Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mysteries Without Guns

Elizabeth Zelvin

I have recently started working on the first draft of my fifth manuscript featuring my amateur sleuth, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, and his friends, Jimmy the computer genius and Barbara the addictions counselor and world-class codependent. Bruce, Jimmy, and Barbara live in New York City. They are not sheltered from the seamy side of life. During their drinking days, Bruce and Jimmy were not always in control of what they did and often suffered from impaired judgment. Their dark past included acts from turnstile jumping in the subway to purchasing illegal drugs to removing a priceless painting from the wall of a museum. No, they didn’t take it anywhere; they were just horsing around while in an altered state. And of course, now that they are both clean and sober in AA, they would never dream of doing such a thing.

Nor is Barbara an innocent, after working in addiction treatment programs from the Bronx to the Bowery. As she herself enjoys recalling, she has hugged cops and murderers, either professionally or as an imperfectly recovering member of Al-Anon, the program where people with alcoholic loved ones try to learn to stop controlling others and mind their own business. In Barbara’s case, it’s a good thing that members of 12-step programs are never expected to graduate.

In general, I’m not that interested in the technology of murder. When the victims in my stories have to die, I like to hit them on the head or push them down the stairs. Occasionally I’ll strangle them with a convenient household object. I want to get it over quickly so that I can get on to the real business of the story: the investigation and, even more fascinating to me, the relationships among my characters.

A couple of years ago, I took advantage of a Sisters in Crime field trip to spend a day learning to shoot a handgun. It was extremely cool—in the same way hugging those cops and murderers is for Barbara—and I enjoyed the day. I even put a few bullets, if not in the bullseye, well within the circle. They let me take home the paper target to prove it. At the time, I figured that now that I’m a mystery writer, sooner or later my characters will have to pick up a gun, so I’d better know at least the rudiments of what to do and how it feels to use one.

Now I’m not so sure. So far, neither Bruce nor his sidekicks has encountered a gun, even when facing my murderers. And it is possible that I may never introduce a gun into a book in this series. How can I do that? How can I write occasionally gritty crime novels set in New York City without including firearms? Easily. I can do it by allowing art to imitate life.

I just got my Medicare card, which means I’ve lived in the Big Apple for 65 years. And I don’t know anyone who owns a gun. I exclude the police officers I’ve met in the course of both my mental health professional and mystery writing careers in the past few years. Some of them may own weapons, for all I know. But my family and friends and colleagues, thousands of people over a lifetime, have lived their whole lives in New York without laying hands on, in most cases never even seeing a gun. Until that field trip to New Jersey, I don’t think I’d ever seen a gun, except as a butt sticking out of a holster on a cop’s hip in the subway. My parents came to New York in 1905 and 1906 and both lived into their 90s, and I’m sure they never saw a gun. They certainly never touched one.

No, I can think of one exception: back in the Seventies, I visited a friend for a weekend at a genuine English country house. No, there was no murder. No butler, even. I did fall in love briefly, so the weekend wasn’t a total disappointment. But I digress. The house was in Kent, which is known for the growing of hops for English beer. Evidently squirrels are significant consumers of hops, so they are considered vermin. I was quite shocked when on Saturday afternoon, several of the young people present took shotguns, or maybe they were rifles, and came back bearing the bodies of several squirrels exactly like those with whom New Yorkers live and let live in Central Park.

What are your favorite mysteries without guns? How necessary do you think they are? Have I shaken your conception of New York City even a little? Please leave a comment if I have.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Readers in a Rut

Sandra Parshall

“I stopped enjoying her books years ago, but I still buy them and read them.”

“His last half-dozen books have been poorly written and boring – but I can’t seem to stop myself from buying them, even though I know I’m going to hate them.”

How many times have you heard people say this sort of thing? How many times have you seen similar statements posted on DorothyL? How many times have you admitted to buying books by authors you should have given up on years ago?

I’m trying to understand why readers buy, and read, then complain about books they know in advance they won’t like. Do they have such ecstatic memo
ries of an author’s first few good books that they keep hoping she or he will suddenly start writing well again when all the evidence points to a permanent decline? Any author can be forgiven one weak book – no one is consistently brilliant, after all – but I have so little time to read that a writer who disappoints me repeatedly has to do something spectacular to win me back. I feel very much alone in taking this hard line, though.

If you doubt that American readers are creatures of habit, just take a look at last year’s overall bestsellers list, as reported in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly. Among the top six books of the year – those that sold more than a million copies each – is only one by a new author: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which came in second with 1.3 million copies sold even though it wasn’t published until Septem
ber of 2008. The other books at the top are (1) The Appeal by John Grisham, (3) The Host by Stephanie Meyer, which is still near the top of the bestseller lists after 48 weeks, (4) Cross Country by James Patterson, (5) The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, and (6) Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich.

Moving down the list, to books that sold more than 600,000 but fewer than a million copies last year, we find (7) Christmas Sweater, a first novel by conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who was already a known quantity because of his books of opinion on social issues; (8) Scarpetta by Patrici
a Cornwell; (9) Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz; (10) Plum Lucky by (again) Janet Evanovich; (11) 7th Heaven by (again) James Patterson; (12) Sail by (again!) James Patterson; (13) A Good Woman by Danielle Steele; (14) Divine Justice by David Baldacci; and (15) The Gate House by Nelson DeMille.

One new writer in the entire lot -- and Wroblewski was blessed with Oprah’s imprimatur, which drove sales of Edgar Sawtelle.

A total of 155 novels sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies each last year. Of those, four were by James Patterson, three by Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, four by Iris Johansen, three by Danielle Steele. The following authors all had two bestselling hardcovers each in 2008: Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark (they co-authored one book), Dean Koontz, David Baldacci, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King, John Sandford, Clive Cussler, Debbie Macomber, Stuart Woods, Robert Parker, Jeffery Deaver, and Jack Higgins. Twenty-one authors wrote 47 of the 155 novels that sold more than 100,000 copies.

In paperback, these same authors sold even more copies of more novels, some of them reprints of books originally published years ago. Roberts/Robb had the most paperback bestsellers in 2008 – nine in mass market pb and six in trade pb. James Patterson had a total of nine.

Almost all of the other books on both hardcover and paperback lists were written by long-established authors.

I’m not saying these people produce bad books, or that their fans are automatons who buy blindly even when they don’t anticipate enjoying the novels they purchase.
All of the top-selling writers have legions of devoted fans who love every word they write. I realize that the millions of books they sell are helping their publishers stay in business. But the sameness of the names at the top of the bestsellers list, year after year after year, does suggest that many readers lack a sense of adventure and would rather buy a book with a familiar name on it, whether it’s a good book or not, than try something new. Publishers know that, and count on it when they put out multiple books by the same writers each year.

In addition to Wroblewksi, one other newcomer stood out last year: Brunonia Barry, whose The Lace Reader sold more than 160,000 copies. I refuse to believe that only two new writers published novels last year that were good enough to engage the minds and hearts of a broad range of readers. I think a lot of wonderful books fail to sell in large numbers because the publishers don’t promote them and habit-bound readers are reluctant to spend money on books by writers with unfamiliar names. Yet those same readers will automatically buy a familiar writer’s book – even when they expect it to disappoint them.

Will somebody please explain this quirk of human nature to me? I am sincerely baffled.

Do you buy books by writers you no longer enjoy? Why do you do it? What would it take to persuade you to spend your money instead on a new author’s book? Have you discovered any new authors in the last couple of years whose books are now on your automatic-buy list?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Interview with Chester Campbell

Chester Campbell is a former journalist, freelance magazine writer and publisher, and public relations man. He wrote speeches for the governor of Tennessee and commercials for bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Fortunately, he made good on his promise to write novels after he retired. He’s written four mysteries in the Greg McKenzie series, and The Surest Poison, his first book in a new series, featuring private investigator Sid Chance, is a tale of deception, pollution, and old conflicts surfacing.PDD:
You now have four books in your Greg McKenzie series. Why did you decide to write another PI series with a different type of protagonist?

I enjoyed writing about Greg and Jill McKenzie, a pair of sleuths in their late sixties. Writing their snappy banter was particularly enjoyable. Several reviewers referred to them as cozies. I didn’t think of the books that way, but they’re certainly not hard-boiled, and I felt I’d reached the place where I wanted to strike out on a bit edgier path.

