Monday, February 28, 2022

Possession is nine tenths of the dog

Today I wrote an entire piece about the situation in Ukraine, because that is quite rightly preoccupying many of us. 

However, I've pulled it. There are people far better qualified than me who can comment. There are people far less qualified than me who are commenting, mostly on social media where a host of experts lie in wait to display their vast knowledge on any given subject be it global affairs, pandemics or movies. And books.

So let me divert you for a little while from the pressures and worries of the world stage, power-mad politicians and empire building.

Let me instead tell you about Mickey.

Now, as my regular reader will know (as long as she has taken her medication), Mickey is my dog. That's him above.

He was a rescue, originally from Bosnia, and he ended up with me after he had been returned to the rescue centre in Scotland three times. I was known at the centre and they were aware that I was more likely to persevere with him. And that's what I did so now he is, mostly, a good boy.

I say mostly because as you read this I may well be at the vet with him for the second time in four days. 

Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with him - he's merely going to get his booster injection. And no, he did not give his permission, in fact he was never consulted on this, for frankly it is for his own good and other dogs.

That doesn't mean he likes it.

Oh no, not in the slightest.

Mickey may be a good boy, he may be very loving, but in the vet's surgery he turns into Cujo. I don't mean the rabid dog of the movie but the rabid and also probably possessed hound of Stephen King's book. 

We were there last Thursday. He walked into the surgery quite the thing. He said hello to the receptionist. He allowed the vet to give him biscuits. He let her talk to him. He walked around the room to let her see how he moved.

But the trouble began when she pulled out her stethoscope.

Yes, her stethoscope.

He wouldn't let her near him with it. I tried holding him but he snarled and gave her the kind of look that would put a bad guy in an Italian western to shame. 

We decided going straight to the injection portion of the visit was the best way forward. Also, a muzzle was deemed wise.

I put it on him. He allowed it. Wasn't happy, but it went on.

That was as far as his goodwill went.

Whenever the vet approached him with the hypo he went bananas. There was barking, there were snarls, there was the kind of writhing you see in exorcist movies. If he'd had pea soup I'm sure it would have flown.

I tried to hold him, first this way, then that. At one point I was crushed against the wall, hanging onto his harness as if I was a rodeo rider and he was the bucking bronco. And I contemplated making that first b an f. A rear approach was attempted but rebuffed.

In the end we gave up and a new appointment was set for Monday morning. And this time he would be sedated.

I am writing this on Sunday evening. He is to get two pills tonight and another two tomorrow morning. I don't know how he will react, if they will work or even if he will let me administer them in the first place.

You see, he was listening to the conversation and sometimes I think he understands every word he hears.

He's looking at me as I type. He knows I'm writing about him. I can tell by the look in his eyes. I don't like that look.

Somebody send Max Von Sydow...

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Making the same mistakes, and new ones.

 Every war is a rehearsal for the next one.

For my post this month I was going to write about La Malinche and me. Maybe in March. Hopefully.

But with what's going on in Ukraine I feel that I have to share my thoughts. At least to relieve the pressure building in my head. What upset me most were those photos and videos of ordinary people caught in the middle of this catastrophe. I don't understand the sense of this ruin and conquest. Who will be better off? The defense contractors are cheering, perhaps.

For the last few months I've been following a YouTube channel about World War Two. Lately they've been discussing February 1943, the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and the Soviet offensive into Ukraine. What a tragic coincidence to the present moment. We're familiar with the black & white images of civilian refugees trudging along, fleeing with what little they could carry. Now we're seeing the latest incarnation, moms and children, dressed like they've shopped at Kohl's, dragging roller carry-ons stuffed with the last of their possessions. People lined up at ATMs withdrawing cash to grease the escape route. SUVs on fire. Uploading TikToks of the carnage. Vignettes of industrialized murder. It's truly disturbing to see so much mayhem and terror amid the trappings of modern life. The war-ravaged locations seem as if they're on the outskirts of the Denver metroplex. 

This brings a sense of déjà vu from my military service in Desert Storm. When we drove through Kuwait City, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the contradiction of so much destruction against the backdrop of a contemporary suburban landscape.

Then again, such devastation has been raging for years in the Middle East, Africa, Myanmar, Afghanistan. Not too long ago, Sarajevo, the site of the Winter Olympics, was under siege and artillery bombardment. 

In response to the Ukraine invasion, there's been a lot of the expected political bloviating, meant more to placate constituents on this side of the battle line than to intimidate Putin. Recent promotional videos of NATO aren't very reassuring, stressing diversity and inclusion over combat prowess. Meanwhile in Kyiv, the government is handing out guns, not equity pamphlets. 

If you're at most a casual student of history, you know things can spin out of control very fast and in a very bad way. Every war begins with a grand miscalculation of events and a disregard for unintended consequences. For now, let's stay upbeat and expect that next month, my post will be about La Malinche.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Terrible People

 I'm a historian. I know a little about Russia's troubled history. Not much. Not enough. But Putin's invasion of Ukraine broke my heart. What would possess the leader of a country to bring this much misery and suffering on people? Not only will Ukrainians suffer, Russian citizens will a pay a heavy price for the aspirations of this one man.  

"Real life" is very difficult right now. My own family has endured more than its share of death and suffering this past year. It's affected my tolerance for violence and dismal endings in books, movies, and TV series. 

Two nights in a row, I have watched movies that had an unexpected level of violence. I detest movies with an "oh well, it's the system" or "people are mostly evil"--"so we might as well join them" endings.

