Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seven Deadly Sins of Synopsis Writing

by Mary Buckham

Mary Buckham is a national speaker and mass market published author of award-winning books. She teaches online classes as well as live classes across the country. Her next book out is the highly anticipated Break Into Fiction: Plot Your Novel by Adams Media, a June 2009 release. Mary is currently working on a high-concept thriller based in the Pacific Northwest. Her website is or

St. Gregory the Great articulated the original Seven Deadly Sins--pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth--transgressions that caused the death not of the body but of the soul. Committing the Seven Deadly Synopsis Sins won't exactly doom your soul, but they might smash your chances at getting your manuscript a decent read in the hands of overworked and harried editors and agents.

I have had the pleasure of working with thousands of writers of all genres. I work with them one-on-one to review, analyze and tweak their synopses to make them the strongest selling tools possible. As a result, I've been able to see, from an editor/agent's perspective, what comes across their desks daily and why some synopses work and others don't.

All things being equal, editors and agents need, require, synopses to do two things:
1) show them that you have a cohesive plot worthy of their time and attention and
2) allow them to sell your story to editors [if in the hands of an agent] senior editors, the Marketing department, the Overseas acquisition editors, etc., etc.

Strong synopses showcase your characters, your plot and your ability to structure a story. If a synopsis sucks it makes it oh so easy for an agent or editor to pass on reading your manuscript.

The following Synopsis Sins--if eliminated--will not guarantee a sale, or even a full read, but the absence of them will make your synopsis, and thus you and your story, stand out in a crowded marketplace.

SIN 1) Too Many Proper Names to Track. You've lived with your characters for months or years in the writing of your mansucript. But to a cold reader, which is what an editor or agent is, they are simply proper names and do not give any information. Try and keep your proper names to a limit of three. Example: If I say Jim, Bill and Bob went to the grocery store--you have no image. If I say my husband, son and dog went to the store--you have a stronger image.
SIN 2) Too much detail. A synopsis is meant to show the structure--the plot of your story. Save the details for your manuscript. Anytime you are writing your synopsis and move your characters around on the page, or include fascinating bits of research or scene-specific minitia, or quoted dialogue--you are showing scene detail.
SIN 3) Making passive or past tense instead of active and present. Passive phrasing and past tense phrasing in a synopsis both have a purpose when used correctly, but when overused can 1) flatline your synopsis until it sounds like that homework report and 2) make an agent/editor wonder if whatever is being described on the page is back story or current story.
SIN 4) Not Finishing the Synopsis. Your synopsis doesn't really tell the end of your story because you want to keep the surprising twist or revalation a secret. Not a good idea.
SIN 5) Not using transitions to change POV or Time or Place. Because a synopsis is a snap shot of your whole book you lead an editor/agent through your story--or through different points of view over just a few pages. What can easily happen as you are shifting POV's, or shift in physical location or time passage--is you jar a reader out of your story. Every time you raise a question: But I thought the protagonist and villian were there instead of here, you risk losing your reader. Do this often enough and it's easy for them to put down your synopsis and your manuscript.
SIN 6) Not unfolding the synopsis as the story unfolds. Sin #6 falls closely on the heels of Sin #5--no transitions, because the lack of transitions is often covering up this all too common problem of jumping back and forth, from back story to currrent story, to the POV of a secondary character's back story, to what will happen at the end of the story, then back to the beginning. It's enough to make an editor/agent's head spin.
SIN 7) Raising questions in a synopsis in the wrong places. In our manuscripts we use questions to show internal thought. But in our synopses, because we are telling, NOT showing, we don't want to include external dialogue or internal dialogue. Both are scene detail and bog down a synopsis. Step away from the showing and summarize whatever it is you are indicating by your question. Instead of asking an editor what might happen-tell an editor what is happening.

Now what about you? Have you taken a quick look at your own synopses and found yourself guilty of any of the sins? Or if you aren't quite sure and want to get a cold read and feel comfortable posting a few sentences, feel free to do so. I'm here to answer questions, commiserate over what a pain synopsis writing is in general and perhaps offer some suggestions or tweaks that can take your own synopsis from the slush pile to stand out.

Friday, August 29, 2008


By Lonnie Cruse

This isn't a post about fiction. It's about real life. About taking a trip to a place so beautiful, it's hard to leave. Particularly when you're leaving one of your children behind, because grown up or not, he's still my baby.

We recently flew out of Nashville to LAX. I'd like to point out, in case you haven't flown lately, that NOTHING so quickly reduces a large group of people (young, old, rich, poor, happy, sad, whatever) to the same level as having to take off your shoes and walk several yards barefoot with a few hundred other people. Sigh. And the airport at LAX is MUCH stricter than the one at Nashville. Whew. But we got there and back. In one piece.

Santa Barbara, CA and the surrounding area is one of the most beautiful places I know. Our youngest son is lucky enough to live and work there. The mountains surrounding the area are almost close enough to the city to reach out and touch. I assumed they would be all black from the recent fire, but they looked reasonably normal.

Above, breakfast at one of our favorite places in Santa Barbara, the original Sambo's which opened in 1957. Stearns Wharf and the ocean are across the street. Right: Table for one? This bird perched at my feet to eat scraps.

OCEAN VIEWS: The ocean views are spectacular from any of the beaches. Below left, Goleta Beach. Right, another beach near Stearns Wharf, (note the man parasailing. I was really afraid the sail would get away from him) and below, my fave, an unnamed beach where the elephant seals hang out. Each seal is the size of a small car and they apparently spend a lot of time napping on the beach, growling at each other, or flipping warm sand onto their backs. This particular beach area is fenced off to protect both the seals and the curious humans who visit. The surf here was the highest we saw and I stood and stared for a good half hour without moving. Love this place.
FLOWERS IN BLOOM: We spent one whole day just enjoying the flowers that bloom year around there. Below: first two pictures are of our first stop, the Alice Keck Park in downtown Santa Barbara. Covering one square block, this park has a pond, creeks, ducks, and tons of blooming plants. Very restful spot in the middle of a big city. Then we visited the rose garden at the Santa Barbara Mission (below, center). Many of the rose bushes are the old fashioned kind that still have a wonderful scent. Heaven. Then off to the botanical garden (top right) where we walked for miles and miles. Still, worth the trip.

At Stearn Wharf some rather enterprising person placed a large bowl of water on a square of material atop the sand, with an invitation to toss money off the pier (ten feet above the bowl at this part of the peer.) Lots of people took shots at the bowl and a few missed (hence the material to keep the coins from sinking into the sand.) Not a bad way to make money. The ice cream shop at the other end of the wharf has great ice cream. Even the sea gulls agree.

Hearst Castle (2 hours or so north of SB) is huge and absolutely spectacular. If you are ever in the area, take a look. A bit expensive for the tour, but well worth the trip. That said, I wouldn't want to live there. Too big.

(Left pic, flowers at the castle, center, steps to main part of the castle, right, olympic size pool, Johnny Wiesmuller once swam there.)

Hubby and our son played golf at a course so high up in the hills surrounding Santa Barbara that you can see the ocean in the distance. Which was lovely except for riding along as a spectator whenever hubby decided to shoot down (or up) a steep hill in the golf cart. Think lift-off in the space shuttle.

For more flowers with animals thrown in, the Santa Barbara Zoo is the place to go. Just make sure to go in the morning. Afternoon is nap time (theirs and mine) and it's hard to see the animals that way.

I was able to spend a day with my high school buddy, Sandy. I'm too far away from Las Vegas to make our high school reunion, so this was nearly as good. She updates me on other class mates and we share old memories, like her being with me the night I met my husband, a poor lonely airman, far away from home. Okay, he played the part well. Worked for me. Heheh.

Entering California at ANY part is like entering a different world from the mid-west. Lovely experience. Still, I love living here. But a visit now and then to see the sights, and more important, our son, is a must. Below: me golfing at a three par course which is more my speed.

IF you've never been to that part of the country, give some thought to taking a trip to the coast of California. The ocean view alone is worth the trip.

