Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ripped from the History Books

Janice Law Trecker (Guest Blogger)

Back in the Dark Ages when I started writing, my first mystery editor was fond of praising books as “ripped from the headlines.” Like most mystery novelists, I pillaged local crime stories, and for a time I made a good thing out of the London Daily Telegraph’s stellar coverage of chicanery and mayhem of all types.
But for some perverse reason, I was more often drawn to the back page stories, and when I did get inspired by a sensational crime, I was moved to alter the situation almost unrecognizably. Clearly, I wasn’t ready for the big time.

However, I’ve had a more complicated relationship with earlier, “ripped from the history books” crimes and real life historical characters. I’ve done three straight novels based on historical fact, only one of which, All the King’s Ladies, set at the Versailles court of Louis XIV, was a success. It was detailed and historically accurate but it filtered much of the action through minor characters.

Less successful were The Countess, which borrowed the career, but not the full biography or personality, of a real SOE agent during WW2, and a novel about the filibustering William Walker, who for a time made himself president of Nicaragua in the run up to our Civil War. The latter, as agents like to say, “never found its audience.”

With these less than stellar results, a smart writer would clearly have steered clear of real folks, even if they were safely dead. However, a certain persistence being a requirement for any writer, I was recently tempted back to the history books, or at least, to the memoirs, to write a trilogy of mystery novels using Francis Bacon. Not the Renaissance Francis Bacon of political and scientific influence but the 20th century Anglo-Irish painter.

Gay, promiscuous, alcoholic, and a genius, Bacon was out of my usual range and, believe me, I spent quite a bit of time considering whether he was really a good idea. Then I learned he had lived with his old nanny until her death, and the game was on. As a downstairs child on an upstairs downstairs estate, I knew Nan, at least. The result was Fires of London – Francis during the Blitz - and the new Prisoner of the Riviera – Francis on a French holiday that goes bad, with a concluding volume forthcoming.

These novels have written a good deal easier than my earlier ventures into historical fiction, and I think I know why: I’ve hit the right balance between historical accuracy and the imaginative freedom required by the novel. This is easier said than done, especially if, like me, one has also written history books and historical articles. All too often I’d hear a little nagging voice in my ear saying, “that’s not strictly true,” just at the moment when I most needed a little room to maneuver with the plot.

With Francis, whom I think of as FB and not as the real London bon vivant, I’ve tried to be true to his personality and talents and accurate about his intimates (although except for Nan, I’ve changed their names). But I’ve felt free within the parameters of his life- he was, for example, a real Air Raid Preparedness warden during the Blitz– to invent quite wild episodes with truly fictional characters.

Similarly, FB really did go to France shortly after the war ended, and he really did go with both his lover of the moment and Nan. That’s actually probably weird enough. I think we can assume that he never got involved, as he does in the new novel, with professional bicycle racers and French gangsters, although since he was acquainted with the notorious Kray Brothers in London, I think I can claim that at least he brought the gangsters on himself.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway, if I feel twinges of guilt for borrowing his life and personality for entertainment. There is something dodgy about mixing fact and fiction, especially with modern characters, and I feel that. But the Muse has her own imperatives and I’ve found it unwise to reject anything that she insists. And then, a little guilt is probably a wholesome thing for any writer of that genre of violence, guilt, and retribution, the mystery novel.

Besides the Bacon novels, Janice Law is the author of the Anna Peters series of mysteries and numerous stand alone novels and short stories.

Friday, November 29, 2013


by Sheila Connolly
My great-great-grandfather, Silas Barton, was one of the founders of the General Electric Company.  At least indirectly:  he was responsible for rescuing the floundering Thomson-Houston Electric Company, persuading them to move to Lynn, Massachusetts and getting them the contract to electrify a new building being erected there by the Grand Army of the Republic, of which he was a member. He went to work for Thomson-Houston, and even managed their Chicago office for a couple of years. I still have a pair of light bulbs they made before 1900. In 1893, Thomson-Houston merged with Thomas Edison’s New Jersey-based company and General Electric was born (they still have a plant in Lynn).  Silas worked for GE the Boston office for a few years. He didn’t follow them when they moved to Schenectady, New York, but his brother Daniel did, and worked for them for the rest of his life.

By interesting coincidence, Thomson-Houston won the contract to introduce electricity to the town where I now live, at the time that Silas was working for them. So there’s a direct (family) line from the 1890s to the current that’s flowing through my laptop as I type now.

Those of us of a “certain age” share memories of a lot of evolving technologies.  When I first used a telephone (you know, those clunky black things with a rotary dial), there was a live operator, and you had to give her the phone number you wanted.  Now I have an iPhone.

When I was in high school my computer science class (the first offered by the school—we had to borrow computer time from a local college, and the computer was larger than my refrigerator and lived in a chilled room), we toured the local New Jersey Bell Labs offices, which we were told was cutting edge at the time.  Now my aforementioned cell-phone does most of what we witnessed there.

My father was the custodian of the family’s cabinet-model “record player,” a piece of furniture encased in mahogany, with storage for some records as well as a radio built in.  My sister and I were not allowed to touch it.  He and my mother were partial to Broadway musicals, and I can still sing along with most of them, because they used it regularly.  Now (you guessed it) my cell-phone can handle the same music instantly, with better sound quality.

And now there are digital books. I come from a family of readers.  We lived in a series of rented houses, mainly built in the 1920s, and most of them had “libraries” with a lot of built-in bookcases, so storage was never a problem. Now I can download books onto my (yes) iPhone or iPad or Nook—more books than any of those houses could have held.

We had an Encyclopedia Britannica for homework.  Now we have Google.