 Even worse are movies that have no ending. They have a beginning and a middle and a middle. At least I'm drawn out of my self-imposed popcorn stupor by these offerings because my reaction is absolute fury. I feel tricked. 

The alternative seems to be movies that are at best, silly or so poorly written that they are painful to watch. I loved The Power of the Dog. It has been nominated for a number of Oscars. I wish there were more movies that would emulate this movie's flawless plot and excellent direction. 

One of granddaughters said recently she was tired of reading books about bad people doing bad things. In real life, most of the people I know are good people. They try to do the right thing by their families and their country. I'm struck by how many kind people there are in this world. One of most engaging predicaments in literature is a good person who finds him or herself in a muddle because of unintended consequences. I find myself rereading books that I fell in love with years ago simply because of the excellent craftsmanship.

Right now, I'm quite taken by psychological suspense. This sub-genre is a throwback to my beloved Gothic authors. I loved books written by Daphne du Maurier.  Nevertheless, there is a growing trend to celebrate heroines bent on revenge or ruining someone just for kicks. 

Mysteries, as a whole, are a delight to read. I think that's why the bestseller lists are consistently filled with titles from this genre. 

In my favorite mysteries, the good guy wins. I like that best in real life too. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Who or Whom?

I had back-and-forth email exchanges Saturday afternoon, diagramming a sentence –– written by me, no less –– with two colleagues, English teachers who know grammar better than I do. The line is in a manuscript I’m preparing to send to my agent. The nerdy exchange saw the three of us trying to locate the direct object in a muddy sentence I’d written.

The experience got me thinking about voice versus correct grammar when writing fiction.

My book is “done,” meaning the story is written. Now the manuscript is in the capable hands of four readers, a team I typically assemble for feedback and proofing.

One reader, Mima Eaton, is the former director of a college writing center. She stalks grammatical errors with a deep passion and can smell one in a manuscript a mile away. This time around, she called me out in several places where I’d written who when whom was correct.

In voice, I replied to her comment on my Google document.

(Arguing grammar with Mima is a little like trying to contest being caught with a hand in the cookie jar: You know you’re wrong but push back instinctively.)

Bo is an English teacher, she replied, insinuating that he'd know better.
(She didn’t write and so should you, which I appreciated.)

The story is told in the first-person, cynical voice of Bo Whitney. He is a casual speaker, an outsider in an insider’s academic world. Mima is right, of course.

Grammatically, that is.

But this is fiction, and it’s fiction, written in the voice of a middle-class guy caught in a world of wealth, power, and privilege.

I write and often edit by ear (I’m dyslexic, after all). So it would make sense that a first-person speaker in my text might say who when the grammatically correct form would be whom. Yet the decision of when or when not to break a rule of grammar must be decided in honor of the story.

Colloquial diction or not, Mima’s comment in the margin –– “Bo is an English teacher” –– carries weight and is the final say: I’ll go with whom, not who.

After all, who am I to argue with a grammarian?

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Award Nominees


A lot of mystery award nominations have come out in the last few weeks. I usually scan the names and titles when the nominations first come out to see if (a) I know any of the authors and (b) if I’ve read any of the books. It’s also a good way for me to find out about possible books to read, particularly in the children’s categories. Here are the Lefty, Agatha and Edgar award nominees all in one place. 


 Leftys are fan awards chosen by registered attendees of Left Coast Crime. Nominations are made by registered attendees of this convention and the immediately previous convention. They will be given out this year during LCC in Albuquerque, NM April 7-10. According to the LCC website “To be eligible for the 2022 Lefty Awards, titles must have been published for the first time in the United States or Canada during 2021, in book or ebook format.”

Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery Novel 

Ellen Byron, Cajun Kiss of Death (Crooked Lane Books)
Jennifer Chow, Mimi Lee Cracks the Code (Berkley Prime Crime)
Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It (Minotaur Books)
Cynthia Kuhn, How To Book a Murder (Crooked Lane Books)
Raquel V. Reyes, Mango, Mambo, and Murder (Crooked Lane Books)
Wendall Thomas, Fogged Off (Beyond the Page Books)

Lefty for Best Historical Mystery Novel (Bruce Alexander Memorial) for books covering events before 1970

Susanna Calkins, The Cry of the Hangman (Severn House) °
John Copenhaver, The Savage Kind (Pegasus Crime)
Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division (Soho Crime)
Sujata Massey, The Bombay Prince (Soho Crime)
Catriona McPherson, The Mirror Dance (Hodder & Stoughton)
Lori Rader-Day, Death at Greenway (William Morrow) 

Lefty for Best Debut Mystery Novel

Alexandra Andrews, Who Is Maud Dixon (Little, Brown and Company)
Marco Carocari, Blackout (Level Best Books)
Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl (Atria Books)
Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo (Berkley Prime Crime)
Wanda M. Morris, All Her Little Secrets (William Morrow) 

Lefty for Best Mystery Novel

Tracy Clark, Runner (Kensington Books)
S.A. Cosby, Razorblade Tears (Flatiron Press)
Matt Coyle, Last Redemption (Oceanview Publishing)
William Kent Krueger, Lightning Strike (Atria Books)
P.J. Vernon, Bath Haus (Doubleday)


Agatha Awards celebrate the traditional mystery. They are nominated by and voted on by attendees of Malice Domestic. They will be voted on and awarded at Malice in Bethesda, MD April 22-24.

