Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Staring at the mountain

 Today is the final day of August, and although summer officially ends on September 22, in reality, for most of us it ends on Labour Day. As the lazy, hazy days of summer draw toward a close, I can feel society collectively girding its loins and gearing up to face the renewed demands of work. Stores are full of families in search of back to school supplies and clothes, ads seem to be about nothing else, and adults are sizing up their fall wardrobes to see what is still presentable (and still fits). Vacations are coming to an end.

I have not had a regular week-day job – one that I had to set the alarm, drag myself out of bed and fight through traffic for – in over ten years. Since then, I've written about twelve books and faced deadlines, but the weeks and months, even the days of the week and hours of the day, blurred. We writers march to our own timelines and whether it's Sunday at 10 p.m. or Monday at 9 a.m. matters not a whit.

But I spent almost all of my life on a regular working-stiff schedule, with the last twenty-five years of it in a school system for which Labour Day was truly the beginning of a new work year. That pattern of marking Labour Day as the end of relaxed summer and the gearing up for serious work is deeply engrained, and even after ten years, it still feels like a transitional moment. As it approaches, I look ahead to what my fall writing plans are. Being between writing projects, I have had a very lazy summer of reading and visiting with family and friends. Now I feel the pressure to get moving and get productive again. I'm not the kind of person to stay idle and I'm not ready for the rocking chair on the porch. 

Time for a new writing project.

If Douglas is nearing the summit of the proverbial "first draft" mountain, I am standing some distance from the base, gazing at it in the distance and wondering where the entry path is. Indeed, if there even is an entry path.

Here's my mountain, remote and obscure.

Often I start my hunt for the entrance by researching the topic or setting. I order numerous books and settle down to a couple of months of background reading. I do have a germ of an idea for a story I'd like to tell and I suspect I'll have a lot of reading to prepare for it. Exploring new topics and gaining new insights that spark my imagination are always exciting parts of the writing process for me. 

So I'll get on to the various book sites (used and new) and order some titles. Then immediately after Labour Day, I'll be ready to hit the ground, if not running, at least with a decent level of drive and excitement. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

No Place Like Home


I'm back from North Carolina. Two of my daughters live there now. Mary Beth is wrapped up in moving into a new house. I can't think of anything more stressful than moving but she has all these lovely butterflies to compensate.

 She had problems with the moving company at both ends. Nothing too hair-raising, but still. There were a lot of things that needed to be worked out. For instance, the men refused to reassemble any beds they hadn't taken down to begin with. The real work would begin after the men left. So many boxes! And because so many items had set in boxes for over a year she wanted to wash all the kitchenware and wash all the bedding. 

But the house was great. No problems there. That was not true for the other daughter and the huge four-story 100 year+ house. All kinds of work needed to be done. Fortunately they were aware of this situation before they bought it. It's gorgeous and can easily sleep fourteen. 

Can I work North Carolina into my Kansas-based Lottie Albright series?

No! At least not a book based in North Carolina. I could write from an outsider visitor's point of view. In fact, writers do that a lot and it makes for very interesting material.

I write about Kansas. I know what the birds sound like and understand the land. All sorts of details about my native state have been ingrained in my soul.

In 1881, the Kansas Legislature voted a $5000 appropriation for a Home for Friendless Women. Wasn’t that lovely? What do you suppose that was all about? I doubt it was a home for soiled doves, or even women who had gotten themselves in a family way, because society didn’t hesitate to pin brutally accurate labels on people. When I came across "Home for Friendless Women" it gave me the saddest feeling. 

Housing in Fort Collins has become out of reach for so many families now. Rent is sky high and buying is no longer a possibility. 

I'll always be a Kansas-based Dorothy at heart. Because "there's no place like home."

Monday, August 29, 2022

Climbing the mountain of words

 Neil Sedaka once wrote a song called 'One More Mountain to Climb', which was a quasi-spiritual about overcoming obstacles - not just the eponymous mountain but also rivers to cross.

Frankly, I think it could be may anthem of many authors toiling to reach the end of the first complete draft of a new book, for there always seem to be pinnacles and torrents a-plenty between them and those two magic words, The End.

Here's a mountain. I have actually walked up that one.
No pitons, ropes or those spiky shoes for me.
(It's Schiehallion in Perthshire, by the way. Ain't it purty?)

I envy those writers who tell the world that they merely sit at their keyboard and ascend that peak as though, to quote Rooster Cogburn in 'True Grit', it was no grade at all. Then there are those who appear to produce a new title every two months or so. It all must be a slight upward incline to them.

You may have gathered I am currently climbing yonder mountain, believing I have one more face to traverse before I can plant my flag on the summit, only to find myself clinging by my fingertips from a  fissure like Sly Stallone in 'Cliffhanger.'

