Friday, November 30, 2007

Reviewers/Readers . . . what do they mean to this writer?

By Lonnie Cruse

Reviews...What do they mean? Readers, how important are they?

Fifty-Seven Heaven is getting great reviews, which will certainly help promote my book when Five Star releases it on December 12th for readers to buy. (Shriek, am I ready? Have I covered all my bases? Deep breath, deep breath.) The book recently got positive reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly, which was a huge thrill. The latest review on Books N Bytes is at:

Scroll down to Pat Reid's name and click for the great review. Another great review is due out December 10th at:

So, aside from me bragging and blatently self promoting (BSPing), what does this mean to an author? Well, for me, I sit in my home office most days, by myself, and plunk out my story, wondering if anyone will ever want to read it. Then I do the first revision, and often I'm surprised to read something I don't remember writing. Sometimes I'm even surprised at how much I love it. Then more revision.

Then I send it to my critique group. Sometimes they're devided on an issue, which means I have to choose which of their suggestions to follow. Of course, I'm prone to take the suggestion closest to my thoughts. Hehe. But if all of them are puzzled by something I've written, (which was perfectly clear to me, so what's the problem???) I obviously have to clarrify that issue for the reader. If all of my critiquers hate something, I have to change it. Sigh. And if all of them love it, I take a bow before my moniter. Ego, don'tcha know.

Then comes more revision. Then I send it to friends who aren't writers or critiquers but who catch errors the group missed, and I missed. And I fix those. And take more suggestions. By this time I'm becoming thoroughly sick of the story. Who would ever want to buy it? Or read it? OR reivew it? And there is likely another story floating around in my head that I want to write because, did I mention, by now I'm sick of the story?

Then I send it to the editor who finds errors the other dozens of readers--not to mention me--missed. Then the publisher makes advanced reader copies and sends them out to reviewers. Now the REAL fun begins. Will they love it? Hate it? I chew my nails and wait.

The reviews come in and I'm (a) shocked that they like it and (b) wondering if anyone will review/buy/read/like the next book I'm working on. Circles within circles. Around and around.

Beyond all that there are times like right now, at the busy holiday season, when I'm trying to find the right gifts, spend time with family, host a party or two, wrap, bake, cook, get some sleep, and writing time is scarce. Think hen's teeth. Family time is hard to come by, with everyone inviting everyone else over. So we're all busy, scrambling to get it all done. Sigh. And I'm wondering if I should go back to the simpler time when my time was my own, not my computer's.

Why do I write mysteries? Who will want to read them? Sitting alone at the computer, day after day, is tough. Time away from family life is tough. Getting critiques is tough. Revising is tough. Then I get a positive review, and I'm back at the computer, writing and wondering. Is it all worth it?

Ummm, yeah, it is. It's worth it when reviewers tell others they liked it. Or even when they don't. Because chances are, others will still be curious enough to read it. And then they write me to say they loved it. Which means they understood what I was struggling to say. They entered my world and spent time there with me. So I wasn't really alone. Thanks, reviewers AND readers. And please, keep reading!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Peak Experiences and Moments of Radiance

Elizabeth Zelvin

If you look up “peak experiences” in Wikipedia, you’ll read that psychologist Abraham Maslow, the same guy who gave us the concept “hierarchy of needs,” used the term in a 1970 work to describe transcendent moments of intense happiness and wellbeing. I heard the term a lot earlier than that, as an undergraduate at Brandeis in the early 1960s. Maslow taught there at the time. I never took a course with the great man, who was reputed to be rather dismissive of his female students. But the phrase was already in circulation. And of course, we all wanted one.

A few years later, any college kid who wanted a peak experience would go for sex, drugs, or rock ’n’ roll. In my day, those who tried the first two did so behind closed doors and kept their mouths shut about it for the most part. And as for music, a lot of us were still sitting on the grass with our acoustic guitars and singing folk music. I remember sitting in the Brandeis gym listening to a scrawny little guy named Bob Dylan singing off key in a hoarse voice. The kids around me were yelling, “More! more!” and I remember being baffled. I thought, “More?”

I have had one or two musical peak experiences, though not at rock concerts. When I was in seventh grade, I got to play my cello on the stage at Carnegie Hall as part of a student orchestra. I remember having the illusion that the tiered horseshoe of balconies was so embracing that its sides leaned together, almost touching. And I remember that someone, I’ve forgotten who, said afterward that I looked radiant. That’s how you get when you’re having a peak experience: radiant. I had another transcendent moment a few years back, performing my song about September 11 to the perfect audience—about a hundred veterans of the Sixties who live in Woodstock—and singing better than I ever have before or since after a day spent warming up with a supportive group of “vocal visionaries.” A sense of connection distinguishes some peak experiences for me. I’d include the four or five times in my life when I’ve managed to get an audience roaring with laughter. At Carnegie Hall, it was the sense of awe at finding myself in that particular place. Great art does it for some people, religious or spiritual experience for others.

As a writer, I have probably had a few radiant moments when a poem or a character’s voice came through me without effort or volition. I gave my protagonist Bruce a peak experience at the end of Death Will Get You Sober. It has nothing to do with the solving of the mystery. It’s just a moment of transcendent joy on a perfect day in a beautiful spot among friends who love each other. That sounds simple, but it’s remarkable considering that Bruce starts the book waking up in detox on the Bowery, cynical, sick, alone, and hopeless.

I don’t think you can engineer a peak experience, regardless of what, say, disciples of Timothy Leary might have thought about it. It creeps up on you. An old friend of mine was visiting from France recently. We caught up on 15 years’ worth of news, including the fact that my mystery is finally getting published. She said, “This is a good time for you. You look—├ępanouie.” I said, “I know that word, but I can never remember what it means.” We discussed it—she taught English in Paris for many years—and finally agreed on the best translation. She meant I look radiant.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Clea Simon: Cat Mysteries with a Difference

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Clea Simon is the author of the Theda Krakow mystery series as well as three nonfiction books: Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings, Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads, and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats. She is also a journalist, writing for the Boston Globe and other publications, and a member of the Cat Writers’ Association. Her third mystery, Cries and Whiskers, will be released December 15, and her first two, Mew Is for Murder and Cattery Row, are available in trade paperback. Clea and her husband, writer Jon S. Garelick, live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with their cat, Musetta, who appears in the mysteries as Theda’s pet.

SP: Let's get to the most important question first: Is that your cat, Musetta, on your new book cover?

CS: It is! The designer asked for a photo of her, just for inspiration. Then he ended up doing some computer manipulation and – voila – she's a cover girl! The others are stock photos, alas. Pretty cats, but no real character.

SP: Your books can be called "cat mysteries" because they're mysteries involving cats, but they're far more serious than other novels in that subgenre and deal with some difficult topics. Has this brought you any interesting feedback from readers?

CS: Every now and then I get a gratifying "You go, girl!" from a reader, or a group like Animal Rescue League up here in Boston. Some feedback comes in the form of silence: My first mystery, Mew is for Murder, won some very nice awards from the Cat Writers Association, including their annual President's Award, which among our small crowd is quite a big deal. But my second mystery, Cattery Row, which dealt with breeders, was shut out. Now, maybe the judges just didn't think the writing or the plotting was that good. But I wonder.

SP: Why did you make Theda a music critic/reporter instead of giving her an animal-related job?

CS: I wanted her to be a real character, like a lot of single women I knew when I was younger. We all had pets, which we loved and which sustained us, but we had other aspects of our lives as well. And in the spirit of traditional mysteries, I wanted to set my books in a village-like subculture, which the rock world is. So, I guess I wanted to combine a bunch of elements. Focusing only on the animals would have seemed a little lopsided to me.

SP: You have a two-writer household with only one cat. This sounds like a recipe for ugly rivalry. Who does Musetta hang out with when the writing's
being done?

CS: This made me laugh out loud! I'm lucky. My husband spends most of his days at his office; he works at the Boston Phoenix, an alternative arts weekly here in Boston. So I get all Musetta's attention during the day. But today is Sunday, we're both at work – and she's under his desk purring. I'm a little hurt, frankly. But I figure I'm old hat. I'm always at my computer. Jon only works at home on the occasional night or weekend, so she probably figures he needs more help.

SP: The very thought of one of our cats going missing is enough to give me nightmares. Was writing about Theda's missing cat in Cries and Whiskers difficult for you?

CS: Yes, it was. I kept checking to make sure Musetta was on her usual perch behind me. When she wasn't, I'd go around the house looking for her at various points. But my agent told me she thought I should up the suspense for this third book, and I thought: What am I most afraid of? So I had to have my heroine face death, alienation from her friends and ... the loss of her cat.

