Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Donning another hat

Me in 1973,  just out university and dreaming of stardom!
As I’m sure longtime readers of Type M are no doubt acutely aware, my original vocation was as a musician.

I had my first piano lesson at age 7 (I will not tell you in what year!) and I was immediately hooked. Later on, wanting to play “popular music”, I branched out to organ, started a band, and, well, that was it for me. Music absolutely consumed my life. By the time I was 16, I was playing in a bar two nights a week with a very good soul band, Gene Sayles and the Soul Salesmen. More time passed with a lot of nights spent in bars. During this time, I also learned to appreciate jazz and took lessons from a gentleman named Weldon Irvine. Along with Jimmy Smith, he was my musical hero.

Late in high school, I wanted to join the school band, and since they needed trombones, I took that up. With university beckoning and my heart set on a music career, I practised my butt off and got into the Music Department at the NYU School of Education. Playing in band sort of took a back seat after that. There was just too much to learn and not enough hours in the day to do it!

I transferred to McGill University in my third year for various reasons (love being the major one), and that required a sea change in my life. I was out on my own and living in Montreal (with my girlfriend, also a musician). I did do some semi-professional playing during this period, but it was mostly on French horn, the instrument I took up in university — mainly because there were so many great trombonists in the school and not as many hornists.

But once university ended, I immediately formed a new band, and with dreams of fame and fortune in my eyes (much like budding authors), we set out on the road to stardom. This time, though, I was playing progressive rock. You know, those ponderous songs of half an hour each, played on many instruments and with poetic lyrics that made absolutely no sense. That band, Devotion, was really exceptional. We felt we could play anything — and did. A volatile mix of talent and ego, sadly, the band broke up after two great years. After trying one more time with another band, I saw the handwriting on the wall: time to find alternative means of employment. Having gotten a Music Ed degree, I began teaching and did little performing far too little performing for the next 24 years.

But buried deep in the background, I still remembered my early roots in soul music. I’d hear a tune by Otis Redding or James Brown and get excited all over again by the music’s raw power.

Coming full circle – but on a different instrument!
As often happens as we get older, when I was back visiting in suburban New York where I’d grown up, I’d get together with old friends, many former performers in my old soul band or in others in the area. “Hey! Let’s put something together and play!” Since I’d always enjoyed and been adept at arranging, even back in the day, it fell on me to produce the horn charts and rudimentary rhythm section parts. We played. It sounded great and was huge fun. We did it a few more times, the band swelling to a dozen people. I was re-hooked on soul music.

That re-routing of my musical career comes full-circle on Thursday this week when a new band I’ve put together makes its debut performance in a Toronto club. Am I excited? You bet. This is no time to be a jaded, long-suffering musical “veteran”. We’re playing what I consider some of the best music created in the past century. Best of all, my fellow band members are playing it very well. The sound we have is authentic, a bit raw (purposely) and still very vital.

What does all of this have to do with writing? Not a heck of a lot, actually, but I am looking forward to Thursday with excitement I haven’t felt since printed copies of my first novel arrived at my house in 1992.

There! That’s a writing connection, isn’t it? If you’re in the Toronto area, please come to hear SOULidified at The Orbit Room, and watch Blechta with his musical hat on for a change.

Consider this your invitation!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Switching Gears

I once tried writing a very dark crime novel. My original premise had been about these two tough cops in B.C., a young woman and an older man, up against drug and motorcycle gangs, sex traffickers and really bad killers (as opposed to really nice killers??).

At the end of the first book in the series, the older male would be killed in a bomb explosion and the woman would go on to seek revenge.

Believe it or not, that book didn’t come out very dark and ended up being In the Shadow of the Glacier, the first Constable Molly Smith book.

Which, if you haven’t read the books, is a realistic police procedural about the lives and jobs of cops in small town British Columbia. Some reviews have called the series cozy, but they definitely are not.

In one book, Molly Smith kills a man, in them all the fall out of the murder or crime is wide-spread and devastating. I’ve dealt with the murder of a mother, the disappearance of a father, the suspected betrayal of a spouse, the death of adult children (not touching little kids), and even a soldier with PTSD and a gun on his lap.

So, not cozy. But nowhere near as dark as intended originally. Which is no doubt all for the better.

My standalone suspense novels have a modern gothic touch, and all deal with betrayals past and present.

My Klondike Gold Rush books are lighter, but they still have an edge. The main character is a woman with a past and she knows there are people out there looking for her. She runs a saloon and dance hall, and the occasional shady character drops in.