And we handle all of this in our overtaxed brains.  Yes, I can still remember my grandmother’s phone number from the 1950s.

Funny—if there are any links among all of these technological advances, it is that the delivery systems have consistently become smaller and faster.  Does that mean we are a mobile and impatient society?
By the way, my ebook Relatively Dead (May 2013) includes descriptions based on the house where Silas Barton lived in Waltham, as well as the cemetery where he is buried.



Thursday, November 28, 2013

Plenty to be thankful for

Elizabeth Zelvin

Since I've been blogging every Thursday for the past seven years, it's always fallen to me to write the Thanksgiving Day post. We all know that some people maintain a positive attitude about their lives and the world around them (glass half full) and others are chronically overwhelmed by everything that does or can go wrong (glass half empty), taking refuge in cynicism or negativity as a defense against disappointment.

Thinking about my writing career, along with all the other events and circumstances of my life, I've concluded that both perspectives are correct. Don't take my word for it. Take an eight-ounce glass and pour four ounces of water into it. Take a look. Is the glass half full? Yes. Is it half empty? Yes again. I've also concluded that I feel a lot happier when I choose to focus on the pleasures and successes rather than the failures and frustrations. Counting one's blessings may sound corny, but it probably has the same impact on the brain as listening to Mozart. And Thanksgiving is an excellent time to do it. So I'm going for a double dose of happy hormones this year: the endorphins released by the L-tryptophan in the turkey and the warm, fuzzy feelings I get from reflecting on all that's good in my life.

For starters, I'm still a published writer, and that's something that can never be undone. E-editions of all my novels and a new novella came out as e-books this year, as did a collection of my stories; the three novels were also released as audio books. Two new short stories appeared, one in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the other in Mysterical-E. And after turning a lot of stones, I've decided to e-publish Voyage of Strangers, my novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America.

For someone on the brink of turning 70 (the new 39, in my opinion), I'm in remarkably good health. An alarming number of people I know have debilitating or life-threatening diseases. I have to stretch for fifteen minutes every morning to unkink my back, and I take pills so I won't get what used to be agonizing migraines, but for the moment that's the worst of it. I work out every day by walking 45 minutes or more with walking poles, usually through Central Park, which is beautiful in every season. My cholesterol is fine, I have the blood pressure of a baby, I've got my father's wrinkle-resistant skin, and I'm genetically programmed for longevity on both sides of the family.

And speaking of family, I am blessed. Unlike the guys in TV shows, movies, and novels, the most important men in my life--my father, my husband, my son--have all been one-woman men. My husband works hard at his job and (I have to admit this because he might read it) does way more than his share of domestic chores. My son is one of those Gen X dads who's an equal partner in parenting. He loves his job and makes a good living, so I don't have to worry about him. Finally my two granddaughters are the light of my life. They're coming today for Thanksgiving dinner, and it doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Favorite 2013 Books

By Sandra Parshall

The year isn’t over, and I suppose it’s possible the audio of Dan Brown’s Inferno that I just picked up from the library could turn out to be one of my favorite books published in 2013... but I doubt it. I also haven’t gotten around to several 2013 books that I know I will enjoy, and I probably won’t get to them until January or February. So, for what it’s worth, here are the books I liked best this year.

BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent: By far my favorite, but a book that many will find difficult to read. The writing is gorgeous, the story heartwrenching. Set in bleak northern Iceland in the early 19th century, the novel is loosely based on the life of the last woman to be executed in that country. Agnes is a young woman who, along with a young man and another woman, has been convicted of murdering the man she worked for, who was also her lover. All three have been sentenced to death by beheading.

Iceland had no system of jails, and both long-term prisoners and the condemned were normally transported to Denmark. In this case, however, the decision is made to carry out the executions in Iceland and to put the prisoners to work on different farms while they await death. Agnes is placed in the care of a family with three daughters. Everyone fears her, without realizing what a sad, helpless, harmless creature she is. Over several months, as death draws closer and Agnes confides in her spiritual adviser and eventually the women in whose home she’s living, Agnes slowly reveals the truth about her childhood as an orphan and the tangled relationships that ended in murder. This is an astonishing and spellbinding first novel that took me to a time and place I could not have imagined and introduced me to a unique character.

SYCAMORE ROW by John Grisham: This surprised me, because I’m not much of a Grisham fan. The two or three books of his that I’ve read in the past disappointed me. This one sounded special – a convoluted southern saga involving family secrets and race, set in the transitional 1980s, a delicate time between blatant, legally sanctioned discrimination and the new order, in which racism still exists but equality is enforced, albeit unevenly. I loved this book. It’s filled with fully realized and instantly recognizable characters, and it unspools in a fashion that makes it hard to put down.

The story: A cranky old man in smalltown Mississippi decides to kill himself rather than wait for advanced cancer to finish him off with agonizing slowness. Shortly before his death, he changes his will, cutting out his dreadful son and daughter and their offspring and leaving 90% of his approximately $25 million estate to his middle-aged black housekeeper. He chooses a lawyer he’s never met – Jake Brigance, the young hero of A Time to Kill, the events of which took place three years earlier – to make sure his children don’t succeed in a court challenge. Son and daughter, of course, try to prove undue influence or a sexual relationship. The truth of the old man’s motivation, however, lies buried so deep that it isn’t uncovered until the last pages of the book. This is a great yarn that never bored me for a second.

YOU ARE NOW LESS DUMB: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself by David McRaney: Don’t yawn. It’s good! It’s entertaining! It will make you laugh! More than that, it will make you think...about the way you think. McRaney uses a conversational, amusing style to explore human thought processes and how they’re guided or stymied by society, the reasons why we form opinions and make snap decisions, and much more. He has a lot to say about the human need to put everything into context, to turn every event into a story so it will make sense: this happened, which led to that, and here’s the reason why. McRaney recommends a book called Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron, which I bought immediately and will put to good use.