Best Contemporary Novel 

Cajun Kiss of Death by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Watch Her by Edwin Hill (Kensington)
The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge)
Symphony Road by Gabriel Valjan (Level Best Books) 

Best Historical Novel

Murder at Mallowan Hall by Colleen Cambridge (Kensington)
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (Soho Crime)
The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime)
Death at Greenway
by Lori Rader-Day (HarperCollins) 
The Devil's Music
by Gabriel Valjan (Winter Goose Publishing)

Best First Novel 

The Turncoat's Widow by Mally Becker (Level Best Books)
A Dead Man's Eyes by Lori Duffy Foster (Level Best Books)
Arsenic and Adobo
by Mia P. Manansala (Berkley)
Murder in the Master
by Judy L. Murray (Level Best Books)
Mango, Mambo, and Murder
by Raquel V. Reyes (Crooked Lane Books) 

Best Short Story 

"A Family Matter" by Barb Goffman (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Jan/Feb 2021)
"A Tale of Two Sisters" by Barb Goffman in Murder on the Beach (Destination Murders)
"Doc's at Midnight" by Richie Narvaez in Midnight Hour (Crooked Lane Books)
"The Locked Room Library" by Gigi Pandian (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July/Aug 2021)
"Bay of Reckoning" by Shawn Reilly Simmons in Murder on the Beach (Destination Murders)

Best Non-Fiction

The Combat Zone: Murder, Race, and Boston's Struggle for Justice by Jan Brogan (Bright Leaf Press)
Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter by Chris Chan (Level Best Books)
The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders that Stunned Victorian England by Julie Kavanaugh (Atlantic Monthly Press)
How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America by MWA with editors Lee Child and Laurie R. King (Simon & Schuster) 

Best Children's/YA Mystery

Cold-Blooded Myrtle by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Algonquin Young Readers)
The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur (Fiewel and Friends/Macmillan)
I Play One on TV by Alan Orloff (Down & Out Books)
Leisha's Song by Lynn Slaughter (Fire and Ice/Melange Books)
Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer (Wednesday Books) 


Edgar Awards are peer awards given out by Mystery Writers of America. Nominations are done by volunteer committees of professional writers. They will be given out April 28, 2022 during a ceremony at the New York Marriott Marquis Times Square.

Best Novel

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen (Amazon Publishing – Lake Union)
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby (Macmillan Publishers – Flatiron Books)
Five Decembers by James Kestrel (Hard Case Crime)
How Lucky by Will Leitch (HarperCollins – Harper)
No One Will Miss Her by Kat Rosenfield (HarperCollins – William Morrow) 

Best First Novel By An American Author

 Deer Season by Erin Flanagan (University of Nebraska Press)
Never Saw Me Coming
by Vera Kurian (Harlequin Trade Publishing – Park Row)
Suburban Dicks by Fabian Nicieza (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
What Comes After by JoAnne Tompkins (Penguin Random House – Riverhead Books)
The Damage by Caitlin Wahrer (Penguin Random House – Viking Books/Pamela Dorman Books)

Best Paperback Original

Kill All Your Darlings by David Bell (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory (Tom Doherty Associates – Tordotcom)
Starr Sign by C.S. O’Cinneide (Dundurn Press)
Bobby March Will Live Forever by Alan Parks (Europa Editions – World Noir)
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell (Penguin Random House – Penguin Books) 

Best Fact Crime

The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History by Margalit Fox (Random House Publishing Group – Random House)
Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green (Celadon Books)
Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away by Ann Hagedorn (Simon & Schuster)
Two Truths and a Lie: A Murder, a Private Investigator, and Her Search for Justice by Ellen McGarrahan (Penguin Random House – Random House)
The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade by Benjamin T. Smith (W.W. Norton & Company)
When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer by Curtis Wilkie (W.W. Norton & Company

Best Critical/Biographical

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World by Mark Aldridge (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper360)
The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (W.W. Norton & Company)
Tony Hillerman: A Life by James McGrath Morris (University of Oklahoma Press)
The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense by Edward White (W.W. Norton & Company) 

 Best Short Story

“Blindsided,” Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by Michael Bracken & James A. Hearn (Dell Magazines)
“The Vermeer Conspiracy,” Midnight Hour by V.M. Burns (Crooked Lane Books)
“Lucky Thirteen,” Midnight Hour by Tracy Clark (Crooked Lane Books)
“The Road to Hana,” Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by R.T. Lawton (Dell Magazines)
“The Locked Room Library,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Gigi Pandian (Dell Magazines)
“The Dark Oblivion,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Cornell Woolrich (Dell Magazines)

Best Juvenile

Cold-Blooded Myrtle by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Workman Publishing – Algonquin Young Readers)
Concealed by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Scholastic – Scholastic Press)
Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Dead Man in the Garden
by Marthe Jocelyn (Penguin Random House Canada – Tundra Books)
Kidnap on the California Comet: Adventures on Trains #2 by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman (Macmillan Children’s Publishing – Feiwel & Friends)
Rescue by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic – Scholastic Press) 

Best Young Adult

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé (Macmillan Children’s Publishing – Feiwel & Friends)
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (Macmillan Children’s Publishing – Henry Holt and Company BFYR)
When You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris (HarperCollins – Quill Tree Books)
The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur (Macmillan Children’s Books – Feiwel & Friends)
The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe (Penguin Young Readers – G.P. Putnam’s Sons BFYR)\

Best Television Episode Teleplay

“Dog Day Morning” – The Brokenwood Mysteries, Written by Tim Balme and Nic Sampson (Acorn TV)
“Episode 1” – The Beast Must Die, Written by Gaby Chiappe (AMC+)
“We Men Are Wretched Things” – The North Water Written by Andrew Haigh (AMC+)
“Happy Families” – Midsomer Murders, Written by Nicholas Hicks-Beach (Acorn TV)
“Boots on the Ground” – Narcos: Mexico, Written by Iturri Sosa (Netflix)

