Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Figuring It Out

by Charlotte Hinger

The intrepid Lottie Albright delves into old murders which causes new murders. It's not really a cold case series, as it focuses on the present-day murder. Thus it technically morphs into a suspense. Will my historian/undersheriff figure out who did it back then in time to prevent becoming the victim on the next page?

In some ways, a straight cold case would be easier to present because the Lottie Albright series is told in present day first person. I can't use flashbacks and have to depend on the back story emerging through historical investigation techniques.

My most dependable tool has always been microfilmed newspapers. The Kansas State Historical Society was founded in 1875. They have one of the world's most comprehensive collection of newspapers. All the papers are on microfilm and many are on-line through Chronicling America http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/#Kansas. Instructions for obtaining microfilmed Kansas papers can be found at http://www.kshs.org/p/newspapers-in-kansas/11528.

Since Lottie doesn't have access to the villain's mind the plot depends on her ability to connect the dots. Nothing is more valuable in both academic investigation and mystery plotting than knowing something is just not quite right. In other words, reading between the lines. Because usually newspaper items are objective.

Here's an example of what I mean by not quite right. An announcement in the 1950s local news item: "Lonnie Balfour and family will be moving to the Balfour homestead later this month. He will take over the extensive farming operation of his late father." Lottie thinks that's funny. Lonnie was a CPA and the second son. The oldest son, Jeff, was the obvious heir. He was a farmer. Was there tension over this? This leads her to the recorded deed and even more newspapers and death certificates. Aha! Lonnie died in a mysterious accident. His descendants are alive today. And so it goes. Diaries, letters, voting records, notes from organizations, and yearbooks have their own testimony.

Was one child consistently on the honor role and in every activity under the sun? And another in the same family barely mentioned in the high school newspaper or not a participate in any groups according to the yearbook? Why? With persistence, it easy to find this out.

It's easy to really keep the plot hopping through the protagonist's questions as long as the writer resists the temptation to inject a massive dose of history and cultural details. For instance, old newspapers show group pictures of students at events. The debate team is especially well-groomed, except for one member. Why was there no one looking out for this kid? Had his parents ever come to one of his debates?

Being able to enter the mind of the first person protagonist is quite a lot of fun, because one can make this amazing sleuth really smart, not at all like the bumbling novelist who hasn't got a clue.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Cozy? Me? I thought I was Hard-Boiled!

 By Thomas Kies

The ARC for WHISPER ROOM (release date, August 2) is available now for review and a few people have already commented on Goodreads.  I’m more than pleased that universally, so far, their reviews have been exceptionally positive.  I’m a bit taken aback, however, that two of them describe my book as a Cozy Mystery. 

I’m far from insulted, but I’ve never considered my books to be cozy by any stretch of the imagination. They’ve always been described as dark, twisty, and scary.  My neighbor read my third book, GRAVEYARD BAY, and when I asked him how he liked it, he told me, “The ending gave me nightmares.”

No cozy there.

The cozy mystery is a subgenre that has been described many ways, but I’ll try to distill it down as best I can.  The protagonist is usually female, an amateur sleuth, and the violence and sexual activity takes place off scene.  The setting is generally a small community where most people know each other

Interestingly, that kind of describes WHISPER ROOM. If you close your eyes and squint at it from a distance. 

Merriam-Webster defines genre as “…characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”

Primary fiction genres are: Romance, mystery, science fiction/fantasy, action/adventure, thriller/suspense, horror, historical fiction, and young adult.

Then there are subgenres. Amazon numbers them as 16,000 and calls them categories. 

Subgenres for fiction are: psychological thriller, cozy mysteries, historical mysteries, romantic suspense, spy thrillers, police procedural, private detective, legal thrillers, heist, locked room, noir, and supernatural thrillers.

Now, many of the subgenres for mysteries are obviously hybrids from the broad definition of genres listed above. 

My first book, RANDOM ROAD, was labelled a mystery but in reality, it was a romance novel with a mystery as the engine that drove the story forward. Girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy, girl solves mystery, boy dies.  So, let’s add the genre of Tragedy to our list. 

How did Amazon label RANDOM ROAD? Hard-boiled mystery, amateur sleuth, women sleuths.  Nothing about romance at all.  I guess I hid it well.

I’ve taken a hiatus from teaching my Creative Writing courses at the college until this coming fall, but I think one of the exercises I’ll try is asking the students to take a book they’ve recently read, as well as a classic they may have read when they were in school and give it three classifications like Amazon might.

Like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Would it be a Legal Thriller, a Coming-of-Age novel, or maybe Horror (Boo Radley was pretty scary…until he wasn’t)? 

Amazon actually classifies the novel as Teen & Young Adult Classic Literature, TV/Movie & Game Tie-In Fiction, and Classic American Literature.

I’ve never even heard of TV/Movie & Game Tie-In Fiction.

So, back to WHISPER ROOM.  The blurb reads: Sex, Blackmail, and Murder…Welcome to the Whisper Room.

Doesn’t sound cozy at all to me. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Right Thing Happens

I've been working on a new novel that is much more "noir" than previous novels I've written. I know what Noir is, but I can't quite make myself have everything go to hell in the end. Iv been writing traditional mystery stories too long.

 Years ago, my husband brought home from the library a copy of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. He writes poetry, and symbology is important to him.  I borrowed it from him, and as I read, it dawned on me that one of the defining traits of the mystery story is that it is basically a hero quest, an archetypical tale, a medieval myth in modern clothing.

Evil is done

The hero goes on a quest to right the wrong.

The hero finds the villain, confronts him, and they do battle.

The hero triumphs, and balance is restored.

All right, you’re saying, I can think of seventeen mystery novels where the hero didn’t triumph, the villain didn’t lose, yadda yadda yadda.  