So, all in all, I think I’m a varied writer. I can write in different sub-genres and use different styles and tones in my writing.

Except, it seems, the dark stuff.

My newest style is very light. Under the pen name Eva Gates, I’m writing true cozies.

And having a lot of fun with it. Maybe I was burning out with the stuff I was writing, but the cozies have given me a giant boost. Then again, maybe I’m just enjoying not worrying about grief, and loss, and the tragedy of human existence.

Cozies are intended to be nothing more than an entertaining read. You won’t learn many lessons about the human condition, there is no one suffering from angst or threatening to kill themselves because of depression. No PTSD. No terrorist attacks or serial killers. Just people with friends and lovers and community. And the occasional enemy. And a murder of course.

Some cozies are humourous, some are not. I have tried to be.

Even if you’ve never read a cozy before, I invite you to give it a try. By Book or By Crook will be out on February 3rd. I'll be travelling extensively in the US on book tour, and meeting up with some great authors to share events along the way. The detailed schedule can be found at www.vickidelany.blogspot.com.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

When the dream becomes a reality

This weekend's guest blogger is my very good friend and fellow Ottawa writer R.J. (Robin) Harlick, whose gritty, thought-provoking Meg Harris series is set in the rural wilderness of nearby West Quebec. Part mystery, part thriller, always exciting. Here she blogs about how and why she got started.

I’ve enjoyed the discussion on the Bechdel Test and the gender bias in literature and film. I will admit I could write ad infinitum on the topic, but like Donis, I will save this discussion for over a glass of wine.

At some point in our lives we writers make the decision to become one. Some of us know from a young age that writing stories is what we want to do, while for others, it is a more gradual transformation.

For me, there was never really a definitive moment when I shouted, ‘Yes, I want to be a writer.” I more or less slid into it, starting where most writers start, as a reader. As a child, I devoured books, in particular mysteries beginning with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and eventually graduating to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Sayres, Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolf and the like. Sometimes I thought it would be fun to write one of these myself.

Though I loved reading, English wasn’t my favourite subject. I found the piecemeal taking apart of a story destroyed the magical hold it had over me.  But I loved the creative writing part of English classes and would spend many an hour on class assignments making the stories that swirled around in my head come alive with words. Needless to say many had a mystery angle to them.

In university, I continued to enjoy playing around with words. I excelled at making essays sound as if I knew something about the topics about which I was writing, when I didn’t. Studying wasn’t one of my strengths. Perhaps this is where my penchant for creative writing started.

I also continued to read voraciously branching out into the world of the greats. Though I thought it might be fun to become a writer, like Ernest Hemingway or Somerset Maugham, I didn’t treat it seriously. I didn’t really think I had it in me.

This enjoyment for words continued on into my work life. I invariable preferred the writing part of my job to other aspects. But it was business writing; letters, proposals and reports. Nonetheless I continued to harbour the dream of being ensconced somewhere bucolic penning the next great Canadian novel.

To satisfy my need to write, I started recording my time spent at my log cabin in the woods in a journal. Finally, one day after reaching a significant birthday, I decided it was time to find out if I could become the fiction writer in the bucolic setting of my dreams. The setting was easy. I was already sitting in it; the screened-in porch of my log cabin overlooking the surrounding forests. And so I set out to write what would eventually be published as my first Meg Harris mystery, Death’s Golden Whisper.

My first goal was to see if I could even write a novel. Until that point, none of my business writing had approached the 100,000 word length of a typical novel. The next was to determine if I could write fiction, for I quickly discovered fiction writing is a totally different animal from business writing.  As I marched along this new adventure, scene after scene, chapter after chapter, towards the climactic end, I realized I really enjoyed it. And so I decided writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Six books and the odd short story later here I am continuing the adventure with the next and seventh Meg Harris mystery, A Cold White Fear.

What about you? Was it a slow gradual slide into becoming a writer or did you know from the get-go that you wanted to be one?

RJ Harlick writes the popular wilderness-based Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. RJ divides her time between her home in Ottawa and her log cabin in Quebec. And like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. There are 6 books in the series. The fourth, Arctic Blue Death was a finalist for the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. In the latest release, Silver Totem of Shame, Meg travels to Canada’s west coast, to Haida Gwaii, the mystical islands of the Haida, where she unravels a story of shame and betrayal that reaches back to when the Haida ruled the seas. She is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada. She is currently working on a Cold White Fear, the seventh Meg Harris mystery, scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016 release. Visit her website: www.rjharlick.ca/.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Power of Trust

I think I've mentioned here that a couple of months ago I adopted a cat, now named to Harry. In this photo, Harry — eight year old Maine Coon mix —  is investigating the boxes I've collected for my decluttering project. Harry seems to share a number of characteristics — like loving boxes — with other felines. But he has other quirks that seem to be uniquely his own.

