Monday, December 31, 2007

A New Year, A Great Life

by Julia Buckley

Since the New Year begins tomorrow, I thought I'd share a sentiment that one of my neighbors sent me for my birthday (which was yesterday).

How To Make A Beautiful Life:

Love yourself.
MAKE PEACE with who you are
and where you are
at this moment in time.

Listen to your heart.
If you can't hear what it's saying
in this noisy world,
MAKE TIME for yourself.
Enjoy your own company.
Let your mind wander among the stars.

Take chances.
Life can be messy and confusing at times,
but it's also full of surprises.
The next rock in your path
might be a stepping stone.

Be happy.
When you don't have what you want,
want what you have.
That's a well-kept secret of contentment....

...if you ever get lost, don't worry.
The people who love you will find you.
Count on it.

I don't have an attribution--my neighbor said someone once gave her this poem. But I hope the words inspire you for 2008.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

There's No Secret Like an Old Secret

Mitch Silver

Why are “history mysteries” so popular? I’m talking about the ones that take place wholly in the past (think The Name of the Rose) as well as the contemporary thrillers in which people are obsessed with righting (or wronging) history—does Da Vinci ring a bell?
I think it has a lot to do with the evolution of secrets.

Think about it. Thanks to Access Hollywood and the internet and the ubiquitous cellphone with its increasingly ubiquitous camera, we know it the minute Lindsay Lohan either checks out of or back into rehab. Should a Congressman “innocently” send a couple of emails to his male pages or tap someone’s toes in a bathroom, we’ll see him crying crocodile tears of remorse in time for Sunday’s Meet the Press. The half-life of a secret today, about one news cycle, makes us yearn for that old-time secrecy. At least I do.

Could people keep more and better secrets way back when? Could they ever! Let’s take American Presidents for $200, Alex. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the most admired woman in the world, his wife Eleanor. How long did it take for the story to get out about FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer, the one that led Eleanor to offer him a divorce in 1919? 35 years. Or People’s Exhibit 2: Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie. How long did it take for rumors about his Army driver, Kay Summersby, to emerge? A mere 28 years. And it’s not just us. Secrets involving the death of the Russian royal family are still coming out, 90 years later.

When I set out to write In Secret Service,
in which Ian Fleming reveals to posterity something nasty that happened in World War II and unintentionally jeopardizes the life of a contemporary Yale art history professor named Amy Greenberg, it was in the strongly-held belief that the older the secret, the juicier it is. (Hmm, I guess that explains The Clan of the Cave Bear.)

Possibly you’re thinking this is all so much hide-and-seek instead of literature, and possibly it is. In the 19th century, reading was thought to be part of one’s moral education. In most of the 20th, it at least took us out of ourselves and showed us how we were all part of the Human Condition. In the 21st century, while there are still literary novels that become bestsellers, the blockbusters are often thrill rides on paper. (Of course, Eco’s wonderful book was both.)

In a funny way, the thriller has to do more now than the classic 20th Century mystery: they just had to hook us to step into their world and keep us there, thinking our way step by step with Hercule Poirot or Perry Mason or Inspector Maigret. Today’s thriller has to recreate in the reader what the characters’ autonomic nervous systems are going through: confusion, hurt, love, anger, fear, joy…a literary lie detector apparatus with a direct hook-up from the character—in my case, Amy Greenberg—to us. Who said it has to do this? We did…the reading public.

Maybe this is the Me Generation coming home to roost, the triumph of feeling over thought. All I’m suggesting is that, in this mass market section of the fictional world, the direction has gone from moral uplift straight down—about 27” down, from the brain to the pit of the stomach, from the cerebral to the visceral…because the nature of secrets has changed. Today we’re not just plagued with the sexual peccadillos of our heroes; violence and its aftermath are on every tabloid cover and local news promo. Things that used to happen—and stay—in secret are now our lingua franca.

Those who choose the thriller over its cousin the straight detective mystery make “sensation” the word of the day. Remember, the thriller isn’t a thriller unless it puts the problem-solver…the uncoverer of secrets…into personal jeopardy, with the threats coming from all directions. I think when we pick up a story with an historical angle, we’re trying to have it both ways: give me the rush of a right-this-moment thriller and the authenticity of a decades- or centuries-old secret waiting to be revealed.

Next time, it might be fun to discover how tricky it is to write a book that mixes real historical characters with made-up ones. Oh, did I say tricky? I meant fascinating.

Mitch Silver has been an advertising writer for several of the big New York ad agencies. In Secret Service (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster)is his first thriller. You can visit him at

Friday, December 28, 2007

Promoting a new book, what works, what doesn't?

I've been sidelined with a code in my node the last few days. Since the day after Christmas, to be precise. But the show must go on. Or the promotion of my new book, again, to be more precise. And to give you a just a smidge of an idea how "out of it" I've been, I slid in here just now in a panic because I thought it was Friday and I was hours late posting this. Checked the handy little date/time thingy on my computer, heaved a sigh of relief. It's only Thursday as I write this. It will hopefully be Friday when I post it. Where was I? Promotion. Ack.

My new book, FIFTY-SEVEN HEAVEN just came out fifteen days ago. So between decorating, Christmas shopping, wrapping gifts, hosting or attending parties, chewing vitamin C (which obviously didn't work, sniffle, snort) finishing up my financial records for my accountant (who doubles as my daughter-in-law) I've been squeezing in promoting/selling my new book (which is playing havoc with the aforementioned financial records, sigh.)

Promoting a book in December is a double-edged sword. People buy books for Christmas gifts. Which is good. People are short of book money for themselves. Which is bad. And everyone is busy, including me, which makes it tough to shift their attention to a new book coming out. And there are those pesky financial figures to turn over to my accountant-slash-DIL. My biggest problem is figuring out WHERE to promote. Which promotion does the most good?

I already had a website set up with loads of information about my other books when this new book in a whole new series came out. (The link is on the left, in case you're curious.) I also have a personal blog and I blog here on Poe's Deadly Daughters, when I can remember what day of the week it is. And, yes, I have received a necessary nudge once or twice from my Poe sisters to remind me. Hubby and I already belonged to a national car club, AACA and a local chapter as well, a huge help since the book is about a couple who own an antique car. I've put up my own virtual "garage" on Edmunds Car Space and they featured me in their newsletter this month. I'm also on CrimeSpace, Squidoo, MyShelf and MySpace. Whew. Fifty-Seven Heaven received several good reviews, including Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. I emailed my faithful readers when the book came out. I've got copies in two stores in Metropolis, IL, where I live, Hummas and the Metro Chamber of Commerce. I'm on Amazon and B& among others. I belong to a ton of discussion lists about mysteries. Busy, me?

Next up, I'm about to try a virtual tour. Visiting and posting on various websites that are willing to host me, to see if I can get the word out. My book will be the book of the month in February on Mystery Most Cozy, an online group that discusses Cozy Mysteries. I'm also scheduled for two conferences in February, Love Is Murder in Chicago and Murder In The Magic City in Birmingham. And I'll be hosting a launch in January at the Metropolis Library and a signing at the West Frankfort, IL library. In other words I'll be hard at it throughout 2008, promoting Fifty-Seven Heaven.

But what works? Which of these might possibly rocket me to fame and fortune? Or at least sell enough books so Five Star will want to publish book number two in the proposed series, which I've already written, with fingers firmly crossed. Who knows?

But the thing is, authors HAVE to promote themselves to sell books, because publishers no longer do it for them, except the REALLY BIG publishing houses that sign authors so well known they don't even NEED promotion. But we have to be extremely careful how we promote our books because an awful lot of people have limits to what they will or won't tollerate from an author in the way of promotion. Let me give you an example. I've been following a discussion on Sisters In Crime about problems authors run into at book store signings. But let me digress a bit first . . . .

Many passersby, in response to an author asking: Do you like mysteries? will respond: I don't read. Ooookay, we wonder to ourselves, what are you doing in a bookstore? But we're too polite, not to mention too smart, to ask it outloud. We authors been given to understand that we should stand up at our signings, not sit down, maybe offer candy of some sort to draw attention, have an interesting table, make eye contact, ask politely if the passersby likes mysteries, but NOT accost the reader and pin them up against the nearest bookshelf, forcing a copy of the book into their hands and demanding they read chapter one before they will be allowed to proceed any further through the store. Okay, I can understand that. I don't like it, but I understand it. Sniff.

