That's the inspiration, that's the muse crash-landing on the old napper - that tiny little electrical impulse in the brain that sets the creative juices flowing. After that it's down to hard work, even when you don't feel like it.

When I was in newspapers I couldn't say to my boss, 'You know what? I'm just not feeling it today. Is it okay if I don't write these stories?'

I would have been told in no uncertain terms, no doubt in some choice Anglo-Saxon, that such a position was untenable in the workplace. 

The same would be said if I was a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician, all creative pursuits in their own ways.

So here's my advice in a nutshell: just as a journey is begun with a single step, so writing a book (play, short story, script) commences with one word. Then another. Then another. Don't agonise too much over them, just pile them in. If you're a planner you should know where you want the story to go. If you're a pantster - like me - you may have some semblance of an idea. It might be vague but you should have some sort of notion. 

If you're lucky it will flow. If you hit a roadblock just treat it as such and either go through it, over it, round it - or back up.

Get that first draft done, ideally as quickly as possible. It might be as rough a badger's butt but at least it's down and then you can work at it. Don't listen to authors who say their first draft is always what's printed. If that is the case - and I am always sceptical - then it in no way demeans your work. Never mind what they're doing - concentrate on yourself.

Incidentally, I may appear to be lecturing. I'm not - everything I have said above is something I've said to myself many times in the past and in fact it was the very same talking to I have myself at the turn of the year.


I'm off to pile some words into my current project. I've been at it for two weeks and I've got 26,000 words done.

The problem is, to paraphrase Neil Simon, I haven't thought of a story yet.

Friday, January 14, 2022

A Nice Surprise

 My short story, "Lizzie Noel," will be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I'm simply thrilled. I had a story published there many years ago--"The Family Rose"--which was subsequently picked up by two anthologies, Death on the Veranduh, and Murder to Music

My agent, Phyllis Westberg, wasn't very enthusiastic about "Lizzie Noel," and my husband didn't like it at all. So, I never submitted it, although I thought they were both wrong. 

Besides, Ellery Queen had turned down a couple of stories after "The Family Rose," was published. 

Last July I re-read the story and quite liked it. I always had. I sent it July 20th and it took forever for the staff to read it. When I checked on it last month, I was told they were just now getting to the July submissions. When they did, they sent the contract with the acceptance letter. 

I was elated! I had another story that I submitted yesterday. It will be interesting to see if they read this one faster because they bought another recently. No one has seen this one. Phyllis loved short stories, and everything went through the agency except for the articles I did for

A couple of years ago Folio Literary Management bought Harold Ober Associates. Phyllis Westberg retired, and Claudia Cross is my wonderful new agent. 

This week I've been thinking about an older shelved manuscript that I believe has become more marketable. It might not be a good idea to interrupt my thinking on the mystery I'm currently writing. On the other hand, I'm finished with the first draft of the mystery, the story line is there. Perhaps I can work on the mystery in the morning and tackle the historical novel in the afternoon. The historical doesn't require any more research. It's been polished and polished. But it's too long. 

Through the marvelous tutelage I received from Barbara Peters and Annette Rogers at Poisoned Pen Press, I became a better writer. If I go through the historical novel again, I'll bet I find plenty to cut. I'll start with a global search for words ending in "ing." And about a jillion other little things that need spiffed up.

With my first ever manuscript at PPP the number of times I used the word "just" just drove Annette crazy. But I just couldn't help myself. 

I envied Barbara's outdoor bravery in her blog. I have hamstring tendonitis right now and will start physical therapy. My temperament is ideal for lying around, so I appreciated Doug Skelton's post. 

It turned out that I don't now and have never had Covid. My home test was a very faint false positive. December was a bleak month. Two friends were killed as pedestrians in separate accidents, and I have a nephew in ICU with Covid who has been intubated for about five weeks. 

Like my other Type M buddies, I'm tip-toeing a little warily into the New Year. I'm grateful for unexpected breaks and praying for families of friends who dealing with unexpected tragedies. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Highs and Lows

This has been a week of highs and lows. I finished a manuscript I began a year ago, which capped a nice couple of months that saw me get a job that will take us away from New England for the first time in 25 years. However, Monday, I learned a dear friend and mentor passed away unexpectedly.

