Saturday, July 31, 2010

Guest Blogger: Douglas Corleone

Douglas Corleone is a former New York City lawyer, who now lives and writes in Hawaii. His Kevin Corvelli series began with One Man’s Paradise. Night on Fire will be published in 2011, and Choice of Evils is due out in 2012.

What are the up side and the down side of living in Hawaii?

If there's a down side to living here, I haven't discovered it yet. It's a peaceful, relaxing place and that's what I need in order to write.

Is there anything special about practicing law in Hawaii?

There are certain issues that are unique to Hawaii. It's a very diverse state that doesn't much look like states on the mainland. Caucasians are a minority. We have American laws but different values. Honolulu is not as cutthroat as many large cities in the U.S. And, of course, lawyers dress much differently here when they are out of court. Less suits, more aloha shirts and shorts.

What attracted you to mystery writing?

I enjoy hard-boiled crime fiction filled with flawed characters. My protagonist, Kevin Corvelli, is one of those flawed characters. He's taking on high-profile homicide cases, trying to redeem himself in the press. Kevin's world is gradually getting darker with each novel, but Kevin is also maturing.

What are Kevin's flaws?

He’s a heavy drinker. He has commitment issues. He's neurotic, impatient, has a bit of a temper - he's a New Yorker. He's also been mentored in the law by a shady but highly successful defense attorney named Milt Cashman, known in the media as Not Guilty Milty. Kevin's tactics were commonplace in New York courthouses, but they don't fly as well here in Hawaii, where law is more of a "gentleman's game."

Kevin keeps a sense of humor about what he’s learned from Milt in New York, and he's willing to change. A good example of how Kevin sees Milt is when a drug dealer comes to Kevin for help with a possession charge. Kevin is new to Hawaii and isn't quite sure how much to charge, so he has to guess at what the new client is carrying in terms of cash. Finally, Kevin asks for $3,500 and learns the client actually had $5,000.

"Turi lays the money atop the files on my desk. I begin to count it out, unable to hide my disappointment at having lost the other $1,500. Milt can always tell how much a client is carrying down to the nickel. Milt is a truly gifted lawyer."
~One Man’s Paradise

You’ve said that you like to travel, especially to Europe. Any favorite parts of Europe?

Dublin is easily my favorite city in the world. Very modern yet full of Old World charm. And the people are as much fun to be around as any I ever met. I like them and I like the music.

What’s hard about writing for you?

One thing I never dealt well with is a schedule. I work as much as I can, then I stop, whether I’ve put in two hours or twelve hours.

PDD: What’s going well about the writing?

I recently finished my next book, and I’m proud of the work. In Night On Fire, Kevin represents a stunning yet troubled young bride accused of committing murder and arson at a popular Hawaiian beach resort.

For more information about Douglas, or his books, visit his web site. He’s also on Facebook.

Friday, July 30, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

We're giving away several Penguin books, classics and new mysteries, to a few lucky readers today. To enter the drawing, leave a comment and give us an e-mail address where you can be reached.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, launched in London in 1935. Since I’m published by a current imprint of Penguin (Berkley Prime Crime), I was happy to volunteer to join in the national celebration of the publisher. I’ll admit that it was Penguin Books who suggested this, but they’re sweetening the pot by giving away one of their books.

Penguin’s start is a great lesson in identifying a niche and marketing a product wisely. The firm was founded by Allen Lane, who already had some publishing experience. He invited Edward Young to join him, and it was Young who came up with the signature penguin logo. Penguin isn’t ashamed to tell us that it was Lane’s secretary who came up with the name, and then Lane sent Young off to the London Zoo to sketch penguins. Young is said to have been less than pleased, finding the penguins rather smelly.

However, the logo stuck, and was used on all Penguin books until 1949. But Young’s contribution went beyond a drawing: he was responsible for using easily recognizable and consistent color schemes for all the firm’s book covers; crime and detective novels were green.

We who are surrounded by books these days will be hard-pressed to appreciate the impact that the Penguin imprint had when it was introduced. In the 1930s, the global economy was a mess, and Hitler was gearing up for war. In addition, paperback books in those days were usually trashy novels with lurid covers. Lane chose to offer quality paperbacks with tasteful covers, and in a shrewd move, made them available at railway stations and news stands as well as bookstores. His strategy worked: in the first ten months, Penguin printed one million books, and within a year, the firm had sold three million paperbacks. Penguin offered good books at affordable prices, at a time when reading could have been seen as a luxury, and the company thrived.

While not all of the early books published by Penguin have enjoyed lasting popularity, among the first ten published were Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles—both still in print. Among books 11 through 20 was Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Lane had a good eye.

Penguin was responsible for a lot more notable publishing achievements. In 1941 they established Puffin, a children’s imprint; in 1946, Penguin Classics (and its launch book, The Odyssey, became Penguin’s best selling book).

And there are American connections as well, as you will see as I lay out the “genealogy” of modern-day Penguin:

--1996: The Penguin Group acquired the Putnam Berkley Group, forming Penguin Putnam Inc.
--1965: G. P. Putnam’s Sons acquired Berkley Books, a mass market paperback house
--1866: G. P. Putnam & Sons was created when George Palmer Putnam’s three sons joined him in the business
--1848: Putnam founded G. Putnam Broadway, after dissolving a partnership with John Wiley
--1838: Putnam and Wiley formed the publishing firm of Wiley & Putnam in New York

And why, you ask, have I outlined this (skipping over a whole lot of other mergers and acquisitions)? Because in 1845, Wiley & Putnam published Edgar A. Poe’s Tales, including, among other stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Gold Bug,” for which Poe’s Deadly Daughters salute this Penguin progenitor.

I am honored to share a publisher with the likes of Poe, Christie and Sayers, and one which continues to turn out quality books in an increasingly difficult publishing climate. Penguin authors have won 25 Nobel Prizes, 18 National Book Awards, and 12 Pulitzer Prizes. They publish more than 300 books each year in the United States, and they have more than 3,600 Penguin Books and 1,500 Penguin classics in print.

I hope I’m doing as well at 75. Happy birthday, Penguin!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Doing Nothing

Elizabeth Zelvin

Among the tchachkes on my mother’s shelves was a tiny ceramic pitcher that she brought back from a trip to Italy in the 1930s. It was hand painted and hardly big enough for a dolls’ tea party. Written on it was an Italian proverb: Dolce far niente. “It is sweet to do nothing.” It was an inappropriate motto for my mother, who was always on the move and doing something new. Her response to the “empty nest” when her children went off to college was to go back to school herself and get a doctorate. At every dinner party, she bustled between dining room and kitchen, refusing help and ignoring her guests’ perennial chorus: “Judy, why don’t you sit down?”

Measured by this standard, I had a hard time believing I ever did enough. But somehow the message that doing nothing would be sweet if only I could get away with it burrowed into my soul. It took me many years to discover that not everybody thought doing nothing was a reprehensible, even shameful failure to act. For creative artists, including writers, far niente is not niente at all, but an essential element in the creative process: the incubation period necessary to produce art. And writers are not the only ones.

This topic first occurred to me when I read on Simon Wood’s blog that his father doesn’t get baseball. Simon is a transplanted Brit, and I gathered that the comment was in response to Americans saying that they don’t get cricket. I have always heard that cricket is the most boring spectator sport there is. It goes on for hours and hours, long enough for everybody to break for tea. But I can understand Simon’s dad’s reciprocal bewilderment. In baseball, the perfect game is one in which nothing whatsoever happens. They call it pitching a no-hitter. That must be boring not only for the spectators, but for the players—except the pitcher, I assume.

