Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bumblebees to the Rescue

Sharon Wildwind

The ideas of book tours and book signings come out of a past when there were virtually no other way for writers to reach readers, and when almost every book “worth something”—that is, we can eliminate pulp fiction—was published by a major publisher.

The publisher would pay for a train ticket and the author would get on a train and make stops in major cities. The signings themselves were mostly considered the icing on the cake. The real reason for getting the author to those cities was so they could be interviewed by the local newspaper book review editor, and have a review appear in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, or the Boston Globe, etc. Major big-city newspapers where the real power in selling lay.

Today, many writers do signings because that’s what other authors do or because they know they have to do something and they can’t think of anything else.

The realities of book signings:

They don’t have to take place in bookstores. Most mystery writers today niche market. If the book has a golfer in it, they sign in pro shops. If it has a dog, they sign in pet stores. If it takes place in the American Revolution, they sign at historical re-enactments.

If you ask 5 people about the feasibility or even the possibility of signing at XYZ bookstore, you will get 8 different opinions about if that bookstore treats writers well and would consider your book. Recently there has been a huge discussion on some of the mystery lists about certain bookstores charging authors several hundred dollars to hold a signing or other bookstores requiring that the author guarantee an audience of (pick a number) will attend their signing.

The biggest single factor as to if you will get a signing slot is your personal relationship with the person who picks the people to sign. Personal as is knows you as a person, has a working relationship with you, maybe you’ve been to coffee, etc. Sometimes the people who make these decisions actually work in the bookstore, sometimes they are thousands of miles away in a centralized office. Yes, all independent stores and chains have policies, but it’s the individuals who know how to bend those policies.

The biggest single factor as to if you will be welcomed and your book signing will go well depends on who is the front-line store manager. That’s not the person called “manager,” but rather the person that’s in charge of running the store on the day you have your signing. This can range all the way from a savvy person with tons of experience with signings and a love of authors to a sixteen-year-old work-study student has never been to a book signing, has no idea what they are, and no one told her you were coming today.

Many bookstores schedule their signings a year in advance, but at the same time they want authors to sign the same same day, the same week, etc. that their book is released. This creates a catch-22. You have to convince the store to give you a signing date long before your book comes out, but you haven’t got a track record because the book isn’t out, and you can’t bank on the projected release date being the real date your book is available.

There are all sorts of lists, some of them humorous, some not, about why you should never arrange a signing on certain days of the week or at certain times of the year. The reality is that any day, any time, is a crap shoot. You might have done wonderful market research and picked an ideal date, only to discover when you get there that the local sports team is unexpectedly playing their biggest rivals in a death match for first place or that there is a tornado warning and everyone has been advised to stay home. Or both.

Just like the number of review spots is limited and declining, so the number of signing dates are limited and declining. If stores schedule signings at all, they will do a limited number each year, usually somewhere between 40 and 6. Unless they specialize in mysteries, you are in competition with all of the celebrity authors, cookbook authors, children’s authors, local authors, and how-to-knit-a-sweater-in-15-minutes-a-day authors, etc. The people who will get preference are the ones who are either celebrities or who can put on a show—a cooking demonstration, a interesting workshop, a knitting class, etc.—in addition to signing books.

Never, ever be lulled into thinking your books will be available, in the store, on the day of the signing. Always bring books with you.

Outside of a book signing that you can pack with family and friends, the average book signing attendance, 50 people. Average sales 3 to 10 books. Anything over 10 is gravy.

Bottom line: every signing is a crap shoot. Some you win, some you don’t.

Having said all of that, like the bumblebee who doesn’t know he can’t fly, so he goes ahead and does it, authors still have successful book signings, even in this e-age. Here are some ways to do it:

Get a map. Draw concentric circles around your town, a 1-hour drive from your town, and a 3-hour drive from your town. If you live in a really big city, your first circle should be around your part of town; the second circle the entire city; and the third circle a 1-hour drive from town.

Don’t rely on the Internet or the phone book. Drive, walk, or take a bus around as much of your inner circle as you can. Note the booksellers—that’s different from book stores because grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, etc.—may all sell books. Think outside the box. Is there a merchant who sells something that has a tie in to your book? Are there schools, libraries, or community centers, etc. that you might approach?

From your tour, make a list of between 5 and 10 places you might approach for a signing. Now use the phone book and/or Internet to get their addresses. Phone them and ask for the name of a person you might contact. No e-mail: it’s likely to be deleted. Make a phone call or send a letter. Introduce yourself and ask questions about their business or services. Get to know them first before asking them for something. Once they know who you are, they will read your e-mails instead of deleting them.

Offer a class or a workshop instead of asking for a signing. I have a short presentation on “What’s Hot in Mysteries,” where I talk about what current mystery trends are and which mystery writers have won awards this year.

After you’ve seen how this goes in your inner circle, decide if you can and want to approach businesses and groups in your second and third circles.

Take advantage of places you’re going to visit anyway. If you spend a week with Aunt Myrtle in Great Falls, Montana every summer, aim for a signing there. But don’t expect to show up at a local store and sign. Start on your trip this year to build a relationship with someone in Great Falls for a signing next year.

Bring a shill with you. Chester Campbell does this go great advantage. His wife stands at the book store door and asks people as they enter, “Do you like mysteries? There’s a mystery writer signing right over there.”

In addition to bringing your own books, also bring your own promotional display material. At the very least a mini-poster, with your photograph and the name of your book(s), and a table-top easel on which to set it. If you’re driving to the signing, bring your own table and tablecloth as well. It pays to be prepared.

If the signing comes apart and there’s only you and the three store employees there, make it a fun time for the employees. Get to know them, make them feel okay that no one showed up, help them shelve books if you have to in order to pass the time. If they remember you as a good-natured person who was out to help them, they will hand sell for you long after you’ve left the store.

If all this sounds impossible, or too much trouble, always remember nowhere is it written that an author MUST do book signings. Unlike our hapless author who was put on a train by their publisher, there are tons of ways out there to publicize a book without doing a single signing.
Promotional quotes for the week:

The sign of a rookie is, “But so-and-so does it this way.” What matters is what you do.
~Denise Tiller, mystery writer

Do what you have with what you’ve got where you are.
~Theodore Roosevelt, writer, soldier and U.S. president

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Laura Benedict Walks on the Dark Side

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Laura Benedict says she spent more than 20 years writing, and trying unsuccessfully to sell, novels and short stories “in which nothing happened.”
When she decided to take her agent’s advice to explore the darker side in her work, the result was Isabella Moon, a genre-blending novel that sold quickly. Her second published book, Calling Mr. Lonelyhearts, comes out today. Laura lives in Illinois with her writer husband, Pinckney Benedict, and their two children and two dogs.

Q. How would you categorize Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts? Paranormal thriller? Horror? Is it less of a mystery than your first book, Isabella Moon?

A. If I had to pick a single category, I would have to say Horror. Maybe. I never know what sort of book a book is going to be when I first begin writing it, but as I look back at Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, I see that it does have a lot of horror elements: the supernatural, a monster, good vs. evil, grisly details. Ballantine marketed Isabella Moon as an up-market thriller, though many folks categorized it as a mystery. I never set out to hide much from the reader--there were few "a-ha!" moments. For me it was always about the characters and their very messed-up lives in their strange small town. The three young women in Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are making trouble for themselves from the very first page, taking on the supernatural willingly--daring it to change their lives. And it does in some terrifying ways.

Q. What was the inspiration for this story?

A. Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts came from so many places.
It started out as the story a woman who was suffering from a false pregnancy--but then I realized that it wasn't the pregnancy that was false: it was her lover who was imaginary. (And, in the novel, a whole different character is pregnant!) Around the time I started writing, I saw the Hitchcock film Rear Window for what was probably the 20th time. One of the film's plot lines is about a lonely woman who is so desperate for a lover that she dresses up one evening and pretends that she's entertaining a man in her apartment. She breaks down in tears, of course, as Jimmy Stewart observes her through her window--he feels terribly sorry for her, referring to her as "Miss Lonely Hearts." Later, she goes to a bar, picks up a stranger, and brings him back to her apartment. But he is not her fantasy man, and attacks her. He was her Mr. Lonely Hearts, a villain. The story of Father Romero's destruction also owes a lot to my fascination with Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Q. How did you end up on the dark side? What is it about this kind of story that appeals to you? And do your family and friends ever give you odd looks after reading what you’ve written?

