Saturday, March 31, 2007

What Do You Know?

Ken Isaacson (Guest Blogger)

They say you should write what you know. There’s no shortage of lawyers-turned-authors, and most of them do just that. I guess, in that regard, I’m no different—but only to a degree. My first novel, Silent Counsel, is a legal thriller (imagine that!), but I can’t say that it draws on real-life experiences taken from my twenty-five-plus years of legal practice. I’m just a simple corporate counsel, working in-house at a major transportation company. I haven’t defended murderers, rapists, thieves, or the like, and although I’ve handled matters that evoke a “jeez, you could write a book about it” feeling because of their quirks, I don’t know that they would be books that anyone would be particularly interested in reading. So, while I do write about what I know—the law—I don’t necessarily write about what I do.

Take Silent Counsel. It asks you to suppose the unimaginable: What if your child was killed in a hit-and-run, and the one person who knew the driver’s identity—his lawyer—didn’t have to tell you his name because the court held it was privileged information? A story about a mother who will go to any length to find out who’s responsible for the death of her six-year-old son, Silent Counsel shows the very real impact that the attorney-client privilege can have on the people it touches—both the lawyer who’s bound to remain silent, and the person who wants to know what the lawyer is keeping secret.

Now, I’ve never been in a situation that comes even close to what the characters in Silent Counsel encounter—my experience with the attorney-client privilege is limited to trying to avoid turning over an embarrassing document to opposing counsel in a contract dispute—you know, the memo from the president of the company that says “Damn it, I know it’s wrong. Do it anyway.” But as a lawyer, I write for a living, and I guess there are cynics who’d even say that lawyers write fiction for a living. So I can use my knowledge of the law and spin a damn good yarn about the kind of privileged information that’s worth reading about.

If I think hard enough, I can remember maybe a handful of actual cases I’ve handled that, if not interesting enough to actually write about, at least make good party talk. Like the fellow I represented back in the 80s who had bought a converted loft building in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, only to find out that one of the tenants was operating a sadomasochistic sex club in her rented “office.” Believe it or not, it wasn’t easy finding a legal basis for booting this fine establishment out. I had to rely on a statute that dated back to the 1800s, which forbade the use of rented premises as “a bawdy house, or place of assignation for lewd persons.” After checking the dictionary for “bawdy” and “assignation” (I had a pretty good idea what “lewd” meant), I decided that was the way to go. Preparing for the trial of that eviction proceeding was interesting—just reading the investigator’s report on his, uh, undercover visit to the club was an eye-opener. And the trial itself? The usually deserted courtroom (landlord-tenant court isn’t too high on the professional court-watcher’s “must see” list) quickly filled up minutes after the investigator took the stand, as word of his testimony—and a description of what he’d observed—filtered through the courthouse. We prevailed, and I attended the eviction with the city marshal. I still have a souvenir on my desk: a pair of shackles and chains left behind by the club owners. When I was practicing in a law firm, I told visitors that that was how the partners ensured that billable hours were maximized.

Then there was the time I had to repossess a fleet of jumbo jets from an international airline because of missed lease payments. I’d had plenty of experience repossessing bulldozers, backhoes, and other assorted construction equipment, and that had been relatively easy: Start a lawsuit, obtain a Writ of Replevin, tell the Sheriff where he could find the piece, and send him to haul it away. What could be difficult about taking back a couple of airplanes? Same concept, bigger prize. But it’s all in the execution. A bulldozer, you can hide in big garage. You’d think it would be a mite difficult to hide a bunch of jumbo jets, huh? Can you say “risk of flight”? Luckily, I was able to negotiate a settlement before I had to rent hangar space (once you nab ‘em, you gotta store ‘em somewhere), hire a team of qualified pilots (someone’s gotta at least taxi ‘em from where they’re seized over to the hangar), and dispatch a posse of U.S. Marshals to oversee the operation (someone’s gotta lay down the law). Sometimes, the best cases get settled before the good stuff starts.

Now that I think about it, maybe there is the germ of an idea or two lurking in the workaday stuff that a boring corporate attorney deals with. I guess whoever said you should write what you know knew what she was talking about. To that, I’d just add: “Write even what you didn’t realize you know!”

© 2007 by Ken Isaacson

Ken's legal thriller, Silent Counsel, will be out in September 2007.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Actor Adam Beach, The Internet, and Microwave Ovens...

Posted By Lonnie Cruse

I grew up in the Fifties, so who woulda thought telephones would become cordless (ours was tied to a cord in the dining room and my dad could hear every single word I said to my boyfriend, sigh) or that you could talk to someone while shopping at Wal-Mart? For that matter, who would have thought of Wal-Mart? Or microwave ovens that heat our coffee in one minute (or two, depending on your tolerance for heat?) And who would have thought we'd have a box in our house that would connect us to the Internet, and from there, to the entire world? Boggles MY mind.

When we moved to Metropolis, IL from Brookport, (exchanging a satellite dish the size of Wyoming for one that fit on the back wall of the house) we soon discovered a new (to us) channel called Trio, and a new drama, NORTH OF 60 about a Native American town located above the 60th parallel in Canada. Trio aired a lot of Canadian shows, but NORTH OF 60 quickly became a favorite with us and apparently with lots of others in the U.S. Someone formed a Yahoo discussion group for the show, which I moderated for a while and still belong to, and despite the fact that Trio is now defunct and NORTH OF 60 is no longer in re-runs in this country (though it is in Canada, lucky them) the discussion list is still going strong with probably 400 members, and one of the moderators, Patty Winter, has a website for the show. Which is an indication of how terrific the show was, still popular, though out of production, except for the occasional movie based on the plots line. Check Patty's website at:

Which brings me to Adam Beach, and eventually the Internet. Stay with me. Adam Beach appeared in NORTH OF 60 along about episode 15 and appeared in several episodes as a young, homeless, native male who becomes friends with a cast regular. I've seen just about all of Adam Beach's movies and for my money, NORTH OF 60 will always be one of his finest performances, not that the others weren't great as well. You might have seen him in SMOKE SIGNALS, DANCE ME OUTSIDE, JOE DIRT, or WINDTALKERS. If you haven't, you might want to rent them. And, I recently learned on the North of 60 discussion list that Adam's about to become a regular on Law and Order SVU! Wahhoooo! Okay, back to the Internet.

One of the Five Star authors recently set up a page on MySpace and encouraged the rest of us to do the same. I set up a page, linked to the group, and began receiving requests from others to "join my circle of friends." One of the requests came from someone I've e-chatted with from Norway several years ago, and I gladly renewed the friendship. When I checked HER page, there was Adam Beach, her friend. Shriek! He's her friend! After I stopped hyperventilating, I clicked into his page, and his wife, Tara Mason's page, and sent a friend request. I am now one of Adam Beach's over 2,000 friends, but I assure you, he likes me the best. Really.

Where was I? The Internet. We all gripe about it. I generally spend a minimum of 2-3 hours on the Net per day, answering e-mails, reading/posting to blogs, updating spaces where I have a page, and maybe 6-8 hours if I'm updating my own website or promoting my books. Whew. Time spent away from writing, from family, from local friends, etc. I do jump up to stretch and toss a load of laundry from washer to dryer, but that doesn't add much excitement to my life.

But if not for the Internet, I doubt I'd have become a published writer. My first short stories were published because I submitted them to Future's Magazine via the Internet and later lovingly held the printed magazine in my hands. I found my first writers' group via the Net (the nearest "live" group to me is over an hour away and they meet at night. I'd have to travel a very deserted, scary road, so I rarely make meetings.) I found a great critique group on the Net who help me polish my work. I found my first and second publishers on the Net. And I promote my books here, and chat with my readers. What's not to love?

The Internet has been one of the biggest helps to reaching my dream of publication, and staying there, and it's introduced me to some of my writing heroes, like Bill Crider, Charlaine Harris, Anne Perry (met her in person at a conference I learned about on the Net) Donna Andrews, and many more. And I've made good friends like my fellow Poe sisters and my SINC friends. Gotta love it. Well worth the cost (I'm on sloooow dial-up, $19.95 per month, and when I ask the phone company about high speed, and they find out I'm at the Northeast end of Metropolis, they snicker. Never mind that folks at the other end of town have SEVERAL options for high speed and I have to borrow a friend's computer and Internet access if I want to upload anything over 100K, sigh. Maybe one of these days. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the blogging, my friends, and meeting heroes.

And if you'd like to see my page on MySpace, check it out at: (might have to copy and paste that puppy, it's pretty long.) While you're there, check out my new bud, Adam Beach. Sigh. Thanks for stopping by HERE! We appreciate all of our blogger readers!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Interview with Carolyn Hart

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

When and how did you decide to become a writer?
I was eleven when I decided I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I worked on school papers in junior and senior high school and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma. I had a trench coat and smoked Chesterfields and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins (a famed war correspondent for The Herald Trib). I still have a trench coat. I quit smoking (thankfully) 37 years ago. I met a young law student on a student trip to Europe and that changed the course of my life. After we married and started a family, I decided to write fiction and I’ve never looked back. Or not often. My passion for reporting resulted many years later in my creating a retired reporter protagonist who had the career I thought would be mine.

When did you first get paid for writing?
During college, I worked on the Oklahoma Daily which paid student reporters. My first job beyond the University was as a feature writer for The Norman Transcript in Norman, OK.

You’ve written 17 books in the Death in Demand series about bookstore owner Annie Darling and her husband Max. Did you have any idea when you started that Annie would have this long a run?
Heavens, no. I didn’t know I was starting a series. When the ms. sold, the editor said, "This is the first in a series?" I quickly said, "Yes, of course."