Robert L. Fish Memorial Award

“Analogue,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Rob Osler (Dell Magazines) 

The Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award

The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet by Katherine Cowley (Tule Publishing – Tule Mystery)
Ruby Red Herring by Tracy Gardner (Crooked Lane Books)
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (Soho Press – Soho Crime)
The Sign of Death by Callie Hutton (Crooked Lane Books)
Chapter and Curse
by Elizabeth Penney (St. Martin’s Paperbacks) 

The G.P. Putnam's Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award

Double Take by Elizabeth Breck (Crooked Lane Books)
by Tracy Clark (Kensington Books)
Shadow Hill by Thomas Kies (Sourcebooks – Poisoned Pen Press)
Sleep Well, My Lady by Kwei Quartey (Soho Press – Soho Crime)
Family Business
by S.J. Rozan (Pegasus Books – Pegasus Crime)


Grand Master-  Laurie R. King
Raven Award -  Lesa Holstine – Lesa’s Book Critiques; Library Journal Reviewer
Ellery Queen Award - Juliet Grames – Soho Press – Soho Crime

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The new heroism

by Rick Blechta

It’s interesting that Tom wrote his post about characters yesterday (and it’s well worth reading) because I was planning to write something on the same topic. Well, put it this way, I had decided to write about characters as the subject matter of this week’s post, although what I want to say is nothing like what he wrote.

My wife and I have been buying university-level courses from We’d talked about doing this for years but the cost was way out of our price range. When Covid hit, the price for most of the website’s offerings dropped very significantly, so we bought a couple, enjoyed them a lot, and bought a few more. So far we’ve gotten through four and learned quite a lot. They really are good — plus there’s no homework or exams!

The latest one we’re enjoying, “Heroes and Legends: The Most influential Characters of Literature,” gave me the idea for this week’s post.

Titled “Frodo Baggins — A Reluctant Hero,” it posits that this character’s journey from reluctant participant to hero follows a much different arc than the classic story of a hero. It is a more modern take on the protagonist and it struck me as one that anyone who reads crime fiction is quite familiar with. It is exactly this type of character we often meet in those novels featuring an amateur sleuth or in a cozy, as examples.

The professor, Thomas Shippey, explains that after the disaster that was World War 1, the hero mold had been broken. Society became very cynical in the aftermath of what was in reality a very unnecessary conflict. A new type of hero was needed, one standing more on feet of clay, to use a cliché. His feeling is that this is a major reason Tolkien’s works were so wildly successful. Hobbits are almost anti-heroes by nature. They are small, unwarlike, easily overlooked, and keep to themselves. Not the stuff of memorable heroes, right?

But in a newly cynical world, they were just what readers were craving, something new, something we could believe in. Frodo, much like what the rest of the world had just experienced, got dragged very reluctantly into something he did not want to face and could not understand.

At the start of crime fiction, most characters were of the old heroic mold (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc.) seemingly superhuman in their ability to solve perplexing crimes. They did things the common person could not. Would it be a stretch to say we looked up to them as better than us?

I’ve always felt, as do many others, that WW1 changed humanity more than any previous conflict in history. A lot of what we thought about ourselves and our place in the world got broken irrevocably. It is only after this conflict that crime fiction began to see a move towards protagonists in the same roles as Frodo Baggins, heroes reluctant to take on a difficult task, not equipped with the necessary skills, and constantly filled with self-doubt.

In other words, very much like us. Ordinary people if you will.

Even mores today as we face unprecedented global problems, we crave these common people who are forced into uncommon, often horrendous situations, people who need to find their courage whether it be in our daily existence or in a goblin cave.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Too Many Characters?

 By Thomas Kies

How many characters in a book are too many?  I’m struggling with that because in the book I’m working on now, it just feels like there may be too many.

I found one opinion that 4-7 characters should be the number, except for an epic where 20 or more are acceptable. I found another opinion that set the number of characters as 8. Period.

I took a look around the internet and the consensus seems to be that there is no set number.  The number of characters is what it will take to tell the story. But there is agreement that each character should have their own identity.  They should stand out from the crowd somehow.  

Sometimes, that’s as simple as identifying their profession, like Joe is a cop or Mike is a chef or Clara is a Supreme Court judge.  Sometimes it is as simple as giving them a distinctive name, like Clara.

Maybe the distinction is in the physical description.  Ted is tall and built like a linebacker or Sally is petite, had dark hair and one eye is blue and one eye is brown.  

So, make the character vivid and memorable when they’re first introduced. 

One bit of advice I saw was avoid introducing a lot of characters all at once.  It’s like walking into a crowded room and your host tells you the name of everyone there.  I don’t know about you, but that’s information overload and more often than not, I don’t recall anyone’s name.

Speaking of names, don’t give the extras names.  If the pizza guy is delivering dinner, he’s just the pizza guy.  If the Uber driver is taking your protagonist to the airport, he’s just the Uber driver. Don’t confuse the reader with more names than they need to recall. 

Don’t give characters similar names.  In a book that was never published, I was admonished for using Jake, John, Jim, and Jack. All different characters but with names like that, who could keep them straight?

All of your characters should have some relevance to your story.  Why are they there? If they don’t add something to the storyline, kill your darlings.  

An example of that is in A Song in Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin upon which the hit series Game of Thrones was based.  Just when you identify with one of his characters, he kills him or her off.  Most likely in the most gruesome manner imaginable. But in their death, that character has become more relevant.  It often becomes a reason for revenge.

