Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Knox Once for Murder

Sharon Wildwind

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was British; as a Catholic priest, spiritual retreat leader, and writer he had a knack for expressing religious values with empathy, kindness, and humor. He had a particular interest in ritual and ceremony.

In addition to being a religious scholar, he also wrote mysteries, at a time when the puzzle mystery—long on complex, twisty plots and short on characterization—was all the rage in Britain. In 1928 he published his Decalogue of the Mystery: The ten rules of detective fiction.

1. Introduce the murderer early but the reader should not be allowed to know the murderers thoughts.

It’s not hard to imagine that this first rule was a direct result of reading Chrisie’s infamousThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which had been published just two years before. Today—with the multiplicity of narrators and styles in mysteries—it’s hard for us to imagine just how unfair many readers felt the Dame had been when she tricked her readers with the unreliable narrator, Dr. James Shepherd.

2. All super natural or preternatural agencies are to be ruled out.

Interest in spiritualism had a huge resurgence in Britain, and to a lesser extent, in the United States after the Great War. Popular fiction was awash with ghosts, seances, open tombs, and strange visions on mist-shrouded nights. I suspect that Knox, given his strong religious beliefs, found those conventions far most distasteful than the average reader did.

3. No accidents or unaccountable intuition.

I think he objected to this because it broke the rules of ritual. Detection must be carried out in an orderly fashion.

4. Only one secret passageway is allowed.

For me, this one conjures up a house like the one on the Clue board, awash with secret passages from the kitchen to the library, from the master bedroom to the secret garden gate, or from the attic to the cook’s bedroom. And all of the characters roaming around all night and not getting a whit sleep.

5. All clues must be shown at once.

He probably didn’t mean all the clues had to be out in the open by the end of page three, but rather that all clues did need to be out in the open sometime before the detective said, “And the killer is. . .”

6. Never make the detective the killer.

Not playing fair. Playing fields of Britain and all that. Very British.

7. No Chinamen.

Sorry, not at all politically correct, but that’s what he said. All too often people from exotic, distant locations were looked upon as good possibilities for killers. They were sinister, had access to exotic poisons (see rule #8 below), and were thought to be unencumbered by good British morals.

8. No undiscovered poisons.

9. No unprepared-for twins or doubles.

Darn. That eliminates the old family retainer, now half-blind and living in a grace-and-favor cottage on the grounds, who looks up at the heroine at precisely the right moment and says, “Why didn’t you know, missy, Lord Randall had an identical twin. His brother went off to Canada,* and we ain’t heard from him in years.”

*Why is it always Canada?

10. The stupid friend (of the detective) must never conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind, and his intelligence must be very slightly below that of the average reader.

Ah, this eliminates our beloved Dr. Watson saying, “What does it all mean, Holmes?” And Holmes—for me always Jeremy Brett, holding that long, aristocratic finger against his lips—replying, “It means, Watson, that treachery and deceit are afoot. We must go to the British museum immediately. There’s not a moment to lose.”

Can we update the decalogue? What are the things you’d like eliminated from the modern mystery? Here’s my pet peeve:

No intelligent, strong woman will be trapped alone with the killer because a) she didn’t bother to tell anyone she was going to the deserted mill alone and b) she forgot to charge her cell phone.

Writing quote for the week:
There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
~W. Somerset Maugham, English novelist

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cats and Mysteries

by Julia Buckley

I'm wondering at the preponderance of cats in fiction, especially mystery fiction. What is it about cats that sells books? I am a cat lover, although until recently I had only one, who bears the unfortunate name of Pibby Tails because a very insistent two year old named him. My husband suggests that one of the reasons our eldest cat fights so much is that the other Toms in the neighborhood are outside mocking him, calling "Pibby Tails! Pibby Tails!" with great glee.

Now he's restricted to the indoors, thanks to his belligerent streak, and is being forced to adapt to two new kittens (as is our Beagle). One of the kittens, pictured above, is named Rose, and is rather dainty, while her brother Mulliner, pictured here, is more aggressive--but they both bear the undeniable air of mystery that imbues all cats.

So I'm curious--is it that mystery which makes cats so naturally loved by those who love literature? Is it because cats have always loyally sat upon us (and our books) while we read? Is it because of their natural grace and beauty, or what T.S. Eliot called their "unashamed felinity?"

So far cats have not worked their way into my books, but I'm guessing it's just a matter of time. Right now, perhaps because my children are still at home and very loud, I tend to put children into my fiction. But when they leave home, perhaps my eye will stray to my cat, and suddenly the ideas for feline-inspired fiction will flow.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

One of the Good Days

Anne White (Guest Blogger)

Book talks can be murder.

I’m not trying out a title for a new mystery here – although this might make a good one – I’m telling it like it is. The accepted thinking in the book world seems to be that, if you want your mystery series to meet with even a modicum of success, you’ve got to promote it, hit the pavement and talk it up. And with these efforts come a range of experiences, some rewarding and some downright humiliating.

With four Lake George mysteries under my belt, I’ve experienced both kinds.

In my efforts to promote, I’ve gone the book talk route, given the speeches and readings and sometimes attracted a respectable number of people who responded in positive ways. But I’ve also conducted signings in bookstores, hotel lobbies and beautiful lakeside parks where people galloped past, eyes averted, as if fearing I would offer pornographic materials to their children.

I’m experienced enough to know that talking about my books to a group of women at Wiawaka Holiday House on upstate New York’s fabulously beautiful Lake George, the setting for my series, will be one of the good times. Wiawaka, which in Abenaki means the Great Spirit in Women was founded early in the last century by Mary Wiltse Fuller, daughter of a Troy, NY industrialist, who used her position and wealth to help immigrant women working in the mills in Troy and Cohoes escape the city for an affordable one-week vacation. Located on the southeastern shore of Lake George, Wiawaka with its spacious grounds and neat frame houses is believed to be the last surviving example of a women’s retreat from the progressive era still in use for its original purpose.

Director Wendy Littlefield has invited me a number of times for programs with different groups and I’ve taken advantage of several of its beautiful settings – a screened porch on one of the lakeside cottages, a cozy, old-fashioned living room and the wide wrap-around porch of its main building, Fuller House. When I spoke there recently on a perfect summer day, I stood on the Fuller House steps, addressing several dozen women seated in rows of folding chairs on the lawn, looking past the grassy compound ringed by the other buildings in the summer colony to the lake beyond.

My Lake George mysteries have many connections with Wiawaka, and I was eager to point them out. Georgia O’Keeffe, a former guest and occasional visitor here, provided me with the idea for the first one, An Affinity For Murder. O’Keeffe spent 15 summers with legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his family’s summer home near Lake George Village a short distance across the lake. There O’Keeffe painted some of her best-loved works, the giant flowers she made large enough to fill an entire canvas, paintings my mystery writer’s brain thought well suited to forgery.

Not far off shore here are the sunken remnants of the bateaux, the French and Indian War gunboats, featured in Beneath The Surface, the second book in the series. Talking about the bateaux gave me a chance to recount my misadventures at a local dive shop where I’d gone a few years ago to inquire about these priceless artifacts.

“You can see them yourself,” the buff eighteen-year-old clerk told me. “There’s one space left in the first scuba diving class of the year and it starts next week. We’re not even waiting for the ice to go out of the lake.”

Caught up in his enthusiasm, I almost signed up before I came to my senses and turned the incident into a light-hearted piece for Mystery Scene Magazine instead.

The other books in my Lake George mystery series, Best Laid Plans (2006) and this year’s Secrets Dark and Deep, take place a short distance away in my fictional town of Emerald Point. The sights and sounds there mimic those I’m enjoying today – glimpses through the trees of slate blue water sparkling in the sunlight, the deep blast of a lake steamer as it passes close to shore, the great arch of azure summer sky dotted with puffy white clouds, the archipelago of islands, large and small, strung along the lake’s thirty-two mile length.

The lake’s history permeates everything, from its discovery in 1646 by St. Isaac Jogues through the bloody French and Indian War battles, the exploits of men like Robert Rogers and his Rangers, the forts, both French and English on opposite ends of the lake, the nineteenth century growth of the hotels and summer resorts, and now the present-day tourism and environmental concerns. On every visit here I’m caught up in my enthusiasm for the lake and its stories, and feel the spirit of renewal Wiawaka promises.

Anne White's Secrets Dark and Deep this year's addition to her Lake George Mystery Series, follows An Affinity For Murder (a 2002 Malice Domestic Best First Nominee), Beneath The Surface (2005) and Best Laid Plans (2006). She's a retired high school librarian, married, and has six children. Learn more on her website at www.annewhitemysteries.com.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What's Up With That House?

By Lonnie Cruse

Anybody watched that show on HGTV? I've seen it a few times, and the houses they feature ARE pretty weird. The picture on the right is one I took in a nearby town several years ago. If you look closely, you'll see it's shaped like a tow boat. I presume the owner worked on a tow boat for most of his/her life. I've always liked this house, and I'd love to see what it looks like on the inside. And whenever I pass an odd house, particularly an old, abandoned one, I find myself wondering about the people who built it and lived in it. Who were they? What were they like? And, sometimes, why was the house abandoned to gradually fall into ruin?

Which brings me to the subject of today's blog . . . INSPIRATION!