SP: You've written honestly about growing up with mentally ill siblings. Have you used any of your childhood/teen experiences in your fiction, or do you plan to?

CS: Well, you know, what you learn about human nature always comes into play when you create characters and you start thinking about motivation, blind spots, etc. Specifically, in terms of using my family history and my research, it's a catch as catch can (or catch as cat can) situation. I did have a character in Mew is for Murder who had schizophrenia. He was the adult son of the murdered "cat lady," and, of course, a suspect, and I tried to be true to his situation.

SP: Did journalism help you develop any skills that are useful in fiction writing?

CS: Oh, definitely: Writing on a deadline is great discipline. You can't have writer's block when you're paid to produce for a daily paper! Other than that, it introduced me to a lot of characters. I also worked as a copy editor for about a decade, and that was great in terms of learning to cut out the fat. As we used to joke, we could get the Ten Commandments down to six.

SP: Was the first novel you published also the first one you wrote, or do you have some unsold "closet manuscripts" like a lot of writers?

CS: I have half a closet manuscript. I was in love with it, and in retrospect I wish I'd at least finished it. But I showed it to a man I was dating at the time, and he read it and then said, "Honestly, it's not very good." I was crushed. It was years before I attempted fiction again -- and not until I was in a much more supportive relationship!

SP: How do you divide your time between fiction and nonfiction writing?

CS: Nonfiction can take over, largely because I have more immediate deadlines -- and more immediate paydays. So I have to make an effort every day to put aside some time for the fiction. I'm pretty good at this by now, but at times it is only an hour or two. On my best days, I wander around the house and work on the fun stuff until around 1 or 2. Then I go outside (this is important - especially as the days get shorter), do some errands, get some air, and come back and do the nonfiction until dinner.

SP: Do you have any other mystery series or standalones in mind, or would you prefer to stick with Theda for a long series?

CS: I do have another book I'm working on, which could be a standalone or the beginning of a new series. It features an English lit graduate student named Dulcie Schwartz. She's doing her thesis on the original Gothic novelists -- the pop fiction writers of the late 1700s. Of course, she ends up with a ghost and some other fun complications. I'm not sure what will happen with that, though. I certainly don't want to give up on Theda! I don't know how long she'll be around, but certainly for at least one more book.

SP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are still struggling to find an agent and/or a publisher?

CS: Persist. Sometimes I think perseverance more than talent wins out. At least, that's what I tell myself, because we don't have control over talent or inspiration. But we can decide to give up -- or not. At any rate, you'll never get published if you give up!

SP: What’s next for Theda and Musetta?

CS: Well, I don't want to give away too much – but Theda's connection to the cops is gone, so she's certainly more vulnerable now, isn't she?

Visit the author's web site at .

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Story Fatigue

Sharon Wildwind

Last week, I was Absent Without Leave from this blog. It wasn’t intentional, I just slipped quietly through Tuesday into Wednesday without noticing. The problem was spending five long days stuck in Saturday, June 8, 1974—rather like Bill Murray spending day after day in February 2 in the movie Ground Hog Day. During those five days 2007 melted away.

I had reached the climax chapter in my current work in progress. As always, standing on the threshold of actually finishing the book felt icky. Part of that icky feeling comes from story fatigue, which is a lot like combat fatigue. After months of living with this particular story, I no longer cared who killed whom and why. I just wanted all of the characters to go home and leave me in peace, so I could have my own life back.

I’ve never been much of a horsewoman and certainly never jumped a horse, but the image that haunts me in every book—starting around chapter 28 or 29—is that I’m not going to jump this hurdle. It’s down there, at the end of the arena, ten feet tall, red-and-white stripes, and I’m riding a skittish, 16-hands tall jumper, who is going to take a run at that barrier, stop cold at the last moment, and both of us are going to stand there quivering forever.

This is past the point of sorting my buttons by size and color, past tidying my desk, past scrubbing the kitchen floor, past suggesting to my husband that we chuck everything and go out for lunch. Getting through that murderer-revealed, character-in-jeopardy, resolved-by-violence chapter absolutely stumps me. None of the clues make sense. None of the characters have any more goals or motivations. There is no way—absolutely none—that I am going to tie this story together. Plainly, writing it was a mistake, which I should never have started, and never mind that I’ve written 29 chapters before this one and know of a certainty what happens in the 3 chapters after this one, this time I will be completely incapable of finishing this book.

The way through this is to mentally and emotionally chain myself to my word processor for several days in a row, usually 12 to 14 hours a day. I start with one word after another, rather like very bad abstract poetry.

June 8, 1974.

Eventually I work up to short sentences. Sky is Carolina blue. It’s breakfast time. No before breakfast time. Dawn. What happened at dawn?

“Shortly after dawn Saturday morning, Avivah rolled out of bed the sound of invading caterers. She considered a quick kitchen raid to liberate their coffee maker and a box of Pop-Tarts. As it turned out, an insert-and-extract mission wasn’t needed. . . .”

Eventually, I force my characters and myself to face real physical danger. Not describing it as an outsider, but being inside the character, looking at the weapon the killer holds, facing fear, living in a moment that demands raw courage, and somehow finding that courage. In one blinding, clarifying moment the book comes together, and when that moment passes, the book is essentially over for me. It’s out of my head, and now, a week later, I’m a little fuzzy on some of the story details.

Of course, I still have a few things left to do: write a couple more drafts, sell the book, do the editorial changes, proof-read the galleys, wait for the advanced reading copies, market the book, etc. but all of that is no big deal. That’s just stuff to get through. I survived!

So I’m sorry I wasn’t here last week. At least both of us won’t have to go through this again. Until next time . . . .

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mysteries for Christmas

by Julia Buckley
I have a big family, and years ago we decided to pick names out of a hat before Christmas so that each of us is only responsible for one person's Christmas wishes when we meet at the big December gathering.

Because of this, my parents and siblings have instructed me to send my Christmas list pronto, because some people like to shop early. Ironically, even though I spend the entire year being wistful about things I wish I had, I can never think of anything to put on my wish list when I am actually required to make one. :)

One year there were several great mysteries debuting at the same time; I put them all on my list and my brother, who had picked my name, bought them all and put them in an attractive basket wrapped up in red ribbon. It was one of the best presents I've gotten in recent memory.

So of course I'd like to choose more mysteries this year, but I've kind of lost track of what's out there right now, aside from a couple of neat ARCS I've been reading. Here's my question: What are the books you think I should put on the list? Which mysteries would make me the happiest this Christmas? I'm open to any mystery type except extreme violence (although I don't mind some grisly crime scene descriptions). I like cozies, noir, thrillers, suspense, romantic suspense, hard-boiled, procedurals. Thanks to my reading of Peter Rozovsky's blog, I'm also open to foreign mysteries; I've greatly enjoyed Henning Mankell, and I am ready to branch out.

So, mystery lovers, let me have it! I'll take your suggestions and forward them to my Kris Kringle. Thanks!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Art and Craft of Critiques

Marta Stephens (Guest blogger)

Marta Stephens is the author of Silenced Cry, first in the Sam Harper series.

The first time I submitted one of my manuscripts for critique, I did so knowing
I had taken the story as far as I could. I also felt that it was in good shape and close to completion. But when I read the comments, I realized I was mistaken. My fellow authors found scads of errors and inconsistencies that resulted in cutting and adding chapters and several months of rewrites.

A solid critique provides the author an honest review with constructive feedback, offers valid suggestions to improve the work, provides examples, and offers a good dose of encouragement.

So when asked if I allow others to read my work in progress I respond with an emphatic, “Yes.” I rely on the experienced fresh pair of eyes to tell me if I have adequately developed my characters and the plot. Are the scenes and dialogue believable? Does the opening paragraph pull the reader in, or does it read like a bad diary entry? Does my narrative drag? Are the chapter endings page-turners or turn offs?

On occasion, I may disagree with a suggested change, but I consider each comment to understand what really bothered the reader. Someone else’s observation often reveals an amazing new perspective. An example of this was when a fellow author read the first few chapters of my work in progress. I intended for my female character to be a strong-willed individual. She is driven, spunky, and the perfect counter balance to my male protagonist. Yet my critique partner interpreted the character’s actions as those of someone who is somewhat of a scatterbrain. Shock! To make matters worse, she couldn’t understand the character’s motivation. A double whammy!

My first reaction was to balk; I knew she was wrong. After reading through her comments several times, however, I decided to walk away from that scene for a few days and study it later from a reader’s point of view. Of course, she was right on target. The problem wasn’t the character though; it was me. I knew the character well. She is key to the plot and can’t be anything less than strong and assertive. I assumed the reader would pick up on her traits. But I had been so wrapped up in recording my thoughts that my mind raced ahead of the typing without taking time to develop the character as I should. Once I understood the problem, it was an easy fix, but I doubt I would have seen the omission without someone pointing it out. Whether it’s a matter of changing a few words or several paragraphs, the tweaking always strengthens the prose and occasionally spins the scene in an unexpected direction.

