Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Naming of Characters

Sandra Parshall

T.S. Eliot wrote, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and as a lifelong cat-owner, I agree -- but choosing a name for a fictional character takes difficulty to a whole new level. It’s a lot like naming a child. The recipient will live with your decision forever, and if you make a mistake the consequences won’t be pretty.

A baby, of course, is named before the parents have any idea how the kid will turn out. Will little Angelina develop into a tattooed hellion? Will Grace be a hopeless klutz? Or will their names in some way help to shape the people they become? I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, has spent a breathtaking amount of money studying such questions, but fortunately writers don’t have to wonder. We can form the characters, then give them names that suit. We can try out as many names as we like before deciding.

A character’s name has to do a lot of heavy lifting:

It should evoke personality. If a guy is always called Robert, never Bobby or even Bob, what does that say about him?

If ethnicity is important to the story, the name should convey that too. But you don’t have to call every Hispanic character Jose Gonzales. A little effort will turn up less common names that still tell the reader how to see the person.

A name can be a quick way to signal social status. I am not brave or foolish enough to reel off a list of low-class names and risk the fallout, but you know what I mean.

A name can tell us a character’s approximate age. How many toddlers do you know who are named Hortense or Archibald? How many 80-year-old women have you met who are named Britney or Morgan? The internet allows writers to search databases such as (compiled from Social Security records) and to find out what a character born in a certain year might have been named. Because I prefer classic names rather than the trendy concoctions that are going to seem laughable when their owners hit middle age and beyond, I’m happy to note that Emma has been the most popular name for baby girls in the U.S. for several years. We may have Ross and Rachel on Friends to thank for this. (I have a five-year-old named Emma, but although she believes herself to be an unusually hirsute little girl, she’s actually of the feline persuasion.) All those tiny Emmas, though, are growing up with a nearly equal number of girls named Madison. Aiden was the top male name in 2006, followed by Jacob, Ethan, Ryan, and Matthew. What will Madison and Aiden call their children twenty-five years from now?

The classics fit people of any age, but if the first name is a common one, the last might have to do double duty to give the character distinction. Kate is one of the most common names for female protagonists in mysteries, followed closely by all the variations of Katherine/Catherine/Kathleen -- Kat/Cat/Kathy/Katie/Kay. But Kate Shugak is singular, and so is Kay Scarpetta. In my new book, Disturbing the Dead, I named a lead character Tom Bridger, pairing a first name that conveys a solid, down-to-earth personality with a last name that is common among Melungeons in the Appalachians. The name Bridger is also a metaphor for the position that Tom, a half-Melungeon deputy sheriff, occupies between two segments of his mountain community. The reader may never think about this, but I have.

Sometimes a perfect name comes to a writer through sheer serendipity. When Tess Gerritsen was writing a book titled The Surgeon, she contributed to a charity auction by allowing a reader to purchase naming rights for a minor character, a female medical examiner. The reader named Dr. Maura Isles after a real person. The character grew in importance in subsequent books, and she grew into her name, which perfectly conveys the image of an elegant woman who is isolated within herself.

While searching for the perfect monikers for our characters, writers have to keep some no-no’s in mind: nothing that is impossible for the reader to pronounce; no two names starting with the same letter, lest the poor reader become confused; as few nicknames as possible, again to avoid confusion. Short, one-word names always have the edge, at least in English-language crime fiction. Look at a few U.S., Canadian, and British mystery novels. How many names of more than two or three syllables do you see? How many truly unusual names do you see? You could say this is laziness on the part of writers who don’t want to type long or difficult names again and again, and you might be half-right, but it’s also true that a mystery seems to move faster if everyone has a short, easy name.

A name is the most personal thing about a character, and the choice is not one the writer makes lightly. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could exercise the same discretion over our own names? As innocent babies, we have to take whatever label is slapped on us, whether it fits or not. But most names, amazingly enough, turn out to be good fits. How about yours? Do you love it, hate it, wish you could change it? What name would you have given yourself, and why?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Writing, On Having Written

Sharon Wildwind

This morning’s writing problem: how am I going to get my uniformed police officer character, Avivah Rosen, out of her make-work public relations assignment and into being the driver for the detective investigating a strange murder?

The detective’s usual driver calls in sick and someone picks her name from the roster. Too easy. It has the element of random chance and it doesn’t cost Avivah anything. If she wants to be part of this investigation, she has to pay a price.

She barges into the Chief’s office and demands to be given real police work. Too melodramatic, and not at all like real life. She’d pay a price all right, probably be ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation.

So, no random chance and no hutzpah bordering on insanity. Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong end. Detective Albern has heard good things about her. What? He asks for her to be assigned to him. Why? He wants something from her. What?

What can I do to make Albern different from Avivah’s previous bosses? One was a self-made, confident military police officer who recognized Avivah’s abilities and let her have her head as long as she turned in good work. The second was a throughly rotten person who almost wrecked her career. The third was a decent human being, but was beset with own problems to the point that he couldn’t help advance her career.

That’s what’s I’ve never done, a boss who will advancing her career. Avivah has been whining about wanting to do real police work, all right let’s make Albern an uber-boss. Tough. Demanding. Fair. Someone who will run Avivah ragged, but she’ll come out of the experience a better cop. How did Detective Albern get that way? Rule one: avoid all the police cliches. None of his relatives were cops killed in the line of duty. He’s not doing payback for getting his partner, or an innocent civilian killed. I’ve already got one character who loves his job to the point of near insanity and one who’s too smart for his own good, so those two motivations are out. He’s not terminally ill and desperate to leave a younger cop to carry on the tradition. He doesn’t have a five-year-old who was crippled by a stray bullet during a police gun battle. He’s not an alcoholic. He’s not looking for fast promotion, so he can enter politics.

It looks like I was wrong. This morning’s writing problem isn’t how to get Avivah on Albern’s team, but why Albern became a detective in the first place. Once I know who he is, he’ll have a reason for requesting Avivah on his team and my problem will be solved.

He really does need a first name . . .Nate is a nice name and I haven’t used “N” for a first name for one of the characters in this book yet. Nate Albern. Nathanial Albern. Detective Nathanial (Nate) Albern. Fifty-four years old. Happily married, with grown kids. Second marriage, I think. First wife died young. . . .What if his first wife was named Avivah? With an “h” at the end, which is the more unusual spelling? Hmm. . .

Monday, February 26, 2007

WHAT IF??? The difference between readers and writers...

By Lonnie Cruse

What if? It's an interesting question.

Whenever I attend the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago, the most interesting things seem to happen in the elevator. This year that happening was a quick discussion with someone between the first and second floors who introduced herself to me as "just a reader." There were three or four of us writers in the elevator and as many readers riding between floors. I'd checked this lady's name tag, in order to say "hello," and that's when she made the "I'm just a reader" statement. We writers quickly assured her that we couldn't do our job of writing unless she did her job of reading what we wrote. "Just readers" are extremely important to us "just writers." Although, I have to say I've never heard a writer confess to anyone, "I'm just a writer." Ego? Confidence? Whatever.

For me, it isn't about talent or lack thereof (which may be what readers are saying about themselves when they use the "just" word, that they don't believe they have the talent to write, but maybe they do? Where was I?) I believe it's the "What if?" question that sets the two groups apart.

"Just readers" see an item in the newspaper or on television, or overhear a snatch of conversation in public and think it's interesting, then they quickly move on with their lives.

"Just writers" see or hear the same thing and screech to a halt, fumbling for notebooks or napkins to jot an idea or phrase down, all the while asking themselves, "What if?" What if that wasn't an accident, but a murder? What if that young couple is faking a public marital spat while they check out the store for a possible robbery? What if? It's what makes us writers tick. It's that, ahem, weird imagination that allows us to take something ordinary and everyday and transform it into a whole new story. A story, hopefully, that "just readers" will want to read.

But "What if?" is really a two edged sword for an awful lot of writers. Not only is it a necessary question in order to keep us looking for new ideas, plot lines, scenarios, etc. but it can bring us to a grinding halt, staring at a blank page, as if hypnotized. As in:

What if I can't come up with an idea to write about?
What if I have the idea for the beginning and ending of the novel, but I can't fill in that awful saggy, baggy middle? (Which, by the way is MY very own, very personal "What if" bugaboo.)
What if I can't come up with another idea good enough to write a sequel to the last book?
What if my latest book doesn't sell well enough and my publisher drops me while I'm in the middle of writing the next one?
What if I die in mid-manuscript and the world never gets to read my current work of genius? (Which is bound to happen to an awful lot of writers, since we're nearly always in the middle of writing a new manuscript.)

