Thursday, December 28, 2023

Happy New Year - Please!


Don and I - 49 years later...

Here we are again, at the end of the year, and the beginning of a whole new cycle. December has always been a momentous month in my life. Besides Christmas, my family celebrated my mother’s birthday, my grandfather’s birthday, my sister Carol’s birthday, and my birthday. My mother and grandfather are gone, but Carol and I are partying on! 

2024 is going to be quite a year. For one thing Don and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary in the fall, which if you had any idea, Dear Reader, some of the health things he's been through over the decades, you would be as amazed as I am, though nobody could be more grateful.

Another reason 2024 will be one for the books - well, I think we all know what the stakes are. So let me wish you all a fabulous year, many happy returns, many good books to read, and may every good thing come to pass for you and your loved ones.

In my family, we always begin the new year with black eyed peas for luck, so here's one for you.

 Hoppin’ John is a Southern dish that is traditionally served with greens on New Year’s Day in order to bring good luck and prosperity. Of course you don’t have to wait until January 1 to eat hoppin’ john. It’s delicious whenever you eat it. It’s good for you, too. I haven’t used the hoppin’ john recipe in any of the Alafair novels as of this writing, but I expect I will. It’s too yummy not to use.

Hoppin' John

I’m giving the scratch recipe, but there is no reason one can’t simply open a can of black-eyed peas and doctor it up with onion and garlic and bacon or ham hock. In fact, that’s what I did yesterday.

1 1/4 cups of dried black-eyed peas

4 cups of fresh water or broth

1 cup of chopped onion

3 cloves of minced garlic (I like mine garlicky)

1/4 tsp. cayenne (optional)

1 Tbsp. oil

ham hock or large chunk of fat back or bacon.

Soak the peas in water overnight. Drain, then cover with the fresh water or broth. Heat the oil in a large stock pot and brown the ham or bacon. Add the onion and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the peas with their liquid. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for an hour, until the peas are tender and luscious. If needed, add more liquid as the peas cook.

Serve over rice, with a side of cooked greens (or mix rice and greens and peas all together). Best eaten with a buttery hunk of cornbread. For luck in the new year, add a coin to the pot just before serving. Whoever gets the coin will have a prosperous year. (Be sure and warn everyone to be on the lookout for the coin, unless you want to start the new year with a trip to the dentist.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Happy Holidays!

 Wishing you all the best this holiday season. May the new year bring you lots of great books to read.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Happy Holidays!!

 Happy Holidays from the coast of North Carolina.  May all your mysteries be intriguing, and your endings be happy.   Thank you Lee Hinson and Dean Vick for the photo.  

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Four Books for the Holidays

The original idea for this month's post was a humorous reflection on my family's Xmas traditions. Then last night I learned that a good friend, someone from my critique group, was in a very bad motorcycle accident. When I started to write about him, it read too much like a eulogy and we're not there. Hopefully, on next month's post, I'll have good news. Needless to say, my Holiday spirits have dimmed a bit.

Instead I'll give a recap of the most memorable books that I read this year.

When Breath Becomes Air, a remarkable and poignant memoir by Paul Kalanithi. He started his university studies with the intention of being a writer, then switched to becoming a neurosurgeon, only to have terminal lung cancer interrupt his promising career. Kalanithi's literary talent shines though his prose and his 1st POV narrative reminded me of Flowers For Algernon, where we the readers are helpless bystanders as the author describes his descent toward the tragic end. 

Atomic Habits by James Clear, came to my attention via one of my ghostwriter clients. As we struggle to get a handle on life and find ways to improve our station, we often turn to self-help books. While the advice is usually sound, finding ways to exercise it can be frustrating. One of Clear's habits is the idea of getting one percent better in a specific area of your life. In applying this concept to himself, my client determined that getting one percent better meant devoting one percent of his day (which calculates to 14 minutes 24 seconds) to a particular effort. Not even fifteen minutes. How many increments of fifteen minutes a day do we waste? Sitting in traffic. Scrolling through social media. I embraced this idea and used it to improve a skill I'd been slogging after for years, improving my Spanish. 

Now my daily routine is to study Spanish for at least fifteen minutes a day, usually by reading a book in Spanish. Which brings me to Corrido de Amor y Gloria by Reyna Grande. While Corrido is fiction, the story is based on the Mexican-American War of 1847, during which Mexico lost more half of its territory (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, California, and parts of Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Kansas) to the US. The narrative is told through John Riley, one of the Irish-American soldiers who defected to fight for the Mexicans in the St. Patrick's Battalion, and Ximena, a Mexican curandera (healer), who served as a battlefield nurse. Besides laying out the historical foundations for the war and sharing the cruel deprivations suffered by the ordinary Mexicans, Reyna also relates the internal treachery and political machinations that undermined their nation's resistance. 

I continued my "One Percent Better" practice in Spanish as I explored one of my favorite periods in history, the years between WW1 and WW2, in El Hombre Que Amaba a los Perros by the Cuban mystery writer, Leonardo Padura. We follow Lev Davidovich, aka Leon Trotsky, in exile and his assassin, Ramón Mercader, the Spanish communist who wielded the murder weapon, the infamous ice ax. The tome sprawls over 700 pages, and Padura does a masterful job giving us context and tension as the characters maneuver to their fateful encounter in Mexico City on August 20, 1940. Trotski died the next day.

On that cheery note, Merry Christmas, and I'll see you Next Year!

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Evolving traditions for the modern world

 As a few people have noted, the holiday season has begun, and with it, the good, the bad, and the sad of family traditions. I decided that rather than write something erudite about the creative arts, I would, like Donis, add my own evolving traditions over the past three quarters of a century.

I was born in Montreal, my mother a native Anglo-Montrealer going back several generations and my father born in a Newfoundland outport and arriving in Montreal as a McGill student via a circuitous route. Both were of British Isles stock, equal parts Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English, and brought to the Christmas table many of the traditions of "back home". We had a huge turkey with stuffing inside it - chopped celery, onions, turkey liver, walnuts, chunks of bread, sage, thyme, and sometimes rosemary. Mashed potatoes smothered in the gravy made from the drippings, peas, cranberry sauce, plum pudding set afire in brandy and served with hard sauce, and as many chocolates as we kids could handle. It was not a meal for the faint-hearted.

This meal was served mid-afternoon on Christmas Day. In the morning we opened stockings and presents under the tree and then while my mother ran around the kitchen, my father read us the portion of Dickens' The Christmas Carol about the Cratchet Christmas dinner. He was a university professor and delivered a dramatic reading in his powerful, sonorous voice. 

