Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Bechdel Test: a differing viewpoint

I read Vicki’s post last week with a lot of interest because it makes some important points. I read Violette’s guest post this weekend with the same interest, but after reflecting on both, there are some things over which I take issue. This is probably not going to make me popular in some quarters.

First and foremost, it is useless to look at books written in the past. The characters in the Tolkien books are a product of his upbringing and his time. They are also basically books about war. Women did not generally take part in combat in those days. (They still don’t, but that’s another matter.) The only strong female character in Middle Earth is Galadriel. Arwen is primarily just “the love interest”. Could more females have been used in stronger roles? Perhaps, but in the world Tolkien inhabited (not the world in which he lived), women had a subservient role, so he probably just didn’t consider it. To Jackson’s credit, he and his co-writers did try to make women more important to the plot, although this misfired somewhat in The Hobbit with Tauriel since they also burdened her the totally superfluous subplot of falling in love with Kili.

Still Tolkien and Stephenson (Treasure Island) wrote from and for their times. A woman would not have made a treasure-seeking voyage. It just would not have worked. I suppose a female elf could have gone on the quest in LOTR, but it would have been stretching things – and probably never even occurred to the Oxford don who wrote it. Both lived in a man’s world (for better or worse), and that’s where they placed their novels.

In our more modern world where women are finally beginning to get their due (and we’re still lagging badly in many areas), we should write from a more “enlightened” viewpoint (and this is where the Bechdel Test can more legitimately be applied). But my question is: why the scorekeeping? I’m sure there are now books where the old man/woman character paradigm has been flipped on its head. Would you say this is a good thing? Not if it’s forced or done as retribution or an evening of scores.

A number of years ago, I was attended a Crime Writers of Canada Christmas Party where guests were also invited. It was held at a pub and the idea was to have people change tables and get to know the various authors. A couple sat down at my table and the female half asked me if I was a writer. I answered in the affirmative and asked if she’d read any of my novels. She said, “I never read books written by males.” Of course I asked why. “I have no interest in them.” “Even if they’re good stories?” “No. I don’t want to read anything written by a male.” And then she proceeded to get up from the table.

For obvious reasons, that’s stuck with me. This person is to be pitied. Hers is the flip side of the same awful coin. Of course, she is completely justified in reading only what she wants to read, but that doesn’t make her viewpoint anything but completely self-limiting and just as damaging as the old paradigm. I’ve also heard it said several times that males should never write first person characters who are female. Huh? Would these people stand for it if I countered with the (very logical) point that, based on that attitude, women should never write first person male characters. The crime fiction world would be a much poorer place if everyone felt that way.

We owe it to ourselves as human beings to be as free and open about humanity as we can be. That should be reflected in our stories. Unfortunately at this time, it’s still not, but score-keeping doesn’t help matters. Only positive action does.

I write novels with very strong female characters. I would pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. But to tell the truth, it’s not a concern to me. I don’t consciously set out to write strong female characters to be fair or more inclusive. I write them because my story demands them. I’m not going to look back and discover with horror that a particular book doesn’t have a strong female character unless I set out to purposely tell a story like this – without regard to its sensibility to my plot. I just wouldn’t do that. I want to tell stories set in the real world inhabited by real people. I’m not out there with an ax to grind. It wouldn’t be fair to my stories, nor my readers – or even to me. I don’t expect a pat on the back, either. I do it for no other reason than that’s where my imagination led me.

When I finish a novel, I ask myself whether I enjoyed it. I don’t apply anything like the Bechdel Test and then decide based on the results whether I should like the novel. I either like it or don’t.

Okay. Take your shots.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Print Revival

It seems to me a good omen for the new year.  Waterstones, which is the last remaining proper bookshop chain in Britain, has announced that while ebook sales have faltered over the last few months, sales of real books have greatly increased.

Waterstones seemed doomed before the current manager, the brilliant James Daunt, took over. It was seen as another step on the road to ruin when he started selling Amazon Kindles and downloads from the stores, but he did it on the principle of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.' He was more than justified and he is bullish about Waterstones' future, planning to open new stores.

But there was no denying the glee in his voice when he was able to say that the imminent death of the printed book had been indefinitely postponed. Foyles, the world-famous bookshop in Charing Cross Road which has just massively expanded the store, sounded pretty happy about their figures too.

Of course, Christmas sales probably had a lot to do with it. Wrapping up and handing over a book as a present feels very different from telling someone you've put one on their Kindle. But don't get me wrong, I have nothing against ebooks; they've done me proud in hugely expanding my readership.

It's just that when I read one myself, I always feel it's like smoking without inhaling. (At least, I imagine it is. When I was a student I did a lot of waving around of Balkan Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes when I could afford them and puffing, but never quite mastered the next stage without the violent coughing and streaming eyes bit – death to the sophisticate image.)

I might read the sort of book I'd take on a long plane journey on my reader, but I would feel it was a terrible waste to do that with a book I knew I would savour, and I wouldn't have it to put it on my bookshelf afterwards where I could nod at it affectionately in passing, like a familiar friend. I know I'm old-fashioned but it's reassuring to discover that there are lots of other old-fashioned  people too.

My favorite book this Christmas wasn't given to me, but to my six-year-old granddaughter. It was The Book With No Pictures, by BJ Novak, and it is wonderful. Those of you who have small children or grandchildren may know it already, but if not, go out and get it. 

It's for reading aloud. Its shtick is that the adult has to read exactly what is on the pages: 'After all, if a book has no pictures there's nothing to look at but the words on the page. Words that might makes you say silly sounds...In ridiculous voices.'

It made for a lovely family occasion, all of us gathered round roaring with laughter at my son-n-law's efforts to comply. My granddaughter's thank-you letter said, 'I don't know what this book's about but it's great.'

She has a Nook but it's seldom in use while the favourite books piled in the bookcase a worn to bits.
I think she's starting the sort of love-affair with books that I developed at that age. I do wonder if I'd really have fallen in love with a machine?.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Violette Malan: This Will Be On The Test

Today's guest author is my good friend and fabulous fantasy author Violette Malan. Violette and I were talking recently about the Hobbit movies in particular and the Bechdel test in particular.  I wrote about the test (and my own Delany test) on Monday (link here), and now Violette chimes in.


I don't know whether it's the controversy over the character Turiel in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but there's been a big swell of interest lately in the Bechdel Test. You know what that is, right? Generally applied to movies and TV shows, it determines whether woman are represented equitably. In order to pass the test, there must be two female characters who have names; they must at some point speak to each other; they must speak about something other than men. Seems simple.

I remember my father once telling me that Treasure Island had no women in it. He seemed to think this was a good thing. He was wrong, of course, except that he was also right. What he didn't realize was that the film he was familiar with had no women, but that wasn't also true of the book. Jim Hawkins does have a mother.  We could argue, however, that the film guys got it right, since Mrs. Hawkins does little or nothing to forward the plot.

So Treasure Island, whether print or celluloid, fails the Bechdel Test.

Most films/shows don't pass the test, even the ones we fantasy and SF lovers love the most. Big Bang Theory doesn't pass, even though there are three named female characters (and not because Penny, as my friend Jim Hines has pointed out, has no last name). Stargate passes, at least SG1 – they were smart to make the doctor a woman, since that gives plenty of room for non-guy related conversation. It's been a while, but I believe that Star Trek: Voyager passes (between Captain Janeway, B'lanna Torres and Seven-of-Nine) and TNG as well – remember, the doctor's a woman.

LOTR fails, both versions. As does The Princess Bride, both versions. I'll admit it's been a while since I read the print versions of either of these, but I have read them multiple times, and I think I'm remembering correctly. I might also argue that if, after reading something multiple times, you can't remember whether two named females talk to each other about something other than men, it has to be considered a failure of some degree.

Let's see. Aliens passes. And at least the first two books of The Chronicles of Narnia. Agents of Shield seems to be doing a good job of passing the Test, and provides us with a clue as to how we can improve the numbers.

Okay, we could do this all day, so let me sum up: according to a survey done by Entertainment Weekly, eight out of ten recent movies actually fail the Test. (They give Gravity a pass because the character is so rich, but it fails the actual test) So, 80% fail. The percentages are a little better if we narrow the films down to the seven fantasy or SF movies on the list, which include the same two movies that passed in the first place. So, only 60% fail. Feeling better? Yeah, I hear you.

How do we make sure that we pass the Test ourselves?  I'm pretty sure I do, most of the time.  But I'm writing novels, not screenplays. It's easier for novels to pass the Bechdel Test, I think, which makes it all the more remarkable when they don't – at least when we're talking about modern novels. I don't expect people who were writing even 50 years ago to hold opinions that would have been unlikely for them to hold at the time, let alone to write about them.  One of the reasons that there's even a Bechdel Test in the first place is the increasing number of female writers, directors, and producers.

