Thursday, April 28, 2022

From Real Life

 For the past several months I've been hosting authors on my own website in a feature called Tell Me Your Story. I ask my guests to let us in on how events in their lives led them to become authors or influenced their writing. I've had some wonderful guests who've told wonderful stories, and as a bonus I've learned that my sources of inspiration are no different from even the most prolific and successful writers out there.

My guest this month is Betty Webb, author of dozens of wonderful novels, including ten Lena Jones noir mysteries and six Gunn Zoo humorous cozies. Betty lets us in on why her characters are so realistic and relatable. She says  "I get my ideas from my exceedingly weird family, who are weird enough to give me tips for character-driven mysteries, but not so weird that they ruined my childhood." She also admits that she bases her characters on her friends and enemies, too. (You can read about her tips and tricks here.)

This has made me consider my own characters. Mine are fashioned after and inspired by real people in my life, as well. You can't make up people in all their glorious inconsistencies and peccadilloes with anywhere near the imagination that God uses.

Of course, after writing several books featuring the same recurring characters, it seems to me that my characters have developed lives of their own, and they drive the action in my stories rather than the action driving them, just like real life.They may have started out as fictional characters, but they don't stay that way.

The great mystery novelist Graham Greene once said, "There comes a time when your character does something you would never have thought of. When that happens, he's alive, and you leave him to it."(I may have used this quote several times before, but what good is it to know a pithy quote unless you can use it fifteen or twenty times?)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

In celebration of independent bookstores

 Barbara here. I am devoting today's blog to independent bookstores, because April 30 is International Independent Bookstore Day. It's a very worthy cause that deserves much more attention than it gets. It even has its own Twitter hashtag, #indiebookstoreday, which I used on Facebook today since Twitter and I aren't on speaking terms at the moment.

Since I first got into the author business over twenty years ago, it seems to me that independent bookstores have staggered from one crisis after another. First it was the Big Box retailers. In Canada, Chapters/ Indigo often tried to drive the indies out of business by opening a big store right up the street. The big stores drove harder bargains with the publishers and demanded bigger discounts and other preferential treatment like book placement that the indies couldn't afford but publishers couldn't refuse. Next, megastores like Walmart and drugmarts began skimming off the biggest selling books, eroding everyone else's profits even more.  Then along came Amazon, with its aggressive sales approach and deep discounts, and blew the whole brick-and-mortar book business out of the water, including the Big Box and Megastores. Quite a few closed or went entirely online. Many customers switched to digital books downloaded online. Everyone prophesied the demise of the physical bookstore entirely.

Signings are always more fun with author friends

And finally along came the pandemic, supposedly the final nail in the independent bookstores' coffin. Retail stores had to close their doors during lockdowns and reduce their capacity at other times, people avoided going out and switched to online buying instead. Every business scrambled to find ways to stay afloat, but most independent bookstores could not afford to offer free shipping or sales discounts when their profit margin had always been very slim and they still had rent and utilities to pay, staff to pay, and inventory to purchase.

During these difficult times, especially during the past two years, they survived mostly on the loyalty of customers, which was based on the relationships they had built up and the unique personalized service they had provided in the years before. Shopping at an independent bookstore has always been different than shopping online or in a megastore. Staff turnover is minimal. Staff know their books and have read many of them, and they know their customers. Customers can always rely on a friendly personal greeting, usually from the owner, and a knowledgeable recommendation that helps them find the exact book they are looking for, even if they don't know what they want. "That blue book set in Venice with the police inspector. I think."

There is a place for Amazon and the big online retailers. They made a huge number of books accessible to everyone, no matter how remotely they live. They reduce costs for those who would otherwise struggle to buy books. However, indies can't match the discounts that the big guys offer because they haven't the power to negotiate publisher discounts, but those discounts are often at the expense of authors. Both publisher and author are squeezed by aggressive tactics from the big guys, and in the end, there will be fewer books and fewer publishers.

But indies offer things the big guys can't. There is nothing like the personal touch and the ability to browse bookshelves and peer at back covers. Nothing like the owner who listens to what you like and knows exactly what to suggest. Who helps you to find a lesser known writer whom you will love.