Annie and Max are very happily married. Did you take their love story from life?
My decision to portray a happy relationship was deliberate. At the time I wrote Death on Demand, most women in mysteries either had no relationship or the relationship was dysfunctional. From my own life experience, I knew it didn’t have to be this way. I wanted two characters who loved and respected each other. My own marriage was fun when it began and we are still having fun.

How has Annie developed in the course of the series? Does she keep on growing? Does she ever surprise you?
Over time I’ve come to a clearer sense of Annie and all the characters. Annie is cheerful and steadfast, honorable and eager, determined and resolute, kind and caring. This has been true from the first, but I now know that she has moments of uncertainty. She’s learned that life is complex and human passions often both appealing and heartbreaking.

What prompted you to begin your second series, about retired newspaperwoman Henrie O?
I wrote a short story about Henrie O. It came across my then editor’s desk and she immediately requested a series. Henrie O much more reflects my personality than Annie. Annie is patterned after my daughter Sarah although Sarah is extremely equable. For purposes of fiction, I gave Annie a quick temper. Henrie O is taller, thinner, smarter, and braver than I, but her attitudes reflect mine.

You’ve said that, like Henrie O, you’ve worked for a newspaper. Have you ever owned a bookstore? Besides writing, what jobs have you had?
I simply love going to bookstores, especially mystery bookstores. Death on Demand was inspired by Murder by the Book in Houston, TX. During and after college, I worked for The Transcript, then in public relations for the University of Oklahoma while my husband was in law school. Later, I was a stay at home mother and wrote fiction. I taught professional writing at OU from 1982-85. Otherwise, I have been a full time writer.

Do you research your books, and if so, how?
I have a bookcase filled with books about South Carolina. Each book poses its own demands. I did a great deal of research for Death on the River Walk, which included visiting San Antonio. The new book, Set Sail for Murder, is based on a Baltic cruise Phil and I took in 2004.

How do you manage to juggle your two series characters and their worlds?
Each world is distinct in my mind. When I go to Death on Demand or join Henrie O in a new locale, I am immediately in that particular world.

Do you work on more than one manuscript at a time?
Only in the sense of occasionally doing revisions on one book while engaged in writing another. Otherwise, I write them one at a time.

Have you ever lost track or gotten them mixed up?
No. I sometimes get confused about which books I’ve finished and in what order. Set Sail for Murder will be out April 10, but I have already turned in two books for 2008.

Do you have a favorite, or do you love your protagonists equally?
I enjoy every book I write.

You’ve been awarded three Agathas for Best Novel and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for your stand-alone novel, Letter from Home. What did these awards mean to you?
The Agathas are such a wonderful honor from readers who treasure traditional mysteries.

Did winning the first one change anything for you?
Absolutely. It encouraged me enormously.

How did you feel about the Pulitzer nomination? Did it seem different from the mystery-specific awards to you?
The Pulitzer nomination is special because it was an affirmation from home for my book about home. The nomination was made by the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers and Letter from Home is my book about Oklahoma. Yes, it was a great honor.

What made you decide to write Letter from Home?
Oddly, a lousy movie was the impetus. I saw Pearl Harbor a few years ago. It was not only silly but supremely off the mark in reflecting the mores of the time. I wanted to write a book that gave a true flavor of the home front in the 1940s.

Was it your only stand-alone?
I had some extra time between deadlines when I decided to write Letter from Home. At the moment, I am committed to write the Death on Demand and Henrie O series and I am launching a new series in 2008 so I rather doubt I will do any more stand-alones.

Where, when, and how do you write? Do you have any rituals attached to writing?
I have an office behind my house in space once used by a previous resident for making pottery. It contains two computers, three desks, a bookcase, and a filing cabinet. I am a morning person so I usually start about eight. If I am having a productive day, I may work until four in the afternoon. Often I work in the morning, then walk or run errands in the afternoon. No rituals. I am a restless person so I pop up often. If I’m not making progress, I’ll take a walk and think and usually the story will begin to move again in my mind.

Do you plan or outline your plots or write "into the mist"?
I love "into the mist." I do not outline. When I start a book, I know the protagonist, the victim, the identity of the murderer, the motive, and I have a working title. The choice of the protagonist determines the tone and background. The choice of the victim provides the cast of characters. Those involved in the victim’s life will be suspects after the death. I have to know the murderer because the motive has to be strong enough to justify the crime. A working title gives me a sense of the book.

How have you managed to stay so fresh in your long career?
I consider that a great compliment. Personalities determine stories. The marvelous truth is that every single person we ever meet is unique. Everyone we know is fascinating if we truly know them. Whatever the circumstances of a book, it is the individuality of those involved that give the story, always, a fresh flavor.

Can you tell us something about Set Sail for Murder, the book that’s just coming out?
Set Sail for Murder is the latest in the series featuring Henrie O, a retired newspaper reporter. I always think of Henrie O as having a talent for trouble and a taste for adventure. In this one, Henrie O responds to a former lover’s call for help. He persuades her to join him, his rich wife, and her step-children to cruise the Baltic on a small luxury liner. Henrie O’s presence is supposed to defuse the family tension, but one of their fellow travelers has murder in mind.

At this year’s Malice Domestic, you’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement award and be interviewed by Nancy Pickard. Are you looking forward to that?
Nancy and I have been having fun at mystery gatherings since 1989. We know each other well. We laugh a lot. I am exceedingly fortunate because she is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever known, which is no surprise for a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She’ll keep our visit light and lively.

What’s next for Carolyn Hart?
The 18th in the Death on Demand series will be published in winter 2008. My working title was Fox in the Night. However, we are still considering titles. A possible choice is Murder in the Fog. Max is trying to put behind him the events in Dead Days of Summer, when a clever killer tabbed Max to be the fall guy. He turns down an appeal for help from a woman who is then found dead. The packet she claims to have hidden may be connected to a million dollar coin theft. Annie puts her life at risk by figuring out the secret.

You said you’d turned in two books for 2008 already. What’s the second?
Ghost at Work, a new series featuring the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn of Adelaide, OK, debuts in fall 2008. An impetuous redheaded ghost, Bailey Ruth returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, liberates a neglected dog, inadvertently destroys the police computer system, and - in a fiery finale - rescues a child who saw too much.

Bailey Ruth sounds like a lot of fun. Did you enjoy starting a new series?
I loved writing Ghost at Work. I hope readers will enjoy it.

And soon I need to start a new book ….

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Riding the Review Rollercoaster

Sandra Parshall

Now, at last, I understand my urge to publish novels.

It’s not a deep-seated desire to communicate. It’s not a need to purge my imagination of all those crazy made-up people who keep running around in their made-up world, doing shocking things. It’s not, heaven knows, a belief that publication will make me rich and famous. (I was never naive enough to believe that.)

No, it’s masochism.

I just love putting myself at the mercy of strangers. I take a perverse pleasure in releasing my creative children into the world and waiting, wide-eyed and eager, for the world to shatter my fragile writerly ego with those awful-and-wonderful things called reviews.

As my husband and friends never tire of pointing out, I can ignore reams of praise if I find a single disapproving sentence buried within. So what if the reviewer loved the characters, found the setting evocative, enjoyed the plot right to the end? None of that counts. What counts is that she thought some of my phrasing was... gulp... clunky.

Despair! I will never write again. I will toss the computer out with the trash because I am clearly unworthy to be called an author.

But the Library Journal gave my second book, Disturbing the Dead, a starred review. That means something, doesn’t it? Certainly it does. I am worthy after all! I am an author.

But... but... A reviewer said DTD has too many characters. Omigod. Here is a person who believes that some of the characters I love so much shouldn’t even exist. How can I go on writing now that I know this? Where did I put the razor blades?

Okay, calm down, Sandy, and go reread the advance reviews. Oh, look, Kirkus -- Kirkus, so difficult to please! -- declared DTD “fast-paced, chilling, and compulsively readable.” Whew. My life and sanity saved again.

But... but... Yet another reviewer (they’re multiplying like wire hangers in a closet) thinks DTD has too many Melungeon characters and, furthermore, I made too many of them poor. Now I feel like an insensitive wretch who traffics in stereotypes. Forget the razor blades. Bullets are faster.

What one reviewer praises, another will criticize. And it’s the criticism, seldom the praise, that sticks in my mind. Every review is a source of nail-biting worry before I read it and possible agony afterward. “Don’t take it personally,” everybody says. Impossible advice for someone like me to follow. Everything is personal.

I would not dream of challenging reviewers, because they’re supposed to give their honest opinions and I’m grateful to them for telling readers about my books. In my rare lucid moments, I realize that my reviews have been mostly positive and I have nothing to complain about. I try not to care that at least two reviewers think Disturbing the Dead takes place in North Carolina, even though the characters never venture outside Virginia. (True to form, I’m convinced that misapprehension is somehow my fault.)

But I keep wondering exactly which characters I should have left out of the book and which phrases were clunky. Is it too late to recall every copy and rewrite?

I regard my work-in-progress with a cold eye. Maybe I should kill off Greg right now. Heck, maybe Greg should never have been born in the first place. And clunky writing? Oh, good grief, the book is filled with it. No one will ever want to read the thing. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless. Getting two books published was a fluke. It will never happen again.

But if, through some miracle, I do publish a third book, I’m not going to read the reviews. Not a one. Zip.

I am finished with this particular form of masochism.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What’s So Cozy About Murder?

