Friday, July 29, 2022

The Telling Detail

 A couple of days ago I was reading Tangerine, a psychological suspense novel by Christine Mangan. It's Mangan's first novel and set in Bennington, Vermont at Bennington College (in flashbacks) and in Tangier (Morocco) in 1956. 

Mangan did her PhD dissertation on 18th century Gothic literature. Gothic influences -- from the Bronte sisters and Poe to Shirley Jackson -- are there in the haunted spaces and places. Other influences seem to come from romantic suspense novels of the 1970s, Alfred Hitchcock, film noir, definitely Patricia Highsmith, and all those most recent "Girl" novels with unreliable narrators. 

I had the fun of leading a reading group discussion about the book. where we spent 90 minutes being "picky" about the characters, plot, and settings. There was much to say about a novel that was beautifully written, convoluted, and with an ending that tended to delight or dismay the readers. We focused on the details.

The details I found particularly interesting were the descriptions of characters. The challenges of describing any character are multiple. The description should be organic -- be limited to what is necessary in that moment and reflect the attitudes/beliefs of the person who is describing. Even better if the description also advances the plot, including providing red herrings and clues. I found the descriptions provided by Mangan's two first-person narrators intriquing because they were increasingly engaged in a game of cat and mouse. Until late in the book, the reader had to decide whose version of the truth could be believed. 

Lucy describes the husband of her former roommate in this way:

He looked, I thought, like most men our age: vivacious, eager, not yet dulled by the monotony of everyday life. He was handsome, that much I could ascertain. And yet, while I suspected his features would have been classically pleasing to some, I found them overbearing and difficult to look at for any great length of time. There was something else there too I could already see -- something harder, more concrete. But then, I brushed the thought aside, reasoning that perhaps it was just the imposing line of his suit. Though I knew little about men's fashion, I could tell that his clothes were expensive. He wore a three-piece suit cut from a textured pattern that looked entirely out of place in Tangier and a tan fedora with a narrow brim resting atop his head. He seemed, I noticed with a touch of envy, unfazed wearing the heavy material in the unforgiving heat of Morocco (p.35).

 It makes sense that Lucy would notice that Alice's husband, John, is able to look "unfazed" in spite of the heavy material of his suit. She herself was worried about arriving at Alice's door in wilted clothes.  But by the time John returns home, she has had a chance to cool off  -- even though she has been sitting on Alice's leather sofa "where almost immediately my skin began to sweat" (p. 33). She tries to "alternatively air out the parts of my skin in contact with the leather, hoping the sweat wouldn't stain my new dress" (p. 33). The dress costs her a month's salary and was purchased for the trip.

But she believes that John is impressed when he really looks at her, "A flicker of annoyance flashed, but then he seemed to take in my figure -- well dressed, reasonably attractive -- and his features relaxed, growing into one of surprise, pleasure" (p. 35).

As with other descriptions in the book, Lucy reveals as much about herself as about the person she is describing. But can we trust what she is saying. Is she lying? Is she insane? Or, does she misinterpret what she sees? When Mangan presents the same scene from Alice's POV, we learn that a blush or a smile that Lucy interprets in one way actually meant something different to Alice. 

As I read, I underlined the descriptions that I thought Mangan handled well. I have a couple that I want to quote in the section of my nonfiction dress and appearance book. As a reader, I appreciated the writer's efforts to provide telling details. 

I'm looking forward to see the descriptions translated to screen in the movie adaptation. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Knowing When To Let Go


by Sybil Johnson

I recently cancelled my subscription to the Los Angeles Times. Not a big deal, you say? I’ve had a subscription to the Times for around 40 years. For most of that, I received a physical paper, but for the last couple years I got the e-edition. Anytime you stop doing something you’ve done for that long a time, it is somewhat of a big deal. I don’t miss reading it, though. It was time to let it go.

That got me to thinking about how a writer decides that a story they’re working on is finished and ready to go out into the world. Face it, you could continue to tinker with a story forever, changing a word here and there, getting rid of or adding scenes, second guessing everything about it. At some point in time, though, every writer needs to let go.

But how does a writer decide the time is right? Let’s forget about the case of having a deadline from a publisher, forcing you to send something out, and talk about other signs that indicate the story is ready to go out in the world.

When I first started writing, I sent several short stories out that were not quite there yet. I was so eager to submit something that I sent them off before they were ready. After they were all rejected, I realized what I’d done. I went back and worked on them some more until I felt they were indeed ready. They all eventually found homes in e-mags.