(Okay, that's enough mountain climbing allusions. Stop it, and stop it now - admin)

When I began I thought I'd perhaps finally do a book of about 90 thousand words. Then it was amended to 95k. I passed that milestone and mentally promised to do 100k. 

I am now at 105k and counting.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams talking about deadlines, I like word limits. I like the sound they make when I pass them by.

Luckily, the contract does not dictate a word count.

As you can tell, stringing the words together is not my problem (in this instance). My problem is that bringing this story to an end is proving elusive. I see it flirting with me in the distance but when I reach the point last seen, it has skipped away with a coquettish giggle.

I do wonder if I have too much plot in this one. There does seem to be a great deal going on, although the actual solution to the mystery is straightforward. But then, that's what we do, isn't it? Make the simple appear more complex than it actually is. A bit like filling in any kind of official form, especially an application for creative grants.

However, I am within a whisper's distance of the end now, I can feel it. Of course, I still have work to do after that, because I have to ensure that the plot, complex though it is, makes sense. And that the misdirection is sufficiently opaque. And that I haven't repeated the same information twice. Or three times. OK, four. That I haven't changed the names of characters halfway through. And that the words I've strung together are in some semblance of order. 


Mountains to climb, rivers to cross...

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Childbirth Without Fear

 Memory is a tricky thing. We like to think our minds are sharp but what remains are not so much facts but impressions. So in writing this post, what I intend to share as clear details archived in my gray matter are instead small impressions that have remained with me.

Like most of you, I grew up surrounded by books. However, we didn't have a formal home library, in fact we didn't have any bookcases. Our library of sorts was the small pantry across the hall from the kitchen. The upper shelves were jammed with an eclectic assortment: World Book Encyclopedias, selections my sister and I ordered from the Scholastic Book Club, random paperback potboilers and science fiction bought secondhand. 

Most of the books belonged to my dad. He was in the Army reserves and every month he received new Army Field Manuals. They all had plain manila covers and were frankly, pretty boring, lots of charts and tables and few pictures of cool military stuff. But one was a favorite read, entitled Combatives, the Army term for hand-to-hand combat. The text was accompanied by large black & white photos demonstrating techniques for disabling an opponent using all manner of dirty tricks. The good guy wore crisply starched fatigues and the bad guys wore khakis. 

My dad was a chemist and another fave from his collection was a primer on how to blow up stumps with dynamite. It was from this book that I learned the word "tamp," as in tamp an explosive charge to focus the blast.

The strangest book in the family library was Childbirth Without Fear. It projected an intimidating, forbidden knowledge vibe. Early in junior high, I finally worked up the nerve to open it, expecting shocking graphic snapshots of childbirth and was both relieved and disappointed that there weren't any. I can't remember any of the illustrations except for the one bizarre photo of two women in their underwear wearing masks as a chubby man in a doctor's smock gestured with a pointer. I recently searched for the book online to see how correctly I remembered that picture but the examples for sale were all more recent editions and lacked the weird image from my memory. What unusual impressions have stuck with you from nearly forgotten books?

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Sherlock Holmes Stories


Sherlock Holmes. Most people probably know he’s a fictional detective. I’m not a Sherlock aficionado, but I did read all of the Conan Doyle stories when I was in high school and re-read some of them fairly recently. I’ve watched most of the Sherlock based TV and films. There are so many of them.

 Recently, I’ve been getting into the new stories written by other authors that feature Holmes and Watson. Here are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most: 

John Gaspard, author of the Eli Marks Mysteries which I thoroughly enjoy, also did Greyhound of the Baskervilles. He took the original story by Conan Doyle and inserted Sherlock’s dog into it. The story is told through the eyes of his greyhound, Septimus. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. I listened to the audio version narrated by Steve Hendrickson.

I’m also enjoying the Sherlock stories written by Bonnie MacBird. Honestly, I was first attracted to them because of the covers. Turns out, I enjoy the stories as well. The fifth one, What Child Is This?, is set to be released in October.

Then I became aware of the Sherlock in Minnesota series by Larry Millett. I first saw the title of the third book in the series: Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery, which features the Kensington Runestone found in Minnesota in the late 1800s. I’ve read a lot about it and even been to the museum dedicated to it in Alexandria, MN. It’s a nice museum and the Discovery channel series about the it was interesting as well.

Back to Sherlock. I decided this looked like a fun series so I picked up the first book: Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon. Okay, I listened to the audiobook also, interestingly enough, narrated by Steve Hendrickson. I have to say I’ve become a fan of his narration. Loved the story so I’ll be moving onto the next one.

Those are the Sherlock stories I’ve been reading recently. Do you have any favorite Sherlock or Sherlock adjacent stories or TV or films?

Tuesday, August 23, 2022


by Charlotte Hinger

 I'm at my daughter's house in North Carolina. It has been quite a road trip. My daughter who lives in Fort Collins and I have traveled from Fort Collins to Beaufort, North Carolina with an Alaskan husky who belongs to another daughter living in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

We will both fly home. Dakota did really well. Since the dog is diabetic and is partially blind, this whole undertaking could have been a nightmare. Mary Beth is delighted to have her dog back and Dakota was overjoyed to see Mary Beth. 

