Monday, April 30, 2007

The Stories We Wish We Could Hear

by Julia Buckley
On our recent spring escape (a two day vacation during which we were caught in a snowstorm), we drove past this house. Of all the pieces of architecture that we saw during our journey, this one was my favorite. Yes, it's a decrepit, broken down structure, surrounded by swampy earth and dead trees--but it was fascinating to me. What had it been? Had someone lived there? The pillars suggest a certain grandeur, but then again it could have been a banquet hall or a hotel or something. All I knew was that sitting before me was something that, in times past, had been new and pretty; history had happened around it, and eventually it came to look like this.

I suppose this is the quality that makes me want to write. I'm always asking "What happened here? What could have happened? What would it have been like if THIS happened?" And then my brain starts working around the posed problem, and it comes up with its own answers. I don't necessarily think of this as a talent; I think it's simply the way my brain works, and a book ends up being one of the results.

It's weeks later now, and I still wonder about that building. I wonder if anyone has plans to buy it, renovate it, make it what it once was--or if it will continue to decay, abandoned, forgotten by the present. I wonder about the people who walked around inside it. Where are they now? Who are they? What did this building mean to their lives? This house is a story that I wish someone would tell me. That probably won't happen, though.

So, at some point, it may be the story that I have to tell for myself.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Do Blondes Have More Fans?

Darlene Ryan (Guest Blogger)

Once upon a time, in a past life, I was a late night disk jockey. Back in the early 80s, tuned in to the right place on the dial, you would have heard my semi-sexy voice in between songs from the Rolling Stones and Air Supply. I even had my own fan club of sorts. Yes, my fans were mostly guys. Yes, most of them had a thing for my voice and definite ideas about how I looked. And they were almost always disappointed when they finally saw me in person. You see, it seems that on the radio, I sounded like a tall blonde. That's right, blonde. And, apparently, I also sounded… endowed.

In reality I'm a short brunette and my best friend calls me “chest-ly challenged”. Still, it never failed. We'd be out doing a public appearance, and at least one man would come up to me and say, “But I thought you were blonde,” in a voice that was a mix of annoyance and disappointment. And he’d never be looking at my face when he said it.

I learned a lot of things working in radio. I learned an amazing number of swear words. I saw how men act and think when it comes to women. (I worked with seven guys.) I even learned a few things about music. I could give you a list of one-hit wonders. I could tell you more than you probably want to know about the Rolling Stones. And I learned that you're never going to make everyone happy. Some days you're not going to make anyone happy. (Not everyone likes Air Supply.)

The same thing applies to writing, I’ve discovered. You can't write a book that's going to make everyone happy. In fact, I don't think you should try. But there are a few things I think a writer does owe her readers--her fans:

1. A well constructed book. That means proper spelling, good punctuation, and a story that has a beginning, middle, and end.

2. A story that respects its genre. Romances have happy endings. Murder mysteries have bodies and killers. No, that doesn't mean Cinderella has to marry a prince. She can marry the stable boy as long as she's happy in the end. And that killer? Maybe he's performing a public service. He doesn’t have to end up dead or in prison.

3. No lame tricks to save the day. No “deus ex machina.” No what I like to call, “God in a helicopter.” The heroine can’t suddenly get her memory back, remember she was a contortionist in the circus and turn herself into a human pretzel to get out of the ropes. Thirty-two chapters later, the detective can't suddenly get the significance of the clue on page 15, but not tell anyone.

4. A story that makes sense. In real life people do things for stupid reasons or no reasons at all. But you’d better come up with credible motivation if you want someone to stick around for three hundred pages of your book. And it doesn't really matter if you tell your story from one point of view or six different points of view, as long as readers know whose head they're in.

On the other side, there are a few things we don't owe our fans:

1. A prequel, a sequel, or the next book in a series. (Yes, I know a lot of editors aren't going to agree with me. And by the way, if Tim Cockey is reading this, this doesn't apply to you. Come on, would it be that hard to write one more Hitchcock Sewell novel?)

2. Another mystery. (Or romance, or thriller, or what ever.) You do owe readers your best work, but you don't owe them the same work every time.

3. Another book at all. Yes, I know all about building a career and a reader base. But maybe you want to try a screenplay or poetry or a picture book.

Write the book that excites you. Tell the story you want to tell. Give your readers a good book, your best book. Blonde hair and big endowments are strictly optional.

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

Friday, April 27, 2007

Women's Intuition

By Lonnie Cruse

“Women observe subconsciously a thousand little details, without knowing that they are doing so. Their subconscious mind adds these little things together—and they call the result intuition. Me, I am very skilled in psychology. I know these things.”

He swelled his chest out importantly, looking so ridiculous that I found it difficult not to burst out laughing. Then he took a small sip of his chocolate and carefully wiped his mustache.

Recognize the above quote from a rather well known mystery? It’s from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the first paragraph is a quote from the one and only Hercule Poirot, the second quotes the thoughts of Dr. Sheppard, Poirot’s temporary Watson.

I just finished re-reading The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd because it’s one of Dame Agatha Christie’s more controversial mysteries, some readers believing she didn’t play fair with them. But I remember the surprise I felt the first time I read it, at how she told the story. And my awe at her talent.

But, to get to the point of this post, the comments by Poirot which I read again recently, really hauled me up short. Who was Hercule Poirot to put women’s intuition down to nothing more than observation and gathering facts to mull over unconsciously when we’d been famous for our intuition for centuries? Harrumph. Then I remembered, Poirot was only mouthing the words his author had written for him, and a female author at that!

I pondered the possibility. Agatha Christie *might* have been right. We all do observe and file away in our “little grey cells” tons of information from things we hear and see every hour of every day. And we form opinions based on them. See a quick “I’m interested” look pass between two people, we wonder if there is a deeper relationship there, maybe even a hidden affair. See a dark look between lovers and we wonder if there is a break-up looming on the horizon. A guilty look on the face of a child and we go check the cookie jar. But often as not, we don’t realize we are taking in the information and drawing conclusions. So, if days or weeks later, we hear that Jane and John are having an affair and/or getting a divorce, we often chalk it up to "women’s intuition."

Makes me wonder if maybe I need to develop and enhance this “intuition” thing a bit more, no matter where it comes from. Observe others, their words, body language, behavior, and what it all might mean. Then use it in my writing to make my characters more real. Even Dame Agatha was accused of not making her characters real enough. True, she didn’t give a lot of description: color of hair, eyes, what each and every character was wearing, but her body language for them was dead on, if brief. For instance, later in this same mystery, she describes a card game between four players. She doesn’t really describe the new characters who appear at the card table, but through the dialogue we learn that one lady is a lousy card player and doesn’t pay attention to what she’s doing. Christie could have “told” us that. Instead, she shows it through what the characters say to each other. And it was a humorous scene.

I realize I need to stop relying on "intuition" and more consciously gather facts, paying close attention to what I'm seeing around me. See what I can learn about those around me from words and body language. Should be interesting. Of course, I’ll have to be discreet about it. No sense getting a punch in the nose for being nosey. What about you? Are your characters "real enough?"

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Interview with Sandra Scoppettone

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

When and how did you become a writer?

My father wanted to be a writer. He wrote one novel and several short stories. He never sold anything, but when I was a child I thought he would. I think I was trying to emulate him when I wrote as a kid and then decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I was twenty-five when something I’d written was first published, a novelty book called Suzuki Beane. The illustrator was Louise Fitzhugh who went on to write Harriet the Spy. We sold Suzuki overnight and that’s what I thought the writing life was going to be like. The joke was on me.

I wrote three novels after that and none of them got published.

You wrote your 1984 book A Creative Kind of Killer, which won the Shamus award and was nominated for an Edgar, under the pseudonym Jack Early. What made you decide to use a masculine pen name? What prompted you to let it go and write under your own name? What kind of impact, if any, did name and gender issues have on your career?

The voice in the book came to me as a man. And in first person. I thought it might be distracting to have a woman’s name on it. And although I’d published quite a number of novels by then…let’s just say it was time for me to reinvent myself.

I let it go after two more Early books because another voice came to me. This was a woman’s voice, again in the first person. Also, the book was about a lesbian detective and I didn’t think a man’s name on it would be very politic.

The Early books got great reviews and I was compared to some of the best male crime writers. That hadn't happened to Scoppettone before and it hasn’t since. In 1984 there weren’t a lot of women being nominated for crime awards. Can’t prove a thing, but I’ll never be dissuaded that using a man’s name on the book at that time accounted for its reception.

You were one of the founding mothers of Sisters in Crime. What was that like for you?

It was strange because I was Jack Early then. I can see a group of us in Baltimore, sitting around a table in a hotel room, I think. Each said who she was and what she wrote. It was very exciting because I’d read some of these women. We had no idea what SinC would become. It didn’t have a name then.

How effective do you think SinC has been in changing things for women writers?