We often had an extra guest or two at the table, often one of my father's foreign students who was far from home. Christmas crackers sat at each place setting and once they were pulled, we all had to wear the silly paper crowns.

My mother was the undisputed queen of the day, and she presided over Christmas dinner long after we all left home, until she moved into a retirement home at the age of 87. By then, I had married and had my own children. My husband was Jewish, so although we continued to share Christmas with my extended family, in our own house we switched our celebration to Hanukah. My husband was an only child whose parents were dead and who had no family in the city, so we developed our own traditions. We made latkes and lit several menorahs each night for the eight nights. To make it festive, we made Hanukah-themed decorations, played Hanukah games such as dreidel, and sang traditional hanukah songs and lively Yiddish and Hebrew ditties. All these we learned from records and tapes and I played them on the piano. Hanukah was a playful, joyous holiday, and our three children got a small present every night!

This is the combination of celebrations that we continue today. As my mother grew old and later died, my sister and then her sons hosted the large extended family Christmas dinner. As spouses, in-laws, and grandchildren appeared, the crowd grew. This year I expect there will be about twenty-five people around my nephew's table. We all pitch in with some side dishes, but the turkey remains the piece de resistance.

As my own children grew up, moved to other cities, and began their own families, we have worked hard to maintain the tradition of all the family getting together. Christmas is easier to coordinate because both school and work holidays take place around that holiday, but the dates of Hanukah change every year. Sometimes they coincide with Christmas, but often, such as this year, Hanukah is over before Christmas holidays begin. It's not possible for my family to all get together for one of the nights of Hanukah. So, ever flexible, I instituted "Fradkin's famous Ninth Night of Hanukah" so that one of the days of the Christmas holiday, when my children are all at my house, becomes our joint Hanukah celebration. This year, it will be December 26. My motto is "better late than never".  We have the traditional latkes, light several menorahs, and have a festive meal. We are now introducing my grandchildren to the songs and the dreidel game. 

In recognition of the diversity in our family, I have a tree that is decorated in blue and white and we hang stockings on Christmas morning for the grandchildren before heading over to my nephew's for the big feast. I believe combining and honouring both traditions enriches the family and gives us twice the chance to celebrate together. 

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Holidays to everyone, and may 2024 be a year of happiness and peace everywhere!

Thursday, December 14, 2023


 Thanksgiving is over for both the U.S. and Canada, which means that the holiday season is officially off and running. My husband and I had our traditional vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner. We have been doing this for years. It has become our ritual. For the past many years, our Christmas ritual entails a giant brunch with another friend who invites several family-deprived persons over to her house on Christmas morning. We are happy with the holiday traditions we have developed over the last quarter-century.

But it was not always thus.

Every family has its holiday traditions, and it is always a wrench the first time you are separated from your ancestral table and are forced to eat something that your mother or grandmother would NEVER have served. But even in your old age, you look back with fondness on the Thanksgivings and Christmases that you had at grandma's house, and all others pale in comparison.

Of course I'm not talking about the Christmas or Hanukkah where your uncle and brother-in-law got into a fistfight over politics or the Thanksgiving when grandma was too drunk to finish the turkey and the kid had an allergic reaction to the sweet potatoes.

I'm talking about the many Thanksgivings and Christmas dinners I had at Grandma Casey's house. The ones where she started cooking the turkey the day before, and when the hour came to eat, the bird had practically fallen off the bone. My aunt always brought a Jello salad, which was really a casserole dish full of diced apples and pecan halves with just enough red Jello to hold it together. The stuffing was really stuffed in the bird, but no one died of salmonella. Grandma put something different and interesting in the stuffing every year. She liked oysters, which tasted like rubber bands to me. I really liked the roasted chestnuts, though, and the years she used walnuts or pecans. Oh, and in Boynton, Oklahoma, the dressing is always made of pure cornbread. No soggy wheat bread for us.

And it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the pies. My mother always made a pecan pie (lots of native pecans in eastern Oklahoma.), always a fruit pie, and a couple of pumpkin, naturally. Pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream. I do mean lots.

My late cousin Craig is the one who began the more-whipped-cream-than-pie ritual in my family. It didn't take too many years before it became tradition to always serve the pie in a bowl, the better to hold the cream. So here's to you, Craig, and to all the family rituals that we simply cannot do without. It wouldn't be the holidays without them.

FOR YOUR CHRISTMAS ENJOYMENT:  The following recipe is for the easiest and most amazing pumpkin pie ever made. This is my mother’s recipe, and I’m presenting it here exactly as she wrote it down. This is the pie my cousin loved.

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup biscuit mix (such as Bisquick)

1 can (16 oz) pumpkin

2 tsp. butter

2 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

1 can (13 oz.) evaporated milk

2 tsp. vanilla

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9 inch pie pan. Beat all ingredients until smooth. Pour into pan. Bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, 50-55 minutes.

(No, you don’t make a crust. The pie will make its own crust.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Words of the Year 2023


by Sybil Johnson 

Words of the year for 2023 have been announced by various organizations. A number of them use word of the year in the broader sense of vocabulary item so suffixes, phrases, etc. are fair game.

Merriam-Webster chose ‘authentic’ as their word for 2023. They define it as “not false or imitation,” or “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” According to Merriam-Webster, look ups of authentic saw a substantial increase this year. I thought that was interesting. I guess the word has been bandied about lately. Don’t really remember that, but then I’m not up on what’s going on in the social media world these days. Other than Twitter/X’s rapid decline. Read more about it here

Collins, a British dictionary, chose “AI” as their word of the year defining it as “abbreviation for artificial intelligence: the modelling of human mental functions by computer programs.”. Artificial intelligence has certainly been in the news a lot this last year. This choice seems like a reasonable one to me. Read more here.

The Cambridge dictionary chose “hallucinate”. I wondered for a bit if I was hallucinating this, but then I read on. Apparently, this also has to do with AI. From the Cambridge website, “When an artificial intelligence hallucinates, it produces false information.” Read more here

The Macquarie Dictionary (Australian English) chose "cozzie livs". Sounds pretty Australian, doesn’t it? It was coined in the UK, though, but seems to resonate with Australians. This is a light-hearted play on cost of living. “Blue-sky flood” and “algospeak” were honorable mentions.Blue-sky flood comes from floods that occur  not from rain storms, but attributable to high tides or rising sea levels. These often occur when skies are clear. Algospeak is another reference to AI. It refers to “code words or turns of phrase users have adopted in an effort to create a brand-safe lexicon that will avoid getting their posts removed or down-ranked by content moderation systems.” They also have a People’s Choice word of the year: generative AI. Read more here.

