Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30, 2022

No Appropriate Words

 By Thomas Kies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only there were more happy endings in real life. 

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

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

Saturday, May 28, 2022

A New Time for an Old Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2022

The People We've Never Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 26, 2022

This Is Not How It Was Supposed to Turn Out

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

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

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

And then I turned on the news.

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

In celebration of mystery conferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Letters, etc.

by Charlotte Hinger

Several years ago, The New Yorker ran a hilarious column written by Heather Havrilesky. It was entitled "How to Contact the Author." In it the cartoonish author declares "I love to hear from my readers. My readers are everything to me, and hearing from them makes me feel so blessed." 

She continues with her email address, begs her readers to friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, add her name to the LinkedIn Network, and follow her on Instagram. She begs the reader to tweet her questions no matter how personal or prying saying that she can't wait to reply and having the answers available to hundreds of strangers. She goes on to give her text number and urges the fan to call her at home or drop by the house. "Dinnertime works fine. Middle of the night, also perfect. I am so incredibly humble to have you in my life, whoever the hell you are."

There was much more to this satire. It ends, of course, with an appeal for the reader to buys her books on Amazon. All writers nowadays are acutely aware of the value of BSP. Blatant Self Promotion.

How far does one go and does bombarding the public actually sell books? Frankly, I am totally turned off by daily emails from writers regarding their latest activities. They are quickly routed to junk email.

Do authors welcome contact with fans? Actually, I do. When someone cares enough to write me about a book I feel honored and deeply grateful to know they like my series. I also appreciate knowing why they like my books.

Recently a lady wrote to correct a historical detail in Hidden Heritage. I was humiliated because I spend a lot of time on research and really thought I knew in this case. I quickly learned I was wrong and will apply that lesson to future books. We corresponded and became friends. I sent her a free book and she sent me some priceless information about a real madstone that had been handed down through seven generations.

There have been a couple of exceptions to enjoying contacts with fan. When my historical novel, Come Spring came out, I was contacted by a man who wrote a nice letter (in pencil) saying how much he liked my book. I sent my usual personal reply saying how much I appreciated his interest in my writing. He wrote back saying he was in a maximum security prison for criminal sexual assault against little boys.

 He bet my grandchildren were cute. My blood chilled. That finished polite responses on my part.

It wasn't the end as far as he was concerned. I started receiving collect phone calls from his prison. Naturally I refused. My husband worried that he would show up on my doorstep some day.

I contacted my lawyer who was a good friend and was subjected to a general bawling out in the form of "what in the hell were you thinking?" Following that, he instructed me to take the letters to the sheriff so there would be a paper trail.

Don commented that was to make sure when the sheriff found my dismembered body in the vacant field next to our house the detectives would know where to start with suspects. No more came of this.

Now that I've established that I love hearing from fans, those of us on Type M would love to hear from our readers. How much contact do you want with authors? Lots? None? or somewhere in between? For that matter, what would you like to know?

Monday, May 23, 2022

Dog Day Afternoons

I've been thinking of memories and how they lie dormant until something resurrects them, sometimes like a butterfly emerging from the pupa stage, other times like Dracula rising from the grave.

A snatch of music can transports me back to people, places, experiences. 

A glimpse of a movie on tv recalls which cinema I first saw it. And who I was with.

A photograph I've taken drops me instantly back to that day. 

That has been happening a lot lately, because I've been digitising old 35 mm negatives, mostly shots of dogs and cats that have long crossed that rainbow bridge. It's good to see these old pets again, especially as they are generally young and active in the shots. Age has not withered them. These images are moments of time frozen in ink on photographic paper, now immortalised in pixels and bytes of data.

Why am I telling you this?

It's really just an excuse to run some dog pics!

 These are all of Charlie, a bearded collie. I've had a number of dogs over the years, even more cats, and they were all special. My regular reader (she's a lovely person, enjoys a boiled sweet) knows that currently I have Mickey as a companion and he is very much my world, along with Tom the cat.

But Charlie...ah, Charlie.

He was the kind of dog that people smiled at in the street. There was just something about him that made them respond.

My wife found him one day tied to a park bench in a helluva state. His coat was matted, his claws were so long he was walking on the heels of his pads. She took him home and he was named Charlie because he was a bit of a tramp.

Charlie knew a good thing when he saw it and soon made himself at home. And he was a great dog. He loved the car, loved to go on trips. When it was time for me to pick my wife up from her office, he would do a little dance in the hallway because he knew he was coming too. He would sit in the back seat, looking through the windscreen, swaying with the corners.