First of all, quit trying to mess up my theme.  Second, I realize that there are plenty of mysteries in which things don’t quite work out that the killer is caught by the law and punished for his deed.  But that doesn’t mean that there was no justice.  In a mystery novel, a satisfying ending occurs when the right thing happens.

Consider Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot finds out who murdered the victim, all right.  But when was justice done?  As far as our hero is concerned, justice was done when the victim was done in by those he had horribly wronged.  And so, he contrives to convince the police that the murder was committed by a phantom train conductor who has disappeared forever through the snow.

Even in the blackest of noir mysteries, where even the hero comes to a bad end, he brings it upon himself.  He has a fatal flaw.  Perhaps he sacrifices himself because he’s done a bad thing and this is how he atones.  The dragon is slain, even if St. George goes down with him.

Letting the reader see right prevail - whatever that may entail - is what gives a mystery novel its satisfyingly mythic ending

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Perils of Blogging

I’m tired tonight. This blog will be very short. It’s not that I can’t think of anything at all to write. It’s that I’ve learned to be frightened of what I will write.

For me, writing is a morning function. That’s when words come easily and writing is a joyful experience. I’ve learned to do non-fiction writing in the afternoon because it’s a different process. It’s much more analytical, but even then it’s easy for me to become careless. When I blog, things can go wrong in a hurry.

Some time back, I completed a post for BlackPast, the premier go-to site for those interested in African American or African history. The editor, Dr. Quintard Taylor, who invented this site caught a really embarrassing error I had made regarding a date. Normally I would have caught it at once. This site is approaching 3 million readers!! During last year's Black History Month we had over 50,000 readers in a single day.

Because I am a morning person, whenever I have written a really sensitive email where the wording is important, I always always let it rest overnight. Often the wording could be altered or more explanatory. Occasionally, this kind of communication survives the cold scrutiny of daylight.

I’m convinced that social media can be one of the most dangerous trap of all. Twice now, in a state of fatigue, I’ve let some little zinger go. I can’t remember one, but the first had to do with stupid comment during the last presidential election. I do not hesitate to let people know I’m a Democrat, but it wasn’t necessary to incur the wrath of the whole Republican Party. Especially a particular niece. If I had had all my wits gathered around me it wouldn’t have happened.

I'm increasingly cautious in this rancorous political climate. I hear there are a number of groups working to find ways to heal the divisions in this country. That's a good thing and more power to them. 

A lot of writers just hate to blog. I don’t. I enjoy reading them and I love making friends with the reading public.

However, I have not made one whit of progress on one of my stern New Year’s Resolutions. That was/is to blog ahead of time and to have some other blogs saved back for emergencies. I need to discipline myself to have some blogs in reserve.

Working tired takes another toll. I’ve noticed that I’ve developed a inner scoldiness (yes Spellcheck I know that’s not a word) when I’m not working. A nagging inner voice that insists I shouldn’t be enjoying myself when I could be working.

Sourness expands!

Monday, April 11, 2022

The chaotic approach to writing

 Writers are often asked what their work process is. I usually reply that I string the words together and sometimes even in the correct order.

To be honest, my process isn't all that much. It's like throwing spaghetti strands against the wall and if they stick, they're cooked.

I have a white board covered in scribbles. I think they're mine but it may well have been the passage of a spider who had walked through paint. I have notes on Post-It slips scattered across my desk. And I still forget character her names and change them halfway through.

During the writing of the Rebecca Connolly book coming in July, I gave one character three or four different names. My editor suggested that it might be best if I choose one and stick with it. The annoying thing was, it was character who had appeared in the first book!

Frankly, it's a wonder I ever finish a book at all.

I'm nearing the end of the first complete draft of one now and I know where I want to get to. The problem is, how will I get there?

So far I've torn the big reveal apart twice and I'm mulling over a third approach. 

Ah, some of you might say, if you had planned your book you wouldn't have this problem.

Au contraire, mon ami, I'd say. I don't know why I'd slip into French because I don't even speak the language. I have enough trouble with English.

I believe I would have the same problem if I planned. I'd get to this stage and something better than I had planed would occur to me and all that time spent working it all out ahead of time would have been wasted. I know this because I've tried it.

My brain is chaotic and growing even more so as I grow older (I admit to being over 40, even though I left that particular behind so long ago it's over the hills, the horizon, the rainbow and far away).

My wife used to tell me that my head is full of broken biscuits. It's filled with useless crumbs of information about movies, film music, crime novels and real-life crimes of the past. My attention can flit around like a bat trapped in a room, looking for somewhere to land but there's just too much sound and light.

The thing is, it all comes together in the end. To paraphrase Geoffrey Rush's character in 'Shakespeare in Love', I don't know how. It's a mystery.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

On the move

This spring has been –– and will be for the considerable future –– a blur. A lifelong New Englander, I, along with my adventurous wife, have sold our home and are moving to Michigan, where I’ve taken a job as the Upper School Director of Detroit Country Day School in suburban Detroit.

This leaves me with a foot in two different worlds at the moment –– working for the school I’m at and doing things for the one I’m going to (my official start date is July 1).

In regards to my “other job,” writing, it also leaves me with a host of questions: I just finished a manuscript set at a New England boarding school, which I hope will launch a new series. It’s off to my agent, and I’m awaiting word from her, as I start the sequel. Will she like it? Will she sell it? And, more importantly, after nearly two decades living and working at boarding schools, what will it be like to write about them once I’m removed from that world?

My proximity to the setting has led me to believe I created an authentic world and view into it, and I’ve thought about Hemingway’s ability to write about Michigan once he went to Paris. (Maybe I’m doing his reverse commute.) Perhaps the step to a day school will free me to write even more truthfully about the boarding school world.

"The writer's job is to tell the truth," Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say."

This is still my favorite Hemingway quote, and I’m hoping (as I’m sure many of you do, too) that it sees me through.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Malice Domestic Bound


It’s been quite awhile since I attended a mystery conference. The last one was Bouchercon in Dallas in 2019. I was all set to attend Malice in 2020, then the world stopped.

