Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mothers and the Daughters Who Leave Them

Beth Groundwater (Guest Blogger)

The relationship between mothers and daughters is one of the strongest and most loving of human connections. At the same time, it is fraught with conflict as the push-pull of adolescent daughters “leaving the nest” chafes both them and their mothers, rubbing emotions raw. The daughter needs to separate from the mother to become a self-sufficient adult. It’s very difficult to accomplish this without the two becoming estranged or at least strained as they find new ways of relating to each other.

I wanted to explore this tug-of-war between mothers and maturing daughters in To Hell in a Handbasket
after writing about the husband-wife relationship in A Real Basket Case. Both books are mysteries, where the plots focus on who-dunnit, but a significant subplot in each is the relationship issue that the amateur sleuth, Claire Hanover, must resolve. In both books the relationship issue is entwined with the mystery plot, so the resolution of one affects the resolution of the other.

This scene where Claire and her college-aged daughter Judy argue about clothing, one of the issues that mothers and daughters fight over the most, is a good example.

When Judy appeared with bleary eyes and tousled hair at the breakfast table the next morning, Claire asked her what she planned to wear to the memorial service.

“I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it yet, with all the turmoil around here.” She plopped a ladleful of oatmeal into a bowl and started slicing a banana.

Ignoring the barb about the previous night’s argument, Claire asked, “Do you have a dark-colored dress?”

“On a ski trip?” Judy stopped her knife. “Are you kidding, Mom?”“What about black or navy pants and a subdued top?” Most of Judy’s tops could be described as lingerie, though if Judy had a dark-colored ski turtleneck, that might do.

“All I’ve got is ski clothes, jeans, and some strappy tops that I know you won’t approve of. But why’s it matter what I wear? What’s important is that we’re there to honor Stephanie.”

“And part of honoring her is showing the family that you care enough to dress respectably.” Claire mentally reviewed the clothes that she had brought with her. “Maybe I have something you can borrow.”

Judy tossed a skeptical glance over her raised spoon at Claire. “C’mon. All your stuff would hang on me.”


I wrote To Hell in a Handbasket while my own daughter was taking steps toward independence in her senior year of high school and freshman year of college. While I hope I wasn't as neurotic as Claire was over letting go of her daughter, it wasn't easy! I had nightmares about my daughter being abducted, raped, tortured, ensnared in the white slave trade, and whatever other horrors my fertile imagination could devise. I told her when she left for college that I needed to hear her voice at least once a week so I knew she was still alive.

Some of my critique partners, especially the men, didn't particularly like Judy, saying she was too cruel to Claire. But women who have gone through this stage with maturing daughters nod their heads and say, “been there, done that.” These emotion-fraught, struggling young women have to take their anger and disappointments out on some target, and they usually choose the safest one—their mothers. Our job as mothers is to absorb the onslaught with a wry sense of humor, while wiping that sly smile off our faces, knowing where the anger comes from, remembering doing it ourselves as adolescents, and realizing that this, too, shall pass.

Beth Groundwater’s first mystery novel, A Real Basket Case, was nominated for a Best First Novel Agatha Award. The second in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series, To Hell in a Handbasket, has just been released. Between writing spurts, Beth defends her garden from marauding mule deer and wild rabbits and tries to avoid getting black-and-blue on the black and blue ski slopes of Colorado. You can visit her website at

Friday, May 29, 2009

Kindling, it's not just for starting a fire any more . . . or is it?

By Lonnie Cruse

After me hinting around, suggesting, and finally outright begging, my family chipped in for my birthday last fall, Christmas last December, and Valentine's Day last February with multiple gift certifs from Amazon. Whereupon I purchased a Kindle. And fell in love. But I already said that in other posts. Purpose today is to discuss what's available for Kindle, sigh, and what is not. Wheeee! And maybe look into the future of print books.

Where was I? Books on Kindle. There are a lot of vintage books which are no longer under copyright laws. Various groups are converting these books to e-files which can then be downloaded to a Kindle either from Amazon or other sites. Many are FREE! Others are minimal, like under a buck.

So far I've downloaded MYSTERY CLASSICS, A COLLECTION which includes The Gloved Hand, The Hand in the Dark, and The Old Man In The Corner. I've enjoyed what few pages I've read. THE EXPERIENCES OF LOVEDAY BROOK comes with illlustrations. wonderful mystery stories, etc. BULLDOG DRUMMOND by Herman Cyril McNeile, DR. THORNDYKE MYSTERIES, by R. Austin Freeman, THE CLUE OF THE TWISTED CANDLE by Edgar Wallace, ALICE OR THE MYSTERIES BOOK 01 by Edward Lytton, PHILO VANCE, 12 COMPLETE NOVELS, THE WORKS OF P. G. WODEHOUSE which are listed in mystery, and WHOSE BODY? by Dorothy Sayers. All under a buck or free. All snuggling on my Kindle. Books that would be hard to find or cost a lot more if I did find them. NOOO, I haven't read them all yet, but I have dipped a toe in the water of several. Some I'm enjoying, some are so so.

Collections I've downloaded not in the mystery genre are CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE the works of Willa Cather, and CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE, the works of Edith Wharton, CLASSIC CHILDREN'S BOOK by Lucy Maud Montgomery. This is stuff I *meant* to read and haven't. Now's my chance.

In the way of single books, not collections, I've downloaded OUR LADY OF PAIN by Chesney which I'm currently reading, LOIS THE WITCH (not sure of the genre there but it was an old book and the sample was interesting.) Just downloaded yesterday DEATH OF AN OBNOXIOUS TOURIST BY Maria Hudgins. She is a fellow Five Star author and I wanted to support her. Then there are some freebies like HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON which looks like a fantasy and was FREE. Ditto for PERSUADER by Lee Child (which now has a price tag, you gotta grab the freebies fast) THE MYSTERY OF METROPOLIS, THE HAMPSTEAD MYSTERY, AND CRIME SCENE AT CARDWELL RANCH. If it's free, I download it. I can always delete if I don't care for the book.

My Kindle holds 1500 books. I'm no where near that number, but I'm working on it. I love being able to carry this many books at once, and more important, to switch to something else if what I've clicked into bores me.

I no longer even notice the page turning, which did bug me a bit at first, as it sort of blinks. My battery lasts a long time because I keep the wireless turned off unless I'm downloading. I can get samples of books to see if I might like them. I can remove books from the Kindle when I'm done if they aren't keepers. And I can order a book while riding in the car or reading in bed late at night, without the use of a computer.

All in all, it was worth the purchase, and the begging. I've even uploaded my own first mystery series to the Kindle library. I'm not getting rich, but I've sold a few.

Back to the purpose of this post, what's available on Kindle. Besides the vintage at low price, the newer books are coming out on Kindle. And this sparks a debate among owners. Sometimes new books are introduced for free (though I notice not as many as there were in February when the new Kindle came out) but many for a high price. So far I've avoided buying anything over $9.99 If I'm paying more than that, it would be for a book by an author I love, and I'd want to keep the *real* book. Some books are REALLY expensive, but rare. I was browsing by price yesterday but stopped when I found Kindle books for over $100. Say what??? Many of the books that have been in print this decade (and can you believe this decade is nearly over? Yikes!) are on Kindle, at a cheaper price than paperback.

Things that drive Kindlers nuts: The units can be a teensy bit delicate, so owners REALLY need to keep a Kindle in a case. I bought the suggested case and found a snappy little purse to drop the entire unit in, with the charger, when I travel. Free books quickly become books with a price, so you have to check nearly every day. The Kindle isn't backlit which doesn't bother most of us, but a few complain about it. And the NUMBER ONE complaint, NO folders. Meaning you have a list of books and samples on your home pages (I have five pages, sigh) that you must either sort by most recently opened/read or by title or by author. We would ALL love some folders to be able to drop the samples in one, new books into another, books read/but we're keeping them on the unit anyhow into another, etc.

I'm getting this info from the Kindle discussion lists, by the way. Most are pretty helpful. People also suggest books to read (or not read) there. And anyone having issues with their unit often post there, so the rest of us know what to look for or how to correct problems, should they arise. Of the thousands of units sold, most seem to work fine, but customer service has apparently been very helpful in fixing or replacing units that have problems.

I think the future of books and of the Kindle, will be remain like now, prices cheaper than paperback or hardback. Readers embracing the e-readers. And lots of publishers and authors jumping on the e-book bandwagon. However, enticing as Kindles are, I believe that my generation, while embracing Kindles, will still buy paperbacks and hardbacks, so it won't be until we are all gone and the techie generation (think under forty) becomes the new majority that print books *might* pass into history, with everyone reading on some sort of gizmo.