I distracted myself with the Game of Thrones.  What I really mean, if the character doesn’t add something to the story, they shouldn’t be there in the first place. 

A disadvantage to a bunch of characters, especially in the same scene, is the use of dialogue tags.  We all try to stay away from them as best we can, instead, showing some action and then the dialogue.  But when you have more than two characters in the same scene, sooner or later you’re going to have to write Roberto said- or Matilda argued- or Ludmilla shouted...

Giving your characters distinctive names helps the reader recognize the players more easily when they show up.  I hope that I do that in my mystery series.  Geneva Chase-a crime journalist, John Stillwater-ex-cop and now a private detective, Shana Neese-dominatrix and leader of an organization that fights human trafficking, and Nathaniel Ruben-owner of Lodestar Analytics, an open-source research company. 

Time to go back to my work in progress and see if I need to kill any of my darlings. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

After the First Draft

 After having spent a couple of hours trying to get my laptop, that seemed to be frozen, to unlock, I decided to Google the problem before calling my tech guy about dropping it off. Sure enough, all I had to do was type my problem in the search box. Immediately, the exact wording of my search popped up on multiple sites. My battery could be reached by finding the little symbol on the back, inserting the tip of a small paper clip in the hole, and pressing. Another website provided step-by-step instructions for turning the laptop off and getting to the advance options for troubleshooting. But before I ventured into those murky waters, I saw a third website that advised the technically-challenged to look for the simplest issue first. The simplest issue was that I had managed to touch the wrong key. All I needed to do was press "Alt" then tap the "F7" key. Problem solved. 

However, I'm now well into my day and I haven't got a lot done. I still need to get to the supermarket and do a couple of errands before it gets later. I don't have time to write about what I had intended. But last week, I did come across a post I wrote back in 2013. I have no idea where I used it, or if I did. After as a quick read, I realized that -- although I am no longer with the same publisher -- my process is still much the same.

After the First Draft

Depending on your approach to the first draft – whether you are a “plotter” or a “pantser” – your first draft will be either an organized progression of events or a sprawling, intuitive plunge into telling your story. Or, maybe you’re a “hybrid,” who begins with an outline and allows your story to evolve organically. Whatever your approach to writing the first draft, you have finished. Now, what?

 You’ve probably seen the advice that you should put your first draft away and return to it with fresh eyes. This assumes that you are not pushing against an unyielding deadline for submission. If this is a first book and you have no obligations to a publisher, you have the luxury of time. If you are writing with a clock ticking, the length of time that you can put your first draft aside is limited.

 I like to hand my first draft off to my “first readers” – a small group of friends who I can depend on to come at the draft in the ways that reflect their backgrounds and reading personalities. Two are lawyers, who are organized and detail-oriented. The “genre expert” reads widely within the genre of crime fiction and understands the conventions and innovations. The “character expert” has a feeling for characters as “people” (i.e., who they are and how they would behave). I give the first draft to these readers and then try to step away from the writing for at least a couple of weeks.  

 I say that I “try” because I want to plunge right back in and start revising. I want to “fix” the things that I already know need fixing. I have finally settled on allowing myself to read the manuscript and make a list of problems, but not make changes. I’ve discovered that using this time for research is also productive. I do research before I begin writing and during the first draft, but it is the nature of crime fiction that things will come up that need to be verified or that you need to learn more about. Time away from the first draft allows you to get away from your computer and make field trips to the library or to consult with your expert or back to the location that you are using as your setting.

 But eventually – to the relief of those of us who love revising – the time comes to return to your first draft. A systematic approach to revising reduces stress and ensures you will deal with first-draft problems. The process I favor – learned from the copyeditor I’ve worked with for years on my first mystery series – involves three cycles of editing. We begin with the problems that are obvious (e.g., continuity issues). During the next two cycles, we zoom in. By the third cycle, we are debating issues such as word choice and checking details such as the color of the eyes of a certain breed of cat. I’ve adapted this three-cycle process to my own self-editing during the revising process and am applying it prior to submission with my new series. During this revision process, I also consider and often incorporate the feedback I’ve received from my first readers. I am now – because I have less time between draft and submission deadline with my new series – moving to a checklist for my first readers. That will help us all be more systematic and help me to be a better writer.  


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Long After Valentine's Day

 Donis here, writing onValentine's day, a couple of days before this entry appears, since I'll be busy for the next couple of days. It seems like I'm leaving my house more lately than I have in the past two years. I hope that signals the beginning of a return to something like normal in the world. 

Speaking of beginnings, I've enjoyed reading my blogmates' entries on finding the beginning of your novel. I relate very much. I usually write at least three beginnings for every novel, and they're hardly ever at the front of the manuscript. They're usually buried somewhere later in the story, and after I finish the MS, I have to go hunting for each one, pull it out, and in the end decide which is the very best way to begin. It's not an efficient method, but thus far it's worked out for me.

Donis and Don, 1974

...and speaking of even bigger beginnings, today, Valentine's Day, marks the anniversary of my first date with Beloved Spouse, an event that occurred long ago, in the misty past. He and I have never really celebrated Valentine's Day since it's all commercial, etc. etc., but I do think of that first date every year.

We met when we were in graduate school. We had a class together, and later ran into one another at a Christmas party where we talked for a long time. He asked me out several times and I turned him down each time. I was NOT looking for a relationship (a story for another time). 

He was persistent.

I liked him. Damn.

Finally I decided, what the hell. He invited to me go to a Feminist Film Festival with him. I thought that sounded safe enough, so I said I would go as long as we met at the theatre. Afterwards, we walked to a nearby cafe for coffee and talked about modern American literature. 