NO MAN’S NIGHTINGALE by Ruth Rendell: This is an Inspector Wexford story, coming as the series nears its 50th anniversary. Wexford is retired now, but he’s called out to consult in the murder of a female vicar who has been an outspoken advocate for church reform. I prefer Rendell’s sharp suspense standalones and her dense psychological novels written as Barbara Vine to the Wexfords, but anything new from this wonderful writer is always welcome.

NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl: It’s too long, but I loved it. Veteran journalist Scott McGrath begins looking into the suicide of beautiful young Ashley Cordova, daughter of Stanislas Cordova, reclusive director of a dozen horror films with a massive cult following. The story winds round and round, visiting some strange and fascinating places and people, and parts of it are surprisingly funny. Great entertainment, and I thought it was delightful.

RAGE AGAINST THE DYING by Becky Masterson: Brigid Quinn, an (involuntarily) retired FBI agent in her late fifties, is a marvelous character. In this terrific debut (which deserves all kinds of award nominations in the coming year), Brigid is living quietly and happily with her new husband, who has little idea what her past as an undercover agent was like. Now she’s drawn back into action when someone confesses to the still unsolved murder of Brigid’s former partner and the agent currently working the case disappears. Brigid is torn between getting justice, saving another agent’s life, and endangering herself and the man with whom she has finally found happiness. Read this one for the character. Brigid is unforgettable.

UNSEEN by Karin Slaughter: Will Trent goes undercover to catch a murderous drug dealer and crosses paths with Detective Lena Adams. It’s a Will Trent book. That’s enough for me. I would follow this character anywhere.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Murder Mystery Arc

Sharon Wildwind

Murder mysteries are about the rights of the individual versus the rights of the community, the battle between good and evil, and the triumph of justice. While, in general, murder mysteries follow the traditional dramatic arc, with the protagonist’s fortunes rising, climaxing, and resolving, there are a few more twists and turns in a mystery arc.

A = a body is discovered. The book’s events are set in motion.
B = suspects, clues, and red herrings are investigated. The protagonist makes a tentative and often impersonal commitment, as in she’s a police officer. It’s her job to investigate; or, for the amateur, her best friend is in trouble, so naturally she’ll help out. Note that during this stage the protagonist’s ups and downs are shallower than they will be later.
C = a second body is found. The protagonist has failed to prevent this subsequent crime.
D = the protagonist makes a second, more personal commitment to see that justice is done. At this point her personal fortune becomes tied to the greater group good, and she makes a promise, at least to herself and perhaps to others, that she will carry through to the end no matter what the cost.
E = the clues and red herrings become more significant, with a greater impact on both the personal and public stakes.
F = the protagonist confronts a personal threat in bringing the killer to justice.
G = resolution. The protagonist doesn’t return to the original starting point — except perhaps in farces, see below. She has been irrevocably changed by the search for justice.

The above arc deals with the murder resolution. There are also one or more personal arcs that deal with the private fortunes of individual characters.  Personal arcs include romance and relationships, danger to family members, danger to the personal community, personal fortunes, and living conditions (house, salary, possessions, etc.).

The personal community is a small part of the larger community. It includes those people with whom the protagonist had day-to-day contact: friends, co-workers, and maybe a special interest that the protagonist has, such as rescuing abandoned dogs or running a store. It is terribly important to the protagonist, but isn’t important to the larger public community in the same way. For example, a police abuse scandal might enrage public opinion, but the police officer involved is concerned about how the scandal affects her partner, who is one of the people accused.

The personal stakes are played out in contrast to or in synchronization with the public stakes of righting of wrong and the triumph of justice. Mysteries from North America and England usually ground themselves in the need for justice to triumph. Mysteries by writers from other parts of the world may have a different view of justice or may reflect a society where justice is not possible or is not common.

Here are four ways that this interplay of public and private stakes can play out.

Public Stakes
Public Stakes
Private Stakes
Both the public stakes and the private stakes rise in synchronization. Justice is done and everyone lives happily—or relatively happily—until the next book in the series. Usually found in traditional (cozy) mysteries, but also quite common in many mysteries.
The public stakes and the private stakes operate in contrast. Justice is done, but the private stakes fall. The characters sacrifice personal happiness for the good of the community. When well done, can lead to an award-winning book.
Private Stakes
The private stakes rise, but justice is not done. Very rare in North American mysteries because it leaves the reader dissatisfied that the world is not put right. Not so rare in the rest of the world, particularly in countries that have a recent history of civil wars, dictatorships, or civil rights issues.
Both the public stakes and the private stakes fall. Justice is incomplete or is not achieved and there is a personal loss. Characteristic of mean streets, noir, and the suspended tragedies written in the past 15 to 20 years. Suspended tragedies often involve serial killers who escape, only to return in subsequent stories.

Mysteries are written on a continuum from very funny ones, which are in many cases farces or pastiches of the genre, to extremely dark stories, which leave the reader in doubt of their sanity or the sanity of the world.

The comments below related to lighter fare, also apply in farces. The difference between a farce and light fare is that, in farces, not much changes in the protagonist’s life as a result of their encounter with murder and justice. The personal loss often has a comic touch, such as Great Aunt Matilda’s portrait, which the protagonist hates, being destroyed when the she hits the killer over the head with it.

There was supposed to be a chart here comparing across the mystery spectrum for characters; discovery of the body; police and forensic details; suspects and interviews; the significant threat — where the personal and public arcs often intersect; the number of bodies; confrontation, revelation, and resolution in different types of mysteries. But with that amount of information, it didn't fit in the width allotted for the blog. To see and/or print a .pdf of the table, click here.