Highs and lows.

I started working on a new series, a new concept, four years ago. I had an idea for a character and a series set in a locale I know well, a New England boarding school, a setting rife with power, privilege, and money, all elements that make for interesting crime novels. So, four years ago, I went about writing and produced a convoluted plot that my agent struggled with.

Now I’m a believer in the Raymond Chandler adage “There are no dull stories, only dull minds,” so I believed in the plot and figured my dull mind just didn’t execute it well. I went back to work, re-envisioning the entire storyline and changing the point of view, producing a manuscript that is 20,000 words lighter. The manuscript will be in my agent’s hands within a month. A highpoint in a stretch that has left me feeling blessed. In late November I accepted a job at Detroit Country Day School, an opportunity my family is excited for. After living at a boarding school for 15 years, we will buy a house and embark on civilian life.

Then two weeks ago, Hugh Silbaugh, my friend, the man who hired me and mentored me, a guy my mother said was “like the older brother you never had,” was diagnosed with cancer. On Monday, we learned he passed, unexpectedly. News that rocked me, my community, and teachers he mentored and students he impacted across the nation. A low.

Highs and lows. The things that make our lives and provide the inspiration for the art we try to produce.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My Year in Books, 2021


Happy New Year to everyone. I successfully made it back from a very snowy Seattle pretty much on time. Quite a feat considering how many flights were cancelled the last week of the year.

Now it’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2021 I “consumed” 119 books, 2 more than last year. Consumed because it’s a combination of listening to audio books and reading. The largest category was mystery/thriller at 48%. This would go up to 66% if I included Nancy Drew, which I put in a separate Children’s/YA category. 10% of the books I read were in the non-fiction category, down from last year. This has been a trend ever since Covid struck. Before that, close to 50% of the books I read were nonfiction. Not sure why as reading non-fiction is very calming for me.

I also read some sci-fi/fantasy and general fiction. Also quite a few Children’s/YA books including 19 Nancy Drew books. These are mostly the 1960s/1970s editions, but I did read a few of the 1930s/40s versions. Mostly the ones where the stories drastically changed. Interesting to see the differences.

I listened to 20 audiobooks. Once again, most of those were the audio versions of the Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, originally published in the 1960s/70s. I’ve finished those now and moved on to other things.

In the mystery category, the majority of them were cozies. This time I noticed an interesting trend, a large portion of them had a paranormal bent: ghosts, witches, vampires, etc. Prior to this past year I really didn’t read many paranormal cozies. Didn’t really find any that interested me. Over the last year I discovered quite a few that I find interesting.

The Oxford Key mysteries by Lynn Morrison are set in Oxford, England. Fun reads, good characters, interesting mysteries. I found out about them through an interview she did on a podcast. Either Leah Bailey’s or Alexia Gordon’s. Don’t remember which one.

I learned about The Vampire Knitting Club mysteries through a cozy group on Goodreads. Couldn’t resist reading a book with that title. This one is yes, set in Oxford, England. Really like the characters and stories. I’m on book 6 of 13 right now.

Another great series, though only 3 books long, is the Movie Palace series by Margaret Dumas. Really great books that feature an old movie theater, which has a ghost, an usherette who plunged to her death off the balcony of the theater.

I also read a lot of historical mysteries, quite a few of them the Redmond and Haze mysteries by Irina Shapiro.

My favorite book of the year in the non-fiction category is a true crime: The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Jobb. I’d heard a bit about Dr. Cream before, but didn’t know a lot of the details. Now I do. 

I have two books that are vying for my favorite book of the year in the fiction category. One is Bluff by Jane Stanton Hitchcock. It’s more of a thriller than a mystery. One reviewer called it social noir. However you categorize it, it’s just a great read. The other book is The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell. This is a general fiction book set in France. Just a wonderful book. You may know Juliet’s name from one of her cozy mystery series.

That’s it for my reading wrap-up. Onto another topic next time. I’m curious, did you find yourself reading more last year than in previous years? Did you read different things?