Lots of authors take pictures of people, places, or things that inspire a story line. Then we post them on some sort of bulletin board near our desks so we can stare at those pictures rather than at THE BLANK PAGE when our current story line screams to a halt. And stare, and stare. But having a picture of someone who represents a character, or a place where we're setting the scene, or a particular object, (Machine gun, anyone? Bloody knife?) is an excellent way for a writer to visualize what we're writing without having to give the reader a description that is soooo detailed, the reader falls asleep halfway through, just to make sure we've covered all the bases. And readers are very vocal about the fact that they like to visualize some things in our books for themselves: how a character looks, or a place, things like that. Too much information from an author is . . . um . . . well . . . too much information.

My particular "bulletin board" is pictured to the right. It's an antique message board from a mollasses company, and I love that thing. Holds tons of inspiration.

One of the things I love most about my fellow writers is that we seldom have the SAME vision. You can give a group of writers a picture, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word, and tell them to write about it, and rarely will two have the same take on it. Or should I say take off? As in letting the fingers fly and the story tell itself? Variety, something readers crave and writers strive for. Which makes me wonder: What kind of story would you write about the house in the picture to the right? Hmmmm? I found this one while bike riding on a wonderful trail near Tunnel Hill, IL.

So if you are lacking inspiration, take a camera with you everywhere, and snap photos of whatever captures your attention. I once took pictures of Kudzu covering an object so thoroughly that I couldn't tell exactly what WAS underneath the heavy growth. That lead to an article that appeared in a newsletter. Inspire yourself with pictures, and write, write, write.

Okay, I've gotta quit playing around on here and get my character out of the latest mess I've written him into. But it's such a pretty day, maybe I'll . . . .

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I've got to know the ending!

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was a kid, my parents frequently invited company for dinner. They had interesting friends. Long past our bedtimes, my sister and I used to sneak halfway down the stairs and hang over the banister so we could hear the conversation. This was back in the days before conversation became a spectator sport, something celebrities did on televised talk shows while everybody else just listened. (To this day, I don’t watch talk shows. When I hear a good conversation, I want to participate.)

My father was a wonderful raconteur, as were some of their friends. They would tell stories—extended jokes that drew us in till we could hardly wait to hear the punch line. And then they would tell the punch line in Yiddish! All the adults would howl with laughter. It always sounded hilarious, since Yiddish is an innately comical language to the anglophone ear. Mind you, neither of my parents spoke Yiddish. My father’s native language was Russian, my mother’s Hungarian. But everybody always understood the punch line—except us. “What does it mean? What does it mean?” we would clamor. They would invariably reply, “It’s untranslatable!”

This intensely frustrating experience left me with an imperative need to know the ending of any story. In mysteries, the ending is of crucial importance. In fact, it’s what distinguishes them from most literary novels. They start with a setup: a crime is committed, but we’re missing some key information: we don’t know whodunit. Or in a thriller, something will happen if it isn’t stopped, and it’s a race with the clock—or an obstacle course—to prevent disaster. We keep reading—often long past our bedtimes—to find out how they’ll end.

I had a thriller-like dream last night. It took place in West Africa, in a country that might have been Burkina Faso, just north of Côte d’Ivoire where I lived in the Sixties as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In the dream, I was part of a group of people, black and white, who loved Africa and had spent years there helping the surrounding countries get rid of oppressors. We had just discovered that some hidden airports in the bush were international airports. At first we thought they were brand new and couldn’t understand why the Africans hadn’t told us about them. Then we realized they’d been there all along. In the dream, this meant that once they’d finished ousting the oppressors with our help, they planned to get rid of us as well. We were outraged. Each of us talked in turn about how betrayed we felt. I gave quite a speech—probably out loud, as my husband swears I often do while dreaming.

We knew we had to leave at once, before our enemies arrived. A plane was waiting. As we began to board, a plane or helicopter landed. Armed men rushed out and headed toward us. We tried frantically to get everybody into the plane. As they reached us, we all made it on board, but we still had to take off before they could attack. Through a kind of transparent bubble, we could see them aiming their weapons at us.

At that moment, my husband woke me up. “You were having a nightmare,” he said. I was furious. “No, I wasn’t. Why did you wake me?” “You were,” he insisted. “You were saying, ‘Please don’t shoot us.” “I was not! I was saying, ‘Please don’t hurt us.’ We just wanted them to let us leave.” I tried to explain the dream, not doing it very well since I tend not to remember my dreams in any detail. He couldn’t understand why I thought it wasn’t a nightmare. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t scared, or at least not with the dread or terror that characterize nightmares. What I felt was more of a sense of intense urgency. I certainly didn’t want to be rescued at that moment. I wanted to know if we made it into the air before they started shooting. Dammit, I wanted to know the ending!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer Reading

Sandra Parshall

Why do booksellers and reviewers talk about “summer reading” and “summer books” as if everyone spends June, July, and August lazing by a pool or on the beach, book in hand? Do you know anyone that lucky? For most of us, life and work go on pretty much as usual during the hot months. My summer reading is a lot like my winter reading -- relegated to little snatches of spare time. I’m more likely to listen to an audio book for an hour or two while I do other things than I am to settle in a chair with a book for an entire evening.

Here are some of the books that have been getting my seriously divided attention this summer.

Hide by Lisa Gardner: I will read anything Lisa Gardner writes, and this new book has become one of my favorites. Bobby Dodge, the Massachusetts state cop from Alone, returns, and he’s investigating the murders of six girls whose skeletons are found in a pit at an abandoned mental hospital. Evidence points to a killer Bobby had believed to be long dead. To complicate matters, after one skeleton is publicly identified as that of Annabelle Granger, the real Annabelle, now an adult, appears to correct the mistake and explain how the victim came to be wearing her necklace. The investigation widens to include Annabelle’s background. She grew up in hiding, her parents whisking her from place to place to escape a danger she never understood. In the course of Bobby’s investigation, Annabelle learns the truth about her family’s dark past and realizes that she is still in danger. Gardner has a delightfully twisted mind, and the complications and surprises she produces are many and convoluted. An unusually good suspense novel.

Trashed by Alison Gaylin is pure fun from beginning to end. The author’s first hardcover, after two paperback originals and an Edgar nomination, Trashed introduces accidental Hollywood tabloid reporter Simone Glass. She moves to Los Angeles to work for a respectable publication, but when that prospect evaporates, she’s desperate enough to take a job on a sleazy tabloid. She quickly learns that her editor doesn’t share her perception of what is newsworthy. Her first assignment, searching a star’s trash, turns up evidence that connects the actress to a murder, but Simone’s editor dismisses this development as uninteresting. What readers really want, he says, is proof of the star’s drug abuse. Simone stubbornly pursues the murder clues that keep popping up and ultimately puts her own life in danger. Trashed will be available from NAL Obsidian the first week of September, and in August I’ll have an interview with author Alison Gaylin in this space.

The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco
is an impressive debut mystery. Set in San Francisco, the story begins minutes before the massive earthquake and the resulting fire that destroyed much of the city in 1906. Sgt. Randall Blackburn is walking back to police headquarters after his night shift when the earth cracks open beneath his feet and chaos erupts. At the same time, in a relatively unscathed part of the city, a serial killer slaughters the Nightingale family while twelve-year-old Shane, an adopted son, hides in a cupboard. In the days following the earthquake and the Nightingale murders, Blackburn and the psychologically damaged Shane team up to find the killer. Flacco’s descriptions of the earthquake and its aftermath are superb and the plotting is clever. I look forward to the second book in this series. The Last Nightingale is published by Ballantine in trade paperback, so you can take a chance on this new mystery writer at relatively low cost.

A while back, I vowed to overcome my bias against mysteries set in foreign countries where English is not the dominant language. I promptly relapsed and didn’t make good on my pledge until advance copies of two books, one Swedish and one French, fell into my hands. Although they’re very different stories, each excellent in its way, they have a common element: like Gardner’s Hide, they bring back killers the detectives have faced in the past.

Never End by Ake Edwardson is latest in a bestselling series of Swedish police procedurals set in the coastal city of Gothenberg. As the city suffers through a brutal heat wave, Chief Inspector Erik Winter recognizes in several new cases the work of a rapist-murderer he failed to catch years before. In a spare style, with few literary flourishes, the author creates a forboding atmosphere and builds suspense in both the professional and personal ordeals of the sympathetic, realistic characters. Trade paperback from Penguin.

Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand by Fred Vargas is the latest winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger and the third in this bestselling French series to be published in the U.S. Commissaire Adamsberg, chief of police in Paris’s 7th Arrondissement, believes that serial killer Judge Fulgence is long dead -- but a new murder bears his unmistakable mark. Adamsberg’s insistence on chasing a ghost eventually makes him a suspect in the murder. Vargas (who is female, in case that matters to anyone) writes quirky characters who view the world from an ironic and often darkly funny perspective. Even if it didn’t have a compelling story, this book would be worth reading for the prose and the characters. Trade paperback from Penguin.

Books on my must-read list for the rest of the summer are Giles Blunt’s By the Time You Read This and Ruth Rendell’s The Water’s Lovely.