A. Many people have asked me how I can look like such a "nice woman" and write such frightening stories, as though my external appearance has something to do with what goes on in my head. I think they rather expect me
to wear Goth clothing, live in a moldy basement that gives me a sickly indoor pallor, and chain-smoke non-filter cigarettes! It's kind of fun to freak people out in that way. But when people hear that my work has supernatural elements, they see me and automatically peg me as a romantic suspense writer. I fear I disappoint in that department, though--as I write, I have to constantly remind myself that EVERY relationship can't be dysfunctional.

I've been drawn to dark fiction and spooky tales of the natural world since my early teens. I started out with Nancy Drew and Bewitched and graduated to Stephen King and Hitchcock (Frenzy was an early favorite, as well as The Birds. There are birds all over Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts). I wrote a lot of bad, depressing poetry as a teenager, too. My affection for such things may have sprung from the fact that I had an appallingly normal childhood. I wanted to know about our creepier neighbors just because I was warned away from them. And what I couldn't know about them, I just made up. It helped, too, that I grew up in the Roman Catholic church, which has the deepest of mysteries at its heart. I've also always been distressed by sentimentality. I can't watch dog movies--particularly films in which a dog dies. (Does the dog in Marley & Me die? I won't take the chance....)

Q. Do you have to do research for your books, or does the paranormal element allow you total freedom?

A. Every writer has total freedom to make things up--it just depends on what kind of risks he or she is willing to take. I don't write fantasy. I spent three hours the other day researching hand and machine sewing techniques for something I needed for a single paragraph. It's important to be precise, but if the story goes off on a technical tangent, it becomes zero fun for the reader. My characters are, for the most part (and it's true for most paranormal stories), real people who must have real jobs and must function in a fairly practical world. It's hard to fudge a scene in a dentist's office or a police station.

Q. When did you start writing with the goal of publication? Was selling the first book easier than you expected, or harder?

A. I started out writing copy, so lots of people saw my work, but didn't know I was attached to it. I was in my mid twenties when I went back to college to take a couple of fiction classes, but it was seven or eight years before I had a story published, and eighteen years before Isabella Moon came out. I call Isabella Moon my third first novel because the first two were practice novels. As a result it was easier than it might have been to sell Isabella Moon: it arrived at several publishers on a Thursday afternoon and we had an offer the following Monday morning.

Q. You’re married to a highly regarded fiction writer, Pinckney Benedict. Does he get involved with your writing in any way – critiquing, helping you with plot problems?

A. Not really. We made an agreement early on not to look at each other's work in progress. We decided it was better to stay married!

Q. Do you write full-time? What is your writing routine?

A. I'm both a full-time writer and a full-time parent. I like to imagine that I get my work done while the children are at school, but I always find myself back at the computer after everyone has gone to bed. When I'm working on a novel I have to set daily page goals. I'm not nearly as disciplined as I need to be. I tend to write in great chunks, barely covering my laundry, housecleaning and cooking chores until I get a novel done. Then I just kind of crash for a while, catching up on my life until it starts all over again.

Q. What is your writing process like? Do you outline before you write? Do you do a full first draft before revising, or rewrite as you go? Do you know the characters fully before you start, or do they develop as you write and perhaps change the direction of the story?

A. I never outline beyond a possible brief synopsis--and that always changes. I let my characters guide me through the story. I want my work to feel organic--that's where the surprises come from. Over-determination kills so many plots. I'm not smart enough to think my way through a clever plot.

I'm not quite as obsessive as someone like Hemingway who read through his novel or story from the beginning everytime he sat down to work. But I do like to go back and revise what I did the previous day just to get me back into the project. When the novel is done, I go back and do a full revision, and then a second if I have time, before I send it to my editor.

Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?

A. Hmm. That's a hard question. Every new project presents new kinds of challenges. I am able to write a little more quickly than I used to. But even after twenty years, I have to say that I'm learning new things every day.

Q. What’s harder for you to write, the beginning of a book or the ending? Why?

A. The endings of my novels and stories never come easily and are always significantly revised in the first few drafts. It's only when I've gone back over the work a few times that I see the arcs in it and can figure out how to end it on the right note. Also, my characters tend to live on in my head after I've finished a book, so there really isn't an end for me.

Q. Do you ever have writer’s block? How do you get through it and jumpstart your writing again?

A. Yes. I just try to accept it, read through it, and then set up a schedule. Reading is a big key.

Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books are must-reads for you?

A. I go back to Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Luanne Rice frequently to remind myself of work done well. They all have astonishingly strong work ethics and their examples challenge me to worker harder, write more. Before starting any new novel, I go back and read Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. It's not so much a how-to book, but more a how-she-did-it book. I don't do a lot of genre reading because I have a terrible fear of being imitative. I turn frequently to old and more recent classics: Thomas Hardy, Dashiell Hammett, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy's early work. I read poetry as well.

Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing stories with a paranormal element, or can you see yourself producing more traditional mysteries at some point?

A. Each project I start dictates its own content--Isabella Moon didn't start out to have a ghost in it. She just showed up. Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts has a demon, but the project I'm working on has neither ghosts nor demons. I suspect that my work will always deal with the darkness in the human psyche. I believe that evil exists--if not as an entity, then as a force capable and desirous (on some level) of perpetuating itself. While I suppose it's not a very far leap from there to the supernatural, I can't predict what I'll come up with next.

Q. What do you know about publishing now that you wish someone had told you before you sold your first book?

A. I wish someone had told me that no one will care about my work and career as much as I do. To just about everyone else, a writer is a producer of a product that may or may not add to a company's bottom line. Of course, very important relationships and friendships also come into play. My agent and husband are both extremely supportive and I've made a number of very good writer friends. We cheer each other on, give and take advice, cry on each others' shoulders and I wouldn't trade them for anything. But, in the end, writers are responsible for their own career experience.

Q. Will you be doing any signings and conferences where readers can meet you?

A. I love to meet readers! Thank you so much for asking. I'll be touring for most of January: Dayton, Cincinnati, Houston, Nashville, St. Louis, Ft. Wayne and Carmel, Indiana are all on the schedule. I'll be in Chicago at The Book Cellar on January 21st as well as at Love Is Murder at the beginning of February. My schedule is on, my Notes From the Handbasket blog and

Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. I've always liked the advice that someone else (I'm not sure who) gave: Read three times as much as you write.

Also, be open to criticism from more experienced writers and teachers. You don't have to take the advice, but definitely consider it. You can't look over the shoulders of your readers to explain things or justify certain choices--the work has to be able to speak (and speak clearly) for itself.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When The Holidays Aren't Ideal

by Julia Buckley
It used to bother me when my ideal image of the holidays--especially the December holidays--didn't match up to the television image. You know: the image perpetuated by endless holiday specials and glamorized commercials, where super-loving families gather (seemingly after a long and heart-wrenching absence) in a beautiful place with a light dusting of snow falling on a million dollar home. It's not the treacherous snow that makes people slide and skid into non-glamorous ditches, but the beautiful feathery sort that looks good in an actor's hair. Even the presents they carry up the holly-bedecked staircase are beautiful--gold packages tied with stiff gold ribbons, creating a subtext of wealth while on the surface everything says "normal." It's normal, these commercials cry, to ride ponies on snowy mountains in the Christmas dark; normal to give luxury automobiles as gifts; normal to serve lavish meals for thin attractive people who barely eat them; normal to drink but not become tired or surly when the booze hits bottom.

When I was in my twenties I think I took a lot of stock in those phony images. I wanted to be those people on tv because, let's face it, it looked good. But eventually real life chipped away at my illusions and made me see that the holidays are no different from any other days in the sense that messy life will intrude, and that sometimes it becomes messier than ever before. The stress of the holidays can ratchet up the normal tensions simmering under our benign countenances and cause us to blow at inopportune moments.