Monday, January 10, 2022

Dystopian News and Focusing on Writing

 By Thomas Kies

I’m an unabashed news junkie.  My career for over thirty years was in newspapers and magazines so being a news geek just comes naturally.  I love the physical feel of a newspaper and we get our local paper delivered here twice a week (we really don’t have enough going on here for more editions than that), the News and Observer out of Raleigh every day except for Saturday, and the Sunday New York Times.  Additionally, I subscribe to the online versions of the Washington Post and my old newspaper, the Norwalk Hour. 

Put that together with all of the other free news websites available and I’m down a rabbit hole instead of writing. 

It is so darned easy to get distracted.  Just in a single Op-Ed section of a Sunday New York Times, there were pieces about how different countries were being affected by climate change, how the new covid variant was raging through the country, and how the divisive nature of our political and cultural landscape is slowly leading up to more violence and the possible end of our democracy.

If those aren’t the ingredients for a dystopian novel, I don’t know what is.  How on earth can anyone concentrate on writing a mystery with so many crazy things happening all at once?

I do a number of things to give myself direction.  I’m very lucky that I live on a barrier island here on the coast of North Carolina, so when I want to clear my head, I’ll take a ten-minute walk to the beach.  Usually, by the time I’ve gotten back home, I can sit down and hit the keyboard.

If I get stalled, I’ll bribe myself.  I’m a coffee addict so before I top off my latest cup of caffeine, I’ll force myself to write at least another couple of paragraphs. 

If I get frustrated with my progress, I’ll get up from my desk and wander around the house, thinking of dialogue.  Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. But it gets the creative juices flowing.

Here’s a question.  Do all writers hear voices in their heads?

For me, starting a new book is the absolute hardest because you’re creating a new plotline, new characters, and new locations.  Everything is being made up of whole cloth. 

Right now, I’m about eighty pages into my new project and yesterday, I went back to the first few chapters to smooth out the rough edges and polish the prose. That was fun!  This afternoon I’ll do another few chapters.

Hopefully, by the time I get back to where I left off, I’ll have hit that place when the story starts to write itself.  It’s where the characters take on a life of their own and you know where the book is going.

Right now, however, I don’t even know who the bad guy is.  Bu that really is part of the fun, isn’t it?

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Guest Blogger Mary Miley

Mary Miley

Type M is proud to start the New Year off right with our first guest blogger of 2022, the wonderful Mary Miley, author of 15 nonfiction books, 200 magazine articles and 7 historical mysteries, including her new mystery series set in Chicago during the truly roaring 1920s. The first, The Mystic’s Accomplice, hit US shelves last year and the second, Spirits and Smoke, was released in ebook last December and in hardcover on January 4, 2022. Spirits and Smoke features Maddie Pastore, a reluctant sleuth struggling to survive in 1925 Chicago, when gangsters ruled the streets and Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals. The word “Spirits” in the title refers both to bootleg hooch and to the ghosts a fraudulent medium conjures up in her seances; “Smoke” is present at the seances and is also Twenties slang for deadly wood alcohol, the murder weapon of choice in this whodunnit. I (Donis) read an advance copy of Spirits and Smoke, and I can vouch for the fact that it is a great read, evocative and fun, and Maddie is a character to root for! Visit Mary's website here.

Spirits and Smoke

    Mary Miley

With the new year came the release of Spirits and Smoke, the second in my Mystic’s Accomplice series. The story follows Maddie Pastore, a young widow struggling to keep herself and her baby boy safe during the violent years of Chicago’s Roaring Twenties. Maddie works as a shill and investigator for a fraudulent mystic, ferreting out information that Madame Carlotta can use in her seances to convince clients she’s the real deal. “I wasn’t proud of what I did,” says Maddie, “but I was proud of how well I did it.” But what to do when, in the course of her investigations, she stumbles across evidence that the deceased didn’t die of natural causes?

Maddie’s talents draw unwelcome attention from one sharp-eyed police detective. He doesn’t believe in Spiritualism but in a city stuffed with gangsters, con artists, and criminals, he’ll take whatever help he can get. Maddie brings him a puzzling case: why did teetotal banker Herman Quillen die of drinking “smoke” (AKA methanol or wood alcohol), and who is the gold-tooth man at Carlotta’s séance falsely claiming to be his brother and demanding that the spirits reveal where Herman hid the money?