Be cautious of the reader who tends to rewrite your story or tries to change your writing style. That’s not the intent of a critique. No one knows the characters or the plot better than the author, therefore, the secret to accepting someone’s suggestions is to selectively listen and use only the valid information.

I keep the following in mind when I edit my work:

Don’t describe every detail about a character in the first paragraph. Allow the reader to engage his or her imagination and get to know the character a little bit at a time. When we meet people, we don’t learn everything about them in the first hour. Similarly, characters should come to life gradually through dialogue, actions, reactions, and through the eyes and words of the other characters.

For a tense scene that needs to show urgency, use short, abrupt sentences. Don’t kill the suspense with flowery prose, exposition, or excessive internal dialogue.

Pace it. Dialogue speeds the prose. After a fast-paced section, slow things down and give the reader a breather through some carefully written narrative. Narration can be used as a transitional tool to get the reader from one scene to the next or when the prose needs to slow down. However, if not done correctly, the writer will risk turning the narration into information dump sites in which the he or she tells the readers all they need to know. If the narration describes an important turn of events, convert it into a scene between characters. Remember that dialogue is far more interesting and engages the reader’s emotions rather than the intellect.

Show, don’t tell. Two of my favorite quotes to drive this home are:

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." --Chekhov

"Don't tell me about the tragedies of war; show me the child's shoe discarded by the side of the road." --author unknown

Need I say more?

Don’t let dialogue turn into exposition, when a character speaks for the sake of informing the reader.

Separate one character’s words and actions from another character through paragraph breaks. No exceptions.

Dialogue attribution—stick to “said” written after the proper noun or pronoun. If the character is excited, show it through his or her words and actions, not the attribution.

Replace tags with beats as an alternate way to vary the dialogue and show action. “Tom, where’s Hank?” Her gaze dropped to the dark red stain sprayed across the front of his shirt. She met his eyes and shook her head. “How could you?”

Look for repetition of words or information to avoid redundancy. If you’ve communicated the information well, once should be enough. When the reader needs to be reminded of an event that happened several chapters before, find a fresh way to relay the information.

Get rid of attribute adverbs, “ly” words, that tell the reader how the character said something and replace them with action verbs. Instead of “He angrily punched the pillow,” try “He slammed a fist into the pillow.”

Avoid “ing” words. Make it active. Instead of: “He was walking to the store.” Try: “He walked to the store.”

Know when to end your chapter. You’ve written a great chapter, you’ve come up with a fantastic twist for a page-turning ending. You’re certain it will shove the reader to the edge of the chair while he turns the page. Don’t ruin the suspense by writing two or three more paragraphs explaining how the character feels. The reader doesn’t need, or care at this point, what the character does next. If you have to explain it, rewrite it.

Writing is an on-going learning process and the critique is an excellent way for an author to know if he or she is on track. Don’t accept rude or cruel comments, but to expect anything less than an honest, straightforward, and constructive critique, is a waste of everyone’s time.

Experience has changed my attitude toward and expectations of a critique. Initially, I looked to others for encouragement. Now I question the light critique that doesn’t catch inconsistencies, point out technical problems, or question a character’s motives. I’m no less sensitive or thicker-skinned than I was before. A harsh critique can still be as painful as a swift kick in the shins, but my focus is on pushing my writing to the next level. Although the occasional pat on the back feels great, an honest critique is the only way to advance the skill.

Visit Marta’s web site at

Friday, November 23, 2007

Let the shopping begin . . . and other thoughts . . .

Good morning, all. Like Liz, I'm not sure how many people will be checking out blogs on a holiday weekend. Many brave folks got up before the crack of dawn today to stand in line at their local malls, determined to snag all the advertised bargains on Black Friday, (the day after Thanksgiving-when Christmas shopping officially begins, for those of you not here in America.) I'm simply not that brave. It's a jungle out there.

Also, like Liz, I AM thankful for many things. My family and friends first, my writing career, second. Family came early in life, meaning I married young, had kids young, and grandkids followed in a timely manner. Writing a book came late in life. I started my first novel at the age of fifty-five and held the first published book in my hands just one month shy of my sixtieth birthday.

I always admired anyone who could write a book and get it published, but it never occured to me that I could do it, too. I assumed all writers had formal training, and my college time had been limited. Then I read two successive books by best-selling authors that had huge plot errors. I figured I couldn't do any worse, so I started writing my own mystery novel. Ahhh, ignorance is such bliss. Several zillion critiques, a multitude of rejections, and a flood of tears later, the book was accepted by a small publisher. I now have four books published in that series, and the fifth will be out in 2009, if Father Time doesn't get me before then. The first book in my new series, FIFTY-SEVEN HEAVEN comes out from Five Star on December 12th. Yup, lots to be thankful for. So what's my point?

One of my grandsons has already decided what he wants to be when he grows up. An artist. He is rarely without a pencil and paper in hand, even drawing while waiting for our Thanksgiving dinner to be ready (last weekend in conjunction with his birthday and grandpa's.) He's progressed from drawing flat profiles of his favorite subjects to 3-D front views. He still lacks a bit in shading, but he's learning, and he's eager. I'm encouraging him to take lessons, but he's a bit shy of that yet. In time, he'll be eager for them, in order to learn from someone who knows how to teach drawing. I mention this because rare indeed is the person who is born knowing their craft and never takes a single lesson. The world's most famous artists, singers, writers, and other talents generally started out by fumbling around a bit in the dark, teaching themselves, then studying under someone more qualified as they grew. And they got tough critiques, rejections, and shed many tears along the way. It's how we grow.

Right now, we're all surviving the holidays in various ways. Life gets frantic as families spend time enjoying each other's company and scrambling to get it all together for the biggie, Christmas. But hard upon us is the New Year (shriek, can it really be 2008 in just 38 days? What happened to Y2K?) and the time when most of us make the same old resolutions, like lose weight, which finds us again somewhere around mid-June.

Might I suggest, if there's a talent you've always admired, an ability you'd like to foster, that you begin 2008 by learning or honing it? Take painting classes, singing lessons, or join a writer's group? Yes, it's painful if and when you get critiqued or rejected. But you won't reach your goal without it. And who knows what talents you are keeping burried? Grandma Moses was elderly when she became a famous artist. Lots' of authors are AARP members as well.

Take a shot. What have you got to lose? Oh, and happy holidays!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Being Thankful

Elizabeth Zelvin

My family never called Thanksgiving Turkey Day, as many people do nowadays, but if it had ever been suggested, as we sat down to the annual feast, that we go around the table and say what each of us was thankful for, they would have been surprised and mildly embarrassed. This doesn’t mean my parents didn’t appreciate the many good things in their lives: health, prosperity, family, and more than their fair share of brains and longevity. But thanksgiving in the spiritual sense was not in their vocabulary.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and I don’t know how many online readers will be checking blogs today. But it seems like a good opportunity to mention a few things that I’m thankful for this year.

First, since this is a mystery lovers’ blog, let me mention The Book. Death Will Get You Sober will be published by St. Martin’s Press on April 15, 2008. The date will also mark my sixty-fourth birthday. I first announced I wanted to be a writer at the age of seven. You do the math. How can I not be deeply, deeply thankful for the fulfillment of this long cherished and elusive dream?

I’m equally thankful for my two beautiful granddaughters. There’s a saying about the way to leave one’s mark upon the world: Write a book, have a child, plant a tree. I’m very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to do all three. I wish we had a better world to offer our kids, but for the moment, the ones with some of my genes are healthy and happy and getting plenty of love.

From the many additional items on my list, let me pick just one: that exasperating marvel of 21st century technology, the Internet. It’s given me quick access to friends all over the world, including my blog sisters on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and a huge support community of writers and mystery lovers. It puts whatever information I need at any given moment at my fingertips. It’s given me the ability to help people in need and make a living doing it, in my other “hat” as an online therapist. And as my family would be glad to tell you, that this right-brained anything-but-a-techie has managed to learn to use a computer at all is a miracle for which I am indeed thankful.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Designing a Sleuth

Sandra Parshall

Recently I took part in a writers’ workshop where my job was to talk about creating an appealing and believable sleuth. The assignment made me realize that I’d never given any concentrated thought to the subject. Like a lot of writers, I suspect, I’ve developed my main characters through my plots, and they’ve been whatever the story demanded. However, a writer hoping to create a long-running series would be smart to focus on the character and build stories around him or her.