He even went camping with us and I remember one day in Ullapool in the Scottish highlands when we wondered why people were walking past the back of our tent and giggling. It turned out he was lying inside, his nose and eyes poking out from under it and watching the world going by. 

It's never easy when a pet leaves you and Charlie was a particular wrench. He grew gradually weaker, less active, not nearly as perky. He faded away. And then, one day, he simply breathed once more and was gone. 

He was buried in the corner of a garden I no longer own and I often wonder if the new owners ever see a cheeky, lovable face peering at them through the grass. 

My wife died three years ago and I like to think that somewhere Charlie was waiting for her, along with all the other dogs and cats that have gone before. Young again. Smiling as he is the picture. Perhaps doing a little dance as he anticipates a trip somewhere. 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Beginnings and Endings

This week is full of emotions: It’s my final week as an employee and resident of Northfield Mount Hermon School. We are moving to Detroit Country Day School in June, where I will take on a new role and a new life –– it’s a day school, so we will move out of the dorm and join the civilian ranks –– and I should hear an update from my agent regarding the status of a manuscript I sent her a few weeks back.

It’s a time of beginnings –– new job; and now that one book is off to my agent, it’s time to start the next. Assuming she can sell the one I sent her, I’ve started the sequel. (I’m an optimist; aren’t we all in this business?)

So what does it mean for me to “start a new book”? It means conceptualizing: sketching the characters and setting. Here’s a section from my pre-writing for the work-in-progress:


Blaise Academy is a small, traditional blue-blazer and skirt/cardigan New England boarding school with 350 boys and girls located near-ish to Hartford, with a view of the Connecticut River. In a world where “wealth” is relative, Blaise does not have the endowment of Exeter or Andover, and the Academy (and its leaders) can be placed in compromising positions to acquire the donations needed. It is a small school, where everyone knows everyone, a place where the sales pitch is “community,” a place where a few teachers do it all, and students are supposed to feel known by the adults in the community.


+Bo Whitney, 50-ish, former Hartford Courant reporter. Now an English teacher and hockey coach. Husband to HOS Kate. Out of place in this buttoned-up world. First-person narrator. Cynical about the wealth and privilege he’s surrounded by.

+Kate Whitney, Ph.D., Head of School. The first female head at Blaise Academy. And she feels the responsibility to carry the torch successfully.

Trent Highsmith, senior, from NYC. Has the world by the ass and knows it. Life comes easy to him. He’s 6’2”, 215 lbs, and will play linebacker at Brown. SATs aren’t quite as good as his haircut, but they’re close, and that’s good enough for Brown –– if you’re All New England. He is a four-year senior at Blaise, and is popular enough to be on the Student Council, but too lazy to do the work, so he doesn’t run. He would receive a Jeep for graduation, except that he got it a year ago. On a campus where cars are prohibited among students, Trent has been seen (by many including the Whitney kids) driving the Jeep. Of course, the deans can’t prove that. The book begins in April, six weeks before graduation, the day before Trent is found severely beaten in the woods behind his dorm. Trent is a difficult character to like, and we need to stress his positives to build sympathy –– he volunteers at home and worked a summer camp where he met and worked closely with Ryan Kinsley, 7, a wheelchair-bound boy, who Trent often took swimming.

+ series’ family of character

Starting a new book also means establishing goals for the book . . .

This book is not about sexual violence; it is about emotional manipulation and toxic masculinity and how far a young girl will go to find approval.

My character list is 14 people long, and I have a plot sketch as well. Part of that sketch is here . . .

. . . This is a dark story, one of manipulation and toxic masculinity. Bo’s cynical voice will highlight this. This is also a story in which readers are forced to consider the role of justice in the criminal justice system: Was Trent’s attack justified? In the end, Trent will recover and go off to Brown, and Hillary will be in therapy, and Bo will be forced to decide whether or not to tell Connecticut State Trooper Mitt Houston what he has learned, essentially defining justice in this book.

And so I’m off and running, looking over my shoulder at my sketches and plot concept and always willing to pivot if need be. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this approach or how they set about writing a new book.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Creating Likable Characters


by Sybil Johnson

When my first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series, Fatal Brushstroke, was bought by my publisher they told me a number of things they wanted me to change. Chief among them was the likeability of my main character. As written, they didn’t think she was very likable.

I was surprised when they told me Rory wasn’t likable. I really thought she was. Then I started thinking about how to make a character more likable. I looked at blog posts on the subject, read books on creating characters and thought about it some more.

