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!


Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Forging Your Own Writing Path

 by Sybil Johnson

I found Barbara’s post last Wednesday (“When is enough enough?”) thought-provoking. As writers we get so caught up in what we should be doing that we sometimes forget to ask what is right for us at this moment in our lives.

The x-book deal with a traditional publisher still seems to be the gold standard for writers. But it requires writing at least one book a year or 8 or 9 months, depending on the publisher. Plus there’s the publicity and making sure your website is updated... I don’t think non-writers realize how exhausting it all can be. It’s not for everyone.

When my first book came out ten years ago, I knew I wanted to be traditionally published. Self-publishing wasn’t as acceptable a thing to do as it is today. I also wanted to give the 3-book deal thing a try. In some ways it was harder than I expected. In some ways easier. It was the right thing for me to do at the time. 

At the moment, I’m struggling a little bit with what’s right for me now. I managed to self-publish a book, which I’m quite proud of doing, but I don’t know that’s what I want for my future. At least not with a new series. Right now I’ve been writing some short stories and trying my hand at writing a historical. 

I think every writer has to figure out what’s important to them. I don’t think it has to be necessarily “I’ll stop writing completely”. (Unless, of course, this is what you want.) Maybe turning to writing short stories is what’s good for you now. Maybe changing the kind of book you write is the best thing. Maybe taking a long break from writing is what you need. Maybe self-publishing is the route you want to take. Maybe all of the above. 

Writers need to forge their own writing paths. Whatever that looks like.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Final Stretch and Freebies

 I've posted before about my role as the jefe editor for Ramas y Raices: The Best of CALMA, an anthology from the Colorado Alliance of Latino Mentors and Authors. The project started in early 2022, and now, at last, we're in the final stretch to the finish line. However, it's not a time to coast as plenty remains so that the book launch goes off without any problems. Approaching this completion, I fidgeted for many nights, tormenting myself with disaster scenarios.

Final manuscript. Check. And rechecked. Checked again.

Cover: Ready for Amazon and IngramSpark. Check.

Advanced Reading Copies ordered and reviewed. Check.

Press releases sent out. Check.

And on and on.

Fortunately, I wasn't alone as my editorial staff and the CALMA Executive Board all helped with the heavy lifting. This is the third anthology I've honchoed and the last, I promise.

The Freebies.

HarperCollins, the first publisher of my Felix Gomez detective-vampire series, is offering books 1-3 for free as eBooks on Kindle Unlimited (through June 30, 2024). Get yours here:


Book 1





Book 2






Book 3

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

When is enough enough?

 How does a writer know when to quit? How many books are enough? How long a series is too long? These are questions I've been grappling recently, especially since my recent illness reminded me I will not have boundless energy and perfect health indefinitely. I have passed the three-quarter century mark and although I always had the energy and health of someone ten years younger, I am now aware anything can happen.

Coming rather late to the game, I published my first Inspector Green novel in 2000, and my twelfth will come out in 2025. In between I've written five Amanda Doucette novels and four Cedric I'Toole, for a grand total of twenty-one books. That averages close to one book a year, which sounds impressive until one compares it to other highly productive writers, who  average at least a book or two a year thirty or forty years. I'm in awe and can't imagine coming up with that many powerful, interesting stories.

Yet I've written all my life just because, and now that my latest book is in the production phase, I find myself twiddling my thumbs and wondering what to do with myself during those long hours that would have been devoted to writing the next book. A writer writes, the urge never dies. The stories don't stop spinning in our heads just because we don't have a contract deadline hanging over our heads. 

But there are some cautions. No writer wants to read a review saying they should have quit while they were still at the top of their game.  Or that this latest effort is not up to their previous standards, or that it is just a rehashing of old story lines. How many original plots can we think up? How can we ensure the stories remain fresh and compelling. This gets harder and harder the more books we write. Furthermore, writing a novel requires a lot of cognitive acuity, to find the perfect word and phrase, to juggle plot ideas and keep track of all the character and details in the book. I'm sure it's extremely good for staving off demential. But as we age, the words comes more reluctantly, the perfect phrase eludes us, and the memory for what we've written and what should come next becomes more fickle. The memory does return, the words do fall into place, but it takes more time and effort and more jotted notes to keep us on track. How will we know if the final product measures up or reveals our failings?

Several of my writer friends of similar age have already stopped writing, but others are still carrying on well into their eighties. We're all different, and for some the passion to write was no longer stronger than the urge to travel, to spend time with grandchildren, and to explore new interests. I already feel the urge to spend more time doing other fun things, because life is short to spend it all chained to a laptop. 

I love series, and when I find one I like, I tend to read all the books in it. I've worked my way through a number of British crime series that I missed in my earlier explorations, and am catching up on series which have grown since I last read the author. Currently I am devouring Val McDermid. Val has an astonishing number of books in several series and has produced one a year since the 1990s. Some of her series are long and some (so far) relatively short. There are various reasons for ending a series, some due to publisher choice and others the author's wish to try something new, which was why I started the Amanda Doucette series. Fresh characters, setting, and style of story all lead to new ideas and new directions. I did return to Inspector Green recently but I couldn't imagine writing twenty-one Green books in a row. Besides getting bored, I would be afraid I was telling the same story over again.

At some point, before that happens, and before my mind is no longer agile enough to produce top-quality work, I hope I know when to quit.  