And those people are interested in writing, directing and producing stories about strong female leads, who, given another woman to speak to, have reasons to discuss the advancement of the plot – I mean the solving of the problem,  rather than the men in their lives.

Female doctors can speak to female characters about health issues. Females captains and leaders can speak to their female crew and followers about the events at hand. Female workers of any kind can speak to each other about the job at hand. It's that simple, isn't it? Women can talk to each other about their jobs; all we have to do is give them jobs.

One thing though. Almost all of the examples I've cited as passing the Bechdel Test have ensemble casts. I believe that's the "recent" artistic innovation that makes passing the test easier than it might have been even thirty years ago. Female protagonists can interact with each other if there's more than one of them, and that's much easier to do with a group of people working toward a common goal, than with just a single protagonist, or star.

That's a hint for us if we want to see more works passing the Bechdel Test: we're a group of people, let's work toward a common goal.

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Precious Possession

Our family gives an extraordinary number of books for Christmas. During one lazy Christmas vacation day a couple of weeks ago, we discussed the importance of libraries in our lives. We fondly remembered favorite books from our past and traded library stories. We recalled librarians we had known.

I'm a passionate advocate for interlibrary loan. Without that service I could not do academic research. I can locate microfilmed newspapers and obscure documents and have them mailed to my local library. When I heard of library closings or of students doing strictly on-line research I rise up to argue in favor of hitting the stacks.

The problem with using Google or other search engines rather than supplementing with library research is that on-line is too narrowly focused. By going to the library we are free to explore books that would be overlooked otherwise. It's an opportunity to expand creativity and make connections.

During this discussion, my grandson, John Crockett won the prize for library devotion. He's a junior at Colby College in Maine. He reached for his wallet and pulled out his very first library card. He received it when he was in kindergarten and had proudly signed his name.

This will be short tonight as I'm behind on a manuscript, but I just wanted our readers to know that libraries are alive and well and deeply embedded in the heart of America.

Thursday, January 08, 2015


I’m knee-deep in my 2016 Peyton Cote novel, tentatively titled Destiny’s Pawn, and the process has me thinking a lot about point-of-view

I started the novel, wrote maybe thirty pages, and immediately decided I needed to use alternating close, third-person points of view. Of course, our single mother / U.S. Border Patrol agent, Peyton, is still front and center, but the spotlight has to hit several other players for the plot to hold up. Tony Hillerman was a master of this, as was Elmore Leonard (see link for an interview with him about point-of-view).

The third person limited point-of-view fits well in crime fiction for a variety of reasons. Among them: it makes it easy for the writer to withhold information. If I’m writing in first person, I have to show my cards all the time – anything Jack Austin, for instance in my other series, knows, the reader also must be told because the book is told in Jack’s first-person voice. In third person, though, I can know things – and other characters can know things – that Peyton doesn’t. Where I ran into problems in Destiny’s Pawn, forcing me to use alternating limited third-person points of view was that things were happening in the Ukraine that were impacting events Peyton deals with in northern Maine. There would, therefore, be no logical way to end the book that offered readers enough information or details to provide a satisfying conclusion.

No one understood point-of-view and its defining elements better than legendary author and teacher John Gardner. Within third person, Gardner defined layers of “psychic distance.” Here is his now-famous chart explaining the range within which an author can maneuver in a close third-person point-of-view.

  1. It was the winter of 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry J. Warburton hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging your miserable soul.1

Here, you see the camera zoom in until the reader is squarely inside Henry J. Warburton’s head, the pronoun “your,” in the fifth sentence, forcing the issue.

Many writers feel choosing a point-of-view is the most important decision they make when starting a work of fiction. I, for one, am in that camp.

1Bernays, Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? New York: HarperCollins, 1995: 87.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Books That Last

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a good holiday, that you’re rested and refreshed and raring to go for 2015!

For Christmas, I was at my mother’s house where I spent some time getting in touch with my reading roots. Read a little Encyclopedia Brown, a little Bobbsey Twins, some Happy Hollisters and, of course, Nancy Drew.

While I remember enjoying them all, I have to admit I don’t remember many details about any of them. I remember Encyclopedia Brown had a detective agency in his garage, the Bobbsey Twins were two sets of twins and the Happy Hollisters were, well, happy.

I remember more about Nancy Drew than the others, probably because I was older when I first met her. This is what I recall: (1) Nancy had a convertible, (2) Bess and George were her best friends, (3) Ned Nickerson was her boyfriend, (4) her father was a lawyer, and (5) Nancy was adventurous and a great detective. That’s pretty much it. While I hadn’t read any of the books in years, I do admit to seeing the Bonita Granville movies from the 1930s, watching the Pamela Sue Martin TV series from the 1970s (okay, I watched the Hardy Boys more), and playing the Her Interactive Nancy Drew games. (I’ve made my way through #20 or so. I know, I know, I’m not the target market for those but, hey, that’s never stopped me!)

While I was in Seattle, I read the first 4 Nancy Drew books, took a peek at the 5th (1960s versions), and read two versions of The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. (More on that later.)

I was shocked I tell you, shocked!, to discover Bess, George and Ned don’t appear until book 5! (Secret at Shadow Ranch) I thought they were all joined at the hip from the very beginning but, no, Nancy had other friends and even (gasp!) other boyfriends. (She really played the field.) Ned was the first boy who was described as her “special friend”, though, so yay for Ned! Bess and George are described as her best friends but I have to wonder what they were doing for the first 4 books!

The Clue of the Leaning Chimney was my favorite of the ones I read. (Book 26) I first read the 1949 version, which was tucked away in a closet. (I vaguely remember buying it at a thrift store when I was a kid.) I’d heard somewhere that the 1960s versions were “dumbed down” from the earlier ones so I read the 1967 version to compare. (Hey, I was curious and, yes, I know I can be very analytical.)

I don’t know what “dumbed down” means in this context, but here’s what I discovered after comparing both versions: I didn’t see much difference between the two, really. The plot stayed the same, the characters the same. The writing was tightened, some words changed, and an event or two deleted but nothing that altered the storyline in any significant way. Here are a few differences I found particularly interesting:

  • 1949 – 25 chapters; 1967 – 20 chapters. Some of the chapters were combined in the newer version with some dialog shortened and one or two small events eliminated. Basically, it was streamlined.
  • 1949 – Nancy took 25 minutes to get ready for a party; 1967 – she accomplished the task in “a few minutes."
  • 1949 – Apparently, guests left later in 1949. They left at 11:30; 1967 – they left the party at 10:30 (Guess Nancy had an earlier curfew.) 
  • Nancy takes a plane to New York City in the book. In 1949, it was referred to as an “air liner”; in 1967 just a “plane”. There’s also less description of the flight in the later version. Guess it was more common to fly in 1967 so they felt the additional description unnecessary.
  • 1949 – Nancy generally drives her own car; Ned drove it once; 1967 – Ned drives the car pretty much every time he’s in it. I guess he no longer trusted her driving. (If you’ve ever seen the Bonita Granville movies, you’d understand his hesitation at letting Nancy drive.)

Basically, though, Nancy was the independent gal I remembered in both versions. She climbed trees, helped friends with problems, and used her brain to solve cases.

Not everyone has read a Nancy Drew book, but most people know who she is. When I think about how old those books are and how people are still reading them, it boggles my brain a little. I think that’s what most writers hope for: to tell a story and create characters readers will remember fondly and that will last for years and years.

I’m not talking about large numbers of books sold, though that would be nice. I’m talking about writing something that lasts after the writer is long gone. I don’t know what makes something last, what catches the reading public’s eye. If I did, I’d be making gobs and gobs of money, which I’m not. All a writer can do is write what they have in them. Whether or not it stands the test of time is something we may never know. I intend to write something I’d enjoy reading, have fun while doing it, and not worry about the rest.

My wish for you in the coming year: For those who write, may you produce something people will praise and enjoy for generations to come; for those who read, may you read something you enjoy and remember for years to come.


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The season of hope

As I’ve wished people a happy and prosperous new year, I’ve gotten back comments more than once on how bad 2014 was, not just for world, but personally for the people to whom I was speaking.

But last Thursday, we all turned the page on a bummer year and opened up a brand new 12 months, everything bright and shiny again.

I don’t know about you, but I always find the turning of the year to be a hopeful time. Yeah, it’s a reminder that I’m another year older and more personal doors seem to be closing than opening these days, a process sure to accelerate as the years move forward, but for every bad, there’s a good. That’s just the way life moves, and when you look at the bare bones of it, you can either embrace changes that naturally occur or spend your time shaking your fist at fate. Faced with that stark choice, I prefer to look at the hopeful side.