(Right: downtown Santa Barbara where you will see all sorts of travel methods, scates, scate boards, bicycles, cars, pedestrians, and my fave, something called a Segue, which is made up of two wheels with a post in the center upon which one can whip up and down the street.) Far too scary for me. I'd rather walk. They move so fast I wasn't able to get a picture but if you look close, you will see a bicycler, middle left of traffic. Note the bicycle lane on the right of the picture. So many people bicycle around that lanes have been made for them everywhere.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Elizabeth Zelvin

Among the lessons I learned at my mother’s knee is this one: the ocean is better than the bay; a lake is better than a pool. I grew up spending as much of every summer as I could on the world-class beaches of Long Island, including Jones Beach, which was an easy drive from where we lived in Queens, and Hampton Bays, which was not at that time considered one of The Hamptons, since its year-round population was working-class conservative and its summer people, at least the ones we knew, were a small band of “progressives,” many of them teachers like my aunt who had a house there. The big social event of the season was always a Labor Day party to benefit the latest leftist martyrs, the Something Seven or the Something Ten. But let’s talk about the beach.

The modest little house my husband and I were lucky enough to snap up during a “soft” period for real estate in 1990—having rented unwittingly to a trio of drug dealers who set the neighborhood on its ear, the local businessman who owned it was glad to get rid of it—is only seven miles from one of the superb beaches maintained by the Town of East Hampton, which stretches from Bridgehampton to Montauk. At low tide, you can walk for miles along the beach if you’re so inclined. If you want less wind, you can lie back against the pillowy dunes—not on or in the dunes, please: every spike of beach grass was lovingly planted by the hands of environmentalists, and the humps of sand have only recently recovered their full roundness after being sheared off by a hurricane nine or ten years ago. Or, as I do, you can choose a front row seat, where a cool breeze is always available, even on the hottest day, and if you don’t watch out, a curl of wave on the incoming tide may swamp your beach towel and carry your sandals off to Spain.

My mother, who if asked, “How was your vacation?” would respond by enumerating the swims she’d had, taught me not just to observe but to revel in the fact that the ocean is always different. At least that’s true of the Atlantic off Long Island. My mother always maintained that there’s nothing like the morning swim. When I was a kid, we’d stay at the beach all day, “earning” our lunch by leaping and diving through the waves (“Over!” “Under!”) in that icy morning water. Now, between adult responsibilities and the hole in the ozone, I seldom get to the beach before 3 PM. But I still miss that morning swim.

It’s not just a matter of the weather: bright and clear one day, hazy and humid the next, overcast on the third day, with a storm rolling in overnight. Even if the skies stay blue, flat silky seas on which it’s easy to swim laps (without having to turn every sixteen strokes as you would in a pool) can be replaced by rearing “seahorses” of foam and crashing breakers. In 1995 I spent several days on the campus of the University of California at San Diego for a conference, and I was amazed by the way the turquoise waters of the Pacific in La Jolla remained consistent over time. If I went to the same spot near the jetty every day, I could jump the same gentle rollers day after day after day. It was nice for a change, and La Jolla itself is probably one of the most beautiful places in America. But I’m an East Coast girl, and I like an ocean to surprise me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Killers Who Refuse to Die

Sandra Parshall

Oh, how I hated to see Nicole Wallace go. She was such a bitch, and evil right down to her toes. I loved her.

Nicole, played by the wonderful Olivia d’Abo, was the only villain who’d ever outwitted the brilliant Bobby Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And Bobby was the only man who ever wandered into this poisonous spider’s web and lived to tell about it. They were perfectly matched. She should have gone on forever, making well-timed return appearances in Goren’s world. But last Sunday night she died, in a peculiarly unsatisfying fashion – not in a confrontation with Goren, but offstage, at the hand of another twisted soul who thought he was doing Goren a favor. Since we didn’t actually see her die, and we all know that on TV shows DNA results aren’t necessarily final, I hold out hope that we haven’t lost one of
the crime genre’s creepiest and most fascinating recurring villains.

The majority of crime novels and all of television’s crime dramas are built around recurring heroes or heroines, but the villain who refuses to die and keeps popping up again and again seems to have fallen out of favor with most writers. The few authors who attempt such characters don’t always handle them well.

The most famous recurring villain in mystery fiction is Professor Moriarty, who tested Sherlock Holmes’s skills many times, and disappeared over Reichenbach Falls while locked in combat with the great detective. That was supposed to be the end of both of them, but readers wouldn’t let Arthur Conan Doyle get away with it.

Hannibal Lecter was a charismatic recurring villain until his creator decided to explain what made him the way he was. In the novel Hannibal, we were asked to believe that seeing enemy soliders make a meal of his little sister awakened Hannibal’s own appetite for human flesh. In fiction as in real life, there is such a thing as Too Much Information. I have no interest in ever reading about Hannibal again.

Chelsea Cain has created a female version of Hannibal in Heartsick and her upcoming book, Sweetheart. Her beautiful serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, is in prison, and Detective Archie Sheridan is the one victim who escaped before she got around to cutting out his heart, but he can’t shake off the psychological hold she has on him any more than Clarice Starling can rid herself of Hannibal Lecter.

On TV, Gil Grissom of CSI spent a couple of seasons pursuing a killer who created miniature replicas of her crime scenes before she actually committed the murders. An intriguing premise, but the killer, when she was tracked down, was sadly disappointing and unworthy of the long buildup.

The Joker in the Batman stories finally got an actor capable of playing him in all his twisted glory when Heath Ledger took on the part for The Dark Knight. Ledger’s performance is the only thing worth watching in that film. He made The Joker sick and menacing and genuinely scary, and his future portrayals of the character are among the many brilliant performances we will never see from this talented man who died too young.

One of my favorite recurring killers in crime fiction was the female contract assassin pursued by Lucas Davenport in a couple of John Sandford’s Prey novels. She wasn’t Lucas’s equal – who is, after all? – but she came close, and I was sorry to see her die.

Patricia Cornwell was quite a bit less successful in creating her own recurring villain. The French “werewolf” who bedeviled Kay Scarpetta (she insisted on calling him le loup garou) was alternately laughable and disgusting, but never believable. Without believability, a killer isn’t going to be frightening.

James Patterson did somewhat better with the determined killer who went after Alex Cross and his family more than once, but the overall quality of the stories wasn’t high enough to allow the character to shine.

There are a few more, but even the complete list of continuing villains in modern crime fiction is sadly skimpy. Why don’t more writers attempt to write recurring villains? Are they afraid to show their heroes and heroines as fallible beings who don’t always close the case? Or have they simply bowed to the marketing notion that every book must be self-contained?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Summer at the Lake

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I did that quintessential summer activity: spent a week with an old friend at a summer cottage.

The old friend is the Most Reverend John Blackwood Ryan, Coadjutor Archbishop of Chicago (with Right of Succession), but not Apostolic Administrator.

Before you begin wondering what the heck that title means, or how a Canadian mystery writer came to spend a week with a high ranking official of the Roman Catholic Church, let me assure you that “Blackie” is fictional. He’s one creation of the author and sociologist, Father Andrew M. Greeley. And the week we spent together was in the pages of The Bishop at the Lake, the 6th in the Blackie Ryan series.

Father Greeley not only teaches at two universities, but writes voluminously: sermons, scholarly articles, newspapers columns, an incredibly active web site and blog, and over a hundred non-fiction and fiction books, from family sagas to mysteries to an inside view at a papal election. I have no idea when the man sleeps.

One of the things I like best about his writing is that he breaks the rules and gets away with it. Someone—probably a lot of someones—have said that you have to understand the rules before you can get away with breaking them. And Father Greeley understands all the rules of writing a cozy.

Rule #1: Create a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. You have to meet the Ryan clan to believe them. They are an enormous number of them, every one of which has a long Catholic name—Blackie’s sister is Mary Kathleen Ryan Murphy, MD—and they are Irish, Irish, and more Irish. So Irish in fact that they threaten to cross over into pastiche, but Father Greeley reins them in, in time.

Rule #2: Give the amateur detective a reason to become involved in solving mysteries. Blackie’s overwhelming reason for getting involved is love. He loves his family. He loves his church. He loves God. He loves his neighbor as himself. What hurts Blackie most is another human being in distress. He is compelled to help.

Rule #3: Give the amateur detective the skill to solve a mystery. Blackie is a well-educated, thoughtful man, who is skilled at thinking and reasoning. His long history of listening to confessions had given him an ability to know a lie when he hears one. And he collects people; it’s part of that love thing. So it’s entirely reasonable that when someone needs protection, Blackie just happens to know a retired cop who’s running a security service, or when an investigation is mishandled by a lazy, rude cop, Blackie knows a dedicated, sharp cop, slightly higher in the chain of command, who is delighted to do Blackie a favor and take over the investigation.

