Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Donna Leon's Civilized Detective

Sandra Parshall

Everyone who leaves a comment today will have a chance to win new Penguin editions of several Donna Leon novels.

Two or three years ago I decided to read more mysteries by non-American authors. One of the first “exotic” writers I tried was Donna Leon.

Yes, I know – she’s American. I know that now, but when I started reading her I thought she was Italian, and nothing in the text tipped me off. Leon has lived in Venice for two decades, and she has absorbed the culture so thoroughly that her 18 Guido Brunetti novels (the 19th, A Question of Belief, will be out in May) are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of Italians and their society. She has a legion of fans all over the world – except in the country where her books are set, because she will not allow them to be translated into Italian. She prefers to live anonymously in the city that inspires her crime stories.

In many ways, Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is the antithesis of the modern fictional cop. He may be melancholic and cynical, but Brunetti doesn’t wallow in depression the way Kurt Wallander does. Although he’s frustrated by official corruption and his boss’s stupidity, it’s hard to imagine him hurling a computer or chair through an office window the way Harry Bosch might. He doesn’t rough up suspects, although he does nothing to stop a pimp accused of beating two 11-year-old prostitutes from being questioned by a couple of angry detectives with young daughters. His job is to bring the guilty to justice, but like many Italians he is never surprised when criminals elude punishment.

Brunetti’s saving grace is his fulfilling personal life. No divorce, no bitter ex-wife or incorrigible children. Brunetti is happily wed to the intelligent, articulate Paola, a university professor with an aristocratic heritage and leftist leanings, a talent for gourmet cooking and a steadfast love for her husband. Their offspring are normal kids. Whatever may happen on the job, Brunetti will always go home to his family’s open arms and a satisfying meal. He enjoys reading and visiting museums.

Brunetti has what his creator calls a “love-irritation” relationship with Venice that reflects Leon’s own feelings about her adopted home. Unlike some American authors who set their books abroad but live in the US, Leon is a true ex-patriate. She settled in Venice more than 25 years ago after teaching English literature in the United States, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. Her first mystery, Death at La Fenice, resulted from a joking conversation with a friend in the opera about a musical director who inspired homicidal thoughts. Leon tries to avoid the parts of Venice that are clogged by 150,000 tourists every day. She lives among the ordinary Venetians who make up Brunetti’s world, and she writes about the social problems and political corruption that affect them.

Leon has become an internationally bestselling author -- whose novels have inspired both a cookbook and a guidebook -- without any of the blatant self-promotion that many writers consider essential. You won’t find her chatting all over the internet (although she has a Facebook fan page, it hasn’t been updated in more than a year). She doesn’t blog relentlessly about the boring details of her daily life. Her official websites are maintained by her UK and US publishers. She doesn’t turn up at every mystery conference. She has reviewed crime fiction for the London Sunday Times and started an opera company, but for the most part, she lives quietly in Venice, spends her time writing wonderful books, and lets the world come to her.

If you haven’t discovered Leon’s books yet, or you’d like to catch up on some you’ve missed, leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for several new Penguin trade paperbacks.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Story-Colored Glasses

Sharon Wildwind

Imagine that you are a caregiver for an elderly relative whose health is declining. Imagine further that it’s been a “dynamic” week, meaning that you’ve been run off your feet with things changing around you. Maybe some stressful events, maybe some delightful events, and likely some that you can’t yet categorize.

Pretend for a moment that you can split into three people, each of whom will attend a different meeting, all scheduled for 7:00 o’clock tonight.

Meeting #1 is a peer support group sponsored by a religious organization to which you belong. You know everyone in the group. Members take turns organizing the meetings, and it’s not your turn to organize. You’re free to come and just be. Group dynamics are based on mutual support, non-judgmental listening, and asking for support from the Divine in meeting life’s challenges. You meet in a pleasant, comfortably-furnished room. There’s usually background music, refreshments, and a chance to unwind.

Meeting #2 is a group for caregivers. It’s a fluid group; attendance is rarely the same from one week to the next. You know and feel comfortable with about 1/3 of the group. Another 1/3 is new, in fact, there are likely to be people there tonight that you’ve never met before. The last 1/3 are people with whom you’re not 100% comfortable, for various reasons. The group facilitator is a experienced health professional, who is good at making practical suggestions. You meet in a classroom at a local community college. The chairs are uncomfortable, and there is the usual detritus of discarded coffee cups in the waste can, dirty erasers, and notes left on the whiteboard. You have a list of things related to the past week’s events about which you want to ask the facilitator’s advice.

Meeting #3 is a family meeting at your house. Your sister flew in from out of town and is horrified at the changes in your relative. Something has to be done—now! She’s organized the meeting to form a plan of action that can be implemented within the next two weeks, before she has to fly back to where ever she came from. And, oh, yes, you’re expected to provide refreshments.

You have one story to tell story: that things changed over the past week, but I would be very surprised if you told that story in exactly the same way in each group.

I’m currently reading a collection of essays called Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, and Practice. [Gary Kenyon, Phillip Clark, and Brian de Vries (ed), Springer Publishing. 2001. ISBN: 0-8261-1389-3]. The nurse in me and the writer in me love it when a book does double-duty, as this one does. This week I can check off both “learned something about writing” and “learned something about nursing” at the same time.

Just before I picked up this book, I labored my way through a mystery that was just good enough to keep my interest but not good enough to be satisfying. At one point I said to my husband, “If any character says one more time, ‘Something must have happened to her at the old mill,’ I am going to throw this book across the room.”

Here’s the connection between those two books: the mystery author didn’t take advantage of the possibilities inherent in telling the same story in different ways to different groups. As the protagonist went from suspect to suspect, the story was always told in the same way, and the suspect repeated the exact conclusion, in the same words. Something must have happened to her at the old mill.

Yes, I’d gotten that already! I wanted to know more about the possibilities of the old mill as each suspect knew something a little different, reacted in a slightly different way to what might have happened. Sadly, I never got that variety.

How we (and our characters) choose tell a story is influenced by
• the storyteller’s power in relation to the people listening to the story
• the storyteller’s ability to tell the story in different ways to different people
• what the storyteller includes or leaves out
• the setting in which the story is told
• why the story is told
• the order in which different versions of the story are told.*
• what the storyteller expects the listener(s) to do or not do after hearing the story
• how urgent it is to take action or not take action after hearing the story
• how much attention listener(s) pay
• if listener(s) have different agendas than the storyteller does

*That’s why I wanted you to imagine attend those three meetings all at once. Imagine attending the same meetings in different orders. How does each sequence change how you might have told the same story?

Stories are not innocent.
Stories change things.
Stories can limit and reinforce one version of how life must be or they can open up possibilities of how life might be.

Quote for the week:
[I]n the act of reading the reader co-creates the novel the author has written. Each act of telling some portion or version of [a story] is performed before a particular audience for a particular reason are a particular time. The line between teller and listener is, in fact, incredibly fine. Each time we communicate our story, especially those parts we previously left untold, we change our relationship to it.
~William L. Randall, Associate Professor of Gerontology, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, N.B., Canada

Monday, March 29, 2010

G.M. Malliet Chats About All Things English

by Julia Buckley
G.M. Malliet is the author of the Agatha Award-winning DEATH OF A COZY WRITER, the first book in the DCI St. Just mystery series, chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Books of 2008. The second book in the series is DEATH AND THE LIT CHICK and third is DEATH AT THE ALMA MATER, which came out recently. She is currently working on a new mystery series starring Max Tudor (former MI5 agent, now vicar of a small English village) for Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books.

G.M, You attended Oxford University and have a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. What was your major?

My major was psychology. Not the kind where you ask people about their childhoods: I was studying (reading, as the British would have it) learning and memory. How we acquire and store language and memories, how we learn to read and write, and how the brain processes all this. I’m still fascinated by this subject.

Did you ever consider living in England permanently?

Oh, yes! But it was hard, then as now, to get a work permit. And there were just too many things calling me back to the US at the time.

When you did live in England, what were the primary differences you noted between the English and the Americans?

The Americans seemed so loud to me, with a tendency to “over-share.” I’m sure they weren’t that bad and in fact the friendliness of Americans is much admired. But I was like a teenager, constantly embarrassed by his or her parents—I felt and feel that blending in is the goal when you’re in a different culture.