The Surest Poison deals with the dumping of a large amount of a toxic chemical behind a small plant in a rural community west of Nashville. When the state comes after the plant’s current owner, PI Sid Chance is hired to find the real responsible party. He soon finds himself, and his associate, Jaz LeMieux, beset by three seemingly unrelated murders, an explosion, and shadows from Sid’s past.

I gather Sid has—what’s the current term—issues?

He was formerly a National Park ranger, then spent ten years as a small town police chief. After he was disgraced and forced to resign, he spent three years roughing it in a hillside cabin in the woods fifty miles from the city. Jaz got him out of that cabin, back to Nashville and into the PI business.

Jaz is sharp, sexy, and fourteen years younger than Sid. Do we see romance ahead?

A. Sid has never been married, or even had a serious relationship. He and Jaz clash now and then, but they’re obviously coming closer. Who knows what may lie ahead?

Where did the plot for The Surest Poison come from?

I have a friend in Nashville named Norma Mott Tillman who is a private investigator specializing in finding missing persons. She’s pretty well known, being on Oprah and several other shows. She told me about a case she had investigated in West Tennessee a few years ago that involved a similar scenario. I saw the possibilities, moved it closer to Nashville, and the story took off.

I should have given Ralph Waldo Emerson credit for the title, but I don’t guess he’ll complain. He wrote an essay in The Atlantic back in 1862 in which he said substances like prussic acid and strychnine “are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time.” I thought it fit the story. The actual poison took years to affect the community, while time took its toll on the characters.

The Surest Poison is published by Night Shadows Press, your second small publisher. What are the pluses and minuses of going with a small publisher?

I’ve heard a lot of New York editors are only concerned with acquiring manuscripts. With a small press, I got to work closely with my editors. I learned an awful lot from my first editor.

I’ve also been fortunate that my editors have stuck with my suggested titles. The only change in mine was with the first book, which I called The Secret of the Scroll. I was rightfully told to leave off the first “The.” Covers involve another plus. I have had total input on all my covers. An additional favorable aspect is production time. From the time I sent the manuscript to the editor, it was no more than nine months until the release date.

On the minus side, the chief problem is distribution. The books are available through Ingram and Baker & Taylor and can be ordered through any bookstore. However, the stores do not routinely stock them. They will only be on the shelf at places where I have done signings. Also, the major review sites mostly ignore small publishers. Library Journal is the only one that has reviewed some of my books. However, respected review sites like Midwest Book Review and Crimespree Magazine always come through.

I’m not telling secrets to say that loads of us in the mystery community envy your ability to do top-notch book signings. Got tips for the rest of us?

I’m always looking for any kind of venue where I can sell. One of my grandsons’ school has a Market Place. I went there and to a street fair in a small town not far from here. My book launch for The Surest Poison will be at my church. Church members are always asking, “When will your next book be ready?” So I know I’ll sell a bunch of books there. I do some signings in larger chain bookstores as well, and we have a small mystery bookstore in Nashville that pushes my books and has ordered several copies of the new one.

I’m pulling out all the stops for this new release, primarily on-line. With the economy as it is, I’m cutting back on travel this year, spending more on venues where I can sell books. I’ve recently done the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, and will do the Kentucky Book Fair in November. I’ve always done well at book fairs.

So I guess my tips are get on the road, do bookstore signings when you can, and constantly keep your eye out for other places to sell. Build a team. I’m very fortunate that my wife plays such a big part in all of my appearances. She’s my shill: she passes out small promo folders and directs people to where I’m signing. If you’re not as lucky as I am, with a ready-made co-conspirator, build a team to help you sell.

It sounds like retiring to write books has been very rewarding.

I’d say there are several rewards. The first is that I simply enjoy writing mysteries. I wrote eight before the first one sold, and I guess I’d still be writing away if none of them had. Another is the satisfaction I get when readers tell me how much they enjoy reading my books. And being a bit vain as we all are, I get a charge out of reading a good review, like the one Jon Jordan wrote in the current Crimespree Magazine that ended, “A top rate mystery by a gem of a writer.”

For more information about Chester and his books visit his web site.
Sharon's blog returns next week.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Are You a Mystery Muncher? My Top Ten Healthy Reading Snacks

by Julia Buckley

Back in my careless twenties (how I miss them), I could munch on anything and never have to pay the piper (the piper, in this case, being the scale). My young metabolism took whatever I gave it, let me snack at all hours, and allowed me pretty much the same nice figure that I had before the cheating. As a veteran mystery reader, I indulged in all sorts of high calorie snacks--the kind that wouldn't interfere with turning the pages--a bowl of M and Ms, for example.

Now I still read mysteries, and I still love to munch while I'm reading, but I am a woman in her mid-forties whose doctor annoyingly reminds her that she can no longer, as Yeats once said, sway her leaves and flowers in the sun. What does that mean? It means I have high cholesterol, and Dr. Craig insists there is a link to this and my potentially early demise. So no more high cal snacks while I enjoy my suspenseful page turning.

Therefore, I have developed new favorites, which I will share with you in case you, too, are looking for healthier snack options. And, in case you are in danger of overestimating my importance in the world, I have not agreed to endorse anything for anyone. These are just things I took out of my pantry for my first foray into food photography. Keep this in mind if you're going to rate my effort. :)

Choice number one, in honor of the classical mystery, is tea (pictured above). Tea is said to have all sorts of health benefits, but I drink it for the taste and for the satisfying clink of china on china. Since the whole tone of this piece so far has been confessional, I will also admit here that I put too much sugar in my tea for it to fit exactly on a list of healthy foods, but tea is still potentially a great health drink.

#2: Diet Coke. I'll stick with beverages for choice two. This soda, which has no health advantages other than a calorie-free rating, is my one true addiction. It is highly portable, cold and sweet, and is a delicious accompaniment to the upcoming summer reading season. (Check out the new books by my fellow daughters!)

#3: The apple. Choice number three is nature's classic. I am not strictly trying to keep the doctor away (although there is that); apples are just good. The only danger here is that a good juicy bite can splash on the page. I like to occasionally cut the apple into eighths and provide a dish of peanut butter.

#4: Weight Watchers Bars. Speaking of peanut butter, Weight Watchers has a guilt free peanut butter indulgence called the ONE POINT BAR. Guess how many points it's worth? One point, as I see it, is a point away from no points, and that's a great place to be after indulging in a snack. They're good, too--a nice chewy taste of peanut butter to help me enjoy the book the way popcorn helps me enjoy a movie. (Do I enjoy a movie if I'm not eating popcorn? Not so much).

#5: Fiber Bars. I always avoided these because I thought of manufactured fiber foods as something rather horrifying. But, prodded by my ever-vigilant doctor, I tried them, and they are really good. It's like eating a candy bar with a lot less guilt and a lot more roughage. :) And of course it makes a great munchie while reading an Agatha Christie.

#6: Yogurt Raisins. The danger with these yummy snacks, which are mighty healthy and low in calories if you stick to the one tiny box, is that you will not stick to the one tiny box. I ate two of them WHILE I was doing my food photography, so you can see my level of control. :)

#7: Cornbread Crackers. I just discovered these recently, and they really do taste like cornbread. Are they healthy? Not exactly. But they'd make a great little side dish for a healthy meal (salad, chili), and a couple of them are a really delicious snack--I'd pair them with a meaty mystery like a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler.

#8: Granola. You cannot go wrong with this snack. It is healthy, fibery, and enjoyably crunchy. You can munch it alone (although it does tend to dribble down one's front) or put it on vanilla yogurt, or even eat it as cereal in milk. It's versatile and delicious. I like it with almonds and raisins.

#9: String Cheese. I think string cheese was invented for children, but we all eat it, don't we? It's fun, and peeling it off bit by bit makes it last longer while you are on that really long chapter.

#10: Peanut butter and bananas. Okay, I've slipped peanut butter in there three times--I do like the stuff, and it's full of protein despite its fat. And the banana--what a perfect fruit! Its health benefits are too long to list here, but it is a truly beneficial snack, and the PB is just nutritional icing on that cake.

Now go read, snack and enjoy! Oh, and share your favorites, too!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book Trailers

Last month Janet Koch, of Deepwater Designs talked about website design. Today she’s back to discuss book trailers.

PDD: You've made several book trailers for different authors—including me. How are writers using book trailers?