These "What ifs" are a writer's worst nightmares. Not to mention daymares. Lack of self-confidence, an internal "editor," difficult to turn off, that constantly whispers in our ears, "This stinks," "You can't do this," Nobody is ever going to want to read this." Helpful little phrases like that. Then, of course, there are the guilt "What ifs":

Should I be spending all this time tied to my desk, writing about characters who don't really exist when I have a family who need me, a job to do at the office, a house to clean, groceries to buy, etc. ???

Writers are plagued with self-doubts, and "What if" is often the gateway to those doubts. We have to find a way to shut them off and concentrate on the "What if" of the story. How we can entice you lovely "just readers" to read our stuff.

If you've ever introduced yourself to a writer as "just a reader," please, let me encourage you to leave off the "J" word in the future. You ARE our bread and butter. And remember, it isn't any easier on our side of the desk than it is on yours.

Now, "what if" I get busy on a new story line slithering through my head?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Congratulaions to Deadly Daughter Sandra

From All the Deadly Daughters!

Congratulations to our own Sandra Parshall, whose book, THE HEAT OF THE MOON, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Mystery.

Sandra's book is wonderful; a trip to her website reveals that HEAT is now also available in the U.K., and her new book, DISTURBING THE DEAD, will be out soon.

We're proud to blog with such a great writer, and we're glad to see that she's been recognized for her work.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Notes from the Morgue

DEB BAKER (Guest blogger)

How shall the burial rite be read?
The solemn song be sung?
The requiem for the loveliest dead,
That ever died so young?
A PAEAN, Edgar Allan Poe

I'm in the autopsy room with the deputy medical examiner. My sixteen-year-old daughter's face is twisted into a mask of agony.

"What am I doing here, anyway?" Ana says, griping in my ear again. It's a good question. Besides the three of us already mentioned, four young males complete the circle around the examining table. Two speeders, two car thieves. Not exactly my daughter's usual circle. Ana’s crime? Misjudging a left hand turn at a light. The oncoming car clipped her bumper. She’s in the morgue because of judge’s orders.

One of the carjackers is trying to stay awake. He shifts back and forth, eyes closing, while the Medical Examiner explains the autopsy procedure. I'm the only one who really wants to be there.

“How can you be absolutely sure the person is dead when they are bagged at the scene?” I ask, seizing the opportunity. I’m a mystery writer. I can’t help myself. “Have you ever bagged a live person?”

I get a poke in the back for my curiosity. “Shhh.” It’s my daughter. I’m embarrassing her. Nervous tittering from the captive audience. I think it’s a good question and wish I had my notebook along.

“That couldn’t possibly happen,” says the deputy medical examiner. “We have ways of knowing.”

Yah, sure. The mystery author in me doesn’t quite believe it. That begs another question. How does the M.E. know? I suspect she’s making it up. Before I can present the question, my daughter is tromping on my toes. She’s five-nine, I’m five-two. She has an advantage.

BTW, Six Feet Under was one of my all time favorite shows.

So my next question? "Do you really tag the body’s toes?"

“Yes,” the deputy M.E. says, frowning a little at my enthusiasm. I’m supposed to be appalled into solemn silence by the morgue, not doing cartwheels. She’s not sure I’m helping her cause.

A police officer shows us pictures, not of bodies, but of vehicles. “This one,” he says, “is a fatality. Three boys dead, the driver of the oncoming car, dead. The driver, sixteen-years-old, was the only survivor.”

More pictures, half of them the same type of accident my daughter had.
It starts to sink in. These kids slept-walked through the cold storage room, the bagging procedure, and graphic autopsy procedures. But accident pictures and the stories behind them have had an effect.

It’s about time.

Each of them believes they are infallible, nothing can hurt them. But they don’t have that same confidence when it comes to their friends’ lives. No one stopped to think about the friends in the car. Before now.

Ana isn’t complaining anymore. Her boyfriend had been in the passenger seat. What if…..? I’m noticeably quiet. Everyone in the room is thinking about what could have been.

All of us are grateful for what was.
The boys start asking question, looking thoughtful.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Chat with J.A. Konrath

Julia Buckley

Thanks for talking with me.

Do people ever try to guess what your initials stand for? James Anthony? Joshua Albright? Jonathan Abelard?

They stand for Joseph Andrew, though if you talk to my wife she’ll tell you they’re short for a synonym of ‘donkey.’

Wives tend to be right most of the time. The name Konrath sounds Hungarian, like Namath and Horvath. Do you have Slavic roots?

Konrath is Austrian and/or German. I don’t know much about my ancestors, but I believe that I was somehow descended from them. That’s only a guess, by the way.

Your protagonist is a woman named Jack Daniels, and the titles of your books are all the names of drinks: Whiskey Sour, Rusty Nail, Bloody Mary. Is it a challenge, as a teetotaler, to come up with these titles? :)

A lot of research goes into every title. At least, that’s what I’m telling the IRS.

You recently went on a much-publicized 500-store (actually 612) book tour to promote Rusty Nail. How did that work out for you? Are you able to measure the results by the piles of diamonds, rubies and emeralds in your secret vault?

I was gone for 68 days, hence my wife’s nickname for me. It wasn’t easy, but I found it very effective. I met over 1400 booksellers, and thanked all of them in the acknowledgements of DIRTY MARTINI, coming out June 2007.Results are tough to gauge, but I believe, with all of my effort, I sold five or six extra books.

Seriously, though, you are seen as an expert in the realm of promotion. Do you have a background in sales? What sorts of jobs have you had in your life?

I was a bartender. Go figure.

I also was a bookseller for a few years, which I loved.

I began to learn about marketing and promotion the hard way---by getting published. But it’s amazing how much you can pick up if you’re paying attention. For example, I just picked up a quarter I found on the floor.

What are you writing now? How would you say your time is divided between writing and promotion? Is one more difficult than the other?

I just finished a stand alone that my agent is going to shop around, and now I’m working on the fifth Jack Daniels thriller, FUZZY NAVEL.But I only spend about 10% of my professional life writing. Mostly, it’s promotion. And that’s definitely harder.

You edited the newly-released anthology, These Guns for Hire. How did you make the leap from author to editor? Did you enjoy the process?

I have a lot of author friends, and I thought it would be fun to pester them incessantly for hit-man stories.

It was. The collection is wonderful. You need to buy a copy, right now. Visit to learn more about it.

You mentioned on a panel at Love is Murder that no one can get into one of your anthologies unless they buy you a beer, and you’ve already told me that I can’t just send you the money. :) What if a wonderful writer lives far from you, in New Zealand, and has not the option of buying you a beer? Can they send you cyber champagne?

If they want it bad enough, they’ll hop on a plane.

You wrote on your blog recently that you are going to be taking a vacation and putting your workaholic tendencies aside. While on that vacation, will you be visiting bookstores?

Absolutely not. I need a break from all the promotion. Vacation will be dedicated to spending time with my family, and stopping in a few libraries for quick speeches.

I assume you're kidding about that last part. Have you always been a workaholic?

No. I’m actually pretty lazy. I love lounging. I’m very good at it.

Unfortunately, no one wants to pay me to lounge around.

What are you reading right now?

I’m blurbing. Just finished MARKED BY FATE by Laura Bradford, and am halfway through ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS by JT Ellison.

Both are excellent, and I’m not just saying that because the authors bought me beer.

Do you make long-term plans? Do you have a plan for the Jack Daniels series? Will there be a new series with a new protagonist in the future?

No plans. I would like to do some spin off series, but not with my characters. Think Lee Child would let me do a Reacher book?

Maybe if you bought him a beer?

What was your first publication? Do you remember your reaction to finding out you were published?

Whiskey Sour was my first sale. I was pretty pleased, because I’d had over 500 rejections at that point for nine previous novels. Both my wife and I began to scream in joy, and a neighbor called up because they thought I was murdering her.

You’ve met a whole lot of authors at book conferences. Is there an author out there somewhere that you’ve never met but would like to meet? If so, who is it?

I haven’t met Robert B. Parker yet, and I’d like to someday.

I’d also like to meet John D. MacDonald, but he isn’t much into conversation lately.

What’s the farthest you’ve gone (geographically) to promote your books?

I drove over 17,000 miles on my last tour, to 29 states.

Your website is quite a labyrinth of information, puzzles, and special offers. Did you create it yourself?

Yeah, I do my own website. I’m pleased with the content, not so pleased with the visuals.

How can people find out more about you and your books?

They can ask my mom.

Thanks for speaking with me, Joseph Arthur.