Did living in England alter any of your own Americanisms—the way you spell or pronounce words, for example, or your accent?

For my studies, I had to relearn spelling entirely, and unlearn it when I came back to the US. But I always thought it was a bit affected when Americans said things like “con-TRA-versy” instead of CON-tra-versy—so I avoided that.

Was it nostalgia which made you set your novels (all of them so far) in England?

Yes. I call it my version of time travel. I get to go back and remember and see all the sights in my head—without the jet lag! But I also visit the UK in person whenever I can, because so much gets forgotten.

How did you come up with the names of your detective, St. Just, and his sidekick, Sergeant Fear? (Great names, indeed!)

There really is a Sergeant Fear. I have never met this person, but seeing the name in a newspaper story, I felt I had to appropriate a name so perfect.
There is a village called St. Just in Cornwall that my mother’s family has ties to. I thought that was also a perfect name for an honest, fair cop. So I borrowed the name and gave him Cornish roots.

You are now working on a new mystery series. Had this idea been percolating for a long time, or did you have to come up with it quickly?

There is a little English village that has been inside my head for ages. I started drawing a map of it just to exorcise it, because it had nothing to do with St. Just. Then all these characters came along and wanted to live there. And of course they had a story to tell.

By the way, the name of my village is Nether Monkslip, which is really quite “ordinary” when you start looking at the wonderful, lovely, completely crazy names the British have for some of their villages. One of the best is Chipping Sodbury, which of course the natives have rechristened Sodding Chipbury. It so happens J K Rowling was born there, a fact so wonderful you could not make it up.

If you went back to England now, where would you want to go?


Why Glastonbury?

Glastonbury is where King Arthur is either buried, or awaiting his return. Arthur, by the way, is St. Just's first name. ;-)

Ah. Do you keep in touch with friends in England?

I do keep in touch by email, and meet up with them here and there. They are all good enough to provide answers to my more esoteric questions about British life—the kind of thing you can’t find on Google.

What’s a place that a tourist should visit in the U.K. simply because it is NOT a tourist site?

I would have to say just drop into a local pub, any pub. Sit in a corner with your beer and eavesdrop. That is where life is lived, although the pubs are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Why are the pubs disappearing?

The pubs are in trouble because of the recession, but I think it began before that and I can't tell you why, exactly. See

How, if at all, has being a successful mystery writer affected your everyday life?

You mean the new Jaguar I bought with my first royalty check? That was a joke.

Actually, the real change is that I am always on deadline. Before I was published, I was on a highly movable deadline. No one cared if I finished the book or short story, or not. It is a subtle but huge difference.

Have you always enjoyed reading mysteries? Whose books have influenced you the most?

I have always loved mysteries above all. I think Daughter of Time made a huge impression, as well as Rebecca. There were too many others to mention!

Ward Just wrote, of writing, that writing novels was not what he considered hard work; it had instead “to do with desire—translating desire into prose—and a temperament that accepts concentration over the long haul.” Would you agree? And if so, do you have this temperament?

I am not sure I know what he means by accepting concentration! There is no question that the long haul of a novel is not for anyone unwilling to go and live in a made-up world for the year or more required to write a book. You have to really stay focused on what you’re doing, and be able to keep a bunch of apparently unrelated “stuff” in your head at once.

But I love the phrase, “translating desire into prose”—which takes us back to why I write about the UK. It’s my desire to return there, translated.

Finally, in honor of the season, I ask you: what is your favorite sign of spring? Have you seen it yet?

My trees and shrubs “springing” back, after having been flattened by so much snow this year. It’s a miracle, truly.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, GM!

Saturday, March 27, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

I have led an exemplary life, legally speaking. Well, there were a few youthful indiscretions back in the seventies, but that was in California and everybody was doing it, and nobody cared much. And there was that one party I threw where the cops came, but nothing came of it. Those were the days.

But for the official record, I have always been squeaky-clean. I've never had a moving violation. I've garnered a total of two parking tickets in decades of driving, and paid them both promptly. I have never stolen anything (we won't talk about that box of paper clips, will we?) or inflicted grievous bodily harm on a fellow human being or an animal. I pay my taxes and give to charity. I am a model citizen.
So why do I wonder if the FBI has a file on me?

Because I have been associated with two multi-million-dollar thefts. And if that wasn't bad enough, in my forthcoming Museum Mystery series I'm writing about one.

The first theft occurred when I was in graduate school. A quartet of thieves broke into the museum building where my graduate classes were held, and made off with five thousand Greek coins valued then at $5,000,000. At the time it was said to be the largest known art theft (the total would be a lot higher now, no doubt). The event took place in December 1973, and, yes, I was enrolled at the time and lived only a few blocks away. And I sure could have used the money. I didn't do it.

Of course, that theft was trumped a few years later by the heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Luckily I was living in California at that time, but I had gone to school with a former director, and even lived in the same building as she did for a time, so I could have had inside information, right? I didn't do it. (Are you paying attention, FBI? Do you see me living the life of luxury with my ill-gotten gains here?)

In November 1997, I was working for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania when yet another multi-million-dollar theft was discovered, and that was the inspiration for my coming book. This was a very public event. There was much news coverage ("Live at Five!"). The FBI's Art Theft group was called in. Happily this theft was solved: a disgruntled employee who we all knew and liked had been spiriting articles out of the building for years, mainly to prove that he could. He sold what he took for pennies on the dollar, to a local collector (who, as it turned out, lived about two miles from my house), and much of it was recovered. But I was there. I didn't do it.

I have to admit that I'm curious. Nobody ever interviewed me or otherwise contacted me with regard to any of these thefts. But wouldn't you hope that my name cropping up on a list of people with clear opportunity during the investigation of two major events would send up some red flags? I'd like to think so, if the investigators are doing their job. It's kind of a big coincidence, isn't it?

The immediate question is: do I try to find out? On the surface, it would appear that the FBI would be happy to provide that information, as long as you ask nicely: send them a letter formally requesting "copies of all information maintained by your agency that pertain to myself," under the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, 5 USC 552, nicely notarized.

Checking the official FBI File Fact Sheet, one finds:–The FBI does not keep a file on every citizen of the United States (can you imagine the paperwork?)–FBI files generally contain reports of FBI investigations of a wide range of matters, including...white-collar crime." Yup, that's where I'd fit.–The Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts (aka FOIPA) "...provides responsive documents to requesters seeking 'reasonably described information.'"

So apparently, if I ask politely, they will send me whatever they have. It's a little unclear where I should direct my request. My current local office? The two local offices where the incidents occurred?

But the real question is, do I want to ask? If I make this innocent request, based solely on my lingering curiosity, will it trigger greater interest in my history? Will they take a harder look at me, particularly when my book, describing a completely fictional white-collar crime (really! I made it all up!), comes out in the fall?

What would you do?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sometimes television IS good for you . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

A friend was recently telling me (bragging, actually) about how badly she beat the contestants on a particular television game show she was watching. She couldn't believe they didn't know the answers, and she did know them. Well, she's been, um, watching television game shows! She was mourning the fact that she couldn't win the money that they could have. I don't blame her.

A lot of good information comes out of SOME of those shows. Not all, of course, but some. THE NEWLYWED GAME is NOT on my list of shows that improve the mind. ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A FIFTH GRADER (which I happen to be watching at the moment, and like the contestant, I have NO clue to the question about the Treaty of Torteseaus, and did I even spell that right?) does give that kind of information. Stuff I probably learned in fifth grade and forgot by sixth. These game shows ask questions and give answers that increase our knowledge or remind us of information we could still use IF we ever get on a game show.

Other shows like Meerkat Manor educate us about animals we aren't likely to run across unless we go to the zoo. I got to seem some live Meerkats at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2008. I love watching them. Animal Planet has tons of interesting stuff to watch. Discovery Channel, too.

Haven't read the classics? Often they aren't "right by the book" but for me, watching a Jane Austin movie is a bit easier than reading the book, and yes, I've done both. And listened to them on audio.

Want to re-do your bathroom? There are tons of home improvement shows that teach you how. More important, how not to.

Need to know more about the law? How about People's Court? Okay, I understand if you want to pass on that one, but I like it. On that note, don't expect some of the night time dramas to be correct about things like an autopsy, medical examiners, crime scenes, etc. They are dramas, after all.