The discussion I mentioned above centers around what an author should do when the reader buttonholes her/him and begins asking questions, effectively blocking the author's signing table and making it difficult for other buyers to nab a signed copy of the author's book. Solution to that? A friend or store manager to help out. IF you can get one. I have learned that bringing someone along to my signings to handle: money, stranger-than-usual passersby, and the table itself when I need a potty break is KEY to having any kind of book signing. Key.

Back to promotion in general. What in the varity of options works for an author? Internet presence (websites, blogs, discussion lists, newsletters, emailings)? Book store signings? Library appearances? Mailing out postcards or first chapters? Newsletters? Handing out bookmarks and chapters? Word of mouth?

So far as I can tell, and I'm no expert, they all work . . . to a degree. Word of mouth, someone buttonholing their friends with the words: You simply MUST read this book, I loved it. THAT is the very best promition of all, and it's something we have absolutely no control over, except for writing the best book possible. As for the other options, as I said, they do work, to a degree. The trick is to use them to make others aware of your books BUT somehow not overdoing it. Getting our name in the reader's mind but not getting in their face. It's tricky and a VERY fine line to walk. The author needs balance.

Soooo, DO any of you folks like to read mysteries? Chocolate covered cherries, anyone? What's that? Oh, yes, the bathroom is located right there, on the back wall of the book store. Thanks for stopping by. Anybody got a tissue?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Amateur Night

Elizabeth Zelvin

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have a special name for New Year’s Eve. They call it Amateur Night. It’s the night when everybody else goes out and tries to behave like genuine drunks. Being amateurs, of course they fall short. They drink ghastly punch with sweet juices and chemical sodas and who knows what ill-conceived combination of hard liquor, cheap champagne, and cloying liqueurs thrown in. They throw up and pass out. No self-respecting alcoholic who values his or her sobriety would be caught dead out on Amateur Night. Who needs New Year’s Eve? As my protagonist Bruce says in Death Will Get You Sober, it’s a holiday with no traditions whatsoever, apart from getting blitzed and counting backwards from twelve. Glad to let everybody else make fools of themselves, they may stay home or drop in on one of the AA meeting marathons that offer round-the-clock support on major holidays to those who have chosen living over drinking.

Most working people get the holidays off, including Christmas and New Year’s. A friend of ours counted it as the busiest time of his working year. Was he a caterer? A salesman in a toy store? Nope. He was a blood tech in the emergency room of a hospital on Long Island. Around midnight, when his shift began, on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve, they would start wheeling in the bodies. An article that appeared on a few days before last New Year’s Eve says alcohol-related traffic deaths jump on New Year’s Eve and supports it with statistics.

Cars are not a big issue in Manhattan, where I live. But the noise on the streets long past midnight and the increased number of passengers being sick on the subway make New Year’s Eve a good time to stay home. Since the kids, now long grown up and moved out, started making their own plans for the evening, we’ve usually made ourselves an elegant dinner to eat by candlelight. Manhattan! you may say. Don’t you ever go to Times Square to watch the ball drop? Nope. Never. My son went once, I think it was his first year in college. Wisely, he neither asked my permission nor told me he’d gone till New Year’s Day. With typical city-kid aplomb, he reported: “It was one-third tourists, one-third college kids, and one-third muggers—and even the muggers were friendly.”

One reason to go out on New Year’s Eve in the past was that it was a rare opportunity to dress up, whether for a party or dinner in a fancy restaurant, in our increasingly dress-down culture. Since I became a mystery writer, I no longer need that excuse. The invitations to Mystery Writers of America’s annual holiday party and to the Edgars awards banquet in the spring, MWA’s answer to the Oscars, usually stipulate that we should “dress to kill.” And nobody even gets hurt.

So I’ve already attended my dress-up event for the season, and a few nights from now my husband and I will finish our delicious home-cooked meal, get into our jammies, and may or may not turn on the TV. And at midnight when the ball drops and all the frostbitten tourists (and college kids and muggers) sing Auld Lang Syne, we will probably be fast asleep.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

'Twas the day after...

Sandra Parshall

Who reads blogs the day after Christmas? No one, I suspect. Even people who have the time probably feel like barfing at the thought of yet another blogger’s sentimental (or shrill, as the case may be) entry about the holidays. So, while nobody’s looking, I can get silly and sneak in pictures of my cats -- and write about their attitude toward holidays.

Emma and Gabriel are indifferent to all holidays except two: the Fourth of July and Christmas. They hate the Fourth. It’s entirely too noisy, starting with the firecrackers that neighborhood teenagers pop off in the streets. (Aren’t those things illegal? The firecrackers, not the teenagers, although a solid case could be made for outlawing the latter.) As darkness falls, the real racket begins. We live just outside DC, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and we’re far enough away from the Washington Monument that we can’t hear the big fireworks, but we can hear the show on the Langley High School grounds loud and clear. At the first boom, our tabby Emma dives for cover, and there she remains for the rest of the evening.

Gabriel, our Abyssinian, tries to be macho and tough it out, but his poor super-sensitive
ears take a beating and by the time it’s over he has a headache and he’s a nervous wreck.

Patriotism aside, the Fourth is not a welcome time at the Parshall Manse.

Christmas, though – now that’s a holiday made for cats. Prezzies! Boxes! Wrapping paper! Boxes and big shiny sheets of crinkly wrapping paper are what Christmas is all about, from the feline perspective.
Our cats have so many toys already – Emma, for example, has one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections of catnip mice, every single one of which is off-limits to Gabriel – that adding more at Christmas seems pointless. So for Emma and Gabriel, the boxes and wrapping paper are the presents.

Around here, the paper stays on the floor for days. Sometimes for weeks. Or, if they’re especially fond of it, for months. Anyone who has cats (if they were reading this) would smile knowingly at that admission. People who don’t have cats would have no hope of ever understanding, and besides, even if non-cat people started reading this blog, they will have stopped long before now.

Some cat owners persist in decorating Christmas trees, and they have to get used to setting the trees upright each time the pets pull them over, not to mention gathering the scattered ornaments every morning and hanging them back on the branches. We gave up on the tree thing long ago. Boxes and paper are enough -- Emma and Gabriel are so hard to please in other ways, yet so easily rendered ecstatic by these simple gifts. Maybe there’s a lesson for humans in the joy of a couple of cats playing with wrapping paper, but I won’t pursue the thought, for that way lies the sentimental holiday blog all my non-readers are trying to avoid.

I will conclude by promising that next week, in my first blog of the new year, I will scrupulously avoid sharing my resolutions.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Season's Greetings

May this day be filled with family, friends, love, and good tidings to all. We'll be back tomorrow.

Thank you so much for your support and kindness this year. We appreciate it more than we can express.

Poe's Deadly Daughters

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Mystery of the Mind

Dear PDD Readers,

Today I was busy with my son's thirteenth birthday party, and we are also busy with the sad arrangements for a death in the family. I hope you won't mind if I post an essay I wrote about that second topic; I posted it earlier on Mysterious Musings.

We heard yesterday that my husband's mother had died, after years of suffering with Alzheimer's Disease. It would be inappropriate to say she "battled" the illness, because any weapons one might use against that gradual decline are taken from the beginning, along with memory and the particular dignity that memory brings.

My mother-in-law had early onset Alzheimer's; she was only in her early sixties when she began to show signs of forgetfulness, of repeating herself, of putting things in odd places, or losing things entirely. But she had always been smart, a sharp mind, and she found all sorts of elaborate ways to "cover" for the fact that she would forget things--even, sometimes, her children's names. She was a happy person who loved to laugh, who loved babies, particularly her three grandchildren. The cruelest trick of this disease was that it convinced her, eventually, that she did not know them when they came to see her: she, who had loved them so passionately all their lives, would look at them quizzically and say, "These little boys think I'm their grandmother."

Alzheimer's is the thief who takes everything: one's disposition, one's memory, one's sense of self. At the end, it even takes one's awareness of her own existence. In this case, it was life that was cruel and death which was a mercy. Even the evils of cancer might allow one the luxury of goodbyes at death. Alzheimer's makes a person drift away day by day, year by year, until nothing of them is left but the frail shell that breathes delicately in the bed.

At that moment of death, then, that moment when the soul is freed from the cage of the body, from the useless mind, there is a certain beauty. But for the family, there is that rush of grief that has been held suspended in a five-year death. Grief for loss, anger at what was endured.

And then the memories, cobwebbed, come drifting down. They are exquisitely painful, but someday they will be beautiful, comforting. And they are the only revenge: that her memory was taken, but ours was not.

We will remember her.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Shennong Stream

Margaret Mendel (Guest Blogger)

About a year and a half ago I began writing a novel based in Asia. The ideas started to bubble up. I had no idea what the Orient was like. An aspect of my novel takes place in southern China and an area along the Yangtze River. So, my husband and I decided to take a look at this part of the world.