Aunt Agatha's Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

For most authors except the mega-best selling ones, that connection is crucial. We build up relationships with bookstores and we rely on that relationship and personal knowledge to help us reach new readers. Most authors are unknown and never hit the big best-seller status that gets them to the front racks at Walmart, Cosco, or pharmacies. Independent bookstores recommend our books to the customers they know would probably enjoy them, and bit by bit, our readership grows. 

Despite their struggles, many indies have not only survived but are drawing readers back in who miss the personal connection and knowledge and who recognize the value of a local business that is part in the community. Bookstores host readings and signings, they often have book clubs and children's events. This is what must be celebrated and cherished. On April 30, many of us authors will be participating in events at local bookstores. I urge everyone to look them up, post about #indiebookstoreday on Social Media, and if you can, drop by your favourite local bookstore. 

I'll be there - at Coles in Carlingwood Shopping Centre in Ottawa, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Really Good Liars

 by Charlotte Hinger

I once enjoyed watching a TV show called Lie to Me. It wasn't violent and the concept was fascinating if for no other reason that mystery writers are obsessed with investigation techniques. It featured a forensic psychologist who specialized in identifying people who are telling lies.

Some of the most amusing scenes in the show were when he was explaining some points to his colleagues and there were flashes of famous people in the news expressing similar emotions. Lying, cheating, dissembling, or just messing around with truthiness in general.

Will anyone ever forget Clinton shaking his finger and saying "I did not have sex with that woman?" Or Bush's famous declaration, "Mission Accomplished."

I'm always surprised at how easily some people lie. At a writer's conference years ago, I listened to an agent on a panel who was a first class liar. I knew this for a fact because he had just fleeced a friend of mine. But he was really, really good at convincing people that he was highly ethical, brilliantly connected in the publishing world and one swell person to have on their side. Oh, right.

When it comes to our own friends and family, it's amazing how often we simply know when something is amiss. A look in their eye. A smile that's forced. A too cheerful front.

Email and the internet makes it hard to conceal anything. I'm amazed at the emails that some politicians send. They are nailed for exchanges sent years ago and then deny having sent it in the first place.

Privacy of any kind no longer exists. Period. I look up a lot of stuff on the internet. I'm especially curious about conditions and diseases I need for concocting plots. Sure enough, I'm then quickly bombarded with solutions for a problem that the God of the Internet assumes I have. Sorry, Internet. I was just kidding.

It makes me a little nervous to look up guns and information about poisons when I'm considering plots. What if the FBI or whoever decides to investigate me? What if I look like a liar when I'm questioned?

I imagine I would look guilty whatever they asked.

All the information about body language makes it hard for mystery writer to fool our readers. It's hard enough to plant really clever red herrings. Nevertheless, since I like psychological suspense, I'm delighted when an author spins a really good tale. 

That's what we writers basically are, you know. Really good liars.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Just when you thought history was a thing of the past

 Some of you may remember the secret project I hinted at a few weeks ago. 


What, am I typing into the void here?

Don't answer that, the truth may make a grown man cry.

Seriously, I did drop a little hint in the middle of one of my meanderings but can now reveal what the tease was all about.

Basically, I've written an historical novel.

The genesis of this story goes back over 20 years ago - I'm not sure exactly how long but I think it was while I was writing my non-fiction book about the Edinburgh Tolbooth - the old town's jail, dubbed by Sir Walter Scott The Heart of Midlothian. I stumbled over a line in a book about a secret will that had perhaps bequeathed the nation to her half-brother, James Edward Stuart, who was living in exile on the Continent.
Over the following two decades I added characters, plot strands and background details to the mental file, because to actually note anything down would be too much like organisation and we don't do that in this house, no sir.
What I didn't do was actually begin to write the thing. 
Until last year, when the opening chapter of my last Rebecca Connolly book, 'A Rattle of Bones', which was set in the mid-18th century caught the eye of bestselling author Denzil Meyrick (we are contractually obliged to call him that, even when just meeting him in the street. His agent is tough, let me tell you).
Anyway, he is a huge fan of historical fiction and he urged me to try my hand at it. When I told him that I had one bubbling around in my head he practically ordered me to get it done. At first I scoffed at the notion. 
"I scoff at the notion," I said. Writing a chapter was one thing, but a whole novel? That was daunting.
But it stayed with me and I thought, what the hell - what harm would it do to give it the old college try?
Three months later I had a complete first draft. I don't think I've written anything so fast since the first Dominic Queste book 'The Dead Don't Boogie.' 
It was as if it had all been perched in whatever lobe of my brain controls this sort of thing, just waiting to leap onto the screen.
I'm calling it an historical adventure thriller crime spy story. With a bit of horror. And romance. I'm leaving little to chance here.
Seriously, it's designed as a swashbuckling, but sometimes dark, adventure thriller set against the underworld and political skulduggeries of 1715 and it will be the first in a new series featuring Jonas Flynt - thief, gambler and, when he needs to be, killer.
The book will be available in September 2022 from Canelo.
So - have I hijacked Type M for Murder to do some marketing?
Certainly not and perish the thought.
He said, hoping people will believe him.
There is a writing point to be made, too. And that is that writers should never throw any ideas away. Even material deleted from one manuscript can be of use in another - it wouldn't be the first time I've done that. You may not be ready to write a particular story immediately but who knows how you will feel further down the line. I believe Clint Eastwood sat on David Webb People's script for 'Unforgiven' until he was old enough to do it justice.  It's the same with storylines, or genres. Store them away.
Oh - and I would recommend actually writing them down. Perhaps do what I suggest, not what I do being the operative phrase here.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