I have no statistics but there was a period in there when tons of women were getting published and winning the prizes. I think there are over 3000 members now. It has obviously helped a lot of women know they’re not alone. As for actual sales you’d have to ask someone else. Getting reviewed in certain newspapers is still a problem.

Your work includes series and stand-alones, adult and young adult books. What have been the high points in your long and varied career? How about low points, if you’re willing to share?

A high point was selling my first novel. Once again it gave me a false impression of the publishing business because it sold in a week. This was my first YA novel. Another high point was being reviewed for the first book in my detective series in the daily New York Times. That’s a lot harder and more prestigious than getting reviewed in the NYTBR. At least, I think it is.

Low points? Plenty. Certainly writing under the name Jack Early was a low point, despite how it turned out. As I said, I needed reinvent myself. I couldn’t get arrested as Scoppettone. Another low was not getting a contract to continue my Faye Quick series. And right now isn’t too hot. I spent the last year writing over two hundred pages (without a contract) only to put it away because I couldn’t make it work.

How much of you is there in your various protagonists? Do you have a favorite among the characters you’ve created?

There’s a lot of me in all my protagonists. But I can’t write about myself directly. No memoir or autobiographical novel for me. I guess my favorite character is Lauren Laurano in my five-book detective series.

Your latest work is the Faye Quick series, set during World War II. What drew you to the period and to the noir style? What have been the challenges?

The forties has always been a favorite decade of mine but I’d never set a book then. The idea of a woman taking over a detective agency because her boss had to go to war just popped into my mind one night.

I don’t see these books as being in the noir style. Not at all. Noir to me is dark. The Faye Quick books are light and funny. I hope. But some reviewers have called them noir. I don’t understand that.

What’s the difference for you in working on a series book or a stand-alone? What have you learned about writing a series that has helped you with the latest one?

I don’t really like writing a series because the excitement of creating new characters is not there. Yes, each book has some new characters, but your protagonist is your protagonist.

A stand-alone is exciting. Everything is new. What I learned about writing a series is never to write more than four. This time it was decided for me and there will only be two.

How about your young adult books? What drew you to that audience?

I directed a play with kids for a community theater project, Youth On Stage. I don’t have any children but I was around teens for an entire summer. They gave me the idea. And two friends of mine were writing YAs so I thought I’d give it a shot.

How different was it from writing for adults? What demands did the genre make?

It was writing a novel. I didn’t feel there was any difference. Only the cast of characters. I can’t think of any particular demands. In my YAs I was able to write about all the topics that interested me.

Not all of your YA books were mysteries, though the last, Playing Murder in 1985, got another Edgar nomination. Was there a unifying thread in your YA books? Would you ever write another?

I don’t know. I think that’s for someone else to see. As for writing another, I don’t ever want to say no.

The Jack Early book Donato & Daughter was made into a movie. What was that experience like?

There was no experience. Not for me. I got the check and saw the finished movie on TV with everyone else.

You lived in New York City for many years before moving out to the North Fork of Long Island in 1998. How do you like country living? Do you ever get into the city? Has it become the proverbial nice place to visit?

I’ve lived here twice. Seventeen years apart. I like the quiet. It’s somewhat annoying during the summer when it’s not so quiet as this is a resort area. A number of my friends from New York also live here.

I get into the city about three or four times a year. I’m not sure it’s a nice place to visit. I think I had the best years of NYC. It’s impossibly expensive and seems dirtier than I remember.

What’s next for Sandra Scoppettone?

I have a new idea but I never talk about what I’m going to do. It’s dangerous for me to do that. If I talk about it then I don’t want to write it.

After all this time, what keeps you writing?

I don’t know how to do anything else and I’m a writer. That’s what I do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Psst! Want a Hot Deal on a Good Book?

Sandra Parshall

You know those sidewalk peddlers who try to make you believe they're selling you a real Rolex for twenty bucks? Sometimes I think a little-known writer selling books is the literary equivalent.

Sure, you’re offering people something in exchange for their money, and you think it’s something valuable, but you have to persuade the customer to see it that way. They’ve never heard of you or your book, and some will wonder out loud whether you’re self-published. Worst case scenario is that you end up feeling as if you should be paying them to read what you’ve written.

Before I published my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, last year, I had no idea how much emotional and physical stamina a simple two-hour booksigning required. Try smiling nonstop for two hours and see if you’re not exhausted afterward. Try giving the same pitch two dozen times in two hours and see if you don’t feel like retiring to a nice quiet padded cell.

You go to every signing with high hopes, and the first thing you want to see is your table set up in a good location. Bookstore managers are busy people, and they don’t have time to totally rearrange their merchandise to create an optimal space for a visiting writer. (Why aren’t such spaces built into the store design? An unanswerable question.) So you have to count yourself lucky if you don’t end up at a table in the storeroom. Count yourself positively blessed if you’re somewhere near the front door, in the line of foot traffic. Of course, you’ll get exasperated looks from customers who see you as a hindrance on their path to the coffee bar, but if you smile and persist some people will stop, listen to your pitch, maybe ask questions, and, in the best of all possible outcomes, even buy a book.

Those who have never done a booksigning and have only attended signings by bestselling authors may wonder what I’m talking about. What pitch? Stephen King doesn’t pitch his book to every customer at signings. People come in droves and line up out the door for the privilege of buying a signed book. And if he smiles at you, wow, but he’s probably not sitting there for hours with a grin plastered on his face. He doesn’t have to. I do. Most writers do. We don’t bring in crowds, so we have to work hard at attracting the attention of passing customers and making our books sound like something they absolutely must own.

I’ve even given my pitch to a ten-year-old girl, who confessed that she loves reading about crime and watching shows like CSI (I like this kid), but her mother places onerous restrictions on her viewing and reading. I sent her to the children’s mystery section. She came back a few minutes later with a book in hand and asked if I thought it would be good. I saw that it was a Newberry winner and assured her she would enjoy it. Maybe in another ten years she’ll come to a signing and buy one of my books. I’ve also pitched my novels to people who seemed captivated and vowed to get the books from the library and read them asap. (They only came in the bookstore to buy a computer software manual. Hardcover novels are too expensive.)

Multiply all this effort three or four times and you have an idea of what it’s like for a relatively unknown writer at a big book festival. Envision a huge room filled with long rows of tables, a dozen or more writers at each. Customers drift down the aisles, sliding their gaze over the stacks of books and carefully avoiding eye contact with the smiling, hopeful writers. You can try to lure them closer by speaking to them, but the place will be so noisy that they can easily pretend not to hear. Dozens of people may pass before anyone thinks your books are worth stopping to examine. Some customers will want to talk to you, but many will ignore you as they pick up a book and read the jacket copy. If you see “the look” forming, you can forget about a sale. (“The look” resembles that open-mouthed, curled-lip thing cats do when they smell something revolting.) Your precious novel, the one you spent a year or more of your life bleeding onto the page, is hastily dropped back on the stack and the non-customer breaks a speed record in distancing herself from it.

When you first start doing booksignings, you feel the urge to be all things to all readers. Does someone want romance? Yes, yes, my book has romance! Does someone else want a lot of action? I swear my characters never have time to breathe! Whatever the customer wants, you rashly promise.

Then one day you find before you a woman in a plain cotton dress that covers her legs to the ankles, her arms to the wrists, and her torso to just below the ears. Her hair is pulled back into a tight little knot, and her face has never been altered by makeup. She sternly inquires whether your book has any “bad words” in it. Well, uh... You frantically run through your cast of characters, reviewing their language, wondering if damn and hell count, and wondering just how many times you used the more offensive four-letter words. Looking into the woman’s unforgiving face, you realize that everything will count to her, and even once will be too much. “Yes,” you admit, “my book has bad words in it.”

As you watch her turn on her heel and walk away, you feel redeemed. No sale, but you told the truth and you didn’t even smile when you did it. This feels good.

But wait, here comes another prospect. Smile! Make eye contact! Prepare to pitch!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Willing to Marry

Sharon Wildwind

I’m a fan of historical mysteries, and an author of almost-historical ones. I say almost because my Vietnam veteran mysteries take place roughly 30 to 35 years ago, which doesn’t quite meet one common definition of a historical novel.

The Historical Novel Society ( uses this working definition: “To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).”

I’m also married to a military historian, so we spend a lot of time reading and talking about other times. Suzanne Adair’s wonderful post reminded me of another problem that historical writers face.

Suppose you suddenly had no money, no place to live, no job skills, and no family or friends to help you. Would you
a) Apply for social assistance?
b) Take any low-paying job you could find to tide you over?
c) Apply for a student loan so you could train for a job?
d) Advertise in the paper for a marriage partner?

Or suppose you needed help painting your bedroom. A stranger shows up at your door, looking for work.
a) You won’t hire him at all because you’re uncomfortable letting a strange man in your house.
b) You'd hire him if he had good references.
c) You ask him who his mother is and, if you know she’s a God-fearing woman, you hire him.
d) You hire or not hire him based on the shape of his head.

