Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mental Health, Therapy, and Psychopathology: Busting Some Myths

Elizabeth Zelvin

As an experienced psychotherapist, I frequently wince over errors on issues of mental health, mental illness, and related topics. The mystery community is well aware of some of these. For example, everybody seems to know that everything about the CSI TV shows is wrong. Crime scene and forensic scientists don’t interview witnesses or confront suspects. DNA results come back from the lab in months, not hours—except, of course, when the case has global high priority, as we saw following recent events in Pakistan. But some myths are extremely persistent. Giving life to them in fiction perpetuates them further.

Here are some of my pet peeves:

Myth: If you want therapy to deal with, say, relationship or family issues, you need a psychiatrist or psychologist. Reality: More “talk therapy” is done by clinical social workers (like me) than by psychiatrists and psychologists. Psychiatrists can prescribe psychotropic medications and get patients admitted to hospitals, so a competent therapist would refer a patient with severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, or a thought disorder to a psychiatrist for evaluation. But once they’re stable, the talk therapy could continue.
Psychologists are trained to evaluate a patient or client’s cognitive and emotional functioning, so they might be called in for psychological assessment testing.

Myth: “Multiple personalities” are rare but can pop up anywhere; a variant: they don’t exist or are somehow invented or induced by the therapist. Reality: The current correct term is “dissociative identity disorder.” It’s fairly common, and it develops as a response to severe sexual abuse in childhood. An ordinary therapist treating a client with DID would be well advised to read some of the very good books on the subject and seek supervision with a clinician experienced in such cases. The therapist needs to guard against being fascinated by the different “personalities,” while engaging as many of them as possible in the treatment. The goals are co-consciousness and, eventually, integration. The biggest challenge is when a client experiences an abreaction—a flashback, like those of military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, in this case to the experience of being sexually abused as a young child.

Myth: Accusations of sexual abuse, especially when memories have been repressed but recovered, are often lies or delusions. Reality: Wrong, wrong, wrong. As the Catholic Church recently admitted, the sexual abuse of children is an all too common phenomenon. Repression of memories is a psychological defense mechanism—a survival skill—as is the dissociation mentioned above. Most sexually abused children are not lying, just as most raped women are not lying. I believe that emphasizing the exceptions has a deeply damaging effect on societal beliefs and therefore on the ability of the abused and raped to achieve both emotional health and justice.

Myth: Psychopathic serial killers can have normal relationships and can be appealed to. Reality: A forensic psychologist who worked on the cases of some of the most infamous serial killers put it best: “Dexter doesn’t exist.” There are no magic words a victim can say to change the killer’s mind.

Myth: Alcoholics can go in and out of alcoholism and can eventually drink normally. That proves they don’t really have a problem. Reality: Alcoholism is a progressive illness, and somewhere between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is a point of no return. The compulsive drinking is just the tip of the iceberg; emotional, social, and behavioral issues are part of the picture, as are negativity, hopelessness, and despair.

Myth: Schizophrenia is the same as multiple personality and can be used as a synonym for ambivalence or mixed feelings. Reality: Schizophrenia is a thought disorder that is biochemical and to some extent genetic in origin. Symptoms include auditory hallucinations and thoughts and beliefs that depart from reality in various ways.

Myth: People who talk to themselves in the street must be schizophrenic. Reality: Sometimes schizophrenics talk back to their hallucinations, but some of the folks you hear cursing and making inappropriate remarks in public have Tourette’s Syndrome, an entirely different disorder. And even more of them are just talking on their cell phones.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bad Casting

Sandra Parshall

Nothing gets crime fiction fans more worked up than the news that a favorite book or series is about to become a movie or TV series.

First reaction: They’ll ruin it, of course. Second reaction: They’re casting WHO in the lead? You’ve gotta be kidding!

All too often, our worst fears are borne out by the finished product. With rare exceptions, the people who make movies and TV shows have no respect for the written word and no understanding of the deep connection many readers feel with familiar, beloved characters.

The latest travesties-in-the-making are a movie starring Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and an American TV version of Prime Suspect. Folks on various mystery discussion listservs are throwing a lot of insults at Cruise these days, but the worst is: He’s short. In Child’s novels, much is made of Reacher’s massive, intimidating size. Way over six feet, huge hands. The very sight of him strikes fear into the hearts of lesser men. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, is shorter than his wife. He was shorter than his first wife too. After their divorce, Nicole Kidman joked about how nice it was to be able to wear high heels again without worrying that she would tower over Tom. I happen to think Cruise is a reasonably good actor, but he can’t act his way into Reacher’s shoes.

As for Prime Suspect, I have no quibbles with the casting of Maria Bello as Jane Tennison. She’s a talented actress. What I object to is the jokey, hokey tone of the previews I’m seeing on TV. They seem to have turned Prime Suspect into one of those female-oriented cop shows where every second line is played for laughs and the little lady makes jokes while she kicks the crap out of the bad guys. Spare me. Why did they have to put the Prime Suspect title on the show and name the character Jane Tennison when neither the stories nor the character will bear any relation to the original?

Which brings me to Rizzoli and Isles. I love Tess Gerritsen’s books. I love Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles. I do not see anybody I recognize on the TV show. Again, a somber, thoughtful series has been turned into a breezy, amusing little show in which women run around solving crimes while gossiping about men and taking care (in Maura’s case) not to get their nice shoes and clothes dirty. Angie Harmon is a terrific actress, but the second she was cast in the role the character ceased to be Jane Rizzoli. Jane is frumpy and plain, and her appearance is an important element of the character. Angie Harmon wouldn’t be plain if you put a bag over her head.

Speaking of frumpy and plain, did anybody ever accept Sharon Small as Barbara Havers in the British TV version of Elizabeth George’s novels? The actress is... well, cute, no matter how messy her hair is or how sloppy her clothes are.

I can think of two movies from the past few years that did justice to the books they were based on, and both books were written by Dennis Lehane: Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. These films demonstrate that it is possible to transfer a great story and great characters to the screen without mutilating them or doing a lot of prettying-up. Dexter, as a character, made a successful transition to TV, although the series doesn’t closely follow the books. I don’t watch True Blood, but fans of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books seem to think it’s great. This kind of success re-imagining of the source material is rare indeed.

Sue Grafton says she would “rather roll naked in ground glass” than see her Kinsey Milhone novels turned into a movie or TV series. Unfortunately, most writers can’t resist the glamorous allure of a film or TV option. They take the money (surprisingly little in most cases), they tremble with excitement, and in the end they see something that barely resembles what they created. Maybe they can draw the distinction – “The movie/TV series is a different animal and has nothing to do with what I wrote” – but a lot of readers can’t do that. We keep hoping for the best but expecting the worst, and the worst is usually what we end up with.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Social Media . . .

. . . ain’t what it used to be.

Sharon Wildwind

One of the things I learned at Bloody Words is that I thought I knew about social media—and I was wrong. There is so much new stuff out there.

Unlike the other two panel reports I’ve done from Bloody Words, the Social Media and Marketing was a mini-workshop of three back-to-back panels. Essentially the panelists changed and the audience stayed glued to their seats. Attribute the comments to the moderator and ten other panelists, got too bulky, so I’m just giving the gist of the discussion. If you want to know who made a particular comment, send me e-mail and I’ll tell you.

The Bottom Line
All marketing should be based on a cost/benefit analysis of how much time and money you have to spend on social media versus how much name recognition and/or sales do you expect to generate from what you do? If you are a writer, spend the majority of your time writing. Don’t jump on every technological bandwagon. You can attempt every new thing, but should you? It is more effective to spend your time optimizing the search features of 1 to 2 platforms that you feel comfortable with rather than create multiple platforms are poorly indexed. Sixty percent of your connections with other people will come from searches.