Now that I’m hyper aware of this tendency of mine, I really think before I send a short story out. I ask myself the question: Am I submitting this because it’s really done or am I just tired of the project and want to declare it done?

For novels, I’m less likely to declare one done prematurely. I have an editor and a beta reader telling me what needs to be changed. Once I’ve addressed all of the issues my editor has noted, the beta reader (aka the husband who does not hesitate to point out the flaws in a story) has only minor complaints to make, the only thing I’m tweaking are the choice of words and I’m truly sick of my own writing – that’s when I know it’s ready. It’s not perfect, just ready.

I think of stories like computer programs. Unless it’s a super simple program, it’ll always have bugs. You’ll never get them all out. In my mind, stories are like that too. They’ll never be perfect, but you can get most of the “bugs” out. There’s nothing wrong with striving for perfection, but if you settle for nothing less will a story ever go out in the world?

How do you know a story you’re working on is truly done? Have you ever read a story that you think the writer let go too soon?

Monday, July 25, 2022

My Book Launch and Creativity

 By Thomas Kies

Whisper Room, my fifth novel, is due for release on August 2nd and obviously I couldn’t be any happier.  I’m busy preparing for book signing events taking place starting this weekend (yes, I know, it’s a couple of days early). That being said, I’m going to cheat this week and rerun one of my favorite blogs that I’ve written.  This one seems appropriate.  It’s simply entitled: Creativity.


There’s a theory that everyone is born with in innate sense of creativity.  As babies grow into toddlers, and toddlers grow into school age children, they have within them a sense of adventure and curiosity.  As they discover and learn, they take great joy in creating, whether it’s coloring, drawing, painting, singing, dancing, or making castles out of Legos. 

That same theory posits that as we grow into adulthood, we’re often urged to forget our creative side and conform.  Buckle down, do what’s necessary, make money.  

But that creative spark, though dampened, lives on in all of us.  It may come back out in the form of a hobby, tending a garden, making a special dinner, or redecorating a room.

This weekend my wife and I had an outstanding dinner at the house of two friends of ours.  In addition to a delightful meal, the conversation was thought provoking.  We talked about food (of course), home remodeling, a smattering of politics, watching your adult children evolve, and ghosts.  Yes, ghosts.

We also had a very interesting discussion about creativity.

We can save our discussion on ghosts for another blog.

Being of a certain age, we all had former lives and are all redefining ourselves.  One of us was a concert pianist who performed all over the world.  Her husband was a noteworthy magazine publisher.  Now they own a boutique hotel here on the coast, in a historic little town right on the waterfront.  They’ve redecorated, upgraded, installed a 21st Century computer and reservation system, and began a marketing program that includes sophisticated usage of social media. 

Additionally, they buy fixer-upper homes, make them look pretty, and sell them, moving on to the next project.  

They’ve traded one set of creative skills for another.  

My wife was at one time a very successful market research analysist who had done work for major corporations all over the world.  She’s retired now, and during our discussion, wondered what her creative superpower might be. 

During our earlier discussion, we talked about her enjoyment of genealogy and how it led to her discovery of a brother she never knew she had.  It’s an amazing story that I may share on another occasion.  But the conclusion we reached was Cindy’s creative superpower was in her curiosity.  She’s a discoverer—an explorer. 

Mine is that I’m a crime novelist and I make stuff up.  Being a novelist has always been a dream of mine.

I read where the definition of creativity is: Transforming your ideas, dreams, and imagination into reality. 

An article from Huffington Post cited a recent New Zealand study which says that “engaging in creative activities contributes to an “upward spiral” of positive emotions, psychological well-being, and feelings of “flourishing” in life.”

The Pacific Standard Magazine cited another study conducted at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro on college students that says that “those who reported feeling happy and active were more likely to be doing something creative at the time.”

When I think about it, the happiest people I know are the ones who are creating and/or exploring—trying new things. 

So, what do you do to get your creative spark fired up?

I take a walk around our neighborhood or up to the beach.  I find that by the time I get back, I have a fresh perspective on what I’m currently working on.

Here are some other suggestions I found on the web:

Keep a journal and jot down ideas as they occur to you.


Take a media break.

Read a book.

Don’t be afraid to play.  Thomas Edison’s notebooks and Alexander Graham Bell’s prototypes suggest that they played while working. 

Take a break from your daily routine.

Try to think about things and look at the world around you in a different way. 

And finally—I like this one the best—dare to dream!