You’re welcome, Juliette. :)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Mayor of Central Park

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of my favorite real life characters is Alberto Arroyo, a 91-year-old Puerto Rican American known to New Yorkers as the Mayor of Central Park. I didn’t know he was legendary and beloved when I first encountered him. I had recently started running around the Central Park reservoir for daily exercise. I run very, very slowly. A power walker can leave me in the dust. I’ve never succeeded in passing another runner, not even the octogenarian lady in the purple track suit I tried to catch up with for over a mile one time. So it was heartening when I began meeting the elderly gentleman who always greeted me as he passed. Each time he had a smile for me and a few words of encouragement.

Rain or shine, I’d see him making his way slowly along the track toward his favorite bench on the south side of the reservoir, unmistakable with his white hair, bushy white mustache, and cane. “Looking good!” he would call to me. Sometimes he would raise his face and both arms to the sky and say, “Beautiful day!” The first time I described him to someone who ran in the park, they said, “Oh, everybody knows him. That’s the Mayor of Central Park.” After that, I saw that many people, men and women of all ages, stopped to talk with him. He knew hundreds by name. “In my simple way,” he told me once, “I make a lot of people happy.”

After I got to know him, I heard Alberto’s stories. One woman stops by his bench periodically to give him a haircut. He is especially proud of his friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he courteously pretended not to recognize for years until the day she invited him to run with her. The stone Parks Department building near Alberto’s bench displays pictures and articles about him. Alberto came from Puerto Rico at the age of 21. Before settling in New York, he traveled in Europe, where the misery he saw prompted him to take a vow of poverty. He was the first person to use the path around the reservoir as a running track. From 1935 on, he ran there every single day. Only in the past few years have health problems kept him home now and then. I first introduced myself after writing a song about Alberto. He was delighted when I brought my guitar to the park and sang it for him. The very next day, I ran past him as he chatted with a couple of tourists. “That’s the woman who wrote a song about me,” I heard him say. I had become one of his stories.

Alberto uses a walker now. He gets to the park in early afternoon, and it sometimes takes him till after dark to get home. But he still makes his way around the track to his bench, which now bears a plaque honoring him. You can still occasionally see him standing on his head, a feat he used to perform daily. It still puts a big smile on my face to hear him call my name as I jog by. And sunshine or downpour or blizzard, he still says, “Beautiful day!”

Who's your favorite real life character?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stage Fright

Sandra Parshall

Like any reasonable person, I’d rather step into the path of a train than get up in front of a crowd and give a speech. Countless surveys have shown that public speaking is the one experience people dread most. Death comes in a distant second. Makes sense. Death doesn’t require that you stick around and hear what people thought of your performance.

When I signed a book contract for the first time, I knew I had to do something to prepare for the public appearances that are part of book promotion. I have always been shy -- I’m okay in one-on-one encounters, but the thought of being the focus of a crowd’s attention makes me panic. I don’t have the voice for public speaking either. I sound strikingly like a 10-year-old with laryngitis, and my husband has been begging me for more than 30 years to SPEAK UP because he can’t hear me from three feet away. How could I get help with both the panic and the voice?

After asking a lot of people for advice, I decided to join A Very Famous Organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills and has zillions of small clubs scattered the length and breadth of creation, practically one on every corner. I joined a club in my neighborhood, and I was honest with the other members from the start. I wasn’t interested in working my way up to regional, national, or international speaking competitions. My only goal was to learn how to talk about my book without freezing up or fainting.

The first time I spoke, my topic was “My Life of Crime” (the speech is now posted on the Writing page of my web site) and the club members gave me the blue ribbon for Best Speaker of the evening. Hey, I thought, this is easy. Never mind that I can’t recall a single second of the time I was speaking. I must have done okay, or I wouldn’t have the ribbon to show for it. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.

In four months of meetings, I was only scheduled to speak three times, which was not exactly the intensive preparation I needed. The second time went well. The third time was a disaster, my worst fears realized. A member took me aside and told me, basically, that I was doing everything wrong. I had to move around, walk back and forth, gesture a lot, project and talk faster, make eye contact with people in the audience. I had to speak as if I were bubbling over with excitement. I was soundly criticized for revealing that I had endured a long period of rejection before I sold a book. Never, never, never talk about failure, I was told, because the audience will not respect you if they know you’ve failed in the past. When I tried to explain that audiences love to hear what writers went through to get published, she told me I was wrong.

Another member, assigned to critique my speech for the whole group, said I had to start talking about something besides my book -- that was my “comfort zone” and I must move beyond it and speak on unrelated topics.

My book, of course, was the very thing I felt least comfortable talking about, and I had joined the group to get over that unease. I needed practice. But I was breaking the club rules by sticking to one subject. I left, having gained only a little confidence. I was on my own, sink or swim.

Not long after I attended my last meeting, I went to hear a bestselling mystery writer speak. I won’t name her, because she’s both a political and professional heroine to me, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m ridiculing her. Instead of walking back and forth on the stage, she stayed put behind a lectern. She used a microphone, but even so, her voice fell below the audible level on a few words. She might have made eye contact with some members of the audience, but most of the time she seemed to be looking over our heads. She never gestured. Instead, she fussed constantly with the belt of her jacket, tying it, untying it, pulling the ends behind her back, pulling them to the front again. I became mesmerized by the movements of that belt, wondering what she would do with it next. She did everything wrong. And she gave a wonderful speech. I found this most reassuring.

Since then, I’ve spoken before a number of groups, and I’ve survived. I still feel cold and shivery and dry-mouthed beforehand and I’m faint with relief when it’s over. I rarely recall a word I said, which is a profound blessing. With a second book coming out, I’m embarking on another round of appearances. I’m doing my best to make people feel at the end of each event that attending was worthwhile.

If you’re ever in one of my audiences, and I stumble over my words or look like I’m heading for meltdown, remember that my choice was between you and the train, and I chose you. That ought to count for something.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Black Powder Smoke

Sharon Wildwind

On Valentine’s Day, the past tapped me on the shoulder. Caught off guard, I stumbled. The wrong name. The wrong character. The wrong story line. Who was I again?

What happened was that one of my writing partners surfaced after nineteen years. Not a peep, not a post card; then, there their name was, grinning at me from e-mail.

Writing partners aren’t the same as critique partners. Not by a long shot. Critique partners are sensible writers, who gently point out where a scene makes no sense or where commas have taken on a life of their own. Good critique partners get me published.

Writing partners destroy my sleep, lead me into junk food morasses, and produce the most stunning prose I ever thought myself capable of writing, if only I could remember it in the morning. Four times in my life I’ve connected, on a deeply playful level, with another story-teller. Together—usually between midnight and five a.m. on weekend sleep-overs—we wrote bad James Bond, bad westerns, bad science fiction, and bad sword-and-sorcery.

Note the emphasis on bad. This writing, at that point, was never intended for publication. It needed work. In fact, if, God forbid, anything happens to me, there’s a box at the back of a closet which I hope disappears in a puff of smoke. The brittle pages, some so old they were typed on a manual typewriter, with carbon paper between the copies, would be best left undisturbed.

I went to that box last Wednesday and found two ragged files. Now I remember. This character wasn’t Becky; she was Joan. Thirty-five years old. Full of adventure. Full of sass. Full of myself.

We are in a bedroom, with the door closed. Books line the walls. This house belongs to someone else. In fact, the whole world outside that door belongs to someone else. Out there we are small, not so successful, not so bright, not so clever. In this room we can be anyone, as long as it’s fun and adventurous, and we don’t run out of candles or Fritos. We wear sheriff’s stars and command star-ships. We say lingering good-byes on the eve of going to battle. We know the dust and the smell of the black powder smoke and to stand in the street at the turn of a joke. We plow through harsh terrain and even harsher weather. We give impassioned speeches to elvish councils. We steal moments of joy and play, knowing those are all allotted to us because we must save civilization. We throw dialog at each other and delight in the repartee. As our voices grow hoarse in the early morning, we somehow segue into talking about what makes courage courageous, what makes honor bright, and why slogging through Antarctica wouldn’t be any fun at all.

This room is where we learned the “gotcha” of story, where we got hooked on playing to an audience, where commas didn’t matter, but characters’ emotions did. There are a lot worse places for writers to get their start.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Be Careful, by Lonnie Cruse


How often do you hear those familiar words from your friends and/or loved ones? Our family says them to each other practically every single time we part. So much so, that our oldest son—and might I just mention that he’s our most easy-going of the litter—once went ballistic after I said that familiar phrase to him as he picked up his car keys. Within seconds his father entered the room, noticed he was leaving the house, and repeated the phrase to him, in all innocence. Joe instantly demanded to know why we always told him to be careful. Didn’t we know he was a careful driver? (Never mind that the laminate was still warm on his driver’s license.) Did we really think he was going to purposely go out and have an accident? Of course we didn’t, we, um, just wanted him to be careful. Right?