The Big Three
Provide quality posts and people will come to you for the good content. Fun comes across on the web; so will boredom. If you are doing something because you have to do it, your readers will know it. Tailor your content and your form to each platform.

Limit, limit, limit personal information. If you wouldn’t want what you’ve posted about yourself to be on the front page of a national newspaper, don’t post it on the web. Be quirky and innocent in what you post. That you have a passion for strawberry shortcake is a good thing to post; that you have two grandchildren, the city where they live, their names and photos is a dangerous thing to post.

If you make a fool of yourself on the web, the reputation sticks. Once information, tacky comments, or dubious photos are on the web they are there forever.

What is a platform?
A way that information is presented on the Internet. Different platforms have different functions and attract different kinds of audiences. Platform choices are personal preferences.Try different platforms. Give each a six-months trial and assess how well it works for you. If a platform isn’t meeting your needs, stop using it. Don’t just abandon it, close it down and remove it from the web.

Multi-platform postings often turn people off, so the content on each of your platforms should be different and geared to the function of that platform. You should build links from one platform to another.

Web Site and blog
This should be your essential go-to site. You should build one even before your book is published. Facebook makes a poor substitute for a web site. A blog can be used as a web page, but it needs to be updated on a regular basis. 1% of the blogs on the Internet have current information and are up-to-date. Blog posts should be about 600 to 800 words because blog readers are under all kinds of time pressures. Think of the word limit like short stories and poems: make every blog word count.

Plan to post somewhere between one daily and once weekly.
Professional Page: avoid self-congratulations. Praise other people who connect with you. Readers want to be friends with an author, not fans. Some authors choose to treat their friends page as professional page. They strip the personal information from it and treat it as a fan page under another name.
Fan Page: Because fan pages don’t have back-and-forth exchanges, some people avoid them. The most popular use of fan pages is for characters. Have the characters give advice. Do a running comment on how the writing is going.

Think of this as a living resume. If you’re looking for opportunities to do workshops or to ghost write, this is the place you should be. Balance out how much information you post versus how much information you’re posting that could lead to identity thief.

Far more useful than Facebook for marketing and promotion because you can build a following 140 characters at a time. Tweet at least once every couple of days. If you tweet daily, limit your tweeting to no more than three to four times a day. Don’t post exclusively self-promotion. Share resources. Build up other writers. Do mini-book reviews. Create a community feeling. You can participate in Twitter without having any followers. Use hash-tags instead. A hashtag is the # character. #books is a great place to post; #mysteries is not as good because there are far less people on it. #amwriting has a high noise to information ratio, but you can mind gold there about writing, if you spend a little time looking

Piggy-back on to book and reading sites
Use sites other people have set up. Have your own page. Do book reviews. Promote other writers. These sites are particularly good because they target the niches where the readers are. Sites you might want to check out include
Books N Bytes

Reading multiple sites
If you choose to participate in multiple platforms, checking them every day can become a hassle. Try Hootsuite which is a site that will let you view multiple sites at once.

Social Mention
Yes, you’re on the Internet, but are you reaching anyone? What's your reputation out there in web-land? On this site you can plug in your name, or the name of your book and get a quick scan of four areas: strength—how many times is your term mentioned; passion—how passionate are people when they do mention you; sentiment—is that a passionately good or a passionately bad mention; and reach—how much of the social network are you reaching.

Quick-response codes and Microsoft tags
These are portable hyperlinks that can be embedded in print or electronic formats and accessed by phone applications. And they are popping up everywhere.

This is (I hope) the QR tag for my web site. It tool me all of 3 seconds to create it on line.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Writing Action in Mystery (and Why Daniel Craig is my Imaginary Boyfriend)

by Julia Buckley
My family and I just re-watched Casino Royale, and I still found it to be an enjoyable flick. It wasn't because of the plot, however, (which I still couldn't really follow in its entirety), and it wasn't necessarily because of the Daniel Craig's charm or his amazing Greek Godly physique. (Although those were nice, and my husband glared at me during the entire "James walks out of the ocean" scene).

What I found was that I was in total agreement with my sons: the appeal was in the action. Granted, this has always been a James Bond staple, so it wasn't surprising that the most compelling parts of the movie were the chase scenes. But I realized, when we dissected the film after viewing it, that we weren't saying, "That was a clever line that he said to the bad guy at the poker table." None of that really stayed with me, and I can't even remember what he said to the pretty woman as he flipped her around in the bed as if she were an attractive pancake.

What I remembered was what my boys remembered: that the guy Bond was chasing was really fast, and James was really fast, and it was exciting to watch two athletic guys running. Then the bad guy did this amazing launch of his body through a tiny window, but James came barreling right through the wall in a most unexpected (and satisfying) way, and we all cheered like groundlings.

My admiration for both Daniel Craig and action makes me eager to see his newest movie, Cowboys and Aliens, which promises to have a unique plot and to provide a plethora of gunslinging with a modern, alien-fighting twist.

From watching Craig's first Bond movie, though, I learned a lesson which I want to apply to my writing: description and narration are necessary and can be beautiful, frightening, fun. But action will raise the reader's blood pressure, action will make them turn those pages, and action might be the only thing they remember when they close the book.

Sometimes, it's all in the action.

Image: Yahoo Images

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Two Worlds

Jeri Westerson

I live in two worlds. That of mystery and of historical fiction. I suppose I’m a failed historical novelist. That’s what I slogged away at doing for ten years, writing opus after stand-alone opus with nary a nibble from publishers. “The historical novel is dead!” declared Publisher’s Weekly in the days I was writing and trying to sell them.


Ten years of researching and writing about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but then I crossed over to the dark side, the side of murder, mayhem, and clever detectives. I left behind the stand-alone for the series and found a new love in episodic storytelling. And with an historical mystery, I found success and a publisher at last! For the most part, I never looked back.

Until last weekend.

I attended my first North American Historical Novel Society Conference. And like many of the writing conferences I used to attend in the past, it is chock full of would-be writers, getting a pep talk and some writing advice from their favorite authors in the genre and learning about some new ones. There were also agent and editor meetings, blue pencil sessions where authors critiqued the work of brave writers willing to sit back and take it (which is not to be confused with lying back and thinking of England), and a general chatting away with authors you’d like to know more about while the cocktails flowed.

Historical novelists are akin to literary novelists. Often there is that crossover where publishers give them a little more respect, at least more than they might give to midlist mystery authors. But there are no tagged shelves in a bookstore or library where the historical novels are stored, unlike mysteries. Their novels are generally about famous people from the past. Certainly there is a fair share of the Tudors depicted within these many pages. And the de Medicis. But don’t forget the nautical sagas of tall ships sailing the waves with the smell of gun powder wafting on the breeze (and we were treated to the incredibly loud reports from the cannons on the tall ship/museum anchored just outside our hotel in San Diego Harbor), or the tomes of medieval Mongolia, or even prehistory with such authors as Jean Auel with the newest Clan of the Cave Bear novel. Historical authors span thousands of years of human history between their covers.

But let us not forget those of us who blend mystery with our history. Sometimes we have to get pretty creative with our sleuths. I would say that more than half are of the amateur variety, being that any sort of police force or paid detectives are a modern construct. (Mine is a paid detective, not an amateur, but that was my own “what if” because there were no private detectives in the Middle Ages.) Again, we span all the eras from ancient Egypt and Rome up to the 1960s and all the time periods in between.