So I’m very excited to be going to Malice this year. I have my plane flights, my hotel room and my panel assignment. I'm getting my hair cut on Friday because there will be pictures and a second Covid booster on Monday. I am so looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen in what seems ages. I’m also fully aware that things can change at the drop of a hat so I’ll just say I’m cautiously optimistic that nothing will happen that prevents me from attending.

For Malice this year, my panel assignment is on Friday afternoon, April 22, at 3 p.m. With a three hour time change, that’s the perfect time for me. The panel is titled Can You Google the Killer? How Sleuths Navigate Tech & Social Media Besides me, the panelists are: Moderator: Vincent O’Neil, Nicole Asselin, Sarah E. Burr, Barry Fulton and Korina Moss

You can see the full panel list here

I haven’t gone to a conference in so long, I have to remind myself what I need to do to prepare. I’ve pretty much spent the last couple years in jeans and t-shirts so it’ll be a little odd to wear nicer clothes.

I also am slightly embarrassed about my lack of progress on my writing during the pandemic. My last book came out at the end of 2019. Haven’t had anything published anywhere since then. I’m just now finishing up edits to my next book, which I don’t have a publisher for but am considering self-publishing. I did write a short story that I submitted to an anthology, but haven’t heard anything back about it yet. I’ve decided, though, to not worry about it too much. I’ll just plod along and enjoy myself at the conference.

If you’re attending Malice, stop me in the halls and say hi.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Thought Police

 When I was fifteen, my father cornered me. "Sweetheart, three of the filthiest books I've ever read were brought into the house by you. I'm wondering, was it an accident? Or does your mind run that way?" 

"A little of both," I said. The books were Peyton PlaceGod's Little Acre, and Not as a Stranger. I got them all from the library. 

"Oh," he said. "I was just wondering."

What a lucky child I was, to have parents who did not censor my reading. 

Censorship in some form or another is popping up all over. Book banning used to from the right. Now it's just as likely to come from the liberal community. I've heard several authors complain about their publisher subjecting a manuscript to evaluation by a "sensitivity expert." Or even more daunting, focus groups who record any lines they find offensive.


If it's not words that set people off, it's the content. Moving up the scale even more is whether the author had the "right" to tell the story. Is the author the right color? the right gender? the right race? from the right culture? the right nationality? Worse, was the story inspired by the author's very own personal experience? 

None of the great historical novels would pass muster. Of course, authors such as Pearl Buck would be out. She wasn't Chinese, after all. As to Madame Bovary, Flaubert was obviously the wrong gender. What could he know? And Tolstoy. How dare he write a novel with multiple female voices. Bet he wasn't even in that war. 

A friend of mine who was in a writing group for a short time (a very short time) said an English teacher had criticized her offering saying there's a child in your story and I don't believe you could know how a child feels. So. All of our novels should only be about ourselves. The exact age we are now. 

There are practical considerations. We all subscribe to a sort of self-censorship. Thomas Kies pointed that chapters are much shorter now, and books are too. He also stated that Michener would not be published because of the length of his novels. Ironically, I'm rereading The Source, which is in my all-time favorite book collection. I'm curious as what moved both of us to dig out these old classics. 

As to books on my all-time great list. Not as a Stranger is one of the very best medical novels ever written. It's egregiously overwritten and a real door stopper. I adore it.  

Monday, April 04, 2022

Short Chapters

 By Thomas Kies

I was recently asked by a fledgling writer about how long a book should be. I told him that the book is as long as it takes to tell the story, but generally speaking, it appears that the word count should be anywhere from 60,000 words to 110,000.  

Last week Douglas Skelton did an excellent blog on books he’s pulled off his bookshelf, blew away the dust, and reread, such as Ed McBain, Robert Ludlum, and Harold Robbins.  These were books he read early on in his life.

It made me think of some of the authors I read when I was much, much younger.  I think back fondly on the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming.  Back then, the Signet paperbacks were only sixty cents, but we’d read them, trade them for others, and talk quietly about them.  Don’t let the teachers see you with those books, after all, some of them have sex scenes. 

The way Bond treated women back then, we’d consider misogynistic now. 

I was absolutely hooked on the John D. MacDonald novels featuring Travis McGee.  The premise of the McGee mystery/thrillers was that McGee was the finder of lost or stolen things, a self-styled “Salvage Consultant”. He lived on a houseboat in Florida that he won in a poker game called the “Busted Flush”. And all the covers of those paperbacks seemed to feature a semi-nude woman.  Don’t let the teacher catch you with any of those either.

But I also became addicted to the wildly popular novels of James Michener.  His books were amazing…and amazingly long.  His book Hawaii is nearly a thousand pages. Centennial was over a thousand pages long.  Not something you’d likely see in a novel now.  Most of his books would begin with long chapters about the cultural and geologic history of whatever region was the subject matter of that particular novel. 

Could a writer get away with that now?  Not a chance. 

Novels need to start fast, be tightly written, and don’t even think about writing a 1,000-page book. Even chapters are shorter.  People's attention spans are shorter, their time is in demand from their jobs, families, and the world around them. 

Before getting published, I attended a writer’s conference and sat in on a workshop where the facilitator insisted that all books have chapters that were around twenty pages each.  I’ll admit, that in my first novel, Random Road, some of my chapters were around that long.

But as I continue to write, my chapters have become shorter, in some cases four or five pages.  It’s basically a scene and once that scene is over, bam, time move on to a new chapter. 

Why short chapters?  They make a good stopping point.  Maybe the reader only has fifteen minutes set aside per day (or night) for reading.  Or they have just so much time on their train commute. Or that's just the time they've set aside before their next task. 

But the funny thing is that when we give the reader a place to pause, they keep reading. 

The biggest compliment I get is when a reader tells me they couldn’t put a novel of mine down, that they read it in one sitting or over the course of several days.  