I'm late with my blog! I simply forgot. But my readers will probably profit more from the lovely pictures than my weekly essay. 

Cherie and Jim's house is on the coast. It has four floors. The top one simply provides access to a Widow's Walk. These four-sided open walkways were included in the old historic houses so that women could scan the horizon for their husbands' ships. 

Gorgeous sunsets. No wonder I'm distracted.

And we have all these matching comfy rocking chairs that are ideal for watching the birds and the lake.

There's something about an approaching storm. The sky seems close and so very visible here.

In addition to being enthralled with the lush vegetation here, I've learned that Beaufort has an intriguing history. Thomas Kies, who shares the Monday spot with Douglas Skelton is the mayor of Beaufort. He can tell us more about this quirky little town that was a hangout for pirates.

See you next week. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Death of an Author

 The author falls to the ground, Geneva kneels next to him, gives mouth to mouth, then Mike starts chest compressions.

Finally, the two come back in the dining area and Mike announces:  I’m afraid the Author is dead.

There’s a collective gasp from all the characters.

Cindy cries out: No!!

Mandy cries out: Oh, my God!

Cindy and Mandy hug each other.

Geneva: He was murdered, She’s holding his glass.  She sniffs it and says.  It smells like cyanide.  Someone in this room killed the author.

Mike shouts: No one leaves this room.  This is now an active crime scene. 

Olmstead comes to the podium. Well, this was not how we had planned dinner.  Olmstead looks at Mike Dillon. Should we continue to bring out the next course?

Geneva: I don’t know about anyone else, but I think we can conduct this investigation over dinner.  Besides, I’m hungry. Turns to audience- Is anyone else hungry?

On September 8 and 9, the Carteret Community Theater is performing a dinner murder mystery at the Carteret Community College Culinary School as a fundraiser for the theater.  The theater building itself was gutted during the disastrous days and nights of Hurricane Florence and the theater group is raising money in a capital campaign to rebuild the theater into something really special.

I was asked to write the murder mystery which I've entitled “Death of an Author.”  It’s my first crack at writing a script.

No, I don’t play the author.  We have an actor who plays me.  Full disclosure, he looks a lot like me.  We’re about the same age, we both wear glasses, and we both have beards…but in reality, he’s taller and better looking.

And yes, he dies as the entrée is being brought out.  If he’s taller than me, he has to die.

The entire show is about trying to figure out who killed the author.  The actors are all playing recurring characters from my Geneva Chase mystery series.  Geneva Chase is being played by an extremely talented lady by the name of Kimberly Murdoch.  She’s smart, savvy, and she’s appropriately being a smartass. 

Assistant Chief of Police Mike Dillon is being played by a gentleman named Ken Hamm.  And yes, he’s chewing the scenery and stealing scenes.  He’s freaking hilarious.

They all are. This isn’t my typical dark murder mystery…this is a comedy. It’s entertainment.

At least I hope so.  The actors are having a good time and it’s reassuring to see them all laugh at the appropriate lines.

It’s strange seeing my characters come to life and, to some extent, take on lives of their own.  Actually, that’s part of the show.  When the author dies, the characters go on. They now have self-determination, no longer being controlled by a puppet-master with an overactive imagination. 

A little bit of Rod Serling that’s sneaking into the evening.

We’re in rehearsal and I’m in awe of how hard these men and women work, and that includes the director and producer. Because this is an ongoing process, I’ve forgone going to two mystery conferences, Killer Nashville, which was this past weekend, and Bouchercon, that takes place in Minneapolis the same weekend as the dinner theater.

The trade-off, however, is that we’ll have over a hundred people both nights who will attend and then I’ll get a chance to sell and sign books afterward.  There’s no way I’d pass up an opportunity like that.  I can think of no better way to launch my fifth book, Whisper Room. 

Plus, this has just been a ton of fun!!!

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Summer Entertainment

 We are still in the lazy, hazy days of summer, when many of us slow down, enjoy leisure pursuits and family visits, and generally put hard work on the back burner. My writing muse is still AWOL, but after more than twenty years and twenty novels, I figure a slowdown and a vacant brain are well deserved. 

Ii'm not worried. I have been spending my leisure time reading, reading, and reading, sitting on my dock with my morning coffee, relaxing at bedtime, and even in the middle of the afternoon. Because the lazy, hazy slowdown of summer is the perfect time for pleasure reading. On the beach, on vacation, on a chaise longue in the shade of your backyard tree. Sprawled on the grass in the local park.

And we authors love this idea. We want everyone reading!

Here is a tongue-in-cheek message that is circulating on the internet, listing the ways in which everyone can help in this endeavour.