My Mom's Yellow Bikini

A couple of years back I had a dream where I saw my mother in a motorboat tied to the pier of a mountain lake. She was a young woman at the time and wearing a yellow bikini. She was helping a man--a stranger and not my dad--get the boat ready. Then a phone began ringing in the shack at the land end of the pier. The phone kept ringing and ringing and ringing until my mom asked the man if he was going to answer it. "Could be important," she said. He replied, "If it's important, they'll send a letter."

As far as I know, my mother had never been in a motorboat on such a lake. Who was that man? Plus I'd never seen her in a bikini, and so I had a lot of thoughts about what the dream was telling me. I decided that the big lesson was the man's nonchalant response to the phone call and compared it to the way we react to our situation in the world. There's a general mood of unceasing anxiety, of constant urgency, that the world is in increasing chaos.

Of course, a reality check keeps things in perspective. During the George Floyd riots, when the country seemed ready to fall apart, I stumbled upon a newspaper article from July 1967 that chronicled the Detroit Riots, which were so destructive that Federal troops on the way to Vietnam were diverted to the city and battle tanks rumbled along the streets in a show of force to quell the trouble.  

Such reminders do help but there's much about our modern-day living that stokes the anxiety. Culling through my email makes me feel like the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Dealing with spam texts is like playing Whack-a-Mole at turbo speed. I compare that to what a writer's life was like before computers and the Internet. I imagine Raymond Chandler or Beryl Markham behind the typewriter, tapping the keys, thoughts not disrupted by ring tones or distracted by click-bait. On the credenza sits a basket piled with incoming mail, which can be sifted through at a leisurely pace. During the day, you might take five phone calls. The pace of life was slower, more deliberate, more contemplative. And yet, even with our laptops, we'd be lucky to be as productive or as good as those writers.

Naturally, it's easy to look back upon our predecessors and marvel at the certainty of their times because we know how everything turned out for them. World War Two is regarded with nostalgia. The good old days when total war raged across oceans and continents. On the other hand, modern technology does offer advantages. I was a lousy typist, and still am, and fortunately word-processing software helps me backspace over my mistakes. Give me Word and inkjet printers over Wite-Out and carbon copies. And I sympathize with those poor schmucks who had to reconcile spreadsheets by hand. 

Back to my point of this cloud of anxiety hanging over our society. It's gotten so bad that the demand for mental health counseling includes meeting the needs of the mental health counselors themselves. The pandemic squeezed everybody. Having so much home delivery available is wonderfully convenient but adds to a sense of isolation and that isolation erodes our sense of presence and self-worth. Social media is a cauldron of manic depression. To remain safe and sane we have to relearn what's worked throughout history: stay active, sleep, eat right, avoid self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, socialize, get outside, and cultivate a positive mental attitude.

And don't think about your mom in a yellow bikini.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Getting out of the way

“Sometimes the story knows what it’s trying to say, and your job is to let the story speak.”

I said this to a student this morning. He had two pages written and said he didn’t know where to go from there. We were “talking through” his story, meeting 1:1 for a critique, and the more I listened, the more I heard him talk about his aspirations for the story, which seemed juxtaposed with what he’d written. In the end, we talked about several passages that seemed to speak to his original concept, and he went back to the drawing board, looking for ways to flesh those original ideas out.