What are you reading this summer? Have you discovered any great new-to-you writers? Do you have more time to read in the summer than in other seasons?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Batman and Mrs. Lee

Sharon Wildwind

Last weekend was a Batman marathon at our house. Between Friday evening and Sunday night, I watched Batman Begins, Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin. What brought this on was a prolonged heat wave and a desire for some summer mind candy.

Even as a kid, I was fascinated by the Dark Knight. He was sinister and spooky, with a harder edge than his pal Superman, and a lot more complicated than say, The Fantastic Four. While the others had supernatural powers, caused by accidents of birth or exposure to cosmic rays, Batman had angst, incredible wealth, a neat house, a cool car, and an obsession with vigilante justice.

Sorry, folks, no matter how you slice it, he started as a vigilante. Nobody gave him a badge or administered an oath exhorting him “to protect and preserve.” And, as one of the characters says in Batman Forever, “What kind of a grown man goes around dressed like a bat?”

A man who shared a simple philosophy with a nineteenth century Chicago heiress: convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.

While I thought Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher’s 1995 Batman Forever best captured the comic books’ flavor, the movie that really fascinated me was Christopher Nolen’s Batman Begins. Okay, so there were those inevitable thirty-four minutes of training in the secret ninja dojo, and the requisite car chase, a la O.J., near the end. But, Christian Bale portrayed a superbly-tortured Bruce Wayne and the almost-Apocalyptic Gotham felt greasy enough to have spawned Batman all by itself. That scene of the adult Wayne, standing with his arms outstretched in the bat cave—a real cave full of bats, not the electronic gizmo house it would become—absorbing the power of being a bat took my breath away.

Batman alone—no, that’s not the name of a movie I missed in my marathon, though it would make a terrific title—anyway, Batman alone spawns some terrific questions for character development. Does might make right? Does wealth make right if it’s used for the common good? Should Batman be allowed to have a normal life, say get married, raise a family, carpool his kids to soccer practice, or is a twisted lone wolf the only one who can save humanity? Considering what the criminal element of Gotham was like, is the humanity in Batman’s world worth saving?

Writing quote for the week:
Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.
~Frances Glessner Lee, (1878-1962) 19th century Chicago heiress, forensic dollhouse maker, and amateur criminologist.
To learn more about Mrs. Lee’s life, visit http://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/galleries/biographies/lee.html
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz, a Brooklyn photographer, has beautiful photographs of these miniature crime scenes and interviews with people who knew Mrs. Lee.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Chat with Marja McGraw

by Julia Buckley

Hi, Marja! Thanks for chatting with me on the Deadly Daughters Blog.

Your bio says that you spent several years in law enforcement. Were you a cop?

No. I started out as a Deputy Clerk in a small division with the Los Angeles County Marshal’s Office (civil law enforcement) in the 1960’s, but that title is a bit deceptive. At that time there were no female deputies and no matrons. Consequently, when female assistance was needed, the Deputy Clerks were called upon to help. This included everything from assisting with evictions to searching female prisoners who were taken into custody in court. I even had to search a women’s restroom for a bomb once—without training.

I later worked for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, which included clerical work and serving process in the office.

You say that when you were a kid you wanted to be Nancy Drew. Do you still? :)

No. Now I want to be Marja McGraw, mystery writer, who creates her own mysteries. I sometimes wonder what Nancy might have been like as she aged and the life, technology and times around her changed. Can you imagine Nancy Drew at, say, age 80?

Not really. :) You and your daughter lived in many different places. Are you a gypsy at heart, or were you just following opportunities? Which places was your favorite?

Actually, I lived in Southern California until I was in my late thirties. California had grown so much that I wanted to get back to a smaller town life. I wanted my daughter to experience a quieter atmosphere, so we moved to Northern Nevada, where we lived for about fifteen years. It was a good move. Circumstances led me to a year in Oregon and a brief time in Alaska. I moved back to Nevada, met my husband and we retired to Arizona. Every place has positives and negatives. I couldn’t choose which one I liked the best. Maybe pre-freeway days in California, when things were simpler.

Your books are called BIG TROUBLE FOR A LITTLE LADY and SECRETS OF HOLT HOUSE. They have a sort of nostalgic sound, like the old Phyllis Whitney novels. Was this intentional?

This wasn’t intentional, and the books are nothing like the Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt books. To me, these titles indicate mystery, and that’s what I was looking for with words like Big Trouble and Secrets. My stories are mostly light, with a touch of humor. My protagonist is a bit naïve, and probably got into the investigating business for the wrong reasons, but she’s open to lessons and she’s growing all the time.

In the beginning you tried self-publishing. What was your experience with this? How did you advertise your books?

In the beginning I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing business. I didn’t know any other authors and hadn’t done my research. My brother sent me an article about self-publishing, and it fascinated me. I was a Babe in the Woods about advertising, too. I built a website and began contacting bookstores. I’ve done a couple of television interviews and a few radio interviews over the past few years. Since then I’ve studied publishing and marketing, and I’ve begun networking with other authors. I’ve come a long, bumpy way, and I’ve learned a lot. It remains to be seen whether I learned my lessons well enough to make a dent in the book world.

You write in your bio that “Being single and a single parent gives a woman quite an education, too.” What was one of the most important lessons that you learned as a single mom?

I was extremely shy when I was young. Working in law enforcement didn’t leave room for shyness, which is something I’ll always appreciate about that time in my life. After moving past the shyness, I learned how to be persistent and how to stick up for myself, my daughter and others. (Unfortunately, there are times now when my big mouth gets me in trouble.) Being a single parent was comparable to on-the-job assertiveness training.

You are now married to your supportive husband Al, who has recently retired. Have you been traveling a great deal?

Due to a 94-year-old mother-in-law, a 14-year-old dog and going back to work full-time, we actually travel less than we used to. However, with two new books coming out in 2008, that will change. My mother-in-law and employer are very supportive. The dog only cares about my writing when I have cookies to share with him while I sit at the computer.

What do you think drives you to write? And what made you choose the mystery genre?

I honestly can’t tell you what motivates me to write. I think some of it goes back to that shyness. I had trouble voicing my thoughts, but I could put them in writing and entertain others. I can tell you that writing is the most fun I’ve ever had, even though I call it work.

As for the mystery genre, I’ve always loved games and puzzles. My grandmother bought the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books for my sister and brother, and later they were passed on to me. Reading those felt like playing a game and trying to solve a puzzle. I also love surprises, and I hope I’ve included a few in my stories.

Your book, A WELL KEPT FAMILY SECRET, is now in production. What lessons have you learned as a novelist now that you are on book three?

A Well Kept Family Secret is a story that I had to write, one that wouldn’t let go of me. I don’t feel it’s the best of the series, but I love it and I think readers will, too. This is actually my third published book, and I’m about to start on my seventh story. Throughout the process I’ve learned a lot about humor in writing and when to keep it serious. I’ve learned that I must keep the dialogue and mannerisms true to each character. I’ve also had to learn to let the story flow-—it can’t be forced, or the reader will know it.

How do you come up with your plots?

My plots come from life and the people I meet. For instance, I met a woman who was a P.I. in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The woman’s daughter had a child’s memories of her mother that weren’t reality. I was so taken with this that I created a story where a woman (who was a P.I. in the 1940’s) asks my protagonist, Sandi Webster, to solve an old murder that she hadn’t been able to solve. The story is not based on the real P.I., but meeting her and her daughter inspired it.

Having divorced shortly after my daughter’s birth, I was a single parent for many years. BUBBA'S GHOST, coming out in July, 2008, is loosely based on something that actually happened to me when we lived in an older, “affordable” house and a strange man started harassing me. I’d tell you more, but then I’d be giving the story away.

Sounds intriguing! What’s your writing schedule? Do you write every day? How do you write and still make time for fun and family?

Before I went back to work full-time, I wrote a minimum of four hours every day. The rest of my time was devoted to fun and family. Now I find myself hand-writing things on my lunch hour and breaks, and putting it together on weekends. It seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day anymore.

I can relate! Now, as a cool-weather gal, I must say: Arizona is mighty hot. Do you enjoy the hot weather? Do you ever miss the more balmy climes of California, where you were born?

I’ve lived in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona, going from extreme cold to extreme heat. I much prefer the heat to the cold. As for California, I miss what it was like when I was a child, before all the freeways went in. My family goes back several generations in Los Angeles County, and it was very different when I was growing up there.

What are you writing now?

I’m just about to start an untitled piece about three women who must save a friend who’s been lost in the shuffle of life. This one will not be a part of my Sandi Webster series. I’m still in the planning stages at the moment, and having a great time putting the story together.

How can readers find out more about you and your mysteries?

I have a website at www.marjamcgraw.com, but it’s sorely in need of updating. I’m working on finding someone to build me a new site. In the meantime, I can be reached by email at hello@marjamcgraw.com.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Canada Calling: Giles Blunt

Welcome to our regular Canadian feature. Once a month for the next few months we'll spotlight a Canadian author. Our guest this month is the award-winning Giles Blunt, who lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Giles Blunt grew up in North Bay, Ontario, a small city that is remarkably similar to the Algonquin Bay of the John Cardinal novels. After studying English literature at the University of Toronto, he moved to New York City, where he lived for the next twenty years, before moving back to Toronto in 2002. The first Cardinal novel, “Forty Words for Sorrow,” won the British Crime Writers Silver Dagger award, and the second, “The Delicate Storm,” won the Crime Writers of Canada Authur Ellis award for best novel. The fourth in the series, “By the Time You Read This,” came out last fall (2006) and was hailed by the Globe and Mail as best mystery of the year. It was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger.