Tuesday, May 21, 2024

What Happened Was...

 by Charlotte Hinger

A couple of week ago I started a semi-witty post about chickens. I wrote it at night which is always a mistake and intended to publish it the next morning. Then life intervened and I was swamped with the consequences of running off to North Carolina and ignoring my slush pile. 

I went to Merlefest, a fabulous bluegrass festival in honor of the late Doc Watson, a legendary guitarist, who tragically lost his son, Merle over 30 years ago. This was an anniversary visit for me. I attended the third festival which at that time was on a hill side and very low key as concerts go. My daughter, Michele, was pregnant with my granddaughter, Audrey. It rained constantly. I thought we all were going to drown. 

The concert is huge now and definitely a money maker for all the vendors and performers. There are many stages and it lasted four days.

But what stood out the most to me at the first concert I attended in 1991 was the presence of Doc Watson himself and his eerie hearing. The participants were in awe of that man. They should have been. The man won seven Grammy's and he was absolutely one of the best flat guitar pickers in the whole universe. 

He was blind from the time he was two. I don't know if his extraordinary hearing developed from being deprived from losing his sight. The memorial concert honoring his son, Merle, began in 1988. But I do remember Doc stopping a performance a couple of times to say to the sound technician, "that's just a little too bright there, son." 

This experience inspired my short story, "The Family Rose," first published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was subsequently republished in two anthologies, Murder to Music and Death on the Veranduh. It's about a broken-down country western singer who tries to manipulate Doc Watson's hearing. 

My beloved niece, Linda Northey, and her husband, Kevin, joined the rest of the family at the concert and the following day I went to Beauport and stayed at my daughter's coast house. I intended to work like a demon and do everything I could online to publicize my upcoming novel, Mary's Place, but I fizzled out. 

Actually, I don't know what happens when I'm away from my home setting. The muse just takes a seat in her rocking chair on the front porch and watches the ships sail by. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

How Insulting! And Loving It!

 Have you ever been in a heated conversation and, when it was over and you had a chance to think about it, wished you could go back and throw out a piercing verbal barb?  Something that would draw imaginary blood and dazzle your argumentative opponent at the same time?

Me too.  I just never think that fast. Thank heavens, when we write dialogue, we can always go back and amend what we’ve written to make it sound sharper and more intelligent.

If only real life was like that.  In the meantime, I offer some of the best insults ever uttered.  If only I’d thought of them.

-"He had delusions of adequacy.” Walter Kerr

-"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”- Winston Churchill

-"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure. - Clarence Darrow

-"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”-William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

-"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

-"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it.” - Moses Hadas

-"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” - Mark Twain

-"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” -George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

-"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one.” - Winston Churchill, in response

-"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial.” - Irvin S. Cobb

-"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up. - Paul Keating

-"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.” - Forrest Tucker

-"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” - Mae West

-"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” - Oscar Wilde 

-"He has Van Gogh's ear for music.” - Billy Wilder

-"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But I'm afraid this wasn't it.” - Groucho Marx

-The exchange between Winston Churchill & Lady Astor: She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison." He said, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

-"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." - Abraham Lincoln

Let me know if you have any favorites that I don’t know about.  Happy writing!!

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Never Ending WIP

I have been incredibly crabby over the past couple of weeks. I don’t know quite what to blame it on. Sometimes these moods just come and go like the tide. Part of it may be the fact that our air quality here in the Phoenix area has been horrible, and high ozone has always done a number on my head. Two solid weeks of low grade headache would make anybody crabby. I also might blame the mood on my never-ending WIP. I made a bet with my friend Hannah Dennison that we'd finish our new books by this coming August, and every day I think, this is the day I’m going to finish. And every day, the damn ending keeps getting farther and farther away. Every minute I spend doing something other than writing causes me great anxiety.

But those bills have to be paid and meals made and doctor appointments kept and meetings attended. The state of my house is beginning to depress me. I manage to keep things clean and tidy enough to forestall the Department of Health, but that’s about it. My long-suffering husband bought me a Hurricane Power Scrubber a couple of days ago (at my request. It wasn’t a clueless anniversary present or anything like that). I thought that having a power scrubber would make short work of cleaning the shower, so I was all excited to give it a try. The instructions say that you have to charge the scrubber for 24 hours before the first use, which I did. Then I rushed into the bathroom, I clicked on the appropriate scrubber head, gave it a couple of test whirls, lowered it to the shower floor, and…nothing. It seems our power scrubber is a dud.

I was immediately plunged into unreasonable despair. Sometimes it feels like nothing is easy. Why oh why couldn’t I at least be able to clean my shower without it being an ordeal? Don will return it tomorrow (he has one of those pesky doctor appointments in a couple of hours, which always makes me a bit nervous), and I hope he’ll be able to exchange it for one that works.

I’m sure that once I finish this book and get it off my hands, I’ll feel better. When I re-read parts of the manuscript, I’m pleased with the way the book is shaping up. When I next write to you, Dear Reader, I anticipate that the air will have cleared, Don will have gotten a good report from the cardiologist, the book will be done or nearly so, and my shower will be sparkly clean. I live in eternal hope. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. Isn't there?

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Malice Domestic 2024 Recap

 by Sybil Johnson

In my last post, I talked about the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. A few days after that event, I headed to Maryland for Malice Domestic.