Blackie does very little investigation himself, though he does uncover a false identity to which the police never twig.

Most of solving the mystery breaks that cardinal writing rule: show, don’t tell. Father Greeley tells. With a bit of hand-waving by the author, Blackie is allowed to sit in on the initial police interviews. When the good cop takes over from the bad cop, he gives Blackie a typed transcript of all the interviews he conducts. That’s just not the way the real world works, but who cares. By then, I was as anxious to read the statements as Blackie was.

And, in the best tradition of English mysteries of a certain age, at one point Blackie says to the good cop, “I know who did it. Go back and reread those statements. There’s a clue in there.” I was so tickled pink with myself that I’d spotted the same clue.

Oh, and that title. Coadjutor Archbishop with Right of Succession means that Blackie is an archbishop in training, as it were, and that when his boss, Sean, retires, he will step into Sean’s job. An Apostolic Administrator, on the other hand, is a temporary appointment, a caretaker who is holding down the fort until another bishop can be selected. There's nothing temporary about Father Ryan.
Writing quote for the week
A cozy starts with the premise that the world is a place of order, temporarily put out of order. It's up to the sleuth to put it in order. Hard-boiled novels start with the premise that the world is in chaos, sleuth is a loner on the mean streets.
~Rhys Bowen, mystery writer

Monday, August 25, 2008

From Sales to Service: A Shift in My Writer's Perspective

By Julia Buckley
This is a student mural painted to help raise money for Chinese earthquake victims.

Ever since I embraced writing as a second career, I’ve found that I can become bogged down in very selfish pursuits. Is my book selling well? Is it being promoted well? Can my publisher sell the foreign rights? What promotional ideas can I learn from other writers? How can I sell, sell, sell?

Yes, the industry expects writers to put on this hat. I don’t wear it as well as I do the writing hat, but I’ve been putting it on nonetheless. Sometimes the sales war is a very disheartening experience.

This week I went back to work teaching high school (after having the summer off). Our first assembly was about service. All of the students are required to do at least ten hours of service out in the community. There are stringent parameters: they cannot count babysitting or carrying groceries or shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor as service (although they were told they should still DO these things as good citizens). Their service, however, must be person-to-person, and it must have the potential to transform them—to shape their lives in positive ways.

I have always known about this service requirement, but this assembly made me more aware of what these young people are really DOING out there in the world—and doing quite willingly, even eagerly. Some students spent a week of their summer in the Appalachian Mountains, building homes for the poor. Some volunteered in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. One seventeen-year-old girl went to the podium and spoke to her assembled classmates about her summer work with a medical group (doctors and volunteers) which goes yearly to foreign countries to perform knee-replacement surgeries for people with severe arthritis. The first two summers she was with the group (ever since her freshman year), she went to small towns in China. This last summer she went to Ecuador. She had become a trusted and reliable member of the group, and was allowed to take the patients’ vital signs.

She loved it. She hoped, she said, to be a doctor, and for her this trip was a lesson in the most important part of medicine: an awareness of people and their need. She also told us, with great candor, that she had not realized how poor some people actually were.

The assembly was invigorating for me; it is always nice to know that young people are going to do great things in the world. But I wondered, since my high school had never required that I do similar kinds of service, what sorts of things I could do NOW.

I went home and did some online research (my students would say there is no other kind) and found Volunteer Match. I typed in my location and a strength I thought I could share (I put “writing”) and found many local places looking for that particular thing.

For example, the veterans’ hospital—a mere ten minutes from my house—is looking for people to read to the veterans or write letters for them. Many people are looking for tutors, not just in English, but in ESL. A Native American group was looking for GED prep helpers. A senior center was looking for people to “sit with residents, talk with them, read to them.”

These were just the first few listings. I couldn’t believe how many there were.

I think that many writers out there are already doing charitable things, but I must confess that I haven’t focused on it much in the last several years. I’d like to get back to it, so that I’m not the kind of mom who expects her children to do things that she herself never does.

But even in this I am selfish, because while I’m starting to think about which volunteer opportunity I’d like to explore, I’m wondering if that opportunity might offer me any story ideas. :)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Evil That Men Do: What Villains Reveal About Their Creators’ Personalities

Peggy Ehrhart

Psychologist Sam Gosling could teach Sherlock Holmes a thing or two. In his book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Gosling lays out the principles of snoopology. Its premise is that our possessions, and their arrangement, offer a window to our souls.

Gosling demonstrates his powers of deduction when he concludes from a tube of skin cream, a hairbrush, a CD, and a photo of a bathroom sink that the bathroom in question belongs to a young, gay Asian man.

But what really got my interest was Gosling’s discussion of personality types. After all, if we’re to understand how snooping can illuminate personality, we have to understand what constitutes a personality. So Gosling introduces the “Big Five”--key traits that blend to make us what we are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

The first two interested me particularly because they seem opposites--though Gosling insists that none of the traits cancels another out. But people who score high on openness tend toward liberal politics, are suspicious of absolutes, and question convention, while people who score high on conscientiousness tend toward conservative politics, value order, and have a strong sense of moral obligation.
It struck me that just as one’s stuff can reveal personality, so can one’s writing—-not a revolutionary idea, I know, but since I’m high on the openness scale and like to play with ideas, please bear with me.

Since mysteries celebrate the triumph of order, one might expect mystery writers to score high on conscientiousness. In its simplest form, a mystery pits a sleuth who’s a paragon of goodness against a villain who’s a paragon of evil, and goodness conquers.

Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed a page from nineteenth-century melodrama to give Holmes a nemesis so completely evil as to strike us, now, as laughable. And remember Dick Tracy? We might call the strip a graphic novel these days--a police procedural with a straight-arrow hero and villains whose grotesqueness signals their moral depravity.

Even modern mysteries--police procedurals and thrillers especially come to mind--show us worlds in which good and evil seem absolute. And I suspect the writers who create these worlds score high on the conscientiousness scale.

But when mystery edges further toward the literary, things become less black and white. Sam Spade, the ur-sleuth in the noir tradition, reveals considerable moral ambiguity, and Hammett’s bad guys, while not exactly well-rounded, are so entertaining that it’s hard to see them as evil incarnate. John Le Carr√©’s villain, Karla, ultimately proves to be as complex and human as Smiley.

Then there’s John Harvey’s excellent police procedural series--which I’ve just discovered. His sleuth, Charlie Resnick, is a square peg in a round hole. He’s an overweight divorced jazz-lover who is insensitive to the needs of the women in his life and keeps his flat tidy by waiting till the balls of dust and cat hair get large enough to be picked up and deposited in the trash. And Harvey’s villains aren’t people who set out to do evil, but rather people pushed into evil acts by thwarted love.

Thus we come around to something we might already have suspected. Maybe mystery writers don’t have to rank high on the conscientiousness scale--or if they do, it’s counterbalanced by high openness. Openness correlates not only with distrust of absolutes but also with imagination and creativity, qualities possessed by all writers.

Just like great novels, the best mysteries don’t paint the world in black and white terms. Rather, they show us people struggling with their humanity, trying to do what’s right but sometimes doing wrong. And the most admirable sleuths are those who empathize with the fallen humanity in the evil-doers they unmask. There but for the grace of God . . .

Subjecting my own writing to this analysis, I realized that my villains are just what one might expect from somebody with a high openness quotient, somebody who finds it hard to see the world in terms of absolutes.

Only one of my Maxx Maxwell mysteries, Sweet Man Is Gone, is out so far, but the sequel is sitting on a shelf in my study, and several prequels are lurking there too--most in need of major surgery but with plots worth salvaging. In looking back at them, I see that often the murderer is a person with the ability to love intensely but whose love turned to hate when it was rebuffed. Thus my villains tend to be people pushed to the extreme of murder by desperation--people who, given different circumstances, might have been heroes.

Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor who now writes mysteries and plays blues guitar. Her blues mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, is just out from Five Star. Visit her at

Friday, August 22, 2008

Killer Nashville . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Last weekend I attended the Killer Nashville mystery conference where I spoke on two panels and worked as a volunteer under the direction of Beth Terrell (who did a fantastic job of keeping things up and running!) And I schmoozed with the other authors and readers, always fun. Maggie Toussaint and I were "room hostesses" which meant we spent time sprinting up and down the hallway with name plates and water for the authors. She's faster than me, but then, she's younger. I also manned (womaned?) the registration table and info table and hung out with the authors there. Allan Ansorge kept me laughing the entire time. It's all his fault I'm this sick.