PPD: Your biography is full of irony and fun. Your books are full of mutilated bodies, deformed dwarfs, drug dealing, and depression. Where do the dark visions come from?

The short answer is, I don’t know. When my first book, “Cold Eye,” came out, some of my friends were rather taken aback by how dark it was. One friend even cried, because she thought I must be so unhappy! But you know, I’ve met horror-meister Wes Craven and he’s the most even-tempered, congenial person you’d ever want to meet. And whenever I’ve seen Stephen King in interviews, he strikes me as a completely sunny individual. So there isn’t always a direct ratio between an author’s temperament and the tenor of his fiction. I used to get terribly depressed when I was younger, but not for many, many years, so it isn’t that I’m expressing my personal emotions.

Most of the books have some fun and irony in them. “Delicate Storm” has the world’s dumbest criminal, and “Forty Words for Sorrow” has Woody, an extremely amiable thief who’s good for a laugh or two. “By the Time You Read This” has themes of suicide and child porn so, no, not a lot of laughs there. But you know, talking about depression doesn’t mean you’re depressed, nor does it necessarily make others depressed. I get a lot of letters from people whose lives have been touched by manic depression, and they are enormously moved to have it described accurately. It’s comforting to have someone describe the painful side of life without wallowing in it. Think of Paul Simon’s songs, for example, or Eleanor Rigby and Yesterday. Songs about sad things are not depressing songs.

PDD: You play blues guitar. Do the blues influence your writing or are they strictly for your non-writing time?

I almost never play blues these days. Since moving back to Toronto I’ve taken up with some musical friends who specialize in The Beatles and other stuff from that era, so I’m mostly playing very cheerful music. I love singing and playing guitar and keyboard. And I love keeping it on an amateur level because there’s absolutely no pressure to perform up to a certain standard. Once you start charging people money, it becomes something else. But, no, I don’t make any connection between my musical endeavours and my writing.

I know some crime writers make a big deal out of what their characters are listening to, but I actually find it quite beside the point. In most cases, information on musical taste will add nothing to a major character. Our sense of that character comes from how he responds to what situation he finds himself in. Do we really need to know that Macbeth, say, is fond of Scottish folk tunes? Or that Hamlet prefers Bach to Frescobaldi? What is interesting, is that Hamlet is wild about the theatre, because he then uses that passion, that knowledge, to trap the king. But if we are told that a character listens to Mozart, Beethoven, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, that doesn’t actually distinguish him from most of the Baby Boomers.

Occasionally you get a villain where the musical taste might be interesting. It’s often the case that you want a villain to be extremely intelligent, so that he offers the hero more of a challenge. So you get Hannibal Lecter listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. Or in the movie “Three Days of the Condor” you have Max von Sydow, playing a hit man, listening to Mozart as he cleans his gun—implying a love of precision. That’s why so many movie villains have English accents—and not because we hate English people, but because an educated English person sounds intelligent to our ears even when he’s talking absolute rubbish. Thus Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman play bad guys in “Die Hard” movies, or James Mason in “Vertigo,” or Sidney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon.” Also, it adds the element of class warfare: it’s often not a bad thing to have your salt-of-the-earth detective bring down someone from the upper class—and an English accent, in North America at least, is a quick way of hinting at a higher class.

All of which is a long way from your question about the blues.

PDD: Aside from the craziness of selling a script—assuming you can put that aside—do you approach writing a screenplay in a different way from writing a novel?

Most scripts are written for hire, of course, and that is a very different process than thinking up an idea and making something out of it with the hope that it will sell. But if we’re talking about spec scripts—those generated solely by the writer—I actually don’t make much distinction.

To go through the process briefly:

At the point of story selection there are some differences. What works on the screen will not always work on the page and vice versa. Ross Macdonald’s books, for example, aren’t very good movies—despite the top-notch talents involved in them—because they are rather melancholy and reflective. There’s an almost elegiac tone to them that Hollywood doesn’t handle well. They’d be much better as French films. The other problem is, they tend to open up into the past. By which I mean, Archer’s investigation will take him into events of the past that prove to be motivations for present-day crimes. Good reading, but not so compelling on screen. From the opposite end, if you had an idea like “Die Hard”—excellent movie material—you wouldn’t use it for a book because it relies so much on physical gags and on elements that are highly unrealistic. Movies go by at such speed, it doesn’t matter, but if you’re sitting there reading a book you’re going to go: no way, never happen.

I’m a big outliner, and my outlining process for a book is exactly the same as it is for a movie. I write my ideas for scenes on 3 x 5 index cards and organize them into what I hope will be the most effective order. If you do this right, it helps you when your prose may let you down, or your dialogue is not up to snuff. A strong, coherent story will support any number of other infelicities. Of course, it’s impossible to do this without also expending a great deal of mental energy on character. You shift back and forth between things you’d like to see happen and characters you’d like to see reacting to them. So by the time you get to writing actual pages you should have a good sense of who you are writing about.

The two processes diverge quite a bit after that. With a screenplay, you spend no time at all describing anything. It’s all action and dialogue. There’s a lot of white space on the page, so you can turn out pages fairly quickly. But because you have so little to rely on, each of those pages is riskier. The slightest implausibility in speech or action can ruin a scene and a film.

Writing a novel is much slower. You have to convey the setting at all times. Some writers do that with a lot of description, usually boring as hell. Others do it mostly through character and dialogue. You read Elmore Leonard and you come away with a vivid sense of Detroit or Miami, but I doubt if he spends more than ten sentences, if that, actually describing them. It’s all conveyed through character and dialogue. That’s one of the reasons his books have virtually all been filmed, they are actually very close to scripts when published. I try to fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You can convey a lot of tone and atmosphere in your descriptive passages, especially if you are describing through a character’s point of view, and if the have a particular emotion dominant at the time. New York looks very different when you are depressed than when you are in love.

A novel at this stage is much more work, but you can get away with more because you have the space to tell a reader exactly what you want to convey. You have their attention for six to ten hours; a screenwriter only has two.

Then the polishing stage is much the same. I enjoy this stage in both formats, because you know you’re improving the thing every day—taking out mistakes, setting u later scenes in a way that’ll make them much stronger, making characters consistent, ensuring that your efforts are varied from chapter to chapter, scene to scene. In both cases it’s the beginning and ending of the process I enjoy the most.

PDD: Your list of nominations and awards is impressive. An Arthur Ellis, a Dashiell Hammett nomination, a Macavity, an Anthony, an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Macallan Silver Dagger for fiction and, most recently, a nomination for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, the biggest crime-fiction award in the world. What takes you that extra step, from terrific fiction to award-winning fiction?

It’s very pleasant to win awards or to be nominated, but you can’t take them seriously. There are excellent books that don’t win awards, and lots of silly books that do. We all like to think that the judges are having a period of lucidity when we happen to win, and that they are drunk or mentally defective when we don’t, but the fact is it’s all pretty random. So, I wouldn’t make a distinction between award-winning work and other good work.

I do know that books I admire tend to have certain things in common, whatever genre they may happen to be in. Most readers love the sensation of suspense. It’s a crucial element in my favourite crime novels such as “Gorky Park,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Red Dragon,” “Live Flesh,” but also in Shakespeare (Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet especially). It’s also a crucial element in horror and farce. Think of Moliere, “Fawlty Towers,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” or Mapp and Lucia without suspense. Impossible.

But all of these also have a wonderful coming together of plot and character. The miser can not work unless you have a rich man terrified of parting with his money, surrounded by family members with expensive tastes. Othello cannot work unless you have a proud but somewhat insecure man married to a beautiful young wife.

That’s just as the premise stage. Then you have all the observations of human behaviour dramatized in every scene. Shakespeare is the unrivalled master of this, but many novelists are very good at it. When you read Graham Greene you recognize behaviour that you see all the time without maybe noticing it: the obsessed man who cannot distinguish his love from hate, the arrogant man who mistakes his pity for kindness, the detective who misses the obvious. Greene is just wonderful.

Or Thomas Harris. There’s a scene in “Lambs”—an absolute minor character, a young rural woman, is being questioned about her friend who has been murdered. She becomes sad and tearful, and Harris describes her tipping her head back so that her mascara won’t run. Very few crime novelists have that kind of eye.

I think those are some of the elements that distinguish good writing from bad, and those are the elements I always try for, but I don’t succeed nearly as often as I’d like.

PDD: Many thanks to Giles Blunt for those thoughtful answers. You can learn more about him and his books at www.gilesblunt.com/

Next month: Canada goes calling on Louise Penny.

Friday, July 20, 2007


By Lonnie Cruse

I’ve been working on the fifth in my Metropolis Mystery Series in fits and starts. Mostly fits. More on that in a later blog, but it seemed as if I kept butting my head against my personal writing wall because of ideas, problems, questions, etc that often attack me when I’m typing, slowing down the flow of words, and sometimes shutting it off completely.