If you find that a scary thought, you're in good company. And you are over forty.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Case of PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I realized, having written sixty unsatisfying pages of my new work in progress, that it was not going well, I took a radical step: I showed the incomplete first draft to one of my brilliant critique partners, blog sister and fellow mystery author Sharon Wildwind. Sharon is better than anyone else I know at deconstructing the writing process. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

On the surface, I could answer that question myself. It started out with my recovering alcoholic protagonist, Bruce Kohler, going to a therapist for the first time. The first chapter ended with a bang when he came for a session and found the therapist dead on her analytic couch. In the second chapter, the police arrived.

When I began the series, I chose an amateur sleuth as my protagonist because I knew nothing about police procedure or private investigation. I didn’t want to be bothered with the cops. But, as I found when I began to talk with other mystery writers, mysteries have changed since I last wrote one (three, in fact; I had a great agent, but they didn’t sell) in the 1970s. In spite of the egregious errors on TV fictional crime shows, mystery novelists are under enormous pressure to get the details right. And when a murder is committed in New York City—or, for that matter, in a clean and sober beach house in the Hamptons, where a completed but not yet published manuscript is set—the cops are going to be there. I couldn’t leave them out.

At this point in the series, I had already felt the need to introduce a police officer character to make Bruce’s repeated involvement in murders more plausible. So after several false starts with women, he’s gotten involved with a cop. She’s not a detective yet, but she wants to be. And that ambition of hers set up my problem. Bruce finds a body, the police arrive, and she is one of them. But if the guy who finds the body is her boyfriend, won’t they take her off the case? And if she’s off the case, how can she further the plot? So suppose she conceals her relationship with Bruce? But would she do that? One, would she compromise her professional ethics to that extent? And two, what if she got found out? The consequences might derail not only her career, but her role in keeping the series plausible. By trying to get police behavior right—by the standards of cops who might read the book—I had painted myself into a corner.

Sharon put an unerring finger on my dilemma when she told me I’d fallen prey to Perfectly Nice Syndrome, or PNS. If I took the girlfriend (name withheld to avoid a spoiler earlier in the series) off the case, I removed the conflict and tension—and made her useless as a character who could advance the plot. And if I let her tell her boss—the sergeant who heads the investigation—immediately that she’s slept with the guy who’s called 911, and there aren’t any consequences, well, that’s when I might get those irritated emails saying that would never happen in a competent, professional police force like NYPD. The solution? I have to make my character less than completely professional. She can’t tell her boss about her relationship with Bruce.

Sharon supplied the source of the concept of PNS: perhaps not surprisingly, a former president of the Romance Writers of America, Sherry Lewis.

“Avoid PNS: perfectly nice syndrome. Give your characters ambitions and not-so-nice qualities.”

Yes, that’s the way to go. A mystery needs tension and conflict, and PNS is the kiss of death to these qualities. I need to start over, slack off a little on the respectful accuracy of my characters, and make sure they behave badly enough for the enjoyment of my readers.

Shortly after reaching this conclusion, I was lucky enough to be present at the Edgars Week Symposium, when Sue Grafton was interviewed as a newly named Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. Having written more than twenty books in a groundbreaking series, she was asked how she kept Kinsey Millhone fresh between A Is for Alibi and the as yet unwritten Z is for Zero. In response, she told about a point in the series, while she was writing J Is for Judgment, when she felt the writing had gone stale and had to figure out what the problem was. “I had cut myself off from my evil,” Grafton said, “where all the good creative energy is.”

So there it is. When threatened by PNS, the writer needs to get in touch with her inner evil, and all will be well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sally Goldenbaum: Crafting a Mystery World

By Sally Goldenbaum
Guest blogger

The winner of the autographed copy of Patterns in the Sand is Dave Chaudoir. Congratulations! Please e-mail me at with your mailing address and I'll get the book out to you asap.

I used to wonder why people wrote mysteries around a theme, like food or knitting or gardening. Why isn’t a plain old murder enough? Who needs herbs and bamboo needles and a trowel when you have a dead body?

I didn’t really know the answer, at first, even though I have, or am, writing two cozy mystery series that do exactly that, one revolving around quilting (at which I’m a failure) and the other around knitting (for which I have a passion that far exceeds my actual ability). But why bring them into a mystery?

Why, indeed.

After some head scratching and pondering, I’ve decided one of the answers for me is that it provides a kind of centering. In a mystery series, you’re not only inviting readers back to follow the same characters story after story; you’re also inviting those characters back. The same ones, book after book. And having some sort of anchor—a ready-made reason for those characters to get together, to interact, to gossip, to grow together and develop their friendship in new ways—is very helpful in structuring a plot.

Okay, I say to myself, why not have them simply live on the same cul-de-sac, like the desperate housewives? Or work in the same office? Or shop in the same stores? And I think the answer is that that might work just fine, too. It’s not unlike a craft that the characters share and it probably works just fine. It seems to have kept the women of Wisteria Lane in business for a while. I think the anchors in mystery series can be a lot of things, and there are probably very clever anchors out there that haven’t even been thought of yet.

But a craft like knitting does something more than just provide a place and an excuse for Nell, Izzy, Cass, and Birdie (my Seaside knitting friends) to gather. It also, I think, injects a sensuousness into the mystery, just like writing about food does. And injecting sensuality into my writing is all-important in pulling readers into the story, I think. Sinking one's fingers into a basketful of Izzy’s buttercup yellow cashmere yarn, for example, or savoring Nell’s garlic grilled shrimp salad with fresh flakes of basil sprinkled on top—and clinking together four glasses of Birdie’s chilled pinot gris—are sure ways to stimulate and sharpen the senses and help the knitters of Sea Harbor explore the intricacies of a neighbor’s untimely death.

In Patterns in the Sand (the second book, just released, in the Seaside Knitters series) the knitters meet to knit, but also embrace a fiber artist who is involved in the story line—so sometimes the craft provides helpful offshoots.

Is it constraining in any way to have to tie the characters—and connect the readers—to this craft? Not exactly constraining, but it joins the list of other elements that a writer needs to be sure are included in the mystery—like conflict, action, clues, description, red herrings. Sometimes I realize that I’ve gone awhile without bringing in knitting, so I have to go back and plug it in here and there—and the story ends up being better for it. A writer friend, Nancy Pickard, talks about the CASES review—does every chapter include Conflict? Action? Surprise? An Emotional shift? And appeals to the Senses? And in writing a knitting mystery, I add “knitting” to the list.

And then I take a break and head for my knitting basket (and the refrigerator).

Learn more about the author and her books at

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fen Fic Modeling

I worry that somewhere—in one of my friend’s houses, in a the back of a dark closet, in a disintegrating cardboard box—my fan fic survives.

Fan fic is, of course, fiction written by fen (plural of fan, though I have no idea why, since the standard plural would be fans). Maybe it got too complicated to figure out where to put the apostrophe when making it possessive. Does fen’s fic read any easier than fans’s fic? Possibly.

In any case fen fic writers hijack another writer’s characters, settings, etc. and go blissfully about augmenting the universe created by the original author. After all, there were only 78 or 79 episodes of the original Star Trek, depending on if you want to count the original pilot as one episode or two. Three books, plus a prequel (maybe) plus some other stories in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, depending on how many of Unwin’s publications you want to count as the original corpus. There are three, six, or nine stories in the Starwars’ trilogy, depending on if you count each cycle of three stories as a separate cycle and choose to include or not include the last three stories, which haven’t been made into movies—yet.

See, it’s not even easy to keep track of what constitutes the original work. And then, let the fen through the gate and watch what happens.

Traditionally, fen fic—at least in my day—was amateur-night only. Shared among friends. Published in zines. Stored in cardboard boxes. Needless to say, the Internet changed all that. Currently fen fic related to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight universe stands at somewhere around 574,000 Google hits, and they’re not just the written word. People are out there producing videos and movies in the comfort of their own home.

About twenty years ago, share-cropping entered the fan fic picture. Share-cropping is the practice of an author setting up a universe and inviting other authors to publish stories, “in the style of,” or “in the universe of” that author. Debra Dixon did it with her BelleBooks, Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes and the Mossy Creek series.

Then came the demand for prequels and sequels. Jill Paton Walsh was commissioned by Dorothy L. Sayer’s son’s estate to finish Thrones, Dominations, a book Sayer’s was working on when she died. Not only did she do a credible job with that one, she went on to add one more novel—A Presumption of Death—to the Peter and Harriet corpus.