I usually arrive late in the day on Wednesday. This gives me Thursday to adjust to the 3 hour time change and do a little sightseeing. This year we went to the zoo and the National Postal Museum, which is across the street from Union Station. The Postal Museum is part of the Smithsonian so it’s free. This one didn’t require a timed ticket like some of the museums so we just walked in. We took a 1-hour guided tour, which was very good. Our guide was a retired history teacher. He described the museum as history through stamps, an apt description. I highly recommend it.

Friday it was time for Malice! As usual, it was great fun. I saw people I hadn’t seen in a while, learned about new books, met new people. I was on a panel titled “Love and Murder: ‘Rom-Cozies’”. Besides me, panelists were Barbara Barrett (moderator), Misty Simon, Sally Handley and Jackie Layton. As you can tell from this picture, we had a great time. Probably the most fun I’ve had on a panel so far.


I didn’t get in the Go Round this year, but I sat and listened to the authors who did. Even though this is tiring, even from a listener’s standpoint, I do enjoy it. It’s interesting to see how people describe their books in 2 minutes. One author wrote a poem about the book, which was quite fun to listen to. Several of them did flashcards so people could see their names and other relevant information since it’s sometimes hard to hear in the room. Another author had everyone at the table sign their copy of the book so she’d have a memento of the event.

I attended the Agatha Awards banquet. Not everyone does. For me, it’s less about seeing who wins and more about the conversation at the table I’m seated at. I’ve met a lot of interesting people and enjoyed great conversations that I wouldn’t have if I’d skipped the banquet. It’s one of my favorite parts of Malice, which is odd since I’m not the most outgoing person.

Agatha Award winners: 

Best Contemporary Novel: The Weekend Retreat by Tara Laskowski (for the first time I know every person who was nominated) 

Best Historical Novel: The Mistress of Bhatia House by Sujata Massey 

Best First Novel: Crime and Parchment by Daphne Silver 

Best Short Story: “Ticket to Ride”, Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski, Happiness is a Warm Gun 

Best Children’s/YA Mystery: The Sasquatch of Hawthorne Elementary by K.B. Jackson 

Best Non-Fiction: Finders: Justice, Faith and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction by Anjiili Babbar 

Next year LATFOB and Malice are going to be on the same weekend so I will have to decide which to attend. I’ll probably go to Malice since I enjoy it so much. Also, Lucy Worsley will be there getting the Poirot Award. I love her! And my friend, Gigi Pandian, will be Toastmaster.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

The blurb industry

 How time flies! How can I already be late for my Type M post? Today I want to comment on what I see is an increasing trend in publishing. Review space in credible, respected publications such as  newspapers has been declining for years along with the number and size of those publications. Many have closed their review columns or disappeared altogether. They are being replaced by a plethora of "common man" reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other websites and blogs, usually written by regular readers but often with no training of skill in the art of reviewing. Amazon in particular uses an algorithm that increases the visibility of a book based on how many reviews it has, so authors are flooding social media begging people to leave reviews, however brief and ill-informed. Numbers fuel sales, not quality. 

Publishers are also trying to hype their new releases and in the "good old days" used to print short, punchy  quotes from respected reviewers on the book jacket. In the absence of those, publishers are now leaning on fellow authors to create pithy quotes to put on the book jacket. If Stephen King likes the book, after all, it must be good.

In my experience, the publisher doesn't find these willing blurbers themselves, but asks the author to find authors willing to provide a blurb for their book. This practice has been going on since I published my first Inspector Green novel nearly twenty-five years ago. I was asked by my publisher to get a quote or two from fellow writers. The challenge is that the blurb should be by a well-known and respected writer (at least better known than you), writing in a similar genre as you.  Feeling foolish and presumptuous, I chose a couple of writers who knew my work. Luckily they agreed and provided great blurbs, both of which appeared on the cover. For my next books, the publisher pulled blurbs from reviews, and it was not until quite recently that I was again asked to procure blurbs from writers. Sometimes I complied and other times I ignored the request. I only wanted to approach writers who are not only well known but also personal friends writing in a similar style. I never approached the same writer twice, and I always felt it was an imposition. I also only approached one writer for each book.

As my career progressed, I began to get more and more requests for blurbs myself. Sometimes the request was by a personal friend in the writing community, but as this trend continued, I found the connections more and more tenuous. For example, a social media friend whom I had never met at any event and with whom I'd never had a conversation. I take these requests seriously. I want to support my fellow authors and I know the uncomfortable position they have been put in by their publisher, who is essentially downloading their publicity job onto the backs of their authors, much as they do all the social media promotion. But some of these requests come from authors who write very different genres than me, such as speculative or historical crime fiction. Some authors don't say why they chose me or even mention that they read my books. No personal connection.

When I accept a request, it's with the caveat that I will only write the blurb if I feel I can comment on it positively, which is awkward but necessary. It's my integrity on the line. I can't say wonderful things about a book I thought was poorly written. Then I read the entire book, which takes time from my own writing commitments, and I take the time to craft an original, catchy blurb that captures some of the book's strength. Writing a good blurb is a skill and it takes time.

What do I get out of it in return for the work put in? Beyond helping a fellow writer, nothing except my name underneath a couple of lines of text on the cover. Once again, the author is "donating" their time in exchange for exposure. Increasingly doing the job that the publisher has kicked down the food chain. 