JK: Trailers are embedded into author websites. They’re sent as links to everyone on an author’s emailing list. The links are posted on listservs. They’re burned onto DVDs and sent to Moms, Dads, grandparents, and probably bookstores and newspapers. Although I haven’t heard, I suppose authors are showing them to people at book signings on laptops and putting them on bigger screens at large presentations.

Do trailers sell books? Haven’t the foggiest. I’m not sure anyone knows. But going with the theory that anything that gets your name out there is good, having a book trailer can only be a benefit. Plus they’re fun!

PDD: How similar is a book trailer to a movie trailer?

JK: Depends on the trailer. I’ve seen book trailers that are simple voice-overs over still photos. I’ve seen others that are indistinguishable from the Hollywood version. The simple ones can be just as powerful as the fancy ones – money spent isn’t necessarily what makes a trailer successful.

But the point of both book and movie trailers is the same: get consumers to spend money.

PDD: Can you picture book trailers being mixed in with movie trailers at the multiplex at some future point? (Or maybe a trailer for the movie and then the book based on it?)

JK: Nah. Not enough return on investment. I’d guess everyone in the country goes to a movie or three a year and is willing to pay around $10 a head for the privilege. Unfortunately, they don’t all buy books.

PDD: What goes into the making of a book trailer? How do you get started? Does the author come to you with a concept or do you read the book and pitch ideas?

JK: I can’t tell you how anyone else makes a book trailer, but here’s what I do:

1) Read the book.
2) Take copious notes while reading.
3) Finish the book. Think.
4) Think some more.

What I’m thinking about is how to communicate the “feel” of the book. The theme in emotional terms. What makes a reader keep turning the pages. Then I have to figure out how to translate that feel into images, music, and a few lines of text.

Sometimes ideas come easy, sometimes I have to work at it. Sometimes the author has ideas about what she wants to see, sometimes not. Like so much else in the book business, it depends.

Once the original concept is agreed upon, I start looking for the right music. Don’t know why I have to start this way -- maybe it’s all those years of piano and violin lessons -- but that’s how I get going.

At this point I’ve also begun collecting still images I might want to use. Most of them won’t end up in the final product, but having a gallery of images to choose from helps with ideas.

Then I fire up my computer and start the movie-making program. The music is popped in, then I start playing. In go some images. In goes some text that describes images I haven’t yet finalized. In goes a book cover. Add text. Decide that text is all wrong. Delete. Add new text. Slide a photo over. Add photo movement. Rinse and repeat.

If there’s going to be video or original photographs, I don’t do that until the ideas are set in stone. (Video and photography is time-consuming in all sorts of ways.) There are book trailer producers who hire actors and have scripts and expensive lighting and really expensive cameras ... but I do what I can with my low-end camcorder.

Toward the end there’s a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning. When both the author and I are happy, I upload the trailer to YouTube. Done!

PDD: How is a book trailer different from a print advertisement for a book?

JK: Interesting question. Let me think...while a print advertisement is limited to text and images, a trailer can include print, voice-overs, sounds effects, music, still photos, funky graphics, video of settings, video of people, etc. (Okay, duh.) There’s lots of room for creativity with book trailers, and there’s lots of room for dollars to be spent.

I think the big advantage of book trailers over print advertisements is the size of the potential audience. Print ads, whether bookmarks or postcards or newspaper placements, are handed out or sent individually. Book trailers are instantly available worldwide, and if you’re lucky enough to have your trailer link go viral, millions will click that little “play” button.

But as with most advertising, the point of a book trailer is to entice a consumer to the point of purchase. Can a multi-media presentation translate into sales for a printed product? Or is it primarily a way to build name recognition? Ask me in another few years and I might have an answer for you.

PDD: What are your thoughts on commercials for books? Is that something you're interested in doing?

JK: If there were a cable channel that was All Books All The Time, I could see a point to book commercials. But even then a quality production would be prohibitively expensive for almost all authors.

Me? Do television commercials? Only if I get a megaphone and a director’s chair with my name on the back.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Interview with author/musician Susan Fleet

By Lonnie Cruse

Today I'm interviewing author/musician Susan Fleet. I think you'll enjoy meeting Susan as much as I did.

PDD: You've recently had your first crime thriller released, titled ABSOLUTION. Please tell us about the book.

SF: A twisted killer preys on young women in New Orleans, where everyone has something to hide, including my series protagonist, NOPD homicide detective Frank Renzi. To complicate matters, a black female journalist accuses police of unfairly targeting black male suspects, and a prostitute tells Renzi she escaped the man she believes to be the killer: a white, Roman Catholic priest. After that, it’s thrills and chills to a fast and furious ending. ABSOLUTION was set in pre-Katrina New Orleans. In my next book, an obsessed man fixates on a beautiful female flute soloist 14 months post-Katrina; it also shows some of the difficulties NOPD faced after the storm.

PDD: What inspired you to write this book?

SF: A series of brutal murders in Baton Rouge, LA, occurred around the time I moved from Boston to New Orleans in 2001. In that case, an FBI profiler predicted the killer would be an unattractive white male with “woman issues.” The man eventually convicted of the crimes was a good-looking black man and a known womanizer. My killer is very different, but racial-profiling is one element in my book.

Some of my readers have asked why I chose to create a male police detective as my series protagonist. Maybe it’s because when I was ten, my print-journalist-police-reporter father started taking me with him to the police station. Also, as a trumpeter I worked primarily with men, starting at thirteen. It was a terrific learning experience to watch them interact with one another. Very different from the way most women interact. Thus, I felt very confident about writing a male protagonist. And, let’s face it, all novelists must create characters that are not like themselves: different genders, ethnicities, ages, religions, you name it.

PDD: How did you go about getting published? Do you work with an agent?

SF: After three agents passed on representing my manuscript because “the thriller genre is so competitive,” I decided to publish it myself. ABSOLUTION came out in 2008 and I’m pleased with the results. Readers have been very enthusiastic, and the book has received several positive reviews. I’ve also had great feedback from my “Music & Mayhem” talks at libraries and book clubs in Massachusetts, my home state, and Louisiana, where I now live.

PDD: You've previously written and published several biographies. Please tell us a bit about those works and how you wrote them. I imagine a lot of research was involved?

SF: When I was teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, I wrote short biographies of several musicians for Scribner’s American Biography, starting with their 1970 volumes. They publish updates for each decade to include prominent people who have died. I’ve written entries on pianist Oscar Levant, trumpeter Les Elgart, jazz singer Carmen McRae, jazz pianist Hazel Scott, conductor Antonia Brico, and several others. What fascinating lives they led! Many had to overcome great obstacles. Antonia Brico guest-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930 but couldn’t get a job in the U.S. due to her gender; she toiled in obscurity until a famous pop singer did a film about her. You can read “the rest of her story” in the Archives on my website,

In my research I had to be a detective, tracking down facts and phone numbers to contact relatives of the deceased. These weren’t easy to get, but I have a lot of connections in the music world, so that helped.

PDD: In your "other life" you're a trumpeter and music historian. Please fill us in on how you got started with the trumpet and where the journey has taken you.

SF: And what a wonderful journey it has been! My uncle played trumpet. When I was eight, my mother took me to his house and he showed me his trumpet. Wow! When I saw that beautiful bright shiny thing lying in that red velvet case, I said, “Yes! I want one of those.” Fortunately, I took to it naturally. I had some terrific teachers, including two Boston Symphony trumpeters, and went on to play gigs in the Boston and Providence areas for thirty-plus years. My biggest thrill was playing Fanfare for the Common Man with composer Aaron Copland in the audience. This was in 1980 at Brown University, another college where I taught. Copland was getting an honorary doctorate.

PDD: You play a variety of music. Which is your favorite?

SF: Aw, gee, do I have to choose? I’ve played everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to Broadway shows, operas, symphony, chamber brass and solo trumpet recitals. I’m also a big jazz fan. I don’t improvise but I’ve played in a couple of big bands, and I listen to jazz a lot.

PDD: Does your music influence your writing?

SF: Music has been a huge influence in two areas: Self-discipline and self-evaluation. I developed the self-discipline to practice every day, whether I felt like it or not. And the music business requires objective self-evaluation: polish your strengths and work on your weaknesses. It’s a constant exercise in self-improvement. Both qualities serve me well in my writing. No one has to hold a gun to my head to make me sit down and write, and I love to read other writers and learn something new.