It started with events like the one pictured above, when my poor son realized that he didn't like the concept of Santa Claus--that image that parents so carefully cultivate for their children's pleasure. And once my children got old enough to fight with one another and talk back to their parents, I developed a complaint which has to be pulled out several times each season: "Must you two save your most repulsive behavior for the holidays?"

In their defense, though, they are deprived of the mental stimulation of school, the society of friends, the exercise of walking back and forth to the dear old school building. Instead they are subjected to a frightening sociological experiment in which they are placed in a small, warm, super-decorated house with two fairly grouchy parents who are prone to saying "Do you realize how much we do for you kids?"

Let the eye rolling begin.

It's not that the holidays don't bring joy: of course they do. But the trick is recognizing joy when it comes close, and it has nothing to do with pretty visuals (thank goodness). I think I'm getting better at recognizing the joy. Like those moments, after a day of yelling "shut up" at each other at top volume, my sons suddenly become best friends and lie in their beds with a flashlight and books, giggling together at cartoons.

Or those days when, let's face it, I feel I might die from being taken for granted--after doing all the shopping, all the wrapping, all the cleaning, much of the cooking, only to find that no one is thanking me--and someone, a boy, a husband, some family ambassador of good will--brings me eggnog or tea and says that I deserve some relaxation. (This one might still be closer to fantasy, but hey, it's happened).

Or, sometimes, it can be a nice e-mail from someone in the mystery world, like my fellow Poe daughters, that can bring me a moment of happiness.

And those are the moments that can happen any time in life. The trick to enjoying the holidays is to give much, expect little, and then enjoy everything that exceeds your expectations.

But if someone hands me one of those gold packages with a gold bow, I'm taking it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Year's Greetings

--I wish all of you the comfort of good stories, both in books and in your lives. Hugs. Stay warm everyone, Sharon

--I wish everyone a wonderful year of great reading and getting totally lost in the stories. So grab a good book, a cup of something warm and comforting to sip on, a blankie, and snuggle into your best chair. Lonnie/planning on doing same

--May you find piles of entertaining books during 2009 and time to enjoy them. Thanks for stopping by Poe's Deadly Daughters this past year. Darlene

--I wish all you mystery readers (and that includes me) a mile-high To Be Read pile, enough free time to read 'em all, and no disappointments. I wish the writers among us the perfect agent, advantageous contracts, and multitudes of readers--but above all, moments when that mysterious creative force we call inspiration is flowing straight through you and out onto the page or screen. Liz

--I wish all of you the kind of rewarding friendships I've been fortunate enough to find in the mystery community among both writers and readers. We love mayhem on the page, but with each other mystery folk are kind, forgiving and generous -- and just plain fun to be around! Sandy

--I shall share the words of one of my favorite wags, Mark Twain: "Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."

But if that one is a bit too sassy, here is a beautiful thought from T.S. Eliot:

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning." (from Little Gidding).

May we all find our voices in the New Year, and we hope you'll share your voices here.

Best wishes of the season, Julia

Friday, December 26, 2008

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas . . . and other Christmas music

By Lonnie Cruse

Christmas is over for most of us. Still, the holiday season lingers, usually well into January. One of our local radio station plays Christmas songs from about December 15th to the end of the year. Many of these are songs I've never even heard of, and believe me, I've been around for a lot of Christmases. But IF the word Christmas is mentioned in the song, the station plays it, and it does keep one in the holiday mood.

Recently the station played HAVE A HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS, sung by Burl Ives. Haven't heard that one in a while, and boy howdy did it take me back. I also like I SAW MOMMA KISSING SANTA CLAUS. I tend to prefer the humorous songs to the serious ones. How about you?

Another of my favorites is the oldie, LET IT SNOW. Snuggling by the fire? Popping pop corn? MMMMmmm. Of course, at the end, I always wonder why the guy has to go home in the snow. Why don't they just get married so he doesn't have to leave her? Just one of life's little mysteries, I suppose.

Then there's the new and apparently very popular song GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER. Truly a highlight for me of the holiday season. Snicker.

I've got recordings from the thirties of Christmas classics either recorded with jazz musicians or sung by the then popular crooners, as well as the newer versions by Mannheim Steam Roller (love that name) or Kenny G. Ahhhh. And who can top Johnny Mathis singing Christmas songs? OR Elvis???

And while I'm on the subject of Christmas music, there is always the ever-popular NUTCRACKER. This year one of the satellite channels aired five or six different ballet versions of the popular classic. I happened to catch the one with Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker. Wow, he grew up fast.

I remember getting up at dawn one Christmas as a child to open my gifts. My parents got me a new record player (played 45's and 70's LP. I miss the old records, though lots of antique stores still sell them.) Mom went back to bed when the excitement died down but I stayed up listening to The Nutcracker over and over. For me the holiday isn't complete without it.

Music is a very large part of Christmas, as I'm sure you are all aware. Particularly if you recently attended a Christmas program for your children or grandchildren. And the music is invasive to your brain. Who hasn't heard the first line of THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS and spent the rest of the month trying to figure out how many lords are leaping or how many maids are milking? I confess, I try to avoid hearing that one for that very reason.

Happy Holidays to all of our readers. Hope you are still enjoying the music and the turkey left-overs.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas in London

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband and I are having a quiet Christmas Day this year, opening presents, eating a good brunch and a good dinner, and zoning out in front of the Christmas tree. Oh, and lighting red and green candles and saying a b’rucha for the fifth night of Chanukah in our ecumenical household. So I’d like to take you back three years to our Christmas in London in 2005.

Several years ago, my stepdaughter married a Brit whom she met on the Internet, after a prolonged transatlantic courtship. (You can listen to my song about it, Online Loving, to get an idea of how that went.) They currently live in Bromley, a suburban town in Kent within commuting distance of what I want to call the Big Teapot. So off we went to London for the holidays, neither of us having visited England for thirty years or so and both with our minds crammed full of English history and English literature.

If we were looking for a Dickensian Christmas, we were a century too late. The Brits don’t eat roast goose anymore: the centerpiece of Christmas dinner is a turkey. Nobody came caroling to the door of our Bayswater hotel (on a little square off Queensway, down the block from the Whiteley’s shopping mall that figured in Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Killed Her, to my retroactive amused horror when I read it later). And our attempts to “do London” were hampered by the fact that the whole city shuts down on Christmas, not for one day but for three: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Forget museums and theaters, and on Christmas Day itself, the Underground doesn’t run at all.

Thanks to the Internet, we were forewarned, so we did our museum and theater going before and after the holiday and had all our plans in place long before Christmas Eve. We even attended a pantomime, the traditional holiday entertainment we’d read about all our lives, which is so weird that the fact that kids are brought up on it goes a long way toward explaining the fabled British eccentricity. I don’t think my husband has recovered yet from the spectacle of Ian McKellen, his beloved Gandalf, camping it up in a dress as Aladdin’s mother, the Widow Twankey.

But on to the holiday itself.
On Christmas Eve, we went out to visit the kids in Bromley, starting early so we could catch a train back to London before the railroad shut down. There was a festive outdoor mall with lots to buy and trees festooned with strings of what the Brits call fairy lights, all blue in this case and making a fine display against a spectacular sunset. We ate dinner in a Mediterranean restaurant and got to pull our first Christmas crackers. Another revelation: everybody in the UK actually wears his or her gold paper crown. In public.

On Christmas Day, we had our holiday dinner at a restaurant in Drury Lane with what in Yiddish we call the whole mishpocheh: the extended family, consisting, besides us and the kids, of my stepson-in-law’s parents, most of his many brothers with their wives and partners and a child or two, and my stepdaughter’s other parents, ie my husband’s ex and her current hubby. One of the brothers picked us up by car, solving the day’s transportation problem.