Saturday, July 23, 2022

A Labyrinth of True Crime

 I've just finished Julian Rubinstein's excellent, The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood. The book won the Colorado Book Award for General Nonfiction. (My Western, Luther, Wyoming, was a finalist in Historical Fiction but didn't get the prize.) The Holly blends history and memoir with the central character being Terrance Roberts who can't seem to run away from his gang past. Roberts' odyssey unfolds as he goes from small time hoodlum to hustler to gang boss to peace activist with time served in jail and prison.  Rubinstein does a great job giving the backstory of Blacks migrating to Denver, the arrival of the Black Panthers, followed by their dissolution, then the emergence of the Crips and Bloods. The book is named after the shopping center where the Bloods used to hang out and has since been razed and the neighborhood gentrified. While I enjoy true crime, what most drew me to the story was that it overlaps my time in Denver. I could follow the action and events though I seldom ventured into gang territory east of Colorado Boulevard. 

Much of the narrative dovetailed into what I know from CDC and US DOJ research into "gun violence," depicting dysfunctional communities prone to violence where minor beefs are settled with beatdowns, knifings, and shootings. For all of today's talk about stopping the iron pipeline of illegal guns, the gangs had no trouble getting heaters, even Kalashnikov rifles during the much-touted Assault Weapons Ban, and later during Colorado's ongoing "common-sense" gun reform. As the story progresses, what comes into focus are two Denvers. The one Denver of disenfranchised Blacks, mostly men, and the other Denver of wealthy white liberals, some sincere and well-intentioned and others who exploit the carnage for political and economic gain. The present rhetoric of "violence interruptors" and using community activism to prevent violent crime and especially homicide and "gun violence" is nothing new. I've studied Oakland Ceasefire, which used this approach and from 2012 through 2018, reduced homicides in that city by 40 percent. Meanwhile in Denver, over the same period, homicides increased by over 70 percent because the local efforts to address gang and gun violence were a sham. Black neighborhoods were promised much, then had the carpet yanked from under them. What happened in Stapleton was a great example as Blacks were priced out of their homes and the community and its problems dispersed to Montbello and Aurora. Rubenstein provides chilling evidence that the DEA, the FBI, and Denver police gave carte blanche to informants to commit crimes, even murder, and thus stoke gang violence, often to secure more funding as part of the criminal justice industrial complex. In many ways, The Holly reminded me of Death Wish, in which the mayhem and bloodshed take a backset to the maneuverings of big city politics. Rubinstein doesn't scrimp on the details and even if you've lived in Denver for decades, you may need a scorecard to keep track of the dead bodies and the back room deals.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Brain Drift

Lordy, it's hot. Of course I live in southern Arizona, so I'm not surprised that it is supposed to reach 112º today. It's a cliche, but horrible as it is, it's a dry heat. What horrifies me is that it reached 107º in my home town of Tulsa yesterday. That will boil you alive. And the poor Brits! But I prattle on when I should be outlining a new book. I have an idea, but until I actually start writing it, it does no good just rattling around in my head.

It's a great idea, too, IMHO. It came to me almost fully blown just as I was waking up. This happens to me a lot. Ideas start to float up from the depths, rather like the cryptic messages in one of those old Eight-balls. They don't seem to have anything to do with anything at first, but then they begin to cohere like a string of DNA. Eventually, if all goes as it has before, some sort of literary creature will take form, stand up, and walk.

And I'm off again.

When I was in college, I was a crammer. I never studied much for tests until a day or two before, then I'd study until my eyes fell out. I'd never recommend this process to anyone, though it seemed to work all right for me. Even at the time, I was aware that in order for cramming to work, I had to have a literal change of consciousness, and become almost hyper-aware. When I look back on it, I think it was just a matter of paying close attention.

When the writing-muscles start to engage again, it feels to me like the same process. I become hyper-aware of what is going on around me, of what other people are saying, of what is in the news, of the weather, but especially of what I'm thinking. Most of the time, my thoughts float around in my head like fluffy little clouds that I pay no attention to, but when I'm in this state, I stare at them until I find interesting shapes.

This is how it often works for me: (I'm not making this up. I sat in a restaurant and wrote my thoughts down as it happened.) I see a little girl cross the room coloring. She's left-handed. I notice she has on red cowboy boots. I start noticing the footwear of the other people in the room. A lot of women have pointy-toed shoes. Carrie on "Sex in the City" wore incredibly expensive, uncomfortable shoes. Manolo Bialiks. Manolo is an interesting name. It corresponds to Manuel. We don't have a corresponding English name. Some Jewish guys are named Manny. My brother-in-law's name was Gary, but everyone in the family called him "Man", because he was such a little man when he was a kid. My husband Don told me that he and Man to throw raw eggs at fence posts when they were kids. That would be a great scene in a book.