I realized that she was a little snippy at times, maybe not as kind as she could be. It dawned on me at one point that those kinds of things would work better in a sidekick.

Here are some other things I came across in my quest to improve Rory’s likeability: 

1) If you want to make a character likable, introduce an animal like a dog or a cat. Have that character interact with it on a positive note: save the animal from being run over, treat a neighbor’s animal kindly when they wander into your yard, give the character an animal to take care of. The same goes for children. How a person interacts with a child or an animal tells you a lot about their character. If you want a character to be unlikable have them treat a child or animal badly. Although, in cozies, you should probably not kill an animal off because you’ll hear about it. 

2) If someone says something to them, don’t have your character ignore them. Have them interact with that person even if it’s an annoying person. 

3) Give your character a flaw or two so they don’t appear too saintly. 

4) Give your character something that they’re really scared of, e.g. heights. You could then have them come across a situation in the story where they have to overcome that fear in order to rescue someone or get information they need or escape from a bad guy. 

5) Make your character liked by others. If other people in the story want to be around them, that’s an indication that the character is likable. 

6) Make their goals worthy. If they want to be the head of a company and they’re willing to do anything to reach that goal, that’s not a likable character. It’s an interesting character, but not very likable. At least not to the average person. 

7) Make them have a sense of humor. As long as the humor isn’t at the expense of others. People relate to those who can make fun of themselves or have a sense of humor about situations. As long as it’s not over the top. 

8) Have them be sympathetic/empathetic when someone dies. How they treat that death and those who are affected can make a person likable or unlikable. 

9) Make your character relentless. No matter what obstacles they come across, they should continue to strive to get to the truth, to right the wrong. 

Not every character needs to be or should be likable. In any story, there should be a mix. But, as a reader of cozy mysteries, I want to like the main character. They can be quirky or have flaws, but if I don’t like them, I’ll probably read one book and then I’m gone. Okay, I may not finish the book. I may throw the book across the room if they're particularly annoying. Okay, that happened one time only!

Does anyone have any other methods of making a character likable?

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Ode to Joy


Katelyn Bieker

Boy, am I ever proud. My youngest grandchild graduated from Colorado State University Saturday with a major in Biological Sciences and Pre-Med. We have six grandchildren and now all have a college education. 

Best of all, all six are avid readers. 

No one can take a degree away from the beaming graduate. It means that the recipient can adhere to a goal over a period of time. With that precious degree, comes the special elation of completing an arduous task. Ode to joy. Wow. We did it.   

Katy's mother, Mary Beth, and her sister Abby help Katy celebrate this happy day. There are smiles all around. 

Naturally the whole family made pigs of themselves. The Crocketts had a little party before the special day. Too much food and temptation. What is a poor grandmother to do? 

Congratulations to all the graduates everywhere. We are proud of all of you. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Plot Twists in Fiction--Good. In Real Life--Not So Much.

 By Thomas Kies

As I write this, my wife and I were supposed to be on an exploration day in Vancouver.  Then, the following day, we were supposed to board a Holland America ship for a cruise of the coastline of Alaska for ten days.  

I’d never been on a cruise before and neither of us had visited Alaska, so this was going to be a real treat.

My wife spent months putting the trip together, planning the shore excursions, picking out the drink and meal packages.  She’s the one who booked the flights from Raleigh to Minneapolis to Vancouver.  She’s the one who booked the hotels we needed when not onboard the ship.

She’s the one who put the sweat equity into what was going to be the trip of a lifetime. 

Then there was a plot twist. 

Even just reading it puts your nerves on edge, doesn’t it? Foreshadowing…yes, there’s trouble brewing ahead.

In order to board the ship, even to gain entrance into Canada, we had to show proof of vaccination (no problem—vaccinated and double boosted) as well as testing negative for covid within 72 hours of entering the country.

We’d decided to catch a favorable flight from Raleigh (a three-hour drive from our home) and figured that if we got tested on our way out of our hometown, the timing would be perfect. Once at the Days Inn in Raleigh, we checked our results.  My wife was negative…I was positive. 

I had no symptoms.  No cough, no runny nose, no fever.  I still had my senses of taste and smell. 

But the results were positive.  Plot twist!

We were supposed to catch a cab at four in the morning for a six-a.m. flight.  At that point, it was after seven in the evening.  Hoping that I’d scored a false positive, we started making phone calls looking for a place that could get me in for another covid test. None…and I mean none…were open at that hour.

Time had run out for us.  We pulled the plug on the trip.

