Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mark L. Van Name (guest blogger)

Mark L. Van Name has worked in the high-tech industry for over thirty years and today runs a technology assessment company in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. He has published over a thousand computer-related articles and multiple science fiction stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including the Year's Best Science Fiction.

He spends far too much time thinking about obsessions, alienation, and the nature of evil, all topics dear to mystery writers’ hearts.

PDD:
What obsesses you?


Mark:
This question, for one. Seriously. I spent way too much time considering it and pondering the nature of obsession, how to draw the line between continual fascination and obsession, wondering when being interested or committed or curious morphs into being obsessed.

I never found the answer.

The world is endlessly, ceaselessly fascinating. The more I look into anything, the more interesting it becomes. Given enough time, almost anything could intrigue and, for at least a while, obsess me.

So it came down to this: Those things that repeatedly float to the top of my always simmering soup of interests and fascinations are what I’ll label as obsessions. They include, in no particular order:
• child abuse
• personal responsibility
• the moments when doing the right thing means doing a hard thing, sometimes even a wrong thing
• the nature of evil
• how context changes how we feel; torture is bad, but would you do it to save your kid?
• society’s need for people—soldiers, cops, firefighters, EMS workers, trauma nurses, and on and on—who do jobs that will leave them messed up forever and to varying degrees uncomfortable at fitting into any society other than the one of people like them
• the power of the ocean, particularly as a storm is rolling in
• how one look, one momentary glance at someone you love can take away your breath, raise your pulse, and for a split second steal your heart
• the awful tendency of humans throughout many lands and many times to create groups that are “other,” then to treat those others as less than human and thus be justified in doing whatever they want to them
• the nature of intimacy, how a single kiss with one person may be scarier and more intimate than a night of sex with another

Clearly, entirely too much obsesses me.

PDD:
Are there themes you keep coming back to in your writing?


Mark:
Yes, though not by conscious intent. Though I don’t believe in any hard and fast rules for fiction, in general I think theme is something we shouldn’t consider too closely when writing at least the first draft of a book. The reason is simple: The needs of the story should trump everything else. If our stories are good, our characters real, our plot compelling, then themes will emerge—whether we want them to be evident or not.

In my case, several of the obsessions I mentioned above appear as themes in multiple works. Almost all of them, in fact, occur in more than one of my books. If I had to pick one theme, though, that recurs more often than any other, it would have to be alienation.

PDD:
How does alienation affect you?


Mark:
Alienation is a natural consequence of living through experiences that most people cannot easily understand. When your background contains powerful elements far from the norm, it’s quite natural to feel a bit apart from those who don’t seem able to relate well to what you experienced. Protagonists who face difficult, often violent jobs inevitably pile up such experiences, so they are naturally alienated characters.

Growing up a bookish kid has also been a classic path to alienation for quite some time. I grew up such a kid, and my background includes many experiences powerfully different from the norm, so alienation is a natural topic for me.

PDD:
What do your books say about alienation?


It’s always dangerous for writers to explain what their books say, because that is a question better left, I believe, to readers. What the writers of my favorite novels meant to say is far less important to me than what I took away from those books—and that is how it should be for all readers.

What I hope my novels and stories say about alienation is that even when you feel alone, even when you are sure you are the only person like you, you can live a good life, do well by others, and ultimately find and connect with others who are, if not exactly like you, close enough that you can understand one another reasonably well. I suppose the short form of that is, you are not alone.

PDD:
What is the hardest thing for you to write?


Scenes in which very little physical action occurs. For example, some of the most emotion-packed moments in some of my stories, like some of the most emotion-packed moments in many of our lives, occur in meetings. When the doctor tells you that you’re going to have a child—or that your mother’s breast tumor is not benign. When you’re sitting around a table discussing lay-offs. When you’re planning a fight. When you’re negotiating for high stakes. In those meetings, frequently the only actions are small—nodding, slumping, sitting up straighter, leaning back, and so on—and yet emotions are running high. Such meetings can be vital to a story, and so I want to tell them, but I also, of course, want to make them compelling. Dialog has to carry the bulk of the load, but folding in just the right amount of physical business is vital and can be tricky.

PDD:
As a writer, how do you set up and carry through these scenes? Any writer's tips about how to fold in the physical business?


Mark
Maintaining imaginative concentration is the key in such scenes, as it is in so much of writing. If you’re there, really there in the story, then you can feel that the room is stuffy and sweat is soaking your armpits, that the person on the other side of the table leans back whenever you’re aggressive, and so on. Once you’re there, in the place and in the character, just write what your viewpoint character experiences.

PDD:
You said something World Fantasy convention in Calgary, which intrigued me, "Brilliance being encapsulated in evil equals primal fear." Do you have any further comments about that?


Mark:
We generally fear most the forces we can neither fully comprehend nor ever control—but only when those forces are in our faces. So, we don’t fear the weather most of the time—but let a tornado come roaring at our homes, and our lizard brains will spike with fear.

Similarly, people who do bad things but who seem understandable are far less scary than those who appear to be both brilliant beyond our comprehension and also evil. A true genius with evil intent is as unpredictable and potentially damaging a force as that tornado, and so we react with primal fear to both. Fortunately, as fun as those characters can be to try to write in fiction, they will not appear in most of our lives.

For more information about Mark and his books, visit his web site.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How much am I worth on eBay?

By Lonnie Cruse

Some time ago I discovered a neat little thing on Google. You can have yourself "Googled" every day by signing up to be notified when your name pops up anywhere on the Internet. This is great for authors as we can see who is checking on us, on our books, reviews we might not know about, etc. Recently my name popped up on eBay so I clicked in to see why. Someone is selling one or more of my books on eBay. I couldn't help but notice that the seller is asking more than my books sell for in a store, so I mentally wished the seller good luck with that and clicked out.

Now, mind you, this news would make *some* authors livid (that wouldn't be me) because the author whose book is sold by a third party on eBay (that would be me) will receive NO royalty for this sale. So why am I not livid? Because to begin with, said seller had to purchase my book in the first place in order to re-sell it. So I did make a royalty there. Okay, I won't make a royalty on the re-sale. BUT I might get a new reader out of the deal, and if the buyer likes my book and recommends it to others, I'll make more sales. It's all good.

I recently received an e-mail (through my website) from a reader who picked up a copy of my first book in the Metropolis Mystery Series, secondhand, from a store that sells secondhand goods. The buyer wanted to know why the person would sell that particular copy of the book since I had autographed it with a personal sentiment to someone who is closely related to me by marriage. I had to chuckle over that one. The person I autographed the book for lives half a continent away from me and likely never dreamed I'd find out it had been re-sold or traded away. Nor do I plan to enlighten that person. I told the new buyer that my "relative" likely was cleaning out book shelves and decided to purge it, which was fine with me because it brought me a new buyer/reader. I also offered the new buyer the rest of the series at a cut rate, IF he decides he wants to read the rest of the series. I encourage my readership whenever and wherever I can.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE royalties. When I received my last royalty check from Harlequin Worldwide for the paperback edition of Fifty-Seven Heaven, an amount quite a bit heftier than I'd expected, I literally clutched my chest. I never dreamed the paperback edition would sell that many copies!

Several of my other books are available on Kindle, so Amazon sends me small royalties periodically, usually around $10-$20. Not a fortune, but money just the same. And it spends as well from my pocket as it would from Amazon's. Yes, I do LOVE receiving royalties for my books. But even more, I love having new readers find me. More to the point, read me. Read the books that I slaved over a hot computer to produce. Because that's really why I write. To share my thoughts with others. To connect with others. And if they enjoy the read, so much the better!

I don't care how much I'm worth on eBay, and if that seller makes a couple of bucks off me, so be it. I care about how much I'm worth to my readers because they are worth so very much to me. Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Kid on the Block

by Sheila Connolly


Poe’s Deadly Daughters are delighted to welcome Sheila Connolly as our new blog sister. Sheila is the author of the Orchard Mysteries, the forthcoming Museum Mystery series, and, as Sarah Atwell, the Glassblowing Mystery series, all from Berkley Prime Crime. Her debut novel as Sarah Atwell was nominated for an Agatha award for Best First Novel. The new Orchard Mystery, Red Delicious Death, is due out in March. Sheila has been an art historian, an investment banker, a non-profit fundraiser, and a professional genealogist as well as a mystery writer. Welcome, Sheila! We hope you’ll find being a Deadly Daughter as rewarding as any of your other “hats.”