Sharon Wildwind

My closest personal connection to murder is that a friend’s step-brother—whom I’d never met and who lived half-way across the country—was killed in a convenience store robbery. As far as I know, the killers were never caught. Even that distant half-relative-of-a-friend connection sent shock waves through me. It was incomprehensible that a human being could take a life for a few dollars and six cartons of cigarettes.

Many of the mysteries I read are in the cozy part of the spectrum. A few years ago, “the cozy” was renamed the traditional mystery by no less an august body than Malice Domestic, the uber-traditional-mystery convention. Murder may be traditional—check out the Bible, Beowulf, and Greek mythology—but what’s cozy about it?

I worry that murder has become a sales platform. If an author has a story involving quirky characters, talking animals, or a passionate interest, the way to sell it seems to be to wrap it around a murder and create yet another amateur detective. I recently read a mystery that a reviewer referred to as “adorable and charming.” I don’t want murder to be adorable and charming.

Having said this, let me also say that the myseries I write are in the cozy range. Granted, there is what the movie rating system refers to as “strong language,” but come on. My guys and gals are soldiers and ex-soldiers. They’re not the kind of people who will use “Pashaw,” when something untoward happens. Other than that, what I write falls solidly into at least one definition of the traditional mystery: a closed set of suspects, all of whom know one another, a minimal amount of on-stage gore and violence and, in the end, justice triumphs.

Justice triumphs is the strongest argument in favor of cozy mysteries. In the end, unlike in the case of my friend’s brother’s death, the killers are caught and punished. Sanity reasserts itself. At least, I tell myself that a good argument, but you know, using murder as a sales platform sometimes still bothers me.

Does it bother you?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Spring Makes Everything New

by Julia Buckley

It's officially spring, and the weather in Chicagoland today was so sublime, with its alluring breezes and warm sun, that I wondered why I have yet to set a mystery novel in the spring.

My first book, THE DARK BACKWARD, is set in the fall, as is my first series mystery, MADELINE MANN, which comes out in August. I suppose I figured that the symbolism we attach to fall events works well with the idea of murder and death. Things die in autumn.

Because my first Madeline mystery happens in the fall, the next one is a natural progression, a couple of months later in Madeline's story, and therefore is set in winter. Lots of great mystery imagery in snow, too. The third, which is still waiting at the publisher (keep your fingers crossed), happens in the summer. Therefore, if I'm going in order, the next book will be in the fall again.

Somehow I skipped spring, and now that spring is here I am reminded anew of its wonders: the warmer air, still cool in frequent breezes; the scent of flowers which will suddenly be blooming everywhere; the chirping of birds who were silent all through the cold months.

In my own yard I inherited, years ago, another woman's garden treasures: lily-of-the-valley, peony bushes, tulips, day lilies, lilacs, and honeysuckle vines twining over the fence. They are wonderful, free gifts that came with our house and return every spring, and I enjoy strolling in my yard each morning before work (something I never care to do in any other season) so that I can breathe in the loveliness before I march off to school.

I'm not sure which flowers I've photographed here, but I snapped the shot last spring when we visited Brookfield Zoo.

In any case, I'm hoping to write a spring story soon. For you readers, do you like books to be set in a particular season?

Writers, what season do you set your novels in? Do you lean toward a particular time of year?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tied Up in Research

Darlene Ryan (Guest Blogger)

I hate research. I don't mean the kind that involves curling up with a stack of books for the afternoon. I mean the kind of research that involves me doing something. That kind of research never quite works out for me. A couple of weeks ago I was trying to solve an ongoing problem with my WIP. I had my main character tied to a chair. Would she be able to throw herself sideways? Could she do it without hitting her head? There was no way I could figure out the problem on paper. That meant.... (gag, gag) research.

"Honey, could you tie me up later?” I asked my husband.

"What will you be wearing?" Mr. Romantic asked with a leer. "Will there be whipped cream involved?"


I went out to the shed to look for rope. There was none. There were more bicycles than we have people in the house, as well as four rakes—which is very strange because there are never any rakes when it’s time to gather up the leaves every fall. Then I remembered, when I'd moved a chair for my mom I'd had to tie the trunk up with a plastic skipping rope, because we had nothing else.

So where was all the rope? There had been a length of white nylon rope hanging up by the snow scoop. Then I remembered I’d kind of set that on fire. (For future reference, it's not a good idea to try to melt the end of a fraying piece of rope if it may have been at one time tied to the handle of a gas can.)

We’d had some yellow rope. Where was that? Oh right, that had ended up all unraveled when I cut a piece to tie to the sled because I wasn't going to try that melt the end of the rope with a match trick again. No sirree.

At one time we did actually have some “real” rope. Hemp. Cotton. Sisal. I didn't know what it had been made of. It was the kind of rope you use to practice tying knots when you’re learning about sailing, when what you’d really rather be doing is planning how you’re going to sail to the Bahamas, live on the boat and write a best-seller a year. Oh yeah. I'd used that rope to tie up a couple of boxes of books before the school yard sale last year--with perfect reef knots, by the way.

Okay, so I couldn't get tied up until I got some rope. It was off to the big-box hardware store. At the hardware store there was an entire aisle of rope and chain, all on big cardboard and metal rolls. A nice young man with a pierced lower lip was happy to cut me a length. What did I want? And how much?

What did I want? I wanted rope. Who knew there were so many kinds of rope? I looked up and down the aisle as though I were contemplating my options.

"What do you need the rope for?" Pierced-lip asked.

You see, this is why I hate research. I can’t tell Pierced-lip that I need rope because I'm planning on getting my husband to tie me up. Oh, no. First of all, I'm old enough to be Pierced-lip’s mother. Yes, I know I don’t want rope for some kind of kinky middle-aged sex thing. But he doesn’t know that. And second of all, I learned the perils of giving away too much information the time I was looking for a new toilet in the same store. When the sales guy asked me what kind of toilet I was looking for I blurted, "The one with the biggest hole." (It's not that funny. At the time I had a four-year-old who used half a roll of paper with every bathroom visit. Each flush was an adventure. And by the way plunging is great for firming up that pesky little underarm flap that keeps on waving even after you've stopped.)

So I said, "I want to tie up a rug."

"You shouldn't tie a rug with rope," he told me. "You could damage the pile, ma'am."

Great. I have to get the only keener in the entire store. However, using my quick writer-ly thinking, I said, "It's a really old rug."

"It could be an antique, ma'am," he said. "You definitely shouldn't tie that with a rope."

"No, no," I insisted. “It's only an old rug I need to get rid of. I just want to roll it up and tie it on my car."

"You have roof racks?” he asked.

Roof racks? I just wanted some rope. Why were we talking about roof racks? "No,” I said.

"You know you shouldn’t just tie things to the roof of your car," he said. "It's not really safe. And I think it's against the law anyway."

By that point all I wanted to do was tie one end of a piece of rope to that lip ring and the other to the bumper of my car and drive away very fast. I had a headache that felt like someone had just driven a spike through my left eye. “Never mind," I said, heading for the door.

"Roof racks are in aisle 14," he called after me.

When I got home, Mr. Romantic was in the kitchen practicing knots with the tie backs from the kitchen curtains. "Is the guy in your book a sailor?" he called after me as I headed down the basement stairs. "Because I think he should be." I just kept on going.

I hate research.

Darlene Ryan is the author of the novel Saving Grace and the hilarious Rules for Life.

Friday, March 23, 2007

How Writers Sometimes Handle Death...And It Ain't Always Pretty

By Lonnie Cruse

I was on my way home from a book fair in Evansville, IN, last Saturday evening when I learned of a friend's death. It wasn't totally unexpected. She was quite a few years older than me, and lately she'd had a couple of strokes. But I wasn't expecting it to happen right then. (Do we ever?) We'd been close and she was extremely supportive of my writing.

I wasn't particularly adult in dealing with the news, losing it when we finally reached home, tossing suitcases and laundry in various directions in our driveway while screeching at the innocent bystander I'm married to. And I didn't sleep that night.

By the time the funeral was held on Monday, I'd gotten enough of a grip on myself to indulge in a bit of literal graveyard humor after the graveside service ended by jotting down the interesting names I spotted on nearby headstones for future use as character names. And I journaled my feelings about the wonderful person she was. It's what writers do, take most of what hits us between the eyes and put it somehow into writing. Perhaps I'll create a character like her one day. Perhaps I'll use some of those headstone names in a future book. Perhaps I'll meet her again in the hereafter.

Writers deal with life by writing about it. It's how we make sense of the senseless. And stay one step away from whatever drives others insane.

Some people run screaming into the streets when faced with a notebook full of blank, lined pages. Others write down minute details of their lives, page after page. I've recently learned to journal somewhere in the middle, jotting down quick story ideas, questions about a work in progress, personal problems, anything I need to get out of my head and onto paper to deal with. It helps, both in my writing and just living my life. I won't stop missing my friend just because I journaled about her. The tears are still inside. But she's still here, in my journal. In my mind.

What's inside you that needs to come out?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

What If? The Heart of the Story

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve heard it said that every story starts with a “what if,” a question in the writer’s mind that provides the seed from which all the rest grows. It makes sense to me. Let’s look at the classics. Romeo and Juliet: What if the children of two families engaged in a bitter feud fall in love? King Lear: What if a man divides his estate among his heirs while he’s still alive? Hamlet: What if a man finds out his uncle may have murdered his father—but he’s not sure? Pride and Prejudice: What if a rich bachelor moves into the neighborhood of a family with an entailed estate and five daughters with no dowries? Jane Eyre: What if a man with a mad wife locked in the attic falls in love with the governess?