One of the side trips we took while traveling the Yangtze River was to the Shennong Stream. I had no idea what to expect when we got there. A sampan ride through a minor gorge was all that we had been told.

So, after breakfast we disembarked from our cruise ship, clambered onto a ferry and headed down a rather large stream at the mouth of the Wu Gorge and away from the Yangtze River. Though the water voyage so far had been quiet and peaceful we soon entered another level of silence. The limestone cliffs shot up higher and the river became narrow. The soft, almost furry looking hills soon became craggy mountains with huge fields of thick brush that looked sharp and unfriendly.

The journey to a place called Dadong took about an hour. Our ferry glided up to a wooden shack moored on the riverbank. We stepped out onto a rickety old dock. We were herded through a gift shop and out a door to where 20 or 30 sampans were waiting.
The men waiting in the sampans were farmers who had been displaced by the rising water of the Three Gorges Dam. Now they are ‘boat trackers’ and they take tourists on rides up the Shennong Stream. Once everyone had settled into a sampan and life jackets were securely fastened, we set off up stream. As we glided along the water was so clear at times that I could count the pebbles passing under the sampan.

These riverbanks have been inhabited since the Han Dynasty and the primary ethnic group of this river valley has always been the Thuja people. But much of this area is soon going to disappear. Since the beginning of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the water level has risen approximately 155 meters at the mouth of the Shennong Stream. Much of the previously scenic vertical gorge is now submerged. By the completion of the dam construction in 2009, a further 20 meters of the gorge will be under water.

When we arrived at a small rapid the boat trackers jumped into the water. Each man threw a harness like contraption over his shoulder and they began to pull the sampan through the quickly moving water.
It was all a bit thrilling but not dangerous. They hauled us through the water until we reached a section of the stream that was too shallow for a boat to go any further. It was time for lunch. Most of us shared our food with the boat trackers who had brought nothing to eat. We sat in the middle of this very ancient place in the wilds of China eating boiled eggs and fresh fruit.

Told that we could not get out of the boats, we were treated to gifts of pebbles that the boat trackers gathered from the stream bottom. Then as abruptly as we had stopped for lunch the boatmen grabbed up their harnesses and pulled us back out into the deeper water.

Headed back to the tour boat our guide pointed out ‘hanging coffins’. These coffins stowed in caves and crevices on the high vertical limestone cliffs are evidence of the early settlements in this area.
The coffins were carved from a single section of a tree trunk, with some coffins measuring 90 centimeters in diameter. The coffins are typically located 30 to 150 meters from the top of the bluff and 25 to 70 meters above the river surface. Most commonly a coffin is placed on two sturdy hewn poles that have been wedged within the limestone cleft or cave to form a level platform for the coffin to rest.

The Three Gorges Dam construction has destroyed many of these coffins, though some are being retrieved for cultural presentation and archeological study. One such coffin has been preserved and now sits on display at the White Emperor’s Palace, within an historical Taoist Temple situated high above the inundated level along the Yangtze River.

The Three Gorges Dam has covered countless acres of farmland and has displaced millions of families forcing them to find new ways of earning a living. I still have my pebble from the Shennong Stream, a simple white stone with black spots. I remember the man who gave it to me. His hands were coarse and weather worn. They were farmer’s hands.

Margaret Mendel has a Masters in Psychology and an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She has published stories in Global City Review,, and the anthology MURDER NEW YORK STYLE. She has won two awards from the Bronx Council on the Arts.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What to write, what to write???

I've been putting off writing a new book for quite some time now. I've finished the second in the Kitty Bloodworth series but Five Star won't consider contracting that book until they see how the sales numbers go for the first book, FIFTY-SEVEN HEAVEN, which just came out last week. But, boy howdy, am I ready to fire book number two off to them when they are ready to receive.

The next book in my first series, the Metropolis Mystery series, is finished and ready to publish in 2008. Except I've decided not to release it then. I want to spend 2008 promoting FIFTY-SEVEN HEAVEN, so the next Dalton won't come out until 2009, or at least that's the plan for now.

With two books completed in two different series, and pretty much ready to go, I couldn't seem to get into writing a new one. I kept saying I'd start in January. But when I begin a new book, I always have the first scene in my head and I'm IN the scene with the characters. Seeing it. Feeling it. Hearing it. So I kept seeing the beginning scene of the third book in the Kitty Bloodworth series, in my head. It's kind of a fun scene. Still I procrastinated writing it.

Luckily, I'm a huge fan of Holly Lisle and her website. I frequently mention her index card method for plotting when I'm giving a talk about writing. And I belong to an email group she hosts. So when she offered free outline tips for plotting in PDF format, I signed up. The file arrived in my inbox soon after and I dived in, doing the exercises. Sooo, I now have a VERY rough outline for the book and maybe two-three pages written in chapter one. Whew. Now, to write two-three hundred more pages. Piece of cake. Cough.

But back to being in the scene. The second book in the Kitty Bloodworth series takes place in Pigeon Forge, TN, where Kitty and Jack Bloodworth are attending a car show/contest and looking for another antique car to buy . . . this one for Kitty to drive. One of those hulking, beautiful Thirties models, sigh, just the kind of car I dream about.

We've traveled to the Pigeon Forge area several times and I love it there, so writing that book was like being there . . . every single day. I get lost in the setting when I write, and I enjoy standing next to my characters, watching what happens to them, how they react to it, and wondering what they'll do next. And I could see the Smokies with their lovely fall colors, the river streams running over the huge rocks, the vapor sliding over the mountain tops. When I stop writing for the day, it's like waking up from a sound nap. I have to "shake it off" and come back into the present. Even editing, tough as it is, brings me to that "place."

But much as I enjoy it, I always have a tough time getting into writing a new book. It's that old "Can I do this again?" "What if THIS book fails?" "What if no one reads it?" New book jitters. I get them ever time. So does most every other writer I know. But once I settle into the chair and start writing, I'm in that world.

Right now, I'm in Jack Bloodworth's barn where he stores his beautiful '57 Chevy, Sadie, along with her trophies and necessary replacement parts. And I can see that someone is hiding up in the hay loft. Uh oh! Excuse me, my character is in danger. I need to see what will happen. Meanwhile, you all have a wonderful holiday season and thanks so much for hanging out with us at Poe's Deadly Daughters!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

An Anniversary: Me and My New York Building

Elizabeth Zelvin

Tomorrow, December 21, is an anniversary for me: forty years since I moved into my apartment building on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.
It’s also the anniversary of my long-ago marriage to my first husband. We spent our wedding night in the spacious one-bedroom apartment he’d been renting for $120 a month. The honeymoon consisted of a long weekend knocking out walls so we could expand the kitchen and sweeping up the resulting homosote crumbs. He was that kind of guy.

I remember looking at myself in the lobby mirror as I waited for him to park the car. I thought, This is who I’ll be for the rest of my life. Oy, was I mistaken. I have reinvented myself several times along the way. We changed apartments, to a $190 two-bedroom one floor up and one door over, when my son was born. We got divorced, he moved out, I remarried, my son grew up and moved out too. And the rent, rent control notwithstanding, has gone up and up and up. But until they throw out rent control altogether—as the landlords keep trying to do—I’m not moving out of the building. No way.

Gradually, the old guard has died off or gone to nursing homes. Only a handful are left. The yuppies who move in stay until they find a mate or have a second baby, and then they move on. And the rent goes up again. The apartment next door to me—directly above that first apartment—is vacant. I’ve been watching—and hearing—them sand floors and paint and renovate. The building staff swear they’re not told the rent, but I pounced on a couple of prospective tenants looking it over and asked how much it was going for. My old $120 nest now rents for $2,800 a month.

I’ve been thinking of throwing a party. I’ve thought about sticking a sign up in the elevator or the lobby: “Forty years in the building—time to meet the neighbors.” New Yorkers guard their personal space fiercely. Down the hall from me, the ladies in the D and E apartments, whose doors faced each other, used to chat in their bathrobes and curlers as if the narrow hall were a backyard fence. I don’t think they ever entered each other’s homes.

I say hello to the more longstanding residents in the elevator and on the street. But we never invite them in, nor they us. I probably know more of the building’s dogs by name than the newer tenants. Harry, the aging Sharpei with his worried wrinkly face, is everybody’s favorite. Maybe he’s worrying about the rent going up again and where we’ll all live if they manage to kill rent regulation altogether. Not in Manhattan, I’m afraid.