He knew more about modern American authors than I did. I had never dated anyone who knew more about literature than I did. I literally broke out in flop sweat. I knew I was doomed.

We were married exactly nine months later. I wasn't looking to get married, either, but we graduated and he got a job in Texas before I got one somewhere else. These days I might have gone with him without getting married, but this was the 1970s and neither of us wanted to offend our families. So we went to a Justice of the Peace one Friday after work and tied the knot.

My mother was thrilled. However, I didn't change my name, so that gave her something to be unhappy about instead. After we had been married about 20 years, she got used to it, more or less.

Forty-seven years later I still think about that beginning. Before that Valentine's Day I considered myself mistress of my own fate, but there are tides in our lives we are helpless to resist.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Wreck Bay moves one step closer

 Good morning! I'm late with this post for three reasons. First, because things have been a little crazy here in Ottawa and I've been distracted by news and social media for days as my city's occupation continues, the prime minister invokes the Emergencies Act (despite all the hand-wringing from civil libertarians, a much tamer tool than its predecessor the War Measures Act), our police chief is forced to resign, and the area around our venerable Parliament buildings has been turned into a giant trailer park party. Picture this scene clogged with idling, forty-ton big rigs.

Secondly, because my beloved dog Eva, on whom my fictional dog Kaylee is based, has fallen seriously ill, but that's not a subject for a blog post.

And lastly, because in the midst of this chaos, I've been racing to finish the final draft of my latest Amanda Doucette mystery before the submission deadline, which was yesterday, February 15. I am a few hours late, but it's done! And that's what I want to write about today. 

Now the in-house editorial process begins, which grinds exceedingly slow. The release date has been pushed back from this fall, and now lands with a thud into the middle of post-holiday January 2023. Ugh. In a recent post, I mentioned that the publisher's marketing department didn't like my chosen title THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE, the title of a 60s protest song and very apt for the story. I have now come up with another one, which has passed the test. WRECK BAY.

So tadah!! Announcing the title of my forthcoming fifth book in the Amanda Doucette series. WRECK BAY! I am not unhappy with the title, which refers in the book to the hippie commune set up at the edge of Long Beach near Tofino on Vancouver Island. It has a nice ring to it and, with its multiple layers of meaning, will suit the story well enough. 

So onward. I expect the usual to-and-fro between me and the editor, in which aspects are expanded, clarified, and polished. I like this part of the process, provided the editor likes the basic story to begin with. In the past, I've usually had very few major editorial quibbles and the small ones are easily resolved. Editors generally have not asked for major shifts in the storyline (like "I hate the ending"). Having an open mind and a supportive, perhaps even enthusiastic attitude from the editor makes this an opportunity to make a good story great.

In my last book, I did have a peculiar experience with an overly enthusiastic proofreader. These are the people who don't change the story substantially but pick apart the exact choice of words, grammatical structures, even commas (the bane of every writer's existence). Copy-editors and proofreaders have to be detail people– one might even say micromanagers– by nature. and for a big-picture person like myself, they can be frustrating. But I want it to be ungrammatical! That's how this character thinks!

During the last proofreading exercise, I learned something new. Apparently the newest stye guidelines discourage the use of foods to describe features or traits of the characters. Gone are "coffee-coloured skin" and "chocolate brown eyes". I did briefly wonder - what do they want "mud-coloured"? Foods conjure up vivid sensory impressions, both delicious and unpleasant, beyond the colour. Chocolate is a whole lot more appealing than mud. And what about the adjectives that are both food and colour, like honey, caramel, orange, etc?

If I recall, the new guidelines were because such adjectives were often used for characters of colour and might be subtly demeaning in some way. For over twenty years, I've been describing Green's wife (white, although Jewish) wife as having chocolate brown eyes. Similarly, I think white as well as ugly when I read "he had a face like lumpy dough" or cauliflower ears. 

Regardless, in this book I have tried to avoid all food unless it's on a plate. Fortunately there are a lot of words in the English language. What are your thoughts both as reader and writer? Writers, is this a new thing?

Monday, February 14, 2022

Mattresses, guns and cannoli

Earlier this week I tweeted that the film version of 'The Godfather' is 50 years old this year.

Think about that.

It means that 50 years before  I first saw this seminal movie, the flicks were silent.

Mind. Blown.

I don't see 'The Godfather' as an old movie at all. I don't see any films from the 70s as old, really. But to many, they really are.

I still remember watching it for the first time. It was in the Coliseum Cinema in Glasgow, like many  old picture palaces no longer with us. It was an X certificate in the UK, which I meant I was too young but often that restriction was taken as more a guideline than a rule. 

My mother was unimpressed by it - she thought it slow - but I loved it. I loved Gordon Willis' dark photography (not for nothing was he known as the Prince of Darkness). I loved the languid approach. I loved the rich detail. I loved the bursts of action. 

Did I mention that I loved it?

I still have the commemorative booklet that you could buy in the cinema, for this was an event movie. I bought the soundtrack album and I still have that, too. I bought and devoured the book. And yes, I still have it.

The book fires off in a lot of different directions, with a lot more involving the Hollywood star Johnny Fontaine (a thinly-disguised Frank Sinatra). It ran for less than 450 pages. Think about the epic sweep, the number of characters and incidents and the impact it had, much to author Mario Puzo's relief. Then think about those modern day crime novels that are longer.

What Francis Coppola did was streamline the plot to focus on the family at the story's core and the darkness at the heart of US and international commerce. The first film and its two sequels - yes, I seem to be in the minority regarding the third one in that I like it - are masterclasses in mixing popular storytelling with art.

