Friday, May 17, 2019

Books to Movies

This is the season when academic types are neck-deep in papers to be read and exams to be graded. I just took part in the commencement ceremony for our wonderful undergrads in the UAlbany School of Criminal Justice. Now I need to get my grades in before deadline. So today I am pointing you to a quiz -- an article in USA Today about the best movies you've probably never seen.

Since I have been thinking about how film techniques can and are used by writers, and some of these movies are based on novels, I scored myself to see how many I had seen. I got 25/50. Not as good as it should be, but I have seen 15 of the top 25.

See if you can beat my score. If you're like me you'll find some films you've heard of  but never sit down to watch.

Have fun. I'm going back to work.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Wrong Girl, The Right Title

I (Donis) have been enjoying our recent posts about elegant variations, but today I want to throw back to last Thursday's entry concerning titles, by John. And the main reason I want to do that is because my publisher recently informed me that they have changed the title of my upcoming novel. They ran the new title by me, of course, and asked if I had objections. I didn't, even thought this is the first time in eleven books that I've had a publisher change the title I put on the manuscript. The upcoming book, which will be out in November, is the first of a new series for me, and I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title in the first place. I love the series title, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, and fortunately that is not changing. The new series is structured like the episodes in an old silent movie serial, and like those movies, I had chosen a book title that was overblown and overdramatic. That's what the publisher thought, too. Overblown and overdramatic.* So they suggested that the book be called The Wrong Girl, because this is what one of the characters says to a man who seduces and kidnaps young women.

"One of these days, you're going to choose the wrong girl."

And does he ever.

I like their thinking, too. Whenever I write an Alafair Tucker mystery, I spend many weeks trying out prospective titles on friends and relatives, judging titleworthiness by the look in their eyes. For most of my past endeavors, I have chosen a title early on in the writing process, and then changed it when the book was finished. For the Alafair series, all the titles are taken from something that one of the book's characters says in the course of the story:

"I think The Old Buzzard Had It Coming"
"He was standing on The Drop Edge of Yonder"
"It looked like Hell With the Lid Blown Off"
"Here's your Forty Dead Men, McBride. Don't waste them, 'cause the man you miss may be the one who kills you."

 And so on... While I'm writing, I'm always waiting for someone in the novel to tell me what to call it.

I love reading about how the titles for my favorite books come about. Titles are important. You want to convey something of the spirit of the story, catch the reader’s eye, intrigue her enough that she wants to read that book. When friends and family hear that a new book is underway, one of the first questions I get is, "What's the title?"

How about you, dear reader? Does a fabulous title make you want to buy a book? I’m trying to think of books that I actually wanted to read because of the title. The only one that comes immediately to mind was Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child. Tom Wolfe titles catch my eye, but which of his books have I actually read? Did I read Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers? No, I did not. I read The Right Stuff, Hooking Up, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Okay, I also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I was young and it was the ‘60s.)

Commonly authors don't get the final say on what the title of their novel will be. Publishers have the idea that they know what will sell a lot better than some introverted, socially inept author does. Maybe they do. Being introverted and socially inept, I wouldn't know. This time, I think they made a good business decision.
*The old title: Lust for Vengeance. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

More elegant variations

Aline's post this week touched close to home, because I am in the midst of rewrites on my latest Amana Doucette novel, and am very attuned to the style, quality of language, and word use in the text (along with fixing all the plot holes, gaping inconsistencies, and other large failings). It takes many eyes to catch all the word repetitions and find good quality alternatives. First I try to catch as many as I can, and then I pray the copyeditor and proofreader catches even more. But sometimes they sneak through even the most thorough editing, and I only spot them while doing a public reading after the book is out, and the horse has truly left the barn. I've been known to change the offensive word on the fly in these cases.

Reading aloud is very useful not only for catching those pesky repetitions, but for listening to the overall flow of the sentence and the rhythm of the words. Rhythm affects readability and pleasure. Elegant variation can refer to much more than single words. It can refer to sentence structure, sentence length, syllables and accents. Too many long sentences draw out and slow down a story. Too many short sentences make for a jerky ride. Although short vs. long sentences can be effective to vary tension and pacing, in general a paragraph works best with varied sentence length.

Starting three sentences in a row with the same word or structure sounds clumsy. eg. He picked up the book and began to read. He wasn't sure he liked it. He would have preferred a more exciting tale. (Forgive the clunky prose, it's late and my imagination is fried). An elegant variation would be: He picked up the book and began to read. Would he like it? A more exciting tale might be better. Mix up the syntax, create subordinate clauses, invert sentences, etc.

In another elegant variation, I try to mix up long and short words. Some combinations create pleasing rhythms and others land like a thud. I have often resorted to the thesaurus in search of a one-syllable word to replace the existing two-syllable one, because there were already a couple of two or three-syllable words.

There are times, however, when repetition can pack a powerful punch. It makes the message stand out. Alliteration is one example. So is parallel construction – using the same word, phrase, or sentence structure in a series of sentences. Dickens' famous "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", etc. is a memorable example of this technique. Once again, reading the section aloud is useful in determining whether the effect is powerful, clunky, or just plain silly. Here as always, a little repetition goes a long way.