When we got home, I got another test and, yes, I was negative. 

A plot twist is a literary technique that introduces a radical change in the direction or outcome of the plot.  It adds intrigue and suspense and builds reader engagement. 

I could have done without this one.

But let’s face it, plot twists in fiction are the best!

Here are some of my favorite movie plot twists (warning—spoilers ahead):

Planet of the Apes—Who can forget the ending of that movie when the hero, who is riding astride a horse with his love interest up the beach to better days after escaping the “damned, dirty apes”, only to discover he wasn’t on an alien planet after all.  There in front of him, is the remnants of the Statue of Liberty.  He realizes he’s not on an alien world but on Earth, thousands of years into the future.  Mankind had destroyed itself and the planet is now, well, dominated by apes. 

The Sixth Sense—After watching this movie, who didn’t go back and re-watch the film to see how M. Night Shyamalan pulled it off? The plot is simple, a child psychologist works with a boy who claims he can see “dead people”.  The movie itself is creepy enough, but at the end, we find out that the doctor is the one who is dead.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—This is one of my favorite Quentin Tarantino movies.  The protagonists are a fading film star and his stunt double sidekick as they move through the sixties in Tinseltown.  The plot twist here is when the Charles Manson family drives up into the hills to kill Sharon Tate, they get the address wrong and end up at the house of the protagonists.  The ending is the usual brutally violent bloodbath that’s a Tarantino trademark and the Manson family is wiped out. Revisionist history…another Tarantino trademark. 

My neighbor, a health care worker, has advised me to quarantine for five days even though the second test was negative.  Better to be safe than sorry. So, instead of being onboard a Holland American cruise, I'm sitting in my home office in front of my laptop. 

In fiction, a plot twist makes the story memorable.  Plot twists are an adrenaline kick.   

In real life, I’m pretty sure we can take them or leave them. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Going Somewhere Slow

 She's back!  It's me (Frankie), and after missing at least three or four alternate Fridays, I'm getting back to posting. I blame my neglect on a week when I was under the weather. By the time I had been taken to the emergency room because I was dizzy and feared I was going to pass out and then spent two nights being tested (with nothing conclusive), I needed to have some down time. And then came the end of semester. 

I'm still reading the research papers I required of the students in each of my classes. But yesterday a colleague in another academic unit observed that we seem to have a similar process. When we are working on something important and need a break from the monotony and/or boredom, we tend to take a break and work a little on the next important thing on our list. That keeps us going in spite of ourselves, and we manage to be productive.

My problem, as it has been through most of 2022, is that my list of important things to do has tasks that need to be done. I need to clean up -- or out -- my home office so that I can find what I need for my various writing projects. I have boxes of research stashed in the closet for the nonfiction book on gangsters and the 1939 historical thriller and my 6th Lizzie Stuart novel and for the first book in what I hope will be a new series set in the 1940s and 50s. But -- even though I should know better -- I haven't been as methodical as I should have about sorting and filing so that I know what I have to draw on. That means when I want to break and work on the next important thing, the most important thing seems to be to get the office prepared -- books in order and shelves and desk dusted, deleted messages and junk/spam off my computer, paper in printer, closet boxes sorted and ready to pull out as needed.  Lovely flowers in a vase on my desk like in those glossy magazines. 

Of course, it will take me a week to do all this. More if I pick up and sort the books and papers that have found their way from the bookcases in the dining room and the bookcase/room divider that separates dining room from living room. Not that those divisions matter in my small house. Every room except the two bathrooms has books and papers that need organizing. So, when I look at the next thing on my list, it's always to "get organized". No matter which organizing system I'm looking at -- including the one for "creative people," it seems easier to toss everything and start over with a system that works in mind. And, of course, having a system I would need to use it. 

I've made many a fault start. But with the end of semester this weekend, once I have my grades in, I will try once more. In between sorting, tossing, and donating, I hope I'll use my breaks to get in some exercise. And my exercise -- particular walking -- as time to mentally sort out my plots. I'm an outliner and I can't -- even when I try -- plunge in with no direction in mind. Over the past few months, this has brought me to a standstill as I debate a prologue or a frame story and who among my characters has the opening scene in the historical thriller. 

I also need to do some exciting -- fingers crossed -- tasks related to the trip I hope I will be able to make to England for the Agatha Christie Festival in September. The question is should I purchase the plane ticket now or wait to see if fares stay high. I'm counting on my travel agent to have some thoughts about that. Getting ready, preparing my presentation, I have a lot of books to re-read or read for the first time. 