I’m guessing that you didn’t pick answer “d” as your first choice in either situation. In 2007, most of us don’t consider marriage the best way out of economic woes, and we don’t judge a person by the shape of his head.

However, thousands of unmarried British women placed ads in newspapers in the years immediately after the Great War. “Spinster, age 25. Father and brothers died in the war. Willing to marry disabled soldier, if not too disfigured. Respond Box 23.”

In the face of a rigid class system, lack of social assistance, prohibitions on a woman borrowing money or owning property, and a plethora of conventions about proper behavior, marriage to a total stranger was the only hope some women believed they had of avoiding either starvation or prostitution.

My own grandmother, who knew every family in her small town, would never hire a man unless she was familiar with, and approved of, his mother.

In the late 1800s, scientists, policemen, and judges believed that the shape of the head, or some facial feature were reliable guidelines to a person’s character. A person with eyes too close together couldn’t be trusted or a person with a generous mouth was kind. There was even an elaborate effort to measure the heads of all known criminals and classify those measurements to predict which criminals would re-offend.

Times and beliefs change. Nothing ruins a historical mystery for me faster than characters who think and respond as though they are living in 2007. Well, the argument runs, there must have been an occasional rebel, a person who had different ideas, who flouted conventions, and chartered her own course. I’ll just make my character one of those women. She can be a modern woman, way ahead of her time.

The trap here is to assume that an outward behavior—for example, campaigning for women’s rights or espousing a right to reproductive choice—were historically motivated by the same beliefs held today.

Between 1919 and 1929, Alberta Judge Emily Murphy and four other women—known collectively as The Alberta Five—appealed to courts in both Canada and Britain to declare women persons in their own right. This wasn’t done out of a desire for women to have full and active lives, or so that women could vote, or even to prevent farm wives from having their homes sold out from under them, but rather because, unless women were persons, no woman could be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Debate still rages over Margaret Sanger’s motives. Did she want doctors to be able to disseminate birth control information because she wanted to save women’s lives? Or did she believe in eugenics and wanted only certain fit parents to reproduce the race?

I believe an author of historical fiction should read as many primary sources as possible before developing her characters. Obviously, the farther back the story is set, the harder for the author to find letters and diaries, but the search is well worth it. Getting inside the mind set and conventions of a chosen time period—and writing charcters bound by those conventions—adds marvelous things to a novel. Now and then were different. We do the reader a disservice when we try to mold "then" to fit into our current way of thinking.

Left: the author, less than fifty years ago, at an evacuation hospital in Viet Nam. Note the glasses. They were standard Army issue of the time. I can't think of a better visual examples of how some things just don't stand the test of time.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Will: A Tribute to the Genius of Shakespeare

by Julia Buckley

What can one say about William Shakespeare? Everyone will be writing tributes to him today, at least those people who love The Bard. He deserves all the accolades, of course, for innumberable reasons; but one of the most important is that the works of Shakespeare have personal resonance with each reader. How else would they have lasted for more than 400 years? That in itself is something to celebrate: literature that has spanned centuries.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare that I read in high school, but I didn’t begin to love his words until I taught them. In trying to make them attainable to my students, I had to take them apart, analyze them, put them in different contexts, examine their impact within the conflict of the given play. In the process I came to feel, most deeply, how perfect those words were, as though the playwright, the poet, had taken 400 years to compose them.

Once his words became a part of me, I found that I thought about them all the time. When I was searching for a title for my first book (my first title, Our Rarer Monsters, a quote from Macbeth, was too difficult to say), I spied it while reading The Tempest. Prospero is speaking to his daughter Miranda, an innocent who doesn’t realize that she ever lived anywhere except on the magical island where she and her father are marooned. Her father decides, when she is fourteen, that it is time to tell her the truth, and asks her what she remembers about her past, prompting, “What seest thou else in the dark backward and absym of time?”

I nearly knocked over my podium. For my students, that phrase could pass unappreciated, but for me, a title jumped out of the text. The Dark Backward! What an amazing way to refer to the past! What a genius Shakespeare was and is! So that became the title of my first book.

In the book, however, it is not The Tempest I reference, but Macbeth. There are endless wonderful lines in this play, and I was inspired by many of them as I wrote a tale about a governor’s corruption and about the young police officer who wants to bring him down. For me, there were obvious parallels here to Macbeth and Macduff, his arch enemy, and Macbeth’s quote:

“Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder.”

Macbeth feels threatened by the man he left alive, as does my villain by the woman he couldn’t kill, Lily Caldwell.

Now I’m working on the galleys for my new mystery, Madeline Mann. Madeline, too, references Shakespeare (I can’t seem to avoid it), and she does make the occasional reference to Macbeth, but she hearkens back to Hamlet, too, when she notes that “Something is rotten in the State of Webley.”

The tributes I make to Shakespeare are almost inadvertent, because that is the effect his words have on me: they get into my mind and float around there, and because he’s covered almost every possible theme, everything that happens tends to remind me of Shakespeare.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And for all of you readers of Poe’s Deadly Daughters, I’ll quote the Bard for you, too:

“I count myself in nothing else so lucky as in a soul remembering my good friends.”

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Devil's in the Details

Suzanne Adair (Guest blogger)

Recently, I taught a workshop on researching historical fiction. The workshop provided attendees with tools to conduct primary and secondary research and generate plenty of information. But I cautioned everyone that historical fiction is a tough sell. "The devil's in the details," say agents, editors, and publishers.

Authors often succumb to the temptation to load down their historical manuscripts with minutiae, just to ensure that readers "get" the settings. They also pride themselves on delivering novels with perfect details. The biggest mistake historical authors can make is focusing on all those details. What's the priority of a historical novelist? To spin an enthralling tale. In other words, subordinate facts to the creation of riveting drama and compelling characters. Here's why.

History is a fluid field. Every now and then, a researcher reveals results of years of study -- a new conclusion disproving an old. Such a revelation can collapse the fictional world established by a historical author if the author has relied upon precise facts to carry the book. A novel that lacks riveting drama and compelling characters is thereby reduced to a mess of not-so-accurate details. Excellent story and characterizations propel readers through a novel, hurtle them over any potential speed bumps caused by obsolete details. When a reader says of a historical, "I couldn't put it down!" it means the plot and characters elevated the story past the details, entertained the reader, and made the novel greater than the sum of its parts.

If you're writing a historical, resist the urge to use details for a coup. Instead, keep in mind the basic tools of good writing. Employ details in a supportive capacity only. Let your story flow from your knowledge of what makes a good plot, characters, setting, etc. Whatever your genre -- speculative fiction, western, crime fiction, romance -- you cannot go wrong with riveting drama and compelling characters.

Suzanne Adair ( is the author of Paper Woman, released October 2006, the first novel of a historical suspense series set during the Revolutionary War in the South. Paper Woman is the recipient of the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature award, presented by the Florida Historical Society ( The second novel in Adair's series, The Blacksmith's Daughter, is scheduled for a fall 2007 release.

Friday, April 20, 2007

...Yes, but Judge Joe Brown, I really didn't...

By Lonnie Cruse

This post wanders in and out a bit about writing, so you'll have to stick with me. I love watching The People's Court on television. I usually turn it on while I surf the Internet and check e-mail, since I don't have to *think* to do that job, and I have lots of, um, down time while I wait for the pages to load on sloooooow dial-up. If my hubby walks through the office/den while I'm watching, he shakes his head. Obviously he doesn't have my sophisticated taste in television shows.

My favorite is Judge Marilyn Milian. She is, indeed, "hot" as the advertising insists. And she can yell at both the plaintiff and the defendant with the best of 'em. I'm sad that Judge Maybelline is no longer on in the mornings. She always wore a pretty silk shirt under her robes and a pin to match. And she's a hoot! Her courtroom was downright fun! Judge Alex is, ahem, attractive, so I suggest you check him out when you get a chance. The DNA results in Judge Joe Brown's court are always fascinating, and the defendants/plaintiffs NEVER call him "Your Honor" but always "Judge Joe Brown."

One interesting judge is Judge Greg Mathis because he often asks questions after the initial testimony, then jokes with his bailiff while the person answers, not appearing to be listening, not appearing to take their answers into consideration in his verdict. And he's a teensy bit short on patience. But he is a former gang member, who, as he says, "got a second chance" and turned his life around. You gotta admire that! So he really knows people at ALL levels. He's "been there, done that." He sees what others miss. Take a recent case.

Judge Mathis was asking questions of the defendant and, for once, listening closely to her answers. But he noticed something I missed (probably shaking my fist at the computer at that particular moment.) Every time the defendant answered him, she looked past him. He asked her why she kept looking at the wall behind him when she answered. She hedged that she *was* looking at him while she answered, but looking around the courtroom as well. Just looking around the room? Hmmm.

When she did it again, he looked over his shoulder at the wall and commented about her behavior again. The next time she looked beyond him, he got out of his chair and walked to the wall to check it out, as if to see what was so interesting on that part of the wall. Nothing but paneling. Of course, during this exchange, he was commenting to his bailiff and to the audience about it.