Let me just set the record straight here and now. I was falsly accused of dragging people in off the street to check out the book room, forcing them to buy books. Anybody's books. The truth is I only kidnapped two ladies who were headed down the hallway anyhow, to another conference. They were mystery fans who didn't know we were scheduled to be there, and they seemed thrilled to meet authors and buy books. Really.

I'd been battling the sniffles for several days and the hotel was REALLY COLD but I still had a great time. And, more to the point, sold and signed books!

One of the highlights of the conference was lunch with my friend and chauffeur, Debby, and friend and author, Mary Saums (THISTLE AND TWIG, her first in this series, and her newest, which I bought and had her sign, MIGHTY OLD BONES.) We ate at a place with outdoor seating and spent most of the time talking about audio books we each love listening to. I'm the proud owner of a new iPod (bright pink, thank you very much, which color apparently makes my grandson gag) and just learning how to use it.

Another highlight of the conference for me was waltzing into the book room Saturday morning to find an older man hunched over a table in the corner, furiously signing a huge stack of books. On inquiring who he was, I found myself in worshipful distance of Dr. Bill Bass, he of the famous body farm in Tennessee. I've heard of the farm, admired its work, but never thought I'd meet HIM in person. The second he stepped away from the table, I swooped in and yanked his first book about the farm, DEATH'S ACRE off the gigantic stack and dashed to the cash register. Barnes and Noble's CRM, Robbie Bryan, asked if I wanted the book personalized to me. Of course I did, I assured him, but I didn't want to disturb the great man. The great man, on overhearing this, insisted on personalizing it for me. He really is great! And I'm loving the book. Not a dry, dusty, "how to" by any means, it's written with candor and humor. Can't wait to read the second. Dr. Bass also has a mystery series written with Jon Jefferson (Jefferson is also co-author of the non-fictions) under the pen name Jefferson Bass.

Friday morning Forensic Anthropoligist Hugh Berryman gave a facinating program on ancient burial grounds in the Nashville area. As you can see, I'm into this kind of thing. Hog heaven.

Killer Nashville is a terrific small conference (growing each year) so if you have the opportunity, plan to attend next year. And spend time in the book room. You never know who you'll meet there. Bring a jacket . . . in case the temp in the hotel drops below freezing. Again.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Elizabeth Zelvin

My cousin Lisa is a survivor. My parents got her out of Vienna on the proverbial last boat in 1938. She was 18 years old. My mother claimed they sent all the Viennese “displaced persons” to Florida to learn massage, while the Hungarians, no matter what their previous training or education, became bakers. Lisa met her first husband, whom she still calls the love of her life, swimming in the ocean, an activity to which all the women in my family are addicted. When they found they couldn’t have children, they adopted. When I first visited my glamorous cousin at the age of 12, they had a boy a few years younger and a little girl, who the next year died of leukemia, another of the tragedies that kept buffeting Lisa but couldn’t sink her spirit. I remember her irrepressible joie de vivre and how she tried to dress me up and glamorize me, a thankless task, I’m afraid. I remember being impressed by what a romantic couple they made and how her husband called her “girl.” (Decades later, I learned via country music that “girl” is a common Southern endearment. I still think it was romantic.)

Lisa’s husband got cancer at the age of 50 while they were going through the adoption process again, and she ended up a young widow with two babies. After ten years on her own, she married an ex-military man who led her quite a dance before he got Alzheimer’s and died. In the interim, she got a doctorate in her 60s, survived cancer, and started pronouncing her name the American way, “Lease-a,” instead of the European “Lee-za” or the Viennese “Liserl.” In recent years, living on a Central Florida lake with her now grownup daughter as caregiver, she’s managed not to let a broken neck or a faulty heart valve stop her from swimming, working out, using the computer, or living up to the description “my cousin the Viennese bombshell.”

When I passed through Florida on my book tour, I made plans to spend a night with her. We were both disappointed when she was admitted to the hospital on the day I arrived. But when her daughter and I came to visit, she had managed to dress up for me—no hospital gown for Lisa!—and greeted me with the same bubbly energy I remembered. In the picture we took together, she looks far younger than 88, and it’s hard to believe she’s in the hospital.

I think the men and women of my generation are beginning to be survivors too. I’ve reached an age when my contemporaries are running out of parents and losing friends to illness rather than suicide or car accidents. The world has changed dramatically since we were kids. Currently, we’re dealing globally with terrorism, war, recession and a restless Mother Nature who seems to me to be trying to get our attention and let us know she’s really pissed off about what we’re doing to the planet. Yet for the moment, we’re still here. I moderated a panel of “late bloomers” at the New York Public Library recently. It came out that most of us had started wanting to be writers at the age of 7. Yet here we were, getting our first novels published in our 50s, 60s, and 70s. We’ve stuck around to realize our dreams. Persistence is a survival skill, and I think we’ve got it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cynthia Riggs: The Mysterious Lady from Martha's Vineyard

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Cynthia Riggs describes her Martha’s Vineyard mysteries, featuring 92-year-old poet Victoria Trumbull, as the kind of mystery you can read in front of a fire with a cat on your lap “without being scared that someone is going to jump through
the window and
strangle you.”

Cynthia was 70 when she published her first mystery, Deadly Nightshade, which she wrote while earning a master’s degree in her late 60s. Her seventh novel, Shooting Star, is available now, and book number eight, Death and Honesty, is scheduled for publication by St. Martin’s Press in spring of 2009. Deadly Nightshade and her second novel, The Cranefly Orchid Murders, have been reprinted in a single volume paperback from Vineyard Stories, an island publisher, under the title Double Murder on Martha’s Vineyard.

After graduating from Antioch College with a degree in geology, Cynthia wrote nonfiction articles for Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Petroleum Today, and several scientific journals. She has also been a mariner, captaining tour boats on the Potomac River, teaching at the Annapolis Sailing School, delivering boats to Europe and the Caribbean, and operating a ferry service on the Chesapeake Bay. A 13th-generation islander, she now lives on Martha’s Vineyard year-round and has turned her family’s 18th century house into a bed-and-breakfast inn for writers and artists.

Q. What made you decide, in your sixties, to go back to school for an advanced degree in creative writing?

A. I manage the Cleaveland House, a bed & breakfast that caters to poets and writers, in my family homestead on Martha's Vineyard. Shortly after my mother died, one of my guests, a writer, was getting her degree in a low residency program at Vermont College. She suggested that I go back to school and get my masters. "No, no, no!" said I. "Never! I've had enough of school. And not at sixty-eight. Forget it!" She persisted. Nagged me, had the college send me an application form, and finally, to shut her up, I applied, knowing I'd never be accepted. Sure enough, I was, and back to school I went.

Q. Why did you choose mystery as your genre? Was this a long-time ambition?

A. I've always liked reading mysteries, but hadn't really thought about writing one. My father was an early member of the Mystery Writers of America, Number 416. He was dabbling in mystery writing, but was never published. Once I was
accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College, I had to decide what to write. I asked my friend, Jonathan Revere, for suggestions -- The Great American Novel? Significant Short Stories? Creative Non-Fiction? -- he told me, "Murder mysteries. That sounds like fun." So that's how I got started.

Q. Victoria is such a wonderful character – unique in the mystery world. Can you tell us how you created her, how you decided what kind of person she would be? Were you at all wary of making her a woman in her nineties? And did you intend from the beginning to keep her the same age forever?

A. Victoria Trumbull is based on my mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, a poet, a strong woman, and someone I wanted to keep alive forever in the mysteries I'd decided to write. She was almost ninety-nine when she died. I figured it was stretching credulity to have a ninety-nine-year-old sleuth, so I made Victoria much younger. During the MFA program, I wrote a paper analyzing how writers dealt with time in their mystery series. I learned that as long as the writer is fair with her readers and they understand the rules, they willingly suspend disbelief. Victoria will remain ninety-two forever while time passes in the background. That way I don't have to remember what life was like five or ten years ago.

Q. Mystery writers are always hearing that our characters need to “grow and change” in each book and over the course of a series. Is this possible with a character of Victoria’s age? Has she changed since you began writing about her?