My panel was on “Keeping a Series Fresh” with fellow “mystorical” authors moderator Priscilla Royal, Susan McDuffie, Ann Parker, and Judith Rock, writing about thirteenth and fourteenth century England, fourteenth century Scotland, the silver rush boomtown era of the 1880s, and seventeenth century Paris, respectively. That’s a lot of centuries. Besides expressing our opinions on how we use history to twist our plots and our use of minor characters to add interest, we took a few questions from anxious writers hoping to break into the party. In fact, one of the questions was about amateur versus professional sleuth.

I’ve been to many a mystery fan convention, but this was somewhat different. For one, this conference featured a costume parade, authors either wearing the costumes of their protagonists or of suitable characters in their books. From ancient Rome, throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and up to the Colonial period, the American Civil War, and the late 1800s, they showed off their writing and sewing skills! I skipped it this year, but perhaps when the conference rolls around on the west coast again, I’ll dust off my medieval gown and give it a whirl on the catwalk.

Yes, it was lovely being a part of the historical crowd for a change, where dinner table conversations tripped from historical period to historical period, and you could hear the passion in their voices as they plead the case of their pet eras. So many time periods to write about. So little time to do it.

Friday, June 24, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

I was going to post a piece today about stuff and why we hang on it to, but it'll still be there later (just like all my stuff).  Today I awoke to headlines that the notorious, infamous, heinous (fill in adjective of your choice) Whitey Bulger has finally been captured, after being on the run from the FBI since 1995.

To most of the world this is no big thing, I suppose (despite his long presence on the FBI's Most Wanted List, right after Osama bin Laden, and the two million dollar reward on his head), but if you live in the Boston area, his continued absence has been in the news on and off since he disappeared.  Where's Whitey?  Is he dead?  Nope, he's alive and well, and he's been living in California with his long-time girlfriend, Catherine Grieg.

Since Monday of this week it's been all over the network news that the FBI had launched a new strategy, running ads with pictures of both of them during television programs favored by women, in case anyone had seen Catherine (the "moll") at a beauty salon or dentist's office.  Think they'll credit this campaign with the result?  (Probably not, given the timing, but maybe the ad campaign was designed to lull Whitey into a false sense of security.)

Before I say anything more, let me add for the record that I am not connected in any way to John Connolly, the Boston FBI agent who was feeding Whitey information for years, which enabled him to leave town shortly before he was to be arrested in 1995.  Connolly was convicted and did jail time for his role.

I know more than the average person about Whitey and his gang because when I was writing the Glassblowing Mysteries (as Sarah Atwell), my publisher suggested that the villains should be from the Mafia.  Having grown up in New Jersey, I thought the Mafia had been overdone, so I countered with, why not the Irish Mob?  I loved the thought of Boston bad guys trekking around the Arizona desert, completely out of their element.  In preparation for this, I read a couple of books written by some of Whitey's lieutenants (I won't name names, because I think they're all out of prison now--and doing book tours!).  Interesting if scary reading, because the authors were so completely amoral, except when it came to loyalty to their boss.  Even now I can't drive though Southie (Boston's South End, Bulger's power base) without thinking of those stories--and where the bodies were buried.

Whitey's tale also held a delicious irony:  while Whitey was one of the country's most notorious criminals, his brother William was the leader of the Massachusetts Senate, and subsequently president of the University of Massachusetts system (he admitted speaking to his brother just after Whitey blew town, but swore that he hadn't heard from him since).  Nobody has proven that Bill Bulger knew anything about Whitey's whereabouts (or his criminal activities?).

Does fiction get any better than this?  A man who has been credited with at least 20 murders, who ruled the Boston underworld with an iron hand, and then eluded FBI pursuit for years?  With a beautiful blonde companion?

Want to bet that there will be a Whitey Bulger: My Story book in the works in minutes?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Safe Is It Out There?

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was standing with my granddaughters, ages seven and four, on a crowded street corner on Columbus Avenue on New York City’s Upper West Side. These little girls live in rural-turned-suburban New Jersey, which couldn’t possibly be more different from where we were, a few blocks from my apartment.

“What beautiful children!” a passing woman exclaimed. “What are they?” Or words to that effect, meaning their ethnic background. The question was harmless enough, so I told her—half Jewish and half Filipino—she confided that her nieces are half Italian, half Chinese, and gorgeous too, and she went on her way.

“How do you know it’s okay to talk to her?” the seven-year-old asked. Both at school and at home, she’s already being warned against talking to strangers. At that age, in the early Fifties, I may have been traveling to dance lessons on the subway from Queens to Manhattan alone with my nine-year-old sister. By ten or eleven, I was allowed to go by myself—straight to dance or cello lessons and back, with two subway tokens and a dime to call my mother from the station. My own son, raised in Manhattan, traveled to school by bus without an adult from the time he was nine. It could have been sooner, but he was a cautious kid, as he is a cautious parent today.

I explained to the girls that if it’s daylight, there are crowds of people, and the person simply says something friendly and moves on, that’s okay, but if you’re alone and the person tries to get you to go with him, it’s not. I realized later that I should have mentioned that it’s bad if the person tries to get you to tell your name and where you live. But I’m confident their parents will make sure they know that.

What a different world these kids live in from the one I grew up in. I wandered all over my neighborhood by myself. I did once have a conversation with a flasher in Flushing Meadow Park, in the woods where the Van Wyck Expressway now runs. I was twelve and terribly innocent by today’s standards. I didn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing, and it didn’t occur to me to be scared until later, when I told my mother about it. Today’s kids are far more knowing, thanks to TV and the Internet and the spirit of the times, but also far more vulnerable.

My parents were overprotective in many ways. We didn’t dream of staying out past a curfew or not telling them where we’d been or calling when we’d been told to call, even in our teens. We didn’t pierce or tattoo or use makeup. We didn’t have cars at sixteen (thank New York City law for that) or even think about drinking alcohol at a party. But we weren’t taught, overtly or by implication, that the world is a very dangerous place. My granddaughters, who are in fact very sheltered and carefully nurtured, will probably learn sooner rather than later that we live in a world where all kinds of terrible things can happen. Kids get offered drugs in the schoolyard or kidnapped by noncustodial parents. Planes get bombed, pedestrians or shoppers get killed by snipers’ bullets or crashing cars. Big chunks of the planet get shaken by earthquakes and tsunamis. It’s not safe out there, and all we can do is love them, teach them, warn them, and hope and pray that nothing bad ever happens to them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Officer! Smile, you're on candid camera

Sandra Parshall

When anti-government protesters in the Arab world streamed video of violent police and military actions to the internet, the whole free world praised the citizens’ courage in daring to share what was happening. Americans cheered the loudest, and we were outraged when Egyptian Secret Police confiscated dissidents' cell phones. After all, we invented free speech and the rights of private citizens, didn’t we? At least we act as if we did. And we want everybody to have the same freedoms we enjoy.

But what happens when ordinary U.S. citizens, supposedly protected by the First Amendment, hold up their cell phones to record police actions on their own streets? Often the police, without benefit of warrants or civility, confiscate the citizens’ private property – their cell phones – on the spot. Sometimes they try to make people believe it’s illegal to take pictures or video of law enforcement officers doing their jobs. This sort of action by police is in the news so often now that it might make you wonder if the police are familiar with the Constitution.

In Atlanta, unlawful police seizure of a cell phone recently cost the city $40,000 in a settlement, and the officers involved are being re-educated about the rights of citizens.