Like many, every year I set goals for myself. This year, they’re mostly physical ones. I’d like to lose weight (and how many years have I been saying that?). I would like to walk more, maybe play a little pick-up ball (or at least play catch with my wife or sons — and now, also my grandson!), simply get out and about rather than allowing myself to be chained to my computer. That’s a really worth (and sensible) goal, don’t you think?

Finding time for writing remains a challenge. I waste too many valuable minutes every day, allowing myself to get distracted by things that really don’t need doing. Since I’m usually up ahead of my wife, you would think that would be an ideal time to write. Unfortunately, every morning, I fire up the computer and (of course) wind up checking the overnight news, wishing friends a Happy Birthday on Facebook, stuff like that all worthy, but also not necessary when there’s writing to be done. The internet is a seductive place, and if you’re naturally curious as I am, it’s a real danger to moving my writing forward. Solution? Don’t turn on the computer; just sit down with pen and paper and lay down some more deathless prose. Sure, it will take longer doing it that way, but as I’ve said here more than once, I find I think more clearly when having to get my thoughts down more slowly. The proof is that my “manual” writing needs far less refining than when I type my words directly into the computer.

Being a musician, I have to practise daily. (“You’ve been playing how long and you still have to practise?”) Unless you’ve taken music past a certain point, you probably don’t know what a joy it is to spend quality time with your instrument of choice. Currently for me, that means the trumpet, something I never really set out to learn, by the way. There is a joy in making music as well as a real rush in being able to perform in front of an audience. In order to do either successfully and at a high level, that means slogging it out every day. I’ve played particular scales and exercises tens of thousands of times and I still manage to get a kick out of doing them. Why? I can’t really tell you. Sure, I could plod through them because I know how necessary they are, but it goes beyond that. I simply enjoy buzzing my lips at the small end of a brass instrument to receive a glorious sound out the big end. It’s as simple as that — even if I’ve done the same set of notes every day for forty years.

This year, I have a lot I want to accomplish, and to do that, I need to be very organized to make the most of each 24-hour daily allotment. To that end, I’m decided to make a daily “To-Do List”, organized into “must-dos”, “need to dos”, and “like to dos”. I’m also writing down my new year resolutions, but that’s more for historic reference next New Year’s Eve — just to see how I did.

The bad part of being faced with too many things to do in too little time is that you never can allow yourself to stop and smell the flowers. A little downtime is a good thing, too. Somehow I have to figure out how to schedule that in — without it feeling like I’m scheduling it in.

In the end, life is always a matter of balance, isn’t it?

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Bechdel Test

First, Happy New Year to all. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are ready for an exciting, prosperous 2015.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Poisoned Pen Press blog at the end of 2013. This week I went to see the third Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, which reminded me of this piece. Why I bothered (as a huge LOTR fan) to see the movie, is a matter for another time.

I am sure most of you have heard of the Bechdel test. It is, I believe, of Swedish origin, and applied to movies. To pass the test the movie must fulfill three criteria:
  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man
On the surface it looks amazingly simple. Say they made a movie about me. I am a woman, I have three daughters and a mother; we talk about politics and social issues, whether or not to buy a new car and the weather.

But I guess my life isn’t going to ever make a movie because, when you stop and think about it, an amazing number of movies, particularly the big budget ones DON’T pass the test.

And that, I suspect, is the purpose of the test. To make us think about it.

I personally have another test. Do female actors play people? Or do they only play women?

Case in point, the new Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug. We have an important female character, Tauriel, an elf warrior. Well and good. Tauriel is even a captain of the guard.

But is Tauriel’s role in the movie as an elf or as a female elf? The answer is the latter: she falls in love with the handsome young dwarf. (If you think handsome young dwarf is a contradiction in terms, remember this isn’t Tolkien’s version any more). Noticeably, none of the minor elf characters are female. Not even any of the non-speaking parts.

Tauriel has only been cast as a woman. It didn’t occur to the movie makers to make some of the other elf fighters female. (Never mind a dwarf!) When playing with Tolkien anyway, why not make the ruler of the Woodland elves Legolas’s mother rather than his father?

Because, in far too many movies, women do not play people (or elves). They only play women. Which is a large part of the reason I don’t go to movies much. I read.

Books seem to have a much higher pass percentage for the Bechdel test as well as the new Delany test. In books women are named and have numerous speaking parts. They talk about things other than men. Although sometimes, it’s the female killer telling the female detective why she killed that man (does that count?).

In books women are allowed to play people as well as women. (Could that be because books are not visual?) The cop, the suspect, the villain. (In movies, the woman's only role is sometimes to be killed so the male can go on a revenge spree). Sometimes she is often the sidekick to the male protagonist without being a sexual interest. Think Siobhan Clarke to John Rebus or Annie Cabbot to Alan Banks. (Although unfortunately Peter Robinson first made Cabbot the love interest, and equally unfortunately Lise Delorme has now become John Cardinal’s girlfriend in Giles Blunt’s series).

All of those women, although only the sidekick, have parts to play as police officers.

Robinson, in fact, now has increasing numbers of women as important characters, so much so they are edging out Banks. Imagine TWO female police officers questioning a suspect/victim/witness.

Now, I am sure there are plenty of books out there that fail both the Bechtel test and the Delany test, but they are unlikely to find themselves in my TBR pile. They’re usually easy to spot: Look for the sole women mentioned in the blurb as ‘beautiful’. A display of weaponry or an explosion on the cover are often giveaways also.

I’ll end with a question for you. When choosing books, or movies, do you care if they pass the Bechdal test? Or the Delany test?

Friday, January 02, 2015

The Archives of My Past

It's the second day of the new year, and by rights I should be writing about my resolutions. But this year I didn't make any, This year, I decided to get a jump on the new year by doing at least one thing I resolve to do every year before the old year ended. I decided to clean my clutter between Christmas and New Year's Day and start getting organized. I have to confess that my willingness to take on the task was directly related to my inability to string more than a few sentences together with a deadline looming for a short story I'm writing for an anthology. I also needed to finish an academic review essay, and I was stuck on that, too.

Since I read about the relationship between physical clutter and psychological log-jams, I've taken to cleaning whenever I'm stuck. You'll notice I said cleaning rather than decluttering. Usually just cleaning is sufficient. I work out my frustrations and sure enough my brain starts working again. But this time, I knew I needed to go deep. And I thought why not do a preemptive strike. No need for a resolution if I've already gotten it done. This time I promised myself a major treat yet to be named if I cleaned out the closet in my office and sorted through the boxes of old papers stored there. This time, I made an appointment for a junk removal pick-up while I was still working to make sure I wouldn't stop. I spent three days doing something that I would usually hate -- reading each piece of paper and every file to make sure I was shredding what needed to be shredded and keeping what needed to be saved.

I still need to buy a vacuum that will pick up my new cat's fur and drop off some clothes at Goodwill and take books to various other places. But I made it through most of the decluttering.

Not quite this good yet. Still empty boxes and a bit of a mess. But nothing a good cleaning won't fix.

And I had a wonderful time doing this because I rediscovered bits and pieces of my past. Some of the papers I had in those boxes dated back to the 1990s. I found a cache of real, honest-to-goodness, put-in-envelopes-and-mailed letters from my best friend from grad school. Since we are still friends and I know how it all turned out, I could settle in and follow the ups and downs of her life -- marriage and motherhood and divorce and the new man who came into her life (and has been her husband for years now). I had forgotten some things like the gift I sent her when her son was born. I had even forgotten some of the things that she referred to that I was doing at the time. But the letters were fascinating because she was responding to what I was telling her about what was going in my life and what I was asking about hers. And sometimes she offered good advice, some of which I should have taken.

And then there was the baby book that I found. My own baby book -- pink for a girl -- in the box of family photos (all in frames) that my brother had packed up and sent to me when our mother died. I was supposed to make copies for myself and return them. But somehow the box had gone into my closet and never come back out except when I moved and put it into another closet. I knew the baby book was there, had seen it in the box, but never really looked inside. But this time I did -- and to my delight, there in the middle of the slender book was a family tree that someone had filled in. That family tree had the answers to my questions about my great-grandparents names and places of birth. Now I can do that genealogical research that I made a half-hearted effort to do a while ago. I had put it off until I could follow up with my cousins and aunt and get the names that were there in my baby book all the time.