The kids had picked another Mediterranean restaurant, this one looking even more like a Turkish bordello with dark red velvet draped everywhere, a lot of glitter, and dim hanging lanterns. Probably because we were in the theater district, we were serenaded by a group of players in Restoration dress, including a King Charles II in full dark curly wig. Everybody got along fine. The only near contretemps was when my husband had to kick me under the table as I apologized to the Brits for current US policy. I hadn’t realized his ex’s hubby was quite so far from us on the political spectrum. It was Christmas, so I was good and changed the subject.

Boxing Day was best of all. I started the day, as I did most mornings there, with a three-mile run in Kensington Gardens while my husband slept in. We had a mid-afternoon reservation for tea at Claridge’s. Research on the Internet had suggested this magnificent old hotel was a better bet than the Ritz, where the teas have become so popular that customers are overcrowded and rushed through. We were treated like royalty at Claridge’s and had a leisurely, sumptuous tea with finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries. My favorite moment was when our server shook his head over my choice of tea on an extensive menu. I was dying to try Silver Needles, a white tea that until recently only the emperor got to drink. The leaves are picked only two days of the year by virgins with golden scissors (my memory may exaggerate, but not by much). “Unfortunately, madam,” he said, “that particular tea goes best with a fine cigar.” I chose another tea.

We then strolled down Regent Street, another fairyland of blue lights, where all the shops were open to bargain-seeking Londoners and those returning their Christmas presents. We went into Hamley’s, a toystore I’d read about in novels, and bought a Paddington Bear. (Well, two, but one was a very small one.) We ended up in Trafalgar Square, where we had tickets for the perfect concert: Boxing Day Baroque at St. Martin’s in the Fields.(Yes, there were taxis: we got back to Bayswater with no difficulty.) The kids still live in Bromley, and if the dollar ever goes up again, I’d be glad to spend another Christmas the exact same way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mystery with a Little Something Extra

Sandra Parshall

Starting to feel a little Scroogelike because every blog you click on has a holiday theme? Feel like you’re drowning in sentimental good cheer?

Me too.

Let’s talk about vampires instead. And werewolves, ghosts, demons, psychics, and mindreaders.

In case you’ve been languishing on a desert island and missed the news, let me tell you that mysteries with paranormal and supernatural elements are
hot right now. Publishing professionals are generally cautious people who would rather follow a strong trend than try to start one that might fizzle quickly, and that seems to be the case with other-worldly mysteries, as more and more publishers jump on the bandwagon. But somebody had to get the bandwagon rolling in the first place by recognizing that this type of story would appeal to mystery readers. Looking back, it seems to me that the romance genre embraced the paranormal first, and the lines between romance, mystery, and horror have grown fuzzier ever since.

The influence of horror on the mystery genre is nothing new, though. Edgar Allan Poe, considered the father of the modern detective story because of his 1841 tale Murders in the Rue Morgue, spent most of his creative energy on work drenched in horror and the supernatural. Vampires in crime novels, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon, and some mystery writers have borrowed from their colleagues in romance by making their bloodthirsty characters more sexy than terrifying.

For most of us, Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes to mind instantly when we think of vampires, but the world’s first vampire thriller (the term thriller being used in its broadest sense) was Carmilla, a Vampyre Tale, published in 1872 by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Dracula wasn’t published until 1897. Both are grim stories about humans desperately trying to escape the clutches of powerful predators. Not until Anne Rice came along did readers begin to see the human side, so to speak, of fictional vampires. Her characters retain the sensibilities they possessed when they were fully human, and some feel deep regret over what they’ve become. Rice managed to make the undead sympathetic -- and, in some cases, sexy.

These days, vampires can be the good guys, and drop dead gorgeous (sorry) into the bargain. In her groundbreaking Southern Vampires Mysteries, Charlaine Harris writes about the romance between Sookie Stackhouse, a normal young woman except for her ability to read everybody else’s mind, and Bill, a sexy vampire. Harris’s quirky series is a huge hit, and it’s not surprising that other vampire mysteries have popped up in their wake.

Ghosts have crossed over into mystery from horror and romance fiction, and psychics and mind-readers also abound. Victoria Laurie writes about “psychic eye” Amy Cooper. In Madelyn Alt’s Bewitching Mysteries series, heroine Maggie O’Neill hunts ghosts and solves paranormal mysteries. Kay Hooper has built a dark romantic thriller series around a super-secret FBI unit made up of agents with paranormal powers.

In paranormal fiction, getting hit on the head can lead to trouble for a character and a series for the author. L.L. Bartlett writes about an ordinary, likable guy named Jeff Resnick who was knocked unconscious by muggers and woke up with psychic talents that keep dragging him into murder cases. Kat Richardson’s Harper Blaine also got clobbered, and she woke up with a tendency to shift between the normal world and the realm of vampires and ghosts. Since cemetery tour guide Pepper Martin, in the series by Casey Daniels, struck her head on a tombstone, she’s been besieged by ghosts who need her help.

Some series blend the paranormal with a longtime favorite cozy setting, as Alice Kimberly does in her haunted bookshop mysteries. Her heroine, bookseller Penelope Thornton-McClure, didn’t believe in ghosts until she met the spirit of hardboiled 1940s PI Jack Shepard. Now they have a crime-solving partnership.

New paranormal series come along regularly. Annette Blair, author of paranormal romances, ventures into mystery in January with A Veiled Deception: A Vintage Magic Mystery, about a vintage clothing store owner who solves crimes based on the visions she receives from used duds.

The success of a genre-blending book depends entirely on a writer’s ability to create a believable alternate world. Of course, every fiction writer has to do that, but most of us can use familiar points of reference to draw the reader in and persuade him or her to believe in our characters and story. When the characters are vampires, ghosts, werewolves, psychics, and mindreaders, authors must be especially inventive and convincing. The remarkable thing is that so many have succeeded.

A few years ago, a lot of crime fiction authors scoffed at paranormal mysteries and predicted the trend would die quickly because real mystery fans wouldn’t go for them. I don’t think anybody’s saying that now.

P.S. Happy holidays, everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Mysteries

Sharon Wildwind

Let’s be honest, okay? Here it is, the day Hanukkah begins, two days before Christmas, and three days before Kwanzaa starts. The stores are packed, a whole bunch of people are digging out from record snowfalls and low temperatures, we’ve probably already eaten our yearly quotas of shortbread and designer chocolates, and not one of us—me included—is the least bit interested in the nuts-and-bolts of writing.

So my holiday advice to you is … remember that your local library will be closed on Christmas Day. My library is closing early on Christmas Eve, and will be closed on Boxing Day, too. That’s will be 70 consecutive hours when I can’t run my plastic card through the slot, and I’m not talking about my credit or debit cards, but my library card. This morning I plan to join the other book junkies standing four-deep at the check-out counter, getting our fix of library books to last us through the holidays. Do you think twelve will be enough or should I get fifteen, just to make sure?

So, if you’re doing the same thing in your town, here are ten of my favorite Christmas mysteries to get you through the holiday season.

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
No one did Christmas like the Victorians, and even the serious Sherlock Holmes gets into the spirit of the season.

Hard Christmas by Barbara D’Amato
Part of the Cat Marsala series, this has one of the most unusual murder weapons ever.

Death at Sandringham House by C. C. Benison

Sandringham House, in case you don’t know, is the private country home of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. It’s where they spend about six weeks over the Christmas and New Year's season. Except this year, there’s a murder along with mistletoe.

A Holly Jolly Murder by Joan Hess
Druids on Arkansas? One less on solstice morning than there was the night before.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
In the tradition of many of Dame Agatha’s books, you’ll find the same story under different titles. The alternate titles for this one are A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas. One of my favorite parts of the David Suchet television episode—available on DVD—is the scene where Poirot rescues Inspector Japp from a music-filled Christmas celebration with Japp’s wife’s Welsh parents.

Silver Lies by Ann Parker
This one takes place in the Christmas season—of 1879— in Leadville, Colorado. One of the best historical mysteries I’ve read.

The Music Box Murders by Larry Karp
Ah, what could be better than Christmas in New York City? Well, maybe spending Christmas in a place where your friends aren’t succumbing to murder during the holiday season.