Miami Beach police are embroiled in controversy over a similar incident.

And so on and so on. It’s happening all over the country.

In Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago, a crowd gathered to watch city police arrest a suspect who injured two officers before he was subdued and placed in a police van. No one has accused the police of misconduct in regard to the suspect. But a bystander who caught the incident on video via her cell phone says officers confiscated her phone at the scene. Witnesses say she was told that she was illegally filming a crime scene. When she got her phone back five days later, the video had been erased. 

The assistant chief of police, who apparently knows the woman wasn’t breaking the law, said afterward that the officers actually seized the woman’s property -- without a warrant, a  subpoena, or a politely worded request -- because her video might have “evidentiary value.” She said the police have a right to do that. The ACLU begs to differ, and a spokesman for the organization said the police were the ones who acted improperly. As long as a citizen is not hampering the police in the performance of their duties or physically intruding on an active crime scene, holding up a cell phone and taking pictures or video is not illegal, and due process is required if the phone is believed to contain evidence.

With growing numbers of people carrying cell phones with video capacity, we can expect to see more videos posted online of police and other public servants at work. We’re used to The Powers That Be watching us all the time. Now we can watch them, and share what we see with the whole world if we want to. You can hook a Looxcie camera over your ear, capture everything that happens in front of you, and send it to Facebook on the spot. You can use Bambuser, the same Swedish service that Arab dissidents used to stream live video to the world from their cell phones. You can get your video out there before the authorities have a chance to confiscate your device.

And I say it’s a good thing that this capability exists. It was good for citizens of the Arab world who crave freedom, and it’s good for those of us who supposedly already live in freedom.

Most of the time, I respect the police enormously. I certainly appreciate the job they do for the public, and I know it’s difficult, stressful, and sometimes dangerous work. But does that give the police the right to infringe on the  rights of citizens when those citizens are not breaking the law?

Are we going to cheer when Egyptians film their police in action, but condemn U.S. citizens for doing the same thing?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Short and Twisted

compiled by Sharon Wildwind

No the title doesn't refer either to my stature or my sense of humor, though both are certainly true. These are notes from a short-story writing panel that I had the pleasure of attending at Bloody Words in Victoria, British Columbia. Moderator: Jake Doherty. Panelists Sue Pike, Linda Wiken, and Eileen Bell.

Jake Doherty is an author and retired newspaper publisher. His Osprey/Sun Media’s Summer Mystery series evolved into the anthology Mystery Ink.
Because the market for short stories was growing smaller and smaller, I floated a plan with a group of Ontario newspapers that we would publish 6 original short stories, 3000 words or less, each set in an Ontario town that was part of the newspaper consortium. This turned out to be a very successful summer series. There have been multiple takeovers in publishing, based on a need for cost-cutting. One result of this is that publishers are moving from anthologies to serialization on web sites. If newspapers run the webs—as they did for the series described above—their bottom line is whether publishing fiction will bring in readers. If not, they aren’t interested. Readers have short attention spans; they will not stick with a long series, which is why we went for only 6 stories.

Sue Pike has had stories in all seven Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies as well as many other magazines. In 1997 she won the Arthur Ellis Award for the Best Short Story.
Yes, short stories have a tougher time making a mark. Traditionally word count is that flash fiction is less than 2,000 words. In some cases it might be as low as 100 words. Short stories are 1,000 to 2,000 words and novellas are between 12,000 and 20,000 words. There really hasn’t been a market for stories between 2,000 and 12,000 words. Short stories can be resold to multiple anthologies. Writers should be careful to sell only the first rights. Personally, I don’t outline. I start with the characters and the fewer of them, the better. You have to have at least two in order for conflict to develop. Use the same reference for a character all the way through a short story. He’s Jack—always—not James, Jimmy, Mr. White, etc. to different characters. This confuses the reader. Twist the ending is fun. Timothy Findley said, “Leave off the final “do” as in do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti---. Allow the reader to fill in the final connection.

Linda Wiken, (writing as Erika Chase) writes the book club mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime.
Yes, short stories are harder to sell but that’s because of the format, not because they are genre writing. Many short story writers are taking advantage of technology to repackage older, out-of-print anthologies as e-books. My number one key rule for writing short stories is to use as few words as possible. If you’re going to do an anthology, pick a theme. There are times that this backfires in funny ways. Menopause is Murder, an anthology by the Ladies Killing Circle of Ottawa, ended up being filed in the medical self-help section in bookstores. If your anthology will be open submissions, instead of by invitation, advertise that you are open to submissions. Do blind judging for anthologies because short-story writers usually know one another.

Eileen Bell is a mystery and fantasy writer. Her Pawns Dreaming of Roses won the 2010 Aurora, Canada's National Science Fiction & Fantasy Award.
Yes, short stories are hard to sell, but mystery short stories are probably some of the easiest. Science fiction and fantasy rate lower than mysteries on the publishing totem pole. The economics of publishing make it more lucrative to put together 20 short stories in an anthology rather than 2 to 4 novellas. Therefore novellas have been harder to sell, but this may be changing. Readers who stopped reading for pleasure freqently cite fragmented time as the reason and they love novellas because they are the perfect length. The best advice I can give to someone writing short stories is to know the the ending and then let the characters go to it. Allow the characters to get into loads of trouble during the story, but also insist they hit their mark at the end. Hitting a mark is a theatre term, meaning that actor ends up in exactly the right spot on the stage. I start with a possibility of two endings, so I can surprise myself with which one I pick.

Things for writers to consider before posting book trailers on web sites and YouTube.
It takes a lot of work to make words visual. The more special effects the better and many writers do not have the time or knowledge to do a really good job with computer special effects. We’re not just talking dissolves here. People want professional special effects. Marketing in the U.S. is different from marketing in Canada or other countries, so one-size does not fit all. Trailers will need to be tailored to the countries where you want the most sales; likely different trailers will do well in different countries. How does the viewer find the video? The audience you really want to attract is the people who don’t already know your name. So if you build a search engine reference around your name or the names of your characters, how will that audience find you?

Comments about selling stories for 99¢ on e-sites
Because people are living short-attention, fragmented lives with 24/7 newsfeeds, the short format fits their lives better. The debate is hot, heavy, and unresolved as to whether the short story market expanding or shrinking because of e-postings. Plagiarism—copying the story from a pay-to-read site and posting it for free—remains a huge problem. Orca rapid reads was originally intended for teens with low literacy skills, but it is moving into a general population audience. Keep in mind that there are different platforms, and each one may have different formats and different payment rules. An on-line short story needs a cover image. Many writers don’t know how to assemble the on-line package, and are paying to farm out this task. Since the usual payment is 10¢ for each 99¢ story published, paying for technical help cuts into the profits. Canadian writer and teacher Niccola Furlong writes some great information on how to e-pub.

Quote for the week:

I rarely read a novel that wouldn’t have made a better short story.
~attributed to Alice Munro, award-winning Canadian short story writer

I haven’t been able to verify the source. If you know for certain that Munro said this, or didn’t say it, please let me know.

P.S. Happy Summer Solstice everyone.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The New Project High

by Julia Buckley

My summer headquarters

I had a plan for the summer which included revising two things and corresponding with various agents. (And by corresponding I mean me writing them letters and them writing back and saying "No, thanks.")

No other plans were on the horizon, and these were things that needed to be done. I had a dearth of creative ideas, as I do every year at the end of a stressful school year. My mind is just played out.