I remembered hearing about writing programs that had little computerized Sticky Notes the author could use in order to keep up with ideas or problems. I thought about getting that program, but realized the Sticky Notes would probably be limited to when I was writing a manuscript. Why not see if there were any free computer Sticky Notes I could download which would sit on my computer’s desktop? I could use such notes not only for my writing but for any personal notes I wanted to keep handy. I’d noticed that the real sticky notes on my real desk had a habit of disappearing, or getting sloshed with coffee or soda, or my hubby would write his own notes on there with mine which meant I couldn’t toss them when I was done, so they cluttered up my desk. Sticky notes on my computer desktop would be perfect.

I did an online search for Sticky Notes, came up with some at: http://www.sticky-notes.net/ and downloaded the free ones. The site has more sophisticated Sticky Notes, some with alarms that sound to remind one of important items. Those cost money, so I stuck with the freebies.

I fiddled around with them and discovered I can make the notes small enough so that only the title shows as a reminder, and they don’t take up much room on my computer desktop. My real desk is, um, well, a teensy bit neater. And I can “lock” the notes so they don’t accidentally get deleted.

The biggest bonus I’ve discovered is how Sticky Notes help me when I’m working on a manuscript. As I said, sometimes I’m typing happily along and I hit my personal writing wall. Maybe I can’t remember the name of a minor character I introduced in chapter three and need to bring back in chapter eighteen. Hey, I can’t remember my own name some days. The sticky note with my character list is right where I need it. Or I realize I need to beef up a character, insert more information about him or her in earlier chapters, or drop a red herring somewhere. But I don’t want to leave the scene I’m working on to go back and search for the perfect spot to slide in that information, so I make a quick note in the current story Sticky to remind me to do it later. Maybe I discover I know zilch about a particular subject I’m including in the current scene (What does the basement of a certain local hotel look like? How long would it take my character to recover from a particular injury? What medical procedures would be used to heal same? Things like that.) so I type a quick note in the story Sticky to remind me to do the research when I’m not deep into writing a scene.

Having the ability to type a quick note into a Sticky on my computer desktop to remind me of what I need to do later has taken the fear of forgetting something important off my shoulders and allowed me to continue typing the scene I need to be in, knowing I can deal with any problems in my work-in-progress at a more convenient time. It helps keep me from getting “blocked.” And if you hang around here, I plan to tackle the subject of “writer’s block” at least from my perspective in a future blog post.

Meanwhile, if you need a quick way to jot down notes and reminders when working, notes that aren’t as likely to get lost on your desk, you might want to try Sticky Notes

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Interview with Nancy Pickard

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

Have you always been a writer? Have you had day jobs or always made your living as a novelist? Have you put any other dreams aside for writing?

I've always been a writer, though I was not one of those precocious children who wrote a novel at age 12. I graduated from journalism school at the University of Missouri and then held day jobs until I was about 35, at which time I plunged fulltime, right from Day One, into being a novelist. Other dreams? You mean like paying the mortgage? lol. Yes, I've put aside some dreams, but none of them lured me on as writing has done.

I first discovered your work when I read and loved the first Jenny Cain mystery, GENEROUS DEATH. What prompted you to pick a charitable foundation as the focus of your mystery series. Did you plan a series when you wrote the first one? And why mystery?

Thank you! I picked a charitable foundation because I decided that where there's death and money, there's the opportunity for foul play. I wasn't thinking of a series until after Generous Death was published and I heard from readers that they wanted more of it. Mystery? Because it was the form of the novel with which I was the most familiar, and because I was a Nancy Drew girl.

One of the things that makes Jenny Cain interesting is that she comes from quite a dysfunctional family, including a father who’s a terrible liability. Where did they come from? Did the Cains grow out of a germ of reality or a “what if”?

I still don't know where they came from. Honest. I don't have a sister, my mother is extremely sane, and my father was spacy only in the sweetest, kindest way.

How did it feel to let go of Jenny and move on to another series? How did the process of launching a multi-book story arc differ the second time around? What had you learned that made it easier—or harder? Or simply different?

It felt okay, because she seemed to have done all she wanted to do by then. It was just a feeling that the time was right for her and for me. When I started the Marie Lightfoot series I knew from the start that it would be a trilogy, because I wanted to do other things after that. I learned so much from the Jenny books! It's almost impossible to start listing them, so I'll just settle for saying that I learned how to write novels.

How did you come to write the cooking mysteries based on the late Virginia Rich’s work? What did you expect when you decided to do this, and did it turn out the way you expected, or were there surprises?

I was asked by her editor, with the approval of her widower, to take up the series. I had been a fan and had even very briefly corresponded with her, so that just felt right, too. It didn't turn out as I expected--it was much, much harder. The biggest--and nicest--surprise was discovering how "older women" welcomed a sleuth who was still alive and kicking in every way, including love. Now I'm almost as old as Eugenia Potter, and I wish I'd made her seem even younger!

How do you write? Do you have routines or rituals? Do you outline beforehand, and if so, do you stick to the outline? How much do you revise? Who reads or critiques your work before it takes its final form?

I write by the seat of my pants. I have no rituals, unless multiple cups of coffee counts, which I suppose it does. I can write almost anywhere, at almost any time of day. I write a proposal in order to go to contract, and then I mostly ignore my own proposal and let the book develop as it will. I revise constantly. With short stories, I ask writer friends to read them before I submit them. I used to do the same with my novels. But now I have so many readers at Ballantine--my editor, Linda Marrow, plus two other editors who help her, and other people at the publishing house--that I just let them tell me everything I need to know. It's a great editorial team, and I'm grateful.

Along with the novels, your short stories are widely admired, especially “Afraid All the Time” and “There Is No Crime on Easter Island.” Do you have any stories to tell about the writing of these or readers’ response to them?

A couple of things--one, it is true that sometimes readers will find our novels because they've read a short story they liked. And two--I had to learn that every short story needs an epiphany--an ah ha moment for a character or for the reader--before it will work.

Have you had mentors? Who has inspired and/or helped you along the way?

I've been inspired by and helped by so many people, including mystery writers. My senior high school English teacher, Nina Mackey, always comes to mind. And there was a novelist, Alice Winter, who was a mentor for several years.

What was it like being one of the founding mothers of Sisters in Crime? How do you think women mystery writers are faring 20 years later? What still needs to be done?

It was exciting, it was scary, it was fun. We were so lucky to be part of that, as is anybody who gets in on the ground floor of a revolution that actually leads to good things. As for how we're faring now, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure. Certainly, we're an established part of the scene. Are we getting equal treatment in terms of money, reviews, advertising, etc.? I don't know. I, personally, feel fairly treated, but there seems to be some evidence that some things have not changed all that much for the better.

You’ve just won the Agatha for Best Novel for your standalone, THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS. Did you know when you wrote it that this was something special?

I only knew it was special to me, because it was the culmination of a lot of years of work and learning, and because it allowed me to write the kind of book, starring the kind of people, I'd been wanting to write.

You’ve won several Agathas over the years and many other awards? Is any of them especially meaningful to you, and why?

Out of my four teapots, the one I just won for Virgin probably means the most, because it was a welcome back after years of hibernation while I was working on improving my writing. It was an affirmation that I was on the right track. But I was thrilled to get the first one, for Bum Steer, and thrilled to win one the very next year, for I.O.U., and the one I won for a short story, "Out of Africa," meant a lot, because I particularly loved that story.

THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS is set in a part of Kansas most of us don’t know exists, as was the Jenny Cain book BUM STEER. The first time we met, I mentioned that BUM STEER was my favorite in the series, and you said it was yours too. Would you care to comment on that—on Kansas, on the importance of setting, and/or on writing about home?

I've been so slow to come home to Kansas, in terms of my novels. And now it's so important to me. I love so many of the landscapes of this state, and I know so many wonderful people here, that it gives me tremendous pleasure to bust a few stereotypes about it when I get the chance.

Do you have any words of wisdom for writers starting out today—both young ones and those of us who have had a long journey to the point of first publication?

This may seem an odd, even discouraging piece of advice, but I promise you it's a good one: in the phrase, "professional writer," the word professional is as important as the word writer. "Professional". . .like doctors are professionals, and lawyers, and everybody else who takes many years and makes sacrifices and goes through hard times to reach their goal. They say it takes l0 years to become good at anything, and I think it's helpful to remember that's applicable to writing. That's ten years of writing, writing, writing, maybe without being published during that time. That's years of focusing on the writing, not on the publishing, though there will certainly be dreams of that. It's keeping the horse of writing in front of the cart of publishing, where they both belong. Starting writers, apprentice writers, master writers, all can benefit from being patient with themselves and the process. It's a long process. A lifetime. Go easy on yourself and give your dreams plenty of time to develop fully. Even if you're 80 years old. In ten years, you'll be 90, and not only is there nothing wrong with being published for the first time at 90, trust me, it will get you good publicity!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Behind the Scenes at Spinetingler

Sandra Parshall

Online review sites and ezines are increasingly influential with readers -- especially mystery readers -- and Spinetingler has rapidly become one of the most popular. Sandra Ruttan, a Canadian mystery writer who started Spinetingler with her husband, Kevin, answered my questions about what’s involved in creating an ezine and building readership.

SP: Why did you decide to start an ezine devoted to mysteries? Did you see a gap you wanted to fill or were you following a personal dream?