But swatting a ball with a bat is not the only sport that encourages and even cherishes idleness. Look at fishing. Yes, yes, there’s plenty of action in battling a giant tuna or a supple trout. There are dramatic stories of the one that got away and homely tasks like gutting and scaling the catch and cooking it for supper. But fishing also seems to be a meditational art. And that means it’s not always about catching the fish. The recent movie Crazy Heart caught the mood perfectly, in the scene in which Robert Duvall takes Jeff Bridges fishing. The lake is still, the small boat motionless, sky and water a brilliant blue bowl, and the desired catch not bass but serenity for the Bridges character, who needs to stop running and make peace with himself.

To get back to writers, what may look like doing nothing to the observer (especially when they want us to listen to their stories, cook dinner, or get a real job) is in fact a vital part of our work. Our bodies may be idle, but we’re thinking, stretching our imaginations, letting our characters roam free in our heads and talk to us at will. How could we write fiction if we didn’t dream? We need a spaciousness, a lack of clutter, however temporary, in order to bring our imaginary but vivid characters and their settings and adventures to life.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Color me blue... or red or yellow or...

Sandra Parshall

What’s your favorite color? What do you think that says about you?

Is your opinion of a fictional character affected by the colors the author dresses the character in?

Color fills our world, and the colors we wear or live with can define us to onlookers. Yet for the average person, an affinity for a color is instinctive. Most of us don’t give it a lot of thought – we know what we like when we see it. If our favorite colors change over the years, we’re not likely to analyze what that means about the way we have changed. Some writers dress their characters haphazardly, perhaps not even mentioning color of clothing because it doesn’t seem important. When we do that, we’re overlooking a powerful characterization tool.

Many writers, though, recognize the importance of color to the image a reader forms of a character. When Janet Evanovich dresses Ranger all in black, she knows what she’s doing. This guy is dangerous. There’s something dark and unknowable about him. Yet he is wildly alluring, even before we hear him speak or see him in action. Yes, a lot more goes into the image – his handsome face and buff body can’t be discounted – but the black outfit speaks reams all by itself. Would you feel the same way about Ranger if he showed up in brown and green plaid?

Jacqueline Winspear uses color to define Maisie Dobbs’s moods and self-image. On occasion Maisie flirts with bright colors, especially when her friend Priscilla is around to prod her or to whip a stunning dress from her own closet and insist that Maisie wear it. But Maisie always returns to her plain suits in drab colors. Prim and businesslike. The clothes of a woman who does little but work.

An entire field of research is devoted to understanding why individuals love certain colors and shun others. To professionals who concoct dyes for house and car paint, fabric and carpet, color is big business, and it’s not surprising that journals like Color, Research and Application exist. (“Color Harmony Revisited” is a recent article topic.) Our choices are endless. Think of the thousands of little paint cards on display in stores, showing variations that are sometimes barely discernable. Human beings spent years of their lives formulating those thousands of hues. Why? Because people are individuals, and what one person loves, another may hate.

Psychologists have studied the meaning of color preferences for decades, and we’ve reached the point where some employers test job applicants to find out what colors they like.

According to psychologists, blue represents calm and balance. People who love blue are often creative, with a highly developed aesthetic sense. They crave peace and don’t like discord.

Red is exciting and has been proven by brain scans to arouse emotional areas of the human brain. A “red personality” is enthusiastic, intense, competitive, and talkative.

People who like green are said to be persistent, decisive, assertive, and... well, stubborn. They like work that involves detail.

Those who favor gold are described as good organizers, loyal and responsible.

If you like orange, you may be energetic, a fierce competitor who loves to win.

My question is... what does it mean if I like different colors at different times? Do I have a split personality?

Back to the original questions, though: What does your favorite color say about you? And is your opinion of a fictional character affected by the colors he or she wears?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I will or will I?

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve heard tell that mystery writers are very fortunate.

In comparison to stories told by non-mystery writers, the mystery community is more supportive than others groups. There are the occasional you-said/no-I-didn’t/yes-you-did spats, but in general we seem not only to get along well, but to actually like and root for one another.

This past week I’ve had a kumquat-week related to encouragement.

A kumquat-week?

You know, your friend invites you to an avant-garde play called, “Under the Kumquat Tree.” As you’re sitting in the audience, you realize that other than a vague impression that kumquat is a fruit you know nothing about it.

For the rest of the week, you’re inundated with kumquats. They’re for sale in your grocery. A woman at work goes on about her kumquat salsa recipe. The magazine you pick up in the dentist’s waiting room has an article, “The Tonic Properties of Kumquats.” You seem to be surrounded by tiny orange fruit.

The past week I’ve been surrounded by stories about encouragement traps. People give what they think is positive advice, but if the recipient is discouraged, depressed, or has a low self-concept, they are likely to become more, not less, discouraged.

The Everyone-Goes-Through-This Trap

“Everyone goes through this. I certainly have.”

What the speaker intends:
This is not the end of the world, and you are not alone.

How the listener may react:
My problem isn’t important. Other people are smarter and more together than I am, so they sail through it. People are mad at me because I’m such a whiner.

What may be more helpful:
“Even though this happens a lot, it’s always tough for the person going through it. Do you see any end in sight?”

The Good-Example Trap

“Look at someone like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawkings. They had to contend with much worse challenges than you do. If they could succeed, you can, too.”

What the speaker intends:
Look for positive role models and take inspiration from them.

How the listener may react:
Wow, I never realized before how much more could go wrong with my situation. I’d never be strong enough and brave enough to accomplish things like those people did.

What may be more helpful:
“Have you got a hero? Tell me about her.”

The I-will-or-will-I Trap

Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published research on what he calls the willpower paradox. Test subjects were asked to psych themselves up before being asked to do a task.

Half of the subjects gave themselves a positive pep talk. “I will do this. I will succeed. I see myself succeeding.” etc. The other half were to ask themselves questions: “Will I do this? Will I succeed? What would happen if I don’t succeed?” etc.

That first group—let’s call them the power of positive thinking group—did much worse on the actual task than the second group, what I like to call the power of curiosity group.

This was true even when the pre-task preparation was seemingly neutral. In that test, one group was asked to contribute samples for an unrelated study on handwriting analysis. One group wrote over and over, “I will.” The second group wrote, “Will I?” Again the second group consistently outperformed the first group.

In a third study related to encouraging people to go to a gym to exercise regularly, the people who focused on “Will I?” stated a wider variety of positive reasons for continuing to go to the gym, while the “I will” stated mostly reasons related to generating guilt and self-disappointment if they did not continue to go.

It appears that one of the most helpful things that can be said to encourage another person is, “Are you curious about how this might turn out? Have you thought about what the different outcomes might be?”
Quote for the week:
Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.
~James Stephens, Irish Poet (1882-1950)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book to movie?

By Lonnie Cruse/Filling in today for Julia who is unable to post at this time.

I was recently contacted with an inquiry about the film rights to my newly-released book, FIFTY-SEVEN TRAVELING. I've directed the person to my rep at my publisher. Am I excited about this? Yes . . . and . . . no. It's really too early to get excited or even think this might actually happen. I'm in "wait and see" mode.

Authors are often contacted about rights to their books. And books are sometimes optioned for movies. IF that happens, the author gets a certain amount of money, even if the movie is NEVER made. That's good! If the movie is made, it can be true to the book, or more often, not true to the book. That can be bad. I guess.