In a whodunit or a novel of suspense, “what if” can trigger the action, the plot, the mystery itself. Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: What if a foundling with a yearning to belong is persuaded to impersonate the missing heir to a family whose members look just like him and share his passion for horses? Stuart Woods, Chiefs: What if a serial killer is a pillar of the community who spreads his murders out over 40 years? The DaVinci Code: What if Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child whose descendant still lives in the present day?

But for some writers, the plot is not the starting point. A situation, setting, or relationship can generate a “what if” that becomes the stage on which the solving of the mystery is played out. Or the “what if” may generate a whole series. Laurie R. King: What if the aging Sherlock Holmes meets a young woman who’s just as smart as he is? Margaret Maron: What if a modern Southern woman whose father was a famous bootlegger becomes a judge? In science fiction, sometimes called speculative fiction, “what if” is the whole point. But mystery writers too need a reason to set their characters in motion, a burning curiosity that they can impart to the reader.

I didn’t consciously think “what if” when I sat down to write Death Will Get You Sober. But when I applied the question to what I’d written, I realized that my central “what if” did not pertain to the murder and its solution but to the characters I had created to solve it and future mysteries in the series: Bruce, the newly sober alcoholic, and his friends, Jimmy and Barbara. What if there were two best friends, inseparable from childhood? What if both were alcoholics? What if one of them got sober and the other didn’t? What if 15 years later the other one stopped drinking too? What would happen to the friendship? What if we throw in a codependent girlfriend who cares as much about what happens between them as they do—and is much more eager to talk about it? To me, the relationships of the protagonist and his friends give life to the mystery. And in the projected series, they keep evolving. I want to know what happens next, and I hope the reader will too.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Memories of Prison

Sandra Parshall

The Maryland House of Correction in Jessup is closed at last. The 129-year-old building is empty of inmates, and its long history of riots, attacks on correctional officers, escapes and violence among prisoners has come to an end.

Years ago, when I was a young reporter on the Baltimore Evening Sun, I visited Maryland prisons to report on health care for inmates. I had been inside a prison before -- the federal facility for women in Alderson, West Virginia, made famous recently by Martha Stewart’s brief residence there. I realized that not all prisons were like Alderson, with its lovely campus in the mountains, pleasant buildings, and semi-private rooms, but I was completely unprepared for the reality of places like the HOC at Jessup.

I knew that I would be leaving whenever I wanted to, but the sound of doors clanging shut behind me, locking me in, brought on a rush of panic. When I was escorted past a row of locked cells where inmates were segregated from the general prison population, I felt like a visitor at a particularly grim zoo. A couple of the men caught my eye through the bars of their cell doors, and I had to look away because I felt ashamed and embarrassed that they were being shown off for my benefit.

Jessup was the dreariest of the institutions I visited, but the penitentiary in Baltimore made an equally deep impression. I can still see the tier upon tier of cells, and the only color I remember is gray, although I doubt the walls were actually painted that color. My strongest memory is of the noise, an overwhelming drone punctuated by shouts and the clank of metal on metal as doors opened and closed. I would have gone out of my mind from the racket alone if I’d stayed there more than a couple of hours.

I was allowed to speak to individual inmates, question them and record their complaints about medical care in the prison. The men were polite, respectful, and voiced their opinions in reasonable tones. One young man apparently hadn’t seen a female in a while, and he asked personal questions about my life, but I never felt threatened. When I began receiving letters from him shortly after my visit, I was sorry I had to wound his feelings by telling him I couldn’t visit or write to him.

At the prison near Hagerstown, where I ate lunch in the cafeteria with inmates, I perceived the atmosphere as markedly different. The noise level was low, the buildings appeared well-maintained, and the setting was beautiful. I thought this was a “good” prison. Yet it has also been the scene of violence and riots, and charges of brutality have been made against the guards. I was there for part of one day. I saw what I was allowed to see. In other prisons, despair couldn’t be hidden. I felt it before I walked through the doors, and I saw it all around me when I was inside. In Hagerstown, for some reason, I was blind to it, yet the history of the place proves it was ever-present.

Our nation’s prisons are overflowing with inmates, and the closing of one antiquated, unsafe facility in Maryland isn’t the hopeful sign it might appear to be. All of the Jessup prisoners had to go somewhere. Hundreds were transferred to distant parts of the state or to prisons in other states, without notification to their families beforehand. Now separation from family will add a new layer of frustration and loneliness to the inmates’ lives.

I’m not a Pollyanna who wants all the prison doors flung open and the inmates set free. I want dangerous criminals locked up, and I am appalled when anyone receives a light sentence for killing or maiming another person. So how am I to reconcile my desire for justice with the terrible sadness I feel when I think of people shut up in massive, dismal institutions where enforced idleness and loneliness destroy what’s left of their humanity? Why is our society incapable of addressing the underlying causes of crime? How long will we go on building more and more super-max prisons and believing that if we lock up our problems we have solved them?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hobby Writer

posted by Sharon Wildwind

I’m a quilter. I’ve made over 50 quilts and wall hangings, ranging in size from a queen-size bed quilt called “Plowed Fields” that I designed and made to celebrate my first book being published to a 3” miniature, which one of my stuffed bears uses as his security blanket. I’ve quilted pillows, book bags, cosmetic cases, coin purses, tea cozies, vests, beaded bags, and treasure bags, just big enough to hold a trinket and 2 pieces of designer chocolate. I’ve even been paid three times for commissioned work.

I remain a hobby quilter. I quilt for my own amusement, to make gifts, or simply to relieve stress. I have no desire to be a quilting teacher, or write a quilting book, or take my quilts on the road in a trunk show. For all I know, “hobby quilter” is a applied to me pejoratively behind my back by the more haute couture quilters of my acquaintance.

Hobby writer is certainly pejorative. “She’ll never be anything but a hobby writer,” another writer says cattily over lunch. “Maybe you should try just being a hobby writer,” members of a critique group suggest gently. There is a certain segment of the mystery community who would, if it could, lump all authors of light, funny, fluffy mysteries into the category of hobby writers. Fortunately, it’s a very small segment, and can be mostly avoided.

So where’s the line? Does a writer go to bed one night a hobby writer and wake up the next morning as a professional writer. Or vice versa? The demarcation certainly is not in the quality of writing. I’ve read spectacular pieces by people who openly call themselves hobby writers and have no desire to turn pro. Nor is the line crossed if an author occasionally makes money on writing or is published. Contrary to urban myths, the Internal Revenue Service does not have a hard and fast rule about what makes writing a hobby versus a legitimate tax deduction.

It’s not even attitude. Many hobby writers say they write professionally, but are not professional writers. To write professionally means to keep learning the craft and try to turn out each piece a little better than the one before, which is what I try to do in my quilts.

I think the difference between the hobby writer and the professional writer has to do with two things. The first is reflected in a quote I collected a few years ago from another mystery writer. I didn’t write down who said it, so I’ll give it to you unattributed. If you have a clue who might have said this, please let me know so I can credit them. The quote is “The business of writing has to be as much fun as the writing. The difference between an amateur and a professional is how much time they devote to business.”

Ah, the business. Agent searches. Query letters. Knowing the market. Filing taxes. Keeping up with the publishing world. Doing an inventory of what’s in your home office and your storage closet. Making and sticking to a budget. Writing business goals. Having a professional portrait taken. Doing book signings and classes. Marketing, marketing, and more marketing. Getting your name out there even before you have a book to sell and keeping your name out there in front of readers.

The second difference is that the hobby writer allows herself the luxury of not writing. I don’t mean those occasional spells of taking a few days, or in some cases, a few weeks off. Everyone has those, but no matter what’s going on in the background of the rest of her life, the professional writer eventually puts her bottom in the chair and her hands on the keyboard or around the gel pen and knocks out the 5,000 words for the short-story or the 90,000 words for the novel. She may have to write around children, or family illness, or a broken furnace, or the pressures of a day job, but write she will. As well as she can, and perhaps just squeaking in under the deadline by minutes, but she gets there.

Not all writers wish to turn pro. It's time we stamp out this arbitrary dividing line and treat one another simply as writers.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Rebecca and the Pleasure of Suspense

posted by Julia Buckley

Back in January I listed Rebecca as one of my all-time favorite suspense novels; I would also suggest that the Hitchcock movie with Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier almost does justice to the book, and is a piece of art in its own right. While I can't go into any spoiler-type details about the book or the movie, I can assure any blog readers who haven't encountered one or the other that either would provide hours of delicious suspense. I have a colleague who once saw me holding the book and said, "Oh, you're reading Rebecca? That book is the reason I became an English teacher."

Books like this remind us why it's such a pleasure to be a reader, and why I feel sorry for people who tell me they don't read, or they never "got into" reading. There's so much satisfaction in getting lost in a good book, and it's nothing like the more passive act of watching a film. Reading a book involves the reader; the reader almost becomes a character in the drama.

Recently I re-discovered a little gem on my bookshelf called The Freebody Heiress, by Ethel Edison Gordon. (1974) Like Rebecca, the mystery has an intriguing first line; both have to do with houses, which is of course a very gothic touch.

The first line of Rebecca is, I believe, "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again."

In Freebody, the narrator draws us in with this: "Sexton never looked for the gatehouse, no matter what anyone thought or said afterward. Neither did he intend it as a ploy, a deliberate excuse to meet Iris Freebody. He came upon it quite by chance, on the Friday before the first week of classes began at the college where he'd come to teach."