And Bob's your uncle.

I would love to hear about other writers' processes. I imagine everyone's mind works the same, but writers just know how to make sense of their seemingly senseless thoughts.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Lazy, hazy days of summer

 I laughed when I read the last few posts by my blog mates, something I always do when I'm searching for a topic. After many years on this blog, I've written about almost everything, often multiple times. And right now I am facing the very issue being described by these recent blogs. Call it writer's block, procrastination, distraction, whatever. It's also stalling, because I have not one idea in my head, either for the blog or for a book. I am between writing projects. The final, FINAL page proofs of my Amanda Doucette novel are done, and everything is now in the publisher's court. ARCs are being prepared, along with catalogues, distribution and promotional material - all that stuff they do. My brain is on summer vacation. In the past, when I have no deadline or next project in the works, I write a fun short story that's been percolating. In the old days, there was always something percolating and no time to give it attention.

Not this time. All I have are vague ideas for the next books, and I won't do anything about those for now. 

I've been writing all my life. It's in my bones. As my colleagues have noted, unless you love writing or are driven to tell stories, you probably wouldn't be doing it. So I'm going to trust that this blank brain is just me taking a break and revelling in the freedom after years of deadlines, rather than some more permanent sign of mental vacuity. I expect that at some point, a story will pop up that I will have to write down. Will it take a month, or several months? Who knows, but I suspect all this freedom from creativity and the absence of fictional friends in my head will get boring.

Charlotte's idea about dusting off an old manuscript and trying to find it a home intrigued me briefly. Like most writers, I have two or three books that never found a home and eventually I got discouraged and put them in some forgotten basement drawer. Are they salvageable?. Do I like them well enough to haul them out and see what can be done with them? Once again inertia (stalling) interferes. I don't know exactly where they are stored electronically (a floppy disc, a memory stick, or a dead computer?) and whether I can even access them with my current software. They could be in WordPerfect. I don't know where the hard copy is either. And if they weren't good enough to land a publisher back then, why would they be now? I probably would have to make huge revisions. Do I want to commit that time, possibly all for nothing? Do I care enough?

You see where this endless mind meandering is going. Back to my lazy summer. Waiting for the muse to visit again, whispering something exciting in my ear.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

How Long?

 by Charlotte Hinger

Wonder of all wonders. I'm very close to getting a historical novel published that I wrote in the '90s. This book is very dear to my heart, and I've never given up on it. I'm not saying anything about the publisher yet. Book deals can fall through at the very last minute. In fact, that happened a couple of years ago. I've learned never to really count on it until the contract is signed by both parties. 

Ironically, this historical novel "came close" to being published twice before. In the first instance, the editor moved to another house and his replacement didn't like it. The second time, the editor was severely injured in a car accident and by the time she had fully recovered, the press had abandoned publication of historical novels. 

When and if this is a done deal, with contract in hand, I'll say a lot more. 

My agent once emphasized the importance of building a body of work. When you finally connect, a publisher is often interested in other manuscripts.

Soldiering on is hard in the face of rejection. Especially for beginners who doubt their talent. The biggest determiner of whether or not one should continue writing is whether or not one likes the process. I really like to write most of the time. Unlike Frankie, I used to be a first draft junkie. Now, I like the rewriting and revision process.

 I have one more historical novel on the shelf and am positive it will find a home someday. 

My first novel required a tremendous amount of research. The other two historicals did too. All of my mysteries have a strong historical thingy that is causing murders in the present. I love concocting tangled plots. 

Getting the historical novel published (finally!) is a surprise. I'm distressed when people say "it's not what you know, it's who you know." That is seldom the case in publishing. Especially with the large New York houses. They want to make money. Sales potential is crucial. However, I'm convinced there is an element of luck involved. It's a matter of stumbling across the right editor at the right house at the right time. The sale of this book proves that. 

Getting published also requires an incredible amount of persistence. Plus guts. My friend Michael Gear once commented that often "those who have the talent don't have the courage, and those who have the courage don't have the talent." 

There's no question who will get published. It's the ones who submit their manuscripts!

Monday, July 18, 2022

Maintaining focus

 I read Frankie's post the other day and I can sympathise. Or is it empathise? I never do get that right!

Anyway, I know where she's coming from (from where she is coming? Good grief this writing lark is fraught with grammatical hurdles).

I am currently writing the second book in a new historical series, the first of which is hitting shelves this September, An Honourable Thief in hardback and ebook from Canelo. That's the word from our sponsor.