There was also the course that I had completely forgotten. Four years ago when I bought a small house and moved in, I had the passing thought that it would be a good time to pursue my interest in interior design by taking a course. But I was busy and got no further than buying some decorating books and checking out the really expensive ones from the library. You can imagine my surprise when I opened a box and discovered that not only had I registered for an interior design course but received the materials. This happened years ago when I was a grad student. Since it was before the rise of online courses, I had signed up for a correspondence course. I had completed the first lesson and submitted it and received comments from the instructor. Apparently at that point, I got busy with criminal justice and never completed the course. But as I was flipping through the booklets on furniture, etc, I happen to look over at the lower shelf in the bookcase in my office that I could now see because I'd emptied and removed the storage bins that had been obscuring it. There on the shelf was a textbook about interior design. That book must have been sent along with the other materials that I had received and forgotten. Obviously, I had packed it into a box at some point -- at least three times over the years -- and never really stopped to think about where it had come from.

There were other odds and ends from my life -- other letters, books that I'd bought and forgotten. Even more interesting, the many journals that I'd started each year, usually with my short and long-term goals recorded. The surprising -- or perhaps disconcerting -- aspect of those journals is how consistent I've been over the years. Always wanted to write and be published, always wanted a house in the country with a housekeeper who would clean and cook my meals while I wrote, always had a vision of the people who would complete my life. The disconcerting aspect was the things that I still haven't done -- learning French, going to Australia, becoming a black belt.

When it comes to writing, the fun part of this search through my archives was the discovery of all the notes to myself I'd made about ideas for short stories and books. I pulled all those notes out and put them in a folder. Some of them I think I've already used in one way or another. Others will probably not pan out. But several look as if they might be worth exploring. And -- an experience I'm sure many of you have had -- I discovered the original names and bios of some of my characters. My crime historian "Lizzie" was at one point "Sarah". I certainly didn't remember that. In my version of her naming, she was always "Lizzie" because I named her after "Lizzie Borden". . .well, I did, eventually.

I also find my social security card that I hadn't seen in a while and my birth certificate and all of the cancelled passports I've accumulated over the years. And then there were the checkbook registers and those entries for courses that I took and things that I bought and payments to people I can't remember.

In the midst of this, I did get an idea for a short story. As you might imagine, it has to do with looking through ones clutter -- or maybe someone else's -- and discovering something unexpected.

Happy New Year, everyone. Forgive me for feeling virtuous because I've almost completed the resolution that tops my list every year. . .well, I do still have all those archived e-mails on my computers. But I'm going to get them, too. Declutter and done.  Yipee!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Year of Material Satisfaction

Happy New Year, Dear Readers.

Donis here, and it is my privilege to be the first Type M poster of the new year, even though I am, if not a day late and a dollar short, at least several hours late.

There is a reason, but it isn't very interesting. Besides, we must think only happy thoughts on the first day of a new cycle.

I had no major emergencies in 2014 and a new book that did well, and at this stage, I call that a pretty good year.

My 2014 book
Since my birthday falls between Christmas and New Year, the end of the year is the literal end of another year of life for me and I always approach January 1 with  anticipation. There will be another book this fall and some upcoming trips to which I look forward, so I hold out hope for a pleasant 2015.

Many years ago, I had a friend who was into numerology. Now, I must tell you that of all the divination arts such as astrology or palmistry or tarot or reading chicken entrails, I had always considered numerology the most illogical.* But no, my friend told me, one must approach numerology with the mindset that there are no accidents. That there is a numerical logic to the universe, a vibrational order, like music.

Every number, she said, corresponds to a vibration, a musical note, and we humans are attuned to this music and express it with our language. Each number expresses a series of qualities or traits, just like combinations of notes, rhythms and silences create certain types of music, from rap to classical.

Get it?

This means that your parents looked at you when you were born, sensed your tune, and said to each other, "hey, she looks like a Jane. Jane Doe. That sounds nice." I was impressed by the logic, whether I buy the idea or not. (I prefer to be in charge of my own destiny, thank you very much.)

The point of all this is that 2015 is an 8 year, my friends, and 8 is the number of material satisfaction. Any numerologist would say, "it ain't that simple", and any non-numerologist would say, "you're nuts, lady." But whether you believe it or not, it's a nice idea.

So here's wishing all of us a wonderful 2015, full of lots and lots of material satisfaction.
*Though chicken bone divination is a close second.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Phyllis Dorothy James – In Memoriam

The crime-writing community was plunged into sadness this week, along with her millions of readers across the world, when PD James passed away 'quietly'. How like her that was!

I first met her through her books which were to my mind everything a crime novel should be: elegantly written, cleverly plotted, with always a sub-text of convincing psychological and social comment. She was my literary idol and – unlike most idols who are in general subject to feet-of-clay syndrome – she was, when I was privileged to get to know her, every bit as clever and charming and interesting as I could have hoped she would be. And unlike many much less successful writers, she never trailed the clouds of glory to make you conscious of her worldwide fame.

She was also very funny, with a good line in terrific jokes, and she loved to laugh. I treasure the memory of a conversation when we were recalling to each other the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch, 'One-legged Tarzan', with us both saying in chorus, 'I have nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you,' and Phyllis laughing till the tears ran down her cheeks.

She was the sort of person who spread happiness but there was a steely side to her too. When at the age of  89 she was guest editor on the BBC Today radio programme and was given the chance to interview Mark Thompson, the then Director General of the BBC, she had him wriggling like a worm on a hook. Their encounter was a joy: the  answer that began, 'Well, I mean, it - it- I - I've' was fairly typical of his responses to her merciless questions about over-staffing, ridiculous salaries and unworthy programmes – she highlighted 'Britain's Most Embarrassing Pets.' You could almost heard the applause from listeners up and down the country.

The joy in writing was something that never left her. When I last saw her a few months ago she was definitely frailer, finding it more difficult to get about, but her enthusiasm was undimmed. She was, she told me, starting a new book and she was excited about it. I did ask her how she'd felt about the television production of her previous book, Death at Pemberley, and she replied, with characteristic restraint, 'Well, darling,' my agent just said to me, ‘When it's sold, it's sold.’

There have been pages of obituaries and affectionate tributes to her in every newspaper, outpourings of reminiscences in the media. She was greatly loved;  a shining light, as more than one person has said. I will miss her very much, but I still can't believe how lucky I was to have known her as a friend.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Art of the Cozy Mystery

By Vicki Delany

Did someone mention cozies?

I do believe Sybil did.

I’d like to take that opening to introduce a new cozy writer to the good people of Type M.

Her name is Eva Gates, and here’s a picture. Look familiar?

No, she is not my evil twin (or my good twin). She’s just me.

Eva Gates is the pen name for the new series I am writing for Penguin US. I am going over to the light side, and becoming a cozy writer.

And so far, I am loving it.

As you know (you don’t?, then time to find out) the books I write are mainly middle-boiled. The traditional police procedurals of the Constable Molly Smith series or the slightly darker standalone gothic thrillers.  What most of those books deal with is human tragedy. Broken families, bad people, conflicted cops, traumatized soldiers.

Here’s a line from Among the Departed that I think sums up my approach to the books I write.  

“When I decided to become a police officer I knew I’d have to deal with the hard side of life. Beaten children, raped women, accident victims, blood and gore. But that’s not the hardest part, is it? It’s the goddamn tragedy of people’s lives.”

Now that I’m writing cozies, I’m loving it. It’s great fun to be writing a book just for fun.  But more than fun, these books are about REAL people. Librarians, the people on the library board, the owner of the local bakery, a small-town mayor. Friends and relatives are close and loving and supportive. They are shocked, shocked, when murder interrupts their peaceful lives. They don’t have tragic lives and are stunned when bad things happen.

And then they, in the person of the protagonist, are determined to solve the crime, clear the innocent-accused, and put things back to rights.

In many cases the author uses whimsy and humour to do that.  Because there is a lot of humour in most people’s lives, isn’t  there?

And, as Sybil pointed out, there are usually pets. Cozies are heavy on pets because it helps the reader relate to the characters.

By Book or By Crook is now available for pre-order. Pre-orders are important for writers, in creating a buzz and letting our publishers know people are interested in this book.  If you want to pre-order the book, either in paperback or in e-book, here’s a couple of links. Amazon.com, Amazon.ca.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Adventure Begins

Life is a series of adventures, some of them more exciting than others. At least, that’s how I like to look at it. Today marks the beginning of a new adventure for me, my first blog post on Type M. I’ll be here every other Wednesday, taking over Hannah Dennison’s spot. (Thanks to Hannah for suggesting I do this!)

Let me introduce myself. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and now live in Southern California. After years in the computer industry, designing and writing code, managing programmers and projects, I turned to a life of crime writing. Maybe you’ve read one of my short stories. My work has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine as well as several other online mystery magazines.