Much more of a dog person than a cat lover — having only had an outdoor cat briefly when I was a child — I have been surprised by the bond that we're forming. But what has surprised me even more is that having Harry in my life is giving me greater insight into human relationships. Harry is an opportunity to study close-up the profound power of trust to affect human behavior.

Yesterday, I dropped Harry off at his vet's to have his teeth cleaned while I made a quick trip to New York City. The night before, Harry seemed to pick up some anxiety on my part that I had received instructions that he was not to eat after 6 am. That meant I would either not be able to leave food out for him that evening or that I would have to wake up before 6 and remove his food bowls. But my greater anxiety was that he would somehow sense that the next morning I planned to put him into his carrier. Harry does not like his carrier, wisely associating the carrier not only with being caged but with a trip in the car to the vet.

At a little after midnight I went off to bed, having decided to set the clock and get up at 6 to remove his food bowls. For the next two hours, Harry wandered through the house meowing, with occasional stops in front of my close door to scratch and meow louder. The scratching at my door is something we dealt with early on. We established that I will not open my door because he scratches. At night, I go off bed, leaving him to do the same — and he is often asleep before I am. But he wakes up and plays cat soccer with his toys and dashes through the house and eats and does whatever cats do at night. His business, as long as he stays away from the door. Then in the morning, I get up and open the blinds so that he can look out. He is already on top of the radiator waiting. Over the past two months, we've worked that out. So the scratching at the door and the loud meowing was disturbing. I couldn't sleep and he wasn't in a mood to play.

At 2 am I gave up. I waited until it had been awhile since he scratched on the door. Then got up, went into the living room and set on the sofa. Now, that we have a pet cover, he is allowed to make use of the sofa without the balled aluminum foil that didn't keep him off anyway. Now, we sit on the sofa in the evening when I have the time. Easier than having an 18+ lb cat jump into my lap when I trying to work on my computer. So at 2 am, I sit on the sofa. He jumped up beside me. Exhausted, I stretched out. He stretched out in the curl of my arm, on his back, paws in the air.

When he was snoozing, I eased off the sofa. He turned over and curled up against the pillow and kept sleeping. He was still asleep when I woke up at 6. In fact, I had to wake him up a little before I scooped him up and put him into his carrier — actually, a carrier designed for a medium-sized door. I had lined it with a towel, sprayed it with a calming spray, but Harry still meowed his unhappiness as we drove to the vet. And I felt guilty, as if I had betrayed his trust, even though I knew the trip was necessary and that I would come back for him. And I hoped that 2 am time together on the sofa had helped him to believe that, too.

Harry has gotten me thinking about humans relationships, not just with animals, but with other humans. For most of us — those of us who have the power of empathy — being trusted by another human or an animal is a gift, but it comes with responsibility. The responsibility to live up to that trust.

As writers, particularly crime writers, we deal with trust in our work — usually betrayals of trust. But there are also those stories to be told about keeping trust. Harry has me pondering what I can do with that. Writer thanks cat.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

An Ugly World

Donis here. Men are outside painting my house. All the windows are covered in opaque plastic and I can't see what's going on. Is it cloudy? Sunny? I am feeling creepily encased in a kind of half-light. But to business...

The gender debate that has been...well, let us not say "raging", but perhaps simmering along for the past few days, has made for interesting reading. I've also found it a bit depressing. Barbara's post on Wednesday nicely summed up a lot of my feelings on the matter so I won't add my two cents.

But if we ever get together for coffee and you'd like to hear what I think, Dear Reader, I'd be glad to give you the entire dollar's worth of my opinion. I've been around a long time and have had a lot of experience being an American woman of all ages and throughout several eras.

In the meantime, let us discuss writing for a bit. I've been working steadily on the eighth installment of my Alafair Tucker series, which is set in the American West during the second decade of the Twentieth Century. The new book, All Men Fear Me, should be published in the fall. The first book in the series, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, came out in July 2005, which means that I've been writing Alafair's story for ten years come this summer.