Suddenly I was riveted to the television, and the pages on my computer monitor were left to load without me encouraging them or gesturing at the screen. What was Mathis's point in getting out of his chair and going over to check out the wall? He sat down again and explained it to me and to the rest of the audience.

EVERY time she answered him, she looked to HER left, over his right shoulder at the wall. Body language. She was LYING to him. EVERY SINGLE TIME.

Okay, maybe the rest of you knew it, probably you did. I'd certainly heard about it, that if someone looks to THEIR left when answering you, they ARE lying. Particularly if they do it more than once. Fascinating for me because I'm currently taking a writing class on Empowering Character's Emotions from Margie Lawson. (

A large part of the class is learning how to use body language in writing (without overusing) to demonstrate to the reader what the character is thinking and/or doing. Subtle but very effective. And Judge Joe Brown demonstrated it effectively to the entire viewing audience. Looking left when lying is apparently an unconscious body movement we do and don't seem to be able to avoid.

If you are interested in making your writing more powerful, using body language, avoiding cliches or overused phrases, (which another of my Poe Sisters discussed this week) why not take an online class about creating more powerful and interesting characters? You'll gain information that will help you not only with writing them but in dealing with the ones you meet in real life.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Down on the Bowery

Elizabeth Zelvin

Death Will Get You Sober starts with my protagonist waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day. The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, has long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter.

I first went there in 1983. For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right. I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street.

The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison. They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

One elderly gentleman slid off his stool and announced, “I’ll go!” He was small and grizzled, and I remember his baggy black and white checked pants. Chatty in the police car as we drove the short distance back to Third Street, he told me he’d once been a social worker himself. Not likely, the cop told me.

I kind of telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery in the book. But the shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Screeching to a Halt on a Manicured Lawn

Sandra Parshall

There it was, in the middle of a beautifully-written book I'd been enjoying.

The hero hears a noise on the floor above and starts up the steps to investigate. Something slams into him, he feels a blinding pain... "then all was blackness." That means he was knocked out. Loss of consciousness is a fairly common occurrence in crime novels because it's so useful. It always creates a sense of urgency and danger — when the main character is clobbered, the reader knows the situation is heating up and more excitement is on the way. It also removes the protagonist from the action long enough for the villain, now unhampered, to do something dastardly in the background. If you read a lot of crime novels, you're likely to see a lot of characters getting knocked out. The descriptions will be remarkably similar. "...then all was blackness." "...then everything went black." "...then the world went black." I suffered a concussion once, and that was exactly what happened: everything went black. But I've read the description so many times that I grind my teeth when I come across it in yet another mystery or thriller.

Like most readers, I have my personal list of pet peeves, and that's just one of them. I also groan every time I spot the phrase manicured lawn. I picture a salon manicurist on her hands and knees, clipping the grass with those tiny cuticle scissors. Manicured lawn has become the most common shortcut phrase for telling the reader that a landscape is well-maintained. Even Webster's lists it: "[Colloq.] to trim, clip, etc., meticulously [to manicure a lawn]." But I don't think it makes sense. For me it's another teeth-grinder.

Speaking of landscapes, what about all those tree-lined streets? If the writer wants us to know that a character inhabits a placid, pleasant neighborhood, he mentions the tree-lined streets. But how many residential neighborhoods don't have trees on the streets? Some of the worst slums I've ever seen had tree-lined streets. The phrase creates a vague image in my mind because it tells me nothing new. The writer hasn't given me a single striking detail that would make the setting specific and memorable.

Now let's talk about the manner in which a vehicle ceases motion in an emergency. It screeches to a halt, of course. Or, for variety, it screeches to a stop. Once when I was proofreading a manuscript of my own, I stumbled onto this and had a strong urge to bang my head on my desk until all was blackness. They're insidious, these cliched descriptions. Let your guard down for a second and they march right in and make themselves comfortable. All too often, though, writers deliberately usher them onto the page. We need a quick way to convey an idea, so we reach into our handy Bag of Cliches and come up with a manicured lawn or a tree-lined street, and we continue without a second thought. I'm not claiming the high ground here, because I'm as guilty of lazy writing as anyone else.

Also abundant in fiction are situational cliches, those scenes where coincidences crop up or characters do absurd things because it's easiest for us to write them that way. (The unarmed hero or heroine who goes upstairs or downstairs alone to investigate a weird noise is a prime example, so the writer who prompted this rant committed two sins, not one.) Too much of that stuff in an unpublished manuscript will deaden a story and doom its chances of selling. Too much of it in an established writer's work can turn off the most ardent fans and leave them feeling cheated.

I can easily see all these flaws in other people's writing. I can't always spot them right away in my own. But I have vowed to be more vigilant. From now on, I'll give every chapter, every scene, one reading that will focus on cliches and lazy descriptions. I might not get rid of your pet peeves, but I can make sure the things I hate are rooted out. It's a start.

All the Deadly Daughters are amazed and delighted to find our site on a list of "Eight Top Mystery Blogs" in the April 15 issue of Library Journal. It's nice to be noticed!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night

Sharon Wildwind

Left: this is the pin I had made to commemorate being in the Yukon in the dead of winter.

In Whitehorse, Yukon, on the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 9:10 AM and sets at 2:47 PM. And when it gets dark, it gets really, really dark. None of this twilight business. And the sky is full of the brightest, whitest stars, and the northern lights dance. I know all this because I was in Whitehorse one winter.

On the longest day of the year, the sun rises at 2:27 AM and sets at 9:37 PM except . . .

It never really sets. At 9:37 PM the sun, which has been traveling down in arc—like the swing of a pendulum—reaches the tops of the trees. It skims the trees for approximately 4 hours, then begins the pendulum swing back up into the sky. I know this because I was also there one year on June 21.

Obviously, it helps if we’ve actually been to the places we’re writing about, but sometimes that just isn’t practical. That’s why the U. S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department web site is so helpful. Address is

The data is in two parts, one for places in the United States, and one for places outside the United States. By entering the date desired, the name of a city, its longitude and latitude, and its time zone, you will get a list times related to the sun and moon on a given day. I don’t know how far back they go, but I’ve used dates in the 1970s with no problem at all.

Don’t know the longitude, latitude, and time zone? There are linked screens that will provide this information for you. Whitehorse, incidentally is Latitude 60 degrees, 43 minutes, no seconds North and Longitude 135 degrees, 3 minutes, no minutes West. It’s time zone is 9 hours different from Greenwich, England.

How about the weather? At one time the National Climatic Data Centre had for sale weather information about almost any place in the U.S. They may still be selling weather data, but I’ve had trouble figuring out their site, and I haven’t purchased any from them lately.

Another method you can use is to contact the library in the city about which you’re writing. Ask them to make a copy of the weather forecast in the local paper for the period of time that you’re writing about. Many libraries charge a fee for this, but it’s tax deductible as as research expense.

If the out-of-doors is important in your book—check out Julia Spenser-Fleming’s books as examples of where topography becomes vital—try the U.S. Geological Survey Topographic Maps Home Page They have an on-line store for customers in the U. S. and will take mail, phone or fax orders from people living outside the U.S. Topo maps are wonderful things. They show you physical features, how much the altitude is changing and how fast, and, in sufficient high enough scale, will show you individual buildings. That deserted cabin at the head of the cove might be just the place for your heroine to be held captive.

So why does all of this matter? Can’t we just make up sunrise times, and weather, and what the place looks like? To a certain extent we can, and do all the time. But having really spot-on data is helpful in three ways.

First, you might get lucky. You might discover that that there is a solar, lunar, weather, or topographical anomaly you can use to your advantage. Last week, I wanted two of my characters to walk through a moon garden. That’s not a garden on the moon, but rather a garden of white flowers and plants, all of which reflect light and give this beautiful, somewhat spooky atmosphere. Guess what, by happenstance, the date where this chapter fell turned out to be a full moon. I got lucky.

Right: a Calgary river in full flood.

The second reason is knowing what the real conditions were is to give the author a choice. Anyone who wants to set a mystery in Calgary, Alberta in June, 2005 really needs to know that there were torrential rains that month and that all the rivers in southern Alberta—including the two that flow through Calgary—were out of their banks. People were being evacuated, homes were flooded, and a young woman, taking a short cut home after working an evening shift, attempted to cross a pedestrian bridge over one of the rivers, and was never seen again. Now, the author may not want to use any of this, and if she doesn’t, self-preservation dictates to at least mention it in the introduction, as in “Anyone in Calgary in June, 2005 will know that the city was in the middle of a flood that month. However, for the purposes of this book . . .” and so on.

Which leads to reason number three for checking out sun, moon, weather, and landscape data. Readers know. Readers remember. Some of them get highly ticked off if they know that the author hasn’t gotten it right. I'd rather double-check a fact than risk losing a reader.