And, finally, there is the transposition of a fictional character into a completely different series of stories. Laurie R. King, pairs Mary Russell with no less a partner than Sherlock Holmes. The Holmesian fan fic world has been bigger, for a longer time, than the combined Star Trek/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings triangle.

When I said above that fen fic was amateur-night only, I was speaking only about the distribution of the finished product, not the quality of the writing. I have read stunning fan fic, and gosh-awful, and much that was in-between. The value of writing in a known universe is that you can take that universe apart, study it, and in the words of the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man, “make it better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster.”

It’s a technique called modeling, and here are three ways it can be used.

Find a favorite piece of literature. What you’re about to do will reduce it to shreds, so maybe you won’t want to pick your absolute, all-time favorite. Some things are sacred.

Start by doing a number thing. How many words? How many words per sentence? How many chapters? What’s the sentence mix? How many pages per chapter? Are all of the chapters the same length? How many pages are we into the story before we’ve met all of the major characters? On what page does the main character bottom out—that dark night of the soul? On what page is the climax? How many pages does the climax last? Is there a double climax: you think the story is over, but wait, there’s more? Does the author try to tie up all the loose ends like a pretty package—the epilog, not quite as dreaded as prolog, but close—or are there unresolved issues that scream, “Sequel”?

For the next one, I recommend a book you can mark with abandon and a clear conscious. Pick something—theme, motif, character development, clues and red herrings, etc—and follow it through the entire book. Let’s say the theme is that how a person is treated under the law depends on how influential a person is. So every time you find two people or two groups being treated differently in similar situations, go ahead, mark up the book like crazy. Follow the thread from beginning to end. You’ll probably be surprised at how many tiny details convey that theme.

Finally, downright copy. Find a couple of passages you really love. Write them out or put them in the computer in a double- or triple-spaced format. Leave yourself lots of room for notes. Start by doing a construction analysis.

“They came to a bank of three elevators, whose brass doors were decorated with ornate scrollwork. A craggy-faced man, beautifully dressed, came out of one of the elevators with a marked, crabwise limp. He greeted Barber effusively, shook Spade’s hand as if truly delighted to meet him, and went his way.” (Joe Gores, Spade & Archer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p 177.

Movement—place—descriptive detail (money, stability, craftsmanship)—walk-on character—descriptive detail (money, craftsmanship)—movement—descriptive detail (crippled, exact opposite of money and craftsmanship used before)—action (reinforces positive feelings towards Barber that other characters have previously shown)—action (doesn’t know Spade from Adam, but is inclusive)—action (moves story along and disappears)

Now set up your own model. You could choose to use the exact same tone you identified or you could change the tone (the stuff in parenthesis above) but keep the sequence. Movement—place—descriptive detail—walk-on character and so on.

Now write your own paragraph. For a lark, you might try to write a paragraph that has identical linking words, verbs, and punctuation as the original. It’s harder than you think to do that. Authors quickly tend to wander off into their own styles.

We came to a small clearing, whose sun-parched trees were decorated with small, dry fruit. A old man, wrinkled like the fruit, came out of one of the huts with an elegant bearing. He greeted us with effusive, completely unintelligible remarks, shook my hand as if we were friends, and went his way into the jungle.

Jason turned to me, “Who the hell was that?”

Writing quote for the week:

In 1955, Stanford University refused me a Master’s Degree in English Literature because my proposed thesis was on the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. “Since these novels are not literature,” they said, “obviously graduate theses cannot be written about them.”
~Joe Gores, former San Francisco PI and author of Spade & Archer: the Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

(Six years later, Stanford did grant him his degree. His accepted thesis was on literature of the South Sea Islands.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Villain By Any Other Name . . .

by Julia Buckley
The Monarch and his love interest, Dr. Girlfriend.

Many people have written about the great literary and screen villains--the ones we truly love to hate, the ones who make us afraid to be alone in the house, the ones who are even a bit humorous while they do their evil thing.

But I was thinking today that all the greatest villains have truly wonderful villain names. In mystery literature, there is the great nemesis of Sherlock Holmes: Dr. Moriarty. It was genius of Conan-Doyle to give his villain a title--something to suggest intelligence behind the evil. Moriarty, of course, was the one villain that Holmes never really bested--they went down together (until Holmes mysteriously rose again).

There are other classic literary villains--the great Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper (who exists in true crime and in many fictional examinations), Madame Defarge, Mrs. Danvers, Raskolnikov, Hannibal Lechter. And what about the deliciously creepy-sounding Count Dracula?

And then there are the Hollywood villains--like Dirty Harry's serial killer, Scorpio, or Batman's many evil enemies: the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, Bane. Spiderman has a slew of enemies, as well, including The Green Goblin, Mysterio, Dr. Octopus, Electro, Sandman, Craven the Hunter. And of course Superman's villain had the ultra-cool name of Lex Luthor.

Naming a villain would be difficult work, but enjoyable, I think. I've only written one truly villainous character (Nob Stevens), but I can see how those who write villains could be caught up in the fun of creating their evil personas.

My husband and sons have discovered a new favorite from Adult Swim on The Cartoon Network. It's a show called The Venture Brothers, which is a campy take-off on Johnny Quest (remember him?) and lots of Marvel comics characters and other cartoon cliches. The writers of the show, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer (not their real names, I'm guessing), seem to have had lots of fun in creating their stable full of enemies, who fight Rusty Venture and his two sons, Hank and Dean.

The Monarch (a man dressed as a butterfly), Phantom Limb (who is just a floating torso), Sergeant Hatred (whose power is mainly anger), Truckules (pronounced like Hercules, who is part truck), the Manotaur (part man, part bull) and Dr. Septipus (who has an extra set of arms) are just a few of the crazy villains that populate the world of this funny cartoon.

If you watch The Venture Brothers, you'll see that naming villains can be fun and funny, and so can writing their dialogue.

Who's your favorite villain from literature or screen?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thomas H. Cook on The Whims of Fate, The Artistic Imagination, and The Saddest Places on Earth

by Julia Buckley
(photo link here)
I recently interviewed Thomas H. Cook after reading his amazing book, THE FATE OF KATHERINE CARR. Then, over spring break, I read Cook's RED LEAVES and could not forget about it. The story haunted me for days. Such is the power of Cook's writing, and I thought I'd share the interview here at deadly daughters since he has such profound things to say.

Tom, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for my blog

Your new book is called The Fate of Katherine Carr. There seem to be references in the book to the notion of Fate, in the ancient Greek sense. Is mythology an influence in your writing?

Mythology has always been an influence because the figures of myth are so fully representational of various aspects of human life. They are the great generalities, and in that sense they are very efficient in conveying large themes. One only needs to reference Sisyphus, for example, and the question of futility is rendered completely. Using mythological themes and figures also allows the author to demonstrate that he/she is fully aware of the smallness of his/her current contribution in comparison to the greatness of our literary inheritance.

The story revolves around a man’s unspeakable loss: that of his eight-year-old son, murdered years before. Your previous book, Red Leaves, involved the disappearance of an eight-year-old girl. Is the recurring theme of child abduction one to which you want to draw attention, or is it more that this sort of desperate conflict makes for a compelling plot?

I think the loss of a child is one of the most profound experiences of human life. I can think of nothing that could propel an individual or a family into a more heightened state of crisis. For that reason, it creates an intense emotional atmosphere for the characters, one that allows them to move through clouds of grief and recrimination to a self-awareness that would not have been possible for them before the loss.

Your main character, George, is a travel writer, and you yourself are a well-traveled person. So I will ask my perennial blog question: what’s the most beautiful place in the world?

I think the most beautiful place I have ever seen is the valley that sweeps out from the terraces of Assisi for the simple reason that it appeared so dreamy and unreal. There are valleys in Ireland that have the same sense of being the product of fantasy, rather than an actual landscape. But stark places can be beautiful, too, and I love the red desert of Central Australia and the truly frightening aspect of Ayer’s Rock. Currently I am doing a travel book about the saddest places on earth for my British publisher, and these travels have led me to appreciate the “beauty” of prisons, castle ruins, battlefields and cemeteries.

That sounds absolutely wonderful--and what a great idea.

You hold master’s degrees in both history and philosophy. Do you find yourself drawing on the extensive writings of historians and philosophers when you write mysteries?

I draw on that part of my education quite a bit. In MASTER OF THE DELTA I even have a character who has been writing a biography of Lincoln for twenty years. I really enjoy historical research, and had I not taken up writing novels, I’d have tried to write the sort of histories that David McCullough writes. I had already passed my PhD oral examination at Columbia when I wrote my first novel, and so I was well on my way to becoming a historian when I gave it up.