Editors today are looking for character-driven crime novels. You might think this has always been the case – weren’t Agatha Christie’s books built around Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot? – but the reader is actually given little information about some of mystery’s most famous sleuths. Christie never plumbed the depths of Miss Marple’s soul. She didn’t include flashbacks to Poirot’s tortured past. Her characters remain static, the same from book to book. Dorothy L. Sayers’s treatment of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane probably comes closest to the modern presentation of characters in crime novels who "grow and change" throughout a series.

A novel must have a solid plot, but character is usually more important. Plot problems can be fixed, but if you’ve written an entire novel around a dull, shallow character, meaningful repairs may be impossible. Agents and editors will tell you they “couldn’t connect with” your character, she’s too bland or too cool or too negative, she’s not different enough. We often hear that an editor is looking for series characters “unlike anything I’ve seen before.” This can lead writers to some strange choices, as they try to deliberately construct a rejection-proof sleuth. How about a blind detective who solves crimes primarily with her sense of smell? How about a guy who was in a devastating accident and now has two bionic arms that are strong enough to slay an army of bad guys? How about a flock of sheep that solve a murder? Oh, wait – the sheep mystery is a real book, published not long ago.

If your taste doesn’t normally run to the bizarre, and you doubt that you can carry it off, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to come up with something totally outside the norm. Try instead to create a character who will feel real and whose personality and abilities will win the readers’ affections and keep drawing them back to find out what’s happening in her life.

So what are in the ingredients for sleuth-making?

Above all, you should create a character you like and respect and want to spend a lot of time with – years of your life, if you’re lucky. The reader has to care about this person, but that won’t happen if the writer doesn’t care first. Sanity wears better than a collection of odd habits and extreme opinions. When a story world is populated by wildly colorful characters, the sleuth is often the sanest person in the book. A sense of humor is always endearing and can be used effectively to show the character's clear-eyed assessment of events.

It’s a given that your sleuth must be smart enough to solve crimes. If the character is an amateur, she must be smart enough to realistically succeed where the police fail. If your sleuth is a cop or P.I., she doesn’t have to be inhumanly brilliant, but she must be intelligent enough to make a living in one of those jobs. Do your research – don’t let your character make the sort of blunders that cause readers to groan aloud.

A sleuth should be savvy about people, able to read emotions and detect deception, attuned to the often subtle clues that give away clandestine relationships and unspoken animosity.

Stubbornness is essential. Major stubbornness. This is a person whose determination is fueled by obstacles, threats, and physical attacks. You can’t let your sleuth give up and go home to watch a favorite TV show in chapter 15, when any ordinary person would do exactly that.

A special skill or a fund of specialized knowledge will come in handy if you find a way for her to use it in solving crimes.

Today’s well-rounded and realistic sleuth needs a past, at least a few friends, and a family (even if it’s a single sibling or elderly aunt). Sidekicks abound in mysteries, and you can give a sidekick the colorful quirks that might seem over-the-top in a main character.

No real person is perfect, and a fictional character can’t be idealized either. Your sleuth needs flaws – balanced by virtues, of course. Coming up with something original isn’t easy, but the effort will pay off. The tough cop who’s battling a drinking problem has become a cliche. Drug and gambling problems are less common but no more appealing. Give this aspect of your character a lot of thought. You’ll be glad you did.

Above all, your sleuth needs a compelling reason to wade into a criminal investigation. These days, even the professionals must feel a personal stake in solving crimes. Curiosity isn’t enough for the amateur, and “it’s just my job” isn’t enough for a pro. Some readers still care most about the puzzle, the plot, but the majority want a novel to be an emotional experience for them. It won’t be if the sleuth is either too distant from the crime or is putting her life in danger out of simple curiosity.

That's my take on what makes a successful sleuth. I believe Ms. Christie would agree with me on some points -- but overall, she might be appalled at the lack of privacy afforded modern mystery sleuths!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mystery, History, and the Joy of Fiction

by Julia Buckley
I've been having a little reading fest lately. First I started on Roberta Isleib's Preaching to the Corpse; readers of this blog may remember that Roberta guest blogged for us not long ago, and I interviewed her today at Mysterious Musings. Roberta should be congratulated on her election as the brand new president of Sisters in Crime.

Next to Roberta's book on my TBR pile are Tim Maleeny's Beating the Babushka and John Dandola's Dead By All Appearances. Tim's book is a sequel to his popular Stealing the Dragon, and John's is also a continuation of a series with 1940s detective Tony Del Plato and M.G.M. publicity girl Edie Koslow. Dandola has also woven in some real people, like Jack Benny and the lovely Marjorie Reynolds, who starred with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn. Remember her? She's in the photo above. (Photo link here).

In the foreword of his mystery, Dandola explains his interest in Reynolds, whose career never took off the way that it should have, given her talent and beauty. But, as Dandola points out, in fiction we can do anything we wish, and he wishes to give Marjorie Reynolds more time on stage: "On this, the sixty-fifth anniversary of Holiday Inn, I present Marjorie Reynolds as a character in a mystery novel. Perhaps, it will bring about some rekindled awareness of her career."

I love the notion that an author can go back, pick out an interesting part of history, and explore it fictionally. The popularity of historical mysteries tells me that I'm not alone in liking that idea.

One of the people I'd observe, if I were able to fly back in time, is Abraham Lincoln; coincidentally today, November 19th, is the day, in 1863, that he delivered the Gettysburg Address. I would like to stand there for the two minutes or so that it took Lincoln to say those words that would be remembered forever--two minutes of greatness that overshadowed the speech of the "great orator" who came before him, Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. How wonderful it would be to see Lincoln as a solver of mysteries. Or has someone already written him into their book?

My question today is: Who is your favorite character in a historical mystery, whether they are based on real people or whether they are entirely fictional creations? OR To whom would you give new life, if you could put a historical character into a mystery?

(Lincoln photo courtesy of

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Canada Calling: Peter Colley

Peter Colley is a Canadian author who has written a number of mystery plays, including I'LL BE BACK BEFORE MIDNIGHT, which the Toronto Globe & Mail called the “most popular play in Canadian history.” His other mysteries are WHEN THE REAPER CALLS and THE MARK OF CAIN (MURDER IN THE MIRROR). He has written historical thrillers like THE DONNELLYS, and contemporary true crime like STOLEN LIVES. I'LL BE BACK BEFORE MIDNIGHT was made into a film with Ned Beatty, Susannah York, Robert Carradine and Heather Locklear, and THE MARK OF CAIN was made into a movie starring Wendy Crewson and August Schellenberg. He has also written a series of Greek mythology stories for CBS TV as well as the teen sci-fi series THE ZACK FILES.

NOIRVILLE, his latest mystery, has its world premiere in at Vertigo Mystery Theatre, Calgary, Alberta, March 8 to 30, 2008. For information about performances and tickets, check out

Why plays? What does that format add to the mystery/thriller experience?

Plays offer the most immediate experience to the audience. As an audience you are there with the actors in the room—it's real, as opposed to film or TV which is a 2-dimensional image, mechanically projected. Plays aim for what writers call the “suspension of disbelief”, when the audience, emotionally, becomes part of the play.

There is nothing more satisfying than hearing an audience gasp, laugh, or scream at the story you have created as though they are watching something real. A book is usually read in isolation, so the group dynamic is missing. I think there is something primeval about sitting around with other people having a group story experience. It probably goes back to the first cave men and women as they sat by their fires at night and listened to the storytellers tell (probably highly embellished) tales of their most harrowing experiences which also became cautionary tales for the rest of the group.

You've written in several mystery sub-genres: comedy, thriller, true crime, noir. Do you have a favorite part of the mystery spectrum?

No. I like variety so I move from one style to another—much to the annoyance of publishers who want you to write the same hit over and over again. I do have a soft spot for black humour so that permeates all my work.

Is writing for a mystery-loving audience different than writing for a an audience who come to watch a straight drama or comedy?

I see every story as a mystery, it's just that some "mysteries" are more obtuse than others. At the beginning of every story you have to pose the "dramatic question"—ie what will happen? I remember when I was very young watching a tense thriller on TV and nervously asking my father "what's going to happen?". I was at the age when parents are supposed to know everything. He said: "I don't know, you'll have to watch it and find out." Needless to say I couldn't budge from my seat until the story was over. So whether I am writing a drama, comedy or musical the same rule applies—people stick around because they don't know what's going to happen and they want to find out. Of course, creating a story that people really want to stick around for is the hard part. In an "open" mystery (like Columbo) we know who did it, but the mystery is in the "how" the villain is trapped. In a closed mystery (a whodunnit) there are many suspects and we play the vicarious sleuth as we try to deduce correctly who is the villain. But even in a madcap comedy or drama the hero is often put in a situation which appears impossible to get out of, and the mystery is in how the hero extricates him(her)self.

