Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Something to tickle your funnybone

by Rick Blechta

I’m really pressed for time this week and was hoping to find a bit of it to write my post but the day is already half-gone and it’s time to come up with a Plan B.

I’ll resort to my usual fallback and give you a few cartoons I’ve put aside over the past few months.

Hope you like ’em, and I’ll see you next week with a proper post!

Until then…

Monday, December 04, 2017

Water Under The Bridge

Last week a reader took a fierce dislike to a writing colleague's latest crime novel and told her so on Twitter. It was an all out, prolonged attack. My colleague was left stunned and bewildered. This was not a normal reader disliking said novel for whatever reason, which is perfectly fair in writing – after all, we can't please all of the readers all of the time. No, my colleague was being trolled. Trolls are nasty people who abuse their online anonymity by purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or by creating tension and anger between others. I sympathised. I've only been trolled once. As soon as I realised what was happening, I blocked the troll and heard no more from her or her friends. I tried not to let the experience bother me. But while I know sticks and stones may hurt my bones and names will never hurt me, the experience left me feeling anxious and sick. But then survival mode kicked in. No troll was going to stop me doing what I wanted to do. My writer's thick skin got that bit thicker. If there was a next time, I would be ready. As we've talked about on this blog already, writing is not for the faint-hearted and trolling seems to be just one more thing we writers have to learn to endure on the emotional Rocky Road to writing success. When I think of the writer's journey, I often think of the New Guinea pidgin expression throwim way leg. I used to hear it a lot when I lived in Papua New Guinea – I told you I worked in Papua New Guinea for a few years, didn't I? The phrase literally means to throw your leg away and start walking. I always chuckle when I hear the phrase. It sounds so innocuous and downright silly. However, in reality it is anything but. Throwim way leg actually means to take the first step into the unknown and on what would very probably be a long and very hazardous journey.

You see, New Guinea is after Greenland the world's largest island and home to 1000 languages, that's one-sixth of the world's total – pidgin is one of the three most spoken languages between the various tribes. The topography of New Guinea is so rugged that until the arrival of aircraft, tribes in adjacent valleys were often completely isolated. Just a few generations ago some of the peoples in the highlands of Papua New Guinea mounted well planned raids on villages, kidnapping children and killing and even eating their parents. Yes, I said eating! You can imagine, going on a journey was a fearful, perilous thing, rarely done. It meant abandoning the safety of your village, putting yourself at risk, without knowing where the journey would lead or if you would ever return to the safety of your village. 


At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I think we writers emotionally throwim way leg when we embark on a career in writing. We have no idea where it will lead us and the trip is full of pot holes, distractions, dangers, disappointments frustrations and trolls! We will probably never return to the warm, cosy comfort of the life we had before becoming a writer, at the same time there is absolutely no guarantee we will ever get to the promised land of “making it big”. But for some of us, as we've also said on this blog before, there is nothing we'd rather do. We meet lots of lovely people on the way and have the enormous satisfaction of knowing that total strangers all over the world are reading our stories and enjoying them. And, yes, while we writers may have to put up with trolls when we embark on our writing journey, at least there is very little chance we will get eaten. Trolls? They're water under the bridge.

Have you ever been trolled? 

Friday, December 01, 2017

Weekend Guest: Paul Doiron on Research into his Novels

John here. Our guest blogger this week is fellow Mainer, Paul Doiron, author of the Mike Bowditch series of crime novels set in the Maine woods. His first book, The Poacher’s Son, won the Barry Award and the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and a Thriller Award. PopMatters named it one of the best works of fiction of 2010. His second novel, Trespasser, was an American Booksellers Association Bestseller and won the Maine Literary Award. The eighth book in the series, Knife Creek, has just been published. His novels have been translated into eleven languages. Paul is Editor Emeritus of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, having served as Editor in Chief from 2005 to 2013. A native of Maine, he attended Yale University and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. He is a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine.

When people ask me what sort of research I do for my Mike Bowditch novels, I say there are three different kinds: reportage, first-person experience, and my own life.

Reportage is the easiest to explain because it’s what we think about when we hear the word research. Do you want to know how an autopsy is performed on a person who has died from a gunshot wound to the head? You interview a medical examiner. Or you buy a medical textbook like Dr. Vincent J.M. DiMaio’s excellent, expensive, and graphically gory Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques. Ideally, you do both of these things.

First-person experience is reportage of a different kind. When I wanted to include a scene in my novel Widowmaker that takes place in a helicopter used by wildlife biologists to conduct an aerial survey of Maine’s moose population, I talked my way into riding along with scientists on one of their excursions. (I subsequently cut the scene, but used what I’d learned as backstory). I still thrill at the memory of watching enormous bull moose explode through snowbanks as the chopper swung in. I could have interviewed a wildlife biologist or a pilot to get a sense of the experience, but I had a chance to see, hear, and feel everything myself, so I grabbed it. When I say I use my own life as research I mean that my novels are outdoor mysteries set in the Maine woods and waters. As a professional Maine Guide, I have spent many hours in canoes, carrying rifles, and climbing remote mountains. I don’t need to look up the difference between a red spruce (which makes for passable, if fast-burning firewood) and white spruce (which emits a foul odor like cat urine when burned). I already possess that knowledge.