Gordon's matter-of-fact tone is at odds with the suggestion of mystery and conflict, and it's the sort of opener that draws me right in, that would have me reading right there in the library or bookstore aisle. This book, as a matter of fact, is a relic from a library, something I found at a booksale, and on its title page the word CANCELLED is stamped in red. How sad that word is to me now, as both a reader and a writer. A book this good should never be cancelled, but should bring enjoyment to lovers of suspense for years to come.

I've read the entire book and enjoyed it thoroughly, as have my mother and sister, who are my mini reading club. Anyone reading this blog can join that club, too! Here's to the oldies, which are always fun to mix in with the newies. Next time you're in between books, try one of the dusties at the back of the library shelf, or find Du Maurier's or Edison's books and give one a try. Not only do they provide suspenseful journeys, but they are permeated with a sense of nostalgia.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blurring the Line: Blending Horror with Mystery for a New Kind of Thriller

Jonathan Maberry (Guest Blogger)

So...why horror?

I get asked that a lot at book signings or lectures and in fan mail. Why do I write about the things that go bump in the night? Why do I write about monsters?

I mean...I read mostly mysteries and thrillers, most of what I’ve written over the last thirty years have been non-horror stuff: martial arts books, articles on parenting, experimental plays, sarcastic greeting cards. So why choose horror for my first novel? Why not make Ghost Road Blues a straight thriller?

The short answer is: well, it kind of just happened; but that doesn’t really say it. That doesn’t cut to the heart of it.

The long answer is the one that matters: I don’t write about monsters I write about people overcoming monsters. That’s a big difference.

The fantasy format –whether it is horror, sci-fi, a fable, whatever—has been used for storytelling since the beginnings of literature. The fantastic allows for a nice coating around the pill, and often that pill is a moral lesson, a social insight, a political statement, etc. I mean, let’s face’s pretty darned unlikely that Odysseus actually fought a cyclops or fell prey to an island full of sirens.

Consider Poe. Had he just written dramas about obsession, paranoia, or the destructive power of sadness we would probably not remember him, eloquent as he was. However, because he wrote about black cats and purloined hearts and other macabre things his stories are treasured to this day and required reading in schools.

Look at TV. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek show were vehicles used to tell stories about racism, social injustice, abuse, psychological disintegration, alienation, politics, and so on. Think about it, if Serling had pitched to the networks that he wanted to do a straight non-genre weekly drama about issues of social importance they’d have laughed him out of the room. And yet here we are, half a century after the Twilight Zone debuted and we still watch those shows, still collect the DVDs, still remember them. Genre storytelling is powerfully effective in this way.

When I was a teenager I read Richard Matheson’s landmark novels I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man. Two brilliant psychological thrillers about alienation, the structure of society, culture clashing, racial intolerance, and propaganda. Yet on the surface they’re stories about a guy living in a world where everyone else is a vampire and a tale of a man who shrinks a half an inch a day.

When I came up with the idea for Ghost Road Blues I wanted to take the same kind of approach to tell a story that shows how people confront darkness, whether it’s an external thing like a monster, a killer, a physical threat, or whether it’s internal, like temptation, corruption, lust, fear. I believe that evil, like goodness, is the result of choice. I don’t believe that the argument should begin and end with “nature versus nurture”. Both of those are contributing factors, but it is the choice a person makes that really matters; as does the way in which a person justifies that choice.

My characters in Ghost Road Blues and its sequels (Dead Man’s Song debuts from Pinnacle Books on July 3; Bad Moon Rising has just been completed) are all conflicted in one way or another, and they’re all damaged, they all have baggage. When each of them has to, at one point or another in the trilogy, confront who they are and what the world is asking of them, the choices they make at like shockwaves, impacting the lives around them.

I’ve had some real experience with darkness and hard choices. My childhood was a bona-fide nightmare and by all rights the things I experienced should have turned me into a sick and twisted person. But that’s not who I am. I made choices along the way to confront the darkness I was facing, and I took a stand against the monsters in my life. These were very hard choices but making the right ones both saved my life and gave it a more positive direction. There are a lot of people who had similar childhood experiences and made the wrong choice, or no choice at all, and the darkness consumed them.

I was lucky enough to be able to defeat my monsters. In my stories my characters have to face theirs. Some make the right choices, some make bad choices, but the whole story is about the process of choosing and its implications. That’s dangerous storytelling, and that’s what the horror genre does best. With horror...even with all the shadows around me, I’m home and damn happy to be here.

This is not to say that mystery formats don’t allow for this kind of storytelling. Look at Silence of the Lambs. That, too, is about monsters just as it’s about choices.

Will I stay in the horror genre? That’s hard to say. It’s certainly a nice place to be.

Jonathan Maberry’s Ghost Road Blues has been nominated for two Bram Stoker Awards (for Best First Novel and Novel of the Year).

Friday, March 16, 2007


by Lonnie Cruse

I saw a blurb on the Internet recently about Poe, The Musical.

Say what?

Poe, the Musical?

Sort of blogs, er, boggles the mind, doesn’t it? Edgar Allen Poe, dancing? Or someone portraying Poe, dancing? Which simply means I’ve “pigeonholed” our dear, adopted father as someone too serious to do anything as frivolous as dancing. Who knows, he might have been terrific at the Tango? Might even have loved the Twist, if he’d only been born in the right decade? Totally possible.

Shame on me, because personally, I hate being pigeonholed, and I adore doing something/anything to surprise someone who I know has me pigeonholed, as in, ”She’d never, or she always . . . you fill in the blank. You’d be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t?) at how many people thought I couldn’t write a mystery novel to save my hide. Or get one published? My own sons, back in their foolish teenage years, were willing to bet the farm that I couldn’t water ski, and their father was in total agreement. Sooooo, I water skied two summers in a row, the first to prove I could, and the second to prove the first wasn’t just a fluke. Then I gracefully retired from water skiing, while body and mind were still in one reasonable piece. My mamma didn’t raise any dummies. Lucky for my boys, they didn’t own a farm to bet.

So what’s my point here, assuming I have one? Don’t pigeonhole others, they’re likely to pop out and surprise you. And more important, don’t let anyone pigeonhole YOU! If there is something you’ve always wanted to do, but been told by others you couldn’t possibly do it, as long as it’s legal and moral (no need to wind up in the slammer just to prove a point, now is there?) why not go for it? Surprise yourself . . . and others. The worst you can do is fail, and at least you will have tried. You’ll know whether or not you were up to the task.

Excuse me, I’ve got to go put on my dancing shoes. And see if Poe’s dance card is full. With any luck . . . .

Thursday, March 15, 2007

An Exotic Setting I May Never Use

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was 20, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa. In those days, you didn’t actually have to know anything to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. They put about 100 of us “BA generalists” just out of college into a summer training program where we got a crash course in African geography and American civics and spoke French all the time for practice. We went on a camping trip where we were supposed to experience living “in the bush” and learn how to wring a chicken’s neck. Each small group had its own chicken. I confess I took out my contact lenses and looked the other way while my group killed the chicken. (Luckily, it was a skill I wouldn’t need in Bouaké, the city of 100,000 where I was eventually sent. The first year, we bought our chickens already butchered and plucked in the vast open market. The second year, a French supermarket chain opened a branch. We used to go in there and hang out just to enjoy the air conditioning.)

I spent September in Quebec, living with a family and struggling with the peculiarities of Canadian French. I remember the maple trees blazing glorious reds and golds in a fall that would give way not to winter, but to two years in the tropics. Autumn without its usual poignancy was very strange. And then came a very long trip by plane and there we were: West Africa! Air thick as oatmeal, the smell of pineapple and rotting vegetable matter, kaleidoscopic colors, and gorgeous women with huge loads balanced effortlessly on their heads (look, Ma—no hands!) and sleeping babies bound around their waists like fanny packs. This was way before you could buy African prints or kente cloth in the US, even in Harlem, as far as I know.

In the 1970s, I did write a mystery set in a fictional West African country. It was called Death Is a Volunteer, and I didn’t succeed in selling it. I doubt it’s salvageable. Times have changed a lot. In the 60s, Côte d’Ivoire and the countries around it—Nigeria, Togo, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Ghana—were in the first delirious joy of independence. There was a lot of hope and energy. The world has gotten more complicated since then. Africa is angry and dangerous in new ways.

I’m sure I could summon up the colors and the textures and the smells. I still remember small details about the people, some of whom I’m still in touch with. My friend Valentine, for example, came from a village where her father was the chief. He had eight wives and 64 children, but Vany was the only one who pursued education past grade school. Her older brothers used to consult her about when to plant and whom to marry. When she went home to the village, everyone would tiptoe past her room so they wouldn’t disturb her, just in case she was thinking.

But on a deeper level, I’m not as oblivious to undercurrents as I was at 20. And I don’t have a fraction of the chutzpah. I saw an outsider’s Africa, and I’m not so sure I could write about it successfully. Could I research it? Could I go back? My husband and I did visit Valentine and my other friends in 1986. But now, for the past three years, Côte d’Ivoire has been engaged in an ugly and inconclusive civil war.

Valentine writes that things are more or less back to normal in Abidjan. She’s okay. She's the current President’s cousin. But Bouaké is the capital of the rebellion, not far from the new border that splits the country, with armed Ivoiriens facing off on either side. My French friends, some married to Africans, have fled the country. I don’t know what happened to the Lebanese friends who lived in Bouaké, fourth generation sub-Saharan residents who used to talk wistfully about beautiful Beirut, back before Beirut became a war zone. I hope they got out when the French evacuated “Europeans.” The issues are so complex. Feelings run so high on all sides. There are no good guys, except the little guys caught in the middle. Who am I to write about Africa?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Can Women Write Thrillers?