Quote for the week
The most difficult part of any crime novel is the plotting. It all begins simply enough, but soon you're dealing with a multitude of linked characters, strands, themes and red herrings - and you need to try to control these unruly elements and weave them into a pattern.
~ Ian Rankin. OBE, DL, Scottish crime writer, best known for his Inspector Rebus novels.

Just in case you find English honorifics confusing,
OBE is Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, given to Ranking in 2002 for services to literature.

DL is a military commission, a person chosen by the local Lord-Lieutenant, to assist them with their duties, as required. Deputy Lieutenants tend to be people who either have served the local community, or have a history of service in other fields.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Taking the Thanks out of Thanksgiving

by Julia Buckley

I've never been a fan of Black Friday and all that it represents, so this year I was shocked and disheartened to hear that Black Friday and all of its rapacity is apparently not enough for some merchants and customers--now the phenomenon of crazy sales and early buying is intruding into Thanksgiving itself.  Never mind spending time with Grandma at her traditional table--there's an X Box to be had for a song somewhere in the sale-filled night.

Why the change?  Sellers are worried about total shopping days, which, due to the late Thanksgiving, have been reduced from 32 days last year to 26 this year.  Somehow it will translate--potentially--into millions of dollars lost if proprietors cannot find ways to entice consumers into the stores.

So here's a run-down of the stores who will be competing for your family's attention on Thanksgiving Day:

6 AM   K Mart

9  AM   Old Navy

5  PM    Toys R Us

6  PM    Walmart, Best Buy, Sports Authority

8  PM    Target, Macy's, Kohl's, Staples, Dick's Sporting Goods, Office Max, Office Depot

Some people look forward to these early sales, not just because of low prices, but because they find a certain festive holiday anticipation in the line itself.  Perhaps this has become the new tradition for many Americans.  But since the tradition is based upon a widespread materialism, it doesn't seem to offer the same rewards as celebrating with family or enjoying the peace and quiet of home without the distractions of daily life.

The big date is approaching: Thanksgiving Day--the first shopping day of the year, or the day you spend with loved ones, or perhaps both.  Based on the chaos of years past, there is a chance that someone will be maced, or beaten, or trampled, or pepper-sprayed, in the name of the Darwinistic bargain hunt.  Here's hoping that, if you brave the lines, you will come back safely with the presents you sought.

But better yet, enjoy the family and friends around your table, since they are the temporary gifts that we have so little time to truly value at what they are worth.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


By Jeri Westerson

The dreaded rejection. Does it ever end? Even published authors are not immune from rejection, I'm sorry to say. Being published does not guarantee that you are gold. Short stories in magazines, other novels in other genres...there's a long list of ways to be rejected. I thought I'd share a few of my collection over the years. Some of you may know that I started off writing historical fiction and really couldn't get my foot in the door. But the kind of historicals I liked to write--ordinary people in extraordinary settings--seemed to translate better into mystery. So I had many years of rejections. Mostly, they are form rejection letters. Often, it is a note scrawled on my query (when such things were done on paper). These were for agents and editors for my first Crispin book.

I think my favorite one was a rubber stamp slammed onto my query letter that said, "Not Interested." They were so anxious to get this rejection back to me that they didn't even seal the envelope!

By far this was the most frequent statement I received--probably the most frequent statement any author receives--especially on form rejections: We don't believe it is suitable for our list at present.

Here are just a few.

  • I think you have an interesting premise--a detective mystery set in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, I just didn't fall in love with the writing. 

  • Thank you for sending this interesting piece, but we've decided to pass on the project.

  • This manuscript is well written--the writing flows naturally, and it's a pleasure to read. But I'm afraid I think, on a basic level, if you've read one (medieval mystery), you've read most of them. I find, generally speaking, that medieval mysteries are just stories, often rather thin stories, dressed up in not-a-costume: Originality = poor, Setting = poor, Characters = almost good, Dialogue = good, Plotting = almost good, Excellence in writing = very good

  • I thought this medieval mystery was well done but not compelling enough to overcome our marketing concerns (historical mysteries tend not to sell well for us in mass market.)

  • The novel contained a convincing recreation of late medieval dialogue and atmosphere, but I'm afraid I wasn't as involved in the historical plot and characters as I needed to be. 

  • We already have one British medieval series on our list and to add a second seems unwise.

  • I truly enjoyed your story and look forward to reading another one. Unfortunately, this one does not meet our needs at this time.

  • Protagonist seems motivated only by his immediate circumstances. We need more background angst to make him truly interesting. 

Really? Crispin needs more background angst? Boy, this is depressing me. Does it depress you? It's just as bad as any reviews that contradict each other. It just shows that opinions vary. I must remind myself that not only did I get a great agent at last, but also an editor and publisher who believed in the books. Despite the flaws of the publisher's marketing strategy, the books have all been nominated for peer and reader awards. Even with my most recent release, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, it's been nominated for tehe RT Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery, and Suspense Magazine named it one of the Best of 2013. Go figure. Even though the Crispin books may be down, they are definitely not out.

The takeaway from all of this is "Don't Give Up." I had many years of rejections from both agents and editors. Fourteen years of them. Just because one project doesn't work, be ready to move on to the next. You never know what will catch fire or with whom.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Irish Bookstores

by Sheila Connolly

I love to visit bookstores.  You know, the real ones, in buildings.  My family trained me well:  we used to go to Doubleday’s in New York, as a treat, or to Brentano’s in the first mall I saw, in Short Hills, New Jersey (I remember when it was being built, and I used to take the bus there before I could drive).