Starting in February, Sheila will be blogging on the fourth weekend of every month. Liz Zelvin will continue to blog on Thursdays (except for today).




I am delighted that the writers of Poe's Deadly Daughters have invited me to join them.



That makes me the New Kid–again. Being the new kid is something I have a lot of experience with, because my family moved around a lot when I was young. No, my father was not in the military, but he frequently became impatient with jobs and bosses (like the one at duPont who told him he wasn't a big enough fish at the company to drive a Buick), and since his area of specialization–fluid mixing systems–was in demand, he could always find a new job. I don't even remember the early moves (at age one and three), but I can definitely recall the ones in pre-school, kindergarten, fourth grade and eighth grade.


As an adult, I've added a lot more moves: going off to college, then graduate school; getting married and moving to North Carolina, then California, Pennsylvania, and finally to Massachusetts. In all these places I held a variety of jobs, short- and long-term, and for a time I went back to school. As a result, I was always walking into new situations, meeting new people.


It's never easy, especially if you're not a gregarious person, which I am not. I was the shy kid but I was also the brainy one in any class. But I made friends and did well in school, and survived it all. Maybe it made me a stronger person, but that doesn't mean I liked it.


Only recently did I realize that I've become part of yet another group, thanks in large part to the Internet: the writers community. This time the entry was almost painless. I feel like I have a lot of friends, some of whom I've never met face to face and possibly never will. But in cyberspace we all share our triumphs and our disappointments, and even a lot about our lives–we "know" each other. And if you go to writers conferences you will see clusters of people gleefully greeting each other, trying to cram a whole lot of friendship into a very short time.


And there's one more community I hadn't even thought of until now. When we moved to our current house, we built in a wall of bookshelves in one room, and for the first time in many, many years, my husband and I had the space to unpack all our books. We'd been collecting mysteries since we first married, back in the Dark Ages when there was no Internet and no Amazon and you had to seek out second-hand bookstores and hunt for paper copies of the books you wanted. And we collected series–too many to mention, but you can safely assume I have all the classic mystery writers, in complete sets. Yes, I read them all, but the collecting part was fun too. The result, however, was a lot of linear feet of books, which for a long time had no place to go.


Here we finally unpacked them all and lined them up on the shelves (which quickly overflowed, but that's another story). But what hit me when I started writing this post was: I have my own little piece of shelf now, something I never expected when I started collecting mysteries. Five books of my own (plus large-print copies) have joined all the great names on my shelves. I'm up there next to my idols–Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and more. I'm the New Kid on the bookshelf block–and I like it!








Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Facebook

Sandra Parshall

Facebook. MySpace. Twitter. Blogs. Websites. Internet listservs.

Somehow it has become an absolute necessity for writers to use them all, and use them frequently, in the hope of enticing readers to buy books. Like
love-starved hermits hoping to make a human connection out there in cyberspace, we sit at our computers, tapping away, posting here and posting there, trying to hawk our books without actually sounding like we’re doing a sales job. Be interesting! Be funny! Be shocking, if you can’t be anything else! The whole point is to attract attention, make people want to know more about you — make people want to read your books.

I had a website before my first book came out. After some resistance, I joined other writers to start this blog. Heaven knows I’m on enough internet listservs. But I refuse to join MySpace, which I’ve always associated with teenagers and pedophiles. I held out against Facebook for a long time before I finally gave in
recently. Twitter? No way. Okay, I have a Twitter account, I even have a couple of followers, but I have never tweeted. Not yet.

It’s astonishing how obsessed writers have become, in such a short time, with creating a “cyber presence” that readers will encounter at every click
of the mouse or touch of a mobile device keypad. Look at the numbers, though, and you’ll understand why that potential audience is irresistible.

Try to absorb this fact (gleaned from the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind magazine): If Facebook were a nation, it would be the fourth most populous country in the world. (The U.S. is the third.) With more than 250 million members on every continent, six-year-old Facebook is way ahead of the older MySpace, which has 125 million users. Twitter has millions of users, but every source I’ve consulted gives a different figure. Is it only seven million or is it 75 million? Whatever — a lot of people are tweeting and following, and writers see them all as potential book-buyers. Facebook seems an especially promising source of new readers, because its fastest-growing membership segment is the 40 to 60-plus age group, more likely than the kids to spend money on books.

But does it work? Considering how much time social networking eats up, is this an efficient way for writers to reach readers? In the short time I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve noticed that most of the messages being exchanged are between writers who know each other — friends chatting about their daily lives. Most writers who have both personal Facebook pages and fan pages have a lot more friends than fans. Even in a universe as vast as Facebook, writers have formed an insular little society of their own. Facebook seems to serve the same purpose in writers’ lives that internet listservs do: providing relief from the isolation of writing. Anytime we feel the need, we can reach out and make contact online, tell somebody what we’re doing or thinking, find out what they’re up to (not much, usually).

In the latest issue of Publishers Weekly, nonfiction author Melinda Blau writes about her own experience with using social media for book promotion and confesses that, like many writers, she let it spiral out of control and take over her life. All her time online hyping her book hasn’t led to fame and fortune. Time to quit, she says. But she’s not giving up social networking entirely. She’ll do it just for fun now, not for book promotion.

I’m torn between wanting to do everything I possibly can to make readers aware of my new book (the title is Broken Places, and it’s out in February, in case you haven’t heard) and feeling a little desperate about spending time online when I could be writing. Because I’ve always been shy, online socializing and promotion has an undeniable allure. Where to draw the line is the question.

Are sites like Facebook useful only for socializing, or do they help writers find readers? What do you think? Have you ever bought a book because you “met” the writer on Facebook or MySpace? If you’re a writer, do you think social networking has helped you increase sales?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I write, therefore I sit

Sharon Wildwind

I sit a lot. Most days, I sit at my computer between 4 and 5 1/2 hours, writing, researching, and taking care of business. I also sit in my day job, whether it’s office work, driving, or in the clients’ homes. I sit to knit; I sit to sew; I sometimes sit to read, though since I often read the last thing before going to sleep, I also recline to read.

There is a new study out of Australia that says sitting is bad, period. [Here's a link to the abstract. The full article is available as pay-per-read.]

For over 6 years the researchers followed the daily television viewing habits of 8,800 adults as part of the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study. They weren’t looking for the effects of television, but for the effects of sitting.

Bottom line: every 1 hour per day spent sitting in front of a television pushed the cardiovascular death rate up.

So maybe people who were already in poor health or who were old spent more time in front of the TV because they didn’t feel well enough to do anything else? Nope, the study participants were healthy. Some of them were as young as 25 years old at the start of the study.

People eat, drink, and smoke while watching television. Maybe it was the high salt/high fat snack foods, the beer, and the cigarettes that accounted for the difference. Sorry, when those factors were adjusted for, as were age, sex, waist circumference and exercise, the numbers stayed the same.

Human beings evolved an upright posture in order to stand, to walk, to run, but not to sit for long periods.

So if I’m already working on all of that other good stuff: healthy diet, regular exercise, stress reduction, etc., what am I going to do about sitting. Can I write and run a business standing up?

I had an acquaintance who did run his business standing up. He had a bad back and couldn’t sit, so he had a desk made that allowed him to work in a standing position. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that.

I’m also not the kind of person who can dictate my next book as I jog down the sidewalk.

I had a brief thought of taping a laptop to a treadmill and running while I typed, but no, I don’t think so.

The only thing I’ve come up with so far is the simple recommendation that’s been around at least since I took typing. We won’t go into how many decades ago that was. Even back then the typing instructor made us get up and walk around the classroom after 50 minutes of typing. I don’t know if 50 minutes sitting and 10 minutes standing will do any good, but at least that’s where I think I can start.