“Be careful” has certainly become a cliché’ over time as friends and loved ones say the words so frequently to each other from habit or on purpose each and every time someone else takes their leave. "Have a safe trip," "drive carefully," "be careful," they all mean the same thing. And if you look deeper, what the person is really saying is: I care about you, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. Nice sentiment. But truthfully, we all realize that “be careful” isn’t ever totally under our control, and no matter how skillful we may be at driving, (or whatever else we’re being warned to be careful about) someone else can quickly make an error in judgment that can injure or kill us. Which, of course, is the real concern.

So what’s my point here? Why am I going on about the “c” word? Because in writing a novel, writers are advised (a) not to use cliché’s, and (b) not to repeat themselves whenever possible. Well, I decided to break both rules in my next book in the Metropolis Mystery Series, MALICE IN METROPOLIS, (due out from NaDaC publishing in April) and use the words “be careful” as sort of a punch line as often as I could sneak them in. The twist I used was to begin the book by having my protagonist know he’s being hunted down by a determined killer bent on revenge, so the characters could say the phrase to each other frequently and in all sincerity. Then midway of the book, the suspected killer says the phrase to my hero, and he knows it’s an implied threat. He also knows there is not a thing he can do about it except, well, be careful.

I had a lot of fun dropping those overused words into the manuscript here and there, then formulating each of the recipients’ reactions to the speaker. Of course, I had to try not to overuse the phrase and spark a ballistic reaction in my readers. Snicker.

Thanks for stopping by, and hey . . . be careful out there, will you?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Reading as a Writer

Leslie Budewitz

At Left Coast Crime in Seattle two weeks ago, a woman asked me what I liked to read. Her question, and three days of hanging out with readers, only some of whom are also writers, prompted a realization. Or maybe it’s a confession:

I am not a normal reader.

And I’m kind of sorry about that.

Writers are readers, too, of course, but some conferences – and LCC Seattle was one of them – are programmed with a focus on the readers who aren’t writers. Writers adore these readers. Readers admire writers, ask about their days, their process, when the next novel or story is being published. Even where they get their ideas, a question that the much-published often scorn but that I’m still new enough to enjoy answering.

Readers who go to cons aren’t just potential buyers. They’re the heart of the writing world, the people we do this for. The people we want to satisfy most, after ourselves. They’re the people we once were.

They can sit for hours in front of the fire with a good book, and sometimes even a bad one, only getting up for more tea or a visit to the bathroom. I miss that. Me, I’m reading with a notebook nearby where I jot down an image that works or doesn’t, note an awkward sentence, question the use of point of view. I read wondering if some detail is going to play out later in the story the way I think it is, or if it’s a red herring. Or worse, a bit of sloppy writing that diverts me for no good reason. I’m reading with one eye on the magician’s hands and the other on the curtain, asking How did she do that?

Readers don’t feel compelled to finish a book just to see if the writer can pull it off.

Readers keep reading a series they enjoy without feeling like they can’t spend the time on a book they’re not likely to learn new tricks from, or that they should be reading the new hot thing.

Readers choose a book because it looks good, not because they want to know why it made the NY Times Bestseller list despite lousy reviews, or why it got great reviews but tanked.

Last weekend, Judy Clemens wrote here about discovering mysteries. And what she described started with her love of the genre, how she couldn’t wait to find out what Lord Peter said to Harriet Vane next, how she scoured bookstores in unfamiliar towns for new discoveries. Only later did she realize she could try writing the kinds of books she loved to read.

I am convinced that when I started writing fiction, my work took the shape of a mystery because that’s what I’d been reading and listening to. I’d been working several days a week in a city 45 miles from home, a city whose library held an excellent audio collection. Many of those tapes – and they were tapes, back then – were mysteries: Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters. What I loved to read became what I needed to write.

Writers, remember that connection that first brought you to the page. Remember the joy. Your readers want that experience, too; honor their passion. Take time to relive that experience yourself. Pick up a book you last read ten years ago – or one you’ve been saving for a snowy day – and read it again for sheer fun. Leave your review notebook by your desk, and keep your bottom in your reading chair. Stay up too late reading just because it’s fun.

The more you do that, the more that joy will dust your own manuscripts.

In the spirit of remembering the books that brought us here, let me paraphrase Jane Eyre: Reader, I thank you.

Leslie Budewitz is a published short story writer with novels in progress. She provides legal research for writers through Law & Fiction,

Friday, February 16, 2007

“Why Did I Come in Here Again?” and Other Lost Thoughts

I have memories of my mother, fortyish, wandering into a room where we children lolled about watching television, and hesitating on the threshold, saying, “Now—why did I come in here?”

We’d laugh at her, we heartless children, because we thought it was sweetly eccentric that our mother would often forget the task that had caused her to stride purposefully into a room, sometimes even to open a cabinet and gaze inside, as if hoping the answer lay in there.

But of course her behavior wasn’t eccentric at all. Now that I’m a writer, I realize there are a finite number of thoughts I can fit into my head, and sometimes a few really important ones can get squeezed out. Like—oh! I was supposed to make dinner. Or fill out that endless paperwork that comes home from a grade school—field trip forms, tuition invoices, raffle tickets, notes to teachers, et educational cetera. Or the even more relentless paperwork that goes with my job—the teaching of English to teenaged girls.

And then, beyond all that, there is the Work in Progress. It has to find its way through all of the other thoughts, like water in a jar full of rocks. It has to squeeze through the gaps and bring me the occasional inspiration, even while I’m toiling away with my less inspired but still important mental chores: feed the dog, the cat, the fish. Write those thank you notes, wrap that present, iron his shirt, sew his button.

My mother, though she’s the most mature woman I’ve ever known, must take the occasional secret pleasure in watching me fall into all of the traps I was sure, as a bold and sarcastic youth, that I would avoid. In her day, she had to maintain her mental equilibrium while caring for FIVE children, a husband, a cat and a dog. I only have two children, and yet I understand, now, how really extraordinary my mother was. She got a college degree later than most, at age fifty, and she wrote for pleasure, for sheer pleasure, which was the same reason that she would read.

My mom is the one who got me hooked on mysteries. She’s still an addict herself. Back when we were kids, she would reward herself for daily chores with quick little doses of whatever book she had at the time: Georgette Heyer, Phyllis Whitney, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt. She’d read a chapter or two, then jump up and say, “Now, why did I get up?”

So today I found myself wandering into a room, initially with a firm purpose. I still felt the urgency by the time I reached my destination, but I had forgotton the task. “Why did I come in here?” I asked my sons, who, as tradition would have it, were watching tv.

“We don’t KNOW, Mom,” my eldest said dryly.

Ah, just you wait.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Death of Amanda Cross

Elizabeth Zelvin

The other day on DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, the names of mystery writer Amanda Cross and her feminist academic sleuth, Kate Fansler, came up when somebody asked what mysteries readers consider contemporary classics. Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of feminist academic Carolyn Heilbrun, who made the news in 2003 by committing suicide at the age of 77. As her biography in Wikipedia puts it, quoting her son, “she was not ill, but felt that her life had been completed.”

I was angry at Heilbrun for throwing away what might have been as much as 20 years of life without even the excuse of declining health or faculties. I’m still angry, and when I said so in a post on DorothyL, a surprising number of people emailed me offlist to say they were angry too. Like me, they loved Kate Fansler and felt betrayed by Heilbrun’s choice. My favorite was the first in the series, In the Last Analysis, which came out in 1964, the year I graduated college and discovered mysteries, 20 years before I became a therapist myself. As the series developed, Heilbrun—the first woman to receive tenure in the English department at Columbia University—aired increasingly feminist views in both Kate and her published work as Heilbrun, including Writing a Woman’s Life, which I experienced as a companion volume to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. And it was a pleasure to watch her rip into the pomposities and rigidities of the fictional university that was obviously based on Columbia.

I’m 62, and my first novel (Death Will Get You Sober) will be published—a lifelong dream—when I’m 64. If I’m still a published writer 15 years from now, will I be ready to quit? No way! Not even to retire, much less to die. My mother, who went to law school at 21, got a doctorate in political science at 69, taught Constitutional law till 76, and lived to 96 (sharp as a tack until her stroke at 94 and still pretty funny after that), had a way of pooh-poohing the claims of younger women to be affected by aging. We spotted Betty Friedan having lunch in Sag Harbor (Long Island) one day shortly after I’d heard her give the keynote address at a conference on “conscious aging.” She had just published The Fountain of Age, declaring what my mother had known for a quarter of a century by that time: that there’s life after 60, after menopause and the empty nest. I described Friedan’s thesis as best I could.

“How old is she?” my mother asked.

“Around 70,” I said.

“Oh, 70!” she said.