One of the most moving lines in your book, to me, was “there is nothing more heartbreaking than the sound of other people’s children when you have lost your own.” This captures the tone of George’s narration throughout the novel. Is it painful to try to get inside of a character who has suffered so deeply? Is this a necessity for writing a good mystery?

Frankly, I think one of the problems with the current state of mystery writing is that there is not enough focus on characterization of this sort. As a reader, I don’t really care “who dun it” if I don’t care to whom it was done. The problem with writing about the suffering of your characters as movingly as you can, however, is that many readers find that sort of mystery depressing, and therefore prefer simple puzzle mysteries or action thrillers in which characterization takes a back seat to cleverness of plot and breakneck narrative momentum. For that reason I think some mystery writers have to seek an audience that extends beyond the genre and into the mainstream, a tightrope trip down the light fantastic that is by no means easy, and which is usually not very successful.

But like your book about the beauty in sad places, there can be a greal deal of beauty in a person's sadness--often because of the love or loss that creates it. I think you've been quite successful at conveying this with Katherine Carr.

One of the characters in Katherine Carr has progeria, the premature aging disease. The relationship between Alice, the girl afflicted with this disease, and the narrator, George, is a very moving part of the book. Did you have to research the disease, or had you been familiar with it? Was Alice meant to be another example of the whims of Fate?

I had no experience with progeria and so I had to research the disease before writing about Alice. When I began the book, there was no Alice. But George needed to be working on another profile as he investigated the fate of Katherine Carr, and Alice simply forced herself into the book. She is certainly an example of the iron-grip of fate, the play of accident in life, and of life’s essential injustice. I did not want to make her a saintly figure, however, but rather, a girl who is primarily propelled by an innate intelligence that allows her to see things both analytically and intuitively, a combination that, in a single human being, creates a very fruitful partnership between the powers of concentration and those of imagination.

You won an Edgar award in 1996 and have been nominated for several more. Does winning prestigious awards make writing the next novel more daunting? Or are you able to forget your reputation while you craft a mystery?

Edgar wins and nominations really don’t have anything to do with writing. One likes to hope that they are the fruit of good writing, but beyond that, I don’t see that they have any influence.

Your works have been translated into fifteen languages. Do you have a favorite cover? Did any of your titles become mangled in translation?

I can read Spanish well enough to know that a couple of my Spanish translations have been really good. I don’t read any of the other languages into which my novels have been translated. I have really liked some of the British covers, as well as the Danish and the Japanese. I am often struck by the very different idea of the novel that different covers present, and with that, the sheer variety of artistic imagination.

Because of your history and philosophy expertise, I must ask this question: have you ever wished you could meet a historical figure (or figures)? If so, who?

I would like to have been the third guy on that walk Melville took with Hawthorne, though if they were like most writers, they probably only talked about advances, printings, and the dismal state of the publishing business.

Seriously, in terms of historical figures, I think it would be interesting to speak with some of the world’s great scientists. I would love to explore that kind of creative thinking and discovery.

You were born in Fort Payne, Alabama, which bills itself in its literature as “The Official Sock Capital of the World.” Did you ever have a part in the sock-making industry?

No, I never worked in the sock mills. When I was a boy, I worked as a stock clerk and floor-sweeper and window washer for a dry goods store. Sadly, the sock mills have mostly closed in Fort Payne, the latest and most disastrous closing only a few weeks ago, with a huge layoff of workers. I was told that all the factory equipment was disassembled and moved to China, which is a grim commentary, in my view, on what is happening in our country.

You have also written true crime novels. (Early Graves and Blood Echoes). Do you find these difficult to write and research? Are they more disturbing to write than the story of a fictional crime?

I find non-fiction of any kind much easier than writing novels. You are, of course, restricted to the facts, but at the same time you are freed from the very different rigors of the imagination. I don’t find one more disturbing than the other, though it is always more haunting to revisit a real crime, where people actually suffered. I also find crime scene photos truly haunting.

What are your favorite leisure activities?

I like to read, listen to music and go to the theater. I rarely go to movies because people talk and text-message continually, and I find this very distracting. I rely on Netflix for movies now, and by that means, I can actually focus on what I’m seeing. I am also an amateur cook, and I enjoy whipping up meals.

You are just finishing a new book. Do you go straight from one book to another, or do you allow yourself small vacations from writing?

I go straight from one to the other. I sent the next book (THE LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE) in to my editor this morning, and I will start the new novel – no title yet – later this afternoon. I have already been thinking about it for weeks..

That is impressive! Speaking of vacations, do you have a favorite retreat?

My wife and I have a house on Cape Cod, where we spend most of our time, and which is my favorite retreat. We also have an apartment in New York City, however, and I like going there, too. I traveled to Fiji and Hong Kong last year, as well as several other places, but like most people, I’ve taken quite a hit in terms of savings, and so I don’t expect to be traveling nearly as much this year. I will got to Hiroshima, however, for the “saddest places’ book.

Tom, thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking answers, and for writing such a great book. I look forward to reading Lola Faye!

Friday, May 22, 2009

I'm sorry. Were you speaking to me?

By Lonnie Cruse

Recently I was standing in the lobby of a local hospital, waiting for hubby to catch up after he thoughtfully dropped me off at the door before searching for a parking spot. We were on our way to sit with friends while a member of their family had delicate open heart surgery. Thankfully the surgery went well. Back to the point of this post.

As I stood there, I glanced around and noticed two people on a nearby couch in a public waiting area. One was chatting non-stop, the other was reading a large trade paperback book, with another small spiral bound resting on the lap. Possibly a notebook to make notes in? Whatever, this was one serious reader who kept a finger on the line read so as not to lose place when the chatterer managed to drag the reader's attention away from the book. Which didn't happen all that often.

It occured to me that the chatterer was courting serious injury with the constant flow of interruption, and possibly it occured to the chatterer too, as the chatter finally ground to a halt due to, one presumes, lack of response on the part of the reader. I was dying to know what the reader was reading, but I know better than to interrupt a serious reader. Particularly a serious reader already busy ignoring a constant chatterer.

Yes, I had a paperback tucked in my purse at that moment, Tamar Myers' PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY, AND CRIME, and no, I didn't start reading it as soon as we located our friends in the waiting room. I commisserated with them for the better part of three hours before I slid the book surepticiously out of my bag and slunk down into my chair to read. Having said all they had to say, our friends left me in peace. Lucky for them.

I try to be polite and not read in company, but IF I'm reading in my very own house or in the car and hubby begins a conversation, my first thought is (a) can't he see that I'm reading, followed closely by (b) this had better be important, if not downright urgent.

How about you? How dedicated a reader are you, particularly in public? Can you shut out the rest of the noise? Can you ignore someone trying to talk to you, who, let's face it, really should have learned better manners? Do you lose track of your place? Do you put the book away, force a fake smile on your face, and act like you really care, all the while (if you are a writer as well as a reader) plotting how you can kill this person off in your next book?

And by the way, in case you were wondering, the chatterer AND the reader were both male. Still, that's no excuse, is it?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What Writers Need to Keep Going

Elizabeth Zelvin

Most professional writers agree that to get the first book published and and then keep a writing career in play, you need the hide of a rhinoceros. For years, I kept on my bulletin board an old Peanuts cartoon in which Snoopy is lying on top of his doghouse reading a letter: “Dear Author, This is the worst novel I have ever read. Your writing stinks.” In the last frame, Snoopy consoles himself by thinking, “It must be a form rejection letter.”

If you go to conferences and read interviews with writers, you know that very few got either their agent or their publisher on the first try. I’ve heard it said more than once that on the average, it takes eight to ten years to get the first novel published. Along with the form rejections and the occasional agent or editor who hates one’s book are the heartbreaking rave rejections: “I loved it—but not quite enough.” “You’ve got it all—fine writing, characters, plot, suspense; I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting it published elsewhere.”

Once that first book comes out, the pressure to produce at least a book a year is tremendous, especially in the mystery world, where series are the norm. And now beleaguered authors not only have to write the next book and promote the first, but also deal with bad reviews, readers who didn’t like their work, emails from experts (genuine and self appointed) saying they got the details wrong, and their own self doubt. I have heard a number of successful authors admit that the fear that this time they’ll fail to come up with a publishable story doesn’t go away, even after the seventeenth book in a series or the third major award.