SR: It was Kevin’s idea. I was reluctant, because I didn’t think we knew enough to make it work. I was right about that. Part of the first year was about trial and error. We did no real investigation of the other ezines operating. At the time, I had no idea how to find them. This was before I even knew what a blog was, and the forums and lists I had joined at that point weren’t talking about ezines. In the past three years there’s been a lot of growth.

Oddly enough, this was always something I was interested in doing. In grade school I used to make up class newspapers and write stories about people. I have a background in journalism and had my first newspaper column at the age of 13. My husband had the web skills. Our backgrounds and interest contributed to the success of the site, as well as the fact that we focused on producing what we wanted to see. I was tired of reading so many interviews that left questions unanswered. Ten questions that barely scratched the surface. I’ll interrogate people for three hours if they let me, but the result is that readers get something different.
When we talked about starting Spinetingler, I was worried it would take up a lot of time, and I was right.

SP: What’s involved in creating an ezine? Did the process turn out to be more difficult or time-consuming than you expected?

SR: Register a domain name, after Googling to see that it isn’t already in use for something prominent. Once you have your web hosting lined up, you need to build the site. Of course, you also need to get word out there, somehow, to get submissions. Starting off is always tough, which is part of the reason we try to talk about new ezines and I’m glad we’ve started Crime Zine Report. Hopefully, it will help new ezines grow faster, connecting writers with new markets.

In the beginning I was also trying to figure out how to approach authors for interviews. I usually don’t interview anyone unless I’ve read all or a fair bit of their work, and some other interviews with them. I like to do my background research. At the same time, we were dealing with implementing policies. You have to have submission guidelines in place, or you can’t be upset with anything people do. And believe me, people do some weird things with their submissions.

We decided to do this in December 2004, and we launched in March 2005. It wasn’t until the Fall 2005 issue that we started to get things together, and that was also when people really started discovering us, thanks to Stuart MacBride. I met him at Harrogate and after a bizarre conversation in the bar he agreed to an interview. He gave us a huge plug on his blog when the issue came out, and when I started blogging he was one of the first people to drop by and comment. He raised our profile, and when I approached authors for interviews they’d often heard of us as a result.

SP: Are any operating costs involved other than fees for web hosting?

SR: We ran some contests to get submissions, so we had contest prize money to give out. We also pay for stories now.

SP: Do you sell advertising to bring in money?

SR: We do have the option of selling advertising, and sell a bit. We don’t sell enough to break even on the basic expenses of paying for the site and submissions, though. One thing Kevin and I both want is to have the liberty to promote books we’re genuinely enthusiastic about, so we put in personal picks, and sometimes authors do interviews or donate books for contests for us and we run an ad as a thank you. Kevin designs most of the ads himself.

SP: About how many regular reviewers does Spinetingler have? Do they receive any payment?

SR: We have myself, Kevin and Tracy Sharp. None of us receives payment, for anything, and we’re all editors as well. We’re adding a few more reviewers, but there is no pressure, no commitment. They’re volunteers so I leave them to work at their schedule. If they take a review copy they get to keep it. We don’t sell review copies.

SP: Do you recruit reviewers or do most of them approach you? If someone wants to review for Spinetingler, what qualifications must they have?

SR: Most reviewers approach us now. On occasion I’ve posted on lists that we’re looking for reviewers. Sometimes people come forward. We don’t have qualifications, exactly. We explain what we want in the review. Our only real rule is that it not read like a personal attack on the author. When new reviewers join, we read what they send carefully and make sure it fits the ezine.

SP: Have you ever dropped a reviewer?

SR: No, we’ve never had a problem. Some people get too busy, and aren’t available anymore, but we haven’t had to get rid of anyone.

SP: About how many books does Spinetingler review each year? How do you decide what to review?

SR: It varies, and in part, it depends on my schedule. I’m a slow reader, and if I’m busy with other things it hinders me from reviewing as much. Heaven help you if you’re on my TBR pile. I expect the number of reviews we run to increase now that Kevin is also reviewing. He reads fast, and he takes books to work. He also listens to audio books when he commutes.

We ask that people send a brief description of the book they’d like reviewed, and I send it to available reviewers and see if any of them are interested. This gives people the flexibility to consider their schedules and their interests. It also means it’s less likely the author is wasting a review copy, sending it to someone who won’t like it and ultimately won’t review it.

Sometimes I review books I’ve purchased. We rarely approach people for review copies. I’ve done this a few times, when a reviewer who’s contributed a lot to the ezine has asked for a specific book, but usually I don’t. I still believe in supporting authors, and there are some books that, even if I did have a review copy, I’d still buy. I wouldn’t want to mess up my Rankin or Bruen or Val McDermid collections, for example, so even if we were offered review copies I’d still buy a hard copy.

SP: Do you receive ARCs from publishers?

SR: I think a lot of US publicists don’t realize we’re web based (as well as having most issues available for print purchase) and when authors ask them to send us review copies, most don’t. This has been an issue with ARCs coming from the US, mainly. We never have problems with Harcourt, because I know their rep in Canada quite well. And we’re on the mailer for Bitter Lemon Press and Serpent’s Tail now.

When independent publicists (those who don’t work for publishers) contact us, 90% of the time we get the book if we okay it. When the request comes from an author who then asks their publicist to send it to us it’s more like 40% of the time that we actually receive it. I try to follow up with authors, at least to say, “We never got the review copy” but that’s time-consuming.

If a reviewer has expressed interest, we ask for the review copy to be sent straight to them. It typically takes three weeks for books sent media mail from the US to reach us, and then we’d have to send them back across the border. That delays the review about five weeks.

SP: As a Canadian writer yourself, do you make a conscious effort to give Canadian crime novels ample attention in Spinetingler?

SR: Well...

We tried to do the Canadian issues the first two years. They were like pulling teeth. I spent more time working on them than any other issue, and always got less material. And despite doing those issues we still get referred to as an American ezine. Ultimately, I think our focus isn’t where the bulk of Canadian crime fiction is centered. Cozies and amateur sleuth stories are dominant here, and Kevin and I lean into the hardboiled/noir camp. I’m a police procedural junkie. When we do find Canadians we’re excited about, we’re very excited, but I guess I’m too much of a pessimist for most of what we’re publishing this side of the border.

Spinetingler’s focus is more international than anything. If stories are submitted in American English, they run in American English. If they’re submitted in British English, they run in British English. We try to retain the flavour of the writer’s work. We give no preference when selecting books for review unless we’re doing a Canadian issue.

SP: Do you feel that U.S.-based publications overlook many Canadian writers?

SR: I would like to think that the success of authors such as Giles Blunt and Louise Penny proves there’s an appetite for Canadian-based crime fiction outside our borders. Rick Mofina is another fantastic Canadian author. Vicki Delany has a US publisher. John McFetridge, who is doing hardboiled Canadian crime fiction, has been picked up by Harcourt for paperback release next year. The Canadian industry has problems that complicate the issue. The publishing industry here relies on government grant money to stay alive. Without it, the publishers would die. The result is that publishers aren’t always as focused on selling work to balance the books. We seem to have a lot of niche publishers.

But when you look at what sells, the tone of the work is quite different from what a lot of the publishers here seem to be looking for. Ian Rankin is one of the top sellers in Canada, but many of the Canadian publishers have been focused on the cozy/amateur sleuth subgenres. Last summer I had a chat with Ian about who was writing Canadian noir and it was a pretty short list.

In my opinion, the reason Canadian material hasn’t been picked up more internationally is because it isn’t in the mainstream. When people write something that has wide appeal, it will sell widely, regardless of the setting. I think Giles Blunt is the proof of that. There are some Canadian authors capable of selling internationally and doing very well, but it takes time to find the publishers who will give them the chance. My agent, a Canadian, suggested I move my current manuscript south of the border, so clearly some of that mindset that Canada can’t sell still exists. I understand moving the location might make a sale easier but I wouldn’t do it. We’re always reading about how people love books that use setting as a character. Part of the plot hangs on something very specific that isn’t true of even all Canadian cities, so I had to select the setting carefully. I picked a setting that worked that I know, and love, and want to explore in a series. Vancouver isn’t exactly unknown to the international audience, either. With the Olympics coming up I have great material for the subsequent books.

SP: Do you run reviews of self-published books?

SR: We’ll consider it. If the book isn’t good, a review probably won’t run, because few volunteers want to spend time finishing a book they don’t like. It doesn’t matter if the book is self-published or comes from a leading New York house. Most reviewers do not want to sign their names to a scathing review. Neither do I. I’ll make criticisms if I think they’re valid but there has to be enough merit to the book to make me want to finish it in order to get the review.

SP: Have you had any protests from authors about reviews of their work?

SR: We’ve had some issues. I have a very short list of authors whose books we won’t review. I will stop reviewing before I start engaging in arguments over the books. As an author, I understand you have to live with bad reviews sometimes. You can read a review and think it’s unfair, but it’s just one person’s opinion. You have to trust readers to have discernment. I agonize over any criticism I put in a review, because I understand it can come back on me, and I consider how the author will feel. But my obligation is to the readers who want enough information to decide if the book is for them. That’s one of the things I think some authors are exceptionally short-sighted about. You aren’t just selling one book. You’re selling your future books. I’m not trying to deceive anyone into buying a book they won’t like.