Yep, television teaches us. A lot. Not all of it is bad. Unless, of course, you watch . . . oh never mind. Okay, what DO you watch that teaches you something and doesn't fry your brain cells with its nothingness?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In A Series, When Is the Story Over?

Elizabeth Zelvin

I spent last weekend at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA, where I was one of about forty mystery authors who made up the Crime Wave portion of the event. The luncheon speaker was multiple award-winning author Julia Spencer-Fleming, whose readers are champing at the bit for the seventh installment of her traditional but far from cozy series, which combines murder, serious issues such as the environment vs developers in her small-town upstate New York setting, and the star-crossed relationship between Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne.

In the course of her remarks, Julia touched on an aspect of mysteries that is crucial to an appreciation of the genre: the series, in which the story arc of each novel falls under the umbrella of the bigger story arc of a series. The arc of the novel is the solving of a mystery, or, if it’s a thriller, the foiling of a villain. In many cases, there’s another arc or subplot, whose resolution may involve secondary characters or some issue in the protagonist’s life and relationships. The series arc has a broader scope. Indeed, in a long-running series, the arc may be like the rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of it: you can start at the beginning and follow it...and follow it, and follow it. But you may never reach the pot of gold. Nor do you want to. When you get the pot of gold, the story will be over.

What is the pot of gold in a mystery series? Not the solution to the crime in a single book. Not the success of the quest for a MacGuffin, crime fiction’s equivalent of the Holy Grail. Happily ever after? That’s the pot of gold in a romance novel, and the reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction. But in a series, the author must avoid the kind of closure that leaves no room for the story to continue. For several books, Spencer-Fleming’s Clare and Russ were divided by his marriage and the highly developed consciences of both characters. At the end of the last book, they are finally free to be together—just as Clare is deployed to Iraq. The unabashed romantic in me grinds her teeth in frustration. But the mystery reader is gleeful, because now there has to be another book.

To switch genres for a moment, I recently opened the new novel by Elizabeth Moon, author of the classic fantasy trilogy The Deed of Paksennarion. For the past twenty years, Moon has published a substantial number of bestselling hard science fiction novels, while I’ve been reading and rereading Paks’s story. Now she’s returned to her fantasy world with Oath of Fealty, which not only takes us back to Paks’s world but picks up exactly where she left off twenty years ago. At the end of the last book, as Moon puts it in her foreword, our heroine “rode off into the fictional sunset.” But all the other familiar characters have returned. (Even Paks makes a brief appearance, since we return to the same moment of crisis that ended the trilogy.) Moon makes the same point Spencer-Fleming did: that even if one character’s story ends, the world of the series may include other characters whose stories still need to be told.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Here's What I Know

By Nancy Martin, guest blogger

Here’s what I know about publishing: The more I write, the less I know. At least, that’s my perception. There’s always something new to learn about writing.

When I started publishing books—egad 30 years ago!—I wrote “by the seat of my pants”—that is, intuitively. That method worked for me because I was writing historical romances by guessing what the heroine would do or feel next. That’s a step plot, of course. One step leads to another and another and another until the—uh—climax. Even when I moved into writing romances from two points of view—the hero as well as the woman of his dreams—I could feel my way through the story by intuition. And I had success as a romance writer. I made good money. One of my romances sold over 5 million copies. My books were translated into 21 languages. I received fan mail from all over the world.

But then my daughters got old enough to read my books, and I decided I didn’t want my girls embracing the basic premise of a romance novel—that a man would come along, engage in a lot of clever banter, propose marriage and make her life perfect. I know, I know—in some romances the heroine learns a lot of other stuff about life, but I wasn’t writing them because . . . I was writing a simple step plot!

In an effort to write books that would both appeal to my daughters and show them that life holds a lot of wonders, challenges and goals beyond Prince Charming, I decided to turn to my first love as a reader—the mystery novel.

The mystery is a wonderfully flexible literary form that allows writers to do just about anything they please as long as there’s a dead body and some detecting going on. (My own mysteries are good examples—my Blackbird sisters would probably be afraid of my new character, Roxy Abruzzo!) Yes, I could have written step plot mysteries, but I was looking to do something more thematically complex, and I finally realized something obvious: If writing was my profession, I needed to learn more about it. Especially about plot, because although romance novels didn’t need a lot of attention paid to the plot, mysteries were all about plot—the more intricate the better. And themes must emerge from the action of a plot. I needed to learn from other sources, not just my own experience. I needed to read about writing, learn from other writers, take some workshops—invest in my future as a writer.

This conclusion might seem obvious to those of you who have been reading how-to books from the get-go and taking every workshop you could manage, but for me—a writer isolated in a rural place and trying not to spend my writing income on anything but the mortgage and shoes for the kids—investing the money and time of learning about my profession was a big leap.

There are lots of good resources for writers out there. Early, I fell hard for Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction (which he later denounced, and it’s now out of print) and later I came to appreciate Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for helping me learn to break a plot into such elements as heightening stakes, consequences of failure, the emotional impact of sacrifice and the specific questions a writer can ask her characters to create a truly “character-driven” novel. (You’ll notice I’m not talking about the feel-good, inspiring kinds of books about writing. I didn’t need inspiration. I needed hard information!) And although I’d had Robert McKee’s book Story on my shelves for some time, I took his 3-day workshop and came away changed forever as a writer. Christopher Vogler’s peek into the storytelling expertise of a Disney writer in The Writer’s Journey also had a big affect on me—especially when it comes to creating the kinds of secondary characters that truly flesh out a protagonist who engages readers in a subliminal way.

Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is brilliant, and I refer to it often. I like that she breaks down the nebulous idea of “complexity” in a story into sociological, moral, emotional, psychological and even geographical complexity—all elements that create a more layered mystery novel. Elizabeth George’s Write Away taught me why, as a reader, I was immediately engaged by some characters on the first page, while other characters failed to seize my interest at all. It’s because of the “emotional extremis” she espouses.

Now, when I set out to write a book, I bring out a deck of cards I created for myself. Each card contains information I’ve gleaned from some source or other and explains an element I find necessary in the progression of a complex story that pleases me as well as my readers. I tried to write up a kind of standard outline for myself, but I discovered that as I continue to learn about my profession, a written outline was too static. I need the flexibility of my card system that allows constant additions and revision.

In an era when just about anybody thinks they can be a successful writer as long as they do a lot of self-promotion, I try to focus on the goal that gets pushed aside: Becoming a better writer.

Can you suggest a good resource for me? What has worked for you?

Nancy Martin is the author of nearly fifty popular fiction novels including the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries and the newly released Our Lady of Immaculate Deception. She serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, and in 2009 she received the Romantic Times award for Career Achievement in Mystery Writing. She blogs at the trend-setting Lipstick Chronicles.Visit her website at for her appearance schedule and more information about her books.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Filter Failure

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve got news for you about information overload.

It’s not new.

When Johannes Gutenberg assembled his printing press (around the year 1440), he joined a the idea of a screw press with the idea of movable type. Instead of having to carve a whole page—backwards, incidentally, so that the printed page would print forward—printers could now carve individual letters, still backwards, but carving an “A” is a lot easier than carving, say, the Book of Genesis, page by page. Plus that “A” could be used repeatedly until it either broke or got so ragged around the edges that it no longer looked like an “A.”

Clay Shirky, a New York University new-media professor, writer, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, contends that information overload started when the printing press had produced more books than a single literate person could read in a lifetime.

Given the average capabilities of the screw press (3,600 pages per day) and the reading speed of the average literate person, I suspect information overload was well established by 1550. It’s been with us ever since.

What information overload meant then, and still does, is that choices had to be made about what to read, and what to allow to pass by unread.

Presses were expensive, so was paper, ink, and the time of the person who carved all those “A”s not to mention “a”s, the other letters of the alphabet (capital and lower case), numbers, punctuation marks, and dingbats—those ornamental little flourishes printers used to decorate a page.

Since a printer wanted to recoup what he’d spent, he became the arbitrator of availability. Think of availability as a river. The publisher, the source of the river, not only controlled how much water went into the river, but he created filters to test and treat that water—admittedly according to his own standards of what the water quality should be—before it was released to float downstream to the reader.