How many times have we heard someone say the book was better than the movie, OR the movie was better than the book? I know I've most often heard: Read the book first, then see the movie. In many cases, the author doesn't have much of a say in the making of the movie. In how close it comes to the book. It's our baby, but we've given it over to someone else to "raise." Turning over control of our work can be difficult. Think iron grip with heels dug in and teeth gritted. Not a pretty picture.

Then there is the reverse, the movie is made and then an author is contracted to write the book. I've not read any of those books so I can't comment on whether the book actually follows the movie faithfully. I guess that new scenario happened because people who loved the movie wanted to re-visit it by reading the book. Whatever.

Not only are movies made based on books but sometimes new versions of the old movies are made again. Now we have a triple threat, the book, the original movie, the remake movie. Where will it all end?

Is there a point here? Um, no. Just rambling thoughts while I mull the possibility of Kitty Bloodworth (my character) on the big screen. Hmmmm. Thanks for stopping by. Seen any good movies lately?

Saturday, July 24, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

If you live in or near one of several metropolitan areas, for the past few weeks it has been hard to avoid news of the arrests of ten Russian spies.

To those of us who grew up cutting our teeth on James Bond and John le Carre novels, the news reports sound like deja vu all over again. Haven't we heard all of this before–like, forty years ago? The carefully (or maybe not so carefully) crafted false identities, the spy paraphernalia (invisible ink, for heaven's sake!), the scheduled info drops–it all sounds very familiar, not to mention dated. I mean, Ian Fleming's Russia is not today's Russia. A lot of things have happened in that country, and a lot of things about American-Russian relations have also changed.

The whole thing was finally put in perspective by an article in last week's Boston Globe that actually had me giggling (Brian MacQuarrie's piece titled "Light on plot, spy story still intrigues"). What makes it delightful is that MacQuarrie interviewed a clutch of "spy novelists" for their assessment of this real-world story. And the general response from them was, huh?
One said, "why now?" Basically the embedded Russians were leading very ordinary lives and had little access to anything resembling a state secret or even sensitive information. They didn't do anything any one of us couldn't do.

Another asked, "what was the hurry?" They'd been in place for years. One possibility is that US counter-espionage thought that maybe the Russians were about to pack up and go home. Because they were bored? Or someone had finally realized they were useless? If they had left, or had been called back by spy-masters tired of trivial results, they would have been of no use to the US, so why arrest them now? One theory holds that we were saving them for a special occasion: we wanted to swap them for someone valuable to us.
It turns out that US agencies had been aware of them and watching them for quite a while (thank goodness we don't look like total bumbling idiots). We'd had cameras trained on at least one household for years. Don't you wonder where all those recordings go, and who actually looks at them?

Another author that MacQuarrie interviewed suggested it might make a better story if the spies we knew about were only decoys, masking something much more nefarious. Now that we've gotten rid of them, we can be careless and complacent again, and the "real" spies will take advantage of that.
It really makes you wonder. We grew up with the concept of the Evil Empire (thank you, Ronald Reagan), the Iron Curtain. For years the Russians were the designated bad guys. I had friends in grade school who were seriously traumatized by the idea that the Russians were ready to drop a bomb on us at any minute, and actually lost sleep over it. Remember air raid drills? Like hiding under a wooden desk would protect us from nuclear attack. But watching Nikita Khrushchev pound his shoe on a table did not make us feel any more confident in the rationality of our so-called enemy. At the same time we competed with them for space in space, for bigger and more weapons. Looking back, it was kind of nice to have only one bogeyman to focus on, rather than trying to deal with vague threats on several fronts at once. It was a simpler era.
Maybe that's why this story has such legs. First, it taps into all those fears we internalized as children. Second, we have trouble believing that our former arch-enemies could be so bumbling, so there must be more to the whole thing. Or maybe we have trouble rationalizing our fears in the face of a less-than-brilliant opponent.

Thrillers are a popular genre, which suggests that readers actually like to be frightened, at least within a controlled environment (and a medium they can put down and walk away from at will). Maybe we're disappointed when the real-world scenario is so much less convincing than the fictional ones.
If you were writing this spy story, couldn't you do it better?
NB. One of the damning pieces of evidence found at the residence of a spy family was a Coke can with a false bottom. I have a deodorant can with a false bottom; it was a gift, and was intended to hide jewelry while traveling. Does that make me a spy? I could probably cobble together some invisible ink, if I tried. And I have one of those cute little Minox cameras (it was my grandmother's–was she a spy too?). Perhaps I'm not who I seem to be...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Noel Neill, the REAL Lois Lane

By Lonnie Cruse

During the recent Superman Celebration, actress Noel Neill was, at long last, honored for her performance as Lois Lane in the original Superman television series. And she was honored for the wonderful lady she is. For many years, Neill has traveled to Metropolis, Illinois, from her home way out west in order to celebrate with us, meet fans, show her DVD's of the old show (colorized version, love watching!) and generally help put us on the map. Now in her eighties, Neill is as lovely as she was when she first played Lois, if a bit older. She is also one of the most gracious ladies I've ever been privileged to meet.

The statue of Neill as Lois Lane has been in the planning for several years, so much so that I worried that it wouldn't be unveiled while she was still able to come here and see it. Neill deserves this honor and I'm delighted she was here to unveil the statue. I bought a brick with my grandsons' names on it, and it's one of many that now surround her new statue. Congratulations, Noel, YOU DESERVE THIS!

I've blogged about the annual Superman Celebration before, but you really gotta come see it to believe it. Market street, where the fifteen-foot tall statue of Superman resides, is blocked off for that entire weekend each year while hundreds of superhero fans roam through the vendor tents dressed as the hero of their choice.
There are activities for folks of all ages, trivia contests, best costume contest, pageants (my grandson won Little Mr. Superman several years ago and was later honored in the Christmas parade) county fair type rides, hot dogs, funnel cakes, you name it, we got it. Tons of fun for superhero fans. And generally a celebrity associated with one of the many superhero movies/television shows comes to mix, mingle, and sign autographs. I've been fortunate to sign autographs some years with the other authors and to sell a sizable amount of books. I've met new readers that way and recently had lunch with two couples who've been reading my books for years. (picture below) Yep, it's a great celebration.

Sooo, what are you doing the second weekend of June, 2011? Why not join us to celebrate Superman and all the other superheros? PLEASE, don't forget to bring your superhero trivia knowledge and your all-important tights! Oh, and your cape, of course!!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Turning life into fiction: how much do you change?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Mystery writers are constantly challenged to do a balancing act between life and fiction. We tell lies for a living, otherwise known as making stuff up. Yet we have to get all our supporting facts right. If we put a street or building in the wrong place in a real-life town or give blood, guns, or poison properties it doesn’t have, our readers scold us via email. They may even throw our books across the room.

It’s not as if we sit down and decide in advance every detail that we’re going to use. A lot of what happens in a mystery gets thought up in the heat of the moment. In fact, depending on how you think about the art of fiction, that moment could be said to take place in the author’s brain or in the character’s reaction to what’s happening in his or her world. Some of the “facts” are emotional. Say, my character’s daughter is kidnapped. I’ve never had that experience, but I can remember how it felt the time my son got lost for twenty minutes at the beach. I intuitively draw on that memory in describing how my fictional parent feels: panicky and ridden with guilt.

We all know about the standard disclaimer: all characters and events in a novel are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people is coincidental. Yeah, right. Or better, yes and no. There’s a character in my series (no, not the protagonist) who bears more than a passing resemblance to my husband. He says I stole all his one-liners, which is not quite true. He’s got some left, and I made up plenty of the snappy cracks in the books myself. But I knew people might think my character “is” my husband. So I deliberately changed a fundamental trait. I made my character very, very sweet instead of a curmudgeon.