One mark of the professional writer is openness to critique. It’s hard to write in isolation—and nowadays, essential for aspiring writers to connect not only with “critters” but with those who can teach professional submission behavior and open doors to the newly published. Once upon a time, Thomas Wolfe brought a messy several-hundred-page pile of manuscript to legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who shaped it into a bestselling novel. This happened in 1929, and people are still talking about it. That’s because it doesn’t happen any more. It doesn’t take much toughness to pour it all out and count on someone else to fix it. Today’s writers have to self critique rigorously as well as being prepared to take in feedback from their critique groups and partners, assess it, and make decisions about which suggestions to accept and use. Then they have to listen to the comments of agents, editors, and copy editors before publication and the whole world once the book appears.

So writers have got to be tough. Yet they must also be sensitive, or how would they empathize with their characters? How do they strike a balance? For me, the key elements I’ve identified so far are self-awareness, detachment, and time. I need to know my craft and love at least some of what I write. Yet I need to know the weaknesses in my writing. I need to identify aspects of craft I have not yet mastered and how to go about improving. I need to remain teachable in both a practical and a spiritual sense. I need to discern the difference between critique and personal attack—most writers encounter both in the course of a career. In my particular case, I need to know that “I can’t” is part of my process—a transient fear, akin to stagefright, that crops up at the beginning of every new project, sometimes every day of writing—and push through it time after time. And I need to know that becoming a better writer is a journey, not a destination that I can reach instantaneously if the perfect agent or the long-sought first contract or even the lucky break will only beam me up.

The cover of Death Will Get You Sober, designed by David Rotstein, has been nominated for an Anthony award for best cover art. Voting will take place at Bouchercon in Indianapolis in October.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who makes money on Kindle books?

Sandra Parshall

The Amazon Kindle has broadened the market for books, and Kindle rights are making the same amount of money for publishers, and in many cases the authors, as the print editions. So why are publishers worried as they watch Amazon conquer the e-book market?

I’ve read a lot on this subject lately, but an article by Rachel Deahl in the May 11 Publishers Weekly did the best job of explaining the conundrum publishers face.

Amazon’s goal is to sell the hardware, the Kindle itself. To make it more attractive than the Kindle’s chief competition, the Sony Reader, Amazon has more than 265,000 titles available for download and is charging less for most of them than Sony’s e-books cost. In many cases, Amazon is taking a loss on the books themselves.

To understand what’s going on, you have to realize that few books are sold at the cover price, and booksellers buy books from publishers at a discount. Deahl reports in PW that Amazon pays publishers the same discounted amount, around 50% of cover price, for Kindle rights that it pays for printed books. Amazon sells printed books at just enough to make a profit on each copy. But they’re charging less for many e-book downloads than they pay for the rights.

For example, the cover price on Jim Butcher’s current bestseller, Turn Coat, is $25.95. If Amazon purchases each copy from the publisher at a 50% discount, they’re paying $12.97 for it. Amazon sells the print version for $17.13 – $4.16 more than they paid the publisher. But the Kindle download costs only $9.99 – $2.98 less than Amazon paid for it.

Right now, Amazon’s willingness to take a loss, or merely break even, on downloads in order to push Kindle sales and build its share of the e-book market is not affecting publisher profits. According to the Authors Guild, writers are also being paid – depending on how their contracts are structured, they receive either 15% of the book’s original list price or 25% of net receipts from e-book sales. According to PW, though, some agents are unhappy because publishers don’t have to spend any of their profits from e-books on manufacturing and shipping and are making a disproportionate profit on each sale, while the writer’s income remains the same.

It’s a vision of the future that’s giving publishers nightmares. What will happen when Amazon has driven its competition out of business or into a tiny and almost meaningless corner of the market? Publishers, Deahl reports, are afraid Amazon will exercise its power to demand much lower prices for digital rights that it pays for printed books. That effortless profit will vanish for publishers, unless they lower the author’s royalty on e-books. We all know how writers and agents would feel about that approach. As noted above, some grumbling is already being heard about a split of e-book profits that is perceived as favoring publishers and penalizing writers.

Amazon, with its worldwide marketing network that is visited by millions of users every day, is ideally positioned to push a product like the Kindle. According to Jeff Bezos, CEO of, 35% of all Amazon sales of titles available in print and digital formats are Kindle editions. Just a few months ago, that figure was 10%.

Amazon has just introduced the Kindle DX, a larger version of the reader designed to display newspapers and college textbooks. Amazon will soon launch a pilot program at six universities, but this effort faces significant obstacles in the education market. The DX is big, it’s clunky, it’s black and white only, and it costs $489. Students who already have access to full-color digital references through their schools, and are accustomed to using laptops and miniature netbooks to retrieve information, may not be enamored of Amazon’s latest version of the Kindle.

One thing seems certain, though: the original Kindle for popular books is here to stay. What it means for publishers and writers is an open question. Stay tuned, and if you’re a writer, you might want to have a talk with your agent about it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Trend-e Trends

Sharon Wildwind

The writers’ lament:
Publishers, distributors, and book sellers play their business information very close to the chest. Someone, somewhere has to know something about this business, but how can I, as an author find reliable, unprejudiced information about book sale trends?

Try the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). Since 1976, this not-for-profit group has gathered and published information on all aspects of the book industry. Earlier this month they held their 6th annual Making Information Pay conference.

Slide shows of all of the audio-visuals used by the various presenters at this conference is available through a link at the BISG site. Under on Presentations Available, click on Presentations; Click on View all slideshows, and you will have before you nine presentations to choose from.

As with viewing any set of presentation slides without a speaker being there to guide you, quality varies. Some of the presentations are complete in themselves; others are representational words or photos that were on view behind the speaker,

Viewing all nine files will take a while—at least 45 minutes if you are a fast reader, probably up to triple that if you read slowly or want to take notes as you read. I suggest putting on nice background music and making your way through all of the presentation, even if it takes you several sittings to do this.

Taken as a whole, these nine presentations provide a tremendous snapshot of the publishing industry in 2009. The bottom line for that snapshot is: reading is not disappearing, but the traditional format of a book being defined as printed pages bound in a hardback or paper cover has been replaced by a variety of other formats.

The other thing I suggest is viewing this information as if you were a futurist. As you read a bit of information, ask yourself questions such as, “So, if this trend continues for 5 to 10 years, how can I capitalize on it as an author?” and “How can I use this information to get a market to open up for me?”

The average book reader last year was 45 years old. The average age of the most frequent book buyer is in the 50s.
The futurist in me asks:
If I peg my success in the next 10 years on attracting the group currently buying books, my customer base will decrease in size. How can I start to market to younger age groups?

Some 65% of buyers are women, who tend to buy in higher volumes—that is, more books per purchase, and more frequent purchases—than men. The fiction market is [bought by] predominantly female [readers].
The futurist in me asks:
How do I attract more women buyers, attract them more often, and encourage them to buy a larger volume of books at one time?

More than 50% of book buys are impulse purchases, and a large number of readers knew they would buy a book on a given shopping trip, but not what book they would buy.
The futurist in me asks:
How can I get my name as an author in those people’s heads and my books in the locations where they do impulse buying so when they go shopping for a book, mine might be the one they select?

The following information was taken from Book Awareness for Adult Books Published in 2008
7 publishers (Harper, Hatchette, Harlequin, Macmillian, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) provided the information and it was reported by the Bowker Company’s PubTrack Consumer

Material in brackets are my comments and were not part of Bowker’s original report.

Question to book purchaser: what factor led you to purchase a specific title? [figures are rounded to whole percents]

The top two responses were in-store display (45%)—[here’s that “I was going to buy a book today, but didn’t know which one when I went shopping" in action]—and recommended by a friend (10%).

The following sources each influenced between 9% and 5% of book purchases: the book was on a best-seller list, advertisements (see below), direct mail from a retailer or the book being in a catalog, and on-line book reviews.

Advertising as a separate category influenced 9% of book purchases. 50% of that 9% came from Internet ads; the other 50% of that 9% came from e-mail from a retailer, and advertisements in magazines, television, radio, and newspapers.

The following sources influenced 4% or less of sales: author’s personal web site; gift for a person who asked for this title; saw or heard the author on ratio or TV; publisher’s website; needed for school; mentioned in a forum, blog, or found through a Google search; book fair; book review (not on line); and saw or heard the author in person.

The last one listed is the least influential in purchasing (four-tenths of 1% of total sales). It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Are authors’ personal appearances least influential in generating sales because that is a bad technique, or are sales from personal appearances so low because authors can’t get venues? If there were more in-person venues, would sales in this category rise?