Certain elements of music translate to my writing as well. As a musician I’m ultra-tuned to time: the pace of the plot, the rhythm of the words, the dynamic levels of the tension, even the structure. To me, a novel is like a symphony. I discuss this in my “Music & Mayhem” talks.

PDD: Which is easier, the music or the writing?

SF: Both are difficult to do well, of course, but a musical performance occurs in front of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. If I mess up as a trumpet player, everyone knows who did it. On the other hand, if I make a poor word choice when I’m writing, I just hit delete, insert a better word and no one’s the wiser. In a music performance, there are no second chances. That makes it exciting. It also makes it terrifying! Perfection is every musician’s ultimate goal. I never went onstage to play a solo recital thinking I was going to play a wrong note. Everything was going to be perfect. This carries over to my writing. I revise my manuscripts multiple times. I want everything to be, if not perfect, the best I can possibly make it. Eeek, do I sound too compulsive?

PDD: What is your typical writing and/or musical day like? Any tips for others on either subject?

SF: I don’t gig much anymore, but I still practice every day, in the morning. But not so early as to annoy the neighbors! Then I spend maybe an hour on the writing business that all authors must do. Three days a week I swim laps (a mile) and I often work out plot or character issues in the pool. I write during lunch and through the afternoon, five or six hours, six days a week. I try to take Sundays off. We need a bit of fun to fuel our creative muse. To be a serious writer, I think you need to write almost every day. Sometimes I take time off from my novel and work on one of my female-musician bios for my website. This lets me return to the novel with a fresh eye. And I always revise hard copy. It’s too easy to miss things on a computer screen.

PDD: You've taught classes at college level about music and even created a history course about 20th Century women musicians. Tell us a bit about your teaching life.

SF: For 23 years I taught part-time at Brown University, Berklee College of Music, Wheaton College and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell College of Music. I loved teaching at different places because the students were so diverse. My Brown students weren’t music majors, but they were super bright and excellent players. At Berklee I had incredibly talented students from all over the world, the U.S., Argentina, Japan, Spain, Italy. At Wheaton I formed a chamber wind group so my brass students could play concerts every semester. It became so popular, I added woodwind players. But to me, my greatest accomplishment was creating my Women in Music course. I had to do tons of research, but it was worth it. Until I taught my course, Berklee students had no opportunity to learn about talented female jazz and classical performers. The course also became the basis for the biographies I write for my website.

PDD: Anything else you'd like us to know about Susan Fleet, her writing and/or her music.

FS: Yes: a pet peeve and a favorite tip. My pet peeve: Some people consider crime fiction inferior to literary fiction. I disagree. What could be more important than crime and punishment? Crime fiction is a reflection of society. I’m appalled by the amount of violence done to women these days, and all too often the perpetrator gets away. But not in my books! In the end my bad guy always gets punished.

My favorite writing tip: Never answer the question. Until the end. This is an important concept, one that I had to learn. Always keep the reader wondering, not totally in the dark, but wondering. Then, deliver a satisfying ending.

Thanks for posing such interesting questions, Lonnie. I answered some, but tried to keep your readers wondering! To learn “the rest of the story,” check out Chapter 1 of ABSOLUTION, hear my trumpet CD, and read biographies of my fabulous female instrumentalists on my website:

PDD: Thanks for joining us, Susan. Terrific interview!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What makes a series work?

What makes a series work?
Elizabeth Zelvin

I love mystery series. I want to fall in love with a protagonist and get to know his or her family and friends. I want my favorite series to go on and on. I wish that Dorothy L. Sayers hadn’t stopped writing books about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane—even though my rational side knows that the arc of their love story had been completed, and later books might have been disappointing. I don’t want Laurie R. King to give up on Kate Martinelli, even though I know the Mary Russell books, which I also love, are more popular. I don’t want Charlaine Harris to give up on Harper Connelly, even though the whole world now knows Sookie Stackhouse, whom I also love, thanks to the success of True Blood on TV. I’m in there for the duration with Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti.

There are two kinds of series: those in which the characters stay the same, and the reader derives pleasure from the familiar voice and characters and satisfaction from the way the new story meets their expectations, and those in which the characters change as their lives unfold and as they mature emotionally. Some of the “same” series are phenomenally successful. Stephanie Plum is always going to destroy a car and never going to choose between Joe Moretti and Ranger. Spenser is always going to crack wise with Hawk and blow away some bad guys at the end without so much as a slap of the wrist from the law.

Guido Brunetti falls into this category in that he’s always going to solve the crime, but justice will elude him, thanks to some aspect of the way things are—corrupt, bureaucratic, irrational—in Leon’s Italy and Venice. However, the richness of Brunetti’s family life and relationships with his colleagues at work draws me back time after time, to see what Paola is going to make for dinner, what Brunetti is reading (I heard Leon speak at a New York book launch a couple of years ago, and she says Brunetti reads whatever she is reading while she writes the book), and what aspect of officialdom or technology Signorina Elettra will sabotage next.

Most of my favorite series have protagonists who go through enormous changes from book to book. Sharon McCone started out as an investigator in a Sixties-utopian law commune and has ended up with her own state-of-the-art agency and a lot of real estate. She’s held onto her circle of old friends—one of the traits that endear a character to me—and gone through some disappointing relationships to get to her current unconventional but happy marriage.

Deborah Knott, though, takes the prize for an endearing social circle. When I’m reading one of Maron’s books, I find myself longing for eleven brothers and the kind of family that sits on the back porch playing and singing traditional music. (I do sing and play guitar, but my mother’s reaction to high lonesome was, “Can’t you play something more cheerful?”) Kate Shugak’s circle of friends has also stood the test of time as she’s gone through some agonizing times as well as some hilarious ones.

One of my goals, or let’s say dreams, in my own first book was to create not only one believable character, my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, but three—his best friend, Jimmy the computer genius, and Jimmy’s girlfriend, Barbara the world-class codependent. Barbara and Jimmy have their own relationship, which I hope to develop as the series goes on. And the friendship among the three of them is my fantasy ideal of friendship, just as I imagine Deborah Knott’s family may be to Maron. (I believe the fiddling-on-the-porch family she modeled that aspect of the Knotts on is a cousin’s, not her own.)

In the second book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, out this fall, Bruce will leave the struggle with drinking mostly behind and make some hard choices about his relationships. In the, I won’t tell you. I hope by that time you’ll be attached to my characters and want to read the whole series.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Classic Approach to Mystery: An Interview with G.M. Malliet

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

G.M. Malliet’s Death of a Cozy Writer, first in a series featuring Detective Chief Inspector St. Just of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, has been described as "wicked, witty, and full of treats" by Peter Lovesey and hailed as "a delightful homage to the great novels of Britian's Golden Age of mysteries" by Nancy Pearl on NPR. It has been nominated for the Agatha Award for best first novel (winners will be announced at Malice Domestic on May 2) and the Left Coast Crime/Hawaii Five-O Award for best police procedural. It was selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best books of 2008. Her recently released second novel, Death and the Lit Chick, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

An American, G.M. attended Oxford University and holds a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. She is a former journalist and copywriter and lives with her husband in Virginia.

[Note: The other four Agatha nominees in the best first novel category h
ave also been featured on Poe’s Deadly Daughters in recent months. If you’d like to learn more about Sheila Connolly, Krista Davis, Rosemary Harris, and Joanna Campbell Slan, enter their names in the blog search box to bring up their interviews or guest blogs.]

Q. Congratulations on your Agatha and Hawaii Five-O award nominations for Death of a Cozy Writer! How does it feel to be honored this way for your first book?

A. It feels incredible—like winning the lottery, only better. In the case of awards and nominations—as you know, Sandra!—you first have to work incredibly hard before you get lucky. It is extremely satisfying to have the effort acknowledged.

Q. What inspired you to write a series modeled after the classic British cozies? Do you reread any of your favorites while you’re writing?

A. I wrote the type of book I love to read. I’d read all the “Golden Agers,” some of them several times over, and while I didn’t think I could match them, I did think I
might have fun sending up some of the conventions of the genre.

When I’
m writing, I read a lot of non-fiction. The third book in the St. Just series has a sculling and rowing theme, so I had the excuse to indulge my love of the sport with so-called research. I also try to read The New Yorker religiously, hoping the magnificent writing therein will wear off on me. I just discovered the “Eminent Lives” series—Bill Bryson’s contribution on Shakespeare’s life is wonderfully funny. All the writers in this series are masters.