In my short story, “The Silkie,” I made my first foray into the paranormal. In this case, I had to transform not reality but fantasy to make it my own. I didn’t make up the concept of the silkie. It’s a Celtic legend. But the legend doesn’t put the silkie in a seaside town with a boardwalk and amusement park or make the creature a serial killer. I can’t tell you why or how this twist occurred to me. But I did it, and voilà—instant noir. I also made the victims (composites, not based on anyone I know) as real as real can be. That contrast, come to think of it, is the core of the genre we call urban fantasy.

What we change and how much we transform it can depend on a variety of needs, both technical and literary. Besides writing fiction, I’m a poet and songwriter. I’m a New Yorker, and when 911 happened, I wrote a song about it immediately. It helped me deal with how I felt. And I wanted the stories it told to touch people, just as I do when I write fiction or poetry.

Part of the aftermath of the attack was a remarkable openness and connection among the people in New York. We all heard each other’s stories, and my song told a few of them: the young couple who’d only been married a year, the woman who grieved for her grandmother’s quilt that she’d left in the office, why my own son didn’t go to work that day. Some I made up and tried to make ring true, like any story I write: the old man who lost his daughter, the young boy who lost his father. And one, something I experienced myself, I transformed for the sake of rhyme and scansion.

Harry’s older brother’s gone, his mom is barely hanging on
He cries as we stand patiently in line
The lady right in front of me, she pats his hand and says, “If we
Could only love each other all the time.”

Was his name really Harry? I have no idea. Were we really standing on line? No, we were in the subway, and the lady was sitting next to me. That’s fiction, but the essence of the story was true. Listen to Two Tall Towers and see if you can tell the difference. I hope you can’t.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time flies...or a series

Sandra Parshall

How old is your favorite series character? What year does she/he live in?

I won’t be surprised if those questions
have you stumped.

Sometimes I think even the authors are a little vague about these details. The question of how to – or whether to – age a protagonist over the course of a series is one that a lot of writers wrestle with. That problem goes hand in hand with the dilemma of passing time.

A year or more usually goes by between publication of books in a series. A year has passed in the lives of writer and readers. But has a year passed in the characters’ lives? Or have they cruised out of one dangerous mess and right into the next? Sue Grafton took the latter route, with the result that her Kinsey Milhone is still living in the 1980s, when the first books in the series were published.

If we want our characters to move ahead in real time, that means we have to
address their ages. Or do we? Janet Evanovich thinks not. She has declared that Stephanie Plum will be 31 forever. Ed McBain published his first 87th Precinct novel in 1956 and the last one in 2005, but although the times changed in the stories, Carella, Hawes, Meyer, Kling and the rest of the gang stayed on the job at pretty much the same ages. If sales are the best indication, I’d say readers didn’t mind at all.

It’s easy enough to pin down the year if the books are historical and make use of actual events, but those of us who set our stories in “the present” often avoid naming a specific year because we’re afraid future readers will feel they’re reading old news. So the actual year may be kept vague, and we walk a fine line between sounding current and sounding dated. Slang and technology are our banes. In this fickle society, what’s in today may be out and forgotten by the time the book is published.

We also have to be careful about dropping real national and international events into our stories. Many series characters live in a little bubble, as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Sometimes, though, an event changes the world so profoundly that we can’t entirely ignore it in fiction. The multiple-front terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, doesn’t have to be mentioned by name, but we must acknowledge the hassle our characters now face when they travel – no last-minute dashes to airline counters for tickets, followed by quick boardings – and the security cameras and metal detectors in many public buildings.

If the development of a romantic relationship is a major part of a series, the writer has no choice but to slow things down. Readers want the details, they want to share the experience. They don’t want to suddenly jump ahead a year and discover the hero and heroine are now an old married couple with a baby. Deborah Crombie has handled her characters especially well, letting Duncan and Gemma fall in love and create a life together in more or less real time. Their constant involvement in crime is believable because they're police detectives. With amateur detectives, slowing down the personal life leads to a variation of Cabot Cove Syndrome on the crime front: why is this woman falling over a dead body every three weeks?

I’ve faced all these problems (except the marriage and baby) in my Rachel
Goddard books.

I didn’t write The Heat of the Moon with the thought that it would be first in a series. The story took possession of my heart and imagination, and all I thought about was following Rachel through her journey of discovery. Selling it took several years. Then I discovered that, whether I had intended to or not, I was writing a series. The Heat of the Moon has one reference in it that firmly sets the story in a particular year, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d killed that darling. I’ve had to be vague about years and ages in the subsequent books, although when people ask how much fictional time passed between the first and second, I always say about three years. Then they ask why I didn’t write a book (or two) about those years in Rachel’s life. You can see the kind of trouble writers create for themselves when they’re too specific.

Do you think about the passage of time when you read a series? Does it bother you if you don’t know a character’s exact age? Which writers do you think have handled these issues especially well?

And all of you writers out there -- How are you handling your characters' ages and the passage of time in your books? Why did you decide to do it that way?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Sharon Wildwind

Okay, so . . .

An incredibly handsome prince asked me to fly to Paris with him for lunch in Paris. We were just being served our Brittany blue lobster with curried cucumber and coconut milk at Le Bristol, when I slapped my forehead and said, “Mon Dieu, it’s Tuesday and I haven’t written a blog!”

UM . . .

One of out stuffed animals tried bull riding at the Calgary Stampede and got the stuffing knocked out of him. We were up all night at the stuffed animal hospital waiting for the stufferinarian to put him back together and by the time we got home at 4:00 AM, I fell into bed and forgot the blog.

How about . . .

Aliens have landed in the commons area and, as I write this one-handed, I’m fighting them off with a ray gun with the other hand?

Basically . . .

I forgot today was Tuesday. So there is no blog. Read a book instead, play with your children, go out for a lovely lunch on a patio somewhere.

You and I will reconvene here next week. Have a good week off.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Computers Rate Writing Style?

by Julia Buckley

I've noticed that many bloggers have experimented with the new web innovation, I Write Like.

I first played with it while reading Peter Rozovsky's blog. He had tried putting some of his own writing into this "statistical analysis tool, which analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them with those of the famous writers," according to the description on the I WRITE LIKE page.

So of course I had to give this a try. I put in some text from my first novel. I got:

I write like
Stephen King

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I tried again, with something I'd written in an entirely different tone, and I got this:

I write like
Stephen King

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I took my work in progress and put in the first chapter. The result was this:

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Concerned that I only seem to have things in common with male writers (not that I don't admire King and Wallace), I tried again with text from a yet different novel. The result was this:

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Okay, I thought. One last try. Let's see if I have anything in common with Dorothy L. Sayers or Margaret Atwood or someone. I put in another WIP:

I write like
William Gibson

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Okay, I get it. According to this web program, there is a certain male style to my writing. I'm certainly flattered, because if I Write Like wants to put me in the leagues of the poetic Joyce and the bestselling King, not to mention the talented Gibson and the seemingly inimitable Wallace, I'll take it.

Then my son wandered into the room; he wanted to see what his fourth grade crocodile report would elicit. I put in some of the text, and guess what? My son also wrote like David Foster Wallace, even though he wasn't discussing much more than the length and color of the average crocodile. :)

What's fascinating about this site, though (and ALL the conversation about it on websites, blogs and yahoo groups), is that even when people realize there's nothing scientific about it, and that it doesn't guarantee anything (like that you really have Shakespeare's talent and artistry even if it says you write like he did), people still want to try it--and try it again.