Alas, too many of them are gone now.  Those that survive hang on by their fingernails, fueled more by the dream of owning a bookstore than by the income they generate. Most indie bookstore owners these days are there for the love of it.

But that’s not true in Ireland.  I know, because I’ve tried to visit as many bookstores as I can.  When I’m in Dublin I usually stay in a hotel around the corner from the Temple Bar, where there are plenty of bookstores, starting with The Gutter at one end, past the radical one (called Connolly’s). Closer to Trinity
College there are a couple of good used bookstores.  Go toward Saint Stephen’s Green and you find one that actually had a section for Cozies (I asked the woman at the register why, and she said, because people ask for them.  Yes!)  Cross the bridge over the Liffey and you have Eason’s, the country’s largest chain.

And it’s not just true of the city.  I spend a lot of time in Skibbereen in West Cork.  It’s a thriving market town with a population of about 2700 people.  (The supermarket and the weekly year-round farmers’ market make me want to weep, they are so much better than mine here.)  Three bookstores, including one that features an array of antiquarian books and maps.  Not just “old” books, either:  the last time I was in there, they had a first edition of a book by the 16th century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, in its original binding, and if that wasn’t enough, according to the bookplate it had once belonged to the Dean of Trinity College.  And it wasn’t locked away in a glass case—I held it and leafed through it.


Ireland is a country that cares about books.  And writers as well: Ireland offers tax exemption to artists (who live in Ireland) and who produce “original and creative” work, including books and plays. It must have artistic merit of course, and this is defined thus: 

--A work has cultural merit if its contemplation enhances the quality of individual or social life as a result of its intellectual, spiritual or aesthetic form and content. 

--A work has artistic merit when its combined form and content enhances or intensifies the aesthetic apprehension of those who experience or contemplate it.

There are more details and exceptions, but you get the drift.  The maximum amount an artist can exempt is €40,000, which as of this writing is about $53,000.  I’d bet most writers would be happy to earn that much, exempt or not.

Books are expensive in Ireland.  The mass market format is all but unknown, so there are only hardback and trade format.  The latter usually costs about $15 a book—and yet the stores thrive. One clue that I haven’t been able to follow up on came from a recent conversation with a writer at Bouchercon (he’s English and lives in England, but he writes fiction about American crime), who told me that in the UK and Ireland the government provides some form of subsidy for bookstores.  Would that it were so here!

My own books are not available in Irish bookstores (even the one set in Ireland).  Happily (or unhappily, depending on how you feel about Amazon) they are available through Amazon UK, although that’s fairly recent.  Yes, they will ship to Ireland, but the shipping cost per book is more than the cost of the book itself. Sigh.  The books don’t appear to be available in Kindle format, and I can’t speak to how many Irish residents use e-readers anyway. It’s an imperfect (literary) world. 

But as you read this, I will be in Ireland, stopping at every bookstore I see. 

Coming February 2014



Thursday, November 21, 2013

Schizophrenic doesn’t mean ambivalent…and other misconceptions

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a mental health professional, I can’t help getting irritated when novelists allow characters to describe themselves as “schizophrenic” when they really mean they simply can’t make up their minds. And many do. It’s one of the pet peeves that shrinks who write mysteries share when they find themselves on a panel together at Bouchercon or Malice.

“Call me schizophrenic,” Cinderella said, laughing gaily. “One minute I want to go to the ball, and the next I think I really need to stay home tonight and give the house a good cleaning.”

Schizophrenia is a thought disorder. It’s not reversible, and though it can be managed with medications, they don’t work in every case. Schizophrenics have auditory hallucinations, ie they hear voices. When you see them talking, apparently to themselves, in the street, they’re actually holding a conversation with those voices. Here’s a true story, part of a poem I wrote while interning at a psychiatric day center while studying for my social work degree. It’s called “The Limitations of Therapy,” and it appears in in my book, Gifts and Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship.

I want so much to touch her
to hold her hand
to hold her in my arms
leaning forward in my chair
I say, so gently, You know
you don’t have to listen to those voices

That’s just what they say about you!
says Maria

One difference between the schizophrenics and today’s ubiquitous cellphonistas is that one group is delusional: they think that nobody can hear them as they discuss their love life, their financial concerns, and their medical issues on crowded buses and lines in the bank or post office. Hmm, which group would that be?

If you really want to write a schizophrenic character—or figure out whether one you’re reading about rings true—look for other thought-disorder symptoms such as flight of ideas and ideas of reference. Flight of ideas means the schizophrenic’s speech may be firmly tethered in reality at the beginning, but gradually become more and more incoherent or illogical until it’s obvious something is very wrong. Ideas of reference are the extreme of taking things personally. Schizophrenics think the guy talking on their TV is speaking directly to them. Paranoid ideas are a form of ideas of reference: they think the two people holding an intense conversation at the far end of the room are talking about them, and it’s not a pleasant conversation.

The other thing that schizophrenic doesn’t mean is dissociated. Not only novelists, but some mental health professionals as well, still think that the most severe dissociative disorder, dissociative identity disorder (DID)—formerly called multiple personality disorder—is rare.

“Sometimes I’m very vibrant and bubbly and outgoing,” she said, “but I’m really a very shy person. I’m schizophrenic that way.”

Nope, that character is neither schizophrenic nor dissociated. Professionals who work with abuse survivors—and that includes many alcoholic and drug addicted people—know that DID or some lesser degree of dissociation is common among those who experienced sexual trauma as children.

How does a five-year-old cope with being raped by a parent? By going far, far away in his or her mind, so that the abuse is happening to somebody else. One split-off part of the mind may remain a child, while another may become an icily unemotional, supercompetent adult. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s the gist of it, and it’s a powerful and deeply rooted system of psychological defenses.