Q. You take some chances in Death of a Cozy Writer – using omniscient viewpoint and a Golden Age tone for a modern story. Did you encounter resistance from agents or editors when you were marketing it? Were there some who just didn't get what you were doing?

A. I didn’t set out to mystify anyone with Death of a Cozy Writer, but that is what frequently happened, yes. The funny thing is, I really had no idea I was doing anything unusual. As a writer, I love omniscient viewpoint, because it allows you to get inside the heads of all the characters. That is much more entertaining, I think, for both writer and reader. The challenge for the writer comes, of course, in not getting too far inside the killer’s head and giving the game away.

Q. You’re obviously very fond of Britain. What draws you to that setting? Do you travel there often?

A. I’m not sure where the anglophilia came from: It may have started with early exposure to National Velvet or Black Beauty. I try to get back to Great Britain once a year. This year I’m hoping for an extended stay to include a pilgrimage to Wallingford, where Agatha Christie lived many years with her husband Max, and Greenway, her home in Devon. Added bonus: I just read somewhere that Wallingford is frequently used as a setting for the Midsomer Murders TV series.

Q. Death of a Cozy Writer is written in a distinctive, wryly humorous voice. Does that style came naturally to you, or do you have to consciously work at maintaining it throughout a book?

A. I have tried to “write serious” and I find I can’t maintain the tone for long. Some bit of nonsense always wants to creep in, so I let it.

Q. What do you see as the differences between the classic British mysteries and the crafts, cooking, and cats cozies being published today in the U.S.? Any thoughts on why Britain, where cozies were born, produces so few cozy writers these days?

A. I don’t know what’s going on in Britain with all the gloomy books. But I have the idea Agatha Christie—despite the humorous mannerisms she gave Poirot and Marple—felt she was accurately depicting a world fraught with evil. Perhaps nothing has changed, except that the depictions of violence have become more graphic.

Q. Was this the first book you'd written, or do you – like most of us – have a few manuscripts you weren't able to sell?

A. I have a romantic suspense novel that I didn’t try very hard to sell (I think I knew without the need of formal rejection that it was middling at best). I also have in my possession many mysteries that were abandoned at the fifty-page mark. The first fifty or so pages of Death of a Cozy Writer won the Malice Domestic grant and I wonder if, without that encouragement, I would have finished the book. It’s a scary thought.

Q. Did you, like so many authors, spend a long time writing, rewriting, and polishing your first published book before it sold? How long, altogether, did you work on it? By comparison, how long have you spent writing your second and third books? Do you plan to be a book-a-year author, and if so, how difficult has the adjustment to that schedule been?

A. A book a year seems to be the norm but I would much rather have eighteen months: I’m a stupendously slow writer and, like Oscar Wilde, I can spend a day deciding whether a comma should go or stay.

I guess it took me over a year to finish Death of a Cozy Writer once I’d won the Malice grant, and I spent a lot of time trying to sell the completed manuscript. Then for some reason I decided that even though the first book hadn’t sold, I’d start work on the second book in the series. I have no idea why I didn’t immediately register this effort as futile. But, it was a lucky thing I did something so quixotic, because when Cozy Writer finally sold the acquiring editor asked me if I had a second book planned. Well, yes, I did, as a matter of fact, so she offered a two-book contract. The third book took me a little longer than a year, and that’s because so much of the responsibility for promotion at every publishing house has fallen onto authors’ shoulders. Authors quickly find themselves on a rolling tumbrel, promoting one book or another, to the point of forgetting which book we’re supposed to be talking about. Authors need, I think, that eighteen months to do it all—especially authors with fulltime jobs and kids to raise—but I also don’t think it’s going to happen.

Q. What aspect of fiction writing gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction? Which has been most difficult for you to master?

A. Looking back and seeing that from the first tentative swipes, a manuscript is emerging—a book that has come from nowhere, and from everywhere. That process is fascinating.

What is difficult is keeping all the characters straight and even remembering what room I left them sitting in. Especially in a traditional British-type story, there tend to be a lot of suspects, and it’s easy to leave one in the bedroom dozing on a window seat only to find he’s somehow moved over to the drawing room and furthermore he’s now perched on an ottoman. Plus, he’s grown a goatee. I use schematics, sketches, lists, charts, and diagrams galore and still spend a lot of time looking for the inconsistencies that creep in.

Q. How is your life different now that you’re a published author? Is everything working out the way you expected, or have you been surprised by some aspects of publishing?

A. I now write fulltime, seven or eight hours a day once I settle into a story, and I try to take the weekends off. That is good advice from Nora Roberts I read somewhere—to treat writing as any other job and not let it consume you. When I moved to fulltime writing, I was afraid I’d develop weird, loner tics and walk around all day in my bathrobe (Louise Penny describes this as the tendency to sit around watching Oprah whilst eating gummy bears). It hasn’t happened yet (knock wood). I am living my dream and extremely grateful for it, although I do wish someone would invent a chair that is comfortable to sit in eight hours a day.

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

A. Absolutely. If you don’t join Sisters in Crime, you are probably only prolonging the agony of being unpublished. The networking, the good advice, the camaraderie—priceless.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are still struggling to break into print?

A. I’m not sure I’ve been around book publishing long enough to be dispensing advice. But the “trite” and true advice holds: Write every day, if only for an hour. A manuscript will emerge, or a short story. Enter reputable contests; submit to anthologies—this gives you a deadline, which focuses the mind wonderfully.

Most of all, develop a Zen-like patience. If you love what you’ve written, rest assured someone else will love it, too—eventually.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Slow Dancing

Sharon Wildwind

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on your television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters, but footage of a dramatic event, an event which has changed the life of the people involved. While you’re watching, count to eight slowly again.

A cut in television parlance is moving from one visual to another. How many cuts were there in the eight-second segment you watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while you watched? Did a sports’ score or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was your set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that you were essentially watching two programs at once?

Back in the day, when I got my news from the Huntley-Brinkley Report—I know this tells my age—the cameras would have lingered for the full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would have been a voice-over talking about the hundred elderly residents evacuated from the burning nursing home in sub-zero weather, but the visual would have been the flames jutting out of the upper floor windows and a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research recently published by the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California, slow news, like slow dancing and slow food, packs a more powerful wallop.

Research subjects took six to eight seconds to emotionally connect with and develop empathy for another human being in distress. If you’re interested in reading the original report on this research, go here. For a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim, go here. Both are fascinating.

If six to eight seconds of news coverage include lot of cuts and/or extraneous material, people watching don’t develop empathy. A hundred elderly people who have lost everything in a fire. Yawn. A mother who saw her toddler crushed by a cement truck. Wonder if I can find a rerun of Friends?

The ability to feel empathy is about as basic a human quality as we have. It’s not unique to our species, of course. We know that many animals, probably more than we think, feel and express empathy. For all I know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings are, so to speak, at the top of the food chain when it comes to empathy. It’s important that we stay there.

I think that first, as human beings, and second, as writers, we have a responsibility to nurture empathy, in ourselves and in our children. Of only slightly less importance is the question that if we become obtunded to feeling empathy, how are we going to create and sustain empathetic characters?

Does this research mean that news programs will go back to the Huntley-Brinkley format? Of course not, but there is at least a simple starting point. The next time you encounter an emotionally-charged news item, close your eyes. Listen to it without the distracting visuals. Think about the people involved. Depending on your spiritual orientation, offer up a prayer or even just a thought for those people. Cultivate not just being in touch with current events, but being touched by events.

I, for one, would prefer not to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of quick-cuts visuals and flashing hockey scores.
Quote for the week:
If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.
~ Immordino-Yang, former teacher and researcher on learning and the brain, 2009 April 16

Chester Campbell will be here on April 28th to discuss writing and his new book, The Surest Poison. I’ll be back May 5th.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Mothers Embarrass Their Sons

by Julia Buckley
This week, as one of our spring break festivities, my family went to see a movie together. We thought it might be crowded, so we got there twenty minutes early and then sat in a nearly empty theater, crunching our popcorn and watching truly inane television promos on the giant screen.

"I can't wait for the previews," I said.

"Mom!" my 14-year-old son said. "Don't talk in here."

Surprised, I looked around at the twelve other people spread across the theatre, all of whom were talking, too. "Ian, this isn't a library or a church. And the movie isn't starting for twenty minutes. We're allowed to talk."