Fast forward 460 years.

The river has turned into a swamp. Anyone can dump anything into the stream. Not that that is all bad. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that brings us Wikipedia and other Wikis, had some positive things to say recently about what is being dumped into our information stream. That program, incidentally, is usually on-line for only about four months from the date of its original broadcast, so if you want to have a listen, don’t put it off.

But having an swamp instead of a river means that the filter has moved downstream to the individual user. Each one of us now has a personal responsibility to decide what we will read, how often we will read it, and what value we place on the reliability and validity of what is offered.

Clay Shirky, the guy I mentioned a few paragraphs back has coined the term “filter failure,” which he says means that it’s not the information that’s overloading us, it’s our inability to form good filters and use them. Here’s a link to the talk Shirky gave about filter failure at Web 2.0 in New York in 2009 December.

I think I was especially receptive this past week to both Sue Gardner’s and Clay Shirky’s pieces because, even though I hadn’t previously known the term filter failure, its essence has been on my mind. I've been asking myself questions like, how do I make choices about the stuff that is on-line? What criteria should I use when deciding what to read and what to skip? How do I filter in the good stuff—good, of course being highly personal, so how do I filter in good to me stuff is a more reasonable question? If I think the Internet is a living, dynamic system—and I do think that—how do I keep my personal river from turning into a swamp?

If I come up with anything, I'll let you know.

P.S. For any of you out there who are wondering how my play-writing course is coming, I just finished writing my first one-act play. Apparently ordinary mortals can get characters on stage, give them dialog to say, and get them off the stage 22 minutes later.

Quote for the week

No matter where we are on the [time] chart, the past always looks like a walk in the park and the future always looks like a cliff face.
~Clay Shirky

Monday, March 22, 2010

Teens, Violence, and American Malaise

by Julia Buckley
My son is walking around the house with a toy gun, stalking his brother in the time-honored fashion. His round head and angelic face make him look like a Precious Moments figurine, but his commando stealth and narrowed eyes hint at the dreams of a soldier. In one sense I see this as a tradition: my own brothers often maintained amicable conflicts in their teen years--mainly a celebration of violence and testosterone which sometimes had them grappling on the floor of my mother's clean kitchen.

But my brothers didn't have access to all that boys have access to today: violent video games, far more violent movies, violent songs, violent images. According to this USA today article, school shootings are increasing because violence among young people is increasing.

Reasons for this phenomenon are complex: lack of parents at home, more access to guns, a belief that guns solve problems--those are some offered by the psychologists interviewed in the article. Added to these social realities is the very new notion of wanting to be famous for any reason--a sort of AMERICAN IDOL and reality tv-inspired idea that fame is something one deserves and can demand in whatever way necessary.

Naturally I look at my "normal" sons and worry that they, too, are affected by the violence. They used to play really sweet video games about animals escaping from the zoo, or little astronauts landing flying saucers on the moon; but now that they're a teen and an adolescent, they've decided that the only "cool" games are the ones which involve guns and lots of shooting. Like the people who say they read PLAYBOY for the articles, my sons suggest that they like these games for the realistic scenery, the amazing special effects.

But the reality is that they like the violence and the power they feel with the joystick in their hands--so close, really, to wielding a real gun. The violence doesn't end with the game, because they pretend to shoot each other all day. We warn them, we complain about their behavior, we threaten them. But they can't resist the lure of being powerful, even in play. Perhaps the only way to really address it would be to wean them off the games, which are their favorite things in the world.

If we did lose the games, though, they could always turn to the internet for their doses of violence, or the movies--even PG rated ones--which seem to be so much more violent than they once were.

According to the USA Today, this is distinctly an American issue. Perhaps before we address why our children are fascinated by violence, we will have to address why we adults are.

It is ironic, I know, that I like to write tales about murder and I'm quibbling over the kind of killing that fascinates my children. Perhaps we're all drawn to the notion of murder because of the power dynamic behind it, which in itself provides good drama.

But if in fact we are becoming more violent than we once were, is the violence a symptom of a larger illness? What makes it distinctly American? Are we any different now from the raw and violent America that rose in defiance of its motherland?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Writing can be fun!

Jo Beverley (Guest Blogger)

This is a round-about Canada Calling. Jo lived in Canada for a time, and we still claim her as one of us.

Jo Beverley is an author who loves to blend real history with romance, but for as many readers as possible.

Her history degree comes in useful, but above all, she's fascinated by the human mating dance and finds it endlessly entertaining. The only problem is when she wonders if her characters could be real, visiting from another dimension. It sometimes feels that way. In that case, her husband says, she doesn't want to meet any of her heroes in a dark alley after all she inflicts on them!

Anyone else remember the “can be fun” books? Arithmetic can be fun. Reading can be fun. Well, writing can too.

When we start out, we do it for fun, don’t we? We have stories dancing in our heads and the thrill of putting them into words, of giving them new life in external form, is a huge high. That thrill continues, but it is so easy to drift away from the play aspect of writing, especially when we’re published, have deadlines, feel pressure and all the rest of it.

Yes, it can be a good idea to be practical, disciplined, focused, and all that good stuff, but I believe it’s dangerous to forget that writing can – and should – be fun. At least some of the time.

Now I enjoy writing. There are better days and worse days, and times when the book is driving me crazy, but I still do get a lot of those highs, and I hope you do, wherever you are in your career. However, with 34 books published, and always with a contract book to write, it can be too easy to forget to let my creativity out to play. My thesis here is that we have to give our creativity variety and freedom if it’s to give us the best in return.

What do I mean by play writing? At its purest, it’s writing with no boundaries and no business pressure. My play writing is nearly always Science Fiction and Fantasy. There are three reasons for that.

One, it’s one of my favorite forms of writing, along with romance.

Two, I’m only slightly published in the genres so there’s not the same business pressure.

Three, by their nature, Science Fiction and Fantasy are highly expandable forms, open to, and even encouraging the wilder parts of my imagination. I wrote one story about six foot dandelions wielding Uzis.

Ideally, play should be in a genre that isn’t our main practical or business one. I’d say all fiction writers should now and then write in a different form and discipline. It’s not a waste of time. It stretches us. It reveals to us new strengths and weaknesses. It sparks new ideas, and sends us back to our regular writing refreshed and enhanced.

In case it’s not clear, this writing is not with money in mind. To start out that way impedes the process. If it ends up being saleable, then great, but to have half an eye on the market is not what it’s about.

One of my play projects was a fairyland medieval. I’m sad that the medieval setting has become unpopular with many readers, that many see it as grim, so I played with a medieval setting from the fairy stories. The castle with the turrets. The knights in shining armor. The Princess in the pointy hat with the long veil…. I had lot of fun. And then the dragon turned up. I was off on a twist of the princess who’s sacrificed to the dragon.

That did end up selling, because some friends and I decided to do an anthology of dragon stories, Dragon Lovers. I only had a couple of chapters of my play story, but I enjoyed expanding it. We got together to do another anthology, and that’s an example of a different sort of play project.

Chalice of Roses came out in January, and all the stories are woven around the Grail. I didn’t have an idea and had to come up with one, and very much with publication in mind. It’s only play in so far as it is
• One, medieval, which I enjoy but haven’t done recently, and
• Two, a fantasy romance, which means I could stretch reality in many interesting ways.

Play can simply mean variety. There was a time when I cycled between three historical periods – medieval, Georgian, and Regency, but that’s become impractical. It works better for me and for the publisher if I write a few books in one period before switching. Since medieval is less popular and truly doesn’t sell nearly as many books, I’ve put that aside for now. Except for play projects.

So a play project can be really flying wild, or writing something quite different for us at that time, or simply switching between types of writing. The latter is a weak variety, however. I recommend flying wild every now and then.

Variety doesn’t always work in a completely positive way. It’s hard to call The Stanforth Secrets a play project as it was my second sale and I was very intent on getting it right and establishing a career. However, it is my only true romantic suspense. This was my editor’s suggestion, and I was keen to please and to try something different. It was an interesting project, but it showed me that a mystery plot didn’t mesh well with my fly-into-the-mist style of romance writing.

It’s very useful to learn that there are thing we can write and things that are a struggle.

The Stanforth Secrets has just been reissued, and I’m pleased that I still find it a good book.