Dead Cold by Louise Penny (First published as A Fatal Grace)
If a city Christmas isn’t your style, try going to Three Pines, Quebec, for the annual Boxing Day curling match.

Mistletoe Man by Susan Wittig Albert
Christmas is a great time, except when your best friend has a problem you can’t help her with.

Six Geese a-Slaying by Donna Andrews
This is the only book on this list I haven’t read yet, and it’s the book I want most in my Christmas stocking.

Have a great read. See you next week.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Power of Ice

by Julia Buckley
These photos were sent to me in an e-mail; they were taken in a town called Versoix, Switzerland, and the title of the missive was "You think you're cold?"

The images got me thinking of setting and its power to evoke mood, both in life and literature. This is not just ice, it's a city turned to ice, frozen motion, and there's something both terrifying and beautiful about it, almost as though we have to be reminded of Nature's power in different ways, sometimes, in order for us to see that it is universal.

And naturally, because everything reminds me of poetry, either that someone has written or that I would like to write, I thought of Robert Frost's famous poem, "Fire and Ice."

Fire and Ice

by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is just as great,
And would suffice.
I also wonder about the people of Versoix. Is this a regular occurrence for them, something they take in stride each winter? Or were even they surprised by the intensity of this ice, the seeming permanence of it, as though Poseidon had cast a frozen curse upon the land?
In any case, the e-mail served its purpose; sure, it's snowing again here in Chicagoland, and it registered -6 on the bank clock this morning; but I can't imagine if it were this way all winter. I'll crunch along through my Christmas shopping tomorrow, and when I do I'll think of the ice in Versoix.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Canada Calling: The Ladies Killing Circle

Sharon Wildwind

They are ladies and, in the Canadian mystery world, they are legends. My holiday gift to you is a chance to hear the wit and wisdom of the Ladies Killing Circle.

Vicki: We've been asked to say a few words about the Ladies' Killing Circle. We are definitely Ladies, and there are six of us: Joan Boswell, Vicki Cameron, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Sue Pike and Linda Wiken, so that makes a Circle. As to the Killing part, we have killed many bottles of wine and cheesecakes in our 18 years together. We began as a critique group, with a mission to help each other grow as writers. We are possibly the longest running critique group in Canada, and definitely the most successful, with seven anthologies of crime stories published.

Q: How do you decide the themes and titles of each anthology?

Barbara: With lots of wine and laughter. Once we were sitting around Joan's living room in Florida, with the requisite Shiraz and Chardonnay on the table, and we were tossing about possible themes. None seemed compelling enough, until someone - whose identity was lost in the ensuing gales of laughter - remarked, “Well, you know, we've never actually done 'Sex'!” Hence Going Out With a Bang was conceived. So to speak.

Linda: We've also been known to toss titles around while in the car on the way to or from a gathering, while dining out, or sitting around the table at a critiquing session.

Vicki: There was the time we were hanging about on Sue’s cottage deck, and Mary Jane blurted out ‘Menopause is Murder’. Another book was born.

Sue: It's hard to imagine something this much fun could also provide a worthwhile service to the writing community. But it does. In each anthology we've included stories by new, previously unpublished writers, many of whom have gone on to enjoy success with novels and other anthologies.

Vicki: Not to mention our own successes. Barbara, Mary Jane and Joan have novel series. Sue edited an anthology, and I have short story collections and young adult novels. Linda is so busy selling all these at her bookstore, she hasn’t had a chance to launch her own.

Sue: Our book launches at the Library and Archives Canada are renowned for the crowds of fans we attract. Maybe it's all the food, wine and chocolate but we prefer to think it's our sunny personalities. Although we're pretty good at our computers, we're even better on our feet. Our ‘dog-and-pony’ show has been the feature entertainment at several fundraising galas around Ottawa, and even on the road.

Mary Jane: Perhaps it's best we not mention the time most of the group walked across the bridge from El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, for dinner and attempted to find a cab.

Q: How does being a part of the LKC make your writing life fuller and more interesting?

Mary Jane: Life more interesting? Well, for one thing, there's the look on the mail carrier's face when he delivers a piece of correspondence to the Ladies' Killing Circle Inc. Sometimes men step away from us, nervously. Life fuller? There are the many adventures we've had together, most of which seem to involve ladies' wear shops and restaurants, both well-known incubators of criminous ideas. We are fortunate enough to have two ‘traveling meetings’ a year, one in the Muskoka and one in Florida, as the appreciative guests of Joan Boswell. Our lives are fuller at the end of these get-togethers, in part because we never stop eating and we rarely stop laughing. No matter what the circumstances, ideas fly.

Vicki: I think the group made me a more efficient and prolific writer. We used to meet every two weeks. Since I had to drive for an hour into the city to get to the meeting, there was no way I was going to go empty-handed. So I wrote a new chapter or a new short story every two weeks.

Linda: Being a part of LKC has made me more focused in my writing and given me that extra incentive to actually write, knowing I'd have to face a critiquing session. The comments are usually not too brutal and more often than not, right on target.

Barbara: I was not one of the original six, but I had my very first publication in the inaugural issue of The Ladies Killing Circle in 1995. I remember rushing down to Prime Crime Bookstore and opening the book to see my name in print for the first time. What a thrill! And what a privilege to become a member of the "Circle". The critiquing is inspirational, but I cherish the friendship. Who else would debate the relative merits of gun vs. bludgeon over a nice bottle of Australian Merlot?

Joan: Thoughtful, even-handed criticism fostered my growth as a writer. Because we encouraged each other to aim ever higher I reached goals I might not have attained had I not been part of a supportive group. I also prize the friendship and support we provide for one another in times of joy and sorrow.

Q: In keeping with the season, what is the edible/drinkable Christmas treat you anticipate the most?

Joan: Being a writer I love Christmas letters, love finding out what's been happening in friend's lives and figuring out what they aren't writing about. Also love beautiful Christmas cards supporting charities especially if they feature dogs.

Mary Jane: Our special LKC Christmas lunch has great meaning for all of us and I always look forward to it. We look extremely ladylike (coifed and jacketed and necklaced) and make at least a half-hearted effort not to discuss the digestive turbulence of our pets in whatever elegant restaurant has been chosen. We also try not to speak too loudly of garrotes or guillotines.

Q: Do you have any tips about shopping, wrapping, gift-giving, entertaining, etc?

Vicki: Being a Virgo, I shop early and fast. I like to get it over with. Memorable gifts I have received include the corner stones for my grave, given by my practical mother-in-law. This year our son wanted to give my husband and I matching gift certificates to a fancy spa for a high colonic. For those of you who are wondering, the answer is yes; he wanted to give us a huge enema. Such a festive gift.

Barbara: I think the Christmas types have it easy! Hanukah is eight days long, a nightmare for parents with multiple children. When my three children were little, that meant 24 presents for them alone! Luckily, the perpetually penniless adults were cut back to one. Not a gravestone or an enema among them, I'm relieved to say.

Linda: Be sure to give a book to everyone on your Christmas list, preferably by a Canadian mystery author. Even better, an LKC anthology! Here are the titles of our latest four offerings: Fit to Die, Bone Dance, When Boomers go Bad, and Going Out with a Bang.

Mary Jane: Gift giving? We Ladies are all about saving the economy book by book. I think the best day of the year is Boxing Day, with a house full of food and drink, and time to sit and read. So, if Santa doesn't put a pile of Canadian mysteries in my stocking, he's going to have to watch his back. I have a head full of dangerous ideas and I'm not afraid to use them.

Linda: The best gift? I cherish our gatherings and the wonderful laughter that comes from a long and deep friendship...that trumps food (even wine) any time!
For those of you not familiar with Boxing Day, it is the day after Christmas, and no, it has nothing to do with fisticuffs. Back when wealthy people in Great Britain had a house full of servants, they, of course, never got to take Christmas off. So their holiday was the day after Christmas. One versions of how Boxing Day was named was that this was the day that the employers boxed up food and gifts and went around to distribute them to the people who worked for them.