For a historian turned mystery writer, the decade of the Roaring Twenties offers infinite possibilities for murder and mayhem plus access to some of the weirdest people and the most incredible true events in American history—I include several in this book. Prohibition is the defining characteristic of the era because it affected all Americans, turning most of them into lawbreakers. Corruption and violence leached into every level of society as cops, judges, juries, and politicians were bought off. No decade has been as violent: this is the era that saw not only the rise of organized crime but the high point of the Ku Klux Klan. Add to that the excitement of speakeasies, flappers, the women’s vote, jazz, radio, and vaudeville, and the potential for trouble is endless. 

Chicago was the epicenter of crime in the 1920s. Sure, there was crime before Prohibition, but it was largely local, not terrible violent, and not all that profitable. The opportunity to supply the thirsty public with illegal booze raised the stakes to unthinkable heights. With literally billions of dollars in play, the murder rate doubled as bootleggers organized themselves into international gangs, the predecessors of today’s drug cartels. With my research, I was able to weave real people (like Alice Clement, Chicago’s flamboyant female policewoman) and real events (like the murder of gang leader Hymie Weiss on the cathedral steps) into what Kirkus Reviews calls “plentiful historical detail and a sparkling cast of characters.” 


Wednesday, January 05, 2022

New Years reflections

I'll start this first blog of 2022 with a wish for a speedy, complication-free recovery to my fellow bloggers, their families, and everyone else who's been affected by Covid, which as you know, unless you've been completely unplugged, is absolutely rampaging across the globe. These are unnerving times and not what we'd hoped for as we enter the third year of this plague.

Welcome to 2022 indeed. Bah.

The next point I want to make is about the meaning of New Years and all this talk about accompanying resolutions. As Douglas said, New Years is supposed to be about new beginnings and endless possibilities. But it has never felt like the right time of year to celebrate new beginnings. New life. New hope. For us Canadians, and for much of the far northern world, January 1st means staring down the two darkest, coldest, and bleakest months of the year before the warmth and light of March. I love winter. I love getting out to play in the snow. Ottawa where I live has plenty of exciting activities. Tobogganing with your kids, cross-country and downhill skiing, skating on the canal, snowshoeing or hiking the crisp, white trails through forests of maple and pine. I have done all of them, and still enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.

Snowshoeing up a mountain

But there are often about three good hours in the day during which to enjoy them. This morning it is -17 C outside, which will warm up to -11 by two o'clock. The sun sets at 4:30. The day, indeed the week, is planned around weather forecasts, which fluctuate wildly. Most times, it takes about fifteen minutes to get dressed up to take the dogs for a walk, let alone go skiing. It's hard work. So much of my day is spent inside, even before the long, dark evenings. During the pandemic, with its isolation and restrictions, even cinema, theatre, shopping, and dining out have often been off limits. January 1st as the promise of new beginning? It doesn't feel like a time to be starting afresh with new resolutions and new determination.

February view from my TV room

The Jewish New Year falls in September. Although that might herald new beginnings in the southern hemisphere, it is the start of the end in the north. Crops ripen, daylight wanes, temperatures begin to drop. It's a beautiful time of year, but it's the culmination of what has been, not a celebration of what's to come.

To me, the perfect time to mark the new year is spring. Maybe the spring equinox. That is truly the time when spirits feel renewed and hope rises. In my case I watch the snow melt at the fringes of the garden and the first spring crocuses poke up. Days become longer than nights, and neighbours come out from behind their snowbanks to greet each other. Smiles everywhere. My thoughts begin to turn to the cottage. 

My morning coffee place

This year it feels especially sensible to put off hopeful thoughts of 2022 for a couple of months. The virus has us by the throat again, exhausting essential workers, stressing business owners, and once again confining to quarters many of us, especially seniors like me. All my hopes of seeing friends and family are on hold with the words "let's see how the case count is in a month". So I limp along with social chats and books events with Zoom and What's App. I read, I write, I watch TV, and try to keep the dogs and myself exercised and entertained. It's a time for small pleasures. 

The time to think big will come.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Looking forward with hope

By Rick Blechta

Some folks are energized by a fresh new year. Some find themselves fighting off depression.