The subtext: 70 is nothing—not even worth exclaiming over. I think she was 91 when she was told about some 86-year-old’s complaint about failing powers.

“Oh, 86!” she said.

The woman my mother most admired was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. My mother was 92 when she called Ginsburg’s Washington DC office and wangled an invitation to meet her, describing herself as “the oldest living lawyer.” The two women hit it off and developed a friendship that was precious to my mother during the last years of her life. When she turned 95, Justice Ruth sent a card with a cartoon of herself and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It said, “Happy birthday from the Supremes!”

One of the effects of any suicide is that it really pisses off the people left behind. Amanda Cross left not only her friends and family but many thousands of loyal readers. And she killed not only Carolyn Heilbrun, but the beloved and inspiring Kate Fansler as well. She did us all a great disservice for what I’d call a deeply inadequate reason. Any published writer is a public figure, whether or not it feels that way to those struggling to get into and stay in print. I believe Amanda Cross defaulted on an obligation by taking herself out of play while still healthy and relatively young. I also wonder if alcohol had anything to do with her decision, for no other reason—beyond my tendency as an alcoholism professional for many years to see it everywhere—than that Kate and her husband Reed were hitting the sauce pretty good in the later books.

As John Donne said so persuasively 400 years ago, “no man is an island…any man’s death diminishes me.” Any woman’s, too, Mr. Donne, and Heilbrun’s more than most. She did what she chose to do with her death, and presumably she thought she was right. But it was precisely because what she did with her life mattered—and continues to matter through the work she left behind—that some of us are still mad at her. As SF writer and editor Micole I. Sudberg put it in an Amazon review: “Carolyn Heilbrun is still talking to me. I'm still talking back.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fear of the Foreign

Sandra Parshall

I deplore xenophobia in others, so I’m not happy to acknowledge any form of it in myself. It’s especially embarrassing to admit that my fear of the foreign applies mostly to mysteries and suspense novels.

I’m a great fan of English, Scottish, and Irish crime writers -- Ruth Rendell, Stephen Booth, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, and many others are among my favorites. I also enjoy Canadian crime novels, especially the work of Giles Blunt, and I’m mystified when readers in the U.S. show indifference toward the wonderful authors who live and work just to our north. The language is the same, the legal system is mostly the same, social customs and everyday life are similar. A cop chasing a killer in Toronto is not all that different from one doing his job in Detroit. But that border between the countries makes some residents of the lower 48 see Canada as a place too foreign to visit in fiction.

But who am I to criticize Canadaphobes when I’ve just confessed to my own form of xenophobia? I have read and enjoyed many literary novels and classics set in France, Italy, and other countries, but for some reason I usually avoid crime novels translated from foreign languages. I pick them up, read the flap copy, put them back on the shelf. Why? Sometimes I don’t think I’ll be able to appreciate the police and court procedures described in the books. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll be comfortable with a setting that’s totally unfamiliar. Neither of these statements make sense, though, when I consider how much I enjoy foreign films.

Clearly I have a problem that needs to be dealt with. I made a start recently, when I picked up a library recording of a Japanese crime novel, Out by Natsuo Kirino. This book was nominated for an Edgar Award a few years ago, but even so, my first impulse was to put it back on the shelf. How can I enjoy a book about crime in Japan? But instead of passing it by, I checked it out and began listening to it. I was hooked from the start. The book reminded me a lot of A Simple Plan in the way the ordinary characters are inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into a dark secret life. I could never have imagined myself becoming a fan of a Japanese crime writer, but I will seek out more books by this author.

Now I’m feeling positively adventurous. Where shall I go next in my exploration of crime on foreign soil? Give me some suggestions. Name your favorite translated-into-English crime novels and tell me why I should read them. If I can find them, I’ll try them, and I’ll let you know what I think.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Last Book Generation?

Sharon Wildwind

The place where I work held a team-building event which included an afternoon of snowshoeing with a guide. When the guide asked us to introduce ourselves, she also asked us for the name of a book we’d especially enjoyed reading in the previous year. Eleven out of the fourteen women in the group asked if they could name a television show instead because they hadn’t read a book in the previous year.

As a writer, I live in a reading ghetto. I correspond with and meet people who love books. People who belong to book clubs. People who use their library cards so often they actually have to replace them. People with TBR (to-be-read) piles higher than their beds. People who own more books than I do—though looking around my living room I’m not convinced that’s architecturally possible.

When I step outside the ghetto, say to go to a sporting event or to the mall, the numbers tell a very different story.

According to a United States Census Bureau, 2002 study:
• Less than half of the U.S. adult population reads literature.
• Between 1982 to 2002 the U. S. population increased by 40 million people; pleasure readers decreased by 19%. This was a 4% decline between 1982 and 1992 and a 14% decline between 1992 and 2002.
• When asked the following question, “In the past 12 months, did you read any novel, short story, poem or play that wasn’t for a school or work assignment?”
◦ In the 18-to-24-year-old group, in 1982, 59.8% said yes, and in 2002, 42.8% said yes
◦ In the 25-to-34-year old group, in 1982, 62.1% said yes; 2002, 47.7% said yes

Keep in mind two things about that last question. First, any reading at all qualified for a “yes” answer. So if a guy read a poem at his best bud’s wedding, but read nothing else in the entire year, he got to say “yes.” Second, those people in the 25-to-34 age group are the parents of the next non-book-reading generation.

Admittedly, those stats are five years old, but have things improved? Likely not.

Women, who read at all, spend 16.6 minuts a day reading books; men, who read at all, spend 8.8 minutes a day reading books.
~Ball State University's Center for Media Design, 2005 study

Take this little test yourself.
1) If you commute, how many people on the train or bus read novels as they travel?
2) In your office, how many people spend part of their lunch hour reading a novel?
3) If you’re in the checkout line in a grocery store, drug store, or Wal-Mart—all of which sell novels—how many people in line with you are buying novels?
4) The next time you visit a chain bookstore, look at what percentage of their floor space is devoted to non-reading items such as gifts, lifestyle items, or the coffee bar.
5) Ask your library what percentage of their budget, and their space, is devoted to non-book items. Many libraries have passed the 50/50 balance point. Their boards have decided to allot more than 50% of their budgets, space, and services to supporting non-book items.

Fiction writers are story-tellers. It may well be that those of us writing in 2005 are the last generation of book readers and book writers. To keep being published, we are also learning to be the first generation of multi-media writers. So-called talking-books have been around for a long time, though it’s only in the past decade that this format has broken out of its own “for visually impaired” ghetto to reach the general public. If we can do audio books, why not video books? And hand-held readers? And iPod books? And pod cast books, which the reader could hear a chapter at a time, like the old movie serials? And downloaded books? And read-on-line books? And read-this-chaper-and-vote-what-should-happen-next books? It’s going to be interesting to see how the media used to present stories will eventually change the stories themselves.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Here We Poe Again

Lonnie Cruse

Posted by Picasa

Me standing next to the one and only Anne Perry at the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago. Wow! During our assigned book signing time, Perry was seated at the table next to Tasha Alexander and me, and it wasn't long before we'd both abandoned our stations and scooted our chairs over to Perry's table to chat. Perry didn't seem to mind me bowing and scraping before her magnificence at all. She's a classy lady and fun to chat with at a conference. I've read nearly all of Perry's historical mysteries, not to mention her Christmas mysteries. I took my favorite hardback book, A CHRISTMAS SECRET, to have her sign and bought DEATH OF A STRANGER as well.

I am now the proud possessor of an Edgar Allen Poe action figure, complete with raven on his shoulder, also purchased in the book room at the Love Is Murder Conference. He peers down at me from atop my desk. Muwahahaha! Where was I? I also purchased several new books, including THE BECOMING by Jeanne Stein, and INTRIGUE IN ITALICS by Gail Wigglesworth. My TBR pile went down by one book read while at the conference and right back up by, um, let's don't go there. I can’t wait to dig into all of the fascinating reads.

Right before the conference, author Jeanne Stein and I were e-introduced by a mutual friend, and we hooked up the night before the festivies began. We had a great time getting to know each other and realizing we have the same problems with our writing. To wit, we are going to keep each other honest about writing rather than checking e-mail before ten AM each day. Of course, it will be a dead giveaway if either of us emails the other before that time.
I enjoyed visiting with Charlaine Harris again and I’m excited that she won a Lovey award for her book. I spent time with Tasha Alexander, Lori Devoti, Deb Baker, Claire Williams, Frankie Bailey, Mary Welk, and Poe sister, Julia Buckley, among others. Another Poe sister, Sharon Wildwind, donated a book to be given away at the banquet. Which I wanted to win and didn’t. Maybe next time.