The most logical approach is to make a list and work from it. I enjoy checking off mundane tasks. But the last time I make a to-be-done list, I had almost 50 items. I would love to have an assistant who could handle the cleaning and sorting and organizing. I can find someone to clean, but the sorting and organizing is another matter. To do it in a way that would be really useful, I would need someone who could read my mind. Someone who would understand how one writing project related to another and why an article or research info was in one box instead of the other. 

Maybe I can figure out how to convey that while I'm cooking. I tried meal delivery services (e.g., Hello Fresh and Daily Harvest). They're useful because the bag for each meal comes with all the ingredients, including the little packets of spices, garlic butter, and sour cream. The only problem was that the boxes for the next week kept arriving before I finished the one before. However, a trip to the supermarket this morning sent me home with sticker shock. So now I really am serious about gardening -- and thinking while I dig and plant about how I'm doing that important thing while taking a break from the organizing that was a break from the research that was a break from the writing. 

Or maybe I'll just take a week or two off to think about getting ready for summer and my sabbatical.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

It's a Mystery

Passing on my vast wisdom ... kind of

After finishing three installments of my new Bianca Dangeruse Hollywood Mystery series, set during the Roaring Twenties, I (Donis) am returning to the past briefly, and working on the manuscript of my eleventh Alafair Tucker mystery. One might think it'd be easier after to get back into the world of rural Oklahoma in the early 20th century, but even though I find dealing with these familiar characters and settings quite comforting, trying to do justice to the story itself always makes me anxious. Can I make the story on the page turn out as good as the story in my head?

If I have learned anything about writing after all this time, it is that the process I undergo to finish every book is unique, even if it’s the nth in a series and is populated with characters you know like the back of your hand. Each book requires something different from you. Some flow out, some are dragged out screaming. Some take more research than others. You always have to respect your reader’s intelligence. Avid mystery readers are often more savvy about how mystery plots are routinely constructed than the writer is, so you’ve really got to be imaginative and on your toes to fool them. And fool them in a logical way. And how you as the author manage to get that done that for each book is totally different from all the others you've written. I don't know why.

Now, like many working authors, I occasionally present workshops and classes on how to develop character, construct a mystery, how to plot and how to add suspense to a novel. I have a system all worked out, and it's neat and tidy and easy to understand. The only problem is that I seldom follow my own advice.

I tell my classes that I generally write the first draft from beginning to end, skipping over the places where I find myself stuck so that I can just get it down. That's the dream, anyway. The reality is that I've been known to make books like I make quilts, out of patchwork pieces that I sew together and hope in the end I have a pattern. And when it comes to the "skipping over" part, I have to admit that I have been known to spend day after unproductive day picking at some plot problem as though I'm trying to unravel the Gordian knot with a straight pin.

I advise the writers in my seminars that "writing is rewriting", which I believe to my bones. And yet it is not unknown for me to polish a section of story for a week before moving on.

Write every day without fail, I say. Skipping even a day makes it difficult to pick up where you left off. Excellent advice. If only life never intruded. Or if only I weren't such an undisciplined slob.

The only thing I can always count on when I write a book is that whether I deserve it or not, the Muses always come to my rescue and I end up with a finished mystery novel that hangs together in an interesting and logical way. I don't know how.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Getting to the end

 As usual, I loved Douglas's Monday blog. When my turn on Type M looms and I have no idea what to blog about, I read the blogs immediately before mine and very often, presto, an idea. Or at least something to spin off of.

He was talking about starting points. That blank page that confronts us authors at the beginning of our 300-page journey into the unknown. Full of possibilities, secrets to be unearthed, and terrors to navigate. Then he described on how he navigates the journey.There is no right way to write a book, no shortcuts or guidebooks that guarantee an easy, successful trip, despite their promises. And if there were, what a bore that would be. Writers are often asked two questions: where do we get our ideas, and what is our writing process? People are interested to learn that ideas do not land on our page perfectly formed but rather they are spun from snippets here and there – a conversation overheard on a bus, a news in brief in the newspaper – created much as an oyster forms a pearl from an insignificant grain of sand. 

Our process is whatever works for us to get from that blank page to the words "the end". Some writers are compulsive outliners, others sketch out the high points and major twists ahead of time, but leave the details for first draft. As incredible as it sounds, a great many simply jump in and start to write, with only the vaguest idea what the story is about and who is in it, but not the faintest idea where it's going or how it will end. I am mostly of this latter school, knows as pantsers. As in we fly by the seat of our pants. This is a wild-west style that allows the imagination the greatest freedom but also brings the most terrors. Douglas is quite right - when terror strikes, you have to trust yourself. I usually remind myself that I have written xxx number of books before and in each case have managed to figure out how to end them.