I'm not blocked, as such. Well, not any more than I usually am being a committed pantster, which means I can often sit down at the keyboard and wonder where on earth I am taking the story today. 

No, the problem is lack of focus. There is just so much going on, between the fourth Rebecca Connolly thriller coming out here in the UK (the third is hitting US stores in the Fall. Get me, using all the lingo), associated marketing and promotion, festivals, events, vacuuming, dusting and walking the dog. 

Oh, and I've met a wonderful woman so I'm kinda floating a few inches off the ground. Not the best frame of mind to be writing a dark and broody historical thriller but it does keep my feet away from those bits of the rug I miss while vacuuming in my usual cavalier fashion. 

If my publisher and/or agent are reading this, don't worry - I'm on schedule! Mind you, I would say that, wouldn't I? (I am, though.)

Ideally, I would like to take off somewhere isolated for a week or two but I've got so much on that's not possible. 

But here's the moral of this particular story - it will be done, because this writing lark is what I do. If I was a plumber I'd be tapping pipes. If I was an electrician I'd be rewiring. And if I was a carpenter, and you were a lady. 

Yes, we like to think of ourselves as artists (I actually don't) but it is also a profession and we have to be professional about it. The work has to be done and it will be done to the best of our ability. 

My intention is to have a complete working draft within the next two or three weeks, as they say it doesn't have to be good, it just has to be written. Once that's done I can revise. Like Frankie I much prefer that process. Pulling a story, dialogue, characters out of thin air (pantster, remember?) is not easy but once I have that rough lump dropped onto the screen I can hone it, smooth it, add, cut, rewrite, paste, put material in, take material out, in, out, shake it all about.

And then, as if by magic, I have a book.

As Dorothy Parker once said, I don't like writing, I like having written.

I look forward to that moment. I will savour that moment. Because in the very next moment I will realise I have another deadline looming for the sixth Rebecca.

What was it they said about no rest and the wicked?

Friday, July 15, 2022

Living with Writer's Block

 I've been trying for months to finish a 4,000-5,000 word essay for a special journal issue on Edgar Allan Poe and his impact on mystery writers. I have done my research.  But somehow every time I sit down to finish, something else comes up. Something I have to take care of right now. 

The essay is due. The co-editors are waiting for the draft so that they can provide feedback. I finally know what I want to say. I intend to finish today. But for some reason I decided -- after pausing to listen to a discussion about CDC's current recommendations -- that I should schedule my second Covid booster for this afternoon. Then I'm having dinner with a friend (because it would take time to cook and we need to catch up). After that I will come home and finish my essay and send it along. Tonight. . . or tomorrow morning.

Writng this essay should have taken no more than a day or two. But it has been like pushing a boulder up a mountain. 

I've had this experience occasionally in the past -- sometimes when I'm trying to start a book. It is hard to explain unless one believes there is such a thing as "writer's block." 

My own experience is that it is related to either uncertainty about what I am about to do and/or the direction that I intend to take. This is the difference between being a pantser or a plotter. Unlike the pantser, who can jump in and enjoy the process, I plod. In my moments of existential self-doubt when I begin a new project, I wonder if I can even do what I have said I will do. So, I am show I can write another Lizzie Stuart novel in a couple of months. But I have struggled to finish the Poe essay until I finally found the quote that brought it all together. 

In the case of the historical thriller I am trying to write, I can imagine what it will be. But I can't get there. I am so concerned with getting it right, that I can't get it down at all. I think I am on the verge of breaking out of my box, but maybe not.

At least with the essay, having editors who are waiting for me to stop holding them up has forced me to move on. As for the historical thriller. I have the first 50 pages for my agent and the synopsis in progress. I've got to finish this weekend and send it to him. 

The psychology of my "writer's block" requires that I be completely fed up with myself for not getting the work done. Then I need to either have a deadline or be able to apply my own pressure to finish the first draft. 

And -- this is the payoff -- once the draft is done, I am ready to revise. I love revisioning. That is the best part of writing. I have never had writer's block when I am revising. I wish I coulc say that about the first draft. 

Maybe a hot fudge sundae would help. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022



by Sybil Johnson

Phishing I’ve heard of for years. Only recently did I run across the term phrogging. Being a curious sort, I looked it up.

phrogging – the act of secretly living in someone else’s home

Why don’t they use the term squatting, you say? There is a slight difference. Squatting is someone illegally occupying an uninhabited building. Phrogging is someone illegally living in an occupied building/property.

Apparently, the term comes from “frogs” who hop from lily pad to lily pad. A phrogger “hops around” from house to house. This differs from couch surfing where people you know allow you to sleep on your couch.