But what is happening more and more often now is that authors in search of blurbs are using a scattershot approach rather than a carefully thought out choice of who to approach. They are requesting multiple blurbs, some from authors they may barely know, and presumably the publisher is picking only the ones they like best. Rather than appearing on the cover, the multiple blurbs are showing up on social media posts, websites, and promotional material, or on a whole page of blurbs inside the book. Free advertising copy at the expense of the author.

I'm not sure how other authors feel about doing blurbs, so I can't speak for them, but things have reached the point where I do feel that authors are being used. No one in this industry is making a lot of money, from publishers on down, but authors eager to get their book published and keep their publisher happy are being asked to do jobs that rightly belong to the in-house publicists, who are probably poorly paid and spread far too thin. It's a model that we need to rethink? Do blurbs really accomplish anything? Do quotes from reviews, even amateur ones, work just as well? What are others' experiences with this practice? In the meantime, I must learn to say no.

Thursday, May 02, 2024

Never Shoot the Dog

When all the brouhaha first arose concerning a most unfortunate incident perpetrated by a certain Governor of South Dakota, one of my first thoughts (aside from horror) was that this woman has never heard one of the first rules a fiction writer learns: If you don't want to lose your readers' good opinion of you and your characters, never kill a dog in your novel.

There are exceptions, as long as the death of said canine is the catalyst for a revenge quest by the protagonist. I offer as an example Keanu Reeves' reaction to the demise of his dog in the movie John Wick. I used a somewhat similar device in one of my own novels, The Sky Took Him. In that book, an explosion killed two people and a dog, and it was the death of the dog that drove the survivor to a frenzy. I was a little afraid to kill the poor animal for fear of readers' reactions, more so than the two grown men, but I suppose I got away with it because the perpetrator got his in the end.

Said incident also made me think about my grandparents, who were subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from the 1910s until the mid '60s. Besides crops, my grandfather raised hogs and cattle, and my grandmother had a large chicken yard. They butchered, dressed, preserved, and ate animals all the time.  Wild dogs often ran in packs out in the country and raided farmers' coops and killed calves, and I do know for certain farmers would shoot at least the pack leader if they could.

HOWEVER, my grandpa always had a dog of his own, and often two, and loved them like children. In fact, he loved all animals and would not stand to see any suffer. Even the ones who were being raised for meat. Believe me, they lived good lives with him until butchering time. And even then, he was adamant that the animal be killed quickly and without fear. He once beat up a man he saw mistreating a horse. 

I only know of one incident where Grandpa shot a dog. I was there when it happened. The dog was my grandfather's beloved old mutt Butch, who had been Grandpa's companion for as long as I could remember. Old Butch finally went blind and deaf, but Grandpa took good care of him just the same, until the dog wandered off into the woods and was lost for over a week. My family happened to be visiting when Old Butch found his way home, tottering into the yard half starved and barely able to stand. Grandpa sat on the porch steps for a long time hugging that dog. He gave him food and water, and while the dog was eating, he went into the house and came out with a pistol. He waited until Butch was full and satisfied, then picked him up and carried him off into the woods. He was gone for a long time.

He came back alone.

Now, if you have to shoot a dog, that's a reason I can live with.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books 2024

 by Sybil Johnson

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held April 20-21 on the main campus of the University of Southern California. I attended on Saturday where I wandered around a bit before signing at the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles booth. I met a lot of great people including current students and people who were working on writing a mystery. Also saw friends I hadn’t seen in a while. And I sold a few books, which is always a plus.

I went to USC eons ago so it’s always fun for me to do a little wandering around campus, reliving my student days. A lot of it has changed, but some of it is the same. I noticed that this time some of the elevator buttons, when lit up, show an intertwined S and C. We didn’t have anything so fancy when I went to school there!

We took the light rail to the event this year. On our way back, one of the lines (the K line) had police activity on the track ahead of us so we had to get off the train and take a bus around the activity, then get back on the train. Kudos to the Metro system for sending someone to guide us to the appropriate bus and stops. I did a bit of googling, but couldn’t find out what the issue is. We were told it involved 15 police cars, but no other details.

Here are a few pics:

One of the many crossword puzzles throughout the campus.

The fancy schmancy elevator button

Even the flowers are cardinal and gold (school colors)


Monday, April 29, 2024

Writers Gotta' Write

 By Thomas Kies

In a recent blog that’s gone viral written by Elle Griffin for the website, she refers to the time when Penguin Random House tried to buy Simon and Schuster in 2022.  The government brought a case against the merger saying that it would create a publishing monopoly and a judge ruled that the $2.2 billion acquisition could not take place. 

During the trial, a number of publishing houses and literary agencies testified, and some interesting numbers came to light. 

Ms. Griffin, in an essay that she wrote in 2020, stated, “only 268 titles sold more than 100,000 copies, and 96 percent of books sold less than 1,000 copies.”

Madeline Mcintosh, CEO of Penguin Random House US, when asked how many authors over a four-year period sold 500,000 units…she answered 50.  

The upshot of Ms. Giffin’s blog is that publishing houses gamble by buying books and paying low advances in the hopes that one of them will be that lightning in a bottle and hit it big.  The big advances are paid to celebrities like Brittney Spears and Prince Harry who have recognizable names, and the publishers feel are a comfortable bet. 