Or, rather, he went about the work of getting out of the way and letting the story reveal itself to him (and the reader).

This sounds much easier than it is. We all have great ideas, and the beginning of every story holds promise. Raymond Chandler once said, “There are no dull stories, only dull minds.” Stephen King described writing as akin to archeology –– the trick is to get the story out of the ground without breaking it. That’s a useful analogy, one I return to often, as a writer and a teacher.

It’s why outlining is so hard. What looks good on the outline might not work when you have to actually execute the game plan. The game changes as it’s being played. This is why my “outlines” are more like long, detailed character sketches, complete with motivations and maybe even a few lines of dialogue, things I think the character would say that helps me to define them (for myself and then the reader).

I’d love to hear more from the Type M community on the topic of getting out of the way of the story and letting it reveal itself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Figuring It Out

by Charlotte Hinger

The intrepid Lottie Albright delves into old murders which causes new murders. It's not really a cold case series, as it focuses on the present-day murder. Thus it technically morphs into a suspense. Will my historian/undersheriff figure out who did it back then in time to prevent becoming the victim on the next page?

In some ways, a straight cold case would be easier to present because the Lottie Albright series is told in present day first person. I can't use flashbacks and have to depend on the back story emerging through historical investigation techniques.

My most dependable tool has always been microfilmed newspapers. The Kansas State Historical Society was founded in 1875. They have one of the world's most comprehensive collection of newspapers. All the papers are on microfilm and many are on-line through Chronicling America Instructions for obtaining microfilmed Kansas papers can be found at

Since Lottie doesn't have access to the villain's mind the plot depends on her ability to connect the dots. Nothing is more valuable in both academic investigation and mystery plotting than knowing something is just not quite right. In other words, reading between the lines. Because usually newspaper items are objective.

Here's an example of what I mean by not quite right. An announcement in the 1950s local news item: "Lonnie Balfour and family will be moving to the Balfour homestead later this month. He will take over the extensive farming operation of his late father." Lottie thinks that's funny. Lonnie was a CPA and the second son. The oldest son, Jeff, was the obvious heir. He was a farmer. Was there tension over this? This leads her to the recorded deed and even more newspapers and death certificates. Aha! Lonnie died in a mysterious accident. His descendants are alive today. And so it goes. Diaries, letters, voting records, notes from organizations, and yearbooks have their own testimony.

Was one child consistently on the honor role and in every activity under the sun? And another in the same family barely mentioned in the high school newspaper or not a participate in any groups according to the yearbook? Why? With persistence, it easy to find this out.

It's easy to really keep the plot hopping through the protagonist's questions as long as the writer resists the temptation to inject a massive dose of history and cultural details. For instance, old newspapers show group pictures of students at events. The debate team is especially well-groomed, except for one member. Why was there no one looking out for this kid? Had his parents ever come to one of his debates?

Being able to enter the mind of the first person protagonist is quite a lot of fun, because one can make this amazing sleuth really smart, not at all like the bumbling novelist who hasn't got a clue.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Cozy? Me? I thought I was Hard-Boiled!

 By Thomas Kies

The ARC for WHISPER ROOM (release date, August 2) is available now for review and a few people have already commented on Goodreads.  I’m more than pleased that universally, so far, their reviews have been exceptionally positive.  I’m a bit taken aback, however, that two of them describe my book as a Cozy Mystery. 

I’m far from insulted, but I’ve never considered my books to be cozy by any stretch of the imagination. They’ve always been described as dark, twisty, and scary.  My neighbor read my third book, GRAVEYARD BAY, and when I asked him how he liked it, he told me, “The ending gave me nightmares.”

No cozy there.

The cozy mystery is a subgenre that has been described many ways, but I’ll try to distill it down as best I can.  The protagonist is usually female, an amateur sleuth, and the violence and sexual activity takes place off scene.  The setting is generally a small community where most people know each other

Interestingly, that kind of describes WHISPER ROOM. If you close your eyes and squint at it from a distance. 

Merriam-Webster defines genre as “…characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”

Primary fiction genres are: Romance, mystery, science fiction/fantasy, action/adventure, thriller/suspense, horror, historical fiction, and young adult.