In the meantime, I love my building with its thick walls and ceilings. Barring the occasional loud party or especially vituperative marital squabble, the only neighbor I’ve heard in forty years was Marmaduke, the Great Dane in the apartment directly overhead. Until we met him, we hated our unseen noisy neighbors. We thought they must be moving furniture every night. But once we knew, our rancor melted: we understood that a Great Dane plays whenever he wants to.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Genre Identity Confusion

Sandra Parshall

You’d think writers, of all people, would be able to define what it is they’re writing. In the crime fiction world, though, we have so many subgenres and offshoots and blendings that even the authors are confused at times.

Is it “traditional” or is it “cozy” – or are the two terms interchangeable? Is it woo woo, with a psychic sleuth? Or chick lit, with a man-crazy heroine? Is it a pet cozy with talking and crime-solving cats and dogs? Is it a culinary mystery, with recipes and entertaining tips thrown in among the bodies? A knitting cozy, a bookseller cozy, a scrapbooking cozy? The variations are endless. The traditional/cozy label usually applies to an amateur sleuth story, but even mysteries featuring police detectives may be called cozies if the tone and content are mild enough. M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series is a good example.

I was surprised when The Heat of the Moon was nominated for an Agatha Award, and even more startled when it won, because I had always thought the book was psychological suspense – and while it has plenty of domestic malice, there’s nothing “cozy” about it. I am told, though, that it meets the criteria for traditional mystery, so I tend to think traditional and cozy are different subgenres.

Procedural mysteries occupy their own category, and these days the label covers not only novels featuring police detectives and FBI agents but also investigative journalists and prosecuting attorneys. I was a little startled the first time I read a review that described a book as a “journalist procedural” but I’ve grown used to it.

The polar opposite of the cozy is noir mystery. As the name suggests, this kind of story is dark in every way and takes a bleak attitude toward humanity and the world. A happy ending should never be expected. But it’s still a mystery: a crime has been committed and a sleuth sets out to solve it.

If it’s not a straight mystery, is it “suspense” or is it a “thriller” – and once you’ve decided that, which sub-subgenre does it fall into? Romantic suspense? Psychological suspense? A psychic, political, international, medical, legal or eco thriller? The ever-popular gory-beyond-belief serial killer thriller? Or perhaps it’s a supernatural thriller, which until recently would have been labeled horror and given no space whatever under the crime fiction umbrella.

I’ve always believed that a mystery was a story driven by the effort to solve a crime, and a thriller was driven by danger and the effort to prevent something awful from happening. But the old definitions don’t hold up anymore. Many authors now borrow elements from two or three subgenres and combine them, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, in a single book.

Everyone seems to be clambering onto the suspense/thriller bandwagon. Look at the bestseller lists and you’ll see why: thrillers and suspense novels are the top sellers in crime fiction. Books that once would have been labeled police procedural mysteries now appear with “A Novel of Suspense” on the cover below the title – even if the stories are clearly mysteries, with detectives plodding through interviews and gathering clues and eventually catching the killer. That’s just false advertising and it probably irritates a lot of readers. What we see more often these days are traditional mysteries being amped up with additional murders (remember when one murder was enough to drive a whole book?), threats to the protagonists, crude language, and a dash of sex.

What’s happening here? Television and films are, undeniably, influencing the way novels are written. Some readers flee from the violent, fast-paced content of movies and TV shows and seek refuge in super-cozy books with cats that solve crimes and murders that rarely leave a bloodstain, much less a lingering nasty odor. But many more readers seem to want novels to keep up with filmed entertainment. More forensic evidence, please: we see it on CSI, and we’ve begun to believe no crime story is complete without a generous dose of it. More blood and agony: we’ve watched The Sopranos and we know people are seldom murdered gently.

I’m not complaining. I can enjoy a talking, crime-solving cat occasionally – although I am profoundly grateful that my own Emma and Gabriel can’t talk and have no interest in the activities of humans beyond our talent for opening cans -- but on the whole I think the trend toward realism is a good thing. The role of forensics in solving real killings is less important than TV would have us believe, but murder is a brutal, world-altering act and I appreciate writers who acknowledge that. Blood on the page serves as a reality check.

Cozies will probably always have a place on the bookshelf for readers seeking escape and relaxation, but people are so aware of crime these days, they see so much of it on the news and in entertainment, that non-cozy novelists will inevitably be forced to portray it realistically in fiction. At the same time, the fast pace of movies and TV pushes novelists to provide the same quick shocks and thrills to readers.

At some point we may have to drop most of the confusing labels on crime fiction and use only two: cozy mystery and... what? Suspense? Thriller? Some completely new term? What will we call our books when all the barriers between subgenres have come down?

POP QUIZ! Quickly – don’t stop to mull it over – how would you label these books?

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy

City of Bones by Michael Connelly

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Double Indemnity

Sharon Wildwind

No, this blog isn’t about the 1944 noir movie, which starred Fred McMurray, Barbara Stanwick, and Edward G. Robinson, but rather about a discussion that surfaced this week on one of the mystery lists.

The rumor is out there that to survive in the mystery genre, publishers will expect the average writer to finish at least two books a year. As I said, it’s a rumor, but what I found most interesting—and a little scary—is that when the rumor came up, the first responders didn’t laugh themselves silly.

In fact, they agreed. Said they had friends who were already laboring under this requirement or had heard other mystery writers say that their publisher was leaning in this direction.

It is possible to do two books a year.

Word goal: 90,000 (the average mystery these days)

Page goal: 360 (assuming the usual 250 words per page)

Scene goal: 30 (assuming 12 pages/scene. Your mileage may differ.)

By writing only 6 pages (1/2 scene) every day, an author can turn out the first draft in about 9 weeks.

Since each subsequent draft should take about half the time of the previous draft:
Second draft: finished 4 1/2 weeks later
Third draft: finished 2+ weeks after that
Fourth and final draft: finished 1 week later, and ready to go to the publisher

So for four drafts, let’s say 16 to 17 weeks of working 6-8 hours per day, every day will produced a finished book. That gives the author a generous margin of about 9 to 10 weeks for real life to happen. Real life being, of course, the need to research the book; allowing for computer failures; finding an agent and publisher; publicizing the books already in print; probably having a day job; and taking care of self, family, friends, and pets. Then we’re at week 26, and it’s time to start the process over again for the second book.

By now you’re either laughing yourself silly or are in danger of throwing a blunt instrument through your computer screen. Let me tell you that I first learned that formula several years ago from a romance writer who said that she knew of a publisher where this was the expectation.

I tried to follow the formula, and I couldn’t do it. The best I’ve ever done on a book is 11 months, start to finish, and that was cheating a little because (1) I’d already done most of the research and (2) the book never sold. On average, it takes me 12 to 13 months to finish a book, and I think I’m doing darn good by doing it in that length of time.

So, if you had to write two books in a year, how would you do it?

This week I’m using one of my own favorite quotes:

You can’t knead bread dough or writing into submission. ~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer

Monday, December 17, 2007

On Snow and Good Writing

by Julia Buckley
Well, everyone from the Midwest to the Northeast has felt the brunt of this latest snowstorm, and naturally, we all want to talk about the weather! But I've been enjoying literature, too, and pulling out some of my favorite poets' words about snow and winter. I set a mystery in winter once, and there is a special poetry about that season. For example:


Stars over snow,
and in the west a planet
Swinging below a star--
Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
It is not far--
It never will be far.

That is one of my ALL TIME favorites by Sara Teasdale. Now compare it to Lilian Moore's "Winter Dark."

Winter dark comes early
mixing afternoon
and night.
there's a comma of a moon,

and each street light
along the
puts its period
to the end of the day.

a neon sign
punctuates the
dark with a bright blinking
exclamation mark!

And finally, a Japanese poem, unattributed, but printed in Winter Poems by Barbara Rogasky:


The moon hangs up at night;
Her beams are cold and bright;
Seeing her shadow low
The water's frozen now.

Enjoy the beautiful words and the beautiful frozen weather! It's a great time for all of us to stay in and do a bit of writing. :)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

It's that time of year???

By Lonnie Cruse

The Holiday Season. Shopping. Parties. Family and Friends. Cookies. Fudge. Decorating. Fighting the Cold Weather. Fighting the Cold in Your Nose. Fighting the Crowds. Wrapping. Baking. Cooking. EATING.

Writing? When??? Tough time of year for writers. If you are writing a manuscript, when do you find time? How do you find the concentration? How can you write the tough, gritty scenes, the tear-jerking scenes, when all around you are celebrating and enjoying the season?