So I return to my rewrites, trying to keep all these ideas in my mind at once, and sure that I will miss some clunker.s When that happens, I can only hope the copyeditor is there to make the catch.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

One of those weeks

by Rick Blechta

Here we are, all good intentions swept away by the four winds, and I’m left with nothing to write this week and no time to write it anyway.

See you all next week. And I’ll have something good…promise!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Elegant Variation

Do you employ elegant variation? Do you even know what it is? You're a cultured lot – probably you do, but I have to confess that I didn't, until comparatively recently.

The phrase was coined in 1826 by HW Fowler, whose Dictionary of Modern English is still the bible for style in the English language. He was in general against it. RW Burchfield, who revised it more recently, is cautiously in favour.

And what is it? It's the consequence of the instinctive prickling of discomfort at the back of your neck that alerts you to having repeated the same word too often in the same passage. If your copy editor is anything like mine, she will frequently draw your attention to any of these you have missed. You then have to come up with another word that means the same. When you change it, you have performed an 'elegant variation'.

Don't reach for the Thesaurus, though – a primrose path that leads easily on to destruction. The term only came to my attention because there was correspondence about it in the Times.

Journalists clearly have a profound aversion to repetition. The one that irritates me most is when they do the, '55% of people believe that...' then 'more than one in six disagree' thing. I didn't like having to do proportion sums when I was at school and still less do I like having to do them over a breakfast read of the papers.

The article that was under discussion was the story about the rat trapped in a manhole cover that needed nine firefighters had to rescue it. The victim (see how I did that!) was described variously as 'the portly rat', 'the rotund rodent' and 'the unfortunate flabby animal.' This was definitely felt to be OTT.

Of course, it's just as my granny always said, moderation in everything (and eat your greens.). I guess we all do it to some extent and I am just delighted to discover that there's a name for it. One of my favourite characters in literature is Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was of uncultured stock but was determined to improve himself with tutors and was enchanted to discover that all his life he has been speaking prose.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


By Vicki Delany

I'm delighted to invite my good friend, fellow festival organizer, and excellent writer Janet Kellough back to Type M. I'm certainly keen to find out what Thaddeus Lewis is getting up to now.

One of the things that is lovely about writing a series is the way the characters evolve as time goes on. In the first book in my Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, On the Head of a Pin, the hero/detective  Lewis is a man in his prime struggling with the unexpected death of his daughter, a loss that propels him headlong into a murder investigation. He is decisive and forthright and resolute, certain in his calling as a saddlebag preacher. But in his pursuit of the killer, he comes to understand that the world is perhaps not quite as black and white as he’d always believed.
As his story progressed through the subsequent books, he loosened up even more. He softened. He began to doubt himself. And the meaner I was to him, the more relatable he became. And I’ve been pretty nasty - I’ve bashed him over the head and broken his arm. I gave him a gimpy knee. I pointed a gun at him a few times. I killed his wife. I humiliated him. I seduced him. (Big existential crisis for a 19th century minister.)
But with each challenge, his character deepened and I liked him more.
His family grew up around him as the story went on. Relationships subtly shifted. And then friend and foe alike began to wander through the narrative, popping up here and there just when the plot needed them most.
Now, in the seventh book The Untoward Assassin Thaddeus’s granddaughter Martha, who was a toddler in the first book, is nearly an adult and about to embark on a career as a teacher, thanks to the fact that the Provincial Normal School, the teachers’ college of the day, actually accepted female students – a provision virtually unheard of at institutions of higher learning in 1855.
Thaddeus accompanies her to Toronto, and lo and behold, there’s his youngest son Luke, sitting there ready to be called back into the story. But the dynamic between Luke and his father has changed from the earlier books. Luke has gone from being an insecure student with a big secret to a successful physician (he still has a big secret, but he’s not as bothered by it.) He is very worried about his father’s health. Both he and his brothers are worried about what Thaddeus is going to do with himself now that he’s given up preaching. The question “What are we going to do about Thaddeus?” becomes a recurrent refrain as the plot unfolds. Each of the Lewis sons is willing to look after their father if necessary, but each of them will be relieved if one of the others offers first. Thaddeus is no longer the patriarch to whom everyone turns. The old man has become a problem.
But in the way of many children, they’ve underestimated him. He’s still a magnet for trouble and he’s still quite capable of meeting it head on.
When he becomes convinced that someone is trying to kill him. Luke dismisses the notion at first. (Oh no! Is Thaddeus becoming senile?) Martha believes him – but where once she would have believed simply because he’s Thaddeus and for most of her childhood she was a little confused about whether or not he and God were actually the same person - she now weighs the evidence and comes to her own conclusion. Eventually everyone agrees that something is going on and that the would-be assassin must be connected somehow to one of the crimes that Thaddeus previously investigated.
And guess what? There were any number of ready-made suspects lurking in the background just waiting for a reprise. I had my choice of instant villains, already conveniently supplied with motive, their characters established and ready to go.
Any writer of fiction creates a setting through which the characters move, but a series allows the context to shift and grow in surprising ways. Past events impact the storyline in odd ways. Characters can make an appearance in one book and suddenly pop up again several books later. Sometimes they grumble until you let them out. Sometimes they show up and run away with the plot. And sometimes both the setting and the characters change and grow in directions that you couldn’t have conceived of in the beginning.
“But what happens next?” Thaddeus Lewis fans ask. The answer is, “I don’t know. I’m waiting or the characters to tell me.”
Sometimes I’m not sure it’s even me writing this stuff anymore.

Janet Kellough is the author of The Thaddeus Lewis mysteries, the adventures of a 19th century saddlebag preacher. She has also written two contemporary novels The Palace of the Moon and The Pear Shaped Woman, the speculative fiction work The Bathwater Conspiracy, and the semi-non-fictional Legendary Guide to Prince Edward County. She is also a co-founder of Women Killing It Crime Writers’ Festival, which showcases crime fiction by female authors.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Sick Society

I'm too sad to blog. Two days ago, Colorado experienced another school shooting. I've been weepy off and on all day. I can't imagine the terror some of these children must be experiencing.

There comes a time when one becomes saturated with tragedy. I have no idea how we got to this point. Schools are no longer a safe haven. Neither are churches. Is there no place on God's green earth where people can peaceably assemble as a group?

Ironically many of the guns used in school and church shootings were obtained legally. I believe in sensible gun control legislation. I believe registration is a good idea. So is banning assault rifles. I'm not sure any of this will have a marked effect on the violence, but it's a start. The problem goes deeper. However I'm not sure what the problem is.

I'm absolutely fed up with politicians who are sure they have the answers but do not risk their careers to evoke change. Frankly, I admire the stance of the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who responded to a shooting there by immediately implementing a ban on assault rifles and forbidding the press to print the shooter's name. We have different rules here in America. No one has the authority to do that. But denying the instigator publicity certainly would thwart episodes here driven by a perverse desire for lasting notoriety.

On my refrigeration is a photo of the sweetest little terrorist. He's a bewildered little four-year-old boy hugging a Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy for dear life. He appears to be escorted somewhere in a barred van. Minus his parents, I suspect.

I'm with the kid. How in the world did it come to this?

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Titles (I write) & Titles (I read)

Coming up with a title has never been easy for me. In fact, it might be the only time I get “writer’s block” in the course of writing a book. If one doesn’t readily appear, I look for patterns in the book, lines that speak to the work as a whole. I’ve even read poems and Bible passages looking for a word or phrase that triggers a response.

Right now, I’m in the awkward position of having spent several months outlining a novel –– that I’m now writing –– with no clue whatsoever as to what I’ll call it. Usually, by now, I have some concept, however abstract, as to what the book might be called. I’m not sure if I should be concerned.

Billy Collins’s great line about the importance of the title of a poem –– stepping from the title to the poem’s first line is as important (and tricky) as stepping from the dock into the canoe –– speaks volumes.

Does the title of a novel impact the reader’s experience the same way the title of a poem does?

I don't know.

Do I buy or read books based on titles alone? Never. Am I person who can’t remember the title of a book but can usually tell you the protagonist’s name? Yes, I’m that guy.

Titles are important. I know that. How important? That, I do not know and would love to hear from readers on this topic.

Some titles I’m reading right now:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

How To Read A Book is fascinating and worth a post in and of itself. It talks about the art and honor of struggling with a text. If you don’t own it, you ought to.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Malice Domestic 2019 Recap

I recently attended Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD. I came home with lots and lots of books and some wonderful memories.

Our usual routine (the hubby comes with) is to fly into D.C. Wednesday evening, getting to the hotel about 10 p.m. That way we have a day to sleep in a bit and do a little sightseeing before the conference begins. I’m not great with 3 hour time changes so it gives me a little adjustment period.

This year we went to Ford’s Theater, which was very interesting. Learned lots about the U.S. Civil War as well as Lincoln himself. Part of the tour was a short play about the assassination. Then we went across the street to the house where Lincoln was taken and where he died.

Inside of Ford's Theater

That evening, the Malice festivities began with showings of Murdoch Mysteries and Queens of Mystery. I attended the Murdoch event where we viewed an episode of the series (which I love) and got a chance to ask questions of Maureen Jennings who writes the books the series is based on. Then it was off to do a little catching up with my fellow Henery Press authors.

The highlight of Friday for me was the Malice Go Round aka Speed Dating with Authors. Picture 20 tables in a large room. Authors go from table to table in pairs and have 2 minutes each to talk about their books. This was the first year in a long time where I got the chance to listen to people’s pitches instead of giving one. Found a lot of new books and authors to try.

The rest of the weekend was a flurry of panels, catching up with people I hadn’t seen in a while and, of course, the Agatha Award banquet. I was on a panel called “Murder Most Crafty” Saturday morning with other authors who write traditional mysteries featuring crafts. We had a good time with lots of interesting questions to answer.

Murder Most Crafty Panel

The Agatha Award banquet has become my favorite part of Malice. I always meet interesting people and have a great time. This year I was at the table hosted by Nance Cole Silverman and Margaret Dumas, both fellow Henery Press authors. Had a really nice time. One of the other people at the table was someone who has been to every single Malice! This was the 31st. That’s a lot of years to come. It turns out we were at the same table at the first Malice I attended and, purely by coincidence, at the second one I attended as well. So this is the third time around for us! Maybe we’ll end up at the same table next year. Who knows. That’s my quick summary. I’m sure there’s more I could say but, well, I’m tired. If you’re going to the Pasadena LitFest in Pasadena, CA, I’ll be on a panel called “Three Shades of Mystery: From Cozy to Dark Mysteries” with other Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles members. Saturday, May 18, 3-4pm. For more info on LitFest go to

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Now here’s a truly chilling story…

…and a grand plot idea for a novel.

by Rick Blechta

Many of us are using AI devices in our homes. “Oh,” you say, “I don’t have any of that stuff!”

If you own an Amazon Alexa or have an Apple product and use Siri, not to mention Google Assistant, you’ve got AI in your house. Have a smart thermostat, smart anything for that matter and you’ve got AI. Bet some of you didn’t know that.

Now here’s where it gets truly frightening. All of those devices are transmitting the data they collect to the corporations that produce them.

Don’t believe me? Read this: “Alexa has been eavesdropping on you this whole time

Pretty frightening, isn’t it? The really scary thing to me is you can’t turn off the data collection if you want to keep using these products. Convenient how they built in that functionality, isn’t it? And we’re supposed to blindly trust these corporations. “We only use the data to improve our products, to help them learn!” Yeah, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to purchase. What’s to stop individual employees to overhear something valuable and then use if for nefarious purposes? This could well be the basis of “the perfect crime”. If that’s the case, it may well have taken place.

So it doesn’t take much imagination to see how all this collection of data could form the basis of a strong plot for a thriller, cozy, police procedural, whatever. This stuff is just made for crime fiction.

Okay, everyone! Scenario time. Work up an “elevator pitch” for your proposed novel and share it with us.

As for me, they can keep their smart houses. I’m perfectly happy living in a stupid one.

Monday, May 06, 2019

How Much Violence?

We live in a violent world.  In books, movies, television shows, video games…the news.

Recently, there was a mass shooting at UNC Chapel Hill.  Two people were killed.

The mass shootings over the last few years have been horrific.  58 killed in Las Vegas in 2017.  49 killed in the Pulse nightclub in Florida.  32 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007.  That doesn't even count the terrible shootings in our high schools and and elementary schools.  I was ashamed that when I heard the body count at Chapel Hill, I almost felt a sense of relief that it wasn't higher.  That's just wrong.

The world is awash in violence, either man-made or from natural causes.  Wars, fires, famine, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes.

So, why do we enjoy reading mysteries?  They're inherently violent.  In almost all mysteries, someone dies. But the beautiful thing about a novel, generally speaking, justice is exacted by the conclusion.  The bad guys (or ladies) are uncovered and arrested or otherwise dispatched.

How much violence is too much?  It depends on the writer and it depends on the audience.

Late last year, I read Hank Phillippi Ryan’s mystery, Trust Me.  Death definitely has a seat on this bus, but her book is far from being violent.  It’s a excellent psychological thriller. It quietly pulls you along with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat.  The gore level is very low and the storytelling is topnotch.

At about the same time, I read Stephen Mack Jones’ first book, August Snow. Full disclosure, I liked it so much, I’m currently reading his second novel, Lives Laid Away.  The violence level is stepped up, but you’d expect as much when your protagonist is a retired Marine and an ex-cop. There are going to be fist fights and gun play and Jones makes it work without making it cringe-worthy. You genuinely like the characters and hope they live through their violent travails.

On the other end of the spectrum is Don Winslow’s new book, The Border.  At slightly more than 700 pages, it’s on a scale with Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. This book is raw, gritty, and very, very violent. But it’s about drug cartels, addicts, DEA agents, Mexican Federales, and dirty politicians. Is it for everyone?  Of course not.  Personally, I loved it.  Couldn't put it down.

My own Geneva Chase series has been described as dark and sinister.  But most of the violence in my novels takes place off the set.  You don’t actually see the violence, but you witness the aftermath and the ramifications.  And make no mistake, there will be at least one life or death struggle.

These are my personal rules on violence:

It can’t be gratuitous.  There must be a point to it.  That act of violence has to move the narrative forward or bring the story to its conclusion.

Limited gore. There should be enough to make it real, but don’t make it gore porn.

Don’t glorify violence.  Show it for what it is—ugly and scary.

Show the ramifications.  In Darkness Lane, Geneva Chase has discovered the body of a murdered man.  He’d been tortured and beaten to death.  The scene so rattled her that it keeps popping up in her head.  She keeps thinking, "His head was bashed in."  Over and over. Something akin to PTSD.

I’m fussy about the body count.  If I want to see a massive loss of life, I’ll watch Game of Thrones.

Speaking about violence, I’m glued to the television as the last episodes of Game of Thrones play out.  I love the series because of the character development and byzantine plot lines and no one is safe.

But it’s not for everyone, Cindy, my wife, won’t watch it because, in the very first episode, someone kills a dire wolf. Cindy saw that and she was out of the room.

Oh yes, one last Thomas Kies rule on violence.  It was the subject of an earlier blog.  Never hurt a dog.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Guest Post - Laura Brennan

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to put together a writer’s conference? I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot of work. Please welcome this weekend’s guest poster, Laura Brennan, who gives us a behind the scenes look at the upcoming California Crime Writers Conference.

Intrigue! Murder! Carrot Cake!
Behind the Scenes at the California Crime Writers Conference


By Laura Brennan


When I took on the position of co-chair of the 2019 California Crime Writers Conference (along with the fabulous Jennifer Younger of SoCal MWA), I knew there would be a lot of details to take care of. Plenty of e-mails. A fair amount of scrambling when the best-laid plans went awry.

And yet I was still caught by surprise.

First, the good news: we were incredibly lucky to nab Tess Gerritsen and Catriona McPherson as our Guests of Honor -- and we didn’t have to resort to kidnapping either of them! Both are prolific, writing both series and stand-alones, and between them covering much of the crime novel spectrum, from hilarious cozy to gritty dramas, and all the layers of conflict, character and emotion in between. Whew! That was the first hurdle and we sailed over it.

We are also lucky to have so many talented writers attending the conference and participating on panels. The putting together of those panels based on their talent and experience -- now that was a minor miracle. You can’t create great panels without knowing who has what to offer, and of course with authors, the best way to do that is to read their books.

This was the beginning of the crazy.

I had not budgeted gobs of time to read the new-to-me authors attending CCWC. And I am not someone who can skim -- I get too emotionally involved. Happily, I run my own business and found myself between clients at the critical moment. Not that my bank account was happy, mind you, but my TBR pile got tackled with vigor. I discovered new laugh-out-loud cozies, some marvelous amateur sleuths, and a few gut-punching, edge-of-my-seat thrillers. Want to know who these authors are? Check out our Unusual Suspects (the list of those attending the conference) and definitely check out their books.

Then there was the week when I sent out over 300 individual e-mails. Thank goodness for cut and paste; I only had to individualize a line or two. But still, I can now tell you from experience that 300 e-mails will eat your life. Speaking of eating, my family had pizza and sandwiches for the week. On the plus side, it encouraged my son to crack open a cookbook. Win-win.

Continuing on the food front, an unexpected bonus was the tasting menu at the venue. Jennifer and I went in with a firm idea of what we were ordering for the conference lunches, and it all flew out the window when the chef presented us with his suggestions. The mushroom ravioli is killer, and I mean that in the best possible way. And death by chocolate cake? We have you covered.

But the best part has been coming up with new ideas for extra fun this year. We are running a Best First Sentence Competition, and all attendees are invited to submit. The winner will be announced on Saturday, and we’ll have a second off-the-cuff competition based on the winning entry. I am also writing an escape room for some Saturday evening entertainment, for those who want to play. Someone has left clues to solving their own murder, but the police are baffled. Can you ferret out the killer? If that’s not your cup of tea, there’s always the hotel bar. Some time-honored traditions can’t be improved upon.

Am I crazy to have volunteered to co-chair the conference? Absolutely. But it’s already been worth every moment. When it’s all over, I will have learned how to spot a suicide bomber, how to have a long career, and what happens when my novel is (fingers crossed!) optioned for the screen. Best of all, I know I will have made new friends -- and I’ve already found new authors to love.

For more information on the 2019 California Crime Writers Conference, taking place June 8-9 in Culver City, CA, go to

Laura’s eclectic career includes a picture book to help parents explain a loved one’s dementia (Nana Speaks Nanese), numerous short stories (“A Slice of Heaven” appears in the 2019 Malice Domestic Anthology, Mystery Most Edible), and Destination Mystery, a podcast featuring interviews with crime writers. Find out more at

Friday, May 03, 2019

Off to Malice

Frankie here. Sorry I don't have time to write a post today. I'm rushing to get myself together before heading off to Malice Domestic, the annual mystery conference in the D.C. area. I've had a cold all week, so playing catch-up.

I went down to the City (NYC) for the Edgars banquet last week. Sitting there about to take a bite of my salad, I had a lovely surprise.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Speaking of Words...

I, Donis, have found it very interesting to read my blogmates recent thoughts on inspiration, the reality of murder and crime solving, outlining (or not), technique, and conveying sense of place.

All of these deep thoughts have made me consider the psychology of my own writing. So much of my technique is unconscious. How do I convey a sense of place, the personalities and motivations of my characters? How does one describe a smell, a color, an emotion? It helps to have a spectacular vocabulary, I’m sure, but it doesn’t seem to be the number of words a writer uses, but which words. Genius is the ability to choose the right words and arrange them in just the right order to convey the perfect nuance of feeling and senses.

What, you may ask, is she babbling about now? I’m actually talking about Ernest Hemingway.I was never a big fan of Hemingway’s manly themes, but I have a great appreciation for the genius of his style. He is terse in the extreme, but somehow he is able to create real honest-to-God people coping with situations that most of us will never face.His characters are so human that in the end, the reader feels she might really know what it’s like to be an anti-Fascist freedom fighter or an elderly Cuban fisherman.How does he do it when he is so sparing with words?

Whether or not we authors convey crime-solving techniques with absolute accuracy or not, mystery is a fabulous form for exploring character. In fact, mystery is all about motivation. Why do people do what they do? What is going on in a character’s head when he is driven to kill someone? Why is the sleuth trying to figure out who did the deed? What is driving him? Do I think about these things when I write a mystery? Yes, I do, especially when I’m creating the character of the murderer. But then after I have written about her for a while, she separates from me, in a way, and begins to react unconsciously to the situations I put her in, like a real person would do.

I know this phenomenon occurs with all authors, but it does make you feel a bit like you’re possessed. I wonder what Dr. Freud would have to say about it?

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Canadian crime myths busted too

Rick's post gets to the heart of why we write crime fiction. We are creating a tale of human struggle, pain, and ultimately justice, using the device of the mystery novel. But in order to tell that tale so that it feels real and draws the reader into the struggle, most of us try to create a somewhat real world.

There are pitfalls. I can relate to Aline's experience with the cops and lawyers at the CWA conference. Real crime investigation is nothing like our fictional creations. In our defence, TV portrayals are worse. I don't know how many times I've yelled at the TV that the detectives shouldn't be traipsing all over the crime scene, picking up evidence and stepping over blood spatter. And that pathologists and coroners shouldn't hover over the body with their long blond locks trailing. And that DNA results don't come back from the lab in the blink of an eye.

When I was writing my first Inspector Green novel, Do or Die, I made up all the police and crime investigation stuff, basing it largely on both US and UK novels and shows I knew. When to my surprise a publisher bought it, I realized I'd better fix it up if I didn't want to look like a rank amateur, so I asked the Ottawa Police if someone on the force would be willing to read it. That was a stroke of excellent fortune. The police officer who read it was a crime fiction fan and he subsequently read all ten books in the series, as well as connecting me with specialists if I needed them. He was a priceless asset.

His first comment was just as Aline said. Inspectors don't investigate crime, they don't even oversee the investigation or direct resources to it. They are higher-level managers of an overall department which includes Major Crimes. My inspector should have the rank of detective. The person overseeing the case would be a Sergeant, and the person overseeing all the cases currently being investigated by Major Crimes would be a Staff Sergeant.

I was crushed. "Detective Green" did not roll off the tongue. It had no mystique. So I exercised a writer's prerogative and made him an inspector anyway, but one who was not happy to be out of the trenches and behind a desk. This allowed for a great deal of dramatic tension over the series as he tried to meddle and second-guess the sergeant who was actually running the case. It was not realistic but that was a small nod to realism.

One area where I do try to be more realistic is in crime scene analysis. Years ago I took a full-term police course in forensics and crime scene analysis so that I could use it effectively without causing SOCO investigators to hurl the book at the wall. My books do not deal with the minutiae of forensics, because the lifeblood of good fiction is human interaction and conflict, not fingerprint and fibre analysis. Most of my books focus on old fashioned interviewing and background investigation of suspects, family, friends, etc. It was very helpful to know how forensics works, however. For example, the coroner and the SOCO are in charge of the crime scene and do not allow anyone inside until they have finished processing it. That can be days.

So no detectives traipsing around picking up clues. Instead, they are given very detailed photos, diagrams, and reports of every aspect of the scene and the body. This is another potential source of tension as detectives chafe on the outskirts. And those forensics results obtained on the spot? Forget it. Evidence is packed up, stored in fridges if needed, and sent to the lab, and the whole thing can take weeks. Even months depending on priorities. But that delay is also useful, since it means that my detectives can get on with interviewing and solving the case while they wait.

Interviewing, etc. is one more area where we writers bend the rules a lot. Forget two or three dogged detectives doing all the legwork. Normally in a homicide case a whole lot of officers are deployed in the initial stages to conduct house-to-house interviews, follow up on tips from the public, watch videos and CCTV, and trace last known activities. But following sixty characters does not work in fiction. Readers' minds glaze over once you introduce the eighth constable. Hence the fiction of two or three main detectives and a supporting cast of perhaps another five. All other reports are funnelled through them.

One last point. It's true that most criminals are not too bright, and they often have to improvise and cover up on the fly, which does not go well. But dumb villains are no fun in fiction. They are not worthy adversaries and do not evade capture for 300 pages. So we invent the likes of Moriarty.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Setting things right

by Rick Blechta

“But you write about ending people’s lives! How can that be a good thing? How do you live with that?”

I got into a discussion about this a number of years ago with a dear friend, and it popped back into my life this past week when someone I know a lot less well brought up the same topic and basically asked the same thing. The difference this time was that I’d had time in between to really think about this.

First off, I have to admit that it can be tough on a writer to craft a murder scene, whether it’s a major or minor character. In my case, I can’t just dispatch people without a thought, and over the course of ten novels and novellas, I’ve killed a lot of people.

I remember the first time quite vividly. I had to stop writing for days, trying to wrap my brain around what I’d written. I’d been a huge crime fiction fan for a long time by then and had probably read two or three hundred mysteries, so naturally I’d been thoroughly exposed to literary death. However, it’s very different when you’re doing the deed yourself.

It’s tough to kill characters, and for me, it hasn’t gotten any easier over the years.

I was exposed to my first real death by violence when I was 16. After seeing a concert at the old Madison Square Gardens in NYC, a group of us was walking back to Grand Central Station to catch a train home. We saw a crowd on the sidewalk ahead, standing in front of a grungy-looking bar. We stepped into the street to avoid the crush and as I came even with the bar, the crowd opened slightly and there on the sidewalk was what looked like a dead body. I don’t remember a lot of blood, but this poor soul certainly appeared to be deceased. The cops arrived shortly after we passed, but we didn’t stick around because we had that train to catch.

I was haunted for weeks by that brief encounter, but eventually the scene faded. The other time I saw a death by violence was while I was driving cab in Toronto in the mid-70s, I saw another victim of a violent death, also lying on a sidewalk.

So yeah, the death of someone by violence carries a lot of weight for me, even though the people never existed except in my head.

The question is, though: why do I do this? Why do I write about violent death? I’m sure every writer of crime fiction has thought about this, so I’m not special in that regard. You might get different reasons from other writers, but here’s mine.

For me, it’s because in the aftermath of that death, I’m setting in motion actions that will bring the perpetrator of that outrage to justice in one way or another. I believe people read crime fiction for the same reason. The plots in crime fiction almost always set things right by the end. Justice is meted out. The guilty are exposed and will be punished. It’s a pretty rare — and grim — novel where the killer gets away with it.

This is what I told the person who asked the million dollar question last week. I do what I do to bring justice to the imaginary world I’ve created. Having spoken to fellow writers, I know I’m not alone in this.

And right now, the world could use a lot of that.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Crime Fiction Myths - Busted

I'm just back from the Crime Writers' Association conference, held this time at Windermere in beautiful Lake District, stamping ground of Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets. The daffodils were out, living up to the publicity and obligingly 'fluttering and dancing in the breeze'.

We were blessed with dry weather, not always the case here — as my husband said, lakes don't just happen by accident — but it was distinctly chilly as we took our boat trip. Here I am with my lovely agent Jane Conway-Gordon, well wrapped up against the chilly breeze.

It's always one of the social highlights of the year but it's also when we have talks from the professionals who actually work in the world we like to write about in our books. This year, the session that made the most impression on me was delivered by a husband and wife team.

He is a forensic pathologist and she is a detective constable and their eyes met, if not actually over a corpse, then across someone in hospital shortly to become one. They both, as you might expect, have the classically mordant sense of humour that you need to cope with the situations they have to deal with.

They didn't spare us. Those of a sensitive disposition look away now! The most graphic picture was of what looked to be a murder but was in fact what had happened to a man who died of a heart attack — and happened to have a large dog. (Cats are apparently worse!)

They then proceeded to disabuse us of some of the most cherished tropes in detective fiction. Firstly, no detective asks the pathologist for time of death and gets an answer that isn't 'between the time the victim was last seen and the time the body was found' There are so many variables that it is in practical terms impossible to give one. So there go a whole lot of plot ideas.

Then it was his wife who pointed out, very firmly, that the person who interviews a witness is the detective constable. Not a detective sergeant, not an inspector and certainly not a chief inspector. The role of the promoted ranks is to assess the information bought in on the computer on their desks and shape the investigation from there. She had actually turned down promotion precisely because that was the part of the job she loved doing - rather like teachers who won't leave the classroom for promoted posts that would take them away from the kids.

We'd always sort of known that but there was a collective groan and one author said plaintively, 'But a DI who never leaves his desk wouldn't be much of a hero for a crime novel.' He got the tart reply, 'Then don't make your hero an inspector. Make her a constable instead.'

So there's a thought for a new series. But I'm ashamed to say I'm going to go on as I am. I don't think my readers come to the books for an accurate portrayal of contemporary policing. I'm relying on their being content to apply what that other great Lake Poet Coleridge called 'the willing suspension of disbelief' when it comes to DCI Kelso Strang.

And finally: there were laughs too. We had an excellent talk from a barrister at the Criminal Bar. She was pointing out that unlike the villains in our books, most criminals are not very bright, and gave examples. My favourite was the one who had robbed a shop along with a pal but unfortunately for him the shopkeeper recognised him. He denied it, of course and since this was at the time of identity parades, one was arranged. For the line-up, the police used to offer £10 to anyone who would agree to join it. The accused found a friend he thought could use £10 and he accordingly obliged. When the shopkeeper was brought it he immediately identified the accused and then looked along the line and said — yes, you've guessed — 'Oh look, that's the other one!'

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Dreams, Inspiration, and the Muse

I pride myself in being a nuts-and-bolts type writer, meaning I'm not much for the woo-woo stuff. Having said that, I do admit that I've had story ideas come to me in dreams. I know that dreams are seen as the interpretations of our subconscious, but I'm convinced they're more than that. Some insist that dreams are another form of inspiration given to us by the Muse. Most dreams we forget, unfortunately, but once in a while these sleep visions stick with us. If the images were particularly strong, sometimes upon waking we're confused about where we are and what's really happening.

The Bible mentions dreams and the most famous sleep vision in Scripture comes from Genesis 41, when the pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows being eaten by seven emaciated cows, and seven plump stalks of grain being swallowed by seven thin stalks of grain. Joseph (he of the Technicolor Coat) is summoned to interpret the pharaoh's dream, which he does by explaining that seven good years of harvest will be followed by seven years of famine. So forewarned, the pharaoh appoints Joseph as his second-in-command and is tasked with storing and managing surplus food to prevent disaster.

As writers we're cautioned against using dreams in our work because dream sequences are regarded as narrative cheats. What happens is that characters wake up and nothing has changed. However, dreams in stories can be useful to build tension and foreshadow plot twists. We know that dreams can be symptoms of a troubled mind and in a story, an immersive dream sequence can illustrate the interior turmoil of our characters as they contemplate danger.

A dream that I used for a recently accepted story was one in which women suddenly stopped getting pregnant. I have no idea why my subconscious stewed on that horrific notion, but the takeaway was the global terror upon realizing that we as a species now had an expiration date. Lately, two other dreams had to do with me getting older, so it's pretty obvious what's behind that inspiration.

Another source of dreams are hallucinations from drug use. Here in Denver, we have Initiative 301, in which we get to vote on decriminalizing the use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms. I've known people who've indulged in "magic" mushrooms and then shared their mind-blowing experiences, which by the way, included plenty of vomiting. None of these psilocybin tourists ever got around to writing anything, so the best way to cultivate inspiration remains to sit at the keyboard and hammer out what the Muse delivered.

Friday, April 26, 2019


I'm frankly piggy-backing on Rick's post. He did his best to advise a beginning author about social media. I'm lucky. Most people simply ask me how to get an agent or how to get a book published. My advice is always the same on those two issues. Write the book first! Then hunt for a publisher or an agent.

I always look trapped and desperate about social media questions. Truth is, you can work into infinity and not begin to tap everything you could do on social media. My original word choice was "should" do but I think that's where the problem comes in.

Pick and choose. Despite all the bad publicity it has received lately, Facebook is one of my favorites. I love hearing what friends and members of the writing community are doing. Contrary to a lot of criticism I hear about the site, I want to know about events that are affecting their lives. Good and bad. I'm deeply grateful for all my Kansas contacts who have kept up with my books and my career. I still feel a special bond to Hoxie.

I rejoice with friends in the writing community who have receive special recognition. It's even sweeter when I know they have struggled to keep their career together.

Specialized blogs--such as Type M-- are pure gold. It always surprises me how many people read this and never comment. They know about it because I mention a new entry on Facebook. I'm grateful for Rick Blechta's faithfulness in tending to this site. A log of blogs go under because the owners aren't faithful to the task.

So here is the advice I would give to Rick's beginning writer:

1.  Make a list of all the organizations you belong to. Check out their websites.
2   Make a list of all the sites related to the non-fiction elements of your books.
3.  Make a list of the people who would really like to know what you are up to.
4.  Pick 10 of these places that appeal to you.
5.  Make a check list (just for tracking) of how often you would ideally contribute to each site. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Yearly?
6.  Learn to GET OVER IT if you can't or won't make yourself do it.

Personally, I avoid politics and controversaries. Plus I assume people don't want to hear AGAIN about my technology problems that prevented me from posting last week. Or the fall that nearly prevented me from posting today. Or . . .well, you get the picture.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Plot Points

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of outlining a novel before you begin writing. I’m still plugging away at it, and, having moved scenes and added and eliminated characters, I’m more committed to outlining than before.

To outline or not to outline? According to The Writing Cooperative website, Joyce Carol Oates claims, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” And Ernest Hemingway said, “Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”

It’s hard to argue with either of these two writers, and one of the major takeaways I have from this experience is that outlining allows me to see the story arc from thirty thousand feet. As the story takes shape, I can view the beginning, middle, and end and make decisions. For instance, I have made major plot revisions –– adding a backstory to clarify a major character’s motivation and cutting another character out completely –– before I begin writing.

In the past, I have written novels the way one drives at night –– writing “to the end of my headlights.” That is, writing each scene based on the scene that preceded it, and making plot decisions based on the previous scene and my instincts, guided by what I know about the character. This is an exciting way to write. The adage “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” can be fitting. I wrote This One Day (as K.A. Delaney) that way. I didn’t know how the book would end until I was thirty pages from the conclusion. And it was terrifying.

More recently, I pulled a hundred pages from the draft of a novel and eliminated an entire secondary plotline. Both revisions cost me months –– months that, given my day job (I’m a boarding school teacher, dorm head, department chair, and coach), amounts to large chunks of time that I simply don’t have to waste.

But opinions vary, and Stephen King says, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

I’d love to hear what my Type M friends say on the matter.