Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Do You Wish You Wrote That?

 by Sybil Johnson

Someone asked me once in an interview what books I wished I’d written. It’s an interesting question. There are all sorts of reasons that a writer might wish they’d written something:

  • It sells really well and makes the author very well-known
  • The writing is beautiful and/or the plot is well-done
  • It changes the world in some way
  • Because you want to be known as the person that wrote that book.

I’m sure there are others. Those are the ones I thought of.

Here are the books “I wish I’d written” and why: 

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom – This is always the one I think of first. It’s a historical mystery set in Tudor times during the dissolution of the monasteries, hence the title. That period fascinates me. It’s well-written, you feel like you’re in Tudor England and it’s well-plotted. Plus the characters are interesting and it’s just the right length. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris – This a historical novel set around the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. For whatever reason (maybe because I watched all of those 1970s disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure), I like reading about natural disasters. Someday I would like to be able to take some disaster and craft a fictional story around it. 

The Legend of Sleepy Harlow by Kylie Logan – This is a well-crafted cozy mystery set around Halloween. It’s fun and clever with interesting characters and I’ve read it at least twice.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – My favorite of Dame Agatha’s novels. A very well-done mystery. Note that the book’s ending is different from most of the TV or movie adaptations that have been done. In many ways, I like the book’s ending better. 

Those are my four. What are your choices for books you wish you’d written?

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

WWA Forevermore

 by Charlotte Hinger

My trip to the Western Writers of America convention got off to a rocky start this year. I intended to take off for Kansas Monday, stay in Nicodemus with my friend Angela Bates that night and we would leave for Tulsa Tuesday morning. But Sunday evening I gashed my leg on an open bottom dresser drawer and ended up going to ER for stitches. 

Between a dramatic rise in blood sugar and blood pressure due to the trauma, I wasn't fit to drive the next day and we ended up leaving a day later. 

So much of the pleasure I take in this event is visiting with old friends. There are three of us members who attended the Santa Fe convention in 1982: Loren Estleman, Preston Lewis, and myself. That's a long time to be devoted to an organization. 

This year I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Quintard Taylor receive the cherished Wister Award. It's given to an individual who has made a signicant contribution to the literature of the West over their lifetime. Not only has Dr. Taylor written an avalance of books and articles about the West, he also founded a website, with an amazing 10,000 pages created by over 1,000 academics and independent researchers. It's an amazing resource! 

Dr. Quintard Taylor

No session is complete without our wonderful Roundup editor, Johnny D. Boggs

This is nearly the only time I dress Western

And here's Angela:

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Book Contests and Mob Hits for Uncle Sam

 Earlier this week, a fellow writer shared that a couple of writer organizations were asking for book contest judges. Was I interested? No, because I knew what I would be getting into.

Years back, I was a judge for best novel contests by the Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers. I did so in the spirit that I was serving the writing community. My intention was that after I received each entry, I would give to it the same attention as did the author and publisher, aware of the hopes and earnest work each book represented. At first the books trickled into my home, welcome as lost children. Then more and more arrived, to be stacked in ever taller piles all over my house. The torrent of books didn't stop. I felt like the Sorcerer's Apprentice.  

Then the hard part...reading all those novels. I empathized with literary agents and editors who must slog through a daily flood of manuscripts. There was no physical way I could read every book within the allotted time. To get through the stacks of entries I had to rely on the dictum: "You have to grab me in the first five pages."

Certainly, each book had been lovingly written and professionally edited. The story lines tight. The characters interesting. The world-building well done. And yet, whether I continued past the opening scene and the inciting incident was purely subjective. You either had me or you didn't. 

The contest rules prohibited us judges from communicating about our assignments until the end when we compared our top ten lists. Interestingly, from our picks of the finalists, every one of us had five of the same titles. So as subjective as the process was, it worked in selecting what we all considered as the best novels.


For the last decade, besides penning my own stories, I've worked as a ghost writer. The gig has partnered me with a lot of great people and their wonderful stories.