At first look, this sounds like an urban legend. But, apparently, there have been instances of it around the world. The singer George Michael had someone living under his floorboards! for four days in 2012. And in Japan a homeless woman was found living on the top shelf of a closet. She’d been there an entire year before she was detected. 

Attic, basements, crawlspaces, sheds in the backyard all could be places where an unauthorized person could live.

This came to my attention because Lifetime has a new series “Phrogging: Hider In My House” coming to their channel next week. Of course, I’ll check it out. Then there’s the 2019 film called “I See You”. Haven’t seen it, but now I think I should.

I admit this boggles my brain and scares me a little as well. I immediately looked around my house to figure out if there’s anyplace someone could live without us knowing it. Couldn’t find any. At least I don’t think so.

Of course, the mystery writer brain of mine started thinking about possible stories related to phrogging. So many possibilities, so many scenarios come to mind. I’ll let this percolate in the back of my brain. Someday I’ll wake up with the idea of the story I want to write.

If you want to creep yourself out watch this YouTube video: 

Have any of you read/written any stories about phrogging? Has this actually happened to anyone? (I’m hoping the answer is no to that last question!)

Now that I've creeped myself out enough, I need to go watch some cute cat videos. Suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Old Useage

by Charlotte Hinger 

I've almost let this day slip by without posting. Truth is I've had such a frustrating experience with Amazon that I'm beside myself. Now that's an outdated usage if there ever was one. "Beside myself" I mean. I have plenty more old usages. 

The fact is, I would be much better off if I really were standing beside myself or otherwise completely detached from this problem. Or hovering over myself or psychologically in a pleasant place instead of being completely engaged with this apparently insoluble mind-wrecking situation. 

I will send a complete set of my Lottie Albright mysteries to anyone who can solve my problem. Here it is:

I have sold copies of my first historical novel, Come Spring, on Amazon Vendor Central for many years. Twelve, I think. The company sends an email when it has an order. The orders come from warehouses, not customers. Suddenly, I cannot log in to my account. There is no central support email for Vendor Central without logging in. 

But I can't log in. That's the point. When I try workarounds like changing my password, it changes the email to my customer account. Which I do not want to do. The hang-up may be in the two-step verification which also wants to address my customer account. I don't receive the code on my iPhone, nor will they call me. Which suggests that there is something wrong with the stored phone number. But there doesn't appear to be. Naturally since I can't log in, I can't check the validity of this information. Besides, it's been there for 12 years and worked just fine. 

All the emails sent from Amazon through customer support are boiler plate and address problems with a customer account, not a Vendor Central account. 

Solutions will be gratefully tried. Remember, this is a Vendor Central account, NOT a seller central account. 



Monday, July 11, 2022

Clearing Cases

 By Thomas Kies

While doing research for my new book, I came across some numbers that were troublesome.  So rather than keep them to myself, I’ll share them with you.

I have a theory that people love to read mysteries and thrillers because there’s a satisfying ending.  Justice is served, the bad guy is caught and punished.  I think we love that because in real life things don’t necessarily end up being tied up quite so neatly.

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report data and data from the Murder Accountability Project, in the late 1960s and 1970s, police solved about seven out of every ten murders.  In 2020, they only cleared about half. 

That means fifty percent of all murders in the US went unsolved. According to a piece in the Washington Post, that’s 26,000 unsolved homicides over a ten-year period.

According to a CBS News Investigation, a review of FBI statistics says that the murder clearance rate has fallen to its lowest level in more than half a century. Police are far less likely to solve a murder when the victim is Black or Hispanic. In 2020, the murders of White victims were about 30% more likely to be solved than in cases with Hispanic victims, and about 50% more than when the victims were Black, the data show.  

Part of the problem, according to the CBS Investigation, is the breakdown in trust between communities and the police.  That makes it much more difficult to receive tips or help from witnesses.  

Another theory, according to the Marshall Project, a journalism non-profit organization, is that the methods to clear a crime…that is to identify and arrest a suspect…have changed over the years.  Some of the “methods” of clearing crimes in the sixties, sometimes using “tricks” or shoddy evidence, led to a great many innocent people arrested, convicted, and sentenced. 

Another theory is that more murders are gun related.  Killing by gunfire can mean a certain amount of physical distance as compared to a knife or an object with which to bludgeon someone to death with. There’s less chance of leaving crucial clues. 

But in the mystery novels you find in your local bookstore or library, the “clearance” rate is much higher, nearly 100% I’d guess.  Reading a novel about crime and not seeing it resolved in the end is deeply unsatisfying. 