Then there are subgenres. Amazon numbers them as 16,000 and calls them categories. 

Subgenres for fiction are: psychological thriller, cozy mysteries, historical mysteries, romantic suspense, spy thrillers, police procedural, private detective, legal thrillers, heist, locked room, noir, and supernatural thrillers.

Now, many of the subgenres for mysteries are obviously hybrids from the broad definition of genres listed above. 

My first book, RANDOM ROAD, was labelled a mystery but in reality, it was a romance novel with a mystery as the engine that drove the story forward. Girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy, girl solves mystery, boy dies.  So, let’s add the genre of Tragedy to our list. 

How did Amazon label RANDOM ROAD? Hard-boiled mystery, amateur sleuth, women sleuths.  Nothing about romance at all.  I guess I hid it well.

I’ve taken a hiatus from teaching my Creative Writing courses at the college until this coming fall, but I think one of the exercises I’ll try is asking the students to take a book they’ve recently read, as well as a classic they may have read when they were in school and give it three classifications like Amazon might.

Like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Would it be a Legal Thriller, a Coming-of-Age novel, or maybe Horror (Boo Radley was pretty scary…until he wasn’t)? 

Amazon actually classifies the novel as Teen & Young Adult Classic Literature, TV/Movie & Game Tie-In Fiction, and Classic American Literature.

I’ve never even heard of TV/Movie & Game Tie-In Fiction.

So, back to WHISPER ROOM.  The blurb reads: Sex, Blackmail, and Murder…Welcome to the Whisper Room.

Doesn’t sound cozy at all to me. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Right Thing Happens

I've been working on a new novel that is much more "noir" than previous novels I've written. I know what Noir is, but I can't quite make myself have everything go to hell in the end. Iv been writing traditional mystery stories too long.

 Years ago, my husband brought home from the library a copy of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. He writes poetry, and symbology is important to him.  I borrowed it from him, and as I read, it dawned on me that one of the defining traits of the mystery story is that it is basically a hero quest, an archetypical tale, a medieval myth in modern clothing.

Evil is done

The hero goes on a quest to right the wrong.

The hero finds the villain, confronts him, and they do battle.

The hero triumphs, and balance is restored.

All right, you’re saying, I can think of seventeen mystery novels where the hero didn’t triumph, the villain didn’t lose, yadda yadda yadda.  

First of all, quit trying to mess up my theme.  Second, I realize that there are plenty of mysteries in which things don’t quite work out that the killer is caught by the law and punished for his deed.  But that doesn’t mean that there was no justice.  In a mystery novel, a satisfying ending occurs when the right thing happens.

Consider Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot finds out who murdered the victim, all right.  But when was justice done?  As far as our hero is concerned, justice was done when the victim was done in by those he had horribly wronged.  And so, he contrives to convince the police that the murder was committed by a phantom train conductor who has disappeared forever through the snow.

Even in the blackest of noir mysteries, where even the hero comes to a bad end, he brings it upon himself.  He has a fatal flaw.  Perhaps he sacrifices himself because he’s done a bad thing and this is how he atones.  The dragon is slain, even if St. George goes down with him.

Letting the reader see right prevail - whatever that may entail - is what gives a mystery novel its satisfyingly mythic ending

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Perils of Blogging

I’m tired tonight. This blog will be very short. It’s not that I can’t think of anything at all to write. It’s that I’ve learned to be frightened of what I will write.

For me, writing is a morning function. That’s when words come easily and writing is a joyful experience. I’ve learned to do non-fiction writing in the afternoon because it’s a different process. It’s much more analytical, but even then it’s easy for me to become careless. When I blog, things can go wrong in a hurry.

Some time back, I completed a post for BlackPast, the premier go-to site for those interested in African American or African history. The editor, Dr. Quintard Taylor, who invented this site caught a really embarrassing error I had made regarding a date. Normally I would have caught it at once. This site is approaching 3 million readers!! During last year's Black History Month we had over 50,000 readers in a single day.

Because I am a morning person, whenever I have written a really sensitive email where the wording is important, I always always let it rest overnight. Often the wording could be altered or more explanatory. Occasionally, this kind of communication survives the cold scrutiny of daylight.