The main job of a reviewer is to identify the audience for the book and help the reader figure out if they fall into that category or not. And any issues a reviewer will have with a book are (unless they’re based on a personal attack) bound to come up on forums/listservs from readers sooner or later. I don’t see the point in arguing. Nobody’s wrong. It’s a taste issue, and not everyone likes the same things.

The primary reason we don’t run rebuttals is that it causes hurt feelings, and opens the doors to an argument. I also have no interest in turning Spinetingler into a trash and smear site. It would turn into an endless flame war, as we’ve seen on discussion lists. I can’t turn that stuff off, and it would consume me. I’d end up pulling the plug on the site, because I don’t do well when I feel friends are under attack. My instinct is to step up and defend them, and I feel very protective of my reviewers, because they are being so generous with their time to begin with.

Authors aren’t entitled to reviews, and they certainly aren’t entitled to good reviews. They should pay more attention to which reviewers like material similar to their own. It increases the likelihood they’ll get the positive reviews they’re after.

SP: Now that you’re a published mystery novelist, do you see reviews in a different light? Do you have more sympathy for writers whose books are reviewed negatively?

SR: Not really. I’ve always been a person who considers the feelings of others. I feel it every time I send out a rejection letter for a story submission. I feel it every time I abandon a book I don’t like and won’t review, or write a mixed review. But I know what the obligations of a reviewer are. In reality, it would feel horrid, but if all the reviews were polarized it would probably be the best thing. Strong opposing opinions make people curious and make them want to check out the book for themselves. The very worst thing is if a lot of reviews say, “It was okay.”

SP: Does Spinetingler impinge on your personal writing time and book promotion efforts, or do you hold yourself to a firm schedule?

SR: Spinetingler takes up a lot of my time. As I mentioned, I try to read all or most of the titles by authors I interview, and then the interviews take a fair chunk of time. If I do the interview in person or over the phone I transcribe it, which can take me as much as 10 hours. I go squirrelly transcribing. I need a lot of breaks.

The average interview probably takes 40 hours of my time, including reading one book at least and other interviews. I still love doing it. I try to capture the personality of the author, which is why some interviews are more serious and others are pretty wild.

SP: What’s next for you as a writer? Have you completed a second mystery, or are you working on one? Will the next book be a sequel to the first?

It is unlikely there will be a sequel to Suspicious Circumstances. The contract gives the publisher option on derivative works, and I’m looking to move to a different publisher.

My new manuscript, What Burns Within, is under consideration. I’m currently in that horrendous waiting phase. What Burns Within is a police procedural, set in the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA), where I used to live. The story follows three detectives, each working a different case. One is a serial rape case. Another is dealing with multiple abductions that have led to murder. The third detective is investigating a number of arsons. The cases collide, with deadly consequences. What works for the manuscript is that it’s an action-packed, intensely paced story, but that can also work against it. I wanted to use the style of narrative to convey a sense of what the police are facing – multiple cases where things are coming at them from all directions. When people are under pressure, lives are hanging in the balance, and then tragedy strikes your own police department, even experienced cops can make mistakes.

It’s an intricate plot that was inspired by something very real in my own life. I don’t want to say too much more, but my best friend’s husband is a professional firefighter in the GVA, and my husband is a firefighter and trained arson investigator. One night while he was on a call I was lying in bed, thinking I should really go back to sleep when I had this startling realization about the call. It haunted me until I wrote this manuscript.

Read Spinetingler at www.spinetinglermag.com. Visit Sandra Ruttan's web site at www.sandraruttan.com.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Barney Miller

Sharon Wildwind

This story begins in The Sherman House in Batesville, Illinois, in 1982. Or maybe the story really ends there. My friend, Ellen, and I were on the first day of our journey, driving from North Carolina to Alberta, Canada. That night, in our room at the Sherman House, I saw the last episode of “Barney Miller.”

Seven years earlier, I’d watched the first episode. It’s one of the few television shows that I’d seen both beginning and end, like bookends. I loved the 12th Precinct, with it’s ratty ambiance, bad coffee, and cast of wonderful characters. Around our house, we quote Barney Miller a lot.

“I find something that finally makes me feel good, and it turns out to be illegal.” (Detective Phil Fish)

“You washed my cup!” (Detective Nick Yemana)

“His apartment is full of plants.”
“Harris, a lot of people have plants in their apartment.”
Harris draws himself up to his full height. “Wheat?”

A whole raft of quotes from Det. Stanley Wojciehowicz
“It was beautiful, Barn. When the building came down, the bomb squad applauded.”

“Wojciehowicz, just like it sounds.”

“You’re late, Wojciehowicz. Where were you?”
Barney does a double take. “Church? Are you all right?”
“I just felt like going to church, okay?”
“Sure. Okay. I’ll be in my office if you want to talk or anything.”

Then there was that wonderful scene where a suspect insists on being read his rights in his first language, Spanish. Wojo Mirandizes him in perfect Spanish and ends by asking, “You want to hear it in Polish?”

Twenty-five years later, I remember the incredible timing the characters had in delivering their lines, even if it was one word, like “Wheat?” or “Church.” And they way they moved around each other on the crowded set. Though the series initially used a few other sets, in the end, they came back to the squad room and Barney’s office, and that was enough.

As writers we have to resist the temptation to do too much with our characters. Too much back story. Too many details. Too many minor, irritating personal problems. In fact, sometimes, too many characters. What we need to do instead is get them up-close-and-personal. Stick them in a crowded room and watch how they avoid tripping over one another. Every detail has to count, whether it was Harris' natty suits, or that banty-rooster, "this is where I belong" walk that Officer Lebowitz had ever time he walked into the squad room.

As the song says, it's a gift to be simple and wise.

Writing quote for the week:
A good character has humanity, humility, humor, heroism, honor, honesty, heart (passion and energy), and horse-sense. ~Denise Tiller, mystery writer

Here’s the attribution for the quote from last week:
One of our favorite lines stems from the time my husband, also a writer, asked upon emerging, "Have we had Easter yet?" It was June. ~Susie Coombs, mystery writer

Monday, July 16, 2007

Real Mysteries, Fictional Mysteries

by Julia Buckley
I suppose one of the reasons that I like reading mysteries is that I like suspense, but I also like to see resolution. Mysteries that follow the rules always show a solution to the puzzle in the end, ultimately ending the reader's suspense.

I suppose that's why real life mysteries can be so compelling, can stay with us for years and years, why we even form conspiracy theories--Marilyn, JFK, UFOs and Roswell, et cetera.

A mystery like the disappearance of Amelia Earhart therefore takes on legendary signficance, as does the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby (although that one, tragically, was solved).

On this day in 1999 the plane of JFK Junior plunged into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha's Vineyard, killing him, his wife, and her sister. Although their plane was found and their bodies were recovered, this remains something of a mystery to me: Why did this happen? Why did he take the plane if the weather was so threatening? Did they know what dire straits they were in, or were they blissfully unaware until the moment of impact? And why do the Kennedys seem so plagued by tragedy?

Because of the real mysteries all around us, I don't think that writers of mystery could ever be at a loss for questions to drive their own narratives. In the case of my own writing, I begin with a great many "what if" scenarios. What if a woman who died was able to come back to life? What if her "death" gave her insight into the identity of her murderer? What if she tried to implicate him, and no one believed her? Those were the questions that elicited my first book.

But the great thing about being a writer is that you can read any random item in a newspaper or hear a snippet of something on the news, and it can trigger those questions, the questions that demand a solution. WHY would a man expect to be believed when he says his wife shot him in the leg, then shot herself and their children to death? WHERE is the Illinois woman who has been missing for weeks while her estranged husband claims to know nothing about it?

I want resolution to these mysteries--I'm sure everyone does. But even after one is resolved, another one will emerge. These are the mysteries, after all, of human behavior, which can rarely be predicted.

In fiction, though, we can take that human world, shape it, and make sense of it, one mystery at a time.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sailing with Friends

Marcia Talley (Guest Blogger)

My husband retired in December. An avid sailor, his idea of a fab retirement trip was to pack up a few “necessities” in a duffle bag the size of a pillowcase, climb aboard our ancient Tartan 37 sailboat and set sail down the Intracoastal waterway from Annapolis to Fort Lauderdale — a distance of 1200 miles — and from there, another hundred miles or so across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.

I thought it’d be fun, too. Research, I smiled to myself, envisioning a novel — no! — a whole series of mystery novels, set along that scenic waterway. Assassins in Albemarle. Bodies in Beaufort. Corpses in Charleston. Deaths in Delray Beach. So, I packed up my laptop and went along.

After provisioning, there’s barely enough room for two people on a sailboat — imagine living for six months in a space the size of your average bathroom. A radio, of course, but no TV. And no high speed internet, either, although wireless signals can pop up in the unlikeliest of places. I was sitting cross-legged on deck somewhere in the vicinity of Vero Beach one day, tapping out chapter three of the next Hannah Ives mystery when email suddenly started pinging into my mailbox. “Sail in circles!” I shouted to my husband. “This area’s hot!”