Which brings me, finally, to the point I was going to make in this blog. The ending point. If you and your editor have done a decent job, the end should be neat and only as long as it needs to be to finish the story. I don't mean "tied up in a perfect little bow" neat. I mean it should answer the crucial question(s) posed in the book and tie up most but not all the loose ends. If too many questions are left dangling, the reader feels frustrated and unfulfilled, but if every little question is answered, there is nothing left for the reader to ponder and answer on their own. It all feels too clever and contrived. It also leaves the reader with no curiosity about what may happen in future books.

In most mystery stories, the crucial question(s) to answer is Who dunnit, and will justice be served? It's a rare mystery that doesn't at least tell the reader at the end who the killer is. In most cases, that would leave the reader throwing the book across the room. Very occasionally, the author leaves a hint of doubt and a hint of a possible alternative, so that the reader can weigh the evidence for themselves. Risky, but intriguing! 

The question of "Will justice be served" leaves a lot more leeway. Sometimes this means the killer is not only revealed, but the evidence exists that will convict them. But there may be times when, on balance, justice is served by letting the killer go free. Mysteries that explore that vast gray area between right and wrong, between good and evil, are the most compelling and meaningful of all. When the reader asked themselves, What would I do?


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

May Misery

 Well, here I am. It's Mother's Day and my daughter, Michele and her husband Harry, invited me over for a lovely meal. My granddaughter Leah drove up for Denver. I was presented with a lovely Pendleton bag. My problems commenced when I joined the family outside on the patio. Literally everyone else was in sandals and lightweight clothing. I was wearing two sweaters (One is a turtleneck) and a jacket.

I cannot believe that my non-allergic rhinitis is stronger than ever. Springtime brings a special kind of misery. Everyone else was enjoying the sunshine and I was chilly and bundled up. The worst side effect is fatigue and a special kind of brain fog unless I'm dosed up with an antihistamine/decongestant. Then I do quite well. But I didn't have it on hand, and it was Sunday. 

I have a number of historical medicals books on my shelves. From time to time I wonder what folks did about illnesses year ago. When I was a little girl my mother's remedy was lemon juice with aspirin for practically anything--coupled with bed rest. 

Folk medicine played a huge role in my most recent book, The Healer's Daughter (Five Star/Gale Cengage) which was set in the 1800s, a central character, Queen Bess, used maggots to cleanse a mother's wound from a Caesarian incision. If that sounds gross and primitive maggots are still being used today in some of the best hospitals because they work more quickly than other methods and don't spread the infection. Still. I would rather not have this done to me. I'm a rather queasy woman.

In another book, Hidden Heritage, (Poisoned Pen Press) an old Spanish woman combines all kinds of spells with her herbs, and her knowledge of plants is profound and very ancient. Since I mentioned a madstone in this book, a reader wrote to tell me about one in a museum in Missouri. A madstone was used to cure a person of rabies. The stone is actually a hairball from a deer's stomach. A madstone from a white albino deer will also take care of rattlesnake venom. 

My all-time favorite recommendation for wound treatment was whiskey and opium. Taken as requested. It came from a Tennessee hill doctor.  

Monday, May 09, 2022

The blank page

 Every piece of writing begins with a blank page.

Whether you use technology, pen, pencil, crayon, quill or a stick in the sand, you are faced with a pristine surface that urges, goads, bullies you to record your thoughts.

When I was a newspaper editor, I told young journalists struggling with how to begin to just put anything down. Don't sweat an opening, it will come. 

The advantage they had, of course, is that they were merely recording facts (in theory anyway) and not creating something out of thin air. They had the basis of what they were about to write in their notepads but still they hesitated, searching for that killer opening.

I've given would-be authors the same advice in workshops - just put something down - anything, even Once Upon a Time, if you have to. One word will follow another and I guarantee sooner or later the correct opener will present itself. It might be something grabby, it might be something descriptive, it might be something so wonderful that people will quote it for decades to come, damn you.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I don't know if Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Orwell had those lines already factored into their plans. I like to think they occurred to them after they had begun writing, mostly because it suits my premise. 