I’m convinced that social media can be one of the most dangerous trap of all. Twice now, in a state of fatigue, I’ve let some little zinger go. I can’t remember one, but the first had to do with stupid comment during the last presidential election. I do not hesitate to let people know I’m a Democrat, but it wasn’t necessary to incur the wrath of the whole Republican Party. Especially a particular niece. If I had had all my wits gathered around me it wouldn’t have happened.

I'm increasingly cautious in this rancorous political climate. I hear there are a number of groups working to find ways to heal the divisions in this country. That's a good thing and more power to them. 

A lot of writers just hate to blog. I don’t. I enjoy reading them and I love making friends with the reading public.

However, I have not made one whit of progress on one of my stern New Year’s Resolutions. That was/is to blog ahead of time and to have some other blogs saved back for emergencies. I need to discipline myself to have some blogs in reserve.

Working tired takes another toll. I’ve noticed that I’ve developed a inner scoldiness (yes Spellcheck I know that’s not a word) when I’m not working. A nagging inner voice that insists I shouldn’t be enjoying myself when I could be working.

Sourness expands!

Monday, April 11, 2022

The chaotic approach to writing

 Writers are often asked what their work process is. I usually reply that I string the words together and sometimes even in the correct order.

To be honest, my process isn't all that much. It's like throwing spaghetti strands against the wall and if they stick, they're cooked.

I have a white board covered in scribbles. I think they're mine but it may well have been the passage of a spider who had walked through paint. I have notes on Post-It slips scattered across my desk. And I still forget character her names and change them halfway through.

During the writing of the Rebecca Connolly book coming in July, I gave one character three or four different names. My editor suggested that it might be best if I choose one and stick with it. The annoying thing was, it was character who had appeared in the first book!

Frankly, it's a wonder I ever finish a book at all.

I'm nearing the end of the first complete draft of one now and I know where I want to get to. The problem is, how will I get there?

So far I've torn the big reveal apart twice and I'm mulling over a third approach. 

Ah, some of you might say, if you had planned your book you wouldn't have this problem.

Au contraire, mon ami, I'd say. I don't know why I'd slip into French because I don't even speak the language. I have enough trouble with English.

I believe I would have the same problem if I planned. I'd get to this stage and something better than I had planed would occur to me and all that time spent working it all out ahead of time would have been wasted. I know this because I've tried it.

My brain is chaotic and growing even more so as I grow older (I admit to being over 40, even though I left that particular behind so long ago it's over the hills, the horizon, the rainbow and far away).

My wife used to tell me that my head is full of broken biscuits. It's filled with useless crumbs of information about movies, film music, crime novels and real-life crimes of the past. My attention can flit around like a bat trapped in a room, looking for somewhere to land but there's just too much sound and light.

The thing is, it all comes together in the end. To paraphrase Geoffrey Rush's character in 'Shakespeare in Love', I don't know how. It's a mystery.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

On the move

This spring has been –– and will be for the considerable future –– a blur. A lifelong New Englander, I, along with my adventurous wife, have sold our home and are moving to Michigan, where I’ve taken a job as the Upper School Director of Detroit Country Day School in suburban Detroit.

This leaves me with a foot in two different worlds at the moment –– working for the school I’m at and doing things for the one I’m going to (my official start date is July 1).

In regards to my “other job,” writing, it also leaves me with a host of questions: I just finished a manuscript set at a New England boarding school, which I hope will launch a new series. It’s off to my agent, and I’m awaiting word from her, as I start the sequel. Will she like it? Will she sell it? And, more importantly, after nearly two decades living and working at boarding schools, what will it be like to write about them once I’m removed from that world?

My proximity to the setting has led me to believe I created an authentic world and view into it, and I’ve thought about Hemingway’s ability to write about Michigan once he went to Paris. (Maybe I’m doing his reverse commute.) Perhaps the step to a day school will free me to write even more truthfully about the boarding school world.

"The writer's job is to tell the truth," Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say."

This is still my favorite Hemingway quote, and I’m hoping (as I’m sure many of you do, too) that it sees me through.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Malice Domestic Bound


It’s been quite awhile since I attended a mystery conference. The last one was Bouchercon in Dallas in 2019. I was all set to attend Malice in 2020, then the world stopped.

So I’m very excited to be going to Malice this year. I have my plane flights, my hotel room and my panel assignment. I'm getting my hair cut on Friday because there will be pictures and a second Covid booster on Monday. I am so looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen in what seems ages. I’m also fully aware that things can change at the drop of a hat so I’ll just say I’m cautiously optimistic that nothing will happen that prevents me from attending.