But my life has been far more than one long lesson in bushcraft. Like everyone, I’ve worked different jobs, lived different places, known people very different from myself. So if I need Mike Bowditch to take a vacation, I am likely to choose southwestern Florida because I have visited the area many, many times. If I need to give a minor character a profession, I might make him a pharmacist because my father-in-law used to be one. Your life is stockpiled with this kind of good stuff. You might as well use what you already know.

Aspiring authors are often told not to indulge in “notebook dumps,” which is writerly slang for trying to show off your research by larding your stories with exposition. It’s good advice.

My counterargument is that research can be woven into stories unobtrusively if it leans more toward the experiential and away from straight reportage. The trick is to use sensory details — or interesting bits of trivia — to heighten the verisimilitude of the fiction. That said, never shoehorn something into a story that doesn’t want to be there. Everything in a novel must exist to serve the story.

I cut a whole chapter set in a freezing helicopter full of biologists counting moose from the air. Was I sad to cut it? Yes. Am I glad that I did? You bet. Do I regret the hours I spent flying above the snow-capped treetops, scouting for a moose, a waste? Not on your life.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Holidays Are Upon Us

Thanksgiving is over for both the U.S. and Canada, which means that the holiday season is officially off and running. My husband and I had our traditional vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner with a friend who has no family locally and doesn't object to eating Quorn turkey roast. We have been doing this for years. It has become our ritual. for the past many years, our Christmas ritual entails a giant brunch with another friend who invites several family-deprived persons over to her house on Christmas morning. We are happy with the holiday traditions we have developed over the last quarter-century.

But it was not always thus.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The future as we know it...

Reader beware: Barbara's rant.

On Monday, the big Canadian headline was the news of a deal between two media giants that decimated the local print media in Canada, mainly in Ontario. Postmedia and TorStar made a deal to "swap" about four dozen newspapers in smaller cities that they had previously bought up, and immediately closed down three dozen of them, throwing hundreds of people out of their jobs and silencing the voices of local communities.

Print media has been under siege as the news industry goes digital and global companies gobble up more and more of the market. Media consolidation has been going on for years as newspapers try to cope with declining ad revenues and readership, with the result that citizens now have almost no choices when it comes to sources of news in their area. Those papers that have survived, usually by cannibalizing their competition, has been slashed to a fraction of their previous size and offer almost no local or "niche" news, opting instead to rerun "big-money" features generated by the powerful multinationals. For the art world, including books, this has had the devastating effect of reducing features and reviews about Canadian or lesser known creators and replacing them (if at all) with reviews on the latest blockbuster Hollywood movie or John Grisham novel. And if you don't think that influences our attitudes and buying habits, just consider the latest Globe and Mail top ten best selling crime books, which contained nine American male mega-authors, and one lone Canadian male (yay, Linwood!). No women at all.

In September, the Canadian government, after a lengthy review that recommended greater subsidies for print media, announced that it was not going to prop up failing business models, thus ensuring the further collapse of professional and local reporting. Although newspapers are a business and need cash to survive, they are much more than just a business; at their best they are a source of information on our democratic institutions, a watchdog of private industry, and a source of local community cohesion. Without the eagle eye of investigative reporting, both private and public institutions would have free rein to pursue their own interests with impunity, to the likely detriment of the public good. If the Canadian government is not prepared to "prop up" this failing business model, who is left to do that vital civic role? TV reporting, which delivers news in sound bytes and is engaged in a similar struggle for survival? Online news sources, which are popping up to fill the gap but which lack the funds to support professional investigative reporting?

The Globe and Mail, itself owned by yet another media giant, reported on this latest "swap and close" move yesterday, in an analysis worth reading. It made the following key point:

"The bigger challenge is that even large media companies are dwarfed by both the scale of digital giants such as Google and Facebook – and also by the amount of data those giants have on their users. The massive aggregation of people's personal information is a gold mine for those digital behemoths, because advertisers demand greater levels of detail to help them better target their ads."

Google and Facebook... our sources of information. What a comforting thought. We know that both target not just their advertising but also their information articles to our particular interests. So increasingly we will end up in echo chambers of our own views, with thousands of articles flung at us willy nilly with no ranking as to their professionalism, objectivity, or indeed veracity. Certainly not the way to ensure the informed and discerning citizenry needed to maintain democracy.

To these two digital behemoths I would add a third – Amazon, the online giant that is driving many smaller competitors out of business. Vertical and horizontal monopolies are alive and well in the digital world. Choice and diversity of opinion are on the chopping block all across the business world, all in the pursuit of financial greed, or as they claim, survival. Many educational institutions in Canada have decided they no longer have to pay Canadian authors for copying their work, because it costs too much. Similar violations of copyright are occurring in other countries. Publishing houses are consolidating into a small group of multinationals, gobbling up national and regional houses, culling authors who are not huge money-makers and cutting the advances of those they keep. The result is fewer authors, fewer unique books and voices, and more books targeted to "the masses". Artists in all disciplines are struggling to make any kind of living wage, and while a few make millions, most make peanuts. Before he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's richest literary prize, Michael Redhill reportedly had $411 in his bank account. Michael Redhill is an established poet, playwright, and novelist with an impressive list of publications.