Speaking personally, I have very little factored into my plans when I write. I fact, I don't have any plans to speak of when I write but there have been times when I have come up with what I believe is a cunning twist - say on page 262 - that makes me realise why I had something happen way back on page 84. It's not a way of working that I would recommend but it's the way I seem to be stuck with, thanks to custom, practice, extreme laziness, lack of focus and a mind that goes off in many directions at once and is easily distracted by....oh look, a shiny thing!

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes, writing from scratch.

I met a friend yesterday who is writing her second book. She told me that she's been sailing along quite happily, she's at chapter nine or ten, but she has no idea how it will end.

Well, it's my theory that she actually does know how it will end. Or at least some part of the brain that governs this sort of thing does. It's just that the part of the brain that governs this sort of thing is very secretive and it simply hasn't told her yet.

The part of the brain that governs this sort of thing is like that person in school. You know who I mean - the one who covered up their work so nobody could see. They usually sat beside me and it was infuriating. I mean, what's the point of sitting beside someone who is smart if you can't crib their work? Frankly, I found it very irritating.

Anyway, I think the part of the brain that governs this sort of thing has much of what we write already worked out. That's why I'm not a great believer in writer's block. I think what happens is that the writer has lost faith in what makes them a writer in the first place. Let's call it a gift, which sounds terribly pretentious but that's what it is. We have to trust the gift and let it find the way ahead and sometimes it's by going back. The answer is there, somewhere in that part of the brain that...etc...etc...

So what made me broach this for my fortnightly Type M entry?

Well, I couldn't think of anything to write, so I typed the first thing that came into my mind.

And then, hey presto, I had a blog.

See? It works...

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Malice Domestic Recap 2022


by Sybil Johnson

I recently attended Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland at the Bethesda North Marriott (really it’s in Rockville, Maryland). Here’s my recap of Malice 32-33-34. Yep, 3 years in one! It was 32-33-34 because, even though an in person Malice didn’t happen for all of them, the Agatha Award winners were selected for each year. 

I was traveling from California to D.C. on the 20th, hence no blog post that day. I know, I know, I know, I could have done it ahead of time. Anyway, I like to get to the hotel on Wednesday so I have Thursday free to adjust to the time change.

Traveling on a plane wasn’t particularly odd for me. I’ve been on a number of them since last June either to Seattle or Las Vegas. This was the first on what I would characterize as a long flight for me though. The flight was fine. I got to the hotel around 11 pm at night and slept in a bit on Thursday

Since I had Thursday free I went to the zoo which is a pretty easy subway ride away from the hotel. The National Zoo requires a ticket to get in these days. They’re free and you can get them when you get to the zoo, but it’s easier to make the arrangements ahead of time. Also, you won’t run into the possibility that they’ll deny you entrance because they have given away all of the tickets.

I visited the pandas and the cheetah, my two favorite animals there. I didn’t put the plural on cheetah because I only saw one of them while I saw more than one panda. Saw lots of other animals as well. All in all, I had a really nice time walking around.

The conference itself was very nice, though smaller than usual. If I had to guess I’d say that about half of the usual number of people attended. That’s purely a guess made with absolutely no statistics to back it up.

Everyone was very happy to be back together. I think we were all trying to get back into the swing of things. I saw many people I haven’t seen since the last Malice I attended in 2019. Had a good time attending panels, guest speaker interviews and talking to people in the lobby/halls/break room. Ellen Byron and I laughed that, even though we both live in Los Angeles County, we had to cross the country to see each other.

Libby Klein, Becky Clark, me, Laura Oles (photo courtesy of Laura Oles, used with her permission)

photo courtesy of Laura Oles used with her permission

I also did a podcast interview with Angela Marie Hart, Cozy Mystery Book Club founder. We had a wonderful conversation about writing and my books.


Angela Marie Hart and me

I was on a panel entitled “Can You Google the Killer? How Sleuths Navigate Tech and Social Media” moderated by Vincent O’Neil. Besides me, the panelists were Nicole Asselin, Sarah E. Burr, Barry Fulton and Korina Moss. It was a fun panel and an interesting topic, but I feel like we only scratched the surface. We could have talked for a lot longer about the use of tech and social media in mysteries.

The panel I was on (photo courtesy of Laura Oles, used with her permission)

The Agatha Banquet was fun, as usual. I was lucky to be at Dru Ann Love’s table, Fan Guest of Honor. Had a lot of fun and interesting conversations. The awards for Malice 32, 33 and 34 were all given out. Tears were shed at some of the acceptance speeches, including Ellen Byron’s who won the Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel for Cajun Kiss of Death. The Faithful Few, those who have attended every single Malice since its inception, were honored with the Amelia Award.