A. Victoria's character remains fairly stable. I've noticed, though, that from identifying her totally with my mother, I've come to see her as a character on her own. My recurring characters grow and change, and that's fun to watch.

Q. What do you enjoy most about fiction writing? What aspect has been most
difficult for you to master?

A. Before I wrote fiction, I'd written quite a lot of scientific articles, edited a couple of scientific periodicals, and wrote and edited for National Geographic's books. My facts had to be accurate and every word had to be the exact right word. I had to know where the piece I was writing was going, had to outline it, and kept prodigious notes. You can't imagine how freeing fiction writing is after that. I can make things up, can sit down in the morning at my computer not knowing what my characters are likely to do or where my story is likely to lead me. It's great fun. While it's work to put words together so they make sense, writing continues to be a fascinating process. The most difficult aspect for me to master was time management. That's where the MFA program made a difference. I'm not a disciplined person in general, but when it comes to my writing time, I'm disciplined.

Q. Do you have a strict writing schedule? How do you balance writing with your other work?

A. I sit down at my computer at ten a.m. after my B&B guests finish breakfast and work steadily, seven days a week, until five or six. I'll break to make beds, do laundry, pull weeds, do errands, but I get right back to work.

Q. How long does it take you to write a book? Do you outline first or just plunge in?

A. Usually it takes about six months to complete a book. I start with the title -- all my books have plants in their titles -- and a vague idea of what I want to include, current gripes about Island affairs, irritations with people I'd like to get even with, and then away I go, not planning ahead at all. For instance, a future book will be titled Poison Ivy and will deal with academic politics in a wannabe college on the Island. There are a couple of pompous asses around here I'd like to deal with.

Q. What mystery writers do you read? What have you learned from the writers you admire?

A. One of my favorite writers is Donald Westlake, who's not exactly a mystery writer, but I find him one of the funniest writers ever. I try to copy his manic sense of humor in my writing, but of course it can't compare with his. I love Agatha Christie, Rex Stout's Nero Wolf, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Michael Dibdin. I tend to keep the mystery books I buy, and have run out of bookcase room. I probably read two to three books a week, mostly mysteries, and borrow a lot from my local library. Just last night I learned a tip from reading Patricia Highsmith, how to allow a point of view character to see into another character's thoughts without the reader suspecting it's a trick.

Q. Are you still a manuscript screener for Poisoned Pen Press?

A. I was a manuscript screener for awhile, but found it difficult to read the manuscripts, many of which were single-spaced, some printed on both sides of the paper. My eyes are not that great, so I gave it up, although I loved critiquing. Very, very few of the submissions I read seemed publishable, probably less than one percent. I learned a lot about what not to do, and that helped me in my own writing. I liked being able to be candid in my reviews, knowing that Poisoned Pen Press would protect their aspiring authors from my terribly clever, cutting, nasty comments, something I would never write to the writer herself.

Q. You say that your inn “caters to writers and artists”, which brings to mind an image of fussy creative types who need special handling! What is it really like to have a stream of writers and artists as guests? Do you have many guests who return year after year? Is the inn open year-round?

A. As the manager of the Cleaveland House B&B, I screen out potential guests who might need special handling. I have a spiel that goes something like this: "This is an old house. The floors creak, doors don't shut, shared baths, no television, no recreational facilities, and books and papers all over the place." The poets, writers, artists, and people sympathetic to creative types who come to my B&B find a relaxed place with creative vibes. The house is large, but has only three guest rooms, so people can get to know each other if they wish. Most guests come back year after year, often for a week-long stay. Because this is my home, the B&B is open year round. However, there's no heat on the second floor, where two of the guest rooms are. Some people thrive on sleeping in a chilly room with fireplace and down comforters and come off-season. But the B&B tends to be quiet from mid-November to mid-April.

Q. During your career as a nonfiction writer, you spent some time in Antarctica. Do you remember that as a good or bad experience?

A. My Antarctic trips -- two of them -- were incredibly amazing and humbling experiences. I went the first time as a Smithsonian technician working on board the Eltanin, an antarctic research vessel, for two months. We never got onto the Ice, as the continent is called. There were something like eighteen different scientific programs going on twenty-four hours a day aboard the ship. The waves in the Antarctic Ocean were unbelievable. Keeping our footing was an adventure, and it was all wonderful. When the vessel reached an area of icebergs and lots of floating ice, we headed north. I cried when the ship docked in Chile.

The second time, the National Science Foundation sent me as a journalist to cover scientific activities on the continent. I spent about two weeks visiting the scientific stations of other nations, crawling around penguin rookeries, meeting seals, and being awestruck by the fact that I was safe and warm in a Hercules aircraft, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, while following 20,000 feet above the footsteps of explorers like Scott and Shackelton. We flew to the South Pole and to a scientific station that was completely buried by ice. A sign at the entrance read, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here!" The sun circled the horizon all day and all night. Being there was such an adventure, I tried to make use of every minute of daylight. Impossible, of course.

Q. Looking back on all the writing you’ve done in your life, what would you say has been the most fun?

A. The absolute most fun of all is right now. I've learned a lot during my past writing years and continue to learn today, this minute, while I'm writing now. It's satisfying to be able to write something that people might read and enjoy. Every day I learn how to work around problems such as too many "he saids," or how little or much detail to include, or how to make a reader laugh, or how to build suspense. Learning to write is like learning to master a musical instrument to please myself and others.

Q. What do you see in the future? More books about Victoria? A new series, perhaps?

A. I'm hoping to keep Victoria going for a total of twenty books. I'm on nine right now. I've started a second series set on the waterfront in Washington, DC, where I lived on a boat for twelve years. My protagonist, a former call girl, is a far cry from Victoria Trumbull. She lives on a houseboat at a yacht club, a neighborhood of live-aboard individualists. I've finished the first book, Murder On C-Dock, and am shopping it around right now.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Sit down and write. Set a regular time, whatever is best for you, even if it's only an hour a day, and don't let anyone or anything disturb you. Treat that time as if it were a job. Some days the muse won't strike, but write anyway. It's like practicing a musical instrument. Keep at it. Much too often aspiring writers say, "I don't have time to write," yet they'll watch three or four hours of television an evening. Cut out a couple of shows and write. Just write.

Cynthia Riggs’s books are, in order: Deadly Nightshade, The Cranefly Orchid Murders, The Cemetery Yew, Jack in the Pulpit, The Paperwhite Narcissus, Indian Pipes, and Shooting Star. Visit her web site at

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Case of the Cryptic Kindle

Sharon Wildwind

Lately, the world—more specifically the Internet, which for some of us equals the world—has been spitting numbers at me. I’ve no idea why, other than maybe it’s numbers’ turn, just as sometimes it’s the turn of cute photos of rescued baby ducks or great recipes for low-glycemic desserts.

In any case, here is an interesting number:

Since its autumn 2007 launch, Amazon is reported to have shipped 240,000 Kindles. At a price ranging from $360 to $400, sales total so far between $86 million and $96 million for the device and another $100 million for the digital media to read on the device.
~TechCrunch, August 2008

Keep in mind that these figures do not come directly from, which so far, has declined to report on the volume of Kindle and its media sales.

Shelf Awareness,, which reported that quote received a lot of follow-up e-mail, collectively adding up to the Case of the Cryptic Kindle. As with many urban legends, only a few people had seen a Kindle. One correspondent's son was reported to have won one as a prize and quickly sold it on e-Bay. Many other people said that they used other machines, or listened to audiobooks, but that Kindles were sparse on the ground all the way from New England to California.

What I find interesting is another number. Amazon has reported its second quarter sales for 2008: Net sales rose 41% to $4.06 billion from $2.89 billion in the same period a year earlier, and net income jumped to $158 million from $78 million. Reasons: heavy discounting, free shipping and high cost of gas.

If the Kindle figures and the Amazon figures are both accurate, that means that Kindle machines and media equal 4.8% of Amazon’s total net sales. Now, before the more numerically-minded among you tell me I’m comparing apples and oranges, I know that. Amazon’s total sales figures were for April, May, and June of 2008 and the Kindle figures are for the first year of sales, so the comparison isn’t bang on, but it still a chunk of income for a machine that wasn’t on the market a year ago.