I have heard, though, that if you want a new idea, you need to rest and de-stress, and the idea will come. There must be something to this concept, because every book idea that has ever popped into my head has done so when I am relaxed.

So this week, the one week I have off before I return to teaching, something came to me. A kernel of an idea--just something that seemed interesting.

So I went to the computer and started tapping out ideas. They turned into a chapter one, and then a chapter two. I had to get up and do some household tasks--motherly things like making grilled cheese and driving people places. But then I drifted back to the computer--not out of obligation, as I do the revisions, but out of a kind of passion. Pursuing a new project is like a brand new love affair. I am fascinated by this new thing. I want to know more about it. While people are talking to me, I am partly thinking about my new project.

That is what I call the new idea high, and for me, it's the best part of writing because it's the most exciting and satsifying. Every idea that I manage to translate from my mind onto paper is a pleasure and a satisfaction; I can move on to the next idea and the next, knowing that those first ones have been safely nailed down.

I suppose people can get the same sort of energy from a new household project--building an addition or re-decorating a room. At the beginning you have nothing, and then, suddenly, it starts to take shape, and you can imagine what it will be at the end. But it's the building, sometimes, that is the most fun.

What are some other creative projects that have given you this feeling?

And writers, have you ever had ideas come to you at a time of total rest and relaxation?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Canada Calling: Susan Calder

Susan Calder is a Calgary, Alberta writer who has published short stories, poems and a murder mystery novel Deadly Fall, which launches a series featuring insurance adjuster Paula Savard.

When promoting a new book, how do you find time to write - or wash your hair?

In mid-February I returned from a winter vacation. Waiting for me was a box containing copies of my first novel, Deadly Fall, a murder mystery published by TouchWood Editions.

I’d seen a picture of the cover; the concrete book was something else. After months of fantasy, my novel was real.

I knew about the importance of the three-month publicity window following a book’s release, that this was the time to grab attention for the book before my publisher and the public move on to the next new thing. Was I going to set aside my writing and focus exclusively on promotion, or write and promote at the same time? Rightly or wrongly, I wound up concentrating solely on promotion. My husband and I combed our address books and sent launch invitations to everyone we’d ever met. We viewed this as sharing good news, rather than advertising. I created a Facebook launch page and a print flyer to give to neighbors and casual acquaintances. I felt awkward approaching people I’d barely spoken to before, but they surprised me with their interest in my writing. It opened up conversations between us. Some came to the launch and/or bought the book.

People invited me to speak to their organizations. I also participated in two local joint readings, did a presentation for my mystery writers’ group and visited local bookstores to see Deadly Fall on their shelves. Most stores still had the copies in their stock rooms. This provided an excuse to chat with booksellers about Deadly Fall, while they tried to locate the copies and lug them out. Signings in their stores? Why not? For years I’d felt sympathy for lonely authors at signing tables, but was eager to try it all. I started blogging about – what else? - my promotion adventures and shared my posts on Facebook.

Late May. Two months into my three-month push. I drove from my home in Calgary, Alberta, to the Bloody Words Mystery Writing Conference in Victoria British Columbia. I tried not to think about all the new people I’d meet, including my publisher and editor, who I’d only dealt with so far by e-mail and phone. I was glad to have my husband and several Calgary mystery-writing friends there for support. On the drive to the conference I did three book signings and a presentation. My sister organized a mini-book tour through her region of southern Alberta for the week after my return.

My three-month window is now drawing to a close. These months have cost me time, effort, and money. I’ve sent numerous e-mails. I’ve written advertising blurbs, designed posters and prepared my readings and presentations. The events themselves ate into evenings and afternoons.

Success varied. For a library workshop, reading and talk I received a generous honorarium and car mileage and sold a bunch of books. Another presentation drew two participants. A third led to an invitation to speak to a book club next fall. I gather the 10 members will buy the book. I found all of the events interesting, but missed writing and often felt overwhelmed. As my to-do list grew, I wondered how I’d keep on top of my promotional tasks and still find time to talk to my husband and wash my hair.

I didn’t intend to cram so much into three months. At the start, I had little scheduled, so I said yes to everything that came my way. If I could have plotted it out in advance, I’d have probably done a bit less. Opportunities don’t dry up after three months. I already have a tentative event lined up for this summer, a couple confirmed for the fall and more possibilities. I think the three- month window could easily stretch to a year, with events staggered between writing time.

And yet, I’m glad for every single reader my efforts have introduced to my book. Who knows which ones will like Deadly Fall enough to recommend or loan it to someone else or otherwise produce some ripple effect? My promotion blitz this spring has contributed to strong initial sales. This is particularly good for a mystery series, where you want to develop a readership base for future books.

In addition, this immersion into promotion has been intriguing in many ways. It took me out of my comfort zone. I learned a lot about marketing and the book selling business. Every day brought something new, some of it frustrating, some exciting.
Maybe with my second book, I’ll be more relaxed, as I was with my second child, and manage to balance promotion with writing. Meanwhile, I’ll wrap up this blog post, share the link on Facebook and set off on my last mini-book whirl for this spring – five venues in three days and who knows what will happen with any of them?

To learn more about Susan and her books visit or search for her and Deadly Fall’s fan page on Facebook.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How Many Is Too Many?

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I read, back to back, two books that incorporated multiple characters.  I don't mean a handful, but literally dozens of people, who played varying roles in the story.  I thought in one case it worked well; in the other, not so much.  And I've been trying to figure out why.

These are both cozies, by writers who have written other books in the same series.  I've read the other books, and I know and like both authors.  I'm not going to name names, because I'm not promoting or slamming either author.  I just want to come to terms in my own mind why one treatment was more successful than the other.

Cozies by definition take place within a closed community, which means that the villain can't be a stranger who wanders into town and commits a crime, unless that stranger is one of the existing character's Uncle Fred or Aunt Tillie, come back after plastic surgery to reclaim the stolen inheritance.  The rules say there has to be a connection to the town, however obscure, because how else can the protagonist talk to people in town and gather clues? 

What size is a small town?  Two hundred people?  Two thousand?  And how many of those people does the protagonist know by name, or know well enough to call by his or her first name?  I haven't done any scientific analysis, but I'd guess the pool may be, oh, twenty people?  And generally, in a series, these people are introduced gradually, a few per book, and they'll return in future books in the series so the reader can get to know them and remember them.  If you the writer are lucky, your readers will contact you and ask, "when will we see So-and-So again?"  Which tells you that you've created a memorable and likeable character.

So what went right and wrong in the two books I mentioned?  That's what I'm puzzling over. 

--Was the cast of dozens organic and relevant to the plot (i.e., did those people have a reason to be there)?  Yes, in both cases.  In one, it was an unusual situation, but logical; in the other, it was small-town business as usual. 

--Did the characters have enough "face time" for us to get to know them?  Not so clear.  I don't know if there's a standard for word count to establish personality, but in one book the characters distinguished themselves quickly--their own identities, and their relationships to each other. In the other book, there were a lot of people who popped up now and then, and usually the first time they were accompanied by a tag-line explaining them ("Suzie, my former best friend from high school, who had been going through a rough patch with her third husband and was currently living off handouts from her redneck relatives").  The latter smacks of the dreaded "telling, not showing."

I'll be the first to admit that it's not easy to throw in a new character without adding an explanation.  It's a challenge to give them a real personality with only a few lines of dialogue and some brief indications of body language.  Sure, you can use some description occasionally, but if you add it to each new character, it quickly becomes repetitive and throws you right out of the story.