It is also tradition in the British military that Boxing Day is the day that the officers serve the other ranks a holiday dinner in the mess. In our regiment of stuffed animals, it's a tradition we maintain. Fortunately, since they are in imaginary regiment, we get to serve imaginary food, so we can make it as elaborate as we want. This year, they will have the traditional imaginary roast beef of Old England, Yorkshire pudding, and all the tasty treats from cold poached salmon to trifle.

May your holidays be warm and filled with friends and families,
Merry Christmas and Happy Boxing Day from me and The Ladies Killing Circle

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another one gone . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Actor Van Johnson died recently at the age of ninety-two. NINETY-TWO??? Wait, he can't be more than forty, can he? I remember his old movies with actress June Allyson. They were some of my favorites. I still watch them every chance I get.

Truth is, most of the stars of the wonderful forties and fifties movies are now gone. A whole generation passing . . . quickly. And those that are left are practically too old to breathe. But thanks to modern technology, those great old movies are still available to us on DVD, movies on tape having quickly gone the way of the dinosaur just like eight track tape players. Yikes, I can't keep up with the changes in technology. I buy something new, learn how to use it, start using it, and zing, it's gone, replaced by something else new.

Recently I watched part of BLACK WIDOW, a movie I'd somehow missed seeing when it was new and I was young, in the fifties. Picture it, Jean Tierney and Ginger Rogers (retired from dancing but still making movies) in full color, wearing some of the most fabulous gowns I've ever seen. I've gotta order a copy of that movie to watch again (and again.) It's a mystery and my kind of movie.

Also watched THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, a movie we gave our son for last Christmas and borrowed back. The special effects were amazing. What computers can do nowadays to movie scenes blows my mind. And the fact that we are facing an ice/snow storm as I write this blog post does not make me happy. Last year we were trapped at home for several days due to an ice storm. Not as bad as the storm in that movie but still not fun. But I must say, this wasn't my favorite movie of the year. Meaning you REALLY had to suspend disbelief in some areas.

Times they are a'changin'. Not only have most of the old movie stars passed, but the most of the wonderful old movie theaters are gone as well. The beautiful old theater in Metropolis had an unusual rounded roof that collapsed into the building over the years. Plans are to tear it down and make a parking lot. Sigh.

New theaters are now huge buildings with several theaters located inside showing various movies. Movies are still fairly reasonable but the food costs an arm and a leg, and heaven help you if they catch you sneaking in your own snacks.

Thankfully, we can buy movies, or rent them, and watch at home, with our own popcorn and sodas. With the advent of large screen television and remastered movies, it's almost as good as being at the theater. Maybe better with no noisy audience around us. And don't even get me started on the luxury of being able to buy my favorite television series on DVD to watch whenever I want.

I have a cabinet full of old movies, and for me they are sort of a comfort watch. And a history lesson, looking at the clothing and vehicles of that time. Which reminds me, have you ever noticed how you can tell the difference in color of a seventies movie from modern day movies? Of all the differences in modern day technology, I think the making of movies has to be one of the biggest changes. Fascinating to watch.

Anyone got a favorite movie, possibly one you own multiple copies of . . . just in case?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Learning History from Novels

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband has a passion for history. He provides many of the tidbits of arcane information that my character Jimmy comes out with, along with the complete disregard for their irrelevance to whatever is going on in real life at the time. (Please note that he is otherwise not the model for Jimmy, who would be far less sweet and more of a curmudgeon if he were.) I know a lot of the same facts my husband does. Over more than thirty years, we’ve had many a lively conversation about periods and personalities that span the globe and thousands of years. The main difference between us is this: my husband gets his information from history books, while I get mine from novels.

Take American history. As a kid, I discovered Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg novels in the library and checked them out over and over. I could still probably draw from memory most of the family tree of the fictional Day, Sprague, and Murray families from the Revolutionary War up to World War II. Thane introduced me to the Virginia gentlemen who met in the Raleigh Tavern to plot for independence, Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, fighting a guerilla war in the Carolinas, Elizabeth Van Lew spying on Confederate soldiers in Libby Prison, the malaria-ridden soldiers and unauthorized journalists who charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba with the Rough Riders, and a host of others.

How about ancient Greece? I devoured all of Mary Renault’s books from The Last of the Wine to The Persian Boy (the ones after that were not as good). I know who Alcibiades and Hephaistion were, I know how come Cleopatra was not Egyptian (her ancestors were the Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian generals), and I have a vivid picture of how Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle affected those around them, each in a different way.

For the Regency period, I turned to Georgette Heyer, whose novels picked up where Jane Austen’s left off. Mixed in with the romance and fashion in Heyer’s books is such a convincing take on Regency morals, manners, and language that I’m constantly spotting her locutions in the work of other writers. I have no idea if the slang of the time matched Heyer’s or if she made some of it up. Heyer also gave me a clear picture of the events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo as well as many details of the Peninsular Wars that preceded it.

Historical mysteries have broadened my horizons too, adding Brother Cadfael’s version of the 12th century and Sister Frevisse’s version of the 15th. A. Conan Doyle and Laurie R. King have given me Sherlock Holmes’s Victorian London. Josephine Tey’s A Daughter of Time is my anchor for the Wars of the Roses, challenging and illuminating Shakespeare’s version of the events of the Tudor takeover.

Thinking back, I realize that it all started in childhood. One of the first books I remember reading was called something like Sally and the White Horse. It was about two English children who are captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves. I used to get the monthly children’s magazine Jack and Jill. One serial I remember, based on a true story, was about a little girl called Frances Slocum who lived in the Susquehanna Valley and was captured and raised by Indians. I still think of her each time I drive across the Susquehanna River on my way from New York to Washington DC.

As I said, my husband reads and rereads history the same way I do novels. His favorite light reading for a long time was Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. I could never get into it. But I’m looking forward immensely to Jeri Westerson’s medieval noir, Veil of Lies.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Don't kill the cat. Please.

Sandra Parshall

The question pops up regularly on e-lists like DorothyL (where it has been discussed this week), but as an animal lover I’m surprised anyone has to ask it: Why do so many readers get upset when a pet is harmed in a novel?

I can write scenes in which pets are temporarily endangered, but I could no more produce a graphic description of animal abuse than I could write a description of a child being raped. Reading such a scene turns
my stomach, and more often than not I give up on a book if I come across one.

There are people who say that since these things are part of life, it’s ridiculous to reject them in fiction – especially in fiction that revolves around murder. Why is it that I can read and write about human characters being shot, stabbed, strangled, and run down by vehicles, but I can’t bear the thought of fictional animals being hurt?

Several reasons come to mind.

Animals are like human children – innocent and dependent. Not even a tiger has a fighting chance against a human with a gun, and a pet cat or dog is heartbreakingly vulnerable. Humans have domesticated dogs and cats and made them dependent on us for everything – food, shelter, affection, and safety. In return, they give us their hearts. Neglecting or abusing a creature that wants only to spend its life in faithful companionship strikes me as unspeakably cruel. I feel the same way about wild animals in zoos. We have taken their freedom, and in many cases destroyed their natural habitats. We have a responsibility to treat them well and give them as good a life as possible under less than desirable circumstances. I despise circuses with animal acts and believe they should be outlawed. There is simply no justification for using animals in that way.

But the animals in novels aren’t real, so their suffering isn’t real. Why do I object to descriptions of their imaginary suffering? The main reason is that I don’t want those images in my head. I don’t want to read a book that I can’t stand to remember afterward. I’m also afraid that such scenes may desensitize some readers to animal suffering, or reinforce the beliefs of those who think animals have no emotions and don’t feel pain the same way humans do.

From a purely artistic perspective, I think that relying on animal abuse to show the reader how evil a character is will often result in weak writing, however violent it may be. Kicking a cat, shooting a dog – those are cliches, done to death, if you’ll pardon the expression. An author should try to come up with something more original. (Remember that Hitler adored his dog.)

On the other hand, I’m a sucker for characters who love animals. A writer who can capture an animal’s distinct personality and its unique relationship with a human companion will always win me over. Animals are invaluable for sh
owing the reader a side of a character that might not come through in dealings with other people. We don’t put on an act around our pets. We let them see our true natures.