So put on your thinking caps. How do we reduce sitting and still write? All suggestions welcome, none are too outlandish to consider. Lets invent a way out of the sitting trap.
--------
For the quote of the week, this week, I am quoting myself:
Writing is a marathon. Warm up, write, cool down. Eat right. Drinks water. Exercise for stamina, balance, and staying power. Stand up and be counted!
~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer
------
P.S. Back at the beginning of December I posted a blog about all the art work I'd done in November. Included was a very sad- looking photo of an attempt to create an alternative out-box out of paper mache. I persevered and succeeded, though not with paper-mache. I used art board, ink, and acrylic paints instead. Here it is. It's an homage to all of us who always seem to be right up against a deadline. Oh, yes, and I did it standing at my art table. I'm giving myself bonus points for that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pleasant Conversation for Readers and Writers

by Julia Buckley
I'm teaching a speech class this semester, and one of the things students are encouraged to do as a warm-up is called the impromptu speech. They must select a topic from a randomly-generated list and then talk about it for a couple of minutes. It's harder than it sounds, especially when one must do it in front of a room full of people. Still, it gets the speaker used to speaking.

As I was researching various impromptu ideas and "conversation starters" on the web, I realized that the most ridiculous sounding questions can often inspire the most interesting discussions. So I trolled through items like "Have you ever eaten guacamole?" and "What was your best Halloween costume?"

I realized, too, that there could be very specialized questions just for readers and writers that could have them chatting amiably all day. Try some of the questions below and chat with your reading friends--including me!

1. Do you ever choose books based on their covers?

2. Do you fall in love with fictional characters? (Either when you read them or when you write them?)

3. Have you ever stayed up all night to finish a book? (My record is about 3 AM)

4. Do you fantasize about meeting your favorite author?

5. Snacks while reading: yes or no?

6. If yes, what snacks?

7. Do you ever find reading preferable to actual human interaction?

8. Do you read books made of paper or books you can download?

9. When you finish a book, are you pleased to have reached the end, or sad that it's over?

10. What's your favorite children's book?

11. What would be the title of your life story?

12. Which do you take: a free book or a free cheesecake? (It's either/or, you see).

13. Do you prefer hardcover or paperback?

14. Do you tend to read while reclining or sitting upright?

15. What's a book that more people should read?

16. If you had jury duty for a whole day, what book would you take along?

17. If you're reading this blog, you probably love mysteries. What else do you read? Cookbooks? Biographies? Shakespearean drama?

18. What's the last book someone recommended to you? Was it good?

19. If you read in bed, how long do you last before you fall asleep?

20. How long could you last without reading a book?

Granted, this sounds like one of those Facebook quizzes, but it provides some fodder for terrific conversations. At your next tea party for mystery lovers, trot out some of these questions.

OR choose one and answer it here just for fun!

(Art: Tree by Pam Quimby Costello)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Landscape of Genre Fiction

Misa Ramirez (Guest Blogger)

The more I read, the more I realize how few characters of color there are in genre fiction. There are more than ever before, and yet that number is still woefully underrepresented in comparison to the population breakdown. More often than not, those multicultural characters play supporting rather than starring roles.

I wondered why this was, but then, as I listened to conversation unfold at my most recent book club meeting where we discussed Kathryn Stocket’s The Help, I realized that a great part of the reason likely stems from the fact that there is still a lot of prejudice in the world, and publishing being a business, I can only assume that there’s an assumption that having multicultural characters limits the target audience. Who are the majority of mystery readers? Romance? Sci-fi? I don’t have those statistics, but chances are, the numbers tilt the scales toward the all white side. I’d like to think that the underrepresentation of multicultural characters in genre fiction has more to do with ignorance than it does with strategy, but knowing what I know about people and their beliefs from where I live in the South, I think strategy and business planning is the reason for the homogenous characters in genre fiction. Prejudice exists, even amongst those who don’t believe it does. Even amongst people in towns who think they are open-minded. Even among children today, which is the scariest part.

What I love about The Help is the message that we are all the same underneath our colors (not a new concept, but one that bears repeating), and that change can truly begin with just one person. It may be slow, and it may be an uphill battle, but it can happen, and it has happened--over and over again.

The discussion of African American writers’ books being placed only in the African American book section of the bookstore has been going on since I began my writing career years ago. Book sellers, it seemed, thought putting all the books that had black characters and/or themes together would make them easier to find. On the flip side, the implication is that those who aren’t black need not bother looking in that section since those book clearly aren’t meant for them. Their intended audience was made clear. Somebody who’s not black wouldn’t want to read genre fiction about a black character. Wrong. At least that’s my opinion. We share this town, this state, this country, this world. We experience the same love, pain, joy, triumph, sadness, fear. Books are about the human condition, and we should share shelf space in the bookstores.

In my local store, this pigeon-holing of books isn’t as apparent, thankfully, but I wonder how it is in other parts of the country. I recently moved from California to Texas, and prejudice exists in so many ways here where it didn’t in California (not to say there isn’t prejudice there--there is). Reading the afterward in The Help enlightened me to how prevalent the class structure and prejudice still is in the deep south. Blatantly so. Disturbingly so.

Is it fair to assume that all people aren’t interested in the human condition, regardless of the color of the characters in a particular book? I don’t think so. I married into a Mexican family. My husband is Mexican American, born here, but with a strong sense of his family’s culture. This is a culture that I love and want to make real for my children. I want them to fully embrace their heritage, and to figure out what that means in their lives. That’s the very reason why the main character in my mystery series is a Latina. She is my children. Her family is our family. She represents one of the many manifestations of a Latina in America today, and her family is just one representation of a Latino family, just as my own family is.

I’ve tried to write books with no multicultural characters (and this took concerted effort), but ultimately I couldn’t do it. We live in such a diverse country, and there are so many unique perspectives on the different cultures represented here, that to write something completely white-bread seems so removed from real life, and frankly very uninteresting to me as a writer. That’s not to say that I don’t love a good book that happens to have all white characters. I do, because something about those characters speaks to me on some level. But show me a layered individual who has a sense of culture different from the stereotypical view of America and I’m drawn in instantaneously. That’s a book I’ll probably prefer.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think the publishing landscape is becoming more colorful?

Misa Ramirez is the author of the Lola Cruz mystery series: Living the Vida Lola (January ’09) and Hasta la Vista, Lola! (2010) from Minotaur Books. A former middle and high school teacher, and current CEO and CFO for La Familia Ramirez, this blonde-haired, green-eyed, proud to be Latina-by-Marriage girl loves following Lola on her adventures, whether it’s contemplating belly button piercings or visiting nudist resorts. Misa is hard at work on a new women’s fiction novel, is published in Woman’s World Magazine and Romance Writers Report, and has a children’s book published.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Reviewing . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Word recently came out that a major book reviewer, Kirkus, will no longer be doing reviews. It's a shame. Prior to that, many newspapers stopped having their own review pages. Professional reviews and reviewers are disappearing practically every day. One of the few places left to find reviews of books is at Amazon.com, below most of the books listed there. Some of the reviews there are by professionals, some by knowledable book lovers, some by the authors friends and relatives, and some by snarky people looking to hit writers in the knee caps.

So what part do reviews play in your decision to buy books? I didn't really think they made much difference to me, since I tended to ignore movie reviews from professional reviewers because I usually hated the movies they loved or loved the ones they hated. However, I'm a picky mystery reader and reviewers usually give enough information to let me know if the book is something I'll enjoy. Or not.

For instance, if there is graphic language or violance in a book (or a movie for that matter) it's not for me. I read to escape when the world seems to dark or difficult. I don't want to escape into fiction that's too dark or difficult. I know there are loads of readers who like the dark stuff. To each his/her own. But reviews help me save money by not buying books I won't enjoy just because the cover is interesting. And reading the first chapter isn't always helpful. Sometimes books slide downhill fast after the first chapter.

There are discussion lists for readers that can help us find books we love. DorothyL is terrific for mystery lovers, helping all of us sift the wheat from the chaff. And there are lively discussions about the various parts of writing and publishing, as long as it doesn't stray to far from the point . . . the point being which mysteries are good and which aren't. You can find the DorothyL discussion list by doing a search. Same is true for romance, science fiction, and all other genres.