It may be hard even for therapists treating clients with DID to remember that all the personalities, called alters, are part of a single human being who needs to be helped first toward co-consciousness (not all what one client of mine called “the parts” are aware of the others) and then toward integration. Getting to meet different personalities may seem cool, but having a client suffer an abreaction—a kind of flashback in which he or she becomes that terrified child being molested, even tortured—is one of the scariest, most challenging situations a therapist can encounter. A multiple who wasn’t traumatized as a child or who can snap out of it at will is not a realistic character. A therapist who gets emotionally involved with one of the alters and wants to save it from “dying” is not a very good therapist.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions

by Sandra Parshall

I’ve never quite understood why non-writers are so interested in the way writers work – our “process,” as it’s often called. I’ll admit I’m always curious about the way other authors work, but that’s not surprising. We’re doing the same thing, producing stories out of thin air, but everyone does it in a different, personal, fashion. Maybe I can learn something from other writers. Maybe hearing about their methods will at least reassure me that I’m not doing it wrong.

My theory about non-writers – and I hope some of you will either confirm this or offer another explanation – is that they want to understand how we concoct an entire fictional world, populated with distinct individuals, out of nothing. They hope to find an answer in the mechanics. But the answer is far more elusive, hidden within that mysterious region of the brain that some humans are blessed, or cursed, with: the writer’s imagination. And that is something I can’t explain. It mystifies me as much as it does the non-writer.

But I can answer the questions I hear most often at appearances and in interviews. I’m working up an FAQ list for my website (which will be totally revamped before my next Rachel Goddard mystery, Poisoned Ground, comes out in March). Let me know if I’ve left out a burning question to which you want an answer.

Where do you get your ideas?

I could be cute and say, “At the Idea Store. It’s over on Leesburg Pike, next to the Container Store. I always stop and pick up a sturdy container for my new idea before I take it home.”

But the truth is: I look around. I listen. I watch people. (You may not think I’m watching you, but I am. Closely.) I read and listen to the news. A writer can make a story out of anything simply by asking, “What if?” The trick is finding an idea that excites you and will hold your interest for a year or so. An idea that will grow roots and branches and become something far more complex than the tiny seed you began with. Characters you can bear to live with day and night for many months. Every author is an individual, of course. What interests me will bore another writer. I have to love an idea enough to stick with it long-term.

How long does it take you to write a book?

I wrote my first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, in six months. I have written other books in a year. I need about 18 months to write Poisoned Ground, but that was primarily due to life events, not the difficulty of the writing. In today’s publishing world, a book a year is best, and I would like to keep to that schedule. I have cozy-writing friends who turn out three or four books a year, and all I can do is gape in amazement.

What is your daily writing routine?

Ideally, I come to my computer after breakfast, write until lunch, then write for another couple of hours after lunch. Life sometimes interferes, in the form of dental appointments and sick cats, but I get the most work done when I keep to a routine.

Do you use a laptop or desktop?

Desktop. I have a laptop but can’t imagine using it to write a book. The touchpad makes my fingers hurt.

Do you use any special software, such as Scrivener?

I own a copy of Scrivener. I have it installed on my desktop computer. I have yet to use it. One day I will, I’m sure, but I can’t predict when. For many years, I have used Lotus (now IBM) Word Pro, an old word processing program that I love and hate to part with. I can use WordPerfect if I must. I will never use Microsoft Word for writing.

Do you have animal companions while you write?

Of course. Miss Emma is my tireless muse, nearby in the same room and ever ready to offer a pithy comment or suggestion.

Gabriel pops in for comic relief and to remind me to take a break (during which I am welcome to give him my full attention).


What other writers have influenced you?

Flannery O’Connor has probably influenced me more than anyone else, with her sharp, clean prose and her clear-eyed view of humanity and the world we’ve created. Living writers I admire – I will spare them the embarrassment of being named as influences on my own writing – are Ruth Rendell, Thomas H. Cook, Edna O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Tess Gerritsen.

Why do you write crime fiction?

Although I enjoy a lot of literary and mainstream fiction, I find I’m impatient with books that don’t have a strong narrative drive – stories that aren’t moving toward a definite goal. I want a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I want the ending to be a true conclusion rather than an arbitrary stopping place. I want a story that has a point. In my reading, I don’t always demand that the villain be punished at the end – sometimes it’s more realistic if he escapes to wreak further havoc – but any villain who turns up in one of my own books is going to get what’s coming to him.

What question or complaint do you hear most often about one of your books?

Some readers think Rachel should have made a different decision at the end of The Heat of the Moon. I don’t agree, obviously. She made the only choice she could under the circumstances. Some readers think a certain character should have been more severely punished at the end of Broken Places, but in fact I left her fate a bit vague. Under the law, very little could be proved against her, so a harsh fate would have been unrealistic, but her actions cost her everything she valued, so I wouldn’t say she got off free and clear.

Do you mind when readers criticize your choices for your characters?

Not if they’re polite about it. I do mind if they become insulting and aggressive. The book is written and published. It isn’t going to be changed because a reader doesn’t like some aspect of it. I respect the right of other authors to make their own creative choices in their own work, and I believe readers should respect that right too.

Of all your books, which is your favorite?

I will always love The Heat of the Moon the most because it was my first attempt at suspense and it was the story that introduced me to Rachel. But I’m also proud of Disturbing the Dead because of the complex plotting and the characters. I like my upcoming book, Poisoned Ground, a lot too. It has the kind of  multi-layered plot I love and a set of quirky sisters I thoroughly enjoyed writing about.