He shook his head and rolled his eyes slightly, looking to my husband for verification. "Dad, no one likes people who talk at the theater." I shrugged, then continued talking in a whisper to placate him. The fact is, anything I do embarrasses my son, beginning with inhaling and exhaling. Perhaps I should do it in the opposite order?

In an effort to understand my teen, I cast myself back to myself at that age and managed to dig out some surprising similarities. I remember treating my father in particular (because he drove me to school each day) to some sarcastic sighs and eye rolling on a pretty regular basis. I loved my dad, but I think I saw him as rather nerdly with his AM radio morning talk shows and his constant adjusting of everything on the car dashboard, as if he fancied himself an airline pilot. I criticized his driving, as I recall, and I didn't really approve if he kissed me goodbye in front of my friends. It seems mean and obnoxious now, but it's helpful that I can recall it and make myself admit that I was the same sort of teenager my boy has become.

My mother, too, bore the brunt of my teen cruelty. She was neat and I, with the disdain of all work that every teen seems to feel, was rather sloppy. Once she came into my bedroom, my lair, where I sat at my desk, probably writing moodily in my journal.

She took one look at my dresser and the thick coat of dust upon it and expressed dismay (my mom was big on dusting). "Julie! Look at this--the dust is so thick I could write 'Pig' in it!" she exclaimed in her rather sweet German accent.

"Why don't you do that, Mom?" I asked, staring into my book.

She sniffed and left the room. She was putting away clothes, I think. My mother was always, always doing chores and I never once thanked her for her household maintenance, just as my son never thanks me.

When I left the room later, I saw that my mother had indeed written "Pig" in her beautiful script-like printing, as a basic symbol of our clash of ideologies. It made me laugh then, and it does now, but these days I understand my mother's side of things far better.

The nature of teens is to look outward at the world, at opportunities and new people and new horizons. They do not so much look at the people in their own homes, but when they do it's generally to accuse them of hypocrisy (and oh, does my son love to use his prodigious vocabulary against me!) or absurdity or some other objectionable abstract. They are learning that they are clever, but they have not yet reached the point at which they can look inside themselves and assess their own behavior.

My teen, like all teens, is both horrible and loveable. He is a pubescent Jekyll who occasionally and without warning becomes Hyde. But when I am ready to judge him for any number of infractions--selfishness, moodiness to start--I am haunted by an image of myself at the dinner table of my teen years, bursting into tears when someone said something that I perceived to be offensive. I remember the blank stares of my parents and my siblings, who viewed me the way one might a dangerous snake--fearful of making the wrong move or saying something that might elicit more crying, or perhaps a primal scream.

Over break my son and I got along quite well, except for one explosive fight during which we launched our verbal weapons at each other (I admit to using the word "crap-ass" as an adjective about my son's behavior) and then, in the aftermath, we were oddly calm and repentant. We faced each other like weary duelists and exchanged apologies and then, as though we'd been exorcised, we had a nice time for the rest of the evening.

While both of us must navigate the stormy seas of his teenhood, I think we can manage to stay afloat if I tell my son I love him, even while I'm angry at him, and if I somehow manage to convey the idea that not only do I understand him, but that at one distant point I was him, in many, many ways.

As my own mother did, I often express my love by feeding my children. Before I started writing this, I handed my son a bowl of rice pudding, a favorite snack since his babyhood. He accepted it happily, and somewhere in his psyche he is storing it as one of many acts of love.

Until he thinks of those acts, though, he will continue to be embarrassed by me, his rude and inconvenient mother. :)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What if Canada Called

, , , and no one answered?

The guest lined up for Canada Calling this month lives in a place that has wonky e-mail service. Right up until last night I’d hoped we could make connections, but we would have had more luck talking to one another with two tin cans and a string. I apologize for the “Watch This Space” blog this morning and promise you her interview later in the year.

In the interest of salvaging a feisty and interesting blog, I went looking for what’s exciting in Canadian mysteries, and, for the first time, came up blank.

We—the members of Crime Writers of Canada—are looking forward to the announcement of the 2009 Arthur Ellis Award nominees next Thursday. It’s a cool idea. CWC chapter members in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa invite the public to events with local mystery authors. The AE nominees are announced at those events; much nicer than simply reading them in a press release. But that’s next week and not going to do me a lot of good for this weekend.

So, I decide to go to the CWC site, troll through the members bios and assemble a list of hot new mysteries being published in 2009 by cool Canadian authors. The pickings were slim. Even if I went back to 2008-published books, the ratio of total CWC authors to those with a new book last year was depressing.

All right, probably a lot of people aren’t familiar with the vibrant community of small Canadian presses. I could do an annotated list of to show the diversity of publishing in Canada today. Only I ended up with a lot of asterisks—*Closed—*Closing—*Not sure what’s happening with them.

This morning I feel like the amateur radio operator in H. G. Wells, “War of the Worlds, calling, “CQ, CQ, is anyone out there?” CQ is the general code that radio operators use to ask anyone listening on a given frequency to respond.

All I can say in conclusion is that yes, we are out here, writing away, still sending out those manuscripts, still a strong mystery community in the north. And like everyone else, hoping for better times.

Sharon Wildwind

Friday, April 17, 2009

How do you keep up?

By Lonnie Cruse

I consider myself a fairly prolific reader, but many of the readers on the DorothyL Internet discussion list put me deep in the shade, reading MULTIPLE books per week! When DO you people sleep? Or eat? And how DO you keep up with the titles of those books? But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm lucky if I average ONE book per week.

How do you keep up with the books you've read so that you don't wind up buying them all over again? Particularly if they are re-issued by a different publisher, sporting new covers? It's mighty easy to forget what you read a few years back and wind up buying the same book again. Not that that's always a bad thing, IF like me, you sometimes (ahem, okay, fairly often) forget the ending. I'm hoping you will share some tips with us here at PDD.

Personally, I've tried putting the list of books I've read into my Palm pilot (which died, but I still have the list on my computer somewhere, and I now use one of those little yearly calendars.) Then I tried journaling my reads, but often when I'm done with a book I re-shelve it or drop it in the give-away totebag, forgetting to note it in the journal.

My lovely sister used index cards which she carried everywhere, but some readers would not be able to lift and/or carry their purses after a couple of years. Not to mention a man's back pocket dragging the ground. Not a pretty picture.

Some people use spread sheets, but I confess, spread sheets, like fax machines, terrify me. Okay, I'm a coward. I actually pay a buck a page every time I have to fax something rather than own and use a machine myself. Where was I?

A list is absolutely crucial if you are reading an author like Anne Perry who has four, count 'em, yes-sir-ee, four series going at once. Sigh. And her first series, the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, has at least thirty entries alone. Like most readers, I rarely read more than one book in a series, in a row. Then I switch to another author's series, then another, then go back to the first author. Variety. But when switching around, it's very easy to get lost and forget what I'd read last in that author's series. Yes, I could check my shelves or look in the closet, but I don't have room to keep every book I read, so unless it's a fave author, or something I might want to refer back to when reading the next, it's outta here.

With my new Kindle, Amazon keeps a list of books purchased on my account, which helps, but what about hard copies?

My latest effort at keeping up with what I read is going online to and printing out a list of my favorite author's books. Then I put a mark by the books as I purchase them, and turn that mark into an X when I've read and/or listened to the book. Makes for a fairly large file, so far, but it works better than anything else I've tried. Even Anne Perry's multiplicity doesn't seem to get the best of me with this method. No, I can't carry the entire file everywhere with me, so if I know I'm heading to a book store, I carry a few pages along. If I walk by a book store and get suddenly sucked inside, I have to wing it.

If you have a better way to keep track of your books purchased and/or read, I, for one, would love hearing it. Thanks in advance.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Favorite Reads in Other Genres, Part II

Elizabeth Zelvin

My last post on this topic covered some beloved authors: Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, and, and Kate Elliott, especially their genre-bending series, respectively, the Vorkosigan saga, the Samaria novels, and the Jaran series. Here are some others that I love.

Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander series is the gold standard for time travel romance, but it’s also a remarkable set of historical novels (sticklers may question the accuracy of the history, but it’s close enough for me) and precisely the kind of character-driven novel that makes readers fall in love with the protagonists and want to take them home. In this case, it’s 20th-century Claire, the World War II nurse, and 18th-century Jamie, the Scottish Highlander, who fall in love two years before Culloden, have a child, and go to extraordinary lengths to be together. Gabaldon herself has some entertaining forwards, and she admits that her husband claims she knows nothing about men. That’s to women readers’ advantage (and some men’s too—Jamie is also attractive to 18th-century gay guys), since Jamie is complex and charismatic and utterly romantic.