I read a lot of reviews but I rarely give them. As an author I simply can't say out loud in public that I hate another author's book (though I might tell a friend or two privately) and if I only review the books I love, people will stop listening. I do mention books that really capture my attention, the can't-put-down kind. Those you just gotta share with others.

My fave read last year was PRAYERS FOR SALE by Sandra Dallas. Not a mystery, but a wonderful book about the relationships between women friends. I've read a couple of other Dallas books and enjoyed them. My fave author for mystery is Donna Andrews because she makes me laugh. So does Bill Crider. I love learning from Tony Hillerman while reading his mysteries. Anne Perry's Monk mysteries are enjoyable as are her Christmas mysteries. I'm reading her latest. And I'm enjoying re-visiting some Agatha Christie's.

What were our fave reads for 2009? And how much do reviews influence your buying/reading habits? Oh, and did you get any good books for Christmas?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Coming Clean About Stuffed Animals

Elizabeth Zelvin

They say don’t put anything on the Internet unless you’re willing for the world to know. Okay, I’m gonna confess. In our house, the stuffed animals talk to us. I could claim writer’s license—if our characters can talk to us, why shouldn’t the plush wolves and teddy bears? But my husband’s not a writer, and they talk to him too.

They tend to reveal their dark side to my husband. If you tell the wolves something (or someone) is venison, they’ll eat it in a heartbeat. So no jokes about my little granddaughters, please. With me, they’re soothing. The bears especially understand my need for validation. They think I’m smarter than the average bear. They never think my manuscripts suck. And they know the perfect cure for writer’s block: Put a salmon in it.

I guess we kind of channel them. It’s a lot like the way fictional characters say and do what they want to, rather than what the author has planned. We used to attempt periodically to end these infantile, if not actually dysfunctional, relationships with the little guys. And gals—there’s Noelle the book bear, who’s quite the intellectual, and Elfie, who wears a red dress from the Build-A-Bear store, except at Xmas, when she puts her elf outfit on. But I digress. Like any other addicts, we couldn’t just say no to the animals’ demands for our attention and desire for conversation. So we said the hell with it and stopped trying to refrain.

They’re good company, our bears and wolves and moose (who hail from Minnesota and Sweden as well as the usual zoo gift shops). Their conversation is a little limited: the wolves are always talking about venison, the bears about salmon and honey and berries. The moose go wild over green carpet or anything that resembles moss. But they’re fun, and they’re extremely plausible. I, for one, believe every word they say.

So here’s how the animals got me in trouble. I’ve been telling this story since Death Will Help You Leave Him came out, but I don’t think I’ve told it in print before. (If I have, blame my aging memory.) When I left for Bouchercon in Indianapolis in October, on the eve of the new book’s official publication date, I left my husband at home with strict instructions to read the book. My cell phone rang in my hotel room at the Hyatt one evening. It was my hubby, and he was laughing so hard that it took me a while to understand what was cracking him up. He’d just read the passage where Bruce is talking about how he hasn’t accumulated a lot of possessions. “I’m not a moose,” Bruce says. “I don’t need moss.”

I finally made out what my husband was saying between howls of laughter.

“Moose don’t eat moss!” he said.

“They don’t?” I said. “What do you mean? The moose are always talking about eating moss.”

“It was a joke!” he said. “I can’t believe you believed me!”

It had nothing to do with him. I’d believed the moose. Who would know better what a moose eats?

“What do they eat?”

“Aquatic plants.”

“So where did the moose moss come from?”

“I got it from Dr. Seuss!” he said.

Since I was at Bouchercon, I got to tell this story to a lot of writers. One of them suggested the perfect comeback if I get any reader emails pointing out I’ve committed an error of fact regarding what moose eat.

“It’s an hommage to Dr. Seuss,” I’ll say.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's my subgenre?

Sandra Parshall

I’ve heard that some editors no longer want to label a certain type of mystery as a “cozy” because they think it’s limiting.

Publishing is a label-loving business, though – everything must be categorized for marketing purposes – so if “cozy” goes, something must take its place. “Traditional mystery” seems to be the preferred substitute. It’s a broad term that covers everything from talking animal puzzles to Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache tales.

At first I thought it was okay to apply the traditional mystery label so freely, but I’ve changed my mind. The trouble with lumping diverse books together is that readers won’t know what to expect. A true cozy is a far cry from the darker traditional mysteries I write. I wouldn’t want a dedicated cozy reader to pick up my books expecting to find recipes or knitting patterns in the back. I don’t want readers who enjoy darker mysteries to avoid my books because of the “traditional” label.

Maybe we need more categories, not fewer. Cozy is a time-honored label and shouldn’t be abandoned, and readers are directed toward their favorite type of cozy with the kind of taglines Berkley uses: a coffee shop mystery, a cheese
shop mystery, etc. Sensitive readers won’t get any unpleasant surprises when they sit down with one of these books. It’s trickier to label the darker mysteries, the stories with an edge that lean toward suspense but don’t have the degree of violence and gore found in thrillers. I place my second and third books in that category.

I still consider my first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, psychological suspense. I was surprised when it was nominated for an Agatha Award, and shocked when it won, but I wasn’t about to refuse the honor on the grounds that my book wasn’t a traditional mystery. For that matter, it isn’t a murder mystery either, but Rachel, my protagonist, does solve a mystery, so I don’t feel guilty about that teapot sitting on a nearby shelf as I write this.

When my second book, Disturbing the Dead, came out, some reviewers called it suspense, others called it a thriller. I was interviewed about it by the International Thriller Writers newsletter (fantastic free publicity for which I am
grateful). But I thought of DTD, and still do, as a traditional mystery.

MY third book, Broken Places, out next month, is also a traditional mystery. But like DTD, it has little in common with cozies. The small community where my characters live may be in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, but it’s not the quaint, picture-postcard setting found in so many cozies. My fictional county has its wealthy citizens and its middle-class, but it also has poverty, ignorance, meth addicts, and racism. Everybody knows everybody else, but that familiarity is as likely to breed hostility as goodwill. Relationships are complex, with more hidden threads than you’re likely to find in cozies.

If editors are claiming the term “traditional mystery” for books-formerly-known-as-cozies, how do I label my novels to set them apart?

After my editor read the manuscript of Dist
urbing the Dead, she called it a gothic. That startled me at the time. However, when a Publishers Weekly reviewer described it as “a lethal gothic drama” I began to see that the label fit. Now, with Broken Places, I’m comfortable with the idea that I write gothic mysteries.

And what elements distinguish a gothic mystery? This type of book has often been set in the past, with a female protagonist who is in danger, but in its modern form neither element is required. John Hart and Thomas H. Cook write gothic mysteries, set in the present or near past and featuring male lead characters. What’s always required is a sense of dread and growing menace. In this respect, The Heat of the Moon could be labeled gothic too — it has a lot in common with Du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic gothic (yes, I thought of Mrs. Danvers when I created Rachel’s mother) that is labeled these days as romantic suspense.

Tangled relationships and dysfunctional families, long-buried secrets, lots of twists and surprises — you’ll find all of these in gothic mysteries. That’s the kind of book I enjoy reading and the kind I enjoy writing. It may well be the only kind I’m capable of writing. I suspect that if I set out to create a light, humorous mystery, it would go dark on me by page 10 despite my best efforts. I can’t help it. Broken Places includes a scene with Rachel and a goat that would be hilarious if Donna Andrews had written it, and I intended it to be comic relief, but I think it feels more threatening than anything else.

So: I am an author of modern gothic mysteries. I can live with that label.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hidden in Plain Sight

Sharon Wildwind

Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear Poe, Happy birthday to you. Poe would be 201 this year.

To celebrate his birthday, I’m going to talk about Poe’s story, The Purloined Letter. There will be a spoiler later on, so if you’re planning to read TPL soon, stop here. I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Before we get to the letter, I want to talk about salt.

In the latest issue of Canadian Nurse, I found out more about salt than I wanted to know.

Yes, I know it’s bad for you. Yes, I read labels. In fact, some days I spend as much time reading labels as I do mysteries. What I didn’t know is that some food manufacturers are playing games with those labels.

The U.S.D.A. and Health Canada have set a general standard of 2,400 mg of salt per day for healthy adults. Back in 1990 the United States’ mandatory Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, used that 2,400 mg base for labels.