I moderated a panel with J. A. Konrath, Deb Baker, Luisa Beuhler, and Sandra Balzo on book promotion. Each of the panelists had terrific suggestions for promoting our books without sending readers screaming into the night from, um, promotional overkill. Baker and Balzo have particular audiences they can target, Konrath devotes time to getting to know book sellers, who in turn recommend his books to readers, and Luisa Buehler attracts potential readers to her signing table with unusual items like a casket with a skeleton bride doll inside. Luisa discussed the differences in marketing and promoting, by figuring out where best to focus a writer's efforts. Something I certainly need to work on. And the panelists all agreed that writing a great book is, of course, key. I’m excited to have moderated such a terrific panel and to have appeared on two other panels with some wonderful authors. Barbara D'Amato, Libby Hellman, Luisa Buehler, Austin Comacho, Shane Gericke, and Steve Mandel. (Hope I didn't forget anyone!)

I’m sorry to say that one of the LIM board members, Rob Walker, became extremely ill during the conference and was hospitalized. He’d worked really hard to help plan and promote the conference, and having to miss most of it would be tough on him. My thoughts are with Rob, and I'm happy to be able to report that he’s now out of the hospital and back home. Luisa Buehler had a run-in with a collapsing ceiling in an elevator, but a quick trip to the hospital and she was back at the conference, working hard. Hats off to Rob and Luisa.

LIM is a small, intimate conference (of about 300 people) where you can meet new friends, hook up with old friends, pitch to agents and publishers, appear on panels, sell books, and just plain have fun. Plans are already in full swing for next year’s conference, and if at all possible, I’ll be at Love Is Murder #10 the first weekend of February, 2008. How about you?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

My Love Affair with Mysteries

Judy Clemens (Guest Blogger)

Growing up, I was not a kid who sat down and read through every Nancy Drew book. In fact, I don’t think I read even one. I had a couple of Trixie Belden books, although I can’t find them anymore. And I do remember reading some Agatha Christie. Some Encyclopedia Brown. But my reading consisted of a wide variety of things: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Black Stallion books (I have them displayed today in my office), Little House on the Prairie, All Creatures Great and Small, and Katie John. My love affair with mysteries didn’t happen until I was in college.

As a member of a college touring choir, I had the opportunity to travel all over the United States, as well as in Europe. During one of those trips, driving across our country’s western states, I was in desperate need of something to read. At our next stop I found a bookstore, browsed the fiction section, and picked up Have His Carcase, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I had never heard of her before, let alone read any of her books, but something about it attracted me.

I adored it.

From then on during the choir trip, whenever we stopped at the next city I ran to the closest bookstore and picked up one or two more of Sayers’s books. I took the time to write the date on each one, and the entire series of purchases ranges from May of 1989 through 1990. (No, the trip didn’t last that long – I just couldn’t finish the entire series in less than two weeks.) I now have the series displayed in my office, right alongside those Black Stallion books.

I entered the mystery genre as a fan by finding new series and reading everything in them: P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh books, Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax, Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael…the list goes on. Since I hadn’t spent much of my life reading mysteries up to that point, I had everything out there to enjoy and inhale. It was exhilarating.

As a writer, it wasn’t until that point that I realized what exactly I wanted to write. In college I took every writing course I could, and learned about writing non-fiction, short stories, and plays. My first published piece was actually a one-act. But finally, in the year after I graduated, I sat down to write my first mystery novel. And I did it. I finished it, re-wrote it, and started that journey of sending it out to agents. It wasn’t until years later, after writing a partial sequel and the first of my Stella Crown books, that I realized how bad that first book really was!

But I refuse to be ashamed of it. That’s how we learn, right? I’m not saying I’d every show it to anybody (other than those people tortured with it when I first wrote it), but I treasure that book as my first glimpse of the “real” writing life. I put my heart into it, and I learned an immense amount.

My hope as a writer is that I continue to learn. That each book I write takes me further along the road to perfecting my craft (knowing full well that journey will never end). That each book helps me to learn something about myself and the world around me. I just finished the first draft of a book that is not a Stella book. It was completely different, from the viewpoint, to the format of the book, to the gender of the protagonist. It was a challenge. It was a learning experience. It was a joy.

That’s a lot of what I hope to gain as a reader, as well. That each book I read brings me closer to my fellow humans, teaches me something about myself, and brings me a taste of something previously unknown. It happens. Often.

So here’s to reading. Here’s to writing.

Here’s to great books, whatever genre they may be.

Note: Judy Clemens is the author of the Agatha-nominated Till the Cows Come Home and two more mysteries in the series about dairy farmer and biker Stella Crown.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Meeting E-Friends, Embracing the Future, and Shrinking the World


I have now been to a total of two mystery writing conventions—Bouchercon and Love is Murder, and both have been valuable experiences. At B-con I met fellow blogger Sandra Parshall, who sat with me and a few other female writers in the bar; we talked about mysteries and other sundry topics. It was lovely to meet Sandra; I had just read her book, and had chatted with her via e-mail several times, and meeting in person was a very satisfying experience.

The same was true of my meeting with Lonnie Cruse; I spotted Lonnie at the bookstore at LIM. She was wearing bright pink, and like Sandra, was just as pretty as her picture. I went bounding up to her like an eager puppy, I fear, and I probably frightened her. Still, it was wonderful to see her picture become real.

This concept of meeting people online first and in person afterward is an unprecedented experience for me. The closest I’ve ever come, I suppose, was when I had a Swedish pen pal, back in the seventh grade. Her name was Gunilla Kristiannsson, and we exchanged letters for years. Gunilla thought she might visit Chicago some day, but alas, it never happened. The wait for each letter was a matter of several weeks, and of course we wrote them by hand, on stationary. It was delicious suspense to wait for each new piece of correspondence.

Now I can talk to anyone in the world with a few brief taps on my keyboard. If I have to wait more than a day for an e-mail I grow impatient. And when I start to become “friends” with someone via e-mail—that is, we seem to have similar interests and find a lot of things to write to each other about—I start to hope that someday I’ll encounter that person in the flesh. Thanks to mystery conferences, this has happened more than once, and it’s an odd phenomenon: it becomes like a reunion. A reunion with someone I’ve never met.

Now that people have cameras attached to their computers, I’m sure it will be only a matter of time before we don’t even crave that physical meeting—after all, we will see them right there, on our screen, and they’ll be looking at us, talking to us, just as they would in person. The Brave New World of computer linkage will make the world even smaller for the average person than it is now. And when it’s smaller, I wonder: will it be a better place?

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Who Writes Mysteries?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Mystery Writers of America issues a national newsletter, The 3rd Degree, ten times a year. I usually read all of it from front to back (no covers), searching for tips about the craft and business of writing and the names of people I know in the chapter and conference news. Until recently, I scanned the fine print for the names of publishers big and small that might be open to first-novel submissions. But my favorite feature, catchily titled Fresh Blood, is the list of new members, and more particularly, not the active members--published crime fiction writers who have just joined MWA--but the affiliate members—writers whose work has yet to click with that elusive editor (one is all you need!) but who dream of becoming published mystery writers and, in many cases, have reams of well-worked manuscript to prove it.

Writing a mystery, like opening a restaurant or winning the lottery, is one of those great dreams that flourish perennially in the collective unconscious. MWA identifies affiliates by chapter (NY, SOCAL etc.) and occupation as stated, presumably, on the membership application. The most recent issue listed the usual suspects—journalist, technical editor, English professor, copywriter, retired police officer, attorney, screenwriter. A few other professions—including mine, psychotherapist, and marketing consultant—crop up regularly. In addition, this month a caterer, a truck driver, a retired airline pilot, and a yoga instructor were knocking on the gates of crime fiction authorship. Last month’s batch included a musician, a beadmaker, a flight attendant, a race car rental entrepreneur, the COO of a hedge fund, and a licensed evangelist missionary.

Why do I write? I only know I’ve been a writer since I first read Emily of New Moon by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, better known for Anne of Green Gables, at the age of 7 or 8. Emily wrote because she had to, as did Jo in Little Women, whose acquaintance I made a few years later. It was a drive, not a choice, for them and I suppose for me. Why mysteries? Because that’s the reading I most enjoy. A good mystery satisfies my sense of structure, plot, and character and allows the writer (me or the authors whose books I read) enormous freedom to mount any hobby we fancy and, in Stephen Leacock’s great phrase, gallop away in all directions. My psychotherapist “hat” suggests the themes of recovery and personal growth that I’ve woven into my forthcoming Death Will Get You Sober and its projected sequels. The musician may write about music, the beadmaker about beads—or not. I think the bottom line is that the writer’s life experience enriches what is written. I certainly didn’t plan to publish my first novel in my 60s—my 20s was more what I had in mind. But I am absolutely certain that I couldn’t have written the work that will appear next year—of which I’m very proud—without having first been all those other things: not only therapist, in my case, but teacher and poet and performer and daughter and mother and friend and wife and lover and traveler—a first-time mystery author, but a well-seasoned storyteller and human being.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Animal Magnetism

Sandra Parshall

I am hopelessly in love with a short, hairy guy who chews with his mouth open, still lives with his mother, and doesn’t know I exist. Oh, he’s glanced my way a couple of times when I’ve been -- yes, I admit it -- stalking him. But I’m just another face in the crowd. I share him with millions of other women and more than a few men.