If you ever run into either woman who collectively write under the name of P.J. Parrish, ask her about loons. The authors have a wonderful story about why it’s important to do research, proof-read carefully, and, if the worst happens, turn it into a funny story.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In Tribute to Jill McGown

by Julia Buckley
Jill McGown won my heart way back in 1983 or thereabouts, when she published her first novel, A PERFECT MATCH. I read that mystery compulsively, turning pages as fast as I possibly could while still devouring every word written on them. The plot was so clever, so seemingly complicated--and yet so simple in its resolution--that it reminded me of the work of Agatha Christie. Except that I thought Jill McGown was better than Agatha Christie.

Christie's talent was undeniable, especially for plotting, but McGown's clever plots were matched by her gift for characterization, and from the start I loved her characters, Inspector Lloyd and Judy Hill, and I've loved them for more than twenty years as they have grown and changed over a number of mysteries--and I've read ALL of Jill McGown's mysteries.

It wasn't just that McGown created a memorable romantic mystery; in fact, she has attested that she never set out initially to write a mystery at all, much less a love interest between her main characters. She was of that school of writers, though, who sat down and started writing and waited to see what came out. I admire this sort of writing, which I see as brave, even adventurous. McGown's books, though, are very carefully plotted--there's nothing of a haphazard feeling about them.

I can't even define what makes her books so compulsively readable. Of course the mystery is dominant, and she leaves enough unanswered questions that the reader is compelled to keep turning pages, just to find some answers; but in the process of pursuing that mystery, the reader also finds that they've grown to like her characters so much that the resolution of their problems is equally important. McGown always found that perfect balance.

I was horrified to learn of Jill McGown's death, and a part of me refuses to believe it. Here is the effect that writing can have. I have never met Jill McGown, but I came to rely upon each new book (and I hope that one more Lloyd and Judy book will be forthcoming), and through her author newsletters I came to love her voice, her real voice, which came through as she chatted about her life in Corby, England and the house in which she had lived since she was a child. I loved her posts about her cat George and about her beloved niece and grand-niece, and I felt, somehow, as though Jill were a sort of neighbor of mine--a neighbor in a far away and beautiful place.

Now she is in a far away place (and I hope it is beautiful), and she will not be writing here again; but what a splendid lifetime of work she has left behind, and how I will enjoy re-reading every volume!

Thank you, Jill McGown.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Disturbance in the Field

Roberta Isleib (Guest Blogger)

It's been a huge month so far--nothing like the launch of a new book -- Deadly Advice (Berkley) -- to get the old adrenaline flowing. For me, it's a time for biting nails and gnashing teeth, while I wait for feedback from the world in the form of reviews, sales, or e-mail from readers. It's a time forconvincing myself that Amazon numbers are meaningless and promising I will not go back to that damn site again, and an hour later, refreshing the web
address to search for any small improvement in ranking that might be a
harbinger of success.

So it was a wonderful distraction to hear that my short story "Disturbance in the Field" in the anthology Seasmoke from Level Best Books had been nominated for a Malice Domestic Agatha Award ( I don't write many short stories--the longer form of the novel seems to come more naturally. In a short story, the characters have to be pared down and the plot has to be clear and, well, short.

The idea for "Disturbance" came to me when a good friend was describing her experience with hiring a Feng Shui consultant. My friend was emerging from an unpleasant divorce and from what I remember, had the idea that changing the energy in her home might change her life as well. So she called a guy right out of the online Yellow Pages. The consultant arrived with his wife and the three of them went through the house, room by room. "The mirror by the bed is wrong. Your spirit travels while you're sleeping and gets frightened by its reflection," the couple informed her after seeing her bedroom.

"Light blue is a sad and watery color," they said regretfully about the walls. "Human beings need forest-colored rooms." And so it went: she needed to get rid of the king-sized bed, take the tablecloth off the dining room table, change the position of her son¹s desk. I stopped my friend mid-way through her descriptions so I could get paper and pen: the seed for my story was sprouting. What if my psychologist character from Deadly Advice was asked by her detective acquaintance to "ride along" on a case? And what if she had just taken a course in Feng Shui and began to notice small details about the dead woman's home which might explain her death? As you might imagine, this was a lot of fun to write, though tricky to tuck all the ends in neatly.

This week I received a note from Chris, a fan of my golf mysteries who had read "Disturbance in the Field" after the Agatha nominations were announced. She said it reminded her of "A Jury of her Peers" written by Susan Glaspell in 1917. "What made me think of it was the sensitivity to almost subliminal clues--ones that were perhaps more visible to a female, or to a therapist!"
Of course I googled "A Jury of her Peers" right away. It's a wonderful story about a woman accused of murdering her husband while he lies asleep in their bed, told from the perspective of two of her neighbors. The website on which the story appears ( also contains essays about what makes a good short story.

Perusing all of this material kept me from hitting that Amazon refresh bar for at least an hour! So thanks to Chris for her nice email. And thanks to the gracious Daughters of Poe for letting me talk about it. Here's hoping you enjoy both Susan Glaspell's story and "Disturbance in the Field."

Visit the author's website at

Friday, April 13, 2007

It's Called Confidence

By Lonnie Cruse

Yesterday morning I was returning home from an appointment in Paducah. As I reached Metropolis and headed down the shortcut that leads through town, I spotted a young boy walking on the opposite side of the road, his back to traffic. My first thought was to say a quick prayer that he'd stay safely off the shoulder, away from the edge of the road, and not get run over. Then I saw him glance over his shoulder, obviously keeping an eye on traffic. As I drew closer, I was struck by several things about him.

He was young, probably eight to ten years old, walking on a busy street by himself. But it's a small town, and kids here do that. He reminded me of my boys at that age, blonde hair, large eyes, cute as a button. But what really got my attention was his attire and what he carried in his hands.

He wore large rubber boots that came to his knees and a jacket to guard against the chilly spring wind. In one hand he carried a large empty bucket. I wondered about that bucket for a brief second or two. Was he picking up soda cans to recycle/sell? Then I saw the fishing pole in his other hand.

I tried to remember if there was a pond at that end of town (we're a rural area, here in Southern Illinois, lots of farms, lots of ponds) but I couldn't remember any in the direction he was headed. There IS, however, a very large creek at the end of that road where it runs into Highway 45, and the Ohio River also backs into that area when the river stages are high, as they likely are now (recent heavy rains) so my guess is he was headed that-a-way. With a fishing pole and an empty bucket. I didn't see any bait, but there might have been a plastic lure tied on the end of his pole, or he might've carried some bait stuck down in his pocket.

As a longtime fisherman (fisherwoman?) I was awed by his confidence, for obviously the purpose of the bucket was to carry home whatever he could catch via the pole. Apparently it didn't occur to him that he might not catch any fish. Confidence. A wonderful thing.

Many writers have that kind of innocent, steady confidence. I'd already decided to write this piece when I happened to read a post yesterday on a writer's list by my Poe sister, Sandy Parshall. Sandy, apparently in response to something an unpublished writer had written to the list, said she wrote her second book before her first was even accepted or published. I did the same thing, wrote the second before the first in my Metropolis series even found a home. A lot of authors do that. We don't wait to see if someone will publish our first highly polished and ready-to-submit manuscript because we believe in it, not in a haughty or superior way, but in a confident way. Confident about our stories, that someone will want to publish them, and confident others will want to read them. It's what keeps us going, through difficult critiques, harsh criticisms, doubtful head shakes from friends or family, rejection from agents or publishers, and other difficult times.

Confidence. Yeah, it wavers a bit at times. We want to move to a cave some days (sans computer and Internet) and hide. Or toss our work-in-progress in the trash. Or kill the person who dares say we'll never be published. But we keep going. Keep writing.

I hope that little boy's mom fried his catch-of-the-day because I'm sure he caught some fish. Do you have the confidence to carry through with whatever is important to you? Hey, don't give up, grab a bucket.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Interview with Julie Smith

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

When and how did you decide to become a writer?

When I was seven. There was a talent show at school, and I whined that I didn’t have any talents. Desperate, my mom said, “I think you have a flair for writing.” Think about it—seven-year-olds can barely read, much less write! But I wasn’t old enough to see through it, and the idea sure was appealing—reading was already my favorite thing. So I bought right into it.

You’ve worked as a newspaper reporter. What was that like for you?

Great! It’s the perfect way to learn not to be afraid of a blank page—if your deadline’s in five minutes, you better have a story in five minutes. Also, it’s a wonderful way to make a living writing something while gathering life experience for fiction. That is, if you’re young. I don’t think I’d try it now.

What other “day jobs” have you had, if any?

I was a copywriter for Banana Republic back when they had a fabulous, funky, funny catalogue. In fact, Elaine on Seinfeld could have been modeled on me—or at least her job could have. We taught J. Peterman all they know about catalogue copy. (She said modestly.) Also, Marcia Muller and I and another writer supported ourselves for a few years with what we called an “editorial consulting service” named Invisible Ink, which meant we were fancy free-lancers. At least we thought we were fancy.