The decline in number and choice of books and newspapers should alarm us all. As information becomes more controlled in the hands of a few, and more difficult to find and evaluate even if we go searching for it, informed voting will become endangered and the critical thinking, diversity and tolerance of our society will be eroded. "Fake news" has already become the proud rallying cry of the ill-informed.

It's easy to blame the greed of faceless corporations, but we must also look in the mirror. How many of us check out the wares in local stores and then buy them on Amazon because they're cheaper? How many download music, books, newspapers, and TV shows from "free" or pirated sites, often bragging about how we never pay? How many of us shop at discount stores to buy cheap goods from developing countries with dismal environmental and labour standards, including forced or slave labour, thus driving local manufacturing out of business?

It costs money – our money – to maintain the society we have built. We need to think of the local businesses who create jobs and pay taxes in the community before we buy that $5 pair of leather gloves at XMart. We need to think of the local creators before copying or pirating their work. If we don't support them, they will not be able to continue. Our loss.

So as we all go about our holiday shopping this year, consider the small businesses who depend on our support. And if you're Canadian, buy a book from a Canadian author. There are many excellent ones, probably by authors you've never heard of. Crime Writers of Canada is a good place to start!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I Like Iceland! (or Giftgiving Made Easy)

by Rick Blechta

Before I get up on my Type M soapbox (always at the ready in a corner of my studio), you must read this article (Literary Iceland Revels in Its Annual Christmas Book Flood). Relax. There’s no test at the end!

I’m assuming that if you’re here, then you’re a book lover like the rest of us. And that being the case, the story linked above warmed the cockles of your heart as much as it did mine.

Iceland, from all I’ve heard, is a very civilized country and the way they feel about buying and receiving books during the holiday season proves it. A book flood indeed! I can think of no better holiday tradition than giving books on Christmas Eve.

Now you’re probably rolling your eyes. I mean I’ve definitely got a vested interest in the purchasing of books. But if I stopped writing tomorrow and all my publsihed books just went poof!, I would still feel the same way. Books are A Good Thing. They nourish your brain and soul, and the fact of the matter is, in many countries (probably most), per capita hours spent reading are way down and still falling precipitously. Is there a corollary between that and the rise in the amount of ignorance in modern society? I think so.

Okay, let’s bring this closer to home. My family has decided that the adults don’t really need to get presents from everyone this year so we decided on a “secret Santa”-type system. We’d come with a list: A gives B a present, B gives C a present, and so on. Everyone will have one present to open and then all can sit back and watch the youngsters open theirs. It makes sense and it’s certainly less expensive. My next thought (since I’d come up with the idea) was what do we give? Do we leave it open or set a theme?

And that’s when I read about Iceland’s book tradition at this time of the year. At that point I thought about the people in my family. To the best of my knowledge, at least three of them seldom (or never) read books. That’s a depressing thing to consider. One of them (and you know who you are) has only read one of my novels, and they’ve always received them as gifts every time one of them is published. (That’s even more depressing.) This person also has no magazine subscriptions and doesn’t generally read the paper.

In North America, I don’t think that’s far out of the ordinary. According to an article I found in The Smithsonian, 25% of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2016. Think about that.

On the flip side, a reason for hope is that 75% of Americans did read a book in the past year. Sales of books went up by 17 million to 571 million. Still, the number of people who read nothing troubles me — and I have some of them in my family. The percentage of people in Canada who did not read a book in that period is 12. (https://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2014/3/7/canadian-readers-by-the-numbers.html) Yea Canada!

I’d like to leave you with a thought. Give books to whomever you can this year. Sure, a crime fiction novel by one of us would be great, but to give any book would be great. I’ll bet you could find something for everyone on your list. Just go into a bookstore and browse. Your brother loves cars. Buy him a book on that subject. Your mom loves to knit. There are plenty of books on the subject. And so on.

If you really want to be cool and start a great tradition, do what the people of Iceland do: Give a book on Christmas Eve. If you celebrate something else or nothing at all, you can still start a tradition. Maybe we should just call my suggestion End-of-Year Book Giving.

Regardless, the more people who are reading regularly, the better. The world will thank you — eventually.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Books Do Furnish a Room

I am rather taken by an expression, much used by the younger members of my family, 'Is it a thing?' Or perhaps, since I've never seen it written, 'Is it a Thing?'

I had probably heard it before without paying particular attention, but when I first noticed it was when my recently-married son gave his wife a six-month anniversary present. Yes, I know — mine neither. Those costs could fairly mount up in forty-seven years.

His sister's husband, definitely upstaged, asked in alarm, 'Is it a Thing?' That, apparently, is the standard question to establish whether it could be discounted as merely an ignorable random act of chivalry (or madness, depending on which way you look at it — heaven help him if he forgets next year), or must be taken seriously as a new standard expectation.

There has been a lot of surprise in the past two or three years that the predicted eclipse of paper books by eBooks hasn't happened. Inches of newspaper columns have been written about the reasons for that — some very scientific, pointing out that the absorption rate from reading on line is a third less, others going on the psychological satisfaction the artifact gives.