At the moment I’m writing a new Georgian romance and playing with a contemporary parallel world story that’s been an on and off play area for over a decade. I doubt it will ever sell, but it’s fun. I have a few of them tucked away, and you never know when one will suddenly blossom into something special and/or be a fit for a new market.

There’s yet another type of play – with a sado-masochistic twist. I call it being mugged by my muse. An idea just comes to me. Not so much an idea as an opening scene, rolling in my head like a video. I can’t ignore it. Even if I’m on deadline with a contract book, I have to write down what I see. It’s exhilarating and exciting, but infuriating at the same time. All the same, I get it down.

And then, in a month, many months, a year, I’ll be drawn back to it and find something growing out of it. Something I never expected or planned, but which is alive and once again demanding my attention.

The first book of my Secrets trilogy was like that. A Regency man at an inn encountering a quiet, even dull, woman who was swearing. The story morphed. The man became a Georgian rake, the quiet woman became a spirited Italian nun, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if I’d fought off the muse back when she mugged me.

A Lady’s Secret flowed on to The Secret Wedding, which also begins with a muse-mugging scene of a young officer interrupting a rape. It wasn’t until half way through A Lady’s Secret that I realized that the young officer was Christian Hill, the hero’s friend. Those books flowed into The Secret Duke, which will be out in April, including elements of a vignette I wrote down a while ago about a young woman cast out of society and taking refuge with some very odd, rebellious women.

So embrace the fun side of creativity, and make sure your mind has plenty of room to play. And if your muse comes a-mugging, don’t fight it. Enjoy.

Writing can be, should be, fun.

For more about Jo and her books, visit her web site.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Finding new authors?

By Lonnie Cruse

How DO you find new authors. Meaning new to you? They may have had books out in print for a while, but you never heard of 'em, so can they be any good?

There are several ways to check for new authors. You can always read part of the first chapter while leaning against the shelves in the book store. (Don't lean too hard, you don't want to be on the six o'clock news.)

You can flip through pages, glancing at a paragraph here and there, worried all the while that you'll stumble onto something that gives the whole plot away. (This one works pretty well for me because I cover my eyes with one hand and peek between my fingers.)

You can turn to page 60 (or is it page 50? Or is it to the center of the book? Gotta research that one) to see what's going on there, and if it grabs you, it's a good book. Heard that one on the Internet. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but I've only tried it once or twice.

You can ask your friends what they are reading IF you trust their judgment.

You can ask a stranger whom you've spotted reading in public, IF you are a brave soul who never listened to her mother's advice about not speaking to strangers.

You can join book a club and hope their taste matches yours.

You can join discussion groups on the Internet and sift through the chaff to find the wheat.

You can ask the store personnel for their opinion.

You can fall in love with the cover and take a chance. This, I confess, has hurt me more than helped me. I'm a sucker for a great cover, gory covers turn me off, as do overly-plain covers. Give me a great cover, and likely I'm headed straight to the check-out without even reading the back cover or asking anyone about the book. Sigh.

You can also do something sensible like borrow books from the library that were written by authors you've possibly heard of but not read. Or books with lovely covers. You might even ask the librarian.

Sooo, friends, how do YOU find new authors? And if the book stinks, what do you do with it? Toss it? Give it to a friend and let her suffer with you? Put it in the back of the closet and hope it sells along with the rest of your estate some day? Sell it now?

Me, I'm not saying what I do with 'em. I'm an author. I can't harm another author's baby. Well, maybe, if the baby is really ugly.

Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Novel as Three-Legged Stool

Elizabeth Zelvin

“The writing is terrible!”
“The characters are cardboard!”
“How does this guy sell so many books?”

How many times have struggling midlist writers and discriminating readers heard, thought, and said some variant of these words? The object of their puzzlement, dismay, and yes, envy is usually an author—Dan Brown and James Patterson being the most notable examples—whose work is not only earning them millions but read with enjoyment by millions of readers. On the one hand, are all these readers swine who don’t know pearls from garbage and prefer the latter? On the other, are champions of expert use of language and rounded characters merely literary snobs? What is going on here?

I recently participated in a panel at the New York Public Library devoted to mystery and thriller writers who use their professional expertise as doctors, lawyers,and psychotherapists as a resource in their work. During the question period, an audience member and the lawyer on the panel agreed that in their opinion, Scott Turow not only presented a more accurate picture of a lawyer’s world than John Grisham, but was a far better writer. The Turow fan’s question: “Why is Grisham so popular?”

I have no opinion on Turow or Grisham. I’ve read only one or two of each of these writers’ books, and they are not my kind of read. But the answer to not only the immediate question but the global question of how bad writing about flat characters so often makes no difference to a book’s success suddenly came to me.

Imagine the novel—any novel, but especially a mystery, thriller, or other genre novel—as a three-legged stool. The three legs that support the work are writing, characterization, and storytelling. The simple secret of why millions of readers love certain books in spite of their flaws is that their authors—Brown and Patterson and Grisham and their ilk—are master storytellers. These writers aren’t emperors whose fans can’t see they have no clothes. Their “clothes” are the gift of telling stories that keep readers turning the pages to find out what happens.

I happen to love character-driven novels. And I’m an old English major who winces at sloppy syntax and stale metaphors. But my theory makes more sense to me when I consider the movies I’ve seen based on Brown’s and Grisham’s novels. First, there’s the “high concept,” a phrase that I believe was coined in the movie business, though publishing has adopted it. Take Grisham’s first bestseller, The Firm. What’s it about? A young lawyer takes his dream job and discovers he’s working for the Mafia. Brilliant—what a story! Second, consider what happens to characters with no depth when the stories are made into movies. In the book of The DaVinci Code, Robert Langdon has no backstory and little personality. But in the movie, he’s Tom Hanks, a character invested with life by the actor’s presence.

How important is good writing? Is it irrelevant? Is the notion of literature itself outdated? Do we need it? I think we do. Let’s consider diamonds, which are far beyond the means of most people. My own two or three pieces of “good” jewelry are cubic zirconia. And Swarovski crystals can be lovely. So why bother with diamonds at all? Even if we can never own one but only admire them in Tiffany’s window, there’s nothing like the genuine fire. Same with a well written book.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reader Reviews: Helpful or Harmful?

Sandra Parshall

With space for print reviews rapidly disappearing, online reviews by readers are more important than ever – and someday they may be all we have left. Most publishers have been quick to add avid readers to their distribution lists for free advance copies, hoping for an online mention, any kind of mention, of each new book. A lot of writers, though, hate this practice and complain about amateur
reviewers who seem more interested in proving their cleverness than in fairly evaluating books.

Authors who may have carped for years about negative reviews from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly or biased newspaper reviewers now have a new appreciation of “professional” book critics.

Although writers will smile when a reader-reviewer gushes, “I love this book!”
(Isn’t that what we long to hear from everyone?) they aren’t happy when the lack of professional restraint goes in the opposite direction. Even a negative assessment in a professionally edited publication will usually have a civilized tone. A reviewer might say a book is a disappointing followup to previous entries in a series, or go further and describe the plotting as weak or unbelievable and the characters as wooden. But no respected newspaper or magazine will run a review saying a book is the worst piece of crap ever to see print, or that books this bad should carry warning labels, or that the entire print run should be burned. Online reader-reviewers are free to write any of those things – and some delight in doing so. If questioned, they might say they feel a responsibility to steer other readers away from bad books. It’s a new take on word of mouth. Word of computer?

Some of the reader-reviewers do so many reviews, though, that I have to wonder where the dividing line is between professional and amateur. You can major in
English lit in college, but does that qualify you as a critic of currently published work? You can’t earn a degree in reviewing. You can’t go to trade school to be trained. Maybe some book critics have done apprenticeships under experienced reviewers, but I suspect that many of them more or less fell into the job and decided they liked it enough to keep doing it. Some are writers who earn extra money by reviewing (novels don’t pay all that well). After they have enough reviews to their credit, and provided lots of those summing-it-up lines that are ideal for book jackets and ads, they are esteemed – and feared – as professional critics.