The big adventure for me this year is having my first novel published. Fatal Brushstroke, the first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series set in the world of decorative painting, will be released by Henery Press Nov 18. I’m now learning about Goodreads, blog tours, author pages, book contracts . . . all the stuff you need to know to be a writer today.

Like most writers, I love books. I remember clearly the day my adventure in reading began. I was five. I’d just started kindergarten. I found a book on the classroom shelf that had pictures in it of pigs and a wolf. I wanted to know what was happening, what those black marks on the pages said, but I couldn’t yet read. (At that time you learned the alphabet in kindergarten and how to read in first grade.) I didn’t want someone to read it to me, I wanted to read it myself! I wanted to know what those three little pigs and that wolf were doing. Sure, I could figure out the basic story from the pictures, but it just wasn’t the same. Those marks on the page were saying something important. I could tell. I remember being so frustrated.

Out of that frustration a reader was born. I’ve had my nose in a book ever since, pretty much reading everything in sight. The library was my favorite place growing up. Like so many before me, from the comfort of a chair I traveled to mysterious places and spent time with historical figures. I learned about hot air ballooning, falconry, and Esperanto. I cracked the case along with Encyclopedia Brown and fell through the rabbit hole with Alice.

Now I’m happy to have the opportunity to write stories for others to enjoy. Which reminds me, that second book is due in a few short months. Better get back to it.

See you in a couple weeks,


Saturday, March 24, 2012

The rules for writing

Hi everybody, this is Mario Acevedo. Welcome to my inaugural post to Type M for Murder. I’m honored by the invitation.

Since I am published, as I have five novels from a major NY house (don’t be too impressed, this means I have boxes of remaindered books), when I teach writing I get the impression from my students that I have in my possession THE SPECIAL KEY that will unlock the vault of the “How do I get published?” secret. Sadly, I have to disappoint them by admitting there is no key. I wish I did because I’d use it for my personal gain—lucre and the adoration of millions.

Which brings me to the rules of writing, which are summed up by this wonderful quote by Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately knows what they are.

Most people chuckle at the quote, as I did at first. But the more I write, the more I appreciate Maugham’s wisdom.

Truth is, no one knows what’s going to hit. Not all the time. It’s a pretty sure bet that the next novels by Robert Crais and Suzanne Collins will be blockbusters. But even the consistent NYT bestsellers falter. There is no literary sausage machine where you dump in words and ideas, flip the switch, and out plops an international bestseller. If that device did exist, then every book would make bank. Even the most savvy agent or editor can tell anecdotes about a particular manuscript they passed on eventually stuffed money in someone else’s pocket.

I’ve learned to caution myself about the advice I give my students. There is a tangible quality to writing, and every work needs a level of competence to make it readable. But to judge writing above that level is where I can get into trouble. It’s easier to critique newer writers as their work is full of craft mistakes. Stories from a more experienced writer leave me wondering if I can tell where the problems lie in the work because it’s just not my style.

In fairness to myself, I have judged books in major contests and my finalists correlated to those picked by the other judges. So my judgment isn’t that far off base...usually.

But when teaching, for every suggestion I might tell students, there’s a mega-seller showing them the opposite. Cut the exposition, but then there’s the work by Stieg Larsson. Add dialog tags to keep the reader oriented, unlike Elmore Leonard with pages of dialog with no attributions. Stay in one POV per scene when Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad) keeps the story plunging forward with her kinetic head-hopping. Plus, I’ve noticed that the more rigid an instructor is in following THE RULES, the less likely that instructor has serious publishing cred.

And we circle back to the how do I get published question?

Nothing new to tell. Keep practicing, keep improving, and don’t give up on yourself. And take writing classes; we impoverished novelists need the money.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Freeing The Cells

In her post of December 3, Donis Casey makes it clear that finding a suitable title for a novel can be a challenge. The same holds true for finding a title for a blog post. So, how does one go about it? Or, for that matter, how does one go about writing anything. In long-ago days before I made a really serious attempt at a novel, I liked to swap clever opinions with a colleague at the Library of Parliament here in Ottawa. Someone, I forget who, once opined that writing is easy: “You sit at the keyboard and concentrate until blood starts to seep from your forehead.” And sometimes it does seem like that. Writing can be very difficult; for me at least. For others not so hard. My friend and fellow Ottawa writer, Mary Jane Maffini, once said something along the lines that her output was only limited by the number of hours in the day that she could spend at the keyboard. Or sentiments to that effect. Much to be admired, even envied.

But to hearken back to the title of this post, I discovered an easier – if less productive – way to assuage the demands of the creative beast. FreeCell! How many games of FreeCell does it require to get from the opening sentence of one’s hoped-for novel to that much-desired Finis moment? In the case of my first book, Undertow, it was somewhere north of 10,000 games. It took me almost four years to write that book. Perhaps if I had halved the number of FreeCell games to a mere 5,000, I could have done it much more quickly. But I doubt that. The moderately challenging – if inherently silly – game did calm the fevered mind. And the book did get written.

The message being, I suppose, that writers will do odd things to get the job done.

Later on, I adopted a more complicated stratagem. Spider Solitaire. But that one really was, in the end, counter-productive. Spider Solitaire is much more complicated than FreeCell, and really does challenge; to the point that it’s often hard to think of anything other than getting the game done, and then going on to yet another game, and another, and another. And there being three levels of difficulty, that game is even more deadly in terms of time demands.

And where am I now in my effort to finish my fourth Inspector Stride novel? Back to FreeCell as it happens; 4,631 games played to date. Which could mean that I have only about 5,400 games to go before the novel’s done. Clearly I should play more, and play more often. Seriously, though, games like FreeCell are sometimes a hindrance, but at other times they are relaxing and they reduce stress.

Computers, as we all know, are a mixed blessing. We have instant access to a world of information via the internet – which in itself is another mixed blessing – but too often there is too much temptation to wander off into non-productive pursuits. Writing is like life generally. I have a self-imposed end-of-January deadline for the new Stride, and it’s a tossup whether I will actually make it. An old story; but hopefully not with a surprise ending.

To finish up this post, I will essay a piece that I will presumptuously call A Tale of Two Novels.

A month ago I dipped into my first Jack Reacher novel. It was only about five years ago, at the Left Coast Crime gathering in Bristol, UK, that I discovered there was such a creation as Jack Reacher. Lee Child was one of the keynote authors at the gathering, and he made a short speech, in which he talked about his protagonist. Like Reacher, himself, Lee Child is very tall, if not nearly as bulky. (I think Reacher tops out at about 250 pounds.) Child explained to the audience that he came up with the character’s name because, being very tall, he was often asked during visits to supermarkets, usually by older, tiny persons of the female persuasion, if he could please reach them down an item from one of the upper shelves. He then began to think of himself as a “reacher”, and thus the character’s name came to him.

I liked his story a lot, and I still do. And I wish I could say that I liked the Reacher novel that I am reading – The Affair – as much. Sadly, I do not. I am fairly certain that the book is another bestseller for Mr. Child, and good for him. But for me, despite some interesting writing and a lot of information about the United States Army, particularly the Military Police part, I am finding that my attention wanders often. It’s not a long book, and a month after starting it, it’s still not finished. Worse, I don’t really have much interest in finding out “whodunit”, who did slash the throats of all those radiantly beautiful women near an American Army base in the deep south. My main quibble with the book is the “soldier-as-superman” gambit. At one point in the narrative, Reacher goes one on four – or is it one on six? – with a collection of large and ugly local redneck inbreds, and quickly demolishes the lot of them, sending them limping back to their caves, or holes in the ground, or wherever. In another scene he casually shoots another brute in the forehead and sends his two equally odious companions scampering back to their hovels in mortal fear and dread. None of it – for me – rings true. It’s seems to me a superficial construct.

So, when I drove from Ottawa to Kingston this past weekend to visit with my daughter, I left Reacher at home on the floor beside my bed, and took with me instead a wonderful short novel by the late British author J.L. Carr – A Month In The Country. The book was released in 1980 and was shortlisted for the Booker. It was a considerable success, reprinted many times, although not likely a money-maker along the lines of Lee Child’s Reacher series. In 1987, though, it was made into a film of the same title, and starred Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and a young Natasha Richardson – who would, in March 2009, tragically die from injuries sustained in a ski accident in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. The film is as brilliant as the book.

Then, in one of those bizarre incidents that drive serious film lovers mad with frustration, all prints of the 35 mm master were somehow lost, and this brilliant film appeared to have vanished from the world forever. Happily, another print was eventually found in a warehouse. But then there was another long delay while ownership of the print was sorted out. Happily it was sorted out.