The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is “rizz”. This is short for charisma or“someone's ability to attract another person through style, charm, or attractiveness.” The finalists were “prompt” (an instruction given to an artificial intelligence program, algorithm, etc., which determines or influences the content it generates), “situationship” (a romantic or sexual relationship that is not considered to be formal or established), “Swiftie” (an enthusiastic fan of the singer Taylor Swift). I don’t know if Taylor Swift’s popularity has increased, but she sure has been in the news lately. She seems to have “rizz”. Read more here

The American Dialect Society will select its word of the year at its annual meeting in January 2024. The 2023 word of the year was a suffix “–ussy”. Not sure why this is. I guess a lot of people have been putting it at the end of words. And, apparently, I am out of touch with this trend. You can read more about why they chose it here.

I noticed that a lot of them have to do with artificial intelligence. Not really all that surprised about that.

What word do you think should be the word of the year?

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

I Wonder If . . .

 by Charlotte Hinger

Is there anything more frustrating for a writer than being half-sick and half-well? This year I've been plagued with intermittent health issues. Most of which can be traced to allergies to medications. That's a happy ending. All I have to do is quit taking them. But oh, the search to identify the culprits because the conditions produced mimicked rare forms of cancer. 

For instance, I'm diabetic and my body turned against Metformin, a medication I've been taking for twenty years. Why? And why can't I take Tylenol, everyone's go-to drug?

The medical mystery game show has come to symbolize all the "I wonder if . . . ." issues I've puzzled over this year. For instance:

I wonder if...When the mega-productive best-selling authors say they never ever ever miss a day writing, are they telling the truth? Do they ever have the flu? Covid? Just throw in the towel for a day occasionally? Have overwhelmingly difficult family situations? 

I wonder if. . . other writers take time off between books? During this time do they catch up on other stuff? I do. I've done everything I need to do for my new historical novel, Mary's Place. It won't be published until July, so I'm not going to do a thing about marketing until the first of the year. I've developed a sudden mania for making Christmas gifts. Five aprons down and two more to go! Plus, a quilt!

I wonder if . . .Does marketing on social media really pay off? If so, which sites are the best investment of time and energy? Some time ago mega best-selling authors Kathleen and Michael Gear tweeted about the vast number of books in their personal library. It's huge! For some reason the tweet went viral via a raging controversy over whether they were destroying the planet (all those trees cut down to make paper) and those to whom all the books represented a commitment to culture. Incredibly (I'm not making this up) there were 10 million views of this tweet. The Gears are serious archeologists and anthropologists.

The Gears later reported that all the views did not produce a single sale beyond the usual number of books purchased. Not one!

My media presence is not robust, but I'm going to beef it up come January. I'm sorting through what I'm comfortable with. For some reason, signing into Facebook has become an ordeal. That's just one of the many sites where I go through too-elaborate identification processes. On the other hand, I've had several friends tell of the horrors of ID thefts and untangling hacking situations. 

I wonder if . . .I'm making a mistake when I've turned my back on TikTok because my mystery publisher (Poisoned Pen) really likes it.  But due to all the controversy over that site, I'll skip it. I would love to say the decision is the result of conviction, but honestly, it's because I'm too lazy to learn the ropes to create an effective presence. 

I wonder . . .why I have to give a review for everything under the sun? I mean everything! From a visit to my dentist to an Amazon purchase. Why is it no longer acceptable to give an honest three-star review instead of the expected five-star? I can no longer heap praise on a book I think deserves the Pulitzer Prize through a five-star rating because five-stars are expected for anything that is well written. 

I wonder if . . . all our lovely readers will receive all the blessings I wish for them during the coming year.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Favorite Holiday Tales

 by Thomas Kies

My third Geneva Chase mystery, Graveyard Bay, takes place shortly before Christmas.  Now, under no circumstances would I classify it as a holiday tale.  Of all my
novels, Graveyard Bay is probably the darkest.  Whips, chains, assassinations, jailbreaks—not a lot of eggnog moments.  Toward the end, I broke down and gave Geneva a proper holiday ending, but that’s not the kind of girl she is. We know she’s really not going to enjoy it.  Pour her another Absolut.

When someone asked me what my favorite Christmas movie is, I immediately answered Die Hard.  Filled with murder, action, explosions, gun play and Bruce Willis wisecracks, there aren’t a lot of warm and fuzzy holiday moments.  But in the words of that infamous bad guy, Hans Gruber, “It’s Christmas, it’s the time of miracles, so be of good cheer and call me when you hit the last lock.”  Yippee-ki-yay.

Curious about everyone else, I reached out on my social media platforms and asked what their favorite Christmas story, book, or movie is.  The book (and many movies it spawned) named, overwhelmingly, was A Christmas Carol.

There’s no need to recount the story because we all know it, but a couple of little-known facts are: the book was published on December 17, 1843 and was sold out in three days. By the end of 1844, thirteen editions had been printed. Dickens began writing the novella in October and finished it in six weeks to have it ready before Christmas.

One last fact, Mark Twain was in the audience when Dickens did a reading (actually, more of a performance than a reading) in New York and gave him a tepid review.  “There is no heart.  No feeling.  It is nothing but glittering frostwork.”

Before his readings, Dickens would drink two tablespoons of rum with cream for breakfast. Later, he would have a pint of champagne, and just before the performance, he would drink a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the reading, he would sip beef tea and would have soup just before bed. Much like Graveyard Bay and Die Hard, there’s not a lot of laughs in A Christmas Carol.  It does have a satisfying story arc.

The number one movie pick in my unofficial poll was It’s a Wonderful Life.  Here’s a little known fact about it.  Philip Van Doren Stern, an author, editor, and Civil War historian was inspired by a dream he had, based on A Christmas Carol, and wrote a 4000 word short story called The Greatest Gift.  He shopped it around, but couldn’t get it published.  So, in 1943, he printed 200 copies and sent them out as Christmas cards to his friends.  Someone showed it to a producer at RKO Pictures who gave it to Cary Grant to read.  The actor was interested in playing the lead and the studio purchased the film rights for $10,000.

Grant eventually passed on it, however, and Liberty Films bought the rights and George Capra made the film calling it It’s a Wonderful Life. Should you forget, there are some mighty dark scenes in that movie as well.