The usual place to get free internet while cruising is an independent coffee shop, or the town’s public library. It was at a public library in Myrtle Beach, NC, in fact, that I learned from my agent of a hardback deal (hurrah!) for Dead Man Dancing and the Hannah mystery after that. By Myrtle Beach, too, I’d read to the bottom of my modest, space-restricted TBR pile, so the mystery section of the library looked enormously inviting. I longed to dive right in, but, alas, what library is going to lend a book to someone who plans to sail into the sunset the following day?

While doing a load of laundry in Charleston, South Carolina, I learned a life-saving fact. Marina laundromats are the lending libraries of the cruising sailor. Here’s the deal: you take one, you leave one. At Charleston City Marina, I left Margaret Maron’s Rituals of the Season on a shelf over the coin-operated dryer and picked up R is for Ricochet, which I’d somehow missed when it first came out in 2004. I left Sue Grafton in Isle of Hope, Georgia where I snagged a copy of Rochelle Krich’s Blues in the Night, which kept me happily engrossed all the way to my next laundry day in Fernandina Beach, Florida. There, Rochelle was traded for a well-thumbed copy of Dead Before Dark by Charlaine Harris. When Elaine Viets wrote High Heels are Murder, I doubt she imagined anyone would be plucking it off a rickety bookshelf on a tropical island in the Bahamas but I did, in Hopetown in the Abacos, leaving Ellen Crosby’s Merlot Murders in its place. And at the marina on nearby Man of War Cay, I picked up a plumply waterlogged copy of Carolyn Hart’s (appropriately titled!) Set Sail for Murder (in hardback!) thinking, “Today’s my lucky day!”

Then I really got lucky. One morning while listening to the Abaco Cruisers’ Net, I heard about Buck a Book. Open Monday-Wednesday-Friday from 10 to 1 and staffed by Mimi Rehor and a string of volunteers, Buck a Book turned out to be a battered, turquoise shipping container plunked down under a palm tree in a muddy parking lot opposite The Conch Inn in Marsh Harbour, capital of the Abacos. Mimi accepts book donations and sells them to sailors like me for a buck each, all to benefit the gravely endangered wild horses of Abaco. (http://www.arkwild.org)

Inside the cramped, dimly-lit space, with a computer screen glowing bluely in one corner and a dissenting fan keeping the stagnant air gently moving from another, I checked out the shelves: Steven King, James Patterson, Michael Critchton, Patricia Cornwell, Nora Roberts and the usual suspects were there, for sure, but I’m happy to report that books written by authors I actually KNOW were more than generously represented on Mimi’s shelves. I greedily stocked up on Denise Swanson, Christopher Fowler, Nancy Martin, Jerrilyn Farmer, Chassie West, Donna Andrews (how on earth had I missed Click Here for Murder?), Andrew Taylor and half a dozen more, paying for them with a twenty dollar bill, and please keep the change, Mimi.

I’ve been home since Saturday, catching up on paperwork and getting reacquainted with my cat, Tommy, who’s presently sulking under the bed, just to punish me. I was away for six months, but in all that time, thanks to my fellow cruisers, I never really felt out of touch with my friends.

Marcia Talley is the Agatha and Anthony-award winning author of Through the Darkness and five previous novels in the Hannah Ives mystery series. Her short stories appear in more than a dozen collections. She is Secretary of Sisters in Crime, and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter.Visit her web site at www.marciatalley.com.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Interview with Libby Fischer Hellman

By Lonnie Cruse

Today's interview is with author Libby Fischer Hellmann. I hope you enjoy getting to know Libby better and that you will check out her books! Thanks for stopping by PDD.

LC: How would you characterize your writing? Cozy? Hard boiled? Somewhere between? And what led you to that style?

LFH: I would say I write medium-boiled with a decided bent toward suspense. In fact, the critics often call my books “mystery-thrillers.” I always knew suspense would be a hallmark of my writing because before I wrote, I read suspense. I started out reading Le Carre, Ludlum, Follett, Deighton (all of them men back then) before I read mysteries. It was only after a steady diet of thrillers that I backed into mystery. I still like a good thriller… in fact.. I’m just finishing up writing one.

LC: Hope it's a best seller for you! Do you still have a "day job" and if so, how in the world do you find time to write?

LFH: I have gone back and forth on the day job. Recently, I’ve started to kick it back up – (I need the money). I train people to be better speakers. I prepare them for speeches, presentations, and media interviews. I also write video scripts when I get the chance. I conduct seminars as well as group sessions, all of which are detailed on my website under Fischer Hellmann Communications (http://www.hellmann.com/)

LC: How did you get started writing Amazon Shorts, and is it a good market for short story writers?

LFH: I think I must have received a mailing from them about the program. I do remember discussing it with Joe Konrath who submitted a story package to them. I had a story (Josef’s Angel) that was originally written for a religious anthology that never was published, so I figured, why not? I’m glad I did – apparently it did well. I’ve since given them another story, “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared” which is kind of neat because it’s the “prequel” to my Ellie Foreman series.

To answer your other question, yes, I think it’s a good market. I do think short stories, more than novels, are the perfect fiction medium to download, and I applaud Amazon for getting to the marketplace first. They’re not the only ones, however… Sony is… even as we speak… collecting short fiction that will be available to download. So I think we’re just seeing the beginning of what will is going to be a viable market. Not that anyone’s going to get rich from it… but it is a good way to extend an author’s visibility and work product.

LC: Strange coincidence, the first time I met you, we were on a panel about short stories at Love Is murder! Moving on, what, for you, is the best promotional strategy?

LFH: Oy… that’s the 64,000 dollar question, isn’t it? I have no idea, Lonnie. Everything is in such flux right now. I’ve tried so many different strategies. Some work, some don’t, but for the most part, I have no idea what works.

You’d think the book industry would be more sophisticated (ie like the audio industry) in terms of web marketing, but they’re not. At the same time, though, there have to be literally hundreds of websites and blogs that feature books, mysteries, crime fiction, etc. Most of them are still the equivalent of the “mom and pop” store… ie there’s not a lot of continuity or linkage between them. So I do wonder how that’s all going to ultimately play out.

I still think virtual signings are a fabulous idea, and I’d love to see the idea catch on. I don’t think it would work for bookstores... but libraries might be a great venue… and certainly book clubs, church groups, etc.. The technology is there with services like Skype… all you need is a camera on your computer and you can make yourself (and your book) available to people all over the world. If I had the time and the resources, I’d start a company that did that for writers.

LC: I'd love to participate in that! You use the largest city in Illinois as your setting, I use one of the smallest. Since setting becomes almost a character in books, how do you research it, and then how do you slide it smoothly into your story?

LFH: I am not a native Chicagoan.. I come from the East Coast.. so I love to explore my adopted city. I do field trips any time I’m thinking of a setting I don’t know first hand. I’ll take my digital camera, shoot lots of pictures, and then use them as a point of departure. It doesn’t take the place of interviews – I do those too, formal and spontaneous. Of course, like many other authors, I end up with five times as much material as I need… a little description goes a long way.

LC: Now that you are a successful writer, is it harder for you to read books by other authors? Meaning do you itch to reach for a red pen and make corrections in the margins of someone else's book? Or can you still just sit back and enjoy the read?

LFH: What a good question! My reading habits have changed dramatically. I will start a book, but if it hasn’t grabbed me by page 25, I’m outta there. There are just too many books to read and not enough time to read them. I look first for smooth, velvety prose. If that’s not there, I usually won’t stay with it. But if it is, and the story’s got suspense, I can be just as hooked as I was before I started writing. I love when that happens, btw.

LC: Is there any author you would kill to meet? Living or dead, though admittedly the latter would be more difficult?

LFH: Louisa May Alcott… she defined my childhood. John Le Carre: he introduced me to the world of the thriller.

LC: Which do you prefer, sweating your way through the first rough draft or sweating your way through re-write?

LFH: Give me rewrite any day. I love editing, shaping, making it better. I hate writing first drafts. Hate it. I feel so unequal to the task. In fact, I try to fool myself and pretend that I’m always editing… it works except for that very first draft. Then I adhere to Annie Lamott’s theory of “shitty” first drafts. That’s my goal.

LC: Sigh, me too. You've edited a crime fiction anthology which is due out in October. Was that job easier or harder than cranking out a mystery novel?

LFH: Editing Chicago Blues (Bleak House… an October release) was much easier. And more fun. Getting the submissions was like getting a birthday present every day! I loved reading them. And it’s funny…. I knew from almost the first graf which stories would make it into the antho.. and which wouldn’t. There was such a sense of professionalism and finesse... It was almost eerie, as if they were calling to me.

LC: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you or your writing?

LFH: Okay… Consider this BSP….I blog with the Outfit at http://www.theoutfitcollective.com/ The Chicago Tribune just did a story on us which you can find at http://tinyurl.com/2ekqqz. And my website (http://www.hellmann.com/) has lots of new stuff, including info on Chicago Blues.

Btw, your Chicago readers are hereby invited to our launch party Friday, October 5th, from 5 pm to 8 pm at Legends (Buddy Guy’s place) on South Wabash. In fact, Lonnie… why don’t you come up too? It’s gonna rock!

LC: Sounds like fun, Libby! Thanks for a great interview. Best of good luck with the launch, and I hope to see you soon.