But apparently, the sales of real books have had a recent boost because posting a photograph of yourself with your bookshelf has become a Thing — Shelfies, as opposed to Selfies. Even if your eBook is stocked with James Joyce and Thomas Aquinas, for all anyone knows your choice of reading might be Dan Brown and Fifty Shades of Grey. Real books can say something about your excellent literary taste without your having to work the conversation round to obscure literary topics to let you establish your credentials. 'This is who I am,' your Shelfie is saying.

And having books there on display is a bonus, even if you leave aside what's inside them. Their presence creates an atmosphere of quiet enjoyment. They have colorful jackets to brighten a room and they have an inimitable, delicious inky-papery smell. So if they've become a Thing it can only be good news.

And they hold their value too: I still haven't got over seeing a book I bought as a student for three shillings (the equivalent then of about fifty cents) in an antiquarian bookshop for two hundred pounds.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Will crime fiction lose its wheels?

One of the staples of crime and crime fiction may soon disappear. I'm talking about the get-away car.

To explain, the tech prognosticators are predicting that soon—within ten years, maybe five—the private car as we know it will be as obsolete as the horse-drawn buggy. According to this vision of tomorrow, to get around, instead of firing up the family jalopy, we'll summon a robotic Uber/Lyft that will whisk us to our destination. The traffic grid will be a commuters' paradise.

So how does crime figure into this? A common argument to fight "gun-violence" is that we ought to register guns like we do cars, ignoring the reality that registered cars are used to commit violent crimes all the time. Try kidnapping someone without a car (or other vehicle). In fact, getting kidnapped by car occurs so frequently that we even have slang for it: getting trunked. Cars are a favorite venue in which pedophiles sexually assault children. Cars are the most convenient and popular way to transport drugs for drug trafficking, which is a major source of violent crime. And cars are used in drive-by shootings and as get-away vehicles in robbery and homicide. If you were the chauffeur during those crimes, you can't excuse yourself by saying, "I was just the driver." Someone dies, you're on the hook as an accessory for murder one.

So how will violent crime happen in this future landscape of robotic cars? Consider that you won't own those cars; you'll sign up for a service that will keep your ID and credit card on file. There will be an extensive record of where and when you were in the car. So much for phony alibis. Plus, the car's wifi (or whatever) will shift through your cell phone and data-mine its contents. That feature is what will make this robo-car service affordable; you'll be a captive font of personal information. Besides that, the car will use facial recognition and other scanners to identify your passengers, and should any of them start using their phones in the car, they'll be data-mined as well. Plus, RF chips in your bottle of meds, your clothing, your purse and wallet, would also be scanned. Everything you do and bring into the car will be documented and analyzed. Additionally, these cars will be used for gun control since their interior scanners could identify guns and under the robotic car company terms-of-service, you would be prohibited from transporting even legally owned firearms without agreeing to onerous restrictions.

So in that scenario, how could you pull off a heist or a hit? Certainly there will be a premium service to ensure that the affairs of the rich remain private, and people up to no good will use that option. Hackers will no doubt mercilessly torment the robotic car industry. Factor in government corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, and criminals will exploit the security gaps using methods we can't yet imagine. So my prediction? Future crime writers will have plenty of juicy, horrific stories with no shortage of ways to vamoose the scene of the crime.

On another front, Blood Business, the newest crime anthology from Hex Publishers, edited by Josh Viola and me, was a Denver Post #1 bestseller.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The best advice?

Recently a lady posted me asking "what is the most important advice you can give to someone who is beginning to write a novel and why?"

The question threw me because I could think of so many things I wanted to tell her. I received the best overarching advice many years ago, at the start of my career, from a man who became a major power in the publishing business: "Write what you really want to write. There is so little money in the business it's stupid to do it for any other reason."

Rick Blechta recently wrote about a thriller that won a major literary prize of $100,000. Believe me, that doesn't happen very often.

People who write romances, mysteries, Christian literature, suspense, science fiction, young adult, etc. like writing what they write. If you look down on a genre as a lesser endeavor but think you can make a few quick bucks by writing something easy before you write the great literary novel, think again. An editor will spot you a mile away.

Even the great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald failed as a screen writer. He had this to say: "I just couldn’t make the grade as a hack,” Fitzgerald quipped after one of his studio contracts was terminated. “That, like everything else, requires a certain practiced excellence.”

So don't waste your time stalking genres which you hold in contempt.

After that, my best advice is to write your novel from beginning to end without showing it to anyone. Then go back and write it again and rework all the things you know are wrong. I don't understand how or why we automatically know what is wrong with a book—but you'll know.

Do the work. Do the work. Do the work.

Then show it to anyone and everyone and listen to what they have to say. You'll be surprised at the variety of reactions and the desire to tinker. If you know a friend, or a writing group, or a teacher is right, change the book. Never when you simply think they might be right because they are really smart. It's when you know they are right.

Here's another problem for a beginning writer to work through. You will receive wildly varying advice from authors. That will prepare you for the agonizing responses on rejection slips from a number of extremely smart well-paid editors. Some will love your characters, but hate the book. Another will love the book--but honestly, the characters!

No one can help you with that. Learning to sift through good and bad advice, and bewilderingly contradictory rejections is the first of many hard shells you will acquire on the path to become a writer.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

I have much to be thankful for this year. I say that every year, usually in the cliche way most of us living First World lives do. But this year things are a little different.

This time around, the words resonate a little more. Actually a lot more.