In our current culture of restaurant eating and prepared foods, people are likely to actually consume 4,800 to 5,000 mg/day, twice the recommended limit. To make matters worse, many researchers and health care practitioners now say that the healthy limit should be 1,500 mg/day.

I went rooting in my kitchen cupboard:
Fresh tomatoes—no salt unless you add some in cooking or at the table.
Plain tomato paste (the unflavored kind)—according to the label no salt, so the same as fresh tomatoes.
Commercial tomato sauce—610 mg of salt per 1/2 cup serving.

We’re going to do some arithmetic, so sharpen your pencils.

Let’s go back and look at that tomato sauce. On the label it says that the 610 mg of salt per 1/2 cup serving = 8% of the daily recommended salt intake.

According to the Canadian Nurse editorial, manufacturers are diddling with the values by changing serving sizes. A guy or gal in marketing looks at 610 mg and decides that if the salt content looked lower, more people would buy the product. So the manufacturer changes the serving size. The label now reads: 305 mg of salt per 1/4 cup serving = 8% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

Are you really going to limit yourself to 1/4 cup of tomato sauce? I’m not.

I’ll dump the 1 1/2 cups of sauce from that jar into a pot, heat it, and serve out equal portions for my husband and myself. We’ll each get about 3/4 of a cup.

3/4 cup of sauce = 915 mg of sodium, and using the healthy base of 1,500 mg of salt per day, I’ve got 61% of my daily allotment on my spaghetti.

When it comes to salt, here is a quick way to evaluate a food in relation to the 1,500 mg base: Double the number of mg of salt shown because you’re likely to eat a larger serving than the size on the label. Every 150 mg = 10% of a healthy daily salt intake. 300 mg = 20%; 450mg = 30%; 600 mg = 40% and so on. You decide where to draw the line.

I promised we’d talk about The Purloined Letter, so here we are. Minister D— knew the police would think that the thief who stole the letter would hide it, so he put it in plain sight. He knew that the letter was supposed to have a certain appearance, so he refolded it into a different shape and added a new bit of sealing wax, rather like information on food labels is being reshaped and hidden in plain sight.

Bending the parameters on a food label may be a bad idea, but bending them in a story is a good idea, particularly when we have to hide those pesky clues and red herrings. If you want to hide something in plain sight, here are three suggestions.

Surround it with emotions. If the reader is laughing or crying, they are less likely to see what you’ve slipped past them.

Trivialize the information. I read a story in which a woman made a big deal of the summer that a movie star rented the lake cottage next to the one her family owned. She pulled out her scrapbook of that summer, ad nauseam. Characters would run from her rather than ask a single question about that summer. Because you’re smart writers you’ve probably already guessed that the scrapbook and the story were fakes. In reality, she spent summer in a different part of the country, having an affair with the murder victim.

Focus on the wrong problem. I know someone who is a skilled mediator. He was having no luck mediating between farmers who pastured their cows on the far side of a river, and the railroad that had forbidden them to walk their cows across a trestle. One day, as he was sitting by the river, he realized he’d been working on the wrong problem. The problem wasn’t the railroad’s refusal to reopen the trestle to cows, it was how to get the cows across the river. The farmers and the railroad shared the cost of building a small, flat-bottomed rope ferry, and the cows went back and forth every day, as they always had, only this time on the river instead of over it.

_____
Quote for the week:
Experience teaches you that the man who looks you straight in the eye, particularly if he adds a firm handshake, is hiding something.
~Clifton Fadiman, author and editor (1904 - 1999)

Monday, January 18, 2010

You Must Pass This On? You Must Be Kidding.

by Julia Buckley

We all get them: the e-mails that make bizarre promises of luck, riches, or fame. Often they are accompanied by all sorts of praise-filled rhetoric: you are a wonderful person; just wanted to let you know I'm thinking of you; you're a special friend. Some contain cute puppy and kitten photos. Others offer inspirational visuals accompanied by encouraging text: You can only achieve when you try.

Sometimes I'm really caught up in these e-mails, inspired by the text or pictures. And then I get to the bottom, where I read a message something like this: "You must send this on to twelve friends in the next twenty minutes or you will not have good luck." Conversely, if I DO send it to those friends, I am assured of some amazing results.

I have many questions about these e-mails. Here are some:

Who writes them? Who takes the time to compile not just the elaborate text and visual combinations, but then the strange chain-letter stuff at the bottom?

Why do they do it? What's in it for them? Are they somehow gleaning e-mail addresses every time someone continues the ridiculous chain of nothing? Or do they just take pleasure from the fact that someone out there is falling for the gag? (And people do pass them on--intelligent people who send them to me with the added line, "Just in case!" What does that mean?)

What's the draw
? I understand that people are superstitious, but why would they think that, assuming some entity out there had the power to actually affect their futures, that this powerful entity would choose to manifest itself through a chain e-mail?

Why the judgment? Many of these e-mails include the added annoyance of preaching. The text will say something like, "We don't appreciate our true friends enough, so send this on to your ten best friends and make their day. Remember, they would do it for you." Well, no they wouldn't, if they know me well enough. :) The ideological sub-text of these e-forwards suggests that someone wants to share their smug outlook with the world at large. Conform, ye chain recipients.

Why promise wealth? I'm sure we've all gotten the Bill Gates e-mail at least once, in which it is stated that Microsoft will give 100 dollars to everyone who passes on the e-mail. It usually says, "I checked this on Snopes and it's true!" That's my first sign that it's not true, as well as the basic understanding that Bill Gates, who hires people to decide how to charitably and equitably distribute his vast fortune, is not going to give people money for forwarding e-mails. Still, my own father sent this to me, with the note, "It's worth a try."

Sure, the Internet is the Wild West and anyone can put bait out there. People are bound to respond, even to send on the things that fool them. But I find something existential in the endless chains, the forwarding on just for the sake of forwarding, or just because some words that appeared onscreen told us to do so. What is the point, of the writing or the sending?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Canada Calling: Jessica Simon

Jessica Simon is a Yukon writer whose Markus Fanger adventure crimes fill a niche long overlooked in Canadian crime fiction, the portrait of crimefighting in a modern Yukon. All walks of Yukon life are reflected in the characters and the stories provide a glimpse into the certain something that makes Yukoners unique in Canada.

PDD:
When they hear "The Yukon," many people are stuck in that Robert Service—Jack London—Sergeant Preston of the Yukon triangle. Does that have an effect on your writing?

Jessica:
Yes, I write with the ghosts of Jack London, Robert Service, Pierre Berton and sometimes his mother, reading over my shoulder, and kibbitzing. Pierre Berton tells me not to use a $10 word when a 50 cent one will do. Robert Service reminds me about the Law of the Yukon. And Jack London's silence of the North…not these days. In fact, this crowd influence me to such a degree that I've established a Klondike Writer's Tour featuring all three. Go to the tour’s web site for an idea of what the tour covers. It'll be on offer again in 2011.

While my work gets compared to Jack London's, which is a great compliment, I strive to show today's Yukon, not that of 100 years ago. My world is recovering from residential school, extracts gold at a rate far exceeding that of the gold rush, flies all over the place (hence the end to the silence of the north), and is far more complex than tales of the gold rush allow.

PDD:
You use the phrase “magic and mystery” when referring to the Yukon. Tell us a little about that.

Jessica:
On the surface, although we have moved on from the last ice age and the gold rush, there are traces of it all over and they are easy to see - just look around at the striations in the rock up that mountainside that marks where waves from a prehistoric lake lapped at the shore. Oh, watch your step; you almost tripped over an artifact.

A little deeper, where Robert Service and Pierre Berton effectively ignored our first nation history, and Jack London didn't have the time in to do an insightful portrayal, I enjoy an integrated culture of first nations and westerners to enliven my stories.

Artistically, the Klondike literati left an indelible legacy for artists in the north. The Yukon currently holds the highest per capita proportion of cultural industry workers in the nation at 4.8%. Ontario has about 2%, British Columbia 3%. We also have Berton House administered by the Writers' Trust of Canada and Klondike Visitors Association to nurture the creative spirit nationwide.