A writer is entitled to write anything she or he
wants to put on paper. I wouldn’t want anyone violating my freedom of expression by telling me what I can or cannot write about. But readers have a right to pass up books they don’t enjoy reading. When I’m browsing in a bookstore or library, I’m a reader, and if a novel contains brutality toward animals, I will pass it up.

Here are the two companions who know what I’m really like and remind me every day of the human obligation to treat animals with kindness and compassion. Gabriel is an Abyssinian, purchased from a breeder.

Emma was abandoned at a truck stop when she was about four weeks
old, and we adopted her a couple months later from the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Sharon Wildwind

This time of year of full of extras, things like a tiny ornament tucked in a gift bow or finishing a meal with a piece of shortbread, or taking the kids to a special holiday program.

I’m one of those readers who loves extras in books. Maps thrill me. House diagrams, particularly in classic British mysteries, make me squeal, “Oh, there’s a floor plan.” And there’s more than one book, which I wish had included a list of characters up front because, by page 50, I couldn’t keep Harry, Barry, and Barty straight. On the other side of the coin, I hurriedly skip past genealogy charts—at least when I start reading a book—because who was related to whom might be a clue I don’t want to know this soon.

Recently I heard a wonderful group of people speak about the pros and cons of including extras in books. Those people were Tad Williams (Shadowmarch trilogy) ; L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (Saga of Recluse series and others); Julianne Lee (Matheson Saga and Tenedrae series); Susan Forest (Canadian young adult fantasy writer); and Barb Galler-Smith (Canadian fantasy writer).

There was complete agreement that authors needed the extras for their own benefit. Everyone of them had files for all their books filled with maps, charts, and character lists. There was a not-so-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that working on material like maps can give an author the appearance of working hard when really what he’s doing is having fun with colored pencils.

The panel was less unanimous about the value for supplemental material for readers. Some readers love extras, some readers skip them and get on with reading the story.

Tad Williams commented that if a reader has to go back and forth between the text and a glossary, map, list of characters, etc, the author is doing something wrong. However, he also admitted that he’s grown fonder of supplemental material helpful now that he has to read in a household that also contains small children. Since his reading time is now more episodic, he finds it a help to be able to refresh his memory when he has been away from a book for a while.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. concluded that the author could include a pronunciation guide if she wished, but a reader will form a pronunciation of their own as they read written names. No matter what the autor includes, it’s that internal pronunciation they will use. If a name is too complex, readers assign short-cuts, referring in their head to a character as “Mr. G” or “that town beginning with an X.”

A large part of this panel discussion centered on maps, and here are some of the writing tips offered from that discussion.

If landscape is important to the story, ask yourself why you are drawing your geography the way you are doing it. If you don’t know, get a good atlas and look at it for a while. Turn the atlas sideways or upside down. This may give you a new geography that works for your story. If you do this, be careful to reorient your river flow. Some reader, somewhere will know that you have a river flowing in the wrong direction or a mountain range existing where the surrounding geography would never produce a mountain range. That’s the reader who will write you a letter.

Remember topography (the up and down of the landscape) maps as well as two-dimensional (how far and in what direction) maps. If you send a character away to call the police, be aware of how long it will take her to get to where she can make the call, and how long it will take for the police to answer that call.

If something you created becomes tedious—for example, half of the characters live on one side of a high mountain range, the other half live on the other side, and getting the characters back and forth over those mountains is a real pain—learn to work with the difficulty. This makes you face the same challenges as the people who live in your story, and creates a resonance that the reader will recognize.
Boy do I know this one in spades. In one of my books, a winter storm took out power, and I quickly realized I could not do some of the things I’d planned to do with the plot because those things happening depended on electricity being available.

Adding extras also has an economic effect on publishing. Forty to sixty percent of the cost of a book today is paper. The more supplementary material that is included, the higher the printing cost, and too much material may price your book outside the print cost range that a publisher is willing to consider. As an alternative, authors are experimenting with putting supplementary material on web sites, or creating a CD for the supplementary material. If you’re a fan of the Midsomer Murders series on DVD, you’ll know that there is, on each DVD, a copy of the map of Midsomer County, which is a good thing, considering that it is a fictional location in England.

Do you have a favorite extra?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Embarrassment Is For the Young . . .

Julia Buckley
I remember that someone once told me, when I felt shy about medical exams during my pregnancy, that I would get used to it all—that I’d even become immune to it. To a certain extent that was true. By the time I was in labor with my first child I was so weighed down with tubes and wires and monitors, and had become so used to visitors appearing at my side for various checks--holding my wrist for a pulse, occasionally taking blood for a test, and yes, lifting the blankets for a quick check of dilation status—-that I hardly blinked an eye.

What was mildly surprising was how many visitors there were: the nurse, the doctor, the doctor in training, some guy from the lab. I was starting to wonder if the parking attendant would find his way up to my room to determine whether I was fully dilated. I commented grouchily to my doctor, “Does anyone ELSE want to stick something in there, while we’re at it?” He replied, I kid you not, “Hey, that’s how you got in this dilemma in the first place.”

In the same way that I finally became immune to the indignities of pregnancy and labor, I believe I have become similarly numb to the embarrassments of teaching. This is my 20th year of teaching English, and I tend to live inside my head most of the time, like those absent-minded professors I used to snicker about in college.

It once embarrassed me when something would expose my humanity in front of a class full of students. There was the time that I was lecturing with great energy, gesticulating wildly, and my belt popped off, flew across the floor, and lay there like a mischievous snake. The young people, of course, couldn’t hold in their laughter, and I was red-faced.

Then there were the times that I ran down two flights of stairs for my 20 minute lunch period, during which I wolfed down a sandwich and a soda, then ran back up two flights of stairs, ensuring that I started my next lecture with a hearty burp.

There was another incident, about ten years ago, when I insisted on wearing my comfortable black teacher shoes long beyond their death. When I finally got a new pair, a sixteen-year-old boy approached me to say that my new shoes were nice. “Lots better than those ones with the hole in the toe,” he added sincerely.

As the years went by those events continued, but I found I simply cared less. I would sometimes go all day without a chance to run to the bathroom, and when I finally looked in the mirror I would see that I had never combed my hair, or that I had a chalk mustache, or that, after smiling toothily at students all day, I had remnants of food in my teeth.

This year I have found myself in several situations that would have embarrassed me in my twenties. I taught one class and noted that people were snickering, but figured they might just have a private joke. Finally one girl could stand it no longer. She got up from her desk, approached me where I sat, and whispered, “Your fly is open.”

How to respond? I smiled and said, “Oh, thank you.” And my students continued to give their reports. I figured standing up and zipping just then would extend the humiliation rather than decrease it.

Another day I sat at the podium chair and got some odd looks, only to find later that my pants had torn along the thigh seam and I was offering glimpses of a forty-three-year-old leg that no one could have wanted.

And today—yes, today is what made all of this come back to me in a flood of memory, because I may have topped them all.

I had rushed to school after a quick ham-on-toast breakfast and then entered a whirlwind of classes and meetings and obligations that had me on the run. At the end of my second period class—nearly eleven o’clock in the day—I was feeling more confident than usual in my attire of a Christmas sweater and jeans (we had an out of uniform day). I was giving what I thought was an inspired lecture on the book, but as ever I was noting some smirks.

Glancing down, I saw it: a sizable piece of shaved ham, tucked in between my sweater and turtleneck as though I were saving it for a mid-day snack. Ham. I’ve never worn that before, but I’m guessing I will again—or some other random food that I eat in a hurry while I’m making lists in my mind.

I went to the front of the room, removed the ham with a surprising lack of shame, and threw it in the wastebasket. I felt a bit like Basil Fawlty with the kipper sticking out of his shirt, except that Basil was quite manic, and I was almost serene.

I wonder if my new lack of embarrassment is a sign of a shift in perspective or a declining of youthful passions. In any case, I’m sure I’ll have another opportunity to write about it in the near future.