On August 24, after a week of not feeling so hot and two days after driving my 19-year-old to Kenyon College in Ohio, which is 10 hours away, I went to the ER, figuring I’d come home that night with a prescription.

I walked out of the hospital 17 days later.

Turns out, I had a perforated colon. Just a slight fever, so everyone missed it. (At one point, I told a doctor I had been hiccuping for 72 hours, and it seems to me that should’ve been a clue, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.) I didn’t know how serious things had gotten until after the operation and after a week in the ICU. (Between the trauma and meds, I pretty much slept through that first week after the surgery.) I was arguing with the surgeon about my recovery time. My wife asked the brilliant woman to “give us five minutes.” When we were alone, Lisa said, simply, “That woman saved your life Saturday night. You might want to trust her.”

Thanksgiving in Florida
“Saved your life” was an ice bucket to the face, the proverbial wake up call, one I have not forgotten. Earlier this week, my 16-year-old asked how the episode changed me. The answer was simple: priority rankings. I told her the only things I was thinking about in the ICU were Lisa, Delaney, Audrey, Keeley, and getting back to my book. For the first time anyone can remember, I wasn’t checking school emails. I missed teaching. But the longing wasn’t the same as the need I felt to spend time with those strong ladies and to finish the book I was working on.

From left: Keeley, Delaney, Audrey, Lisa, and John
So this year, as we gather at my in-laws’ house in Florida and are joined by my parents, I will be looking across the table at my family, thankful for my blessings, and continuing to rise before everyone else in the house to write –– and loving every minute of it. I've shared some photos of the week here.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers who celebrate the holiday!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving at the Beach

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. Time for half the population to travel to visit the other half. Or that’s the way it seems, anyway.

I enjoyed the recent posts by Aline and Barbara on setting so I thought I’d chime in.

I live in a Southern California beach city. Temperatures here are fairly mild as far as fall and winter are concerned, although we did register unseasonably warm temps in the upper 90s less than a month ago. You never know when a hot spell is going to crop up. Here’s a photo I took on Thanksgiving Day a few years back.

My books take place in the fictional town of Vista Beach, similar to the one I live in, so I look at the events and happenings that occur in my area around the time the book is set. Then I create my own event that’s a take off from the real one. In my last book, A PALETTE FOR MURDER, I have a chalk art festival that is roughly based on the one that happens in Redondo Beach every September. Here’s one of the entries from this past year.

Right now I’m working on a story set in October so I’ve been immersing myself in Halloween for months now. That means my writing has overlapped the actual October here at the beach. This time around I spent some time at the Old Town Music Hall in neighboring El Segundo. The theater regularly shows silents accompanied by live music on its Mighty Wurlitzer organ. This year they played several horror classics including Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). In my WIP, I have a scene set at Vista Beach’s own silent movie theater so of course I had to go to the OTMH to see some silent films. I've seen silents there before, but I wanted to double-check my memories.

Old Town Music Hall interior

The other thing that I’m including in my WIP is a version of the pumpkin race that takes place here every year. Yep, people decorate pumpkins, attach wheels to them and race them down the hill toward the pier. It’s quite fun to watch.

My next book is taking place during December so I’m getting a headstart on research for that one by noticing all of the holiday events that occur around the South Bay to see which ones might be good candidates for inclusion. I’ll have one more Christmas season before it’s due, but it’s nice to get a headstart on my research. And fun, too, of course.

That’s it from the beach. I hope everyone in the U.S. has a nice Thanksgiving and, to everyone else, I hope you have a great week.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Stop the presses!

by Rick Blechta

A thriller has won a major literary award!

Yes, you read that correctly. Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square won the Giller Prize last night (along with the $100,000 prize). The annual gala event is broadcast by CBC coast-to-coast-to-coast here in Canada and it always gets massive media attention, which is very good for publishing in general here in the Great White North. And finally a crime fiction novel has won something very worthwhile.

To be perfectly transparent, I haven’t yet read the book (but I will ASAP), so what I’m saying must be tempered by that knowledge.

One thing we crime writers (and genre writers in general) are fond of saying is that many of our top authors write as well or better than any number of “literary authors” who have won major prizes. This statement is usually followed up by, “But of course crime fiction will never be even shortlisted for any major prize because the people who run these contests don’t take our genre as a serious literary endeavour.”

Well, this year’s Giller judging panel certainly blew that out of the water.

Now one thing I have noticed is that the news coverage of the results of the Giller calls Bellevue Square a “literary thriller” (as if that makes it more acceptable to them), and judging by reviews I’ve been reading all morning, the novel is certainly not anything one could call formulaic in the way the story progresses, but the fact that “Giller winner” and “thriller” are appearing in the same sentence is something that sets my little heart just a-pumping.

This is a very big deal for all of us ink-stained wretches who write crime fiction. There’s hope for us!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Tanjin Binhai Library, China by MVRDV

For my brief post today, I'd like to share the news about China's spectacular new library, the Tianjin Binhai Library in Tianjin. Why? Because it's unbelievably beautiful and we writers all like libraries, don't we?

The library contains 1.2 million books and is designed by the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV.