The success of the game (and it really is a game) is that people want to keep playing it.

Including me. So yes, now that I've found I Write Like, I think I'll peek in with new text once in a while, just to see what it says. Supposedly the young Russian creator will be adding many more authors now that his program has gone viral (he started with 50 authors).

To whose work does I Write Like compare your writing?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Canada Calling Takes a Summer Hiatus

Sharon Wildwind

Summertime and the living is anything buy easy in Calgary.

We got the Calgary Stampede: 10 days of western antics and artery-clogging food. Fried dill pickles, anyone?

We got tornado warnings, fortunately downgraded to watches this afternoon. We are still watching the sky.

We got people, including yours truly, taking some time off. So to tide you over until Canada Calling returns next month, here are the 2010 Arthur Ellis award winners—the best of the best in Canadian crime writing. Add them to your summer reading list.

• Howard Shrier for Best Novel (High Chicago)

• Alan Bradley for Best First Novel (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)

• Barbara Haworth-Attard for Best Juvenile (Haunted)

• Terry Gould for Best Non-Fiction (Murder Without Borders)

• Dennis Richard Murphy for Best Short Story (Prisoner in Paradise)

• Jean Lemieux for Best Crime Writing in French (Le mort du chemin des Arsenes)

• Gloria Ferris for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel (The Corpse Flower): you’re going to have to wait for this one, but I hope it will be published soon.

And if that isn’t enough to keep you busy, Crime Writers of Canada has a sparkling new web site. Come and take a look at it.

See you next month.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Celebrating the release of my latest book! Virtual cake, anyone?

By Lonnie Cruse

This weekend my latest mystery book, FIFTY-SEVEN TRAVELING featuring Kitty and Jack Bloodworth and their trophy winning '57 Chevy, Sadie, debuts from Five Star Publishing. Yipieeeeee! It's been a long road to this weekend. I turned in the manuscript early in 2008, but there were company transitions, edits, this 'n that to be done, so the book had to be delay-scheduled for July 2010. Long as it comes out, I'm happy.

I enjoyed writing this book because it's set in Pigeon Forge, TN, and I have very much enjoyed spending time researching there, in the Smoky Mountains. I used sights and sounds from several trips to write this book, places we saw, people we met, etc. Writing about it was like being there again.

I guess that's why I can't write thrillers, particularly from the point-of-view of the killer. I don't want to spend time there. Inside that person's head. Too dark. I do enjoy writing about Kitty and her hubby, spending time with them. I enjoy spending time in the settings of the books. I enjoy the process of writing . . . well, at least when I'm not obsessing at the end of chapter one as to how I'm going to fill the next two hundred more pages. Sigh.

Writing is tough. Getting published is tougher. This is not a business for sissies. Yet, I frequently encourage others to write, whether a full-scale novel, or a daily journal of thoughts that might or might not ever see the light of day or be run through a printing machine. Because writing gets our thoughts and feelings out. It clarifys them. It helps us deal with stuff we might not otherwise be able to deal with. It's cleansing? Whatever you want to call it.

Sooo, you want to write a novel? Go for it. What do you have to lose beyond the time it takes and possibly/probably your mind? Sit down and start typing/writing. See what happens.

Meanwhile, FIFTY-SEVEN TRAVELING will soon be available at your local library (or you can request they get it and I'll owe you BIG time) or at Amazon or the usual book stores (might have to order it from them, and again, I'll owe you.) In this book, Kitty and Jack are on their way to Pigeon Forge to an annual car show, and hopefully to find Kitty's (dare I say, and mine also?) dream car, to restore for her to drive. I'm drooling all over my keyboard just thinking about that car. Where was I? Oh, yeah, the book. Kitty and Jack find the right car, but do they find the wrong stranger somewhere along the way? Someone not afraid to kill?
One big difference to this book (which caught hubby and maybe others too by surprise) is that I wasn't able to drop a dead body on the first page or even in the first chapter. Kitty and Jack are in a new area where they don't know anyone except the other car club members. I had to get them acquainted with various people, to mix and mingle, before I could bump anyone off. It was a bit of a challenge as I'm used to dumping the body first and dealing with the details later. I hope you'll grab a copy from wherever you can and I hope you'll enjoy it!

As always, thanks for stopping by. We appreciate each and every one of you! Happy reading!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Elizabeth Zelvin

According to many fiction writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” is the most frequently asked question from readers, friends, and family (three groups that are not necessarily identical, although overlap can exist in a number of permutations). Although some writers consider it naïve and others downright annoying, I think it’s a legitimate question. And it’s not annoying at all compared to the corollary non-question, “I have a great idea for a novel—all you have to do is write it.” Non-writers are sometimes naïve about the creative process, as they have a right to be. There’s no reason not to be kind and respectful when explaining that it doesn’t work that way.

There are plenty of tougher parts of writing than getting the idea, starting with placing butt in chair and producing one or two thousand words a day for months on end. Then there’s subjecting your creative darlings to critique and throwing out cherished passages to turn a first draft into a publishable manuscript; the months and years it takes to get an editor or agent; and the public flaying represented by reviews, when you make yourself completely vulnerable to the judgment of strangers who may not like your work and feel completely uninhibited about saying so, sometimes in unflattering or caustic terms. But this doesn’t mean that coming up with ideas suitable for development as fiction is easy.

I know some fiction writers who have been telling stories to themselves—and/or their dolls, their friends, their children—all their lives. When they finish one manuscript, they’re on to the next as a matter of course. They can afford to let one idea go if it doesn’t work out, because there’s always another. This gift is especially useful to unpublished writers. It’s also good for the authors of short stories or extended series. If one manuscript or series doesn’t fly, there are more where that came from. Which brings us back to the initial question.

On one level, the “where” of ideas for fiction is self-evident: stories take shape within the writer’s head. But not every writer finds the material for what goes into the cerebral pressure cooker in the same place or by the same process. It’s become a commonplace that the themes of political, legal, and medical thrillers are “ripped from the headlines.” Some mystery (vs thriller) writers, too, peruse the news, even clip (or print) and file intriguing snippets that might work in a whodunit. I can’t believe somebody isn’t going to grab the recent real life drama of the professor who not only opened fire on her colleagues after being denied tenure, but is now being prosecuted for the murder of her brother years ago. (As mystery lovers know, there’s no statute of limitations on murder.)

I’m one of those who’s not a ripper or a clipper. My creative spark is more likely to be kindled by something in my own experience—not necessarily what I’ve lived through myself (with that limitation, I wouldn’t write about murder), but something within my personal or professional orbit. A number of years ago, I spent time in an extended workshop setting with a group of songwriters. When I told them that I was a psychotherapist who had directed drug and alcohol programs, one of them said, “You must have a thousand stories.” And so I do.

Not all those stories, however, are suitable to be turned into fiction. I drew heavily on that particular material for my series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his addicted and codependent friends. When I started writing short stories, the first few tapped that same vein. But then I started to find different voices inside myself. Diego, the young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage in “The Green Cross” (in the current issue of EQMM), literally started talking to me and pounding on the inside of my head. I knew what everybody knows about Columbus. I went online and read just enough from the journal of his first voyage to write the story. (As I’ve done more research, writing further about these characters has become more challenging.) I’d read enough historical fiction to know in a general way how the voice of a 15th-century character would differ from Bruce’s thoroughly modern, sardonic New York voice. And I know how it feels to be Jewish in a Christian society. But how did I get the idea of combining these elements into a short story? Don’t ask me—ask Diego. He’s the one who woke me up in the middle of the night demanding to be heard.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Oh brother, oh sister

Sandra Parshall

Troublesome siblings are everywhere in
crime fiction. Evil twins, bad-boy brothers, sisters who have shamed the family. Sibling problems drive the plots of a lot of mysteries and thrillers.