The next most popular movie choice was Miracle on 34th Street. Look hard at Kris Kringle’s Foley Square trial scenes.  If it looks vaguely familiar, it’s because in the movie The Godfather, those are the same steps where Barzini is murdered. Interestingly, the comedy Christmas Vacation came in third.  This was the last film for Mae Questal who played Aunt Bethany.  She started her career as the voice of the cartoon character Betty Boop in 1931, then voiced Olive Oyl starting in 1933 in the Popeye series of cartoons. And in the movie, look closely at the kid playing Rusty.  He’s actually Johnny Galecki, who went on to become a megastar as Leonard Hofstadter in the series Big Bang Theory.

Some honorable mentions in the poll were White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Christmas Story, Polar Express, Elf, Bells of St. Mary’s, Mixed Nuts, Home Alone, and Nightmare Before Christmas.

Other than A Christmas Carol and the Bible, the only other literary vote was cast by my daughter-in-law, Gillian.  She says, “There’s a series of children’s books by Graham Oakley about church mice.  I’ve always loved Church Mice at Christmas. The written story is entertaining, but the illustrations are what really tie everything together.  My mother and I would spend hours looking through the book, finding little nuances and clues about what will happen next.”

Gillian hits it on the head when she talks about how she and her mother bonded over that story. Perhaps that’s why we have favorite holiday stories and movies.  We have warm memories of sharing them with our families and friends.  Tearing up a little when a bell rings and an angel gets his wings or laughing our butts off when Cousin Eddie shows up unannounced and uninvited at the front door.

So, step away from your Work in Progress, close your laptop, pour yourself some eggnog and spend some time with people you love. Happy Holiday and Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Timing and the Big Reveal

 Last week, Sybil posted about the importance of pulling the various threads and subplots of the book together at the same time at the end of the book, and it made me smile because I think this is one of the most challenging and stressful aspects of writing a mystery. Perhaps more than in any other type of fiction, a mystery has to pull together in exactly the right way at the right moment. The climax, the big reveal. This is no time to wander off on some sidetrack or whimsical flashback, or to introduce a random new subplot. In the classic mystery, at least, no matter whether it's amateur sleuth or detective, cosy or edgy, the writer is playing a game with the reader of guess it if you can, drawing the reader through the mystery to try to solve it along with the protagonist. The quest to be solved can be whodunit, whodunit, or even howdunit, but there is usually some puzzle that the detective and the reader is trying to solve.

It's an element of story building that I really enjoy but also find the most challenging. I am not a plotter, so I don't know ahead of time whodunit it and how the sleuth will solve it. The story evolves as I write and introduce a variety of suspects with credible motives. Since it's a guessing game for me until quite near the end, I figure it will be one for the reader as well. But there comes a time in the story that I realize who makes the most exciting and meaningful perpetrator and then I have to figure out how the detective solves it. Gone are the days when the detective gathered everyone together in the library and accused them one after another. I like a more dramatic climax with suspense and danger. 

But there are some rules that mystery readers expect, or they may well throw the book against the wall in frustration. First of all, I have to answer the central  questions of the story– who, how, and why. I don't have to spell everything out and tie it all up with a neat bow, but, I must give enough of a hint that the reader can  figure out the answers and feel a sense of satisfaction as they close the book. I like a book that leaves me slightly bewildered and thinking about the story long after I've closed it, but I don't like feeling cheated or frustrated.

Secondly, I have to play fair with the readers who're engaged in the guessing game along with the sleuth. None of this "butler did it" or some previously unknown twin who's parachuted in at the last minute. The "villain" has to be fleshed out and participate in at least part of the story. There have to be clues, cleverly slipped in, that an alert reader can piece together. There have to be red herrings that lead readers astray, because that too is part of the enjoyment and suspense.

For me, anyway, the detective has to be as much in the dark about the villain as the reader is, which means that they can't figure it out until the climax either. I know it's not uncommon for writers to cheat a little and have the detective learn some crucial piece of information that he doesn't share with the reader before he goes off to confront the suspect. This is a device that gives the writer an easy out but I have never done that. I've always kept my detective in the dark until the big reveal, often suspecting the wrong person or not knowing which of two possible suspects it is. It puts the sleuth in added danger and ratchets up the suspense.

It also adds an extra challenge to the writing. How to keep everyone guessing until the crucial big scene, how to reveal just enough but not too much, but also how to avoid the sleuth looking like an idiot for not figuring it out earlier. 

But I've always loved a challenge. None of this is solved in the first draft. That's what rewrites are for. That's the time when clues are planted, removed, or better disguised; when characters' motives and actions are enriched and massaged to fit the story; and when subplots or scenes are inserted to clarify or distract.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Life Happening

 I'm really, really late today but I want to post because I missed my last Friday. I was busy with my day job (teaching at university) and lost track of the schedule. Today I wanted to get a post up. Except last night, I felt a small jab of pain in my eye. It was gone in a second, but it was in the same eye that I saw an ophthalmologist about back in spring. My GP referred me when I called her about the bloodshot eye had seen when I happened to glance in the mirror I was passing. He determined that I had a fairly common broken vein in my eye. It looked and sounded scary, but it wasn't painful and would probably resolve itself. 

He could see my eyes were dry and asked if I had ever been told that. I said I but I hadn't used artificial tears since the wave of recalls of contaminated eye drops.  Even though my artificial tears had not been among the brand or type of drop in the several recalls, I had been spooked enough to stop using them. We agreed it might be safe to start again. But this morning I woke up with both eyes itching and I forgot about my post because I was busy getting my dog to daycare and then calling for an appointment to see what's happening. After I'd gotten in for Monday, I turned to emails I needed to respond to and then picking up dog and feeding pets and self and responding to more emails and I'm finally here now.

I had intended to write a longer post about the topic my Type M colleagues were discussing recently -- muddled middles. I've been dealing with that, too. It isn't usually a problem that paralyzes me for long periods as I'm writing because I'm a plotter. But this time I'm writing a historical thriller and trying to plunge in and see where it gone. With that in mind, I have focused on the characters and their goals and motivations rather than extensive outlining. That worked until I got to the middle and realized I wasn't sure where to insert my parallel murder investigation by my Albany police detectives happening in the months leading up to the presidential election in their present. Their "present" because my two Albany books were set in the alternate near-future when I wrote them, but now are in the recent past. In their present a presidential election is approaching and in the first book I had Howard Miller, a character who turned out to bear a striking resemblance to one of the real-world candidates that we all now know too well. In Book 2, people connected to him had McCabe and her family under surveillance because her father is a retired journalist and had been doing some research on the candidate's activities. In my third book --when I get to it -- I intend to deal with that, but meanwhile I want to use the characters as the investigators of the murder in my historical thriller.