The 360,000-square-foot library is designed to look like a giant eye. It has five storeys and the book shelves span from the floor to ceiling — many of the shelves double as stairs and seats in the delightfully designed space. The “books” above the actual bookshelves are decals painted onto the building to look like full shelves that continue up to the ceiling, creating the floor-to-ceiling illusion.

You can visit the MVRDV website for more photos and details here: https://www.mvrdv.nl/projects/tianjin-binhai-library.  I'd love to visit the actual library, wouldn't you?

The photos of the library are by Ossip van Duivenbode and by kind permission of MVRDV.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

RJ Harlick: The special people I’ve met along the way

Our guest blogger this weekend is my long-time friend and fabulous Ottawa writer, Robin Harlick. Called “the queen of Canadian wilderness fiction,” RJ Harlick writes the popular Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of West Quebec. Like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her own wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. But unlike Meg, she doesn’t find a body at every twist and turn, although she certainly likes to put them in Meg’s way. While most of the action takes place close to her Three Deer Point Victorian cottage, occasionally Meg travels to other Canadian wildernesses. In the latest and eighth book,  Purple Palette for Murder, Meg travels to Canada’s Far North in a desperate attempt to prove her husband innocent of murder.

Before I begin I’d like to offer many thanks to Barbara Fradkin for giving me this opportunity to tell you a bit about myself as a writer and about my latest Meg Harris mystery, Purple Palette for Murder

When I started on this writing journey with my protagonist, Meg Harris, I didn’t give much thought on where this journey would lead us. My sole focus was on completing the monumental task of bringing Meg to life through finishing the first book, Death’s Golden Whisper and finding a publisher to release her to the reading public. I never really thought about the world I would be entering, that of a published crime writer. But eight books later I’ve learned that writing crime fiction is about more than writing and publishing books. It is about the friendships made along the way.

I have learned that the crime fiction community is a very social and friendly one. Several of the writers with whom I started out are still very good friends. I’ve met others along the way, either from my local community or at various mystery conferences. We travel together, meet up at conferences or other events, share war stories, be they about writing or publishers or anything else that sparks our interest and we gossip. Boy, how we love to gossip. We support each other in many ways, including guest blog invitations, like this one, or inviting each other to share events, such as store signings, launches or library readings. We will even critique each other’s manuscripts before they are sent off to our respective publishers and go on writing retreats together. I treasure their friendship.

I suppose at the outset I had assumed that my writing would likely spark friendships with other writers, but I hadn’t expected that friendships would develop with readers of my books. I was delighted when I received the first emails from readers I didn’t know. I could barely believe that someone other than family or friends actually liked my books.  I even received a real live hand written letter, a rarity in this technological age, complete with a photo of a lake setting the reader thought mirrored Meg’s Three Deer Point. I always made a point of thanking them, still do, and would often hear from them again.

As the journey with Meg continues, so have the emails, some leading to more frequent correspondence. I exchange travel and pet photos with one reader, who with the publication of each new book sends me money for a signed copy. I have also found that Facebook is another great way to develop friendships with readers. Not only do I get to chat with them, but I also get a glimpse into their lives the same way they learn about mine. I mustn’t forget readers met at conferences, who’ve also become friends. I look forward to reconnecting with them at each conference. One reader brings me shopping bags from her home town, which I proudly sport when I do my grocery shopping. Others drive many miles to attend my book launches and other events. I was thrilled to receive this photo from a fan recently to celebrate the launch of my latest book. Her books look rather well read, don’t you think. I love chatting with my fans and value their friendship highly. 

What I hadn’t bargained on was the impact Meg would have on my readers, particularly her relationship with Eric, her one and only love. Recovering from an abusive former marriage, Meg has difficulties confronting the demons in her life and strives to overcome them. Alcohol was her remedy, but Eric, the one steady rock in her life, has managed to ween her off it, for the moment.  One traumatic event too many could tip her over the edge and back into her drunken oblivion.

Many readers have told me how much they admire Meg’s dogged determination to get on with her life. Some have even related their admiration for Eric and his relationship with Meg. I sometimes suspect that for some, aspects in Meg’s life relate a little too closely to their own. Meg and Eric offer them hope. Besides Eric is easy to fall in love with. I will admit I have a warm place in my heart for him too. As a result, I now feel a certain responsibility for Meg and Eric and the other recurring characters in the series, something I didn’t feel when I created them.

For all you readers out there, I would like to offer a special thank you for inviting Meg into your own life.

Before I go, I want to tell you about Purple Palette for Murder, the eighth and latest Meg Harris mystery. Meg has refused to leave the sanctuary of her Quebec wilderness property called Three Deer Point, while she attempts to deal with the traumatic events that happened in A Cold White Fear, the previous book. Eric has flown to Yellowknife in Canada’s Far North for some business meetings. She is rescuing an abandoned fawn when she receives a phone call from a lawyer, saying Eric has been arrested for murder. Setting her fears aside, she flies to that northern town to do what she can to prove his innocence.

Purple Palette for Murder gives you an opportunity to experience the northern wilderness without having to leave your armchair.  It also gives you a glimpse of the impact residential schools have had on the extended families of indigenous people in Canada. And of course, there is lots of murder and mayhem. I recently wrote a prequel to Purple Palette for Murder for another blog, Dru’s Book Musings. You might be interested in reading it here.