One of my favorite projects was John Mattia's memoir, Always Forward, his account of growing up in a corrupt and violent Detroit and the enduring painful memories that experience had imprinted upon his life. As a young teenager, he was banished from home in the middle of a blizzard, forced to take care of himself and his younger sister. He dealt drugs and carried a gun for protection, surviving as a street hustler. Living fast and loose until he realized that this career path would land him in prison or an early grave. He decided that the rigorous discipline as a Marine infantryman would deliver the kind of sustaining challenge he needed. Because of his expert marksmanship, he was selected for Scout Sniper training. His deployments with the Fleet Marine Force included a tour in Somalia and this was where he first used his sniper skills. He and his team buddy were given a Mission Impossible-style dossier on the target, a Mogadishu warlord with deep ties in the international black market. Much of the intel came from vengeful locals eager to settle scores. Mattia and his teammate set up their Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle in an abandoned bakery and waited for the warlord and his entourage to arrive at a neighborhood barbershop. When the warlord stepped back out after getting his haircut, Mattia dropped him. I told Mattia, "Shooting a man leaving a barbershop, that sounded like a mob hit." Mattia replied, "It was. A mob hit for Uncle Sam."

Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Mystery Quest

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

Evil is done

The hero goes on a quest to right the wrong.

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

The hero triumphs, and balance is restored.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2024

Is Coffee a Necessity for Creative Writing?

 By Thomas Kies

I’m hard at work on a new book (almost 240 pages into it) and I’m really excited with it.  It’s dark but not terribly violent and the protagonist, while professing his decency, makes decisions that could be considered borderline illicit. 

But what I’ve discovered is that the characters are drinking a hell of a lot of coffee.  So, I’m wondering, is it because I drink a hell of a lot of coffee? Admittedly, I feel the need for a hot cup on the table next to me as I write. I like the taste of it.  I enjoy the feel of the warmth of the cup in my hands…even on a hot day.  And yes, I like the addictive kick it gives me. 

My wife recently drove to Tupelo, Mississippi, to meet with her brother.  He lives in Texas and Tupelo is dead center between where we live and where he lives.  Tupelo also happens to be the birthplace of Elvis Presley.  So, Cindy, knowing I’m a coffee geek, brought me home something I don’t have—a coffee mug emblazoned with an image of the king with a tiny guitar serving as the handle.  

I began to wonder if other writers are coffee geeks.  I’ve read that a lot of writers work on their craft in coffee shops (something I’ve never been able to master---too many distractions).  But do they actually need the caffeine to be creative?  I found a few quotes that seem to confirm, coffee has its place in literary society.

"Where do you get inspiration for your books? I tell myself I can’t have another cup of coffee till I thought of an idea." — Douglas Adams 

"It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity. I bet this kind of thing does not happen to heroin addicts." — Dave Barry 

"I could settle down into a state of equable low spirits, and resign myself to coffee." — Charles Dickens. 

 "Reading in bed can be heaven, assuming you can get just the right amount of light on the page and aren't prone to spilling your coffee or cognac on the sheets." — Stephen King. 

"Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all." — David Lynch. 

"Don’t look at me in that tone of voice." — Dorothy Parker (on having to interact with people before she's had coffee).  

"I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee." — Flash Rosenberg. 

"Coffee is a lot more than just a drink. It’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself." — Gertrude Stein.

"The best maxim I know in this life is, to drink your coffee when you can, and when you cannot, to be easy without it." — Jonathan Swift. 

So, get yourself a cup of your favorite brew, sit down in front of your laptop, and continue writing. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Scams That Target Writers

by Sybil Johnson


It never ceases to amaze me how many people try to take advantage of others with various kinds of scams. If only they used the time they spent on them for something more productive. But then, of course, that means fewer possibilities for crime fiction, doesn't it? 

It seems I hear every day of yet another scam to separate people from their money. Writers are often targets. I subscribe to the WriterBeware blog, which alerts me to scams that are new or have resurfaced.

Here are 3 of the scams that are targeting writers:

Book-to-Film Scam 

According to Writer Beware, this one surfaces and resurfaces. A lot of writers would love to see their book made into a movie or TV show, but few know how this comes about.

The scam starts out with a solicitation email from some company saying they’re interested in making your book into a movie. You just need to submit a screenplay. Of course, most writers don’t have a screenplay handy. In that case, there’s a solution! They’ll pass you off to a company that will, for a fee of course, create the screenplay for you. And that’s where they get their money. 

Writer Beware has a post written by Jeanne Veilette Bowerman on How a Book Really Becomes a Movie. Understanding that will help you avoid such scams.