Environmentally, we are being steamrolled by climate change and it’s going to affect us a lot more than the gold rush ever did. It's scary exciting to write about that. If I'm true to what I see, I can't help but reflect those changes in my stories. For example, an acquaintance in the MacKenzie Delta woke up one day to find a hundred foot band of silt with the consistency of quicksand deposited on his shore, making it impossible to reach the ocean. Warming trends had melted an iceplug and the subsequent wash dumped all the debris at his door. What if it had flushed out a skeleton, too?

PDD:
What lit your creative spark to create your detective, Markus Fanger?

Jessica:
A different one from what instigated From Ice to Ashes. I announced to my mom when I was 11 that I'd be a writer.

Markus Fanger, the character, comes from the Yukon community. There are thousands of German-speaking Yukoners and for some reason German police officers—LKA, BKA, Bundesgrenzschutz, Milit√§rdienst—love to holiday in the Yukon. I've met them all on canoe trips, driving dog teams, in the supermarket, and knowing them has given plausibility to Fanger's character.

His name is a mixture of my nephew's name and the German word for "to catch." For the longest time (through most of the first draft of Abenteuer Whitewater) Fanger was my husband, until the day he had a reaction my husband would never have. That was the day Fanger became his own man.

As a result, Fanger's adventures are not coming out chronologically. From Ice to Ashes is set in 2004, the manuscript I'm writing now spans 1991 to 2011 and a third Fanger adventure plays out at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul during Expo 2000.

PDD: Tell us a little about From Ice to Ashes.

Jessica:
In brief: While volunteering for the Yukon Arctic Ultra extreme race, it’s up to auxiliary constable Markus Fanger and a young offender to thwart a terrorist bent on destroying military targets in Alaska.

This started out as a fanciful adventure story inspired by the series 24. I thought it would be great to have Jack Bauer trying to prevent doomsday in the north. He’d be thwarted by crappy communications, bad weather, the unavailability of only one chopper in town which is booked for the rest of the summer with a mining camp… The possibilities were endless. But as usually happens, northern reality crept in and the whole community chipped in to create Fanger’s fictional adventure. The setting came from the Yukon Arctic Ultra, as well as the plot structure which mimics the race itself (pre-race/training, the race, post-race wrap-up). The stunts come from a site devoted to extreme sledding, and the characters from my community.

PDD:
How does what Fanger faces solving mysteries in the north differ from him solving mysteries in, say, Red Deer, Alberta or Guelph, Ontario?

Jessica:
The Incidence of Coincidence is exceptionally high here. In real life a lot of crime in the Yukon is solved by bumping into the suspect, and/or listening to the rumour mill and moccasin telegraph. If I wrote how much coincidence there really is, no reader or publisher would believe it. I had the opportunity to confirm this once with Yrsa Sigurdardottir, an Icelandic crime writer who said that the same thing happens in Iceland.

Distance here is measured in hours, not miles or kilometres. So if someone says on page 19 that it takes 8 hours to get to Dawson and on page 137 its only 6, that's because the conditions improved between page 19 and 137. Yukoners are completely fixated on the weather, the sky, and the light.

We are the last frontier of the cutting edge of technology, and when technology meets the weather, life gets interesting. Via internet, on January 25 from 7-8 pm in Alberta, I'll be a guest at the Delia Public Library. However, if a raven shits on the power line it's game over. This same technological frustration pervades police work and a standing piece of advice here is don't trust your life to something that beeps or blinks. Everyone--cops, criminals, victims, witnesses have to be able to look after themselves, which creates a very personal toughness I sometimes take for granted but southerners find unusual.

The differences aren't just north/south. Only the Yukon is the Yukon. Alaska is different. Eastern and Western Arctic are different. So not only am I beholden to represent the north's uniqueness to southern readers, I'm also careful to make my books distinctly Yukon so someone in Yellowknife or Barrow can read my stories and find similarities and differences.

PDD:
You’re involved with the Artic Ultra, which bills itself as the world's coldest and toughest ultra Marathon for Mountain Bikers, cross-country Skiers and Runners. The Ultra itself is taking a break this year. Tell us what you’re doing instead.

Jessica:
Since the Ultra's inception in 2002, I've been involved either organizing or staffing a checkpoint at Dog Grave Lake, a remote location - off road, off grid, off line.




Now the Yukon Quest, which this year runs from Fairbanks starting February 6, has asked us to make our Ultra talents available to them as hosts of the Scroggie Creek Checkpoint on the Quest trail. This site is in the middle of the Black Hills, the same ones Jack London wrote of occasionally. While our communications possibilities are limited, readers can follow the race through our electronic checkpoint. See you, virtually, at Scroggie Creek!

To learn more about Jessica, her books and her interests, visit her web site.

All photographs ©Jessica Simon and used in this blog with her permission.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Author's foot lands in author's mouth? How embarrassing.

By Lonnie Cruse

How embarrassing would it be for any author to insist publicly that she/he did not want her/his books to become e-books or to have them be available on the Kindle or any other e-reader, only to find out that they were already available as e-books? Oops! This caused QUITE the stir on the Kindle discussion lists recently, let me tell you, because apparently some unflattering things were said by the author about e-reader owners!

To be fair, some fans of the author said the author apologized for the remarks, but other less tolerant insisted that it's been said more than once. I can't prove it either way. The upshot of this discussion was that many Kindle owners have vowed not to buy this author's books. Shooting oneself in the foot while the other foot is stuffed firmly into one's mouth makes walking quite difficult.

Admittedly, we authors are a strange bunch. We spend days on end staring at a computer screen, trying to write what we hope readers will want to read, sometimes still dressed in our jammies, taking breaks only for the potty or to throw in another load of laundry and grab a sandwich on our way back to the computer. It's easy to forget our company manners when out in public, particularly if we haven't BEEN in public for a while. Whatever the cause, it behooves us all to watch not only the words that we put on paper, but more important, the words that fall out of our mouths. And it behooves us to keep up with modern technology, particularly as it affects the writing and publishing industry.

E-books are apparently here to stay. And, trust me, they aren't just for the wealthy. Many folks on a budget, including me, ask for gift certificates with which to buy an e-reader. Or to add books to said e-reader. Many e-reader owners are folks with eye problems who need to be able to increase the font size off all the books they read, or who have other physical impairments that make holding an e-reader and pressing a button to turn pages much easier than holding a physical book and trying to turn paper pages. And like it or not, e-reader books save trees. They save books from being remaindered when they don't sell. And they save shelf space in book stores and in homes.

Writers may or may not like e-readers but e-books are catching on like a house afire and he or she who refuses to recognize this and participate risks losing money, not to mention going the way of the dinosaur. And that will be as painful for the writer as it was for the dinosaur. Trust me.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

“How long does it take to write a book?” Author's day in a fifth grade classroom

Elizabeth Zelvin

On a cloudy afternoon in November, editorial expert Chris Roerden, technical writer Pat Meller, and I pulled up to the Pilot Elementary School in Greensboro, NC. We had a date with a fifth grade class to talk about what it means to be a writer and editor. We found an eager audience whose hands started shooting up with questions before we’d finished introducing ourselves.

“How long does it take to write a book?” My “57 years to get the first one published” didn’t get as big a laugh as it does with grownups, but they were suitably impressed when Chris described the five and six year process a couple of her books required. When she said she’d ghostwritten some books and Pat mentioned her research on the biology of rhesus monkeys, they had more questions.
“What does a ghostwriter do?” “Do you write about things that you already know?” “How do you find out about things you don’t know?” “When you interview someone, do you do it on a computer or in person?”

These kids have computers in their classroom, but their grasp of how things work is still under construction. “What kind of pen do you write your books with?” “How do you make more copies of a book?” “How do you get the pictures on the covers of your books?” The child who asked that one meant “How do the pictures get onto the cover?” rather than “Where do the pictures come from?” But they all liked my story about how the cover designer of Death Will Get You Sober created the shattered whiskey glass by shooting it with a gun and shooting the event with high-speed film. They were less surprised than I was when I learned it hadn’t been done on a computer. In a child’s world, as the whole afternoon reminded me, anything is possible.