So, as we write our stories, we interview witnesses who are willing to talk with our investigators.  They may or may not be reliable, but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? 

Or investigators gather clues and analyze them, looking for evidence that will lead them to the bad guys.

And in our books, sometimes the bad guys make mistakes. In the movie Body Heat, an arsonist is advising his attorney who has come to him for advice on how to commit a crime.  The arsonist says, “I want you to see if this sounds familiar: any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you're gonna f--k up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you're a genius... and you ain't no genius.”

By the way, here are a few more sobering numbers, just in case you're interested (these numbers are from 2018): 45.5% of all violent crimes were “cleared”.  

Only 33% of all rapes were solved.

Only 17. 6% of all property crimes were solved.

And just to be concise, “clearing” a crime doesn’t necessarily mean a conviction or even an arrest.  It can mean identifying the perpetrator who might already be in prison or dead. 

So, now that I’ve shared this, I’ll get back to writing.  I have a bad guy to catch.

Friday, July 08, 2022

Venturing into the World

 As I read what my blogmates have written over the past months about venturing out into the world, I feel like the woodchuck who lives under the storage hut in my backyard. He (or perhaps she) pokes a head out of its tunnel to have a look around before emerging out into in my pocket-size but lushly green backyard. There is a grapevine that has been impossible to kill and that every summer intrudes across the low fence into my neighbor's yard. Despite being ripped out by a tree trimming company last year, it is back again and now climbing into a young tree nearby. While looking innocent, that grapevine can kill the tree. But it and the wild flowers around it provide the woodchuck and the rabbit family that live in my backyard with a place they can quickly shelter when I come into the backyard with my dog, Fergus. 

Not understanding the concept of leashes, they don't know that even when Fergus dashes into the yard, I have a firm hold on him. No woodchuck will be pursued into its tunnel or rabbit, squirrel, or chipmunk harassed on my watch. The birds are capable of fending for themselves, but they would all probably be safe even if Fergus were running free. He is a lover not a predator. In all likelihood, he would be front paws down, butt up in the air as he barked at a baby rabbit and waited for it to play. 

But unlike Penelope, the Maine Coon cat, with whom he lives and who alternates between indifference, mild interest, flirting as she brushes by him, stopping to sniff, and meowing in distress as she sits beside the kitchen door waiting to be let down in the basement -- her "cat cave" where she sleeps inside an old work table left by the family who once owed the house or up in a space in the ceiling or behind paint cans or a box of Christmas decorations. She would be more convincing about her need for a place to escape to if Fergus didn't help her out by chasing her to the door and then sitting down beside her to wait for me to let her out -- sometimes barking or scratching on the door with his larger paw so that I will come and open the door for her. 

Penelope, a rescue cat, would love to run out the front door when it is open. She once did in the middle of the night when I took Fergus out. As I searched for her with flashlight in hand, wondering if she would come in on her own if I dared leave the front door open, she ran back up the steps leading down to the street and up the walk and the front steps and back into the house. Penelope had found that venturing out at night in the dark was more freedom than she wanted. But she still waits by the door when Fergus and I go out, and I have learned to close the door from living room into foyer before opening the front door. I am thinking of getting a collar with her name and my telephone number in case she should ever manage to dash by me or someone else and get herself lost before she realizes she is out in a neighborhood where dogs are being walked -- and that we live several cross streets up the hill from an avenue with four lanes where traffic is rushing by.

Although I share Penelope's desire to explore, I feel rather like the woodchuck peeping out from under the storage hut. I have been going out every morning to take Fergus to daycare. I've been doing that for months. I return to pick him up in the afternoon after trying to get some work done. I'm now going to supermarkets and to pick up food. I've even had dinner out with a friend three or four times. I've gone to a mystery conference. Sometimes I wear a mask, sometimes I don't. I find myself matching my behavior to that of others in some settings. It seems -- oddly enough -- almost an accusation to wear a mask when no one else is wearing one. I feel as if I am suggesting the other people might be careless enough to be there if they are ill. But that makes no sense. They could well be contagious without no raging symptoms. When I am going to be in a busy place with lots of other people, I opt for the mask. 

But now -- in September -- I have my first airplane trip since the pandemic began. I am planning to take an international flight from Newark, New Jersey to Dublin, Ireland. After three days in Dublin, I am going to get on a smaller plane and fly over to Torquay for the International Agatha Christie Festival.