Then there was the time I did PR for the San Francisco District attorney’s office…learned a whole lot from that one. Oh, and one more thing-- I have a PI license, which I got because of my PI character, Talba Wallis, but I only do pro bono PI work—like if somebody needs a sweetie snoop on their boy friend.

But I’ve got a new one now I’m really excited about— it involves teaching writing in a unique way. But I’ll get to that later.

Did getting your first novel published come easily or was it a long journey?

Long, long journey. Six books, seven years, hundreds of rejections, beaucoup pain, misery, suffering, the whole thing. Everyone feels bad about herself in that period, but if you’re on your own, which I was, the poverty really gets you down. I was about to go back and get a master’s in something useful when I finally sold! I always tell my students to prepare for the long haul, but sometimes I hear that desperate note in their voices that I recognize only too well and have to go into Aunt Julie mode. (Which involves a little bucking-up and a lot of listening.)

You’ve written four different mystery series: the Paul McDonald books, the funny ones about lawyer Rebecca Schwartz; the acclaimed Skip Langdon series set in New Orleans, and most recently the PI Talba Wallis books. Why mystery?

Love mysteries. Always have. And weirdly enough, when I was just a sprout reading Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, they seemed so much more intellectually spectacular than other novels—all that figuring things out. Of course little did I know there were other ways of being intellectually spectacular—I just wanted to see if I could do what they did. I thought I’d really be something if I could. Okay, I was na├»ve, but it’s still a pretty damned satisfying gig.

What do you like about the series form? Will you ever write a standalone?

The great thing about a series is that you can follow the character through life—the books can become a multi-volume biography as well as individual stories. Look at Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone series—she’s really taken that idea to a high art. We should all aspire to keep our series so fresh and surprising.(The other good thing about them is the steady paycheck.)

But I’d love to write a standalone. In fact, I thought I had, three times! I never meant the first Rebecca Schwartz, Paul Mcdonald and Skip Langdon books to be series till the publisher suggested it. By the time Talba Wallis came along, though, I’d figured the game out. Very quick on the uptake.

Detective Skip Langdon has been very popular with mystery readers. What prompted you to introduce Talba Wallis?

I needed her! What I mean is I a needed a character in a Skip Langdon book who could act as an undercover PI in an office. The profile in New Orleans: Young, female, African-American, highly computer literate. So that’s how she started. She developed into much more—who knew she was a poet? And she turned out to be so much fun (if I do say so myself) that I actually had several complimentary reviews saying she should have her own series. That gave me such a big head I went right out and talked my editor into it. I was craving something lighter--ready for a break from all the family drama and soul-searching and playing by the rules in the Skip Langdon novels. By rules, I mean cop rules—Skip just can’t go breaking too many of them and still keep her job. But Talba commits felonies right and left in the course of her investigations—my kind of woman.

In 1991, New Orleans Mourning won the Edgar for Best Novel. Did getting the award change anything for you, and if so, what or how?

It changed everything—that is, if the difference in hanging on by your fingernails and making a living—even a good living—at your chosen profession could be said to be everything. (If you've been there, you know what I mean—money isn’t everything, but if you’re poor, it sure seems like it is.) Suddenly I had the first good offers of my life, which I quickly snapped up. And I went right out and bought a house. Also, the Edgar made a big difference in the way people, both editors and mortals, looked at me—some that I’d known for years suddenly knew my name. Kind of made me feel bad about the human condition, actually—I was still the same old person. But not so bad I couldn’t get used to it.

New Orleans is a unique environment with a culture all its own. I’ve noticed that you start many of your novels with some aspect of New Orleans lore. What has it meant to you to use New Orleans as a setting—I want to say as a character?

You’re right—I do consider New Orleans a character in my novels, and always one of the most important. It’s wildly different writing books set in New Orleans and in San Francisco—people are shaped so much by their surroundings that the setting actually goes pretty far in determining what your characters will be like. The same people could exist both places—you could put a California health nut in New Orleans, for instance, and I’m sure I must have at some point-- but you’d be missing a real opportunity if you didn’t explore what makes people unique to a region. I guess what New Orleans has meant to me is …pretty much all I could ever ask, in terms of a home and a setting. I couldn’t have a richer lode to mine.

You’ve taken what many writers would consider a big risk in using the point of view of African American as well as white characters. Has that been a challenge?
Have you ever gotten any flak about it, or kudos for that matter?

Yes, that was pretty nervy of me, but what I’m always saying is that Talba’s being black isn’t nearly so foreign to me as her encyclopedic computer literacy. Now that’s scary to me, and to tell you the truth, I think I probably pull off her ethnicity more convincingly than her geek-hood. At least the geek thing makes me more insecure. Still, it’s always a challenge to put yourself in any character’s shoes. I did take the precaution of making Talba a character who speaks standard English (except in her poetry)—I knew dialect wasn’t going to work coming from a white person, even in the unlikely event I got it right. So far I’ve been lucky not to get flak about Talba, but maybe people are just being polite. As for kudos, I can’t remember any public ones (like reviews that say I really get it for a white chick), but it’s been very gratifying to get notes from African-American fans who like her.

Can you tell us a little about your personal experience of Hurricane Katrina?

The short version is that we lucked out—didn’t lose so much as a shingle. Thanks be. But there was a little drama. Our housecleaner and friend, Debbie, like so many New Orleanians, refused to leave her cat. A lot of people don’t realize that staying to take care of animals was one of the top reasons people didn’t evacuate. Debbie lives two blocks from us in a small outbuilding that looks like a lesser wind than Katrina could blow it away, so we prevailed on her to stay (cat and all) at our place, which is in an extremely stable building on the third floor. But here was our mistake—at the last-minute, we said, oh, heck, why take the cats? Debbie can take care of them for a couple of days. Debbie was glad to, but if any of us had had a clue…

Once the city flooded, of course my husband and I were overcome with guilt at burdening Debbie with two animals besides her own, and also worried about her and the cats. A frantic twelve days followed, in which Debbie did manage to call out once (on the only working line in the French Quarter, where people lined up to use the phone), but only to say that she wasn’t leaving unless they dragged her out.

But finally we got this call: “Hi. I’m in Baton Rouge with three cats.” Studiedly casual. Boy, was she proud of herself. She’d gotten out on a “pet bus” a religious group had organized for people just like Debbie—who wouldn’t leave their animals.
We retrieved her and the felines in a 17-hour round-trip from Dallas to Baton Rouge and all four were fine, but Debbie was a different color every day for the first three days. It took that long for the residue of 12 days in a smoky, furnace-hot, debris-filled city to wash off her.

New York writer SJ Rozan has said that after 911 she feared she would never write again. How has Katrina affected your writing, especially your ability to write about New Orleans?

I can’t tell you how many fiction writers in this city I’ve heard say that! But I guess we all do, eventually, and so did Shira. In fact, she exorcised her demon by actually writing about The Thing, and maybe that’s what I’ll end up doing too. When you realize that where you live is irreparably changed forever, it’s hard to imagine what it’s going to be like in a year or two years (one to write the book, and another to get it on the schedule). So what are you going to write? I’m still trying to figure that one out. The next book may not be set in New Orleans at all, and probably won’t be a mystery, either. I’m not sure why, except that everything’s different, so I see things differently.

Your career has taken a new turn recently. What would you like to tell us about the courses you’re offering for writers?

I thought you’d never ask. :) Last November I started a business called WritersTrack, which offers writing courses by conference call. The exciting things about it are that anyone can take the class from anywhere in the world and the whole class can actually talk to each other in real time! You couldn’t do this a few years ago, when online classes became popular—new technology makes it affordable and also offers excellent sound quality. I started the business as a way of controlling my own life—after twenty-five years of being subject to the whims of publishing, I just had a need for a little autonomy. I mean, if my classes don’t fill up, it’s not because some publisher dropped the ball, it’s because I did.

Are you working on a new book now? What’s next for Julie Smith?

Oh, another good question! Because I have a book out this month. Well, actually an anthology—New Orleans Noir, part of Akashic’s Noir series. And because I didn’t write it (except for one tiny story, I mean; you’ll hardly notice it), I actually have the nerve to tell you I think it’s terrific. I really do. Something about Katrina made these authors write so powerfully and passionately about the city that, as a collection, it just about takes the top of your head off. Well, maybe I’m prejudiced.

Anyhow, in addition to old favorites (Ace Atkins, Laura Lippman, Barbara Hambly), and local ones, it introduces two terrific new writers, Ted O’Brien, who was a true virgin, publication-wise, and Jeri Cain Rossi, who had some small-press publications, but who enters the mainstream (ta-da!) with a great story about a woman who decides after the storm to make the city and herself and everything else whole again by the simple and obvious expedient of sleeping with a hundred men—with extremely noir results. Jeri is clearly an insanely twisted person. I like that.
And wait’ll you read Laura’s story. You’ll sleep with the lights on for months.

Okay, I’m acting like a proud mom. But one more thing—part of the proceeds go to the New Orleans Public Library, so you really should... uh-oh, here comes the hook. Bye now. It’s been... Ouch! That thing’s sharp.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is It a Series or... What?