I think I may have mentioned this complex structure before. But I didn't realize last time I mentioned how difficult it would be to deal with the "muddled middle" when I can literally flip a coin to decide when a scene should appear. Knowing that has slowed me down to a crawl. I have gone back to my preferred method of outlining and that has taken me down a path that didn't occur to me when I was attempting to write faster. 

I'm just hoping that whatever is happening with my eyes is no more serious than an allergy or something I've been using on my face. I want to get my pile of term papers read and grades submitted and then settle into summer writing. By then I should have outlined enough to find my way out of my maze.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The End of an Era, or What Not to Do Redux

 Donis here, wishing you all a lovely holiday season. Since last I posted I've made a big change in my writing life. After seven years of reviewing mystery novels for Publishers' Weekly, I have hung up my red pen. As I told a friend, I've finally run out of ways to say charming and/or suspenseful. Reviewing had also become burdensome, continually knocking up against my own writing time. I'll miss knowing what new books are coming out in three months' time and discovering promising new authors I want to read. In fact, as soon as I resigned, I had mixed feelings. I learned a lot about what is being published at any one time (in the mere seven years I reviewed, things changed!) I had to read a lot of iffy stuff, though. In fact, I learned a lot about what NOT to do. 

I named some of these bugaboos in a blog post I wrote for this site four or five years ago, and in the spirit of helpfulness to other writers and as a fond farewell to my reviewing life, I repost it below. Take note. I have spoken to other PW reviewers who have the same opinions about the following as I. Best of luck to all of us, and may all our reviews be stellar!

What Not to Do (from 2019)

Besides writing mystery novels, for a few years I've had a side gig as a free-lance mystery reviewer for Publishers' Weekly Magazine. I don't choose the books I review. The editor at PW sends me three or four advance reading copies (ARCs) a month to review. Usually these books will not be available for purchase for several months, and an ARC is not the final version, so I don't pay undue attention to typos or other minor flaws that will more than likely be corrected before the book hits the shelf. 

I try never to be mean with my reviews, because as a writer myself I know how that feels. Besides, just because I don't enjoy a particular type of character/plot/setting/time period, that doesn't mean it's not well executed, and other readers may love just that kind of thing. But I know an epic fail when I see one, and when I do, I'm honor bound to tell the truth. In the years I've been reviewing, I've seen the best of the best and the worst of the worst, and both have taught me many things I've tried to apply to my own writing. In fact, I'm currently in the midst of getting a lesson on what not to do. I'm reading the second or third installment of a series in which some loose ends are left from earlier books, and the author keeps interrupting the action to catch us up on what went before. Now, it has to be done, but said author does it with such lengthy digressions that when he returns to the action, I've forgotten the details of the story. 

As I read, I'm furiously taking "what not to do" notes, especially considering I'm in the midst of writing the second installment of a mystery that contains loose ends from the first. How do you catch the reader up on what has gone before without bogging down your momentum? Do it in short intervals, I think, and try to work it into the action naturally. That's what to shoot for, anyway. 

Here are some other comments I've sent to the PW editor about fails in books I have reviewed which all writers would do well to watch out for. None of these comments actually showed up in the review I wrote for publication, and the names, situations, and details have been changed to protect the guilty. 

"The plot had so many holes that I have a headache from slapping my forehead so many times while I was reading." 

"She had an idea for a plot and bent all her characters out of shape to fit it." 

"This is a historical, but I couldn't tell what the year actually was and the author never actually said. From things the author wrote in the beginning I thought it must be in the 1850s or so, but I kept revising my estimate forward as more and more modern items kept showing up. I think maybe the 1870s." 

"The sleuth's method of detection consisted of basically going from suspect to suspect and loudly accusing him or her of murder in hopes someone would crack. The motive was stupid and the killer was stupid for falling for (X's) lame trap." 

"No proper English lady would go on 'vacation' with a single male acquaintance in 18--." 

"Great characters and deft handling of the mores of the time. But I wish (X) hadn't cleared (Y) of the murder by having the coroner pinpoint the murdered woman's time of death within half an hour! In the 19th century!" 

 "I like the unusual setting and the characters are fun. She handled tension well, but I would have liked it better if the big showdown between the sleuth and the murderer hadn't ended with a slapstick food fight." 

"She certainly studied the manual on how to write a cozy, so cozy lovers will find much to like. But that ending! The protagonist and her sidekick lay a trap, then hide in the bushes to eavesdrop on the conversation between the killer and the person who agreed to be bait. I always get annoyed when the killer confesses all in excruciating detail, and at the drop of a hat!"* 

But really good characters cover a multitude of sins: "Her editor would have done well to have her condense the beginning quite a bit, but it eventually picked up nicely and the main character was well drawn and realistic. She was actually emotional about the deaths! It wasn't hard to figure out whodunnit, but there's enough atmosphere and crafting and eccentric characters (and a hunky detective and a kitty) that cozy lovers won't care."

*This is a pet peeve of mine. Can you tell?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Timing Is Everything


by Sybil Johnson

I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving. Ours was very nice with a lot of food. 

Every time I put together a dinner with multiple things going on at once, I thank my junior high Home Ec teacher, Mrs. Cook. Yes, that really was her name. For our final assignment one year we worked in pairs and cooked a meal for a teacher. We made ours for our art teacher, Mr. Klatt. As part of that, we had to work out the timing of every course so it would all be ready at the same time. 

This got me thinking about timing in writing. I guess what I’m talking about here is not only pacing, but also making sure multiple plot lines come together at the end.

In my books, I usually have three plot lines going at once: the major one which involves the murder, one that involves another crime or bad situation and a final one that involves the personal lives of my ongoing characters. The first one gets more scenes than the second one etc. They still have to be woven throughout the story and come together in the last part of the book.

This aspect of timing is probably the easiest for me. When I’m writing or rewriting, I look at each of the scenes and see which ones refer to each plot line. If I haven’t addressed a plot line in a while, I figure it’s time to put something in about it.

In terms of pacing, if you reveal some things too quickly, the story feels rushed and the reader may not understand what’s going on. If you reveal things too slowly, the reader gets bored and may give up on the story. Either way, it’s not a good thing.

Setting a story aside for a week or so can help bring any issues to light. I read my stories aloud to myself (when I had cats it was to my cats). That helps me as well. A good editor and beta readers are also useful in this situation.

Knowing your own tendencies is important. I know I sometimes just want to get to the end of a project, particularly if I’ve been working on it for a long time. So I’ll rush an ending. I have to consciously slow myself down.