Elizabeth Moon has been sticking to hard science fiction lately, but I periodically reread the Sheepfarmer’s Daughter trilogy, aka The Deed of Paksennarion. It’s a fantasy: pre-technological world, elegant elves in the Tolkien tradition (and their cousins who have gone over to the dark side), paladins with mysterious powers. But Moon puts Paks, her protagonist, into a mercenary army where she learns to fight as a foot soldier in the rank and file. I believe Moon has a military background, and she’s great at the details: for example, how a group of soldiers would fight in formation with twelve-foot spears without knocking each other over. The coed army is presented in a satisfyingly matter-of-fact way, as is the fact that Paks is not interested in sex. She’s just a peasant girl with a low libido and a winning personality who wants to be a fighter.

The late Dorothy Dunnett wrote perhaps the most brilliant historical novels I’ve ever read, the Francis Crawford of Lymond series. Her intelligent characters are demonstrably brilliant. Her mastery of a huge historical and geographical canvas is amazing: 16th–century, Scotland, England, France, and as far as Russia and Turkey. Lymond himself is a “man of destiny,” one of those save-the-world superheroes that the reader can’t help falling in love with. And the heroine, Philippa, is a worthy partner—like Mary Russell to Laurie King’s Sherlock Holmes. This is the world whose princes spoke several languages at the age of five or six, and could write a poem, win a game of tennis, and ride a horse with equal skill. There’s just a little woo-woo to spice it up, including a very funny scene with Nostradamus and an oracle that can’t spell. Dunnett’s later House of Niccolo series, in the mercantile world of Europe and such exotic locations as Timbuctoo at the height of its glory as a center of learning, may be even more brilliant. But it’s the Lymond characters who are truly lovable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cops with Cleavage

Sandra Parshall

What is your mental image of a female cop or crime scene investigator? If it includes five-inch heels, hair flowing halfway to the waist, and skin-tight tops that expose a generous amount of cleavage, you’ve been watching too much TV.

The people who produce shows about law enforcement are willing to give women equality in the workplace, but only if they go to work looking like prostitutes trolling the streets for johns. Every time I watch CSI or Without a Trace, I am amused by the absurdities of the action – crime scene techs questioning suspects and ordering cops to make arrests, the FBI launching a widespread search because some guy didn’t come home for dinner, instant DNA analysis – but I accept them if the story is entertaining. What I can’t accept is the way the women dress.

I first noticed it on NYPD Blue, a show I loved. I kept wondering how any female detective could deal successfully with street punks or hardened criminals when she was leaning over them with half of her breasts exposed. And if she ever had to chase a suspect, wouldn’t high heels slow her down a little?

The CSI shows are often shot in near-total darkness, but the women’s cleavage is always visible. I don’t suppose a crime scene investigator’s manner of dress matters much, since a CSI’s work is done mostly behind the scenes and in labs. Even so, it’s hard to suspend disbelief and accept someone as a professional when she is so obviously an actress decked out in sexy clothes by the wardrobe department.

The women who really show us all they’ve got are Poppy Montgomery and Roselyn Sanchez, playing FBI agents on Without a Trace. Both expose ample cleavage in every show, and they almost always wear their very long hair hanging loose over their shoulders and down their backs. When the two of them work together, and they whip out their badges and announce ominously, “We’re from the FBI,” I always expect the person they’ve confronted to burst out laughing.

Since the majority of viewers for these shows are women, I don’t know w
ho this in-your-face sexuality is aimed at. Maybe the producers are trying to attract more male viewers? An interviewer once asked an actress on one program why all the women wear such revealing clothes, and she replied, “You don’t think we dress ourselves, do you? We wear what we’re told to wear.” Somebody higher up, probably a male somebody, is making the decision to portray professional women as Playboy bunny wannabes.

I know how real-life crime scene investigators and cops feel about the CSI shows, and I know Without a Trace is based on a false premise – the FBI doesn’t have any units, in New York or elsewhere, dedicated solely to finding missing persons – but I haven’t heard female cops or CSIs or FBI agents speak out about the way women are portrayed on these programs. Are they insulted by it? Do they laugh it off? Do they worry that the public’s image of them is being influenced by TV fantasy, and they aren’t being taken seriously as well-trained, competent professionals?

How do you, as a viewer, feel about the way women are presented on TV crime shows? Has your image of female cops and CSIs been affected by television? Can you think of any explanation for why women are still being objectified this way by the entertainment industry, at this late date in our history?

When I call up my own mental picture of a dedicated, thoroughly professional woman in law enforcement, what I get is Cathy L. Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC. I’m stubbornly hanging onto this image, regardless of what I see on TV.

(Photo of Chief Lanier from the DCMPD.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Character Capsule, The Update

Sharon Wildwind

A couple of years ago—June 19, 2007 to be exact—I blogged about five key characteristics that go to the heart of character development. If you want to refresh your memory about those characteristics, click here to see that blog.

I’m happy to report that dominant impression, tag line, flawed life view, uncrossed line, and jobs have, so far, aged gracefully. They still form the core of where I begin to develop or update a character.

I’ve learned something new about tag lines in the past two years. This is one place where cliches work. Why waste time thinking up a pithy description, when a tried-and-true line can do it for you? Do you get an immediate mental image of a secretary who believes in a place for everything and everything in its place? How about a family matriarch who would never wash her family linen in public? Would you like to work for a boss who believed that power is the greatest aphrodisiac? No one but the author sees the tag line, so go ahead, just this once. Poach cliches to your heart’s content.

I’ve added four more key elements to my character capsule.

Dangerous secret(s):
Every character needs a secret that will come out in this book, or occasionally, be the set-up for a future book. The secret doesn’t have to relate to the mystery, though it may. In many cases secrets provide the best red herrings because the character’s motivation which can be misinterpreted. A classic example is the song Long Black Veil, ©1959 by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill. The guy in the song has a good reason for not telling the judge where he was when the murder was committed, and in the end, he pays for keeping his secret.

Emotional profile:
Where does the character’s heart lie? Or equally important, what does the character’s heart lie about? How does she express emotions? What emotions are most important? What does he value and why? Does he attempt to hide his values? Why or why not? Is she successful at hiding them? What has it cost him to value this? What rewards have come from valuing this? How does having this emotional profile make her stronger? Make her weaker?

Defining moments:
What were three utterly defining moments, each related to the theme, that brought the character to the book’s opening? This is where the character’s world turned. He could never undo this moment. She could never go back to being what she had been. The first two moments might have happened any time in the character’s life; the third one should happen very close to the book’s beginning; it may even happen in the early part of the book. Imagine a glass so full that it has a dome of liquid on top, being held there by surface tension. Now put one more drop into the glass. Of course, everything spills over the side. That’s what the third defining moment does to the character, and the spilling over the side forces the character into the story.

A brand is not a something I do for individual characters. Instead it provides a background against which all my characters act. Several years ago another writer commented after reading an early draft, “Your main character keeps breaking down in tears. Why would I want to read about a woman who is that weepy?” Good point. So part of my brand became, “The past overtakes everyone, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm everyone.”

That brand message gives me a yardstick against which I can measure my characters’ behavior. First, every one of my characters needs a past, and the darker, the murkier, the more difficult the past, the better. Second, that past is coming back to haunt the character. Finally, the character isn’t going to fold. She may occasionally cry, but she’s also going to pull up her socks, get angry, be honest, and find the courage to confront her past. By knowing what my brand is, I can use it to generate a whole range of reactions.

Writing quote for the week:

The author contracts with the reader to provide an ah-ha moment where they recognize the character as someone they know in real life. ~Bouchercon 2003 panel

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Writer's Retreat

by Julia Buckley

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

So said Thoreau in his book Walden, and last year I sent this same quote to Bill Cameron when he went to on his own woodsy retreat to do some intensive writing.