What's the most challenging thing about writing a mystery or thriller? What's the most enjoyable?

The most challenging is making it new. A writer called Gozzi once claimed that there were only thirty-six dramatic situations. Schiller took great pains to find more, but he couldn't find even as many as Gozzi. In 1921 George Polti wrote a book defining these 36 situations. So to find a "new" story is the hard part. The most enjoyable thing is finding a new variant on the 36 and putting it in front of an audience for the first time and seeing that it moves them.

You were associated with the first season of DUE SOUTH. Why do you think that series had such a following on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border?

I think its success was because of the purity of principle that the character brought to the unprincipled streets of the big city. "A knight without armour in a foreign land". We have always been drawn to heroic people whose core principles could not be corrupted by their environment. The reason the audience relates to it is because almost every day of our lives we have to make difficult choices that challenge our core beliefs, and we want role models to show us that we do not need to compromise.

What books or other resources would you recommend for a mystery writer who wanted to try writing a play?

The only way to write for the stage is to see LOTS of plays. Reading them is helpful, but it's better after you have seen them. That way you can dissect the ebb and flow of the story from a technical standpoint.

People often think it's easy to write a mystery play, but it's a lot harder than it looks. In a book, you can flip pages, or put it aside for a while, but a play is in real time. If you lose an audience for a moment, it can take a long time to get them back—if you ever do. It is a very disciplined form of writing which often requires relentless rewriting and honing. If you want to write for the theatre you should volunteer to work backstage and see how it works. The movement of characters, the exits and entrances, all has to be carefully plotted out. Every move must have a motivation, every exit and entrance must have a reason and the writer has to know the offstage life of the characters as well as what goes on onstage. One useful book for me was The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. It's a clunky old work from 1946 but has many useful nuggets in it. I particularly like Egri's chapter on premise.

More about Peter and his plays can be found at http://

Next month we go calling on the award-winning writer, Barbara Fradkin

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sticks and stones, etc...

By Lonnie Cruse

Wow, I'm blown away by my Poe sisters' blog posts this week. "Voice," "titles," "Don'ts," are all terrific subjects, which brings me to mine, "words."

Yesterday I ranted on my own blog about a news story I read on Yahoo! reporting that Santas across the country are being encouraged to say "Ha ha ha" instead of the traditional "Ho ho ho" because the latter *might* be offensive to women. Trust me, I'm totally in favor of politically correctness in our speech and NOT offending anyone, but really, give me a break! Couldn't "Ha ha ha " be equally offensive to Haitians or animal Handlers or Hairless people. And what about a certain snack company? Shouldn't they change the name of their suddenly politically incorrect snack cakes? Where was I? Oh yeah. Words.

Writers stress over words: Too many . . . the manuscript must be cut, too few . . . really must add a subplot. Too many adverbs . . . must reword. Too many passive verbs . . . shriek, must find more actives. Writers sit, and we write, and we re-write, and we create puzzles, hoping we haven't been so obvious that the reader figures it out in Chapter Two, or so obtuse the reader accuses us of cheating when the ending is revealed. We toss in red herrings and blush at how obvious they are . . . to us. We create characters who suddenly stand up and refuse to do what we've typed on the page for them to do, insisting on going the opposite direction. Sigh. But mostly we struggle for the RIGHT words to tell our story in such a way as to capture the attention of a reader on page one and keep it to page 231 (assuming the writer can come up with that many pages.)

For as long as men and women have been on the earth, we've been telling each other stories intent on teaching, entertaining, frightening, sucking the reader into our world, and whatever else we can accomplish. And we do it only with words. No other weapons involved. Because words are the most powerful weapons we have. They hurt, they kill, but they also heal. Personally, I want mine to heal.

Some stories are as powerful as bazookas, changing lives, making a difference. But for my money, even the simplest story, told well, changes lives, even if it only makes us chuckle, lightens our load for those few minutes.

Do you have a story to tell? Words inside you, screaming to get out? But you haven't ever had anything published, never gone to journalism school, aren't a "real" writer, afraid the author police will kick down your door if you so much as dare to write the words Chaper One on a piece of paper? Nonsense. Write it down. Get it out. And to steal a phrase: If you write it they will read it. Even if it's only your family, someone will read it. And you can take classes, join writer's groups, hone your craft. Remember, even the likes of Austen, King, Hemingway, etc, were all unpublished at one time.

Choose words, the right words. Change lives. Even if it's only for a moment.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Indefinable Quality of Voice

Elizabeth Zelvin

If you ask agents and editors what single quality draws them to a manuscript by a new author, the majority of them, at least in my experience, will say “voice.” A strong writer’s literary voice is hard to describe. It may or may not be hard to imitate—but a work that does imitate an established writer’s voice immediately gets branded as derivative or mere pastiche or parody.

The singer’s voice makes a good analogy to writer’s voice. To start by saying what it’s not, I’m not talking about the easily discerned difference between Renee Fleming singing opera and Mariah Carey belting out a pop song. Opera and pop are different musical forms, just as a poem and a novel are different literary forms, and the singers or writers present each in an appropriate artistic style. Voice is more like this: you’re sitting in a greasy spoon in Wichita drinking coffee, and the radio is set to an oldies station. A phrase of vocal music floats past your ears, and you think, “Judy Garland!” or “Louis Armstrong!” Garland and Armstrong are both decades dead, but millions of people still recognize each of these great singers’ unique voice whenever they hear it.

When it’s in the first person, the reader may think of it as the character’s voice rather than the author’s. One of the great challenges to the writer is to shift voice when writing different characters. Some writers do it better than others. To use examples from mystery fiction, Charlaine Harris does it masterfully with the protagonists of her three series, Sookie Stackhouse, Lily Bard, and Harper Connolly. Ruth Rendell, after writing the Inspector Wexford books for years, took the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, in my opinion, less to write in a different subgenre than to write in a different voice. Robert Parker’s voice, on the other hand, is strong and unmistakable, but he doesn’t change it well, so that the Sunny Randall books sound—to my ear, at least—exactly like the Spenser books. Stuart Woods is similarly monolithic: the Holly Barker books sound exactly like the Stone Barrington books, a problem the author solved by getting his two protagonists together and into bed.

Voice at its best is both powerful and memorable. The three examples below came to mind immediately, although I haven’t reread any of these books in years. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared in 1885. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published more than 70 years earlier, in 1813. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle came out in 1948. Like Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong, Huck Finn and Elizabeth Bennett and Cassandra Mortmain are unforgettable once you’ve heard them speak.

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided that my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Mystery of Titles

Sandra Parshall

The new baby doesn’t have a name. Yet. I’m still thinking “it” and “the book” and sometimes “the albatross” when I should have a perfect name already typed onto the title page. Before too many more days have passed, I will place its fate in other hands, but it won’t leave me until it has a title.

The titles for The Heat of the Moon and Disturbing the Dead popped out of the text at me, screaming, “I’m the title, I’m the title!” The only screaming this time around has come from my end.

Part of the problem, of course, is that all the great titles have been snatched up by those greedy bestselling authors. A title can’t be copyrighted, but when it has graced a NY Times bestseller, it can’t be reused anytime soon, if ever. Otherwise, my new book might be called Tell No One.

For many mystery writers, titles don’t seem to be a major headache. If they write cozies that focus on cooking or crafts or some other specialized interest, titles are always drawn from those subjects. Puns abound, and they must be fun to come up with. Not too many dark suspense novels have funny puns for titles, though, so I won’t even look in that direction.

Should I go with something that screams THRILLER or SUSPENSE? The problem there is how to devise a title that won’t sound like everything else on the shelf and, possibly, lead to confusion with another book. Do a simple title check on Amazon and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of available books with titles containing Killer, Kill, Murder, Death, Blood, Dark/Darkness. Not all are crime novels, but a hefty percentage are.

Should I go literary? Everybody tells me The Heat of the Moon is a “literary” title, and some find fault with it because it doesn’t immediately bring to mind psychological suspense, which is what the book is. Yet they admit it is intriguing, and after reading the book they agree the title fits. A surprising number of crime novels do have so-called literary titles, and this makes no difference whatever to readers if the author is well-known. What James Lee Burke fan would pass over A Morning for Flamingos or A Stained White Radiance because they don’t have obvious mystery titles? (On the other hand, maybe In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead “sounds like a mystery” because it has dead in it.)