Have I seen a Kindle? No. Granted that I live in Canada and sometimes don’t come out of my writing hidey-hole for days at a time, I may not be the best representative in the “seek the Kindle” treasure hunt, but I am curious. I also think it’s interesting that another quote I read in passing says that it’s the blogs, magazines, and newspapers that are making up the majority of Kindle media sales and that the books are a sort of ho-hum curiosity, rather on the order of, “Do you want fries with that?” category.

So here are my questions:
1. How many real live human beings have you seen using a Kindle?
2. Any clue if they were reading a blog, magazine, newspaper, or book on it?
3. What would be the price point for you; that is, at what price would you consider buying a Kindle or similar electronic reader—reader, not audiobook device?

Here’s a second interesting number quote:

What scares all of us in the library field is that we see few people between the ages of 18 and 34 reading books taken out from the library. … As librarians, we spend a great deal of our day now focusing on library services that appeal to the non-book reading generations, not in the promotion of reading. One third of my circulation (out of 200,000 checkouts a year) is non-print. While some of that is audio books, the vast majority of our non-print circulation is feature length films. This year one of our objectives in our plan is to study the reduction of print reference sources. I can only assume that some day I will be saying to my staff, “We do not need to buy this many mysteries.”
~Gary Warren Niebuhr, librarian, Milwaulkee, Wisconsin, January 2008

Since I was just in my local public library branch about an hour ago, I conducted a quick, highly unscientific survey. At 7:30 on a Monday night. My branch—one large room, with a smaller classroom near the entrance, had approximately 30 people in. Not counting the librarians, my husband and I, whose combined ages equal slightly over 100, were the oldest people in the room. We were checking out books, but not 1 of the remaining 28 people in the library were reading a book. They were studying printed handouts, reading newspapers, interacting on the computer, checking the DVD and CD collections, putting away A-V equipment in the small classroom, and chatting with one another.

Here’s my second set of questions:
1. When you go to the library, what are other people doing?
2. Do you notice an age gap: older folks in the books, younger folks on the computers and perusing the DVD holdings?

Before we book-lovers get totally depressed by these figures, here’s a wonderful non-numerical scene I witnessed a few weeks ago. I’d pulled into that same library branch parking lot before they opened because I had to pick up a book I’d placed on hold. Half a dozen people were lined up waiting for the door to be unlocked. One of them was a girl about four or five years old. Even at this age it was obvious that she was a free-thinking child, cherished in her family.

Her mother had allowed her to appear in public wearing a rainbow-hued multi-layer skirt, Hello Kitty T-shirt, and bright pink plastic rain boots. She had her arms tightly wrapped around a stack of picture books. As the assigned time for the library to open came and went without the staff unlocking the doors, the girl began to kick, gently at first, then with increasing vigor, on the metal door frame. The child chanted, “I want more books. I want more books.”

When the librarian did open the door, the little girl scooted in under her arm, and I saw her a moment later, already ensconced in the reading area, with half a dozen books spread on the floor around her, and a beautiful smile on her face.

Just goes to show that numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Writing quote for the week:
Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.
~Madeline L'Engle, writer

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Party's Over . . .

by Julia Buckley
Graham's lava lamp

Aaaaaaah. I am at my computer after hours and hours on my feet. Today was my son’s tenth birthday party. He had a wonderful time with friends and family and is now happily ensconced in a beanbag chair, chewing bubblegum and playing X-box.

His mother, on the other hand, is ready for bed. It is 5:42 PM. :)

I am one of those parents who should never, ever throw a birthday party. I am far too highly strung and paranoid that visitors will see some unsightly part of our house. (In my defense, I do have family members who will point out the dust or dirt that they see: family members who are, in fact, my mother). Therefore, the cleaning starts two days in advance (much to my sons’ misery). I de-clutter, dust, vacuum, polish, sort, move furniture, and aerobicize with various other household chores.

This morning I woke up to find my sons creeping into their old habits: tossing pillows on the floor, leaving action figures on all flat surfaces, eating in the living room, letting the dog on the couch. I unleashed what I call Military Mother: the one who barks orders and issues stern punishments.

We all suffered through several hours of Military Mother, whose voice grew more and more stentorian as party time approached. I also became Spending Mother—-the one who fears she will be judged harshly if she doesn’t put out lavish appetizers and a hearty main course. So Spending Mother exceeded her birthday budget getting all the foodstuffs and lugging them home in the heat. She splurged on two bottles of wine and a specialty beer for the family members who like to imbibe.

And then, finally, they came. There were less of them than we expected. One person had to stay home with the baby. Another (my nephew) had to work. And those who came had surprisingly small appetites.

There was much party talk, however. My brother told me about an idea he had for a mystery novel. (Everyone tells me these). My mother asked how my diet was going—-never a popular question with me. My father looked at the sapling in my yard and spent twenty minutes of the party pruning it, tying it with a cloth, and replacing my wood dowel with a metal one. He is the family horticulturalist. Everyone looked at my son Graham’s wasp sting, angrier and redder now than it was a week ago when he actually received it. None of them liked the look of it, so I ended up calling the pediatrician, who told me to keep a compress on it. If Graham develops a fever or if the red circle grows larger, I must bring him in tomorrow.

Graham received all sorts of generous gifts, including a lava lamp, which we plugged in so that we could all stare at it. I’m not sure what it says about my family (or my party-giving skills) that for many of us, this was the highlight of the party.

At the end of it all, a mere two or three hours of fun after three solid days of preparation, the food had to be packed into plastic bags—-what seemed like thousands of them—-and my two party-size pizzas, which were the size of card tables, looked barely touched when the crowd departed. No one drank the wine. Not a soul touched the specialty beer.

It really doesn’t seem worth it, all this work for so little payoff. Except that the birthday boy always feels so special, no matter how small the crowd, and he sits in the window for an hour watching for the cars that will pull up to the curb and emit his loud and boisterous family. They come, every year, with love and gifts and bear hugs and inevitable teasing, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, unprepared as I may feel to be the creator of birthday magic, I must remember that my children find that magic in unexpected places. It’s not the food or the clean house or the strict rules. It’s the love that fills the room when everyone comes together.

Please remind me of that next year before Military Mother has a chance to emerge.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Canada Calling: Rick Blechta

Rick Blechta (pronounced Blek’ ta) is a Canadian author, musician, and graphic artist, who successfully combines an interesting triangle of talents: writing books, designing book covers, and playing music.

Music plays a huge part in your dual careers of writer and musician, so, for the right atmosphere for this interview, what music should the reader play in the background?

I describe myself as a “musical mutt”. I’m not one of those people who likes only a certain type of music and I’ve played pretty well every style of music (western) by this point. So, I’ll listen to anything. I might wind up not liking it, but I can’t think of a single category of music where there isn’t at least one thing that grabs me. Now, that being said, I can be very picky as to what I listen to a second time.

Currently, I’m working on a novel where the main character is an opera singer. (Don’t worry, it won’t be musically scary. I know how a lot of people can be about this particular art form.) Consequently, I’m listening to a lot of opera, mostly works that are being mentioned in the story, so that I can be really familiar with them and not make a fool of myself saying something really stupid.

So, to answer the question, put on any music you REALLY enjoy while you’re reading this!

Like many musicians and authors, you’ve held a variety of day jobs. You’ve described your stint as a Toronto cab driver as “hilarious.” What was so funny about driving a cab in Toronto?

People will say and do anything in a cab. It’s as if they think the driver is deaf, dumb and blind. Even though I only drove for a year and a half, I had just about everything happen in my cab (except getting robbed).

I usually drove nights since I was rehearsing with a new band and doing radio and TV jingles which all generally happen during the day. Nightimes generally are when most of the odd things happen. Except for one time...

It had been a bad week, so I decided to work on Sunday afternoon, see if I could get those few extra dollars I needed. One of my first calls was to a house in a rather tony neighbourhood off Yonge Street near the 401. The parents were at the cottage and the kids decided to have a barbecue for their friends. One of the partygoers needed a ride home. She was 16 and not used to drinking (duh!) and she’d gotten herself completely wasted on rum. They carried her out to my cab and dumped her on the back seat, gave me her address and enough money to cover the fare. So far so good.

Of course, partway there, she threw up -- all over the place. Just great.

When I got to the address I’d been given, the house turned out to be more of a mansion up in Thornhill. Knocking on the door, it was opened by a guy no older than me (24), and I swear to God he was wearing an ascot and smoking jacket.