Of course, these 21st century children have the common cultural preoccupations of our era. “Are you famous?” they asked. I was relieved they didn’t lose interest when we all had to say no to that one. “Have any of your books been made into movies?” They were as ready to hear that Chris’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Pat’s scientific and technical works had made the big screen as my murder mysteries. We had to disappoint them there too, though they liked my story about how the producer of The Mummy, Public Enemies, and Erin Brockovich thought it was a terrific read and would make a great TV series. (Alas, he doesn't do TV.)

“Have you met anybody famous?” We all had to think about that one. Oprah is famous. Kobe Bryant is famous. So is Tiger Woods. And President Obama. Writers? JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are famous. We hadn't met any of them. Chris Grabenstein registered, but not by name. Several of them lit up when I mentioned his Agatha- and Anthony-winning and Edgar-nominated middle-grade paranormal mystery, The Crossroads. The awards meant nothing to them--but they'd read the book. They were even more excited to hear it’s been optioned for the movies. But what really impressed them most was when I told them that before becoming a mystery writer (and also before he worked in advertising with James Patterson, who is not famous by kid standards), Chris used to do stand-up comedy with...are you ready for it? Bruce Willis.

The best moment of a memorable afternoon? It was pretty special when the kids came crowding around us clamoring for our autographs. We wrote them with a green Sharpie on bookmarks for Don't Sabotage Your Submission, scraps of paper, and notebook covers. But even better were the hugs we got from one little girl--the one who understood it when I said my book was about recovery from alcoholism, because her uncle is in a "mission" getting help.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lori Armstrong Introduces a New Heroine

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Lori Armstrong, the Shamus Award-winning author of Snow Blind and three earlier novels in the Julie Collins private eye series, introduces a new heroine this month with the release of No Mercy, featuring former Army sniper Mercy Gunderson.

Lori’s first Julie Collins mystery, Blood Ties (2005) was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America. The second book in the series, Hallowed Ground (2006) was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original and a Daphne du Maurier Award, and it won the Willa Cather Literary Award for Best Original Softcover Fiction. Shallow Grave (2007) was nominated for a 2008 High Plains Book Award and a Daphne du Maurier Award and was a finalist for the 2008 WILLA Award. The fourth book, Snow Blind (2008) won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. Lori is a fourth generation South Dakotan and lives in Rapid City with her family. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in the firearms industry. Visit her website for more information about her books and her appearance schedule.

Q. Congratulations on your Shamus win! What does the award mean to you as a writer?

A. Since my character Julie Collins is a PI, for me, the Shamus Award, given by the Private Eye Writers of America, is “the” big award in the mystery world. Snow Blind was the third book that’d been nominated over the last four years, so I guess third time’s the charm! I was thrilled and stunned to hear I’d won. I couldn’t attend Bouchercon due to deadlines, and I accepted via cell phone when my name was announced at the award banquet. At first I thought my friend Judy was pulling my leg. She said, “You won, I’m on my way to the podium right now, what would you like me to say?” I sort of fumbled through thanks etc., because I honestly hadn’t expected to win. When I heard afterward that all my writing heroes, like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, had been in the audience, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t there as I might’ve gone all geeky fan girl on them.

Q. Tell us about the first book in your new Mercy Gunderson series, No Mercy.

A. Mercy Gunderson comes home to South Dakota on medical leave from the army. Her father just died, leaving the fate of her family’s large 100-year-old ranch in her hands. Problem is, Mercy left home at age eighteen because she wanted nothing to do with the ranch or that lifestyle. A body shows up on their land and the local sheriff is dragging his feet investigating, so Mercy gets embroiled in all sorts of situations that are just as dangerous as the ones she faced in war, but the stakes are higher because it’s personal.

Q. Has the Julie Collins series ended?

A. Snow Blind is the last book in the Julie Collins series. Hopefully I’ll be writing Mercy books for a few years. Right now I’m contracted for one other book in the Mercy Gunderson series, which I’m working on now.

Q. How do Mercy and Julie differ? What kind of stories can you write about Mercy that you couldn’t write about Julie?

A. Mercy is as cool-headed as Julie is hot-headed. As career army, Mercy is used to following orders. Julie doesn’t like anyone telling her what to do. Mercy worships her recently deceased father and holds herself to his standard. Julie’s relationship with her father is irreparable and she refuses to be anything like him. As far as similarities, they both lost their mothers at an early age. They’re both loyal, opinionated, tough and smart. They both like to drink and are attracted to men that maybe on the surface aren’t the best match for them. Mercy is one quarter Sioux, but she’s never embraced that part of her heritage, so I can explore that racial identity aspect more in this series.

Q. Both your series have Native American characters and themes. Are you drawing on personal knowledge, or do you have to research the culture? Do you have Native American friends you can turn to for advice?

A. I do a ton of research, hands-on mostly. One of the things I love about living here are the opportunities to do research, either formally, talking to Native people, or observing them in social and public situations. What’s been both enlightening and disheartening is the learning curve I’ve undertaken in the last ten years. To be honest, when I started research, I realized I didn’t know much about the Lakota culture after being a South Dakotan all my life. I’ve tried to rectify that. I have several friends who have helped me out immensely with Lakota language, traditions, and are willing to answer my oftentimes bizarre questions. I try to make everything as accurate as I can, but that means touching on some of the issues on the reservations and within the culture that aren’t pretty.

Q. What kind of work did you do in the firearms industry? Has that background come in handy in your fiction writing?

A. My husband’s family owns a firearms manufacturing business and I worked as a bookkeeper for ten years. On one hand, it’s great because I have gun experts at my fingertips; on the other hand, some people look at the words “firearms industry” and think I’m a gun-toting redneck. But the pros definitely outweigh the cons and my husband doesn’t balk at my bizarre questions any more.

Q. A lot has been written and said recently about violence against women in crime novels. Is this an issue you ever consider when you’re writing? Do you have any strong feelings one way or the other about crime novels in which women are usually the victims?

A. No. I have to turn off the internal editor, aka, worrying about what family, friends, readers, etc. might think when I’m working on a book and stay true to the story/characters/plot as I see it. I don’t back away from detailing violent acts. In most instances everything happens right on the page, rather than having my main female characters “hear” about a murder. Why? Because for me as a writer, it makes the stakes and reaction to the brutality more real, more immediate, and more dangerous, especially since I’m penning a darker rather than a lighter type of mystery. Violent death is horrible, regardless if the victim is a woman or a man.

Q. In addition to crime fiction, you’ve published a number of contemporary erotic western romances under the name Lorelei James. Why do you use different names in the two genres?

A. I get that question a lot, if I took another name because I’m embarrassed to write erotic romance (erotic romance is completely different than erotica, by the way). My answer? Absolutely not, I am just as proud of the romances as I am of the mysteries. The books have a plot, intriguing characters, a believable conflict and a world I can explore since I’m in essence writing a western saga, featuring members of the same family. I took on a pen name for the romances strictly for shelving purposes in bookstores and libraries.

Since I started writing toward publication in 2000, I knew I’d need a counterbalance in my writing life; switching back and forth allows me to write in first person point of view (mysteries) and multiple third person points of view (romances). Plus, writing mysteries takes me to some dark places. I figured if I was going to write about the worst aspects of life and humanity, murder, hatred and violence, then I wanted to write about the best aspects too, finding love, happiness with a happily ever after and the added bonus of some smokin’ hot sex scenes. I’m lucky I don’t have to choose one genre over the other and can write in both, but it does make for incredibly tight deadlines.

Q. Do you feel at all constrained in the way you can depict sexual relationships in your mysteries?

A. Yes. I took some hits on Shallow Grave for the very explicit sex scene. But it wasn’t gratuitous, and I won’t apologize for it because the scene furthered several important plots in the story line. My (former) editor at Simon and Schuster requested changes in the early edit stage of No Mercy, regarding a scene or two and I had no problem changing them. So the level of intimacy allowed in a series is subjective based on individual editorial preference. I’ll be working with a new editor for the second Mercy book, so it’ll be interesting to see what her editorial style will be when it comes to allowing me to explore the intimate side of relationships.