Now, admittedly, the numbers from Penguin Random House/Simon Schuster trial were meant to be depressing.  The reality is that more books are selling now than ever before.  Numbers that were tossed around in the trail were based on calendar years and not necessarily during the lifetime of the book.  It was a trial.  Isn’t everything about a trial depressing?

Books don’t go bad like vegetables or fruit.  My first book, RANDOM ROAD, continues to sell in bookstores to this day and it’s been around for seven years. Will any of my books make me rich?  Nah…not in money.  

Don’t kid yourself, getting published the traditional way is still hard.  Finding an agent, then finding a publisher, then getting bookshelf space and a place in libraries, getting the marketing message out…it’s all a slog. And even when you do, there’s no guarantee about anything.

Bottomline, publishing is a business.  They’re not in it to lose money, although, don’t kid yourself, many books do. 

But there are many publishing platforms and I know many writers who are happy using those publishing avenues.

There’s a joy when you hold one of your own books in your hands. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when someone tells you how much they enjoyed what you’ve written.  There’s an indescribably elation when you see one of your books on the bookshelf of library or in a bookstore. 

Before I was published, I had dreams of flying to New York, being picked up at the airport in a limo, being treated to lunch, then hustled off to a standing room only book signing.  Well...that doesn't happen.  At least to most of us.   

I recall that early in my writing career, I did a book signing and one person showed up.  That keeps you humble.  But to keep perspective, Don Winslow (if you don't know him, read him...he's terrific) in one of his first book signings, had one person buy his first book.  That person happened to be the owner of the bookstore, Barbara Peters who owns the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Arizona (and was my first publisher). 

I advise the students who take my creative writing class that writers gotta write.  We do it because we love it.  We do it because we want to tell stories.  We do it because we’ve got something to say.

To paraphrase a friend of mine, a wonderful writer by the name of Jeffrey Siger, “Writing is a hard way to make a living.  But it’s a great way to make a life.”

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Never Take Our time Together For Granted

Here's a blog I was hoping I'd never have to write. Last December, Travis Heermann was in a very serious motorcycle accident, which left him in a coma. In that month's post I was going to share some thoughts about him but it sounded like I was writing a eulogy so I didn't. Now here we are.

I'm not sure when I first met Travis, ten years ago perhaps, when he showed up in our critique group. He was an exceptional writer, and like many with such talent and potential, didn't get the recognition he deserved. He was incredibly disciplined and always thoughtfully planned out his next big thing. Travis' favorite genre was high fantasy, heavy on the action and adventure. He enjoyed steampunk and most of his stories had a strong Japanese influence, reflecting his admiration of the people and the culture. In fact, he lived in Japan for a while and was conversant in the language. He also liked horror and the last major project he was working on was finding distribution for his award-winning, horror-comedy short film, Demon For Hire.

As we men get older, we find it more difficult to make friends. I considered Travis my friend. We didn't hang out that much but when we got together, our conversations were relaxed and understanding. There were topics we avoided--politics and religion, big surprise. We discussed the many facets of writing, the challenges of specific genres, and the business aspects of making a living as professional scribes. He and I worked as ghost writers for the same company. Since he liked writing action, he had an appreciation for weaponry and would on occasion, accompany me to the shooting range where we would spend a few hours blasting ammo.

He was good company, had a keen though restrained sense of humor, loved scotch and cooking--brisket and BBQ among his choice items to grill. He was an accomplished gear head and responsible for cinching tight the technical details for a podcast my critique group hosted for a while. The last time we hung out was at a Christmas party where he spent a good while showing off his new Ford 150 hybrid pickup truck. He and his wife Chanel (recently retired) had made plans to sell their home and vagabond in an Airstream trailer, in which he could work remotely and keep writing.

The following Thursday I was at a men's group in a local church. At the end of the meeting, the pastor asked us to pray for help in something in our lives. At the time, I felt blessed in that I couldn't think of anything in my life that needed prayer. Then when I got home, my girlfriend told me what had just happened to Travis. Now after four months of care, Travis has passed on.

I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil. 
JRR Tolkien

Wednesday, April 24, 2024


 Barbara here, finally. I have been AWOL from this blog for a month due to unexpected medical challenges but I am back!Albeit late and with a short post. In my last post I revealed the official title of my next Inspector Green novel (number 12: SHIPWRECKED SOULS. The book is due out in January 2025 and is currently grinding its way through the promotional and editorial phases. At the moment the manuscript is sitting on my computer with edits from the my editor, all done these days electronically with the track changes feature. My first few Inspector Green  books were printed off and mailed to the publisher where the editor crossed out, scribbled in the margins, and stuck various coloured post-it notes that stuck out of the manuscript like the spikes of a stegosaurus. This unwieldy piles of paper was then mailed back to me and I made the adjustments on my computer copy, printed it out, and mailed back again. And so it went.

In 2024, it is all so much simpler, and cheaper. I am slowly working my way through the queries, comments, and suggestions, but it has beeen slow and intermittent because of my health issues and frequent medical appointments. But I'll get there!

Here's the teaser. The death of an elderly woman from Ukraine leads Green on an emotional journey into his own past, where he makes a startling discovery.

And now, without further ado, here is the proposed cover, designed by the talented Laura Boyle and her team at Dundurn Press. I think it looks mysterious, sinister, and perfect.