Of course, he is aided by a superb cast. Pacino, Duvall, Caan, Cazale and, of course, Brando. But let's not forget Diane Keaton who did wonders with what is really a nothing part. And Talia Shire whose arc over the three, in just a few scenes, is brilliant.

And then there's the lines, so wonderfully utilised by the much-missed Nora Ephron in 'You've Got Mail' very much as the secret of life.

Going to the mattresses.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

This is business, not personal.

And that offer that cannot be refused.

It wasn't the first mob movie, of course, although in the late 60s Paramount had lost a bundle on the Kirk Douglas starrer 'The Brotherhood'. The original 'Scarface' apart, the gangster flicks of the golden years didn't have Italian-American protagonists in the main. With James Cagney strutting his stuff they were very much of Irish descent.

Later came movies like 'The Black Hand' (1950) with J. Carroll Naish as a fictional version of Joseph Petrosino, the real-life cop who waged war against the forerunner of what became popularly known as the Mafia. Ernest Borgnine played the actual Petrosino on 1960's 'Pay or Die'. In 'The Enforcer' (the 1951 film not the later Clint Eastwood police thriller), Humphrey Bogart took on Murder Inc, although the real-life leader Albert Anastasia became a character called Mendoza.

On TV, of course, there was 'The Untouchables', based on the book by Oscar Fraley and Elliot Ness. The show was a huge hit but drew criticism over its depiction of Italian-Americans. To make up for it, they added an Italian-American to Ness's team. The show ran for five years - success not met by 'The Silent Force' which ran for only 15 episodes in 1970/71.

But it was Coppola's movie that had the greatest impact, spawning the aforementioned sequels, a mini-series in which the three films were edited into chronological order and a host of copy cats, most notable for me being 'The Valachi Papers', the true story of informer Joe Valachi, played in 1972 by Charles Bronson. Valachi was the first member of the Cosa Nostra to admit that it existed - for years J. Edgar Hoover had denied it - and this Italian-French co-production was based on the bestseller by Peter Maas, one of many Mafia-related books that I read post-Godfather. Another was journalist Fred J. Cook's Mafia!, which I read and re-read but lost when it was borrowed and never returned. I wish I could find a new copy. The Valachi movie, which took some liberties with fact, must have been in production when 'The Godfather' was being filmed and released. It's an inferior film, certainly, and in places overly bloody, but interesting. It does look dated though.

Unlike 'The Godfather, which to me looks as fresh and fascinating now as it was back in 1972. 

If only those of us of similar vintage - and older - did the same.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Great Writing Advice

I'm responding to Rick's post on the best writing advice he's ever received. There are two pieces of writing advice I've received and treasured through the years. The advice from my first agent, the late great Claire Smith is still my lodestone. 

I had called Claire in despair because an editor who hoped her house would acquire my manuscript had sent my novel, Come Spring, for an outside reading. She paid for his analysis out of her own pocket. The reader's mega view was that I had a talent for plot and character (I liked that part) but his specifics were way off. He clearly wanted to change the novel from a straight historical to a historical bodice ripper type. 

He was simply wrong. I told Claire I wanted to learn and grow and did not want to be the kind of writer who could not stand any kind of criticism. How could I tell when someone was right?

Her reply: "You don't trust nobody, kid. You don't trust your enemies and you certainly don't trust your friends. And you never change your work just because you think someone is smart. You only change your work when you know in your gut, they are right."

Wow! It's amazing how I really do know when someone's criticism is right on. My editor, Annette Rogers, at Poisoned Pen said of one of my mysteries, "what is Lottie actually doing besides turning out lights and making coffee?"

I went through the book and looked at every scene. She was right! The revision involved a lot of work, but I could see at once that it was necessary. Good editors are worth their weight in gold. 

Insights can come from anywhere. I was once part of group touring historical sites and one of the participants taught creative writing at Kansas University. We visited about writing and he mentioned that he stressed "follow the man." Lights went on in my brain! That was the biggest flaw with my work in progress. It was another multiple character historical novel and I had written the first chapter from the wrong person's point of view. He was of second tier importance.

The second piece of advice I've thought about a lot was "write what you want to write. There's so little money in it, it's stupid to do for any other reason." This is true, but rather bittersweet. Truth is, I like to write a lot of different things and it's hurt me financially. I would have better off if I had focused. I merrily switch from mysteries to historical novels, then short stories and articles, with academic work thrown in when it strikes my fancy. It does not endear me to agents and editors or readers.  

I've been very fortunate in that I've been with the same agency, Harold Ober Associates, from the beginning and then was accepted into Folio Literary Management when that house bought Harold Ober. I've never had to wrestle with some of the heart-breaking issues some of my friends have dealt with. 

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Turning Points


I think every writer has at least one turning point in their writing. Something that sets them on a different path. It might be an illness, a chance comment, or a teacher like Rick noted in his post yesterday. For me it was two online mystery writing courses and their instructors, G. Miki Hayden and Kris Neri.

So many authors I know have wanted to write since they were kids. Not me. Sure I wrote stories in grade school and junior high and enjoyed it, but I never had a desire to write books or short stories. I never even had a desire to take a creative writing class in high school or college. 

 Then I hit my 40s and decided it would be fun to try writing a cozy mystery. I’d read so many of them I figured I knew how to write one. I soon found out how wrong I was. So I started reading books on writing mysteries and worked on my story. Then I decided I needed more guidance and took a couple online classes on writing mysteries. 

 I chose online classes because I don’t take criticism well. I figured it would be easier to hear critique of my work online. I could read it, weep for a couple hours in a corner, then go back to reading the comments and really understanding what they were talking about. 