Now, because it is our spring break and for once our whole family finds itself together, we are taking a couple of days in the woods, as well. Our budget is about $10.75, so we won't be able to do much more than pay for gas and sit around looking at trees, but the NOTION of being somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and different, is sometimes all it takes to feel refreshed. These photos come from a different visit to a different forest, in days of yore, but I think they still get the point across. :)

Soon I shall be able to post photos from our new hideaway, where I hope to do some writing on my latest book. However, there will be children who want to take walks and find gross things in the dirt, and naturally that must take precedence.
Perhaps, though, the act of investigating the physical world will help to stimulate my cerebral world; I have found in the past that the best ideas came to me when I was relaxed and not inundated with workday stresses. But quitting my job to relax and write is a long way off--after all, I just spent my $10.75. :)

What's your favorite retreat?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Comedy—It Don’t Get No Respect

Jeffrey Cohen is the author of the Double Feature Mystery series, whose latest installment, A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, published this week. The series concerns itself with Elliot Freed, who buys a one-screen movie house in central New Jersey and shows only comedies, one classic and one contemporary each week. In A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, Elliot’s ex-wife, for whom he still carries a torch, vanishes just at the moment she’s implicated in a murder.

Jeff has also written three books in the Aaron Tucker series about a freelance reporter who reluctantly investigates crimes, and two non-fiction books on raising a child with Asperger Syndrome.

Where does your humor come from?

The humor comes from West Palm Beach, Florida, and I’m too lazy to bring it back. Seriously? I don’t know if it’s related to being Jewish, although there’s certainly a tradition of Jewish humor that goes back pretty much forever, always an element of being “different” in that, and humor comes from anxiety, I guess. Living in New Jersey is another exercise in the inferiority complex—we’re stuck between New York and Philadelphia, and are the Rodney Dangerfields of the United States. We don’t get no respect. It’s a lot like writing funny mysteries, now that I think of it.

A hilarious comedy can be made about anything. Anything. It’s not the subject matter that makes the difference. It’s the point of view, chiefly that of the characters in the film. Suppose I told you there was a movie about two people who kidnap a newborn infant and are then subjected to pain and suffering because of that action. Suppose I told you it included extreme violence. Suppose I told you it had, at best, an ambiguous ending. Would you think it was funny? Then suppose I told you the movie is called Raising Arizona. It’s the point of view that makes a difference.

Do you think some readers find humor a distraction in mysteries? Is that part of the “no respect” problem you were talking about before?

The people who refuse to have humor in their mysteries probably wouldn’t want humor in a book without murder, either. They just don’t think anything should ever be silly. They don’t think anyone should ever be rude. They wish every person they see on television would just mind their language. They see the dark and serious side of life and think it’s so dark and serious that mocking it is, in some way, tempting it to strike. That’s a perfectly legitimate point of view; they’re entitled to it. Some people really do have no sense of humor--it’s not that they don’t WANT to think something’s funny; they just don’t have that gene built in. I’m not crazy about ballet; that doesn’t mean it isn’t a real form of art. I just don’t have it in me to appreciate it. Some people, alas, are like that about comedy. So they read the “serious” novelists, and they don’t read me. That’s what they should do--they’re not going to like my books, anyway.

Why is Aaron Tucker funny?

Because he refuses to play along. He won’t pretend he likes someone he thinks is an idiot. He listens to every word someone says to him, mostly because he’s looking for a pun he can make. He’s not angry; he’s amused. Aaron can’t understand why everybody doesn’t act the way he does. And when he met (his wife) Abby, he found someone who will banter with him in every conversation. Heaven.

Why is Elliot Freed funny?

Different reason. Elliot’s deflecting pain. His mission in life is to proselytize for comedy. He won’t be happy until everyone is watching the Marx Brothers instead of reading John Steinbeck. He truly believes that comedy can cure our ills, starting with his own. He didn’t open Comedy Tonight until after his divorce, and he’s still hoping to fix that marriage. Elliot isn’t tortured, but he believes things could be better, and he’s determined to make them so.
Why would it do us all a world of good to spend a couple of nights a week at Elliot’s theater, Comedy Tonight, instead of listening to the evening news or Twittering?

Not “instead of.” In addition to. I believe in reading the newspaper every day (I wouldn’t watch TV news on a bet, but I never miss The Daily Show). I keep up on Facebook, but I admit I don’t understand the appeal of Twitter, even though I’m on Twitter. Why would it do us good to go to Comedy Tonight? Because comedy is, indeed, therapeutic for those who get it. I spoke before about people who have no sense of humor—there aren’t that many, but there are some, and comedy won’t help them at all. But for the majority of us, a good comedy is the tonic we need when life is awful. Why were the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy and so many others so popular during their time? First, because they were brilliant comedians. Second, and equally as important, because their time was the Great Depression. Watch and see if more comedies don’t get made in the next 2-3 years.

If you could write a comedy right now, for this decade, what would you write about and what comedians or comediennes (living or dead) would you cast in it?

If I had the chance to write for the Marxes, there would be no second place. Except maybe Gene Wilder, who is probably better suited to my temperament but isn’t as brilliant, only because he can’t be three men. What would be the best comedy for this decade? Some sort of wish-fulfillment story about getting even with greedy bankers, I should think. A Trading Places where the heroes aren’t commodities brokers.

What’s it like to write a screenplay?

It’s a lot like baking a chocolate cake, only without the chocolate. Or the cake. Or any baking. Aside from that, exactly the same. Writing screenplays was what I did for 20 years or so, and I think I got to be pretty good at it. Hollywood had a somewhat different opinion, and that indirectly led to my writing novels. So go figure. Screenplays are such a specific form, the storytelling is so visual and external, that writing a novel, where I could get into anybody’s head and ruminate on whatever the character wanted to think about, was very freeing. I still love movies, but I haven’t written in screenplay format for years. If I get a good idea... ah, who am I kidding? I’d probably turn it into a novel.

If you don’t have the stomach to collaborate, you shouldn’t write for the movies, definitely. I tell my screenwriting students that once they sell a screenplay, they have to consider it like a used car: If you sell it to someone, and the next day they paint it orange with pink polka dots, and rip out your $2000 audio system to install two tin cans and a string, you have NO RECOURSE. You cashed the check. The property belongs to them, now. You have to think, too, that the writers, directors and producers (plus cinematographers, sound technicians, Foley artists and for all I know the guy who sweeps up the soundstage) might add something worthwhile to your work. They’re artists, too. I wish I’d gotten the chance to collaborate and found out what would have happened to my work, but I fear that window is closed now. Unless someone who reads this wants to look into my screenplay archives, or buy the screen rights to one (or more) of my books. I’ll be happy to let them tramp all over my words then. And yes, I’ll cash the check.

Not only do you have a long background as a screenwriter, but you have two mystery series (three books each, so far) you’re published by a major mystery publisher and have been nominated for Lefty awards, etc. What’s life like in your part of the mystery world?

It’s green, here, with a little brook that runs through... Life is interesting here. I love being thought of as a funny writer (in a nice way, I mean). It’s what I’ve always wanted. I wish more people read the books so they could decide if I’m funny or not, but hopefully, that’ll come. The Lefty nominations were extremely gratifying, since it’s the only award that recognizes comedy, and that makes it my favorite. I hope the current book is treated as well. What I find interesting is that the people who like laughs in their mysteries REALLY like it, and the ones who don’t think it’s something approaching blasphemy. People say humor is subjective, and that’s just the tip of the subjective iceberg. If that makes any sense, which it doesn’t.

As writers, we strive to be professional, but shouldn’t writing be fun, too?

Should the process itself be fun? It’s fun when you write something you didn’t expect to write and it turns out well. It’s ridiculously difficult the rest of the time. I don’t sit behind the keyboard giggling all day at the tremendous joy I’m generating for myself. I am an advocate of the oldest of old saws for writers: “I hate writing. I love having written.”

What can not only writers, but readers, do to support one another in an economic and publishing situation that currently seems to be a black vortex?

Oh geez, if I knew that... The only thing a writer can do is share. “This is what goes on in my mind. I hope you find it interesting.” The minute we start to write things because we think other people want them is the minute we start writing crap. And even when some of the crap sells, it’s still crap.

What can readers do? Give the new guy/girl a chance. Don’t just read the comfortable old names because they’re the comfortable old names. If a reader doesn’t know how to find new names, there are several mystery journals that will give you a list longer than your arm. Or, ask your friends. I didn’t think I’d like Lisa Lutz’s “Spellmans” series, and resisted it for quite some time, and now I can’t wait to read the third book. Wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given an unknown (to me) a shot.

For more information about Jeff and his books visit his web site.