The film is now available on DVD in the original 96-minute version. I commend it to anyone who enjoys films of intelligence and substance. The same recommendation, of course, is made for the book.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blog Heaven

I’ve died and gone to blog heaven, of course. When the gracious, talented Donis Casey invited to become a regular contributor, naturally my first instinct was to mumble “who, me?” I’m deeply honored! Not only is Type M for Murder my favorite mystery blog, during the past two years I’ve met some of the wonderful persons who keep this blog going. In fact, I’m now an honorary Canadian. This was decided in the bar after the Left Coast Crime Convention in Santa Fe.

Donis Casey came to my book launch at Poisoned Pen Press, which was a heady experience that gave me delusions of grandeur. Oh, if I could freeze these moments! They compensate for the panicky “can I do write another book?” paralysis that stuns our creativity. It’s rather overwhelming to have an award winner writer of Donis’s caliber in the audience. (A real writer)

Barbara Fradkin was my roommate at Left Coast Crime. She is one classy dame! She taught me a lot about dealing with adversity. Her flight was cancelled and she was rescheduled. She breezed in at 3:00 am and got up at six to go on the Taos tour, explaining that she was not going to let the plane snafu ruin her plans. Wow! Not a word of complaint. I bought her book, Once Upon a Time, and was awed by her ability to maintain the smooth pacing of a complex plot based on events evolving from World War II and war crime issues. Marvelous characterization.

Vicki Delany is one of the friendliest, nicest writers I know. I loved In The Shadow of the Glacier and bought Negative Image at Santa Fe. We shared a room at Malice Domestic last year. She tried to tell me Deadly Descent was a finalist for the AZ Book Publishers Award, and I hooted and jeered and patiently explained to her why that could not possibly be true. I won and have been trying to compensate for questioning her truthiness ever since. In short, I buy her drinks.

Now it’s true confession time. I have a weird half-life as a historian and do some academic work. Sort of like some drugs that keep working after you stop taking them. I’m an accidental academic without sterling credentials. Nevertheless, I'm a highly opinionated and relentless researcher and that counts for a lot. In fact, my first novel was not a mystery, but a historical novel, Come Spring, and it was published by Simon and Schuster.

In the meantime, I was publishing mystery short stories and loving every minute of it—so I added mystery novels to my writing mix. How is that working for me? Not very well. Too many editors and not enough time. Mysteries soon possessed my mind and soul. I love writing them. Who knew? So I’m polishing off my editors, one by one, and soon Poisoned Pen Press and my Lottie Albright series will be the last man standing.

For my next gig, I’ll tell more about the Lottie Albright series. Greek tragedies are alive and well, they’ve just switched their venue to the High Plains. I’m a native Kansan, with a flaming state loyalty, so it’s only natural that my historical novels, my academic work, and my mysteries should be set in this difficult state where conniving families with tattered pasts seethe with historical and contemporary tensions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Here I am at Type M for Murder!

Hello from Scotland on a sunny morning, when spring as last has sprung after a long, dreary winter, with crocuses, daffodils and primroses in the front garden under the silver birches and even red camellias under my study window.

Vicki, many thanks for inviting me to join Type M and thanks to Rick for his friendly help and advice. I'm looking forward to getting to know you all.

I should probably start with the addict's confession: My name is Aline and I am a writer. I scribbled my first 'novel' at six, the risqué tale of Mr Wiz and Mrs Woz who went off to Paris together for the weekend – yes, perhaps I was a precocious child!

I'm still scribbling, because it's a compulsion, because I can't not. I'm happiest at my desk, trying to write fast enough to keep up with the story in my head, though as Vicki said last week, meeting other authors and gossiping over a glass in the bar is kinda fun as well..

I love, too, my tax-deductible holidays – I mean, of course, trips undertaken exclusively for necessary research, in beautiful Galloway in south-west Scotland where my DI Marjory Fleming series is set. It fascinates me: it has glorious seascapes, lochs, hills and forests but there's rural deprivation, too, and unemployment and small communities struggling to preserve their unique qualities - and it's only two hours away from Glasgow, murder capital of Europe. Urban fantasies of the idyllic country life are just that.

As my new book, Cradle to Grave, launches in paperback, the familiar cosy book world I used to know so well is changing beyond recognition: e-books, social networking, piracy, tweeting, bookshops that don't exist except on the internet, and small bookshops thjat don't exist any more. As all the old certainties disappear, it's stimulating but scary at the same time. Whatever else changes, though, they'll still need what's pompously called 'creative content' – stories, to you and me.

And there are still kids who know from the start that they're tellers of tales. If you want proof, I've attached a delightful video below of a very young French storyteller. It's as good as spring sunshine.

Cradle to Grave is the sixth in the DI Marjory Fleming series which starts with Cold in the Earth. All are available from Hodder & Stoughton.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hair, She Wrote

Frankie, here. I'm delighted to join this terrific community of writers. First time out, I had intended to write about research. But then my hair got in the way. I know you're wondering what my hair has to do with writing, but I'm a Southerner, so you're going to have to bear with me while I tell you a tale.

It started a couple of months ago. I was invited to give the Martin Luther King, Jr., lecture as a part of the spring speakers series at a local community college. I do research on crime and popular culture, so I proposed doing a lecture titled: "What to Wear to a Revolution" about clothing, dress codes, and hair censorship during the 1960s civil rights era.

Soon after agreeing to do the lecture, I was going through a closet, trying yet again to "discard and organize." I opened a box, and there inside was my high school senior photo. My hair was in an Afro. Great! I had my "show-and-tell" for the lecture.

I took the photo to my office at school and set it on a cabinet, thinking it would inspire me. It also reminded me of happier hair days.

In mid-January, I went down to New York City for a writers' meeting. I fluffed my hair out. A friend noticed I was "letting it grow." But that was only for that weekend in Manhattan. Back in Albany – back in my professor role -- I tamed my hair again. Until the morning I looked in the mirror at my droopy curls, groaned and dug around in a drawer for an old "pick" (a steel-toothed comb). I used it to demolish the curls, then stood there grinning at my reflection in the mirror.

About a second later, I realized I didn't have time to go through the process of washing my hair again to get it to curl. I would have to wear my Afro.

As I rode up in the elevator at school, I anticipated the surprised looks.

And that was when I had my flashback. I was thirteen or fourteen, and I was walking down the hall in another school. My hair, to my delight, was rising up from my head in waves and spirals and spikes. A teacher coming toward me, stopped in her tracks. And then she rushed up and hustled me to the side, out of the flow of traffic. "What on earth happened to your hair?" she said. Taking a comb from her pocket, she dragged it through my hair and twisted my wild mane into a knot. Satisfied, I was now acceptable, she told me to go on to class.

This was before the days when combing a student's hair might have been grounds for a lawsuit. But I had been injured by that well-intentioned teacher. That part of me who -- if she hadn't been afraid of snakes -- would have thought Medusa's hair was cool, who loved Tina Turner's wild wigs and Patti La Belle's sculptured dos, had been injured.

The late 60s and early 70s liberated my hair. But before my mind could catch up, the Afro was gone. Now, it was several decades later. Marc Jacobs might be featuring Afros on his runway models. A few musicians and actors might be wearing ‘fros. But here I was again, walking down a hall, waiting for someone to tame my hair. Not with a comb, but with a grin and a joke. . .No grins, no jokes. In fact, no one said a word about my hair. Not that day or the next. Hadn't they noticed?

After a while it occurred to me that they might be wondering if I was making a “political statement”. Maybe they thought it was safer not to comment.

Whatever my friends' and colleagues were thinking, I was more surprised by what was going on in my own head. I might not be 14 again, but I feel more "me." I have reclaimed a piece of myself. And that's the point of this story. Sometimes we need to let our inner "rebel" out to play.

When we free ourselves to be more of who we are as individuals, we also free ourselves to bring that same quirkiness and creativity to our writing.

Letting my hair do its thing won't transform me into a best-selling author. But it does seem to have made me more productive. Writer's block? Sitting in front of my computer, hands buried in my hair, I remember that I have a voice.

And now, my challenge to you: "Go for it!" Do one wonderful, crazy, liberating thing that speaks to who you are inside. And let us know how it affects your life and your writing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stories surround us everywhere

First of all, let me start by saying how thrilled I am to be an official member of Type M for Murder. It's a real honor to join such a wonderful and diverse group of writers. I hope I don't lower the bar.

For the hoards of people who are unfamiliar with who I am and what I write, I'm a British transplant who moved to Los Angeles to pursue a screenwriting career but discovered a passion for writing mysteries instead - which was fortunate given the fact that my screenwriting career wasn't exactly going anywhere.