To learn more about RJ Harlick, check out www.rjharlick.caFacebook.com/rjharlick  and twitter @RJHarlick.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Conferences and Subplots

I intended to chime in on the discussion about setting, but last night I was thinking more about conferences and subplots. No, I'm not planning to use attending a mystery conference as a subplot in my book in progress. But attending a conference did take me back to tinker with my subplots.

This past weekend, I attended the New England Crime Bake, one of my favorite conferences. It's jointly sponsored by the New England chapters of Sister in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Even though I belong to the Upper Hudson Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime, I also belong to the New England chapter. This year, I had the opportunity to present a Master Class on "Using Research to Get to the Roots of Your Novel." I was on a panel about the writing process. I was asked, as a presenter, to read and critique excerpts from works in progress by unpublished writers. I met and shared my comments with the two writers that I was assigned. A couple of my books were on sale and people were actually buying them. All of which should have made me feel like "veteran author." Right?

Well, I did, until I got home and started to think about a conversation I'd had with a friend from Albany who also attends Crime Bake. She was sitting at "my table" for Sunday morning breakfast. While we were waiting to see if we were going to be sitting there alone (dreaded by all writers, if no friend is there to save you), she told me about Jane Cleland's Master Class. Since my friend has been in my panels and sees me often, she wanted to hear someone else. My friend, who is working on her first book, was still thinking about what Jane Cleland had said about building subplots.

Before we could get too deep into the conversation, a couple of other people came to join us. But, having enjoyed a book tour in North Carolina with Cleland (and Donna Andrews), I decided to pick up her book on writing. I bought it before leaving the conference. The title is Mastering
Suspense Structure & Plot. I confess that I have only read -- really scanned -- Chapter 5 about having two subplots. As I was trying to read, my mind was on my manuscript. I was already thinking about the predictable subplots in my 1939 thriller. My protagonist who has struggled to go to law school finds himself in a situation that makes him a suspect. His foe finds that his plans to create havoc may cost him the woman he is in love with and has been pursuing. Predictable.

And that brings me to my point about the value of conferences for writers -- even for those of us who have been at it for a while. As I was sharing my "wisdom" with the two unpublished writers whose manuscript excerpts I critiqued, I was asking them questions and remembering again what I had to learn as a novice writer. As I was listening to my friend talk about structure and subplots, I was reminded of what I had forgotten about what I'd learned. Back home, with Cleland's book as inspiration, I started to scribble. (I'll read the rest of the book when I start to revise).

I'm happy to say that my upright protagonist is now wrestling with a secret that will heighten the stakes for him. And I've discovered something about my antagonist (aka villain) that will not only make the romance subplot more important but make him more human.

My reminder: Go to conferences and listen to anyone who is saying anything. Writing should be continuing education.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Day of the Dead

I missed my post a couple of weeks ago, and it was completely by accident. I actually wrote the entry below and scheduled it for publication, but I didn't hit publish. Instead I kept it as a draft. Now, I've been known to do this before, but I always always check on my post day to make sure the entry came up.

Except for last time. Instead, I was lying in bed suffering from the flu, and rather than sharing thoughts about the Day of the Dead, I was wishing I was dead.

I have recovered, more or less. My plan for this week was to write something about the Women Writing the West Conference I attended a couple of weeks ago,  (which is where I picked up the influenza of death.) But I like my Dia de los Muertos/Samhain entry and felt sad at the idea of not using it. So here it is, Dear Reader, two weeks late. I hope you enjoy it notwithstanding.


Today (Nov. 2, 2017), my friends, is the Day of the Dead, a Spanish/Aztec celebration much beloved down here in southern Arizona. Día de los Muertos is a day for remembering your loved ones who have passed on. It’s like a family reunion, with your dead ancestors as the guests of honor. Day of the Dead is a joyful time, with parades, music, costumes, lots of food, and a candlelit altar to help the dead find their way home for the two days of the year (Nov. 1 and 2), when the living and the dead can commune.

Throughout the 1990s, I ran a little shop and sold imports from  Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. For a decade I was totally immersed in the Celtic culture. Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 are very important days in the Celtic calendar, for at midnight, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead thins, and we may actually be able to see one another.

All those Celtic peoples who came to the New World early on and settled on the frontiers and the back woods, from whom many, many of us descend, myself included, had a view of existence that is very different from the modern way of looking at things. We wonder how such realistic and practical people could have so readily believed in ghosts and haints and contact with the dead.  It had to be because they were ignorant and uneducated, we think, and obviously not as smart as we are.

But I say, au contraire, my friends.  As I travel through this life, I begin to have an intimation that things are not necessarily what they seem.  We perceive the world as we have been taught to do.  We see what we are looking for.

My great-grandmother, whom I was privileged to know when I was a girl, knew there were spirits abroad just as firmly as she knew the sky was blue. She had seen them, and she believed the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see them, or was she deluded? I’ve never seen a ghost. Am I realistic, or am I blind? How does a sighted person convince someone who has never seen that there is a color blue?

My protagonist, Alafair, perceives the universe in the same way my great-grandmother did, and I do not judge her for that.  In fact, maybe I’m a bit envious.

Samhain (pronounce that SHAW-win), Dear Readers, is a festival better known as Halloween, All Souls Day, and Celtic New Year. Some Celtic people would light bonfires on Samhain eve to guide the souls of loved ones, and make lanterns out of hollowed out turnips to lead the dead home for their annual visit.