The futurist in me asks:
If four-tenths of 1% of total sales was influenced by author appearances, and 4.5% of total sales was influenced by an Internet ad, how will marketing change when many authors choose to stay home and spend their travel money on on-line ads?

Quote for the week:

Some of us have great runways already built for us, so if you have one, take off. If you don’t, grab a shovel and build one.
~Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean

Monday, May 18, 2009

True Stories That Read Like Fiction

by Julia Buckley
a wedding photo, November 17, 1956

I'm always interested in books that are said to be based on true events. One of the greatest true stories I know would make a terrific book, because no one would believe all of the coincidences involved, and I'm sure the average agent would say, "Sorry--this is just too unbelievable."

The tale I speak of is the story of how my parents met.

My mother was born in Germany; my father, the son of Hungarian immigrants, grew up in Chicago in a Hungarian-speaking home. When my mother was a teenager, she and her good friend Erika decided that they would like to improve their English skills, and that they would do so by finding a nice American boy with whom they could correspond. Since they lived in a little German town, they weren't sure how to do this, but they were enterprising.

They went to a little stationer's shop and looked at the magazines, some of which were published in America. They found a model-airplane enthusiasts' monthly, and in the back were letters from fans. They picked a name at random--Ed Mate--and wrote to the address he had submitted to the magazine.

Their letter to him, written in beautiful script in a mildly flirtatious tone, began "we are two German girls who would like to correspond with an American boy . . ." They sent it off, feeling quite daring, and waited for it to travel across the sea.

Weeks later, Ed Mate approached his best friend, Bill. He said, "I got this letter from these two German girls. I'm not going to write to both of them--how about if you take one off of my hands?"

And so Bill (my father) wrote his first letter to Kathe, the girl across the sea who would one day be his wife. Unlike Ed, who soon gave up the whole pen-pal thing, my father was fastidious about writing. We still have his letters (the ones my mother will show us) and they are impeccably neat and full of interesting information about America and him. He sent my mother a photo of him in his Army uniform, smoking a pipe, and it's as dreamy a picture as any of MGM's public relations material for Cary Grant or Gene Kelly.

My parents corresponded happily for a time; but the Korean War was going on, and my father was going to be sent to the front. However, because he spoke fluent Hungarian, he was one of only three soldiers who was not sent to Korea, but instead was sent to Europe (apparently the Army thought that one European language allowed one to communicate with all of the others) and a field office there.

So my father never saw active duty, but he was, serendipitously, stationed in Germany. Soon enough he contacted my mother, and they arranged to meet. My father took the train and my mother took the streetcar; it was twilight when my father climbed down onto the platform, and he scanned the faces for the girl he had seen only in a blurry photo. My mother walked past him (so they tell it), but then they both stopped. "Katie?" he said.

"Bill?" she responded.

He spoke no German, but her English was fairly good. She took him home to meet her parents and her four siblings, and over the next week they fell in love.

My mother eventually came to America with him as his fiancee, leaving her whole family behind to start a new life in Chicago.

The best part of the story? This November my parents will have been married for fifty-three years. He refers to her as his "bride," and he is utterly devoted to her still.

What's your favorite true story?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Canada Calling: 2009 Arthur Ellis Awards

Sure signs of spring: our nesting pair of Canada Geese, Heloise and Ableard, are back making goose-noises as they stroll in the commons, snow is predicted for the Victoria Day weekend, and Crime Writers of Canada have announced the nominees for the 2009 Arthur Ellis awards.

This year marks the 26th anniversary of the prestigious awards. The winners will be announced at the Arthur Ellis Awards dinner on Thursday, June 4, in the Fountain Room of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario. But you can get a jump on the announcements by adding some Canadian flavor to your to-be-read pile.

And the nominees are

Best First Novel
Nadine Doolittle, Iced Under (Bayeux Arts/Gondolier)
John C. Goodman, Talking to Wendigo (Touchstone)
April Lindgren, Headline: Murder (Second Story Press)
Howard Shrier, Buffalo Jump (Vintage Canada)
Phyllis Smallman, Margarita Nights (McArthur & Company)

Best Novel
Linwood Barclay, Too Close to Home (Bantam)
Maureen Jennings, The K Handshape (Castle Street Mysteries/Dundurn)
James W. Nichol, Transgression (McArthur & Company)
Louise Penny, The Murder Stone (McArthur & Company)
Michael E. Rose, The Tsunami File (McArthur & Company)

Best Crime Writing in French
Jacques Côté, Le Chemin des brumes (Alire)
Maxime Houde, Le Poids des Illusions (Alire)
André Jacques, La Tendresse du serpent (Québec Amérique)
Sylvain Meunier, L’Homme qui détestait le golf (La courte échelle)
Antoine Yaccarini, Meurtre au Soleil (VLB éditeur)

Best Short Story
Pasha Malla, “Filmsong” in Toronto Noir (Akashic Books)
James Powell, “Clay Pillows” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (June 2008)
Peter Robinson, “Walking the Dog” in Toronto Noir (Akashic Books)
Amelia Symington, “An Ill Wind” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Sept/Oct 2008)
Kris Wood, “Thinking Inside the Box” in Going Out with a Bang (RendezVous Crime)

Best Non-Fiction
Daphne Bramham, The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect (Vintage Canada/RHC)
Sharon Butala, The Girl in Saskatoon: A Meditation on Friendship, Memory and Murder (Phyllis Bruce Books/HarperCollins)
Alex Caine, Befriend and Betray: Infiltrating the Hells Angels, Bandidos and Other Criminal Brotherhoods (Vintage Canada/RHC)
Michael Calce & Craig Silverman, Mafiaboy: How I Cracked the Internet and Why It’s Still Broken (Penguin Canada)
Kerry Pither, Dark Days: The Story of Four Canadians Tortured in the Name of Fighting Terror (Penguin Canada)

Best Juvenile
Vicki Grant, Res Judicata (Orca)
Susan Juby, Getting the Girl (HarperCollins)
Elizabeth MacLeod, Royal Murder (Annick Press)
Norah McClintock, Dead Silence (Scholastic Canada)
Sharon E. McKay, War Brothers (Penguin Canada)

Best Unpublished First Crime Novel: the Unhanged Arthur (cash award from McArthur & Company) Sorry, you won’t be able to find these in a bookstore, yet, but we can hope for the future.
Pam Barnsley, This Cage of Bones
Gloria Ferris, Cheat the Hangman
Stephen Maher, Salvage
Douglas A. Moles, Louder
Kevin Thornton, Condemned

Friday, May 15, 2009

A visit from author Deni Dietz . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I'm taking this morning off and giving author Deni Dietz my usual Friday spot. Gotta love her imaginary (or maybe not so imaginary, if you've ever been in this spot?) writer's interview with an agent.

Denise [Deni] Dietz is the author of the bestselling Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller "diet club" Mysteries. The 4th in the series, STRANGLE A LOAF OF ITALIAN BREAD, comes out this month. For readers who like to read a series from the beginning, Deni has exciting news. Her back list --- THROW DARTS AT A CHEESECAKE, BEAT UP A COOKIE and CHAIN A LAMB CHOP TO THE BED --- is being reissued by Wildside Press. The books have been updated and re-edited. Deni calls it "writing wrongs."

"Proofing my back list books brought back memories," Deni said. "I pictured myself pitching 'Cheesecake' at various writers conferences. I kept calling it a 'funny mystery' until I realized that editors didn't like the word 'funny.' So I switched to 'humorous psychological thriller' and sold the series."

With that in mind, Deni thought it might be fun to blog an imaginary pitch session. Repeat, imaginary. No agents were hurt in the making of this pitch session.

DENI (making her pitch): In a tribute to Agatha Christie and the Beatles, the protagonist of my novel, GOTTA SING OR DIE, is an alien from another planet who assumes the face and body of a twenty-year-old and tries out for American Idol. Jaya San makes the top 12 with her original renditions of "I Wanna Borrow Your Hand" and "We All Live in a Yellow Spaceship." A finalist is murdered, then another. Jaya doesn't want to win the competition by default, so she sets out to find the killer before she, too, gets eliminated. Think: STARMAN meets THE TERMINATOR meets COCOON meets Simon Cowell.

AGENT: What's the genre?

DENI: Genre? I guess you'd call it a "fantasy-mystery."

AGENT: You can't have two genres. Choose one.

DENI: How about a mystery with fantasy elements? Or a fantasy with mystery elements?