I belong in the former camp, and much like Mssr. Skelton, I always make resolutions for the new year. Sometime I even keep them!

This year, it’s tougher. My family’s recent brush with covid and the ongoing issues — Ontario where I live is going into a limited lockdown again tomorrow (this should have been done before Christmas, but our government decided not to heed the warnings, sigh) — it’s harder to see a clear path ahead.

I’ve found the trick with resolutions is to not make them too tough. How many times have I made the exercise one into “I’m going to walk 5 miles every day” and then fail by the end of the month?

So considering what we’re currently facing and how the way ahead is more clouded than ever, I’m being particularly modest this year.

Here in no particular order is my list of resolutions for 2022:
  • Go out for a walk 4 times a week (as long as it’s not slippery. I don’t need another fall!)
  • Write at least 1000 words per day — even if I throw them all out the next day
  • Make the bed every day (I’m four for four on that, in fact I even started before the new year!)
  • Weigh less on December 31, 2022 than I did the previous New Year’s Eve
  • Contact at least one old friend per week for no reason other than to hear their voice
  • Keep at least four of the above resolutions.
I know my list sounds uninspiring, but it is carefully-crafted and doable, I believe. If I keep to it, I will leave 2022 behind feeling satisfied with my progress.

Three years ago, one of my resolutions was to practise every day. That one has been a great success. In 2021, for example, I at least warmed up on 349 days, and on five of the empty days, I was sick.

Six years ago, my resolution was to reorganize our kitchen, making sure everything was in a logical place, and then sticking to the reorganization by putting everything back in its place when I was done with it. That too worked really well. Now I don’t even think about it. I just put everything away.

Two big, although modest wins.

That’s what I aim to do this year. Go into 2023 feeling good about myself because I stuck to it.

And in these dark times, isn’t that a big plus?

Monday, January 03, 2022

New year, new beginnings (yeah, I know it's a cliche but it works)

Happy New Year to you all!

How many have made new year resolutions? 

My new year resolution is not to make new year resolutions, so I guess I've broken it already.

Some people look back at this time of year but I have learned that it's a bad habit, as Will Munny says in Unforgiven. I force myself to look forward. After all, look what happened to Lot's wife. 

It's natural to think about making changes at this time of year, whether it be appearance, circumstance or outlook. Those bad habits may die hard but sooner or later you have to stick a stake through their hearts. Things that aren't working have to be assessed and redefined. New beginnings kick off with that first step.

So, what is ahead for me?

A busy year, I think - and further details will emerge in a few weeks time. I have lots of writing to do and hopefully there will be festivals and events in libraries and bookshops. 

And because it's going to be extremely busy there are changes I will have to make changes to my daily routine. 

Basically, I will have to stop faffing around and get my butt in gear. My day will have to be structured in a way that it hasn't been since I stopped working for a living.

I also have to at least nod towards those new year regulars - losing weight and getting, if not fit, then at least fitter.

Don't get me wrong, I've not reached the stage where the scales groan when I stand on them but I do need to shed a few pounds.

As for the fitness side I'm ok for a guy of my advancing years but I'm not about to run any marathons. Or walk them. I think perhaps even crawling will be troublesome.

So I've begun monitoring my steps with one of those apps. You know, the ones that tell you if you've reached the 10k target. I did it on my first day so colour me self-satisfied. That was yesterday so we'll see how I do today.

Of course, walking Mickey (my dog) goes a long way in increasing the tally, as does climbing the stairs in my home. 

But that's not enough. I must do some exercises too.

There is one problem with that.

I'm a lazy cuss and I'd much rather sit on the couch and watch TV. I don't think working the remote counts as exercise.

So - my routine has to be up early. Write in the morning from 8am (or 9am at the latest). Make sure I hit or exceed my daily word count (ideally three thousand words. They don't need to be good, they just need to be written). Do whatever else I have to do in the afternoon - that may be other projects or, as I will be writing one book while editing another, doing those edits. 

Of course, there also has to be time to see to Tom and Mickey, clean the house, cook (those takeaways must stop), see friends, go shopping. All that jazz.

As we say in Glasgow, Come ahead if you think you're hard enough.