My husband remembers that every Halloween, his father would dig a pit in back of the house, line it with bricks, fill it with wood, and light what they called a "bonfire", though it was more like a good sized campfire. The family would sit around it and roast wieners and marshmallows on sticks and stretched-out hangars. He has no idea where the family tradition came from, but I'm guessing it was passed down through the family from the misty past, for such traditions are remarkably enduring. So, if you live in the country or don't worry about being fined for building an open fire in your back yard, stretch out those hangars and get yourself a bag of marshmallows, and take a trip into the past with some campfire s’mores. Put a slab of Hershey bar on top of a Graham cracker, put a melty-hot roasted marshmallow on the chocolate, top with another Graham cracker, and enjoy.

And while you’re at it, be sure to light a candle to guide your loved ones home.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The devil's in the details

Barbara here. Aline's Monday post about setting serves as a springboard to mine. Great minds think alike! I too want to talk about setting, and more specifically about the setting of my Inspector Green novels, which are set in Ottawa, Canada's national capital and my adoptive home.

Write what you know, we writers are advised when we first set pen to paper. Really? What a bore that would be. I’ve led an uneventful life. I grew up in Montreal – not in the exotic, fast-paced downtown but in a nice, safe, leafy suburb – went to university, married, had three kids, worked for a few decades... There were a few heart aches, but not much drama or conflict that is the meat of good stories. Moreover, I live in Ottawa. Not London, or Rome, or even the Virgin Islands. Ottawa is a great city if you want to raise a family but not if you want to plot murders. It has roughly 12 murders a year; Baltimore has 350. In Ottawa, a sink hole is the lead news story for over a week.

Although Ottawa readers love the Ottawa setting, whenever I do events elsewhere, I have to downplay it. Canadians sometimes joke that Ottawa is the place that fun forgot, the city of gray civil servants scurrying home at 5 pm before the sidewalks are rolled up. I didn’t know this when I blundered into the Inspector Green series. I was just finishing eight years of graduate school at the University of Ottawa and I was ready to kill someone, so I bumped off a graduate student. What better place to set it than the place I knew so well – the University of Ottawa.

 Then two amazing things happened.

First, I realized how important setting was to the telling of a story. It’s more than just a static backdrop to the ongoing plot; it’s part of the drama. It’s the autumn leaves crunching underfoot, the sunset in your eyes as you drive down the Queensway, the musty smell and dark shadows in the library stacks where I put my first body. Writing is about drawing the reader into a story, making them feel they are walking in the footsteps of the characters. In a film, we see these details through the camera lens, but in a book, we see them through our own imagination.

I discovered that although I thought I knew Ottawa well and could use my memory for many details, I had to revisit all the places I was describing. When I wrote Do or Die, I prowled the library stacks (again!), I walked through the lobby of the Chateau Laurier and into Wilfred's Restaurant so that I could describe the sound of shoes on the marble floor and the smells of garlic and wine.  I took copious notes and photos. I needed all these details to bring the scene to life for me, even if I only chose to put a few into the actual book. Readers don’t want a whole page of detail; they want a few choice hints so they can imagine it themselves. The sparkle of candles on wine glasses, the soft murmur of conversation.

The second amazing thing that happened was that readers were surprised at the Ottawa I had brought to life. I got emails from readers who commented they didn't know the city was so diverse, or beautiful, or multi-textured. 
If you scratch beneath the surface, Ottawa actually has everything you need to create dramatic stories. It has a spectacular physical setting – three major rivers, a canal, and a lake in the centre. It has lots of parks to hide bodies in, ravines and bluffs to toss victims over. It has all the diversity of a big city - biker gangs, immigrants, rich, poor – but it also has farmers, cows and little river villages with secrets as old as time. Ottawa also has diversity in weather and seasons. It’s never predictable. Snowstorms, bodies buried by snow ploughs, floods, sweltering heat, blinding downpours. Even fog! I’ve used them all.

So over ten books I’ve explored just about every nook and cranny of Ottawa, in all its seasons. Mystery writers are a really nice, friendly bunch of people but we have some peculiar quirks. We’re always noticing interesting ways to kill people and interesting places to put bodies. Ottawa is filled with such places, and they have inspired the start of many of my books. The spark for Fifth Son began with a particularly spectacular country church that I drove by all the time on my way to the cottage, and each time, I thought; that needs to be in a book. That tower is a great place to toss a body from. And every time I stood at the edge of Hogs Back Falls and stared into the roiling water, I thought, boy, what would happen if you fell in. Thus Dream Chasers was born.

So in the end, I’ve come full circle back to the advice “write what you know”. Setting does not have to be flashy and world-renowned. Every family, every street and village has the seeds of intrigue and hidden secrets around which to spin a story. Every city, even one that on the surface appears grey and dull, has its nuances of colour and texture if you shine a clear enough light on it. Get up close and personal with the neighbourhoods, the geography, the changes of weather and season. The power is in the details; if they are vivid and specific enough, the story will come to life as the reader walks through it. Our own neighbourhoods, our streets, our schools and workplaces– none of these places are dull. They can all serve as settings for the very human stories we choose to tell. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.