Poetry is usually a good source of titles, but so far my search through Eliot, Plath, Auden, Yeats, Roethke, Merwin and other favorites has turned up few possibilities – again, the best have already been used, often more than once. The Bible is also filled with the titles of other people’s books, and I have spent more than a little time lately cursing at holy scripture.

So I continue with the final tweaks as the day of decision approaches. I try to put aside frustration and trust that the book knows its name. One day soon, it will share that information with me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Christmas Baking

Sharon Wildwind

I have a path I follow every morning, much like a letter carrier follows the same route. I visit a couple of mystery-related sites. Load the e-mails. Read the five mystery lists to which I subscribe. Read the personal e-mail, much of which revolves around mystery writing. Read what my husband sends to me under the heading of “cybernews,” tit-bits he picks up in his electronic travels that he thinks might interest, inform, or amuse me. On Sunday I look at what’s been published in Southern U.S. newspapers about writers and writing—got to keep up with my roots there—and at irregular intervals, I get electronic announcements, and newsletters about the mystery world.

In my little corner of the electronic mystery world, the gloves are off. The word I’ve seen most in the past four months is DON’T.

Don’t patronize me.
Don’t tell me my publisher isn’t as good as the next one.
Don’t send in your renewal to certain groups.
Don’t support conferences.
Don’t expect me to belong to a particular group any more.
Don’t expect cooperation from me.
Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.

Who is shutting whom out, and why, and who said this, and who made that stupid decision, and who is in charge anyway is, right now, THE topic. Rather than repeat the multi-layered discussion—it is truly multilayered, often resembling water slipping over rocks—you can check the archives of any number of blogs and lists.

Please, please, please do not add to the miasma by bringing those discussion to this blog, in any guise, when response to this posting. There are other forums, and I truly believe we have another agenda here. I have two agendas this morning.

My first one is to talk some common sense about mystery conventions. It’s a quart-in-a-pint-pot situation.

Convention are organized and presented by volunteers, all of whom are authors, librarians, readers, or spouses gently convinced to help out. The people who make conventions happen do it because they love mysteries. None of them get paid, and all of them volunteer an incredible number of hours, not only on the convention week-end, but for the year before the event, and usually for six weeks after the event. Some of them keep coming back, year after year, for upwards of twenty years.

The average convention begins on a Friday evening and ends Sunday, some time between 1 PM and 5 PM. Allowing time for sleeping, meals, and bathroom breaks, that gives roughly 18 to 22 hours in which to schedule an opening ceremony, a social event, panels, readings, guest interviews, forensic demonstrations, and quite likely a charity auction, banquet, awards ceremony, and several writing workshops. Plus there is the hospitality suite—some of those run 24 hours a day—and making sure there is time for people to schmooze, grab a drink in the bar, visit the book sellers, etc.

A convention boils down to a limited container (18 to 22 hours crammed into one weekend) trying to hold ever-expanding contents (the exponential growth in the number of authors). Yes, we are at the breaking point. Yes, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “The center does not hold.” Yes, people are groping for possible solutions and some of them hurt.

Which bring up my second agenda. An anthropologist with whom I’ve studied cross-cultural issues likes to tell this story.

Two sisters were baking for Christmas. Both were using a recipe which called for a lemon, and there was only one lemon left in the house. The sisters fought over who had the right to it. Their mother, tired of the arguments, cut the lemon in half and gave one-half to each girl.

Both grumbled. It wasn’t what they wanted, but at least they gotten something. The older sister squeezed out the juice from her half, tossed the peel away, and made her cookies. The younger sister grated the peel, threw out the pulp, and made her cake.

The next couple of years could change the face of mysteries. It’s about time we stopped using the D--’- word, looked one another in the eye, and asked questions like, “What do you need?” and “How can we work together?”

The bottom line is: What can we do that’s creative and innovative and will keep mysteries alive for everyone?

Writing quote for the week:
We need to remember that we are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.~Maya Angelou, writer

Monday, November 12, 2007


Sharon Wildwind

Julia and I traded slots. She got mine last week, so I get hers this week. If you’re looking for Julia, come back next Monday.

I never know what I will pull out of the memory bag on Remembrance Day. Some memories are more pleasant than others. This year I got lucky. What came out was a San Antonio icon: Sugarman’s uniforms.

Most people, if they thought about it at all, would assume that the Army provided new nurses with uniforms.

Not true. The Army did issued us a duffle bag full of goodies: stiff white cotton work uniforms for Stateside hospital duty; green fatigues for Vietnam; 3 sets of woolen fatigues—keep in mind we were doing basic training in Texas, in August—just in case our orders were for Korea or Alaska instead of Vietnam, and two set of lightweight, green gabardine summer uniforms.

But we had to buy our Class A’s and dress uniforms, and that involved a rite of passage, spending the afternoon at Sugarman’s. It was more than a store, it was an institution. Common sense says it couldn’t have been in a basement, but memory tells me it felt like a basement. The place was piled with boxes. Shoe boxes. Glove boxes. Hat boxes. Racks of Army green, pure white, and black uniform jackets and skirts.

Army green for Class A’s, our ubiquitous officer’s uniform, the one that said, “I am Army.” Dazzling white dress uniforms for those nurses being assigned to a tropical country, and black dress uniforms for those of us who weren’t. White shirts with a little collar accent. White gloves for summer; black leather gloves for winter. Two hats—one green and one either white or black, depending on which dress uniform you were getting—both with a bit of gold braid and a heavy, gold-plated Army crest on it.

The shoes and the purses! Next to the white Army nurses’s hospital duty cap, which never sat well on anyone’s head, the uniform items we groaned over the most were the purses. The Class A purse was black leather, with a shoulder strap, a fold-over flap and a little gold clasp. It looked like something our grandmothers would carry. At least the dress purse, a clutch bag, was smaller and could be discretely hidden by putting our hand behind our back. The shoes? “Pumps, leather, black, 1” heel, exclusive of ornamentation,” Army-talk for plain.

The people at Sugarman’s were amazing. Every six weeks they clothed an entire basic class. You could see them eyeballing our measurements as we walked in the door. Pick a jacket and skirt off the racks, into the dressing rooms, then out came the tape measures. Zip. Sleeves to be this long. Zip. Skirts to be this long. Chalk whipped over the sleeve caps or down the sides to mark the alterations, then fill out a form, tuck it with your clothes, and “It will be ready for you next Tuesday.”

And then the line up for the accessories. “Hat size?” Two hats go into the bag. “Glove size?” Two pair of gloves into the bag. “Try on shoes over there.” A pair of shoes into the bag. If you didn’t know your hat or glove size, the tape measure came out again, this time around your head. “Is this the way you plan to wear your hear, dear? If you’re going to get a hair-cut tell me now.”

Finally, with our bags stuffed to bulging, we wrote checks. Three hundred and some odd dollars. Our price for being officers.

But, oh, when next Tuesday rolled around! Plastic bags full of brand new uniforms were delivered to our quarters. We put them on, we primped, we laughed, we groaned, and we stood a little taller, realizing that we were now real-live, honest-to-goodness U.S. Army officers.

Dress uniform, Graduation day, 1969, Fort Sam Houston, Texas

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Myth of the Untraceable Poison

Doug P. Lyle, MD (Guest blogger)

One of the most common questions I get from writers is: Is there a poison that can’t be found in a corpse? The answer is No. And Yes.

Much depends on the state of the corpse when it is found. If severely decayed or completely skeletonized, the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist have their hands tied. Mostly. There are some toxins, such as the heavy metals (mercury, lead, and arsenic are common ones), that can be found in bones and hair. But most toxins can’t be found in corpses that are severely decayed or simply bones.

In a more or less intact body, your villain can still get away with the murder by poison. That is, until your clever sleuth figures out that something is amiss and solves the crime.

The first thing your murderer must consider is how to make the poisoning look like something else. An example would be an elderly person with heart and lung disease who dies in his sleep. In this case, the person's private physician would sign the death certificate as a natural cardiac death and almost always the M.E. will accept it. Why? Because there is an old adage in medicine that says: Common things occur commonly. Most people who die in this situation do indeed die from natural causes, so searching for something more sinister would be neither logical nor practical. If the M.E. accepted the private physician’s cause of death, no autopsy would be done and no toxicological examinations would be undertaken. An overdose of morphine or digitalis or arsenic or anything else would go undetected.

Unless someone asked questions. Maybe a high-dollar inheritance or insurance policy is in play. If an inheritance, one family member could suspect another and ask questions. In the case of a large insurance policy, the insurance company would look under every stone before paying off the policy. Or your sleuth could have some reason to suspect that things are not as they seem. In any of these situations, the ME might be moved to open a file and investigate.