Q. What are your writing habits?

A. I write every day, without exception. I’ve been under extremely tight deadlines for the last few years, so I’ve had no choice but to hit a certain word count every day or risk being late on my deadline. I’ve taken very little time off. But with the state of the publishing industry, I will be the last person to complain about too much work! And I love it; I have the best job in the world.

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are still struggling to break into print?

A. There is no muse. Don’t wait to be inspired. Sit down, get to work and finish a project. Edit. Then edit some more. Rinse, repeat!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What’s Mine is NOT Up for Grabs

Sharon Wildwind

I am not in a good mood.

The social experiment failed. Today, I de-friended a bunch of people that I like a lot, and deactivated my Facebook account.

Three things pushed me over the edge.

First, I had set my preferences so that I would not see the messages like “Jane Doe is now friends with Betty Jones.” While I like Jane—after all, I did friend her—and don’t have a clue who Betty is, I figure that what goes on between the two of them is none of my business. Several weeks ago, the viewing format options changed. While I could still hide those messages on my Wall and Live Feed, I could not hide them when I grouped people into lists.

Granted, not being able to do that may be a technical deficiency on my part. There may well have been a way to turn them off in lists, but I couldn’t find it. I was being bombarded with dozens of messages like that every day. It was basically irritating. Who needs irritation on a daily basis?

The second thing was a little scarier. It appeared in an on-line article by Sarah Perez. The article was called What Facebook Quizzes Know About You.

Usually, I ignored, and turned off all of those quizzes. I don’t need to take a quiz to know that my favorite movie star is Paul Gross; that the hobbit I most admire Samwise Gangee; or that the vegetable I most resemble is broccoli. Life-altering realizations like that should be discovered by private introspection, preferably after a few glasses of good white wine, in the safety of my own home.

According to Ms. Perez, ignoring the quizzes and turning them off isn’t any protection. If my Facebook friends are taking those quizzes, then all of my information is available to the person who created the quiz. Who knows who that person might be?

The third point—the tipping point—came in an on-line article/video yesterday in which Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was interviewed. Mr. Zuckerberg said, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. . . . We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.”

Unlimited access to my information is not my social norm. I quit.

Granted, there are still approximately 349,999,999 other Facebook users out there who are blithely sharing everything from their home addresses to their entire educational and work history on line, so I won’t make any dent whatsoever in the pond. And yes, I do know that I haven’t really removed my information from Facebook. I’ve only deactivated it. As I logged out for the last time, Facebook assured me that, any time I care to use my existing login information, I can rejoin them at any time.

Roughly 12,000,000 of those remaining users are in Canada, and the Canadian government is not happy about Facebook, either. Back last summer a report from our Candian Privacy Commissioner found “serious privacy gaps in the way the [Facebook] site operates.” This included a clear violation of Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

The problem is there is very little that any government can do to enforce laws on the Internet.
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Quote for the week:
All violations of essential privacy are brutalizing.
~Katherine Fullerton Gerould, American writer (1879-1944)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Daphne Du Maurier Delights

by Julia Buckley
Every year I celebrate Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca by showing the Hitchcock film to my composition class and then encouraging them to write about the story. No matter how many times I hear (or read) "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," I am willing to go, too.

We happen to be watching the movie today, and I was thinking about it all weekend, so naturally life kept putting Daphne Du Maurier's name in front of me, haunting me the way Rebecca haunted the new Mrs. de Winter.


First I saw an ad for a new mystery series featuring a young Daphne Du Maurier as its sleuth. Joanna Challis, it told me, has written a fictional tale called The Cliffside Murders in which a young Daphne Du Maurier, already dreaming of becoming a writer, becomes embroiled in a mystery which will eventually inspire the writing of Rebecca.

The cover alone makes this one look worth reading--nothing like a moody sky to get me to pick up a mystery.





Then, while investigating The Cliffside Murders, I found this gem: Editor Patrick McGrath has compiled a selection of Du Maurier's creepiest stories for the reader's pleasure.

Du Maurier won me over way back in the seventh grade, when our teacher read us bits of Jamaica Inn every day after recess. We read the whole book that way, and I was allowed to appreciate Du Maurier's distinctive and moody style, to squirm beneath her suspense while I sat in my little wooden desk.



My fascination with both her stories and with her make me curious about this book:
According to Bas Bleu catalog, Piers Dudgeon, the author of Neverland: J.M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan, once worked with Daphne Du Maurier, and "was intrigued by the fact that Daphne (a granddaughter of George du Maurier) put a moratorium on the publication of her youthful diaries until fifty years after her death. He wondered what she wanted to keep hidden, and as he got deeper and deeper into his research, his suspicions about J. M. Barrie’s maliciousness grew. Though they are often wildly unprovable, Dudgeon’s theories—involving inner demons, twisted psyches, and hypnotism—are irresistibly fascinating! Warning: Your view of Peter Pan may be forever altered."

Ah, yes, all the world loves Daphne, and her mystique continues to sell books, even if they aren't books penned by her.

What's your favorite Du Maurier story?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Julie Hyzy, this week's guest blogger . . .




By Julie Hyzy


I’m so eggcited to be here!


Did you watch IRON CHEF Sunday? In addition to celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and Mario Batali, they featured Cristeta Comerford as one of their culinary combatants. Cristeta, as you may know, is the White House Eggsecutive Chef.

Er… I mean “Executive” ;-)

As you may also know, I write the White House Chef mystery series where Olivia (Ollie) Paras is executive chef. Although my Ollie is fictional, she shares a few of Cristeta’s characteristics: She’s short; she’s talented; and most importantly, she’s the first female to hold the top chef position

I’m eggstatically happy to talk about her today.

So why all the bad puns?

Let me apologize up front for my fondness for “egg” words. Do you remember Vincent Price when he played Egghead on the old Batman TV show? Once I get started I can’t help myself. I’m eggstraordinarily addicted to finding new ways to make funny “yolks.”

Sorry, sorry.

But there is a method to my madness. The third White House Chef Mystery, Eggsecutive Orders, just came out on Tuesday. And with it, this burst of eggstremely bad puns.

Okay, I’ll stop (for now).

If you’ve read State of the Onion, or Hail to the Chef, you’ve met Ollie and you know she’s always getting into big trouble. But when you work for the leader of the free world, deal with the Secret Service on a daily basis, dodge international assassins, and thwart bomb threats, there’s really no such thing as small trouble, is there?

Eggsecutive Orders is set during the week leading up to the annual White House Egg Roll and Ollie has to deal with the worst kind of dinner guest she’s ever encountered—a dead one. NSA head Carl Minkus did not die of natural causes, and now Ollie and her staff are banished from the White House kitchens until their innocence can be proven.

But that’s not all our intrepid chef is juggling right now. Ollie’s mom and grandmother have arrived from Chicago for an extended visit and a personal tour of our nation’s capital. Problem is they’re being followed wherever they go. Whether it’s a nosy reporter making very public accusations or one of the suspects in Carl Minkus’s death who has set his sights (romantically) on Ollie’s mom, there’s just no getting away. Ollie’s also supposed to be providing food — and 15,000 eggs — for the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn. But how can her team do that when they aren’t even allowed in the kitchen?

I had a lot of fun exploring Ollie’s relationships with her family and co-workers in Eggsecutive Orders, and Tom plays a bigger role in this installment than he did in Hail to the Chef. He’s got troubles of his own this time dealing with his Secret Service boss who will do everything in his power to break up Tom’s life with Ollie.

Why is it always so much fun to put characters in trouble? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that I love dreaming up ways to make things worse for Ollie whenever I can. After watching the IRON CHEF Challenge on Sunday, I’ve got loads of new ideas for Book #5. (Book #4 has just been turned in.) The great thing about writing a series set at the White House is that headlines and real-life happenings keep plot ideas spinning in my brain.

Despite all the tension I try to create for Ollie the White House Chef books are considered “cozy” because there’s limited violence, no “adult situations,” and no bad language.

But here’s what I wonder…Does putting my Eggsecutive chef Ollie in hot water make this particular story “hard-boiled?”

I’ll bet you saw that one coming! Sorry! Couldn’t resist!

Thanks so much to Lonnie and all the wonderful writers on Poe’s Deadly Daughters for inviting me to guest on this eggceptional blog!