“Yes, what is it my man?” he asked, looking down his nose at me.

I explained that I had his sister in the cab and that she’d been sick and was pretty out of it. “She can’t really walk, so I’ll need some help getting her into the house.”

He made a disgusted face, but followed me down to the kerb. I grabbed her by the ankles and pulled her partway out of the car. When her brother didn’t offer to help, I managed to get her almost standing at which point she roused herself a bit.

Taking a step towards her brother, she threw her arms around his neck, cried out, “Oh, Bobby!” and promptly puked all over him.

I smiled and said, “Bye now. Have a great day!” got into my cab and headed downtown to the legendary Spotlight Garage, the only place I could get the interior of the cab cleaned and deodorized on a Sunday.

So much for my plans for a nice easy, Sunday shift. It took two hours to get the cab habitable again.

There are other stories but I’m saving them for a book I’d like to write someday with a protagonist who drives a cab.

You migrated from music and teaching into writing murder and mayhem. What led you to becoming a novelist, and to focusing on mysteries with a musical twist?

Well, having been a musician for more years than I care to mention (my teaching experience was as a band teacher in middle school), I think I can write authoritatively about music. If I don’t already know it, I certainly have musicians I can call on who do know it. So research is pretty simple -- most of the time.

The music business (being a musician, a roadie, an agent, a record exec, an orchestra manager, etc.) is something a lot of people find interesting and it provides a nice “coat hanger” on which to put my story. I try to expose readers to what it’s like to stand in front of an orchestra with a violin in your hands and be expected to play perfectly, for example. The new novel lets people know what a pain it is to cart around a set of drums, as another example.

As for becoming a novelist in the first place, I was burnt out doing music seven days a week and I wanted a creative outlet that WASN’T music. I’ve always written (reviews, articles and the like) and I also took a lot of English courses in university. Also being a natural storyteller, writing novels seemed to fill the bill creatively for me. Little did I know...

Your sixth book, A Case of You, was published this year by RendezVous Crime. Pardon the pun, but what makes this book sing?Rick:
I could give a flip answer here and tell folks to buy the book and see if it does indeed sing...but I won’t.

I think one of the things that makes this book quite different from the average crime novel is that the person who is the main character eventually turns out not to be. I didn’t realize this myself until I neared the end of the first draft. Doubly interesting is that the main character doesn’t actually show up in the story in “real time” until very near the end. You always hear about her through other characters.

When she does finally walk onstage, many readers have told me they’ve found her to be exceptionally intriguing.

You’ve been extensively involved in Crime Writers of Canada, and have received CWC’s Derrick Murdoch Award in recognition of your contribution to that organization. In this day of world-wide electronic social networking—in all its guises—how are the roles of traditional writers’ organizations changing? What are the benefits of belonging to an organization?

The roles of organization like CWC are not changing, and I don’t see any change in the near future. Our primary job is to help promote our members’ works to a wider audience and that job is still very much ongoing and still very challenging. Arts in general are under attack in this country and book publishing is especially fragile. Our whole industry combined doesn’t have the clout one of the American giants has and it is very hard for most Canadian writers to become known to a wider audience. That’s where groups like CWC can step in to help.

The benefits of belonging to CWC are obvious. First and foremost, we speak louder with a unified voice. The government has actually asked our opinion on occasion. Next, there’s networking. I got picked up by McClelland & Stewart on the recommendation of a CWC member. I wouldn’t have known this person if I hadn’t belonged to CWC, that’s for sure. Those are just two examples off the top of my head.

You and your good friend, photographer Andre Leduc, have collaborated on covers for your books. You’re quoted as saying that the cover for Cemetery of the Nameless went through 48 revisions before you found an image that satisfied you. If an author is fortunate enough to have input into a cover, what are the most important things she needs to know about graphic design and about covers?

Actually, my current day job is working in a graphic design studio. While I don’t have an art background, I do know printing and both my parents were fine artists (and my dad was also trained as a graphic artist). I have also worked on a number of book covers for various publishers and projects, so, I can put up a pretty strong case for executing the covers for my own books. It doesn’t hurt that the publisher is going to get a free cover design -- except for Andre’s photo fee. 

A book cover has only three components: the title, the author’s name and some sort of image. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not. The only thing easy about book covers is designing a bad one. You really do need to know a fair bit about typography and also how ink goes on paper. I think of covers as being posters for the book and have that at the front of my mind ALWAYS.

Most publishers don’t want their authors to get anywhere near the cover design, and there are some good reasons for that: most authors don’t have a clue about what makes a good cover and they don’t know marketing. Where the system sort of falls apart is that cover designers seldom get more than a quick briefing, usually from the book’s editor, so you really have too little information to work with really effectively. I always ask for the complete manuscript. It also helps to get the author to describe what they are trying to say between those pages. You can get some seriously good leads there!

The big thing is deciding how you’re trying to sell the book. Will the cover image involve the ‘sizzle’ or the ‘steak’? What typefaces would assist in communicating this? Then you have to make these REALLY scannable by the eye -- at a distance -- and that can involve tweaking the type, where it’s positioned over the image, colour values between type and image so that one doesn’t blend into the other, etc, etc. There really are a lot of things to consider. The problem with the design of the cover for Cemetery of the Nameless was that the image Andre and I composed (it is a montage of five different photos, each manipulated very heavily) broke nearly every “rule” for book covers and that involved colour, clarity and how to work the book’s title into the mix. We wound up using the 43rd version. The fact that we did another 5 after that shows how confident we were that we’d gotten it right. Hindsight shows that we were right with our choice, though. Booksellers loved it, and most stores had it faced on the shelves rather than spine in. But the 45th and 46th were also really good...

My best suggestion is for any author who wants to get involved in the design aspects of their books to do a lot of studying. I’ve looked at thousands of covers, talked to lots of terrific designers and asked people browsing in bookstores why they just picked up a particular book. The answers are usually, “The cover looked really interesting.” That’s what I try to do when I design a book cover: make it something interesting, a little out of the ordinary that looks great and is readable from 20 feet away.

For more information on Rick, his books (and book covers), and his music, visit
Next month, Canada Calling visits mystery writer R. J. Harlick, who has a colorful take on living in Canada's north.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Advertising, it can really get to you . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Back in the day, advertising was mostly in print form, mostly black and white with a few in color. Yes, there was some vocal advertising on the radio, mostly for soap, hence the name "soap opera." Or so I'm told. A friend of mine has one of those lovely fifties metal kitchen tables that are now back in fashion. It's been in her family since a relative purchased it new. She also has the advertisement for it. Antique advertisements are as popular and collectible as the antiques themselves, giving buyers the background on various items like furniture and dishes and the price of same when new. Boy howdy, things have changed with the advent of television.

I live in constant fear that some stranger on the street will approach me for money, and before I can stop myself I'll break into song. "Dial 1-800-877-CASH NOW . . . 877-CASH NOOOOWWWWWWW!" If that phone number doesn't ring a bell with you, dear reader, it's the number for the J. G. Wentworth Company. Cash now for your "structured settlement." Whatever that is. I laugh every time I see the ad, meaning the one with an opera company singing the song. Unfortunately the song sticks with me the rest of the day. I particularly like the fat lady with the ugly hat.

I adore the Gieko Gecko, hate the cave man. Sorry, but he's as homely as homemade mud pies. And he's a whiner.

If you want to know how many ads are shown during a television movie, just ask my hubby. He counts them and can even tell you how many have been aired twice during that particular show. Or more.

If you are on any kind of diet to lose weight, the worst thing you can do is watch television. Every other advertisement is for food. Usually fast food, guaranteed to add five pounds to your hips just by watching the ad. Sigh.

Need a new love interest? Just watch the ads for various dating services.

And if you happen have grown up in the fifties when televisions were just beginning to show up in store windows and the homes of the lucky few, you'd have bet the farm back then that some things would never be advertised on television. And you'd have lost. I won't name names. You know what those things are. Yick.

Celebrities we all thought were richer than Midas appear not to be since they are on TV hawking any and everything. I mean really, singer Robert Goulet crawling upside down on a ceiling, advertising snack bars to stave off the 3 P. M. slump?

And the music? Again, if you grew up in the fifties, you are likely as surprised as me to hear the old familiar tunes with new words, suggesting you buy something. Something you likely don't need. Or want.

And advertisers are getting smarter. They figured out that an awful lot of us sneak off during the commercials to get a drink or empty a kidney of the liquid we just consumed during the last commercial. So they increased the sound in order to reach us in the nether parts of our homes. They haven't yet figured out how to keep us from fast-forwarding through commercials when we tape a show, but how long can it be?

The birds in the Windex commercial are cruel, laughing at humans running into clean windows. The happy cows in the cheese commercial are funny. The gal who advertises Laughing Cow Cheese is a total hoot. So is the ad with famous people speaking for normal people. That may be Gieko as well. Whatever, but the Joan Rivers version even cracked up the guy doing the commercial with her.

Is there a point here? Ummm, lemme see. Yeah. I think so. Advertisers go to great lengths, some good, some not so good, to get us to spend our money. And in doing so they sneak their messages inside our brains, like science fiction worms crawling in, staking a claim, refusing to leave. The advertisers do it with sex. With food. With famous names. With whatever they can. But worst of all, they do it with music.

I have, with great difficulty, managed not to call J. G. Wentworth thus far, which is probably just as well since I don't have a structured settlement. But how long can it be before I can't resist picking up the phone? I know their number by heart. I can sing it. I know it better even that my best friend's phone number. After all, she's in speed dial. I only have to remember that one number for her. If I ever had to dial the whole number to reach her, area code included, I'd be in trouble. Sigh. Maybe J. G. Wentworth knows her number? I'll call them and ask. Meanwhile, I'm locking up my checkbook, credit cards, and cash. Maybe you should too?

What's your favorite television commercial? Least fave? Feel free to share. Or sing, if need be. You're among friends here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When the Author Gets It Wrong: The Reader’s View

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last week I talked about what happens when the author makes an error of fact or calculation from my own perspective as a writer. But every writer is a reader too, and none more passionately than mystery lovers. As a reader, I have quite a different attitude toward mistakes. They irritate me profoundly. Furthermore, I never forget and forgive. If an author gets it wrong, I can carry a grudge about it for decades.

The nearest analogy to this dissociative state—not schizophrenic, please! Schizophrenia has not meant “split personality” since the 19th century!—is the difference between the pedestrian and the same person as a driver. When I’m crossing the street, the driver who shoots through the changing traffic light or hurtles around the corner cutting off my right of way is a homicidal maniac. But when I’m behind the wheel, the pedestrian crossing on red or dawdling in the crosswalk eating ice cream or babbling on a cell phone is the moron.

I wouldn’t say that I won’t read more of an author who’s made a mistake in one of my pet peeve areas. But it’s definitely a black mark in, er, their book. Since I’m a mental health professional—a social worker, a psychotherapist, and an addictions professional—the mistakes that make me grind my teeth tend to be in those areas. For example, take the all too common use of “schizophrenic” to mean ambivalent. Last week, writing as an author, I defended the occasional use of literary license. I have no objection to the use of a severe pathological state as a metaphor for a milder frame of mind: in this case, as a metaphor for indecision or difficulty making up one’s mind. But for pete’s sake, authors, use the right pathology! It’s dissociative identity disorder, not schizophrenia, that creates “split personality.” It used to be called multiple personality disorder. It was once considered to be rare. Sadly, some degree of dissociation is now known to be common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

I recently came across another wrong committed in the name of schizophrenia in one of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective books. It was a great read until the gaffe at the end, when the murderer is revealed. To avoid a spoiler, I won’t name the book except to say it’s not the current one. But the setup is that the murderer has committed a series of well planned and well covered murders, using a dominant personality to draw a weaker sidekick into what the narrator (or the writer) not unreasonably calls a folie √† deux. But then Pronzini blows it. “Paranoid schizophrenic with a persecution complex—you didn’t need to be Freud to see that.” Wrong. Narcissistic personality disorder, certainly. Sociopathy, probably. But a paranoid schizophrenic would be incapable of the organized thought and planning that went into these murders. I still remember trying to get one of the first paranoid schiz patients I worked with as a social work intern to comment further on something he had said.
“Do you have any thoughts about that?” I asked.
“Oh, very few.” And that was all he had to say.

As an expert on alcoholism who writes about recovery, I hate it when a drunk is played for laughs or when a habitual compulsive drinker (yes, Virginia, that is an alcoholic) stops without effort thanks to the love of a good woman or turns it on and off like a tap, as the otherwise admirable Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon does. I also hate it when somebody donates or bequeaths money to AA, whose traditions state clearly that they “do not accept outside donations.” And I’ve never quite forgiven Dick Francis for the denouement in which the alcoholic brother gets killed saving the protagonist followed by the sadly ironic phone call in which the caller tells the protagonist that he’s returning the brother’s call to AA. It’s not called Alcoholic Anonymous for nothing. An AA member would never, never identify himself to whoever answers the phone.

Those are some of my pet peeves as a reader. What are yours, and why?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Visit to the Real World of Cops

Sandra Parshall

Writers are to blame for some popular misconceptions about police work.

Mystery protagonists are usually detectives. They almost always work in pairs, because having a partner gives the main character somebody to argue with, worry about, and chew over the baffling details of a case with. They’re frequently in danger and always whipping out their guns and yelling “Freeze!” because that sort of thing makes for a more exciting story. And, of course, they end every investigation with a potentially deadly confrontation.

The reality of police work is a little different. Patrol officers are the first on any crime scene, and they do more of the work than novelists ever give them credit for. Whatever their rank or duties, cops all start out the same, as recruits in training. If you ever have a chance to tour a training facility, don’t pass it up. Last weekend, I visited the Fairfax County (Virginia) Criminal Justice Academy with a group from the Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter, and thanks to our guide, instructor and police officer Gary Pearson, I have a better understanding of day to day law enforcement.

Fairfax, in the Washington, DC metro area, is an urban county of 395 square miles, with more than a million people – a greater population than seven states. The income level is high, the crime rate low. On average, the county has fewer than 20 murders per year, compared to 200 or more (sometimes much more) in DC, which covers just 68.25 square miles and has half the population of Fairfax County. Gangs have become a problem in a couple of places in the county, and at the other end of the criminal spectrum, several of the 9/11 terrorists lived here.

The county has about 1,700 police officers and is constantly training recruits to
replace retiring officers and the relatively few who leave for other reasons. Anybody over 21 with a high school diploma can apply to the academy, but as Officer Pearson told us, “If that’s all you have, you’re not going to be accepted.” Cops with bachelor's degrees have become the norm, and the department works with local universities to help officers obtain master’s degrees if they wish. The rough-edged, uneducated cop still exists in fiction, but you probably won’t find him on the Fairfax County force.

In more violent settings, police may work in pairs, but in Fairfax County officers usually work alone. Recruits learn to handle every possible situation in a section of the academy that looks like a small movie set, with a shopping mall, a bar, a bank, a schoolroom, and a full-scale apartment. While our group made its way through the apartment rooms, our guide switched off the lights to give us a taste of what it’s like to enter a dark place without knowing what awaits. The training exercise alone would scare me to death, and I could never summon the courage for the real thing.

A mock booking room, with fingerprinting station and holding cells, and a mock courtroom are used to train recruits in the work that follows an arrest. Rubber mats on the floor prevent injuries when the role-players who are being “arrested” and “booked” try to fight their way free.

Recruits learn everything you’d expect police officers to know – how to shoot (and what part of the body to aim at), how to subdue a violent suspect, how to spot suspicious behavior. They discover that it’s possible to function after getting a blast of pepper spray in their faces. However, the skill they will use most often as working cops is communication. Most officers go through their entire careers without ever firing their guns on the job, but they spend plenty of time defusing volatile situations with words.

In Fairfax County, police will never yell “Freeze!” because they can’t be sure the person they’re trying to stop will understand the word. More than 15% of the
county’s population is Asian, more than 10% is Hispanic, and a lot of foreign embassy employees live here. Not everyone is fluent in English. The police use a warning that’s more likely to be understood: “Police! Don’t move!”

Can I use what I’ve learned in my writing? I’m not sure yet. Let’s face it, the average cop’s work is not the stuff of exciting, compelling fiction. A mystery or suspense novel has to play up the drama, fudge the details now and then, and rely on pure invention when reality won’t serve the story. But keeping an eye on the truth might prevent me from making the kind of egregious errors that cause real cops to ridicule crime fiction.

Congratulations to Jen, who won a free copy of Shoots to Kill last week!