Back in the golden age (whenever that was), mysteries, particularly British ones, used to include casts of characters right up front, along with maps of the small town and diagrams of the manor house where all the action takes place.  The character list was often quite detailed:  "Sophronia Everlast, the maiden aunt of Hector Pumphrey, lord of the manor;" or "Tilly, the second chambermaid for the South Wing."  It seems quaint now, but if you were reading the book intermittently and managed to forget who was who, it was nice to have a reference handy.

I don't think readers' attention span has improved.  Nowadays we're used to quick snapshots of information, and we're often doing two or three things at once.  We're not necessarily as able to focus and concentrate on a book, much less keep track of who's who.

Does that mean we the writers have to dumb down our stories?  Limit the number of cast members?  I hope not.  But we do have to be careful not to overload the cast.  Okay, the shopkeeper down the street is a lovely person, but couldn't that important clue be delivered by someone else we've already met? 

I'd hate to reduce writing in any genre to a formula, but how many characters in a book is too many?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The New Passport

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve just received my new passport, and my, how things have changed in the ten years since I got the last one. Technology, global concern with security, and the opportunities for skulduggery, always of interest to a mystery writer, all ain’t what they used to be.

Let’s start with the application. Last time, if I remember correctly, I went to the post office, stood on a line, went to the photo shop to get my 2x2-inch unflattering passport photo taken, went back hours later after they’d developed it....This time, I completed the form online, then downloaded it as a PDF. I then took my own unflattering photo, holding my digital camera out at arm’s length. The hardest part was taking pictures off the wall so I could stand against a plain white background as required. Immediately after snapping the shot, I downloaded the digital image to my computer, resized it to 2x2, and printed it on glossy photo paper. I popped application, photo, and old passport in a Priority Flat Rate envelope and used a machine at the post office to stamp it and add a delivery confirmation request. Mailing the envelope used to be the easy part: popping it in a mail box. Now, I always hand Priority mail to a human, since if you don’t, it tends to get returned to sender as bypassing proper security precautions.

My new passport arrived with a spiffy booklet entitled, “With Your U.S. Passport, the World is Yours!” and containing five columns of “buts.” Before I travel, I can visit for consular information sheets and travel warnings. I can register my trip at so that the Department of State can assist me in case of an emergency. There’s a whole section on international adoption, one on illegal activities such as drug trafficking, child exploitation, and human trafficking and another headed, “International Parental Child Abduction isn’t ‘just a custody issue.’ It’s a crime.”

The passport contains an electronic chip, and a whole page covers what it can do, how it works, and “How do I know my Electronic Passport will work?” There’s a special electronic passport logo that I need to look for, since I need to use the special immigration lanes displaying the logo “to be assured of the fastest and most efficient processing.” I wonder if it’ll speed up the most time-consuming bits: taking off the shoes and, in my case, being wanded and patted down, since metal detectors always pick up my titanium shoulder replacement.

So how about the skulduggery? It’s going to be a lot harder to forge electronic passports—I’d like to say impossible, but we know how sophisticated high tech criminals are these days—or recycle lost or stolen ones. I chose to get a handy passport card, good for hopping over to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, along with my regular passport. The card, too, has an electronic chip. Mystery writers have already had to adapt to the Internet changing how detectives work and the cell phone requiring that plucky heroines be either unlucky or TSTL (the proverbial “too stupid to live”) to get caught in a dark cellar or a cemetery with a killer and no way of summoning help. Now we’re also deprived of our characters’ option of spontaneously crossing borders in pursuit of or in flight from a villain.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Different Routes to The End

by Sandra Parshall  

Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. The interviewer asked what it was that stumped him for so long. Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.” He did not, of course, add: Duh.

That’s all revision involves: getting the words right. So simple.

But every writer goes about it in a slightly different way, and I find those variations endlessly fascinating. Recently, when I did a library program with several writer friends I’ve known for years, I was thunderstruck by Ellen Crosby’s revelation that she literally starts over with each new draft. As in blank screen. As in not reworking what was in the previous draft. No cutting and pasting, made so easy by the use of a computer. Each draft is a fresh version of the story. “It’s like writing three books a year,” she said.

Now that’s a really different approach.

But why? Why would any author engage in such exquisite self-torture? Because it works for her. I can’t argue with the results. Her Virginia Wine Country Mysteries (The Sauvignon Secret is next, in August) certainly don’t read as if they were produced under torturous conditions. The very thought of working that way makes me feel faint, but that’s Ellen’s approach to revision, and who am I to question it?

Some writers revise as they go, and when they leave a chapter it is finished. To do this, you have to be sure of the story’s direction, positive you have the characters just right. For a lot of mystery writers that wouldn’t work, because our plots have a tendency to grow tentacles that reach into previously unsuspected places, and if we tie ourselves too rigidly to a preconceived outline we’ll miss the good stuff that makes a story special. So we may do a certain amount of planning and outlining, then turn our imaginations loose on the characters and story and go back to clean it up – revise it – after we have a complete draft.

Some mystery writers are truly brave souls and leave essential research for the second draft. That can wreak havoc when they discover a fatal, so to speak, flaw in their choice of murder weapon or location and have to come up with something totally different.And if they change their minds about who the killer is, they have to comb the manuscript for references and clues that must be altered.

Personally, I enjoy revision. It’s the first draft that I hate. The single most terrifying time in writing a book is the moment when I sit at the computer and tell myself that I must begin. I have to write something, anything. One sentence. GET STARTED. I type out a sentence and sit there in despair, certain this is the only sentence I will be able to produce. But I keep going. I refuse to worry about typos, about unfinished thoughts, about paragraphs that don’t make sense. I will fix all that later, and I will enjoy doing it. Out of this mess I will carve a novel. But first I have to create the mess.

P.D. James once made a statement that I find more than a little spooky because it puts into words a feeling I’ve always had about my own writing: “It's as if the characters exist already, their story, everything about them is in some limbo of my imagination and I'm getting in touch with them and getting the story down in black and white, rather than inventing any of it. So it does feel as if it's a process of revelation rather than creation and one which is not really within my own volition.”

But one thing is within my own volition: revising until I get the words right. Making sure I tell the story and portray the characters in a way that does justice to them. No book will ever be perfect, and sooner or later I have to simply stop and turn the manuscript in so it can go to the printer. But I can’t think of anything more satisfying than reworking a sentence or paragraph until I suddenly realize: Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I want to say. 

Are you a writer? What’s your revision method?
My next book is Under the Dog Star, out in September, and I was revising right up to the second I sent the file to my editor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cozy Chicks versus Hard-Boiled Dicks

Sharon Wildwind (more the compiler here than the writer today)

This is the first of several blogs that I have planned with material from the Bloody Words convention in Victoria, British Columbia.

We begin with a favorite debate: Which represents the mystery genre more faithfully, the cozy mystery or the hard-boiled detective?

The moderate was Don Hauka from New Westminister, British Columbia. A journalist by profession, he’s the author of the newspaper mysteries featuring Mr. Jinnah. As moderator, he kept his comments to a minimum. He ran a great panel and I’m looking forward to reading his series.

Catherine Astolfo, writes the Emily Taylor series. She is the outgoing president of Crime Writers of Canada.

Cozies faithfully represent the mystery drama because they focus on the impact of the death and extraordinary events on ordinary people. Things go on around us in the world all the time, but people are often unaware of them. We tend to focus on what is in our immediate lives. As far as publishing goes, Canadian publishers are more open to wider experiences and different styles of writing, while American publishers are less willing to bend the boundaries. When I write I make a contract with the reader. that my books will contain no rape scenes and no violence to children. If I have an emotional problem with material, I don't write it.