Tai Shan, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, has been my favorite diversion since his birth on July 9, 2005. Between personal visits -- fortunately, I live near him -- he’s never more than a few mouse clicks away, and I visit him via the internet when I’m feeling frustrated, sad, or cranky. A scene isn’t coming together the way I envisioned it? Let’s see what Tai is up to on the zoo’s live panda cam. I’m a little queasy after writing a bloody murder scene or watching the latest bloody scenes from Iraq? Tai’s innocence and utter ignorance of human cruelty take me to a better place. His very name, Chinese for “peaceful mountain”, promises an oasis in a violent world.

It’s not that I lack furry Significant Others at home. Our cats, Emma and Gabriel, are more than happy to distract me from writing. They often insist on it. I didn’t need another animal in my life, yet I fell hard for Tai when he was a bald, squawking thing no bigger than a stick of butter. Now he’s 100 pounds of pure charm and I am addicted beyond recovery. I need to see him every day.

I also make daily visits to the web forum of Pandas Unlimited, a haven where pandamaniacs can indulge our passion without having our sanity questioned. Four U.S. zoos have pandas, and three of those -- Washington, San Diego, and Atlanta -- currently have cubs. (The Memphis Zoo may have one soon.) PU members know all the U.S. pandas’ genealogies, personalities, quirks, weights, and favorite treats. We watch them on the cams, worry about them and delight in them, visit them in person and share our pictures.

But Pandas Unlimited is more than a bunch of people who ooh and aah over the antics of cute critters. We put our money where our hearts are -- collectively, PU members have donated thousands of dollars to the panda programs at U.S. zoos and to organizations like Pandas International and World Wildlife Fund, which work to protect this critically endangered species and its wild habitat. PU is a diverse group of people united by a common love.

If you’ll excuse me, I have to check on Tai now. I’ll leave the floor open to anyone who wants to share a favorite source of comfort and spiritual renewal in this harsh, unforgiving world.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Back Story

Sharon Wildwind

First young man: “So I said to the waitress, who was dressed as a tuna, ‘What does that have to do with El Salvador’?”

Second young man: “Not that she would answer that, of course.”

Avant-garde play? Dream analysis? Flashback to Oliver North and the Contra scandal? Actually, it was a snatch of conversation I overheard years ago, blown to me across a university quadrangle, on a windy March afternoon.

This week I’m writing Chapter 3 of my fourth Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen Vietnam veterans’ mystery series. Avivah and a lawyer meet with a woman who was abducted and, twenty-four hours later, turned up under mysterious circumstances. The abduction victim is a new character, who has lived a fascinating life. Her father was a bush pilot, and her mother a camp cook. She was born in a bush camp in Alaska. She took up welding at a time when women, if they worked at all, were supposed to be secretaries, nurses, or teachers. She helped build the Alaska Highway. Now a farmer and business partner, she’s been twice Missouri State Master of the Grange. She’s one tough broad, a feminist and a political activist. I’m eager to share all the details of her life with the readers.

It’s called back story. What happened in the characters’ lives before page one of this book. And according to both the romance writer, Jo Beverly, and the agent, Donald Maass, it’s a definite no-no.

Jo Beverly says, “Back story is for the author, not the reader. We want to show how much we planned, how hard we worked at research, now clever we are. In fact, the reader can get by with only skeleton hints. Back story is different from context. You must set the context. Do this in one or two sentences, which tell the reader why the action is significant to the character.”

Donald Maass advises even more ruthless action. What he teaches in his Writing the Breakout Novel workshop can be summarized as, “Is there back story in the first 50 pages of your book? Take it out, every single bit of it, leaving only one or two vital bits of information that are essential to ground the character. Back story is information only. It has no tension. It sits there like a lump. You can’t hide back story in prolog, dialog, or snippets of information. No matter how you try to sneak it through, it won’t work early in the book. Get over the idea that you can be so clever as a writer that you can disguise back story and an agent or editor won’t recognize it for what it is. Withhold it and, if you absolutely must bring in back story, write it as story, after the mid-point in your novel.”

For years, I’ve puzzled over the two men and the waitress, dressed as a tuna. Who were they? How did they know one another? Did the first man ever get an answer to his question? What was the conversation about, any way? If I had known that the first young man was named Henry and the second Paul and that they were room mates; that the waitress was named Heddy—after Heddy Lamar—and that she was a single mom, with a three-year-old daughter to raise; and that the tuna costume was part of a publicity stunt, would I still be thinking about this decades later. I think not. Sometimes, less may really be better.

As for introducing my character? I think it will read something like this:
“Who is he?”
“Peter Taft.”
“Where did you know him from?”
Avivah’s head jerked up. She’d never mentioned Alaska when she briefed John Ferguson. She couldn’t imagine it had any possible relevance.
“What were you doing in Alaska?”
“I was born there.”
“Were you really? I’ve always wanted to go there. I hear the fishing is beyond belief.”
Avivah cleared her throat. Mr. Ferguson looked down at his notes. “Ah, yes, sorry. What exactly was your relationship with Peter Taft?”

Monday, February 5, 2007

Charlie Chan Fan

Lonnie Cruse

I’m currently reading CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON by Earl Derr Biggers. I adore reading very old, out of print mysteries. I found this particular set of books via an Internet search.

Anybody remember watching the old Charlie Chan movies with Werner Oland and Sidney Tolar? I was the lucky recipient of two (count ‘em) Charlie Chan DVD collections for Christmas. Ten Charlie Chan movies total. Life is good.

I adore those old black and white movies, set in the forties. Partly because I can see what the world looked like around the time I was born, what the fashion of the day was when my parents were still alive, what the vehicles looked like, and boy wouldn’t I just love to own one of those babies? And the hats both the men and women wore, that alone is worth the price of the movies. I mean, when is the last time you saw a guy in a Fedora?

But I enjoy the stories as well, hokie though they may be. Elevators with a trap door in the floor, fake séances with props used by con artists hidden in the basement, good stuff like that. What’s not to love? And the movies deal a lot with how the war affected everyday life, whether totally accurate or not, who knows?

I’m hoping to add to my Charlie Chan collection and find the rest of the series. Watching these old movies is like stepping into a time machine for an hour or so and visiting the past. And I might even learn something interesting about secret wind tunnels, spooky amusement park fun houses, rooms with hidden doors, and how cigarettes could become lethal weapons when mixed with certain heretofore unheard of poisonous gasses, necessary information like that.

What’s your favorite old book and/or movie? What do you love about it? Oh, um, fortune cookie, anyone?

Saturday, February 3, 2007

I Should Really Stick To Writing

Cindy Daniel (Guest Blogger)

Funny, the title of my new book is It's Not About You but this blog is all about me...

I took a break from writing mysteries, to co-write a non-fiction book with my daughter. The last few months of my life have been consumed with trying to get our breast cancer story out. However, because agents didn’t think my topic was worthy, I decided to self-publish.

Before I go on, I must explain my previous comment. I did the usual query and synopsis. For a couple years. The agent responses I got were “there’s not a big enough market,” or “it wasn’t compelling enough.” Well, I thought that since one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer the market was large enough for another book. Additionally...since my left breast was removed... I felt my story was compelling. But as we know, agents have the final say.

Anyway, if I wanted this story out, I would have to become a publisher. And because my daughter and I feel so strongly that our story is a message that must get out, I am now Batelier Publishing.

I have to tell you, though, it’s been quite a different road than just writing. First, I had to come up with a catchy publishing name. Next, I needed to find an editor I could trust. Then, who could do the cover art? Lucky for me that our writing community is so helpful and so experienced, because once I decided on the name my friends stepped up and gave me resources and advice to get me moving in the right direction.

I immediately decided on a printer; one who worked with Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Amazon. Once I had their guidelines, I had to learn the new art transforming a document into a proper PDF file. I’d used PDF with my day job, but never had to deal with the intricacies of odd and even headers, getting your page numbers to start numbering when chapter one begins, and what do when you see an error in your final PDF product. Did I mention the cost of the software???