The first online course was one I found through the Writers Digest website. G. Miki Hayden pointed out so many things I was doing wrong, but also told me those things I was doing right. The second was through UCLA extension taught by Kris Neri, which built on what I’d learned in the other course.

I credit both of these teachers with setting me on the right path. 

What about you all? Do you have any turning points in your writing journey?

In other news, I have an interview on John Hoda’s podcast, My Favorite Detective Stories. It was a fun conversation. You can listen to it here

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

The best advice

by Rick Blechta

Needing to fill a whole in my university timetable with an “academic” course — when what I really wished to do was take an advanced orchestration course — I signed up for a creative writing class. It was likely the only course in which I had any interest that slotted into my timetable correctly, but I don’t clearly remember.

One thing that became apparent once snow fell, which it does early in Montreal, so I’d have to trudge across campus when I really didn’t want to. However, the instructor was quite good and I was becoming more “engaged” in learning to improve my writing.

Just before the Christmas holiday we were given an assignment to write two pages of dialogue between two people who weren’t well acquainted but were also angry. Something twigged in me and I spent a lot of time working on the assignment. Handing it in, I felt pretty good about what I’d done.

At the end of the last class of the year, my assignment came back with a big red C at the top and the comment, “This could have been much better.” I was puzzled and more than a bit angry. Unfortunately I had to wait until after the holiday break to speak with the instructor. I had to know where I’d gone wrong. Why had I gotten such a poor grade? I had no idea what the comment was getting at. Even after a gap of two weeks, my assignment still seemed pretty good to me.

After the first class back, I made an appointment to speak with the instructor. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow and I got the feeling she’d expected this.

The next afternoon we sat down in her shared office.

I wasted no time. “Could you explain to me why my grade was so low?” I asked, sliding the two pages of dialogue across her desk.

“Ah, yes. I wish I’d had the time to write more, so I’m glad you came in.”

Here’s a sample of what I’d written. (Yes, I still have the assignment.)

The man entered the room without knocking.

“I have to talk to you!” he said to the woman.

She looked up from her desk.

“Yes, what is it?”

Not answering, the man instead turned his back and proceeded to look out the window.

The woman sighed and put down her pen.

“First, you barge in here, disturbing my concentration, and now you won’t talk? Say something or get out!”

After a bit of time, the man turned.

“Can’t you guess?” he answered angrily.

Now, did you spot what my instructor didn’t like? (Besides a fair number of what she’d refer to as “dead words.”)

“You’re moving your characters like chessmen. There’s movement, one speaks. There’s another movement. The other answers. Your scene becomes stiff and jerky. Think for a moment. Can’t you do both at the same time?”

She spent a good half hour showing me how to combine description, emotional state and dialogue into one seamless flow. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have the sheet of notes and corrections I made that day, but I do remember what I learned.

Maybe I should write my memories out, so I can refresh my memory every time I have to edit a manuscript, because I often discover I haven’t followed those sage words and have created yet another in a long line of non-flowing scenes. I don’t do it every time, certainly, but even one in a story is too many.

And I still owe that terrific instructor a tremendous thank you because that day I took a huge step forward as a writer.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Opening Lines- Great Beginnings

 By Thomas Kies

With great interest, I read Frankie Y. Bailey’s blog about wrestling with the opening scene of her new work in progress. (In the same blog, she posted a link to a video from 1939 when 20,000 Americans crowded into Madison Square Garden…all of them except one were Nazi sympathizers.  It was chilling and reminded me of Charlottesville.)

Opening scenes, indeed opening lines, are absolutely key to getting a reader to keep turning pages.  My agent once told me that she gets at least a hundred queries a day.  If the first scene…first sentence…doesn’t grab her, she sets it aside and moves on to the next. 

She made that announcement at the Book Passage Mystery Conference back in 2016 a week after she’d secured my first contract with Poisoned Pen Press.  I was in the audience, and she asked me to stand up and recite the first sentence of Random Road.

 Last night Hieronymus Bosch met the rich and famous.

The rest of the scene goes: 

That was the lead sentence of the story I filed later that night with the Sheffield Post. My editor spiked it, saying, “Nobody who reads this newspaper knows who Hieronymus Bosch is.”

Instead, the story began:

‘Six people were found brutally murdered, their nude bodies mutilated, in the exclusive gated Sheffield community of Connor’s Landing.’

--So, in the spirit of great openings and great opening lines, some of my favorites are:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984

“This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it.” William Goldman, The Princess Bride.

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Iain Banks, The Crow Road.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.”  Ian Fleming, Goldfinger. 

Opening lines and opening scenes set your expectations for the rest of the book.  In a bookstore, someone who picks up your book will quickly look at the blurbs and quotes on the back cover, scan the synopsis on the inside front cover, and then take a look at your opening scene.  If they take your book to the front counter, credit card in hand, then you’ve won them over. 

One of the absolute best opening scenes from a book I read in 2021 is from Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me. 

“On the night of January twenty-third, unseasonably calm and warm, a woman named Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons went missing during a charity gala in the exclusive island town of Palm Beach, Florida.

Kiki Pew was seventy-two years old and, like most of her friends, twice widowed and wealthy beyond a need for calculation.  With a check for fifty thousand dollars, she had purchased a Diamond Patrons table at the annual White Ibis Ball.  The event was the marquee fundraiser for the Gold Coast chapter of the IBS Wellness Foundation, a group globally committed to defeating Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Mrs. Fitzsimmons had no personal experience with intestinal mayhem, but she loved a good party.”

Don’t we all?