Do you go on book tours?

No. Few writers do these days. If you’re not a bestselling author, or someone your publisher is trying to turn into a bestseller, you have to pay all expenses out of your own pocket, and the return on that considerable investment is dubious at best.

Is your desk neat or messy?

Always messy, except when I am photographing it for some reason. Then it suddenly becomes extremely neat. What the photo never shows is the mess I’ve dumped on the floor temporarily. I don't do that too often because it's so much work to get everything off and then back onto the desk. This photo was taken years ago. I have a different computer and monitor now.

Have I left out any questions?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Literary Ambiguity

Sharon Wildwind

Hard winter has set in: snow and blowing snow carefully orchestrated to arrive on Saturday and/or Sunday for the past four weekends. Minus thirteen, with wind chills down to minus twenty-one. Events cancelled because the streets and roads were to slippery to be safe. It takes Calgarians a little while to sink into winter. Three weeks from now almost nothing will be cancelled unless the temperature drops to 40 below.

The view from our bedroom window this morning.
The result of all this was a wonderful, unexpected week to snuggle. Shortly after supper most nights, we retired to the bedroom with candles for atmosphere and books for enjoyment, climbed under the duvet, and read.

What was especially satisfying is that we were reading a book chocked full of ambiguity. We kept handing the book back and forth, asking, “Is this what’s really happening?” “Can we trust what she’s telling us?” “What if she’s misread this entire situation and it’s much worse than she thinks?”

Real ambiguity is a good thing. It keeps the reader interested and guessing. It's also darn hard to do well.

Being an author, as soon as we finished and I knew what was real and what wasn’t, I had to take the book apart to see what made it tick.

Because I’d read the book cover, I knew it was set in a paranormal universe in which magic existed (maybe). Note the ambiguity from the very beginning. Does magic really exist in this world or does the narrator only think it exists?

The narrator is a teen-age girl beset not only by hormones, but by (supposedly) ghastly goings on in her family. Does her boyfriend really love her, or has she cast a spell on him so he appears to love her? Is her mother really trying to kill her? Is her mother even alive because we’ve never seen her? We’ve only had the narrator telling us what it would be like if we did see her.

Up to about a third of the way through the book, I happily went along believing that what the point-of-view character said was absolute truth. Then I said, wait a minute, there is not a single character who confirms a thing she says.

Then came the fun part, asking if the narrator was bending the narrative to what she wanted me to believe? That’s when it helped to have a partner. We passed the book between us, asking, “Do you think this part is true? If it’s not true, what do you really think is going on?”

We hit a sense of foreboding at exactly the same place. Two nice characters seemed to be heading swiftly for a “happy every after” ending. It was too easy, too pat. Something had to happen. (Cue impending doom music).

At the end, we looked at each other, laughed, and said, “I never expected that to happen.”

I wish I could write well enough to
  • Have a compelling narrator, but not necessarily an honest one.
  • Make sure other characters fail to see what the narrator sees, or that they interpret it differently.
  • Hold stuff back.
  • Create a sense of impending doom.
  • Have a boffo, unexpected ending.

Maybe one day. Stay warm, everyone.

Quote for the week
To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
~ Ursula K. LeGuin, American novelist, poet, and essayist, The Left Hand of Darkness

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Fifty-Seven Year Love Story

by Julia Buckley

I was gone for much of the weekend celebrating my parents' 57th wedding anniversary.  Because of this, I wanted to share again a story I told on this blog back in 2009.  It's the highly serendipitous story of how they met.  Thanks for indulging me and letting me share it once more in their honor.

I'm always interested in books that are said to be based on true events. One of the greatest true stories I know would make a terrific book, because no one would believe all of the coincidences involved, and I'm sure the average agent would say, "Sorry--this is just too unbelievable."

The tale I speak of is the story of how my parents met.

My mother was born in Germany; my father, the son of Hungarian immigrants, grew up in Chicago in a Hungarian-speaking home. When my mother was a teenager, she and her good friend Erika decided that they would like to improve their English skills, and that they would do so by finding a nice American boy with whom they could correspond. Since they lived in a little German town, they weren't sure how to do this, but they were enterprising.

They went to a little stationer's shop and looked at the magazines, some of which were published in America.  They found a model-airplane enthusiasts' monthly, and in the back were letters from fans. They asked a little Italian girl in the store to pick a name at random for them.  She chose a name--Ed Mate--and they wrote to the address he had submitted to the magazine.

Their letter to him, written in beautiful script in a mildly flirtatious tone, began "we are two German girls who would like to correspond with an American boy . . ." They sent it off, feeling quite daring, and waited for it to travel across the sea.

Weeks later, Ed Mate approached his best friend, Bill. He said, "I got this letter from these two German girls. I'm not going to write to both of them--how about if you take one off of my hands?"

And so Bill (my father) wrote his first letter to Kathe, the girl across the sea who would one day be his wife. Unlike Ed, who soon gave up the whole pen-pal thing, my father was fastidious about writing. We still have his letters (the ones my mother will show us) and they are impeccably neat and full of interesting information about America and him. He sent my mother a photo of him in his Army uniform, smoking a pipe, and it's as dreamy a picture as any of MGM's public relations material for Cary Grant or Gene Kelly.

My parents corresponded happily for a time; but the Korean War was going on, and my father was going to be sent to the front. However, because he spoke fluent Hungarian, he was one of only three soldiers who was not sent to Korea, but instead was sent to Europe (apparently the Army thought that one European language allowed one to communicate with all of the others) and a field office there.