The Vicky Hill Mysteries are published by Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin USA) and follow the adventures of an obituary writer desperate for a front-page scoop. Set in the wilds of Devon in Southwest England, they are based on my own experience as - yes, you've guessed - an obituary writer.

Working for the now defunct Tiverton Gazette was the most boring job I'd ever had. I'd sit for hours in the newsroom waiting for someone to die (I'm sorry, but I did). How strange that this would form the basis for a series. Although my younger and more optimistic self shares many similarities with Vicky Hill, I can safely assure you that my parents have never been silver thieves nor wanted by Interpol.

One thing I was unprepared for was my editor's fascination for quirky British hobbies that I use as backdrops to my plots. I thought everyone knew about country pursuits such as hedge jumping or snail racing. It just goes to show that stories are everywhere around us. What may appear normal and mundane to me, might be utterly gripping to someone else. Even my manic day job working for a West Coast advertising agency, is filled with enough juicy gossip to write a whole new series. Now, there's a tantalizing thought.

One of the great things about being a writer is discovering that all those ghastly jobs and broken romances really come in useful. My old journals are filled with what now seem hilarious tales of angst and pain to say nothing of a list of jobs ranging from summer chicken "sexer" to spending a full five days in Her Majesty's Royal Navy. No doubt they too, will one day find their way into a book.

I'm intrigued to hear of personal experiences or awful jobs that you've turned into fiction and want to share. But be warned. We writers are always on the hunt for new ideas.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Back Among Friends

I’m ba-aa-ck! I couldn’t stay away, so after a couple of years’ hiatus from this blog, I am back among my Type M friends. But I have to warn you… Having grown up with Monroe calculators, manual typewriters, rabbit ears, and “princess” phones with 25-ft cords that you could drag into your bedroom, I don’t feel truly at home in this virtual world. It’s not that I can’t navigate it. I’ve analyzed research data using complex statistics software, I’ve written eight novels and more than two dozen short stories on the computer, I’ve been prowling around the web for fifteen years. I have a Facebook page with a couple of hundred friends. Indeed, even Inspector Green has a Facebook fan page, although I confess my editor, a thirty-something, set it up.

But it still feels surreal. I will set this blog adrift in cyberspace without ever knowing who reads it. Who laughs and who rolls their eyes. It’s like shouting into the wind. I miss the face-to-face contact. The quick smile and the knowing nudge, the rush of pleasure and intimacy that comes from having an actual conversation. I know this is a tired lament often muttered by us pre-computerites to the texting, twittering generation below us, but we lose with one hand when we gain with the other. Depth. Texture. Belonging.

Writers have to build connections. We can’t sit in our garrets pounding out exquisite prose, and expect to soar to the top of the bestseller lists. Or even to pay the next month’s rent. My favourite way to meet fellow booklovers is the old-fashioned way, through book clubs, readings, signings and mystery conferences, where we can sit face to face and talk. I still do that as much as I can, but California and CapeTown are rarely within my reach. Cyberspace is the meeting ground where all readers can find us. Somehow through the blogging, facebooking, listserve postings and twittering, our voices can get heard. Cyberspace can be fun, too, digging up old boyfriends you haven’t thought about in four decades or connecting with obscure cousins in Australia.

So a big thanks to my blogger family for inviting me back. I join with optimism and humour, hoping to share some thoughts and experiences, to contribute to the noisy chatter of the mystery-loving world, and maybe to hear from people who read it. What do you think about our brave new world?

Friday, March 05, 2010


I stepped across the cobbled concourse, and felt a chill in my bones as I passed the threshold beneath a grey granite arch and heard the clang of steel gates closing behind me.

I was in prison. Condemned to give a series of talks to the inmates of French penitentiaries on the subject of writing. And now, here I was, a writer of crime books face to face with real criminals.

It had all begun eight months earlier. I had been in southern California, in the midst of a book tour of the US to promote one of my China Thrillers. I received an email from my French publisher (I live in France), to say that I had been nominated for an unusual award at the Cognac festival of “polars”, which is the French word for mysteries.

But acceptance of the nomination went with certain obligations - I had to visit a number of French penitentiaries to talk to the prisoners about books and writing. Why? Because this particular award - the Prix Intramuros (literally, the prize between the walls) - was going to be decided by panels of prisoners.

A long list had been reduced to a short list of seven, and these were the books sent out to the prisons. The inmates would read and cast their votes. My book was “Snakehead”, the fourth in my six-book China series, and I was the only non-French writer to have been nominated.

So eight months later I was being ferried from a base in Cognac to prisons in the north-west of France. My first group of prisoners were all men, on remand awaiting trial, mostly young. I had declined to wear my kilt (which, as a good Scot, I often do for promotional purposes). For, after all, what man in his right mind would wear a skirt into an all-male prison?

To my surprise, they were interested, articulate, full of questions about writing, plot, character, research. And once I had tuned into the French prison slang which was somewhat different from the Parisian French I had been taught at school, I enjoyed a lively debate.

Another group, in a different wing of the same prison, was all female. They each stood outside their cell doors as I was led along the corridor, and one by one they fell in step behind me. In a recreation room at the end of the corridor we all sat around a table and they stared at me with dead eyes, listening in sullen silence as I talked. These were poor souls. Drug addicts and alcoholics, prostitutes and petty thieves. Wasted lives. I felt as if I were talking to a brick wall, until I happened to mention some of the awful things I’d been forced to eat during my research trips to China - deep fried whole scorpions, ants, sea slugs. And suddenly they became animated and the discussion came to life.

Then my departure. They filed out ahead of me. Standing once more outside their cells, to be locked in again after I had passed. This time, when the metal gates of this cold, 19th century place of incarceration clanged behind me, I was out. A free man, breathing fresh, clean air. And thanking God that fate had not led me to be locked up like the lost creatures I had left behind.

I went on to other prisons, spoke to other prisoners, and met a group of older men who had created their own prison library, and who talked with great enthusiasm and intelligence about the books they had read - what else is there to do during all those long, lonely hours?

I got back to Cognac in time for that evening’s award ceremony in the vaulted cellars of the mediaeval Château Otard, where that most famous of French kings, François Premier, had been born. To my astonishment, when the prizes were announced, I had won. This crime writer had been awarded the prize by the criminals he wrote about. Quite a plaudit, I thought. But then pride was tempered by a more sobering reflection.

When we write, perhaps there is a tendency to think of our readers in the abstract. But here, I had been confronted by readers I had never imagined. People for whom my words and thoughts, and plots, had provided an escape from lost lives lived behind bars. And that felt like quite a weight of responsibility.

One thing is for sure. I no longer think of readers in the abstract.

A footnote: I am delighted and honoured to be joining the very distinguished Type M for Murder team. During the coming weeks and months I will write about my life as a writer here in France, where writers and writing are revered and respected. I will describe the ways in which publishing and promotion differ from the English-speaking world. From the end of this month, I begin a two-month book tour of the States, so I will relay the experiences of a writer on the road direct to your screens. And when the moment comes, I will tell you, too, about the book which was rejected by every major publisher in the UK, only to be snapped up all across Europe and published first in French to the best reviews of my career.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Breathing Life into a Dead-end Scene

This is about showing vs. telling, about making bad writing better, and about turning nothing into something.

You and I both know we should write every day, and hopefully we do our best to accomplish that. Writer’s block is nothing more than, as poet William Stafford said, writers who can’t “lower their expectations.” If you’re going to write every day, which is a necessity for most who write novel-length fiction, you’ll face many days when you don’t have your “A game.” So how can you work through those days and those drafts that seem to go nowhere? Below, I have written 103 words of fresh copy, a would-be opening paragraph that in its current state poses few if any interesting questions, grabs the reader with all the power of a dead-fish handshake, and makes no one, including the author, want to read on. But I will work with this scene and see if I can shape it into a potentially successful opening. I invite you to go along for the ride and take whatever you feel is useful from it.

She looked out the window, and saw the boy crossing the street alone. He was too young to cross that street by himself, she thought. His mother should be there. The sun was setting at 5:25 that Thursday afternoon. The boy was no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which was broken, the right sleeve torn. She sipped her tea and continued rocking, wondering if the sleeve had been torn by bullies and thinking, again, his mother should be walking him home as she once did with Jane, before the diagnosis, and long Jane was laid to rest.

Brutal. There is only one direction this scene can go. One sure-fire way to add tension is to change the tense.

She looks out the window, and sees the boy cross the street alone. He is too young to cross that street by himself, she thinks. His mother should be there. The sun is setting at 5:25 on Thursday afternoon. The boy is no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which is broken, the right sleeve torn. She sips her tea and continues rocking, wondering if the sleeve has been torn by bullies and thinking, again, his mother should be walking him home as she once did with Jane, before the diagnosis, and long Jane was laid to rest.