Now we wait.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Podcasts, Podcasts, Podcasts

 by Sybil Johnson

I’ve written a couple posts before about some of the podcasts I’ve listened to over the last few years. I admit that I haven’t listened to as many lately as I used to, but I’m starting to get back into it. 

Podcasts come and go. The History This Week one has finished its run, unfortunately. I hope it comes back some day since I really enjoyed it. The Behind the Page Eli Marks podcast is still going strong. I like the books by John Gaspard so I’ve been enjoying the interviews he’s done with magicians. Such a different world than the one I inhabit!

Here are some podcasts I’ve run across recently: 

Criminalia – I haven’t sampled this one yet, but I found out about it because I read the book “The League of Lady Poisoners” which mentioned that there was an associated podcast. The episodes related to the book are pretty far back in this podcast’s history, but there are also a lot of other episodes that sound interesting.

History On Trial – I heard about this one because the podcast host was a contestant on Jeopardy! not long ago and she mentioned it. I thought it sounded interesting. So far I’ve listened to 2 episodes about trials that shaped the U.S. in some way, but which I was unaware of.

Writing Criminals – This is a podcast recently started by the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. Episodes are recordings of SinC/LA chapter meetings. This is great for me since I often can’t get to the meetings for various reasons. If you want to see the interviews, instead, you can go to SinC/LA’s YouTube channel. 

Chatting Cozies – This is an interview podcast with host Angela Maria Hart of the Cozy Mystery Book Club. Interviews are with cozy authors.

Putting together a podcast seems like a difficult thing to me, probably largely because I have no idea what’s involved. I do know that some of it involves writing so I googled “writing a podcast” and came up with this interesting article on doing just that:

If I did a podcast I have absolutely no idea what topic it would be on. Have any of you ever put together one or thought about it?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

More About Curses

 by Charlotte Hinger

Both Thomas and Donis have recent posts about cursing. According to the guidelines for submissions for the Will Rogers Medallion men didn't cuss around ladies before 1962. Is that a fact?

Yes, it's true in a general sense and ladies never used foul language.

Believe it not, the old standards are making a feeble return. 

Gary Goldstein, (the western editor at Forge) recently said that he does a global search for the "f" word and the "s" word because Walmart won't stock the books if such language is contained within. He has three pages of acceptable substitutes to suggest to the authors. 

I was shocked when he said this. Then I noticed that Grisham never uses vulgar language and Baldacci rarely does. And oh, to have their sales!

Yet we are privy to language every day on the screen and in ordinary conversation that our mother's would never have uttered and men only used in the presence of other men. 

I think I only heard my mother say "damn" about ten times when I was growing up. When a gentile person cusses it has an enormous impact. 

Her favorite express was "oh for p-i-t-y sake." She had a way of drawing out "pity" that expressed her contempt for an idea or a person's behavior. Another usage was "Ye gods and little fishes." That conveyed absolute contempt. Beyond contemplation even. Too foolish to even discuss. 

I gave a lot of thought to language when I did the final draft of my upcoming historical novel. One of my characters, my old banker cusses a lot. He takes the Lord's name in vain when he's trying to persuade his best friend, Iron Barrett, to help him save his bank, but he wouldn't use these words in conversation with Iron's wife or his daughter. 

Some prettied-up written substitutes for spoken language sound silly. "You deceitful villain" in place of "you lying bastard" simply doesn't have the same impact. 

But there's workarounds. Iron and Mary's daughter-in-law uses words that Mary knows would "make her mother reach for a bar of soap." 

On the other hand, sometimes we simply have to use words that are realistic. Sales be damned. It's a matter of integrity. 

Believe me, when a very old man is in danger of losing a bank that's been passed down for 100 years, he does not say "Ah, shucks."

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Colorful Language

Oh, dear me. I have company coming. I have been cleaning like a madwoman and have fallen so far behind on everything writerly. I missed my last scheduled Type M entry - mainly because I got a Covid booster the day before and as usual wasn't worth shooting the day after. I hope I'm not screwing up the schedule here by posting today, but I felt an irresistible urge to comment on Tom's wonderful entry on Curses, below... because I love curses.

 I love language altogether. I’ve always been fascinated by words and the mind-pictures they paint. I’m sure I come by it honestly. I've written stories since I could hold a pencil in my fist. Perhaps it's because my parents read to me from the cradle, or because I come from such a long line of tale-tellers. One of my grandmothers used to keep us fascinated for hours on end with her stories of life in the Kentucky mountains. Toward the end of my grandmother's life, one of my sisters asked her how much of what she had told us was true and she replied, "Well...some of it." So the truth is I didn't decide to become a writer. I'll quote the Achilles character in the movie "Troy"..."I didn't choose this life. I was born and this is what I am.”

My grandparents—and parents— had the most wonderful way of putting things. One grandma was born and raised in Kentucky and the others in Arkansas at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Their language  and vocabulary was absolutely Elizabethan. When Grandma went to garden over yonder, she put on her gauntlets and hunkered down to tend her “yarbs”.

Now, I of course, was desperate to get rid of my Oklahoma accent when I was young. Especially when I was traveling. My accent is not as strong as my parents’, nor was theirs as strong as their parents. My nieces and nephews sound more "standard" yet. But after years living away from my native place, I saw on a news program an interview with two young women from Tulsa. They sounded like Valley girls. I was shocked. What happened to that beautiful twang? That poetic way with words? ( That delightful Scotch-Irish combination of humor and fatalism? Oklahoma is what linguists call a “Transitional state”. My native Oklahoman husband, who comes from a different part of the state than I, has an accent that is different from mine. One thing I specifically wanted to do with the Alafair Tucker series was preserve something of a way of speaking that seems to be rapidly disappearing.