But if your killer is clever, he might be able to keep the M.E. completely out of the picture or at least give him an easy answer for the cause of death. If no murder is suspected, he'll take the path of least resistance, which is also the cheapest route. Remember, he must live with and justify his budget annually. If he is wasteful he'll be looking for a job. So, give him a cheap and easy out. Your sleuth will then have to battle the M.E. to get the case re-opened.

The second thing a clever poisoner can do is to use a poison that is not readily detectable and will slip through most drug screens. Toxicology testing follows a two-tiered approach. Screening tests, which are easier, faster, and cheaper, are used to identify common classes of drugs such as narcotics or amphetamines. This only tells the M.E. and toxicologist that some type of narcotic or amphetamine is present, but not which one. Determining which one requires more sophisticated, time-consuming, and expensive confirmatory testing. And if the screening tests are normal, no further testing is warranted and the M.E. would not spend the time and money to go further down that road.

Drug screens typically test for alcohol, narcotics, sedatives, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and aspirin. Some screen for a few other classes. Once a member of a class is identified, then confirmatory testing will determine exactly which member of the class is present and in what amount. For example, if narcotic is found in the screen, further testing might show that the actual narcotic present is morphine. Or an amphetamine might be further analyzed and this might show that methamphetamine is the culprit.

Your poisoner could use a poison that would not be found in the typical screen. Things such as arsenic, selenium, and most plants (oleander, deadly nightshade, etc.) do not show up on the typical tox screen and when the screen came back negative, the M.E. might not go further. Why would he spend the time and money without a good reason? This is where your sleuth steps in to shake things up. But if a poison is suspected and if the funds and interest to pursue it are present, anything can be found in an intact corpse. Using gas chromatography in conjunction with either mass spectrometry (GS/MS) or infrared spectroscopy (GC/IR) will give a chemical fingerprint for any molecule. And since each molecule has its own structure and thus its own fingerprint, every compound can be distinguished from every other one.

To write a good mystery that will keep the reader guessing to the end, you must plot the nearly perfect murder. This way when your sleuth cracks the case, he or she will be a true hero. If poisoning is your killer’s chosen weapon, then use the above principles to make your plot as clever and convoluted as possible. Have your killer mask the death as natural or use some poison that is not readily detectable in screening tests and then your sleuth must be very clever to solve the case.

There are several sources for you to search out poisons and to discover how they act and how they are identified. Google, of course, and try plugging into your state poison control center. My books, Forensic for Dummies, Murder and Mayhem, and Forensics and Fiction cover a number of poisons. I also recommend Howdunnit: Book of Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon from Writers’ Digest Books. It is a great resource for poisons of all types.

Visit the Writers Medical and Forensic Lab at

Friday, November 9, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 8

Do I really want to write about this subject?

For my last post on the subject of RESEARCH I want us to consider what NOT to research. Some authors are tempted to write what’s popular, or what seems to be selling regardless of whether we read that genre or subject matter, like it, or even know anything about it. That’s a mistake on more than one level. What’s popular changes faster than our bed sheets, so by the time we get it written, revised, polished, and ready to send out to publishers or agents, it isn’t popular any more. Might even be very UN-popular. (I can’t tell you how many authors said they scrapped story lines involving New York City after 9/11.)

Second, if we don’t enjoy writing about a subject, our passion won’t come through, and readers will be nodding off by the end of chapter one. The advice to “write what you know” is given by seasoned authors for a reason. Besides that, if we don’t know the subject OR aren’t sure we’ll enjoy writing about it, we certainly won’t want to research it. Mathematics bores me silly, so no way would I attempt to write a book about a math teacher, CPA, or rocket scientist. I DO enjoy watching cop shows on television, researching investigative procedures on the Internet or in print, or taking classes, like a Basic Death Investigation (not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but fascinating nonetheless.)

For my second series, my research is fairly easy. My hubby is restoring a ’57 Chevy and we belong to an antique car club so I can get all the answers I need for that one. And I enjoy researching it.

Ask yourself: what are my interests? Canoeing, knitting, sword fighting, playing jacks, hang gliding? What do I most like to read about? What subject would I most likely take if I were going to college or beginning a new career?

We shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the writing hand by choosing a subject we aren’t the least bit interested in. But remember, there is really no excuse for sloppy writing or researching these days with so much information available from so many different sources. All we have to do is dig.

SUGGESTION: Make a list of at least five subjects you aren’t expert on but would enjoy learning more about. And writing about. Make a list of five subjects that bore you silly, that you wouldn’t consider reading about much less writing about. Print the lists out and put them in your research folder. Choose one of the items you enjoyed researching during this class and get to work on it. Short story, article, full novel, whatever you feel up to. If you need more inspiration and you found pictures while researching, post them on your storyboard. And have fun.

What’s a story board? It’s a great place to tack pictures of the areas we’re writing about, research articles that inspired us, and index cards with chapter numbers and a sentence or two about each chapter, to let us see where we are in the story line and how it flows. Story boards can be cork bulletin boards, or those neat fold-up poster boards that salesmen carry around, or in my case, an antique metal board that came from the office of a molasses company. I use magnets and clips to keep inspiration nearby.

Okey dokey, that's the last of my postings on research. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments area. Or contact me privately. Hope you enjoyed it. For me research is a lot of fun. And sometimes you get to shoot at things or blow them up.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Running Alongside the Marathon

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last Sunday I watched on TV as Martin Lel of Kenya won the New York Marathon in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 4 seconds. Then I tied on my battered sneakers, trotted out the door, and jogged down the block and into Central Park to join the race.

Actually, I finance the New York Marathon. Among the major sponsors for many years has been the Rudin Family. The Rudins are my landlord. I've been paying rent to them for forty years. They bestow it on the Marathon, take a tax loss (or so I assume), and get their picture in the paper as public benefactors. But it's my money.

Heading east across the park, I join the runners at the 24 mile marker, not far from the Metropolitan Museum. The marathoners use the road that loops around the park, roped off today, but the pedestrian path that runs alongside it, circuitously parallel, is navigable. By the time I get there, the course is packed with runners: men who have been running for three hours and will finish creditably in less than four, if my math is correct, and women who started half an hour earlier than the men. The excitement is infectious. The sidelines are packed with spectators holding homemade signs and banners. Pride, delight, and awe suffuse their faces as the runners stream by. Some groups wear matching T shirts proclaiming them the "scream team" or "posse" of their friend or family member in the race. They hoot, holler, and cheer for those they know and those they don't alike.

The crowd, both runners and those who cheer them on, is as diverse as ever in New York —and especially fun to see when it's a party, as this is. Every face is smiling. Every ethnic group and nation is represented. The signs and banners blazon encouragement to Bub and Mia and Yan and Kimi. I pick out a skinny guy in red from the river of runners and pick up my pace, trying to keep up with him, just to see if I can. I'm fresh—I haven't just run 24 ½ miles—so I manage it for 50 feet before I let him forge ahead and go back to my usual slow jog.

It's beautiful in Central Park, in spite of the gray sky and a temperature only in the 50s. It doesn't feel cold at all. The air is soft. Grass and weeping willows are still green in this unseasonably warm fall. Some of the lindens have a faint dusting of gold. A maple here and there offers shades of apricot and lemon. To my right as I pass the 25 mile marker, the Wollman Rink, where I learned to skate more than half a century ago, flashes a glimpse of gleaming polar white as a maintenance vehicle lumbers over the bright surface, smoothing the ice. The excitement swells as we near the south end of the park.

What elicits this desire to cheer for total strangers? Why do I have tears in my eyes? The sight of so many people each bent on achieving a personal best? The communal experience of this great city at play? Maybe it's partly that something as simple as running, accessible to all, can be raised to such a high art, such a unifying global moment. Sure, the Marathon, like any sports event, has its economic base and motivation. The winner gets $130,000, which the commentators I heard thought Lel would probably invest in his home town in Kenya, as he has past wins. But money's not what it's about. Not to the people who have turned out for it.

As I reluctantly turn west, then north, and head toward home, the mid-range finishers are beginning to pour out of the park to rendezvous with their friends and families, find someplace to rest their legs, maybe have a celebratory pizza and a beer. Each wears a medallion on a ribbon around his or her neck. They all look tired and very happy. As I cross Central Park West, two guys wrapped in mylar exchange a complicit grin with a guy wrapped in a red fleece blanket crossing the other way. They've done it!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Some Like It Hot

Sandra Parshall

Do you take the temperature of the books you read?

I can’t help classifying crime novels by the amount of emotional heat they generate. Some stories have clever plots but require a minimum of personal involvement on the reader’s part. Those are the cool books. Others plunge you deep into the characters’ trouble-filled lives, and “hot” is the only way to describe the experience.