AGENT: We'll keep it simple and call it a mystery, okay? Now, let's talk about the future because that's more important than your book. So, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

DENI: I see myself writing a Jaya Say series, 26 books, with titles like DANCING WITH THE PLANETS and RUNWAY OF DEATH and EXTREME ALIEN MAKEOVER and AMERICA'S TOP ALIEN. I see myself signing a movie option with Spielberg and appearing on Oprah and Ellen. I see mysel---

AGENT: How will you promote your series?

DENI (taken aback): Promote?

AGENT: Yes, promote. That's the first question editors ask.

DENI: Oh. Well, alrighty then. My website, of course. Posting on the DorothyL list every day, maybe twice a day, maybe even answering every post. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter. A movie trailer on YouTube. A 52-state tour. A European tour with Lee Child, Harlan Coben and Marshall Karp. Conferences like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, NINC and Westercon. Conventions like ABA. The usual.

AGENT (looking at wristwatch): Our time is up. Why don't you send me three chapters and a synopsis?

Tick-tock, tick-tock . . . 3 months later:

Dear Mr. Deitz,
Thank you for submitting GOTTA DANCE OR DIE. While I like the tie-in to that song Gotta Dance from Singing In The Rain, I'm afraid I'm not enthusiastic enough to work with your book. I did, however, put out a few feelers but Berkley already has a series starring an alien with a green card that tries out for Jeopardy.

Tick-tock, tick-tock . . . 18 months later:

Publishers Weekly starred review: "A fresh, imaginative concept."

Library Journal: "Recommended for readers who are looking for a good mystery with supernatural elements. Denise Dietz lives in B.C."

Kirkus: "Gotta Sing or Die makes you want to sing and..."

Romantic Times: ****1/2. The steamy romance in GOTTA SING OR DIE left this reviewer breathless."

Harriet Klausner: "Readers will appreciate the part where Jayne Sands assumes her alien shape and Paula Abdul doesn't notice the difference."

DorothyL: I finished GOTTA SING OR DIE last night, and while I liked the book I skipped the sex scenes, so my question is, are sex scenes really necessary in a mystery?

DorothyL response: We discussed sex in mysteries 6 weeks ago, and 2 months before that. Check the archives.

2nd DorothyL response: I don't like mysteries with sex or cussing or dead cats because they can't protect themselves like humans can.

Lonnie: Bawhahahah! Thanks, Deni, from those of us who have been there, done that!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Taking A Position on Social Themes

Elizabeth Zelvin

At the recent Malice Domestic, I was on a panel on the topic of tackling social issues in mystery fiction. At last fall's Bouchercon, they assigned me to "the booze panel." That one was a challenge, though you could say I asked for it by choosing to write about recovery from alcoholism and, in the book due out this fall, addictive relationships. Everybody has opinions about drinking and relationships, and the views that come out when I write about these issues can be provocative even when I just want readers to relax and enjoy the story. At any rate, there is plenty of meat for discussion in writing that takes a position. Before the Malice panel, our moderator circulated a number of questions. The one that stuck in my head and wouldn’t stop itching until I scratched it was this:

“Must we present a ‘balanced’ view? Introduce opposing sides or viewpoints on an issue?”

Some mysteries lend themselves to balance. Their authors can create appealing characters who take opposing points of view and “tackle” the social issues they address by making a case for both sides. The book that springs most readily to mind is Canadian author R. J. Harlick’s The River Runs Orange—probably because we were Malice-Go-Round partners last year and speed-dated our way through twenty tables of readers and twenty repetitions of our respective three-minute pitches for our new books. Harlick’s protagonist finds some ancient human remains and feels torn between the competing claims of scientists who want to study them and the local band of Algonquins who want to give them a sacred reburial.

Some mystery authors take a strong stand for one point of view, but present the opposing beliefs and values by giving them to the villains. At the top of this list is Betty Webb, whose powerful Desert Wives portrayed the plight of young girls forced into polygamous marriages in patriarchal compounds in the Southwest so eloquently that it influenced legislation against the abuses it portrayed.

My intuitive short answer to the original question of whether we must present opposing viewpoints along with our own position was, “Hell, no. The opposition is doing fine without me.” When I started to think about how I could elaborate on that, I realized that I could name seven distinct “opposing sides” to the themes in my first two mysteries: alcoholism in Death Will Get You Sober and addictive relationships in Death Will Help You Leave Him—or to put it positively, recovery from addictions and the true nature of love.

I base my position on many years of experience as a mental health and addictions professional, director of treatment programs, and psychotherapist as well as many years of life experience and hard-won personal growth. Yet for many of my readers, the positions in these books will come as a surprise. Our culture has deeply embedded misperceptions about drinking, recovery, and relationships. Therapy flourishes in our society because we have to unlearn mainstream beliefs and values in order to move toward emotional health and maturity. The case against the views I explore through my characters is already made and constantly reiterated. My task is to offer readers a fresh look at the alternatives.

Here are the seven areas in which I can identify my stance and the opposing viewpoint:

1. Alcoholism is a disease with symptoms, a clinical course, and treatment. (The opposing view: Alcoholics are weak and lack will power.)

2. Alcoholics must abstain from alcohol and other mood-altering substances to achieve and maintain recovery; in other words, sobriety is always the goal. (The opposing view: It’s too hard for alcoholics to stay sober; harm reduction and moderation management are valid goals.)

3. In the absence of recovery, alcoholism is a painful, tragic, and life-threatening disease, characterized by increased tolerance and loss of control. (The opposing view: Excessive drinking or drunkenness is laughable and entertaining. High tolerance for alcohol—the proverbial hard head or hollow leg—is proof that the drinker is in control.)

4. Alcoholic drinking impairs functioning in every area of life, including health, mental acuity, productivity, relationships, and creativity. (The opposing view: Alcoholic drinking fosters creativity.)

5. Intimate relationships take work and require both a sense of self and an available and accepting partner. People who stay in bad relationships may have attachment problems, love addiction, and/or codependency. (The opposing view: Persistence in a relationship in spite of the partner’s abuse, unavailability, or indifference demonstrates love.)

6. Intimacy, or long-term bonding, is the key to a successful relationship. (The opposing view: falling in love, ie passion or short-term bonding, is the key to a successful relationship and can be maintained indefinitely.)

7. Psychotherapy and recovery programs are powerful tools for change and growth that can help and empower those who use them well. (The opposing view: Psychotherapy and recovery programs are merely psychobabble.)

Of course, this is not how I’d put any of this in a work of fiction. Like all my fellow panelists who write about social issues, I have a horror of sounding preachy. Instead—let me quote my characters Barbara and Bruce in Death Will Help You Leave Him:

“He swore he’d change,” Barbara said, “and she believed that this time he meant it.”

Right. Pigs may fly. But first you have to go down to Kitty Hawk and build them some wings.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I have seen the future, and it is digital

Sandra Parshall

Reference book n. A book, such as a dictionary or encyclopedia, to which one can refer for authoritative information. (Definition from

Remember the days when parents could buy their kids a complete new Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia at the supermarket, one featured volume per week? And the Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard for reference books, which few could afford to own but many consulted at public libraries?

Funk and Wagnalls exists only as an electronic reference service for educational institutions. Britannica will still cost you, but you can’t get it in book form anymore. It’s now a subscription service, its impeccably researched content updated frequently with the latest information and illustrated not only with photos but with videos and sound. It has to compete with Wikipedia, which is a source of plentiful misinformation but is absolutely free, the way we like things to be on the internet. Also free online are myriad dictionaries and atlases.

Who’s responsible for the print reference books ending up in the trash bin? We are, with our computer-generated impatience and laziness. Want to know what an expression means? Bring Google up on your screen and type “define” followed by the word or phrase in question, and you’ll be inundated with information within seconds. (, for example, offers no less than eight definitions for “jumping the shark”.) Googling is so much easier than getting out of your chair, walking to the bookcase, and pulling down a reference book – which may not even contain what you’re looking for if the term is relatively new. I consider myself a book lover, resistant to the idea that printed books will one day disappear, but I’ve done my part to hasten the demise of “real” dictionaries, atlases, and encyclopedias.

In the current issue of Publishers Weekly, Casper Grathwohl, publisher of Oxford University Press Reference, says the decline in sales of print reference books in the last year has been “dizzying” and he expects it to accelerate. “Publishers had been moving at a steady pace toward online only, but with library budgets being slashed so severely, what felt like a healthy jog has become a sprint.”