I leave you now so that I can go back to lazing around with a good book.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Sharing Research

 by Charlotte Hinger

In addition to my mystery series, I have published historical novels, an academic book, short stories, and a number of articles. Recently, I have received requests for copies of my primary research. Some of this has been hard to come by. No one would even know it existed if I hadn't cited it in books and articles. 

Does that sound like an exaggeration? It's not! For instance, in describing the brilliant African American con man, John W. Niles, in my academic book published by Oklahoma University Press, I relied on a pamphlet published by the Vo-Tech boys in a high school class in 1923. It was housed in the historical society of Graham County, Kansas. A volunteer managed to locate it and copied it for me. 

I've wrestled with my reluctance to copy these documents and send them off to whoever. I've literally crawled up into dust-laden shelves for some of them. And persuaded county clerks to go fetch old records when they barely have time to keep up with current customers.

A very wise editor supports generosity. He pointed out that each historian puts material to a different use. I've come around to his way of thinking. But my willingness to "share" depends on the willingness of other writers to demonstrate basic courtesy. Nothing takes the place of "please" and "thank you." 

The first step in acquiring this kind of material always begins with the question "Does this exist?" If so, where would it most likely be located? This process is similar to plotting in mysteries. It's very satisfying to work out a plot in a mystery novel. I love the aha moments. 

Identifying and locating primary source material gives me the same triumphant feeling. I was positively giddy when I figured out that John Niles was the first person to get to United States senate to introduce a petition for slave reparations. I had the Senate Journal entry to back up that audacious assertion. 

I was equally elated over the miraculous moment during the writing of Lethal Lineage, my second book in the Lottie Albright series, when everything clicked. All at once. The book had literally been driving me crazy. More than a light bulb going off, it was like a meteor shower. 

Lethal Lineage is a locked room mystery. My first and probably my only one because I'll never have an idea that good again. It's still my favorite mystery in the series. 

Both my agent and my editor told me they didn't see the ending coming, but it made perfect sense. I was thrilled!

There's one historical document that I probably will never find. In 1879, the county commissioners of the County of Rook in Kansas were presented with a petition to organize the first township in the County of Graham. The petition originated in Nicodemus, so all the signatures were African American. I've searched for this petition at the Kansas State Historical Society and all the county offices. 

I would love to have it. Does the original exist? Probably not. But who knows? Sadly, families often horde old documents and photos thinking they will write a book someday. Then they die and the kids don't recognize the value of the pictures and papers and they are tossed. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Here comes inspiration

 Inspiration can strike writers at any time, in any place.

As songsmith Paul Williams once sang, here comes inspiration, walking through the door.

Before I expand on that, let me just repeat something I've said before. Inspiration is NOT reclining in a chaise longue awaiting the angel's kiss upon your brow. Inspiration is nothing more than the spark of the first flame of a fire that might - might - one day erupt into a story, book, screenplay, play, shopping list, whatever. 

That takes application and, sometimes, perspiration.

I have a number of books I have been inspired to write, have begun and then at some point stopped not because of that mythical malaise writer's block but because I realised I was writing the wrong thing. That spark, the inspiration, was a false prophet and I eventually saw it for what it was.

The thing is, I never know it's a lying, no good rascal until I have a good few thousands words down.

Last night I watched a performance by my partner, the lovely Beatrice (I am contractually obligated to call her that). She's a singer, you know, and a darn good one.

Well, it was while I was ostensibly keeping an eye on sound levels and making myself look very busy that an idea for a book came to me. Or at least part of a book. I can't tell you what it is because then I would have to deploy a highly-trained team of ninjas to silence you. 

(Side Note: Autocorrect changed highly-trained to highway-rained. I mean - what?)

Yes, at the moment it is but a mere germ of an idea but it's there and it really was generated by listening to Beatrice and watching the audience. I didn't expect it but that's how inspiration works. It just walks through the door, or, in this case, was carried on the notes of songs wonderfully sung. 

Unfortunately, I am hip-deep in my second historical thriller, I have another to write after that and a further two Rebecca Connolly novels. And all before Christmas!

I'm lying, of course.

It's next Easter.

I'm still lying.

I could go into politics.

The thing is, I really, really, REALLY want to pursue this idea to see where it goes but it will have to sit on the far back burner for now, along with other notions, including a one man play based on one of my non-fiction books and - wait for it - a musical! No, I can't sing or play an instrument or read or write music but I can string words one after the other in some semblance of order and have a yen to put something together.

I'm the same with reading. I can be into something, might even be enjoying it, but then another title comes my way and I am desperate to dive into it, too. 

TV shows, too. I can be enjoying a series (or, as I've written before, finding it way too long but sticking with it to see how it ends) when another one, all shiny and bright, begins to flicker in the corner of my screen and I think I'll just have a wee taste and the next thing you know I'm immersed in that and the other one is left to languish so long that I've forgotten what it was all about. 