So what about the regulars on the DorothyL mystery listserv who have been reviewing books for years or decades? They don’t get paid to do it, and that makes a difference to many people. A review written for free and posted on a public listserv may be scorned. I know of people who refuse to read DorothyL
reviews because they’re written by amateurs. It’s rare to see a DL review quoted on a book jacket. Yet most of those “amateurs” are intelligent, thoughtful readers who love books and know the crime fiction genre as few others do. I consider DL the best online source of reader reaction to books, and I read the reviews faithfully.

The online reviews that make me cringe are filled with bad grammar, misspellings, typos, punctuation errors, misstatements about plot and character, and garbled opinions. I see them mostly on Amazon and Barnes&, but I know they’re posted by the thousands on sites I don’t have time to visit. One very real blessing of reviews in professionally edited publications is that they aren’t freighted with all that garbage. (Please don’t take that as a snooty opinion from a writer who thinks she’s perfect. Like most authors, I make enough mistakes to keep copy editors employed. And that’s the point: what I publish is edited first.) Sometimes a professional reviewer will get a character’s name wrong or describe a plot turn incorrectly, but on the whole a professional review is clean and easy to read.

I have to be honest and say I have seen only a tiny number of negative reader-reviews of my own books. Maybe if I followed every link on every Google Alert, I would find them all, but that would leave me no time for anything else, such as life. I did come across one critical review of my second novel, Disturbing the Dead, that amused me. The reader-reviewer complained that I am obsessed with shoulders and she couldn’t enjoy the book because she was too busy noticing my every mention of the characters’ shoulders. I had never seen that particular criticism before (and haven’t since), but yes, it has made me aware of the way I use body language in my writing. I would never dream of contacting the reader-reviewer to argue about her perception of my shoulder obsession. I write what I want to write. She is free to interpret it in her own way.

The online world offers free expression to everyone who loves books and loves to talk about them. Readers have always talked about the books they like or dislike, but with the spread of the internet authors are now able to “overhear” that talk, and for some it’s a rude shock to realize that not every reader loves their writing. Reacting in public is almost always an embarrassing mistake. Nothing is more cringe-worthy than the spectacle of an author ranting on Amazon because some reader said unkind things about her novel. If reader-reviews bother you, I would advise, try to control your ego and curiosity and stop seeking them out.

How do you feel about the flood of reader-reviews online? A good thing, a bad thing, or a wash?

Do you read them?

Do you write them? If so, have you ever been contacted by an irate author?

Do you buy books because you’ve seen positive reader-reviews? Do you decide against buying books that other readers have reviewed negatively?

Do you take the critic’s opinion seriously if the review is riddled with mistakes in spelling, grammar, or punctuation?

What internet sites or listservs do you regular read in search of book recommendations from other readers? Did you discover any of your favorite writers in this way?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Play’s the Thing

Sharon Wildwind

For a couple of years now I’ve made noises about writing a play.

I wangled my way into observing a script workshop, where a playwright met the actors for the first time. I liked that.

I took a dramaturgist to lunch. Two years ago I didn’t even know what a dramaturgist was. Turns out it is a relatively new profession in theater. A dramaturgist is someone who acts as a bridge between written word and the realities of putting on a play. Kind of a cross between a critique partner and a reality check. “I know you think that a five foot flood engulfing the stage would be a great symbolic indication of the passion sweeping away Hortense and Elrod, but replacing water-soaked scenery and costumes every night is going to be a bit of a chore. Would you consider using a small fountain instead?”

I joined the provincial playwrights’ network, which gave me a lot more information on all the neat theater activities going on around me. But none of these things produced one word of a script. Nada.

Since I go to plays I’d figured out that I needed a stage setting. One or more people came on stage. One actor said the first line. The second actor said the next line. We were off and running.

My biggest stumbling block was getting the actor(s) on stage.

Harold walks on stage. Or does he?

Should that be Harold shuffles on stage? How about Harold shuffles on stage carrying the weight of a failing business, a failed marriage, and a bad case of dandruff on his shoulders. How much does a playwright write? Do I give too much direction, so that the director and actors can pick out what they like, as if they were selecting chocolate for a sampler box, or too little, so that the director and actors take a single word and run with it?

I did get a book about play-writing from the library, but honestly, it didn’t make a lot of sense. Word count was still zero.

Then I found out that that provincial network I belong to holds Play-writing Circles. I was fortunate enough to snag one of the seven spots in this spring’s circle. We in the Circle meet with an established playwright for eight weeks. We take turns bringing writing of any length to the group and we listen while the other people in the group read our work out loud. Then we discuss what was read. On the eighth night, a real director and real actors put on a fifteen minute segment of something we’ve written.

It turned out that the answer to my question of how to get an actor on stage was


Having written novels for ten years, I was amazed at the amount of things a playwright gets to leave out.

For that stage setting, I need basically three things: Interior or Exterior, Name of Place, Day or Night, as in

Interior. Local restaurant—Night

I get to be a little more specific in the set description, even there it’s generalities: this is a small, clean, well-run, slightly shabby restaurant. I include anything that will be an important bit of staging, like the large clock that will figure prominently in scene two, but even then it’s up to the set designer to figure out what that that clock looks like.

Also, adverbs are out. Harold does not chuckle spasmodically or gleefully or sardonically.


Turns out that the things that are important in plays are the same things that are important in prose: strong characters, tight storytelling, high stakes, and great dialog. Oh, yes, and line of sight. You can create a lot of tension by which actors see another actor do something and which do not.

I started out taking a novel that had never sold and reworking the first three chapters as a play. It had the advantage that I knew the characters and the story and had already written dialog which could be copied and pasted.

It also had the disadvantage that even after I eliminated several bit players there were eleven characters in the first three scenes, and ten changes of scenery, eight of which were outside at different locations. Oh, yes, and horses were involved. Lots of horses. I had a feeling a dramaturgist would want to talk to me about that.

By dint of effort, I narrowed it down to horse sounds off stage and one set modification between scenes two and three. I kept the eleven characters. Heck, it’s only an exercise, and the people sitting around the table can each read two or three characters.

I also discovered that at least two ideas for novels which have been kicking around my head for a long time will work better as plays. So now, by week three of the workshop, I’ve written three scenes based on a novel and eight minutes of the first act of an original two-act play. Tomorrow night I get my first read through.

Am I pumped or what!

Do not think your story [for a one-person show] is unique. . . . your story is the same as millions of others. But that's o.k.—you just need to find the one or two things that makes your story interesting enough to justify someone leaving their apartment and exchanging currency.
~Julie Halston, actress, comedienne, and writer

Monday, March 15, 2010

Observing the Ides

The winner of a free signed copy of Erin Hart's new novel is Deb Salisbury. Congratulations!

by Julia Buckley
First of all I'd like to say that I can't believe it's March 15. Every year seems to speed by at an even more accelerated pace. I guess I'll have to stop looking at the calendar, since it intimidates me so.

But there is a different reason that today's date is intimidating: it is the legendary Ides of March! Ever since I first read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, I find this date more significant, mostly because of Shakespeare's powerful and memorable references.

Shakespeare paints Caesar as a man who refuses to acknowledge the plentiful warnings, a man brought down by his own hubris. According to Caesar, "a coward dies many times before his death," and so he insists upon fearing nothing, clinging to the illusion that his own might can ward off any danger.

Yet there are people in the play who warn him: the soothsayer, for one, who famously says "Beware the Ides of March!" Caesar laughs off the warning, and he dismisses the prophetic dream of his worried wife. At this point in the play I was pretty much rooting for the conspirators, since no man should dismiss his wife, nor should he chuckle at her instincts. :)

It's not only the bloody-minded conspirators Caesar should fear, though, but his own lust for power, which marks him for assassination in the first place.

When Caesar confronts the soothsayer again on March 15, he is triumphant, saying "The Ides of March have come!" The seer is undaunted. He replies, "Aye, they are come, but they have not gone."

It's impossible to read this scene from Julius Caesar and not be affected. Therefore, as a mildly superstitious person, I am always slightly uncomfortable on this day. I am not vain like Caesar, nor do I think I'm indestructible (in fact I am sometimes such a hypochondriac that I fear a slight wind). :)

But this is the power of language and rhetoric: because Caesar died on this day and Shakespeare chose to focus on it as an unlucky date on the calendar, I always remember it when it arrives.

How will you be observing the Ides?