If the market for dictionaries and encyclopedias has shrunk, however, other types of reference books are selling and sometimes thriving. Volumes devoted to a single subject have the best shot at success. National Geographic continues to publish a broad line of science and history references, Princeton University Press is still in the reference business, and so many Dummies guides are being published that we may need a Dummies Guide to Buying the Right Dummies Guide. Popular culture spawns reference books. Want to know everything there is to know about the Halo video games? Look for the Halo Encyclopedia next fall. Writer’s Digest Books still provides plenty of practical help to authors. Reference books for niche markets won’t sell in staggering numbers the way dictionaries used to, but many will sell enough copies to justify their existence... at least until people discover ways to get the information free online.

In a fit of nostalgia, I tell myself that books, real printed books you can hold in your hands, will never disappear. In more realistic moments, I look at my own habits and have to adjust my thinking. On the shelves around me, I have at least 100 books about writing, crime investigation, forensics, etc., but more and more, when I need to clarify a point, I call up a web site instead of pulling down a book, checking the index, and searching the pages for what I want. It seems to me that devices like the Kindle, with many books stored on them and available with a click or two, may eventually do to printed novels what the internet has done to printed references. Whether this is good or bad by some sentimental standard is not the point. If it’s what readers want, it will happen.

Have computers and the internet changed the way you find information? Have you joined the Kindle club yet?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pattern Recognition

Sharon Wildwind

A while ago my computer and I were locked in the Battle of the Commas. My grammar/punctuation-checking program didn’t like some ways I wanted to use commas. I was equally adamant that my usage was what I wanted. In the end, I turned the program off and got on with my life, and my commas.

A couple of weeks ago, world health officials asked Google to do a retrospective review of the use of Google search-requests for information on treating fever, respiratory symptoms, and muscle aches. They found a consistent, predictable pattern: several days before the first cases of swine flu were diagnosed in a country, there was a noticeable blip in the increase of Internet searches on related symptoms.

The New Scientist published an article on May 8th about teaching computers to understand and categorize the emotional content of what’s being posted on the web. Go here to read that article.

We’re talking about pattern recognition. Some people do it naturally. Mothers can tell when the silence has been a little too deep, a little too long.
“What are you doing in there?”

It’s harder for writers. Ask five other writers how commas should be used or how a manuscript should be formatted and you’re likely to get at least seven different answers, one of which will be, “Do whatever feels right for you.”

So I eagerly anticipate the development of bigger, better pattern recognition software. Here is my big three wish list.

First, I want a program to which I could give character parameters and have it invent likely character names, then cross-check those names against known personalities where there might be a conflict. The result might look something like this:

It can’t be that hard; they do things like this on Star Trek all the time.

Second, I look forward to the day that my grammar/punctuation program
a) is polite,
b) realizes that I might have a reason for going outside the standard parameters,
c) is able to batch-process identical mistakes, so I don’t have to do them one-by-one, and
d) can learn my patterns and remember them for next time.

Third, I want the computer to keep track of the current best practices related to publishing and, once again, batch correct my manuscript to have it match any changing format preferences.

While we’re waiting for tomorrow to arrive, here are two sites you might enjoy. Both are even better than Solitare for eating up huge chunks of writing time.

Three spinning discs that can keep you amused for hours. Think of it as a gerbil wheel for writers.
Don’t just spin the little wheels. When you get your three words, try to write a blurb for the story that will contain this element.

This one comes courtesy of Benjamin Moore Paints.
Click on the link
Select U.S. or Canada
Select For Your Home
Select Personal Color Viewer ®
You will get a choice of lots of different rooms and, for each room, you can choose different color combinations. It can keep you amused for hours planning where your characters might live. There’s also a CD or download available for purchase that allows you to take photographs with a digital camera, feed them into your computer, then re-paint them to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, the CD or download does not work on some Macintosh machines, but you can still have fun with the standard rooms.

Writing quote for the week. Okay, so in the interest of pattern redundancy, I’m quoting myself.

Writing is like quilting. Collect the scraps. Cut into pieces. Look for the pattern. Sew them together. Embellish. Don’t confuse sturdy construction with embellishment.
~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fitzgerald's Jazz Endures

by Julia Buckley
"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach, while his two motorboats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends, his Rolls Royce became an omnibus bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains . . ."

So begins Chapter Three of THE GREAT GATSBY, an American classic which demonstrates the music of F. Scott Fitzgerald's prose--which in its virtuosity was like the jazz which dominated his era. Jazz was about taking chances, about improvising, about making something new and fresh, something rhythmic and beautiful. That's what Fitzgerald is for me and for millions--a stylist who made words paint pictures.

I was thrilled, then, to learn of a website that let me get little glimpses of this man that I had never been able to see before. The University of South Carolina has archived the only film and audio clips of Fitzgerald, and for an English teacher this is like finding a city of gold. Look at this clip of a 1920s era Fitzgerald sitting at an outside table and writing something on a sheaf of papers. Or check out this audio clip of Fitzgerald himself reading Shakespeare in a recording made in 1940, the year that he died. Fitzgerald was a young man when he died (he was born in 1896), and he died, according to his biographer Matthew Bruccoli, considering himself a failure.

It was only after he died, and after THE LAST TYCOON was published posthumously, that some critics began to look back at the book called THE GREAT GATSBY and acknowledge that it was, in fact, an impressive work. In the 1920s, H.L.Mencken called the book "a glorified anecdote," and other critics damned the book with faint praise.

By the 1950s, however, The London Times called Gatsby “one of the best--if not the best--American novels of the past fifty years.”

On the South Carolina webpage devoted to Fitzgerald, there are many wonderful links about this terrific writer, including a quotes page. On it is included Raymond Chandler's assessment of the late Fitzgerald and his writing:

"He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, and it's a great shame that the word for it has been thoroughly debased by the cosmetic racketeers, so that one is almost ashamed to use it to describe a real distinction. Nevertheless, the word is charm--charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It's not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It's a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartettes."

(Raymond Chandler, 1950)

If you look on Wikipedia you can see a picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave. On it is the final line of THE GREAT GATSBY: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

(photo link here)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Characters Who Act

A guest blog by mystery writer Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice
(August 2009), mystery novels which take place in Hawaii. Publishers Weekly
called Mahu Fire “Engrossing… a sharp whodunit,” and the book has received
enthusiastic reviews from Library Journal, Out, and many mystery and GLBT

For years, I wrote stories and novels about characters who were a lot like me. I changed the particular details—different color hair, different names, and so on. But they were like me, and like many writers, in that they stood on the sidelines of the story and observed what was going on.

Those stories and novels never got published.

Even my MFA thesis, a comic novel about Jewish family relationships and shopping mall construction, fell into that same trap, despite everything I heard from my professors and classmates. By design, my hero was a relatively sane guy surrounded by crazy people—in his family and at work.

He wanted something—like I had been told in graduate school he had to. He wanted love and success, he wanted his parents to be proud of him, and so on. But in the end, he wasn’t much of an actor—he was a reactor, and that’s deadly for a character you want readers to empathize with.

It wasn’t until I started writing about a police detective that I managed to crawl out of that trap. By its very nature, a police procedural with a detective as hero is all about solving the crime. At last, a solid, straightforward reason for my character to act.

Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka has to interview suspects, collect evidence, consult experts and, in the climactic scenes, face down danger and bring the guilty to justice. But even then, it’s so easy to let him step back. After all, the medical examiner is the one who does the autopsy; my hero just gets the results. The crime scene investigators pick up the trace evidence and analyze it.

I’m constantly forced to figure out how to keep Kimo front and center in the action, and make him not only the star of the book but the guy who solves the crime and brings everything together. In my first book, Mahu, which was just reissued by Alyson Books, Kimo gets dragged out of the closet, and then suspended, while trying to solve a difficult case. In order to clear his name, and overcome his own ambivalent feelings about his sexuality, he has to confront the bad guy and wangle a confession out of him.

Nobody else can do that, because no one else can solve his internal problems as well as the external ones.

In Mahu Surfer, the second book in the series, Kimo’s the only cop on the scene when someone starts shooting, at the climax of the book. Once again, he’s forced to act—take down the shooter and save innocent lives.

The third book in the series, Mahu Fire, presented me with a big problem. Kimo starts dating Mike Riccardi, a handsome, sexy fire inspector, and there’s a big blaze at the end of the book. Shouldn’t the fireman be the guy who saves the day? That’s what he’s trained for.

But Mike’s not my protagonist. Much as Kimo and I love him, he’s got to take a back seat. So I had to find a way for Kimo to emerge as the hero of the book, without making him do something stupid.

In every book it’s the same old story, in the end. Readers want to see a hero who acts rather than analyzes. And that’s what we have to give them, even if it means pulling out every last hair while figuring it out.