Or you've written a manuscript but you can't submit it anywhere now because most agents, editors, or publishers take December off to, um, enjoy the season. How do you handle that? Even the printers take time off, so getting books for your events in December can be tricky. And even though books are a popular gift, sales do tend to drop off around now. Sigh.

What if, like me, you have a book coming out this month? How do you promote it, write another, and do all the seasonal stuff? It isn't easy. And it's not a lot of fun.

To date, I've written not a word since, uh, well, I can't remember when. Not a syllable on the next book. I'm soooo far behind, I'm ahead. Well, I did get a manuscript critiqued, polished, and ready for submission early next year (eeeek, can next year really be less than 30 days away???) But I'm not writing. Or promoting my series in print. I'm promoting the daylights out of my new book that came out this week, Fifty-Seven Heaven. Crossing my fingers and praying that it sells well. But I'm not writing. Well, not on paper.

So what's my point. I have one around here somewhere. Let me look . . . oh, there it is.

The holiday season is tough on writers. Did I mention that already? Tough to focus. Tough to hang in there. But we do hang in there, and eventually we focus again. And we write again. I said I wasn't writing, not on paper. But I'm writing in my head. Laying the story out. So when I'm done overdosing on peanut butter fudge and sugar cookies, I can come out of my stupor and write the story. I've already hit one snag in my head, trying to figure out how I can have my amateur sleuth call the cops without having her meet with the law enforcement character from my other series (both are set in the same town.) I know some authors have their characters from separate series meet to solve crimes together. Mine refuse to work together. Puts them in a snit if I even contemplate it. So I'm working that out. Meanwhile, I think I'll have another chocolate covered pretzel and think some more.

Anyone else having this problem? If so, how are you handling it? Sugar overloaded minds want to know.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In Praise of Libraries

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was very disappointed to learn recently that my local branch of the New York Public Library, the St. Agnes Branch on the Upper West Side, is closed for renovation for the next two years. I had gotten out of the library habit—ordering books online is so easy, and schmoozing with booksellers, especially mystery booksellers, so much fun—but I’d planned to get back in. I not only have a new library card, complete with bar code and pin number, but I’ve even been carrying the mini version of my library card on my key chain. I had a date with myself to try the 21st century method of ordering the books I want online and picking them up at my local branch. So now I’ll have to work a little harder than I hoped at getting library books home.

When I was a kid, my father used to take my sister and me to the library. I lived in Queens, halfway between Flushing and Jamaica. Come to think of it, when I was very young, the nearest branch of the Queensborough Public Library was in Flushing, a bus ride away. Eventually, they built a branch within walking distance, around the back of the bank where I had my very first savings account. But before that, we took the bus. That and going to the movies were my father’s two allotted parenting tasks. We were each allowed to take home seven books. Sometimes, my father went to the library alone. When he came back, if you asked him, “What did you get?” he always said, “Seven books.” They were usually novels. My parents’ house was filled with books, but most of them seemed pretty boring. Some of them sat there for fifty years without once tempting me to read them. Buying novels was considered an extravagance. Why bother, when you could get them from the library?

In those days, as far as I know, libraries didn’t sell off their books. If you’d taken them out and read them, you could count on finding them when you wanted to read them again. The two children’s books I took out most frequently and remember most vividly were a book of Russian fairy tales and a collection of biographies. The fairy tales—folk tales would probably be a more accurate term—always had a hero named Prince Ivan and a princess named Vassilisa. The villain was usually the witch Baba Yaga, who had a magic cauldron and lived in the woods in a hut that stood on giant chicken legs. The legs allowed the hut to move around, and I think it could fly as well.

The biographies were about a different kind of hero (and a heroine or two): Marie and Pierre Curie, Livingston and Stanley, Sun Yat Sen, and Ghandi, among others. I still remember all sorts of details from those biographies. Did you know that Ghandi’s first name was Mohandas? And that he was married, by parental arrangement, at 13? In a discussion of how they don’t make copy editors the way they used to, Ruth Cavin, my editor at St. Martin’s, told me about what she considered the worst copy editorial faux pas that had come her way: a manuscript made a reference to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, and the copy editor didn’t understand why the character needed medical care. (“What kind of doctor was he?”) Thanks to my childhood reading from the library, I got the point.

As of September 2007, the American Library Association had 64,979 members. That’s a lot of librarians. Rosemary Harris, who is organizing an expedition to the January ALA meeting in Philadelphia for members of Mystery Writers of America/ New York, said recently, “You never know where a librarian may be lurking.” I agree. Librarians founded the great mystery e-list DorothyL. There are loads of them on MySpace. My brother-in-law in Ohio is a librarian. Librarians have my enthusiastic vote of thanks for keeping readers reading—and writers writing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A New Voice: Ken Isaacson

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

In Ken Isaacson's first novel, Silent Counsel, a child is killed by a driver who invokes attorney-client privilege to prevent his lawyer from revealing his identity until a satisfactory plea agreement is reached. The prosecutor refuses to deal and the child’s mother turns her wrath on the defense lawyer as she tries to discover who killed her little boy. Kirkus Reviews called Silent Counsel, which was inspired by a real case, “a complex story [with a] heart-pounding climax.” Ken has practiced law for 25 years, first as a member of a major Wall Street firm and now as in-house general counsel to an international transportation company. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, and four cats.

SP: Why did you decide to write about a mother who lost a child, rather than a father? Do you think the story would be very different with a male character?

KI: Wow…no one’s ever asked me that before. And now that I think about it, I
can’t say that I ever made a decision to write about a mother rather than a father—it never occurred to me that the story would be anything other than from the mother’s point of view.

I think the story would have a different feel if it had been done otherwise. In Silent Counsel, Ben’s parents, Stacy and Marc, drift apart following their son’s death, mainly because they have different ways of coping with the terrible hit-and-run that tore their lives apart. Stacy becomes obsessed with finding the person responsible, while Marc is determined to grieve in his own way, but then try to move on. And Stacy wonders whether a father could ever understand the depth of the biological bond between mother and child that makes his solution impossible for her to accept. I think it’s that bond that drives the story, and if it were told from the father’s point of view, that element would be missing.

Of course, that’s not to diminish the loss suffered by a father in such a situation.
I can tell you that when I first conceived the story, my oldest son was about six years old (the age of Ben Altman in Silent Counsel), and writing about losing a child was certainly an emotional experience.

SP: On the same subject, a perennial question on writers’ listservs is whether men and women can write convincingly from the POV of the opposite gender. Were you completely comfortable writing about a woman’s experiences, or did you ask your wife or other female readers for their opinions and insights?

KI: I’ve watched some of those threads online, most recently on DorothyL, and was amused by some of the perceived telltales that expose men writing women or vice versa.

For my part—and probably because I didn’t know any better—I did feel comfortable writing from Stacy’s POV. Again, I had small children of my own, and it was easy to find much of the emotion within myself. But my wife was my early reader, and I did rely on her to let me know if things rang true or not—not only with Stacy’s POV, but with the story in general. And there are a number of changes that I made as a result of her insight—the most significant of which was to re-write the whole dang story from the ground up. Initially, the focal character was the mother, Stacy, with the attorney, Scott Heller, playing a more or less supporting role. Without giving too much of the story away, Sylvia felt that Stacy didn’t make a terribly sympathetic character to be cast in the main spotlight. So I went back to page one, and re-wrote the entire story, shifting the focus to Scott, the lawyer. (Can you believe it? A lawyer as a sympathetic character! Go know.)

Of course, my wife enjoys pointing out that I seemed to accept her suggestions only after one or two other early readers made the same observations. “Oh, you were waiting for someone else to tell you that too?”

Ah, well. Isn’t that how men and women communicate?

SP: A lot of people don’t realize how specialized the practice of law is – they figure every lawyer knows everything about all aspects of law. Were you, as a civil attorney, well-versed in criminal law when you began writing this book, or did you have to brush up on some points?

KI: You’re right. The practice of law is extremely specialized. I’m not particularly well-versed in criminal law at all—I took the required introductory course in my first year of law school, which was quite some time ago, and really haven’t had any exposure to it during my career.

But so much of the law is always evolving and is ever-changing—even the narrow areas that individual lawyers carve out as their specialties. So even if I were to have written a story revolving around my own specialty (uh, if you give me a few minutes, I’ll be able to figure out what that specialty is…) I’d have had to do some legal research.

That’s the thing about the practice of law. You don’t really learn “everything there is to know” about a particular subject. You learn the questions to ask, and where to look for the answers. It’s a constant game of “what if,” which makes it a great background for novel writing.