For Malice this year, my panel assignment is on Friday afternoon, April 22, at 3 p.m. With a three hour time change, that’s the perfect time for me. The panel is titled Can You Google the Killer? How Sleuths Navigate Tech & Social Media Besides me, the panelists are: Moderator: Vincent O’Neil, Nicole Asselin, Sarah E. Burr, Barry Fulton and Korina Moss

You can see the full panel list here

I haven’t gone to a conference in so long, I have to remind myself what I need to do to prepare. I’ve pretty much spent the last couple years in jeans and t-shirts so it’ll be a little odd to wear nicer clothes.

I also am slightly embarrassed about my lack of progress on my writing during the pandemic. My last book came out at the end of 2019. Haven’t had anything published anywhere since then. I’m just now finishing up edits to my next book, which I don’t have a publisher for but am considering self-publishing. I did write a short story that I submitted to an anthology, but haven’t heard anything back about it yet. I’ve decided, though, to not worry about it too much. I’ll just plod along and enjoy myself at the conference.

If you’re attending Malice, stop me in the halls and say hi.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Thought Police

 When I was fifteen, my father cornered me. "Sweetheart, three of the filthiest books I've ever read were brought into the house by you. I'm wondering, was it an accident? Or does your mind run that way?" 

"A little of both," I said. The books were Peyton PlaceGod's Little Acre, and Not as a Stranger. I got them all from the library. 

"Oh," he said. "I was just wondering."

What a lucky child I was, to have parents who did not censor my reading. 

Censorship in some form or another is popping up all over. Book banning used to from the right. Now it's just as likely to come from the liberal community. I've heard several authors complain about their publisher subjecting a manuscript to evaluation by a "sensitivity expert." Or even more daunting, focus groups who record any lines they find offensive.


If it's not words that set people off, it's the content. Moving up the scale even more is whether the author had the "right" to tell the story. Is the author the right color? the right gender? the right race? from the right culture? the right nationality? Worse, was the story inspired by the author's very own personal experience? 

None of the great historical novels would pass muster. Of course, authors such as Pearl Buck would be out. She wasn't Chinese, after all. As to Madame Bovary, Flaubert was obviously the wrong gender. What could he know? And Tolstoy. How dare he write a novel with multiple female voices. Bet he wasn't even in that war. 

A friend of mine who was in a writing group for a short time (a very short time) said an English teacher had criticized her offering saying there's a child in your story and I don't believe you could know how a child feels. So. All of our novels should only be about ourselves. The exact age we are now. 

There are practical considerations. We all subscribe to a sort of self-censorship. Thomas Kies pointed that chapters are much shorter now, and books are too. He also stated that Michener would not be published because of the length of his novels. Ironically, I'm rereading The Source, which is in my all-time favorite book collection. I'm curious as what moved both of us to dig out these old classics. 

As to books on my all-time great list. Not as a Stranger is one of the very best medical novels ever written. It's egregiously overwritten and a real door stopper. I adore it.  

Monday, April 04, 2022

Short Chapters

 By Thomas Kies

I was recently asked by a fledgling writer about how long a book should be. I told him that the book is as long as it takes to tell the story, but generally speaking, it appears that the word count should be anywhere from 60,000 words to 110,000.  

Last week Douglas Skelton did an excellent blog on books he’s pulled off his bookshelf, blew away the dust, and reread, such as Ed McBain, Robert Ludlum, and Harold Robbins.  These were books he read early on in his life.

It made me think of some of the authors I read when I was much, much younger.  I think back fondly on the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming.  Back then, the Signet paperbacks were only sixty cents, but we’d read them, trade them for others, and talk quietly about them.  Don’t let the teachers see you with those books, after all, some of them have sex scenes. 

The way Bond treated women back then, we’d consider misogynistic now. 

I was absolutely hooked on the John D. MacDonald novels featuring Travis McGee.  The premise of the McGee mystery/thrillers was that McGee was the finder of lost or stolen things, a self-styled “Salvage Consultant”. He lived on a houseboat in Florida that he won in a poker game called the “Busted Flush”. And all the covers of those paperbacks seemed to feature a semi-nude woman.  Don’t let the teacher catch you with any of those either.