I am excited about finally being able to accept an invitation to do a presentation at the festival. I'm also excited about going to Ireland for the first time and having the opportunity to do some field research that I can use when I begin writing my 7th Lizzie Stuart.  Book 4 is about to be reissued by Speaking Volumes with a new cover. See below:

I am plotting the 6th book after a lapse of years. It seems a lovely bit of serendipity to be going to Torquay for the festival. My first Lizzie novel, Death's Favorite Child, was set in Cornwall, written during and after a vacation in St. Ives with a friend. In my book, Lizzie and her travel writer best friend Tess Alvarez were staying at the same sort of private hotel. When the young housekeeper, niece of the two sisters who were the proprietors, was murdered, Lizzie had her first crime to solve. The plot and the characters and even the murder weapon were inspired by Dame Agatha.

That first book was the one in which Lizzie met John Quinn, American homicide detective, who was visiting his former partner who had retired to St. Ives with his Scottish wife. Now, two years later in series time, Lizzie and Quinn are engaged and due to be married in Book 7. I anticipate they will be sidetracked from their honeymoon in Paris by a matter involving Quinn's late father (career military) and his Irish roots.

So, I'm venturing out and crossing my fingers that some new variant of Covid won't upset my plans. Even though I purchased travel insurance in case I have to cancel, I'm feeling optimistic. I hope I'll be able to take that flight to Ireland. Although I'm coming back in coach, I'm treating myself on the way over. A chat with my travel agent and a discount sale convinced me that I should splurge on an upgraded seat on my direct flight to Dublin. I'll be able to stretch out in my own little sleep pod. With only three days in Dublin, I want to enjoy every moment -- just in case I come home with Covid and need to go back into my hole.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Barking Mad

 What a strange time we're living through. I read Charlotte's entry, below, with consternation. She finally takes the plunge and re-engages with the world and gets Covid. (Get well, Charlotte!) This is not what I wanted to hear. I'm still cocooning, as I have been over the past two years, and am about ready to bust out of this joint.

But cocooning or not, the craziness of things cannot be kept at bay. Back in May, my husband had a lithotripsy. It's a long story but suffice it to say he can't have normal a lithotripsy. They have to go up and grab the kidney stones with a little basket, or blast them with a laser. I'll leave you to imagine the procedure. The last procedure didn't manage to get all the stones. He has to go back in for another shortly – we hope. The problem is the doc put a stent in one of his ureters, which has been causing mild bleeding. Which has, after several weeks, made him slightly anemic. They don't want to remove the stent until he has the next procedure. But they don't want to do the procedure while he's anemic. But the stent is what is causing the anemia. It's enough to make you tear your hair out. There's more complication, but I won't bore you with all the many nits we've been picking lately. Sometimes I really get tired of being me.

It all reminds me of a fictional "public notice" I wrote for myself ten years ago, after a long period of an even worse medical Catch-22. I never published it anywhere, but I dug it out recently and think it's particularly apt for my current mood, so I shall share it with you Dear Readers at last.

"It is my sad duty to announce that Donis Casey has lost her mind. She was last seen this morning in Kiwanis Park, where she has apparently been living off of partially eaten hot dogs and half-empty potato chip packages, and the remains of picnic lunches left at the ramadas and in trash cans. Police were dispatched after people living around the park reported hearing what was described as a coyote wailing for several nights, but after launching a search, Ms. Casey was discovered squatting behind a cat-claw bush and howling at the moon.

What brought this on is a matter of intense speculation. Ms. Casey was considered by all who knew her to be a well-balanced and thoughtful woman. Psychiatrists theorize that she was unable to reconcile her own mythology with reality and could simply no longer tolerate being this creature she had invented called Donis Casey.

She believed the Roman assertion that fortune favors the bold, and spent her life trying at least not to be a coward. It took her more than half a century to realize that a mouse may try and act like a lion, but it’s still a mouse. No good the half-assed stabs at boldness that punctuated her life. She would have been better off to pick one--mouse or lion--and stick with it. Play it smart and safe or go for broke and hope for bold and lucky. Her downfall occurred when she aimed to be bold but kept tempering it with caution, for caution pulled her up short of the goal every time.

She seems to have considered various alternatives to insanity, such as drugs or alcohol, or creating a false identity and running away to India, but in the end she found it more expedient to go barking mad and be done with it.

It remains to be seen if Ms. Casey can be saved. If not, she will be missed. However, Ms. Casey would like to assure her friends and family that she will not miss herself in the least. 

In the meantime, the family thanks you for your concern." 

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

The Downside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'll live with the uncertainty. 

Monday, July 04, 2022

Everyone's a critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have never said I was humble in my life.

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, unbridled praise is also very welcome.

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

Finally - Happy fourth of July!

Click on the link for a special card.