Mary Jane Maffani describes herself as a lapsed librarian. She writes three mystery series (Charlotte Adams, Camilla MacPhee, and Fiona Silk) and is co-authoring a fourth series with her daughter.

The cozy is about setting the world right, not about the autopsies. It deals with ordinary people stepping up to the plate in a way that we all hope we would step up if the situation called for it. The myth is that women read cozies and men read hard-boiled stories. Writers don’t write according to that myth nor do readers read that way. Every reader chooses the percentage of the pie that he or she wants to make up the total reading list. Yes, there are some readers who are 99% or 100% at one end of the spectrum, but the majority of readers pick books all along the way. Most often we sell a set of expectations based on the size and appearance of the book. Readers get very angry if a sub-genre is packaged to look like something else.

Grant McKenzie is the Editor in Chief of Monday Magazine. His two thrillers are Switch and No Cry for Help.

Hard-boiled stories are about using your power within, the stuff you may not have realized you had in you, against very high odds. This kind of book shines a light on what’s really going on in the world. I like to focus on tension rather than body count because tension decreases as deaths increase. Each time you kill someone, you kill some of the tension. One of the problems that all writers encounter is that once you’re published, the publishing world has slotted you into a narrow readership. You break out of that narrow confine at your peril. The economics of writing often dictates what kind of book you write.

Richard A. Thompson—not to be confused with the musician with the same name (minus the A.)—lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His debut novel, Fiddle Game, was short-listed for a Crime Writers of Amera Debut Dagger Award. He’s written two more books, Frag Box and Big Wheat.

Hard-boiled stories are hyper-reality: the world has become a scarier and sexier place to be and people want a literature that reflects the times. I see the darker stories as a heart of darkness versus happy valley where the cozy characters live. That having been said, I think that both forms have left a legacy to the mystery community: the puzzle story comes out of cozies and the examination of underlying emotional issues comes out of hard-boiled detective stories.

Any horrible thing you can think of, someone has done it in real life. There is a threshold to violence, no matter what the sub-genre. My problem with cozies is the trivilization of murder by having it off-stage. Yes, my books have a lot of violence: one has seven killings, all up-close-and personal-deaths. I believe that violence must advance the plot and say something about the character. Historically all genre fiction started out with no character development, but that has changed across the board. The problem is that we lack an adequare vocabulary: cozies is no longer cozy, and hard-boiled are no longer just hard-boiled. As writers we know the nuiances of how things have changed, but we don't have the words to articulate those changes to non-writers.

As for publishing, there comes a point in an author’s career where they are on the threshold of being a best seller. At this point, the publisher is likely to demand certain required elements in the next book in order for that author to cross over into the best-seller list. to cross into best-seller list. Some authors say no. They would rather be true to their style of writing than be forced into writing something that goes against their principles. I would never write a rape scene.

Quote for the week:

Random House employes about 19,000 people in its warehouses just to move stock around. When you have that kind of an investment in books, you can't afford to take chances. Their publishers admit that they want the next "the Nabisco cookie," something familiar, produced in large quantities, but just enough different to pique the reader’s interest.
~Richard Thompson, Bloody Words 2011, Victoria, B.C.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Walt Longmire and Lew Archer: The Solitary Brothers of Detective Fiction

by Julia Buckley
I’ve always been a Ross MacDonald fan, and until recently I was content to believe there was no one like him. MacDonald’s style is singular—a blend of a great story, a lonely and moral protagonist, and a powerful use of simile and metaphor that elevate his work to the realm of literature. Many mystery writers today have cited MacDonald as an influence, including Sue Grafton, whose “Santa Teresa” is an homage to MacDonald’s fictionalized version of Santa Barbara.

There has never been a match, for me, to MacDonald’s style. But recently I read my second book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, and I realized that Johnson’s writing parallels MacDonald’s in many ways.

First, the protagonist: It is true that the lonely detective is a part of the American hard-boiled tradition, but Johnson’s Walt Longmire has a similar kind of lonesomeness to Lew Archer, even though the former lives in the wilds of Wyoming and the latter does his work among the wealthy and elite of California. They both wear their loneliness like a shield, and they reveal very little of themselves to other characters or to the reader. Both men were once married, so they are able to feel the absence of their wives as a reminder of companionship.

In HELL IS EMPTY, the latest Longmire mystery, Walt is asked by his deputy if he’s sure he wants to pursue a dangerous criminal alone. He responds, “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure I don’t, but there isn’t anybody else for the job” (Johnson 58).

Similarly, in MacDonald’s great novel THE UNDERGROUND MAN, Lew Archer is approached by a young woman who feels he’s the only person who can solve her dilemma. It is Archer’s day off, but he takes on her task with a shrug: “I’m a private detective. I do these things for a living” (MacDonald 15).

Each detective sees his role as inevitable, and something he must do alone.
My favorite thing about MacDonald’s writing is the way he can take a scene and make it profound with imagery and metaphor—something Johnson has mastered, as well. Here are both narrators, Archer and Longmire, describing fire:

(from THE UNDERGROUND MAN): “I walked toward him, into the skeletal shadow of the sycamore. The smoky moon was lodged in its top, segmented by small black branches. . . . I looked back from the mailbox. Sparks and embers were blowing down the canyon, plunging into the trees behind the house like bright, exotic birds taking the place of the birds that had flown” (MacDonald 40, 52).

(from HELL IS EMPTY): “Lodgepole pines were exploding with the heat, and a crisscross of timber fell down the incline. The darkness lifted long enough to reveal massive logs exploding as the resin inside them reached boiling levels, branches, pine cones and needles swirling in armies of winged fire devils” (Johnson 202).

Both writers take the reader inside the experience with deft language and an immersion in setting—both Santa Barbara and Longmire’s Wyoming forest are prone to forest fires, and so they become a part of the mystery in each novel.

Finally, both detectives have an outlook that is existential but starkly beautiful. Here is Longmire describing his mountains: “Maybe our greatest fears were made clear this high, so close to the cold emptiness of the unprotected skies. Perhaps the voices were of the mountains themselves, whispering in our ears just how inconsequential and transient we really are” (Johnson 123).

And Lew Archer, confronting a suspect: “His heavy gaze came up to my face. He seemed to be trying to read his future in my eyes. I could read it in his: a future of fear and confusion and trouble, resembling his past” (MacDonald 240).

I love the spare and beautiful prose of both writers, honest and poetic as both of their lawmen follow a quest for the truth.

MacDonald has always been a part of my permanent collection; Johnson will now be in that collection, as well.

Works Cited

Johnson, Craig. Hell is Empty. New York: Viking, 2011.

MacDonald, Ross. The Underground Man. New York: Vintage Reprint, 1996. (Original pub date: 1971).

Saturday, June 11, 2011


by Alan Orloff
Author of Killer Routine

Let’s talk about cliffhangers. You know, those teasing, tantalizing endings of scenes, chapters, books, TV shows, and movies that leave something—something vitally important—up in the air. Love ’em or hate ’em, they are an oft-used technique of storytelling.

Cliffhangers probably started back with the cave people. “Hey, Og. Your cave wall painting don’t show what finally happen in hunter versus mastodon fight.” “Well, Grog, you have to come back next month to see how it turn out.”

I remember cliffhangers from my youth (no, I never did any cave drawings). On the Batman TV show, the part I episodes would always end with Batman and Robin in some dire predicament— locked in an airless chamber or tied down on a conveyor belt heading for a buzz saw. Then the deep-voiced announcer would implore us to come back next week, “same bat time, same bat station.” I always used to tease my little brother that this time (this time, for real!), Batman and Robin would not survive (sorry, bro!). 