So my father never saw active duty, but he was, serendipitously, stationed in Germany. Soon enough he contacted my mother, and they arranged to meet. My father took the train and then a streetcar; it was an almost all-day journey, and it was dark when my father climbed off the streetcar, not knowing where to go. It was freezing outside, and he scanned the faces for the girl he had seen only in a blurry photo. My mother and her sister walked right past him (so they tell it), but then they both stopped. "Katie?" he said.

"Bill?" she responded.

He spoke no German, but her English was fairly good. She took him home to meet her parents and her four siblings.  They had rented him a room in a little hotel near the streetcar.  It was not heated--not even with a stove--just with a large goosedown quilt.  My father said that this didn't bother him, since he had encountered similar discomfort as a soldier, although he was sad to see that his washing water had turned to ice the next morning.  He had a three-day leave, but only one day to spend with my mother before he boarded the train again for his long journey back to the base.  Still, by the time he got on the train, he was, by his own admission, "sweet on her."

My mother eventually came to America with him as his fiancee, leaving her whole family behind to start a new life in Chicago.

The best part of the story? As of yesterday my parents will have been married for fifty-seven years. He refers to her as his "bride," and he is utterly devoted to her still.

What's your favorite true story?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Finding Time for Murder

by Sara Hoskinson Frommer
Author of the Joan Spencer mysteries

You know how all the parts of our lives impinge on all the other parts? I knew it was true when I had small children, but now that I’m old, it’s still true.

Back then I’d grab my only chance to read a mystery while the baby nursed, and I never minded washing cloth diapers–the easiest laundry in the world, especially if you could dry them outside and take them down smelling sweet. Now I juggle writing with tutoring a literacy learner, scheduling volunteers for the local homeless shelter, and doing my cooking from a wheelchair, because my balance is too iffy to carry food around when I’m on foot. I like being involved in the community, and my sourdough oatmeal whole wheat rye raisin bread is a joy to bake and a joy to eat, if I do say so as shouldn’t. So I juggle. Not as efficiently as I could back then, I know. But so what if the phone rings too often and the bread rises too far? I can punch the bread back down.

At 75, I don’t pretend to be the age of the character who’s hardly aged since I started writing about her when I was her age in the 1980s. But Joan Spencer and I still share a lot about our lives. Multitasking, for starters.

Both of us have held down jobs while playing viola in a community orchestra, and Joan later becomes her orchestra’s manager. I never managed ours, but I paid attention and now write about what I remember. She copes with an irascible conductor who interrupts her life with demands no one should have to live up to, and I know people willing to run roughshod over what matters to me.

You know people like that too? So, do you kill them off in the next book, or keep them around for a continuing source of conflict? I’ve done both.

Killed off an obnoxious oboe player in the first book, but Joan’s conductor is still with us, seven books along. Still full of herself and oblivious to everyone else’s concerns. Joan’s ex-con brother marches back into her life a week before her daughter’s wedding and turns it upside down, even while charming the conductor. Then there’s the daughter’s mother-in-law-to-be, with every intention of running the wedding and the lives of the young couple. A victim or a keeper? And Joan’s own mother-in-law, slipping into Alzheimer’s, but landing in the middle of a bloody murder for the second time in her life. Victim? Killer? What?

Choosing a victim was the assigned topic of an afternoon-long conversation at Magna cum Murder a few weeks ago, with authors coming and going throughout the afternoon. Not surprisingly, mystery writers in that small group tended to meander off the topic over to how to promote a book.

Thinking about who’s good to kill or have be the bad guy did have its points, though, and I keep messing with it as I continue to plot the book I’m already writing. Oh, I think I know whodunit and all that, but a character with any gumption will morph from the one I have in my head when I start out to someone different, and if I’m smart, I’ll let him get away with it. So long as he doesn’t get away with murder. That’s my job.

A job that distracts me from things looming ahead. When you’re 75, all kinds of things loom, let me tell you. Some of us are fine traipsing around to mystery conferences or even the Galapagos, but many of us find our world shrinking. The hard part isn’t adjusting to the shrinking, but outguessing what’s ahead. Am I old? Sure, and my feet and fingers don’t work the way they used to. But I still can do a lot of my favorite things.

Is it time to give up the old house, even though with a ramp and a stair lift and some other handy gizmos I enjoy a lot of freedom? This familiar place my husband and I have made so convenient is paid for, and retirement homes aren’t cheap. So do we downsize now, and move to a place that isn’t nearly as good in some ways while offering benefits in other ways? Or stay put and hire helpers when we need them, as we already hire the yard work done? One good friend who just turned 90 is still out and about. Who knows, I might live that long or even longer. It’s a guessing game.

On a practical level, you check out your resources, internal, financial, familial, community, and beyond. If you’re still young enough and healthy enough to get it, you look into long-term care insurance, the best investment my sister ever made, both for herself and for us. Back when our mother had Alzheimer’s, I spent 40 hours a week with her, but my sister’s insurance is taking care of her assisted living expenses, all but the cable TV. I hardly have to lift a finger.

You do all that stuff and make your best guess, for now anyhow. Then, hey, you go write the book.

ara Hoskinson Frommer, author of the Joan Spencer mysteries, lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. They have two adult sons. A veteran of the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra's viola section, Sara is a self-taught quilter who did indeed quilt the quilt on the Buried in Quilts ebook cover. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and has served on the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America.

Born in Chicago to Hoosier parents, Sara grew up in Hawaii and northern Illinois. She has degrees from Oberlin College and Brown University, and studied at the university in Tübingen, Germany. She has worked with a transportation economist, ethnologists, and foreign exchange students (having been an AFS exchange student to Germany herself). None of that has anything to do with writing mysteries, but her lifelong love of reading does. That, and getting mad at an oboe player.  Visit her website: