Friday, October 31, 2008

Bela Lugosi, you're still the man . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Trust me. Nobody but NOBODY can say "Good Evening" and send shivers up your spine like Bela Lugosi. And nobody but NOBODY has ever done the part of Dracula in a movie or on stage as well as Lugosi. He set the bar too high.

Back in the Fifties, homes had no VCRs or DVD players so I was introduced to Bela Lugosi's magnificent Dracula of the 1931 movie version thanks to a late night show that aired on Las Vegas television every Friday night. I don't remember the hosts' names but I can still see the husband and wife team showing and chatting about all the old horror movies, and me glued to the TV screen, waiting for Bela. Sigh, best night of the week after my father had hogged the television all evening for the Friday Night Fights.

Back in those days, actors once typecast in a roll were rarely allowed to play anything else, and admittedly, Lugosi played in some real stinkers late in his life. Opposite the Bowery Boys? Gimme a break.

Still, Lugosi managed to make his presence felt in more than one movie that otherwise would have been lost in shame forever without him. Take WHITE ZOMBIE. His protrayal of the character, Murder Legendre, is in my humble opinion one of his greatest roles. That the part for the female lead was seriously silly, you get no argument from me. But Lugosi? The stuff legends are made of. And what about THE BLACK CAT where some genius brought Lugosi together with Karloff as they fought over a young bride? The special effect of beautiful dead young women floating lifelessly in glass coffins on the wall? Lugosi as the good guy for once, trying to defeat Karloff and save the newlyweds? Ahhhh.

Then there were his minor roles, like Bela the Gypsy in the 1941 version of THE WOLF MAN with Lon Chaney, Jr. Or how about Egor in one of the FRANKENSTEIN movies? As I said, minor roles, but always extremely well done.

If you've never seen Lugosi's last movie, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE you truly have not plummed the depths of horrible horror movies. Lugosi (fortunately for him?) died during filming, and the director substituted a local chiropractor. The good doctor should have stuck to his day job. But that awful movie is now a cult fave, and as a true Lugosi fan, I, of course, own a copy.

And as a responsible parent and grandparent, I have introduced my sons and grandsons to the delights of Bela Lugosi. I collect his movies when I can find them, usually buying 2-3 copies to share with my grands. Can I help it if their parents no longer appreciate the true value of these one-of-a-kind treasures?

Every October I pull my collection out and emerse myself in Lugosi movies. I was surprised to learn from a recent horror movie documentary that Lugosi was NOT the first choice for the DRACULA movie, though he'd played the part well on the New York stage. However, serendipity interviened, the other two or three actors being considered weren't available for whatever reasons, and Lugosi snagged the part. Movie history was made.

In the 1931 version of DRACULA, Lugosi's reaction to Van Helsing opening a mirrored cigarette box is truly classic, without him even uttering a word. I love that. And the way Lugosi stands in a garden, working to capture the mind of the young woman in WHITE ZOMBIE. Wow.

It's not to late for you to enjoy the delights of a Lugosi movie this Halloween. I suggest DRACULA OR WHITE ZOMBIE. But SCARED TO DEATH, THE APE MAN, THE INVISIBLE GHOST, MURDER BY TELEVISION, etc, you could probably skip. Unless, like me, you believe that Bela Lugosi is still THE man. Sigh.

Thanks for stopping by. Please close the door behind you as you leave. It's time for me to pop another DVD into the player. Hmmm. Let's see. How about the one with the rediculously huge robot that Lugosi controls from a box on his belt? Yeah, that's a good one. Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Chipping Away the Stone

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that Michelangelo, widely accepted as the greatest sculptor ever, explained how he created his magnificent marble statues, including the David and the Pietà, by chipping away the stone until only the form imprisoned within remained. Writers, at least those who know that every first draft needs some revision, go through a similar process. Instead of quarrying the raw material, they create it by putting words together in a form determined by the mysterious process we call creativity. In fact, what writers initially do with words is much like what sculptors in clay do: building up one small bit at a time until a rough form is achieved.

After that, how sculptors revise a clay figure is a combination of of building, removing, and smoothing. We could say that writers do that too. But recently, after many years of writing, I think I’ve reached a new level of ability to critique my own work, and it feels more like chipping away the stone to reveal the story pared down to its essence, containing not one wasted word. At least, that’s the goal. Not being Michelangelo, I never achieve perfection. But the process feels much the same.

When I first joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter with the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober burning a hole in my computer, among the first pieces of advice I heard were these:
Don’t query agents or editors with a first draft.
Join a critique group.
Kill your darlings.
If I had followed all these dicta immediately, I might have sold my first mystery a lot sooner than I did. Or maybe it was meant to take the time it took to learn by my mistakes.

I was so excited about my manuscript that I couldn’t wait to send it out, so I experienced many rejections—and got many good suggestions—before it got published in a form far different from that original first draft. I did join a critique group, but it was the wrong one for me. I knew it when the elderly lady in the group told me my subject matter was “sordid.” (On the other hand, another member was the wonderful Krista Davis, who is a friend and critique partner to this day.) And I understood what “kill your darlings” meant. But for a long time, I couldn’t do it. Every clever phrase and carefully chosen word was so precious to me. How could I take any of them out, even in the interest of a tighter story? And not only my attachment to them, but also the fear that my creative well might run dry at any moment, prevented me from revising as ruthlessly as the material needed.

I know exactly when the shift took place. In 2006, I had the honor of being selected for a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, FL, working with master artist SJ Rozan. SJ both chose the participants and ran the workshop brilliantly, and it was a powerful experience. I learned a lot from the other writers. But SJ provided the moment of truth, some time during the second week, when she said, “Liz, you need to give us less, not more. Two clever lines in a paragraph are enough—three or four are too many.”

I went back to my room and took another look at the manuscript I was presenting to the group. (We “workshopped” three of the first four chapters of Death Will Help You Leave Him, the upcoming second book in my series.) For the first time in the 57 years I’ve been writing, what I needed to cut leaped off the page before my eyes. I could suddenly see the difference between the shape of the story and the bits of literary marble I could chip away. This new ability has stayed with me. In recent weeks, I’ve written two short stories. They’re a departure for me in that they’re not whodunits about Bruce, my series protagonist. In both cases, I envisioned the whole story, final twist and all, before beginning to write. So I was quite pleased with my first draft in both cases. But as soon as I printed them out and began to read them over, the marble chips began to fly around. So I grabbed a pen—and greatly improved the stories.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A New Voice: Jeri Westerson

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Jeri Westerson developed a taste for noir while growing up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, at the same time she was absorbing the history of England in the Middle Ages from her Anglophile parents. When she began writing mysteries, combining the two interests to create what she calls “Medieval noir” seemed only natural.

Jeri worked as a graphic artist in L.A. and Pasadena in the mid 1980s and early '90s. After becoming a mother, she poured her creative energies into writing, but success eluded her. She continued to write while holding a variety of jobs –
luggage salesperson, wine-tasting host and tour guide for a winery, choir director, travel insurance agent, secretary, ceramic studio manager, journalist. At last she found a publishing home with St. Martin’s Press, and her debut novel, Veil of Lies, came out on October 28.

Jeri and her husband, a commercial photographer, have a son in college and
share their southern California home with two cats and a tortoise.

Q. Tell us about Veil of Lies and your protagonist, Crispin.
A. First off, thanks, Sandy, for allowing me to be here on Poe’s Deadly Daughters.

Veil of Lies is my own little subgenre, what I call a “medieval noir,” a darker storyline than you might find in medieval mysteries, with a hard-boiled detective. Crispin is an ex-knight, having lost his wealth, his title, his status—in short, he’s lost himself and now has to redefine his role on the mean streets of 14th century London. He found his niche by becoming the “Tracker,” my take on a 14th century private eye. He’s an interesting man; dark, brooding, a bit intense but very sharp. Likes to quote Aristotle. He’s much smarter than I am!

In this first in the series, Crispin is hired by a rich merchant to spy on his wife to see if she is unfaithful. When Crispin discovers that she is, indeed, up to something, he returns to the merchant to tell him the bad news, but the man is found dead in the proverbial locked room. What follows is a nest of lies and dangerous secrets involving international intrigue, a beautiful femme fatale, and a mysterious religious relic.

Q. Why is a modern woman like you hanging out in the 14th century? Why did you choose this particular era to write about?

A. Because it’s really hard these days to hang out in the 14th century. But seriously, it’s an era I have enjoyed researching and reading about for a very long time, really since I was a kid. My parents were both rabid Anglophiles and my father was even studying to teach medieval history. We had medieval history books on our shelves as well as the big names in historical fiction. I devoured those books as well as absorbed the odd discussion at the dinner table about some point of British history. Honestly, if I hadn’t picked up something I wasn’t trying very hard.

The fourteenth century in particular interested me because this was an era buttressed by the Plague in the early 1300’s and the forced abdication and murder of Richard II by century’s end. In between are the intrigues of court life, a nobility that now considers English its language rather then Norman French, tournaments, wars, a peasant revolt, Geoffrey Chaucer—you name it, it’s got it.

Q. Why did you choose mystery rather than straight historical fiction?

A. Ah, confession time. Actually, I was trying to get published in historical fiction for about ten, eleven years. But it’s an awfully tough market to crack. A former agent of mine recommended I try switching to historical mystery as an easier market to break into. My response: I don’t know how to write a mystery; I don’t want to write a mystery; I’m not going to write a mystery. But when a few more years passed with more rejections, I bloody well learned to write a mystery! But I didn’t want to write the run-of-the-mill medieval mystery. I wanted my own twist to it. So I combined my love for hard-boiled/noir fiction into this cross-pollination and came up with “medieval noir.”

Q. Why did you create a male protagonist? Does writing about a man of that period give you more freedom than you might have writing about a woman?

A. The thing of it is, I really never have written from the female point of view. Not in any satisfying way. I’ve always been a bit male-centric. There’s nothing misogynistic about that, I’ve just always had my mind geared that way, from my childhood as a tomboy to my writing as an adult. If I had wanted to write from the female POV, I would have found a way to give my character the freedom she needed to succeed. There are plenty of such role models in medieval mysteries. I just like getting into the mindset of a man. Particularly in this instance of a man with a strong code of honor. I’ve always been attracted to this “band of brothers” idea of men in battle and cleaving together in these intense relationships. In my experience and observation, women just don’t do that. With men, it’s very different. Maybe it stems from Neanderthal days of banding tightly together to hunt and defend, but it seems to be uniquely male. I like to explore that aspect of male personality with my character.

Q. Your characters have none of the tools used by modern detectives, professional and amateur – no telephones or computers, no databases, no forensics, no network of police departments. They don’t even have electricity. Does this allow you to be more imaginative and make up your own rules? Has the time period created any obstacles you’ve had to work around?

A. I don’t really find these to be obstacles. Getting into the mindset of the period is the fun part. I don’t really “make up my own rules.” I allow my characters to work within the rules of the society in which they lived. After sunset, a curfew is enforced and so now the only ones out on the streets are usually up to no good. It’s dark inside one’s lodgings except for a small fire in your hearth—your light and heat. You light a candle or oil lamp to chase the dark, but it’s still pretty shadowy. These are things I can use rather than having them be an obstacle in the story.

That being said, it must be explained that there were no private eyes in medieval England. The conceit of the character is in the “what if” factor: What if a man with his intelligence and skills were set adrift from all that he had ever known? What might he do for a living that would satisfy his intense sense of honor and justice? How could he do this and atone for his own sins at the same time? The fact of the matter is, such a person is possible. That’s what makes it interesting and challenging.

And as far as “medieval forensics”, you’ll have to scoot on over to Lee Lofland’s blog The Graveyard Shift at where I will be a guest blogger the first week of November, talking about what tools Crispin could have had at his disposal.

Q. Tell us about your road to publication. Was it harder or easier than you expected?

A. Let’s see. It took me 14 years and 19 novels to get a publishing contract, so yes, this was a lot harder than I expected. When I first decided to turn this long-time hobby into a career (I had already written three novels “just for fun” before I decided to write “for real”), I researched the situation. What was the industry like? What did I have to do to get published? Did I need an agent, etc. I worked hard to discover all these things on my own and just began writing.

Three years in, I got an agent and we worked together for three more years trying to place two of my manuscripts. To be fair, she did place one of them (an historical novel about Shakespeare and the earl of Oxford) with a small publisher, but they went out of business before it went to press. We finally parted ways. More manuscripts and two awful agents passed.

When I finally took the advice to switch to mysteries I had given up on agents and planned on going it alone to small presses. But has it ever happened to you? When you weren’t looking for it, it falls into your lap. Love, the perfect house, agents. I stumbled upon this agency and the junior partner had a degree in medieval literature. I courted him for about a year. We exchanged emails and he helped me revise my manuscript, all without a contract. After a year we signed. Though the first Crispin Guest medieval noir got rejected everywhere, the second and third did not. He placed Veil of Lies and the next in the series, Serpent in the Thorns, with St. Martin’s Minotaur. I’m still with that agency (you better believe it!).

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

A. I really enjoy the research. You find the best turns of plot when you are researching something. I can’t tell you how many times I have been led in an entirely different direction from a footnote!

What’s the most difficult? The other things you have to do: writing a blog, maintaining a website, getting yourself out there to promote, the day job. I’d rather just write!

Q. Although you’re knowledgeable about life in the Middle Ages, do you still find that you need to research certain things?

A. There’s always some specialty you need to research or something that never occurred to you to look up. Each novel concerns a religious relic—it’s my McGuffin—and so what is known about that relic must be researched. Real people show up, so they need to be researched. I had to research the wool market in this novel, archery in the second, things like that.

Q. Do you have a strict writing schedule? How do you balance writing with your day job?

A. It’s not strict, but I like to write at least three to four pages a day. Doesn’t always come out that way right now, but I try. I work at a day job three days a week (the same place my husband works, so we carpool). He works late, so when I’m done at 5:30, I whip out my laptop and work for about two hours and write while he finishes up. On my days off I write and research all day.

Q. With your first book coming out, you’ll have to add promotion to your schedule. Where do you plan to aim most of your promotional efforts? Signings, conferences, online activity?

A. As a new kid on the block, signings at bookstores aren’t the best use of my time since no one knows me and may not make the effort to come out. But I am going to be at a few bookstores in southern California where I live. I will be in San Diego, Orange County, Riverside County, Los Angeles, and the Valley. Check my website for my appearance schedule if you’ll be in the area. There are two large mystery fan/writers conferences I go to – Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime -- and I will be starting to go to the Historical Novel Society’s North American Conference. These are expensive for me so I’m keeping that down to a low roar.

I also blog. You have to blog these days. I have a popular one called “Getting Medieval” at and my character Crispin has his own blog at The website — — is fairly static. I just add news and my appearance schedule to it. And, of course, I’m doing a blog tour by posting as a guest blogger on various blogs or doing interviews like this one and advertising the heck out of it. (You can view my blog tour schedule on my website.)

I’ll also be appearing on various panels around the southland and doing presentations at libraries and women’s organizations. Any place that will have me, really. I love giving presentations like: “The Challenges of Researching 14th Century London from 21st Century California,” “Top Ten Myths About the Middle Ages,” and “Medieval Forensics.”

Q. You had a blog before you sold your first book. How do you think that will pay off now that you’re published?

A. The blog helped me get recognized. I pushed myself out there with a variety of interviews of not only authors but librarians and small publishers. By advertising those to the mystery and history community I got noticed. At the first Bouchercon conference I went to back in 2006, I was shocked to discover that people recognized my name from my blog. It’s all about networking, really. My posts got linked by a few big bloggers, I linked back, chatted with them, met some of them in person at various book festivals and found myself suddenly with important contacts.

I figure readers will find my blogs to be good spots to get to know me and get to know Crispin. It will be a nice bridge for them between book releases.

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

A. I take about a month or two of just thinking about it (yes, I’m really working when I’m staring into space, at least that’s what I tell my husband when the laundry isn’t done), doing some preliminary research, taking notes and writing some scenes of dialogue that occur to me. And then I loosely outline, but I never seem to follow it once I start writing (but it’s good to have a starting point). And then I write, rewrite while I’m writing, and continue researching. In nine months, I have a novel ready to be critiqued. My husband reads it first—always. He’s my solid rock, by the way, the one who encouraged me to keep going for all those years of rejection. And then my critique partners—my Vicious Circle—get ahold of it and rip it a new one. And then I rewrite again and send it off to my agent, who also makes suggestions for changes. And then it goes to my editor, who will make even more changes. I’m actually pretty grateful that I started out life as a graphic artist. Having to create something for a client is good exercise for this sort of thing. You learn not to take these suggestions personally, thinking of it as just more clients you have to satisfy with your “product.”

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

A. My biggest heroes are those writers of the past. I’m a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy Hughes. Dorothy Sayers and Ellis Peters are also faves. I’m also a big fan of current writers Julia Spencer-Fleming and Laurie King. But my tastes are quite eclectic, from J.K. Rowling to Arturo Perez-Reverte.

When I set out to create my own kind of medieval mystery, I started literally tearing apart the works of Chandler and Hammett to see what made a good hard-boiled detective. Dorothy Hughes lent me her noir strokes. Her sense of place is amazing. I wanted to use the spare style of Chandler but still give it enough of a lush feel of another place and time. It’s a tough act to follow, to be sure.

Q. Have you found writers’ organizations helpful? Would you advise aspiring writers to become active in mystery writers’ groups before they’re published?

A. Oh my God! Yes! When I switched to mysteries, I found a whole new world of opportunities. Not only are there numerous small presses devoted solely to mysteries, but there are also independent booksellers who pride themselves on just stocking mysteries. All over the country you can find these bookstores. Conferences. Panels. What a market! When I joined Sisters in Crime, I got the answers to the many questions I had. I found like-minded writers, support, critique partners. Really, everything you need to get a leg up. I don’t think I could have done it without organizations like Sisters in Crime. They are duly thanked in my acknowledgements. And yes, I would definitely recommend to start out in a local or online chapter. I belong to a “local” chapter, but it is quite far from where I live and a bit of a drive. I have found the online chapter to be most helpful (and saves on gas!).

Q. What do you see in your future? Where would you like to be as a writer in five years?

A. I would like to be well along in the series and with another medieval mystery series on its way. I’m already in the thinking stages of that one. I hope to be in a position to write a novel in each series every other year. I don’t think many of us can really devote the proper time to two novels a year. I don’t think I could do either justice, but we’ll see. I’m already a little ahead with the Crispin series because three are already written.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Don’t do it! Naw, just kidding. Well, don’t do it until you’ve done your homework and really know what you are getting into. It’s not easy. But if you are obsessed with writing and can’t not do it, then you’d better give it a go. And join writer’s organizations like Sisters in Crime. Get yourself a good critique group and—here’s the tough part—listen to what they have to say! You’ll save yourself a world of hurt if you can learn to take advice from other writers. You’ll learn to drop bad habits and begin to see your work more objectively. And when you finish your manuscript, don’t sit back on your laurels. Write the next one right away. You might find that the second one is better than the first.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Words Fail Me

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve kept a journal—more or less, okay more than less—for thirty years. I’ve played around with umpteen-gazillion journaling techniques, from drawing with my eyes closed to dialoging with inanimate objects.

About three months ago I was trying to journal, yet again, about my love-hate relationship with housework. Make no mistake, I love a tidy house, with washed windows, vacuumed carpets, and everything put away in it’s own special place. At least, I think I’d love it if I could ever get there once. Just once.

There are too many interesting things to do. Write another scene vs vacuum? Research a new character vs wash windows? Play with cloth vs file papers? Guess which one I’ll choose every time. This is the result, what a corner of my office/workshop/atelier looks like. It doesn’t always look like this. Some weeks it looks worse.

As I struggled to put my love and loathing of housework into words yet again, I realized that words failed me. No amount of journal angst was going to do it this time. I wanted something substantial, that would show my ambivalence about hating mess and loving creativity at the same time. So instead of writing, I made a personal shrine. It’s called “Blue Over Housework.”

I think if you click on the photos you might get a bigger version. It works here in the preview screen, but I'm not sure what will happen once this thing gets posted.

For the techno-paper geeks out there: the base is 3/16" foam core board, covered with mulberry paper. The words were computer generated and printed on more mulberry paper, which was layered on the base. The blue-and-white dish pan, dishes and dishcloth are DECO air-drying clay from Japan. The dragonflies are made of wire, Japanese paper, and craft pearls. The thing that looks like an egg shell is . . . an egg shell. Embellishments include stamps, buttons, printed words, a air-drying clay disc stamped with the Chinese symbol for peace, a kitchen sponge, and an old house key. The whole thing is covered with multiple layers of Golden acrylic gel, tinted with Golden acrylic liquid paint.

I recommend a little shrine-building for everyone, particularly if you’re struggling with a conundrum that words don’t seem to cover. You might want to check out the multi-media artist, Carol Owen, and her book, Crafting Personal Shrines, Lark Books, 2004, ISBN:1-57990-453X. That book has all the directions, patterns, tips, and list of materials you’ll need to build a shrine.

After that, just go for it. Play. Create. Build. Have a great time.

I'm off to the World Fantasy Convention, here in Calgary this coming weekend. 3 1/2 days of writing workshops and schmoozing with other writers. Best of all, I can take the C-train there and back, and sleep in my own bed each night.

Creative 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, October 27, 2008

My First Mystery

by Julia Buckley
I was reminiscing today about my earliest books--the first ones I read alone. I think this one may have been my first mystery; I received it in the mail through a children's book club, back when snail mail was the only kind, and little children looked longingly in the box every day. Imagine my joy when there was a package there for me, every four weeks or so, with hardback books inside.

Big Max was a wonderful book involving a detective who traveled by umbrella; he was hired to solve a case for the King of Pooka Pooka, who had lost his beloved elephant. The story, looking back, seems a mixture of mystery, humor, and surrealism.

I can still remember the joy of discovering that book, but also the thrill of crime solving. I'm not sure if I figured out the ending or not, but I know the resolution was satisfying, even to my seven-year-old self. Eventually I moved on to such sophisticated fare as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, then the Boxcar Children and Trixie Belden, and after that I read single-title suspense novels by authors like Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, Velda Johnston and Victoria Holt.

Big Max is still in print and available to a whole new generation of children (and perhaps future mystery lovers). I'm grateful to Kin Platt for my first mystery reading experience.

Which book introduced you to the world of mystery?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Guest Interview: Aimée and David Thurlo

Aimée and David Thurlo are the authors of three series, starting with the Ella Clah novels, which feature an ex-FBI agent who returns to her Navaho roots in the four corners of the U.S. west. Their second series features an extern nun, Sister Agatha, and their third Lee Nez, is a nightwalker (the Navaho equivalent of a vampire) and a New Mexico State Policeman.

The couple have won Romance Writers of America Career Achievement Awards for Series Romantic Suspense (2007) and Romantic Suspense (2003), and been nominated multiple times in the past twenty years for Best Romantic Suspense Novel, Best Harlequin Intrigue, and Career Achievement—Mystery/Female sleuth.

Your longest series features the young Navaho woman, Ella Clah. How has Ella grown and changed over 14 books? What challenges will she face in her latest book, Coyote’s Wife?

Aimée and David:
Keep in mind that each story takes place after about a year’s time has passed, so Ella has now been back to the Rez for around fourteen years. In that time, she’s gone from `LA Woman’ , the nickname she was given because she returned as an outsider - to a Navajo woman widely accepted and respected among The People. But, just as it was upon her return, Ella has continued to struggle with walking the line between the modern, Anglo world and the culture of the Traditionalists. She’s learned to respect and appreciate those cultural beliefs and practices that had once seemed foreign to her, and strives hard to maintain harmony and balance as she protects her tribe.
In Coyote’s Wife, Ella is pressured to halt whoever is trying to sabotage the completion of a satellite telephone service on the Navajo Nation. The pressure is coming from an old nemesis of hers, Abigail Yellowhair, the widow of a Navajo politician and power broker. Abigail’s son-in-law heads the communication project, and is the main target of the harassment. As the incidents escalate and a man in killed, Ella starts to suspect a connection with Navajo witches, skinwalkers, and this places her in danger as well.

One of my favorite characters is Ella’s mother, Rose. Could you talk a little about how you created her character, and the roles she plays in the books?

Aimée and David:
In the first book of the series, Blackening Song, Ella has left the reservation to get away from the pressure of having to choose between the ways of her Christian preacher father and the traditional Navajo beliefs of her mother, Rose.
When her father is killed and Ella returns to the Navajo Nation, she realizes she’s forgotten much of what it means to be Navajo. Her closest relatives, Rose and her brother Clifford - a hataalii or medicine man, are both very traditional, so Ella doesn’t have to look far to find conflicts in life styles and philosophies. Rose provides balance, cultural guidance, and loving support for Ella and her grandaughter, Dawn. Though she can be a pain sometimes, Rose is the rock that holds the dysfunctional family together.

Neither of you come from a Navaho tradition, but you have lived all or a large part of your life among Four Corners Aboriginal people. I love the details in your books, not only of Navaho culture but the day-to-day details, like pick-up trucks lining the highway at dawn to sell breakfast tortillas to travelers. What has the Aboriginal community’s response been to your books?

Aimée and David:
David grew up on the Navajo Nation, and his father was born within a few miles of Navajo land and worked for the tribe for many years, so there is a strong connection within the family. Many of David’s former classmates have contacted us, letting him know how much they appreciate someone who’s been on the `inside’ and lived among The People. We’ve also met many Navajo people who’ve come to our events and signings, or written us, encouraging us to continue the stories about Ella and her family. Most of our sources for our books are Navajo and from the Four Corners region, and everyone we’ve met so far has been positive.

What advice would you give to writers who want to stay in the business for the long-haul?

Aimée and David:
Whether you’re writing standalones or a series, keep the stories fresh and true to character. Also, know your readers and what they expect from your characters - though it’s important to keep them guessing a bit. And when it comes to the business side of writing, remember that you have to remain tough skinned and resilient to critics and rejection. Never give up your dream.
How did you come to have a shy, 94-pound poodle to help you with your writing?

Aimée and David:
We adopt our animals whenever we can, and Gabriel was a twice rescued guy from South Carolina when we heard about him. He was described as a `couch potato’, so we arranged to have him flown to New Mexico. We’d just lost our biggest poodle to a sudden illness, so we needed him as much as he needed us. It turned out that Gabriel had been abused by a man, so it has taken several months for him to warm up to David. We have offices at opposite ends of the house, so Gabriel sits beside Aimée on the daybed where she does second drafts and keeps her company. He’s also served as an occasional desk for her laptop computer. He’s calm, dependable, and a great companion for both of us now, and helps keep us centered sometimes when we’re feeling stressed out.

For more information about the Thurlos and their books, visit their web site at

Friday, October 24, 2008

Kids these days . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

There is nothing quite so funny as watching a young child "dribble" a bowling ball down the bowling alley. Who knew bowling balls could bounce that high? But my grandson is learning to bowl--at least one hopes he is learning--and I have high hopes for him, given that he beat his older brother by three points during our most recent bowling adventure. Of course, the gutter rails kept him out of a lot of trouble.

Children are so different today. Different from when my boys were small and VERY different from when I was small. They don't spend nearly as much time as my generation did playing outside, using sticks for guns, discarded Christmas trees for castles, or playing board games on the neighbor's porch on a scorching summer day. A lot of time today is spent inside playing video games, chatting on or texting on cell phones, listening to MP3 players, surfing the net. In other words, kids today have (and often carry everywhere with them) all the latest technology.

Some of this technology is great, allowing parents to "keep an eye" on kids even when they are miles from home (tracking by cell phone, who knew?) Other technology is likely to leave us with an entire generation gone deaf by the ripe old age of twenty-one.

So how about you? How much new technology have you purchased and struggled to learn to use since this decade began? I confess, I love a cell phone, so easy to make calls from anywhere and/or reach someone else in an emergency . . . even if that someone has gone fishing.

I gave up on using a PDA because the battery wouldn't hold a charge for very long and it seemed to take much longer to note a date in my calendar there than to quickly jot it down in the paper one.

MP3s? I've got two, one for library audio books, one for the audio books I buy. I adore audio books.

Laptop? Yes. Internet? Of course. Where else could I research so quickly various ways to kill off my characters? Chat with other authors about the how-to of writing and with other readers about books I love or hate? Order hard to find items.

And how many children did you have to consult with in order to learn how to operate all of your new technology? Personally I've lost count.

But technology aside, in my humble opinion kids do need to spend more time outside. Or adventuring with a parent or grandparent. Time hiking in the woods or baiting a fishing hook or bouncing a bowling ball or visiting a museum. Have you adventured your kids lately?

Side note: I'll be away for a couple of Fridays this month, so if you post a comment, bless you and please don't be offended if I don't respond. Feel free to carry on without me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Joy of Reunion

Elizabeth Zelvin

It all started with an email from a friend I haven’t seen in fifty years, though she lives only a subway ride away—the same ride I used to take as a high school girl from Queens making weekly pilgrimages to Manhattan, where I live now. She’s a lawyer, and she told me that a mutual friend had died. He and I had remained friends, having much in common. Like me, he was a therapist and a poet—though the third string to his bow was not mystery writing but standup comedy. We weren’t in constant contact, but we always had a long phone conversation around our birthdays, two days apart, in mid-April. This year, I was surprised he didn’t respond to my book announcement or show up at my launch party. The latter was actually on my birthday, and for the first time in decades, he didn’t call or answer my emails. (I don’t phone if I can help it, but that’s another story.)

As my lawyer friend told me, he had a good excuse: he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall and died a week before our birthdays. I felt terribly sad not only about losing him but that he’d chosen not to let me know he was ill. Apart from the bad news, I was delighted to be in touch with her again. We had spent two years together in an extraordinary group of boys and girls at Parsons Junior High in Queens (two years after Simon and Garfunkel) designated the SP orchestra class. That meant we did three years of junior high in two, skipping eighth grade, had tested high for musical aptitude, and all had IQs of over 130.

There’s nothing like a death to make you realize you’d better stop putting off getting together. So one thing led to another, we found 10 out of 17 girls and 13 out of 19 guys, and we've already had two gatherings in New York. Sadly, one woman and one man have died. In other words, at 51 years since graduation, it’s high time, and it’s a good thing we’re seizing the moment.

In the old days before the Internet, a reunion was a one-shot event. You got all dressed up, traveled to some hotel ballroom, and spent an evening saying, “Hiiiii! How are you?” and thinking, Good grief, he’s lost all his hair! Thanks to email, the reunion was in full swing a month before the dinner. By the time we met in person, we'd already done enough catching up to be dining and partying not just with fondly remembered childhood friends but with friends indeed.

There is nothing more delicious than fifty-year-old gossip. Among the hot questions were who took whom to the prom, who kissed whom at Spin the Bottle, who became a hippie, who came out. Some confessed to secret crushes. Others reported fascinating career paths. The guy who died developed the eponymous Chaikin's algorithm, a way to draw curves on the computer. The woman who died co-founded a journal of radical Asian scholars. The one who left academia to manage hedge funds has a new marriage and a baby the age of my granddaughter. So far, I’m the only one who’s written a novel, but I’m happy to hear there are mystery lovers among us. In an amazing stroke of networking luck for me, one’s the mom of a major Hollywood producer, and she’s offered to pass on my book. I’ve always wondered who those 30-year-old heads of studios were. Now you know, she says. They’re the kids of people you’ve known since you were kids. So if I become the next Charlaine Harris (I can dream, can’t I?), it’ll be thanks to the SP orchestra class at Parsons Junior High.

Note:In the class picture, I'm fifth from the left in the third row. In the snapshot below, I'm on the left in the second row.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Kill me, but don't misspell my name

Sandra Parshall

Mystery fans are the only people I know who will happily pay somebody to murder them. If they can’t find anyone willing to bump them off, they’ll settle for being turned into dogs or hookers.

At every big mystery convention – Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, etc. – an auction of items donated by writers raises thousands of dollars for charity. The biggest chunk of money goes for “items” that cost the authors nothing and can’t be carried home in a suitcase: the chance to have their names given to characters in future novels.

I don’t know whether it’s sheer love of the genre, the desire for a kind of immortality, or latent masochism, but the bidding for this honor can be fierce. At the first Malice Domestic I attended a few years ago, I looked on in open-mouthed wonder as someone paid $800 to have her name in a Donna Andrews novel. At Bouchercon in Baltimore this year, the highest bid of the auction was $1,500 for naming rights in a Laurie R. King book.

Reviewer Andi Shechter and librarian/writer Gary Warren Niebuhr, great friends to the genre, have both bought “appearances” in several books. Short, dark-haired Andi got a kick out of being a tall, blonde hooker in an S.J. Rozan mystery, and Gary got a three-in-one deal in Rozan’s Winter and Night: a major character is named Gary, another character’s last name is Niebuhr, and the setting is a town called Warrenton.

Of course, writers have always enjoyed slipping the names of real friends and relatives – and their pets – into fiction, free of charge. (I don’t think the real Spike paid to be immortalized as the lovably disagreeable terrier in Donna Andrews’s Meg Langslow series.) Everything I write includes at least a couple of characters named for friends. But character-naming isn’t always done out of affection. There’s a lot of truth in the warning that you shouldn’t antagonize a mystery writer because you might end up dead or serving a long prison sentence – in the pages of a book.

Honoring friends and getting even with enemies are private pleasures for the writer, usually not shared with readers, but some writers use the lure of naming rights in future books to promote a current release. Karin Slaughter’s recurring Get Slaughtered contest is always deluged with entries. Lisa Gardner named a murder victim in Gone for a contest winner.

Contest and auction winners usually see their names attached to characters who appear in only one book, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Tess Gerritsen’s medical examiner, Dr. Maura Isles, got her name through an auction and was intended as a one-book character, but the fictional Maura grabbed a permanent role as co-protagonist, with Detective Jane Rizzoli, in a best-selling series.

At Malice Domestic this year, I decided, with some trepidation, to try my luck at raising money for charity by donating naming rights to a character. Because I’m not well-known and haven’t published a lot of books, I was afraid no one would be interested. I crept into the room as the auction started and sat near the door so I could creep out again, mortified, if nobody wanted to be in my book. Angie Hogancamp saved me from disgrace. She’ll be one of the good people in my next novel.

For the Bouchercon auction this year, I donated animal naming rights, figuring people would pay even more to immortalize their pets than they would to see their own names in print. The bidding was under way for the right to name a dog, and I’d already offered to throw in naming rights for a cat to raise the ante, when a woman in the audience said that if I would add a guinea pig, she would pay $900 for all three. Sold! Look for Maggie, Lisa Marie, and Mr. Piggles in my next book. Many thanks to Meg Born for her amazing donation to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Viva House, a mission for the poor and homeless in Baltimore.

I also came away from Bouchercon a winner, after an incredibly thoughtful friend won naming rights for a character in a Thomas H. Cook novel and gave the prize to me because Cook is my favorite writer. So now I'm going to find out how it feels to see a character on the page bearing my name. I'm pretty sure it will feel fantastic.

Do you enter character naming contests? Do you bid for naming rights at conference auctions? Have you ever won, and were you happy with the character that got your name? (I know one cat owner who was miffed when she paid to have her feline in a novel and his name was given to a human.) Why do you think people enjoy this so much?

Whatever your choices, get out and VOTE on November 4!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Easing the Uphill Struggle

Sharon Wildwind

At times, I run out of energy before I run out of day. When those days happen, it’s terrific to be able to ask my husband to do things for me that I normally do for myself, even simple tasks such as untie my shoes, or hang up my dress, or bring me a glass of water.

A group of researchers, led by Simone Schnalla of the University of Plymouth in England, has demonstrated that approaching a daunting task with a good friend has a measurable positive effect on judging how hard that task will be. Their study, called “Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant” was published last month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. (If you’re interested in reading the article, details are at the end of the blog.)

Schnalla and his co-investigators did two studies.

In the first, a person was asked to estimate how steep a hill was. Test subjects who had a good friend with them during the test estimated the hill to be less steep than people who were unaccompanied.

In the second study, subjects were asked to estimate the steepness of an imaginary hill, this time while thinking of a supportive friend. In this study as well, people who thought about a good friend, saw the hill as less steep than did the people thinking about a neutral or disliked person. The longer and more positive the friendships, the flatter the hill seemed to be.

Supportive friendships existed among writers long before the Internet made keeping in touch easier. In the nineteenth century, the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and the biographer and social reformer Annie Fields not only shared a house, but kept up friendships—and correspondences that didn’t depend on e-mail, cellphones, or Facebook—with a list of people that reads like a high school required reading list. Among their long-time friends were Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lydia Maria Child, Mark Twain, Mary Ellen Chase, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Willa Cather, and William Dean Howells.

I talked recently to a friend who is a writer, though not of mysteries. Her particular literary neighborhood is going through a dicy patch right now, one of those, “He said,” “She said,” “I never said” fracases, with side orders of name-calling and back-stabbing. She said to me, “Every time we talk, you have another story about writers doing something nice for each other. How do you guys do it?”

The flippant answer is that we have the ability to kill—on paper, of course—whoever gets in our way.

However we do it, I’m darn glad we do. So my advice this week is to raise our collective glasses to one another and give a little cheer for making all the hills seem smaller. Let’s keep hiking on together.

Link to the article:

If that address doesn’t work, go to and look for
Social support and the perception of geographical slant
Simone Schnalla, Kent D. Harberb, Jeanine K. Stefanuccic and Dennis R. Proffitt
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 44, Issue 5, September 2008, Pages 1246-1255

Writing quote for the week:

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
~Anais Nin, diarist and writer (1903 - 1977)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Marching Bravely Into The Blind Years

by Julia Buckley
My boys and me, about ten years ago.

I read a Thanksgiving issue of a magazine this weekend. It was filled with recipes, time-saving ideas, decorating tips, even Thanksgiving prayers to say at the family table. One idea on the list suggested that a month before the holiday a family should leave out a basket and slips of paper, and every time a family member felt grateful for something, they could jot it on the paper. Then on Thanksgiving the family could read together what they had been grateful for in the past month.

That sounded neat to me, so I got out an autumn colored basket and persuaded my youngest son to help me make computerized slips that said "I am thankful for . . . " which we cut up and put beside the basket. I jotted a few to get things going, then explained the concept to my newspaper-reading husband and my sarcastic thirteen-year-old son.

My youngest boy, ten, was excited about it, and began jotting down his thankful thoughts right away. His older brother watched him, lip curled.

"Graham is just going to write stupid things," he said. This is one of the nicer things he's said about his brother in recent days.

"Why don't you fill out a slip about how much you love Graham?" I suggested.

"I'll fill out one about how I love ham," he said. Then, fueled by this hilarious thought, he stopped his lounging long enough to write "ham" on a piece of paper and flick it into the basket.

I sighed. This is a typical exchange between me and my eldest. He has little tolerance for anything or anyone around him, and in the process he becomes intolerable.

Later in the day I heard him mocking his brother, something for which he is constantly in trouble but which he cannot seem to restrain. I called to him from my post at the computer. "Ian, leave your brother alone!"

Not surprisingly, his response was wrathful. "Graham was just being a jerk to me!" he yelled. "And you only take his side because YOU LOVE HIM MORE."

That's right. He played the love card. It wasn't the first time, either. My son is outrageously smart and generally wise about the world, but he doesn't see the folly of this argument--not even when I attempt a rational discussion of it.

The fact is, my son has begun his journey into the blind years--the ones we look back at later and say, "Oh, I was a real pain back then." He is a pain. But he's funny and clever and talented. He's fearless with his words and creativity and therefore a much better writer than his mother is. In another ten years he'll be a nearly perfect human being.

Right now, though, he's in the formative stage. He has to test his limits and torture his brother and accuse his mother of not loving him every time she holds him accountable for his behavior. He has to smirk and pretend that he doesn't love anyone and crack jokes to avoid looking emotional. He refuses to walk the dog that he promised to walk daily and he pokes the old cat that doesn't like to be touched. He spends happy hours on the phone with friends, then hangs up and treats us to hours of moodiness.

But then, boylike, he'll perk up and act as though none of his misanthropy had ever happened. He'll stand with his brother in front of the microwave and watch the marshmallow they put in there balloon up to five times its size. "It's a monster! May God help us all," he jokes, doing his best sci-fi movie scientist.

And then he and his little brother eat hot marshmallow together, their generational rift forgotten and their bond of brotherhood acknowledged.

Meanwhile his father and I are nursing headaches from scolding him all day. But we take the marshmallow he offers as what it is--a gesture of love. When a boy is thirteen, he doesn't say "I love you," and you can't expect him to.

However, he does have a ritual which I think is the closest I'm going to get: when I leave each day, he says, "Don't get in a car accident."

And I smile with the knowledge that he cares.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Canada Calling: D. J. McIntosh

D. J. McIntosh is a Toronto-based writer of novels and short mystery fiction. Her yet-unpublished first novel, The Witch of Babylon, won the 2008 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel; it was also shortlisted for the 2007 Crime Writers’ Association (U.K.) Debut Dagger award.

The Witch of Babylon has been recognized in both Canada and the U.K. as an outstanding book. Tell us about it.

The Witch of Babylon introduces James Madison, a New York antiquities broker who dances a fine line between the barely lawful and outright crime. After a frantic phone call, Madison discovers his boyhood friend murdered, caught up in the aftermath of the 2003 Baghdad Museum looting. Madison must unravel a web of secrets that tie three apparently unrelated elements together: an original version of an Old Testament prophetic book, the 612 BC sacking of Nineveh, and the science of alchemy as expressed in Hermetic philosophy.

You’re one of those fortunate people who get to lead a double life: part Ontario cottage country and part big-city. How does that work?
From my city wintering spot, in May I head to my cottage near a beautiful crescent of beach on a First Nations Reserve. A part of every day is spent cycling, hiking with my golden retriever pal, gardening. I’ve just come back from an afternoon of gathering wild apples to make cider with dear friends of mine on the reserve. Lake Huron and the great sand dunes covered with frothy grasses are the centerpiece of this part of our country. In the morning the Lake is a silvery flat sheen but in windy afternoons when the sun’s rays tilt through the waves, the water turns the brilliant aquamarine of the Aegean. All kinds of bird life abound – Merganzer ducks with their babies, rare terns, and Great Blue Herons. The Bruce peninsula’s unique ecosystem has many varieties of wild orchids and other forms of plant and animal life you won’t see anywhere else.

Come October, Toronto beckons again. I love both worlds – cottage country and the city - and live right downtown in the thick of things. Close by are the Gardiner and Royal Ontario Museums and the Art Gallery, so I get ample opportunity to indulge my interest in art and antiquities. Writing The Witch involved years of research into the Assyrian culture that reached its zenith in the 6th century BC, centered in what is now northern Iraq, and its relationship to vassal states in Anatolia (Turkey) and Judea (Israel). A gift, really, because the writing gave me opportunity to learn about these ancient cultures.

The book is set in New York and Baghdad. For obvious reasons I had to rely on journalist photos and accounts for the Baghdad portion. But The Witch did supply a wonderful excuse to explore Manhattan. Using New York for a setting offers a real challenge because it’s been written about so much. I had to find offbeat and unique venues to set the scenes. This proved to be lots of fun and great door-opener to really getting to know the place. I found a fabulous bar in the Village, for example, dating back to the early 1800’s whose legendary owner mentored stars like Springsteen and Patti Smith. Which brings me to another love – music. I try to take in as much live music as I can and whether it’s Al green, Santana or Jesse Cook you can count on getting to see them in New York or Toronto.

You’re not only making the big leap into having a published novel, but you’ve been recognized twice for your first book before it’s even sold. What’s it like to be an author at such a major turning point?

From zoning by-laws to crime novels – that’s quite a stretch - but is, in fact, the leap I’ve made. I left my job as a City of Toronto Senior Planner to become a full-time writer of antiquity thrillers. With a degree in English but no professional writing background, like so many others I had to start out at square one and the game board in front of me was vast and full of challenges. What have I learned along the way?

One of the first steps I took was to join Crime Writers of Canada and latterly, Mystery Writers of America and the International Association of Crime Writers. These organizations offer tremendous resources: seminars about how to perfect your writing skills, valuable industry buzz and most of all the opportunity to network with successful authors. In this respect it’s not who you know but all the valuable tips you gather along the way that add up to an important learning experience.

I’ve also come to realize that, as you play the game, there are more supporters than opponents. I think for example of the wonderful Louise Penny and her husband Michael Whitehead who together with McArthur and Company Publishing established the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel. Louise, whose fourth book The Murder Stone is ready to launch, also has a great synopsis on her web site aimed at helping new writers.

The turning point for me actually came a year earlier when The Witch was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association (U.K.) Debut Dagger. The nomination resulted in my work coming to the attention of Helen Heller, a highly regarded literary agent whose professional advice has made a real difference to my writing. The 2007 winner of the Debut Dagger, Alan Bradley, has seen his novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie sold in twelve countries; it’s due out this January. The point of all this being that putting in the work to enter competitions can reap big rewards.

I read everything I can in my sub-genre and take time out to read literary work – the most recent being Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game – or classics like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, because the most effective way to learn our craft is through these tutorials by great authors.

I belong to a writers group with four other great gals who offer critiques and much needed support. Lastly, I regularly comb the pages of Publisher’s Weekly, Quill & Quire and the Bookseller. There’s no better way to keep on top of industry trends.

If I can pass on some help to other aspiring writers you’re welcome to get in touch.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A quiet place to sit and read . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Do you have a favorite place to read? Mine is just about anywhere I can sit down, open a book, and not be interrupted. Well, not too many interruptions. I usually read in bed a few minutes before going to sleep, to get my mind off my day. And I read in the car (yes, with someone else driving) read in the bathroom, read on the couch, and my fave place, read on the sun porch. It's warm and it's quiet. Ahhh. I've also been known to read in a small boat while hubby trolls the honey holes for unsuspecting fish, or under a tree, or on the rocks beside a beautiful lake during a camping trip, because having a view to look up at and appreciate every so often really enhances the reading experience for me.

Two of my favorite reading experiences took place at different bed and breakfasts while traveling. The first was at a B&B in Louisville, KY, where we'd gone to meet friends and spend a quiet weekend. The house was Victorian style, very old, and very beautiful. I was quickly drawn into the library/parlor area where I discovered a hardback copy of an Agatha Christie mystery I'd already read. Whenever the rest of our group was napping or dressing for dinner or whatever, I'd sneak down there and read. The experience let me imagine what it would have been like to actually live there in the past and enjoy life in that beautiful parlor.

The second experience took place on our way home from my very first book conference, the Virginia Festival of Books, back in '02. My first book was due out in a few months and I wanted to meet my publisher and his other authors, so off we went. One of the most enjoyable parts of traveling for me is to happen upon a place we haven't been before and probably never even heard of. Coming home on this trip we spotted a restaurant that was part of a huge old house, possibly a farm house, and we stopped there for lunch. On discovering they had a vacancy for the night, we booked a room. We spent a good bit of time exploring the beautiful grounds, in full bloom at that time. Then hubby went to our room to take a nap and I went to explore the inside of the house. On the top floor I discovered a room with three full walls of windows facing the river outside. At that particular spot the river becomes a small water fall, fully visible from that room. I curled up on the couch with one of the books purchased at the book festival and alternately read and enjoyed the view.

As I said, my fave spot now is on our sun porch because it looks out on my small flower garden, the trees that surround our place, and the occasional deer wandering by.

And what do I bring to these places to read? Most often a cozy mystery. I don't much like the really dark stuff, and I certainly don't enjoy being in a serial killer's head while he's dispensing with his latest victim. Ick. I like light reading, easy entertainment. And that's what I write. So why is it that my most favorite book is probably not a true mystery, and it most certainly isn't cozy? It's WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson. You probably already knew that if you've read this blog for long. But I also have a new second fave. THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Dianne Setterfield. And it's not cozy either. So what is it about these books that stuck with me? Pretty much just that: the stories stuck with me long after I put the books down.

If you were to ask me whodunit in some of my favorite cozy mysteries that I read last year, most likely I couldn't tell you. I enjoyed the reads but they didn't stick in my mind. I could probably read them again and not remember whodunit until near the end. Mostly because I read for enjoyment, not information, BUT if the author does manage to teach me something new, as Tony Hillerman has done in his mysteries, I won't complain. And I'll do my best to remember it.

I think Setterfield's novel struck me (not to mention stuck with me so well) because the lead character LOVES TO READ. She describes her reading pleasures and I can see myself living in that scene. And she's a writer, describing the difficulties of getting thoughts from brain to paper. I can identify with her. From the reviews I've read, THE THIRTEENTH TALE appears to be one of those books that readers either love or hate. No middle ground. Well, put me firmly on the "loved it" side. Now I'll have to thank my book club members who chose it. By the way, this book is supposed to be our November read, but having finished the October read well ahead of time and finding myself a few pages into the November selection, I quite simply could not put it down. So I spent a very enjoyable day on the sun porch, reading and listening to the birds. Don't you love it when you can't put a book down? When you just have to know what happens next to the characters? Ahhhh.

Sooo, do you have a favorite reading memory you'd like to share? Either about the book or the place where you read it? And do you have one place where you do most of your reading? Please share it. Who knows, the Deadly Daughters might want to join you there some time. I'll bring the cinnamon coffee. Someone else will have to do the cookies.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Bar at Bouchercon

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve just returned from my first time at Bouchercon, mystery’s biggest annual convention, which draws hundreds of writers and even more hundreds of fans. I’ve heard over and over that the best place to network at Bouchercon is the bar. This has presented me with a dilemma, since I’m an alcoholism treatment professional whose debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, is about recovery. Who would I meet at the bar but people who drink too much? It was an educated guess, since in more than twenty years as a therapist and program director I’ve been exposed to the pain and tragedy of hundreds, even thousands of men and women who met their alcoholic loved ones—or a series of disastrous loves—in just that way.

But I was wrong. As I realized within half an hour of sailing through the lobby of the Sheraton Baltimore City Center into Shula 2, a subdued but not dim or smoky space so packed with mystery lovers it resembled, as we say in New York, the IRT at rush hour, I realized that at Bouchercon, the bar is not where people go to drink. It’s where they go to schmooze. And hey, I was born to schmooze, so I fit right in.

As early as the Wednesday night before the convention’s opening day, the bar was packed three deep and every table filled. Some folks were drinking beer. Others were eating dinner. And the rest, like me, were talking a mile a minute about crime fiction and writing and everything under the sun.

Kaye Barley from Boone, NC, a reader well known on the e-list DorothyL, reported afterward to the list: “There was a group of us sitting around a table just talking and feeling so totally comfortable with one another that we decided to pass on going to the Lee Child Reacher Creature party to just continue sitting around getting to know one another and enjoying one another’s company. It was lovely.” It was indeed. It was Kaye’s first Bouchercon too, and, like me, she’s already signed up for Indianapolis in 2009. That group, by the way, included authors Shane Gericke, Robert Fate, and Gwen Freeman.

What else happened in the bar? British author Stephen Booth recognized me as one of his MySpace friends, and we had a long conversation about cabbages and kings. Reed Farrel Coleman and I bonded on the topic of blowing off a major Jewish holiday because we didn’t want to miss a thing at Bouchercon. And I know he went home happy, because he won the Shamus award for Best PI Novel.

I ate delicious crab soup and seared tuna and exchanged life stories with my roommate, Kate Gallison. (Kate’s new series set in the age of silent film, written under the name of Irene Fleming, is coming from St. Martin’s in 2010.) We were strangers when we agreed to room together. “Never met” is the wrong phrase in this age of online relationships. We didn’t have one of those beforehand either, but it was a match made in heaven. We talked nonstop and will surely room together at future cons. I met Joe Konrath, whom I got to thank for one of the three best tips ever for authors going on book tours: Get a GPS. When I told him about how Sadie got me to my destination all over the country, was never wrong, and never lost her temper, he confided that his is named Sheila and that they, like Sadie and me, have lengthy conversations on the road.

I had wonderful conversations in the course of the event in numerous rooms and corridors and restaurants. I hugged Ken Bruen in the lobby and had a long talk with Donna Andrews about cultural competence in social work (really) at the St. Martin’s Minotaur party. And I had a peak experience in the Ladies signing a copy of my book for Poe’s Deadly Daughters regular Caryn St. Clair. For the record, it wasn’t her fault. On the contrary. She told me she’d won the PDD basket at the silent auction and asked if she could wait outside. I’m the one who said, “Are you kidding???” and whipped out not only my signing pen but my camera as well. So thanks, Caryn, for making the day of this first-time author.

But if you come to Bouchercon Indianapolis, especially if it’s your first time and you’re feeling shy and friendless—you’ll find me in the bar.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Katherine Neville: From The Eight to The Fire

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Twenty years ago, Katherine Neville published The Eight, a novel with a mixture of history, adventure, mystery, and suspense that has proven remarkably enduring – since its initial publication, The Eight has never been out of print. Now, at last, Katherine has published a sequel, The Fire, which went on sale yesterday. Her other novels, A Calculated Risk and The Magic Circle, are also out in new editions.
Recently, Publishers Weekly credited her early works with paving the way for "epic thrillers" like The Da Vinci Code.

In writing her colorful novels, Katherine draws on her long experience as an international computer executive and consultant in the finance and energy industries, which took her to six countries on three continents and half the states in the US. She has also worked as a model, commercial photographer, portrait painter, busboy and waiter.

She lives in Washington, DC, and rural Virginia with her significant other, neuroscientist Dr. Karl Pribram, and their pets, two cats named Tyger and Alfredo who were rescued after being abandoned, and a white rat named Rosie who insists on fresh banana nut bread for breakfast.

Q. Tell us about The Fire. Which characters from The Eight will reappear?

A. Cat, Solarin, Nim and Lily all appear in the modern part of The Fire. But now we see them from a different point of view--from the viewpoint of Alexandra, the daughter of Cat and Solarin, who has a very different part to play. And in the historic part, we also see Talleyrand and Mireille from the viewpoint of their son, Charlot, who is no longer a child prophet but now a grown man with an important role in the Game of his own.

Q. I’m sure all your fans are wondering the same thing: Why did you stop writing for so long? When did you start working on The Fire, and what inspired it?

A. Actually, I've never stopped writing. But as for why it takes so long to finish a book--I confess, I don't really write my books, my books write themselves--or at least decide when and how they want to be written. Or NOT written. For instance, I got the idea of how to do the sequel to The Eight more than a decade ago, but every time I tried to write it, some earthshaking event would happen--like September 11--to indicate that my book wasn't ready. It was only when I was halfway through writing The Fire that I realized WHY my book hadn't been ready to tell its story:

The Fire is set during the first week of April, in 2003. As it turns out, that was the very week that we entered Baghdad in the Iraq War. The Monglane Service--the chess set that I had invented in The Eight, which had once belonged to Charlemagne and Catherine the Great--had originally been created in the eighth century, in the then-brand-new city of Baghdad. In The Fire, that small detail was destined to play an integral role in
the Game.

Q. Am I correct in thinking that The Eight has never been out of print? What do you think explains its staying power and its immense appeal to readers of all ages? Can we expect a new edition of The Eight when The Fire is published?

A. Yes, you are right! The Eight has remained in print in more than thirty languages for over twenty years. One of my good friends--the award-winning mystery writer Rhys Bowen--always jokingly calls The Eight "the book that never dies." My books will be released in new jackets with new author quotes to coincide with the release of The Fire. Other things that didn't exist when The Eight was published--like Readers' Guides and podcasts--will be available on my web site for readers who want to compare and contrast elements from the two books.

As for what has made it appealing to so many for such a long time, I think it's the same reason that this type of story has lasted and been cherished and read, over and over, since the dawn of storytelling. It has certainly always been my personal favorite to read--a genre that almost vanished in the previous century, during decades of war and pessimism, but I hope that it's now making a comeback. Today we call it a Quest Novel. But in fact it's the oldest story ever told: from Gilgamesh, seeking the elixir of life, to Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, to Parsifal hunting for the Holy Grail, to Odysseus--or even Dorothy in Oz–all trying to find that place called Home. It's a story about seeking something that will make us better--or even if we maybe already possess whatever we are seeking without realizing it--of finding the ability to see it with new eyes. I think we all need that kind of inspiration right now. I think we have always needed it.

Q. Although The Eight is the book you’re best known for, you’ve said that The Magic Circle was your breakthrough book. In what sense? And do you feel that The Fire is another kind of breakthrough?

A. I must preface this by saying that EVERY book is a breakthrough for me in some way.

With The Fire--my first-ever sequel--I had to write not just two, but FOUR books at the same time--because, while the modern and historic plots were moving forward in The Fire, we readers still needed a recap of the events in The Eight that are related--but this time we see it all through other people's eyes. For instance, Lily and Nim describe scenes they were present in, in the prior book, but which we'd only seen previously from Cat's POV. So all of that--the multiple points of view, multiple takes on what happened in the first book--all that, of necessity, provided new and surprising twists and turns.

But the biggest breakthrough for me in The Fire took place when Vartan Azov pulled it all together by bringing Russia and Baghdad--Orthodox Christianity and Islam, along with the chessboard--all together in a way that even I had not really expected.

Q. You’ve said that you try never to write an action scene based on something that you haven’t experienced first-hand. Is that true for The Fire? What exciting experiences of your own can we look forward to reading about?

A. The main character's first-person viewpoint has always been relatively easy for me in earlier books, because I'd done the jobs they did, and I'd skied the mountains they skied. But Alexandra Solarin is such a departure--a heroine who spent her youth in cerebral contemplation, a former chess prodigy--while I was never a prodigy at anything.

When it came to action scenes in The Fire I let Alexandra's sidekick, Key, take the reins. I've never flown a plane (though I did fly a hot-air balloon) but living as I did in the west, most of my friends own and fly their own planes--and I myself am intimate with many of the early bush planes that Key flies through such difficult conditions in The Fire.

Q. How arduous is the research for the sort of world-encompassing novel you write? Does the research itself spark ideas that you end up using?

A. Absolutely. That's my most frequently-asked question from readers: How did you do the research for this? How did you find that out? My answer has always been: Life is Research.

As they always say, there is no substitute for experience. That's clearly true of every job--but more than with any other job, it's true of being a writer. Whenever I speak to young people who are aspiring writers, and they ask what is the best preparation for being a writer, I always tell them: Get a job and get a Eurail pass.

I was lucky--though I confess it didn't always FEEL so lucky--that I had to work for a living and take what jobs were available--wherever they might be, whatever the pay, whatever the work. My willingness to do this took me to many places, pleasant or unpleasant, that otherwise I never would have seen. For instance, I was living in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, and in Russia just after the Soviet Union collapsed; I was working in the banking industry (1980s) when the last major banking collapse took place; I was working in the nuclear field during the 3-Mile Island nuclear tragedy; I was working in oil in North Africa when the OPEC embargo took place.

Q. Turning to the business side of writing – Do you feel that publishing has changed greatly since the last time you published a book? What changes are you most aware of?

A. It has taken me on average 5 to 10 years to write each book--so not only has publishing changed each time I've surfaced--but all the players have changed! For instance, although Ballantine has been my publisher for each of my books, in each instance the editors, publishers--even the publishing owners--have been different!

As for industry changes, from my perspective, things have actually improved. When The Eight was published there were 40,000 new titles published per year--now there are more than double that--and back then, bookstores themselves were divided into sections like "Literature" versus "Fiction" while horror, sci-fi, and mystery were "ghetto-ized" on little wire racks at the back of the store, and romance was often relegated to the supermarket or all-night convenience stores.

Today, some of our top writers are successfully combining elements of all these genres. And with so many possibilities and so many books in print, it's actually easier to get published while doing something different.

Q. Will you be doing a book tour?

A. Whew--Mais oui! My publisher, Ballantine, has posted my tour schedule on, which you can see if you click on "Events." I hope I'll see you all there--wherever there may be!

Q. Do you have another novel in progress or in the planning/research stage?

A. I have recently read my old clippings and interviews in preparation for updating of my web site. I have thereby learned--from a 1988 Publishers Weekly interview I did--that apparently I was already working on this next book more than twenty years ago! It's about painters in the 1600s.
I have got my easel and canvases out right now!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

To Market, To Market

Sharon Wildwind

Okay, okay, so this is not the best week to talk about marketing. Markets, maybe, but not marketing. But I’m going to do it anyway.

A friend asked a simple question: do postcards work as a marketing tool? My answer was yes, no, and maybe. In preparing that answer, I thought about not only what I’d learned about marketing over the past few years, but how I’d learned it.

Very few of us come to this writing game realizing that we will spend more time marketing our books than writing them. Once we discover that fact, it is hard to get a handle on anything, even if and how do simple market techniques work. There’s an old marketing phrase, “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?” meaning that one company won’t share information with a rival. That holds true in much of publishing and book selling.

Here are a few principles I've come across in the past seven years that seem to make sense to me.

Create a strong brand platform, and stick to it
Consumer research says that for every three times that consumers see a message, it only registers once. The message must, on average, register nine times (27 exposures to the same message) before the customer is motivated to buy.

If you’re at all familiar with beagles, you know that they can be great hunting dogs, but are, oh, so easily distracted. To train up a beagle to be a great hunting dog, you have to teach her not to go wandering off following strange and enticing scents, but to stick with the one scent that the hunter wants to track.

It’s the same with marketing. This is the worst way to market: I have no idea what works, but I can get a good deal on postcards, so I’ll send some out. I sent out 500 postcards and nothing happened, so I think I’ll try a blog. I’ve done the blog for a few weeks and nothing is happening and I’m tired of coming up with something new to write about, so I’ll make a video trailer. My trailer only got 27 hits, so now I’m going to do a virtual book tour. I’ve tried everything—postcards, blogs, video trailers, book tours—and nothing worked, so maybe I’ll go back to postcards again.

No selling technique works; every selling technique works
The success of any marketing technique depends on whether the promoter understands why a technique works and has sufficient time and resources to match the criteria that work.

To become a household word, you’ve got to invest in 21 radio spots per week per station, from 6 am till 7 or 8 PM, 52 weeks a year, on as many radio stations as you can afford. Expect minimal results during the chickening-out period—the first eight to thirteen weeks. It takes that long to build your audience. ~Roy H. Williams, media marketer

If an author has the money to blanket the airwaves as Williams describes, then yes, radio ads will work. However, if the author plans to have a radio spot appear three times on a college radio station, then no, radio ads won’t work for that author.

How do you find out what works about a given technique?

Search the Internet for articles, opinions, and blogs;

Ask a research librarian to help locate articles in business and marketing journals related to the effectiveness of a particular marketing tool;

Ask an expert, someone who works in advertising, and be aware that the answer might cost some bucks.

Back to my friend’s original question: do postcards work?

Postcards are most effective for a targeted market of readers who are previously acquainted with the author, and who have given permission for the author to contact them. The return is roughly 3 sales for every 100 cards mailed. So, if an author wanted to sell 50 books by using postcards, she would need to mail out approximately 1,700 post cards to a mailing list of people who had previously purchased her book, and whose names she had collected on an “okay to send mail to me” mailing list.

Postcards can also be used to raise name awareness. There are no figures on what the return per 100 cards mailed is. This is part of that “target the universe” approach to marketing. It might work in surprising ways; it might not work at all.

Do what you want to do
If no selling technique works and every selling technique works, do what you want to do.

What matches your personality? What do you feel comfortable and uncomfortable doing? If it’s not fun, don’t do it. If nothing about marketing is fun, then you will either have to hire (or get volunteer help) to marketing for you, or learn to make something fun.

What do you have the time and money to do in marketing for the next ten years? Yep, ten years. While no one can predict the future, there are some questions that can form a framework for a long-term marketing plan.

How old are you now? How does your average monthly income relate to your average expenses? Is your income steady (stable day job) or erratic (freelance, contract work, unstable day job, etc) How much time do you have to devote to marketing right now?

How old will you be in ten years? What will be your anticipated income sources in ten years? How much time do you see yourself having for marketing in ten years?

Assume that you will have to survive a medium-size disaster once a year and a major disaster every three years. These might be illnesses, unexpected major expenses, changes in lifestyle, or outside events which are related to natural disasters, economics or other forces beyond your control. Taking those disasters into account, go back and look at the above questions again.

What hands-on creative techniques do you already know how to do, enjoy doing, and have the equipment and supplies to do, or the cash to pay someone else to do? Do you already know how to design and print a great-looking brochure, do a pod cast, manage a blog, make video trailers, etc. What techniques would you enjoy doing once you learned how to do them?

Work from the inside out: Build a personal relationship with the people who have already read your book.
The ideal is a steady fan base, which equals 20% of your total sales. This 20% does your marketing work for you by word-of-mouth recommendations and the results are a growing readership every time a new book appears. ~Jo-Ann Power, Power Promotions

Two mistakes writers make:
1) Marketing to other mystery writers.
2) Marketing to the same group too often.
~Jeffrey Marks, mystery writer and marketer

So if I want to sell 1,000 copies of a book, I need an active fan base of at least 200 people who are interested in my work. I’m not trying to sell to them over and over. That’s what Jeffrey Marks is talking about in marketing to the same group too often. Rather, I’m trying to keep those people interested in what I’m writing, so that they will recommend me to their friends, their libraries, etc.

The book is only the beginning
The old advertising slogan, “Sell the sizzle,” is only partly right. If a restaurant sold a steak that smelled terrific, but tasted terrible or even made people sick, they wouldn’t stay in business very long. A book is a disposable object. It has to be a great read, but the average reader will spend 3 to 5 hours reading it, and is unlikely to read it a second time. I can’t build a writing career on 3-hour contacts. What I want to do is interest the reader in the next book, the one they haven’t seen yet. I want them thinking about me, and sending me e-mail, and building a relationship as background activities to buying the book.

The book is your entry into relationships. It’s the relationships that sell the book, not the other way around.