Sandra Parshall

“A testosterone-fueled thriller!”

How many times have you seen those words in a book review or ad?

And how many times have you seen a book described as “an estrogen-fueled thriller”?

Female authors who are accepted as thriller writers are still relatively rare. One reason may be that publishers, knowing a lot of men won’t read women authors, try to direct marketing of those authors’ work toward female readers. If a man writes an action-packed crime novel with sex in it, the book is called a testosterone-fueled thriller. If a woman writes an action-packed crime novel with sex in it, the book is likely to be labeled romantic suspense, guaranteeing that the majority of male readers won’t touch it with a barge pole.

I have no hard data to support this claim, but I’m going to say it anyway because I’ve seen it happen often enough to make me believe it’s true: agents, editors, and readers apply different standards to men’s and women’s books. A friend of mine wrote a thriller that was filled with action, murder, and plot twists. The protagonist was a strong female who knew how to protect herself and take out a bad guy when she needed to. Agents who read the manuscript either didn’t find the character’s actions believable or felt the book should be more interior, with bigger doses of the protagonist’s feelings. You know, more of a woman’s book. “I’ve considered rewriting to make her a man,” my friend says, “but then what would I do with the cute priest who’s the love interest? Make him a nun?”

Does a real difference exist between thrillers written by women and those produced by men? If you put a male name on a book, as some women writers do when they opt to use pseudonyms or their initials, will anybody be able to guess the author’s gender from the text? Do women overload their books with romance and family life? Do they use a softer tone and eschew graphic violence? Do their books focus only on female characters and their peculiarly female concerns?

If you think the answer is yes to all of the above, I have only this to say to you: P.J. Tracy. That’s a pseudonym for not just one woman but two, a mother-daughter writing team. I see a lot of similarities, beyond the Minnesota setting, between the Tracy novels and John Sandford’s Prey series, but I’m willing to bet that some male Sandford fans won’t read “Tracy” because they know the authors are a mother and a daughter.

While I’m naming names, consider Tess Gerritsen. True, her cop (Jane Rizzoli) and medical examiner (Maura Isles) are women, but Gerritsen also includes the viewpoint of Rizzoli’s husband, FBI agent Gabriel Dean, and her two women are as tough and businesslike as any male characters you’ll ever encounter. She doesn’t shy away from violence either. I wonder, though, how many men have never tried Gerritsen’s books because a woman’s name is on the covers and the two main characters are female. The fans she already has are enough to put her books on bestseller lists for a while. But the thrillers that make it onto the lists and stay there week after week, sometimes month after month, tend to be those written by men. The thrillers that get the most review attention are, with few exceptions, the “testosterone-fueled” kind.

Is this a holdover from the time when men ran the world and women were expected to smile and bake cookies? Or does something basic in human nature resist the idea of women writing about the darkest side of life? Why is it that some men simply cannot be entertained by a book if they know it was written by a woman?

I recently confessed that I avoid reading crime novels from foreign countries. I vowed to make more of an effort, because I realize I’m missing a lot of entertaining books. Men who won’t read thrillers by women are also missing some good stuff. If I thought any of those men were reading this blog, I would encourage them to be adventurous and give female thriller writers a try. The danger of estrogen contamination has been greatly exaggerated.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Joy of Writing

Sharon Wildwind

I learned to cook from my mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, the 1946 edition, with the blue and white lattice cover.

Rombauer wrote the book to have a conversation about cooking, to slay the drudgery of food preparation. In a time before fast foods, mixes, and a deli in every grocery store, she had a dream that women would find joy in preparing wholesome foods such as homemade butterscotch pudding, creamette dishes, or ham sandwich spread, or that they would confidently experiment with elaborate company food: chicken à la king, shrimp wiggle, oysters in grapefruit, and pastry snails.

Joy is a gorgeous word. It’s a toe-tapping, bottom-wiggling, dancing around the kitchen, waving a cooking spoon kind of word. Though having made homemade butterscotch pudding, I warn you not get too carried away with all that tapping, wiggling, and spoon waving, or you’ll end up with a scorched mess and golden brown splatters all over the walls.

There’s joy inherent in writing, too. There has to be. Even if, as Paul Bishop said, “Writers are the only people who can spend all day in their pajamas playing with imaginary friends,” without the occasional transcendent joyous moment we would all, one day, run shrieking from our word processors and require heavy sedation or at least large helpings of macaroni and industrial-strength cheese sauce.

There’s the sheer pleasure of character building, a God-like activity if there ever was one. You create a person out of a blank page and a few facts like birth date, hair color, and the line she will not cross. Except, even as you’re typing in that uncrossable line, you’re chuckling to yourself. From this moment forward, you are committed to drag your character—by whatever means you can find—to that line. When you get there, you will shove her over with all your strength, and rub your hands joyfully as you watch the fall out. She’s going to hate you for this. Fortunately, maybe the readers will love you.

Do you have a clue how hard it is to share the joy of a perfectly-crafted sentence? I mean, who really cares that you cooked up a sublime subject-verb-object combination and garnished it with the most perfect adjective and gerund? Can you explain to your significant other how good dialog feels like breakers rolling back and forth over a beach? Each succeeding line builds toward a climax that might just mimic sexual release. Well, okay, more like a bowl of homemade butterscotch pudding release.

Then there is that glorious moment you realize that the main plot and a sub-plot have just ricocheted off one another and are now careening in totally unexpected directions. So what if this blows holes in your carefully outlined last third of the book? There’s energy happening here that you never knew this book would have, so hang on tight and ride it out.

Joy keeps us going. We live in hope of those wonderful, bright moments when wordsmithing and plot crafting come together and we feel like dancing around and wiggling our bottoms, with or without spoon in hand.

Anyone remember creamettes? It was James T. Williams’ brand name for the first quick-cooking elbow macaroni, which he invented in 1912. Shrimp wiggle? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my mother’s cook book. Your guess is as good as mine. As for oysters in grapefruit, we just aren’t going to go there.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Appeal of Psychology in Mystery

posted by Julia Buckley

I teach high school English, and for the last three weeks my students and I have been reading and discussing Dostoevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. I've always loved this book, ever since I myself read it as a high school senior (and then again in college, and then again as a grad student). The great thing, though, is that most of my students tend to agree with my assessment. They were prepared not to like it; some of them were even determined not to like it. It's big, it's Russian, it's intimidating. They had already checked to see how many pages it had and how small the print was.

They were surprised, therefore, when they realized that this was a book to which they could relate. The protagonist, granted, is a murderer, but he has much in common with seniors in high school: he often feels like an outcast; he regularly feels superior to almost everyone; he is uncertain of his own beliefs, and tormented by his uncertainty; he is continually paranoid; he is even uncertain about his feelings for a member of the opposite sex, and occasionally tormented by that, too. Oh, and there's the fact that he's killed people. That's not something they can relate to, but they can relate to the GUILT.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is very much about guilt and the way that it works on the psyche. It has recognizable parallels, in fact, to THE SCARLET LETTER, in that the unhappy minister in that novel shares many of the same responses to his crime that Raskolnikov has to his own. The girls are fascinated, not only by what motivates one to commit a serious crime, but how impossible life becomes once that crime is committed, and how inauthentic a human being becomes once he can no longer remember innocence.

I have one student in particular who has never liked English. I've taught her in three different classes, and it's an effort for her to even keep her eyelids open, much less to respond in class or manage to squeeze out more than a paragraph or so of excruciating essay. She's a nice girl with a great smile, but I always assumed that she had simply written off this particular subject.

But I was wrong--because CRIME AND PUNISHMENT has opened her eyes. SHE LOVES THIS BOOK. Her hand shoots in the air with every question. She is thrilled to be able to analyze Raskolnikov, thrilled by the dramatic irony that is the premise of the entire novel, and thrilled to be able to analyze the pyschology of another so fully, so satisfyingly. She sees his division and his torment, and Dostoevsky has given her the privilege of seeing herself as a scholar, as one who can and should analyze the written word, even as she enjoys it.

This sort of epiphany is rare; I only encounter it with one student, every few years. About ten years ago it was a boy who fell in love with HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and asked me, in awe, whether all of the books we read would be this good. Back in the eighties it was a young girl whose life was changed by DAVID COPPERFIELD. The book actually made her eyes shine. She had been getting an F, and she shot to A range because she could not put down that book.

These are the moments that make teachers want to weep, but it ultimately has nothing to do with us or our methods. These moments are brought to us by the great writers of history, and by the thing that makes mystery itself so endlessly compelling: the fascinating world of human psychology.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Identity Crisis

Lorraine Bartlett (Guest Blogger)

Who am I today? Most of the time I'm me, Lorraine. (Sweet Lorraine, actually. Yes, named for the Nat King Cole hit. Does that out my age, or what?) But I've also got two other identities.

My first novel, Murder On The Mind, was published under the name L.L. Bartlett. My protagonist is a man, and my (then) agent felt it would be better to disguise my gender so that men might be enticed to pick up the book and read it. Hiding gender isn’t so easy when your publisher says "give us a bio." If you're writing short, it works. (“L.L. Bartlett has done it all from typing scripts in Hollywood to drilling holes for NASA and writes a life of crime in Western New York.”) It gets sticky when you have to add more details. How can you disguise gender when you need a pronoun? ("S/he's married and lives with four nutty cats.")

(Yes, I really did drill holes for NASA, subcontracted through a local machine shop, and my cats are absolutely nuts. Or maybe it's us: after all, they trained US to feed them on demand.)