After Malice, I spent some time with a friend from college who now lives in Virginia. On the way to the airport, we visited the Pentagon Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Air Force Memorial. The Pentagon Memorial was particularly touching.

Iwo Jima Memorial

Me in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial

The Agatha Award winners for 2022

Best Contemporary Novel Cajun Kiss of Death by Ellen Byron

Best Historical Novel Death at Greenway by Lori Rader Day 

Best Short Story – “Bay of Reckoning” by Shawn Reilly Simmons in the Murder on the Beach anthology 

Best First NovelArsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Best Non-FictionHow to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, Lee Child and Laurie King, Editors 

Best Children’s/YA MysteryI Play One on TV by Alan Orloff 

Malice Domestic is my favorite conference. I gladly cross the country to go to it. Hope to see more people there next time around. 

A couple other recaps you might find interesting: 

Edith Maxwell’s: https://wickedauthors.com/2022/04/25/malice-domestic-in-3d-plus-giveaway/

Dru Ann Love’s: https://drusbookmusing.com/2022/05/02/malice-domestic-recap-2022/

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Mother of All Plotting Books

Years ago, when I was learning to write, I ordered writing books from Interlibrary Loan. One on plotting was clearly superior, so I bought it. The title is Plotting: For Every Kind of Writing. The author was Jack Woodford and it was published by the Garden City Publishing Co, Inc. in 1939. 

I had a hard time tracking it down and I'm sure it would be impossible today. The book is a gem. The table of contents alone was worth the price of the book. Above is a sample of one of the chapters. Here's some others:
The chapter headings go through XXXIV. THE COMPLETE MOTION PICTURE STORY. One of my favorite chapters is XXIII, THE CHINESE METHOD IN PLOTTING. It's a very analytical approach to learning how to plot. He also mentions the futility of classifying the four thousand novels published yearly in the United States. Four thousand. Boy, those were the days.  

I'm a linear plotter. Meaning that I write a novel straight through with one scene following another. I don't think this is the best way or the only way to write a mystery, it's simply the only way that ever worked for me. 

It has its own rewards. On days when I absolutely, positively can't see through the fog and have to force myself to keep stumbling along, my characters volunteer to help me out. 

I love to plot. I love discovering connections and assimilating complications. It's the Nancy Drew gene. A number of mystery writers swear they have it. 

Monday, May 02, 2022

Writing in a Hotel Room?

 By Thomas Kies

We just got back from New York City this weekend and I have all those mundane things that need to be done…laundry, finish unpacking, go through the mail, and pay bills.  So, this week’s blog will be blessedly short.

We attended the Edgar Awards last Thursday. I’ll write about that in my next blog.  Needless to say, it was an incredibly classy affair, and it was the first in-person event that the Mystery Writers of America has hosted since the beginning of the pandemic.  I was honored to be invited. 

And this was the first trip we’ve taken since March of 2020.  As you know, mask mandates have been suspended on airlines and in most airports and it was with some degree of anxiety that we flew from North Carolina to the Big Apple.  

The cab we took from the airport still required a mask, but the hotel didn’t. The Edgar event required that you show proof of vaccination and that you wear a mask. The MWA gave out really cool black masks with their Edgar logo on the side. 

The masks lasted only a short time in the champagne reception for the nominees, and it wasn’t long before we were all maskless.  Ditto the mask situation for dinner. It’s just difficult to eat and wear a mask and after a couple of glasses of wine, masks are generally forgotten.

We managed to score a couple of tickets to see HAMILTON on Friday night.  They were serious about covid precautions.  You had to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask the entire evening.  No exceptions. 

The show was well worth it and everyone in the audience was in compliance.  

It’s been a number of years since we’ve been in NYC and the one thing we noticed most (other than the incredible amount of scaffolding and building and remodeling going on in the city) was there was a free Covid testing site on nearly every street corner. I think we have only one for our entire county here where I live. 

And it was cold there.  Dear God, it was cold.  I’m now sitting in my North Carolina home office in my shorts and t-shirt and the windows are wide open.  I forgot just how cold April can be “up north”. 

I’ll write more about the Edgars in the next blog as well as the party and anthology kick-off event at the Mysterious Book Shop.  Forgive me if I drop a few names (I get star struck when I meet mystery writing legends).  I’m in my sixties, but I still felt like the country boy in the big city this past week.

Did I do any writing at all?  In a hotel room, overlooking Times Square?  Fat chance.

But now, I’m glad to be home, where I can write in peace.