A bit like that last sentence.

I'm beginning to think I may have a problem.

Anyway, back to inspiration and the mercurial nature thereof. I never sweat where my next idea is coming from because I know that it will present itself at the proper time. At the moment I am quite replete with story ideas and have no need to go searching, thank you very much.

If only they wouldn't come looking for me!

Friday, August 12, 2022

Plotting the Journey

My dog Fergus has been home from daycare alll week because he has an eye problem that seems to have started with itchy, irritated eyes. He seems to have rubbed at one eye so much that he gave himself an ulcer in his cornea. Fortunately, eye drops can resolve the matter in 7-10 days. That assumes that he wears an E-collar and allows me to put the prescribed drops in both eyes twice a day. Let me simply say Fergus and I have not agreed about the necessity of doing either. Even with help from a friend, my yard guy, or my neighbor, getting drops in a determined dog's eyes is not easy. Having him wear an E-collar that he can't see around doesn't work out well when he bumped into things and can't go up and down steps. So, this week hasn't been as productive as I'd hope. 

The good news is that he seems fine otherwise and is happy to hang out with me and the cat. He's up for a car ride any time I head out the door. We've gotten in a few walks. But I haven't gotten a lot done. So, I'm hoping that when we go in for his follow-up tomorrow, his vet will say he can go back to daycare next week. 

I've been working when and where I can. High on my list is the synopsis that I promised my agent.  Writing a synopsis before I've finished a book always feels like trying to see into the future by gazing into a crystal ball. 

I'm a plotter. I spend lots of time sweating the details before I begin writing. I edit as I go along, and often the details change. That's because I continue to do research and often this gives me a better idea or, occasionally, I discover I've gotten something wrong. 

Sometimes the plot changes because a character says or does something unexpected. Arguably, this is my subconscious at work, but it feels as if the character has taken the story in a direction that I couldn't have predicted or planned for in my outline. When that happens, I go with it -- particularly if this happens with a secondary or minor character. Once it happened with my designated killer -- who suddenly offered his explanation for what had seemed to be guilty behavior. He had a secret, yes, but not the one I thought. If I had written a synopsis before I finished the first draft, I wouldn't have known that. I would have missed a subplot that took the book in a different and better direction.

I think I know how the book is going to end. But I still don't know which -- if any -- of the main characters will survive. This is a stand-alone novel, so theoretically all of the characters are in jeopardy. 

The other part of the synopsis issue has to do with "the hero's journey". I enjoyed playing with the three-act structure as I thought through the plot. But when I began writing, I realized I didn't really believe my protagonist would risk the goal that he has worked and sacrified to obtain because he was curious about the antagonist's inconsistent behavior. 

According "the hero's journey," in Act I, he is supposed to respond to a catalyst, may deny the call to action, but then takes the action that propels him forward. 

My protagonist is a Pullman sleeping car porter, who wants to go to law school. A couple of days ago, I was having another look at academic articles about the African American men who -- after the Civil War and through much of the 20th century -- were hired by the Pullman Company to work as the servants who cared for the passengers traveling by rail in the luxurious sleeping cars. But as historians who have done research in the archives and who interviewed the men who worked as sleeping car porters have documented the working conditions for the porters were stressful, both physically and mentally. They traveled hundred of miles per month, were on duty much of the time they were on board, and they had little opportunity for sleep during the night. Often they made back to back runs, coming in on one train and going out on another.

One scholar offers a fascinating analysis of the impact of sleep-deprivation on Pullman porters. Even though there was no scientific research on sleep deprivation in the early 20th century, the men themselves recognized the impact of chronic lack of sleep. Generally, they were able to get less than 3-4 hours sleep each night, and that on a cot in the men's washroom or a noisy upper berth made available for their use. Even this downtime was not available when they needed to be at the passengers' beck and call. The demand for time to sleep became an important element of the negotiations in the late 1930s between the porters' new union and the Pullman company. 

Reading about this issue of sleep-deprivatioin gave me the explanation I needed for why my protagonist does what he does in Act I. If he had thought it through, he probably wouldn't have. But -- tired and irritable -- he reactions without thinking. He tries to recover from his misstep, but his mask has slipped and his antagonist is taunting him. 

So, now I know where I'm going with this. I have a sleep-deprived hero who gets himself into trouble because he is too exhausted to "perform" his role wth a smile on his face. His lack of sleep will affect his actions throughout the book. 

I feel better about the synopsis now that I have more context. But I know other aspects of the plot are likely to change. 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

What’s at Stake?

“More danger,” my agent said, after we’d been discussing a draft of a novel I sent her, two weeks ago.

We’d spent 30 minutes on the phone, discussing what I hope is the first book in a new series –– reviewing the setting, the family of characters, and the plot, which hinges on an event that takes place 5 years before the book opens.

How far would you go to clear your name? Can revenge be justified? These are the questions that drive the book.