I've been known to use less than pristine epithets myself and find them extremely useful in times of stress.  In fact, a dear friend of mine who I have known since my salad days at the University of Oklahoma was at the time an extraordinarily innocent boy who on frequent occasions would curl your ears with the most astoundingly filthy curses known to man.  Because of his sweet face and gentle nature, the effect of this language was much less shocking than it was hilarious, and ever since, for good or ill,  I've had quite an affection for dirty words.

I grew up among people whose goal was to curse in the most imaginative language possible, which can really increase your vocabulary if you apply yourself.  My mother was particularly good at coming up with ways to express disapproval using only G-rated words.  One of her scariest curses was "I heap coals of fire upon him."  The words themselves weren't as frightening as her throaty growl and the curl of her lip over her eyetooth.  My father had been a Marine, and knew words that I don't understand to this day, but he had a house full of little daughters and controlled his language heroically.  He often had the pee-waddin' scared out of him and wondered what in the cat-hair was going on. 

So curse on, Tom. It's good for the soul.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Sunny for the Bunny and more


by Sybil Johnson 

Today I shall talk about a number of random topics I’ve found of interest lately. Let’s start out with Sunny for the Bunny!

  • Sunny for the Bunny – I was in Seattle last week where KOMO news weather was using the phrase “Sunny for the Bunny” to describe how nice it was going to be in the area on Easter. A different news station decided that it was going to be an egg-cellent day, but not quite egg-ceptional. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it. I flew back on Easter Sunday not expecting it to be sunny when I landed in Los Angeles because there had been several days of rainy weather before but, yes, it was Sunny for the Bunny here too! I searched to see if the phrase was trademarked or copyrighted because, well, what else do I have to do after being away from home for a week? Okay, fine, I came back with a cold and didn't feel like doing anything other than laundry and random web searches. Couldn't find anything. In any case, I love the phrase and intend to use it every year if it's applicable. 
  • April Fool’s Day – I dislike April Fool’s Day largely because I am and always have been a very gullible person. People loved fooling me when I was a kid so I pretty much wanted to hide out for the entire day. Honestly, I still do. I was watching an episode of the UK version of Ghosts and discovered that across the pond you were only allowed to fool someone until noon! I guess when April Fool’s Day got transported over here, we did the American thing and made it bigger! and better?!
  • Usedom island – I’ve been watching The Nordic Murders recently. The stories are set on an island called Usedom. Not being familiar with this particular island, I got confused when the story would move into Poland. As far as I could tell, no one drove over a bridge or got off the island in any way so I looked it up. Usedom is a Baltic island that is part of Germany, but in 1945 the eastern part of the island was assigned to Poland. Thought that was interesting.
  •  Overset – I’ve been reading some historical mysteries recently and have run across the word “overset” a number of times. I could tell that it basically means upset. I checked an American English dictionary and, yes, it’s still in there and isn’t even listed as archaic. Do any of you use “overset” in daily speech?
  • Pulchritude – I am familiar with the word pulchritude. I’ve seen it in my reading and looked it up a few times. It only dawned on me recently, though, that the word does not fit its definition of “great physical beauty and appeal”. Pulchritude does not sound very attractive to me. 
  • Toilet roll over or under? –This seems to be an ongoing debate for households. I’ve done it both ways though I favor the “over”. The patent that was granted in 1891 clearly shows the intended way is “over”. Just look at the picture. Something tells me that most people won’t care about that and the debate will rage on. Check out the patent and picture here: 

That’s it for my random thoughts.

Upcoming events for me: 

On Saturday, April 20, I will be signing at the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held on the main campus of the University of Southern California (my alma mater). My signing time is noon-2pm. The booth is a hop, skip and a jump from Tommy Trojan. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, stop by and say hi. 

I’ll also be attending Malice Domestic this year. I’m on a panel on Friday, April 26 from 2:00-2:50pm with Barbara Barrett (M), Sally Handley, Jackie Layton and Misty Simon. It’s called Love and Murder: “Rom-Cozies”. Should be interesting.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Curses! When To Use Them!

 By Thomas Kies

Swearing, cursing…include it in your dialogue?  Don’t include it?  Does it make what your characters are saying any less authentic?  Will you p*** off readers if you DO include it?

Full disclosure, I have a deep well of vocabulary to draw from when it comes to blue language.  Generally, I reserve it for when I’m driving alone, and another driver does something stupid or dangerous or both.  As long as the windows are up, it’s mostly harmless.  If I forget that my window is down, well, I’ve gotten some interesting responses to my observations.

Swearing, technically referred to as "using intensifiers," can be a potent tool in a writer's arsenal. A well-placed curse can convey a character's emotion more effectively than an entire paragraph of description. However, it's a delicate balance. Get it wrong, and it can sound gratuitous, silly, or just plain stupid. Get it right and it’s a gut punch.

I think the rule of thumb should be to be true to your genre.  If you’re writing war fiction, if you don’t use slang and bad language, it’s not going to sound realistic. You may not swear as much as real soldiers in combat (they swear all the time), but you have to create some semblance of reality.  If you don’t use blue language, you’ll sound like dialogue from a movie from the 1940s.