Did I have to do some brushing up on the legal issues found in Silent Counsel? Yes, I did. For example, I didn’t have a clue about the distinction between manslaughter and aggravated manslaughter, or what the range of penalties for each was. I didn’t know how a county prosecutor’s office was structured, or how cases were assigned to individual assistant prosecutors. And I had to do quite a bit of research into the intricacies of the attorney-client privilege. The list of what I didn’t know is actually pretty long.

One of the things I’ve come to learn is that experts are quite willing to share their knowledge if you simply admit to them (1) you don’t know jack, and (2) you appreciate the opportunity to learn from them.

SP: More and more writers are being published for the first time in middle age (or older). Do you think you’re a better writer now than you would have been at 25 or 30? What do you bring to your writing now that you would have been lacking when you were younger?

KI: Middle age, huh? [sighs] I suppose you’re right.

I guess age has given me an advantage that I lacked in earlier years. For one thing, I’ve certainly read a lot more now than I had by the time I was in my 20s, so I feel I have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, from a readers perspective. Things like pacing, rhythm, switching POV, and the like.

In addition, I’ve been a lawyer for almost thirty years. As a lawyer, I write for a living. Granted, it’s a different kind of writing—although a lot of cynics would say that lawyers write fiction for a living—but I have to believe that years of brief and memo writing have helped me to be able to formulate ideas and points of view and then convey them to a reader. That’s gotta count for something.

In fact, when I first sat down to begin writing Silent Counsel, I didn’t have a clue how to proceed, so I decided to approach the task as I did a legal case. I remembered an instructor in one of my continuing legal education classes advising of the importance of developing a theme for your case. “A case without a theme is just a bunch of testimony,” I’d been told. “A car crash doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s a tragedy that involves real people and real consequences.” Cloaking your case with a theme gives jurors a reason to stay interested and alert: “This case is not just about young Will being injured when the buckling mechanism on his infant seat came loose. It’s about the kind of corporate greed that places the cost of recalling a defective product and the benefit of saving a child’s life on opposite ends of a scale—and tips that scale against the child.” Now, with that theme in the jury’s mind, otherwise dry testimony about how this strap connects to that latch may be, if not interesting, at least a little more bearable. There’s a reason to care.

The difference I was faced with when setting out to write a novel was that in the context of a legal case, I start—necessarily—with the facts as they’re presented to me. I search for a theme that relates well to those facts and exerts the right amount of emotional pull to grab hold of the jury. Writing a novel, though, allows the reverse. When I started, the page was, of course, quite literally blank. There were no facts, only an idea: What if the attorney representing a hit-and-run driver couldn’t reveal his client’s name because the court held it was privileged information? With that premise in mind, I began constructing facts: I decided that the victim of the driver had to be a child, because readers (my jury) would care more about this arcane legal issue if the attorney-client privilege was being used to shield someone responsible for a youngster’s death.

I knew that the lawyer in my story would face a difficult ethical dilemma—needing to protect the confidences of a client while feeling that the “right” thing to do would be to help the grieving mother. Because I had never faced such a challenge, I decided my lawyer should (like me) be unaccustomed to criminal practice and protecting the rights of the guilty. I made him a corporate litigator handling a “quick referral” for a friend—just a matter of making a few phone calls to the prosecutor to see if a deal could be made. This way, in the process of writing, I could experience the doubts and misgivings of my protagonist as he did, for the first time. And, I decided that my lawyer should have a young child of his own, so the conflict he felt between duty and right would strike close to home.

From this germ of an idea, and these few basic facts, emerged competing themes: Silent Counsel would be about a lawyer’s struggle with his personal beliefs when confronted with the fundamental need for secrecy between client and attorney. It also would be about a mother’s frustration and rage at a system that places more value on a legal technicality than bringing the killer of her six-year-old boy to justice.

Once this theme was established in my mind, I began “filling in the facts.”

Like I said, when I decided to try my hand at a novel, I didn’t have a clue how to proceed, and I therefore drew on my experience as a lawyer constructing a case. I suppose that had I set out to write without having years of lawyering behind me, I would have really been lost!

SP: How has publication changed your life? Has anything about the process surprised or disappointed you?

KI: You mean like how, before Silent Counsel was published, I had no free time, and now, since publication, I really have no free time?

Seriously, the biggest—and perhaps most surprising—change for me seems to be the enormous amount of time that must go into promotion. It began in the months leading up to the release, establishing a presence on the web and planning a tour, and it continues virtually unabated three months after the launch. I’ve done about forty signings, about ten radio or TV interviews, and a number of conventions, books shows, and panel presentations, across the country.

Once the Christmas season passes, I expect that frenetic pace to slow some, but I’m learning that it sure is a lot of hard work. I always knew that things didn’t end when the book hit the shelves, but I really did not realize the amount of time and effort that would be required.

I’m certainly not complaining! I genuinely enjoy getting out there. The challenge is time management. What comes to mind is something that Stephen Covey wrote about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People regarding the proper “P/PC” balance—that is, the balance between production and production capability. Too much writing, without promotion, doesn’t get you very far; by the same token, too much promotion, without writing anything to promote, isn’t very good either. Achieving the right balance is the key.

SP: Were you active in MWA before you were published? How do you believe mystery organizations benefit the unpublished and newly published members?

KI: I became active in MWA well before I was published—I joined a few months after I finished the first draft of Silent Counsel. And I believe it was one of the best moves I made.

I had completed the manuscript, and I looked at the pile of paper in front of me and said, “OK. Now what?” I had absolutely no idea what to do to get it into print. Always up for a challenge, I looked around in the bookstores for newly-published legal thrillers by first-time authors, and I reached out to a number of them for guidance. Everyone I contacted was willing to share their experiences with me, and one suggested I join MWA.

I did, and I’m glad. Those of the members who are published authors run the gamut from well-known, accomplished bestsellers to midlist authors to newly-published authors struggling for name recognition. One thing they all have in common is a passion for what they do, and a willingness to help those members not yet published. (OK, that’s two things.)

Now, the road to publication is a long and tortuous one, and can be discouraging at times. I found that becoming part of the MWA community—getting to know people who’ve made it, and people who were struggling to reach the same goals as I was—was invigorating. Every time I attended an MWA event, whether it was a monthly dinner meeting, a symposium, or the annual Edgars Banquet, I found that my determination to continue on was renewed—despite any recent rejection letters I might have gotten.

So, yes, I do feel that MWA (and no doubt for the same reasons, other mystery organizations) benefit the unpublished and newly-published members. And that’s without even getting into the substance of the various programs that the organization offers!

SP: Have you had a chance yet to learn which types of promotion work best and which are a waste of time and money? Do you find My Space useful – or is it impossible to tell whether something like that benefits a writer?

KI: Ahh, retailing pioneer John Wanamaker once said, “I know that half my advertising costs are wasted. But I can never figure out which half.” No doubt the same can be said about promotional efforts.

I don’t know that I’ve come across any types of promotion that I can specifically identify as a waste. As a newly-published author, starting with zero name recognition, as far as I’m concerned, anything that gets my name out there is worthwhile—whether or not the sale of a single book can be traced to it.

I’ve done my best to create a presence on the web. I have a website (, a MySpace page (, and a Crimespace page (www.Crimespace.ning.profile/KJIsaacson). I participate in online discussion groups such as DorothyL. I’ve toured, and since the beginning of September I’ve had almost fifty events, including bookstore signings, panel appearances, library discussions, and radio and TV interviews. With the exception of the bookstore signings—where there are hard numbers about sales—it’s impossible to measure the event’s success in terms of books sold. And even with bookstore signings, there are intangible benefits that go beyond the simple number of books sold.

I can only assume that my use of MySpace has been successful for me. About six months before Silent Counsel was due to be released, I established a MySpace page, as well as my website. Now, the problem with the website is that people have to actually know about it to be able to find it. And apart from my wife, my three sons, and my mother, there weren’t a whole lot of people who knew to click their way over to my website in the months before publication.
MySpace is a different story. I’m assuming you know how MySpace is structured, so suffice it to say that it’s not too difficult to develop a list of friends that are a ready audience for what you have to offer. And unlike your traditional website, which must attract traffic, if you “work” MySpace right, you can deliver your message to your audience.

Has MySpace helped sell Silent Counsel? As your question implies, it’s hard to say. I do know that in the weeks leading up to publication, Silent Counsel climbed to the number 2 spot on Amazon’s list of Hot New Releases in legal thrillers, and it’s maintained a position in the top 5 since then. The only thing I can think of attributing that pre-publication success (before I went on the road) to is a web presence, and my MySpace page was the centerpiece.