The opening sentences now pose several questions—always a goal I have when starting a story or novel. But the last lines are still flat. I’ll try playing with the syntax, shortening the sentences, and adding more tension by taking liberties with fragments.

The boy is crossing the street. Alone. Head down. Tiny sneakers shuffling through the snow. From where she sits, Maggie can see his breath coming in small puffs in the cold air. Too young to cross that street by himself. Where is his mother? It is nearly dark at 5:25 Thursday afternoon. She thinks of Jane, before her diagnosis, much before all that followed. The boy is no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which is broken, the right sleeve torn. She sips her tea. Rocks slowly. Thinking. Jane? Jane? Did bullies tear the boy’s sleeve? Where is his mother? She’d been there for Jane, although it didn’t matter. The disease was the ultimate bully. Rocking slowly, the teacup begins to tremble. The realization made her stop: This boy’s mother doesn’t deserve him. The next realization was the one that made her set her teacup on the windowsill and stand. There is an empty bedroom downstairs. The rag. The ether. She will save this boy. She knows she must.

Still rough around the edges, but I can work with this. Most importantly, I want to work with this now. The old lady has come alive. She’s creepy now, and she offers me lots of questions to examine during the writing process. What was her relationship with Jane? Does she feel guilty about Jane’s death? What will she do when she gets the boy? Are the bullies only imagined? Did you notice that I never explicitly offered Maggie’s age, but rather, I gave details (including a name) that I hoped would resonate?

How far will this story go? No way to know until I really delve into it, but now the story is there. I have a character ready and able to lead me someplace interesting. Most importantly, I’ve turned nothing into something, which is the goal of every writing session.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday's Guest Blogger: Lyn Hamilton

Lyn Hamilton is the author of eleven novels of “archeological mysteries”, featuring antique dealer (and sleuth) Lara McClintoch. The are clever, engrossing and, well, if you haven’t read any of them, you should! A link to her website is provided at the bottom. Thanks, Lyn!


I have been musing lately on the ability of fiction to illuminate social issues, to get to the heart of human experience through the telling of stories that are not, well, real. I am not sure why I’ve been thinking about this, other than that it has already been a long, hard winter here in Toronto even if it’s only January, and the gloom perhaps lends itself to thoughts of some of the ills of our society and how they are best documented and explored.

It is also because of my interest in the case of Herman Rosenblat. Rosenblat wrote a Holocaust memoir called Angel at the Fence, and it was to be published by Penguin’s Berkley Publishing, which just happens to be the publisher of my archaeological mystery series. Rosenblat wrote that he met his wife Roma at a sub-camp of Buchenwald where she is supposed to have sneaked him food. Trouble is, that isn’t true: apparently, they met on a blind date in New York. With that revelation, and Berkley’s decision not to publish the memoir, Rosenblat joins the likes of James Frey who also made up a memoir. Unlike Rosenblat, Frey’s book got published before the subterfuge was revealed, and he is perhaps best known for annoying Oprah no end.

Rosenblat’s excuse, I suppose you could call it, for making this all up, was that he wanted to better spread his message. (Comments on the other side of this argument are to the effect that a heart-warming false memoir like this just demonstrates our culture’s unwillingness to confront terrible events like the Holocaust.)

So why pretend it’s true? If the story is as compelling as those who read it, unaware of the subterfuge, have said, would this same book labelled a novel not have spread the message just as well? Do we ignore the messages of fiction, because they’re not populated by real people? True, biographies and memoirs sell better than fiction, by and large. Is that the reason for doing this? They sell better?

I am a judge in the Arthur Ellis awards for the best crime writing in Canada this year. That means I am working my way through a lot of crime fiction these days. In the last few weeks alone, I’ve learned a great deal about human trafficking, about abuse of children, about war, about the human toll of great natural disasters – all through the medium of mystery fiction. Does that make what I have learned any less relevant? I don’t think so. I’ve always been proud to be a part of the mystery community, because I believe that popular fiction can illuminate social evils – in fact has led in the exposure of ills in some cases – through the compelling telling of stories that may not be absolutely real, but which represent the world in which we live vividly and accurately. In fact, one of the reasons I began my archaeological series was to talk about issues of patrimony and heritage, and the loss of same by people all over the world, by the action of greedy smugglers and art dealers, to say nothing of museum curators. I wanted to do that in a way that people would find engaging, but at the end of the day, if someone thought twice about buying a pre-Columbian object on their trip to Peru and sneaking past customs in Canada, I’d be pretty happy. Of course, I wanted readers to stay up way too late to find out who dunnit, but I had other reasons for writing as well, and fiction, based on my knowledge of some of the less than acceptable goings-on in the heritage community, seemed as good a way as any of getting at those issues. By and large, mystery writers work hard to make sure that their fictional depictions mirror real life issues. Readers of mystery fiction want to be entertained, but they also want to be informed, and mystery fiction is a valid way of doing that.

Regards, Lyn Hamilton

PS – There’s a free mystery up on my website (www.lynhamilton.com) for a limited time. It’s in manuscript form, but you’re welcome to download it. I only ask that if you do so, you consider making a donation, however small, to a women’s shelter in your community. Speaking of social issues!!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It's Been a Hell of a Week

In keeping with Dana Denburg’s advice, I’ll keep this short.

Some of my compadres are attending Bouchercon in Baltimore. Some have just returned from Europe or Africa. I’ve just brought my husband home from the hospital. 

Everything is under control, let me assure you of that up front, Dear Readers, but we had a touchy moment or two, there, including a trip to the emergency room followed by two days in the hospital watching my him suck up blood transfusions.  They topped him off with five pints, and we got home this afternoon.  Sounds like he had an accident, doesn’t it? But he didn’t, so where did all his blood go?  Is our house infested with vampires, or giant invisible mosquitos? No one is sure, therefore many tests to follow.

I was very unhappy that I couldn’t manage to go to Bouchercon this year, because I really planned to, but if I had, this might not have had a happy ending.  I’ve made all the arrangements to attend Women Writing the West in San Antonio in two weeks, but it looks like I’ll be defaulting on that one, too, and I’ve already paid for it. 

This morning at 10:00, I’ll be conducting a mystery writing workshop at Tempe Public Library for 15 or 20 people.  I’ve done this so many times that I joke that I could do it in my sleep, and now I’m going to get to find out if that’s really true.

Funny how none of the above bothers me very much. Remember how 2008 was supposed to be the happiest year of my life?  I think it just might turn out to be.

Chapter Two- Later that same day...

Don is fine.  He got to watch the Oklahoma-Texas game on tv, which made him very happy.

Apparently you can teach a workshop in your sleep because it went very well.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Being there....Or Not

I am still working on a scene in a place I’ve never been and a situation I’ll never be in. I'd like to visit one day, but I'm a middle-aged mom with teenagers; if I enlisted in the military, someone at home would want to shoot me first. Fellow blogger and author Charles Benoit, who has been not only been in the place where I’m putting my opening (I think) scene and was also in the army, has been incredibly helpful. And it’s been loads of fun exchanging emails and imagining his experiences. So much fun that I had to call him and have a real-time conversation, which was a riot. I could hardly write ideas down fast enough.

A couple of things come to mind as I look at my scramble to describe a place I can’t visit. First and foremost, this endeavor, on paper and off, has to be fun. I love doing research, and this is the best kind. Chatting with Charles about his wild experiences reminded me of twenty-some years ago when my brother and I would sit on the lanai and drink beer and cook up thriller plots. For years, we just had fun—we never wrote them down. Finally, we both began to put them on paper.

Then the fun began in earnest, and I’ve had to branch out in terms of how I do research, which not only makes my writing better, but enriches me as a person. I’ve taken the eleven-week Citizen’s Police Academy class, I have the Medical Examiner’s direct phone number—and he talks to me in vivid detail (how lucky and fun is that?!). We (a group of writers and fellow crime fiction enthusiasts) started a Sisters in Crime chapter and we have authors, firearms experts, forensic entomologists, K-9 corps, and other experts speak to us on a regular basis.

So when I get a bit down about the publishing industry, book sales, how to publicize my next novel, travel expenses, and whatever other obstacles pop up, I think about how fortunate I am. How my world has expanded because of the active, intelligent people I’ve met in my work. How my TBR pile on the bedside table teeters even higher with gripping books. The rest of my family has begun to “borrow” from the stack—I have to make sure I get them back!

And I thank my lucky stars for being able to sit in my little office and visit Kuwait, where I’ve left my protagonist and six members of his platoon on night maneuvers near the Iraqi border, where something bad is about to happen. So please excuse me. I’d better go, they need my help.