But I also became addicted to the wildly popular novels of James Michener.  His books were amazing…and amazingly long.  His book Hawaii is nearly a thousand pages. Centennial was over a thousand pages long.  Not something you’d likely see in a novel now.  Most of his books would begin with long chapters about the cultural and geologic history of whatever region was the subject matter of that particular novel. 

Could a writer get away with that now?  Not a chance. 

Novels need to start fast, be tightly written, and don’t even think about writing a 1,000-page book. Even chapters are shorter.  People's attention spans are shorter, their time is in demand from their jobs, families, and the world around them. 

Before getting published, I attended a writer’s conference and sat in on a workshop where the facilitator insisted that all books have chapters that were around twenty pages each.  I’ll admit, that in my first novel, Random Road, some of my chapters were around that long.

But as I continue to write, my chapters have become shorter, in some cases four or five pages.  It’s basically a scene and once that scene is over, bam, time move on to a new chapter. 

Why short chapters?  They make a good stopping point.  Maybe the reader only has fifteen minutes set aside per day (or night) for reading.  Or they have just so much time on their train commute. Or that's just the time they've set aside before their next task. 

But the funny thing is that when we give the reader a place to pause, they keep reading. 

The biggest compliment I get is when a reader tells me they couldn’t put a novel of mine down, that they read it in one sitting or over the course of several days.  

And I thank them for the compliment in spite of the fact what it took them a day or so to read, it took me nearly a year to write. 

Friday, April 01, 2022

Happy April Fool's Day

 I'm getting a late start this morning because yesterday I had exactly the kind of day Donis wrote about.  I spent much of the day on the telephone trying to get one repair done.

I finally gave up in frustration and sat down at my computer to try to finish doing some PowerPoint slides for my undergrad course. It was almost midnight when I started to update. Involved in revising and fact-checking, I forgot to watch the time. It was after two when I glanced around ans saw that Fergus, my dog -- who tries to wait for me to announce, "Bed" before trotting off to his portable enclosure and settling in for the night -- had come into my office unnoticed and gone to sleep in one of the two small circular beds that he and Penelope, the cat, share. He was snoring, but I hadn't noticed. The fact that I hadn't heard his snorts and grunts (loud enough to wake hibernating bears) told me how focused I had been on what I was doing. I had finally gotten into the flow while doing PowerPoint slides. But at least I was writing about crime fiction -- an overview of the genre in the 20th century with links for students who often have not heard of writers in the genre.

Today I'll insert a link to this famous "definitive list" of genre fiction:

 Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones

If asked, I will confess that there are many books on this list that I have never read. My excuse for not having tackled some of them is that they are only available as expensive first editions. But each time I have occasion to return to Haycraft-Queen, I notice books that have been reprinted or never gone out of print and that I've always intended to read one day. 

The books on my other to-be-read list include all of the Edgar winners and nominees. Unfortunately for my reading endeavor, each year more are added. But I persist. 

Today, my only goal is to get my PowerPoint slide posted and do the errands I need to do before picking up Fergus for the weekend. During the hours from 6 pm Friday afternoon until around 8:30 am on Monday when I drop him off at doggie daycare again, I don't get a lot done unless I can tire him out and he settles down for a nap in his day crate or under my desk. So today I'm hoping for an hour or two to polish the first 50 pages of my historical thriller that I want to get off to my agent. We had an email update this week, and he is waiting for me to send along. I'm anxious to get his thoughts about those first crucial pages.

And yesterday wasn't a complete lost. Or, maybe I should say today hasn't been. In the wee hours of April 1, I got out of bed and found the "white noise generator" that I'd ordered. A little machine that was, according to the review, able to cancel out loud noises like a snoring dog who has been bedding down in the portable enclosure in my bedroom since he was a pup. Until I can figure out how to move him out without making him feeling he is being punished, I have been trying to fall asleep before he flipped over on his back. That and hoping that his vet was right and that his diet to lose a few pounds will resolve the problem. 

I was delighted this morning when I took that little machine out and plugged in it. I could barely hear Fergus and within minutes I was drifting off sleep. I'm hoping that wasn't a cruel April Fool's joke -- that I didn't simply pass out from exhaustion. I'll see tonight.

In the meantime, enjoy this day for pranks:

History of day