How do you get your timing right? I don’t have a degree in creative writing. I don’t teach classes. I can only go on what I’ve experienced throughout the years I’ve been writing books and short stories. What do those of you out there who teach writing think? Do you have any tips you give your students?

Monday, November 27, 2023

Weather or Not?

 By Thomas Kies

On Saturday I was the emcee at a Small Business Vendor Holiday event at our local community college where I also happen to teach Creative Writing.  There were 140 vendors that were in attendance, and I’d be introducing local dance and singing acts.  It was an all-day event and in return for my services, they kindly gave me a spot to put up a tent, set up a table, and sell and sign a few books.

I thought, what the heck?  This was a holiday event.  What makes a better gift under the tree than a mystery signed by the author?

Things never go as planned.

On Thanksgiving, just a few days prior to the event, the weather here on the coast of North Carolina was sunny and in the seventies. On Saturday, the temps had dropped to the high forties—low fifties and the winds had picked up to gusts of over twenty miles per hour. 

I started the morning by unloading the car and then attempting to put up the canopy.  In that wind, trying to do that alone, it became a hilarious wrestling match.  The struggle was not only to put it up, but to keep it from flying away and becoming a lethal missile.  

After a half-hour battle, I was sweating, breathless, and frustrated.  I looked around to see if I could find one of the other vendors to give me a hand.  They were all having the same problem.

Most had reached the logical conclusion which was not to put the canopy up at all. 

While overcast, it wasn’t supposed to rain so I put the tent back into the back of my car and parked it in the adjoining lot.  Then I set up the table and had a similar problem with the tablecloth.  It was like something out of a Buster Keaton movie.

I’d have one end of the tablecloth laid down when the other end would go flying around as if it was possessed by a demon.  Since my wares were books, they ended up being my weights. 

It was a smaller than expected crowd.  As I said, the weather was cold and very windy.  Many vendors gave up and went home early.  Cindy, my wife, joined me a little later in the morning and that helped rejuvenate my spirits. She gamely greeted shoppers as they drifted by and even managed to sell books when I was on stage introducing the next gaggle of kids choreographed to dance to Christmas Carols. 

When she started to shiver however, I asked her to go home.  I stuck it out the rest of the day and I did sell more books than I should have on that miserable afternoon.

Okay, so it wasn’t the most conducive day to sell books.  But it’s the kind of day I enjoy when I’m writing. Here it is, the day after and still cold, not as windy, but dark and it’s raining off and on.  For me, that’s perfect writing weather.  

If it’s sunny and warm, I feel like I should be outside doing something.  If it’s nasty out, I love being inside with a cup of hot coffee, listening to some soft music, and sitting in front of my laptop, knocking out another chapter or two.  

Our environment is an important part of our writing process.  Some of us can be more productive when we’re free of distractions while some other writers are happier in a bustling coffee shop.  Some of us love to listen to a little jazz while we create, and others need total silence.

When I teach my creative writing class, one of the subjects we discuss is finding a place that’s comfortable for you, a place where you can feel creative.  And to get into the rhythm of writing every single day.  

Where do you like to write and does the weather impact your writing? Do you enjoy music while you’re creating or do you need the quiet?

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Sidestepping Tradition

 We've entered that period in America known as the Holidays! And with my schedule here on Type M For Murder, my posts coincide with the big holiday celebrations, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

While Thanksgiving is about getting together with loved ones and friends and sharing a meal in a spirit of gratitude, hosting Thanksgiving dinner is an exercise in anxiety. This year, my girlfriend and I decided to sidestep tradition by hosting a low-key breakfast for my sons and their significant others. While the meal was simple--waffles, omelets, sausage--there was a bit of anxiety since there's this pressure for everything to be perfect. I'm happy to report that a good time was had by all. 

We did enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner of sorts by dressing up and going out that evening to nosh at The Ship's Tavern in the swanky Brown Palace. Followers of this blog will happy to hear that dinner conversation involved stories of murder at the Brown Palace and other tales from Denver's sordid past. On the way home we drove by the Denver City and County Building and saw that it was decked out for the Holidays!  

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Messy middles and beyond

 I have enjoyed both Charlotte's and Donis's posts this week, and boy, can I identify. Every comment and experience they related made me smile. I too am a "mostly" pantser, who never outlines at the beginning because that would be a boring way to write a novel and the outline would just get thrown away anyway. Not only do I like the surprises that my imagination comes up with along the way, but the richness, depth and direction of the novel comes to me during the writing. If I were following a pre-conceived outline, all that would be lost. It would feel like "paint by number" writing.

I do, however, sometimes have to lift my head above the parapet to see where I'm going. As new ideas come to me for upcoming scenes, I scribble them down so I won't forget them, and they act as an outline of sorts for the next few scenes. Sometimes I have to brainstorm or change direction to get myself out of a dead end (or more likely a tangle).

The "messy middle" is where I have to brainstorm the hardest. Sometimes it's the halfway point, but more often it's the two-thirds mark. The first half of the book is devoted to throwing balls up in the air – piling up the complications, challenges, and question marks. By the middle I usually have quite a few balls swirling in the air, and not only do I have to remember them all, but I also have to start thinking about how to tie them together and catch them all in the right order. My messy middle is not so much a dearth of things going on as too many. Not so much stagnant as overwhelmed. How on earth do I get from here to the end? In less than 200,000 words!

I love Charlotte's very helpful suggestions about techniques to spice up a sagging middle. I've used several of them. When I'm feeling overwhelmed and bewildered, one of my techniques is to list all the balls I can think of – the things that need to to revealed, the questions that need to be answered, the loose ends that need to be explained by the end of the book (bearing in mind I don't know what that end is). And then I brainstorm ideas, jotting the ideas as they come to me, exploring what would happen if?, and if this then that... Keeping in mind the basics of our genre. Avoid exposition, build from small to big, keep the action on the page, etc.

As I brainstorm, I'm also guided by a few questions that help to make the story authentic and alive. 1. What would logically happen next, or what would this character do next? Note: I sometimes do the opposite, just for spice. 2. What the worst thing that could happen? 