Since 82% of Americans have siblings, and some degree of rivalry is the rule rather than the exception, it’s not surprising that this is such rich soil for writers – or that brother/sister problems strike a chord with readers.

My first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, has inspired a lot of readers to confide very personal things about their own lives. It’s a heady experience to
have someone tell me, “I never really understood my relationship with my sister until I read your book.” My character Rachel’s ambivalent feelings toward her younger sister, Michelle, who is clearly their mother’s favorite, seem authentic to readers, and I’m always glad to hear that I “got it right” even though I was just trying to tell a good story, not lay bare the psyches of strangers.

Rachel’s sister is an angel compared to some fictional siblings. Cops in novels may be burdened with bad-seed brothers or sisters they’d like to keep secret. For example, in Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, her cop heroine dreads the collision of her professional duty with her shady brother’s illegal business. It’s only a small part of the story, but anyone who has ever cringed at a sibling’s misdeeds can relate.

Lisa Scottoline’s protagonist, attorney Bennie Rosato, is plagued by an evil twin who has burst into her life and wreaked havoc in two books, Mistaken Identity and Dead Ringer. This is sibling rivalry to the nth degree: Bennie’s twin wants her disgraced and dead.

The previously unknown sibling has also been used in a lot of novels. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s medical examiner, Dr. Maura Isles, didn’t know she had an identical twin until she found her mirror image sitting dead in a car outside her house at the beginning of Body Double.

Gerritsen’s Detective Jane Rizzoli has a less dramatic but painfully believable sibling problem. Her mother dotes on Jane’s worthless brother, while constantly finding fault with Jane and discounting her professional achievements. Only when Jane marries and produces a baby does her mother feel she has accomplished something admirable.

True, some protagonists have great sibs, untainted by competition for their parents’ love. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is close to her sister. Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott has almost a dozen brothers and adores them all. Others confide in siblings or even solve crimes with them. Conflict is more common, though, and often more realistic.

Developmental psychologists have observed that sibling rivalry starts as early as the first year of life. Even at that age, a kid can tell if he’s getting the smallest servings of mom’s attention and affection, or if he’s somehow being treated as special, more loved and admired than other children in the family. A child incorporates those differences, whether favorable or unfavorable, into his view of himself.

These early influences can make us stronger and prepare us to live in the wider world – or they can establish a pattern of juvenile rivalry that will last a lifetime. Many siblings forgive and forget and become friends as they grow up, but some remain competitive forever. How many middle-aged sisters do you know who argue over which will inherit some treasured possession from their mother? How many middle-aged brothers do you know who constantly try to outdo each other professionally and personally? How many adults, with children of their own, still dread family holiday gatherings because they know they’ll end up reenacting old rivalries and competing for their parents’ approval?

Is it any wonder that so many real-life murders are committed by relatives of the victims? And that toxic families are at the heart of so many crime novels?

Do you have a favorite “toxic family” mystery? Or a story of real-life sibling rivalry you can share?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Sharon Wildwind

I thought I’d stay close to home this week and blog about blogging.

The blogging tide may have turned. Lone bloggers are either joining group blogs (like this one) or morphing into Facebook, Twitter, or other social sites. In the past month half a dozen on-line interest groups that I follow have instituted or arguing about instituting a no-blog-promotion policy. And indeed, at least two of these sites have turned into less than 20% useful information and over 80%, “come visit my blog” messages.

The problem with blogs is that they are too insular. Even if by some chance 10 writers decided to blog on the same topic on the same day—a statistical certainty given the number of blogs out there—and I happened to be following all 10—low statistical probability given the number of blogs out there and the amount of time to read blogs in a given day—there’s no mechanism for connecting separate comments into a single meaningful discussion.

Even if I Google one blog topic, say writing query letters, that generates over 900,000 possible sites. It doesn’t separate out query letters for non-fiction and poetry versus those for fiction and, within fiction, wouldn’t tell me which were query letters for short stories versus those for longer works. It would also give me no clue about the quality of the recommendations in a given blog.

Most important, Google entries are ranked according to popularity. Those blogs which had had a lot of hits would be listed in the top ten, and the particular blog I would find most helpful might be down at number 803,221. There’s no way I’m going to scroll through over eight hundred thousand blog entries to find the one that meets my needs.

Scientists faced a similar problem several years ago. The amount of available research data and the number of research projects world-wide had grown far beyond using conferences and peer-review journals to distribute findings within in the scientific community.

The Liebel-Lab at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany developed a pilot project called Sciencenet, which makes raw research data available to other scientists. The goal of this and other Peer2Peer projects is first to give scientists a reliable way to share data and help them connect with one another.

We're drowning in information and starving for knowledge.
~Rutherford D. Rodgers, librarian, Yale University

Amen, Doctor Rogers. What we need to do as writers is spend less time writing isolated postings and more time coming together as a community for discussion and problem-solving.

So if a new writer asked me if she should start a blog, my answer today would be "no." What I'd suggest that she do instead is join an established Internet group and contribute what she would have written in her blog into the general discussion. We need more cohesion, not more fragmentation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Interesting Things I Learned While Researching Other Things

by Julia Buckley

The Internet is an amazing place. It reminds me of those stores you can wander into, looking for one item, and then become distracted by endless other items which fascinate for various reasons. And of course you spend more money than you intended to spend.

As I wandered through the amazing information store that is the Internet, doing research for a recent project, I ended up learning some interesting things and taking them away with me (but at least these tidbits were free).

1. On the CIA Website, students interested in a career in the CIA can find ways to become involved early, with internships available to "the best and brightest." I was also pleased to note that the CIA tells students up front that they need excellent writing and communication skills (foreign language is even better), and that they have to be free of drug or alcohol habits.

I'm glad that young people who might think the CIA seems glamorous as a career choice might also realize that agents are held to rigorous standards.

2. The FBI Website offers up the ol' "Ten Most Wanted" list, and Osama bin Laden (they spell it "Usama") is in the SECOND position. Ahead of him is Eduardo Ravello, a notorious drug trafficker. Interesting that one would precede the other.

3. All of the people on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list are men.

4. Of the 500 "historical" most wanted, twelve are women.

5. Of their "Most Wanted Terrorists," all are men of Middle Eastern descent, except for Daniel Andreas San Diego, who is from Berkeley, California.

6. Information about the Most Wanted fugitives is available in many languages.

7. On the NSA Website, I learned that the NSA was named Employer of the Year by BWI Business Partnership, "an association that focuses on economic development and transportation issues in the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

8. The first part of the NSA's strategic plan is "to dominate global cryptology."

9. The NSA provides explanations of common terms and acronyms. So, for my last note, I'll ask if you know what some of them stand for!

10. Can you identify these NSA acronyms?


How did you do? I knew none of them. I'll post the answers at 5:00 Central Time today!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Honey, I came up with a new way to kill somebody!

By Avery Aames, guest blogger

Avery is giving away two autographed copies of her first mystery, The Long Quiche Goodbye. Leave a comment (with an e-mail address where we can reach you) to enter the drawing!