Now I've got a contract to write cozy mysteries. The cozies are a lot different from my L.L. Bartlett books, which could be classified psychological suspense, amateur sleuth, or paranormal thrillers, take your pick. So I'll be writing the cozies under a pseudonym: Lorna Barrett.

Although the first book in that series won't be out for another year (actually, 13 months), it behooves me to get the name out there. But what do I say about Lorna? My publisher has no problem with me saying: Lorraine Bartlett, writing as Lorna Barrett ... but who the heck knows who Lorraine is? My readers know me as L.L. Bartlett.

Do I concoct a fake history for Lorna? How about: she graduated, with honors, from Stanford and recently cured an obscure form of cancer while piloting the shuttle to the International Space Station? And she'll be a mere 21 when her first book is published in April 2008. (That is if they don't change the pub date...again.)

I've given Lorna a MySpace page and have mentioned her "alter ego" (L.L.) but I haven't filled in much concerning her personality and interests. I've also bought a domain name for her, but haven't done anything with that yet, either.

Who is this woman? Is she a part of me? Does she like martinis and flaming finale spices on her popcorn, too? Or does she sit and eat Lorna Doones simply because she was named after the cookie? When I do book signings will I have to pretend to be her, or do I bill myself like the guy on Hawaii Five-O: "Zulu as Kono?" (Did I mention I was in the womb when H-50 was originally on the tube?) Maybe I should get a blonde wig. (They do say blondes have more fun.)

Meanwhile, it's Lorraine who gets to do the laundry, clean the toilet and, oh yes, do all that writing for L.L. and Lorna.

Lorraine Bartlett will see two of her books published next year: Murder Is Binding under the Lorna Barrett nom de plume and Dead In Red, under her L.L. Bartlett moniker. You can check out all her personalities at

Friday, March 9, 2007

Interview with author Beth Groundwater

by Lonnie Cruse

Good morning, everyone. My blog post for today is an interview with author Beth Groundwater. I hope you enjoy reading about Beth and her books. Thanks for stopping by!

LC: Tell us about your book.

BG: A Real Basket Case is an amateur sleuth mystery. The protagonist is Claire Hanover, the 46-year-old proprietor of a Colorado Springs, CO gift basket business. The action starts when her best friend arranges for a handsome young massage therapist to give Claire a massage, and he's shot and killed in her bedroom. When police arrest Claire's husband, Roger, for the crime, she must convince Roger she wasn't having an affair, and, with advice from a PI friend, find the real killer before Roger loses his job and goes to trial. Along the way, Claire confronts the victim's fiery ex-girlfriend, his drug-dealing cohorts, and the gym ladies he supplied with cocaine or seduced for money. She makes mistakes at every turn, but perseveres. One of my critique partners has nicknamed Claire "Lucy" after Lucille Ball's character, Lucy Arnez.

I've been amazed and gratified by the reviews that A Real Basket Case is getting, such as:

"This will appeal to Desperate Housewives fans and those who like cozies with a bit of spice."
-- Barbara Bibel, Booklist Review, February 1, 2007
"Drugs and jealousy add up to a Rocky Mountain murder. A tense, exciting debut."
-- Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2007

LC: What inspired you to write this book?

BG: I start plotting most of my mystery novels and stories with an idea about the victim and some interesting or unique way in which s/he was killed. For A Real Basket Case, I had a "What If?" inspiration: What if a man is killed in a married woman's bedroom and her husband is found holding the gun that shot him, BUT he didn't do it and the woman wasn't having an affair with the victim? That led to all kinds of questions that had to be answered, like how the man got in her bedroom and how the husband got hold of the murder weapon. Then, I made it even harder for myself by clothing her in her underwear and spraying gunshot residue on the husband's hand. It took me quite some time to ponder out that set-up!

LC: Wow, that would have given me pause as well. I'm dying to see how you dealt with it. Do you have an agent, or did you find your publisher on your own?

BG: I found my agent and publisher at the same time and at the same writing conference, the Colorado Gold, held every fall in Denver, CO. Actually the story begins before the conference and shows how networking works. I had "met" my editor on a couple of on-line email lists we both belong to, and a mutual friend arranged for us to get together for a drink at the conference. So, we had time to chat at leisure about my novel, our working styles, and her publishing house, Five Star Publishing. My actual pitch appointment with her was anticlimactic. Since we'd already talked, I brought in the first three pages of A Real Basket Case, she scanned them, and said, "Oh, I want this." We really clicked, and I consider her a friend now. Also, when I learned my now agent was attending the conference, I remembered that a fellow Sister in Crime had just announced that she signed with him. So, I asked her about him, and she advised me to query him beforehand. By the time of the conference, he'd seen a partial, so when we got together for a drink (notice the alcohol theme here?), we had something to talk about. Plus we had the time to discuss long-term career objectives and discover we agreed on them. Turns out, he and the editor already knew each other, and a plan to submit A Real Basket Case to Five Star was formed. Does it sound like I had an easy time of it? Not quite. Almost ninety rejections from other agents preceded this fortuitous lining up of the planets.

LC: Wow! Great story. I'm with Five Star as well. What are your future plans for your writing career? Series? Stand-alones?

BG: I've already written the sequel to A REAL BASKET CASE. Tentatively titled TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET, it takes place in Breckenridge, CO when Claire Hanover and her family take a ski vacation and the sister of her daughter's fiancé is killed on the slope. Instead of the marriage problems, Claire has in A Real Basket Case, she has daughter relationship problems in the sequel. I wrote the sequel while I was shopping around the manuscript for A Real Basket Case, and it took so long to sell it that I finished the sequel first. Five Star Publishing looks at sales figures for the first novel before requesting the manuscript for the sequel and contracting for it, but I'm ready when (notice I didn't say "if") they do. Also, I'm currently editing a manuscript that I hope will initiate a new series with a whitewater river ranger protagonist. I'll be sending it to my agent for his review right before I hit the promotion trail for A Real Basket Case.

LC: I've also got a "when" manuscript ready for Five Star. Maybe we need to mount a "divide and conquer" strategy for them? Okay, what inspires you, sends you running to the computer?

BG: An intriguing set-up--the "What-If" that gives me a puzzle to solve, a protagonist who I've gotten to know well enough that s/he starts talking to me in my dreams, and a whiz-bang black moment and climax. When those essential pieces fall in place, I know I've got a story worth telling and I start plotting.

LC: Love it! What authors do you love to read and why?

BG: I'm a very eclectic reader--all types of genres, except I don't like to be scared, so I stay away from horror and thrillers. I'm in a Book Club that meets monthly to discuss literary and women's fiction. My favorites to date are The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

I read lots of mysteries, of course. Some of my favorite mystery authors are Western writers who I've gotten to know at conferences: C.J Box, Kathy Brandt, Christine Goff, Maggie Sefton, and Margaret Coel. I also enjoy light-hearted series by Alexander McCall Smith, Donna Andrews, and Tim Cockey. My favorite mystery writer is Sharyn McCrumb, and I'm collecting all her books. I read romance and science fiction occasionally and enjoy Diana Gabaldon, J.D. Robb, Anne McCaffrey, and Douglas Adams. Why do I like these authors? Given the wide variety, I haven't the faintest idea. The most important criterion is to not bore me.

LC: Same for me. If the book doesn't grab me, it goes back in the closet. What writing groups do you belong to, and how do they help keep your fingers glued to the keyboard?

BG: I'm a joiner and a consummate networker. I belong to Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Pikes Peak Writers, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. As for keeping my fingers glued to the keyboard, the biggest help to me is the online goal-setter group in Pikes Peak Romance Writers, my local chapter of RWA. At the beginning of every week I set a goal and announce it, then at the end of the week I have to report in on how I did. That public eye has really kept me (mostly) on track. And, I would still be unpublished without my critique group, without a doubt. That's the first piece of advice I give aspiring authors who ask me for guidance--join a good critique group! Without my group's advice, my writing would not have improved to the point where it's publishable. Without their support, I would have given up in quiet despair as the rejection letters rolled in year after year. I still meet with my critique group twice a month, and I hope to for many years to come.

LC: You're lucky to have a group nearby. Mine is online, but still extremely helpful. Anything else you'd like our readers to know about your writing?

BG: Please visit my website at to learn more about me and my books. If you sign up for my email newsletter, you'll automatically be entered into a drawing for a gift basket. If there's something about my website that you like, let me know via the Contact Me link. My webmaster is my husband. He could use all the stroking I can get for him, with all the hours of free labor he puts in! Also, as an adjunct to the website, I post about twice a week to my blog at If you want to learn what one author has been going through from the time of contract signing to publication date, take a gander. I write short stories, too, and have published seven, including one in Wild Blue Yonder, Frontier Airlines's in-flight magazine, and one which was translated into Farsi. Some can still be read in online ezines and others are in anthologies available from Amazon, including Map of Murder, Manhattan Mysteries, and Dry Spell: Tales of Thirst and Longing.

Lastly, there's nothing I enjoy more than making a new friend. I hope to meet many new faces at the mystery conferences I'll be attending this year--Malice Domestic, Mayhem in the Midlands, Murder in the Grove, and the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave. Don't be a stranger. Come up and say hi!

Thanks, Beth, and I do believe you and I met at the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave in '05. Great chatting with you again!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Interview with Lee Goldberg

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

Lee Goldberg is a versatile and prolific author whose mystery novels based on the TV shows Diagnosis Murder and Monk have been highly praised.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my Mom's old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don't know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool. I followed that up with a series of books about gentleman thief Brian Lockwood, aka "The Perfect Sinner,” a thinly disguised rip-off of Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." I sold these stories for a dime to my friends and even managed to make a dollar or two. In fact, I think my royalties per book were better then than they are now.