(image: wikipedia, bust of Caesar)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Erin Hart Returns with "False Mermaid"

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Everyone who leaves a comment will be entered
in a drawing for a free signed copy!

Erin Hart, one of my favorite writers, is back after much too long an interval with her third mystery featuring American pathologist Nora Gavin and Irish archeologist Cormac Maguire. Like her first two books, Haunted Ground and Lake of Sorrows, False Mermaid has received glowing reviews for its beautiful writing and deep characterizations.

Before turning to writing, Erin worked in theater. She also co-founded Minnesota’s Irish Music and Dance Association. She lives in Saint Paul, MN, with her husband, Irish musician Paddy O’Brien, with whom she frequently visits Ireland to carry out research in bogs, cow pastures, castles, and pubs. Recently she talked with me about False Mermaid and her writing life.

Q. Tell us about False Mermaid. What are Nora and Cormac up to in this book?

A. The story takes up where Lake of Sorrows finished, with Nora on her way home to the States, and with Cormac headed up to see his ailing father in Donegal. Nora is determined to crack her sister’s cold case murder once and for all, even if it means that she has to face up to some unsettling truths about her sister—and about herself. Nora’s worst fear is that her eleven-year-old niece may be reaching an age where she’ll begin to defy her father, putting her on dangerous ground with the man Nora has long suspected as her sister’s killer.

Cormac, trying to come to grips with a strained relationship with his own father, also becomes caught up in the century-old disappearance of a Donegal woman believed to be a selkie, a seal who could shed her skin and became human. Did the woman simply abandon her family to return to the sea, or was there something more sinister about her disappearance? As usual, I have parallel mysteries—one contemporary and one historical—and I hope readers will perceive the connections between them.

Q. What inspired the story? And what does the intriguing title mean?

A. I always knew that I’d have to solve the murder of Nora’s sister; it was just a matter of finding the right way to do it. I wasn’t certain in my own mind what had really happened to TrĂ­ona, even as I revealed details of her murder as part of Nora’s backstory in the first two novels. As a starting point, I had to rely on the few bits of information that Nora had revealed about the murder, and use them as a place to begin this story. Even though Nora suspected her brother-in-law from the start, it obviously wasn’t an open-and-shut case, since he was never charged, never even arrested for the crime. I knew that I had to give Nora’s investigation some unexpected twists and turns.

I also wanted to explore the idea of the Otherworld, which is so present in Irish culture and mythology. So I began pulling in the selkie stories, and finding all kinds of psychological parallels in modern life—there’s a duality in all of our lives
(especially for women, I think) between our rational and emotional lives, between our public and the private selves, between the loyalty we owe to ourselves and to the people we love. The mermaid or selkie is a sort of physical embodiment of that impossible duality, a woman literally divided, unable to exist wholly in either world.

The title, False Mermaid, has multiple meanings, some of which I can explain, and others that I really should leave for readers to discover! Most obviously, the title is a reference to the mermaid and selkie myths that figure in the story. ‘False mermaid’ is also the common name of Floerkea proserpinacoides, an endangered plant that grows along North American floodplains and marshy areas. The seeds of that rare plant actually provide a clue in the murder case. And I must say that I enjoyed playing with the various meanings of ‘true’ and ‘false’—what is reality, and what is myth, how do we know what’s true? True and false lovers come up a lot in old traditional songs, so there’s yet another layer of meaning, all tied up with fidelity and faithfulness. A lot to explore!

Q. Was it a challenge to write parallel plots, with Nora and Cormac in different countries, pursuing different goals?

A. Well, I always have parallel plots, so that in itself wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but I won’t say it’s ever easy. The biggest challenge was figuring out a way to tie the two threads together, so that they complemented and pulled against one another in an interesting way. I’ll leave it up to readers to decide
whether it works or not…

Q. I know you don’t want to give away too much, but can we expect Nora’s life to be changed after she investigates her sister’s death? Will her relationship with Cormac be altered by what happens to both of them during their time apart?

A. You’re right—I don’t want to give anything away! So I’ll just say I know that Cormac and Nora have been going along rather tentatively for a while (frustrating quite a few readers who wish they’d knock it off!). But given their histories, I think they’re both understandably skittish about commitment. And we find out in False Mermaid that Nora may still feel something for Frank Cordova, the Saint Paul police detective who investigated her sister’s death. And the story is about a woman feeling pulled in two directions at once…

Q. The creation of a character is often a mysterious process (no pun intended), even to the writer. Looking back, can you see how Nora and Cormac came into being? Did you flesh them out slowly as you wrote your first book, or were they fully formed before you started writing?

A. I still don’t feel as if I know them all that well! They’ve revealed themselves slowly over time, which is all part of the writing process. For me, writing is like archaeology, digging down, stripping layer upon layer, finding my way to the end of a story. There were certainly things about Nora Gavin that I didn’t find out until I started writing False Mermaid, things that she didn’t seem to know herself. I’m fascinated by how little we know ourselves. All my characters seem to rise up out of my subconscious with rather complicated backstories; they all struggle to know their own minds and hearts. How can I, even as their creator, ever know them completely? I don’t feel finished with these characters; the question is how they will continue to grow.

Q. So much in the book business has changed in a few short years – independent stores failing, chain stores closing, blogs and social networking becoming more important to authors than book tours and other traditional forms of promotion. Has your own approach to promotion changed? Will you be doing anything this time around that you didn’t do for your first two books?

A. It’s been so long since my last book was published that the whole social networking thing is completely new since then. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and am doing some guest blogging, and none of that was even around in 2004. But otherwise, I’m doing many of the same things: book signings, library events, all-city reads, book clubs. I’m also touring with my husband Paddy O’Brien and his Irish band, Chulrua—we’ve done a bit of this before, but are expanding on it this time around. My background is in theater and communications, so events and promotion come sort of naturally to me. The challenge is in keeping enough creative time to write a new book!

Q. Will we see Nora back in Ireland for the next book? Do you think you’ll use the U.S. as a setting again in the future?

A. I’m working now on a fourth book featuring Cormac and Nora (working title: The Green Martyr), about a ninth-century manuscript that turns up in an Irish bog, slightly damaged, but still readable. This actually happened a couple of years ago—I like to start with some kernel of a real-life story and then ask, ‘what if?’ Of course in this case, I’m thinking, what if they found not just the manuscript, but the ninth-century monk who penned it? I’m still working on what sort of modern mystery would tie in with that story…

Q. Where can readers meet you this year? Will you be doing signings and attending conferences?

A. I have a HUGE list of events on my website, with tour dates at bookstores and libraries in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, New York, Boston, Texas, Arizona, California, and Oregon. I’m also hoping to get to the San Francisco Bouchercon in October. I’m unfortunately going to miss Left Coast Crime, the Edgars, and Malice Domestic this year, because of other commitments. But I am making a concerted effort this year to hit more Midwest conferences, perhaps Omaha’s Mayhem in the Midlands and Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana. I’m also doing several Irish festivals around the country, including the Milwaukee Irish Fest, and the Rocky Mountain Irish Festival in Loveland, Colorado, both in August.

Learn more about Erin and her books at

Friday, March 12, 2010

Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I'm researching for a new book, non-fiction. Which means I've printed out a ton of stuff from the Internet, bought too many books on the subject for background and research, and now I don't know where to start reading first. And I want it to be my work, not theirs, so the reading is just to get that background. But it still has to be read. All of it. Whew.

For me, I can't see a whole lot of difference in writing fiction or non-fiction, except my non-fiction is a whole lot shorter than my fiction. But both are difficult for me, both make my stomach hurt, both make me want to tear what little hair I have out. Both make me wonder why I do this. Both make me wonder if I'll be able to connect the beginning and the ending and somehow fill up that enormous empty MIDDLE section. But I have stories to tell, things to say, and they won't stay inside. And holding the first printed copy in my hands is always the thrill of a lifetime, each and every time. It's that way for all authors.

Add to that the fact that I blog here weekly and write a newsletter for women once a week, and I have to come up with ideas for both. Sometimes the idea store where I shop is flat out of ideas. Yet it's funny, I open up a document and start thinking and writing, and the words start to come. They might not be the best ever written, but they come.