Cozies are, by their very nature, warm to slightly cool. Humor, especially when it borders on farce, has a cooling effect because it distances the story from the real world, where the events surrounding murder are seldom funny. That’s not a knock on cozies and humorous mysteries but an acknowledgment of their purpose: to entertain and divert without leaving the reader feeling wrung-out.

You might think thrillers would all be at the opposite temperature extreme, but that’s not the case. In techno-thrillers, the fate of the entire world may be at stake, but the story often remains an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional experience. For me, political suspense usually feels just as cold as a techno-thriller, which is why I avoid crime novels with flags on the covers.

The kind of book I enjoy most gets to me at a visceral level and lives up to its hype as “riveting from start to finish.” I don’t want to merely read about the characters’ ride through hell; I want to go along on the trip.

Tess Gerritsen at her best pulls me into her stories and leaves me breathless. Thomas Cook’s novels are quieter but intense and spellbinding.

Lisa Gardner and Greg Iles both write hot but include patches of cool writing that provide a few minutes of relief and relaxation before they heat up again.

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s books are variable, but some of her psychological suspense novels, such as Going Wrong, The Lake of Darkness, and The Bridesmaid, are intensely creepy and gripping. Definitely hot, even though her prose is spare and might look cool at first glance.

P.D. James is usually cool all the way, although she has written a few passages from victims’ viewpoints that can raise the temperature of a book as well as the reader’s pulse rate.

Stephen White is a cool writer whose main character, a psychologist like White himself, is always thinking and reasoning.

Elizabeth George’s writing is warm when she’s in Barbara Havers’s viewpoint or that of a victim, but when she switches to Tommy Lynley or Simon St. James, the writing goes cold and cerebral even when they’re agonizing over the women they love.

When a book has a strong impact on me, I don’t usually slow down to wonder how the writer achieved that effect, but I’ll go back later to analyze it and, I hope, learn something I can use to make my own writing powerful. “Hot” writing explores primal emotions: love, hate, fear, jealousy, longing. Sensory details abound – readers always know how a character’s body, not just her mind, is reacting to an experience, and we always know how her world looks, smells, tastes, feels, sounds. Hot writing isn’t necessarily more violent than a cool story, but menace lurks everywhere, and when violence does erupt it is gut-wrenching and real, with nothing left out or sanitized. This is the kind of writing that reminds you how unpleasant murder is.

The genre of crime fiction has something for everybody. Books written with cool semi-detachment are as popular as those that shake you and leave you drained. Some readers, myself included, welcome an occasional cool book after a steady diet of high-emotion tales, and reading a warm cozy now and then resets my concept of what is normal so I don’t begin believing that everybody in the world is sick and vengeful. I’m not sure that many devoted cozy readers cross over to the dark side, though.

To each his own. But when I open the cover of a new book, nothing pleases me more than a blast of heat from its pages.

Do you see a cool/warm/hot pattern in your own reading?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mystery Writer Karen Olson Fields Queries About Reporters, Dunkin Munchkins and Billy Joel

posted by Julia Buckley
Karen Olson's new book, DEAD OF THE DAY, comes out today from Penguin. You can find the Amazon link here. Poe's Deadly Daughters are helping Karen start off her blog tour, and we're happy to welcome her here.

Karen, I just finished your book, DEAD OF THE DAY, and I enjoyed it very much.

I’m curious about the title. I know that “Dead of the day” is a newspaper term referring to the people who are listed as the day’s obituaries, but I’m also wondering if you wanted an inversion of the Hispanic notion of “Day of the Dead,” or El Dia de Los Muertos, since many of your characters are Latino.

I’m glad you enjoyed it!

“Dead of the day” is not a real newspaper term. And I hadn’t thought much about the Latino link in the book to the Day of the Dead. This was not the original working title of the book, which was “Waterlogged.” The publisher didn’t like it and had me change it, and it took some time to come up with a new title. My good friend Reed Coleman asked me how the book starts, and I told him and used the term. He said, “You do know that’s your title?” He was right.

I need to know this immediately: your character, Annie Seymour, at one point is eating Dunkin Munchkins, and says that she avoids the jelly filled because she knows how they get the jelly in there. Hey! I eat those. How DO they get the jelly in there?

I don’t know. But I heard someone say that once, so I thought it would be a fun line. But I didn’t really want to know, so I never looked into it. This is pretty much the way I research a book. :)

Me, too. Annie is in a little love triangle, in that she can’t quite decide between two good, attractive men. Do people ever liken you to Janet Evanovich for this reason?

My books have been compared to Janet Evanovich’s, but I’m not sure if it’s Annie’s smart-alecky comments or the love triangle. Maybe a little bit of both. But I promise I will not keep readers eternally wondering about which man Annie will end up with.

The book makes me feel very old and sedentary, because when Annie isn’t tooling around in a vehicle she seems to be running all over the place, and at all hours of the day and night. Is this how it is in the world of reporting?

Being a reporter is being out on the streets, at city hall, at the police department, at crime scenes, at government meetings. Time is spent in the newsroom mainly to make calls and file stories.

You were a journalist for 20 years. How much of the craziness of Annie’s office was similar to yours?

I have tried very hard to keep the authenticity of what it’s like working in a real newsroom in my books. Many times I’ll read a novel with a reporter character and shake my head, wondering whether the author has ever been in a newsroom. Of course, I was never held at gunpoint, I was never taken hostage, and I don’t know any reporters who were. I did once work with a sports editor who kept a gun in his car’s glove box. And at the same paper, one of the reporters told a story about how he’d been stabbed — by his girlfriend — with a kitchen knife.

Wow. Do you miss chasing down stories?

I haven’t chased down a story in years. I was a reporter for six years and I covered small towns, everything from planning and zoning to school boards to town hall and land records. There’s a fair amount of chasing in that, but I found out I could make more money as a nighttime metro editor and copy editor. So I spent 15 years telling reporters where to go. Literally. While I sat at my desk and fixed their sentences and designed pages.

Good for you! I love your new website, although I miss the photo of you in front of the cool brownstone. Did you create the site yourself?

My friend Mike Jones, who used to work at the New Haven Register with me, owns a company called Webkazoo ( and he designed my site with the help of his graphic artist wife Barbara Kagan. He also maintains it.

I must also note that your characters says something about going to a Billy Joel concert “back when people admitted they went to Billy Joel concerts.” Have I missed something? Am I uncool because I still like Billy Joel?

I think Billy Joel probably still draws people “of a certain age,” but he’s not as cool as he used to be. Although I still know all the words to all the songs on THE STRANGER album (but that dates me, too, since I still call them albums and not CDs).

Well, I think we're in the same club, Karen. Are you now working on a fourth Annie Seymour mystery?

The fourth Annie Seymour mystery is called SHOT GIRL. I’ve done all the edits on it and am waiting for the copy editor to finish with it, and I’ll get another chance to go through it.

The cover of your book is neat, and sort of retro. Do you like it?

I love the cover. When I moved from Warner to Penguin, my editor said they wanted to change my “look.” While I really liked the bright colors and big font of the previous two covers, I think this one really hits the mark on showing the reader that it’s a mystery, it’s suspenseful, and there’s lots of action.

Now that you have a different job, do you get any extra time to read? If so, what’s the best book you’ve read lately?

I do read. I take the bus to work every day and have half an hour there and back of uninterrupted reading time. I just finished Lori Armstrong’s SHALLOW GRAVE, which is the third in her Julie Collins series, and is fantastic. I also have recently read Da Chen’s BROTHERS, which is an amazing tale of two brothers during and after the Cultural Revolution in China.

How are you and the family celebrating the publication of your book?

We don’t really celebrate, except maybe my husband will make something special for dinner. I don’t like a lot of fanfare; I just move onto the next project.

Did the First Offenders, your fellow bloggers, throw you a party? :)

It would be difficult for my fellow First Offenders to have a party for me since I’m in New Haven, Jeff Shelby’s in Dallas, Lori Armstrong’s in South Dakota, and Alison Gaylin is in upstate New York. And anyway, since Lori and Alison both have new books out now, too, it would have to be a party for all of us. We’re hoping to meet up at Left Coast Crime in Denver in March. It will be the first time we’ll all be in the same place since Bouchercon in Madison, Wisconsin, last year.

I was at that Bouchercon! Too bad we didn't meet. What’s next for Karen Olson?
I just keep moving forward. I’m working on a proposal for a fifth Annie book and I’m also working on one of those ubiquitous standalones we keep hearing about. It’s a crime novel, although very different from the series in that it’s written from multiple points of view and has a historical base although set in present day.

Sounds terrific--good luck with it. Thanks for chatting with me, Karen!

Thanks so much for having me here!