Danger is hard to define, at least for me it is. I don’t write thrillers. I write mysteries. “Danger” need not be omnipresent to keep me going as a reader. In fact, I like ebb and flow, as a reader. So “tension” makes sense to me. Something tugs me along. It could be a single question. “I want to see how it will end,” I told my daughter the other day when she noticed I wasn’t listening as she talked over the movie.

Physical danger doesn’t interest me as much as the threat of it does. I don’t need a fight scene or a shoot out. I enjoy the puzzle and the sense of impending danger more than the actual event. Robert B. Parker said the compelling thing about westerns is when the cowboy chooses not to draw his gun. Why not draw the gun? What does s/he know that I do not?

I just started reading The Chain and, yes, there is a murder early in the book and, yes, the book moves very fast, but what has me hooked is this question: How far is a parent willing to go to get their child back? One single –– albeit a very compelling one –– question is enough to carry me through the book.

So I want to replace the phrase “need for more danger” with the question “what’s at stake?”

Isn’t that really what narrative tension is all about?
As an aside, I'm wondering, Where the summer went? I left Massachusetts at 3 a.m. on June 6 for our new home in Michigan and arrived 15 hours later, U-Haul and dog in tow. Two days later, I visited a surgeon, began a new job June 16, had (minor) stomach surgery July 26, and revised the novel mentioned above. After the craziness of the past 6 months, I want fresh eyes on it before we submit, so I'm having an editor review it. This is something I've never done before. In fact, my ego wouldn't have allowed it. I've published nine book, right? But I want as much feedback as I can get before my agent shows it to the world, so I'm eager to see what this retired publisher says. I'll keep you posted.   

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Writing Long, Writing Short

 by Sybil Johnson

Recently, I’ve been working on an essay about crafts in cozy mysteries for a book on cozies being put together by Phyllis Betz. Essays need to be 2000-3500 words. I knew from the get-go that mine would be closer to the bottom end of the scale. Sure enough, the first draft has come in at around 1200 words.

I’m not surprised about this. I know I tend to “write short”. You may have realized this from my blog posts, which tend to be on the shorter side. I admit I have little tolerance for reading long email messages or blog posts. That doesn’t mean I won’t read them, but if they don’t capture my interest right away, I’ll most likely skip over them. That doesn’t apply to the posts of my fellow Type Mers, of course.

I’m not really sure why this is. I don’t lack patience. On the whole, I’m a pretty patient person. (Say that 10 times really fast!) I read long books. When I work on craft projects, they’re often of the longer variety. I suspect it has something to do with the messages and posts being online. My eyes get tired of staring at a screen after a while. I’d rather spend that staring time working on my own writing or updating a website.

My books in their final form usually come in around 75,000 words. That seems to be my sweet spot. The initial drafts, though, are usually 10,000 words short of that so I end up adding scenes to get to that count. This hasn’t been true of my WIP, which I am almost ready to declare done. It started out at 80,000 words and has now been edited down to 75,000. It’s a much better story for the changes. 

This all got me thinking about “writing long” vs. “writing short”. Is it easier to write too much and edit it down or write too little and have to add scenes?

In my own work, when I add stuff, it tends to be a very focused add. I think long and hard what needs to be done. Once I’ve figured that out, I tend to write the new stuff fairly fast.

There are times, though, I wish I was more verbose in my initial drafts. I think it would be “easier” to take words out than put them in. But if you have to junk entire scenes and rework the plot a bit, it can be more time consuming. So maybe it’s a case of the grass is greener on the other side. I’ve decided I should just go with the flow and believe the path to a final version is different for every story, even for the same writer. There is no “easier” way.

What do you all think? Is it “easier” to “write long” or “write short”?

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Can It Happen?

 by Charlotte Hinger

On my way to Kansas last month, I listened to Dissolution, Michael Gear's first book in his two-book Wyoming Chronicles series. It was mesmerizing. So much so, that when I returned, I immediately checked out the second book, The Fourth Quadrant, from the library. 

Gear speculates that if someone or some country introduces malware into the United States monetary system, (especially our credit cards) it would bring the whole country down. Normally, I'm not a science fiction fan nor do I usually seek out books set in the future, but I had no problem believing the chaos that would ensue. 

In the book no one could get gas. Think they could have paid cash? You can't withdraw your money if there are no accurate records of bank balances. The book is terrifying and very plausible. 

In the past, when people talked about terrorist attacks on the United States, I have always imagined something chemical or biological. I never dreamed so much damage could come from ruining our monetary system. Naturally, the people who immediately took control were thugs who ignored the Constitution and took advantage of the situation. There was a complete breakdown of the laws that undergird our society. 

The book seemed credible! If it had been written at another time, perhaps it would have seemed farfetched. However, the biggest shock to me was (and always will be) the destruction of the New York trade center. I honestly didn't believe that could happen to America. 

For that matter, I was astonished by the damage caused by Covid. Who would have thought that in this time of sweeping medical advances that a virus would cause so many deaths. 

Perhaps even more surprising to me is that I believe that goodness will triumph in the end. There have always been right-minded people who do the right thing at the right time and save the future. 

Dame Julian of Norwich said it best: "And all will be well, and all manner of things will be well."

Monday, August 08, 2022

Calling Your Baby Ugly

 By Thomas Kies

When I teach my Creative Writing course at the college, I’ll bring out some of Stephen King’s tidbits of advice for writers.  One of them is to have a thick skin.  

When first starting out and looking for both an agent and a publisher, unless you’re very talented and very, very lucky, at best you’ll be getting rejections.  At worst, you’ll be ignored.  

There are some agents, publishers, and editors who will send you a rejection that simply says, “This isn’t a fit for us at this time.”  Or something to that effect.  

Once in a great while, you may get an actual reason why they’re not accepting your work.  But most often, you don’t hear anything at all. 

An interesting sidenote, I sent query letters and chapters of RANDOM ROAD out to agents in 2015.  I was lucky enough to get requests from four agents for the entire manuscript and did eventually sign a contract with my agent, Kimberley Cameron, whom I adore.  The book was published in 2017 and the second book in the series, DARKNESS ROAD, was published in 2018.

After the second book was published, I received a rejection from an agent in New York for RANDOM ROAD, nearly three years after I’d sent her a query letter.  Better late than never, I guess.

So, even if you get published, be prepared for criticism, both good and bad.  My latest book, WHISPER ROOM received this from Publishers Weekly, “Readers will hope to see a lot more of the down-to-earth Geneva… Sara Paretsky fans will find much to like.”


Now, overwhelmingly on Goodreads and Netgalley, I’ve been lucky enough to receive glowing reviews.  However, I also got these:

“Unfortunately, I could not finish.  I’m not interested in reading about alcoholic characters and the story was very clunky and disjointed.”

My main character is a reformed alcoholic and never drinks at all in the book.  Just sayin’.

In another review, the reader
said that she liked the book, but only gave it one star because I used the “Lord’s name in vain”.  Yeah, it was in dialogue…I write how people talk, damn it. 

But overwhelmingly, the other reviews have been outstanding, so nothing to gripe about.  

But sooner or later, we all have our “babies called ugly.”  Take a look at some famous writers and their reviews:

The Guardian talking about J. K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE back in 1997, said that its “…pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style, which has left me with a headache and a sense of wasted opportunity.”  It also said, “Her characters, unlike life’s, are all black-and-white.  Her story lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page.”

Once again, in the Guardian, they talk about Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, “I found it predictable, dull, unoriginal, and riddled with errors. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single reason to recommend it.” 

About Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE, The New York Times said that the book is, “powerless to scare.” It said that it’s “ordinary” and “unpardonable”.  Time Magazine said that it “lacks the direct, chilling plausibility of ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Brave New World’.”

The point is, not everyone is going to like your work.  It’s part of the territory.  But if you’re lucky, many more people will love what you write and that’s what makes it all worthwhile. 

Thursday, August 04, 2022


One the past month or so I (Donis) have been trying to start a new series set in a fictional resort town patterned after Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which if any of  you Dear Readers have visited, know is one of the most beautiful little mountain towns anywhere - a resort spa retreat for the wealthy since the mid-1800s. This has caused me to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how to evoke the beauty of setting - and it's also driven him to me how important setting is to the unfolding of your plot.

In fact, setting is one of the most important characters in the book. (I stole that from William Kent Kreuger) Setting is the location of the plot, including the region, geography, climate, neighborhood, buildings, and interiors. A setting is more than just a place; it's layered into every scene. It's the season, the time period, the weather, the light, the people in the background, and the history. 

I always loved to read stories set in exotic locations and historical settings. I love to go to a place and live there for a while. I love a book that entices you into its world, that says “come in...join us...stay awhile”

Setting is more than just a backdrop to the plot; it’s part of the drama. It’s the autumn leaves crunching underfoot, the sunset in your eyes as you drive down the highway, the musty smell and dark shadows in the library stacks. Setting is about drawing the reader into a story, making them feel they are walking in the footsteps of the characters.

Things happen as they happen because of where and when the novel is set. Setting  acts on the characters. It’s where they live their lives, and you as the author had better know all about it--its rules, how it looks, who else lives there.

My two current series couldn't be more different in setting – one on a farm in Oklahoma, a world so real, so elemental, the other in the moviemaking world of 1920s Hollywood, a world so fake, a not-so-pretty reality hidden behind a beautiful illusion. Makes a huge difference in the way I evoke the two worlds.

Rhys Bowen said that when she begins a novel, she often doesn’t know the complete cast of characters, who’s going to get killed or how, or who did the deed, but she knows where the story will unfold.

The very night before I heard Rhys say this, I was reading P.D. James’ book, Talking About Detective Fiction, and came across this :“My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character." 

She then describes a moment when she was standing on a deserted beach in East Anglia. She could imagine standing in the same place hundreds of years ago, until she turned around and saw a nuclear power plant, and “immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”

Even if the murder unfolds the same way in two novels you'll have two very different mysteries if the victim is killed in a beach house in Thailand or in a prep school auditorium (custodian find body of beautiful young girl stabbed to death and left on floor of high school gymnasium. Bum stumbles into trash filled alley and finds beautiful young girl stabbed to death and left by the dumpster behind the dive bar); if the suspects live deep in the moors, or in Manhattan across from Central Park; if the detective lives in a fifth-floor walk-up on the south side of Chicago or in a mansion in Beverly Hills. 

If Miss Wonderly had walked into Spade and Archer Detective Agency on the first floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, The Maltese Falcon just wouldn't have been the same. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2022


 by Charlotte Hinger

Last weekend I went back to Kansas for the annual Emancipation Celebration held in Nicodemus, Kansas. I'm on the board of directors and wanted to make the trip while I could. Covid taught me that chances are fleeting. 

Nicodemus was the first all-black pioneer community started on the high plans. This was the 144th anniversary of this event! Yes, it began in 1878. The town exists today and is part of the National Park Service. The day commemorates the time when slaves were freed in the West Indies. 

Descendants from the original settlers come from all over the United States to meet up with family and renew friendships. I have written a lot about this remarkable community and am on the board of directors. 

This group of men played dominos and cards while they caught up with family news.

Kyle Odum's quilts are wonderful. This one is made of blocks representing stations on the Underground Railroad. I bought a gorgeous wall hanging. Kyle came all the way from Michigan for this reunion. 

The kids had a blast. One enterprising youngster built this house out of oversized Legos and his friends all wanted to step inside. There were plenty of toys and activities for children.

This young artist wasn't shy about using color.

The parade is the highlight of the Saturday activities. Nicodemus had a number of "Buffalo Soldiers." This name was given to them by American Indians because their curly hair looked like the hair on buffalo hides. 

When so many traditions are being abandoned, it's wonderful to see a celebration that is holding its own. 

Monday, August 01, 2022

Guns, Cannoli and offers you can't refuse

 The most recent book I've read for no other reason than my own pleasure (distinct from books that I read ahead of events, interviews or to provide a puff quote) was 'Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli' by Mark Seal.

It's the fascinating story of how the novel and film 'The Godfather' became realities.

I cannot believe that the movie is 50 years old this year. I mean, talk about feeling old! I can remember going to see it in a cinema called the Coliseum in Glasgow. I was under age - the film was an X certificate in the UK and so, technically, I had to be over 18.

I was blown away by it. It was long, some might slow. It was dark, some might say visually impenetrable. It was utterly brilliant, some might say boring. Those people who agree with the second half of those three sentences are wrong.

I have spoken.

I still have the commemorative booklet bought at the screening. They used to do that sort of thing for special films - the event movies of yesteryear. Nowadays event movies seem to be filled with people throwing things through walls while wearing outlandish costumes. 

Otherwise known as a Saturday night in Glasgow.

(I'm kidding, don't write in. Anyway, I'm from Glasgow and I'm allowed to say these things.)

I rushed out and bought the album of Nino Rota's score, probably one of the earliest soundtrack albums I bought. I still have it, too.

I read Mario Puzo's book and wondered at the amount of material that was excised from the movie, some of which made it into Godfather 2. Yup, you guessed it - I still have that paperback copy.

I loved Godfather 2 and liked the much maligned Godfather 3. I've read the prequel to the novel, 'The Family Corleone' by Ed Falco. It was enjoyable.

Now I'm watching 'The Offer', a drama based on the experiences of the film's producer Albert S Ruddy in making the film. It's had some lukewarm reviews but I am loving it. 

So, all-in-all you could say I'm a kind of fan. I even had a sneaky wee tribute to the plot in my first novel 'Blood City'. The central premise of criminals coming together to form a collective in Glasgow in the early 1980s to sew up the heroin trade was based on what may be an urban legend in the city's underworld but it also mirrors the clash between the Corleone's and Solozzo in the first half of the book and film.

A few weeks ago James Caan sadly died. Thanks to the film he became one of my favourite actors, not realising I'd already seen him in 'El Dorado' with John Wayne. Robert Duvall also became a favourite, again not realising he was Boo Radley in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and had faced off against Wayne (again) in 'True Grit' as Lucky Ned Pepper.

And then there's Al Pacino. I'm a big fan of his, too. I cherish seeing him live in London's West End in 'American Buffalo.'

I don't think of it as an 'old' film but I suppose to modern day movie goers it is. To say they don't make 'em like that anymore is true, they really don't. And that's a shame. 

RIP, James Caan.