Sandra Parshall

Humans are downright compulsive about labels. Everything has to be clearly identified, quantified, categorized. How else are we to know what “it” is? If we don’t know what “it” is, we become insecure, unsure how to feel about “it”.

Nowhere is this compulsion more evident than in the field of crime fiction. The labeling often starts before the writer has concocted a single sentence of a book. We hear from every side that we must have a clear idea of exactly what subgenre we’re writing in, so we can follow the rules for that type of book. Crossing subgenres, inadvertently or intentionally, is considered risky. And we are doomed if we approach agents with the news that we’ve written “a novel that combines elements of traditional mystery, suspense, romance, chick lit and paranormal.” It could be a terrific book. It could be a groundbreaking book. But just call it a mystery and pray they won’t notice it’s more than that.

We also face another question: Is it part of a series or is it a standalone? I’m getting that question a lot now, with my second published book, and I have to admit I don’t know how to answer. My first book, The Heat of the Moon, is psychological suspense, told in first person by veterinarian Rachel Goddard. Rachel also appears in the second book, a mystery called Disturbing the Dead. But DTD is told in third person from the viewpoints of both Rachel and Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger. The story takes place in the mountains of southwestern Virginia rather than the DC area, the primary setting for THOTM.

Am I writing a series? If so, I’ve been asked by librarians and booksellers, what am I calling it?

I’m not calling these two books anything collectively. Some people have labeled them “The Rachel Goddard Series” and I haven’t objected. At least one bookseller has labeled DTD “First in the Tom Bridger Series” and I haven’t objected to that either. Maybe both labels are accurate.

Some writers would want to keep such matters private, but I don’t mind admitting that I wrote Disturbing the Dead at a time when I believed The Heat of the Moon might never be published. I didn’t conceive DTD as a direct sequel to THOTM. I wrote it as the possible beginning of a new series. I gave Rachel a different name in the original version. Later, I changed her name again, but neither of these alternate names felt right to me. She was Rachel and always would be. When Poisoned Pen Press bought THOTM (bless them) and expressed interest in DTD, I was relieved that I could let Rachel be herself again. I didn’t put the book into first person, though, and I didn’t downplay Tom Bridger’s role. The two books are certainly related, but maybe someday I’ll write a Tom book that doesn’t have Rachel in it, or another Tom-less Rachel book. Who knows?

There’s a lot to be said for placing emphasis on different characters throughout a series. In her last few books, Elizabeth George has rotated her continuing characters as the focus of the stories. In one book, Barbara Havers (my favorite) stars and Tommy (not my favorite) is barely mentioned or seen. In another novel, George gives center stage to my least favorite of her people, Deborah and Simon. In most of her books, George gives Tommy the most time onstage and varies the importance of the other characters. Doing this can keep a series fresh for the readers. P.D. James, in recent books, has given Dalgliesh a smaller role while introducing younger cops. (A good idea, since Dalgliesh must be, what, about 125 years old by now?)

One drawback of writing continuing characters is that readers feel they have a personal relationship with these fictional people and do not hesitate to tell writers what to do with them. More of him, please, and less of her. Don’t let those two get together; he’s not good enough for her. And God forbid the writer should kill off a popular character. Ask Dana Stabenow about the consequences of doing that. In the long run, bumping off someone who is loved by readers might not hurt a writer’s sales, but she’s going to get plenty of grief about it in the short term. (For the record, I was terribly upset about Stabenow’s Jack, but I was delighted to see George’s Helen go, heartless creature that I am.)

Despite the drawbacks, the readers’ intense involvement with characters is a good thing because it means the writer has done her job well and it brings readers back for future books. I can only hope that someday readers will care enough about my characters to jump all over me when I do something awful to them. (And if that happens, I hope I’ll be able to remember that I asked for it.)

In the meantime, I’ll let readers decide what to call The Heat of the Moon and Disturbing the Dead. Series books? Related but non-series books? Standalones? I don’t care. All I care about is whether you read them. If you like them, let me know. If you don’t like them, I’ll probably be happier if I don’t hear from you. You may label them any way you like.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Convention Agenda

Sharon Wildwind

Start with several hundred people, each of whom has a separate agenda. Subject many of them to security checks, crowded airplanes, bad food, and crossing through customs. Know as a certainty that some of them have come to the convention even though they are not feeling well, have had to have a pet put down, their car is in the shop after an accident, a family member was just diagnosed with a serious illness, or their agent told them on Friday that their publisher is dropping them.

Combine them in unfamiliar surroundings for three days, with more activities going on than they could do in three weeks. Add alcohol, hotel food, and freezing air conditioning. Tell them to have a good time.

Strangely enough, most people do.

Welcome to the world of fan conventions. A fan convention is a mix of the people who do (writers, actors, producers, agents, book sellers), people who want to do (aspiring writers, actors, etc.) and people who enjoy (fans).

Writers attend fan conventions to network, to get their name out for future reference, and, in return, to collect all the business cards he or she can. In the press of so much going on all at once, often all it's possible to get is the other person’s name, a factoid, and an address, whether it be e-mail or snail mail. The real value comes when the writer gets home. Then it's time to send an e-mail or card to everyone you met, even if it's only to say, "Thanks so much for recommending a new author to me. Keep in touch."

Are you a morning person? Can you go for long stretches at top speed and collapse afterwards, or do you need some quiet, down time every hour or so? Does meeting new people absolutely terrify you?

Whatever you’re like at home, you’ll be doubly so at a convention. Plus, at a convention, there is always the temptation to cram in as much as you can. After all, you’ve spent a lot of money to get here. You need to make it worthwhile. Right?

Wrong. The best way to enjoy a convention, and profit from it, is to stay as close to your normal rhythms as possible.

Try to get two real meals (not sandwiches and chips) every day and five hours of sleep a night. Reversing these don’t work; that is trying for five meals and two hours of sleep won’t keep you going. Eat as though you were in training, because you are. Sure, treat yourself, whether it be a sticky dessert or a bit of alcohol, but also keep doing that vegetable-fruit-whole grain thing. Hotels and convention centers are notoriously dry. Drink water.

When you get your convention program, sit down and divide the program into three lists: absolutely must do, would really like to do, and everything else. Work your eating and sleeping schedule around the absolutely must do things, with a few really like to do things thrown in. Let everything else go. If you get to everything else, fine; if you don’t, fine.

If you’re shy, or if crowds scare you, aim for a few up-close and personal contacts. You might talk to someone sitting in an alcove or to the other six people at your banquet table. You don’t have to force yourself to be gregarious when you aren’t.

Give the gal (or guy) a break. Just because you’ve spotted your favorite author of all times, or the agent you would die, just die, to have as your very own, do not accost them in the bathroom, or the elevator, or break into the dinner conversation they are having with a publisher, or invite yourself along to the private dinner they are having with friends.

But you might notice what they’re wearing, so you can spot them later on. When they’re not otherwise engaged, it’s okay to go up and introduce yourself. Really. To anyone.

Don’t worry if you get flustered. I once introduced myself to a writer who had just been given a major award. I totally blanked on the name of her book, which I admitted to her. She winked and said, “I can’t remember the names of my books, either.” Then we had a lovely conversation.

You are on display. Yes, you, whether you-re pre-published, or have one book out, or are working on book twenty. People will remember you.

Dress in nice casual or nice dressy, depending on the tone of the convention. Jeans and sweatshirts are out, but also dress to be comfortable. It’s part of that being in training thing. If you great-looking, but uncomfortable, by the end of the day, you’ll be in a terrible mood.

Smile. Do all of that "What I learned in Kindegarden" stuff. Smile. A few hours of volunteering to help a the convention will not only endear you to the convention organizers, but you’ll also have a great time. Smile. Say nice things about other writers. Smile. Well, you should have the idea by now.

Look for opportunities to spend time with individuals and small groups. Smile at someone eating alone and ask if you can join them. If you belong to Sisters in Crime or some other group, go to their meals, hospitality room, or other gatherings. Volunteering has already been mentioned. Being a volunteer gives you a chance to see and be seen behind the scenes.

“Dealing with rejection: The free world does not hang in the balance. You are only writing a book.” ~Sue Grafton, mystery writer.

I would paraphrase that to say it’s only one convention. If this one doesn't meet your expecations, take a deep breath, and keep going. There will be another convention soon.

This is a partial list of fan conventions related to mysteries. All of them have web sites.
Left Coast Crime (changes venue each year)
Love is Murder (Chicago, Illinois)
Sleuthfest (Miami Beach, Florida)
Malice Domestic (Arlington, Virginia)
Mayhem in the Midlands (Omaha, Nebraska)
Murder in the Grove (Boise, Idaho)
Bloody Words (Canadian-changes venue)
Deadly Ink (Parsippany, New Jersey)
Thrillerfest (changes venue each year, I think)
Bouchercon (changes venue each year)
Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave (Manhattan, Kansas)
Cape Fear Crime Festival (Wilmington, North Carolina)
Magna Cum Murder (Muncie, Indiana)
New England Crime Bake (Dedham, Maine)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Even Agatha Got No Respect

by Julia Buckley
At left: Agatha Christie's beloved Torquay.