I have now made it through to the end of my current first draft and have done some tidying of loose ends (those balls that would otherwise land on my head), checked for major plot holes, and made sure the whole thing makes sense. I'm now at the stage of hating the book. I suspect every author goes through this stage at some point. I'm tired of it and can't see the forest for the trees. It holds no surprises or excitement for me, and so I am afraid it won't for the readers either. If a writer is on a deadline, as I am, we don't have the luxury of shelving it for a few months to get some distance from it. Now is the time to let trusted beta readers look at it with fresh eyes and tell me if it's as bad as I think it is. If so, hopefully they'll have some ideas for rescuing it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Muddled in the Middle

 by Charlotte Hinger

Boy, do I ever identify with Donis's problem. I'm totally bogged down in the middle of my latest mystery. I think this happened when I abandoned this book to finish up my historical novel.

Yet, somewhere in the middle of the journey, many writers find themselves knee-deep in the mire, struggling to move forward. The dreaded "sagging middle" can be a formidable obstacle, but fear not, for there are ways to navigate through this literary quagmire.

  1. Like Donis, I'm a pantser. I outline a chapter after I've written it. Those of us who write mystery can always introduce a New Element: my favorite is another body. Stagnation often results from a lack of fresh ideas or conflict. This not only keeps the reader engaged but also reignites my own enthusiasm for the story.

There are other ways, of course. Here are some ways that might work for our dear readers:
  1. Raise the Stakes: Assess the stakes in your story. Are they high enough to keep both your characters and readers invested? If not, consider amping up the tension or introducing new challenges. A sense of urgency can propel your narrative forward and keep the middle from sagging.

  2. Explore Character Development: Take advantage of the middle to delve deeper into your characters' backgrounds, motivations, and internal conflicts. Use this time to reveal layers of complexity, making your characters more relatable and dynamic. Strong character development can compensate for a slower plot pace.

  3. Create Milestones: Break the middle section of your manuscript into smaller, manageable milestones. Celebrate each accomplishment, whether it's resolving a minor conflict or reaching a significant turning point. This approach not only provides a sense of progression but also makes the writing process more enjoyable.

  4. Consider Subplots: Introduce subplots that complement the main narrative. These can add depth to your story, creating a multifaceted reading experience. Just be cautious not to overwhelm the reader with too many distractions—subplots should enhance, not detract from, the central story arc.

  5. Take a Break:

  6. Sometimes, the best way to overcome a creative roadblock is to step away briefly. Allow yourself some time to recharge and gain fresh perspective. This break can be instrumental in identifying what's causing the stagnation and how to address it.

Remember, getting bogged down in the middle is a common challenge, and every writer faces it at some point. The key is muddle through..

Thursday, November 16, 2023

In the Weeds, or the Tale of the Pantser

Donis here. I've passed the middle of the manuscript I'm currently working on, and as usual, I'm a little bit lost. I know just where I want to go, but the question is how to get there. As I've mentioned many times over the years, I am a pantser. That means I do not outline my novels before I begin writing them (I write by the seat of my pants, if you haven't yet figured out what that means.)  

 I was told once by a mystery author friend (who also happens to be a lawyer - a significant detail, I think), that before she begins writing, she outlines each and every one of her novels to the tune of at least one hundred pages, and never deviates therefrom. One Very Big Name of my acquaintance never outlines at all, or even has much in mind when she begins her mammoth novels. She writes dozens of seemingly unrelated episodes, then arranges them in some sort of order and cobbles them together with new scenes and segues. This technique may sound pretty slapdash, but it seems to work for this woman, since she could buy and sell us all.

I have done both in my long history. Each book seems to be a whole new order of creation for me, and demands its own unique method of coming into being. I’ve been known to outline before I begin when I think that would help me clarify the direction of the plot in my own mind. I have never once followed an outline to the end. The characters don't allow it.

 I have also simply started writing, usually at the beginning, but I’ve started in the middle and at  the end, as well.  More than once I’ve begun a novel on the fly, and then gone back and created an outline because I’ve gotten myself into a muddle and can’t quite figure the way out.  Miraculously, it always works out. As I write the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the story, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line. I try not to waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness. I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just have to keep going until the first draft is done. Then it's time to go back in with a machete and start cutting and rearranging.

Often if I'm a bit lost in my story, I simply pick a path at random and get to writing. If that path leads to a dead end, I try another. Even on the dead ends I find all kinds of interesting material I can use someplace else.

I like being a pantser rather than an outliner because I enjoy surprising myself as I go along. I don't mind hunting around for my path a bit in the middle of the first draft because often I find a delightfully original way to go that I hadn't thought of before. But really, whatever works best for each author - and for each book - is the way to go.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Stuff That Makes Me Smile


by Sybil Johnson

I enjoyed Monday’s post by Thomas. I think we could all use a little fun in our lives right now. 

Here are a few things recently that have put a smile on my face. Maybe they’ll put a smile on yours.

Podcast: Behind The Page: The Eli Marks Podcast

John Gaspard writes the Eli Marks mysteries featuring magician Eli Marks and hosts this podcast with Jim Cunningham who narrates the books. There are 3 seasons so far. The first and second seasons were a combination of interviews with magicians on various topics as well as the reading of a chapter of the first 2 books in the series, The Ambitious Card and The Bullet Catch. The third season, the one I’m listening to right now, has yet more interviews with magicians (including Teller of Penn and Teller and, yes, he can talk) as well as readings of the short stories from his compilation, The Self-Working Trick. Just a lot of fun to listen to. The interviews have been fascinating and Jim does a bang-up job reading the stories. I’ve read all of the Eli Marks books so far, but I still enjoyed listening to them. Of course, if you only want to listen to the interviews, that’s possible.

TV: The Simple Heist

This is a Swedish program titled EnkelStöten. I watched it on Acorn TV. Unfortunately, the first season is no longer available, but the 2nd season is on Acorn as well as available through Hoopla Digital through libraries. Hopefully, the first season will come back somewhere so you can see it. I watched it with English subtitles. (I don’t care much for dubbing.)

The two leads are women in their 60s who have run into financial difficulties. One is a gastroenterologist who has managed to lose a lot of money in some bad financial investments. The other is a math teacher who is getting divorced. Her husband is enforcing a pre-nup, which means she essentially gets nothing. Someone they meet tells them about a bank that would be easy to rob. So that’s what they do. Of course, nothing goes according to plan.

I love these two characters and really wanted them to get away with it.

TV: The Great British Baking Show

It's called The Great British Bake Off in England. I’ve loved all of the episodes of this show. A new series started on Netflix a few weeks ago. The bakers get along, many of them becoming friends and keeping in touch after the program. They bake interesting things, many of which I’ve never heard of before. It’s just an enjoyable program to watch. Always puts a smile on my face and I even enjoy watching past seasons even though I’ve seen them already.

Books: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman 

I’d heard quite a bit about this book series so I decided to read the first one. I’ve now gotten on the Richard Osman bandwagon. The story takes place in England in a retirement community. Every Thursday, a group gets together to solve cold cases. They come from varied backgrounds, some very mysterious. Then a murder occurs involving their community and they decide to investigate. This is a fun read with lots of interesting characters. I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

What have you been reading/watching/listening to recently that has made you smile?

Monday, November 13, 2023

A Little Writing Humor

 By Thomas Kies

I’ve been watching way too much news these days.  It’s scary and depressing.  I mean it’s soul sucking and makes me want to hide under the covers, lock all the doors, and hold my calls kind of depressing. 

So, I’m going to give you a little writing humor.  I hope it lightens your day.  

--Three guys walk into a bar, sit down and order a drink.  Thie start to have a conversation and the first guy says, “Yeah, I make $150,000 a year after taxes.

The second asks, “What do you do for a living?

The first guy answers, “I’m a stockbroker. How much do you make?

The second guy says, “I’ll clear $100,000 this year.  

The first guy asks, “What do you do?”

The second guy replies, “I’m a real estate attorney.

The third guy has been sitting quietly, listening, and sipping his drink. 

The second asks him, “So, how much do you make a year?”

The third guy rubs his chin, thinks for a minute, and answers, “I guess about $13,000.”

The first guy asks, “So, what kind of novels do you write?

--What do you get when you cross a writer with a deadline?  Answer: A really clean house.

--I once asked a literary agent what kind of writing paid the best.  Her answer was “Ransom Notes.”

--What’s random, disgusting, and will put you on an FBI watch list?  A mystery writer’s browser history.

--A writer died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell. She decided to check out each place first. As the writer descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were repeatedly whipped with thorny lashes.

“Oh my,” said the writer. “Let me see heaven now.”

A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.

“Wait a minute,” said the writer. “This is just as bad as hell!”

“Oh no, it’s not,” replied an unseen voice. “Here, your work gets published.”

I told some friends these jokes last night at dinner.  They all laughed but then my wife turned to me and asked, "Are you sure these are funny?" 

Okay, then change the subject and talk about something happier, like the Middle East or climate change.  Keep smiling, everyone.               

Saturday, November 11, 2023

On the Road Again

 It has been a long day. I have finally made it to the hotel -- the Hilton Boston-Deham -- where the New England Crime Bake is held. I am tucked in a comfortable bed watching The Remains of the Day. I saw this movie years ago and now that I am working on a historical thriller set in 1939, it is relevant to my research.  And writing this post is about all I can manage after driving over from Albany.

I always enjoy mystery conferences for all the reasons that have been mentioned here - catching up with friends and acquaintances., seeing agents and editors, and a chance to take workshops, set on panels, and be inspired by other writers. I enjoy conferences but I don't enjoy getting to them. 

Post-pandemic, I have decided to indulge myself when I travel.  For years I have been traveling in the Business Coach on Amtrak. I like not having to wander through a train that is in motion looking for an empty seat and a pleasant looking seatmate. It is worth the extra charge to travel in a single seat next to the cafe.

When I was invited to attend the International Agatha Christie Festival, my travel agent suggested I avoid the strike that seemed to be on the horizon at Heathrow. He suggested I take Aer Lingus to Dublin for a few days and then come back across to England for the conference. Coming from Dublin it would be a much shorter flight. And if I traveled in the airline's version of First Class, I would be able to have a bed and arrive well-rested. I did and I was. I also decided that henceforth I would trade in my cramped seat in Coach for the plush seats with menu, food on a tray and the other amenities of flying first-class. I did on my next domestic flight. It was a short flight, but I enjoyed it.

Today I didn't have a choice. I had to drive from Albany to Boston. By the time I took my dog Fergus to his daycare where he is going to be boarding over the weekend and my cat to the sitter who is going to board her, I was already later than I intended. Doing wash and packing made me even later. Darkness fell and I drove following the lights of the cars in front of me. Apparently, I was a bit erratic because the Driver Assistance on my car suggested I take a break for a cup of coffee. The first time I stopped at a rest area for hot tea and a Big Mac. The second time, I kept driving.

Good thing I did because I was too tired to follow the GPS's directions when I got to the roundabout. leading to the hotel. I ended up back out on the highway. After two more attempts I finally hit the right exit. 

I'm sure the conference will be worth it. I'm on a panel about strong female protagonists. But this tired woman needs some sleep first. 

And so, Good Night, dear friends, If you are here at Crime Bake, please say hello.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Tidying up a manuscript

 This week I am in the final throes of rewrites of my latest Inspector Green novel – that final tweaking of details and wording before I send it off to my beta readers. These are experienced writers and readers – fellow members of The Ladies Killing Circle, who published seven anthologies of short stories some years ago. I have specific "big picture" questions for them. Does the overall story work? Did you like the book? Any plot holes, boring bits, unbelievable or inconsistent characters? They each tend to catch different flaws and address different issues, which is helpful and gives me food for thought.

Once I get their feedback, I adjust and tweaking my manuscript some more before sending it off to the publisher by the deadline. Up to this point, the publisher has very little idea what the story is about beyond a one-paragraph concept. I don't submit a synopsis or outline ahead of time, which is a good thing since I hate writing them and don't know what happens in the story until it's done.

I try not to send the book to my beta readers until I have made it the best I can, but once you've read a manuscript over and over, it's impossible to see all the flaws or plot holes. The brain fills in the gaps. I also know that I could tweak endlessly, even once the book is in print. With this book, there are also a few location details that I can't verify until the snow is on the ground, so those may need to be adjusted at the last minute.

This week's final rewrite involves trying to catch errors in grammar, typos, inconsistencies, clumsy wording, dropped words, etc., as well as tightening up the language. Every writer has a few favourite phrases and tics that pop up unconsciously when pouring out the first draft. First draft is for creativity not editing or critiquing. But the final rewrite is the time to catch them. I used to have a program that counted the number of times a word appeared in the book and generated a list. I could see how many times the word "eyes" or "frowned" or whatever, turned up. Some common words naturally occur many times, but the appearance of "eyes" 500 times suggests it's overused. A simple "find and replace" search solves that.

Through successive versions of MSWord, that little program got lost. If anyone knows of a similar editing tool for Word, I'd love to hear it. For now, I rely on running "find and replace" on the words I know I overuse. I also run one on filler words like really, very, and pretty, as well as on "ly" to catch any excessive adverbs. It does help, but it's tedious, time-consuming, and imperfect. I just found a program called "Word Counter" on the internet and if anyone uses that, let me know.