Then there was the famous Dallas episode that had the whole country asking, "Who shot JR?" (Larry Hagman even graced the cover of Time.) You can bet I tuned in the following season to find out! (And I was sure bummed it was that pretty little Kristin—I kind of liked her.)

What about cliffhangers in novels? I’ll admit, I’m a proponent of using cliffhanger chapter endings. I don’t want my readers to close the book at the end of a chapter; I want them to keep turning pages as fast as their fingers can. Of course, cliffhangers have to be used judiciously. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being too manipulative. (Even if my kids say otherwise!)

However, I draw the line at the end-of-book cliffhanger. It’s one thing to compel a reader to turn the pages of a book in front of him or her. In my opinion, though, it’s something else entirely to “force” a reader to acquire another book to find out what’s going to happen. One recent example springs to mind. For the record, I’m a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. But in 61 Hours, he ends the book with Reacher in big trouble, and you have to wait until the next book to find out what transpires. I would have been happier if the book were titled 62 Hours, and the situation was resolved in the end. I haven’t read the next book in the series yet, Worth Dying For, (so no spoilers, please), but I’m guessing by the time I do, the suspense I felt at the time will have waned considerably.

What do you think, dear blog reader? Are you a fan of chapter cliffhangers? How about novel-ending ones?

Thanks for inviting me to guest blog, Daughters—it was a pleasure!

The first book in Alan Orloff’s Last Laff Mystery series, Killer Routine, is now available, at your favorite booksellers. His debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead, came out last April and was a finalist for the Best First Novel Agatha Award. For more information about Alan and his books, please visit

Friday, June 10, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

It has been said (by the ubiquitous "they") that the best way to keep a relationship, romantic or platonic, on an even keel is to avoid talking about sex, money and politics.  But where's the fun in that?

As a cozy writer, I am not allowed to write about sex, beyond a steamy liplock and a gently closing door.  Likewise, as a cozy writer I don't make a whole lot of money, so I don't have much to say about that.

Which leaves politics.  I confess:  I have worked on several political campaigns in my life, as both a volunteer and as a paid staff member.  This was not based on any deep-seated conviction or philosophy--I just figured I'd better get a first-hand look of something that occupies a major place in our social consciousness.  I'm glad I did, and the experience I gained there has stood me in good stead. 

It would appear that the campaign season has already started, if the television ads, telephone calls and multipart letters are any indication.  Thank goodness for the mute button and the caller ID function, which lets you silence the storm.  But wait!  Isn't the next federal election NEXT YEAR?  All these people are jockeying for position for something that won't happen for eighteen months?

Based on my in-depth experience (note:  in all the campaigns I worked for, my candidate lost), it's easier to watch this process as a big game.  On the one hand we have the incumbent.  Conventional wisdom holds that the incumbent has a distinct advantage, because (a) s/he has name recognition among constitutents, and (b) s/he is ideally situated to raise money, which is the lifeblood of any political campaign.  But pity the poor representative, who, facing a two-year term, must start raising money for the next campaign before s/he is even sworn in.

Then there are the contenders for the opposition, and here's where it is really interesting this year:  they are coming out in droves.  A full spectrum, from conservative to moderate, from highly qualified to absurd.  And they're all out there now, stalking the country, buying chunks of air time, making outrageous statements for benefit of the local newshounds and hoping that a major network will pay attention.  It's like watching a seething pot of stew:  a bubble/candidate rises to the top and then bursts, soon to be followed by another one--a process that ends only when the stew is reduced to sludge or burnt to a crisp.

And this will go on for how long?  Don't get me wrong:  this is our system, and we've got to love it.  Sure, it's unwieldy and darned expensive, but it's what we've got.  Changing it is all but impossible.  I recall writing a thoughtful paper about electoral college reform when I was in college.  I'm coming up on my 40th reunion, and how much has changed in the electoral college?  Nothing.

If you want to haul this discussion back to the literary realm, in my opinion Primary Colors, by Anonymous Joe Klein, best captures the mood within a major campaign.  Voters would like to believe there is a campaign plan in place, and competent people who are executing it.  Uh, not exactly, or not all the time.  But that's what makes it so much fun--the energy, the excitement, the high stakes involved.  In a way it's surprising there are not more good novels about politics, because all the elements are there--sex, money, and politics.  And conflict, and resolution, if not a happily-ever-after ending.  And if you're writing the book, you can speed it up!

[Aren't you glad I didn't talk about Rep. Weiner's weiner?]

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sexting: A New Kind of Crime

Susie Vanderlip (Guest Blogger)

Susie Vanderlip is a certified prevention specialist, theatrical motivational speaker, and founder of Legacy of Hope®, a resource for troubled teens and those concerned about them, such as counselors, teachers, and parents. She has performed for, inspired, and engaged in candid conversations with many thousands of teens across America on such subjects as alcoholism, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, bullying, self-mutilation, and suicide. What she has to say about sexting struck me as of great interest to mystery readers and crime fiction writers. It’s a 21st century crime, based on the new technology, that involves a profound paradox: the kids involved are both criminal and victim. EZ

When tweens and teens combine texting with flirting, it can quickly become “sexting.” Sexting is the exchange of naked or semi-naked photos over cell phones. Sending such photos of minors can lead to a criminal charge of child pornography, even when the pictures are sent by a minor.

Some cities and states do not charge youth with felonies, since the intent of child pornography laws is to deter and punish adult pedophiles. But many jurisdictions follow the letter of the law, charging youth who send naked or semi-naked photos of themselves or their girlfriends or boyfriends, and even more significantly, their ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, with felonies, resulting in prison sentences and a lifetime of regret and recrimination. Teens are very vulnerable to breaking such laws and may end up permanently labeled as sex offenders.

The law hasn’t caught up with technology. Likely a teen’s intent is strictly to share a form of connection with his or her partner. When the couple breaks up, enraged partners may send off nude or semi-nude photos to all of their friends, uploading pictures and abusive text to Facebook. Or a proud teen may send a photo of his or her partner to a few friends who send it to a few friends who upload it to the Internet. Suddenly, a private picture becomes very public. Other teens waste no time in commenting and labeling the subject of the photo “whore,” “slut,” etc. The potential for a teen to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and humiliated is enormous. The subsequent self-loathing has led teens to depression, cutting, and even suicide.

Deputy Frank Navarro of the Sheriff’s Department in San Bernardino, CA, an expert in the field, reports that about twenty percent of teens admit they have participated in sending such pictures by cell phone. Twenty-two percent of girls said they’ve sent photos, and fifteen percent of boys say they’ve disseminated photos when the couple broke up. Some middle schools report sexting as their Number One behavioral problem.

Sadly, such photos can stay on the Internet indefinitely. They are impossible to remove from some vast distributions. When teens look for college entrance or even jobs after college graduation, admissions staff and employers may search Facebook for names. These photos are known to destroy opportunities for youth and can become a nightmare for parents and families.

What’s the worst that can happen?
Teen suicide
Teen violence/guns used in retaliation
Felony charges/prison sentences/lifetime labeling as a registered sex offender
Loss of college entry, job loss, castigation in society, inability to live in certain areas as a sex offender

Teens don’t come preloaded with mind-ware that enables them to understand the consequences of their behavior. In fact, quite the opposite: they act impulsively and lack a realistic view of consequences. Teen hormones and natural flirtations can turn tragic when kids start sexting.