I suppose all writers like to speculate about their books as films--that is, who would play the roles of these characters who were born of our imaginations? It's a fun exercise, but I learned recently that even the great Agatha Christie was not entirely satisfied with the casting of her characters. I was reading a favorite book of mine--a picture book called In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie (Trafalgar Square Publishers, 1995), which takes the reader on a visual tour of Agatha's favorite places. The accompanying text is written by Francoise Riviere.

Riviere at one point discusses Agatha's attitude toward film:

"For a very long time Agatha Christie nursed great reservations about cinema. Over the years she nevertheless sold the film rights to some of her books, which were translated with varying degrees of success to the screen. The only real success, to my mind, remains the Hollywood adaptation of Ten Little [Indians], directed by Rene Clair in 1945 under the name And Then There Were None.

The Miss Marple films directed by George Pollock in the 1950's and 1960's provoked the displeasure of Agatha, who declared the actress Margaret Rutherford, with her determinedly comic rendering of the character, 'not much like Miss Marple' and also reputedly said, 'to me she's always looked like a bloodhound.' The two women later made their peace and Agatha even dedicated one of her books to Miss Rutherford."

The book goes on to discuss further blockbuster hits made from Christie's works: Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and The Mirror Crack'd--not to mention the many television adaptations which happened after Christie's death in 1976. At that time, Christie's works were the most read after Shakespeare and The Bible.

How ironic, then, that even someone with the audience of Agatha Christie couldn't command a say in the casting of her films, and that the REAL Miss Marple was only certain in the mind of the woman who created her.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Why We Read This Stuff

David Skibbins (Guest Blogger)

Scratch almost any mystery writer and you'll find a voracious reader of the genre. My collection is now threatening to fill a forth bookcase. What keep drawing us back to these stories of 'murder most foul'?

We've read the usual explanations: We like a world where justice is delivered. We are fascinated with evil, particularly if it does not triumph. We get intellectually challenged to solve the crime before the protagonist does. I think all these are true, but in themselves, they are not completely satisfying as an answer. There is a factor that I never considered before actually having to write my own mysteries, the Grace Under Fire Factor.

After my initial success winning the St. Martin's Best Traditional Mystery Contest with Eight of Swords, I thought my next book, High Priestess, would be a shoo-in. Then I got the call from Ruth Cavin, my editor at St. Martin’s. "Well, David, you have two choices. You could start over with a new project, or you will have to do a major revision on this one." Ugh! One of the things she said was that I was too distant from my protagonist, Warren Ritter.

I sat with that a long time. Finally I realized what she meant. I needed to increase the danger, and threat to my hero. David the Nice Guy (that part of me who doesn't want to hurt people or cause more suffering in the world) was killing my novel. I needed to make things continually worse for Warren, and to feel the growing menace of that in my bones in order to write about it from the inside. That would make the book compelling.

And this is what makes good mysteries so gripping to read. It's not just the danger, but it's how the protagonist handles increasing levels of hazard, terror and risk. In our ordinary lives, risk is usually limited to a spurt of momentary terror that arises when a truck cuts us off on the freeway, or the twisting anxiety of going in to the boss's office to apply for a raise. But the intrepid characters in the mysteries we read face physical assault, exhaustion, emotional trauma, isolation, ostracism and death. They go into a land far more perilous than we can imagine.

And they face all that peril with courage, some sort of integrity and valor. Almost always it's the heroes and heroines we remember most, not the villains they face or the victims they seek justice for. These brave men and women live in our imaginations as beacons of what the human spirit is capable of. And they are great role models; flawed, eccentric, foolish at times and very imperfect. Not Gods and Goddesses, but folks not all that different from us, except that they are endowed with an indomitable spirit for discovering the truth. It is their love of the truth, and their courage to go down any 'mean street' in order to follow the path towards justice, that endears these folks to us.

David Skibbins is the author of The Tarot Card Mystery Series. The Star, the latest in the series, has just come out.

Friday, April 6, 2007

This Writing Stuff Ain't As Easy As It Looks...

By Lonnie Cruse

Writing a mystery novel, particularly dealing with the saggy baggy middle, isn't as easy as it looks. And it isn't all about "talent" because I firmly believe we ALL have the talent to write a novel, be it science fiction, romance, fantasy, mystery, or main stream (whatever that is.) We ALL have stories buried deep inside us that only WE can tell. We just have to learn HOW to tell them.

Some of us keep our stories forever buried, fearing what the reader would discover about us, IF we actually wrote them down on paper.

Others of us actually write them down (not being able to resist) then bury them deep inside a desk drawer, fearing rejection by publishers, agents, and/or family members who read them.

Then there are those of us who dare to tread where angels fear, typing our stories out, spiffing them up, firing them off to every available agent/publisher, and eventually getting to see them in print. At which point our friends and neighbors announce to all and sundry that they never suspected we had such a "dark side" until they read our work. Most likely the very same people who keep their stories hidden from us. Sigh.

Which very thing happened to me just last night. I met someone who hadn't read my work, and while she was eagerly buying a personalized, autographed copy from me, another friend sidled up to say she never knew I had a dark side (never mind that I write cozy, but I DO have to include a murder or two if I want to be considered as a mystery writer, sigh. And never mind that HER mind is every bit as dark as mine!)

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the saggy baggy middle. Assuming you ARE ready to write your thoughts down, into a novel, you most likely have the beginning in mind, and possibly even the ending, meaning you know who was murdered, who did the dastardly deed, who will be your suspects, who will have alibis, who won't, but how are you going to connect the beginning to the ending? In other words, how are you going to fill the 250-300 pages in the MIDDLE??? Yikes.

So you stare at blank pages, go for a walk, eat chocolate (which fills an entirely different middle that you did not wish to fill) and you worry. Some writers even stop writing THAT story all together and switch to writing a new work. Maybe even several new works, never getting past the MIDDLE. What to do? Okay, for what it's worth, here's what I do.

Eat chocolate. Which, incidentally, I'm doing at the moment. But I also jot down notes on 3 X 5 index cards (pastel colors, thank you very much, the plain white ones aren't girley enough for me.) I jot down ideas of ANYTHING that could happen to my characters. Doesn't have to fit the story. In fact I have a left over card from a book that's about to come into print this year that says "send character out to play golf." Unfortunately this character positively refuses to play golf. So, I'm stuck with that card. But the other possibilities I'd written on cards for that story worked. I'll find a spot for the golfing card somewhere, someday.

Something else I do is a variation of journaling. Now, don't start gagging on me just yet. I know some authors love journaling, others run shrieking into the night if they even see a book with blank pages. I fall somewhere in the middle (there's that nasty word again.) I buy beautiful books with blank pages, journal my life every day for a week or two, then put the books down to gather dust. Then I took a class from Margie Lawson at and she insisted the students do SOME journaling, but only bits and pieces a day. Nothing lengthy, just quick thoughts, ideas, etc, and keeping the journaling brief. It has REALLY helped me to jot down short ideas for my overall story. Character names. Overheard conversations that could lead to a story line. Possible new story lines. Etc. Works wonders, so if you are having trouble with your writing, buy a nice journal, and jot just a FEW words in it each day.

One other thing that helps (and I couldn't live, not to mention write without) is my little Alphasmart. IF you've never heard of them, check out This is a small keyboard that is very durable and goes anywhere. It runs on batteries that last forever and are cheap to replace. It only shows four lines of verbage at a time, but I can arrow up or down if I need to, to see what I've written above or below. The beauty of the machine is that I generally don't want to arrow up or down, and I'm really not facing a blank page, so I just type whatever comes to mind. Then I upload what I've typed into the ongoing story on my computer.

If I have a thought that doesn't go into the story line at that spot, I type a reminder to myself in ALL CAPS to work on later. Or if I don't want to describe the scene I'm working on, just want to get the dialogue down, I put a note to describe it later. When the file is full, I upload it into my manuscript on the computer, save it, back it up on disc or thumb drive, delete it off Alphie, and begin a new section. Alphasmarts aren't real expensive, and eBay likely has used ones. I can type anywhere in the house, or riding in the car with my hubby. The Alphasmart is great for getting me through the middle of my manuscript because ONLY the part I'm working on at the moment is there. Therefore I can NOT go back and edit earlier parts of my manuscript until the first rough draft is done.

And if you are someone who wants to write a novel, but you don't think you have the talent, TAKE CLASSES! They are all over the Internet. Some pricey, some reasonable. IF you have a story you want to tell but don't know how, learn how. It is NOT about talent, (though, yes, some have more than others, and most writers are far more talented than me!) it's about YOUR individual story. No one can tell it like you. So write it down, tell it, get it published, and let us read it. And tell your friends you are no more weird than they are.