Thank goodness I was led to a terrific cover artist (Erica Well). She took care of all the formatting specifications for my printer; all I had to do was upload the file. I dodged a huge bullet there.

I got everything online to the printer and it only took one phone call from them, a quick revision on my part, and then the proof was ready. It was a joy to behold. The cover was beautiful. It captured the feeling, the love between a mother and daughter, perfectly. So I promptly ordered a supply so I’d have some for my upcoming library talk.

Reality check!

Out of the one hundred I ordered, ninety had covers that were unacceptable. The right side was short and part of the title was cut off. Then I found out that even though I’d done a wonderful job at getting the word out – the book was listed on Amazon as unavailable...

So am I thinking about the mystery manuscript I need to finish writing and have in good enough shape for my agent interview at the Hardboiled Heroes and Cozy Cats; MWA-Southwest’s writing workshop/conference in June; about writing the third book of my Death Warmed Over series; or about learning how to create a blog for my breast cancer website


I’m waiting on a return email from my printer about the mistakes. I’m glued to the laptop watching for an email from Amazon addressing how we get the books into their system faster. And I’m trying to get the energy to go upstairs to my desktop and put my out of print mysteries into PDF format so Batelier Publishing can release them and they’ll once again be available.

Where did my dream go wrong?

It didn’t.

You create your dreams. You go for what is important to you and then make it happen. I’m creating the path I want to take. I’m giving life to my dreams with each step I take.

And right now – the path is leading upstairs to my home office.

Cindy Daniel

P.S. For those of you who are dying to get a copy of my new book – PLEASE go online to Amazon and click the button that says “let me know when the book becomes available.”

Friday, February 2, 2007

Who are You Wearing?

You know the whole “Red Carpet” part of the Oscars—that odd parade into the theatre, before the awards show even begins, when actors preen and spin for the cameras, and reporters (is that what they are?) shout “Who are you wearing?” The question itself would have Freud raising an eyebrow. And the stars smugly say, “Oh, Valentino,” or “This old thing? This is a Badgely-Mischka hand beaded gown with over 100,000 Austrian glass beads.” And we are meant to say, “Oooohhh.”

I was thinking about that the other day as I pondered my wardrobe options for Love is Murder, the big mystery conference in Chicagoland this weekend. And I blogged about it a couple days ago on Mysterious Musings, and now I’m going to talk about it again. There’s been some debate on MMA about how professional a writer should look, and whether or not one’s clothing has an effect on one’s reputation, and even one’s sales.

I always make an effort to look respectable, but I’m at an age at which I simply can’t see the value of dresses or panty hose; therefore, my wardrobe options are reduced to a category I call “elegant pants.” There are many subcategories here: there are the trousers that would be termed “extremely elegant”—silky pantsuits worn to weddings, perhaps. They might even be embellished with sequins or embroidery. Next in line would be the “businesslike pants.” Suits with matching pants and jackets, or even the mix and match look, would fit this category, and for me it’s the perfect attire for a conference. It’s easy to sit through many a panel without becoming too wrinkled, yet one stands out from the fans who might be wearing jeans or sweats. The final category, “Casual yet elegant” pants, can still apply, but one might have to disguise a comfortable pair of knit slacks with a striking and distracting blazer.

So while the starlets are now contemplating their twenty-thousand dollar gowns for the upcoming Academy Awards, I am being very practical and asking what will be the most comfortable (yet attractive) attire. After all, they’ll be parading down the red carpet, holding in their stomachs and resigning themselves to no dinner so that they don’t ruin the line of their expensive dresses. I, on the other hand, will be marching through the parking lot all by myself, and no one will chase me with a microphone yelling “What sort of pants are you wearing? Are those from J. C. Penney?”

Instead, I will sling my bag—with my books, my event schedule, my Mapquest map to help me find my way home, my banana and power bar, my glasses in case my contacts start getting dry—and I shall enter my own professional arena with all the glamour of an author.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

Suspense, "24," and "The Departed"

Elizabeth Zelvin

I saw Martin Scorsese’s film “The Departed” the other night, and it started me thinking about suspense. The difference between mystery and suspense is a much discussed topic among mystery lovers. The marketing folks who make so many of the decisions in publishing nowadays seem to think that slapping “A Novel of Suspense” on the cover of a mystery—even if it’s part of a longstanding series of police procedurals or private eye novels—will make it sell better. Maybe it does. But I think it would be a mistake to blur the distinction between mystery and suspense.

For me, a mystery is a whodunit. The basic skeleton of the plot is that a crime is committed, one or more people try to find out who did it, how, and why, and those questions are answered in the end. That skeleton is fleshed out by character and clothed in setting, ie place and culture. All of those things keep us reading mystery after mystery: the challenge of the puzzle and the drive to resolve it; empathy and liking or fascination with the characters, especially the protagonist; and interest in all the detail and color that the writer throws into the mix.

Suspense is something else. In suspense, the reader may know all along who the good guys and the bad guys are. The tension lies in uncertainty about what will happen. Will the good guys be okay? Will the plot be foiled in time? Will Jack Bauer save the world—again? Well, yes, Jack Bauer always saves the world in the TV series “24.” But except for that given, anything can happen. I watched the first season of “24” on video after hearing it extolled on DorothyL as an exemplar of suspense. And boy, is it ever suspenseful. I’ve now seen Seasons 2 through 4 on video too and have no intention of watching the current Season 6 on the tube until I’ve had a chance to get the Season 5 DVDs. I don’t see how those who watch when it's first aired can stand not knowing from week to week what will happen next. Many books and shows follow the unwritten rule that certain characters have to be okay, no matter how many harrowing experiences they live through. On “24,” that rule gets broken all the time. You really don’t know whether a good guy will turn out to be a bad guy, whether a familiar character will do something unexpected, when or how your personal favorite will die. The first season was the most excruciating, because the viewer didn’t know till it was over how far the show would go. But talk about cliffhangers! Every time I thought they couldn’t possibly increase the tension, they’d ratchet it up yet another notch. And to say the ending was a shocker is anything but hype. It really was a shocker!

“The Departed” is suspenseful but in a different way. I’ve gone in and out of watching “The Sopranos.” And I saw “The Godfather” about 25 years after everybody else without being sorry I’d waited so long. But this movie blew me away. If they don’t finally give Scorcese his long delayed Oscar for this one, I’ll be severely disappointed. The final 20 minutes (just guessing about the duration) were a jolt—a twisty multiple jolt. But that’s not what drove the movie. It was the journey, not the destination, that kept the audience enthralled. The characters all had moral ambiguities—except Jack Nicholson, who played the evil crime boss in his inimitable style—so the suspense wasn’t focused on reversals and revelations (although there were a few of those). But from scene to scene, I wanted to know what happened next. The movie made me care about the characters, the crisp pace kept the tension up, and the sheer delight of brilliant script, marvelous acting, and expert cinematography made me want this roller coaster ride to keep going.

I don’t know why it’s sometimes easier to talk about suspense with reference to a film or TV show than about a book. Maybe it’s that we can’t control the unfolding of the tale—except at home with our DVD or on-demand TV, where the watching experience is indeed less suspenseful. I don’t even want a book to be too suspenseful most of the time. Either I rush to find out what happened, missing all the joys of the writing along the way, or I find it unbearable and close the book. I don’t peek at the end, though I know some people do. At the movies, nobody can peek.

I can’t say enough about how powerful and yes, enjoyable, in spite of the horrendous subject matter, I found “The Departed.” (By contrast, I found the beautifully acted and filmed “Babel” totally depressing, and I won’t even go to see “Letters from Iwo Jima”—I’m sending my husband, who appreciates a good war movie.) In the theater on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, the whole audience was having a communal cultural experience throughout the movie. There were chuckles as we watched Jack Nicholson—you never forget it’s him, but it doesn’t matter—embody the quintessential villain. When Martin Sheen, near the end—no, better not tell you, it’s a spoiler—but anyhow, when the audience gasped, I believe they were reacting to seeing President Bartlet (“West Wing”)…in the situation on the screen. My husband wasn’t the only one who howled with laughter at some of the Irish one-liners, like when Matt Damon tells his girlfriend he’ll never leave: “I’m Irish: if something’s wrong, I’ll live with it for the rest of my life.” (I just tried to google the exact wording of this, and instead found a whole bunch of comments by people who didn’t like the movie. Oh well.) And yes, Freud really did say, “The Irish are one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever."

So—about suspense. Does suspense in a book differ from suspense in a movie or TV show? How it’s created? How you react to it? What are your favorite novels of suspense? Have you read novels described as suspense that weren’t? Or vice versa? How much suspense do you want in your mysteries? And did you like “The Departed”? (No spoilers, please—if I could control myself, so can you.)