SP: What are your career goals? Do you think you’ll ever write full-time?

KI: I have a great day job. I left the private practice of law almost six years ago to become in-house general counsel to a corporation. I don’t miss my law firm days at all. For more than twenty years, I had to account for all of my time, every day, in six-minute intervals, so the billing could be done. And I had to worry about client development, finding new ones, and maintaining the existing ones. As general counsel, I have a single client, and no need to worry about billing or client development. I can just do my job. And the bonus is that because I have an office all to myself, I get to bring my dog to work with me!

I’m also a technology nut, so my office is virtually paperless—everything’s scanned into my computer, and synchronized with my laptop. So I can work from almost anywhere, which I’m often forced to because of the nature of the business. In fact, I often joke with the president of the company, telling him, “I’m not going on vacation next week…but I’ll be working from Breckenridge.” Or Long Beach Island, or wherever.

I have no present plans to give up the law. I also intend to keep on writing. I suppose if I had to guess which one I’d end up doing longer, I’d say that I’ll probably end up retiring from the law before I’ll stop writing.

SP: What advice do you have for aspiring mystery writers?

KI: The best single piece of advice I can think of is one word: WRITE!
What I mean by this is that we too often get caught up in the planning. We think of good ideas, we research, we outline…we seem to do everything except put pen to paper. I’m not suggesting that anyone skip the necessary preliminary stages (though we could have a spirited discussion about outlining, and whether and to what extent it’s necessary), but don’t become paralyzed by the initial steps. Get yourself writing!

In addition, by all means join an organization like MWA. There are groups for nearly every genre and sub-genre you can think of: mysteries, thrillers, romances, you name it. Like I said in answer to one of your other questions, surrounding yourself with driven, like-minded people is invaluable—for inspiration, for support, and for knowledge.

Finally, persevere. Whether you aspire to have your work published, or you write because you just have to write, it’s a long and often discouraging road. But keep at it, and don’t give up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Formula One Racing

Sharon Wildwind

The question came up again last night at a Christmas party.

“Why do you write mysteries?”

The usual answers flitted through my head:
a) I don’t know.
b) Because I read a lot of mysteries.
c) Why not?

I think I mumbled something that was an amalgamation of those three answers. I was distracted by cheese dip at the time. In the car on the way home, I asked myself the question. Why do I write mysteries?

Maybe for the same reason that highly adventurous people cram themselves into tiny, low-slung cars and race around the closed streets of Monaco, in one of the world’s most expensive sports, Formula One racing. Only I get to get the same kind of thrill without using petrochemical products and contributing to global warming.

Formula One competitors depend on on-board electronics, their car’s aerodynamics, precision suspension systems that allow sliding sideways through narrow curves, and tires built to take the strain of speed, friction, and city pavement. Formula One is the only sport—as far as I know—that awards two grand champion trophies each year, one to the best driver and one for the best car construction. If it were up to me, I’d award a third trophy each year, to the person who designed the best closed-circuit course.

Of course, I have this very strong prejudice. I’d award the course trophy every year to Monaco. I mean, how could anything compete with coming into that impossibly tight hairpin curve in front of the Grand Hotel, whose balconies are filled with suave men and gorgeous women? Of course, there is Singapore’s new night course: Formula One meets street racing. That has possibilities.

Face it, we mystery writers run on a closed track. When mystery equals murder, as it does most of the time, we all know the genre conventions. A body, the detective committing to finding the murderer, some clues, some suspects, life gets sticky, usually a second body, the detective vows to see justice done—which is quite different from wanting to solving the crime, more clues, life gets stickier, the joy ride down the funnel, life gets stickiest, the moment of revelation/danger, the end.

So the real answer to Why do I write mysteries? is vowing to see justice done. I really love writing and reading that Man of LaMancha moment of intense personal commitment. Imagine Richard Kiley belting out, “To be better far than you are.”

For me, that’s the Grand Hotel hairpin curve of the story, made all the more wonderful because it’s played out, not before balconies of beautiful people, but in the heart. Evil won’t win, not if the protagonist has anything to say about it. But there will be a cost to facing evil. By this point in the story, the protagonist knows that. And goes ahead anyway.

So the next time I’m at a party, and someone asks me why I write mysteries, I’ll probably mumble the same inane reasons that I did last night. Or maybe I’ll say something about Formula One racing and the hairpin curve at Monaco. Somehow, I don’t think I could pull off discussing courage, sacrifice and intense personal commitment over the cheese tray. That’s much better left for the cold clarity of the morning after.

Writing quote for the week:

All combat takes place at night, in the rain, and at the junction of four map segments.
~Conrad Breen, in the movie Wag the Dog

Monday, December 10, 2007

MW Mystery Writers' Christmas Feast

by Julia Buckley
I spent Sunday afternoon at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, where the wonderful Julie Hyzy had planned a lavish Christmas party for the MWMWA (that's the Midwest Mystery Writers Of America). We weren't all there, and we missed the members who couldn't make it, but we had quite a turn-out and a great deal of fun. First, allow me to identify some people, for those of you who keep track of your MWMWs. :)

(Standing, from left to right: Ted Hertel (President); Julia Buckley; Michael Allen Dymmoch (Secretary); Julie Hyzy (Vice President); Naomi Smith; Jonathan Quist (Treasurer); Amy Alessio; Annie Chernow; Elizabeth Nelson; Robert Goldsborough; Harriette Gillem Robinet; Michael A. Black. Kneeling, from L to R: Tom Keevers; Raymond Benson; Luisa Buehler; Kathryn Moran. And that's Libby Hellmann sort of crouching between the two rows. :)

I told my husband that I wanted to start my diet BEFORE New Year's, just so I wouldn't have the pressure of a New Year's Resolution. But then Julie presented us with this buffet:
and I munched my way into a non-diet level of ingestion. Tomorrow, for sure . . .

Julie also planned for us to play Pictionary/Charades using the titles of mystery novels. Libby Hellmann and Ted Hertel proved very adept as members of Team Two (our foes), but in the end we tied and there was peace in the valley.

It was a great way for people who like writing and reading mysteries to celebrate the holidays together.

And thus, the parties have begun. How have you been celebrating December? Is anyone reading Christmas mysteries?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Major Talents at Small Presses

Troy Cook (Guest blogger)

Our guest is a reformed filmmaker who decided, after working on 80 movies, that he’d rather write novels. His first crime novel, 47 Rules of Highly
Effective Bank Robbers, was nominated for major mystery awards. His second, The One Minute Assassin, was released this fall.

Troy Cook here, with a topic near and dear to my heart, the indy presses. In light of recent changes to the MWA guidelines for their list of approved publishers (which I won’t go into here), I wanted to take a moment to champion some of the wonderful companies that have been bringing us great books and new discoveries.
But why should we care about
the magnificent independent presses? We all love the big NY publishers and want to be published by them, so why do indy presses get me excited?

It probably starts with my background in independent filmmaking. In the film business 80% of all films are produced by the independents. Yes, a lot of them are crap, including plenty of the 80 films I made in my career. But it’s also where you discover the next great filmmakers of our time: Quentin Tarantino, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. These guys, with their crazy ideas about filmmaking, explored and created works of art in the independent world before being snatched up by the big guys.

I think it’s the same with big publishers as it is for the studios. Big publishers
are defined by their stockholder value, which makes it next to impossible for them to take too many risks. And every new author is a risk. That’s where the independent presses come in. They can take a chance on a new author because they don’t need huge sales numbers to be profitable. They can grow an author from scratch all the way to big sales.

Of course, then the NY pubs swoop in and lead the author to bigger and better distribution and sales. Which is pretty cool.

Will this happen to me? To you? It remains to be seen, but it is possible to make a splash even when you’re with a small press. My debut mystery picked up rave national reviews and won multiple awards, garnering interest from a big NY pub, selling out its print run, and landing me a film deal. So I think it’s plausible.

A couple of examples of the small press rags to riches story are Sean Doolittle and Victor Gischler. Well…rags to riches might be a stretch since very few authors get to the riches stage. But these guys were with a cool small press called Uglytown, with good sales, and eventually got snatched up by Bantam/Dell. One day, I hope to follow in their footsteps.

Visit the author’s web site at

Friday, December 7, 2007

PDD re-interviews author Marcus Sakey, by Lonnie Cruse

My blog post today is an interview with author Marcus Sakey. You might remember that PDD interviewed Marcus before, but his book has since been contracted to be made into a movie, which makes other authors drool with envy. So we decided to invite him back and get the skinny on this exciting developement. Please grab your drool towels and check it out. And if you want more to drool over, check out Sakey's website, listed below. He's not too hard to look at.