I continued writing novels all through my teenage years. Some of my other unpublished masterpieces featured a hapless detective named Kevin Dangler. Being a packrat, I still have most of those novels today in boxes in my garage (some were destroyed in flooding a few years back).

By the time I was 17, I was writing articles for The Contra Costa Times and other Bay Area newspapers and applying to colleges. I didn't get a book published, but my detective stories got me into UCLA's School of Communications. My grades weren't wonderful, so I knew I had to kick ass on my application essay. I wrote it first person as a hard-boiled detective story in Kevin Dangler's voice. The committee, at first, had doubts that I actually wrote it myself -- until they reviewed articles I'd written for the Times, including one that used the same device as my essay. Once I got into UCLA, I put myself through school as a freelance writer...for American Film, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, UPI, Newsweek. Anybody who would pay me. I had a girlfriend at Playgirl and she got me a gig writing sexually explicit Letters-to-the-Editor at Playgirl for $25 each.

You broke into journalism and then into TV relatively young. How did you do it—besides having scads of talent and an exceptional sense of humor?

I had a journalism advisor at UCLA who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day his publisher came to him and asked him if he’d write a “men’s action adventure series,” sort of the male equivalent of the Harlequin romance. He said he wasn’t desperate enough, hungry enough, or stupid enough to do it…but he knew someone who was: Me. So I wrote an outline and some sample chapters and they bought it. The book was called .357 Vigilante I wrote it as “Ian Ludlow” so I'd be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum and had plenty of Letter-to-the-Editor-of-Playgirl quality sex in it.

The West Coast Review of Books called my literary debut "as stunning as the report of a .357 Magnum, a dynamic premiere effort," singling the book out as "The Best New Paperback Series" of the year. I ended up writing four books in the series. Naturally, the publisher promptly went bankrupt and I never saw a dime in royalties.

But New World Pictures bought the movie rights to .357 Vigilante and hired me to write the screenplay. I didn’t know anything about writing scripts…luckily, I had a good friend who did, William Rabkin. We worked together on the UCLA Daily Bruin. So the two of us teamed up. The movie never got made, but we had so much fun that we are still a writing team today…twenty years later.

Bill and I broke in to TV by writing a spec episode of Spenser For Hire which, against all odds, they bought and shot… and then hired us to write three more episodes. We’ve been writing for TV ever since.

Why mystery? To what extent did you choose the genre, or if you didn’t, how did it happen?

I've always loved reading mysteries...starting with "Encyclopedia Brown," "The Hardy Boys," and "Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators." And before I knew it, I graduated to Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Phillip Marlowe, Shell Scott, etc. I didn't know it then, but I think what I liked about mysteries was the strong central conflict and the relentless, forward motion of the stories. There's always a lot at stake for the characters, always something to discover. Then again, I believe all the best stories are mysteries...whether they are called mysteries or not.

You’ve been closely associated with the long-running TV show Diagnosis Murder. Was the concept your idea? Besides the writing, what exactly did you do on the show?

I didn't create the show, author Joyce Burditt did. One of my mentors in TV was Michael Gleason (creator/EP of Remington Steele). He was running DM during the second season and signed Bill and me to write four freelance episodes, one of which turned out to be the season premiere. We were thrilled. But a few weeks later, we got hired as supervising producers on The Cosby Mysteries. So we found ourselves balancing two jobs and two TV icons at once ...Bill Cosby by day and Dick Van Dyke by night. We did it and somehow we even managed to write a pilot that year, too. Little did we know that our relationship with Diagnosis Murder was only just beginning. Gleason left the show after a season and, a year or so later, we were hired by his replacement to be supervising producers. The following season, the guy who hired us was fired and we took his place. We were executive producers of the show for the next two years before deciding to quit to take over a show called Martial Law.

As executive producers, you not only are in charge of the are in charge of everything. Casting, editing, hiring the directors, the budget, everything. It's a big job. There's a reason so many showrunners end up becoming alcoholics and drug addicts!

What’s your favorite kind of writing as a writer? As a reader?

Mysteries and thrillers of course! Though, as a reader, I also devour mainstream novels and western fiction. I love Larry McMurtry, John Irving, Elmer Kelton, Richard Wheeler, William Hoffman, Thomas Berger, Billie Letts, Frederick Manfred, to name a few. Anita Shreve is a guilty pleasure of mine. And I loved Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I really enjoyed the first few Stephen King novels, and then I just got burned out on him.

How does writing a TV script differ from writing a novel?

It would take a book to answer that question...luckily, I've written one (Successful Television Writing). They are, basically, two entirely different story-telling forms with very different rules, structure, techniques, etc. The only thing that TV and books have in common is that both are mediums for sharing books, you tell stories, in TV you show them. That simple distinction is a difficult one for many writers to overcome when moving into one field from the other.

How different is writing a novel based on a TV show from writing a novel from scratch?

Again, there's a big difference -- you are working with someone else's characters and, in effect, writing in their voice. You are also trying to take something that was created for a visual medium and translate it, without losing any of its character or appeal, into an entirely different form. It's not easy. On the other hand, you are working with terrific characters with clear voices...something you don't have to create on your own. It's a help...but also a constraint. You also face the challenge of trying to live up to the pre-existing expectations of readers...and the performances of the actors, which are indelibly etched in the reader's mind.

Has there ever been a writing project you wanted but either couldn’t get or couldn’t complete? Any failures or disappointments? Any items on your long-term wish list of dreams or achievements?

Oh, sure, there have been lots of failures and disappointments, but I don't dwell on them. I still would like to write a novel that isn't a mystery or a thriller. And I wouldn't mind creating and exec-producing a hit TV series, either!

What do you find most rewarding about the TV business?

I love the writing, of course. I like knowing that most of what I write will actually get produced (unlike, say, toiling in features). And I like seeing how other people shape what I have written. Because writing for TV is a group effort…and what you envision when you create a story and what eventually ends up on screen are never the same. Most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. The creative contributions that the director, the actors, the editors, the composers, the wardrobe people, the stunt people, etc. bring to what you’ve written are often surprising, exciting and inspiring.

The best part of being a TV writer… besides the money… is the time you spend with other writers. I love sitting in a room with some of the cleverest, most creative people you will ever meet, and talking story for hours. It’s exhausting…but in a good way.

What are some of the pitfalls of the TV profession and how do you deal with them?

The job insecurity. The fact is, unless you reach a certain star level in the business, it never gets easier to find work. You are always pitching, always looking for the next gig, always auditioning, always competing for a limited number of available positions and assignments. It’s exhausting…but in a bad way.

There is also an enormous amount of ego and dick-measuring in TV. I’m sure I’m guilty of it, too…sadly, it’s part of the TV culture. But I’m lucky that I have some perspective. I am fortunate to also be very active and reasonably successful in publishing, specifically in the mystery-writing genre, and there is surprisingly little professional competitiveness and ego.

The majority of superstar authors of the mystery novels – the wealthiest and most acclaimed in the field – are amazingly nice, approachable, and helpful to their fellow writers and to “fans.” They will treat an unknown, first-time author or someone mired in the mid-list with the same respect and courtesy as they do a fellow “superstar.” I’ve seen it time after time and it always impresses me. I don’t think the same can be said of writer/producers in the TV business.

What is your philosophy toward your two professions?

I decided long ago that I was going to be a writer first and a TV writer second. There's no question that I make most of my living in television...but I believe it's important to me professionally, financially, psychologically and creatively not to concentrate on just one field of writing. (It probably helps that I started my career as a freelance journalist, then became a novelist, then a non-fiction author, and finally, a TV writer/producer.) So I write books, both fiction and non-fiction, I teach TV writing, and occasionally I write articles and short stories... most of the time while I'm simultaneously writing & producing TV shows (though the TV work always takes priority over everything else, except, of course, my family).

While the income from books, teaching, and articles doesn't come close to matching what I make in TV, those gigs keep some cash coming in when TV (inevitably) lets me down, keep me "alive" in other fields, and, more importantly, keep my spirits up. As a result, who I am as a writer isn't entirely wrapped up in whether or not I have a TV job or a book on the shelves. I often have both, or one or the other -- but if I have neither, I have a class to teach or an article to write.

The other thing I try to be is a nice guy. Writing isn’t my life…it’s what I do. There are more important things than a TV show. And I know that’s also true for the writers and other professionals who work for me and with me. I respect their time and I try not to waste it as a result of my own disorganization, ego or insecurity.

What advice would you give to someone trying to "break in" to TV?

I get asked this question a lot. Everybody’s story of breaking in is unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it’s easier than you think.
The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers. There’s no point taking a class from someone who isn’t an experienced TV writer themselves.

You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be astonished how many TV courses are taught by people who don’t know the first thing about writing for television. Even more surprising is how many desperate people shell out money to take courses from instructors who should be taking TV writing courses themselves.

There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likeable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do… and suddenly you’ll have a friend in the business.

Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV some day.

A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group… and was the first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge, give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the writer/producers she was working with.

Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s assistant on an hour-long drama. Not only will you get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside. You’ll read lots of scripts and revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More important, you’ll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the freelancers who come through the door. Many of today’s top TV producers were writer/producer assistants once. All of the assistants we’ve had have gone on to become working TV writers themselves… and not because we gave them a script assignment or recommended them for one. We didn’t do either.

But the one thing you simply have to do is write a spec episodic teleplay. There are lots of books out there -- including mine -- that will tell you how to do that.

You can read more about Lee at and