And I thank them for the compliment in spite of the fact what it took them a day or so to read, it took me nearly a year to write. 

Friday, April 01, 2022

Happy April Fool's Day

 I'm getting a late start this morning because yesterday I had exactly the kind of day Donis wrote about.  I spent much of the day on the telephone trying to get one repair done.

I finally gave up in frustration and sat down at my computer to try to finish doing some PowerPoint slides for my undergrad course. It was almost midnight when I started to update. Involved in revising and fact-checking, I forgot to watch the time. It was after two when I glanced around ans saw that Fergus, my dog -- who tries to wait for me to announce, "Bed" before trotting off to his portable enclosure and settling in for the night -- had come into my office unnoticed and gone to sleep in one of the two small circular beds that he and Penelope, the cat, share. He was snoring, but I hadn't noticed. The fact that I hadn't heard his snorts and grunts (loud enough to wake hibernating bears) told me how focused I had been on what I was doing. I had finally gotten into the flow while doing PowerPoint slides. But at least I was writing about crime fiction -- an overview of the genre in the 20th century with links for students who often have not heard of writers in the genre.

Today I'll insert a link to this famous "definitive list" of genre fiction:

 Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones

If asked, I will confess that there are many books on this list that I have never read. My excuse for not having tackled some of them is that they are only available as expensive first editions. But each time I have occasion to return to Haycraft-Queen, I notice books that have been reprinted or never gone out of print and that I've always intended to read one day. 

The books on my other to-be-read list include all of the Edgar winners and nominees. Unfortunately for my reading endeavor, each year more are added. But I persist. 

Today, my only goal is to get my PowerPoint slide posted and do the errands I need to do before picking up Fergus for the weekend. During the hours from 6 pm Friday afternoon until around 8:30 am on Monday when I drop him off at doggie daycare again, I don't get a lot done unless I can tire him out and he settles down for a nap in his day crate or under my desk. So today I'm hoping for an hour or two to polish the first 50 pages of my historical thriller that I want to get off to my agent. We had an email update this week, and he is waiting for me to send along. I'm anxious to get his thoughts about those first crucial pages.

And yesterday wasn't a complete lost. Or, maybe I should say today hasn't been. In the wee hours of April 1, I got out of bed and found the "white noise generator" that I'd ordered. A little machine that was, according to the review, able to cancel out loud noises like a snoring dog who has been bedding down in the portable enclosure in my bedroom since he was a pup. Until I can figure out how to move him out without making him feeling he is being punished, I have been trying to fall asleep before he flipped over on his back. That and hoping that his vet was right and that his diet to lose a few pounds will resolve the problem. 

I was delighted this morning when I took that little machine out and plugged in it. I could barely hear Fergus and within minutes I was drifting off sleep. I'm hoping that wasn't a cruel April Fool's joke -- that I didn't simply pass out from exhaustion. I'll see tonight.

In the meantime, enjoy this day for pranks:

History of day


Thursday, March 31, 2022

Ink-Stained Wretch

 Did you ever have one of those days? That's a silly question, I suppose. Since the dawn of 2020 all of us have been having one of those decades. However, even in the midst of a problematic year some days are more problematic than others. I had one of those days last Monday.  In fact, the troubles started on Saturday and built up until it exploded into to a Keystone Kops-like comedy of irritations and annoyances.

My year-old router began to malfunction over the weekend. At first I didn't know it was the router. I was blaming Cox for our wifi blinking out a couple of times a day, mainly because when we called the helpline and activated the automatic reboot, it worked. Until it didn't. I finally got hold of a person to talk to, who did that voodoo they do and determined it wasn't them, by gosh, and it wasn't our modem either, which was working fine.

The lovely young man from Cox then offered to switch us to a combination router/modem for even less money than we currently pay for our service. So I say dandy! I can return their rented modem and pick up said piece of combo equipment at a nearby Cox store on Monday. In the meantime, young man reboots me one more time so I can continue working over the weekend.

Monday morning I arise, raring to go, walk into the kitchen to find it covered in ants. I spend an hour murdering ants with citrus fruit wash and wiping up ant bodies while my husband runs to the store to buy ant traps. Once the counter is purified, I unplug the modem and off we go to the Cox store. All goes smoothly - in fact it's easy as can be - and home we go with our new modem/router combo. 

I hook it up with no trouble, which is an amazing feat in itself, then spend the next hour signing in all our many devices to the new network. The phones and computers are no problem, but the printer nearly drives me out of my mind. At last I get it done, just as husband walks in and announces that the modem/router HUMS. The other modem didn't do this. He calls Cox, finally gets a person, who tells him, No, the device should make no noise at all.

So I unhook the device, put it back in the box, and back to the Cox store we go. When we explain the problem, lovely young tech says, "Oh, we get that complaint a lot. They all do that. It's the fan." Husband, all red in the face, says, "You'd better let your Helpline people know that."

Young lady is apologetic, but says the best she can do is give us another device and hope it doesn't hum as loudly. We take the new device home, I hook it up and re-connect all our varied electronics to yet another new network. This time I cannot get the printer connected to save my life.

Eventually a message comes up on the printer screen that basically says "your printer is discombobulated. Please unplug it, wait a while, and try again." 

An hour later, I renew the siege, and after much coaxing, I manage to get the printer connected. Still doesn't print, though, because now it's out of ink, and I do mean dry as a bone. We really need a new printer, but I just spent nearly $80 for ink and I'll be damned if I'm going to get rid of this one until I get my money's worth out of that ink. I change all the ink cartridges and end up with fingers that look like I still write with a quill pen, but by damn the printer prints.

So now we have excellent fast wifi and a printer that prints, and a modem/router combo in the office/spare bedroom that hums like a mosquito.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Return of great things

I'm late with my post today because I got sucked down the Word Game rabbit hole. I'm up to four different puzzles, each with their own unique challenges. A friend of mine called Wordle the "gateway drug" to this new addiction, and he has a point. One game is such an enjoyable, relaxing way to ease into the day that one is tempted to prolong the experience with another. And another. Pretty soon I've wasted an hour, although at my age, an hour spent teasing the brain while having morning coffee is not really a waste of time. 

As well, I forgot what day it was. That's happened a lot in the past couple of years, and I hope that's not due to the aforementioned age but to the pandemic isolation. My calendar used to be sprinkled with activites, some of them book-related and requiring preparation, whether it be creating a presentation, doing research, or simply finding a decent outfit that hasn't already been all over social media. Oh look, I wore that sweater to three of the last four conferences! For the past two years, my slate has been virtually empty, although perhaps virtual is the wrong word to use. I've had a smattering of virtual appearances at book clubs, libraries, and literary organizations as well as a couple of online conferences. I have come to dread Zoom, although it is easier on the outfits. Only the top half of you needs to look presentable. 

This is a long-winded way of announcing that I have two appearances coming up that I am especially excited about. The first is Noir in the Bar in Toronto - the first time this event has been held in person since you know when. Apart from a couple of drop-by book signings last fall, I have not been able to meet and chat with readers and other authors in person since... In a pub, with wine or beer and decadent wings! The event is April 21 at the Duke of Kent pub, at seven-thirty. More details to come.
The second event is a virtual one, but you can't have everything and this one is ground-breaking. It's been over ten years since the very popular Bloody Words, the only full-scale Canadian mystery conference, ended its run, and the mystery community has felt its absence. Canada is a big, sprawling country with excellent, under-recognized crime writers sprinkled across it, and Bloody Words was our chance to meet each other, network, form suppportive friendships, and share horrors and triumphs. It was our chance to have the spotlight on our work rather than jostling for light in the shadows at the big American and British conferences. Now a group of enterprising Canadian writers has picked up the torch and has launched the very first Maple leaf Mystery Conference, featuring a number of Canadian stars as well as new writers from across Canada. It will be virtual this spring, but I hope to see it go live in the future. There are advantages to virtual; readers and writers can participate from across the country without having to mortgage their souls on flights and accommodations, but an array of thumbnail sketches and a chat bar on the screen are a poor substitute for hugs, laughter, and serendipitous meetings in the bar. There is nothing like the buzz of a real gathering, as I think we are all discovering. But this conference is a beginning! And a huge undertaking for the organizers who are making it all happen. Everyone is welcome from anywhere in the world! Register here.

There are panels from the east and the west, as well as different kinds of crime. I will be moderating the panel on Thrilling and Chilling mysteries. The panel description is hard-boiled and urban tough, but of course that's just a starting point. Thrillers take many forms.

So a huge thank you to Mike Martin and his team for your support. I hope lots of you will check it out and drop by for as many sessions as you like. At $25 for the whole five days, it's money well spent.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Genre Fiction

 My post today is in defense of "genre fiction." It's a follow up to comments by Douglas Skelton. This is the second time I tied my post to his comments. I simply can't help myself. I like what he had to say. 

Right now I'm reading a book on craft that was recommended by one of our own Type M contributors. It's Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses. In the preface he states "Most of the TV we love is very formulaic. Most literary fiction is no different. It meets the expectations of a specific audience." 

We are a reading family. My husband enjoyed reading and heaven knows I easily survived the strictures of the pandemic because I read all of the time. I never have to find time to read any more that I have to find time to breathe. The wonder is that I get anything done at all, let alone write books. 

Our three daughters read and all six grandchildren read. I realize we are very lucky because so often when I speak or give presentations a mother or a grandmother will approach me worried about their kids inability to enjoy books. Society has changed. It seems to me that there are a lot of forces arrayed against books. We are so overwhelmed with printed information that it's no wonder people have been turned off. 

In addition to reading to children, I believe nothing influences children more than the example set by their parents. Instead of always hearing "wait until commercial" they need to hear "wait until I finish this chapter." Grownups can create the impression that reading is one of the most fun activities adults do for pleasure. 

I love reading the award-winning books that walk off with the prestigious prizes. They improve my mind and speak to my soul. In fact, recently I started re-reading some of the books that I read at too young an age. Too young to understand the depths of the themes or the poignancy of the conflicts. 

But in this family of readers, we all have our favorite genres that get us through troubled times. Some of these books are excellent and have become classics in their own right. As contraindicated as it sounds, when I am under a lot of pressure and have too much to do, reading a chapter or two helps me get everything under control. My decompression genre is psychological suspense and mysteries. A little on the dark side.

I tell myself after I read a couple of chapters, I'm going to do xxxxx. Repeat. Repeat. Crazy as it sounds, it gets my enormous to-do list under control. Before long, I can stand to face all of the xxxxx without a sanity break. Then I can put my book aside and tackle my work like a responsible adult.

The daughters' genres are really fascinating. The oldest, Cheryl, is a psychologist. The good doctor has read every Louis L'Amour western ever written. Several times. Much to our amusement, when a professional interior decorator was re-doing her house, she demanded that the classless paperbacks be removed at once. They didn't belong in the same room with her majestic grand piano. Eventually, the designer was vanished and the tattered paperbacks were restored to their rightful place of honor. 

Michele reads childrens' literature when she's maxed out. All the old classics and a bunch of new authors. 

Mary Beth, the youngest, shares my love of mysteries. She has a wee bit of a collector's soul and buys everything Elizabeth George has written.

Ironically, over the years, much of society's most durable literature has come out of "genre fiction." However, when those books reach a certain status, they are then designated as "literary fiction." 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Back in time

 Like many authors I have to do a fair amount of reading, perhaps to provide a publicity puff,  preparation for a panel or research (yeah, been doing a lot of that recently). I seem to have little time to read for pleasure, although I am looking forward to a new one from Robert Crais, by the way. 

Now and again though I pull something down from a shelf just for the sheer hell of it. It will often be something I read many years ago and I don't intend to fully re-reading but merely dip in and see what I think of it now. 

I have books I first read in my teens - yes, I'm a hoarder. Dusty paperbacks, some with cracked spines thanks to much rereading, some with loose pages, a few with covers detached because paperbacks can be so flimsy. Remember, we're not talking books I read yesterday here. Not even the day before that. It's many, many days, weeks, months, years, decades.

I have titles by authors who were hot in their day but some not so much now. Authors whose every new release was keenly anticipated.

Ed McBain I've mentioned many times before but there's also Alistair MacLean (now experiencing something of a resurgence), Robert Ludlum, John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey), Edmund Crispin (my favourite from the Golden Age of Crime Writing), even a number of old Wilbur Smiths (though he did continue to be popular).

But the one I picked up recently was Harold Robbins. His back catalogue is still in print but his name not so recognisable these days.

Good grief, I hear some of you say, how can you sully yourself with such trash?

Well, very easily, actually.

He specialised in bestsellers that were somewhat saucy in places. Think 50 Shades of Grey but less explicit and with a better story. Today we'd call them bonkbusters but his earlier ones were more than that. Many were epic in their scope and saga in their approach.

His most famous work was perhaps 'The Carpetbaggers', a thinly veiled drama based on the life of Howard Hughes. This massive story detailed the rise of Jonas Cord from the wastrel son of a millionaire to one of the most powerful businessmen on the planet. It was about commerce and it was about the movies and it was about how many women Jonas could bed in around 700 pages (a lot, by the way. It's a wonder he had the strength to make his millions).

It even found time to tell a western in the quest by Max Sand - later known as Nevada Smith in the story - to track down the murderers of his parents. When the book was filmed, with George Peppard as Jonas, this section was spun off into a movie of its own with Steve McQueen.

'The Carpetbaggers' was part of a trilogy about the movies and TV that began with 'The Dream Merchants' and ended with 'The Inheritors'. It was a world he knew something about. Harold Robbins had worked for Universal Pictures and then became an independent producer himself, making movies from his early novels. 

But my personal favourite was 'A Stone for Danny Fisher', the two-fisted tale of a young boxer who gets mixed up with the mob. It all ends tragically, of course, just the way I like 'em. It was filmed, too - but as an Elvis Presley musical, 'King Creole' in which the boxing character became a singer and the original New York setting was switched to New Orleans. It worked well enough but I would love to see someone film the book.

Were the books any good? Well, yes and no. The writing was fairly basic and there were decisions made in the storytelling that might raise an eyebrow today. In 'The Inheritors' the story leaps two weeks so abruptly that had me going back to see what I had missed. Nowadays we might pad it out a bit, add something more, have a section break or even begin a new chapter but no, old Harold just ploughed right on. 

Some of the characters were cardboard enough to store cereal in. The women were much too willing to jump into bed with the protagonist and many of them had very little in the way of depth. In fact some of the men were also so shallow that a dive into their gene pool would cause concussion.


There was, for me, a power in that storytelling that held me, even when I picked up 'The Inheritors' and began to leaf through it. Soon I was carried through to the end. Despite all the issues I mention above, I was invested in the plot and I wanted to find out what happened.

I had forgotten how tricky he had been in that storytelling. Timelines slipped back and forward, often without as much as a nod to the reader. I had to be on my toes to keep up with it. 

Yes, it was racy, at least for its day, not so much now. I don't claim any real literary merit - whatever the hell that is - but I found it compelling. At their heart they are soap opera. Without him I don't think we would have had the likes of 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty'. That was the world he so often wrote about, battles in boardroom and bedroom, high finance and high passions. We might not have had Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon, perhaps even Arthur Hailey.

There will be those who think we might have been better off but these authors all sold a bundle and brought pleasure to millions. And there's nothing wrong with that. Not everything needs to be a Booker prizewinner. There's room for escapism. Especially now.

The books were very much of their time and that has to be recognised. They could reflect attitudes that we today find troubling and I am not for a minute suggesting that we should applaud them or even return to such things, so don't write in. My purpose today is to highlight how writing styles, even in what they call pulp, has changed. As his career progressed the books became less about the story, more about the sex and they suffered because of it, became less interesting. Some of the storytelling techniques - the shifting timelines, the multi-strand POV - remain in use but the speed of it less so. For instance, 'The Carpetbaggers' today might become a trilogy - yes, he has that much story in those 700 pages but not that much colour. We might spend a little more time on character and less on sensation.

Well, perhaps some of us.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

La Malinche and me

Last month I visited the Denver Art Museum and toured their exhibit of La Malinche. It was an enlightening retrospective about the history and folklore surrounding her with pieces and narratives reflecting the takes by other artists: visual, theatrical, commercial, and literary. I'll admit some sour grapes here because I wasn't invited to contribute, especially since I'm one of the few writers from the US to feature La Malinche in a novel.

So who is La Malinche? She is famous for serving as a translator to the Conquistador general Hernán Cortés and helping him overthrow the Aztec throne. She was an indigenous woman from the land we know today as Mexico, and as a young girl, taken as a slave. Later she was gifted to the Spaniards, where her talents as a translator were valued by Cortés who used her to negotiate with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and his imperial court. Malinche was not only an expert interpreter but her keen knowledge of local culture and politics allowed Cortés to gain a military advantage over Moctezuma and set into motion the rapid destruction of the Aztec empire.

Because of this, in Mexico "Malinche" is synonymous with "traitor" someone capable of the ultimate betrayal. But over the centuries, and especially more recently, a more complicated appraisal has seeped into popular culture. She is also portrayed as a victim of exploitation and because she bore two children with the Spaniards, a son Martin with Cortés and later, a daughter Maria with her husband Juan Jaramillo (a lieutenant of Cortés), Malinche is regarded by some as the mother of the mestizos, people of mixed Indigenous American and European blood. (If you want to stir the pot, just go to Mexico and ask around what "mestizo" means and you'll get a heated earful about the country's enduring culture of racism. Sound familiar? Colonization on both sides of the border has left one convoluted legacy.) 

Malinche is known by other names such as Malinali, Manitzin, and Doña Marina. In post-colonial Mexico she was again redefined as "La Llorona" (the Crier), the phantom woman who prowls the waterways and lures the unsuspecting to their deaths. Her lamentations seek out her children, whom she drowned in a fit of madness. This myth is that La Llorona is actually Malinche condemned by fate to walk the earth, her children being the Indigenous people she betrayed to the Conquistadors. 

Since the reputation of Malinche is up for grabs, I decided to put my own spin on things. In the second book of my Felix Gomez series, X-Rated Bloodsuckers, we learn that the vampire trickster Coyote was actually her first child. As I was writing that book, I discovered that many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 by the Edict of Expulsion had joined the Conquistadors to escape the attention of the Inquisition. Acevedo was a popular last name adopted by these Jewish refugees. Drawing on this history, I decided that one of these Spanish Jews had a secret tryst with Malinche, who subsequently gave the baby away, to be raised by a guajiro, turned into a vampire, taught the deepest secrets of the supernatural world, and given the name "Coyote" to serve the undead as an enigmatic and mischievous shaman.

It is as La Llorona that Doña Marina herself appears in my novel, Rescue From Planet Pleasure. To rescue another vampire from the aliens, Felix travels to the sacred ground of Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico, where he reunites with Coyote, who's tormented by his mother Doña Marina. Turns out, she's somewhat of a party girl with a friend-with-benefits relationship with El Cucuy, the Mexican bogeyman. And we get to hear her side of the whole "you betrayed Mexico" narrative. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Pep Talks From Kindergartners and Other Random Things


Feeling mad, frustrated or nervous? Need words of encouragement? Then Pep Talks from Kindergartners is for you! Just call 1-707-998-8410 now!

This is actually a real thing. I called and selected from a menu. Kindergartners gave me words of encouragement and told me how to deal with being mad or frustrated or nervous. Really very cute. Brought a smile to my face. Cookies and ice cream were mentioned, but they also had some sound advice like going into your bedroom and punching your pillow instead of taking it out on other people.

This is a project of the students of West Side Elementary in Healdsburg, California. You can read more about it here.

Here are a few other random things: 

Lone Star Law – This is a reality show on Animal Planet. I’ve also seen it on the Discovery Channel on occasion and I’m sure it’s on Discovery +. This show follows Game Wardens in the state of Texas. Lots of hunting and fishing and critters of all kinds. I now know more about the hunting and fishing laws in Texas than I ever thought I would know. I’m really quite hooked on it. There’s also Northwoods Law which is Game Wardens in New Hampshire.

The rain in Spain – I’m sure you’re all familiar with “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.” I’ve heard it all of my life, but not until I was 26 did I ever see it in print. All of those years I’d been visualizing this sentence completely wrong. For some reason, maybe because I grew up in the Seattle area where Boeing was king, I thought they were talking about a plane. So I always visualized a plane flying over Spain with the rain hitting it and nowhere else. Go ahead, laugh! I laughed at myself and still laugh when I think about this.

Burying the Lede – Until a couple years ago I thought the word after the in this phrase was spelled l-e-a-d. Then I wondered why it was spelled l-e-d-e. A question on Jeopardy! the other day gave me the answer. Apparently, in the time of typesetting newspapers with lead (the metal), journalists spelled the first paragraph of a story (the lead) as l-e-d-e to distinguish it from the lead used in typesetting.

Those are my random thoughts for today. Call for your words of encouragement from those kindergartners. It’s quite fun.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Writer's Guidelines

Nearly every publishing house with a website has a "submissions" tab containing instructions for submitting material. Agents also post their requirements. 

Thomas Kies's post give excellent tips on acquiring an agent. About 85% of the books in Barnes and Noble and other chain sellers are published by the large conglomerates that dominate the industry. Most (but not all) will only look at manuscripts submitted through an agency. Agents separate the wheat from the chaff. 

One agent I know said she received 9,000 queries the month after her agency was spotlighted in Writer's Digest. How much time do you suppose she spent reading these letters? You would be amazed at how quickly agents decide which manuscripts they would like to see. 

Thomas mentioned that when he submitted material, he had followed each agent's guidelines exactly. 

That may sound elementary, but it isn't. I wish I had kept track over the years of the number of writers who have told me no one will look at their novel or non-fiction book. If I offer to "help" (That's the subject for another column) I quickly realize that no one--not a soul--has looked at the manuscript. Why? Because the writer ignored the submission guidelines or wrote a poor query letter. 

Here are some of the most egregious errors: 

1. Sending a snail mail letter when the guidelines ask for email submissions.

     I've also seen hand printed coffee-stained letters with the stamp in the wrong place and the editor's name misspelled. 

2. Ignoring the requested format for the query.

    If the agent asks for one page and can see at a glance that your query letter goes on and on for several pages, you're doomed. She knows immediately that you won't follow instructions. 

3.  Assuring the agent that this is the most wonderful manuscript since the first Harry Potter.

     Oh really? They've heard that before. Also, that everyone just loved your manuscript. They don't care who liked it. They care about selling your manuscript. 

4.  Talking about everything but what the agent needs to know.

    Mention up front if your book is psychological suspense, a cozy mystery, a classic who-done-it, a spy novel. And always state the word count. 

The good news in all this is that detailed information about writing query letters can be found on-line. A good query letter is a business letter. It should be short and to the point. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Do You Need an Agent?

Last Friday, I spoke to a group of about thirty people in our county’s writers’ group.  I talked about the number of books I wrote before I finally found an agent (five) and how even if you get an agent, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a publisher.  