Oh, the joy of being a mystery writer. Mystery writers know the world is a dark and scary place. It doesn’t matter if we’re writing cozies, noir, or police procedurals, we believe there are evil people in the world ready to do evil things. “Normal” evil people. Next door neighbors. Favorite teachers. Spouses. Agatha Christie said, “Every murderer is probably somebody's old friend.”

Because I write mysteries and thrillers, I get to figure out how to kill somebody. My husband isn’t very pleased with this aspect of my work. Invariably, right before bed, I’ll say, “Honey, I came up with a new way to kill somebody.” Of course, my husband sits up in bed, props a pair of toothpicks between his eyelids, and bravely tells me to share. He doesn’t really want to know how my warped mind thinks, but he wants to make sure he’s not on my radar.

My latest pre-sleep chat with my husband included a briefing about what Lucy the Poison Lady (a regular speaker at Malice Domestic Conference) shared regarding arsenic poisoning. My husband called me nuts and opened a book, but I could tell he was thinking about the stew and cheese biscuits he’d just eaten and he was wondering if he’d detected the flavor of blackberry wine.

I then proceeded to tell my husband how a person could create the perfect alibi. “I’m not really sure this would work,” I said. “But what if, using instant redial, the killer were to continually call the victim before the victim returned home from work? While the phone was ringing, the killer would race to the house, meet the victim upon his arrival home, kill the victim, answer the phone (thus talking to himself), and then return to the safety of his home. He establishes he was at his own home talking to the victim at the time of death. Voila. (This works best if it’s a neighbor, of course.)”

My husband groaned, set aside the book, switched off the light, and plopped back on his pillow. Inwardly I giggled. I knew he wouldn’t sleep a wink.

Do you ever think up ways to kill someone? A rare poison? An icicle to the heart? The icicle would melt, of course, leaving no evidence. [One of my all-time favorite TV episodes is an Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which a woman uses a frozen leg of lamb to kill her husband. She then cooks the lamb and serves it to the officers who arrive to investigate. Brilliant.] Do you believe you could go through with the deed? Do you know anybody who could? What does it take to commit murder? Anger, desperation, an inciter, in icy heart?

Share your stories, your theories. Leave a comment. If you do, you might be one of two who will receive autographed copies of “The Long Quiche Goodbye.”

Avery Aames writes the Cheese Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. The first in the series, The Long Quiche Goodbye, debuted July 6.

For more information, Avery can be found on her website at, on Facebook, Twitter, and on two blogs: and She also has a booksellers page where you can purchase her book from any of your favorite bookstores:

Friday, July 9, 2010

The year is half gone???

By Lonnie Cruse

Seems like I just took the Christmas tree down, and it's nearly time to put it back up. Okay, I hear you groaning. Yes, I put it up early in November and take it down whenever I get to it in January. I like a loooong Christmas season. Where was I? Time. It flies.

The year is half over and each day screams by faster than the last (unless you are still in elementary or high school, right?) As my hubby says, we must be having an awful lot of fun, given how fast time flies, now. So, where are you, in your life? Where you want to be? Where you should be? Where you were meant to be? Or stuck somewhere you think you can't climb out of?

Several years ago I heard someone say that it was a good idea for people to take stock of their lives every now and then. To ask ourselves: Where do I want to be in a year? In five years? In ten years? (That is, of course, assuming I'd still be here!) I took a good hard look at the job I was doing back then (this was the mid-90's, mind you) and realized I most certainly did NOT want to be in that job (driving a small school bus for adult ed students and doing secretarial work between runs) in a year or five years. I DO realize this is a different day and time, jobs are extremely scarce, etc, but work with me here.

I was able to transfer my college credits from Nevada to Illinois, take more classes, get a certificate to be a teacher's aide (which job I did want to do, love working with kids) and I went for it. I also wanted to be a writer, so I took classes online for that, began working on a manuscript, and doing whatever I had to do to learn how to become published.

Even in these very tough economic times, it is often possible to realize our dreams. To change direction in our lives. It won't be easy. It might require getting up before the sun or staying up late in order to take required classes that point us in that new direction or learn a new trade/talent. It might require tightening a belt, giving up some activities, working harder, whatever, but if we have a dream, shouldn't we at least take a shot at it? If we miss, at least we know we tried?

Time is indeed flying by. So ask yourself. Where do YOU want to be next year at this time, in your life? In five years? In ten? Are you working toward it, or simply dreaming about it? Because if we are all still alive, next year WILL come to us, whether we plan for it or not. Where do we want to be when it arrives?

You'll have to excuse me now. I need to go plug in the tree lights and see if they still twinkle. Or possibly dust off the artificial branches. Maybe start Christmas shopping? Okay, okay, it's only July, but November will be here before we know it. Won't it?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing Short

Elizabeth Zelvin

“I wish I could write short. I can't. It takes a lot of creativity, dedication and diligence to write short, concise and interesting. It is truly an art form.”

When I saw this comment from writer Melissa Emerald on one of my mystery e-lists, my first thought was, “It’s easy. All you have to do is limit your story to one murder, three suspects, and one twist.” But of course there’s a lot more to it.

The reason I don’t accept any fiction writer’s claim that he or she “can’t write short” is that I neither read nor wrote short stories until four years ago, although I’m a lifelong writer and an avid reader of fiction. I was surprised to find how spacious 3,000 words could be, happy when the story was accepted in my local Sisters in Crime chapter’s anthology, and thrilled when it was nominated for an Agatha. So I was very, very motivated to try another short. Four years later, I have fallen in love with the form. The ratio of inspiration to agony is better, it’s more marketable (at the reward level if not at the making-a-living level), and a short story doesn’t take a year of your life and break your heart. As you probably can tell, I’m not one of those novelists whose blithe fingers twinkle as they dance their way through the first draft.

So can short story writing be taught to a writer who thinks she “can’t write short”? Let’s look at some of the basic elements of fiction or storytelling: structure, characterization, and pace.

I was kidding when I said, “It’s easy.” But the rule of one murder, three suspects, and one twist was actually how I wrote at least a couple of my short stories about my series protagonist, Bruce Kohler, though I hadn’t formulated it at the time. The basic structure of a murder mystery is simple: crime, investigation, and climax and resolution. In practice, most novelists struggle to avoid the proverbial “sagging middle.” To spin out their story to the minimum required length of 70,000 words, they use a number of devices: subplots, additional crimes, multiple points of view, extended dialogue, extended narrative such as description of the setting, backstory, and action scenes involving personal danger to the protagonist. To write short, leave those out. And don’t leave out that crucial twist or punch line at the end. It’s like the confrontation followed by slow unraveling in a novel, only a lot shorter.

Here, I’d suggest the opposite of what you do with structure. Don’t skimp on characterization. Show, don’t tell. Leave out any traits extraneous to the particular story, or if they’re central to the character, sketch them in quickly. For example, Bruce is a recovering alcoholic. In one story, that’s crucial to his solving of the murder. In another, it’s not, but we pick it up from a few sardonic references in Bruce’s distinctive voice. Voice, by the way, is as essential to the short story as it is to the novel, maybe more. It needs to grab the reader from the very first line.

The key to pace in a short story is something else that the novelist already knows: Kill your darlings. Leave out the backstory. Avoid lush descriptive passages and blow by blow descriptions of the protagonist’s daily life, including 99 percent of the details you’ve painstakingly researched. If you can’t refrain in the initial draft, cut them when you revise. All this is true for writing novels too, except in a novel there’s more elaboration: complexities of plot, more characters and relationships, sometimes diversity of point of view.