Book Licensing 

An author will get an email from a scammer saying it’s necessary for an author to have a “book license” in order for their book to be published or re-published. This is, of course, incorrect. From the blog post: “As the copyright owner of your work (which you are, by law, from the moment you write down the words), you have the power to grant licenses for publication, but you do not have to obtain any kind of license or permission in order to do so. By re-framing licensing as something authors have to get, rather than something they are empowered to give, scammers turn the reality of licensing on its head.”

Impersonation of Reputable Movie Production Companies, Literary Agents, Organizations... 

This blog post has a list of reputable people/companies who have been impersonated. It’s quite long. Makes me rather sad. The post also has a list of things you can do to verify if an email you’ve received is legitimate or not. Generally, unsolicited emails aren’t legitimate, but sometimes... 

I’m sure there are a lot of other scams. It’s always good to do your homework before acting on anything you receive. Beware, writer, beware.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Not-So-Good Old Days

 Donis here. It's summer again in Phoenix, Arizona, and we are forecast to reach 113º F  today. Time for the first of my annual "it's way hot here" posts. Since it's early in the season, you may look forward to at least one more paean to heat before the fall.

Every we denizens of the Phoenix metro area are beginning to receive multiple warnings about staying outside too long. Drink lots of water, even if you’re not thirsty. Wear sunscreen even if you’re just going outside to pick up the newspaper. NEVER leave a kid or dog in the car for even a minute. Watch your children around water. Excellent advice. It’s nice to know that the city is looking out for you.

And are they ever! In fact, the city of Tempe, where I live, recently made it illegal to smoke in the car when there is a child on board. It is also illegal to drive in town without wearing a seat belt. I applaud the sentiment. However, when I read about the smoking ordinance, I immediately remembered the road trip my family made from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Miami, Florida, to visit my aunt in 1962. My parents smoked in the car, you’d better believe it. They smoked everywhere. We made the trip to Miami enveloped in a miasma of second-hand carcinogens. My then two-year-old sister spent most of the trip lying on the shelf between the back seat and the rear window, watching the scenery go by. My parents thought that was dandy, since it kept her quiet and amused. The rest of the time she rode on my mother’s lap or played around on the floor of the back seat. There were six of us in car*: My parents, three kids, and my grandmother. Nobody wore a seat belt. There were no seat belts in cars at the time, unless you were an Indy driver. And forget about child restraint seats.

Of course the car was built of industrial-strength steel and probably could have survived being stepped on by Godzilla. There is a scene in the movie “The Aviator” in which Howard Hughes’s sedan is broadsided by another car driven by his teenage paramour, Faith Domergue. Then she backs up and rams him again, several times. His car isn't even scratched. Up until the 1970s, cars were tougher, even if they did only get 7 miles to a gallon of gas and leave a yellow haze in the air wherever they went.

I don’t want to sound like someone who reminisces about how much better it was when kids walked ten miles in the snow to school. It wasn't! It’s just that childhood was much different once-upon-a-time. It would have been better if I had been wearing a helmet and pads when I crashed my bike into our mailbox at ninety miles an hour and ended up with my skin half scraped off and bruises all over my body. I do wonder if it would not be better for children to have a bit more  unsupervised freedom to roam, to have the opportunity to figure out life-problems on their own. The brouhaha about the parents in New York who were threatened with arrest because they let their kids go to the park alone strikes me as overkill.

And yet, if I had young children right now, would I let them wander about on their own? Probably not. But what delicious freedom it was to be shooed out of the house after school to play in the street or in a vacant lot with your siblings and friends. I particularly enjoyed playing in a drainage culvert one street over from my house. Then at about six o’clock, my mother—and every other mother in the neighborhood—would come out onto the front porch and holler out our names one by one and we’d run home for supper.

I’m not saying it was better. I’m just saying.


*The car was a 1962 Chevrolet sedan. My dad bought a new car every two years. It was as big as one of those new-fangled tiny houses and had plenty of room for all of us.

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

When is enough not enough?

 In my last post, I asked the question of when  writer ought to quit. Before the reviewers start searching for tactful ways to say "pretty  good for the old dear"? Before you run out of original ideas and start rehashing old storylines, possibly without even remembering them? Before you need a whole sheaf of post-it notes to remember where you are and what came before, who your characters are, etc.?