That had actually happened to me in 2001.  The book was called PIECES OF JAKE and it convinced an agent in New York to sign me to a contract. My agent, however, only shopped my book to the top publishers in New York.  He didn’t try any of the indies.  When he couldn’t find a publisher to take me on, he dropped me like a bad habit.

I was devastated. I didn’t write another word for two years.

But in 2016, I found my agent and she found a publisher willing to take a chance on me.

One of the subjects I talked about with my group, was how I found my agent and how important it is, these days, to have one.  It’s getting harder and harder to find a publisher willing to look at an un-agented manuscript. Agents have become the gatekeepers.

They have all the contacts, know the trends, and know who is willing to take a chance on a debut author.  After all, publishing is business and taking on a new author requires an investment from the publishing house. 

One of the questions I got during my talk was-- how much does an agent charge to look at your work?  The answer is no legitimate agent charges to look at your work.  If they sign you to a contract, and if they find a publisher to take you on, and when you get paid your advance, then the agent receives their commission.  And the agent/client relationship can be a lifetime thing.  The agent also gets a percentage of all your royalties.

But the agent is always looking out for their client’s best interest.  Have you ever tried to decipher a contract from a publishing house?  Or figure out how a royalty is calculated?  That’s what your agent does.  

How did I find mine?  First, if you’re writing fiction, your novel needs to be complete and it helps a lot if it’s edited.  And a little advice—you’re first sentence needs to be kick-ass.  My agent told me that she gets one hundred queries a day. You don’t have a lot of time to catch an agent’s attention.

But then you need to hold their attention, so your book needs to be tightly written with well-drawn characters and a solid plot. 

What I did after I had confidence in my book, was Google literary agents, mysteries, debut authors.  About thirty names came up.  Then I did as much research on them as possible and when I wrote my query letters (emails) they were tailored to each individual agent.  No cookie cutter queries. 

Then I followed their submission guidelines to a fault.  Some wanted the first fifty pages, some wanted the first few chapters, and some wanted a synopsis. 

Four agents asked to see a complete manuscript. That was a first for me.

I eventually signed with one of them after she and I went through the manuscript page by page over the phone (she’s in California and I’m in North Carolina).  Finally, after we agreed on some minor revisions, she asked if I’d like to take our relationship to the next level—a contract.  

For a fledgling writer, I was over the moon.  The only other feeling like it was when she called me and said we were getting a contract from a publisher. 

A good agent is not only essential but they're also nurturing and wonderful mentors. 

Friday, March 18, 2022


Like several other TypeMers, I am in transition. I'm late today because I was getting in the final edits for the reissue of the third book in my Lizzie Stuart series. I had to first go back to the last manuscript I had on an old-fashion floppy disk and check that against the first edition. Then I sent it off to my editor at Speaking Volumes (the publisher that is reissuing the series). She  sent back the proofs, and -- after  got it back to her -- we did another round of proofs. I hope we're done now.

The new cover is very different from the old.  Here's the original cover, followed by the new:

I find the changes thought-provoking because they deal with different aspects of the book. The original cover is the artist's depiction of an attic in the old house that a wealthy woman offers to the School of Criminal Justice at Piedmont State. She wants Lizzie to be the director of the institute that she will endow. Several objects that are elsewhere in the book are in the attic on the cover.  The new cover focuses on two characters who are much discussed in the book, but long-dead when the story begins. The "old murders" in the title is a reference to them.

Now that I've gotten Book 3 done, I will have a much easier process to look forward to as I proof Books 4 and 5.  After that I hope I'll be able to move into rebooting the series with Book 6. 

But I'm also trying to adjust to transition from winter to spring. Here in upstate New York, we have gone from weather in the 30s and below last week to the mid-60s today. I'm not a warm weather person, and I want a few more weeks of snuggling in my blankets at night and my caps and jackets during the day. The sun seems too bright and garish. 

I need to adjust before I can settle into the work I want to get done during the summer on my various projects. The fun of getting Book 4 out with its new cover should keep me motivated. 

Thursday, March 17, 2022


Pandemic writing

I (Donis) can relate to Barbara's feeling of discombobulation at not having a deadline to face down. Since The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, my first mystery, was published in 2005, I've faithfully produced about one book a year, all of which were accepted and published – until my publisher changed at the almost same time the dreaded pandemic hit in 2020. AND I had just launched a new series set in Hollywood during the silent movie era of the 1920s.

The first Hollywood book, The Wrong Girl,  came out only weeks before the shutdown. The publication date for the second, Valentino Will Die, was pushed back six months as the pandemic ground on. I turned in the third, The Beasts of Hollywood, almost a year ago.

It has yet to be accepted. Or rejected. A few weeks ago, the acquisitions editor, whom I've known and admired for years, finally sent me a note asking forgiveness for being so slow and assuring me that though she hadn't read the MS yet, she'd get to it as soon as she could. Apparently the publishing industry is suffering its own bout of discombobulation.  

So here I am, in publishing limbo. 

I've done preliminary work on another Hollywood book, but I've gotten so many emails from readers who asked if I'd write another Alafair Tucker mystery (my original series) that I've spent most of the past contract-less year working on an eleventh Alafair.

It's hard. I'm using my work-in-progress to fictionalize a really problematic theme that has run through my life – racism. The new book is part of a long-running series set in Oklahoma, with established characters and situations. The series began in 1912 and moved forward year by year, and  I've now reached 1921, the year of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It's also the year that the KKK had a horrifying resurgence in Oklahoma. I can't pretend like nothing happened. When I write I always wonder if I can make the book as good as the one I have in my head, and this one is particularly scary. Can I do it justice?

I feel like if I can pull it off, the book could tell an important tale. But I'm doing this hard work basically on spec. When I finish it to my own satisfaction, I have no idea how I'll be able to get it published. After nearly twenty years, I feel like I'm back at square one.

I'm not complaining, really (Well, maybe a little) At least I have a publishing track record and I will get this story told one way or another.