I specialize in crime fiction.  Working for newspapers and magazines most of my life, I’ve known good guys and I’ve known bad guys and they all swear copiously.  Writing dialogue as realistic as that would be tiresome, but not including it would sound fake. I can’t have a drug dealer shout, “Gosh darn it all to heck!”  Nor can I have a police captain growl, “Golly, get those cuffs on that astronaut.”

Oh, and politicians?  Get them away from the public and they also have a colorful vocabulary.  Surprisingly so. 

Cursing in a love scene?  You’re using a whole different set of words, and we can talk about that at another time.  Use the wrong words and you just sound like a bad porn movie. 

Why can swear words be a beautiful thing?

- They have the ability to shock.

- You can equate them to linguistic violence.

- They can mark extreme emotions, moods, or turning points.

- They can be used for comic effect. 

Now, you don’t always have to use street language, depending on the context.  Shakespeare had the ability to swear without really swearing.  He wrote the mother of all literary cuss-outs (cuss is simply a variant of curse) in King Lear, but interestingly there is no profanity or obscenity as we know it, merely terrifically imaginative vulgarisms, delivered with passion. Here it is, the Earl of Kent preparing to thrash the crap out of Goneril’s loathsome lackey, Oswald:

"Knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

I don’t think I’ll use any of that the next time I’m in a bar or shooting pool, but it’s worth thinking about.

Now, can you lose readers due to foul language? Of course, but why on earth would they be reading crime fiction if they have a weak constitution?  Have a great f****** week and keep writing.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Stories Not Yet Written

 I recently saw The Godfather Part II and one scene that struck me as painfully relevant to today was when the young Vito Corleone was processed through Ellis Island. The episode was meant to show how chaotic and daunting the experience was at the time, but to me it was a model of efficiency and care compared to what I see going on with the migrant crisis.   

If you live in a sanctuary city, as I do in Denver, you no doubt have seen the migrant crisis up close and personal. Over 38 thousand asylum seekers, mostly from Venezuela, have been processed locally. We had a large tent city outside a hotel close to my house; the encampment caught fire and was then dismantled. These immigrants get shuffled around in a bureaucratic shell game. In the daytime, they turn up in supermarket parking lots, either to beg or sell candy/flowers. Many of the young men drift through neighborhoods offering to do yard work, shovel snow, and have claimed street corners for the return of the infamous "squeegee men." As a Latino, more specifically a Chicano, I can empathize since my family came to this country as "illegal aliens." Back then, we were called mojados, which in English translates to wetbacks. And there is another faction of Chicanos whose families were already here for 500 plus years before the US annexed the southwest from Mexico. "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." While we share with the Venezuelans a common language and Christian faith, a Spanish heritage, and mixed ancestry, our experiences as Latinos in the United States are decidedly different. 

This crisis is demoralizing because the scope of the problem is overwhelming. If helping one stranger is a challenge, then how to help thousands? I give money when I can and engage with the immigrants to learn more about them. Despite their desperate situation, I'm impressed by their determination to get ahead. Somehow they've managed to scrape enough money together to purchase bicycles. One fellow arrived at a squeegee corner in a used Jeep Liberty with temporary tags. At the Safeway service desk, the customer ahead of me was an immigrant wiring $260 to his home in Caracas. 

Many of the Venezuelans came here as a family, so it's not unusual to see them pushing strollers or shepherding one or two children. At the street corners, while mom or dad are trying to collect dollars, their kids while away the hours playing on the concrete. I wonder how these children are internalizing their experience? What opinions are they forming about America, its culture, and this new life? As their generation matures and claims its slice of this country, what will be their unique shared history? What will be their stories?

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Let Us Begin

When you open a book you've never read before, when did you first go “Hmm! How interesting!” I (Donis) know you've heard many times how important the opening few sentences of a novel are, and, really, that can hardly be overstated.

 If you’re Steven King, people are going to cut you a lot of slack about the beginning of your novel, but if nobody every heard of you, you need to create the most interesting beginning you can.  Grab ‘em right away. In a way, your story is starting in the middle. A lot has happened before we get there. Suck them in with a good first page.

When I open a novel to the first page, I always notice how quickly the author sets the stage, the first moment the author gave the reader a clue about the time period, the setting, the problem, the characters. I've learned a lot about good beginnings from my favorite authors. Below are some openings I admired (and one I used myself), and I ask you, Dear Reader - Would you read this book?

When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body. – Tanya Dubois, The Passenger.

The letter from Tally came on the day Bert Checkov died. – Dick Francis, Forfeit

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. – Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I thought she was wearing far too many clothes.– Lindsey Davis, Silver Pigs

Ginny Scoot was standing on a third-floor ledge, threatening to jump, and it was more or less my fault. – Janet Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening when I poked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. – Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. – Christa Faust, Money Shot

The last camel collapsed at noon.
It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little. – Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca.

The traveler stood at the head of the alley and watched the ruckus for a long time, trying to decide whether or not to get involved. He thought not. He had just been passing by on his way from the hotel to the Muskogee train station when he heard the commotion and stopped to take a look. He wished he hadn’t.–  Donis Casey, All Men Fear Me

And an oldie but goody:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high, flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?” —Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Is there an opening line/paragraph that knocked you out, Dear Reader? All we authors who have to start somewhere would like to know.