Writing series characters over a long period of time is like living with real people. When you first meet them, it takes a while to get to know how they think and act, to understand their peccadillo;and to know how they are going to behave in any given situation. But as in any relationship, your characters will surprise you, no matter how well you think you know them. If they don't, you haven't written real people.

Every book I write surprises me. Alafair is raising ten children, and I'm amazed at how each of them is turning out. I mean, I had no idea that this one would grow up to be such a hothead, or that one would be an intellectual, or a tease. Or so self-destructive. Alafair is changing as she gets older, too. She used to be so sure of herself. But then things are happening in the world that affect her and her family, and she has no control over any of it. It's like she said:
"When the kids were little, I thought that if I could just keep them from killing themselves until they were big enough to take care of themselves, then I wouldn’t be worrying about them so much. Turns out I had it backwards. When they were little, I had more charge over what happened to them. But now they’re all about their own affairs, and there’s nothing I can do about it."

It was an ugly world in 1917. I've thought before that writing historical fiction or science fiction is a way for an author to comment on the society he lives in by drawing parallels to the past or future. The more I research what life was like for ordinary people in the early 20th Century, the more I realize that as a species, we humans don't seem to learn anything.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A women's lot

Barbara here. We have a bit of a gender war going on here on Type M, and it's great fun. I am going to weigh in on Bechdel quickly before taking the gender talk in a slightly more personal direction.

I think the purpose of the Bechdel Test is not to force score-keeping or to criticize anyone's work for falling on the wrong side of the test. It's to create awareness. As every woman knows, a lot of biases and prejudices influence us below the level of awareness and form such an integral part of our culture and our own personal experience that we don't even notice them. Particularly if we are not a member of the group on the receiving end. Women are more acutely aware of biased attitudes that affect them, while men are often blissfully unaware. Black people are more aware of racism than whites, gay people more aware of homophobia, and so on.

As Rick, Violette and Vicki all pointed out, we have come a long way since the barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen days; women enter the professions in equal numbers to men and have broken many of the stereotypes that formed barriers. But we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to rising to the top. The more money, status, and power a position has, the more likely it is to be filled by a man. This is true whether the field is politics, academia, finance, corporate CEOs, or show biz.

Closer to home, in the world of Canadian and American crime writing where men and women publish in more or less equal numbers, men still tend to get more reviews, more festival invitations, more award nominations, and bigger publishers. It's as if the stories women tell are somehow less important than men's. And as Vicki highlighted in her Delany Test, as if women's stories are just about women instead of people.

The Delany Test and the Bechdel Test can help us become more aware of this subtle but extremely powerful bias. It's true as Rick pointed out that women can push back with an equal bias. Some men men won't read a book about a woman, and quite a few, as I can attest, won't even read one written by a woman, because they are pretty sure it "won't interest me." As an aside, the only two female authors who have won the Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award in the last ten years (myself and Louise Penny) have male police detectives as their main character.

Which brings me to my own personal gender diversion. For fifteen years I have written about a male detective. When I first conceived of Inspector Green in the 1980s, I was heavily influenced by my favourite British crime novelists like PD James and Ruth Rendell, both of whom had male police detectives. In those days the police were overwhelmingly male in real life as well, so it didn't even occur to me to make my detective female. In the first few books, I didn't even include a female on his team (also quite normal in real life). One day a woman reader demanded to know why I chose to make my hero a man. She went so far as to say I "should" be writing about a woman, as if I were somehow betraying my own sex.

I don't like being told what to do, as my family knows. And I don't regret for an instant the time I've spent with Inspector Green. I love him as a character and he's been a source of constant inspiration and entertainment, but that comment was the first step in raising my own level of awareness. From that point on I included female officers on Green's team, both the enthusiastic but brash Detective Sue Peters and the ambitious, self-serving Superintendent Barbara Devine. In short, both people who happened to be women. Over the course of the series, I have collected a lot of committed readers, both men and women, who enjoy Inspector Green and the whole cast.

I am now embarking on a brand new series, and this time in the interests of a fresh challenge, coupled with the wish to explore new characters and new themes, I am switching things up. I am picking up the mantle of the amateur sleuth and giving up the police procedural format, and my main hero will be a woman. I will be sticking to my gritty, psychological style, with an emphasis on the human condition. But will I be pigeonholed firmly in the "woman's story" camp now? Will my male readers follow me, and will they enjoy the experience of cheering on a woman as she confronts the struggles and evils she encounters?

Let's hope so. Let's hope we've come that far.

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.