I’ve learned I’m only human.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Labels, Schmabels

by Deb Baker, guest blogger

(Everyone who leaves a comment for Deb this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of her new book. Check back Sunday night at the end of the comments thread for the name of the winner!)

Thanks to my friends at Poe’s Deadly Daughters for hosting me. I’m on a blog tour to promote the launch of Ding Dong Dead, which hit the shelves last week. This is the seventh book I’ve completed. Whew! Time flies when you’re busy!

I’d like to jump into the di
alogue about mystery subgenres and the definition of cozy mysteries that we’re all trying to nail down. Not that I’m going to cause anything but more confusion.

When the professional book world (agents, editors, etc) labeled my first mystery as a cozy, I was bewildered. Wasn’t a cozy an English whodunit with tea and crumpets and feathery hats? I had written a story about the Michigan Upper Peninsula—trucks, beer, baseball caps. It’s a cozy, they insisted. No gratuitous sex, no onstage violence, no swearing other than an occasional ‘for cripes sake’.

By the time I wrote the Dolls To Die For series I knew what I was.

Okay, I wrote cozies. Cool.

It was clear in my mind.

Or so I thought.

Because when the Berkley team got together to brainstorm a title and cover for Ding Dong Dead they changed the rules on me.

This isn’t really a cozy, my editor said. Let’s leave ‘doll’ out of the title and keep the doll graphics to a minimum.

Hunh? If it’s not a cozy, what is it? The cover’s still ‘cute’ like a cozy. Granted, I’ve taken some liberties. For example, the story is told in multiple points of view. Lots of them, not just two or three. Peering inside other characters’ minds does ratchet up the tension a little, but I doubt that anyone will ever call this book a suspense.

So I’m back to bewildered.

Am I on the fence between mystery genres? Shouldn’t I stay on one side or the other? Should I care? And who makes up these rules anyway?

In the meantime, I’ll continue to write my stories, some in first person, some in third, these in multiple POVs, and you can label me however you want.

To celebrate the release of Ding Dong Dead, I’m running a contest for a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choice! Here’s how to win. Get a copy of Ding Dong Dead, read it, go to my website ( before January 15th. Correctly answer three easy questions pertaining to the book. You will be entered into the drawing, which will take place at noon on January 15th. Winner will be notified through email and announced on my homepage. Good luck!

Friday, December 12, 2008

End of the year tax rant . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

It's that muchly dreaded End Of The Year Time. Time for me to finish my yearly writing expense report for my CPA daughter-in-law who holds me to an extremely tough standard and goes over said report with an extremely fine tooth comb. I take comfort in the fact that her own mother gets the same treatment from her. Sigh. I suppose her mother and I should be grateful that she keeps us out of jail and/or out of the clutches of the IRS.

One of the things that is driving me nuts this year is, grrrr, usage tax. In case you aren't familiar with it, many states, including Illinois, expect residents to report any purchases of items we bought in OTHER states that don't have sales tax OR purchases we made online without having to pay tax. Sigh. AND the state of Tennessee (thankfully I don't live there but I have friends who do) have to pay the difference if they purchase something in another state that has a lower tax rate. Buy something in Kentucky or another nearby state for even a mere .02 percent lower than Tennessee, pay the difference at home at tax time. Sigh. What idiot came up with these ideas? Never mind.

As a writer who keeps a stash of books to sell when I'm out and about, (meaning not at a bookstore that ordered copies for a signing but at library signings, my annual Superman Celebration appearance, meeting new readers who buy a book on the spot out of my car trunk, etc.) I have to keep track of every single sale and my CPA/DIL figures how much sales tax I owe and fires it off to the appropriate state for me. Gotta love her. NO WAY I could do this on my own. And her fees are reasonable, a meal at one of her fave restaurants. Works for me.

Taxes are on my mind today because my state taxes are doing double, possibly even triple, duty paying the governor's salary, upkeep on the governor's mansion, and a safe space for said governor while he languished in the slammer last Tuesday. Sigh. I wonder if the warden could've let Governor Blagojevich share a cell for the day with our former governor, George Ryan, who is still incarcerated for his misdeeds? At least that might've saved us Illinois residents a few tax bucks.

This is NOT meant to be a political discussion. It's a rant about keeping up with all those pesky little receipts and paying all my taxes, every single dime due, on time, because I'm an honest person, and seeing what happens to said tax money when it hits the state coffers. If the current governor is impeached rather than stepping down voluntarily, it will cost the state millions. Sigh.

Okay, time to stop ranting and take appropriate action. If anyone from California is reading this post, are you interested in loaning us The Terminator for a few months to come here and help us straighten things out? I promise we'll send him right back. Always assuming he doesn't get himself arrested, of course.

Better yet, how about you Alaska folks? Could we please borrow Governor Palin? A hockey mom should have no trouble straightening out the problems in Chicago. We need some help here, people.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Writing on a Tricky Topic

Elizabeth Zelvin

My debut mystery has been out for quite a while now, and I have a deal on the second in the series. By any standards, I have fulfilled my lifetime dream of being a novelist. But my book about recovery from alcoholism is not a runaway bestseller. I didn’t think it would be, not only because fame and fortune come to a first-time fiction author who isn’t already a celebrity about as often as someone wins the lottery, but also because I’ve chosen a theme that is not everybody’s cup of tea.

Among my mystery writer friends are those who write about enormously popular topics such as antiques and gardening, and those who provide a peek into such fascinating worlds as dairy farming, the blues, and the Middle Ages. None of these subjects offers any threat to readers. And at least some of these authors are finding their career path a little smoother than mine. Do I get discouraged? Sometimes. Would I trade? No way.

Substance abuse, including alcohol and tobacco abuse and dependence, is considered the top preventable health problem in the United States. At least 100,000 alcohol related deaths occur each year. One study showed that alcohol appeared in 93 percent of the most popular movie rentals, tobacco in 89 percent, and illicit drugs in 22 percent, indicating how pervasive substance use is in our culture.

The thing about alcoholism is that only 3-5 percent of alcoholics are Skid Row derelicts. (In fact, having worked on the Bowery during its final years as a Skid Row, I can say with confidence that there are hardly any chronic “pure alcoholics” left. More and more chemical dependents get high on whatever they can get their hands on.) The rest are your Aunt Fanny, ie people just like the rest of us who have slipped gradually into more and more serious drinking problems and the denial that accompanies them. The good news is more than two million sober alcoholics in AA and many more who have benefited from professional treatment.

I chose to write Death Will Get You Sober rather than a blander mystery on a more palatable topic because I had a fervent desire to write, not about drunks and drinking, but about the transformational process of recovery. In my 25 years working with alcoholics and those who love them, I have seen more than my share of miracles: hopeless cases turning their lives around. Like any writer, I dreamed of having readers and reviewers acknowledge the quality of my writing and my storytelling. I wanted my characters to come to life. I wanted readers to love them. But part of my dream was that readers who had lived through the pain of alcoholism, whether in themselves, a spouse or partner, a parent, or a child would find hope in my story and acknowledge that I’d gotten it right.

That dream has come true. One reader with 35 years sobriety wrote that I was “the first professional who really seems to get it.” Another bought extra copies for family members who are longtime AA members. A judge whose “experience with the addicted is mostly with failure” was “happy at your hopefulness.” Some said they chuckled or, in one case, “spent much of the time I read the book laughing.” Some were “profoundly moved.” I was moved myself when a reader wrote on a mystery lovers’ e-list: “Like many... I've had experience with losing a loved one who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse.... I hesitated in reading Liz's book for fear of what it might force me to face, or remember.... And now I am so happy that I put those fears aside. It’s a lovely book with wonderful, well developed, perfectly defined characters. I found the story to be rich and complex, realistically humorous and uplifting and I loved it.”

I’m only human. I wish the book were coming out in paperback. I’d love to have a place on the New York Times bestseller list, an Edgar or Agatha nomination, a movie or TV option. But I knew going in—not at age seven or in high school, but certainly by 2002 when I started sending the manuscript out—that these were unlikely long shots. Have I already gotten what I came for, the reward I dreamed of when I poured my heart into this book? You bet I have.