It was, I realize, rather a downer of a post, perhaps reflecting my mood at the time. Tired and drained from putting the latest book to bed and wondering whether I want to start over again. I did mention that without something to write next, I felt adrift and unsure how to fill my time. (Which is actually not that hard, I have since discovered. Summer, the garden, the cottage, reconnecting with friends on restaurant patios).

So this post is about all the reasons not to quit. Sybil has already alluded to many of them. There are many ways to fulfil the insistent writing urge without committing to an onerous book-a-year deadline. Without worrying whether you're rehashing old plot lines. I've always been published by traditional publishers, and although there are many other options open to writers today, I have no wish to get into the publishing business. I love to write, I don't love the promotion and the hustling. Some people do and are good at it, and some people like the control over the work and the process that self-publishing allows. I don't, but I've had been lucky to have publishers who shared my vision of my books and gave me pretty free rein over the creative part. Any suggested substantive edits almost always improved the book.

But as Sybil suggests, I could write a different type of book, or a novella or short story, both of which are less of a time commitment. I could - gasp - leave crime fiction completely and write a biography or memoir (not mine!). I have in fact such a project in mind, one that I've been collecting material on for years but never had the time to write. I could buckle down and start writing it.

But one of the main things that draws me back to crime writing has less to do with plot lines and more to do with community. Mystery writers are a community, connecting online through social media and chats and Zoom gatherings as well as in person at book events, signings, readings, conferences, and the like. We may only see each other once a year but each time we meet as old friends sharing a passion for our crazy genre. It's been one of the unexpected pleasures of becoming a writer. I've made so many friends, and feel so at home in the company of crime writers. Who else wants to discuss the most undetectable poison or the appearance of bones buried years in the back garden? I have friends spread across the country, and indeed beyond. We are supportive of one another, share one another's triumphs and commiserate with one another in the bar over bad reviews and dismal mall signings.

Besides the community of writers, which would be hard to give up, there are also the good friends I have made over the years with readers, librarians, booksellers, and book club members, many of whom have become friends too.

So who know? Without the pressure of a deadline or contract, I may begin to toy with a short story or even a standalone that may take me a couple of years and a ton of post-it notes to perfect, but don't count the "old dear" out yet!

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Fried Chicken

 by Charlotte Hinger

 I found this really great cartoon in The New Yorker. It was perfect for my Type M post. I really wanted to use it. It featured this chicken and the ridiculous efforts a certain social media company  (you can bet it will remain nameless) uses to win users to their network

I can't use it. People who know what they are doing (not me) say that nothing will get one sued faster than copying images without permission. What's really sad is after many years I have mastered the knock of inserting pictures into blogs. Some of my friends mastered the art at the very beginning. They just went plink with their index finger and voila--witty entries appeared that were illustrated.

The cartoon was so applicable to what's on my mind: marketing. I can't use the cartoon, but I can tell you what it was about. A guy is walking down a hotel corridor carrying a chicken, knocking on each door, telling each occupant that he would like like for them to join his professional network.

I thought it was hilarious because it summed up the sheer looniness of much of today's marketing efforts. The number of books being published every year is astronomical. Far too many for the market to absorb. The industry counts as a book a work that has an International Standard Book Number. No doubt there are many more that do not have this number. 

The whole purpose of marketing is to get a book into the hands of persons who might want to read it. One of the surest ways to do this is to win an award given to writers in that genre. I always read the Edgar winners and the finalists. I read the winners of Western Writers of America Spur Award. I read the Pulitzer prize winners for fiction and some of the finalists. There are many other contests that interest me.

Another sure way to focus attention on a book is through reviews. Unfortunately, the publications with the most influence (New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and BookList) receive so many books in a week that it's difficult to make the cut. The New York Times receives about 1000 books a week. Of course, there's a substanial increase in sales of a title when it's featured. 

Sadly, with the winnowing of small town or regional newspapers there are fewer publications that try to call attention to local authors or novels that have something to say about issues in that locale. 

Marketing is an important part of the business. I've always thought those of us who have had the good fortune to be traditionally published have a duty to our publishers to do our best to sell our books. 

There's always someone waiting in the wings who would be tickled plumb to death to take our place!