I'm also trying to get back into journaling again, on a bigger scale. I've researched that subject quite a lot and even taught workshops on it. Yet I struggle with it. Should I write my deepest thoughts? What if someone else reads them? Should I use a purse-sized journal so I can carry it with me and jot notes on the fly, or a large one that holds more words but can't be taken away from home? Right now I'm trying both, the little one for ideas I don't want to forget, great quotes, important lists, and favorite pictures tucked into the back, along with a sprig of my favorite herb, rosemary. The larger journal is for jotting down memories of places I've been, things I've done, but mostly for free writing (writing whatever comes to mind whether it matches my work-in-progress or not but it usually does, where was I?) which helps me finalize ideas for those works. I also press flowers and leaves in there. Multi-tasking by a writer.

Journaling has always been popular among famous people and the not-so-famous, like me. And it's interesting to go back and read what I wrote years ago. A recent read through one old journal left me a bit embarrassed by my thoughts about my time spent on writing back then, but also happy with my maturity since then. That's not to say I'm totally mature, mind you, because I do have a long way to go, but at least I've moved forward since then! Progress is good. Isn't it?

If you are wondering what the title to this post has to do with anything IN the post, I have no clue. It wrote itself and I liked it so I left it there. The mind boggles. Mine is boggled much of the time. Back to researching. And journaling. Sigh.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How We Read

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband and I spent our thirty-fourth Valentine’s Day together last month, and our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary is coming up in September. Throughout this time, we have cheerfully admitted that we have very little in common. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what and how we read. We do both read for pleasure, and perhaps that bit of commonality is responsible, along with the fact that our apartment has two bathrooms, for the longevity and happiness of our marriage. We even know a lot of the same things, especially about history, although he learned them by reading nonfiction and I picked most of them up from novels.

Can you picture a couple spending a companionable evening reading, perhaps seated in a pair of comfortable chairs, looking up occasionally to exchange glances or even to read a felicitous passage aloud? Not us. First, we spend a lot of our at-home evenings in separate rooms. When I get on the computer in the living room, I tend to fall right in. I’m oblivious to him, except when he enters my personal space, which I’d estimate as a radius of four to six feet from me and the computer. I want him to Go Away. I certainly don’t want him interrupting my train of thought with his chuckles over some quip by or about the subject of his current reading, which might be anyone from Marcus Aurelius to Dr. Samuel Johnson to Natalie Barney.

How about when he’s on the computer? Can’t I sit on the couch and read? Nope. For some mysterious reason, the websites my husband visits on the computer all make noise. Not just the computer games—he’s particularly fond of Risk, which allows him to conquer the world over and over again—but all kinds of sites with sound tracks and embedded videos. Most Americans today live voluntarily or at least resignedly with a constant background of media noise. I march to a different drummer. When I’m listening to music, I listen. Otherwise, give me silence. Please.

We don’t have a TV in the living room. Neither did my parents, and this quirk may well have helped me develop into a dedicated reader. But how about reading in bed while he watches TV? Or even watching TV with him. Forget it. He’s got the gene for clicking the remote, which I’m convinced is located on the Y chromosome. Channel surfing drives me nuts. Anyhow, I want to watch True Blood, while he opts for Band of Brothers.

So why not read in bed together? We do. But. For one thing, I read sitting up. I like to read until I’m drowsy enough to fall asleep quickly when I turn out the light. If I try before I’m sleepy, I tend to toss and turn for hours. My husband, au contraire, reads lying on his stomach. After about five minutes, his head droops and his breath takes on the rhythmic drone of the comatose. That’s when I elbow him in the ribs and advise him to take off his glasses and turn out his light.

“Did I fall asleep?” he’ll ask.
“Immediately,” I’ll say. “Face down in the porridge.”

Here’s another problem. My husband loves to share tidbits as he reads.

“Listen to this!” he’ll say, interrupting my absorption in an emotional climax in my story or the revelation in a mystery. I bought him a “Shhh, I’m reading” mug a few years back. He thought it was cute, but he didn’t internalize the message.

“I don’t do this to you,” I’ll say. He’ll say that he wouldn’t mind if I did. Of course he doesn’t mind being interrupted. He reads history—he knows already how it all comes out. And in case you think it doesn’t make a difference, the other night he actually picked up a novel. (He discovered Bernard Cornwell while waiting around for me in libraries and bookstores during my 2008 book tour.) I happened to come across something in my own book that I thought he’d find interesting.

“Listen to this!” I said.
“Shhh, I’m reading,” he said.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Editor's Advice on Publishing

Sandra Parshall

John Betancourt’s Wildside Press is hundreds of miles from New York, but from his vantage point in Bethesda, Maryland, he has a clear vision of what’s happening in publishing and what the future holds. His wide-ranging talk at a recent meeting of the Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter had me furiously scribbling notes so I could share his comments with PDD’s readers.

Betancourt is a successful science fiction author of many short stories and about 40 novels. He and his wife Kim started Wildside Press in 1989 to publish speculative fiction, but it has grown over the years and now publishes mysteries (including my friend Sasscer Hill’s first book, Full Mortality, out in May) as well as nonfiction, e-books and magazines. One of the company’s imprints, Juno Books, became a co-publishing venture with Simon & Schuster as of January 2009, with an emphasis on dynamic female protagonists in contemporary/urban fantasy/paranormal fiction. Authors like Carole Nelson Douglas are publishing with Juno. One of the imprint’s budding stars is Washington area writer Maria Lima, who began with an obscure small press but moved to Juno after Betancourt read her first book and fell in love with her captivating style and voice.

He came to our meeting to present the chapter’s new anthology, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’, which Wildside is publishing. The anthology is a trade paperback, one of the formats that Betancourt believes will replace mass market paperbacks. “I’d like to see mass market paperbacks go away,” he said, pointing out the generally low quality of the paper and binding used in the books. He believes e-books will replace a lot of the print book market within a few years and could become the favored way to introduce new writers. He predicts that e-books will soon be making more money than mass market paperbacks. For print, trade paperbacks and hardcovers are of higher quality, last longer, and earn more money per copy for both the author and the publisher.

Online publishing, he believes, can be a good way for beginners to attract attention and break in. “Online publishing is your friend,” he said in answer to a chapter member’s question. “Even if it doesn’t pay, it can get attention for your writing.”

The inevitable questions about finding an agent led Betancourt to tell his own career story. He has sold his books himself, then hired agents to negotiate his contracts. He doesn’t believe agents are particularly good at selling books
because of their limited contacts and their tendency to give up quickly. However, with big publishers that accept submissions only through agents, writers have no choice but to use them from the start. He advised meeting personally with an agent before signing with him or her. A personal meeting at a conference or workshop is the best way to find an agent, preferable to cold querying. Be at your best for such a meeting, he said. “Make them want to know about you and your writing. Be outgoing, funny, charming.” Sell yourself and you’ll make the agent eager to sell your work.

Publishers have become frighteningly quick to drop writers these days, Betancourt pointed out, so after signing with a publisher, you have to be pleasant to work with, or you might discover that you’re replaceable. He recalled a bestselling science fiction author of Star Trek novels who phoned her editor several times a week for lengthy conversations. The writer’s contract was dropped. The moral of the story: “Don’t piss off your editor.”

The internet offers a lot of opportunities for self-promotion, Betancourt said, but a heavy-handed me-me-me approach will turn off potential readers. Don’t plaster the internet with self-promotion and “don’t push yourself as a writer” on internet groups, he advised. “Be interesting, be entertaining, contribute something.” Nobody will read a blog that is about nothing but the writer and her new book, and if the only time you show up in an internet group is when you have something to sell, you won’t win over any readers.

A few other bits of Betancourt advice culled from my notes:

Make sure people remember you and your books. Memorable titles and memorable author names are always a plus. Betancourt advised Lynda Hill to use her middle name, Sasscer, for writing. He advised Maria Y. Lima to drop the middle initial to make her name flow more easily off the tongue. Change the spelling of your name if that will make it stand out.

Try to avoid selling the paperback rights to the same company that brings out your hardcovers. You’ll get more money by going elsewhere.

Never let an editor keep anything for more than three months. Always hold editors to the time limits they give in their guidelines or on their websites.

Try writing intelligent, thoughtful online reviews of other people’s books as a form of self-promotion. If readers respect your opinions, they’ll check out your writing.