PDD: We understand that LivePlanet, the production company owned by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon just purchased movie rights to your book, THE BLADE ITSELF. Congratulations! Did you or your agent go after that sale, or did they come to you?

MS: Thanks! I'm thrilled about it. Credit mostly goes to my film agent, Sarah Self, who worked hard to get the novel to production companies she felt were a good fit. We're both fans of LivePlanet, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's production company, so it's a real pleasure that the book landed there. They did an amazing job adapting Dennis Lehane's GONE BABY GONE, and the same team is slated to work on mine.

PDD: Do you know if either or both of these fine actors will star in the movie? Or are they only interested in producing it? And any chance YOU will appear in the movie?

MS: No idea at all. I'd certainly be thrilled if they did, or if Ben chose to direct--his work on GONE BABY GONE really impressed me. But it's all in their hands now, so other than saying I have great confidence in their judgment, I don't have much to offer.

As for me cameoing, I would love to. There's a scene where a bystander gets killed by having his his throat key-punched--I'm hoping to play the role of the corpse.

PDD: Hehehe, we're sure you'd do a convincing job. Let us know if you get the part. For those who might not know, tell us a bit about what happens when a production company buys the rights to your book. Envious minds want to know!

MS: It's very much a work in progress right now, so I can only tell you as far as I know. Basically, they buy the exclusive option to make a movie, which isn't the same thing as a decision to actually make it. But as they already have a studio, Miramax, on-board, the odds look better.

The first step, after the champagne-popping on my end, is for them to hire a screenwriter to adapt the novel. They've tapped Aaron Stockard, who co-wrote GBG with Affleck. Of course, with the strike, everything is sort of brought to a halt. Hopefully it will be resolved equitably for everybody soon.

Anyway, as I understand it, after that they start trying to attach actors, finalize questions of direction and producing, and if all the stars align, go forward with the film.
PDD: Will you have any voice in the screen play and/or the making of this movie? Or is it all out of your hands?

MS: The folks at LivePlanet have been very generous about including me in the early discussions, and Aaron and I chat by email, so as we move forward I hope to be involved in a very peripheral, support kind of way. But it's largely out of my hands.

Which is a good thing. I think it's a mistake to believe that writing a novel qualifies you to write a movie. I'd rather sign with a crew of people I trust and just let them have it, be able to focus on the next book.

PDD: Tell us a bit about the book, THE BLADE ITSELF. And where readers can get a copy before the movie comes out.

MS: THE BLADE ITSELF is the story of two blue-collar kids and small-time criminals on the South Side of Chicago who one night undertake a robbery that goes desperately wrong. One of them lands in maximum security; the other escapes, and reinvents a new life for himself. But seven years later, his old life comes to visit.

I've been really fortunate critically; it was selected a New York Times Editor's Pick, featured on CBS and NPR, and recently named "One of the Year's 5 Best Reads" by Esquire Magazine. The paperback just came out, which is kind of a thrill for me.

PDD: Wow, a thrill indeed! What inspired you to write the book?

MS: Crushing poverty?

Jokes aside, I always knew I wanted to write. But the seed for this story itself came as I was walking home one day, down the nice street that led to my nice apartment I share with my nice wife. And it hit me suddenly that all of these things could be taken from me--that, in other words, the things we love make us vulnerable. And wham!, I had a conflict and the beginnings of an idea.

PDD: Wow, great begining! How did you find your agent and/or publisher?

MS: Pretty much the old-fashioned way. I queried a whole bunch of agents, got a stack of rejections, and eventually found the right guy, Scott Miller of Trident Media Group. For any interested folks, I've got a pretty detailed article on how to write a query letter and find an agent on my website (link to A lot of people helped me while I was getting started, so I like to share what I've learned about the process where I can.

PDD: Sounds like a great help to authors! What's next on your writing horizon?

MS: My second book, AT THE CITY'S EDGE, comes out January 22nd. It's the story of a discharged soldier who returns from Iraq to find a similar war raging in his Chicago neighborhood. It features corruption and politics and gang warfare and love and redemption and car chases and gun fights and Roman history, all the good stuff. I'm excited about it--I think I've really grown as a writer, and besides, it's just fun to have something new to talk about.

PDD: Sounds like it has something for everyone! Anything else you'd like to tell us about the process of moving your book from paper print to on the screen?

MS: As yet, the process has involved no Thai hookers, leggy models with bedroom eyes. But I'm maintaining hope.

PDD: Thanks, Marcus. Please keep us updated!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

How Times Can Change While You Write Your Mystery

Elizabeth Zelvin

I found a terrible blooper on page 2 of the galley proofs of Death Will Get You Sober, which my publisher sent for my review with a stern warning that if changes were more than minor, I might have to pay for them myself. The offending passage occurred in the first scene, when Bruce, my protagonist, wakes up in a detox ward on the Bowery on Christmas Day without a clue as to how he got there, thanks to the alcoholic blackout that followed the last he can remember. The guy in the next bed is smoking. A nun appears, asks Bruce how he’s feeling, and offers him a cigarette. What’s wrong with this picture?

When I first went down to the Bowery as a counseling intern in 1983, back before the last flophouses were replaced by fern bars, it was okay to smoke in detox. The unshockable nun in my story, at least in the first scene, was loosely based on a real-life nun whose trick for bridging the empathic gap between her and the alienated and defeated men some people still called “Bowery bums” was always to carry a pack of cigarettes that she could whip out and offer as a way to connect.

I thought up the title and wrote the first 2000 words of Death Will Get You Sober so long ago that I can’t remember how long it’s been, certainly more than ten years. I didn’t write the rest until after my second sojourn on the Bowery, where I ran an alcohol outpatient program from 1993 to 1999. Times had already changed considerably. The notorious men’s shelter, with its smoky lobby teeming with edgy humanity and its history of mayhem on the stairs and drug deals on the street outside, had been renovated and transformed into a well regulated social service agency. By the time I left, the fern bars had already started taking over.

I took out the manuscript and finished the first draft in 2002. In the next five years, while looking for an agent and a publisher and writing the next three in the series, I revised it many times. I condensed the first scene as I learned more about the craft of cutting backstory and getting to the first body. I deleted a couple of adverbs along the way. But it never occurred to me to tinker with that first exchange between Bruce, the smoker in the next bed, and the nun. Nor did my editor or the copy editor who reviewed the manuscript question it. Yet when I saw it in print for the first time, the problem leaped out at me. Readers in April 2008, when the book finally comes out, will know perfectly well that patients aren’t allowed to smoke in bed. I had to find another way for the nun to make her entrance.

Smoking’s not the only thing I’ve had to change in the course of writing the book and getting it to publication. The Bowery material in the book had its genesis in notes I took as an intern in 1983. One young black patient (not yet called African American) with whom I worked wore his baseball cap backwards. My comment: “An individualist!” That found its way into the first draft—and had to be deleted after a whole generation started wearing their baseball caps with the bill sticking out behind. Then there was the joke about not knowing whether someone talking to himself on the street is a schizophrenic or merely using a cell phone. That’s no longer funny, since cellphonistas are now a fact of life and far more common than the mentally ill on the streets of New York.

One of Bruce’s sidekicks, Jimmy, is a computer wiz, a handy plot device to help my amateur sleuths get needed information. In the early versions, I had Jimmy laboriously explain to his girlfriend, Barbara, how to search for something on Google. Now “google” is a verb, and Barbara would be odd indeed if she didn’t know how to look up simple facts. Originally, my main characters didn’t have cell phones. That would have flown if I’d sold the manuscript in 2002 when I first finished it, or even in 2003, when I got my first agent. But it didn’t happen that way, and I had to give them cell phones to keep the book from seeming hopelessly dated.

Time keeps rushing on, and publication takes its own sweet time. Meanwhile, the Bowery keeps changing. When I first walked south past Fifth Street in 1983, I entered a different world. In my book, I wanted to convey the flavor of that world before it vanished completely. Well, it has. I recently attended an event at the Bowery Poetry Club, my first time in the area in several years. When I came up out of the subway and looked around, I was dismayed to find the whole neighborhood has been swallowed up by NoHo. It exudes a homogenized trendiness. No trace of the alcoholic’s Mecca remains. My editor dismissed my suggestion that I convey in some kind of note or foreword that I’ve telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery for purposes of the story. Now I just hope that readers aren’t turned off by a greater disconnect between history and reality that I could have dreamed that time would bring about.