So what’s left? The bare bones of a good short story: characters that spring off the page, a briefly but vividly sketched setting, lively dialogue, the story itself, which can be simple or concise but twisty, and that satisfying whammy at the end. If you’ve done it well, those bones are meaty after all.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Lonely Planet

Sandra Parshall

Who among us has never looked into the star-strewn night sky and wondered: Are we alone?

Our own little world is more and more crowded, and we can’t get along with each other, yet something in us looks outward and yearns to discover that Earth isn’t the only planet in the vast universe that has ever given rise to intelligent life.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the
first effort to detect communications from alien societies: in 1960, Dr. Frank Drake turned a radio telescope toward a nearby star called Tau Ceti and began listening for a transmission that would indicate a deliberate effort to make contact. This year is also the 25th anniversary of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a private enterprise that monitors radio signals from space using the Allen Telescope Array in California. Other researchers at NASA and around the world have also scanned the skies for “organized” signals that might come from intelligent beings.

So far, they’ve heard nothing. But they’re not discouraged, because they know that humans have barely crossed the threshold into the technological age and scientists simply may not have the right instruments yet to detect the signals they’re listening for.

Astronomers have to date found 30,000 sun-like stars in our galaxy, and identified more than 450 planets orbiting those stars. With increasingly sophisticated technology, scientists will continue to discover planets beyond our
solar system and gather data about distant worlds that might harbor life.

What that life will be like is the great mystery. Dr. Carl Sagan, who believed the universe is teeming with biological beings, was fond of saying that extra-terrestrials were probably no more like humans than a petunia is. But a lot of us can't accept the idea of such bewildering differences. When we imagine creatures from outer space, they are usually bi-peds like us, walking erect. Their bodies have a basically human configuration, although we may depict them as giants o
r – like the lovable ET – dwarfs, and drape them in weird skins to denote their otherness.

Star Trek, on TV and in films, populated the galaxy with humanoids who were basically like us except for a few inoffensive changes to their faces and ears. Old science fiction movies presented aliens that were terrifying precisely because they looked like us but regarded us as nuisances that had to be eliminated or, worse, wanted to eat us. When movie-makers want to create aliens that humans will hate on sight, they tend to make them erect giant lizards, with claw-like hands. (I always wonder how an ET society could fashion delicate, advanced instruments when they have no manual dexterity to speak of.) The 2009 film District 9 took the repulsive aliens concept to a different level by making us understand them and sympathize with them as intelligent beings who loved their children and simply wanted to go home but were treated as dangerous animals by humans. The movie’s South African setting went a long way toward making us side with the aliens. They were disgusting to look at, but we bristled at government officials calling them “prawns” and forcing them to live in conditions not fit for pigs. (It's a great film. Rent it. Watch it. Think about it and discuss it.)

We shouldn’t take too sympathetic an attitude toward aliens, though, some scientists warn. Many think we should avoid alerting them to our existence and location. We don’t have the capability of reaching their home planets, but they might be able to get to ours. A 2006 editorial in the esteemed journal Nature stated, “It is not obvious that all extra-terrestrial civilizations will be benign, or that contact with even a benign one would not have serious repercussions.”

These concerns were raised in 1972, when Carl Sagan’s famous diagram of Earth’s location and renderings of a naked pair of humans went into space on Pioneer 10, and again in 1977 when recordings of human voices and sounds from nature, also assembled by Sagan, were included on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. It’s unlikely that an alien society will come across these tiny crafts (and how would they play the recording even if they found it?), but Pioneer and Voyager will wander interstellar space forever, far beyond our control, and anything is possible.

Dr. Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, seems confident that other intelligent beings are out there, but he has long believed it’s best if we “lay low” and not respond if we ever pick up a signal from aliens. Why? Because they might turn out to be a lot like us. His latest statement on the subject came in a Discovery Channel program called Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking that aired last spring. He warned that aliens may be trolling the universe for resources to replace what they’re running out of at home. “Like us,” Hawking said, “they probably would have evolved from a species used to exploiting whatever it can.”

The optimists at SETI continue monitoring space for messages and have solicited suggestions from the public about how humanity should respond if we get a howdy from aliens. Proposals range from the dull and serious – send them the periodic table in binary numbers (that would keep them away, don’t you think?) – to the whimsical. A teenager suggested inviting the aliens to “Come to Earth and let’s party!” A child wanted to advise them to “get plenty of rest before you come because there’s a lot to see.”

A message from outer space. Proof that we are not alone in the universe, that other intelligent beings, whether benign or dangerous, are out there and trying to reach us. First contact may well come one day, and it will change us and our world forever.

Do you want it to happen in your lifetime? Or do you believe we’re better off never knowing whether other worlds are populated? How do you think you’ll react if you hear the news that an alien society has contacted Earth? Will you be afraid? Excited? How do you think the governments of Earth should respond? Will it bring the nations of Earth together or will fear of the unknown future drive us farther apart?

(Credit: The photos of Earth and the Pioneer plaque are NASA/Goddard Space Center images.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Career Peaking

Sharon Wildwind

This morning we’re starting with a pop quiz.

How old was dancer Martha Graham when she created and danced what critics called her defining work, Chronicle?
a. 32
b. 42
c. 76
d. 91

If you answered “b,” congratulations. Chronicle came to the stage in 1936, when Graham was 42 years old.

Ten years earlier, at the age of 32, she established the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In her thirties, she created 19 dances; in her forties 23, including Chronicle; in her fifties 8; in her sixties 13, including her longest work; in her seventies 10; in her eighties 17; and in her nineties 6. She was working on a seventh production, The Eyes of the Goddess, when she died at the age of 91.

She became director of the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel in her seventies and finally gave up performing herself when she was 76 years old. In her late seventies she almost died from depression and alcoholism, became a recovering alcoholic, and reorganized her dance company.

Twenty-five percent of her lifetime achievement came after she began to recover her health at the age of 77. This was thirty-five years after critics had said that nothing she did would ever equal Chronicle. I can’t help thinking that she showed them.

As writers we joke about writing the Great American—in my case, the Great Canadian—novel, the seminal work to which our name will forever be linked in a knee-jerk reaction.

Try thinking about Mark Twain without linking him to Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Alice Walker without The Color Purple. Our own Edgar Allan Poe without The Raven. Stephenie Meyer without Twilight.

This probably doesn’t matter much to Twain and Poe, since they are likely enjoying a good cigar, brandy, and each other’s company on another plane, one than involves neither body scans or a search of their luggage.

At sixty-six, Alice Walker has published, in addition to The Color Purple, 13 novels and short story collections, 9 poetry collections, and 11 non-fiction books. Like Martha Graham, her creativity has taken her onward and upward since The Color Purple.

What about Stephenie Meyer, who is a young writer? What about the rest of us?

Writers face the page most mornings with co-joined terrifying thoughts in our hind-brain that a) we will never write a seminal book to which our names will forever be ever linked, and b) that we will write a seminal book, which will be the only thing people remember about our writing.

We live in interesting co-joined society that crazily embraces both a been-there, done-that philosophy, and a more-of-the-same hunger. A couple of months ago another writer told me that her agent actually said to her, “I hope your next book is exactly like your last three, but completely different, of course.”

People wonder why writers go mad.

Personally, I think that we should all aim for both things: write that seminal work, then go on and continue to create for decades after it. If Martha Graham could show the critics, we can, too.
Quote for the week:

The sustained creativity and intellectual energy required to explore an idea fully is at least equal to—and often greater than—that required to launch it.
~Dr. Gene L. Cohen (1944 - 2009), founder of the Center on Aging, Health, and the Humanities, Washington, D.C.